This year’s opening night film Everest (***) also brought survival and 3D together, though the chances of Oscar recognition are probably somewhat slimmer.
The film tells the true story of an ill-fated commercial climbing expedition led by seasoned mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), in 1996, which, through a combination of human error, overcrowding on the mountain and ferocious weather conditions, left eight dead.
Familiar faces including Jake Gyllenhaal (who made the film to clear his head of Nightcrawler, before going on to Southpaw) and Josh Brolin are among the climbers. However, once the bad weather hits, some of the characters become hard to differentiate – though this could arguably be said to be an accurate representation of the confusion created by the extreme conditions. Elsewhere, Keira Knightly and Robin Wright bring emotional depth to their small roles as wives waiting nervously for their husbands to return home, while Emily Watson is touching as the team’s co-ordinator.
Oddly for such a dramatic story, the film lacks suspense while there is a sense that director Baltasar Kormakur and writers William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy have taken a safe route, perhaps out of respect for the dead, their families, and the survivors. Books written about the tragedy point fingers at who may have been responsible for errors; Everest is more cautious.
The movie’s greatest strength is ultimately its visuals, which powerfully capture the scale, beauty, danger and fatal, vertigo-inducing grandeur of Everest and its surroundings. The mountain is the most detailed character in the film, and for good reason. For, as one climber tells a journalist: “The mountain always has the last word.”
Cary Fukunaga, the director of the brooding and intense first season of True Detective, returns to film with a harrowing adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s eponymous novel, Beasts of No Nation (****). In a story that feels ripped from today’s headlines, this draining drama follows the journey of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young African boy who is forced to join a militia of child soldiers under the charismatic leadership of a would-be warlord (Idris Elba), during a civil war in an unnamed African country.
Fukunaga doesn’t pull his punches as he portrays the brutal, bloody world into which Agu is flung, while newcomer Abraham powerfully essays his transformation from young innocent to unquestioning killing machine, the light in his eyes snuffed out by the horror he has witnessed and perpetrated. Elba, meanwhile, disappears inside the character of a man who orders murder without compassion, and is himself a kind of overgrown child driven not by ideology but self-interest, ambition, and a need for approval.
Beasts of No Nation is gripping and persuasive, but isn’t for the faint hearted.
Viewed immediately after Beasts of No Nation, Julie Delpy’s latest effort as writer-director-star, Lolo (***), provided some much-needed silliness. The Gallic star plays Violette, a single Parisienne sophisticate who meets a divorcee from the sticks, Jean-Rene (Danny Boon), when he accidentally drops a giant tuna in her lap (it’s that kind of movie). Despite this fishy faux pas, a one night stand leads to love. Everything seems to be going swimmingly for the couple until Jean-Rene moves to Paris and Violette’s psychotically jealous 19-year-old son, Lolo (Vincent Lacoste), schemes to drive them apart. Cue gags involving itching powder, hookers, sleeping tablets, and worse.
Downright juvenile at times, and with a sometimes disconcerting focus (dialogue-wise) on Violette’s nether regions, Lolo mixes sweetness, charm, vulgarity and slapstick in a low-brow mash-up that is often very funny, thanks to some laugh-out-loud one-liners, but let down by comedic situations that fall flat. Still, Boon and Delpy make such a winning pair that the film’s shortcomings aren’t fatal.
Johnny Depp taps into his dark side as South Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger in Scott Cooper’s gritty biopic, Black Mass (****). Structured around FBI interviews with former Bulger cronies, the film charts Bulger’s rise from vicious local hood to criminal kingpin, and the childhood loyalties that made it possible for his power and influence to continue growing after becoming an FBI informant. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) vividly recreates Bulger’s blue collar kingdom and the brutality of his subject, while Depp – blond and balding, with bad teeth and steely blue eyes – oozes menace from every pore. Bulger is allowed some moments of warmth with his mother and son, but otherwise is a man who enjoys instilling fear in people. Indeed, it’s no accident that Depp’s face looks like a death’s head on the poster. Black Mass doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a meaty addition to the modern American crime genre.