(On Cable TV, June 2016) This may sound ungrateful, but I’d expect a disaster movie about climbing the Earth’s tallest mountain to be a bit more … impressive. It’s not as if Everest is entirely missing in thrills: After reading a lot about Himalayan mountain-climbing, it’s fascinating to see a big-budget production head over to Nepal (even if only for a small portion of the shoot) and show us how it’s done. The capable group of actors assembled for the film is impressive, starting with the ever-impressive Jason Clarke and Jake Gyllenhaal as duelling climbers/entrepreneurs. Part of the film’s middle-of-the-road impression may be due to its insistence on sticking to a true story, the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest disaster spectacularly chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Interestingly enough, Everest is not based on Into Thin Air, while Krakauer shows up as a non-heroic character. There’s a limit to the amount of drama (or, perhaps more accurately, audience-friendly dramatic structure) that can be generated from a film intent on sticking to facts, and Everest finds itself limited to the real story. Direction-wise, Baltasar Kormákur has fun with some set pieces, even though the story itself treads familiar ground. What’s often missing, though, is a sense of scale: For such a big mountain, Everest is too often glimpsed from too close and the film rarely delivers on the awe of the mountain-climbing experience. Regrettably, Everest’s strengths only highlight its limits: While it’s a decent travelogue, it should have been a more absorbing experience. I may, however, revisit this film in a few years to see if I’m being too picky.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Director Roland Emmerich is a consummate entertainer, and showing White House Down alongside Olympus Has Fallen, the other great White-House-siege film of 2013, only serves to list why he’s so good at what he does: Good balance between action and humor, clean editing, just-enough character development and a willingness to go insane at appropriate moments… along with self-acknowledgement of outlandish material. The numerous points of comparison between both films only serve to highlight what White House Down does best: Channing Tatum is credible enough as the accidental hero (he’s got confidence without swagger, making him relatable), Jamie Foxx is just fine as a “47th president” clearly modeled after the 44th one, the “threat matrix” idea for the antagonist is ingeniously-executed, the action sequences are vivid without being gory, and the film manages to navigate a tricky line between national symbolism and overblown jingoism. White House Down‘s crowd-pleasing dynamism means that the film as a whole feels like one big competently-executed formula and that’s just fine: the film is easy to watch and enjoy, the only sour note coming late in the conclusion as another wholly-unnecessary antagonist is revealed with a Scooby-Doo-level lack of subtlety. The film is possibly never better than when it acknowledges its own presidential-lawn car chase absurdity with a well-placed “Well, that’s not something you see every day.” –although the “just like in Independence Day” quote comes close. Good turns by numerous supporting players (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, James Woods and a remarkable Jason Clarke whose character is best imagined as being exactly “that guy” from Zero Dark Thirty) add just enough to make the film even more enjoyable. While White House Down comes with the usual action-blockbuster caveats (formula all the way, and don’t think too much about it), it’s a remarkably successful example of what it tries to do, and it’s hard to give a better recommendation for this kind of film.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Given the acclaim that Zero Dark Thirty received upon release (all the way up to Oscar nominations) and the interest in its premise, I frankly expected more than I got from the film. Telling the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden seemed essential given his decade-long bogeyman stature in the American psyche… but who expected a film about such a gripping subject to be, well, so dull? Clocking in at a near-oppressive two-and-a-half-hour, Zero Dark Thirty takes forever to tell its story, underplaying some moments (such as the strike against CIA employees at Camp Chapman) while letting others take place in near-real time. The pacing is tepid, and the basic tools of the film (cinematography, dialogue, direction) aren’t all that compelling either: For all the good that I think of her films up to and including The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s work here seems more average than anything else, and does little to fight against the heaviness of the rest of the film. Fortunately, the performances are quite good: Jessica Chastain is splendid as the personification of the “Sisterhood” of CIA analysts that doggedly pursued bin Laden for more than a decade, while Jason Clarke is curiously compelling as a CIA interrogator. As far as the gulf between fiction and reality is concerned, a look at the HBO documentary Manhunt should help clear up the historical liberties taken by Zero Dark Thirty –although viewers should be forewarned that Manhunt is considerably crisper and more compelling than its fictional counterpart.