Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

2015 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

The Revenant: Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki team up again, this time for a wilderness revenge tale set in the American West in 1823. The film's very loosely based on the novel of the same name, itself based on real historical incidents, as scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, left for dead by some of his comrades, and fights to survive and seek revenge against harrowing odds. "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves," goes the saying, and The Revenant delivers one of cinema's best explorations of this concept. The wilderness locations are stunning, and the camerawork is frequently extraordinary (but unobtrusive), with Iñárritu and Lubezki opting for lengthy takes that range from the vertiginous to the lyrical. DiCaprio's gotten flack for the grunting and grimacing the role requires (versus the lengthy, eloquent speeches of some of his other parts), but honestly, he's quite good here – he's grounded and present in the moment, as he needs to be to carry the film. As Glass' chief nemesis, John Fitzgerald, Brit Tom Hardy is earthy and believable as well – Hardy manages to make Fitzgerald despicable but also occasionally sympathetic, or at least comprehensible. (Hardy based his accent on Tom Berenger in Platoon.)

Hugh Glass is the scout for a fur-trapping expedition, responsible for guiding the men through the territory and hunting game. Although some of the native tribes are friendly, some are decidedly not, namely the Arikara, often referred to as the "Ree" by the expedition. Glass has a son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), by a Pawnee woman, who was killed in a U.S. cavalry raid. A grizzly attack leaves Glass badly wounded, with little hope of recovery, and transporting him over rough terrain proves impossible. Expedition leader Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) offers a hefty bonus to anyone who stays with Glass and sees that he gets a proper burial, which turns out to be Glass' son Hawk, young and idealistic Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald, a selfish but highly capable outdoorsman. But Glass isn't dying quickly and the Arikara may be closing in, making Fitzgerald twitchy. (It's hard to discuss much more without giving away huge chunks of the plot.)

The Revenant's biggest faults are its length and pacing. It's 156 minutes long and episodic, and some of the flashbacks, visions and incidents begin to feel repetitive. If you're not in the mood for its immersive filmmaking aesthetic – man against nature, with breathtaking camerawork and stunning landscapes – you might not like this one. (It's got a much stronger plot than Terence Malick's films, but at times, The Revenant similarly feels more interested in mood than story.)

As in the novel, none of the characters or groups are depicted as entirely good or evil, although the film makes some significant changes. The Arikara aren't merely territorial (although that's arguably justified); they're given a more noble motive. Meanwhile, Glass having a son alters the shape of his desire for revenge, and he's presented as essentially the most enlightened of the white guys in terms of attitudes toward Native Americans. French-Canadian trappers aren't depicted well, and that's been criticized as ahistorical (they typically treated native tribes better than their American counterparts). Glass' physical challenges are more numerous and arguably more interesting in the book, and an invented incident of survival feels jarringly derivative (think tauntaun). On the other hand, the book's ending is historically accurate but rather anticlimactic; the film jettisons this to delivers a far stronger climax, including sinuous, long takes of a savage, desperate, scrambling fight. Fitzgerald's words and Glass' looks prove haunting, and their emotional effect lingers long after The Revenant's final shot.

The Big Short: It's fitting that a director best known for comedies (Adam McKay) takes on the absurdities and corruption that drove the global financial crash of 2008. Based on Michael Lewis' nonfiction book, the film adaptation The Big Short assembles a fine cast (if male-heavy), keeps a brisk pace and manages to explain complex ideas and deliberately confusing financial skullduggery in a lucid and entertaining fashion. That's much harder to do than the filmmakers make it look. The Big Short focuses on the few people who figured out that there was a housing bubble based on bad loans and suspect financial instruments who then decided to "short" the market – betting on the seemingly unlikely event that the market would indeed crash. Most of the characters don't meet, and the film flits between them. Quirky, socially awkward Michael Burry (Christian Bale) has a medical degree but manages a hedge fund. He's been extraordinarily successful, but his clients start freaking out when he locks them into a long-time, expensive bet against the housing market. Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), head of a small hedge fund, has a driving sense of justice and hates seeing ordinary people get screwed, yet he comes off as a prick (often justifiably) due to his blunt and insensitive style. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) works for a big bank but has few qualms about betting against it. (He narrates most of the film.) Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are young up and comers who want to make a name for themselves who solicit the help of their former neighbor, the reclusive and retired bank trader, Ben Rickart (Brad Pitt). (Most of the characters have different names from the people they're based on; a couple are composites.) Director (and cowriter) Adam McKay mostly casts actors with comic chops and it pays off well. In addition to the leads, Marisa Tomei, Karen Gillan and Max Greenfield are memorable in small roles. The best decision is to break the fourth wall; a few characters do so, and explain how something we just watched didn't happen exactly that way, or confirm that a specific incident did, in fact, actually occur. Three "celebrity explainer" segments do a great job of demonstrating tricky concepts in a clear and engaging way. There's a darker edge to this story, of course, in that so many people suffered and still are, as a result of the crash and what was (or should be) criminal activity that largely went unpunished. The film at times creates a bizarre dynamic – we're kinda rooting for these characters to win, but on the other hand, them winning means the global economy, and many other people… lose. (And we know this is going to happen.) To their credit, the filmmakers do delve into this. The Big Short is well worth watching, and makes a nice set with 2010 best documentary feature winner Inside Job (the ninth film reviewed here) and 2011's Margin Call (the first film reviewed here).

