Oscar Spoiler: Hot Takes on the Nine Nominees

The Academy doesn’t always get it right. Okay, they rarely get it right. Still, there’s something hopelessly endearing about the inflated political theater of the evening, from the cringey attempts at comedy to the bloated acceptance speeches. This year, again, nine nominees compete in the Best Picture category—who will win? Who should win? Read on and tune in; the awards air this Sunday, February 26 at 7:00PM on ABC.Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 3.10.29 PMArrival
Sci-fi flicks are Best Picture poison, and don’t expect Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival to break the genre’s long losing streak. Fact is, no science fiction film has ever taken top honors (and until the category was expanded in 2009, they were rarely even acknowledged). Arrival follows in the footsteps of Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception, and Her as this year’s token admission and, like each of its precursors, is destined to lose to more conventional fare.

The upshot: Arrival is expertly crafted science fiction for adults—undoubtedly one of the year’s best. It has no shot at winning Best Picture.

Fences’ inclusion reads as a cynical placation of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, rendered all the more unnecessary by the relative strength of the other minority-centric nominees (namely Moonlight, Lion, and Hidden Figures). Marking the meh directorial debut of Denzel Washington, this paint-by-numbers stage-to-screen adaptation is overlong, overlit and single-handedly saved by Viola Davis’ remarkable turn as self-sacrificing housewife Rose Maxon.

The upshot: Davis is currently and deservedly favored to win Best Supporting Actress, but Fences should be shut out elsewhere.

1477534845_hacksawridge_D33-15411-edit_t1070_hc0370550cc1f7a590be5ff8fcaa7a7e6314a2e4eHacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson is a filmmaker of searing passion and stunted emotional range. Hacksaw Ridge revels in that screwy dichotomy, ratcheting the digital gore up to 11 in garish tribute to veteran Army pacifist Desmond Doss. Gibson draws so lustily from the well of War Movie Clichés (including, egregiously, a caricatural drill sergeant played by Vince Vaughn) that Hacksaw Ridge makes Tropic Thunder seem positively prescient. Seek out the 2004 doc The Conscientious Objector instead.

The upshot: The Academy may have freed Mel Gibson from Director Jail, but expect him to go home empty handed on Sunday.

hell-or-high-waterHell or High Water
In at least one extremely specific respect, Hell or High Water recalls another recent Best Picture nominee. Like 2010’s True Grit, the film features an aging, mustachioed lawman elocuted with toothless conviction by Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges. As Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, he’s tasked with apprehending two brothers who take to robbing banks after their family ranch is foreclosed on. Unfortunately, the film lacks that signature Coen brothers’ crackle.

The upshot: Hell or High Water is a fun but forgettable neo-western, and probably won’t win any of the four awards it’s nominated for.

hidden-figures-hf-228_rgbHidden Figures
The portrait painted in history books of the US space race is as white and as phallic as a NASA shuttle. Hidden Figures widens that narrow perspective, admirably illuminating a few of the brilliant African American women whose unbridled ambition and expertise helped put a man into extraterrestrial orbit. Director Theodore Melfi mostly follows the Best Picture playbook, but the story inspires even when the filmmaking doesn’t.

The upshot: The Oscar odds aren’t great, but Hidden Figures is undoubtedly a true story worth telling. Plus, space is cool!

La La Land
Conveying an infectious joie de vivre through its impressive, expressive camerawork, La La Land is a rare beast among Best Picture nominees. Director Damien Chazelle dazzles with virtuoso cinematic vivacity, mixing just the right cocktail of Technicolor optimism and modern pragmatism. Each of La La Land’s intoxicating song-and-dance numbers resonates with clear thematic purpose, while its poignant conclusion will likely stay with you for days.

The upshot: La La Land is not only the heavy favorite to take Sunday’s top prize, it’s also—arguably—the best film of the year.

The Academy fancies itself terribly relevant, and with the heightened global controversy surrounding immigration, Lion’s nomination takes on added significance. The film depicts the true story of Saroo, a misplaced Indian boy who is adopted, relocated, and raised by a kindly Australian couple. 25 years later, he returns to his home country in search of the family he left behind. With crisp cinematography and understated direction, Lion gracefully explores themes of identity and assimilation.

The upshot: A Best Picture upset seems unlikely, but expect a politically charged acceptance speech if Lion wins one of the lesser awards.

amazon_studios-MBTS-Full-Image_GalleryBackground-en-US-1519947118002._RI_SX940_.jpgManchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea is also awash in controversy, owing to the sexual harassment allegations leveled against star Casey Affleck. The film casts the impeached actor as a sad sack uncle saddled with the guardianship of his teenage nephew after his older brother’s untimely demise. The lead performance is vulnerable and nuanced, and Affleck remains the favorite in the Best Actor category—but don’t be surprised if the Academy opts for a safer alternative.

