Monday, January 30, 2012

Baby, I'm Howlin' For You: A Review of The Grey

     Movie trailers can very misleading, and the trailer for The Grey, the newest film to feature Liam Neeson kicking ass (becoming a nice little sub-genre of its own), is no exception: near the end of the preview--which has been on every television station every five minutes for the past month--Neeson's character, Ottway, constructs a homemade version of brass knuckles made out of broken mini liquor bottles (known in my neck of the woods as "nips") and tape, ready to take on a wolf snarling in his direction. The fight that is sure to follow is never shown in the film. Pretend someone asked me this question outside of the movie theater: "Do you think you will enjoy The Grey if Liam Neeson doesn't punch a wolf in the face with shards of glass stuck to his hand?" My answer would have been a resounding "no". Thankfully, I was wrong. The Grey is an early bright spot in the year 2012, a film that is manly, exciting, thoughtful and had me completely transfixed throughout the entire run time.
     Ottway works for an oil company that is based is the freezing-cold far north. He's a sharp shooter that keeps wolves away from the equipment and other employees. The Grey begins with a voice over of Ottway describing the dreadful situation: most of the oil drillers are ex-cons and violent men, cut off from the rest of the world. Not many have any redeemable qualities, at least at first. It's almost like an art-house film at the beginning, with Ottway's calm voice, the freezing cold and snow, and flash-backs of Ottway in bed with with his wife, clearly the only person in the world that means anything to him.
     Ottway and a plethora of other workers enter a plane to fly out on leave. It's stormy, and the dread builds quickly as things start going wrong with the flight. What follows is an extremely disturbing and intense plane crash (this isn't giving anything away if you've seen five seconds of any of the trailers). Seriously, I would not watch this if I were flying on a plane anytime soon--the sound effects are particularly great. Seven men are left alive, but that number quickly dwindles once one gets brutally attacked by a ferocious wolf.
     The film reminded me of me of 1982's John Carpenter version of The Thing, an absolute classic of isolation and horror. With only a few main characters who are cut off from the outside world, each individual is original and well-developed. There's plenty of time for conversation for the men while they wait out winter's elements and wolf attacks, filled with philosophy and discussions on life and (especially) death. We learn the most back story on Ottway, who was contemplating suicide the day before the fateful plane crash. The wolves, not unlike the alien creature in The Thing, are terrifying, violent and smart. They hunt in formations, take out the stragglers fist, and try to outsmart their potential prey instead of overpower them. As Ottway takes the reigns of the situation and becomes somewhat of a leader, he knows they must take down these creatures if they want to stand a chance. But they are also fighting an even more powerful foe: weather--ice, blizzards, and high winds smother the treacherous terrain.
     At one point in the film, Ottway--after seeing and suffering terrible things--calls out to above, begging for help. The camera focuses on the blank sky, looking for an answer. There is, obviously, no response. And there wouldn't be in The Grey, a film that's honest and philosophical in its questions of faith and the notion that a God could put humans in circumstances are terrible as this. Each man must come to grips with his own potential fate, and--God-fearing or not--the wolves continue to attack and winter's weather keeps building layer upon layer of dread and snow.     (A-)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Though Fassbender Hangs Dong, It's Tough to Get Super Aroused Over Shame

