REVIEW: The Way Back

5 07 2011

Long, grueling journeys requiring great endurance can make for great cinema.  Peter Weir, the director of the fantastic Best Picture nominated “Master & Commander,” does a great job portraying the struggle of man against a hostile environment in “The Way Back.”  However, following on the coattails of 2008’s “Defiance,” the Edward Zwick helmed film about survival in the Polish forests after World War II, the movie feels like it’s treading tired ground.

Sometimes movies are all about the timing, not just in regards to what’s on the screen but also in regards to when it comes on the screen.  “Defiance” took a genre that can be a really hard watch and made it a rewarding and meaningful in a way that I hadn’t seen in quite some time.  I didn’t judge “The Way Back” right out of the gate, but given that it too followed an eclectic group of people escaping a totalitarianist regime in the 1940s and fleeing into the forests, the comparison was inevitable.  In the end, they just feel too similar – and I only want to watch “Defiance” once.  Like a “Schindler’s List,” these movies show human beings dropped to sickening lows to survive.  While good ultimately triumphs, the journey there is so painful that I rarely want to relive it.

So perhaps if “The Way Back” was a 2007 release, I would respond much more positively to it.  Weir’s film is certainly not without its merits, however.  It boasts two very nice performances from Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan, although Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell just didn’t really do much for me.  The below-the-line elements are superb, including some captivating cinematography and marvelous makeup work that was very much deserving of the Oscar nomination that it received.

The script is also nicely done and captures the triumph of the human spirit and will over any obstacle.  However, Weir’s insistance on filming on such a grand scale hampers the movie, making it slower and more prolonged.  We end up feeling less because he wants to give us so much more.  “The Way Back” can’t be on an epic level with a movie like “Master & Commander” because it has to rejoice in the little moments of human strength and dignity that can be found trudging through the wilderness.  Given that the movie was based on a true story, I probably should have felt a lot happier that they triumphed, but dealing with such subject matter is difficult.  I’m not going to pretend like I could have done any better making the movie.  B / 





Oscar Moment: “The Way Back”

16 11 2010

We won’t be seeing “The Way Back” until 2011, but since it has a nice little qualifying run in December, it is considered for the 2010 Academy Awards.  Frustrating for average bloggers like me who won’t have the slightest chance of including it in year-end favorites and predictions, perfect for the studio to offset fan reaction if it could be toxic.

I personally can’t get very jazzed about this movie, particularly after seeing the National Geographic logo among the production financiers.  It looks very much like a high school history class documentary, which doesn’t exactly have me brimming with excitement for Oscars.  Add to that the fact that the movie almost went straight-to-DVD only makes it worse.  The subject matter, avoiding oppression in Russia, got the cold shoulder from the Academy in 2008 through “Defiance.”  Oscar bait in general seems to be on the decline, with the trend over the past decade to support more “movie of the moment” types.

But nonetheless, the movie seems to have some critical support.  Kris Tapley at In Contention is fully on board, writing that the movie is “quietly profound, epic, bold filmmaking at its very best…unconventional in its depiction of a long march by Siberian Gulag escapees out of Communist Russia. But rather than becoming repetitive or aimless, the film’s series of vignettes depicting the mundane particulars of survival (be it physical or psychological) is incredibly moving and consistently engaging.”

Says Sasha Stone of Awards Daily, “There is no doubt that ‘The Way Back’ is a difficult sit. Is it an important movie? It will be to some groups, no doubt. Is it Weir’s best? Probably not. Is it one of the best of 2010? Most certainly.”  (The movie isn’t without its critics, as Eugene Novikov of Cinematical calls it “sadistically intent on making you feel as much of its subjects’ physical agony as possible.”)

So what does the movie have going for it?  For starters, there’s director Peter Weir, an immensely likable industry figure who has six Academy Award nominations to his name: four for directing, one for writing (“Green Card”), and one for producing a Best Picture (“Master and Commander”).  Stone calls this movie Weir’s “labor of love,” something which could help out in a competitive year for Best Director.  I can’t help but feel that Danny Boyle has the grueling visual experience slot for this year with his incredibly affecting “127 Hours,” and Darren Aronofsky, another powerful visual filmmaker, could find his way into the mix for “Black Swan.”

