by Philip Price
There is always the daunting feeling walking into a Shakespeare adaptation that you'll never be able to keep up with the story due to the language being fired off by actors rather than being able to personally read it and evaluate the dialogue in your own time. The same is true with director Justin Kurzel's “Macbeth” for, while I was familiar with the story having read the play in high school, I couldn't remember every detail and I certainly wasn't familiar enough with the language to understand everything as would be necessary after only a single viewing. And so, the idea of watching the film, much less writing about it felt incredibly daunting. After attempting to strip my mind of everything but the cinematic experience I was about to embark on I immersed myself in the Scottish lore of the titular Thane as he was submerged into this hugely stylistic world that Kurzel would use to convey the complicated language of the play. It is in the imagery that Kurzel's interpretation excels and where it sets itself apart. Where it falters is in the changing of a few major aspects from the source material. Overall, this particular adaptation comes out a winner given it has the ability to connect with modern audiences through its expansive and dark visual prowess while briskly delivering the main ideas of Shakespeare's play. It doesn't hurt that Kurzel has recruited the talent of actors like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard to convey such material to modern audiences as each contain enough gravitas in their stares alone to guarantee the audience pays attention. It is not in any of these individual facets that Kurzel's film fails to engage the audience, but simply in the amalgamation of so many experimental factors that they override the bare bones brutality of the story and all that it intends to say. I enjoy how much Kurzel uses his exceptional visual ability to convey the necessary story beats, but by more or less having screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso compact the narrative into a less than two hour experience some of what the imagery suggests is lost in the lack development.
If you recall your high school English classes you might recall that in Macbeth there are three witches that foretell of Macbeth's (Fassbender) rise to be the King of Scotland while at the same time prophesying that future kings will descend from Banquo (Paddy Considine), a fellow army captain. After being prodded by his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (Cotillard), Macbeth himself murders King Duncan (David Thewlis) by stabbing him countless times and then passing his blood onto the hands of the members of the King's chamber. Macbeth also threatens Duncan's son, Malcolm (Jack Reynor), with the suspicion of his father's murder and so he flees. Shortly after becoming king, Macbeth sends mercenaries to kill Banquo and his sons so that what has been foretold may fail. Of course, such attempts to defy these visions will only come back to bite the overly-ambitious Macbeth and his ruthless wife and yet they can't help themselves. It is not in the ascension to power that the story takes off though, but more in the guilt and horror that both the titular character and his wife begin experiencing in the wake of this new-found power. Forever fearing that the witch's prophecy will come true Macbeth continues to perform unspeakable acts in hopes of ensuring his future as the King of Scotland, but the end is unavoidable and with the return of one of Duncan's most loyal followers, Macduff (Sean Harris), Macbeth once again sees that his fate has always been sealed.
By saying that some of the original plays intended themes and ideas are lost in the translation of Kurzel's visual storytelling is to say that while this version more or less understands what it needs to do in order to tell the story capably there is nothing about it that makes the need feel warranted. Sure, the slow motion battle scenes are gorgeously (and bloodily) rendered and both Fassbender and Cotillard are worthy actors of the material, but as the film continued to play and I began to warm to the idea that I was catching the gist of what was attempting to be accomplished I wasn't necessarily engulfed as one would expect to be when it comes to material from someone who is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. At this point it is all about interpretation though, and where the script lacks is in reducing one of the most famous female characters in all of literature to little more than the third or fourth most important character in the piece. Lady Macbeth, with Cotillard's ability to play her no less, is given only a single ruthless speech with none of the unshakable guilt or vivid hallucinations that depict blood on her hands as she sleepwalks through the castle all of which made the original character so iconic. There are glimpses of the ambition and ruthlessness that have made the character unforgettable, but Kurzel's film tends to focus on the slowly decaying mind of the titular character rather than that of his corrected conscious as personified through his wife. The scene in which Macbeth sees the recently murdered Banquo at a celebratory banquet gives the audience insight into just how much strain Macbeth is under, but that Lady Macbeth is only present here to re-direct this disillusionment into strength makes the character feel much more sympathetic than I recall her being in the play.
Where “Macbeth” is hindered is where I imagine many a screen adaptations of Shakespeare's works tend to be hindered and that is in the source material simply being too expansive to reduce to a two-hour piece of pop entertainment. The more desirable format would seemingly be that of a miniseries, but given what we have here is a 113-minute feature there simply isn't enough time or space for a storyteller to flesh out the characters and the scope in which Shakespeare operated and without as much, the depth is not felt. Kurzel clearly wants to pay the necessary dues to Shakespeare's work, especially in his lush and suggestive visuals, but that we're never truly able to get in tune with the material in a way that elicits an emotional reaction renders the majority of this film ineffective. There is much to like, a lot to look at, but not much to feel and therein lies the difficult task of making this material both supremely influential and compelling when it's a story that has been told so many times before. There are glimmers of great possibility that never exactly come to fruition, but certainly more than enough to give good reason to look out for Kurzel and Fassbender's next collaboration.
