Reviews of Films That Are Worth Your Time

Staggering Beauty

In Uncategorized on December 20, 2015 at 5:04 pm
Source: movienewz.com

Source: movienewz.com

About three months ago (this was originally “last week”, but my powers of procrastination continually shift the time-space continuum of the universe), I went to watch Everest (2015) in the cinemas with my mom. We saw the movie posters on billboards all over New Zealand when we were there on a long holiday and they struck a chord with me.

To be honest, there was nothing particularly special about the poster. Decked out in high-tech adventure gear, the three main characters in the foreground all had different variations of wary anticipation etched on their faces. The poster had the same art direction and treatment that could and would be employed for countless other mountaineering-type films. Ohh… beware the great mountain-behemoth. Avalanche. No? Avalanche?

So perhaps my interest stemmed more from the sense of adventure that we were cultivating, being on an extended road trip from the South to North. And perhaps those nascent feelings – that thirst for adrenaline and desire to experience Mother Nature intensely – were feelings I wanted to experience in a more extreme form, elevated high beyond what I could ever experience as a layman, and for the sake of my own mortality, lived through the eyes of some actor onscreen.

rebrn.com

In this other poster I found online, a literal cliffhanger takes centre stage, although many common “adventure film” tropes still abound, most noticeably in the headline. Source: rebrn.com

moviecomix.com

Compare this to the DVD image of Vertical Limit (2002). How times have changed! Movie posters are a lot more cooler now.

I first laid eyes on the billboard poster for Everest just as I was stepping out of a Kathmandu outlet in Wellington. Kathmandu has a real stake in the high-tech outdoor adventure clothing industry, built on a solid and aspirational wanderlust-type ethos. So the strategic position of the billboard must have, in no small way, heightened the film’s appeal.

That, together with an unlikely message appealing to nationalistic sentiment gave the film a veneer of gritty authenticity. While the generic international poster read “Based on the Incredible True Story”, the New Zealand version had an extra line below that reads “of Kiwi Mountaineering Legend Rob Hall”. Prior to watching the film, I didn’t know who Rob Hall was, but being surrounded by all that beautiful New Zealand scenery and having just completed an initiation into the Kiwi culture of outdoor adventure, the connections suddenly seemed to make sense.

Source-retailnews.co.nz

Source: retailnews.co.nz

Plot-wise, I was expecting much less from the film, and had an inkling that it was going to adhere to the tried-and-tested formula of many run-of-the-mill adventure blockbusters:

1. Set up character motivation (usually this portion is quite tedious and extended in the hopes that we would root for the main characters way before the action begins. I.e. snapshots of everyone’s lives and their motivations for going on the trip. Bonus: introduce a fish-out-of-water character for deeper empathy. Coincidentally, the true story that Everest is based upon had one such character in Doug, the disarming family-loving mailman with mountaineering dreams)

2. Preparation and Excitement (throw in some last minute lovebirds-parting scene à la Armageddon)

3. Climax (Action. Action. Action. AND a lot of screaming and bated breath. Blood optional.)

4. Tragedy (and maybe betrayal and/or bittersweet triumph). Journey home. Reflections. Lives of our heroes in the present day. Credits.

Josh Brolin in Everest

Why hello there, product placement. Source: The Guardian

While Everest still adhered to many of these tropes, I was thankful that director Baltasar Kormákur (and also credit to William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy for their screenplay) at least sped up point 1 and reeled the audience in quickly, not in a heart-of-the-action, in media res kind of way, but in a fast-paced, cut-to-the-chase, “token airport shot>hotel>basecamp” set-up. The journey to Everest began in swift earnest, through breathtaking landscape pans that united the different climbers’ motivations into an almost single-minded Nirvana-like drive: a perilous adventure – and pseudo zen-like conquest – to embrace the sheer staggering beauty of the epic and unknown.

