Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street — 9/10

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013, Martin Scorsese)

Forbes, GQ, The Hollywood Reporter… name a publication and they’ve probably written about the death of the movie star over the past five years. It used to be that the top leading men (and women, though sexism has adequately squashed their numbers compared to the dudes) just had to headline a film and it would open huge. Eddie Murphy, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger in the ’80s. Will Smith and Toms Cruise and Hanks in the ’90s. Brad Pitt. Matt Damon. Johnny Depp. The Midas kings of the box office. Now you look at the top grossers and they’re led by people like Pattinson, Pine, Hemsworth… Henry Cavill? And what of the stars of old? How did OBLIVION, A THOUSAND WORDS and AFTER EARTH do at the box office? How about THE COUNSELOR and KILLING THEM SOFTLY?

There are counter arguments too. WORLD WAR Z and GRAVITY no doubt cleaned up thanks to Pitt and Clooney. But big studio tentpoles can now be built around source material (e.g. comic books) and expensive CG or animation. Don’t have a star? Who cares. Replace them in the sequel anyway. Whatever your stance on the current state of the Movie Star is, every once in a while a Michael Jordan explodes onto the screen to put up 100 points and remind you that there is indeed a Hall of Fame, and some actors are just waiting for their own wing of it.

In 1997, an over-budget disaster movie seemed destined to outdo WATERWORLD and HEAVEN’S GATE as one of Hollywood’s most notorious flops. But as we all know, it went on to shatter all records and become the world’s highest-grossing film of all time for 12 years. You can say TITANIC’s success was a team effort, and indeed it was — Cameron needed a great cast, great effects, and the right timing to put it all together — but the lion’s share of that credit had to go to one Leonardo DiCaprio, who instantly became not only the biggest movie star on the planet, but perhaps said planet’s biggest celebrity in general. For those of you who don’t remember 1997, trust me — he was inescapable.

DiCaprio responded with two shocking moves: 1) silence (aside from a quick part in Woody Allen’s minor CELEBRITY, and a Dumas adaptation he already had in the can, he didn’t make a film for three years); and 2) pickiness. Rather than make more blockbusters and cash in on his stratospheric fame, he partnered with arguably America’s best living filmmaker and through sage choosiness, appeared in artistic endeavors like GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE AVIATOR, and THE DEPARTED. But audiences weren’t quite ready to anoint DiCaprio the worthy successor to Robert De Niro as Martin Scorsese’s new muse. Moving into his 30s, he still had a baby face and hadn’t earned the grit and menace necessary to play heavier roles. Films like Spielberg’s CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, Nolan’s INCEPTION, and Zwick’s BLOOD DIAMOND may have fit him better in many people’s eyes. But Scorsese knew what he had, and has apparently been waiting for the right vehicle to unleash the beast.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET isn’t just a vehicle — it’s a freight train running on jet fuel. At his fiery best, DiCaprio shines when the roles let him get completely unhinged with emotional fury, unbridled joy, and physical feats of wonder (think of his impassioned Romeo in ROMEO + JULIET, his cocky gunslinging teen in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, or the aforementioned TITANIC). His energy muted recently in roles like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and SHUTTER ISLAND, he failed to stand out. But in the past 12 months, the fire in his belly has apparently been lit up like the 4th of July once again — Tarantino’s raucous DJANGO UNCHAINED let him gnash his teeth as a menacing heavy, Luhrmann’s uneven THE GREAT GATSBY showed off his likable charm, and now he has given us his masterpiece: not only the best performance of 2013 by a man, but perhaps the best work DiCaprio has ever done.

As the real-life capitalist Superman known as Jordan Belfort, DiCaprio is all hedonic joy. Driven by greed, lust, and competition, he quickly rises to power thanks to keen intellect and the lack of a moral compass that weighs other businessmen down. And once the journalists slap the nickname “Wolf of Wall Street” onto him, DiCaprio turns into a snarling dog — as if Belfort wanted to live up to his legend quite literally. His eyebrows squeeze, his underbite growls, and his bark is deadly. No prey is safe — whether it be an unsuspecting investor patsy, one of innumerable faceless women, or his own colleagues. And in one of the film’s best sequences (though this three-hour epic is loaded with memorable setpieces), even his adversarial FBI investigator gets thrown into the food bowl. (It’s to Kyle Chandler’s immense credit that he absolutely nails the bribery scene on the boat; and one of DiCaprio’s many talents as a movie star is elevating the work of everyone around him — not that Chandler hasn’t been every bit as magnificent before, especially in Friday Night Lights, but when getting the chance to play off DiCaprio, he is stunning).

