The Call of the Wild

Liam Neeson is probably my favorite actor. He’s one of those actors where if I hear that Liam Neeson is in a movie, I automatically make a mental note to see that movie. One of the things I like most about him is his voice. It’s very distinctive in a way I’m not quite sure how to describe, and it’s instantly recognizable. I remember seeing Taken in the theater, and during his now-famous “I don’t know who you are, but if you let my daughter go…” speech, the way his voice filled the whole theater was just awesome. It sent chills down my spine.

Lately he’s been re-establishing himself as a badass, and in my opinion, he’s been doing quite well. Since 2005 he’s done Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven, Taken, Unknown, The A-Team, Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans, The Grey, Battleship, and voiced Aslan in the Narnia movies. So he’s been a busy fellow. Perhaps he’s been trying to work his way through the tragic death of his wife Natasha Richardson, who died in 2009 in a skiing accident. She was 45. My condolences, Liam.

Many of his recent films have gotten somewhat mixed reviews, but it’s safe to say that I have enjoyed them all (except Battleship, which I haven’t seen). Neeson is one of those actors where even if the movie around him isn’t all that great, he makes it watchable. One of Mr. Neeson’s most recent films is The Grey, about a group of oil workers whose plane crashes in the wilderness, and the survivors are stalked by a group of vicious wolves. When I first saw the trailer for the movie, my immediate reaction to the question of “Liam Neeson vs. the wolves” was “my money’s on you, Liam!” and promptly resolved to see it.

What I did not anticipate was just how intense and genuinely harrowing the movie ended up being. I’m not saying I expected a barrel of laughs, given the premise, but what I was certainly not expecting was to be so stressed-out and relentlessly wracked with nerves that my hands were shaking and there were tears in my eyes by the end of the movie. When the movie was released on DVD some weeks ago, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it again. Eventually I decided that I did, so I bought the DVD, and as with “Black Death,” it took me about a week before I managed to muster up the courage to watch it.

Man oh man. I’m still recovering. When it was over, my hands were once again shaking and there were once again tears in my eyes. I don’t think I could manage a third viewing. The film opens with Neeson’s character Ottway as he writes a letter to his wife and considers suicide. Ottway is a sharpshooter who kills wolves that threaten an oil drilling team. It’s unknown initially what happened to his wife, if she left him or if she died. His opening narration sums up where he is at this point in his life: “A job at the end of the world. A salaried killer for a big petroleum company. I don’t know why I did half the things I’ve done, but I know this is where I belong, surrounded by my own. Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind.” He gets as far as putting his rifle in his mouth, and even pulls the trigger, but for whatever reason the gun doesn’t go off, so he gets on the plane.

Those who have seen the film’s trailer and/or know the basic plot outline of the film know what happens next: the plane crashes, and only Ottway and about six others survive. The plane crash scene is one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It’s the worst nightmare of anyone who has ever been on a plane, which would be everyone. The plane starts shaking, and your initial thought is “oh, it’s just turbulence.” But as the shaking gets worse and worse and people start to freak out, you keep trying to reassure yourself that everything is going to be okay, while everyone in the audience watching the movie knows exactly what is going to happen next.

I’ve thought about this scene a lot and I think I’ve figured out what makes it so effective, for me at least. It’s shot from the perspective of the people in the plane. There are no exterior shots of the plane being buffeted by wind, or of the pilots in the cockpit struggling with the controls, or anything like that. We don’t know any more about what’s happening than the people in the plane do. There is literally nothing to ease the terror of what’s going on. It’s a scene that is both extremely difficult to watch and impossible to turn away from.

The rest of the film is fairly straightforward, plotwise (SPOILERS AHEAD). The survivors try to find shelter and are stalked by the aforementioned vicious pack of wolves. There is dissent among the group as more of them are picked off, and there are a number of scenes that are so teeth-gratingly suspenseful that it is seriously hard to breathe. It reminded me of “The Hurt Locker” in that respect, since most of the film is nonstop nail-biting tension with only the occasional reprieve.

There was some controversy regarding the portrayal of the wolves in the film. Animal-rights activists were upset that they were portrayed as vicious man-eating killers. So yeah, PETA wasn’t very happy with this film. I know next to nothing about wolves, so I can’t comment on how realistic their portrayal is (or isn’t) in the movie.

