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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Four Frames – Excalibur (1981)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout June, The Big Picture is running a series of articles on ‘myths’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from John Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur.

Sex, violence, betrayal, revenge – these are ingredients of a film producer’s wet dream and the legend of King Arthur has them in spades.

It’s no surprise, then, that Arthur has continued to serve as an influence, direct or otherwise, for countless forms of art and entertainment.

His latest cinematic incarnation is due to hit our big screens in 2017 courtesy of Guy Ritchie. We’ll wait and see what that has to offer, but it’ll have to go a long way to top John Boorman’s deliciously ripe and unashamedly excessive swords and sorcery epic.

Excalibur

After the comedy gold mined by Monty Python And The Holy Grail six years earlier, Boorman took a decidedly left-field turn in bringing the Arthurian legend to life. Based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, written more than five centuries earlier, Excalibur presents a warts and all vision of – as the opening titles explain – “The Dark Ages… out of those lost centuries rose a legend. Of the sorcerer Merlin, of the coming of a king, of the sword of power”.

The film’s title is no accident. The ancient weapon (“Forged when the world was young and bird and beast were one with man. And death was but a dream.”) is forever present, forever tied to the land and the one it chooses as ruler.

Before Excalibur selects Arthur (played to perfection by Nigel Terry) as the one to draw it from the stone (amusingly, he’s told off by his adopted father for doing so and told to put it back), we’re shown how it ended up there courtesy of a fatal chain of events set in motion by Uther Pendragon’s lust for the Duke of Cornwall’s wife Igraine.

Excalibur

With the guidance of the mystical necromancer Merlin (Nicol Williamson), Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table usher in a new golden age, while he finds a seemingly perfect mate in the form of Guinevere (Cheri Lunghi). But the sins of the father come back to haunt the king as his embittered half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) nurses plans to use sorcery to destroy both him and his land.

Boorman had long desired to adapt the Arthurian legend, but struggled to raise the money. Intriguingly, an alternative offer to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings to the big screen was made along the way and a number of the set designs for that failed project ended up in Excalibur.

The Arthurian influence on Rings, whilst far from hidden, becomes glaringly pronounced in the context of watching Excalibur, with its talk of fellowships and a single, all-consuming object of power that binds itself to the one who possesses it.

Excalibur

The film is full of starting imagery that, more than 35 years on, still has the power to captivate (amplified by the stirring sounds of Wagner, Orff and original compositions by Trevor Jones). The battle scenes, most notably one towards the end of the film that is shrouded in mist save for a glowing orange sun are richly atmospheric, while the Lady of the Lake’s arm thrusting out of the water wielding a luminescent Excalibur remains a singularly beautiful image.

It is also noteworthy just how many future stars of stage and screen show up, including a still relatively unknown Patrick Stewart as well as Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson, both of whom received their screen debuts here.

All are overshadowed, however, by Williamson’s delightful performance as the otherworldly Merlin. No chin stroking sorcerer he, Williamson imbues the character with a mixture of wry witticisms, unnerving unpredictability, paternalism and a resigned sadness for a changing world that is slowly turning its back on the pagan gods of old to make way for the rise of Christianity.

Excalibur

Willaimson’s scenes with the wonderfully over-the-top Mirren are particularly enjoyable; the characters antagonism towards each other being reflected in real life following a troubled production of Macbeth some years earlier.

Excalibur is far from perfect. Its treatment of female characters is crude (Mirren wears a costume that’s akin to what Carrie Fisher wears while chained to Jabba the Hut in Return Of The Jedi, while the less said about the scene involving a convulsing Igraine dancing for a leering group of knights the better) and the Holy Grail section in the final act loses its way badly. The decision to give numerous scenes a soft focus was also presumably made to lend the film a certain timelessness, but only serves to have the opposite effect.

In spite of its occasional flaws, there’s nothing out there quite like Excalibur, and for that reason alone it deserves to be celebrated.

Four Frames – My Own Private Idaho (1991)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. April marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews related to the Bard. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Gus Van Sant’s independent cult classic My Own Private Idaho.

The Bard and Keanu Reeves didn’t exactly hit it off when one half of Bill and Ted got himself Golden Raspberry nominated for his grisly turn in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993).

Two years earlier, however, Reeves enjoyed far more success channelling the spirit of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal when he appeared opposite River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s idiosyncratic indie My Own Private Idaho.

