Review: ‘Everest’ and IMAX are a perfect match

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More mountain-climbing madness! I quite enjoyed “Everest,” especially in IMAX. I gave it 3 1/2 stars in the Buffalo News.

Is IMAX worth it? Paying extra money for 3-D is often a tough decision, and throwing down cash for IMAX is an even harder call. In general, I’d call both unnecessary.

“Everest,” however, is ideal for IMAX. The new action-disaster epic doesn’t just justify the large screen – it makes it almost essential.

It is hard, in fact, to recall a recent man vs. the elements flick with such an epic scope. There are moments in “Everest” – especially on IMAX screens – that will leave audiences breathless. And despite some notable flaws, it is a satisfying, well-mounted production.

This is a slight surprise, since director Baltasar Kormákur is no one’s idea of a sure thing. His previous action ventures, the Mark Wahlberg smuggling thriller “Contraband” and the forgettable Denzel Washington vehicle “2 Guns,” were pedestrian at best.

But in “Everest,” he has crafted spectacular set pieces and a true sense of place. During the two-hour drama about the tragic 1996 Mount Everest climb that left eight dead, the audience develops a strong sense of the mountain’s geography. This feeling heightens the tension; we know how difficult rescue will be.

The ’96 Everest disaster was documented in harrowing detail by author Jon Krakauer in his stunning “Into Thin Air.” For readers of the book, “Everest” the film is still a winning experience, yet one whose ultimate impact is undeniably dented by the knowledge of how things turned out.

While Jake Gyllenhaal is the lineup’s biggest name, the real star of the film is Jason Clarke. The actor plays New Zealander Rob Hall, the leader of a guiding agency called Adventure Consultants. As the film opens, Hall’s group is preparing to lead a group of civilians up Mount Everest – for a price, and after weeks of training.

These climbers include Texas doctor Beck Weathers, played by the great Josh Brolin; mild-mannered mailman Doug Hansen, portrayed by John Hawkes; and Krakauer, brought to life by “House of Cards” scene-stealer Michael Kelly.

Back in New Zealand is Hall’s pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley), while the Adventure Consultants team includes actors Emily Watson (“Angela’s Ashes”), Elizabeth Debicki (“The Great Gatsby”) and Sam Worthington (“Avatar”). Gyllenhaal appears in a surprisingly small but welcome role as Scott Fischer, the chilled-out leader of a competing agency called Mountain Madness.

It’s a large cast, and meeting so many individuals adds to the drama. Scores of groups have planned to summit Everest on the same day, creating a logjam that makes a difficult situation even trickier.

The tension ramps up quickly, and the film’s leisurely start also contributes to the later suspense. In addition, the inherent drama is increased even more thanks to the acting of Brolin, Hawkes, Watson, Gyllenhaal, and, especially, Clarke. His Rob Hall is the film’s leader, and its emotional anchor.

Kormákur devotes time to each of these figures, although Knightley is rather wasted in a role that requires little more than sobbing. The direction and writing (by the talented William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) hint at the tragedies to come throughout the film. Whether one knows the result of the climbs or not, there is a strong sense of what went wrong, and how nature and luck made success nearly impossible.

Once a walloping storm hits the climbers, things slow down a bit, and the proceedings grow a bit repetitive. But there is always this cast, and those visuals. They combine for an action spectacle that truly delivers.

While it will likely prove effective on any size screen, plunk down the extra money for IMAX and you’ll likely find “Everest” an impressively immersive experience – so immersive, in fact, that you might just scratch “climbing Mount Everest” off your bucket list.

Review: ‘Meru’ brings up-close terrifying view of mountain climbing

Meru Expedition, Garwhal, India

“Meru” is an interesting if occasionally pedestrian documentary. I gave it three stars in my Buffalo News review.

Over the next few weeks, much will be written about “Everest,” the star-heavy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin) film about the tragic 1996 Mount Everest climb that formed the basis of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”

Early reviews have been strong – the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival – but “Everest” has some competition in the white-knuckle climbing derby.

