Everest  (2015)    96/100

Rating :   96/100                      Treasure Chest                       121 Min        12A

This is an absolute powerhouse of a movie that thunderously announces the start of the awards season, boldly dominating IMAX theatres a week before its theatrical release and, having now watched it twice on IMAX and once on a normal 3D screen, this is definitely one film where the larger format makes a big difference. In fact, even if for some reason you weren’t taken with the story, the visuals of Everest and its surroundings alone make it worth going to see (sections were filmed on the mountain itself, others in the Italian Alps, and then variously at Cinecitta and Pinewood studios).

It’s often the mark of a great film when the more you watch it, the more you actually appreciate and enjoy it – I’ve answered some of my initial criticisms and uncertainties and not only is this easily the best film I’ve seen this year, I actually just wanted to go and watch it again immediately after the credits rolled for my third time (I’d even recommend sitting through them, there are no extra scenes but it’s fascinating to see all the various people and departments involved, and indeed how few stunt performers there were given the nature of the film, and the score from Dario Marianelli {‘Pride and Prejudice’ 05, ‘Atonement’ 07, ‘Anna Karenina’ 12} plays out the film and the credits perfectly – indeed, it’s definitely one of the main highlights throughout, setting exactly the right stirring tone for both drama and adventure).

The story details the events of one particular ascent of Everest in 1996 and as always with this kind of film, it works best if you know absolutely nothing about it going in so I’ll just summarise what the opening credits relate – namely that in the nineties professional climbers, beginning with high profile mountaineer Rob Hall and his company Adventure Consultants, started to organise trips to the summit of Everest as a business, and that between the beginning of organised and successful commercial operations and Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent in 1953, one in four climbers died whilst trying to defeat the mountain. Indeed, the film makes sure to run through the various horrible things that can happen to you humans whilst you try, mostly due to the area being in the ‘Death Zone’, an altitude where the air is too thin to survive for long without a mixture of serious training and artificial aid.

The film is remarkably successful in several key areas, and as always those of principal importance concern the writing which here addresses all of the pitfalls screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (‘Slumdog Millionaire’ 08, ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ 11, ‘The Hunger Games : Catching Fire‘) and William Nicholson (‘Shadowlands’ 93, ‘Gladiator’ 2000) must have been very aware of – they make us care about each of the characters, for example, and artfully deal with the unavoidable ‘what on Earth made you go up there in the first place?’, and although moments like these are in many ways obvious concessions for the benefit of the audience they, asides from the occasional incidence of someone randomly writing squiggles on a board in the background, have been handled really well.

Even though they’re mostly all together, we get to know and appreciate each character through a series of vignettes which are knitted together to form the story – each not only has us guessing what might ultimately happen, but most of them can also be read into in a number of different ways and the writers have been very careful to apply an even handed approach to events with regards to what occurs, leaving plenty of room for discussion afterward and, crucially, making the drama feel very, very human, and it all does an impressive job too of actually making us feel like we’re there, like what we’re witnessing is as we’d experience it if we were on the same, or perhaps any, climbing trip, rather than something stylised or augmented for cinema.

Anyone who’s ever engaged in any kind of outdoor activity may well know that feeling you have when everything is going well and then all of a sudden you realise you might be in a spot of trouble, and as Jason Clarke (playing Rob Hall) says near the beginning of the movie you can’t compromise on safety. When you’re in charge of something and have to make the big calls you’ve got to be brutal and unwavering with them each time (whenever you feel that cold sensation of ‘it’ll probably be fine …’ then you know you’re in a bad spot and should put an end to it right away), and essentially hope that people realise it’s for their own good – in my experience that’s usually a bit of wishful thinking but you’ve got to be ready and prepared for it nonetheless and like all the best films of this type Everest really brings this concept into focus, as well as the audacity and vulnerability of attempting to embrace the natural world on its own terms.

The editing by Mick Audsley and direction from Baltasar Kormákur work perfectly with the writing, as for much of the first half the views are scenic and mostly relaxing and it’s not until the film really gets going that the dramatic, vertigo inducing shots come into play – and although not every moment has the impact that you wish it had, the balance between scaring the audience and not making them vomit is finely achieved, cue moments of ‘is the camera going to carry on moving so we’re looking straight down … yup it is eeeeeeee’, and indeed when you’re filming, panning and rotational shots are some of the easiest to mess up as you always have to move slower than you think you do otherwise it just becomes a blur for the viewer. Sinfully absent, however, are any outstanding shots of the night sky – from Everest the view on a clear night of the Heavens and the Milky Way must be truly a sight to behold and it’s really surprising it doesn’t feature here, and indeed there are two scenes that are shot in the same manner with a static camera, and I can’t help but wish they’d done a more traditional shot for one of them, although they may have been accused of sensationalism that way, or being too cheesy or perhaps even disrespectful to the story.

