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*The Battle of Algiers
*Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
*City of God
*Dazed and Confused
*Do the Right Thing
*The French Connection
*Gangs of New York
*The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
*Grosse Pointe Blank
*Hiroshima Mon Amour
*In the mood for Love
*Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's cut
*Little Miss Sunshine
*The Long Good Friday
*Leon: The Professional
*The New World
*Out of Sight
*Raging Bull( My favorite film of A.T!)
*Requiem for a Dream
*The Royal Tenenbaums
*Saving Private Ryan
*Sid and Nancy
*The Thin Red Line
*Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
*To Live and Die in LA
*The Unbearable Lightness of Being
*V for Vendetta
*The Wild Bunch
*You Can Count on Me
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Best Picture of 2013
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is Martin Scorsese at his most unrestrained. For a filmmaker no stranger to controversy, (and often condemned for his depictions of violence) it's really saying something that this is his most lurid picture to date. That may be too mild a statement.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort, a married, seemingly idyllic New York stockbroker who takes a job with an established Wall Street firm. By chance, he is noticed by his Boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in a memorable minor appearance) who takes him under his wing and advises him to adopt a steady lifestyle of sex and drugs in order to succeed. Not before long, "Black Monday" hits, leaving Jordan without a job and with little options. His wife pressures him into taking a job with a small Long Island firm who's penny stock dealings are of the shady variety. His aggressive knack for the scam amount him a fortune, and it's not long before he along with new found friend and all-around oddball Donnie (Jonah Hill) open their own firm "Stratton Oakmont," ambitiously scamming their way to the top. This soon gets the attention of Forbes (who label Jordan The Wolf of Wall Street) and inevitably the FBI.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is completely outrageous, hilarious, perverse, vulgar, and brilliant. In it's three hours of (mostly) depravity, it gets away with things that R-rated films usually don't or wouldn't even try. But this is no mere waltz in exploitative muck. There's a method to this madness sure, but a point as well. It's an exquisitely naughty satire... a send up that is to corporate and systemic corruption what "Taxi Driver" is to suppressed rage in the face of a collapsing infrastructure. The dark comedy of Terence Winter's script effectively cutting just as deep as the rebel yell of Paul Schrader's opus.
Belfort is essentially a scumbag who embodies a lot of what's wrong with the western world (as does the film itself), but this degenerate provides the perfect vessel for what is arguably Leonardo DiCaprio's best performance. The guy's a marvel to watch. We should hate him, but we never do and attentively watch his unbelievable story unfold for 180 minutes. That's a credit to DiCaprio's endlessly likable presence and under-appreciated range. He balances the comedy, the dramatics, the intensity; commanding the screen in a way few could. Look to the already classic, as well as horrifyingly hilarious "Quaaludes" scene (THE scene of 2013) for definitive proof of his skill. Jonah Hill (surprisingly Oscar nominated for his role) is really strong here as is the pitch- perfect cast in it's entirely, including Margot Robbie, Jon Bernthal, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, and most notably Kyle Chandler who's federal agent Denham emerges as our moral compass through the sleaze.
"The Wolf of Wall Street," a remarkable directorial achievement, is above all else a masterpiece of pacing. This is a three-hour epic, but you'd never know as it flies by like a picture half it's length. The film maintains a sense of urgency so that even extended scenes are played snappy and breeze by. The film spits so much quick fire information that a mere bathroom break would throw a viewer so out of the loop that catching back up would feel impossible. It's marvelous to behold how Scorsese is able to stuff every frame with so much detail and never have it overwhelm or feel like graphic overkill. Like "Goodfellas" and "Casino" we are more than happy to soak all of this in. Despite the potentially off-putting motivations and actions of these characters, Scorsese captures glimpses of humanity while entertaining the hell out of us at the same time.
Comparisons made to "Goodfellas" and "Casino" should not only be acknowledged but welcome. Those are two of Marty's very best films, and in time I have an inkling that "The Wolf of Wall Street" will be held in similarly high regard.
