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Monday, December 28, 2015

Movie Review: Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu's 'The Revenant' Starring Leonardo DiCaprio -- Big Struggle, Small Gain

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant.' Photos: Twentieth Century Fox.
In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio goes for broke playing Hugh Glass, a real-life 19th-century frontiersman who survived a vicious grizzly attack and a painful, prolonged trek across a frozen frontier in order to exact revenge on the men who’d left him for dead. The actor’s dedication to this arduous role is eminently clear — but will it bring him the gold statuette that’s so clearly overdue?

Director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu immediately plunges his audience into a beautiful but unforgiving landscape with a brutal Arikari attack on a band of fur trappers, arrows raining down and puncturing flesh everywhere.

Before we can catch our breath, the scene is followed almost immediately by the jaw-droppingly realistic bear attack that everyone is talking about (albeit for the wrong reason). Thereafter, and for more than two hours, DiCaprio drags his torn carcass across the frozen tundra, surviving other extreme challenges and demonstrating handy survivalist techniques along the way.

Tom Hardy plays the villainous Fitzgerald with an accent so thick that his many proclamations are rendered unintelligible, save for the oddly anachronistic pronunciation of “Aight?”. Domhnall Gleeson is the more virtuous Captain Henry, who pays Fitzgerald and a young trapper, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), to stay with the gravely wounded Glass until he dies.

It’s an odd thing for Henry to place his trust in Fitzgerald, who is such a textbook baddie — and quick to prove it, right in front of Glass’s vengeful eyes. Forrest Goodluck plays Hawk, Glass’s half-breed son, whose mother was murdered in a prior massacre, but as delineated by Iñárritu and co-scripter Mark L. Smith, the father-son relationship isn’t very convincing, and the boy’s character is soon sacrificed as further fuel for Glass’s burning vengeance.

Rustic realism in Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu's 'The Revenant.' 
Indeed, the writers seem rushed to offer quick sketches of character “types” in order to carry on with the business at hand: throwing physical challenges at the game DiCaprio, who revealed in interviews that it was one of the most difficult productions he’d ever been involved in. The payoff is a remarkably realistic film that nevertheless maintains an emotional distance where one really longs for catharsis.

Working again with Birdman’s director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu offers up scene after scene of breathtaking outdoor imagery, some of it looking positively 3D, but a constant onslaught of immaculately composed shots can also become tiring, as if he’s repeatedly shouting, “Look at this masterpiece! And what about this shot?” Furthermore, gimmicks like bringing actors so close to the camera that their breath actually seems to fog the lens breaks the fourth wall in a way that actually works against the absolute realism Iñárritu wanted to achieve.

The Revenant is also filled with symbols and mysticism intended to give it a Terence Malick level of depth, but these sequences feel like inauthentic crutches thrown in whenever something extra was needed to juice up the rather slow-going narrative. They also become rather silly, as when Glass has a vision of his late wife floating above his supine body as if she’s planking him from beyond the grave.

As far as Academy Awards go, expect a nomination and possibly a win for Lubezki. Whether Leo’s bloody, tortured trek is enough to turn the heads of voters is another story.

The Revenant opens nationwide on January 8, 2016.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Colin Hardy's 'The Hallow' Brings the Scares

Hardy's feature debut is short on plot development but long on style and creepy atmosphere.

Claire and Adam Hitchens (Bojana Novakovic and Joseph Mawle) are Londoners who’ve arrived to set up house in a remote Irish forest with their infant son in tow. Adam is an arborist hired by a firm that has just acquired the land and wants him to evaluate the timber for harvesting.

The family is regarded with hostility by the townsfolk, especially neighbor Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton), who warns them that they’re trespassing where they don’t belong and disturbing The Hallow — mythical, malevolent spirits that dwell in the woods and are said to steal children.

Deep in the forest, Adam finds the carcass of a deer in an abandoned ruin, covered by a strange, tar-like substance. Taking a sample home and examining it under a microscope, he discovers that it contains a type of zombie fungus that penetrates and takes over living cells. Soon enough, more of the sludge begins to drip from the ceiling and seep through the walls of the house, and before you can say “Boo!” the family is under siege by the very creatures Colm had sought to warn them about.

The Hallow takes elements from The Evil Dead, David Cronenberg’s body horrors and the fairytale feel of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves to deliver an old-fashioned creature feature that, if not wholly original, has an arresting style of its own and gives horror fans plenty to feast upon. And with such a straightforward plot, Hardy and co-writer Felipe Marino are instead able to focus on delivering the jolts. Moreover, these jolts are well-earned, being much more visceral and intense than the typical spookhouse pop-ups that have come to define the ho-hum Paranormal Activity style of films.

The filmmakers wisely keep the creatures in the shadows at first, briefly glimpsed out of the corner of an eye or in a camera viewfinder. Instead, they use sound to heighten the terror, as in a truly frightening sequence in which Adam finds himself trapped in the boot of his own car while it is being violently attacked from outside. Or they tease us with glimpses of creepy limbs, as when Claire, holed up in the attic, sees one of the monsters smash its impossibly long, bony arm through the trap door to get at her, and it looks for all the world like fossilized wood. In keeping with the tenets of the genre, a fuller reveal of the monsters is reserved for the final battle.