The upshot: If Mel Gibson can still land a Best Director nom in 2017, don’t count Affleck or Manchester out.

Moonlight is a melancholy meditation on love and loneliness set in a Miami that starkly contrasts the postcard ideal. In place of swaying palm trees and neon nightlife, the film depicts an emotional shoreline upon which the tide of individuality nips at the dunes of an exclusive and indifferent world. It’s a sober story told with uncompromising honesty and empathy by director Barry Jenkins. Read our full review here.

The upshot: Moonlight has more than a shadow of a chance. Expect an all-out brawl with La La Land for the night’s top prize.


Split Review

james-mcavoy-split-imageWhat does success look like for M. Night Shyamalan in 2017? With The Visit, the excessively maligned director seemed to acknowledge a need to scale back the lofty ambition that tanked his two highest budget, least interesting efforts (namely The Last Airbender and After Earth) but Split fails to further that momentum. Despite an ace performance by James McAvoy, the film fizzles just when M. Night seemed poised to rekindle a spark of his early genius. At this point, another smash on the scale of The Sixth Sense might be too much to hope for. Heck, I’d settle for a Signs.

Split, despite its PG-13 rating, ventures into darker territory than previous Shyamalan fare, and the director struggles to balance the emotional maturity the premise deserves with the endearing, lighthearted humor he’s made his hallmark. The plot revolves around the kidnapping of three teenage girls by Kevin Wendell Crumb, a psychopath with multiple personality disorder (a committedly unhinged McAvoy). His victims include birthday-girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen), best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula, TV’s Recovery Road), and cool-headed outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch).

The terrified trio awakens in a dank, windowless room, where they’re forced to placate the myriad personas of their captor, including a lisping nine-year-old, a buttoned-up British woman, and a Walter White lookalike. The intent is pure pulp, but with its aggressive undercurrent of sexual violence, Splitoften feels flip when it should feel dire. It’s a tonal mismatch that might feel nihilistic in the hands of another filmmaker, but M. Night is nothing if not earnest. The themes he explores, however inartfully, are backed by a respect for the characters unfortunate enough to inhabit this ugly and unfair world.

Sliding in at just under two hours, Split feels oddly overlong and undercooked. The film’s belabored B story centers on analyst Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, Carrie, The Happening) and her complicated relationship with Kevin’s constituents. Involved is a peripheral attempt to dramatize the real-world controversy surrounding the existence of multiple personality disorder (known as dissociative personality disorder in modern medical parlance) and Shyamalan posits an unconvincing supernatural explanation. Fletcher eventually becomes a key player in the film’s messy third act, but her sessions with Kevin feel especially superfluous given the nagging near-certainty that something more interesting is happening to our imprisoned protagonists off-screen.

This specific shortcoming shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; Shyamalan’s strength has never been his screenwriting. But where he committed to the grotesque, Raimi-esque comic mayhem of The Visit, Split feels constantly at odds with itself. Between the dark, erratic script and his light-footed direction, the filmmaker is forced to confront an identity crisis of his own. Is Split meant to be a fun, frivolous genre diversion, a confident comeback piece, or something else entirely? No clear answer emerges, and the question is further muddied by a perplexing postscript that reframes the narrative in the context of M. Night’s career.

Split may not provide the kindling Shyamalan needed to once again set the industry ablaze, but it’s not a bucket of ice water either. The film features a few showpiece sequences of his signature directorial panache, including the girls’ claustrophobic first encounter with McAvoy’s Kevin. With deranged determination, the actor provides a lynchpin that keeps Split together, in spite of even its most glaring flaws — flaws destined to be amplified and snidely derided by the hive mind of internet fandom, which deals only in absolutes. For now, M. Night scrapes by with a minor success and something still to prove. And it’s hard not to root for an underdog.

Moonlight Review


Moonlight is a melancholy meditation on love and loneliness set in a Miami that starkly contrasts the postcard ideal. In place of swaying palm trees and neon nightlife, the film depicts an emotional shoreline upon which the tide of individuality nips at the dunes of an exclusive and indifferent world. It’s a sober story told with uncompromising honesty and empathy by director Barry Jenkins.

Adapted from the stage play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film follows Chiron, a gay African American adolescent who struggles to find his place in a society that seems to run perpendicular to him. It’s a triptych of episodes in which three distinct actors portray the character at critical junctures of his life. In the first, a young Chiron, nicknamed “Little” by his classmates, must navigate the conflicting influences of two flawed parental figures—his drug-addicted single mother (a volatile Naomie Harris) and her penitent dealer (Mahershala Ali), who takes him in and teaches him to swim. Wide-eyed yet wounded, first-time actor Alex Hibbert convincingly captures a child adrift, forced to fend off the stones and epithets hurled his way.

