Thoughts from my brain – often about films


February 2016

Exit. Pursued by a bear… The Revenant

It seems a while since we had a decent epic, a Gladiator or a Braveheart (accents aside), or even a bad one, Waterworld, Troy. Something not based on fantasy or a comic franchise but just an immersive, non green screen, we actually built that, epic. Big scale, must-see-on-the-big-screen, well over 2 hours run time – EPIC. A proper epic makes you forget all the niggling questions like ‘is that really historical accurate’, ‘that seems a bit convenient’, ‘surely you’d be dead after THAT’. Last night I finally saw The Revenant and it was the epic I didn’t know I needed.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ambitious project was already surrounded by myth and gossip during filming, hugely over-budget, had to relocate to Argentina because Canada just wasn’t damn wintery enough, Tom Hardy dropped out of Suicide Squad because this film needed more time and of course the constant ‘this one’s is Leo’s oscar movie’ buzz. Not to mention the tales of extreme method acting, crazy schedule, crew members fired who couldn’t handle the pace, Hardy throttling Iñárritu and so on. When a film has this much hype it’s always got the potential to disappoint.

It didn’t disappoint me though. If you haven’t been yet (I am late to the party so you probably have) believe the hype GET to a cinema, this is NOT a wait till it streams release. Quite apart from the excellent acting, (DiCaprio literally chews the scenery) this owes just as much to the stunning landscape and the commitment to capturing the uniqueness and beauty of the natural world. Iñárritu decided to film natural light only and that gave an average of 2 hours a day to film, so they rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and then went for the take. If it went wrong, re-set, do it all again tomorrow. Now, I heard that and thought, well it’s going to be a lot of long shots of DiCaprio being wilderness tough, he’s an accomplished and experienced performer, sure it’ll be fine. I really didn’t realise how many incredible set pieces or how many people, horses, fires, props that Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki were committing to.

The first 30 minutes are entirely reminiscent of the unforgettable Saving Private Ryan so immersive and close that you scarcely draw breathe, just the same reaction I had to Spielberg’s beach storming. When you are let up for air, there’s some fast character catching up to do.  With two or three exceptions, everyone is a man, the frontiersman are all dressed in furs and home-spun layers with a greater (Hardy / DiCaprio) or lesser (Poulter/ Goodluck) degree of facial hair – so without a tight script and some stand out performances you could be a bit ‘wait who is that now’? The cast are all exceptionally good. Hardy and DiCaprio have been given the awards nods, fair play, but Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter deserve huge acknowledgement too. Being support to these two heavyweights – both in acting and character terms – is not an easy task, but Gleeson brings a wonderful, natural performance as the Captain, he doesn’t get the big emotions or big endurance tests, but he is utterly solid and allows Hardy and DiCaprio the room to indulge. Poulter, I have only seen in Chronicles of Narnia – he was great- IMDB tells me he’s in other ‘teen’ films – so this seems to mark his transition into adult films. Good choice Poulter, brave as you like to jump in with this kind of talent but you held your own and brought not only truth but some much needed empathy to your Bridger. A shout out too to Arthur Redcloud as Hikuc, a truck driver in his debut performance, just delightful and probably the most likeable character all things considered.

The landscape is breathtaking, from the huge sweeping shots of frozen expanses, mountains and stunning river shots, to the detailed work of dew on plants, close-ups of ants, bark, Iñárritu REALLY loves the outdoors and Lubezki delivers. The light is ever impressive and changing, a scene by a river towards the end, where the sun lights up the mountain side was breathtaking and totally aside from the action on screen. Indeed, the story has plenty going on already, but what makes this film unique is that tireless commitment to capture the visceral, bleak, unspoilt beauty of 19th century America. No compromises, no cheats and almost all achieved with minimal computer enhancement. Where CG was used – BEAR ATTACK – it was seamless. Seriously, I never want to know HOW they did the bear, it was so real it makes you wince – me for Glass, my boyfriend for the bear. I also enjoyed the balance of time spent with the opposing two groups of frontiersman and Native Americans – this is of course Glass (and arguably Fitzgerald’s) story, but in the time spent with the Ree and the development of Hikuc’s character (I adored the playful snow tasting scene) Iñárritu bans any sense of ‘cowboys and injuns’. Iñárritu and DiCaprio have both spoken out about the film being a platform for highlighting the struggle of culture clash, of industrialisation, modernisation to the detriment of ancient tradition and the natural world and similar themes. Which is fine – personally I just enjoyed the visceral beauty of the backdrop and hyper real performances used to tell the story – but if that motivation drove them to get the results they did – no complaints. I cannot call the cinematography Oscar  – triple whammy for Lubezki?  Probably. But I did adore the work in Carol and Fury Road

