Joe Carnahan Explores the Minds of the Walking Wounded
By Cole Smithey
A strand of “Moby Dick” runs through director/co-writer Joe Carnahan’s wild and wooly tale of survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Like “Moby Dick” this amorphous story is an anti-narrative made up of dark encounters with nature at her cruelest. The alpha male leader of a pack of hungry wolves becomes the focal point for a group of plane-crash survivors trying to walk out of a vast snow-covered trap. John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is an emotionally broken sharpshooter hired by an Alaskan oil company to protect its workers from bears and wolves, which attack without a moment’s notice. The ever-watchable Neeson easily fills the demands of his troubled character’s wolf-like place as the alpha to a group of flawed human males—whose number steadily diminishes.
Joe Carnahan (known for his uncompromising crime drama “Narc”) puts his audience through an episode of pure terror early in the film. After briefly contemplating suicide outside a rowdy oil refinery bar, John Ottway treasures memories of his eloigned wife while riding a private airplane carrying oil workers. Jolts of vomit-inducing turbulence rattle the passengers’ quickly fraying nerves. Just as Ottway falls asleep the plane goes into a fuselage-ripping plunge. Gravity and velocity become monsters of colossal fury. Luggage and bodies are suspended in midair in one of the most spectacular plane crash scenes ever filmed. The effect is truly terrifying. Don’t look for “The Grey” to be shown as an in-flight movie. The cinematic experience is as close to the reality of enduring an actual plane crash as you’d ever want to get. Miraculously there are survivors amid the strewn luggage, twisted bits of metal, and bloody body parts which corrupt an otherwise peaceful expanse of snow-covered ground. Awakening from one nightmare into another, eight shocked men begin to pick up items of clothing and supplies they desperately need to go on living. Ottway thinks to collect the wallets of the corpses, to return to their family members should the opportunity arise.
The assembly of blue-collar roughnecks runs the gambit. Diaz (Frank Grillo) is a tattooed ex-con whose personal insecurities threaten to undermine Ottway’s obvious status as the group leader. Ottway’s uses his thorough knowledge of wolf pack mentality and behavior to counsel the group to quickly abandon the crash site in favor of shelter above the area’s distant tree line. The wolves, Ottway believes, are more interested in protecting their territory than hunting down the men as food. Stormy whiteout conditions threaten to bury the men in a 40-below-zero grave of snow.
Violent encounters between the wolves and their human prey allows Carnahan to dig deep into his bag of action tricks. Blood flies through the air like freezing mists of tempered humidity. The confident helmer displays a greater kinship to Sam Peckinpah’s muscular approach to cinema than any other filmmaker working today. Every gutsy action scene is crafted with gritty detail and a muscular unpredictability that dares the audience to guess where it will end up. Punch-drunk suspense sets in as the film’s subtext of thematic discourse about subjects ranging from self-deception to religious belief to what it takes to be a man get bandied about. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“Warrior”) lends his keen eye for magnificent compositions to expertly contextualize the men’s excruciating journey of inexorable attrition.
“The Grey” is an old-fashioned survival movie in the vein of John Huston’s 1956 version of the Melville classic. The glory of the adventure comes from what lies buried deep within the psyches of its personalities, and branded in their facial expressions. John Ottway remembers the only poem his stoic father ever wrote as it hung framed on a wall in his dad’s study.
“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.”
Watch this movie to discern the poem’s meaning for the wealth of import Carnahan and his filmmaking cohorts intend.
Rated R. 117 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
A Remake by Any Other Name
David Fincher Takes One for the Team
By Cole Smithey
David Fincher can do a great re-make. Now, let’s hope he never does one again. By definition, remakes demand that audiences go back to the original to compare differences slight and large. I don’t put any credence in the faulty premise that a second film based on the same source material constitutes anything other than a remake. Indeed many of the compositions and sequences are similar enough between director Niels Arden Oplev’s version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and Fincher’s that watching both is akin comparing apples with apples. Still, the significant difference between the two films is a big one. In Fincher’s version Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist get busy, and as such earn a level of intimacy sorely missing from Arden Oplev’s sill powerful film.
Audiences will split hairs over Noomi Rapace’s iconic Goth portrayal of Lisbeth Salander as compared to Rooney Mara’s savant-sex-alien rendition. It’s a fascinating comparison. Rapace kicked bat-shit-monkey-ass in the original, while Mara’s Lisbeth is more the type to ask permission before seeking lethal revenge—as occurs in a pivotal scene late in the film. Mara approaches a bland quality of androgyny whose asexual appearance is belied by her lustful intentions which she carries out with respectable focus.
