Shades of Grey

When I first saw the trailers for The Grey, I wasn’t planning on going to see it.  The previews made it appear that the movie was all about Liam Neeson fighting wolves.  It seemed to promise a lot of action and I assumed it would be one of those man vs. animal horror movies, like Cujo or Deep Blue Sea.

I have to admit that I was wrong.  When someone persuaded me to go see it, the movie I saw was far better than the one I was expecting.  If you’re looking for scares and gore, you shouldn’t go to this movie.  You might be disappointed by the thoughtful human drama that you’ll find.

The premise is this: a group of men who have been working for an oil company up in the Arctic are flying home.  Their plane crashes and only seven men survive the crash.  They are stuck in the middle of nowhere and there is very little hope of being rescued.  They have to contend with freezing temperatures, very little food, and, of course, a menacing pack of wolves.

Very early on, a parallel is established between the wolf pack and the pack of humans.  Several times the two rival groups face off.  Just as the wolves have their alpha, the humans do too.  Liam Neeson’s Ottway quickly becomes the leader of this pack, since his job was to shoot the wolves before they could attack the men working at the base.

This is where the movie really takes an unexpected turn.  Yes, the wolves begin to pick the men off, one by one, but what you really get is a character study.  Each of the men has a distinct personality and you begin to care about them.  The film seemed to me to be about life itself and how you have to embrace the good and enjoy what you have, since you never know what might be waiting around the bend.  Each man faces death in a different way, and their true character is revealed in their end.  All of these men have someone that they hold dear, who they think of in their final moments.

There are some great images of the wolves stalking the men at night, but what really stays with you are is the theme of survival, and of knowing when to fight and when to let go.  There is some talk of religion in which, the religious men can’t understand why they would survive a plane crash only to die from the elements or wolves in the days that follow.  Ottwat doesn’t believe in god.  In fact, in one pivotal moment, he asks god for a sign, and when he doesn’t get any, he utters that he’ll have to do it himself.  This seems to be a major focus, to survive, you have to be able to face your fears and be able to rely on yourself.

From what I’ve read online, many people are upset over the ending.  If you haven’t scene the film yet, make sure you stay through the credits, because there is a brief scene at their conclusion.  Anything I say from here on out will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, stop reading here.

 

SPOILERS BELOW

 

 

The big climactic fight between Liam Neeson and the wolf, which the trailers seemed to promise, is never shown.  The people who came to the film wanting to see Liam Neeson fighting a wolf are, quite rightly, disappointed.  What actually happens is this: Ottway, who was about to kill himself the night before he was due to leave, finally decides that his life is worth fighting for.  He has mistakenly been leading the men towards the wolves’ den, and, all of the other men having been picked off along the way, he finds himself alone in the middle of the den, facing the alpha wolf.  Here the inevitable alpha vs alpha showdown occurs, but it is not shown.  The screen cuts to black before the fight occurs.  It seems to me that this ending works.  The brief scene after the credits indicates that Ottway does defeat the alpha, but is this really important?  What is important is his decision to fight, whether he lives or dies is almost irrelevant at that point.  Even if he is able to defeat the alpha wolf, will he find civilization?  There’s no guarantee.

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Sherlock Holmes: My Glass of Tea

Sherlock Holmes is the character who would not die.  His creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, thought that he had killed him when he wrote “The Final Problem” in 1893.  He was tired of the character and felt that the Sherlock stories overshadowed what he considered his better, more serious work.  He was astonished when the public mourned the death of their hero as if a real man had died.  Conan Doyle received both threats and pleas to resurrect his character, but Sherlock remained dead for almost 10 years.  Conan Doyle went back to the character after he began writing a story of a ghostly hound on the moor and needed a hero.  However, The Hound of the Baskervilles takes place before Sherlocks death at the falls.  He was not officially resurrected until a new Sherlock adventure was published, “The Adventure of the Empty House.”

The blur between reality and fiction still exists when it comes to Sherlock Holmes.  I visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London (at 221b Baker St, naturally), and wondered about having a museum billed as “the official residence” of a fictional character.  I was approached by a young tourist from Japan who asked me where she could find “the home of the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.”  I wasn’t sure if she knew he was a fictional character, or if she thought he had actually existed!