Jonah Hill (another DJANGO veteran), making a career out of amazing second fiddles (to Brad Pitt in MONEYBALL, to Seth Rogen in THIS IS THE END, etc.), is once again outstanding as Belfort’s right-hand man. His comic timing and delivery are perfect for the role — if the Academy saw fit to nominate him for MONEYBALL, what will they do for this performance? Jean Dujardin relishes his role as a shady Swiss banker so deliciously that you realize how much was left on the bench when he had to act without speaking in THE ARTIST. And the list of wonderful supporting performances goes on: Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, and a high-as-a-kite Matthew McConaughey who — in no more than 10 minutes of screen time — proves why the last two years have been a jaw-dropping renaissance for him.

Okay, so the acting is great. What else? For an hour or so, I started to wonder that too — is Scorsese repeating himself a bit here? Plenty of echoes to GOODFELLAS and CASINO can be heard here, and it’s hard to argue that the director is even bothering to stretch at all with his combination of voiceover, flashback, freeze-frames, and punk music. But as the second hour slowly reveals, and the third hour finally confirms, this isn’t quite as shallow a work of delirious entertainment as it seems. Questions are raised and not answered, and they’re interesting ones: as Bigelow asks in ZERO DARK THIRTY, is the chase to get the bad guy worth it? What changes in the end, really? What are we all after? What are we buying and selling, and is there any difference between the con artist and the mark? It’s an endless cycle of rags to riches, birth to death, food to shit. The only constant is what makes up human nature: hunger, competition, selfishness, and curiosity. The query is a sobering one, deftly covered up by Scorsese with bravura moments of sustained cinematic tension (the night when the Quaaludes kick in), by writer Terence Winter (Belfort’s speech at the Steve Madden IPO), and most of all by Leonardo DiCaprio, oozing the perfect recipe of charisma, douchebaggery, sympathy, fear, and unpredictability that can only be delivered by an unabashed movie star.

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The Past — 6/10

THE PAST (2013, Asghar Farhadi)

I liked Farhadi’s previous film, A SEPARATION. While I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, it was a mostly well-acted, nicely written chamber drama with two problems: the visuals were a little bland, and random plot points were kept secret from the audience like a cheap parlor trick. With his latest effort, Farhadi has actually fixed both of those problems — his framing, blocking, and photography have all stepped up a level (characters slyly behind panes of glass or plastic, speaking through locked doors, getting attention outside of windows, and sharing information using others as conversational go-betweens), and the plot points kept secret from us at least make sense formally now. Yes there are more bombs dropped throughout this, but I never felt like Farhadi was resisting those reveals out of desperation.

So why the lower grade? First of all, the acting and characterization here reveals a bit of a chink in the writing armor. Tahar Rahim’s performance as Samir is awkward and blank, and not by design. There are times he’s called upon to display emotion and they ring false. And Bérénice Bejo, so wonderful in THE ARTIST, is also good here but sold way short by Farhadi setting her up as extremely unlikable. She’s a shrill, bossy hypocrite who, despite being two months pregnant, has a cigarette in her mouth the entire film. It’s hard to root for her to reconcile with Lucie when we think Lucie would be better off running away to be raised by Ahmad.

Secondly, the plot here is loaded with contrivances worthy of a 1992 episode of General Hospital. There’s the comatose wife, the rebellious teenager, the mystery of the damning emails, the illegal immigrant laundry employee, the collaterally damaged toddler, etc. I was waiting for someone to have a twin brother who was working as a spy. Added to this, too many lines of dialogue in the third act fall back on telling instead of showing — to the point where I fear Farhadi, for as much as he’s progressed as a visual filmmaker, has regressed even more as a writer.

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Her — 7/10

HER (2013, Spike Jonze)

You know you’re talking to an old person when they trot out the cliched Luddite whining of “Oh, these kids today and their smart phones. All they’re doing is texting and going on the Facebook and nobody talks to each other anymore!” While it’s true that kids today use smart phones, it doesn’t mean everybody is less social. Technology is not the end of interpersonal interaction — it doesn’t inherently prevent it; it just changes the way we connect — in both positive and negative ways.