     Director Steve McQueen's first film, Hunger, was released in 2008 to critical and film festival acclaim. It also starred Michael Fassbender, portraying Bobby Sands, an IRA member who started a hunger strike in prison (along with a no-wash protest). Sands was a Republican trying to regain political status when, in 1976, the British Government took it away. The film was honest and brutal and filmed in such an unflinching way that it was impossible to look in the other direction, no matter how badly you might like to. McQueen's second and newest film, Shame, is profoundly similar: starring Michael Fassbender as a sex addict whose sole purpose in life seems to be reaching sexual climax, the film shows an honest portrait of an addict throughout every dirty, shameful and pleasure-inducing moment in his daily life. It's a tough but worthwhile watch.
     Brandon (Fassbender) is a man in his 30's living in a clean and bright (you can almost smell the Lysol and Scrubbing Bubbles) apartment in New York City. He works with a computer all day long for an upscale company that deals with stocks or whatever. The viewer doesn't really care what Brandon does for a job, because Brandon doesn't care what he does for a job. The only jobs he cares about is hand and blow--maybe foot too, but the film doesn't delve that far into unique fetishes. Brandon wakes up in the morning and jerks off in the shower. He goes to work and uses the bathroom stall to conceal his masturbation. He gets home from work, immediately opens his laptop and cuffs it to live porno video feeds. Sometimes he goes out with his boss and picks up girls who he fucks in various locations, positions and holes. It does not matter to Brandon. Getting off is his only way to get through the day.
    Shame is not funny (at least not in the LOL! sense), nor is it supposed to be. Brandon's addiction is treated the same as a heroin user or a crack fiend. At first he has it somewhat in control (if you can call wanking it at work under control), but that all changes once his sister, Sissy (played wonderfully incestuous and needy by Carey Mulligan, the it-girl of indie films lately), re-enters his life and starts crashing at his apartment, which consequently crashes the perfected routine of Brandon's orgasm-obsessed life. Like most addicts, thing's fall into a downward spiral quickly once he stops getting exactly what he want's when he wants it.

     Shame isn't like most theatrical films dealing with sex. For instance, it's rated the dreaded (for box-office earnings) NC-17. The only reason it expanded to more than a few select cities is because of it's attention by the awards season ceremonies and the unflinching performances. And boy does it earn its NC-17 rating: filled with penis, pussy and dozens of minutes of intense sexual encounters of varying degree and danger, Shame isn't going to be a big hit among people who get uncomfortable looking at naked bodies (religious people). There are also scenes of extremely graphic sexual talk and there's even some homosexual plowing and blowjobs, so if that sort of thing offends you (religious people), Shame isn't a good choice for your Friday night movie.
     The film is--obviously--buoyed by Fassbender's performance and McQueen's direction. For being an art-house type movie director, McQueen is good at staying away from the normal pretentiousness that can bog down many a film. He shows a scene, and we form our own opinions. There are no political ideals present, no hatred towards its characters, no viewpoints other than what our eyes can see. Shame looks slick, and every camera angle looks like it perfectly fits into the bigger puzzle of the whole film. The camera staying on Brandon's face during an intense climax, the camera spinning to show the engagement ring of a flirtatious girl, the camera fixating on a broken don't walk sign--all of these are equally important and all mean something.
     Fassbender: wow, that man has some testicular fortitude to take on a role such as this. The movie, at its center, is about suffering. Suffering from an addiction that can't be tamed, no matter how many times Brandon gets off on a given day. We see him at his most private, embarrassing moments, and the great Fassbender acts them out with honesty and skill. Get this man some recognition. However, there is a bigger question when it comes to Shame: is it enjoyable? Well, that just depends on what your idea of enjoyable really is. It's all relative. If you enjoy good film making, acting, and stories about addiction, the film should be just your cup of tea. If you don't enjoy depressing, tough films about real subject matter, I'd suggest grabbing a ticket for another film (I hear Red Tails is out). Me: Shame is great, Shame is intense, but Shame is a tough watch. I respected it and liked it a whole lot, but wouldn't go far enough to say I loved it.     (B)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Filled with Star Power, Haywire Provides an Erratic Ride

