Film reviews: Everest | A Walk In The Woods

James Brolin as Texan Beck Weathers in Everest. Picture: Contributed
James Brolin as Texan Beck Weathers in Everest. Picture: Contributed
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There’s probably no more dramatic a setting for an Earth-bound survival movie than Everest. The sheer scale of the world’s highest peak is perfect for the kind of spectacle-laden filmmaking on which blockbuster cinema traditionally thrives, and the toll its altitudinous extremes take on the human body – as one character notes early on in the film: “human beings aren’t built to survive at the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747” – should provide plenty of ready-made conflict as characters push themselves to their absolute limit. But if the based-on-true-events blockbuster Everest has all the requisite elements for a nerve-wracking assault on your senses and emotions, it proves curiously unsatisfying as an actual movie, its vertiginous action undercut by inch-deep characterisation that gives short shrift to far too many characters about whom we’re presumably supposed to care.

FILM OF THE WEEK:

Everest (15)

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur

Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson Robin Wright, Keira Knightley
Star rating: **

There’s probably no more dramatic a setting for an Earth-bound survival movie than Everest. The sheer scale of the world’s highest peak is perfect for the kind of spectacle-laden filmmaking on which blockbuster cinema traditionally thrives, and the toll its altitudinous extremes take on the human body – as one character notes early on in the film: “human beings aren’t built to survive at the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747” – should provide plenty of ready-made conflict as characters push themselves to their absolute limit. But if the based-on-true-events blockbuster Everest has all the requisite elements for a nerve-wracking assault on your senses and emotions, it proves curiously unsatisfying as an actual movie, its vertiginous action undercut by inch-deep characterisation that gives short shrift to far too many characters about whom we’re presumably supposed to care.

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who made the action thriller 2 Guns but also the low-budget Icelandic survival movie The Deep, and co-written by Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) and William Nicholson (Gladiator), the film is based on a 1996 expedition that went seriously wrong. And that might be its first problem. It’s as if in desperately trying to respect both the motivations of those who survived and the memories of those who died, the filmmakers have lost their nerve as dramatists. They certainly seem unwilling to scale the psychological peaks of their protagonists – or examine what drove them to risk not only their own lives, but also the lives of those around them.

There are hints, of course. The film is set at a time when commercial outfits were really starting to exploit Everest, selling an assault on the summit as the ultimate prize for those rich enough and gutsy enough to sign up – something that began cluttering up the narrow and dangerous routes to the top with inexperienced thrill-seekers and bucket list tickers. One such outfit is run by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and while the ensuing action raises serious questions about the ethics of his business, the film is so focused on valorizing him that even when he’s called out on the consequences of his business practices by some rival climbers, we’re clearly supposed to view him as a good sort, the kind of guy who is nobly trying to earn a living by realising the dreams of others in order to support his pregnant wife (Kiera Knightley, literally phoning in her performance as the spouse tearfully awaiting news of the expedition).

What’s more, we know Rob’s a big-hearted, level-headed, safety-conscious guy because he says things like, “You don’t pay me to get you to the top, you pay me to bring you back down safely” and gives a discount to Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a cash-strapped postman he had to turn back on a previous expedition because the weather proved too hairy. He’s also the only expedition leader magnanimous enough to want to share resources and expertise with the other teams.

One of these teams is led by rival climber, Scott Fischer, who is played with such relaxed stoner calm by Jake Gyllenhaal you half expect him to lead his team in flip-flops and a bandana. Gyllehaal’s star status and his character’s beach-bum demeanor might give you the impression he’s the film’s other main character, but after a little while he barely features and, in the end, it’s really not quite clear what happens to him. Indeed for much of the movie it’s really not clear what’s happening at all, particularly as things start going wrong. An approaching storm is the main cause of the impending catastrophe, but there are too many half-formed characters to keep track of (what’s Sam Worthington doing in there?) and too many sketchily plotted twists (what’s going on with the half-filled oxygen tanks?) to really get swept up in the drama.

The film does have some interesting things to offer. Josh Brolin’s character Beck Weathers, a cocky, macho Texan who started having vision problems on the ascent, ends up having the most dramatic story to tell, but the details are hurriedly dispensed with in order to compress the fates of the other climbers into the final reel as well. And the presence of journalist John Krakauer, who went on to write his own best-selling account of the expedition, is initially presented as a source of enmity between Rob and Scott (he’s embedded with the former’s team after being promised to the latter). But again he drifts out of the story after being made to look cowardly and interested only in his own survival, which seems a little harsh (the film could have used a little of his journalistic curiosity).

The actual Everest may offer spectacle that is literally breathtaking, but as a movie Everest is like the air at the top: thin.