But frankly, I don’t care. I don’t care if the movie’s portrayal of wolves was realistic or not, and here’s why. It’s effective filmmaking. The wolf attacks are as harrowing as anything else in the movie. The movie isn’t really about the wolves anyway. It’s a survival story. The wolves aren’t villains any more than the devastating cold. They’re just there. I don’t think the film portrays them as evil, per se. They’re defending their territory, as most animals would (one of the few things I do know about wolves is that they’re highly territorial). They see the survivors as a threat, they don’t just attack them for fun. They aren’t mindless, faceless, invincible slasher-film villains. Wouldn’t human beings defend their territory from invaders? Of course they would.

And here’s something else surprising about the film: it’s actually very philosophical. The survivors discuss their views on the afterlife, and speculate where their dead friends may have gone. One says that they’re not in heaven because there is no God, another disagrees. Ottway says that he too is an atheist, and that he wishes he could believe in that kind of thing, but he just can’t. I read some reviews of the film by people who thought this kind of thing was unnecessary. Frankly, I find it fascinating. What else would you talk about in a desperate situation like that? Wouldn’t you wonder why it had happened? Wouldn’t you wonder why you had survived when so many others hadn’t? What would there be to hang onto? These are questions I don’t want to think about, but I think it’s good to acknowledge they’re there.

One significant gripe I do have with the film is the ending (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT). After all of the other survivors have died in various heart-wrenching ways, Ottway is the only one left. Alone and suffering from hypothermia, he unwittingly stumbles into the wolves’ den, where he comes face to face with the giant, ferocious alpha wolf. He tapes a knife to one hand, and in the other he tapes a couple of small liquor bottles in between his knuckles which he then breaks on a rock, essentially giving himself improvised Wolverine claws. This was it. This was the moment showcased in the trailers, where our beleaguered hero would finally do battle with the ferocious beast who had been so relentlessly stalking him and killing his friends! This was going to be awesome! Ottway stands up, charges toward the wolf, and…

…Nothing.

Fade to black. End credits.

Wait, what? Everyone in the theater couldn’t believe it. There was no wolf fight? That was it? That badass moment in the trailers that promised an epic wolf battle that wasn’t even in the movie?!?! WTF?! And now I read online that the filmmakers never intended to end the movie with a wolf fight at all! I still feel cheated by this. Marginally less so the second time around, but it is anticlimactic any way you slice it. It ends an otherwise extremely intense and harrowing film on a flat, dull note. It ends with a whimper instead of a bang. I just don’t understand it. Why would you have this showcase moment in the trailers and then not deliver on it? It’s like having a superhero movie with no climactic battle between the hero and villain at the end of the movie. Seriously, what gives?

Sigh. I really wish the movie hadn’t ended that way. It’s really a great film otherwise. The acting is excellent throughout, especially when you consider that most of the actors other than Neeson aren’t very well-known. The cinematography of the landscapes is really quite beautiful. The director, Joe Carnahan, previously directed Liam Neeson in “The A-Team,” which, personally, I thought was awesome. Carnahan is mostly known for big, loud, over –the-top action movies, but he proves with “The Grey” that he can direct small-scale, more character-driven films as well, while still managing to make it terrifically exciting and genuinely harrowing. “The Grey” is his most mature and well-made film, though A-Team certainly has it beat in terms of entertainment value.

It’s not an easy film to watch. It’s intense, bloody, and unrelenting, not to mention the fact that the F-word count is easily in the triple digits. I’m still bitter about the ending, but it didn’t spoil what was otherwise an extremely well-made, effective, and thought-provoking film. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something extremely intense, just as long as you’re aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

As a side note, I’m planning a follow-up piece to this exploring some other aspects of the film that I felt I didn’t really have time for here, since what I’m thinking of connects to other films besides this one, and I didn’t want this piece to feel overcrowded. It’s about death in movies, and it’s not going to be fun, but hopefully it’ll be worthwhile. So look for that in the next few days if you’re interested.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

The Surprisingly Amazing Spider-Man

Spider-Man is my second-favorite comic book superhero, second only to Batman. (Only a week and a half till Dark Knight Rises!!) I really loved the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi Spidey movies, the second one in particular is one of my top-ten favorite movies of all time. Admittedly, the third one went a bit off the rails, but I still enjoyed it.

