Mads Mikkelsen is stranded in the Arctic and that’s about all you need to know plot-wise about the film, a thrilling and immersive survival thriller. Right away the film lets us in on the routine of this survivor of a plane crash and how resilient and resourceful he had become. Then it introduces a new sense of urgency, a critically injured pilot in another aircraft, that pushes him into leaving the safety of his homemade confines. The movie relies so heavily on elemental, visual storytelling that I think any person on the planet could easily understand and appreciate the pared-down storytelling. The visuals are so immersive and accessible that every item bears import or sets up critical information to be relied upon later. The harsh Arctic landscape and unique dangers push our hero to the extreme in order to save another life. It’s enough to inure us to this relatively silent man. Mikkelsen (Polar) uses every physical muscle of acting to communicate the struggle his character is undergoing. You believe every moment. There’s not much in the way of story beyond stubborn survival against brutal conditions. We don’t get any flashbacks. We don’t get any monologues. It’s one man against the full force of nature and it’s enough for a brisk, simple, straightforward focused 97-minute survival story with Mads persevering amongst the beautiful and terrifying wasteland.
Nate’s Grade: B
Sometimes second place might as well be last place in the film industry. Pity Andy Serkis and the years he spent making a live-action, mo-cap enhanced version of The Jungle Book only for Disney to scoop him years in advance and deliver a billion-dollar hit. It’s impossible not to compare the two and unfortunately Serkis’ passion project is found wanting in many areas. For starters, there’s far less Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), which is a shame. He’s really only in the film for very little. I think Cate Blanchett is miscast as the voice of the snake, Kaa, who acts like a grand keeper of the jungle’s history and future. I’m not sold on Serkis as Baloo, a grumpy paternal figure present from the beginning that trains the wolf pups so they can join the pack. The middle half-hour Mowgli spends in the company of man with a kindly poacher also feels like the movie is spinning its wheels. It keeps the rest of the jungle on hold. There are some rather dark asides that can be quite surprising, from wolf pups plummeting to their doom, bloody scars, cute severed heads to haunt your dreams, and three separate occasions where characters will watch the light vanish from a dying animal’s eye. It’s definitely a more brutish, cruel, and dangerous world, but at what greater expense? The characterization doesn’t add up to much. The character relationships are minimal. The CGI creatures and settings look unfinished. The whole enterprise feels rushed even though it’s been on the shelf for some time, which may be why the studio was eager to sell it to Netflix for a cool $90 million. You’ll watch Mowgli and nod, generally entertained, but questioning whether it’s 90-million worth.
Nate’s Grade: C+
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
Matt Reeves is a director who seems to have found his true calling refashioning the work of others. He remade the Swedish film Let the Right One In and improved it in several areas, though having Richard Jenkins and Chloe Grace Mortiz and a complete lack of CGI cats certainly helps. Then he inherited the new Apes franchise with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the fledgling franchise didn’t miss a beat. I’ve been pleasantly surprised about these damn dirty apes ever since the 2011 prequel kicked things off. Reeves took control of the franchise and deepened it, following a very non-Hollywood playbook that embraced subtleties, patience, and quiet moments. It had its crazy apes action but it was a movie in service to its characters first and foremost. Reeves, serving as co-writer once more with Mark Bomback, brings the franchise to its natural and thrilling conclusion. War for the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster with soul.
It’s been fifteen years after the outbreak of the devastating Simian Flu. Mankind is dwindling and falling victim to a secondary virus as well. There are only pockets of humans left and small militias taking the fight to the super-intelligent apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis once more in mo-cap) and his followers have taken refuge near a waterfall. The ape community is ambushed by soldiers led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). With their home exposed, Caesar splits up the remaining numbers and sends them out to find a new shelter. He is determined to seek out the Colonel for vengeance. Eventually the other apes are captured and put into a slave labor camp and Caesar and company must rescue them and flee mankind’s last gasp at staying atop the food chain.
This may be one of the bleakest blockbusters in recent memory, especially when you consider that you’ll be actively cheering for the relative extinction of mankind by the end credits. Human beings are on the brink of extinction and this has drawn out the worst fight-or-flight instincts in the remaining numbers. This is about a final fight for survival on a visceral, us versus them level, and after two movies it should be abundantly clear what direction this is all heading. Even as humankind is doing a terrific job of wiping itself off the planet, humans still present a clear threat to the remaining apes. The second film explored how a working trust was improbable and unfathomable to many on both sides of the conflict because of the injustices. That’s pretty heady for a talking ape summer blockbuster. War closes the series with an even bigger and bleaker scenario, as humanity is entering the hospice phase of its social dominance. Roger Ebert referred to the movie theater as an empathy machine, and it’s amazing how far you will empathize with non-human characters. You will feel their triumphs, setbacks, loss, and anger, and you will root for the demise of mankind. We had a good run but maybe it’s time for a different species to become the caretakers of dear Mother Earth.