A Walk In The Woods (15)

Directed by: Ken Kwapis

Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen

Star rating: ***

It might seem like journalism wish fulfilment to be played on screen by the actor who once made the profession seem sexy and exciting, but travel writer Bill Bryson gets a raw deal from Robert Redford in this mirthless adaptation of his 1997 memoir A Walk in the Woods. Bryson was 44 and a little out of shape when he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail for the book – only a few years older than Redford was when he played Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men. In true Hollywood style, Redford could probably have got away with playing the writer had this film been made directly after the book’s publication, but even accounting for the way certain male movie stars seem to age differently from the rest of us, there’s no disguising the fact that he’s now rapidly approaching his 80s, which makes this adaptation a very different proposition.

Playing fast and loose with the chronology of Bryson’s life, the film transforms him from a smart, witty, self-deprecating journalist newly embarked on a career as a travel writer and humorist, into a crotchety, priggish, wealthy granddad-type grown complacent with success and seeking new challenges in his life as he confronts his own obsolescence. This is not a good change. Now taking shape as a late-life crisis movie, A Walk in the Woods plunders laugh-out-loud scenes from the book – getting kitted out with ludicrously expensive gear, becoming obsessed with bear attacks – and turns them into deadening Grumpy Old Men/Victor Meldrew-ish moments of bewildered outrage.

This is accentuated by teaming Redford with Nick Nolte, cast here as Bryson’s travel companion Stephen Katz, an unhealthy bear of a man whom Nolte embodies with terrifying commitment, but who is subsequently called upon to run around in his long-johns hitting on plus-sized women and trying to avoid their husbands. In the book, Katz is the only one crazy enough to answer Bryson’s call for a travel companion. In the film, Bryson’s shrewish wife won’t let him embark on the hike unless he has some company. Emma Thompson plays this nothing role with eye-rolling patience, begging the question: why is she seemingly doomed to play sensible romantic partners for veteran movie stars? She’s in her 50s; she’s not dead.

The hike turns out to be longer, tougher and more humiliating than Bryson and Katz expect, but neither the scrapes they get into nor the scenery they experience is rendered on screen in a way that does justice to the wit and beauty of Bryson’s writing. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but not in this case.

NEW RELEASES

The Messenger (15)

Directed by: David Blair

Starring: Robert Sheehan, Tamzin Merchant, Lily Cole, David O’Hara

Star rating: **

Kind of a dowdy, magical-realist British spin on Ghost and The Sixth Sense, with Robert Sheehan (star of TV’s Misfits) cast in the role of the reluctant conduit for the restless souls of the afterlife, The Messenger attempts to dress a lot of hokey nonsense up in the clothing of a serious exploration of mental illness. Sheehan plays Jack, a brooding drifter convinced he can commune with the dead and none-too-happy about the noise this creates in his head. Are these spectral visions really ghosts, or are they – as his psychiatrist (Joely Richardson) suspects – a form of multiple personality disorder manifested by an off-his-meds Jack to cope with a childhood trauma? That cliché-ridden scenario is given a drearily self-important workout here as Jack convinces himself he’s been enlisted by the ghost of a murdered journalist to get a message to his grieving widow (Tamzin Merchant). Director David Blair works hard to maintain the requisite ambiguity by presenting multiple points of view, but the set-up and execution are too familiar and predictable to be in any way haunting.

A Girl at My Door (18)

Directed by: July Jung

Starring: Doona Bae, Kim Sae-Ron, Song Sae-Byeok

Star rating: ***

A past collaborator of superstar South Korean directors Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, and one of the stars of Cloud Atlas, actress Doona Bae (below) delivers a subtle, sensitive star performance in this debut feature from July Jung, about a lesbian police chief transferred to the provinces by her superiors when they discover her sexuality. There her character, Lee, becomes embroiled in a complex relationship with an abused teen (Kim Sae-Ron) whose subconscious desire to be saved results in behaviour that has potentially catastrophic results for Lee in a community where prejudice is just as rife as it was in her previous posting. Though the plotting is by turns too opaque and then ultimately too convoluted to be entirely satisfying as a drama, Bae and Kim are consistently compelling as oppressed characters who find a strange kinship in an intolerant society.

Tangerines (15)

Directed by: Zaza Urushadze

Starring: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Giorgi Nakashidze, Mikheil Meskhi

Star rating: ***

Set against the backdrop of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1992, Tangerines explores the absurdities and complexities of the ensuing nationalistic, territorial and religious fall-out with an admirably simple set-up. Lembit Ulfsak stars as Ivo, a carpenter living in a village in the disputed Georgian region of Abkhazia. With most of the other ethnic Estonians long since gone, Ivo lives there virtually alone, save for his neighbour Margus (Elmo Nüganen), whose tangerine grove they’re in a race to harvest before the civil war flaring up around them spills onto their doorstep. That happens sooner than they anticipate when Ivo takes in a Muslim Chechen mercenary (Giorgi Nakashidze) fighting for the Abkhaz separatists and Georgian volunteer (Mikheil Meskhi) who have both been wounded in the conflict. As Ivo attempts to nurse them back to health while maintaining the peace between them, writer-director Zaza Urushadze 
uses the gradual thawing of their enmity to subtly highlight the pointlessness of fighting for a cause intent on ripping people apart rather than bringing them together.