Martijn Van Broekhuizen’s chiaroscuro cinematography drips with dread, aided by Mags Linnane’s terrific production design, which transforms their ancient, converted millhouse into a living, poisonous creature unto itself. James Gosling’s classic horror score rounds out the chills. As Hardy is a professed fan of old-school horror, almost all of The Hallow‘s special effects are practical – animatronics and puppetry (the film is dedicated to Ray Harryhausen, Dick Smith and Stan Winston) – and it looks so much more convincing than CG.

Hardy is already set to helm the reboot of The Crow for Relativity Media. If he is able to bring a similarly rich visual style to that film, it will be a remake well worth checking out. The Hallow is currently playing in select theaters and on demand.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Reaper Returns to the Village

Today's depressing news about the death of Gunnar Hansen, the original, legendary Leatherface of Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, reminds me that it's time to pay tribute to other denizens of the Village that have crossed over recently.

GUNNAR HANSEN

I met Hansen at a Hollywood Collector's Show back in the 1990s. He was good-natured and gregarious (see how he inscribed my photo).

Hansen wore the mask that made him famous only once and made just one other film appearance in the '70s, in 1977's notoriously cheesy The Demon Lover. As cult cinema entered the mainstream in the '80s and '90s (thanks to the home video revolution), he found lots of genre roles, the most recent ones in films still in pre-production.

Born in Reykjavic, Iceland, Hansen went back in 2009 for a cameo in Harpoon: The Reykjavic Whale Watching Massacre. In 2013, he wrote a behind-the-scenes book, Chain Saw Confidential: How We Made the World's Most Notorious Horror Movie. Ive ordered my copy from Amazon

Just 68 years of age, Hansen is the third member of the Chainsaw cast who died relatively young, following the deaths of Marilyn Burns (Sally) last year at age 65 and Paul A. Partain (Franklin) in 2005 at age 58.

MELISSA MATHISON

Most fondly remembered for writing the screenplay for Spielberg's E.T., Mathison was also married to Harrison Ford for more than 20 years.

She was a regular fixture in the Spielberg/Coppola/Scorsese orbit, having written films produced by Coppola (The Back Stallion) and directed by Scorsese (Kundun).

But it's E.T. that will remain her enduring legacy, captivating generations of children, inspiring a Universal theme park ride, and generating said studio loads and loads of cash, both in theaters and on home video. The film was one of the earliest titles priced for sell-through ($29.95) when typical rental titles were priced at around $90.

Ironically, after years of inactivity, Mathison wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's upcoming The BFG, a fantasy based on a Roald Dahl story.

MARTIN MILNER

With his "regular guy" demeanor, Milner played bit parts for years before hitting it big on television with Route 66 and especially Adam-12, playing Officer Pete Malloy. 

Having worked in publicity for Universal Television back in the '90s and '00s, it's fun for me to watch Jack Webb's cop shows for their familiar San Fernando Valley locations and stable of Universal contract players who regularly pop up.

However, the role that places Milner squarely in the Village is — you got it — Mel Anderson, the first husband of hilarious harridan Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) in the nonstop screamfest Valley of the Dolls

Along with Barbara Parkins' Anne Welles, the character of Mel is relatively subdued, especially when compared to the buzzsaw performances of Duke and Susan Hayward. Still, he's involved in some choice exchanges:

NEELY: Well, what nice fattening thing did you tell Arlene to make tonight?
MEL: Arlene quit. She said you yelled at her.
NEELY: She was a louse anyway. You said yourself she was taking home all the booze. Other people have loyal help. Why can't we?
MEL: You don't know how to talk to them.
NEELY: That's your job. You'd better start running this house properly.
MEL: I'm not the butler.
NEELY: You're not the breadwinner either!

And, of course...

MEL: You're spending more time than necessary with that fag.
NEELY: Ted Casablanca is not a fag...and I'm the dame who can prove it!

Milner made other notable genre appearances, co-starring with Mamie Van Doren in Sex Kittens Go to College and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, both produced by legendary schlockmeister Albert Zugsmith.

He was also in one of William Castle's most enjoyable outings, 13 Ghosts, along with Margaret Hamilton. Universal Television kept him working for decades with guest shots on such shows as Murder, She Wrote, Airwolf and even The New Adam-12.

Milner was born into show business. His father was a film distributor and his mother was a dancer on the Paramount theater circuit. He left us this past September at age 83. 

DICKIE MOORE

It's hard to fathom that there are still Our Gang cast members around, but the cherubic Moore, who actually appeared in only eight of the films, left us September 7th at age 89.

Moore appeared in almost 100 features between 1927 and 1952, and even gave Shirley Temple her first grown-up onscreen kiss. Alas, like many child actors, he found it challenging to get work when he grew up. He went on to found a successful public relations firm, Dick Moore and Associates, which he ran until 2010. 

In 1984, he wrote a book about the child actor's experiences in Hollywood: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car). He met actress Jane Powell while conducting interviews for the book, and they married in 1988.

I own some Our Gang comedies on super 8mm, including Fish Hooky (1933), in which Moore stars along with Spanky McFarland and Dorothy (Echo) DeBorba. It's one of their funnest shorts, with a mule-faced truant officer constantly threatening to send the kids to reform school, only to have tiny Spanky smack him one square in the nose.







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