Wednesday, December 25, 2013
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET - Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey, directed by Martin Scorsese (179 min.)
A film about excess should be excessive, it should go on and on and indulge itself in the excessive nature of the world it is depicting. If your movie is about overindulgence and it runs 90 minutes, you've missed the point of your story. That is what is such a joy about The Wolf of Wall Street, the fact that the legendary Martin Scorsese is behind the camera and he still packs a punch in his seventies. At three hours long, Wolf never feels a minute too long considering the circumstances. That is the magic of the film, how it can feel at once overcooked and just right. To say Scorsese still packs a punch might be too tame of a description when considering his latest, a grand epic of sex-crazed, drug-addled, money-obsessed hedonism that is the very definition of gluttonous filmmaking. This one will make even the most jaded filmgoer squirm in their seat at some point along this hellish ride, but one thing is certain, they won't be able to look away.
After the crash, Belfort is searching for work and discovers a ragtag outfit in Long Island selling penny stocks to schmucks and losers. It doesn't take him long to find the angle, work the room, and turn this penny stock machine into a bustling little brokerage firm. He turns hundreds into thousands into hundreds of thousands. He catches the eye of a squirrelly character named Donnie Azoff, played with capped white teeth, a husky accent, and garish outfits by Jonah Hill. On the strength of one paycheck stub, Donnie quits his job at the furniture store and goes to work for Jordan. Their business grows and grows, and so does their appetite for drugs and women. Pretty soon the penny stocks have turned into a big time illegal scamming brokerage firm, and Jordan slaps the name Stattford Oakmont on the door to sound prestigious and reel in the big fish.
More than once Belfort addresses the audience directly to try and explain the business side of the scam these goons are running, only to stop himself and remind us none of that really matters. This isn't a film about the "how," but one about the "what." Aside from the staples of booze and cocaine, Belfort and Donnie enjoy quaaludes on a daily basis. They also indulge in cars, clothes, houses, and expensive prostitutes… cheap ones too. They toss midgets at velcro target boards, they have parades through the office, they bring in monkeys on roller skates, and none of it seems to affect the millions of dollars they are making on a daily basis. The scenes of debauchery in this film are some of the most grandiose moments of disgusting excess I have ever seen, but the tone Scorsese keeps can't let you do anything more than laugh at these wild idiots. You laugh, and you shake your head, and you move on to the next bit of insanity.
Eventually Belfort and his cronies catch the attention of the FBI, personified this time around by Kyle Chandler's no nonsense agent. While they work up a case against Belfort, however, he doesn't slow down. Not long after kicking his first wife to the curb, Belfort marries a flashy blonde model, Naomi, played by the newcomer Margot Robbie. That honeymoon is short lived as Jordan's drug and sex addictions get in the way of any matrimonial romances. While the plot does settle into a groove in the second half, the draw of this film are the episodes of just absurd hedonistic madness. One episode in particular sticks out to me, involving Jordan trying to get from a Country Club to his home (one mile away) in his Ferrari, all while under the influence of some extremely potent Ludes. The scene, like so many, stretches well beyond a length anyone would expect, but it works on a maniacally comic level.
I don't know who The Wolf of Wall Street is for as far as an audience is concerned. I do know my screening had six to ten walkouts from people expecting a nice Christmas film about the rough times on Wall Street in the 80s. This is not a family film, not a film for anyone under twenty if you ask me. The private financing of the picture allowed Scorsese and DiCaprio to push the envelope, but they don't let things get carried away without delivering some of their best work as actor and director. At just under three hours long, a minute under to be exact, it never slows down long enough for us to even consider the length of some scenes, or the excess at play. This is a film clearly not for everyone, but one that might be a new American classic a few years down the road, a searing commentary on this countries obsession with "things." And I'm afraid that says more about America than anything this film tries and gets away with.
Friday, December 20, 2013
AMERICAN HUSTLE: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, directed by David O. Russell (138 min.)
American Hustle begins not with the bang you would expect, but with a long, drawn-out whimper. It spends the first hour stuck in the murky waters of exposition, character development, and plot details, none of which are very interesting. Which is quite a conundrum, because these are brilliant performances and rich characters from top to bottom. Except they are stuck in a humdrum opening act that almost kills everything. Luckily, the film picks up some steam after an important cameo, but aspects of American Hustle keep it from being as great as it should be, or at least as good as I expected.
