Tag Archives: R

Way late review: The Grey


Based on how some (many?) would describe The Grey, it was all about Liam Neeson punching some wolves in the face. When did Liam Neeson become 80’s circa Sylvester Stallone? I remember him most for his roles in Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, and Rob Roy. Certainly it’s the 2000’s where Neeson’s name becomes associated with big action with little brains. The Grey is a little more intelligent and nuanced than his action films of late. In other words, there is more to it than awesome action set pieces and our favorite Irish tough guy bashing in the brains of monster wolves.

Some rough and tumble guys make a living drilling for oil in Alaska. John Ottway (Liam Neeson) has the honor of protecting them from wolves. He uses a rifle to pick off the predators before the canines pick off the men. The team sets off for a new job on a flight. The ride goes from rough to tragic and crashes into the Alaskan wilderness. Seven men survive only to find themselves in a new battle for their lives. They’re being hunted by a pack of wolves whose territory they’ve intruded on. To call these animals “wolves” is like calling a T-Rex “Barney”. These wolves are on the Barry Bonds training program. In fact, Barry Bonds would likely advise these wolves to lay off the PEDs.

Ottway is the leader. While most of the others either suffer from trauma or varying degrees of immaturity, Ottway rounds up the troops and provides direction. One slight problem. Ottway was only moments away from ending his own life before making this trip. He is haunted by the loss of his wife. Now, thrust in the midst of a near death experience, the wolf hunter finds himself fighting for life – his and those around him.

Jump scares are plentiful. The sounds of wolf attacks are as brutal as anything actually shown. The dire situation makes for a non-stop survival thriller. And yet, in the quieter moments the thoughts about nearing death seeps in. The quip that there are no atheists in a fox hole doesn’t play out in The Grey. We don’t get to know the men alongside Ottway all that well, but we find that most cling to what they see and experience. There are moments where faith in a creator are displayed or called into question – or both at the same time; but the bulk of the men come back clinging to the observation made in the very book most of them mock: eat, drink and be merry. Of course, there is little to be merry about while ravenous wolves track your every footstep. There is no rest for these men. Death is inevitable for all, but for these men it feels inevitably close.

More than a wilderness survival thriller, The Grey takes the sub-genre and contemplates the biggest moment in all our lives – the end. There are no answers provided, no sermons preached. The men examine what matters most to them and often come up with little. Their fight against the odds is compelling. And, yes, you get to see Liam Neeson punch a wolf in the face.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Margaret

I used to wonder what happened to Kenneth Lonergan, director of a film I adore, You Can Count on Me. It’s been roughly a dozen years since that near masterpiece of a film was released. Apparently Longergan was in a bit of a mess with Fox Searchlight over his next film which was shot in 2005. That film, Margaret finally found its way out in a very limited theater release in 2011. And in 2012 I finally got to see it.

The plot driving Margaret is rather simple. A high school girl, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), witnesses a bus accident she feels she was at least partially at fault for. Lisa then struggles to deal with the aftermath. Rather straightforward yet the layers are many. The people weaving in and out of Lisa’s life, some right through the core and others on the periphery, are numerous. Scenes from one story line cut abruptly into another.

Lisa is an unlikable character. Before the accident wrecks havoc on her, she is shown to be manipulative. In fairness, the adults in her lives aren’t exactly role models. Her math teacher (Matt Damon) proves to cross the line from caring to creepy. Her dad is on the other coast and is so passive in his moments on screen that it makes Lisa look like a competent decision maker. Lisa’s mom is a broadway actress who takes care of Lisa and her brother in New York City but most of the film shows the young grade school boy fending for himself. He seems to enter and leave the house on a whim. Lisa does the same.

Margaret attempts to examine the lives of those in and around Lisa’s life. There are powerful scenes mixed throughout, the problem becomes the thin thread that holds it all together. The film could have been five hours long and only scratched the surface of the many topics and themes hinted at throughout the theatrical cut. The editing seems frantically disjointed at times as characters flash on the screen and then sometimes don’t reappear until much later, if at all.

