Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

      Director Martin Scorsese channels his inner Brian DePalma and creates his own "Scarface" minus the guns. This new parable of greed and excess is based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, a stock broker who made millions off other people's money. 

        Mr. Scorsese piles on the drugs, sex, depravity, greed and white collar criminal behavior until you think you've seen enough and then piles on more. The film runs for three hours and never lets up for a second. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort and he is electric. He's in almost every scene and fuels the film from start to finish.

         The film co-stars Jonah Hill as Mr. Belfort's eventually partner, Donnie Azoff and Margot Robbie as his trophy wife, Naomi. Both are very good. The only other developed character is FBI Agent Denham, played by Kyle Chandler. Everyone else is the film is basically a cartoon. There is a cameo by Matthew McConaughey that is brilliant and it's unfortunate that his character disappears soon after.

          There are flourishes of Scorsese greatness throughout the film and the first hour is fantastic. As the money and drugs start to flow, things keep spiraling out of control and as an audience, we get it but the excess just keeps coming which is obviously Mr. Scorsese's and screenwriter Terrance Winter's intent. There is a great two hour movie wrapped inside this three hour circus but unfortunately we are bombarded with every aspect of Mr. Belfort's life.

           The morale of the story is greed is good and so is the movie. But sadly it could have been great.

August: Osage County

     Director John Wells adapts Tracy Letts' Pulitzer prize winning play for the big screen with an all star cast and a screenplay by Mr. Letts. Live on Broadway, this tale of the very dysfunctional Westin family was an emotional powerhouse but on screen it loses some of that punch. If you've seen the play, you won't feel as involved with the characters on film but you may feel differently if this is your first time.

       Meryl Streep stars as Violet Westin, the pill popping matriarch of the family and she delivers the emotional fireworks in a typically amazing Streep performance. When circumstances bring the immediate family together, every secret and dysfunction in this family's closet comes pouring out, especially during the centerpiece of the film, the dinner scene.

         Violet's three daughters are played by Julia Roberts as Barbara, Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, and Juliette Lewis as Karen. Ms. Roberts carries most of the burden as the eldest daughter who spars with her mother throughout the film. The men in the film are played by Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbatch. All are very good in their respective roles but as written, they are support players to the women. The film also stars Abigail Breslin as Barbara's daughter, Misty Upham as Violet's caretaker Johnna and the ubiquitous Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae, Violet's sister. 

           The majority of the story takes place in the Westin home with the camera opening up a bit to the Oklahoma landscapes. The film is a dark comedy. There are many great lines and funny moments but at it's core, it can be difficult to watch. It's not exactly the feel-good movie of the year but it does have a lot to offer, especially the performances of Ms. Streep and Ms. Roberts.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

     Ben Stiller directs and stars in this re-imagined version of James Thurber's short story. It's the perfect film for the holidays and one the whole family can appreciate. It's upbeat, fun and a genuine "feel good" movie.

     Mr. Stiller does a fine job of directing himself and a versatile cast. Kristen Wiig is his love interest and it's her most natural part to date. She even does a decent version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity". The villain (so to speak) is played by Adam Scott and Walter's mother is played by the still remarkable, Shirley MacLaine. Kathryn Hahn plays Walter's sister. Patton Oswalt plays Todd, a voice on the phone for much of the film. And while Sean Penn's role is integral to the story, his screen time is little more than a cameo. 

      The CGI is kept to a minimum in the fantasy sequences and never distracts the audience from the heart of the story. The photography is beautiful, especially in the Iceland and Himalayan scenes. Mr. Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad take the original story and build on it, adding a layer of realism that drives home a very positive message.

        Mr. Stiller has come full circle now as a director. In this film, Reality doesn't bite (except maybe in one scene). 

Friday, December 27, 2013

47 Ronin

        Another attempt at Hollywood to remake a Japanese classic that ultimately disappoints. First time director, Carl Rinsch fails to give this dour film any real life or punch. The story is a true classic that deserves a big budget action filled adventure but the budget here must have gone to Keanu Reeves's salary.