Steeped in the tacky world of the late seventies, the film focuses on a group of low-rent grifters and con men who get caught up in a bigger scam that never feels as big as it should. Christian Bale stars as Irving Rosenfeld, a pudgy, quiet confidence man with one of the most elaborate combovers of all time. Irving runs a chain of dry cleaners and spends the rest of his time swindling people out of five thousand dollars a pop with the promise of a $50,000 loan in return. Early on, Irving meets a spunky young working girl named Sydney (Amy Adams, who is finally allowed to show off her sexy side), and the two fall in love. She becomes a partner with Irving, fashioning herself as a British banking expert to strengthen the con. But there is one small issue in this fairy tale romance: Irving is married to Rosalyn, a ditzy loudmouthed blond played by Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence is the life of the film, her role is the most showy, and she hits all the notes as the outsider who manages to keep things mucked up along the way.
Things are rolling along until Irving and Sydney are busted by Richie DiMaso, an arrogant FBI Agent played by Bradley Cooper with a ridiculously accurate perm. Richie has larger plans aside from busting these two bottom of the barrel cons. His plan involves framing politicians into taking money from a fake Sheik, and the focus of his sting is one Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Polito is a good man, a family man, but he is a powerbroker in New Jersey and is a perfect pawn in a scam involving the rebuilding of Atlantic City. The entire con is murky, and the motivations unclear for a long time. That is, until the Miami Mob scene is brought into focus and the stakes become much more threatening to our players.
The con game in American Hustle should be more vibrant, more dangerous, more interesting overall. There aren't the sort of double crosses and back-channel dealings one would expect from a film with this title. Everything is played out just as you would expect. Once the Miami Mafiosos come into play, the film picks up steam. This also happens to be about the time Lawrence's character gets more to do. Unfortunately it takes about an hour for the plot to get revved up. The early scenes are painfully slow and lifeless. Bale is aces as Irving, but his whispy voice and subdued, sensitive persona can't carry these early scenes. Somehow the relationship between Bale and Adams works well as the focal point of the film despite the fact the story treads water for so long. Cooper adds some pent up angst to the proceedings, and is better than just about anyone at playing the jerk. The screenplay just needed more life.
I wanted, or at least expected, American Hustle to be one of the best films of the year. Unfortunately, it doesn't deliver consistently enough to be anything more than a Scorsese imitation. David O. Russell is a fine director, and his lat two films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) have been the best of his scattered career. This time around, Russell is saddled with a script by Eric Singer (which he also co-wrote) that is too flat and uninspired in the early sections. American Hustle isn't necessarily a bad film, but it isn't anything great.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
ANCHORMAN 2: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, directed by Adam McKay (119 min.)
Absurdity hits a fever pitch in the much anticipated, much hyped sequel to Anchorman. Of course, what else would anyone expect in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues? The randomness is higher, the cameos more prevalent, the ridiculousness at a level which seems almost impossible to outdo anywhere in the foreseeable future. The entire news team is back and about half of Hollywood appears in cameos along the way, making for an entertaining and often hilarious spectacle of the strange and illogical. It may be a little too long, some of the subplots don't hit their mark, but much like any other Adam McKay/Will Ferrell comedy, this one will grow on you and make for multiple repeated viewings.
Ron Burgundy is back on top, this time in Manhattan as co-anchor with his wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate, no more than a plot device this time around) on the afternoon news. But right away things go south for the mustachioed macho man; Veronica is handed the evening news broadcast and Burgundy is immediately fired because, well, he is a terrible news anchor. This is obviously too much for Ron to handle so he leaves Veronica and their young son to return to San Diego. This is where Ferrell does a riff on his drunken washed up semi celebrity from Blades of Glory, as Ron turns up as a host at Sea World. Enter Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker), a news agent who wants to give Ron and his news team a crack at joining this newfangled 24-hour news station. Cue the assembling of the team.
Ron gathers up Champ Kind (David Koechner), his drunken racist sportscaster who is thankfully used minimally again, Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd, and the manchild Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), who gets a little too much screen time to handle. The quartet head back to Manhattan and rivalries, women, and mishaps take up the bulk of the picture. There are any number of asides in this midsection, including a romance for Brick with a fellow numskull played by Kristin Wiig. The scenes with Wiig and Carell have an amazing ability to stop any momentum the film had gained. Meanwhile, Burgundy must square off against his rival, the devastatingly handsome Jack Lime (James Marsden), and he must handle the hot and heavy interest from Linda Jackson, the station director played by Meagan Good. The joke here is that Jackson is an African-American, but thankfully the jokes dissipate quickly.
At the core of Anchorman 2 is a sharp little satire regarding the current state of American news. Nobody wants to hear any real news, they want car chases and animals and fluff. This is how Burgundy and his team break through and become the toasts of the station. But then, the film takes its most outlandish turn that I don't want to spoil. The detour is spectacularly absurd and consistently funny, and that is all I will say. And then, as the central story comes back into focus as the film ramps up in its third act. Just like the original, there is a news station epic battle, only this time a joke is made of the oversaturated news and journalism on television these days. And the cameos flood the screen, which is really the entire purpose of this big showdown.