by Philip Price
The idea for “The Revenant” is more satisfying than its realization. It's a fact many of us who have been looking forward to the film likely realized before even watching it, but nonetheless the reaction to this realization is still one that feels it witnessed something unique, or special at the very least. Throughout the course of the film I couldn't help but to keep coming back to the thought that the huge amount of effort that was so clearly put into the making of this film deserved to be seen multiple times, countless times even, but in trying to come up with a time in which I might actually want to sit down and experience this again I came up with little desire. That this was also director Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Birdman” factors into the mystique of the idea of how great this film might be, never mind the fact he was collaborating with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. And so, the "what if" thought came to mind in the form of, “what if this were made by a no-name director?" Would it be met with the same expectation? Would reactions be as critical to the leanness of the story or would the beauty of the cinematography allow that to be forgiven? Obviously, this is not the case and thus the film will be viewed and criticized for how it stacks up against Iñárritu's past works as well as the fellow awards fodder that is being released this year, but despite all of these factors that inform the here and now, the initial reactions to the film, “The Revenant” feels like a movie that will be around for a long time. It is a movie that will be discussed not for its large themes or the depth with which it conveys this rather simple and straight-forward story, but more for what it was able to accomplish in bringing beauty out through such brutality. That, in its own way, it was able to deliver as visceral an experience as one could have with a motion picture. This is a movie not meant to elicit a lot of intellectual pondering, but more an experience of the emotions that you drink in, let settle, and then decide if it's for you or not. My palate seems to have come to the decision it appreciates the taste more than it necessarily enjoys it.
Based in part on the novel by Michael Punke, “The Revenant” is set in 1823 as a group of fur trappers, led by explorer and navigator Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), are set to make their way home, but are attacked by a group of Native Americans while still working. In the wake of this attack, the group’s leader, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), turns to Glass and his tracking skills in order to navigate the survivor’s home. It is on this winter-drenched trek that Glass' decisions begin to upset fellow trapper Fitzgerald (Hardy) as well as give way to a brutal bear attack that leaves Glass left for dead. It is in this basic set-up that the film thrives and moves forward. At two and a half hours the film is more or less broken down into three sections and at this pace Iñárritu really allows for the film to breathe and find itself among the journey it is taking the audience on. In this way, the film is much like the writing process. Most of the time, whether it be with a paper, a work of fiction or especially in a review or editorial-the author discovers thoughts and ideas they didn't realize their brain was thinking as they continue to put words on the screen (or pen to paper). New revelations are made, new ideas are developed and sometimes such self-discovery even leads to a clearer picture of what the goal of the piece is; this is how “The Revenant” feels in terms of its own themes. As the film progresses and DiCaprio's Glass comes to experience different events in navigating his way to a place that might give him something close to the revenge and redemption he so desires he comes across his own set of realizations. There are multiple allusions to God and sacrifice while only mentioning as much once in a repeated line that goes, "revenge is in the creator's hand." It's unclear what exactly Glass believes in or if he believes in anything at all, but in these moments of near clarity in the midst of personal chaos we glimpse the weightier ideas of what the point of life might be if what we have to do in order to survive doesn't make it worth doing so.
Restrained by an injury during the bear attack DiCaprio's Glass is left unable to speak for the majority of the film. Of course, this leaves DiCaprio, the actor, with only a certain amount of tools to convey the necessary emotions. This is the kind of challenge we have come to expect DiCaprio to take on though, and he parlays this already challenging task into what are essentially the only substantially emotional moments in a film that is always beautiful, but rarely as emotionally engaging or fulfilling. Were Iñárritu able to bring the weight of the story or it's themes up to the same level of his visual grandeur he might have had a master work on his hands, but as it is DiCaprio is the only other element that is able to match the beauty of the look of the film. As the second hour of the film more or less documents the turn of events that allow Glass to remain alive in the relentless winter landscape we watch as DiCaprio communicates a surplus of emotions that allow us to cling to the hope something good might actually come from all this depravity. Speaking of depravity, while the Native Americans are made to be the initial antagonists of the picture the real evil here is that of Hardy's Fitzgerald. In a role that plays to the actor's strengths Fitzgerald is an unrelentingly foul being. We are only given slight insight into who this man is, what he's come from, and what he's been through to form the person he is at this point in his life, but from the get-go it's clear he is the one that will be the downfall of not only those closest to him, but himself. Given there is no redeeming quality about this guy the character could have been more complex so as to make the final half hour carry more force, but as it is, the film seems so intent to focus on Glass's state of mind that it short changes the most interesting of its supporting characters. Not to short-change them myself, Will Poulter is quite good as the consciously conflicted Jim Bridger and Gleeson does what he can to create a fully realized human from his limited screen time. This is DiCaprio's show though, and he indisputably owns every moment he is on screen.
With the idea behind “Birdman” being to capture everything in one continuous shot the idea behind “The Revenant” is to take things a step further and shoot the entire film in all natural light in the inhospitable Canadian wilderness. Through these ideas and decisions Iñárritu has developed a film with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki that is worth the price of admission for the opening sequence and last half hour alone. The opening scene in which our camp of fur trappers falls prey to a tribe of Native Americans on horseback who fire arrows with unbelievable intensity is nothing short of breathtaking. Lubezki's camera scours the terrain searching for the most brutal and disturbing images it might relay to the viewer. Much of this is again captured in one continuous shot as Iñárritu clearly wants us to fully immerse ourselves in this world and this time period, becoming familiar with the kind of landscape and hostile situations that are possible at any turn before giving us any indication of what the narrative might be. Much like the opening sequence there are others, especially one featuring DiCaprio fleeing on horseback while shooting at his pursuers before going over a cliff, which make one wonder how such intricate and potentially dangerous shots were conceived much less accomplished. Like these particular sequences the film overall works in fits and starts bringing in high tension, unimaginable grief, and moments where the ideas of honor and betrayal are given genuine heft while other times, and for long stretches, it can tend to feel aimless. I say that with the realization that this could be intentional as that is likely how Glass felt many times during his journey, but the story itself could have certainly been told with just as much weight as it carries in present form in a leaner fashion. Still, it's difficult to be critical given the amount of effort and care that has gone into crafting the film. If nothing else, should the film continue to live on, it will, at the very least, display how beautiful our home once was while depicting the brutality of it in the same breath. And as long as this film can grab a breath it will undoubtedly continue to fight to win you over. Huh, maybe I will watch it again soon.
