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Column Fri Jan 27 2012

The Grey, Man on a Ledge, A Separation, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Albert Nobbs & Tomboy

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The Grey

The latest and greatest work from director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin' Aces, The A-Team ) both is and isn't exactly what you think it is. Sure, it's a movie with a group of oil company grunts returning home from Alaska for the winter, and when their plane crashes in the wilderness they spend much of the film fending off a steady barrage of wolf attacks. But The Grey is so much more than that. It's really the story of men who need a life-or-death struggle such as this to remember that life is worth living, even if death is a certainty, either by the fangs of a wolf or the extreme and ruthless cold.

When we first meet Ottway, we discover he's being paid to walk the parameter of the company property to kill wolves that threaten employees. He carries a high-powered rifle with him at all times, and can snap it off his shoulder and shoot in a split second. He's also deeply depressed, and on the eve of his departure, he's preparing to kill himself by eating his gun. We know that his pain comes from something to do with his wife (Anne Openshaw), who we see in combinations of flashbacks and vision-like flashes. We're kept in the dark for most of the movie about why memories of her bring him such pain, but in the end that doesn't really matter.

The plane crash sequence is one of the finest I've ever experienced--it's chaotic, violent, and unbearably loud. It's the best I've seen since the one staged for Alive (a film that gets a joking reference here just before all hell breaks loose). Once on the ground, the survivors gather together to figure out whether to stay by the wreckage or start walking south to look for civilization. The presence of wolves makes the decision easier, and since Ottway has a knowledge of wolf behavior, they feel fairly confident that the walk will kill them before the animals. Wrong. Carnahan does a fantastic job keeping us more or less in constant fear of these attacks; they come unexpectedly in most cases and are over before we're even sure what has happened. And they are frequently bloody, in case you hadn't guessed.

Ottway emerges as the natural leader, although his authority is challenged and questioned, especially by Diaz, a primo asshole played by Frank Grillo. And as Ottway explains the wolf pack mentality of an alpha male leading a group of wolves that are constantly challenging his leadership status, we realize that we are not as far removed as we'd like to think. Other familiar faces in The Grey include an almost unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney and the always-calming force known as Dallas Roberts.

As often as they come close, Carnahan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, the writer of the original short story "Ghost Walker") never turns things ridiculous or impossible. What these men do is all within the realm of possibility, and we know this because sometimes they die attempting some pretty insane actions to escape their pursuers. At one point, Ottway makes the point that wolves are the only animal that seeks revenge, and now that I know that I'm as unnaturally scared of being eaten by them as I am a shark in the ocean.

Perhaps the most glorious element of The Grey is watching Liam Neeson really rip into this character, who is most definitely not an empty-headed action hero trying to save his co-workers. Ottway is just barely hanging on; his will to live was nearly sapped even before the plane went down. It's fascinating to listen to him and the other survivors spill their guts and examine what they have in their lives that keeps them going. And it makes the many deaths much more tragic, because these are real characters shedding blood in that snow. If I read a single critic or hear a single person tell me the film has too much talking or moves too slow, I'll slap them across their dirty mouth. Character development in a film like this is critical and necessary to building the drama and making us care when a life is lost.

I'm slightly disappointed that The Grey wasn't released at the end of 2011, so it might have been considered for all of these awards accolades. Then again, I like that it won't get lost in the end-of-the-year logjam of "important" films. I've seen the film twice now, and I'd watch it again right now if I could. It got even better for me the second time because I could stop being tense about when the next wolf attack was coming and concentrate on the superb acting on display from each actor. As much as I'm sure the genre crowds will love this movie, I actually consider The Grey a powerful human drama that also happens to have a steady stream of wolf attacks. Whatever it takes to get you in the theater, go with that, but I'd consider this film the first must-see-on-the-big-screen work of the year. I don't see all that blowing snow and vast landscape working on even the best home theater set up. Plus, an angst-ridden Liam Neeson can't be contained on the small screen. Go see this now.

