The Revenant: brutal and simple

Fur trappers. Who’d want to be one eh? Having just seen The Revenant I’d say the average life expectancy of those guys couldn’t have been past about 30. And if you encounter tribes of Indians on a regular basis then more like 20.

The film’s shoot has already become the stuff of modern Hollywood legend. Forget Christian Bale losing weight for roles, he wasn’t out in the elements. DiCaprio, as the stories go, properly suffered. And the Academy loves an actor that gets put through the wringer for a role. So much so he seems a dead cert to take the Best Lead Actor Oscar (for which he’s long overdue).

But, ramblings aside, let’s talk about the actual film, inasmuch as we can do avoiding spoilers. Not that there’s much to spoil as it’s a pretty simple tale. We start with Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) hunting in the wilderness somewhere then cut back to camp where the rest of the trappers get viciously set upon by Native American Indians. It’s an astonishing set piece and worth your price of entry alone; as the camera bobs and weaves and ducks and dives, switching from character to character as director Alejandro G. Inarritu introduces us to the key players with the quiet brilliance of a master conductor.

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After they escape they ditch their boat thinking they’ll stand a better chance at survival on foot. Then Glass gets savagely mauled by a bear in yet another overwhelmingly visceral sequence. Somehow, despite the bear being CGI, you feel the weight and primal threat of its presence as it attacks. It’ll have you squirming in your seat with your heart racing.

A little while after that Glass’s men leave him for dead (as he’s practically a corpse) and what follows is a fairly simple survival tale. One of Glass’s fellow trappers, Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald, is the main antagonist of the movie, and although he tries to get them to abandon Glass at every opportunity, he’s also just trying his best to survive.

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Everyone in this movie, it seems, is just trying to survive. And little wonder, given the landscape. The cast seems to have spent so much time in either snow or freezing water or both, you wonder how they didn’t call mutiny on their director. That said, despite the harsh environment, it’s beautiful to look at, and DP Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezski just goes from strength to strength as possibly the best in the business right now.

Funnily enough, with most survival movies you’ll sit there happily munching away on your popcorn. With this one I felt guilty just looking at my snacks, let alone opening them. And there’s the trick. We suffer (to a degree) as Glass suffers. The cold environment seems to seep off the screen. Clever filmmakers.

So what I’m saying is, don’t expect to go into this thinking it’s a popcorn movie of any sort. It’s tough and demands your attention. There’s minimal dialogue and a lot of DiCaprio gurning and suffering. But it’s an experience. One that’ll leave you feeling drained and moved afterwards.

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Birdman: Keaton’s sad sack soars and swoops

In the last fifteen or twenty years, which actor do you go to for deranged and unhinged? Nic Cage? Jack Nicholson maybe? Actors who were wild in their youth tend to mellow with age, or grow old disgracefully. In the case of Michael Keaton it’s been quite some time since he last danced with the devil in the pale moonlight, so it was high time he returned to cinema. Here he’s channelled his talent into creating a character that has to be on a par – in terms of being washed up and on the last roll of the dice career wise – with Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler.

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And whilst the aforementioned film was on the serious and dramatic end of the scale, Birdman comes at things from a quirky yet melancholy point of view. Dark? Yes. Supremely odd? Check. But still a drama, with comedy elements aplenty, taking the time to explore some interesting themes along the way.

In terms of setup we start with Keaton’s Riggan Thomson (great name), a faded movie star, one famous for playing a superhero called Birdman. He yearns for recognition again and, perhaps even more than that, credibility and critical acclaim. In short, he longs to be taken seriously as an actor. And in the theatre he might just achieve that. However this is his last roll of the dice, as his lawyer and friend Jake (Zach Galafianakis) regularly tells him.

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To help his credibility he drafts in a proper theatre actor daaahling, in the form of Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), who then proceeds to steal his limelight on stage and seduce every nearby female he can. This begins to push his buttons – or at least twiddle Riggan’s sanity lever till the dial gets a bit loose.

As a result he is barely holding the play – and himself – together as they approach opening night, and to add to his woes he has: a daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and with whom he is failing as a father; a highly strung actress girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) using her sexuality as a weapon; another highly strung actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts) who craves a similar level of artistic accomplishment; plus theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) out for his blood and determined to ruin the play.

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a most interesting director. And a most interesting choice for this film. In the past he’s gives us Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful. All pretty weighty tales. He tends to get drawn to exploring death and grief and how we deal with it.

With Birdman, whilst this is the first time he has tackled comedy, these morbid elements still get thrown into the mix. And as we know comedy and tragedy are often close bedfellows at the best of times. One treads a fine line alongside the other.

On the evidence of this film perhaps he should stick to this approach for the foreseeable future, as he has a knack for it. He also gives us a great sense of the mad, chaotic world of backstage. Indeed, behind the scenes of the theatre are a claustrophobic place, all cramped tunnels and confusing corridors. His camera often right on the shoulders of his cast, twisting and turning and swirling around them as the fight, argue, flirt and despair.

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You particularly get a sense of this from Riggan. As he moves through the back corridors of the theatre accosted and confronted by his team, we follow him closely. At the same time we’re subjected to a musical score that matches the madness, namely a lunatic on a drumkit. It’s entirely possible this isn’t the film’s score, but the soundtrack to Riggan’s unravelling mind. (Actually, that’s still a score, even if it is internalised to one character. See… the madness is affecting me!)

The way Riggan’s alter ego (or subconscious) is personified and harangues him throughout the film slightly puts you in mind of Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Yet here it’s more of a peripheral presence, as Riggan wrestles with the inviting notion of celebrity and recognition versus the tough and uncompromising road of critical acclaim.

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Whilst this is Keaton’s movie by some distance, the supporting cast steal every scene they get. Simply put, they all looked just plain up for it. Considering Inarritu’s past work it seems he’s been storing a world of mischief up his directorial sleeve. Ed Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone… They all get to shine in a scene or two and are all an utter delight. It seems Inarritu has been supping from the cup of quirk formerly held by Wes Anderson. So in that respect it’s refreshing to see another director flourish and take up the mantle. (After Grand Budapest Hotel I feel Anderson may have got a little too quirky for his own good.)

I went into this film with no expectation or knowledge of the plot. I’d not seen the trailer. I knew the cast, but not the fact it was this director. Going by the title you might expect some sort of comedy featuring a shabby superhero. You could call it that. You could. But it wouldn’t be accurate.

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You could say this film flies the flag for character driven pieces, whether that’s cinema or theatre, it favours people and emotions over spectacle and explosions. It takes a thinly veiled dig at blockbusters, but also against the rather ridiculous and overblown world of theatre. And it’s all the better for it.

This film is clearly one that critics will love (for those that haven’t reviewed it already) but, without going out on too much of a limb, it should also be one that audiences will love. And it will most likely be a slow burner as word of mouth spreads. This one will last, people will say. And, in that, Riggan (and Keaton) will be remembered.

Three Amigos: Rise of the Mexican Directors

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Ok, for this piece I’d like to discuss my love of Mexico’s finest Directors. In terms of what got me fired up to write this, bear with me whilst I set the scene.

The other night I was watching an old episode of the BBC miniseries, Luther, starring Idris Elba (check out a clip here, worth looking up if you’ve not seen it), and it got me thinking about the film Elba is currently working on, Guillermo del Toro’s latest, Pacific Rim.

guillermo del toroNow I’m intrigued. I’m a massive del Toro fan and it’s a shame he couldn’t deliver his version of The Hobbit. I am sure Peter Jackson’s take will be epic, but I bet Guillermo’s would have been quite something.

The reason I’m a fan of del Toro is simple, his filmography: Pan’s Labyrinth, Blade II, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army. 

Like many others, I love the worlds he creates. His monsters are equally terrifying and beautiful. I suppose it helps that he spent 10 years as a special effects make-up designer before breaking into directing.

For example… Let’s take a moment to savour the scene where Liz bargains for Hellboy’s life with the Angel of Death…

Guillermo has often been described as creating fairy tales for grown ups. This is an apt description as Pan’s Labyrinth is not for the faint hearted. Yet in some ways, the worst monsters in his films are human: the fascist Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth, Rasputin in Hellboy etc.

And if we’re talking dark, it’s not just Guillermo that has a fascination with the macabre, his directorial partners in crime – Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Inarritu – also follow a similar path, albeit sticking more to drama than fantasy.

Mexico’s finest
Let’s start with Alfonso Cauron. His standout for me, was Children of Men; gritty, grimy, set in a bleak future and critically well received. He was a bit of a leftfield choice to direct the third Harry Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban. However, his style and tone fit the subject matter surprisingly effectively. Again, it was well received and largely seen as the bleakest, darkest instalment in the franchise. No bad thing at all.

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Then there’s Alejandro G. Inarritu. He’s had a stack of nominations for his filmography to date, most of which are linked by the theme of death: Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful.

Team players
All three directors tend to help each other out. Both Guillermo and Alfonso helped produce Inarritu’s Biutiful. Cuaron helped produce Pan’s Labyrinth and Inarritu edited it. You could say that, through this tag team effort, the film achieved greater heights than del Toro alone could have managed.

However, I think it’s just a case of three, talented individuals working together to create a masterpiece. This sort of collaboration hasn’t adversely affected their solo careers, as all have been successful in their own right. Indeed it’s benefitted them.

And whilst they all have their own style, there are themes and influences that link them together, like a happy family: life, death, darkness, light, magic, and fantasy. Pretty much the voiceover for the Pan’s Labyrinth trailer.

katnissThe future for the amigos?
Well, del Toro has Pacific Rim, plus rumours of Hellboy 3, which would be an exciting prospect. Inarritu has The Revenant, with DiCaprio and Sean Penn. Cauron has Gravity, a space film starring George Clooney.

Most interestingly though, Cauron is in the running to possibly direct the second instalment of the Hunger Games franchise (I think it’s safe to call it a franchise already right?). Entitled Catching Fire, it’s set to release November 2013.

So all in all, the Three Amigos are doing fine, with some exciting stuff in the pipeline. In celebration of this, let’s finish on a lighter note. Here’s the original Three Amigos in action with My Little Buttercup. Classic comedy.