Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Real Gekko: "Wolf of Wall Street" an in-your-face, shockingly raunchy, savagely funny bender

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
179 min., rated R.

David O. Russell's "American Hustle" has been receiving so much praise as a good Martin Scorsese movie that wasn't directed by Martin Scorsese. Rather, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the real Scorsese's latest and, while one can see the auteur's rhapsodic, in-your-face sensibilities on display, it fits perfectly into 2013's hedonistic trifecta, including "Spring Breakers," "The Bling Ring" and "Pain & Gain." Like those films, it's another bold indictment of extreme, entitled people with a screw-it attitude living their version of the American Dream. Like those films, this one will probably be misunderstood, too. Unapologetically cynical and savagely funny, this darkly comic cautionary tale chronicles the decidedly unsanitized true story of Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort, a sort of twisted Robin Hood, in all of his fraudulent and debaucherous glory. Director Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter take the candid honesty of Belfort's 2007 memoir and unleash a ballsy, brazenly perverse joyride. If one sees the film as excessive and repetitious, that's because it's very meta in its cinematic approach, being in the service of the dichotomy of wealth and greed and the free-wheeling characters' own excess and retrograde lifestyle. Alternately exhilarating and exhausting at a running time just short of three hours, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is an invigoratingly decadent and rollickingly amoral frenzy. Never has a Scorsese film had so much cheek, and not just the literal, objectified kind.

From the word go, the film plummets us into a brokerage firm on Wall Street, a boys' club where agents turn "dwarf tossing" into a competitive office game. The firm is introduced as a frat house, although the women aren't much better, one equally macho female selling her soul for a job and a female sales assistant agreeing to shave her head for $10,000. They're all drunk with power, success and money. Played by a most fearless Leonardo DiCaprio (who narrates and speechifies throughout), Jordan Belfort starts off humbly as a 22-year-old mentee with big potential in 1987 before becoming a self-made megalomaniac. His first day on Wall Street gave him the high to earn millions, until the stock market soon crashed. But Black Monday didn't stop Jordan. He sought out a low-rent firm in Long Island and ended up showing the little guys the ropes when it came to fast dialing and bullshitting for penny stocks. An unsavory Forbes article made for good publicity, allowing Jordan to start his own boiler room, Stratton Oakmont, in a garage and bring on more brokers who would become Jordan's money-hungry cronies, including partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Securing an income for his life in the Big Apple with wife Teresa (Cristin Miloti), he spots the va-va-voomy Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) at one of his mansion parties and makes her his second wife. Though the key to his success is cocaine and he can't get through the day without his diet of Quaaludes, his real drug addiction is money, which he uses to snort, of course. Jordan thinks he's the salt of the earth and has no qualms about deceit, just as long as the morally bankrupt scumbag is making a quick buck.

With no holds barred, "The Wolf of Wall Street" was edited down from an NC-17 rating and a much longer cut, although it's hard to tell what was left on the cutting-room floor. Frankly, thin-skinned viewers who decide not to go on the ride because the film features so many unlikable, unfiltered characters will be missing the point. To get to the blistering condemnation of Jordan and his conscience-free disciples, Scorsese wallows in the exuberantly hollow orgy of money, hookers, booze, blow and greed without condoning it. This is the filmmaker's way of offering scathing ridicule for the Wall Street suits and he doesn't look back. However, if anyone finds the bacchanalia of excessive, destructive behavior glamorous, like Jordan blowing cocaine into a hooker's behind, or sees Jordan as a flawless role model, the film hasn't done its job. It's a picture about appalling people doing appalling things and finding themselves in a soulless hell of their own making, so it lives or dies on satisfying one vital question: Do we care? It should be nigh impossible to give a damn about the heartlessly arrogant Jordan Belfort succeeding or not, but it's hard to keep your eyes off of DiCaprio as Jordan and the debauchery that follows him. You want to see if the shark can actually get away with his unconscionable schemes. Making the most of his movie-star showmanship, DiCaprio is on fire as the incorrigibly brash wolf, giving one of his most ferocious and intensely magnetic performances (his fifth time in the Scorsese ring). While playing a character with very few redeeming qualities, he's at his funniest and loosest, breaking the fourth wall and tapping into his unprecedented comic abilities. One bravura, riotously physical sequence involves Jordan's delayed 'lude high on Lemmons, losing all motor skills and trying with all his might to just get into his Ferrari to drive a mile back home. Ending with a surprise not even Jordan can foresee, this inspired sequence alone should go down in drug-trip film history as a tip of the hat to Jerry Lewis.

Scorsese is careful not to let his male muse chew up the supporting cast with the scenery. Hill, with super-white capped teeth and horn-rimmed glasses, gets to act up a storm as Jordan's cousin-marrying right-hand man and proves effective playing sleazier individuals. Playing Jordan's duchess Naomi, 23-year-old Aussie newcomer Margot Robbie is more than just a gorgeous specimen. She's a true find, never missing a beat as she adopts an unwavering New York accent and keeps up with DiCaprio as the only real moral center and the one woman who can put Jordan in his place once the honeymoon is over. Equally as memorable with bite-sized screen time as his two lead performances this year, Matthew McConaughey is full of oily charisma as senior broker Mark Hanna who teaches Jordan the tricks of the trade from his own chest-beating "Fugazi" philosophy of worrying about making money and not the clients. Rob Reiner is also hilarious as Jordan's accountant dad Max, who becomes indignant when the house phone interrupts during TV's "The Equalizer." Kyle Chandler smartly plays Agent Patrick Denham and has a great scene aboard Jordan's yacht, where they share a passive-aggressive conversation after Jordan tries to slyly bribe the federal officer. It doesn't go as planned when Denham says, "Most of the Wall Street jackasses I bust are douchebags, just like their fathers before them. But you... you, Jordan, got this way all on your own."