by Philip Price
Looking at director Ron Howard's latest, “In the Heart of the Sea,” from a broad perspective there is nothing seemingly wrong with it. It is a handsomely mounted film with charismatic actors playing dress up and tells an adventure story that, while it is said to be the inspiration for the tale that's come to be known as Moby-Dick, takes many of the same beats from this familiar story and applies them here. Unfortunately, if one is looking for anything more than a standard adventure/survival tale this is not the place to go. A director who has become more hit or miss as of late Howard only skims the surface of the conflicts and dynamics that could have been explored here. While I've never completed Herman Melville's crowning achievement and I'd not even heard of Nathaniel Philbrick's novel on which this is based prior to the film's first trailer, it is pretty easy to see where things are going the moment our two heroes step onto their boat. While this isn't always an issue given things have become more about the journey than the destination in this saturated movie market, Howard and his team simply don't bring enough insight or a fresh enough perspective to make this endeavor feel like it's worth joining. One wouldn't necessarily know or realize this as they watch the film unfold given it's just captivating enough, and just big enough to keep us entertained and wondering what choices certain characters will make, but as the film comes slogging to its conclusion it becomes more clear that's all the film is-just enough. Just enough isn't enough to warrant an emotional reaction though, and it's not enough to constitute a real investment in the characters or even their quest that seems so foreign at this point that it could have proved fascinating, but is more or less rendered irrelevant due to the fact the film’s only interest lies in the massive sea monsters rather than the men who come up against them. Seeing massive sea creatures on the big screen is never a bad thing-in fact, it's almost as inherently epic as one can get, but for it to mean anything more than just a moment of wonder there must be some depth to the waters surrounding them and “In the Heart of the Sea” is simply too shallow to come up with anything interesting to say.
Framed by the device of one man telling another his story with flashbacks giving us the meat of the narrative we are first introduced to Ben Whishaw's Melville as he ventures to Nantucket, Mass. in 1850. He is searching out Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the only surviving member of a ship called the Essex that was said to have been capsized by a giant whale. What he finds is a distraught and anxious man who doesn't like to talk of his experience-not even to his wife. Eventually luring the details out of him, Melville takes down each and every word beginning with the preface that if this story was about anything it was about the Captain and his first mate. Through this we are introduced to Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) who hails from a peasant family and is the son of an incarcerated man who has had to prove himself at every turn. He is expected to be named Captain on his next voyage, but when the founding family of whaling positions their son, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), for their latest and greatest ship there is no competition. Money outweighs actual worth every time. And so, Chase is made first mate and the two along with second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), cabin boy Nickerson (Tom Holland) and a whole cast of other crew members set sail with the goal of filling 2,000 empty barrels with whale oil. It is when the lack of any real whale sightings occurs that both Chase and Pollard begin to feel desperate and take a tip from a fellow Captain at a stop in Ecuador about a large school of whales in an area that also happens to be further from land than any of them had ever traveled. Viewing it as a worthy risk, or maybe just being greedy, the Essex sets course for this destination near the equator. Upon arrival in this utopia of whales the sailors set out on their boats to spear and drain any whale they can. This angers one very large bull sperm whale though, as he rams and splits the Essex in half leaving its crew shipwrecked more than a thousand miles from land.
The real drama of the film should clearly come from the conflicts that arise between the crew members and especially the vastly different methodologies of Chase and Pollard that cause them to butt heads almost immediately. Even after the shipwreck these arguments and confrontations would be expected to rise in number and cause even more trouble meaning more inherent tension, but rather than dig into the reasoning of why different choices were made by these different men the film says just enough to logically move on to the next scene. As Chase, Hemsworth is an ideal leading man. The looks, the commanding voice, the stature-it all looks appropriate and Hemsworth is able to pull off the idea that this guy has been on a boat his entire life. Sure, the shots of him readying himself to throw a spear are a little hokey and may cause a slight snicker, but he probably looks cooler doing it than any of us would, so we let it go. There is no inherent issue with the character of Chase other than the fact there's nothing particularly exceptional about him either. We are fed the information at the beginning that he and his wife, Peggy (Charlotte Riley), are expecting their first child and that she wants him to return as soon as he possibly can making us inherently root for his survival. Almost immediately after setting sail Chase is forced to display how good he is at his job, but outside of these stock qualities the character leans too heavily on Hemsworth's natural charisma, especially considering he is to be our hero of the piece. Pollard, on the other hand, while unlikable has a far more interesting arc to play. When Walker first appears on screen we are given the impression he knows he isn't necessarily the deserving man for the job, but will of course be perceived to be the man with the silver spoon in his mouth. Given this introduction I was under the impression Pollard would work to defeat this stereotype, but rather he embraces it by sending his men directly into a storm for what he says is a test, but is clearly only a means to satisfy his own ego. That the Captain exemplifies a hypocritical nature towards others who abuse the power of family and keeps his arrogance intact for so long is somewhat surprising, but it does tend to make his eventual turn towards redemption all the more effective.
