Friday, December 27, 2013


Martin Scorsese's whoopin' and hollerin' "The Wolf of Wall Street" has a lot in common with David O. Russell's zany and freewheeling "American Hustle." They both deserved more time in the editing room, two overlong sagas that have been hotly anticipated by critics and will both be lauded by the Academy. Maybe I missed the boat. With Scorsese's "Wolf," we have a two-hour-and-fifty-nine-minute film chock full of scenes that could've been trimmed by minutes. Add those minutes up, and it's the running time audiences should've been spared. Adapted by screenwriter Terence Winter ("Boardwalk Empire," "The Sopranos,"), the story of Wall Street master swindler and money laundering expert who started his own firm at age 22 and went on to screw over millions is no sprawling epic. It's filmed as an unrelenting barrage of excess, hopped up on the cocaine and quaaludes Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes for breakfast and the rest of these guys put into their system to stay numb to their sins -- didn't I make a similar drug reference to "American Hustle"'s style? I digress.

It's a parade of debauchery. Cocaine, the outlawed prescription pill quaaludes, booze, parties, more booze, bikini-clad strippers, more quaaludes, topless hookers, bottomless hookers, Leonardo DiCaprio's sinfully gleeful Jordan Belfort banging his hot wife (Margot Robbie) on a literal bed of money. OK, OK, we get it. This guy's rich, has no regard for any of the victims piling up in the wake of his success and is choosing to completely ignore his inevitable capture and downfall, and instead he soldiers on with reckless abandon. Ninety minutes later, we're still looking at the same guy. Smart move to have the film narrated by Belfort and make it from his perspective, which turns the film into a (very dark) comedy. Otherwise we'd blow our brains out.

There's no denying that DiCaprio's performance here is the craziest he's done and arguably his going-all-out, over-the-top barbaric best. Belfort, obsessed with a reality of himself that could only possibly remain temporary, is cut from the same cloth of DiCaprio's Gatsby earlier this year. Just hopped up on coke. He drives a white Lamborghini, lives in a beautiful mansion, fuels his mind on a cocktail of drugs, commands his office like the leader of a clan and carelessly drunk-pilots his helicopter which otherwise rests perched atop his extravagant yacht.

There are a number of great scenes. The film's best is actually its quietest moment when Belfort sits face-to-face meeting the very FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) trying to take him down. Watch the conversation weave against Belfort's favor and his expression morph when he realizes it's not going his way. The polar opposite is a scene where Jonah Hill's Donnie Azoff, in a performance that's like a whacked-out version of his Oscar-nominated turn in "Moneyball," takes aged lemmon quaaludes with his co-conspirator Belfort. They slam a fistful of pills, rendering them rolling on the ground useless, slurring their speech and hardly in control of their motor skills. It's slapstick absurdity, and it's an unsettling riot.

Matthew McConaughey (still thin from "Dallas Buyers Club") drops by in two early scenes and steals the show, showing a young, eager, not yet tainted Belfort the ropes of brokering, mandating he masturbate two times a day in order to stay sharp. Later, when the seasoned Belfort shouts in a microphone to his crowded, rowdy room of sleazy brokers eager like a room full of horny frat boys, the movie is firing on all cylinders.

It's pop-pop, bang-bang, non-stop all the time in "Wolf." Keeping that momentum up drains an audience who's awaiting an outcome other than the bitterly predictable. Go out with something for us to gnaw on, mull over about the depravity and dark underbelly of the American dream, of the get rich quick mentality. The live-wire energy is there and never not boring, and it's a grandiose display of sensationalism and crass capitalism, but in the end, what's it all for?

Friday, December 20, 2013

HER Review

Upon hearing the premise of Spike Jonze's "Her" -- the story of a man who falls in love with an operating system -- one may write it off as a surrealist dystopian gimmick. Quite the opposite. The wildly talented writer/director has already finessed such absurdist premises from Charlie Kaufman into wonderful works of art from "Being John Malkovich" to "Adaptation." In his directorial debut, Jonze adapated Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" into a bold reimagining of childhood. Now in his fourth feature, he has given us a startling new way to look at the world. It's an elegiac meditation on relationships and how we live today, and it's brilliant.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a smart and kind but desperately lonely man who's still reeling from a break-up with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), a year later. He lives in the not-so-distant future in Los Angeles, a very nonsleek and tactile-looking future, an aesthetic that could only be thought up by Spike Jonze. Theodore works for a company that composes hand-written letters to loved ones, but they are written by the company's employees. So, he spends his days diving into the personal lives of others, trying his best to avoid his own. It's the first sign of the large emotional disconnect this society experiences, and it's not so far from our own reality.

