Wintry Unpleasantness Part 2: The Revenant

REVENANTleosadIf anybody ever doubted Leo’s grunting abilities, let him be silenced now.  In The Revenant, Leo (as Hugh Glass) grunts and crawls his way into our hearts, and we cringe so often that at a certain point, at least at the showing I attended, the audience starts to grunt too – or rather groan.  It’s a pretty incredible performance, and to call DiCaprio committed would be an insult, but is it too much for anyone to take?

The Academy doesn’t seem to think so.  Or the HFPA.  Or SAG.  Things are going pretty well for The Revenant.  I went to see it shortly after the Globes, and I was expecting to be a little bit horrified and more than a little bit impressed.  Maybe it was all the buildup, but The Revenant was a disappointment.  After being dazzled by Birdman last year along with everyone else, I expected my brain to be stretched in other, nearly equally interesting directions while I watched The Revenant, but I found myself confused rather than challenged.

In Birdman (which I’ll be using for some comparisons because I can’t help but have it in the back of my head), Iñárritu shows off for good reason.  The virtual lack of cuts in the film makes us feel part of the swirling artifice of the theater world, and we are simultaneously drawn in and distanced by it, so that we are both part of the action and aware of its falseness.  In The Revenant, Iñárritu makes puzzling use of very long tracking shots once again, with mixed results.  While we do feel, during the early battle scene in which this method is most prominently used, the chaos and unpredictability of the battle, it feels not natural, as one might expect in a film so rooted in harsh realities and nature, so much as virtual; you know, like a video game (complete with blood that splatters onto the camera lens).  I’m not alone in having experienced this sensation, so you have to wonder if it was a mistake.  If it wasn’t, what could be the point of taking the audience emotionally out of this battle scene and drawing attention to the unreality of it?

REVENANTsnowThe rest of the film is brutally intimate, and the cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki’s) is generally gorgeous, emphasizing the enormous beauty, vulnerability, and power of the natural world.  If the early battle scene was made purposely disorienting in its unreality, was it to contrast with the stark (and naturally lit) realness of the scenes more focused on nature?

Anyway, besides the weirdness of some of the camera work, there’s the long, harrowing story.  Despite the groaning, the audience I was part of never seemed to become really disengaged.  At one point, when Hugh Glass was trying to catch a fish with his bare hands, the guy next to me inched up literally to the edge of his seat and, once a couple of fish had slipped through Hugh’s hands, moaned, “Aw, come on!”  This is a film that exasperates, and maybe that speaks to its power to wrap you up in Hugh’s suffering.  Maybe it also means it’s a bit repetitive.  It can be exhausting to have white knuckles in just about every scene; to have every simple task the protagonist tries to carry out turn into a nearly insurmountable obstacle until he finally, sweating, grunting, and covered in spittle, gets it done.

REVENANTleowaterDespite all this, the pulsing, constant presence of nature is what the film is really about to me.  DiCaprio doesn’t belong in this world; none of the white men in the film do.  I’m not quite sure, after watching, what justifies focusing this story on a white male protagonist.  You could certainly argue that, by giving white audiences a character that looks like them, the film’s look-the-hell-out-for-nature message would be more directly received.  It’s just a little counterintuitive, however, to give us only fleeting glimpses of native people and their land as mysterious and usually threatening, if the film aims to have us sympathize with them over the intruders.

Finally, the ending.  I was baffled by it.  When it looked like the film might end abruptly with Hugh’s anticlimactic murder, I felt briefly betrayed, but I would have happily taken that rather clever concept for a final moment that would have worked with the hard, unfair world of the film, over the pretty ridiculous, unnecessarily punctured-hand-filled fight that actually follows.  The Native Americans get their final scene, in which they scalp Tom Hardy and walk off majestically, leaving Leo with a respectful look – which really feels more meant to show us how untouchable and heroic he is than to say anything about them.  It feels, more broadly, like the wrong story is being told (which is, of course, not at all unique to this film).
REVENANTtomhardywgunThe highlights: the kids (Will Poulter and Forrest Goodluck), who you really wish could find a decent role model; the adorable Appaloosa who looks hilariously casual as he runs off a cliff trailed by a murderous mob; the bear, who is exceedingly well-rendered (and rounded – we feel sorry for it while it’s mauling the protagonist) and makes me never want to go into the woods again; the cinematography, which is nuts; and last but by no means least, Tom Hardy, who as far as I’m concerned absolutely steals the show, especially with his comedy (I’m serious), and is a completely legitimate Oscar contender.