The Oscars are hugely political – never more so than now – and it is undoubtedly DiCaprio’s ‘time’, but all that aside, if he wins for The Revenant it will be good thing. It’s not a Judi Dench winning for Shakespeare in Love moment, I’d say it’s deserved. DiCaprio is known for physically committing to a role – see quaaludes scene in Wolf of Wall Street, but this was surely the most physically grueling role of his life, of most roles IN life. As my friend described it ‘Oh the cold!’ – you felt cold watching it, when he stuffed his fingers in his mouth to warm them on his breathe, you did go OUCH frostbite. There’s plenty written out there on the physical punishment, much made of the eating of raw fish, bison liver, the Skywalker Hoth moment – but for me, DiCaprio deserves the Oscar for his emotional performance. Glass is not a character that gives you a big Oscar emotional outburst moment. This is a man with emotions deeply buried, hard-as-nails, survivalist, but the combination of DiCaprio’s total immersion and the close-enough-to-touch camera work, allows ab understanding of this man’s motivations, pain – physical and emotional – and eventual surrender, completely. The fact that he finds that truth behind the eyes whilst being covered in goo, frost and muck is wonderful. Look at those eyes…

Hardy is great too, getting a lot of dialogue to have fun with and a nice clear nasty role to get stuck into – not particularly stand out for me in the Hardy canon but solid as always.

There a few dodgy moments, like any good epic, the Gladiator field of wheat style flashbacks were a wee bit laboured and there is the whole hypothermia elephant in the room but a film like The Revenant validates the argument that films should be seen at the cinema – more even than the big 3D behemoths like The Force Awakens or Fury Road. It’s not the big set pieces in this film – perfect as they are, it’s the space around the story that makes it so special, a long lingering gaze as you breathe out, the dedication to quiet and still. In these days of ‘oh just stream it’, a film like this deserves your full attention. The utter immersion of a shared experience in a dark room is worth it every time for me, but if you’re reluctant to leave your comfy sofa for sticky popcorn floor very often – make it now, make it for The Revenant. 

Oh and a massive three cheers for Powaqa’s ‘I’ll cut off your balls!’. Justice, Ree style and important moment in a male dominated film.








Children will listen – Room & Beasts of No Nation

Tough gig being a child actor, I’m not talking about the multiple traps you can fall into because you were in the public eye young (prisondrug abuse, mad parents), no, there’s the much more obvious pitfall of just not being very good. I mean it’s usually forgiveable not very good – Daniel Radcliffe channeling Shatner in HP One – “I. Can’t. Be a….. wizard” – but sometimes it’s just like ‘throw that child out the WINDOW’ annoying. So, it was with some trepidation I approached my weekend viewings of Room on Friday and Beasts of No Nation on Sunday, as both rely on the central child actor to carry the film.

Both films, and both boys, were phenomenal, not a hint of Shatner… just a joy to watch, if the word joy can be assigned to these films.

Room will have a tough time getting people into the cinema. Director Lenny Abrahamson said he made a deliberate choice in the trailer and marketing to reveal the ending, because despite what you might assume, Room is not about kidnap, imprisonment, a damaged child or horror-filled, it’s about a relationship between a mother and a son, it’s a love story. However, for those who have read the book, Room,  almost exclusively spends time with just two characters, Jack and Ma, and without the right casting and more importantly the correct pairing, there would be no film.But they nailed it, Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson are utterly believable in their roles. Abrahamson has spoken about the importance of Larson and Tremblay’s off-screen relationship, he could not have cast an actress who would ‘return to her trailer’, he needed someone to engage all day with the child actor, whether the cameras were on or not. Larson is quietly terrific and thoroughly deserves that Oscar nod, and it is because of her and of Abrahamson that Tremblay is so perfect.

