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The Mountain Between Us (2017)

At what point can you tell an onscreen pairing just isn’t working? Chemistry is one of those elusive and ineffable qualities that can make or break a film, especially one that relies upon sexual tension and romantic yearning. If the actors don’t feel like they want to be with one another, it’s all going to fall apart. This is what I kept thinking as I watched The Mountain Between Us and was dumbstruck by the powerful lack of chemistry between its leads, each an accomplished actor in their own right. I don’t thin the movie could have been saved given its script but it certainly could have been at least better. If you’re going into The Mountain Between Us expecting a thrilling survival tale or a stirring romantic pairing, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Ben (Idris Elba) and Alex (Kate Winslet) are strangers who have the same problem. Their flights have been canceled and they have important places to be. He’s a surgeon. She’s a journalism photographer who is getting married. They share a single engine propeller plane to fly over the mountains and into the Denver airport. Unfortunately, the pilot suffers a stroke and the plane goes down, stranding Ben, Kate, and the pilot’s helpful labrador in the mountains. They’ll have to rely upon one another to survive in a hostile wilderness and seek rescue when nobody knows where they may be.

Watching pretty people endure hardships and persevere is as old a story as Hollywood, and The Mountain Between Us fails on so many levels, but none more so than chemistry. Elba and Winslet are meant to fall in love with one another over the course of their struggles and it is that love, we are told, that was the real key to their survival. If that sounds like Nicholas Sparks dribble, you’re on the right track, as the source material was very much a romance story. I’m sure the characters had to be better established and the romance felt more organic than what we get in the movie. I think the setup is an interesting place to start: two strangers who rely upon each other for survival and that co-dependence transforms into something they deem to be love. However, we don’t really get much in the way of the consequences of this except for an extended coda that doesn’t feel like nearly enough. Other than a spur-of-the-moment sex scene the movie doesn’t dwell on this looming romantic relationship in any way other than glances of gratitude. We hardly know anything about these characters before they are in a plane crash, and from there the survival against the elements takes precedence. Winslet spends most of the movie laying down and needing to be taken care of. If this movie needs to survive on their romance then it was doomed at casting. Granted, there is nil in the way of characterization and plot development for them to work with as well. At no point do you feel any emotional connection or even any sort of sensual heat between them. They seem far more irritated and put-upon by one another, but that’s supposed to melt away into something deeper and meaningful, though it never does. These are two talented actors but whoa do they not work together (other pairings were going to be Michael Fassbender and Margot Robbie, Charlie Hunnam and Rosamund Pike). Let this film be a lesson to everyone about the importance of hiring the right actors.

Given the life-and-death survival, it seems shocking that the film has such low or non-existent stakes. You never once feel like these characters are in real jeopardy. They always seem to luck out, whether it’s a perfectly placed flare gun to ward off a bobcat, a cabin that’s none too far from their crash site, or that same dead bobcat that can provide some nourishment. There doesn’t seem to be much of a struggle on screen other than walking through the snow. It’s missing the visceral realism that survival stories offer audiences as entertainment. Ever since watching Wind River, stories about characters running long distances in sub-zero climates is ruined for me. I keep thinking, “Why aren’t their lungs exploding now?” I was surprisingly bored through much of their survival outdoors because none of it felt that serious or memorable (this isn’t Kate Winslet’s personal Revenant). This is less a survival story than a sudsy romance. Apparently, how they survive is less important than their eventual acknowledgement of love. It removes all sense of danger. The inclusion of the dog is the single greatest antidote to realism. Ben and Alex have a cute pet this whole time. This makes The Mountain Between Us feel like a “movie” rather than a “story,” and so we just wait and wait for precious moments that will successfully entertain, few and far between they are.

Director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, Omar) makes fine use of the Canadian Rockies to provide breathtakingly picturesque landscapes. Even if you’re relatively bored with the characters there’s always the scenery to take in and enjoy. Abu-Assad does have one memorably effective sequence and that’s the plane crash itself. His camera bobs and weaves inside the tiny cabin as long unbroken shot, reminiscent of the famous sequence inside the car in Children of Men. It’s an effort level that isn’t really matched, or at least evident, for the rest of the movie. It peaks at the crash. The human drama seems more interested in the human drama than the survival thrills, which is fine, but if that was the case then we should have gotten better characters and the room for them to develop so that whatever romantic connections form feel and believable and desirable.