There’s no question that David Fincher is a muscular director whose capacity for creating cinematic wonder is astounding. “Zodiac” (2007) is one of the most stunning police procedurals ever made. He understands the importance of seducing his audience right from the start of every one of his movies. His opening credit sequence here explodes with a shiny, oily-black sensual fury that announces the movie as an exploration in thoroughly modern style and sass. And to that end he succeeds full stop. Where he slips up is, surprisingly, in articulating Stieg Larsson’s story—something that Niels Arden Oplev did better. Some of the blame can be put on screenwriter Steven Zaillian, but editing decisions by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall play a hefty role. You don’t care as much about the mystery of the missing girl as you do with the original film because the narrative isn’t enunciated with the same degree of passion.
Even the seemingly ideal casting of Daniel Craig doesn’t work as well for the role. With his downtrodden bearing and doughy charm Michael Nyqvist made for a more empathetic Mikael Blomkvist. Although the filmmakers wisely keep the action in Sweden, rather than transposing the story to somewhere like the Hamptons, the film refuses to soak up the European culture it’s submersed in. Here again miscasting plays a part. Robin Wright just isn’t convincing as a Swedish character. Her accent evaporates mid-sentence. In spite of her blonde hair and Nordic features, Wright feels like an interloper in the movie. An utter lack of romantic chemistry between her and Daniel Craig further distracts from the story.
David Fincher’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a very entertaining movie. The credit sequence alone is worth the price of admission. Is it better than Niels Arden Oplev’s film? I’ll leave that up to you.
Rated R. 166 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
What's So Funny 'Bout War, Greed, and Ignorance
Robin Hood Prequel is an Uphill Slog
By Cole Smithey
For as muddled as its medieval politics are, thanks to Brian Helgeland's scattershot screenplay, director Ridley Scott's cloud-covered history of Robin Longstride's path to outlaw legend soars whenever Cate Blanchett takes the screen as Maid Marion. The same filmmaker responsible for "Alien," "Black Hawk Down," and "Gladiator" works in a brown and gray palate of natural light to conjure up 13th century England. The ever humorless Russell Crowe is a paunchy archer in King Richard the Lion Heart's army when the ruler (Danny Huston) is killed during a generic battle involving gallons of hot oil, arrows, and muddy swords. Entrusted to deliver a dying soldier's sword to his father Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) in Nottingham, Robin (Crowe) and his mercenary companions take the opportunity to return King Richard's crown to England's callow new leader King John (Oscar Isaac). Upon receiving his son Robert's sword that bears the inscription "rise and rise again until lambs become lions," the blind Sir Walter insists that Robin impersonate Robert--something Robin has already been doing to avoid military punishment--and also pretend to be husband to Lady Marion so that Loxely's land will not be taken away when he dies. It's from this overlong set up that the prequel takes its shape. In an overworked effort at making Robin Hood a somber man with heavy emotional baggage about his father, and an idealized sense of justice, the filmmakers have drained all the fun out of a story that should at least have some amount of proletariat joy. While it's true that this Robin Hood is unlike any you've seen before, it's also one that you may not want to see again.
The severe lack of color in art director David Allday designs, and in Janty Yates's dull costumes, contributes to the film's drab visual droning effect. Without sufficiently supported subplots or developed secondary characters to cue the action, the lack of color takes a toll on the audience's ability to discern the stripe of ambiguous characters in the run up to the film's battle climax. Musically, the film fares considerably better with Marc Streitenfeld's vibrant original score lending surefooted counterpoint to the film's poignant underbelly of social oppression.
However much some audiences might want "Robin Hood" to be "Gladiator-in- Sherwood-Forest," Ridley Scott has kept his head about him in delivering expedient battle scenes that resonate with the quickness of the arrows being launched. There is none of the grainy action-for-action's-sake digital excess that weighed so heavy in Scott's "Black Hawk Down." And yet we never get to enjoy the "stealing from the rich to give to the poor" aspect of the Robin Hood legend that audiences might rightfully expect.
Mark Addy's Firar Tuck barely takes a nip at the bottle and isn't anywhere near as jolly as his reputation precedes. Robin's other three would-be Merry Men (Scott Grimes, Kevin Durand, and Alan Doyle) are all but lost in the shuffle as Robin takes on his father's mantle of social activist. By the time Robin Hood becomes a military leader in a fierce beach battle against the French army, we get the feeling that things can only go downhill for the outlaw's future prospects.