By high school, Chiron’s social discrepancies have painted a permanent target on his head. Rail thin, awkward, and outcast, he faces abuse both from bullies in the classroom and his unraveling mother at home. Amidst a daily torrent of humiliations, he finds salvation in an unexpected friendship that transforms the course of his burgeoning adult life, and not entirely for the better. In the film’s final segment, Chiron grapples with regret and reconciliation, torn between the adult persona he’s created for himself and the vulnerable kid he still is at heart.

A complex character emerges from the patchwork of these experiences, one as nuanced as it is familiar. Though Chiron represents a specific and seldom acknowledged minority, his is a quintessential coming-of-age tale that isn’t afraid to stare unflinchingly into an ugly abyss. Jenkins emerges from that void with moments of quiet humanity rooted in his deep sensitivity and compassion for his characters. Even when they fail, Jenkins doesn’t judge. He understands the emotions that pilot them, and lets them steer—for better or worse.

This naturalistic storytelling approach eschews cliché at the expense of closure. Moonlight is sparse by conventional Hollywood standards and its intimate, shallow-focus cinematography further narrows the periphery of Chiron’s isolated world. However, in illuminating the perspective of a single individual, the film reveals something universal about the malleability of the self. Chiron is a direct reflection of the people who surround him, and it takes tremendous courage to turn away from that mirror—to start a new conversation.

And Jenkins has done just that. Moonlight is an invitation to observe an often-unseen America, a country in which even one’s most innate impulse feels alien and unwelcome. It’s a journey that clocks countless miles against Chiron’s emotional odometer—but the destination is a shoreline that transcends race, upbringing, or orientation. Perhaps the takeaway is that the distant dunes are less a division between us and more a collective destination; we’re all out here in the water, struggling to learn to swim.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World Review

screen-shot-2016-01-21-at-4-07-08-pm.pngStationed somewhere along a weathered strip of highway between signposts reading Philosopher and Provocateur, Werner Herzog crafts his specific breed of poetic documentary films. His latest, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, is a contemplative exploration of emerging and bourgeoning technologies, from the humble origins of the internet to an ambitious plan to land a man on Mars.

It’s a topic that begs for scrutiny under Herzog’s existentialist eye, and the 73-year-old filmmaker digs in with earnest (if often perpendicular) curiosity. Each of the ten constituent chapters addresses a separate sphere of innovation, the purported subject always secondary to the implications foreseen by the introspective, extroverted auteur. For Herzog, the question isn’t “How does it work?” when interviewing the programmer of a team of autonomous soccer-playing robots, but rather “Do you love it?” in reference to the squad’s star player, Robot Eight.

Lo leads off with a tour of UCLA, where Herzog is quick to brandish his trademark deadpan wit. “The corridors look repulsive, but this one leads to a shrine,” he intones via voiceover narration. The camera follows a chipper gentleman into a sickly green room preserved exactly as it was in 1969, when the very first message was sent between computers in Los Angeles and San Francisco. That historic message comprised only three characters (“log”) and caused one of the machines to crash, leading to a prophetic typo—“lo.”

Other standout sequences include a visit to an isolated rehab center for adolescent internet addicts, a retreat for victims of wireless radiation sickness, and the home a grief-stricken family whose matriarch attributes the online abuse she endured following her daughter’s fatal car crash to the devil himself. “It is the spirit of evil,” she somberly suggests of the web. “It’s running through everybody on earth and it’s claiming its victories in those people that are also evil.”

Herzog approaches each of these characters with the particular cocktail of irony and empathy their situation demands. In a scene with the aforementioned family that recalls Grizzly Man, he refuses to show even a portrait of the victim lest it be misread as exploitation. Instead, he photographs the piano room, and other “places in the house that she liked.” He respects catastrophe almost as much as he does audacity, which makes him a perfect match for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk—for whom he readily volunteers to make the long journey to Mars, even if it means punching a one-way ticket.

The sum of these scenes is a mosaic of human triumph, tragedy, and eccentricity borne of our unassailable desire to create. The explosion of internet technology over the past two decades and its occasionally frightening potential for the future proves fertile ground for a filmmaker with Herzog’s singular perspective, though Lo and Behold declines to make any sweeping statement. Rather, each vignette plays like its own Herzog doc in miniature, treating the science as exposition so he can explore questions like, “Does the internet dream of itself?”