With less focus on the characters, Howard trains his camera on the logistics of navigating a ship of this scale and the "demon whale" that provides our main source of grief for the sailors. That said, the visual style that Howard employs here is rather interesting and adds a needed variation to this rather traditional tale. The period aesthetic combined with the yellow filter that drenches every frame make for a kind of glowing, surrealist tone that would have us believe this story is as bizarre and horrific as it would have been in reality. Conveying it in this fashion only serves to make the more difficult aspects of the journey easier to swallow (once you see and understand what I'm referring to, I promise that wasn't meant to sound as gross as it does). Howard also has a bit he defers to often where it looks as if he's placed hidden cameras all around the ship that help to capture the scope of just how complex of an operation manning and keeping the vessel afloat is. The sheer amount of people, facilities, and supplies necessary is kind of breathtaking in just how detailed the coordination must be. It is moments like this, small facets in the filmmaking approach that make me appreciate the film as well as something as simple as the gorgeous, water-based landscapes that warrant the IMAX screens the film is taking advantage of for this week only. Where Howard's directing prowess detracts from the otherwise visually impressive film is in his over-reliance on the CG sea creatures. Being able to show these massive creatures certainly gives the film great scale and is meant to be nothing short of impressive, and while most of the shots look realistic enough, it is the ability to display the full scope of the face-off between whale and ship that deflates any suspense for what might happen as we can see where the whale is at and what he's going for next. The only hint of any real tautness comes after the men have been stranded on their makeshift lifeboats for seventy plus days and it's put on full display how our bodies and state of mind can take so much and yet remain so fragile. If only the film as a whole were able to dig into such larger themes, then we might have had a movie worth weathering a storm for.
by Philip Price
By the time he was 24 years old James Dean had starred in three major films, would become a cultural icon symbolizing the tone of teenage America, but he would also be dead. While this public persona of the "rebel without a cause" pushed Dean to the forefront of pop culture we come to learn in director Anton Corbijn's new film that the real Dean was not as his persona suggested, but more the quiet kid in an acting class simply searching for something tangible, something that wasn't as arbitrary as the fame he was suddenly coming into. In “Life,” we pick up with Dean in 1955 shortly after wrapping “East of Eden” and just prior to landing the role in “Rebel Without a Cause” – only seven months or so before his untimely death. Surprisingly, Dean is not the main character of this story though, no, that would be photographer Dennis Stock (played by Robert Pattinson). Stock was largely a set photographer employed by Magnum, a photo agency, who met Dean at a party thrown by director Nicholas Ray (writer/director of ‘Rebel’). At this point in time, prior to “East of Eden” coming out, Dean wasn't even a household name, but after the actor and Stock hit it off at the party and Dean invited his new friend to a screening of his new film it became clear to Stock that there was something unique about the young man who couldn't have seemed more estranged or disillusioned with the ideas Hollywood was throwing at him. It is in this attitude, this kind of presented exterior by Dean with which Corbijn is intent on exploiting and exploring through he and Stock's relationship. More than anything though, this is a film about the relationship that develops between two different types of artists: the one who creates and the one who pulls back the layers of that creation.
Given Dean is the more famous of our two main characters, the focus is immediately drawn to the actor, but this is as much a story about Stock as it is Dean with the two finding out how to respond to some of life's tougher questions by finding answers in each other. In essence, “Life” is something of a study in existential crises and how to overcome the fact there is nothing we can do about time inevitably passing or perceptions of who we might become, but rather to simply find a happiness in life and maintain it as long as one can. Stock has slightly more perspective than the still very young, but inherently wise Dean and so one can feel the initial dissonance between the two; Stock wanting what Dean seems to so naturally possess and at such a young age. Of course, we're never privy to what others find enviable about ourselves and given we're largely seeing these events through Stock's eyes it's hard for him, and occasionally us, to see that Stock possesses qualities Dean finds admirable and is likely enviable of as well. In reality, Dean likely had many of the same struggles with desperation, but is too cool to admit he's worked hard or that he wanted such potential fame. In fact, Dean does the opposite by making it seem as if he works hard to keep himself distanced from such clichéd temptations. Dean evaluates Stock as someone who is desperate and can't see past his own ambition while at the same time appreciates him for seeing something in his talent. Dean would like to think that this is all Stock knows of his position, but we can see that as much as Stock comes off the desperate one-searching for his big break and hoping to find it in a photo essay on Dean-that Dean needs him as much as he needs Dean. At one point, early in the film and in a moment of vulnerability, Dean flat-out asks Stock if he's going to make him famous. It is this symbiotic relationship that proves to be both the basis of the ideas Corbijn wants to convey and the strongest aspect of the film altogether.
As Dean, Dane DeHaan doesn't immediately come to embody what many think of as this epitome of a teen heartthrob, the originator of such matinee looks along with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, but as the film progresses one is able to buy into the performance more and more. It is undoubtedly an odd choice given some of the stark physical differences, but DeHaan has clearly displayed in past roles that he has the chops to take on any challenge and, in this case, James Dean is no different. As Dean, DeHaan becomes this soft-spoken, but easy going presence that seems so self-assured it's slightly scary. He becomes irritated by the idea of succumbing to mainstream entertainment-searching only for the best roles he can find; ones that offer him the opportunity to do quality acting. This genuine quest of Dean's is one we also find to be genuine even though we can see in DeHaan's performance that he's coming to appreciate the advantages that come with popularity. Like most relationships, including he and Stock's, there is a symbiotic one between fame, the clout it brings and using that clout to make projects closest to one's heart. Our journey with DeHaan's version of Dean mainly concerns learning to walk this line and if he can remain true to the idea he has of himself or if he too will be swallowed up by the machine as it seems his counterpart has. As Stock, Pattinson actually delivers the more affecting performance. Stock's insecurities are outweighed by his drive as is apparent when he takes the risk of attending Ray's party or calling Magnum director John Morris (Joel Edgerton) and pitching the idea of documenting this up and coming actor. His drive is clear again in his persistence with which he pursues the irritatingly coy Dean. When Dean finally comes around to the idea that Stock's talent and vision for him might meet with his own quite nicely, the wall is brought down allowing both actors to dig deeper into what made these two men tick and better explain why their relationship was good for one another at this particular time in each of their lives.