There is no real purpose in reviewing an insane comedy like Anchorman 2. Everyone who wants to see it will see it, and it doesn't really matter if the film is good or not. It is funny, sometimes wildly funny, other times amusing. Some things don't work, like the Carell/Wiig dynamic. But there is one thing that is certain: the left turns in the story are the most random bits of storytelling I have ever seen. It's hard to imagine getting further out into left field without completely leaving the ballpark, but McKay and company manage to pull these absurdities off. If only they would have trimmed things back about 20 minutes, and trimmed the comedic fat, Anchorman 2 would have been an instant classic. That being said, talk to me after my second, third, or fourth viewing.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (117 min.)
It doesn't take long to find out just what kind of scoundrel we are dealing with in Ron Woodruff. We see him in the opening scene having sex with two women behind a closed gate at a small-time rodeo, while the rodeo is in progress. Ronald Woodruff, the "hero" of Dallas Buyers Club, is a sex obsessed alcoholic, a drug addict, a bigot, a racist, and a severe homophobe. He works as an electrician around birds of a feather, low-rent white trash who bounce between bars and strip clubs when they aren't on the clock. It is 1985, and Rock Hudson has just put a famous face to the AIDS epidemic that was beginning to take over the country. Woodruff and his friends dismiss the virus as something gay men get, only they don't soft-serve their language that way. So it seems fitting, almost cinematic, that such a despicable and arrogant man would find himself diagnosed with HIV.
Ron's research takes him to newfangled drug treatments, like AZT, that are just being used on a trial basis in the states. Other medicines are being used across the globe but have not been approved by the FDA, which becomes the villain of the film. This is where the arrogance and determination of Ron Woodruff begins to work in his favor. He steals AZT from the hospital for a while before his supply dries up, and then travels to Mexico to meet up with an exiled American doctor who tells him AZT is no good and sets him on the right path. This meeting flowers, Ron's state improves, and he works tirelessly from here on out to bring these vitamins and protein supplements into the states. His plan: not to hand them out for free, but to open a buyers club. Membership is $400, the drugs are free. The energy of the midsection in Dallas Buyers Club involves Ron sneaking these medications into the states, pretending to be a doctor or a priest.
More importantly than the business side of the story is the relationship Ron develops with another AIDS patient, Rayon, a transvestite played by Jared Leto. Where Ron handles his diagnosis with anger, frustration, and determination, Rayon has approached his disease with humor, aplomb, and grace. The relationship between Ron and Rayon is not played for melodrama or sentimentality; it takes a while for Ron to accept his new friend as a friend, and he never turns the corner completely into some forgiving saint in the end. While McConaughey delivers the best performance of his career, Leto matches him with his finest work. A supporting actor nomination is well deserved.
As the Dallas Buyers Club takes off into a real, legitimate business, Ron must fend off the evil government entities like the FDA and DEA. They have no real way of stopping Ron's work, as the drugs are simply not approved as opposed to illegal. Nevertheless, the fight continues as the business grows and Buyers Clubs sprout up across the country. The idea that these proteins and vitamins were inaccessible by the FDA for so long is a crime. We have come a long way as a society in the way we see, diagnose, and treat AIDS. It is no longer an epidemic, but what is so fascinating about this film and the story is the way it sheds light on the early years of the virus, and the way fear and uncertainty hung over everyone's head.
The performances from McConaughey and Leto are brilliant in Dallas Buyers Club, even though the film isn't always smooth sailing. Segments are uneven and the end stumbles and fizzles when it should really pop. The emotional build up is left twisting in the wind. Jennifer Garner is serviceable as Eve, but something doesn't quite work in her performance. As a plain, compassionate doctor, Garner never rings as true as the two male leads. Nevertheless, the film is powerful as a whole body of work, despite any bumps along the way. I think what keeps Dallas Buyers Club working is the unlikely hero at the center, a man who voiced opinions of many a little louder, and had to be assigned the worst possible fate to finally understand.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
ALL IS LOST: Robert Redford, directed by J.C. Chandor (106 min.)
The only dialogue we get is in the prologue, a voiceover from Robert Redford. He is apologizing to his family, for what exactly we aren't quite sure. Aside from a radio SOS call and one loud yell of frustration, these words in the prologue are the only words spoken in All is Lost, a captivating, thrilling high-seas tale of will power and, ultimately, despair. Redford is the star - the only character - in the film, known only as "Our Man" according to the imdb page. We never learn anything of his past, his family, or why he is at sea to begin with. We only know what is happening to Our Man as it happens on the screen. All is Lost thrives on immediacy, and fascinates thanks to a performance from Redford I never saw coming.
