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The Revenant (2015)
A Rare Experience
It is one of the most beaten clichés of movie-marketing to call in the viewer to experience something unusual. When in truth there are very few filmmakers who are able to pull off something like a sensory cinematic experience.
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu is one of those rare directors. His movies defy narrative conventions ("21 Grams", "Babel") and also visual templates ("Birdman"). Now he has achieved his next big step. A big budget adventure story that is reduced to its most minimal plot-elements while being a truly immersive experience that manages to give a tangible sense of a long-gone era.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a tracker who assists a band of fur-trappers in the early nineteenth century. He is attacked by a bear along the frontier of Montana. And after being left for dead finds himself amidst an unforgivable wilderness.
The screenplay written by Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu is a starting point for a film that relies first and foremost on the image and is therefore reconnecting with the era of silent film and the most fundamental roots of the medium. Iñárritu who tried to avoid as much as possible the trappings of computer effects has production designer Jack Fisk, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, costume designer Jacqueline West and his actors pull out all the stops. You are left with images, sounds, faces and languages that force you to reflect on your life two hundred years after the events shown here.
Leonardo DiCaprio manages, not unlike Tom Hanks in "Cast Away", to hold the screen with his presence in a performance that is mostly wordless. From teen-heartthrob to superstar to character actor; DiCaprio's trajectory seems to be about choosing his projects according to the challenges they face. And it must be said that his devotion to the portrayal of an archaic character whose prime motivation is survival is as simple and riveting as can be.
Before he began shooting "Birdman" Iñárritu sent his cast an image of Philipp Petit, the high-wire artist who walked between the towers of the World Trade Center. It was a symbolic gesture of what he and his collaborators were trying to attempt with their movie. "The Revenant" represents another high-wire act by this Mexican iconoclast. It is a successful attempt to resurrect not only a forgotten time, but also some often neglected qualities of cinema.
May it jolt all those timid formula-makers out of their slumber.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Thou Shalt Have no Other Gods Before Me - Unless your Steve Jobs
The deification of technology is the latest in a long line of religious antecedents that belong to man's evolution. So it's no surprise that at the heart of Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle's parable Steve Jobs" lies a biblical Job with a contradictory message and the purest belief in technology as a force for good.
Boyle and Sorkin create a character out of a man that is from what one reads not a very accurate portrayal. Nevertheless, for the uninitiated viewer this hardly matters. One: Because they made a movie and two: Because Jobs himself may have been impossible to present as he truly was. What we get in this film, that sustains its momentum over the entire running time, is a talented, tortured and highly ambitious human being that tries to shape the future while negating his past.
Along the stellar performances by Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Kate Winslet as his marketing chief Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniak and Katherine Waterston as Job's former girlfriend Chrisann, are we entering three different product launch events from 1984 to 1998. A period which is broken up in three acts and works as a fluid play whose rapid-fire dialogue is augmented by carefully crafted visual extensions, precise camera angles and a very effective soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton.
The faith in technology that Jobs possessed in order to change our lives is very much evident, as well as his lack of many of the social skills that balance out a gift which drove him to all new heights.
Boyle and Sorkin focus on Jobs relationship between him and his daughter Lisa. And even if time-lines and events are shifted and invented, the final confrontations are moments of heartbreaking insight that reveal to us the segregating pain of creativity, its necessity and its elusive nature. For this Jobs reached for the stars and found the core of love amidst his life processor.
And yes, I believe that Steve Jobs was an unusual, frustrating and simply ingenious person that no movie or book can do justice. But sometimes it's not so much about how it was, but about how it feels. And this movie that bears his name has more than its share of palpable emotions that instead of simply inform actually enlighten.
El País de los Lobos
"Sicario" describes, with surgical precision, the fatal and bloody desecration of Mexico as a result of its decades long cartel war. And it does so by compressing this almost endless tragedy into a two-hour tour-de-force of filmmaking.
