REVIEW: The Revenant

10 01 2016

Alejandro G. Iñárritu communicates powerfully in two registers throughout “The Revenant” – visceral violence and serene stillness. Working with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, he masterfully navigates between these two extremes. When the film needs to do so, it shifts registers from portraying the beauty of nature like Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” to showing how that same environment can harshly impose its fierce will such as in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

Lubezki enhances the naturalism by ditching the fluorescent lamps and employing only the light present at the shoot. Additionally, he stages many an elaborate long take with Iñárritu meant to keep the intensity moving forward as if the lens of the camera was the eyes of the audience. When these two elements mesh perfectly, “The Revenant” provides some of the most pulse-pounding, adrenaline-pumping cinema of recent memory.

But there are times in the mad rush of blood to the head where Iñárritu seems in a little bit over his head. As with “Birdman,” his reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. Though his movies all but scream their production values, they never come out quite as important or revolutionary as he thinks they are. For example, the tracking shots convey the intricacy of their planning as much as they provide an immersive plunge into the unforgiving American frontier. Each moment of greatness has some accompanying gloat visible down the road.

Leading man Leonardo DiCaprio matches this pattern in many ways. He stars as fur trapper Hugh Glass, enshrouded in a Kurtz-like mystery to his group of fellow hunters. They know little about him other than that he has spent a great deal of time among the indigenous people in the Louisiana Purchase, which thus makes him more in harmony with their harsh surroundings. Just how deep that connection with the land goes, however, gets a trial by fire as the team’s leader, Tom Hardy’s ruthless John Fitzgerald, essentially leaves Glass for dead in the brutal winter.

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REVIEW: Birdman

29 08 2014

Telluride Film Festival

I hardly think it counts as a spoiler anymore to say that “Birdman” (sometimes also credited with the title “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is edited to make the majority of the film appears as if there are not edits.  This does not, however, mean the film is intended to give us the illusion of unbroken action.  Breaks in time and space are quite clear, yet the effect of the long take remains.

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, as he would now have us call him, achieves the herculean feat of collapsing a timeline of roughly a few weeks into pure continuity.  He’s less interested in continuous action as he is a continuous feeling or sensation, an invigorating break from the oneupmanship that seems to come baked in with long-held takes.

Waiting for a cut or edit in a shot is like waiting for pent-up tension to be relieved, an indulgence Iñárritu refuses to grant.  (Leave it to the man who gave us the debilitatingly bleak “Biutiful” to make us writhe.)  “Birdman” follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, a former blockbuster superhero star, attempting to win back his legacy in a flashy Broadway play.  He has struggles aplenty, both with his inner demons and the cast of characters around him, and the film certainly does not shy away from trying to replicate his anxiety in the viewing audience.

This is not just pure sadistic filmmaking, though; Iñárritu’s chosen form matches the content of the story quite nicely.  The film feels consistently restless and anxious, and not just because of the consistent drumming the underscores the proceedings.  These sensations are contributed to and complimented by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography.

After his work on “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Gravity,” it’s a wonder Lubezki had any surprises left in store.  “Birdman” may very well be his most accomplished  cinematic ballet to date, though.  There’s an art and a purpose to every position occupied or every shot length employed.  Pulling off some of these constantly kinetic scenes must have required some intensely detailed blocking with Iñárritu and the cast, but the level of difficulty makes itself apparent without screaming for attention.

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