If one is lucky enough to stumble across something they really love in life, something they are truly passionate about then to be able to not only pursue, but find some level of accomplishment in that trade is the most satisfying feeling in the world. In “Life,” we see one of our two lead characters experience this moment while the other continues to play things by ear, only hoping he's making the right decision for his desired future. But while the characters in play here serve as each other's guiding lights to a more prosperous period in each of their lives these names, people and places are only a vehicle to discuss what Corbijn finds interesting about their circumstances. This is as much an exploration in the guise of those who long to exist off their creations, but must deal with the recognition that comes along with that than anything else and James Dean just so happens to be the perfect subject. After the death of his mother, Dean was sent to live with his aunt and uncle on a Quaker farm in Indiana. By all accounts, he enjoyed every moment of being in this environment-almost to the point he wishes he never left. What then, was pulling this guy to be an actor? What was it that led this seemingly shy boy who felt no one understood him to proclaim emotions to as wide an audience as possible? If Luke Davies screenplay, Corbijn's direction and this film as a whole have anything to contribute to the mythology of James Dean it's that, despite feeling he belonged in Indiana, he never felt at home anywhere and that somehow he was issued the task of making his way home again. Add to this the realizations, the perspective, and the truths that Stock brought into Dean's life on the cusp of his superstardom and you have a relationship that informed what would become one of the most iconic personalities in American history. To be able to tag along on the cliff notes of this journey will be endlessly fascinating to those who love film history and while the film itself doesn't remain as consistently intriguing as it should, the two lead performers enhance the experience enough to certify it a memorable one.
by Philip Price
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is an entertaining action film that is something of an insane accomplishment from a filmmaking standpoint. I've seen the film twice: once in a theater and the other time from the comfort of my home. Considering I enjoyed the film this number of viewings doesn't seem out of the ordinary, but that I merely enjoyed the film is likely not enough for those that adore it and saw it multiple times on the big screen and no doubt fall asleep to it every night now that it's available on digital and Blu-Ray. There is a feverish following to the film, many proclaiming it as their early front-runner for their favorite picture of the year back in May when it originally debuted. I bring all of this up because last week it was announced that the National Board of Review named “Mad Max: Fury Road” their best film of the year. And just this weekend the Los Angeles Film Critics group named George Miller best director with his film named runner-up for the Best Picture award. And so, now the question is does “Mad Max: Fury Road” stand a chance of winning an Oscar? The answer, despite this new momentum, is still no.
Among the other choices for NBR's year-end awards were Ridley Scott for Best Director, Matt Damon for Best Actor and other nods for the likes of “Room,” “Creed,” “The Hateful Eight” and again for “The Martian” with Best Adapted Screenplay. This brings us to the reason why, despite major societies of film-lovers and critics recognizing the merit of an out and out summer blockbuster with a year-end reward typically reserved for a year-end release, ‘Fury Road’ still won't win any Oscars: it's not “The Martian.” If there is a film that has been both critically and commercially successful this year that will take home any statues from the Academy it will be the intelligently written, but wholly accessible ‘Martian’ and since the Academy only has room for one such film in its list of nominations (and some years there's not even room for one) that spot will be occupied by the Matt Damon-starrer leaving fans of ‘Fury Road’ furiosa, indeed.
Why? You might ask. Why can there be only one seeming "blockbuster" in the crop of Oscar nominations? This year there certainly seems to be more of a push for what are considered mainstream films in the year-end awards fuss with the likes of both ‘Fury Road’ and “The Martian” making large strides as well as Sylvester Stallone getting a lot of support for his performance in “Creed,” but if you look back at the last decade of Academy Award nominations you'll see that only after the outcry in 2009 for “The Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” not getting nominations (the following two years both “Up” and “Toy Story 3” would garner Best Picture noms) that the shift from five nominees to a possible 10 has allowed films released outside of the last four months of the year to be nominated for the top award. And this is only counting nominations, none of these "abnormal" films have ever won the award which is why NBR naming ‘Fury Road’ their outright best film of the year is so impressive and a little exciting. Expanding the field of possible Best Picture nominees from five to 10 allowed for the inclusion of the likes of “Inception,” “Avatar” (though this was still released in December and had the clear advantage of being Oscar-friendly James Cameron's follow-up to “Titanic”), “District 9,” and even “The Help,” but in the last few years alone the nominations for films released outside the standard awards season months have been smaller fare such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Boyhood.” That's not saying there are always films considered more mainstream that are worthy of a nomination, but it would certainly have been encouraging to see a more interesting film like “Gone Girl” receive recognition over more traditional fodder like “Imitation Game” or “Theory of Everything” (both of which were solid enough, if not exceptional) last year.
