The Grey (B)
U.S.: Joe Carnahan, 2012, Universal
Fitting that this movie is called The Grey, because gray it certainly is -- cold, and bitter, and sunless, a suspense picture full of existential terror, untamed nature, overwhelming anxiety and relentless death, always a step or two behind. And wolves. And Liam Neeson.
What is The Grey about? Macho stuff. The all-male group. Fear. Death. Survival. What we like to call manhood. In the film, seven or eight men (the number keeps dwindling) -- workers in an Alaskan oil refinery that seems to run on booze and machismo -- survive a skull-shatteringly convincing plane crash in the wilderness, only to find themselves scrambling to survive in the wilds. They're in a fix: lost in a perilous land without traces of other humanity -- trapped in a deadly realm of mountains and huge forests and vast chasms waiting to swallow you up, a world mantled with snow and ice and vibrating with an intense, bone-stripping chill you can practically feel as you watch the movie.
It's bad enough to crash-land in a frozen wilderness, especially one staged so well by director Joe Carnahan and company and photographed so well by Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior). But worse awaits. As the seven try to find their way back to civilization, they're hunted by a pack of huge, ravenous, but scarily patient wolves, picking them off one by one. These beasts' eyes glow in the dark. They howl. They are monstrous, some CGI, some animatronic, some actual wolves. They are always there, tracking, watching, waiting to kill and feed and send one more cast member to hell or otherwise.
Do real wolves act like this? Maybe not, according to Carroll Ballard's classic pro-wildlife adventure Never Cry Wolf. But this movie follows the logic of Jaws, the logic of horror. The lost oil riggers have one thing going for them: Neeson, here playing John Ottway, a wolf hunter hired by the oil company.
A guy suicidally unhappy about losing his wife, but an ace wolf killer who knows his prey, Ottway just happens to be on the downed plane. So naturally he becomes head guy for the beleaguered survivors: a desperate bunch that includes Frank Grillo as brutal ex-con Diaz, Dermot Mulroney as the bearded intellectual Talget, Nonso Anozie as the sturdy black man Burke, and Dallas Roberts as the hapless Hendrick.
None of them, we feel, would last a day without Ottway. But he's no conventional movie action hero. Eyes quizzical and hurt-looking, voice a low, measured, all-knowing lyrical Irish growl, Ottway dispenses wolf lore (keep to the trees, he says), and shoots,and helps his men live and also helps them die, all the while trying to outmaneuver the terror that pursues them.
You may wonder why these wolves don't descend on the men and rip them apart, despite Neeson. The answer is simple. Though the movie often feels real -- and though director co-writer Joe Carnahan (working with co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, adapting his own short story "Ghost Walker") has made it into an absolutely terrific suspense show -- it's only as real as our worst nightmares.
The Grey is a genuinely scary movie -- whether it's swinging us over that chasm (a really terrifying scene), or crashing that plane or siccing the wolves on the survivors. (Extras: commentary with Carnahan and the editors; deleted scenes.)
Certified Copy (A)
France/Italy/Iran: Abbas Kiarostami, 2010, Criterion Collection
When does love begin? When does it stop? And when is a painting a work of art?
The superb filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's first non-Iranian production, which ponders those questions, is a jewel of that director's special brand of stylized cinematic realism, as well as a personal meditation on artistry and fakery. Translucent and crystal-clear in its imagery, yet opaque and mysterious in its meaning and narrative logic -- it's a story that turns, halfway through, into a different story with the same lead actors (a dissonant couple played by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) but now cast as different characters.
Made in Italy (seedbed of neorealism, homeland of Rossellini and De Sica), starring a French leading lady (the subtle and lovely Binoche) as an antique dealer , and the lesser known but gifted English leading man (Shimell) as a writer, this splendidly shot (by Luca Bigazzi), exquisitely beautiful European-Iranian co-production is partly one of Kiarostami's chamber road movies -- one of those Kiarostami pictures in which much of the action and dialogue transpire in a traveling car's front seat with the image shifting between characters on the driver and passenger sides -- and partly a dramatic travelogue and pastiche of Rossellini's great but once controversial 1953 romantic drama Voyage in Italy (also called Strangers), which starred Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as a couple on Italian vacation whose marriage is crumbling.
The setting is in Tuscany, on the roads and in the mountain villages and cities. Shimell plays James Miller, an opinionated and somewhat self-absorbed best-selling author who has just written a prize-wining book on the validity of artistic or painterly copying. Binoche plays an unnamed single mother (the credits call her "She" or "Elle") who takes Miller on a day date and drive in the country, from Arezzo (site of a Miller lecture) to Lucignano (a city celebrated as a wedding site). Elle likes to argue and provoke and meet new people. James is sardonic, maybe a touch too narcissistic. Are they a couple? Somewhere along the way the two turn into something different. They begin impersonating, or perhaps revealing themselves, as a long-married pair (one with severe problems, like Bergman and Sanders), and they slide into these new roles, and this greater intimacy, with strange, unexplained fullness.
