Monday, January 30, 2012

Once More Into the Fray: The Good and Bad of The Grey

I've been looking forward to The Grey  for some time. I'm a fan of Liam Neeson and the niche he's carved out for himself recently as a tough guy and master of violence. It suits him and the resulting films are usually quite entertaining even if they aren't of the highest quality. I, and many others, am guilty of making cracks about this film and the highly-anticipated wolf-punching, but The Grey is much more than that. When you boil down my feelings on the film, many of my reservations actually stem from my disappointment that it wasn't just a little better, because the potential was there for The Grey to be a great film instead of just "pretty good".

The film starts off introducing Neeson's character - Oddway, a hired gun for a oil company, who keeps renegade wolves from picking off their workers. Do such positions really exist? It doesn't seem like they would be necessary in the real world (but maybe, who knows?). Anyway, the nature of his position causes the viewer to take an early, and completely necessary, leap of faith. The world of the film is place where such positions would be necessary. These wolves aren't like real wolves. Sure, their aggression later in the film is given a reasonable explanation, but these monsters are meant to represent more. They're nature - in all its cruelty, indifference and persistence. More realistic-looking creatures might have improved the film a little, but when they weren't fully exposed, I think the film did a good job of making them terrifying (I'm specifically thinking of when we just see their eyes glowing in the dark).

The opening monologue by Oddway is done in the form of a letter to his absent wife. In it, he sets the scene of his harsh reality and that of the men we come to know throughout the film. It's one of the feature's strongest segments and it follows that the other Oddway-centric moments are of this high-quality. Neeson is a pro at playing haunted and coupled with his excellent "theme" in the score, it makes for some stirring cinema. 

That being said, much of the film focuses on Neeson leading a rag-tag group through the Alaskan Wilderness, and those characters are far-less interesting. A plane-crash lands Oddway and his fellow survivors in their impossible predicament. The crash itself as well as the moments that precede it are tense and frightening (especially for anyone who has the same amount of turbulence-anxiety that I do). What follows is a fair amount of squabbling between Oddway and the perpetually annoying Diaz - a fellow-survivor with his own ideas on how to handle the situation. I appreciate that this conflict is supposed to mirror the alpha-male contests of the wolves, but it still put too much focus on a character I found to be obnoxious and unrealistic considering the dire situation of the group. 

The other supporting players aren't as abrasive as Diaz, but I can't say that I cared a whole lot about them. Dermot Mulroney has some decent moments, as does Dallas Roberts (who has become even more of a dead-ringer for John Ritter), but these characters' roles in the plot seem more about their various deaths at the hands of the unforgiving wild. This is fine; I liked that the perils in the film were more numerous than just the ravenous wolves, but still, some of these guys do amount to just mere filler. There's also a little too much campfire chit-chat for my taste. Men sitting around talking about their lives back home seems like such a cliche and forced character development. In one case, a character talks about his young daughter and later, in the moment of his death, he sees a vision of her standing over him. Had that expository dialogue been excised entirely and the death scene remained the same, I still would have gotten what was going on. 

If The Grey had just been a slightly quieter film, with more attention paid to the grim atmosphere, the beautifully shot surroundings and the unspoken perils of survival, it could have been beyond great. I don't mean to hate on Joe Carnahan, because this film was a big step forward for him and, on the overall, a success, but I can't help but feel that the potential of this story, in the hands of a more lyrical and confident director, might have been more fully-realized.

At the film's conclusion, we once more end up solely focused on Neeson's character (sorry for the spoiler, but what did you expect?). As he damns god's name while all but shaking his fists at the sky, you expect some rescue 'copter to zoom overhead, but thankfully one never arrives. Quite unfortunately, he finds himself wandering into the den of his adversaries, where he must face down the alpha wolf one-on-one. Death is inescapable for Oddway at this point, and he knows it, but he chooses to face it bravely. In these final moments, he recites a re-occurring poem in his mind: "Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day." Memories of his wife (who we now understand to be dead) also pop up, telling him not to be afraid (of death I'd assume) and the film cuts to black as he makes his final charge.

I feel that my description doesn't really do this ending justice because it was truly excellent and highly emotional. I thought it was the perfect way to conclude a picture of its themes. However, only after leaving the theater did I hear that there's a momentary scene after the credits. Initially, this angered me, as I thought it might cheapen the ending. I still have to see it, but some viewer descriptions have since lead me to believe that it doesn't. 

