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 / 

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“The Way Back” Poll Results

21 01 2011

“The Way Back” opens nationwide today with no Oscar buzz to bolster box office numbers.  Given the tough subject material – an escape from a Siberian goulag and the long, dangerous walk home – Newmarket probably should have released this earlier.  But they opted for the qualifying run strategy, which worked for “The Last Station” in 2009.

However, it doesn’t look like it will pan out for Peter Weir’s movie for any nominations, least of all Best Picture.  There is no indication that much love for this movie exists at all – no critics listed it, and no guilds have shown support.  Heck, it’s entirely possible that most of the Academy voters haven’t even seen the movie.

The results from the poll I placed on the Oscar Moment back in November don’t seem to echo the obvious truth about the movie now.  Both voters (as in two) said they think the movie would be nominated for Best Picture.  I think that only in an incredibly dark horse scenario would that happen.





What To Look Forward To in … January 2011

13 12 2010

Hard to believe we are just around the corner from a new year!  2011, here we come … er, here we enjoy 2010’s movies a little while longer until the new year offers us something good.  Here are January’s sincerest efforts!

January 7

Nicolas Cage just keeps distancing himself further and further from his Oscar win for “Leaving Las Vegas” back in 1995.  He kicks off another disappointing year of quirky movie selection with “Season of the Witch,” originally slated for release about 9 months ago.  This supernatural thriller where he plays a 1300s Crusader and gets involved in some sort of black magic.  Needless to say, go see “Little Fockers” again.

Speaking of 2010, most theaters will finally be receiving “Country Strong” this week; whether it comes with any sort of awards season heat though is yet to be seen.  Gwenyth Paltrow’s vehicle as a fading country music star in desperate need of rehab looks a little corny and cliched, but would you rather see “Season of the Witch?”  My guess is no.

January 14

“The Green Hornet” was going to be a fanboy favorite, despite the casting of Seth Rogen as the title character.  Then some footage was released at Comic-Con, and everyone saw that it was just a typical Rogen slacker humor-a-thon.  They got angry, but I got happy.  I love Seth Rogen’s shenanigans, and I’m happy to see him move them to some genre other than gross-out comedy.

Is it possible for a movie’s trailer to get more coverage than the movie itself?  That’s likely the case for “The Dilemma,” a comedy of best friends, secrets, and infidelity strangely directed by Academy Award-winner Ron Howard.  With the use of the word gay, the trailer sparked an uproar and plenty of discussion on the power of words in society.  Apparently the joke stayed in the movie, and while I won’t head to the movie just to see that, I’ll probably hit it some other time once I’ve knocked out my mandatory 2010 viewing.

Also worth noting: “Rabbit Hole” should be getting a wide expansion this weekend.  If you haven’t seen it, SEE IT!  As for other 2010 movies just seeing release in the new year, there’s also “Barney’s Version,” the dramedy starring Paul Giamatti, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike, and Dustin Hoffman.  All those names together can’t be too bad.

Opening as well is “Every Day” with Liev Schrieber, Carla Gugino, and Helen Hunt in a rare appearance.  But given the no-name distributors, it’s going to be a while before it hits anywhere other than New York or Los Angeles.  And for all environmentalists out there, “Plastic Planet” looks at how safe plastic really is.

January 21

“No Strings Attached” looks like a suitable romantic comedy.  Starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, the movie tells the story of two lovers who only want a physical connection – in other words, the flip side of the coin of “When Harry Met Sally.”  It’s directed by Ivan Reitman, who helmed old classics like “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” but also new stinkers like “Evolution” and “My Super-Ex Girlfriend.”  All I can say is that this had better not be for Natalie Portman what “Norbit” was for Eddie Murphy.

If “The Way Back” didn’t look interesting and gritty as you-know-what, I’d probably joke that it’s the “Defiance” of 2010/2011.  But alas, I can’t poke fun at this trailer.

And for the third time, “The Company Men” has been moved, this time to 2011 and out of Oscar contention.  So now everyone can safely stop worrying about Tommy Lee Jones pulling another “In the Valley of Elah” and get back to writing this movie off.

January 28

Hey, look!  It’s another movie starring Jason Statham and a gun!  In other words, you’ve probably seen “The Mechanic” before.  As for other retreads, there’s another Catholic Church conspiracy theory movie combined with an exorcism movie.  Top it off with a little creepy Anthony Hopkins, and you get “The Rite!”

From Prada to Nada” opens also in limited release, but this Jane Austen wannabe tale looks entirely dismissable.  Unless, of course, you want to see Carmen from “Spy Kids” all grown up.

So, what’s the verdict on January?  Are you going to don the glasses for “The Green Hornet” or just see “TRON: Legacy” again?






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