Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal

Director: Baltasar Kormákur

Writers: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy

I’m a big fan of real-life survival stories, especially when they feature great feats of exploration and conquest. One of my favourites is that of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates whose unbelievable tale was stupendously captured by the Kevin Macdonald documentary Touching the Void. Even if the tale doesn’t end in the characters’ survival, I still think there’s something admirable in the idea of men and women venturing forth into unknown dangers and giving their lives in the name of progress and discovery. The tale of Robert Scott’s ill-fated voyage to the South Pole, as encapsulated by The Great White Silence, is one that I think embodies man’s remarkable capacity for bravery, endurance and adventure. These tales, when done well, can provide profound demonstrations of the awesome power of nature and of the indomitable human spirit. This film seeks to do just that by telling the tale of the unfortunate troop that dared to attempt one of nature’s greatest challenges, Mount Everest.

In May 1996 Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) leads an expedition up Mount Everest that is to end in disaster. His troop includes Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a mountaineering veteran, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), an ordinary man attempting an extraordinary feat, and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who seeks to complete her quest to climb the Seven Summits. Their expedition coincides with that of Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose strenuous methods contrast with Rob’s handholding attitude. Amongst the dangers these groups face are the unpredictable weather conditions, the high-altitude illnesses and the aptly named ‘death zone’, the point at which human life becomes unsustainable. The one point that these guides cannot stress enough is that Everest is a great, powerful, untameable beast and that their lives are going to be in danger every step of the way. Their best chance of survival is to remain vigilant, work together and to not underestimate the mountain. Sometimes, however, even that is not enough, as these parties would soon learn.

Unfortunately Everest was not the harrowing tale of the human spirit that was promised but there is nevertheless a lot that it does well. The one thing in particular that really stood out for me was the mountain itself. Through the use of excellent cinematography and well-used 3D technology, the film was able to portray Mount Everest in all of its majesty and grandness. The sheer size and powerful presence of this mountain drives home the awe-inspiring nature of this voyage and the foreboding challenges that come with it. I can only imagine how this film must have looked in IMAX! The film also does a good job in the exposition stage as it establishes the nature of this mountain and details the many threats to be faced by the climbers. The disaster itself is also unnerving to watch, especially when it becomes abundantly clear that some of the climbers are not going to survive. Watching the way that some of these characters simply drop out of the picture without a word or even a whimper, never to be seen again, has a chillingly unsettling effect.

However where this film falls short is in the characters themselves. The simple problem is that there are far too many of them and not enough time to give them all the exposure and development that they require. Some manage to leave an impression such as Clarke as the passionate yet precautious Rob and Brolin as the determinedly brash Beck. Keira Knightly as Rob’s wife Joan also manages to give a surprisingly effective performance considering what little screen time she has. For the rest of the ensemble though there simply isn’t much to hold on to. The characters end up distinguishing themselves more by star power than by personality. When the disaster actually struck the only reason I could recognise who was who was because I recognised the actors playing them. This ended up having a detaching effect on me as I struggled to empathise with their anguishes.

Overall this film succeeds in portraying the imposing sovereignty of nature as personified by Mount Everest, but not in depicting the inspiring robustness of the human heart. In other words it delivers on the technical aspects but not on the emotion. The disaster that befalls Everest is as powerful as it is devastating and is a spectacle to watch. However the people on the ground who fall victim to this calamity ultimately amount to little more than bodies in the snow. There are perhaps one or two individuals whose losses I did feel, but the others simply didn’t register with me. I think it might be the Pearl Harbour effect where a film gets so caught up with the disaster that it forgets about the tragedy, although certainly not to the same degree. Some moments were moving enough that I cannot accuse this film of being emotionally empty. However it simply doesn’t have enough of the anguishing sorrow, the rousing endurance and the poignant inspiration that a film like this should have.


Irrational Man

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley

Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen

Woody Allen is to screenwriting what John Williams is to music or Meryl Streep is to acting; at this point he can write an Oscar-worthy screenplay in his sleep. Even if the film he makes isn’t as great or as groundbreaking as Annie Hall, Manhattan or Midnight in Paris, more often than not there will be something in it that’s worthwhile to watch. At his best Allen can offer a film that is intelligent without being pretentious, casual without being dull, and hilarious without being silly. He is very good at offering stories with original yet simple concepts and at discussing complex themes and ideas in a smart yet accessible way. Even after four decades of writing and directing great and innovative films, he is still able to find new and interesting stories to tell. His latest offering Irrational Man is not one of his best but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to enjoy or to get drawn into. Even when he’s being generic Allen is still able to craft a smart and enjoyable film that is well worth watching.

The story of Irrational Man is told from the perspectives of Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), a tortured philosophy professor whose turbulent life and radically pessimistic ideas have rendered him without any sense of purpose or motivation in life, and Jill (Emma Stone), an eager philosophy student who is drawn and attracted to Abe’s brilliant mind and tormented psyche. They form a bond with each other that appeals to both Abe’s bleak search for meaning and to Jill’s romanticised desires. Their escapades eventually lead them to a chance encounter that invigorates a new sense of purpose into Abe’s life. He is suddenly presented with an objective that awakens a long-forgotten sense of passion and enthusiasm; it is a purpose that is in and of itself both misguided and depraved (and yes, irrational as well) but which he nevertheless pursues with a newfound sense of fulfilment.

The film for the most part is typical Woody Allen. The characters often engage each other in debates on philosophy but do so in ways that don’t feel dull or ostentatious. Allen has never been one for self-indulgence; he merely depicts clever characters who discuss intellectual topics in ways that feels nonchalant and natural. Irrational Man is no different. The film also contains that Woody Allen quirkiness that allows him to depict a story with quite a twisted concept in a laidback and comedic way. Phoenix has pretty much made his name playing eccentric and unstable characters and so Abe naturally fits him like a glove. He is able to play the character in the erratic and unhinged manner that he knows how to do well and the chemistry he shares with Stone feels authentic and sincere. Stone for her part does well playing a capable yet credulous student whose romanticised inclinations are just as misguided as Abe’s resolute purpose.

However, as much as I enjoyed this film, I still don’t think it rates as one of Allen’s best. There are parts when I felt the dialogue was too on-the-nose and I felt that narrations of both of the main characters were for the most part unnecessary. Allen’s greatest strength is usually his dialogue but oftentimes he can be accused of taking it too far by stating things that simply don’t need to be stated (or at least don’t need to be stated directly). I was also somewhat off-put by Parker Poesy’s character Rita, who I felt was out of place in this story. I wasn’t sure what point her character was meant to serve and her inclusion felt more like an afterthought to me. I do think that Posey played the character just fine, I just don’t think her presence really brought anything to the story. Jamie Blackley at least has a clear role to serve as Roy, Jill’s all-round decent boyfriend who becomes jealous and even hurt by her growing attachment to Abe. His role doesn’t amount to much more than that, but at least its something.

This film may for the most part be a generic Woody Allen film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Allen remains one of the most gifted and intelligent screenwriters in Hollywood and so even a generic screenplay by him is going to be worthy of praise. Irrational Man offers a lot for the audience to enjoy from interesting characters to an offbeat story to intelligent and absorbing dialogue. The way that Allen is able to portray the story of a deeply disturbed man who embarks on a perverse journey in a way that comes across as reserved and quirky shows that he has still indeed got it and is in no danger of becoming inapt or irrelevant anytime soon. Irrational Man is smart, funny and engaging and is a fine addition to Woody Allen’s considerable body of work.