The Revenant Review: An Endurance Trial unto Itself

The Revenant

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant can best be understood as the harrowing story of how one brave actor put himself through hell in order to get an Oscar. I say that because an attempt to engage with the film on any other level seems to me an unrewarding endeavor. It is too shallow and thematically muddled to have any interesting insights  and too dull and lifeless to work as a straight up survival thriller. I guess this is what happens when the director is more interested in showing off his technical film making abilities and an actor motivated entirely by the promise of a gold statue as the end of the finish line.

The film’s plot consists of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) being abandoned and left for dead by his team of trappers in the Louisiana wilderness after a vicious grizzly bear mauls him half to death. Glass survives the attack and sets his mind to tracking down John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald was not only the man who left Glass behind but also the killer of Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The bulk of the film is spend with Glass as he encounters obstacle after grueling obstacle on his journey for vengeance.

I mentioned Inarritu being interested in flexing his technical muscles because of the film’s gimmick of being shot with all natural light. Admittedly, the cinematography is gorgeous and I would be remiss if I didn’t complement Emmanuel Lubezki’s excellent work. It has never really been a question that Inarritu has a handle on the aesthetic end of things. A lot of the individual shots in the film are breathtakingly gorgeous and the blocking and execution on a few of the film’s action sequences are impressive in their own right. The problem (as anyone who sat through the equally wretched Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance can attest) is that he is not glossing up anything worth looking at in the first place. If you question why he stages his scenes where he does or what he is thematically interested in you will often find yourself found wanting.

For example, a number of the characters discuss God throughout the course of the film. John Fitzgerald refers to himself as someone who “giveth and taketh away” before pulling the trigger on his rifle, which seems relevant when considering a story he tells about his father’s religion. In the story, his father claims that finding God is equivalent to finding food to eat when you’re hungry. Further religious references include Hugh Glass seeing his dead son in the ruins of a church and line about revenge being up to God. The problem is that these beats in the script do not seem to connect up with each other in any meaningful way. Inarritu is not telling this story to make any larger thematic points about God, the subject just keeps coming up.

The film is littered with this kind of thing. Inarritu consciously draws our attention to the camera lens by having characters and animals breath on it as well as by shooting in tight, uncomfortable close ups. The final shot of the film is one in which Glass looks directly at the camera. You would think this implies some kind of meta cinematic message or some commentary on stories and/or storytelling. Yet, I once again come up short in finding a through line that connects everything together. It is honestly as if Inarritu is doing a sophisticated impression of a complicated artist when he directs. He knows what shots will provoke the curiosity of the audience but seemingly has no idea why he is shooting the movie like that beyond mere provocation.

We cannot really talk about the movie without talking about the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio is receiving a lot of attention for his performance as Glass but I really don’t think is warranted. DiCaprio’s performance is a mad flurry of grunting and yelling that failed to impress me on any level. A lot has been said about the conditions under which the movie was filmed but that seems like an altogether separate issue. I have no interest in seeing movies with mediocre performances that I’m forced to say I liked just because the actors were in terrible filming conditions. Mad Max: Fury Road was reportedly incredibly difficult to make but I hardly feel the need to put an asterisk on any of the fine performances in that film. The rest of the performances are fine, with Tom Hardy as a particular stand out (which really should not surprise you at this point).

As a rule, I try to avoid writing off a movie like this so completely upon its initial release. Seldom do we recognize truly great movies as being truly great when they first come out. It is possible that film scholars will examine The Revenant and tie up the thematic stuff in a way that I just could not do. Usually I try to rewatch a film I have a profoundly negative reaction to and see if there was something I missed or some aspect I haven’t considered. I am tempted to suggest that I could come to appreciate the film in subsequent viewings but I will hold off on doing so because the thought of viewing the film again at this point just gives me a headache. As it stands, The Revenant is an overly long slog that is as indulgent and showy as it is empty. I cannot in good conscience recommend the film and all of the excitement around it is deeply confusing to me.

 

 

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and the Unchaining of Max Rockatansky From the Patriarchy

FURY ROAD

One criticism levied at George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is that Max (Tom Hardy) himself is not a substantial enough part of the proceedings. What surprises me is that even among all of the discussion surrounding the film, I have not seen much talk of Max’s actual character arc. Sure, there have been nods to how it is cool to see a male character, especially one so associated with conventional masculinity, let the women take center stage in the movie but there has been very little attention paid to Max’s development over the course of the film.  Make no mistake, the character of Max Rockatansky goes through a substantial change over the course of Fury Road and I want to spend some time going over exactly what that change is.