This is a final film that makes allusions to some of the darkest aspects of human history including, but not limited to, slavery and the Holocaust. It doesn’t traffic in black-and-white moral absolutes. There is good in some humans, several of whom were thrown into military service unprepared, under-trained, and simply existentially lost. There are apes that have made the calculation that it’s better to work with the humans than be killed. That’s right, there are collaborationist apes, and Reeves doesn’t look down on them. They too are allowed complexity and nuance and even the possibility of redemption. No one, man or ape, is beyond the capacity for compassion. You strongly feel their shame brought from moral compromises. It’s hard not to think about real-life analogues like the Jewish police that chose to work at the behest of their Nazi oppressors. They’re all still victims.
There is great suffering and vengeance on display with War, and it’s all too easy for characters to justify it on a literal specist argument (“Apes aren’t people, and they would have done the same to you”). Caesar is trying his best to manage a fragile co-existence, though this becomes untenable with every new attack. It’s a cycle of violence that only knows recriminations and fear. This struggle is personalized for Caesar as he wrestles with his own selfish, self-destructive impulses to seek out vengeance at the potential cost of the greater good for apekind. Caesar is still haunted by the ghost of Koba (Toby Kebbel, in a welcomed albeit brief appearance), the ape he slew in the previous film. Koba could not let go of the hatred he carried for mankind for their myriad abuses. It consumed him at great cost. Caesar is battling these same impulses but is self-aware about his responsibilities as the leader of his people, but even that might not be enough to dissuade him. To have that kind of emotional conflict within a CGI animal who happens to be the protagonist in a major Hollywood production is simply remarkable.
I don’t want to scare people away. War for the Planet of the Apes is still a very entertaining and gripping movie that can easily warrant stuffing your face full of popcorn. It’s also a blockbuster with tremendous weight. At a steep 140 minutes long, I still could have used even more of this movie. Reeves displays an uncommon sense of patience for a blockbuster filmmaker given a big studio’s checkbook. A majority of this movie is silent and this doesn’t panic Reeves. The director tells his story in a visually appealing and accessible way that doesn’t scrimp on characterization and depth. For long stretches the only communication on screen is ape sign language (small quibble: the apes too often fail to look at one another when they do this). There’s a lingering hush over much of the film, allowing the audience to immerse themselves fully. When the action does heat up, the sounds and music matter more. The solemn silences, hunting parties, and tense standoffs should remind people of Westerns and prisoner-of-war movies. This is the second big-budget 2017 movie making direct Vietnam parallels concerning a man-vs-apes conflict. The prison escape structure of the second half is immediately compelling and just as well developed as what came before. The multiple points needed for an elaborate escape are presented one-by-one and organically. The mini-goals and geography are clear at all times. It leads to an all-out assault climax that is thrilling on multiple levels but also deeply satisfying because of the extensive legwork.
Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) has been the beating heart of this franchise and his work as Casaer has been a monumental achievement in the advancement of special effects (the series has never won an Oscar for its VFX). Caesar is a fully formed character with relatable flaws and doubts, and thanks to the wizards at Weta, you can see the nuances flash across his face. Serkis brings an impressive range of emotions to a non-human character that’s piercingly silent often. It’s a performance that deserves shared credit to the animators and to Serkis, who is deserving once again of awards consideration that I know will unfairly never come. Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) is definitely evoking a Colonel Kurtz homage, a man given over to the darkness. I appreciated that his character has a credible back-story that informs his actions. He’s not simply a maniacal madman. He respects Caesar and the apes, but views life as a zero-sum game, which makes genocide an appealing last-ditch option. The pleasant surprise among the cast is Steve Zahn (Captain Fantastic) who plays Bad Ape. It’s a character that seems prone to comic relief non-sequitors, but he’s scarred from his own survival experiences. This is an ape still going through PTSD and that presents even the comedic with a twinge of tragedy. The unseen actors behind their mo-cap performances breathe startling life into the numerous non-human characters, bringing unparalleled realism to this sci-fi realm.
