Tag Archives: Academy Awards

The Revenant: Revelatory and Remarkable

revenant

At the core of this grim film about pain, loss and revenge,  The Revenant is a story about steel-cored adventurers whose every day is full of extreme but self-imposed hardships. This film, a fictionalized account of the story of actual 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, shows better than any other the brutal conditions under which fur trappers lived on North America’s frontier. Nature is a living, breathing, bloody-clawed character in this film, as much a part of the cast as Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Hardy. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is stunning: he captures both nature’s grandeur and man’s brutality in this film.

Stories in which characters face extreme adversity allow actors to emote more dramatically, showing not only their acting ability but also their willingness to suffer for their art. When an epic is directed, shot, acted and edited this masterfully, the arc of the story, the flow of action, the building of character and the depth of each loss all reverberate more intensely within the viewer’s heart.

The Revenant overflows with evident extremes: constant cold (which left the actors courting hypothermia and frostbite more than once); bloody brutality; heaving, spitting, screaming vengeance; terrifying physical danger; a highly protective mother bear; hand-to-hand combat between invading white trackers and indigenous Native Americans; horses undergoing the worst possible disasters; even creatures seeking respite in the dead bodies of other creatures. It is to the great credit of the cast, and DiCaprio and Hardy in particular, that these characters feel not like strutting caricatures of good and evil but like actual human beings.

The scenes involving closeups that show flickers of the subtlest emotions are as thrilling as those involving CGI bears, horses or eviscerations. Hardy is almost unrecognizable, not only because of the facial hair and prosthetic scalped pate but also because of his quirky accent with its unexpected twangs and turns. His character is thoroughly unlikable, but also so uneasy that we can never trust ourselves to know him or anticipate his next move. Despicable as his actions may be, his motivations are clear, yet he leaves us perpetually off our guard. This keeps this long, intense movie from sinking under the weight of his character’s badness. In a year that also saw him give laudable performances in Mad Max: Fury Road and in Legend, the brutal but entertaining story of London’s deranged mobsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, Hardy’s stunning portrayal of brooding, bloody John Fitzgerald in The Revenant is a career highlight.

After giving so many fine performances in his long career, Leonardo DiCaprio truly earned his Oscar for The Revenant. I was first moved by him when he was a talented teen giving stunning performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and This Boy’s Life.  With the exception of Titanic, which I thought elicited some of his and Kate Winslet’s worst performances, I’ve watched his career unfold with great pleasure. His role in The Revenant has all the Oscar-friendly elements—the physical hardship, extremes of pain, fear, loss and vengeance—but it also requires that we utterly believe in the living, breathing reality of his character’s plight, and that we want to stay with him through each new horror despite our own great discomfort.

If the story were just about a wronged man seeking vengeance, we might grow tired of the chase or grow to hate the man who seeks revenge, but this long saga, which focuses heavily on DiCaprio during long solitary scenes, lets us feel and sympathize with the reasons behind his vengeance. We sense his great pain, his loss and his essential decency because Leo insists that we do. DiCaprio’s character must impress us with his fortitude and his ability to surmount the nearly insurmountable, time and time again, but in order to care about him we must be constantly reminded of his vulnerability, and no actor today is better able to display alternating vulnerability and quick-on-his-feet mental resourcefulness than Leonardo DiCaprio.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s treatment of the story incorporates scenes of silent, lyrical natural beauty in the sweeping manner of director Terrence Malick. The two share the ability to step back from an engrossing, intense situation and remind us of the environment in which it takes place, allowing the audience to breathe. They let us rebalance ourselves to better evaluate the mental states of the characters to whom we feel so closely drawn. These directors share a penchant for magical realism and sensual naturalism, something that was evident in Iñárritu’s award-winning direction of the fantastical (and Oscar-winning) film The Birdman. That film was alternately claustrophobic and expansive, with the most explosive and off-putting scenes taking place within the confines of a theater, and the true expression of the main character taking place during bursts of real or imagined flight. In The Birdman, Iñárritu allows us to believe that a man can feel trapped and caged while alone in a barren landscape or free to fly while sitting cross-legged in a tiny theater dressing room, his mind miles away from his levitating body.

The Birdman threatened always to drift away into the realms of the irrational while simultaneously forcing the audience and the characters to face life’s real limitations and gravitational pull. The Revenant explores what it’s like to be bound to earth by pain, determination and oppressive nature while being urged forward by elements of the indomitable human spirit that are eternal, ineffable and stronger than gravity: one human being’s love for another, and a determination that even death might be conquered in order to honor and hold onto the spirits of those whom we have loved and lost.

