The Revenant

Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu (2016)

Gripping, grisly and grizzly, this epic revenge western is the first must see film of 2016.

Leonardo DiCaprio goes hunting for the best actor Oscar in this thrilling and icily apocalyptic adventure.

Despite his best efforts, notably his portrayal of a ravenous financier in The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), the Academy award has so far eluded him.

But on this form as fur trapper and explorer Hugh Glass, there’s every chance he’ll bag it.

While on an expedition in the uncharted Northern frontier, Glass is brutally mauled by a bear.

I could barely endure the ferocious scene as the angry beast tears away at Glass with it’s hot breath steaming the camera lens.

He just about survives only to see his son murdered and find himself abandoned.

Driven by his pain and suffering Glass begins a 200 mile odyssey across the wild, wild west, intent on killing the man who betrayed him.

On the lonesome trail Glass endures being washed away, buried alive, burned and stabbed.

There’s visceral violence and dialogue as sparse and unforgiving as the environment.

For those who aren’t convinced by DiCaprio’s acting ability, they should see how much he conveys here while speaking very little.

Meanwhile as an old native American leads a war party in search of his missing daughter, a party of French hunters are wreaking destruction across the landscape and complicating Glass’ progress.

A huddle of orphaned children, murdered sons, forgotten wives and rich fathers are offered as a limited backstory for various characters, tying them together in a litany of loss.

With long stretches of screen time dialogue free, character is conveyed though action. The principals are aware of the conflicts in the damnable choices they face.

A trio of British actors offer brilliant support to DiCaprio.

With Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Legend (2015) and Locke (2014) Tom Hardy is enjoying a great run of projects.

He plays the pipe smoking trapper Fitzgerald, a vicious pragmatist rather than evil incarnate.

Even more blessed with an uncanny knack of choosing great projects is the likeable, versatile and always interesting Domhnall Gleeson.

He comes of age as Captain Henry, the leader of the hunting expedition who is out of his depth.

Will Poulter is Jim Bridger, the youngest of the troop and arguably the closest it carries to a conscience.

Editor Stephen Mirrione previously worked on Birdman (2015) and won an Oscar for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000).

His signature long edits create an intensive immediacy and putting us uncomfortably in the centre of the action.

Cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki won consecutive Oscars for Gravity (2014) and Birdman (2015) and may well earn a third here.

Director Inarritu won best film, director and screenplay Oscars for Birdman (2015) and it would it not be undeserved if he repeated the trick in 2016, though in the adapted screenplay not original screenplay category as in Birdman (2015).

As in Birdman (2015) Lubezki’s ceaselessly circling camera work puts us in the middle of the action whether on horseback, on boats or underwater.

We witness an avalanche, rape, castration, shoot outs, knife fights, a hanging, a massacre and the aftermath of several more.

The landscape is alive with moose, wolves, horses, fish, buffalo and ants, demonstrating how ill geared humanity is to surviving in this fierce winter wonderland.

Set in Wyoming the production went snow chasing through Canada, the United States and Argentina to achieve the frostbitten extremes of the American frontier.

Grounded in fire, rock and ice, the elemental force of the film is captured in blues,whites and greys, with explosive moments of orange punctuating the palette.

Visual reference points are Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971) and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972).

Thematically the story draws on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). It is based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name inspired by the exploits of the real Hugh Glass.

Ideas of commerce and colonisation swirl around the contemporary issues of the ownership of natural resources, the conflict between races and the role of the military in a civil society.

The Revenant means ‘the returned’ and refers to a person who comes back from the dead.

It sounds like a combination of ‘revenge’ and ‘covenant’, god’s code of behaviour issued to Moses in the Old Testament.

These two ideas compete within Glass for supremacy as he battles towards his prey.

Glimpses of Glass’ late wife through fragments of memories remind us of his spirituality even as he symbolically swathes himself in bearskin.

Eating its flesh shows his growing connection with the environment but also suggests a departure from the rational to an animal state.

In fables there is always a limit to how long one can adopt the shape of another creature before losing one’s humanity for ever.

