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The Revenant (2015)

revenant-leoWhich do you value more, verisimilitude or narrative? If you’re looking for an intense, immersive filmgoing experience that’s just as harrowing as it is beautiful, then perhaps The Revenant is your movie. If you are looking for characters and a story to engage with, then maybe it won’t be. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass who was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. He miraculously survives and tracks down those who betrayed him for some frontier justice Under the unyielding vision of director Alejandro Gonzalez Innarito (Birdman), the movie opens up its scary world with an exhilarating sense of detail. Inarritu favors lots of natural light and long, gorgeous tracking shots, which creates a spellbinding sense of realism. The attacks and escapes and moment-to-moment survival communicate the remarkable dangers of this natural world. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is flawless, using light and camera placement to stunning effect. However, The Revenant (meaning a person who has come back from the dead) is a series of beautifully rendered moments delicately stretched over a ponderous running time of 157 minutes. There’s just not enough plot events to fill that running time, so to compensate Inarritu gives way to some Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) impulses that try for philosophical poetry but miss. DiCaprio is getting plenty of plaudits for his demanding role, and he’s quite good and visceral (and no, he does not get raped by a bear). I was more impressed with Tom Hardy, who plays the target of Glass’ fury. Hardy imbues depth into his antagonist, and while you won’t exactly be rooting for him to get away you can see the guy as more pragmatist than mustache-twirling rogue. He even has an interesting back-story surviving being scalped that informs his decision-making. Much of the film is watching Glass endure physical hardship after physical hardship, which may grow wearying for many audience members, especially those most squeamish. When it’s firing, The Revenant is a magnificent and stunningly realized survival thriller with sprinkles of engaging human drama. The problem is that there isn’t enough to go around for its running time.

Nate’s Grade: B

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

Birdman-PosterExpecting a comedy from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu would have preposterous. The man was known for his cinema verite of suffering, notably Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful, and his best film, Amores Perros, roughly translated to Love’s a Bitch. Perhaps there isn’t much of a shift going from tragedy to comedy. Inarritu’s newest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), has been wowing critics and audiences alike, building deafening awards buzz for its cast, Iarritu, and the superb cinematography, but will it fly with mainstream audiences? This may be one of the weirdest Oscar front-runners in some time.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor best known for playing the superhero Birdman in the early 1990s and walking away from the franchise. He’s still haunted by that role (sometimes literally) and struggling to prove himself as an artist. He’s brokered all his money into directing, adapting, and starring in a theatrical version of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The show is in previews and about to open its run on Broadway but it’s already got a rash of problems. The leading man needs to be replaced immediately. The supposed savior is famous actor Mike (Edward Norton), an undeniably talented but temperamental actor who pushes buttons to find some fleeting semblance of “truth.” Mike’s girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is growing tired of his antics and desperate for her own long-delayed big break. Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s “girlfriend” and co-star and may be pregnant. Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s personal assistant and also his detached daughter, is fresh from rehab, and spiteful against her neglectful dad. Toss in Riggan’s best friend/manager/play producer (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and a feared theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to kill Riggan’s show to send a message to the rest of Hollywood polluting the integrity of the theat-tah. Oh, and throughout all this, Riggan hears an ominous voice that alternating encourages him and humiliates him.

hr_Birdman_16It’s an industry satire, a bizarre comedy, a father/daughter drama, an examination on identity and the complicated pulls of affection and admiration, and a stunning virtuoso technical achievement. As a movie, Birdman is hard to pin down or categorize. It’s a movie that you definitely need to experience on your own rather than have described (don’t stop reading, come back…), and that is a reason enough to see the film, a rare aspect among modern movies. It’s an artistically offbeat movie and yet it ultimately is about one has been actor looking back on his career and coming to terms with his own impact with pop-culture, art, and his family. It’s about a man struggling to find his place in his own life, beset at all odds by doubters and traitors and obstructionists. The refreshing aspect about Riggan is that he’s a has-been but not a sad sack; he’s fighting from the beginning, sometimes pathetically and sometimes in vain, but the man is always fighting to regain his dignity, to reclaim his life’s narrative, and to fight for his legacy. Riggan, after all, set the stage for the modern superhero industry that currently dominates Hollywood bean counters. He was too just soon, and the parallels with Keaton (Batman) are superficially interesting but there’s more of an original character here than a reflection of the actor playing him. He’s neurotic, egotistical, hungry, and fighting for respect, like many actors, and the film flirts with the façades people inhabit. Many of the characters are emotionally needy, desperate for validation wherever they can find it.