I have a solution to all of these issues except the chemistry one. This movie needed a radical rehaul at the structural level to be a better-developed and more interesting story. The movie needed to be told primarily AFTER Ben and Kate are rescued (spoilers, I guess, but I doubt many thought this was going to end in Greek tragedy). It’s during this fifteen-minute coda where the movie becomes its most interesting, and that’s because our characters have to readjust to the outside world but are forever changed. Starting from that point allows the characters to open up so much more and we see a different array of challenges, ones that are more relatable but also with an undetermined outcome. We know these actors are going to live by the film’s end without question. We don’t know if they’ll still be psychologically stable or whole though re-acclimating to their lives. This needed to be more like the second half of Room. This approach would give substantially more for these great actors to dig into. You could also use flashbacks to fill in notable experiences during their time stranded in the mountains. This would provide contrasts but it would also smartly allow us to skip all the dull stuff we know is just filler. This would also allow more genuine surprises and chances for narrative irony. At one point Alex develops the film roll she took during her time in the mountains, and at this point we already know she snapped a picture while Ben was asleep post-coitus. What if seeing these pictures was our first clue that some romantic intimacy happened? These two people bonded over the course of a couple weeks and no two other people may fully understand what they’ve gone through. Explore that with their difficulty to reconnect to the “outside world” and how much they have come to rely on one another after their rescue. That way it’s a character-piece about relationships with worthy material.

The Mountain Between Us is a mediocre romantic drama hindered by terrible chemistry, half-formed characterization, and a poorly developed story. When the life-and-death survival after a plane crash in the mountain feels lacking in stakes and peril, then you have a problem. When the romantic union between its mega-watt stars feels perfunctory, you have an additional problem, especially when it seems to be the point of the exercise. The Mountain Between Us plays, as one other astute critic wrote, as “Idris Elba fan fiction,” with the injured lead being tended to by the handsome and capable protector who can’t help but fall in love with this woman. It’s not an offensively bad movie but a fatally flawed disappointment that had potential given its premise. There needed to be a dramatic restructuring of the screenplay to emphasize their recovery, which would have better served the talents of these actors. Still, there are worse people to be stranded with.

Nate’s Grade: C

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August: Osage County (2013)

august_osage_county_ver2This holiday season, the movie with the most acting, by far, is likely to be August: Osage County, the adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony award-winning play. It’s a large dysfunctional family getting back together and opening old wounds, so, you know, the most relatable Christmas movie for some. It’s easy to see what attracted such A-list talent to this project because these characters are actor catnip; each is overflowing with drama, secrets, revelations, anger, and it’s all channeled through Letts’ barbed sense of humor and wickedly skillful dialogue. With Meryl Streep as the pill-popping matriarch, Julia Roberts as her resentful daughter, and a host of other inter-generational conflicts and secrets, you may feel exhausted by the end of its 130-minute running time (the stage play was 3.5 hours, respectively). The emotional confrontations feel like grueling pugilist matches, the melodrama kept at a fever pitch, but the film is never boring. Streep is her usual astonishing self and the deep ensemble gives each actor something to chew over. This is the best Roberts has been in years, and she’s not afraid to get nasty (“Eat your fish!”). Just when you think the story might soften, Letts unleashes another body blow, allowing no uncertainty that this is a family doomed. The story also provides insights into tracking the path of cruelty through the family tree, limb by limb. August: Osage County is stridently funny but also punishing in its no-holds-barred approach to family drama. If you’re looking for a movie that makes your family seem normal and even-tempered, this may be it.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Grey (2012)

I’ve always been fascinated with survival thriller/horror, where we think step-by-step with the characters through an unlikely scenario. I greatly enjoyed Frozen, a horror movie about three teens stranded on a ski lift, and Buried was in my top ten list for 2010. I enjoy the thought exercise and find the scenarios easily empathetic as long as people don’t make boneheaded decisions. Director Joe Carnahan has been paying his bills as of late with stylized, overdone, and generally overblown action movies like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. I would not have expected Carnahan to deliver anything that could be described as nuanced or meditative, but lo and behold The Grey is a survival thriller that’s as thoughtful and emotional as it is viscerally exhilarating. The Grey is the first great movie of 2012 and I’m astounded that it was released in January, the dumping ground for cinematic dreck.

