the-revenant-leonardo-dicaprioIn the cold winter of early America, a group of trappers and hunters are ambushed by a band of Arikara Indians. The few who survive the merciless attack retreat to base camp. On their way back one of them, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is attacked by a grizzly bear in a prolonged scene of crunching bones and torn flesh. The gruesome encounter is only but a taste of the visceral tone The Revenant takes, wherein the brutality of the wilderness is only matched by the callousness of some of his fellow men.

After surviving the brutal bear attack, Glass is carried by his compatriots and his Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The treacherous trip has one of the men, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) convinced that his own survival is threatened by carrying the ailing Glass, who — from Fitzgerald’s perspective — is but dead weight. The struggle between the two is at the core of this film. When Fitzgerald betrays Glass on several levels, ultimately leaving him for dead, Glass, who can hardly speak, much less move, after the attack finds the strength to get to base camp on his own motivated by revenge. The man-to-man violence feels immediate, as Director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses close, tight shots to not only show the internal struggle but also gives the audience a peek into the turmoil within — few places for respite in this bleak landscape and inchoate society.

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Along with the struggle for survival there is an alternative narrative of the group of Native Americans from the Arikara tribe who are also on a quest for retribution. Theirs is a different source of settling the score, looking for the daughter of the tribe’s leader. Although the story does not seem to be woven into the overall film seamlessly, it does provide a point of comparison for the many ways in which justice may be sought in the absence of a higher authority, say a state.

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“The Revenant,” or “the one who returns after death” is played with appropriately visceral aplomb by DiCaprio, who traded his signature charming leading man good looks to play the grunting, disheveled but strong Hugh Glass. But the real standout performance comes from Tom Hardy, who embodies Fitzgerald, the outlier of the frontiersmen. His personal story is also cemented in brutality, his face alone carries the burden of trauma being half-scalped and full of scars. In an up-close monologue, Fitzgerald tells of the grisly path he’s endured himself. Fitzgerald is a character study of how a person may find their dark side and stay in that space as an excuse for his own behavior.

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The stark landscape and the ruthlessness of nature are beautifully captured by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s cinematography, in what is now a collaboration between director and cinematographer that spans decades. The quiet atmosphere and the inhospitable cold portrayed by Iñárritu is not only of a wide scope, but it is also the perfect blank slate to ask human questions about existential survival. Why keep on going when the prospects for survival are bleak, at best? Is there redemption to be gained from revenge? Is justice enough to keep us going? As Glass keeps on marching on, it is hard to overlook both the frailty and fortitude of human nature. Glass’ refusal to die and survival instinct trump myriad of obstacles in his path, yet his losses throughout this journey begin to seem insurmountable. Survival in the face of having nothing else to lose makes this story compelling and powerful.

Though the violence might be quite stark, it is there for a reason. Reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1988 film A Short Film About Killing, Iñárritu shows the act of killing as a menacing, difficult act both for the victim and the perpetrator. The long take action sequences showcase how the struggles between people are not only physically dangerous but can also diminish that essence that makes us human for all parties involved. Although billed as a revenge film, Iñárritu’s motivation may be different, as the final confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald will reveal.

Ana Morgenstern

The Revenant runs 156 minutes and is rated R. It opens nationwide on Jan. 8. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screening last year for awards consideration and the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of the studio.

Indie theater UPDATE: The Revenant opens at O Cinema Wynwood Friday, Jan. 22.

(Copyright 2016 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

posterMexican DJ turned filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has so far made a name for himself as a director of weighty films with bleakly serious subjects in search of transcendence. Ever since his Spanish-language debut Amores perros, his 1999 Oscar-nominated film that had Hollywood knocking, it has been an uphill battle for the director to achieve the same level of respect. It seems what he needed was a tonal shift. The black comedy of his fifth feature film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), is that shift, as it sends up virtually every aspect of the entertainment industry with dark humor on a meta level. Though Iñárritu has often reached too hard to make big statements, Birdman feels breezy by comparison and still achieves the resonant kind of statement fitting of his aesthetic.

Michael Keaton plays actor Riggan Thomson with a complex dynamic of ego and insecurity, as he tries to reinvent himself during a midlife crisis. Just like Keaton, Riggan once played a famous superhero in the movies that spawned a series of sequels: Birdman (fun fact: there is indeed a Birdman superhero). Riggan groans about Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender as they rake in fame and fortune by donning superhero costumes in this new era of movies based on comic books with a mix of disdain and envy. He seems plagued by a bitter resentment that he hasn’t somehow been recognized for paving the way for the superhero movie star in some impractical way (maybe he’s secretly hoping for “Pioneer Superhero Tentpole” Oscar?). Yet, he also desires recognition as an artist, so he decides to adapt Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway. Meanwhile, the voice of Birdman, in a husky growl not unlike Christian Bale’s interpretation of Batman’s voice, seems to always belittle him when he’s alone. Oh, and one more characteristic of Riggan’s worth noting: he displays powers of levitation and telekinesis when no one else is looking.

