Monday, January 18, 2016

The Flawed Genius of The Revenant

Revenant – noun – one that returns after death or a long absence.

The great motivation for me to see this picture, which has been flying under my radar for some time, was quite honestly it’s astonishing 12 Academy Award nominations. That number of nominations puts “The Revenant” on par with films such as “Gone With The Wind”, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “From Here To Eternity”. Could this quiet, un-hyped film I’d barely heard of really be an equal among such auspicious company? My answer is absolutely yes, and yet somehow, no.

Set deep in the Colorado Rocky Mountains of 1823, “The Revenant” is pure adventure in the classic sense. A visceral tale of survival, fear, revenge and loss, the story harkens back to the works of Jack London and James Fenimore Cooper. Frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is abandoned for dead by two trappers (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter) after a savage mauling from a momma bear defending her cubs. Glass regains his strength during an agonizing journey back to “civilization” where rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. The violence is remarkable and raw, the setting primal, nearly every quality of this film’s production is worthy of highest praise.

I make no secret of being a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. Since before “Titanic”, I’ve appreciated his talent and in recent years his dedication to certain causes as well. DiCaprio’s performance as the historical legend Hugh Glass has already garnered a Golden Globe, it should bag him the Oscar as well.

Tom Hardy’s work in “The Revenant” tops his portrayal of British convict Bronson in the film of the same name. In fact, Hardy’s seething portrayal of Fitzgerald, a strong if scared man, proves that being the new Mad Max is a greater boon to that franchise than his career. Even Will Poulter’s Jim Bridger is an honest redemption from being the geek boy in “We’re The Millers”.

The cinematography is beyond Oscar worthy, it’s groundbreaking. What else to expect from the man who photographed “Gravity”? Many of the action scenes – attacks, chases and the bear mauling – included long single shot takes that took you into the moment in ways no amount of quick cut editing will ever achieve. This film’s imagery, sometimes majestic, sometimes grotesque, was captured (aside from one scene only) entirely with existing natural light. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki did more than earn his paycheck, he crafted another genuine masterpiece.

Positively phenomenal production value, cinematography, acting, sound, costumes, make-up, so many incredible pieces were assembled by director Alejandro González Iñárritu that it should go without saying that the whole is as great as the sum of its parts.  Yet, somehow, “The Revenant” is lacking. It’s a cinematic fact of life, really. A great director can take a good script and make a good movie. A great director cannot take a good script and make a great movie; the script must be great first. The script here was not great, these characters and their travails never engaged me emotionally in any substantial way. González Iñárritu’s $135M epic is nominated for 12 Academy Awards, which component is missing a nomination? You got it – the screenplay.

“The Revenant” is really a very, very good movie - a must-see adult adventure with real people, not comic book superheroes, outer space warrior-shamans or magic rings. However, it is simply not a great movie. It’s no “Ben-hur”, hell, on some levels it’s not even “Titanic”. Well, I guess, some years really, really good is good enough for greatness.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"The Force Awakens" - And Not A Moment Too Soon!

      Better late than never for this review, even as a boy I was the last kid on the block to see new Star Wars films, so it is almost fitting to carry on the tradition with “The Force Awakens”. There has been a lot of talk in the media, fandom and the Twitterverse about this latest installment of the Star Wars franchise being the first true film of the iconic saga since “Return of the Jedi”, and I’m here to say I couldn’t agree more! Maybe it’s seeing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, yes, there’s a real person inside that fur) together again, or the absence of Jar Jar Binks, but this film possesses an authenticity none of the three prequels were able to capture.

      The storyline is familiar, even derivative, but the Force is in the details. A young loner on a desert planet, Rey (Daisy Ridley), escapes her lonely, yearning existence when she discovers a small droid, BB-8, holding important information needing to be relayed to the good guys. Sound familiar? However, the secret information is the location of long missing Luke Skywalker and the baddies are led by new masked villain, Kylo Ren, who also happens to be the son-gone-bad of Han Solo and Princess Leia. This sounds good just typing it!

         ***MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD***

       By now it is almost common knowledge that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) kills his father, Han Solo, in a vicious ending to an intensely emotional scene both Driver and Ford played to perfection. While this is of course an important event in Kylo’s turning to the Dark Side, I feel killing Solo was a mistake. Bringing back Solo only to kill him in the first film of a new trilogy is as disappointing as having Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a great character, killed off in “The Phantom Menace” by Darth Maul (Ray Park), a great villain who is himself then killed off in that film. Solo was a beloved hero, rogue, even role model. Perhaps Harrison Ford didn’t want to do another film or two, but if this was Abram’s decision it was a bad one. In my opinion Abrams needed to earn our trust with this franchise before doing anything so grandiose. The death of Han Solo, though well played and built up to, feels like the work of a man overplaying his hand by robbing us of an old friend.


      Naturally, the effects are astounding and the action scenes intense. Light sabers look very cool in 3D. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher still have that onscreen chemistry that made the romance between Han and Leia so genuine three decades ago. Newcomer Daisy Ridley’s Rey is strong yet vulnerable, bright yet still full of wonder. The maelstrom of emotions Daisy conveys during her final discovery of Luke Skywalker was the work of true talent, even if her London accent was a little distracting on occasion. Will Daisy move on to other successes like Harrison Ford after “Star Wars”? I think so.

      The loss of Solo notwithstanding, “Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens” is the best thrill ride I’ve seen on the big screen in a long, long time. I actually found myself sitting there, smiling, really enjoying myself, and few films do that for me anymore. Yes, this is the best Star Wars film, perhaps since the original, certainly since “Return of the Jedi”. See it, or see it again, but don’t be the last kid on the block to do so!