Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Pee-wee's Big Holiday



Director: John Lee
Starring: Paul Reubens, Joe Magnaniello, Jessica Pohly, Alia Shawkat, Stephanie Beatriz, Brad William Henke, Hal Landon Jr., Diane Salinger, Patrick Egan, Tara Buck
Running Time: 89 min.
Rating: PG

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Any analysis or criticism of Pee-wee's Big Holiday should be prefaced with the acknowledgment that Paul Reubens is a comic genius and the stage character he created in the late 70's, but perfected in the mid 80's with his own Saturday morning children's program and two feature films, is a national treasure. Whatever went wrong with this effort can't fall on Reubens, regardless of the fact he happens to share a screenwriting credit on it. I'd like to believe his contributions were likely limited to whatever was needed to finally get this made. And after 25 years of waiting for this, can you really blame him? While we know he's been working Pee-wee comeback scripts for years, we also know their descriptions don't even slightly resemble what's seen here. And therein lies the problem. Despite the excruciating wait, this somehow still feels like a rush job unbefitting his unique talent.

Big Holiday isn't exactly a poor film, but it's just kind of there, containing occasional moments of inspired lunacy and inside jokes that capture prime Pee-wee and should moderately succeed at bringing grins to fans' faces. All things considered, it's actually pretty decent. It just doesn't feel important and there's this undercurrent of apathy that permeates through the low-budgeted picture, making it feel very "made-for-TV." Of course, it is, and this shouldn't be a bad thing considering the quality of most of what's on TV now far surpasses that of feature films. But with a larger than life character like Pee-wee, it's a problem. It's almost as if a committee got together and agreed to paint with only the broadest strokes possible in order to churn this out. "There. He's back. Happy now?"

Even if I can accept the excuse that we should all just be happy to see him again and don't deserve more, Reubens and the character sure do. Since the industry still seems to strangely insist he continue paying for a mistake he made decades ago, this project could almost be viewed as the latest punishment. Okay, maybe it's not that bad. But after a really promising premise, it starts to drag its feet in an effort to mimic Pee-wee's Big Adventure, making its trim 89 minutes start to feel far longer. Director John Lee does an adequate job with what he's given, but he's no Tim Burton, nor does anyone expect him to be. Tim Burton isn't even Tim Burton anymore. But there's nothing wrong with admitting we expected better, no matter how much it stings to say it.

Grey-suited, red-bow tied man-child Pee-wee Herman (Reubens) lives in the idyllic town of Fairville, rising each morning to repeat the same routine of hopping into his car, grabbing breakfast and greeting well-wishers on his way to his job as a short-order cook at Dan's Diner. It's there where he meets actor Joe Manganiello (actor Joe Manganiello), who Pee-wee only knows as a really cool guy on a motorcycle. After mixing Joe one of the "top 5" best chocolate shakes he's had in his life, the two discover they actually have a lot in common and become fast friends, leading to an invitation to Joe's upcoming birthday party in New York City. One problem: Pee-wee's never left his comfort zone of Fairville and has little desire to. But with Joe urging to take some risks and live a little, Pee-Wee embarks on his very first holiday, traveling cross-country and, of course, meeting some unusual characters along the way.

If there any jarring aspects to this journey, Pee-wee Herman isn't one of them, as he's preserved exactly as we remember him. In more ways than one. Thanks to even more make-up than usual and some invisibly impressive digital re-touching, the character hardly looks like he's aged a day. It was the right decision since we'd need to get around the reality that Reubens is in his early sixties now and the very nature of the Pee-wee character is rooted in his childlike demeanor and appearance. He remains frozen in a perpetual state of youthfulness, a concept that couldn't be more relevant to the film's narrative. For everything that does look cheap and low-budget here, it's a relief that those effects don't, further de-aging an actor who already looks younger than his age. Of course, an even easier solution would have been not waiting so damn long to make the movie.

As expected, Reubens slips back into the role like he never left and his performance is consistently likable and tonally on point, even when the material he's working with isn't. That should be a given, but after all this time there's no guarantees, so the film earns most of its big points there, and with the general thematic outline of the story. Then the praise starts dwindling and it's my sneaking suspicion that's where most of Reubens' creative input ended. It can't be proven, but I'll go out on a limb and hypothesize that producer Judd Apatow and Netflix executives "finessed" his ideas (which were likely edgier and more subversive), molding them into much of what the final product became. This theory could either be completely wrong, or perhaps scarier, that description may represent a tamer, more diplomatic version of what happened. Let's go with the former since the thought of Reubens having to severely compromise his creativity is too depressing to entertain.

Stuck in his daily routine, the change-resistant Pee-wee Herman's Pleasantville-esque hometown of Fairville is a great starting point that works to not only satisfy fans with a reintroduction, but gives newer viewers a glimpse into what he's all about. It only makes sense that this grown man who acts like a five-year old would be so set in his ways, opposing growth of any kind. Nearly everything that occurs in Fairville works, including Joe Manganiello's fun performance as "himself," proving wrong those who thought Pee-wee sharing the screen with a semi-famous co-star would be a distraction. If anything, there scenes together prove to be the film's highlight, as Pee-wee's obliviousness to the actor's identity and career turns into one of their best exchanges.

It's when we hit the road that things start to go downhill, or at least seem more hit-or-miss in terms of humor. While the clear inspiration for this journey is 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, this film hasn't nearly the same scope or novelty to get away with that so it feels less like a spiritual sequel than an inferior copy. But we're apparently forgetting that film existed since they claim the character has never left his homtown or been on a vacation of any kind. The comic pit-stops vary in quality, with the worst taking up the most amount of screen time, as a 50's inspired biker gang of women bank robbers (played by Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz and Alia Shawkat) ripped right out of a Russ Meyer film kidnap Pee-wee. Better is his encounter with a farmer (Hal Landon Jr.) whose nine daughters each want a piece of him, but even that joke eventually wears out its welcome before being beaten into the ground.

Intermittent moments of genuine warmth and comedy are occasionally overshadowed by this feeling that something's off with tone or gags just simply drag on endlessly without a satisfying payoff. The exceptions involve two wonderful turns from Patrick Egan as a traveling salesman and Big Adventure alum Diane Salinger as a Katharine Hepburn-inspired aviator with a flying car. Those segments really hit the mark, as do Pee-Wee's fantasy flashforward sequences at Joe's party. Unfortunately, by the third act, the action feels like such a slog I was looking at my watch wondering if he'd ever get there. And when he actually does, it's actually kind of a letdown. Luckily, Mark Mothersbaugh's score does an effective job capturing the magical whimsy of Pee-wee's universe better than perhaps the screenplay does.

It's doubtful anyone was under the illusion that Pee-wee Herman would return in exactly the same capacity he left us over 25 years ago, nor would we necessarily want him to. Time has passed and that would be impossible. But what went wrong with this project speaks to a larger problem evident in the shocking lack of promotion for what should have been a big deal. Studios want to reap the rewards of cashing in on nostalgia without the monetary risk that comes from going all in, so they only dip their feet in the water. Yes, it's great to see him again, and even with all its flaws, it's a testament to Reubens' talent that the originality of his creation still manages to still shine through. And for that, Pee-wee's Big Holiday couldn't possibly go down as a complete disappointment. Just a partial one. 
               