The documentary “Meru” is an involving, powerful film that brings the viewer as close to the feeling of climbing as any piece of cinema could. Directed by husband-and-wife filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, “Meru” took home the documentary Audience Award at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and should prove one of 2015’s most popular nonfiction entries.

While it’s an exhausting effort that culminates in a rather anticlimactic final stretch, “Meru” is a visual stunner that smartly focuses on three fascinating individuals who rank among the planet’s most accomplished climbers.

One of these is co-director Jimmy Chin, a young mountain climbing star with an unusual past – his parents were immigrants from China – who also is a hugely talented photographer.

Chin’s mentor is one of the world’s most gifted and well-known climbers: Conrad Anker, the man who memorably discovered the body of George Mallory on Everest. He also is the survivor of an avalanche in Tibet that killed his climbing partner, Alex Lowe.

Chin calls Anker a “hero to young climbers,” such as the third member of the team, Renan Ozturk. A rising star, Ozturk is less experienced than his teammates but no less courageous.

All three have taken many of the world’s tallest and fiercest mountains. But Meru? This mountain in the Indian Himalayas is a different story. As Anker puts it, “Meru is the culmination of everything I’ve ever done,” a complex monster of nature that had thus far proven un-doable.

The “Shark’s Fin” route up Meru is the “in” for this trio, but as the film makes clear, any Meru route is “the test of the master climber,” says author Krakauer, who adds insightful commentary throughout the doc. The world’s greatest climbers “tried and failed,” he notes.

Krakauer explains that Anker “first tried the mountain on 2003 and got his a– kicked.” This is perhaps why he seems the most full-on dedicated to the quest. A family man who lives in scenic Montana, Anker knows his chance to take Meru must happen soon.

The trio’s first ascent starts disastrously, and this is the film’s most compelling section. Stuck in a blinding snowstorm for four days, the team lost half its food with 90 percent of the mountain still to go.

Ozturk was ready to give up the climb, but Chin and Anker focused on continuing. (I’m with Ozturk.) The worse the storm gets, the harder the decision of what to do next. As Anker puts it, “What if we push on? Should we push on?”

With severe cases of frostbite and trench foot, the answer is “no.” Interestingly, however, one of the team faces his greatest physical (and emotional) setback years after the first ascent.

It is no spoiler to say the trio eventually return to Meru, and by this point, the film has lost some of its earlier verve, and much of its inherent drama. Yet there is satisfaction in seeing Anker, Chin and Ozturk return to the Shark’s Fin.

Through it all, the documentary features breathless action and awe-inducing imagery, while at the same time asking important and probing questions about the whys of mountain climbing. Is it worth it? What if life hangs in the balance? And what makes one try again and again?

As Ozturk states near the film’s end, “It was worth possibly dying for.” Whether or not the viewer agrees, “Meru” makes for a unique viewing experience.

TIFF15 review: ‘Northern Soul’ is sonically explosive

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Here’s an under-the-radar selection from TIFF15 that I quite enjoyed. I gave “Northern Soul” a B+ in my review for The Playlist.

“What’s your favorite record?” That is the key question asked in director Elaine Constantine’s “Northern Soul,” a rousing, wildly entertaining Toronto International Film Festival entry set in mid-70s England. Here is a sonically explosive film that understands the deep connection that can exist between a genre of music and its fans, especially those who might be considered (or would consider themselves) outsiders. In this case, that genre is Northern Soul, a still-influential style of music that has never been properly documented onscreen before. While a few names will ring a bell to fans of soul music — Edwin Starr, for example — the majority are names unfamiliar to even the most devoted trainspotters. What’s most important is that the predominantly African-American sung music moves, and pulsates with a triumphant feeling at odds with much of early-’70s U.K. rock.