The Grey has stuck with me over the past couple days in a way that many films don't. I look forward to seeing it again and hopefully soon. Though I was not entirely pleased with the film's middle, the beginning and end are certainly good enough to warrant a second viewing.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - One of 2011's Best

Until the BAFTA's announced their nominations earlier this week, Tinker Tailor had been criminally underrated in the higher-profile award competitions. I take this as an indicator of our times, where the awards season is used to prop up what is most likable as appeasement to the masses. It's a glorified popularity contest with political maneuvering involved instead of what it should be - a celebration of the medium's greatest annual accomplishments.

Practically everything about Tinker Tailor is an achievement. It's beautifully shot, expertly acted, patiently directed and, in some ways, an exercise in audience engagement. You'll hear from a great many of its detractors that it's confusing, boring and hard to follow, but that's not really a fault of the film, it's a viewer defect. It's boring if you're not paying close enough attention to the details and subsequently hard to follow. You presumably paid money to see the film and someone (a lot of someones actually) took a great deal of time and effort to put all the pieces together to create the film's end-product, so why not pay attention? And I don't mean just sit and stare and let the whole damn thing, from beginning to end, be spoon-fed to you.

Listen to what is being said, watch what is being presented to you and how and trust yourself enough to come to your own conclusions on matters that the film will not expressly divulge. This is a spy movie after all, where watching and deducing are important to the plot itself. George Smiley's (Oldman) glasses are probably the most important prop in the film, for god's sake.

I think one point of frustration with Tinker Tailor is that there actually is quite a bit of dialogue, but very little exposition. Much is told, but not the type of things your general audience is waiting for. They're waiting for clear statements like "blank is the mole!", "such and such is our enemy in Russia" etc. Instead, a more believable world is built and characters are developed through less direct conversations. Smiley gives a long dialogue about his sole encounter with the mysterious and never-present Soviet-ops leader, Karla. It's chilling, and more informative about the antagonist than the entirety of Sherlock Holmes 2 is for Moriarty.

The film concludes with an outstanding sequence set to a Julio Iglesias version of "La Mer" that continues to knock my socks off with every viewing. In it, we see an assassination, Smiley's return to glory, and a number of other quick shots of the film's cast - effectively explaining their individual outcomes at the end of this whole ugly affair. For me, it was more fun and gratifying as a viewer to process and understand these things without them being said outright. And in the case of the more nebulous aspects, it's more enjoyable for me to speculate about the potential truths than to simply be handed everything with a written onscreen prologue - "Smiley went on to do this. Tarr did that and so on".

For my money, Tinker Tailor is right behind Drive in the list of 2011's best films and in any other year, it might easily take first place. Alfredson, making his english-language directorial debut as a follow-up to the stunning Let the Right One In, proves he's a force to be reckoned with. Oldman deserves, at least, a Best Actor nomination and practically the entire supporting cast could be considered in that category as well. Firth, Cumberbatch and Hardy are all outstanding and Mark Strong is particularly...well...strong in his role. Take the time to see this film and truly watch it. There's so much that's spectacular about it that only repeated viewing can unearth it all.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

12 Films in 2012 Pt. 2

7. The Master - ?:

This film has long been in development by Paul Thomas Anderson and it actually still doesn't have a release date. However, it's in post-production currently, so I'll use the same logic as I used above and assume it's hitting theatres in 2012. A 1950s drama centered on the relationship between a charismatic intellectual known as "the Master" (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose faith-based organization begins to catch on in America, and a young drifter who becomes his right-hand man (Joaquin Phoenix). To me, this sounds fascinating and Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights) certainly has a knack for creating excellent period films. I'm not a fan of everything he's done, but either way, I know the end result here will likely be interesting.

8. Moonrise Kingdom - May 25:

Another Anderson - this time Wes - has a film coming out this year. The plot revolves around a pair of young lovers who flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them. This sounds interesting enough, but the story really doesn't figure in to the film making my list. It appears here because, well, it's Wes Anderson. The guy doesn't know how to make a bad film, especially in recent years. There are plenty of detractors who will deride his films as being for hipsters and fanboys, but I'm neither - just a film enthusiast. I don't dislike Bottle Rocket or Rushmore by any means, but I do think his last four films were substantially better. Darjeeling Limited is simply one of the finest films of this young century and Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of its best animated features. I'm interested to see if he can keep this streak going.

9. The Avengers - May 4: 

I'm starting to see that a lot of my list is auteur-based and this selection is no different. I'm not terribly excited for Amazing Spider-Man or The Avengers, but I'm going to see both and feel one of them deserved to make my list. Avengers gets the edge based on the fact that Whedon is in the director's chair. I have a hard time imagining such an ambitious, ensemble super-hero film turning out really well, but if someone can pull it off, it's Whedon.

