Today’s first topic is that infernal Oscars controversy and then I’ll get on with my thoughts on the latest Iñárritu. Sound good? Alright.
Y’all should know by now that the Oscars are run by a group of middle-aged white men who tend to hand off awards to a specific type of movie [vanilla, slightly trendy period drama or ham-handed message movie about the environment/war/poverty/racism/mental illness/cultural malaise] and are as willing to change their ways as the modern Republican party. Is it any surprise these people are nominating prominently Caucasians instead of more than worthy people of color?
In the previous 25 Oscar ceremonies, Best Picture has gone to a movie prominently featuring non-whites only 3.5 times*. I count Dances with Wolves as half, since it is still primarily this guy’s movie:
In defense of the current nominations, I will say this. I’ve seen a fair majority of the nominees and can’t fault the choices for the most part. That is not to say there is not room for improvement. On the contrary, I spotted a few spaces where the Academy stooped to the lazy nomination choice, for example Eddie Redmayne for that abomination The Danish Girl took a place that could, And Should, have been occupied by Michael B. Jordan for CREED. In addition, Ryan Coogler should have gotten a director nod for said film in place of Iñárritu, who already won last year for a slightly better film, plus Benicio del Toro should have easily secured a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his devastating turn in SICARIO.
Other than that, a lot of the people of color performances just couldn’t top what was chosen. I love Idris Elba as much as the next person, and I appreciated his role in Netflix’s flagship title Beasts of No Nation, but I can’t say he’d have been a better choice than Benicio or Mark Ruffalo’s turn in Spotlight, or Tom Hardy. The only one Elba had a chance to overcome was Christian Bale, who I feel was put on a pedestal above Steve Carell’s equally, if not more, compelling performance in The Big Short. Other than that, Straight Outta Compton was exceptional, and had a surprisingly good cast, but it would not have been on my personal list for Best Picture, and no one from the cast truly stood out. That is not to say the acting was lacking, far from it. But the strength in the performances was in the sense of ensemble that came about whenever they were together on screen. At least I would have considered the movie, unlike what AMPAS did.
In conclusion, there are issues with both sides of the issue. If you want to read some additional rebuttals I feel are worth sharing, The Rebel did a fine piece examining the Academy voters and their vision. And the Academy recently announced a few changes they are making to their populace in order to save face…by 2020.
I am now stepping down from my soapbox; we now return to your regularly scheduled movie criticism.
The Revenant is a good movie. I will not dispute its worth as a piece of entertainment to be viewed au cinema. It is a frustrating, self-importance-touting, frontier art-house flick that, at the end of the day, I feel deserves to be nominated as one of the 10 (8 *cough*) Best Pictures of the Year. But, it does not deserve to win anything.
What’s it all about, you ask?
Hugh Glass and his half-breed son are tagging along with a crew of frontiersman transporting furs, when suddenly a troupe of renegade Arikawa tribesman attack the men and send them fleeing down the river with massive casualties. Fitzgerald, one of the brigands whose sole livelihood was the abandoned furs, takes out his frustrations on Glass, causing tension to fill the group. While hunting further in the wilderness, Glass is viciously set upon by a mother grizzly, in one of the most anxiety-inducing action scenes of 2015. Afterwards, Glass is laid up and left in Fitzgerald’s care until he either regains his strength or dies and is buried.
But the treacherous brigand tries smothering Glass, is caught by Glass’ half-breed son, and dispatches the boy so as to wipe all evidence of his wrongdoing away, escaping to a fort to claim his rewards for “doing what had to be done”. But Glass is still quite alive, and now thirsts for revenge. He limps his way through the wilds of frontier-era territories to find retribution as well as civilization, dodging the renegade tribe after his fellow crew, and struggling to heal his wounds and survive long enough to confront his nemesis before nature claims him as well.
Let’s talk the look of the film as a whole: People get messed up, a lot. Arrows fly, men’s faces are bloodied in the worst of ways, people on horseback fly off cliff sides, Glass has to treat a horse like that poor Tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back, he eats raw buffalo liver, it all gets pretty intense. The film looks great, in all its brutal glory. This is to be expected; it’s shot by now 8-time Academy Award-nominee and 2-time winner Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, who shot both G R A V I T Y and last year’s Best Picture BiRDMAN. Here’s the thing though, the entire movie reminded me of another very flawed, visually epic film adaptation: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth.
Now, those of you who read my things will know that I mentioned that film as one to look out for come its release sometime in December. Welp, I saw it, and here’s one of the problems with both movies: Both films are filled to the brim with “trailer fuel”, shots that look amazing and will look great in the trailer for the film. But the whole film just screams “Look at me, I’m so interesting and pretty” and the audience tiredly nods like parents with over-excited children.
I feel most film should be like a good meal. The meat should be hearty and excellent, that is here. Every single shot is the photographic equivalent of a blue-ribbon slice of filet mignon. But, everything in the movie is a perfect shot, and I love filet mignon, but I can’t make a whole meal out of piece after piece of filet mignon. I need a side dish, one that’s not filet mignon. My champagne glass should not be filled to the brim with steak juice is what I am saying.
