Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Revenant -- Movie Review

Photo: from the film's Wikipedia site

Very gripping, in-your-face film with fine performances and great directing and cinematography. The setting is really the main character of the film, and there are long stretches of it, with little action or dialogue, so you'd better like it. I did, like I do watching Terrence Malick films, but if you don't, this film may be an ordeal for you. (It's supposed to be an ordeal, but more on that later.) This scenery does for beautiful negativity what Malick's does for gorgeous serenity. It's all supposed to be taking place in the northern climes of the Louisiana Purchase in 1823, though most of it was actually shot in the Canadian Rockies and in Argentina. But I'm gonna call it the Arctic, 'cause that's sure what it seemed like to me. Unless you're an expert hiker and really know your landscapes, it'll seem that way to you, too.

There are so many shots of snow, trees, rivers and streams that it'll either strike you with awe or with annoyance. These shots are supposed to be metaphysical; yet they're also supposed to nail the point home that this is a beautiful, but desolate and unbelievably harsh landscape. The movie is more about survival in this setting than it is about revenge or anything else.

In no particular order, DiCaprio's Hugh Glass has to survive the greed of his fellow trappers; the anger and desperation of Native American tribes (three of them are mentioned in this movie); the unlawfulness of French trappers and traders (which includes murder, kidnapping and rape); the freezing temperatures; the blizzards and snow; starvation and dehydration.

And, oh yeah--that bear.

Photo: Hugh Glass (or an 1800s James Cromwell?) and DiCaprio, from The Telegraph's article of the real Hugh Glass

This is not a film for the squeamish, though the bear attack was not as bloody and brutal as we've heard. (Or maybe I'm just battle hardened.) More disconcerting is the frequent brutality of many forms. You know how in most movies guys get one bullet to the head or one stab in the chest and that's it, they're done? Not so here. And violent things happen to CGI bears, bear cubs, moose, elk and wild dogs, too. And a horse, from that cliff clip we've all seen, when Leo and Horse go over. And Leo uses that horse like Han Solo did to another creature in Jedi, but even more so here. Yuck!

And it's all very realistically written, acted and directed. If you've seen last year's Best Picture winner, Birdman (and if you haven't, you should), then you know that Innaritu--last year's Best Director--really likes close-ups. And I mean, close. So much so, so often, that the frozen wilderness will seem claustrophobic, though it's all open space and wide expanses. But the camera is right on these guys. Not in their face, exactly, but closely above them, or beside them, or under them. There aren't too many distant shots of these actors. If they're on screen, they're taking up the whole screen. So be ready for that you-are-there feeling that this type of direction generates. You'll feel like you're in the Arctic with them--and you'll feel like you can't wait to get the hell out of there. An interesting achievement, that: You'll be glued to the screen (no small feat, since it's over two and a half hours long), but you'll be so overwhelmed by the brutality and the conditions that you want to be able to leave. I got the feeling, somewhat, that I was trapped.

Which was the director's goal, of course, and he succeeds. The film is an ordeal, and I mean that in a positive way. You suffer along with everyone--and everyone does suffer. This movie is about suffering and survival, and it does not have a solid, clear, winning ending. Consider yourself warned.

Photo: The director, Alejandro Inarritu, and Leonardo DiCaprio, from the same Telegraph article

DiCaprio deserves his nomination, and I'm not sure I saw a better leading performance this year. I don't mean that negatively, but nobody has stood out for me in terms of an obvious win at Oscar-time. I suppose DiCaprio is that guy.

Tom Hardy also deserves his nomination, as did Mark Rylance, whose performance I liked a little bit better. He didn't have the conditions to play off of, as Hardy does, and he says a lot more than Hardy does. (Tom Hardy, since his performance as Bane, seems to have specialized in roles that require minimal verbosity. He says more here than he does in Mad Max, but not by much.) I still feel Benecio del Toro deserved an Oscar nomination for Sicario, which itself was also not nominated. His was the best supporting performance I've seen this year. It's hard, as I mentioned in another entry, to compare his performance to Rylance's, because they're so different: his is exceptionally harsh and cold, and Rylance's is very powerfully quiet and nuanced. But del Toro's role and Tom Hardy's role are actually quite similar--though Hardy evoked quite a bit of Tom Berenger in Platoon for me here--and they both play guys who are cold and evil to the core, and who don't change. This was a nice change, by the way. Hardy says some very memorable things at the end of Revenant that you may not soon forget.

So go see this film if all of the above sounds like your cup of tea. Speaking of that, you will want something hot to drink after you see this, because the surroundings are so much the main character of this film that you will feel like you've just spent two and a half hours in the frozen, bloody Arctic.

P.S.--I always sit through the credits, so here I saw a name I haven't seen since the early-80s: Lukas Haas. Can you guess the movie? He was the little boy with Harrison Ford in Witness. Yeah, my mind works like that--I didn't even have to look it up. It hit me in the theatre. It's an illness.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

In the Wake of the Plague -- The Black Death and the World It Made

Photo: A Bubonic Plague map, from the Wikipedia page The Black Death in England.  This site quotes that up to half of England's population died of the plague in the Middle Ages, and another 20% later--and that doesn't count the last epidemic, the The Great Plague of 1666.

