Dec 29, 2015

"The Revenant" - 2015 - movie review

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass an early 19th century guide/frontiersman who went West and went native. He got involved with a Pawnee woman and lives among her people. Because he knows the country so well he's in demand as a guide for bands of trappers on their months-long expeditions. The film opens with Glass and one of these groups under attack by Arikara Indians. Half the group is killed with the rest barely making it to their boat before heading off down river. Afraid the group is too exposed on the boat Glass tells them to disembark and head cross country on foot instead. During some downtime on this journey Glass is off trying to kill something for dinner when he stumbles upon bear cubs. Where there are bear cubs, momma bear is never far off and never in an accommodating mood. Glass pays the price for his intrusion.

After being mauled by momma-bear Glass is basically a tangled mass of exposed flesh, broken bones and blood. After dragging him around for several days the troop decide to leave him in the hands of a malcontent named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) with orders to watch over him and if he should die, to give him a proper burial. Hardy wants nothing more than to put a bullet in Glass' head and be off but he dutifully agrees to watch over him. Later, when he's alone with Glass, he tries to kill him but Glass' son intervenes. Fitzgerald kills the boy as Glass watches helplessly and then he leaves Glass to die and heads off to find the others.

Glass rallies and starts on a comeback that would make Beck Weathers proud. The fact that he doesn't die of shock or exposure or blood loss or infection in pretty short order following the CG bear attack leaves one to wonder about the writer's notion of 'realism' however. Not only that, but after only a couple of days his half-eaten legs are suddenly able to support him with only a slight limp. Excuse me? For a moment I thought I'd stumbled into a Bond film. He then takes about an hour long float down an icy stream and somehow avoids hypothermia. Then, to top it off, this same man with the recently mangled legs (oh yes, and exposed rib cage where the bear bit through his flesh) plunges some 100 or more feet over a cliff on a horse and doesn't even tweak one of those mangled legs (or anything else). The horse of course, dies. Because after all we're going for brutal realism here.

Basically my issues with the film center on two points: A) The story adheres to realism where it suits it and leaves realism begging at the door when it needs the hero to live another day. And B) DiCaprio is in over his head with this character and this movie. In essence he gives the same performance he's given in every film he's made in the past decade or so. "Isn't Leo intense?" Sure. But so is a root canal and I'm in no hurry to go through one of those again. I suppose you can't lay it all at DiCaprio's feet. Part of the problem is how the character is written. There's very little real about him. He's a cartoon character; the only throwback, invincible, hero-style character in the film. And that has to be laid at the feet of the writers. Still, DiCaprio has enough clout that he could have insisted on changes had he wanted them.

But enough about DiCaprio because there is an Oscar worthy performance in The Revenant and it's author is one Tom Hardy.

Hardy gives a gutsy, nuanced performance of a man torn apart by freedom; unhinged by the endless indifference of nature. His Fitzgerald has nothing but contempt for the landscape, the climate and the people he encounters. Nature, the ultimate serial killer, has robbed him of his faith and purpose and he occupies a space where only the paycheck matters. You can feel the vacuum at his center, you see him silently putting his actions through old moral filters that no longer work. Witnessing Hardy's performance is like when you listen to music you've never heard before but you still know which note is coming next because the composition has an ironclad internal logic you aren't consciously aware of.

As for the rest of the film: The cinematography borders on amazing and the editing is methodical and restrained. There are likely more cuts in two minutes or so of "The Bourne Ultimatum" than there are in this entire film, and that's how it should be given the subject matter. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu obviously trusts the instincts of his actors and, in most cases, his trust is warranted. The supporting cast is generally excellent and the native people are portrayed in a balanced manner that acknowledges their tragedy without excusing their brutality. If any one group comes off as being "bad" it's the French trappers who seemingly live to carry out atrocities and who, like all evil men, laugh heartily while raping the innocent.

There will be a lot of Oscar talk surrounding The Revenant. Team DiCaprio is already fully deployed attempting to pave the way for his stroll up to the podium. I suppose if Tom Hanks can win an Oscar then you might as well give one to Leo although, in a just world, it would go to Hardy.

