The Revenant

January 28, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

“The Revenant” is a brutal film to watch, and can make one feel a bit unclean after viewing it. It’s the kind of film you’re glad you saw, and are even more glad you’ll never have to see it again. The film stars Leonard DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, an expert tracker and fur trapper, who assists a group of trappers led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), and is mauled by a bear after fleeing from a tribe of Arikara who ambushes them. The group is less than thrilled to be with Glass, as he has a half-native son, and is seen as some sort of a traitor for that. Glass is very close to his son, Hawk, and in the beginning shots, we’re privy to knowing that something bad happened to Glass’s wife (or Hawk’s mother). Hawk has scars on his face, implying burning, and is only close to his father. The man who is most affected negatively by Hawk’s presence is John Fitzgerald (played by an unrecognizable Tom Hardy), who doesn’t seem to really like anybody including himself.

After the Arikara attack the group, they flee on a boat and find refuge on a bank, in which Glass recommends they go back to their fort, Fort Kiowa. Many of the men are not high on this idea, including Fitzgerald, but they go through with it anyway. Then, Glass is attacked when he accidentally runs into a grizzly with her cubs. He survives, barely, but most of the men think he won’t make it. Henry enlists two men to stay with Glass while the rest track back to the fort–he promises a handsome payment for staying with Glass. Desperate for money, Fitzgerald agrees to stay along with a young trapper named Bridger (Will Poulter). Bridger thinks they will actually nurse Glass back to health, or is hopeful of it; Fitzgerald cannot wait for Glass to die.

We learn very quickly that Fitzgerald will be the villain in this film, and from the time that Glass is laying in his makeshift death bed, we can pretty much dictate where the story is going from there. This is easily going to be a story about revenge. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu (“Birdman”, “Babel”) throws some symbolism and tries to deepen the theme about revenge, but ultimately this is a pretty simple-minded story. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is not engaging. The performances by DiCaprio and Hardy are very strong, and we really feel for Glass as he suffers through unimaginable turmoil (the least of which sometimes are the bear injuries). The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezky (who also worked on “Birdman”) is outstanding, including his penchant for continual shots, not cutting away (the entire film of “Birdman” was like this). Sometimes the camera will spin around, giving us a panoramic feel, and it’s almost like we’re there in the mountains with these men. It adds to the realism of the film itself, which is what makes it so brutal to watch. There are very few light moments, but we welcome them with open arms when they happen–including a nice scene with a Pawnee native assisting Glass through treacherous weather.

But the main driving force is the story between Glass and Fitzgerald. The film tries to push a subplot involving an Arikara chief in search of his daughter. The payoff is decent, but the addition of this story adds to a seemingly unnecessary run time that makes the film a bit bloated at over 2 and a half hours. Still, overall there are not too many dull moments and the story keeps moving at a good pace. The climax is strong, and the resolution is satisfying.

The film is hard to watch, and the purpose is to show what man is capable of to survive. Once Glass has resolved what he set out to do, we are left with little ambiguity on what happens to him next. The idea of revenge is such that it is not “in the hands of man, but of the Creator.” That’s a fine message, but it leaves a heavy handed feeling clenched between the muck and mauled flesh and bone of an otherwise thin plot. The strength of the characters makes up for the somewhat weakness of the story, and there are enough powerful scenes that will make this a worthwhile viewing. But one really is enough.

My rating: :-)

Django Unchained

January 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

I don’t know that I can say Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite filmmakers. Although, I will say this: when he makes a great movie, he makes me re-think that position. But his career hasn’t been all that consistent. After getting off to a fine start with the slightly superficial but entertaining “Reservoir Dogs”, he really stepped up with “Pulp Fiction”–and then, seemed to disappear. “Jackie Brown” was a nice sleeper, but it was a bit of a let down after something as great as “Pulp Fiction”. Then came “Kill Bill”, a movie that literally split me in two. I liked elements of it, but I didn’t love any of it. His “Grindhouse” offering of “Death Proof” left me unimpressed as well. Oh, and as far as a screenwriter–I did really enjoy “True Romance” as well.