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Joy



Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Isabella Crovetti-Cramp 
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

In David O. Russell's Joy, Jennifer Lawrence proves she can even make a mop interesting. The opening title card informs us this "Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular." That one woman in particular is Joy Magnano, a divorced mother of three who went from near- poverty to selling her invention of the Miracle Mop and becoming the queen of home shopping television. Knowing of her products but very little about the person behind them, I accidentally stumbled upon one of her shows on the Home Shopping Network right before the release of the film, the timing of which couldn't have been coincidental. "Wait, she's playing HER?" No way could I picture it. Even if she'd be playing Joy at a much younger age, the nature of the role still suggested the casting of an older actress, a complaint Lawrence must be sick of hearing by now. Plus, there's that pesky problem of convincing audiences to show up to a movie about a woman selling mops.

Upon its release, Joy opened with a thud, equally alienating moviegoers and critics, with the latter giving Russell some of his worst reviews since his creative reemergence a few years back. But what's so funny about this is how no one really came out and said exactly what was wrong with it, throwing around generalizations like "crazy" and "unfocused" and even going so far as to express disappointment that film dared to be more than its trailers insinuated. What's actually most perplexing about Joy is that it couldn't be any more straightforward.

This isn't a mess. There isn't a problem with tone. And whatever fudging was done with the facts or pre-production hiccups that occurred, it's very clearly Joy Magnano's story, as listed in the credits. But more than that, it's told brilliantly, furthering cementing Russell's genius and bolstering his reputation as one of the most visually innovative directors working today. Combing elements of comedy, drama and thriller into the biopic that really isn't, its biggest attribute is how unflinching it is in showing the painful sacrifices and obstacles that accompany invention. Few films covering this topic have been stronger or more illuminating.

It's 1989 and Joy (Lawrence) is a single mother of two living on Long Island with her young kids, divorced parents Rudy (Robert DeNiro) and Terri (Virginia Madsen), grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) and ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramirez). Between working the desk at Eastern Airlines, breaking up her parents' fights and balancing her father's books at the auto shop, Joy's barely scraping by financially, putting her dreams on hold to take care of her dysfunctional family. Frequently flashing back to happier times, she recalls a childhood full of building and creating things, a hobby that fell to the wayside when her parents divorced 17 years ago. Now her dad's dating a wealthy Italian widow named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and her mom lies on the coach all day, obsessively watching soap operas. 

For Joy, inspiration comes in the form of a blueprint for a self-wringing mop she hopes to patent and sell. Supported by her lifelong best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) but discouraged by just about everyone else in her family, including her overachieving half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), she attempts to secure the financing necessary to manufacture and sell the product. And that's where the trouble starts, as a series of severe mistakes and complications lead her to literally risk everything for the pursuit of her dream.

Joy takes care of the household since all the other adults in her life behave like grown children, but the second she needs one favor, they seem to rub her nose in it, at times almost willing things to go wrong. And do they ever go wrong. What the film does really well is show how frustrating it is to be an intelligent person surrounded by irritating know-it-alls. And when those know-it-alls are your family, it gets even uglier. Coming up with the idea is the easy part compared to what follows, as her struggles demonstrate that you could have the most creative, original idea on the planet and it's likely no one can notice or care unless you're willing to fight for it.

A good eighty to ninety percent of the story is about financial disaster, which is kind of fascinating when you consider how many people are out there are pitching their ideas, but just don't have the resources at their disposal to make it happen. The script also harkens back to this interesting notion that sometimes the clearest, purest vision of what you want to do comes in childhood, and your adult life can be spent drifting away from it, hoping you'll return to shore. That's why the flashback scenes featuring a young Joy (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) are so essential.   

This is really one of the first films to get into the nuts and bolts of patenting an idea, and since Russell keeps things moving and visually engaging, it never seems like a business procedural or tutorial session. Whether it's the hiring of an incompetent lawyer, getting ripped off by the shady manufacturer, or having to take out a second mortgage on her house, she really could lose everything. And the involvement of her family in this enterprise only seems to increase those chances, as they're all more woefully ill-equipped at making these decisions than she is.

The worst of the bunch is Trudy, who Rossellini plays with this unlikable iciness, embodying a woman who feels her unearned wealth entitles her to an alarming degree of control. It is her money Joy's playing with, but all bets are off once she arrogantly holds it over her and pretends to be an expert in something she knows nothing about. DeNiro's Rudy seems to be almost a comic figure at first, before the actor peels back the layers to reveal that Joy shouldn't have stood a chance in life with him as a father. As much as Joy's ex-husband, the failed singer Tony, is presented as a loser with few prospects, he's ironically the only person that has her back and best interests in mind, often sensing disaster before anyone else who should know better.   

The high-water mark comes about midway through when Joy finds herself at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania headquarters of then-fledgling home shopping channel, QVC and Russell takes us into a universe we've never seen before. For her, it may as well be another universe entirely. Everything that transpires in this entire section is enthralling, from how Russell shoots it to some of the backstage details and characters we're exposed to (including an out-of-left-field cameo by Melissa Rivers playing her mom). But what's most memorable is Bradley Cooper's brief but pivotal appearance as network executive Neil Walker. Tasked with explaining the company's purpose and taking her on a tour of the facilities, Cooper rattles an almost endless amount of dialogue and expository information about the inner workings of QVC without ever failing to completely hold our interest.

It's almost scary how effective Cooper is here, finding just the right note for this guy, who's no-nonsense and bottom line oriented while still being relatively sympathetic to Joy's situation. He doesn't get a ton of screen time, but his scenes are some of the most crucial of the film, and he plays them just right,  with Cooper continuing to prove how interesting a performer he's become. Of course, this eventually culminates in Joy herself having to pitch her product on-air and under lights, with no TV experience under her belt. A first for the network that relies on experienced sellers and celebrities to handle the on-air pitching duties. 

The moments of uplift in Joy are few and far between. In fact, you could really only name two. A seemingly certain victory that ends up being short-lived and a final confrontation in a hotel room that's so tense and tightly written it could easily be found in a psychological thriller. This should be admired on a number of levels, not the least of which being Lawrence's Oscar- nominated performance, as she somehow pulls it off again, amazing us in a role she should be completely wrong for.

If it seems as if the Jennifer is playing older than she ever has, it could be attributed to the fact that this character had to take on a huge amount of responsibility at a young age. As it turns out, Joy Mangano was actually in her mid-thirties at the time so Lawrence really is playing ten years older than she is. And once again, when the cameras roll, a transformation takes place in her we'd never think to question. It's a gift she has for playing these strong, but ultimately damaged women and the performance shies away from the ugliness of some of the character's questionable choices. But when push comes to shove, like Joy, she's capable of bringing it when necessary. It also speaks volumes that there's no love interest, making it clear exactly where this story's focus lies.

Reuniting with Russell earned her Lawrence a third Oscar nomination (following her 2013 win for Silver Linings Playbook) so it's impossible to argue she even needs to take things in a different direction, regardless of this film's reception. And while it can be a questionable habit for directors to continuously work with the same cast for multiple projects, there's no need to fix what isn't broken since he's also gotten such wildly different work out of Cooper and DeNiro in each of them, with the former at the top of his game in this.

