Monday, December 30, 2013

Film Review: Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street

As a Martin Scorsese fan from the moment this once impressionable thirteen year old mind first caught a glimpse of Taxi Driver on late night TV more than thirty years ago, it is with great sadness (and possibly some quite furious anger) that I must state the following:  I did not like The Wolf of Wall Street.  That's right kids, this long-avowed Scorsese fan did not like the director's latest film.  Now sure, there have been other Scorsese films over the year that I have not been the biggest fan of.  Films such as The Age of Innocence, Kundun, The Aviator. The Color of Money, even The Last Temptation of  Christ, are all Scorsese films that have less than tickled this critic's fancy, but none of these films seemed as great a disappointment as did The Wolf of Wall Street when I saw it just two days ago.  Sure, when a man makes no less than five masterpieces in his career, you can certainly cut the guy some slack every once and a while, but even so, the utter disappointment is still there - in fucking spades.

Now others who have panned the film (and we seem to be a minority) have done so due to what they call an excess of sex and drugs and overall immorality.  To that I say, bah!  The film, being about the life and times and exploits of a greedy, repulsive, money-hungry, drug-engorged, sex-addicted asshole of a human being, is a movie about excess, and therefore should be an excessive film.  Add to that the typical excess of Scorsese's auteur style, and the film is bound to go over the top.  This however, is not my problem with the film.  My problem is that I found all this excess (and everything else) to be utterly and deliriously banal as all get out, or should I say, as this film takes the coveted bronze medal in f-bomb movies, banal as all fuck.  Yes indeedy, the first forty minutes or so are actually rather entertaining.  Watching the first act of this film is like watching the Scorsese you know and love.  Perhaps not the Scorsese of Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, but at the very least, the Scorsese of Casino and After Hours.  But alas, then comes the second hour, and then the third, and now any and all love of Scorsese has flown out the proverbial window, only to be replaced with some sort of godawful feeling of despair and outright anger.

Granted, the film does entertain with several quite cinematic Scorsese moments, as well as the director's loving penchant for recruiting re-imagined imagery from everything from The Red Shoes to Hitchcock to Citizen Kane. Moments that make us remember just why we get so damn excited every time the man releases a new film.  But alas poor moviegoers, this is not that Martin Scorsese.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is a different animal altogether.  This is a director that has gotten lazy.  A director that has maybe forgotten what it means to be Martin Scorsese - though since his last two films, the unfairly maligned genre deconstruction of Shutter Island, and the brilliantly filmic nostalgia called Hugo, were a collective upswing from other recent work, this is a theory that really holds no water.  So what is it then?  Frustration in a new digital age?  The fact that one can not help but compare the filmmaker's muses, and let's face it, the mediocrity of Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor could never hold up in comparison to one Mr. Bobby De Niro.  No, it must be something deeper that that.  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps The Wolf of Wall Street is merely a blip in a career that, as I said before, has created at least five masterpieces, and several more near ones as well.  With the recent release of David O. Russell's Goodfellas-esque American Hustle, my wife said to me, "it's as if two different directors tried to make a Martin Scorsese film this year, and it was Martin Scorsese who wound up the loser."  Now I think I'm going to go watch Taxi Driver again.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Film Review: David O. Russell's American Hustle

From his quirky beginnings in the indie world to his more recent Oscary successes, filmmaker David O. Russell has played his directorial hand at many different honey pots, from teen sex comedy to acerbic war picture to pugilistic, dysfunctional family dramas, but up until now, playing is all the guy has been doing - but it is a long-time playing that has finally led to this, the director's seventh feature film, and very well his first truly great work of cinema.  In fact, American Hustle, the 1978-set story of a group of con artists working (unwillingly, their collective hands forced) with the F.B.I. to ensnare corrupt politicians, may very well be the best damn Martin Scorsese film ever made by someone who is not Martin Scorsese.  But there is much more to American Hustle than mere auteuristic hero worship and cinematic reverence.