Jack feels so true he will feel familiar both to those with small children in their lives and, certainly for me, as a reminder of your own childhood, the pushing of boundaries, the questions, the swings of emotion. Abrahamson’s work with Tremblay, repeating takes, repeating lines, letting the camera roll on as they stopped and talked through scenes, produces not only a natural performance but makes Jack deeply likable. In one scene where Jack shouts at Ma, Tremblay really struggled, so Abrahamson got the whole crew up and shouting until he joined in. Of course Room is not a blockbuster, there are not a lot of effects or a large crew to wrangle so Abrahamson had the space to do this style of directing, but the outcome is spectacular. He manages to film the the room of the title so it really does go “every direction, all the way to the end”. There is of course a pervading sense of horror, despite the undeniably uplifting scenes where Jack introduces us to his world, “Egg snake’s our longest friend, and fanciest”, we as adults know something is very wrong. Abrahamson allows this horror to creep in around us – we know the real reason there aren’t any birthday candles, Ma has a ‘gone’ day where she doesn’t get out of bed, Old Nick is a another word for devil – we can feel it and we know, but somehow it stays on the edges because Jack is ok. Because Ma has done a really good job at giving him a childhood. There are of course heart-in-mouth moments and I am sure if you are a Mummy this is a much tougher watch, but it is predominately an overwhelmingly positive film, about the power of imagination and the joy of childhood. Of course here is the place to give massive props to Emma Donoghue as well, who wrote the book but also the screenplay, apparently she wrote it almost immediately because she was afraid they wouldn’t let her if they book did well. It’s wonderful stuff.

There is a scene in Room which echoed through my head when watching Beasts of No Nation, it includes the following exchange:

JACK: I want a different story.

MA: No, this is the story that you get.

Ultimately, in Room you don’t want a different story, because in a different story Jack would not be there and Ma would not be Ma. However, I did want a different story for Agu, the central character of Beasts of No Nation, played by Abraham Attah, very badly.

Like Room, Beasts of No Nation, is all told from Agu’s perspective. Both films employ a voiceover, but where Jack’s commentary retains a 5 year old’s logic and innocence “There’s less time because the time has to be spread extra thin over all the places, like butter”, Agu’s becomes increasingly aged beyond his years and frighteningly bleak, “Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga, like Abrahamson, begins with Agu existing in a world that has horror on the edges, a world at war, with soldiers, borders, friends leaving in the night, anxious parents, but Agu is fine, he has parents that love him. Jack has an imaginary dog, Agu has imagination TV (joyous). Agu is older so will try to understand what is happening, but it’s much more fun to pull faces by torchlight, fart at the dinner table, basically be a child. You enjoy spending time in Agu’s world so much that when the horror spills over, it feels more shocking. In Room, your deepest fears of what could happen never materialise, in Beasts of No Nation, it gets much worse than you can imagine.

Beasts of No Nation is not an easy watch, but equally is not relentlessly bleak, the work of Fukunaga and Attah to bring joy and truth in the first 30 mins pays off and the supporting cast are equally excellent. In contrast to the de-saturated, cold, Fincher-esque colours of Room, the colour palate here is lush, bright, and jumps off the screen so you can feel the heat, the smells and tastes of this world. There has been much controversy around the overlooked Oscar nomination for Idris Elba and I see why, he is mesmerising as the Commandant – finding the balance between the human and the monster, showing moments of being almost (almost) sympathetic and likeable, which lends truth to the performance of a character than could easily have been done as a by the numbers ‘evil African rebel’.

A brief aside for the supporting cast of Room, loved Joan Allen and Tom McCamus – just being totally believable and populating the world they are in beautifully. I couldn’t remember if William H Macy’s character was lifted from the book, but in the film he feels surplus to requirements and his plotline feels a bit crow-barred in.

So to wrap it up – I find I am a bit rambly this time – I wish Jacob Tremblay and Abraham Attah the very best, they have excelled in their debut film roles, top work. Room will leave you feeling uplifted, Beasts of No Nation will leave you feeling helpless and empty, but both films are urgent and important. They both have the same message for me, what children are told to make sense of their experiences, they will believe. The lies Ma tells Jack to allow him to make sense of his world are done from kindness and a desire to protect, the gamble pays off, Jack ends happy, healthy and curious. The lies the Commandant tells Agu to justify his new existence as a child soldier leaves him dead-eyed, drug addicted and damaged, though we hope not beyond repair.

Children will listen.

  • Room is still in all the cinemas and Beasts of No Nation is available on Netflix. 
  • If you watch Beasts of No Nation and want to do something, you may consider joining me in supporting the work of War Child – their work is incredible and they are there long after a war has ended, I have supported them for a few years now. 

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