Another strength of the film is that it finds a moment for each of its talented ensemble players to shine, chief among them Keaton. The actor hasn’t had a showcase like this in some time and he is a terrific guiding force to hold the entire story together. Whether it’s marching in his tighty whities or working through his complicated degrees of neuroses, Keaton is alive in a way that is electrifying. We see several highs and lows over the course of two hours, some moments making us cheer on Riggan and others making us wince, but he comes across more like a person than just the butt of a joke. It’s also just fun to watch him adopt different acting styles when he steps on stage, including one early on where he’s purposely too stilted. It’s so comforting to watch Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel) get to be great again, not just good but great. Early on, you see the appeal of Mike, his allure, and Norton keeps pushing the audience, as well as the characters, back and forth with his wealth of talent. Stone (Amazing Spider-Man 2) spends most of the film as the sulky daughter but she gets to uncork one awesomely angry monologue against her loser dad. The thawing father/daughter relationship ends up supplying the film with its only degree of heart. Watts (The Impossible) is comically frazzled for the majority of her time but gets a memorable character beat where she breaks down in tears, realizing her dream of “making it” might never materialize. Riseborough (Oblivion) also has moments where he sadness and vulnerability cut deep. The supporting characters aren’t terribly deep but they all have a moment to standout.

It’s a decidedly offbeat film that dips into the surreal though never dives completely inside. The movie is rather ambiguous about whether or not the fantastical flourishes are a result of Riggan being mentally ill, or at the least overtaxed with stress. Is there really a Birdman or is it a voice in his head, a manifestation of his ego or a ghost to remind him of the past when he was a star? Does Riggan really have the powers he seems to believe he does, including the ability to make objects move with his mind? Innaritu playfully keeps the audience guessing, treating the bizarre in an offhand manner reminiscent of magic realism. The bizarre embellishments blend smoothly with the film’s darkly comic tone. It’s a funny movie but one that you laugh at between clenched teeth.

birdman-movie-poster-4Is it all the unblinking camerawork a gimmick? I don’t think so. While the story can engage with its weirdness and surreal unpredictability, the long tracking shots bring a heightened reality to the unreal, they bring a larger sense of awe to the proceedings, watching to see the magic trick pulled off to the end. If anything, it’s an extra thrill to the script and greatly compounds the artistic audaciousness of the film, but I think it also channels the live-wire energy of theater, of watching actors have to walk that tightrope of performance and blocking, weaving together to pull off the ensemble. It makes the film medium feel more like live theater. Thematically I think the style also connects to the anxious mentality of Riggan. In the end, I don’t truly care that much whether it’s a gimmick or not (though I vote it is not) because the camerawork is rapturous. Made to resemble an entire two-hour tracking shot, it is a joyous thrill to watch these technical wizards do their thing, to watch the best in the business perform a visual magic trick over the duration of two hours. Even if you don’t care for the overall movie you can at least be entertained by the imaginative and thoroughly accomplished cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh from his Oscar for Gravity and who should be clearing shelf space for the next bushel of awards he’s destined to win with this film. It’s an intoxicating experience to behold, though the film is structured into 10-minute or so chunks for feasibility. If you want to watch a real cinematic magic trick, check out the film Russian Ark, which is an entire movie, performed in one uncut single tracking shot.

I’m still wrestling with the debate over whether Birdman is an artistically ambitious romp or a truly great movie. Much like the characters in the film, I’m wrestling with whether I have confused my admiration with adoration. It’s a movie that I feel compelled to see a second time, and maybe a third, just to get a handle on my overall thoughts and feelings. That may be a sign that Birdman is a film for the ages, or maybe it’s just a sign that it’s not as approachable and denied a higher level of greatness by its obtuseness. Inarritu’s surreal showbiz satire is plenty entertaining, darkly comic, and a technical marvel thanks to the brilliant camerawork. The percussion-heavy musical score is another clever choice, naturally adding more urgency and anxiety to the proceedings. Birdman is a strange and beguiling movie, one that deserves to be seen, needs to be experienced, and stays with you rolling around in your brain. That sounds like a winner to me.