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Wintry Unpleasantness Part 1: The Hateful Eight

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Spoilers all over the place.

The Hateful Eight and The Revenant have a lot in common (notable directors, a Western U.S. setting, stars in great physical pain), and the element that struck me most was the cold.  If you’re looking for a film that will remind you of the beauty of winter and motivate you to buy a hat, look no further.  I spent half of The Revenant saying “no” at an inappropriate volume and the other half trying very hard not to say “Put a hat on!”  I spent most of The Hateful Eight being grateful for indoor plumbing.  In this post, my mixed feelings about the beautiful but lacking Hateful Eight.  Post on The Revenant coming soon!

The Hateful Eight is another unapologetic Western from Tarantino, and as always, the love that went into it is so obvious that you can’t help but get swept up in it, despite its flaws.  I didn’t manage to catch the film in 70mm, but it was still plain gorgeous.  Some have criticized the slow, talky buildup that is a large chunk of the film, but I love some good dialogue, and Tarantino delivers it as usual.  The early scenes in and around the stagecoach are tense, informative, and funny, and the rambling dialogue is buoyed by the mystery that stands out to me more than the actual whodunit: who are any of these characters, really?

The ambiguity of every character in the stagecoach is just as present in those we find at Minnie’s, where the rest of the film (save for brief flashbacks) takes place.  Everyone we meet has a sinister air about him, but we have to wait to find out if each is a bad guy or a less bad guy just trying to get by.  In the end, it turns out that everyone is a bad guy, and any sympathetic element of a character is brushed past so quickly that what we experience is nothing more than a shootout among a bunch of assholes.  This is an enormous disappointment.  What’s behind the smile of Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that gives her more of an edge than the average too-tough-to-care killer?  What’s the story with her and her brother, who share a supremely tender and incredibly brief moment amidst the chaos at Minnie’s?  Why did the film spend so much time making a bunch of gangsters look like nuanced individuals when the plan all along was to reduce them to thugs?

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Michael Madsen in The Hateful Eight: Why don’t I get to learn anything about this person??

The story itself is complicated and even necessitates a retelling from a different perspective halfway through, but why create such intrigue around individuals (and not just the situation) if there was never any intention of showing us more of who they are?  The only characters we get to delve into are Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and supposed Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins).  Their relationship is interesting, of course, because they are former enemies at war who find themselves fighting on the same side in the new, lawless microcosm of Minnie’s.  But is this anything particularly new?  No.  The film gives us an unflinching picture of the world as it was at this time, and maybe our disappointment in the characters’ lack of depth is supposed to aid our disillusionment with the romance of the Old West.  If this was the intention, perhaps Tarantino allowed intellectualism too much precedence over entertainment this time (which feels weird to say considering he really goes for broke with the bloody stuff as usual).

There’s also the issue of Daisy as bloody rag doll.  Many have complained that the misogyny in The Hateful Eight is unjustifiably extreme.  While everyone in the film suffers something horrific, Daisy is by far the worst abused, physically and emotionally.  I believe that the bounty hunters of this time (and any men really) would have had a particularly strong hatred for women, especially those who challenge their authority, as Daisy does constantly in her attitude as well as her actions.  She is an interesting character because she is so pitiful, and yet, because it is carried out by our only round characters, the Major and the Sheriff, her terrifying mistreatment is portrayed as cathartic and celebratory.  This is one significant achievement of this film: Tarantino has managed to make us feel queasily uncertain about every act of violence, even when it means success for our apparent protagonists.  In most of his films, the punishment fits the crime.  But here, we find ourselves in a world where anyone can be both punisher and criminal, and everyone must suffer – so how are we supposed to feel?  Overall, not great.

