Archive for January 2012

The Grey

January 29, 2012

A certain segment of the audience will want The Grey to be about Liam Neeson punching wolves in the throat for two hours. They’re not wrong — that would be a lovely, absurd film — but the actual movie is more of a bleak tone poem about modern man versus nature. Neeson plays, once again, a man with a very particular set of skills: he’s a sniper who picks off wolves so that they don’t maul the guys on an oil-drilling job in Alaska. Depressed one evening, he sticks the barrel of his rifle in his mouth, then seems to think better of it when he hears a wolf howl. That comes to be a familiar sound, because when Neeson’s plane goes down en route to Anchorage, the wolves are a near-constant presence, circling Neeson and the handful of other crash survivors, waiting.

Visually, The Grey is harsh and drab, aside from a few coruscating shots of a freezing river against a backdrop of white mountains. But even that image squashes the men down to size. They don’t belong here; the wolves do. There’s no human civilization in sight; Neeson wearily advises the other men not to pin their hopes on being rescued — “Unless you want to freeze to death. That will come for you.” Director Joe Carnahan and his cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi emphasize the sharp cold and grinding discomfort of the journey. More often than not, the men are imperiled not by hungry wolves but by their own terrible luck bashing up against the remorseless physics of outdoor survival.

At times, the movie could just as well be acted out on a stage, as the men talk about their lives and their loved ones. This is the soul of The Grey, an existentialist thriller in which Liam Neeson faces down the void of God. He commands God, in less polite language: Never mind faith — earn it. Do something; show yourself. The answer is silence. Thus a Bergmanesque despair creeps around the edges of what’s being marketed as a survival action flick. One of the men becomes weighed down by the meaningless sadness of what awaits him if, by dazzling fortune, he should actually happen to survive and return to what passes for his normal life. The Grey is a hard slog and a bummer. I can’t say I was sorry it was over. But it also has the stark purity of an icicle; it earns my respect if not my love.

The dialogue is a bit overexplicit here and there, and the action (especially a bit where the men cross a divide between a cliff and a tree) feels somewhat makeshift. Ultimately, The Grey shakes out as more of a spiritual drama, the spirit simply being the will — or lack thereof — to live in the face of vast futility. The wolves might as well be bears, or cancer, or faulty car brakes. They’re not the villains; the wild is their home, and the plane crash has delivered them some unexpected dinners. Take the wolves out of the equation and you still have an environment that tests human endurance at every turn. Narratively, The Grey is a little amorphous, with an ambiguous ending (a post-credits bit doesn’t clarify matters). It leaves us with some not entirely happy thoughts about humans and our role in the universe; the silence of the movie’s God echoes like a dark bell.


January 23, 2012

Hemingway might have called Haywire clean and hard and true — true in the sense of a bullet finding its home. You’ve seen the story before, but it moves, and director Steven Soderbergh approaches it as another one of his experiments in the mainstream; every shot is compelling without calling attention to itself. In a simple dialogue scene, we follow the motion of the heroine, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), as she puts things on shelves — the camera stays on her at the top shelf, then dips with her to the middle shelf, then down to the bottom shelf. That sticks in my head, though the dialogue doesn’t. It’s just as well. Mallory is a covert-op agent who’s been double-crossed. Many of the men she meets will try to kill her. That’s really the gist of the film, and Soderbergh boils it down to its essence.

A mixed martial-arts fighter, Carano makes her acting debut in Haywire. As he did with former porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh uses Carano as a found object, a non-actress who has, as Liam Neeson put it in Taken, a very particular set of skills. These women carry themselves differently from most women; their bodies speak eloquently of physical experience (and excess) beyond the rest of us. Carano is small but not tiny (five-foot-eight), muscular but not beefy, and she uses her taller adversaries’ weight and height against them, jumping up onto their backs and squeezing their throats hard. The men topple like trees, one by one. With standard gun-toting cops she doesn’t have to kill, Mallory is somewhat gentler — just a punch or two, and they topple nicely. (This is the movie that should have been called The Iron Lady.)