In between all the chaos is Lisa’s attempt at ensuring justice is served to the bus driver behind the wheel of the accident. She goes from traumatized teenager to a justice crusader. We’re never sure if she is sincere about her pursuit of justice or simply thriving off the drama. Even the best friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), of the victim confronts Lisa on the motives behind Lisa’s sudden interest in making a case. The interactions between Emily and Lisa are tense. But as tense and as strong as those moments are, they never reach a resolution that is satisfying one way or the other.

A two and a half hour sprawling drama centered on a generally unlikeable character does not sound appealing. Oddly enough it’s also not a chore, thanks mostly to director and writer Kenneth Lonergan’s penchant for writing scenes that more than hold interest. Margaret is at least two very good films hiding inside one good one. A strange formula but fitting for a film with such a struggle in getting a final release.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Interrupters

Access is everything. At least it is for many documentaries, where the level of access they get to their subjects plays a large role in the success or failure of the film. Director Steve James gets unbelievable access to those he covers on the streets of Chicago in his film The Interrupters.

CaseFire is a Chicago based group determined to stop the violence that ruins their neighborhoods. Many of the staff are former gang members who have served time in prison and some earned notoriety for their antics on the streets. The goal of these interrupters is to intercede before violence erupts. They do not aim to solve all the world’s problems. Their goal is simple yet tragically complex. Stop the violence. The film closely follows a few members of CeaseFire as they go about their work and along the way a picture of who they are and who they help is developed in a sometimes painful manner. There is little rest for those who find themselves locked in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

There is no shortage of deeply emotional material and yet the rough edges are never avoided. The easy way out for Steve James would have been to make the CeaseFire crew saviors on the mean streets, with those they “save” serving as mere victims. Instead he allows both those who interrupt the violence and those who are creating it tell their story. They tell it in interviews as they reflect on their past and in the midst of the action. The stories told and shown are frustrating, heartbreaking, filled with anger and spite as well as love and care. No one comes out unscathed.

A film dealing with inner city violence can’t help but avoid the political implications. And while the politics are touched upon, James wisely keeps his focus on the deeply personal examination of those his camera hones in on. There are no easy answers given. Any politician given screen time comes off as rather out of touch in comparison to the reality on display.

Sad stories permeate with only glimpses of hope. Those who do their jobs as part of CeaseFire appear driven by a need for redemption. Their lives have always been mixed up in the sad stories. Instead of intervening as they do now, in the past they were causing the sadness. Now their perception of reality is different. The reaction is not to lash out in anger but rather to help as many people stuck in their old way of life as they can. The dangerous situations this desire causes are numerous. We learn that only one interrupter has ever been shot doing the work. We briefly meet that gentleman in his hospital bed when Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire, visits. Up until this moment Tio comes off as a confident leader hell bent on making his organization’s goal a reality. Seeing one of his people in significant pain after being shot in the back and foot, causes this strong man to break out of his motivational speaker mode and into that of a teary eyed father who realizes the young man on the bed is around the same age of his sons.

While reality TV has trained most of us to build a cynical force field to what we see on the television, documentaries like The Interrupters pierce our hearts, not with emotional trickery but by displaying slices of life otherwise unnoticed by most.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Debt

The horror committed by the Nazis during WWII has provided no shortage of stories. As more true stories from that troubling time are told via Hollywood there is now an allure to tell fictional stories based on some loose version of that era. The Debt does its part as a film about a former Mossad intelligence agent reliving her mission to capture a Nazi war criminal. The screenplay is not based on a true story, instead it takes some horrific facts from WWII and the perpetrators and creates a smart thriller.

Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is legend in Israel. Her daughter recently published a book retelling the events that made mom a hero to her people. In 1965 Singer joined two other agents in a mission to capture and bring back to Israel Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), aka “The Surgeon of Birkenau”. Vogel is based on the real life Nazi concentration camp doctor, Josef Mengele, a man who did monstrous experiments on camp inmates.

The retelling of Singer’s story is done in long flashback scenes with Jessica Chastain playing the young agent. Disjointing at first, the time shifted storytelling is put to good use as the truth comes out in pieces. Time shifting can be a cheat but here it serves the purpose, conveying the unreliable narrative of one character only to be corrected when the details of the present form the truth.

The methodical manner in which the plan to capture and smuggle Vogel out of East Berlin is executed is engaging, as it shows the preparation such operations require. There are no shortcuts. The love triangle that forms between Singer and the two other agents, David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas), is not played as a distracting side plot but rather as at least one key motivator for some of the decisions that each agent makes along the way. The believability of it all remains thanks to strong performances (by both generations of actors) and a steady screenplay.

The primary dilemma at the center of the story is one relevant to today where leaders of countries often opt not to tell the whole truth in order to protect themselves and, often to a lesser degree, the people they serve. Consciences are seared all in the name of protecting one’s responsibility to a greater cause. The end result for the film is a bit of a compromise but the climax pays off nonetheless. True, that climax creates an identity crisis of sorts by reveling in a gotcha type thriller rather than a more reality grounded one which made up most of the film. A less than ideal ending does not ruin an overall strong film.

An uneasy thriller that feels like the initial premise could be based on a true story, The Debt delicately blends fictional entertainment with loosely based non-fiction based characters and events of the most sensitive nature.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Redbelt

Life can be strange, both the real and the fantasy portrayed on the screen. Fact is often stranger than fiction yet how is it that fiction can seem so unlikely? Redbelt is one of those films that pushes believability to its limits as conniving individuals weave together a scheme which relies on intricate details playing out just so. Thankfully the film is in the steady hands of writer and director David Mamet and a solid cast.

Michael Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Jiu Jitsu black belt. He is a man of principle and runs his school strictly on those principles which means he barely makes any money. No matter, Terry is more concerned with maintaining his integrity. His wife, however, is not. She worries about how they’re going to live while Terry’s business can barely make rent and her own business (clothes) struggles to keep them out of the red.

After one of the roughest martial arts classes I’ve ever witnessed finishes with police officer Joe Collins (Max Martini) nearly passing out in a choke hold by another student, Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) enters in from the rain rattled. She’s smashed into Terry’s truck. She is all nerves which leads her to grab officer Collins’ gun and accidentally fire it when she mistakes the off duty cop’s motion towards her as threatening. And just like that the plot thickens.

One event leads to another in mostly believable ways to the point where Terry finds himself working with a famous action movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) on the set of the star’s next film. If it sounds a bit convoluted, it kind of is, but the pace is so quick it’s forgivable.

Behind the scenes, there are plans to get a compelling mixed martial arts competition going. The promoters aren’t thrilled with the prospects. I imagine it’s what today’s heavyweight boxing promoters feel like. The money men would love to get Terry in the ring. He’s known to be one of the best but refuses to fight in competitions because there is no honor in fighting competitively. Again, the principled man finds himself walking away from money.

A more unwieldy chain of events takes place that leads Terry into the ring. He’s fighting to win money not for himself or his wife but for the widow of officer Collins, who committed suicide at least partially due to the mess his sensei unknowingly got him into. The final twist just before the bout may push the plausibility factor. No matter, the setup for the final fight and the ending are worth it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor commands every moment on the screen. Mamet’s dialog is as crisp as always. In fact, the dialog often feels as though it’s human beings speaking and not uber smart beings that only appear to be human. This is a problem I’ve found some of Mamet’s other screenplays have suffered from. The story could stand one or two less hard to believe connected events that turn into one well orchestrated con. But when the pacing is so fast and the acting so strong the faults become slight.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.