I want to tread lightly here in regards to plot description because the events that unfold are paramount to the impact of the film. Describing the direction of the story would be to spoil everything. Situations arise and Our Man winds up in a life raft with fewer and fewer supplies. Despite the fact we don't know anything about him, we learn important aspects of his character. He is a resourceful man, a patient man who thinks calmly and carefully. He makes very few mistakes, but even one mistake can be dire in such a desperate situation. Even after an injury occurs he doesn't panic. But every man has his breaking point, and we watch Our Man reach this point near the end of the second act. I must say I would have crumbled days beforehand.
Saturday, December 7, 2013
OUT OF THE FURNACE: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Forrest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, directed by Scott Cooper (116 min.)
I have no issue with the existence or the use of violence in the movies. Violence can be an effective tool in storytelling, and if done properly it can be vital. Some violence is told with style, some with substance; some films use violence as entertainment, others use it to tell an important part of the story. 12 Years a Slave is one of the most intensely violent films I have ever seen, but it all has a reason. One of my personal favorites, True Romance, has over the top moments of brutality, but the style and wit and energy of the picture play off the bloodshed perfectly. I had a real issue with the brutality in Out of The Furnace, mostly because it existed for no real reason at times. Sure, this is a bleak tale with despicable characters and dire situations, but the brutality is incessant and, ultimately, distracting.
Rodney is struggling to find a job after being discharged from the Army. He suffers from PTSD, and rejects steady work at the steel mill. Instead, he takes part in some lowest-of-the-low-rent bare knuckle boxing matches, led by a small town hustler named Petty (a greasy Willem Dafoe). Even though Rodney is supposed to routinely take dives in these fights, he can't help himself and keeps winning. So why does he have to keep throwing these things if he's so good? Beats me. Regardless, Rodney pushes Petty into taking him up to the hills of New Jersey to fight against one of Harlan DeGroat's fighters. DeGroat is played by Woody Harrelson, and is one of the most memorable, most psychotic villains in recent memory. We meet Harlan at the outset of the film as he shoves a hot dog down his girlfriend's throat and beats a man senseless at a drive-in movie. Yeah, he's just that kind of guy, a drug dealer and a scumbag murderer.
Things go south when Rodney and Petty are in New Jersey, and it is up to Russell to find out what happened to his brother. The local police (or police MAN, as we only ever see one) is Chief Wesley, played by Forest Whitaker, and he has no jurisdiction over Harlan and his inbred thugs. Nobody has control of them because they live by their own rules. This drives Russell and his Uncle Red (the great Sam Shepard) into action. The third act unfolds into a muddled and aimless manhunt. Russell and Red visit the home of a drug dealer in an uneven and unbelievable scene, then things bounce back and forth between Pennsylvania and New Jersey until we reach the predictable end. Much of the film is predictable; we know what is going to happen the entire time, we know when it is going to happen, so the journey loses a little tension with each passing scene.
And that violence. Some moments are fine, like the bare knuckle brawls and a moment of gun violence here and there. But the brutality in between grows tiresome. This is a bleak film, shot in ambers and browns and grays, and a great sadness leaks from these characters in every scene. Sometimes, the violence feels necessary to accentuate the bleak nature of these people, but many times it seems gratuitous. I remember late in the film, when one character hands out a beating to another character who didn't really need it or ask for it, I could feel my shoulders slump and my attention wane until the assault was over. And if that wasn't enough, the murder on the back end of the scene doesn't fit or make sense. At least not to me.
Monday, December 2, 2013
NEBRASKA: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, directed by Alexander Payne (115 min.)
Alexander Payne is a wonderful storyteller. What makes him such a strong filmmaker is his ability to direct what he knows, and what he knows more than anything is his home state of Nebraska. But beyond that, Payne has a keen ear for dialogue and character. The people who fill his screen are real people with real, personal issues, and a tendency to live their lives trying to correct past mistakes. All of these strengths of Alexander Payne’s directing and storytelling are on display in Nebraska, his latest dramedy starring Bruce Dern as an old broken-down man and Will Forte as the son trying to understand him. It is a touching, quiet film, photographed in beautifully sharp black and white. And while it may not be a life changing picture, it most certainly has its finger on the pulse of small-town Midwestern life.