We follow a group of grunts working on an oil pipeline way out in the northern Alaskan territory. They’re heading south for some R&R when their plane crashes due to electrical issues. Ottway (Liam Neeson) and seven other men are the lone survivors. While checking for supplies, they discover a pack of wolves feasting on some of the choicer corpses. Ottway is a wolf expert, hired by the oil company to patrol the grounds and hunt antagonistic wolves. He explains that wolves have a hunting radius of 300 miles and a kill radius of 30 within the den. It is uncertain where these men find themselves, so they bundle up and head south, hoping to escape the predators, find food and water, and discover a way to help.

The Grey is a harrowing, haunting, and intense thriller, masterfully played by Carnahan. The threat is real and brutal, enough that it convinces the men to leave the safety of the plane wreckage to possibly escape the wolf kill radius. We’re told that wolves are the only animal that will kill out of vengeance (look out Sarah Palin). The attacks are vicious and the violence is bloody and occasionally shocking, though it never seems gratuitous. The special effects and canine animatronics are seamlessly integrated. The sound design for this movie is exceptional, probably the best use of sound to fashion anxiety since 2007’s No Country for Old Men or even Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The sounds of the wolf pack echo around the theater, completely keeping you off guard, disorienting the audience. Carnahan creates such a vivid picture of dread that we’re convinced that the wolves could sic at any moment. And when they do the editing becomes chaotic, mimicking the ferocity of the animals and depicting the frenzied fear of the attacked.

I was a terrible bundle of nerves throughout most of this movie. The plane crash is an exemplary sequence of terror, capturing the terrifying moments from Ottway’s limited point of view. The rest of the movie doesn’t get any less tense just because they’re on stable footing. There’s one scene where the wolves attack a guy who has fallen back from the group. Carnahan brilliantly captures the helpless reality by showing the men trying to race back in knee-high snow. They can only stomp so far while the man is ripped apart in the background. The action sequences, though to be fair they’re really more suspense pieces, are the most nerve-wracking I’ve endured since the brilliant Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. Of course these being life and death stakes, there is plenty of death, as the men are generally picked off one by one, though not all by the pack of wolves. The frigid elements are just as dangerous as the killer wolves. The men could just as easily freeze to death. The need for shelter and food is dire (the men even joke about the famous cannibalism from Alive). One of them is suffering just from his brain being unable to acclimate to the elevated attitude. That’s almost enviable considering the doom that constantly hangs over the other survivors.

Naturally there’s some friction between the survivors as far as the best course of action. Ottway has assumed Alpha dog status thanks to his expertise on wolves and the Arctic climate, but that does not mean that the rest of the men follow lockstep. Give the alarming situation, it will be in these men’s best interest to work together for survival. Some of the men chafe at being what to do but the movie doesn’t drags out this conflict, thankfully, because jockeying for power positions seems like an absurd waste of time. There are heavier issues at play. The impact of the movie would be blunted if the characters came across as one-dimensional; then we wouldn’t care about their fate. Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker,” find creative ways to enrich and reveal the character of these lone men. They feel believable and their reactions to the implausible dangers seem plausible, keeping us invested. Ottway keeps flashing back to an image of his wife (Anne Openshaw) for strength, this angelic brunette telling him not to worry. It’s what he has to hold onto, though when we learn more about the context of this image it becomes even more meaningful. One character has had enough struggling and has no will power to continue. He argues that whatever life he may return to is no reward.

The thrills and scares are what are to be expected, but The Grey is also a much more thoughtful and intellectually stimulating picture than you may have hoped. Carnahan’s script covers a wide array of survival tactics without breaking from the reality of its premise. It’s just interesting to watch a group of men use their wits to make best use of their dwindling supplies and dire situation. It becomes a game that the audience plays, systematically judging every choice and assessing if we would follow suit. Beforehand, the men engage in a theological discussion regarding the existence of God, faith, the belief that there is a divine plan. The men are fighting for their survival but having an existential crisis all the same, trying to supply meaning to the horrific, find reasons to keep fighting. “We crashed going 400 miles per hour and we survived. That has to mean something,” one of them reasons. Or it all could just be very bad luck. Ottway at one point, an admitted non-believer in a higher power, bellows to the sky for something, anything. His desperation is effective and turns what could have been trite into a nice character moment. One of the men shares a memory of his daughter, who would wake him up by gently dangling her hair in his face. It’s a touching moment and when that same character meets an untimely end and is helped to the other side by a vision of that same daughter, it becomes profoundly moving (the quick snap to reality is a jarring point for grisly comparison). The Grey has plenty more on its mind than making an audience jump. It also wants to make the audience think and, in the end, feel genuine emotion.

