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Movie Review: "Disorder" (2015)

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Movie Review: "Disorder" (2015)

Left alone without sensory inputs, it takes a mere 15 minutes for the human brain to begin hallucinating. Within our over-active minds, a lack of stimulus creates a mental vacuum we rush to fill. How, then, is life lived with this vacuum omnipresent?  

In Alice Winocour’s French-language thriller “Disorder” (“Maryland” en francais), a former solider named Vincent (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) is hired by a wealthy businessman to provide security for a party held at his Riviera estate, a palatial gated manor called “Maryland.” Despite the ostensibly light atmosphere, Vincent’s vigilance intermingles with his combat senses to create – however justified - a vicious sensation of danger. The audience is drawn into his mental convulsions through some superb camera work and a brilliant score by Belgian DJ Gesaffelstein.  

Midway through the party, the appearance of an unsavory guest sends Vincent into overdrive. His instincts to follow the guest (who eventually assaults Vincent’s employer) attracts the attention of the businessman, who asks Vincent to stay and protect his wife Jessie (played by the stunning Diane Kruger) and their child while he unexpectedly leaves to travel. The assault, the assignment, the abruptness of it all: it is fodder for the darkness within Vincent’s mind.

Vincent’s episodes – the muted, techno-driven indulgences of fear – continue, only now, the stakes are higher. When Jessie demands a trip to the beach, Vincent chauffeurs the family only to be forced into the passenger seat by Jessie after speeding through packed traffic because he sensed a pursuer. While past paranoid episodes only put Vincent at risk, his aggressive driving could have killed Jessie and her child – all because of an unnamed threat that Vincent (and, thanks to Winocour’s camera work, the audience) feel must be real.

One of the movie’s most brilliant scenes follows, as a frayed Vincent sits removed from the beach-going family, both their protector and their potential greatest danger. There’s no dramatic outburst from the stoic Vincent. He is a golem, gripped by the panic inside his head.

His is a slow burn.

Then, as the group departs the beach, the threat becomes instantly, impossibly real. Glass shatters. Ears ring. Disorder reigns. A kidnapping attempt is made on Jessie, and Vincent’s battle-hardened, paranoia-sharpened reflexes kick into gear. Vincent dispatches the attackers, but is wounded in the process.

Jessie, while thankful, is visibly distraught at Vincent’s ruthless efficacy. Despite his pleadings to seek police protection, Jessie demands that the party stay at Maryland.

His paranoia vindicated, Vincent calls in back-up in the form of his old friend Denis (Paul Hamy) to both defend the family and soothe the rift between him and Jessie. A downpour that night obscures Maryland’s security cameras, and while the three adults try their best to unwind, Vincent’s paranoia – stoked by the knowledge his fears are real – keeps him restless. During one of the film’s rare light moments (a kitchen scene where Vincent’s feeling of removal ever-so-slightly diminishes), Maryland loses power.

Just like that, the darkness returns. Glass shatters. Alarms sound. Footsteps pound.

Vincent activates.

What follows is some of the tensest cinema I’ve ever seen. The dark house, amplified by a potent blend of Vincent’s soldiering instincts and intense paranoia, becomes an environment dominated by cat-and-mouse anxiety. Here, Gesaffelstein’s score and Wincour’s camera again carry the day. The result is thrilling, disturbing, and absolutely incredible.

Vincent successfully dispatches the intruders, saves the family, and even rescues Denis from the brink of death. Despite his heroics, Maryland is littered with the effects of his paranoia-charged brutality. The thankful Jessie, happening upon the results of the violence that saved her life, looks at Vincent with graciousness and fear. The scene fades to black.

While the movie ends with Vincent and Jessie embracing, the brilliance of this film is in the jagged edges of their relationship, brought menacingly to life through intimate cinematography and a pulsing, lurching techno score. The audience is brought into Vincent, made to feel as he feels as events unfold before him.

This invitation into the human mind is made more jarring by Vincent’s crippling paranoia. After all, projecting onto a relatable character is as Hollywood cliche as a TMZ tour. Here, there’s no projection, and for many, there’s certainly no relatability. The result feels unlike anything else I’ve seen. It’s captivating, intense, and wholly welcome – if film is meant as an experience, why not truly experience it?

The main thing preventing me from raving about “Disorder” is its sense of pacing. I kid you not, to enjoy this movie, you must forfeit 45 minutes of your life to struggle through the introduction. Then, with nearly an hour gone by, prepare yourself to shrug through a series of dubious and unbelievable character choices that conveniently deliver tempo when the action on screen calls for it.

