Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The lost art of the "big indie": The Company Men and The Way Back

Back in the nineties or early aughts, both The Company Men and The Way Back probably would have been released by Miramax; they're technically independent films but have more the "mini-major" feel about them: Name directors, casts of movie stars working below their usual pay grade, platform releases designed to just catch award eligibility in L.A. and expand to the rest of the country after the holiday pictures have blown out.

Now, The Weinstein Company releases The Company Men, and I don't think that it got an Academy-qualifying run - at least, I don't see any release dates before 21 January 2011. It's a startlingly low-profile release, when you think about it: The Weinsteins have always been canny marketers, and they've been sitting on this Ben Affleck picture for a year (they acquired it at Sundance '10), and The Town has rolled back a lot of the joking people did about him. However, they didn't seem able to nail down a fall release date, and instead this hits theaters in January, without much fanfare. It got creamed at the box office, and I suspect that a good chunk of what it did get came from here in Boston (we can be pretty loyal to movies shot here with local talent, and native Affleck, transplant Chris Cooper, and Harvard grad Tommy Lee Jones all qualify). The Weinsteins used to be able to open movies like this, but they seem to have lost their mojo.

The Way Back actually did a little better at the box office, despite being a bit of a tougher sell: Jim Sturgess is the lead, Ed Harris and Colin Farrell aren't guys that open movies themselves, the word doesn't really seem to be out about what a great young actress Saoirse Ronan is(*), and "people walk across various harsh environments, several dying" doesn't necessarily appeal to the folks looking for a fun night out. It was #15 in its semi-wide opening, and probably won't expand much farther, since the only Oscar nomination it got yesterday was a well-deserved bit of recognition for its make-up, and technical awards don't put butts in seats. It's a shame, because it's a very good movie, and watcihng it on Blu-ray won't do it justice.

(*) Hopefully Hanna will do the trick. The trailer for that played in front of The Way Back, and while I fear that the public won't be all-in for an action movie starring Ronan and Cate Blanchett, it looks like a lot of fun, and a chance for Ronan to announce that she's here and awesome to all those who missed Atonement. And The Lovely Bones. And even City of Ember. But mostly Atonement.

Anyway, the message is to see these movies while you can. The Weinstein Company and Newmarket aren't the forces that they once were, they're not getting awards bumps, and other movies are going to push them off screens fairly quickly.

The Company Men

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2010 at AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run)

The Company Men is a perilous balance of schadenfreude and nostalgia for a saner world. It might be better if writer/director/producer John Wells was a little more overtly rabble-rousing, but maybe he's too conscious of his own success in the entertainment business to do so without feeling a hypocrite.

In 2008, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is on top of the world, an executive at Boston-based GTX (which stands for "Global Transportation Enterprises", sort of, but has long since diversified from its shipbuilding roots), but that is all about to fall apart as a merger of two divisions makes his job redundant. His severance is reasonably generous, but as he works on finding a new job at an "outplacement" center - sharing a cubicle with engineer Danny (Eamonn Walker), who has been at it for a few months - his colleague Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) frets that he may be the next on the block (he makes senior salesperson money and his numbers have been slipping). Meanwhile, the company's vice-president, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) frets over the good people being let go, especially since CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) seems far more concerned with the value of his stock and fighting a buyout than the actual operation of the company.

There is, without a doubt, a certain amount of pleasure at watching Bobby get taken down a peg or three. The smug, entitled yuppie getting his comeuppance is one of the things that Ben Affleck does extremely well, in part because he knows how to measure those qualities for what the role demands - Bobby starts out more crass than cruel, and his reluctance to see what sort of bad shape he's in is generally on the more palatable side of the border between pride and arrogance. Wells uses the characters of Bobby's family to good effect - Rosemarie DeWitt's pragmatic wife both softens him and highlights his impracticality, while Kevin Costner's blue-collar brother-in-law and his constant stream of why we hate big business is both saying what much of the audience is thinking and overly combative. It's a nice job by Wells, Affleck, and that part of the supporting cast, really - a tricky but believable transition from enjoying Bobby's failure to rooting for his success.

Full review at EFC.

The Way Back

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2010 at AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run)

In a more just cinematic world, The Way Back would be playing on IMAX screens and The Green Hornet would not. This is not a comment on the quality of Michel Gondry's film versus that of Peter Weir's, simply an observation that The Way Back aims to transport the audience to a different environment above all else, and that's what a screen that extends to the limits of one's peripheral vision does best. So, it goes without saying, this merits a look in theaters before it is reduced to home video.

Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is Polish, a difficult thing to be in 1939, as Hitler is approaching from one side and Stalin from the other. Winding up on the Russian side of the line, he is accused of being a spy and shipped off to a Siberian gulag. There, he immediately begins to plan his escape alongside several other political prisoners - among them Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean) and Zoran (Dragos Bucur), a pair of fellow Poles; Khabarov (Mark Strong), an actor imprisoned for a role he once played; and Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an American engineer. A late addition to their party is Valka (Colin Farrell), a murderer fleeing the debts he racked up in camp. And then there's Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish girl they meet along the way south to Mongolia who claims to have escaped from a collective farm. Any pursuers or potential traitors in their party pale in danger to the elements, though - Janusz is the only one with particularly well-honed wilderness skills, and prisons are located in Siberia because the environment is a better deterrent to escape than the guards.

The Way Back has a plot, and some nice performances, but this is a movie about scale - Weir and company aim to demonstrate how impressive the accomplishment of the survivors is with wide shots of inhospitable environments, whether they be tundra, desert, or mountain. Against these backdrops of terrible natural beauty, the escapees are often tiny, underscoring the immensity of their challenge. Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd compose these shots beautifully, and while the film isn't entirely about showing off shots of harsh environments, or even contrasting them with the tight, oppressive scenes of the gulag, they are the centerpiece, and are suitably impressive.

Full review at EFC.

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