As the conclusion to the Apes prequel trilogy, you will also experience plenty of powerful emotions. I full-on cried twice and teared up about four other separate occasions. I cannot even remember another major summer tentpole that triggered that kind of emotional response (maybe a Pixar title or two). We’ve traveled with Caesar and several of these apes for three movies and six years. We’re emotionally invested. I knew I was going to lose it if anything happened to the orangutan, Maurice (I won’t confirm his fate). The community and empathy we’ve shared with these characters for three movies comes to a gratifying conclusion that feels appropriate, sizeable, and aching with potential for further adventures in this new and exciting world.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a movie so rewarding, so engaging, that you walk away angry that other Hollywood blockbusters can’t be this good or aren’t even trying to be. It’s emotionally rich and resonant, hitting you in the heart just as often as it quickens your pulse. Because of the investment in the characters, and their ongoing progression, we genuinely care about what happens like few blockbusters. The characters don’t take a backseat to the plot mechanics. Serkis and his amazing cast of mo-cap performers have delivered performances that rival live-action actors. There are clever nods to the original series that fans will enjoy but this Apes franchise has been its own beast from the beginning. This is a thoughtful, reflective, and contemplative film that fits well for such a thoughtful and contemplative series, and yet it still knows how to deliver stupendous sci-fi action (our lives are just that much more complete having watched an ape fire dual machine guns while riding a horse). I would declare Dawn as the best action of the trilogy, but I think War is the best movie because of how much everything matters and finishes. I think once the initial dust settles, it’s time to start thinking about this new Apes trilogy place among the all-time great movie trilogies. It’s been consistently enthralling from the beginning and has treated its animal cast as equally worthy of the greatest stories movies can deliver. War for the Planet of the Apes is powerful proof of what blockbuster filmmaking is capable of offering at its absolute finest.
Nate’s Grade: A
Which do you value more, verisimilitude or narrative? If you’re looking for an intense, immersive filmgoing experience that’s just as harrowing as it is beautiful, then perhaps The Revenant is your movie. If you are looking for characters and a story to engage with, then maybe it won’t be. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass who was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. He miraculously survives and tracks down those who betrayed him for some frontier justice Under the unyielding vision of director Alejandro Gonzalez Innarito (Birdman), the movie opens up its scary world with an exhilarating sense of detail. Inarritu favors lots of natural light and long, gorgeous tracking shots, which creates a spellbinding sense of realism. The attacks and escapes and moment-to-moment survival communicate the remarkable dangers of this natural world. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is flawless, using light and camera placement to stunning effect. However, The Revenant (meaning a person who has come back from the dead) is a series of beautifully rendered moments delicately stretched over a ponderous running time of 157 minutes. There’s just not enough plot events to fill that running time, so to compensate Inarritu gives way to some Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) impulses that try for philosophical poetry but miss. DiCaprio is getting plenty of plaudits for his demanding role, and he’s quite good and visceral (and no, he does not get raped by a bear). I was more impressed with Tom Hardy, who plays the target of Glass’ fury. Hardy imbues depth into his antagonist, and while you won’t exactly be rooting for him to get away you can see the guy as more pragmatist than mustache-twirling rogue. He even has an interesting back-story surviving being scalped that informs his decision-making. Much of the film is watching Glass endure physical hardship after physical hardship, which may grow wearying for many audience members, especially those most squeamish. When it’s firing, The Revenant is a magnificent and stunningly realized survival thriller with sprinkles of engaging human drama. The problem is that there isn’t enough to go around for its running time.
Nate’s Grade: B
In 1822, the men aboard the Essex, a whaling ship sailing from Nantucket, Massachusetts, encountered a beast unlike any they have ever seen. Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemworth), were at odds throughout the voyage, that is until they encountered a 100-foot long white whale. The creature destroyed the Essex, forcing the crew to drift at sea and hope to find land, but the whale follows them as well. Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland as a young man, Brendan Gleeson as the older version) recounts this traumatic survival tale to author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who is desperate to write this true story.
There’s an old-school throwback vibe to In the Heart of the Sea with its high seas adventure, but there’s just not enough attention to adventure, character, or even plot for this movie to really set sail properly. The first act feels so sluggishly long. It’s trying to set up life on a whaling vessel in the early 19th century but I didn’t feel like we got a coherent sense of life aboard the seas or how the various components worked. I didn’t know that whalers row out from the main ship, so there’s that. The opening act sets up the dull conflict between Chase and Pollard, which can be summarized as blunt upstart vs. unchecked privilege. The conflict doesn’t evolve from this dichotomy. Both men are boring in their unyielding simplicity. Hemsworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron) made a stronger impression in Rush, but a humorless movie role is not in his best interests as an actor. When the action does arrive, it can be genuinely thrilling. Director Ron Howard does a slick job of conveying the danger and destruction of the whale attack. Sadly, it’s over too soon and then the remainder of the movie is 45 minutes of a survival drama adrift in the ocean reminiscent of last year’s Unbroken. This period of isolation forces the characters to make some hard choices, yet we don’t feel the impact of those choices because the narrative, too, feels adrift. Implausibly, the giant whale has followed them for thousands of miles. Are whales really this vindictive? The documentary Blackfish makes me wonder but it still feels unbelievable. What was the whale waiting for? For the men’s spirits to be completely broken before it might attack again? We’re told this whale is a “demon” but who exactly are the bad guys in this story?
