THE REVENANT (2015)

December 28, 2015

the revenant Greetings again from the darkness. “Keep breathing.” A flashback in the opening sequence has Hugh Glass whispering the phrase as advice to his young son Hawk, the product of Glass and his beloved Pawnee bride. The phrase has a recurring role throughout the film … possibly serving as a courtesy reminder from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to the moviegoers mesmerized (and nearly traumatized) by the incredible brutality of what is on screen.

It’s a master class in filmmaking by those at the top of their game. Inarritu is the reigning Oscar winning director for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and he has re-teamed with the reigning Oscar winning cinematographer from that movie, Emmanuel Lubezki. Two of the finest actors of their generation, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, strip away any semblance of pampered movie stardom to deliver ultra-realistic performances in a story “based in part” on the true to life novel by Michael Punke.

An early action sequence is startling in its ferocity as Arikara surround and attack a group of hunters and trappers, and the whoosh of arrows – many of which find their mark – abruptly drag us into a world that we are unfamiliar with and certainly unprepared for. It’s early 19th century U.S. frontier, and just about everyone and everything can kill you.  Providing just enough time for us to pry our fingers off the armrests, Inarritu stuns us with what is undoubtedly the most fantastic grizzly bear attack on a movie star ever filmed. In what appears to be a single take (which also happens to be the number of breaths I took), Mama Grizzly treats Leonardo the way a young puppy treats its first chew toy.  Scratched, chewed, tossed and stomped.  This scene is savage and brutal, and sets the stage for the true, yet still unbelievable odyssey of survival by frontiersman Hugh Glass.

Tom Hardy excels as the calmly psychotic villain Fitzgerald, though some of his early hillbilly-tinged dialogue is difficult to catch. His hulking presence fits with our imagined look of the frontiersman of the era … tough and unforgiving nearly beyond belief. His bullying of youngster Jim Bridger (played by Will Poulter) and power struggles with Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) are at frightening levels of intensity. Fans of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds will smile as they recognize the name of mountain man Jim Bridger … though that’s one of the few smiles offered by this 156 minute gut-wrenching ordeal. It would not be surprising if DiCaprio’s mantel sports an Oscar in a few months. He is that superb in a role that has nothing to do with good looks or charm.

A tale of survival. A quest for revenge.  It’s both of those, as well as a reminder that nature can be both beautiful and brutal. Some of the photography is almost poetic, and often reminds of the work of director Terrence Malick.  And in the blink of an eye, that moment is shattered by the torrential force of river rapids carrying Glass over the waterfall, or his taking a horseback ride off a steep cliff (one of the most dramatic shots of the film). The journey of Glass is unknown in distance or time in the movie, but there is no question as to the numerous struggles with the elements and the raw physicality required to persevere. If you can avoid diverting your eyes, there are visuals here that will be sincerely appreciated – even as you squirm, cringe and moan throughout.

From a technical standpoint, the film was shot on location in Canada and Argentina using only natural lighting, and emphasizing aspects of nature that often are overlooked. The sound of arrows, bears, and even DiCaprio’s breathing are profound and crucial to the overall effect, as are the animal skin garments and other costumes. It’s impossible to tell where CGI meets reality, but the visceral experience will be quite unique for most viewers … and not soon forgotten.

watch the trailer:

 


OSCARS recap (2015)

February 23, 2015

oscars6 Greetings again from the darkness. “Stay weird and stay different” is the main takeaway from this year’s Oscars presentation. Not only was that the heartfelt and emotional plea to kids made by Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore (The Imitation Game), but it also describes Best Picture winner Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

The Academy seems to suffer from a multiple personality disorder in trying to decide what to do with the ceremony. Is it a formal and dignified event to honor the nominees? Is it a celebration of the artistic and historic sides of cinema? Is it an opportunity to entertain the tens of millions of TV viewers who tune in each year? Not knowing the objective makes it very difficult to be successful, which leads to a too-long mish-mash of all three approaches further muddled by the 30-second political statements offered up by millionaires whose words probably carry less weight than they believe, but more than they should.

