Better than the Real Thing: The Revenant

I’ve noticed a pattern in contemporary cinema. Films are getting longer. It doesn’t matter what genre we’re talking about – superhero summer blockbuster, Oscar bait drama, comedy, or sci-fi epic. Long films aren’t necessarily a problem, if a lengthy run time is necessary. But the fact is, most of these movies can be told in less than two and a half hours. Where have all the editors gone? Why are we losing lean and tightly-paced movies for bloated ones? I blame the Transformers movies.

The Revenant is a unique film in that it prematurely uses up both of its cinematic set-pieces less than a quarter of the way through the film. Beginning with an incredible long-take ambush on a party of fur traders and culminating with a less-brutal-than-expected bear attack, the two set-pieces of the film are over by the twenty-five minute mark….which leaves only Leo’s labourious breathing and glacial walking/crawling speed, along with Tom Hardy’s unintelligible marble-mouthed character, to fill the remaining two hours.I can’t think of any other examples of a film that has had such an exciting beginning only to limp to the finish line for the rest of the movie. It would be like if Lord of the Rings: Return of the King began with the One Ring being thrown into Mordor and then two-and-half hours spent in the Shire with Frodo and Sam having three-legged potato sack races. If this is the best in cinema, it’s pretty underwhelming.

Meanwhile, the two-and-half minute trailer for The Revenant (almost exactly 1/60th of the final product) distills the essence of the film into a thrilling fight for survival, with Leo’s laboured breathing punctuating each close call while getting rid of the plot-halting dream sequences and incomprehensible dialogue:

Now that looks good.

Side note: For some reason, I kept coming back to Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto while watching The Revenant. I think I was just reminded of the same story beats of having a hunted man in treacherous territory trying to survive against all odds and get revenge on the people who tried to kill him. As a survival story, Apocalypto is the superior film. The Revenant is a better-made one, but it lacks a pulse.



TIFF 2013: Parkland Review


Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder in “Parkland.”

I chose to see Parkland based solely on watching its trailer. The actual synopsis of the film (a recreation of the JFK assassination and its aftermath on the lives of people in Dallas that day) sounded a bit too much like PBS Documentary of the Month material. But the trailer gives the almost fifty-year-old event a vital urgency and focuses on peripheral characters (Abraham Zapruder comes to mind) whose stories haven’t been given the Hollywood treatment before. It’s a great trailer, but great trailers don’t make great movies.

Where Parkland stumbles is in its cardboard portrayal of these characters and reducing every scene into a digestible soundbite. Parkland has a fantastically talented cast (Paul Giamatti, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Zac Efron, James Badge Dale, ad nauseum) but they’re utterly wasted in the film. Each actor is onscreen for maybe ten minutes,and they generally look anxious, frustrated, or upset. Giamatti and Badge Dale do their best with the material and create not fully-fledged characters, but at least two-dimensional ones.

The second problem I had with the film is that the dialogue feels a bit too written. Take for example a scene where Badge Dale’s character (Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother) visits his sibling in the police station and a Dallas detective asks him what Oswald said. He replies: “I don’t know. [Pause] I don’t even know the man in there.” Cue dramatic walk away from Dallas detective and cut to next storyline. There’s exchanges like that throughout the film. They play really well in a trailer format (which explains why Parkland‘s trailer is terrific), but as a feature, the film feels lifeless (too soon?).

There’s some commendable work done in the movie, and one of the most interesting aspects is its historical accuracy. I haven’t read much about the JFK assassination, so I could be proven wrong, but in the Q & A after the film, the director claimed that every scene in the movie has a historical basis and that some sequences are based on actual transcripts between the real individuals. It’s a pretty impressive feat and the filmic equivalent of an Erik Larson book.

There’s a movie store in Toronto I sometimes frequent to rent obscure titles and the owner has a philosophy: he won’t put mediocre movies on his store shelves. By mediocre he means the films that don’t take risks, those that are simply run-of-the-mill vanilla titles that may be finely directed, acted, and written, but are so inoffensive and unmemorable that they don’t leave a lasting impression. Based on that philosophy, the movies he offers are of two distinct varieties: the most schlocky, tasteless, so-bad-they’re-good films on one hand, and on the other, the most intelligent, effective, and genre-pushing titles that film has to offer. I doubt I’ll be seeing Parkland on his shelves.

