The Wolf of Wall Street (Full Review)

There is a select group of actors that are amongst the elite. These actors can make anything worth seeing. Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale… just a few of the names that come to my mind. Without a doubt, Leonardo DiCaprio is a member of that illustrious group.  DiCaprio can sell any script to an audience, and perhaps that makes him perfect to portray Jordan Belfort aka the real life Wolf of Wall Street.

Image There are two points in the film where DiCaprio asks someone to give him an example of how to sell a pen. How it is done is both difficult and simple at the same time. The same can be said about Martin Scorsese’s three hour black comedy which tells the real life story of American stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Belfort himself even has a cameo at the end). In many ways, it is nothing we haven’t seen before. Think Goodfellas with a New York stock market backdrop. But if there’s any director/actor combo in this day and age that can make a three hour movie void of CGI explosions and fight scenes worth our time, it’s Scorsese and DiCaprio.

The movie takes us on Jordan Belfort’s meteoric rise and inevitable fall in the late 80’s and early 90’s. DiCaprio’s Belfort is what you’d imagine any 25 year old millionaire to be; a manipulative, money crazed, drug addicted, degenerate. He also just happens to be an intelligent, ambitious, charismatic, hard working tactician with the ability to motivate anyone to pretty much do anything. He does have a tad bit of a heart, but it’s as seldom seen as his sobriety.

With 99% of the screen time in his hands, DiCaprio does what DiCaprio has always done; be great. He puts as much charm and passion into every scene as Jordan Belfort puts into his sales meetings with his ever-attentive subordinates. But he isn’t alone. And perhaps that is why the film seems to blow buy despite its ridiculous running time. The supporting cast each adds its own unique flavor to every moment their on screen. Jonah Hill is magnificent as Donnie, Belfort’s bumbling, out of control enabler and right hand man. Matthew McConaughey is hilarious in a brief role as Belfort’s first boss and mentor. And newcomer Margot Robbie is nothing short of mesmerizing as Belfort’s sexy trophy wife.

Because of its length, the movie gets self indulgent. But that might be the point of it all. We all know what’s going to happen as we watch Belfort’s hilarious, yet irresponsible rise to the top. Like any drug, it will be fun while it lasts, but eventually it will all come to a horribly dark climax. Luckily for us, we have Leo to make the journey worth while.

FINAL GRADE: A-

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Full Review)

We go to the movies for several reasons; to laugh, to be amazed, to be informed, and sometimes to be inspired. Films utilizing the latter have become scarce in today’s times of big budget action films, raunchy comedies, and Oscar-starved dramas. So it’s a bit refreshing to have a feel good movie with the intention to encourage.

ImageThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty originates from a 1937 short story and later a 1947 film. I am familiar with neither. You probably aren’t either, which is a good thing, because this film stands on its own.  The only thing this version has in common with its predecessors is the titular character and his tendency to zone out into outlandish daydreams.

Ben Stiller, who also directed the film, stars as Walter. This time around, the character is a single, middle-aged, photo manager for Life Magazine in the final days before the popular publication goes full digital and renders his job, and the jobs of many others, obsolete. Day to day in his humdrum life, Walter drifts off into fantastical daydreams that allow him to picture himself saying and doing all of the things he’d like to do in real life; being heroic, hooking up with his attractive coworker (Kristen Wiig), telling his new boss (Adam Scott) to shove it. I’m sure we can all relate.

But, believe it or not, it isn’t the random Family Guy-esque cutaways that make this film enjoyable. The real adventure begins when Walter treks off on a European scavenger hunt to find the missing photo meant for the cover of Life Magazine’s final issue; a photo described by photographer Sean O’ Connell (Sean Penn) as the “quintessence” of Life.  In fact, the film’s most fun moments come from actual occurrences along Mitty’s adventure; a tussle with a drunken helicopter pilot, Mitty being rescued from shark infested waters, his conversations with an overly friendly eHarmony customer service rep (Patton Oswalt).

Many of the movie’s fantasy sequences can be seen in trailers and commercials. If that draws you in, you might be disappointed. If it doesn’t, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised and more than likely inspired by Walter’s personal and physical journey. It is without a doubt one we can all learn from as we approach a new year with new possibilities and opportunities.