Russell's film, the follow-up to his inexplicably praised Oscar big-wig, Silver Linings Playbook (yet another merely mediocre work being gilded to the high heavens come Oscar time), takes the best of the con game movie tropes, adds in the director's best impression of the aforementioned maestro Scorsese, kicks it up a notch or two with great casting and one hell of a nostalgic 1970's bent, twists it into a deft and biting dark comedy, and comes up with what is easily one of the best damn motion pictures of 2013.  Hoo hah!   The film is written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, and based on the ABSCAM operation of the late seventies. The film stars past Russell compatriots, Christian Bale as combed-over con man Irving Rosenfeld (based, as is most of the main cast, on a real participant of ABSCAM), with Amy Adams as his lover/partner-in-crime. Jennifer Lawrence as his long-suffering and long insufferable wife, and Bradley Cooper as the narcissistic fed fuck-up who drags Bale's huckster into the game to begin with. The film also stars Jeremey Renner (working with Russell for the first time here) as the Camden, New Jersey mayor that acts as target for this gang of grifters.  What Russell does with his film, turning the genre on its head so to speak, is take a group of people who are usually marginalized in society as bad and/or pathetic creatures, and gives his con game a heart and soul.  We feel for these people - well at least some of them - and we care what happens to them - again, to most of them.  It's some pretty amazing shit actually.  Russell has finally made his first truly great film of his career.

As for the acting of Russell's crew?  Bale, of course, is quite spectacular in his role as the ultimate con-man.  Methodically becoming the character, Bale brings his bravura presence into a character who is equal parts bravado-riddled grifter and in-over-his-head huckster with a heart of fool's gold.   The deepest and most sincerely sympathetic character in the bunch.  In other words, ring-ding-ding, Christian Bale is proving once again that he is one of the damn finest actors in the world today.  Meanwhile Adams, Renner, and even Cooper do their respective things with a certain amount of juicy aplomb, but let's face it, it is Jennifer Lawrence who runs away with each and every damn scene she finds herself in - even those in which she shares the screen with the deceptively charming chameleonic Bale himself (well okay, maybe not with Bale, but hey, he is Christian Bale after all).  Lawrence, in the atypical role of manipulative, and possibly semi-psychotic, femme fatale wife-from-hell, and after safer, less-daring roles (ie, a great talent going to waste playing characters anyone could play) in the blockbusters X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games, and her rather overrated Oscar-winning turn in Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, gives her bravest and boldest performance since her breakthrough role in 2010's Winter's Bone.  Wicked (and wickedly funny), Lawrence riptides through the film in much the same way Sharon Stone did in Scorsese's (there's that name again) Casino, infusing her character with just the right parts of shallow gold-digger, wanton powder-keg, and lost little girl.  A brilliant turn from a brilliantly underused talent.  There is also a great uncredited cameo a little past the film's midway point, but I will just let those who do not know of said cameo, find that little tidbit naturally, as they watch the film.  And watch it, you most certainly must.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Film Review: Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

For approximately a quarter of century now, with the release of each new Woody Allen film (and there is usually one a year) critics invariably say one of two things.  Either it is a return to form for the director or it is a lament for the past, far superior filmmaker of the 1970's and 1980's.  In my wish to break such silly tradition, I propose that his latest, Blue Jasmine, is neither a return to form, nor is it something that makes us yearn for the days of Annie Hall or Manhattan.  Let's face it, the director would be quite hard-pressed to match such aforementioned films as these, and we shouldn't keep expecting him to get back to such greatness, nor should we feel so disappointed when he does not.   Sure, the writer-director's output is much more hit-and-miss these days than it was in the so-called olden days, but through the muck of such disasters as Scoop and/or Anything Else, the guy can still make one hell of a movie.

What Blue Jasmine is, is a Woody Allen film, better than some, worse than others, but still a strong and charming film, full of the wry sense of humour that we have come to expect from a Woody Allen film, as well as a deeper and darker undercurrent running through its belly, finally rearing its full form in that harrowing finale, that stands on its own, without need of comparison to the director's past oeuvre.  With that said, I would like to add that even though Allen's new film may not be able to compare to the likes of the filmmaker's golden streak of the past (in this critic's mind, from 1977 through 1995, a streak of nineteen films, Allen made not a single dud) it is easily one of the best he has made since those days, as well as one of the best films of 2013.  Oh well, I guess I kinda just did the very thing I claimed I did not want to do.  Oh well.  Let's move on anyway, for I must let you in on the greatness  that is Blue Jasmine - somewhat surprisingly so, considering the cool reception I had to Allen's last film, and my belief in the overpraising of the one before that.

