Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Wolf of Wall Street



Given:  Martin Scorsese ranks among the greatest filmmakers of all time.  Given:  Leonardo DiCaprio ranks among his generation’s finest actors.  Question: together, can they make The Wolf of Wall Street worth watching?

“What?” you may be asking.  “Why is this even a question?”


It’s a question because The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of absolutely terrible human beings.  The film knows they’re terrible.  They characters know they’re terrible.  How does one invest in the stories of a bunch of people who, if they were all incinerated in a nuclear inferno at the end of the second act, would leave the viewer thinking, “Serves ‘em right?”

One invests because Martin Scorsese is an undisputed master of the art form of motion picture creation, and Leonardo DiCaprio is an absolutely brilliant actor and movie star who can find something compelling in even the most loathsome of characters.

The film traces the rise and fall of DiCaprio’s salesman, stockbroker, and felon as he learns to the keys to amassing enormous amounts of wealth through means illegal, unethical, and, well, just plain evil.  It’s a cry of rage against an industry that crashed the American economy in 2008, costing untold numbers of people their jobs, their savings, and their homes while its executives reaped ever-larger bonuses.  The film doesn’t go into the specifics of 2008 – in fact, it ties DiCaprio and his cohort into other shenanigans.  But the rage is the same.

So why watch two+ hours of rage?  Because Scorsese knows who to frame a scene, how to build tension, how to craft a narrative in such a way as to keep us on the hook.  And DiCaprio, man, this guy is amazing.  He gives a charismatic, snakelike, evil performance that is absolutely riveting.  Even when he’s at his most evil, duping some unsuspecting schmuck out of his money and, quite possibly, jeopardizing the guy’s marriage, you can’t help but watch him.  This is an actor at the height of his powers, and you must respect the craft.

Does all this mean that you have to see The Wolf of Wall Street?  I don’t know – I’m not here to sell you anything.  All I know is that this film brings together serious talents and presents a compelling narrative.  If that’s your thing, and you don’t mind a little rage, have at it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Croods; Rush; A Most Wanted Man


The Croods

The Croods is fine.  It’s pretty, it tells a nice story, and its voice cast includes personal favorites Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, and Cloris Leachman.





That’s about all I can say for it, however.  I didn’t laugh.  I didn’t cry.  I just sorta rocked along pleasantly for an hour and half.  That ain’t bad.  It ain’t great, either.  It’s fine.  No, really.  It’s fine.


Rush

I spent the first hour or so of Rush not enjoying the movie.  Like Amadeus, the film sets up a conflict between a natural talent (Chris Hemsworth, a British Formula One driver) and a grinder (Daniel Brühl, his Austrian nemesis (the actor also appears in A Most Wanted Man, discussed below)).   Thing is, I identified with the grinder. Hemsworth’s character put my teeth on edge.

Then the movie took an unexpected turn, went in an entirely different direction than I’d expected, and made me hold my breath, tense in sympathy to the action onscreen, and hang on every twist and turn of the competitors’ races.

I feel like I started out with Days of Thunder and finished with something wonderful.  Rush is the most surprising movie I’ve seen this year. 

A Most Wanted Man

Some deaths get to you, even if you never really knew the person in question.  I still miss Phil Hartman.  I miss Philip Seymour Hoffman.

In A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman plays the Hamburg chief of a small German intelligence organization occupied with hunting terrorists.  The film, based on a John le Carré novel, occupies itself not with fast cars and gadgets, but with the nondescript, dedicated, and frequently exhausted people who actually make the intelligence community go.  Hoffman, overweight, disheveled, and brilliant, is a perfect match for this world.  His character belongs in dimly lit bars, crafting plans and making deals, and I believed in him every step of the way.

The plot?  Well, it’s a le Carré story, so it features twists and surprises and a kind of mundane weariness that feels all the more immediate because we can imagine it happening right in the next booth over.

The effect?  Well, mostly sadness.  Sadness for the characters in the story, but particular sadness for the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of our generation’s great actors and a talent that I’m sure to miss for a long time to come.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Back to the Future

Last week, my wife and I screened Back to the Future for our three boys.  It was a fun idea.  In the film, young Marty McFly travels 30 years into the past and meets his parents when they were his age.  Back to the Future, of course, was released 30 years ago, both my wife and I saw it then, and now here we were, playing the parents, sharing it with our kids.

Call it time travel on a budget.



