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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REVIEW: Biutiful

4 06 2011

Some people would call “Biutiful” a terribly depressing movie, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.  Sure, Javier Bardem’s Uxbal endures a great deal of pain and suffers immensely; however, in order for a movie to be depressing, it needs to make you feel depressed.  And as far as I’m concerned, it’s impossible to feel anything while watching “Biutiful”.

Alejando González Iñárritu’s film numbs more than just your butt with its two-and-a-half hour runtime (and manages to feel a lot longer); it numbs your soul with its bleakness and complete lack of sentimentality.  You’re much more likely to die of boredom while watching it than feel depressed.  I don’t have a problem with melancholy movies, but I want to be moved and filled with emotion.  By the time “Biutiful” was over, I found myself wondering if I had the ability to feel at all.

Iñárritu’s script is surely the kind that needs to make a massive appeal to pathos in order to make its grim plot watchable.  Uxbal is struck with terminal cancer, which is horrible even for people who are at peace with their life.  He isn’t.  Heavily involved in the Barcelona underworld with very unethical practices and struggling to be a father to his children and a husband to his bipolar wife, there’s a lot of unfinished business he has to attend to before he can buy the farm.

It’s a truly wrenching experience that only a sadist would undergo after reading this review; if you like dental surgery without novocaine, then this might be the best movie you’ll ever see!  It’s not even worth it to see another Oscar nominated performance by Javier Bardem – just go watch “No Country for Old Men” again.  An interminable movie about a man with a terminal illness makes for a brutal irony and an even more brutal watch.  D

Oscar Moment: “Biutiful”

21 11 2010

There are two things going for “Biutiful” going into awards season – well, two names, really.  Javier Bardem and Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Bardem, winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in “No Country for Old Men,” has the respect to get into a crowded Best Actor category.  I can’t say he’s a threat for anything due to this year’s “Eat Pray Love,” but he’s been in the Academy’s consciousness for a decade now (Bardem was nominated for Best Actor in 2000 for his work on “Before Night Falls”).  He could definitely be a strong contender to take a trophy in the Leading Actor category, the more prestigious of the two male acting awards.

Bardem already has one nice award in 2010 for this role, the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival back in May.  He tied for the award with an Italian actor, but that does not detract from this huge honor.  Last year’s winner was Christoph Waltz for “Inglourious Basterds,” and after receiving that prize, he steamrolled all the way to an Oscar.  However, you have to go back to 1987 to find the previous time when the opinions of the Cannes jury matched up with the Academy on actors.  So while this will undoubtedly help Bardem, it’s not the end of the race as we know it.

Alejandro González Iñárritu is also an Academy force.  In 2006, he was the first Mexican director ever to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director for his work on “Babel.”  His other two movies, “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” both received Academy Award nominations.  His work is clearly respected by the voters, although given how 2010 is shaping up, he’s going to need a minor miracle to get into the 2010 field for Best Director.

“Biutiful” is Mexico’s selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, which is where the movie will have its best chance outside of Bardem.  It’s not often that the category gets work from well-known directors, and such movies usually manage at least a nomination.  This will make it tough for “Biutiful” to garner a Best Picture nomination since the Academy mindset has largely been dismissive of foreign films since they have their own category.  Only eight foreign language movies have ever been nominated for Best Picture, two of which came in the past decade.  However, with the nomination of “Up” last year, the voters don’t seem to let the Best Animated Feature category hold them back.  It may only be a matter of time before foreign films get their time in the sun.

Plus, on a closing note, this movie looks DEPRESSING.  The Academy has turned away from really bleak fare recently, and the plot of “Biutiful” centers around a dying man trying to make peace with some of the loose ends in his life.  Judging from this review by Variety‘s Justin Chang, this doesn’t feel like their cup of tea.

“… less invested in themes of fate and convergence than his previous work, this gritty, slow-burning melodrama nonetheless offers a very long descent into a private purgatory, and its scant emotional rewards can’t shake off the sense of a prodigiously gifted filmmaker stuck in a grim rut.”

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actor, Best Foreign Language Film