Sunday, January 26, 2014

Her



Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher, Portia Doubleday, Brian Cox
Running Time: 125 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I'll have to tread lightly in properly explaining my minor disappointment in Spike Jonze's Her. The very word "disappointment" is a film critic's worst enemy because it implies expectations. That in itself isn't fair, but it's true. When you have a director that's as original and groundbreaking as Jonze you can't help but anticipate a grand slam each time out. It's very good, but leaves this nagging feeling it wasn't all it could have been, despite it being difficult to describe exactly how. To be honest, it's kind of surprising it's struck the chord it has amongst critics and moviegoers, even earning enough admiration to sneak in as a Best Picture nominee. Something this eccentric usually ends up splitting everyone down the middle. But it's easiest to name what it does exceptionally well, and topping the list is the depiction of a near-future that's completely believable in terms of technology and its effect on our lives.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is a shy introvert who works for a company that writes personal love letters, but he's lately been distracted and depressed over his upcoming divorce with childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara). His new rebound girlfriend is an Operating system, or OS, named "Samantha" (voiced by a never seen Scarlett Johansson), who's designed to behave and evolve as an actual human being would. Unready for the commitment that comes with an actual human relationship so soon after the collapse of his marriage, he unrealistically holds out up for a reconciliation with Catherine, even if Samantha seems to be the perfect substitute. For him, it represents the chance to open up about his fears and dreams without having to deal with the complications that might accompany a conventional relationship (or so he initially thinks). For Sam, it's a chance to learn and grow, transcending her role as an OS to more closely resemble an actual person with real, rather than programmed, feelings. Of course, both want something out of this neither can possibly get from the other and with that comes the realization that even an artificially programmed relationship can come with pitfalls. And for the emotional fragile Theodore, just as much pain.

That this still feels like a one man show with so loaded a cast is a credit to what Phoenix does with a role that on paper seems thankless. He steers this premise as far as he can and then some because, if we're being completely honest, this is still about a man who falls in love with his computer. And yet not. It's up to the actors and script to somehow make that concept work, so from that perspective it's hard to call the effort anything other than a success. As for Johansson, it's ironic she isn't physically present to witness what ends up being her most captivating performance in a while. When compiling a list of her greatest attributes, her unmistakably deep and raspy voice probably goes unnoticed by comparison, making it a stroke of casting genius from Jonze to recognize that and nab her. It's also maybe a stroke of luck considering the part was originally intended for Samantha Morton, who was dropped at the last minute. More than that, there's this rare opportunity for Johansson's looks to be taken completely out of the equation. The conversations and flirtation between the two are initially compelling, and when the time comes for their relationship to get "physical," what occurs is downright bizarre.

We know where all this is headed and it's hardly a spoiler to say that Theodore is going to get dumped to learn lessons about life and himself. And that's when it started overstaying its welcome a bit with me in the third act. There are only so many arguments, misunderstandings, make-ups and examples of petty jealousy you can take, especially when one half of the couple is a disembodied voice. And because the relationship is is so believable it almost veers away from speculative sci-fi and social commentary, evolving instead (along with Samantha) into conventional relationship drama territory. When that happened, I started losing interest and at just over two deliberately paced hours, it's arguable Jonze should have spent more time in the editing room. The closing half hour in particular seems to almost spin motionlessly, in search of an ending. Eventually it finds one, even if I'm still not sure it's the one it deserved. 

It's worth noting how everyone around Theodore reacts to his new girlfriend since it teeters on the edge of being completely absurd, while somehow remaining relatively realistic. For ex-wife Catherine, it's the former, and yet another excuse for him to avoid a real adult relationship with responsibility and actual consequences. We're shown poignant glimpses of their marriage and it's relatively easy to judge what went wrong based on flashbacks and a pained conversation  between the two late in the film. His friend Aimee (Amy Adams, basically covering Cameron Diaz's role in Being John Malkovich, complete with the frizzy hair), is supportive, as is his happy-go-lucky co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt). Seeing everyone's differing reactions to Samantha within the context of this society was strangely more interesting to me than anything involving Theodore's relationship with her. But the most discussion-worthy scene involves his blind date with a clingy friend of Aimee's (memorably played by Olivia Wilde), that doesn't at all go in the direction you're expecting, and the result is all the more intriguing because of it.