The answers are as varied as they are fascinating and the film, though minor in an oeuvre as accomplished as Herzog’s, is compelling and worthy in its own right. So what’s next for a restless storyteller that’s already tackled death row, the ends of the earth, and the internet in the 21st century alone? Next up is Into the Inferno, an investigation of active volcanoes—and only Herzog knows where the wild road will take him after that.

Bound – A Short Story Of Love, Loss & Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey stood on salient display. Lazily reclining against slim steel stands, two particular paperback copies lay side by side, the pages of one tickling the spine of the other. Their covers flapped simultaneously with the gentle inhale or exhale of the revolving oak door at the nearby threshold of the Major Book Retailer. They were in love.

Lost in their cozy nuzzle, the pair of novels awoke each morning to the scent of fresh paper. Every afternoon, they watched the whirlwind of the lunch-hour rush. By infant evening, sunlight flooded the store like a riptide, and in the oncoming ocean of dusk they sighed in unison, endeared by their eternal togetherness. To be separated was unbearable; several times a day, prospective readers wrenched them apart, rifling through crisp pages in search of an especially lurid passage. But they always ended up back together and closer than ever. When they drifted apart, a kindly man with a goatee and a lanyard set them straight.

The entire Fifty Shades trilogy being bundled elsewhere at a discount, there was no surplus of interest in the overpriced original. Distinguished specks of dust accumulated on the lovers’ heads. Soon their covers buckled subtly outward, no longer youthfully flush with the geometry of their pages. One evening, the man with the goatee wheeled over a squeaky pushcart; The Casual Vacancy was coming out. He scooped up excess stock in his tattooed talons, adding it to rows and rows of unread fiction. He plucked the first copy of Fifty Shades of Grey from beside its heartsick soulmate and, pivoting, made a hasty play for the second.

His grip failed. Falling forever away from its twin, the paperback smacked shellacked linoleum. The man swooped in, but the serrated edge of his silver marijuana-leaf ring caught the binding at its base and etched morse grooves up to the nape of E L James’ attribution. Muttering an apathetic expletive, he placed the maimed book against its partner on the cart. Huddled together erect atop the rickety contraption, the pair was ferried to the back of the store where sunset disappeared behind an overstocked bookshelf.

There was nothing romantic about their first cover-to-cover encounter. Reciprocally asphyxiating one another, the disgraced couple was sandwiched between a third copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and its inferior sequel, Fifty Shades Darker. Unloaded from the cart and crammed onto the lowest tier of a towering penitentiary, the two were consigned to ankle observation, each day a grotesque carnival of mismatched socks and varicose veins. Inevitable despondency set it. Gone were the days of playful tickling, replaced now by careless embrace. Intimacy worked against them, and in their mutual boredom the flame of their love flickered. As days bled into indistinguishable nights, the books stewed in standoffish silence.

Christmas. Tender moments few and far between. A carousel of customers revolved around the store in animated pursuit of the perfect gift. The two novels now secretly longed for the oily touch of flesh upon their covers, for any respite from their insufferable codependent predicament — to prove to themselves that they could stand alone even though they literally couldn’t. And so it went until the mid-December morning when one of them was sold.

Tendrilous alien fingers penetrated the inky shadows and danced atop the two unhappy convicts. An enormous amorphous form stood before them. Settling on the unscathed copy, the appendage of the great visitor snatched its prey and jetted out, up, away. Gone. Regret settled in its wake. Replaying the fleeting friction of their separation stirred forgotten longing in the abandoned paperback. In the spacious recess of the shelf, it collapsed against Fifty Shades Darker feeling more alone than ever. Suddenly that once abhorred intimacy seemed a luxury repossessed. Loneliness grew dense, swallowing optimism like a hungry black hole.

Time too grew fat, waddling by with a tray of tear-battered hors d’oeuvres whose myriad tastes made the loveless a connoisseur of the melancholy. Months floated by suspended in formaldehyde. The rows of surrounding books seemed like so many tombstones and the shelf itself a coffin. This was uncharted territory. In the mind’s mine, the torn novel turned each treasured moment over and over obsessively for some gem of hidden meaning. Then it would imagine impossible futures.

Where was that other copy of Fifty Shades of Grey now anyway? Was it happy? Had it found love? Did it think about the bookstore sometimes? The questions throbbed, then faded. Eventually, perspective transformed the shelf from a cellblock into a string of suites. It morphed the mismatched socks into the native flags of distinguished multinational guests, and the varicose veins into connect-the-dot constellations streaking across the hemisphere of a time-lapse sky.