Nate’s Grade: A

Babel (2006)/ Blood Diamond (2006)

The world is a global community. It is increasingly difficult to shut out unpleasant news just because it happens to an unfortunate few we’ll never know. Hollywood has reminded us through the years that our actions do have sound repercussions, including our indifference. Babel is Mexican-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s examination on the fragility of human relationships in the world. Blood Diamond wishes to shine the spotlight on America’s love of diamonds fanning the flames of genocide in Africa. Both movies wish to convince the public that they matter, and not just in box-office, though that would be appreciated. Both of these films have good intentions but the results are sloppy and leaden.

In typical Inarritu fashion, the different storylines of Babel converge, blend, criss-cross, and crash together. The timeline isn’t as disruptive as it was in 21 Grams, so that is a welcome relief. The storylines offer wide-eyed views into different worlds and cultures. A Morocco goat herder purchases a riffle for his sons to protect the herd. The two brothers turn sharp-shooting into a competition, with the one betting the other he cannot hit a bus far in the distance. On that bus is Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), a married couple at odds with each other. Suddenly a shot whizzes through the window and into Susan’s neck. Richard panics and struggles with his options being far removed from advanced medical care and being unable to speak with the natives.

The incident becomes the shot heard round the world. The U.S. government is quick to suggest a terrorist link (who didn’t see that one coming?) but caught up in red tape to rescue the couple. Their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), cannot find someone to watch the kids so she can attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) agrees to drive her and the kids south of the border where the blonde moffetts can learn things like how to kill a chicken. Things take a sour note when reentering the United States at a border crossing manned by suspicious patrolmen.

And half a world away, a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) deals in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide by flashing her vagina at boys and throwing herself at older men. Therapy might also be a workable alternative.

The strong ensemble acting is what kept me watching. Babel is filled with many talented actors that each get a turn to look pained, incredulous, and helpless. This is a movie primarily built around sadness and misfortune, and actors jump at those chances. Exhibit A: Brad Pitt. I’ve always thought his serious acting credentials get cast aside because of his good looks (the man even played a Greek god), but he’s into his 40s now and weathering some grown-up gray and wrinkles that, I don’t know how, add a mature sexiness to the man, much like George Clooney. Pitt was serviceable in Babel but failed to impress. He gets to pace a lot and look haggard but he still seems like a distant character. The whole American tourist storyline cannot outrun the sense of pointlessness it seems to be circling. The greatest moments of acting come from the extreme anxiety of Barraza and the dissatisfied yearning of Kikuchi. I expect both women to get nominated for many awards.

The most frustrating aspect of Babel is how little it matters. It’s hard to connect with the characters. And in the end, nothing all that tragic happens to reach anything profound. Most characters leave their shadowy places and only a small number are changed for the worst, mostly the victims of some very bad decision making. But when the movie concludes there is only one dead body and one displaced person. That’s it, and Babel doesn’t even hang on to let us feel that pain. It just skips from story to story never settling in and never evoking any human emotion except for that of morbid curiosity. These people are victims of fate and not much else. Babel is a letdown of a letdown.

The Japanese schoolgirl storyline has no place in this film. The other three storylines all have a pertinent relationship, but the only thing that ties the schoolgirl into this web of international kerfuffle is that her father once owned the gun in question. Wow. It might have made better drama, and more sense, had this riffle had some significance, like it was the weapon of choice for her suicidal mother. Nope, it’s just another object with no more bearing to this family than a stapler. I think the deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl is a terrific character and intensely intriguing, especially as she battles the trials of teenage life and feeling like even more of an outcast than usual, but this story needs its own separate movie. It has no business being here and, like much of Babel, adds little understanding or significance. So much of the movie isn’t even told to the audience, like character back-stories and written catharsis, so any distraction feels like a waste of time for a 140-minute movie.

