Before the Flood

before-the-flood-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[YouTube]

Written by: Mark Monroe

Directed by: Fisher Stevens

Oscar-winning documentarian Fisher Stevens won’t change the world with his ambitious but overly familiar and ultimately underwhelming examination of man’s impact on the global environment, but his efforts aren’t completely in vain. Before the Flood uses the immense popularity of bonafide Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio to raise its profile as the actor embarks on a three-year mission around the globe to educate himself on the most pressing environmental concerns of our time.

The central thesis is familiar but nonetheless significant, one that’s fundamentally concerned with man’s over-reliance on unsustainable sources of energy such as fossil fuels, a pattern that has for years now been linked to rising global temperatures, rising sea levels and the destruction of the natural world. In pursuit of causality Before the Flood, executive produced by DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese among others, stresses the interconnectivity of our global ecosystem, the politicking that goes into climate change denial (not everyone wants to believe 8 billion people can have such a profound impact on one planet) and how various parts of the world are often left to clean up the messes created by others.

In the process of touring through many devastating sites DiCaprio narrates his experiences via a somber, if not overly pessimistic voiceover. He explains how Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ served as a creative inspiration for the film’s thematic explorations. This stunningly ornate triptych traces the evolution of humanity as it depicts man’s origin in the idyllic Garden of Eden in the first frame, merging into a colorful display of excess, celebration and blissful ignorance in the second before eventually transitioning into a frightening scene filled with death, destruction and suffering in the shocking third panel. DiCaprio elaborates, explaining how man’s current state places us firmly in the center panel and ruminating on how long it might be before we find ourselves entering the third.

What’s most impressive about the film is watching one of the world’s most established thespians mute himself enough so that he is firmly a part of the picture. In other words, while his celebrity status undoubtedly will draw in viewers who might not necessarily watch this sort of thing, his ego is nowhere to be found. DiCaprio is extremely humbled by what he finds, and more than humbled he is legitimately bothered. His perturbation comes across genuine, if not in his pursed-lip/silent nod reactions to what he witnesses in Canada, Indonesia, Greenland and India (among other locales) then in the amount of questions that pour out of him along the way. Some may find his lack of knowledge a barrier but if anything his acknowledgment of that very ignorance opens the film up considerably.

And yeah, you can probably accuse DiCaprio of hypocrisy if you really wanted to. If you’re looking for some way to make his involvement more about Hollywood than the environment, you might note the irony in DiCaprio likely making another film in the coming year(s), in him traveling around in luxury cars and luxury private jets and being involved in an industry that creates a massive ecological footprint, be it the electricity consumed to light sets or the amount of material required to make scenes believable. It’s also not entirely unreasonable to suggest that if the actor truly wants to make a difference, he might have to consider a hiatus from acting, permanently, in order to fully pursue efforts to fix things. And given everything he says in Before the Flood, it seems like Leo really wants to get his hands dirty (in a good way).

DiCaprio’s position in the entertainment industry enables him to speak with some of the most prominent environmental activists and climate-conscious politicians — Senator John Kerry is interviewed and there’s a brief Al Gore sighting. Aside from these figures, he speaks briefly with President Obama and one of the film’s highlights surfaces in a candid chat with Indian environmentalist Dr. Sunita Narain — where he’s met with compelling resistance as Narain argues that meeting the most basic demands of India’s bulging population is a concern that supersedes the need to find alternate sources of energy. He also interviews scientists and specialists who each share their unique perspectives, almost all of which confirm the notion that humanity is indeed reaching a critical point where it needs to learn how to adapt or the damage done will likely be irreversible. With a rapidly swelling global population these concerns are only going to become more challenging in the years and decades to come, and so the urgency of addressing and finding solutions to them in the here and now naturally becomes a big stressor . . . lest we face the reality of regaling our grandchildren about how Alaska used to be covered in cerulean yet crystal-clear icebergs.

Circling back to the contradiction of seeing a major film star touting environmental awareness: Before the Flood is most compelling when we are taken behind the scenes of Leo’s most recent (and Oscar-winning) film, The Revenant, which, aside from presenting one of the most visceral and singular cinematic experiences in recent memory, focused on the impact early settlers had on their surroundings: poachers destroying everything in their path on their journey to make ends meet; settlers slashing-and-burning forest. That shoot was infamously challenging but for reasons other than the obvious. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and crew were forced to relocate hemispheres — from the Canadian Rockies to the Andes in Argentina — in search of snow when they experienced unseasonably high temperatures in the north. Listening in on these conversations gives an entirely fresh and direct perspective.

