"Everything is as it should be."

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At Eternity's Gate: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendaion: SKIP IT. I found this film to be an art house failure…a noble art house failure…but a failure nonetheless.

At Eternity’s Gate, directed by Julian Schnabel and written by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carriere and Louise Kugelberg, is the story of the final years of iconic painter Vincent van Gogh. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, with supporting turns from Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen and Oscar Isaac.

2018 has been, to be frank, a down year for movies, at least thus far. Yes, there have been some interesting and good films, like The Death of Stalin, You Were Never Really Here, The Sisters Brothers, First Man and A Quiet Place, but nothing that you’d describe as a masterpiece. Since it is now late November, the clock is quickly running out for 2018 to redeem itself. One film which I was very excited to see and which I thought might be the beginning of a turn around for 2018 cinema was At Eternity’s Gate.

The reason for my cinematic optimism as opposed to my usual pessimism or downright cynicism, was that At Eternity’s Gate had a lot going for it. First off, I am one of those people who loves museums and can stare at paintings all day. I am certainly no expert on the subject, but I know enough about painting to know that a movie about Vincent van Gogh is right up my alley.

Secondly, At Eternity’s Gate also boasts an artistically ambitious art house director, Julian Schnabel, who has proven with some of his previous films like Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, that he can succeed with daring and unconventional choices.

Thirdly, At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe, who is an actor I greatly admire and who is unquestionably one of the more intriguing talents of his generation.

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And finally, I had At Eternity’s Gate’s release date circled on my calendar because van Gogh is one of the more fascinating characters and his artwork and personal history are most definitely worthy of the big screen, especially in the hands of a fellow artist, as Julian Schnabel is first a painter and secondly a filmmaker, which one would assume gives him great insight into the mind and vision of a master like van Gogh.

With all of that going for it, and with all of my hopes riding on it, much to my chagrin, At Eternity’s Gate falls well short of being a great film, or even an important one, and the blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of director Julian Schnabel.

As I wrote previously, Schnabel has made a handful of films, some of them were very good, but he is still not a filmmaker, for he lacks the skill, craft and vision of a filmmaker, rather he is a painter who makes films.

What Schnabel and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme try to do with At Eternity’s Gate is to transport the viewer into the mind of van Gogh, a noble and ambitious idea, but the sad truth is that neither of these men have the requisite skill or mastery of craft to be able to pull off such a cinematically difficult and dramatically imperative task.

A case in point is that in numerous scenes Schnabel and Delhomme use a split focus diopter attachment on the camera lens to convey a sense of seeing the world through Vincent’s perspective and eyes. What the split diopter does, at least in this case, is it puts the upper part of the screen in clear focus and the bottom half out of focus and off kilter, the result of which is a disorienting and ultimately annoying visual experience that does not propel the narrative or enhance empathy for the character. Using a split focus diopter is a novel idea, but the way Schnabel/Delhomme use it ultimately does little to draw the viewer in, but only succeeds in creating a somewhat frustrating and distorted view of the world.

Schnabel’s split diopter decision is more akin to a film school experiment than the execution of a master’s deft touch. The split diopter does not recreate van Gogh’s vision of the world, it only distorts our literal vision without any dramatic purpose or meaning. An example where Schnabel used a visual stunt and perspective wisely was in his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he painstakingly shot from the point of view of his main character in order to put the viewer into the confines of a helpless and paralyzed body. In that instance, Schnabel was effective with his unconventional approach, but in At Eternity’s Gate, he seems to be trying to be unconventional and artsy for unconventional and artsy’s sake.

At Eternity’s Gate is filled with all sorts of film making gimmicks that tend to fall cinematically flat and feel more like parlor tricks than artistic vision. These errors, coupled with Delhomme’s frantically improvised handheld camera work, result in At Eternity’s Gate being, for the most part and much to my shock and disappointment, visually underwhelming.

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What was so disheartening to me was that Schnabel of all people, should have understood that van Gogh’s view of the world should have been intensified through the use of the camera, not muddled with hackneyed optical tricks, in order to draw audiences into his world. Delhomme, who is also a painter himself, is simply ill-equipped to do what van Gogh did, which is make the most of the world he inhabited and translate it into masterpieces. How Schnabel and Delhomme didn’t focus on intensifying and heightening color and contrast in a film about van Gogh is beyond me.

