Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street - Review

The Wolf of Wall Street – Review

Famed Director Martin Scorsese tells the story of the 1980’s Wall Street Broker Jordon Belford who went from virtual obscurity to living the American dream filled with decadent wealth, unbridled greed, corporate corruption and unrepentant debauchery.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Belford and Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, Belford’s   confidant and partner in crime, the two young men manage to take the concept of meaningless penny stocks to new unparallel heights of financial success by securing vast sums of money from fraudulent commissions. But like any illegal venture, someone eventually is going to get wind of fraud and in Belford’s case the wind blew squarely in the direction of a failed Wall Street Broker but now turned ambitious FBI agent named Patrick Denham.

What “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not is an overly complicated movie; it is a pretty straight forward plot. Basically Jordon Belford has figured, or more like stumbled into, a sales pitch “gift of gab” scheme to literally rob the ultra wealthy out of their money without really offering them anything in return from their supposedly sound long term investments. What “Wolf” is are scenes after scenes after scenes of a nearly 3 hours running time of one man’s astonishing tale of a crazed roller coaster ride of perpetual lies, deceptions, yelling, screaming, crude behavior, cocaine, alcohol, Quaaludes, sex, mad house parties, bundles of cash, body fluids, orgies, public sex, prostitutes, alcohol, excesses of every kind, infidelity and bribery. Oh did I say yelling? There are more scenes of people yelling and screaming at each other than any other film I have ever seen.

“Wolf” is basically fun to watch and I had more than a few great laughs watching it with a few specific scenes (i.e. FBI interview on Belford’s’ Boat) that were typically and quintessential well crafted Scorsese directing at his best.

There were also 2 other scenes that can be only described as being too crazy to be believed that this in fact could have actually happen in real life. One involving Belford and Azoff trying a new Quaalude called “Lemons” that was funny as hell and the other with Belford racing in his yacht in the Mediterranean to get to Switzerland in a stormy Atlantic sea that seemed more like something you would see on Saturday Night Live than a Scorsese film.
The reason I will not give this film a better score is while it was never boring, the film is essentially a flawed singularly focused one note story of Belford’s unhinged depravity and dishonesty, and while I was very impressed with Scorsese’s ability to keep showing new examples of Belford’s human tolerance for new abuses and moral corruption, in the end “The Wolf of Wall Street” is essentially a modern tale of Sodom and Gomorrah without anyone worrying about the fire and brimstone around them, near them or anything burning for that matter.

3 – 1/2 Stars

Saving Mr. Banks - Review

Saving Mr. Banks – Review

Starring two time Academy Award winner Emma Thompson and also two times Oscar winner Tom Hanks, “Saving Mr. Banks” is the true story of the making of the Disney classic “Mary Poppins”.

With the film taking place in 1964 we find the entertainment mogul Walt Disney attempting to finalizing the contract deal to the rights to the highly successful and popular book by Author P.LTravers “Mary Poppins “. For Walt, as he liked to be called, this would be a culmination of a solemn promise he made to his daughters over 20 years ago that one day he would make their favorite book into a feature film. However, little did Walt Disney know was that Mrs. Travers, as she insisted on being called, would be an over demanding, meticulously controlling crotchety and utterly incalcitrant client to work with as illustrated in early scenes showcasing the “creative making process” of brining her book to the big screen.

Time and time again Mrs. Travers’s would go back and forward between Walt and his creative team with a lady like abrasiveness always insisting upon control of  every word, song and color in the film’s development including approval of the final script as part of her requirement to eventually signing the rights over to Walt Disney to produce the film.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is a light drama that is full of wit, Disney fantasy appeal and charm as the story centrally revolves around the trials of Mrs. Travers childhood that was the principle catalyst of her “Poppins” story. Specifically, it explains the source of her doggedness to maintain control of her book, timely reflected with flashbacks scenes to her adolescent youth where it was made clear she was influenced by the events of her love for her flawed father. These scenes help enlighten us to the source of her adult skepticism of Mr. Disney’s ever being ability to satisfactorily bring her story to its’ proper light that she feels it richly deserves.

The film also helps reveal that Walt and Travers are like most successful people in that they have far more in common than initial meets the eye. They are both proud people born from childhood difficulties that help light that creative sparks to their unique visions of story telling, and with a screenplay that seemed seamless in its execution we the viewing audience are sentimentally drawn in to their respective stories with the right amount of emotional “spoonfuls of sugar” to make the story’s sweetness go down.

Emma Thompson is assured of an Oscar Nomination as Best Actress, as well as a possible Nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Tom Hanks in his spot on avuncular portrayal of the ever affable and amiable Walt Disney. Equally effective performances were given by Paul Giamatti as the charming limousine driver and Colin Ferrell as the father Robert Travers.

Ultimately, “Saving Mr. Banks” while not a Christmas story has the feel of one as in the end it is a very good family holiday feel goodChim Chim Cher-ee" tale.

3 – 3/4 Stars

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis – Review

Inside Llewyn Davis – Review

For starters, there is no bigger fan of the Coen Brothers legacy of films then me (i.e., Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo & No Country for Old Men), so it’s with a bit of regret that while the majority of established film critics seem to anoint their latest effort “Inside Llewyn Davis” as one of the top 10 films for 2013 (including Rotten Tomatoes collective score of 95), I found the film to be at its best mildly entertaining with some occasionally funny moments, but short on real lasting appeal. To me “Inside Llewyn Davis” was less of a story of man’s musical struggles in a historical period and more of a meandering tale more simply aligned to someone’s far more personal journey of emotional bewilderment

Texturally, the movie while it looks like it was shot in black and white, it was not. I would presume it was a subtle technical attempt to capture the early 1960s atmosphere of smoky tightly packed no named basement clubs where artist of that generation struggled mightily for their success, similarly to those who really  went on to set new standards in music for that generation and our times (i.e. Bob Dylan). The Coen’s attempt to recreate this by singularly focusing their lens on a fictional young man in New York who as you would expect a struggling folk singer.

With a backdrop of some fabulous music especially the opening song (sung in its entirety), we are realistically drawn to Davis’s ambition in becoming a success at all practical cost. Specifically, we see the inevitable mixture of his energy and high hopes and the inevitable plight of suffering from perpetual rejections, financial instability and functional homelessness. We also get a bit of amusing humor at his ability to pre-strategically calculate new ways each night after a performance in finding both friends and strangers to coax them into letting him sleep on their home living room couch.

But these early compelling strengths of the film slowly give way to a character that becomes less empathetic and less known to us. He becomes more baffling, less realized and less clear to his own story. Under normal circumstances a film is crafted with each passing scene into making it feel we should be rooting for him to succeed but for some reason this never quite takes hold. Ultimately for me, I found Llewyn Davis as much a stranger in the end of the film as he was in the beginning.

The Coen’s seemly wanted to use Llewyn Davis as a way to celebrate and create broad appeal to this unique period in American music. But what didn’t work for me because it was just too much to put on the back of their one note character “Llewyn Davis” into carry this film’s entire plot across the finish line. Structurally the flaw appears to be they never ever introduced – developed the right supporting characters for Davis to draw comparative strength from.

Also, there was some oddness to this film. Without giving anything away there is a 30 minute segment in the middle of the film that involved a round trip road trip to Chicago involving a back seat ranting elderly man (John Goodman) who is chauffeured by a chain smoking driver (more of a biker looking type) who states he’s out of cigarettes but constantly smokes, a domestic house cat with flight issues and finally a series of inexplicable scenes involving 40 minute roadside bathroom breaks.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” does have some appeal and it is occasionally interesting to watch, but for its 1 hour 45 minutes running time it seemed to put way too much of a burden on actor Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis) to being someone we should be eager to love instead of the feeling of someone you just end up liking and even that was a chore.

There’s a good chance “Inside Llewyn Davis” will probably be nominated for Best Picture (a potential 10 nominees each year) and while I enjoyed it for the interesting effort and execution that the Coen Brothers always seemly bring to their films, for me it is not one of my top10 films for 2013 and not something I would suggest you have to rush out to the theater to see..