The appeal of Sherlock Holmes endures today.  First, there are the very action-oriented American movies starring Robert Downey Jr., as Holmes, and Jude Law, as Watson.  I find these movies to get a bit carried away in the action sequences.  Sometimes the plot (and the cleverness of Holmes), is lost in the din of the explosions.

My favorite adaption is Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ television series Sherlock.  Even though the action is set in modern day London, they feel very true to the spirit of the original stories.  I love how there are elements taken from the classic stories, but they are used to serve an entirely new mystery.  Benedict Cumberbatch is an excellent Sherlock; he’s incredibly observant, totally lacking in empathy, yet he possesses a strong connection with Martin Freeman’s Watson.  Freeman’s Watson is a very sympathetic character, but in this version he is a bit more his own person and not just an audience surrogate so that Sherlock has someone to which he can explain his thinking.  The chemistry of the two actors is fantastic.  I just finished watching the second series of the show, and I feel that it surpasses the first season.  I can’t wait for the explanation of Sherlock’s “death” in the next season.

I know this was not a recent adaptation, but I was just able to view The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes on the big screen.  It’s often overlooked, and seems to be almost forgotten now, but, if you’re a Sherlock buff, it’s worth a viewing.  While not the best of the Sherlock Holmes adaptations, Billy Wilder’s version is entertaining.  I feel that it goes on a bit too long, but the beginning is great fun.  It addresses idea that there is a difference between the Holmes of Watson’s stories and the “real” Sherlock Holmes.  The main mystery involves spies, secret technology, and even the Loch Ness Monster.  I think the movie would have been better to have stuck with the more humorous tone from the first 20 or so minutes.  The dialogue there is very much the witty banter that Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond do so well.

Top Films of 2011

As promised, here is my list of the top films of 2011, in alphabetical order (and excluding my number one film, which I already discussed at length):

Bridesmaids-I thought Bridesmaids was a perfect comedy.  It was funny, yet it had a story and characters that you cared about.  I felt like the characters were put into ridiculous situations, but they didn’t become ridiculous and unbelievable themselves.  I thought Melissa McCarthy’s nomination was entirely deserved and I thought the Kristen Wiig was excellent too.  I always think of the moment when she learns her best friend is engaged; she does a great job of conveying someone who is reacting like they are supposed to, but secretly feeling the opposite. It was the little moments like this that helped ground the movie after some of the more elaborate comedic set pieces.

The Descendents-I was excited by the collaboration between Alexander Payne and George Clooney, since I am big fans of both,  and this film did not disappoint.  It’s a great character driven film, as all of Payne’s films are.  It also has his perfect blend of humor and drama.  The film deals with very serious subjects, but the humor keeps things from ever appearing too bleak.  George Clooney does an amazing job of portraying the complex emotions of his character and is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast.  Even characters that could have been stereotypes, like the daughter’s goofy friend and Clooney’s father-in-law, are revealed to have more to them then meets the eye.

Drive-That Ryan Gosling’s Driver is a fascinating character is due to the strength of his performance.  He manages to carry a movie and make you feel for a character who speaks very little and whose history is completely unknown.  His nameless driver is enigmatic, yet you find yourself on his side.  Yes, there is some graphic violence, but I felt that it blended into the narrative.  Albert Brooks was excellent, playing against type as the man behind most of the violence.  The opening escape scene pulls you into the world immediately, but the film never relies on mindless action to tell its story.

Martha Marcy May Marlene-This was a film that really stuck with me.  I loved the way that the film had a mounting sense of dread; it just gradually built up over the course of the film until its ambiguous ending.  Is Elizabeth Olsen’s character a reliable narrator or is she still struggling with facing reality outside of the cult?   I have my own theory, but the film itself offers no easy answers.  I also enjoyed the development of the relationship between the two sisters.  The actresses manage to create a complex relationship between the characters that feels as though there really were past experiences that were still influencing the way they interacted.

Meek’s Cutoff-This was either a love it or hate it film.  Since it’s on my list of the top films of the year, you can guess which camp I fell into.  Michelle Williams gives another great performance in this film in which very little actually happens.  It’s all about subtle shifts in relationships and the balance of power.  The basic plot is that a group of settlers are lost and need to get to water soon.  They capture a Native American and the more desperate they get, the more tensions mount.  Should they trust their guide to continue leading them, or should they trust their captive?  I’m guess that some viewers were frustrated by the film’s ambiguous ending, but I thought it was perfect.

