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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?

Monday, January 11, 2016




In Agora, director Alejandro Amenabar's 2009 historical drama of religious tumult between Romans, Jews, and Christians, the city of Alexandria circa 391 A.D. just ain't big enough for the three of them. Amidst a hotbed of fanatical strife over whose god is the god who ought to be God, a luminous Rachel Weisz stars as Hypatia, a mathematician, scientist and philosopher who teaches at the Ptolemic School in the fabled Library of Alexandria. Hypatia, an equal opportunity instructor, counts among her students Roman nobles and slaves alike. Her three prized students are Orestes (a young Oscar Isaac), the future Roman Prefect of Alexandria, Synesius (Rupert Evans), a future Bishop of the aggressively growing Christian faith, and Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia's deeply conflicted personal slave. Orestes and Davus both clearly love Hypatia, though she rather grossly rejects any attempt to woo her by offering up a rag stained with her menstrual blood. Still, Hypatia's "trying to prove the heliocentric model of the solar system (does the Earth revolve around the sun, how and why?)" is a milkshake that brings the boys to the yard. 

The yard in question is the "agora," the open meeting space in Alexandria which becomes a battleground of religious persecution. The growing and increasingly fanatical Christian population, led by Cyril (Sami Samir) and rabble roused by his number one fanatic Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), declared holy war on the Romans and their polytheistic belief system, inciting a riot that drives the Romans to take refuge in the Library of Alexandria. When the Roman Emperor abandons Alexandria to the Christian hordes, they sack the Library. All the "pagan" symbols are destroyed and much of the accumulated wisdom of antiquity is lost. A decade passes and Alexandria continues to be a powderkeg. Though all the Romans have converted to Christianity, the Christians continue to consolidate their power and begin targeting the Jews in the city. The Christians and Jews take turns inciting and murdering each other; it's all Orestes, now Prefect and in way over his head, can do to maintain an uneasy peace.  Much like Springfield in The Simpsons, Alexandria can barely go one day without a riot. Inevitably, the Christians, looking for new enemies to target with righteous ire, turn their attention to women, deemed as inferior "as written in the Scriptures." Unfortunately, as Agora has it, there's only one woman in all of Alexandria (not a joke, Weisz is the only woman in the cast). Hypatia, who loves the science-y stuff and has absolutely no interest in religion of any sort, is condemned and branded a witch. Refusing the pleas of her former students still in love with her to convert, Hypatia's fate is sealed, though not before she successfully proves the Earth revolves around the sun. 

Agora takes a withering view of these early Christians, though historically speaking, this depiction isn't unfair. The conversion of people of "pagan" and "heathen" religions to Christianity often happened by violence. Even after converting all the Romans and marginalizing the Jews in Alexandria, the Christians of Agora continue to question the devotion of the converted. Indeed, Cyril, as head of his church, needs to do so in order to maintain the loyalty of his fanatical faithful. Agora boasts exceptional performances from Weisz, Isaac, Minghella, and Evans, as well as sumptuous sets and production design. Also, having Michael Lonsdale, who was once the villainous Hugo Drax in the James Bond adventure Moonraker, play the father of Weisz, who is married in real life to current 007 Daniel Craig, was a neat bit of casting. Agora unfolds in a manner where the characters (and the viewers) can't help but feel they're merely pawns to be sacrificed to a sad end. Amenabar plays God with his vivid cinematography, employing a favorite trick of macro-zooming out into space to regard the entire planet Earth with a "God's eye" view. Inevitability hangs over the brilliant but doomed Hypatia and the well-meaning people of Agora, like a Sword of Damocles poised to drop from the heavens, and does.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Danish Girl



The Danish Girl, director Tom Hooper's painterly pseudo-biographical film based on the novel by the same name which is loosely based on the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe/Einar Wegener and her/his wife Gerda Wegener, is an elegant tome about one of the first people to undergo male to female sex reassignment surgery. It might have been called Captain Denmark: The First Transgender if The Danish Girl were produced by Marvel Studios. Complex, textured, transcendent performances by Eddie Redmayne as Lili/Einar and Alicia Vikander as Gerda anchor The Danish Girl, which begins with them as a happily and heterosexually married couple in 1928 Copenhagen. He paints landscapes; the same landscape every time of the view of four trees from his boyhood home. She paints portraits. When her female model doesn't appear for a sitting one day, Gerda invites Einar to don women's clothes and pose for her, unwittingly unmasking the great secret Einar has been hiding all his life. 