As “Northern Soul” begins, John Clark (Elliot James Langridge) is a sullen 18-year-old whose school and home lives are somber, unhappy affairs. His parents (played, in an unexpected pairing, by pop singer Lisa Stansfield and “Me and Orson Welles” star Christian McKay) find him far too weird and insular for comfort, and urge their only child to mingle at the local youth center. At school, he vacillates between boredom and embarrassment, finding himself the subject of ridicule from a starched-shirt teacher played, with delightful obnoxiousness, by Steve Coogan. Matt’s only real connection of note is with his good-natured grandad (Ricky Tomlinson).

Overhearing a conversation in which fellow teen Matt (Josh Whitehouse) is identified as a DJ changes his life. The duo quickly bond over music and John’s seemingly unlikely love of graffiti. Matt tells tales of “thousands of teenagers” dancing to Northern Soul tunes, and a place called the Wigan Casino. (Search on Wikipedia now, please.) He also speaks wistfully of America, and the scores of records that await them in Chicago and beyond. (There are several points of comparison with Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Eden,” and this sense of America as an oasis of music and talent is certainly one of them.) Constantine lovingly brings to life a time when music was still unattainable, when a mythic record could be shrouded in mystery. (“It’s the only place you can go and find a record nobody’s heard already!”)

“Northern Soul” bursts into life when John and Matt start DJing together, and ponder their own club space. Soon, John’s look and demeanor have undergone a marked change, and cause him to rebel at school and find the confidence to chat up the girl (Antonia Thomas nicely plays Angela) he’s seen from afar on the bus. As Starr’s “Back Street” pounds on the soundtrack, John and Matt’s wide-eyed plans begin to come to fruition. It takes time, but soon they’ve developed a following, one strong enough to attract the attention of real-life Northern Soul DJ legend Ray Henderson (James Lance).

Drugs, of course, enter the picture, as well as the shady likes of Jack Gordon’s Sean. It is here that the film’s initial verve starts to dip, and some late missteps (mainly those involving the character of Sean) keep the film from greatness, veering toward the type of melodrama “Eden” so successfully avoided. A sudden emotional outburst from John seems particularly contrived, and the film’s final stretch simply does not compare with what came before.

Yet it’s hard to feel too much in the way of disappointment, as “Northern Soul” is so successful as a whole. Constantine captures the invigorating joy of these songs, and humorously shows that it is nearly impossible to listen and not feel the urge to dance. (One is reminded of the memorable line uttered by Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson in “24 Hour Party People”: “This is the moment when even the white man starts dancing.”) It is a stirringly vivid debut feature for the first-time director, and considering her past, this is not a surprise. Constantine came to fame as an art director and photographer for sadly departed U.K. mag The Face, and has helmed music videos for the likes of Richard Hawley.

“Northern Soul” makes clear Constantine is a filmmaker to watch, and while it is hard not be most impressed with the film’s high-tempo editing and ideal music choices, it is also well-acted from top to bottom. Elliot James Langridge is likable and believably flawed, while nicely portraying how drastically John’s new friendships and suddenly public display of musical affection change his personality. Coogan is of course a delight in a too-brief role, but the most memorable performance here is from Josh Whitehouse. His Matt is a force of nature, yet one with a stronger sense of what’s right and wrong than John. It’s star-making work, and a sneeringly comic treat.

Like “Eden,” “Northern Soul” is tailor-made to send satisfied viewers racing to Spotify to track down the who’s-who roster of performers. In fact, the film’s double-album soundtrack features 54 (!) killer tracks, and likely qualifies as a must-own. Unlike the strained “The Boat That Rocked,” the film has a lived-in aesthetic and relentlessly enjoyable energy. If “Boat” felt stodgy and middle aged, “Northern Soul” feels driven by youthful energy. It undeniably counts as one of TIFF15’s most pleasant surprises.

TIFF15 review: ‘Kill Your Friends’

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Here is one of my TIFF15 reviews, a “D” for “Kill Your Friends.” You’ve been warned. Here is my Film Stage critique.