It was beautiful. In amity with past and present, place and patron alike, the paperback soon felt the first fleeting pangs of enthusiasm for its uncertain future. And then, as if by sheer willpower, it ascended from the dark shelf. Overcome by ebullient weightlessness, it rose higher and higher in the hands of a radiant young woman with almond skin and jet-black hair. The vast expanse of the bookstore presented itself, here rising into great square mountains and there falling into green, carpeted valleys. And soaring above it all in the divine hand of its new owner, the novel finally touched down at register. As it passed across the counter and into a crisp sleeve of crinkling plastic, it glimpsed the man with the goatee one last time. He smiled.

Next stop, Eden. Sprawled out on a verdant quilt, the almond angel eagerly parted bag and book. Painted amber by the bedside lamp, the novel basked in the opulence of the room, from the rustic antique armoire to the collage of photographs, playbills, and other little keepsakes pinned to a corkboard against the wall. The faintest scent of cinnamon weaved its way through the warm evening air.

Crack! The girl cruelly bent back the cover of her new copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, forcing the contorted paperback to kiss its own humiliated ass. But the real torture was still to come; askew opposite helter-skelter tampons and toothpicks and Q-tips, the novel pitched in a pitch-dark handbag as nickels hailed down from an unzipped compartment amid the deafening cacophony of jingling keys and cellphone bleeps. Chapter one, creased corners and increased duress. Chapter three, coffee stains and croissant crumbs. Chapter eight, soiled on the toilet by unwashed fingers. Chapter fifteen — O, to have been born a Kindle!

Cataclysmic sounds and sour smells. Chapter twenty-six. Jostled by turbulence, the paperback slipped from slack fingers and stuck fast to the tacky floor of a crowded subway car. Tsk; the girl pried it loose and hastened to re-find her place. She scanned the dwindling paragraphs, fighting the urge to hurdle whole sentences en route to the imminent conclusion. Faster and faster her pupils chased each consecutive period, fingers poised impatiently behind each page. And then it ended. Her eyes and the train came to rest. She hurriedly gathered her things and disembarked for home.

Fifty Shades of Grey haunted a new shelf there. Years yellowed the tips of its pages. The bent, broken, and abused novel slipped into oblivious sleep, startled occasionally awake by the sudden ache of solitude. Christmas again. In atrophy, it was hoisted into a plastic bin, which the girl dumped unceremoniously onto the curb outside her windswept apartment. Giant snowflakes descended, kissed its cover, and dissolved into tiny puddles. In the chill of the naked breeze it waved like a flag, white against white.

2063 — fifty years later.

Time vanished like surf in spongy sand. In a vacant boardwalk bookstore, the withered copy of Fifty Shades of Grey now topped a heap of old paperbacks in a bin labeled 5 For A Buck. The stubbled old Geppetto who served as shop proprietor heaved a strained sigh as he carried a stack of new arrivals over to the untouched collection. A barrage of sharp corners and bellyflops entombed the now geriatric novel and snuffed out the sunlight.

But in the dark, groping for orientation, a familiar tickle. Though the pages that brushed against its scoliotic spine were curled with age, there was no mistaking the paper stock! Blinded by the canopy and irrevocably altered by a life’s hardships, it was impossible to conclude whether the encounter was a serendipitous rendezvous or nostalgic counterfeit. The two strangers rejoiced all the same, and laid side by side in blissful harmony in the darkness of Geppetto’s bargain bin. And they lived happily ever after there because no one reads anymore and no one remembers Fifty Shades of Grey.

Gone Home Review

ImageI awoke in my bedroom shortly after five, the palpable melancholy of Gone Home still fogging my mind. Though the simple narrative has its highs and lows, the net sum lingers like a loss. No game I’ve ever played has struck so strong an emotional chord, or played a dirge quite so beautifully. Spoiler alert: I wept.

But not for the reason you might expect, reading the premise. “You arrive home after a year abroad. You expect your family to greet you, but the house is empty. Something’s not right. Where is everyone? And what’s happened here?” Ideally, that’s all you should read before playing the game, which was recently released on PS4.

Like Dear Esther with a terrestrial dash of Metroid Prime, Gone Home is a game of exploration and quiet contemplation, though in every nook and cranny you’ll find vibrant artifacts of vanished lives: letters, bills, ticket stubs, and secret confessions. The thrust of the narrative is delivered via audio diary entries — movingly read by actress Sarah Robertson. As you roam the ominous Greenbriar estate, you begin to piece together a disquieting quilt of emotional isolation, the threads of which lead to the resolution of the game’s central mystery. The documents left behind, however implausibly, are haunting in the bittersweet triumphs, failures, and frustrations they express. Adding to the ambience as you explore, sheets of rain buffet the facade of the house, and thunder rolls down the lifeless halls.

The house, like the Greenbriers themselves, has its share of secrets. Hidden passageways snake between floors, unwittingly connecting generations of family history. Though most of the house can be explored in any order, several areas remain inaccessible without a key — the further you progress, the clearer and more satisfying the overall portrait becomes. Without giving anything away, I would posit that the year’s best character writing is here, even if the characters are not.

