Monthly Archive for January, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (1/27/14) DWA screening (2013 ***1/2) Directed by Martin Scorsese, based on the book by Jordan Belfort, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner and Jean Dujardin. Based on a true story, stockbroker Jordan Belfort and his employees live lives of excess and debauchery while becoming filthy rich by skirting the law. As a Martin Scorsese fan, I was very much looking forward to this film, and not just because it contains copious amounts of female nudity and 506 f-bombs. It’s a good film, well made, and I enjoyed it for the most part. Many reviewers have noted its similarities to Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), a film I’m long overdue to revisit. However, with its 3-hour running time I found Wolf about a half hour too long, and my interest waned during the latter half of the second act. Specifically, there were a few scenes featuring Jonah Hill that seemed prolonged, possibly due to on-set improvisation. Don’t get me wrong: I loved Hill’s performance, but some scenes strongly resembled the deliberately stretched scenes in Family Guy. The Wolf of Wall Street is certainly worthy of its Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. However, having seen David O. Russell’s American Hustle, which I preferred, I don’t expect Scorsese’s film to win.

Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor

Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor (1/25/14) SHO (2013 ***) Directed by John Wager, featuring wounded veterans: Bobby Henline, Rob Jones, Joe Kashnow, Stephen Rice and Darisse Smith, with comedy coaches: Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis, B.J. Novak, Bob Saget and others. Five veterans wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put together and perform standup with the help of experts in the field. Of the five subjects of this documentary, it was really Henline who stood out. While serving, his tank hit an IED and was blown 60 feet into the air and he suffered burns across 40% of his body. After numerous skin graft operations, his appearance remains quite shocking, and not exactly conducive to standup comedy. It was clear that he and his fellow vets came to this admirable project with varying degrees of innate talent. They were very lucky to have the chance to be mentored by professional comics and writers. Beyond the wounded vet angle of the documentary, it was just interesting to watch the process they went through. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering if I were capable of writing and performing a set at a comedy club, and this film gave me a sense of what the preparation for that would be like.

Mitt

Mitt (1/24/14) Netflix (2014 ***) Written and directed by Greg Whiteley, featuring interviews with and footage of Mitt and Ann Romney and their children. The 2008 and 2012 Presidential races are presented by a documentarian imbedded with the Romney family. Full disclosure: As a registered (and philosophical) member of the Democratic party, I never had any intention of voting for Mitt Romney or in fact any other Republican candidate. However, throughout the 2012 campaign, I never had a particular dislike of him. Like many Democrats, I was very concerned following the first presidential debate, in which Romney more or less cleaned the proverbial clock of the ill-prepared standing president Barack Obama. On the whole, Whitely’s documentary humanized and painted a sympathetic portrait of then-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. It also provided more of a context for his apparently dismissive “47 percent” remark, which may or may not have cost him the election. From other footage (including several delightful scenes of Romney cleaning up), I got a sense that his unfortunate remark came more from a pattern of pragmatism. Simply stated, I liked Romney quite a bit more after watching it, and it’s only natural to wonder what would have happened, had he won the election, even if I’m still personally glad that he did not. Still, I must admit a curiosity about why this documentary is coming out now. What does the timing mean? With the 2016 election two years away, is Romney possibly headed back into the political spotlight?

The Bank Job

The Bank Job (1/23/14) Netflix (2008 ***1/2) Directed by Roger Donaldson, starring Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, Stephen Campbell Moore and Hattie Morahan. A small-time crook named Terry Leather gets roped into a plot to tunnel into the safe-deposit box room at a London bank. To be honest, I didn’t expect much from this based-on-a-true-story “heist” movie. In fact, I confused it with The Italian Job (2003), the one that featured Cooper minis. I was very pleasantly surprised, right from the get-go. It didn’t hurt that the film featured heaping helpings of female nudity within its first five minutes. But what really kept my attention was the intricacies of the plot, with plenty of double-dealings and Statham’s character playing various nefarious forces against each other. I’m generally a receptive audience for any heist film, and The Bank Job does offer a nail-biting robbery. But after the job was done and the robbers had divided up their spoils, the story morphed into a different creature, but still entertaining and satisfying, nonetheless.

Magic Mike

Magic Mike (1/21/14) HBO (2012 ***) Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Reid Carolin, starring Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn and Olivia Munn. A 30-year-old male stripper in Tampa takes a young kid under his wing. There was a great deal of press surrounding this film when it was released, with much fuss made about Tatum’s past as an exotic dancer. This movie, which falls somehow short of being a character study, was really a series of naturalistic “slice of life” scenes in Magic Mike’s life, punctuated by male stripping set pieces. It was well written, which went a long way toward keeping the film as a whole from being exploitative. McConaughey’s over-the-top performance as Dallas, the strip club’s owner and manager, was a definite standout. However, it was hard for me to relate to anyone in the film, even the highly sympathetic main character. And ultimately I didn’t care enough about Adam, the self-destructive hothead Mike promises to take care of, to care what happened to him.