Seeing it again after all these years, I’ve noticed a few things that may have escaped me the first time around.  #1, Christopher Lloyd absolutely runs away with this movie, pulling faces and injecting every line with a delightful combination of zaniness and earnestness.  There is not a moment he’s onscreen when he is not the animating force of the film.  #2, Michael J. Fox is an incredibly gifted comic actor.  His Marty McFly brings to the story just the right combination of desperation, exasperation, coolness, and kindness to make him the character whom we not only root for, but whom we actively want to be.  #3, Crispin Glover is a remarkably strange person.  Even when he’s playing “cool dad” at the end of the film, there’s just not getting around how odd he is.  #4.  Biff Tannen killed Tom Wilson’s career.  The character is so evil, as opposed to comic-evil, that he seems airlifted in from another movie.  He’s not just a cartoonish thug, a foil for the good guys.  He’s a drunk driver, a rapist, a sadist, and a serious threat to the well-being of those around him.  In fact, he’s so scary that I felt compelled to stop the movie for a few minutes and show my children Wilson’s YouTube video of his “Questions” song.  Sure, they knew that Biff was only a character in a movie, but I thought they needed to see the actor cracking jokes to help them internalize the fact that it’s really just make believe (Note to Iwan Rheon, who plays Ramsay Snow on HBO’s "Game of Thrones:" you need to make some silly YouTube videos before it’s too late and nobody wants to see you in anything other than “Iwan Rheon gets his face smashed in.”).

It’s that last bit, the characterization of Biff, that actually tarnishes the film for me.  He’s just too evil for a light comedy about time travel and how one plucky suburban youth basically invented modern American pop culture.  It throws off the film’s balance, though Christopher Lloyd does everything he can to counter it with heaping helpings of manic whimsy.

But still, hey, it’s Back to the Future.  I’m still glad we showed it to our kids.  Perhaps we’ll revisit it when we show it to their kids 30 years from now.  After all, it’s the closest to time travel we’re ever going to come.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is an unqualified masterpiece.  It’s the kind of movie that makes you laugh, not in scorn or even amusement, but in wonder at the filmmakers’ audacity and vision.  It’s the best new release I’ve seen this year.


Here’s the setup: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, and you owe it to yourself to see Locke), our supposed protagonist, is mad.  Not angry, but nuts.  Loopy.  Maintaining a tenuous grasp on reality.  He starts the movie by getting captured by post-apocalyptic tribesmen and-

Well, at this point, we cut away from him entirely.  We transfer our attention to Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron.  A war chieftan of the tribe, she leads a crack team from behind the wheel of her big-rig battle truck.  When first we meet her, we see her face.  Then, she turns and walks away from the (static) camera and into the story. 
I’ve been to the movies before.  I know what comes next.  As she walks away from the camera, her entire figure will come into view.  They camera's gaze will linger, and those who are so inclined will admire her tukkas.


But here comes the first of many of this film’s subversions of my expectations.  The camera watches her for only (maybe) three seconds, cutting at just the moment the lower edge of the screen hits her waistband.  And here’s the genius of the cut: until that moment, I hadn’t even realized that I was expecting to stare at this particular character’s backside.  I hadn’t realized that the language of film that I’ve come to “speak” has made me think of this particular kind of objectification as normal.
In that moment, Charlize Theron’s body becomes the least interesting thing about her very interesting character.  Mad Max: Fury Road humanizes her not by telling me that she's more than the sum of her parts, but by showing me through its refusal to dwell upon said parts.




Maybe twenty minutes later, after Furiosa has rescued a group of the villain’s childbearing slaves, it pulls a similar trick with one of the actresses playing an escapee.  It caught me again.  It’s the first time I’ve ever sat in a major motion picture and thought, “I’m complicit in the villain’s objectification of his captives.”
Holy smokes.  I was not expecting this in a Mad Max picture.  I just came to watch stuff blow up real good.


Don’t get me wrong: lots of stuff blows up real good.  In fact, this movie has some of the best set pieces I’ve ever seen.  But Mad Max: Fury Road has something more, something that takes it to an entirely different level of excellence.  It has an agenda, and not a B.S. “hero gives a speech, earns a slow clap, and goes home and nails the love interest” agenda.  It’s crafty, and thoughtful, and genuinely thought provoking in a way to which most “message” movies can only aspire.
All this, plus a set, prop, costume, and makeup design that’s not only a joy to behold, but surprises the audience time and again with new ideas, new angles, and new visions.  This film introduces at least five different cultures among the wastelanders, each with their own look, their own vision, their own unique identities.  From loving riffs on Star Wars' Sand People to an entire culture of stilt-walkers, this film delights time and again.