Then came “Inglourious Basterds”, probably my favorite of all of his films. It was Tarantino at his finest–not just as Tarantino, but as a filmmaker in general. He just flat out nailed it with that picture. It was epic, it was haunting, it was funny, it was enthralling, and it was moving, on top of it being just plain interesting throughout.

He follows it with “Django Unchained”, a film I had a lot of interest in because he seemed to be very inspired by Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone (two Sergios, one…nevermind) and I was intrigued to see what he did with the taboo context of the story, which revolves around slavery.

Tarantino knows how to cast a film, that’s for sure. He enlists again the help of one of the finest actors out there right now, Christoph Waltz, to play the sidekick to the hero of the film, Django, played by Jamie Foxx. Immediately, the film looks appealing. Throughout it, there are some trademark Tarantino moments, and there are some just flat out great scenes. Jamie Foxx is certainly Oscar-worthy, proving again how strong he is as a leading man.

But as a movie, on the whole, something just didn’t work for me. As much as I hate to admit it, I think it truly is the context in which the story revolves around. There is almost too much joy involved with this film in order to give it a pass for taking place during the time of slavery, which is a scar that will never go away in this country. We can move past it, we can forgive it somehow–but to create a fun action western picture out of it, just left me cold. 

Django is a freed slave by Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) who becomes a bounty hunter with him, ”making money killing white people”. We learn that Django is married and his wife is being held at a very fancy plantation owned by a charismatic young man named Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his finest role in years). Through most of the first half of the film, we see Django and Schultz’ exploits as bounty hunters, going after villainous slave owners and racists, in the name of revenge I suppose. There’s one would-be comic scene in which one of the racists (played by Don Johnson) known as Big Daddy tries to rally some men to lynch Django and Schultz wearing masks. But the holes aren’t quite where they should, and it winds up causing a stir among the posse. I know Tarantino wanted to lighten the mood here and say “Haha look at these idiot racists!” But the scene to me just fell flat. It was so childishly written and almost just too goofy for a movie like this. And it sends a mixed message, which permeates this whole film. Just what is Tarantino’s feeling about this time period? He just throws so much at the screen that it’s hard to really tell if he gets his own movie this time.

On the one hand, we’re given very loud clanging sound effects when we hear the men in chains. That was on purpose. And effective. We’re shown some brutal scenes of slaves being whipped, including Django’s poor wife Broomhilda (played by the appealing Kerry Washington). But then, we’re given scenes like the mask scene and a few others of confusing humor and outright gruesome violence that borderlines cartoonish. It’s a very fine line to walk, and I don’t think Tarantino walked it very well. Certainly not like he did in “Basterds” where there was very little cartoonery and there were no scenes of torture or anything that would muddle the message.

Where the film works best is when the two bounty hunters reach Candie’s plantation (known as Candieland). There is a lot of building tension, broken a few times by an hilarious and welcoming performance by Samuel L. Jackson as a servant named Stephen. DiCaprio is at the top of his game as the gleeful but careful Calvin; and both Django and Schultz know what is on the line in order to save Django’s wife from her master.

I think this film, like “Kill Bill”, and some of Tarantino’s weaker works, suffers from being unfocused. When Tarantino has no clear vision, and just wants to have fun, he creates what I call a “hammock film”. It’s lazy, it’s unsure, and even though it can be entertaining, it just hangs there with no real purpose. I could never really figure out “Django Unchained” as a film. It wants to be a lark, it wants to make a statement sometimes, but it doesn’t come through because Tarantino is too interested in his style.