"I really shouldn't be talking about this."
"I really think you should, actually."

Spotlight is a welcome film for adults, recounting the true story of The Boston Globe's "spotlight" unit, which exposed the Catholic Church's cover-up of widespread sexual abuse of young parishioners by priests. It's disturbing subject matter, but tastefully handled. Most of the film consists of people talking, but the reporters face moral as well as logistical challenges in pursuing this story, giving the film an energy and urgency. The majority of residents in the Boston area are Catholic, and the Catholic Church possesses considerable political influence and massive financial resources for lawsuits. Many of the reporter's subjects are reluctant to speak; some are outwardly defiant, some are stoic and close-lipped, others are frank and confessional, still others are conflicted and self-loathing. Writer-director (and former actor) Tom McCarthy assembles a fine cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou, and Jamey Sheridan. McCarthy does a nice job of gradually revealing the story – we're right there with the reporters as they discover a new lead, hit an obstacle, come up with a clever solution, and discover more than they bargained for. Spotlight also captures the dynamics of a really good team (of journalists, in this case) – they drive themselves, help each other out, and occasionally squabble, but not about trivial matters. (Among other things, Spotlight serves as a love letter to great reporting and newspapers, which have been severely hurt by budget cuts, an issue addressed in the movie.) The film isn't critical of the Catholic faith itself or its regular adherents, only the church leadership and its institutions. Several of the reporters are practicing Catholics or were raised as such, and as the extent of the scandal unfolds, it causes considerable soul-searching. (How could this happen? How many people knew, and when? What could I have done to stop it earlier?) Unless you know the subject matter is not for you, Spotlight is well worth seeing.

(NPR's interview about the investigation and the film with Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams, is excellent.)

Inside Out: After a few lackluster entries, it's nice to see Pixar regain its stride with a tale of a young girl on the edge of puberty and the mix of emotions inside her. Riley Anderson (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) moves with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan) from Minnesota to San Francisco. She tries to put on a brave face, but it's a massive adjustment – she leaves all her friends behind, plus plenty of space to skate and play hockey, and a nice, big house, all for a new city and a dreary, uninviting condo. Inside a control room in her head, her emotions are personified by the perfectly cast Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader). Joy is the ringleader, and tries to keep everything upbeat, which occasionally leads to her banishing Sadness to the small circle in the room. Riley has some tough days, though, and Joy's normal chipper approach starts to prove inadequate. A series of control room mishaps leads to one of Riley's "core memories" changing from happy to sad, and the "islands of Riley's personality" (Family, Friendship, Honesty, Sports, Creativity, Goofball) start to erode. Joy and Sadness accidentally get punted to "long-term memory," and need to find their way back to the control room before Riley's psyche is shattered (she's considering what was once unthinkable – running away).

This general concept has been done before (the last, funny segment of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and the short-lived, underrated sitcom Herman's Head, among others). However, this is one the best treatments to date, and it manages to be surprisingly sophisticated while also being entertaining for both kids and adults. That's a tough feat to pull off, and Pixar makes it look easy. Individual episodes are funny taken on their own terms – the abstract thought chamber, the dream factory, the cloud village, the moody, devoted, idealized boyfriend, the internal control rooms of other characters – but they also progress the core story. This is a wonderful script. Joy is likable, but her cheerleading can become oppressive at times and an act of denial. I particularly appreciated that the story recognizes that sadness is not necessarily a negative emotion and honestly acknowledging it can be crucial. Richard Kind has a memorable turn as Bing Bong, and the voice cameo list is fun. Check this one out.

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