But it is in the heart of the film’s action where Kormákur’s directorial sensitivity really shines. I was half-expecting Everest to be a Vertical Limit, 127 Hours-type sensational portrait of extreme adventure. But Kormákur focused instead on the fraught relationships between the climbers, putting the spotlight on the nuances of human nature through flickers of betrayal and selfishness in testing moments. Like the Khumbu Icefall scene involving Beck and Rob. Or the pseudo-frathouse politics among the different guides. All these spiralling into the tragic coda of the film. Although, again, it is not so straightfoward. Human complexity would dictate that the characters we thought would be at fault for certain accidents or become the ones to put their party at risk would emerge silent heroes. While the ones we admired and rooted for would in turn become victims of their own misjudged doggedness.

Souce-summitpost.org

The treacherous Khumbu Icefall where climbers play Russian Roulette. Source: summitpost.org; Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Source-National Geographic

“Deep crevasses can appear overnight, and huge ice towers called ‘seracs’ can splinter and fall at any moment, sending chunks the size of cars cascading downward”. Source: Washington Post, National Geographic.

Source-tom-i-butler.com

(Spoiler Alert) Tempers flare when Beck slips at the Khumbu Icefall. Source: tom-i-butler.com

“Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747.” “At 26,000 feet, what is known as the ‘Death Zone’, the body can no longer acclimatize and it simply begins to die.” “The mountain always has the last word”. Littered through the film, these quotes and the fact that Scott Fischer’s adventure company is named Mountain Madness are but fragments of the full terror of Everest – that many who attempt to reach its summit will not survive the ascent. Kormákur skilfully and vividly illustrates this cruel reality in two scenes.

[Major spoilers ahead] The first occurs when most of the entourage has triumphantly reached the summit and are now making their way back down. Having just begun his descent, Rob, our heroic guide sees the endearing mailman Doug (remember, he is the average Joe with mountaineering dreams) still struggling towards the summit. There is desperation in his eyes. But what Rob fails to realise – or perhaps does, but tries to momentarily deny – is that his is the desperation of an amateur; one in utter ecstasy of wanting to touch the carrot dangled before his very eyes.

It’s a long and narrow way to the top. Source: japantimes.co.jp

Nonetheless, Rob decides to help a guy out (at his own fatal and miscalculated risk) and follow Doug to the summit. They reach the top together, but their shared happiness is shortlived because Murphy’s Law and a bunch of strong winds were in full force that fateful day. Rob guides (or rather, literally, drags) Doug down the summit. For a moment, Rob turns his back and Doug, in his hypoxia daze, unclips himself from the guide rope and walks unsteadily along the extremely narrow path on the mountainside.

With the drunken stupor of a person who stumbles into the face of an oncoming car, Doug slips off the ice, into his death. Except there is no deer-in-the-headlights moment. No loud bang. No scream on impact because the ground is so far down. On the peak of Everest, deaths are deathly silent. Without a trace of Doug’s disappearance, no one can mourn. And Rob can only infer that he has fell. Himself exhausted and frozen, Rob can only muster disappointment and resignation through heavy breaths. Beyond five seconds of shock and confusion, he would have to plough on and find his way back down without oxygen, and alone.

The second scene involves another guide, Andy Harris, in his valiant attempt to help Rob (now stranded on the mountain with no oxygen tanks). After reaching Rob, Andy is exhausted, and both men fall asleep. When Andy awakes, what he does is horrifying. At the top of the mountain, at a temperature of almost -40 degrees celsius, he proceeds to drowsily remove his outer jacket. Because in cases of extreme hypothermia, when confusion sets in, a climber might start to think irrational thoughts like he is feverishly hot. Then, without warning, Andy loses his grip on the icy surface and slips out of sight, never to be found. Just like that, death steals him in the night and a sickening déjà vu sets in.

These scenes and the film in general sort of beg the question: Would you be ok dying out there, all alone, in exchange for a brief glimpse of the most beautiful sight you’ll ever see? When death comes, it could be sudden and shocking. And death is everywhere on Everest. I left the theatre with a stark realisation that Mother Nature is a devastatingly beautiful, but monstruous and terrifying thing. Her beauty is sometimes best admired from afar, and you approach her at your risk.

Shortly after the film, and as with all other good films that leave such an impression as to spark a further, extended interest in the topic, I went to read up more on Everest. Heck I even read the FAQ section of signing up for an Everest expedition with Adventure Consultants (the company founded by Rob Hall). Most heartening was the disclaimer that one cannot technically write a cheque – a hefty USD65,000 – and go. A thorough resume of past climbing experience and attempts is just one of the many prerequisites to climb Everest.

