I first saw this trailer when it played before “Mad Love” which starred Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell. This was at Crow Canyon Cinemas, a movie multiplex I once worked at, and the volume was not all that great as the teenage audience, desperately waiting to see O’Donnell take his shirt off, were talking endlessly before the lights finally went down. I saw it again at the UC Berkeley theater, which was once known as the New Beverly Cinema of Northern California, and I got a better idea of what was on display as I could actually hear what was being said that time around.
“Strange Days” is a 1995 science fiction thriller which starred Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett and Juliette Lewis, and the film featured a kind of technology which allowed those who used it to experience recorded memories and physical sensations of others. But despite it being co-written and produced by James Cameron and having been directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it flopped hard at the box office. It is only over time that this film has gotten the cult following it truly deserved as this one offers the viewer a cinematic experience you cannot find elsewhere.
This particular trailer for “Strange Days” was its teaser trailer which had Fiennes selling us on this technology. The dialogue is taken from a scene in which he is trying to get a potential customer to buy some recorded memories, but this time Fiennes is looking straight into the camera, attempting to sell the audience on what he has.
Fiennes starred in this film not long after his Oscar-nominated turn in “Schindler’s List,” and I love how he tells us about this technology here without showing us a thing. His words suck us in to the possibilities of what we could experience if common sense didn’t kick in on a regular basis. It’s a brilliant piece of acting as he succeeds in making us want to open Pandora’s Box and experience pleasures which are ever so forbidden.
I also love the sound design of this trailer as it features a hum throughout which is much like the one I heard as I entered the American Conservatory Theater to watch the first part of “Angels in America.” There is something so comforting and alluring about such a hum that I cannot help but be drawn into the subject matter in a heartbeat.
By the way, can anyone tell me what song was used at the end of this trailer? I really dug it and would love to know where it came from. Perhaps it was by the band Deep Forest as they were supposed to be composing this film’s music score (it would later be done by Graeme Revell), but I don’t know.
If you have not watched “Strange Days” yet, I encourage you to do so as it deals with themes which are more pertinent today than when this film first came out.
With “Deep Water,” I could not help but feel a certain level of excitement at its arrival. With erotic thrillers, it feels like we have been in a drought of them at our local cinema. Sure, there was the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, but those movies were far more laughable than they ever were truly entertaining. This one also marks the return of Adrian Lyne to the director’s chair for the first time in 20 years, and he is known for specializing in erotic films such as “9 ½ Weeks,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Unfaithful.” And yes, the trailer in which we get to gaze at Ana de Armas’ lovely body as Ben Affleck gazes at her from a distance proved to be ever so alluring. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, it is based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, the same author who wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers from a Train?” This should have been the first I pointed out here.
Seriously, all these elements were in place for a great motion picture for us to take in, but despite an interesting start, “Deep Water” ends up faltering long before it ends as secrets are revealed far too soon to where the suspense is completely destroyed for no good reason. Also, the film is nowhere as erotic as you may hope it will be. Moreover, Disney, which bought 20th Century Fox and since renamed it 20th Century Studios, decided to dump it on Hulu as even Mickey Mouse was saying, “Even Minnie wouldn’t show me that much skin!” Well, some only get so lucky,
Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas star as Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a married couple living in the small town of Little Wesley, Louisiana who appear to have it all: an affluent lifestyle, a gorgeous home where they host many parties for their equally affluent friends, a beautiful daughter named Trixie (Grace Jenkins) who keeps telling Alexa to play “Old McDonald Had a Farm” to her mother’s infinite annoyance, and anyone outside of their lifestyle must be looking at them with either envy or tremendous resentment. Their marriage, however, appears to be a loveless one as Melinda seems far more interested in flirting with the many incredibly handsome men around her as Vic looks on, wondering what she is up to. On one hand, Vic seems content with her being with other men as he is willing to accept her for who she is, but the more you look into his eyes, the more you see how frustrated he is with this situation to where he might actually become emotional. This frustration becomes even more pronounced once some of the men Melinda is seen with are found dead. Were they murdered? What’s really going on with this couple?
Lyne tantalizes us with these questions in the first half of “Deep Water” as, while he used to show us a lot of wild sex in his previous films, only hints at what is going on here. Vic may be convinced Melinda is sleeping with other men, but he only sees so much of what she is up to. In the meantime, he tells her potential suitors that he murdered a man who was once her boyfriend. Is he being serious? It’s hard to say as Affleck is quick to remind us what a gifted poker player he can be, and that’s even if he has been banned for life from a casino or two.
Indeed, this film works best when the screenplay does not reveal all its cards to the audience. Affleck seems to revel in getting under the skin of others to where you wonder just how much his character enjoys in doing so. The same goes with de Armas who appears to revel in her husband’s inability to obtain her in the ways a husband can. As Vic and Melinda circle around one another like bloodthirsty sharks, I began to wonder if their continued relationship was strengthened by their endless strife with one another. While divorce might make more sense for these two, the conflicts between them seem to invigorate them to where a normal life is completely out of the question for them. It even reminded of a season six episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” entitled “Strangled, Not Stirred” in which we see a couple achieve supreme intimacy through murder. I figured things here would go in this direction with these characters, but no such luck.
