Saturday, December 28, 2013

"The Wolf of Wall Street" Review

New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort is the type of guy who likes to have his cake and eat it, too. He's such a junkie for mayhem and excess that it's easy to liken him to a Goodfella-Gatsby wannabe. With The Wolf of Wall Street, director Martin Scorsese faces a task unlike any he's ever attempted - bring Belfort's Olympian true story to life with all the pomp and circumstance that it deserves. The director succeeds to a fault.

This is Scorsese's funniest, most ambitious, most energetic film in years - if not of his career. The film never boasts a boring moment, and at three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is more than a movie - it's a marathon experience. Just like in a real marathon, the film runs on sheer adrenaline - the richest runner's high coming from Leonardo DiCaprio's dynamic, energetic performance as Belfort. However, fatigue sets in by the film's final act, which makes me think how much better TWOWS might've been if it had been trimmed by even a half hour. (It's no secret that the film has faced controversy regarding the editing of its content. Scorsese was forced to cut several sex scenes to avoid an NC-17 rating, which would've effectively doomed the picture to box office hell and ruined practically any chance at Oscar gold.) 

There's simply far too much crammed in here, and not all of it is consistently realistic. Belfort's life is full of so much off-the-wall stuff that it's hard to distinguish fact from fiction. I could've done without a few sex scenes that were played for laughs, but really served no purpose in the overall narrative, like the butler's orgy. There's also an absurd sequence which takes place on Belfort's 170-foot yacht during a storm that looks and feels like something out of Titanic. It just doesn't seem true at all. If the plot was as smooth and streamlined as that ostentatious yacht, TWOWS might be the year's best film. It's certainly the most original I've seen thus far. However, for me, Scorsese's best since Goodfellas remains Shutter Island - a seriously underrated psychological thriller, also starring DiCaprio.

Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in TWOWS may be the best of his career, but I doubt it will be enough to finally earn him an Oscar. There have been too many great leading performances this year. The Gold will most likely go to Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave or Tom Hanks for either Captain Phillips or Saving Mr. Banks. 

As for The Wolf of Wall Street's other players, Jonah Hill's character is an annoying douchebag, as well as all the other sleazy individuals with which Belfort aligns himself. My favorite supporting performers were Rob Reiner as Jordan's tough-loving father, Max Belfort and Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna, Jordan's mentor at his first ever Wall Street job. For. McConaughey, this is a hilarious bit part that allows him to show off some of the classic cowboy charisma that made him famous. I wish he was in it for longer than 10 minutes. Margot Robbie also fares nicely as Belfort's femme fatale, Naomi, with a performance that hearkens back to Lorraine Bracco's in Goodfellas

Believe it or not, The Wolf of Wall Street makes a strong case for being the funniest movie of 2013. Lots of it is gleefully self-referential, and DiCaprio does his best Henry Hill impersonation with a clever, razor-sharp voiceover. He even breaks the fourth wall on occasion. That said, this is strictly a guys-only night at the multiplex. The film is jacked up on so much testosterone and adrenaline (among other, more synthetic substances) that it'll leave you ready for a workout by the end. That is, if it doesn't burn you out on a three-hour marathon of sex, drugs and alcohol first. 


Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Saving Mr. Banks" & "American Hustle" Pocket Reviews

Saving Mr. Banks presents the untold story behind the making of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins. Emma Thompson makes a stellar turn as the persnickety author P.L. Travers, who refuses to sell the Poppins rights to Disney for fear of his presenting her as "twinkling". Tom Hanks counterbalances with a strong portrayal of Walt Disney, the mogul's first appearance as an acted-out character in a feature film. Saving Mr. Banks also boasts a strong supporting cast, including Colin Farrel, Bradley Whitford, Paul Giamatti, and Jason Schwartzman. The story itself has a delicate balance of humor and catharsis, making the audience roar with laughter just before tugging at your heartstrings. Parts of the dramatization may have been fictionalized in order to be intentionally sappy, but I cried nonetheless. One of the finest films of the year, and possibly Disney's best live-action picture since the first Pirates of the Caribbean.