Soderbergh has built an entire movie around this woman and her ability to get into (and win) vicious fights without a lot of cheating in the editing bay. The battles play out in long shot, and David Holmes’ groovy retro score shuts the hell up once the fists start flying, so we can hear the realistic pounding. The hits sound and look painful — some of them couldn’t have been faked, and I felt sorry for such actors as Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Ewan McGregor, who probably put in a few weeks of training for their confrontations with Carano but clearly aren’t in her league. Again, it’s the physical eloquence: the men act their moves, sometimes passably; Carano isn’t acting. Unfortunately, that extends to her non-fighting scenes. Carano speaks in a hard flat voice; her eyes don’t take the light, and every so often her discomfort shows. The actors, aside from a panicky dude (Michael Angarano) Mallory sort of kidnaps, compensate by lowering their energy level around her. When Ewan McGregor, say, gets to act opposite Michael Douglas instead of Carano, his relief is palpable — he can now play a scene.

But then the movie isn’t primarily about acting, is it? I suppose Haywire is, on paper, no different from many Asian martial-arts films, or even a few American ones (like, say, the ’90s filmography of Cynthia Rothrock), that put a shaky actress but unquestionable fighting master front and center. But Soderbergh takes the opportunity to write a trim visual essay on attack and retreat. Going back to that shelf scene: the important thing isn’t the exposition but the sense we get that Mallory yearns for a peaceful, orderly place to call home. She’s an expert in her field, and she doesn’t necessarily want to leave it — she’s just tired of dealing with corrupt men. Aside from a brief exchange between McGregor and Fassbender (“I’ve never done a woman before.” “Don’t think of her as a woman; that would be a mistake”), the movie treats a killer woman as a complete non-issue and non-novelty, and thankfully we don’t get the false sense that she does what she does out of some shamefully unfeminine flaw. She isn’t rebelling against or trying to impress Daddy; indeed, Daddy (Bill Paxton) is a military-thriller writer who seems a bit awed by her. Of course, this also means Mallory has no shading, and no flaws at all aside from perhaps trusting the wrong people, but the film moves so ruthlessly and economically that it doesn’t matter much. It’s the sort of action-thriller that’s been done a billion times, but its severe, almost austere sense of purpose sets it apart.

The Iron Lady

January 14, 2012

From certain angles, Meryl Streep is almost unrecognizable as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Mostly it’s the teeth — those aggressive Thatcher choppers, snapping men and syllables in half, often at the same time. (Sometimes it’s also the old-age make-up, which in some scenes under dim lighting looks glaringly caked on.) Streep has some touching moments in the movie, when Thatcher is old and addled, hallucinating the presence of her long-dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). These scenes have a simple and basic power: she could be any old woman pining for her lost love, lost sanity, lost youth. But she isn’t any old woman — she’s Margaret Thatcher. And the movie, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, tries hard to locate the humanity in a public figure of whom Elvis Costello memorably sang, “When they finally put you in the ground/I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.” (Costello is still waiting; out of office twenty years now, Thatcher turned 86 last year.)

The Iron Lady is a bit confused. It celebrates Thatcher’s strength as a woman making a go of it in male-dominated politics, but seems to regret that it had to be this woman. Thatcher, who came from a humble working-class background, seemed to fetishize pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, which is fine unless you’re too poor to have bootstraps, or boots. Anyway, liberal feminists watching Thatcher being sneeringly debated by Liberal party members (photographed to look piggish and sexist, though at that point they’re denouncing her policies, not her gender) may feel a bit of dissonance. The film doesn’t seem all that interested in the things Thatcher said and did as Prime Minister; its heart is in the later scenes of loneliness, but the tone is so wobbly that I don’t know whether we’re meant to take pity on a suffering old person or take pleasure in her downfall.