The ending may rankle some who felt, especially with the advertising, that the film was going to be a two-hour Neeson ass-kicking vehicle, but for me it was fitting and the only way this story could have ended. Though let me advise all potential ticket-buyers to stay during the end credits for a small bit that offers a tad more resolution, though still leaves as much to be determined by the viewer. It’s not exactly ambiguous considering how things are left.

Neeson (Unknown, Clash of the Titans) has settled nicely into his newest incarnation as middle-aged ass-kicker, such an odd path for the man who famously portrayed Oskar Schindler. At some level, it’s below an actor of Neeson’s standards to be running through such genre frills, but it’s also a joy to see someone who can really, truly act give gravitas to his men of action. After he delivered his warning in Taken, I was completely on board and ready to watch this man bust some skulls. Beyond the physical challenges, the role really puts Neeson through an emotional wringer and the man gives a strong, stirring performance. You’d be glad to have this man in any predicament. The rest of the cast fill out their parts well, with Dermot Mulroney (The Family Stone) making the best use of his time onscreen to create a character.

The Grey is a startling movie; horrific, jolting, thrilling, moving, beautiful, philosophical, and extremely captivating. Carnahan has crafted an exciting movie that transcends genre. There were moments so tense that I was chewing on my knuckles. There were moments so intense I felt like I had to look away. And there were moments so poignant that tears welled up in my eyes. I look forward to watching this movie again and finding even more at work. No grey area here, this is one truly excellent movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

Love, Wedding, Marriage (2011)

I keep wanting to mistakenly refer to this movie as Love, Marriage, Divorce since that seems like a more prevailing plot element in this abysmal rom-com. Mandy Moore plays a couples counselor who’s a newlywed herself, having just gotten hitched with Charlie (the Twilight Saga’s Kellan Lutz). Her life is great, that is, until she learns her parents (James Brolin, Jane Seymour) are splitting up. Their pain will soon be felt by every person watching this wretched movie. Incompetently directed by actor Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding), the movie’s tone approaches something like spastic cartoon. Mulroney frames everything in uncomfortable close-ups, which magnifies the exaggerated gyrations and facial expressions of his cast. It looks like every person onscreen is suffering a stroke at one point. The acting is so shockingly terrible. It’s like the actors have been replaced with the amateur dinner theater versions of themselves. Moore’s character is too shrewish and self-involved to be compelling, and Lutz, whose name rhymes with putz, is so wooden you’d swear they carved him out of a chunk of balsa right before cameras rolled. The sitcom plot suffers from every cliché imaginable in the rom-com genre. This is the worst case of bad drunk acting since 2006’s The Black Dahlia, where actors over-do just about every action. The funny part is that it’s only a slight difference from the way the characters are behaving sober. Criminally unfunny, I have only one theory how Mulroney was able to get this movie made because clearly the screenplay wasn’t reeling investors in. In the end credits are many producers and executive producers, several of them with Slavic surnames. There’s also a Slavic model with in a key role. Mulroney turned to the only people who would finance Love, Wedding, Marriage – the Russian mafia. If you see Mulroney in a wheelchair from an “accident” in the near future, you heard the truth here first.

Nate’s Grade: D-

Must Love Dogs (2005)

Seriously, is there anything more that can be written about modern romantic comedies? If ever there was a genre comparable to horror, it’s these easily digestible, 90-minute love fests. I feel like I’m becoming a romantic comedy connoisseur. And it’s all because of my girlfriend. You see, without her I never would have seen Miss Congeniality 2, let alone in a first-run theater. I wouldn’t have seen Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and that was a very pleasant film. Added to the list is Must Love Dogs, a romantic comedy released right before the dog days of summer.