As the latest picture from David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), American Hustle is a loose dramatization of the FBI's famous Abscam operation from the late 1970s and early 80s. Christian Bale plays a sleazy con man who, together with his seductive partner in crime (Amy Adams), works with an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to expose bribery and corruption in the New Jersey state legislature. The ensemble cast is the best I've seen all year including the players already listed, as well as Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert DeNiro.

The script, from Russell and Eric Warren Singer (The International), is full of hilarious moments, but the plot itself feels a bit convoluted at times. There are so many cons and jobs being played out on screen that, at times, it feels like the moviegoers are the ones being hustled. I still don't know if Adam's character really was British or not. And just what exactly was the purpose of Lawrence's character? It's as if Russell and Singer just wrote a silly part specifically for her so that Russell could work with her again. Lawrence is a great actress, but this might be the least deserving Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category.

American Hustle has fleeting moments of brilliance but it just isn't as endearing a story as Russell's previous two efforts. Following the trend started by last year's Zero Dark Thirty, I find American Hustle to be the most overrated film of 2013. Give Mr. Banks a nomination instead.


"Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" Review


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Grandiosity and bombast have been the name of the game in 2013 for major studio productions. This past summer brought us perfect examples with Pacific Rim and Man of SteelThe Hobbit could be considered another, more recent culprit. It's as if everyone's just demanding more special effects, more destruction, more gunfights, more, more, more... But for Ron Burgundy and the Channel 4 news team, more [of the same] ain't such a bad thing - especially not after nine long years.

The 70s are now a thing of the past, and what lies ahead is the dawn of 24-hour cable news. Leaving San Di-AH-go behind them, the Channel 4 news team (Will Ferrell, David Koechner, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell) moves to New York City to begin work at Global News Network - headed by the feisty Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). In their time spent together at GNN, Ron and his cohorts haphazardly reinvent the standards of broadcast journalism. 

Sure, a handful of jokes can be written off as shameless retreads (Brian Fantana's cache of cologne is now a collection of condoms / another news team battle) but there's more than enough original material to make up for it. As much as I hoped deep down for another a capella version of a classic rock song, I'm glad that the singing, if there really needed to be any, is relegated to an original song. Ferrell sings a sweeping rendition of "Doby" as he laments the departure of his pet shark. Additionally, Kristen Wiig brings a fun dimension as Brick Tamland's muse. 

I also noticed a stronger plot at work here than in the previous Anchorman film. While the sequel manages to maintain less of the first movie's looseness, Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay lace a sharp commentary on the current state of cable news into their story here. By the condescending frown of Bill O'Reilly!

The amount of surprise celebrity cameos greatly out-tallies the first Anchorman, and it gets a little absurd when some of them are introduced. It starts to become less of a gimmick and more of an annoyance when Kanye West shows up wearing a Jheri curl or when Harrison Ford turns into a werewolf. But with the amount of quality players involved, it's hard not to have fun with each of their different parts. 

Anchorman 2 is just as funny as it's riotous predecessor. Time will tell if it's as quotable, however.


Monday, December 16, 2013

"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" Review


Why can't every fantasy epic be like Game of Thrones or even the original Lord of the Rings movies?

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - the second film of Peter Jackson's L.O.T.R. prequel trilogy - panders too much to the video game crowd with superficial storytelling and ridiculous stunts that come off far-fetched, even for a big-budget fantasy picture like this.

In what may be the greatest sequence of controlled chaos ever captured at 48 frames per second, we see dwarves riding in barrels careening down a whitewater river and haphazardly taking out hordes of orcs as they go.

You wouldn't have seen that ten years ago, and it makes one wonder the kind of lowly chord Jackson has now struck in Tolkein's grave. After a certain point, all I could think to myself was, "Seriously?"

Throw in some giant spiders (been there, done that) and The Desolation of Smaug puts Legolas's hokey-but-badass shield surfing in The Two Towers to shame in the worst possible way.

To add insult to injury, I found the CGI to be mediocre at best.

The biggest set pieces look cartoony, as do the orcs who are no longer portrayed by live actors as they were in the Lord of the Rings films.

The combat felt much more raw and realistic with the actors as orcs.

