TIFF: Pleasant “Tiki,” Sarandon steals “Company,” and Watts isn’t enough for “Impossible”

KON TIKI (***)…When I was 12 my grandparents gave me the book about Thor Heyerdahl, a 20th century photographer and ethnographer who in 1947 set out on an extraordinary adventure that everyone told him was impossible. Heyerdahl set out on the 8,000 mile voyage across the Pacific Ocean on a raft built of balsa wood, manned by an under experienced crew. Heyerdahl believed that man early settlers from South America populated Polynesia and their only method of crossing would have been in a manner such as this. The danger of such a crossing is obvious, the madness behind it, perhaps not so clear, but the adventure was right out of the movies. Consider the madness of the lead character in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1978), a half-crazed visionary seeking to do the impossible, and you see that Heyerdahl’s quest is not so terribly different. A massive hit in Norway, the film has moments of epic grandeur, no question and is beautifully shot, but far too often it becomes a typical Hollywood biography, sort of a greatest hits of Heyerdahl’s life. Though openly mocked by the scientists he presents his theories to, though told certain death laid on the sea for him and those who go with him, he still launches the raft. My God, the man cannot even swim!!  Once at sea, the crew encounters what we expect them to run into, including a violent thunderstorm complete with swelling waves that toss the raft about like a child’s toy, a whale that nearly destroys them with its play (and it seems to mean them no harm) and sharks that come looking for food. Pal Sverre Hagen captures the zeal in Heyerdahl. The absolute belief he is right and he will damned well prove it. Determined to a fault, he understands that the lives of the crew and himself are at stake, but he must carry on.  What I wanted was to learn about what made Heyerdahl tick, why did he tackle such a treacherous journey with men who were not experienced sailors? Was he truly that obsessed or just that confident he could accomplish the journey? Had there been in depth study of the man perhaps this would be a great film. As it is, Kon Tiki is very good, and at times inspires awe.

THE COMPANY WE KEEP (***)…Robert Redford has always been a better actor than he was given credit for being, particularly in the seventies when he at the zenith of his career as one of the world’s top box office stars. Both movie star and artist, it was Redford who sought out Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and suggested that the tone of their book All the President’s Men be about the reporters and the reporting. The actor then purchased the rights to the book, produced and starred in the film, which was one of the greatest works of the seventies. He simply knew a good story and through his career, Redford has possessed a nose for a fine story. That is not to say all the films he made were terrific, they were not, but when they were good, they were very good and Redford was terrific in them. His best work from the seventies as an actor remains Jeremiah Johnson (1972) in which he owns the screen almost alone from beginning to end in a powerful performance about the mountain man. The Sting (1973) earned him his only Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and of course his work opposite Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) was superb. When he began directing, he won the Academy Award for his first film, Ordinary People (1980) which also took Best Film, defeating Raging Bull (1980). In the years since he has made some very fine films, such as The Milagro Beanfield War (1987), A River Runs Through It (1992), Quiz Show (1994) which earned him a second Oscar nod for Best Director, and The Horse Whisperer (1998) to name a few. No longer in a position to gain funding from the major studios simply because he wants to make a film, Redford too is working within the independent industry, and it might have been good for him. The Company You Keep is his best work in years both as an actor and a director. The story is vaguely similar to Running on Empty (1987), Sidney Lumet’s study of two sixties revolutionaries who accidentally blinded a man during a bombing of a building, and have been on the run ever since, staying on step ahead of the FBI, their two children aware of the situation and with them all the way. In this new film, Redford again returns to journalism, when a young reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LeBeouf) links a woman arrested for a sixties underground movement to a local civil rights lawyer, Jim Grant (Redford) who may or may not be who he says he is. Grant had declined to take the woman’s case, and hoping to impress his editor, the young hotshot writer digs deeper and uncovers a truth that is startling. Though a respected member of the local community, having raised his daughter after his wife’s’ death, it is discovered there is no record of Jim Grant existing before 1979. Nothing. Just ahead of the FBI, young Ben discovers that Grant is indeed Nick Sloan, one of the men wanted for the bombings so long ago. Looking for answers as to why they did what they did, Ben interviews the arrested woman, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) and realizes that these people were not terrorists but patriots fiercely dedicated to a cause that was unpopular at the time. They did not believe in their government or the war in Viet Nam, and they lashed out. Yes they feel shame that a man was killed, that was not supposed to happen, but they stand by their beliefs. As he searches for Grant who is on the run, Ben begins to recognize that there are far greater questions here than are being asked or answered and begins to find some decency within himself. No longer is he looking for a big story that will make him, he wants the truth, all of it.

