Tuesday, January 26, 2016


One of the popular legends surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio is the Susan Lucci curse. The latter was famous for being repeatedly nominated for the Emmy for Best Actress on the soap opera All My Children and failing to win every time until her 19th nomination (and 18th consecutive) in 1999. (She was then nominated twice more after that win and lost both times.) Similarly, DiCaprio has been nominated 4 times for acting and once as a producer at the Oscars and lost every time, even when opinion seemed to bend sharply in his favor. That curse may be broken with his performance in The Revenant and in a situation where his may not have even been the best performance on the screen.

The Revenant is the story of Hugh Glass, trapper, hunter, and mountain man and his trek over a couple hundred miles of wilderness after being mauled by a protective mother grizzly. The director, Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu, is already well-known for his preference for fairly intense and very personal stories (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, and, of course, Birdman.) but here he takes it up a level. The audience is dropped right into the action and is forced to catch up (which remains one of my favorite storytelling approaches, as I've noted before), arriving in an active hunting/skinning camp which, moments later, is overrun with hostile Arikara warriors. Forced to flee with his remaining compatriots, Glass later has his unfortunate encounter with the bear and is abandoned for dead. We're told nothing about where or when this takes place, although the dress, flintlocks, and aforementioned hostile Native Americans should give some clue. Being only vaguely familiar with his story, I figured out roughly where they were when Glass mentions avoiding the Missouri River and then when they were when they showed him dreaming about his deceased wife's village being ransacked by US soldiers, as I recognized the uniforms specific to that time period (the 1820s; oh, yes, I am a history nerd.) We're told nothing about Glass' background except what we see via those dreams and given precious little description about the rest of the group or the setting, My girlfriend objected to being set adrift like that, which I can sympathize with, but I loved it. It engenders a focus by the audience to find out what's going on and the film intensifies that focus by paring things down to a very simple premise.

I think the point of the story was essentially to excise everything but Glass' motivation to stay alive and take vengeance on the men that abandoned him (among other crimes.) The story was his will to survive. That's all. There are any number of trappings that make for an interesting setting for that simple approach, but they're mostly set decoration. This was Iñárritu at his most personal. Nothing mattered but that drive. This was not a biopic. This, like most of his films, was a story about motivation. The cinematography contributed to that by alternating dramatic vistas of the Montana countryside with extreme closeups on DiCaprio and Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald. Seeing it in IMAX format as we did made that personal involvement unavoidable. There was a fifty-three-foot image of DiCaprio, caked blood, frozen snot, and all. You were there with him and could feel the cold only slightly lessened by the ferocity of his eyes as he tried to keep crawling, swimming, staggering, and finally walking back to safety. It was a fairly marked turn in style for Iñárritu, who really didn't present any specific approach in his earlier films until Birdman when, in his effort to present a film as a stage performance, he often kept the camera locked at stage distance, even in intimate moments. There was no such restraint here and I think it served the film well.

As noted, DiCaprio's well-known intensity fairly blares off the screen here. This is a step beyond the angst of The Departed or the revulsion to the facade in Revolutionary Road or the jittery determination of The Aviator. All the production took place on location and DiCaprio has mentioned that he essentially spent months in an off and on state of hypothermia. We could see the desperation emerge in a character who, to that point, had been pretty recalcitrant except where it concerned his half-breed Pawnee son, who had become the real focus of his life and the only thing he cared about. DiCaprio does well with every facet of that character and there was no struggle for the audience in focusing on him through the majority of the film.