FINAL GRADE: B+

47 Ronin Review

Has a television show ever caught your attention because it involves some of the elements of past shows you’ve liked? Then you start watching the show and it feels like you need to go back and watch previous episodes so that you know what’s going on? That… to some degree… was my experience with 47 Ronin. Except… there are no previous episodes to fall back on. There’s just one, sloppy, cartoonish, two-hour excuse to make a 3D action film.

ImageThe movie is based on the true story (more on that later) of forty-seven Japanese samurai who are exiled after their master assaults a rival and is forced to commit ritual suicide. After two years, those 47 Ronin (Samurai without masters for everyone who paid attention during The Wolverine) unite to avenge their master. Sounds interesting enough, right? Especially to anyone who enjoys a good samurai film.

But, for some reason,  director Carl Erik Rinsch and the producers at Universal Pictures figured this source material was too weak to make a regular samurai film. So they felt the need to ingest it with more CGI creatures, 3D effects, and action movie clichés to put shame to even the drollest of bloated summer movies. Not to mention that they added Keanu Reaves as the lead for some reason.

There are a few positives. Some of the imagery is visually pleasing, albeit that is probably more of a credit to Japanese culture than it is to the filmmakers. Hiroyuki Sanada also seems genuine as the Ronin’s leader. But that’s pretty much it. The rest of the film just leaves you wondering if you’re missing something. As if they were supposed to give you a handout prior to the movie that explains why the most powerful villain in the film (Rinko Kikuchi of Pacific Rim fame) is subservient to some random rival clan leader. And why no one in the movie seems to believe in witchcraft despite the fact that there is blatant use of it repeatedly. It just goes to show; sometimes it works better when you just tone it down. Every action movie doesn’t have to look like a comic book.

FINAL GRADE: D+

American Hustle… Full Review

It’s amazing what you can do with a great cast. In some instances, you can take a group of talented actors and build a story solely around them. And while this is no guarantee for a great movie (see The Counselor), it does provide enough of a framework to make something worthwhile more times than not.

ImageDirector David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) probably knows the power of the cast better than anyone, because he’s worked with most of this cast before. This time around, he takes his acting All-stars to the glorious late-1970s and engulfs them into a loosely based tale of the FBI’s ABSCAM investigation. It’s worth noting that the costumes, soundtrack, and cinematography for this film are all great… but none of those things are why this movie could compete for an Academy Award.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams reunite from The Fighter to play two con-artists who fall in love, despite the fact that Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld has a family of his own. Watching Bale’s hairy gut and listening to his heavy Brooklyn accent makes you almost forget this is the same guy that played Batman. Adams brings out her ferocity and sex appeal like never before as Sydney Prosser, perhaps the biggest hustler in the entire film. After the two lovers’ shady investment firm is taken down by the FBI, they are forced to work with federal agent Richie DeMasso to bust other con-artists. Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hangover) plays the greedy Agent DeMasso at his angry and hyperactive best.

The dynamic of those three characters as they attempt to hustle the good hearted, but double dealing, mayor of Atlantic City is what drives the plot. Jeremy Renner (Bourne Legacy, Avengers) plays Mayor Carmine Polito with so much genuine spunk that you can’t help but root for him. What drives the movie most, however, is Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) who channels up perhaps her best performance yet as Irving Rosenfeld’s loud, obnoxious, and unpredictable wife Rosalyn. Are back-to-back Oscars in the near future for her?

If the film falls flat to some, it is because of a plot which at times becomes a bit convoluted. But overall, there is enough information for the average moviegoer to comprehend. So while American Hustle may not be the smartest film of the year or the most exciting, you’ll be hard pressed to find one with such fun and invigorating performances.

