At the Movies

At the Movies
By Tony Sheppard

The Grey
Directed by Joe Carnahan

The promotional materials for “The Grey” would happily cause you to believe that this is a “Jaws”-like adventure, with sharks replaced by wolves. And that’s certainly an easy way to sell a movie – but the truth is somewhat more complicated and worthy of greater respect.

This isn’t just a movie about men and wolves, and the conflict between them after a plane of oil rig workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Underneath that surface, it’s more about life and death and our ability to determine our own fate. Liam Neeson plays Ottway, a man whose job is to shoot wolves and other threats to the men who work in this desolate place. But he’s also a man with tragedy in his past and subsequently empty eyes. When the plane goes down, it triggers in him the need to survive – not so much because he has things to live for, but because he isn’t willing to let anybody or anything else dictate to him his own fate.

It’s an interesting and quite profound premise for what otherwise seems like a shallow action adventure. But it’s in keeping for co-writer and director Joe Carnahan, who tends to favor stories that are more complex than they appear.

Some detractors have complained that the behavior of the wolves in “The Grey” is unrealistic, but this isn’t a nature documentary. And the wolves themselves are not the only complication in the men’s lives, existing as they do alongside the extreme cold, remote location, and lack of supplies that the men are faced with. As such, the wolves are simply a part of a bundled obstacle, and no more or less a force of nature than the blizzards and low temperatures. They are there as a test within the context of the movie, increased to almost mythical size and action – becoming simply something to be overcome – and they might just as easily have been bears, ghouls, or invisible beings.

Within this context are some of the best on-film encounters with death – not simply in the sense of the elaborately staged violent ends that we have come to expect from the action genre, but philosophical contemplations of what it means to recognize and sometimes accept death, even when it isn’t sought out. And these are thought-provoking moments: As Carnahan himself has said “My ultimate goal, is that it plays for you for longer than the two hours it took to watch. That’s what I want – because I think so much of movies today are just disposable experiences.”*

The outcome is quite remarkable in that he’s made a film that can satisfy those who are simply looking for a solid roller coaster action adventure, but also those who like to ponder the deeper meaning of a film and the lessons it might evoke, over dinner afterwards, or the next day. It might even cure a dysfunctional family’s inability to choose a movie that appeals to both the parents and the teenagers.

*For more on “The Grey” see the separate, extended interview with director Joe Carnahan and Actor Frank Grillo, elsewhere in Capitol Weekly.

Red Tails
Directed by Anthony Hemingway

This is a story that deserved to be told – but I’m not sure this is the telling that it deserved.  “Red Tails” recounts the expertise and successes of the 332nd Fighter Group during WWII – better known as the “Tuskegee Airmen.” As the first African-American pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen were segregated from their white counterparts and initially denied any opportunity to participate in forward missions. This changed during a period in which American bomber squadrons were suffering heavy losses and they eventually became one of the most decorated units.

The problem is that the film appears to be both an homage to those pilots and also to the style of older war films. It’s the Tuskegee version of “The Green Berets” or “The Battle of Britain”- the film that was never made about the unit that was never celebrated. But that means that it’s trying to be too many things – with ground romances and enough witty banter to fill a sitcom. The only surprise it that there’s no dog or small local child waiting to see the pilots return.

The better way to honor the achievements might have been to simply show us more of them. It’s a film about pilots and flying that spends too little time in the air. However, on balance, the history lesson is worthwhile for a young, unaware audience even if not especially thorough.

Albert Nobbs
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

In one of the strongest (and Oscar-nominated) acting performances, Glenn Close plays Albert Nobbs – a woman who has passed as a man in order to find employment and security in 19th Century Ireland. It’s a story that should be appealing to fans of historic, costume dramas like “Gosford Park” or the current television sensation “Downton Abbey.” Nobbs lives in the rigid, classist society of the time, with a life that’s bound and defined on a day to day basis by status. But that doesn’t preclude dreams of a more rewarding future, complete with a relationship and a small tobacco store – except for the complication of gender.

What’s interesting is that this isn’t a film devoid of sexual politics, or questions pertaining to sexuality and transgender status – but these don’t especially pertain to Nobbs. An analogy might be a story like “Tootsie” in which a man dresses as a woman in order to secure an acting role, rather than for any intrinsic reason. But imagine what might then have happened if that same character continued to do so for thirty years and what might have happened to his self-identity.

The result is interesting and unconventional both in the character arc and the storytelling, with an inherent “be careful what you wish for” sentiment. And throughout, it’s an exercise in fine acting, not just from Close but also the supporting cast, especially the up and coming young Mia Wasikowska.

A Dangerous Method
Directed by David Cronenberg

The central relationship in “A Dangerous Method” is between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) as they each developed their own approaches and techniques in the new method of psycho-analysis. It’s a potentially fascinating story but one that fails to materialize onscreen. Even with Kiera Knightley as Sabrina Speilrein, a tortured young patient of Jung’s, complete with significant sexual revelations, the film seems to plod along.

The first half, in particular, is a little too deliberate and when you have a drama that ends up seeming less dramatic than a History Channel documentary might, you know you have problems. The acting is fine but the story and pacing are off. It’s telling that I sat watching the movie and pondering related subjects more than the film itself – like the fact that Michael Fassbender is in three films that have just opened (this plus “Haywire” and “Shame”) and that this is the third recent collaboration with David Cronenberg directing and Mortensen in the lead (this plus “Eastern Promises” and “A History of Violence”). I’d take at least three of those other films over this one.

Man on a Ledge
Directed by Asger Leth

The most conventional of this week’s reviewed movies, “Man on a Ledge” tells the story of an ex-cop who arranges his own escape from jail following a wrongful conviction. He then stakes out a high hotel window ledge in an attempt to focus attention on his case. The ledge idea itself sets up an interesting dynamic, but i
t’s essentially just a device to enable him to dictate terms and could just as easily have been a bomb or a hostage in a small room. 

As the story unfolds, the true scope of the plan is revealed – although it’s also one of those films in which the actions of others are often predicted a few too many moves in advance. It’s well put together with acting that’s comfortable for the genre, and meets modest expectations. Sam Worthington plays the lead with Jaime Bell as his younger brother, and Ed Harris is an easy to hate real estate tycoon and villain. This one isn’t going to cause you to think as much as the others, but it will pass the time quite effectively.

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