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If the richness of the satirical implications of this character is not enough, there are many others who enter into Riggan’s world with their own quirks. Edward Norton does hilariously self-deprecating work as Riggan’s nemesis, Mike Shiner, the heroic stage actor who will save the play. Mike is literally cocksure. He strips to nothing backstage, in wardrobe, fists on hips, ready for his fitting. While Riggan strains for respect with his grave adaptation of serious literature, Mike oozes confidence in his craft that relies on method-like process. When on stage, he needs real gin to feel drunk and must follow his erection when he lies in bed with his actress girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), who herself is a bundle of nerves in search of her own respect on Broadway. Riggan only wishes to earn appreciation as an actor with integrity and clashes with Mike over what Riggan sees as inappropriate behavior, but Mike wants Riggan to respect his process as essential to his craft. Hovering over that, Riggan’s best friend/manager/attorney Jake (Zach Galifianakis) sees integrity in making this production a commercially viable affair, but the constant collateral damage of ego puts him on edge. On the periphery, lackadaisically observing the ship sink and lusting after Mike, is Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter and assistant.

All of these people pine for a sense of their own version of what is essential to their own vision of reality, which they hope will grant them some sense of value, but that means struggling against the other titanic egos that surround them, which is key to the film’s humor and drama. The generalizations are so piled up in this film that it would be image-22891d8e-aa7a-45d2-8221-c72d6a5125cbunfair to fault it for presenting tropes or clichés. This is a movie about demolishing expectations where expectations often lead to disappointment. It thrives on generalization. But beyond that, Iñárritu presents it with a filmmaking style that at times defies the tenets of film language, adding yet another layer of meta reality to this satirical vehicle.

The editing in the film is invisible, but the story does not take place in real-time. Even though the entirety of Birdman seems like one take, with the camera slipping through corridors and other nice moments of trickery to meet the actors at various moments of crisis, the story covers several days. It speaks to the idea of theater where acting cannot lean on editing as a crutch. At the same time, it also speaks to the lack of connection between these people. There is no room for match cuts, associative cuts, shot-reverse-shot, etc. because no one genuinely connects. It’s also a departure for the director, whose films have often depended on action off-screen and silent moments of time trickling past cut and pasted together jarringly to add a sense of levity to the contemplation of his characters. It’s as if the film has lost a superpower, much like Riggan/Birdman.

The film’s musical accompaniment is worth mentioning. In his first film score, Grammy-winning jazz drummer and bandleader Antonio Sanchez  — who, like the director, also hails from Mexico City — gives the film a chaotic, cacophonous rhythm with a free-jazz, percussion-centric score, speaking to the nervous, scatterbrain of Riggan. Sanchez’s presence is so vivid, he even appears in the film at a drum image-83d3ecdf-6887-4c4f-be3e-ad184b9742b6kit on more than one occasion, giving physical form to the harried Riggan’s nerves. The always amazing and fluid camera work Emmanuel Lubezki is also key to the film’s tone. His sharp focus not only presents unforgiving images of the creases of many a weary face but also highlights makeup and styling designed to make some of the actors look like birds. Whether this is intentional or not, it speaks to Riggan’s perception of his world and to the fact that this is also an alienating presentation of reality, keeping the audience at arm’s length, building toward a finale that no one can truly, definitively understand because this is Riggan’s world … and ultimately, just a movie.

In its hyper-real presentation of story, Birdman takes an almost encyclopedic survey of every trope, generalization and prejudice we might have about Hollywood and celebrity culture and in turn lampoons it in some way. Critics, the PR machine, social media, the idea of fame by viral video, sexual relations between actors, clashing egos, it leaves none of it out. Much of it is reductive, but it’s also offered in a spectrum: there is the cynical theater critic for he powerful “New York Times,” the serious journalist with the social/theoretical concerns of the art and the star-struck reporter who will believe any rumor as insight into the unknowable person behind the celebrity. Of course, the film also does this with the colorful actors at the center of the film but still does not forget the personnel behind the scenes, as well. With Birdman, Iñárritu sets out to bite the hand that feeds so hard and with such force so as to dazzle those bitten with stars. It’s a caricature filled with magical realism that never forgets entertainment value, inviting everyone to have a laugh at themselves.

