The Past Week in Movies: “The Way Back,” “No Strings Attached,” and “Applause”

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.

Saoirse Ronan dashes across thin ice in "The Way Back"

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: ****)

Ashton Kutcher woos Natalie Portman in "No Strings Attached"

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)

Paprika Steen goes all out in "Applause"

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.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The Past Week in Movies: “The Way Back,” “No Strings Attached,” and “Applause”

  1. Enjoyed reading these short reviews, Jason – I wanted to see ‘The Way Back’ but blinked and missed it during the few days it was on a screen near me! Sounds as if I would like it, and also maybe ‘No Strings Attached’ – an awful lot of reviews seem to assume that all romantic comedies are rubbish, whereas I often enjoy them.

    • Thank you Judy. I’m stealing Sam Juliano’s Monday Diaries structure over at Wonders in the Dark. I hope he doesn’t mind. Yes, a lot of critics assume all romantic comedies are rubbish (as you say), but that is mostly because the genre has been so bad the past several years. Maybe they are harder on any romantic comedy because of the genre’s track record. And, of course, maybe “No Strings Attached” shines for me because the genre has been so bad that any nugget of goodness shines brighter than it should. Whatever the case, I still enjoyed it.

  2. I enjoyed reading your capsule reviews too! Last night we actually had a movie night (When Harry Met Sally, which neither of us had seen) and signed up for a month trial of Netflix. We still don’t seem to be getting in theaters, but fingers crossed that we will actually see some more movies this month! And the list you made for our movie nights remains close at hand. 🙂

    • Thanks Lisa! Netflix is a great way to catch up on movies whether through streaming or DVDs by mail. Though from what I hear there are murmurs of a revolt among distributors against their streaming deals and content will dry up for them soon. Nevertheless, there are still thousands of titles to get through the mail and I know you and Erik are in desperate need of catching up on some past movies. I won’t browbeat you for just getting around to “When Harry Met Sally,” though since I just watched it for the first time over the past year. Keep me updated on what you’re seeing!

      • Yeah, we were a bit irked at the number of titles we wanted to watch that were available on DVD only. If we decide to keep up our Netflix membership we’ll probably switch to the DVDs + streaming option instead of only streaming, which is what we have now in our trial month.

        I will absolutely keep you updated! 🙂

        • Oh yes, you must get the DVD option too. Streaming is too limited. Though I will recommend a movie I just saw they have available streaming last night: “Dogtooth.” It is a truly bizarre, but great Greek movie about a family with strange ways of doing things. Check it out.

  3. Oh good. I will look for that. 🙂

  4. John Greco

    THE WAY BACK came and went real quick here but I just did get to see NO STRINGS ATTACHED (***1/2). Like you, to my surprise the film is enjoyable, better than most of the slush that passes today as romantic comedy. Her character is a bit of an odd duck. Portman is engaging and Kutcher, who I have always found annoying, come off well for a change.

    • I think Portman’s character is the weakest part of the picture, though Portman herself does what she can with her. I’ve never found Kutcher all that annoying, though he has been horribly miscast in a lot of movies. He does a good job here. Of course we may have lowered expectations from this genre but still, what a strange surprise this movie is.

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