Man on a Ledge

In the category of "the title tells it all," we have Man on a Ledge, the first feature film from documentary filmmaker Asger Leth. There are some deep and painful flaws in this story of Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) who steps out of his hotel window 20-some stories above New York City for reasons other than suicide, but that being said, I was genuinely surprised how much I got caught up in this story, despite the best efforts of certain actors and screenwriter Pablo F. Fenjves to pull me out.

It turns out Cassidy is a former police officer who was accused of stealing a priceless diamond from a real estate mogul (Ed Harris, who might as well be twirling his invisible wax mustache for all of the subtlety he brings his character) and ended up getting sentenced to decades in jail. He escapes captivity while attending the funeral of his father, and before long he ends up on the ledge, from which he refuses to leave until his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) carries out a heist that should prove Nick's innocence. Joey is accompanied by his ridiculously hot and fiery girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), while Nick is out on the ledge, where he request the negotiation services of Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), whose recent failure to keep a man from leaping from a bridge has left her a bit fragile.

Man on a Ledge is loaded with solid actors, including Anthony Mackie as a fellow cop and Nick's best friend, Titus Welliver, Edward Burns, and the incomparable William Sadler. Worthington does a solid job doing the one thing he needs to do well in this movie, which is look scared being that high up. I was most impressed with Banks' slightly damaged character who, like Nick, is looking for a little redemption. What I had huge problems with is legion. For starters, Harris is a buffoon who doesn't even attempt to conceal that he's a baddie. Almost nothing he does makes sense. There's a scene in which he removes something from a safe and puts it in his pocket, but if he'd just left said item in the safe, the movie would have ended differently and he would have gotten away with his latest misdeed.

I also kind of hated the characters played by Bell and Rodriguez, who are meant to be stealthy robbers breaking into a building that is impossible to break into. All they do is tell horrible jokes and exchange lifeless, stupid banter. Rodriguez reminds me of those pretty girls who are so used to guys laughing at their dumb jokes that they actually think they're funny. Yes, I'm bitter. Maybe the dumbest character is also the most believable. Kyra Sedgwick plays a TV news journalist covering Nick on the ledge, but nothing about her performance or what she says feels authentic -- not even a little bit. She's terrible and the part could and should have easily been excised from the movie.

Still, the interactions between Worthington and Banks, Worthington and Mackie, and Banks and Burns are good stuff. The ending is somewhat over the top and non-sensical, but there were far worse crimes being committed here than those in the final act. Worthington is an interesting actor, because I tend to prefer him in his non-action roles, such as The Debt or earlier works like Somersault. With Banks, she tends to do well against even the weakest script, and while I adore her performances in comedies, she's just as good in more dramatic roles like this one. Overall, Man on a Ledge gets a borderline recommendation from me, primarily because the scenes of the actual ledge all work, as the players dance around each other's purposes for being there. And when the film stays on point, it's a lot of fun. I anticipate this one going over really well with audiences, even if it doesn't with critics.

To read my exclusive interview with Man on a Ledge star Sam Worthington, go to Ain't It Cool News.

A Separation

I'm not big on vocalizing my predictions for awards, especially the Oscars, but I don't see any way this gripping and powerful film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi won't win the Best Foreign Language prize this year. A Separation is a film about so many things, but in the end I think it's about how poorly human beings are at communicating their true feelings before things get out of hand. In the case of this movie, things like pride, religion, government red tap, class structure, gender, and so many other intangibles stand in the way of a communication among the film's small number of characters, and what results is a terrible happening that may be an accident or a crime.

The film opens with a married couple breaking up because the wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran while the husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) feels compelled to stay out of loyalty to his Alzheimer-stricken father, who can no longer take care of himself. Their teen daughter (Sarina Farhadi, the director's highly capable daughter) is caught in the middle, but seems to side with staying with dad in hopes that her decision will force the mother to stay. With no one home during the day to take care of the elderly father, Nader is forced to hire Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after him. But Razieh is a deeply religious woman who doesn't believe being alone in the house with a strange man is proper, especially when caring for the old man requires her to help clean him up after he wets the bed. Her phone call to a religious leader to make sure seeing the old man naked during cleanup is okay is actually kind of amusing.

