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THE HOT ROCK, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

THE WAY BACK: STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM

There are some movies that you have a sense of importance about them, a feeling prior to watching that what you are about to witness is important and a film that needs to be seen. Films of this sort rarely live up to those expectations. THE WAY BACK is not one of those. This is a movie that people should see, people who need to know that the price of freedom isn’t cheap.

Opening in 1943, we are introduced to Janusz (Jim Sturges) a polish officer who is accused of treason by the Russians. With the help of his wife who was tortured into making the accusations, Janusz is sent to one of the gulags (work camps) in Sibera. The gulags were the Russian equivalent of the death camps the Nazis had but not as well publicized or (as is revealed in the extras on this DVD) recorded as much as the Nazis did their camps.

Unwilling to remain in the camp, Janusz makes friends with another prisoner who says there is a way out. Given directions and the smallest of hopes that it can happen, the pair make plans to escape. But at the same time, they realize there is a better chance with greater numbers. They pick up several people in their plan and when the time arrives they stall the camp’s generator and head for a weak link in the fence.

On the run facing the dangers of the frozen wilderness as well as the possibility of capture by the guards or by people of the area since they have a price on their heads, the group struggles on, keeping off the beaten path and making their way to what they hope is freedom. Among the group are an American who goes by the name of Mister Smith (Ed Harris) and a Russian criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell). Each has their own idiosyncrasies to add to the group, Smith doing his best not to care about anyone and Valka being the tough as nails killer in the group.

Their trek takes them across dangerous terrain and they soon feel that they are lost. Setting out on his own to make certain they aren’t, Janusz finds the lake they have been searching for and their hopes rise. As they move along the lakeside path, they encounter a young woman named Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who asks to join them. Thinking she will just slow them down they deny her the chance, but she eventually does join.

Moving from the snow covered terrain to the warmer climate, the group continues to head south in hopes of finding the trans-Siberian train line. Once there they plan to cross over it and shortly find themselves in Mongolia where they think they will find freedom. Instead they find more difficulties and a reason to move ever forward heading towards the desert and almost certain death. And should they make that the next thing they will encounter will be the Himalayas.

The most amazing thing about this film is the fact that it is based on a true story. To watch and then realize this makes it all the more engrossing a film to watch and also a sadder one as well. With each step they take, with each encounter with the harshest items nature can toss their way, you wonder if you would have had the fortitude to do what these men did. You can call it a desire to live, a desire for freedom, stubbornness or just a will to live, but what they achieve is remarkable.

Directed by Peter Weir (who did MASTER AND COMMANDER, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, WITNESS and more), the film is placed in the hands of a master. He combines the story of the land and the harshness of it with the tale of men who bond beyond what most do. And at the same time he makes you realize that their hunger for freedom is one they will do anything to satisfy.

THE WAY BACK is not a happy go lucky film. It is brutal but not violent, gut wrenching but not gory, sad but filled with a happiness that comes from inside. It covers a wide spectrum of emotions. It also presents some amazing photography of natural scenes most of us are likely to never witness. But in the end it is an inspiring film and one that should be seen. Not backed by one of the major Hollywood studios, the film had a small release. The fact that it is available on DVD rectifies that situation. It gives those who didn’t have the opportunity to see the film before a chance to watch it and perhaps appreciate their own freedoms just a little bit more.

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS: STOP A COMEDIAN, PLEASE

There are comedians who make some hilarious movies. The problem is that they have a certain shtick that they use…and then use again…and then use again and again and again until they’ve played it out so often that they fade to obscurity. That or they begin to make movies that folks never pay to see any more (see Eddie Murphy). Face it, when you rely on the same character or style over and over again people will tire of you quickly. Such is the case with Jack Black and especially his new DVD release GULLIVER’S TRAVELS.

Black stars as Gulliver, the head of the mailroom for a magazine. As he introduces the new guy to the job, we get to see him ignored by most of the staff and his longing for the travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet). By the end of the day this new employee has taken his job and let him know that he’ll always been in the position he’s in because he has no backbone, no ambition to move forward. He also notes the same holds true with his affection for Darcy, a love that will go unrequited because he never makes a move towards her.

This changes when he stops by her office that night intending to let her know how he feels. But he backs down and tells her that he’s actually there to sign up as a writer for her department. She’s glad and gives him an assignment except that he’s never been anywhere and has no idea what to write. A few moment of copy and paste and suddenly he’s got a new job. And a new assignment, heading to the Bermuda Triangle to look into the truth behind it.

With no idea what he’s doing he soon finds himself heading for a swirling mass of water going up rather than down. His boat is swept up and the next thing he knows he’s been washed ashore of an island inhabited by people who stand about 4 inches tall, the Lilliputians. Captured by egomaniacal officer General Edward (Chris O’Dowd) and their army, he’s forced into a life of servitude making friends with another prisoner named Horatio (Jason Segel). Horatio’s crime is falling in love with Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) who is betrothed to General Edward.

A chance rescue of the Princess wins Gulliver freedom and the same for his new friend. He becomes the protector of the country. All the while Edward attempts to knock down this new hero and take back his place atop the crowd. When that fails, he sets out to take over the kingdom or at least assist in it.

Can Gulliver save the day? Can he take on Edward? Will Horatio and Princess Mary finally get together? Will Gulliver ever have the chance to woo Darcy? WHO CARES!

This movie is perhaps one of the worst that I’ve ever seen and that’s saying something. I like almost every movie I watch in one way or another. But this film is terrible from start to finish. And the biggest reason is the center of it all, Jack Black. This is not a portrayal of Gulliver but the same goofy oddball that he’s played in almost every movie he’s made. This character always tries to act cool, to act like he’s in the know, to create words of his own making to display how with it he is. The problem is that while it may have been funny the first time it has now become downright intolerable. Okay we get it Jack, you’re the goofball who pretends to be hip but who isn’t. Ha ha.

The jokes are some of the lamest ever written. That is if they were intended to be jokes. Who knows, there was never one moment that I found myself smiling let alone laughing. The acting is on par with junior high plays…I take that back. That would be an insult to junior high school actors. But perhaps its less their problem seeing as how most of these actors are quite good and thus the fault of the director.

Another thing that insults the audience is the special effects. In a time when we can make spaceships seem real, when we can make hobbits and orcs look like they could actually exists, the special effects displayed here seem lame. One would think they would outshine those seen in the 1960 film THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER but they don’t. I’m not even certain that children would be impressed with these effects.

But the main thing remains Jack Black. I like him. I loved his earlier films. He just needs to move forward. The same thing has happened with comedic actors in the past. As I said, Eddie Murphy went from making some of the best comedies around to making lame movies where he does the same thing over and over again. Robin Williams was another comedic actor who headed that direction until he finally realized that doing the same character with a different name won’t get people to watch your movie.

Black did a great job in KING KONG. I’d love to see him in another movie that pushed him to act rather than skate through a lame film. If he doesn’t his days are numbered. His acting here seems like an appearance on David Letterman. When that happens I change the channel. And as for this film to even pay a $1 rental would be paying too much.  I’m wondering if even renting this for free from the library would be worth it. Avoid this at all cost.