There are also some very respected performers in the movie.  Ed Harris could shake up Best Supporting Actor race, which is only vaguely defined as of now, given that he has been nominated four times before, three here and once in leading for “Pollock” back in 2000.  The “overdue” argument could easily be applied for him since it’s being shoved down our throats for Annette Bening, who has one less nomination.  Saoirse Ronan, nominated at 13 for her role in “Atonement,” could definitely factor into the race.  If they recognized her once at a young age, why not recognize her again for a much grittier role?

Apparently, the big surprise and standout of the movie is Colin Farrell.  According to Stone, “watching Farrell here I was suddenly aware of how good he really is,” and according to Tapley, “it’s one of his best performances, hands down, one of his most organic and believable portrayals.”  Farrell has had a rough personal life littered with sex tapes and alcoholism, and it’s definitely distracted from his acting.  He has, however, won a Golden Globe for Best Actor (Musical/Comedy) for his turn in “In Bruges.”  This category is getting less competitive by year, but it’s still a sign that he has some respect.  An intense, dramatic role in “The Way Back” could be the perfect inroad to Academy glory, although I expect Harris to be the movie’s contender.

However, there’s also the money issue.  “The Way Back” is being distributed by Newmarket, a fledgling studio in the Oscar campaigning industry who might not have the cash or the connections to play the politics of the Oscars right.  Face it, being a good movie is the basic prerequisite for Best Picture in the same way that being in the House of Representatives makes someone a Presidential candidate.  It takes money and influence to move a representative into serious consideration for the nation’s highest office, and the same goes for movies.  “The Way Back” could easily be droned out by bigger, flashier studio campaigns.

But let’s hope it really comes down to quality.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Harris), Best Cinematography

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Farrell), Best Supporting Actress (Ronan), Best Film Editing





REVIEW: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

6 09 2010

With the sense of wonder of a child and the intelligence of an adult, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is a truly dazzling film. From the mind of Terry Gilliam, this Faustian fairy tale indulges our imaginations, often growing dusty from years without activity and becoming more seldomly used with each technological advance and each passing year. I feel like I saw in this movie what the multitudes saw in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but I found the bubbly exuberance on display here was ultimately much more winning.

The titular Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is traveling England doing an antiquated theater and magic show in a horse-and-buggy. He has sold his soul to Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), an incarnation of the Devil, to counteract the immortality he won from the big red guy down below in a bet several hundred years before. Parnassus soon has to give back his 16-year-old daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), to Nick, and he’s especially dreary given those circumstances. It doesn’t help that his “imaginarium” has become somewhat of a laughing stock.

But everything changes when they rescue a hanging man (Heath Ledger), later discovered to be a philanthropist named Tony. Parnassus’ crew discovers first, though, that Tony has a true knack for the theatrical, and he revolutionizes their marketing approach. Soon enough, all sorts of high-class mall shoppers are entering their mysterious mirror into a world of untapped imagination. But soon enough, they find out that Tony was involved some shady dealings, and the troupe is subsequently brought into this world of danger along with their newest member.

The movie has the unfortunate distinction of being Heath Ledger’s final role. As it was widely publicized, he was still in the middle of filming this movie when he passed. While his performance as the anarchical The Joker will forever make him an icon and legend in cinematic history, it was a role that certainly did not represent Ledger’s off-screen personality. As the mysterious Tony, all the charm and artistry that made him one of the movies’ golden boys is on display. It’s really comforting to know that Ledger’s final movie shows us the Ledger we want to remember.

I was worried that the movie would be too much of a memorial to Ledger and that Gilliam couldn’t figure out a way to downplay his death. His solution is executed with poise, having Ledger play Tony in the real world and three capable actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell) play different incarnations of him inside the mirror. Depp, Law, and Farrell are all great, bringing their distinctive acting skills to the role while also keeping in line with Ledger’s version of the character. It’s also nice to know that their dedication extends beyond the screen as they all donated their salaries for the movie to Ledger’s daughter, Matilda.

But let’s not dwell on the past too much because this movie gives us a great opportunity to look forward to the future. “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is one of the first roles for Andrew Garfield, recently cast in the reboot of the Spider-Man series. Audiences will probably look back and see “Never Let Me Go” and “The Social Network” as the movies in which they discovered him, but here we get a very nice introduction to the actor who is poised to make a big splash in Hollywood. With charisma, nobility, and sensibility, not so unlike Ledger, Garfield should be a welcome addition to Hollywood’s A-list.  A- /





REVIEW: Crazy Heart

28 02 2010

Whenever I wrote about “Crazy Heart” back in December in an Oscar Moment, I lampooned it for its obvious similarities to last year’s “The Wrestler.”  Turns out, I was right.