Her is melancholy in both tone and atmosphere, to the point that at times I found it almost unbearably depressing and claustrophobic, with very few moments of uplift. Even the supposedly happy moments have this tinge of sadness to them. Did it hit too close to home? Am I just sick of watching people on their phones? Or maybe it's impossible to feel any true excitement watching a man fall in love with his operating system. You bring a bit of yourself to every movie you see but that rings especially true here, as anyone who see it is likely to only do so through the filter of their own experiences and relationships. But it sure is something to look at. The world building by Jonze, the costume and production team, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is incredible, making it impossible to go through a scene without appreciating all the attention to visual detail. As expected, Arcade Fire's score is top notch. Going just far enough, it resembles a future we'd recognize, but features enough elements that it could easily be mistaken for the present or any other point in time. The aesthetic decisions not only make sense, but don't date the movie, insuring it could be one of the rare future cinematic societies we don't giggle at a few years down the line.  

The situation that unfolds here could literally happen next week, if not right now. Everyone's already figuratively in love with their phones and electronic devices so the idea of a lonely man literally falling in love with one isn't much of a stretch at all. Jonze should be praised for not making that obvious point and turning the premise into a finger wagging condemnation of our obsession with modern technology, which would have been too easy, not to mention pointless. Instead, you could argue the exact opposite argument is made, in that technology can open our hearts and minds, just as long as it isn't used a surrogate for curing the personal problems we heap on ourselves. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Jobs



Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, James Woods, Ahna O' Reilly, John Getz,Victor Rasuk
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's a scene in Joshua Michael Stern's biopic, Jobs, when Steve Jobs is informed by his pregnant girlfriend that he's the baby's the father. He screams at her, asking how she could do this to him, before kicking her out without so much as an explanation. He looks at himself in the mirror, shaking and sweating uncontrollably before pulling back his long, messy hair and making a decision. From this point on, NOTHING will get in the way of him building his company. Not even his own daughter, whom he disowns. And with that, Jobs' transformation from free thinking hippie to meglomaniac begins, kicking off the film's strongest section, which details Apple's early days in the late 70's and early 80's. While everyone was understandably worried about Ashton Kutcher's casting, this is the portion where he really excels. The star can't be blamed for the film's problems, which are fewer than expected. It's a standard, efficiently made biopic of an American visionary that highlights both the advantages and pitfalls of taking the conventional approach with such a deeply complicated figure.

The paint-by-numbers biopic is a tricky beast. It streamlines an entire life, zeroing in only what's important to making thematic sense of the subject while often simultaneously coming off as the cliffs notes version of a far more intriguing story. Both are definitely at play here and with all the ground that needs covering there is a lingering feeling this material could have been better served as a TV miniseries. For the most part, it's all condensed well, with the exception of one huge gaping hole. While an important chunk of time is left out, it definitely opens the floodgates for its potential exploration in the upcoming Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic. What's delivered is better than expected, even if complaints that it only skims the surface are somewhat valid. With a subject like Jobs, the depths to plumb just might be endless. 

After opening with Steve Jobs' (Kutcher) 2001 introduction of the iPod at a town hall meeting, the film flashes back to his drug-hazed days auditing classes at Reed College in the mid 70's. Influenced by calligraphy, eastern religion and LSD experimentation, Jobs and best friend Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas) trek to India before he returns home to Los Altos, California to work for Atari. With poor social skills and an inability work for anyone but himself, he ends up forming a business partnership with longtime pal Steve "Woz" Wozniak (Josh Gad), who's built a revolutionary personal computer that later comes to be known as the Apple I. They work out of the Jobs family garage with a group of friends (who would all later become millionaires) before earning their first sales contract and eventually attracting the interest of Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), who bravely invests in Apple, seeing its potential. The rest, as they say, is history. But it's a complicated history, wherein Jobs sabatoges his personal life and alienates his closest friends to reach his goals before eventually being ousted from the very company he founded.

There's a real sense of discovery in the early scenes in the garage with Jobs and Woz as we watch them share in their germ of an idea that would eventually become Apple Computer. Hustling, they move the product with no experience at all, even if it's obvious that Jobs is the natural salesman and Woz the idea man. Their relationship is painted in broad strokes by Stern, to the point that the real Woz has taken exception to its depiction. It's not hard to see why, since the character is portrayed as sort of a sidekick to Jobs, stuffing his face with burritos and cracking jokes as his more determined, motivated friend gets increasingly serious about the direction of the business. But Woz is no dummy, nor is he depicted as such, as his technical expertise is suitably highlighted. It's an affectionate portrayal livened by Gad's performance and as far as the creative liberties go, it seems like a small offense to not present the partnership between the two as equal. In Jobs' mind, it likely never was anyway.