It's ironic that those calling for a return to the more risk-taking Russell of his earlier days are complaining the style he employs here is too far out there and crazy. Other than the aforementioned flashback scenes, a soap opera framing device and a voice-over narration from beyond the grave (all of which work), this could be considered a straightforward biopic. Or at least it would be in the hands of anyone else.

Russell knows how to infuse a simple story with this manic energy and turn it into so much more than what it appears to be at its surface, a quality never more apparent than in the final minutes, when he transitions from the most hurtful, devastating scene into a succeeding one of pure triumph. We should have known better. If someone can make a compelling movie about the founding of a web site, there was no reason to believe it couldn't also be done for the invention of a mop. Like any story, you just need the right director and cast to make it.
     

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Creed



Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Wood Harris, Andre Ward, Gabriel Rosado, Ritchie Coster
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

If it's true that everything starts with an idea, it helps to have a really good one and the ability to deliver on it. I'd imagine director/co-writer Ryan Coogler's pitch of a new Rocky film was initially met with a skeptical eye roll from both studio executives and maybe even a few of the actors he approached to be a part of it. And given the state of the franchise after some underwhelming sequels and a disappointing 2006 curtain call, it's hard to blame them. Despite not counting myself a huge fan of the original and among those frequently questioning its 1977 Best Picture victory in a highly competitive year, even I'd have trouble denying its cultural impact. It's one of the few Oscar winners still remembered and talked about to this day, regardless of the extent to which its sequels somewhat tarnished its legacy.

Anyone looking to recapture the feelings of goodwill that first film generated in so many you'd need a really strong narrative hook. With Creed, Coogler finds it. And in doing so he makes the ultimate Rocky movie and the one everyone's been waiting for without knowing they wanted it. In the most purely honest way possible, he tricks us into watching another entry by not making one. It isn't until the last scene that you realize what happened, and by the point, you're at too much of an emotional high to get hung up on it. By their very nature, sports movies follow a certain formula, but in the best ones there's this magic that takes place that transports audiences and makes them forget, even as the script and its characters sink deeply into it. Formulas do exist for a reason, but a good director, like a magician, never reveals his tricks. In Creed, all the wheels are turning but we're never consciously aware of the machinations.

Cleverly, the sequel/spin-off is jump-started with one question: What about Apollo Creed? We know Rocky's opponent, friend and mentor (played by Carl Weathers) died in the ring, but he left someone behind. A son from an extramarital affair named Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who's been fighting and starting trouble since his days at a youth detention facility in the late 90's. It wasn't until Apollo's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) took him in that he started to have anything resembling a normal upbringing. Fifteen years later, he's on the fast track to a promotion at a Los Angeles-based financial firm, even as something eats away at him. He goes down to Tijuana on the weekends to box, demonstrating the burning desire to fight that's persisted since childhood.

After being rejected at his father's gym, he quits his job and heads to Philadelphia, landing at the doorstep of Adrian's restaurant and in front of the only man he knows can train him: His dad's opponent, friend and mentor, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Initially reluctant, Rocky agrees, but when word gets out that Donnie is Creed's son, the marketing potential of that teaming can't be ignored, so despite being nowhere near ready, Donnie must prepare for the fight of his life against the world lightweight champion, "Pretty" Ricky Conlon (Tony Bellew), an intimidating British brute preparing for a retirement bout before he heads to prison. And in doing this, Donnie must not only come to terms with taking on his late father's name, but do justice to his legacy even as he struggles with his own.

All this manages to work so well due to a series of creative decisions made by Coogler that are played to perfection, each piece of the puzzle organically falling into place to create a maximum entertainment experience from start to finish. It isn't much of a stretch to buy that Apollo Creed has an illegitimate son who felt abandoned, or that he'd harbor much of the rage his father did, not to mention many of his fighting skills. And it's even less of one to believe that the emotionally beat down Rocky we see here (an incarnation that's a far cry from any previous outing) wouldn't want to be near the ring again in any capacity, either as a cornerman or trainer because of what it dredges up. But we also know that he can't resist and as much as the underdog story parallels that of the original, it's surprising just how different it feels in both tone and execution, shot and edited to more closely resemble something grittier, like Southpaw or The Fighter. And Ludwig Göransson's soundtrack effectively pays tribute to pieces of Bill Conti's original score without attempting to slavishly mimic or overuse it.

There's an urgency here that went missing through most of the sequels and a familiarity in also acknowledging their purposeful existence in getting the characters to this point, most of whom we're meeting for the first time. The result feels new and fresh, releasing the franchise of the baggage and stigma that's weighed it down over the past couple of decades. This is the mentor role Stallone should have probably played already, but feels strangely even more appropriate now because he's at the stage of his life and career where he's caught up to us, and feels ready. In a way, it's similar to Mickey Rourke's role in The Wrestler in how it works on this meta level that almost makes it impossible to separate the role from what we know about the actor playing it. He's not at all "playing himself" but rather using his and the character's rich history to create this whole other layer from which he draws from to create this deep performance, his strongest and quietest dramatic turn since Copland.

When a development occurs that turns Rocky's world inside-out it should feel manipulative, but doesn't because Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington understand that this is the natural progression for a lonely guy who's world really ended when Adrian died. Much like the series itself, he was just going through the motions. Training Donnie briefly alleviates that and Stallone's scenes opposite the perfectly cast Jordan are magnificent, recalling not only the best training sequences from the Rocky films, but some of the more memorable mentoring relationships captured on film, like that in The Karate Kid.

Previously working with Coogler when he played shooting victim Oscar Grant in 2013's Fruitvale Station, Jordan gave a superb performance in service of a film that didn't completely return the favor. With it came the responsibility of playing a real-life figure whose death ignited a firestorm of controversy. Here, he's shouldering a different kind of responsibility, and as the centerpiece and driving force behind an iconic franchise, he's the new Rocky. Or more accurately, the first Adonis Creed, with Jordan drawing on his own physical preparation for the role and natural charisma and intensity. He leaves little doubt Adonis is very much his father's son, and it's only when he comes around to fully accepting that, will he be able to step out from behind his shadow.

But his trajectory does seem to mirror Rocky's more than his dad's with not only his untrained underdog status as a fighter, but burgeoning relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a hearing impaired musician in his building whom he starts to date. Even this is handled exceptionally well, as intrinsically weaved into the plot as Rocky's romance with Adrian. It helps that the completely engaging and likable Thompson shines in every scene she's given, sharing excellent chemistry with her co-star. It's kind of one of those happy surprises that this turns out as well as it does, while also managing to be subtly touching at times, never forcing the issue. Just two great actors doing their thing.

For the first time in a while it feels like we're building to a fight worthy of the hype it's gotten through faux HBO video packages cleverly interspersed into the film, raising the stakes much higher than they've been in the franchise's recent history. Creed's opponent is a monster who carries himself like a serial killer and has about ten times the experience, practically mirroring Balboa's predicament in the original. With an outcome that's legitimately in doubt, the final fight is masterfully filmed and edited, giving us room to breathe and take in the action, showing just how far the staging of these sequences have come since the worst of the previous installments. Everything about this carries a "big fight" feel, and the result is the right one, despite my worries of its implications for the franchise moving forward.

