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The Grey

The Grey posterSynopsis

Set in Alaska in the snow and pine forests where wolf packs live.  Liam Neeson plays a rifleman who is hired by a petroleum company to hunt wolves that attack people.  He is a loner who longs for his wife and nearly kills himself.  He is on a plane with rough frontier people.  The plane crashes in icy wilderness and as Neeson uses his skills to become the leader facing down macho competition from the surviving group.  They all face death,,,

Criticism

The film starts out with the stereotypically rugged loner with an emotionally difficult past, and he’s on a plane with familiarly rugged attitudes and faces you find in many westerns.  The plane crashes and I wondered if we were in for Lost with ice and snow.  Instead a very watchable film survived the early crash.  We have also seen lots of survival films in which the best and strongest guy prevails over the inevitable challenge to his natural authority.  When his leadership is contested we expect his rivals to be motivated by weakness and cynical self disappointment and The Grey has quite a bit of that  Then we get a creepy family man telling the group about his relationship with his family, this is the survival equivalent of the war film in which a soldier shows an enemy soldier his family photograph in order to establish his credentials as a human being under the uniform.  The Grey does all this but it works, after all what would people in extreme situations talk to one another about?  The simplified confrontations are used for the benefit of the film because of the limitations of time.  We wouldn’t pay to watch a film where someone just mumbles inanely in the snow for a couple of hours, would we? Come to think of it, that’s what we get in a lot of mainstream films anyway.

The Grey does a creditable job of steering us through and beyond the usual confrontational reliabilities:  winning over the sneering cynic, the sensitive guy dying, the bloody minded maverick who finally realizes he can’t make it without the others, the ritualized recognition of our animality (they eat a wolf’s carcass and one of the characters hacks off the wolf’s head in a sort of blood rite).  Throughout all this, Liam Neeson emerges as a monument of stern self reliance, his features like a bony mask of patience and suffering.  A sort of nature mysticism welds their solidarity in the face of icy wilderness and predatory wolves who stalk them.  When people face unwanted ordeals  of pain and endurance (like surviving in wildernesses and enduring childbirth) it shows the pathetically childish nonsense of machismo in stark relief, and people will suffer what they can the more reluctantly, the more heroically.  The Grey is at its best when it shows all this.  They have to get off a mountain by crossing over to the forest below and one of them falls and crashes into the trees hallucinating his daughter as he dies.  Their acceptance of probable death is what endows these otherwise unremarkable people with tragic heroism.  There is dark humour and then acceptance of death.  This reminded me of Jack London stories also set in the Alaskan forests.  Watching this film is a bit like studying a manuel for survival after a plane crash.  We learn that wolves have to be faced down in a confrontation, that the alpha wolf will send in a low status wolf to test the opposition.  Mercifully in The Grey we don’t hear about cannibalism or get any cannibal jokes, the main thing is to build a fire and eat the wolves.

A spectacular adventure.

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Posted by on February 8, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Mission

The Mission poster

Synopsis

Made in 1986 about the Utopian state made by Jesuits for the Guarani people of Paraguay in the 18th century.  Robert de Niro plays a slave catcher who works for the slaveocracy.  In the jungle he warns Jeremy Irons, the Jesuit leader, that he will get more slaves.  This after a Jesuit priest was martyred by the Guarani, prompting Irons to go to the jungle to convert them.  De Niro learns that his brother has been canoodling with his fiancee, Cherie Lunghi, and in a jealous rage kills him.  Irons then rescues de Niro from remorse and sets him on a penitential path to to the Indians he formerly enslaved.  The planters want the Guarani as slaves and they appeal to the relevant authorities to get rid of the Jesuit state.  Ray McAnnally is their envoy and is impressed with the missions but still orders the state’s dismantling after hearing from both sides.  War breaks out….

Review

Robert Joffe’s film is about the same events dealt with in Fritz Hochwalder’s play The Strong are Lonely.  Compared to Hochwalder, Robert Bolt’s script for Joffe’s film is sentimental opportunism because it exploits the 1980s fashionable concern for the Amazon forest.  Joffe meretriciously conflates the plight of the present day natives of the Amazon with the Guarani Indians of 1750s (but it should be 1760s) Paraguay.  In the film the Indians live in a tropical forest whereas the Guarani’s Paraguay ecology was different.  Hochwalder’s play was concerned with the argument between Jesuitical utopianism and the self serving interests of the Spanish settler opponents.  Hochwalder ultimately argued that both sides were in the wrong:  the Jesuit state was founded on the false  premise of the supposed mutual supportiveness of material and spiritual values undermining  the real mission of spiritual salvation.  That such criticism could originate from self serving and materially interested forces does not undermine the criticism itself    The Guarani could confuse benevolent paternalism with Jesuitical Christianity and the opposing point is that spirituality should be disinterested viv a vis worldliness.  In the film the paternalist authoritarianism of the Jesuits is falsely mixed with ecological political correctness, this anachronism merely distracts from the spiritual criticism of Utopia.  The enemies of Utopia in this film are vicious slaveowners and duplicitous politicians which endows Jesuitical Utopianism with a false anachronistic case.

The Mission follows on from The Emerald Forest as it argues for the superior virtues of a forest way of life against other interests which are automatically demonised.  Joffe’s film insultingly infantilises the native Amazonians, making them look like noble savages to be paternalistically protected from white colonialism. The film admits at the end that it would have been better for the Indians if no white people had contacted them, and that goes for well intentioned but patronising film makers also.

The pseudo debate over the Jesuit state is merely a preamble to the military conflict.  De Niro is obviously ill at ease as conscience-stricken, he is happier as a sword wielder.  Julian Barnes  wrote an hilarious story about Matt, a film star clearly modelled on de Niro in The Mission.  Barnes ridicules the prima donna inanities of stars filming in jungle locations, megalomanical and buddy buddy homoerotic with Jeremy Irons.  Joffe gives Irons the intellectual leadership, explaining to his literal minded Jesuit brethren that they are an order and not a democracy, as if they wouldn’t have understood that at the outset.  In Hochwalder’s play they stick to their vow of obedience to the point of self sacrifice, that would be asking too much of these mainstream cinema priests.  In this film the Jesuits are obedient when it suits them in their self appointed role as benevolent authoritarians and yet they react with predictable pride vis a vis the Spanish court authorities.  The inconsistency in this abrupt change is glossed over by the film in its anxiety to moralise simple mindedly the Jesuits’ stance.  Irons relationship with the Papal envoy Ray McAnnally are initially diplomatically suave but ultimately lachrymose and Kum-ba-ya creepy, his pacifism simply an embellishment of useless martyrdom.  Similarly the Papal envoy. Ray McAnnally, is obviously emotionally won over by the paradisal simplicity of the Jesuit states, yet he decides for their dismantling with no sign of inner turmoil.  This is lazy acting.  He simply says he will do what his conscience dictates and swings into opposition to the Jesuits.

The planters are simply avaricious and cruel devils in tropically run down and mildewed Rococo outlandishness, though Ronald Pickup is given a more thoughtful role as the politician from Europe.

This film is opportunist in that it doesn’t tackle concerns over the Amazon forest but uses the forest as escapist spectacle which conceals the non argument at the heart of this production. The Mission is good to look at, one of the spectacular 1980s cinematic visits to the Amazon along with Fitzcarraldo and Emerald Forest.  Fitzcarraldo is about about a boat dragged laboriously through the forest, Mission is about simple sentiments dragged laboriously through the forest.

 
 

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