The depiction of the man himself seems more in line with what we've seen and read, with little exaggeration. It's almost impossible to watch the early 80's Apple heyday depicted without thinking of the narrative of The Social Network, a film that took even greater liberties with the truth (and was far stronger because of it). While this comes closer to a TV movie version of that, the similarities are undeniable, with a volatile, forward-thinking, Aspergers-like genius who even ends up screwing his friends out of their shares of the company. It's here where Kutcher really comes alive and what's most surprising is just how closely he physically resembled the real man, which strangely wasn't so obvious until he put on the suit and tie. Storming through Apple offices and publicly humiliating and firing employees, his obsession with functionality, design, and aesthetics is what drives him (while also driving employees crazy) . In a way, the entire movie is almost completely about history proving Steve Jobs right when everyone else was wrong. Whether that justified the behavior or not will ultimately be up to the viewer, but the result is a portrayal that's both accurately unflattering and somewhat saintly all at once.

While Sorkin's Social Network script basically slandered Mark Zuckerberg (and that's coming from someone who ranks it amongst their all-time favorite films), it had the courage of its convictions. Inside him was a giant hole left by his success that could never be filled. His inability to fit in and get the girl drove his every action, eventually culminating in an unforgettable finale. There are no such revelations about Jobs here, despite him being just as complicated a figure, if not more so. The only difference is that he's more universally respected, which could have contributed to the touchy-feely treatment. Him disowning his daughter Lisa and their eventual reconciliation is clearly Jobs' "Rosebud," but the latter isn't shown. The biggest business mistake he ever made is though, as he tops a long list of rebellious innovators who decided to go public, with disastrous results.

With his installation of Pepsi CEO John Sculley (Matthew Modine), he essentially signed his own pink slip as he now had a board to answer to (led by a clueless Arthur Rock, well played by J. K. Simmons). It was an obvious recipe for disaster for Jobs, but also begs the question of just how free a spirit he really was. Reconciling the rebellious, drug taking hippie at the film's start with a businessman who basically sold out to the highest bidder is always bubbling under the surface, but never quite breaks through. It comes up a lot in our culture and is why I always felt a biopic of George Lucas is great, uncharted territory, as his personal and professional life would make him the only public figure with the potential to yield as many interesting questions as that of Jobs.

Other than Kutcher, the only other portrayal of Steve Jobs on screen came from Noah Wyle in the 1999 TNT movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley, which covered much of what makes up the most exciting time frame in this, only juxtaposed with a young Bill Gates' rise to prominence as founder of Microsoft. The only capacity in which Gates is acknowledged here (but not shown) is when he's on the receiving end of a verbal tirade from Jobs for allegedly stealing Apple software. While it's probably unfair to both actors to compare performances from different mediums, it's the only previous incarnation of Jobs we have to go on. Wyle's performance was much stronger, which is really saying something since Kutcher's quite good throughout. In fact, Wyle so inhabited the role that Steve Jobs (who hated the movie) went so far as to invite the actor to appear at conferences impersonating him. A huge compliment, but he was right. Wyle completely nailed it, and if we're going down this road again soon with a second biopic, he deserves to top the casting wish list.

With the exception of those aforementioned big money scenes at the Apple offices, Kutcher never completely disappears to the extent Wyle did. You'd figure the actor would most excel portraying Jobs in his early hippie phase, but the biggest surprise is that doesn't end up being the case. What does hurt him (and the film) is the huge ten-year time leap that requires Kutcher to suddenly appear as the middle-aged, resurrected, black crew neck and jeans Jobs triumphantly returning to retake the reigns of his company and mentor designer and spiritual successor Jonathan Ive (Giles Mathey). The movie literally jumps forward an entire decade, skimming over his time spent running NeXT and the reconciliation with his daughter.

The biggest unanswered question is what flipped the switch in him, transforming an anti-social pariah into the visionary leader he's now remembered and respected as. Did age and experience just simply mellow him? We don't know, at least for now. But it makes things very difficult for Kutcher, who has to do much of the heavy lifting conveying that in the final act. I'd be lying if I said that it still wasn't fascinating to see him try. The trademark walk, the very succinct manner of speaking. His performance does turn into a series of tics and mannerisms, for the first time confirming our fears that the actor would be too charming and "cool" to play the notoriously cerebral Jobs. It's hard to say he necessarily digs deep, but harder to claim the material in this section even allows it. Still, it's the best performance Kutcher's given, and that he's successful at all, in the face of an admittedly enormous challenge, is relief enough in itself.