Now the hot button issue. Is "Wolf" a celebratory picture glorifying a culture of corporate thievery, rampant carnality, and hardcore drug use? Some might feel this way, but they have either been seduced by the events portrayed or have refused to read between the line... missing the entire point in the process. That's not the fault of the film or it's makers, but select audiences that consume entertainment at face value alone.
For it's incendiary screenplay, wicked sense of humor, on point performances, outstanding editing, and typically stellar direction from the master, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is frankly a phenomenal film that can't be ignored. It's the fastest three-hours in the history of cinema.
"The wolf of Wall Street" is the best picture of 2013.
Kill List (2011)
A failed experiment, yet worth a look
"Kill List" is really a tale of two films. The first is a mysterious hit-man story that grows increasingly spastic up until a violent last act twist, and the second is, from the ground up, a self indulgent experiment in manipulating an audience. The writer/ director is Ben Wheatley, and there's no doubt he has had a hell of a time toying with us. I just didn't have nearly as much fun watching it.
Wheatley sets up his story as an impressively acted kitchen-sink drama. It's slow in the beginning, and does a great job establishing it's characters. I was instantly drawn to these people, especially Jay and Gal (the two leads played by Neil Maskell, a great screen presence, and Michael Smiley). We soon learn (rather vaguely) that they are Hit men, and that Jay has been left emotionally and physically broken from the last job he pulled 8 months back in Kiev. He hasn't "worked" since, but Gal persuades him to take on a high profile job... to complete a contract that will entail clipping a Priest, a Librarian, and lastly a member of parliament. They carry out their deeds with shocking brutality, as Jay becomes increasingly unhinged.
"Kill List" does a terrific job at upping the intensity at a smooth, subtle pace, and Wheatley nails the tone. Even when "Kill List" eludes that it's only a crime drama, the atmosphere is a constant whisper that something is not quite right. Through sound and nuggets of surreal Lynchianisms... "Kill List" becomes an otherworldly mystery, and we are baffled. Scenes like that of the Hit List being signed in the blood of a deep cut and Jay's visit to his family doctor are stark, disturbing reminders.
But then there is the final act twist, at which point "Kill List" becomes what it was always building too; a horror film. That isn't spoiling anything though, since pretty much anything you've already read or have seen on the film has given away it's genre-bending nature. Unfortunately it's here where the film fell apart for me. The finale isn't a devious turn of events or a shocking twist, but rather something that just happens for the sake of it. The movie leading up to this freak show was an oddity sure, but a developed one with great characters and promise. I felt cheated. "Kill List" fails as a horror movie in the end because it was only scary before it tried to be. The horror scenes are half baked and instead of going for the throat seem content playing almost as homage. "The Wicker Man," "A Serbian Film," and 28 Days Later" came instantly to mind. Did I mention it wasn't scary?
Since all of this tomfoolery does away with coherence (the little there already was) and the established film that I really liked... "Kill List" stands as well made, scatter-shot nonsense that is made more frustrating because of it's expertly crafted build up. Maybe if I'd gone in blind it would have shocked and surprised me? This movie has it's admirers. I'm guessing the cat wasn't yet out of the bag.
Out of the Furnace (2013)
A bleak, at time brilliantly realized revenge drama from CRAZY HEART's Scott Cooper, "Out of the Furnace" is a familiar setup executed to the nines. A simple, spare rural crime saga with ambition and commentary; and performances that make it great.
At this point, it seems pointless to praise a Christian Bale performance, but he gives one of his best here, as does Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson as the menacing, hateful ball of psychotic rage DeGroat. Bale is mesmerizing in his restraint... Harrelson; quite the opposite.
"Out of the Furnace" isn't going to win anyone over with originality. On the surface, we've seen films like this before but Cooper has a unique vision. He skillfully touches upon America's current Socioeconomic climate without drawing attention away from the narrative. In this way it reminded me of Andrew Dominic's underrated "Killing Them Softly," only a lot more subtle and with the stark, backwoods atmosphere of "Winter's Bone." It's with it's performances however, it's cinematography, and the unexpected way in which the story unfolds that makes "Into the Furnace" standout; even in a particularly strong year at the movies.