Glass’ quest for revenge becomes a battle for his soul from which he may never recover.

A chilling final frame questions the audience as to how they would behave in Glass’ circumstances. It’s an electrifying end to a remarkably realised endeavour.

@ChrisHunneysett

Brooklyn

Director: John Crowley (2015)

This beguiling tale about a young Irishwoman in New York is far and away the best film released this week.

Saoirse Ronan adds another fine performance to her CV as a thoughtful, amenable soul on a voyage of self-discovery. Her subtle strength is reflected in the quality of the filmmaking.

Based on Colm Toibin’s novel, it features a charming cast working from a smart script, a lovely eye for period detail and gorgeous photography.

Much creative budget-stretching gives it a polish and sweep much better financed films should envy.

Nick Hornby also wrote Reece Witherspoon’s Wild (2015) and has found a niche writing thoughtful, female character centred films.

I wouldn’t want to wish him out of a job, but it’s a poor commentary on the industry these films probably wouldn’t be made with a non-name female writer attached.

Eilis Lacey realises 1950’s Ireland has little to offer her and so suffers an undignified sea crossing in search of a future.

When Eilis steps from the gloomy immigration hall into the bright colour of the big apple, it’s a magical moment similar to Dorothy stepping into the wonderful world of Oz.

As Eilis struggles with homesickness, heartache and the harsh winter, a Christmas dinner for the homeless diaspora is a reminder of the unforgiving nature of the world.

Thankfully the fiddle playing is kept to a minimum.

Jim Broadbent’s kindly Father Flood finds her a job in a department store under the sternly glamorous gaze of Miss Fortini, played with panache by Jessica Pare.

Eilis must also carefully navigate the politics of her boarding house dining table, refereed by Julie Walters’ mother hen of a landlady, Mrs Kehoe.

As well as having every intention of keeping god away from her nylons, Mrs Kehoe warns her female-only clientele of the sinfulness of giddiness.

The many women Eilis meets offer small kindnesses, advice and insight to her own possible futures.

As she slowly builds a life for herself Eilis is torn between sweet suitors on either side of the pond.

Domhnall Gleeson Irish rugby fan is unknowingly pitted against Emory Cohen’s baseball fanatic Italian-American.

But a secret Eilis keeps even from her mother threatens to scupper her happiness.

As the cast disarms the audience with humour, the drama to creeps up with surprising power.

Though Ellis may not quite conquer New York, Ronan’s performance will capture your heart. And no doubt an award nomination or two as well.

Unbroken

Director: Angelina Jolie (2014)

Celebrating the human capacity for endurance, this true-life tale of Second World War survival is barely believable – and not for the faint-hearted.

It’s based on the book by Lauren Hillenbrand which covers the life of USA Olympian and airman Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini.

Director Angelina Jolie demonstrates she’s far from the minimally talented spoiled brat that recently leaked Sony emails would insist, crafting a handsome and traditional movie with exciting flying sequences and strong acting from watchable performers.

But it does suffer from repetition and so fails to achieve the emotional pitch it strives for.

Born into a poor family young Louie (Brit star Jack O’Connell) learns resilience when he’s bullied for being an immigrant. His older brother Pete (Alex Russell) encourages him to channel his energy on the athletics track to avoid getting into serious trouble.

After representing the US as a distance runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Louie enlists as an airman. While on a rescue mission his plane crashes in the Pacific.

Adrift in a lifeboat with two Mac and Phil (Finn Wittrock and Domhnall Gleeson), they survive sharks, sunburn, sickness and being shot at.

This is the strongest part of the movie as dialogue is kept to a minimum allowing the orchestra and the scenery do the talking, captured with customary finesse by ace British cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Picked up by the Japanese navy the survivors are subjected to interrogation, beatings and solitary confinement before being transferred to a savage POW camp.

It’s ran by the sadistic warden nicknamed ‘The Bird’, played competently by Japanese musician Miyavi in his first acting role. But the fraught relationship between guard and prisoner is forced and unconvincing.