3 – 1/4 Stars    

Thursday, December 19, 2013

American Hustle - Review

American Hustle – Review

At about near the end of the film “American Hustle” Christian Bale’s character utters the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”. And with that simple line I realized that what I had spent the running time of 2:09 was watching the best film for 2013.

Director David O. Russell whose previous works include “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” has now crafted an amazing story out of virtually thin air and whole cloth a highly polished and sophisticated story with many moving parts of con artists, con jobs, double talk, willful deception, sultry and sexy romance, dysfunctional relationships, political criminals, federal agents, mobsters, witty humor and seventies music. And holding all of this rich mixture of cinematic attributes together was a rich and intricate story so flawless executed with such high energy and cleverness by an incredible assemblage of actors I am somewhat tempted to call Russell’s screenplay a work teetering on being an acting masterpiece.

Purely a fictional tale, “American Hustle” feels real and true to its time period of the late 1970’s, with Christian Bale playing “Irving Rosenfeld, a life long brilliant local con artist who works the local stiffs in his community out of their money through a scam that while not lucrative, gets the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). It’s when the FBI Agent DiMaso busts Irving and his partnering girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams) that the film’s story takes off as Irving and Sydney are offered a way out of their criminal dilemma by using their con talents in helping the federal prosecutor scoring a much bigger fish in the form of a local New Jersey Mayor.

Played by Jeremy Renner “Mayor Polito” is a kind and good hearted family man who the FBI believes with the right amount of prodding is politically ripe for the picking into using some backdoor shady deals with a fictional Arab investor in fulfilling Mayor’s Polito dream of doing something good for his old childhood neighborhood in the form of building casinos and hotels in Atlantic City.

What ensues next is a story that feels like the best parts “Oceans11” and “Goodfellas”. More so, Director Russell clearly has drawn some of the best directing qualities from Director Martin Scorsese, as American Hustle feels uniquely like his brand of work. And while it is completely absent of the noted violence of a Scorsese film, American Hustle, is still able to capture all of the tension his films masterfully have offered in the past.

Once again, Christian Bale proves to me he is one of the finest actors I have ever witness on the big screen to play such a rich assortment of American characters over his career. Also Amy Adams was perfectly casted as the sultry and sexy love interest, Bradley Cooper is splendid as the high energy super aggressive FBI agent and Jennifer Lawrence who plays “Irving’s” ditsy, mouthy, over sexed wife proves her Academy Award last year was no fluke as she is deliciously riveting as the perpetual marital thorn in Irving’s otherwise happy life.

You can count of numerous Academy Award nominations in January 2014 coming out of this film, for most if not all of the principle actors in the film. Expect to hear nominations clearly for Screenplay, Custom Design, Director and of course Best Picture.

This film is rich in detail, execution and plot development. And while it is a highly involved story of cons and deception, American Hustle shines in the end like the way they use to make movies when there were no spy satellites, no high tech phone devices, no lap tops or micro chips. No, this is an ingenuous plot relying only on human ingenuity to move the story along with crispness and intelligence.

If you like originality this is the must see film for 2013

4 Stars Plus                 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Oldboy - Review

Oldboy – Review

Starring Josh Brolin and Directed by Spike Lee, “Oldboy’ is the American remake of the 2003 Korean cult classic of the same name.

With a 2 hour running time the 2013 story of ‘Oldboy” is an unusual provocative thriller that follows the story of a man named Joe Doucette, a man who is inexplicable kidnapped and held hostage for 20 years in solitary confinement, for no apparent reason. When he is suddenly released without any explanation, he begins a mission to find out who imprisoned him.

If you want to see this story then I recommend you rent the 2003 original as this 2013 film effort is an ineffective, uninteresting, dialogue stilted, cold, truncated, overly gruesome, overly predictable and directorially empty - disappointing clunker.   

