The Grey (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ottway (Liam Neeson) was considering to commit suicide the night before he and a group of oil rig workers were scheduled to take a flight to visit home, but he decided against it after hearing a wolf howl from a distance. When their plane crashed in Alaska, miles from the nearest town or city, Ottway and seven survivors (Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, and Ben Bray) were systematically hunted and killed by ravenous wolves. As the men dwindled in number, Ottway’s insistence to live became clearer. Conversely, the possibility of Ottway finding refuge turned dimmer. Written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers and Joe Carnahan, “The Grey” was a cut above us being reduced to passively watching men trying to survive against the cruelty of nature. It forced us to consider difficult questions by immersing us in images that ranged from the grizzly wolf attacks to the chilly landscapes of barren hope. Even though it was difficult to remember the men’s names, the majority of them serving as fodder for the canines, more was revealed about them in the second half of the picture. So when a character, for instance, decided that others should leave him behind because his will to live reached the bottom of the barrel, we felt bad for the character yet we understood where he was coming from. There was no melodrama. The aforementioned scene was especially well-executed. There was no music that served to signal that we should feel a certain way. There was only silence and peace, an acquisition of mental freedom through the act of surrendering. I found beauty in its attitude about death, how it shouldn’t be feared as long as it’s our choice. Notice the contrast between a sweet surrender and a wolf suddenly jumping from behind while the men kept warm around a fire. The title went beyond the color of the wolves that growled from a distance. The adventure was ultimately convincing because the film was essentially about the grey area of life and death. By watching the men march for a seemingly interminable distance, the picture dared us to question how far we think we would be willing to go if we were forced to be in their place. The men were supposed to be “tough” because they were hardened by their time and experiences in prison. Despite their histories and intrepid comportments, we could relate to them because the screenplay gave them a chance to open up and reveal reasons why they wanted to survive. Like them, the majority of us value our families most: we fight for them, to be with them, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. That’s what separates us from other animals like the wolves in the film. They may be able to remember a person who harmed them in some way but they are incapable of loyalty or being connected to their conscience. “The Grey,” directed by Joe Carnahan, also benefited from Neeson’s versatile performance. He was able to keep an interesting balance between being animalistic and humanistic, a requisite for a movie driven by implications about our place in nature. But it wasn’t without a sense of humor. I wondered at some point if barbecued wolf meat was a delicacy somewhere out there.
★ / ★★★★
Frank (Richard Roxburgh), a professional explorer, and his crew (Dan Wylie, Christopher Baker, Nicole Downs, Allison Cratchley, Creamer Cain) were in the uncharted Esa’ala Cave to map out the underground river that ran through it. But their exploration turned grim when it began to rain. The cave was located underground so water from the rainforest began to pool inside. With exits blocked by heavy rocks and powerful torrents, Frank, his crew, his son named Josh (Rhys Wakefield), the project financier (Ioan Gruffudd), and his girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) decided that their only hope was to find the exit the led up to the ocean. Inspired by a true story, “Sanctum” might have been better off as a documentary. Instead, it featured melodrama between father and son. Josh felt distant toward his father because Frank was fully invested in his work and didn’t spend enough time at home. When they shared conversations, the topic consisted of cave diving, mountain climbing, and other extreme physical activities. I suppose Josh wanted his father to ask him about his hobbies or if he ever had a girlfriend (or boyfriend). I found it difficult to connect to their relationship when everyone was yelling all the time. Naturally, as the picture progressed, the two found common ground. As for the survival aspect of the film, I liked that the environment looked threatening. Sharp rocks were abound, the flowing water looked like it could easily knock me over, and the claustrophic space when the characters went underwater looked menacing. However, did the characters have to make one bad decision after another? They were supposed to have had experience in extreme situations one way or another, but their mistakes were elementary. Take the financier’s girlfriend for example. Prior to a crucial dive, she was adamant in not wearing a dead woman’s wet suit. She claimed she would rather, in her own words, “be cold and alive than warm and dead.” Her logic did not make sense to me. Someone should have knocked some sense into her and explained that a wet suit could help keep her alive. I just had to laugh at her in the next scene when she got hypothermia. I thought she deserved it for being so stubborn. The picture needed more quiet moments. The score was distracting especially during the underwater sequences. If most of those scenes were silent and all we could here were the bubbles, there would have been genuine, naturalistic tension because we all know how it’s like to hold our breath underwater and the panic that creeps in when our lungs crave oxygen. The filmmakers should have taken advantage of that instead of allowing the music to tell us what to feel. Directed by Alister Grierson, “Sanctum” failed to show us what needed to be experienced. This was best reflected in the scene when Frank and his crew witnessed something that was supposedly astonishing. The camera focused on their expressions the entire time and never allowed us to see the greatness for ourselves.
127 Hours (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Aron Ralston that detailed his ordeal in the breathtakingly gorgeous canyons of Utah, “127 Hours” was intriguing to say the least. James Franco played Aron, a man in tune with nature, who loved to explore and to push himself physically and mentally. After helping out two women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) navigate their way through the canyons, Aron slipped and a giant rock crushed his hand. Aron was stuck and it seemed as though no matter what he did, there was no way out of his predicament. I’ve always believed that great actors can give us a moment, even as short as a millisecond, and inspire us to write a thousand words about that specific moment in time. Franco achieved just that with the look of disbelief he had on his face after realizing that he was literally caught between a rock and a hard place. As grim as the situation was, there was a certain comedic effect to it that I find difficult to describe. Perhaps that’s a part of its brilliance. The movie was, without a doubt, challenging to sit through because it expected us to watch a man suffer for more than an hour, but Franco’s likability ultimately carried the film. Through his hallucinations, fantasies, and flashbacks, we had a chance to learn about Aron such as what and who was important to him. I wish there were more scenes with Treat Williams as Aron’s father and less Clémence Poésy as our protagonist’s ex-girlfriend. We learned that Aron was resourceful and smart. I was engaged because he tried the things I would have done if I was the one stuck in his predicament. For instance, creating a pulley to lift the rock to create a greater force instead of simply chipping through it. I had to laugh myself while watching the movie because I kept thinking, “Think Physics!” Furthermore, there were some potential solutions I didn’t think about and I was curious as to what extent it would work (considering I already knew what Aron had to do to extricate himself from the boulder). Director Danny Boyle made an excellent decision to give us little rewards before delivering the intense, flinch-worthy climax. For instance, the gasp-inducing burst of tension when Aron dropped his small knife. Was he physically capable of getting it back? Outside of Aron’s increasingly desperate struggle in the canyon, Boyle created an amalgamation of images and sounds to serve as a contrast to Aron’s experience. Even before Aron got stuck, there was already excitement in the air so I was pleasantly surprised. “127 Hours” could have been fat with clichés or, worse, turned into an unintentional horror movie. Instead, it remained focused in telling a story about the human spirit.