Consider the citizens walking around with what look like hearing aids plugged into their ears, talking to themselves; or, rather, talking to their operating system (OS). Google Glass, anyone? In this world, a new version has just been released, OS 1, with an ever-adapting personality that suits the user's every need. Theodore gets his own and is introduced to the self-named Samantha. "Hello, I am here," she says into the darkness of Theodore's living room. And so it begins.

Samantha is, almost inevitably, voiced by Scarlett Johansson whose smoky, girl-next-door demeanor gives the disembodied voice a necessary physicality throughout the blossoming of her and Theodore's relationship. What starts off quirky and cute transforms into a romance that is totally serious and, amazingly enough, believable and true. Johansson is soulful and charming in the completely off-screen role, while Phoenix gives a performance in pure isolation that is as potent as, if not more than, the widely-acclaimed Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" and Robert Redford in "All Is Lost."

Theodore does have human connection in his life. His co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) is in a happy human relationship while his friend Amy (Amy Adams, resembling a frizzy-haired Cameron Diaz from "Being John Malkovich"), is in an unsatisfied human relationship. Theodore eventually has the confidence to announce to them that, yes, he is dating his OS. Enchanting, beautiful and deeply sad -- aided greatly by a score from Arcade Fire, featuring the last track "Supersymmetry" off their new album -- the film isn't about an OS but about what such a relationship does to the human condition.

"Her" begins to lose shape and momentum in its third act, but that's also when the film's message starts to seep in. How do we reach out to find human connection? We're left wondering about the possibility of true love and whether we are forever caught up in ourselves to honestly connect to another person. And in the end, the absence of all distraction -- our computers, technology, our highly-advanced operating systems -- might allow us to finally see what's right in front of us.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


David O. Russell has been making movies for decades, but it appears he only recently fell into his groove as a filmmaker. With "American Hustle," his third movie in just four years, it's as if he's realized this high and wanted to take absolute advantage of it, churning out three acclaimed awards contendors. He has called "The Fighter," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle" a spiritual trilogy, and in a sense, it is. All three films carry a manic, frenzied energy with oddball characters who bicker, banter and find unexpected depths. This time, Russell gathered Christian Bale and Amy Adams from one movie, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from his other movie, threw in Jeremy Renner for good measure, decided to play dress-up with them full of bodaciously bad hair and flashy lapels, and with it, he's concocted a glorious, delicious mess.

"Some of this actually happens" prefaces the story of a 1978 FBI sting operation that resulted in the conviction of six congressmen and a U.S. senator. At the story's center is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), professional scam artist with his feisty mistress and partner in crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). She's so wrapped up in the world of conning that she's developed her own Brit alter ego. Yanking Irving's chain back at home with his adopted kid is his unpredictable sexpot wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who's ready to screw him over at a moment's notice.

Bring in mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the guinea pig of the operation, and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the FBI operative who controls the setup but has to constantly check his back to make sure he's not getting conned by the con artists he's working with. It's a deliriously mad screenplay co-written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer that twists, turns and double-crosses but  more often than not hardly holds it together. And directed with Russell's eye, swooping cameras and zippy editing, the thing moves fast and talks fast, like it's hopped up on the drug-laden 70s era in which its set.

What saves it is undoubtedly the electrifying top-tier cast. The film's first image is Bale, who packed on 40 pounds for the role, orchestrating his character's elaborate facade of a combover that is the worst the world has seen. He's shlubby, disgusting and plays the part right on the edge, similar to the wild brother in "The Fighter." Adams, sporting unheard of amounts of sideboob in skimpy dresses, gives her best performance since "Junebug," playing a woman so in conflict with herself more than anybody around her, it's sad and absurd. And Cooper rocks those tight curls in his hair as the one who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, especially when sparring with a deadpan boss played by Louis C.K.

The weakest link? It pains me to say, but it's Jennifer Lawrence even with her scenery-chewing scenes, which are an absolute kick, most notably her roaring rendition of "Live and Let Die." In the smallish role, her magnetism remains, but the young actress at 23 just doesn't fit the part, and it shows. It's too bad she's the one among these dynamite performances who will most likely go on to Academy acclaim. "Silver Linings" was her shining moment; not this.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

71st Annual Golden Globe Award Nominations

Thanks to major contenders' ability to be weirdly slotted into the comedy or musical best picture category, it didn't allow any weird or random choices (a la "The Tourist," "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen") this morning during the nominees announcement for the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards.