None of this was easy to pull off. Stern had a really tough job and delivered admirably considering the budget and looming shadow of a far larger, more anticipated Jobs film waiting in the wings. He also needed to cover an unwieldy span of time that runs all the way from Bob Dylan to Toad The Wet Sprocket. For an indie film about one of the most important and complex figures of our time directed by the guy who made Swing Vote, I'd say the end result not stinking is a small miracle. It does feel like a TV movie, but it's mostly well directed and shot, rarely coming off as cheap or exploitative, all while reaping the benefits of having a subject that makes a standard biopic rewatchable. In so far as its depiction of the man, it feels like the first part of a much larger conversation. But it's one definitely worth having.
 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominations (Reaction and Analysis)


While I didn't watch the live announcement this morning of the 86th Annual Academy Award nominees by new Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Thor himself Chris Hemsworth, a couple of things jumped out at me when I saw it later. First off, this might mark the only time in Oscar history when all of the nominees' names were properly pronounced. Bonus points for impossibly nailing the correct pronunciation of "Chiwetel Ejiofor" and even deftly handling the tongue twister that is best original song nominee "Alone Yet Not Alone" from...Alone Yet Not Alone. Though in the case of the latter, it's unlikely anyone would have noticed or cared as its nomination is one of the bigger head-scratchers in a famously problematic category. That said, these two should read these every year and it's always fun to listen and compare the audience reaction to certain nominees (video below). As always, the entire list can be viewed at Oscar.com, but let's get right to it because there were more than a few interesting (if not entirely shocking) snubs and surprises. Overall, this slate is pretty satisfying for fans of great movies.

 
-WOLF! The Academy does right, giving The Wolf of Wall Street extremely well-deserved nominations for Picture, Director (Scorsese), Actor (DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill!) and Screenplay (Terence Winter). I guess that whole alleged controversy amounted to nothing. They could stomach it. And you have to wonder how close Margot Robbie came to getting in for Supporting Actress, which would have been a great surprise. Either way, this clearly peaked at just the right time.

-Robert Redford SNUBBED for All is Lost. You'd figure voters would be foaming at the mouth to reward the legend with his only competitive acting Oscar in the twilight of his career so something definitely went wrong here beyond just its disappointing box office haul. I know Redford's blaming the studio, and while that may be true, he wasn't exactly lighting the campaign trail on fire. That's just not him and you can't help but respect it.   

-Inside Llewyn Davis SNUBBED for Best Picture, Best Director, and most surprisingly, Best Actor. Of all the omissions, this one stings the most. We knew the film was difficult and now we found out just how difficult it was for voters who probably lacked the patience for a movie that takes multiple viewings to fully absorb. They usually fall all over themselves to acknowledge the Coens (even nominating A Serious Man for Best Picture a few years ago) so this clearly didn't connect for them. If history's taught us anything, it's that this snub is likely to be the best possible outcome for its legacy.

-A controversy that didn't amount to nothing was the one involving Disney's whitewashing of Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, which was so blatant that apparently even sappy Academy members couldn't take it. Emma Thompson is shut out. 

-David O. Russell's American Hustle cleans up, doing just as well as Silver Linings Playbook last year. Director and Picture, plus acting nods for Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Lawrence. Suddenly, it's a major threat.

-Tom Hanks SNUBBED. Him not getting in Supporting for playing Disney is a surprise, but not as surprising as his snub in the Best Actor category for Captain Phillips, which got an unexpected Best Picture nod. And to think just a month ago we assumed Hanks was a sure double nominee this year.

-To quote Leonardo DiCaprio, "Philomania" is certainly running wild, as Philomena gets in for Best Picture, Actress (Judi Dench) and even Screenplay.     

-It looks like Spike Jonze's Her wasn't too hip and offbeat for voters, as it gets in for Picture and screenplay. Joaquin Phoenix was always a longshot so no real shock at that exclusion.

-Did not expect to see Dallas Buyers Club nominated for Best Picture.

-Was it me or was the most shocking nomination, Julia Roberts for Supporting Actress in August: Osage County?

-We've finally found something Oprah can't influence. Given the film's lukewarm reception, her suppporting snub for Lee Daniels' The Butler can't really be considered anything resembling a surprise.

-This proves Meryl Streep can get in for ANYTHING. She just has to show up on set. That's it. These movies exist only for her to be nominated.

-Jared Leto's supporting nomination is proof that you're never completely out of the game. Sometimes all it takes is one role.  

-Nebraska does better than expected, not only getting the Best Actor nod for Bruce Dern but receiving nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Alexander Payne.

-Gravity does about as well as expected, but at least it didn't get a screenplay nomination. That would have been a joke.

-Typical yearly embarrassment in the Documentary category, with Blackfish and Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell getting snubbed. In the case of the latter, the unusual format may have played a role, but honestly, both these exclsions are inexcusable.

-No big pop stars in the Original Song category, as Taylor Swift, Coldplay and Lana Del Ray are snubbed. U2 has this one in the bag for their Mandela contribution, but once again we're probably in for a boring show in terms of musical performances. Don't even get me started on how "Please, Mr. Kennedy" from Inside Llewyn Davis was deemed ineligible.