I believe another stopping point for this story is that the culture has moved beyond the acceptance of whaling as an honorable profession, to the point that I, and I assume others, was on Team Whale after witnessing a bloody hunt. It’s pretty gross, especially when they’re harvesting the whale body for the precious oil. Perhaps modern audiences, so far removed from hunting as an essential component of life have become more squeamish, or perhaps modern audiences just recognize something as barbaric when they see it. As a result, it’s hard to root for these guys. When the giant whale attacked it felt like retribution. My sympathies were more for the large mammal than the bipeds on ship. At the end of the film (some spoilers), the white-haired moneyed men of Big Whale Oil are worried what the truth will do to their industry. They want the surviving crewmen of the Essex to deny the existence of this gargantuan whale. This makes little sense to me other than awkwardly forcing a Big Business cover-up for relevancy. First off, whaling seems like a pretty unsafe working environment to begin with, especially considering voyages could last up to three years. Would the reality of one big bad whale destroy an industry? I doubt it since there is such money to be had. If anything it might rejuvenate the timber industry to reinforce the ships to make them more durable against larger whale attacks.
At first I thought a framing device was entirely superfluous; why do we need to watch Melville elicit this tale rather than simply just watching the tale itself? It seemed like a distraction, but as the movie progressed I understood that this framing device was its own sub-story and had its own complexity, namely the older Tom coming clean to the decisions that still haunt his soul. It’s an unburdening for both gentlemen, as Melville admits his deep fear that he is a mediocre writer (he’s no Nathaniel Hawthorne) and that he will be unable to tell this story as well as it truly deserves.
As these two men are allowing themselves to become more vulnerable and sharing their demons and doubts and worst fears, I started to realize that this framing device was weirdly more compelling than all the whale action. That’s because older Tom and Melville are the best drawn characters in the movie, which seems like a screenwriting mistake of sizable proportions. Obviously the nautical survival stuff should be the most compelling, and yet I as more taken with two men sitting by an oil lamp discussing their lives. Older Tom is infinitely more interesting than younger Tom; part of this is because young Tom hasn’t experienced the full effect of the events that shape older Tom, but most of this is from the very clear fact that young Tom is kind of a mute witness in this movie. He rarely speaks and is just kind of there, taking up space. There’s one personal harrowing moment when he’s thrust inside a hollowed out whale carcass to extract more blubber, but that’s the only personal perspective offered through young Tom. A question concerning the framing device: how is older Tom retelling events he had no participation or witness to? Another issue is that the characters on board the Essex are bereft of anything that would allow us to feel for them beyond simple human survival. Chase and Pollard are given one note to play and their eventual understanding and cooperation is fine but it feels like fleeting details in a story, lost to memory or disinterest.
From a purely technical aspect, this is one of the better Howard films. The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) is rich and often breath taking, with plenty of stunning aerial and underwater images. The whale attack sequence is harrowing and thrilling. Howard finds ways to imply the harsher aspects of this life without going overboard, maintaining that PG-13 rating. While the look of the film has an enhanced color palate thanks to the extra boost of CGI filters, I still appreciated the vibrancy of the on screen images. As I said with the similarly boosted Mad Max: Fury Road, I’d rather have vibrant and bright colors than a drab and washed-out color palate. Even as the movie drifts and the characters fail to grab you, at least the visuals are pretty. While sitting through the second half, I started to rethink my own prejudices concerning Howard as a filmmaker, a man who lacks a distinctive style but has a definite feel for how to tell a story. I’m not going to excuse him for The Grinch and other misfires, or his tendency to settle for maudlin in place of subtlety, but the man is a born filmmaker.
In the Heart of the Sea is an old school movie that feels too sluggish, too underdeveloped, and too free of characters for the audience to invest in. When the framing device scores the biggest emotional pull, you better start rethinking your rip-roaring high-seas adventure. Master and Commander this is not. As the inspiration for Moby Dick, I wish I had just watched a remake of Melville’s actual novel (now with extra chapters about rope!). If you ever wanted a movie that ends on a blurb by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a payoff for Melville’s artistic neurosis, then your wait is over. In the Heart of the Sea feels like a whale of a tale that is hard to believe, which ends up inspiring a far greater story, which made me yearn for just watching that superior tale. Sometimes the “truth” behind famous stories is less interesting.