Dern plays Woody Grant, a casual drunk and a rapidly aging man living in Montana with his fiery, loudmouthed wife, Kate (About Schmidt’s June Squibb). As the film opens we see Woody walking along the freeway a few days after snow has covered the landscape. A policeman stops him and Woody explains he is headed to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his million dollars from a bogus sweepstakes letter he received in the mail. You know the ones, just type in your “winning code” and collect your cash. The policeman takes Woody to the station and calls his son, David (Forte), who tries to explain to his father that the sweepstakes letter is a scam. Woody will have none of it, and tries again and again to walk to Nebraska. Finally, David agrees to drive him there, despite the objections of David’s brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk). “Maybe he just needs something to live for” David explains to Ross.
The film then transforms into a brief road picture with Woody and David, until the duo land in Hawthorne, the small Nebraska town of Woody’s youth. Kate and Ross come down and they visit with family and friends for the weekend before David and Woody make the final push to Lincoln Monday morning. It isn’t long before the news spreads that Woody has won a million dollars, and old acquaintances and distant relatives come looking for a handout. The meat of the picture involves these reactions in Hawthorne, where David learns more and more about his father. Never one to divulge his feeling, at least not without assistance from the bottle, Woody has remained a mystery to his sons. Turns out he wasn’t necessarily a bad man, but a man who could never say no to anyone. His charity is like blood in the water to the cousins who demand money owed, and to a former partner (Stacy Keach), looking to be compensated for past business ventures.
The film being in black and white serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it shows the mundane day to day of a Midwestern town, colorless and lifeless and routine. On the other hand, it allows us to concentrate on the richness of character and the dialogue. Dern’s face is like a road map of hard living. He seems distant, hard of hearing, but perhaps he isn’t just paying attention because he’s tired of paying attention. Forte’s David, an electronics salesman whose girlfriend just left him, has a face for dramatic acting despite the fact he made his way on Saturday Night Live. His downturned mouth and sad eyes convey a longing that fits perfectly in these town of Nebraska and Montana, where the world has moved on and forgotten these people. June Squibb’s Kate is sharp as a tack, hard-nosed, and her running joke about all the boys in high school wanting to get “in her trousers” is an amusing aside.
Nebraska is a quiet, serene little slice of life, where the motivation for the plot isn’t nearly as important as the journey and the characters. It is a film about people, not actions. It may be a little slight in the end; the stakes weren’t high enough it seems, or maybe the emotional engagement wasn’t fully realized for me on a personal level. But one thing is certain, and that is Alexander Payne is a filmmaker of truth, who allows his characters to evolve right in front of her eyes, even in these small Nebraska towns where evolution is rarely seen.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
OLDBOY: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Samuel L. Jackson, directed by Spike Lee (120 min.)
I'm not sure what I expected from the American version of Chan-wook Park's searing 2003 revenge flick Oldboy. But, knowing that Spike Lee was the man behind the camera, it's fair to say I expected more than this. While this remake isn't a ho-hum scene for scene retread - things are added and subtracted along the way while the main story remains in tact - there is nothing very memorable in this 2013 version. Perhaps the problem is the original, a hard-boiled, violent thriller, came with a shocking twist that tied everything together with a sick little bow. Since this version of the story decided, or maybe needed to, end with the same sick twist, any lasting impact was dead on arrival. That being said, what I missed more than the surprise ending had little to do with that original film and very much to do with this director.
Joe's investigation leads him to the man who ran the day-to-day of his prison, Chaney, played by Samuel L. Jackson who is once again over the top and just too much to deal with. I don't understand Jackson these days, but it seems to me he has become the African-American version of Nicolas Cage. After we get another take on the famous hammer attack scene, Joe meets the man responsible for his twenty-year imprisonment, a stranger played by Sharlto Copley who has a distracting goatee and an even more distractingly muddled accent. This stranger tells Joe he must find out who he is and why he imprisoned him for twenty years, or his now adult daughter will die. After some pretty basic investigations, all of the pieces of this dull puzzle start to fall into place and the ultimate reveal occurs with very little emotional investment on my end.
Josh Brolin is fine in the lead role, but his character is unsavory to say the least, which is part of the problem. Joe deserved what he got, and we don't' really care if he gets revenge because why should he? My main issue with Oldboy starts behind the camera. This is a Spike Lee film, and had I not known that going in I would have never figured it out. Aside from his trademark character dolly shot, there is nothing remotely visionary or invigorating in Lee's direction. Lee has always had a wonderfully creative eye and has packed a punch in his camera work. Here, the entire film is milquetoast, bland and flat and forgettable. This was a tall order for anyone to remake Park's original Oldboy, but I must say news that Spike Lee was directing it intrigued me. I only wish he would have directed it the way I know he can.