Monthly Archives: September 2015

Ups & Downs

A herd of actors recreates epic ’90s mountaineering disaster

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Everest

Starring Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley & Robin Wright

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

PG-13

 

Why climb the world’s highest mountain?

“Because it’s there!” shout members of a group about to head to the top of Mt. Everest in this adventure-drama based on a true story from 1996.

It’s there, all right—all 29,000-and-then-some feet of it, rising into the sky like a giant prehistoric sentinel of rock, ice and snow on the border of China and Nepal. Director Baltasar Kormákur’s film begins with expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), his team and his clients converging at the base of the Himalayas to prepare for their trek to the summit.

“It’s not called the death zone for noting,” Hall, a veteran New Zealand mountaineer, warns his climbers-to-be, citing the perils they will face—jet stream winds, altitude sickness, sub-freezing temps, oxygen deprivation, snowstorms, avalanches, icefalls.

Everest

Jake Gyllenhaal

By the mid-1990s, the commercialization of Mt. Everest had created some major traffic jams on the slopes. As guides such as Hall returned season after season to lead paying customers toward the heavens, thousands were trekking where, just decades before, only a relative few had ever dared.

But the monumental mountain remained a far cry from an amusement park. You could still die up there.

Everest

Josh Brolin

A monstrous storm moves in, trapping the climbers. Who’ll survive, and who won’t? It becomes an epic drama of humans facing ancient, immutable forces of nature. Sometimes it looks spectacular, but too often the emotions of Everest feel forced and hokey, and much of the time there’s just too much going on, and too many people jostling around.

For an adventure movie, it doesn’t have near enough action, and when things do get going, the scenes of peril and danger don’t have the breathtaking, gut-wrenching wallop you’d expect from a movie about people pitting themselves against the highest peak on the planet, at inhospitable altitudes where airplanes fly, helicopters falter, eyeballs can explode and bodies fall into places where they’ll never be recovered.

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Robin Wright

Everest is a modern throwback to classic disaster movies of the 1970s, when a gaggle of actors would be plunked into collapsing cities, raging infernos, sinking ships or doomed airplanes. Here the populous cast includes Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael (House of Cards) Kelly, Jason Hawkes, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Elizabeth (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) Debicki and others, all in roles based on real people, headed up, staying below or waiting anxiously on the other side of the world when things take a turn from bad to worse.

But there’s one star in Everest that tops them all, and that’s Mt. Everest itself. Even though some of the scenes were filmed elsewhere, you’d never know it, and the world’s most iconic peak still has the power to awe, inspire and draw people to risk, and sometimes lose, their lives.

Why would anyone want to do it? And why bother trying to explain, anyway? In any discussion, as one character puts it, “the last word always belongs to the mountain.” In Everest, and the tragically true tale behind it, indeed it does.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Love & Work & Friendship

De Niro, Hathaway put mature ‘seasoning’ on workplace rom-com

THE INTERN

The Intern

Starring Robert De Niro & Anne Hathaway

Directed by Nancy Meyers

PG-13

“Love and work, work and love, that’s all there is,” says Ben (Robert De Niro), paraphrasing Sigmund Freud in the opening moments of The Intern.

Ben’s a 70-year-old retiree, adrift in Brooklyn after the death of his wife of 40-some years. He longs for purpose and connection that Mandarin Chinese lessons, tai chi in the park and morning treks to Starbucks can’t provide. When he sees an ad for a “Senior Intern Program” at a hip new e-commerce clothing company, he thinks it could be just the thing to bring his decades of experience, loyalty and passion for productivity back into play.

After a humorous round of interviews with the start-up company’s young “talent acquisition” team, Ben gets the job, assigned directly to the busy-bee founder and president, Jules (Anne Hathaway), a mile-a-minute micromanager who barely has time to even notice him.

How long will it take for the geriatric guru to go from invisible to indispensible?

