Saturday, April 30, 2016

Green Room



Traveling around the country cramped in a crappy Scooby Doo van, siphoning off gas from other cars because you have no money, putting on gigs in an empty pizza parlor for six bucks a head... being part of an unsigned punk rock band kinda sucks enough -- details Green Room captures persuasively -- and that's before they unwittingly witness a gruesome murder in a dingy Pacific Northwest club owned by neo-Nazi white supremacists. This is what happens to the members of the band The Ain't Rights (billed incorrectly as The Aren't Rights), played by Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy), Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), Joe Cole, and Callum Turner. They just showed up to play a gig for $350 (delightfully opening with "a cover song" aimed right at pissing off the neo-Nazis in the audience), but when Yelchin returns to the green room to retrieve Shawkat's iPhone, he finds a fresh corpse of a girl with a knife in her head The Walking Dead-style, her friend Imogen Poots in hysterics, and a bunch of huge neo-Nazis standing around looking guilty. Because they did it. Next thing you know, Yelchin and his band mates are trapped in the green room, barricading themselves in, as things get much, much worse for them and everyone involved.

The arrival of the police is quickly neutralized by the arrival of the club's owner and the leader of this neo-Nazi cadre, Sir Patrick Stewart, playing against his beloved type as a menacing schemer more than willing to let young bodies be hacked by machetes and mauled by dogs to address the growing problem in his club's green room. Most of Green Room takes place within the green room, as the band and Poots attempt to weigh their shrinking options and rally some form of escape. Yelchin's left arm is an early casualty, gruesomely hacked up by Stewarts' men so that his hand is nearly severed from his wrist. Thank God for duct tape (a sentiment Matt Damon echoes in The Martian). Green Room relentlessly ratchets up the brutality as the band and Poots make repeated attempts to escape the club, only to find rabid dogs and shotguns and more machetes waiting for them, so that fewer and fewer of them are able to return to the relative safety of the green room to lick their wounds. 

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier maintains a harrowing and merciless edge to the proceedings, with the question of which band would be each character's "desert island band" as the lone source of welcome comedy occasionally diffusing the tension. (The shout out to Prince could not have been more timely or welcome.) Yelchin, who plays Mr. Chekov in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies, confronting Stewart, whom everyone in the Alpha Quadrant reveres as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, late in Green Room plays like some kind of bizarre but thrilling Star Trek mirror universe episode or fan fiction. In the end, the bloody and remorseless Green Room leaves us with one less punk rock band in the world, but also a lot fewer evil skinhead a-holes in the world, and ultimately, it seems a fair trade.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Jungle Book



Jon Favreau's delightful live action The Jungle Book, adapted from the beloved Disney cartoon which was adapted from the beloved (?) tale by Rudyard Kipling, is like a really weird episode of Naked and Afraid with a bunch of talking CGI animals. To be fair, Mowgli (a charming Neel Sethi), the young "man cub" found by a talking panther named Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito), is rarely afraid. Mowgli is a bright, cheerful boy, growing up in the jungle and doing the best he can to be a good wolf to his pack, while at best tolerated by all the other beasts. Except for one beast who finds him simply intolerable, the savage tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba, from, appropriately, Beasts of No Nation). Shere Khan killed Mowgli's father years ago for the crime of intruding upon the jungle, but was scarred by the "red flower," the one weapon Man possesses that all in the jungle most fear -- fire. As such, Shere Khan wants Mowgli dead, and, being a tiger, he doesn't really have much else to occupy his time besides hunt the man cub and give him a good mauling.

Mowgli is forced to abandon the wolf pack and make a run for it. (Which really doesn't say much about the wolves -- a whole pack of them can't take down one tiger? No, we find out in the climactic battle, turns out they can't. Those are some wussy wolves.) Bagheera attempts to return Mowgli to his own people, but Shere Khan hunting them makes that impossible. They are separated, and Mowgli has the misfortune to be robbed of his scavenged fruit by a pack of wild monkeys, hypnotized and nearly eaten by a giant snake (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who somehow knew Mowgli's entire origin story, but Mowgli also has the good fortune to meet his new bestest bear buddy Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray). After what happened to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Leo must have been pissed seeing The Jungle Book's bear being so nice to that friggin' kid. The Revenant's bear never let Leo float on his stomach down a river while singing "Bear Necessities" to him. Then again, Leo was never tricked by his bear to climb up a cliff and risk getting stung by bees to bring down honeycombs. Still, Mowgli had it way better than Leo.