When “Deep Water” reaches its midway point, it completely implodes as it reveals its cards to where the suspense is killed. In fact, things become increasingly laughable as the story barrels towards a conclusion that is unforgivably abrupt and unsatisfying. Like I said, this one comes from the director of “Fatal Attraction” which had one of the most divisive endings in cinematic history, but at least its ending had a catharsis which it demanded despite what others thought. This one, however, leaves far too many story threads to where I have to wonder if there’s a director’s cut just waiting for us to check out.
In retrospect, “Deep Water” might have been far more interesting if Lyne had focused more on the characters played by Affleck and Tracy Letts who plays Don Wilson. Don is immediately suspicious of Vic, especially after he playfully admits to murder, and seeing these two together in one scene to the next is especially fulfilling as we are watching actors who enjoy not just facing against one another, but are also eager to turn their characters into anything but mere cliches this genre often employs to a detrimental extent.
Considering the talent involved, I could not help but have high expectations for “Deep Water” as it arrives at a time when superhero/comic book movies continue to dominate our local multiplexes to where we wonder if variety is still a thing. Moreover, movies for adults are a thing I have been deprived of for far too long. Even with it going straight to streaming, I figured there was much more in store for the audience. That it falls short of greatness is frustrating as it may be a long time before we get another motion picture of its ilk.
In my research, I did learn this particular Highsmith novel is a favorite of Gillian Flynn’s who deeply admired how it showed the in-your-face warfare between a husband and wife. I believed this novel inspired her to write “Gone Girl” which became a bestseller and was later adapted into the twisted cinematic masterpiece directed by David Fincher. Whether or not “Deep Water” aspired to be on the same level as “Gone Girl,” it came up far too short.
When all is said and done, Lyne’s movie makes me want to pick up a copy of Highsmith’s novel even though I have so many books on my shelf to where it looks like a Jenga piece on the verge of collapsing. I am convinced a great movie can be made out of this novel, but we have yet to see it.
WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.
Watching Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, wife and First Lady to the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, it’s hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited this role as well as she did in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” The director had Field in mind for the role back when Liam Neeson was originally cast as President Lincoln, but the actress almost lost it when Neeson withdrew from the project and Daniel Day-Lewis got cast. It wasn’t the first time Field had to fight for a role, and she fought long and hard for this one to where Spielberg granted her a screen test with Lewis.
“I heard commotion and looked up, and across the lobby came my darling Mr. Lincoln,” Field said of Day-Lewis when she first saw the actor walking towards her. “He smirked at me, and I smirked right back. I gave him my hand, I looked up and said ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ and he said ‘Mother.’ That’s what they said to each other. I felt this audible hush in the room.”
After Field and Day-Lewis improvised for an hour as the Lincolns, Spielberg informed her the role was hers. From there, she took the time to visit Mary Todd’s home in Lexington, Kentucky. It was actually a low-key visit for the actress, and she went about town with very few people recognizing who she was.
“What I wanted to really do was be inside of her house,” Field said. “I know what an important place that was for her in studying her, and I really wanted to step inside the house and look at all of that and have the feeling of space.”
“I had seen pictures of what it looked like in those days before, before there were like parking lots and things connected to it, so that I could have a feeling of where she came from,” Field continued. “It’s important in understanding her makeup as a person that you take a look at her home.”
Field also gained 25 pounds to authentically portray Mary Todd Lincoln, and it took seven months to add all that weight to the actress’ 5′ 2 ½” frame.
“She was much heavier, or more round, so we tried to replicate her measurements,” Field said. “We had her dress size, because it’s documented when they made dresses for her… We replicated what she was, and it wasn’t easy. It was sort of horrifying to be a woman of a certain age and to put on 25 pounds.”
After all these years, Sally Field remains a most incredible actress who works very hard to understand the psychologies of each character she portrays and you cannot, nor should you, ever accuse her of being lazy in her preparation. Her performance here is the latest example of how much we really, really like her work (sorry, I couldn’t help it). Field also does a commendable job of giving Mary Todd Lincoln the respect she deserves as she is not talked about as much as her famous President husband.
“Had there not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln,” said Field. “She found him when he was a young lawyer and really a bumpkin. No one knew of him but she recognized his brilliance. She was so under-examined and misunderstood, and a very important woman in American history.”
After watching “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I am convinced Wes Anderson should make as many stop-motion animated movies as he possibly can. Nothing against his live action work, but this form of animation seems really suited to Anderson’s unique blend of comedy and dysfunction. While his last film, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was very good, it started to seem like he had been dealing with the same themes once too often. But with the brilliantly made “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” his material is given a freshness which, for a moment, seemed to have escaped him. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable movies I saw in 2009. As a result, any frustration I had over not being able to see “Avatar” (it was a family outing, and it didn’t seem right for my 5-year-old niece) was completely forgiven.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is based on a children’s novel written by Roald Dahl whom Anderson considers one of his personal heroes. Dahl is the same man who wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” among other stories, and his work is characterized by a lack of sentimentality and a lot of dark humor. Judging from “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” with their strong black humor, it’s no wonder Anderson digs Dahl!
