You can´t ask much more from a film: Peter Weir´s The Way Back is a great story, well-told, presenting a grueling experience in a respectable but palatable manner. It´s the story of prisoners in a Siberian gulag during WWII, their daring escape, and the hardships they face during an incredible 4,000 mile walk to India and eventual freedom. That may not sound like your cup of tea, but I imagine just about all audiences will be able to appreciate this film.
Jim Sturgess stars as Janusz, a Polish man accused of espionage by the Soviet forces in control of Eastern Poland during WWII. He refuses to admit guilt, but his wife is tortured and eventually confesses against him, and soon Janusz is off to the gulag.
There, in desperate conditions that see many of the prisoners in states of near-death, he meets a man named Khabarov (Mark Strong) who claims to plan of escape that involves a long walk south to Mongolia. Along with a small group of international prisoners that include Russian bandit Valta (Colin Farrell) and an American who gives his name as Mister Smith (Ed Harris), Janusz manages to break free.
Of course, getting out of the gulag is only the beginning of their ordeal: they have a long journey ahead of them, and it´s even longer than they imagine. Along the way, they meet a fellow escapee, a young Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan) who says her parents were murdered in Warsaw. Through snowy tundra´s, vast empty Russian landscapes, the Gobi desert, and the Himalayas, the group´s numbers dwindle.
Given the story, The Way Back isn´t nearly as grueling an experience as I expected. It´s not so much of a specific survival story (survivalists may scoff at some of the luck the group encounters, like finding a well in the middle of the desert) as a tale of human spirit and the desire for freedom. It helps that the film is so beautifully shot by Russell Boyd, who was also behind the haunting imagery of Weir´s Picnic at Hanging Rock 35 years ago.
The cast is excellent: there´s always a danger when you have well-known English-speaking actors portraying heavily-accented non-English speakers, but both Sturgess and (especially) Farrell are fine (side note: from the range of nationalities portrayed in the main cast, only Harris plays a character of the same extraction as the actor). I was also particularly impressed with Dragos Bucur as Zoran, a Yugoslav businessman, and Gustaf Skarsgård as Voss, a Latvian priest.
The one element that rang false for me is the final sequence, set after the fall of communism in Poland. It´s an unnecessary scene that also feels improbable and illogical – a too-easy emotional tug to wrap things up that feels disconnected from the rest of the film.
I had one other concern. Watching what I had assumed to be an entirely true story, I was awaiting some end title scrawl that would let us know what happened to these characters. Nothing. The Way Back is only loosely based on Slavomir Rawicz´s popular novel The Long Walk, which has supposedly been debunked in recent years; at least, records indicate that Rawicz himself didn´t undertake the journey. With evidence that some men did, however, Weir decided to adapt the novel anyway.
It was the right decision: The Way Back is a fascinating story, fictional or not. Still, I would have appreciated the chance to learn more about these characters.
The pedigree here couldn´t be higher: stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway are perfectly matched and at the top of their game, and director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) brings an unusually high level of competence to the proceedings. But like some other recent high-profile romantic comedies (No Strings Attached), there´s an interesting film somewhere in Love and Other Drugs that is eventually overwhelmed by a strict adherence to genre conventions.
The title is a key indicator. Love and Other Drugs, Love and Other Disasters, Life or Something Like It, Life as We Know It, etc.; all cutesy-generic, instantly forgettable titles that show no more creativity than an average direct-to-DVD Steven Seagal film. Incredibly, Love and Other Drugs began life as a Jamie Reidy book titled Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman. Based on title alone, which would you rather see?
If you said Love and Other Drugs, I daresay this movie will not disappoint. Me, I couldn´t get enough of the Viagra Salesman stuff, and was heartily enjoying the film until it switched gears halfway through.
Set in the mid-1990s, Drugs stars Gyllenhaal as Jamie Randall, a womanizing med school dropout who goes to work as a drug rep for Pfizer; using branded pens and umbrellas, he tries to get doctors to prescribe Zoloft instead of Prozac, and uses his skills to get in good with their secretaries. Jamie isn´t a moral, upstanding guy. He´s downright sleazy as he pretends to be a doctor in training to get a look at patient Maggie Murdock´s tits, and then has the balls to hit on her outside. But when Pfizer introduces Viagra, the new erection drug, Jamie is just the right scumbag to sell it.
Maggie (Anne Hathaway) is a Parkinson´s patient who is afraid of commitment: she knows what a long-term relationship will take from a partner, and isn´t willing to become that kind of burden. Instead, she likes to screw around and then get all mopey and cynical and tell the guys to buzz off. So she hooks up with Jamie I wonder where this is going?
It´s a testament to Gyllenhaal and Hathaway that this movie is watchable at all – as written, their characters are downright unlikable. To get us to care about these people is no small feat, but the actors just about pull it off. And they look great together. The frequent nudity doesn´t hurt.
Now, I would have loved a movie about the Viagra salesmen, and very possibly a movie about the Parkinson´s patient, and even maybe a movie about the two of them and the full consequences of their relationship. Love and Other Drugs, while containing elements of all of that, ends up being none of that. As polished, good-looking, well-shot, well-acted, and smoothly put-together by director Zwick as this film is, it is ultimately, inescapably, cookie-cutter rom-com junk food complete with wildly inappropriate happy ending.
Worst of all: the generic “buddy” character, here Jamie´s brother Josh (Josh Gad). He seems to be in another film with all his inappropriate comic relief, and he´s a real detriment whenever onscreen. A great supporting cast is mostly wasted, including George Segal and Jill Clayburgh (in one of her final roles) as Jamie´s parents.