10. Only God Forgives - ?: 

This is wishful thinking somewhat, but there's a chance this film hits theatres this year, so I'm including. This is the scheduled follow-up collaboration to Drive between Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. The latter is reportedly set to star as a Bangkok police lieutenant who ultimately ends up settling his differences with a troublesome gangster in a Thai-boxing match. Frankly, this sounds awesome, but the specific nature of the film hasn't been officially announced, so don't be surprised if it ends up deviating from the above synopsis. What we do know is that it's a violent revenge/crime thriller with a rad title, directed by a guy who does violence quite well. I'm just hoping that the Thai-boxing element remains because, well, wouldn't that be interesting? Production is slated to begin in February, so here's hoping we see this released before the world ends.

11. Django Unchained - December 25: 

I'm really looking forward to Tarantino's "Southern", but who isn't? The film is a re-imagining of slavery in the American South about an escaped slave turned bounty hunter played by Jaime Foxx. Tarantino's last flick showed his skills in the area of historical-revisionism, so I'm hoping this is similarly effective. One only need look at the cast and marvel at the talent he has to work with on this project. Leo DiCaprio is the plantation-owning villain named Calvin Candie?! Kurt Russell is his whip-wielding right-hand man, Ace Woody!? Outstanding. I'm just sad that I have to wait nearly a damn year to get a look at this freaking thing.

12. The Raid - March (limited): 

This Jakarta-set action film has been riding a wave of nerdy goodwill and interest since its screenings at film fests late last year and the release of its crazy teaser trailer (see below). To me, this just looks like a lot of fun and the trailer shows a lot of potential, so I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye out for it. A minor synopsis is as follows (though critics say the plot is secondary): A SWAT team becomes trapped in a tenement run by a ruthless mobster and his army of killers and thugs.

Honorable Mention:

Abe Lincoln films - Two features focusing on the ill-fated President will be released this year - one based in fact and the other...not so much. Steven Spielberg's version, simply titled Lincoln, is set for a December release and is highlighted by Daniel Day-Lewis' return to the big screen in the titular role. This might have made the above-list if not for Spielberg's relatively poor track record since the turn of the century. My personal opinion: he just doesn't have it anymore, so Lincoln has the potential to fall flat.

The second of such films is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (June) based on the revisionist novel of the same name. I actually quite liked the novel and found it surprisingly serious in tone. My concern is that the film will succumb to the ridiculousness of subject matter and end up lamely silly. Done right, this could actually be a really good film, but I have serious doubts. I also can't help be imagine the potential of such a film with Day-Lewis playing the lead here instead.

The movie Wettest Country (August) also fell just short of making my list. It's about prohibition-era bootleggers - interesting enough. It's directed by the extremely talented John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) - sounds great. It also features the acting talents of Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce - this just keeps getting better and better. But there's a catch! The film also stars Shia LaBoof, who tends to knock down the quality of pretty much anything he touches. So, for his inclusion alone, I couldn't include the film in my official list.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

12 Films in 2012 Pt. 1

There's a lot to look forward to in 2012, though that doesn't always mean we're in for a great year in film. I wasn't terribly excited for much in 2011, but on the overall, it was a very solid year in film. Conversely, I was initially hyped about a lot of 2010's offerings, but felt the year was somewhat lacking. Who knows what this year will bring? I'm still very very excited, but realistic that at least something on my list is likely to let me down. Anyway, it looks like it's going to be a big year for Tom Hardy and Ryan Gosling.
1. The Dark Knight Rises - July 20: 

Well, this was an easy one. Christopher Nolan has built a nice level of respectability for himself in Hollywood and the mainstream in recent years. I'm a fan and I'm definitely interested to see what he has planned for this third, and reportedly final, installment in his Batman series. Can he match or possibly even improve upon The Dark Knight? How will it all end? How effective of a villain will Bane be? These are all questions which have answers that I'm greatly anticipating. The trailer hints at something massively epic, with hints of surprising social commentary - the "batten down the hatches" dialogue from Selina Kyle. Whatever the outcome is, I certainly appreciate Nolan's handling of the franchise. I grew up with Batman being something goofy and small, with episodic films that just seemed interested in cashing in on their predecessors. Nolan has given Batman an appropriate scale on par with his graphic novel exploits. This is his grandiose, three-trade run and I can't wait to see how it all pans out.

