January 14, 2016


The 2016 Golden Globe Award for Best Picture was "The Revenant"--from a novel based on a true incident--starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a hunter-trapper who, mauled by a bear, is left to die by his companions. There's a little more to it than that, but that's the basic premise. I can't really compare this visceral (in more ways than one), lushly-filmed, gruelling-to-make film to anything else I've seen. It's part Western, part journey film, part revenge flick, part mercy flick, part historical rectification, but always a film-experience you will be totally immersed and lost in. "The Revenant" feels 4-D and makes us feel alive, not hypnotized or numb. We can almost smell the fresh air and taste the snow on our tongue. The film never blinks. The film never flinches. The film never looks away. The film never relents. Is it "all that"? Yes. Does it deserve accolades? Yes, fling lots of Oscars at it, please.


Although it's 156 minutes, the film does not feel long, and there are no dead spots in its masterful pacing. Lest you're afraid there'll be too much "Castaway"-style DiCaprio mumbling to himself in isolation's ennui? There's none of that. The entire film is interspersed with the doings and progress of several different groups, which all weave into the story without it ever feeling busy or like an ensemble piece: a band of Natives, a band of French, Fitzgerald and Bridger, the Captain and the rest of the hunters, the soldiers and settlers at the Fort.

What does "revenant" mean? A "revenant" is one who comes back from the dead to terrorize the living. Many are calling "The Revenant" purely a revenge film, but it's more than that. It's also about justice and the will to live. The will to live was biggest for me. Hugh Glass (Leo DiCaprio) had a son with a First Nations woman (presumably deceased because she whispers encouragement and appears when Glass needs hope--but not in a "nick of time, cue the ghost" kind of way--simply in a way that our loved ones stay with us). This son is a teenager and travels with the hunting party--but he is despised as a half-breed. Glass speaks harshly to his son in his native language in order to protect him from harm by the other men.


We know there's going to be big trouble right away. Fitzgerald (the incomparable and completely unrecognizable Tom Hardy) is a self-serving, weasely whiner who contradicts and rejects everything the well-respected Glass suggests they do (that always turns out to be the best thing)--after an ambush by a Pawnee chief and his braves, looking for the chief's abducted daughter. Hardy, affecting an unwavering Texas drawl, never shuts up as he alternately complains and taunts. Like Tom Sizemore in "Saving Private Ryan," you feel like he walked right out of the era he's portraying. 

Fitzgerald/Hardy is old-world and blood-chilling and dangerous and untrustworthy and doesn't have a decent bone in his body or one iota of conscience.


Is it violent and gory? Let's just say there's lots of blood and guts, but it's never gross, over-the-top or gratuitous. This is a wild and disciplined film at the same time. Nothing out of place. If you just keep telling yourself "this is a film about raw survival," you'll get it. The scenery is all harsh beauty, much of it panoramic. You will be plunged into freezing waters and feel it, your lips will parch and crack. 

DiCaprio's breath is amplified throughout the film as a clever ambient noise, to the point where it's almost a character or part of the soundtrack. That sounds in print like it would be annoying, but it's not. Every pain-drenched gasp and grunt and growl and groan is rhythmic and becomes our own. The camera is everywhere: extreme close-up, close-up, mid-range, long-range, just everywhere, almost like virtual reality, but without gimmicks. The camera is a participant deep inside the film which takes us with it and makes us the same. Glass' breath often fogs up the camera (purposely), as we enter into his travails.


The dialogue is meted out, rich without being poetic--and never superfluous. There is naturalistic background chatter that we're not meant to decipher, and what we can hear is not rarified and highly stylized. Life is not cheap in "The Revenant." Oh, and this is also a profoundly religious film. The soundtrack is original music by Ryūichi Sakamoto. It's mostly a sewn-in, atmospheric hum with something akin to drums, but not exactly (hints at First Nations drums, but also, perhaps, Japanese drums?) A cello is used sparingly--as cellos should be. The film was shot all over the world and made by an international cast of thousands. Financing from Hong Kong. I stayed through every last credit (and highly recommend doing so) just to continue being swept along by the thought-provoking, parts-of-your-soul-you-didn't-know-you-had-stirring, never-maudlin score that continues like an undercurrent till the bittersweet end.

Alejandro González Iñárritu is a very unique director ("Babel," "Birdman") but doesn't act like an auteur or indie-guru. His films are deeply entrenched in the best of Hollywood, the Hollywood that can enliven our imaginations and hold up a mirror to our humanity. It's meaty and earthy, but always polished. Not too much grit here: the Hollywood showmanship, glitz and glamour we love are never too far away.


--Although rated "R," I would guess that mostly for f-bombs. This is a great movie for younger mature teens (13+).

--Horses die.

--"Revenant" is slightly reminiscent of "Noah," and the frequent wide-angle vistas are similar (but without the FX). The only detectable FX in "Revenant" are the animals.

--Two unintentionally comical moments involving animals: a bear and a horse.

--Leo is good, but he's too studied. As usual.

--The instrument, ondes martenot (an early electronic instrument invented in 1928) is used wondrously in the soundtrack.
Here's a sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrBUMZ7aNBQ, and here's a sample from the actual wondrous "Revenant" soundtrack (don't think martenot is in here):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CfCbM0wNPY

--Discovered a new filmmaking term in the credits: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greensman

--It's not white people bad, native people good. It's a little bit of a mix, but we definitely see the cruel oppression and injustice done to First Nations peoples.

