The Revenant

TheRevenantPosterGeorge Miller made a movie this year that is little but a chase scene, with themes of survival, revenge and a showcase for hyper violence and cinematic spectacle. The film has virtually no story, but the nature of its editing and its use of color, movement and staging made it an exhilarating experience, brutal and devastating but also cathartic and purely entertaining.

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant” is a similar revenge fantasy, stripped to its bones in all its animalistic nature and fury, but Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography blunts the impact. The Malick-esque way that Lubezki plays with the elements to create something spectral and naturalistic give “The Revenant” an overstated sense of importance, and watching it is hardly entertaining but dreary, disgusting and devoid of purpose.

Set in early frontier America, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a navigator part of a hunting party gathering pelts. Natives ambush the entire squadron and reduce the team from 45 people to just 10. The scene is ravishing, but immediately numbing. Arrows fly in and impale the Americans from beyond the frame, creating a sense early on that danger is not imminent but seemingly omnipresent. The mise-en-scene is cold and silvery and makes a stark backdrop for fiery streaks of arrows flying through the sky.

Lubezki has the camera dive underneath the water to witness one man being strangled to death, and we realize that despite the camera’s pivots and surveying, it’s more of a godly spectator rather than a human eye. The camera here is far less a gimmick than in Inarritu’s “Birdman,” and the way the camera is freed from a fixed axis is not unlike how Lubezki’s cinematography floated and tumbled in “Gravity.” But seeing it in this way isn’t visceral but bleak, violent, bloody and full of agony.

Glass escapes the natives only to be attacked by a bear. This scene too is an endless, torturous and dispassionate sight done in a single, unbroken shot. The bear claws and stomps on his back and whips him like a doll. It exists seemingly out of time and even ends on something of a grim punch line, a final knife in the back as Glass tumbles down a hill only for the slain bear to roll on top of him.

Miraculously, Glass survives, but just barely. Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) demands the remaining troop care for him and keep him alive as long as possible. When they’re unable to transport the wounded Glass further, Henry assigns John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to tend to Glass and Glass’s half-breed son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) until Glass dies. Instead, Fitzgerald kills Hawk and leaves Glass for dead. “The Revenant” starts as Glass’s fight for survival against nature, a cold look at how the world is vengeful and how the wilderness governs all. But it eventually morphs into a more simplistic revenge fantasy, Glass’s quest to return from the dead and kill the man who murdered his son.

We see flashes of Glass’s past, of his native bride being slaughtered and skulls being stacked high in a mountain. Except Glass’s remaining existence is no less bleak, and his past plays as a morbid form of adding insult to injury. He survives by eating hunks of bloody, raw buffalo meat and by cutting open the guts of a horse and crawling inside its open cavity for warmth. The film’s gore is disturbing, but the subject matter itself is not the problem. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was no less shocking, and even “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” involves Luke killing an animal for warmth on the ice planet Hoth.

The difference is how Inarritu lingers on the gruesomeness and screams each shot’s importance, not for their ingenuity but their stark reality. The score pounds with thundering drums that signal each moment’s weight, and the way “The Revenant” evokes God as a theme continually burdens us with the idea that this is Glass against the world.

DiCaprio is a victim of the film’s agony, grunting and moaning his way through the entire film and crawling on the cold ground for much of it. There’s only so much of an actual performance here. Tom Hardy is more effective as the dissenting and ruthless Fitzgerald, complete with a thick, broken Americana accent and wide eyes that show his madness.

While Lubezki remains the more interesting entry point to “The Revenant,” the blame for the movie’s depressing and exhausting slog rests on Inarritu’s shoulders. Like how the film treats Glass, he does all he can to drag us through hell but little catharsis or solace to bring us back.

1 ½ stars

Revisited: Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western still rubs somewhat the wrong way watching it two years later.