It was also enlightening to read about the many ethical issues surrounding Everest expeditions and how utterly and ironically bourgeois and vainglorious the whole thing can be. There is a reason why Sherpas “never climb for fun” and see it only as a “blessing” (quoted from an interview with Ang Dorjee Sherpa, one of the sherpas involved in the 1996 disaster). And it is unfortunate that many who attempt Everest do so without truly interrogating their motivations. It is never really just about conquering the world’s tallest mountain, or something as inane as “pushing your limits” (as what many who undertake extreme marathons across deserts are often fond of saying). It is always about something infinitely deeper. And until one can truthfully answer what that is, it is perhaps wise not to attempt.

Source-comingsoon.net

Faithful to the end, our protagonist Rob Hall (portrayed by Jason Clarke). Source: comingsoon.net

Disclaimer: I wrote this article with an amateur’s understanding of Everest and with research drawn from many online sources that potentially oversimplify the complex events of the actual 1996 disaster. Further to this, I only express admiration for the director’s and screenwriter’ filming techniques in my vivid analyses of the film, with no intention of glorifying the details of the disaster or dishonoring the dead.

Awkwardly Saccharine, and Proud of it

In Uncategorized on February 13, 2013 at 8:01 am

As I sat, mid-way through Twilight: Eclipse (2010), the thoughts which ran through my mind were relentlessly berating: “I am educated, this is not happening.” I desperately try to recall the lessons I learnt in psychoanalytic film class, something along the lines of how many representations on film (typically of the Hollywood type) are indulgent of the nuclear family, perpetuate gender stereotypes and establish deviant images of the Other, etc. The neurons in my brain fire at breakneck speed, desperately retrieving the files for which I was supposed to use for defence against what many has come to deem indulgent and insulting entertainment. What I had thought I was once immune to, and had now to hope against, was a gradual coming to terms with the allure of the Twilight series.

Twilight tops the list of movies we love to hatePicture Credits: bronzelock619.blogspot.com

Twilight tops the list of movies we love to hate
Picture Credits: bronzelock619.blogspot.com

There comes so often, every once in a while, that a film of mass popular appeal ironically polarizes audiences. Titanic (1997) was one such film. It has a cheesy love story, but if one were to consider other aspects of filmmaking such as cinematography, costume, art design, it is quite a great film as a whole. And then came Twilight, which is, while a lesser counterpart in both scale and box office hits, bears that familiar paradox which Titanic once had: thoroughly mock-able fare that has yet simultaneously captivated the hearts of thousands around the world. The story of not-so-popular-girl winning the heart of hot-and-popular-guy is a plot almost too familiar, re-hashed millions of times from the days of the brat-pack era: Pretty in Pink (1986) to up to the cooly nonchalant ’90s with 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Yet, that addictive formula of flawed characters played out by a handsome cast seems to work all the same.

pretty-in-pink-3

Unlike Bella, Andie (see the Tomboy angle manifest in her name itself) in the ’80s John Hughes classic is an aspiring designer with a mind of her own.
Picture Credits: perfumeshrine.blogspot.com

My initiation to Twilight began during a slumber party (mind you, it was also a coming-of-age, graduation celebration of our next, ostensibly more mature phase in life) when my friends and I decided to watch the latest release of Twilight. Its main draw was the light entertainment it posed—inebriated and somewhat sleepy, we were not very keen on dissecting a politically-charged saga or absorbing any film which required the least amount of thought and mental effort on our parts. So we settled on Breaking Dawn (2012), hoping for a good laugh, but in truth, all geared up to mock anticipated cheesy lines, stiff mannequin-like actors and awkward sags. Seven years ago, the possibility that we could have worshipped the series and devoured the franchise, not to mention its merchandise, would have been pretty possible. But as adults, we had moved on from Backstreet Boys and N*Sync, and were none too proud of our past fangirl pursuits.