Sarah (Diane Lane) is a newly divorced 40-something preschool teacher (who looks freaking adorable dressed as a cat). Her very tight-knit family consoles her but also can?t stop from putting all their efforts toward helping Sarah get back on her feet. Sarah’s younger sister scours through her wardrobe and asks, “Where are all your boob shirts?” Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) creates an online profile for Sarah without her knowledge and submits it to an Internet dating website. She ends the profile by saying, “Must love dogs.” This allows for many disastrous dates, including one awkward date with her father (Christopher Plummer), himself on the dating scene. Jack (John Cusack) has just gotten out of a long-term relationship and his heart is fragile. He carves old fashioned wooden boats but struggles to make any sales. His buddy sets up a date with Sarah at a dog park. Jack borrows a dog and things don’t go so smoothly, but he sees something there. They go on additional dates and really feel a connection, even if the dates don’t go according to plan. But Sarah also has Bob (Dermot Mulroney), a hunky single dad to one of her preschool tykes, to choose from. What’s a hot single woman to do?

Must Love Dogs is a grab bag of romantic comedy clichés. You’ll find most everything here, from the sassy sister, the gay best friend (for 21st century advancements, the movie presents a gay couple), people trying to learn to love again after having their hearts broken, precocious children that say unusually adult things, a sing-along to a classic song, and the inevitable moment where one person finally has a late revelation and runs to catch their soon-to-be leaving love.

What hurts Must Love Dogs from its other cookie cutter ilk is how contrived so much of it feels. For the longest time the movie presents both of Sarah’s male options in a positive light, but because we see Cusack’s name above the credits and his face on the poster we know he’s destined to win out. Despite this, the film manufactures an entirely contrived scenario to put a wedge between Sarah and Jack. Bob walks in and, in an attempt to convince Sarah he didn’t bang her younger co-worker, kisses her on the spot. Then they pull apart and we see Jack standing there with Sarah’s drunken brother over his shoulder (how did he get back in the house anyway?). Must Love Dogs is another romantic comedy where the conflicts would be resolved with one levelheaded conversation between all parties.

What does keep Must Love Dogs afloat is how enormously likable and appealing Lane and Cusack are as actors. They’ve both been acting since they were teens (Lane was even on the cover of TIME magazine before she had a training bra), so it’s pleasant to see them mature gracefully but still remain vibrant, charismatic, and very good looking. After her blistering turn as the errant wife in 2002’s Unfaithful (which she should have won the Best actress Oscar for), Lane has found stable footing in romantic comedies dealing with the overlooked stories of a 40-something woman in love. In Must Love Dogs she’s generally strong despite the weak material. She has her funnier moments dealing with reaction. Cusack’s character is like Lloyd Dobbler (from the masterpiece Say Anything) in 15 years, and he manages to put his offbeat/sexy Cusack magic all over the film. With different actors as the leads, Must Love Dogs would be mostly forgettable.

Must Love Dogs also gives ample material to Sarah’s father and his pursuit of a mate of his own. Plummer is excellent as the wry old codger and has some very tender moments with Lane. It’s rare for a mainstream movie, let alone a romantic comedy, to sensibly deal with an elderly man’s own search for love, after losing the love of his life. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals realistically with a 40-something woman and a 60-something man in the dating world, well as realistic as romantic comedies can get (cue the spontaneous sing-along).

In the formulaic world of romantic comedies, Must Love Dogs lands right smack in the middle, feeling equal parts contrived and enlightened. Lane and Cusack still shine as wonderfully charming leads and elevate this standard cookie cutter material. Plummer adds a nice addition in a smart, tender storyline of an old man looking for Mrs. Right. Fans of the romantic comedy genre will have their every expectation granted and feel the standard warm and fuzzies leaving the theater. Must Love Dogs is a typical romantic comedy that?s slightly funny, slightly charming, and slightly frustrating. And maybe that?s the film’s biggest flaw: it’s slight.

Nate’s Grade: C+

About Schmidt (2002)

January at the theaters is a tale of two kinds of films. One type are the studio bombs (take Just Married and Darkness Falls, please take them far away). The other type are the prestige pictures expanding their releases in hopes of garnering some of that Oscar magic. A lot of prestige films were released around the holidays and though not every one could be a winner, they were all better than Kangaroo Jack. Well, except for The Hours.

About Schmidt (2002)

Premise: Retired and recently widowed, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) must learn to live his own life for the first time. Warren travels across the country to rediscover himself and stop his resentful daughter from marrying a man-child with a mullet.

Results: Nicholson downplays his usual shark grin to deliver one of his best performances in a funny, tragic, savage yet warm-hearted film. About Schmidt, from the creators of Election and Citizen Ruth, is one of the best films of 2002.

Nate’s Grade: A

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