The Mr. Fox of the title is a cool and exceedingly clever animal, and we first see him with his wife sneaking into a farm to steal food. They are, however, caught in a trap which has his wife pointing out they should choose a safer form of work. Oh yeah, she also tells him she’s pregnant, and this changes the dynamics of their relationship in a heartbeat. We catch up with these two a couple of years later after they have found a home within a hole in the ground. Mr. Fox is now a newspaper columnist, and he and his wife are parents to a son, the sullen Ash, who constantly feels unappreciated in all he does. Still, Mr. Fox does not like where his family lives and promises to do better by them. Despite the warnings of his lawyer, Badger, he ends up buying a new home in the base of a tree. These new lodgings are also coincidently right near the gigantic farms owned by three ugly looking farmers: Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean. So, of course, this gets Mr. Fox all excited and back to his usual tricks of stealing food and drink while the rest of the family remains unaware. To quote another fox from a vastly different 2009 movie, “chaos reigns!”
The first thing people will notice about this movie is its “star studded” (what does that term mean anyway?) cast of actors. Voicing Mr. Fox is the most debonair of movie stars right now, George Clooney. With this, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and “Up in The Air,” I can’t help but wonder when Clooney gets the time to sleep. At this moment, he’s everywhere, and his constant presence would be ever so annoying if he weren’t such a terrific actor. Clooney perfectly captures Mr. Fox’s confidence without ever becoming overly smug, and he exudes the cleverness this character has in getting back at the three farmers.
Meryl Streep, who has also had a busy year with this, “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated,” voices Mrs. Fox. I actually wonder how much sleep she gets as well as Streep always seems to be learning a new accent she has not taken on yet. Streep is the perfect contrast to Clooney’s charmingly reckless nature, and she serves as the conscience Mr. Fox needs to hear out more often. Streep doesn’t do anything incredibly different with her voice like she did for Julia Childs, but its warmth is quite seductive at times.
Anderson has also employed many of his regulars for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as well. Jason Schwartzman who was featured quite prominently in “Rushmore” and “The Darjeeling Limited” voices Mr. Fox’s son, Ash. Schwartzman perfectly captures the angst Ash feels at never fully winning his dad’s approval, and you feel Ash’s desperation as he goes to dangerous lengths to get any approval. Owen Wilson, who co-wrote “The Royal Tenenbaums” with Anderson, has a cameo voicing Ash’s athletic coach, Skip. You can tell its Wilson right away, and he gives Skip a wonderfully dry voice which gets a good number of laughs whenever he appears. Even Bill Murray, who has had a role in just about all of Anderson’s movies, voices Mr. Fox’s lawyer, Clive Badger, and he always seems to fit in perfectly in Anderson’s cinematic universe. And let us not forget Wallace Wolodarsky who voices the confidence challenged Kylie Sven Opossum who somehow gets sucked into Mr. Fox’s schemes against his better judgment.
Others to be found here are Michael Gambon, the current Dumbledore of the “Harry Potter” movies, who voices one of the farmers hellbent on eliminating the thieving Mr. Fox, Franklin Bean. Eric Chase Anderson, who is responsible for those illustrations of Anderson’s movies when they are given Criterion Collection releases, voices Mrs. Fox’s nephew Kristofferson who is perfect in every way Ash is not. But the most surprising voice here is from the actor who voices Rat, Bean’s security guard. Rat was a French character, so I assumed the actor voicing him was French. Turns out that it was actually Willem Dafoe! That’s right, the same guy who was in that other delightful 2009 movie with a fox, “Antichrist.”
With just about all of animated movies being done with computers and digital effects, it’s refreshing to see other filmmakers go a little retro with the stop-motion animation. The work here is brilliantly done, and I was surprised at how lifelike everything looked. Movies like these must require an exceeding amount of patience to make because they clearly take years to produce. It also fits right in with Anderson’s quirky sense of humor which remains intact a good ten years or so after “Rushmore.”
I also really dug the soundtrack Anderson chose for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Each of his movies contain a great selection of music which veers from classic British rock songs to American rock among other genres. With this film, Anderson includes songs from the Beach Boys and Burt Ives which fuel the proceedingas with an undeniable sense of innocence and adventure. It also made me an instant fan of The Bobby Fuller Four whose song “Let Her Dance” plays during one of the most joyful moments this film has. Composing the score is Alexandre Desplat who has composed music for movies like “Firewall” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” among others. I love how Desplat captures the infectious spirit of everything which takes place.
Is this a kid appropriate movie? I think so. It did get a PG rating which seems appropriate. Sure, there are many bottles of alcoholic apple cider and some smoked chickens which might give you the wrong impression of the goings on being displayed, but I really think this movie is harmless. Compare this to the recently released sequel to “Alvin and the Chipmunks” which has not so subtle references to classic movies like “Taxi Driver” and “Silence of the Lambs” among others. This film is not just aimed at kids, but for the whole family as well.
While many will be more likely to view this movie on DVD or Blu-ray (or VHS if it’s still available), ” Fantastic Mr. Fox” really is a fantastic piece of work which deserves a big audience. Anderson, along with co-writer Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding“), has managed to take his fascination with families that are less than perfect and put them in a context which will not scar your kids for life. It was also cool to see Clooney play a character who, unlike the one he portrayed in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” was not afraid to dance.
Was it worth not going to see “Avatar” this day and watching this instead? I hate to say it, but yeah.