In the opposite way of Tobias' desires on Arrested Development, there's a woman inside Eddie Redmayne yearning to be free, Lili Elbe, the person she truly identifies as "trapped" in the scrawny freckled form of Einar. Once he begins living life as the she she always felt she really is, tentatively and frightened at first, Lili finds she cannot go back to living the lie as Einar. Lili is also right to be frightened; every doctor or specialist she sees about her "condition" is met with accusations of perversion, mental illness, and men in white coats ready to lock him up in an asylum. Lili and Gerda are forced to flee Copehagen for Paris, where Gerda's career reaches new highs as her devotion to her husband, who has disappeared and been replaced with Lili, is severely tested. Life isn't any better for Lili in Paris; she spends most of her days hiding out in her home and the one time she ventures out, she's accosted and beaten by a couple of French tough guys in a gazebo. Gerda reaches out to art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Shoenaerts), Einar's childhood friend and the first boy Einar ever kissed during his earliest experiences of being Lili. Axgil's is a sympathetic friend, though the mutual attraction between Axgil and Gerda complicates Gerda's shaky, confusing marriage even further. Finally, Lili becomes one of the first-ever patients to undergo sex reassignment surgery, overseen by the kindly Professor Kurt Warnekros (Sebasitian Koch). Lili is free to finally live in the body she was always meant to have, albeit however briefly. 

The touching and daring performances by Redmayne and Vikander as they struggle to navigate the heartbreaking confusion of Lili's painful but liberating acceptance of her gender identity are elevated by The Danish Girl's breathtaking cinematography. Director of Photography Danny Cohen composes scene after scene of stunning imagery, shooting the actors against sumptuous sets and gorgeous production design. As a film about painters, the cinematography of The Danish Girl is a fine art museum-quality visual delight. Cohen's tantalizing shots are a welcome relief from the film's torpid pace and abstruse subject matter. There's literally one lighthearted jest in The Danish Girl, when Axgil tells Lili "There are few people I've ever liked, and you've been two of them," a clever bon mot which lands with a big laugh in a film sorely lacking in a release from its stifling solemnity. A moment when Redmayne stands nude in front of the mirror and hides his genitals between his legs hits so close to Silence of the Lambs that one wonders whether Einar Wegener would have been a serial killer and patient of Hannibal Lecter if The Danish Girl were set 70 years later.

Sunday, January 3, 2016




There was little joy in Joy's life until she invented a mop. In Joy, writer-director David O. Russell's parable inspired by the women who were empowered to become successful to escape their dreary lives, Jennifer Lawrence plays the title character, an Eastern Airlines customer service rep burdened by unfulfilled dreams she hardly remembers and an atrocious family sucking the life out of her. Her father (Robert De Niro) is an apologetic loser dating a cruel-tongued shrew with money (Isabella Rossellini), her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a shut in addicted to soap operas, her vindictive half-sister (Elizabeth Rohm) plots against her, and her supportive ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) still lives in her basement. She does have two nice young kids. Joy is literally the mop cleaning up after her family's spilled lives. So one day, in a flash of genius, she invents a new and better self-cleaning mop, the Miracle Mop, and manages to get it on the burgeoning QVC network. Nothing is easy for Joy, and Joy puts Joy through the wringer, emotionally and in her business, always keeping Joy on the precipice of bankruptcy and failure.

Stylistically, Joy looks and feels like a muddled attempt at a Wes Anderson picture, with Joy's emotionally crippling family seeming like a blue collar, disagreeable Royal Tenenbaums. David O. Russell even shoots in a faux Wes Anderson-style, with fanciful voice overs and lots of mounted camera, straight-ahead shots of Joy and her rotten family. Business does pick up as Joy's business picks up, when Lawrence fully takes center stage (literally on QVC) and all but wills the Miracle Mop to be a million-seller on the network, thanks to the head of QVC played by a subdued, soft-spoken Bradley Cooper. Joy's screenplay puts Joy up a tree and throws rocks at her for two hours, until a too-pat solution finally saves Joy's business and rockets her to the incredible success she rightfully deserves.  Joy is agreeably the Jennifer Lawrence Show, as, at the ripe old age of 25, she is once again tasked with playing a mother aging up to 15 years older than she is. It takes all of her magnetic movie star abilities to hold the screen against the trials and tribulations the movie, which feels like a warmed over Erin Brockovich, pits against her. But boy oh boy, does Joy have a horrible family; it would have been nice to see Joy beat De Niro, Rossellini, Madsen, and Rohm over their heads with a Miracle Mop.