One of the better things about Spike Jonze’s exquisitely directed sci-fi romance HER is that even though he quickly sets up a world that looks to be a futurist critique of technological isolation (in the opening scenes, Theodore is surrounded by people on his commute, but never talks to anyone — nor does anyone else; everybody is engaging only with their personal operating systems) he doesn’t succumb to the obvious trap of making Theodore an anti-social dweeb. When put in a social situation, he’s engaged and intelligent — he bonds with his friends and relates to a co-worker and is generally a normal dude. Sure, he’s a bit awkward and is definitely more prone to date Siri than many other people around him (and his personal problems no doubt contributed to his pending divorce, as we slowly learn), but it appears he’s not alone — this is just the way it is now.

But as the story goes on and Theodore essentially is forced to learn how to get closure on that divorce by having an enriching relationship with computerized hardware, it’s clear Jonze wants us to get as emotionally involved as Theodore gets. And that’s where the film falls short for me. I just didn’t find those moments where I identified enough with what was going on to get choked up and surrender to the feelings on screen — it was pretty removed; something that didn’t happen when seeing Kaufman works like SYNECDOCHE, NY and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. I was a puddle of mush at the end of those films. Jonze, working without Kaufman here (but seemingly with his spirit), can’t muster that kind of direct-to-the-heart communication to the audience (or at least to me).

This may be a flaw with the writing, but certainly not of the acting, camera work, or production design — which are peerless. Joaquin Phoenix brings a warmth and tenderness to Theodore in as visceral a way as he brought coiled rage and animal instinct to his all-timer performance in THE MASTER. Scarlett Johansson’s voice work (the second actress to do this role — poor Samantha Morton, who played Samantha on set, is now saddled with merely an Associate Producer credit as her entire performance was deleted and replaced with the giggly, husky, never-seemingly-digital uniqueness of Johansson) does everything it needs to do — establish a presence so tactile and vibrant that you’d believe Theodore would fall for it. Amy Adams is in this movie, too, because Amy Adams is now in every movie. She’s the Jessica Chastain of 2013. (Speaking of which, where is Chastain? She went from being in everything to totally absent this year).

Dutch DP Hoyte Van Hoytema shoots a crisp, warm, delicate vision of the near-future, aided by a post-IKEA rendering of modern Los Angeles life designed by long-time Jonze collaborator K.K. Barrett. It’s one of the first futuristic movies I’ve seen where I could believe this world will exist some day, I can see its lineage to current times, and yet I’m pleasantly surprised by so many details throughout. None of us can predict where the current technological boom will take us, but Jonze makes a pretty strong case for how it will affect humanity and — more importantly — how it won’t.

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Nebraska — 6/10

NEBRASKA (2013, Alexander Payne)

Every once in a while Payne comes up with something that just nails it, then the rest of the time he gets stuck in middlebrow crowd-pleasing or low-hanging fruit. Like early on in NEBRASKA, a cop asks Bruce Dern (who is excellent in this) where he’s going, and where he came from. The vague thumb-pointing Dern does in response is at once existential, metaphorical, dismissive, and comical. I could have had a whole film of those moments. Then there’s the slow father-son bonding, like when at first it’s only Dern pissing on the side of the road and later on becomes both Dern and Forte pissing together; finally there’s the shot of them switching from driver to passenger seat in the middle of the road. Passing the torch, as it were.

Unfortunately, every time Payne’s film threatens to become artful like that (though he may go a little far when he makes sure to fit a headstone with his own name in a shot of the cemetery), it tosses in some bogus scene like June Squibb (whose performance here is terrible; no idea what everyone is raving about) hurling profanities at 11 in a desperate attempt to get the audience to laugh amidst the sadness. As for Forte, either he’s not a good actor (MACGRUBER made it hard to tell) or the role fails him — he takes turns yelling at people for not letting Dern’s character have the fantasy of money for a few days at the end of his life, and then immediately yelling at Dern for believing in the fantasy. His motivations and personality are both muddled and non-existent.

That said, clear away the garbage and there’s some greatness in here — especially in the portrait of the American Midwest as a microcosm for national economic depression, revealing people’s greed and selfishness, not to mention pipe dreams and faded memories. And although the line is cheap, all-too-blunt, and Hey I’m Writing A Line of Dialogue, the moment where Forte says “He just believes what people tell him” and the woman says “Oh, that’s too bad,” rings true when set against this backdrop of how gullibility and the phoniness of the American dream caused the very situation we find ourselves in. I just wish the film had found a way to unite the commentary about our financial crisis with its family-centered drama in a more nuanced way.