Nate’s Grade: C+
On December 26, 2004, an underwater earthquake triggered one of the deadliest tsunamis on record, devastating coastal cities along the Indian Ocean. Over 230,000 people are believed to have perished from the waves and resulting damage. The Impossible tells the harrowing and ultimately inspiring true-story of one family and their vacation from hell. We follow Marie (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) as well as their three sons, from oldest to youngest, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). They’re vacationing in Thailand for the holidays and then the tsunami hits, separating Marie and Lucas from the group. They are swept away by the punishing waves and Marie is badly hurt. Henry is desperately searching for his loved ones, Lucas is desperate to get his mother proper medical attention, and there are thousands just as desperate and just as in need.
It’s nigh impossible to watch this movie and be unmoved. It’s not very subtle when it comes to its themes and messages, but man is it ever effective. The family struggle could have easily descended into melodrama with a sappy, maudlin reunion, punctuated with swelling music to hit you over the head. It’s a fairly simple story with little to its plot. The family gets separated and then they desperately search for one another and, surprise, they reunite. It is after all based on a true story and they all lived, so there’s that. It’s the startling level of realism, the exceptional performances, and the poignant moments of human kindness and grace that suckered me in big time. I was an emotional wreck throughout this movie but in the best way possible. I cried at points, sure, but my tears and my emotions always felt genuinely earned. There’s no doubt that this is one manipulative movie. It knows what strings to pull, what buttons to push, and it does so with finesse. Last year I decried Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for being overly manipulative and overdosing on false sentiment. However, with this movie, my investment was never in jeopardy. I was completely absorbed by the story and felt great empathy for the array of characters as they persevere. The horror of that 2004 tsunami is told in one small story, personalized, and giving an entry point for an audience to engage without feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of destruction and death.
Let me go into further detail about that wall of destruction, given astonishing, terrifying realism. The recreation of the tsunami ranks up there as one of the most frightening sequences I’ve ever seen in film. It’s a solid ten minutes of chaos, and you will feel the frenzy of that chaos. You’re put in the middle, floating along with mother and son as they helplessly try and cling to one another. The scope of the disaster will leave you gasping. I know they must have used sets and water tanks but I’m left stupefied how it all came together to look so seamless. It sounds macabre to compliment the marvelous recreation of mayhem, but director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) and his team have turned disaster into world-class drama. It’s not just the powerful waves as well, there’s the field of debris just under the surface to contend with. When the first wave hits Maria, we experience her complete disorientation. The sights and sounds are blurs, the water oppressive, and the debris sudden, jolting, unforgiving. It’s the closest any person would ever truly want to get in the middle of a tsunami.
The majority of the film is about the family coming back together, and while their reunion is indeed a tearjerker, I found the film littered with many small moments that just soared emotionally. When a disaster of this magnitude hits, I’m always struck by the wealth of human kindness and cooperation that emerges in response. There’s something deeply moving about helping your fellow man in need, even if you cannot understand his or her language. Maria is aided by the Thai locals who do not treat her differently because she’s a white woman. She is just another person in need.
Whenever disaster strikes, we think of the people who plunge into the middle as heroes, but simple acts can be just as comforting and thoughtful. There are small moments of kindness, like lending a stranger your cell phone to call home, that speak volumes. In that one instance, Henry is so distraught, the weight of everything hitting him as he tries to put it into words, and his call is abrupt and somewhat incomprehensible thanks to his rising emotions. Henry is urged to call back, not to leave it at that, to leave his relatives dangling with such precious little and the alarm in his voice. So he’s given the phone again, and in a more measured demeanor, Henry is able to talk about the situation and promise to find his wife. It’s such an everyday gesture made invaluable to Henry. There’s a woman talking to Thomas about the stars in the sky, how we don’t know which are dead but they continue to live on, and the subtext is a bit obvious but it’s still heartfelt. Then there’s Lucas’ mission of organizing the triage center, scouring the grounds looking for missing family members. He takes it upon himself to make a difference rather than sitting idle. It’s that human connection in the face of adversity that proves most uplifting.
