THE GREY

By R. David

Published January 27, 2012

‘”The Grey” is one hell of a bleak film.  Like the extreme set of circumstances that befall its protagonists, it is an adventure to be endured rather than enjoyed.  Think a snowbound “Deliverance” with marauding, near-demonic wolves in place of hillbilly rapists.  There is little levity – little hope – as the circumstance mount, making any sort of “happy ending” all but impossible.  The film offers something of a catharsis for a few of its characters (and thereby for the audience), but it is of little consolation.  That, I’m assuming, is precisely the point.  It’s a ballsy move for what is ostensibly an action/adventure flick (it’s certainly being promoted as one); and ballsy is always a welcome thing in a time of rote, toothless, mainstream crowd-pleasers.  But ballsy by itself does not equal perfection.

“The Grey” has a simple and inherently gripping story (as most truly effective thrillers tend to), unfortunately it stumbles when it tries to beef-up that simplicity or make grandiose statements about life and death, faith and love.  These things should be implied in a story of survival  rather than spelled-out so obviously and literally.  There are also some impossible-to-ignore potholes that often threaten to derail the drama (and the emotional weight specific scenes are supposed to carry) completely.

As the film begins, a motley crew of roughneck oil-drillers are flying over the Alaskan wilderness when their plane suddenly spirals out of control and slams into the remote, snow-drenched countryside.  All but a handful of the men survive, but they soon discover that surviving may not have been such a blessing as they face not only the harsh weather and lack of food, but soon find themselves being hunted by a gang of ravenous wolves.  Luckily, one of the survivors is Ottway (Neeson), a sharp-shooter hired by the oil company to keep bears, wolves and other animal threats away from the refineries.  Unfortunately, Ottway is suicidal after separating from his wife.  He dreams of her in flashback, and the film is slow to reveal why they are no longer together (why they save the answer for the end as if its some sort of major twist, I’m not sure).  In fact, each of the surviving riggers all have at least one demon they are wrestling with, all of which are revealed as the men argue, fight and bond throughout their ordeal.  Thanks to his obvious survival skills and fearlessness of death, Ottway becomes the defacto leader of the group, a decision that does not sit well with some of the more prideful tough-guy riggers.  They fight against the elements, the wolves and each other as they struggle to stay alive and maintain their humanity in the face of the mounting odds.

“The Grey” has a lot going for it, especially on a technical level.  Credit must go to director Joe Carnahan, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, and their sound teams.  Sitting in the theater you’d swear you could almost feel the harsh wind and blinding snow of the Alaskan wilderness slapping you in the face.  The wolves and the plane crash FX are also well done and convincing.  And Neeson, as usual, makes for a strong presence, although he could play this role in his sleep by this point.  Less effective are the film’s more generic elements.  The men squabbling, then bonding, then getting picked off one by one is predictable stuff.  It’s all made harder to take as each man reveals a backstory chalk full tragedy or regret.  First we hate them, then we feel sorry them, then they die.  That’s just lazy and manipulative writing on director Carnahan’s (who also wrote the screenplay) part.  Give the actors (who include Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, James Badge Dale, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson) credit, they sell the stuff about as well as anyone could reasonably expect; but that doesn’t make it feel any less derivative.

And then there are the wolves.  As I said, they are technically well conceived, but Carnahan turns them into a gang of Freddy Krugers.  They aren’t just starving and see the men as food, or protecting their turf because they view them as a threat.  No, they are a crew of serial killers; hunting these men down at any cost, following them through the roughest terrain and at considerable loss of their own kind.  And not only are they really committed to their cause, but they apparently have super powers.  In one scene, the remaining men have to scale across a huge chasm with a hundred foot drop and only trees on the other side.  They go to all sorts of great lengths figuring out how to cross it and then return to ground once on the other side because, well, the wolves are on their tails, right?  Well, the first guy to make it across is immediately attacked by the wolves.  How does that work?  Are the wolves impervious to huge drops?  Do they defy gravity?  Or did they just know a short cut?

“The Grey” is full of laugh-out-lot goobers like this that.  While it is the sort of movie you need to suspend a little disbelief (they all look pretty good and are pretty mobile for just walking out of a plane crash, and how they haven’t succumbed to frost bite or any other number of element-related fatalities is pretty miraculous), still some of the coincidences and leaps of logic border on insulting.  The climax, for instance, has Neeson surrounded by half a dozen wolves.  Do they all just charge him and rip him to shreds (they have been chasing after this guy for days after all)?  No.  Apparently it was decided amongst the wolves at a meeting or something that only the alpha wolf gets to kill Liam Neeson.  Okay, fine, I get it, the two top guys in their respective crews are gonna face off.  That still makes no sense, but sure, typically a film’s hero takes on the biggest, nastiest villain of the bunch at the end.  I can accept that.  But does alphawolf charge Neeson at first sight as a wolf would?  No.  Like brawlers in a ring, they have a stare down which lasts long enough for Neeson have another flashback to his wife, reveal what the deal was with her to the audience, flashback to his childhood, recite a poem his father wrote, and create a Freddy Kruger glove out of electrical tape and travel sized vodka bottles.  That’s some code of conduct these wolves have, letting their prey get all their guilt off their chest and create a weapon in hopes of ensuring a fair fight before pouncing.  The only thing missing in that scene was one of them slapping the other in the face with a dueling glove and each taking ten paces.  And that’s the last scene!  The thing the film leaves you with!