"Nebraska" and "Her" are comedies? "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a musical? According to the HFPA, they sure are. This unfortunately, however, left out non-prestige comedies such as "This Is the End," easily the funniest, best comedy of the year, out of the running completely.

"12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle" led the field with a whopping seven nominations each, the wide spread made available thanks to the two movies getting split up by genre.

"12 Years a Slave" joined "Captain Phillips" and "Gravity" in the best drama category along with left-fielders "Philomena" and "Rush." While the HFPA picked up these latter two films, it's unlikely the Academy will repeat the honor.

The best comedy or musical category saw "American Hustle" nominated with "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Nebraska," "Her" and "Inside Llewyn Davis." Out of both best picture categories, a notable snub is the Oscar-ready "Saving Mr. Banks," whose chances are now quite damaged considering no SAG or HFPA love for best picture or ensemble. Then there's the complete absence of any nominations for "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

A notable inclusion is "Her," which should be on everyone's radar for Oscar nominations now considering its inclusion in the critics groups last week and its healthy representation in today's nominations.

Best director nominations went to Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave," Paul Greengrass for "Captain Phillips," Alfonso Cuaron for "Gravity," David O. Russell for "American Hustle" and Alexander Payne for "Nebraska." While the first four are likely to repeat in the Oscars, Payne for "Nebraska" will probably get swapped out for Scorsese's "Wolf" or the Coen brothers for "Inside Llewn Davis."

With Forest Whitaker of "The Butler" gone, this left space for Idris Elba for "Mandela" to get nominated in the best actor drama category next to Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club," Chiwetel Ejiofor for "12 Years a Slave," Robert Redford for "All Is Lost" and Tom Hanks for "Captain Phillips." Those four will repeat at the Oscars, and Bruce Dern for "Nebraska" could slip in over Whitaker.

Best actress drama saw frontrunner Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine" with Sandra Bullock for "Gravity," Judi Dench for "Philomena," Emma Thompson for "Saving Mr. Banks" and, with Meryl Streep stuffed into the best actress category for "August: Osage County," it left room for Kate Winslet for "Labor Day" to enter the race.

Joining Streep in best actress comedy or musical was Amy Adams for "American Hustle," Julie Delpy for the sole representation of "Before Midnight," and the very welcomed inclusions of Julia Louis-Dreyfus for "Enough Said" and Greta Gerwig for "Frances Ha." HFPA stands as the only awards group so far this season to recognize Gerwig's great work in the indie comedy.

Bruce Dern for "Nebraska" fell into the best actor comedy or musical category along with Christian Bale for "American Hustle," Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Wolf of Wall Street," Joaquin Phoenix for "Her" and Oscar Isaac for "Inside Llewyn Davis." The strange categorical split allows for a wider spread of worthy nominations such as this to happen.

Aside from Oprah Winfrey for "The Butler" in the best supporting actress category, these four actresses represent what we'll likely see in the category for the Oscars: June Squibb for "Nebraska," Julia Roberts for "August: Osage County," Jennifer Lawrence for "American Hustle" and Lupita Nyong'o for "12 Years a Slave." The fifth outlier? Sally Hawkins for "Blue Jasmine," a well-deserved inclusion nonetheless.

In the best supporting actor category, it appears Daniel Bruhl for "Rush" and Barkhad Abdi for "Captain Phillips" are indeed in for the Oscars, considering their double SAG and HFPA nominations. Joining them were Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club," Bradley Cooper for "American Hustle" and Michael Fassbender for "12 Years a Slave."

What can we take-away from this morning's Golden Globe nominations announcement? Nothing really. Aside from the fact that the HFPA must have weird standards for what constitutes a comedy or musical. In any case, it allowed for a wider spread of worthy films to get nominations in -- save for the bizarre "Butler" shut-out. What else? "Her" and "Nebraska" are indeed contenders for Oscar best picture and beyond. Their potential was a little quieter until now.

Check here for a full list of nominations, and tune in to the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards with the return of hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. / 5 p.m. EST.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

20th Annual SAG Award Nominations

This morning's 20th Annual SAG Award nominations announcement brought with it an early frontrunner status for "12 Years a Slave," which scored four nominations total.

