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Michael Angelo Covino, Kyle Marvin

 

“THE CLIMB”  My rating: A- (Opens  Nov. 20 at the Glenwood Arts)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The gold standard for great first features is  Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” No contest.

Among runners up, though, one might well consider Michael Angelo Covino’s “The Climb,” a droll dissection of a toxic friendship that, even when it’s traversing familiar territory, speaks in its own unique voice.

Written by Covino and Kyle Marvin — and starring the two as best friends Mike and Kyle — “The Climb” is a full-length film shot in fewer than a dozen takes.  Which means that the picture is virtually without cuts. D.p. Zach Kuperstein served as a one-man crew, personally carrying the camera through astoundingly complex tracking shots that sometimes involved dozens of actors.

Single-take movies are not unknown, but unlike the recent “Birdman” and “1917,” “The Climb” hasn’t the budget for a tech-intensive post-production polish. What you see here is what happened; in only one brief instance does it appear Covino and Kuperstein relied on CG to achieve a particularly difficult shot. And I’m not sure even of that.

The  bar is set high with the very first scene. Old buddies Mike and Kyle are pedaling their racing bikes up a mountain in France.  Mike, the more experienced rider, is pep-talking his out-of-shape pal  into meeting the challenges of the climb.

Kyle’s mind isn’t focused on the ride; he is looking forward to his impending marriage to Ava, a French woman.

“I don’t have to change for her,” he says between deep breathes. “She loves me for who I am.”

Seconds later Mike casually announces that he’s slept with Ava. In fact, he still is. And without missing a beat he advises Kyle:
“Switch gears. You need to pedal at a steady cadence.”

This nine-minute scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. First, it is shot in one take (I assume the camera was mounted on the rear of a truck). Second, it establishes Mike as a perennial screwup. Even when he’s trying to be honest — he feels obligated to warn Kyle of his fiancé’s faithlessness — it’s motivated by selfishness.

Over the next 90 minutes we will follow Mike and Kyle’s off-and-on friendship.  “Off” because in the wake of their bike ride Mike marries Ava (French film star Judith Godreche) and Kyle, understandably enough, wants nothing to do with him; “on” because when Ava dies the good-hearted Kyle shows up to support his grief-ravaged friend. ‘Cause that’s the kind of guy he is.

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