Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

Plot: Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) began as a stock broker who he got fired, and began to sell penny stocks at his own firm using deception and high pressure sales techniques. He fired up his high pressure sales people with alcohol, cocaine, and prostitutes. Soon he is rolling in money, divorces his first wife, amps up his drug use, buys a yacht, and marries model-pretty Naomi (Margot Robbie.) He attracts the FBI's attention, and tries to avoid getting caught.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Wolf of Wall Street is a wild ride about preying on people, both the investors and the women be they strippers, prostitutes, girlfriends or wives. It shows constant drunkeness, drugs, and naked girls -- and a constant contempt of un-suspecting investors who get cheated out of their money. Interspersed among the wildness, like little TV commercials, is monolog or dialog to advance the story. At first, its funny in a satirical way. As the drunken, drug-fueled, sex parties blur together, there is a dreariness - which might have been Director's Scorsese's intention.

A highlight is how good Jordan is at firing up his people. His speeches, as delivered by DiCaprio, really are inspirational. You can see why these sales people were so captivated. Later as his world is crumbling, DiCaprio paints a clever salesman/conman determined to preserve himself -- top performance. 

Jordan, the wolf, feeds on women just like investors. In addition to multitudes of strippers and prostitutes, his two wives are treated badly too.  Director Scorsese is showing the predatory behavior toward women, but it is over-the-top like The Great Gatsby's parties, as if he wants the audience to enter into the debauchery. One wonders what the women sales people were thinking. There always were women on his sales team, and they seemed to roll with it. 

There are funny scenes -- sit-com humor where the ridiculous situations just become laughable. One of these is when Leonardo becomes so drunk he can't stand, and must wiggle across the floor, through a door, and down steps to his car. Very funny.  

I liked Jonah Hill -- but my wife found him too annoying to be funny. Margot Robbie starts out as eye candy, but gets some substantive scenes before the end: a token bit of feminism.  Visuals are unexceptional -- but I did like the early party scene with a marching band in their underwear. 

There are two messages; that working hard without morals can make your rich, and an Occupy Wall Street, anti-one percent message that rich people don't play by the same rules. 

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Based on the book by Jordan Belfort

Rating: 3.25 stars: I can't decide. I was weary of all the partying, but plot kept moving, and the suspense at the end was real. I wondered how well this represented the financial services industry. The message raises the score a little, but the misogyny drops it down. Leo was good, and the sales culture was interesting. In the end, there is a lot to talk about, so that is why the extra quarter star. 
More: It makes me think about the ethic of brokerage houses, and whether I should do business with them. 

Even more: Leo deserves a best actor nomination. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Hobbit; The Desolation of Smaug (2D)

Plot: Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the Dwarves are journeying to the Lonely Mountain to kill the dragon, Smaug, who captured the mountain's hidden cavern and pile of gold from Thorin's (Richard Armitage's) grandfather decades ago. We rejoin our heroes as they seek shelter with a giant bear before entering the dark Murkwood Forest, where they are attacked by giant spiders and then captured by elves. They escape with help from boatman Bard (Luke Evans) while being chased by elves and orcs. Bilbo helps them enter the mountain though a magic door, and then sneak up on the dragon, who is a formidable foe. The movie ends with a cliffhanger naturally since this is the second part of a trilogy.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Smaug: The Hobbit II is a "road" movie -- all transitions from one adventure to another. Happily Tolkien provided many stories to adapt, and with the aid of new subplots concocted for the film, we have continuous suspense. Dramatically it starts in the middle of a story, and ends with nothing at all. Why did it end here?  The other basic flaw is the mix of comic and the deadly: like silly fat dwarves in barrels killing bad guys. 

Tolkien's story has an enormous body count, and I grew tired of the fighting because it seemed random after a while. The fighting is comic-book hero style with bloodless deaths administered by a single blow from the heroes.  

Many of the visuals are impressive with grand sets highlighting clever designs. I saw this in 2D because of the high-frame rate 3D from The Hobbit I, was terrible, terrible, terrible. 

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly

Directed by: Peter Jackson, based on the book by JRR Tolkien

Rating: 2.5 stars: an improvement from the awful first installment. Still suffers from the absence of dramatic structure and a blah empty ending. Recommended for Tolkien fans -- non-fans should stay away. 

More: Why is there so much fighting in Tolkien? He was in the army in both World Wars, and most of his WWI unit died. Maybe his fantasy is escapist, but this fantasy is much bloodier than modern fantasy.  