          Mr. Reeves is the "name" draw for American audiences but the real star of the film is Japanese actor, Hiroyuki Sanada who plays Oishi, the disgraced Samurai out for revenge against the man who murdered his lord. Mr. Reeves gets most of the high profile fighting scenes but it is Mr. Sanada who is the heart and soul of the film (and he gets his share of fights as well).

            The CGI effects are effective but underwhelming as are the action sequences themselves. A poster for the film depicts a port city in flames, when in actuality, one dock burns. Another character who looks promising on the same poster has about five seconds of actual screen time. The battles scenes are fun but not the spectacle you would expect. It's possible a better film ended up on the cutting room floor but this end result would honor the audience best by committing Seppuku.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Past

    Writer/director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) returns with his second film about marital discord. This time the film is set in a city outside Paris where an estranged couple is about to finalize their divorce, but like his previous film, the story grows more complicated as it goes on.

      The wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo), meets Ahmad ( Ali Mosaffa) who has just arrived to sign their divorce papers so she can marry Samir (Tarhar Rahim). Marie has two daughters from an even earlier marriage and also cares for Samir's young son. Early on, Mr. Farhadi build tension as secrets are revealed and plot complications begin to pile up. You wonder just where the story is going but I was ultimately disappointed by where it ends up.

         There is a lot of dialogue that captures your interest at first but halfway through the film, everything slows to a crawl and any interest at this point deflates and leaves the story to go out on a quiet note with unresolved issues. 

          There is quite a buzz around this domestic drama and while "A Separation" left you with one question at the end, this film leaves you asking many questions. As one character says "Why did you drag me into this mess?" That's the biggest question of all.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


        Writer/director Spike Jonze asks the question "what is love" in this unusual new film. It's a love story for the modern age that also wants to know "how" we love as well. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, an introverted man who falls in love with his computer's operating system. Yes, it's a strange premise that you either accept or not but something wonderful happens as you keep watching...it does work and you are drawn into this odd relationship thanks to the clever script and heartfelt acting.

         When Theodore turns on his new OS 1 computer and asks for a female voice, he meets Samantha, with vocals by Scarlett Johansson. Ms. Johansson is never seen as she is just an OS but this story, set in the not to distant future, gives her the ability to be self aware and intuitive.  Theodore and Samantha begin a real relationship that seems ridiculous at first but grows into something tender and believable. Credit the remarkable acting by Mr. Phoenix and the terrific vocal display by Ms. Johansson to bring this relationship to life. 

          The film also stars Rooney Mara as Catherine, Theodore's soon to be ex-wife and Amy Adams as his close friend, Amy. Each plays a significant part as Mr. Jonze explores the ruminations of love from multiple perspectives.

           The cinematography and visuals create a futuristic Los Angeles without resorting to science fiction that sets a perfect tone for Theodore's world. While a love story, the film is also a parable for the dangers of technology and the isolationist environment we continue to embrace with every new upgrade.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

       The film is based on the true story of how Walt Disney convinced author P L Travers to give him the film rights for "Mary Poppins". On the surface it doesn't sound that inviting but thanks to a first rate script, beautiful direction and a superb cast, the film will surprise and captivate you.

        Director John Lee Handcock deftly moves between Los Angeles in the early '60's and in flashbacks, the Australian wilderness of the early 1900's. We learn the inspiration for the beloved story from the author's own childhood, and her motivation for initially not wanting it turned into a film by Mr. Disney.

         Emma Thompson is simply glorious as T L Travers. There is not a false note anywhere in a remarkable performance. Tom Hanks is the embodiment of Walt Disney and the two actors have great chemistry between them. Paul Giamatti is Ralph, the limo driver assigned to Mrs. Travers. While a small part, Mr. Giamatti gives subtle performance that becomes important to the story. The film also stars Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson ( both terrific)  as Mrs. Travers parents seen in the flashback sequences. A wonderful child actress, Annie Rose Buckley plays the young Mrs. Travers and she is a delight, wise beyond her years.