Watts (J. Edgar) gives a performance of tremendous strength and fragility. The tenacity and resilience she has to keep pushing through is remarkable. She’s so strong but vulnerable at the same time, showing you the fine line she walks to stay above the fray for her child. She endures great physical trauma, a gnarly gash in her leg peeling off like tree bark. Then there’s the emotional burden of trying to be a mother to a child desperately in need of a sturdy parent. Watts could have readily played to the heights of the emotions, resorting to hysterics, but the quiet strength of her character makes her underplay the burdens she endures. She can’t simply just break down. You don’t get a true sense of the toll she has suffered until her life-and-death struggles at the very end.
The supporting team around Watts also deserves accolades. McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) has several heartbreaking and heartwarming scenes, striving for hope. Lucas has to rise to maturity when his mother is wounded, protecting her, supporting her. Acting novice Holland rises to that challenge with great courage, though there are moments that still remind you he’s only a boy, like when he bashfully turns his back upon seeing his mother’s exposed breast. That awkward, indecisive moment where a young boy doesn’t know how to handle the sight, seeing his mother so exposed and vulnerable, is quite effective. The other actors who round out the family (Joslin and Pendergast) are quite superb as well. The family feels like a cohesive, loving unit, and every performance feels believable.
The Impossible is based upon the true experiences of a Spanish family, and yet the onscreen family we follow is white, so what gives? It’s not surprising for Hollywood to whitewash a story to appeal to a wider audience. Should we have any more sympathy for this family’s plight because they are white? Would we feel less if they were Spanish? I think the perils and victories would be the same regardless of language or ethnicity, but I can’t fault the producers for snagging talent like Watts and McGregor. If you have actors of this caliber that wish to come aboard, then by all means change the ethnicity of the characters. I was too consumed in the story to care that much about this facet.
Watching the unflinching and stunning events in The Impossible, you will likely shed some tears, be they from horror, sadness, or happiness at the family’s reunion. While the ending is never in doubt, the movie has plenty of other potent and poignant small moments to keep your emotions safely stirred. It’s a visceral experience that will shock and exhilarate. There were moments where I felt like I had to cover my eyes. But The Impossible is not disaster porn, ogling over the suffering and endurance of the misfortunate. It’s as much about the response to tragedy as it is the wallop of that cruel tragedy in 2004. The perseverance, the open-hearted help of one’s fellow man, the strength of human connection, the long ripples of kindness, it all comes together to form one compelling, often moving, and quite memorable film experience. Add some formidable performances, top-notch direction, and tremendous technical achievement, and The Impossible is a rousing drama that speaks to the best of us even in the worst conditions (think of it as the antithesis of Ayn Rand’s philosophy). It may be manipulative, it may be somewhat straightforward, and it likely climaxes too soon, but when the results are this powerful and emotionally engaging, then I’m happy to have my buttons pushed.
Nate’s Grade: A-
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
Ever since the organic, years-in-the-making cult ascent of The Room, every blogger and journalist has been trying to scour the world of inept cinema to crown the next great worst movie of all time. We all want to be kingmakers of camp. In the summer of 2009, After Last Season mystified audiences and seemed like it could be an excellent camp candidate, until people actually saw the film and discovered that it was more painful awful than pleasurable awful. Then a few months ago a new contender emerged — Birdemic: Shock and Terror. The extremely low-budget ($10,000) film, curiously dubbed a “romantic thriller,” is the THIRD film from writer/director/former software engineer James Nguyen. The Sundance Film Festival rejected his aviary masterpiece in 2009 but that didn’t stop Nguyen. He took a van, decorated it with (fake) dead birds, drove around promoting the film with the aid of screeching eagle cries, enticing people to come inside and watch the movie (sounds like the first reel of a serial killer film to me). The magic mixture of romance and eco terror has captured the interest of major media outlets like The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, USA Today, BBC News, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News and ABC News, and the collective sugar-high rush to judgment says that Birdemic is “the worst film of all time.” Naturally, I had to see anything that vies for that hallowed honor.
For a movie citing the shock and terror of birds, it may be something of a shock that, short of a poorly rendered CGI dead bird on the beach, the first 40 minutes of this movie are absent the titular winged creatures. The first half of this movie is a mostly boring yet hugely personally eventful week for Rod (Alan Bagh) and Nathalie (Whitney Moore), our witless leads. Rod scores million dollar sales at his software company, which leads to Oracle buying the company for a billion dollars. He also successfully finds a venture capitalist to invest $10 million in his own solar panel startup. Nathalie, Rod’s high school classmate, is an underwear model. She goes from a photo shoot –in a one hour photo store in a strip mall!– to the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. They meet at a diner and then go on a series of dull dates, culminating in Rod responding to a goodnight kiss on the cheek with the request of going upstairs in her apartment (total misread of the signs). Regardless, Nathalie tells her mother that Rod is a special guy who’s not just interested in one thing, conveniently ignoring the end of the date. He meets mom and then after a night of hilariously, uncoordinated Caucasian dancing at a vacant bar, the two decide to consummate the relationship in the most romantic fashion possible — a seedy motel bedroom. And yes, they both have homes. It was at this point that I checked my watch and yelled, “Where the hell are the birds already?!”