A lot has been said about the film’s feminist themes, given that the plot concerns a militia of women who declare “we are not things” before dismantling and replacing an oppressive patriarchy. The patriarchal regime in the film are a bunch of men that look like every aspect of conventional masculinity put into a blender. Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) troops drive gas guzzling custom cars, cherry pick aspects of viking culture like “Valhalla” and of course, they have a powerful need to be recognized by the alpha male. This is an oppressive regime that uses women as a means to an end while indulging their self serving male fantasies. When we talk about the patriarchy in the real world, we mean the social system that allows men to have primary power over women (this is a simple and crude explanation, since we are mainly here to talk about movies). Mad Max: Fury Road shows us just such a system, only cranked to 11 in true Mad Max fashion and exaggerated to fit into George Miller’s stylized world.  

In terms of Max and his relationship to the patriarchy, the film says a lot without saying much at all. The physical placement of Max throughout the story tells us so much about how his character develops throughout the course of the film. When we first meet Max he is an isolated loner who is only concerned with surviving. This is no mistake, George Miller wants Max to start the film entirely separated from the conflict between Immortan Joe and Furiosa that will shortly occur. When Max is attacked by Joe’s men, he is captured and eventually mounted to Nux’s (Nicholas Hoult) vehicle and used as a hood ornament and “blood bag”. The symbolism here is quite clear, Miller is showing us that even a man who thinks he is not part of some bigger system of men will eventually be consumed by that very system. Sure, he doesn’t become one of them but he is almost worse off. The passive man is a decoration on the hood of the patriarchy’s car. A man who will ignore inequality is still contributing the the blood flow of the patriarchal system of oppression.

Next, when Max is thrown from the vehicle he is still chained to Nux (here meaning that he is still chained to an instrument of the patriarchy). It is at this point that Max encounters Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and the other women trying to break free of Immortan Joe’s oppression. The state of Max is very important in this scene. He is chained to Nux with a metal contraption locked onto his face (put there by Joe’s men no less). Miller is very intentionally putting Max, through no other means than his own passivity, in a situation where he cannot communicate with the film’s women* or shake the baggage of Immortan Joe’s regime. What follows is a widely criticized shot of all of the women, scantily clad, hosing each other off. The shot is criticized for sexualizing these women in such a way as to potentially undermine the feminist themes of the movie. However, what is often left out in discussion of this shot is that it is from Max’s point of view. Furthermore, this is how he sees the women while still chained to an instrument of the patriarchy. He sees them as objects because he has not yet learned what he will learn over the course of the film.

Max and Furiosa both have the goal of redeeming themselves over the course of the movie. They have both failed people in their lives, Furiosa failed the women she helped oppress and Max failed the people he could not protect. At first this looks like these characters are made to be in synergy with each other. Max will protect the women of the film (so he can fulfill the masculine role of protector once again) and Furiosa saves the women and redeems herself. Yet only one of those actually comes to pass. Furiosa kills her patriarchal oppressor and halts the reign of Immortan Joe. On the other hand, Max does not get to become a protector in the strictest sense. I don’t want to undercut his contribution to Furiosa’s journey. Max is an incredibly useful ally that the women of the film partner up with but seldom does he do anything over and above just being a member of the team. He doesn’t have any giant hero moments and there is never a scene where it is evident to the viewer that the women of the film would have failed if not for Max’s presence. This is particularly clear when we see the scene in which Max fails to make an accurate sniper shot and passes the rifle to Furiosa. In fact, the sole moment in the plot in which Max seems crucial to Furiosa’s cause is when he supports her and encourages her to go back to Immortan Joe’s castle.

The final scene of the movie features Max learning the lesson that the audience learned over the course of the movie. The lesson is that this is not his story. He has broken the chain that tethered him to the patriarchy, he has seen said patriarchy supplanted and now he has to leave because the film itself is no longer focused on its male characters. It is at this point that we get another POV shot of Max looking at Furiosa which is essentially a reversal of the earlier POV shot in which Max objectified the women. Max sees them for the people that they are and that is why he knows they don’t need his help. Max starts the film as someone plagued by hallucinations of all of the people he has failed to help and ends the film as someone content to drop the reins and let people he cares about be responsible for themselves.

* I wanted to come up with something better than “the film’s women” to call all of the women who escape Immortan Joe’s castle. I didn’t want to call them Joe’s wives because that seemed very much to be against the spirit of the movie (Joe shouldn’t define them!). In the end I couldn’t get The Furiosa Five out of my head and as much as I would like that to catch, I decided against it. I may or may not be tempted to change that later.