Redemption has been a motif in Scorsese's films, but other than remaining protective of those who keep the cash flowing, Jordan Belfort has no real redemption, nor is he really punished with a comeuppance. Even if he finally comes to realize his downfall, the scope of his manipulation and that the damage has already been done, the crook is let off the hook after three years of jail time. Where Jordan finds himself in the end, back in front and leading those who desperately want to learn, is the satirical but unbelievably true punchline. Vibrant and depraved at the same time, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is electrifying to watch as audacious, unbridled filmmaking. It's a pleasure to say that at 71 years of age, Scorsese doesn't seem to be slowing down. If anything, he's more energized and the material seriously calls for it. As if Scorsese and trusty editor Thelma Schoonmaker ("Hugo") thought it was "179 minutes or bust," the film is still propulsively edited and shot with dynamic bravado by Rodrigo Prieto ("Argo"), time whipping by like a coke-addicted Olympic sprinter, unlike the full 161 minutes of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." Upon reflection, maybe the final edit could have been tighter without dulling its point and energy, but while being a blast, it simultaneously blows the lid off of Wall Street once again, proving that some still seem to think the almighty dollar is the key to happiness and success. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the type of film that doesn't care if you like it or if it offends you, much like its illegally filthy-rich subject, but it won't be easily forgotten, either.

Grade: A - 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Band of Bros: Hard-hitting "Lone Survivor" too visceral to ignore

Lone Survivor (2013)
121 min., rated R.

War is ugly, and while that might not sound like a revelatory point, it's brutally and authentically realized in "Lone Survivor." A far more serious and accurate war picture from writer-director Peter Berg following 2012's dumb but fun "Battleship," this film, like many, is based on a true story but also sets a new benchmark after 1979's "Apocalypse Now," 1986's "Platoon," 1998's "Saving Private Ryan," and 2001's "Black Hawk Down" in having the sights and sounds of rough-and-tumble combat looking, sounding, and feeling so harrowing and real. The film is more interested in the real-time action of that fateful day than character development, and yet, through all the sound, fury, and blood, there are visceral and dramatically quiet moments that don't stand the viewer emotionally at arm's length. The title might be a spoiler, but "Lone Survivor" never lacks suspense as it marches on in recounting the gut-wrenching horrors of a 2005 covert mission known Operation Red Wings.

After leaving the Bagram Air Base, Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) are stationed in Afghanistan on a mountain above a village. Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) has assigned them with the mission to countervail Ahmed Shahd (Yousuf Azami), a Taliban leader with "no earlobes" who has killed twenty Marines in one week. As they hide out, our four heroes stumble into three goat-herding civilians who could threaten to blow their cover. The two young boys and one old man aren't armed, so if the SEALs gun them down it won't turn them into heroes on the news, but on the other hand, they can't have witnesses. Once they make their decision, this American band of brothers has to quickly take cover.

Peter Berg is such a blunt filmmaker that where he potently dramatizes the battle scenes, he is more cursory in building up his characters. When introduced to them in snapshots of jokey banter and heat-of-the-moment decisions, we still learn more about their wives than the men themselves. Murphy's soon-to-be wife wants an expensive Arabian horse, Dietz's wife has interior decorative plans for their home, Axelson has a wife at home whom he chats online with before he goes to "pay the bills," and Luttrell has dibs on one of Murphy's wife's bridesmaids. We also learn that one man is a New Yorker and another is from Texas. However, that doesn't stop us from caring about these four. The four main performances are all on point, Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch, and Foster making a great unit and each excelling with steely determination in their eyes. 21-year-old Alexander Ludwig also registers as green petty officer Shane Patton, who does more to prove himself than just recite the "Ballad of the Frogmen."

By the end of the SEALs' operation, what we certainly can glean from all of them through their actions is that they are brave, self-sacrificing heroes who suffered a lot of trauma, bloody gashes to the face and body, bullet wounds, and broken bones. Based on Luttrell and Patrick Robinson's non-fiction book "Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10," Berg's screenplay doesn't completely dehumanize the other side of enemy lines, either, as an Afghan father and son from the village protect Luttrell out of duty to their 2,000-year-old code of honor. It's also a relief that the directing half of Berg doesn't fall back on chaotic shaky cam, "Lone Survivor" being shot with documentary-like urgency and vigor and expertly edited by Berg loyalists, cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler and editor Colby Parker Jr. The combat sequences, especially those with the soldiers tumbling down rocky mountain cliffs, are ruthlessly intense and elicit pain for these men and the viewer.

If "12 Years a Slave" was an unblinkingly realistic capsule of slavery in American history, "Lone Survivor" does the same for its face on war, even if its climax is more Hollywoodized than it had to be. Neither jingoistic recruitment propaganda nor a political piece, it is a war movie in its purest form and, next to 2004's "Friday Night Lights," decidedly director Berg's most accomplished and most important to date. Rough, tough, and as courageous as the men it honors, "Lone Survivor" leaves us with an obligatory slideshow dedicated to the men of Operation Red Wings, set to David Bowie's down-tempo "Heroes." Even if there is a lone survivor, those who weren't as lucky died for their country and died as brothers. It packs quite the punch.