It is after the off-screen lovemaking that the birdemic finally strikes. The next morning, for no discernable reason, birds turn into kamikaze agents and dive-bomb gas stations, cars, homes, and whatever else, causing explosions citywide. Rod and Nathalie team up with another motel pair, Ramsey (Adam Sessa) and Becky (Catherine Batcha), who conveniently have a stash of high-powered automatic weapons in their van. The gang fights their way to the van and then the rest of the movie turns into a series of mini-adventures finding victims and survivors of the birdemic.
I will give Mr. Nguyen his due. His clueless naiveté is endearing, which makes the movie much easier to appreciate. Plus, unlike the filmmakers behind After Last Season, Nguyen has at least a competent idea of how movies are supposed to work. He doesn’t have any visual talent but he at least knows how camera compositions are supposed to be established, how editing orients the audience, and how to construct a story that people can at minimum follow. This is not intended as backhanded compliments, just another reminder at how monstrously appalling After Last Season was. It’s gotten to the point that basic competency is considered a virtue. Nguyen knows basic cinematic rules and the visual vocabulary that goes with cameras. He doesn’t have the skill to do anything else. The film was shot on DV and yet it constantly has focus issues. Characters will be stationed at distances that render them blurry. If Nguyen had a focus limit, why have the actors routinely wander outside that safe zone and into the blurry reaches of nothingness? Then there will be moments where it is painfully obvious that the background is a green screen, but why was that necessary? Nguyen will have two characters sit down at a restaurant, and then the rest of the table conversation will be green screen. That has to be the weakest excuse for a green screen ever (“We couldn’t afford to shoot people sitting at a table for an extended period of time”).
The editing is frequently choppy, jumping around to disorient the viewer, breaking visual rules of geography, but the editing seems on a timed delay. Every new shot/scene seems to start three seconds later than it should. The worst offense in the whole movie is the sound quality. Clearly using only the built-in microphone from his camera, Nguyen allows great portions of his movie to be un-listenable. A day at the beach turns into listening to the wild howl while it obscures all dialogue.
Birdemic has all the requisite components that make up a delightfully bad movie: bad acting, bad dialogue, plot holes, bizarre directorial and script decisions, and extreme awkwardness. For an outbreak of killer birds, everybody seems so resolutely casual about this aviary apocalypse. There is no sense of urgency or danger; characters will stroll in their walks and frequently make outdoor pit stops. One female character is killed after she wanders needlessly far from the safety of the van to pee. They didn’t decide that an indoor bathroom would be safer? The gang also decides to wander through a crowded forest, a habitat that might, you know, attract birds. Then there’s the careless frolic on the beach, again needlessly far from the refuge of the van. Rod is held up by one motorist for gas (yes, society has broken down that far in hours, and yet you can watch hundreds of cars pass along the other half of the road, foolishly driving toward the birdemic and their doom). But then Rod leaves behind the full gas container and hops back into the van, escaping a not so imminent bird attack. They keep venturing to outdoor areas to escape an enemy that utilizes the sky. They even have a picnic! In short, these people are dumb.
But, to be fair, maybe they’re reacting with such relaxation because the birds are more laughable than intimidating. Nguyen recycles the same low-rent special effects of birds mysteriously levitating. They flap their wings but don’t ever seem to be moving. These CGI creatures look like early computer effects from the 1990s. These birds seem to explode on impact. I wouldn’t be too alarmed, either. When the gang leaves the motel, the bids hover and squawk, and some characters use coat hangers to swing away their non-moving antagonists. Ramsey doesn’t even try to fight them off after a few seconds. He just stand there while the birds fail to do anything. They keep appearing in swarms, though they seem to purposely be following our band of dumb characters. The second half of this movie mostly follows characters shooting and driving. You start to anticipate that the Duck Hunter dog is going to appear at some point and pick up the fallen carcasses and snicker. Avatar, this ain’t.
