Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Any reader who isn’t a stranger around these parts knows that I’m an enormous Martin Scorsese fan, and I’m of the opinion that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of our finest actors.  So believe me when I say that The Wolf of Wall Street, the pair’s fifth collaboration in more than a decade, is undoubtedly their best work since 2006’s The Departed (and maybe even since Goodfellas – your mileage may vary).

DiCaprio stars as the titular Wolf, Jordan Belfort, who uses his Wall Street savvy to start up his own barely legal brokerage.  Amid the debauchery and depravity of the excesses at Stratton Oakmont, Belfort attracts the attention of the FBI while juggling the demands of his second wife Naomi (newcomer Margot Robbie) and his partner Donnie (Jonah Hill).

With Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese returns to the true-crime biopic genre he perfected with Goodfellas and Casino; indeed, Wolf could be seen as the third in a thematic trilogy of rise-and-fall narratives ripped from the headlines, and it certainly deserves that place of prominence in Scorsese’s repertoire.  Wolf is compelling and engaging, a prime example of a filmmaker not content to rest on his laurels; instead, he reminds us just how good he can be.  And for a film that never feels like it’s three hours long, never elicits so much as a bathroom break or a glance at a watch, Wolf is one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen all year.

As far as engrossing goes, let’s hope that this is the year that finally nets DiCaprio his Best Actor trophy at the Oscars (though he’ll have some steep competition from Christian Bale in American Hustle).  DiCaprio’s been turning in consistent work for the better part of a decade, and it’s high-time the Academy stops treating him like a bridesmaid and recognizes the total immersion DiCaprio undergoes into this character.  Aside from the verisimilitude of DiCaprio’s impression of Belfort’s physicality and mannerisms, he proves himself deft with a range of behaviors, from slapstick humor to deadpan disgust, from swaggering braggadocio to a whole range of addictions.  Belfort is such a multilayered character, and the film offers DiCaprio so many different opportunities to flesh out facets of this fascinating figure.

Yet with so many tonal oscillations, The Wolf of Wall Street never feels confused or inconsistent.  While some reviewers are bemoaning the film’s indulgent excesses, I have to think that’s part of the point; Scorsese is so effective at recreating Belfort’s world that he manages to trick us into thinking he’s not on our side.  And just like in Goodfellas, we’d be remiss if we didn’t think there was at least something seductive about Belfort’s lifestyle.  Whether it’s the money, the sex, or the feeling of invincibility, we’re meant to understand in some way – and perhaps even empathize with – Belfort’s decisions.

And Wolf of Wall Street plays with so many of the great Scorsese themes that it deserves high marks as another fascinating iteration of a great director’s most significant statements – the perils of venality, the inevitability of self-destruction, the coincidental slip-up.  In fact, one might even lump Wolf of Wall Street in with the greatest of Greek tragedy – we have our protagonist cursed with a fatal flaw (as with most Scorsese characters, it’s ambition) that becomes the instrument of his own implosion.  But if that’s too highfalutin a comparison for you, just remember Henry Hill’s closing monologue from Goodfellas about how the road through your dreams ends in being a schnook, eating egg noodles with ketchup.

In an era where one-percenters are the popular scapegoat, it’s refreshing to see a film that addresses the issue without heavy-handed moralizing about the evils of capitalism.  Instead, Scorsese presents the subject on its own terms, with an invigorating honesty that asks the audience to draw its own inescapable conclusions.  It’s a master class in respect and rewards for the audience, anchored by one of the year’s best performances.

The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R “for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.”  Man, is this movie wildly inappropriate.  We’ve got a bevy of naked men and women on parade (sometimes literally), more drug abuse than you know what to do with, an estimated 500 F-bombs, and a few mild fisticuffs.

Monday, December 23, 2013

American Hustle (2013)

Last year David O. Russell snuck in at the tail end of the calendar with Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic comedy that reinstilled my belief in the genre; two years earlier, he’d caught my eye with The Fighter.  And with American Hustle, Russell takes the things that worked best in those movies – namely the remarkable acting talent on display – and mashes them together for a thoroughly enjoyable Oscar contender.