-McConaughey's really starting to look like the frontrunner right now, which should upset no one. Best Picture is more of a question mark. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review Round-up (Part I)


As promised, here are a few shortened reviews of some 2013 releases I've been catching up with in the past couple of weeks. While I'm not thrilled about doing it like this, time constraints and a massive viewing backlog have made it a necessity. More to come soon. 




Drinking Buddies (Dir. Joe Swanberg, Running time: 90 min., Rating: R)

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

Give Drinking Buddies credit for this: It's real. Almost uncomfortably, amusingly and sometimes unevenly real. What it isn't is your typical romantic comedy. That alone should be cause for celebration, even if it's  a muted one considering how low-key and casual the project feels (a compliment). That much of its script was supposedly improvised isn't much of a surprise. Brewery co-workers and best friends Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) have their feelings for each other tested over a long weekend despite both being attached to significant others Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick). In terms of working and dating life in your thirties, director Joe Swanberg really has it nailed down and kudos to giving the two major characters an occupation that's actually interesting and heavily informs the narrative in an intriguing way.

The two standouts are clearly Wilde and Johnson, both of whom give Indie Spirit worthy performances and come off so naturally endearing together on camera it's impossible not to root for them to cheat (as awful as that sounds). Wilde, especially, has never palyed a character this multi-dimensional before and many will be impressed how easygoing her work is while New Girl star Johnson continues to prove himself underrated as a film actor. Kendrick and Livingston play probably the two most boring people on Earth (intentionally) so that they soldier through this unscathed is a credit to them. Many will probably groan about the non-ending but it's probably one of the more ironic and painfully authentic finishes you'll see for a rom-com, if this can even be considered that. It's more of a low-budget, character driven alternative to the monotony of standard relationship movies. And it works just fine.




Frances Ha (Dir. Noah Baumbach, Running Time: 86 min, Rating: R)

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 
 
"Adorkable" may be the adjective frequently used to describe another current quirky TV character, but it may actually better suit 27-year-old aspiring dancer Frances (Greta Gerwig) who's stumbling and bumbling through her heavily extended post grad-life with an offbeat sense of humor and a giant smile on her face. You can't help but pull for her, even if at times you feel as if you've entered a world not completely comprehensible unless you're on board with Noah Baumbach's black and white universe of mumblecore hipsterdom. I mostly was. It succeeds almost in spite of itself, but most entirely due to Gerwig. When her Brooklynite best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) decides to pick up and move on with her life, the "undateable" Frances must come to terms with the fact that hers is a mess. A broke, somewhat homeless, and minimally talented dancer with few prospects, she soldiers on, crashing at the pad of creative types Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegan). A visit to her parents in Cali to a trip to Paris to an attempted return to her college days upstate all mostly result in disaster. She's like a female, less talented Llewyn Davis, but lacking the depression.

It's rare to find a film and protagonist that's both so endearing and irritating at the same time. But then again, this is the guy who made The Squid and The Whale and Greenberg. Baumbach's clearly channeling Manhattan-era Woody Allen here but what's funny is how I actually enjoyed this more than anything Allen's done in the past decade (which admittedly isn't saying much). A scene with an elated Frances running down the streets with David Bowie's "Modern Love" blasting over the soundtrack is undeniably joyous. It's the one film on here I'd most quickly revisit despite being nowhere near the strongest and a mixed bag. So that says something. Baumbach's never made anything I didn't care for and this continues the streak.




Blackfish (Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Running Time: 83 min., Rating: PG-13)

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's a scene in the documentary Blackfish that's almost impossible to watch. As baby Orca whale Tilikum is captured by seaman off the coast of Iceland in 1983 with his family crying in the background. A fisherman on the expedition is interviewed, near tears as he regretfully looks back on it as his lowest moment as a human being. It's tough to argue, but he's hardly the only guilty party here. The most fascinating aspect of this doc is what should have been obvious to everyone isn't until now. Of course, keeping killer whales in in captivity and treating them like trained circus animals has to be dangerous, right? And yet we've all been conditioned by SeaWorld since youth to believe it's okay. I'm usually opposed to documentaries that take a stand for "causes" and animal activists certainly haven't been the most level-headed in the past, but this isn't a propaganda piece. The facts speak for themselves.