But one day, Nader returns home to find his father on the floor tied to his bed, badly bruised from a fall and Razieh nowhere to be found, the two get into a yelling match that leads to her getting pushed out of the door, and this is where the disconnect begins. Razieh falls down the stairs of the apartment building and ends up having a miscarriage. Was she pushed or did she faint? There is evidence to support either theory (director Farhadi wisely doesn't show the fall). Also, did Nader know Razieh was pregnant? The answer to that question could be the difference between this being classified as an accident versus murder by the standards of Iranian law. This film offers no easy answers to any of the questions it raises.

The incident opens the film up and turns it into an examination of the way the law treats the more religious members of contemporary Iranian society versus those citizens that choose to live more modern lives, and it doesn't take long for us to realize the the "separation" being looked at here is not between the divorcing couple, but within Iranian society. There are no villains in this story and nearly everyone at some point lies to protect themselves or someone else.

A Separation may sound dry and unengaging, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's a masterful bit of storytelling with an array of interesting and complex characters. There isn't a false or unearned emotion in the film, and the weight of some of the more difficult moments is hard on the soul but so worth experiencing. This was the last films I watched in 2011, and there's a reason it ended up in my Best of the Year list; it wipes the slate clean and sets the bar higher for dramas made around the world, especially in America. If you miss this film (assuming you get a chance to see it), I think you officially don't care about acting, writing or directing. By all means, go watch Red Tails again. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with A Separation writer-director Asghar Farhadi, please go to Ain't It Cool News.

We Need to Talk about Kevin

I'm going to keep this brief, because honestly, I haven't thought about this movie much since I saw it at the Chicago Film Festival last October. I don't really mind that director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) takes what could have been a thoughtful examination of what causes a teenager to snap and shoot up his school into an artsy horror movie. I love Ramsay's work and style, and I bet under different circumstances, she could make that kind of story work. But We Need to Talk about Kevin almost completely failed for me as both a drama or a horror story about an evil seed who is beyond redemption from the second he's born.

The trouble for me started with young actor Ezra Miller, who plays Kevin, the son of Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly). The kid shows signs of bad behavior from the get-go, and there's nothing dimensional about the way the character is written or played. The film's only real bright spot is Swinton, who is note perfect as the anxiety-ridden mother who wants answers from her boy both before and after his crimes. She wonders if her parenting was at fault, but we all know it wasn't because the kid was born that way, so where's the drama exactly? The problem with We Need to Talk about Kevin is that Ramsay directs the film like it's about a kid into which bad thoughts came late in life, but we know that isn't the case.

The film's single greatest scene occurs when Swinton is confronted by the mother of one of the kids Kevin killed. Actually, it's not a confrontation; the woman hauls off and slaps Eva, and Eva has no reaction other than to take it and look the woman straight in the eyes to receive her punishment. It's an intense scene that is played beautifully by Swinton. The trouble is, that kind of "you should be ashamed" scene doens't make sense in an abstract horror movie; it just doesn't fit. So little about this movie fits. Ramsay overloads the screen with flashes of red; she tells the story in a non-linear fashion that attempts to hide Kevin's deed for as long as possible, but we all know what happened almost from the beginning.

This isn't a case of me wishing this were a different movie. I just wish Ramsay had made her style and her story match a little better so that the atmosphere made sense. We Need to Talk about Kevin was one of the bigger disappointments I experienced last year. If you're like me and need to see everything Swinton does, at least you won't be let down by her work. That's the best thing I can say about this film, which opens today exclusively at the AMC River East 21 theaters.

Albert Nobbs

Much like Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, this week's Albert Nobbs is an example of a great performance stuck in a not-so-great film. But in all fairness to the Glenn Close vehicle, Albert Nobbs is a much better movie that the Margaret Thatcher biopic. Set in 19th century Ireland in a crumbling but still upper-crust hotel, the film centers on one Mr. Nobbs, who is in fact a woman disguised as a man in order to work as the head servant at the establishment. Nobbs is the epitome of good taste, reserved manners, and hidden dreams of one day opening his own small shop with the money he has stashed away under the floorboards of his small quarters above the hotel.