Susan Sarandon steals every scene she is in in the film as Sharon, but her finest moments come in the prison interview in which her passion and regrets come shining through. World weary, tired or running, sad that this is what her life became, though still willing to fight for their cause; she does feel her life was wasted, just misused. There is a real ferocity in her eyes when she speaks, but sadness as well, an understanding of what she has become.

Redford is terrific in one of his very best performances as a purely decent man who fought for a cause he was fervent about, and along the way a man died. He was not supposed to die, they not wish to be murders but once that happened they had to go underground. He believes he has maintained his integrity by serving for civil rights, and though he knows when Sharon is caught the feds are closing in, he does not panic, and he’s been here before. He is a good man, an earnest man with a conscience, but he believes in what they were fighting against.

By allowing the story of the reporter to take greater focus, we lose some power in the film because I would have liked to have seen more of Redford and Sarandon, to learn more about them when they were younger and what they have been struggling with while on the run. The beauty of Running on Empty (1987) was that Lumet explored the manner in which the family could make a phone call, say a line and they knew to drop everything and move, no questions asked. I would have enjoyed seeing some of that within this film.

Though LeBeouf has made some claims he plans to be a method actor (Hmmm) and do more important work, better work, he simply does not the dramatic heft to make his performance as Ben work. Emile Hirsch would have run with the part, making the character more compelling, and with a stronger actor in the role the film would not drop off in the second half as it does. Much of this is simply because LeBeouf is not in the same league as the actors working around him. I mean seriously, Chris Cooper? Stanley Tucci? Terence Howard? Anna Kendrick? Acting with people as opposed to green screen might have thrown him, but this after is method acting, as the others know all too well. With the right sort of support, Redford could land in the Oscar race, though it’s a wild card and dark horse for sure.

THE IMPOSSIBLE (**) …My struggles with this film might sound mean spirited, and I need to state that is not my intention, not at all. There are people out there who might attack for sounding callous about the Tsunami tragedy and again, I am not intentionally doing that. Sherri and I wrote a check for aid to the survivors fund and were happy to do so. While watching The Impossible, I felt I was watching a made for television film, an A&E special, or an HBO mini-series, though HBO usually does greater work. If you have seen the trailer for the film, there is really no need to see the entire movie, because foolishly they tell almost the entire story within that trailer if you are watching. On vacation in Thailand for the Christmas holidays, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) are with their three sons having a blast. They release white balloons that will float out over the sea, and go to bed that night in peace, content in their happiness. The next morning brings the wrath of the sea onto land as a massive wave smashes onto the coast, killing thousands, washing people out to sea, taking entire villages into the ocean, demolishing homes and businesses, and reminding mankind of the staggering power of nature. Separated by the waves, the family will struggle to find one another among the thousands of displaced people wandering in shock after the impact of the wave, and the hell left in its retreat back to the sea. Wandering through the devastation, the family urgently searches for one another, seeing all sorts of nightmarish suffering along the way.

The performances of the actors cannot be faulted, they do fine work, Watts especially but everyone involved has done stronger work in better films. Sorry to sound harsh, but I think those who lost their lives or everything they had deserved a better monument than this.

The recreation of the Tsunami itself is surprisingly muted, with one scene on palm trees being knocked down by something we cannot see. The guy beside me whispered, “oh great Kong has found Watts”. Humph, and I was worried about sounding callous. The Impossible was a huge disappointment.