Grade: C+

Better than the Real Thing: This is 40

The latest victim of trailer spoileritis is This is 40. The sprawling, bloated new dramedy from Judd Apatow has all of its high moments highlighted in its advertising, unfortunately leaving little else for the audience in the way of entertainment, unless watching Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann squabble over household finances qualifies as such.

This isn’t to say that this is a bad movie, just a disappointing one. Apatow films have drifted away from straight comedy (The Forty-Year-Old Virgin) to more “serious” films with important things to say about the regrets of the rich and famous (Funny People) to the trials of parenting and aging (This is 40) with a few punchlines strewn in for flavour. This isn’t necessarily bad in itself, except Apatow films tend to have a formula: they’re largely plotless. For a comedy, this isn’t a disadvantage – as long as it’s funny, who cares? But for dramas, or dramedies, plot is important. Without it, the film feels sloppy and shapeless – is it trying to make a point or trying to make the audience laugh? You can choose one or the other, rarely can a movie do both. This is 40 doesn’t fit into the latter category.

Just as a brief example, This is 40 has about ten plots, none of which are entirely resolved, such as:

– Leslie Mann’s business is missing a sizeable amount of cash, presumably stolen by one of her two employees

– Paul Rudd’s business is in financial trouble because he doesn’t sign popular artists but “respectable” ones

– They (Rudd and Mann) may have to sell their beloved house to keep their finances afloat

– They have unresolved issues with 1) an absent father (John Lithgow) and 2) a mooching father (Albert Brooks)

– The film throws a late third act twist for the couple that could be a game-changer, but because it happens in the third act, not much can be done about it

So with all the comedy out of the way (or at least the very best bits) in the trailer, the unspoiled scenes from This is 40 are the dramatic ones. And without a cohesive plot, it feels underdeveloped. It feels like a collection of loosely-related vignettes about middle age – just with the same characters throughout each one. What the film tries to do in over two hours, the trailer does in two minutes. And it’s consistently funnier too. Check it out below:

Better than the Real Thing: Sinister

During October, I’m always on the lookout for new (or old) horror films to watch. I scour the Best Horror Movie lists and look for the “scariest” films I haven’t seen or ones that I have overlooked. I’m generally not much of a horror fan, but with Halloween around the corner, it’s always fun to get into the spirit – even if every best-of list only includes the usual suspects of Halloween, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, etc.

Sinister is the latest film in a resurrection of haunted house cinema that began (arguably) with Paranormal Activity. It’s a solid, if not great, addition to the horror genre with some genuinely creepy moments – mostly courtesy of 8mm snuff films. Ethan Hawke stars as a true crime writer looking to write a book that recaptures the acclaim and promise of his first best-seller. So he does what all desperate writers (and deal-finding homebuyers) do: he buys a house that’s recently been the scene of a horrific family murder. Oh, and he doesn’t tell his wife or kids about the house’s history. Charming, that.

The concept of Sinister reminded me of Insidiousa relatively recent horror film that I quite enjoyed – but after seeing the trailer of this film, the effectiveness of it is neutered. That’s why Sinister is the latest to join the halls of the Better than the Real Thing catalogue – where watching the trailer is better than watching the feature-length film. I would even go as far to say that had I not seen the trailer before seeing the film, it would still be a more frightening experience than the actual film itself. The actual movie may be creepier (that pesky 8mm footage creeping up again) but the trailer is scarier. Check it out below.

Better than the Real Thing: The Man From Nowhere

C'mon, you knew this line of dialogue had to happen.

I was expecting this to be a lot better than it was, but when it is essentially just a retread of the lacklustre Man on Fire, I should’ve known better. Of course, I thought a good rule of thumb was that all good movies come out of Korea, but alas, they have some duds of their own sometimes.

My problem with the film is I never got beyond the stage of “meh” with it. Girl and strange man are friends. Meh. Girl gets kidnapped by androgynous thugs after her drug-addict mother is killed. Eh. Strange man finds out that girl has been kidnapped and being an ex-super agent with incredible martial arts skills goes after the thugs to rescue the little one. Meh. Even the action sequences, which are interesting (there’s a good knife fight and some decent shootouts) are standard and never amount to “OMG you have to see this” recommendations. It’s all fairly rote and bland.