The ending is symptomatic of the film in general; it just kind of peters out and thinks its message has been well-received. What message? What the hell is Babel saying? Stop, look, and listen? The world stage is at such a precarious time and is, for better or worse, unified; someone else’s problem has ripples that will become our problem. Isolationism is dead. But Babel squanders any attempts at a deeper message by playing it safe; never pushing further than the scene descriptions it has confined itself to. The title refers to the Biblical story where God punished man’s arrogance by creating multiple languages. Most of the conflicts revolve around communication issues, but they really only seem like a small portion of the story. When Amelia takes the kids to Mexico, there really aren’t any communication problems. When the car is stopped by the Border Patrol there aren’t any slip-ups in communication, but Santiago freaks out and bolts. The central idea of Babel, lost communication, never really feels properly executed except with the Japanese schoolgirl, who, like I said, doesn’t even belong here.

When Babel does have something political to dwell upon it is usually very lazy. Law enforcement treats illegal immigrants like crap. The U.S. government is more interested in punishing perceived threats than medically helping those in need. American tourists are boorish and see dusty places like Morocco as a place to be alone, despite all the impoverished people shuffling about. Give me a break. There’s nothing within Babel that makes it worth more than one viewing. Once you know the outcome for characters than the film ceases to have a point. This is a true surprise and disappointment from the team that had so much emotional vitality and open humanity with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. I guess a lot must have gotten lot in translation.

On the flip side, while Babel is a mildly interesting movie desperately needing a message, Blood Diamond is a message in desperate need of an interesting movie. The message rings loud and clear in the film?s opening moments: conflict diamonds are bad. They account for 15 percent of all diamond sales and help finance genocide, civil war, and child brainwashing in Africa. The diamond industry says they cannot decipher which diamonds are which, but come on, they know. They use their market share to control world prices, thus creating a windfall for African rebels. They come up with more diamonds, and the diamond industry purchases them to take them off the market. Got it. But now what?

The short answer is, “‘Just say no’ to conflict diamonds, that is.” The long answer is one very trite movie that wears its liberal idealism on its sleeve with a bit too much fondness. Africa has become the cause celebre of recent films, but have any of them really made a difference? Did The Constant Gardener make us think twice about why drugs are so cheap (because Africans are exploited)? Did Syriana make us think twice why oil was comparatively cheap for Americans (because Africans AND Middle Easterners are exploited)? I doubt it. I may sound a pinch too cynical but I believe that the Unites States of America just generally doesn’t care as long as prices stay nice and low. I applaud filmmakers for attempting to open eyes and change hearts and minds, especially for many thought-provoking and worthy causes. But if you’re going to sponsor a message movie than you need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Blood Diamond will make you gag, that’s how heavy the message is. It displays a depressing showcase of Africa recycling violence, but it always manages to stay on point. The movie is supposed to be concerned with the well being of Africa, but yet it hangs its attention on a pair of white people. Danny (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a South African diamond smuggler who gets the classic Hollywood redemption arc, courtesy of Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) an enslaved mine-worker that has found a pink diamond the size of a bird egg. Danny and Solomon form a reluctant partnership to get recover the diamond, rescue Solomon’s lost son, and get everyone out of the raging gunfire. But the film is focused on Danny’s arc as he goes from scoundrel to savior, with all those black faces in the background just becoming that — background. The film’s climax involves Danny running through a mining camp looking to rescue Solomon’s lost son. However, Danny shoots and kills all the other kids holding weapons as he dances in between explosions. You cannot root for that as a moral audience member, can you? Danny may save one child but he’ll blow away all the rest, and to the pounding score of Hollywood glory. If this was meant to seem meditative than God help us all.

Jennifer Connelly plays a photo journalist that?s a self-described action junkie. She says she just can’t go through her day sipping lattes and reading Ziggy in the funny papers, not with knowing how cruel the world is to one another. Did she just become aware of this? The world has always had people getting treated poorly and will forever. Her character is an outlet to the Western world, a lens that can capture and broadcast the horrors of Africa which she flippantly predicts will be a minute on CNN “between sports and weather.” She’s your prototypical bleeding heart and the not-so-subtle outlet for the righteous indignation of the filmmakers. There’s nothing to her character except a camera for proof, an unyielding moral compass, and a pair of breasts for Danny to improbably snuggle up to.

The message of Blood Diamond is what we’re reminded of time and again, including tidbits to clue us in on how it all began (where did Africa learn some brutality? Why white colonists of course). The movie is built as an action vehicle, but it’s an action vehicle going in the wrong direction. The bursts of action are frequent but never anything well imagined or exciting. Usually the film follows two, or more, characters talking and then they’re interrupted by bouts of gunfire. Danny starts uttering “GO!” and “MOVE!” every other breath and they escape. This formula is repeated for the rest of the movie. It hampers getting to know and feel for the characters and sure as hell doesn’t amount to a lot of interesting action. There’s the main problem: we can’t feel for the characters because the movie doesn’t spend enough time with them, and yet we can’t get excited because the movie doesn’t spend enough time to build effective suspense. Blood Diamond finds its way into a balancing act it is hopelessly ill-prepared for.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) is used to fashioning mass-friendly entertainment with cultural issues bubbling to the surface. Perhaps, though, he should have taken a cue from Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War. That film had an easily identifiable message (guns can be bad) but found ways to engage an audience. It had a lot of political ire and troubling statistics to dish, but Niccol knew that an audience must be entertained first and foremost. He found inventive camera angles, stirring monologues, and fascinating true-life anecdotes about arms trading. The main character wasn’t likeable but you just wanted a longer peek into this world behind the curtain. Blood Diamond lacks the biting insights that made Lord of War powerful and enjoyable. Even Lord of War handled the subject of turning children into a blood-thirsty army better. Zwick seems adrift and too close to his message to care about sharpening a good movie.

The movie has a handful of odd moments. In our introduction to Danny he is negotiating a weapons deal. He speaks to the head of a militia in a highly accented speech and subtitles pop up on the screen. Naturally, you would assume the language currently being spoken is not English. Danny is actually just impersonating an African’s English speaking voice. If you listen to what they’re saying they speak English the entire time. And the line, “In America, it’s bling-bling, but over here it’s bling-bang?” No. A thousand times no.

DiCaprio is muscling his way into a riveting and meaty actor of prominence. His accent is near flawless, just like his Bah-stun accent was in The Departed. He gives more simmer to his role than deserved. Hounsou is a great actor but his most emotive scenes involve a lot of yelling that just seems like yelling. A lot of high-volume yelling doesn’t work when the character is so flimsy. Both of these actors are victims of playing characters with little else to them besides the title of Victim and Victimizer. Connelly and DiCaprio have no chemistry to them, not that the film’s neutered sensuality and agitated story help much. It’s as if Blood Diamond expects that by smashing the two characters together long enough their romance will be plausible. It isn’t. The romance is a distraction at best and eye-rolling at worst.

Babel and Blood Diamond are both pieces of misguided Oscar-bait. Innaritu and his writer for three films, Guillermo Arriaga, have said to have clashed since Babel‘s release and may no longer work again together in the near future. I welcome this trial separation because their film collaborations seem to be dulling. Babel has all the technical skills evident in 21 Grams and Amores Perros, but nothing substantial or contemplative. Conversely, Blood Diamond is a message movie posing as an action flick. It can’t succeed with poorly constructed action sequences and archetypal characters posing as openings for outrage and shameful finger-wagging. The movie is crushed to death by a message. Blood Diamond is a message movie that’s so weighted down it never gets very far. Both films are marginally interesting but nothing transcendent or demanding. Hollywood has its heart in the right place. They just need to make better movies.

Nate’s Grades:

Babel: B-

Blood Diamond: C

21 Grams (2003)

21 Grams (2003)

Premise: A mathematician (Sean Penn) in need of a heart transplant, a recovering addict (Naomi Watts) mourning the loss of her husband and children, and an ex-con (Benicio Del Toro) who’s found redemption in Jesus, are all linked by a horrific car accident. The aftermath will bring them together out of grief, guilt, and revenge.

Results: The greatest asset 21 Grams has, bar none, is the trio of breathtaking performances. De Toro gives a powerful performance as a man consumed by grief and seeking answers in the unknown. Watts gives the definition of a raw performance. What isn’’t cool is the structure, told out of order like the director’s first film, the brilliant Amorres Perros, translated: Love’s a Bitch. But the mixed-up structure of 21 Grams is needlessly complicated d frustrating, plus it pulls you out of the movie. I’m sure there’s a rationale reason for it, but the surprises and expectations it produces are minimal. The whole thing would have been better plunked in an old-fashioned linear structure. The sensational performances and intelligent story will stay with you long after the film ends.

Nate’’s Grade: B+

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