MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Picks of the Week:The Way Back, Blow Out

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

Movie tales of  agonizing attempts at human survival against long odds in dangerous situations — from Robert Aldrich‘s The Flight of the Phoenix (plane-crash in the desert), Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Red Tent (Arctic expedition gone wrong) and Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (lost in Siberia), to Danny Boyle’s recent 127 Hours (trapped in a rocky 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, and of how relatively small and manageable most of our own civilized daily problems really are.

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 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, images filled with vast landscapes and spectacular desolation. At its frequent best, Weir’s movie creates an engrossing vision of escape, of wilderness and survival, with the seven men — a colorful, diverse group that includes an American (Ed Harris), a Stalinist thief/killer (Colin Farrell), an artist who keeps drawing pictures and the main character,  Polish escapee (Jim Sturgess) — 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 prison, villagers ready to betray them. But, it is the land itself  that is their jailer, their nemesis, their tyrant, their gulag. But finally, their way back.   
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 but few interesting quirks or undercurrents. Of  the other characters, the most memorable drawn are Irena (Ronan), whose ethereal face lends weird contrast to the elemental backdrops; the American Mr. Smith (played broodingly by Harris); and Valka (played explosively by  Farrell), a thug who  has Stalin and Lenin tattooed on his chest.

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, and on a new DVD, again.

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.

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, many of the dramatic elements of the movie  don’t feel especially true. Against the overpowering, dangerous physical world of  The Way Back, the men and woman enact what is often a typical adventure movie fable of suffering, quest and redemption.  But that’s not necessarily bad. Weir and Boyd make sure that the wolrd and the landscapes around their escapees have their own fierce truth. Extras: Featurette, Trailer.


Blow Out (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U.S.: Brian De Palma, 1981 (Criterion Collection)

Blow Out, Brian De Palma’s 1981 neo-noir about a movie sound man (played by John Travolta), who stumbles into a political conspiracy and a string of murders, is a movie for connoisseurs of trash and movie art — and I don’t mean that as a knock. One of this movie’s strongest critical admirers (and one of De Palma’s) — was Pauline Kael, and one of Kael’s most famous critical essays is called, of course, “Trash, Art and the Movies.“ We get all three of them here, plus a love of both the trash and the art of movies that sometimes makes us roll our eyes, and sometimes holds us spellbound.

Blow Out probably took its title partly from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, which is about a Swinging ‘60 London photographer who stumbles on what may be murder. And it centers around one of Travolta’s sexiest performances, as Jack Terry the lone-wolf Philadelphia movie sound effects man, who works on sleazy little slasher horror movies, and whose director-boss is dissatisfied with the scream Jack has supplied for one of the victims in the director’s latest turkey.

It’s a terrible, inept picture, which De Palma stages as a send-up of Halloween and other teen slasher pics. But Jack is a pro. He takes his equipment out that night to get more ambient night-sound on a suburban bridge.

That bridge is an unusually well-populated one, considering the lateness of the hour. There are crickets and an owl, who stares at us disturbingly, and there’s another filmmaker named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), who’s got his camera set up somewhere near Jack (but whom Jack doesn’t know and doesn’t see), and finally there’s a speeding car, carrying, amazingly, the current front-running candidate for President of The United States, Governor McRyan, (John Hoffmeister) together with a hot blonde number named Sally (Nancy Allen), who seems to be along for more than the ride. Jack hears a couple of bangs (and catches them on his recorder) and the governor’s car plunges through a fence and into the river — where it quickly sinks. Jack dives in and is able to rescue Sally, but not the possible next President of the United States.

Soon we’re at the hospital, where Sally is groggily coming to, and the police, reporters ad some political people (headed by musical comedy star John McMartin), visions of Chappaquiddick perhaps dancing in their heads, seem to want Jack and Nancy to just clam up and go away. He won’t. She wants to, at first, but decides she likes Jack.