Saturday, December 21, 2013

American Hustle

Plot: Hustlers/grifters Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) get caught scamming rogue FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie uses them to entrap the mayor, congressmen and senators in a bribery scheme. Irv's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is jealous of Sydney. Rosalyn's craziness drives the plot to its surprising conclusion.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: A wild ride that's bulging with crazy characters in outrageous situations; it looks like a crime drama, but its really a comic satire. The events are so overblown, that we just sit back and ride with the ridiculousness of it all. The puffy 70's hair and the curlers just make it that much more absurd. The plot is believable since it is similar to the real events, and the performances were great. I loved all of it.  

Highlights were Jennifer Lawrence's crazy Jersey housewife character, and the clever dialog between the characters.The love scenes between Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper were electric.

Christian Bale animated his character well, but he was so over-dressed with the stupid hair and oversized glasses that I was too distracted. Still he must have been effective since he carried the story.

There is an early scene where Irv and Sydney bond while listing to  1956's Jeep's Blues by Duke Ellington - very evocative. The other music were old 70's standards that no one listens to because they are not very good. In a few places the lyrics match the action in a clever way. The cinematography is not flashy.

As mentioned, the male & female characters wear hair curlers at home. This is ridiculous, but the curlers signify when the character has dropped his/her facade. The facade is a major part of the "hustle."  One of the messages is that no one is authentic in public.

American Hustle shows absurdist randomness, petty corruption, and good deeds returned for bad, but in the end, there is galactic karma, as criminals go to jail, and the American Hustlers land on top. So keep Hustling.

Cast: Christian Bale, Sydney Prosser, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams

Directed by: David O Russell

Rating: 4.0 stars:  Fun to watch, great plot, great acting, solid script. I want to see it again. 

More: Fact check here. Cleverly they only claim that part of the movie was true. Actually some of the most important parts were fictionalized. No docudrama this.

Even More: And why was Amy Adams shirt open the whole movie?  

Friday, November 29, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Plot: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) get sent back to the Hunger Games after getting double-crossed by President Snow, who thought Katniss was becoming a political symbol. Katniss and the other tributes are more angry at the government for putting them in the games than they are at each other. In the games she forms an alliance to fight off adversaries. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Hunger Games: Catching Fire is genre-crossing movie with action, romance and politics all co-existing. The first novel & movie played with killing for mass entertainment. This movie plays with politics manipulating people through entertainment.

Catching Fire's Politics was not as clever as the media satire from the first movie, so Catching Fire is not as strong as the first Hunger Games. On the other hand, the plot has been streamlined from the book, and I found it easier to understand. 

In Catching Fire, Katniss grows up from a lucky victim to a heroine herself. The moral dimension gets heavy-handed; and as heavy handed as the politics were in the movie -- it was worse in the book.

The fact that people were dying and our young heroes were killing them is taken more seriously in Catching Fire, and this leads to the revolutionary sentiment. 

I loved the art direction in Hunger Games, and this continued the same theme, and the darker tone of Catching Fire makes the silly clothes seem more silly. I liked the elaborate food, the bohemia reference and the TV production sets.  Stanley Tucci should get his own sequel playing the announcer. I continue to love Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and her clever costumes. Poor Lenny Kravitz is wasted though. 

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks

Directed by: Francis Lawrence; based on the book by Suzanne Collins

Art direction by: John Collins, Adam Davis, Robert Fechtman

Rating: 2.5 stars: I am a Hunger Games fan. A satire about reality shows where the contestants really kill each other is a great idea. Here in the second movie, the concept wears thin, and the contestants turn their hatred toward the government. At its best Catching Fire, satirizes how entertainment media can manipulate people, but sometimes the political aspect of the movie seems forced -- like an excuse for the action/romance part of the film. 

More: Hopefully Catching Fire was a necessary step to set up a great 3rd movie. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Plot: Journalist Martin (Steve Coogan)  investigates the case of Philomena (Judi Dench) who was forced to give up her child Anthony for adoption 30 years prior while in residence at a convent. They never find Anthony, but they trace out his tragic life. 

Review: A slow moving, melodrama featuring a great performance by Judi Dench. It tells of horrific child-rearing practices and human trafficking in Ireland during the 1950's.

