PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Way Back (B+)
U.S./Poland: Peter Weir, 2011, Image
Movie tales of agonizing attempts at human survival against long odds in dangerous situations -- from Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix (plane-crash in the desert), Mikhail Kalatozov's The Red Tent (Arctic expedition gone wrong) and Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (Lost in Siberia), to Danny Boyle's recent 127 Hours (trapped in a rocky crevasse) and Peter Weir's current The Way Back -- serve one very useful function. They help us keep our own difficulties in perspective. They remind us of how fragile life really can be, and of how relatively small and manageable most of our own civilized daily problems really are.
What would we do, for example, if we were faced -- as are the eight central characters of The Way Back -- with trekking on foot through freezing, wolf-infested Siberian forests during the height of World War II, with the soldiers of the Soviet Gulag and their guns somewhere behind us? Or crossing the Gobi Desert under a scorching sun with little water, and boots falling apart?
What if we had to walk 4,000 miles through those forests, and that desert, then face climbing and crossing the Himalayan Mountains before reaching the safe haven of India -- only to have World War II still raging all across the world all around us?
The Way Back is based on a famous book by Polish writer and ex-gulag prisoner Slawomir Rawicz, the bestseller The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. Weir's movie, co-scripted by Keith R. Clarke, with a multi-national cast headed by Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan, purports to tell us that story of that 1940 escape and the people who made it. And though Rawicz's facts have been seriously challenged -- it's said by some investigators that he never escaped from the Gulag at all, but was released in 1942, and that the whole tale of the trek is fictitious -- Weir's movie still has lots of visual and emotional impact.
Stunningly shot in Bulgaria (standing in for Siberia), Morocco (standing in for Mongolia) and India, The Way Back is an old school adventure movie made without the aid of CGI enhancement or technical trickery. It has an often overwhelming visual impact, images filled with vast landscapes and spectacular desolation. At its frequent best, Weir's movie creates an engrossing vision of escape, of wilderness and survival, with the seven men -- a colorful, diverse group that includes an American (Ed Harris), a Stalinist thief/killer (Colin Farrell), an artist who keeps drawing pictures and the main character, Polish escapee (Jim Sturgess) -- sometimes pitted against each other, or hurled into wolf-infested forests, and vast scorching stretches of the Gobi desert. Along the way, they're joined by another fugitive/pilgrim, a fragile-looking young Polish girl on the run named Irena (Saoirse Ronan). As the grueling journey proceeds, some of them die, some survive -- and all of them are constantly battered and tested.
There may be soldiers somewhere behind them too, ready to take them back to the prison, villagers ready to betray them. But, it is the land itself that is their jailer, their nemesis, their tyrant, their gulag. But finally, their way back.
Few filmmakers alive can wring as much mystical splendor and dangerous-looking beauty out of a landscape or seascape (or here, a mountain-scape and desert-scape) as Weir -- especially when he's joined by his fellow Australian, cinematographer Russell Boyd (an Oscar winner for Weir's last film, the 2003 sea saga Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). Together, Weir and Boyd lavish on The Way Back the gifts for outdoor moviemaking Weir displayed in films like Gallipoli, The Mosquito Coast, and Master and Commander, showing once again that great talent he has for immersing us in the excitement and strangeness of the world around us.
The dramatic elements of The Way Back aren't as strong -- even if, compared to most would be action or adventure films these days, they're strong enough. Sturgess' Janusz, sent to Siberia because of a political frame-up in which his wife (Sally Edwards) participated, is a protagonist with a kind heart but few interesting quirks or undercurrents. Of the other characters, the most memorable drawn are Irena (Ronan), whose ethereal face lends weird contrast to the elemental backdrops; the American Mr. Smith (played broodingly by Harris); and Valka (played explosively by Farrell), a thug who has Stalin and Lenin tattooed on his chest.
A word about Weir. Even if his material here lacks some depth and power (and even if it has a pretty corny ending), it's a daring, worthwhile project. Weir is a marvelous filmmaker, at his best with large or exotic canvasses like this -- an expert portrayer of the spectacle and mysteries of the world, and the shadows of the human mind and heart. It's good to see his work on screen, and on a new DVD, again.
Now, a word about Ed Harris. Two words. Great actor. Furthermore, as always, a reliably fine actor, one you can count on. All of the roles in The Way Back, though mostly well-played, are somewhat sketchy, which is odd for a story allegedly taken from life. But if Ronan supplies pathos and Farrell adds tension and conflict (the movie loses a lot when he departs), Harris is the one actor in The Way Back who really adds the element of human suffering and stoicism, the measure of how we react to danger and hardship, how we can survive.
I'd be remiss in not mentioning the other actors as well -- Dragos Bucur, Alexander Protocean, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urgandowsky, and Igor Gnezdilov. They're all good, even if, frankly, many of the dramatic elements of the movie don't feel especially true. Against the overpowering, dangerous physical world of The Way Back, the men and woman enact what is often a typical adventure movie fable of suffering, quest and redemption. But that's not necessarily bad. Weir and Boyd make sure that the wolrd and the landscapes around their escapees have their own fierce truth. (Extras: Featurette, trailer.)
Blow Out (B)
U.S.: Brian De Palma, 1981, Criterion Collection
Blow Out, Brian De Palma's 1981 neo-noir about a movie sound man (played by John Travolta), who stumbles into a political conspiracy and a string of murders, is a movie for connoisseurs of trash and movie art -- and I don't mean that as a knock. One of this movie's strongest critical admirers (and one of De Palma's) -- was Pauline Kael, and one of Kael's most famous critical essays is called, of course, "Trash, Art and the Movies." We get all three of them here, plus a love of both the trash and the art of movies that sometimes makes us roll our eyes, and sometimes holds us spellbound.