Chiwetel Ejiofor landed in the best actor category next to Tom Hanks for "Captain Phillips," Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club," Forest Whitaker for "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and the nice inclusion of Bruce Dern for his career-topping performance in "Nebraska," which boosts the veteran actor's Oscar nomination chances against the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Wolf of Wall Street" and the other veteran actor in the running, Robert Redford for "All Is Lost."

Michael Fassbender represented "12 Years a Slave" in the best supporting actor category, alongside Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club," the other expected frontrunner. The rest of the category was a bit of a mixed bag, including the surprises of James Gandolfini for "Enough Said," boosting a well-deserved posthumous Oscar chance, as well as first-time actor Barkhad Abdi for "Captain Phillips," and lastly, Daniel Bruhl for "Rush," perhaps the only representation of Ron Howard's film we'll see this awards season.

In the best supporting actress category, Lupita Nyong'o received a nomination for "12 Years a Slave" with fellow frontrunner Oprah Winfrey for "Lee Daniels' The Butler," and then Jennifer Lawrence for "American Hustle" and Julia Roberts for "August: Osage County," all four of which will be repeated come Oscar nomination morning. The fifth slot appears more and more up for grabs with a nomination for June Squibb for "Nebraska" against such competition as Sally Hawkins for "Blue Jasmine."

The only category without "12 Years a Slave" was best actress, with five nominations that firm up exactly what we'll see with the Oscars. They are: Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine," Sandra Bullock for "Gravity," Judi Dench for "Philomena," Emma Thompson for "Saving Mr. Banks" and Meryl Streep for "August: Osage County."

The cast of "12 Years a Slave" faces off for best ensemble against best picture contenders "American Hustle," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and, lastly, "August: Osage County," which boosts its Oscar best picture chances in an otherwise crowded category with high prestige pictures.

What does it mean for "The Wolf of Wall Street" earning zero representation here with the SAG nominations? Probably not much at all as it's not considered an actors movie but more about craft. The best picture chances of "Blue Jasmine" would've boded well here, too, had it earned a best ensemble nomination.

Check here for a full list of nominees, and tune in to the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Saturday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. / 5 p.m. PST on TNT and TBS.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


There's an inherent problem with director John Lee Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks," and it occurs within the first few scenes and continues happening over and over again. After being introduced to the film's star, the always excellent Emma Thompson, we flash back to a young girl in the early 1900s living with her family in Australia. Thompson plays prickly author P.L. Travers who penned the series of "Mary Poppins" books upon which Disney's widely lauded 1964 film is based. The young girl in the flashback is Travers, but instead of lightly shading in this real life woman's childhood, the screenplay from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith decides to bludgeon viewers over the head with backstory.

Travers is flown in from London to the Happiest Place on Earth, where she meets the one and only Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). All she has to do is sign the contract that gives Disney the licensing rights to her Mary Poppins, but the surly, unruly author quickly proves it won't be that easy. Thompson lights up the screen, landing quips and snappy barbs with panache. She's a treat to behold and registers enough pain to give insight as to why she's making working with her so difficult.

The parallel story running with this is Travers' troubled childhood with her reckless, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). These flashbacks come at an alarming frequency and occur whenever the main storyline starts to get interesting, rendering all sense of drama completely moot. The flashbacks unnecessarily take up half the running time and don't give Thompson enough credit as an actress. She isn't given nearly enough opportunity to read into her own character's backstory without the presence of head-banging obviousness.

"Saving Mr. Banks" is at its most fun and works as mainstream entertainment in the rehearsal rooms with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and clever lyricists Robert and Richard Sherman played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwarzman, respectively. It's delightful watching the men work and tip-toe their way around dealing with Travers' demands, staying true to their own vision and keeping her happy. And of course whenever Tom Hanks appears onscreen, it's -- spit-spot! -- as good as can be.

But the sappy awards contendor also boils down to pure self-indulgence. The appeal of looking back on Disney's most valued property only goes so far, running on the fumes of its nostalgia and proving that, once and for all, perhaps the company does a bit too much sugar-coating.

Friday, December 6, 2013


1961, Greenwich Village, New York. The dawn of the early folk music scene. We meet Llewyn Davis, struggling musician. Played by Oscar Isaac (in plenty of films but never a leading solo man), he sits on a stool at a mic before a smattering of an audience inside a dingy club. "Hang me, oh hang me, and I'll be dead and gone," he croons. Performed by Isaac, the music is the first and foremost thing to notice about Joel and Ethan Coen's latest, "Inside Llewyn Davis." The second thing to notice: this is the writer-director duo's perhaps least plot-driven film but the most solemnly meditative since their Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men." It's a contemplative character study of the highest order and while a bit obtuse, the film looks deep at how a great artist can (or cannot) rise from great adversity.

