Friday, January 29, 2016

The Revenant [film review]

Released theatrically on January 8th

The Revenant, which leads this year's Oscar nominations with 12, may well be the least colourful film you'll ever see. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu follows up 2014's much-celebrated Birdman with a loosely factual man-versus-nature epic tale set on the 1820s American frontier, based on the 2002 book by Michael Punke, The Revenant: A Novel Of Revenge ("revenant" means "a person who returns after death"). Iñárritu and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, took the unusual and incredibly ambitious step to shoot the film entirely in natural light, a decision fraught with all sorts of peril considering 90% of it was to be shot outdoors on real locations just outside of Calgary in the winter. As a result, almost all of the film is set amongst stark white frozen landscapes beneath grey skies, adding an extremely effective element of bleakness to the struggle of the film's protagonist, Hugh Glass. As Iñárritu matter-of-factly told The Hollywood Reporter, "If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit."  

Glass, a real-life fur trapper and frontiersman, is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of the strongest leading performances I've seen in a film in some time, a feat made even more notable by the fact that the actor relies on a strict economy of dialogue for the role. DiCaprio's character experiences the most brutal weather conditions I've ever seen a Hollywood star endure on screen, which weren't simulated in Iñárritu's winning quest for authenticity...and a shit-free cinematic experience. The A-lister spends just about his entire screen time in conditions that are cold, wet, or frequently both. Forming the core of The Revenant's story is Glass' struggle to survive the elements and exact revenge on the men from his fur trapping expedition who harmed a member of his family and left him to die following a bear attack. That attack is one of the most extraordinarily constructed CGI scenes I've ever seen (you may be detecting a pattern here in my opinion of this film). It lasts a little less than five minutes, is edge-of-your-seat gripping, very difficult to watch, and somehow never shows its technical seams. You will absolutely believe DiCaprio and a 700 pound grizzly shared screen time in a life-or-death battle. Iñárritu and his team's technical prowess extends to many other scenes throughout the movie that employ complicated tracking shots and CGI wizardry, as well as unique camera shots that come off as refreshing and not gimmicky (one of them has the camera in so tight on an actor's face that his breath fogs up the lens). The Revenant also benefits from solid supporting work turned in by the always-reliable Tom Hardy as the brutish John Fitzgerald (Glass' main adversary), Will Poulter as a member of the fur trappers, and Duane Howard as a Native American seeking his own vengeance. 

Despite a climax that falls a little flat and the credulity-straining levels of physical and environmental abuse that DiCaprio's character is subjected to (which conversely make for highly entertaining viewing), The Revenant stands as a compelling piece of work from a bold filmmaker, with a standout and vanity-free performance from DiCaprio.

Rating: A

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Big Short [film review]

Released theatrically on December 23rd

Lingering fatigue from the numerous documentaries and television shows I'd watched on the 2008 global financial collapse almost made me take a pass on The Big Short, which deals with that subject. Despite its many fascinating details, everything about the collapse and the insane levels of reckless greed that caused it to happen make me want to take a long shower after watching anything on the topic. The film's A-list-heavy cast, including Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, and Steve Carell ultimately roped me in, however, in director Adam McKay's adaptation of author Michael Lewis' 2010 bestseller The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine.   

McKay is best known for his lowbrow comedies starring Will Ferrell (the Anchorman movies, The Other Guys, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby), so he seems like an odd choice to helm a film examining the lead-up to the financial crisis that's being marketed mostly as a drama with comedic undertones. The Big Short's comedic elements actually play a much larger role than the advertising would suggest, most of it flavoured with the black tone appropriate to the bleak subject material and the repugnant high finance world the movie inhabits. The laughs are more miss than hit, with Gosling's slimy Wall Street banker character (and the film's narrator) getting the funniest lines, while McKay's regular usage of fourth-wall-breaking interactions and enlistment of celebrity cameos (including Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, and Margot Robbie) to simplify explanations of economic terms and practices quickly wears thin and doesn't pack nearly the irreverent and humorous punch that the director hopes for. Carell's Mark Baum character, a shrewd hedge fund manager who's one of the mostly real-life people The Big Short portrays, is supposed to be the film's moral compass, but between his anger management issues and generally insufferable personality, it's awfully difficult to empathize with the man (which a hollow subplot involving Baum's recently deceased brother also calls upon). Pitt, appearing in his second film adaptation of a Lewis book after starring in 2011's Moneyball, fares better in a decent supporting role as an ultra laid-back and paranoid former trader who reluctantly returns to the finance world to shepherd a pair of low-level traders. Bale's Michael Burry character, a forward-thinking money manager with one eye who's socially awkward, is by far the best reason to invest any time in The Big Short, a movie that's seriously light on likeable characters. The film's pulse elevates whenever his eccentric character is on screen, such as in the scene where the metal-loving Burry works out his stress by pounding his drum set to Pantera's "By Demons Be Driven". 