Film & TV Inspiration for the New Year

As I look forward to struggling to keep even one resolution this year, I for one could use some inspiration, so here’s a list of films and TV shows that help me keep a stiff upper lip.  The Olympics are coming up, so some of these can double as warm-ups for all that excitement.

 

 

The Mindy Project (2012-present)MINDYdonut

Since its move to Hulu, this show has regained its old energy and taken itself in a very refreshing direction.  If it’s totally new to you, it’s worth it to watch from the start, but you can probably get the gist of things with the current season alone.  It’s rare to see a sitcom character face such enormous conflict as Mindy has faced this season, and we’ve now been given this gorgeous gift of a show that is overflowing with lovable, hilarious characters and makes you think/mad.

Best for: Career resolutions, relationship resolutions, fashion resolutions.

Chariots of Fire (1981)CHARIOTSbeach

The theme music from this film is enough to get you going, but you can also have the privilege of watching the whole thing on Amazon (or iTunes).  It’s a period movie, it’s a sports movie, it’s a classic, and it might convince you that running is worth your time.

Best for: Fitness resolutions, Olympics prep.

 

Mozart in the Jungle (2014-present)MOZARTrodrigoconduct

Are you an artist of any kind?  Are you trying to live in New York on less than seven figures a year?  Do you like music and/or idiosyncratic artistic types?  If you answered yes to any of these, or if you just like to be entertained, this show is for you!  It’s a wacky show that isn’t afraid of fun, especially if fun means some mild sexual innuendo, and Lola Kirke and Gael Garcia Bernal never fail to pull you in.  Whether you need a push to pursue a goal or to practice an instrument, “Mozart in the Jungle” will help.

Best for: Career resolutions, growing up resolutions, artistic resolutions.

Breaking Away (1979)BREAKINGAWAYgroup

In a similar vein to Chariots of Fire is Breaking Away, a wonderfully strange coming-of-age cycling film.  If you need motivation to move away from your hometown, or to win a cycling competition, this is for you.  Available on Amazon or iTunes.

Best for: Fitness resolutions, Italian culture-related resolutions, growing up resolutions, Olympics prep.

Mary Tyler Moore (1970-1977)MTMlouandmary

You’ve probably seen it, but if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and watch the billion episodes available on Amazon and Hulu.  The theme song is great for unabashedly dancing through the streets to work and the show itself is an excellent comedy that will fill you with joy.  Everybody in it is so good that practically all of them got their own spinoffs, and we learn that Lena Dunham has never had an original thought aside from arbitrary nudity (just kidding, but barely).

Best for: Career resolutions, individualism resolutions, fashion resolutions.

Joy (2015)JOYwcoffee

Jennifer Lawrence is Jennifer Lawrence and just seeing her at work should be enough to make anyone want to do something with their lives.  In this film, she kicks considerable ass, and if you’re feeling particularly oppressed by your family or employer after the holiday season, this will give you plenty of (and maybe even too much) motivation to tell some bitches OFF.  Go see it in theaters and get the full effect.

Best for: Career resolutions, family estrangement resolutions, hair resolutions.

Best of luck!

Amazon Pilot Season: Fun Anyway

It’s Amazon Pilot Season, so prepare to feel important.  I watched three pilots (which happen to be Indiewire‘s top three of the group), and, quality aside, it was a delightful experience.  Pilots are fun!  They were “Good Girls Revolt,” “One Mississippi,” and “Highston,” and here’s how I felt about them:

Good Girls Revolt 

GOODGIRLSREVOLTnoraThis is my personal favorite because, among the three, it has the clearest storylines and, because of this, potential for longevity.  It also feels the most natural.  We’ve been dropped into the world of “News of the Week,” a fictional 1969 New York magazine, and, though we have some of the usual awkward pilot introductions and exposition, this episode largely manages to make us feel at home.  As someone who has been new to a couple of different offices in the last year, I can say that the light weirdness as Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer) is shown around hers is quite realistic, painful as it can be.  A lot goes down in the pilot, and the action works to introduce us to the characters, set up future conflict, and, importantly, to entertain us.

