Tag Archives: Netflix

The Impossible Dream

14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible

by George Wolf

Nirmal “Nims” Purja likes to keep a positive outlook.

“I’m not going to die today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.”

And while tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us, Nims tends to tempt fate more than most. A mountaineer, adventurer and former member of the Special Forces in Nepal, Nims feels most alive when he’s dreaming big and living life on the edge.

Netflix’s 14 Peaks documents his biggest dream: summiting all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter + peaks (26, 247 feet and above) in just 7 months. To put that in proper context, the previous record for achieving the feat was 7 years. And Reinhold Messner – one of the greatest legends in all of climbing – took 16 years to ascend all 14.

So the plan that Nims dubbed “Project Possible” was ambitious, to say the least, and Messner himself sets the stakes for us. To Messner, climbing these wonders of the world “is not fun.” It is a practice filled with pain, danger and death.

That said, Nims sure seems to be enjoying himself, and part of that is helping to document his own journey.

If you come to 14 Peaks only for the breathtaking visuals, you will not be disappointed, especially if you can view it on a wide screen. Director/co-writer Torquil Jones takes us above the clouds over and over again, utilizing sparkling, absolutely thrilling footage often taken by Nims himself (including his incredible shot of a 300-person Mt. Everest traffic jam that quickly went viral).

But Jones also mines tension through the attempts at fundraising for the project (where Nims admits “I sound like a lunatic’) and getting the clearance from the Chinese government to climb in Tibet. Intimacy comes from getting to know Nims himself, who turns out to be a fascinating and endearing subject. We see his preparations and the tests that reveal him to be genetically gifted for enduring high altitude/low oxygen environments, as well as Nim’s commitment to to helping fallen comrades on the mountain, and to getting recognition for the oft-nameless Sherpas who are invaluable to visiting climbers.

And, Jones lets us meet Nims’s family, establishing a touching contrast between his apparent lack of fear and the feeling of failure that comes from being away from his ailing mother as he climbs.

14 Peaks will help you discover both a man and a mission. Separately, they’re pretty compelling. Together, they’re a force of nature.

I’m So Eggcited

Red Notice

by George Wolf

Heist Movie? Gal Gadot? I’m in.

Plus Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds.

I said I’m in! Sounds like a bunch of fun.

But somehow, it’s just not.

Johnson is FBI agent John Hartley, and he’s on the trail of Nolan Booth (Reynolds), the 2nd most wanted art thief in the world.

Who’s number 1? That would be The Bishop (Gadot), a mysterious criminal who always seems one step ahead of Booth in the quest to reunite three priceless jeweled eggs that Marc Antony once gave to Cleopatra. Yes, Cleopatra.

After a snappy, parkour-heavy chase to open the film, Hartley offers Booth the chance to move up to the top spot on Interpol’s Red Notice (highest level arrest warrant) list. All he has to do is help Hartley and the Feds nab The Bishop.

And the game is on!

Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence, Skyscraper) has assembled three charismatic A-listers for a globe-trotting adventure with glamourous locales, double crosses and a script full of quippy banter. And it takes barely thirty minutes to begin wondering how it all went wrong.

You would think that watching Gadot, Reynolds and Johnson do anything together would be at least a marginal hoot, but nobody seems comfortable. What chemistry there is feels forced, at best, and none of the three stars bring much beyond the personas they’ve earned in better films. Reynolds carries most of the comedic weight, but with schtick that’s nearly interchangeable from his two Hitman’s Bodyguard films, a stale odor appears early and often.

There are a few LOL moments, most notably Hartley and Booth arguing about Jurassic Park and the real Ed Sheeran showing up to fight some federal agents. But with direct references that include Indiana Jones and Vin Diesel, plus multiple outlandish wardrobe changes (Johnson can’t exactly buy off the rack, so who had the tailor made safari outfit?), Thurber ends up navigating an awkward space that teeters on spoof.