Grade: B +

Monday, December 23, 2013

Richer Than Chocolate: Raw, honest "Blue Is the Warmest Color" more than just sex

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)
179 min., rated NC-17.

Controversy surrounded "Blue Is the Warmest Color" for a few different reasons. The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but Julie Maroh, the author of the 2010 graphic novel which inspired the film, denounced it. The actresses were also quoted to saying they would never work with the director again, and the director responded with complaints about one of the leads. Armed with an NC-17 rating, the film was also cited as being purely pornographic by Maroh for its explicit lesbian sex scenes. But if we're judging by the merit of the film itself, which we are, the controversy is limiting and reductive. Thoughtfully written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and co-written by Ghalia Lacroix, "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is fervent and deeply intimate, rawly honest and cumulatively devastating. It's a beautiful film that feels like perfection as you watch it.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a 17-year-old junior in high school. She attracts a senior boy named Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) and they start going out. After they have sex for the first time, their relationship is over before it actually begins. Instead, Adèle can't stop thinking about the blue-haired female she shared a passing glance with while crossing the street. She's confused and feels like something is missing. Curious, she tags along with her friend to a gay bar and then follows some girls to a lesbian bar. There, Adèle finally meets the blue-haired stranger. Her name is Emma (Léa Seydoux) and she's an 18-year-old fine arts student. They start out as friends, Emma meeting Adèle after school and sketching her face in a park, and then the two girls become lovers. Years later, still together and living together, Adèle and Emma both face challenges at work and in one of their circles of friends that could change their committed relationship.

Much of "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is shot in close-up by cinematographer Sofian El Fani and it's a motivated approach to how the rest of the film plays. Dauntingly long at nearly three hours, the film earns it, deeply evolving over the course of Adèle being ostracized by a few friends at school to figuring herself out to her relationship with Emma to the time she starts working as a second-grade teacher. She's not out to the world yet, either, so is she just sowing wild oats for now? The lapse in time does call attention to the story's later negligence of Adèle's parents (Aurélien Recoing, Catherine Salée), who are unaware of their daughter's deeper relationship with Emma, but that would be splitting hairs. 20-year-old Exarchopoulos is mesmerizing, giving a performance that is so natural and emotionally available with her sad, lost open book of a face. There isn't much light there, until Adèle meets Emma, and she grows and liberates herself right before our eyes as the film goes on. Seydoux is also extraordinary as Emma, a woman who already knows who she is and not only acts as a loving companion for Adèle but an unpushy mentor. It's in the girls' meeting and growing relationship that we understand why they're attracted to each other and become emotionally invested, and Exarchopoulos and Seydoux never make it feel like we're watching two actresses pretend to fall in love.

Filmed with the utmost artistic integrity, the sex scenes are so private, sexy, and borderline-voyeuristic but not meant to be solely erotic or gynecological. While watching these scenes go on, one almost becomes distracted by the thought of how director Kechiche got the actresses comfortable in shooting the simulated but entirely authentic coitus. Even the least prudish filmgoer could probably admit that one graphic 7-minute sex scene would have sufficed and the others be stripped from the finished edit, but unlike any other film, they fully capture the ecstasy and euphoria of voracious sexual attraction and love. There is a later scene in a restaurant that goes a bit far, uncontrollable passion trumping public decency, but in context, we believe the characters would do this.

A film like "Blue Is the Warmest Color" gets so much attention for its sex, but it's about so much more. Sure, it's about love, and sex goes along with love, but it's about art, food, smoking, dancing, and philosophy. There is some classroom discussion about literature that hits on salient points relating to Adèle's life, but it's never clumsy or too on-the-nose in saying, "This is what the movie is about." It'd almost be overinflating the film's worth to call "Blue Is the Warmest Color" more than a straightforward, slightly taboo-busting relationship drama. It is that, but the fly-on-the-wall quality lends a candor and a palpable feeling that are all too rare. The power of it all should safely put a lump in every compassionate viewer's throat.

Grade: A - 

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Lesser Big Deal: "Anchorman 2" scattershot but saturated with some funny stuff

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) 
119 min., rated PG-13.

2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" was a gleefully broad, stupidly funny spitball of inspired, quotable goofiness scattered around jokes that sometimes went thud (you can't win 'em all), but Will Ferrell and a comically talented cast brought home the scattershot affair. Its popularity grew after its theatrical release, and nine years later, writer-director Adam McKay and star/co-scribe Ferrell hope to get the people back to revering Ron Burgundy as "kind of a big deal" with "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues." By law, a movie sequel has to step up its game since the novelty of the original is already long gone. Like most glorified feature-length sketches, it's slapdash and uneven, but despite the occasional stretch of dead air and desperation, this clamored-for sequel embraces its own absurd silliness and is so overstuffed with jokes that if one doesn't land, another tickles that funny bone where it counts more often than not.