The acting is universally great from an impressive lineup of stars: the aforementioned Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, John Hawkes, Martin Henderson, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly and non other than the inimitable Keira Knightley. Both Brolin and Clarke are really impressive but especially so with regards to Brolin – the way he’s brought the subtleties of his role to life is one of the biggest and most effective anchors for the entire movie. I love the fact that Keira is in a film about the coveted pinnacle of the physical world as I kind of draw numerous parallels between them and, all obvious jokes aside, here, although her role is very much a supporting one, she is absolutely fantastic in it with a nigh on perfect Kiwi accent, and although there is one line I wish they hadn’t given her character as it sounds like something Elizabeth Swann would say and I wasn’t initially convinced by some of the direction for her scenes (tight frames on her face may suggest playing to her looks over tension etc.) but each and every time it’s her performance that really gets the audience going in a very audible way, so I have to concede the director was right on the money there.

Even Sam Worthington who very much exhibits his familiar ‘I am ON and ready for a FIGHT’ style actually sees it work really well for the film and for me this is currently deserving of an Oscars sweep next year, although it’s very early days yet. I’d love to see Clarke, Brolin, Kormákur, Nicholson, Beaufoy, Watson, Marianelli, cinematographer Salvatore Totino and, indeed, Keira nominated as although her screen time is really small, if the film manages to gain any traction with the Academy then we might see a repeat of what happened with 1976’s ‘Network’, which was a fantastic film that deservedly won a raft of Oscars but also landed Beatrice Straight one for best supporting actress and whom I think still holds the record for shortest screen time, at circa five minutes, for a win in the category and yet provided moments of emotional connection for the audience in a memorable way, and Keira’s scenes here along with her delivery have that same emotive quality and are certainly statuette worthy, but it will only stand a chance of happening if the film itself makes it to the finishing line.

Unusually, I’m not researching anything about this film; partly because, although I may live to rue this, I trust them with the details of the story in this scenario, and also because I don’t want the illusion to be shattered just yet by finding out things like my favourite moments were actually shot in a cosy studio somewhere etc. I’m also looking forward to watching it several more times and getting stuck into the extra material that’s bound to be on the DVD – I remember watching the bonus features for ‘Vertical Limit’ (2000) which wasn’t a particularly great film but after the featurettes and seeing what they went through to film it I had a great deal more respect for the filmmakers, in particular with things like Scott Glenn climbing up the ice with picks and no safety equipment, if memory serves.

There’s something about being able to watch a film detailing people climbing Everest and realistically taking you there with them all from the comfort of your chair in the theatre, something that goes to the very heart of one of cinema’s greatest strengths.

A fantastic film that will stay with you for a very long time.

Escape to Victory  (1981)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     116 Min        PG

This is one of those films that when you learn of it you think to yourself ‘really? That exists?’, and ‘how come I’ve never heard of it before?’. This is a World War II P.O.W. drama in which Michael Caine must train a group of prisoners to form an Allies football team to take on the fully fit German national team in Vichy France. Command in the camp order Caine not to comply but he tells them to stuff it – and guess who’s in goal for the allies? Sylvester Stallone. Oh yes.

Max von Sydow plays the fairly sympathetic Nazi who used to be a professional player in days gone by, and thus he brainchilds the showdown before his superiors hijack it for propaganda. The film is perhaps somewhat light on what living in a Nazi P.O.W. camp was actually like, and when Caine makes the salient point that the set-up is completely unfair given the emaciated state of his players you are in agreement, until you realise the Allies’ team is comprised of Pelé, Bobby Moore, John Wark, Osvaldo Ardiles, Kazimierz Deyna, Paul Van Himst… and the list of international professional football players goes on.

