Movie Review: “The Revenant” (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, USA 2015)

“‘Tis unnatural
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.
And Duncan’s horses–a thing most strange and certain–
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would
Make war with mankind
‘Tis said they eat each other.
They did so, to th’ amazement of mine eyes
That looked upon ‘t.”
Macbeth Act II, Scene iv

Such is the response of nature to Macbeth’s sin against it in murdering his king. In Shakespeare, nature is often responding to man’s actions. In this case, killing a king who rules by divine right was such an unnatural action that nature responded with unnaturally powerful storms and a series of odd violent actions by non-human animals. This idea of the interconnectedness of nature with man’s actions permeates The Revenant, a Shakespearean revenge drama as bloody, obvious, and tense as Titus Andronicus. Continue reading

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Movie Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road” (George Miller, Australia/USA 2015)

Back in the early to mid 1970s, a crop of young directors appeared in a government program intended to revitalize Australia’s film industry that had languished since World War II. They were dubbed the Australian New Wave. The program worked, because it found a series of directors highlighted by George Miller, Nicholas Roeg and Peter Weir–directors who found both commercial and critical acclaim. Weir produced a stream of films that received little notice beyond the most highbrow Australian film critics, then broke out with The Cars that Ate Paris (Peter Weir, Australia 1975) (Note: This film has since been retitled The Cars that Eat People, but The Cars that Ate Paris is its original title.), a horror film about a small town that crashes visitors’ cars in order to sell the parts. Weir skyrocketed from that point on and by the dawn of the next decade, he was a critical darling who was about to cross over to the United States and release a string of fantastic, successful films. But probably the most popular film anyone in the Australian New Wave was Miller’s first feature, Mad Max (Australia 1979). Miller took some of the same images and ideas from Weir’s first success and took them to their logical extreme, producing a film about a sort of steampunk desert dystopia where water and gasoline are the world’s most precious resources. His film was a naked revenge fantasy intended to allow him to show off the world he had come up with, a world that shared more than a little with the town of Paris in Weir’s earlier film.

36 years later, Weir is cemented as one of the best directors in modern cinema history, so successful that he can make whatever film he wants and no one really cares whether it has any likelihood of commercial success. Miller, meanwhile, has made a relatively small number of films and some have not been well-received by critics, but every single one has been an incredible commercial success. And so, he’s still continuing his Mad Max saga. After the first film, he made a sequel that was just as much a remake as a true continuation in Mad Max 2 (Australia 1982) (Note: This film was released as The Road Warrior in the US, because Mad Max had not received much, if any, release in the US, but Mad Max 2 is actually the original title.), reveling in the ability to show off the world he had created with a large enough budget not to constrain his imagination. Then he made part of another film before turning it over to another director who turned it into something closer to an addition to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (UK/USA 1981) before allowing the series to rest for nearly three decades. Still, he has maintained control of this series for so long that it’s impressive, regardless of the quality of the films. Continue reading

Movie Review: “The Drop” (Michaël R. Roskam, USA 2014)

Dennis Lehane once wrote a good book that became a great movie in Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA 2010). Some authors have a tendency to translate well (James M. Cain) or poorly (John le Carré) to film because of particular qualities about how they write. Cain’s repetitious, circular plots and relatively simple characters did not lose as much in translation as most novels. Le Carré’s deep, intricately complex plots are confusing when cut to the ribbons required for film length. Most authors do not have any such tendency, though. The directors and other moviemaking talent involved are far more important than the author of the source material, and that’s obvious from the fact that most authors’ works do not tend to work or fail in film form.

However, Lehane’s noir tendencies and willingness to examine psychological depths made me think that his work would produce at least films that I would enjoy even if they weren’t all that high quality. Film noir is, after all, my single favorite film genre and I was a psychology major.

The Drop has a complex plot. Bob is a poor bartender who finds a dog in a trash can on his way home and cleans him up with the help of the woman who lives where he found the dog. Unsurprisingly, she turns out to be a gorgeous woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) and generally great person and they of course start a slow romance over the dog. Meanwhile, Bob’s boss, Marv, the former owner of the bar who now apparently acts as a manager and face thereof, has a complicated plot in place to rob the Chechen mobsters who use the bar as one of many in a ring of “drop bars,” locations where they hide their dirty money for random days so that the money cannot be found. Then a local hoodlum named Eric Deeds shows up claiming that it’s his dog and threatening Bob and Nadia, mentioning how he murdered a local loser named Richie Whelan years ago. Eventually, Deeds gets pulled into Marv’s plan and has to rob Bob, and we get a telegraphed “surprise” ending that reveals that Bob is a stone-cold psychopath but also continues Bob and Nadia’s relationship.

However, oddly, I spent the entire film thinking that I wanted to avoid the entire crime plot and just watch the love story between Bob and Nadia. The film didn’t have a lot of surprises anyway, but that plot was so obvious that it was almost laughable. Nonetheless, Lehane and Roskam show a nice understanding of narrative structure and characterization and they subtly build the characters and their relationship well over time. They allow the relationship to grow organically and even without any real surprises it works well. Meanwhile, the entire crime story is not just obvious but has none of the depth and thoughtfulness that the love story has. The crime plot is too impressed with Marv stealing an idea from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, USA 1969) to bother with any depth.

And most unforgivably, this film has absolutely no controlling point. It’s a messy plot that seems to have been written by creating some characters and then just putting them in a big city dive bar. That’s a decent way to write a story, but it’s not at all a way to make a film.

Visually, Roskam and cinematographer Nikolas Karakatsanis provide little. The film has no hint of any visual imagination and frankly is a bit of a mess, with some oddly fuzzy, grainy picture with some regularity that makes it look almost amateurish. Since those scenes are always scenes involving Marv’s plot, I suspect that it was somehow because of issues resulting from James Gandolfini’s death, but they were still noticeable and not good.

The acting is quite uneven throughout the film. Noomi Rapace is emblematic of the problems, performing some scenes wonderfully and others not so well. Sometimes, she seems to be playing something completely unrelated to what the script is saying. Since she has been so amazing before, I’m tempted to blame the production, but the unevenness is still there. Tom Hardy, in nearly every scene of the film, is so wooden as to be comical, but in the end it makes some sense, since Bob is a psychopath. James Gandolfini does what he always does–he seems in charge of every scene but doesn’t really act. He’s not bad so much as he just doesn’t do much. Matthias Schoenaerts is meanwhile just awful, playing a complete lunatic but apparently playing his lunacy by never actually doing anything that makes any sense.

This film is really not good. It’s an overcomplicated, messy plot that has some interesting characters but doesn’t know what to do with them. It’s a shame, because there are some good points, and I really think there could have been a good film here by just telling a love story between a couple of emotionally unavailable people, but the film we end up with is nearly a disaster.