Since we saw them last—it's out with the '70s and in with the '80s—Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are married, have raised 7-year-old son Walter (Judah Nelson), and are New York City's finest husband-and-wife anchor team. After veteran newsman Mack Harken (Harrison Ford) is bound for retirement, Veronica gets promoted to be the successor and Ron is fired, resulting in the couple's marriage to fall apart. Months later, Ron is already washed-up as a dolphin show announcer at SeaWorld before Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) finds him and recruits him to join the 24-hour news network GNN in NYC. Naturally, Ron sees no better time than the present to get the gang back together, rounding up loud, cowboy-hat-wearing sportscaster-turned-chicken restaurateur Champ Kind (David Koechner); mustachioed reporter Brian Fontana (Paul Rudd); and moronic weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell). Once Ron & Co. get acquainted none too well with handsome primetime anchor Jack Lime (a perfectly smarmy James Marsden)—Ron later calls him "Jack Lame"—and they realize their boss is Linda Jackson (Meagan Good), who's black and a woman, they'll have to stay classy if they want to get monster ratings. 

Self-indulgent in the extreme and in need of some sharper editing shears, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" is very hit-and-miss throughout, but it's still pretty funny. Everything gets hurled at the wall, and when a joke or gag sticks, it inspires genuine laughter. When San Diego's former Channel 4 News team first reunites, they toss off an arsenal of throwaway one-liners and asides or contend with a bit of weird and wacky nonsense, like Champ serving fried bats instead of fried chicken, Brian photographing kittens in the interim, or their RV ride on auto-pilot. And any inane non-sequitur that jets out of Brick's mouth is usually guaranteed for a chuckle. Instead of a "Pleasure Town" fantasy interlude standing in for a sex scene, there is the hilarious use of "Diff'rent Strokes." But then there's Ron speaking in Ebonics as a poor attempt to bridge the race-relations gap at dinner with Linda and her family, a scene which is intended to be outrageous but just comes off strained and lazily blunt. As media sexism was the underlying satirical target of the 2004 film, there are a few blithely bitey moments of satirical skewering here with the revolution of around-the-clock news and the pandering, dumbed-down notion that viewers would rather tune in for the news they want to see and not what they need to see. GNN's ratings skyrocket as soon as Ron gives hollow commentary to a car chase being recorded on the monitor (at the same time, Veronica's interview with Yasser Arafat goes off the air) and insists to Linda that the screen be crowded with crawls and more graphics.

Ferrell is such a valuable comedian with brilliant comic timing that he still manages to make the boorish, irrepressible Ron Burgundy hard to resist, and his "salon-quality hair" and loyal terrier Baxter return. He can ad-lib a line like the best of them ("Tony Danza's scrotum!" is one of several Ron-isms) and constantly walks the fuzzy line between playing this character as a hilariously huggable doofus and a merely obnoxious village idiot. The rest of the returning cast is game, particularly Rudd, Koechner, and Carell. In particular, Carell takes it there with full commitment as the zany, out-to-lunch Brick, who has an amusing late moment in being the voice of reason. It hardly matters that the sequel disregards the last film's epilogue that noted he'd be married with 11 children, considering Brick is just a walking, grinning punchline anyway. Applegate pops in and out as Veronica, too, but she's mostly wasted playing a naggy version of her opinionated, independent former self. Taking Veronica's spot mostly is Good as the smart and tough Linda Jackson, who goes for what she wants, and the actress surprisingly holds her own. Finally, existing merely as an only-one-note-allowed caricature out of an SNL sketch, Kristen Wiig is her delightfully quirky self as GNN secretary Chani, Brick's clueless female equivalent and new love interest. She and Carell engage in an improvisational free-for-all at work and on their first date at a laundromat's soda machine, but their shtick ranges between oddly amusing and flat.

There comes a point where the "plot" goes on a tangent, shoehorning in a character's blindness and the addition of Ron's pet shark named Doby, and the laughs wind down or just don't exist. Then before it looks like McKay and Ferrell have used up all their ideas on the first 90 minutes, there's a climactic rumble reheated from the first film that results in an even loopier, more inspired bit of lunacy. Selling the tried-and-true hook of star cameo recognition as the main joke, this rumble is giddily surprising and awesomely bonkers, sparing no expense by throwing in everyone but Seth Rogen and Ben Stiller. Had "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" trimmed some of its long-winded beats so the wheezing death of the failed jokes didn't linger, the laughs that actually work wouldn't feel so spaced out and forgotten. However, in a late-year season of Oscar contenders, it's not a bad way to laugh yourself silly 60% of the time. Give it a few years and this sequel might become more quotable and memorable with repeated viewings.

Grade: B - 

Do the Hustle: Messy "American Hustle" snappy, well-acted, and just a lot of fun

American Hustle (2013)
129 min., rated R. 

"American Hustle" sets the bar high, as writer-director David O. Russell hooks back up with two pairs of actors he worked with previously in his last two films (2011's "The Fighter" and 2012's "Silver Linings Playbook"). Co-written with Eric Warren Singer, Russell's latest is a loosey-goosey account of the Abscam sting operation of the late '70s/early '80s. "Some of this actually happened," the opening title card reads, having no shame in telling us right off the bat that some of the facts might be fudged. (The title of the screenplay was originally called "American Bullshit," so it's just as well.) In fact, the Abscam story isn't told in the most involving of ways that it's up to the colorfully complex characters to provide the most interest. A tad overlong and so defiantly messy, the film is still playful and shrewdly formed, working best as a vibrant entertainment of a who's-scamming-who caper with a darkly funny screwball tone.