There’s something I want to contrast, and it’s a bit pretentious, but it involves food. Take the “strudel” scene in “Inglourious Basterds”. And take the “white cake” scene in “Django Unchained”. The strudel represents something–Germany. In it, Shosanna must put on a happy face and…well, EAT Germany. She is forced to enjoy something sweet that makes her sick. It in itself is torture, representing everything she hates. That is good writing. That has substance. The white cake in “Django Unchained” simply serves as a device for a violent shootout. I have no doubt Tarantino meant something with making it “white cake”–but that is exactly all this film really is.

And Tarantino can do a lot better than white cake.

My rating: :?

J. Edgar

November 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Clint Eastwood has quite the challenge here: take one of the most unlikable persons of 20th century American history, and make a movie about him that paints him in a kind of sympathetic light. Now, we all know that J. Edgar Hoover should be credited with inventing the FBI. Mulder and Scully wouldn’t exist without him. But beyond that, in some cases Hoover used the same kind of subservice tactics to apprehend criminals that they used to be criminals in the first place. Not to mention that Hoover never seemed to ever recognize organized crime, which was rampant during his tenure as the big guy behind the desk. He also invented a lot of stories about his adventurous exploits that were total fiction. In essence, we have a very careful, paranoid, and highly insecure man at the center of this biopic.

Now, Eastwood enlists a good cast of actors to take care of things. Leonard DiCaprio, who has had an up and down career since “Titanic”; but he has still had some powerful performances (“Shutter Island” comes instantly to mind), and after acclimating yourself to the somewhat off-putting accent in the beginning moments of the film as DiCaprio narrates as an aging J. Edgar, he does wind up sewing together a very solid portrait of who J. Edgar Hoover was as a person. He really does eventually become him, in a way I haven’t seen DiCaprio do with a biographical character. He tried it in “The Aviator”, but that performance was somewhat stilted by a banal screenplay and a director who was going through the motions. He was better at it in “Catch Me If You Can”, but I still felt that as a boyish looking actor, he was miscast for someone who was consistently mistaken for being older than he was.

Here, once you get past the awkward accent and the extremely bad make-up, you really lose consciousness of DiCaprio as an actor, and see him as simply J. Edgar Hoover.

Unfortunately for the film, it doesn’t go much beyond that. Dustin Lance Black pens the screenplay, but his talents were much better suited for the superior “Milk”, a film about an overt homosexual man who was a prominent figure in civil rights for gays during his time, and made it even better by not just making it about Milk, but about adversity and insecurity of homophobic straight men. But here, Black unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of evidence to work with while building the narrative arc for J. Edgar Hoover because, unfortunately, his personal file was shredded at the time of his death. So Black does what he can, and while he does paint a very interesting story about a man conflicted, it just doesn’t transcend the bigger question: Why did J. Edgar become what he was, and why did he do the things he did? And I’m not just talking about wearing a dress. That actually is somewhat answered (and is actually one of the better scenes in the film). The men in Hoover’s life prove to be more influential to him, except for his mother (played by Judi Dench) who shapes some of his personal issues, at the same time giving him confidence about his professional endeavors. The other woman, Helen Gandy, his assistant (played by Naomi Watts), has less influence on him but is never too far from him.

Professionally, Hoover was a very questionable person. He seemed to contradict himself, and go after Communism at a Joe McCarthy level of enthusiasm–but considered McCarthy as less than his equal. He stood by the presidents he served, but he challenged the political powers that be to gain more power for himself and become his own boss. Really, by the time Nixon was president, he was his own shadow.

Except, personally–he did have a shadow, in Clyde Tolson (played wonderfully by Armie Hammer). Tolson’s older self also suffers from bad make-up–probably the worst make-up I’ve ever seen applied to someone outside of a cheap Haunted Corn Maze ride. But credit Hammer with bringing as much credibility to someone in badly applied makeup as I’ve ever seen. Tolson is someone that J. Edgar Hoover admired and trusted in; but more than that, allegedly, he may have even loved deeper than a platonic friendship. Now, there’s never been any real evidence that this was true. But Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay doesn’t necessarily try to make something out of nothing. Tolson and Hoover have a very strong professional relationship as well. And some of the ways they spend time with each other, you can’t help but wonder. There’s a climactic scene between the two of them (calm down, it’s not what you think) that really shows what both of those men really are. Tolson is more brave, more resolute, more honest. Hoover is a coward.