What we're shown is damning. From the chilling testimonials from former trainers to the horrifying actual footage of whale attacks (one escape by an experienced diver is a heart-stopper), the only question remaining at the end isn't how these whales could do this, but how they couldn't given the treatment they received.  The abused Tilikum would go on to kill two trainers, the second of whom was Dawn Brancheau in 2010. SeaWorld caused it. And then they sat on it, before blaming her. At best they're guilty of animal cruelty. At worst, they're murderers. It's a shock they're still in business, even if the release of this film justifiably puts the company's entire future in jeopardy. It's proof that documentaries can cause a serious, seismic shift in how we look at things. As for these SeaWorld executives? They should be tossed in the tank. I was surprised just how emotionally involved and outraged I felt watching it. This is documentary filmmaking in its purest, most powerful form.





The Bling Ring (Dir. Sofia Coppola, Running Time: 90 min., Rating: R)

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Taking its place alongside Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain and The Wolf of Wall Street, Sofia Coppola's latest is only further proof that 2013 in film will be remembered as the year of materialistic excess and social depravity. Based on real events, The Bling Ring tells the story of a group of celebrity obsessesed California teens who successfully burglarized the homes of Paris Hilton (funny), Audrina Patridge (funny), Megan Fox (still funny) Lindsay Lohan (funnier) and Rachel Bilson (not funny!) And that's pretty much the film, but it's amazing just how much mileage Coppola is able to squeeze out of it. It's supposed to be a satire, but that's not glaringly obvious, which is both its biggest strength and weakness.

There are points when you think it's entirely possible the director is enjoying herself a little too much, feeling almost too comfortable in this setting to really go for the jugular like Harmony Korine did with Spring Breakers. But there is a lot to appreciate here, starting with newcomer Katie Chang's performance as ringleader Rebecca and Israel Brussard's work as Marc, the new student sucked into her vortex and yearning for acceptance. He's really the only character with a conscience about what he's doing or comes close to gaining sympathy while Emma Watson's Nikki is by far the most detestable. It wasn't until I saw actual footage of the real person on which the character was based that I realized Watson didn't take it too far and was creepily spot-on with her vacant, airheaded portrayal.

This is the last film shot by the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides and it presents a California that's washed out, depressed and altogether atypical of how it's usually depicted on screen. Also loved that Sleigh Bells opening title sequence. While I'd agree the complaints against the film are valid and there's a certain repetitiveness to the break-ins, the hypnotic way it shines a spotlight on the ugliest side of our celebrity obsessed culture makes it a bit more compelling than its shallow topic lets on. If just barely.
      

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street



Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Jake Hoffman, Joanna Lumley, Spike Jonze, Ethan Suplee
Running Time: 180 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
 
You know a film did something right when the discussions, arguments, and controversy surrounding it completely take over, deeming the director's motivations and intent for the project almost irrelevant. But I'll be honest. I didn't think Scorsese had it in him. I didn't think that at age 71 he'd still be able to make a film that's ignited as much controversy and debate as The Wolf of Wall Street already has, or feel as timely and pertinent to the world we live in now. And isn't that what all movies should do? Get us talking. Of course, this could be accomplished and the film still be terrible. It's what many believe of the similarly themed Spring Breakers, with which this would make an interesting, if exhausting, double feature. But the real evidence backing it up is on the screen.

It's not Scorsese's job to "punish" Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort or hold our hands and tell us what he and his cohorts did was wrong. Anyone needing guidance or reassurance in determining their actions are deplorable would likely require help beyond what Scorsese can offer. But that doesn't mean those actions and these characters can't be entertaining as hell when it's presented as a dark, twisted tragicomedy of wretched excess. We're meant to laugh at their idiocy, or not laugh at it, because the ball's in our court. It's a satire, but an unusually savvy one that manages to be both hilarious and horrifying in equal measure.

It's 1987 when young, wet behind the ears Queens native Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes a job as a gopher at a prestigious Wall Street brokerage firm before passing the Series 7 and earning his broker's license. When "Black Monday" hits he goes to work for a dumpy Long Island boiler room that specializes in penny stocks, using his master pitching skills to net a fortune and eventually strike out on his own with new friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a ragtag group of local marijuana dealers. Jordan quickly polishes them up, transforming the newly christened Stratton Oakmont into a major industry force, reeling in millions. Then comes cocaine, quaaludes, sex, strippers, and a descent into hedonism that would make it easy to mistake the firm for a 24-7 orgy. He soon leaves his hairdresser wife (Cristin Milioti) for former model Naomi (Margot Robbie) and begins a rocky marriage, but the firm's illegal practices and suspected securities fraud catch the eye of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who makes it his number one priority to bring Jordan down.