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Though it is implied that Riggan may or may not have super powers, whether or not he does is unimportant. What Iñárritu is doing with this character quirk is offering a metaphor for the power of celebrity, which Riggan is trying to suppress so his craft might be taken on its own terms. Ask any artist worth his or her own work, and they will tell you that they view celebrity with a wary eye. Galifianakis noted as much in his interview regarding the film in “Hollywood Reporter.” Recently, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau told me about it as if it exists outside of his control. It’s a double-edged sword that gives actors value, but that they do not have the same kind of control over. Scott Haze, another actor I interviewed, spoke about the prejudice that surrounds the work of his friend James Franco, who directed him in the underrated Child of God.

For all its smart satirical qualities, it’s hard to ignore a sense of genuine bitterness that informs the stories that make up Birdman. Iñárritu himself has had to combat high expectations from the beginning of his work in the U.S. But if you do not care to look behind the screwball farce of the action of the film, you will only be disappointed by this movie. It targets Hollywood as a business that thrives on celebrity to make its fortune at the sacrifice of people whose only dream was to express themselves in front of an audience before the machine gobbled them up, which is the true tragi-comedy of the reality of the entertainment business. What can you do? Enjoy the show!

Hans Morgenstern

Birdman runs 119 minutes and is Rated R (language, sexual humor and pathos). It has already opened in many theaters across the U.S. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Oct. 31. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screenings for the purpose of this review.

Update: Birdman arrives at Broward’s indie art house the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Dec. 25.  It also won the Florida Film Critics award for best picture of 2014.

Previous update: On Nov. 7, it will be the premiere film at O Cinema’s newest theater in North Beach, at the former, newly renovated Byron Carlyle. (Update: due to technical issues the O Cinema premiere of Birdman was postponed. It now opens Friday, Nov. 21, and the cinema is honoring tickets from Nov. 7 for any Birdman screening at O Cinema Miami Beach).

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

gravity-posterMovies like Gravity are the types of films routine visitors to the multiplex live for. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years feels fresh and exciting by ironically staying as true to the image as possible. From the opening seconds, Cuarón makes an effort to show his devotion to realism by offering a title card explaining sound and temperature in space, debunking myths perpetuated by sci-fi films like Star Wars and their booming interstellar explosions. But most of all, he relies on the image. His effort to avoid editing is so extreme viewers will be hard pressed to find a splice within the film’s first 20 minutes.

His aversion to cutting images is not just a gimmick. It’s an effort to enhance the feeling of reality to what many viewers so easily resign to the “that’s so fake” world of science-fiction. Though Cuarón tries to maintain the illusion of “realism” by avoiding splices as much as possible, far be it from this evolved filmmaker to allow the images to drone on. Limber camera work consistently offers awe-inspiring vistas of the openness of space and keeps the film dynamic even without pace-dictating cuts. It’s also not long into the film when he sends a shower of space debris hurtling at the astronauts working on the Hubble Telescope. Then things get real exciting.

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Cuarón’s dazzling work with uncut action sequences in his criminally underrated previous film Children of Men (2006) reaches new heights with this intimate thriller in space where two astronauts in this freak accident in space struggle to make it back to earth alive. Only two actors appear on screen: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who bring the sincerity to the dialogue, written by the director and his son Jonás Cuarón, which can feel a tad heavy-handed and sentimental when it’s not efficient and quippy. The script’s simplicity helps in maintaining the film’s brisk pace, however, and despite many solitary moments with one of these characters, it never dwells too long in monologue mode.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has almost consistently worked with Cuarón from his first feature, A Little Princess, and has gone on to work with Terrence Malick on his latest films, enhances the visuals like no one else. Shadow and light shift from ominous to becalmed in moments. There’s also something to be said about the score by Steven Price, who pushes the limits of bombast to minimalist heights of sensation when that killer space debris passes through. It’s like the theme from Jaws stripped to sensation. Speaking of the senses, the sound design also deserves mention, which, at appropriate times, feels like what life underwater might sound like. Cuarón has not forgotten any detail.

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Despite the efforts of these filmmakers, distractions do arise, however. The star power of the two leads somehow overshadows their humble roles as astronauts. Bullock carries the baggage of a once-it-girl in movies like Speed and While You Were Sleeping. Hollywood’s pressure for its preference for young women shows clearly on her face (read: plastic surgery). Though Clooney has successfully escaped his “Sexiest Man Alive” aura in films like the Descendants, Syriana and even the American (my review), the script gives him little room to maneuver as anything more than the sly rogue he’s so well at playing.

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Bullock is given the meatier role as a mournful woman who lost her young daughter in a freak accident. As she fights for survival in one Rube Goldberg action sequence after another, she shows a delicate sense for motion in space. She does a lot of great work snatching at the air during what amounts to one epic free-fall. But she also delivers a heartfelt performance that improves the dialogue, capturing a sort of will to live in what often feels like a hopeless situation.