Based loosely on a true story – “Some of this actually happened,” an opening title card boasts – American Hustle gives us con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale in another total body transformation) and his lover/partner Sydney “Edith” Prosser (Amy Adams) as they are forced into a federal corruption investigation led by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  As the investigation bears unexpected fruit with Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) in the crosshairs, Irving’s reckless wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) puts her husband in jeopardy while trying to keep her marriage safe.

I almost don’t need to say much about the cast; they’re all exceptionally solid choices, the best performers from Russell’s two previous films under one roof.  As the lead (and hopefully a Best Actor candidate), Bale is almost unrecognizable were it not for his remarkable talent, and Adams demonstrates herself a perfect foil for him, continuing to break out of that “too cute for words” mode into which she might have been typecast after Enchanted.  Renner and Cooper are reliably compelling, and Lawrence continues to hold onto that “most talented young actress” title with a powerhouse performance as the spirited Rosalyn.  All handle the naturalistic dialogue very well, with improvisational quirks and touches that give the film a lived-in feel.  We come to know these people very well, thanks to the life given by the cast.

Even better than these five thrown into the same pot – plus all the supporting roles, including Louis CK as Cooper’s boss and a delightful uncredited cameo by a real legend – is the sum of the parts.  American Hustle is at once blissfully engaging and wildly unpredictable.  I don’t want to say it’s something we’ve never seen before; indeed, for many reasons it feels very much like an update on Scorsese’s Goodfellas.  But American Hustle manages to feel quite fresh, playing fast and loose with the historical facts (happily for those who know the story and those who don’t) in order to create an elaborately twisty narrative that takes its characters in surprising and entertaining directions.

All the while, Russell keeps us guessing by refusing to spoonfeed us character motivation, even with the presence of voiceover narration.  Rather than spell out plot beats and character traits, the voiceover instead fills us in on the personalities of the characters and, more importantly, the moments when we know they’re lying to themselves.  The narrative of the film is highly concerned with questions of honesty and deception, and Russell wisely plays about in it without handing us easy moral judgments.  The number of double- and triple-crosses are quite successful on an aesthetic level and satisfying on an interpretive one because we’re never expecting them.  Of course, in a movie about deception, we’ll have characters deceiving each other, but Russell manages to avoid the clichéd “gotcha” beats and instead continually sucker-punches the audience with another new twist introduced with graceful subtlety (as when we learn a key character actually can speak Arabic or when Rosalyn lets slip once or twice).

American Hustle is a movie that will leave its audience reeling, first from the sheer volume of thespianic talent on display and then from the intricate and enthralling plot structure which Russell uses to say insightful things about the problem of honesty and self-deceit.  The original title of the film was American Bulls—t, a title which would have been deliciously ironic – there’s no worse comparison to make with this film than a comparison to excrement.  American Hustle is the exact opposite – delightfully fun, solid gold.

American Hustle is rated R “for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.”  The characters use the F-word quite a lot, a few adulterous affairs occur on-screen (with maybe a possible flicker of female nudity in one), and there’s a death-by-gunshot and a few minor fistfights.  Aside from the language, this one is really close to a PG-13.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Monday at the Movies - December 16, 2013

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, no creative witty banter before we jump into our review...

Disclosure (1994) – I first “discovered” Michael Douglas in Don’t Say a Word, a taut thriller which colored the way I see him; Douglas is, I contend, at his best when he’s playing an everyman with his back against the wall (exception: Gordon Gekko in Wall Street).  And in Disclosure, adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, Michael Douglas gets to do just that – and boy, does he shine.  Douglas becomes embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal after his new boss and former flame Demi Moore puts the moves on him.  Don’t forget, it’s a Crichton story, so there’s something else going on too, which I won’t spoil; part of the fun of the movie is piecing together the intricate plot being sprung on Douglas’s character.  The film is padded out with solid supporting roles; Donald Sutherland is smarmy as ever as the company owner, and reference comedian Dennis Miller is a witty treat as a snarky techie, while Roma Maffia (you know her as anesthesiologist Liz Cruz from Nip/Tuck) steals the show as the spirited attorney defending Douglas against the charges.  But the real treats come from watching Douglas go from simmer to sizzle as the deck gets stacked against him, as his professional and personal lives are destabilized by the machine forming to take him down.  Moore is a worthy adversary, smug and overconfident in her sexuality, but it’s undeniably Michael Douglas’s show as he proves once more that he’s not the guy to mess with.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Frozen (2013)

Proving that I’ll probably never outgrow Disney movies, I’ll confess right off the bat that I thoroughly enjoyed Frozen – but not out of mere nostalgia for a childhood nearly twenty years gone.  Frozen manages to blend the classic Disney moviegoing experience with a very innovative revisionist take on the whole princess fairy tale genre, succeeding at both where other studios would struggle with only one.