Other than a few highly unrealistic plot twists, I found, to my bewilderment, that Breaking Dawn was (*gasp*) not too bad. And so in the name of film research and a fair dose of curiosity, I sat myself down to a solitary Twilight marathon the following week. Quite like the viewing nature of porn, the films are best watched alone. With all the stigma of humiliation attached to not just being a fan of–but even contemplating watching–the series, it is infinitely easier to stomach sans side garnishes of snarky commentary. Because the films develop at snail-pace, they are also best watched as a marathon. The cheesiness of one would be diluted across the shameless consistency of the series.

CGI-Baby FTWPicture Credits: www.twoticketsfor.com

CGI-Baby FTW
Picture Credits: http://www.twoticketsfor.com

Watching the film made me revisit the old question: Why does Twilight polarise? Does the film insult our intelligence more than it does our right to have and possess a romantic imagination? Aside from some pretty intense kissing scenes, the film does have its merits;  the one most often cited on YouTube being a nicely-shot scene in New Moon (2009) where a pack of wolves chases Victoria. In place of your typical heart-pounding, chase-scene music, what the audience gets instead is a nicely choreographed unfolding of three events – the police’s hunt for wolves, Victoria being chased by wolves, and Bella contemplating jumping off a cliff that pulses to the slow trance-like beat of Thom Yorke’s “Hearing Damage.” Definitely beats the hall-of-fame cheesy basketball/flirting scene in Catwoman (2004) any day.

If I had to choose one of all the series, it would have to be Eclipse. Not only because Bella’s beaus share the same amount of screen time, but also because there’s great adventure when the Cullens team up with the werewolves to fight off the “new-borns,” or recent vampire-converts, in part attempt to protect Bella and deflect the Volturi. Dakota Fanning is well-cast because she is adept at portraying both good and evil characters, and she combines this dynamic potential in her role as resident Volturi bitch, Jane. Jane’s tiny frame, sweet outward demeanour and soothing, high-pitched voice nicely juxtaposes with her aloof nature and murderous intentions which she unleashes with her deadly powers.

Kick-ass Dakota FanningPicture Credits: http://www.aceshowbiz.com

Kick-ass Dakota Fanning
Picture Credits: http://www.aceshowbiz.com

That said, Kristen Stewart’s Bella is a tad too boyish for my liking. Granted, the whole Cinderella-as-a-tom-boy shtick is the whole point of her fairy tale, but her low, LOW voice means she is almost growling in the many scenes where she gets all passive-aggressive-and-occasionally-hysterical at Edward. For those who are frustrated with her one-dimensional expressions, I stand with you, not without first qualifying that her monotonous acting is ultimately still more expressive than Matt Damon’s–a feat to say the least. On second thought too, Stewart’s blank looks seem somehow appropriate for her role. Not many girls are very expressive, even when they are in love. Less true to reality is the existence of the often-glamourised perky teen queens/emotional-wrecks–de facto fixtures on annoying chick flicks. Stephenie Meyer seems to appreciate this reality in creating the character of Bella, who appeals to the masses of girls out there—not by swinging to the extreme in spotlighting the braces-wearing inhabitants of geek-dom, but refreshingly, making a truly average, girl-next-door, slacks-and-sweaters girl as the protagonist.

Twilight is made up of several shots of Kristen Stewart...thinking, hard.Picture Credits: www.aceshowbiz.com

Twilight is made up of several shots of Kristen Stewart…thinking, hard.
Picture Credits: http://www.aceshowbiz.com

In the male characters we also find a strategically potent, mass-appeal formula. Edward for the most part, looks like a breathy, sickly choir boy, an effeminate SNAG; the tormented lover. That’s why Jake is a nice, tanned, rough-around-the-edges, physically-masculine complement to represent the other half of the male ideal. Racial stereotypes are equally abundant in the film: werewolves being native Americans and your “cold-blooded” folk in the camp of White Caucasians.

Crucially, it’s hard to critique Twilight because it calls out to be viewed on its own terms–as blatant, no-holds-barred romance fiction. No need for postmodern reflexivity here or the jaded pretentions of a post-dating society. What the film sells is old-school nostalgia for gender stereotypes, even as it slowly but surely works its cringe-worthy plot lines around the central arcs of forbidden love and a damsel in distress. Twilight is a deceptively superficial film, surfacely “cheesy,” yet resists criticisms of that nature, because calling Twilight “cheesy” seems somehow irrelevant for the fact that romance novels are (sorry to break it to you) pretty much crafted in that mould.