Still, despite the ever-waning possibility, there's still the opportunity for more mainstream films like ‘Fury Road,’ “The Martian” and “Creed” to garner nominations thanks to the expansion rule, but will the Academy ever dare declare one of these films the winner? I don't think so. And this is also where I, personally, am stuck between a rock and a hard place given that right now, in this year's race, I would still award Best Picture to “Spotlight” aka the seeming front-runner for the award. Despite it being refreshing to see more mainstream films get recognition from a prestigious organization I largely agree with something like “Spotlight” winning the ultimate prize, though I'd still argue that either “The Social Network” or “Inception” should have won over “The King's Speech” in 2011. Granted, I haven't seen “Carol,” “Joy,” “The Revenant” or “Hateful Eight” yet and I expect each of those to receive Best Picture nominations along with “Spotlight,” “The Danish Girl,” “Brooklyn,” “The Martian,” and possibly “Room” or ‘Fury Road’ if they really go for it, but then again something like “Steve Jobs,” “Bridge of Spies,” “45 Years” or “Anomalisa” could sneak in and take one or more of those spots. The point being, if the Academy feels the pressure to include at least one film that qualifies as a mainstream release alongside the more serious, critically acclaimed films it will be “The Martian” rather than ‘Fury Road’ due to the fact it hues closer to qualifications having to do with release date and prestige than Miller's film. I tend to think of ‘Martian’ and ‘Fury Road’ on something of an equal playing field in terms of entertainment value, but I can see why those rooting for ‘Fury Road’ view it as superior given the unique quality of the story and the astonishing tasks it took to make the film a reality. I'm not here to either champion or detract from the quality of ‘Fury Road,’ I just find it impossible, despite its recognition thus far, that the Academy will give it what many people think it deserves.
Here's the catch though: is ‘Fury Road’ a more mainstream film than “The Martian”? According to box office numbers it's a clear victory for “The Martian” given it has made $220 million domestically and has just now dropped out of the top 10 after over two months in release with a $571m worldwide gross while ‘Fury Road’ garnered *only* $375m worldwide ($153m domestic). So, while ‘Fury Road’ might seem like the more mainstream choice given it debuted at the beginning of the summer movie season and is a non-stop action thrill ride-it getting a nomination technically wouldn't mean as much to the general public as “The Martian” would. The entire point of expanding the number of nominees in the Best Picture category seemed to be to give films that people actually saw a shot at getting rewarded so that viewer interest would extend beyond the world of cinephiles and if that still rings true, the obvious choice is “The Martian.”
In fact, ‘Fury Road,’ I would say, is more of the critical darling than “The Martian.” Ridley Scott's latest was admirable and more or less considered "a lot better" when compared to his recent output (which isn't saying much) while the general public ate it up because it offered an inspiring rescue story in the vein of “Gravity” with a likable male movie star replacing Sandra Bullock. ‘Fury Road’ is the fourth film in a 36 year old franchise that today's audience had no reason to care about. To its credit, ‘Fury Road’ could easily be seen by younger audiences as a wholly original, stand-alone film with no knowledge of the Mel Gibson predecessors being necessary, but the point is it was nowhere near as accessible as something like “The Martian” upon theatrical release. It's kind of obvious which film was going to bring in the bigger audience and so, if we're arguing about the Academy never nominating films people actually go to see rather than just nominating films outside their typical wheelhouse the blockbuster nom should go to “The Martian” which would seemingly benefit the Academy more as a whole. If we're leaving out the politics of ratings and mass interest and simply recognizing the right films outside of any preconceived notions there is certainly an argument for ‘Fury Road’ and it's clear that argument is being made by a number of critics groups. The tide is turning and we're in the midst of it.
Considering my stance on the film, the more impressive thing for the Academy to do when it comes to ‘Fury Road’ would be for them to nominate Charlize Theron in the Best Actress category. ‘Fury Road’ is undoubtedly her film with the titular Max (Tom Hardy) playing second string to her narrative-driving mission. The Best Actress category is certainly going to be a tough one this year with both Brie Larson and Cate Blanchett being heavy favorites for their performances in “Room” and “Carol,” respectively. Still, the idea of Theron getting a nomination over, say, Jennifer Lawrence, Carey Mulligan or the lifetime nods the Academy feels they likely owe Charlotte Rampling or Lily Tomlin this year would make an even bigger statement rather than simply nominating a film like ‘Fury Road’ for Best Picture where they have the most wiggle room. There's no doubt in my mind that either Larson or Blanchett will walk away with the statue come February 28th, but to see Theron (a previous Best Actress winner) get a nomination for a mainstream action film would not only make a bigger statement concerning the possibility of different types of films eliciting performances worthy of awards consideration, but it would also give the Academy more credibility when it comes to its critics who cry foul over the limited types of films that get nominated. By showing variety in their nominations throughout and not just giving an obligatory Best Picture nod as the ones for “Distrct 9” and even “The Blind Side” felt, would be to take the bigger step forward.
by Philip Price
“45 Years” is the type of film that likes to hold a single, static shot for longer than one might anticipate while simply asking you to bask in it-to soak every moment of it up. It's contradictory to my spastic American mind to take such calming nuances as intentional, but in reality this technique is enlisted to allow audience members to really drink in the subtle, but hugely devastating ideas the film meddles in. It should be noted, I guess, that the main ideas of the film are not inherently devastating, but that more the conditions that can sometimes come along with the institution of marriage are such that we don't consider them until they happen. For a bond that should be built on such trust and assured confidence it is often times shaken by the most delicate of details. In the case of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) it is little more than what was once an afterthought to Kate, but decides to come back with a vengeance and reveal it may have been much more to her husband all these years. There is no act that was performed on Geoff's part that violates the sanctity of their marriage, but more something completely out of both parties control that informed the way one half would feel forever and the powerlessness of the other to ever allow him to forget it. In a word-it's heartbreaking. One might even call it cruel, the way fate aligned to bring this couple into each other's lives at the time in which it did, forever setting them on this path where they were more or less destined to fail. This fracture is barely visible in the beginning, though. As we come to know the Mercers as they prepare for a weekend party that will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary (hence the title) they live a quiet life in the open countryside of England seemingly enjoying the latter years of their lives. It is the resurgence of old memories and "what might have been" possibilities that throws their relationship into a whirlwind of doubt and vulnerability that at least Kate never saw coming.