Jordan started by screwing over the poor, then moved on to screwing the rich, and then before all was said and done, he eventually screwed himself and got what was coming to him. Well, not really. And that's the big bone of contention and controversy within the film that never really leaves our minds as we're watching, despite it being entirely faithful to the true story detailed in Belfort's memoir.  From the first frame, Scorsese takes us deep into this world and forces us to hang out with these people and attempt to understand their behavior, as impossible as that seems. There's great use of narration and breaking the third wall right away as Belfort addresses the camera and rattles off all the money he's made and the drugs he had to take just to make it through each day. With his confident, charismatic swagger, he'd seem to be the very definition of an unreliable narrator, if not for the fact that everything he's telling is actually true.

When a senior broker takes him under his wing on his first day and lays out the rules for success on Wall Street (which involves some magical combination of greed, coke and masturbation) over lunch, the speech is so well written by Terence Winter and delivered pitch perfectly by king charisma himself, Matthew McConaughey (in yet another scene-stealing turn), it's easy to see how Jordan fell for his intoxicating pitch of wealth and power. We totally get it. And when Jordan turns around and uses those same motivational tactics on his employees, we're sucked in again. Scorsese and DiCaprio dare us to cheer and laugh at it because it's ridiculous, scary, and also fun. Everyone who takes the bait won't be happy about it, but aren't supposed to be. That's the point. The notion that Jordan could be any one of us or someone we know is tough to face because it's true. That's why the film's three hour running length works to its advantage in a way rarely experienced. We're completely immersed in this world of debauchery, moving a mile a minute from one uproariously memorable sequence to the next, each seemingly more shocking than the last. It's excessive because it needs to be and the party never feels like it'll never stop, making the length seem just right and setting the stage for their inevitable fall. I didn't feel the time at all, a feat the editing Oscar was seemingly created to honor.

In what might be the performance of his career (if not certainly his most rewarding Scorsese collaboration yet) DiCaprio is given the rare opportunity to display his physical comedy chops with in a role that's as funny as it is dramatic. We know he can handle the heavy stuff, but who ever thought him capable of being this hilarious? There's never a moment that feels false or put on and it's unusual to see to the actor lose himself in a character to this extreme, burning the candle at both ends as Jordan appears to be having the time of his life while simultaneously wrecking it to pieces. That he seems completely like this man we don't know and possess so little knowledge of is a credit to how much DiCaprio pours into a performance that makes for an interesting companion piece to his work as Jay Gatsby earlier in the year. A more modern, outsized version of that character, Belfort has even even less of a soul and conscience. It's absolutely thrilling to watch and, nomination or not, will likely be appreciated and revisited for a while, squashing complaints from those down on all the frequent Scorsese-DiCaprio projects.   

Right alongside DiCaprio's tour de force is Jonah Hill's sociopathic, side-splitting turn as Jordan's boisterous associate and best friend, Donnie. Complete with buck teeth, bulging eyes and a colorfully hideous wardrobe even by 80's standards, he offers up what's less a performance than a grotesquely brilliant comedic creation so painfully funny and pathetically tragic you may not even believe it's him delivering it. Ironically it's in this, Hill's most prestigious role, that his gifts as a comedian seem best utilized as he makes Donnie almost uncomfortably real in his desire to fit in and make something of himself. Before things goes horribly awry.

Every line delivery, joke, or physical stunt Hill executes, he hits out of the park, causing me nearly uncontrollable laughter with each appearance. He's been exceptional in other things like Moneyball, but this is on another plane entirely. He and DiCaprio share what's sure to go down as the iconic sequence involving the delayed effects of quaaludes that defies description. Let's just say you'll never want to snack on cold cuts ever again. Actually, there are a lot of scenes like that, walking the razor's edge between comedy and drama to almost absurd extents while still somehow remaining within the boundaries of reality.

At the crux of Jordan's sort of downfall is his tumultuous marriage with "The Dutchess" Naomi and the instant Margot Robbie shows up, I wrongly braced myself for a terrible performance based on her appearance, assuming Leo requested they cast a supermodel for the role. For all I know that could have been entirely true, if not for the fact this is Scorsese we're talking about and the Australian Robbie absolutely nails it, going toe-to-toe with DiCaprio in every scene, while consistently maintaining a Brooklyn accent that never wavers. She clearly hit the jackpot in snagging this role but no one can claim it's a squandered opportunity.

Scorsese also provides director Rob Reiner with an entertaining supporting part as Jordan's trigger-tempered father and security head, "Mad Max" while other fellow directors Jon Favreau and Spike Jonze impress respectively as the firm's legal counsel and a hapless Oakmont employee. Recent Oscar winner Jean Dujardin is also really fun as a slick, Swiss banker with whom Jordan enters into business. Always hanging around the periphery is Kyle Chandler's FBI agent who makes Jordan aware of his presence in one of the best written, unexpected exchanges, and since he's played by "Coach Taylor," we're instantly on his side and know Belfort doesn't stand a chance outsmarting him.  It's fitting that what eventually trips him up is so randomly absurd and ridiculous considering how idiotic his behavior was up until that point. It was only a matter of time before it all caught up with him, and when it did, he still refused to just cash in his chips, even at the expense of losing his family and the firm he built.