THE INTERNWriter-director Nancy Meyers is best known for the frisky romantic comedies Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated and The Parent Trap. There’s both romance and comedy in The Intern—there’s no mistaking the soft, rounded edges of Meyers’ humor and the sunny storybook optimism of her feel-good style. But still, it’s not what you might think.

Ben doesn’t fall—at least romantically—for Jules. They both grow ever closer in their relationship, and even end up literally “in bed” together, but it’s all business, building a genuine friendship.

De Niro, a double Oscar winner, is well known for playing tough, so it’s always great fun to see him working whimsical. But shades of some of his former, heavier performances are always around, lurking—Ben has a “mirror” moment that might be seen a silent spoof of “You talkin’ to me?!” from Taxi Driver, and a comedic house break-in feels like it might morph into Goodfellas parody, if only there were a body in the trunk and a walk-on by Joe Pesci.

Hathaway, 32, another Oscar winner, plays Jules with sensitivity for her character’s strengths as well as her struggles—which include a frazzled home life with her husband (Anders Holm, from TV’s Workaholics) and their precocious young daughter (JoJo Kushner), and conflict about how her company has grown so much it may need to bring in a CEO, someone above her, to run things.

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Ben (De Niro) bonds with the younger interns (Adam Devine, Zack Pearlman and Jason Orley).

Renee Russo plays a frisky “older” staff masseuse who rubs Ben the right way, and three younger interns (Jason Orley, Zach Pearlman and Adam DeVine, also from Workaholics, as well as the Pitch Perfect movies) form male bonds with their much older, more stylish, infinitely wiser coworker.

The Intern won’t win any awards. But for some hearty laughs and touching cross-generational life lessons from a couple of “old pros,” it’ll make for a decent date night, especially with audiences who often search in vain for movies of any kind—particularly comedies—seasoned for more “mature” tastes.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Mob Mentality

Johnny Depp is riveting as Boston crime kingpin Whitey Bulger

WBL207_003.tifBlack Mass

Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch

Directed by Scott Cooper

R

In the crime underworld, there’s nothing lower than a rat—a snitch, a two-timer, an informer who sells his soul to save his skin.

Early in this powerful screen adaptation of the 2001 book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Irish-American hood “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) meets with FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who wants Bulger’s help in reeling in some even bigger fish—the Italian Mafia.

Connelly asks Bulger to become an informant. Bulger recoils. “Do you know what I do to rats?” he hisses.

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Joel Edgerton (left) and Johnny Depp

The audience doesn’t, but we’ll soon find out. And if it’s anything like we just saw Bulger do to a guy who displeased him with some sloppy snack-food etiquette, we can guess it’ll be ugly, brutal and swift.

In Boston crime lore, James “Whitey” Bulger was a legend, a local neighborhood kid who became a fearsome underworld kingpin. A career criminal, he was a stone-cold killer who kept his South Boston crew, the Winter Hill Gang, busy with murder, extortion and drug dealing. But he could also be kind to old ladies, a loving father and a doting son.

Black Mass begins in 1975, and shows how Bulger did, indeed, become an informant, creating an unholy alliance that—ironically—expanded his criminal reign by giving him “protection,” and drawing agent Connelly dangerously deep into Bulger’s world. It also complicated things for Connelly’s childhood friend, the Massachusetts state senator (Benedict Cumberbatch) who happened to be Bulger’s younger brother.

Gangsters and crime movies are Hollywood staples, and there are characters and scenes in Black Mass that may indeed remind you of things that came before: The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Departed. But this gangster flick has something unique: Johnny Depp as one of modern history’s most infamous mobsters, reminding us how great he can be when he digs deep into a serious role.

Burying the memories of some of his broader, more flamboyant performances (Capt. Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands, Tonto) behind piercing blue contact lenses, a yellowed front tooth, an artificially receding hairline and subtle facial prosthetics, he hones in and practically disappears into the part of the notorious, psychopathic crime boss. You get chills whenever he’s onscreen, especially in close-up, when his eyes can become as cold and menacing as any weapon.

