The Revenant (2015)

The_Revenant_2015_film_poster (1)By definition, a revenant is someone who returns, but there is often a connotation that they are returning from the dead like a specter. The term gives major insight into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest undertaking with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a fully immersive, grimy, gory, grisly, grizzly-filled piece of cinema caked in blood, sweat, and tears in every sense of the word.

Its production took the cast and crew to Canada and Argentina to shoot sequences that were probably just as desolate in person as they looked onscreen. In that way, Iñárritu did not fudge or cheat with the use of excessive computer-generated imagery. Even if his production was overlong and undoubtedly volatile, you could say he was rewarded with vast expanses of engulfing cinematic visuals. Emmanuelle Lubezki yet again probably becomes one of the film’s biggest assets and his use of natural lighting is superb. In truth, it’s a painful exhibition in acting by DiCaprio and this icy frostbitten wilderness becomes the backdrop for a gargantuan feat of survival.

What would inspire such a film? I think many people were asking that, and it does find some of its story from the true circumstances of Hugh Glass, a 19th-century explorer, trapper, and guide who was part of a fur trapping expedition out west. After enduring an onslaught from a group of belligerent Pawnee, Glass can hardly recover from a bear mauling that essentially leaves him a lifeless carcass of a man.

His scared and scattered band is just hoping to get to their outpost to regroup, but their leader (Domhnall Gleeson capping off a phenomenal year) is intent on holding onto Glass because he’s the only one who knows the way back. His main insubordinate is the grubby, paranoid, scumbag John Fitzgerald, played so invariably corrupt by Tom Hardy. Glasses Pawnee-born son, the young trapper Bridger (Will Poulter) and a reluctant Fitzgerald agree to stay behind with the feeble man, while the others push forward. But being the backstabber that he is, Fitzgerald looks to bury Glass alive or finish him off for good with his musket. It doesn’t make much difference to him, but Hawk doesn’t want to see his father dead. Fitzgerald could care less. After all, what is he supposed to do? Keep this man alive only so he might die too?

Bridger naively follows Fitzgerald’s lead and they leave Glass behind for dead. There is no man who could survive, half-frozen, half-dead and still find a way to live another day. That’s where the story goes into stage two of survival.

The images that follow are ceaselessly gripping with majestic landscapes that are raw and brutal in the same breath. DiCaprio forges through streams, makes fires by some miracle, and keeps warm any way humanly possible. To don such a role you almost have to give up any human sensibilities and allow yourself to simply exist. He crawls and claws painfully, eats raw meat torn from a dead bison carcass, and sleeps inside the hide of his dead horse. It should repulse us in our modern lifestyles of comfort and excess, but in the same sense, it is a fascinating portrait of realism taken to the extreme.

The final chapter follows Glass as he returns to the fort, gets in contact with Captain Henry, only to chase after the fleeing Fitzgerald one last time. When he caught news of the ghost man’s return from the dead he knew the implications. Dead men tell no tales, but it’s a different story if they don’t die.

Unfortunately, The Revenant is rather laborious in the end and it’s a fatalistic revenge tale certainly but it’s not altogether satisfying. True, the perpetrator of evil is brought to justice, but that doesn’t mean a great deal. Perhaps because we admire Glasses gumption, but we never really build a connection with him. He truly is a solitary figure looking to avenge the death of his boy. There’s not more to grab hold of with this dynamic, maybe due to the fact that he is really a ghost. He’s so gaunt, battered, and spent that there is little space for emotions to fill all the nooks and crannies. Only a constant, pulsing desire for vengeance.

Still, we can always go back and be contented in Lubezki’s gorgeously stark visuals. The frontier look of this film brought to mind Malick’s film (also with Lubezki) The New World for a brief instant, and it makes me want to give it another look. Otherwise, The Revenant stands as an impressive feat, but it does not quite have the emotional wallop that it had the potential to wield. Although, the performances are thoroughly impressive, even if it’s more for their singular commitment than anything else.

4/5 Stars

Birdman (2014)

Birdman_posterIn the opening shot, a man is in his tidy-whities levitating in midair. This is one of those films that can never be figured out completely or never fully dissected in its entirety. It’s a meta film on a whole lot of levels. You could say that Michael Keaton is playing a version of himself named Riggan Thomson. He used to be a superstar in the popular superhero series Birdman. That ended back in 1992. Now he’s old and washed up attempting to revive himself in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver play. Robert Downey Jr. is the guy with the type of box office draw that he used to have.  He is constantly fighting his own inner demons that play like the voice of the Birdman in his head. The character he used to be is so closely tied to his identity that Riggan has trouble getting away from it.