I Married a Witch

I Married a Witch (1/20/14) TCM (1942 **1/2) Directed by Rene Clair, based on the story by Thorne Smith, starring Fredric March, Veronica Lake, Cecil Kellaway, Robert Benchley and Susan Hayward. A politician falls in love with (and marries) a 17th century witch with a proclivity for seductive attire. On the surface, this film was an obvious precursor to TV’s Bewitched, though it differs in one important respect: Gorgeous witch Jennifer (Lake) and her father Daniel never distance themselves from the dark side of their chosen beliefs and witchcraft, and, presumably, the out-and-out worship of evil in general and Satan in particular. In fact, their first act after being freed by an errant lightning bolt is to set fire to a hotel filled with sleeping guests. Committing arson is something Samantha Stevens never would have done, though her mother Endora might have been tempted to from time to time. Overall, I Married a Witch was a mildly enjoyable film, though there was a sense throughout that it could have been better written. Still, I sure didn’t hate watching Veronica Lake wearing sexy (and clingy) bedclothes for half the film.

Muppets from Space

Muppets from Space (1/20/14) ENC (1999 ***) Directed by Tim Hill, featuring the voices and puppetry of Dave Goelz (Gonzo), Steve Whitmore (Kermit) and Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzie), with appearances by Jeffrey Tambor, Ray Liotta, Kathy Griffin (!) and several other familiar faces of the late 1990s. Gonzo receives messages he believes are from outer space, triggering the interest of a top secret government agency dedicated to protecting our planet from alien invasions. Muppets from Space was the sixth film in the series and the one that marked the apparent end of the film franchise. The property was “rebooted” with 2011’s successful Jason Segel-driven The Muppets, which was greeted with critical praise (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) and box office success as well. Watching Muppets from Space for the first time, I wonder why it didn’t do better, because it’s not a bad film at all. It certainly contained plenty of the antic humor that makes Jim Henson’s Muppets what they’re best known for. My best guess is that the late 90s was a time when the zeitgeist had shifted and filmgoers were craved computer generated imagery and creature effects. Of course, that’s the polar opposite of what the low-tech Muppets are all about. And, quite frankly, the film had a couple of God-awful CG particle effects shots that made me cringe.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Spiderwick Chronicles (1/20/14) Netflix (2008 ***) Directed by Mark Waters, based on the books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, starring Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Sarah Bolger and David Strathaim with the voices of Seth Rogen and Martin Short. A family moves into a creepy old house and the discovery of a secret book unlocks a fantastical world. I have vague memories of this film’s release, but at the time I think it got lost amongst a lot of similar films that all felt like Harry Potter wannabes. Consequently, I didn’t expect much, but right away I connected with it. I’m not exactly sure why, but I particularly liked the fact that the main characters were two twin boys, both played by Freddie Highmore. While much of the actual action of the film was an extended chase sequence punctuated by fights, there were a lot of ideas that felt fresh and inventive and the execution was quite effective. Looking at RottenTomatoes.com, it appears to have gotten solid reviews (80%) but earned only $71 million in receipts, which is undoubtedly why a sequel was never made.

St. Elmo’s Fire

St. Elmo’s Fire (1/18/14) Sundance (1985 ***1/4) Directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Joel Schumacher and Carl Kurlander, starring Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore and Mare Winningham. Seven college friends face “the real world” with varying degrees of success. You may find this astonishing, but I don’t believe I had ever seen this well-known “Brat Pack” film before now. My wife told me it was one of her favorites and that when she was younger she’d wanted to be Ally Sheedy’s character. (I told her that in many respects I thought she’d succeeded.) It’s a good, well-written film, though it feels understandably dated now, and many of the lead actors still had some work to do on their craft. Societal norms have changed as well, and it was particularly hard for me to root for Estevez’s character, as his obsessive behavior is known in 2014 as “stalking.” Also, as a man in his late 40s, it was a little hard to hear Demi Moore complain to Rob Lowe: “I never thought I’d feel this tired at twenty-two.” I have a hunch that this film was written as a deliberate attempt to make The Big Chill (1983) with a younger ensemble, which was in many respects laughable. But you know what? In expressing that, I’m a hypocrite, because I know damned well that I had more than my fair share of nostalgia for my college days when I was in my mid-20s.

Pleasantville

Pleasantville (1/14/14) ENC (1998 ***) Written and directed by Gary Ross, starring Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, William H. Macy and Don Knotts. Two teenagers from the tail end of the 20th century find themselves transported via their television set to the utopian 1950s town of Pleasantville. I have very distinct memories of loving this film when it was first released, and in fact I recall seeing it twice in the theater. Watching this film again after so many years yielded a surprisingly mixed experience. As the film began, setting up the “real” world in which pimply-faced oddball David and his slutty sister lived, I kept asking myself: “This is the movie I really loved?” The writing simply seemed atrocious. Just really, really bad. I wondered if I’d just liked it for it’s (at the time) groundbreaking digital effects? After all, the use of deliberate black & white / colorization was one of the first times filmmakers began to explore, metaphorically, the colors in their digital box of crayons. But as the film progressed, the tone began to shift, with its story taking on a greater emotional component. There was something about the film’s bluntly-stated message that got to me when I originally saw it and still gets to me now. Consequently, the last two-thirds of the film really worked for me on an emotional level, and I found my eyes welling up more than a few times. In the cold light of day, however, I really wish that writer/director Ross had been more willing to employ subtlety in his storytelling. This was never more in evidence than when a tough character named “Whitey” taunts David about his “colored” girlfriend. But even with that significant complaint, the acting by the entire cast was superb and Ross’s directing was flawless and Pleasantville ended on a highly satisfying note.