The odd anniversary number of 45 is being celebrated because the originally planned party for the couple's 40th had to be delayed due to Geoff's declining health. Like much of what we learn about these characters, the details are spoken rather than being shown. In fact, much of what makes the film so engaging is largely never shown on screen, but is instead funneled through the performances of Rampling and Courtenay. It is through their dialogue and their body language that we learn the two enjoy a happy, childless marriage with their biggest disagreement being the occasional cigarette Geoff sneaks in the backyard. The film takes the approach of going through this week leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary day by day-essentially breaking the film into six sections that average around 15 minutes or so a piece. On Monday we learn that Geoff has received a letter informing him that the body of Katya, his former lover, has been found perfectly preserved in a Swiss glacier. As far as we can tell, given the exchange of dialogue that occurs between Geoff and Kate, is that Katya died during a hiking accident with Geoff in 1962. This revelation comes as nothing short of a shock to the ailing Geoff. As he attempts to grapple with this news and the idea of his past making its way into his future, our attention is directed to Rampling's Kate who deals with this in a way that surprises even her. There is no reason for her, on the surface, to be angry or upset with her husband over one of his ex-lovers, much less one who died before the two of them even met, but the obvious rush of emotions concerning Katya that is seen in Geoff is unsettling to Kate who ultimately finds the event unexpectedly difficult to deal with.
To be up front would be to state that “45 Years” is a slow, quiet film that bathes in its washed out color palette. It is a film that, while paced rather nicely considering its structure, moves along leisurely while feeding us insight we're not even aware is insight upon initial viewing. The way in which writer and director Andrew Haigh, working from a short story by David Constantine, weaves in these small details only to have them pay off in unexpected ways later reinforces the emotional devastation of the realizations both Geoff and Kate are coming to throughout the course of the film. While one could say the film is about many things, including both several specifics of marriage and of relationships in general, the larger theme is that of the decisions that go into what we spend our precious time on; what we find worthy of investing this sole life in. For Kate, she found solace and a worthwhile experience in what Geoff offered her and no doubt imagined that he felt the same way, but the more she learns of her husband's prior relationship the falser her life begins to feel. And it is largely due to Rampling that the deluge of emotion that falls down upon her are given real credence. Given the serene nature of the tone there is no reason to expect any grandstanding moments from either of these characters, but instead both let things bubble just below the surface before more or less dismissing such complications that feel absurd at this stage of life with direct dialogue and an agreed upon resolution. Rampling conveys this boiling envy she is experiencing solely through the work of her eyes and other key facial features. It is the eyes though, that change her facade from that of an optimistic and comfortable woman to that of a defeated and jealous person who is, more than anything, seething with pain.
There's one scene in particular where, after a long day of going into town and talking with friends, the realization comes down that the couple doesn't have many pictures of themselves from over the course of their marriage. Kate largely blames this on the fact they never had children and to have taken photos only of themselves would have seemed vain, but is admittedly disheartening in old age. This minor detail about the choice they made once upon a time to not care about taking pictures has led to the inability to remember and reflect on certain memories. And once again, in old age, the realization that memories are all we have to truly hold onto rocks the beginning stages of Kate's regret even more. For Geoff, Courtenay gives the other half of this partnership an unsettled attitude as if he can only take so much at once and with the news of "his" Katya the idea of having to also make apologies to Kate is overwhelming. In this aforementioned scene though, the couple begin dancing in their living room to Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee," after the discussion of photos turns to what each of them would most like to have a picture of. Given this no doubt brings to Geoff's mind that photos are all he has left of Katya he attempts to divert such thoughts by reminding himself of why he fell in love with Kate in the first place. As they dance one says to the other after becoming winded quickly that they're not 20 anymore. This idea of how much time has passed and how much time these two have spent with one another making its way to the surface. It's a shame, really, because it likely seems to both Kate and Geoff that their twenties were only a few months prior-when getting winded while dancing was the least of their worries. Through this simple line of dialogue the film displays it's characters questioning, in different approaches, if all these years later-was the life they lived the one truest to themselves? Like I said, heartbreaking.
by Philip Price
Like all Disney and Pixar films, “The Good Dinosaur” pulls at the heartstrings by chronicling the change of innocence into experience, of a child into an adult, and of those premature ideals into broader perceptions. Like most Disney and Pixar collaborations “The Good Dinosaur” also features a duo on a journey to both save/rescue someone or something while discovering things about themselves and the world they exist in along the way. Sure, there is more to each of these stories that have given the studio partnership a reputation of not just crafting animated movies for children, but for their parents and adults alike. These core ideas and themes are what Pixar tends to stick with, though. With their latest, the studio twists things around by essentially re-writing history and then pulling a role reversal meant to engage the mature minds while utilizing the popularity of dinosaurs to get the attention of young kids. This works for the most part as the premise is just as engaging as Pixar's previous release this year, “Inside Out.” While such a statement might make some wince given the personified emotions of that film allow it to go to some pretty heavy places for a "children's movie" the idea of mingling in what the world might be like today if a massive extinction hadn't taken place millions of years ago is just as tantalizing as being able to create some kind of organizational system within our own minds. Unfortunately, “The Good Dinosaur” doesn't do as much with its promising premise as “Inside Out” did (though that one didn't do as much as I would have liked, either) it does mix some interesting genre aspects and narratively creative ideas into its proceedings often enough that it manages to be nothing short of an entertaining family film. While the film does indeed share many similarities to Pixar's previous offerings in terms of what makes them so effective what is more striking is the kinship it seems to share with the earlier, hand-drawn animated films of the Walt Disney company. Through this affinity for those that have come before it, “The Good Dinosaur,” while not being innovative or weighty on its own terms, is a nice reminder of the power of a simple story told through beautiful imagery.