As much as I care what happens to these characters, I'm still hesitant in wanting more. While I loved what we got, and maybe even prefer it to the original in many ways, part of me wishes they'd stop here before it's too late. We all know that won't happen as long as there's money to be made, but the last thing we need is a succession of inferior sequels made by rotating directors that devalue the achievement of Coogler and his talented cast. But who knows? Maybe it's possible to craft a worthy Creed follow-up if everyone's on the same page. But it'll be tough to top the rush you get here when the Rocky theme swells up at just the right moment, knowing it's being played again in a movie that's truly earned it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

11.22.63



Creator: Bridget Carpenter
Starring: James Franco, Chris Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Lucy Fry, George MacKay, Daniel Webber, Cherry Jones, Kevin J. O'Connor, Josh Duhamel, Nick Searcy, Jonny Coyne, Tonya Pinkins, Gil Bellows
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

There's always been this inherent problem in crafting any piece of entertainment around the altering an important historical event, especially one as controversial and heavily debated as the Kennedy assassination. For valid reasons it's rarely been attempted in either film or television, and the few times it has resulted in the material being handled with kid gloves, as if the creative forces at the helm were too afraid of tackling the event head-on, "changing" real history within a work of complete fiction. If altering too much brings with it accusations of exploitation and sensationalism, then anything short of that would be considered wimping out.
This problem even affected the greatest time travel series, Quantum Leap, when the writers got an unusual case of cold feet when depicting the event in 1992's two-part season opener, "Lee Harvey Oswald."

11.22.63 on Hulu
Since the real conflict about attempting to stop the Kennedy Assassination lies in how far the writers are willing to go, it's only fitting that Hulu's original miniseries, 11.22.63, comes from the mind and pen of Stephen King. The author who's always had a problem with endings. And while he has a notoriously spotty track record with TV adaptations of his own work, it's to his and our benefit that this is a new era where the quality of these miniseries often exceed anything on the big screen, overseen by experienced showrunners that limit the need for King's creative involvement. With producers J.J. Abrams and Bridget Carpenter at the controls, this had as good a shot as any of his material at being a slam dunk adaptation. With the author's ideas usually working best as a jumping off point, it would be fascinating to see where they'd go with this, what they'd change or keep, and how the material could be condensed into 8 hour-long episodes.

With topnotch production design and direction, there's an urgency to the proceedings anchored by a phenomenal lead performance from an actor who initially seems miscast and an even better one from an actress who's career will undoubtedly skyrocket off the back of this. But most unexpectedly, the story transcends the assassination, with the event itself often successfully taking a backseat to the human drama and larger points made about society and the passage of time. It manages to go all in, taking a clear stand on the potential conspiracy and making no bones about the fact that our protagonist is there to physically stop this, regardless of the dangerous obstacles or consequences it would entail.

Jake Epping (James Franco), a recently divorced English teacher from Lisbon, Maine makes a stop into the diner of his good friend, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), who offers him the opportunity of a lifetime. A chance to travel back to the 1960's via a portal in the restaurant's storage closet. But this won't be a vacation, as Jake's job is to complete a herculean mission Al couldn't pull off himself: Preventing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In Vietnam vet Al's view, that murder set off a chain reaction from which the country never recovered, altering for the worse the course of his life and many others he's known. He's not only prepared a detailed file for Jake with background and instructions on how to accomplish this task, but primed him on how to first determine whether there was a conspiracy.

Jake and Al survey the evidence
After a sudden turn of events leads to Jake reluctantly accept Al's challenge and travel through the portal, his trip to the past becomes more complicated when he becomes attached to the past, forming a relationship with Jodie, Texas school librarian, Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon). But with the clock rapidly counting down to November 22, 1963 and the past's unseen forces working against him, he must find a way to neutralize Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) and uncover the former Marine sniper's connection to the C.I.A. before The President's motorcade travels through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

Having only read the first few chapters of King's novel before deciding to return to it after viewing the miniseries, there aren't many side-by-side comparisons I'd feel comfortable making. But after similar openings there is supposedly a point where this version deviates heavily, cherry-picking certain key elements to build its own universe that can fill the running time. As he previously proved in his short story, The Langoliers (itself adapted into a 1995 miniseries) the author is, if nothing else, a brilliantly twisted "idea man" when it comes to time travel. If in that tale, traumatized surviving airline passengers wake to discover the vacant past has moved forward without them, King presents an equally compelling notion here of the past "pushing back," stopping Jake from changing it. In a way, that makes perfect sense since the entire notion of altering the past is built on upsetting the universe.

You could imagine that in the hands of lesser directors and screenwriters than Abrams crew, that this idea of the past striking back (let's call it "subtly posing obstacles") could turn into a disaster, with plot contrivances and supernatural interference galore. There's certainly some of that and the Jake character definitely makes the past's job a lot easier with some ridiculous decision-making, but isn't this the hallmark of most time travel entertainment? Still, even if irresponsibility from the traveler is a perquisite for the genre, Jake is very dense.

Jake Epping arrives in the 1960's
How much of the protagonist's carelessness simply services the needs of the story, is the past's doing, or qualifies as just plain sloppy screenwriting is open for interpretation, but Jake isn't exactly careful when he arrives in 1960, a full three years before the assassination. That arrival time and the fact he's allowed to go back through the portal and reset (or erase) what he's done are really the only rules here, since Jake goes about breaking every other one Al warns him about, his actions constantly threatening to create a "butterfly effect" in the future. He doesn't exactly keep a low profile.

Whether he's buying a flashy period car, dropping his iphone and future news clippings about the shooting, giving impromptu tours of Dealey Plaza or placing sports bets large enough to make Biff Tannen blush, it isn't out of the realm of possibility to consider Kennedy was probably fine before Jake arrived. The first few episodes do in fact recall Back to the Future in how we have a crazed Doc Brown-like character in Al roping Jake into this plan and the initial scenes of our wide-eyed protagonist awed by an idealized 1960's that looks and feels authentically warm and inviting. But this is Stephen King. It won't last.

Boasting some of the more impressive photography, costuming and production for Hulu, it's clear they spared no expense and every bit of it is on the screen. With these kind of projects being shortchanged so many times throughout the author's career, it's nice to see one finally treated with the pedigree it deserves. One of the most impressive moments of the series comes when Jake's walking the hallway as school banners subtly change to indicate a jump forward in time.

Jake and Bill wiretap Lee Harvey Oswald
Preventing this culture-shifting event and managing the investigation accompanying it is really hard work. So much so that at one point Jake basically throws his hands up in the air and gives up, turning his attention to preventing another traumatic event that hits closer to his home. That is until he's forced out of necessity to bring along an assistant of sorts and go back to Dallas to finish what he intended to start. That assistant is high-strung bartender Bill Turcotte (George MacKay) and while that character's role is supposedly expanded from the book, he does accomplish something important creatively.