Mowgli can't help but be a do-gooder, though. Like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, young Mowgli possesses inherent skills in building and using human tools, and he has a profound understanding of pulleys and winches most civilized adults don't even have. Mowgli does a bunch of elephants a solid when he uses his skills to rescue one of their cubs from a pit, and it turns out no good deed by Mowgli goes unrewarded when the elephants later use their abilities at jungle terraforming to save the jungle from being burned down by the fire Mowgli accidentally started (oops). Besides the evil tiger who wants him dead, monkeys are the bane of Mowgli's jungle life, as he is soon kidnapped by monkeys and brought before a giant ape named King Louie who lives in "a giant monkey temple" and wants that red flower (voiced by a distracting Christopher Walken, to be honest, who also sings). One waits for Walken to tell Mowgli a story about his father and a gold watch, to no avail. Also, considering how far Mowgli traveled, apparently, one night of running through the jungle can bring him right back to where he started from for his fateful final battle with Shere Khan. In the end, The Jungle Book is a winning and enjoyable tale of a man cub becoming one with nature, after killing the things in nature that want to kill him, and nearly burning down that nature by being careless. But hey, man cubs will be man cubs.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Midnight Special



Midnight Special is writer-director Jeff Nichols' compelling and sober science fiction tome about a very special, super powered young boy, played by Jaeden Lieberher, and the lengths his parents, played by Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst, will go to keep him safe until he unlocks the secret to his very existence. Shannon and Dunst, with the aid of former state trooper and Shannon's loyal childhood friend Joel Edgerton, abscond with their son from the Texas cult they belonged to, the kind of cult like we've seen in HBO's Big Love. The cult sends mercenaries to get Lieberher back. The federal government, having raided the cult, also wants control of the boy. Adam Driver plays an NSA analyst recruited to suss out what the boy can do and why. All these forces converge upon the missing family, trying to find an escape through night time blacktop highways of the Southern United States, staying in seedy motel rooms with the windows blacked out with cardboard, hoping to find an answer to who and what their son is.

Lieberher, who cannot be exposed to daylight and wears swimming goggles over his eyes, seems to have supernatural abilities like other worldly senses and the ability to control electricity and machinery. In a harrowing spectacle, he brings down a satellite spying on him, demolishing a gas station in a rain of fireballs. Pushing the comic book-like aspects of the story, he also reads Superman comics while sitting in the back seat of their getaway cars, an amusing nod to Michael Shannon, who played General Zod in Man of Steel. (As is Edgerton explaining how Kryptonite works. Shannon is not amused.) Things get worse for the family as the cult attacks them in a motel at gunpoint, which leads to the government capturing Lieberher. His interview scene in a white room with Driver is one of the most thrilling scenes in the movie, as Driver gets closer than anyone to understanding what Lieberher is, and agrees to help him get where he's going.

Oddly, where Lieberher is going turns out to be Tomorrowland. As he comes full bloom into his powers, Lieberher enables the "world on top of the world" inhabited by otherworldly beings of light to be exposed to almost everyone in the Southeastern United States. An enormous future city that is the spitting image of the gleaming and spire-laden megalopolis in Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is the final destination for Lieberer, and while it's cool to see, it's also so jarring and weird, George Clooney and Britt Robertson might as well have appeared to welcome the boy into his new space age home. To Midnight Special's credit, it does go out with a final face to face meeting with Driver and Edgerton, and the delight of Uncle Owen Lars sharing the screen with Kylo Ren isn't lost on the Star Wars fans in the audience. One imagines they argued long into the night about how no good/awesome Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were. To be a fly on that wall...

Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice



"Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent! I love bringing people together!"

