Thursday, February 2, 2012
The TV ads for The Grey promise an action thriller where Liam Neeson puts on his macho act and faces off against wolves. It was undoubtedly a good marketing campaign as The Grey rocketed out to #1 this past weekend with a $19 million haul. However, those that were going to see a mindless man vs. action film were likely to be disappointed. While The Grey does feature some visceral action moments, the heart of the film is about a guy meditating on life and survival, with wolves just one of several impediments. The end result is a movie far better than the trailers suggest, but perhaps confounding to certain audiences who were expecting something different.
The Grey follows a group of oil drillers who work in a remote region of Alaska. On a trip back home, a plane crash leaves most of them dead, stranding the few survivors in the middle of nowhere during a pretty brutal storm. Surviving the elements is bad enough, but they've also found themselves encroaching on the territory of a pack of wolves. A series of wolf attacks makes them realize they cannot stay in the same location waiting to be rescued. Amidst chaos, confusion, and controversy, a man named Ottway (Neeson) takes leadership of the group as they attempt to make a run for safety.
Wolf attacks aren't as frequent as the trailer might suggest. Much of the film is made up of the group pondering their existence, thinking about those they've left behind for such a dangerous job. Neeson in particular has a pretty powerful arc as a man who at one point was dealing with thoughts of suicide, but now wants nothing more than to survive. In this sense, The Grey actually has as much in common with Cast Away as it does your standard wilderness suspense thriller. It's certainly not as good as that near masterpiece, but the thoughtful way they explore the existence of the characters is unexpected and very refreshing.
This isn't to say that The Grey reneges on delivering the action goods. The plane crash sequence is expertly done, with director Joe Carnahan not showing any exterior shots of the plane (also reminiscent of Cast Away), thus creating a "you are there" effect for the audience. There is a terrifying scene where the group attempts to cross over a massive valley via a rope precariously attached to the tree. Sure, that type of scene is a cliche in wilderness stories, but the execution is spot on here. And the nighttime attacks by the wolves (where you can only see their eyes) are suitably frightening.
One major drawback are the all too frequent flashback moments that give us glimpses of Ottway's wife. So much of the film does a good job of building up a palpable sense of dread based on the hopeless predicament the survivors find themselves in, but it really loses all of that whenever they cut away from the immediate scene. It would've been more effective to confine all of these moments to normal dialogue and indeed that is where the best character moments come from.
Liam Neeson is the star attraction and he's perfectly cast here. He has the charisma to emerge as the leader, plus the range and skill to show the emotional turmoil his character is experiencing. If anything, the film focuses a bit too heavily on him as the other characters don't really get developed enough for us to care about them as much as we do Ottway. Despite that, Carnahan has done an admirable job with the material, providing the audience with good thrill sequences, but never sacrificing the strong development of the main character's psychological state.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 11:48 PM
Monday, January 30, 2012
Making a film that mentions or utilizes the September 11th attacks is a very tricky prospect. There have been only a handful of films that have managed to find a way to use 9/11 in their plot without seeming contrived or exploitive. United 93 and World Trade Center both told appropriate tales of heroism on that fateful day. 25th Hour was a movie about the heart and soul of New York, so ignoring 9/11 would have been awkward. Unfortunately, Stephen Daldry's latest film uses 9/11 in a calculated and unnecessary attempt to give the story more importance than it really deserves.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is adapted from a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer about a curious nine year old boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn) that may have Asperger syndrome. He had a really close bond with his father (Tom Hanks), who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. One day Oskar discovers a key hidden in a vase in his father's closet. The key is in an envelope that has the name "Black" on it. Believing this to be a clue to some sort of puzzle that his father left for him to figure out, Oskar sets about visiting everyone with the name Black in New York City, while his mother (Sandra Bullock) struggles to reach out to him.
The inclusion of 9/11 in the story is incredibly problematic. As written and played on the screen, the only purpose of having Oskar's father die on 9/11 appears to be giving the story some sort of dramatic heft. The same exact story about a dead father, a boy looking for answers, and a mother trying to reconnect with her son could've been told without this added element, but I fear the filmmakers (or really the book's author) felt it needed something else to signal to people that this story was serious. It seems to come from a place of laziness and lack of confidence in the basic story.
Not only is the inclusion of 9/11 slightly offensive due to its obvious manipulation, but it negatively alters how Daldry tells this story. There are scenes that are just wildly overplayed, many of them involving Oskar yelling while Daldry spins the camera as much as possible to let you know he's there. The problem is that the film would've worked much better as a slightly quirky, low-key drama. The few moments where they do take this approach, the film builds up some real dramatic momentum.
The most affecting moments in the film are the mother-son relationship. Oskar's mother knows that he preferred his dad to her and there's a memorably agonizing scene where they both discuss this. The way this scene is played is in stark contrast to the pseudo importance that inhabits most of the film. Bullock is very good here, much better than in her wildly overrated Oscar winning role in The Blindside. There are other moments here and there that are tremendously moving, including a moment where Oskar plays his father's voice messages for a mysterious older man (Max von Sydow).
So despite the 9/11 issues, the film still could've been at least decent. However, the film wraps up with a ridiculously sappy final 15 minutes that includes a montage where the first shot made me want to throw something at the screen. There are a couple surprises thrown at the audience, one that is not surprising at all and another that is ridiculous and not credible for one second. I'm not sure how this played in book format, but these storytelling choices just don't work in the film. Much has been made of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close's surprise Oscar nomination and that it is the lowest rated Oscar nominee at Rotten Tomatoes. It's neither as bad as the detractors claim or good enough to be nominated for Best Picture. It's just a mediocre disappointment.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 4:51 PM