Thursday, February 23, 2012

The First Batch of 2012 Films

The Grey

Joe Carnahan is an interesting filmmaker. He obviously has the chops- see his intense and terrific “Narc”- but then washes any cohesive skills away with dreck such as “The A Team” and “Smokin Aces”. But then along comes “The Grey”… a film that’s certainly not fit for the January dumping grounds and proves to be a punishing but poetic meditation on the encroaching specter of death by hungry wolves. Starring Liam Neeson, “The Grey” follows a group of Alaskan workers as they struggle to survive not only a plane crash in a harsh wilderness but the impending hunt by a den of wolves. What’s most interesting about “The Grey”, besides its unilateral approach to non-commercial expectations in a commercial release, is its open--to-interpretation narrative and denouement. The wolves, designed solely as glaring eyes in the darkness and CGI rendering, may be real or they could all be paranoid projections of the mind by the sick and genuinely disaffected survivors. Like “Narc”, Carnahan seems fascinated by memories of loss and regret and their powerful impact on strong men. “The Grey” would make for a perfect double feature with his previous film. But besides all that lofty praise, “The Grey” is an excellent genre film, owned by Neeson’s steely performance and a sound editing team that creates a scary atmosphere of blistering winds, off-screen howls and crushing metal that linger long after the film is over.

United Red Army

At three hours and 10 minutes in length, Koji Wakamatsu‘s “United Red Army” could be called the definitive cinematic representation of the Japanese Red Army faction- if it weren’t so damn hard to comprehend the appearances and disappearances of its massive cast and decidedly ‘interior’ focus on the human being rather than the revolutionary movement. What I mean is this- “United Red Army” is a very good film, but Wakamatsu experimental technique aims for something more interesting than a simplified documentation of the terrorist organization. One does get their history lesson here. For example, in the first 45 minutes or so, the film details the growth of student civil unrest during the 1960’s and this outcry of emotion turning activism, followed by the marriage of several factions under the moniker of the JRA. From that point on, “United Red Army” becomes like a chamber piece as the remaining members of the army hole up in a mountain cabin and selfishly decimate their ranks through jealousy, political in-fighting and grandiose notions of superiority. People come and go with a written message detailing their eventual fate, capture or death. Then, the final third of the film details the annihilation of the remaining members after a ten day standoff with police in a mountain retreat. Wakamatsu’s real judgment of the Red Army feels obfuscated, yet “United Red Army” is an intelligent approach to the history of a radical organization and its eventual downfall- egoism. And through all of this, the film refuses to locate a central figure to anchor its ideas, choosing the group rhetoric as its focus. True communism as cinema, perhaps?

Safe House

Take one-fourth cup Jason Bourne, a half cup of Tony Scott and add Denzel Washington… and you get “Safe House”, a slightly engaging but ultimately average action flick with yet another fluorescent visual scheme and two-second editing that covers up for any real originality. The character arch is there for director Daniel Espinosa and actors Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington. At certain parts, I really rooted for these guys. But the aggressive, handheld style of shooting is, I suppose, the here and now and I better get used to it. Fact is, the faster and louder a film gets, the more I lose interest.

A Seperation

Asghar Farhadi’s well-conceived “A Separation” follows in the tradition of Iranian cinema at its finest. Simple human moral dilemmas increasingly grow until they almost explode. In this example, a family whose father (Payman Naadi) and mother (a terrific Leila Hatami) are on the verge of a divorce become involved in a complex war of words against a caretaker (Sareh Bayat) and her hot tempered husband (Shahab Hosseini). As the film develops, it becomes a faint legal potboiler with the children (and especially daughter Termeh, Sarina Farhardi) standing to lose the most. Writer/director Farhardi will, hopefully, win the Oscar for best foreign language film and rightly so. “A Separation” is a tense, perfectly crafted piece of cinema that treats people with dignity and intelligence, constantly shifting our affinities for each character as the film rolls along. And the final scene is just perfect, coming full circle with a haunting message of familial disharmony that far outweighs the meaningless legal procedural that came before it.

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