As a movie lover, what draws me to the telecast is the celebration of cinema, so my favorite segments included: the brilliant opening number entitled “Moving Pictures” as performed by emcee Neil Patrick Harris, with an assist from Anna Kendrick, Jack Black, numerous costumed dancers, some terrific special effects, and clips from many iconic movies; the beautifully sung melody by Lady Gaga as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music – with an appearance from Julie Andrews; and the first time ever that each movie nominated for Best Picture (all 8 of them) went home with at least one Oscar.

Of course there were also segments which I did not enjoy so much: an ultra-creepy John Travolta pawing at Idina Menzel’s face a year after butchering her name on stage; a lackluster Birdman parody by Neil Patrick Harris that paled in comparison to the recent work of Fred Armisen (Indie Spirit Awards) and Sesame Street (with Big Bird); the cut away shots to Michael Keaton chomping his chewing gum like a junior high kid; and the multitude of lame jokes (and absurd pre-show predictions) by Mr Harris that could have been excused if not for the poorly timed zinger directed at the dress choice of an award winner who had just moments before disclosed the suicide of her child.

Emotions always run high in a room full of artists, and the live performance of “Glory” from Best Picture nominee Selma was quite impressive … from the infamous bridge setting, to the vocals of Common and John Legend, to the dozens of folks who joined them onstage (Note: they were given much more time than the other live performances of nominated songs). Also registering high on the emotional meter were: Patricia Arquette’s call for pay equality, Eddie Redmayne’s pure joy at winning Best Actor, and the excitement, pride and perspective shown by Ida director Pawel Pawlikowski  towards his home country of Poland.  On the other end of the emotional spectrum, how does it make sense that sourpuss Sean Penn tries to crack wise with an ill-timed joke, while “comedian” Eddie Murphy reads the list of nominees like he is checking inventory at Home Depot?

On a personal note, my favorite film of the year was Boyhood, and while I am not upset that my second favorite film of the year won Best Picture, I do wish director Richard Linklater had received more accolades for his unique and extraordinary project. It was nice to see two screen veterans and professionals like Julianne Moore and JK Simmons take home their first Oscars, and I was ecstatic to see so many awards go to Wes Anderson’s beautiful The Grand Budapest Hotel and the frenetic Whiplash. We should all welcome the notice given to international talents like Emmanuel Lubezki, Alexandre Desplat and the previously mentioned Eddie Redmayne.

Alejandro Inarritu was the big winner of the night for his ground-breaking work on Best Picture winner Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and on one of his trips to the stage he articulated a point of which I fully agree. He talked about how in the world of art, “works can’t be compared”, and when he has completed a project, it is that moment when he feels like he has succeeded. That is the heart of why the Academy remains confused about how to treat this event. The work of one actor cannot be objectively compared to that of another. No movie can fairly be determined superior to another. By their nature, works of creativity and art impact each of us differently, and the real test is … were we moved? Were we touched? Did the work cause us to think? Each of these things is more important than a shiny statuette … unless it’s one of those Lego Oscars, which, regardless what was contained in the $160,000 swag bags, were the absolute coolest item given away at the Dolby Theatre!

oscars7


BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

October 28, 2014

birdman Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood versus Broadway. Screen versus Stage. It’s always been a bit Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The basic argument comes down to celebrity versus artistic merit. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu blurs the lines with his most creative and daring project to date. It’s also his funniest, but that’s not really saying much since his resume includes Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

The basic story involves a former Hollywood actor well known for playing a superhero (Birdman) many years ago. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you might recall garnered fame playing Batman many years ago. While the parallels are obvious, it’s quickly forgotten thanks to a majestic performance from Mr. Keaton. Riggan is trying to prove something to himself and the world by writing, directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.

Riggan’s quest runs into every imaginable obstacle, not the least of which is his own internal struggle with his ego … voiced by his former Birdman character. This could have been a more detailed exploratory view of the creative ego, but we also have money issues, casting issues, personal issues, professional issues and family issues.

Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s best friend-agent-lawyer, and is the film’s most grounded character. Yes, you can read the sentence again. A slimmed down Zach perfectly captures the highs and lows of the guy charged with juggling the creative egos and the business requirements of the production. Naomi Watts plays the exceedingly nervous and emotional film star making her stage debut, while her boyfriend and co-star is played by Edward Norton who, well, basically plays Edward Norton … a critically respected method actor who is known to be a royal pain in the keister. Riggan’s current squeeze, who is also an actress in the play, is played by Andrea Riseborough who gleefully blindsides him with an announcement that is unwelcome and untimely. Riggan also receives visits from his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and is employing his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) in an assistant role. As if all of this wasn’t enough, a tipsy Riggan botches a pub interaction with an all-powerful stage critic (Lindsay Duncan), and the two trade incisive insults regarding each other’s vocation. So all of these characters and worlds collide as the production nears the always stress-inducing opening night.

After all of that, it’s pretty easy to state that the script is somehow the weakest part of the film. Instead, the directing, cinematography, editing and acting make for one of the most unique movie experiences of all time. Director Inarritu and famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing team, deliver what appears to be a single take for mostly the entire run of the film. Of course we know it can’t possibly be a single take, but it’s so seamless that the breaks are never obvious to us as viewers. We have seen a similar approach by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope, but this time it’s a frenetic pace, and the maze-like setting in the bowels of NYC’s St James Theatre that makes this one a spectacular technical achievement.

Lubezki won an Oscar for his camera work on Gravity, and he has also worked on multiple Terrence Malick films, but this is the pinnacle of his career to date. It’s impossible to even comprehend the coordination required for the camera work, the actor’s lines and marks, the on que jazz percussion score from Antonio Sanchez, and the fluidity of movement through the narrow halls and doorways of backstage. It’s truly a work of art … whether a stage critic thinks so or not! Most every cinephile will see this one multiple times, but mainstream appeal will certainly not grab ahold. Reality, fantasy, insanity, and morbidity all play a role here and frequently occupy a character simultaneously. These aren’t likable people, and the film’s crucial scene forces Mr Keaton to speed-walk through Times Square in only his tighty-whities, leaving his character in the proverbial “naked on stage” situation. It’s rare to see such unflattering looks at both the stage and screen worlds, and it’s also rare to see such fine performances. Three standouts are Keaton, Norton and Stone. If the industry can avoid presenting awards to itself for “cartoons and pornography“, these three should all capture Oscar nominations.

Beyond that, director Inarritu, cinematographer Lubezki, and composer Sanchez deserve special recognition for their incredibly complex technical achievements. For those who complain that Hollywoood only produces re-treads, sequels and superhero movies, take a walk on the wild side and give this one a shot. You may not love it, but you’ll likely admire it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s creative filmmaking you seek OR you want to see a tour de force performance from Michael Keaton OR you seek the challenge of identifying the scene cuts (good luck)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hear enough voices in your own head and prefer not to take on those from Birdman

watch the trailer:

 


BIUTIFUL

January 30, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If anyone tells you this film is a bit of a downer, never trust them again. It may be the bleakest, most dismal film I have ever seen (and that’s saying a lot!). A bit of downer does not do it justice. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Javier Bardem is captivating and truly encompasses the character of Uxbal – a father of two, who has a connection to the dead, and is headed there himself (quickly).

Already I am sure many are turned off by the subject matter and the fact that it’s not an inspirational, feel-good movie. I would make the point that despite the despair, it does show the journey of a man seeking redemption and trying, with everything he has, to do right by his kids.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a master filmmaker as evidenced by his work in 21 Grams and Babel. He gives us a real feel for the grungy and claustrophobic world that these people inhabit. We absolutely feel their pain and resolve and desperation and panic. We feel it for the entire 2 and a half hours running time.  I should also mention that the film has what may be the most unusual score/soundtrack of any film in recent memory.  There is no real continuity, it’s as if music was written for individual scenes, rather than for the entire film.  Very effective, but very non-traditional.

 If you can take the filmed depression, the pay off is watching Bardem work. I have often recommended his fascinating work in The Sea Inside, but as much as it pains me to agree with Julia Roberts, his performance here is somehow better. It’s no wonder why he felt the need to escape with Eat Pray Love after filming this one. It should be noted that Bardem is the first ever Lead Actor nominee for a full Spanish speaking role.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a masterful performance by Javier Bardem OR you thought 21 Grams and Babel were just a bit too funny and light-hearted.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you couldn’t care less about acting proficiency and just want your movies to be feel good and uplifting