2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - December 14:

I really wanted Guillermo del Toro to direct this film, but I'll settle for Peter Jackson because of his adequate handling of the Rings trilogy. There's something special about this story and while it's not as expansive as its three-part follow-up, it might be more magical. It's a smaller story about a particular struggle instead of the fate of the whole world and I find that refreshing. Martin Freeman was the perfect choice to play Bilbo and there's a number of other castings that I'm happy about as well. As much as I still appreciate the Trilogy, recent viewings show it to be aging somewhat. Its CG was done at a time of exponential growth, but technology has advanced considerably since and the look of The Hobbit's trailer suggests a much more sophisticated level of visual effects. And speaking of the trailer - that song! I'm hoping that more of the book's musical numbers make it into the film, but the "Misty Mountain" track from the trailer really sold me.

3. Cogan's Trade - ?: 

This film initially had first-quarter release date, but I can no longer find evidence of that. However, whenever it's released, I'll see it for the simple reason that it's directed by Andrew Dominik. The Aussie director made a name for himself with Chopper, but returned several years ago to a mixed-response with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There's nothing mixed about my feelings on the film, however - I feel that it's one of the best films of the last decade and a personal top-10. In Cogan's Trade, Dominik re-teams with Brad Pitt, having him again playing a titular role. He's Jackie Cogan, a professional enforcer who investigates a heist that went down during a mob-protected poker game. That sounds interesting enough to me. The cast also includes other favorites of mine: Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Shepard, and Garret Dillahunt. 

4. The Place Beyond the Pines - ?: 

There's no release date for this one as of yet, but it's in post-production, so it's a safe bet to hit theatres some time this year. The synopsis is as follows: a motorcycle stunt rider considers committing a crime in order to provide for his wife and child, an act that puts him on a collision course with a cop-turned-politician. This might not inspire a ton of confidence, nor does Bradley Cooper's place in the case, but the film was written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, who also wrote and directed the excellent Blue Valentine. This film also reunites him with Ryan Gosling, who has proven himself to be consistently solid. Signs point to this one being more than your average crime thriller.

5. Prometheus - June 8: 

What can you say about this one? It's a big-budget sci-fi film directed by the man who brought us Alien and Blade Runner. It's mysteriously connected to the "Alien" mythos. It features a solid cast. It was co-written by Damon Lindelof. And it already has a stunning trailer. This one might be the one I'm most looking forward to in 2012 and that's saying a lot.

6. The Grey - January 27: 

Why not? It's rare that I have much to look forward to in the early part of the year as far as movies go, but I'm excited for this one. Do I expect a lot? Not really and that's part of my excitement. Of my entire list, this one might have the least potential of letting me down. The trailer looks fun enough. I love this niche Liam Neeson has carved for himself as a badass, master of violence. And in this one he's fighting wolves! Outrageous!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Rating Fincher

David Fincher has garnered a fair amount of respect over the years, but especially in recent ones. He's met critical and box-office success with films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network - leading to numerous high-profile award nominations. Now, with the release of his remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he has nine feature films under his belt (in addition to a plethora of music video credits).

Despite my serious fondness for the film medium, I can't always see every movie and it's somewhat rare that I've seen every title in a director's filmography. However, I have been vigilant enough to catch all of Fincher's feature film work, so I thought I'd rate those nine films from my least to most favorite. I'll preface this by saying that there isn't a single Fincher film that I "dislike". There are several that I am indifferent to, some that I like well enough and a couple that I really love.

9. Panic Room (2002):

There's nothing wrong with Panic Room, I just have a hard time remembering much about it and I viewed it recent enough. I remember some decent performances and an entertaining enough story, but it's not a film that has stuck with me in any way or one that I see as possessing much of Fincher's style and presence.

8. The Game (1997):

Between his immensely popular Se7en and Fight Club, Fincher made The Game and it falls remarkably short of either. The Game is a decent enough film and I am an admitted fan of its lead - Michael Douglas - but it's somewhat predictable and not all that much to write home about.

7. Alien 3 (1992):

On the overall, I don't really think this third installment in the Alien franchise is a good film - and neither does Fincher for he's practically disowned it. However, there are a lot of good aspects to it, particularly the non-alien ones, and, at the end of the day, I pay it a lot more mind than the above-two films. Alien 3 is a disappointment when considering the success and appeal of Alien and Aliens. It's a vastly different film that fails to capture the horror that the xenomorph provided in its predecessors. But, like I said, there are positive elements to the film. Its setting, a prison-planet run by repentant religious inmates, is atmospheric and a threatening environment all its own to the stranded Ellen Ripley. The film, up until the arrival of the alien threat, is solid, but its quality quickly falls off in the 2nd half. The cast is strong, with Weaver, Dance and Dutton giving solid performances, but, for me, the film feels like a missed opportunity. I imagine Fincher feels much the same way, as reported studio tampering and creative differences are said to have left a bad taste in his mouth.