For example: why does Jessie insist on going to the beach if her husband hired her a bodyguard? Does she not think anything of the armed stranger now sharing her address? Speaking of her address, why does she insist on staying at Maryland after the kidnapping attempt? Even a trite “my husband told me not to trust the police” would have disdainfully sufficed.

Instead, we are offered nothing, and the disdain – just like Vincent’s episodes – multiplies in its dreadful isolation.

Yet, this is secondary to what “Disorder” truly has to offer: a visceral, thrilling “show don’t tell” style of character development that hurls you into the abyss, your bungee just long enough to touch the bottom, before yanking you out again. If you come into “Disorder” expecting an action movie, thriller, or traditional art piece, expect to leave disappointed. Yet, approach the film with empathy, and Winocour’s psychological thriller will prove deeply rewarding. 

 

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The Dystopian Wonderland of “Playtime” (1967)

The Dystopian Wonderland of “Playtime” (1967)

In the middle of France’s “Trente Glorieuses” (“Glorious Thirty”, the Marshall Plan-funded period 1945-75) boom years, a sharp-witted filmmaker challenged the status quo with what would become one of the biggest cinema flops of all time. “Playtime”, a three hour long, nearly-wordless comedy, would take three years to film and bankrupt the companies that funded it. But 50 years later, the film routinely ranks as one of the greatest movies of all time. How has one of the most significant commercial failures in the history of art emerged with a positive legacy? Simply put: by introducing uncomfortable ideas to an era that desperately needed them.

At its heart, Playtime is a story of conflict. Director Jacques Tati returns to the screen to play the character of “Monsieur Hulot,” an affable-but-antiquated Frenchman who audiences first met through the big-screen comedies Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle. In both films, Tati juxtaposed the humanistic tendencies of Monsieur Hulot with the modernist idiosyncrasies of “Trente Glorieuses” society.

The conflict on screen is one of hubris versus wisdom: in Tati’s films, the self-importance of postwar life is made farce simply by comparing it to reasonable human behavior. Film critics applauded Tati’s filmmaking prowess and skillful observations of society. Audiences laughed along as Hulot stumbled through vacation clubs and molded plastic kitchens. After all, Vacances and Mon Oncle lampooned specific sectors of life. There was a safety to the scope of the parody: Tati’s films always provided a disconnect between the environments on screen and the 24-hour life audiences lived. Until Playtime, that is.

Playtime is Jacques Tati’s most ambitious film. To realize his vision of a sanitized dystopian Paris in an age before CGI, Tati literally built it. Over five months, an army of more than 100 construction workers built a massive city set comprising over 15,000 square feet in the center of the Ile de France. Tati dictated every inch of the set’s construction, visiting factories, offices, and housing complexes all over Europe to inform his precise designs. The estimated cost: a staggering 17 million euros (over $30 million USD today, not including the $3+ million USD for mid-filming set repairs).

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Tati’s devotion to uncompromised writing borders on the insane, all to accomplish what he saw as the perfect portrayal of a compromised modernity. Just watching the film, audiences sense that Tati spared no expense realizing his vision. Interiors are geometric. Exteriors are fluid and spotless. Tightly-choreographed scenes include layers of background visual gags that reportedly took dozens of takes to satisfy the very man who acted in them. Intricate steel and glass skyscrapers were constructed to pull off a single visual gag involving characters’ reflections. The end result is a sandbox for Tati’s reflections on the inflated modernity he saw engulfing the better natures of the French people. To Tati, the boom years – and the ridiculous lifestyle they created – couldn’t last. But his monument to them, a mirror to society every bit as reflective as the buildings he painstakingly constructed, rings eternal. Enjoy some stills from the movie below, then rent the HD remastered version (released 2014) on Amazon at the link here. As the world again appears engulfed in technocratic madness, Playtime is worth your time. 

Movie Review: "The Revenant" (2016)

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Movie Review: "The Revenant" (2016)

Two modern Westerns were released in the run-up to the 88th Academy Awards. Both films feature big name casts. Incredible violence takes place on screen. This handful of broad brushstrokes are all that sits in the Venn diagram between The Hateful Eight (read my review here) and The Revenant. Another stark difference between the two films: The Revenant's headline-dominating twelve Oscar nods vs a mere three for Tarantino's latest. There's a good reason for the divergence. Whereas Hateful Eight is Tarantino's Greatest Hits in a letter to himself, The Revenant is one of the best movies I will ever see.

At its core, The Revenant is a story of the human spirit. Wilderness guide Hugh Glass (Decaprio) leads a party of fur trappers through Western wilderness. The party is ambushed and slaughtered by Indians who believe Glass' crew is holding their chief's daughter hostage. Just as things look positive for the survivors, Glass is mauled by a bear and left clinging to life. With Indians in pursuit, the party faces a difficult choice: leave their mortally-wounded friend (and reason for survival) to die, or risk the lives of many to comfort a doomed man.