Verdict: ★★★★

Dec 22, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 2015 - movie review

This review contains a few spoilers. You have been warned.

Star Wars The Force Awakens is a film that earns it's keep in the first hour, and that's a good thing because the second hour... oh boy. The experience of watching TFA was akin to watching my favorite team build a huge lead over a bitter rival in the first half of a game and then almost blow it in the second half and hold on for a narrow win. Sure, a win is a win. But...

Sports analogies aside the story begins promising enough. Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac - maybe the best thing in the film) has been sent by <ahem> general Leia on a secret mission to retrieve an important clue into the whereabouts of the missing Luke Skywalker from Max Von Sydow. Their pow wow is interrupted by a gaggle of storm troopers led by the imposing Kylo Ren who also wants to know where Luke is hiding so he can kill him and put an end to the Jedi once and for all. Ren's troops commit atrocities and take Po prisoner but fail to retrieve the computer file they were looking for. That has been tucked away into Po's droid, BB8, who has taken it deep into the desert.

So far so good. I should mention that this is a beautiful looking movie right through to the end and the action complements the visuals perfectly, at least early on. The writing in the first act is succinct and easy to swallow and the acting is top-notch.

So, after Po is taken prisoner we spend some time with Rey (Daisy Ridley in one of the great star making turns of the past 20 years). She's a loner with an independent streak who scrapes a living from the detritus of empire. One day she's contentedly eating her lunch when suddenly BB8, fresh from the atrocities over yonder, wanders into her sphere of influence and is snagged by another scrapper. She frees the droid who takes to her and the story becomes one of a girl and her dog.

Meanwhile back at Kylo's place Po has succumbed to torture and spilled the beans on BB8's whereabouts. Soon after however he's befriended by a stormtrooper with a conscience who wants out of the ranks. The two steal a tie fighter and make their escape but are shot out of the sky as Po is heading back to the planet to get his droid.

The stormtrooper with a heart of gold is Finn (John Boyega) and when they crash land on the planet he assumes Po has been killed so he wanders off in search of water and into the scrap yard where Rey is fighting for control of BB8. The two form an uneasy alliance but before long more storm troopers arrive thanks to the information that was culled from Po's head. After a scuffle Rey and Finn wind up hopping into the Millennium Falcon that just happens to be sitting outside the scrap yard, partially dismantled and covered in a dirty tarp.

Once they reach orbit they're caught in a tractor beam and pulled into what turns out to be a freighter owned by ta da - Han Solo ("Chewie... We're home").

Up to this point everything has been going swimmingly. I'm fully engaged in the story in spite of the familiarity of it all and the fact that them's some serious coincidences playin' out dere. But it's not long after this that things start to go south. It's great to see Harrison Ford back as Han. But once he's introduced the story starts to buckle under the weight of expectation. And when it does other cracks begin to appear as well.

It's around the film's middle that we start to get a clearer picture of what the good guys are up against; and it looks an awful lot like a death star. Around the same time Leia makes her grand entrance and it's about as flat a big entrance as I've ever seen. She ambles gingerly off her space ship and creaks up toward Ford for the big how-do-you-do. But her performance is so wooden, so self conscious, so inept that I felt embarrassed for her. Ford too looks like he'd rather be flying his plane into a golf course than having to go through the sentimental motions with his less talented co-star. I found myself flashing back to the opening crawl and wishing it had said something like...

"After his sister Leia was killed in a knife fight with an Ewok, Luke Skywalker went missing"

But alas it didn't say that and here she was tossing a huge bucket of ice water on the proceedings with each wooden recital of the prequel-worthy luuvvvv talk with Han.

From this point onward the film starts cashing in those goodwill chips it won during the first hour and as it does my willingness to just accept all a dem coincidences and glossed-over details ("Oh look! It's Po... WTF?") starts to erode. I'm also less willing to accept used story elements, including the new super-sized death star/planet/killer/thingy.

