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Posts Tagged ‘Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’

It must be that time of year again, for there seems to be a conspiracy at work to make me feel stupid and/or lacking in true gravitas. It’s becoming very nearly an annual thing, as I say, and always just as awards season is kicking off in earnest: the great and the good announce their lists of contenders and nominees for the big prizes, I duly go along to check out some of the most lauded films, and emerge, bemused, a couple of hours later, honestly not entirely sure quite what the fuss is about.

This is, admittedly, a slightly negative note upon which to start a review, but then it seems somewhat in keeping with the general tone of Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is one of most thorough-goingly bleak and uncompromising films I’ve seen in a long while.

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You want to hear about the story? Well, frankly, it strikes me as a rather secondary element of the film, but here we go: in 1823, a party of trappers in a remote North American wilderness find themselves under relentless attack by a war party of the local Ree Native American tribe. A handful of the men manage to escape the slaughter, due in no small part to the expertise of their guide and scout, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man well-versed in the ways of the locals (he even has a half-native son to prove it).

However, as the group struggles back to their base, disaster strikes when Glass is attacked and savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, leaving him close to death. The leader of the group, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), refuses to leave Glass to die alone, and eventually agrees to pay a few of the men to stay with him and do what’s necessary. Taking him up on this offer is the slightly unhinged Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy at his Tom Hardiest), who, with respect to the whole stay with Glass – wait till he dies – bury him plan, is quite prepared to skip the middle step…

But Fitzgerald has reckoned without Glass’ almost inhuman will to survive, and the guide crawls out of his grave and slowly begins to recuperate, intent on getting his revenge on Fitzgerald. But there are many miles of frozen wilderness, filled with hostile Ree, between Glass and his objective, and Fitzgerald is not a man to take lightly…

Well, it sounds like the stuff of a fairly traditional action-adventure story, with a lot of western trappings, and I suppose to some extent it is: there are lots of shootings, stabbings, and various fights during the film’s very considerable running time. But it never really feels like an actual action-adventure, and probably even less like a western. It’s just a bit too relentlessly bleak and horrible for that.

I was browsing around the blog last night, seeing what I’d written about other problematic Oscar nominees in the past, and I came across what I said about 12 Years a Slave. Many of the things I said then definitely rang a bell with what was going through my mind about The Revenant – ‘a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery’, ‘a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish’, and ‘almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value’.
Well, I should make it very clear that I don’t think The Revenant is a bad film; by any objective standard, this is a film made with enormous skill and thoughtfulness. There are very few moments of it which are not strikingly beautiful to look at, and – while not as tricksy as the single-take shenanigans of Birdman – Inarritu engages in some bravura camerawork at key moments in the story.

But at the same time I can’t help wondering if there is less going on here than meets the eye. On one level, this is a simple story about a man who simply refuses to die until he’s carried out his self-appointed mission, and what such a man is capable of (I wasn’t surprised to see that DiCaprio has said this is one of the toughest films he’s ever done, nor that he had five stunt doubles – I imagine the first four died mid-shoot). But on another level… well, that’s the thing, if there is another level I don’t really see what it is. It’s just buried a bit too deeply.

It doesn’t really help that much of the peripheral plot feels a bit murky, too – the fact that a lot of the dialogue, Tom Hardy’s in particular, is delivered in such a thick accent as to be utterly unintelligible, is probably responsible for some of this. But there are subplots whose connection to the main story seem either unarticulated or entirely arbitrary – a party of Ree wander through the film, searching for a kidnapped young woman. They play a key role in the resolution of the climax but I’ve no idea why things play out in the way they do, based on what I saw in the rest of the film.

Another relevant line from the 12 Years piece is ‘this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point’, and this time around it’s the treatment of native Americans that the film has something to say about. It is, as you would expect, a very revisionist western (to the extent it’s a western at all), and while the Ree may carry out atrocities against the European characters, it’s made very clear that they are ultimately victims rather than aggressors.

As I said, this is a serious film, and a well-made and good-looking one. I’m not completely sure if the performances are actually as good as all that, but I suppose the willingness of the performers to suffer for their art, not to mention their services to the growing of luxuriant beards, demand some sort of recognition. And I know the Academy likes serious films, and historical films (especially ones about American history). But 12 Oscar nominations? Really? That’s more than The Godfather, West Side Story, or Lawrence of Arabia, and The Revenant isn’t in the same league as any of them.

I think it’s probably just a case of momentum, that this film is the work of a bunch of people whom the Academy, on some subliminal level, is aware it really likes and feels like it should be nominating on a regular basis – Inarritu, obviously, following his success last year, and also DiCaprio – who’s almost become one of those people whose lack of an Oscar colours how they are perceived. Maybe even Tom Hardy has also joined this club, he’s certainly done good enough work in plenty of high-profile films recently.

The Academy is ultimately a political body with its own little quirks and fixations and I think it’s this that explains why The Revenant has done quite so well in terms of racking up the gong nominations this year. I will say again that it’s not a bad film, though neither will it suffuse you with joy and good humour: it is very heavy going. On the whole, much easier to admire than to actually like or enjoy.

