The Force Awakens…more slowly for some than for most. Unless I write this in Mandarin, for a Chinese audience that won’t see it until the weekend, there’s no point in reviewing the new Star Wars movie–the bones have been picked clean. It’s like the first one, or the fourth one. I saw it four times on Christmas Day, two weeks ago. It’s made $1.6 billion without any mainland Chinese seeing it. Han Solo’s…
But I can update one of my more popular pieces, written almost four years ago, on the 35th anniversary of the movie I knew as Star Wars, but which my kids know as Star Wars: A New Hope. (The first one to me, the fourth one to them.) Including the deathless line: “It’s best that the show is over.”
Not hardly. Four billion forked over to George Lucas by Disney later (cheap) and here we are, one movie into a trio of sequels, with three spinoffs set to go. Director J.J. Abrams had to thread carefully the needle connecting 50-year-old me to my almost-12 self, and he mostly succeeded. Ambitious though they were, Lucas’ prequels got too hung up on the wars–all that boring, sloppily conveyed business about trade routes and clones (and Jar Jar Binks). Abrams and the writers ladle the call outs and fan service, and put in the humorous touches and little character moments that the prequels lacked. Importantly, the new film unspools in some impressive natural locations and built environments; the antiseptic world-building of the “first” three movies was always at a digital distance from audience immersion. Crucially, the casting is first rate–you want to spend more time with these actors. (Having seen Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver in a number of plays on the New York stage, I feel like a proud parent watching his children go forth in the galaxy. That Carrie Fisher, whose voice has morphed into Lauren Bacall’s, and Mark Hamill are entirely different people thirty years later is something that couldn’t be helped, and I’m fine with them as they are today.) Yes, going forward, the plots could use freshening, but it was Lucas who first reused the Death Star for Return of the Jedi.
The best news is that different teams of filmmakers will be handling the upcoming films. Abrams, who successfully rebooted Star Trek, badly flubbed its sequel; Rian Johnson, of the clever Looper, is on deck for Episode VIII, and Gareth Edwards is at the helm of the Christmas release Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Given his reluctance to show much of Godzilla in his franchise restarter, we may not see a spaceship for an hour or so–still, interesting choice.) I have to wonder, though, if the attendant marketing overload isn’t overwhelming its growth potential. My kids got fidgety during a screening of the one, the only (if reedited) Star Wars on Blu-ray, explaining that they’d “seen it already.” Meaning: They’d seen so many ads and commercials for The Force Awakens, they felt like there wasn’t much left to see. For the show to keep going, we need something invigorating to see. Until then, xiǎngshòu, China.
Contrary to Drudge Report rumor, Leonardo DiCaprio does not get raped by a bear in The Revenant. He does get mauled by one, twice, yet that’s not the half of it. Playing the real-life fur trapper and tracker Hugh Glass in an adaptation of his travails in the early 19th century, DiCaprio endures many trials over the course of its 156 minutes, including but not limited to: Indian attacks, near-death, premature burial, the slaying of his half-breed son, cauterizing gaping neck wounds with gunpowder, and crawling on his belly through mud, ice, and show for close to two hours, minus dialogue. Oh, and plunging down a ravine on horseback, and using the dead horse’s hollowed-out insides for shelter. Eating raw animal parts, too.
It’s a great physical performance, one that would have driven a lesser mortal onto the first flight back to LA after a day or two in any of the frozen wilds used for the film, which was shot in Canada, Argentina, and Montana. I’d compare it with Daniel Day-Lewis’ heroic work in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), except that Day-Lewis had a romance, and more to say. Glass, a ghost among the living, has lost everything, and has nothing to live for except vengeance against his treacherous fellow hunter, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, giving fearsome mumble). That, and occasional moments of transcendence on his bitter quest (was that a meteor streaking by in one scene?). Nature, in all its fury and glory, puts on quite a show before Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera, which in turn performs complicated arabesques. Lubezki’s work seems completely free-floating, always on the move and always in the exact right place at every turn. The Indian raid that begins the action, a scene to rival the Normandy Beach opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998) but with more arrows than bullets, is a stunning fusion of magnificent cinematography (Lubezki’s third Oscar in a row, following Gravity and his last collaboration with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman, seems assured), editing (Stephen Mirrione), and production design (Jack Fisk)–and it’s just the first of several spectacular coups Inarritu has arranged throughout the film. Mention must also be made of the haunting soundscape, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner, and Carsten Nicolai, and one of the more arresting uses of multichannel sound I’ve heard. My theater was filled with arresting sounds, including footsteps right over my head in my one scene. Talk about immersive, and neither 3D nor old-timey photographic processes available to a few venues were needed to pull it off.
The Revenant‘s one gaping wound: A typically “magical” portrayal of Native Americans, in dreams, hallucinations, and as figures of guidance. Otherwise I was gripped, in a way no other film by the problematic Inarritu has gripped me. The film sticks to the basics, and I clung to it tightly.
Customer services guru Mike Stone is tired. In Cincinnati to deliver a keynote speech at a conference, Mike sees the same old faces, and hears the same old voices, everywhere he plods in his dully functional hotel. At the bar he reunites with a reluctant old girlfriend, which goes horribly. More despondent than ever, Mike falls into awkward conversation with Lisa, a fan of his customer-first philosophy. Nervous and unsure of herself though she is, Lisa touches a chord in Mike–she sounds pleasingly “different” to him. What will the night ahead bring…?
At this juncture it should be noted that Mike and Lisa are puppets, voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and that Anomalisa is the latest film from writer and director Charlie Kaufman, with puppet wrangler Duke Johnson credited for co-direction. The Kaufman-penned Being John Malkovich (1999) gets a big laugh when Catherine Keener flees from John Cusack when he reveals that he’s a puppeteer, but here he’s chosen to embrace a stop-motion variant of that exasperating format. The “why” isn’t immediately clear, nor is it immediately clear why veteran character actor Tom Noonan is doing all of the other voices, with little variation or inflection, which at first has you thinking that Mike is an unhappily married gay parent. But you don’t go to Charlie Kaufman films for immediate clarity. Everything is revealed, including the title, which is as puzzling as the title of his last movie, Synecdoche, New York (2008). (The Revenant builds word power; Anomalisa stumps you.) Or, rather, you find things out for yourself, as the film, trim, anxious, and nervously amusing, explores the confines of its puppety locales, including an Edward Hopper-ish Cincinnati skyline. (The hotel is named the Fregoli, if you want a hint.)
Though it has some overlap with men-in-crisis movies like Up in the Air (2009), Anomalisa is the sort of offbeat movie that can only have been Kickstarted into existence. Like the last major puppet movie I can think of, Team America: World Police (2004), the film, which has full-frontal female and male (puppet) nudity, builds to a sex scene. That one was profane and raucous; this one is tender, confused, fumbling, and recognizably human in every respect. My wish for the new year in film is more scenes just like it, with flesh-and-blood people pulling the strings.