Film Review, Uncategorized

The Assassin – A Review

IMG_0328I have wanted to see this film ever since I read a review in Sight & Sound magazine and also because my forays into the Wuxia genre – House OF Flying Daggers, Hidden Dragon Crouching Tiger – left me hugely satisfied.

Last week I directed a Tweet to my nearby independent cinema and Odeon  asking why this picture wasn’t being shown at their cinemas local to me in the Fylde Coast area.  Odeon replied it is on limited release, something to do with print availability and distribution causing me to travel 50 miles to watch it in a tiny 60 seat cinema in the HomeMcr (Home Manchester) complex.

I confess I had no knowledge of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien prior to engaging my interest with this film but I read about his incredible attention to historic and material detail, meticulous research as well as his disclosure that in historical terms we have little knowledge about the lives and times of the inhabitants of 10th Century China under the Tang dynasty other than its rich written and artistic culture.  Therefore it may be no coincidence that Hou declines to offer little in terms of character backstories but finds sufficient in the beauty of the country, art, furniture and costume to keep us spellbound by his sumptuous and vivid spectacle.

There is a story of a troubled girl, born to a noble family but exiled on grounds of political expediency to be raised by her aunt, a Taoist nun, who trains her in the martial arts to become an efficient and effective killer.  What we see about this assassin, similar to Uma Thurman’s Black Mambo in Kill Bill, she has a conscience, which tends to be pricked when children are involved.  Her failure to complete 2 of her assignments incurs the wrath of her mentor but in between lies all the political intrigue prevalent in a dying dynastic empire of the characters who’s decisions may determine the future of the dynasty and the lives of the many people we encounter. Farmers, nobles and servants are all stakeholders but you get the impression that life, in all its beauty will go on come what may.

We all like a fight scene and on screen death is entertaining.  People die and fight in The Assassin but the combat scenes are fast, short and sporadic.  In fact, the violence is incidental to the film with few gravity defying feats of swordplay at all even though there are occasional nods to the parallel Wuxia universe of jianghu where the constraints of earthly physics are relaxed.  But don’t worry about that.

What makes this film so spectacular and worth the entrance fee is the spectacle and the soundtrack.  There is very little music in the film but instead, vast open vistas of Chinese country are accompanied by the plaintive noises produced by nature.  The chirp of unseen insects or the breeze blowing through the grass; chuckling children at family gatherings, watched at a distance amongst lowing cattle.  It almost has a soporific drawing the viewer into it’s dreamlike landscape – you could almost be in a dream or a spiritual, unseen watcher of preceding behind gently cascading lace curtains, hidden behind a wooden pillar or amongst nature in a forest, perhaps behind a waterfall.

The gentle pace of this film will draw you into its beauty and wrap around you with the warmth of a duvet.  Watch it more than once, it’s intoxicating.

Film Review, Uncategorized

The Revenant – A Review

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I did something yesterday which I don’t do as often as I once did.  I went to the cinema.  I went to the only independent cinema on the Fylde Coast called Island Cinema and paid a very reasonable £3.50 to see The Revenant.

The Revenant, as well as being a feature film of 2h 36m duration, is a vehicle for the acting talent of Leonardo DiCaprio and, as some suggest, might just net him the Oscar for best actor – it’s that time of year.

OK, what happens?  It’s 1832, the movie starts off in a hail of arrows  as a team of fur trappers, at the end of a 6 month tour of duty, are attacked by an army of Pawnee Indians who show no mercy in their pursuit of the furs the trappers have worked all season to collect.  The pace is fast and the action brutal as cameras follow victims underwater to watch them  drown and arrows kill indiscriminantly.   Post battle the hero, Hugh Glass played by DiCaprio, is violently attacked andmauled to  within an inch of his life by a mother grizzly bear .  Of the surviving trappers, 2 remain behind with the seemingly dying glass with the promise of a bonus when they return to their fort base.  One of the trappers turns out to be the villain of the film: John Fitzgerald played by Tom Hardy.  Some of Fitzgerald’s dialogue will be misunderstood by many who aren’t familiar with his deep Texan drawl but  his actions throughout the film are pragmatic and necessary for his own survival even if his menace is made malevolent by his own religious zeal.

Glass is buried alive up to his neck and left for dead by Fitzgerald.  The badly mauled Glass hauls himself out of his grave and so begins his journey back to the fort to exact his revenge on his nemeses.  At this point The Revenant becomes a road movie – a journey and like most road movies, be it Saving Private Ryan, Soft Top Hard Shoulder or The Duel, the story of Glass’s remarkable struggle home is punctuated with encounters with people, friend and foe alike, who would help him or do him harm.  The action is similarly slow and fast paced throughout but DiCaprio is put through his acting paces in the rugged snow bound terrain of the frozen Northern United States.

If there is anything which has put me off visiting the cinema in recent year it is the battle between every studio in Hollywood to out-special effect,  out-gore or out-vista their rivals.  Somewhere in the race to create the greatest cinematic spectacle the story is often forgotten along with the development of character and the thrill of dialogue.  The Revenant, alas, maintains this trend upping the ante with scenes of aching brutality and big screen vistas of snow filled territory.  It looks good but but then so did most of John Ford’s output, Lawrence Of Arabia and probably Broke Back Mountain although I haven’t seen the latter.  Just anything filmed in Montana essentially.

Glass makes it home after being attacked, mauled, buried alive, falling off a cliff, eating raw offal and surviving practically every other mortal threat the harsh and rugged landscape can throw at him, motivated to exact his revenge.  His leg heels remarkably quickly, the muskets are incredibly accurate for the era and that water must be terribly cold to survive in.  But that’s me being picky.  But the film ends in that style made famous by Braveheart and Gladiator (sorry, is that a spoiler?) and after 156 minutes it’s almost a relief.

I enjoyed Revenant but have been surprised that in all the reviews I have watched and read, no-one has asked what a Revenant is; it’s like there is a hint of snobbery about, that one must surely know and shouldn’t really ask.  Well prior to today I did not know that a revenant is someone who, quite literally, returns.

As well as being a fine spectacle the film is ultimately about survival in the new American Republic.  The human and animal occupants have co-existed for centuries on this hostile land which has enabled them to survive and prosper but the encroachment of the white European man has rattled the utopian food chain as a new species bids for supremacy at its head. There can only be one winner.

Good luck to Leonardo, he will probably win his Oscar for all those grimaces of pain and cries of anguish and I doubt there will be a more robust acting performance from Hollywood this year; Leo went through the mill and survived.  Go and see it on the biggest screen possible but don’t drink too much beforehand.