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Josh Reviews The Revenant

After falling head over heels in love with Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) last year, I was delighted to discover that he had another film coming out just a year later.  The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper helping guide an expedition for pelts in the early 1800’s.  So after the movie opens, their expedition is attacked by a group of Arikara Native Americans.  Glass and several others survive and attempt to head back to their outpost on foot.  But Glass is mauled by a bear and almost killed.  Fearful of further Indian attack, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) wants to leave Glass behind, and eventually does so, killing Glass’ half Native American son Hawk.  But Glass does not die.  Instead, he drags himself out of his half-buried grave and begins a long trek through the wilderness in pursuit of Fitzgerald.

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As I wrote when compiling my Best Movies of 2015 list, The Revenant didn’t open around me until January, 2016.  So I wasn’t able to see it before finishing my list, but it was top-priority for me to try to see it as soon as I could, and on as big a screen as possible.  I was able to see it last week.

My head is still spinning.

There is no question that The Revenant is exceptionally well-made.  Mr. Inarritu and his collaborators have managed to create a staggeringly powerful, visceral experience, putting the viewer right in the middle of the events unfolding on-screen.  You can’t watch this film at a remove — instead, you are sucked right into the middle of what’s happening.  But while this demonstrates an incredible mastery of filmmaking, the result is an unpleasant, punishing experience as the viewer is pulled inside horror and torment for two and a half hours.  When the credits finally rolled, I was left asking myself, why was this story being told?  Why had I put myself through the unpleasant experience of watching this movie?

When I describe watching The Revenant as observing a mastery of filmmaking, I am not exaggerating.  The skill on display in every single gorgeous frame of this film is absolutely astounding.  From the movie’s very first scenes, it was clear to me that I was not watching an ordinary film.  The Native American attack sequence that kicks off the film is staggeringly brutal and extraordinarily immersive.  This sequence would be the highlight of most films, but for Mr. Inarritu it is just the opening gambit.  As Mr. Inarritu’s camera glides through the scenes, panning in 360 degrees and weaving in and around all of the characters and the crazy action that was unfolding, I was … [continued]

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What fun this has been, looking back at all of the amazing movies from 2014!  Click here for part one of my list of the Best Movies of 2014, numbers twenty through sixteen.  Click here for part two, numbers fifteen through eleven.  Click here for part three, numbers ten through six.

And now, at last, it’s time to draw this list to a close with my five favorite films of 2014.  Here we go:

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5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes I dearly love every film in the Planet of the Apes series, even the terrible ones.  (Though the least said about Tim Burton’s disappointing entry, the better.)  But I was bowled over by the greatness of Dawn, the eighth Planet of the Apes film and the second in the rebooted prequel series.  What a rare thing it is to see a sequel with such ingenuity, such creativity, such narrative power.  Director Matt Reaves has come in and crafted an astounding piece of speculative fiction.  Ten years after the events of the last Apes film, a plague has wiped out most of humanity.  Caesar and his apes have crafted for themselves a utopian civilization, deep in the woods of San Francisco.  But when a small group of humans wanders into Caesar’s community, the struggling human community and the developing ape community find themselves on a collision course, and Caesar’s belief that the apes are naturally superior to the flawed humans leads him to the precipice of a disastrous misjudgment.  Yes, this is a film that features talking apes, but Dawn is a rich human drama with Shakespearean levels of emotional complexity and power.  When everything goes to hell in the third act, it is tragic.  Andy Serkis does some of the best work of his career as Caesar, bringing such pathos, such richness of feeling to this ape character.  The mad geniuses at Weta Workshop and all the countless visual effects artists and crafts-people who brought the visual effects of this world to life have outdone themselves, creating one of the most impressive visual effects achievements I have ever seen.  Those apes look so real it is staggering.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a spectacular achievement, and I can’t wait to see where this series goes from here.  (Click here for my original review.)

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4. Guardians of the Galaxy What was it I said back when writing about Captain America: The First Avenger about Marvel Studios making it look easy?  They took a comic book team fairly obscure even to comic book fans, one that has not been able to ever support its own comic book series for very … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Birdman

Let me cut right to the chase: this film is phenomenal!

In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson.  Riggan was once a world-famous Hollywood super-star who played the super-hero Birdman in three wildly successful films.  But he made waves by refusing to return to the role for Birdman 4.  In the years since, his career has gone into the toilet.  Now, Riggan is funding with his own money a play that he wrote and is starring in, adapting a Raymond Carver story.  Riggan hopes this play will give him the success and critical acclaim that he has long been striving for.  But, of course, things are going from bad-to-worse as the unstable Riggan and his troupe careen towards opening night, and Riggan begins to feel the pressure of what he sees as his last chance.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) follows Riggan through the final few days of previews leading up to his play’s opening night.  The film is shot to look as if it was one continuous, unbroken shot.  The entire film.  Let me say that again: the entire film is structured to look and feel like one continuous, unbroken shot.  This is not only an astounding, jaw-dropping technical accomplishment, it’s a device that gives the film an enormous, vigorous energy.  This, combined with the visceral, hand-held (or made to look like hand-held) camera-work, in which the camera is constantly flying along right behind Riggan and the other characters, and the film’s propulsive, amazing jazz-drum score, give Birdman an incredible edge-of-your-seat energy from start to finish that is unlike any other film I can recall.

I saw 21 Grams back in 2003 and it was clear to me that Alejandro González Iñárritu was an incredibly skilled director.  And yet, while I immensely respected Mr. Iñárritu’s skills, the film was such a dour affair that it’s not a movie I was ever interested in revisiting.  Though his follow-up, Babel, was critically acclaimed, I avoided seeing it for the same reason: it just felt like too much unpleasant misery for me.  What a 180-degree switch Mr. Iñárritu has made with Birdman!  This film benefits from every ounce of his significant technical competence, while also being incredibly fun and joyous.

Which is weird, because when you think about it, Birdman is actually a pretty sad story.  But I found it to be a film that was alive with joy.  Alive is a great word.  This film is alive, positively pulsing with energy in every moment.  You the viewer feel like you’re right there with Riggan and the other characters, bouncing back and forth through the tiny back-stage theatre corridors right along with them.  The camerawork is amazing.  Thinking about the … [continued]