I was among the many people who were skeptical when I heard that they were redoing Spidey. It seemed especially odd considering that Spider-Man 3 was only five years ago, and it’s only been ten years since the original. I was also skeptical about the director, Marc Webb, who up until now has been known mostly for directing music videos and the low-budget “(500) Days of Summer,” which I haven’t seen.

I was also skeptical about the star, Andrew Garfield. The logic behind casting a 28-year old English actor as an American teenager was somewhat lost on me (though admittedly, Tobey Maguire was in his mid-to-late twenties when he made the first one). I was encouraged when the casting of Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy was announced, because she’s a really good actress and I have a huge crush on her. (Fun fact: she’s known as a redhead but she’s a natural blonde, so she’s pretty much perfect for Gwen. Not that I’ve looked this up or anything…)

Now please allow me to explain something. One gripe comic nerds had with the Sam Raimi films was that Spidey’s web-shooting was an extension of his spider-powers, as opposed to the comics, where he made mechanical web-shooters of his own design. This changed riled a lot of comic nerds, but frankly, it never bothered me. It seemed a lot more logical to me that the web-shooting was another one of his spider-powers, since it never made sense to me that he would get all of these spider-abilities EXCEPT for that one. I could also never buy that a high-school kid could effortlessly whip up this amazing device that all of the world’s greatest scientists would be scratching their heads over. I guess the placement of the web-shooters on his wrists is a bit random. If he got real spider-powers, wouldn’t the webs shoot out of his butt? I guess the idea of Spidey swinging around New York shooting webs out of his ass would have been a bit much.

Now that I’ve left you with that image, let’s move on to the new movie, “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Seemed like a somewhat self-serving title, as if the filmmakers are trying to make the viewer think that it’s a good movie. And yes, I know that was the name of Spidey’s original comic series, so you don’t need to remind me.

But let’s move on from all the naysaying and talk about the film.

It was great.

I loved it.

I am happy to say that every single one of my skepticisms was proven to be unfounded. Sure, there’s a certain sense of déjà vu at first, since the first half or so of the movie covers ground that we’ve mostly already seen. But it still manages to feel fresh, and you can tell that the filmmakers put a lot of effort into making sure that the familiar territory is still interesting. There’s a new subplot about Peter Parker’s parents, and the research his father was working on before he died (or did he…).

The question of where Peter’s parents were was never addressed in the Raimi films, because it wasn’t important to that story. It is important to this film’s story, and it’s more than just padding. It gives Peter added motivation, and it also provides him with a formidable villain, the Lizard, aka Dr. Curt Connors, played by Rhys Ifans. As Dr. Connors, he’s a bit dull, but as the thoroughly nasty Lizard he’s much more interesting, and more than a match for our hero.

Speaking of our hero, Garfield makes a very appealing and likable Peter Parker. And if there’s any one thing you need from an actor playing Peter Parker, it’s likability. He’s probably the most likable comic-book superhero alter-ego there is. He’s the only one who still has to do his homework after he beats the bad guys. Garfield makes him into a troubled but very likable character, and I’ve gotta say, a very convincing teenager. His body language and his mannerisms are perfect. He won’t quite make you forget Tobey Maguire in the role, but he puts his own spin on it that feels appropriate for the character and has you rooting for him all the way. Aunt May tells him late in the film that “If there’s one thing you are, Peter Parker, it’s good,” and Garfield’s performance has you agreeing with her.

And speaking of likability, there’s really no more likable actress out there than Emma Stone, in my humble opinion. I suppose I may be biased, but she too is impossible not to like. She projects strength and vulnerability in equal measure, and she seems like a real person, as opposed to just a pretty face who requires rescuing all the time. And of course she is very pretty, as Peter’s aunt and uncle remind him more than once.

And about those web-shooters. The way this film was structured reminded me of “Batman Begins,” in that it takes the time to explain where the gadgets and the costumes actually come from. In this film, the web-shooters are an invention of Oscorp, Peter just tinkers with them to turn them into his web-shooters. This is far more plausible than it would be if he had just come up with them on his own. The other thing I liked about this is that the technology helps make it believable. Maybe part of the reason Stan Lee had Peter coming up with the web-shooters on his own was that he couldn’t think of any other way for them to come about. Well, the miracles of modern technology have helped solve that problem for him. (And speaking of Stan Lee, he makes another highly-entertaining cameo appearance.)