I am also very happy about one of the show’s biggest themes, which is the women’s movement of this era.  There are preachy moments, and a couple of male characters are so one-notedly misogynist that it makes it hard to feel anything but angry, but overall, this is something like “Girls” with work ethic.  The main characters (played by Genevieve Angelson, Erin Darke, and Gummer) are women with specific goals that they work towards by being unapologetically, unceasingly driven.  For Angelson’s and Gummer’s characters at least, they have plenty of conflict at work and/or in their personal lives, but they never question the fact that they are entitled to pursuing a career.  Sure, it’s easy to get cheesy when it comes to girl power, and I get a little over-excited just thinking about it, but the characters are more than feminists (which actually makes them even more feminist…I’m so excited).

I wonder who this show’s audience will be.  It certainly could have appeal for young women, and it could also draw people who remember 1969.  One or two of the men (particularly Jim Belushi’s character) are old cranks already tired of hearing about women and hippies, but this is not a show that totally sacrifices interesting male characters for strong female ones.  It also does not pit women against each other, which is absolutely fantastic.  Even when rivalries crop up among the women at “News of the Week,” they are eclipsed by the desire on everyone’s part to do good work.

One Mississippi

ONEMISStigfuneralThis pilot is exhaustingly depressing, and I find it hard to agree with Amazon’s designation of it as a “dark comedy.”  Though it has funny moments and lovely, subtle insights about people, I got so bogged down that I could barely process the funny parts.  “One Mississippi” has a thoughtful, fearless pilot, but its grayness, in tone and lighting, left me tired.  I think that it could do a better job of making the audience understand Tig’s pain without trying to make us feel as depressed as she does.  She’s a talented person with a story to tell, so I think that there’s potential for something much more nuanced.  Her fantasy of what will happen when her mother dies is a beautiful scene, and it gives me hope for her character that it’s hard to find elsewhere, as Tig’s character is so numbed that we do not get to learn much about her in this pilot except that she loved her mom and has a really difficult, lonely time with her death.  I’m not sure where it wants to go from here, but I’d be willing to find out.

Highston

HIGHSTONwshaqI liked the idea of this show, but I don’t think that it quite works.  Highston (Lewis Pullman) believes that he can see and talk to a rotating ensemble of celebrity friends, but it’s all in his head.  In the pilot, Flea and Shaq appear, and though they are certainly a good time, they are (literally) not actors.  This could prove to be a problem for the show – the fact that every episode seems to require a guest celebrity who may or may not be able to turn in a good performance.  These characters don’t have their own storylines or anything – they’re just figments of Highston’s imagination – but they do need to be believable at least for this particular world.  There were nice moments, and Pullman brings a lovely sensitivity to the character, but much of the writing is trying too hard to be weird.

Happy watching!

Sexy Old Stuff: Hot Scenes in Two ’40s Films

The Hays Code necessitated a lot of creativity when it came to romance, and filmmakers found ways to give us some of the sexiest scenes in film history with none of the moaning and nudity anyone can get away with today.  Here are two scenes from a couple of my favorite films that are far steamier than anything out of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Brad & Angelina version) or…well, I was going to say Girls, but most of those sex scenes aren’t exactly trying to be titillating.  You know what I mean.  They’re hot.