Several things could be happening here. The two could be role-playing -- either in the first part or in the second part of the story -- pretending they've just met, or pretending they've been married for 15 years. Or they could be leaping forward suddenly, through the magic of cinema, from the time they first met, to another time 15 years later. Or the entire film could be a piece of artifice, a copy of an art film on various levels. If you want the answer, Kiarostami (who has been single much of his working life) gives it to us in the first part of a 2010 Criterion interview in the DVD extras disc. It surprised me.
The story of Certified Copy, according to Godfrey Cheshire's fine essay, comes from a tale of two people that director Kiarostami once told to Binoche in Tehran: a story he initially claimed was true, and had actually happened to him, but which he later confessed was a fabrication. The movie, which retells that anecdote, or joke, or fantasy, or dream, is enigmatic and will bewilder some. Yet it's also often mesmerizing, the work of a director who is a master ot fiction film (Taste of Cherry), a master of documentary (Homework), and a master at mixing the two (Close-Up) . It is full of talk and ideas and emotions, but it also feels as natural as breathing. (In Italian, French and English with English subtitles.)
Also includes The Report (Iran: Abbas Kiarostami, 1977). Based on the failure of his own marriage, this fine, humane, highly personal and keenly observant (and very rare) early feature by Kiarostami is yet another look at a disintegrating male-female relationship and a husband and wife at odds with each other: in this case, a selfish tax collector accused of soliciting bribes and his neglected and embittered wife. (Kiarostami's sympathies, interestingly, are clearly with the wife and he is very hard on the character, the husband, drawn from himself.)
Kiarostami, who is often most notable for his portrayals of poverty, children and ordinary people, seems surprisingly comfortable in this middle-class, adult, educated milieu -- which is close to his own. The Report was one of his earliest features and all negatives of it were destroyed in the Khomeini revolution; you can tell why this non-censorious portrayal of a Westernized, more liberal Iran would have displeased an ayatollah. (This DVD version was struck from a video made from a used, damaged print, with some lines; it still looks good.)
But though the film shows a side of Kiarostami somewhat different from the one we expect, it's very intelligently and movingly done. and it's in the great Iranian cinema tradition. With Kurosh Afsharpanah and Shohreh Aghdashloo. In Iranian, with English subtitles. (Extras: making-of documentary Let's See "Certified Copy" with interviews with Kiarostami, Binoche and Shimell; new interview with Kiarostami; trailer; booklet with essay by Cheshire.)
The Devil Inside (D)
U.S.: William Brent Bell, 2012, Paramount
Just how bad can a movie be that grosses $34 million on its first weekend? Pretty damned bad, as you'll find out quickly if you dip into The Devil Inside -- the latest entry in the found-footage horror or mocko-shockumetary sweepstakes that began in earnest with the 1999 box office success of The Blair Witch Project.
Visually ugly, dramatically ridiculous, thematically shoddy, psychologically inert, emotionally squalid, yet financially flabbergasting (its $34 million-opening weekend grosses came for a movie budgeted at about a million), this bloody little freak show tries to squeeze The Exorcist through Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, and comes up with the same old jiggling-camera, screaming-actor bloodbath, interspersed with baptisms, exorcism classes, and trips to the psycho ward at the Vatican hospital for the cinematically insane.
The horrors begin right away in the credits, when the movie explains that we are about to see footage mysteriously discovered, recording a series of mysterious events, which have left everyone who has seen this footage (carefully cut together by professional editors) in a state of inexplicable mystification. If any of you out there have any knowledge of what all this mysterious footage means, or why it was put together, or what happens in the movie, or why hordes of moviegoers didn't angrily demand refunds, you are advised to immediately contact the producers of The Devil Inside -- who may themselves in a state of utter mystification.
The prologue also helpfully informs us that the Vatican does not believe in exorcism and had nothing to do with this picture. Then, as we watch, presumably breathless with terror, The Devil Inside's director/co-writer William Brent Bell and his producer/co-writer Mathew Peterman open up with a cryptic 911 call, in which a dazed-sounding woman confesses to several murders, and we are then taken on a jiggling hand-held camera tour of a sordid-looking, disheveled house where three people lie dead, all smeared with their own blood, which also covers the walls.
This messy carnage, we're told, occurred after a botched exorcism resulted in the seemingly possessed Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) running amok, killing all the exorcists and then calling up 911 to summon the police and the jiggling cameraman. This may sound like the movie quickly hitting its nadir, but this repulsive scene is actually one of The Devil Inside's high points, only exceeded by the double-jointed contortionist act later executed in an asylum by body double Pixie Le Knot.