Joaquin Phoenix Rising

Phoenix

[Originally published as “Phoenix Rising” on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Some actors have a gift for making audiences uncomfortable. They know when to hold a gaze too long or whether to avoid eye contact altogether; how to let panic, malice or discovery flit across their faces almost imperceptibly; how to touch their faces absentmindedly, betraying their anxiety or concern. We who watch them thrill to the feeling that we alone have discovered their secrets or noticed the tell-tale change in their mood that everyone else has missed. But sometimes the naturalism of their discomposure makes us worry that they are not really actors at all, but rather embodiments of the troubled characters whose lives they inhabit for our entertainment. James Gandolfini‘s Tony Soprano was so commanding and charismatic that the world believed the actor and the character must be two sides of the same being. Seeing him interviewed and hearing his intelligent, slightly shy delivery expressing insights with quiet, wry humor was disorienting. When speaking in his own voice, Gandolfini betrayed a tenderness and self-deprecation we would never have expected based on the behavior and body language of his most famous creation. When Bradley Cooper is asked about his mentor and co-star Robert De Niro, he describes a thoughtful, articulate and generous man who is nothing like the belligerent and threatening characters he is best known for playing in the movies.

Joaquin Phoenix is such a modern master of discomfort. As a child actor then known as Leaf Phoenix, he had steady television work and was in occasional movies, like “Parenthood,” but he grew up in the shadow of his talented older brother, River. The two were together when River died of a drug overdose in 1993; a 911 emergency audiotape featuring Joaquin’s anguished voice asking for help for his brother was played incessantly on television and radio for weeks after River’s death, and the trauma and the constant media hounding so devastated Joaquin that he retreated from acting for a year. In 1995, however, he got a big break playing an important supporting role in the Gus Van Sant film “To Die For.” Phoenix played Jimmy, a lonely, slow-witted, desperate boy who becomes obsessed by a perky local news television personality played with sociopathic relish by Nicole Kidman. Kidman’s manipulative character strings the Phoenix character along and wraps him dangerously around her finger. Kidman plays her part with an earnest yet sprightly quality that’s meant to be outsized, colorful, almost cartoonish, along the lines of the characters in “Edward Scissorhands.” By contrast, Phoenix plays his role as Kidman’s pawn with great vulnerability and realism. His confusion feels painfully real as he slowly tries to make sense of the situation he’s been drawn into. A lesser actor could have played Jimmy as a sap or stooge not worth worrying about, but Phoenix gives him a shape and a heart; his character is the one touches us the most and makes Kidman’s transgressions feel especially chilling.

It was his performance as Commodus, the twisted, desperate young emperor who ruins the life of Russell Crowe’s Maximus in “Gladiator,” that drew the world’s attention and earned him his first Oscar nomination. The performance holds up powerfully all these years later, despite his on-again, off-again attempts at a British accent. His character is by turns vulnerable and tyrannical, and like a Shakespearean villain, his evil deeds are offset by scenes in which we see him squirm painfully as his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (played with appropriate disdain by Richard Harris), and the gladiator Maximus humiliate him emotionally and physically. We can’t help but feel a measure of pity for him as we see the contempt heaped upon him by his father; evil-doers are always so much more fun to watch when we get a glimpse at what twisted their souls in the first place. Phoenix alternates a pouty, whiny narcissism with dangerous hubris in what is, to my mind, the most compelling performance in the film.

Commodus

Phoenix as Emperor Commodus in “Gladiator”

His second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor came five years later in 2005 when he starred in the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.” Though he didn’t win the Oscar that year, it was his strong performance that allowed Reese Witherspoon to play off him so effectively that she won her own Best Actress award. Johnny Cash had a jangling agitation in the way he sang and in the way he held himself, and Phoenix tapped into that perfectly. There’s a low hum of anxiety and suppressed energy in Johnny’s seemingly straightforward songs, and while Phoenix doesn’t look particularly like Johnny, nor is his singing a spot-on impersonation of Cash as Jamie Foxx’s impersonation of Ray Charles was in the film “Ray,” Phoenix nonetheless gets the feeling right, captures Cash’s charisma and energy and makes the story flow along a satisfying and seemingly inevitable path.

In 2010 Phoenix played a bizarre fictionalized version of himself in Casey Affleck’s mockumentary “I’m Still Here.” Where his odd, seemingly addled character ended and Phoenix himself began wasn’t clear as he appeared barely coherent and gave conflicting stories about himself in talk show appearances and in written interviews while the film was being made. Like comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufman in the 1980s, he challenged people to recognize that he was playing tricks on them. Happily, his statements that he was quitting acting to become a rapper were false, and he was back costarring with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “The Master” in 2012.