The film follows the loss of one of their lead actors to an accident, and there is a rush to find someone else before their first preview showing. They want Michael Fassbender or Jeremy Renner and yet they do get lucky in Mike Shiner (Edward Shiner). However, much like Norton in real life, Shiner proves to be a handful, but also a star performer who the public love. Riggan needs him and his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) pleads with him to say with Shiner. All the previews are a disaster: Mike breaks character over some gin and he tries to have sex with actress and former lover Lesley (Naomi Watts) on stage. To add insult to injury, Riggans locks himself out of the theater and thus begins his frantic pilgrimage through Time Square in only his underwear.

birdman1Riggans wrote, directed, and acts in this play to overcompensate for all his failures. He even refinances his house to cover the cost. He’s spent. His daughter and former drug addict Sam (Emma Stone) is his assistant, and although they don’t see eye to eye, they try to be real with each other. She too is a screw-up, but she sees in him someone who confuses love for adoration. He worries about relevancy, fading away, and he is scared to death that he might not matter. In as many words, she tells him to join the club because every member of humanity has these same fears nearly every day of their existence. He is no different.

Following the final preview, critic Tabitha Dickinson says she will tear his play apart because he is one of those Hollywood celebrities masquerading as an actor. After a rough evening, the Birdman comes back to haunt him before the big opening.

Then, opening night comes and Riggan seems strangely aloof on a night with so much riding on it. He does the unthinkable when in his final scene he uses a real gun and points and fires it at himself. The crowds are as surprised as the viewer before bursting into thunderous applause. Riggan has unwittingly become a sensation on Twitter and on the theater circuit.

The story ends in the hospital with Riggan reconciling himself with his daughter Sam. It looks like it could take a fatal turn because the specter of Birdman still remains, and yet along with Sam we get to see something extraordinary, and at the same time ridiculous, happen. They don’t call him Birdman for nothing.

Birdman has received a great deal of notice for its cinematography that was spliced together to look like one continuous shot. At first, it feels a bit gimmicky watching the camera self-consciously spiral around the actors, but it slowly becomes the routine. It feels like a Goodfellas tracking shot on steroids, and it certainly hearkens back to Hitchcock’s Rope as we often find ourselves following characters from behind down hallways or going from interiors to exteriors. It’s certainly a different perspective of the world.

birdman3There are moments that it looked like Edward Norton or Emma Stone might steal the show, but by the end, it is still evident that this is Michael Keaton’s film. This is a story about his struggle. This is his version of Sunset Boulevard that he must overcome. It also has an overarching blend of magic and realism that makes it hard to parse through what the true reality is. But by the end that is far from necessary, because this is a meta experience that is layered and inverted in such a way that makes it fascinating. We think we have our feet on the ground, firmly planted, but we never do, and we are never allowed to.

At times it feels rather like we are in Manet’s painting Bar at the Folies Bergere. It becomes difficult to tell if we are in the audience are simply part of the film. We lose our self in the metaness that acts as the thin dividing line between what is real and what is fictitious. There is a cinematic magic in that just as there is a kind of supernatural energy in Riggan Thomson himself. However, he does not get wholly lost in that, because he is a messed-up human being like the rest of us. No matter how mystical he is, there still is an unmistakable resonance to his story. Thomson would be happy to know that he is relevant just like we are all relevant in some way, shape, or form. It’s all subjective. It just depends on who you ask or what critic says what. In reality, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot.

Honestly, it failed to hit me until afterward,  Birdman is a humorous film where the humor often gets forgotten behind the more philosophical and human aspects. There’s nothing quite like it. It takes its cues from Sunset Boulevard, Jean-Luc Godard, Dr. Strangelove, Batman and undoubtedly so much more, but it is distinctively the creation of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

4.5/5 Stars

The Tree of Life (2011)

9f8e8-thetreeoflifeposterDirected by Terence Malick and starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn, this film is a grand and audacious piece of cinema that intertwines images of the creation of the world with the life of a young boy in 1950s Texas. 

When I say daring, I mean that you will either find it fascinating or very, very dull. There does not seem to be much middle ground here. The film begins with a biblical allusion to Job and depicts a flickering golden light. Over these images are whispered words urging the listener to follow either grace or nature in life. 

Then, both Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) find out separately that one of the sons has died, and the reason is not explained. In the present, one of their sons (Sean Penn) who is now an architect contemplates his life while trying to get through his day. Then, we witness the breathtaking formation of creation, with the creation of the planets, sea, and life itself.
Back in 1950s Waco Texas, a young couple has had their first baby boy, and then two more follow in the ensuing years. Most of their life is focused on the conflict inside of the young boys, Jack. He must struggle with a mother who is gentle and loving, and a father who is authoritarian and even abusive. After one friend dies and another is burned, Jack begins to grow more disillusioned with the world and his parents. During a summer, their father goes away and during that same time, Jack becomes even more rebellious. Then their father is in trouble of losing his job, and he questions how he has lived his life to deserve such a fate. Back in the present, Jack has a fantastical vision seeing his younger self, as well as his family and others walking on the beach and the film, ends soon after. 

The closest movie that I can think of with the same thought-provoking intentions as The Tree of Life is probably 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, I think I surprisingly appreciated Tree of Life a little more, because it focused more on the human aspect instead of the fact that humans are insignificant and primitive in the realm of outer space. Furthermore, the ending of this film somehow seemed reminiscent of La Dolce Vita, since both had rather cryptic conclusions taking place on expansive beaches.
 
4.5/5 Stars