REVIEW : “The Revenant”

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The last two years have been pretty kind to Alejandro González Iñárritu. 2014 saw the release of “Birdman”, his showy, indulgent black comedy/drama that caught fire during awards season eventually earning him Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Now we get 2015’s “The Revenant”, a dark frontier western that once again finds Iñárritu at the heart of the Oscar conversation.

Iñárritu’s films require a unique taste. They often wallow in pessimism, anguish, and despair. He often gives us miserable characters with little to no emotional complexities. And to varying degrees, each of his films carry their own pretentious self-awareness. But at the same time Iñárritu deserves to be called a visionary. While it could be said Iñárritu has no sense of modulation and he sometimes milks a technique dry, he does put a ton into his narrative structures and visual presentations.

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“The Revenant” is undeniably Iñárritu. Modulation is as hard to find as mercy and hope across his cold, bloody, and unforgiving landscape. The story overextends itself while the characters and audience are incessantly battered by the director’s almost sadistic infatuation with suffering. Doesn’t sound too good, right? Here’s the catch, it’s actually quite good. None of those things keep “The Revenant” from being an exhilarating experience. In fact, in a bizarre and twisted way many of Iñárritu’s indulgences fit perfectly with this dark and violent story.

The story was inspired by the true experiences of fur trapper Hugh Glass and loosely based on Michael Punke’s “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge” from 2002. The concept saw several casting and directing changes before Iñárritu landed it in 2011. He worked with Mark L. Smith on the script and Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy were brought on board as the stars. Filming began in 2014 and spanned various locations in the United States, Canada, and Argentina.

At its core the story is fairly simple. The setting is 1823 in the unsettled Northwest. A military sponsored trapping expedition under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is attacked by a native tribe. Only ten men manage to escape including trapper and guide Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his Pawnee son played by Forrest Goodluck. The situation worsens after Hugh is violently attacked by a grizzly bear. Maimed and helpless, Hugh is buried alive in a shallow grave but not before witnessing the murder of his son by a vile, scurvy fellow trapper played by Tom Hardy.

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The trailers frame the rest of the story as a revenge tale and that’s partially accurate. Eventually Hugh escapes his shallow grave (the word revenant actually refers to the rising of the dead) and sets out to avenge his boy. But the film doesn’t put a heavy stress on that until later. Instead it becomes what I would call a survival procedural as Hugh methodically navigates one harrowing obstacle after another – his broken body, starvation, the freezing cold, hostile natives. The film certainly puts a heavy emphasis on the survival element of his story.

In doing that Iñárritu runs DiCaprio through a torturous gamut of challenging scenes. Leo has said several of the scenes were some of the hardest he has ever done. That’s easy to believe. Iñárritu emphasized authenticity and felt greenscreens  would hurt his vision for the film. That meant Leo trudging through actual deep snow, being swept away in an ice cold river, gnawing on raw fish and buffalo liver. DiCaprio goes all-in and gives an intensely committed performance that relies more on physicality and expression than dialogue. It’s something to behold.

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While on the subject of beholding you can’t speak of “The Revenant” without talking about its stunning presentation. As I mentioned Iñárritu is often obsessed with how his films look, almost to a fault. But here that obsession pays big dividends. The first smart move was bringing in the great Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot the film. Lubezki’s technique is so perfectly calibrated to this frontier world of beauty and violence. The action scenes are ferocious and filmed with a lyrical energy. They are veritable ballets of muskets, hatchets, bows, and blood.

But that is only one aspect of the film’s phenomenal visuals. There is also the way Iñárritu and Lubezki shoot the land. Scene after scene focuses on the astonishing beauty of the territory while also distinguishing it as threatening and untamed. It may be a slow panning shot of sun breaking through a forest’s canopy, a still shot of an ominous but beautiful snow covered mountain, or maybe a tracking shot of an icy, slow moving river. The imagery is stunning. It reminded me of Terrence Malik only colder, harsher, and bleaker. And I’m not sure any camera has ever captured the feeling of cold, wet misery better than here.

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If anyone feels that effect it’s the cast. Moreover if suffering on screen can win you an Oscar Leonardo DiCaprio has it in the bag, and Tom Hardy should at least be in the awards conversation. DiCaprio’s thirst for revenge is painfully earned and Hardy’s cauterized emotions feeds his repugnancy. Both are sturdy anchors for this patient, sweeping frontier epic. Both meld perfectly into Iñárritu’s dark, gloomy, overcast world.

