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Movies: 'Revenant' and 'Star Wars: the Farce Awakens'

I hadn’t been to the theatre (movies) for over two years. So last night I did a double-header movie: Revenant and Star Wars: The Farce Awakens (oops, did I spell that wrong?). I have to wonder if there is any future at all for quality movies from Hollywood. Quality as in story line, character development, believability that comes from small but critical details, the judgment to not overproduce scenes, and so on. To use an analogy: tabloids vs literature. They give awards for this stuff? The pre-show movie previews pretty much nail that coffin shut: shut off your brain at the movie theatre.

For Star Wars: The Farce Awakens, I sat in the vibrating D-Box seats, in part because I wanted to try it, and in part because those seats can be reserved and are in a good location. The seat vibrates in distracting ways, helping to startle at loud noises and such. Or to disrupt the viewing experience at inappropriate times. For most movies, this may be perfect: stimulate the senses even more, since all intellectual functions are presumably disengaged or the viewer would not be there. I turned the vibrating function on and off several times to test my reaction—it’s definitely not something I want in my movie experience. And the seats are not good for slouching.

Revenant

I went to see Revenant* for one reason only: the cinematography. A reader had emailed to tell me that the wide open spaces and use of natural lighting reminded him of my still photography, and indeed that was so.

Its forte is the cinematography and visual grandeur of the scenery, and I can relate to many of the locations. At one point I thought to myself “Lundy Canyon”—and a moment later my daughter voiced aloud that same thought—funny!

Revenant was shot on the Alexa 65 in 6K with Hasselblad prime lenses: huge sensor and long focal lengths for wide angles are not quite view camera feel, but mighty impressive in visual impact (the big screen needs at least 8K IMO). I loved the wide angle views on the large format. Fantastic stuff; it is a tour de force of modern digital cinematography, particularly the dark forest and dusk scenes. Impressive scenes (and there are many) are the “river escape” sequence and the knife/hatchet fight scene late in the movie: a gentle dawn sunlight creeps up the hills as the fight progresses, beautiful and a nice symbolic touch too.

One visual defect marred it for me: the presence of lateral chromatic aberration (red/cyan fringes) was distracting: the moon had an obvious red fringe, edges of shadow and snow had mild red/cyan fringing, and much worse, the white lettering in early scenes had quite strong color fringing. Was this the source material? That would not explain the color fringing on the white lettering, so I’m all but certain that the theatre projector optics were off somehow. I considered complaining, but the thought of the blank stares that would result dispensed with that idea.

Ignore the predictable story line, the paper thin veneer of character development, and the collection of physical absurdities that should be self evident to any outdoorsman or doctor—focus on the visuals, which are spectacular.

Mini review: I can’t recommend the plot or character development or acting or anything else about Revenant, it’s a depressing story that lacks any intellectual or emotional rewards that a great movie offers. Perhaps most damning for a movie about suffering, it falls completely flat in emotional power, stringing together a series of contrived and shopworn cliches that just don’t go anywhere successful. It doesn’t even offer credibility, a huge failure for a film like this. For example the improperly-strung toy-store bows lacking any recurve that unerringly shoot arrows deep into tree trunks or bodies like an 80-pound-pull compound bow. It’s beyond idiotic for a former bowhunter like me. Then there are the single shot rifles, but dual-shot pistols (or was it three shots at times?). The self-fueling fires: apparently our hero and surviving native not only can start fire with flint and steel from damp grass, but they carry gasoline or some accelerant to make small branches of bushes flame in roaring wind for quite some time, an unseen helper always keeping ample wood on the fire which blazes like it was kiln dried and force fed with an oxygen tank, with no smoke. A bearskin from a huge bear that ought to weigh 100 pounds somehow reduced to the size of a jacket: it sprouts a neat poncho-style hole. Hyper-fast infection-free wound healing suitable for a superhero. Hypothermia or even shivering never an issue. A sweat lodge made of flimsy aspen branches and covered with (now grown very large) skins in a 50 mph wind; our hero awakes refreshed and warmed from a few stones after a few dried herbs are sprinkled on his body. Fish badly wanting to be caught with bare hands (I have caught trout with my bare hands and I know just how it’s done). Then there is the starvation diet while burning 8000 calories a day with the body healing up at warp speed: upon arrival at the fort, our shirtless hero is looking nicely filled out to the point of flabbiness, and in eminent health aside from scars.