There are three or four great scenes, and all involve Cate Blanchett and Max von Sydow. Seen through this relief, "Robin Hood" should more rightly have taken on the film's intended title of "Nottenham" and been more about the father and daughter who bestow upon Robin his humanity. But even that would leave out the film's most glaring missing component, humor.
Rated PG-13. 140 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Edge of Darkness
Mel Gibson Atones, Defeated
By Cole Smithey
Acting in his first film since 2003 Mel Gibson is a bit rusty as retiring Boston homicide detective Thomas Craven in a part corporate-thriller and part old-school revenge fantasy that feels dated from the start. A gratuitously bloody murder sets up a gauntlet of corporate espionage Craven must navigate to investigate murder of his political-activist daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic). Danny Huston delivers some enjoyable scene chewing as corporate baddie Jack Bennett, but Ray Winstone seems to have been cast in a role cut-and-pasted from a different film. Director Martin Campbell's filmmaking is competent. He creates better than average chase scenes as well as the sudden deaths common in the revenge genre. Despite its formulaic storyline, insincere subplots, and a wobbly performance from Mel Gibson, quick pacing works to the film's advantage.
The assassination that locks in its inciting incident feels like something picked up from Sam Peckinpah's cutting room floor. It's a giveaway to how desperate the filmmakers are to sucker-punch the audience into submission for a story that it's better not to scrutinize too closely. After his daughter is killed, Craven and his police cohorts assume that he was the intended target of a botched assassination attempt. It's a convenient association that allows Craven to work on an otherwise conflict-of-interest case.
There's something odd about Mel Gibson atoning for his public, private, and professional transgressions of the last six years--that began with "The Passion of the Christ"--with a police procedural where he practically winks at the camera. In nearly every scene there's a moment where you can see Gibson "acting." In the face of his damaged public persona and fading looks Gibson seems clearly nervous about his ability to win over an audience. He does a little look-back to the camera at the end of several scenes, and his expression is unmistakable as an actor seeking approval from some imaginary source.
Similar to last year's "State of Play," "Edge of Darkness" is based on a six-part, 1985 British miniseries. And like "State of Play," this attempt at condensing six hours of narrative into 100 minutes results in underdeveloped characters overstating their positions in scenes that beg more questions than they address.
Emma worked as an intern for Northmoor, a private nuclear facility where six members of an anti-nuclear group recently turned up dead near an adjacent reservoir filled with toxic levels of nuclear waste. In an age where massive ecological transgressions are overlooked or dismissed, the story's political component is as stale as an invasion of another country in the Southern hemisphere.
There's no room for the kind of self-righteous avenging patriarch that Gibson imagines his character to represent. At best, a film like "Edge of Darkness" acknowledges the passing of an older, ostensibly wiser and more competent generation, giving way to a younger generation unable to get its collective head around the ravaged bits of culture shamelessly bequeathed to them. As an actor, Mel Gibson has become irrelevant because, for all of his great movies (see "Mad Max," "Gallipoli," and "Lethal Weapon") he went off on too many weird anti-Semitic tangents for his stage presence to withstand. You can sense it when Gibson gives those character-breaking glances back at what used to be a great career. The lesson of "Edge of Darkness" is the same one we see in the fall of every civilization. There's no such thing as "too big to fail."
Rated R. 108 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
Angels & Demons
What's the Antimatter?
Da Vinci Code Sequel Goes Through the Roof
By Cole Smithey
For all of the Catholic Church hullabaloo over Dan Brown's novels, Ron Howard's "Da Vinci Code" sequel is an exuberant cinematic adaptation that combines elements of horror, religious tradition, and high-tech suspense to give audiences a non-stop thrill ride. Tom Hanks returns to his role as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon who gets urgently summoned to Rome to assist the Swiss Guard, led by Stellan Skarsgard's Commander Richter, and the Vatican, in solving a mammoth crisis. The recent death of the Pope has left the Camerlengo--the temporary acting head of the Vatican State--(Ewan McGregor) overseeing conclave proceedings marred by the kidnapping of four eminent Cardinals by the infamous Illuminati, who have promised to kill one Cardinal each hour leading up to midnight when it will explode an antimatter bomb of unfathomable devastation. Aided by Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), Langdon jockeys between the Vatican's sealed archives to various churches, attempting to follow the Illuminati's path and save the lives of the four Cardinals and locate the bomb in time to diffuse it. The story goes into an extended triple climax that is so preposterously over the top that any concern for the sanctity of religion or historic fact falls to the wayside. It may not be the best thriller you've ever seen, but it is the best one of the year, so far.