Daredevil #1 (by Charles Soule) – Comic Book Review

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It seems as though Marvel cannot go two weeks without relaunching one or more of its series. First it was Marvel Now, then All New Marvel Now and now in the wake of its universe redefining crossover Secret Wars we have yet another series of #1 comics pouring in. The uncertainty of seeing books continue past 12 issues has been a deterring me from reading Marvel books as of late but I could not help myself when I heard the words “new Daredevil series”, so here we are.

I had not been keeping up with Mark Waid’s brilliant run all the way to the end due to commitment with school/lacking a job at the time so I am going in without much background knowledge on how the previous series lead into this one. I have heard that there isn’t much in the way of continuity between this series and the previous one anyway but let this serve as an explanation if I miss something about the new status quo the book sets up.

My initial impression of this new series is one of cautious optimism. The book starts things out by returning Daredevil to New York city (the last series had him in San Francisco if I am not mistaken), which is a bit of a drag because I really liked how Marvel was making an effort a few years back to spread out its heroes to different parts of America. Also, Matt and Foggy are on the outs due to some vaguely defined measures that Matt had to take to make his identity as Daredevil a secret again (for those who don’t know, Daredevil’s identity has been public knowledge for many years in the comics). I’m not sure how I feel about this change in dynamics between Matt and Foggy though, as these characters have been through so much together at this point that it is hard to believe Matt could have burned that bridge without doing something truly terrible.

It is not all bad though because Daredevil seems to have a brand new friend in Blindspot, his invisibility empowered partner (sidekick?). If I could give Matt Murdock any advice in superheroing, it would definitely be that he should not have sidekicks with ironic names that elude to his identity as Matt Murdock. It would be like Spider-Man’s sidekick being made The Photographer, it is just bad for business. It is hard to get a read on this character since I have not read the Point One story that introduced him.

That covers the “cautiously”, now let’s move onto the “optimistic”. Ron Garney’s art is fantastic and gels well with the darker tone that Soule is going for. The new enemies that Daredevil is taking on are compelling (the silly name of Tenfingers not withstanding) and the book being written by a lawyer can only serve it well moving forward. One big problem with the Netflix show was its lack of focus on Matt’s vocation and some of the best stuff from the Brian Michael Bendis run featured Matt in the courtroom.

I also like the prospect of Matt having a secret identity again. The previous run did a lot of great things with Matt’s public identity but I have always been a sucker for old school superhero secret identities. It serves to isolate Matt from his usual support system, which is clearly the larger goal that Soule has in mind with this book. Here’s hoping that the circumstances of the public forgetting that Matt Murdock is Daredevil aren’t as preposterous as they were for Spider-Man in One More Day.

I plan to keep buying and reviewing the book unless it gets bad but Soule has proven himself capable in the past and like I said, I am cautiously optimistic. Now, if they can just get rid of Daredevil’s terrible black costume…

 

Why the Superheroes of Kick-Ass 2 are Among Cinema’s Best

 

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I would ask if you remember that they made a sequel to Kick-Ass but that would involve you remembering Kick-Ass. At first it looked like the film had garnered something of a cult following, so much so that Universal went ahead and made a sequel. Unfortunately, it was poorly reviewed and nobody showed up to actually see the movie when it came out. This is a damn shame in my opinion because even though Jeff Wadlow’s Kick Ass 2 is undeniably a flawed movie, it gets enough right that I think it merits reconsideration from a lot of people who initially dismissed it. Among the things it gets right are Justice Forever, the team of superheroes led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey).

Justice Forever has 6 members that are new characters to the series: Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison), Insect Man (Robert Emms), Night-Bitch (Lindy Booth) and a duo of parents who call themselves Remember Tommy in honor of their son who went missing (played by Steve Mackintosh and Monica Dolan). This team reflects a total understanding of why superheroes are appealing. Insect Man is gay and refuses to wear a mask because it reminds of being back in the closet. Remember Tommy wants to make the world a better place so that what happened to their son might not happen to anyone else’s. They even wear shirts with his picture and phone number too increase the chances of finding him. Night-Bitch admits she has difficulty dealing with her sisters murder but wants to channel her frustrations into something positive. All of these characters are united by wanting to make the world a safer, better place and they were all brought together by Colonel Stars and Stripes.