If that’s not convincing enough, perhaps the fact that Indian farmers watched their crops washed away, leaving dozens of families — children — starving after they received their entire annual rainfall over the course of a day will sober you up. Or that entire, neighborhood-sized chunks of ice in the Arctic Circle are melting faster than you can measure them. Rising global temperatures and the rapid shrinking of the polar caps continue to strain Inuit fishermen’s livelihood as they hunt bears, a population that has been dwindling in response to changing conditions. There are other examples as well, but these are among the most undeniable, the most disturbing.

DiCaprio is a great mascot but ultimately the production he’s passionately become involved in doesn’t give us much in the way of revelation. Fisher likes to dwell on the gloom-and-doom talk seemingly more than he wants to find solutions and the solemnity eventually becomes off-putting. The numbers and statistics and graphics that accompany the vast sea of information we’re provided don’t really add impact. They add to the science, sure, but Before the Flood lacks the actual urgency that its message all but demands. There is, however, a glimmer of hope and human ingenuity when we step inside the Tesla Gigafactory 1, an enormously cavernous space that will house the production lines of millions of electric vehicles and energy-efficient lithium batteries. The latest venture of Tesla founder Elon Musk opened in July of 2016 and, once operating at full capacity in 2020, it will manifest as the world’s largest building. He judges that 100 such facilities spread throughout the world would make a significant impact on energy reduction and would lead to massive curtailing of raw material usage.

Like a great many of the “it’s so obvious” revelations that we’re bombarded with in the face of all this maddening destruction, DiCaprio’s deduction that “[100 gigafactories] seems manageable” is a tad too naive. The intent behind the film is good, it’s sincere, but Before the Flood settles for inciting immediate reaction. It wants to see us flap our arms in panic and despair rather than inspire us into action and perhaps even legitimate activism.

leo-and-the-phant

“Dude, that’s not a prop.”

Recommendation: Activists, behold a famous actor who truly seems to give a damn about the only place we will ever call Home. Only time will tell just how for real he is, but I want to believe in him. I think Before the Flood is a force for good but it should have been more potent than it actually is. Still a decent recommendation from me, and one you should definitely spend time with no matter your political leaning, something that’s well worth tracking down as it is available for free on so many different platforms (at least for now). 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 96 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog wonder is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Because Oscar Said So: Best Supporting Actor Nominees

BOSS - best actor nominees feature image

Because Oscar Said So (B.O.S.S. for short) is yet another first for this blog. In years past I haven’t spent much time going into detail about the major categories recognized at the Oscars ceremony, particularly the official selections as quite often I find myself at odds with the Academy’s choices. Longtime readers of the site know that I like to take matters into my own hands by putting together a mock awards ceremony, a post in which I overwhelm my poor readers with my ramblings on break down several different aspects of the year in film. If you’ve yet to come across The Digibread Awards, you can click here to find out what’s up with all of that.

When it comes to my reaction to the official recognition of achievement in the acting categories, this year has been a little different as I’ve found myself agreeing with an unusually high percentage of the names that have made the Oscar’s shortlist, and now I would like to offer some thoughts on the subject; hence, B.O.S.S. This two-part post shall manifest as Thomas J’s coverage of outstanding achievements in a supporting role for the year 2015. Why the supporting roles, you ask? Great question.

While I made a concerted effort to see as many films as I could where the odds of making an appearance at the Oscars in February were very much in their favor, I wasn’t entirely successful and therefore I can’t comment on every lead performance that’s been nominated. (Missing from my list is Charlotte Rampling’s Kate Mercer in 45 Years, and Brie Larson’s “Ma” in Room.) That’s a major motivation to look to other categories.Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in 'Creed'

Secondly, I find the supporting role category needs a stronger cheering section. There’s almost no comparison between the amount of recognition headlining names get versus those of supporting players. And yet, when it comes right down to it, preparation for each type of role is far more comparable — particularly when supporting parts become so substantial that the line between ‘lead’ and ‘support’ begins to truly blur. However, with prestigious lists like the ones we have this year, perhaps the tide is slowly changing. Names like Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Sylvester Stallone are so large you’d be forgiven for assuming these are the film’s major stars . . but in these cases, they are indeed taking a backseat to other talent, or at the very least they’re willing to share the spotlight. The relative humility is refreshing.

Basic (read: compulsory or less memorable) supporting roles offer, if nothing else, structure to a given story. Strong support affords emotional balance (or occasionally the lack thereof) and perspective; superior actors know how to interact with more prominent characters, while lending both depth to the environment (be it fictitious or real) and credibility to the story being told. Fulfilling a supporting role doesn’t necessarily mean one has an easier task ahead of them than a lead, though. Often it can be a thankless proposition, with a variety of factors playing host to challenges both large and small, including, but certainly not limited to significant physical, emotional and psychological transformations. Actors take on these assignments and the research necessary to bring the characters to life, all while knowing they’re not going to be receiving the level of attention some of their colleagues undoubtedly will.