Then Manny and his Zapruderish film turns up, and ex-Philadelphian De Palma turns the city into a house of horrors more violent than anything in ex-Philadephian David Lynch’s neighborhood, craning and swooping and whirling his camera all around a world gone seemingly mad. There’s a deadly plot of some kind afoot, and its bloodiest agent is a phony telephone company worker named Burke (played with a truly evil stare and icily smug expression by John Lithgow), a cold-blooded killer who seems willing to depopulate half the town to keep all the guilty secrets safe.

If that sounds like a pretty absurd plot, it often plays pretty silly too, though just as often it’s imaginatively over-the-top and hellishly exciting. I‘ve always thought De Palma should avoid solo-writing jobs on his own movie scripts, or at least hook up with more good writing partners. And Blow Out — as well as Raising Cain and Femme Fatale (and 1968‘s Murder a la Mod, which is included in this Criterion package) — are good demonstrations why. Blow Out is never boring. But a lot of the time it doesn’t make any bloody sense.

So why did Kael call it a great movie? Mostly, maybe, because she very much liked De Palma’s work, because this movie is made with such great feverish style, and also maybe because she had a crush of sorts on John Travolta — as she had on Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty. (That’s okay. A lot of the 1981 audience probably had a crush on him too.)

The style is what we remember about Blow Out — not the ideas, which are mostly shallow or obvious, or the story, which is both predictable and illogical, or the characters who are mostly overdrawn and somewhat stereotypical (or archetypal, if you prefer), or the movie itself, which is basically a set of ingeniously orchestrated suspense set-pieces, strung together in clever, artful ways that defy plausibility with an almost cheerful impudence.

Here’s an example of that high-style: When Jack goes back to the studio work room, because one of his tapes has been erased, De Palma keeps his camera spinning around in circles while Jack discoverers his other tapes have been erased too — and then stops at the precise moment, when an office worker comes in to tell him he’s had a call.

There’s no justification really for twirling the camera, or for fragmenting and expanding time so implausibly in Blow Out’s last chase scene, or for bathing Manny Karp’s apartment, floor to ceiling i such blazing red light (neon deluxe?), or for a lot of the things De Palma does in his trademark set-pieces. (They’re not Hitchcockian; they’re De Palmian.) Except, of course, that they’re a lot of fun to watch, and De Palma (like Dario Argento or Mario Bava in their cult Italian horror movies) does them with such visual invention and luscious style that they become both horrific and a hoot.

I don’t think Blow Out is a great movie — and I vastly prefer De Palma when he has a good scriptwriter working with him like Oliver Stone (Scarface), David Mamet (The Untouchables) or David Rabe (Casualties of War). But it’s definitely an exciting, entertaining, and sometimes ravishingly romantic show, and it can be a great movie-movie experience, if you‘re a hard-core genre movie buff — or if you had, or have, a crush on Pauline Kael.

Bonus Movie: Murder a la Mod (U.S.: Brian De Palma: 1967) Two Stars. De Palma’s earliest movie, along with his 1968 anti-Vietnam draft comedy Greetings (with Robert De Niro), was this artsy little black and white thriller about moviemaking and murder. Set in Manhattan, it has a breezy look that reminds you of the Dick Lester Swingin‘ London pictures A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack, but with a far more macabre sense of humor. (Killers and corpses pop in and out of trunks, and there‘s a chase in a cemetery.) I’d say it’s De Palma’s worst movie, but it is a rarity — and you can probably see worse every week at the multiplexes.

Extras: Video interview with De Palma by Noah Baumbach; Interviews with Nancy Allen and Blow Out’s “movie-within-a-movie” Steadicam cameraman Garrett Brown; On-set photos by Louis Goldman; Blow Out Trailer; Booklet with essay by Michael Sragow, frame-by-frame record of the movie‘s blow out sequence; and Pauline Kael’s original New Yorker review.


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Quote Unquotesee all »

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