Blow Out probably took its title partly from Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, which is about a Swinging '60 London photographer who stumbles on what may be murder. And it centers around one of Travolta's sexiest performances, as Jack Terry, the lone-wolf Philadelphia movie sound effects man, who works on sleazy little slasher horror movies, and whose director-boss is dissatisfied with the scream Jack has supplied for one of the victims in the director's latest turkey.
It's a terrible, inept picture, which De Palma stages as a send-up of Halloween and other teen slasher pics. But Jack is a pro. He takes his equipment out that night to get more ambient night-sound on a suburban bridge.
That bridge is an unusually well-populated one, considering the lateness of the hour. There are crickets and an owl, who stares at us disturbingly, and there's another filmmaker named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), who's got his camera set up somewhere near Jack (but whom Jack doesn't know and doesn't see), and finally there's a speeding car, carrying, amazingly, the current front-running candidate for President of The United States, Governor McRyan, (John Hoffmeister) together with a hot blonde number named Sally (Nancy Allen), who seems to be along for more than the ride. Jack hears a couple of bangs (and catches them on his recorder) and the governor's car plunges through a fence and into the river -- where it quickly sinks. Jack dives in and is able to rescue Sally, but not the possible next President of the United States.
Soon we're at the hospital, where Sally is groggily coming to, and the police, reporters ad some political people (headed by musical comedy star John McMartin), visions of Chappaquiddick perhaps dancing in their heads, seem to want Jack and Nancy to just clam up and go away. He won't. She wants to, at first, but decides she likes Jack.
Then Manny and his Zapruderish film turns up, and ex-Philadelphian De Palma turns the city into a house of horrors more violent than anything in ex-Philadephian David Lynch's neighborhood, craning and swooping and whirling his camera all around a world gone seemingly mad. There's a deadly plot of some kind afoot, and its bloodiest agent is a phony telephone company worker named Burke (played with a truly evil stare and icily smug expression by John Lithgow), a cold-blooded killer who seems willing to depopulate half the town to keep all the guilty secrets safe.
If that sounds like a pretty absurd plot, it often plays pretty silly too, though just as often it's imaginatively over-the-top and hellishly exciting. I've always thought De Palma should avoid solo-writing jobs on his own movie scripts, or at least hook up with more good writing partners. And Blow Out -- as well as Raising Cain and Femme Fatale (and 1968's Murder a la Mod, which is included in this Criterion package) -- are good demonstrations why. Blow Out is never boring. But a lot of the time it doesn't make any bloody sense.
So why did Kael call it a great movie? Mostly, maybe, because she very much liked De Palma's work, because this movie is made with such great feverish style, and also maybe because she had a crush of sorts on John Travolta -- as she had on Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty. (That's okay. A lot of the 1981 audience probably had a crush on him too.)
The style is what we remember about Blow Out -- not the ideas, which are mostly shallow or obvious, or the story, which is both predictable and illogical, or the characters who are mostly overdrawn and somewhat stereotypical (or archetypal, if you prefer), or the movie itself, which is basically a set of ingeniously orchestrated suspense set-pieces, strung together in clever, artful ways that defy plausibility with an almost cheerful impudence.
Here's an example of that high-style: When Jack goes back to the studio work room, because one of his tapes has been erased, De Palma keeps his camera spinning around in circles while Jack discoverers his other tapes have been erased too -- and then stops at the precise moment, when an office worker comes in to tell him he's had a call.
There's no justification really for twirling the camera, or for fragmenting and expanding time so implausibly in Blow Out's last chase scene, or for bathing Manny Karp's apartment, floor to ceiling, in such blazing red light (neon deluxe?), or for a lot of the things De Palma does in his trademark set-pieces. (They're not Hitchcockian; they're De Palmian.) Except, of course, that they're a lot of fun to watch, and De Palma (like Dario Argento or Mario Bava in their cult Italian horror movies) does them with such visual invention and luscious style that they become both horrific and a hoot.
I don't think Blow Out is a great movie -- and I vastly prefer De Palma when he has a good scriptwriter working with him like Oliver Stone (Scarface), David Mamet (The Untouchables) or David Rabe (Casualties of War). But it's definitely an exciting, entertaining, and sometimes ravishingly romantic show, and it can be a great movie-movie experience, if you're a hard-core genre movie buff -- or if you had, or have, a crush on Pauline Kael.
Bonus Movie: Murder a la Mod (C)
U.S.: Brian De Palma: 1967
De Palma's earliest movie, along with his 1968 anti-Vietnam draft comedy Greetings (with Robert De Niro), was this artsy little black and white thriller about moviemaking and murder. Set in Manhattan, it has a breezy look that reminds you of the Dick Lester Swingin' London pictures A Hard Day's Night and The Knack, but with a far more macabre sense of humor. (Killers and corpses pop in and out of trunks, and there's a chase in a cemetery.) I'd say it's De Palma's worst movie, but it is a rarity -- and you can probably see worse every week at the multiplexes.
(Extras: Video interview with De Palma by Noah Baumbach; interviews with Nancy Allen and Blow Out's "movie-within-a-movie" Steadicam cameraman Garrett Brown; on-set photos by Louis Goldman; trailer; booklet with essay by Michael Sragow, frame-by-frame record of the movie's blow out sequence; and Pauline Kael's original New Yorker review.)