The past week has been a surprisingly good movie going time. As we all know January is generally a dumping ground for movies studios have given up on, movies they don’t feel can take the competition of busier seasons. So far though I think they should have given up completely on The Dilemma and Season of the Witch. A straight to video release would have been too good for them.
The first movie I saw this past week was The Way Back, Peter Weir’s retelling of the true story of seven prisoners in a 1940 Soviet prison who escaped and walked some 4000 miles from Siberia to India. It has been slammed by some critics as being slow and uneventful, but these people walked 4000 miles. Should Weir have added dopey action sequences and a stock Simon Legree-esque villain to chase them across Asia? It is a quiet movie about a remarkably determined group of people whose only goal is to survive. Weir cleverly decides not to differentiate the prisoner’s personalities all that much in the opening prison scene, letting us get to know them once they are outside the prison walls, when they are closer to people than in the prison walls. It’s sometimes tough to watch, especially as they hike through a howling blizzard or cross the expansive Gobi desert, but it’s a stirring tale of survival well worth checking out despite its very limited release. (Rating: ****)
Later the same day I sat down to watch No Strings Attached with no expectations. Imagine my surprise when I found myself actually enjoying what I was watching. I started off like Natalie Portman’s character: where she was resistant to the idea that she could succeed in a relationship, I was resistant to the idea that I could like this movie. Like Portman’s character, I got broken down. I went from, “I can’t like this” to “Oh, that’s kinda funny” to “That’s not bad” to “Oh my God! I actually like this movie!” It’s not a great movie, but it’s a solid romantic comedy about a young doctor (Portman) who arranges an alleged emotionless friends-with-benefits relationship with Adam (Ashton Kutcher). Of course they fall in love, but the director Ivan Reitman doesn’t throw any artificial obstacles in their way like a brainless misunderstanding or an obviously awful suitor (though a couple do wait in the wings for both of them). Kutcher is fine, though he’s never bothered me the way others are. I think he may be better suited for television comedy, but he does have a nice, easy-going charm here. OK, some of Portman’s mood swings or changes of heart come at opportune times with little motivation, but I said it was a good movie, not great. (Rating: ***1/2)
Later last week I also finally made it out to the Danish film from 2009 Applause. Laemmle Theaters have been bombarding us with trailers for this one for months so I figured I would reward the marketing people and go out to see it despite not looking terribly interesting. I was treated, however, to a remarkable performance from Paprika Steen as Thea Barfoed, an alcoholic actress trying to reconnect with her children after abandoning them over a year before. The story is intercut with scenes from Thea’s current stage role, Martha from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Thea insists that she is better, she doesn’t drink (as much), she doesn’t explode into fits of violent rage anymore. Her ex-husband wants to believe her, but slowly we realize that the character she plays, the destructive Martha, is closer to her true self and the “better” version of Thea is another performance, a performance that is unraveling the harder she tries to keep it together. (Rating: ****)
Not bad for a January. I’m not so optimistic about next week with The Rite and From Prada to Nada waiting for me.