After her magical ice powers accidentally injure her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) shutters the kingdom until her 21st birthday.  On coronation day, however, when the palace doors are opened, Anna meets love-at-first-sight Prince Hans and is immediately engaged to him until her sister’s subjects exile Elsa out of fear of her powers.  As the kingdom falls into an unflinching winter, Anna goes in search of her sister with the help of ice vendor Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and enchanted snowman Olaf (Josh Gad).

Frozen is a clear update of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” and if the synopsis sounds unoriginal it’s because I’ve taken some pains to limit my summary to the broadest details.  In fact, Frozen contains a number of inversions on where the classic Disney formula might take that general plot.  For instance, the issue of “true love” comes up several times, only for the narrative to take a quick turn away from cliché and move in the direction of something more creative; when Anna and Hans sing about the all-encompassing joy of finding your soulmate, it’s acceptably saccharine in the fairy tale kind of way, but when the peppy musical number is abruptly followed by a quick marriage proposal, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers are up to something smarter.  We know – though the characters don’t – that true love takes a little more work.

I won’t spoil where the film lands on the issue of love, but suffice it to say that Frozen offers several models of love with varying degrees of truthiness before the story is done.  I will give the crew a big round of applause for, without spoiling, taking the film in a number of unexpected and fresh directions, even offering me things I’ve never seen in a Disney movie before (the sophisticated approach to love being one of the foremost).  And when you get an entire audience to gasp in surprise at a clever plot twist, Disney or not, you’ve accomplished something spectacular.

The marketing on this film has been, to my eyes, a little vague, focusing more on ambiance than on the actual plot.  Wisely so, I think, both because the plot is too fresh to be previewed and because the film looks astonishingly gorgeous.  Where its predecessor Tangled animated the heck out of Rapunzel’s hair, Frozen presents several tableaus that can only be translated as bragging rights; here, Disney presents itself the undisputed leader when it comes to animating ice.  The various snow drifts, ice palaces, and frost giants all glint and move like embodied snow ought to behave, to say nothing about the perfected-to-a-tee “house style” of Disney’s computer-animated fairy tales.  Don’t underestimate the value of consistency, which helps audiences settle into the film without too much laborious plot instruction; it’s not hard to imagine Frozen in the same universe as Brave or Tangled (and keep your eyes peeled for a Rapunzel/Flynn cameo).

The other curious move the advertising has taken is emphasizing the role of Olaf the snowman and his reindeer buddy Sven.  While these teaser vignettes weren’t especially compelling and played like a bad “funny animals” skit from a lesser movie studio (even giving me pause about seeing Frozen), I can safely say that’s a wholly inaccurate representation of the film.  Not only are Olaf and Sven far from the focus of the film, they’re actually quite engaging when stripped of the need to appeal to a target audience.  As members of the cast, Olaf and Sven are essentially Frozen’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a cartoon Vladimir and Estragon who are good for a plethora of laughs both physical and verbal.  Even Olaf, with the potential to descend into irritating yet obligatory comic relief, hits the quirky derpy spots without grating on our nerves.

And at the center of Frozen is an immensely compelling and vigorously original story about family, love, obligation, and difference.  The voice cast are exceptional, but the visual direction even more so.  I think someday we’ll look back on the present moment as a kind of second golden age for digital animation – Toy Story heralding the first – and I predict that Frozen will take its place in that canon, both for its breathtaking animation and as that movie to which you can point when people jeer that Disney gives its viewers unrealistic expectations about love.  Frozen, I have no doubt, will thaw the hearts of even Disney’s iciest objectors.

