Wednesday, January 27, 2016

THE REVENANT Is At Least Twice As Fun As A Bear Attack

THE REVENANT (directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015)

Like one of those indoor skydiving places, "The Revenant" offers a visceral recreation of something without much satisfaction. The wind blows against your face and it certainly feels exciting, but there's nothing except a few feet of air below you and a comfortable walk to the parking lot.

That's your expectation checker. Now that it's out of the way, how many people really leave an indoor skydiving place disappointed? Movies are the most transportive artistic medium, and like Werner Herzog taking us down the river in "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God" or Alfonso Cuarón floating alongside Bullock and Clooney in "Gravity," "The Revenant" writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and star Leonardo DiCaprio create a stunning transference of feeling. We're there in the muck. Crawling through the snow. Scrounging for food and water. 

What's the golden rule of screenwriting - show, don't tell? "The Revenant" is all show and no tell. It's one of those movies like "Apocalypse Now" that's also an incredible chronicle of its own making, and when we return home, safely under our electric blanket and surrounded by four walls, we're not only grateful for what we have now, but feeling like we've experienced something we didn't understand before.

It's 1823, and Amazon Prime is years away. A group of trappers hunt for pelts in the Dakotas, still largely unsettled after the Louisiana Purchase. When Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a member of the group with unique knowledge of the terrain, ventures alone into the woods and is viciously mauled by a bear, his companions assume him to be at death's door and leave him with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, only slightly more understandable than in "The Dark Knight Rises) as they venture ahead, lest he die alone. Fitzgerald, never trusting or liking Glass in the first place, steals his supplies and abandons him, but not before murdering Glass' son. Despite the extreme wounds and no food or water or weapons, Glass manages to slowly crawl back to civilization, seeking justice.

If "The Revenant" has a major fault, maybe it's Iñárritu's. A man, near dead in the uncharted wilderness, literally crawls home inch by inch, and if he cares about surviving, it's only because he hasn't found his vengeance yet. There's a juicy pulp story buried here, beneath the grit and grime, but Iñárritu seems preoccupied with the grander capital letter themes of Man vs Nature, the Will To Survive, the Birth and Foundation of America. Even that would be tolerable if I felt a steady hand at the wheel. "The Revenant," however, clocks at a needlessly bulky 156 minutes, and there's only so many long takes of DiCaprio crawling through the snow we can take.

Too often throughout "The Revenant" I felt the movie slip away, clearing its throat and announcing its themes without delivering on any of them. It's an exercise in its own creation, and despite the majesty of this exercise, that's ultimately what it remains - emotionally stunted and underdeveloped.

Viewing the movie through this lens, though, maybe the fault is my own, respecting it while not loving it. Too often while watching movies that don't meet our exact hopes, we get too caught up in the hypotheticals. The director shoulda done this, the writer shoulda done that. We confuse choices with faults, and in judging a movie for what it's not, we don't always enjoy it for what it is.

So lets appreciate "The Revenant" for what it is -  an arduous, dizzying, and occasionally insane work of cinematography and acting, made by people steadfastly committed to the endgame and willing to see it through. If nothing else, even if Iñárritu directed a script written by and starring Tommy Wiseau, the movie is a visual stunner, capturing vistas rarely matched in the movies.

A more traditional filmmaker might indulge in panoramic wide shots, emphasizing landscapes. Iñárritu instead throws those in sporadically, creating with Emmanuel Lubezki the world we're inhabiting, then opts for mostly extreme close-ups. First the place is established, then we're thrown deep in the thick of it. There's no observation, no ease of distance. Whatever the characters are experiencing, we're there with them, sometimes no more than a few inches away. It's a jarring effect, but that's the difference between understanding a moment and feeling it in our bones.

If nothing else, "The Revenant" is a movie to feel deep in your core, and no small credit must be paid to DiCaprio. Truth be told, it's far from his most interesting work. "The Aviator" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street" both had more compelling, three dimensional characters, drawing on his skills as an actor in a complete way; Tom Hardy plays the juicier role here as Glass' adversary. If those movies were his best performances, though, "The Revenant" is his most performance. This is DiCaprio unhinged, primal and volatile, matted hair and chapped lips, hurling himself into the work with the passion of an artist who wants to take his audience somewhere new.

When he wins his now-inevitable Oscar, it will be for the onscreen experience more than the uniqueness of the performance. But you don't see Eddie Redmayne eating raw buffalo liver.

Ultimately "The Revenant" is a gorgeous, epic shaggy dog story, with not a whole lot to say but a real knack in saying it. It's a ravagement of the senses, a case for the widescreen theatrical experience, while sporting a single-take bear attack that makes you understand why Werner Herzog in "Grizzly Man" warned Timothy Treadwell's mother to never, ever listen to the audio of her son's death.

When a movie imposes a vision this powerful, sometimes you're allowed to not look beyond.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The STAR WARS Franchise Is Perfectly All Right Now, It's Fine, It's All Fine Now, Thank You...How Are You?

(directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. Buzzfeed offers countless listicles for toys we recognize if were grew up in whatever decade. Nickelodeon launched a late night TV block reviving its classic 80s/90s programming. Any Republican running for office is virtually required to win one for the Gipper. Nostalgia blinds our better judgement, bathes us in a warm pool of familiarity, and strokes our hair as it reassures us, "You're not mistaken - things really were better then."

It's a cynical tool, for sure, wielded by those hawking what they want us to buy. But in the right hands, it's also a noble one. Enter "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which preys on fans to a calculating degree, tweaking our impulses and desires and memories like it's scanning a car radio. And it's not only enjoyable, it's kind of inspiring.

I've always thought pop culture plays a crucial role in our lives, more than filling the silence before bedtime. Pop culture serves as a great uniting force, piercing through our veil of differences and giving strangers something to share in our dumb, random lives. Watching "The Force Awakens" with a sold out IMAX crowd at nearly one in the morning drove that home. As a movie - and ultimately that's what it is - the gears of the machine churn exposed. You can sense it laying franchise groundwork here. You can feel it hitting the obvious emotional buttons there. And yes, you can see it essentially remaking the original "Star Wars" all over the place.

But is that a problem? As noted by Matt Zoller Seitz, "The Force Awakens" is the movie writer/director J.J. Abrams was put on this planet to make, and sure enough, it's nimble and sure-footed, whip-fast and brazenly entertaining, modern yet boldly retro, with just the right amount of heart and brimming with confidence, announcing itself from the iconic opening title crawl as a movie that knows what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. Tapping into the power of nostalgia, it doesn't create a new world as much as it plugs new, dynamic characters into the one we fondly remember, and through that, Abrams makes an artistic statement that's both powerful and surprisingly personal. 

He does so by populating "The Force Awakens" with new characters consumed with looking back. Swaggering pilot for the Resistance - the good guys - Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) opens the movie on a quest for the map leading to now vanished Luke Skywalker. Villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), young leader in the First Order - the bad guys - models his look, attitude, and very existence on the legendary Darth Vader. Farmgirl Rey (Daisy Ridley) and stormtrooper-regretting-his-decisions Finn (John Boyega) know the legends of the original trilogy by heart. And then there's Han Solo (Harrison Ford having his most onscreen fun in ages) and Chewbacca returning to the series hunting for their treasured Millennium Falcon, which they lost years prior. 

Look. I get it. Abrams and Disney don't exactly reinvent the wheel in "The Force Awakens." At best, they're like the kid with an old-timey tire and a stick; if the tools aren't new, we still marvel at how well he's spinning it. George Lucas' original "Star Wars" felt radically fresh - throwing everything he loved about samurai pictures, westerns, Saturday morning serials, and California car culture in a blender - while the resulting mishmash served a structure as old as storytelling itself, the hero's journey. He used the new to reframe the old.

For "The Force Awakens," the old is the "Star Wars" series itself. Abrams wields these familiar tropes and beats of the series as a weapon, and without being too cleverly self-referential, he transports us to where we were in our lives when we first fell in love with these movies. Judging "The Force Awakens" for aping other "Star Wars" movies might be valid criticism as far as criticism goes, but that doesn't see the forest for the trees. The very soul of Abrams' script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is people chasing faded glory or people whose glory was never realized. People facing aging, failure, lack of purpose. People trying to atone for the past and people hoping there's something better on the other side.

Unlike the "Star Wars" prequels that became consumed with mythology, "The Force Awakens" cuts right to the core. And even when I didn't understand broader missions of the characters, I understood their specific motivations and why they're doing what they're doing now. Sometimes that's all you need from storytelling.

That's why Abrams' much ballyhooed return to (mostly) practical special effects is more than a stunt to draw cheers at ComicCon. Beyond a movie purist's love for the tangible, it signals the technical wizardry in service of an old-fashioned story, and not the other way around. Joy palpitates off the frame with the world "The Force Awakens" creates, and Abrams captures it not with the detached gaze of the prequels, but with a kind of boyish reverence. His camera moves and flows, but it remains steadily fluid, ensuring we soak in everything.

We're not held at arm's length by the cold technical prowess sometimes brought by modern special effects. We're invited to live here for a couple of hours.

"The Force Awakens" rarely zigs when it can zag. Truth be told, you can step out to check your online dating profile and comfortably guess what you missed. What it offers instead is whip-sure confidence. The dialogue crackles with wit and soul, allowing for unique, individual personas. The action sequences create clear stakes so we're invested in them when they arrive. The sets feel aged and lived in, like they existed before the movie started and will exist long after it's done. And it's a testament to the depth of the new characters that I'd pay to see a movie exclusively about them with nary a Han or Luke or Leia cameo in sight.

A little late to the party on this, I know, but "Star Wars" is back. I'm not talking the merchandising or the extended universes. I'm talking that fundamental feeling of seeing a movie you love and talking to others who say they love it too. That power of movies as a time machine, taking you not only to a galaxy far far away, but to that place where a great movie is all that matters.

"The Force Awakens" is what we talk about when we talk about blockbusters.