The Way Back


The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness

New Releases for the Week of January 21, 2011


January 21, 2011

Natalie Portman had a different kind of karat in mind from Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached.

NO STRINGS ATTACHED

(Paramount) Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Cary Elwes, Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Olivia Thirlby, Lake Bell, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Mindy Kaling. Directed by Ivan Reitman

In When Harry Met Sally, the question posed by the film is whether or not men and women can be friends without sex becoming involved. In director Ivan Reitman’s latest outing, the answer is clearly no. Emma and Adam are close friends who get a little too close when they have sex one morning. Far from abashed, they decide they like it – only neither wants to fall in love. As long as they don’t do that, the sex will continue. Of course, love has a tendency to rear its ugly head when sex is around.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sex Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language and some drug material)

Somewhere

(Focus) Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Pontius. The newest film from Oscar-winning director Sofia Coppola stars Dorff as a self-centered actor who has attained enough success to make him a tabloid favorite. When the 11-year-old daughter of a failed relationship moves in with him at the Chateau Marmont hotel, he is forced to re-examine his life, his priorities and his future.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard,

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity and language)

The Way Back

(Newmarket) Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saorise Ronan. This is a fact-based story of the escape of a group of soldiers from a Siberian gulag in 1939. Captured by the Red Army, the group crossed the Siberian Arctic, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, eventually arriving in India. En route they had to battle the elements, soldiers trying to recapture or kill them and each other. All the best escape stories do.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: R (for violent content, depictions of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language)

Four-Warned: January 2011


January 2011

Every month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either. The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.

Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief comment

Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

FOUR TO SEE
1. THE GREEN HORNET (1.4)
2. COMPANY MEN (2.0)
3. THE RITE (2.1)
4. SEASON OF THE WITCH (2.3)

FOUR TO SEEK OUT (FILMS NOT IN WIDE RELEASE)
1. ONG BAK 3 (2.1)
2. THE WAY BACK (2.3)
3. THE HOUSEMAID (2.4)
4. SINBAD THE FIFTH VOYAGE (2.5)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

JANUARY 1, 2011

SINBAD THE FIFTH VOYAGE (Giant Flick) Genre: Adventure. Sinbad must travel to dangerous distant lands to rescue the sultan’s daughter. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 If it is as imaginative as the old Ray Harryhausen versions, this could be a winner.

JANUARY 7, 2011

SEASON OF THE WITCH (Relativity) Genre: Supernatural Action. A heroic crusader is charged with transporting a convicted witch to a distant monastery where the monks will perform a ritual to reverse the curse she’s placed on the land. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.3 Oft-delayed, studio switched and early January release date usually spells disaster but I’m nonetheless intrigued.
THE TIME THAT REMAINS (IFC) Genre: Drama. A look at the creation of the state of Israel from its beginnings in 1948 up through modern times. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 I’m still not quite sure what the point of this movie is.

JANUARY 14, 2011

BARNEY’S VERSION (Sony Classics) Genre: Drama. An ordinary man who’s lived an extraordinary life tells his version of the events in it. Release Strategy: New York/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.8 An extraordinary cast (Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver) in an ordinary movie that was a festival mainstay this year.
THE DILEMMA (Universal) Genre: Comedy. A man on the eve of the biggest deal of his career sees his best friend and business partner’s wife cheating on him and resolves to tell him about it. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.9 Controversy over the use of the word “gay” in the trailer brought this movie into the public eye initially.
EVERY DAY (Image) Genre: Drama. A man in the throes of a midlife crisis deals with a flirtatious office worker, a crumbling manager and a sick and embittered father-in-law who is force to stay with them. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 Liev Schreiber, Helen Hunt, Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy are an enviable cast; the trailer looked interesting.
THE GREEN HORNET (Columbia) Genre: Superhero Action. With the help of his late father’s confidante, a young ne’er do well determines to succeed his crusading newspaper publisher father as a more direct crimefighter. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D). RATING: 1.4 I have to admit I wasn’t so sure about casting Seth Rogen as Britt Reid but the trailer looks good.
ONG BAK 3 (Magnet) Genre: Martial Arts Action. The series concludes with an epic conflict between good and demon. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 Some of the best martial arts movies of the last decade have been in this series.

JANUARY 21, 2011

THE COMPANY MEN (Weinstein) Genre: Drama. Three laid off executives must re-define their lives as husbands, fathers and men. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.0 Moved forward from October to December to January, not a good sign.
THE HOUSEMAID (IFC) Genre: Thriller. A beautiful young maid for a wealthy family becomes pregnant by the husband, a secret which threatens to explode. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 This is a remake of a 1960 Korean film which is considered to be one of the best movies ever produced from that country.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED (Paramount) Genre: Romantic Comedy. A couple of friends develop a physical relationship but find that they want something more. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.8 Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman make an attractive couple but the premise sounds a bit empty to me.
THE WAY BACK (Newmarket) Genre: True War Story. The true story of a group of soldiers who escape a Siberian gulag and make a long trek on foot to freedom. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.3 Peter Weir directs an outstanding cast in a film that won great accolades on the European festival circuit.

JANUARY 28, 2011

FROM PRADA TO NADA (Pantelion) Genre: Romantic Comedy. Two sisters living a life of luxury in Beverly Hills are forced to relocate to Boyle Heights after daddy passes away where they learn something of their Latina heritage. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.8 I think I may have seen this movie before, although not in Spanish.
IP MAN 2: LEGEND OF THE GRANDMASTER (Mandarin) Genre: Martial Arts. Martial Arts master Ip Man escapes the Japanese occupation only to run into the hard line British colonial rule of Hong Kong. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 This has been breaking box office records across Asia.
THE MECHANIC (CBS) Genre: Action. A professional assassin reluctantly takes the son of his mentor under his wing. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.5 A remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson film.
POETRY (Kino International) Genre: Drama. A free-spirited South Korean grandmother discovers she has Alzheimer’s as she is taking a poetry course. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.7 Sounds a bit schmaltzy but this could be another Korean cinematic gem.
THE RITE (New Line) Genre: Horror. An unorthodox priest introduces a skeptical novice to the nature of true evil, hidden in one of the holiest places on Earth. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.1 Hannibal Lecter as an exorcist? The mind boggles.
SECONDS APART (After Dark) Genre: Horror. A pair of murderous twins shares the power of telekinesis between them. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 With After Dark shedding their horror festival format this year this is their first release as a distributor.
WHEN WE LEAVE (Olive) Genre: Drama. A Turkish woman flees an abusive relationship, only to have her family attempt to return her son to his abusive father. Release Strategy: New York/Los Angeles. RATING: 3.1 Said to be a meticulously researched look into the Turkish culture.

SCHEDULED TO BE REVIEWED HERE AS NEW RELEASES

Season of the Witch, The Dilemma, The Green Hornet, The Mechanic, The Rite