What Woody Allen does best, other than writing a damn smart comedy (a few damn smart dramas as well), is elicit some damn fine performances out of his stars - something he does once again in Blue Jasmine.  Cate Blanchett, as atypically self-absorbed Allen leading lady, has been getting kudos upon kudos ever since the film first opened, and on top of all this, award accolades and chants of the actor's second Oscar have spewed from almost every Academy Award pundant out there.  Even many of those who dislike the film (and some do quite hate the thing) still praise Blanchett's work in said film.  Her ability to make her audience laugh and cry in one single scene, sometimes in one single take or shot, is quite astounding indeed.  Not many actors can pull off such a feat, and Blanchett does it time and time again in Blue Jasmine.  Of course, we should not, in our praise for Blanchett, forget the great supporting performance handed in by Sally Hawkins as Blanchett's sister in the film.  These two performances shine through and deserve the accolades they are receiving, but at the same time, we should not forget that Woody Allen (here we go) has seemed to returned to form in his latest film.  Well, yeah, I couldn't go the whole time without saying that, now could I?  Seriously though, Blue Jasmine, with its inherent wit and witticisms, is one of Allen's better works, and deserves to be included, if not in his golden first tier, then in his strong and charming second one for sure.

This review can also be read over at my main site, All Things Kevyn.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Film Review: Edgar Wright's The World's End

They call it the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy.  First came Shaun of the Dead in 2004, a genre satire taking on the zombie film, and the best damn rom-zom-com out there.  Next came Hot Fuzz in 2007, a satiric take on the cop buddy genre, and now, in 2013, comes The World's End, a satire on aliens and the oh-so popular end of the world scenario.  They by the way - the ones that call these three films the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (or the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy on occasion) - are Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost.  All three films are directed by Wright, written by Wright and Pegg, and star Pegg and Frost.  All three films are also quite subversively brilliant, are possibly three of the finest satires in all of cinema, and quite cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs hee-larious.  Oh, and the reason for the trilogy nickname is because a different flavour of Cornetto ice cream is used in each film, each symbolizing each film's theme (strawberry for the blood and guts of Shaun of the Dead, original blue flavour[??] to represent the blue of the police in Hot Fuzz, and mint chocolate chip for the aliens of The World's End).  But really, the trilogy is merely a marketing ploy (not even named a trilogy until someone pointed out to Wright that he did indeed use two different Cornetto ice cream references in his first two films) and is only mentioned here because this critic gets a big kick out of such things.  Otherwise, these three films are no more a trilogy than Antonioni's Trilogy on Modernity.  How's that for some name dropping?  Anyway, I digress.  Let us move on to just what this damn movie is about anyway.

The End of the World is a fast paced, even faster quipped action comedy about a group of forty year old former high school buds, who are brought back together by their ne'er-do-well pack leader Gary King, in order to perform "The Golden Mile" a pub crawl consisting of a dozen pubs, culminating at a pub called, yeah, you got it...The World's End.  While the other four ex hooligans have grown into responsible adulthood, Gary is still trying to live past glories as a grown child-man.  Of course things get a bit hairy when these (mostly) reluctant pub crawlers come back to their home town to perform the aforementioned "Golden Mile" only to find it may have been taken over by aliens, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Of course hilarity ensues, and being that it is Wright, Pegg, and Frost, said hilarity is of the wryest, yet most maniacal set.  With allusions to many past films and such (the official poster is a take-off on a similarly-themed 1977 b-movie called End of the World), and a slew of self-referential inside jokes that range from the five lads all having courtly names (with surnames of King, Knightley, Prince, Page, and Chamberlain) to the names of each of the twelve pubs associating themselves with the actions that take place there (at the Crossed Hands the boys get into a fight, at The Mermaid, they are lured by evil women, etc), Wright's film is on equal par with the previous two - maybe even above par.

The real revelation of the film, other than the amount of growth Wright and Pegg have had as writers, from parody to satire to genuine classic-styled filmmaking, is the central performance of Pegg himself.  Frost, as well as costars Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman (Bilbo himself), and Rosamund Pike, all do wonderful jobs with their parts, but it is Pegg, in his black trenchcoat-clad, Sisters of Mercy t-shirt-wearing best, who goes above and beyond anything this critic has ever sen him do before - and considering how much I have enjoyed the guy in the past, that is saying a hell of a lot.   After a carer made out of playing nice guys (well, for the most part) Pegg now takes on the role of a self-centered and quite damaged asshole, though a self-centered and quite damaged asshole with an inevitable heart of, well maybe not gold, but at least some sort of lesser precious metal.  Pegg plays this role to near perfection (I know if I had an Oscar ballot, his name would surely be written as one of my Best Actor choices) and even though his filmic friends are sick and tired of his antics, I would do "The Golden Mile" with Gary King any day.   And then we have the film's finale.  I am not prone to give anything, but I will say this - it is freaking brills, baby! And Pegg keeps it going all the way to...well, to The World's End. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Film Review: Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave

12 Years a Slave is one of those films that overwhelms in such a thematic way that many believe it to be a good, or even a great film, when in reality it is merely mediocre.   There, I said it, now let's move on.  As a critic, it is my job, my duty even, to explain to you, my faithful readers, just what makes the film in question something you should see or something you should avoid, sometimes avoid like the plague.  As a human being, a person well adjusted into the current state of affairs known as a moral society, and as a practicing humanist, it is my job, my duty even, to take up arms against the historical atrocities, heinous acts such as war and slavery, genocide and destruction, that have plagued humankind since time immemorial.  Within such a conflicting set of ideals and duties, many of my fellow critics have been swayed into believing that just because a film is about one of these said atrocities, then by default it is an important and ofttimes brilliant work of art.  This phenomenon happened most notably with Schindler's List.  The Spielberg film garnered undue praise not because it was a great film (it was not) but because it tackled a subject that so many find, and rightly so, appalling.  Yes, that film had its moments, and some of the acting was quite spectacular, but too often it relied on the typical emotionally manipulative tricks and tropes of so many films that came before it, and in true Spielbergian style, ends up rather trite and ordinary.  But even so, the majority of critics (yes, I am certainly in the minority here) praise Schindler's List as one of the greatest films ever made.  If the film had been about some other, less harrowing historical event, anyone with any cinematic knowledge, could plainly see the film for the mediocre and middle-of-the-road beast that it is.  Sadly, much the same fate befalls Steve McQueen's new slavery drama.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying 12 Years a Slave is a bad film (nor was I saying Schindler's List was).  We'll let that kind of thing for the Adam Sandlers and Tyler Perrys of the film world.  What 12 Years a Slave is, is an average piece of moviemaking, that granted, does occasionally rise above such middling offerings, but nothing even close to the outpouring of praise it is receiving from critics en masse.  And again, just like the aforementioned Spielberg film, such an outpouring of love may very well be the cause of one's empathy toward the atrocities of slavery, often blinding the critical eye at seeing flaws and faults in a film.  Aside from the white supremacist crowd out there (and I am guessing my audience doesn't include very many of them) most people will agree that slavery was one of the worst crimes against humanity the world has ever seen, but just because you make a film about such things, does not mean you have made a masterpiece - a word thrown way to willy-nilly around critical circles.  Yes, the film has a few quite stunning moments (the hanging scene is remarkably harrowing), and some quite stunning performances, most notably star Chiwetel Ojiofor as the titular Solomon Northrup, manly McQueen muse Michael Fassbender as an evil sonofabitch plantation owner, and in a smaller role (mostly unnoticed in the wake of critics falling all over the rather stereotypical performance of Lupita Nyong'o, and her Oscar chances), Adepero Oduye as Eliza, a woman forced into slavery and forced away from her children (after the character's confrontational scene with Solomon, she is my pick for best supporting actress of this film).

The whole thing is made even sadder by the fact that McQueen's two previous feature films (2008's Hunger, and 2011's Shame) were both quite brilliant indeed.   McQueen does manage to include a handful of visually stunning moments in his film, but it is not enough to save the film from its own mediocrity.  Most of the film is just tired cliche after even more tired cliche, and shows us nothing that the hundreds of slavery films before it have already shown us.  A film made in order to win Oscars, which kinda goes against the whole idea of artistic integrity.  I know I am going to get a lot of flack for not really liking (though far from hating, mind you - though no one will remember that part of the equation) a film that is almost universally adored (the same thing happened after I first went public with my disdain for Schindler's List - but really, c'mon, that final scene when Neeson is freaking out because he could have done so much more is quite ludicrous), but flack or not, I stand my ground that 12 Years a Slave is merely average, maybe slightly above average if you squint hard enough, and is only being praised so highly because critics are afraid (whether consciously or unconsciously) that their readers will think they are dissing not just a movie but the whole idea of slavery being the horrible thing it just so happens to be.  I am not afraid of such a thing.  To make matters even worse, please now allow me to state one final thought. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained made a better and more artistic statement on slavery than this film did.  So there.