This film was one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in the movie theater in quite some time. It’s well-acted, the plot comes together really well, and the special effects and action sequences are great. Following Spidey as he swoops through New York remains as thrilling as ever. The movie is funny, smart, action-packed, entertaining, and it has that emotional connection that Raimi’s Spider-Man films did so well. “The Amazing Spider-Man,” to me at least, managed to more than justify its existence. I think it’s safe to say that it is my second-favorite Spidey movie, second only to the great “Spider-Man 2,” which is pretty high praise (this is coming from a guy who saw Spidey 2 in theaters no less than four times). I find myself looking forward to the already-announced sequel (speaking of which, be sure to stay tuned through the first part of the end credits).

There’s a great scene in the film where (SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT) Spidey saves a kid in a car that is dangling precariously from a bridge. The car inevitably catches fire and the kid starts to panic. Spidey, unable to reach him, and because the kid is frightened by his mask, takes off the mask to reassure the kid that he’s just a normal guy. He tosses the mask to the kid and tells him to put it on, because “It’ll make you strong.” Watching this film will make you strong too.

I’m sorry I doubted you Spidey. Won’t happen again.

Welcome back.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Le Cinema de WTF: Jonah Hex

Have you ever watched a movie that was so strange, so bizarre, so outlandish that when it was over, you were left scratching your head and wondering if you actually saw what you think you just saw, or if it was all some kind of hallucination? I know I have. That is what I am going to explore here. These are the films that leave you puzzled, confused, and wondering what in the bloody hell you just watched. Welcome, my friends, to Le Cinema de WTF.

Today, it’s “Jonah Hex,” the widely-panned 2010 DC Comics movie starring Josh Brolin as the titular scarred bounty hunter. Jonah Hex is a character who’s been around for a while, but I honestly don’t know a whole lot about him. Aside from the fact that he’s got some gnarly facial scarring and fought for the South in the Civil War, I’ve pretty much got nothing on the character. I remember he showed up in an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series,” and to his credit he did kick some serious ass.

One would think that watching a movie about him would maybe help fill in some of the blanks, but alas, such is not the case with this film. Warning sign number one: the movie is only 82 minutes long. Right off the bat you know there’s not going to be much in the way of plot or character development when the movie is that far short of the 90-minute mark. Especially when you consider that the actual movie is more like 71 minutes long, since the last eleven or twelve minutes of the running time are credits.

You know you’re in trouble when the screenwriters couldn’t even think of enough story to keep the movie going for an hour and a half, and the resulting 71 minutes of actual film still somehow manages to feel padded. It’s also somewhat telling that Jonah Hex has no superpowers in the comics. He’s just really good at hunting down bad guys, kind of like a Wild West version of the Punisher. But in the movie version, he can bring dead people back to life by touching them, and they stay alive as long as he touches them, only to resume being dead as soon as he lets go. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s only ever really used when Hex needs to find out where the bad guys are.

Said bad guys are led by Quentin Turnbull, played by John Malkovich. You’d think an actor as off-the-wall as Malkovich would enjoy playing a villain, but he mostly just looks bored. I get the impression he really only did it for the paycheck, or maybe so that his kids would get to see him as the villain in a comic-book movie.

Anyway, Turnbull is the villain, and he hates Jonah Hex for disobeying one of his orders to burn down a hospital during the War, an action which forced Hex to kill Turnbull’s son, who was also his best friend. As revenge for this, Turnbull ties up Hex and forces him to watch as his wife and son are burned alive in their home. He then brands Hex’s face with the initials “QT,” and leaves him to die. He’s found a few days later by Indians who bring him back to life with their mystical powers, since everyone knows that Indians have mystical powers. Apparently they weren’t able to bring all of him quite back from the dead, which serves as a half-assed explanation for the whole corpse-talking thing.

There’s also the obligatory love interest in the form of a prostitute named Lilah, played by Megan Fox. I’m not gonna lie, she looks good in a corset, but her Southern accent is terrible and she too mostly sounds bored. Why she has a thing for Jonah Hex is never really explained. I guess because the movie needed a love interest. It’s not like she even gets to do much, she has maybe 15 minutes of screen time, though I think that might be being a bit too generous. Her character serves little purpose, aside from looking nice and getting captured later in the movie.