Some may think the premise that starts the catastrophic domino effect in space contrived. As Gravity tries so hard to stay as true to science fact, it will in turn beg for more scrutiny. For every smart effort like floating fireballs and tear drops, a threat to break suspension of disbelief arises. Get over it and go with it. It’s a movie. Yes, this film is nothing but a painstakingly polished thrill ride at the movies, but dang it if it’s not brilliantly constructed to crush the cynic in us, from eggheads looking to pick apart the inconsistencies with real-life rules of space to the cinephiles who dare the screen to make them cling to their arm rests.

Hans Morgenstern

Gravity is rated PG-13 (it’s intense and characters react appropriately with a few f-bombs) and runs 90 minutes. You can catch it at any multiplex right now in 3-D, HD, 35mm and IMAX. Warner Bros. invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

To the Wonder posterI went into To the Wonder with hopeful expectations. I felt moved by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and its take on life and death and mourning with grace. It made for an abstract viewing experience, but it also dealt with such sublime encounters in a respectful and beguiling manner while not forgetting the humanity in its main characters. I had hoped To the Wonder would offer a similar statement about love.  Instead, it has some archaic message about marriage under God. But, even worse, the journey never feels compelling. I felt the film rush by with one redundant, brief scene after another on a path to a sloppy, hollow end that reeked of contrivance. The precarious edge Tree of Life teetered on, To the Wonder plunges over.

Before the film derails, however, the first few minutes feel promising. Grainy, saturated home video of a train trip in France featuring the two lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) is juxtaposed with wide Paris cityscapes. Speaking in French she says, in voice-over, “A spark. I fall into flame.” Brief sentences. Pregnant with impressionistic poetry. Intimacy captured in a moment when he holds her hair. She doesn’t flinch. However, problems began to arise not long into the film. There’s a distance between the camera lens and the actors. Emmanuel Lubezki has shot amazing work for many well-known directors. He has long proven himself a capable cinematographer, and he comes through in To the Wonder. There are beautiful moments of light and shadow throughout the film, beyond scenes shot during the magic hour, a light that has obsessed Malick from the start of his career as a filmmaker. However, the issue lies in the content of the shots and how Malick has contextualized them via the cutting room. Many shots of Neil focus on his back. If Marina faces the camera, it’s only to twirl away from it, her arms outstretched to the sky in one scene after another. If that’s a representation of a woman in love, I know a few women who will take offense to that, if not laugh it off.

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It’s scenes like these— which are repeated, no less— instead of the powerful complexity of scenes in Tree of Life, like when the father tries to teach his son how to fight and hugs him after yelling at him “hit me!” capturing the bitter pull and tug of love and hate between son and father that seems amiss throughout To the Wonder. It feels as though Malick did a rush job in the editing room, without enough consideration to the performances. It does a disservice to the acting and character motivation.

Neil ends up moving Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from France to his hometown in Oklahoma, which, as revealed by his first voice-over  he seems more romantically in love with than the foreigner he plants there. “Honest. Rich,” he says. However,  as his job seems to involve him testing the soil on farms, he soon learns the land he seems to revere is actually poisonous. Any sympathy for the man is diffused by his cold, distant looks to Marina’s attempts at seduction. Her daughter shares her own frustration with trying to fit in at school. “Mom, we have to leave. There’s something missing,” she says in French (she might as well also be talking about the movie). After her tourist visa expires she tells him, “We have to face the facts.” When he refuses to marry her, she is obligated to return to France. He then falls for a childhood friend, Jane, (Rachel McAdams). “She hadn’t changed. Kind,” Neil says in voiceover. Still, even in Paris, Marina pines for this man, and you wonder why. But in Oklahoma, now Jane twirls in the fields, arms outstretched to the sky.

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A parallel to this story is that of a Spanish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who Marina bonds with as a fellow exile. Meanwhile, his voiceover is full of doubt, as he carriers out charity work. “How long will You hide?” Statements like that are coupled with declarations like, “There is love between a husband and wife.” A wedding does eventually occur, but inside a courthouse. Men in handcuffs sign as witnesses. These abstract, loosely connected scenes are building toward something rather archaic in message while contrived in form. Worst of all, it feels too definitive and preachy for Malick.

Although the images continue to enchant, the actors feel like props, which takes out the human experience of love. The scenes feel like misshapen puzzle pieces forced to fit together, and the dramatic arc lacks the substance in performance and character development to carry you along. When the tidy ending arrives after creating such a complicating setup among people, it betrays the spirit within a person. Malick’s reach is so wide, the film really feels like he has concocted something out of nothing. If love were only about God, then fine, but anyone who has been in love knows that the sublime lies within them as well as outside.

Hans Morgenstern

To the Wonder is in English, French and Spanish with English subtitles, runs 112 minutes and is rated R. It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 3. The film also opens in South Florida at O Cinema, beginning May 9 and the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, where it will begin its run May 10. It arrives in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso on May 24. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line preview screener for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)