Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Norm of the North ★

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     Every so often on the film beat, there will come along a picture that is so blatantly bad that—not only does it test my patience as a critic—it requires one's unwavering sympathy. And "Norm of the North," a children's animated tale that features an inept and a rather cumbersome polar bear as its central protagonist, is that movie. Our pitiable title character is awkward, bubbleheaded and undeniably unprofitable, and comedian Rob Schneider lends his voice to this lead role which is about as demeaning as it is deplorable. (I could make a number of quips about Schneider's work here, but let's just say he's no Tom Hanks as Sheriff Woody.)

    It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that "Norm of the North" never stood a chance. I mean, its measly 18-million-dollar budget is hardly adequate when facing stiff competition from animated house juggernauts like Disney and Dreamworks; there was never going to be any mass-produced action figures or McDonald's promotional tie-ins. Add on a first-time director in Trevor Wall and a writing crew whose credits include two made-for-TV "Scooby Doo" live-action endeavors, and you may have an idea as to why "Norm of the North" fails to succeed in just about every facet of filmmaking.

    Norm is a peculiar polar bear with a natural gift that allows him to speak and understand "human." This, of course, makes Norm a social pariah, as many of the other Artic creatures cannot understand his love for twerking and American pop music. But his status among his peers is the least of his worries. You see, real estate conglomerate Greene Homes is on the verge of closing a deal that will help make the Artic America's latest colonization effort. Along with his three lovable lemming accomplices (which seem to be a cross between an Ewok and a Minion), Norm must make his way to New York City and infiltrate the evil corporation if he has any chance of saving his home and sparing the Artic from future twerking exhibitions.

    It would be unfair to give bad press to the film's visual incompetence (the computer-generated imagery on display seems to be outdated or just plain crummy) because it is the script, I think, that should shoulder most of the blame. Characters are dumbed down in an effort to make an even dumber plot more believable—I particularly feel bad for the leading female persona, Vera, who is naive, ignorant, and morally impaired—and the picture contains the worst kind of dramatic irony imaginable. (We know exactly what's going to happen to Norm before he does, and this predictable nature will have even the youngest of audiences hanging their heads in dismay.) Moreover, Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong) is certainly more eccentric than he is villainous, and the last half hour can simply be characterized as tearfully tedious.

    There are several instances in "Norm of the North" that truly make you wonder if it could all be more than just a poor example of children's entertainment. (Remarkably, a handful of ribs aimed at twenty-first-century society make it into the script, and although these clever jabs are offset by simplistic humor, it only adds to the above-mentioned puzzled state.) One scene, where our bumbling protagonist callously refers to American tourists as "intruders," even led me to believe that the picture was an allegorical political commentary with an anti-immigration message. Of course, this could have merely been a consequence of the movie's mundane makeup, as this tends to create these so-called woolgathering moments. Simply put, this is one film that does not deserve the coveted benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Forest ★

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    For all you aspiring filmmakers out there, I just have one sound piece of advice: If you have any desire to get your foot in that metaphorical door, then all you have to do is make a horror movie. It's that painless. And I say this for several reasons. Obviously, the horror genre is not really known for its astuteness, and it provides one of the most straightforward blueprints for manufacturing a picture. (Of all the genres that we've become accustomed to over the years, that of the horror variety contains the least complicated model of cinematic shorthand.) And yet, audiences can never seem to fully procure their fix, which, I admit, is quite baffling, especially when one looks at the overall worth of this breed of filmmaking. (The conventions active in this film genre are hardly exemplary; it just goes to show how viewers pine for those guilty pleasures.)

    Enter "The Forest," a movie that is unreservedly formulaic and markedly monotonous, and if we were to view it strictly for instructional purposes, it could be seen as a textbook exercise in film direction. (First-time filmmaker Jason Zada, who's patently a proponent of the John Ford philosophy of filmmaking, no doubt did his homework here as he gives us a slew of technically proficient establishing and long shots, sundry scenes with a serviceable demonstration of cinematographic composition, and he even finds the time to add in a "Malick shot.") The better part of the picture is utterly breathtaking—it plainly is—but where it gains in aesthetics it loses in suspense, and, structurally speaking, the latter is the whole shebang. Here's another lesson for the amateur auteur: Sometimes you must first become a drudge, then you can become a director.

    The film begins with a series of spasmodic expository flashbacks designed to introduce us to the character of Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) and the situation at hand. Well, here it is—Sara, one half of a twin sibling set, is informed that her sister, Jess, who is also played by Dormer, has disappeared in the Aokigahara Forest or what is more infamously known as Japan's "Suicide Forest." This compels our naive protagonist to fly halfway around the world to begin a rescue mission, as being a twin enables her to rely on clairvoyance, and in this instance, it tells her that this is not a simple case of suicide.

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    Once there, Sara meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a traveling journalist and wily womanizer who helps her gain access to the forest and who stays with her overnight to ensure her safety. (If you are expecting even a broad report of the suspense found in the picture, then I'm afraid you're out of luck; for, there is very little to comment on.) There is a mishmash of supernatural and psychological terror, and the film induces more paranoia than actual fear. This is one of those cases where, I think, if you've seen it once, you've seen it all, and "The Forest" irrefutably suffers not only from a poorly written script, but it is infused with so many contrived plot devices and clichéd tropes that one would have to be completely oblivious to the conventions in use if satisfaction is to become even remotely attainable. (And I hate to ask this, but when are these antediluvian jump scares going to become obsolete? My guess is that they'll remain as long as one paranoiac displays panic-stricken symptoms.)

    The worst thing about this movie (beyond the aforementioned blunders and a jagged performance by Dormer—she certainly looks the part of the wholesome and trusting leading heroine, yet her reaction acting is far from adequate) is the fact that it lacks a workable story. Sure, the Aokigahara Forest appears to be the perfect macabre setting for a horror picture, but there is really nothing to be told. (In reality, it is more disheartening than anything else.) It's one of those ideas that sound terrific on paper, but when the product is actually finished, it just becomes another example of insipid storytelling. "The Forest" progresses from hardly frightening to predictable to laughable, all within a ninety-minute time frame, and the climax is nothing short of incompetent. If the latter half of the year is "art season," then January should be known as "nickel-and-dime season."

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Revenant ★★★★

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    There comes a time in every film critic's career when you just have to admit defeat; Alejandro González Iñárritu's "The Revenant" certainly conjures up that rare momentit is a moment defined by what becomes an overwhelming sense of dubiety, and, well, it is products of this stature that simply force members of my profession to question their analytical acuity. (I'm afraid that viewing this particular picture under a humanistic or psychoanalytical lens will prove to be quite futile. For, Iñárritu's visionary epic is so rich in symbolism and metaphor that it would take extraordinary amounts of mental energy just to put forth an interpretation.)

    "The Revenant," a film that chronicles one man's perilous journey to vengeance (that being, Hugh Glass, a real-life frontiersman and nineteenth-century legend), is not only a tour de force that evokes an effortless sense of engagement, but it has to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing pieces ever produced in what is routinely becoming an era dominated by digital filmmaking. (The latest Arri Alexa equipment makes its debut here and once again provides evidence of the digital camera's ability to create a seamless and riveting picture.)

    Of course, much of this sublimity can be directly attributed to the use of natural lighting and to the actual time frame of filming. (One would think that these determinations played the biggest part when it comes to the film's visual beauty and breathtaking ambiance.) Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a duo that undoubtedly works well together, made the conscious decision to film only at "magic hour"; what a decision it was.

    We are given a rather muted color palette and an array of pastel hues that captivate and inspire, and, above all, it calls to mind the efforts of Terrence Malick (most notably that of "Days of Heaven"), an American director who is known for indulging in such techniques and a frequent collaborator with Lubezki. (This is not to mention several scenes composed entirely of poetical voice overs and compelling dream sequences, which also reminds us of some of Malick's most poignant moments.) In this regard, borrowing from a fellow auteur may have been Iñárritu's greatest artistic commitment.

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    What makes "The Revenant" so masterful (besides what I would deem to be a magnificent and competent display of cinematography, which I will peruse in due time) is its complex and unforgiving setting and a handful of performances that never flounder in conviction. The harsh wilderness that accompanies our story here accentuates a number of themes posed by Iñárritu with relative ease as it captures the brutality of nature with a neverending sense of authenticity and as it creates a mood that is surely as tense as it is taut.

    In fact, Iñárritu manipulates the perception of this environment in such a way that it essentially becomes a character in its own right, and, structurally speaking, it could arguably be viewed as one of the most indispensable pieces of the puzzle. For, this unforgettable backdrop also becomes a determiner of character, as it pertains to the persona of Hugh Glass, and a symbolic reflection of the truth of human nature. (The latter of which is best encapsulated by the temper of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), our resident antagonist and a portrait of man's innate callousness.) I have always beenand always will bean advocate for on-location filming, and, in many ways, "The Revenant" demonstrates its usefulness and irreplaceability time after time.

    Which brings us to the unforgettable performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, who steps into the role of Hugh Glass, and Tom Hardy, the aforementioned embodiment of man's brutish nature. Although limited in dialogue, DiCaprio truly gives a gut-wrenching performance, and, truth be told, this is something that I did not expect from an actor who is theoretically past their prime: Is it possible that DiCaprio has not yet hit his ceiling? (However silly that inquiry may appear, it is a question that should be considered.)

    This is very much a new kind of role for DiCaprio; I'm sure that he is used to parts brimming with forceful dialogue and explicit conviction. And yet, the role of Glass warranted nothing less than pure physical exhaustion, and, with regard to technique, it required an overabundance of strained facial features and agonizing expressions. In an effort to successfully convey the instinctual aspect of this character, DiCaprio had to basically transform into an individual completely incapacitated by this overpowering sense of savagery. (This exhibition of primitive behavior is best evidenced by DiCaprio's devouring of a raw buffalo liver, which, in many respects, summarizes his dedication entirely.)

    As for Hardy, he is cold, calculated and unquestionably authentic in a role that surely demanded such distinctions. Hardy, an actor who continues to rise to stardom in Hollywood, becomes the quintessential villain here, as he ruthlessly commits acts of treason and as he wallows in the darker side of humanity. Although Hardy's dialogue becomes frustratingly inaudible at times (a criticism that he has assuredly heard before), he matches DiCaprio in both spirit and drive, and this only adds to the film's universal appeal.

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    In any case, however, it is Lubezki's expertise in the field of cinematography, along with Iñárritu's exceptional vision, that really makes "The Revenant" thrive. The methodical execution of the camera's movement not only helps create a mood characterized by its ability to keep one on the edge of their seat, but it really becomes another participant in the action, so to speak. (There are a number of scenes in which the mobile camera essentially mimics the movements of the human apparatus, as it pans and tilts and surveys the surrounding area, and, in a very real way, it increases our involvement considerably.)

    Furthermore, there are 360-degree pans, still shots of the moon and nearby flora, and enough extreme close-ups of gushing wounds and incessant gore to make anyone turn their head in revulsion. The incisive decision-making of this captivating collaborative effort even leads to a handful of instances where the lens of the camera becomes a tangible window into this world of beauty and brutality. (This is in reference to a variety of scenes where the lens is blanketed by a character's breath or a splattering of blood, and it is these unprecedented moments, I think, that determine the film's overall worth.)

    What is Iñárritu trying to communicate here? At the very least, "The Revenant" is a picture concerned with survival, loss and the perseverance of the human spirit, yet it appears to encompass so much more. (One could even argue that its theme is simply that of texture, as it combines almost every thematic component, with regard to film structure, to produce a seemingly unblemished work of art.) Sure, there are motifs that allude to man's brutish inner self and visual metaphors that can only be interpreted by Iñárritu; however, it would be foolish of me not to designate the film's theme as a philosophical riddle. Considering the overemphasis of the phrase "Revenge is in God's hands now," I believe our riddle may have something to do with the delicate sense of trust between man and divine being.

    "The Revenant" is a film that must be viewed more than once; it is the perfect follow-up to Iñárritu's critically acclaimed "Birdman," as this picture verifiably proves that this director has no boundaries. Nevertheless, what we should really be asking ourselves is this: Is Iñárritu really this adroit, or is he just working in a weakened field at this point? Of course, they don't make film directors like they used to, and the cream of the crop are inevitably reaching the twilight of their careers. I tend to believe that "The Revenant" would stand firm even with greater competition, and although some may feel as if this was the apotheosis of Iñárritu's relatively young career, history would tell us that there is more yet to come.