Reverence for The Revenant

The Revenant_04

Oh, how I wish I could have gone into The Revenant completely cold, knowing nothing other than it was Inarritu and DiCaprio.  Curiously the film suffers from following an amazing, shrewdly edited trailer that promised uncompromised tension as DiCaprio fights for survival across dreadfully gorgeous cinemascope-worthy mountainous winter landscapes photographed in otherworldly fashion by the king of pretty “sunlight through trees” cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki.  What if I hadn’t known that epic bear attack was coming?  What if I hadn’t known Tom Hardy was going to murder (wait, does everyone know this yet?).  What if…what if…what a shock the film would’ve been had I not already known its moves.

Bu the trailer and its subsequent building buzz hit perfectly on everything:

  • This was loosely (very loosely) based on a harrowing true tale that became a book.
  • DiCaprio gets viciously mauled by a bear (in fact, gets his throat almost ripped out and spends the rest of the film in sparse, pained speech when not completely silent or gurgling blood) and left for dead.
  • Mother Nature is both heartless and beautiful.
  • Tom Hardy (sporting his own unique growling speech and interesting accent) is gonna get his.

Despite being in awe of the craftsmanship and audacity of its scope, watching the film seemed stripped of any suspense.  You feel like you’re going through the motions even though it’s utterly captivating from a visual sense.  Continue reading

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The Sound and the Fury of Birdman

Birdman

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman (from an a script inexplicable penned by the director and three others) might be a film about a washed-up action star writing and directing a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s classic short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but it’s that old Shakespeare quote about life being, “…a tale.  Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.  Signifying nothing.” which inspired the title of William Faulkner’s alleged magnum opus (I’m not going to go off on a side-rant here about how Light in August is really his magnum opus and not The Sound and the Fury, which to me was always so…well…kinda like this Birdman here…self-indulgent) that runs through a viewer’s mind while watching Michael Keaton ACT!

Birdman is the super hero Riggan Thomson (Keaton) played twenty years ago and made him a mega-celebrity.  The Carver play is the intimate character-driven art piece he so desperately wants to restore his street cred and remake him into an Actor rather than a celebrity.  Inarritu’s film, in which the Birdman, the man who played him, and the play he creates exist, is exactly the type of film that people who watch only movies like Birdman (as in the explosion filled super hero movie within the film Birdman, not the actual film Birdman) think people who go to watch films like Birdman (the film, not the movie within the film) go to watch.  I can tell you now, Birdman, at times, is the worst type of those types of films that I like to watch.   It’s also, at times, maddeningly brilliant.

Inarritu’s central conceit is all so very meta and insular, appealing to those who believe in the myth of the tortured artist (“What do you risk?” Keaton blusteringly asks a brusk Broadway critic, “I RISK EVERYTHING ON THE STAGE!”) and those who live it.  It’s been dissected many times before.  It brought to mind the lines from a classic episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is forced to wear a fur coat and man-purse and the building super Silvio mocks him saying, “No, he’s very fancy! Want me, love me! Shower me with kisses!”  So then, how does a Director and a Cast make this often mocked mindset seem fresh and meaningful?  Surround it with sound and fury. Continue reading

It’s Not a Grave, It’s a Niche

Hey, Dad, do you know what happens to owls when they die?

A Review of Biutiful

**Spoilers Ahead – Read with Caution**

It’s not a grave, it’s a niche.  It’s a seemingly innocuous piece of dialogue, a clarification on the not-so-final resting spot of our protagonist’s father – a father he never knew, a father who fled Spain as a political exile only to die in Mexico of pneumonia and be shipped back to Barcelona to be tucked away by his widowed wife in a niche.  But it’s also symbolic of the niche this family has carved out for themselves over the generations where fathers are sent to early graves.  Progress and globalization threaten this niche – a mall is to be built, the niche destroyed, and the corpse cremated – as do calamities and ailments including cancer both literally and figuratively.

Our protagonist, Uxbal (Javier Bardem in a devastating performance) is trying to make do in a Barcelona that is coming apart at the seams.  He deals in knock-off goods and illegal workers.  He’s also trying to raise his two young children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estralla – both naturalistic and deserving of sympathy) while being estranged from his bipolar wife (Maricel Alvarez in a wonderfully complex and flighty performance in perfect pitch through all her mood swings) who is sleeping with his opportunistic and corrupt brother (Eduard Fernandez).  But in the all the varying shades and undulations of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s maddeningly complex and perversely intertwined world, nothing in what it seems on the surface. Continue reading

A Review of Atom Egoyan’s “Adoration”

Devon Bostick and Scott Speedman wonder if they'll serve cheese and wine after all this violin playing.

Devon Bostick and Scott Speedman wonder if they'll serve cheese and wine after all this violin playing.

Interesting Dramatic Experiment
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

A teenager (Devon Bostick) who was orphaned after the tragic deaths of his parents is prompted by his teacher (Arsinee Khanjian) to deliver a fictional monologue about his father’s failed terrorist act as fact in an elaborate “dramatic exercise” in Armenian-Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s latest thought-provoking piece of abstraction Adoration.  As the fiction spins out of control over the internet, the true motives of those involved in the lie are revealed and back-stories come collapsing in on each other in Egoyan’s signature elliptical style.

