By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Way Back, The Company Men and Blue Valentine

The Way Back (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S./Poland: Peter Weir, 2011

Movie tales of  agonizing attempts at human survival against long odds in dangerous conditions — from Robert Aldrich‘s The Flight of the Phoenix (plane-crash in the desert), Kalatozov’s The Red Tent (Arctic expedition gone wrong) and Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (lost in Siberia) to Danny Boyle’s recent 127 Hours (trapped in a crevasse) and Peter Weir’s current The Way Back — serve one very useful function. They help us keep our own difficulties in perspective. They remind us of how fragile life really can be, of how relatively small and manageable most of our own civilized daily problems are. Money messes? Romantic failures? Bad co-workers? Tough, but manageable.

But, what would we do, for example, if we were faced — as are the eight central characters of The Way Back — with trekking on foot through  freezing, wolf-infested Siberian forests during the height of World War II, with the soldiers of the Soviet Gulag and their guns somewhere behind us? Or crossing the Gobi Desert under a scorching sun with little water, and boots falling apart?

What if we had to walk 4,000 miles through those forests, and that desert, then face climbing and crossing the Himalayan Mountains before reaching the safe haven of India — only to have World War II still raging all across the world all around us?

The Way Back is based on a famous book by Polish writer and ex-gulag prisoner Slawomir Rawicz, the bestseller The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. Weir’s movie, co-scripted by Keith R. Clarke, with a multi-national cast headed by Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan,  purports to tell us that story of that 1940 escape and the people who made it. And though Rawicz’s facts have been seriously challenged (it’s said by some investigators that he never escaped from the Gulag at all, but was released in 1942, and that thus the whole tale of the trek is fictitious), Weir’s movie still has lots of visual and emotional impact.

Stunningly shot in Bulgaria (standing in for Siberia), Morocco (standing in for Mongolia) and India, The Way Back is an old school adventure movie made without the aid of CGI enhancement or technical trickery. It has an often overwhelming visual impact. Filled with over-powering landscapes and spectacular desolation, Weir’s movie creates an often riveting vision of escape, of the wilderness and survival, with the seven men — a colorful, diverse group that includes an American (Ed Harris), a Stalinist thief/killer (Colin Farrell), and an artist who keeps drawing pictures — sometimes pitted against each other, or hurled into wolf-infested forests, and vast scorching stretches of the Gobi desert. Along the way, they’re joined by another fugitive/pilgrim, a fragile-looking young Polish girl on the run named Irena (Saoirse Ronan). As the grueling journey proceeds, some of them die, some survive  — and all of them are constantly battered and tested.

There may be soldiers somewhere behind them too, ready to take them back to the gulag, villagers ready to betray them. But, as the commandant tells the newly arrived prisoners at the beginning — including the movie’s main character, Polish prisoner Janusz (Jim Sturgess) — it is the land itself  that is their jailer, their nemesis, their tyrant, their gulag.  
Few filmmakers alive can wring as much mystical splendor and dangerous-looking beauty out of a landscape or seascape (or here, a mountain-scape and desert-scape) as Weir — especially when he’s joined by his fellow Australian, cinematographer Russell Boyd (an Oscar winner for Weir‘s last film, the 2003 sea saga Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). Together, Weir and Boyd lavish on Way Back the gifts for outdoor moviemaking Weir displayed in films like Gallipoli, The  Mosquito Coast, and Master and Commander, showing once again that great talent he has for immersing us in the excitement and strangeness of the world around us.

The dramatic elements of The Way Back aren’t as strong — even if, compared to most would be action or adventure films these days, they’re strong enough.  Sturgess’ Janusz, sent to Siberia because of a political frame-up in which his wife (Sally Edwards) participated, is a protagonist with a kind heart (the reason, one character tells him, that he’s wanted for the escape and journey), but few interesting quirks. (Janusz’s betrayal by his wife and the climactic aftermath, are two of this story’s least plausible elements.)

Of the other characters, the most forcefully or memorable drawn are Irena (Ronan), whose ethereal face lends weird contrast to the elemental backdrops; the American Mr. Smith (played broodingly by Ed Harris); and the thug Valka (played explosively by Colin Farrell), who kills a man for his sweater, and has Stalin and Lenin tattooed on his chest.

