Archive for the '4' Category

Bethlehem

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

****

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The never-ending cycle…

Bethlehem

The H-Bomb:  17-year-old Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) is a Palestinian living in the ancient city of Bethlehem whose older brother, Ibrahim (Slmnham), is a wanted terrorist responsible for a deadly bombing in Jerusalem.  Sanfur has been living in his brother’s shadow his entire life, and he’s been constantly trying to prove his manhood by pulling such stunts as wearing a flak vest and having his friends shoot him with an AK-47.  As Sanfur grows older, he gets the attention of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades leader, Badawi (Hitham Omari), who is currently in a power struggle with the Palestinian Authority, and who sees real potential in the young man.

However, there is something about Sanfur that neither Badawi, or Ibrahim, or anyone else in his family or circle of friends know… that he is an informant for the Israelis.  Recruited at the age of fifteen, he regularly feeds information to Israeli Intelligence Agent, Razi (Tsahi Halevi), who has bonded with him, earned his trust, and has become more of a big brother to him than his actual brother.  What Razi hasn’t told Sanfur, is that the man he is currently hunting is Ibrahim, and that he is closing in on him very quickly.

If Ibrahim is eliminated, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, as well as Sanfur, will surely want retribution.  What if Sanfur discovers that Razi is indeed tracking his brother, and what if Badawi, or some other member of Al-Aqsa, finds out that Sanfur is collaborating with the Israelis?  It seems inevitable that the poor lad will be forced into a lose-lose position as his double life starts to catch up to him.

Israel-Palestine, Palestine-Israel… what a lovely little cluster-fuck.  The fact that this conflict has been going on for the better part of seven decades now, and shows no signs of stopping at any point in the foreseeable future, makes pretty much any movie brave enough to tackle this topic timely.  But what makes a film like Bethlehem relevant is that, unlike Steven Spielberg’s excellent Munich, it was made by people who have actually lived this conflict.  Making his feature film debut, Israeli director Yuval Adler, and his co-screenwriter, Arab reporter Ali Waked, imbue the film with the kind of authenticity that can only come from first hand experience.

While merely a political thriller on the surface, Bethlehem ultimately tells an all-too-human tale about a young man born into a situation where the prospects for his future are rather bleak, and who is constantly being manipulated by everyone around him.  By his father, who constantly reminds him what a disappointment he is next to his brother, by Badawi, who aims to make Sanfur a protege and, ultimately, a martyr, and by Razi, who does genuinely care for Sanfur, but demands that he betray his people.

Adler seamlessly weaves these humanistic elements in with the intrigue, giving the events that unfold a real emotional impact.  We’re made to care about Sanfur, we’re made to care about Razi.  Not as Israelis or Palestinians, but as people.  Even the terrorist leader, Badawi, while never coming off as sympathetic (at least not to me), does come off as a man who truly believes in his cause, and that what he is doing is right and necessary, instead of simply being a dastardly evil doer who does evil things because that’s what dastardly evil doers do.

The actors, all of whom are amateurs, also bring a strong sense of realism to their characters.  That these are first time actors is surprising, particularly in the case of Halevi and Mar’i, who deliver layered performances conveying the inner struggles of the two protagonists; Halevi is commanding as the man who has to balance the duties of defending his country with the father-like responsibility he feels for Sanfur, with whom he has clearly grown more attached to than he should have, and the young Mar’i, who does an exceptional job of showing the torn loyalties he feels.

Amateur actors displaying such a level of complexity is quite impressive.  Although, perhaps their level of complexity shouldn’t be so surprising, since, again, these are people who have lived in this unenviable situation their entire lives, on both sides of the divide.  Perhaps it all comes naturally to them, as that old saying goes, they aren’t acting so much as they’re simply being.  Either way, color me impressed.

With a gritty, rough-around-the-edges look to the cinematography that adds to its overall believability, Bethlehem sets its two protagonists down a destructive path of no return that can only end tragically for both of them.  It’s with this intimate human tragedy that the film, with sober-eyed clarity, encapsulates the larger tragedy of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Exciting and moving in equal parts, Bethlehem is an exceedingly smart, riveting thriller that doesn’t possess all the answers, but that does ask all the right questions.

 

Bad Words

Friday, March 21st, 2014

****

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Talion – the origin is Latin, tallio: (noun) the system or legal principle of making the punishment correspond to the crime; retaliation
T A L I O N, talion

Bad Words

Swift shot: Jason Bateman has directed his first feature film, and it is about a 40 year old man competing in a child’s spelling bee.  In a warped way, Bateman, also the lead character, is the most despicable human to ever string words together to form a sentence.  But, he has a pointed agenda and assumes the role of malevolent mendacious monster as only Bateman can!  What is incredibly odd, is that by the end, you may be rooting for him!

