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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

From mountaintops to mean streets to Manhattan to Mars

 

10/21/2015

Gerald SchmitzEverest (U.K./U.S./Iceland)
Black Mass (U.S.)
The Walk (U.S.)
The Martian (U.S.)

If summer is for superheroes, sequels, and easygoing comedies, fall is when Hollywood producers start bringing out weightier fare in anticipation of awards season. Here are four deserving of notice.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest, which opened the Venice film festival, assembles a top-notch cast to relive the events of May 1996 that resulted in one of the deadliest days on the world’s highest mountaintop — the supreme climbing challenge that tempts some adventurers to take fatal risks. The movie draws on Into Thin Air, the acclaimed account by Jon Krakauer (played by Michael Kelly), a reporter for Outside magazine who joined a diverse group making the ascent. From their arrival in the crowded squalor of Katmandu up to the untidy base camp, it’s led by charismatic Australian tour leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) of Adventure Consultants, supported by assistant guide Guy (fellow Aussie Sam Worthington) and logistics co-ordinator Helen (Emily Watson).

As they acclimatize to the altitude and prepare to ascend in stages before a final assault on the summit, the characters and motivations of the members emerge. Beck (Josh Brolin) is an assertive middle-aged Texan who has paid a lot of money for this achievement while having to reassure a nervous family back home. Doug (John Hawkes) is a quiet postal worker for whom this is a last chance after a previous failed attempt. Yasuko (Naoko Mori) is a Japanese woman who has scaled six of the seven highest continental peaks and needs this to complete that accomplishment.

Rob is the type to inspire confidence that they will be in safe hands. He has every reason not to take risks with a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) waiting for him, with whom he keeps in touch by satellite phone. He also contrasts with several other tour leaders making the ascent — the long-haired hippie-like American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and macho Russian Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Sigurosson) who eschews the use of supplementary oxygen. The role of the Nepalese sherpas remains peripheral but this isn’t their story.

After crossing treacherous icefalls and crevasses, all three groups see a window to reach the top on the same day. But things quickly go awry. Time has run out when Rob makes a fateful decision to help a labouring Doug attain his dream. The notoriously changeable weather turns against them. In the end, eight bodies will be left on the mountain.

Both visually (especially viewed in IMAX 3D) and in dramatic intensity, the unfolding of the disaster is brilliantly realized. Everest is a chillingly effective cautionary tale.

***

Scott Cooper’s Black Mass offers Johnny Depp’s best role in years, physically transformed into the menacing character of James “Whitey” Bulger, a real-life crime boss from the mean streets of south Boston whose Winter Hill Gang rose to underworld dominance during the 1970s and ’80s while being protected from prosecution by the FBI. The incredible story was the subject of a 2014 documentary Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger.

The key to this unusual arrangement was Bulger’s childhood friendship with fellow “Southey” John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, equally superb), a brash ambitious FBI agent who convinced his Bureau colleagues, including a skeptical supervisor played by Kevin Bacon, that Bulger could provide valuable information on a rival Italian mafia. Bulger played the FBI, refusing to see himself as an “informant” (though keeping the relationship secret from his associates including a devoted young driver). The benefit was he and his henchman getting away with multiple murders and lucrative criminal operations. While Bulger could be a ruthless killer, he also doted on his mother and kept in touch with notably successful brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a lawyer and educator who became president of the state senate as well as the University of Massachusetts.

Eventually both Bulger and Connolly overplayed their hands. The arrangement came crashing down when a determined federal prosecutor (Corey Stoll) started digging into why the gang’s notorious activities had been shielded for so long. Key members were arrested and gave evidence against the mastermind in exchange for lesser sentences. Connolly was trapped too and received a lengthy prison term. Bulger escaped into hiding in 1994 and was not apprehended till 2011, subsequently sentenced to several life terms.

Black Mass is a cut above the usual gangster movie or action thriller in the way that it gets under the skin of its characters and in its impressive attention to period details. Depp especially is thoroughly believable as Bulger and deserving of early Oscar buzz.

