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Arts Film Review

New films: Everest, Black Mass, Maze Runner The Scorch Trials


I took a writing hiatus for a couple of weeks as we hosted the 16th Annual Sacramento Film & Music Festival, but several of this week’s opening films had non-conflicting press schedules and these three were all films I was looking forward to. Sadly, I won’t look back on them as fondly as I had looked forward to them.

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

(Exclusively in IMAX release for one week prior to opening wide.)

“Everest” is a dramatized but largely factual account of the 1996 climbing season on the world’s highest mountain, during which several people died. As such, it’s full who, what, where and when but it falls short on the why. It’s hard to know quite which parts of the screenplay have been trimmed but as recently as a month or two ago, the running time (still a robust two hours) was listed online at 30 minutes longer.

Whatever disappeared, the lack of explanation is a problem here. It’s fascinating to watch the process and preparation of an attempt to summit Everest, not for its grueling skillset and technical rigor, but for the relative lack thereof. This isn’t a technical climb – it’s a brutal trudge up pre-strung lines and across pre-set ladder bridges in a frigid low oxygen environment that’s unforgiving of mistakes and delays. The “climbers” we see here aren’t all experts – most are adventure clientele who’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars to be guided to the summit and back, alongside reporters present to describe the experience.

Travel packages of this kind, as well as deaths, have become commonplace enough that recent estimates list as many as 200 dead bodies scattered across the mountain and deep in ravines. So many hundreds of hopeful bucket-listers have reached the higher camps, where no rules exist regarding the removal of human waste, that Everest base camp (which sits below a rapidly moving ice pack that transports everything downhill) is now reportedly a literal waste-land and it’s said to be hard to walk through the upper camps without stepping on human feces.

It’s not that reaching the summit isn’t hard – it is, it’s very hard in terms of sheer physical exertion. The last portion above the last camp is sufficiently high that most people require constant tanked oxygen (another source of trash over the years) and it’s an uninterrupted day of constant movement in conditions better suited for freeze-drying meat than for human endeavor. And this is why timing is so crucial – any delay limits chances for success as the limits of exposure and energy are stretched. Standing in line at the post office is annoying, standing in line near the summit of Everest is deadly.

And Everest has become crowded. In 1996, multiple teams attempted to summit on the same day and resources were stretched so thin, including oxygen tanks and the capacity of the local Sherpa crews to transport gear (and high maintenance clientele), that ropes weren’t pre-placed, tanks weren’t where they were expected to be, and when the weather turned for the worse, there was no room for such margins of error.

All of which is interesting to watch but likely to result in audiences thinking the folks depicted were just unlucky or not quite physically ready – rather than victims of crowding and insufficient coordination of resources. It’s beautiful to watch in places, as well as tragic, but the visuals are quite inconsistent. It’s obviously impossible to film in the conditions being depicted but the transitions are noticeable. I was reminded of the recent “A Walk in the Woods” in which, in one segment, the two leads appear to fall off the Appalachian Trail into a small studio set.

The acting in “Everest” is solid across a large speaking cast, including multiple cast members holding steady non-native accents. It’s also an interesting apparent change in scale for production company Walden Media, which started out only a dozen or so years ago, focused primarily on adaptations of classic titles from children’s literature (an early example being “Holes” followed by many others, including the “Narnia” films).

If I knew absolutely nothing about the circumstances depicted or the generally deplorable conditions surrounding both past and current attempts at the world’s highest peak, I might have enjoyed “Everest.” Instead I was disappointed how little of that explanation was there and I’m curious as to what was cut out.


It’s a welcome change to see Johnny Depp return to acting, creating a multidimensional character rather than a caricature, as notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger in “Black Mass.” Bulger’s South Boston territory and dominion were relatively limited when he struck a deal with FBI agents so desperate to bring down the Italian mob that they were willing to turn a blind eye to almost anything Bulger and his crew did. What followed was years of crime activity up to and including multiple murders, with little or no intervention by the authorities. The problem with the film itself is that, for such an epic run of violence and scheming, the onscreen story has very little tension or suspense. That might be intentional as Bulger goes about his killings as routinely as you or I might buy bread – but the end result is surprisingly bland. The other thing that kept taking me out of the action was Depp’s makeup as the aging, thin-haired (apparently 50 separate increasingly thinning wigs were used in the production) and lighter-eyed-than-Depp Bulger. I felt like I was watching him play an older version of his vampire Barnabas Collins from “Dark Shadows” or perhaps giving us an even stranger sequel as “Edward Gunhands.” Several of his recent roles have seemed to be more about appearance than performance and here we seemed to get an awkward blend of both.

I enjoyed last year’s “The Maze Runner” but almost everything I liked about the first film in the series, in its intimate, enclosed, and constrained environment, is changed in the second installment. “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” opens up into a larger world of conflict, intrigue, competition and multiple plot influences. It’s like the “Eragon” of post-apocalyptic stories, with scene after scene that are reminiscent of other stories. Suddenly we’ve got bodies being harvested, zombies, derelict cityscapes, barren deserts, drug-fueled raves, and rebels hiding in the mountains. And it shifts from out-thinking the circumstances of the Glade, in an elaborate test, to making repeatedly awful choices. There’s a scene in one of the “Twilight” movies (no good can come from a “Twilight” comparison…) where the central characters are playing baseball in a clearing and the dialog goes something like “Our main advantage now is strength in numbers … let’s split up!” Similarly, in “The Scorch Trials,” the group survives being seen from above by hiding under the remnants of an old highway as one character observes that “They’re never going to stop looking.” Then, moments later, they slowly walk up the most open and exposed sand dune in sight. And none of this really seems to get us very far. As with “Insurgent,” the second in the “Divergent” series, it feels (in advance) as though one could skip from Part 1 to Part 3 without missing too much in terms of the group’s dynamics, needing perhaps just a five minute primer in some skipped-over plot developments. Looking back, another line that stuck with me (and which almost made me giggle as it occurred) was when a character said (paraphrased) “I never thought I’d say this but I miss the Glade.” I felt the same way.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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