Phoenix played Freddy, an amoral, emotionally stunted deviant who regularly swilled cocktails concocted from shots of fuel and paint thinners. The character was so disturbed and outrageous that the rumors of Phoenix’s own emotional instability spread. His portrayal of Freddy was simultaneously over-the-top odd and yet believable. To inhabit this broken and frightening man’s persona, Phoenix turned memories of his own physical injuries into tics, and he slurred and mumbled his way through lines in a parody of his own shambling speaking style. (For a fascinating description of how he created his character, listen to his highly entertaining interview with Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.”) His intensity and rawness make the character of Freddy hard for the audience to spend time with; he has no boundaries and no filter, and his recklessness makes him appear capable of anything at all. When Phoenix plays off the hale and hearty, but no less frightening, charisma of Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s character, who is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, there are almost literal sparks on the screen, so exciting is the contrast between their styles. These two actors were so fiercely focused and totally in the moment with each other that you believe everything they say occurred to them for the very first time as the cameras roll. Despite the loathsomeness of their personalities, they are so compelling and their performances bounce off each other so thrillingly that the resulting film is worth the discomfort of spending over two hours watching them behave atrociously.

Considering Joaquin Phoenix’s history of playing one disturbed, fragile, inappropriate man after another, I feared that his character in the Spike Jonze film “Her” might be more than a little creepy. He is, after all, a man who feels such awkwardness among real human beings that he spends his days pretending to be other people and writing their most personal letters for them as a ghost writer. He then forms his most intimate attachment to a simulated woman, a disembodied, computerized voice, because he can’t make a go of actual human relationships. Yet, despite the extreme oddness found in the careers of both Phoenix and writer-director Jonze, there is a beautiful, gentle quality to Theodore that drew me in and made me care for and want to protect him. Phoenix portrays Theodore with an immense vulnerability that builds up through small gestures: the way he presses his glasses back up his nose; the joyful, relieved smile that spreads across his face when he converses freely and delightedly with his computerized companion; the way his body seems to crumple inward when he has to interact with actual three-dimensional people. Theodore is fragile and scarred by life experience, and he is awkward and confused about how best to handle other people one-on-one, but he doesn’t lose his basic decency even when others take him for granted or unleash their own rage or fear on him. He may be shy and scared, but he is also brave enough to be vulnerable, to try something altogether new, to pick up the pieces after a heartbreak. There is joy in watching this stunted soul open his heart and set aside his pain, and great sadness at seeing him struggle when adversity strikes. In another actor’s hands, Theodore could have been too dark or too off-putting, or embarrassingly dorky, but Phoenix plays him with a gentle touch and the understanding of one who has himself been misjudged or or written off.

The willingness to lay oneself bare for others to view can be either narcissistic or generous; for many actors, it’s both. Joaquin Phoenix and Spike Jonze seem to have found perfect partners in each other in creating “Her.” While the story is Jonze’s very personal vision, the process of making Phoenix disappear into the part was very much a collaboration. Initially, Jonze hired the talented English actress Samantha Morton to be the voice of Samantha. Morton, herself an indie film favorite who played Agatha, the senior precog in “Minority Report,” is often described as quirky, sat in an uncomfortable little wooden box while on the set, far away from Phoenix, and the two of them communicated only via earpieces, like their characters. They did the entire film that way, and then Jonze realized that, lovely as their performances were, there was something not quite right in the chemistry between the two of them. He is circumspect about explaining what the problem was since he doesn’t want to denigrate anyone’s acting, and he and Phoenix have only praise for Morton’s work on the film, which they say was very helpful in inspiring Phoenix’s performance. The only thing Jonze has implied is that Morton’s voice may have come across as too motherly, and that rather than instilling a belief in the audience that there could be a romantic spark between them, she may have sounded a bit too nurturing instead of sexy in her interactions with Phoenix. As a result, in post-production Jonze recast the computer love interest with Scarlett Johansson. As Spike Jonze put it, “[Joaquin] was speaking to Samantha Morton the entire time—she was in his ear, in another room, and he was in her ear. Samantha is a big part of the movie because she was with us, and gave Joaquin so much and gave the movie so much. And then in [postproduction,] when we decided that what we did wasn’t working, and we ended up recasting with Scarlett [Johansson]. [Joaquin] worked with Scarlett in post—but to help her do her part, so off-camera and off-mic with her.”