Jack Goes Boating, the directorial debut of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an oddball little NYC indie; almost aggressively quirky at the outset, it eventually grows on you. Most affecting is the sensitive portrayal of its off-kilter characters; they´re frequently presented in somewhat embarrassing situations that don´t become uncomfortable to watch, but instead further endear you to them as human beings.
Hoffman stars as the titular Jack, a timid, introspective man who drives limousines for his uncle. Jack isn´t so unfamiliar, but he isn´t quite “normal”; he lives alone, appears slightly disheveled, mutters to himself, always seems to be lost in his own thoughts. In reality, where everyone is not a Hollywood stereotype, this is not strange; in movieland, it sends out some vague David Lynch vibes, and Hoffman, as both director and star, is well aware of this.
Jack´s friend Clyde (John Ortiz) also drives limos for Jack´s uncle. He, we might imagine, is Jack´s only friend. Clyde is not without his own problems, but seems more on the ball; he´s married, he´s takes business courses at night. His wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) sets Jack up with Connie (Amy Ryan), Lucy’s co-worker at a funeral home. Connie, we quickly find out, has a lot in common with Jack.
Jack Goes Boating showcases the progression of these four characters, and a contrast between the two very different relationship styles: Clyde and Lucy, who have been together for a number of years and dealt with some complicated issues, and Jack and Connie, who are just starting out and hope to avoid the kind of problems they see in their friends.
Despite the title, any boating only takes place at the very end; most of the action takes place during a blustery New York winter, with snow-covered streets, skullcaps, and rosy skin hues. Hoffman has a great eye for small detail, captured nicely by cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III, who also shot the Hoffman-starring The Savages in similar conditions.
The film is based on a play by Robert Glaudini, produced by Hoffman and Ortiz on the stage. No surprises from a theatrical production directed by an actor: this is an actor´s showcase. What did surprise me here was that, despite Hoffman´s Jack being front and center for most of the film, Ortiz dominates the screen and provides the movie its heart and soul. Mostly seen in crime dramas (American Gangster, Public Enemies, Miami Vice), I´ve taken note of Ortiz before but this is this first time I´ve seen him in such a fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional performance; in short, he´s excellent. Hoffman, Ryan, and Vega each turn in finely-tuned work as well.
Jack Goes Boating is more of a quirky comedy, but like Mike Leigh´s Another Year, it´s a rare film that truly cares about its characters, and gets you to care about them, too.
I Am Number Four, as noted in almost all other reviews, is an amalgamation of just about all the other hot franchise properties from the past decade. We´ve got: superhero origin story (Superman, Spider-Man, etc.), Jedi-like powers and a Star Wars mentor-protégé relationship, conflict between otherworldly races (Underworld), teen romance (Twilight), Harry Potter-like Voldemort villains, even Lord of the Rings (or Eragon, rather) fantasy creatures.
It´s all cobbled together surprisingly well by D.J. Caruso, who directs this mishmash at a lightning-quick pace; storylines fly by so fast we often don´t have time to consider their value. A result of this, however, is a fantasy film without much confidence invested in the fantasy. As lines about Loriens and Mogadorians are tossed out without conviction by the filmmakers, they tend to draw laughs from a thinking audience.
Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is a member of an alien race, jettisoned to Earth as an infant as his home planet of Lorien was ravaged, now trying to blend in as a highschooler in the U.S. His “guardian” Henri (Timothy Olyphant) also serves as his father, and moves the boy from town to town when locals get too suspicious of the random outbursts of radiant blue pubescent superpowers (which are lifted, almost directly, from the video game inFamous).
We learn at the outset that there are, or rather were, Numbers One through Three; they´ve been killed by the Mogadorians, who wiped out Lorien and have come to Earth to finish the job. The Numbers go up to Nine, but because the Mogadorians are killing them in order for some reason, Four is the next on their list. This causes complications at his new high school, where he´s befriended the nerd (Callan McAuliffe), wooed the popular but sensitive girl (Dianna Agron), and become enemies with the jock (Jake Abel). Fortunately, ever-developing powers and hot Aussie Number Six (Teresa Palmer) come to his aid.
I Am Number Four is breezy, lightweight, and, thankfully, doesn´t take itself too seriously – or rather, director Caruso doesn´t (the script is another beast). It would be fun, or at least fun enough, if it weren´t for the blatant pandering to various demographics, which pulls the film in five different directions: of all the varying elements here – sci-fi, fantasy, romance, comic book superhero, high school drama, even Dan Brown conspiracy – none are sufficiently explored. And everything seems lifted from other productions.
Pettyfer, just 21, is already a stone-chiseled action hero with the acting skills to match; he may not have range, but he´s an agreeable presence in the lead. Olyphant – a legitimately good actor who too-frequently appears in less-than-good product – seems to be in another film altogether. The rest of the cast fails to make much of an impression, save for Kevin Durand as the leader of the Mogadorians, who seems to be doing a cross between Vincent D´Onofrio´s alien-infested character in Men in Black and The Silence of the Lambs‘ Buffalo Bill.
I Am Number Four is based on the novel of the same name by Pittacus Lore, a pseudonym for co-writers James Frey and Jobie Hughes. Frey, you may recall, was torn to pieces on Oprah over his hoax memoir A Million Little Pieces. There´s some relevancy here, I think, in the mindset of wanting to create something “popular”, and taking your audience for granted. This time, it´s resulted in an inferior product.