"Must there be a Superman?" asks Jim Lehrer, one of the many real life talking heads debating what's to be done about the presence of the Man of Steel on Earth. "Is it really surprising that the most powerful man in the world is a figure of controversy?" Controversy about Superman, his intentions, his actions, and how to stop him if he ever decides to "burn the whole place down" forms the crux of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder's grand operatic follow up to his controversial re-introduction of Superman, Man of Steel. Working from a robust, sly, bursting at the seams screenplay by Oscar winner Chris Terrio and David Goyer that ponders the history, fear and worship of gods and pulls key moments from Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Dan Jurgens' "The Death of Superman," Batman v Superman works overtime to fulfill its aggressive agenda: establishing the greater DC Comics cinematic universe as a muscular powder keg of hard choices, numerous threats at home and from worlds beyond, and burgeoning hope -- but only after our heroes get slugging each other out of their systems. We find the Batman v Superman universe is one simply unprepared and at heart terrified of the aliens, gods and monsters suddenly thrust upon them, but really, no more than we would be in real life. Just like the Batman, if something like Superman came to our real world, rather than embrace him as a savior, we'd probably also be looking for a fight.

Two years have passed since the destruction of Metropolis at the conclusion of Man of Steel. The city has been rebuilt and has publicly embraced Superman as a hero, a sentiment spearheaded by the Daily Planet, which just happens to have Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Superman himself, in his daily guise as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), writing "puff pieces" about Superman. However, numerous people in Metropolis and around the world don't feel quite so cuddly about the Man of Steel. The primary voice of dissent is Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), a junior senator from Kentucky hell-bent on holding hearings on Superman and bringing him in front of their committee to account for his actions. Though Superman continues to perform heroic feats and rescues around the world, all of his acts come under fire, and then literally when Superman finally relents to appear at the Capitol in Washington, DC, only to be framed in a terrorist bombing that kills Finch and hundreds of innocents. Poor Superman. Not only is his reputation repeatedly called into question, but Terrio and Goyer's screenplay gives him no opportunity to publicly defend himself. This Superman isn't like Christopher Reeve's smiling, media friendly Man of Steel who gave a revealing interview to Lois that would bring the public onto his side. "Superman was never real. He's just a dream of a farmer from Kansas," Clark confides to Lois at his lowest point of self-pity. Trying to be an old fashioned do-gooder in a world that suspects his every action ("It's not 1938 anymore!"), Cavill's beleaguered Superman must resort to having to contort his handsome face into every frown and scowl he can muster.

Speaking of frowns and scowls, we learn that billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who secretly spends his dark nights terrorizing Gotham City's criminals as the Batman, was in Metropolis on "The Day The World Met The Superman." Wayne had a ground's eye view of Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon) wrecking Metropolis in their epic encounter, feeling an unfamiliar and disquieting utter helplessness as two alien gods demolished Wayne Tower and left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Meanwhile, the DC Universe's other most famous billionaire, Lex Luthor (a malevolently unhinged Jesse Eisenberg), has his own machinations, involving an elaborate, unwieldy scheme to frame Superman for an international incident, a mysterious green meteorite, Kryptonite, that can kill Kryptonians, and files in his hard drive that both Bruce Wayne and the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the Amazon princess the world will soon come to know as Wonder Woman, want to abscond with. But first and foremost, the Batman, depicted in this latest cinematic incarnation as older, more world-wearily cynical, and more brutally violent than ever ("Twenty years in Gotham, Alfred. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?"), wants to pick a fight with Superman.

"That's how it starts. The fever. The rage. The feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel," warns Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Wayne's acid-tongued faithful butler. But Wayne, driven by mysterious dreams of a dark future where Superman rules the world and brings winged alien demon armies from the skies, is set upon his course to take down the Kryptonian, training like Rocky Balboa for a big fight he desperately wants to win. Clark Kent himself is just as interested in the Batman, the fearsome vigilante across the bay in Gotham City who now brands criminals with the mark of the bat. Their super fight, manipulated by Luthor, who kidnapped Superman's adoptive human mother Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and threatens to have her killed if Superman doesn't sanction the Batman, is indeed epic and entertaining. The fight precisely follows the comic book tropes that the Batman, clad in his bulky battle armor, would set numerous traps and use Superman's overconfidence in his powers against him, including doses of Kryptonite gas to weaken Superman so that Batman, the superior fighter, can deliver the smackdown. #WhoWillWin? asked the social media marketing for weeks. Well, this fight is purely for the comic book fans and not the layman who would naturally assume Superman would wipe the floor with Batman. One of the most clever bits of Terrio and Goyer's screenplay is what ends the fight, the name "Martha," acknowledging and playing into one of the weird coincidences that Superman and Batman share -- both their mothers are named Martha.