     Very soon after the previews roll, the lights in the theater fade to darkness, and everyone gets settled into their seats for director Steven Soderbergh's newest film, Haywire, Mallory Kane--portrayed by MMA super-fighter Gina Carano--is getting scalding-hot coffee tossed into her face and a man's powerful fists smashing her head against the floor. It's a surprising and brutal start to the film, but one that is effective in relaying a message to the audience: be ready for a film with no-holds-barred realistic violence against both sexes, a film that's trying to avoid typical action movie predictability. In that regard, it (mostly) succeeds: Haywire is 2012's first film worth seeing, a film that is solely based around Gina Carano's impressive and sexy martial arts skills and not too concerned about plot or plausibility (and it doesn't need to be).
     The plot is basically construed to be a variety of scenes that put Mallory in jeopardy. She's an employee of a secret government agency, an agency that sends people into various exotic locales to retrieve items, shoot bad guys, and free hostages. Haywire starts in the present, with Mallory on the run, and much of the film is arranged in flashbacks showing how the smart agent is in her current dire situation. She gets betrayed by a myriad of people at every turn, and one has to think how this agency has survived as long as it has with all of the double crossing. After a mysterious mission in Barcelona, Mallory isn't even finished unpacking before her boss sends her on another mission, one that is supposed to be a cakewalk. This sets off a chain of events that leaves behind many bloody bodies and bruised faces.
     Though--as I stated before--the film is basically a showcase for Gina Carano's fighting skills, what a damn good cast Haywire has. Mallory's ex-boyfriend and the firm's director, Kenneth, is portrayed by Ewan McGregor (who has shown his great range lately in The Ghost Writer and Beginners), clearly relishing his role as a man of power with questionable morals. Mallory and Kenneth have been hired for the dangerous mission by Government agent Coblenz, portrayed by Michael Douglas in his typical charming yet snaky characterization. His contact is Rodrigo, played by Antonio Banderas as a rich man who may be in over his head. Bill Paxton is Mallory's dad, John, the only person she can trust, a man in which every situation is analyzed with a militaristic mentality in his mind. The ever-watchable Michael Fassbender portrays a British agent with an agenda of his own. It's quite amazing that Soderbergh has wrangled in a cast such as this, because many of them are just bit characters who are present to be punching bags instead of a showcase of acting ability.
    The best part of Haywire is a breath of fresh air compared to most of the hundreds of generic action films that come out every year. The fight scenes seem extremely realistic and feel much more painful than typical fighting fare. There's a reason for this: the elaborate and technical fight scenes are mostly filmed with static camera angles that allow the viewer to really watch. This isn't like the Bourne movies, where the quick camera cutting from punch to kick make Matt Damon's ability seem faster than lightning striking. These fights are damn real: they're slower and more controlled, and there are lulls in the action where the actors gather themselves before going in for more. Give credit to the cast for taking a beating, because--after watching the one-after-another fight scenes in Haywire--it's easy to guarantee that they were extremely sore and bruised the next day.
      Is Gina Carano the "next big thing" in female action stars? That's a tougher question. Though she clearly isn't a wonderful actress yet (most of the scenes which involve her in dialogue don't work as well as her giving an ass-kicking), Haywire is a great showcase of her screen presence, stamina, and sexuality. I could see her getting better and better if she decides to pursue a career in acting instead of beating real women to near-death. Though the film has an anorexic-thin story and is basically just a good distraction for a snowy winter afternoon, Haywire succeeds in what it sets out to do: become a top-of-the-line genre action film that puts more stock into style than into substance.     (B)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Glitter among the Chickenfeed: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is Tailored to be One of the Best of the Year

