Just watched: The Grey

The Grey is a relentlessly brooding film which provides the protagonists (and us) with little release from the terrifying situation that they find themselves faced with. This is a film that clearly demonstrates that a horror film can be all the more effective for being rooted in reality, rather than a world where, say, a terrifying man hunts you in your dreams.

The film charts the struggle for survival that occurs when an airplane carrying oil workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Those who survive the crash find themselves fighting for their lives against an indifferent  force of nature – wolves.

The man vs. wild elements here really worked for me. The wolves are an  unpredictable foe that can be fought, but not defeated. The director, whose work up until now has been no indication that he had such a well-balanced film in him, wisely chose to leave much hidden. The wolves are only clearly visible on a few occasions, the rest of the time being masked by shadow or camera angle.

The motivations of the wolves are unknowable (beyond the basic exposition given my Liam Neeson’s Ottway) and its their relentless, yet chillingly organised, process of attrition that provides the focus of the fear they create.

Above all else, The Grey is just a compelling and exciting film. The relentless pace ensures that the film never drifts into depression yet it doesn’t get in the way of some effective, economical character-development. From the moment the plane crashes, it feels as though the characters are constantly hunted in a realistic, yet entertaining, way.

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Zemekis back behind the camera

It’s been more than a decade since Robert Zemekis, creator of some of my all time favourite films, last directed actual real people. Starting with The Polar Express in 2004, all his films have been CGI productions created using 3D motion capture technology.

In some ways, his commitment to technical advancements in film is commendable. He is very much at the forefront of this new technology, funding cutting-edge facilities at the University of California, encouraging the development of new technologies and often acting as a spokesman when these technologies are not readily accepted by the industry (he was an vocal advocate for digital film-making when even Spielberg was voicing concerns).

I rather liked both Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, but in no way do either of these films live up to my expectations of what one of my favourite directors is capable of. Over the years he has given us a number of classics including Back to the Future, Forest Gump, Contact (that’s right, I think Contact is a classic) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Ultimately, I think that a total commitment to computer-generated film-making is a restriction of his considerable talent.

Now the good news: Zemekis recently back-peddled on his earlier commitment to 3D motion capture, saying that the decision will be made on a film-by-film basis. He still has two CG films in development, but for the first time in more than ten years, Zemekis has decided to direct a live-action film.

Starring Denzel Washington, Flight will focus on a heroic pilot who safely lands a badly-damaged plane full of people. The film will focus on the aftermath – how the pilot deals with his new fame and how he reacts when his ‘hero status’ is called into question.

I for one am excited to see what Zemekis will do with real actors in front of the camera once again. Whatever happens, his first live action film since Castaway will be essential viewing.

Twists

I’m a fan of a movie with a twist. When done well, a good twist – by which I mean a story or character revelation that is not only central to the plot, but which changes the viewer’s perception of everything he has seen up to that point – can engage and excite the viewer.

Such a revelation can only be achieved effectively by a well-written script and subtle direction. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, as repeat viewings of such films tend to prove – rarely will a film with a twist stand up to (and be enjoyable on) repeat viewings.

I’ve been spurred to write this article having read Zack Handlen’s recent article (click here to view article) which considers the evils of spoilers (revelations about character / plot points to people who have not yet had the chance to view the material in question).

I’m completely in agreement with Zack, who states that any kind of revelation is essentially a sin. Some people might not mind so much, but I prefer to go into a new film or TV show as ignorant as possible of the plot (to the point that I almost always stop watching a film trailer half way through if it’s for a film I’m excited about).

Talk of spoilers brought to mind what I consider one of the most irritating habits of the average moviegoer, namely revealing the mere presence of a twist. Note that I don’t mean revealing what the twist is, I mean simply saying to someone ‘ooh, there’s a great twist at the end of that movie.’

To spend the film constantly wondering what the twist might be, conscious that everything might not be as it seems, takes you out of the experience and lessens the impact of the twist when it is finally revealed.

You’ll notice that there are no examples in this post. That would make me as bad as the people I’m criticising, wouldn’t it? I could refer to one or two twist-end classics, but I’m making a point and I stubbornly refuse to reveal what those movies are. Though obviously one of them would be Sixth Sense.

I watched a perfect example a few days ago – a recently released, big budget Hollywood film. I’d previously been told there was a great twist. My heart immediately sank. I don’t want to know that! Luckily my weak brain lost that information at some point between the fool telling me and the moment when I actually sat down to watch the film.

And it was a great twist. It subverted the plot in a clever way, forcing the viewer to rethink everything that had gone before. It completely changed the whole direction of the film and it did so in a convincing manner which led to a satisfying resolution. And it was all the more enjoyable because I had no idea it was coming.