The film intriguingly opens mid-con in 1978 before backtracking, dropping us in with paunchy shyster Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who owns a chain of Long Island dry cleaning stores but really lives off of his phony art and fraudulent loans. He's married to the manic, manicure-obsessed loose cannon Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has adopted her young son, but Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is his real soul mate after meeting her at a party. Coming a long way since being a stripper and landing a job at Cosmopolitan, Sydney becomes Irving's partner in crime and in love, reinventing herself and showing a talent for conning under the British socialite persona of Lady Edith Greensly. But when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) sees right through the two con artists, he wants their help to climb the corporate ladder by busting gregarious, crooked New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), congressmen, and a mobster. They enlist a fake Arab sheik (Michael Peña) to pull the wool over the targets' eyes and offer them money in return for political favors. The catalyst for the entire scheme coming off or going down in flames is one neither Irving, Sydney/Edith, or Richie suspects. 

A sterling ensemble strutting their stuff in groovy '70s clothing with '70s hairstyles is one of the prime surface pleasures of "American Hustle." Russell also cannily undergoes a high-wire act of sorta-kinda truth-based storytelling that juggles dual narrators and is performed with enough snap and verve resembling filmmaking mastery by the likes of Martin Scorsese. From the art direction to the Studio 54-ready costumes to the camera movements (many a dolly-in shots reminiscent of Scorsese) and blast-from-the-past music selectionsDuke Ellington's "Jeep's Blues," Wings' "Live and Let Die," Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," and ELO's "10358 Overture," just to name a fewthere's a giddiness in the details and a high level of craftsmanship that lends to the pitch-perfect recreation of an era. First and foremost, though, the film stands as a delicious showcase for actors to play ersatz dress-up and dig into volatile, contradictory and just-plain-cracked characters.

How do you depict a grey area in flawed, selfish people who spend their lives conning others for survival? Well, director Russell does all of his versatile actors right, starting with Bale, who, this time, puts the weight on and dons an elaborate comb-over as the balding, out-of-shape Irving. To level out the character's smooth-talking con side, the actor makes Irving strangely likable, also conveying his open-hearted devotion to Sydney and Rosalyn's son. Sporting a Jerry-curl perm, Cooper gets better and better; here as Richie, he's amusingly free of vanity and often infectiously overcaffeinated. More relaxed and less stoic than usual, Renner is sympathetic as the self-righteous, pompadour-wearing Carmine. While it's no one character's story, Adams and Lawrence come away stealing the movie from their male co-stars. At the top of her game (really), Adams has a brilliant handle on Sydney, putting on the sexy confidence in plunging-neckline dresses and a fake English accent when playing Edith. Sydney might be conning both Irving and Richie, but behind closed doors, we see what makes the precise but vulnerable Sydney tick, as she's able to adapt to any given situation and just does what she has to do to survive. By now, we know Lawrence can pretty much do anything. Here, she transcends what might have been the role of Ditzy Long Island Housewife, being given some scenery to chew to hilariously unhinged effect whilst showing fiery, interesting shades as the needy, shrill, tragic, wacky, passive-aggressive, flighty but not totally stupid Rosalyn. It's a showy, often over-the-top performance, but Lawrence wonderfully sells every one of her cracklingly written scenes, including a madcap moment with a "science oven" and her bathroom confrontation with Sydney, and the film is most alive and unpredictable when Rosalyn is on screen. While the previous five get all the glory, there are also watchable turns from Louis C.K., Elizabeth Röhm, Alessandro Nivola, and Colleen Camp, plus a surprising cameo that fits in nicely.

"American Hustle" seems to be only steps away from greatness in the league of "Goodfellas" and "Casino," but, despite positioning itself as a prestigious awards-season go-getter, it mostly comes out as a sprawling lark that keeps the plates spinning and shows off some juicy performances. Beneath the fun '70s kitsch is an efficient, albeit less hard-edged, character study of people desperate for power and control that lets everyone off pretty much scot-free. While the flash doesn't swamp characterization, the end result doesn't really have the emotional resonance or takeaway one might have hoped. Nevertheless, it's a snazzy party that gets away with hustling the viewer into having a good time with Russell and his troupe.

Grade: B +

Monday, December 16, 2013

Game of Blather: "Some Velvet Morning" a lean, mean, talky bait and switch

Some Velvet Morning (2013)
83 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

Returning to his acerbic, misanthropic interpersonal turf of 1997's "In the Company of Men" and 1998's "Your Friends & Neighbors" after a wonky, work-for-hire career pathhis boneheaded, camptastic 2006 remake of "The Wicker Man," 2008's watchable "Lakeview Terrace," and his broad American remake of "Death at a Funeral"—director Neil LaBute works from an original solo script. In a film that's much closer to the playwright's roots, "Some Velvet Morning" is a language-oriented film about gender relations and power plays that LaBute was actually born to make and gives equal opportunity to both man and woman. Here, it's just Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve performing a bitingly verbal and unsettlingly physical duet for 83 minutes in a privately shot, real-time war of chitchat.

Finally, Tucci and Eve get the lead roles they deserve, and what better way to receive that rare opportunity than from the direction of Mr. LaBute, who allows them to tear into their roles. Tucci plays Fred, a lawyer who, after twenty-four years of marriage with his wife in Maryland, shows up at the door of a three-story brownstone in Brooklyn. It's the home of his mistress, British art student Velvet (the lovely, blonde Eve). She's less than thrilled to see him after four years when they first started their love affair. Velvet is about to leave to meet someone for lunch, but the two rehash resentments in their history and what went wrong in their relationship, constantly turning the tables on the other and fighting for the last word. Who will be left holding the cards?