Still, Gone Home is destined to find detractors. Be advised that “gameplay” is limited to movement and interaction with specific objects, and those with more stringent definitions of what constitutes a “video game” may find themselves bored. Even if you are invested, the sheer number of rooms and objects to repetitively investigate can be daunting. And then there’s the L word — that’s right, Length. I played through the story in around three hours, and though the experience was far from technically perfect, the core experience is too powerful to write off.

Conceptually brilliant yet never conventionally “fun,” Gone Home is yet another talking point in the games-as-art debate that packs an unexpected emotional wallop. For gamers fatigued by cover systems and camping, developer The Fullbright Company offers a welcome respite in an eerie and unfamiliar place. You may finish Gone Home in a single sitting, but its restlessly melancholy tale of love and loss will be with you for many nights and early mornings to come.

The Revenant Review

revenant-gallery-20-gallery-imageWhat a year for westerns! From Fury Road’s post-apocalyptic riff on Stagecoach to Tarantino’s close-quarters talk-‘em-up The Hateful Eight and the wide-eyed austerity of Slow West, the genre has had its best year in… maybe ever. And that conversation gets a whole lot more interesting with the arrival of The Revenant, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s ambitious follow-up to 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman.

Based on Michael Punke’s 2002 book bearing the subtitle “A Novel of Revenge,” The Revenant casts Leonardo DiCaprio as frontiersman and father Hugh Glass, whose brutal encounter with a grizzly leaves him bloodied, broken, and—worst of all—in the care of nefarious fur trader John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald shirks his promise of a proper burial, leaving Glass with a parting mouthful of dirt in a shallow grave, alive and alone in the American wilderness.

Glass’ protracted recovery and dogged quest for vengeance unfurls with grace and menace—like smoke from a billowing campfire—into one of the most breathtaking survival stories of all time. Credit is owed in no small part to the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, whose résumé reads like a top ten list: Children of Men. Tree of Life. Birdman. Gravity. I could go on.

Yet his work on The Revenant taps into something deeper. Something primal. The landscapes he captures suggest the impossible majesty of our imagination or ancestral memory, from mossy primeval forests to immaculate snowcapped mountains to the ghostly pall of the moon in various phases of eclipse. These images, bolstered by a general dearth of dialogue, form a unique cinematic vernacular. If you’ve followed The Revenant through its troubled production at all over the past year, you’ll know that that achievement comes at a price.

“A living hell.” That’s how one crewmember described the shoot in an interview with Variety. According to Hardy, the film became colloquially known as “The Forevenant” among cast and crew over a grueling nine months on set. What accounts for that staggering schedule is Iñárritu’s insistence on shooting the film sequentially, using (almost) entirely natural light. With only a brief window in which to film, each day became a struggle against dusk, weather, and morale.

Perhaps then there’s a touch of legitimate fatigue that bleeds through into each exhausted performance. DiCaprio imbues Glass with almost supernatural drive, pressing ever onward on two shaky feet, caked in mud and blood, or slithering through grime, diving headfirst into raging rivers, and fighting—often literally—for survival in relentless pursuit of Hardy’s callous, sharky Fitzgerald. This is mostly Leo’s show, however, and he brings a harrowing, obsessive determination to the role—which many speculate may finally land him an overdue Oscar.

A moral chasm separates these two principal characters, but both teeter dangerously on the precipice of savage violence in each do-or-die moment they’re lucky enough to live. The dangerous world of The Revenant threatens at every turn to explode into a torrent of bloodshed, and the action set-pieces command attention through the sheer three-dimensionality of their carnage. Lubezki’s camera roves past plumes of smoke from discharged rifles as arrows puncture skulls and bullets flatten men.

The sum of these skirmishes is a battle-charred epic anchored by a simple, emotionally resonant story executed by consummate master craftsmen. The Revenant is alive with kinetic energy, yet shows expert command of pace and tone over the entirety of its 156-minute runtime. We’re left feeling as haggard and as hollow as the protagonist by the film’s final act, and the questions it leaves us with linger alongside a cumulative awe. This is Hollywood spectacle of the highest caliber, a breed of big-budget, down-and-dirty entertainment that doesn’t pander to its audience, doesn’t lean on cliché, and doesn’t take prisoners.

From the perspective of a beleaguered film crew, Iñárritu’s methodology may be questionable—but as a viewer, it’s hard to argue with his results. Depending on how you log it, The Revenant is either the best movie of a young 2016 or the best western of the year in a year of exceptional westerns. Its fearsome intensity is matched only by its creative fearlessness, and the evidence of its power is audible in the chorus of gasps that ring out from its rapt audience.