Fascinatingly in-depth, yet quick-to-read, take on everything Black Death.  This includes, but is not limited to:

--the biomedical facts of the Plague.  The memorable kicker here is that scientists have concluded, by digging up bodies of Plague victims in the frozen Arctic, that the Great Pestilence may have made about 10%-15% of today's descendants of Plague survivors immune to HIV, which causes AIDS.  This would've been certain by now, since the completion of the Human Genome Project, as this book was published in 2001.  The other memorable factoid is that anthrax was most likely killing off Europeans--especially the British--as the Plague was doing so as well, making London of the Middle Ages the worst place to be of all-time.  This explains why millions died in the winter--when rats and fleas are not abundant--and why millions died in the Frozen Arctic, where rats and fleas don't go at all.  Turns out, many of those people didn't die from the Plague--they died from anthrax.  And, why didn't many people have the tell-tale buboes and skin and blood lesions that Plague victims got?  And why did some people get struck by the virus one night and die before morning, which was unusual for Plague, which took days or weeks?  Answer, again: anthrax.

--social and economic aftereffects of the Plague.  In short, yeomen and women flourished, economically.  The Church was devastated and hired younger and more undereducated people, as the older but learned leaders died off. Serfdom ended. People questioned the infallibility of their monarchies (who were supposedly God-chosen and God-protected, but who during the Plague were God-forsaken) and of the Church, and of medicine.  After all, if the priests and friars and physicians couldn't save themselves, how could they save (spiritually and medically) anyone else?  And if they couldn't do that, what good were they at all?

--artistic expression.  Commonly thought to have become more morbid and pessimistic after the Plague, Cantor believes that art was going that way anyway, and that Renaissance art was less of a mirror of the Plague than previously thought.  I'm surprised by this, but Cantor is hugely respected, and he quotes many others, so I'll take his word for it.

--world government. The Plague spelled the end for the Plantagenets, which was a long-lasting monarchy and European power that you and I have never heard of. But they would've ruled England and Spain, and maybe, by default, France, at the time, which was a constant thought of every monarch for hundreds of years, but would've actually happened. But English Princess Joan, who was about to marry into the Spanish monarchy, died of the Plague (in France, at 15), and so that never happened. This led to the trials and tribulations of Edward II and III, and of Henry IV-VI, and, well, the rest is history.

--medical and scientific stagnation. These two things were just as much to blame as were the actual Plague and anthrax, as the vacuum of medical and scientific advancement in the Middle Ages (except in the field of optics) made these pandemics worse, and longer-lasting, than they necessarily had to be. Nobody knew or practiced anything that could've combated the Plague, so the main response was to pray, flee and blame--

--the Jews. The Plague wasn't the first time they were scapegoated, but perhaps this was the first European-wide excuse to massacre them, as entire villages, households and neighborhoods of Jews were set aflame and otherwise wiped out because the common man thought they were poisoning the wells, thereby creating and spreading the Plague. The first of many Jewish holocausts over the years.

In short, if you're interested at all in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, or in the Plague, this is necessary reading. An informative, well-written (and often sarcastic) account of the Plague, the people and the time.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Goodbye 2015 -- Affluenza

Photo: Ethan "Affluenza" Couch. By the Associated Press, December 28, 2015

And, his mother, also from the AP.  Read about them below. For the whole article, go here.

Good riddance to 2015!  Say goodbye to:

Ethan Couch, who drunkenly plowed into a disabled vehicle and the 4 people servicing it, all of whom died. This happened when he was 16, in Texas. During the sentencing phase, his lawyer said he suffered from "affluenza" because his parents were so rich and had spoiled him so much, he didn't know right from wrong. This apparently worked, because the judge gave him 10 years' probation! Rather than feeling responsible, he attended a party where alcohol was served, though in fairness the video does not show him drinking any. I don't know if that matters in terms of his probation, though. I'm guessing it violates it, because soon he and his mother threw a going-away party, then split for Mexico, crossing the border in an SUV (and after paying someone off, because I don't think people on probation can leave the country without permission, which he wouldn't have gotten because he missed a mandatory court date and a rehab stint). U.S. authorities finally tracked them down because they'd ordered a pizza over the phone, possibly with a credit card. The mother was flown back to L.A. and arrested (While living together after her divorce, she placed her son's bed in her own bedroom, saying he was her "protector."  Ewwwwww!!), but Couch won an appeal in a Mexican court, and is still in Mexico, fighting extradition. The prosecutor said this could take anywhere between a few days, to a few months, to perhaps years.

This nauseating story speaks for itself. But I have to ask: That judge gave him 10 years' probation (and a stint in rehab) for killing four people and crippling two others--if he did so because he believed Couch was too rich and too spoiled to know right from wrong, then doesn't this judge also have to give stupefyingly light sentences to someone very poor, who grew up so poor and abused that he also didn't know right from wrong?

Just sayin'.

So, Affluenza Ethan Couch, goodbye, man. And, by the way, that Mexican detention center you're in until the extradition mess gets worked out--that can't be any better than any American juvie center or rehab for rich kids. Again, just sayin'.  Oh, and one more thing: Do these two look haunted by their misdeeds to you? That first one is a sociopath if I've ever seen one. And the mom? Proud of it all.

More Goodbye 2015 entries to come. Why do you want to say goodbye to 2015?