WRITER’S NOTE: The following article was written in 2012 and refers to the “Daredevil” movie, not the Netflix television show.
While he’s best remembered for playing John Coffey in “The Green Mile,” the late Michael Clarke Duncan gave us many memorable roles throughout his career. One of them was as crime lord Wilson Fisk (a.k.a. Kingpin) in the 2003 superhero movie “Daredevil.” This role proved to be a major physical challenge for Duncan as it made him see how loyal comic book fans are, and it also changed how he took care of his body after his time on set ended.
Kingpin is an overweight corporate head who is also the sole person running organized crime, and he is incredibly strong despite having no superhuman powers. When cast as Kingpin, Duncan weighed 290 pounds and was asked to gain 40 pounds in order to better fit the physique of this villainous character. To accomplish this, Duncan ended up lifting weights for 30 minutes a day, power-lifted with one or two reps a day and, as Robert De Niro did when he prepared to play Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” ate whatever he wanted.
Duncan’s biggest concern, however, was that Kingpin was always seen as a white person, and he is black. Duncan made it clear to comic book fans everywhere how he was more than aware of the loyalty they show to these works:
“They watch movies to say, ‘Hey, that’s not like the comic book,’” said Duncan. “But I want them to get past that and just see the movie for what it is and see me for what I am-an actor.”
There were rumors for a while of a “Daredevil” sequel, and Duncan stated he was interested in reprising Kingpin but that he was not willing to regain all the weight as he was comfortable being down to 270 pounds. He did say, however, if 20th Century Fox were to offer him $20 million, he might just change his mind. Duncan even suggested Kingpin could have trained a lot during his stint in jail which would allow him to become faster in combat against Daredevil, and this would allow the filmmakers to fit his weight loss into the story.
In 2009, Duncan became a vegetarian and boasted of his “increased strength” and how he was “a lot stronger” than he was when he ate meat. It’s a shame he is no longer with us as his performance as Kingpin was one of the highlights in “Daredevil,” a movie which proved to be one of the lesser comic book cinematic adaptations in the past few years. Whatever his size, he would still have been perfect as the feared and powerful crime lord.
WRITER’S NOTE: This screening took place back in 2011.
Jason Reitman described the last double feature he presented as part of his guest programming at New Beverly Cinema by saying, “Whereas the last few movies I chose were sad in some respects, these two just make you feel good.” After dealing with the downfalls and missed opportunities which were major parts of “Shampoo” and “Boogie Nights,” he finished off his slate of favorites with “Breaking Away” and “Bottle Rocket.”
The first movie shown was “Breaking Away” which was directed by Peter Yates, the same man who made the Steve McQueen classic “Bullitt.” For years it has been considered one of the best sports movies ever made, and it’s also a movie where several young actors got their start together like in “Taps” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Among those actors were Dennis Quaid, Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern. We even got to see a teenage Jackie Earle Haley in it, and he has since gone from career oblivion to critical acclaim for his performances in “Little Children” and “Watchmen.”
Reitman asked how many people in the audience were seeing this film for the first time, and many hands, including mine, immediately went up. To this he replied, “I am so jealous!”
On “Breaking Away,” Reitman described it as a movie you associate with watching with your father, and one which captures the lives of twenty somethings very well in the indecisions of where to go from high school; unsure of what to do with the rest of their lives. It’s also a great story about class wars in society; of those who have everything and those who never have enough. Upon looking for trivia about “Breaking Away,” Reitman found the film was originally two screenplays. One was called “The Cutters” which became the name of the people from the working-class environment, and the other one was about the bike race the characters train for.
Joining Reitman for this screening were Dennis Christopher who played the endlessly obsessive bike rider Dave Stoller, and Daniel Stern who played Cyril. Reitman usually had his guests hidden from sight before introducing them, but they were already in the theater giving autographs and posing for pictures which got posted on Facebook. Both Quaid and Stern also said they were so envious of those who were seeing this for the first time.
Reitman started off by asking them if they knew they were working on something very special. Stern was the first to reply:
“That was my first movie,” Stern said. “I had never been in a movie before, and so I thought they were all like that. There is a wonderful simplicity to the movie, to the script, to the way the movie was made and the way it comes across. It does have a lot of depth to it too. I look back at it thinking, that was just an incredibly unique experience. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know where the camera was, and I didn’t know anything about that!”
Christopher, on the other hand, had worked in movies before with acclaimed directors like Robert Altman and Federico Fellini, so he knew a bit about being on big sets. The experience of making “Breaking Away” proved to be a bit different though.
“The thing that really made it special was because after that horrible first day of being a big Italian impersonator, because they made me all dark and I had my hair slicked back, black shirt, a tight waistline, etc. He was supposed to look like a ‘Saturday Night Fever’ guy,” Christopher said. “He (Yates) wanted him to be that kind of Italian. And I thought, why the fuck did they hire me? I looked like Lily Tomlin would when dressed up like men! That’s exactly what I looked like! I was waiting for them to glue hair on my chest!”
“I was so shaken, and the next day I came onto the set and I just burst into tears,” Christopher continued. “I told Peter that I just can’t do this and he said I KNOW, I KNOW! And we had a big talk with Steven (Tisch, who won an Oscar for his screenplay) and Peter, and then the character evolved; the way he looked and the way he was. So for me that was the special thing of collaborating with a director who cared about what you thought. So, for me I thought whoa, this is amazing!”