Co-starring the charming diminutive Indian lad, Rohan Chand, as highly-favored competitor, Chaitanya Chopra, Bad Words is a lesson in morality, sportsmanship, and is the most vulgar film I have seen this year!  The vocabulary is juxtaposed in a fashion to help set the significance of each scene.  Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a genius, an execrable prodigy really, and these kids don’t stand a chance as he uses the most heinous methods at his disposal to knock out his tiny adversaries.

With Kathryn Hahn, as maladroit online journalist, Jenny Widgeon, who is given breadcrumbs by Trilby leading to why he would ever enter a contest clearly meant for children.  Each round Trilby wins, as per their agreement, he will answer a new question for her story.  With a strong supporting cast of Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney, nested in the story, Bateman capitalizes on their talents in each shot.

When you think of someone like Jason Bateman, who has become a master at comedic timing, on the other side of the camera, you might worry that his impeccable dry, hilarious, pacing won’t translate as a director.  You’d be wrong.  If Bateman wants to direct again, I will gladly watch whatever genre he decides to tackle next.

While there are many kids in this film, this is NOT a kid’s movie!  Do NOT bring your child to this film; I can’t stress that enough.  Most of the comedy is adult-oriented, and Bateman (as Trilby) gets down right disgusting with his dishabille dialog.  But, I found the story interesting, the acting superb, the humor kept me engaged, and the hell if I wasn’t laughing at this feculent film!

 

300: Rise of an Empire

Friday, March 7th, 2014

****

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (2 People gave this 4.50 out of 5)
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“We chose to die on our feet, than live on our knees.”

300 Rise of an Empire

The H-Bomb:  While Leonidas and his 300 Spartans wage war against the God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his army, Greek General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) gathers his forces to defend Greece from the invading Persian navy, led by Xerxes’ ruthless right hand woman, Artemisia (Eva Green).  The most feared of all the Persian generals, Artemisia has an unquenchable thirst for blood and will slit a man’s throat at the slightest provocation.  God help any subordinate who fails in their task, or who in any way displeases her.

This most unmerciful lass harbors a particular disdain for the Greeks, despite being a born Greek herself, and is all to happy to do her part to burn Athens, and the rest of Greece, to the ground.  However, before she can do that, she’ll have to get past Themistokles and his army of poets, and sculptors, and philosophers.  She figures this should be no problem, since the ships in her fleet do outnumber his ten to one.  But what Artemisia doesn’t understand is that these crazy Greeks do love themselves a good fight, especially when the odds are stacked against them.  Copious amounts of sweaty pecs and severed limbs ensue…

I suppose I should start out by stating that I did enjoy Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 back in 2007.  I wasn’t some super fan or anything, but I dug the hell out of its then inventive visual aesthetic as well as the highly stylized battle scenes.  Sure, the script was pretty cornball, and at times the flamboyant visuals became a bit much, but overall, I had one hell of a good time with it.  Now, seven years later, Snyder (serving as co-screenwriter and producer) comes at us with 300: Rise of an Empire, a sequel (or perhaps more accurately, a concurrent-quel) that doesn’t feel entirely necessary, but that’s so ridiculously entertaining I can’t really complain.

The fact that Snyder did not return to the director’s chair initially gave me reservations; however, incoming helmer Noam Murro (Smart People) does a commendable job of nailing down the distinct visual style that Snyder established in the earlier film.  I could give Murro shit for doing nothing more than aping Snyder’s look, but given how well he pulled off the many battle scenes in the picture, I’ll let his copycat approach slide.  The intense sword and arrow battle sequences pack a particularly mean punch in 3D (that I had the very best seat right smack in the middle of the IMAX theater didn’t hurt), with the gallons of CGI blood splashing me right in the face.  Normally I say fuck 3D, but in this case, it’s very much worth shelling out the few extra bucks to catch the carnage in all three dimensions.

On the downside, that CGI blood does look as hokey as ever, making the violence quasi cartoonish at times, and therefore not as effective as it should have been.  Again, I like the overall stylized look of the film, but I would’ve preferred the guts and gore to have looked a tad more realistic.  The video game look of the violence aside, I also had issues with the film’s script, mainly that for much of the first half, the film piles on layer after layer of tiring exposition, delivered mainly via voiceover by the recently widowed Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey).  I exaggerate not, roughly the first 20-30 minutes of the movie is nothing but narration, narration, and more narration, giving us backstory on Themistokles, Xerxes, Artemisia, and the political bullshit leading into the war.