Nobbs unexpectedly falls in love with a young maid (Mia Wasikowska of Jane Eyre) working at the hotel, and although Nobbs doesn't notice it, she's bit common as she dates the hotel handyman (Aaron Johnson of Kick-Ass), who entices the maid to squeeze some money out of Nobbs for the pleasure of her company. But much of the film is less dramatic than those scenes. Large sections of Albert Nobbs are devoted to showing his daily trials and tribulations. His routine is disturbed when the woman running the hotel asks Nobbs to share his room for a night with a visiting man hired to paint several room in the hotel. Although it may be clear what secret this man has, I'm not going to spoil it here, but it elevates the film in many ways when we discover it.

I also like the sequences where we simply see Nobbs do his meticulous work--cleaning, straightening, being the perfect host to the dignitaries that stayed at the hotel. There's a nice moment between Nobbs and an aristocrat played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, where it's clear the the rich playboy is impressed with Nobbs' ability to anticipate his every need at a dinner. Director Rodrigo Garcia (Mother and Child, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Nine Lives, and the HBO series "In Treatment") is an expert at looking for such small moments in action and conversation and building characters around them.

Based on a short story by John Banville, the screenplay was co-wrtiten by Close who has been trying to get this story filmed for more than 10 years, and good for her for finally getting this difficult tale of self-denial made. I only wish the film didn't feel like it was pandering to the audience with the trite love story. There were very few moments in Albert Nobbs that I couldn't predict, and after a while the film becomes tiresome despite Close's extraordinary work. The movie is delicate and lovely as a visual exercise, but as an emotional one, it left me somewhat empty. 'Tis a pity she's a bore. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Tomboy

If I had seen this elegantly awkward and beautifully realized work last year, it would have easily cracked my top 30 at least. The second film from French writer-director Celine Sciamma (Water Lilies), Tomboy is the small and painful coming-of-age/identity story of 10-year-old Laure (Zoe Heran), the daughter of a couple (Mathieu Demy and Sophie Cattani) who have recently moved to a new community in the summer before Laure and her younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Levana) begin school. Laure is a shy girl with short-cropped hair, always dressed in tank tops and basketball shorts, so it's no surprise in her first encounter with some of the local children on summer break that she is mistaken for a boy. Without much thought, she renames herself Mikael, and the countdown begins until someone in her life shatters the secret and young Laure's world.

Much of Tomboy is actually light-hearted and fun as the boys in the group adopt Mikael as one of their own, although Laure must find ways to pass as a boy when she plays shirts vs. skins soccer (she hasn't really developed yet, so this isn't much of an issue), or puts on a Speedo to go swimming. Laure is a clever girl who finds ways of passing easily. In fact, no one actually discovers her secret until a fight with another boy (a fight Laure wins, by the way) pushes a parent to complain to Laure's mother. Perhaps the most heartbreaking element of the movie is the beyond-sweet relationship that forms between Mikael and the more mature girl in the group, Lisa (Jeanne Disson); the film's greatest tension arises from wondering what Lisa's reaction will be to the inevitable discovery.

Tomboy lives and breathes thanks to Heran's hypnotizing performance. She isn't playing this role as a budding young lesbian, although if that's where her story takes us, I think it would make for an excellent continuation of her tale. Instead, she plays this like a person playing the role of a lifetime. You can't take your eyes off her, as her masculine and feminine traits seem to subtly shift before our eyes. Or maybe they never change, and she simply embodies both so effortlessly that the lines are completely blurred. But I was fascinated and drawn in by the way Laure/Mikael interacted with her friends, her parents, and especially the adoring relationship she shares with her sister, who is the only other person to know Laure's secret. Tomboy is a remarkable film that finds the power in quiet moments and lets its story unfold with a natural ease that is both disarming and sheer perfection. There's not a false note in the film, and that's incredibly rare these days. Don't miss this film, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Sep 12 2014

The Drop, Dolphin Tale 2, The Skeleton Twins, Finding Fela, Code Black & Gringo Trails

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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