Four Frames – The Grey (2012)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout December, The Big Picture is running a series of articles on ‘winter’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Joe Carnahan’s under-appreciated survival thriller The Grey.

By the time Joe Carnahan’s The Grey was released theatrically in 2012, its star Liam Neeson had seemingly devolved from being an award-winning dramatic actor to a geri-action star in search of the next dunderheaded blockbuster.

Indeed, Neeson had starred in Carnahan’s previous movie, an ill-advised big screen take on 80s TV show The A-Team (2010) wherein the Irishman stepped into George Peppard’s shoes to play the cigar-chewing Hannibal Smith.

The Grey

Nothing, therefore, suggested their follow-up to The A-Team was going to be anything but more of the same. However, The Grey was as surprising as it was riveting when it arrived and gave Neeson a role he could finally dig his teeth into whilst still playing the sombre man of action he had become synonymous with.

Set in the harsh wintry environs of Alaska, John Ottway (Neeson) is employed to shoot wolves that threaten an oil drilling team. A flight home goes horribly awry when bad weather brings the plane down and Ottway and a handful of others must do what they can to survive not only the intense cold, but also the equally unforgiving wolves that see the group as their next meal (“they’re man eaters; they don’t give a shit about berries and shrubs”).

The Grey

When we first meet Ottway, he is a broken, suicidal figure who has taken a job “at the end of the world” as he sees himself as “unfit for mankind”. The film cuts between flashbacks of Ottway and his wife in happier times and the Irishman penning a suicide note to her before intending to kill himself with his own rifle. That he stops himself from going through with it after hearing the howl of a wolf is an intriguing precursor of what’s to come.

In spite of his suicidal ideation, it’s notable that Ottway’s first instinct is survival when the plane starts going down in what is a truly terrifying sequence.

The very real threat posed by the wolves is laid bare in chilling fashion throughout, not least of which during one particularly unnerving night scene when the survivors first encounter their nemesis. At first one wolf can be seen in the firelight, but soon multiple sets of glowing eyes are visible; accompanied by increasingly hostile snarling.

The Grey

The fellow survivors are a disparate bunch, as you might expect from a film such as this, but the talented cast of ‘those guys’ such as Dallas Roberts and Dermot Mulroney make the most of Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers’ (on whose book this is based) egalitarian script and form a bond that is both believable and affecting as one by one they perish.

There’s a nice parallel between the survivors and the wolves as Ottway stamps his authority by putting down a challenge by Frank Grillo’s hot-blooded oil worker shortly after explaining how the ‘alpha’ wolf ruthlessly deals with pretenders to his rule.

While there is no shortage of action, in particular a buttock-clenching scene in which one of the remaining survivors must first fling himself from a cliff edge onto a nearby tree to enable the others to traverse the canyon by a very precarious rope, The Grey is also notable for its contemplative and philosophical approach.

The Grey

A poem written by Ottway’s father is uttered throughout and as he faces what looks to be his final encounter, shards of glass and a dagger taped to his hands, its words gather new meaning: “Once more into the fray… into the last good fight I’ll ever know; live and die on this day… live and die on this day…”.

Ottway’s visions of his wife also reveal themselves as something more, while a scene late on – brilliantly played by Neeson (the director had apparently urged the actor to channel his grief over the death of his wife Natasha Richardson) – finds the character desperately calling for divine intervention and, after none is forthcoming, he says resignedly: “F*** it, I’ll do it myself.”

Dissenting critics have mystifyingly scalded the film for its metaphysical leanings, claiming them to be unnecessary – which is to miss the point entirely. These are presumably the same reviewers who bemoan the lack of depth in today’s bigger budget fare. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, was deeply affected by what he saw, so much so that he had to walk out of another screening (something he had never done before).

Right until its shattering cut to black, The Grey digs its fangs into you while also packing an emotional wallop that’s as sublime as the wild Alaskan landscape.

Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The words ‘Star Wars prequel’ need never again be spoken with weariness and despair thanks to Gareth Edwards’ rip-roaring Episode 3.9 of the space opera.

Rogue One may just be the most expensive fan film ever made, one that ultimately wasn't needed, but when it's brought to the screen with as much gusto as this it's hard to argue against

Rogue One may just be the most expensive fan film ever made, one that ultimately wasn’t needed, but when it’s brought to the screen with as much gusto as this it’s hard to argue against

When Disney announced it would be making a series of standalone Star Wars flicks alongside a new trilogy, it was met with a mixed reaction – this was the same company after all that didn’t seem to mind sullying some of its most beloved animated classics with money-grabbing straight-to-DVD sequels.

We’d also been there before 30 years ago when George Lucas went to work destroying his reputation by getting trash like Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984) made.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in Rogue One

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in Rogue One

The revelation that Edwards would be on board to direct the first of these spin-offs allayed some fears; the (admittedly limited) pedigree of 2010’s excellent Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla reboot, fused with his guerilla style of hands-on filmmaking promised much.

