Movies: The Grey, Declaration of War, and the Jewish Film Festival

In The Grey, Liam Neeson plays a veteran, lone-wolf type who shoots wolves near Alaskan oil rigs.
  • In The Grey, Liam Neeson plays a veteran, lone-wolf type who shoots wolves near Alaskan oil rigs.

Another buzz-kill week at the movies: wolves, cancer, thoughts of Oscar. Oy vey (yes, let us prepare for the Jewish film festival).


Grey 2.0

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Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, about men pursued by Alaskan wolves, will not be confused with Sarah Palin’s Alaska. No Tea Party truisms, no chipper chatter, no tiny Trig or piping Piper. If Sarah showed up in Joe Carnahan’s film she would be, like her presidential hopes, dead meat.

Liam Neeson stars as a veteran lone-wolf type who shoots wolves near oil-rig sites. He feels suicidal, having lost the love of his life. After he goes down in a plane crash, carrying men leaving the North Slope rigs during frigid winter, survival instincts kick in. Lacking his gun, he improvises desperately, as big canines pick off survivors (one guy has eyes that say “kill me quickly”).

The men, like the wolves, virtually disappear into their overgrown hair. Dallas Roberts is the sensitive, religious fellow; Frank Grillo the ex-con preener whose butt Neeson kicks hard; and Dermot Mulroney is intelligently fatalistic. The beasts come, eyes glowing at night, and we can imagine their alpha-male thoughts: If we eat all these people, we might evolve into werewolves. Written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from his short story, the movie is like Jack London abducted by TV’s Ice Road Truckers and forced to eat a vile stew of bloody fur and axle grease.

Not that anyone was expecting Noel Coward’s Design for Living from Carnahan, who began his manly movie career with Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane and then flexed his auteur pecs on Narc, The A-Team, and Smokin’ Aces. Not untalented (which is not exactly the same as “talented”), he uses the weather strongly, does not make the wolves hokey, and gets sagging, stoical poignancy from Neeson. A star who faced the Holocaust (Schindler’s List) can definitely face wolves and mortality.

The film undermines itself. Neeson’s grim ordeal is intercut by dewy flashbacks of him in bed with his lover, who keeps saying “Don’t be afraid” (she’s a mommy-nanny sex dream). A man falls down a huge tree, cracking branches and his bones, fatally, then imagines his little girl as an angel. The Grey has some visceral feel for men finding their nature amid cruel nature, but the ending, both evasive and foreshadowed, goes to the dogs.


Declaration of War 1.0

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It is okay for the young lovers in Declaration of War to be named Romeo and Juliette. Shakespeare is fair game in any language. And we can abide Valérie Donzelli, an actor making her second feature as director, exploiting elements of Jules et Jim: zip-snap editing, iris shots, briskly objective narration, and romantic runs through Paris. It must be engraved in French law that any director can steal from François Truffaut (as he stole from Renoir, Hitchcock, etc.) and Louis Malle (Zazie dans le Métro).

But then boyish Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) and his fresh Juliette (Donzelli) don’t die — they endure their baby Adam developing cancer. The process of long medical treatment is sketched, the supportive friends and relatives are many, and Frédéric Pierrot is touchingly real as a surgeon who has seen too much. But while quite a convincing mother, Donzelli as director and writer cannot resist providing a shock sequence empowered by Vivaldi, a tender episode awash in Luis Bonfá’s Manhã de Carnaval, soulful closeups of the parents as almost ageless lovers, and distraught Juliette doing a Run Lola Run through the hospital.

Donzelli is not about to show us this sweet kid really suffering. She winks an early clue to Adam’s fate and has the narrator blithely outline the late innings of the marriage. This soaper could be A Man and a Woman and a Cancer Kid. Seldom before has facile compassion seemed so much like a commercial for universal health care.

Oscar Thoughts

I turn to the Oscar nominations with a jaded lack of surprise. In the top race there was no chance for Blackthorn, Le Quattro Volte, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. They had too little buzz, box office, and other awards. The new voting rules led to nine choices (some worthy), and if you know Academy history it is easy to spot the enabling factors.

The Artist is elegant, funny, and foreign but also hometown. How could Hollywood folk resist a valentine to their fabled past, scented with the aroma of French roses?

The Descendants makes a family crisis warm, huggy, and Hawaiian. The biz loves shadows gilded with sunshine, plus profits and the silver smile of its reigning favorite, George Clooney.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close stinks as a credible story about a child facing the aftershock of 9/11. But the WTC tragedy sanctifies ambition, and as New York is the real star, rejection would have seemed disdainful.

The Help is formulaic but savvy entertainment. Prestige factors are the history lesson rendered by a great female cast and a racial divide bridged by humor.

Hugo strains for glory and needs some wins. When Martin Scorsese spends $170 million to consecrate the roots of cinema, what self-respecting Academy would deny attention?

Midnight in Paris is the supreme hit of Hollywood’s favorite New Yorker, Woody Allen, even though he disdains the Oscars. The public’s love crowned an endearing comedy.

Moneyball shows that a sports movie doesn’t have to be a sweaty clod. Brad Pitt has grown as an actor, and the biz begins to see that Bennett Miller is a great director.

The Tree of Life is inanely pompous. The industry had to endorse an auteur’s Hallmark card to the universe, stated in such American (and National Geographic) terms.

War Horse turns World War I into a popcorn bag full of oats (and corn). The publicity is endless, and the biz is committed to Steven Spielberg as a genius. I say: neigh.

San Diego Jewish Film Festival

“22! 22! 22!” pleaded Julie Hagerty at the roulette table in Albert Brooks’s Lost in America. Now preparing the 22nd spin of its wheel, the San Diego Jewish Film Festival is a sure bet.

The SDJFF is a sleek package that hasn’t lost its personality. Its presenters, mostly female and mostly based at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, mix a rich menu that is kosher but not insular. Jewish-themed works, the usual strong mix of Israeli entries, and lots of smart discussions and youth events and bargain deals have made the fest loved by many.

No longer anchored at the AMC La Jolla Village, the event has spread to the Reading Town Square in Clairemont, Regal’s San Marcos theater, and the Carlsbad Village Theatre, plus some gigs at the JCC’s Garfield Theatre in La Jolla and the UltraStar Hazard Center in Mission Valley.

Guy Nattiv’s Israeli drama about a bar mitzvah boy, Mabul (The Flood), opens the spree on Thursday night, February 9. The closing feature comes ten days later with Wolfgang Murnberger’s tale of an Austrian Jew and his Nazi “friend,” My Best Enemy.

Scanning just the documentaries, I am drawn to Vikram Jayanti’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector; Ruedi Gerber’s work on dancer Anna Halprin, Breath Made Visible; Raymond Ley’s Eichmann’s End: Love, Betrayal, Death; Peter Rosen’s God’s Fiddler: Jascha Heifetz; Duki Dror’s film on Erich Mendelsohn and his wife, Incessant Visions — Letter from an Architect; Britta Wauer’s In Heaven, Underground about a Jewish cemetery in Berlin; Andy Sommer’s Mahler, Autopsy of a Genius; and Ronit Kerstner’s view of a Catholic priest delving into Judaism, Torn. Sure to entertain is Ian Ayres’s Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom (Curtis’s wife Jill will appear).

Also a Tel Aviv salsa comedy, the Polish political thriller Little Rose, and even Jews in Toons. The schmear of options is at sdjff.org.

Reviewed in the movie capsules: Big Miracle and One for the Money.

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