The way-stranger-than-fiction subject matter will inevitably lead to a great film on the '08 collapse, but The Big Short isn't it (and perhaps it's already been done with 2011's highly acclaimed Margin Call, which I haven't seen). Cue the showers. 

Rating: C

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Darlene Love — Introducing Darlene Love [album review]

Released on September 18th

In case Darlene Love's name doesn't ring familiar, here's a quick bio: the 74-year-old established herself as a member of producer Phil Spector's stable of musicians in the early 60s, where she was lead singer of girl group The Blossoms, who were the actual recording artists on the 1962 hit song "He's A Rebel" (Spector credited the recording to The Crystals, another of his groups). Love also sang background vocals on classics such as The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron", The Ronettes' "Be My Baby", Frank Sinatra's "That's Life", "Monster Mash", and songs recorded by names like Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, and The Beach Boys. Her 1963 solo hit "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" stands as probably her best-known song and her performances of it on David Letterman's NBC and CBS shows became a late-December tradition every year from 1986 until 2014 (except in 2007 due to a television writers strike). That song and those performances even managed to always stir something resembling Christmas spirit in this otherwise grinch-prone writer. Recent years have seen Love's talent get proper recognition, with a 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and she was the centrepiece of 2013's outstanding 20 Feet From Stardom documentary. You might also recognize her as the wife of Danny Glover's character in the four Lethal Weapon films.

The latest chapter in Love's career resurgence is the ironically titled Introducing Darlene Love, her first album of (mostly) secular material in almost 30 years. E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt quite capably assumes the Spector role on this project...minus the crazy. He produced, did the musical arrangements, plays guitar on numerous tracks, wrote three songs, and released it on his Wicked Cool Records label (in partnership with Columbia Records). The album's standout song, "Among The Believers", is one of his compositions (appearing originally on his second solo album) and, as the leadoff track, firmly establishes Introducing's overall tone: huge-sounding production, unapologetically bombastic vocals, and positive vibes. Love is the beneficiary of the songwriting services of the Boss from Van Zandt's "day job", Bruce Springsteen, on "Night Closing In" and "Just Another Lonely Mile". Springsteen has been a vocal supporter of Love's for years and he doesn't let her down with these excellent contributions, especially the latter track. It sounds like it could have comfortably resided on his 60s pop-leaning album from 2009, Working On A Dream. A really out-of-left-field song choice is "Little Liar", Joan Jett's late 80s power ballad hit, which sounds far better here with Love's powerhouse vocals and much deeper production. The epic six-and-a-half minute version of the Jimmy Webb-penned "Who Under Heaven" stands out as one of the album's finest tracks, as does a highly spirited take on Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High", a song that Love has a history with. It was originally slated by Spector to be recorded by the singer, only to have him change his mind and offer it to the Turners instead. Elvis Costello also contributes a couple of songs, the first-rate "Forbidden Nights" and one of Introducing's only weak tracks, the duet "Still Too Soon To Know", featuring some rather croaky vocals from Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers. 

Introducing Darlene Love emerged as one of the best albums I heard in 2015 and it's certainly the most uplifting collection of music I purchased during the year. Van Zandt's monstrous production, frequently comprised of lush orchestration, capably replicates and celebrates Spector's famed Wall of Sound and delivers a veritable ten course meal for headphone enthusiasts. And Love uses her dynamic vocal instrument to deftly move between various genres, from 80s rock, to her wheelhouse area of 60s pop and soul, to the full-on gospel she embraces on the album's final two tracks, "Marvelous" and "Jesus Is The Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin')". Nice to meet you, Miss Love.

Rating: A-