Reitman then spoke for those who had this on their minds after Christopher spoke:
“So what you’re saying is that Robert Altman really doesn’t care…”
This got a big laugh from the audience.
After making all the changes with Christopher’s character and making it more like him, they reshot everything and had to wait three weeks to see how it all looked. For those who have seen this movie, you have to agree this was one of the smartest choices Yates made. If Christopher was forced to do an Italian impersonation, it probably would have wrecked the movie.
Reitman also asked Christopher and Stern what kind of bike riding they did before production began. Christopher replied he did the “regular kind” and was never involved in any bike competitions like his character. Stern, on the other hand, said he was not a bike rider which turned out to be perfect for his character.
This led Stern to tell everyone he didn’t even audition for “Breaking Away.” He came into the office to read for Yates, and he was on a phone call nearby and saw him. Once he got off the phone, Yates handed Stern a script and was asked to be on set in a short time.
Unlike a lot of the big productions he had previously been involved in, Christopher said this film was almost completely the opposite of them. They had a very small crew working on it, and there was no overabundance of trailers parked on every street corner.
Barbara Barrie played Dave Stoller’s mother, Evelyn, and she got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, it turns out she was a little peeved when she read the script and found there was no big scene for her. Christopher even recalled her telling Yates quite loudly, “WHERE IS MY BIG SCENE?!” So Barrie, Tisch and Yates worked together and did an improvisation which led to that wonderful moment where Evelyn talks about getting her passport and how she always keeps it handy.
People did not expect much from “Breaking Away” while it was being made, but it turned out to be a surprising success which won many awards, and it even spawned a prequel television series in which Haley and Barrie reprised their roles for. Of course, like many movies adapted to television, it lasted only one season. Stern called it “the little engine that could kind of movie,” and he even came to this screening wearing his white “Cutters” t-shirt. Christopher said this and “My Bodyguard” were the first movies for kids which were taken seriously by adults, and he and Stern said people’s overall reaction to it today is still quite powerful.
Christopher also told the audience about when he took his dad, whom he was estranged from at the time, to see “Breaking Away” when it was first released. After it was over, he said his dad came out of it “ruined” and looked quite frail. His dad could not believe how great the movie was, and when people outside the theater asked Christopher for his autograph, he got in line with the others. His dad even acted as his security chief in getting people in the line to move along.
The Q&A ended with both actors asking Reitman, “Is this a good print of the movie we’re showing tonight?”
“We’ll see,”Reitman replied.
Reitman said he had previously seen “Breaking Away” on VHS and laserdisc, but seeing it with an audience was something else. The nearly sold out crowd at New Beverly Cinema really got into the proceedings and cheered loudly throughout. You came out of the theater agreeing with Reitman that “Breaking Away” was as good as reputation has long since suggested.
Alejandro Inarritu pushed cinematic boundaries in 2014 with “Birdman,” and now he did it again in 2015 with “The Revenant.” Based on the novel by Michael Punke, the movie transports us back to 1823 when frontiersmen and fur trappers traveled the states of Montana and South Dakota, and some of them soon came to discover just how unforgiving nature could be.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass, a member of a hunting party searching the land for animal pelts. In a seriously intense scene, Hugh ends up getting mauled by a bear to where he looks to be on the verge of breathing his last breath. One party member, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), becomes insistent on killing Hugh as dragging his seriously wounded body through the elements threatens to slow everyone down and put them all in the crosshairs of Indian tribes looking for revenge.
Fitzgerald ends up trying to smother Hugh to death, but he is interrupted by Hugh’s Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) who calls out for help. But Fitzgerald, overwhelmed by a fear of dying, ends up stabbing Hawk to death and gets the rest of the group to leave Hugh for dead and move on to safer grounds. But despite being so mortally wounded, Hugh rises up and pursues Fitzgerald over thousands of miles as he is driven by an unshakable force known as vengeance.
Inarritu, along with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, puts us right in the middle of the action to where we, like the characters, never feel safe for a second. Arrows are flying everywhere and we are in an environment which we are not as familiar with as we would like to think, so the specter of death is always just around the corner.
What’s especially brilliant about “The Revenant” is how it captures both the beauty and unforgiving nature of the wilderness. The vistas captured are incredible to take in but this is also a movie you will want to put on a heavy coat while watching what Inarritu has caught on camera. The weather is so fierce here to where you can’t help but wonder how anyone could possibly survive it. Heck, I cannot help but wonder what watching it would be like in a 4DX theater. Could theater owners bring the temperature to subzero levels and provide audience members with parkas?
With “The Revenant,” DiCaprio finally nabbed the Best Actor Oscar which had eluded him. While I wished he had gotten his first one for his go-for-broke performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it seems very fitting he got it for a performance which has him suffering through the worst a human being could ever be forced to experience. In movies like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and even “The Basketball Diaries,” he has shown a fearlessness in delving into a character’s dark side or a part of them which can never be easily controlled.