It’s a reworking of the 1962 Hungarian film ‘Two Half Times in Hell’, itself based on the real life death matches played out by Ukrainian teams versus the Nazis, and was directed by the legendary John Huston with a memorable soundtrack highly reminiscent of the ‘Great Escape’ (63) from composer Bill Conti (‘Rocky’ 76), which you may recognise from some of the recent Sky Sports adverts. The sporting moments (some of which were choreographed by Pelé himself) whilst not the most amazing ever filmed are nevertheless continuously engaging, as indeed are the roars and sways of the crowd, and although the camera lingers a little too long here and there, and some of the details feel a little flimsy, this is still a really enjoyable, singularly unique, war sports film.

Entourage  (2015)    51/100

Rating :   51/100                                                                     104 Min        15

A film largely crippled by its own marketing, which gave the strong impression audiences were already supposed to be familiar with the main characters, and The Red Dragon for one had taken to thinking they were probably members of some awful boy band/reality TV show. In fact, this is the big-screen version of Doug Ellin’s (who returns as writer and director) comedy-drama TV series which ran from 2004 – 2011 on HBO, but the assumption of familiarity continues throughout the beginning of the film with precious little in the way of character introduction and it’s really difficult to care much about rich Hollywood B listers Vince (Adrian Grenier), Eric (Kevin Connolly), Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and Drama (Kevin Dillon – brother of Matt, which you can see a mile off), especially when they make a joke whilst on a yacht, just after the intro, in reference to Natalie Wood (renowned actress Wood having famously drowned under mysterious circumstances whilst on a boat trip with her then husband Robert Wagner in 1981, indeed the case was reopened a few years ago after the captain of the boat changed his original testimony). Not cool.

More gags in dubious taste follow and the inclusion of Piers Morgan in several scenes adds to the somewhat illegitimate feeling that underpins much of the movie as the fabric of the story is set in place – the four take on the reins of a new blockbuster thanks to the machinations of their long term pal and manager Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), their manager who then has to spend the rest of the film trying to keep the project on the go as everyone begins to doubt the boys’ credibility and we meet a raft of silver screen faces in tiny cameos in the process. The central four form the titular entourage with the premise being their bond will see them through all their difficulties and although the acting and chemistry between the four is for the most part non-existent, the film at least tries to put the focus on the comedy and eventually, due in large part to Piven, some of the jokes do find their mark and it begins to carry more weight. It never manages to atone for its many sins though.

Ex Machina  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     108 Min        15

A close quarters sci-fi mystery that locks three characters – an A.I. Machine Ava (Alicia Vikander), her/its creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and a nerd Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), all in an isolated modern and luxurious complex in Norway for one week (at least, that is where the location shots were filmed at any rate), where the visiting competition winner Caleb will administer the Turing test in order to determine whether or not Nathan has successfully created an android convincing enough to pass for human (for more on Turing, see ‘The Imitation Game‘). It is slow and some of the delivery is equally drawn out and annoying (mainly from Gleeson) and it does meander for a long time but ultimately the plot delivers a satisfying conclusion via smart mechanics with a few nuggets of intellectual fodder strewn around to chew on (like the brief mention of the theory that we don’t really learn language, we already ‘know’ it and just learn to map words around it, interesting) and insights into the conditions of life and survival which are both understated and yet ubiquitous, rounding off the film nicely.

There’s no real action here, which caused a palpable sense of restlessness in the audience who I think may have been expecting something more akin to the explosions and effects of the likes of ‘I, Robot’ (04) – there were lots of gingerly delves into bags of popcorn throughout the predominantly conversational structure of the film. The acting is good from all three leads, perhaps most of all from Vikander who has less lines than the other two but who never flinches in her ethereal portrayal of Ava, and the screenplay is itself constantly aware of what the audience is likely to guess is going on, immediately introducing that concept in the next conversation and dashing it as a conclusion. A sense of claustrophobia and menace is created in the complex, especially under the frequent power outages, and there was a lot of potential to really turn the screw on that which may have delivered some much needed punch at various points, but nevertheless author (‘The Beach’ 96), screenwriter (’28 Days Later’ 02, ‘Sunshine’ 07, ‘Never Let Me Go’ 10) and first time director Alex Garland has created a polished and clever science fiction drama that stands proudly within a genre fairly overcrowded with A.I.

The title is pronounced ‘ex makuhnuh’ and comes from the phrase ‘deus ex machina’, which literally translates as ‘god from a/the machine’ and is used to term the introduction in fiction of some godly or outlandish solution to a problem, a fudge if you will, referencing plays of old when a statue of a god would be mechanically made to appear on stage and perform whatever service was required of it to save the protagonist’s bacon.