This review is a quick smattering of thoughts that was first shared in my Letterboxd review

There’s no questioning Tarantino’s mastery and control behind the camera. Rewatching Django Unchained, the film bursts to life instantly with a just about perfectly gritty and homage of a title sequence and grandly sweeping title song. The film’s opening scene inside a completely dark forest almost looks patently on a set, but Tarantino is doing that intentionally and makes the bleakness and distinct lighting of the scene beautiful. You watch it and its hard to imagine that this will be anything but another of Tarantino’s masterpieces.

I had felt lukewarm about the film on Christmas Day 2012. My somewhat embarrassing review questioned if it was entirely complete as the film was bold, but messy and disjointed, full of set pieces that existed only on their own terms and a revenge plot that felt secondary whenever Tarantino trotted out the flourishes, bloodshed and rap tracks.

And in the first hour of “Django,” those feelings had completely vanished, only to return once Leonardo Dicaprio’s utterly chilling and compelling character showed up. That’s because the first hour is a straight Western, and Tarantino nails it. He could’ve easily drawn out the vigilante hunt for the Brittle brothers to Leone length and made a damn fine film, but he had different ambitions. Continue reading “Revisited: Django Unchained”

2014 Oscars: The Most Popular (and Likely) Upsets

We’ve made all the predictions, but what would be real surprise this Oscar Sunday? Here are some likely upsets.

I’ve made my Oscar picks, and hopefully so have you, but anyone who has ever done this before knows that Oscar night ends up with pitiful looking ballots and people shouting at the TV (how in the world did that win?). So it actually makes sense to bet against the house in some occasions  and picking with your heart rather than your head is always allowed. So here are some last minute Oscar upsets to make to your ballot that a strong minority would both love to see happen and actually might.

Leonardo DiCaprio over Matthew McConaughey

People love Matthew McConaughey, but as I alluded to in this gallery, people really love Leonardo DiCaprio. A win for McConaughey is seen as justified, but only to commemorate a hot streak; it’s not something that’s obscenely long overdue as though an Oscar was the embodiment of Leo’s kids in “Inception” and he’ll never ever get to see their faces unless he’s caught in his own perpetual ambiguous dream world existence. 

Leo will win if the Academy convinces itself that somehow Leo gave the biggest, most physical and grueling performance of the year and his career by flailing like a fish out of water… a fish that has just done a ton of quaaludes and is trying to get into a Lambo. And yes, this will be seen as even more physical than McConaughey losing 40 pounds, Christian Bale gaining 40, Chiwetel Ejiofor spending 2+ hours getting whipped and hung and Bruce Dern being ancient.

Amy Adams over Cate Blanchett

I think everyone agrees that Cate Blanchett gives the best female performance of the year, but is anyone rooting for her? Is anyone rooting for anyone in this category?

Yes! It’s Amy Adams of course! She’s the only one in this bunch who doesn’t have an Oscar. But not only that, of all living actresses, only Glenn Close has more nominations and no wins than her (six to Adams’ five). Her split personality work in “American Hustle” is as complex as the movie itself, and her surprise nomination is evidence the Academy is already behind her and the movie. Continue reading “2014 Oscars: The Most Popular (and Likely) Upsets”

15 Great Actors (other than Leo) who have never won an Oscar

Everyone wants Leonardo DiCaprio to win an Oscar, but his lack of one may not even be the most outrageous.

Leonardo DiCaprio is turning 40 this year, and in that time he has four Oscar nominations for acting to his name, including one for this past year’s performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but he has never won.

This, in some circles of the web, is viewed as an inexplicable tragedy on par with freezing to death after a giant shipwreck and sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

The argument in his defense goes, if any actor deserves a lifetime achievement award, it’s him, or alternatively, if you’re going to give him one of those “career Oscars,” better give him one now while he’s in his “prime.”

Not everyone can win an Oscar. For many, the time or the movie just wasn’t right, the rest of the field was too strong, and the Academy will rely on history to rectify their mistake.