Once Superman and Batman have made their peace, Batman v Superman goes for broke, turning giddily, unapologetically comic book and never looking back. Luthor unleashes his worst creation, the "Kryptonian deformity" called Doomsday, a giant, unstoppable monster genetically engineered from General Zod's corpse and Luthor's own DNA. In the same way the presence of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises signaled to comic book fans in the know that Batman's back would be broken, Doomsday means only one, inevitable thing to Superman fans. But first, Superman and a rather outmatched Batman must team up to fight Doomsday, and they're joined by Wonder Woman, who utterly steals the show in a long awaited, sensational cinematic debut for the most famous female superhero in the world. The few moments of Wonder Woman thrusting herself into battle against Doomday, blocking his heat vision with her bracelets, hacking his limbs off with her sword, and unleashing her magic lasso are worth the price of admission and ensured an eager opening weekend audience for her upcoming solo feature film in 2017. The battle sees Superman rocket Doomsday into outer space, only to be nuked by the US Military (a moment also borrowed from "The Dark Knight Returns"), while Batman and Lois Lane scramble to recover a Kryptonite spear, Batman's coup de grace weapon intended for Superman before cooler heads prevailed. By the time Superman makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop Doomsday, we're spent, the dreams of millions of comic book fans fulfilled.

"I failed him in life. I won't fail him in death," mourns Wayne, who finally comes to see he was wrong about the alien he's hated for the last couple of years. Both Wayne and Diana Prince attend Superman's funeral in Smallville, Kansas (actually Clark Kent's funeral, who was mysteriously killed during the super fight with Doomsday in what no one sees as a hilarious coincidence -- Superman's official funeral is a public military burial in Washington, DC.)  Setting up next year's superhero team up, Justice League, Batman v Superman literally stops the show by unleashing the files Batman stole from Luthor, giving the audience glimpses of Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ray Fisher as Cyborg (his father, the scientist Silas Stone is played by a cleverly cast Joe Morton), and Ezra Miller as The Flash. As Batman, Affleck creates an ideal, grim, weary Dark Knight, arguably even the best cinematic Batman ever, silencing the millions who took umbrage over his casting on social media. (Incidentally, Batman reassuring Martha Kent "I'm a friend of your son's" is the best line in the whole movie. "I figured," she retorts. "The cape.") Gadot is a stunning revelation as Wonder Woman, regal, beautiful, and ferocious in battle. Both now own their superhero roles. Even without Cavill's Superman, the upcoming Justice League movie is in good hands with Affleck and Gadot leading the charge. But who are we kidding? Superman will return, of course, as subtly teased in the final shot of Batman v Superman. There is and will be no world without a Superman. Maybe when the Man of Steel does return, the world will be a lot nicer to him. But for now, let Superman rest in peace. He's earned it. After all, as quoted in Man of Steel, a good death is its own reward.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Hail Caesar!



"Hooray for Old Hollywood!" trumpets Hail Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen's prodigious tribute to the golden age of Tinseltown circa the 1950s. Josh Brolin headlines a massive cast of some of today's biggest Hollywood names. As the head of Physical Production for the fictional Capitol Pictures, Brolin's all-consuming and thankless task is to oversee his studio's motley assemblage of eccentrics as they mount a prestige picture called "Hail Caesar!" involving the fall of Rome and the rise of Jesus Christ and Christianity. An early scene where Brolin holds court with a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a reverend, and an imam, is a high point, as they hilariously debate whether Jesus was God, the son of God, or none of the above. ("God is a bachelor," the rabbi argues, "And he's always angry.") Brolin himself is a deeply penitent man, making daily confessions to the chagrin of his patient priest. Brolin must have the patience of Job to deal with the wackos he deals with every day, as a recruiter for Lockheed Martin surmises when he offers Brolin a cushier, more lucrative position to run security for Lockheed and quit showbiz. But letting go of showbiz is easier said than done.