And while Rogue One is an entirely unnecessary entry in the Star Wars canon and almost derails itself in its incessant nods, winks, cameos and fan servicing, it’s also a rollicking good adventure.

Inspired by the line “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star” from the original Star Wars‘ opening crawl, Rogue One follows a ragtag band of insurgents on a suicide mission to infiltrate a heavily guarded Imperial facility and prove that the Empire has designed a super weapon that is more powerful than anyone can possibly imagine.

The crew of Rogue One

The crew of Rogue One

In reviewing 2015’s The Force Awakens, I praised the film for going back to basics and delivering “a simple story about disparate characters coming together to stop a seemingly insurmountable enemy”.

It’s a quote that applies just as strongly to Rogue One. At its heart the film is essentially a little bit of Mission: Impossible and a lot of Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and numerous other war movies. Indeed, as Edwards himself has pointed out: “It’s called Star… Wars.”

With such a focus on conflict, it’s not surprising the tone of the film is far more subdued than The Force Awakens. The tone is matched by the griminess of the surroundings that make up Edwards’ ‘lived in universe’ (and what surroundings – the production design is astonishing). Imprisoned at the start of the film on an Imperial-occupied planet, it’s notable that one of the Stormtroopers guarding Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) on a prison transport looks even more downtrodden and weary than she does. Grunts on both levels are expendable, the film suggests.

Jyn is that Star Wars staple, a strong female character with family issues, in this case her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a research scientist whom she is estranged from as a child in the affecting prologue after he is forcibly recruited by coldly ambitious Imperial Director Krennic (a deliciously oily Ben Mendelsohn) to design what will become the Death Star. The film picks up years later, when she is freed from captivity by the Rebellion and, along with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his dryly sarcastic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), is tasked with searching for her father in the hope of stopping the weapon from being built.

The fanatical Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in Rogue One

The fanatical Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in Rogue One

However, when Jyn finds out the Death Star is already active she, along with Cassian and a group of gung-ho anti-Imperialists must do what they can to restore hope to a infighting Rebellion that is on its knees.

One of the most impressive things about Rogue One is its ‘boots on the ground’ approach. Mixed with Edwards’ handheld filming style, the film has a look and feel distinct from the rest of the franchise, whether it be the powder keg of anti-Imperialist resentment that Jyn and Cassian navigate through in the occupied city of Jedha or the film’s spectacular final act which is essentially one long battle to buy Jyn and Cassian enough time to secure the plans.

The desperation of the Rebellion raid on the Imperial facility on the jungle planet of Scarif is evoked with a real sense of stomach-churning intensity and chaos. While Edwards can’t resist showing us several improbable hero moments involving our core cast (especially Donnie Yen’s blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen’s gun-blazing Baze Malbus, both of whom deserve more screen time), the life and death stakes for all involved are palpable.

The

The Rebellion take the fight to the Empire in Rogue One

The Rebellion take the fight to the Empire in Rogue One

Rogue One is at its best when operating under its own set of rules; however, it gets bogged down too often by the myriad references to previous films, whether it be visual touches (we get to see what could be the same Rebel observation officer from Star Wars charting the path of a ship, not once, but twice), audio touches (we get to hear the famous Death Star toaster droid) or cameos from characters familiar from the other films.

Much has been made of one particular blast from the past (no, not Darth Vader – it’s good to see him tearing it up again); a CGI creation (due to the actor who originally played him now being dead) that almost, but doesn’t quite escape the uncanny valley and, as such, ends up pulling you out of the film.

These are fairly minor quibbles though. Rogue One may just be the most expensive fan film ever made, one that ultimately wasn’t needed, but when it’s brought to the screen with as much gusto as this it’s hard to argue against.

Review – Manchester By The Sea

To paraphrase the title of his debut picture, you can count on Keneth Lonergan to deliver the kind of quietly devastating domestic drama that all-too-rarely graces our screens.

Lonergan's Manchester By The Sea is a work of geuine profundity, an all-too-human tale that leaves its mark on the soul long afterwards

Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea is a work of genuine profundity, an all-too-human tale that leaves its mark on the soul long afterwards

It’s a sad fact that Manchester By The Sea represents only the third feature from Lonergan in the past 16 years. While You Can Count On Me (2000) was a critical success and turned a profit, his belated follow-up Margaret endured the sort of tortuous journey to release that normally goes with most Terry Gilliam films.

Eventually seeing the light of day in 2011, Lonergan’s originally conceived three-hour version of Margaret was finally released in 2012 and further elevated the writer/director’s status as one of America’s most compelling cinematic voices.

The brothers Chandler - Joe (Kyle Chandler) and Lee (Casey Affleck) - in Manchester By The Sea

The brothers Chandler – Joe (Kyle Chandler) and Lee (Casey Affleck) – in Manchester By The Sea

The wait for this third feature has, thankfully, been considerably shorter and it’s once again filmmaking of the highest calibre, telling a wrenching drama about the debilitating effects of guilt, regret and remorse on people’s lives.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, an insular figure working a simple routine as a janitor whose blunt conversations with other people tend to be either matter-of-fact or, in the case of a needless bar brawl, self-destructive. His withdrawal from the world, mixed with his seeming need to be punished suggest a pain and darkness in Lee’s past that slowly reveals itself when he is forced to return to his childhood home of Manchester-by-the-Sea upon discovering that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died.

