Friday, December 27, 2013

Despicable Me: The Electric “The Wolf of Wall Street” is Delightfully Depraved

Director Martin Scorsese is like a fine wine. He only gets better with age. As the 71-year-old man settles into old age he continues to make offbeat, simply astonishing films. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is certainly no exception. It’s a film brimming with energy and even at 3 hours in length never contains a dull or wasted moment. A far cry - in style, tone, and subject matter - from his last picture, the terrific family-friendly ode to silent French cinema “Hugo,” but no less cinematic and beautiful, “The Wolf of Wall Street” features a towering performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as a real life Wall Street millionaire whose debauchery and excessive use of both drugs and women eventually cause his complete and utter downfall.  Scorsese and DiCaprio have always had a great filmmaking relationship over the last decade and here is where both of their abilities have just simply crested into the ultimate Scorsese/DiCaprio collaboration. It’s outstanding work.

To think that just two years ago Martin Scorsese was getting so much attention for his film Hugo. It was mostly due to the fact that the once gritty filmmaker, who had helmed 70s classics “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” was making a PG-rated family film about an orphan boy’s misadventures in a Paris train station was enough to turn heads. The film ended up a masterpiece that only worked because Scorsese is such a master storyteller, both figuratively and visually. It turned out to be a terrific film that just happened to not contain a single profane word or any drugs. And here we are now with “The Wolf of Wall Street” a film that has turned just as many heads as it once courted an NC-17 rating for its sometimes borderline explicit content. Oh yeah and it’s his longest film to date clocking in at 179 minutes. But is it any good? Hell yeah.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his absolute best performances as Jordan Belfort a real life stockbroker who quickly worked his way up the ranks of Wall Street to become an eventual multimillionaire. Of course, he didn’t quite do it all legally. He’s quickly told by his boss (a brief but memorable Matthew McConaughey) to adapt a life of drugs and sex. Injected with a renewed sense of “I can do anything” he begins selling penny stocks in large quantities to people who can’t afford it. He builds his own company with his equally immoral friends from the ground up and becomes the wildest and craziest CEO on Wall Street. We’re talking prostitutes, tossing midgets, naked marching bands here. He eventually attracts the attention of the FBI (including Kyle Chandler) who are suspicious of his extreme lifestyle. And so sets a three hour journey of corrupt business ethics, immoral behavior, deviant drug and sexual content, and some of the wildest and most eccentric filmmaking you’ll see all year.

The film is based on Belfort’s own memoir he published in 2007 after serving some time in prison for fraud and all that jazz. Terence Winter (who created HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) adapts the book into a simply delightful screenplay. It features some offbeat elements – like breaking the fourth wall – that isn’t even remotely new to the medium, but works wonders here. Belfort is pretty much a despicable, immoral person yet the combination of tight writing and DiCaprio’s brilliant performance make us cheer him on – to an extent of course. If TV’s Breaking Bad can make us root for a family man turned drug kingpin, Martin Scorsese makes it just as easy to root for this degenerate of a human being. He makes his lifestyle seem fun and wild, showing over and over again in gross excess just how crazy things get. And that’s the point. If you are still cheering Belfort on by the third act you might have to look at yourself in the mirror. There is definitely a point in which it just all goes to far and you’re forced to realize just how horrible and empty Belfort’s life truly is. It’s up to the viewer to figure out when the moment comes.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” certainly isn’t for everyone. There is some pretty raunchy content here. The fact that the film’s overall tone is actually pretty comedic helps soften the impact of so much extreme drug use, f-bombs, and in-your-face sexual content. There’s a perfect balance of tone helped by equally moving and funny performances. Jonah Hill is simply outstanding here as one of Belfort’s right hand men.  Even Margo Robbie in a limited role as Belfort’s beautiful wife does much more with her role than one would expect. What an outstanding cast and crew that has simply made one of the year’s most entertaining films.  GRADE: A

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Con Hair: Slight but Solid “American Hustle” Features Fine Tuned Performances

Maybe I was pampered with last year’s amazing Best Picture winner, the 70s set “Argo,” but I think I wanted more from the retro “American Hustle.” I wanted to cheer at the end like David O. Russell’s previous efforts “SilverLinings Playbook” and “The Fighter.” “American Hustle” based on the real life ABSCAM FBI operation of the 70s/80s. Russell again has collected a delightfully perfect cast made up mostly from his last two films who all give tremendous performances. There’s good music and good camerawork and while some characters have a few emotional scenes here and there it didn’t quite get me. And the plot that goes around in circles as it double crosses every which way kept me at a distance for much of its slightly overlong runtime.