My Own Private Idaho

The film that rivalled Betty Blue (1986) for the number of walls its poster adorned in student flats across the land is two films in one. One narrative thread centres on the introspective Mike (Phoenix), a gay street hustler who goes in search of his missing mother while succumbing to regular and extreme bouts of narcolepsy (“I’ve been tasting roads my whole life”).

The other strand is a partial retelling of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts I and II, with Scott (Reeves) the charismatic best friend to Mike, who ostensibly appears to be rebelling against his rich parents but, just as Prince Hal, has an ulterior motive for his present bad behaviour.

My Own Private Idaho

Scott and Mike hang out with Bob (William Richert), a portly father figure modelled on the larger-than-life Falstaff who, like the Bard’s sublime tragi-comic creation, is given to pomposity, showmanship and self-aggrandizement, often to his own detriment. This is crystalised in a scene, lifted directly from Shakespeare’s play, where Bob waxes on about a fight he supposedly had with increasing embellishment and is humiliated by Scott who, in a subtle nod to the source material, has been drinking from a bottle of Falstaff beer.

As an affectionate kiss earlier in the film demonstrates, Bob is in love with Scott, which makes his eventual betrayal of his surrogate paterfamilias that much more heartbreaking (and Shakespearean).

Now 21 and with his birth father deceased, Scott has inherited his great wealth and turned his back on Bob and Mike. Akin to Shakespeare’s Prince, Scott has willingly chosen the responsibilities that come with his family name and, as if to rub salt into the wound, keeps his back turned to Bob as he tells the grief-stricken tramp: “There was a time when I had the need to learn from you, my former and psychedelic teacher, and although I love you more dearly than my dead father I have to turn away.”

My Own Private Idaho

Scott’s rejection is a final dagger in the heart for Bob, who dies from a fatal heart attack. Van Sant stages both funerals within yards of each other in the same cemetery. Whilst Bob’s funeral descends into chaos as Mike and his fellow street kids celebrate his life in uproarious fashion (shot in a freewheeling style reminiscent of the American New Wave), Scott looks blankly upon his former friends one last time as his father’s far more civilised service takes place.

Van Sant is credited with writing My Own Private Idaho although old Bill should probably get a name check too as swathes of the Bard’s verse from Henry IV, Parts I and II are either lifted from the play or paraphrased. As indebted as the director is to Shakespeare’s text, the cinematic influence comes from Chimes At Midnight, Orson Welles’ 1966 masterpiece that refocuses the events of the plays to the perspective of Falstaff.

My Own Private Idaho

Watching Chimes At Midnight proved to be the lightbulb moment for Van Sant as it afforded the realisation that a play about the heir to the English throne’s graduation from ne’er-do-well to king-in-waiting could work just as effectively on the streets of Portland with a group of street hustlers.

Unrequited love, deception, tragedy, loss – these are all themes common in many of Shakespeare’s works and My Own Private Idaho incorporates them all in an unbuttoned and distinctive fashion.

‘Decades’ Blogathon – Get In Quick!

Decades Blogathon Banner

Spots have been filling up fast for a new blogathon being hosted by myself and Tom from Digital Shortbread… but there’s still time to get involved before they all go!

The response to our call for contributors to the ‘Decades’ blogathon has been fanastic and it’s already promising to be a great event. We have a couple of spots left so be quick!

The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade – whether that be 1985, 1935, 1945 or any other decade.

So far, the following discerning writers have confirmed that they will be joining Tom and I in this endeavour:

The Cinematic FrontierPee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Ramblings of a CinephileLa Haine (1995)
Drew’s Movie ReviewsTommy Boy (1995)
Movie RobMonty Python And The Holy Grail (1975)
It Rains… You Get WetShampoo (1975)
Epileptic MoondancerNight Of The Hunter (1955)
Tranquil DreamsLady And The Tramp (1955)
Fast Film ReviewsOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Carly Hearts MoviesTommy (1975)
Committed to CelluloidCasino (1995)
Movies SilentlyThe Taking Of Luke McVane (1915)
Cindy BruchmanBarry Lyndon (1975)
Kaput, AlreadyThe Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985)
Back To The ViewerA Night At The Opera (1935)
Film GrimoireDeep Red (1975)
Movie Man JacksonThe Stepford Wives (1975)

On top of these guys, Tom will be reviewing Batman Begins (2005), while I’ll be having a stab at Back To The Future (1985).

We’re looking to run the blogathon from Monday, 18 May. If you’d like to get involved then please drop me an email at threerowsback@gmail.com or email Tom at tomlittle2011@gmail.com letting us know which film you’d like to cover or for more info.

Don’t miss out!