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

WONDERFULLIFEphonesceneI’ve been watching this movie every Christmas for virtually my entire life, and I had absolutely no idea what was going on in this scene the first ten times or so that I saw it.  Donna Reed (Mary) talks on the phone for a while, which seems to get her and Jimmy Stewart (George) all worked up, until eventually she drops the phone and he yells at her and she cries and they kiss, passionately.  Now that I’m aware of something called sexual tension, it’s a lot more interesting to watch.  George and Mary have wanted each other for years, and now, just after a big argument, they find themselves brought very close together when they end up sharing a phone to talk to a mutual old friend.  The physical closeness lets them feel what they’ve never let themselves acknowledge, and on top of this, the old friend has managed to become rich and escape their small town, something George has long been desperate to do – so all of this leads to an explosion.  The scene is punctuated by Mary’s nosy mother screeching and covering her eyes when she spots them from the landing above.  But Mary doesn’t give a shit, because Jimmy Stewart has been nuzzling her neck.

Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier (1943)

MOREMERRIERstoopThis scene is ridiculous.  Apparently it only got past the censors because screenplays were judged, not final products – and the script said something along the lines of “Joe walks Connie home” – but what Joe really does is work Connie into a sexual fervor that builds to an extremely sensual kiss.  Connie has a stole that Joe keeps lazily swiping off of her shoulders, and she keeps halfheartedly tugging it back on, and neither acknowledges anything as they walk home past what feels like dozens of necking couples.  Add to this the fact that they have been living in her apartment (in separate rooms, and for America’s sake, as this is during a WWII housing shortage, but still) and that she is engaged, and the scene is positively rife with all kinds of tension.  Jean Arthur’s girlish voice gets all quiet and husky while Joel McCrea’s gets all soothing and it just generally feels like something that other people shouldn’t be watching.

In conclusion, maybe we can all start feeling a bit less sorry for people who were adults in the ’40s (at least in terms of romantic entertainment), because despite restrictions, there was plenty of sex in movies.

Foreign Film of the Month: Dukhtar

DUKHTARveilIf you like feminism, gorgeous landscapes, adventures, buses with lions painted on them, good acting, or good storytelling – any one of these things – you will love Dukhtar. If, like me, you like all of these things, you’ll probaby do what I did and watch Dukhtar with your mouth half-open, trying to blink away tears as fast as possible so you can keep seeing how pretty it is.

I don’t really want to tell you the premise, because it’s depressing and the film is not, but here goes: Zainab (Saleha Aref), ten years old, is all set to be married to a very old man to end a long-term conflict between him and her father when her mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) spirits her away. Her reasoning is obvious, but we see Allah Rakhi make the decision to flee with Zainab in one perfectly poignant scene, in which the mother cautiously broaches the subject of the wedding night. Zainab casually says that she already knows what happens, and Allah Rakhi’s face tells us that what Zainab whispers in her ear about marriage reinforces how painfully innocent the daughter is.

DUKHTARallahrakhiMumtaz is, to me, the best thing about this film. Of course we are horrified by the prospect of Zainab’s marriage as soon as we see her father agree to it – but Allah Rakhi’s reaction is what really strikes us. Her face is our emotional home, and it’s her love and empathy for her daughter that drives the plot and pulls us in.

DUKHTARsnowAside from Samiya Mumtaz’s face, the world of the film is what wraps us up. Afia Nathaniel (director) describes the making of the film as a big group road-trip through remote Pakistan, and we feel as if we were really living in this environment, not just watching it. Throughout the film, we feel simultaneously as if we were being told a bedtime story and moving through a very real, complicated world.  In this way, we are placed in the position of a child just coming to terms with the real world – making us more sympathetic with Zainab, obviously, but also with Allah Rakhi in her preoccupation with motherhood, as both a mother and daughter. In the end, she may be the daughter of the title, seeking the lightness of a childhood that she never got to have.

Searching for Conflict, Finding…Bees

HOLMESbeachdaySome spoilers. Mr. Holmes starts slowly. Very, very slowly. You may find yourself wondering, for ten or twenty minutes, whether there will ever be a plot or if it will continue to be what appears to be a very nice cinematographic exercise. The film starts with a little introduction to the new, elderly version of Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen). He sits on a train, and he predicts that the small boy across from him is about to tap the glass of the window to startle a bee. The boy’s mother is astounded! How could he tell what the boy was going to do?? Perhaps because the boy was in the process of raising his finger – while staring at the bee. Already, no one watching is blown away. The usual Sherlock Holmes magic is missing.