It’s always pretty obvious where “The Revenant” is heading, but it’s that journey from the main story point to the finale that is so captivating. It isn’t an easy film to watch. The images are often shockingly gruesome and Iñárritu’s fascination with sorrow, misery, and loss pummels with one emotional gut-punch after another. But yet there is a seductive allure the kept me glued to every struggle, every conflict, and every encounter. I was overwhelmed by the scenery more times than I can count. But most importantly everything felt rich with meaning and emotion whether it was the ugliness of humanity or the beauty of nature. That’s not an easy thing to convey and Iñárritu deserves a ton of credit for doing it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Birdman”

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Boy it’s nice to see Michael Keaton finally getting a meaty starring role. He was a favorite of mine in the 1980s and early 90s but after that his career hit a significant lull. In “Birdman” he gets a chance to spread his wings (abysmal pun intended) and dive into a layered and complex role. He’s up to the task as evident by the slew of rave reviews and awards nominations. But while Keaton is fantastic, what about “Birdman” the movie? Is the movie itself as good as the performance of its star?

“Birdman” is a bit of a change for director Alejandro González Iñárritu. His previous films are known to be gloomy and emotionally heavy dramas. “Birdman” maintains the gloom and it tinkers with several emotionally heavy subjects, but at its core it’s really a black comedy. It dabbles in a number of things including strained family dysfunction, the stresses of the creative process, and satirizing the blockbuster movie culture. As with Iñárritu’s other films, some of these concepts work better than others, but he still manages to put together a strikingly unique and incisive film.

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Riggan Thomson (Keaton) plays a once popular Hollywood star who made his name playing a character named Birdman in a series of popular superhero blockbusters. In an effort to revitalize his floundering career Riggan is writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story. But Riggan doesn’t really have an environment conducive to success. One of his lead actors is out of commission after a stage accident. His replacement is a pompous, explosive but accomplished method actor named Mike (Edward Norton). His lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a nervous first-time Broadway performer. His lawyer and agent (Zach Galifianakis) is panicky and always on edge.

But there are also a series of relationship issues that make things even more difficult for Riggan. His estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and serves as his assistant. He has a tense relationship with his ex-wife and Sam’s mother Sylvia (Amy Ryan). And then there are a number of complications with his current girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan also has internal struggles. He is constantly searching for affirmations of importance, relevance, and self-worth. In his head the gravelly voice of Birdman constantly insults him and showers him with expectations of failure.

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Needless to say Michael Keaton is brilliant and his Riggan character is the most compelling of the bunch. Keaton has always had panache and “Birdman” gives him a chance to flaunt it. Riggan is such a wild card – a swirling ball of emotional chaos. He’s constantly on edge and you get a sense that his Broadway production has become his own private hell. It, and him for that matter, seem to be careening towards disaster. Keaton manages all of this with a manic tenacity, yet he always gives us convincing quiet moments. Keaton gives us so many layers to his character. Is he a raging egotist? Is he having a mental breakdown? Is he a bit of both? All of the supporting work is good, but for me it all comes back to Keaton.

Another attention getter is the kinetic cinematography from the great Emmanuel Lubezki. Most of the film visually presents itself in one long continuous state of motion. The camera snakes down hallways, prowls behind characters, hovers and rotates during conversations. It’s all done with some pretty clever bits of trickery which gives the illusion of a long unending take. The ever-moving camera feels in tune with the hectic, turbulent atmosphere, and I loved how it made every nook and cranny of St. James Theatre familiar to us. But at the same time I was happy when the camera would just stop, be still, and just let us focus on the actors.

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There is no denying the technique and smarts behind “Birdman”, but despite its bold and fresh appearance, in terms of narrative is it doing anything we haven’t seen before? And I don’t think all of Iñárritu’s satire works. His shots at entertainment media and criticism, his look at entertainment versus art, none of it really clicks. I also found it pointlessly crass at times and surprisingly low on humor even during the scenes where it’s really trying to be funny. Perhaps the funniest thing about “Birdman” is having Michael Keaton, an actor whose career went downhill after playing Batman, play Riggan.