Onto the little director that could: Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu. He proved last year he was a visionary, with wit, charm, and a limit to his pretense that made The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance a neat treat of narrative and visual flair that was certainly worthy of a nomination for Best Picture.
Here’s the rub: He thinks too much. Seriously, there could be a good 20-25 minutes cut out of this movie for the sake of making it less pretentious and slightly more palatable. I hold no issue with the brutal nature of the violence or things that happen to Glass and his fellow frontiersman. I hold issue with the fact that there can be small cuts made here and there to keep the flow going, narratively. The Pirates of the Caribbean series also has this issue. The director refuses to sacrifice a frame of their vision and it can be aggravatingly slow-paced.
This does not mean Alejandro doesn’t know what he is doing. I can see what Alejandro is going for, after all one of my all-time favorite flicks is Lawrence of Arabia. That film was later described by one of its stars as “four hours long…no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert”. I can appreciate his efforts, but he ends just short of the mark. Please don’t give him another Oscar simply because he made something that looks nice.
^Long story short: The Man Won His Oscar Last Year. Give it to Georgie.
Oh, Leo. You under-appreciated over-achiever, you. I appreciate all you’ve done over the years to entertain us. Catch Me if You Can is still a delightful romp of fun and intrigue, The Aviator showed your acting chops just right, Inception gave you a little something different that still had strengths for you to flex, and Django Unchained was psychotic fun from the moment you arrived onscreen. I truly appreciate your breadth of work.
My problem is not what Leo does in this movie. It’s what he doesn’t do. The character is two-note: Cautious Experienced Hunter & Revenge-seeking Revenant. He screams occasionally, like when he’s attacked by the bear, or when he finally confronts his adversary at the tail end of his journey. But in between those bursts, he is stuck with this comical scowl on his face that is supposed to stand in for emotion as he treks through the wilds of the American frontier for the sake of REVENGE.
At times, he will dream of his dead wife and his recently-deceased son, then he looks sad for a moment’s time. Then he wakes and he keeps on trekking, scowl plastered back on his face. There is no defined range that we saw in the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street or the under-appreciated grindhouse throwback Shutter Island. We’ve come to expect a range of things from this actor, and the film hobbles him by limiting him. That is wasting your talent. Not as in Leo is wasting it, but the film is wasting the talents of a gifted performer.
Now I expect a fair amount of backlash over my feelings on Leo along the lines of, “But you loved Tom Hardy’s rugged mug in FURY ROAD, and he spends most of that movie looking desperate and grunting every few minutes. You hypocrite!”
But, with Mad Max FURY ROAD, we have a franchise backlog of 3 other movies that contain Max’s backstory and experience to reference, and even with that the movie does a good job of catching us up without clunky exposition. Mel Gibson wasn’t exactly the most expressive Rockatansky after the first Mad Max. Tom Hardy did well carrying the torch as previous.
Speaking of Tom Hardy’s rugged mug, much like the similarly troubled H8ful Eight, this movie does have its share of excellent attributes. The cinematography, as noted, is par for the celebrated course. The cast is really good, with Tom Hardy providing a great character in Glass’ nemesis Fitzgerald, with a hefty swagger and true grit in acting that shows him as worthy of a Supporting Actor nomination, having been snubbed for previously excellent work in the likes of The Drop and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson. Also of note is Actor of the Year, Domhnall Gleeson, as the expedition leader who pulls a few bad-ass moments out of his brief screen time. Keep your eyes peeled for Grand Rapids native Joshua Burge as an expedition member. The music is properly ethereal and never takes audiences out of the moments onscreen.
People and critics keep heaping praise on this work, citing how “it was such a difficult film to shoot”, “Leo had to eat bison liver raw, and he’s vegan”. Well, this is what happens when the director and ‘Chivo’ decide the film needs to be shot using only natural light, limiting their locations and schedule as per. I don’t know what to say about Leo’s life choices, but he signed on to make the movie. He knew what the hardships would be. He’s a big boy. He’ll survive.
In terms of difficult films to make, George Miller started pre-production on FURY ROAD in 2000. He spent nearly a dozen years location scouting, raising money for the production by making the Happy Feet films for the big studios, recasting when delays set in due to lack of funds, and designing props, vehicles, costumes with his crew. FURY ROAD was finally shot in 2012 and released to cinemas just last year.
Alejandro and His Films Do Not Need Defending. He Has Already Won Big. Long Live George Miller!
Overall, The Revenant is a good one. I think it is definitely worth seeing in the theater and ruminating over afterwards with friends by a fireplace, over a glass of Jack Daniels, neat. I will insist however that it is not the Best Picture of the Year. It is flawed, it is portentous, it is twenty-five-odd minutes of frontier action inflated with over two hours of artsy imagery. And I do hope Leo is finally rewarded, so he can relax for a few years before he decides he needs another Oscar. I wish they’d give it to Michael Fassbender or Bryan Cranston who had better performances overall, but I will be satisfied if they give it to Leo just so he can stop scowling at us.