A piece of bait-and-switch storytelling, "Some Velvet Morning" begins as an extramarital-affair drama with verbal abuse, but it's really a play on film and an acting exercise centered on the spoken word. We learn solely about these two characters through the volatility and corrosion of their conversation, which ranges from awkward and crude to curt and vitriolic, and the power shifts are constantly changing, too. Velvet is never just a victim, as one might assume, and Fred is never just the smarmy antagonist. They have a give-and-take and keep reversing roles, and that's what's so interesting to watch. Of course, like most plays on film (i.e. Roman Polanski's "Carnage"), the characters keep attempting to leave the apartment but it never happens. LaBute gives them plenty of room to roam their three-floor space and shoots much of the film in single takes, lending a feeling that we're eavesdropping on these two squabbling. Cinematographer Rogier Stoffer also opens up the one apartment setting with enough natural light streaming in to lessen the claustrophobia of the talking chamber.

Sexually and intellectually charged tension percolates throughout a terse 83 minutes, which is just enough time before it'd get too stuffy, and then "Some Velvet Morning" makes a cleverly surprising flip in the last five minutes. It was something else all along. At once, it's brutal and shocking, as well as manipulative. Whether the punchline is seen as a seamless twist that brings new context or an enraging trick one will be impressed by or nonplussed about is left up for the viewer to decide. It's kind of a cruel joke, and that LaBute takes a ballsy gambit is admirable. Devious and barbed, "Some Velvet Morning" is a deliciously talky two-hander that doesn't add up to a lot, but immediately afterward, it gives the viewer something to talk about in an indoor voice.

Grade: B -

Friday, December 13, 2013

Last Year on "The Hobbit"...: "Smaug" livelier than last journey but fatally strained

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
161 min., rated PG-13.

Another December, another "Hobbit." After the long but rewarding "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is a lot of movie for being adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's slender book (310 pages, count 'em) that had no reason being stretched like Laffy Taffy into a distended, piecemeal epic trilogy (nine hours, don't count 'em). If 2012's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was more of a strained, exhausting slog seemingly told in real time and dragged on for an eternity, this second chapter of the same volume is only a vague improvement. It's a little bit swifter, and occasionally livelier and hairier, but instead of advancing the journey or making any of the downtime less dull, director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Guillermo del Toro can't help themselves, indulgently padding their script with detours that add very little. They tack on newly created characters, and throw in the later trilogy's Legolas (Orlando Bloom), that feel superfluous and solely functional to come in and save the day repeatedly, a contrived, corner-cutting plot device that needs to be retired for these fantasy-adventure films. Maybe once "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" comes around in 2014, all three films will connect as a whole, but on its own and in a vacuum, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is marred by having no proper end. Not only does the film not know when enough is enough, but it places its book mark and closes just as it's finally getting somewhere.

In last year's episode, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and friends were rescued by eagles and taken to safety on a cliff overlooking the distant Lonely Mountain, where, before the film cut to black, the dragon Smaug opened his eye. But instead of "The Desolation of Smaug" immediately beginning where "An Unexpected Journey" left off, a flashback set in the Shire town of Bree has Gandalf (Ian McKellen) meeting up with Thorin in the Prancing Pony tavern before setting out to reclaim Thorn's jewel called the Arkenstone. After that needless introduction, they're in medias res to defeat the fire-breathing dragon Smaug, Bilbo being their burglar and, unbeknownst to the wizard and dwarves, still holding onto that precious One Ring that gives him the ability to go invisible during perilous situations. This time, while still being pursued by the Orcs who want Thorin's head, they run afoul of the horrors residing in the darkly ominous Mirkwood forest; become imprisoned by elves; and later meet Bard (Luke Evans), a grim-faced bowman who lives in Lake-town next to the mountain. For Pete's sake, can't they just call those eagles back to fly them to the Lonely Mountain already?

For the bulk of its shameless, taxing 161-minute running time, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is never short on incident but never hits a consistent stride in moving forward. As the slight narrative rebelliously spins its wheels, it's as if our heroes are trudging through quicksand and their destination just keeps getting farther and farther. Then again, the film isn't entirely all for naught, often perking up with a show-stopping set-piece or two and finding a formidable, photorealistic antagonist in Smaug. Welcome exceptions to this long-winded journey include a sense of doom in the hallucinatory forest and a creepy near-death encounter with menacingly realized arachnids. Somewhere in the middle, there's also a fun, skillfully choreographed set-piece where Bilbo and the dwarves all escape the Elf Kingdom in barrels, drifting down river rapids and fighting off Orcs with the help of bow-and-arrow-wielding elves. (A theme park ride in the making?) It's a busy sequence of cheeky, thrilling derring-do, in the way Legolas hops on top of the dwarves' heads while retaining his sharp-shooting aim, and a few Orc decapitations don't hurt, either. At last, when Bilbo inadvertently awakens the fumed Smaug under a cavern of gold coins, their showdown is a spectacular centerpiece, but why start it at the 130-minute mark? Using his deep, growling voice for the anthropomorphic Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch embodies true darkness and it's no mean feat that the computer-generated rendering of his dragon counterpart is actually quite imposing.

Not even a layman will be left wanting from Jackson's reliably seamless technical specs and gorgeously vast Middle-earth landscapes, but they're all left to be window dressing in a machine without much of a motor. Everyone in the cast marches through the paces, too, and the barely distinguishable dwarf characters have even less personality this time around. It's another telling error when every dwarf can miraculously dodge death at every turn, lessening the danger factor and one's reason to care what happens to any of them. Invented for the film, the only female that's given the most proactive action is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elf who's a great shot with a bow and arrow and a possible love interest for dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Legolas. At this point, Jackson's inferior "The Hobbit" doesn't offer the same wonder and emotional impact to be uttered in the same breath as his "The Lord of the Rings." We're only in the middle, and this Middle-earth saga is already looking middling at best, unfortunately.

