'The Way Back' is stunning in all directions

If you love movies, then it's likely you've heard of director Peter Weir. Now 68, his work dates back to 1975 and the chilling Australian film, "Picnic at Hanging Rock," followed by "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Gallipoli," "Witness," "Dead Poets Society," "The Truman Show," "The Mosquito Coast," and the incomparable "Master and Commander," shot in 2003 and based on the Patrick O'Brian stories.

"The Way Back" has an epic feel, and it transcends what may, at first blush, seem a rudimentary plot: the year is 1940 and a rag-tag group of men improbably escape a Russian gulag work camp. Against all odds, they trek more than 4,000 miles across some of the most inhospitable country imaginable. Their destination, as it turns out, is British-controlled India.

This is not a road trip. It is not simply about walking. This is a film, shot by the deeply talented cinematographer, Russell Boyd, which celebrates the human spirit and the unrelenting will of these individuals to not only endure but to prevail, and, in the end, be free.

Not all will survive, we're told at the outset. However, each character — Janusz (Jim Surgess), Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), Valka (Colin Farrell), Tamasz (Alexandru Potocean), Irena (Saoirse Ronan) — becomes three-dimensional as does the landscape, which conspires to defeat them. They escape Siberia; find, against all odds, Lake Baikal; cross the plains of Mongolia; survive the heat and sandstorms of the Ghobi Desert; and face the snows and spires of the Himalayas, the gateway to Tibet. Beyond is India.

How they accomplish this remarkable feat makes for an astonishing tale, not unlike, in some strange way, the survival tale, "127 Hours." Both experiences are testimony to the depth of the very human desire to survive. While "127 Hours" is relatively static and claustrophobic, "The Way Back" is all about movement and space, filling the screen with vistas that are startling in their seemingly benign beauty, though clearly malevolent in their raw harshness and inherent deprivations.

The performances by the international ensemble are outstanding, led by Harris as a stoic American engineer who came to Moscow in the 1930s with this teenage son to work on Moscow's Metro. During a purge, his son is killed and he is sent to the gulag. Sturgess portrays Janusz, a young Polish cavalry officer, accused by his wife of spying. And there's Farrell's fine performance as the gangster who cannot connect Stalin's "reign of terror" to his own incarceration. Ronan is perfect as Irena, a young girl who finds the group weeks after they have escaped and joins them on their journey.

"The Way Back" belies the conviction that January is caught in the movie doldrums.

This Peter Weir film, if it portends anything for 2011, is hopefully the first of other fine films to follow.

No Strings Attached

"No Strings Attached." Right. The ending of this movie was telegraphed in the first 20 minutes. It was just a matter of waiting and enduring the following 90 minutes while two twenty-somethings, Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher), who've decided to be friends with benefits (sex buddies, no strings attached) begin what is loosely called a relationship. Their intent is disclosed via a lengthy montage of urgent groping and coupling in hospital storage rooms, an empty operating theater, her apartment, and his house. Ground rule: rinse and repeat.

Adam, breaking one of the fundamental rules of their encounters, concludes he is falling in love with Emma. She, however, is opposed to any attachments that go beyond the physical. In other words, she's commitment-adverse and "no strings" is a metaphor, of sorts, for a personality disorder that is completely inexplicable.

Of course, there's not one person in the audience that believes that she will not completely reassess her position by act three, and "No Strings Attached" will suddenly have lots of strings. And while we're on the subject of strings, sticking with this movie through the credits is like trying to push string.

Meanwhile, because Emma and Adam are intent on not building a relationship, they avoid any and all conversations that might involve self-disclosure. No issues are raised. Hence, little if anything is known about them as people. In fact, they are emotional strangers to one another.

There is Adam's dad, Alvin (Kevin Kline), a pot-smoking, skirt-chasing (under 30), fading television star who is in denial when it comes to the fact that he is old. His character is needless and silly. For Kline, a superb actor, this role has a very short shelf life and he walks through it with a "what, me worry?" grin and little else.

The dialogue, such as it is, that moves the film forward is coarse and crude and vacuous. This may be a generational thing, but tell me that this is not the way young people interact.

Nature abhors a vacuum, but not Hollywood. They've created the contemporary romantic comedy, a seemingly endless string of them over the last several years, all formulaic, predictable, many similar in plot ("No Strings Attached" brings to mind the recent "Love and Other Drugs"). Think of Hollywood as some kind of rom-com Pez dispenser, and just when you thought it was safe to go back into the movie theater, another shallow, existential black hole of a film appears.

"No Strings Attached" could have been an interesting film. There is a qualitative difference between hooking up with someone and actually wanting to know them. Just Emma's deep-seated fear of relationships offers the prospect of a story line that might have yielded something deeper than the banal and the nonsensical. Adam and Emma have backstory, they have careers. Adam wants desperately to be a writer; however, he never so much as shares a word he's written with Emma. Emma is working 36-hour shifts to be a doctor, and obviously cares about people. However, we never hear her touch on her motivations for wanting to care for people.

Of course, they're busy not talking, not disclosing, not reflecting — to the detriment of their relationship and the film.

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