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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

19 Dec

After the 2011 release of the children’s film Hugo, directing legend Martin Scorsese is back in action and gives us a wild examination of one man’s greed and addiction. The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Kyle Chandler and Margot Robbie is one of the last Oscar-hyped films of the year, and I’m happy to say it lives ups to its high expectations.

The story is centered around businessman Jordan Bellfort, a young, enthusiastic stockbroker who, after the market crash of 1987, is forced to move into the realm of trading penny-stock. By using his aggressive, high-energy technique to sell cheap stock to those with little understanding of the market, Jordan makes his way back on top and creates his own company – Stratton Oakmont. As the film progress we see Jordan’s  wealth grow while simultaneously seeing the resulting amounts of on-screen chaos his money buys. There are your typical white-collar hookers, parties and yachts, but there is also a scene involving midget-tossing, a gay orgy, public masturbation, mountains of cocaine and Jonah Hill swallowing a live goldfish (and this is the edited theatrical version).

Scorsese directs the action with a magnetic ferocity and the script by Terrence Winter is nothing short of brilliant. But make no mistake, this is Leo’s film and he gives one of his best leading performances of his career (Any other year and Dicaprio would have the Best Actor Oscar locked in his name, but 2013 has been incredibly competitive).

And yet, despite it being one of the most engrossing of 2013, there is a sort of shallow emptiness to the film. Maybe its because of its explosive nature, or the fact that the already-packed film had to be severely cut in order to meet a theater-friendly 3 hour running time. For whatever reason, Wall Street just doesn’t have the same smarts or character development that previous Scorsese masterpieces have unlike The Departed or Goodfellas. Despite it being so juvenile and cartoonish, The Wolf of Wall Street is easily the most entertaining thing I have seen all year.

Similar to: Goodfellas, Pain and Gain, Spring Breakers

Rating 8/10

 

Magic Magic (2013)

12 Aug

Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva made waves at this years Sundance Film Festival with two superb films staring Michael Cera that were both filmed on-location in Chile. Micheal Cera hasn’t always been one of my favorite actors, but his performance in Magic Magic shows he can be more than the self-conscious teen nerd he has come to be known for (Superbad, Juno, Arrested Development).

Magic Magic is the story of an American girl named Alicia (played by the always lovely Juno Temple), who visits her cousin studying in Chile.  Because of an unexpected exam, her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) is separated, leaving Alicia to journey with a group of strangers towards a vacation home on a mysterious island. Of course, things aren’t always what they appear to be, and what starts out as an innocent trip with some friends turns into a bizarre and unforgettable journey.

What really makes this film remarkable is the wonderful casting and chemistry that this group of friends share on-screen. Michael Cera is brilliant and adds a subtle but welcoming amount of comedic relief. Juno Temple is also fabulous and creates an intense mood in the film through her performance. Emily Browning, Catalina Moreno, and Augustin Silva make a great and believable supporting characters.

Some friendly advice: if you are the type who hates spoilers then DO NOT WATCH THE TRAILER, as it gives away far too much of the plot. If you aren’t into the weird, psychological sort of films, then this might not be your cup of tea, but I think Magic Magic is one of the year’s best for it’s unpredictability, wonderful cast, and intense thrilling script.

Rating: 8/10

Similar to: Black Swan, Repulsion, Sisters

Elysium (2013)

9 Aug

 

If you haven’t seen Niell Blomkamp’s directorial debut District 9, then Elysium will probably come off as one of the best sci-fi films to hit theaters recently.  But for those of us who saw (and loved) District 9, it’s impossible not to compare the two pictures, and unfortunately, the former proves Niel Blomkamp is capable of far better work.

Elysium follows Max (Matt Damon), who is living in Los Angeles over a hundred years from now.  Most of Earth as we know it has become degenerated to an overpopulated ghetto and the few richest citizens have moved up into space in this new-age living station thing called Elysium. Of course, its the earthlings who provide the manual labor and resources while the rich up above apparently spend their days tending the garden, speaking French and drinking white wine.

Things get complicated when Max undergoes an accident at work and receives harmful radiation which gives him a mere 5 days to live. Knowing he can be healed on Elysium, he plans some sort of espionage/hacking/hijacking scenario so he can get up there with the top. There is also this sub-plot involving his childhood crush and something about a South African man’s plot to take over Elysium by force, but we won’t get bother getting into that.

Anyway, while Blomkamp has some great ideas going, they never really go anywhere. While the film is fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining, the last 30 minutes are a cluttered mess that ends with a resolution that feels forced and uninteresting. Blomkamp makes up for his lack of story development by giving us some of the best visuals we have seen all year.  The man got his start in the industry from creating special effects, and (with the help of some of the guys from WETA) he shows off his expertise wonderfully.

The cast includes acting heavyweights Damon and Jodie Foster (who is tragically misused), and supporting work by Sharlto Copely, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, and Diego Luna. For the most part, everything works as it should, but there are times when the dialogue is thin and characters feel artificial.

District 9 was one of those rare films that finds the perfect balance of action, character, story, genre, and social commentary, all the while remaining true to its blockbuster form (without a leading star!) and refusing to be watered down to the family-friendly PG-13 film we have seen a zillion times over.  District 9 tries to follow in the same footsteps, but falls just a bit short. I give props to Bloomkamp for taking his big ideas about the Occupy/ “Us vs. Them” movement and bringing them to life, despite the fact that he might have bitten off more than he could chew in the process.