If Leo loses again this year (and he very well may to first time nominee Matthew McConaughey), he will only be behind an elite group of six actors who have managed to lose more times than he has (including this year’s five time nominee Amy Adams) without winning. But even of those he is ahead of in the losing streak, his lack of an Oscar may not even be the most egregious.

Click through each photo to read a not exhaustive list of 15 other great actors who have never won an Oscar.

Continue reading “15 Great Actors (other than Leo) who have never won an Oscar”

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” makes “Spring Breakers” look tame.

Of all the excess bursting from the frame in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, what’s missing is a trip to the normal world. That’s because, who would honestly want to go there? Jordan Belfort certainly doesn’t, but that inability to show the other side of the fence may be part of “Wolf’s” problem.

Martin Scorsese’s film about a real life Wall Street broker who swindled millions from clueless investors in fraudulent stocks and led his firm into a tailspin of sex, drugs and corruption has received a notable amount of criticism; perhaps such a crook doesn’t deserve a wacky, fun biopic based on his life, the critics say.

The question goes, does “The Wolf of Wall Street” glorify the actions of Jordan Belfort? In one way, yes. Jordan’s behavior in the real world is nothing but obscene, and Scorsese gives us three hours to revel in this wild peek behind the curtain.

But in Belfort’s world, this is the norm. The sex romps, the montages and the drug trips all blend together over time, and it provides all the more jolt when in a bizarre twist, something from “fucking Benihana” brings him down.

Scorsese’s film makes “Spring Breakers” look tame in comparison. It languishes on each wild act of depravity and sensationalized moment of mayhem, immersing us in Belfort’s world and his narrative revisionism (“My Ferrari was white, not red,” he barks in narration at the open of the film) without any of the context of the people who aren’t making $49 million a year.

But one wonders what can be gained from a film that shares the same lack of nuances as its perverse characters. Even James Franco’s Alien had some layers to him, but Belfort is all haircut and a sales pitch.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” constantly borders that fine line between exploitation and poignant satire. Like Jordan’s life itself, the movie plays like a mess of outrageous set pieces connected only by their sheer energy. It grasps at the political, psychological and philosophical straws snagged by “Spring Breakers,” “The Bling Ring,” “American Hustle” and even Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” but lacks the specifically distinct aesthetic style all of those films had that would give it an extra kick. Continue reading “The Wolf of Wall Street”

The Great Gatsby

The parties in “The Great Gatsby” are grand, but does Baz Luhrmann see any similarities between now and then beyond “people were gangsta”?

Part of what has made “The Great Gatsby” so enduring is that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is a trim, elegant story with themes that touch on American values old and new. And yet as would be his nature, Baz Luhrmann has transformed “The Great Gatsby” into a long, over-stylized melodrama. Because it lacks Fitzgerald’s resounding tone, it’s a glitzy movie stuffed to the brims that feels strangely empty.

Luhrmann spoke on “The Colbert Report” about how modern the book feels after all these years, and no one is arguing with him there. But what does he see as the similarities between the Roaring Twenties and now? Surely it can’t be the economy, music, fashion or ideas about race.

Luhrmann sees the massive parties and equates them to raves on the wildest scale. He sees scantily clad dancers and choreographs them to hip hop, and for everyone else wearing suits, throwing around money and driving flashy custom rides, he sees them all as gangsta.

Make no mistake; the parties in “Gatsby” are grand. Done up in 3-D and bursting with colors, streamers and floating butterflies, Luhrmann throws a gigantic bash. All the greater then in demonstrating Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) unwavering love for Daisy (Carey Mulligan), or something like that.

“What’s all this for,” Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) asks Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). “That, my dear fellow, is the question.” But Luhrmann is too enamored with his 3-D effects and the celebratory nature of it all to justify how any of this speaks more broadly about our time or theirs’. Continue reading “The Great Gatsby”

Django Unchained

If “Inglourious Basterds” was really a Spaghetti Western in a World War II setting, then “Django Unchained” is really a Blaxploitation film in Spaghetti Western clothing. This could be frustrating in its own way, but it may be that “Django’s” intentional identity crisis is what makes it seem jumbled, messy, overlong and almost incomplete.