Without a sidekick, it's likely viewers would be forced to watch Jake plan all this alone, talking to himself as we're punished by long, drawn-out voiceovers reciting endless passages of King's book. At least here he has someone to bounce off of and share the screen with and their interactions provide some of the series' biggest laughs, whether intentional or not. Jake just leaving him above Oswald's apartment to record everything he does for months at a time while he goes to work as schoolteacher is a particular highlight. While it's easy to quibble with where they eventually take the Bill character and his overall purpose, the series wouldn't be nearly as entertaining without him or McKay's loony performance.

The big question of whether James Franco can do anything or just simply chooses to do everything he can should occupy the thoughts of most watching. Could they have picked a more jarringly modern-looking actor to play a character transported to the 1960's? Maybe that was exactly the point, but before long, Franco proves he's capable of this too, throwing himself into everything the role requires. And it gets surprisingly ugly at times since Jake rarely thinks of anyone beyond himself, frequently losing sight of why he's there. It's fun watching Franco continue to grow into the part with each passing episode, and as more is asked of him, he turns in this great old school leading man performance that's bursting with humor and humanity.

Sarah Gadon as Sadie Dunhill
It's easy to see why Franco's character is so distracted since Sarah Gadon is nothing short of a revelation as  small town librarian and accidental witness to history, Sadie. As a living, breathing artifact from a different time, it's perfect casting, but the actress goes beyond nailing easily noticeable 60's details such as accent and manner to adding little details that make her feel like much more than a love interest or plot device. An argument can be made the entire story revolves around her, and while Franco's terrific, it's at least conceivable another actor could have played Jake, albeit differently. Gadon is irreplaceable, and without her, so much of what occurs in the last few episodes wouldn't carry nearly the same resonance.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, right down to Daniel Webber's psychotically unhinged portrayal of Oswald, which straddles an uncomfortable line of moral ambiguity we haven't previously seen in cinematic depictions of the assassin. He seemingly alternates from sad to scary at an instant. In a memorable supporting turn an alcoholic wife beater, Josh Duhamel finds a part he seems born to play, channeling that aura of jock cockiness into a raging 60's bully with greased hair and rolled-up sleeves.

T.R. Knight follows suit as Sadie's husband, delivering a creepy, threatening performance that's not only a far cry from Grey's Anatomy, but feels most at home in the Stephen King universe. And while their characters undeservedly get the short end of the stick in the closing episodes, Nick Searcy and Tonya Pinkins respectively shine in their scenes as the Jodie High School principal and administrator. Despite top billing, a haggard-looking Chris Cooper has similarly brief screen time as Al, present mainly to deliver time travel exposition that informs the rest of the series.

Oswald (Daniel Webber) poses for an infamous photo
As the hours, minutes and seconds close in it only makes sense that the past would push back harder than ever, throwing obstacle it can in Jake's path. The physical manifestation of this resistance comes in the "Yellow Card Man" (Kevin J. O' Connor) who pops up now and again throughout the series to warn our protagonist about the futility of attempting to change the past. Supposedly, the book goes into further detail about him, but despite my worries that this would indicate the supernatural side of King's brain taking over the screenplay, that doesn't happen. It's handled pretty well. After numerous disasters and miscalculations by the bumbling Jake, it's not a spoiler to reveal Oswald does eventually sit at his perch on the sixth floor of southeast corner window of the Book Depository with boxes stacked, armed with his Carcano carbine rifle

Whether he it's Oswald who delivers the fatal shot, whether the fatal shot is even fired, how many shooters there are, and the potential ramifications for history should this event not occur, are all questions the writers had to ask themselves since viewers will undoubtedly be asking them too, before demanding answers. It's a tough spot to be in and one made even tougher by the fact that they're adapting an author who often struggles with satisfying conclusions and had the original ending of this novel thrown out and revised by his own son. Readers will feel strongly attached to how the miniseries should end.

And as far as King endings go, this one's far from a disaster. The screenplay overemphasizes the potential consequences of an alternate outcome that probably played better in book form, but it's still immensely satisfying, at least committing to an finale that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of the history-defining event. The result ranks somewhere between the middle to top tier of King adaptations, certainly leaving in the dust some of the more problematic offerings that have sullied the author's cinematic reputation in years past. There are points that feel rushed and you can almost tell without having read the novel what was shortchanged, but it's kind of amazing just how immersive 11.22.63 still manages to be in light off its inevitable limitations. It's one of the rare King adaptations that doesn't feel entirely compromised, creating an experience you could hardly consider a waste of time.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fuller House


 
Creator: Jeff Franklin
Starring: Candace Cameron Bure, Jodie Sweetin, Andrea Barber, Michael Campion, Elias Harger, Soni Nicole Bringas, Dashiell and Fox Messitt, Juan Pablo Di Pace, John Brotherton, Scott Weinger, John Stamos, Lori Loughlin, Dave Coulier, Bob Saget
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Recently, I read an article about a scientific study conducted on nostalgia. The findings were somewhat surprising in how it revealed that being enraptured by these warm, fuzzy recollections of the past can be positive, helping us move forward. The reasoning was that we tend to look back on anything from our past as being much better than it actually was. I tried to keep this in mind while watching the somewhat excruciating pilot episode of Netflix's Full House reboot/spin-off, Fuller House. In it, the very definition of the phrase, "Be careful what you wish for" is pushed to its breaking point, as every beloved character from the classic TGIF sitcom barges into the original house within minutes, spewing their catchphrases as if no time passed at all. In fairness, the actors all look great, but it's a lot to take in at once, testing even the most dedicated diehards patiently waiting thirty years for a moment that not only drags on too long, but feels more like a Fallon skit without the laughs.

Fuller House on Netflix
When creator Jeff Franklin said the first episode (Ep. 1.1, "Our Very First Show, Again") would essentially be a reunion show, he wasn't kidding. It goes on for 38 minutes and unfortunately it's hard not to feel each and every one, confirming fears that Netflix executives think that just rounding the original cast up for a victory lap is good enough. They did it with Arrested Development and then again with Wet Hot American Summer, thinking we'd be satisfied by merely seeing everyone together again (or in the former's case, seeing them separately). Even Full House's classic theme song (the catchy "Everywhere You Look," originally performed by Jesse Frederick) gets a peppy, if initially jarring, cover by Carly Rae Jepsen that kind of grows on you. It's set against an opening credits sequence that's still leaning a bit too heavily on the old cast, at least in the pilot.

Nothing really clicks in the first episode, whether it's a gag about Stephanie's newly acquired British accent, a meta, fourth wall-breaking joke at the expense of the Olsen twins, Bob Saget looking like he just woke up or Dave Coulier's comic antics aging poorly. And while the older cast members have never seemed more off their game than in these initial minutes, it's still important to remember they're only as good as the material they're given and adults watching now were children when the series initially aired. Then comes the big moment toward the end of the episode. Just when I was just about to give up all hope, it's Candace Cameron Bure to the rescue. She has this one pivotal scene that convinces us maybe creator Jeff Franklin does have a plan. That he knows where to take this.