Just as it seems Belfort will finally be punished, Scorsese subtly turns the camera on us, showing how the problem's much bigger than he is, with a culture that not only condoned, but often encouraged these behaviors and practices. We still do. He knows the only way to do that is by actually showing us, not telling us. Giving us a morality tale that punishes the character would have been far easier in every respect, but it wouldn't be truthful, nor would it be as dramatically interesting. There's a point where even Jordan worries that the law will come down hard on him, before coming to the realization that he's rich and the rules are different for him. We'll buy his books and go to the motivational seminars where audiences are entranced with the knowledge he has to share. Chandler's FBI agent has won only a very small battle, if he's won at all. He'll still have to ride the hot subway to work, integrity intact. But it's Belfort who will be remembered. Scorsese was stuck between a rock and a hard place in how strong a stance should be taken. If he condemns Belfort he's accused of being preachy, but if he doesn't then he's somehow glorifying his actions. Despite popular belief, he made the right choice in showing an uncensored account of what happened and leaving the judging to us.  

While baring most of the hallmarks that categorize a modern day Scorsese movie, it's still hard to recognize it is one since it feels edgy enough to have been made by a young, hungry filmmaker with something to prove. I've heard DiCaprio describe the film as being "punk" and it's easy to see how that adjective fits with the action, comedy, breakneck pacing and especially the Robbie Robertson supervised soundtrack, which takes the director's penchant for seamlessly incorporating classic rock and flips it on its head with lesser known covers of famous songs. Truthfully, it's strange to be on the side defending him since I'm usually never as excited about his work as everyone else, often respecting rather than flat-out loving his output. Not this time. I was on board all the way. At this point in his career no one would think any less of him if he just took it easy and cashed some paychecks so it's impossible not to greatly admire what he did here, delivering a work that carries all the urgency and reckless energy of his most respected titles.

By all accounts, the real Jordan Belfort and his associates certainly had fun doing this stuff so the damage needs to be shown, even if the result is as close to an NC-17 as it gets. The drugs. The hookers. The money. The strippers. The drugs. The government didn't punish Belfort so it's unfair to ask the filmmaker to do it. But the larger question might be whether the very act of making this picture is in some way irresponsible or signs off on the behavior. As if he's supposed to be a moral policeman for audiences and critics who can't make decisions for themselves. The film is whatever the viewer brings to it, as the best one usually are. And obviously anyone coming out of this thinking Belfort is some kind of anti-hero is welcome to that. But that's their decision, not Scorsese's. His job was to make a great film. It's ours to live with it.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Memorable Movie Images of 2013


Since it proved to be pretty popular last year, I again compiled what I felt were the defining images of 2013 in movies. These are the screengrabs that represent the best (and or in some cases the worst) the year in film had to offer. I once again attempted to avoid picking the obvious promotional shots and instead opted for either an image that best represents or encapsulates the movie, a memorable moment, or just simply what hit me as the most visually striking image. Mainly though, I just went with my gut in these selections. Unfortunately, since these screenshots came from all over the net, it's impossible to properly cite all the sources. And believe me, there were a lot. There's also a few TV shots thrown in there since few would argue that medium had a year unlike any before.

The most fun is gathering the images for movies I haven't seen yet since it tends to get me pumped up to check those out quicker than I otherwise would. I'm still way behind in playing catch-up with 2013, I've seen much more than I've reviewed and am planning a few posts where I rectify that and fill you in on those viewings. There are also two BIG reviews coming for a couple of current releases making waves and generating headlines as we head toward the announcement of the Academy Award nominations on January 16. While it's a shame that hardly any movies worth seeing come out until the last few months of the year, when I actually start dragging myself to the theater and the three and a half and four-star reviews start piling up, it's a sign all the waiting was worth it.

I've tried to make it a point this past year to only check out things I'm interested in since I'm not being paid like professional critics to see garbage, making it a waste of time that could be spent watching really worthwhile films. As a result, I'm not ingesting as many releases as before, causing me to not only question the viability of the term "critic,"but consider abandoning or replacing the star rating system, which I've grown to despise. Still, it's impossible to have the good stuff without at least a little trash balancing it out.

Again, these images aren't labeled but are (mostly) in order according to U.S. release date, which got tricky this year due to all the staggered or concurrent theatrical and digital releases, as well as the emergence of Video-on-Demand as viable distribution platform. Anyone in need of clues can consult this helpful list. Happy New Year!