Phoenix was generous in coming back onto set to work with Johansson to make sure her performance sounded like a true, emotion-packed conversation; some actors refuse to run scenes with other actors once they’ve shot their own close ups and recorded their own looping (voice dubbing). Less generous actors leave the set after filming their own scenes, expecting crew members to read lines for other actors to react to, which can, unsurprisingly, result in less convincing results. By all accounts, all the actors in “Her,” including Amy Adams, who plays Theodore’s dear friend and confidante with warmth and tenderness, were generous and devoted to making the communication in this film feel genuine and organic. Their work underscores the theme of true connection with another being not depending on looking into his or her eyes.

There is a sadness beneath all four of the feature films Spike Jonze has directed, the threat of a dark underworld that drags all of his characters into melancholy. This Jonzian undertow brings a depth to stories that are often populated with slightly cartoonish, overdrawn characters who are going through midlife crises and react by turning their worlds upside-down. In his first two films, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” this depressive quality played off a sometimes manic, off-kilter humor. There was an occasional meanspiritedness to the characters that left me feeling admiration for the skill involved in the films’ creation, but distaste for most of the people portrayed. “Where the Wild Things Are,” though based on the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak, is more wryly bleak and dark than many filmgoers seemed prepared for. Max, the boy in his wolf suit who tames the the wild things and becomes their king, befriends Carroll, a depressed wild thing voiced touchingly by the late James Gandolfini. Although “Wild Things” is more moody and adult than audiences expected, it is a worthy effort with some moving performances.

Spike

Director Spike Jonze (right) in a rare onscreen role as Conrad in David O. Russell’s 1999 film “Three Kings” alongside Ice Cube (left) and Mark Wahlberg

This tender quality continues in “Her,” and the film feels very personal to Jonze, who is an amiable and charming man, but who says that he spends vast amounts of time alone as he gets into the heads of his characters and creates his stories. He is a ruminator and a dreamer, which is surprising for a man who made a name for himself by directing kinetic, quirky music videos for groups like Weezer (and a brilliant one featuring a dancing Christopher Walken for Fatboy Slim), creating clever advertisements for Ikea, Adidas and The Gap and establishing youth culture magazines Homeboy and Dirt (the latter of which was once described as “Sassy Magazine for boys”). He was producer and co-creator of the MTV TV series “Jackass” and he produced “Jackass: The Movie.” He’s an occasional (and talented) actor as well. He makes a cameo appearance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but his finest role was as Conrad, the dim but loyal redneck soldier in the excellent David O. Russell film “Three Kings,” which also starred George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and rapper Ice Cube. The film is by turns seriously dark and outrageously fun, and it is the initial jovial oddness of the characters, especially Spike Jonze’s Conrad, that makes the later, rougher scenes even more poignant.

Jonze himself is ever affable, open and approachable in his interviews, and is known to foster a collaborative, creative atmosphere on set with his actors. He is well-liked by the film community, but his work points to a darker, sadder person within who enriches his films by incorporating his awareness of the melancholic side of the human condition into works designed to entertain and encourage connection, no matter how odd and unorthodox, between lonely creatures who hope to find homes in the hearts of others. Jonze was fortunate to find a partner in Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance in “Her” should have easily qualified him for a place among the five Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role this year. His is a stunning and unusual performance in one of the more thoughtful films of 2013.

Capote

Capote

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

“My major regret in life is that my childhood was unnecessarily lonely.” –Truman Capote

The Truman Capote I grew up watching and reading was the Capote who appeared, usually drunk or drugged, odd but always interesting, on afternoon and evening talk shows, spinning stories about the fabulously famous and wealthy crowd with whom he ran. He was a professional personality by the time I was aware of him, but I also knew that he’d written much-admired stories that had been turned into very famous and popular films. I knew that my mother admired his work, and that he had written “A Christmas Memory,” one of the most beautiful, understated, tender stories I’ve ever read. The fact that it was based in his own experience made it all the more lovely to me. I felt sad for and protective of him at a young age, because I knew that the man who had written that story had been a tender and hyperaware child, like I had, and had seen the fear and pain in life as clearly as the joy and the secret beauties of it.

My mother taught “A Christmas Memory” to her high school English students for many years and she introduced it to me when I was about ten. I was completely taken with this story of a young boy abandoned by his parents and living with his disapproving southern aunts. This boy’s best friend was the childlike old-maid cousin with whom he also lived, a woman who flew handmade kites with him and took him to buy moonshine whiskey from Mr. Haha Jones so they could make their annual batch of fruitcakes, one of which they sent to President Franklin Roosevelt every year. Capote had taken the littlest details and moments in what others might see as an unexceptional situation and spun them into a rich and compelling story, simple and straightforward but with every word in place, every emotion sparely but elegantly woven into the words. I think it’s a short masterpiece; it is perhaps my favorite short story, and the one I’ve read more often than any other.