Once all the background blah-blah is out the way, the epic hack n’ slashing starts, and the film turns gruesome good, but the first third is kind of a clunky slog.  And while I’m bitching about that which did not work, I’ll go ahead and say that leading man Stapleton is no Gerard Butler.  He tries his damnedest, and he does get his big, inspirational speech to the troops right before the final battle, but… no, I just don’t buy that he could inspire a nation to unite against a common enemy.  He just doesn’t have the weight or the presence.  Sorry.

On the other hand, Green absolutely kills it as the vile and villainous Artemisia.  She’s vampy, campy, sexy, and sadistic, and she just steals the whole fucking show.  Chewing up the scenery all over this bitch, it’s obvious she’s having a blast in the role, and I had a blast watching her.  Towards the end, she gets to deliver the best line in the movie (you’ll know it when you hear it), and she has an utterly absurd sex scene that I’m fairly sure is intentionally hilarious.  Her off-the-wall, bat shit performance is alone worth the price of admission, and I can’t wait to see what she does in that other Frank Miller sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

I suppose I would be stating the obvious by saying I thought 300: Rise of an Empire was one bloody fun ride, but 300: Rise of an Empire was one bloody fun fucking ride.  It’s certainly not the ground-breaker that its predecessor was, and for God’s sake, don’t mistake it for a history lesson, but as a balls out brutal popcorn flick, it gets the job done.  The severed heads fly fast and furious, the fights are viscerally thrilling, and best of all, the film closes with a sweet lead-in to the inevitable third chapter.  I say bring it!

 

Mitt

Friday, February 28th, 2014

****

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (2 People gave this 2.00 out of 5)
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mitt

Put aside your political views, your religious beliefs, and for a moment, see the inner workings of a campaign for the presidency.

Mitt Romney, with his soulful eyes and greying hair that vaguely allude to his age, is a gentleman, witty and articulate, and above all else, a wholesome family man. Before even making the decision to run for president, he consults his family for their opinions. Their concerns? That the position of president will be too stressful and will weigh heavily on him. But they know he is passionate about serving the people, that it is his calling.

It’s hard to say a bad word about Mitt Romney. I have my own beliefs about the Mormon religion, but you can’t argue that a lot of modern Latter Day Saints are some of the kindest people with the best intentions. It’s almost infuriating to hear some of the abuse he takes along the campaign trail.

He admits to putting personal finances into his campaign brand, and sullenly admits that in his first run for the presidency, people will know him as the “Flipping Mormon,” the “one who will say anything to get elected.” On the eve of one of his final debates before the primary elections in 2008, his sons agree they don’t want to do this again. His wife, Anne, leads a tearful, honest prayer for her husband and for his campaign.

Can we really criticize Mitt Romney for changing his mind? For saying things that he think will get him elected? Tactics like that are rampant in elections. Of course people will say anything to get elected. Of course people will lie to us so we hear what we want to hear. Have we forgotten “You can keep your insurance plan. Period.”

You can’t help but feel bad for the guy who seems so genuine in his efforts, and is torn down at every corner. And after losing the primary elections in 2008 to John McCain, it’s heartbreaking to know that he felt like he disappointed not only his supporters, but his family.

Mitt goes inside the heart of a man who is dedicated, passionate, and truly wants to see real change for the good of America. In a time when it’s hard to believe anything politicians say, when saying you are a part of the Republican party nearly discredits everything about you, this man of faith, humility, and good character is the type of man we should be rallying behind.

Fast forward to 2012, and he is accepting the nomination for the Republican Party at the RNC. He gets caught on camera spilling some brutal honesty about some of the people in America, and of course, he is thrown under the bus and criticized. We are willing to turn away from the truth, that there ARE people in this country who abuse the systems set in place by our government, who don’t pay taxes, who expect to be taken care of without taking any of their own personal responsibility. But of course, it’s offensive to say that out loud.

I must admit, the most endearing part of the entire movie was when he put on a brand new black suit for an evening event, and realized he probably should have ironed it before he put it on. But, like most of us would probably try, he attempted to iron the sleeves while they were on his arms. It shows a lighter, totally hilarious and real side of Mitt Romney that was completely unexpected.

We revisit the second presidential debate with Barack Obama, in which the two go head to head over the attacks in Benghazi – an event which, to this day, is still shrouded in mystery. What did the administration know? What have they yet not revealed to us? However, Mitt was the more strongly criticized for that moment, seeming to fumble through his argument, while the incumbent reclines in his chair and almost pokes fun at Romney. Again, it’s hard to watch.

The doc ends as it began, Mitt and his family and closest aides in a hotel room waiting the results of the election, and when to announce his concession. “What do you say in a concession speech?” Mitt doesn’t want to accept defeat lightly, and reassure Americans that everything is going to be okay – because that’s not what he believes. He doesn’t think the current, and newly re-elected president is taking America on a prosperous path. But he says that Obama and his administration will be in his prayers.

Say what you will about the religion, and even about the Mormon faith in general. To some, his beliefs are outlandish, bordering on ridiculous. But through the whole 90 minutes, not once do you hear so much as a “damn,” “hell,” or even “oh my God” emitted from the mouth of Romney or his family. If that isn’t a testament of true character, I’m not sure what is.

I don’t think any current politician would have the balls to have their lives documented so closely, because I don’t think any current politician would have so little to hide. Mitt is ashamed of nothing, from his Mormon beliefs to his appearance as a flip-flopper. He addresses it all, and takes his criticisms in stride. There should be more politicians like him; honest, transparent, and so obviously passionate about the greater good of America. It is so incredibly rare these days.

Mitt was an inspiring documentary, albeit frustrating to relive the 2012 election and wonder what state our nation might have been in today had the outcome been different almost 2 years ago. It was tastefully done, although it’s hard to imagine a way for it to have lacked taste. There is no agenda, like in most documentaries, only that the viewer sees Mitt Romney as a real human being, with real emotions and feelings. I ended up wanting so badly for the outcome to be different, but alas, it remained the same, today as in 2012. It has, however, inspired me to be more aware of what is really going on in the political spectrum, and do my research  of the candidates and the issues before upcoming elections.

 

Son of God

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

****

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (2 People gave this 4.00 out of 5)
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“He’ll be forgotten in a week.” – Pontius Pilate.

Son of God

Swift shot: Last year, The History Channel released a ten episode miniseries titled The Bible.  It was the most popular miniseries of the year and led to countless copies of the series sold on Blu-ray and DVD.  The final five episodes depict the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  With Son of God, Twentieth Century Fox has given audiences a rare treat to witness the most dramatic story in theaters.  If you didn’t see the series, now is your chance to see it, and if you did see the series at home, now is your chance to EXPERIENCE it as never before!

Whether or not you believe in Christ as The Messiah is irrelevant, Son of God doesn’t rely on that to tell a great politically-charged story.  It relies on the strength of character, and on wonderful actors, to embody the savior, the villain, the disciples, the faithful and the tragically forlorn.

All of Jesus’ miracles, and most of his famous teachings, are depicted in Son of God, but somehow it didn’t come across as preachy.  Credit to Portuguese actor, Diogo Morgado who truly was the lion and lamb and was brilliantly cast.

There are no spoilers, there are no twists, this is the tragic story of a man, or a God, or the one true God . . . all depending on your beliefs . . . that inspired a religion that did not fade away into obscurity.  And, to me, the message of Christianity is of forgiveness and compassion for your fellow man.  All of Jesus’ words served to remind me that we could all use a little more of that in our lives today.

While many have corrupted his message, there are few who still hold onto it and share it.  Clearly, Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett felt compelled to make something special.  With the help of tremendous performances, a Hans Zimmer score worthy of his name, and a very emotional crucifixion sequence where whether you believe in him or not, watching a mother lose her son with such vitriol will leave you wounded.

Now, perhaps someone will give me a lesson in theology.  Why did Jesus utter, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”  It’s something that has always bothered me . . .

 

 

The Hunt

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

****

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (Give us your rating!!)
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Guilty until proven innocent.

The Hunt

The H-Bomb:  Danish school teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is in the middle of putting his life back together after a divorce, working in a kindergarten and trying to win full custody of his son.  He is well liked in his small community, and is very popular with the children he teaches.  All of that changes, however, when he is accused by one of his young students of inappropriately exposing himself.  The student, it turns out, is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of Lucas’s best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen).  Assuming that little Klara has no reason to make any of this up, the school officials suspend Lucas while the authorities investigate.

Unfortunately for Lucas, the repercussions do not end there, as rumors of his alleged misdeeds spread throughout town.  Before he knows it, he’s been ostracized from most of his friends, he’s lost all visitation rights with his son, and other children at the kindergarten are starting to come forward with allegations of their own.  What’s most distressing to Lucas, is that he knows he’s innocent, but he can’t get anyone, even people he’s known his entire life, to listen.  And even if he is one day exonerated, there’s still the question of whether or not his reputation will ever recover.

Co-written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, and nominated for a 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Hunt is one hell of a disturbing movie.  One of the most disturbing I’ve seen in recent memory.  I have about as much sympathy for a child molester as I would for a Nazi war criminal; however, I do have to wonder, what if someone is falsely accused of such a heinous crime?  We can hope that justice will prevail and they will be cleared, but what about what happens to them in the meantime?  To their name, their reputation, their social and professional lives?

