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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Susan Granger at the Movies: ‘Everest,’ ‘Grandma,’ ‘Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials’

By Susan Granger

I’m terrified riding the chairlift at Vermont’s Stratton Mountain, so climbing the world’s highest mountain in the Himalayas was never on my bucket list. And I suspect that watching “Everest,” a terrifying, ultimately tragic trek should discourage others.

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Riffing off Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” screenwriters William Nicholson (“Unbroken”) and Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”), director Baltasar Kromakur (‘2 Guns”) and cinematographers Salvatore Totino (“The Da Vinci Code”) and Kent Harvey (“Lone Survivor”) focus on the nerve-wracking conditions that led to the death of eight climbers on May 10, 1996.

Cautious, compassionate Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) runs a mountaineering outfit called Adventure Consultants, along with his logistics coordinator (Emily Watson) and fellow guide (Sam Worthington).  Back home in New Zealand, Rob’s wife (Keira Knightley) is pregnant with their first child.

Hall’s clients include Krakauer (Michael Kelly), writing a travel article; Texas pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), who paid $65,000 for the trip and communicates with his wife (Robin Wright); Seattle mailman Doug Hansen (John Kawkes), tackling the summit for a second time to inspire schoolchildren; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a Japanese woman who has ascended six of Earth’s seven major peaks.

Rival guides are leading another group up on the same day: genial, gung-ho American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose Seattle-based firm is called Mountain Madness, and mucho-macho Russian Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Sigurdsson).

“It’s not the altitude, it’s the attitude,” Fischer insists.

Embarking from Katmandu, Nepal’s congested capital, they traverse gaping crevasses on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. But once they get up to Hillary’s Step, the final 40-foot wall that’s approachable only by a narrow, single-file path, overcrowding becomes a problem, particularly when they’re battered by an unexpectedly ferocious snowstorm.

While there’s continuing fascination with Everest, in my opinion, the Sherpas are really the unsung heroes. And “The last word always belongs with the mountain.”

FYI: While some filming was done in Nepal’s foothills, most took place in Italy’s Dolomites.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Everest” is an arduous, intensely atmospheric 8 - with spectacular, vertigo-inducing cinematography.

Paul Weitz’s idiosyncratic road movie “Grandma” revolves around Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin), a pensive poet and semi-retired academic who is still grieving for Violet, her partner for 30 years.

Elle’s day begins as she coldly dismisses much-younger Olivia (Judy Greer), with whom she’s had a four-month fling. Then Elle’s 18 year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) appears on her doorstep, asking for $600 to pay for an abortion scheduled for later that afternoon.

But Elle’s broke. She cannot use her credit cards since she cut them up and made a wind chime out of the plastic pieces, wryly explaining, “I’m transmogrifying my life into art.”

Since going to Sage’s brusque, judgmental businesswoman mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is out of the question, they climb into Violet’s ’55 Dodge Royal Lancer and begin driving around Los Angeles, trying to scrounge up cash.

First stop is to shake-down the weasel (Nat Wolff) who got Sage pregnant. Then Elle tries to sell feminist first-editions to a bookstore/cafe owner (Elizabeth Pena) and retrieve a loan from a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox). Most memorable among those they visit is Karl (Sam Elliott), who has never forgiven or forgotten Elle.

Written and directed by Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”), it’s a quirky character study, a comedic drama that’s perfectly tailored for Lily Tomlin’s talents. She obviously understands angry, misanthropic Elle.

“I’ve never really been the star of a movie,” Tomlin says, even though Time magazine featured her on its cover back in 1977, proclaiming her the “new queen of comedy.”

On the Granger Gauge, “Grandma” is an acerbic, insightful 7 - for Tomlin’s peppery performance.

Starting where “Maze Runner” (2014) ended, “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” re-introduces Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his fellow survivors from The Glade: Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Frypan (Dexter Darden), among others, being helicoptered to a heavily fortified, remote outpost.

Greeted upon arrival by Janson (Aidan Gillen), they’re told they’re told they’re safe. But their serenity is obliterated when Thomas is alerted by skeptical Aris (Jacob Lofland), an escapee from a different Maze.

Working for a mysterious, paramilitary organization, Janson is supervising a top-secret laboratory in which blood from those who are immune to a virus called The Flare is harvested to find a cure.

They escape across a post-apocalyptic desert called The Scorch, inhabited by vicious zombies called Cranks, heading for the far-off mountains to join a resistance group called the Right Hand. En route, they’re befriended by profiteering Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and his protégé Brenda (Rosa Salazar).

Episodically adapted by T.S. Nowlin, who has made significant changes to James Dashner’s YA novels, it’s predictably directed by Wes Ball, blatantly borrowing from “Alien,” “Divergent” and other similar sci-fi features, while touching on the perennial theme of whether the end justifies the means.

Is it ever justifiable to sacrifice a segment of the population in an experiment to save the many? And when does civil responsibility triumph over individual rights?

Burdened by the lack of a backstory and devoid of character development, minimalist actors Dylan O’Brien and Kaya Scodelario simply react to circumstances, exhibiting little emotional range, making Thomas and Teresa less likeable this time ‘round.

Aiden Gillen (TV’s “Game of Thrones”) is a duplicitous villain, and Patricia Clarkson’s appearance indicates that menacing Dr. Ava Paige didn’t really die in the first film.

On the Granger Gauge, “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” is a derivative, filler 5, ending with a formulaic cliffhanger.

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( Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)


Posted 09/24/15 at 07:25 PM  Permalink


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