The Way Back
How bad was Joseph Stalin? Even though he lived in the same century as Adolph Hitler, Stalin was by far the worst person of the 20th century. He not only condemned millions of perfectly innocent people to death in the Siberian Gulag, he even tortured his friends to death and starved to death 34 million kulaks (prosperous land farmers in early 20th century Russia). If you want to read a horror story, read his biography. Hitler was a piker compared with Stalin.
This is the story of seven men Stalin’s Communists sentenced to long terms in the Gulag. The movie shows the bleakness and the cold in which these people were forced to live, which is akin to what Solzhenitsyn describes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. At least what this film shows about every day life is what I pictured when I was reading about Ivan Denisovich.
“Inspired” (as opposed to “based on”) a book by Slavomir Rawicz called The Long Walk, seven men escape from their Gulag, including Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and Colin Farrell. Walking away into the forest in the middle of a snowstorm, they escape in the dead of winter and a year later, three of them walk into India — 10,000 kilometers away — after picking up a woman, Saoirse Ronan, along the way.
Harris plays a laconic American — Mr. Smith. Farrell is a Russian criminal with silver teeth who kills with abandon. Fortunately for all of them, Sturgess plays Janusz who has plenty of survival skills and thus becomes their leader. Janusz was sentenced to the Gulag because the Commies tortured his beautiful young wife into testifying against him. He is driven to get back to her because he still loves her.
The journey takes a year and they cross high mountains and burning deserts. It was shot in Bulgaria, Morocco and India, and the landscapes are epic. The cinematography (Russell Boyd) of the magnificent landscapes is one of the major strengths of the movie. The forest through which they traipse is so cold you almost need warm clothes to watch them. But then when they are struggling to cross the Gobi Desert, you can feel their parched thirst.
Directed (and written with Keith Clarke) by Peter Weir, this is a fine adventure story, even though it might be a little long.
I like Ashton Kutcher. Generally his films haven’t been well received by any critic but me, so I usually include a preamble with this declaration. And, generally, I’ve liked his films mainly because of his performances. This one isn’t as enjoyable as the ones in the past; it’s OK, but the lower quality is not Kutcher’s fault.
Natalie Portman is a relationship-challenged doctor who, in response to Ashton’s interest in her, suggests they have an emotion-free, sex-only relationship. Although the story is predictable, if not trite, there are a few lines funny enough to elicit audible laughs.
Portman, who is basking in the glow of fawning reviews for her performance in Black Swan, has an unfortunate smile that makes it looks as if she’s suffering an attack of diarrhea every time she flashes it. But, while not as goofy as in Black Swan, she’s still a head case here, giving another fine performance.
Among the good things about this romcom are the wonderful locations set in and around Los Angeles, including Marina del Rey, romantically captured by D.P. Rogier Stoffers, whose credits include fine work on Disturbia (2007).
Directed by Ivan Reitman from a script by Elizabeth Meriwether, the movie has a very low moral tone and includes lots of profane language and F-bombs, but no nudity. However, it probably represents a pretty clear picture of the sorry moral state of young adults today. I know for a fact that even 18-year-old middle class sorority girls at one major Los Angeles university, who should have been raised with better morals, dress up like hookers and go out, starting at 10 p.m., to find a stranger (generally a fellow student) with whom to have sex. I saw this film at a non-media screening and there was lots of laughter from the young females in the audience at the free sex and profane lines in the film. This is clearly a film aimed at a young adult audience for whom irresponsible sexual promiscuity is an every day occurrence. They are probably encouraged to this life style by movies like this, so it’s a vicious circle.
Despite the caliber of the material with which he is given to work with, Kutcher gives a fine performance which raises the quality of the final result. There are also some supporting roles that deserve mention. Kevin Kline gives a nice performance as Kutcher’s Hefneresque father, chasing after young women as if he were the Lakers’ septuagenarian owner Jerry Buss. Gary David Goldberg, better known as the executive producer of wildly successful sitcoms Family Ties and Spin City, makes an appearance as one of Portman’s relatives. Finally, Lake Bell gives a performance as a girl clumsily infatuated with Kutcher that makes one yearn for more. Frankly, I was rooting for her to win his heart.
If you can put up with its hedonistic morality, it is moderately entertaining.
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