Saturday, October 3, 2015

Triple review: Everest, The Walk, and Sicario.

With the anticipated fall releases making their way to the stage, I’ve decided to end my review hiatus to talk about some of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films. One of these is admittedly an old release that I’ve been putting off reviewing for long enough, but the other two are much more recent releases. I’ll also have a full write up later for Ridley Scott’s The Martian, but for now, please enjoy my thoughts.

Trying to do for the titular mountain what Gravity did for space, Everest recounts the devastating events that surrounded several groups of people making their way to the mountain’s summit before they were tragically caught up in the force of a giant snow storm. A haunting story to be certain, but one that also feels like something of an embellishment that treads all too familiar ground in film. Devoting much of its first half to the establishment of the many hikers, and benefitting both from excellent direction and rock solid actors, the screenplay of the movie gives them only barely enough distinction between each other. It’s an assembly of two-dimensional characters that generally don’t hook the viewer in as much as we may want it to.

However, just because certain ground is familiar doesn’t automatically make it bad, and for what the cast is given to work with, they do an exceptional job at making the viewer care just enough. It also oesn’t hurt that, as far as spectacle goes, the movie is gargantuan. Through Salvatore Totino’s dizzying cinematography and Glenn Freemantle’s bone chilling sound design, the film establishes the mountain as just as much a character as any of the people the film is paying tribute to. The mix between the foreboding and the majestic gives the terrain a life of its own, accompanied with some of the most nail biting suspense scenes of the year. Although, with how dark several scenes in the film are, I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in 3D.

**** / *****

The Walk:
WARNING: This movie is not for those easily frightened by heights. I’m not kidding, I was so nervous watching this movie that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Then again, that shouldn't be surprising to those already familiar with the life and exploits of performer Philippe Petit, who famously – and illegally – secured a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center, and walked across it several times.

Okay, so its first half walks along an inconsistent tightrope all its own, torn apart by variations in tone and trying to be several different films at once, including moments that recreate classic French cinema. However, these flaws are easily forgivable as the film still remains quite an entertaining romp, especially bolstered by rock solid acting, including a lively and passionate Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

However, it’s clearly the second half of the film where director Robert Zemeckis had most of his heart and soul in, and where the film is at its most creative. Translating Philippe Petit’s love of heights and artistic imagination seamlessly, much of the film is spent effectively building up to Petit and his “accomplices” planning and testing to string the tightrope, and the film doesn’t disappoint when reaching those climactic segments. With Dariusz Wolski’s photography both hard to look away from, and yet too terrifying to watch, Zemeckis directs and visualizes Philippe’s famous daredevil stunt with nail-biting detail. He’s certainly not afraid to make his viewers squirm and hyperventilate, especially when using POV shots pointing to the ground hundreds of feet below. If ever a movie this year justified paying an IMAX 3D admission to take in its full scope, this is it.

But more than just a build up to an incredible pay off, the film is also something of a magical experience. As a tribute to the beauty of the fallen towers, in spite of the events of 9/11 striking fear and uncertainty in the world ever since they happened, Zemeckis’ film, through the optimistic eyes of its main character, transports us back to a time when such fears didn’t matter, and it’s tender final moments are the most fitting cap off to it's heart-pounding climactic events.

**** / *****

Denis Villeneuve has proven himself a remarkable talent with films the likes of Incendies and Prisoners, and with Sicario, he continues to prove a more than capable director of suspense. If Prisoners was Villeneuve taking influence from David Fincher, then Sicario is him taking influence from the writings of Cormac McCarthy.

Taking place in the cartel overrun districts of Mexico, the film’s main thematic constructs center around animalism eating away at humanity, with much conflict centered around the dealings of the local authorities who resort to just as many morally questionable actions and compromises as those that they take down. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay has a subdued and yet uncompromising (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron) feeling of brutality of it, complimenting Villeneuve’s bleak directorial style, but more wisely makes the decision to not rely heavily on words.

Much of Sicario is played with minimal talking and heavy reliance on ambiance, allowing for a very internalized and stoic style of direction and acting, the latter of which displays in fantastic fashion. Emily Blunt has been making a recent career out of tough individuals with emotional cores, and this interpretation is her best foray into that mode to date. Plunged into a deadly purgatory torn apart by survival vs. dominance, the sights and action begin increasingly wearing out both her and the viewer, and pits both into some truly effective slow burning suspense. Also in play is Benecio del Toro as a relentless and steely gunman dedicated to taking the cartel down by any violent and dubious means necessary, and acts as a fascinating foil towards Blunt’s more honest approaches. The film is also shot wonderfully by the great Roger Deakins, sticking true to Villeneuve’s bleak tone and presentation, and also sees him dabbling in beautiful experimentation. I don’t feel as connected to it as I did Prisoners, but it’s still a chilling experience.

****1/2 / *****

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