I couldn’t help but think of the 2014 Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner while watching At Eternity’s Gate. Mr. Turner is about famed British painter J.M.W Turner and cinematographer Dick Pope’s work on that film is staggering and brilliant. Through the artistry and magic of cinematography, Pope turns nearly every frame of that film into a masterpiece that could hang in any museum in the world, and by doing so showed us how the universe Turner inhabited then ended up on his canvas.

I also thought of Terence Malick films, most notably his frequent collaborations with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick and Lubezki use a lot of hand held camera work and much of it is improvised, and yet they are able to create stunningly beautiful shots using only natural light, Malick’s keen eye and Lubezki’s unmatched skill for framing. Schnabel and Delhomme on the other hand use natural light and a handheld, improvisational camera and it often times feels more like it is a home movie and not a major cinematic enterprise.

With At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel and Delhomme visually fail to get us to fully inhabit van Gogh’s unique and precious mind and understand his post-impressionist vision and that is an unforgivable cinematic sin.

There was one notable bright spot though in regards to Schnabel’s direction and Delhomme’s cinematography, and that is where they emphasize that van Gogh wasn’t a visual painter but rather a tactile one.

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When I work with actors, one of the exercises I sometimes do with them is to find a character’s “hierarchy of sense”. I ask actors to contemplate and experiment with what sense is most dominant for the character…are they more visual? Auditory? Tactile? Figuring this out can go a long way towards building a multi-dimensional character who uniquely inhabits space and time. Sometimes the script will give little clues as to the answer to the question, but not always, and then it is up to the actor and their imagination to figure it out. The best decisions in regards to this process, are usually the least obvious…and so it is with van Gogh. Most actors (and people) would assume van Gogh, being a painter, a visual medium, is a visually dominant character…but no…on the contrary, Schnabel and Dafoe wisely make him a tactile dominant person.

Van Gogh’s tactile approach to painting is driven home in the most effective sequence of the movie when Delhomme uses black and white to accentuate the point that Vincent doesn’t paint what he sees, he paints what he feels and he feels what he paints.

Willem Dafoe is a powerfully tactile actor (as an aside, Marlon Brando and Philip Seymour Hoffman are two of the greatest tactile actors you will ever watch) and he imbues his van Gogh with those same visceral characteristics in a mesmerizing performance. Dafoe’s Vincent needs to feel the earth in his hands, on his face and even in his mouth. Dafoe’s Vincent tries to embrace the horizon with arms wide open, and when battered and bruised both literally and metaphorically, he clutches his brothers chest trying to draw love and support out of his heart, and later clutches his own belly trying to keep his chaotically vibrant essence contained within him.

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Dafoe’s stellar and meticulous work as van Gogh is only heightened by the fact that one of his more recognizable roles was as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ. Dafoe turns van Gogh into a Christ 2.0, who doesn’t know if it is angels or devils who haunt his psyche and afflict him in the darkness and silence. Dafoe, with his versatile face and unpredictable presence, brings van Gogh to life with a palpable and frenetic wound that won’t stop tormenting him. Sadly, Dafoe’s brilliant work is simply not supported by Schnabel’s unbalanced direction.

The supporting cast are pretty uneven although they aren’t given very much to do. Rupert Friend plays Vincent’s brother Theo van Gogh and does solid work with the little he is given. Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest who questions Vincent, and although he is only in one scene, he displays why he is such a terrific actor. Mikkelsen, much like Dafoe, has a fantastically interesting face that tells a story all by itself, and he makes the very most of his limited screen time.

On the downside, I was once again baffled by Oscar Isaac’s performance. Isaac is being touted as a serious actor of great depth, talent and skill, but it strikes me he is a little more than a hollow performer. Isaac’s work as fellow master painter Paul Gauguin in At Eternity’s Gate is distractingly shallow and vacuously dull. I have no idea what Oscar Isaac’s work ethic is like, but his acting work and acting choices seem unconscionably lazy to me.

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As for the rest of the film, as much as I can admire Schnabel for the noble failure of some of his less conventional approaches (like the split diopter), what struck me as so bizarre about At Eternity’s Gate is that Schnabel spends the majority of the film being, to his credit, unconventional with his cinematic approach, such as his use of shifting perspectives and non-linear timeline and narrative (even when he fails, like with the split diopter, at least it is a noble artistic failure), but then at the end he makes an unconscionable 180 degree turn to the most conventional and standard moviemaking imaginable. This shift was so out of character as to be shocking as Schnabel sort of turns the film into a Raiders of the Lost Ark tribute to treasure hunting accompanied by an after school special happy ending. Not only is this shift dramatically untenable, it is also cinematically corrosive as it destroys any art house good will the film has tried to build up over the first 100 minutes.