The ironic part is that this is true of every Quentin Tarantino film. He’s crafted an entire genre all his own in which the messy parts make the experience so damn fun. But Tarantino really was working up to the wire on “Django;” reshoots and last minute editing took place up until early December.

Yet to call “Django Unchained” incomplete makes it sound as though there’s something missing. That would be like having a German folk legend without a mountain; of course there’s one. What’s absent is the spark and allure that made “Inglourious Basterds” so infectious and invigorating.

Gone is the tingling suspense in the dialogue that suggested Hans Landa knew more than he was letting on or that ordering a glass of milk was a sign of an epic search years in the making.

Here in “Django,” the characters are more exciting and colorful than the story, and their dialogue is concerned with whether someone will snap at yet another instance of the N-word and ignite a “Wild Bunch” proportioned firefight. The details behind the motivations seem to be just a matter of circumstance.

Take The Brittle Brothers, a mysterious and vicious gang with a big bounty on their heads. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a man gifted with his guns but more so with his words, wants to capture them badly, but he knows neither their whereabouts nor what they look like. Django (Jamie Foxx) however, does. Schultz goes through the trouble of freeing Django from a pair of slave owners and enlists his help, and the two dismantle the trio of brothers in no time. The brothers’ threat and their reason for being matters little.

The real story then is Django’s quest to reunite with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). They discover through the uninteresting means of a logbook that she is the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the wealthy owner of the Candieland plantation. Candie is an avid lover of Mandingo fighting, in which black people brutally beat each other to death in front of adoring whites, and Django and Schultz’s plan is to impersonate wealthy buyers so that they can purchase Broomhilda out from under them.

Even Broomhilda is no one of consequence to anyone but Django. Broomhilda’s transaction could conceivably be handled civilly, but Schultz craves a good battle of wits, and Candie is a Southern Gentleman who just doesn’t want to be made a fool. Django is really just along for the ride.

That’s the problem with “Django Unchained;” in its current edited state, the plot too seems to be along for the ride. Tarantino squeezes juicy moments from the lot, such as Django’s garish blue outfit, some verbose wordplay by Waltz and a few gunfights scored to gangster rap, but they matter less than in the Westerns and Blaxploitation films they were inspired by.

Consider one of the film’s best scenes in which Candie places a skull of a black man on his dinner table in front of Schultz and Django. He eloquently preaches the pseudo-science of Phrenology to explain why black men are inferior to whites, wielding a hammer in a threat to bash some skulls both figuratively and literally. The moment is electric, but it’s a put on, isn’t it? It’s very convenient that Candie has a skull lying around, and he’s only doing it to be showy.

There’s also the moment where a posse of whites ride in brandishing torches and wearing pillow sheets to lynch Django. Just before their attack, one of several of the film’s spontaneous spectacles, he rewinds back to a hilarious routine in which everyone complains that they can’t see out of their sacks. Wouldn’t you say this scene almost intentionally interrupts the movie’s flow?

By the time Tarantino arrives at his exorbitantly bloody finale, he barrel rolls past it to remind you it’s not a Western but a Blaxploitation film, wedging in a torture scene, a director’s cameo and a new, less interesting villain. Something is definitely jumbled if the climax seems to have passed.

“Django Unchained” is like Candie’s belief in Phrenology. The science seems to all be there, and it’s captivating when you hear it, but there’s definitely something about it that feels wrong.

3 stars

Off the Red Carpet: Week of 11/7 – 11/14

We’re at the point where there’s going to be a big movie opening every week until the end of the year now, so get excited.

“Skyfall” has biggest Bond opening ever

“Skyfall” earned $86.7 million at the Box Office this weekend, sending it on its way to trounce even the inflation added record of the fourth Bond, “Thunderball.” It’s popular appeal as well as its just plain awesome quality has lead some to speculate the possibility of nominating Judi Dench, Javier Bardem and Roger Deakins for their respected Oscars, as well as a push for the movie itself for Best Picture. It’s a long shot, but I would be on board.