It’s the kind of crime in which, figuratively, one is guilty until proven innocent, and just the accusation alone, no matter how baseless, is enough to completely ruin a person.  To give an example from my own life, years back I was working on the crew of an independent feature, and the cinematographer was a fairly experienced guy who I got along with quite well.  One day, the director discovered something about the guy’s background: that he was on the sex offender registry for child pornography charges.  My impression of him changed in an instant.  As it happened, the guy was guilty, and the rest of the cast and crew rightly wanted nothing more to do with him.  But even if he turned out to be innocent, I still never would have looked at him in the same light again.

That is what The Hunt conveys, in low key but effective fashion, that the accusation alone can be irreversibly damning.  Here, Lucas’  good name is tarnished by something completely beyond his control.  By taking a naturalistic, almost documentary-like approach, the film simply shows him trying to cope with this waking nightmare, while never hitting a false note.  With the townsfolk looking at him with contempt and distrust, people vandalizing his home, and, predictably, someone doing something horrible to his beloved dog (and that was very predictable), we are made to feel his pain, his confusion, and his growing sense of frustration.

We know Lucas is innocent.  That he’s a good, honest man who is entirely undeserving of this persecution. That is why The Hunt is so troubling.  Downright fucking scary, when one stops to think about it.  Not simply because the events depicted are entirely believable, but because they could happen literally to anyone.  I could be Lucas, you could be Lucas, anyone could be Lucas, and things could play out exactly as they do here, with people, even those closest to you, assuming the absolute worst.  That’s what the film drives home, that it is all so frighteningly plausible.

The movie’s believability is aided in so small way by Mikkelsen’s pitch perfect lead performance.  Taking a break from playing larger-than-life villains in things like Casino Royale and TV’s Hannibal, Mikkelsen is surprisingly subtle and down to earth as Lucas.  He portrays Lucas with warmth and a sense of dignity, someone whose patience is constantly being tested, and whose sanity is ultimately pushed to the edge.  Mikkelsen’s work here is tremendously layered, and authentic in every way.  This is by far the best performance I’ve ever seen from him.

As powerful as Mikkelsen and the story itself are, I can’t help but wonder if The Hunt would have benefited from being more ambiguous.  What if, instead of making it clear that Lucas is innocent, it was less certain, if we the audience weren’t entirely sure if he was guilty or not.  Yes, it might have changed the nature and the meaning of the film, but I can’t help but wonder if it would have been more effective, at least in a mind fuck kind of way, if we simply didn’t know for sure.

That stated, The Hunt, as it is, is still one positively chilling motion picture.  It’s most definitely European in its mood and pacing, and it is subtitled, but don’t let that scare you off, as it is a film very worthy of your time.  It’s a provocative, realistic look at how a single little lie can destroy a life, and it is absolutely compelling, all the way up to it’s very troubling final scene.

 

 

The Wolf of Wall Street

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

****

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (2 People gave this 4.50 out of 5)
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Nothing exceeds like excess.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The H-Bomb: Who is Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio)? Well, long and short of it, he’s a coke head, a pill popper, a drunk, a sex addict, an asshole, and one of the most successful brokers on Wall Street. He came from humble beginnings, starting out in the 1980’s as “pond scum” at a brokerage firm, but before the first day was out, he was taken under the wing of hotshot, smooth talking trader Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who showed him the tricks of the trade and taught him a most valuable lesson: how to make money. Not to make money for the client, fuck the client, but how to make money for himself.

Jordan took the lesson to heart, and for a while, things were going great. Then the market crashed, his firm went under, and he was out of a job. But Jordan isn’t about to let something like that get him down. After all, he was put on this Earth to get rich, period. So, he takes a position at some store front firm selling penny stocks, and before long, he’s showing everyone in that rinky dink office how to spin worthless stocks into thousands of dollars with smoke and mirrors, and some silver tongued sales talk.

Pretty soon, Jordan is starting his own firm, Stratton Oakridge, with a new right hand man, schlubby Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) in tow, and starts making money hand over fist. Next thing Jordan knows, he’s the king of the world; throwing decadent parties in his office, snorting cocaine out of a hooker’s ass crack, popping quaaludes like their baby aspirin, buying yachts and mansions, and best of all, courting, banging, and marrying Naomi (Margot Robbie), a blond bombshell who turns heads everywhere she goes.

