Movie Review: “Everest”

Having dabbled in entry-level rock climbing in my preprofessional life, I’m fascinated by movies exploring the subject. I was nowhere near proficient: just hiking up Colorado’s 14,000-foot Mount Elbert was an unforgettably grueling experience. Needless to say, I have great admiration for those who face the savage physical test that is Mount Everest.

Such a feat, however, carries with it extreme risks to life and limb.

“Everest” depicts the 1996 disaster that claimed the lives of several climbers. Equipment shortages, adverse weather conditions, and psychological fragmentation propelled their descent into hypoxic hell – a descent rendered in gut-wrenching vividness onscreen.

The movie centers on experienced climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a five-time Everest veteran and the founder of the “Everest tourism” industry. In the several years since Hall has been running his Adventure Consultants company, other companies have emerged with similar ambitions, including “Mountain Madness,” run by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s tragically underutilized here). The problem: a congested mountain and exponentially increased dangers. Accordingly, “Everest” works as something of a “Jurassic Park”-style tragedy: attempts to commercialize something wild and untamable go horribly awry when nature bites back.

“Everest” benefits greatly from its genuinely riveting cinematography, with a camera that swoops and dives into the crevices of the Himalayan landscape. This advantage is accentuated by the film’s outstanding sense of spatial awareness – it’s always clear exactly which mountaineering incidents are happening where. And even for those familiar with the general contours of the narrative, “Everest” is a white-knuckle story charged with massive amounts of adrenaline. Director Baltasar Kormákur resists the temptation to deliver an “inspired by true events” story that embraces typical Hollywood tropes: “Everest” hews very close to reality in all its sadness and horror.

My one quibble with “Everest” is that the film’s stellar cast isn’t used more heavily. It’s a fine ensemble (Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, and Sam Worthington, just to name a few), but many are relegated to little more than extended cameo appearances. Kormákur delivers a product that’s deftly plot-centric; the unfortunate corollary is that there’s a bit of a sterility to some of the tragic deaths.

For outdoorsy types or fans of the “man against wilderness” genre, “Everest” is an absolute must-see. Though at times difficult to watch, it’s an exceedingly well-done movie that grips the viewer mercilessly. At the end of the day, there’s a part of me that will still admit to harboring a slight secret interest in climbing Everest as a bucket-list item…but perhaps that goal ought to remain un-pursued.

A relentlessly intense “high adventure” drama. Recommended.

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Posted by on October 4, 2015 in Contemporary


Movie Review: “Pawn Sacrifice”

I am not particularly good at chess – I don’t have the discipline to study complex openings and embrace the meta-strategy of the game. I do, however, have the utmost admiration for those who excel at it, and who are able to visualize thousands upon thousands of possible patterns and outcomes before they unfold. From where I’m standing, that kind of mental juggling is enough to drive anyone insane.

And indeed, that is precisely the territory that “Pawn Sacrifice” probes.

“Pawn Sacrifice” is the story of international chess superstar Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and his much-publicized match against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). More compellingly, however, “Pawn Sacrifice” chronicles Fischer’s slow downward slide into paranoia and schizophrenia…illnesses that lurk beneath the surface of Fischer’s arrogant, larger-than-life personality. This side of Fischer unfolds through turbulent relationships with his trainer Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) and government handler Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg): underneath Fischer’s ridiculous rock-star demands, a deeply troubled psyche continues to crumble.

It’s all very interesting material, much of which I’d never really heard before. That being said, director Edward Zwick (“The Last Samurai,” “Glory”) lacks the bravura to lift “Pawn Sacrifice” into Oscar territory. What unfolds onscreen is heavily plot-centric (“X occurred at Y location on Z date, which we must depict”) rather than character-centric. It’s really a shame, because Fischer is a fascinating tragic figure who doesn’t get quite the attention he deserves. In Zwick’s haste to situate the film historically (“America versus the Soviet Union!”), “Pawn Sacrifice” comes off more as a chess-themed version of “Rocky” or “Miracle” than as a study of insanity and genius. One is left thinking that perhaps Darren Aronofsky or David Cronenberg would’ve brought a suitably terrifying intensity to the project…and a glimpse into Fischer’s tormented mind. But “Pawn Sacrifice” is aimed at mainstream audiences (my “edgier,” Fischer-centric proposed approach would definitely lack the appeal of Zwick’s version), and works as an engagingly atypical “sports movie” of sorts.

None of this is to suggest that “Pawn Sacrifice” is a bad movie; it’s just not a particularly memorable movie. The third act is suitably nail-biting (even for those who know how things ended up, historically speaking). In the lead role, Maguire is satisfyingly unhinged as Fischer, channeling no one so much as his own dark Peter Parker side a la “Spider-Man 3.” Schreiber brings a suitable gravitas to his turn as Spassky, and the final chess scenes are charged with a frenetic intensity.

Is it worth seeing? For sports film fans looking for a drama that trades in brainpower rather than testosterone, “Pawn Sacrifice” delivers. Those hoping for a slightly more off-kilter approach to the movie’s subject matter, however, must look elsewhere.

VERDICT: 6.5/10
An engaging, if sometimes sports-movie formulaic, historical drama.

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Posted by on September 27, 2015 in Uncategorized


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