Maybe that’s what Eastwood wanted to show, and I guess that’s the point. But can we really sympathize with Hoover, knowing what we know professionally about him? That really isn’t exploited in the film; it deals too much with his personal inner conflicts. I think that’s a misstep. Hoover became a power monger himself, and the film spends too much time giving him credit for the Lindbergh baby incident–not enough time exposing some of the fraudulent things he did. In fact, in the scene showing his file being shredded, there’s a sort of comical tone to it as if we’re supposed to laugh it off.

Well, that really shouldn’t be shrugged off. It’s because of that that we really don’t get the whole story with Hoover. Ultimately, while all the dressing and sides are good, the meat of the meal is very thin and stringy. And even with the strong performances, the film fails at its core.

To me, Clint Eastwood is losing a little bit of his grip on some of his later films. He used to really execute with a quiet brilliance. “A Perfect World” and of course “Mystic River” come to mind. But now, he seems to be just collecting a paycheck instead of having a vision. I hope he reverts to his old self, because he’s one of the finest directors out there now. But he should be aptly criticized when he doesn’t live up to his potential.

My rating: :?

Inception

July 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Christopher Nolan has to be one of our most ambitious filmmakers. He’s been compared to Kubrick, in his unique visionary approach to films, and his ability to create worlds that every character lives and breathes in, such as “Memento”, and his “Batman” reboot. He’s made some great films, including “The Dark Knight”, and “Following”; he’s also made more gimmicky films that work only as a trick such as “The Prestige”.

With “Inception”, he takes on the world of dreams. Dream sequences have been a part of film for a long time, and sometimes they work and sometimes they won’t. But what if an entire movie is based in a dream (or is it?) state? How do we define reality in that world?

The plot revolves around Dom Cobb (Leonard DiCaprio, in another strong performance) who operates a business of dream-sharing through a machine that he uses for industrial espionage to steal his clients’ ideas and thoughts in their subconscious for his own gain–and he’s caught by his newest client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who wants to use him for his own purposes and stage a “dream stealing” with a rival business mogul.

What you must do in order to fully accomplish this complex idea of dream-stealing, is have a team of dream operators. A chemist to make the sedative; a forger to impersonate other subconscious characters in the person’s memory in order to fully manipulate the dreamer; and an architect, someone to literally create the dream world.

What Dom suggests in this case, with entering the subconscious of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), is what’s known as “inception”–planting a thought in someone’s mind before they can, but recognizing that it is in fact their own idea. The suggestion is deemed impossible by his Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but as in any movie–this one JUST MIGHT WORK!

The team runs into issues while they enter the dream world because of an array of “security” (your subconscious trying to protect you from invaders) that can easily kill them–and when you die, you wake up, but in this case they are so heavily sedated that they could wind up in a “limbo” if they were to die in the dream. They go deeper into dream worlds to a point where they’re operating on a third level dream world, and the deeper you go, the slower time goes.

The architect, played by Ellen Page, also notices  a wrinkle in Dom’s plan: he has an unending dream of living with his wife (Marion Cotillard) who has died and he blames himself for her death.

Nolan’s dream worlds are breathtaking. The sequences of the fighting that goes on in one of the hotel corridors in one of the dream worlds is fascinating. Some of the ideas in this film are very interesting, and even at a running time of 148 minutes, the film never drags.

But it also didn’t work for me. I couldn’t buy into the question the film tries to ask (and leaves open) about whether this was all a dream or whether it was reality. Movies that involve dreams can suffer the same kind of problems that movies involving time travel can. You have to create your own rules, which Nolan does, but those rules are based in such a neatly done way that there’s no reason to think that any of the story is real. It’s so deeply based in dreams, and there’s so much logic behind the dream worlds and elements of subconscious that can be manipulated that the “reality” in the film isn’t given enough screen time to be considered credible.