DiCaprio makes you feel every ache, pain and broken bone Hugh experiences in his infinitely long journey. Much has been said about how incredibly difficult it was to make “The Revenant,” and it looks like few had it harder than this actor did. We watch DiCaprio traverse a viciously cold landscape while lacking the ability to talk, and he even resorts to an “Empire Strikes Back” form of survival by keeping warm in a dead animal’s carcass. DiCaprio has never been an actor to fake an emotion or deliver a moment less than truthfully, and he certainly doesn’t do that here.
Also excellent in “The Revenant” is Tom Hardy who, just like he did in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” portrays a character forced to survive in the harshest and most unforgiving of environments. Fitzgerald could have been just another one-dimensional villain in this movie, but Hardy imbues him with a wounded humanity that makes him far more lethal and frightening. Just watch the scene in which Hardy faces down the barrel of a gun and just try to think of another actor who could be as convincing as him in a moment like this.
Tremendous performances, amazing cinematography, the most vicious bear attack in recent cinematic history along with a haunting music score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner and Alva Noto help to make “The Revenant” one of the best and most unforgettable movies of 2015. Inarritu remains unwavering in his directorial vision and he has given us a movie that grabs you and never lets you go until the credits start rolling. While some motion pictures get overshadowed by their behind the scenes struggles, this one does not. Of course, this will not stop people from talking about the making of “The Revenant” for years to come.
Oh by the way, this movie is “inspired by true events.” This is much more honest and fitting than saying it is “based on a true story.”
* * * * out of * * * *
WRITER’S NOTE: When this movie was released, some were under the mistaken impression that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character got raped by a bear in one scene. This rumor ended up spreading like a wildfire, but anyone who has seen “The Revenant” can attest this is not what happened at all. DiCaprio gets attacked because he accidentally comes across some bear cubs, and this shows that you never ever mess with the mama bear.
Hollywood is one the few places on this planet where you can look at $29 million dollars and say, that’s it? This was the reaction many had when the opening weekend numbers of “Terminator: Dark Fate” were revealed to the world, and to say they were below expectations is putting it mildly. Many will pontificate over why this sixth installment bombed at the box office, but I think it comes down to the inescapable fact that the “Terminator” franchise has long since lost its capacity to wow and thrill us in the same way the first two movies did, and even series creator James Cameron, who returned to executive produce this sequel, cannot put it back together again. While you can retcon the hell out of “Halloween” to keep it going, “Terminator” is now way past the point of self-termination.
I finally got to check out “Terminator: Dark Fate” after finding some time to tear myself away from work as I was not going to let anything deter me from seeing it on the big screen. The truth is, it is not a bad movie and it has a good story and a game cast of actors who bring their all to the material. But it does not take long to see this sequel tread familiar ground as the story remains the same even if the major players have changed, and the feeling of déjà vu is more prevalent than ever before.
“Dark Fate,” as you all know by now, is a direct sequel to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and it ignores all the other movies which followed it. The movie begins with Sarah Connor suffering a tragedy much like the one Ellen Ripley suffered at the beginning of “Alien 3.” While she and her son were able to stop Judgment Day, they could never stop fate. The movie then jumps ahead 22 years when an advanced Terminator called the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) appears in Mexico City with a mission to kill Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman who works at an automobile industrial plant. But when Dani arrives at work, she finds her job is being taken over by (surprise, surprise) a machine.
Another person arrives from the future, and her name is Grace (Mackenzie Davis). At first she appears human, but then she is shown to have superhuman strength and fighting abilities much like the average Terminator, and seeing her kick human ass is quite the sight. We later learn she is indeed human but has been augmented to become more like a cyborg, and her mission is to protect Dani from Rev-9 as Dani is set to play an important role in the future.
Sound familiar? Of course it does because this was pretty much the plot of the first two “Terminator” movies. Part of me wants to forgive this as it sets up how Skynet was completely destroyed and has since morphed into another artificial superintelligence system called Legion, and this shows how history, more often than not, repeats itself. Heaven forbid we ever learn from our mistakes, you know? We are certainly reliving a past we have not learned from right now as certain impeachment hearings have a certain Nixon feel about them. Like Snake Plissken once said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
But while the first few minutes tread very familiar ground, “Dark Fate” really comes to life when Linda Hamilton enters the picture as an older but still battle-ready Sarah Connor. It is the first time Hamilton has appeared in a “Terminator” movie in 28 years, and it is great to have her back as she makes this iconic character of hers as badass as ever, and she has some terrific dialogue to boot. With her face weathered from years of struggle and loss, Hamilton quickly reminds us how brilliantly she embodied this character all those years ago, and with the character evolving to another level here, she shows how one with such a hardened heart can rediscover their humanity even after suffering the worst life has to offer.
And yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back, and he gets to take his iconic character of the T-800 in yet another interesting direction. In “Terminator: Genisys,” he played the cyborg as one who has existed long enough to where he is no longer under warranty. In “Dark Fate,” this T-800 starts off as a cold-blooded assassin who, after a particularly shocking act, ends up developing a conscience and even becomes domesticated. Schwarzenegger gives another inspired portrayal here as he plays it straight and never for laughs, and this makes his performance all the more enjoyable. It is not the first time he has given a terminator this much heart, but his work here is particularly moving in a way it has not been for some time.