During production of "Hail Caesar!" its star, played by George Clooney, is mysteriously kidnapped and held for ransom. Clooney, largely oblivious and of the highly suggestible type, becomes a "guest" - a rather surprisingly willing one - of a cadre of screenwriters who turn out to be communists looking to blackmail the studio. Meanwhile, podunk horse opera matinee idol Alden Ehrenreich receives an offer to star in a prestige drama directed by effete auteur Ralph Fiennes and learns actually having to act in a "serious" picture is tougher than it looks. While all that is going on, Scarlett Johansson has a swim on as a starlet whom the studio needs to find a new husband for, to maintain her image. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum stars in his own musical as a sailor who laments going out to sea means seeing no dames for a long, long time -- because women and seamen don't mix, as we all know. Tons of other famous faces, like Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip hounds), Frances McDormand (of course), Alison Pill, Clancy Brown, and even a very aged Christopher Lambert show up in minor roles, some just for a scene, as it seems the Coens speed dialed every contact on their iPhones and got them all day rates.

With a plot barely strung together like a slacking laundry clothesline, Hail Caesar! at times feels more like an elaborate movie star talent showcase: See how long Scarlett Johansson can hold her breath underwater as the Coens mount an underwater musical number that hasn't been done in a Hollywood movie in 50 years! Watch Ehrenreich perform clever trickery with his trusty lasso! Tatum steals the show with an acrobatic soft shoe tap dance routine that shows off just how talented Magic Mike really is. Through it all, Brolin bounces around from crisis to crisis, putting out fires with his hard-talking, square-jawed, tough guy routine, willing his studio back into some kind of normalcy. Hail Caesar! persuasively and enjoyably recreates Hollywood's golden age in all its starry hues. But what does it all mean? What's the point of Hail Caesar!? That there's no business like show business? Yes, guys, we know.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies



Were she able to witness it, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies may leave Jane Austen aghast, but then she'd probably be one of the undead anyway. In PPZ, writer-director Burr Steers, working from the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who was working from a little known, obscure tome by Jane Austen, fuses Austen's timeless and beloved tale of class warfare and romance with healthy injections of zombie horror. It is, in the final account, a gnarly but delightful mishmash. As narrated by Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance, Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones), a horrific zombie plague arrived on England's shores from the New World, plunging the country into a full-scale war with the ever-growing army of the undead. A Great Wall was erected to protect London, while a massive moat that can be crossed by only one bridge protects the rest of the island. The remaining section where the vast majority of the zombies lurk is a dead zone called the In-Between, a region rather routinely and perhaps ill-advisedly visited by the zombie-fighting five Bennet daughters: prized beauty and pick of the litter Jane (Bella Heathcoate), Lydia (Ellie Bamber), Mary (Millie Brady), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), and rebellious Elizabeth (Lily James of Downton Abbey and Cinderella). 

The business of finding suitable husbands for the Bennet daughters and securing their futures if the elderly Mr. Bennet passes is made infinitely more complicated by the seemingly endless war with the zombies. While the obscenely wealthy and handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) woos Jane, Elizabeth finds herself constantly at odds with her unwanted attraction to the gloomy, severe Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), a raspy-voiced zombie killer of the highest order. Well, you know how the story of Pride and Prejudice goes. Its romantic twists and turns and misunderstandings are accounted for. As Elizabeth, the radiant James is a ferocious firebrand, heedlessly throwing herself into battle with the same gusto as when she rejects suitors for her hand in matrimony. Every zinging joke about how Jane is the most beautiful of the Bennet sisters but Elizabeth is a perfectly acceptable runner up and consolation prize lands with the impact of a boot stomping a zombie's bloody head into squishy syrup.