There are a few hints that I think the film gives you that make me lean toward it actually just being a dream. So in my mind, that’s what the film was. It’s an exercise in expanding the subconscious mind and opening it up into this large universe, and existing in it always. So then, what is the point of it? The story is actually quite simple when you strip it down–it’s just about guilt and salvation, ultimately.

The film is, as I’ve said about Nolan, very ambitious. But I don’t think the whole thing works. It has a lot of ideas, and a lot of them are intriguing. But as a film, there aren’t enough stakes, the characters aren’t fleshed out enough, and the plot is actually kind of ridiculous and even somewhat silly. In a film that takes itself and its ideas so seriously, it just comes off as pretentious and stiff rather than enlightening and eye-opening. The one thing that does work in the film is the action; in a way it does work as just that. But because the film wants to be so much more, and seems to want to expand your mind and open all of these questions for you. But it’s just too traditionally told and conventional to match that ambition.

As someone who dreams an awful lot, and has experienced very vivid dreams, I don’t know that I can buy into a reality that someone can “create” a world and actually manipulate it the way that they do in this film; and when you can’t buy into the reality, then it’s really hard to buy into the dream stuff–even though the dream worlds are more convincing and interesting. And that’s where the film ultimately fails for me.

It looks wonderful; but in the end, whether the top is still spinning doesn’t really matter.

My rating: :?

Body of Lies

October 14, 2008 by  
Filed under Movies

I had mentioned in my review of “Burn After Reading” that the opening and closing shots are amusing and poignant to what the film is about; in that, here’s a picture of the globe, here we focus on a random area, and see random events that prove to be much more hectic and dramatic than they should. In “Body of Lies”, it’s pretty much the complete opposite effect.

The film revolves around two characters throughout, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. Now, I’m going to go ahead and let you know that the trailers for this film have been their own “body of lies” by somehow trying to portray Crowe as the villain in the film. He’s not. I’m not ruining anything by telling you that, either. In fact, knowing that should aid you through this movie, so that you’re not thinking there will be some big twist at the end or some kind of revelation that turns Crowe into a bad guy. He is a bit of a window character for DiCaprio’s character, named Roger Ferris, who is an undercover agent for the CIA investigating a series of terrorist bombings that have led him to Jordan.

Ridley Scott directed this picture, and he shows time and time again that, even in his advanced age, he can still shoot a picture. The script, by William Monahan, has a great first act. It sets things up very well. You are intrigued by the layers of plot thickening. But, the film goes to such an extent to set things up that really, it can only be justified by having an even bigger ending. I think the film’s eyes were bigger than its stomach.

This film is based on a novel, and I believe the script wanted to treat this as much as a character movie as it was a plot-driven thriller. But because it tries to go into two different directions at once, it goes nowhere instead. There is a brief love interest that Roger becomes involved with–but he goes to an extreme (and unbelievable) length to protect her, and winds up getting right into Ground Zero, and throws himself into the proverbial Lion’s Den.

This is a film of great set up and poor pay off. The “body of lies” that Roger entangles himself into are very natural, it’s not that contrived. But how he gets out of them are exactly that. And it leaves something to be desired by the ending. It’s a film that is also ensconced in themes about deceit and truth and honor. Crowe’s character, as I mentioned before, is used well in this metaphor.

Overall, the movie is well acted, and well paced. I never felt bored, even if I was confused on exactly where it was going. The villains were a bit simple and predictable. But I can’t endorse the film because the biggest thing lacking in the film was the third act and the ending and that’s really the most important thing. It just didn’t have the punch that it should have, and it was a great let down after a wonderful set up. It’s a shame that so many great names are attached to this inferior effort. But, it is worth a viewing if you’re a big fan of Scott, Crowe or DiCaprio. All gave A efforts, but the film winds up with a C result.

My rating: :???: