The Way Back (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) was suspected of being a spy against the Russian government during World War II but there was a lack of evidence against him. When his wife was captured and tortured, she felt she had no other choice but to tell lies in order to survive. As a result, Janusz was sent to a Siberian labor camp for twenty years. Inside, he met seven others (Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Mark Strong, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgård) who where willing to escape and traverse thousands of miles through Siberia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas. Based on the book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz, there was no denying that what the POW had been through was unimaginable, but I wasn’t convinced that the film matched the greatness of the material they had a chance to work with. It was expected that Sturgess, Harris, and Farrell’s characters were given a solid amount of screen time. We learned about where they came from and what was important to them. However, I kept wondering about the other men. Since the spotlight was rarely on them, we only knew them through surface characteristics. For instance, the tall one liked to cook and draw, the young one had night blindness, the other was a comedian. It may sound disrespectful but such is a consequence of filmmakers focusing on which celebrities ought to receive more screen time than others instead of focusing on the drive of each man. Given that it was over two hours long, there was no excuse for a lack of character development. Furthermore, as a whole, the entire journey felt depressing instead of inspiring. While not all of them made it to the very end, I believe what should have been highlighted was their bravery by standing up against a government that wrongly accused them of crimes and taking their lives to survive in the wilderness. The only time when I felt the movie had some sort of pulse was when the runaways met the young Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Ronan’s acting was dynamic. The way her body language and facial expressions changed from one emotion to the next, especially while interacting with the veteran Harris, felt effortless and I quickly became enthralled and fascinated by Irena. But the picture, inevitably, had to go back to the long walk to India. I was consistently disappointed due to its lack of attention in truly immersing our senses with each environment. Instead of taking the meditative path and not merely relying on music to nudge us that what we were seeing was visually majestic, it treated the disparate environs as cheap obstacles. I might as well have been playing “Super Mario” on Wii and it would have been far more engaging. Once the obstacle had been surmounted, it was onto the next challenge and the next death. Directed by Peter Weir, the manner in which “The Way Back” unfolded felt like the its characters were walking in circles. Considering its story involved a great journey across the world, it ended up going nowhere.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
★★★ / ★★★★
A family (led by Russ Grieve and Virginia Vincent, the patriarch and matriarch) got into an accident in the desert while on their way to California. It happened during the most unfortunate time because the area in which their vehicle broke down was a nuclear testing site and was occupied with deformed cannibals. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “The Hills Have Eyes” was a horror film with a simple premise but it expertly embodied an animalistic tone and gathered momentum until the final shot. For a slasher flick, I found it strange because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. I enjoyed the way Craven framed regular well-meaning folks and forced them to eventually become like the monsters that terrorized them in order to survive. While it was very violent, especially the events that transpired in the trailer which consisted of murder and rape, it was far from gratuitous. I felt Craven holding back in terms of showing certain images that might glorify the terrible things that there happening. It was successful at allowing us to feel anger so that we could root for the remaining members of the family to not just seek revenge but also obtain something that meant a lot to them. The heart of the picture was arguably the siblings Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston). Brenda was unhappy about her father’s decision to take an unknown route while Bobby almost immediately sensed that there was something wrong about the environment they had no choice but to occupy. As the title’s anthropomorphic title suggested, the environment was like a creature that lived, capable of defending itself when threatened. However, things such as rattlesnakes and the possibility of dehydration and starvation were the last elements the characters had to worry about. The animalism and savagery became a trend. One angle was when the characters eventually got over their fear and sadness and decided to fight back even if it meant losing their lives. Another was using the family pet, a dog that was normally friendly unless threatened, as a figure readily able to attack and kill. Perhaps Craven hoped to suggest that the deformed cannibals living in an isolated world were really no different than regular people that successfully integrated in society. Lastly, I thought its abrupt ending was a smart decision. There was no explanation about how the characters would end up. It did not need to because the situation in which they were thrusted upon was beyond reasoning. Its main goal was to show whether or not the cannibals would get their comeuppance. “The Hills Have Eyes” did have its flaws, such as characters who whined too much for no good reason, but the quality of horror was consistent and it ended on a very high note.
True Grit (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a plucky fourteen-year-old girl, was adamant about finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s cold-blooded killer, and getting even. She left her grieving mother and siblings at home while she went to town to hire a competent bounty hunter. She crossed paths with an alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) who was first reluctant to tackle the task. Mattie desperately wanted him because she claimed he had “true grit” or the right spirit she was searching for. Mattie and Cogburn were accompanied by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who also wanted to bring the criminal to justice. The western genre is normally not my cup of tea, but I couldn’t help but enjoy this film. Steinfeld’s energetic performance as a headstrong girl who wanted vengeance instantly caught my interest especially the very amusing scene when she tried to sell back the horses her late father bought. In just one simple scene, Steinfeld established that Mattie was intelligent, resourceful, and unafraid to bluff when the occassion called for it. She saw adults as untrustworthy so she had to be self-reliant and use fear to motivate others. Adults saw her as a child who didn’t know any better. On the positive side, she could get away with certain things that older folks simply would not. Much of the picture’s humor was embedded in the scenes where Cogburn and LaBoeuf tried to ascertain which one of them was the more effective lawman. Cogburn, aging and a drunkard, just didn’t know when to quit while he was ahead and LaBoeuf was difficult to take seriously because he walked around as if he already deserved to be respected. Bridges was successful in delivering the softer side of a man who wanted minimal contact with the world. Meanwhile, Damon complemented Bridges’ character by wanting to be seen, heard and admired. It was obvious that both were having great fun with their roles. As opposite as Cogburn and LaBoeuf were, the two could make a great duo when the situation turned grim. I admired the look of the film because I felt transported to that era. The contrasting images of the blistering hot desert and the bone-chilling snowy nights not only were great visually but they reflected what the characters felt, especially Mattie since we saw the story from her perspective, during their arduous journey. I just wished we had a chance to get to know Chaney a bit more in order to make room for another layer of complexity. Based on Charles Portis’ novel and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “True Grit” was a straightforward and character-driven revenge story. Simple is not something I’m used to when watching Coen brothers picture. Maybe that’s the irony.