Mackenzie Davis, so luminous in “Tully,” is a powerful presence as Grace, and there is no doubt she gave her all in this role as watching her dominate the action scenes here is both physically and emotionally exhausting, just as it should be. Natalia Reyes does strong work in taking Dani from being an innocent person thrust into a situation no one could see coming to someone who accepts a role she is expected to fulfill. As for Gabriel Luna, he is good as Rev-9, but he is nowhere as menacing as Robert Patrick was as the T-1000.
Directing this installment is Tim Miller who helmed the first “Deadpool” movie, and he certainly has an interesting visual style which benefits this franchise to a point. At the same time, he is not able to bring the same visceral energy Cameron brought to the first two “Terminator” movies. Looking back, none of the other directors were able to either. Some came close, but Cameron is a rather unique filmmaker as he has given us some of the most exhilarating and adrenaline-pumping motion pictures we could ever hope to watch, and his vision of “The Terminator” is a personal one which no one can easily duplicate.
“Terminator: Dark Fate” simply feels like the same old thing with little in the way of anything new. It’s not a bad movie and it definitely has its strengths, but it serves as proof that this franchise has truly hit a dead end and really needs to be put to rest. The last few “Terminator” movies have come to us with the promise of a trilogy and of filmmakers more or less telling us that, this time, we are going to get it right. Well, this is the latest installment to see its hopes for a trilogy dashed yet again as Arnold’s dialogue of “I won’t be back” proves to be quite prophetic.
Still, we do learn of one advantage of being a terminator which the other movies never showed us: they can change diapers without complaining. If this does not impress you, what will?
Actor Liam Neeson returns to his role as ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills in the Olivier Megaton directed sequel “Taken 2.” Neeson has long been considered a fantastic dramatic actor, but playing Mills in the original “Taken” helped to reestablish him as an action star. Despite his increasing age (which I am NOT going to mention here), he still appears to be excited as ever taking on an action-packed role like this.
In “Taken 2,” Mills and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) are kidnapped while in Istanbul, and their abductor is the Albanian Mafia Chief Murad Hoxha (Rade Šerbedžija), father of the man Mills killed in the first movie. Neeson was understandably hesitant about doing a sequel to “Taken” as he described it as being “complete in itself” and that the original storyline given to him for the follow up was “not terribly good.” But once producer Luc Besson and his writing partner Robert Mark Kamen came back to Neeson with the scenario set in Istanbul, he found himself saying, “maybe this could work. Ok, let’s go for it.”
Like the stars of “The Expendables 2,” Neeson is getting older but he doesn’t look like he has aged as much as Stallone or Schwarzenegger (and I’m not just saying that to be nice). While Neeson revels in doing dramatic movies like “Michael Collins” or “Schindler’s List,” he is still very eager to action movies like “Taken” and “The Grey.”
“I like doing this stuff. It’s come to me later on in life, with the success of the first ‘Taken,’ Hollywood have thrown three or four different action movies my way,” Neeson said. “I feel like a kid in a candy store, I love doing that stuff. I love hanging out with these great stunt guys and fight choreographers. It’s a great catharsis, I love getting the chance to be physical and do this stuff.”
While on “Good Morning America,” Neeson talked extensively about the fight training he had to do for “Taken 2.” His stunt double Mark Vanselow, whom Neeson has worked with for almost 13 years, and fight choreographer Alain Figlarz worked on the action scenes. They started doing them in slow motion in order to get the moves down perfect, and then they eventually speeded things up to where they did the scenes blindfolded to make sure everyone was in sync.
“He (Alain Figlarz) introduced a style of fighting in the first ‘Bourne Identity,’ very close combat, which I found very difficult because I’m a big person and I like a bit of distance in fighting,” Neeson said. “So, I found it a bit strange to do this very close hand-to-hand combat stuff, but we got the fight choreographed, and then it’s a matter of rehearsing it and practicing it every day after we wrapped.”
When he was a kid in Ireland, Neeson said he did some boxing for a time and found the experience helped him with this role in regards to the “work ethic and the discipline to get off my fat ass and go to the gym.”
While these action movies may have come late into Liam Neeson’s life, I am glad they did. We look forward to seeing him kick butt in “Taken 2,” and even if there is not a third movie in this series (which he made clear he’s not interested in), we can still be sure he will play the action hero again in another movie very soon.
The title of this movie is Latin for “to the stars,” and boy does co-writer and director James Gray ever take us there in “Ad Astra.” Like “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and “The Martian,” this is the rare science-fiction film which deals with the possibilities of space travel from a credible perspective, and it is a feast for the eyes throughout. While the human drama may be lacking, I could never ever take my eyes off the screen for a single second as this is a study in enthralling entertainment.
Brad Pitt, in his second great performance of 2019 (the other as Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut who is able to keep his heart rate at a stable level even during the most strenuous of circumstances. In many ways he is the perfect astronaut, but his ambition to travel to the final frontier comes at a cost as he is emotionally distant from others around him, particularly his wife Eve (Liv Tyler, in a nearly wordless performance). When we see Eve dropping her keys on the counter before leaving the house, it is enough to tell us how good their relationship is going (which is to say, not at all).
Roy is also living in the shadow of his legendary father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer of deep space travel who later disappeared into the far reaches of our solar system without a trace. But as Roy recovers from a catastrophic accident which sends him into a terrifying freefall he barely survives, he is told there is evidence his father may still be alive, and he embarks on a voyage to the outer edges of the galaxy to see if this is indeed true.