Exodus : Gods and Kings  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     150 Min        12A

There is a clue in the title to this that it isn’t going to be all that great – ‘Exodus’ sounds grand, epic and serious. ‘Exodus : Gods and Kings’ sounds shit, like they want to make it clear they are using the story from the Old Testament but ‘not really’, or ‘we’re doing our own thing with it’, well, what’s the point then? The film is about the life of Moses (Christian Bale) in ancient Egypt up until the moment of the Exodus itself, opening with his time as the Pharaoh’s right hand man and here the man in charge actually prefers him to his real son, Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton), I don’t remember this from the old sermons I once heard (before I burned the church down) but OK.

Visually it’s very nice with wonderful costumes, sets and scenes of warfare and carnage which director Ridley Scott is no stranger to, but it suffers from the basic problem of just plodding on and running out of steam very quickly. ‘Noah‘ had an artistry to it and delivered things that were unexpected, and even the melodrama with the characters worked on some levels, here though it is very much a case of OK now this plague will arrive, and then the next one and then … and so on, all leading to a graphically impressive crossing of the Red Sea, which is crowned off by an example of complete and utter ridiculousness that is frankly embarrassing for Scott, where we witness central characters surviving being smacked in the head by A TIDAL WAVE right in the middle of the Sea. Hmm. There is also a somewhat confused morality within the screenplay – God’s wrath seems to inflict equal suffering on Hebrew and Egyptian alike, for example. In fact, it’s really difficult to discern what the point in making the film was.

As is always the case for biblical films there have been numerous controversies surrounding the story and production, ultimately though it simply isn’t good enough to care that much about, though criticisms about the ethnicity of all the actors (complaint being that all the leads are white) are difficult to allay when, as you see above, the actors with very black skin are clearly shown to be slaves. Is this inaccurate though? As you travel south from the Med through to the tropics the skin colour of the people naturally darkens (as presumably it still would have done in antiquity, although interestingly the early dynasties arose not too long after the time the Sahara is estimated to have become a desert in 3500 BC, after a shift in the Earth’s orbit), would it make sense for the Egyptians to trade for slaves around their southern borders? Do we even know what the colour of the ancient Egyptians’ skin was? Modern day North Africa is genetically dominated by the legacy of Islamic conquest and Mediterranean trade, and Egypt has always been at the confluence of three continents so I think it’s safe to say that it is difficult to know for sure, and Bale and Edgerton are at least suitably sunned so I’m not convinced it’s fair criticism.

There is an interesting moment when Christian Bale rides forth on horseback with his men flanking him on either side, and then he draws his sword ready for battle. Or at least, he tries to, it actually gets stuck briefly and it’s perhaps telling they decided to keep the take – it is precisely what you could imagine happening if you were suddenly asked to film a climatic scene as ‘leader’, or indeed do it in real life for some reason, that or falling off your horse after tugging too hard, so in a way it’s nice it’s in there. Support from Ben Kingsley, María Valverde, and Sigourney Weaver – even though she only has about two lines.

Earth to Echo  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                       91 Min        PG

The handheld genre finds its way into the family film market here, with very similar results to previous experiments with it: contrivances to always have multiple cameras on the go (bizarrely including a hidden camera in one of the kid’s specs, which seems like a particularly nifty bit of kit for them to have access to) and fairly irritating central performances as they constantly try to sound excited, telling us we should be too. The plot has us following three young boys (played by Teo Halm, Reese Hartwig and X-Factor contestant Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) around on their bikes as they trace a mysterious map that has appeared on their phones – a map which leads to the discovery of a small alien, Echo, that they will try to help collect the fragmented bits of his spacecraft so he (or she I suppose, its sexual organs are not noticeably examined) can go home before some evil ADULTS find it, play football with it and dismember it.

Echo has no real personality, it essentially looks really cute and can beep once for yes and twice for no, and that’s it, so the focus is on the adventure of the kids with at least an attempt to explore the strength of the bond between them, but mainly just watching them track down things and trying to avoid capture, with the very typical fantasy of the hot uptight girl from school (Ella Wahlestedt) somehow getting involved and coming along with them . For kids around the age of the main characters (fourteen?) it might be quite good, but for anyone else it’s a far cry from E.T. (82). One of them learns to drive a car in, literally, ten seconds. That’s the sort of level of production and believability you’re looking at here.