What PPZ brings to the table is a terrific dose of zombie-fighting horror. The class warfare of 19th century England receives a new twist; in a nation where nearly everyone must become proficient in fighting zombies, where you send your brood to be trained in zombie-killing denotes your status: the privileged upper class send their children to Japan, the lower classes to the shaolin monks of China. Darcy's haughty rank and ever-present samurai katana sword gives away his Japanese-honed status, while Elizabeth and her sisters proudly know kung fu and routinely strap blades to their garters when venturing into the In-Between, such as the glorious occasion of the elegant ball thrown by Mr. Bingley. Together, the five Bennet sisters are a formidable fighting force and PPZ giddily shows them off as they luridly slash and smash and decapitate zombies in slow motion. Elizabeth's fighting skills are routinely placed to the test; even the revered zombie killer Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey) pays her bravery and abilities the highest compliment. 

Nearly everyone wants Elizabeth either married to them or dead. Along with Colonel Darcy, Elizabeth hilariously deflects the intentions of Darcy's insidious rival George Wickham (Jack Huston), who has a personal history with Darcy that now directly affects the safety and future of England. But PPZ is routinely stolen wholesale by Matt Smith as Parson Collins, a whirling dervish of pure comedy who livens up the proceedings every moment he's on the screen. We know that Darcy and Elizabeth must end up together in the end, but they themselves do not. James and Riley, each playing a version of Elizabeth and Darcy that has never existed before, are at their best sparring with each other both verbally and physically. When Darcy, whose methods of zombie detection include releasing carrion flies into the air because they can detect zombie bites, unleashes his flock to test whether Jane, who had fallen ill, had been bitten, Elizabeth snatches each fly out of thin air with her fingers in a feat that would make Mr. Miyagi snap his chopsticks in pure rage. This is topped by the inevitable fight between Elizabeth and Darcy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith-style, as they tear apart a room in Mr. Collins' home (his reactions to the damage done is priceless), Darcy snapping her bodice with his blade, while Elizabeth pummels him with fists and feet. The undercurrent of sex in their sparring is palpable, one of the advantages of adding an element of action to Pride and Prejudice that PPZ takes full advantage of. In PPZ, Elizabeth and Darcy are made for each other in a brand new way, and when Darcy admires Elizabeth for saving his life in the end, he now means it literally. 

Inevitably, the war with the zombies take center stage as it must. We learn England is nearly bankrupt by the war and the zombies can multiply faster than the living can possibly create more soldiers to fight them. ("It takes 9 months to make a baby and 16 years to train them to become a soldier. It takes one second to make a zombie.") The zombies of PPZ themselves are a novel version of the undead, able to run like the zombies of World War Z but also retaining intelligence, speech and personality. Only in Pride and Prejudice's England can zombies remain polite and dignified. PPZ's can be docile towards humans if fed only animal brains, but once they taste of human flesh, they become unrelentingly murderous towards human beings. When the duplicity of the evil George Wickham is revealed, the full scope of the zombie war and the peril England faces seem truly daunting and hopeless, but PPZ cannily manages to find its hope in the love between and collective marriages of Elizabeth to Darcy and Jane to Bingely. Pride + Prejudice + Zombies doesn't quite set up a happily ever after for the newly-married Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, but if they are indeed destined to meet their maker (not Austen), at least they'll do so fighting bravely alongside each other. That, in its way, is quite romantic indeed.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Revenant



Alejandro González Iñárritu's stunning and brutal The Revenant poses and answers the question audiences have pondered since Jack Dawson followed the bulk of the Titanic and sank deep into the North Atlantic: How much agony can Leonardo DiCaprio take? So much. SO. MUCH. In the American wilderness of 1823, a ravaged-looking DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a navigator for a company of burly and desperate fur trappers lead by their loyal captain Domhnall Gleeson. After a savage attack by the local Native American tribe, who are hunting for their chief's daughter "stolen by two white men," Gleeson's company is decimated, the handful of survivors left to their own devices in the wilderness. Then, while scouting a safe passage through the woods, a grizzly bear kicks the ever-loving hell out of DiCaprio.

