(On Cable TV, October 2018) There is a lot going on in writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, and while not all of it makes sense or is properly developed, it does help maintain interest in a kind of film that I otherwise would find dull or ugly. Let’s see: Here we have a protagonist who’s not just estranged from the mother of his two children (sub-plot #1) but is also semi-psychic (#2), is dying of cancer (#3) and is involved in illegal immigration (#4) which lead to him welcoming the wife of a deported drug dealer in his apartment (#5). The issue here isn’t the number of subplots as much as they all seem to belong in different genres: their collision often smacks of contrivances, and I’ve left the most dramatic parts out of it. Fortunately, the film is anchored by a strong Oscar-nominated performance by Javier Bardem, who grounds even the most ludicrous content in reality, while remaining compelling enough to follow even when the film revels in unnecessary grimness and tragedy. There are plenty of ways Biutiful could have gone wrong, and yet it (mostly) stays interesting throughout as it goes for high drama and a weepy conclusion.
(Video on Demand, May 2016) From the first moments, it’s obvious that The Revenant is going to be a beautiful film, a long film and a film with a lot more on its mind than a survival/revenge story. It could have been a cheap and efficient 90-minute exploitation film, considering the nature of the story: As far as incredible stories of survival are concerned, it’s hard to beat a gravely wounded man in 1790s American wilderness travelling 300 kilometres to seek the man who left him for dead and killed his son. Extreme survival, justified revenge, beautiful nature backdrops… No-one would have faulted The Revenant for focusing on the primal survival/revenge story. But in the hands of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the result is a few steps above the strictly necessary. A savvy blend of nature shooting and cutting-edge special effects allows for lengthy, almost unbearable sequences of violence set against spectacular natural landscapes. In-between harsh weather, aggressive bears, warring white groups and wronged natives, there are many moving parts in The Revenant, and the script effortlessly plumbs at the complexities to be found in even such a so-called wilderness. Leonardo Di Caprio is remarkable as the hero of the story, even though Tom Hardy also does a lot as the antagonist. Still, the stars here are cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Iñárritu, transforming an exploitation premise into A-grade filmmaking. It’s true that the result could have been a bit shorter and less repetitive, but it feels a bit ungrateful to ask for less of an excellent film.
(On DVD, July 2015) I’m really not a very good public for the kind of everything-is-related heavy-duty drama represented by 21 Grams. It may be a powerhouse demonstration of actors’ skills (Sean Penn, Benitio del Toro and Charlize Theron all make good impressions in emotion-heavy roles) and its non-linear structure may increase the film’s interest like a puzzle box, but sometimes I don’t really have to work so hard to piece together a story that is so heavy on emotional manipulation, grief, loss, and high-stakes drama. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu certainly knows how to shoot (and edit) a film but the script is the kind of one-wild-thing-after-another pile of contrivances that can either feel profound or meaningless. The mystical element announced by the title is more metaphorical than interesting, whereas the jumbled chronological order of the film saves it from feeling too much like an overblown movie-of-the-week. It’s the kind of weepy tear-jerker that seems to exist for award season and however successful it can be in its chosen genre, it’s just now what I’m looking for. I do have to wonder, however, about the role of mood (mine) is dealing with such a film –I wasn’t receptive to 21 Grams, and even acknowledging its strengths can’t actually make me like it any more.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Once in a while, it’s good to sip a pure dose of concentrated moviemaking skill. Something like Birdman, expertly directed, featuring top-ranked actors at their best, delving into weighty themes and doing it with a strong sense of style. A comic drama about a washed-up actor in the moments leading up to his Broadway debut as a writer/producer/performer, Birdman gets inspiration from the world of theater to deliver a film presented as one uninterrupted sequence, the camera gliding from one character to another, skipping forward in time and even presenting fantastical visions alongside its realism. It’s a giddiness-inducing piece of cinema, from the perfectly-cast Michael Keaton (playing a former superhero actor) to an equally-capable foil played by Edward Norton (making the most of a reputation as an abrasive method actor), with an unsettling drum-based score, carefully staged performances, a bit of magical realism, barbed pokes at Hollywood trends and enough laughs to make us forget that this may be a very sad story. It’s invigorating, hilarious, poignant, impressive and accessible at once. The inconclusiveness of the conclusion isn’t as annoying as it could have been, largely because the film delivers so many pleasures along the way. Easily one of the most striking films of 2014, Birdman earned its various Oscar accolades: writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu certainly knows what he’s doing, and can do it in ample style.