Louie is offered by an easy life in exchange for allowing his celebrity runner status as Japanese propaganda in radio broadcasts but instead is returned and sent to a dockside coal-yard – where The Bird is once again in charge.

An early Oscar front runner Unbroken only picked up nominations for cinematography, sound mixing and sound editing and it will be interesting to see if Jolie can build a second career from her solid efforts here.

★★☆☆

About Time

Director: Richard Curtis (2013)

Having torpedoed his own ­reputation with his previous film, The Boat That Rocked, Richard Curtis does nothing to rescue his career with this twee time-­travelling comedy drama.

About Time is the writer and director’s indulgent tribute to fatherhood. Curtis is a long-time shameless magpie with other ­people’s ideas and here he’s content to ­complacently plunder his own ­material – recreating the wedding dress scene from Four Weddings And A Funeral.

Along with a wedding and a funeral, About Time has much familiar, unfunny, ‘comic’ ­profanity. Poor Domhnall Gleeson is apparently under instructions to ape Hugh Grant while a sickly-sweet voice-over is reheated from Love Actually and/or Notting Hill.

On top of all this, the actors have to wade through their scenes while gallons of syrupy music is poured over them.

In About Time, when Tim (Gleeson) turns 21 he is told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in the family have a secret ability to travel through time.

By standing in a dark room and clenching his fists Tim can appear anywhere in his own past.

With incredible opportunities now available to him, Tim decides to settle down to a dull life of work, babies and playing ping-pong with his Pa.

Tim is useless with women and exploiting time travel to seduce the American Mary (Rachel McAdams) is the only ­exciting thing he does with his gift. Curtis is typically so ­uninterested in her character that his ­habitual Yank-bashing is limited to giving her dodgy hair and dowdy clothes.

Tim’s friends and family are bumbling idiots or foul-mouthed miseries that irritate as much as the wobbly camera work.

One scene takes place entirely in a blacked-out restaurant which means we’re watching a blank screen and listening to a poorly scripted radio play – filming it in silence may have improved it.

The dominant image of this film is of a sex-starved man sitting alone in a dark cupboard and gripping his sweaty palms.

Curtis has threatened to stop ­directing after this latest offering and that would indeed be about time.

★☆☆☆☆

Ex Machina

Director. Alex Garland (2015)

Sexy, sharp and stylish, this brilliant British sci-fi thriller explores man’s relationship to machines with verve, wit and polish.

Precision-tooled to perfection with sumptuously seductive design, it combines the brains of Blade Runner, the gloss of James Bond, and the sly satire of cult comic 2000AD.

This makes it an astonishingly assured directorial debut by Alex Garland, the novelist turned scriptwriter of Dredd, and 28 Days Later.

Domhnall Gleeson’s expert computer programmer, Caleb, wins an in-house company competition to spend a week with his boss, Oscar Isaac’s reclusive genius.

Nathan lives in an isolated underground home and research facility reached only by helicopter, where the only other occupant is Sonoya Mizuno’s beautiful but mute Japanese servant, Kyoko.

The engagingly geeky Gleeson is cunningly cast while the bearded Isaac is solicitous, funny and quietly menacing as the heavy-drinking megalomaniac Nathan.

Caleb is introduced to Alicia Vikander’s AVA, a semi-transparent chrome and plastic robot with the face and figure of a beautiful woman, designed for the movie by awesome concept artist Jock.

Under surveillance Caleb has to test Ava to establish whether she has achieved a state of artificial intelligence and therefore not a machine.

This would represent a scientific breakthrough of huge significance to Nathan and of great consequence to the world.

Though interrupted by mysterious power cuts, a rapport develops and Ava warns Caleb that Nathan can’t be trusted leading to tension between the men.

Garland provides cracking dialogue but crucially understands when to shut his characters up and let the images tell the story.

Unerringly paced and with an inventive soundscape and bold use of colour it’s very much in the mould of mentor Danny Boyle, at his best.

If Garland is the future of sci-fi then it’s in very safe hands. Unlike Caleb.

★★★★★