“Birdman” is an interesting entry into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s filmography. It’s not quite as miserable and tragedy-driven as his past films and that’s refreshing. But Iñárritu is still a director who can suffocate his story with his style and high concepts. In this film I think his technique is one of the strong points. It’s clever, well implemented, and it feeds the frantic chaos of the wonderful setting. And while the film is a bit smug at times and the story is stuffed to the gills, I still found myself hooked. As I said, there’s something hypnotic about “Birdman”. Oh, and did I mention Michael Keaton?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Tree of Life”

It’s hard to deny that “The Tree of Life”, Terrence Malick’s first film since 2005′s “The New World”, is destined to be a polarizing movie. I’ve seen it called pretentious, self-indulgent, and a muddled exercise in tedium. But I had a much different reaction. I found it to be cinematic poetry. A profound and deeply moving picture that’s cryptic yet bold and thought-provoking. It’s a challenging meditation on life, family, and God. It’s a film that doesn’t revolve around a tight, concentrated narrative. Instead it feels more like an observation of everything from the creation of the world according to Malick to the life struggles of an ordinary family in 1950′s Texas. It moves at a stylish but deliberate pace and this is sure to drive some people crazy. But I feel it rewards the patient viewer and I found myself drawn in by the artistry and emotion of the film.

In the first few minutes of the movie we see Mrs. O’Brien, (Jessica Chastain) as she is receiving a letter stating her 19 year old son is dead. She calls Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) at work to let him know the tragic news. The film then moves to present day as we are introduced to Jack (Sean Penn) the oldest of the O’Brien’s three sons. Jack comes across as an emotional wreck and we find out that he is still devastated by the loss of his younger brother. He notices a tree being planted in a small construction area which triggers an extended flashback to his childhood.

Jack’s childhood revolves around something said at the first of the film. “There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow”. Jack’s dad is a man of nature. He’s a short-tempered and strict father whose hypocrisies don’t go unnoticed by his children. He has a cynical and hardened view of the world and recognizes success as beating the world at it’s own game. Jack’s mom is a woman of grace. She sees the world as a beautiful place and her faith fuels her loving and trusting nature. She’s quiet and gentle and her love of life is unquestioned even through life’s struggles. The question is which path will young Jack follow?

As we watch Jack and his brothers grow up in 1950′s Waco, Texas, Malick gives us some of the most grounded and natural portrayals of early adolescence that you will find on film. Young Jack, played by the fantastic Hunter McCracken,  has a great relationship with his brothers but always finds himself falling short in his father’s eyes. There are several painfully potent scenes that convey this and over time it leads to some disturbing changes in Jack. It’s heart-wrenching enough to watch this young boy flirt with self-destruction but witnessing his inner struggles with his actions is even more despairing. We hear him in voiceover ask ”What have I done?” He painfully states ”What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.” It’s pretty weighty material and Malick doesn’t treat it halfheartedly.

Malick takes the O’Briens through trials and tragedies but he uses them to explore forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. He’s not afraid to ask tough questions or address things such as existence, spirituality, and the afterlife. But this gets at another thing that makes this film special. It can speak to different people in so many different ways. Whether it be the spiritual subtext or the strained family dynamic, Malick takes something that is obviously deeply personal and touches the audience in a wide variety of ways.

“The Tree of Life” is a technical masterpiece and it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning it. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography should garner instant Oscar consideration. In many ways ”The Tree of Life” is more lyrical than dramatic therefore many scenes find their strength in imagery and camera work other than any form of dialogue. Many of Lubezki’s gorgeous shots carry more dramatic and emotional weight than almost any acted sequence I’ve seen all year. Alexandre Desplat’s brilliant score hits at just the right times during the film, weaving itself between Malick’s signature scenes featuring nature’s ambiance.

This is a unique film which calls for a unique approach by the actors. With the absence of a more precise narrative, the performances are structured around Malick’s vision. Pitt is fantastic in a conservative and more restrained performance. Chastain is graceful and has a subtle elegance. But it’s McCracken who steals the show with his authentic and measured performance. He sells every seen he’s in and Malick uses him perfectly.

“The Tree of Life” requires the audience to accept it for what it is. It’s bold and unwavering and while it could be misconstrued as a vanity project, it’s a film that’s clearly close to Malick’s heart. It most certainly isn’t for everyone, but I found myself immediately drawn in and unable to take my eyes off the visual splendor and mesmerizing meditation. It’s easy to be put off by things such as length and the lack of a focused story. But I implore audiences to judge “The Tree of Life” for what’s it’s meant to be. It touched me in many ways and it’s a film that with stick with me for a long time.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5STAR K&M