By the mid-90’s, Jordan is living the dream. But every dream must come to an end, as a number of Jordan’s business ventures have been less than legal, and the authorities, the FBI in particular, are starting to take notice. On top of that, his hard partying and substance abuse are getting completely out of hand. Maybe Jordan will finally learn that there’s more to life than drinking, drugging, and fucking. Maybe he’ll learn that money, as the saying goes, can’t buy happiness… then again, maybe not.

Awards season is once again upon us, and as per usual during this period, I am seeing many a critic compiling top ten lists of what they feel are the best movies of the past year, and one title that seems to be appearing on every single list, often towards the top, is Martin Scorsese’s latest picture, The Wolf of Wall Street. Well, not to be contrarian, but if I were to compile a top ten list of my own, then The Wolf of Wall Street would not be on it. It would make my top twenty list, but even then, it would be somewhere towards the bottom.

I’m not saying that it’s in any way a bad movie. I did rate it four out of five stars, which, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, is a positive rating, and as entertainment, the movie does deliver in spades. Adapting the real life Jordan Belfort’s memoir, Scorsese employs his typical cinematic trickery; his snappy montages, his striking visual eye, his dark sense of humor, and his pop music soundtrack, to create a visceral, non-stop orgy of excess. A twisted morality tale revolving around a major league douche bag consumed with unquenchable greed and ambition. And for the most part, the film works.

For the first two hours, it’s wickedly funny, brutally audacious, and just wildly entertaining on every level. If Scorsese had ended it after two hours, then he very well could have had one of the very best films of the year. Unfortunately, he inexplicably felt that the movie needed to be three hours long, and by the third hour, the non-stop decadence just became too damn much. I can only watch this guy snort so much coke, give so many bombastic pep talks, and fuck so many women, before it starts to feel repetitive and numbing. When the film finally reaches its overdue conclusion, I had long stopped having fun, and I long stopped caring. Towards the end I was thinking, “Will the feds please just throw this piece of shit in prison so I can go have a cigarette?”

I might be ruffling feathers by daring to criticize Scorsese the Great and Powerful, but I’m not budging on this point, three hours is way too long to spend with a cretin like Jordan Belfort, and the fact that Scorsese didn’t really seem to have anything to say about the guy didn’t help. Like I said, it is a morality tale, but the hedonism is heaped on so heavily, that I can’t help but wonder if the moral of the story gets buried under all the mountains of blow. Scorsese would have had a much more effective film if it weren’t so indulgently overlong.

But, the bloated running time and sense of repetition aside, The Wolf of Wall Street is still one hell of a good movie, featuring yet another knockout lead performance from DiCaprio. He’s once again up for the Best Actor Oscar, and though I don’t think he’ll be taking home the statue this year, it won’t be from lack of trying. With Belfort, he takes a positively scummy guy, a human cockroach that I would normally want nothing to do with, and actually makes him charismatic and quasi-tolerable. He pulls out all the stops playing this amoral, chauvinistic shit bag of a character, and his scuffle with Jonah Hill while they’re both bombed on quaaludes is absolutely hysterical.

Speaking of Hill, he too is terrific as the slimy, cousin marrying Donnie, who at first seems to be played entirely for laughs, but as the movie progresses, some semblance of humanity comes through. McConaughey gets a fantastic scene where he takes Belfort to lunch, I just wish he hadn’t disappeared from the film so soon. Kyle Chandler is solid in his smallish role as the FBI Agent who investigates Belfort over the course of several years, and Rob “Meat Head” Reiner gets some laughs as Belfort’s temperamental father, who is a little disgusted by his son’s lifestyle.

Looking at everything The Wolf of Wall Street has going for it, from the first rate performances, to the profane, razor sharp writing, to Rodrigo Prieto’s splendid cinematography, it should have been an absolute slam dunk. Sadly, for me, it overstayed its welcome. Again, I still liked it quite a bit, it just isn’t among my absolute favorites of the year. It’s had the pedigree to be a truly great film, if only Scorsese knew when to say when.

 

Nebraska

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

****

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (1 People gave this 4.00 out of 5)
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Old age can be a real drag.

Nebraska

The H-Bomb: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a cantankerous old boozer whose years of heavy drinking have made him halfway senile. One day, he receives a letter from a sweepstakes informing him that he has won a million dollars. While it’s obvious to his wife, Kate (June Squibb), and two sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), that this letter is a complete scam, Woody insists on making the 900 mile trek from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the sweepstakes outfit is located, to claim his prize. Even though Woody can no longer drive, he remains hell bent on making the trip, so David reluctantly agrees to go along with him.

After some mishaps involving an overnight stay in a hospital and a search for lost dentures, the father-son duo finally make it to Nebraska, where they decide to stop over in Hawthorne, the small town where Woody grew up, and spend a few days with his brother (Rance Howard) and some other relatives. David warns his dad not to say anything about the money, but old Woody just can’t keep his dang old mouth shut and tells an entire tavern full of local beer bellies all about it.