Rare are the productions that don’t require supporting parts to occupy screen space in some way, shape or form; only two films come to mind in the past several years (that I’ve reviewed, anyway) in which a single actor was called upon to carry the entire film. Those films, Locke and All is Lost, are rare exceptions — low budget but ultimately high risk productions. But if done well, these can be incredibly effective.

When it comes to this crop of nominees, there seems to be a movement towards bigger, stronger, more popular casting and films like Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant — the former a dramatic comedy centered around the collapse of the housing and credit bubble of 2008, the latter a brooding take on life on the frontier in 19th century America — epitomize star-studded casts.

Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in 'Spotlight'

Christian Bale has been selected for his contributions to the energetic but awkward financial flick, playing hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who is one of the first to point out the instability of subprime mortgage loans circa 2005. The role is a completely different beast for Bale who has spent a lifetime putting on dramatic disguises and turning in powerful performance after powerful performance. He’s nearly unrecognizable in  a role this casual; the portrayal of a man who prefers to listen to death metal while at work, and parading around the office without shoes on.

Tom Hardy (who happens to be the star of that one-man road show Locke), on the other hand, cranks up the intensity with his portrayal of 19th Century fur trapper John Fitzgerald. He manifests as The Revenant‘s primary antagonist and conveys open hostility from the word ‘go.’ The man is ferocious in a film that demands a lot from its actors. In fact he’s so good the Academy likely is going to find a way to deny Leo once more, stripping him of the Best Leading Actor trophy and bestowing it upon the native Londoner. It would be a move that would surprise very few.

Sylvester Stallone makes a triumphant return to glory, reinvesting in his iconic Rocky Balboa but this time with an entirely different energy and sense of purpose. Here’s a supporting role that has already garnered a Golden Globe and a global standing ovation for the Rocky we have come to know and love has matured into his latter years with uncommon grace, providing a mentor figure that most sports films require, only this one is far more believable than any other that have come before. I suppose it helps that Stallone has lost none of his imposing physique. Sure, he’s older but the guy is still a massive screen presence and the material surrounding him elevates a performance with gravitas already built in.

There are quieter, more humbled performances lying in wait this year as well. Mark Ruffalo and Mark Rylance turn in tremendous work with their respective contributions to fact-based stories Spotlight and Bridge of Spies. Whereas the former focused on the troubling investigation into the molestation of children at the hands of Boston-area priests, the latter finds Steven Spielberg once more tapping into the history books as a source of inspiration. Spies revolves around the tensions between American and Russian diplomacy, when a suspected Communist spy is arrested in New York only to be represented by insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); meanwhile, an American pilot is downed over Russian soil, leading to a protracted set of negations and creating a drama that resembles a high-stakes chess match.

Of all the nominees this year it’s Ruffalo who is most likely to go home empty-handed this year as in my opinion his work isn’t all that distinguishable from his co-stars — and that’s a very, very good thing. His Michael Rezendes, a contributing reporter to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, epitomizes actors sharing in the burden of absorbing an information-dense and conceptually rich script. The work from the others (Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James) is just as outstanding, and it seems odd to single out any of the actors if the entire cast can’t take the stage in February. (Of course, I realize the fantasy of that argument. The Academy isn’t exactly fair.)

Rylance is subtle and graceful as the suspected Communist, casting a shadow that’s nearly as long as that of the legendary Tom Hanks. He’s not too shabby for an actor who has worked most of his life in theater, and this relative break-out performance is one not to be missed by anyone who has typically got along well with the Spielbergian brand. Never mind the fact political movies always seem to curry favor with critics, it’s quite possible we have a  dark horse in our midst with his restrained, brilliantly nuanced performance. Sweating over whether he’s a lock seems to be both a waste of time and energy, though. Would it help?

Ultimately the call isn’t mine to make. It isn’t up to any of us to decide; it’s up to whoever happens to be announcing the winner on stage in the Dolby Theater. And for anyone watching on, we just have to trust that the name that echoes throughout that auditorium, is the same name that’s written on the index card. Sure, the popular vote counts for a lot, but if it has taken Leo this long to get to a place where he seems like a shoe-in for Best Actor in a Leading Role, I’m prepared for all kinds of surprises. The argument that the Oscars are rigged is a bit overblown but there’s no doubt the politicization of the whole thing is very much a reality we have to deal with. Who really ought to go home with the trophy? That’s another great question, to which I can only respond: it’s whoever’s name gets called on that fateful night.