1 – 1/2 Stars   

Out of The Furnace - Review

Out of the Furnace – Review

Director Scott Cooper offers up a modern day gritty blue collar working class drama thriller in the backdrop of a small steel mill town where the only thing that matters is family in the film entitled “Out of the Furnace”.

Starring Christian Bale we find his character “Russell Baze” a hard working decent man with a moral goodness about him, who works long hours at a local steel mill to provide for his terminally ill father. We also find Russell’s brother “Rodney Baze” (Casey Affleck) who is a recently returned Iraqi veteran suffering from a bit of post traumatic syndrome that seems to be contributing to his reluctance to seek out steady employment. Rodney is more comfortable in simply wasting his time away daily by borrowing money to gamble on racing horses that always seem to lose.

Eventually Rodney is lovingly confronted by his older brother Russell of the need to paying off his debt by getting a job. So, Rodney secretly decides to work off his debts by approaching an affable but nonetheless sleazy local bookie - promoter named “John Petty” (Willem Dafoe) who is well known for arranging and rigging back ally fights for money.

When Russell gets wind of the fact that Rodney has ran up an even larger debt with Petty, Russell starts to work extra hours at the plant to pay his brother debts in the hopes that eventually he can convince Rodney to taking some control of his life by working with him at the steel plant. But Rodney resists his bother overture because as he explains it he is tormented by war demons and the only thing that he feels he is any good at right now is fighting. So it’s from this point in the film we see Rodney spiraling slowly downward being lured even deeper into more ruthless fights with equally more ruthless people. One such ruthless person is a New Jersey fight promoter named “Harlan DeGroat” (Woody Harrelson) who is nothing short of an absolutely mean SOB who has a trigger haired short fuse at the slightest indiscretion. He is an anti Christ meth head alcoholic hillbilly who would as easily shoot you for looking at him the wrong way than to ignore you by simply walking away.

When Rodney insists that Petty arrange one last fight only this time with Harlan’s ruthless criminal crew, Petty reluctantly agrees. But when Rodney and Petty mysteriously disappear after the fight, Russell takes upon himself to find his brother to bring him back home.

The first hour of the film exhibited some raw dramatic weight and seriousness, largely by the absolutely excellent and stellar performances of Bale and Harrelson who bring working class honesty to their respective characters. And while they have some similarity in their working class personalities and backgrounds in that they were clearly born on the clich├ęd “same side of the tracks” they carry and live their lives within a completely diametrical opposite set of values and morals.

For a while in “Furnace” I thought I was watching one of the five best films I have seen this year. And while the film basically does stay true to itself with its common everyday working class theme and story setting, it does take a bit of a formulaic turn to a Western style form of frontier justice similar to films more commonly associated with old John Wayne movies. Nonetheless, “Furnace” manages to hold up pretty good through out its running time even if it does fall off its more purposeful dramatic first hour introduction.

I highly recommend that if you don’t see this film in the theater then by all means make sure to rent it. It is a powerful showcase of the quality, the talent and the effectiveness of Bale and Harrelson's ability to largely make this move successfully move with a crispness and earthiness. And while there are numerous extended moments of laconic dialogue and conversations that seem needlessly too nuance and theatrically deliberate, it still remained sincere in those moments with unfettered consequential dramatic intensity, villainy and dread.

On one side note, I came out of this film with the conclusion that Christian Bale is not only a superb actor, he maybe one of the 5 best actors I have seen over the last 20 years. He more than any other actor I can recall, especially one who is not a natural American, seems time after time to brilliantly capture the many subtle and various mosaic mixture of American men personalities. Whether they come from a certain demographic region of the country (Out of the Furnace and The Machinist), from an upper social economic class status (American Psycho and the Dark Knight) or a historical time period (3:10 to Yuma, Public Enemies and Rescue Dawn) Bale seems to understand how to grasp the cornucopia of American men traits without ever relying on noticeable voice gimmicks, quirky accents or mimicry impersonation. He is extraordinarily gifted in being able to inhabit American roles (as a foreign born actor) with authentic credibility when telling uniquely American stories.

3 – 1/2 Stars