“Ad Astra” is said to take place in “the near future,” but considering all the flying spaceships we see here, this future is not all that near. One of the opening shots has Roy working near the top of what is called the International Space Needle, and it gives us an astounding moment of vertigo when we realize just how far this structure goes. This scene proved to be a quick reminder of when Felix Baumgartner made his record-breaking jump from a helium balloon above Earth’s stratosphere to the ground below, and it was both a terrifying and exhilarating moment which I watched as it happened. It is also the first of many spectacular images we are made to witness in this film.
Even though this story deals with technology of the future and space travel, the production design gives everything we see here an earthbound quality as spacesuits looked to have changed only so much throughout the years. It is quite fitting “Ad Astra” is being released in the same year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon. The suit Neil Armstrong wore looks much like the one Pitt suits up in here, and along with the designs of the spacecrafts and controls designed to fly them, this makes everything we see here all the more believable to where nothing ever feels far-fetched.
Gray has crafted the story which he concocted along with Ethan Gross into a cross between “Apocalypse Now” and a Terrence Malick film. Like “Apocalypse Now,” this movie is not about the destination as much as it is about the journey. And like the average Malick cinematic experience, the move is paced in a slow and deliberate manner, and we get to hear Pitt provide a narration which encapsulates everything going on in his mind as his perfected astronaut ways are put to the test in ways he cannot see coming. This may put off some audience members who will find the film to be ponderous and a slog to sit through, and this is even though it barely runs over two hours. For myself, however, I felt this made the experience of watching “Ad Astra” all the more enthralling as we are sucked into a place the majority of us have only seen from a safe distance.
Yes, “Gravity” is still the ultimate outer space movie to where I had to admire Gray’s attempt to make “Ad Astra” in the wake of it as he could only hope to at best equal what Alfonso Cuaron pulled off. Like Cuaron, Gray not only captures the beauty of outer space, but also of its unforgiving nature. We are quickly reminded of how, in space, there is nothing to carry sound, no air pressure and no oxygen, and this adds an extra level of intensity to the proceedings as everyone here looks to be on a suicide mission.
But one thing I have to give Gray extra points for is how he portrays the psychological dangers of traveling through space. We all know how physically dangerous space travel can be, but many movies fail to illustrate how the mind can be almost irrevocably impaired the further we travel into what Captain Kirk called “the final frontier.” We watch Pitt as his character suffers through emotional turmoil which no mood stabilizer can offer him respite from, and it is emotionally draining to watch.
Pitt for the most part underplays his role here as his character starts off as emotionally withdrawn, but who eventually opens up to see what is most valuable in life. As Roy struggles to get closer and closer to where his father is believed to be, we see him getting increasingly desperate to find answers we know are being kept from him, and this forces him to make drastic decisions which will affect not only his sanity, but the lives of those around him. Like “Apocalypse Now,” “Ad Astra” is about a man on an obsessive journey, and many lives will be lost on the way to the final destination.
I also have to take my hat off to Tommy Lee Jones who, even though much of his performance comes across in video transmissions of a mission gone awry, shows Clifford’s transition from a loving father to an overly ambitious astronaut who is devalued the things in life he should have held most dear to his heart. When we see Jones in the film’s third act, he is just devastating to watch as he shows how Clifford knows all too well the damage he has left behind on Earth to where he is uncertain if he can live what he has done.
As serious as “Ad Astra” is, there are moments of levity and sardonic humor throughout as Roy’s arrival on the Moon shows it to have long since been taken over by corporate interests. There are fast food joints like Subway and delivery services like DHL on display, and it makes perfect sense how Roy could fly there only on Virgin Atlantic. Nothing is cheap in space either as a blanket and pillow pack costs $125. Gray’s vision of the future is meant to be one of hope, but I could not help but be reminded of a piece of dialogue from “Fight Club:”
“When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.”
I was also amused to see how “Ad Astra” serves as a “Space Cowboys” reunion of sorts as, in addition to Jones, actors Donald Sutherland and Loren Dean also co-star here. I am almost tempted to call it a sequel to “Space Cowboys” as Jones plays astronauts in both films who end up far, far away from Earth. But while Clint Eastwood and company left him alone previously, now we have a new set of characters determined to find him.
Still, there is something which keeps me from calling “Ad Astra” a masterpiece, and it is a deficit in the human drama department. I am not about to say the human element is weak, but I came out of the theater feeling like it could have been stronger than it was. Perhaps there was a degree of predictability to this film which kept me from being completely enthralled by it. In some ways, it reminded me of “Tron Legacy” as both films deal with a son looking for his father who has long since lost himself in a realm which is not easily reached. As a result, I felt I knew where this story would end up heading, and this blunted the emotional impact to a certain extent.
It is always a bit frustrating when a film comes ever so close to being a masterpiece but does not quite reach that milestone. Regardless, it would be foolish to dismiss “Ad Astra” for its faults as it is still a visual spectacle which demands your attention in a theater with the biggest screen and best sound available. Along with ace cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Max Richter, Gray has crafted a motion picture which makes you believe we can travel farther than we already have. At the same time, he also makes us see how the most valuable things we could ever find in our lives are not an infinite distance away, but in front of our very eyes.