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.




Locke wonders: will the concrete be poured in time?

Every time I hear about a critically-acclaimed one person film, I always want to see it and I’m always inevitably disappointed. I just don’t have the patience (or it perhaps the attention span) to enjoy being stuck in a static location with another character for an hour and a half. It’s an interesting challenge, but it’s not cinematic. These ideas are better suited for radio plays (which I don’t think are produced very often anymore), especially considering the majority of these films involve the lead characters talking to someone else on a telephone. Alas, I always forget my own opinion and go to see these movies anyway, and it always reaffirms that these films don’t work (at least for me). Locke didn’t break that pattern.

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) receives a phone call and decides to take a pivotal car ride. By the end of the night, he will have lost his job, his family, and his reputation.

That’s a perfect synopsis. It’s interesting, there’s a mystery (how is Locke going to lose his job/family/reputation?), and we want to know where Locke is headed. Most of the reviews that I read prior to going to see the film suggested that Locke’s final destination isn’t revealed until late in the film, which colours the interpretation of everything that had passed beforehand. It’s a lie. Within the first twenty minutes we know where Locke is heading, why is heading there, why by heading there he will lose his family, and why he will lose his job because of this choice. That leaves an hour and ten minutes of movie to fill, and writer/director Steven Knight decides to fill it with conversations about concrete. Literally.

An honest synopsis of Locke would go as such:

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a construction foreman responsible for overseeing the largest concrete pour ever attempted in England to build the foundation of a large building. The night before the pour, Locke receives a phone call and makes a choice. By making that choice, he won’t be able to oversee the concrete pour the next day. How will the concrete get poured in time? Find out as Locke scrambles to call municipal officials to arrange for permits, asks a co-worker to cover for him (and explains what grade of concrete is required for the pour), and fields angry calls from his bosses! It’s a thrill a minute!

Maybe all the conversation about concrete is a metaphor for something. Perhaps like, because Locke isn’t able to oversee the pour, the building will be sitting on a BROKEN FOUNDATION – just like Locke’s life. I don’t know – but all the talk about concrete grades, maintenance, and construction work isn’t worth a lousy metaphor.

For a film set entirely in a car, Locke loses speed about a third of the way through and never recovers. Once the purpose of his trip and his destination are realized, there isn’t much left to say, and the actual journey to get there is about what you’d expect if you were riding shotgun with a construction foreman looking to skip work the next day.

Grade: D+



The Dark Knight Rises

It’s been a long eight years for Bruce Wayne.

Setting aside the cape and cowl after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce holes himself up in his mansion like a Howard Hughes recluse – complete with dishevelled appearance, patchy facial hair and questionable hygiene. Peacetime, while it may have been good for Gotham, has not been good for its hero. Funny that the only thing to bring Bruce out of his stupor is not his city, but a new threat: a mysterious terrorist known as Bane.

That’s about the end of my plot synopsis – to mention it otherwise reeks of redundancy, and there are many other (more well-written) reviews that can do a much better job of explaining it.

I think this was probably the weakest of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It doesn’t help that it came after The Dark Knight, which is arguably the perfect blockbuster for its adept balancing of pathos, spectacle, storyline, and intelligence – with the most charismatic screen villain in recent memory as a cherry on top. That being said, this is by no means a bad film. It’s actually quite good in fact – it’s just overshadowed by the brilliance of its predecessors.

What’s disappointing about The Dark Knight Rises is that it revisits the League of the Shadows – the villainous cabal from Batman Begins – villains that were more of an afterthought in the first film than an entire concept to build the trilogy around. What I mean by that is the first film used the League of Shadows as a stepping stone for Bruce Wayne to develop the skills needed to become Batman, and once that transformation was complete, they weren’t necessary anymore – thus their defeat in the first film. The Dark Knight had different ambitions – neglecting to mention the League of Shadows (at least to my recollection) and allowing the central villain of that film – the Joker – to survive for a sequel. The Joker was a villain to build the franchise around, the League of Shadows merely a placeholder for better things – but real life tragedy hampered the trilogy going in that direction.

Rises also suffers from unfocused storytelling, an overly complicated plot to destroy Gotham, and too many characters and comic references shoehorned into its bloated running time. But after watching this, I realized that any criticisms of the film are minor irritants – this may not be the perfect blockbuster, but this is the type of blockbuster audiences deserve. Nolan and co. may have overreached with this film, which lacks the consistency of the other two, but it’s still a satisfying and worthy conclusion to one of the best trilogys – blockbuster, superhero, or otherwise – to hit theatres. Summer movies don’t have to be dumb – and the success of Nolan’s Batman series proves that audiences aren’t dumb either. And that counts for something.

Grade: B+


By now, competent directors have no problem staging an exciting fight sequence – especially in the context of the bruised-and-battered underdog sports film. Just copy the action in Rocky. Or The Fighter.  Or The Karate Kid. What separates a competent entry into the genre from a exemplary one is the directing that happens outside the ring.

Warrior is a criminally overlooked film. It’s a critically acclaimed box office flop that failed to recoup its modest $25 million budget despite being an entry in a genre known for its popular appeal. The only explanation for its dismal performance can be attributed to one of two things: it’s really stretching its “underdog” label to the limits or moviegoers spent their eleven bucks to see robots duke it out instead (oops). In either case, it’s well worth a view and easily on my list of the best films of 2011.