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Inside Llewyn Davis — 9/10

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013, Joel & Ethan Coen)

Go back through the Coen filmography and you’ll see a recurring theme of powerful old white men behind big desks, usually scolding our protagonist. Think about MILLER’S CROSSING, HUDSUCKER PROXY, BARTON FINK, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, A SERIOUS MAN… the Coens sure like to present that image. Something odd happens in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS — indeed there are a couple old white men behind desks (Llewyn’s agent Mel, F. Murray Abraham’s terrific Bud [a sly bit of casting; as Salieri in AMADEUS, Abraham was forced to sit there and listen to genius and become envious — now he sits there, listens to genius, and it sails over his head], the seamen’s chiefs) but they’re not as powerful as all the other old white men who just stare at Llewyn wherever he goes. He’s on the subway and an old guy in a suit just glowers at him for no reason. He’s on an elevator and the elderly operator turns around to stare at him blankly. A gynecologist stares at him confusedly. Even his nursing-home-addled father takes a turn. In this world, Llewyn is not where he belongs. The old guard doesn’t want him there, and the young ones don’t understand.

It’s hard enough to get stared at wherever he goes — but Llewyn doesn’t even have a bed. As the homeless protagonist of this remarkably sad, hilarious, romantic film (I say this in the academic sense of romantic; I suppose I should call it Romantic), Llewyn is constantly trying to find a place to exist. Not that he really wants it — he seems content to drift, and whenever he’s offered an opportunity to sell out and settle down, he refuses it. He’s a man without a time, without a home, and virtually without friends or family. But he has his art, and whenever he plays that guitar and belts out those folk tunes, he is transported. If he belongs anywhere, it’s on a stage.

The musical performances in this film are outstanding — when we’re supposed to fall under Llewyn’s spell (as in his gorgeous audition for Bud, or the staggeringly beautiful opening scene) we do; when we see others doing well (like Jim and Jean) they certainly do (and it’s fun to see Justin Timberlake play a folk singer like this; similarly Carey Mulligan nearly reaches her “New York, New York” SHAME heights); and when the song is supposed to be a retarded pop hit (“Please Mr. Kennedy”) it’s an absolute riot (Adam Driver steals the show in a bit part). But the acting performances are outstanding too: Oscar Isaac is a big surprise for me. I’d only seen him in DRIVE, where he barely did anything, yet his troubled singer here is a creative and mesmerizing performance. John Goodman threatens to be as annoying as he is in THE BIG LEBOWSKI (still, to this date, the only Coen Brothers film of the 16 I don’t like) but turns in an immensely entertaining character.

But it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film without the visuals, and they are as magnificent as ever. Imagine my surprise to learn it was Bruno Delbonnel behind the camera and not Roger Deakins — after all, the muted color palette, cool light, and graceful movements seemed 100% Deakins to me. (And aside from BURN AFTER READING, this is the first Coen Brothers film since MILLER’S CROSSING in 1990 that wasn’t shot by Deakins — he had done 11 of the last 12). But Delbonnel steps into the role miraculously; from the very first few shots you’re transported into the world of 1961 Greenwich Village and drinking in the exacting compositions, bold textures, and well-worn colors of the period. The film looks amazing. And it’s stocked with shots that could only be framed by the Coens: like Llewyn trudging through the snow away from an empty Chicago stage with buses and clouds in the background; a massive cafeteria with only a couple of tables in use late at night; Llewyn lying beaten in a dark NYC alley with a shadowy figure disappearing in the background. I can’t wait to see this again just to play with those images once more.

Oh, also there’s a cat in it so of course it’s awesome.

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Die Hard in the White House: Double Feature

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013, Antoine Fuqua): 4/10    |     WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013, Roland Emmerich): 5/10

[spoilers for both films follow, I guess, as if it matters]

It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to make two films in a short period of time with the same subject matter. And when these two films came out, the press remained the same: let’s talk about how it’s happened before and how the box office will be influenced! Then people would bring up DANTE’S PEAK and VOLCANO (in 1997), a pair of 1998 dualities (ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE; DEEP IMPACT and ARMAGEDDON), and maybe even 2005’s CAPOTE vs. 2006’s INFAMOUS.