Director Scott Cooper has proved "Crazy Heart" was no fluke. "Out of the Furnace" is a great sophomore effort from a promising new talent as well as one of the stronger films I've seen this year.
Picture Day (2012)
Terrific lead performance in a smart coming-of-age story
Now here's an insightful little teen film that gets the angst of coming- of-age without having to resort to the same old clichés. "Picture Day" from promising first-time filmmaker Kate Melville is a sensitive portrayal concerning a couple of teens going about the daily grind.
The reckless, wannabe rebel Claire (Tatiana Maslany), forced to attend an extra year of high school, befriends the socially awkward Henry; a boy she used to babysit years earlier. Claire is unaware of their history at first, but Henry isn't, and in fact has never abandoned his long standing, secretly obsessive crush.
"Picture Day" is well written and unpredictable, but it is the terrific work of Maslany (a revelation on TV's "Orphan Black") that makes the film succeed. She's a quirky, natural performer and at 28 somehow plays a high schooler with utter conviction. Her character is flawed, brash, but realistically drawn and we root and sympathize with her. Melville rests a lot on Maslany's performance to great results.
The plot goes some places that don't really work, and some scenes are in need of a good trimming, but this is never the less a rarity in the teen genre; one that favors character development, leisurely pacing, and no easy answers.
This is smart, good-natured indie fare with a terrific performance at it's center. It's imperfect sure, but memorable and well worth seeking out.
Du zhan (2012)
Meth in the Mainland
After his meth lab explodes, leaving him scarred and his wife dead, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is apprehended by the Chinese police for a crime that warrants the death penalty. In the custody of Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), Choi sees only one option to avoid execution; turn traitor and help Zhang's undercover unit bring down the powerful cartel that he has been cooking for. As the stakes get higher, it becomes increasing unclear as to who has the upper hand, and who will dictate the endgame.
Director Johnny To is a master of the crime film, and with "Drug War," he's created a near masterpiece of the genre. He never convinces us of being in anything but complete control of his multifaceted thriller, and exudes an unparallelled confidence in every scene and phenomenal set piece.
To's electrifying picture recalls some of the best work of his great contemporaries. "Drug War" possesses the technical brilliance of Scorsese's "The Departed," the ground-level knowledge and surveillance of David Simon's "The Wire," the gritty realism of Michael Mann's best work, and by the end the blistering, double-fisted action of John Woo's prime. These elements don't come together as a derivative; To is a filmmaker at the top of his game, and makes the most of his cast, his influences, the Mainland setting, and a little of the grotesquerie that often has Hollywood shuddering; in a singular whole.
Disparate from most Hong Kong action films, "Drug War" is a methodical, meticulous procedural first, exploiting a street-smart screenplay that knows the Chinese crime scene; and if that statement is indeed false, it never feels less than authentic. Much of the intensity derives from dialogue exchanges, and how rigorous both the cops and criminals try to not get made. Because of this well paced, equally well played dynamic, we never know who we should root for, and that's exactly the point. Mr. To's drama is incredibly intense... but then he pulls out all the stops.
The last 20 minutes of "Drug War" is the show-stopping action set piece of the year. An extended shootout that's brutal, ambitious, and a masterpiece of it's kind. It's a marvel of physical filmmaking that also works as an unexpected plot device, violently flipping our conceived notions of these characters on their ear; clearing the way for a fittingly ironic, ice-cold conclusion.
"Drug War" might just be the best pure crime film of 2013. Technically and narratively stellar, it already seems like a minor classic of the genre.
The Reader (2008)
A beautiful, yet flawed curiosity
THE READER is a film that is going to perplex many audiences. The reason for this is that is has many of the ingredients that make a film great, and many will see the film as a great success because of these. But unfortunately, the film also misses the mark in a few areas and many film goers will not be able to look pass them. I was stuck in between these views... that is why it has taken almost two days for me to get this review out.