However, as good as DiCaprio is, the best and genuinely magnetic performance on the screen may have come from Hardy. As a friend of mine mentioned, he didn't even know it was Hardy until after they'd seen the film. The actor lost himself somewhere in Fitzgerald and emerged as a fur trapper in the 19th century. Watching the gears turn behind his eyes as he considers his next move was fascinating and he provides a great deal of texture to the world in which the characters find themselves, as well as being the end goal of what is, at its root, one very long chase scene. There's a great deal of energy in Hardy's performance but it's contained energy; coiled and only released at moments that serve his interests, whereas DiCaprio's is on display at all times. This was their first collaboration since their excellent dual turn in Inception and, interestingly enough, I got a lot of Tom Berenger's Sgt. Barnes from Platoon in Hardy's Fitzgerald in both personality and tone of voice (both of them employing a backcountry Texas growl.) You can hear a lot of it when Fitzgerald is lecturing young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) about the necessities of their (his) choices. Of course, Berenger was also in Inception and, in fact, Hardy's character "plays" him for a bit. (Getting very meta here.)

Since everything was on location, the scenery is spectacular. One moment of Glass clinging to a log as he drifts down the Yellowstone River was particularly great. It was also one of the few moments where Iñárritu let an orchestral score really come through. For most of the rest of the film, the wilderness is the soundtrack, enhanced only occasionally by noise to heighten the tension or soft music to create the dream atmosphere of the visions of Glass' wife. It was a good choice, since it continues in that same vein of bringing the audience into the wilderness with Glass, rather than removing them from it with the sound of a string section.

In fact, the only real drawback to the film as a whole was its length. At 3 hours, it simply went too long. While I understand the desire to impart some of Glass' trial and how strenuous it was, given the rigors of what he had been through on the way back to Fort Kiowa, they could have excised the last 20 minutes of chasing Fitzgerald through the snow and simply had his confrontation with Fitzgerald at the fort. It would have been every bit as dramatic and Fitzgerald still would have been considered an elusive foe and Glass' quest would have been no less traumatic. Getting in one more bloody fight and allowing a pat ending to the Arikara storyline seemed a bit too Hollywood to me and might have reduced what could have been an amazing film to "just" a great one. But in the long view, it's a relatively minor flaw and I'd certainly recommend seeing the film in the theater, as the big screen experience definitely serves the story. Besides, if Glass can travel 200 miles on a broken leg, you can sit in a comfy chair for 3 hours.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Catching up

Having fallen behind in watching movies these days, I found out that several of them have arrived on Amazon in the interim and decided to catch up on a few that I'd intended to see in the theater, but never got around to.

The first is The Martian. Now, some of you that have actually stuck around for a few years know that I regard Ridley Scott's early phase to be among the finest directorial periods in modern film history. The vast majority of his output since then has been somewhere between middling and half-assed spectacle. The Martian does not deviate sharply from this trend. The film is good, but doesn't really excel in any notable way.

Matt Damon as the lead does well. It's tough to be the only person on screen for long stretches and I think that may have played into his performance as stranded astronaut, Mark Watney. You know that on the other side of that camera are people waiting to be entertained, so you have to do your best even when there's no one else to either bounce off of or divert attention to. But despite the star-studded roster that fills out the rest of the cast (Brandi Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean), no one but Ejiofor really stands out because there's not a lot for them to do other than stand there and look frustrated when things go wrong. The movie, as a whole, is very pro forma: here's the problem... and here's the solution. Just like Damon's quandary, it feels like the story kind of informs that approach, since Watney's/NASA's problem in most cases does come down to basic science and math. But the problem is that with the story being that direct, there's no room for that wonderful cast to show us much. Kate Mara, in particular, is completely wasted (Zoe Barnes from House of Cards), as the film's Wikipedia entry tells me more about her character than I actually got from the film.

The lone exception is Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, who does a great job of running with that frustration and bringing in other emotions and elements that give him a certain degree of magnetism when he's on screen. At several points, I was less interested in seeing Mars than I was in seeing Kapoor interact with Daniels' Teddy Sanders and the rest of the bureaucracy while he tries to save his man and his program. I certainly appreciated Scott's return to a hard science topic (as we studiously avoid the atrocious hackjob that was Prometheus...) and it's not as if the movie wasn't entertaining. It was. But it was also wholly predictable and linear and could not possibly be a better example of the term "star vehicle". This was Damon's show. Everyone, and everything, else was just background noise.