At its center we find idealistic FBI-Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is recruited to pursue a Mexican drug-baron. She is being guided by a seemingly untouchable covert assassin named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Their investigation and methods are pushed further into unknown territory where justice and morality are no longer valid. The end not only justifies the means, it requires them.
Denis Villeneuve's masterful piece exemplifies not only filmmaking of the highest order, but carves out a place alongside the terrible news reports as a deeply regretful, angry and at times almost unbearable look into the abyss of a socio-political nightmare that is fueled by first world-habit and global economics.
Through the powerful performances by Blunt, Del Toro and Josh Brolin in the leads as well as the excellent supporting cast, do we get a sense of the human cost (physical and psychological), which the war on drugs has taken.
From an exploding prison population, to the destruction of Mexican agriculture, to refugees and a cycle of violence that is beyond barbarity; the pull that "Sicario" exerts over the viewer is undeniable and by skirting the limits of bearable tension, without ever becoming exploitive, it is never giving an inch concerning its subject matter.
Few movies this year will have such a clear and defined structure and unflinching approach towards a situation that appears to be beyond salvation, while showing at the same time, that life nevertheless continues.
Taylor Sheridan's script doesn't miss a single beat and without sidestepping anything frees itself from beaten movie conventions by using familiar elements in an extremely skillful manner.
All these themes, stories and characters are captured through the lens of veteran Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men) who lets us always know how the micro- and macro-particles of any conflict are inextricably intertwined. We share the vistas of beautiful sceneries while having to witness their downfall.
Whatever ideals the likes of Emiliano Zapata once had, their country has now, as it is described in the movie, become the land of wolves".
Fifteen years ago Steven Soderbergh's Traffic" which earned numerous Oscars, not the least of which went to Benicio Del Toro, made a clear statement about the various strands the drug trafficking business touches. Now, all those years later we see in Sicario" that even the faintest of hopes that Traffic" held onto have been eviscerated.
What now? One might ask.
Before We Go (2014)
Easy to criticize, but done with great compassion
To bash this movie as a "Before Sunrise" knockoff is easy, and maybe even somewhat true. But at the same time it would be missing the point.
Yes Chris Evans' directorial debut is also about two characters who experience a chance meeting and spend a night together. But "Before We Go" is if anything about adult choices and confronting their consequences. The exuberance of romantic love that is part of Richard Linklater's 1995 masterpiece is merely the starting point here. Nick (Chris Evans) and Brooke (Alice Eve) are beyond their college years and try to make amends with elements of their past.
The strolling poetry of "Before Sunrise" is turned into an odyssey that throws the couple into various directions. Kismet is of course the essence of the story and it has to be said that the screenplay sometimes struggles with the very basic conceit of a night in New York. But...there are a few scenes that are spellbindingly played by the two wonderful leads and a few truths about love and heartbreak are uttered that remain very real.
It could also be said that the movie delves into certain elements of "Before Midnight", even though it never reaches the depth of that movie either.
Yet "Before We Go" merits a viewing for those introspective souls who put their faith in destiny while being sometimes at odds with their journey.
Inherent Vice (2014)
I haven't read a single line of Thomas Pynchons prose thus far. But after watching Paul Thomas Andersons sublime work based on one of his books, I must say, it would be a sad state of affairs to leave this world without having read some of Mr. Pynchon's words.
This weird tale of corruption, sex, greed, counter-culture and lost chances may rank among the finest recreations of the much epitomized sixties in America. During it's entire running time I had to think about "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" more than once. "Inherent Vice" seems to be strangely connected to Hunter S. Thompsons work and Terry Gilliam's adaption, which also showed the afterglow of this decade of idealism. And both movies star Benicio Del Toro as a lawyer.
Within the plot of a detective story lies a very touching core concerning a generation of thrill-seekers" as Thompson wrote, who were ready for everything except some sort of real intimacy.
The acting is as perfect as can be, and the production design, sound, camera-work are as it has become a trademark of the director and his collaborators, specific and fully realized.
So, after having heralded the obvious, there's one last note to be made. The movie smoothly glides through 1970 Los Angeles in the wake of those societal changes and left this viewer who was not even alive back then, with a deep sense of regret. The atmosphere that "Inherent Vice" exudes is druggy, surreal and yet strangely tied to all the unanswered questions and real tragedies (Altamont, the Manson Murders etc.) that made the revolution come to a screeching halt. What was left were the drugs, some glorious memories but also a feeling of distance. As much as there was a sexual and intellectual liberation, it seems those thrill-seekers" were unable to commit to something tangible. To commit wouldn't have been hip, and to be square meant to be dead. And by evoking such thoughts and emotions, the movie delves into something inherently human and therefore something truly precious.
The Spectacular Now (2013)
A movie about adults, no matter their age
The word teen" is used in copious ways to describe this movie. And as much as it has its place when it comes to defining the main characters, at the end of it I felt as if I've watched a tremendously adult love story. One about care, about doubt, about overwhelming feelings, about responsibility, about basically all the things that a young person should not necessarily burden him- or herself.
The two leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, carve out a spot in their careers with this film. I heartily believe that in the years to come more than enough people will associate these two with the characters (Sutter and Amy) that they've portrayed here. The late Roger Ebert equaled Miles Teller's qualities in this picture to the ones of John Cusack in and around the time of Say Anything".
And yes, if you've cherished Cameron Crowe's directorial debut you will find yourself wrapped up in this tale. Both movies take their characters seriously and show them within a real context. A life around people who are all trying to keep things afloat.
Which takes me back to the adult love story". Disillusion leads to keeping your emotions under wraps. The love that exists in the spectacular now is the one you let blossom devoid of any intellectual basis. Which makes it the purest, most necessary and mature way of falling in love. Since it goes against the grain of reason, which is where most people beyond their teenage years try to live and very often fail.
It may be called mature or adult to love with your intellect, but as Sutter observes so astutely: I don't see what's so great about being an adult."
One of the answers to that could be, that as an adult you allow yourself to be a teenager with the clarity and calm of experience. Which is what Shailene Woodleys character might represent. The person who awaits her equal, to share in all the moments of wonder and compromise amidst the ever changing colors of a relationship.
Gone Girl (2014)
The Horrors of Domesticity
The basic premise is as old as the movies.
An abduction leads to a media-circus.
Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home one day to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. The ensuing search and all the subsequent events, which shall not be revealed here, draw the viewer closer and closer into a complex world of everyday suburban reality and everyday suburban horror.
As if it needed to be pointed out, this balance of reality and horror, or horrendous reality, is the domain of Mr. Fincher. In his clear-cut no-nonsense style he has fashioned a powerful mystery-thriller that lands somewhere between Hitchcock, Lynch, Bergman and Chabrol. Although vastly different directors, they have shared an interest in dissecting reality and human nature.
Profiting from two exceptional lead actors (doubts about Mr. Affleck's acting abilities will hopefully be dispelled), it is Ms. Pike, who reveals herself as an immensely versatile and unpredictable force in this movie. Over more than ten years Ms. Pike has played big parts in small movies, or small parts in big movies (such as Pride & Prejudice", Wrath of the Titans" or Jack Reacher"). Under the guise of Mr. Fincher she excels in every aspect and if any contenders for awards are to be named so early in the season, hers would be one of the first names (next to the outstanding cast of Richard Linklaters Boyhood") to be written down.
Visually stunning as one would expect from Fincher, with an immersive soundtrack by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross and an editing rhythm that cuts like a knife through the tissue of the story and its characters, Gone Girl" leaves no doubt about its craft and the deceptive nature of its source novel by Gillian Flynn. The author adapted her book into a tightly wound screenplay, that adds fuel to an already burning analysis of modern marriage and human frailty.
The themes are familiar to Fincher, but he assembles them in an expertly fashion. And we are left wondering, amidst the suspense, about many of the so called estimable American values of the 20th century, that have now come crashing down under the weight of an economic, political and spiritual crisis.
Out of the Past
Sifting through the endless words that have been written about Robin Williams' untimely death, my focus seems to be on his work.
The things you see between 8 and 14 years of age leave some of the deepest impressions. To this day I remember when I first saw "Awakenings" in early 1991. I was 13 going on 14 and the movie, the performances but especially the subject matter touched me immeasurably.
It is one of the few films and books that complement each other, in the best sense of that word. Both are unique in their own way, but depend on the other. The movie conveys many emotions and truths that the book sometimes buries behind its analytical character. And the book gives us a real sense of what the day-to-day struggles of these patients were.
Robert De Niro and Robin Williams fulfill similar functions, because as individuals they are very much opposites and yet represent a complete picture of empathy and desire.
Remembering the scenes, the book and my life, the sadness over Mr. Williams death starts to unfold. Not because of a personal connection but in recognition that to live means to be aware. And that sometimes the simplest things, as they are described in this film, can be the hardest.
To review "Awakenings" is to review ones own life. To see, feel and be able to accept.
"The ending is sad," the real Leonard L. once observed, and with this sadness I cherish Robin Williams who was alive....and awake.
Life Itself (2014)
For the Life of Us
What a strange profession it is to write about movies. You're depending upon the creativity of others, slouching through an endless quagmire of mediocrity that was made with desire and passion and in the end you are supposed to give an opinion about someone else's blood, sweat and tears.
And still, there is more to it all than just that.
Life it could be said, is a bombardment of opinions about your decisions, your passions, your failures and your victories, that'll never end until the lights go out.
Steve James' documentary about Roger Ebert seems to know this. The movies are our life, and we are the movies. Not to mention the books and songs, the poems and paintings, the photographs and dinners we read, see, hear and eat.
Life Itself" is not a celebrity portrait, but the story of a famous person who shared in all the aspects of what makes up being human. Mr. Ebert's love for life, for the movies, for the people who made movies, even those he hated, stemmed from a deep recognition that in the end, we as a species need each other. As mainstream as this basic philosophical realization is, it is ultimately unavoidable.
In a stark and unflinching way, without ever becoming trashy, has Mr. James fashioned not the story of an icon or a spokesperson but of a human being with an insane amount of passion.
Mr. Ebert's dependence on the heart and passion of others came full circle by giving back as much as he could. Which meant trying to let everyone know which movies were worthy, necessary and longing for our attention.
Life Itself" is not just about a gentlemen from the mid-western part of the United States. It is if anything about a citizen of the world, who tried and sometimes succeeded in showing us that to be human was a noble endeavor, if we chose it to be that.
And he summed it up once, as profound as anything I've ever read, in the last paragraph of his review about Searching for Bobby Fisher". Which was directed, incidentally, by Steven Zaillian who co-produced this documentary.
At the end, it all comes down to that choice faced by the young player that A. S. Byatt writes about: the choice between truth and beauty. What makes us men is that we can think logically. What makes us human is that we sometimes choose not to."
And I believe, life is ultimately made up of choices, not opinions.
A Masterpiece in Time
3 hours and not a boring second. Richard Linklaters "Boyhood" transfers an idea that could have a been a disaster into something groundbreaking, heartwarming and very true.
The story around Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as we follow him from age 7 to the beginning of his college life is a fine tuned and superbly executed movie, that has gained its momentum whilst being shot over 12 years.
The earmarks that make up the coming-of-age of a human being are often so small they are passed over by the enormity of historical events. Yet for Linklater it's exactly those moments which pass so quickly that make up a life. And which he is able to capture like nobody else before him.
The authenticity that a twelve year shooting schedule brings is mined to its very core, and it will be hard for anybody watching not to be reminded of those moments when everything tilts and you actually grow up.
The acting is simple and very effective, the camera never lingers but respects its characters by observing them from a certain distance, and with every passing year we move closer to the ever liberating understanding, that life is one hell of a ride, although we have no way of knowing where it goes.