This fresh trauma compounds a tragic event from his recent past that rears itself in Lee’s mind due to having returned home, while he also discovers that he’s been made sole guardian for Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Lee (Casey Affleck) and nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) prepare to bury Joe in Manchester By The Sea

Lee (Casey Affleck) and nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) prepare to bury Joe in Manchester By The Sea

Manchester By The Sea could so easily have embraced the same tropes that afflict countless ‘aw-shucks’ Hollywood melodramas whereby the central character overcomes adversity to find redemption and a happy-ever-after ending. That, however, isn’t how life works most of the time and Lonergan is to be applauded for resolutely sticking to his guns when it comes to the narrative path trodden by the film.

Lee is a damaged soul still in limbo from the tragic events that ultimately destroyed his marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams) and his return home is emotionally traumatic. Lonergan’s honest and complex screenplay about a mentally scarred figure haunted by the ghosts of his past never rings false and Affleck’s career-best performance is a masterclass in understatement right until the final scene.

There are no big emotional outbursts here, no Oscar-bait speeches, rather the film slowly and deliberately observes Lee and Patrick as they try to work out a way forward following a death in the family. Sporadic flashbacks serve as memories to what came before, in particular a series of heartbreaking scenes that unravel the devastation that befell Lee and are held together by Lonergan’s inspired use of Tomaso Albinoni’s overwhelming Adagio Per Archi e Organo in G Minor.

Lee (Casey Affleck) and ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) share a painful moment in Manchester By The Sea

Lee (Casey Affleck) and ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) share a painful moment in Manchester By The Sea

While Affleck shines, he’s supported by a stellar cast who don’t squander the material they’ve been given. Hedges is entirely believable as an imperfect, but good 16-year-old kid who isn’t yet emotionally mature enough to fully deal with what life has thrown at him. As such, Patrick makes some foolish decisions, but the bond he gradually forms with Lee is central to the narrative and, like the rest of the film, has a truthfulness that never feels forced.

Williams also makes an impact in the limited time she is on screen, in particular during an agonising exchange late on with Affleck which underlines just how much collateral damage has been caused to both their lives.

Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea is a work of genuine profundity, an all-too-human tale that leaves its mark on the soul long afterwards.

Nepal – A Place Never To Forget…

Hi everyone! Well, I’m back from my travels in Nepal and I can say without hesitation that the past few weeks have been among the most incredible of my life.

As if trekking through the stunning scenery of the Himalayas for almost three glorious weeks wasn’t enough, my extended holiday was made all the most memorable by proposing to my girlfriend Vicky at the highest point of our trek (5,100m) – thankfully she said yes! Hopefully it’s not all downhill from here (before anyone makes the joke!).

Hopefully the following images will provide a taster of what was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Seriously, if you get the chance to go to Nepal do so; you won’t regret it.

I’ll be back with the usual film review stuff very soon. Thanks as always for your support of my blog.

The stunning Boudhanath stupa (Buddhist shrine), the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet

The stunning Boudhanath stupa (Buddhist shrine), the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet

Buddha Park in Kathmandu

Buddha Park in Kathmandu

Top of the world!

Top of the world!

A mighty bridge...

A mighty bridge…

Local people going about their business...

Local people going about their business…

At almost 5,000m here and the altitude sickness is kicking in

At almost 5,000m here and the altitude sickness is kicking in

 

 

 

 

 

Temporary (Unavoidable) Blogging Hiatus Part II

At the start of the year I posted saying that I had been a bit quiet blog-wise due to having moved house and then, almost immediately afterwards heading away to Iceland for a break.

Not one to recycle old excuses, but apologies to everyone for my lax blog rate and dearth of comments on other sites of late. We all go through periods when a blog can feel more like a job than anything else and I’d be lying if I said that hadn’t played a part of late.

A crazy work schedule over the past 4-6 months hasn’t helped as I’ve often been too tired or had no time to even watch movies, let alone write about them.

By way of a ‘rest’, my other half and I are heading to Nepal for three weeks; most of which will be taken up with trekking through the Himalayas, reaching heights of over 5,000m! Here’s hoping altitude sickness doesn’t rear its ugly head!

Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for continuing to be a splendid community of good folks – I speak for many I’m sure when I say that it’s my fellow bloggers who really make this whole thing worthwhile.

To my American friends, may I wish you an early Happy Thanksgiving. With the way the world has turned over this past year, what with the disastrous Brexit vote (#notinmyname), atrocities too numerous to mention and the pièce de résistance that is Trump’s election, we need to keep our friends and family close and be thankful for the little things.

Photos of my trip will follow, but in the meantime stay well.