--Is this a man's film? Very, very, very much so. And there is no BS in the wilderness, so we see Glass pondering what is real, what is real about God, what is real about religion. His manly heart tells him what is true.

--"I ain't afraid to die any more. I done that already."

--"In a storm when you look at the branches of the tree, you're certain it will fall. But if you look at the trunk, you'll see the stability."

--"If you can take just grab another breath, you can live."

--This film could also have been called "Breath."

--LOTS of women and First Nations people worked on this film. (Women always excel at: casting, costumes, makeup, but this film has women in many other key positions as well.)

--Please see the COMMENTS section regarding the improbability factors. :)

--"The Revenant" is a real film.

January 4, 2016


"Full of Grace" is an art-house, indie film about the last days of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Bahia Haifi) on earth. The story is interwoven with the plight of Peter (Noam Jenkins) who--although the Church is growing--is faced with heresy upon heresy, distortions of the Faith in thought and practice ("they are picking apart the Living Word of God") and the malaise of his own indecision. He is reminded by other Church leaders that Jesus gave him the authority to lead, and that if he doesn't, impostors will fill the gap. Mercifully, Our Lady (whom all call "Mother") summons Peter--because she knows she is getting ready to go to the Father's house. Mary is able to strengthen Peter's faith (and ours as we listen to her!), not only by recounting details of the Annunciation and Jesus' life and ministry, but through her own reflection and wisdom about what it all means and "where to go from here," when the Apostles and first Christians had no Church history to fall back on. (It seems the difficulties the early Church faced are not that different from today's difficulties.)

Imaginatively faithful, "Full of Grace" bases itself in part on the Didache and what we know of the early Church. At the end, we do not see Mary's Assumption, but rather her body wrapped in a shroud and placed in a tomb (presumably the Assumption happening much like Jesus' Resurrection).


For starters, this is more of a filmed play than a film. It is a series of longish dialogues and monologues. There is precious little action. Perhaps the writer-director's background in horror films (Andrew Hyatt, a revert to Catholicism) informs the moribund pace and mournful string music throughout. I just discovered that Hyatt directed an amazing 2012 pro-life horror film called "The Frozen" which I recently watched. (I never watch horror because I am perfectly capable of scaring myself silly in broad daylight thankyouverymuch, but something drew me to this little film and I highly recommend it. I'm sure true horror fans will find it tame, but the story line really "haunts." In a good way.)

Do not expect anything like "Mary of Nazareth" or "The Passion of the Christ" when you watch "Full of Grace." Don't expect anything like Roma Downey's "Bible" series or Ridley's Scott's "Exodus" or Daniel Aronofsky's "Noah." Think scaled down. Way down. This film could actually work as a one or two person play. Handheld and extreme close-ups dominate the camera work. "Full of Grace" joins the ranks of "Into Great Silence" for a film you have to be in the mood for, a contemplative mood.


The acting is very fine and the dialogue is often brilliant and completely applicable to today without sounding anachronistic. Mary and Peter are not primarily focused on Church structures, rules and internal strife. They know that's not the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is the Risen Lord (not the Lord who lived on earth in the past) who has not left them, who offers a risen life to all through the spread of the Good News.

The film is a snapshot of the early Church at a low point: Peter is discouraged and Mary is dying. But Mary, "the Church at the source," saves the day. Toward the end, when Mary has the Apostles gathered 'round her, she begins to "preach" in a womanly way to the men--as a raconteuse--and instructs them as to how they, too, can have her faith. Very, very Theology of the Body at this point.


The most disappointing parts of the film for me are the flashbacks to the Annunciation. Mary strolls about in a white dress that looks like a twenty-first century sun dress with capped sleeves. And, like virtually every Bible film before it, no angel is shown. The beginning of the film could also have had more tension and dialogue, rather than waxing meditative so immediately. We needed more exposition and more investment in the characters, even though we know them outside the film. Every film has to make us know these characters anew. The film owns these characters now. Who are they? Every scene and beat of the film could have been trimmed to shore it up, and the film would have worked better if it was shorter.

The sets are sparse, tightly contained, and filmed either outdoors in the remote hills where Mary is staying--mostly likely due to the ongoing persecution--in a cave, or inside Mary's house. There are repetitive establishing shots.

Personally, I would love to have an audio of Our Lady's final soliloquy to bolster my faith on a daily basis! The well-cast actress has a strong, elegant and persuasive cadence. At the very end of the film it is Peter, however, who has the payoff lines regarding the solution to the multiple impasses facing the Church. God's ways are always simpler than we think. Never easy, but always sure and true. And the Truth--who never leaves us all alone--also sets us free.

Available at: www.fullofgracefilm.com and Walmart.

--Full disclosure: I personally know quite a few of the people in the credits.
--Some of the music is Hildegard's!
--Lest you think Peter was all hunky dory from Pentecost on, remember how he dissembled (in his actions, not teaching) with regard to the Gentiles, and Paul had to set him straight.

--Interview with the filmmakers: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2015/1227/6.aspx