The story's far out parameters are established inside CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research), a vast complex laboratory that holds the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world. Deep inside its imposing confines an unseen Illuminati interloper murders one of the technicians and removes one of the man's eyes to pass through pupil-identifying security corridors and obtain a canister of freshly minted antimatter that resembles a literal if tiny amount of lightening in a bottle. Ron Howard pulls the full Grand Guignol Monty and shows the extracted eyeball with its strands of bloody nerves hanging from it, thereby setting up the audience for many grotesqueries to follow. Vittoria discovers the body and its missing eye in a scene that could have come from a thousand horror movies.
The filmmakers clearly got the critical memos about "The Da Vinci Code," and have responded with plenty of gore underscored by a heart-racing score from Hans Zimmer ("The Dark Knight"). Rome's historic attractions take a high profile in spite of a lack of access for the filmmakers to many prominent church locations by Vatican officials. The Piazzas, facades, statues, the Sistine Chapel, and even the Trevi Fountain of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" provide a magnificent backdrop to what is essentially a grand scale chase movie. Screenwriters David Koepp ("War of the Worlds") and Akiva Goldsman ("I Am Legend") have abbreviated character aspects of Brown's book--Vittoria is left out of much of the action--in favor of building up a climax that, regardless of its absurdity, takes your breath away for the sheer boldness of Ron Howard's execution. Most impressive is the non-CGI look of colossal action sequences that will challenge even the most diehard Dan Brown detractors to not be entertained.
Unlike "The Da Vinci Code," everything here has been carefully thought out. Some of the early exposition falls from Tom Hanks' mouth like odd chunks of misshapen marble, but everything after the first act proceeds like a well oiled Ferrari. The film is not without humor, and Hanks walks a fine line in letting the audience decide when to laugh at his less graceful moments. Hanks seems not to take Langdon's character as seriously as he did in the first film, and his relaxation allows you to trust in him as more than a mechanized narrative instrument. When Langdon falls over with a bookshelf that he's using to break out of an enclosed room in the Vatican archives, it's an easy laugh. We're on a ridiculous journey with a guy who, for all of his book smarts, is a bit of a simp. The best part of all is that there's no romance. After all, this is a thriller, by God.
(Sony Pictures) Rated PG-13. 138 mins. (B+) (Four, out of five, Stars)
Dito Montiel Hits His Sophomore Slump
By Cole Smithey
Writer/director Dito Montiel drops down a few rungs after his promising debut film "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," with an undernourished drama about small-town fighter Shawn MacArthur (played by Channing Tatum) who comes to Manhattan where he meets two-bit hustler Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard). Harvey introduces Shawn to a world of underground street fighting, and Shawn proves himself a viable money-maker with an early steak of hard fought wins. The well-filmed impromptu bouts are appropriately gritty and energetic, but it's the film's romantic aspirations between Shawn and cocktail waitress Zulay (played by newcomer Zulay Valez) that provide a much-needed emotional lift to the otherwise dead-end social atmosphere. The ever-watchable Terrence Howard mixes things up with a quirky slowed-down accent that keeps you hanging on his every word, and Montiel cranks up the suspense with a third-act surprise climax that pays off nicely.
Channing Tatum's film career effectively took off in 2006 when his role as the quick-witted Antonio in "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" introduced audiences to the breadth of his easygoing charisma that has since found traction in recent films like Kimberly Pierce's "Stop-Loss." It's a card that Dito Montiel wisely plays again, albeit this time to a much more physically demanding degree for Tatum. "Fighting's" title puts aside any questions about the sort of genre story at hand, and to that end the filmmaker creates bare-knuckle fight sequences that have the kind of uncontained freestyle roaming quality of Martin Scorsese's celebrated bar brawl sequence in "Mean Streets." The Italian underground mob world of Scorsese's '70s era New York is transposed to a leaner modern-day Manhattan where a Russian-operated crime syndicate is responsible for promoting no-holds-barred fights in private locations for a select group of gamblers willing to bet large sums of money on the outcome. The Wall Street frat boys that show up to invest their cash with Harvey are the epitome of the kind of greedy testosterone-obsessed guys that America has come to loath.
Once we know that Shawn can handle himself in the ring, he runs into Evan Hailey (Brian White) a former wrestling teammate from high school in Birmingham, Alabama. Backstory provides that Shawn's father was their wrestling coach, who came between the two rivals during a knockdown-drag-out fight and suffered a series of unforgivable blows from Shawn's fists. It's this bit of teased-up personal drama that elicits an inevitable all-or-nothing match between Shawn and Evan that gives the movie its overflowing climax.