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in 'Bridge of Spies'

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The Revenant

The Revenant movie poster

Release: Friday, January 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu; Mark L. Smith

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu

There are some things in The Revenant that you can’t un-see. Like the bloody confrontation between the Arikara tribe and Captain Andrew Henry’s men in the very first scene. Or a human body torn apart by monstrous bear claws. These moments transcend shock value, they go beyond the call of dramatic duty, depicted so authentically so as to become genuinely upsetting.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Oscar-friendly Birdman doesn’t get any less haggard as it plods onward, but the bloodletting slows just enough for us to catch our breath and get our feet back under us. Through a protracted adventure across harsh winterscapes, one that favors physical over verbal communication, Iñárritu’s epic vision confirms those who tough out the opening half hour will be well-equipped to handle everything Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass must go through in the ensuing two-plus hours.

Acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Alfonso Cuarón’s right-hand man, drops us into the early 1800s. It’s man against nature; us against the sprawling, unforgiving territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Even from a distance and in comfy theater chairs, feeling cold and exposed is an inevitability. Lubezki’s fiercely uncompromising artistry — a refusal to use anything but the natural light a pale sun and dusty, white-washed landscapes provide — ensures that of all the things we are going to feel, safe won’t be one of them. This is his movie as much as it is the director’s (and Leo’s). Iñárritu directs a script he co-wrote with Mark L. Smith, one that tells of a remarkable true story of survival and human courage.

The premise is simple, one of those one-line blurbs that could present a problem to those who weren’t enthralled by the chase in Mad Max: Fury Road; this is an all-out crawl against the odds as Glass hunts down the man responsible for killing his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) after Glass is mauled by a bear and left for dead by Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and his men. The Revenant isn’t interested in making things complicated because society at this stage isn’t exactly what you’d call civilized. People get by on raw bison liver and don the skin of bears they’ve just killed for protection from the elements.

Yet, there is a reward for enduring, not just in terms of its occasionally stomach-turning imagery. The bulk of the narrative pivots around Glass’ interactions with the great outdoors, the pace often slowing to a literal crawl but not once does it become lethargic. Of course, come the end we still hope the wait has been worthwhile — will we get that ultimate showdown between good and evil? How will justice be meted out? As much as we want to shield our eyes from the next confrontation, the trifecta of superior directing, acting and photography simply doesn’t allow it.

In a film like this, the protagonist is only as good as the villain he must face. While nature is in itself a force to be reckoned with, The Revenant has been gifted Tom Hardy, who plays John Fitzgerald, a thoroughly despicable fur trapper whose ideological differences with Glass’ headstrong explorer type drive the narrative forward. The tension between them can at times be unbearable, the look in Hardy’s eyes frightening and proof that Charles Bronson was merely practice for the big leagues. But the hostility of Native American tribes might well take the cake in terms of driving home the tragedy of what America once was.

So, what of Leo then? And why have I put off discussing him for so long? It should come as no surprise that some of the film’s best-kept secrets — many thankfully avoid ruination by not featuring in the overplayed trailers — hinge on what Leo does and does not do with his body. Imagining a role where an actor must do more to convey the physicality of early American life is nigh on impossible. As he inches his way from one life-threatening obstacle to the next, his Quaalude-induced spasms in The Wolf of Wall Street become a far crawl from true greatness. But Leo’s not just another decomposing body in a picture filled with death and decay.

Glass is a fiercely protective father. His paternal instinct is his trump card, a tenderness and passion for rearing his child the right way offering balance to a character with great potential to come across all too heroic and mythological. Whatever distances we try to put between ourselves and the brutes we face here, there’s no denying little has changed about the fact parents are willing to do anything to protect  their children from the indiscriminate terribleness of the world. DiCaprio is nothing less than incredible here. (I won’t say Oscar-winning lest I jinx the whole damn thing.)

It’s well-known The Revenant was a very difficult movie to make, though not for financial reasons. The cast and crew suffered brutal conditions. The shoot was described as “hellish.” If the actors look like they’re very uncomfortable in their respective scenes, that’s probably because they are. Many of the original staff didn’t see the project to its end. Shot on location in the Canadian Rockies and in Argentina, the film pulses with a vitality that’s impossible to stage. Natural beauty brilliantly disguises the film’s black heart. Every time I had to shield my eyes — I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but yeah, I did — I then reminded myself what a thing of beauty it was that I was witnessing.

things start getting hectic in 'The Revenant'

Recommendation: This film is not for the squeamish. Raw power, visceral imagery and blunt honesty combine with legendary performances to create a film that will be impossible to forget, much less imitate. I haven’t seen the Mexican auteur’s full filmography yet, but I have this nagging feeling he might have just hit a career high with this stripped-back and naturalistic production. A must-see for fans of DiCaprio. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 156 mins.

Quoted: “You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it, Glass? . . . ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ gon’ bring your boy back.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com