Decades later, Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), Maria's model-caliber daughter, sets off for Rome, under gray and cloudy skies, for an overseas visit to the Vatican university and the Vatican mental hospital, accompanied by documentarian Michael (Ionut Grama), who has another jiggling handheld camera and follows Isabella.
Soon, amidst all this jiggling and these gray vistas, and an occasional splatter of blood, accompanied by loud clanging noises and further mystification, Isabella hooks up with two enterprising English-speaking priests and free-lance exorcists -- Simon Quaterman (Ben Rawlings) and David Keane (Evan Helmuth). They sneak her and Michael into the hospital to see Maria, where everybody endures allegedly shocking scenes of demonic possession, foul language worthy of Linda Blair's Regan, horrific exposition and double-jointed displays where the limber Ms. Pixie ties herself into Le Knot.
One of the advantages of this whole found-footage school of horror movies, besides the fact that they're cheap and you reap huge profits on them, is that you can get away with bad cinematography that looks as if it was shot by amateurs, but here is tolerated because it's supposed to look like bad photography shot by amateurs, recording the actions of non-actors, working without scripts. Therefore, the moviemakers have an alibi for everything, except the weather.
So much for "art." Maybe it's The Devil Inside and its makers who know what audiences really want to see. Cinematography that looks amateurish. Acting that looks like non-acting. A script that seems unwritten. Contortionist acts. Mocko-Shockumentaries. Blood on the walls. Devils in the hospital. Corpses strewn hither and thither. Zombies and demons running amok. And holding it all together: jiggling camerawork, inexplicable mystification and an overpowering sense that your time is being throughly wasted. Now, that's entertainment!
My Perestroika (C+)
U.S.: Robin Hessman, 2011, Docurama
Robin Hessman's documentary about one of the most momentous political events of the 20th century -- the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seeming end of the Cold War -- makes it look puzzlingly unmomentous, almost mundane. Hessman, an American, who worked in Russia during the '90s on their version of Sesame Street, focuses on five Russians, including four ex-schoolmates, and follows them from the '80s to now: through the traumas and upheavals of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, glasnost, perestroika, and finally the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.
The quintet Hessman builds her movie around are Olga Durikova, once the class beauty, now a single mother who works for a billiards company; Ruslan Stupin, a ex-punk rock star (with the group NAIV), who's now a subway/street musician; Andrei Yevgrafov, a successful entrepreneur who runs a chain of posh western-style men's wear stores; and two history teachers, the husband and wife Borya and Lyuba Meyerson. Some of them yearn a little for the past (and its security), some are delighted by the change. Almost all of them are too busy to focus much on politics.
My Perestroika is not memorably shot or edited, but its human material makes it sometimes fascinating. At the end, even with the revelations or intimations (or are knowledge from elsewhere) that the new Russia is corrupt and violent, and might eventually be a great a threat as the old Russia was, one is amazed by how quiet and, in the end, non-bloody, and how seemingly inevitable, the fall of Communism finally was. In Russian and English, with subtitles.
The Spiders (B)
German: Fritz Lang, 1919-1920, Kino Classics
Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis, Die Nibelungen) was a master of horror, crime and adventure, and he combines them all -- along with a dark touch of romance and a smidgen of humor-- in this epic movie tale of lost treasure, exotic Peruvian climes, a daring adventurer (Carl de Vogt as the almost insanely courageous explorer from San Francisco, Kay Hoog), a band of ruthless criminals who tunnel under Chinatown and make up the international gang The Spiders, the priceless and elusive Buddha's Head Diamond, the beauteous sun priestess Naela (Lil Dagover), and one of the more murderous of all femme fatales, the busty but perfidious Lio Sha (Ressel Orla).
This spectacular black-and-white silent movie was released in two episodes (both in this DVD) -- Part One: The Golden Sea (1919) and Part Two: The Diamond Ship (1920) -- and it was quite obviously influenced by Louis Feuillade's French crime serials Judex, Fantmas, and Les Vampires, which are better, but not by much. Serial followers with campier tastes might prefer the jovial, high-spirited nonsense of American cliff-hangers like The Perils of Pauline, but even considering The Spiders' lack of humor, it's easy to see that both Lang and Feuillade are superior artists, and that Lang would grow into an even more important one.
Only Hitler and the Nazis, worse monsters and more evil criminals than The Spiders, could drive out Lang and the other German and Austrian film noir greats to Hollywood, stopping his rise in his own country. But these remnants of high adventure remain. Silent movie with intertitles and score by Ben Model.