Egoyan, as always, gives patient viewers plenty to chew on. Like the young man’s monologue that marries a true story to a false one about his parents, Adoration itself is an interesting dramatic experiment designed to provoke. It tackles many issues including the motives of terrorists, fractured familial relationships, the hollowness of alleged connections made through modern technology and the dangers of thinking those connections can replace real face-to-face human interaction. Though I always question Egoyan’s motive in casting his wife Arsinee Khanjian in his films, in many ways, she gives her most understated and powerful performance here. Bostick does a decent job with a tough role, though Rachel Blanchard is curiously flat in the flashbacks as his mother. The true revelation is Scott Speedman as the troubled tow-truck driver who reluctantly steps in to raise his sister’s son after she dies. His story arc proves to be the most involving, though one wishes his background had been more developed.

The bizarre detour into sleazy mediocrity with Where the Truth Lies seems to have made Egoyan a little rusty as he returns to a more familiar form here for those who have been watching the arc of his career. The elliptical folding in of the converging plot lines seems clumsier in Adoration than it did in his earlier works, and the “big reveal” comes a few scenes too early and sucks out the emotional impact. Unlike Exotica which had the swagger of a young auteur at the top of his game, or The Sweet Hereafter which came from the sublime source material of novelist Russell Banks, Adoration represents Egoyan bruised from years of wear left to his own devices. Though compelling, he gets the best of himself and let’s the ideas take over the characters. He also relies far too much on visuals of non-characters in chat rooms or of people being recorded with cameras. However, Egoyan scores when Mychael Danna lends his musical compositions. The frequent collaborator does a magnificent job creating a haunting score with a recurring violin motif that plays integral to one of the back-stories.

Back in the late 1990’s Atom Egoyan was in a league of his own and master of his own style. In the past ten years, however, international cinema has seen the emergence of filmmakers like Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel) and Germany’s Fatih Akin (whose superb The Edge of Heaven deserved a bigger audience stateside last year). They often tackle similar themes in an elliptical Egoyanesque manner.  But because their films are presented on a larger scale and infused with a certain energy and immediacy, Egoyan’s films, in all their isolated scholarly austerity, have been unfairly left out in the cold.   Adoration  may not be Egoyan’s best, but it proves he still has some good ideas in him and he isn’t ready to be dismissed just yet.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

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Check out my reviews of other Egoyan films:

Exotica (1994)

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Ararat (2002)

Where the Truth Lies (2005)

A Review of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel”

*I’ve discussed this film often in my blogs, and as it is one of the Best Picture Nominees and the Golden Globe Winner for Best Drama, I feel the need to broadcast the review I posted on the IMDB when the film was originally released in November of 2006. 
 

Babel-on, Wayward Director…, 6 November 2006
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

With “Babel” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has crafted the apex to his trilogy that began with the gangbusters “Amores Perros,” and continued with the finely crafted and haunting “21 Grams.” Unfortunately, it seems that peak is crumbling. “Babel” has the same intertwining story structure as the previous two, but in hopping across continents and making the stories global (taking place in Mexico, Morrocco, and Japan), he loses some much needed focus. It also has what has now become his signature editing-with-a-hacksaw-style of chronology that worked beautifully in “21 Grams” but seems forced here. In fact there’s one set of scenes taking place at a Mexican wedding that is needlessly incoherent in its jumping back and forth. Everything in this set of scenes is taking place at one location on one night, so why the jumbled chronology? It makes one wonder if they forgot an editor all together.

“Babel” is not without its merits. The story lines are more often than not thought-provoking and challenging. The ensemble acting is top notch from the big stars (Cate Blanchett is riveting as always in all her subtle and alluring ways and makes the most of her limited screen time) down to the no-name locals (the Morrocan kids being especially effective). There’s also a commendable ambition to the whole endeavor as it attempts to explore communication and human emotion in the increasingly global and paradoxically intolerant world. Memorable, too, is some great cinematography of the Tokoyo skyline (especially that awesome closing pan-out from the high-rise balcony) and the Morrocan highlands, where the centerpiece of the intertwined tragedies takes place when an American tourist is accidentally shot by some goat-herding kids playing with a gun used to keep away jackals from their family’s livelihood.

Unfortunately “Babel,” in its uncompromising vision, plays out painfully in strained, awkward lurches that stretch believability. It’s interesting how during various moments, different story lines seem the most compelling. The early scenes in Morocco of both the American couple (Blanchett and Brad Pitt) and the local goat-herders are stark and intimate and represent the best at what Inarritu is capable of as a storyteller. Later, he applies a humanistic touch to the scenes of the Mexican nanny taking her American charges across the border for her son’s wedding. There’s a wide-eyed innocent nature to the culture clash he depicts that gets garbled later when Gael Garcia Bernal (as the nanny’s nephew) dives off the deep end with little reason and leads to a tragic series of events that really test the viewer’s ability to take this all as seriously as the filmmaker’s would like us to. Likewise, the Japanese tale of the deaf-mute teenage girl struggling to cope with society’s unwillingness to communicate on her level, a distant father, and the recent suicide of her mother lurches forward so melodramatically it becomes banal, and the connection it has to the other stories is the biggest stretch to swallow, and most viewers will choke on it.

Then, of course, there is the presence of the aforementioned uber-star Brad Pitt. He’s at a point in his career where his celebrity status trumps his acting talent. He’s actually quite good as Blanchett’s frantic husband, but his star-power is distracting and constantly has the viewer thinking in the back of their mind “wow, Brad Pitt can act” rather than feeling anything for the character. This is a piece of stunt-casting that doesn’t work.

There are many compelling moments and noteworthy performances in “Babel,” but it crumbles under its own weight as just about everything is reduced to the big breakdown/crying scene, and we are left wondering what Inarritu will do next as a director. He’s got talent to spare, but ran out of steam when taking his intimate look at human tragedy global with “Babel.”

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

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