Before long, Woody becomes the talk of the town, as the news of his good fortune spreads like wild fire. He’s getting pats on the back everywhere he goes, and a local newspaper, The Hawthorne Republican, has even requested an interview with him. As much as David tries to explain that it’s all just a misunderstanding, that his father hasn’t really won a damn thing, the good folks of Hawthorne will hear nothing of it, and soon some old “friends” and family members come crawling out of the woodwork, looking to take a piece of Woody’s non-existent winnings…

After his escapades in California Wine Country (Sideways) and Hawaii (The Descendants), director Alexander Payne returns to his home turf with Nebraska, a new dramedy about family, growing old, and discovering what’s really important in life. Working from a screenplay by Bob Nelson, this is the first film of Payne’s that he has not written himself, however, it does have quite a bit in common with the filmmaker’s past work, in how it follows the story of utterly ordinary people as they live their utterly ordinary lives, and in how it finds poignancy and humor in the seemingly mundane. In this case, it’s the story of a father and son bonding over a road trip, and in typical Payne fashion, things shift, quite naturally, from heartfelt to hilarious, with his signature undercurrent of melancholy running throughout.

The digital black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, which gives the rural Midwest a look that is drab yet beautiful, goes a long way in setting the film’s sad-but-funny tone. It seems as though a lot of modern indies that are shot in black and white are only done so because the director thinks it makes the film look cool and artistic, but in the case of Nebraska, Payne expertly uses it in a way that is entirely unpretentious and appropriate for the story. In the world of filmmaking, that’s the kind of thing that separates the boys from the men, and that is but one reason why Payne is one of the best directors working today.

In addition to impeccably creating the perfect mood, Payne also elicits some finely nuanced work from his talented cast, led by Dern, who is absolutely pitch perfect in a role that one would swear was tailor made for him. At the tender young age of 77, Dern gives what is easily the performance of his career as Woody, the somewhat out of it old timer who has to know that his million dollar prize is a scam, but who is so desperate for something to live for, aside from drinking, that he is willing to travel far and wide to obtain it. Having, in recent years, seen many family members grow old and a little aloof, I can attest that there is not a false note to Dern’s performance. The way he often seems lost in his own daydreams, and how he answers everything with a jarring “Huh?” or “What?”, despite not being hard of hearing, is authentic through and through. As a character we laugh at and pity in equal measure, Woody is the embodiment of the film’s bitter-sweet nature, and I’ll be damned if Dern’s performance isn’t award worthy.

Also making a strong impression is SNL’s Forte, as the much put upon son who accompanies his father for the whole journey. Having only seen him in the (very unfunny) feature length version of MacGruber, he is a revelation in what is essentially the straight man role, reacting to his unpredictable father’s antics sometimes with shock, other times with frustration, but ultimately with a sense of understanding and patience. He is the film’s anchor, and a sturdy one, at that. The other standout in the cast is Squibb, as Woody’s crass, loud mouthed, and exasperated wife. Most of the laugh-out-loud funny moments in the movie belong to her, in particular, the cemetery scene in which she pays a visit to some of Woody’s deceased relatives. I can’t give away what exactly is said, but it’s an absolute show stopper.

The rather languid pace and low key nature of Nebraska may be a put off to viewers who prefer their motion pictures with a little more pizazz, but for those who appreciate smaller, character driven stories, there is quite a lot to take away here. If I had to liken Nebraska to any of Alexander Payne’s previous films, I would say it’s most reminiscent of About Schmidt, both tonally and thematically, about men who are in the twilight of their lives and looking for some sense of purpose. It’s a meditation on old age and relationships that is, perhaps, a bit too dry at times, but is overall disarmingly charming, exceptionally acted, and, as a whole, quite rewarding.

 

Before Midnight

Monday, December 30th, 2013

****

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“To passing through…”

Before Midnight

The H-Bomb: In 1995, versatile indie filmmaker Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly) brought us Before Sunrise, a charming romantic comedy-drama about 23-year-old American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) who meets young French woman, Celine (Julie Delpy), on a train to Vienna. They end up getting off the train together, and spend the night wandering the streets of Vienna, discussing their dreams, their philosophies, and practically everything else under the moon. A romance blossoms, but because Jesse’s going back to the States the next day, it can’t last. So, they make a deal to meet again in Vienna six months later.