Now comes the good news. That first episode is not only by far the series' worst, it's really the only stinker of the thirteen. And as much as it pained me to type all that about something I'd long consider a slam dunk on paper, it only applies to the pilot. There was a better way to do that and I certainly shouldn't want to be warning any original cast members to not let the door hit them on the way out. So to be nice, I'll instead warn bingers to skip to episode 2, which is where Fuller House actually begins, or should have began. And you know what? It's really good. In fact, you could go as far as to say that of Netflix's rescusitations of dormant, nostalgic properties, this is easily the strongest as far as both constructing a logical continuation of the original series and capturing the spirit and feeling with which it was created.

"Olsens, where are you?"
Of course, given that this was a family sitcom rarely cited for creative brilliance, it has a relatively lower bar to clear compared to those aforementioned reboots. A more appropriate comparison point might be the recent Girl Meets World. But it's fascinating to examine why this worked, and why nearly all that does comes from narrowing the focus on all the right characters, and finding new ones that can perfectly compliment them. After a rough opening, the show (while still not without problems) starts finding its groove, making for some mindlessly fun, addictive TV that recalls the family sitcoms of Full House's era, and a time when families would gather around together to watch them.

Recently widowed veterinarian D.J. Tanner-Fuller (Cameron Bure) is now in a similar position to that of her father over thirty years ago, as her firefighter husband Tommy's sudden death leaves her to take care of three sons, teenager Jackson (Michael Campion), 7 year-old Max ( Elias Harger) and baby Tommy, Jr. (Dashiell and Fox Messitt). Obviously overwhelmed and desperate for help, she accepts an offer from her younger sister Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) and childhood best friend, Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber) to move into the original Tanner house with them, the latter bringing along her half-Latin teenage daughter, Ramona (Soni Nicole Bringas). While keeping busy with their own endeavors, Tanner patriach Danny (Saget), Jesse (John Stamos) and Becky (Lori Loughlin), and Uncle Joey (Coulier), still pop up in San Francisco to lend a hand to D.J., who's trying to adjust to her new, extremely hectic life as a single mother.

The casting and story focus are the easiest elements to identify as succeeding from the get-go. Once all the supporting players from the original take leave after the pilot and are reduced to recurring roles, we're left with the core three: D.J., Stephanie and Kimmy. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the four new kids (or five, taking the Messitt twins into account) and one really annoying appendage of an ex-husband for Kimmy. It was the right decision to have the series revolve around D.J. while Stephanie's involved in a major way and Kimmy Gibbler is, well, Kimmy Gibbler. If you were a fan of that character you still will be and if you weren't, then nothing's changed and you'll still find her irritating. Isn't that the point?

The Tanner/Gibbler clan
Keeping the setting in San Francisco and even going so far as to have it in the same house was also smart. Whereas a Boy Meets World spin-off could afford to shift locations from Philadelphia to New York with little harm done to the creative integrity of the series or its characters, the city of San Francisco is just too ingrained into the fabric of Full House to even attempt justifying such a move. Just look at the opening credits.

If Franklin made a mistake hammering us over the head with too many characters in the opening episode, he finds the right balance for the remaining twelve, and further atones for it with the casting of these new kids. Elias Harger as Max is a little ham and mini-Danny Tanner who steals every scene he's in while Michael Campion as sarcastic, but good-hearted older brother Jackson will be relatable to younger male viewers everywhere. The Messitt twins are actually cuter babies than the Olsens, both filling that perceived void as Tommy, Jr. And if Kimmy Gibbler had a daughter, chances are she would look and act exactly like Soni Bringas' Ramona, who's a bit less goofy than her mom since it would be tough not to be. She also gets to gamely deliver the one inside joke at the expense of the Olsen twins that does hit the mark, earning some well deserved laughs.  

Most of the episodes follow a structure that would be familiar to anyone raised on 80's family sitcoms, and probably even to many who weren't. There's some kind of crisis or complication of some sort that usually wraps up with a big lesson being learned. In this first season, it includes story arcs involving compromise, divorce, change, sibling rivalries, dating, crushes, blackmail, lying and discipline. And of course, a few guest stars show up to test the definition of the term "guest star," unless singer Macy Gray, Maksim and Val Chmerkovskiy from Dancing with the Stars, the San Francisco Giants' Hunter Pence were exactly who you had in mind.

D.J. and Dr. Matt at a giants game
Three of those guests conveniently serve as excuses for a few of the season's many dance/musical scenes, while the Pence appearance is actually kind of great. The fact that they picked the most insane player in the Giants line-up to date Stephanie (Ep. 1.10, "A Giant Leap") and then actually had her refer to him as "crazy eyes" should be enough to make anyone's day. The episode only ranks behind D.J. Tanner's impromptu match for a Mexican wrestling promotion (Ep. 1.6, "The Legend of El Explosivo") during which Cameron Bure shockingly does all her own stunts, proving to be skilled enough in the ring to have this be a second career. 

The show does contain two sub-plots that seem to permeate through all thirteen episodes. The first is a love triangle in which D.J. is torn between her new veterinary co-worker, the almost offensively normal Dr. Matt Harmon (John Brotherton) and returning high school boyfriend, Steve (Scott Weinger), now a divorced podiatrist with ownership of Comet Jr., Jr. (don't ask). One of the bigger developments this season is the reimagining of this character as a creepy, obsessive ex who still hasn't gotten over D.J. twenty years later. Get in line, Steve. I'm still not sure whether this insane depiction was intentional or not, but you haven't seen anything until witnessing the perpetually hungry podiatrist arrive in the Tanner kitchen for a date with D.J. like he's reeanacting a scene from Psycho, only wearing a high school letter jacket instead of a dress.

You have to love the writers for including moments like this, while also recognizing that families tuning into this G-rated show will also be getting their fair share of sex, butt and boob jokes. It's surprising that THIS, of all things, has been a source of criticism and controversy while no one seems takes issue with Kimmy's on again off again ex-husband and Ramona's father, Fernando Hernandez-Guerrero-Fernandez-Guerrero (Juan Pablo Di Pace). Yes, that's the character's full name. It's funny to imagine that this is Jeff Franklin's response to how "white" Full House has always been, an issue even directly addressed at one point during this season.

Kimmy and Fernando at "Ramona's Not-So-Epic Party”
If anything, the over-the-top Latin stereotype that is Fernando is too ridiculous to even be offended by, existing (as do other parts of this spin-off) in a time warp. The bigger problem is that he's relentlessly annoying and if they do insist on keeping him around for future seasons, they're going to have to scale back his appearances since he's just too much, especially in a stretch toward the end when his shenanigans nearly hijack the proceedings. This and the kids' faces constantly being buried in their smartphones and tablets, texting their brains out, are the two big lowlights of the season. While at least the latter can be justified as an accurate reflection of the times, TV still hasn't found an satisfying way to visually depict actors typing conversations with their heads down. But barring the pilot episode, the series is respectful of its own past without deliberating trying to recreate every little detail of it.