Highlights are the great performance of Judi Dench who inhabits the simple-minded persona of Philomena, and the writing which is filled with little details of her personality. The tragic story has a documentary aspect that is intrinsically interesting.

Lowlights were the many digressions, and the melodramatic, tear-jerker manipulation. Similarly I don't believe the nuns were so incredibly evil when they were probably doing the best they could. The poor nuns were, in fact, helping young mothers who had been disowned by their families. It helps to remember that Ireland after WWII was a poor country. 

Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark

Directed by: Stephen Frears; Based on the book by Martin Sixsmith

Rating: 2.0 stars: One good performance saves what would otherwise be a tedious story. 

More: Perhaps I am supposed to think that this was a heroic crusade to buy back the past of these young mothers. This movie did not work for me as a documentary. I don't trust dramatizations to get the facts right. The Guardian has some fact checking here. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (3D)

Plot: Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her friend Darcy (Kat Dennings) are looking for Thor with astrophysics instruments when Jane stumbles across some Aether, and gets infected with it.  Aether is the primordial stuff that Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Ecceleston) is planning to use to destroy the universe. Thor (Chris Helmsworth)  manages to find Jane and bring her home to Asgard, where she meets his parents. Soon Malekith attacks, and after a battle, Thor takes Jane and estranged brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston)  to defeat Malekith with stealth and deceit. This leads to the final battle which happens to be on Earth.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Thor: The Dark World is a big, splashy movie with likable characters, some humor, some action, a little dialog, and without much romance. The love story between Jane and Thor is flat -- they  are more like siblings or distant relatives.  The interesting drama is between Thor and his Dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins,) and his brother Loki. I also liked the subplot with Darcy back on earth with sarcastic commentary.

Visually there are high points and low points. High points are the "gravity tricks" early in the movie and at the end.  I also liked the imploding hand grenades -- clever -- why hasn't someone thought of that before? There are several good action scenes, but the dark elves were not good -- like Imperial Storm Troopers -- just masked guys who are there to get killed by the good guys.

I am tired of superheroes bashing each other all around the landscape and not getting hurt -- I am still sick of it from the last Superman movie -- it is just not cool anymore.

The soundtrack was dull. I did not notice any cool 3D effects, and I usually am a fan of 3D. 

Cast: Chris Helmsworth, Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Anthony Hopkins 

Directed by: Alan Taylor and James Gunn

Rating:  2.5 stars: an enjoyable movie that doesn't challenge the intellect too much.

More: Did you notice that Stan Lee was the old man whose shoes Erik was waving around while he reviewed the plot points? 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

About Time

Plot: Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) can travel back in time to anywhere in his own past and re-do it. He becomes infatuated with Mary (Rachel McAdams) and re-does their early meetings over-and-over until she falls for him, and then he re-does their first-time sex perfecting his moves. Soon they have kids, traffic accidents, and someone dies. He learns that there are some things time travel can't fix, and time travel teaches him the importance of living each day like it is your last day.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Cute and sentimental. About Time is a romance -- it is not so much of a comedy as a straight up romance where the gimmick is the boy can re-do his mistakes. There are two minor characters for comic relief, sister KitKat and Uncle D.

The time travel gimmick is not used make money or fight crime like one of the X-Men, but to explore his relationships -- generally with Mary, but sometimes with his Dad (Bill Nighy.) 

There is an overlaid message about living each day like it is your last, and this message is told using time-travel to illustrate it -- so it is less glib that it sounds here in text, but it still feels superficial. 

Rachel McAdams is cute and easy to relate with. She is what carries the movie. Domhnall Gleeson delivers his lines well, and is easy to relate to, but is not super.  Their meeting in the restaurant when they talk simultaneously is the best writing in the film, and I liked it. Most of the dialog is just serviceable. 

There are a couple of good songs including one in the subway where the musicians  are buskers. The set design is kind of interesting, and there is one party scene in the rain that is pretty great. 

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy

Written and directed by: Richard Curtis

Rating: 2.5 stars: entertaining, warm-hearted

More: Writer-director Curtis clearly wanted to make a light romance, and so he didn't explore any of the other ramifications of being able to do time travel, but seriously, only little text message to the FAA could have prevented the 9-11 terrorist attacks for example.