Now it just looks and feels like a three-hour Whack-A-Mole game.

The plot, while not all that dissimilar from the earlier movies (get a group together / venture to this place in order to do this thing / meet folks along the way), simply lacks the emotional panache of the Lord of the Rings. I could care less about what happens to Bilbo, Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bard (Luke Evans), or any of the other characters because all their actions and reactions feel skin-deep. I sense no true change in the film's hobbit hero, who seems just as squirrelly as he was six hours and two movies ago at The Shire. Hell, Frodo started finding his own autonomy by the end of Fellowship.

For a story that's supposed to be about finding your courage and embracing the unknown, Martin Freeman's quasi-douchey Bilbo makes finding a reason to embrace this prequel story impossible. The fact that his character seemingly takes a back seat to Gandalf, Thorin, Bard, the elves, or any of the other dwarves, except for when his "burglary" skills are needed, makes matters even worse. "The Dwarves" would be a more apt title for this movie.

The Hobbit's sole saving grace is Benedict Cumberbatch who doesn't even appear in person.

He plays the voice of Smaug - the fearsome dragon who guards the dwarves' gold and inhabits the desolate mountain kingdom that they hope to reclaim.

It's clear that the bulk of the special effects budget was spent on making Smaug look just right. The amount of detail on his hide and scales is impeccable, looking every bit as gnarly and battle-scarred as Tolkein could have envisioned.

Cumberbatch's voice work is outstanding; it makes the film's final act both frightening and engaging. Just a casual conversation with the dragon had me on the edge of my seat more than any of the big action sequences did.

The introduction of Smaug alone makes this sequel better than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Though it finishes strong and leaves fans hungry for the final chapter, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is unlikely to convert franchise newcomers as the series continues to devolve into an emotionless shell of its former cinematic glory.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"Frozen" Review

In Disney’s “Frozen,” the biggest laughs come from Olaf (Josh Gad), an adorable snowman who longs for nothing more than to experience the heat of summer. He’s blissfully unaware that snow doesn’t typically hold up in beach weather.

Whether he’s reassembling his body parts after falling off a cliff or expressing his feeling that “some people are worth melting for,” Olaf is “Frozen”’s biggest treat.
I can only imagine the number of plush toys flying off the gift shop shelves at Disneyland.

But much like those toys, “Frozen” is an assembly of multiple, better executed source materials. Namely, it’s a re-heated version of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” crossed with Broadway’s “Wicked” musical.

Both star Idina Menzel as flawed leading ladies who go AWOL in fear of rejection and alienation. Also like “Wicked,” this version has a bubbly sister to counter Menzel’s villain.

Glinda tries to bring Elphaba back down to earth in “Wicked.”

In “Frozen,” Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) pursues Elphab— sorry, Queen Elsa (Menzel) — in an attempt to bring her back home and end the winter that Elsa’s plagued their Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle with.

The film earns major points for its animation from Walt Disney’s in-house Animation Studios division - probably the most spectacular work I’ve seen in a Disney movie that wasn’t made by Pixar. Crystalline snowflakes are gorgeously detailed, and the scenes inside the kingdom’s glacial castle feel as if you’ve been placed inside a massive and delicate chandelier. All the while, the icy conditions on screen made me want to watch “Frozen” with my jacket on.

The script from Jennifer Lee (“Wreck-It Ralph”) is full of breezy, witty dialogue with enough gags to please both kids and grown-ups.

The music, from Broadway veteran Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, is not as strong as Alan Menken’s in “Tangled” or “Beauty and the Beast” or any of the myriad Disney films he’s worked on in the past. It sounds too poppy, but at the same time many of the numbers are tailor-made for the Broadway stage. “Let It Go,” sung in the film by Menzel, sounds as if it were written to rival her rousing “Defying Gravity” number in “Wicked.”

Together with spectacular visuals, production values and colorful characters, “Frozen” is begging to be adapted into the next big Broadway musical.

Like a romp in the new fallen snow, “Frozen” is fun while it lasts but is quickly forgotten after the thaw of leaving the theater. For a more imaginative reworking, go watch 2011’s Tangled instead.