         Bradley Whitford is "Mary Poppins" Screenwriter Don DeGradi and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak play the Sherman brothers who wrote the music and lyrics for "Mary Poppins". Ms. Thompson elevates everyone's acting in every scene she's in, particularly in the rehearsal scenes with this trio. It's also good to see Kathy Baker and Rachel Griffiths in supporting roles.

          This is not necessarily a film for children as it deals with adult themes and some serious moments. There is very little of "Mary Poppins" in the film but it's a fascinating background story of how "she" came to life on the screen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

American Hustle

         Screenwriter/director David O. Russell continues his winning streak with his best film yet. Highly anticipated, "American Hustle" will not disappoint. The story is loosely based (love the disclaimer at the beginning) on the Abscam FBI sting of the late seventies. It's smart, funny and incredibly entertaining. Give Mr. Russell credit for a great script and masterful direction of an amazing cast.

          It all starts with Christian Bale, who once again transforms himself physically and disappears completely into his character, Irving Rosenfeld. He is simply remarkable in every film, good or bad, and never has a false note. Here he is joined by Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner and all of them are terrific. Mr. Cooper improves with each film and continues to develop into a fine actor. Amy Adams shows a darker side from the characters she usually plays but there is still a comic tone to her performance. Jeremy Renner, as the Mayor of Camden New Jersey shines as the only character with a conscience. The biggest surprise is a wonderful Jennifer Lawrence as Mr. Bale's wife, Roselyn. There is a new maturity here with excellent comic timing. She almost steals the film except for the fact everyone is so good.

          In support, there is Louis C.K. as Mr. Cooper's FBI supervisor, Michael Pena as a Mexican Arab (it will make sense), and Jack Huston as a Miami gangster. There is also an unbilled cameo from an actor perfectly cast.

           Mr. Russell reminds me here of Martin Scorsese at his best with rapid fire dialog, great sets, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and a soundtrack of great songs that integrate so well into the story. Enough said...just go see it. It's easily one of the best films of the year. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

   Strictly for the literary set or fans of Daniel Radcliffe, this new Indie drama is based on the life of poet Allen Ginsberg. The film centers on Mr. Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg during his formative years at Columbia University. It is there in 1944 that he meets William Burroughs ( a fantastic Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac ( Jack Huston) and Lucian Carr ( an hypnotic Dane DeHaan). The four become fast friends until tragedy strikes.

        Mr. Radcliffe has completely shed his Harry Potter shadow and emerges here in a complex and daring role. Mr. Foster is a chameleon who successfully disappears into every role and here even bears a resemblance to the real Mr. Burroughs. Mr. Huston is best known for his role on "Boardwalk Empire" and its good to see him in a different light. Lucian Carr is the central character here, the one who draws Mr. Ginsberg into a new world and helps to spark the "Beat Generation" to come. Mr. DeHaan has a magnetic charm that pulls you in and captivates you. If he is portraying Mr. Carr the way he truly was, then it's easy to see how Mr. Ginsberg fell under his spell.

         The film also stars Michael C. Hall in a pivotal role, Elizabeth Olsen as Mr. Kerouac's girlfriend and Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross as Mr. Ginsberg's parents. It's quite an impressive cast doing very good work in a film not for everyone. The subject matter does not have the appeal for a wide audience but it's an interesting story none the less.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

   Parts of this review are from my review of the first Hobbit movie as much of it still holds true.

        It's great fun to return to Middle Earth but the awe and magic of "The Lord of The Rings" trilogy is gone. Director Peter Jackson and his team of writers, so anxious to film the prequel and satisfy millions of fans have overstuffed a wonderful tale with unnecessary sound and fury. They have super-sized the enchanting story so much that it was necessary to split it into three films. And now we have part two...

          The CGI work and the New Zealand landscapes are remarkable. At times, it's hard to tell the real actors from the computer images...and that's still not a good thing. Only Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and Thorin, the dwarf King have any personality. Some of the other characters are better defined as we move through part two but for now, it's all a noisy set up for what's to come. It's basically run, fight, repeat but with more imagination.

          Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf the Wizard and he hasn't missed a beat. He wears his wizard hat proudly. Thorin is played by Richard Armitage and he smolders beautifully. Our reluctant Hobbit hero, Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman and he is perfectly cast in the role (although he is basically playing the same part he played in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy" albeit with bigger feet). A fun aside is that the voice of Smaug the dragon is done by Benedict Cumberbatch, Mr. Freeman's Watson to his Sherlock Holmes (on BBC). It's that dragon thats really impressive in this episode with fantastic CGI work. Of course you would expect nothing less from Mr. Jackson for such an important part of the film although in other fight sequences the CGI suffers.
             A familiar face appears in this installment (although he was never in the book) in the elfin form of Legolas, played with heroic abandon by Orlando Bloom (amazing how many Orcs he can kill without getting a scratch on himself). And the fresh face in the cast is the female elf, Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly. This character is completely new but fits in nicely as a fierce woman warrior.

         See it in Imax 3D for the best experience as it looks and sounds great. As for the overall film, you can't really review this as a finished work since we are only two thirds into the story. It is certainly exciting though and does it's job setting up the big finale, next year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Out of The Furnace

     Writer/director Scott Cooper must have been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen while formulating this movie in his head. We have the mill closing down, a disheartened war vet, ties that bind and just "a meanness in this world" in this flat, melodramatic, blue collar disappointment.

      A first rate cast is wasted in this grim tale of poverty and revenge. Christian Bale stars as Russell,  the factory worker just trying to get by in a dying town and Casey Affleck is his younger brother Rodney, the war vet reduced to illegal bare fist fighting to make a buck. Woody Harrelson is the villain, DeGroat a psycho drug dealer who fixes fights on the side. Willem Dafoe is a fight promoter that sets things in motion.  Zoe Saldana co-stars as Mr. Bale's girlfriend and Forest Whitaker is the town cop. All of them stereotyped characters with hardly any development. Only Mr. Bale rises above the material with his usual intensity. Why he decided to star in this mess we'll probably never know.

       About the only thing that works in the film is the bookend of Pearl Jam's "Release" at the start and end of the film. The music sets a tone at the start that has such promise only to end up a disappointment. But as a coda to the story, it is perfect as a reprise.  

        Unfortunately there are no surprises here except for an anti-climatic ending which is so dull and unsatisfying, I felt like asking for my money back. Save your money and wait for "American Hustle", a film that appears to have Mr. Bale atoning for this sin. 

Sunday, December 01, 2013


       An American interpretation of the 2003 Korean classic thriller, "Oldboy" is a twisted tale of revenge in any language. Spike Lee directs this English version. When Mr. Lee directs a film that is a personal project, it's known as "A Spike Lee Joint", when he signs on to a film within the Hollywood machine, it becomes "A Spike Lee Film". The finished work is distinctively different but no less interesting. As he did with "Inside Man" (also a Spike Lee film), he leaves a mark with his signature style but here he doesn't really bring anything new to the story (although he does increase the body count in one memorable scene). 

          The film stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, an unappealing drunk who is kidnapped and mysteriously imprisoned for 20 years. When he is finally freed, again for unknown reasons, he emerges a changed man but still out for revenge on the people responsible. The film co-stars Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley and Elizabeth Olsen in roles I won't spoil for you. Needless to say, they are crucial to the story which takes crazy twists and turns as answers are revealed. Michael Imperiloli also has a role as an old friend of Joe's who tries to help him put the pieces together.

            The final reveal is a nasty piece of business that may turn a stomach or two and along the way, there are scenes of graphic torture and violence so be certainly warned, this is not a film for everyone. It is, however, well acted (especially by Mr. Brolin) and directed with flair by Mr. Lee. And while the endgame is disturbing, the puzzle of the plot is intriguing enough to keep you engaged. Just watch out for those box-cutters and hammers.