At its heart, the film is about a broken family. Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is a current teacher, ex-fighter, and estranged son and brother. His father Paddy (Nick Nolte) is a recently reformed alcoholic, but his newfound religion and clean living doesn’t exactly endear him to Brendan or his other son, Iraq veteran Tommy (Tom Hardy). The shadow of an abusive and vicious upbringing still clings to the two brothers and makes them incapable of forgiving their father.

Fortuitous events lead both brothers to be selected as competitors in an elite MMA tournament called Sparta – a winner-take-all event with a five million dollar purse. Just guess which two fighters make it to the final round. While it may follow the predictable underdog arc, Warrior partly refreshes the tired formula by providing not one, but two protagonists that equally deserve to be victorious.

To say that the invigorating fight scenes are the weakest part of the movie is to attest to how strong of a film this is. Brilliantly shot and choreographed, the camera weaves around the bruised and battered fighters as they slug it out in the octagon with vicious intensity. I especially liked the brutally efficient fight scenes with Tommy as he takes down his opponents like a rabid dog. But it’s the scenes in between the fights – Tommy and Brendan having a tense talk on the beach after a bitter estrangement, Paddy trying to reconcile with his two sons and failing – that are the standouts of the film and elevate it from a fairly typical and predictable sports drama to something more.

If there was any justice in awards season, Nick Nolte would win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for his performance in this movie. He won’t (Christopher Plummer will – mark it down on your Oscar pool), but it’s  a muted and understated performance that is the best I’ve seen this year. There’s a scene after Nolte has had a fight with Tommy that mostly consists of his character quoting Moby Dick that is heartbreaking. Even though he’s just a supporting character, Nolte is the emotional centre of the film.

The biggest weakness (in my opinion) is the ending of Warrior. While it is thematically necessary for the film’s twin themes of forgiveness and redemption, it’s a scene that stretches the believability of the narrative and strains the story’s credibility. That being said, it is the only dramatically satisfying way to end the film, so this may be a moot point.

With an incredible performance by Nolte, a tried-and-true formula with enough of a twist to make it feel fresh, and great fight scenes, Warrior is well worth your time.

Grade: A 

Shooting fish in a barrel: Award Movies of 2011

It’s about that time again – the lead-up to awards season when all the best movies of the year come out. And it’s fairly easy to predict which films will be nominees, much like its easy to predict what summer movies will top the box office (i.e. Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, the last Harry Potter). Below is what I think will be the films that will be talked about ad nauseum in the coming months (and they may be talked about ad nauseum here too).

The Ides of March

It’s a political film (just in time for the 2012 election) so it’s timely. It stars George Clooney (who did double-duty directing as well), Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, etc. This one, I’m predicting, will be nominated in a lot of categories.

The Skin I Live In

Expect this one to be nominated for Best Foreign Language film, and while that category is always tricky to predict who will be the winner, renowned director Pedro Almodovar is known for his well-recieved films (the four films he’s shown at Cannes, including this one, have all be nominated for the Palme d’Or).

Margin Call

It’s about the financial crisis and it stars Kevin Spacey. It’s a shoe-in.

My Week with Marilyn

May not garner nominations for the bigger awards, but I expect Michelle Williams will be nominated as Best Actress for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.

J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood. Leonardo DiCaprio. Biopic. Well, this one will be nominated for everything.

The Descendants

Another George Clooney movie – this time from a favorite director of mine – Alexander Payne. The brains behind Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, Payne has never made a bad movie. While it might not garner many nominations, at least a nod in the writing (or directing) categories would be nice.

A Dangerous Method

A David Cronenberg period drama about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Exploding heads are doubtful, but award nominations (Best Actor, Best Supporting) are a sure bet.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Based on a John le Carre novel (Best Adapted Screenplay nom – check) starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and John Hurt (Best Supporting/Best Actor nominations in there somewhere) and a spy thriller plot. Probably a Best Picture nomination too – it has a good title.

Young Adult

It’s by Jason Reitman – who has directed four films with three of them being nominated for Best Picture. I think it’s safe to say he’ll be continuing the streak with this one, and Charlize Theron may just end up being nominated for Best Actress again.

The Iron Lady

The Weinstein Company always picks films that are often heavily-nominated and go on to win the big prize (The King’s Speech). This year round it’s Meryl Streep (Best Actress nomination- another notch on her belt) as Margaret Thatcher. Best Screenplay and Picture nominations? I would think so.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Tom Hanks stars in this adaptation of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel regarding a little boy’s attempts to come to terms with his father’s death on September 11th. Best Picture nominee? It could be a contender.

I also think Drive (Best Original Score nomination – I hope so) and Contagion (maybe a nod to director Steven Soderbergh?) could have a spattering of nominations as well. Just none of the big awards. Those are saved for the films mentioned above.

My predictions for Best Picture Nominees:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Ides of March

Young Adult

The Iron Lady

A Dangerous Method

J. Edgar

And if last year’s winner is anything to judge by, this year’s winner will be a film that takes place in the past, is rather stuffy and has a muted, dreary set design, generates an inordinate amount of buzz during awards season, and then is never spoken, nor thought about ever again. So, The Iron Lady will win Best Picture.