***

Director Robert Zemeckis brings an awe-inspiring screen magic to The Walk, also based on the exploits of a real person, intrepid French highwire artist Philippe Petit, who stunned the world on the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, when he walked back and forth on a cable illegally stretched between the 110-storey north and south tower roofs of Manhattan’s barely finished World Trade Center (WTC). The movie, for which Petit was a “coach and consultant,” draws on his memoir To Reach the Clouds and is an effective dramatization of his story that was the subject of James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire.

Key to that is the quite exceptional performance of American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit who speaks directly to the audience as the narrator of his incredibly daring “coup.” Gordon-Levitt carries off the physical demands and the language — switching between French and French-accented English — with surprising aplomb, perhaps enough to have a legitimate shot at an Oscar nomination.

Petit was an itinerant street performer in Paris who had gained attention for walking between the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral. Transfixed by a 1973 magazine image of the twin towers under construction, he became obsessed with the ultimate challenge of walking between the world’s tallest structures, roping in girlfriend Annie (Quebec’s Charlotte Le Bon) and several others as part of his plan.

Fascinated by circus wire-walkers since boyhood, Petit was an eager student of Papa Rudy Omankowski (Ben Kingsley), the patriarch of a Czech family of performers. Still, the WTC attempt, demanding many hours of illegal access to the buildings and eschewing any safety harness, must have seemed like suicidal madness. One of Petit’s assistants was even afraid of heights.

Once in New York Petit found additional accomplices (one of whom conveniently worked on an 82nd floor). Lengthy detailed preparations for his coup included using disguises to enter the towers multiple times in order to scout the terrain. For all that, the critical night leading up to the walk was a very near-run thing. The movie, much of which was actually filmed in Montreal, expertly recreates the incidents and atmosphere of high anxiety.

It’s the defiant walk itself, requiring a remarkable digital reconstruction of those iconic towers destroyed on 9/11, which stands out for breathtaking vertigo-inducing images worth the extra to watch in Imax 3D. Petit spent 45 minutes going back and forth between the towers, stealing the headlines the day before a disgraced President Nixon announced his resignation over Watergate. There are photographs but no moving pictures of this feat of crazy genius that can never be repeated. This is the closest we will come to imagining what it was like.

***

We are in another period of popular interest in Mars, spurred by NASA’s recent discovery of flowing water on the red planet suggesting the possibility of life. Billionaire inventor-entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, has said he wants to die on Mars. Ridley Scott’s futurist sci-fi epic The Martian, based on the Andy Weir novel, is all about keeping one man alive on Mars, which humans have been visiting for some time, notwithstanding the four years it takes to traverse at least 34 million miles of space.

NASA’s Ares III mission, led by commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), is going about its work when a severe Martian storm forces the crew to evacuate. Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and, presumed dead, left behind. Amazingly he survives and gets back to the base where he has to use all of his scientific wiles to figure out how to make water and grow food so as to last the many hundreds of “sols” (Martian days) before any rescue would be possible. Potatoes and human waste play a role until zapped by another destructive storm.

At first Watney has no communication with NASA, headed by a calculating bureaucrat Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), but still gamely records his efforts. He’s never going to give up. The discovery he’s alive presents NASA with troubling dilemmas of whether, then how, to try to bring him home. Two years pass before the returning Ares III crew are even told, at which point they defy orders and reverse course back toward Mars to retrieve their stranded mate. Every step involves huge improbabilities too numerous to mention, as well as a crucial assist from a Chinese space agency rocket.

There’s little doubt Watney will make a triumphant return to earth against all odds, which lessens the suspense. Still The Martian is consistently entertaining, with the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo leavened by often humorous exchanges. Kudos as well to the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (who also worked on The Walk) and spectacular special effects. Jordan’s Wadi Rum landscape doubled for Martian exteriors and most of the rest was shot on sound stages in Hungary.

The potential to put astronauts on Mars may still be a long way off but it doesn’t hurt to dream at the movies.