“American Hustle” shouldn’t be as confusing as a Lord of the Rings film but much like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (though not nearly as dense) the film’s story can be difficult to grasp at times. Christian Bale (in what just may be cinema’s worst comb-over) and Amy Adams as Irving and Sydney become lovers and unite by doing small business cons. Soon the embezzlements attract the attention of the FBI where they’re caught by Richie (Bradley Cooper) who insists on using them to bring down other con artists. Did I mention that Irving is married to Rosalyn (a deliciously boozy Jennifer Lawrence) who’s a pretty crazy free spirit who threatens to divorce Irving and take their son away. Meanwhile Richie and Sydney (who spends most of the film in con artist mode as the made up British Lady Edith Greensly) begin to find themselves attracted to each other. Most of these cons involve a New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and other political figures who are all being accused of embezzling and fraud or something along those lines.

You don’t need to follow the dense plot material to know that you’re watching truly great performers at work. Bale is simply excellent here doing a fun take on the Robert De Niro persona so many are familiar with. He’s practically unrecognizable. Adams gives one of her most stunning performances and proves she can really anchor a film with a truly great lead performance. Watching go from Sydney to Edith is great to witness. Cooper is wonderful here sporting a fro-like wig and a range that’s pretty amazing. And I’m likely to not be the only one who things Jennifer Lawrence is simply outstanding here and simply steals the movie away from the entire cast. Her role becomes more significant as the film goes on which is odd because I seemed to find myself enjoying the film less as it went on, but her scenes are easily the film’s best.

David O. Russell excels at telling slightly bizarre family dramedies and he does a great job with this cast. The actors are great. I just wish I could get more into the story but it left me kind of distant. Sometimes it was difficult to really grasp all the political connections and how everything really worked but I appreciate this not being a watered down tale of 70s crooks. I’m not quite sure how accurate most of this stuff is (character names have definitely been changed for instance) and that stuff shouldn’t really matter if the film is well-made enough. I just sort of felt that the film begins to go on for a tad too long, but it does have a its funny moments and Russell does a great job balancing the comedy and drama aspects. As slight as it is, Jennifer Lawrence singing along to “Live and Let Die” deserves to be considered one of the best scenes in a movie this year. I liked “American Hustle” a lot, I just didn’t love it.  GRADE: B

Enter, the Dragon: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is More of the Same

There was a point in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” in where I just couldn’t watch. It wasn’t because it was awful (even though I’m no Lord of the Rings fan) but because it was downright terrifying. Giant spiders have attacked our heroic dwarves and our lead hobbit on their journey to reclaim their homeland. I love being scared but if there’s one thing I love more I love being so scared I can’t even watch it. I admire that. A point for director Peter Jackson. This second entry in the seemingly endless “Hobbit” prequel series feels every bit like its predecessor except that it features a few more standout moments. Fans of this stuff will most likely be thrilled while those who could care less would be better doing anything else.

For me, attempting to recap the plot of a "Lord of the Rings" film is like asking a four year old to explain advanced mathematics. I can try, at least, to bring up the basics. Picking up where the first film left off, adventure-seeking hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his group of hairy dwarves are still pretty far from their mountain homeland which was taken over by a giant fire-breathing dragon named Smaug (voiced well by Benedict Cumberbatch). There are plenty of things standing in their way including a sequence in which they’re attacked by gigantic, CGI spiders which is simply so terrifying for arachnophobes that I couldn’t even watch it. They’re rescued by a familiar looking elf named Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his elfish people who quickly imprisoned for trespassing on their land (which doesn’t seem fair to me but what do I know). There’s a new Middle Earth character named Tauriel (Lost’s Evangeline Lilly) who has the hots for one of the dwarves.  From there a very enjoyable sequence involving floating barrels ensues while the group is being hunted by the evil Orcs, who want to kill them for some reason? And there's some glowing stone that Bilbo wants to get. Apparently having one of those magical rings just isn't enough?

The spider sequence and the barrel sequence are real the stand out moments in this second adventure. Even at a relatively short runtime for this type of film (at 160 minutes) the film feels rather long and offers no real resolution (we have to wait for the third part for that). The final sequence involves Bilbo’s long awaited confrontation with Smaug who is pretty expertly conceived and designed. Look at the way his belly glows orange before spitting out fire. Pretty cool. But like any good Peter Jackson fantasy epic things just overstay their welcome and you become sort of immune to all the CGI landscapes and creatures, creative makeup, and amusing action scenes that go on forever.