But “The Wrestler” was a killer movie.  And so is “Crazy Heart.”

Sure, it loses some originality points, but that doesn’t make the character study any less effective or entertaining.  It also doesn’t suffer because it adding elements of another great movie, “Walk the Line,” with its background in country music and some very catchy songs.

“Crazy Heart” follows washed-up country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) trudging through an increasingly insignificance as a performer.  He has gone from packing in crowds in Nashville to empty bowling alleys in Santa Fe.  He certainly isn’t doing himself any favors with his raging alcoholism and his refusal to churn out any new material.  But over the course of the film, he realizes, although somewhat reluctantly, Bad Blake begins to change his ways.  The main impetus comes from a younger journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who looks beyond the singer for her interview.

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What To Look Forward To In … December 2009

14 11 2009

What is in my mind the finest month for the movies is almost here!  Let Marshall guide you through the best and steer you away from the worst, but most of all enjoy!  The studios have been holding back their best movies all year to dump them all here, where they can get serious awards consideration.

December 4

A major Oscars wild-card is “Brothers.”  No one really knows what to make of it.  If the movie hits big, it could completely change the game.  But it could just fly under the radar like most expect it to now.  However, the trailer makes it look as if it the movie could be absolutely mind-blowing.  Directed by Jim Sheridan, who has received six Academy Award nominations, “Brothers” follows Grace Cahill (Natalie Portman) as she and her daughters deal with the loss of her husband, Sam (Tobey Maguire), in war.  Sam’s brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to live with Grace to lend a helping hand.  But romantic sparks fly between the two at precisely the wrong time: the discovery that Sam is alive and coming home.  With the two brothers both tugging Grace’s heart for their share, a different type of sparks fly.

You have heard me say plenty about “Up in the Air.”  If you haven’t read my Oscar Moment on the movie or heard my bliss at the release of the trailer, let me give you one more chance to hope on the bandwagon.

But the movies don’t stop there.  “Armored,” an action-drama that is tooting its own moral horn, starring Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne.  “Everybody’s Fine” appears to be a holiday movie, so that might be worth checking out if you’re in the spirit.  The movie, a remake of a 1990 Italian film by the same name, stars Robert DeNiro as a widower who reconnects with his estrange children.  And “Transylmania” looks to cash in on the vampire craze sweeping the nation by satirizing it, but I doubt it will be financially viable because it is being released by a no-name studio and without any big names.

December 11

The highlight of the weekend for many will be “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s return to the traditional animation by hand musical.  The movie looks to capitalize on what we know and love Disney musicals for, adding some catchy tunes to a fairy tale we have known since childhood.  Anika Noni Rose, best known for her role as Lorrell in the film adaptation of “Dreamgirls,” lends her talented voice to the princess Tiana.  As a huge fan of “Dreamgirls” during the winter of 2006, I couldn’t think of someone better equipped to handle the sweet, soft Disney music (which isn’t designed for belters like Beyoncé or Jennifer Hudson).  That being said, the music won’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard from a Disney fairy tale.  It is being scored by Randy Newman, not Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” etc.), and will have a jazzy feel much like its setting, New Orleans.

This week also boasts the opening of three major Oscar players. Two have been featured in Oscar Moments, “Invictus” and “A Single Man.” The former opens nationwide this Friday, the latter only in limited release. I’ll repost the trailers below because they are worth watching. But read the Oscar Moment if you want to know more about the movies.

According to the people that matter, “The Lovely Bones” has all the pieces to make a great movie. But for summer reading two years ago, I read the source material, Alice Sebold’s acclaimed novel. I found it dreadfully melodramatic and very depressing without any sort of emotional payoff to reward the reader for making it through. But maybe Hollywood will mess up the novel in a good way. If any movie could, it would be this one. With a director like Peter Jackson and a cast including Saiorse Ronan (“Atonement”), Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, and Susan Sarandon, it could very well happen.  It opens in limited release on this date and slowly expands until its nationwide release on Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2010.

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