Grade: C +

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Saving Fathers and Flying Nannies: Equal spoonfuls of prickliness and charm make "Banks" a delight

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
126 min., rated PG-13.

Not every movie can say it fills you with joy, but "Saving Mr. Banks" does this in spades. Gently moving, beautifully performed, and marvelously entertaining, the film is a valentine to the catharsis of fictional storytelling being influenced by real life and the undeniable magic of the Mouse House. Despite one's suspicion that they'll be seeing a lot of self-congratulatory back-patting from a Disney movie being about the making of a Disney movie and co-starring a bona fide movie star playing Disney himself, that's not the case here. With the similitude of 2004's wistfully whimsical "Finding Neverland," which told the story of how Scottish author J.M. Barrie came to write "Peter Pan," this one tells the story of British author P.L. Travers' creative differences with Walt Disney in turning her beloved novel "Mary Poppins" into the now-classic 1964 motion picture. Director John Lee Hancock (2009's "The Blind Side"), working from a witty, respectful script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, shrewdly captures (and balances) the prickliness of Travers and the wholesome charm of Disney without falling too much to either side. It's an absolute delight.

"Saving Mr. Banks" begins in the puffy clouds, the sounds of "Chim Chim Cher-ee" humming over the soundtrack certain to get the viewer humming along. When we first meet the headstrong, misanthropic Pamela Lyndon Travers (Emma Thompson) in 1961, London, she has run out of money and has reluctantly agreed to take a flight to the chlorinated and sweaty odors of Los Angeles to meet with Mr. Disney (Tom Hanks), who's tried for twenty years to get her to sign off on the rights for "Mary Poppins." Given her extreme stubbornness, she fears her magical-nanny creation will become "cavorting and twinkly" in Disney's hands, compromising the purity of how she sees her, and she's totally against fluffy sentiment and animation, especially dancing penguins. At the Burbank studio, Travers immediately micromanages the would-be collaboration and turns down every idea of co-screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting brothers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman), from the production sketches of the Banks family's home and wardrobe, to the cheery music and lyric choices, along with having her own demands like avoiding the color red in the picture and not casting Dick Van Dyke (although we know who won out there). Can the magical Disney man coax this cold fish into having a change of heart and share her story with the world?

All the while, there's a parallel story, circa the 1900s in Australia, where Mrs. Travers, seen as young Helen Goff (Annie Buckley), spent her childhood with her drink-addled dreamer of a banker father, Travers (Colin Farrell), and her long-suffering mother, Margaret (Ruth Wilson). It's in these vital flashbacks that we understand why "Mary Poppins" is so dear to the author's heart; in the book, the nanny is a savior for the father, not the children. This storytelling device would seem to become problematic in terms of momentum but never does, as the tempo is almost always spit-spot, and doesn't try to pull the wool over our eyes (the little girl is Mrs. Travers!). Back in L.A., after Travers has a foot-tapping breakthrough once hearing the catchy "Let's Go Fly a Kite," the biggest payoff comes at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in watching her face sweetly alternate between agitation and water works, where you feel something rather than just hear Thomas Newman's nonetheless-stirring score. It's schematic but emotionally satisfying, and in much lesser hands, the softening of Mrs. Grumpy could have come off aggressively pat and treacly with animated pixie dust.

The role of the Happiest Place on Earth impresario would thought to be a mere gimmick for any actor, but Tom Hanks was born to play Walt. It's inspired casting since he's a national treasure of movie stars and he gives a slickly copacetic performance with a friendly demeanor following his best work to date in the October-released "Captain Phillips." Hanks particularly nails one special, honest moment later shared with Travers in London. Though, in top form, Emma Thompson runs the show as Mrs. Travers and anchors the film from careening into sugar-coated falseness. With her clipped diction, expressions and body language, she's hilariously quick-witted and dyspeptic and finally affecting as this difficult, brutally honest woman who's a complex, contradictory lonely soul. Her Travers is very formal, liking only to be addressed as "Mrs. Travers," not "Pam," and she always knows what to say ("Responstible is not a word!" she scolds the Sherman brothers). Before opening her vulnerable heart and succumbing to the magic of Mickey Mouse, the character is great fun to watch, thanks to Thompson. (Intentional in the casting or not, Thompson played a Mary Poppins-like nanny twice in the "Nanny McPhee" movies.) The rest of the cast is flushed with impeccable support. Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, and a perky Melanie Paxson, as Walt's office secretary Dolly, make a very funny team during the creative process. Paul Giamatti also does nice, poignant work as Travers' loyal driver Ralph. Given equal time in the sandwiched flashbacks, Colin Farrell is a charismatic mess and creates some touching moments as the eponymous Mr. Banks, and Ruth Wilson is devastating as Margaret Goff. Perhaps only Rachel Griffiths as the stern but helpful Aunt Ellie, Margaret's sister and the clear vision of Mary Poppins, is too briefly used.