Streep dominates, and Broadbent pops in to comfort or taunt from beyond the grave. Here and there, reliable farceurs like Richard E. Grant and Anthony Stewart Head show up, plotting or being humiliated; it’s a pity Michael Sheen couldn’t drag out his Tony Blair one more time, but whatever. Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed Streep in Mamma Mia) mainly sticks to the stately rhythms of a conventional biopic, with odd little shards of absurdity, including two separate uses of the doofus punk band Notsensibles’ single “I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher.” The mood, I think, would like to sidle up to half-admiration, half-satire, as in Ed Wood or The People Vs. Larry Flynt. But some of the scenes of old Thatcher wobbling around her bleak gray house, chasing after voices in other rooms that may or may not be real, are poised between tragedy and comedy in a way that might strike even Elvis Costello as cruel. The filmmakers haven’t come to any conclusion about Thatcher or, indeed, why they made a movie about her. Streep, in the political scenes, scrupulously acts Thatcher’s defiance in the abstract but doesn’t, or can’t, bring much conviction to what she’s actually saying.

In brief, the split between Thatcher the private person and Thatcher the politician isn’t dramatized or even comprehended. How someone from a working-class background goes on to become a person widely noted for her lack of compassion for the unemployed is well beyond this movie. And I hate to say it, but the device of gathering the splinters of an elderly person’s memories was handled with far more poetry in Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters — whose openly gay protagonist James Whale may have fashioned a tart rejoinder to Thatcher’s complaint “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” (If you’re waiting for Meryl Streep to deliver that line and still come off as a poignant figure in decline, you have a long wait in store — the movie neglects, among other things, the noxious and bigoted Section 28.) The Iron Lady is not in love with Margaret Thatcher, nor does it yearn to tramp the dirt down. It scatters some banalities about misunderstood powerful women, floats the notion that Thatcher was a different kind of feminist, then pulls back, then floats, then pulls back. The dithering becomes irritating. What’s next — an is-she-crazy-or-just-too-bold biopic of Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann?

The Devil Inside

January 8, 2012

Contrary to what you might hope, The Devil Inside is not a biopic about INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who died in 1997 under circumstances we shall not discuss. That would’ve been a more interesting movie, and possibly even a scarier one, than the film by that title currently in theaters. I’ll cut to the chase: Despite its opening-weekend gross of $34.5 million, The Devil Inside has already grown notorious for the widespread, quite vocal audience disappointment at its ending: booing, cries of “I want my money back!” My screening, I must report, was no different; one gentleman stood and delivered a two-word, unprintable capsule review — I was tempted to just go with that, but we do have a certain amount of space to fill here — while a woman offered rather plaintively, “Maybe if we wait, they’ll show another movie?” No, ma’am, they won’t.

In 1989, we are told, a woman named Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) killed two priests and a nun (rivalling the psychotic Krug in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, who’d killed two nuns and a priest) during an attempted exorcism at her house. An early news report we see, filed before the facts were in, characterizing this exorcism as “a church group” provides the one lonely bit of entertainment in the entire film. The Devil Inside is yet another mock-documentary, found-footage horror movie, which means we spend a lot of time wondering why the cameraman doesn’t just say — well, what the gentleman in my theater said — and run away. This intrepid, stupid cameraman tracks the journey of Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), the daughter of the woman with the triple murder rap. Maria is tucked away in a laughing academy in Rome, where, for fun, she carves crosses on her arms and generally behaves like every demon-possessed movie character of the last 39 years.

Isabella’s quest is to find out whether her mother is really possessed, and she enlists the help of two rogue priests who have sworn to perform unauthorized exorcisms on afflicted people the Vatican turns its back on. They mostly fumble about, looking at this reading or that, while the victim more or less dances on the ceiling and stops just short of going out like Michael Hutchence did. They first visit a possessed young woman played by someone who, I gather, is an impressive contortionist. Some Latin clears her right up. Then they visit Maria, a tougher nut to crack; whatever’s in her may have the ability to jump to another body. We know this because the word “transference” works its way into at least a dozen conversations, up to and including “Should we have Chinese or Italian take-out?”