There’s nothing really wrong with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” fans of this series will most likely love it and find it to be a richer and more exciting film than its predecessor. Having just a mild reaction to the film isn’t going to win me any real supporters  which is fine. This series of films, while most agree aren’t quite to the same quality level of the original “Lord of the Rings” series is simply a fun excursion for those who love magical fantasy epics. The film’s production values are solid as ever and the cast does a good job. Hobbit fans will love it while those who are scared of spiders will most likely have nightmares. At least you’ve been warned.  GRADE: B-

Friday, December 20, 2013

There’s Something About Mary: Disney Works His Magic Again in “Saving Mr. Banks”

If ever there was a movie ready to conquer the Academy Awards it’s surely “Saving Mr. Banks.” It’s a based on a true story period piece, it’s about Hollywood, it’s told in a back-and-forth narrative style, and it features key performances from well-known stars. It’s about Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers’ unflinching stubbornness in giving up the screen rights to her beloved character and Disney’s attempts to develop a film adaptation (think the Disney version of “Adaptation” and “Hitchcock” – kind of). Walt Disney himself spends weeks convincing Ms. Travers to let him adapt her books. I was unsure of how the development of the classic Disney film “Mary Poppins” could be all that fascinating a story and yet here it’s presented as nothing short of captivating. Like Travers herself I was finally won over and that’s no surprise given the talent here; and no spoiler of course since we all know “Mary Poppins” became a successful award-winning film.

Right off the bat, it’s amazing that “Saving Mr. Banks” is actually as successful as it is. After all, we all know the outcome of the central conflict: Disney does get the rights to the novels and adapts them into a screen version. It’s the journey that we take that’s interesting. Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith use a back and forth narrative structure chronicling Mr. Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) wooing of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in 1961 while also giving us flashbacks of Travers’ childhood in Australia in the early 1900s. Travers is instantly presented as a stubborn, uptight, shrewish woman. A bitch, if you will. She adores her books and despises everything that Disney represents. Frankly, I’m amazed The Walt Disney Company even made this thing.

 Thompson really embodies her role. She scoffs at the idea that two song writing brothers are planning on turning the film into a musical. And she makes Walt promise that the film will contain no animated sequences. There’s no real reason given as to why Travers was so darned demanding. After all, authors had been seeing their works adapted to the screen for years and years. That is what those random Australian flashbacks are for. Travers is portrayed as a young girl by Annie Rose Buckley. Colin Farrell gives a good performance as her banker father. The two share a special relationship, but things become strained when he becomes financially unsuccessful and turns to alcoholic which puts a serious strain on the entire family. You slowly begin to see how Travers became who she is and why she refuses to see her novels (there were four at the time) turned into a silly romp.

Meanwhile, back in the 1960s Los Angeles, Travers refuses to budge as Mr. Disney, his song writers (played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) and screenwriter (played by Bradley Whitford) present her with concept art, songs, the script (which she throws out the window) all while insisting on being audio recorded (an actual audio recording is played during the closing credits). It’s cool getting a behind the scenes look into the workings of something we all know the outcome to.

The film really shines though when both Hanks and Thompson are on screen. The two play off each other extremely well. Hanks’ jolly demeanor and Thompson’s cold introversion is a simply wondrous joy to witness. I’m glad that director John Lee Hancock (who helmed the similarly optimistic but overwrought “The Blind Side”) doesn’t sugarcoat things as much as I would assume he would. He presents Travers as sort of a jerk and we slowly get to see what made her this way. The constant crosscutting almost feels like a nuisance but it eventually finds its rhythm.

While it’s not quite one of the year’s best films “Saving Mr. Banks,” with all of its spoonful of sugar goodness, did win me over. I enjoy a good Hollywood tale and this film is certainly easily digestible. I can see a slew of Oscar nominations coming – though I feel it’s a little too safe and tidy to go all the way – but it’s certainly worth it for the great performances, interesting story, and a divinely whimsical Thomas Newman score. While the crosscutting takes a while to find its footing, the film is pretty solid; like Travers herself, it won me over in the end. GRADE: B+

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

2014 Golden Globe Nomination Predictions

Best Motion Picture – Drama
12 Years a Slave
Captain Phillips
Lee Daniel’s The Butler
Saving Mr. Banks
[Blue Jasmine – if there are six nominations]

Best Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy
American Hustle
August: Osage County
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actress – Drama
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Emma Thompson – Saving Mr. Banks
Kate Winslet - Labor Day

Best Actress– Musical/Comedy
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Sandra Bullock – The Heat
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Enough Said
Melissa McCarthy – The Heat
Meryl Streep – August Osage County

Best Actor – Drama
Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey  - Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford – All is Lost
Forest Whitaker – The Butler

Best Actor – Musical/Comedy
Christian Bale – American Hustle
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio – Wolf of Wall Street
James Gandolfini – Enough Said
Joaquin Phoenix – Her

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyongo - 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squib - Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey – The Butler

Best Supporting Actor
George Clooney – Gravity
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Tom Hanks – Saving Mr. Banks

Best Director
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
Alfonso Curon – Gravity
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Screenplay
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
August: Osage County
Blue Jasmine
The Wolf of Wall Street