     You can count on confusion setting in early in the run time of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the 2011 film directed by Tomas Alfredson, (who surprisingly also directed the great Let the Right One In). It's the common--and correct--reaction: characters wander from one dreary place to another, entering a dark room or answering a phone, and the scenes deftly switch to the next just as--one would think--the previous scene was just beginning. It's an interesting technique, but it works beautifully in making the viewer realize what type of film he/she is watching: a paranoid story about confusion and espionage. Starring a subdued and wonderful Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, if you have a little patience and can understand thick British accents, a little gem of a film that ranks among some of the year's best.
     The plot is complicated for those who haven't read the the 1974 spy novel of the same name by John le Carre. I'll try and simplify the best I can: it's the height of the Cold War. A Soviet spy is supposedly embedded within the MI6 (the British intelligence agency). This so-called "mole" is (probably) one of six men who can make significant decisions at the top of the food chain of MI6, code named The Circus. The cast is incredible, a total who's who of great actors that are legends or are quickly on their way.
      Mr. Smiley (Oldman) has recently been forced into retirement, but accepts a job to quietly try to find out who is releasing life-or-death information. Oldman plays it calm and collected, but he's a man that cuts through all of the shit to get the correct intelligence. Smiley's partner, the young up-and-comer Peter, is an inside man who seemingly will do anything to satisfy Smiley. Peter is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, a face we'll sure be seeing a lot more of due to the fact that he will be the next villain in the coming Star Trek sequel. Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, and Toby Jones are also possible suspects. All of these great names, and still some of the best scenes of the movie are acted out by the (awe-inspiring) Tom Hardy, playing an on-the-run agent with too much information, and Mark Strong (great in The Guard) an agent on a fool's errand who may or may not have been assassinated.
     Before you get too excited about all of the potential for violence and chase scenes, let me warn you: James Bond this ain't. Where the 007 films create excitement through bullets, fisticuffs, and gadgets, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy creates excitement through harsh words, the threat of harm or torture, and tension that--like the film's fog, rain and dreariness--never breaks. The majority of the violence takes place off screen. This is a film about mood and words, where men in trench coats walk into rain-covered alleys and dank homes and have conversations and arguments that go in circles and never quite let you in on the secret of who the mole really is. It's the opposite of a terrible film such as Fast Five, which I, very unfortunately, viewed the following evening. 
     Among the heaping of praise, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does have some detriments: it's nearly impossible  to fully comprehend every event that happens in the film if you're not already familiar with the book, especially in the first third of the film. Soon after we barely meet the characters, many of them seem quite suspicious even though we don't know enough about them to have an opinion one way or the other. The cast is huge, and keeping track of names and locations doesn't quite become a chore, but it is certainly difficult nonetheless. Overall, though, the film works. Anchored by the calming performance of Gary Oldman, the amazingly realistic settings and tones, the exciting smaller roles of Tom Hardy and Mark Strong, and the tension that slowly fills every scene like rain in a clogged gutter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a puzzle of paranoia that I couldn't help try to figure out.     (A-)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Netflix This: Beginners

     Beginners is about Hal and Oliver, a father and son who find love in unlikely places. The woman in their lives (wife, mother), Georgia, has recently died, and Hal has a curious confession: "I'm Gay." So begins the story of this loving father and son's second chance at happiness. Hal and Georgia had been married for 38 years, so the news is a shock to Oliver, who has relationship problems of his own, never being able to make a connection with anyone meaningful.
     Both find a new meaning in life when opening up to others about their true thoughts, feelings and convictions. Hal has found a new boyfriend, and is absolutely joyous at the thought of actually being able to live a gay lifestyle out in the open, no longer confined to the standards and morals of a heterosexual marriage. Christopher Plummer, sure to be recognized for this small but great role during awards season, portrays Hal as an extremely loving and caring man. He dances, drinks great wine, attends parties with flash and flair, all the while concealing to everyone that he is dying of cancer other than a select few loved ones. Oliver meets a new girl at a costume party, the first encounter being cute and eccentric, due to new girl's laryngitis. New girl is Anna, portrayed by Inglorious Basterd's Melanie Laurent as a woman with plenty of beauty, uniqueness and distance to keep Oliver interested. Ewan McGregor portrays Oliver with a charming sadness, one who finds it hard to be truly happy in a world that doesn't make much sense.
     Three time lines make up Beginners, seamlessly changing between Oliver's childhood memories of spending time with his mother, the hard time with Anna after his father's death, and the short period of time where Hal finally came out of the closet and enjoyed his gay lifestyle. This doesn't ruin the story: it's about the journey rather than the outcome. Beginners is about people just trying to be happy, whether they have their entire, fruitful lives ahead of them or only a couple of months left to live. Certain scenes in Beginners involve Hal's dog, Arthur, whom Oliver has grown to think of as a loving friend and companion. We read what Arthur is barking and thinking, because it's subtitled into the English language. He, like most dogs wouldn't be, isn't concerned with opinions or emotions and tells things how they are. Thankfully, Beginners is the same way: it's simple and effective, and shows us the love and lives of two characters who have been hiding in one metaphorical closet or another.