Edge of Tomorrow  (2014)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                        Treasure Chest                      113 Min        12A

‘Groundhog Day’ (93) meets ‘Gears of War’ (XBox franchise) in this sci-fi action adventure starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. The film looks fantastic throughout, although it feels a little jittery in the beginning before Bill Paxton arrives to settle things, no doubt his ‘Aliens’ (86) credentials highlighting him for the role, and he makes sure to nod in James Cameron’s direction with mention of Judgement Day as we are introduced to our recognisable modern day world – except aliens called Mimics have decided to invade Europe, and with the threat barely contained there humanity plans a D-Day style invasion to be launched simultaneously on every available front, with our viewpoint being the Normandy launch from London. Cruise is a spokesperson for the military who gets himself on the wrong side of Brendan Gleeson, never wise, and finds himself very much dropped in at the deep end where he quickly gets obliterated but, mysteriously, instead of dying he finds himself back where he was twenty four hours ago …

Based on the 2004 ‘light’ novel ‘All You Need is Kill’ by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Tom Cruise was the perfect choice for sympathetically selling a potentially difficult story to ground, and Blunt is every bit as brilliant as the successful war veteran, or the ‘Full Metal Bitch’ as the military PR dubs her (a wonderful moniker I fully intend to appropriate for personal use – you know who you are). The action is relentless, with the humans all armed with robust mechanised exosuits, real props, again much like ‘Aliens’ or ‘Avatar’ (09) but on a more manageable scale – similar to the one in ‘Elysium‘, together with elements common to computer games. Blunt, for example, often wields an enormous ‘Soul Calibur’ esque blade. Don’t expect much on the philosophy front, but this is almost seamlessly put together by director Doug Liman and despite a couple of hiccups, it’s rock solid entertainment.

An interview for breakfast telly with the two main stars …

Endless Love  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     104 Min        12A

This is a very, very familiar story of the local mechanic’s boy who falls for the hot blonde soon to be studying medicine shy girl next door, only daddy doesn’t like it, in small town rural America. Bizarrely, it’s kind of likeable for what it is. The leads are appealing enough and never really grate, the dialogue isn’t off-puttingly cheesy, and the story doesn’t bore to death, all of which is a bit of a surprise. Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde (Carrie) play the two leads with Bruce Greenwood as the latter’s father and Joely Richardson as his wife, and the story focuses as much on their relationship as it does the two young lovebirds. It’s loosely based on the novel of the same name by Scott Spencer, previously filmed by Franco Zeffirelli in 1981, which may explain why there’s a little more going on than in the usual teen romance drama, and although it fulfils its purview reasonably well, the romance is not exactly going to set the world on fire either.

Escape from Planet Earth  (2013)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                       89 Min        U

The first animated theatrical release from Rainmaker Entertainment, which hits UK shores over a year after its release in the States – was it worth the wait? Well, not especially, but for its target audience of young kids it should prove visually and thematically entertaining enough, with the occasional nod to films like ‘The Artist’ (11) and ‘Monsters’ (10) to try and keep adults interested.

The story focuses on two alien brothers, one full of machismo but not the sharpest tool in the shed and the other a tech nerd and family man (his son is initially more impressed by the showmanship of his brother) at mission control – when the former is captured by the US military (many of their number have mysteriously gone missing on Earth) the more cautious brother is forced to ‘man up’ and go into the field to try and rescue him. The animation is slick and colourful, and although the story is very simple, exploring the rivalry of the brothers along with the relative pros and cons of their strengths and weaknesses, it should hold youngster’s attention throughout, although it is unlikely to become an enduring family favourite.

With voice acting from Rob Corddry, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Alba, William Shatner and Ricky Gervais.

Ender’s Game  (2013)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     114 Min        12A

I loved this film. The premise seemed somewhat airy fairy – a young kid is selected as humanity’s best hope against an invading alien species that almost wiped us out the last time they dropped by to say hello, but actually it is delivered to us in quite a believable and entertaining way. Something anchored very strongly by Harrison Ford’s performance as the sort of grand training colonel, lending the necessary gravitas to the set up. Asa Butterfield as Ender is good, as are all the supporting young actors. There’s a decent amount of philosophy to chew on throughout the film, and the only real complaint to raise is the slight hiccup with a few minor editing choices for the last minute or two of the film – these overall don’t really matter, but it is a shame as they sort of define the feeling you walk away from the film with. Similar in essence to ‘The Hunger Games’ (12) and just as good.