The Skin I Live In-As a fan of Almodovar’s work, I know that this was not his best work, but it was a wild ride.  Once again, he manages to take premises that sound outlandish and unbelievable and manages to pull his audience in.  His reunion with Antonio Banderas did not disappoint.  By gradually revealing more about the characters as he goes he creates a puzzle of a film that keeps your alliance shifting.  Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what has transpired, Almodovar reveals a new piece of the puzzle that changes the way you view all that came before.

Young Adult-This film features an amazing performance from Charlize Theron (as well as one from Patton Oswalt).  Her character, Mavis, is so self-absorbed and deluded that it would have been easy to dislike her.  However, Theron does a great job of gradually revealing the insecurities under the surface that have pushed her into her current state.  This makes some of the later scenes in the film almost painful to watch, as you know what the outcome of her increasingly deluded actions but you feel sorry for her.  This is another film that didn’t take the easy way out.  This story is not one of a woman on a journey of self discovery.  The film ends without much having changed, despite all the events of the film, for any of the characters.

I know that’s a top 8, but I had a really hard time choosing just two more films for my list.  I’d probably go with 50/50 and A Separation, but here are some of the other films I enjoyed this year:

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Our Idiot Brother

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Jane Eyre

Terri

My Week with Marilyn

The Ides of March

Super 8

My Favorite Film of 2011

The rest of my favorite films will be coming in another post, but for me there was one film that I would definitely rank above all others in 2011: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.  To be perfectly honest, I have probably watched this film about 6 or 7 times now.  I know it’s not the most groundbreaking film of the year, nor is it the most profound, but I quite unabashedly love this film.  I know it covers some of the same ideas that Woody covered in The Purple Rose of Cairo (one of my other favorites of his), but I felt that Paris goes about it in a different way.

First of all, Woody makes Paris look just like you imagine it, if you were to fantasize about going there.  Just watching the opening shots of Paris makes me want to hop on the next plane!  He is able to make it seem like a romantic, magical city from the beginning, which he needs for you to accept what happens later.  The film is peopled with the usual intellectual, creative people that you always find in a Woody Allen film.  I’ve always thought that if I could enter a film, I would want to be in one of Woody’s comedies because everyone is always living in such a cultured world; one where everyone has some kind of artistic ability.  In this film, the main character, Gil, is a writer. He’s been successful at writing screenplays, but he wants to write a novel.   I think Owen Wilson was a great choice to play Gil because he is different enough in his personna that he is able to play the role without seeming like he is doing a Woody Allen impression (unlike Kenneth Branagh, for example, in Celebrity).  Admittedly, having seen the film many times, I can picture Woody Allen delivering the lines, but Owen Wilson is able to make the role his own.

I know people have argued that the plot is not the most original, but I just get swept away in the world that this film creates.  Who wouldn’t want to be able to mingle with the brilliant creative icons of the Lost Generation, especially when the roaring twenties always seem to be so much fun?  While I know the portrayals were not all historically accurate, I enjoyed seeing some of my favorite authors brought to life.  And who wouldn’t be inspired in that environment?  I loved the idea of this mysterious time travel just happening, completely unexplained in Paris.  No time is wasted trying to explain why this happens, it just does, and that was good enough for me.

Besides just getting lost in the story, I found the lesson that Gil learned to be very relevant.  It seems to me that many people now are always nostalgic for simpler, better times.  Politicians are always trotting out cliched views of what America used to be in those idyllic times.  We tend to look at the past through rose colored glasses, just like Gil looks at Paris in the twenties.  In truth, the past was just as complicated as today, and we need to remember that just like Gil and start making the best of the era we’re living in.  As Gil says, the present is “a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.”

And in my very long winded discussion of this film, the only thing that I completely neglected to mention is how funny it is.  It’s definitely more on the witty side of comedy than a broad comedy, but Rachel McAdams gives a great comedic preformance as Gil’s fiancee, as does Michael Sheen as the pedantic know-it-all.  My favorite moment, however, is when Gil is discussing his problems with the surrealists.  Adrian Brody’s Dali steals the scene as the surrealists are unfazed by a traveller from a different time (and Dali is preoccupied with the image of a rhinoceros).

Now I will stop my non-poetic babbling and hope that all of this has explained why Midnight in Paris is my favorite film of 2011.  As I said before, I’ll include the list of the rest of my favorite films in another post, and I promise not to be so long winded about them.