Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Debt

I've found the most involving use of revenge as a part of a story is when it is in fact very ruthless. Especially when it is ruthless and violent, but is motivated by a sense of justice. Often times, characters who are in such narratives begin with a black-and-white sense of morality and by the end of the story they have begun to notice the grey lines. Steven Spielberg's Munich dealt with this as a group of Israeli secret agents wanted revenge for an attack by Palestinian extremists and it felt honorable and proper to ensure the deaths of such enemies. The character of Avner Kaufman is completely changed by the experience for both better and worse. He has a greater understanding of himself and the world around him, but at such a great and personal cost to his own humanity.

The Debt explores a similar line of story and is also similar to Munich in that the characters are Mossad agents. There is the truthful perception that Mossad agents are very good at their job. In a sense, they are the super-spys of the grittier world inhabited by Jason Bourne as opposed to the gadget-based and supermanly accomplishments of an early James Bond. Based on the Isreali film of the same name, it tells a story that takes place in two different time periods.

In 1965, agents Rachel (Jessica Chastain, on quite a roll this past year), Stephan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington) are tasked with finding a Nazi war criminal (the creepy Jesper Christensen) who is hiding in Russia under an alias. The film begins with and then has about a third of its story take place in 1997 where Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), and David (Ciaran Hinds) are keeping secrets about what really happened on the mission from those around them who believe that the three soldiers are national heroes.

Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Proof) manages an impressive ensemble and keeps the tension high with a lot of skilled editing and camera angles and also in-part to an already terse script by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) and Peter Straughan (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). That beign said, the film's core problem seems to be in its structure. As I pointed out, it only jumps back and forth maybe three or four times, but we are given enough about these characters to be able to draw connections to their past and present selves.

Rachel is vulnerable but well-trained, Stephan is to the point but likes to still have some fun, and David is troubled and professional. This stays the same across the line as far as transitions go with Chastain to Mirren, Csokas to Wilkinson, and Worthington to Hinds. The two stories are only linked through subject matter and character similarities, but really the purpose of the two separate chunks feel as if they are so different that it almost comes across like I'm watching two films instead of one. The first act of the movie is about trying to capture a man while the second half of the movie is about trying to cover up something about the capture of a man. The level of excitement goes down, while the level of interest in the fate of the characters goes up. For me, this is what puts the two storylines at odds for each other.

The saving face of it all is how the actors are all still doing some damn fine work. Each of the six performers reflect their character's responsibility he or she feels for their mission and that is what ultimately destroys all of them as the story progresses. They are only human and therefore they begin to notice the grey lines I mentioned above. They don't fall prey or interact too much with these quandries, but at least my interest level in the material is raised because of how the three of them decide that deception is a burden they should to carry to save face (a tangent does come to mind- wouldn't Hinds be a better physical choice for an aging Csokas than an aging Worthington, not that it ultimately matters).

The Debt is not as involving as one might hope, but it at least explores characters with a sense of humanity and how that is either strengthened or diluted because of their choices.

The Grey

Early buzz about The Grey seemed to indicate that it wasn't just a movie about a guy who stabs wolves. Reviewers used the broad word "deep" to explain the themes of the piece. I suppose I left the film with the same word rattling around in my head. "Deep" or at least an attempt to seem as such. It certainly was in part about a guy who stabs wolves, but there was a certain philosophical element to it all.

The first ten minutes really set the tone for the next 115 or so minutes of the movie. We meet an older man named Ottway (Liam Neeson) who works as a security specialist for a drilling company in Alaska. A montage is shown where he walks around the complex and talks cryptically about his past and more specifically about his current job. The grainy environment that surrounds him is dark and barren, which is pretty much how Ottway might seem to the audience as well as those around him. Along with his fellow workers, he boards a plane to leave the complex only to crash due to inclimate weather. They soon find themselves in the wilderness as they are hunted by wolves whose den they seem to have landed near.

Like many survival films, such as Tamahori and Mamet's The Edge, the exterior conflict is somewhat eclipsed by the characters' interior conflicts. The film is tackling issues of an existential nature as tension only mounts due to interpersonal disagreements and issues of life-and-death. Most interestingly is how the film deals with the issue of faith. The idea that there is an all-powerful being that is controlling everything and if you are good then you are protected, but if you are bad than in this case, you are literally thrown to the wolves. In a religious, more specifically Catholic sense of metaphors, these characters are in hell (albeit a frigid one) and must fight their way out.

This is the second collaboration between actor Liam Neeson and writer-director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin' Aces) as they previously worked together on The A-Team. Carnahan has adapted a short story and shaped it into the elements that I described above. I was struck by the intensity of this film as it was more reminiscent to Narc than any of his other works. The plane crash is a great example of how visually intense the film can become, but perhaps the wolf attacks are more demonstrative of how he handle the suspense in the story.

Sequences where characters are discussing things are shot like a typical conversation, but suddenly and unexpectedly a wolf will attack. Out of nowhere, it would just happen. This created such a sense of dread that I've rarely felt in most horror-thriller films. It's one thing to have a whodunit story take place, but to actually feel the danger the characters are feeling is something I haven't experienced as of late. The wolves were created with a certain amount of CGI that of course makes one take note of certain unrealistic qualities about the digital animals, but the CGI was unique enough to really capture the instinctual and primal nature of the species.

As for Neeson, his take on Ottway is full of anger (existential and physical) and a struggle to stay hopeful. Looking over his filmography, you see quite a range in his work. Like any major actor he has had his flops, but his successes are quite memorable. Even though he has always remained versatile and open in his selections, ever since his success as Bryan Mills in Taken, he has certainly taken on more physically demanding jobs. I don't see this as a problem since he still at least tries to play a character with something to say despite genre conventions. I don't think his days of portrayals the likes Oskar Schindler and Alfred Kinsey are gone, but he certainly can play the raging action star with more believability than say Dwayne Johnson or Jason Statham at times.

So far, I've been just making observations and sharing some thoughts that came to mind, but I've yet to really express my opinions on the movie. I've been hinting at it, but The Grey is basically a movie that is expressive and rare, but it is still a widely released film that stays within the 'wilderness survival'-genre and is therefore still within the positive and negative confines of such a story.

You have your typical cast of characters that can feel cliched (perhaps too strong of a word) such as the angry rebel (played Frank Grillo) or the more calm voice of reason (Dallas Roberts) or the guy out of his element (Dermot Mulroney) etc. etc. etc. There has to be the scenes where they come to blows, where all is placed on the line, where one is too selfish or too selfless, their numbers dwindle, some die with a sense of accomplishment, others find redemption...

Nothing is wrong with this per-se, it just doesn't feel unique enough to me to warrant it as something I can really respond to without any hesitations that I've already experienced one too many elements of this film in the past. In fact, the movie is very easy to predict even without being an expert in the writings of Joseph Campbell. Actually, the abrupt ending isn't really that much of a surprise if you really understand Ottway's journey. Then again, I still appreciate a film that tries to say something instead of one that is empty and that places The Grey in my good graces.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Films Watched in January

When I get through with homework, I'll get started on a ton of responses.

*Means I've seen it before.

Colombiana (2011, Olivier Megaton)
The Debt (2011, John Madden)
The Grey (2012, Joe Carnahan)
The Guard (2011, John Michael McDonaugh)
Haywire (2012, Steven Soderbergh)
The Losers (2010, Sylvain White)
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011, Brad Bird)
One Day (2011, Lone Scherfig)
War Horse (2011, Steven Spielberg)