The film is also rife with hamfisted ruminations on life and death, love and spirituality.  None of it is particularly profound or original.  You have to give the movie credit though for trying to be thinking-man’s action picture.  It’s just, if you want to play up the brainy, thoughtful angle, what’s with all the laughable leaps of logic?  Then again, without these cornball moments, there would be almost no levity at all in “The Grey”.  It is one of those movies where people with already shitty lives have more shitty things happen to them (in this case getting eaten by wolves) and then die.  Any catharsis or spiritual redemption they experience comes in the face of death, which means it’s too late, which is, you know, just damn depressing.

“The Grey” certainly has a tone it is striving for.  Just like the haunting and unforgivingly cold and desolate wasteland the characters are stranded in, the film is bleak.  It gets that right.  If you can ignore some of the goofier and generic script elements, can handle a film with little in the way of uplift, and just want to see a well-crafted survival of the fittest tale, “The Grey” will probably work for you on a simple visceral level.

2 and a half stars out of 4.

HAYWIRE

By R. David

Published January 20th, 2012

There’s a telling a scene about a quarter of the way into “Haywire”, director Steven Soderbergh’s kitschy throwback to the bad-ass babes exploitation films of the 70s. The film’s hero, Mallory Kane (played by retired MMA fighter and former American Gladiator Gina Carrano in her feature acting debut), is sitting in one of those only-in-the-movies stakeout vans, laying out her entire mission. She has the photos of all of the key players taped to the wall, with little title cards under each picture that say things like, “Hostage” and “Terrorist”. Everything in this scene serves as a summary of the film’s problems. The characters are so broadly drawn and under-developed, they are little more than generic action movie ‘types’. They all have names, but they might as well go by “Hero”, “Bad Guy”, “Traitor” and so on. Also, the plot is contrived and by the numbers, yet also so convoluted that the film seems to require scenes like the one mentioned simply to keep the audience up to speed as to who’s who and their motivations. Not that it makes much difference. All you really need to know is that Kane is one of those CIA agents who transcends mere agent status and is some sort of living legend (people say things about her like, “You’re the only one who can do this,” and “I wouldn’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake”), and the very company that employs her is now trying to kill her.

What makes Mallory such a force to be reckoned with, however, is readily apparent from “Haywire’s” first scene; a down and dirty diner brawl between Kane and Aaron (Channing Tatum), her former teammate (and fling) who is sent by “the organization” to “bring her in” (most of the dialog consists of murky, spy flick cliches such as this). Soderbergh stages their throwdown with a bracing, cinema verite style realism. The camera does not jump and cut in order to “create” the action, nor does Soderbergh rely on disorienting close-ups for some sort of feverish effect; but rather the action is shot in wide angles, with minimal cuts and movements, as if capturing something actually happening, rather than creating it. Similarly, there is no music during any of the fight sequences in “Haywire”, allowing the sound of each punch, kick and jab landed to resonate with maximum impact. Of course, it is to the performers’ credit that Soderbergh doesn’t have to punch up the action sequences with technical effects in order to make them more thrilling. It’s easy to see why Carrano was a star in her former field. She’s like a slingshot:  devastatingly fast and precise. She is a kick to watch; the experience is similar to what I remember feeling the first time I saw a Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal or Jackie Chan film: An action star moving – fighting – in a way I’d never quite seen before. Carrano has her work more cut out for than the Hollywood martial art action stars of the past though. These days action audiences are used to being able to see any actor look like a martial arts expert thanks to the use of wire technology and CGI. She may have to keep reminding audiences, “Hey, I am really doing all this.” Credit Soderbergh for realizing what he has in her and her skill and allowing her to simply perform without cluttering up the scene with a lot of movie-making tricks.

Her technical prowess aside, however, Carrano is still a long way from being a convincing actress. She seems uncomfortable when called on to do any acting that doesn’t involve throwing some guy around a room. Her line readings range from flat to laughably unconvincing. Luckily, Soderbergh keeps her too busy running around and kicking butt to spend much time delivering long lines of exposition. And he crafts some doozies for her to get out of. There is a long foot chase sequence that is an homage to the oft-used birds-eye view chase scenes in 70s action films ranging exploitation flicks like “Shaft” and “Dolemite” to mainstream action fare like “Dirty Harry”, in which the actors scale fire escapes, leap across rooftops, and duck down alleyways (Soderbergh even traffics in a 70s-ish funky bass driven score for these momnets); a thrilling car chase in which Mallory finds herself driving a car in reverse, through the woods, while being chased by the cops; and in the film’s most brutal fight scene, Carrano and Micahel Fassbender destroy a hotel room while trying to destroy each other.