That film ended on the uncertainty of whether or not Jesse and Celine would make the rendezvous. Nine years later, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy re-united for a sequel, Before Sunset, and we got the answer to that question… they didn’t. However, Jesse, at this point 32 and married with a son, did write a book about that night, and while on a signing tour in Paris, he meets up with Celine once again. They only have about 90 minutes before Jesse has to leave for the airport, so they mosey about Paris playing catch up with each other, and during their time together, they find their spark re-kindling, and their romance deepening. They end up back at Celine’s apartment, with Jesse no longer caring if he makes his flight or not.

Unabashedly romantic, but emotionally frank and realistic, with two fantastic performances set against a beautiful back drop, Before Sunset was a delightful surprise in that it was just exceptional on every level. I was rather astonished, in the best way possible, at how much I genuinely loved it, and it turned out to be one of my favorite movies of 2004. Now, jumping ahead another nine years, we catch up with Jesse and Celine again in Before Midnight. They’ve been together for most of the past decade, and while they’ve never married, they do have twin daughters. It’s the end of the summer, and they’ve spent the past six weeks vacationing at a friend’s guest house in the Greek countryside.

They’re (obviously) now in their early forties, and while they still excel at discussing life, love, and philosophy to no end, they are also dealing with many more insecurities now that they’ve reached middle-age. Jesse may still dress like a twenty-something bohemian hipster, but as of late, he’s been having trouble coming up with a workable idea for his next novel. He’s also a bit alarmed at how fast his son, who’s starting high school, is growing up. And since he only sees his son during summer and winter breaks, he worries that he’s missing out on his “most important” years.

Celine, meanwhile, is a bundle of neuroses all her own. She’s all too aware that she’s not getting any younger, and she fears that, professionally, she never will live up to her potential. It doesn’t help that Jesse is talking about moving to Chicago to be closer to his son, which would mean she would have to give up her career, altogether. All of these festering concerns, as well as the many other misgivings that Jesse and Celine have towards each other, come to a head on what was supposed to be their final romantic evening in Greece. As their bickering gradually escalates and turns into all out arguing, everything will boil down to one simple question, do they still love each other, or is it perhaps time for them to call it quits?

Before Midnight has left me feeling rather torn. On the one hand, Hawke and Delpy, who have once again co-scripted along with Linklater, are absolutely terrific in the roles that they created nearly two decades ago. They slide right back into these characters as if they never left. Their chemistry is undeniable, their relationship is utterly believable, and they make Jesse and Celine as endearing as ever. Spending time with these two and listening to them gab on and on about anything and everything is a pleasure that I’m happy to indulge in anytime. Then there are the picturesque Greek locales, which are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Christos Voudouris, that add to the experience immeasurably.

On the other hand, there’s something, slight but noticeable, missing this time. I got the feeling early on in the film that something was amiss, when Jesse and Celine are interacting with several other characters, most notably at a rather lengthy dinner table scene. It never ceased to be entertaining and interesting, but in the earlier films, it was all about Jesse and Celine being together, and their interactions with others were kept to a bare minimum. This time, roughly half the film is them hanging out with a group of friends, and to me it seemed weirdly intrusive. I’m here to spend time with Celine and Jesse, and see how their relationship has evolved, who the fuck are all these other people, and why won’t they go away? Maybe it’s just me, but I found the presence of these outsiders a wee bit irksome, after a while.

Then, in second half, Celine and Jesse are finally by themselves, and at last, Before Midnight started to feel more in step with the previous movies. They walk and talk through all sorts of pretty scenery like before, and then, when they get to their hotel, they get into that aforementioned spat, that turns into the full blown argument, that pretty much goes on for the rest of the film. When this happened, the charm, that made the first two films so special, started to evaporate, and before I knew it, I was no longer watching an idiosyncratic romance, I was watching a middle-age couple fight.

It certainly didn’t kill the film for me, not even close, and it felt utterly real and organic, but it did put a damper on things and made the film somewhat less enjoyable than the ones that came before, particularly the excellent second film. Still, Linklater managed to keep the argument engaging, and give it the feeling that the relationship was in jeopardy, without making it melodramatic, which is commendable. Also, seeing Celine and Jesse at this low point did make me root for them all the more, so I suppose this turn in the story worked better than I orginally thought. However, my
initial reaction to it was, “Man, what a bummer.”

My issues with the film notwithstanding, Before Midnight is still mostly a wonderful picture and a worthy continuation in the “saga” of Jesse and Celine. For those youthful morons reared on that Twilight garbage, I would love nothing more than to forcibly sit them down and make them watch all three chapters of the “Before Trilogy”, so they can see a cinematic love story that’s intelligent, funny, and insightful. Talky without being static or dull, romantic without being sentimental or sappy, these are truly special films that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have crafted, and Before Midnight is no exception.