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Dakota Johnson

The cast—which also includes Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Saarsgard, Jesse Pelmons, Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson and Adam Scott—is uniformly strong. The stark, sophisticated cinematography, by master lensman Masonobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, The Grey, Warrior) basks in the bleak ’70 and ’80s grunge of the film’s Beantown settings and evokes the amoral chill of its tale. The set design captures all the details of the era, from the big American Fords, Lincolns, Dodges, Buicks and Chevys—the rides of choice of the mobsters—to the reel-to-reel recorders used by the Feds. Director Scott Cooper, who previously steered Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (2009), meticulously juggles the players and pieces of the sprawling, intense, character-driven story that sweeps across a full decade, with a postscript in 1995.

“Southie kids, we went straight from playing cops and robbers on the playground to doin’ it for real on the streets,” says one Bulger’s henchmen on the trajectory that led his boss and associates from tough childhoods in South Boston into careers of crime. That may not have turned out to be the best life choice, but it sure had the makings of one heck of a fine gangster movie, rats and all.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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To Grandma’s House We Go

Kids get more than milk and cookies in frightening, funny ‘Visit’

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The Visit

Starring Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

PG-13

Old people sure can be odd—and sometimes scary—to young ‘uns.

Director M. Night Shyamalan riffs on that generational rift, with frightening and sometimes very funny results, in this tale of two teenage siblings sent to spend a week in rural Pennsylvania with the grandparents they’ve never met.

As their divorced mom (Kathryn Hahn) departs on a cruise with her new boyfriend, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) ship off via train to get to know her estranged parents, whom she hasn’t seen in nearly 20 years.

8L60_ITP_00026RV2.jpg_cmykNana (Tony-winning Broadway actress Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a bit strange, all right. She walks, runs and crawls around at night all ghost-like, in a white nightgown—and she projectile vomits on the floor and claws the walls. He thinks strangers are watching him, dresses up for a costume party that never happens, and squirrels something away in a shed behind the house.

Becca, a budding filmmaker, captures everything on camera for the movie she’s making about her mother’s childhood and the difficult relationship she had with her parents. As such, Becca’s movie becomes much of our movie, as we watch her “(found) footage” as she or Tyler are shooting, viewing or editing it.

8L60_FPF_00086R.jpg_cmykWriter/director Shyamalan has given us suspenseful movies before—Unbreakable, Signs, The Sixth Sense, The Village, The Lady in the Water. It’s easy to pick up here on some of his familiar themes: broken families, the mystical power of storytelling, otherworldly creatures, the “magic” of water. Becca’s movie-within-the-movie feels almost like a tribute to the director’s craft itself, with Becca and Tyler using filmmaking phrases like mise en scene and denouement. A deranged game of the board game Yahtzee veers for a moment into Quentin Tarantino territory. Beneath its carefully crafted scares, this is a very artful movie about movies, a story about stories, and a tale of a tale—with a trademark, last-minute Shyamalan twist.

The Visit has some truly hair-raising scares­—and some genuine laughs. Many of the chuckles come from young Tyler, a wannabe rapper who uses female pop singers’ names instead of curse words8L60_TP1_00088RV2.jpg_cmyk (“Oh, Shakira!”) when he’s in need of expletives. As the grandparents, Dunagan and McRobbie are old pros, TV and film veterans who keep the movie’s nasty, bone-chilling surprises closely guarded secrets until it’s time to spring them, when The Visit shifts from creepy to crazy and Nana and Pop-Pop’s home becomes a modern-day, Hansel-and-Gretel house of horrors.

You’ll squirm when Becca crawls deep inside the kitchen oven. You’ll gasp when Tyler ventures into Pop-Pop’s shed. And after the most outrageous, hilariously icky gross-out gag you’ll see in any movie this year, you’ll never look at an adult diaper the same way again. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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