I’ve gotta say, I feel sorry for Josh Brolin. The guy’s a darn good actor, and he’s got a face built for westerns (watch “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men” to see what I mean). His makeup in this movie is impressive, it looks appropriately and realistically nasty. The problem with it is that it robs him of most of his not-inconsiderable ability to actually act. It’s pretty hard to emote worth a damn when half your face is immobilized.

You can tell that Brolin tries, though. There’s one scene in particular where he’s talking to Turnbull’s temporarily-resurrected son, and you think you can maybe see a tear in Brolin’s eye, and you think his lip might even be quivering a bit, were it still capable of doing so. As a result, his performance is also somewhat joyless, though like I said I really can’t find it in me to blame him for that. The poor man does what he can with what he has, which as it turns out, really isn’t very much.

By far the most entertaining performance in the movie is given by the always-awesome Michael Fassbender, as the psychotic, heavily-tattooed Irish henchman named Burke. His cackling, grinning madman is great fun to watch, and Fassbender certainly seems to be enjoying himself, unlike pretty much everyone else in the movie. It really makes you think that pretty much every movie could be improved with a dose of Fassbender. (Imagine Fassbender as Anakin Skywalker, for instance… now that would have been something.)

Anyway, Turnbull’s endgame is to assemble what the movie calls a “nation-killer” weapon, or something to that effect. There’s some nonsense about how Eli Whitney invented the thing, but as with pretty much everything else in the movie it’s not terribly important. The weapon itself is actually pretty cool. The best way I can think to describe it is that it shoots a whole bunch of shells into an area, which don’t explode until a trigger shell is launched. So the idea is that if you shoot a 30 or 40 shells into a densely-populated area, say, Washington, D.C., then detonate them all at once, you could do some serious damage. It’s Turnbull’s intention to use this weapon during the July 4th centenary celebration in D.C. And of course, ONLY ONE MAN can stop him.

That’s pretty much all there is plotwise. What’s weird is how convoluted all of this feels. Like Cowboys and Aliens, the basic outline is pretty simple but it still seems to take longer than it really should to develop. This is even weirder in Jonah Hex, since it’s only 82 minutes long. How can a movie that’s not even 90 minutes long manage to feel convoluted? I don’t know, but this one manages it somehow.

It was directed by a guy named Jimmy Hayward, who worked as an animator at Pixar and whose only other directing credit is the recent animated version of the Dr. Seuss story “Horton Hears a Who!” Why he was chosen to direct a comic-book action movie about a scarred Wild West bounty hunter is a mystery that may never be solved.

There are so many details in this movie that just seem throwaway, that they’re there for no other reason than just to be there. If that sounds stupid, it’s because it is. In one scene, Hex uses a pair of Gatling guns improbably mounted to the saddle of his horse to kill a bunch of dudes. He never uses them again. Later he uses weapons that fire some sort of explosive crossbow bolt. He never uses them again. His relationship with Lilah is never explained. His ability to talk to dead folks is only ever used when he needs to find out where the bad guys are. President Grant shows up for no real reason. Hex gets pointlessly revived by Indians for a second time, again for no real reason (those Indians must be getting tired of reviving his ass by now). There’s a scene where a guy goes flying ten feet and smashes through a window after being shot with a pistol.

Most puzzling of all, though, has to be the final battle. While Hex and Turnbull are fighting on the boat with the nation-killer weapon, their fight is intercut with some kind of other fight between the two of them, which takes place on some sort red sand with red sky in the background. That’s really the best way I can think to describe it, and trust me, it doesn’t make any more sense in the actual movie. What the hell is the point of this? Is it supposed to be some sort of spiritual battle? My best guess is that it’s leftover from an earlier version of the script, and they just stuck it in at the end to pad the running time, since we all know that a 79-minute running time is HUGELY different from 82 minutes.

It’s a shame too, since there really is a lot of wasted potential here. There are some solid action scenes, and even touches of humor. When a bunch of Union soldiers barge in on Hex and Lilah and Brolin growls, “Christ, woman, how many men are you seein’ today?” you see a brief flash of What Might Have Been. Alas, it all ends up being in the service of a sporadically-entertaining lost cause. WTF rating: 8.5/10.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.