The Visit Review


Bring on the Shyamalanaissance! Seriously, I’ve been pulling for my boy M. Night since before he let fly the string of stinkers that turned the whole wide web against him, and The Visit is (hopefully) his first shaky step toward a complete career recovery. Arriving unfashionably late to the found-footage party, Shy Guy’s latest might easily be written off as a “me too” effort; a final, sad admission that the besmirched auteur—infamously hailed as a successor to Hitchcock—has at last resigned to life as a studio shill (the presence of producer Jason Blum here doesn’t exactly inspire confidence). It would be easy to write all that… if his new movie weren’t so much damn fun.

Even as a Shyamalan apologist, I write that last bit with something of an asterisk. Here’s the thing—I don’t think The Visit is an especially great film by any objective academic standard. It isn’t as brilliant as The Babadook or as creative as It Follows. It’s not even on par with Night in his prime. But those are probably the wrong comparison points. His scrappy comeback feels closer in spirit to a Sam Raimi gagfest than any of the above. There will be blood. There will be puke. There will be shit.

The basic thrust of the narrative revolves around teenage siblings Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould), who board a train bound for rural Pennsylvania for a weeklong stay at grandma’s house. Upon arrival however, Nana and Pop Pop display some bizarre eccentricities that may not be entirely harmless. It’s a back-to-basics thesis for Shyamalan, who’s coming off two 100+ million dollar blockbuster bombs. The simple story is bolstered by naturalistic performances by DeJonge and Oxenbould, who come across authentic almost to a fault—prepare to cringe with empathetic embarrassment as a 13-year-old white kid freestyle raps about pineapple upside-down cake. Yeah, boi.

That unbridled honesty is effectively juxtaposed against the comic absurdity of the film’s sick scares. Shyamalan has in the past employed humor to relieve tension, but here the line between horror and comedy is intentionally blurred; The Visit boasts as many uproarious laugh-out-loud moments as it does effective jump scares, and there’s a degree of overlap if you were to draw a Venn diagram. It’s these moments when the movie feels like it’s firing on all cylinders as a goofy, gross-out good time. So much so that its dodgy attempts at character development actually undercut the prevalent anarchic tone. The drama plays out competently enough, and it’s hard to fault Shyamalan for his doe-eyed earnestness, but I do feel the film could have benefited from a little less self-seriousness. The on-camera interviews feel especially hokey, providing a vehicle for schmaltz that sticks in the craw.

Still, Shyamalan seems limber working within the confines of the found-footage format, even poking fun at himself via DeJonge’s character, who documents the goings-on with precocious directorial indecision. Naturally, Night also exploits the medium’s requisite gimmicks, in addition to a few rare moments of inspired visual brilliance. One such sequence caps the film’s climax, elevating the DIY aesthetic into something unexpectedly beautiful. If only he had the balls to go out on that moment!

Depending on who you ask, M. Night Shyamalan has made either a couple bad movies, or a couple good ones. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, The Visit should be viewed with an open mind. Though far from perfect, it smartly toys with expectations both within the genre and within Night’s own catalog. At the very least, it’s proof the besmirched auteur still retains some of his past greatness, and at best provides a glimmer of hope that he may yet have his best years ahead of him. As for today, there’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had at grandma’s. You first.

Gone Girl Review


David Fincher seems at something of an impasse. Three long years have elapsed since he made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and a number of potential follow-ups have fizzled in the interim. Sony wouldn’t commit to a sequel, and the director came to loggerheads with Disney over a planned blockbuster adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He entered talks to direct Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs biopic, but that fell through too. The only concrete credit to Fincher’s name since 2011 is Netflix’s House of Cards. And then along comes Gone Girl.

Based on the bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl pitches a familiar premise: a woman disappears under suspicious circumstances, and a trickle of evidence begins to mount implicating her husband. The woman is Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), daughter of two celebrated children’s authors who reluctantly trades her New York City apartment for a flyover-state McMansion at the behest of her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), the kind of guy who plays Call of Duty and watches Adam Sandler movies. After five years their marriage has cooled, and on the morning of their anniversary, Amy vanishes.

Where Gone Girl goes psychologically with that conceit is of more interest to Fincher and Flynn than the physical whodunnit; the central mystery is unraveled by the movie’s midpoint. Owing to his wife’s popularity, Nick comes under intense scrutiny in the press. In turns portrayed as the beleaguered husband and the smirking sociopath, Nick’s every move is examined under a microscope and debated ad nauseum by rabble-rousing TV pundits. Throw in a jilted ex-lover (an icy Neil Patrick Harris) and an unscrupulous lawyer (Tyler Perry) and the crucible becomes even more volatile.