Frozen is rated PG “for some action and mild rude humor.”  Both action and humor are quite tame, mostly slapsticky and oriented more toward “kisses are yucky” than actual inappropriate-ness on the affectionate spectrum.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

There’s a recurring gag in Monty Python skits where Graham Chapman interrupts as “The Colonel,” who always intercedes when he feels that the skit has become “far too silly.”  While there’s no Chapman cameo in For Your Eyes Only, one gets the feeling that The Colonel’s refrain was bandied about in the wake of Moonraker, resulting in a Bond film that takes itself much more seriously, even if the end product is somewhat forgettable.

After the pre-credits disposal of a villain who for legal reasons (and in spite of the Nehru suit, traction collar, and white cat) can’t be named Blofeld, James Bond (Roger Moore) travels across Eastern Europe to Greece in order to locate a missing MacGuffin – here, it’s a missile guidance control system or whatnot.  Bond becomes entangled in a smuggling rivalry between Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover) and Milos Columbo (Topol), each of whom claims the other is Bond’s target; at the same time, Bond allies himself with Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), out to avenge the death of her parents.

By way of opening remarks, let me applaud the filmmakers – particularly director John Glen, on his first outing as a director – for moving Bond in a more serious direction.  For the past few months, I’ve contended that there is a solid James Bond lurking somewhere inside Roger Moore, but it’s often buried beneath bland chicanery and an overdose of camp.  We get to see some of that “solid Bond” come out in For Your Eyes Only, but at the same time it seems that much of the Bond humor has been stripped away from this one.  There are numerous moments begging for a Bond quip, deaths of henchmen that go unremarked.  (Later, we’ll see Daniel Craig find a nice middle ground with his dry sardonic black humor.)

So while this Bond is a conscious refutation of its campy precursors, that distancing comes at the cost of the overall Bond vibe; For Your Eyes Only feels like James Bond has been dropped into a different film franchise altogether, in which he’s playing a kind of guest role.  I’m not saying Bond doesn’t get enough screen time; he’s omnipresent as always, but he seems like a silent observer to a lot of the film, even taking a backseat at times to Melina Havelock’s revenge plot.  It’s a good thing Carole Bouquet holds her own in the film, proving capable in action sequences and in close-ups of simmering vengeance.  The chemistry, though, is never really there; she and Bond feel perpetually in each other’s way until they end up in bed together.

The honest truth?  That’s about all I remember from this movie.  As someone who prides himself on a particularly strong memory, For Your Eyes Only is like a complete blur for me, even after only a few days.  While the idea of a more serious Bond is a fantastic one, the execution on this is just passable; the film meets the bare minimum standard for gravitas by stripping away the fun but without replacing it with something compelling.  The bait and switch with the villain is a real eye-roller; Bond simply takes the word of the second “suspect” that the first is the real baddie, who admits with what amounts to a casual shrug, a “Yeah, you got me,” and a perfunctory mustache twirl.  And (spoilers) Julian Glover is terribly disappointing as Kristatos; where his Nazi sympathizer Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was memorably sinister, here his chief act of villainy seems to be his relentless pursuit of a sexual liaison with an underage figure skater.

James Bond deserves better.  Heck, this film deserves better than to fade into the foggy recesses of my mind.  There’s enough that could have worked had the movie been... well, had the movie been a different movie altogether.  But in spite of it all, For Your Eyes Only is not offensively bad, which is more than I can say for Moonraker.  Moonraker was at least an unwatchable train wreck that descended into madcap incredulity with whiplash-inducing speed before our very eyes; For Your Eyes Only merely plods forward until it ends, bizarrely enough, with a Margaret Thatcher caricature.  It’s a step in the right direction, but darned if I can’t remember which direction it is.

For Your Eyes Only is rated PG.  Aside from the standard seductions, one woman very nearly exposes too much décolletage, while another wears a transparent white top and (in another scene) exposes her buttocks.  A few men are injured in aquatic scenes, with blood floating in the water; several other deaths occur, mostly off-screen and/or bloodlessly.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return – in the New Year – in a review of Octopussy (1983) on January 7, 2014!  (Heads-up:  like Moonraker, I’ve never actually been able to finish Octopussy.  We’re in trouble.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

About Time (2013)

I’m about to say something extremely significant, and for its significance to hit you like it ought, please keep in mind that Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and Gravity all came out this year; each of them received a rather glowing review from yours truly.