“The Good Dinosaur” begins by asking the question: what if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed our planet completely and these giant creatures not only never became extinct, but continued to evolve? Like I said, it is quite the inviting idea and the possibilities of where this could go are just as engaging as any film synopsis I've read this year. While there are certainly areas in which the film shows that these prehistoric beasts did in fact continue to evolve there is only so much (and so far) one can go before things become too farcical and I recognize that conflict. In this regard, director Peter Sohn and his animating team make our protagonist, Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa), and his family something akin to a family of farmers in the Old West (this idea reinforced through Mychael and Jeff Danna's score) where they must harvest their crops and stock up on food before the first winter snow so that they survive. Arlo's Poppa (voice of Jeffrey Wright) is a strong and determined family man who encourages each of his children, including Libby (voice of Maleah Nipay-Padilla) and Buck (voice of Ryan Teeple), to make their mark on the world. This is done through achieving difficult tasks on the family farm. While Libby and Buck accomplish such status with similar ease as they grow older the same cannot be said for Arlo. The dino's Momma (voice of Frances McDormand) is concerned he might not ever obtain the ability to stand on his own, but his father remains confident in him. Believing he can get through his fear and discover what he is truly capable of, Poppa puts it upon Arlo to rid their farm of the critter that continues to deplete their food supply. Arlo's encounter with this critter, who is eventually given the name Spot (voice of Jack Bright), results in tragedy that is eerily similar to that of a certain scene in “The Lion King.” This event sends Arlo on a journey that sees him form an unlikely friendship while traveling through a harsh and mysterious landscape in hopes of not only making it home, but making that oh so important mark.
There are a lot of things that stand out about “The Good Dinosaur,” first and foremost being that of the absolutely breathtaking visuals. Pixar, having started out as part of a technology company that specialized in providing computer-generated images, has always been on the cutting edge of technology and this film only further establishes their dominance. With a mix of photo-realistic landscapes and intentionally cartoony characters the film is both striking in its beauty and its ability to mimic our natural environments. There are moments even, where it looks as if Pixar took a note out of Disney's book circa 2000 and used footage of existing locals while superimposing the computer animation over it as was done with “Dinosaur.” Everything we see here though is in fact created through the magic of computer animation and on the big screen it is as immersive as it is breathtaking. To accompany the beautiful imagery are the sharply drawn characters of Arlo and Spot who don't necessarily speak much, but with whom we come to identify despite the majority of the conversation in the film taking place between Arlo and other creatures he encounters on his trip. That the film is able to enlist an entertaining batch of ancillary characters, including a trio of Tyrannosaurus' (voices of Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, and A.J. Buckley) as well as some particularly nasty Pterodactyls (voices of Steve Zahn, Mandy Freund, and Steven Clay Hunter) and a superstitious old Triceratops named Forrest Woodbush who's voiced by director Sohn while still maintaining the core relationship between Arlo and Spot and making that the one in which the audience cares about most is likely the film's greatest accomplishment no matter how beautiful it looks. It would be easy for the film to get distracted by these supporting players, especially the Tyrannosaurus' with whom Arlo forms a strong camaraderie, but the emphasis on Arlo's complicated relationship with Spot always remains the crux of our protagonist's character arc.
To this point, our journey with Arlo is just as much about how he comes to deal with the repercussions of the aforementioned tragedy and those shifting perceptions and gray areas we venture into as an adult as it is about weathering the literal storm he has to face in order to make his way home. That through this journey Arlo comes to realize Spot isn't his natural enemy as he initially thought, but a companion in much the same circumstances gives the film the necessary Pixar weight we've come to expect. Though this weight doesn't carry as many layers and therefore isn't as heavy as most of Pixar's work-the film still drives home it's emotional resonance in certain scenes. Reinforcing this transitional point in time for Arlo as he learns that being scared is only natural and that to be frightened is the only way to discover something new and exciting is more than enough for the younger audience the film seems to deliberately be targeting. While I say that, it's also notable that the film is PG and that it features some rather brutal moments. There are multiple scenes that feature death, not just of a parental figure, but of innocent animals who simply fall victim to the natural order of things. It's not that these things shouldn't be taught to children, but the manner in which the movie conveys them is shocking in how they're handled with such disregard. From rushing rivers to landslides, those Pterodactyls eager to eat any small mammal, including Spot, and especially a scene in which Arlo and Spot consume fermented fruit and then begin to hallucinate caused me to trip as much as they were. This is all to say that “The Good Dinosaur” is something of an odd little film, a real children's film in its simplicity and vivid colors, but one that can't help but to push itself when it begins to fall into traditional trappings. Fortunately, most of these aspects will go right over the heads of those in the target demographic. It's a film I can only imagine will hold up better and better with repeat viewings, but that it comes to us in the shadow of Inside Out will lead it to garner a less enthusiastic response than it deserves.