The Road

My interest in all things post apocalyptic will most likely become apparent during the course of this blog. Considering the ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy is pretty much one of the quintessential post-apocalyptic novels, it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to watch the movie adaptation. But it’s a harrowing read – beautifully written, yes. But still harrowing. And I expected (and hoped for) nothing less from the film.

This is post-apocalyptic fiction stripped down to the bare bones; stripped of all unnecessary plotting and characters. There is no hint of what has come before and no indication that the future might hold hope. A man and his young son struggle across the dying American landscape, heading to the coast in the vague hope that life might be better there.

The film depends entirely on the central relationship between the man and the boy (no names are given – there really is no superfluous information in this story). Luckily both Vigo Mortisen and Kodi Smit-McPhee turn in excellent performances.

Vigo looks truly haggard and manages to capture the subtle balance of tragic acceptance and the relentless strive for survival. His character often acts in seemingly irrational ways, yet he always remains sympathetic. When a man tries to steal his possessions, his response is to force the man to strip naked, take his pitiful clothes and leave him to perish. Cold, illogical actions, yet played with such tired hopelessness, that you can’t help but think perhaps you might have done the same.

The boy was always going to be a hard role to fill. Child actors capable of giving a natural and unaffected performance are hard to find, and one capable of giving a believable response to the sort of situations that these characters find themselves in (seeing the starving and desperate people in the basement of the cannibals, for example) even harder. It should be traumatic to see someone so young have to deal with such brutal circumstances, and Smit-McPhee is very convincing.

The landscape that the man and the boy journey through is equally convincing. Wide shots are rare – the film tends not to throw spectacle in it’s audiences faces, yet the few landscapes and establishing shots we do see are fantastic. The colours of the film are muted and washed out (though I have to say I thought it would be darker – I recall the book implying a gradual and scary loss of light as the sun is increasingly blocked out).

Fans of the book might have been concerned that the film would shy away from the darker aspects of the film. Such concerns were unfounded. Every aspect of the book remains in tact, including plenty of cannibals. It’s rare to find a film that is this bleak and hopeless – there is a glimmer of hope at the end, but it’s not much.

The majority of post-apocalyptic fiction supposes that all is not lost, that society has a chance of being rebuilt. What makes The Road stand out is the sense that we are witnessing the end of all things. Yet people endure and try to survive – even in the face of such hopelessness.The Road

Why I will never watch Avatar: The Last Airbender

It’s been a long and frustrating ride with M. Night Shyamalan, the once golden-boy of Hollywood cinema who promised so much with his earlier films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Everything that came after that left me – and a large chunk of the discerning movie-loving public – entirely cold.

So I won’t be watching The Last Airbender. Ever.

Some might find the instant dismissal of a film (regardless of the uniformly depressing reviews) to be a little harsh. But we’ve got to start being firm with this guy! Despite consistent bad reviews, he insists on continuing to ruin perfectly good concepts with his clunky, underwhelming writing.

Of course, there are plenty of people making crappy movies. Why pick on M. Night? What did he ever do to me? Well, his crimes (as I see them) are three fold:

1. In this instance, he took an existing property that I love. I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, an American cartoon series made in the style and tradition of the Asian cartoons known as Anime, from start to finish last year. It’s an epic story set in a well-realised world filled with imaginative (and funny) characters.

Yet, despite his previous shortcomings, I was hopeful M. Night could turn it around given a solid existing story. I didn’t do my research, it turns out, as M.Night foolishly took on the writing responsibilities for the film. Which brings me on to point 2…

2. The thing that’s always bugged me about M. Night is that he is a good director. Hollywood doesn’t really have many directors who are comparable in terms of visual artistry. Take The Lady in the Water, for example. Sure, it’s a bizarrely meandering, kind of pointless film, but it looks great. He’s always been great at injecting an element of the fantastic into an otherwise normal environment; the apartment complex where Lady takes place is as mundane as they come, yet it becomes a place where magic can happen.

And still he continues to insist upon writing his own films. Which is a shame, because he’s not a good writer. One of the main criticisms directed at The Last Airbender is that the exposition is clunky and confusing, which is ridiculous given the simplicity of the parent material. Why couldn’t he let someone else write it?

3. The man clearly has a vivid imagination and is capable of coming up with excellent concepts for films. With Signs, I loved the idea of watching a single families reaction to mankind’s first contact with alien life. Excellent idea, poor execution. More than anything, I hate to see a good concept wasted on an underwhelming film. A film like The Village irritates me so much more than, say, Transformers 2.

So, for these reasons, I won’t be watching The Last Airbender. I don’t want to see a world I enjoyed spending a great deal of time in ruined. And I want M. Night to move on and direct movies written by competent writers. Even if he gets someone else to pen his own concepts, that would be better than dealing with the ongoing death of his career (at least artistically – thanks to strong box office figures, he won’t be out of a job any time soon).