What really struck me off the bat was how great the film looks. Roger Deakins always works wonders behind the camera, but there was something about the look of this film that was just so lush and captivating. There's no doubt that it's Oscar nomination for cinematography is completely justified. Next, direction. Daldry, with just two other films under his belt has gained quite the reputation (with 3 Oscar nominations under his belt), and that is because he has a great sense of realism and the ability to make the audience feel apart of his character's world. Those abilities are put to great effect in THE READER. There is not a moment that doesn't feel completely authentic. Also adding the the sense of immersion are a wealth of very fine performances, by heavy-weights (Winslet, Fiennes) and relatively unknowns. I'm pretty sure that Kate Winslet will take home the Best Actress Oscar this year, but I feel that it is NOT her finest performance and there were better performances from other female leads (Melissa Leo in FROZEN RIVER and Sally Hawkins who failed to obtain Oscar recognition for HAPPY GO LUCKY).
While the film has it's undeniable strong points, THE READER also has some unforgivable flaws that damper the film as a whole. Frankly, it's one of the colder films of recent memory. For such an intimate portrait of these characters, I was shocked at how little I cared about any of them. Even Winslett, the heart of the picture, I had little feeling or sympathy for. For a drama of this caliber, the lack of emotional connection was beyond disappointing. But perhaps the biggest flaw was how generic it all felt. Throughout, I was just constantly reminded of different, and often better, films. I don't know why, but there was so much familiar with the plot and the setting that I couldn't help but be reminded of such films. I know it has been stated to the point of insanity, but THE READER is the definition of Oscar Bait (especially in the case of Winslett, who will once again prove excessive nudity = Oscars). What also didn't help matters was that after a strong start, the film just seemed to get more tedious and boring as it proceeded, to which I began to car less and less (The film at just over two hours rushes through it's plot, sometimes leaving the viewer confused and in a state of "why do I even care." The film does build to a strong third act though).
I may sound like I'm ragging on the film, but I'm most definitely not. It's just that in the time after my viewing of it, the flaws have seem to become more apparent then before; and that's always frustrating.
For all it's stunning cinematography and visual grandeur, there's an uneasy sense of "I've seen this all before;" For all of the films great performances, I wondered why I didn't care about their characters more; For it's strong direction, I wondered why the film couldn't flow at a more comprehensive pace.
This brings me to the conclusion that in THE READER, most every positive aspect comes with a negative one. This is a shame because the talent on display could have given light to a great film. Instead, the final product is more of a deeply flawed curiosity that some will love and some will hate. A few however will be stuck in the middle like I am. I find that worse than the two extremes.
Max Payne (2008)
Easily the best video game to movie crossover to date.
I got to see MAX PAYNE a day in advance due to a sneak preview screening at a local theater.
And I've got to say... it was impressive to say the least. I consider MAX PAYNE and it's sequel to be my favorite games of all time, and now the movie is the best based on a video game yet produced (though that's not giving it enough credit). Though the film does a few things different, it definitely compliments and stays true to the source material. John Moore, a hack director, turns in his best work to date, delivering some crisp and tense action scenes and most importantly, gets the feel for the game JUST RIGHT. There is also some stunningly gorgeous effects a digitally-altered photography to behold. Mila Kunis was slightly miscast, but Walhberg I feel was a perfect fit to Play Max. It's also good to see Beau Bridges working again, and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges proves once again he's the best rapper-turned-actor since Ice Cube (Boys N the Hood and Three Kings... not the family friendly Ice Cube of recent memory.
But the reviews will be terrible. Every time a movie based on a game is released, critics bash it. OK, most of the time it's justified, but here, I can assure you it won't be. Some reviews I've read are straying from the film, and talking about how games shouldn't ever be movies because they have NO emotional impact or artist and creative purpose. A: this is a completely idiotic, false, and ignorant statement, and B: this has nothing to do with the film being reviewed! SHOOT EM UP and WANTED got very strong reviews which they wouldn't have if they were based on games (and they were essential video games!). MAX PAYNE is better than both of those, but will get pummeled critically do to the format it's source material is on. That's just stupid.