Is Red Notice really trying to launch a new action/comedy franchise? Or is it just riffing on the genre? Either way, it ends up on the naughty list. Even those two Hitmans Bodyguard films embrace their own ridiculousness to deliver some dumb, forgettable fun. Red Notice manages two out of those three, and that ain’t good.

New Travel Agent Wanted

Beckett

by George Wolf

The jury may still be out on the level of acting chops passed from Denzel to John David Washington, but Beckett proves once again JDW can handle a physically taxing role as well as anybody in the business.

He’s taxed early and often as the titular man on the run in Netflix’s Beckett, a moderately satisfying throwback to political thrillers of the 1970s.

While on a “get far, far away from it all” vacation in the mountains of Greece with girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander), Beckett loses control of their car on a steep curve. Crashing through the door of a remote home below, Beckett catches a glimpse of something he’s not meant to, and the threats on his life soon begin.

The local police tell Beckett that April is dead, but they won’t let him see her body, which is the least lethal reason he quickly realizes these cops can’t be trusted. The U.S. embassy in Athens is hours away even by car, but Beckett sets out on foot to beg, borrow and fight his way to safety – and the answer to why he’s a marked man.

As capably as Washington handles the action, he’s never quite able to get Beckett’s frantic paranoia to a level that rings true. And once he gets help from a determined activist (Vicky Krieps), the bad guys become easier to spot and the lack of overall intensity brings a sluggish feel.

Director/co-writer Ferdinando Cito Filomarino delivers some picturesque and well-staged set pieces, but the political conspiracy that’s brewing underneath wears thin despite worthy intentions. The point about how easily anyone can become a marginalized pawn in the game becomes a bit frayed, lost in workmanlike global thriller threads.

The Whole World Is Watching

The Trial of the Chicago 7

by Hope Madden

Oscar winning, much beloved and frequently frustrating writer Aaron Sorkin first ducked behind the camera for the clever if overwritten 2017 indulgence Molly’s Game.

A courtroom drama (very Sorkin) about celebrity tabloid fodder (less Sorkin-like), the film seemed an odd match for the filmmaker. He’s found a much more comfortable focus in his follow up, the tale of eight defendants, their counsel, prosecution, and a corrupt establishment: The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Chicago 7 artfully and urgently recreates the scene of the federal court hearing against eight defendants alleged to have conspired to incite the infamous riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The film rings with historical significance as well as disheartening immediacy. It is another courtroom drama, this one benefitting from surprising restraint, as well as Sorkin’s deep well of passion for the subjects of legal processes and liberalism. Like Ave DuVernay’s 2014 masterpiece Selma, Sorkin’s new film details the past to show us the present.

He’s assembled a remarkable ensemble, each actor leaving an impression though none gets an abundance of screen time. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a blistering Bobby Seale while Frank Langella is infuriatingly believable as Judge Julius Hoffman. Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mark Rylance are all also excellent, as you might expect.

Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen share a comfortable, enjoyable chemistry as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, respectively. Both appear in the film, as they did in life, as the wise-cracking comic relief in the room, but Cohen’s turn is thoughtful, wise, and slightly tragic. He’s obviously a talent, but this may be the first time we’ve seen the magnitude of his acting prowess.

An alarmingly relevant look at the power of due process, free speech, and justice, Chicago 7 is catapulted by more than the self-righteousness that sometimes weights down Sorkin’s writing. This is outrage, even anger, as well as an urgent optimism about the possibilities in human nature and democracy.

If I may quote my own review of Molly’s Game and my take on Sorkin as a filmmaker:

His are dialogue-driven character pieces where brilliant people throw intellectual and moral challenges at one another while the audience wonders whether the damaged protagonist’s moral compass can still find true north.

Still the case. But with Chicago 7, Sorkin’s struck a balance. He’s found a story and convened a cast that demand and receive his very best, because The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a story about today, this minute.