In conclusion, At Eternity’s Gate was a disappointment to me as I had very high hopes, and no doubt my disappointment may be heightened as it is in inverse proportion to my expectations. While Willem Dafoe’s performance is worth the price of admission, the rest of the film is frustratingly not worthy. If you are a die hard art house fanatic, then I would say skip At Eternity’s Gate in the theatre and watch it for free on Netflix or cable. If you are a movie lover but your tastes run more conventional, then trust me when I tell you that you would rather cut your ear off than go see this movie.

©2018

A Ghost Story : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT IN THE THEATRE.  A warning : This is an art house film, if your tastes run to the more conventional, you will probably hate this movie. You've been forewarned!

There is an old story, I think it is about legendary producer Robert Evans, that recounts a Hollywood big wig wanting to re-make Moby Dick, but this time...from the whale's perspective. I kept thinking of that as I watched writer/director David Lowery's mesmerizing A Ghost Story. Don't be deceived, A Ghost Story is not a horror film, although it has moments of creepiness, rather it is a ghost story, but this time...from the ghost's perspective. 

The film is not your typical ghost story in that it is more a meditation on the nature of time, place, existence and grief. As someone who has suffered the relentless slings and arrows that accompany the unexpected death of a loved one, I can say that A Ghost Story acts as an intriguing philosophical salve that cools the hot wounds of being forced to contemplate the fragility of life and our own impending mortality. This theme must be in the forefront of the collective unconscious at the moment because other great artists besides director David Lowery have recently made films that touch upon this subject. Both Olivier Assayas with his fantastic Personal Shopper and the enigmatic Terence Malick with Song to Song have delved into the depths of our existential despair and discovered dramatic treasure, and so it is with Lowery and A Ghost Story.

A Ghost Story stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, both of whom give impeccable performances. Following up on her stellar work in Terence Malick's Song to Song, Mara does masterful work as "M" opposite Affleck's "C". Mara is blessed with the ability to draw viewers in to her character's private world while at the same time appearing to be impenetrable to the those around her.

Rooney Mara is an actress at the top of her game and may be the best actress on the planet at the moment. She is an utter joy to behold in this film, where her master of craft is on full display. She doesn't have much dialogue, but she fills every moment with a specificity and attention to detail that render her work riveting, bordering on the hypnotic. She fills the screen and her character with such clear intentions that there are no wasted movements or moments. Most actors struggle when they don't have words to say, but Mara has proven herself to be an exquisite artist who never succumbs to the alluring temptation to creatively meander.

There is one moment in particular from Mara that resonated with me. The moment occurs right before the "pie scene" that has gotten so much attention on the internet. In the lead up to that scene, Mara throws something away, and then she takes a short beat and actually looks into the garbage can. In the hands of a lesser talent, that moment never would have occurred, but with Rooney Mara, she made a distinct choice and it filled a rather mundane moment with intrigue and artistry. You can't help but watch the scene and wonder…what is in the garbage can? What is she seeing and what does it mean to her? And when coupled with the context of the narrative at that moment, it makes for quite compelling cinema.

Casey Affleck also gives a strong performance, which is remarkable considering the circumstances he is working under. Affleck, coming off his Best Actor Oscar, looks to be an actor who is willing to take chances and commit himself fully to even the most challenging of artistic visions. He, like Mara, never wastes a single moment on screen, and fills his silence with a powerful and tangible humanity that can be both chilling and heartening, but never fails to captivate.

As for the film itself, director David Lowery proves himself to be a unique filmmaker. He is certainly influenced by his fellow Texan, Terence Malick, but that influence never falls into creative sycophancy. Lowery is not the virtuoso talent of Malick, but like Malick he embraces silence and stillness in his films, and philosophical topics in his stories. The other thing that Lowery and Malick share is an artistic courage and comfort outside the mainstream. 

What I liked the most about A Ghost Story is maybe what other people will like the least about it, namely that it has a deliberate pace and uses long, slow takes in order to let the drama and the characters unfold in a sometimes painful, but always interesting, way. It is rare to find directors with the confidence to let the camera keep rolling for sometimes excruciatingly long scenes, but Lowery successfully coaxes viewers into the story with this technique. It is also difficult to find actors who are comfortable with that style of directing, but Lowery succeeded in the casting room by getting two phenomenal artists to sign on to play the parts.