See this movie with an opened mind. It's a very well crafted modern neo-noir.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Ben Stiller and company hit the comedic mark with "TROPIC THUNDER."
Advanced screening: Toronto (July 31, 2008) Tropic Thunder is a film I've anticipated (from it's trailers/ Downey Jr's "Blackface" controversy) for quite awhile, but knowing Ben Stiller's hit (Reality Bites) or miss (Zoolander) directing filmography, I kept my expectations relatively lukewarm. Luckily that wasn't necessary because it's Stiller's best effort as a director to date as well as one of the best comedies of the year.
Starting with the best fake-trailers this side of Grindhouse, TROPIC THUNDER develops into the most uniquely wacky blend of satire/action/ and gross-out I've ever seen. At first it appears to be a straight-up spoof on popular war films, then it becomes a film within a film, then an attack on Hollywood and the film industry in general. Also present are some rather shocking (and hilarious) sight gags (exploding film-crew members, the brutal slaughter of an endangered species) that managed to catch everyone off guard (yet not offend them).
The main reason TROPIC THUNDER works so well though is it's stellar ensemble cast. You have the likes of Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Steve Coogan, and Nick Nolte all turning in terrific comedic performances that they obviously had fun with. Tom Cruise gives the extended cameo of the year as a studio executive, while Tobey Maguire and a slew of other actors make notable appearances. Ultimately it is Downey Jr. who steals almost every scene as the platoon's very white, African-American squad leader.
Rude, witty, and ballsy, TROPIC THUNDER is a great time at the movies. It's hard finding worth-while large budget comedies these days, but DIRECTOR Ben Stiller, supported by a strong cast and a great premise, has proved himself to be the right man for the task. 8/10
The Happening (2008)
The Happening: Shyamalan's entertaining B-Movie
Better than LADY IN THE WATER and THE VILLAGE, but doesn't touch the likes of THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS.
THE HAPPENING is indeed a minor work from the very inconsistent Shyamalan, but I found myself enjoying it more than I should have by coming to the conclusion that it was a glorified B-movie. It plays like a 90 minute episode of the Twilight zone, and it has a preachy message to match.
The acting and dialogue were pretty awful throughout, but I felt this aided the B-movie feel nicely. The film also has the most moronic and uneven blend of shock and humor (yes...humor) I've seen in any film, but somehow it managed to work here (in context of course). I know moviegoers ever where are going to hate the film for these very reasons, but I admired the film for it's goofiness,, it's b-movie charm, and the fact that you never know exactly where it's going next.
THE HAPPENING is proof that Mr. ''Shyamalamadingdong'' can make an entertaining picture without a twist ending; without jump-scares; and without pretension. It may not be the film he set out to make... hell it may not be the film that many people will expect to see, but in a time when most films in release are dull and by-the-books, THE HAPPENING is neither.
Highly entertaining despite historical Inaccuracies
Okay, first let's dispense with the pleasantries. Jim Sturgess, Laurence Fishburne, and Kevin Spacey are all of course their perpetually brilliant selves. The script is nice and tight, with plenty of physical and verbal humor. It's a thoroughly enjoyable movie...but Anyone who's a fan of the real story though will be both off put and possibly offended. In the book Bringing down the House, the four main students are all Asian. I understand this is an American movie, so I can see why the studio would cast mostly white people...hey, it's money what can you say? The thing that irks me SO much is the time frame. The MIT Blackjack team originated in the late 70's. This incident, with Ben Campbell, took place in '94. There was no Vitamin Water and there were definitely no PSP's. We're supposedly watching the story in modern times as they face a software program developed over a decade ago! But by all means, go see this movie. you'll realize how truly little this actually matters, but I for one just can't get over it. It really is solid on every other front though.