Best Animated Short shortlist revealed

Could we soon be saying, Oscar Winner Maggie Simpson? The shortlist for the Best Animated Short category was revealed last week, and it includes “The Simpsons” short “The Longest Daycare” and the lovey Disney short “Paperman.” The Pixar short film this year that screened before “Brave,” “La Luna,” was nominated and lost last year. But I can guarantee you now that the little underdog movie no one’s heard of and no one will see will almost definitely win this category. Here’s the full list: (via In Contention)

“Adam and Dog”



“The Eagleman Stag”

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

“Fresh Guacamole”

“Head over Heels”

“Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare'”



Christoph Waltz in Best Actor race

I said last week that for some reason people already want to count “Django Unchained” out of the race before anyone’s even seen it. Why no one would consider Christoph Waltz owning “Django” just like he did “Inglourious Basterds” is beyond me, but the difference this year is that he’s being pushed for the Lead Actor race now rather than supporting. Yes, it’s a crowded field, but he was just that good before, and I don’t see why he can’t be again. This also means that Leonardo DiCaprio and even Samuel L. Jackson are people to keep an eye on in the Supporting race. (via In Contention)

Image Credit: The Hollywood Reporter

The Hollywood Reporter Airs Annual Actor Roundtable

Each year The Hollywood Reporter puts together an extended interview roundtable with a collection of actors, usually Oscar hopefuls for that year. Last year they interviewed George Clooney, Viola Davis, Christopher Plummer, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, and this year they’ve interviewed Jamie Foxx, Matt Damon, Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, Alan Arkin and John Hawkes. All six are potential Oscar candidates for acting, three more likely than the others, but their discussion veered much more intellectual. They talked acting on stage, what they would do if they couldn’t act, family and whom they admired. It’s a stirring hour-long discussion between smart actors being very candid in a setting you won’t see anywhere else. (via The Hollywood Reporter)

Gurus ‘O Gold released

The Gurus ‘O Gold have been my go to barometer for Oscar predictions for the last few years. Collectively, they are probably better at anticipating the awards and forecasting changes than any one of them individually. This is their first time forecasting the major categories this year since Toronto. Things are bound to change as a few other movies set in and are seen by the public, but the universal consensus right now is unsurprisingly “Argo,” followed closely by TIFF winner “Silver Linings Playbook.” The surprise I see in the list is the inclusion of “Flight” in 10 spot and “Moonrise Kingdom” on the outs. 10 is probably a generous number for nominees anyway. Take a look at the full list if you’re like me and love charts and spreadsheets and stuff, and avoid it if you think it has the potential to suck all the fun out of the Oscars. (via Movie City News)

Will Best Picture match Screenplay?

A blogger at “Variety” observed that last year was a surprising anomaly in the trend for nominees for Best Picture and Best Original or Adapted Screenplay. The movie with the BP nod always gets the screenplay nod, with historically very few exceptions. Last year alone matched the last 10 years in terms of gaps between the two categories, and it’s worth noting that this year may go the same. “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Master,” “Amour,” “Django Unchained,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Sessions” are all questionable nominees for Best Picture, and that’s just listing the front runners in the screenplay races. (via Variety)

Ben Affleck to receive “Modern Master Award”

For a guy gunning for an Oscar for Best Director with a film set in the ‘70s, it’s got to feel good to win an award called the “Modern Master Award” at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Ben Affleck will receive the award on January 26, conveniently not long before the Oscar ceremony itself. (via The Race)

Week 5 Predictions Continue reading “Off the Red Carpet: Week of 11/7 – 11/14”

Christopher Nolan: Someone more than a man; a symbol

This is the first in my new series, 21st Century Masters, a collection of director profiles specifically on directors and their films from the year 2000 onward. With some exceptions, films made before 2000 are not the subject of these profiles. These are attempts to understand the legacy of filmmakers here and now, not of the past.