It’s been said, by Roger Ebert, that the movie might have done better dramatically to compromise and create some more involving romantic drama around Irena. True. But is that really a compromise? Not having read the book, I don’t know what happened in real life — there apparently was a woman refugee described by Rawicz along with the escapees, but not a teenager like the movie’s Irena (Ronan is 16) — or even if Irena really existed (or existed only in a made-up memoir). But I found it down-right weird that there was so  little sexual tension between Irena and any of the men. That’s another area where the human interiors of The Way Back seem scanty next to the film’s transfixing exteriors.   

A word about Weir. Even if his material here lacks some depth and power (and even if it has a pretty corny ending), it’s a daring, worthwhile project. Weir is a marvelous filmmaker, at his best with large or exotic canvasses like this — an expert portrayer of the spectacle and mysteries of the world, and the shadows of the human mind and heart. It’s good to see his work on screen again. I thought his last film, 2003‘s Master and Commander, which was adapted (and somewhat changed) from Patrick O’Brian‘s excellent sea stories, starring Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, was a rousing, first-class adventure movie, and I would have been happy if that movie had had as many sequels as Pirates of the Caribbean.

So I hope we won’t have to start waiting as long between Weir films as we eventually did for those of David Lean — a superior filmmaker, but one to whom Weir can be fairly compared. Ambition and the desire to make movies for adults shouldn’t be penalized, or made into marks against you. There are artistic and financial gulags as well as physical ones, and after all the fine films Weir has made — Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, The Year of Living Dangerously, and The Truman Show as well as the ones I‘ve already mentioned — he‘s earned the right to make the kind of films he wants to.   

Now, a word about Ed Harris. Two words. Great actor. Furthermore, as always, a reliably fine actor, one you can count on. All of the roles in The Way Back, though mostly well-played, are somewhat sketchy, which is odd for a story allegedly taken from life. But if Ronan supplies pathos and Farrell adds tension and conflict (the movie loses a lot when he departs), Harris is the one actor in The Way Back who really adds the element of human suffering and stoicism, the measure of how we react to danger and hardship, how we can survive. Almost effortlessly, Harris’ Mr. Smith takes over the movie, supplies its true emotional center — and he does this not by succumbing to the dangers and difficulties of the trek, or pushing his role obviously forward, or obviously registering anguish and pain, but by constantly fighting against them. (At one point, when it looks as if Mr. Smith will succumb, the movie seems ready to collapse around him.)

I’d be remiss in not mentioning the other actors as well — Dragos Bucur, Alexander Protocean, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urgandowsky, and Igor Gnezdilov. They’re all good, even if, frankly, the dramatic elements of the movie — however close or far they may be to the book or to fact, or how moving they may be to us  — don’t feel especially true. Against the overpowering, dangerous physical world of Way Back, the men and woman enact what is often a typical adventure movie fable of suffering, quest and redemption. They and the story tell us what we’ve heard before, in ways we expect, and that rarely surprise us. But that’s not bad. Weir and Boyd make sure that the landscapes around those escapees have their own fierce truth.    


The Company Men (Three Stars)
U. S.; John Wells, 2010

Three executives at a vast Boston-based conglomerate called GTX, caught in the opening crash of the G. O. P.‘s Great Recession, see their careers derailed or destroyed when their company’s callous, greedy, phlegmatic CEO, James Salinger (played viciously and perceptively by Craig T. Nelson), starts closing divisions, cutting jobs and downsizing with a vengeance. Those company men are 37-year-old yuppie Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), 50-something longtime original employee Phil Woodward (about to get caught in the crucible of ageism), and tough but compassionate 60ish Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones),  who started the company (as independent shipbuilders) with Salinger, but is about to find out he’s no safer from the current economic mess than anyone else — especially when he proves too tough, and too compassionate, for the tastes of his  oldest friend, that same Salinger.

The Company Men is the first theatrical feature written, directed and produced by longtime TV writer-producer John Wells (a multiple Emmy winner for shows like E.R. and The West Wing), and it’s the kind of drama that, back in the ’50s would have been rolling off the typewriters of Rod Serling and Reginald Rose. (In fact, Serling told a similar story about corporate brutality in his breakthrough ’50s teleplay Patterns.) It’s good to see somebody sticking it to the corporate establishment for their entrenched selfishness, their blank-faced brutality toward their employees (and toward society as a whole), and their longstanding sins of ageism, obsession with the stock market, and social irresponsibility. (Wells writes and Nelson portrays these real-life vices of the corporate super-rich and their minions with economy and force.)