FINAL GRADE: A

   

Holiday Movie Quick-Hits

There have been so many movies coming out this holiday season, that I haven’t had the time to assess them all. Here are a few quick reviews from some films that have come out in the past month…

12 Years A Slave

ImageThe subject matter is anything but unique. But the portrayals and gritty realism with which this film, based on a true story, presents itself is unmatched by anything before it. Simply put, it is the Roots of our generation and as jarring as the film may be from start to finish, it is a must see for anyone who cares to be enlightened about an era society often desires to water down or paint in a less horrific light.  FINAL GRADE: A

 

Best Man Holiday

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While it still manages to delve into soap opera-esque drama and some parts seem only for fan service (The air band scene), Holiday somehow manages to be more relevant than its wildly successful predecessor. It does this by highlighting each character’s strengths and weaknesses and giving them all adequate time to interact (better than any Tyler Perry film… but I digress). Between the emotional chords it strikes and the snarky humor added by Terrence Howard, there is much more to love than dislike about this film. FINAL GRADE: B+

 

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

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The Hobbit/Lord of the Ring series is as much an acquired taste as any film series. There’s reasons to love them: Action, adventure, slapstick humor, mythical beasts and such. And reasons to hate it: Slow paced, slow paced, slow paced, and slow paced. Desolation of Smaug contains all of the good things while managing to minimize those nasty pacing issues better than most of the other films. While this film still runs at about 160 minutes, an action packed middle and a captivating, cliff-hanging end, make it much livelier than the last journey into Middle Earth. FINAL GRADE: B+

 

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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If Hangover 2 and 3 taught us anything, it’s that classic comedies don’t always begat great comedic sequels. So it’s easy to see why so many people might’ve been nervous about a sequel to one of the most quoted comedies ever, being made nearly a decade later. Anchorman 2 waists very little time in casting those worries aside. Will Ferrell and company manage to recapture most of the moments we loved from the original, even upping the ante in some places (The rehashed news team rumble is packed with more hilarious cameos than imaginable), while also successfully giving us a worthwhile plot. It may not be quite as good as its predecessor, but it still packs enough laughs to make it worthy of existing. FINAL GRADE: A-    

Frozen returns Disney to its musical roots

There was a time when at least once a year, Disney would release an animated feature that would captivate the hearts and minds of adults and children all over the world. I highlighted many of those films last month (Favorite Animated Films). Now, with recent films like Princess and The Frog and Tangled it appears as if Disney is trying to resurrect the classic animated movie styles of old. Frozen, loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen‘s fairy tale The Snow Queen, is Disney’s latest attempt.

ImageFrozen tells the story of two sisters. Older sister and future queen, Elsa (Idina Menzel) is born with enchanted powers that allow her to create ice and snow. Following the untimely death of the King and Queen (Disney sure loves killing parents in children’s movies), Elsa is sheltered from the kingdom as well as from her younger sister until she can learn to control her powers. After a spat with naïve younger sibling Anna (Kristen Bell) causes her to reveal her abilities to the world on the day of her coronation, Elsa flees and freezes the entire kingdom in perpetual winter. With the help of ice-cutter Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and a magical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna sets out to reconcile with her sister and save the kingdom.

The animated Disney films of old all seemed to follow a distinct formula to success: A courageous lead, a sinister yet charismatic villain, a plucky side-kick for comic relief, catchy songs, ground breaking animation, and a solid message. Frozen manages to triumph in some of these areas while falling incredibly short on the others. There is no courageous lead. Elsa is a noble, wise, and fierce character, but for most of the film she takes a backseat to Anna who, although sincere, is almost the complete opposite. There is no charismatic villain. In fact, there is barely even a real villain at all which makes the story feel a tad less lively than all of its predecessors. Then there’s the songs. Sure, some of them are catchy, but unlike previous Disney films the setting and era aren’t infused into the music (see Princess and the Frog, Mulan, Aladdin, Lion King) making it feel more like sing along TV than musical theater.

Luckily, the film does manage to hit everywhere else. The laughs come sturdy and the animation is as rich as ever, especially when it comes to Elsa’s magic. And as far as plucky side-kicks go, Olaf the Snowman is as loveable as any Disney character ever. The message about “true love”, which ironically pokes at Disney princess films of old, is perhaps the film’s biggest saving grace. So while the movie may not stack up to some of the Disney classics, it’s certainly worthy of a watch, especially for adults and children with no Y chromosome.

FINAL GRADE: B