Two years ago, I waited until 2011’s dual fuck-buddies rom-coms (NO STRINGS ATTACHED and FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS) came out on disc and watched a double feature one fateful night — that one had a clear winner, and it was good that I watched them in order of release date because the later one (FWB) was far better than its predecessor: a clever script and great chemistry between its leads. This time I did the same thing with OHF and WHD and again the later one was better, but not by much. Both films are absurd and undeniably stupid, and both of them do have their moments of silly entertainment. But WHD gets the slight edge here thanks to its comic sensibilities (the tones are about the only things separating these frighteningly identical films) and the fact that its PG-13 childishness gives it a more properly playful vibe, vs. the gruesome, gory, R-rated self-seriousness of OHF.

Both films clearly draw from DIE HARD and not even in a very subtle way. WHD is more overt with its references: the glasses-wearing hacker cackling with glee at his computer terminal; the white-tank-top-clad estranged hero trying to gain back the respect of his ex-wife; the count-to-three assassinations of big-wig hostages; the blow-the-roof ploy by the terrorists that gets complicated by “good-guy” choppers coming to the rescue and firing on the hero only to be shot down by terrorists; the black-limo-crashing-through-the-gates climax; the bad guys using the we’ve-got-your-loved-one-in-custody card to get to the hero; the shoelessness of a hero (allowing for WHD’s one wry diversion: instead of leaving President Jamie Foxx barefoot a la McClane after he loses a shoe in the elevator, he goes for his Air Jordans in the presidential closet); the tend-to-your-wound scene that allows a slowing of the pace to grant a white-hero-black-hero male-bonding conversation; the vague anti-news-media sentiments (CNN covering the story gives both films’ villains the identity of the hero’s loved one in captivity)… the list really does go on and on. At one point I couldn’t even tell if WHD felt more like OHF or DIE HARD itself.

OHF starts off with an effective prologue, even if it sets the tone for the ridiculousness of the action scenes. Then Gerard Butler starts getting a lot of screen time and the movie goes downhill fast. This is only the second time I’ve seen Butler in a movie (the other being Guy Ritchie’s forgettable ROCKNROLLA) and it turns out I haven’t been missing anything. He isn’t charismatic — there’s something vaguely robotic about him even when he tries to show emotion. His performance in this movie is so forgettably workmanlike. You don’t root against him, but he’s never the most likable or interesting person on screen. Another huge flaw with OHF is its effects. I’m not sure what the budget was on it, but the CG looks as cheap as any video game. It’s hard to find a shot that isn’t against a green screen backdrop. Now I don’t expect film crews to be able to shoot on location at the White House or construct a to-scale set that has everything the script requires — but absolutely every visual necessity here is solved by CG. And I don’t like video games.

Emmerich is a pioneer of great CG disaster, and though WHD doesn’t have a lot more practical realism than OHF, at least the CG looks better and less video game-ish. THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and 2012 are both silly and mediocre disaster films, but their destruction and mayhem always seemed top-of-the-line for Hollywood at the moment. The same is true of WHD, though again its PG-13 cartoonishness means it doesn’t really have the scale and spectacle of annihilation that OHF has going for it. OHF’s first-act siege on the White House is pretty grand aside from the CG fakery: the amount of action and extensive length of it keeps you awake while you’re counting the number of impossible stupidities in involves. WHD, however, has Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx — assets that no amount of special effects can compete with; no matter how dumb the dialogue or how unbelievable the characterization, Foxx makes his President a joy to watch and the buddy-chemistry with Tatum is perfectly fine.

But a good DIE HARD movie needs a good villain, and neither movie has an especially memorable one. At least WHD has the energetic James Woods and the talented Jason Clarke (not to mention the hilariously ridiculous twist of having Speaker of the House Richard Jenkins in WHD be a surprise traitor), whereas OHF merely has Rick Yune and Dylan McDermott as baddies — when both of your bad guys could also have been love interests in a Jennifer Aniston rom-com, you’re in trouble. Melissa Leo does some classic work in a laughably overheated performance full of patriotism and grit in OHF, which exemplifies that movie’s unreal swelling of civic pride and one-note nationalism. And what would these films be without Robert Forster and Lance Reddick as stern, war-mongering military leaders?

One final note: DIE HARD was such a success that they slapped together a sequel that moved the action from L.A. to D.C. (and called it DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER); similarly, OHF did so well (nearly $100M in domestic B.O.) that they’ve greenlit LONDON HAS FALLEN, where presumably Secret Service Agent Butler and his chinny president Aaron Eckhart will be in London to foil some more terrorists. All that’s left is for Tatum and Foxx to announce the filming of PALACE OF WESTMINSTER DOWN.

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