Colonel Stars and Stripes is a born again christian who formerly worked as a mafia enforcer. His real him is Sal Bertolinni and he is the heart and soul of Kick-Ass 2. He facilitates the group’s introduction to Kick-Ass in which we learn all of the characters’ backstories. During this meeting, he shows the utmost concern for their comfort in telling their stories to a stranger. Despite being covered head to toe in hyper-masculine military garb, he is not the kind of character who would make fun of Insect Man for being gay or Remembering Tommy for not looking like conventional heroes. The Colonel makes sure that the team is a place of total comfort and acceptance, as a superhero team should be. When we learn that Bertolinni’s arc is one of redemption for his life as a violent mafia enforcer and suddenly the appeal of this team all snaps into place.

Every one of these characters is able to bring something good out of themselves by using the outlet of becoming superheroes. There is not a single brooding character, who uses this outlet for working through juvenile anger and enacting violent fantasy as we so often see in comic movies. Instead, that role is reserved for the film’s main villain. Jeff Wadlow clearly as serious disdain for the kind of comic book fan who identifies with Rorschach when they read Watchmen and insists superheroes should be more gritty and realistic. When Stripes’ explains the goals of Justice Forever, he just talks about good people getting what they deserve.

“People should get what they deserve. A family living in the streets deserves a hot meal, an inebriated college girl deserves to make it home safe at night.”

Seriously, when is the last time in a superhero movie that you saw a superhero take a break from indulging in the fantastical aspects of the genre to talk about feeding the poor and making sure college girls get home safe? They don’t just talk about it either, we see our heroes, in full costume, volunteering their time in soup kitchens. There is a ground level feel here that it is easy to appreciate in an era where superheroes mainly just fight among themselves or against villains who are only motivated by fighting the hero personally.

Kick-Ass 2 is a bloated movie that is not always firing on all cylinders. However, when it is on its game it displays a team of heroes among the best and most interesting in the entire superhero sub genre. I highly recommend revisting Kick-Ass 2 if you haven’t seen it in a while or checking it out if you thought it wouldn’t be for you.

JOY Review: David O Russell Revisits Familiar Territory with Mixed Results

Joy

It is clear from Joy that David O. Russell’s interests as a storyteller are limited. He likes telling stories about people who reinvent themselves and particularly people who have to overcome an overbearing family to do so. A feeling of familiarity will pervade over Joy for anyone that is familiar with Russell’s last three films. Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a woman who once had childhood dreams of becoming an inventor. Now, she has to hold down a dead end job at the airport to take care of her mother and children. Every time Joy shows a spark of potential or enthusiasm, it is suffocated by her overbearing family. Obviously, this is the kind of story suited to David O. Russell’s sensibilities. Unfortunately, what it does to set itself apart from his other films might be where most of my complaints come in.

The movie is the kind of sentimental ode to the American dream that you don’t really see any more. It is the sort of movie that equates the character’s success with how much freedom she has to run her company and how much money she is able to make doing so. The kind of movie where a gentle, old narrator takes us to the future to ensure us that Joy will move into that big house she always wanted and that her enemies will never succeed in ruining all that she has built. So worried is David O. Russell that the viewer might think that Joy does not get absolutely everything she has ever wanted that it just goes ahead and tells us that she does.

Joy is certainly a low point for David O. Russell since his comeback with The Fighter in 2010 but that does not mean it is without redeeming qualities. Front and center of these is Lawrence’s excellent performance as the titular character. Lawrence allows Joy to be believably vulnerable when dealing with her overbearing family but undeniably powerful when dealing with her business. She seamlessly weaves these strengths and weaknesses that are potentially counter to one another into a believable character. The scene where Joy has to demo her mop on TV encapsulates all of this perfectly. We see the shyness and vulnerability when the demo starts and the confident, capable woman come out and sell what she has made before the demo ends.

It is a pity that the movie surrounding Lawrence is treading such familiar ground for Russell and does nothing to make the revisitation worth while. Would I surprise you at this point if I told you that their was a scene in which everyone in the room is standing except Joy, even when they make decisions about her company? I can’t imagine so, especially if you saw Russell do the exact same scene in The Fighter. It is not just that Russell is repeating himself here, it is that he hasn’t found a worthwhile context that demands such a repetition. The whole movie just plays like a retread of The Fighter with less emphasis on the troubled sibling relationship.