Towards the miserable end, the itchy-footed demon hops from one person to another, and before the credits roll we are invited to visit for more information on this developing case. This is how the world ends: not with a bang or a whimper but with a URL. “Be part of the ongoing investigation,” the website tells us. Thank you, but no. I see a great many lame things on the site, but a proper ending to the film I and many millions paid to see is not among them. I see “Click below to discuss the case with others,” but I do not see “Click below to get your money back.” In the comments section, I see many credulous viewers (or webmasters posing as such) debating solemnly over whether the film’s events were real, but I do not see anyone responding as did the loudly unimpressed gentleman in my theater, who I now maintain is the most spontaneously honest film critic I have heard since Pauline Kael died. Well done, sir; I concur.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

January 1, 2012

The Mission Impossible film series has crossed the fifteen-year mark, and Tom Cruise is pushing fifty, but neither shows much strain in the new entry, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I’m tempted to say that this movie is what the franchise should have been all along: light-hearted, preposterous, and, most importantly, easy to follow. Here, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is after a man who wants to start a nuclear war between America and Russia. Oh, that old thing again. But the goal is refreshingly clear: stop this guy before he blows up everything. There are no double crosses, no tormented plotting. There’s the bad guy — go get him. I appreciate that.

The movie didn’t thrill me, exactly, but it’s absorbing. Half the film devotes itself to the ludicrously convoluted schemes Ethan and his IMF team — including ass-kicking Paula Patton, returning Simon Pegg, and shadowy Jeremy Renner — hatch in order to gain access to highly secure places. My favorite, used early on in Moscow, is a screen that covers a hallway and projects what a security guard is supposed to be seeing, while Cruise and Pegg hide behind it and move it forward a few feet every minute or so. Not only that, some sort of tracking is used to move the image on the screen so that it looks natural to the security guard wherever he’s standing or sitting. It would have been easier, I suspect, simply to take the guard out with technology no more sophisticated than a blow dart. But it wouldn’t have been as cool.

Coolness, indeed, is the film’s main weapon. This is the live-action directing debut of Brad Bird, an animator best known for his work on The Simpsons and his acclaimed animated features The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Bird approaches Ghost Protocol as a live-action cartoon, yet one with an appealing sense of physics. Ethan Hunt gets bashed around quite a bit, landing in the hospital not once but twice. When he’s prone and exhausted near the end, we believe it. Cruise is in fine shape, but he’s aging out of his pretty-boy looks — the nose is starting to look gnarled and bulbous, approaching Owen Wilson levels. And so when he gets chewed up, while his teammates mostly kick back on the sidelines (although Patton gets a nicely feral fight scene and Renner gets a high-stress mid-air scene that almost parodies Ethan’s dangling in the first film), he becomes more human and likable, somehow. Cruise isn’t quite so cocky here. Ethan throws himself into impossible situations because there’s no other way; he doesn’t just assume he’s going to master the situation.

The movie’s most sung and storied sequence by far places Ethan on the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. Cruise, we are assured, is really up there, though suspended by wires that were later digitally removed. The scene could easily have been faked, but Bird’s camera, moving around Cruise’s body and staring down the face of the monolith, catches images that simply wouldn’t occur to anyone to fake. It’s the centerpiece of the film but doesn’t take up too much time; it’s economical and governed by the story’s needs, like everything else in the movie. As for the rest of it, it’s a smoothly rhythmed piece of work, moving at a pace sufficient to bypass inconvenient questions. Ethan is on the side of the building so he can access the place’s server so that the team can fake a meeting and swap a fake nuclear code for a real one using special contact lenses and a fake hand, when in a more boring film they might’ve just killed the thugs and taken the code. It’s the theater of subterfuge.