There are three steps to Christopher Nolan’s directing process.

  1. He shows you something ordinary, which it probably isn’t.
  2. He takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.
  3. But you wouldn’t clap yet, because he has to bring everything back.

Conveniently, this is the same model Michael Caine explains in “The Prestige.” A good “magician,” he says, tries to do something new, but not everyone can. A good “magician” gives total devotion to his art.

This is Chris Nolan in a nutshell. He begins with a film that demands your patience and attention, one that feels gritty, realistic and serious but has a little something more. Then, he astounds with monumental twists, stunning special effects, sweeping vistas and a screenplay that ever so slightly bends what’s possible. But Nolan’s real game is in showing you how its all done. He arranges elaborate procedures for his characters with strict rules and principles for them to follow. Then they’re confined to boxy, talky and methodic scenes of dialogue to lay the exposition open for scrutiny.

By doing this in each of his eight films, Nolan has been able to take over the world. No director in the 21st Century has emerged as a more distinctive, important voice for film as a popular art form than him. Other directors have been more critically acclaimed and others have slightly larger box office receipts, but no other director to make his or her mark in the last 12 years has come close to uniting adoring fanboys and appreciative film buffs than Nolan.

Nolan’s films are about singular ideas. His legacy comes from getting modern audiences in the multiplex to obsess over their films, study them with scrupulous attention and adhere to them as important texts made to be discussed.

Like Batman himself, Nolan is a symbol more than a director. He currently has the clout to take on any project he pleases and the fervent belief by many that he can do no wrong. And if through his audience he can transcend the idea that his film is just a movie made for entertainment value, he can become a beacon for something better than what we have in the movies today.

“You take it away… to show them what they had.” Continue reading “Christopher Nolan: Someone more than a man; a symbol”

Rapid Response: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

I recently wrote a story on a film series at the IU Cinema on Disability Awareness Films as part of Indiana’s Disability Awareness Month that you can read here, and although the interviews I did drastically changed the way I thought about disabilities, I wondered if a movie, especially tonight’s screening of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” could do the same.

The movie is sweet and saccharine with some melodrama that surprisingly never steps too far, but when you consider all it does wonderfully in depicting disabilities as a natural part of everyday life, you begin to realize how special the film is.

The story is of a family of four young adults living and caring with their morbidly obese mother in a small town. Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) does a lot of work around the house and around town and is also the primary care giver for his autistic younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The beauty of the story in relation to disabilities is that the handicapped individuals are hardly one-dimensional figures made to pose problems or melodrama for the able bodied people. Both the mother and Arnie are endearing, likeable, emotional, display growth and are not defined by their disabilities. For instance, the mother’s disability is not really obesity but grief over the death of her husband.

The film treats the problems of disabled people as just another complication in a normal day, and we see depth in that this is really a story of being stuck and being judged. Gilbert is stuck inside his hometown, the mother is trapped in her home, Arnie is trapped within his own mind, Gilbert’s new-found girlfriend Becky is literally stuck in this town in the middle of nowhere, and a local married woman having an affair with Gilbert is first stuck in a dysfunctional family and is later surrounded by accusations of her killing her husband.

“Gilbert Grape” is perhaps little seen today but well heard of because it happens to be a remarkable time capsule with a million now famous actors doing things radically different from what they’re doing today. Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, John C. Reiley and Crispin Glover all have early, major roles, and just about all of them are wonderful.

You could talk for hours about how good Leo is as someone with autism. He was rightfully nominated for an Oscar, but you watch him act and can hardly see the actor he is today, let alone would be within just years of that performance as a teen heartthrob. He’s so natural, as if he was an actual autistic actor, and his portrayal is considered remarkably accurate.

This is also a great everyman performance for Johnny Depp. It’s very understated and reserved, and yet he displays some touching range and emotion. I wonder whatever happened to that actor.