The juxtaposition of the worst of human nature set amid the best of wild nature is jarring, and presumably intentional—so much so that this film’s metaphysical sense of life bludgeons the viewer: the story is utterly depressing. Just as with still photography, greatness must come from visual power and a keen story, but this story has no balance, no opportunity for the viewer to participate intellectually, no nuances or ambiguities to mull, not even a good twist to the plot. All the required correct viewpoints of white man vs native, man vs man, man vs nature, the futility of existence are duly passed upon, and this transparent and heavy-handed treatment robs Revenant of emotional or intellectual power to move. When the credits rolled, I remembered it not as a compelling and nuanced story, but a series of loosely-related vignettes of predictable violence strung together, albeit with gorgeous photography. Revenant is a tired cliché, and as noted above, does not even offer the satisfaction of believability.

* Present participle in French of revenir ‎(“to return”); even my rusty French skills knew that after many years.

Elaine D writes:

I much prefer the original movie “A Man in The Wilderness” with Richard Harris. I haven’t seen the new movie, but from your review, I kind of figured it would be as you have written it as not being accurate in many ways. You should watch the original movie, which the everyone seems to have detoured around by stating this is from the book, “The Revenant”. It is, but no one has made the connection to the same movie made before it back in the early 70s I believe. I grew up and saw the first movie and it made such an impression on me back then that I keep re-renting it from Netflix to watch it.

Star Wars: the Farce Awakens

I like the core storyline of Star Wars, but I have always been deeply disappointed in how badly its potential has been mangled. Sadly, Star Wars: the Force Awakens puts a huge spike into the coffin for the potential of the series in the sense of being compatible with anything of adult interest. Teenagers will love it, and it will no doubt make a lot of money for the next 18 episodes or so.

Virtually every scene or idea is recycled from past episodes. Refried beans. The galaxy is really small in Episode VII; hop to any planet seemingly in minutes. It feels disjointed; there is no time continuity.

Han Solo and Leia apparently could not get their shit together enough to stay together but their son becomes the Really Bad Guy (Kylo Ren). Plump and matronly Leia bores us to tears (no wonder Han left her), and Han seems wilted at best. At the urging of Leia, Han is naive enough to let his son Kylo Ren skewer him with a light saber. The father/son thing again. How original. But it looks like Leia slept around, because the son bears no resemblance to the father. No wonder they split.

The Death Star in Episode 6 was destroyed, but there is a new peril which is the same type of weapon, only far worse. How many of these things are they gonna make? The resistance needs to hold a bake sale or something, because their uniforms and fighters are the same crappy ones in Episode IV. Can’t they at least steal a few decent ships and fighters after a few decades?

Luke has disappeared for many years, pouting because his prize pupil Kylo Ren becomes a powerful Really Bad Guy prone to temper tantrums and sniveling, and worshiping his father, Darth Vader. So Luke hangs up his jockstrap and retires to a little island to wear a hoody and go fishing for a few decades. Apparently Luke did not bother to train any other Jedi, and Leia didn’t think it worthwhile to bother. Alrighty then.

Enter Rey and Finn. Fortunately, the beautiful new female hero Rey is a quick learner, picking up The Force in a few hours and expert light-saber skills in minutes, maiming Kylo Ren*, presumably so he can fulfil his destiny in a newfangled Darth Vader style pant suit in episodes eight through 23. Finn is maimed by Kylo Ren, but likely to recover. Teenage boys are gonna really dig Rey, and girls too: what’s not to like? And to give the actress credit, no one else is half as interesting or alive in the film. But Finn needs to grow somehow, otherwise he's a dud. In the end, Rey heads over to Luke’s island to see if sushi is better than her powdered fare.

* Plain names just don’t cut it for me for the bad guys. The Darth thing worked.

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