Then he gets off the train. We’re in England, definitely. In the country. And let’s think about that for a while and make sure you get it. Do you see that light? That’s English country light. And the grass and the wood everywhere. Nice.

HOLMESbeesAfter we meet the fields and the house and the housekeeper and her son (Laura Linney and Milo Parker), and the BEES, the all-important bees, we start to get revved up. The housekeeper’s son is a bit of a troublemaker. Mr. Holmes is in poor health. The housekeeper wants to move so as to not be responsible for the inevitable decline and death of Mr. Holmes. The doctor does lots of tutting. Plotlines arise! Mr. Holmes is trying his hand at writing a Sherlock Holmes story, because apparently Watson, who in this world wrote the original novels, botched the story of Holmes’ final case. Mr. Holmes takes it upon himself to set the record straight, but there’s one small problem: he can’t remember anything! Because he’s old. Never forget how old he is. This is his single most important quality.

There’s another sort-of case, having to do with the disappearing father of the man Holmes visits in Japan to get some magic memory herbs. Yes, it is a little confusing. Small spoiler: at the end of the trip to Japan, this man tells Holmes that, years ago, his father abandoned his family for England, and the father claimed that it was Holmes’ idea. Holmes, however, has no memory of meeting the father, and says, gently, that it was probably an excuse, and that the father probably had his reasons. However, actual spoiler: Holmes, in fact, just forgot that he had met the man’s father and told him explicitly to stay in England. Whoops.

Much of the plot revolves around Holmes’ forgetfulness, which is kind of frustrating for everyone involved, including the audience. The suspense of a Holmes mystery usually builds as we wait to find out just how Holmes will brilliantly pull together all the clues that have been right in front of us the entire time. In this instance, we’re just waiting for something to jog his damn memory. And this is how the cases get solved. He just sort of wakes up one day and remembers what happened.

HOLMESlinneyIn the end, though, the real story is about Holmes, the housekeeper (Mrs. Munro), and her son (Roger). This is pretty interesting. The rest kind of drags. For a while, Mrs. Munro is something of a villain, threatening to move away, which would put a stop to Roger’s intellectual growth, which has been nurtured virtually singlehandedly by Holmes. It would also mean that Holmes would have to move into a hospital or a home or something of that sort, and out of his beautiful country house. Mrs. Munro is angry that her son, who is really quite an uppity little bastard, is slowly turning against her in favor of the education Holmes can offer. We worry that if he leaves, he’ll spend the rest of his life without books and learning.

However, when Holmes does finally remember how his final case was resolved, he realizes that he has lived his life fundamentally incorrectly by believing that every problem can be solved simply by applying logic to it. This turns the tables on the relationships between the three main characters. Mrs. Munro is not just jealous and insecure; she loves her son, and she values a good, stable life for him above anything else. Holmes has so far been unable to see the value of anything that isn’t intellectual, but he remembers the trauma of not having been able to save the suicidal subject of his final case, and he realizes that humanity can be just as practical as logic and reason.

HOLMESprayThis is pretty nicely done, and it’s believable. The problem is that the Holmes we see in this film is nothing like the Holmes we know. He is relatively gentle, without any of the manic, narcissistic energy that makes him who he is. This unrecognizable Holmes is probably meant to be the product of the traumatic final case (or maybe the implication is that Holmes’ personality as we know it has been greatly exaggerated by “Watson” in his novels). But because he is already so greatly changed, there is not much drama to his eventual epiphany. We pity him from the beginning as he struggles to perform basic mental and physical tasks, and so we do not feel a great change in attitude towards him. The real development, in terms of the audience’s feelings, is most likely found in Mrs. Munro, who goes from anti-education killjoy to tough but forgiving nurturer.

There are also a lot of bees. They’re kind of fun. Ian McKellen is charming and talented as ever; Laura Linney is pretty wonderful; and Milo Parker is very good at being a little prick.

HOLMESmagnifying