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Review – The Revenant (15) [2016]

The Revenant - title banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Alejandro Iñárritu – 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, Birdman

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Carsten Nicolai
  • Ryuichi Sakamoto – The Last Emperor, Snake Eyes

With the awards season under way and, in particular, with the OSCARs coming up, one invariably asks: what does it take to win the most prestigious award in the film industry? An exceptional performance is unquestionably a prerequisite. But what differentiates one exceptional performance from another? Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant gives a compelling answer.

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) being mauled by a bear during the expedition.

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) being mauled by a bear during the expedition.

The Revenant is (loosely) inspired by the real-life story of Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). While on a hunting expedition in midwest America in the 1820s, Glass is mauled by a bear. Injured and, after having watched the murder of his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Glass is left for dead by his fellow expeditioners. Thirsty for revenge, Glass treks through the wilderness to get back to his base to seek his vengeance.

The Revenant is an astonishing tale of survival. The film cuts no corners and shows mother-nature in all her brutal severity. From the grisly effects of an attack by a wild animal, to putting men in situations wherein their worst personality traits thrive, to fearsome wintry weather, to harsh and seemingly endless terrain, to hunting for food without strength, The Revenant makes one suffer and tests a one’s endurance to the limit.

Certainly, our central protagonist, Hugh Glass/Leonardo Dicaprio, is tested to the limit and made to suffer. He suffers unimaginable physical and emotional pain throughout the movie, and it is for this that DiCaprio is the front-runner to win the OSCAR for Best Actor in a Leading Role. If there is a formula to win an OSCAR, it is that an actor/actress must suffer. In 2011, Natalie Portman, Colin Firth and Christian Bale won their respective OSCARs by suffering; in 2013, Anne Hathaway won hers for suffering; and, in 2014, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won their OSCARs for the same reason in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Now that DiCaprio has (sufficiently) suffered, he will almost certainly win his first OSCAR; especially, as he has suffered years of being over-looked (Saving Gilbert Grapes, The Aviator, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street to name but five), and because none of his rivals for the fabled prize (Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Matt Damon and Eddie Redmayne) appear to have suffered much (if at all) in their respective roles, despite their respective performances.

John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), on the expedition with Hugh Glass.

John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), on the expedition with Hugh Glass.

DiCaprio undoubtedly suffers considerably in his role in The Revenant and will deserve his OSCAR if he wins it. Ironically, though, he is outshone by his co-star Tom Hardy; yet, it is not a given that Hardy will win the OSCAR for the Best Supporting Actor. Hardy, as John Fitzgerald, has a much meatier role than DiCaprio. DiCaprio spends much of his screen-time grunting, walking, falling or crawling (oh, and surviving); while Hardy devours the screen with his (incomprehensible) southern accent and his amoral nature. Even if one disagrees with Fitzgerald’s sociopathy, one can understand why he behaves in the manner he does under the circumstances. This is testament to Hardy’s ability to convey Fitzgerald as a human being. Whether it will be enough for Hardy to win the OSCAR, though, is another matter.

DiCaprio and Hardy are not the only ones nominated for OSCARs for this film. Director Alejandro Iñárritu has been nominated in the Best Director category. No-one will argue if he wins that OSCAR for the second year running, following Birdman. The directing in The Revenant is spectacular. The opening melee is filmed so well, viewers feel part of the skirmish. Similarly, the way the bear attack is shot is so well (and raw) it induces tension into the audience; plus, the way the landscapes and the north American winter are captured, shows their beauty and brutality in equal measure (even if the filming was done in Canada and Argentina).

Glass trekking through the stunning (and unforgiving) terrain in order to make it back to base and get his revenge.

Glass trekking through the stunning (and unforgiving) terrain in order to make it back to base and get his revenge.

Nevertheless, the fact that one spends much of The Revenant admiring the cinematography highlights one of its problems. One, the film is not particularly engaging. It lacks humour and a character to root for (or against). Two, at 156 minutes, it is a long movie. Maybe that is the film’s point: to make audiences feel as if they are trekking across the endless wilderness with Glass/DiCaprio. If so, it succeeds. But the movie also makes for tedious and repetitive viewing.