Even More: NPR reviewer Chris Klimek transposes this story line into a psychological thriller and imputes evil motives on Tim in his review.  I disagree with the review, because this is a plot device not a real thing. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Here Solomon is running. That is misleading since the 
movie is slow paced. it is giving the prospective
viewer hope there will be a dramatic and 
exciting escape.  Don't go there thinking you will
see fast paced action. 
Plot: The title tells the whole story so don't complain about spoilers. Solomon (Chiwetwel Ejiofor) is kidnapped in Washington DC, and shipped to Georgia as a slave, where he keeps his head down. He endures many hardships with the other slaves. He has different owners, who are more and less cruel. At the end of twelve years, he manages to get freed.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Just like the title tells you the whole plot, it also forecasts the movie experience. Here is a guy who seems like anyone -- suddenly kidnapped and reduced to horrors from the middle ages -- with chains, muzzles, whippings, loads of indignity and rape. We get a relentless cataloging of terrible slave experiences to let the audience see what it must have been like.

It is interesting to see the mental states of the slave owners -- who manage to justify their cruelty with bible verses and racial supremacism. Mrs Epps (Sarah Paulsen) is especially interesting, because she knows her husband is having sex nightly with the Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). She is very tough and unsympathetic.

Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance is often excellent -- he finds a lot of ways to show suffering on his face. I also like Lupita Nyong'o for the same reason -- her scene where she begs for suicide is dramatic and should win an supporting actress Oscar.

The sound track is pretty good. The photography is solid, but not overly creative.  There are pretty pictures of moss hanging from trees.

I liked the cross-cultural experience and the immersive experience of  12 Years a Slave.

I was weary of the unrelenting terribleness of it. I did not like the unhappiness of the ending -- as mentioned, the twelve years expire, he manages to get rescued. Does he smile as the carriage leaves the plantation?  NO. Does he smile as he greets his wife and now grown children? NO. Do the kids smile back? NO  Is this anything like the tearful and joyful reunions of countless soldiers returning from Afghanistan or even men being released from prison today? NO. Couldn't they have allowed one happy moment?   One little smile in 143 minutes?   I guess not.

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt

Directed by: Steve McQueen (the black London-born director, not the American Actor)

Rating: 3.0 stars:  This is a weighty movie about weighty topics. While it is hard to watch, the movie is in service of a worthy goal, and it certainly helps people understand the evils of slavery. It makes me think about human trafficking today. There are also two Oscar worthy performances. On the other hand, the unrelenting sadness and terror was unnecessary. It was manipulative and borders on melodramatic. 
More: Here is another link on human trafficking in Michigan. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ender's Game

Plot: Tweens are recruited into the military by Col. Graff (Harrison Ford)  to battle an alien invasion because of tween's superior strategic skills, and Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is one of these. Ender is bullied by all the other cadets, but he keeps getting promoted because he is the best. Along the way, he becomes platonic friends with Petra (Haliee Steinfeld.) Soon he finds himself in deep space getting ready to battle real alien ant-people.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Ender's Game isn't that enjoyable because  it is too much like a Power Rangers episode -- too campy to be cool and not campy enough to be funny. This is especially true early in the movie, for example, when the tough guy sergeant is yelling at a co-ed group of cadets in their underware by their bunks. While later parts of the movie are more grown-up, this part looked like after-school TV.

A second gap is the Asa Butterfeld's Ender isn't that sympathetic. While the lines are delivered well enough, he was like a cerebral superhero -- too distant from real world experiences to evoke emotion. When he threatens to quit, it feels like an intellectual power game; part of the mental "chess game" he is playing with Ford's Col. Graff. It doesn't feel like he needs to be with his sister as he claims.

Harrison Ford provides some good dialog and facial acting, but it is in service a bullying plot line that is predictable.

Speaking of bullying: Ender usually he beats up the bully using superior tactics, but the point is to use violence to fix violence. This aspect of the message makes the story feel much older -- like WWII era Sci-Fi stories. I was surprised that the novel was written as late as 1992, because Star Trek Next Generation (from the same period) was far more progressive. Maybe author's Orson Scott Card's conservative views extend beyond his views on homosexuality.

The special effects are great. There are good action scenes in the weightless sports-game that seems to be a cross between Quidditch and football. These are probably the best scenes in the movie, but they are less interesting and suspenseful than Quidditch in Harry Potter.

I liked the ethical dilemma posed by the end of the movie. This began to redeem the movie, but it was pretty campy. I am glad they felt bad about what they did after it was all done.

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis

Directed and screenplay by: Gavin Hood

Based on the book by: Orson Scott Card (link to Amazon)

Rating: 1.5 stars:  Not so great. Not so fun. Predictable. 