“On the nose” is a phrase I keep coming back to with Joy. While reading a book to her daughter, Joy talks about cicadas. Cicadas hibernate for 17 years, which is exactly the amount of time that has passed since Joy has given up on wanting to build things and settled into a life of mundanity. When she casts the book aside and exclaims that the idea of hibernating that long is disturbing, I couldn’t help but feel the movie did not trust me to understand even this blunt metaphor on my own. If the metaphor is not obvious enough, a dream sequence in which a younger Joy (17 years younger to be exact) confronts her older counterpart spells it out for us even more. The movie is full of on the nose, surface level beats like that and fails, in my opinion, to be something of anymore depth. This is a story that has characters constantly telling Joy she can’t succeed and then celebrates with Joy when she succeeds and…that’s sort of it.

This review is coming out more negatively then I thought it would as I was walking out of the theater. At Joy’s best moments, I was right there with it. I was rooting for Joy to take control of her life and run her company the way that her family and her own self doubt kept her from doing. Unfortunately, those best moments are entirely the product of Lawrence’s charisma and honestly, they are few and far between. When it isn’t hitting those highs, it is a retread of Russell’s other films with a level of sentiment approaching maudlin. I like David O. Russell as a director but this film proves to me that he needs to take on a different kind of story to avoid falling into serious stagnation.

 

THE BIG SHORT Review: McKay Gets By On Energy and Righteous Indignation

big-short

The Big Short (directed by a noticeably genre shifting Adam McKay) is not a film that finds any profundities or revelations as it scrutinizes the shortsighted, selfish behavior that lead to the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, it is righteous call to arms that begs its audience to be infuriated with that selfish behavior. The film is an energetic, angry examination of the circumstances that lead to the financial crisis that could easily have been titled “Can You Believe This Shit Even Happened!?”

An all star line up of talent that includes Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt have been assembled as the film’s leads and they do excellent work. Nobody in the cast (save for Carell) gets any showy actor moments that get people in the Oscars race. Instead, McKay utilizes each actor’s charisma and screen presence to great effect. This is a movie with a ton of exposition that manages not to feel like somebody adapted an economics textbook into a feature film. If you are curious about why that is, it might have something to do with the fact that Bale, Pitt, Gosling and Carell are all fantastic actors that can grab your attention and hold it effortlessly.

The other reason the movie moves along at such a brisk pace is McKay’s kinetic direction. After The Other Guys and Anchorman 2, I was beginning to think that McKay’s biggest problem as a director was his inability to recognize what to leave on the cutting room floor (seriously, Anchorman 2 is much better then it gets credit for…it is just half an hour too long).  The Big Short is evidence that I was wrong and that McKay can keep the running time to an effective and reasonable length.

McKay takes this talent and energy and puts it towards infuriating the audience. Everyone who in the film who ought to be responsible and intelligent is portrayed as childish assholes all concerned with making money and looking cool. Anyone familiar with McKay’s own Step Brothers will recognize these guys as akin for Derek Huff  (Adam Scott) and the rest of the corporate jerks hosting the Catalina Wine Mixer. A bunch of chest pounding bros who aren’t evil so much as dangerously ignorant. These are men who have grown up in a culture of excess and are now the distinct by product of that culture. They want as big of a number on their paychecks as possible and are simply confused about why they should not exploit people to get that number.

Here in lies what I think might be the genius of McKay’s film. There are no profundities, no keen insights into the corrupting nature of capitalism because the men he is examining are not the product of anything profound or interesting. They are the product of worshiping millionaire athletes instead of people who actually do good things in the world. They are the products of listening to songs every day about getting rich that actually made the people singing the songs get rich. These men are as shallow and empty as the culture of excess that they are byproducts of. McKay is blunt about letting all of these excessive pop culture fixtures exist prominently in the film and he even marks the passage of time by showing the Apple products that came out that year (a brilliant use of product placement if ever there was one).

The film stages a number of great scenes that display just how culpable the banks are for the financial crisis. There is a scene where one character brags about coaxing confused immigrants to sign mortgages without understanding them, only to have the other exclaim that he likes to go after people with even lower credit ratings. My jaw dropped multiple times watching the film and I guarantee no moment in cinema this year will have you as dumbfounded and anrgy as the last bit of closing text that brings you up to speed on what happened between the events of the film and the present day.

Overall, I don’t hesitate to say that The Big Short is a movie that everybody should see once. You won’t believe what you learn over the course of its running time and it is absolutely knowledge that everyone should have. It’s funny, fast paced and you’ll learn something vital. I don’t imagine repeat viewings or in depth analysis will yield as much rewards as they will for something like The Hateful Eight but I also can’t imagine any film this year getting you as fired up about wanting social change as this one does.