 

 

Rating 6/10

Similar to: Equilibrium, I Am Legend, Gattaca

 

 

Only God Forgives (2013)

8 Aug

After the surprising success of 2011’s stylish neo-noir Drive, director Nicholas Winding Refn had a lot of expectations to live up to.  When it was announced that heartthrob actor Ryan Gosling would again pair up with Refn to star in his next film Only God Forgives, fans were ecstatic, and creating something with more style and substance found in Drive would be no easy task.

While it is nowhere near from becoming a sort of “Drive 2”, Only God Forgives is a remarkable, and greatly under-appreciated film rich with subtleties.  The story follows a boxing gym owner/drug dealer named Julian (Ryan Gosling), whose brother is brutally murdered after the rape and killing of a 14 year old. Violence ensues as a vendetta between Julian’s family and the vengeful local law enforcement.

Visually, Refn is at the top of his game.  The scenes in Only God Forgives are stylishly shot with pin-point precision and detail. Refn has never been one to shy away from violence, but the blood in this film feels so raw and powerful, and the gore gives off such a shock when contrasted with the beauty and elegance found in the rest of the film.

The warbling, synth-ridden soundtrack by Cliff Martinez also helps gives the film a unique, darkening tone which culminates during the film’s standoff between Julian and the leading cop Chang. Kristen Scott-Thomas makes for a chilling mother, and gives the film an added depth of Freudian speculation.

While the plot doesn’t have the amount of complexity fans loved in Drive, Only God Forgives is still a brutal and dark film that grows on you the more you think about it.

Rating 7/10

Similar to: Drive, The Master, Stoker

The Way Way Back (2013)

7 Jul

Water parks and fireworks have long been staple of every American kid’s typical summertime, and these two elements provide the background for this rather typical indie drama. The Way Way Back tells the story of one introverted boy named Duncan and his eventual coming to terms with others around him, especially his mother’s divorce.

The film marks the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the writing duo known for their Oscar-winning screenplay to 2012’s The Descendants, and the similarities are evident between the two films. Both are character-driven dramas about parental figures who are out-of-touch with their children, both films display instances of awkward youth romances, both films are shot on these exotic sea-side locations that upper-class white families can afford.  Overall, it seemed to me that this was just a copy+paste of the exact formula that won these directors an Academy Award. Which is all fine and dandy, except I didn’t really enjoy The Descendants that much in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, The Way Way Back is a very enjoyable, family-friendly movie.  The ensemble cast, (featuring Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janey, and the ever-entertaining Sam Rockwell) is great and the story, while predictable and irrational, is fast-paced and heartfelt. Most impressively, the film wraps things up at a neat and clean 103 minutes. It’s even got a good amount of smart, witty humor.

The main issue here is that the characters (with the exception of Rockwell’s and Rudolph’s) felt fake and overused, playing off of cliche’s we have all seen a billion times before. The film was made by two amateur directors, and boy – it shows, especially with the children.  Acting heavyweights like Carrell and Janey can hold their own and create bearable chemistry, but the scenes featuring two children flirting with each other (and there was by far too much of that) felt so awkward and forced into a trope that I literally had to close my eyes.

The one bright beam of light here that makes the film enjoyable was Sam Rockwell, who delivers his lines so well that even at their cheesiest (“You need to learn how to create your own path”) are a welcoming relief to the lackluster script.

What Faxon and Rash need to realize is that in a character-driven film like this, characters must take priority over everything else and should be developed into authentic and memorable individuals (think Little Miss Sunshine, The Squid and the Whale, The Ice Storm, or any David O. Russel or P.T. Anderson film) and not simply used as cookie-cutter plot devices.

 

Rating 5/10

Similar to: The Descendants, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Moneyball

 

The Purge (2013)

5 Jun

It is so refreshing these days to see a horror film get its thrills from a smart concept rather than relentless blood and gore. The Purge, though gaping with plot holes, is brutal, creepy and smart in its own special way.

Now, I don’t mean to say that the Purge is void of all blood and violence – in fact the premise is really built around the opposite idea: create one day out of the year where all forms of crime have virtually no legal consequences.  There are a few cringe-worthy moments of violence here, (most notably during the opening where we see CCTV footage from historical purge nights) but this film works because it leaves the real horror up to the imagination.  Ethan Hawke plays the leading man, and after the success of last years Sinister he proves he can handle the genre well.  There are some great twists and turns in the film, some more predictable than others, and while it does fall into typical horror conventions at points, it is still (surprisingly) thought provoking.

At a tidy 85 minutes, The Purge never overstays its welcome. In fact, there were a lot of ideas in the film that didn’t really get fleshed out like I wanted to, and with the wealth of material and ideas presented here, I wouldn’t be that opposed to a sequel. Which may be the biggest shocker to me above all.

5/10 stars

Similar to: Straw Dogs, Panic Room, When A Stranger Calls

Frances Ha (2013)

2 Jun

HBO’s hit series GIRLS is known its intimate look at life through the lens of four aspiring young intellectual women living in 21st century New York. Frances Ha, a film by Noah Baumbach, goes down that same path, giving us a taste of the complicated and multilayered world of today’s youth.

Baumbach (mostly known for his masterpiece The Squid and the Whale and occasional collaborations with Wes Anderson), directs his films with such a pinpoint precision that gives his characters room to walk and breath. Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the film, is incredible as the leading lady Frances, and it becomes so hard not to fall in love despite her character flaws.

Yes, the comparisons to GIRLS are unavoidable (both even feature upcoming actor Adam Driver), but Frances Ha sticks out as being more memorable because of its moving pureness and unique energy. Lena Dunham would be proud.

7/10 stars

Similar to: Tiny Furniture, Breathless, Silver Linings Playbook