Having said that, About Time is very nearly (if not entirely) my favorite movie of the year – a beautiful moving comedy that yanks at those heartstrings without losing sight of its own unique sense of humor.

On his 21st birthday, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) receives some shocking news from his father (Bill Nighy) – the men in the family can travel through time.  After realizing it’s not a practical joke, Tim moves to London to live with depressed playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) and falls in love with Mary (Rachel McAdams) in a plot that is making me weepy just to think about it.

Truly, I cannot do justice in words to just how hard “right in the feels” this movie hit me.  About Time is a story so well told that it achieves greatness by virtue of its innocuous sincerity.  I’m often accused (sometimes by myself) of taking films too cerebrally, of a chronic inability to surrender to being moved by a film, but I can safely point to About Time as the evidence that proves I can still be swept wholly and completely away by the right film.

About Time is that film, offered as a litmus test for true empathetic humanity.  Aside from the obligatory remark of how refreshing it is to see an original, self-contained film that does everything right without gambling on a franchise, About Time handles characterization with a pitch-perfect blend of spot-on casting (especially with the avuncular ethos of Bill Nighy) and brilliant writing from director/writer Richard Curtis, who already won hearts with Love Actually.  Rather than being didactically instructed which characters to care about, About Time allows us to come to love Tim, Mary, and Dad (and even curmudgeonly Harry) as though we really knew them.  Gleeson distills the brand of endearingly awkward into a compelling performance, McAdams is as stunningly lovable as always, and Nighy is the force of nature that is “Bill Nighy” at his best – paternal, charming, and witty.

The performances are all top-notch (what else would we expect from a predominantly British cast?), but what’s truly remarkable is the plotting of the film, which Curtis’s screenplay unfolds without the typical show-off flourishes of most time travel narratives.  Instead of wowing us with sleight of hand, Curtis opts for an exploration of the basic human condition – the search for the meaning of life in finding the love of your life – that just so happens to include time travel.  As a result, the real surprises of the film come not from “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff” (as The Doctor so snappily put it) but from smart scripting, as when the sideplot involving Tim’s sister develops in the background until its significance becomes foregrounded in a way that’s both surprising and (in hindsight) obvious.  Throughout it all, nothing is wasted, no scene goes by without deepening the characters or furthering the plot.

The greatest surprise, the most fantastic triumph of About Time comes from the astounding emotional resonance the film carries without resorting to the saccharine tropes we might expect from a romantic comedy.  Instead, we get moments of powerful devotion, assisted by the touching chemistry between Gleeson and McAdams, and a brutally slow-burn approach to making the audience cry.  I saw the film with a mostly full house, and the sniffles could be heard beginning an hour from the end; my eyes were on a perma-misty setting I didn’t know I had until the waterworks turned on all the way about twenty minutes to the end, at a point which I could identify precisely if it didn’t spoil one of the most touching scenes in the film.  Suffice it to say that About Time is the film that would move even the stonyhearted Pharaoh to tears – it certainly got me.

With the onslaught of Oscarbait movies coming this month (some of which will probably be very good), I’m holding onto About Time as the movie that moved me the most, which left me physically enervated but emotionally rejuvenated.  Even in a year filled with successful superhero outings like Man of Steel and works of breathtaking artistry like Gravity, About Time has moved into that place in my heart for movies that resonate so profoundly with everything I believe about the world – a movie to which I can point and say, “That’s a movie about the world I live in.”  For those of us looking for that emotionally perfect movie, a panacea for the hopeless romantic in all of us, it’s About Time.

About Time is rated R “for language and some sexual content.”  A topless photograph of Kate Moss is seen in a gallery exhibition, while a few sexual encounters (and their aftermaths) are depicted with no nudity (one does, however, include my new favorite seduction line, which involves the removal of new pajamas).  There is a smattering of strong profanities, and one character is hospitalized with a few cuts and bruises.  Ultimately, a rather soft R.