Over-all, The Revenant is a masterfully-designed examination of endurance. It may not be the most enjoyable film to sit through. Yet, the acting, the directing and the cinematography are outstanding and worth the watch in and of themselves. They give one a true appreciation for how tough it must be to survive the harshest of conditions, and hints at the types of characters required to survive them. Seeing actors/actresses go through such conditions and suffering is what sways OSCAR judges into handing out the much-coveted award. Leonardo DiCaprio: you have suffered; you have earned your OSCAR.

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Review – The Wolf of Wall Street (18) [2014]

The Wolf of Wall Street - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Martin Scorsese – Goodfellas, The Departed, Shutter Island, Sinatra

Cast:

  • Leonardo DiCaprio – Titanic, The Departed, Inception, The Revenant
  • Jonah Hill – Superbad, Moneyball, 21 & 22 Jump Street
  • Margot Robbie – Neighbours, About Time, Focus, The Big Short
  • Matthew McConaughey – Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Lincoln Lawyer, MudInterstellar
  • Jean Dujardin – The Clink of Ice, A View of Love, The Artist, The Monuments Men
  • Kyle Chandler – King Kong, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Zero Dark Thirty, Carol
  • Rob Reiner – Sleepless In Seattle, Mad Dog Time, New Girl
  • Joanna Lumley – James And The Giant Peach, Ella Enchanted, Corpse Bride, Squirrels To The Nuts
  • Cristin Milioti – The Sopranos, I Am Ben, How I Met Your Mother, The Occupants
  • Jon Bernthal – Fury
  • Stephen Kunken – Still Alice
  • PJ Byrne – The Gift

Since the financial collapse in the autumn of 2007, there has been almost universal contempt, if not outright hatred for bankers, stockbrokers and anyone involved in high-risk finance-related jobs. The vitriol aimed at such people, as they have taken home huge paycheques and bonuses, has resulted in greater financial regulations. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street illustrates through Jordan Belfort how crooked the financial system can be without such regulations.

Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) advising the unknowing Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) on what one has to do to thrive in the industry.

Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) advising the unknowing Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) on what one has to do to thrive in the industry.

The film is based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, the titular character of the movie, and the book written by Belfort while he was in prison. The movie begins with the young, ambitious Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) getting a job as a stockbroker at Rothschild in the late 1980s. Shortly after joining the bank, his boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), takes him for lunch and gives him some (un-)sage advice in how to survive in the industry.

Skip forward a few years, and Jordan has founded his own stockbroking company, Stratton Oakmont, with his friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). But Belfort has also taken on board all that his former boss once told him, and lives the fast-life snorting cocaine, paying prostitutes for all kinds of sex, and making fortunes… until the authorities start chasing him and his company for their criminal wrongdoings.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an energetic, chauvinistic and engaging film. Despite its three-hour running time, the movie does not drag, which is extraordinary considering its length, the amount of swearing, and the vulgarity of the central characters involved, chiefly the Wolf, himself.

Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant as the dishonest Belfort. DiCaprio’s character brings to mind another corrupt financier: the fictional Gordon Gekko of Wall Street (who Belfort claimed was his inspiration). But while Gekko enjoyed the banking industry and making money for money’s sake, Belfort made money to live up the fast-life, and DiCaprio’s eccentric performance demonstrates this. For the vast majority of the film, DiCaprio has his foot on the accelerator, unable to slow down his obsessive greed for more money, drugs, cars, yachts and prostitutes (no wonder DiCaprio needed a break from acting after this).

A drugged-up Belfort having some non-work related fun with his equally drugged-up friend and business partner, Donnie (Jonah Hill).

A drugged-up Belfort having some non-work related fun with his equally drugged-up friend and business partner, Donnie (Jonah Hill).