**SPOILERS START** The captain of the fur company (played by Domnhall Gleason) asks for volunteers to stay with Glass and attend to his burial while the rest of the party presses on. Glass' half-Indian son, a young man named Bridger, and a veteran trapper by the name of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) form the rearguard. Within hours, Glass' son is dead by Fitzgerald's hand, Bridger is coerced into flight, and Fitzgerald - a sinister, brutal man who may just be doing what he knows will save the able bodies remaining - has buried Glass alive.

A panorama of the unsettled Rockies plays.

We are left with a stirring scene where DiCaprio, squirming and bloodied, pulls himself out of his own grave. He inches over frozen ground, handful by broken handful, until he comes to the corpse of his murdered son. The music changes abruptly into a drum-like heartbeat, and Glass' life attains new meaning. He will seek revenge on the man who killed his son. Cue panorama. **SPOILERS END**

The rest of the movie is a mind-bendingly intense survival tale. There's a loose narrative involving Glass' past and the death of his wife. Tension between Bridger and Fitzgerald threatens to leave two more dead. The Indians creep gradually closer to the broken and bloodied wild-man searching for vengeance. The true story arc is that Glass moves heaven and earth to reach Fitzgerald (special mention to Tom Hardy for playing the most disgusting, relatable villain we'd probably all be when faced with a hard choice). He is chased down icy rivers, buffeted by storms, and pushed to lengths no mortal man should endure just to settle the score and avenge the death of his son. 

The Revenant shines in the 90 minutes that follow Glass' betrayal: it is here where the audience witnesses the film's true beauty. First off, there is the obsessive camera work and shot planning of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Every still is a Hudson River School painting made real. Anyone gifted with sight will immediately understand why the majority of the film's Oscar nods are for technical craft. I can not understate how jaw-droppingly gorgeous the landscapes are.  

Next, there's the pure endurance it took to produce the film. DiCaprio's unerring dedication to the hamstrung Glass is the story of the season. For example, Leo actually slept in that horse carcass. And actually careened down that ice-choked river. And actually ate raw bison liver. In a mass-market choked with CGI blockbusters and superhero action popcorn flicks, The Revenant is a breath of fresh air. Especially considering that we may never see another movie like it: film crew members threatened to quit and even walked off set throughout the entire filming process. The wintertime Canadian environment was "a living Hell". It's hard to convince professionals to function in living Hells. Although he will likely play Runner Up to Bryan Cranston's stellar performance in Trumbo, if there were an Oscar for "Most Intense Actor", it would be DiCaprio's.

Finally, as a result of the above, there's an overwhelming sense of sublimity and brutality throughout the film.  Not all of it is violent, either; sparse dialogue means emotion must be portrayed shown and not told. Hugh Glass doesn't monologue - his struggles tell a more compelling story than any cliche-choked "character development" shots ever could.

The net effect of this is a litany of nature scenes that are the dictionary-definition of awesome. You are awed by the overwhelming force of nature as avalanches race, rapids flow, and bears savage. DiCaprio's Glass is not a prodigal hero - he is a man at the mercy of the elements. Some of these elements are other humans, but even then, he is just as surely vulnerable.

Director Iñárritu steers clear of film cliches to deliver this raw, authentic, positively brutal story. There's no "wince, jumpcut, gunshot noise" moment in the The Revenant. Iñárritu intentionally lets the camera linger in scenes where audiences expect sanitizing. In the film's opening sequence, a speaking role is shot through the head and throat by arrows and the camera doesn't flinch. You watch someone die and slump into death without an ounce of dramatics to keep you safe from the events on screen. Then, of course, there's the bear attack scene. Nothing in this film comes tied with a neat bow and a feel good message. If you are faint of heart, do not see The Revenant.  

If you are literally anyone else, go see The Revenant in theaters. And do it quick. Watching The Revenant on the big screen was an experience I won't soon forget. You are so immersed into the emotion on screen that by the tenth of twelfth audible holy shit, it may be hard to remember that The Revenant is a movie at all. I think it's a tragedy of the era that modern movies need smarmy storytelling or emotionally-charged dialogue. Attempts to be overly serious come off as melodramatic overacting. Or worse. 

Here instead is a narrative (albeit a straightforward one) that does the opposite. Through impeccable craft that shows-not-tells, razor-sharp production enabled by pure fortitude, and a simple aversion to film cliches, The Revenant does something few modern films do: create an experience. Small wonder it's set to beat them all come February.  

Final Grade: A (9.5/10)

 

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