It was immediately clear to me that Capote got the tone, the subtleties, the story, and the total devotion of the characters for each other exactly right. That he was the model for the boy Dill in his friend Harper Lee’s story To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that I find close to perfect, made him all the more special to me. I have read and reread “A Christmas Memory” to myself and others most of the Christmases of my life, and cry as regularly as clockwork when I come to the last bittersweet page. This was a man who clearly understood loss and loneliness, and who understood empathy and tender connection to another like few writers I’d come across. There was something beautiful and tender and true in him and in his art that I, and millions of other people, were drawn to, and wanted to believe in.

When Capote died in 1984 among swirling stories of long-term drug and alcohol abuse, he also left behind him a parade of disaffected friends who felt he’d used and abused them, that he’d betrayed their friendship and their secrets in order to steal their souls so that he might make not only his party anecdotes but his writing come to life. He had been such a wildly successful New York socialite, courting and collecting the loveliest, richest, and most prominent socialites as his “swans,” as he called them, for years. He hosted the New York social event of the decade, the famous and successful Black and White Ball, in 1966. Best-dressed list icons like Lee Radziwill and Babe Paley attended parties with him and had him to their summer homes, traveled with him and relished his delicious gossip. He wangled his way into the hearts of dozens of people who felt he understood them intimately and would respect and love them not only despite but because of their foibles. When he wanted to be charming, nobody could outcharm him. He made people of all types and of any social standing believe he loved them for the tender, misunderstood people they were inside their suits of shiny invincibility; they felt not only understood by him but safe with him. And then he spilled out their secrets for everyone to see.

For years he gathered their lives into his short stories and promised a splendid, insightful book to his publisher, talk show hosts, and the world, and we all waited with bated breath, knowing that when Capote had the time to build a work, like In Cold Blood, he would carefully piece it together just so and make the wait worthwhile. He had shown his mastery of the short story form very early in life, and, when sober, he was an insightful and entertaining fellow. He was also extraordinarily catty when he wanted to be, and, when one wasn’t on the receiving end of that acid tongue, he could be shockingly funny. But his charm was so extreme and his magical power of diverting attention from the things that everyone should have known that he was a sponge who missed no details, a writer first and foremost, insightful and ruthless when exposing the hidden motivation, the raw nerve.

So he gathered his swans’ secrets and then poured them out onto the page with such clarity, and so little effort at concealing the identities of his characters’ inspirations, that he immediately and permanently drove most of his friends and their associates away and turned their feelings for him from indulgent and loving exasperation to anger, fear, and resentment. To learn of how almost all the doors of society slammed on him one by one after he had been the toast of New York, the shining star of literary society, was to feel that, no matter how much he deserved what he got, it was still a terrible shame, that there must have been some mistake somewhere, some misunderstanding.

Knowing his downward trajectory during the last 15 years of his life makes “Capote,” the outstanding new film about his years researching and writing In Cold Blood, even more riveting. The film constructs, with not one extraneous scene or unnecessary bit of dialog, an understanding of his place in literary society, and his chameleon-like ease at blending into the lives of the people whom he wanted to capture and luring them into trusting him with their lives and stories. His ability to say exactly what a publisher, a murderer, his lover, his oldest friend wanted to hear in order to court their love or trust, and seem to mean each word he said, is juxtaposed rivetingly with his ability to cut them off at the knees, dismiss them, insult them, or ignore them when their needs don’t suit his. The performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman is astonishing, not only because his impersonation of Capote’s strained, high, tiny voice and his fussy mannerisms is so remarkably good, but because he moves effortlessly between charm and seemingly endless empathy to self-absorption of enormous proportion so smoothly and naturally. We both admire and revile him. In their roles, excellent actors Chris Cooper and Catherine Keener show indulgence and affection for him, as well as wariness and disgust with his deceit of others, of them, of himself. The script is often spare and the pacing, while perfect, is never rushed; what is not said by the characters is as important and full of meaning as the well-crafted dialog. We learn just enough about any character, any situation, to be able to piece together what its meaning will be to those involved. His actions and the reactions of others are carefully calibrated so that we are never in the dark as to what is going on or how his actions will reverberate, but we are trusted to be able to let the story build in our minds; the writer, director, and actors don’t spoonfeed us but deftly piece the feelings, words, and actions of the characters together so that the story builds and intermeshes exactly as it should. This is how a subtle story should be told.