There is one scene in the film which may be the best scene I have witnessed this entire year. It is a monologue, and in a film with very little dialogue it stands out not only for its verbosity but for its intellectual eloquence. This monologue is at once an existential wail into the abyss and also a vivid clarion call to life. The monologue also sums up the philosophical underpinnings of the film, which are fascinating to say the least and will resonate with any human who has ever contemplated their own existence. 

In conclusion, A Ghost Story is a wonderfully original piece of work from director David Lowery, that boasts sublime and meticulous performances from Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. A Ghost Story is in execution and intention an art house film through and through, so if your tastes tend toward the more mainstream, you will not only dislike this movie, but loathe it. But if you are an adventuresome cinephile or someone who has carried the cross of intense personal grief, or both, A Ghost Story is well worth your time and hard earned money, and I highly recommend you make the effort to see it in the theatre. 

©2017

The Revenant : A Review

****THIS  REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!! THIS SECTION IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!***

MY RATING : SKIP IT IN THE THEATRE*, SEE IT ON NETFLIX OR CABLE.

*UNLESS YOU ARE A LOVER OF GREAT CINEMATOGRAPHY, THEN DEFINITELY SEE IT ON THE BIG SCREEN IN THE THEATRE

THE REVIEW

The Revenant, directed by Alejandro G. Innaritu and written by Innaritu and Mark L. Smith (based on the book of the same name by Michael Punke), is the story of hunter and guide, Hugh Glass, who, in 1823 on the northern plains of North America, seeks to avenge a loved one's murder while struggling to survive the uncolonized wilderness and the native tribes that inhabit it. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, and boasts supporting performances from Tom Hardy and Domnhall Gleeson.

 Much has been made about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in the film and his likelihood of winning the Best Actor Oscar at this years Academy Awards. I agree that Dicaprio will win the Oscar, but I disagree that his performance is worthy of such high praise. In fact, this performance seemed like a step back in DiCaprio's artistic evolution. There is a lot of grunting, groaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth, but it all feels forced and frankly, showy. DiCaprio seems to want to indicate how hard he is working, and to his credit he is working very hard, and how much he is "acting". I found the performance heavy-handed, contrived and ultimately off-putting, which was disappointing considering the trajectory of DiCaprio's work in recent years with his truly stellar turns in Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio's performance in The Revenant is along the lines of his work as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which I felt was over-the-top and sub-par to his very high standards.

I am a big fan of actor Tom Hardy as well, but I felt his performance in The Revenant was underwhelming. It is not Hardy's fault, as his character, John Fitzgerald, is terribly under written. Fitzgerald is initially a very compelling character, but is given no dramatic arc, making him a rather hollow character, so we lose interest in him the more we see of him.

Having Fitzgerald be under-written is a big issue for the narrative of the film as well, as we need a much stronger foil for Hugh Glass to be up against in order to make the story more dramatically dynamic. The Fitzgerald character being cursory means that the narrative is never able to flower into anything more than the one-dimensional survival story of Hugh Glass, as opposed to a two-dimensional chase/revenge story, or a three-dimensional story about Glass chasing his psychological shadow in the form of his nemesis Fitzgerald. This is a disappointment as The Revenant has greatness hidden within it on multiple levels, but director Innaritu is unable to mix these potent ingredients together in a satisfactory manner in order to cook up a gourmet cinematic feast, rather we are left with a serving of unseasoned and uncooked bison meat. 

Innaritu, who won a Best Director Oscar last year for Birdman, is a very talented guy, but he has a tendency to make basic structural decisions that frustrate the potential power of his films. He undercuts the mythological flow of his films with foundational flaws that are minor in practice but major in impact. For instance, in Birdman, the ending sequence was held for a scene and a series of beats too long. This flawed climax had the result of watering down and undermining the brilliance that led up to it. In The Revenant, Innaritu again makes a minor structural stumble which stunts the energetic, mythic and psychological flow of the film. Without giving too much away, I will only say that the narratives involving Glass and his own survival and his pursuit of Fitzgerald, don't travel together in a straight line as they should, but rather diverge at a crucial point in the story, much to the detriment of the dramatic flow of the film.

On the bright side, Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates a visual masterpiece by seamlessly weaving his deftly moving camera amidst the stunningly crisp natural beauty of the film's locations. In the last two years, Lubezki has won consecutive Best Cinematography Oscars for his work in Gravity and Birdman (also directed by Innaritu), and it would not be a shock if he won for a third straight time this year for The Revenant. In the last decade, Lubezki's collaborations with Terence Malick on The New World, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, and his work with Alfonso Cauron on Children of Men and Gravity, along with his work with Innaritu (Birdman, The Revenant) prove he is a visual genius of the highest order and a master at the top of his game. The Revenant is worth seeing in the theatre if for no other reason than to see Lubezki's magnificent work up on the big screen.