Yet, for all his (many) flaws, DiCaprio’s character at least has some redeeming qualities; notably, loyalty to his friends. The same, however, cannot be said for Belfort’s repulsive friend Donnie, played by Jonah Hill. Hill’s character is Hill’s archetypal type-cast, since Donnie is foul mannered, foul speaking, grob, misogynistic, and without a compensatory feature in his bones. Hill has seemingly spent his whole career (with the exception of his excellent performance in Moneyball) playing roles that have been building up to this one in The Wolf of Wall Street since the crass and juvenile Superbad was released in 2007. It is no surprise, therefore, that Hill metamorphosis’s into Donnie with gusto and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Hill’s talents do not mean one can empathise with the disgusting Donnie as a person.

Viewers may, to a much lesser extent, have a similar problem finding a way into Jordan’s wife, Naomi, played well enough by the strikingly attractive Margot Robbie. The Australian Robbie puts on a faultless Brooklyn accent to her credit, but that is the most noteworthy part of her performance (other than her physical beauty) because her role in The Wolf of Wall Street is not taxing. She mainly has to be Belfort’s eye-candy plaything, and her mercenary nature ensures that audiences feel increasingly less empathic towards her whilst Jordan messes about with prostitutes. Still, Robbie does a decent job with what she is given.

Where the film falls is on its moral stance towards Belfort’s practices. It is one thing if the film maturely takes a neutral stance on a subject-matter, as Zero Dark Thirty and Prisoners did on the matter of whether torturing suspects is ever permissible under certain circumstances. But by Scorsese failing to show the effects that Belfort’s unlawful schemes had on his victims, The Wolf of Wall Street unintentionally glorifies Belfort.

Three of the many instances of the stunning Naomi Belfort (Margot Robbie). What would possess a man to pay for prostitutes if he has her to come home to?

Three of the many instances of the stunning Naomi Belfort (Margot Robbie). What would possess a man to pay for prostitutes if he has her to come home to?

In addition, Scorsese’s style of directing is ill-disciplined. At times, the movie relays events in chronological order; at other times, we see flashbacks; at other times, we hear Belfort’s and other characters’ thoughts; at other times, the film is an advert for Belfort with him speaking directly into the camera; and at other times, we see events through Belfort’s eyes, rather than how they really were (which can be remarkably and hilariously different). The result of this inconsistent approach is that one leaves the film unsure as to what Scorsese wanted to achieve.

Over-all, The Wolf of Wall Street is a fantastic and enjoyable film, despite the rampant misogyny and the repugnant characters one endures for three hours. At the centre of it all is the immoral Jordan Belfort, who is played with great vigour and charisma by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film has its flaws in the directing and the stance it takes towards Belfort. Nevertheless, The Wolf of Wall Street demonstrates that people like Belfort, with his life of drugs, debauchery and fraudulent practices, are the reason for why banks, stockbroking agencies and the financial sector in general needed the regulations that are now in force. Now, future-Belforts will be prevented from repeating the Wolf’s ways and that is a positive.

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Review – Titanic 3D (12a) [2012; originally released in 1997]

Star Rating: 4/5

A century has passed since the White Star Line’s ‘unsinkable’ Titanic sank on her maiden voyage, taking down 1,503 souls with her to the watery abyss. It was a tragedy, but one that still fascinates people for so many reasons. The absorbing 1997 film, re-released in 3D for the centenary of the disaster, embodies why this is the case.

Titanic’s bow at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Looks little more than a ghost ship now, with rusticles giving it an eerie feel.

Titanic centres round two central characters who board the ship as it takes off from Southampton for New York in April 1912. Rose (when old, played by Gloria Stuart; when young, played by Kate Winslet – Revolutionary Road, Contagion, Steve Jobs) is the daughter of a bankrupt aristocrat and is travelling in the luxuries of first-class. Against Rose’s will, her mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher – The Roommate, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Silent Thief), has set her up to marry Caledon ‘Cal’ Hockley (Billy Zane – Back to the Future I-II, The Roommate, The Employer), a wealthy businessman, to relieve the family of their crippling debts.

Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio – Revolutionary Road, Inception, The Wolf of Wall Street), on the other hand, is a dirt-poor artist journeying in third-class. After spending time in a variety of European cities, he is returning to America for a better life.

Whilst on the decks, Jack spots Rose on the higher levels and is instantly taken by her beauty. Yet, it is not until Rose is on the verge of jumping off the vessel’s stern that they meet. Jack urges her not to plunge to her death in the freezing waters and she follows his advice.

Subsequently, much to the envy of Cal, love blossoms between Jack and Rose… Until a cold, cloudless night when Titanic, running at full steam, strikes an iceberg.

For a film that is predominantly about a love story, Titanic is surprisingly gripping and abetted by a powerful music score, written by James Horner. Astonishingly, the film does not feel like it’s three hours and fifteen minutes long, since director/producer James Cameron (Alien, Avatar I-II, Sanctum) uses the time cleverly.

Cal (Billy Zane) and Ruth (Frances Fisher) reluctantly welcome Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) to dinner in the glorious, first-class dining hall. Rose (Kate Winslet) accompanies him, drawing the ire of her fiancé and mother.

For the two hours or so before Titanic suffers its fatal wound, Cameron ensures viewers believe the false sense of security that passengers undoubtedly felt aboard the ‘unsinkable’ ship (even though audiences know the ship’s doomed fate), and gives the characters a (clichéd) 1912-societal role, depth and humour to maintain one’s interest.

Moreover, Cameron makes the vessel hit the iceberg with (approximately) an hour and a half to go. With Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber – Legally Blonde, Milk, Argo) stating that Titanic has less than two hours afloat, it feels like one watches the ship keel in real time, instead of in a quick, artificial manner. This not only means viewers can realise the anarchy that gripped the ship as she went under; it enables one to appreciate the heroics of individuals on the night, such as the officers who sent out distress signals until Titanic’s power failed, and the life-boat stewards, like William Murdoch (who has been incorrectly portrayed as a murderer by Cameron) and Harold Lowe (Ioan Gruffudd – Fantastic I-II, Sanctum, Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box), who lowered as many boats and got as many people into them as possible, amidst the chaos.

And because Cameron has so much time, he also properly shows us the cowardice of others, like Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde – The Mummy, The Tailor of Panama, Spooks), who wanted headlines so badly he imperilled the ship he named (ironically immortalising Titanic), and Edward J. Smith (Bernard Hill – The Lord of the Rings II-III, Valkyrie, Paranorm), the reckless and dithering captain, who at least had the dignity to go down with the vessel.

On the whole, the actors play their parts well, particularly Kate Winslet (even though she recently came out saying that her acting could have been better and she has a point), Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Billy Zane and Kathy Bates (Misery, Midnight In Paris, Starbright), as the ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown.

However, the cast’s performances are often undermined by risible dialogue. The worst offender, by a distance, is Leonardo DiCaprio. (Not that Winslet does herself much credit by shrieking “Jack” frequently.) DiCaprio’s ability to spew out contrived lines in a desperate voice is almost an embarrassment to the victims of the disaster.

Dialogue may not be one of Cameron’s specialities (Avatar illustrated that), but as a director he cannot be questioned. The impeccable way Titanic has been filmed and flows are testimony to this. That the movie’s set is huge and that one hardly notices the numerous special effects give clout to this (apart from a couple of poor CGI shots of the bow’s nose).

After sounding like a wounded animal as water flooded the bow and lower levels, the weight of the ship’s stern finally takes its toll on the vessel, breaking it in two.

Alas, the 3D does not effectively aid the film. It is not that effort hasn’t been put in. Rather, Titanic is not the type of film wherein the 3D can enhance scenes much, other than when people are falling from the stern as the giant propellers rise monstrously from the water.

All-in-all, Titanic is an enchanting film that gives us a window into a by-gone era. The film brilliantly details many of the complexities of early-twentieth century society, with moving music and special effects that are as magnificent as the ship that left Southampton. But the movie also does the tragedy justice, pointing out the valour of some and the pusillanimity of others. This is why the fate of the ‘unsinkable’ ship will forever have the power to captivate.