Leonardo DiCaprio vs. the grizzly bear is probably the most visceral and shocking movie encounter of 2015. Iñárritu puts us at ground-eye level with DiCaprio as the bear mauls him, rips his flesh, mounts him and pounds him into submission in one ghastly, unbroken shot. That DiCaprio manages to kill the bear with his Bowie knife is pretty astounding, though when they tumble off a cliff and the hundreds of pounds of dead bear land on top of him, one must ponder how DiCaprio possibly could have survived. Gleeson and company find DiCaprio, who is all but a corpse, and try to save him but trying to keep him alive and transport DiCaprio to safety across the hostile wilderness proves all but impossible. Taking the company forward, Gleeson leaves DiCaprio and his half-Indian son in the care of Tom Hardy, a scheming, opportunistic sleazebag (literally - the remaining hair on his once-scalped dome is riddled with fleas). Hardy soon becomes the bane of DiCaprio's existence when he decides to abandon DiCaprio, murders DiCaprio's son, and trundles off to fend for himself.

Instead of joining his son and his Native American wife in the sweet, warm, welcome embrace of death, DiCaprio is reborn as The Revenant. Willing his broken body onward, step by step, with a lot of sleeping in snowy caves to help himself recover, The Revenant forces himself on a harrowing, seemingly impossible journey to find and exact revenge on Hardy. Clad in the bear skin of his vanquished foe, The Revenant encounters more Native Americans, one of whom becomes a friend who tends to his festering wounds and shelters him in a makeshift teepee in a blizzard, and more rotten Europeans, like a cadre of scummy French fur trappers in possession of the Native American girl who was kidnapped. All the while, The Revenant is haunted by the spirit of his dead wife, reminding him of a parable about the sturdiness of a tree's trunk in comparison to its branches swaying in a storm and leading him to a giant teepee of skulls. What does it all mean? The Revenant doesn't say. Or maybe The Revenant doesn't know.

What we do know is: it's hard out there for The Revenant. In his quest to finally capture that perpetually elusive Best Actor Oscar, DiCaprio willingly and heroically endures every terrible hardship Iñárritu dreams up to put him through. Iñárritu must also be a big fan of Star Wars because he peppers The Revenant with a couple of canny homages: After riding a stolen horse off a cliff to escape the French fur trappers out to kill him, The Revenant, who miraculously survived the plummet, hacks open his dead horse, pulls out its organs, and climbs inside it to spend the night, just like Han Solo did to Luke Skywalker's Tauntaun on Hoth. The Revenant also receives a vision from his wife's Force Ghost; though after what he went through with that bear, the last thing The Revenant probably wants is to party with a bunch of Ewoks. Not to mention Domhnall Gleeson plays the villainous Commander Hux in The Force Awakens

After what feels like an eternity to The Revenant and the audience, The Revenant finally finds his way back to the wilderness fort where Gleeson is, only to learn that Hardy, who heard The Revenant was alive and coming for him, skeedaddled with all of Gleeson's cash. So with hardly a moment to rest his scabbed-over, weary body, off into the wilderness again goes The Revenant and Gleeson, for a fateful, bloody, knife-swinging, finger-slicing final encounter with Hardy where The Revenant learns that revenge is not the right thing to do**, which feels weird after everything he went though. It felt weird when James Bond learned that same lesson at the end of SPECTRE too.

Visually, The Revenant is truly spectacular. Shooting various parts of Canada and South America as a stand in for the early 19th century pre-developed United States, Iñárritu captures absolutely breathtaking imagery and some provocatively dreamy sequences, juxtaposed to the unrelenting, wanton brutality of nature and the ignoble acts committed by Native Americans and white men to each other. Iñárritu is also now Hollywood's foremost expert at getting his actors to do the most miserable things, like actually eat raw buffalo meat (when there are huge fires burning right next to them -- cook the meat, you savages) or getting Tom Hardy to dunk his head in a freezing river and play dead so Iñárritu can get the shot he needs. Where in America The Revenant takes place is a bit fuzzy. The Native American tribe is referred to as the Pawnee, so one can only conclude that The Revenant is set in Indiana and is a prequel to Parks and Recreation. Which must mean Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ron Swanson's great-great-great-great grandfather. If The Revenant actually survived the end of the movie, one hopes he gets to go to whatever early version of the Eagleton Mall exists and treats himself.

** DiCaprio looks right into the camera in the last shot of the movie. He should have said something like: "Don't do drugs" or "Stay in school." You know what else would have worked?