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Oh, lord, not another new year? Another one? Will the line stretch on to the crack of doom? …you know, I think that it will, by definition. Oh well, time to lay aside the bloated seasonal blockbusters and engage in the usual cinematic detox, although hopefully this year’s serious and worthy awards-trawling films will be a bit less utterly depressing than the crop twelve months ago. Now, more than at any other point in the calendar, we are invited to ask ourselves what constitutes a good film, genuine talent, worthwhile art.

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Which makes it a good time for Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman to be released, not least because this is a film which seems to be asking those same questions. Very little about this movie is straightforward, but the plot seems pretty straightforward, at least initially: Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor struggling for artistic credibility, but overshadowed by a stint playing a superhero in Hollywood back in the 90s. Now he is attempting to stage a (seemingly fairly dreadful) Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story he has written, directed, and is starring in himself – to make the situation even more emotionally charged, also involved in the production are his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and daughter (Emma Stone). However, when the production loses an actor, he takes on brilliant but wildly unpredictable method performer Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) – partly at the suggestion of his girlfriend (Naomi Watts) – not quite aware of what he is letting himself in for. As the pressure mounts, Thomson finds the voice of his super-powered alter-ego haunting him – but is he going mad, or is the world itself collapsing into chaos?

Birdman appears to suggest there is no meaningful distinction to be made here, which is surely key to making sense of a film which often seems to be on the verge of losing it itself. It’s a movie which demands the viewer to engage with it and think about its ideas, because offers very few cut and dried answers, and in places seems intentionally ambiguous. It’s pretty clear that at least some of the film is taking place entirely in Riggan’s head, but identifying what is real and what is fantasy is a challenge.

In the same way, the film itself blends fantasy and reality, at least for anyone aware of recent cinema history. Riggan Thomson, a man who reluctantly finds his career defined by a series of superhero movies he made twenty years ago, is played by Michael Keaton, best known for his stints in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Mike Shiner, a brilliant actor but a nightmare to work with, is played by Edward Norton, whose unique approach to collaborating did not exactly earn the gratitude of his colleagues on either American History X or The Incredible Hulk.

The presence in the cast of one-time avatars of Batman and the Hulk, not to mention Gwen Stacy and Jet Girl, has led at least one critic to declare that Birdman is primarily a scathing attack on Hollywood’s current fixation on making superhero movies by the dozen, instead of ‘real’ films. Certainly an early scene where Riggan tries to hire Michael Fassbender and Jeremy Renner for the play, only to discover they are too busy making X-Men and The Avengers respectively, seems to support this, along with a moment in which Robert Downey Jr is roundly mocked for making the Iron Man series.

I’m not saying there isn’t an element of this in the film, but I don’t think the film’s argument is as simplistic as mainstream art = stupid and pointless / highbrow art = worthwhile and important. For one thing, this isn’t exactly a glowing portrait of the theatrical world, either, and especially not critics. This dubious profession is represented by Lindsay Duncan, who portrays a critic out of any director’s nightmare: untroubled by the need to actually watch a play before reviewing it, she decides which productions to support or destroy based solely on her own entrenched prejudices. Not content with presenting actors as unstable basket cases and critics as vicious harpies, Inarritu goes for the hat trick by having a go at the audience too: at one point the film briefly breaks into a Marvel-style CGI battle sequence, during which Thomson’s Birdman alter-ego glares contemptuously out of the screen, snarling ‘Look at them – this is really what they want to see…’

It seems to me that Inarritu has managed the neat trick of making a film which functions as a sort of distorting mirror, which basically feeds back to you whatever strange prejudices you happen to turn up with – if you turn up with an axe to grind against mainstream superhero movies (which are, let’s not forget, often superbly entertaining and technically immaculate pieces of film-making), then you can plausibly interpret Birdman as supporting you. If, on the other hand, you just think theatre actors are all just weird and experimental theatre is a pretentious waste of time, you will probably find the film backing you up here too.

If this is the case, then it’s a film which asks questions – what is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art? Is one particular motivation for making art superior to the others? – without presenting any definitive answers. But, fortunately, the film is more than inventive and entertaining enough to make up for this. The film establishes its warped and restless mood through the conceit of seeming to be made in an almost unbroken single two-hour take, and this is achieved in a technically brilliant way (even if some of the transition points are perhaps not quite as invisible as others). But beyond this it is simply very funny, functioning as a bizarre black farce about the fragile minds and egos of actors. There is some winningly scabrous dialogue (‘I wish I had more self-respect’ ‘You’re an actress‘) and the performances are uniformly very strong.

I laughed a lot all the way through Birdman, even as I was trying to work out what the film was actually about or trying to say. It touches on a number of semi-serious topics, but manages to do so without feeling heavy or overly pretentious – although I admit it’s a near thing on this last point – and is consistently witty and engaging throughout. Perhaps the satire is just a tad too dark and vicious for this to be the kind of film that does very well when the actual awards start being handed out, but it’s still a hugely promising film to start the year with.

 

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