6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011):

I just caught this english-language update last night and, though I appreciate Fincher's efforts, I'm left somewhat disappointed that he couldn't improve on the original more. I don't dislike the original Dragon Tattoo film, I just don't think it's anything special, nor do I believe its international-phenomenon status is warranted. The story is somewhat interesting, as are the characters, but there's too slow a build, too much exposition and document reading and not enough of a present threat to the protagonists. Fincher's version suffers from all of the same problems, though he does attempt to insert some of that lacking threat with the cat-incident. Such is the case across the board - minor improvements where major ones were necessary. The film is stylish, slick and handled better all-around with Fincher behind the camera, but it still feels overlong and uneventful. I also find it hard to believe that anyone won't see the answer to the mystery staring them straight in the face throughout the entire film considering its casting. Fincher did, however, make a solid bet in casting Mara in the lead. She knocks it out of the park.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008):

I was somewhat sore when Benjamin Button received so many critical accolades in 2008, as I think there were a lot better films. But, again, it certainly wasn't a bad film. I actually remember vividly my experience watching it in a theater. At around the lengthy film's half-way point, I can remember thinking that it was one of the best films I've ever seen. I loved the story, the look, the feel and the performances. I don't think I had a single complaint - then the 2nd half of the film happened. The film's love story, between Pitt and Blanchett, just didn't strike a cord. I failed to buy their romance, which made it hard to process the intended tragedy of it. I saw much more tragedy and dramatic material in Button's personal journey, which I feel was incomplete because of the focus on Blanchett's character - who I simply did not care that much about.

4. Fight Club (1999):

I, like most people, really enjoy Fight Club. There's a lot to like about it. Norton and Pitt are at the top of their game. It's twisted, funny and often shocking. I actually don't have much bad to say about it. Having read the book as well, I'd call it one of the more successful adaptations in film history. They are much the same and my memory often confuses various elements from both, but they both can stand alone on their own merits.

3. The Social Network (2010):

This film gained a lot of critical acclaim and, in recent years, that means it comes under a fair amount of contrarian scrutiny. Sure, it wasn't the best film of 2010, but it was still pretty high in the running. It's a great, hyperbolic account of the rise of Facebook, its peculiar creator and the changing face of communication world-wide. Solidly cast, impressively acted and featuring a subtle yet appropriate score out of Trent Reznor, The Social Network also represents Fincher near his finest.

2. Se7en (1995):

Se7en was Fincher's breakout film and firm evidence of the potential that was squandered in Alien 3. There are probably films on this list that I would much rather watch for the simple reason that they're much less disturbing, but that, in itself, is a testament to its effectiveness. The serial killer depicted in the film is frighteningly perverse and represents the kind of horrific and ever-present threat that I felt Dragon Tattoo lacked. The Leland Orser/lust portion of the film has, on occasion, completely unnerved me to the point that I need to shut it off - there are few films in all of history that have this power over me. There are so many maddening details to the various disturbing elements of Se7en that paint this bleak, mysterious and un-specified setting, making it more interesting than if it took place in a real location and time. I somewhat regard Se7en as the twisted cousin of, and a great companion piece to, its 90's serial-killer film predecessor - The Silence of the Lambs. Both are dark, gritty, graphic and great.

1. Zodiac (2007):

Again with the serial-killer material? What can I say? Fincher does it really well, though Zodiac is so much more. It's an expansive, epic and highly-entertaining chronicle of the mysterious and still-yet-unsolved Zodiac Killer case that loomed over California in the 60's and 70's. Besides being tense and frightening (there's that present threat again), well-acted and frankly fascinating, Zodiac is an excellent period-film. The costumes, details and soundtrack are all first-rate in their capturing of particular eras. The final scenes of the film are especially outstanding: First - Gyllenhaal's Graysmith facing down the man he suspects to be the killer and the look he receives back and second - the final interrogation scene where one of Zodiac's survivors points to the picture of that same man, cutting to credits and the perfectly utilized "Hurdy Gurdy Man". Even though I've watched the film many many times, I still enjoy it just as much as the first time I saw it and that final cut-to-credits always gives me chills.