Monday, February 8, 2010

No Business Like Snow Business

By Elise Nakhnikian

Ah, winter. Some people head out in the snow to ski or snowboard or climb a mountain. And some of us go to the theater and watch movies about those crazies out there in the cold.

This month, we’ve got two Xtreme Winter movies to choose between. The art house version is North Face, a heavily fictionalized but often harrowingly realistic telling of a true story. The popcorn one is Frozen, the latest from director Adam Green (Hatchet), who aspires to nothing more – or less – than pure genre entertainment.

North Face is about two childhood friends – Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) – from a small town in Germany. Lifelong climbers, they headed to the Eiger in the summer of 1936, where mountaineers from around the world were competing to be the first to climb its notorious north face.

It’s also the story of a fictional character, Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), Andi and Toni’s lifelong friend and Toni’s kind-of girlfriend. An aspiring photojournalist, Luise gets her big break when her editor, Henry Arau (the excellent Ulrich Tukur, wasted here), brings her to Switzerland to photograph the event. A subplot about two Austrian climbers who glom onto Toni and Andi, ruining their chances of getting to the top, is also fictionalized: Kurz and Hinterstoisser planned from the start to climb with the Austrians.

The movie does some things very well. Watching Andi and Toni stride through a town after scaling the mountain that towers over it, their ropes and other relatively crude tools slung over their backs, you can guess how tame and overcivilized their surroundings must appear to them now. Kolja Brandt’s cinematography establishes the Eiger as a beautiful but merciless antagonist. Footage of the climbers from a distance remind us just how puny they are in comparison, and shots of them asleep on a narrow ledge or lowering an injured comrade down a steep slope almost gave me vertigo.

Fürmann is convincing as a reluctant action hero. Wiry and intense, his cheekbones and abs as chiseled as the mountain he scales, he could be the love child of Roy Scheider and Buster Keaton. As Luise, the luminously open Wokalek mediates between him and the audience, letting us can feel some of the emotions Toni is too stoic – or frostbitten – to convey.

But the movie gets in trouble whenever it gets horizontal. The frequent references to the Nazis who were then ruling Germany have a “protesting too much” feel. The filmmakers imply that the evil was confined to the big cities, and they idealize small-town Germans almost as much as Hitler did.

Other things, like the frequent cuts between mountaineers roughing it at base camp and the fat cats watching them from a luxurious lodge, feel overdone or amateurish, a child’s rendering of adult life. And why are we spending so much time with Arau and Luise? I don’t care what’s going on in the lodge; show me what’s happening on that mountain.

Which brings us to Frozen. This one starts strong as three good-looking American kids – Dan (Kevin Zegers), Joe (Shawn Ashmore), and Parker (Emma Bell) – bribe their way onto a ski lift, sparring all the way (Joe is jealous of Dan’s girlfriend Parker, who is coming between the two old friends.) Then the ski lift gets turned off and the resort’s staff goes home for the week, unaware that the three were left hanging, yards up in the air.

That sounds like a decent set-up for a “what would I do?” movie, one of those cathartically scary stories about more or less regular people stuck in nightmarish scenarios. But Frozen commits the same mistake as Open Water, focusing too much on the bickering and bonding between characters who just aren't that interesting.

Apparently they loved this one at Sundance, but then Sundance audiences often go crazy for something that leaves the rest of us (wait for it) cold. The serious setbacks these three experience at regular intervals play out like a series of set pieces, most of which seem to leave no lingering side effects.

It was bad enough when both Parker and Joe had horrible things happen to their hands but didn’t seem to feel any lasting pain or lose any noticeable functioning ability as a result. But they really lost me after (spoiler alert – skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happened) Dan got horribly injured and then died. Maybe we’re supposed to think he went into shock – he did say he lost all feeling in the injured parts. But he seemed way too alert and pain-free for someone who had just suffered such a gross trauma, making the scene feel cartoonish even before his over-the-top death.

Like a narcoleptic struggling to stay awake, I kept losing touch with the physical and mental agony those kids were going through as they seesawed from sobs to small talk -- and those insights and chills are the whole point of a movie like this. We armchair mountaineers may not want to risk our lives, but we do want to know how it might feel if we did.

North Face scratches that itch better than Frozen, but you can do a lot better than either one – and you don’t even need to leave home. To burrow deep inside the minds of a couple of men fighting for their lives on a merciless mountain, just pour a cup of your favorite beverage, break out the chenille throw, and pop in a DVD of Touching the Void.

1 comment:

  1. I recently saw Touching the Void and find it has really stuck with me. I avoided it when it first came out, because I usually don't enjoy the "explorer adventure" type of film, but this one was really something more than heroics and scenery. Profound, I might even say.