If Cameron Bure stands as the show's rock and centerpiece, it makes sense not only for the narrative, but because she's been the most steadily working actor aside from Stamos since the original wrapped. And while it may take a period of adjustment for fans to s like myself to start seeing her as an overprotective, somewhat uncool mom, adult Kimmy Gibbler is literally the living, breathing incarnation of what we always figured she'd grow up to be: Herself. From the way she acts, dresses, talks, and even in her party planner career, Andrea Barber doesn't miss a beat, as if she arrived in our present in a time capsule marked "1989." What does take some getting used to is having a character we've previously experienced in limited doses as the goofy neighbor promoted to a full-fledged co-lead. It's almost as if Family Matters returned and now starred Urkel as the lead, which you know it surely would.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Jodie Sweetin, and while it's common knowledge that she basically came back from the depths of personal hell to get this opportunity again, she's just such a natural at this. Similar to Kimmy, her adult Stephanie is a funhouse reflection of her younger self, but with a twist. Hard partying and somewhat irresponsible, she's the new Uncle Jesse and her questionable job choice as traveling DJ, "DJ Tanner" provides the series with one of its best running gags. And while Steph's often the butt of racier jokes involving the character's propensity for partying and sleeping around, Sweetin has a way of making that material seem family friendly and likable, frequently selling some of the most cringe-worthy dialogue with impeccable comic timing. If hardcore Full House apologists want to get nostalgic or emotional about anything, it should be the fact that she's the series' MVP                                  

Danny Tanner sure loves his couch
The decision to essentially make the pilot episode a reunion show may have been a big mistake, but it's somewhat rectified when the remaining original cast members occasionally pop in as guest stars. This is a far better use of them and more in line with how Girl Meets World operates, saving certain characters for key points during the season to build anticipation and make the appearances feel special. Saget and Stamos fare the best in this regard, as the former has a strong showcase episode (Ep. 1.8, "Secrets, Lies and Firetrucks) in which we get a really heavy dose of the old Danny Tanner we know and love, obsessing over the dreaded possibility his couch could get reupholstered. All this eventually this leads to the disturbing image you see to your left, and sorry, but when Danny takes out his phone and starts snapping selfies in that jacket, all feels right in the Full House universe.

Of all the originals, the ageless Stamos' vain, Elvis-obsessed Jesse has changed the least, which is fine, since there's little need to fix what wasn't broken to begin with. While time has also been very kind to Lori Loughlin, the writers were not, giving Aunt Becky this strangely psychotic empty nest disorder that has you fearing for Baby Tommy whenever she's near. Dave Coulier doing his Joey Gladstone, complete with puppet and pajamas seems a little weird considering he's pushing sixty, but his best moment actually comes in an episode he isn't in, when DJ slides in the one Coulier joke we've all been waiting for but didn't think they'd have the guts to write in. As for the elephant in the room that isn't in the room that are Mary-Kate and Ashley, they're mentioned or alluded to enough that their presence can't really be missed. Supposedly, producer Stamos actually attempted to get Elizabeth Olsen for the role, which was a brilliant, if unrealistic, idea. Needless to say, she was busy. Given this show's popularity, I still predict there's a better than good chance we'll see Michelle Tanner before the end of it.

All the critics hate Fuller House. This isn't really news, or unexpected considering they never cared for Full House all that much either when it originally aired. And some of what they're saying is true. You  may have also heard its defenders claim that the series "isn't made for critics." While that's a statement I'd usually scoff at, it does carry a certain amount of weight in this instance. Anyone who hated the original will no doubt feel the same about its spin-off and those who believed the sun rose and set on TGIF in the 80's and early 90's will be immensely satisfied. That tells me Jeff Franklin and Netflix accomplished their goal, simultaneously angering and exciting exactly who it was supposed to by delivering a series that's faithful to the spirit of the original, yet updated for current times.

Fuller House cast
Far from a well-oiled machine, there are many kinks in the show that still need working out, but it's at least strong enough to deserve a chance to do that. Having long fallen out of the audience it's intended for, it's comforting to know a show like Fuller House can exist and thrive in a vastly changed TV landscape from the one its predecessor premiered in. There's nothing else quite like this out there anymore, and nostalgia or not, that has to count for something.      

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Revenant


 
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Arthur Redcloud, Grace Dove
Running Time: 156 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's rare that the reputation and mystique of a film so firmly rests on a single scene's reception the way it does in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Oscar-nominated The Revenant. By now, everyone knows the scene, or at least knows of it, regardless of whether they've actually seen the movie. Before the public conversation inexplicably morphed it into an animal-on-human rape punchline, the scene could be viewed for what it is and how it plays out on screen. Bears don't sexually assault humans. They maul them to protect their young. And it's scary as hell. I feel like an idiot even typing that, and while always counting myself as good for a laugh at the expense of serious material, it's a testament to how far the joke went that this actually warrants explanation. 

There's no confusion as to what's happening but it's hard not to wonder if Academy members marking their ballots thought there was and unfortunately decided against honoring a film that was turned into a national joke by the media. It's likely few have ever seen a grizzly attack before, onscreen or otherwise. And whatever idea we had of one in our minds certainly wouldn't match the close approximation of reality that occurs in the film.

The details of the scene is one of the many surprises that makes The Revenant special, and the inciting incident that starts Leonardo DiCaprio on the path to giving a performance that's easily the most physical, yet verbally sparse, of his career. Bu the most surprising thing about it is that his character somehow survives it, only to face further  insurmountable odds that test his will to live, and perhaps eventually, extract revenge. It's a man vs. nature survival story and historical adventure epic all wrapped into one, and despite my minor issues with how it culminates, there's little fault to be found.

It's 1823 when the Arikara Native American tribe launch a surprise attack on a crew of American trappers hunting for pelts in the Northern Plains. After what ends up being a particularly brutal battle with many casualties, the surviving trappers escape on a boat lead by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and their guide, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio). When the latter suggests they abandon the boat to travel on foot, it raises the ire of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a mealy-mouthed bully who not only directs his outrage at Glass, but also his mixed race son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Tensions further escalate after a savage grizzly bear attack leaves Glass maimed and unable to continue the journey, prompting Fitzgerald to suggest they kill him so they can all promptly move along.

What happens next is a catastrophic series of events that leave Glass, crippled and clinging to life, alone in the wilderness, fighting the elements as the Arikara tribe continuing to trail the Americans they believe abducted the Chief's daughter. But Glass has only thing on his mind: Revenge. He needs to survive, if only to get his hands on Fitzgerald, who committed the ultimate crime against his family, and one he'll pay dearly for if Glass can live long enough to catch up to him.

Partially based on Michael Punke's novel of the same name, the opening half hour of The Revenant isn't entirely dissimilar to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, before settling into a rhythm and tone more closely resembling Dances with Wolves. It's an odd comparison to make but one the picture earns by starting with a shockingly brutal battle that doesn't hold back in either gore or psychological implications for the men involved. There's very little dialogue both before and after the trappers escape to the boat, and whatever talk there is, serves to briefly establish their personalities and formulate a travel plan. Fitzgerald, who was scalped by natives years ago, harbors almost unrelenting resentment toward Glass and his son from the get-go, establishing himself as an arrogant jerk with little regard for anyone else. And of course, Hardy, playing the baddie with an unintelligible redneck drawl, is just perfect at eliciting this extreme hatred and disgust.