The casting is excellent and everyone impresses — including Rosamund Pike, who appears via flashbacks and narrates from Amy’s ominous diary. Affleck charms with his ambiguous everyman-isms, though those Batman muscles look a touch ridiculous in the ‘burbs. Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry both play admirably against type, and as always, David Fincher directs the shit out of every second of it.

Scenarios that might feel cheap or tawdry in the hands of a lesser filmmaker are elevated by Fincher’s dark vision and another oppressively atmospheric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Muted colors, simple framing, neat cuts: there’s a certain stylistic minimalism to the approach that the director seldom betrays. Fincher lets Flynn do most of the talking, and that’s the greatest weakness of Gone Girl. As compelling as the craft may be and as assured the direction, Gone Girl feels more like a beautiful exercise than an essential cinematic experience.

It’s an opportunity for Fincher to jingle his spurs after a prolonged hiatus and an opportunity for the cast to collaborate with one of the best filmmakers working today, but not a whole lot more. Especially as the successor to Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl can’t quite shake the “airport novel” stigma. Both films are perfectly entertaining adaptations, but it’s hard not to wish Fincher would aim a little higher. Gone Girl finds the director no further along artistically than he was three years ago: still at the top of his storytelling prowess, but in search of a tale to match his talent.

Gone Girl digs at the emotional damage men and women inflict on one another beneath the facade of a fairly typical potboiler. In all likelihood, your ability to enjoy the film will depend on the extent to which you appreciate filmmaking on a mechanical level, and your enthusiasm for another murder mystery from the guy who directed Zodiac and Seven. Fincher’s expressed interest in Jobs and Verne prove he’s still committed to telling a variety of stories, and if Gone Girl is a stopgap to projects of that caliber and ambition, it’s all the more worthy for it.

Boyhood Review

boyhood_promotionalstills3_1020_large_verge_medium_landscapeTwo moments in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood seemed absolutely real to me. It’s night, and in the skeleton of a half-finished home, a circle of teenage boys drink and butt egos. Amid angst and awkwardness, I feel a pang to reach for a beer can that isn’t there. Later, at a family birthday party, everyone claps as the flames of sixteen candles are blown out. For a split-second I feel I should be clapping too.

Boyhood pushes naturalism to its natural conclusion. The cast, including Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, ages twelve years over 164 minutes. The narrative experiment rarely feels written, with conflict evolving subtly from character rather than arbitrary plot. As such, Boyhood can feel unsatisfying in a strictly narrative sense. Like life, the series of scenes is no greater than the sum of its parts; better to enjoy it while it lasts than parse it for meaning that isn’t there.

We begin in 2002 with a seven-year-old Mason Jr. (Coltrane) staring into the sky. He is imaginative and bright, if a less than model student. Unlike his sister Sam (Linklater), who gets straight As and serenades him with “Oops!… I Did It Again,” adding insult to injury. Single mom Olivia (Arquette) does the parental heavy lifting, while Mason (Hawk) takes the kids camping and bowling and to baseball games on weekends.

As Mason Jr. grows, we see the ripples of his childhood widen. By high school, he’s a talented photographer who can’t be bothered to stick to the curriculum. And like those squares of wet paper drying in the darkroom, each scene in Boyhood is a snapshot of the character in a particular place and time. The finished film is a flipbook of those images, specific enough to feel deeply personal and universal enough to evoke empathy.

Though most of the drama is pared down to a believable scale, Linklater plays with suspense in certain scenes, inserting dangerous elements and subverting expectation. The moments that do acquiesce to sensationalism feel tonally out of place, jarring the audience temporarily back into their seats from the participatory place they sat prior. It’s a place Linklater has taken audiences Before.

Comparisons to the Before series, also starring Ethan Hawk, are inevitable. But where those films encapsulate the subtle nuances of adult life and love, Boyhood explores the broad, sweeping changes of adolescence. There is an inherent intimacy to Linklater’s esteemed trilogy: three films, two people, one conversation. Boyhood, by comparison, is an erratic EKG of feelings, places, people, and time coalesced into a well paced two-and-a-half hours. And yet, despite its ambition, Linklater’s tete-a-tete masterpiece remains the more impressive work. “Why am I here?” is as much a question for Boyhood as it is for its characters.

Still, simply existing is reason enough to recommend Richard Linklater’s impressive experiment. Boyhood cuts to the core of the human experience and delivers something engrossingly lifelike. Part drama, part time capsule, this series of vivid vignettes features opaque performances and honest observations on life from four unique perspectives: mother, father, daughter, son. Each of us has filled at least one of these roles in our lives, and will doubtless draw parallels with the characters on screen. For a split-second, they may even come to life.