To be clear, The Revenant is not a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is also not a great one. It is a very dramatically flawed, but visually beautiful, piece of art. It is frustrating to me that the film as a whole could not live up to the potential of its various pieces in the form of a great cast, director and cinematographer. The reality is that The Revenant not only COULD have been better, but it SHOULD have been great. 

 

****WARNING: THE FOLLOWING SECTIONS CONTAIN SPOILERS!!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!!****

THE MYTHOLOGICAL AND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL

A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation:  "As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think." - Joseph Campbell

The Revenant is one of those rare films that is actually much more interesting on the deeper mythological and psychological levels than it is on the entertaining/storytelling level. I found the film intriguing almost despite itself. I do wonder though, if people who do not have my interest and background in Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell's comparative mythology would enjoy the film very much on any of these deeper levels. Regardless, here is a very short breakdown of some of the mythological and psychological imagery used in the story.

The mythology and psychology running through the film is laced with Native American spirituality and symbology. There is a Bear prominent in the story which is the impetus to send Glass on his literal and mythological quest. In native spirituality, Bear medicine symbolizes awakening the power of the unconscious, and in The Revenant, Bear brutally forces Glass to go on his journey deep into the darkest recesses of his psyche and soul to find and heal his true self. Bear instinctively and viciously attacks Glass in order to protect her cubs, leaving him unable to protect his "cub", his son Hawk, from danger. On the epic journey started by Bear, Glass will, as the title of the film suggests (Revenant means "one who has returned, as if from the dead"), die many times and be born again. Like Christ, Glass must die to his old self in order to be born again to his higher self.

Also like Christ, Glass must wander alone through the wilderness in order to be spiritually purified. It is during this "time in the desert", that Glass comes across a fellow wanderer, Hikuc, a Pawnee Indian, who also happens to share the same spiritual/psychological wound as Glass, namely, the deep grief at the loss of his family. Hikuc and Glass share the sacrament of communion in the form of eating raw bison meat. In Native spirituality, Bison, similar to Christ in Christian mythology, is a gift from the Great Spirit meant to nourish and sustain his people. Bison also symbolizes 'right prayer joined with right action'. Once Glass has been purified, and eaten the holy sacrament, he can now move on to the next portion of his journey, the symbolic re-birthing.

Glass rides on the back of Hikuc's horse to the woods where Hikuc prepares a "purifying womb" for him in the form of a sweat lodge. Glass hibernates(Bear medicine) in this sweat lodge, his physical, psychological and spiritual wounds beginning to heal thanks to Hikuc's help. When Glass awakens inside the sweat lodge, the world outside, just like Glass inside the womb, has been changed, having been christened, with a pristine layer of white snow. 

When Glass emerges from the sweat lodge, a place of 'right prayer', he resumes his journey on his own after finding Hikuc "crucified" like Christ and hanging from a tree. Glass continues on and commits an act of 'right action' by saving an Native princess from the same men who sacrificed Hikuc on the tree of life. Having fulfilled the sacred call of the Bison (right prayer joined with right action), he is now fully prepared for the "Great Leap".

A pulsating horse chase follows his saving of the princess that climaxes with Glass making the great spiritual leap from his current state of 'clutching onto the life he has now' to the state of 'letting go in order to embrace the life that is waiting for him'. Glass "dies" on this Great Leap as he rides Hikucs horse over the edge of a cliff. This is followed by Glass, once again, hibernating (Bear medicine) through a blizzard in a makeshift womb, this time in the dead body of his sacred horse mother, and being born anew after surviving a cold, dark night. 

The Great Spirit has, through Bear, Horse and Man(both Native and European), forced Glass to evolve by forging a new spirit, a new soul and a new self. Glass, having survived this crucible, is now sufficiently healed, and prepared to finish his earthly quest and then to shuffle off this mortal coil into the arms of the Great Spirit.

This alchemical cycle of destruction, purification, initiation and reconfiguration is the heart of the psychological myth of The Revenant and is what makes the film so imperative on a much deeper level than it's less than its rather mundane superficial one. Viewing the film through this mythological/psychological prism, makes for a much more satisfying experience. I recommend you do so, for Glass' spiritual journey is the same journey we all must make….the struggle to find meaning in our suffering as we hurtle headlong towards our own inevitable obliteration.

©2016