To call any of this acting would be a generous use of the term. Moore, as Nathalie, might actually be a plausible actress. She handles the material the best. Her onscreen love interest, on the other hand, is astoundingly bad. Bagh has mastered the aloof, dead-eyed stare, which he uses as his specialty. When Rod first meets Nathalie he gazes in one long unbroken stare, which communicates more “Did I leave the gas on?” then, “Is that the girl I sat behind in an English class and never talked to?” Bagh seems to have learned his lines phonetically because his line delivery is steeped in a singsong rhythm. The dialogue is mostly short exclamations that give no indication of character or plot. It’s hard to gauge the acting ability of clear non-actors in a trashy movie. It’s all a sliding scale.
Nguyen has been working on the story of Birdemic for five years. This labor of love was also Nguyen’s platform to make mankind think about its effect on the environment. Yes, the movie has all sorts of environmental messages squeezed in, where characters debate the ecological motivations of the bird attacks. A Tree Hugger (that’s his literal screen credit) theorizes that the birds are fighting back to protect Mother Nature, that’s why they seem to go after cars and gas stations. A doctor in Canada (we’re informed that the van leaves the country by watching it drive past an arrow pointing to the U.S. border written in sidewalk chalk) theorizes that the birds from Canada were infected with the notorious bird flu, and then it spread south. The doctor also gets the opportunity to declare man the most deadliest threat of them all, thus fulfilling a sci-fi disaster movie requirement. The TV news alerts about the peril of global warming, and even though the film is set in 2008, the characters see An Inconvenient Truth at the theaters (“An important movie!”). The environmental message doesn’t begin to approach cohesive commentary.
As I was watching, I got the weird impression that Nguyen had been commissioned to film a tourist video for the city of Half Moon Bay, California. Then somewhere along the line the promotional project was scuttled and Nguyen looked at his assembled footage and said, “Well, why not make the most of it?” Ladies and gentlemen, Birdemic: Shock and Terror is “the most of it.” There are numerous scenes that serve no purpose other than highlighting some of the offerings of Half Moon Bay, from the quaint local shops, to the lighthouse, to its beaches and natural beauty, truly Half Moon Bay is where you want to spend your next vacation. There are pointless scenes of extended driving. The first three minutes of this movie is watching Rod drive to the office from the scenic view of his dashboard. The opening sequence mirrors Manos: The Hands of Fate, which began with over 10 minutes of uninterrupted driving shots. The opening is even more mind numbing because Nguyen plays the same 55-second piece of music over and over. So the next time you’re driving through California, think about stopping in Half Moon Bay, home of the world-famous birdemic.
Now comes the inevitable, and somewhat subjective part, where the critic must place Birdemic upon the scale of Absolute Awful ranging worst of the worst (Manos: The Hands of Fate) to the best of the worst (The Room). The people behind Birdemic are trying to streamline the cult phenom process. It premiered in New York City in early 2010 and is already being funneled to many markets. It all feels a little too manufactured for my tastes, like the media is so eager to be ahead of the hipster curve. Birdemic is a perfectly enjoyable laugh-out-loud experience best had with a bunch of your friends and perhaps some adult beverages. It’s a fine piece of derisive entertainment thanks to the sincerity of Nguyen. But in the world of bad, The Room still reigns supreme. Whereas Birdemic has plenty of bad housed in 90 minutes, it’s pretty much the same bad decisions and limitations. I look forward to Nguyen’s next film, Peephole: The Perverted. You just can’t go wrong when a movie has a subtitle, “The Perverted.” He may not be Tommy Wiseau, but this man knows how to make some tasty trash.
Nate’s (Derisive Enjoyment) Grade: B+
The kind folks at the newly established Disney Nature division want to make sure those who missed out on the stunning 2006 Discovery Channel/BBC miniseries Planet Earth get another chance. Earth is a re-edited, recycled version of the globe-trotting miniseries, cutting down 8 hours to a bladder-friendly 95 minutes. Disney has given the film a family-friendly narrative, following the exploits of three families; a mamma polar bear and her cubs, a whale and offspring, and an elephant and its little thundering toddlers (note to parents: the film doesn’t shy away from death but you won’t watch any onscreen kills). The footage is jaw-dropping and to witness it on the big screen is a must-see. The mini-series, and by extension the new movie, is a powerful advertisement for conservation without having to get on-message or preachy. The gorgeous images speak volumes. The filmmakers spent over 5 years compiling mass amounts of footage, and some cameramen sat in isolated and harsh conditions for a year in order to snap rare moments on film. While the film cannot rival the mini-series, it’s still a highly watchable experience with eye-popping visuals and, really, little else. It serves as a tasty appetizer for the larger main course, the immersive and riveting Planet Earth mini-series. But hey, there is something God-like about listening to James Earl Jones detail the particulars of life on this spinning blue orb. Earth is mostly spectacle but ho boy, is it first-rate spectacle.
Nate’s Grade: A-