However, the trailer does a pretty good job of overcoming the actual film’s shortcomings and being a pretty action-packed two minutes (the sequence where the camera follows the protagonist as he jumps out the window is technically amazing shot) that entices people to see the film. I have to admit that I watched the trailer after I had seen the entire movie and I thought to myself: “the movie couldn’t have been that bad could it? Maybe I should see it again. This trailer definitely makes it look like something that would be up my alley.”

Now that’s the sign of an excellent trailer – when you’re pretty lukewarm about the movie but seeing its advertising makes you want to give it a second chance. Check it out below.

Better than the Real Thing: Machete

In the first twenty minutes of watching Machete I couldn’t believe that I had missed out on this movie in theatres. Deliciously over-the-top violence with Danny Trejo slicing through the heads of numerous thugs like butter, Steven Seagal as a scenery-chewing villain, and a naked woman who conjures a cellphone seemingly from nowhere? This is what grindhouse tributes should be like: pure fun.

But as the film continued, the awesome sight of Trejo being the ultimate Mexican badass becomes dulled as the movie continues to pile on sequences that upstage the last. Trejo slices a man’s arm off? Now watch as he fights another man while eating his breakfast! Trejo beds a woman? Now watch has he beds two…at the same time! Trejo taking on an entire army of bad guys with a machete not enough? Watch as he places a machine gun on a motorcycle and rains fire from the sky!

It’s cheesy, it’s awesome, but it’s a little too much. I find that if a film constantly bombards the audience with the same thing – whether it be thrilling action sequences, a car chase, or hand-to-hand kung fu battling – it tends to become monotonous, however exciting it is supposed to be. I had the same problem with The Matrix Reloaded, which had a plot that seemed to exist as an excuse for transporting Keanu Reeves from one fight scene to the next (the worst scene in my opinion was when Keanu is visiting The Oracle and her buddy Seraph has an impromptu fight scene with him to make sure that he is “The One.” He ends the scene with the most regrettable line in recent memory: “You never know someone until you fight them.” Plus The Matrix Reloaded was contractually obliged to have 50% more action than the first.)

Machete is a solid Saturday matinee (with beers, of course). Just know that when Machete kills his 100th assailant by slicing through his body, the gag gets a little tired. Check out the fake trailer below that inspired the creation of the film and watch the first twenty minutes of the movie, that’s enough to enjoy it.

Better than the Real Thing: Training Montages

The Best Part of the Rocky Movies. Or any movie, for that matter.

There’s something to be said about the training montage. It’s more entertaining than the actual event being trained for. Think about Rocky. The best (and most memorable) sequences are the training montages. Rocky working out in the Russian wilderness struggling to run in the waist-high snow, his triumphant jog up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the unforgettable scene in a meat packing plant where his punches break the ribs of hanging carcasses. And then the actual title events that he’s training for – his fights against Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago – are nowhere near as riveting as the scenes that led up to it. I prefer the preparations rather than the real thing.

Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is because I just saw the 1973 political thriller The Day of the Jackal starring Edward Fox as a mysterious and meticulous British assassin planning to kill French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle. Almost the entire film is spent following the Jackal as he gathers the proper materials for his mission: foreign (forged) passports, hair dye concealed in cologne bottles, and a custom made four-piece rifle with hollow point bullets. It’s incredible stuff, and what I really enjoyed was the pacing. It’s slow and deliberate – just like how the Jackal works. Watch this clip below as the Jackal buys watermelons from a fruit stand to do a little target practice and gun calibration.

There’s hardly any noise except for the calm tweets of birds in the background. The Jackal doesn’t speak, he just loads the bullets and fires, making adjustments as needed. But the scene communicates so much: the assassin’s coldly efficient demeanour, his meticulous preparations, and the real threat on de Gaulle’s life, symbolized by burst watermelon.

Unfortunately, the actual assassination attempt is nowhere near as interesting as this sequence (and The Jackal makes a miscalculation, which feels false based on his meticulous preparations). The training is where it’s at.

The penultimate training movie is The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Half the film is different training sequences in a Shaolin Temple. But like all training films, it doesn’t just stop there. I think it’s about time that a film did.

Like training sequences? Here’s six minutes from The 36th Chamber.

Any other good training sequences you can think of?