Kill Your Friends is a pungent, thoroughly hollow failure as a comedy, a “thriller,” and a document of a fascinating era in modern pop music. That it is watchable at all is a testament to the talents of Nicholas Hoult, who stars as relentlessly unlikable, circa-1997 A&R rep Steven Stelfox. Within the first few moments of meeting him, Steven has explained that art and talent are meaningless to the on-the-make music exec. Making money is what matters, and by any means necessary. Director Owen Harris clearly expects us to be shocked by that revelation, failing to realize the audience has heard such pronouncements for decades. In fact, we have seen and heard every moment of Kill Your Friends in other, better movies. It is not clever or surprising, it is not funny or “outrageous.”

On paper — and perhaps in the novel from John Niven, who also authored the screenplay — the dialogue might seem amusingly tart. Onscreen, however, it feels utterly trite, delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It’s too bad, because a film about the Cool Britannia era could have been something special. It was a strange, jingoistic, hopeful time in the UK in many respects, and much of the era’s most successful music captured that feel. And there are great films about unlikable characters who are pop culture kingpins of their time, including, of course, Altman’s The Player. But the story of studio executive Griffin Dunne’s murder of a screenwriter stays grounded in reality even as its protagonist becomes unhinged. Kill Your Friends dropkicks all sense of reality at the moment Steven, well, kills a friend.

More on that in a moment. As the opening credits roll and Steven cruises to his job at Unigram Records, Blur’s “Beetlebum” blasts on the soundtrack with confidence. For a North American Britpop aficionado, there remains a rush in hearing the greatest songs of that era on film, however strong or weak the movie. (See Brie Larson’s endearing strut to Pulp’s “Common People” in 2015’s weak-kneed remake of The Gambler.) I mean really, how bad could a film be that opens with “Beetlebum”?!

The answer is, “Bad. Very bad.” Kill Your Friends feels tiresome and predictable from its earliest moments. Consider: Steven wants the head A&R job, he jeers behind the back of his good-natured rival for the gig (played by talk show host James Corden), he depends on his (seemingly) sweet assistant Rebecca (the winning Georgia King), he is cruel to his young protege (Submarine star Craig Roberts). He snorts coke. He drinks. He screws. He loses out in the job of his dreams. And, of course, he does what a cliched movie character must do in that situation, which is kill the rival.

It is at this point that Kill Your Friends goes full-on American Psycho, loses all contact with reality, and amps up its sprint to irrelevance. It’s a shame, really, because there occasional evidence of real wit. One sequence in particular, in which Steven and Darren meet with a humorously over-the-top German techno producer played with relish by Run Lola Run’s Moritz Bleibtreu, offers a glimpse of what Friends might have been. The scene and the song he is hawking, titled “Why Don’t You Suck My Dick,” work because they actually feel … possible. Stranger hits have happened, especially in 1990s Europe.

But all too quickly the film returns to the realms of the unreal. A wannabe songwriter detective enters the picture, Steven attempts to sign a hot indie band before another of his rivals, Rosanna Arquette suddenly appears, and another, even less believable, act of violence occurs. The film’s final stretch, especially is handled by director Harris with a self-congratulatory smugness that is relentlessly off-putting. When one of the film’s most likable characters is dispatched in the goriest manner possible, and the film has a laugh at pedophilia “involving babies,” it is clear Kill Your Friends is not just unpleasant, but borderline unbearable.

It is Nicholas Hoult, and Nicholas Hoult only, who keeps one watching. Even here he commands the screen, and shows himself able to carry a film. Next time, perhaps it will be a good one, and not one with such a needlessly tired message. Certainly one of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s most egregious duds, Kill Your Friends succeeds only in making the viewer want to listen to Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Paul Weller, and the myriad other artists mentioned or listened to in the film. Funny that the fillmmakers have a laugh at short-lived Britpop band Menswe@r, a band with an infinitely greater shelf life than Kill Your Friends. My advice? Track down the band’s 1995 debut, Nuisance, enjoy Nicholas Hoult in Max Max: Fury Road, and let’s pretend this film never happened.