Review: The Way

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The Pitch: You’ll never walk alone. (No matter how much you’d like to.)

The Review: 2011 has been a heck of a year for one member of the Estevez family. Carlos has lost his job and embarked on a tour in an attempt to find himself. You might know him better as Charlie Sheen, of course, but while he’s currently the most famous member of that particular family, father Ramon (or Michael Sheen if you prefer) and brother Emilio (who’s a full time Estevez, of course) have collaborated for the third time under Emilio’s direction, in a film that’s come a very long way from his early collaboration with his younger brother, Men At Work. Unlike his brother he seems to be mellowing with age and The Way is his most sedate work to date, in which he plays the disenchanted son of his father’s ophthalmologist who gives up his education and sets out to see the world.

Tragically, one day into a pilgrimage down the Camino de Santiago son Daniel suffers and accident and is killed. Devastated by the loss and the fact that they didn’t part on the best of terms, father Tom travels to the Pyrenees to collect Daniel’s body and finds himself drawn in a struggle to understand Daniel’s quest. After talking through with the local police chief (Tcheky Karyo), Tom resolves to take his son’s ashes and complete the pilgrimage himself. With his grief still raw, he’s not keen to be sociable but he hasn’t accounted for the camaraderie and companionship that go hand in hand with walking the Camino, and his encounters with a friendly, doped up Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), bristly Canadian Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) and insensitive Irishman Jack (James Nesbitt) shape not only his own journey, but helps in turn to shape each of theirs.

The idea for the film came about originally after another Estevez, Emilio’s son Taylor, and Martin toured the Camino (the journey to the presumed final resting place of St. James) while Martin was on a break from his West Wing duties. Martin originally suggested a low budget documentary but Emilio had larger ambitions, and what we’ve actually ended up with feels like a slight hybrid of the two. Emilio uses his camera well and captures enough of the scenery to make it easy to see why people would take this trek, but there’s always a little of a travelogue feel, almost as if the next monastery or hostel has a crew of a TV travel show waiting to get their latest thoughts when they cross the threshold. The upside of that approach is that everything feels very natural and unforced – that does include the pacing, and the film is just the wrong side of two hours, but no one ever said a pilgrimage would be short.

Of the other pilgrims, Joost feels a little caricaturish but adds much needed humour and jollity early on without jarring the mood. In a lesser film Sarah would have ended up as a shoehorned love interest, especially when Tom is a widower, but The Way has more respect for its characters than that. Jack is James Nesbitt just being James Nesbitt, not much of a stretch and Jack might be the least sympathetic of the characters, but it’s nice to have four people who feel real and aren’t coloured in with black and white but all have shades of grey. What they get out of the pilgrimage changes and becomes clearer as they edge closer to their destination, but along the journey there’s enough here for most people to enjoy the passage of their company as well.

Why see it at the cinema: It might feel more like a TV travelogue at certain points, but you’re a hardened soul if this doesn’t make you want to head out to the Camino tomorrow morning. The cinema screen is the next best place to see that gorgeous scenery if you don’t feel like the spirituality or the blisters.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs)

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The Pitch: The One Where They’re All French And On Holiday.

The Review: Ensemble comedy dramas have been around since almost the dawn of film itself, but there’s one thing that they’ve all had to live in the shadow of for the last fifteen years, and it’s something that grew on the small screen rather than the big one. I refer, of course, to the comedy behemoth that was Friends, which with its ten years of episodic set-ups and lead characters that, on their own, were arch stereotypes but collectively formed a clique that most of the English speaking world seemed to fall in love with. During that ten years, though, Friends ran through almost every possible scenario that six friends could get up to. South Park once had an entire episode revolving around the fact that The Simpsons had mined every possible plotline and left nothing new for its competitors to explore, and at face value this is the equivalent of the two episodes in Friends where everyone went on a beach holiday.

So the challenge for director Guillaume Camet is what he can bring to the genre that’s fresh or original. Certainly the opening sequence is a little more hedonistic than any of the Friends was ever allowed to be, and the opening credits play out over a fantastic tracking shot with a cinematic pay-off.  From there the stakes are raised a little, as a hospital visit requires some tough decisions to be made; two weeks’ holiday or four, for example? It’s less a patient in a bed and more the elephant in the room as the absence of one of the group due to the opening accident casts a shadow over events, but not one that detains the friends for too long. The other major factor casting an omnipresent shadow is a conversation at dinner between Max (François Cluzet) and Vincent (Benoît Magimel), when Vincent struggles to express his more unusual feelings for Max and typically tries to express them before he’s resolved them himself. As it’s Max whose hosting their summer get-together, tensions are bound to run high.

For the majority of the rest of that running time, though, it does become indistinguishable from a French friends. Effectively a series of comic and dramatic vignettes, the passing of each night and day signals a new escapade that the varied characters end up in, each one pretty much defined by a single personality characteristic to help keep them separate. If that sounds a lot like a certain sitcom, then there’s another reason for mentioning it – Little White Lies is 154 minutes long, or the exact equivalent of watching seven episodes of Friends back to back without commercials. You’d expect a lot to be packed into that running time and you’d be right, but the consequence is that none of the stories moves along at much of a pace, and only Marion Cotillard as the pot-smoking bisexual gets called on to do much in the way of proper acting during the majority of the running time. (And yes, the reaction of most of the male characters to the revelation of her sapphic leanings is very reminiscent of one Joey Tribbiani.) Cluzet probably has the most fun of the group, getting to work through his anger management issues and tossing out pithy asides.

But there is more depth here than a TV sitcom, and in the final half hour set-ups pay off and elephants in rooms make themselves resolutely heard. So this holiday is worth taking for the eventual emotional journeys of the characters, but it’s also worth taking because it’s quite a lot of fun for the most part. While certainly a little overlong, the length doesn’t detract too much and  the story arcs do all (eventually) pay off. Camet always keeps things visually interesting and gets the most out of his characters, it’s all generally undemanding and the best bet is to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. You might not want to spend ten years in their company, but these friends are well worth two and a half hours of your time.

Why see it at the cinema: Plenty of gorgeous French scenery, a fair few decent laughs and you might just need one of those literal mouchoirs (handkerchiefs) by the end. What more could you want?

The Score: 8/10