Unexpectedly, "Fighting" exudes romantic warmth in Shawn's courtship of Zulay, already a mother to a young daughter. During an extended scene in her grandmother's Bronx apartment the couple painstakingly pursue a first kiss that Zulay's familial chaperone actively attempts to prevent. Montiel lets the sequence go on longer than we expect, and the naturalistic humor that comes from the situation endears us to the characters.
"Fighting" seems like a no-brainer project for Dito Montiel that he needed to get out of his system before he can move back into an emotionally rarefied world as complex as that of his first film. Nonetheless, Montiel finishes "Fighting" with a narrative flourish that accomplishes the hoped-for effect of a movie aimed at romantically inclined urban audiences. No one has to keep fighting.
(Rogue Pictures) Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B-)
Baz Luhrmann Disappoints
By Cole Smithey
Its grandiose title might encourage visions of a sweeping epic romance but Baz Luhrmann's bloated and boisterous movie is little more than a computer-graphic assisted western that takes place over the period of a few months. Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a refined Brit who leaves England for Australia in 1939 to be with her cattle-raising husband on the wild and woolly plains of Australia. Too bad for Lady Ashley that her ostensibly adulterous hubby has just been murdered when she arrives at their enormous rural Faraway Downs estate where a 13-year-old half-Aboriginal boy named Nullah (memorably played by Brandon Walters) and his mother live. Lady Ashley fires the estate's thieving manager (played by David Wenham) and takes on a freelance cattle driver, referred to only as "the Drover" (Hugh Jackman), to help deliver a heard of 1,500 cattle to a seaside point of sale to the Australian military.
Baz Luhrmann never sets a consistent tone for movie. There's too much camp for the film to be taken as a serious drama, and the filmmaker flirts with outdated '30s era cinema conventions of a John Ford western like "Stagecoach" along with a mishmash of touches from "Out of Africa," "Gone With the Wind," and "The African Queen." Most disconcerting is David Hirschfelder's cheesy score that sounds like it was lifted from an episode of the old television show "Bonanza." The fact that Luhrmann tries to wrap it all up in a vaguely political statement about the treatment of Aboriginals in Australia is infuriating for its paucity of depth.
You know you're in trouble when the film opens up with voice-over narration from Nullah, peppered with slang colloquialisms that make it feel like you're being read a bedtime story by the same cheeky child that should be put to sleep. Nullah and his Aboriginal grandfather King George (David Gulpilil) fish from a stream that will soon be diluted with a white man's blood, for which King George will be wrongfully accused of spilling. Lady Ashley's arrival in a nearby Northern Territory town coincides with "the Dover" engaged in a bar brawl defending the honor of Aboriginals. Ashley's spiffy new luggage makes its way into the scrap and her frilly white unmentionables go flying onto the dusty ground for the entertainment of the gathered throng. The scene goofs the movie onto its knees with an idiosyncratic punctuation of presentational artifice that will be reinforced with every dollop of cinematic anachronism that Luhrmann compulsively adds in his signature hurdy gurdy manner.
For her contribution Nicole Kidman makes a glamorous if inauthentic portrayal of an Englishwoman who takes to Australia's parched landscape like a fish to water. In her home country the steely actress blends in too easily, so that any proposed narrative tension about her character's discomfort with her "new" surroundings is all but forgotten. Hugh Jackman fares considerably better filling the shoes of an underdog stereotype with more machismo than a Mel Gibson and George Clooney combined. Together the actors weave a spell that generates a chemistry that fortuitously connects the film's otherwise disjointed leaps of plot and exposition.
Baz Luhrmann made his kitchen sink allegory of mid-20th century Hollywood blockbusters to call attention to the more than 100,000 half-caste and fully Aboriginal children who were taken away from their families by the Australian state between 1869 and 1969. But It's a swath of Australian history far better approached in Phillip Noyce's "Rabbit Proof Fence" (2002), based on Doris Pilkington Garimara's book. If there's a triumph here, it rests squarely on the shoulders of the film's untrained actor Brandon Walters as a fearless carrier of a transcendent message of multiracial identity. His unspoken truth is that Australia, like every other colonized country, must face up to the truth of human equality. That aspect of Luhrmann's movie is one you have to look out for in spite of the film's surface distractions. It's nowhere in the script.
(20th Century Fox) Rated PG-13, 165 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)