Save a Prayer

The Devil All the Time

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“Lord knows where a person who ain’t saved might end up.”

Indeed. The constant fight to overcome the worst in ourselves lies at the heart of The Devil All the Time, director Antonio Campos’s darkly riveting realization of Donald Ray Pollock’s best-selling novel.

Bookended by the close of World War II and the escalation in Vietnam, the film connects the fates of various characters living in the small rural towns of Southern Ohio and West Virginia.

Arvin (Tom Holland), the son of a disturbed WWII vet (Bill Skarsgård), fights to protect his sister (Eliza Scanlen) while he ponders his future. Husband and wife serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) look for hitchhikers to degrade, photograph and murder. A new small town preacher (Robert Pattinson) displays a special interest in the young girls of his congregation.

It’s a star studded affair—Mia Wasikowska, Haley Bennett and Sebastian Stan joining as well—but every actor blends into the woodsy atmosphere with a sense of unease that permeates the air. No stars here, all character actors in service of the film’s unsettling calling.

Pollock’s prose created a dizzyingly bleak landscape where Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy might meet to quietly ponder man’s inhumanity to man. Campos unlocks that world courtesy of Pollock himself, who narrates the film’s depravity with a backwoods folksiness that makes it all the more chilling.

As rays of light are constantly snuffed out by darkness, Campos (who also co-wrote the screenplay) uses Pollock’s voice and contrasting soundtrack song choices to create a perverse air of comfort.

Redemption is a slippery aim in and around Knockemstiff, Ohio, and grace is even harder to come by. With a heavier hand, this film would have been a savage beating or a backwoods horror of the most grotesque kind. Campos and his formidable ensemble deliver Pollock’s tale with enough understatement and integrity to cut deeply, unnerving your soul and leaving a well-earned scar.

The Snack that Smiles Back

Okja

by Hope Madden

That lovely period of youth, close enough to childhood to be magical, near enough to adulthood to be tinged with longing – it’s that moment where people like Spielberg made their greatest mark.

Filmmaker Joon-ho Bong takes us there with the story of a super pig – a genetically engineered and yet utterly adorable hippo-like beastie bred to feed a lot of people cheaply – and her best friend.

If you haven’t seen the films of Joon-ho Bong, you should. All of them. Repeatedly.

This versatile Korean filmmaker is as comfortable with dystopian fantasy as he is creature features, with dark family dramas as police procedurals. Whatever he makes, he edges it curiously with humor and shadows with a bit of horror. It’s a heady mix, but in Bong’s hands, it never ceases to satisfy.

In this case, we tag along as Korean farm girl Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) wiles away days in the rural mountains with Okja. Ten years earlier, the Mirando corporation left the tiny piglet with Mija’s farmer grandfather. It’s now time for the company to take her back.

What opens as a beautiful story of magical childhood friendship a la E.T. or some kind of live-action Miyazaki film turns, in Act 2, into something far darker. Once Tilda Swinton (glorious – and playing twins!) and Mirando Corp come calling, Okja becomes satire of the most broad and brutal sort.

Though Bong peppers the prolog with a couple F-bombs, there’s still no way to be ready for the pivot his film makes. Not every actor is prepared for the shift, either.

Swinton – so breathtakingly brilliant in Bong’s 2013 flick Snowpiercer (Be a shoe!) – is characteristically fascinating as Mirando’s mogul, and Paul Dano offers a startlingly unpredictable eco-terrorist.

The generally reliable Jake Gyllenhaal can’t seem to nail his part, kind of a Jack Hannah patterned after a crackhead version of Richard Simmons. It’s less interesting than it sounds.

Otherwise, though, the collision of styles and gut punch of a third act guarantee that the film will stick with you.

Okja is the first film in which Bong clearly states a prescribed purpose, rather than simply writing and directing a fine, if politically astute, film. That doesn’t take away from his movie’s power, and only cements his position as a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Verdict-3-5-Stars