Yes, Soderbergh gets the action and the throwback vibe just right. Where “Haywire” falls apart is in its plotting, dialog, anything resembling logic, and the plotholes Carrano could dropkick a thug through. I can accept – even appreciate – that certain action films, especially ones made with an intent to emphasize style over substance, are going to be light on plot and logic. But this film wants to have it both ways. It has way too much story for its own good, and much of it doesn’t make sense or ring the least bit true. Less would have certainly been more. As thrilling as that battle to the death with Fassbender is, why would Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), the head of Mallory’s organization (and another former lover – the girl has no problem with relationships in the workplace, I guess), go through all the trouble of convincing her to accept a mission in which she plays Fassbender’s wife, fly her half way around the world, risk her discovering more of his secrets, all just to set her up? He couldn’t just shoot her while he’s sitting in her apartment offering her the mission. Similarly, why would Fassbender wait until they return to their hotel room after a dinner party to try to kill her when he could simply pop her while she’s showering or getting dressed before hand?

These are the sort of questions you’re not really supposed to ask during movies like “Haywire”. You’re supposed to just go along for the ride. Carrano and Soderbergh each bring enough to the table to almost make that possible. But the film insists on bogging down in plot details when it should be doing all it can to distract from them. “Haywire” is overall a decent action flick, but I wish it were shorter, far less convoluted and given us more of those exciting, expertly shot action sequences and less of its generic and unrealized espionage storyline.

3 stars out of 4.

CONTRABAND

By R. David

Published January 13th, 2012
“Contraband” is the sort of typically generic January action thriller that doesn’t have the budget or ambition to thrive in the summer, or the wit and originality to go up against the Oscar contenders of the fall.  The only surprising thing about “Contraband” is that it doesn’t star Jason Statham, who seems to have a lock on releasing familiar action thrillers during the off-season of major Hollywood films.

Instead, Mark Whalberg stars here as Chris Farraday, a – and stop me if you’ve heard this one – master-thief/gun-runner gone straight who agrees to do one last job in order to keep local drug-running hooligan Tim Briggs (an an over the top, scenery-chewing Giovani Ribisi) from murdering his fuck-up younger brother-in-law for botching a job.  Though he’s now a family man and small business owner (home security – #irony), Whalberg has no trouble reassembling his old team and concocting a convoluted plan to ship a bunch of guns back from Panama on a freighter boat.  He entrusts his best friend, Sebastian (Ben Foster, who despite a ton of critical acclaim, continues to slum it in forgettable genre fare like this) to look after his wife (Kate Beckinsale, similarly committed to achieving career banality with each project); but wouldn’t you know it, he might just have some secrets of his own.

“Contraband” aspires to be no better than it needs to be.  I suppose you could argue it delivers on its simple premise by offering up the requisite conflicts, action sequences and tough guy performances and dialog.  Whalberg is solid enough, but it is a role he or any other halfway capable actor could pull off in their sleep.  By contrast, Ribisi seems to be trying to inject some sort of memorably crazy energy into his role.  I’m not sure his choice to deliver his lines like a nasally asthmatic was the way to go – you’re never quite sure if he is going for some sort of comedic irony by playing the heavy as an all bark and no bite twerp, or if he’s just failing to be as intimidating as he’s supposed to be – but at least he’s trying.  (I wonder if he realizes he is playing the exact opposite of the character he played in 2000’s “Gone in 60 Seconds”; in which his retired car thief big brother (Nicolas Cage) was forced into one last heist in order to prevent a kingpin from murdering him.) The film’s best performance comes from a nearly-unrecognizable, hilariously profane J.K. Simmons as a corrupt ship captain.  He seems to be having a lot of fun playing against type.  Everyone else just looks sleepy as they go through the rote motions of the inane plot.

“Contraband” will only please the most forgiving action audiences.  It’s not terrible of its type, but its instantly forgettable and indistinguishable from any number of similarly standard genre exercises.

2 stars out of 4.

A GOOD OLD FASHIONED ORGY

By R. David

Published December 25, 2011

A group of 30-something lifelong friends spend each weekend throwing wild parties at Eric’s (Jason Sudeikis) father’s summer home in the Hamptons; but when Dad decides to its time to sell his son’s party pad, the gang concludes the they need to come up with something special for their last big blowout. So, an orgy. Of course!

Despite the obviously far-fetched idea – and the bluntly ribald title – “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy” is a far more natural, relaxed and personable film than most would expect. The script is clever and the cast of familiar (though not-quite household name) comedic actors is extremely likeable (especially the easy rapport between Sudeikis – in his best feature performance to date – and “Reaper’s” Tyler Labine). The movie does get bogged down in certain cliches and genre convention from time to time, but overall it’s a pleasant and funny farce that manages to achieve just the right balance of the raunchy humor and titillation promised by the title, and clever insights about friendship and lives that are idle in their 30s.  A pleasant surprise.

3 stars out of 4.