Been Watching Too Many Teacher-Shows of Late

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Total coincidence of course.

Because the whole Dangerous Minds (1995) /Half Nelson (2006)/Freedom Writers (2007) thing has become overly repetitive and re-hashed feel-good does not feel good, when it springs up like a novel jack-in-the-box insult to audiences’ collective memory of genres within the history of the moving image).

I liked that Detachment (2011) bucks the trend by embracing all-out emo. And when I mean emo, I mean the atmosphere of the film is done up wayyy drab. Very “1996-sombre with a hint of dead oak” – if films could be described like wines – and (you won’t get the rest of this sentence if you haven’t seen the film but…) the flashbacks of Brody’s mom in vintage yellow gets a little old after awhile – and loses its pathos when light is finally shed on the whole family history/ Brody’s baggage thing.

So I’ll tell you why I like this film. I like Brody. Brody with his emotive eyebrows and especially Brody in a suit. It’s as simple as that. Use another actor and I can say, with every fibre of conviction in me, that the film would have been an utter, tiresome flop instead of the festival darling that it is.

Mr. Bro(o)dy.
Picture Credits: collider.com

Adrien-Brody-con-Sami-Gayle-Henry-Barthes-con-Erica-3 (1)

Sami Gayle is great as Erica, the Lolita-type character. Source: ondacalabra.it

Thank you Tony Kaye [director of American History X (1998)], for going all-out angsty and not pandering to a happy ending with this one. And for naming Brody Henry.

Être et Avoir (2002) [“To Be and to Have” in French] is a pretty old film, but a cult classic which occasionally pops up in film documentary theory books. There are 4 key scenes that are utterly amazing in this film, and which I intended to illustrate with videos from YouTube, but not all are available and there are copyright restrictions and ethics to consider (and also frustrates me when I dream of an imaginary world where film theses could have built-in screens in them and I can save the tedium of illustrating – painstakingly and boringly each scene discussed).

So I’ll narrow 4 down to the 2 most riveting scenes in the film, which are when Lopez has these personal one-on-one talks with 2 students, separately each time. If Dai Vaughan (film editor, producer and author of For Documentary said that the beauty of documentary films lay in the quiet observation of leaves rustling in the wind and such, then observing the way Lopez handles these at times difficult conversations with the utmost elegance, delicacy and tact as any could muster is abit like observing the rustling leaves of the human spirit as it slowly unfolds in Lopez’s intelligent nurturing of these children.

A concerned Lopez talks to a young student about his father's illness.

A concerned Lopez talks to a young student about his father’s illness.
Picture Credits: vodkaster.com

But if you haven’t puked already at my pathetic extension of Dai’s description, then I would say just go watch the film. Because it’s thoroughly enjoyable, watching these rural kids having classes out in the great outdoors, and to see them so blessed with a teacher that speaks to them calmly, maturely, as they should be spoken to, not shouted or mollycoddled or slang-ed at (it often starts with teachers’ underestimation of children’s ability to handle proper speech, sad to say).

Lopez instructs Jojo, one of the

Lopez instructs Jojo, one of the “petit mignon” (cute little ones) in the film.
Picture Credits: toutlecine.com

And then this next film is not really about teachers, though it is a little about a blind-deaf woman, Fini Straubinger, who has given her life to helping others with a similar plight, like a modern-day Hellen Keller. This isn’t the first time I’ve watched Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), because it’s certainly a film that begs to be revisited, whenever we start to think life’s a little tedious and take things for granted. Because it is a thoroughly humbling, sobering film to watch, and will make a human out of any emotionless creature.

A blind-deaf friend of Fini recites a heart-wrenching and beautifully strong poem at Fini's birthday gathering.Picture Credits: https://i2.wp.com/alsolikelife.com/shooting/images/2007-7.jpeg

A blind-deaf friend of Fini recites a heart-wrenching and beautifully strong poem at Fini’s birthday gathering.
Picture Credits: alsolikelife.com

This is the scene that will make you feel. Herzog’s a genius. “Ecstatic truth” indeed.