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Review – Take Shelter (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Often, when it comes to a descent into insanity, one is clueless that he/she is no longer behaving in a ‘normal’ way (whatever that means); it is only those around the ‘crazy’ individual that are aware of his/her madness. This is apparent in films like Shutter Island and Black Swan. The drama Take Shelter, despite being lame in comparison to those aforementioned movies, deals interestingly with the opposite.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) looking at some dark storm clouds with concern. This is what convinces him to build a storm shelter, even if he cannot afford it.

Based in a small town in Ohio, Curtis (Michael Shannon – Vanilla Sky, Machine Gun Preacher, Man of Steel), a man in his middle-thirties, is a construction-site worker. He may live in a decent-sized house and his life might ostensibly look like it is going well, but behind the scenes things are not so rosy. Curtis’s relationship with his wife, Sam (Jessica Chastain – The Debt, The Help, Coriolanus), has become strained due to some financial difficulties, as well as emotional stresses concerning their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart).

Soon, Curtis starts having apocalyptic nightmares and visions of a gas storm that will destroy the town and its inhabitants. Fearing for his family, he builds an impenetrable storm shelter. The trouble for Curtis is that no-one else is concerned about this impending storm, and his mother, Sarah (Kathy Baker – Edward Scissorhands, Machine Gun Preacher, Against The Wall), was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her early thirties. Curtis is aware of this and worries that he is suffering from the same mental illness. But is this the case?

Sam (Jessica Chastain) makng breakfast for her family. She wonders why her husband has become so distant to her in recent times.

The plot for Take Shelter is simple and easy to follow. Audiences will have little difficulty in differentiating when they’re watching reality and Curtis’s dreams, since the dreams tend to be darker than real world (yet surprising not disturbing). However, as a result of needing to fix the film round Curtis, the director, Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Mud), focuses too greatly upon Curtis at the expense of the other main characters, Sam and Hannah. Indeed, neither Sam’s nor Hannah’s problems are even touched upon, which has the consequence of making them virtually irrelevant to the storyline. This is bizarre and undermines the movie’s realism.

Furthermore, Take Shelter is slow-paced and some parts of the plot go by the way side, such as Sam’s need for (breast?) implants (which would have been a good opportunity to delve into some of Sam’s insecurities), whilst the ending is a cheap stunt to make one rethink the entire movie. Also, considering the music throughout is either an ominous, yet anticipatory, beat or a boding-doom thud, one waits expectantly for the climax, like in Black Swan, or for the revelatory twist, such as in Shutter Island. But it never arrives, which is extremely frustrating.

Viewer’s frustration is likely to be exacerbated by the film’s length. At 121 minutes Take Shelter is quite long, and the movie feels longer still because of the artistic style that Nichols has employed. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this style, but for a film about psychological disorders it may not have been the most sensible method to choose. Too many scenes have little action or dialogue, and when there is dialogue it can often have prolonged gaps and be devoid of emotion. The lack of outburst from any of the two main adult characters seems odd too (and perhaps improbable) considering the emotional strains and financial pressures that they’re under. Maybe if Nichols had taken inspiration from the emotive drama, Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter would have been considerably better.

The family in the shelter after hearing the storm siren. Such is Curtis’s paranoia that he even bought his family the most up-to-date gas masks in the case of a storm.

In Revolutionary Road, Frank (Leonardo Dicaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) had depth and the power to make audiences empathise with their respective feelings and predicaments. In contrast, here, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain perform with a remarkable lack of intensity, plus there appears to be no love or antipathy between the married couple (even though they constantly remind us of their love for each other). The acting is not poor and it gets better as the film goes on; yet, it is a far cry from the exceptional performances in any of the aforementioned movies.

Over-all, Take Shelter shows us that people with psychological disorders can realise, to a limited extent, that they are veering towards ‘insanity.’ It is just irritating that the film is quite uneventful, tedious and lacks the strong performances necessary to put it on a par with Black Swan or Revolutionary Road.

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