The death star on steroids notion seems right in keeping with this year's tendency to simply take what worked before and make it bigger, with more teeth. Doesn't $200 million buy you an original idea any more? I know Disney wanted to do some serious fan service here and that's great but fan service became outright mannerism in the second hour with all the important scenes being little more than former scenes with more teeth. There was no suspense because I'd seen it before. Hell, they even seemed aware that they didn't need to set up the final battle because everybody knew what was coming. So instead of planning we got:

"You disable the shields. You fly in and blow it up. Got it? Let's go."

Uhhhmmmmm... isn't this like the largest, most sophisticated weapon ever built in the history of the universe? It has no defenses? Not even a security camera? Didn't these dullards learn anything from the destruction of the 2 previous death stars? Apparently not.

But before the Indominous Rex, uh, I mean new death planet thing, can be neutralized we of course need a version of the big showdown from the original film, and so we get it. Regardless of the fact that it was simply warmed-up leftovers it still should have been the film's biggest moment. But it wasn't. It just sort of happened and that was that. No resonance. No particular implications for the story or the remaining characters. Just an OMG second and then it's over. Next.

A couple of other things. The decision to unmask Kylo Ren completely undermined the character. I'm sure Adam Driver's contract called for a certain amount of face time but it was a huge mistake. Also, billions of people are killed in one scene and then never mentioned again. In addition: John Boyega is a fine actor but what is his character doing in this movie? Finn doesn't advance the story one iota. He seems to be there simply so that Disney can deflect charges of racism against the film.

Which brings me to what was really lost in the second hour: the sappy sentimentalism, the atrocious performance of Carrie Fisher, the head-scratching presence of Boyega's Finn, the tired rehashing of the death star and the relegation of C3PO and R2D2 to the status of Hammond's grandkids in Jurassic Park II completely undermined the real story of Rey and her march to the fore.

Ridley does a commendable job with the character arc here, taking command of it early and guiding it confidently to a conclusion that should have resonated much stronger. But because, by the end, I was consumed with trying to understand how my team could have squandered such a huge lead and nearly lost it all I wasn't fully available for the film's conclusion; which was a shame because in hindsight I can see it was handled deftly, brought Rey's journey to a satisfying rest point, and set up compelling possibilities for the future.

In the end team TFA squeaked out a win but, because I spent the second half with my head in my hands mumbling "what are they doing!?" I wasn't able to enjoy the victory.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Dec 6, 2015

Top 5 Films That Should Have Been Left to Stand on Their Own

The following is my list of the top 5 21st century films that would have been better off standing on their own. In no particular order.

Transformers - The original was a fresh, exciting, funny and engaging "boy and his dog" film for the new century. Drunk with power Michael Bay then used the subsequent installments to prove he hates everyone not named Micheal Bay and in the process tarnished Executive Producer Steve Spielberg's previously sparkling reputation.

Batman Begins - This gritty, life-sized portrayal of Batman's origin was followed by two of the worst comic book movies ever made. The Dark Knight was a dreadfully dull affair set in a boring, empty city where the director gave Christian Bale free reign to indulge his pretensions. While TDKR confirmed once and for all what TDK powerfully suggested: that Nolan has no idea what to do with a big budget. (As if any more proof were needed see Inception and Interstellar)

The Matrix - Of course the original was released in 1999 but II and III were 21st century fiascos of epic proportions. Another case of big budget-itis this time with the Wachowskis instead of Nolan doing the deer-in-headlights imitation. Each film had the unmistakable air of being made up as it went along by people with very little imagination who were still trying to fathom how they could have got so lucky. Good question indeed.

The Bourne Identity - In spite of Matt Damon the first movie succeeded in demonstrating the untapped potential of the spy thriller. The sequels did little to build on that potential. All they really accomplished was to point out that the main character isn't smart enough to buy some sunglasses or wear a hat and that the 'actor' portraying him has the dramatic range of a turnip. Oh yeah, and how about that editing. Pretty radical.

The Hangover - The sequels were nasty, pointless affairs that rested firmly on the hope that celebrity would trump quality and put consumer butts in theater seats. To a degree that hope was validated.