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Death, Where is Thy Fang?
by M. Faust
Four films, good and bad, that opened in the last week
An existentialist parable disguised as an adventure movie, The Grey tips its hand so often and so thoroughly that it’s hard to imagine anyone is really surprised by the way it ends. Of course, some people are, probably the same ones who thought it was a good idea to sue the distributors of last fall’s Drive because it didn’t have as many car chases as the trailers implied. They’re not necessarily wrong, I suppose, but you must be expecting a pretty impressive payoff to want to stand up in court and complain that you were ripped off by being tricked into seeing a movie that wasn’t as dumb as you were expecting.
Watch trailers for the movies reviewed here on Artvoice TV:
Man on a Ledge
One For the Money
The Grey—even the title should clue you in—opens with scenes of Ottway (Liam Neeson) morosely remembering his lost love as he prepares for an Arctic mission. He’s a sharpshooter hired to kill wolves menacing oil workers, and one of only seven survivors when the plane bearing them crashes during an Alaskan snowstorm. With no expectation of rescue, it’s up to them to find a way to survive, and the biggest obstacle is the wolf pack that regards them less as food than intruders.
Neeson has become a mass-market star in the past few years in action films that cashed in on his craggy, middle-aged gravitas. This film will clearly draw in those fans, but it’s a deeper use of his talents as a character ready and perhaps willing to die, but not quite yet. The rest of the cast is almost as strong in roles that sketch character in small but effective ways. The cinematography catches both the beauty and hostility of the landscape—we’re as happy to look at it as we are not to have to be there. The Grey was directed by Joe Carnahan in a welcome return to the promise of his first independent features after a few years grinding out silly action movies like The A Team. It’s the perfect double feature for John Carpenter’s The Thing.
If that sounds more gritty than your idea of an evening’s entertainment, you’ll probably have more fun navigating the implausibilities of Man on a Ledge. Don’t get tripped up by the miscasting of Kiwi actor Sam Worthington as a New Yawk cop, perched on the ledge of the 21st floor of Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hotel after escaping from a prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. (Don’t ask how he checked into the place without having to show a credit card.) No more likely is Elizabeth Banks as the crisis cop trying to talk him down. We know what she doesn’t, that he’s providing a distraction while his brother (Jamie Bell) and his hottie girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez, in outfits that would make Catwoman blush) carry out a plot to prove his innocence. The script thinks it’s a well-oiled caper thriller, but it’s full of holes big enough to swallow a Buick. Fortunately the special effects, which made this acrophobic viewer a bit queasy, are seamless. And like all the best New York crime films, the supporting cast is everything, from Ed Harris as a Donald Trumpian villain through Edward Burns and Titus Welliver (Sons of Anarchy’s Jimmy O, shorn of that impenetrable Irish accent) as cops.
A few miles to the west of Manhattan lies that much-maligned state of New Jersey, home of a million stereotypes. So many Jersey clichés are shoveled into One for the Money that I half expected to see Joe Piscopo credited as a script consultant. Katherine Heigl stars as Stephanie Plum, unemployed since getting fired from her job as a department store lingerie clerk, who badgers her cousin into giving her a job as a bounty hunter, bringing in felons who have skipped their bail.
There is almost certainly comedy to be found in the idea of a woman with no experience finding ways to round up roughnecks who don’t want to be caught. This film manages to miss all of them: You’d think that anyone could waltz into the job. Adapted from the first of the best-selling novels by Janet Evanovich, this was clearly envisioned as a series vehicle for Heigl, who also produced. She’s not unlikeable, but the movie asks too much of her abilities, requiring her to carry a lot of pretty-but-dull co-stars and an arbitrary plot on her shoulders. (The movie ends when the bad guy essentially shows up with a gun and confesses everything, after which our heroine saves the day with a display of sharpshooting gained after one day of target practice.) Watching a hamster on an exercise wheel, Heigl tells it, ”You’re going nowhere.” She should know.
Would you go to see a Steven Soderbergh film starring Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Ewan McGregor? I suspect a lot more people would at least consider it than were enticed to see a chick action film starring Gina Carano, which is how Haywire was promoted (and minimally at that). Turns out Ms. Carano is an expert Muay Thai fighter, and her skills are amply displayed here in some of the most original fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie. Unfortunately, you woudn’t expect anything so simple as a martial arts movie from Soderbergh, and what he has concocted here (using various pseudonyms, he also wrote, photographed, and edited it) is a moderately incomprehensible tale of a black ops operation gone awry. It’s watchable thanks to his skills at all those functions and for a score whose drawn-out horn lines reminded me of Bernard Herrman’s music for Taxi Driver. Just don’t ask me to explain what it was all about.
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