A loving, personal companion piece to the Julie Andrews-Dick Van Dyke fantasia, "Saving Mr. Banks" is a reminder of why movies are so special. They give us a place to escape to and restore hope in, but they also tap into the universal idea of imagination. Almost always, the most magical stories stem from what we know, and a story's creator can cope with personal pain from the past through writing, so why wouldn't Mrs. Travers want it her way or the highway? No worries, there is a cute sight gag to the sheet music of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," and period details are forever easy on the eyesearly-'60s La-La Land production design is lovely, as is the honeyed, sun-dappled cinematography, particularly in the melancholy turn-of-the-century segments. Based on the tape recordings of the real Travers, she might have been a toughie on the whimsically sentimental and non-cynical "Saving Mr. Banks," but Walt, himself, would have embraced it with loving arms. You will, too.

Grade: A - 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "The Hunt" turns Wrongfully Accused Man into riveting cautionary tale

The Hunt (2013)
115 min., rated R.

Danish writer-director Thomas Vinterberg (1998's "The Celebration") and co-writer Tobias Lindholm (this year's "A Hijacking") take the Hitchcockian chestnut, "the wrongfully accused man," and wrap it up in a sympathetic, riveting, and provocative morality drama and cautionary tale. Mads Mikkelsen (who played a memorable Bond villain in "Casino Royale" and is currently seen dishing out ladyfingers on NBC's "Hannibal") breaks out of typecasting in an outstanding, carefully modulated performance here as Lucas, a calm 42-year-old man who has been working as a kindergarten teacher ever since his high school closed. He's well-liked by the children, but right around the time he retains full custody of his teenage son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm), from his bitter ex-wife and starts seeing one beautiful school helper, Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), it's brought to his attention by school principal Grethe (Susse Wold) that one of the children has accused Lucas of showing her or him his genitalia. 

That child is five-year-old Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter to Lucas' best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). When we first meet Klara, she's lost outside of the supermarket and Lucas, along with his pet pooch Fanny, takes her hand and walks her home. Another time, he finds her outside her home, waiting outside as her parents have a screaming match, and walks her to school with Theo's advice. Later at school, Klara crafts a present for Lucas and gives him a kiss, which Lucas soon advises her not to do to someone that isn't family. This confuses and hurts Klara, and remembering a porn video her teenaged brother showed her, she sits forlornly and tells Grethe that she hates Lucas, while describing his male anatomy. Grethe takes slow, careful precaution, bringing in psychologist friend of hers and is determined to protect the children, immediately rejecting the innocent Lucas. The lie circulates and snowballs, turning Lucas, the real victim, into a pariah. Anything he says is useless, as it's his word against the little Klara, who's known to have a vivid imagination. Children never lie, right?

Achingly plausible and maturely handled as a human story without ever taking to the courtroom or being cheapened into a trashy "Scorned Little Girl From Hell" thriller, "The Hunt" takes its title symbolically and literally. The film begins at the start of deer season, and Lucas' favorite dish is venison, but he becomes the victim of a town witch hunt. The mob mentality never feels even slightly overdramatized, as everyone reacts with relatable human emotion. "I believe the children, Lucas, I always have," Grethe stands by her knee-jerk reaction. She even convinces the rest of her students' parents that their kids might be suffering "symptoms" of sexual abuse, like mood changes and nightmares. Theo tries giving his best friend the benefit of the doubt but, naturally, believes his daughter, and after Klara confesses Lucas didn't do anything, Theo's wife believes Klara has just repressed such a psychologically damaging incident. The grocery store manager and workers even do damage control, asking him not to shop there. And yet, Lucas isn't alone. At first, Nadja scoffs at the accusation but then has to ask her new boyfriend if something really did happen. Marcus then shows up at his dad's door before Christmas. Lucas' friend, Marcus' godfather Bruun (Lars Ranthe), and a few other chums are also supporters. When the other children's stories don't match up, Lucas' case is looking good. 

Completely in tune with the inner energy of the blameless, tragic Lucas, Mads Mikkelsen is nuanced and quite subtle given his predicament. If he were to defend himself too much, he might come off guilty, but his reactions are more low-key, sometimes so low-key that one almost wishes he wouldn't turn the other cheek and blow his lid earlier than he does. Still, Lucas is never a coward or uncivilized, except when he can't take it anymore. His attendance at a Christmas candlelight church service is especially tense and heartbreaking. Little Annika Wedderkopp, as Klara, plays with her eyes and a nose twitch to access the emotions of regret and the impulsive fabrication of a lie in her mind without ever becoming a monster. Even when she tries to right her life-shattering wrong, it's too late. Thomas Bo Larsen and Lasse Fogelstrøm also make equally strong impressions as Theo and Marcus, who, of course, defend their own blood, the former having a trickier time of only taking one side. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen also shoots the film beautifully with a cool, wintry air that goes in tandem with the material to palpably chill the bone.

This would seem to be a troubling, even frustrating, sit, watching a man have his back to the wall and be condemned, but "The Hunt" is such a powerful take on difficult he-said-she-said subject matter and always rings true in its vindication of one man and wavering of human decency. Writer-director Vinterberg and screenwriter Lindholm probe some morally complex questions that make you think how you would handle such a situation on any side. How would you react if a child without a much-developed mind accused you of something that crossed the boundaries? If you were the principal or parent of that child, would you quickly jump to conclusions because it's an innocent child? Though there could have been a smoother transitional scene between where Lucas finds himself and where he's at a year later to make things feel less tidy, the closing shot is chilling. There might be forgiveness, but one's life is forever changed after such a serious, irreversible accusation. Lucas will never forget it and neither will we.

Grade: A -