What we do know of Glass comes in brief, almost Malickian flashbacks to his life with his late wife and then infant son. But most of what's revealed about the frontiersman comes following the horrifying grizzly attack (partially accomplished with some really impressive CGI) that eventually separates him from his party, fighting for survival. And it's here where the film hits its stride, as Glass must withstand sub-zero temperatures, life-threatening injury, wild animals and angry natives to eventually arrive at his showdown with Fitzgerald. For most of this, the character is incapacitated in some way and can barely talk.

While it's completely true that good acting involves much more than just performing under brutal conditions, what makes DiCaprio's work so remarkable is how little he must rely on dialogue, instead transcribing every thought, feeling and emotion through sheer physical distress. Despite the minimal speaking, it's nonetheless an engrossing journey thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki's Oscar-winning cinematography and sound, costume and production design that fully brings to life the 1800's in the Dakotas.

Those looking for a revenge-oriented ending out of The Revenant will probably be disappointed, and if it's plot seems as thin as the paper its screenplay (by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith) was written on, that hardly matters. The film seems to be building to this epic confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald, and while I'm being coy in revealing details, the route the film takes to arrive at that conclusion will undoubtedly frustrate those weened on more dramatic finishes. Then again, it might be advantageous to ask whether this story really was about vengeance to begin with.

With themes drenched in familial loyalty, spirituality and a bond with nature, this was always a mood piece that wouldn't ever be mistaken for something like The Hateful Eight. But it still is, in very different way, a full blown assault on the senses, technically towering above most films released in the past year in terms of visuals and sound. Iñárritu makes good on fully immersing us in this unfamiliar world. It's DiCaprio's performance that takes care of the rest.
    

Monday, February 29, 2016

Burning Questions from the 2016 Oscars



Odds on #OscarsSoLong trending by the end of the night?

Odds on when the "end of the night" will be?

After how poorly I did with last year's predictions, should I have just closed my eyes and pick names?

Wasn't that montage kind of great?

Am I just saying that because Room was so prominently featured?

"White People's Choice Awards?"

Wasn't Chris Rock right about previous years being just as much of a whiteout?

Didn't the crowd seem more receptive to Rock than they have been to any other recent host within the first few minutes?

Did he kill it with that monologue or what?

How about "Bittersweet Symphony" being played by the Oscar orchestra?

Couldn't Ryan Gosling's jokey description of qualifications for Best Adapted Screenplay actually apply to The Revenant?

The Oscar-winning writer/director of Anchorman?

So, we're going to do that thing again with inserting actors into movie clips?

But with black comedians?

Wasn't The Danish Girl with Tracy Morgan pretty funny? 

Did you forget for a second that Kristen Wiig was actually in The Martian?

Yeah, I got it, but wasn't that Stacey Dash thing weird anyway?

Sorry, but isn't Sam Smith Spectre theme completely forgettable?

Did you even recognize Sam Smith?

Isn't it nice that we can all remember that J.K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor last year?

Isn't Supporting Actress consistently the most challenging category to get right each year?

Did you hear the collective groans of everyone getting it wrong?

Did you get the feeling Alicia Vikander wouldn't be the first winner played off during her speech?

Especially considering the pace they're moving at?

Wasn't that Oscar "scroll" at the bottom ridiculous?

Especially considering how infrequently it worked?

Didn't Mad Max really deserve to clean up in all those technical and craft categories?

Anyone else expect Margot Robbie to lecture us on the housing market and credit crisis?

So, was Jonah Hill in that bear costume?


Wasn't the Suge Knight gag funny?

Isn't it unreal Lubezki has won cinematography three years in a row?

And Deakins has now lost thirty in a row?

(Jack) Black History Month?

Get it, it's because no people of color were nominated this year?

Remember that year they really did attempt to explain the difference between Sound Editing and Mixing? 

Is this an impressive haul of statues (6!) for Mad Max or what?

Were you thinking The Revenant might be in trouble?

Ex Machina for visual effects?!

How great was it when they cut to Jacob Tremblay in the audience when the droids came out?

Was I the only one wondering what happened to C3PO's red arm?

Droids AND Minions?

Were you worried Mad Max would  take home Best Animated short?

Then beat Trump and Hillary?

Doesn't Pete Docter kind of resemble a Pixar character?

But doesn't he seem like a legitimately good guy?

Anyone worried they'd show clips of Fifty Shades of Grey during The Weekend's performance?

I can't be the only one who loved that rock, paper, scissors Android commercial with the St. Elmo's Fire song?

Shouldn't that have won Best Animated Short?

Aren't they beating this Oscar controversy humor into the ground?

Did you fall out of your seat when they announced Mark Rylance's name?

Were you too shocked to study Stallone's expression? 

Could you literally hear all the air being sucked out the room when Rylance spoke?

And you thought you had problems remembering Patricia Arquette won last year?

Did that screw up my ballot?

And Stallone's life?

And our night?

So, was it Escape Plan or The Expendables 3 that killed his chances?

Can Louis CK host next year?

Isn't it about time they made a joke at the expense of the Price Waterhouse guys?

Can anyone tell me what exactly Cheryl Boone Isaacs' said?

Was I the only one expecting her to lecture us on stealing music?

Or do I have this confused with another overlong awards show? 

Were you worried they'd scroll the In Memoriam across the bottom of the screen to save time?

Dave Grohl singing The Beatles?

But didn't he do a good job?

So wait, they had Jacob Tremblay present Live Action Short so they could make a short joke?

Were you worried Joe Biden's speech on sexual abuse would introduce Room rather than Lady Gaga's performance?

Remember when everyone thought her career was floundering?

Was that Biden's first scripted TV appearance since Parks and Rec?

So, did Lady Gaga appear on enough awards shows, and win enough awards, this year?


Did Oscar voters apparently think so?

Can you believe that Bond song won!?

And after THAT performance?

Weren't you relieved that Tarantino wasn't accepting the award for Morricone?

Do you think I envisioned Ali G introducing Room?

Too late to get Biden back up there?

Did we officially reach the end of the Fury Road when Iñárritu won Best Director?

Boy, did they play him off fast or what?

Was "Flight of the Valkyries" this year's Jaws theme?

Didn't that look like a big spoiler for Carol?

How upset would I be if they played Brie off?

Wasn't I relieved when they didn't have to?

Did you half-expect her to take Jacob Tremblay up there?

Not a question, but I just want to type, "Academy Award Winner Brie Larson."

Didn't that clip from Trumbo kind of play like a comic version of Breaking Bad, complete with a bathtub?

Was Leo up there before it was even announced?

Have you ever seen anyone get to a stage so fast?

Were you excited to hear about climate change?

Is Leo the rare star exempt from being played off? 

Spotlight...Best Picture??!!!!

Am I burning my Oscar ballot right now?

Everyone else must have missed that, right?

What was that I said about closing my eyes and just randomly picking winners?

Do you realize Michael Keaton has now starred in two Best Picture winners in a row?

So, is it too early to start predicting for next year?

Aren't you glad you stayed awake?

Wasn't that one of the more newsworthy shows in years?

Given all those upsets, should I just be glad Brie escaped the building with her statue?

So, did Chris Rock earn an invitation back?

Has any other recent host done as well?

Will everyone still look for something he did to complain about?

Wouldn't it be interesting to see how he'd do next year without such a hot-button controversy to play off of?