Llewyn steps off the stage, enters the club's back alley and gets beaten to the ground. Why? We don't know. Just his luck, we suppose. The film is a slow burn as we watch him crash couch to couch, a wandering soul looking for himself. Here's a man not trying to make it as a successful musician but trying to make it at all. He slumps into the apartment of Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). No backstory required. We deduce that Llewyn once slept with Jean and uses her as a crutch. Brashly played up by Mulligan, she hounds on him calling him a useless asshole. If they ever once were, they are no more. With Jim, he and Jean have their own folk group that gets a better reception than when Llewyn plays. It eats at him. Embodying Llewyn, Isaac delivers a bittersweet combination of sorrow and deadpan humor.

One gig from Jim, which Llewyn decides to take for some quick cash, is a goofball song about President Kennedy and rockets, "Please Mr. Kennedy." Adam Driver of HBO's "Girls" sits in as the guy making the cartoonish "whoops!" and "zoings!" of the accompaniment. It's a bad tune that's somehow still highly enjoyable, a signifier of the kind of songwriting care that went into the script. In a rush, Llewyn decides to not sign a contract to receive royalties on the song which, inevitably, will later become a hit. Desperate for exposure and let down by his ancient manager, he hitchhikes to Chicago to put himself in person with a music producer.

Enter a most surrealist vision, a mood which permeates throughout, the film's aesthetic clouded in a dreamlike haze. Llewyn hitches a ride with the quiet, resolute Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and the mythic, rude Roland Turner (John Goodman). How these two came to be, and where are they going? We don't know. They are only a device for Llewyn to continue on his way. A Coen mainstay, Goodman arrives back to his first film for the brothers in 15 years and commands the screen for the brief, bizarre role.

There's also an orange cat. And plenty of other strange, illusive encounters. But there's the cat. The one Llewyn accidentally lets escape from one of his couch-surfing apartment stays. The one he thinks is the same one he lost but ends up being a different orange cat. But there's always the cat. The burden. We follow Llewyn for one week in his life. And at its conclusion, we find ourselves right back where we started. It's a trick the Coens play but not a bad trick; it's an existential one that illustrates an open-ended theme, one about the journey to finally make it. It's cyclical; it's all the same. It repeats and repeats until eventually you either make it -- or, in the case of Llewyn, our sad sack hero, you don't.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


In the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an old Irish woman in her 70s who kept the secret of her abducted child for 50 years, it's less about discovering the details of her son but what these discoveries mean for her. As portrayed in Stephen Frears ("Dirty Pretty Things," "The Queen") new film, it's thank goodness for Judi Dench who manages to not sentimentalize the sometimes naive and simple character always looking for the best in people. So much so that she hesitates before incriminating the very convent who stole her three-year-old son away from her when she was a teenaged girl.

The covent's nuns are quickly dubbed the "evil nuns" of Philomena's human interest story, one that British political writer and journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) begrudgingly takes on after being out of a job. He doesn't necessarily care for Philomena's personal story but is cherry-picking for what would make good journalism, "evil nuns" included. The fact is, however, they are a representation of the worst of Catholicism: shockingly cruel acts committed under a veneer of sanctity. Also touched on throughout the film: the ignorant social restrictions of the Republican party.

But all of this is contained within a film that is quaint and slight, never committing to deeper moral themes about institutional wrongs. Co-written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, the film suffers from tonal confusion but mostly maintains a light, pleasant air occasionally dipping into emotional waters via Dench's soulful performance. Coogan's Sixsmith remains a one-note curmudgeon throughout, which is darkly humorous -- as the actor's most dramatic role yet -- but it begins to tire, especially when the always well-meaning Philomena can't even break through to him. A woman who manages to forgive a horrible sin committed against her should be able to transfer a lesson on to the man, but to no avail.

"Philomena" boils down to Judi Dench, giving us a woman no stranger to sorrow but who knows how to put her best foot forward. It's both a delightfully playful and fittingly gloomy performance that deserves the accolades it'll receive come Oscar time. Although the dame deserved it just as much playing the ill-fated M from last year's "Skyfall."