Next up was Ant-Man. I've written before about what seems to be the "fun" side of the Marvel Creative Universe. I thought that first effort was subpar, largely because the screenplay was and most of the actors employed seemed to be ill-suited to the kind of goofiness that the film seemed to be calling for. There were no worries in that respect for Ant-Man with Paul Rudd taking the lead.

As they have with most of their productions, Marvel Studios just let the comics set the story ("These things almost write themselves!") and connected the dots. Michael Douglas was the former title hero, Hank Pym (albeit minus the domestic abuse issues that surfaced in the early 80s) and he recruits thief, Scott Lang, to be his replacement. Back in the day, of course, Lang was a cat burglar (albeit, still an electronics expert), not a cybercrook, but that's how the world has changed, kids. Interestingly, despite Rudd's self-effacing humor (honed through years of work with Judd Apatow), this is one of the more serious roles he's undertaken and he spends a fair amount of time redirecting others to what the important stuff is supposed to be, when he's not playing straight man to Michael Peña (who was also in The Martian; it's like long-range, delayed cinematic stalking. They're after me.) But even with the "real" issues of importance, there's no getting around the fact that Ant-Man's most notable ability is controlling ants. No space gods, no Cosmic Cubes, no world-destroying robots. Ants. And that's why it had to be on the goofier end of the spectrum.

Michael Douglas looked like he was just filling time as Pym, but I thought Corey Stoll as Darren Cross was a good choice, since he'd showed a bit of that angry, manic side in House of Cards (seriously, the parallels.) While it was obvious that Evangeline Lilly was going to be a bit more than just the female stand-in as Hope van Dyne to us comic nerds, since she was wearing the Wasp's most memorable haircut, she had enough stage presence to sell the role on her own. While most of Rudd's personal storyline reminded me a bit too much of Hugh Jackman's (to cite another Marvel character) in Swordfish, I get that there's only so many "good guy does bad thing he used to do but doesn't want to do anymore for what's actually a good reason" approaches that you can take.

Finally, there was Sicario. Speaking of parallels, the comparison between Traffic and Sicario is obvious, even if Benicio Del Toro hadn't put in excellent performances in both (and, of course, Michael Douglas was in Traffic; was Kevin Bacon in any of these three films?) Where Traffic showed the seedy side of the American consumer end and the impact on Mexican neighborhoods, Sicario shows the American response to the current chaos and how the Mexican impact is far more direct, at least in Juarez.

I wanted to like the film mostly for Del Toro and Josh Brolin's performances, as I'll generally watch anything that either of them make. The story was kept taut and lacked the more rangy and comprehensive Soderbergh approach, but it seemed to end up too taut. Del Toro's character was simply too perfect and the end of his storyline was too pat to be believable. It seemed like they had a chance to keep things relatively big picture (i.e. the references to the collapse of the Medellin cartel turning the business and much of the surrounding Mexican community into a free-for-all and the CIA having lost control of what was its pet source of income) but instead reduced it to a simple revenge story. If that's what it was, you'd expect Del Toro's Alejandro Gillick to have greater depth so we could watch what happens to him in the course of finally bringing a close to the focus of his life. But everything he does simply slides off. Or we could have gone back to the big picture and watched Brolin's Matt Graver veer even deeper into the ruthlessness that belies his casual flip-flops attitude.

Instead, the personal angle to this revenge tale was taken up by Emily Blunt who, unfortunately, portrayed the least interesting and largely one-dimensional role of the cop that "doesn't think any of this is right." Granted, if they wanted to do the Training Day thing, fine. It's been done, but fine. But instead she has basically zero development from the beginning to the end and, instead, is a sideshow to Del Toro's revenge mission. Somewhere along the way, it feels like the story was either trimmed too much or was two films cobbled together and it lost some of its internal sense. That said, it's paced really well and the action sequences are constructed for maximum tension. It's a good film, but not a great one. One thing it did do was remind me of a solid documentary about the drug gangs in Mexico and how ordinary people are resisting them on both sides of the border, Cartel Land. Again, sticking to that angle might have produced a better film.