Thursday, February 2, 2012

capsule reviews: Notorious, The Grey

 Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock)

The film opens with Ingrid Bergman’s father being found guilty in court for treason. Bergman’s relation with her father was strained at best, and so rather than bemoan her parent’s condemnation, she has a lively dinner party at her place the very same evening. One of the guests is played by Cary Grant (whom the director reveals slowly at first, with only shots from behind his head), who, it turns out, is a spy for the United States government. His interest in Bergman may be professional on the surface, given that he and his superior (Louis Calhern) send her down to Brazil to seduce one of her father’s old friends (Clause Raines) because the latter is suspected of operating for Germans, but the sparks between the two are too much to suppress forever! Various espionage and romantically-themed shenanigans.

To put it bluntly, Notorious is an exquisite example of vintage Hitchcock filmmaking. Consider the following: he employed two powerhouse, charismatic, talented, beautiful actors in the lead roles, has allocated the supporting players to a series of familiar character actors, plays around with the cinematography and camera angles in fresh and unexpected ways to keep the movie’s attitude edgy, builds suspense in simple yet devilishly clever ways and makes use of the oldest of all the tricks in his book of storytelling: the famous Maguffin. Sure, there is some mumbo jumbo about Claude Raines using his image as a dedicated scientist to cover up some mischief related to chemicals and rocks (if I’ve even understood that part of the film at all), but as with the majority of the acclaimed director’s work, that element’s true purpose is not to create intricately weaved plotting as an excuse for adult-minded complex drama, but rather to set the stage for lovable, charming banter as Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman fall for each other.

There arguably is no possible way that a Grant-Bergman coupling could ever prove sour seeing as both have far, far too much natural charisma and acting chops. What makes Grant’s role a bit different than what some might automatically suspect heading into the movie is that, as a spy, he is under the obligation to withdraw too much attachment to the beautiful newbie secret agent. As a result, he plays the role with greater aloofness than he does many of his parts.  Bergman has the most complicated part. She is a woman without purpose at the beginning (sipping her conscious away into drunken stupor), secondly a woman in love, and lastly a woman who has to make a third party believe she loves them back in a risky, deceitful game. She smartly juggles all of these personalities, helping relate to the audience that her character is a far more interesting person than what those early scenes indicate, even though Bergman plays a great drunken fool. Raines is amazing in the role of a sophisticated scientist who may or may not be in cahoots with former Nazis ex-patriots.

Hitchcock punctuates a great many scenes with tension in which characters are only ever seconds away from being found out. The simple creativity involved in developing such moments never ceases to amaze.

 The Grey (2012, Joe Carnahan)

The unexpectedly great film of early ’12 (January typically being a dreary month for Hollywood) has Liam Neeson and a solid grouping of supporting actors, among them Dermot Mulroney, playing employees of an oil company returning home from Alaska via plane. Unfortunately for them, the craft fails to survive a passage of turbulence, crashing somewhere in the frozen Alaskan country. Fortunately for the viewer, the movie offers surprisingly effective suspense and a lot of worthwhile character explorations.

The trailers for Carnahan’s latest did little to suggest that it reserved any remarkable pretensions beyond supplying audiences with a series of perfunctory thrills, courtesy of some rather fake-looking wolves. The truth of the matter is entirely different, even with regards to those computer generated antagonists, who frequently look genuinely menacing. Dare it be written, the artificiality about them lends the beasts a level of unexpected artistry so far as visual presentation goes. What’s more, the audio quality is spectacular, especially when the fanged hunters make their presence known to the stranded humans. The howling, the growling, the barking, everything is presented in a way that makes the viewer think a pack has just entered the theatre. Unnerving stuff, to be sure.

Where the film really takes the viewer by surprise is in its patience and desire to add layers of depth to the nightmarish experience these men live and die through. The film will occasionally take breaks from the action and allow the protagonists to mull over their fate and what they hope to return to provided they ever make it home alive at all. These scenes appear more tranquil thanks to the absence of the animals, yet demonstrate Carnahan’s intent on getting into the psyche of these individuals under extremely stressful conditions. The film is virtually more drama than it is action, something many will not have foreseen.

The past few years have seen a curious change of pace in Liam Neeson’s career, having evolved from being a purely dramatic actor into the fascinating variation of an action star he is now. Prior to Taken, few would have envisioned the Irishman capable of being a total bad ass. What a difference a couple of films can make! The Grey continues the actor’s recent trend,  a move that will undoubtedly satisfy those who were enamoured by his work in Taken and last year’s Unknown. His character’s tough guy qualities are muted by a sense of ominous danger which dominants. A scarred man, Neeson’s character is unafraid of appreciating the genuine risk of their predicament, nor admitting the side of him consumed by fear. It’s not Schindler’s List, but it remains effective in its own particular way.

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