But wait – there’s more.  Mad Max: Fury Road is fun!  It has a simple, effective story; interesting and engaging characters; an excellent mix of serious and humorous beats; and a grasp of its geography and politics that never waivers and ensures the viewer never scratches his or her head in confusion.
In short, I loved Mad Max: Fury Road.  I loved everything about it.  It’s exciting, it’s dazzling, it’s complex, and it’s thought provoking.  In short, it is absolutely wonderful in every way.


I thought I was getting too old for this kind of thing, but writer/director George Miller has shown me that I was wrong.  I’m simply getting too old for mediocrity.  Mad Max: Fury Road is anything but.  What a lovely film.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies has nothing much to say, but it takes an awfully long time to say it.


This, the conclusion of the three Hobbit films, tells us, once again, that a cursed object can turn everyday greed into  megalomania.  It tells us that love triangles are a cheap way to generate dramatic tension.  It tells us that somewhere between The Lord of the Rings: The Returnof the King and today, Peter Jackson forgot how to present massive battles in a way that made geographical, military, character, and thematic sense.

Either that, or I really am getting too old for this stuff.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Avengers: The Age of Ultron

It’s probably not a good sign when you’re sitting in Avengers: Age of Ultron and thinking, “Y’know what was a really good Marvel movie?  Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  Where’s Robert Redford when you need him?”

Some background: I took my two older boys, ages 15 & 8, to see this movie.  I really wanted to see Mad Max: Fury Road, but fatherhood isn’t about getting what you want.  So, there we sat, popcorn and soda in hand, ready for some Whedon-y goodness.


[On further reflection, it probably wasn’t a good idea to let my 8-yr-old get the medium root beer, which would be a large in any sane world and contained roughly a metric ton of corn syrup.  After about fifteen minutes, he started to squirm, after 30, he was all over the place.  In thirty minute intervals thereafter, he left the (mostly empty) theater to run to the bathroom – probably more for the running than the actual bathroom.]


In the story, Tony Stark is basically Victor Frankenstein and the android Ultron his mad creation.  Unlike Frankenstein, Ultron doesn’t start out innocent and misunderstood.  It starts out evil, a fanatic who sees mass murder as a perfectly acceptable expedient enroute to utopia.  
And then there’s a lot of punching, plus a guy with a bow and arrow saying, “What am I doing here?  I’m just a guy with a bow and arrow!”  And people get hurt, and innocents get killed, and there’s a lot of angst, and it’s all so miserable that I thought I was in a DC movie.  In fact, it’s so miserable that, at the end of the movie, several characters just quit the team.  

Don’t get me wrong: the effects are great, the leads are likeable, and Linda Cardellini and Paul Bettany both shine in supporting roles.  But after two and a half hours, I wanted a little less recycled Shelly and little more Spider-Man learning to swing, or Star Lord disco-ing through space-ruins, or Robert Redford opening his fridge to find a bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing on the top shelf.  I wanted some fun.  I wanted some laughs.  I wanted some moustache-twirling.  All I got were meditations on mortality, morality, and the use of denouments as leveraging tools in contract negotiations.


But, hey, my boys liked it.  As for me, I am honestly beginning to suspect that I’m getting too old for this stuff.



Monday, May 25, 2015

Saving Mr. Banks


 
Saving Mr. Banks has a fundamental structural flaw that keeps it from being more than half of a good movie.
The film tells the story of one P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, and you owe it to yourself to queue up Wit right away), author of the ‘Mary Poppins’ book series.  Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) flies her to California to convince her to sell him the film rights, but she’s having none of it. 
This is a recipe for a good movie.  Thompson and Hanks (and Paul Giamatti, in a small supporting role) rank among the best actors of their generation; I love Mary Poppins and I’m interested in the “making of;” and "unstoppable force meets immovable object” is a great recipe for drama. 
There’s a problem, however.  The film tells a parallel story, that of young Ginty (Miss Travers), her father (Colin Farrell, and you really, really should see the Fright Night remake), and their family’s attempt to make it in the banking business somewhere in the Australian outback.  Not only did not I not particularly care about Ginty and her dad, but I felt the time spent showing us Ms. Travers’s deep backstory killed the momentum of the Thompson/Hanks conflict.  What the film could have told us through a few lines of dialogue, a photo on a mantelpiece, and Thompson’s extraordinary talent, it instead delivers through a plodding, predictable, depressing series of flashbacks.
An hour-long Saving Mr. Banks, with most of the Ginty material excised, would make for a film I’d happily recommend.  As it stands, however, I suggest you see this one with your thumb on the fast forward button.