More: I love the ink on Ben Kingsley. Even though he looks good, he had an empty character and was wasted in this film. 

Even more: I read the book about four years ago, but I didn't like the book enough to read any of the sequels. Going into the movie I did not remember most of the plot. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Counselor

Plot: The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is funding his first drug deal with associates Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt).  The Counselor is feeling good, so he buys a big diamond engagement ring for girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz.) Reiner's mysterious girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is a fem fatale with two pet Cheetahs, underworld friends,  and a car-load of sexual energy. Someone intercepts their drug shipment and the funders worry for their lives. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: The Counselor is a farcical drama about a drug deal going bad, and how its unravelling destroys lives of the white collar masterminds and their girlfriends. To enjoy the movie you need to appreciate the absurd little side stories, beautiful images, and philosophical speeches. This means plot-oriented viewers might want to stay home. The absurdity of the story makes it lighter, but never actually funny. 

Misogyny is the hatred of women, and there is a big dose of it. From the opening oral sex scene, to Cameron Diaz's bizarre car sex scene, to the closing confessional about how killing provides a woman sexual gratification, writer McCarthy piles it on.

I like most of the performances especially Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz. Michael Fassbender provides a everyman character that we can identify with -- he underacts at the beginning, but gets more emotive as his life crumbles.

Aside from the misogyny, the writing tends toward the wordy and philosophical -- I adjusted my expectations toward a slower paced movie, and went with it.

The photography is wonderful. The set design is cool and lush. There are a few good Spanish songs, but no soundtrack has been issued. 

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Cormac McCarthy

Rating: 2.5 stars: good enough for 3 stars but minus 1/2 for the women bashing

More: Javier Bardem's hair deserves an Oscar by itself. It's like a separate character. The best hair since Merida in Brave, and hers was CGI!


Saturday, October 19, 2013

World War Z

Plot: A highly contagious disease is spreading across the world, and it is turning people into zombies. UN trouble-shooter Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family get out of Philly and fight their way to an UN ship in the Atlantic. Gerry soon goes off in search of a cure in Korea, Israel and Wales. He battles ravenous zombies along the way. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: World War Z is a fast moving story with rapid-fire zombie action. It spends time to set up Gerry's home life, and he is always calling home to remind us that he is a real guy. Unlike Captain Phillips  whose wife isn't in the movie after the opening scene.

In the latter 80% of the World War Z , Gerry is killing zombies and getting hints at a cure --- but mostly killing zombies.

The sound track is good. The fighting scenes are exciting, but a little campy: comic enough that they were never scary. There is very little blood, and whatever blood there is miraculously disappears before the next scene.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos

Directed by: Marc Forster; very roughly based on the novel by Max Brooks

Rating: 2.5 stars:  Rapid-fire fun. Gross, but good for what it is. 
More: The UN is like the world government in WWZ. I can't think of another movie where the UN so active -- I wonder if this is a transparent ploy to appeal to a world wide audience. I know that there is a posse of UN haters in the USA, and this movie probably irks them. 

Even more: Why do zombies start so many fires?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Captain Phillips

Plot: Captain Phillip's (Tom Hanks') container ship is bringing fright to western Africa. It gets boarded by Somali pirates, and the crew tries a few things to fight them off.  Somali pirate captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is determined, and manages to board the ship, and find the crew. Phillips and the crew negotiate the swap of the ship for the Captain, and soon Captain Phillips and the pirates are motoring slowly to Somali.  In time, the Navy shows up leading to the climatic conclusion.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: A slow paced, naval hostage drama that may double as a Navy recruitment film.  It has fine acting and pretty pictures, but it isn't that much fun.

Highlights were the realistic naval scenes which give a flavor of living on a freighter, and the cool, competence of all US Navy Sailors. In a scene where the Navy Seals are getting dressed, they look like superheroes they are so muscled up.

Lowlights were the long and repetitive scenes of Phillips and the Somali guys on the lifeboat. I didn't need endless scenes Somali guys arguing with each other. Another lowlight was filler material after the climatic battle -- why do we need to see Phillip's medical check up? Just end the movie!

Hank's acting was great -- you knew it would be. Amateur actor Abdi does a fine job as the terrorst -- he seemed convincing through-out.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

Directed by: Paul Greengrass

Rating: 2.5 stars
More: Here is the real Captain Phillips.