It’s also good to see somebody trying to reawaken the Serling-Rose-Chayefsky tradition of adult, issue-oriented popular drama — and doing it, for the most part, this well. Since its brief Academy qualifying opening, I’ve decided to bump up the rating, though I still agree with some of its detractors that Company Men is an unabashed message drama, with some flaws, and that there are people who are suffering much, much more from the bilked, ravaged economy, than the desperate execs we see here.

But I also still disagree strongly with those Company Men critics who think this movie is too preachy or too obvious. If all these lessons were so clear to the movie-going public, and not just to some of the friends and social acquaintances of us movie critics, then the country as a whole might not have voted for the political party in cahoots with the same damned greed-crazed creeps and idiots who got us in the mess in the first place.

Wells does a good job of needling the guys at the top, of sketching in the milieu, laying down the table stakes, and giving us a large gallery of mostly well-cast and well-played characters — including all above, plus Bobby’s wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her blue collar carpenter brother(Kevin Costner). Special kudos to Jones (as usual), to Nelson, to DeWitt, to Cooper (who plays Woodward like a walking raw wound) and to Costner.

Especially Costner. His part here, independent builder Jack Dolan, in fact, reminded me a bit of my own Swedish-American Wisconsin carpenter grandfather Axel Tulane — though Grampa was funnier, more jocular and more congenial than Jack. Here’s what was amazing about Axel and why Costner’s expert worker reminds me of him: When I was in school in Williams Bay, Axel planned and designed and got the materials for, and actually built with his own hands, several houses, the last when he was in his 70s. He planned that last house by himself, and, working mostly alone, did nearly everything, with no fellow carpenters, and only a little help that I knew of from my mother and me. I suppose my Grampa must have had some specialists, plumbers or electricians or such, but I had the impression he was doing that too. Axel knew how to build a house, you see. And he would have known what to do with a bastard like Salinger.


Blue Valentine (Three Stars)
U.S.: Derek Cianfrance, 2010
An uncompromising drama about a busted romance, told in two alternating story-tracks: one where the couple (Ryan Gosling and somewhat higher-class Michelle Williams) first comes together, one where they finally split apart. The subject of some idiotic MPAA controversy about sex, this a real moviemaker’s showcase for newcomer Derek Cianfrance, and an actors’ showcase for Gosling and Williams, who burn up the screen. With their acting. As for the sex, isn’t that what most couples do? 


No Strings Attached (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Ivan Reitman, 2010

 A movie critic friend of mine wrote me the other day that my review of Ben Stiller’s and Robert De Niro’s Little Fockers should have ended right after the first sentence. Thus: After rambling on and on about the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, I wonder if there’s any real need to say anything at all about Little Fockers  except just this: This movie is not funny.

Well, I’ve got a second chance to follow his advice, thanks to director Ivan Reitman and his mystifyingly unentertaining (to me) so-called romantic comedy, No Strings Attached, starring the unchemical couple of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, doing a sort of cross between Last Tango In Paris (sex without mush)  and When Harry Met Sally (friendship and sex) and Mutt and Jeff (the long and the short and the tall).

Here goes: After rambling on and on about The Way Back, there’s no need to say anything about No Strings Attached except this: It ain’t funny. It ain’t sexy. It looks like it was shot in a permanent smog attack. And what a criminal waste of Kevin Kline.

There, that’s already more than I should have said. (Maybe more next week, if I feel up to it.) But I’ll add this: I think I’d rather walk from Siberia to Tibet than watch this movie again.


 Dissolution (Three Stars)
Israel-U.S.: Nina Menkes, 2010

I love black and white cinematography, I love the styles and moods of noir, and off-Hollywood director-writer-editor Nina Menkes (Magdalena Viraga, The Bloody Child) uses them both pretty well here. Her latest movie, a kind of modern Israeli Crime and Punishment, heavy on angst and sin and lighter on philosophy, follows a brooding, dark John Lurie-ish looking sort of guy (Didi Fire), who kills a pawnbroker and starts falling apart. The scenes are sometimes a little too early Chantal Akermanish — one take, distanced, minimalist, sometimes almost actionless — but the movie has a mood. And a style: art-house noir. (Israeli and Arabic, with subtitles. (At Facets, Chicago.)


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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: The Way Back, The Company Men and Blue Valentine”

  1. Paul Wertheimer says:

    Want to see The Way Back and Dissolution. Thanks for the reviews.

  2. Mary says:

    “Blue Valentine” was quite good, though I wasn’t moved by it — I didn’t really care that much about the characters. That said, the acting is top notch.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon