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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Ex Machina: Lessons in playing God

Alex Garland is a mighty fine writer. He’s now a director. His past writing credits include The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd and now Ex Machina.

With the latter he’s stepped up to the director’s chair, and done so without missing a beat. He’s been helped by a great cast of course, in three rising stars: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.

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The story here starts with young coder Caleb (Gleeson) winning a competition to spend a week with reclusive genius Nathan (Isaac), CEO of Bluebook (essentially, Google). He quickly finds out he’s to be the subject of a ‘Turing test’ (to determine artificial intelligence) with beautiful cyborg Ava (Vikander).

Attempting to manipulate – or at least stay on the good side of – an unhinged genius is something Gleeson has done before (in Frank opposite Michael Fassbender), but here he has his work cut out for him with Nathan.

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Right from their first meeting we see Nathan pumping iron outside his beautiful forest/mountain retreat. He’s a beast of a man with a shaved head and bushy, slightly unkempt beard, looking more like South American gangster than the head of one of the world’s most powerful tech companies. But then that’s the point, he’s not what you expect. He confounds expectations.

And with a masterclass in passive-aggressive behaviour, Isaac keeps us guessing. We see him as Gleeson’s Caleb sees him; drinking heavily then attempting to cancel it out by furiously detoxing. He calls Caleb his buddy, sharing a beer with him one moment then the next cutting him off mid-sentence with a psychotic look or antagonistically dismissive comment. In short, he’s used to being in control but has his demons. Lots of them, judging by the film’s first third.

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As most of us have been dimly aware, over the last few years Gleeson’s career has skyrocketed. Other actors often have showier parts, but he tends to provide the anchor to the story and a way in for the audience – if he was a footballer he’d be a defensive midfielder. Often overlooked, but the rest of the team know he makes them look good.

And talking of the rest of the team, when Caleb isn’t having unnerving conversations with Nathan he’s being challenged by Ava in an altogether different manner. Vikander is a revelation as Ava, all sharp, precise movements and piercing looks, she puts Caleb on the back foot from the get-go, challenging why he’s there and what he truly wants and desires, making him question himself as much as the situation.

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All in all, this is a riveting film from start to finish. The three leads excel in equal measure and Garland’s script and direction are strong. It’s tense, dramatic, emotional, and makes you question – in terms of technology and what it means to be human – where we as a race are going. Or where we might be going. It’s timely too, with Stephen Hawking’s recent comments that the existence of AI poses a threat to our very existence.

So, if films cannot tackle big themes and do so in a commanding, compelling and affecting manner, then what good are they? Or, to put it another way, if you care about the future of humanity and thoughtful, challenging filmmaking, go see this film.

Atwell’s star burns bright in Black Mirror

It’s only been a couple of years since the first round of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror – a drama mini-series consisting of three stand-alone episodes, all set in the not-too-distant-future.

black mirror 15 million merits findlayThe stories aim to hold a mirror up to society and show us where we ultimately could be heading, should we not keep a tighter leash on our moral compass. Production company Endemol describe it as a show that ‘taps into our unease about the contemporary modern world with a techno-paranoia feel’.

For me, the stand-out story from series one was 15 Million Merits, starring Jessica Brown Findlay. A satirical examination of our current obsession with reality TV and constant craving for distraction in our lives. A brilliantly realised tale that was both haunting and scarily believable as a concept.

Therein lies the strength of Brooker’s talent. In fact, the depth to his writing and appeal of the stories has attracted Hollywood’s attention, with Downey Jr planning a feature-length film version of series one episode The Entire History of You, which originally starred Toby Kebbell.

Brilliant Brooker and astonishing Atwell

Series two recently began with the episode Be Right Back, starring Hayley Atwell. An actress who’s been on my radar for a while, but I’ve yet to see her in anything of note. black mirror atwell phone bedHere she puts in a thoroughly believable performance as young, grieving widow Martha, who turns to a mobile app to recreate her recently-deceased partner Ash (Dohmnall Gleeson, son of Brendan), from his email and social media history.

There’s been a few reviewers who have said that, between series one and two, Brooker has matured as a writer. Fatherhood has softened him up, or at least make his writing style less aggressive and shocking. Perhaps that’s true. What is clear is that Be Right Back represents a more considered, mature and sensitive offering, from a clearly talented writer. One whose style and ideas are as distinctive and unsettling, as they are moving and fascinating.

To get the juices flowing, here’s the trailer for the next episode, White Bear. Enjoy!