Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Douchebag of Wall Street

According to that definitive online authority on modern lexicon, Urban Dictionary, a ‘douchebag’ is a person of the male gender who’s beyond a jerk or an asshole but not quite a fucker or motherfucker.  The protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ fits that definition to a ‘t.’  Based on the published memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stock broker whose heady rise to fortune and subsequent fall serve as a sobering lesson on the dangers of capitalist greed and excess, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street‘ displays both Scorsese and his frequent collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio at the top of their form.

DiCaprio gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Jordan Belfort who, under the tutelage of mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a rather humorous turn), discovered that the secret of a good stock broker is not making money for your clients but "moving your clients’ money into your pocket.”  And apparently, a good stock broker also parties like there's no tomorrow (often in the office), snorts copious amounts of coke and bangs lots of hookers.  After the disaster of ‘Black Monday,’ Belfort took on a brief stint selling blue-collar penny stocks to schmucks at 50% commission before starting his own brokerage firm with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and some of his old dope-dealing high school buddies out of an auto repair garage (kinda like Steves Jobs and Wozniak with Apple).  The rest of the tale is compelling stuff indeed, as the meteoric rise of Stratton-Oakmont came under the increasing scrutiny of the FBI and SEC.

Powerful, witty, irreverent and packed with wry humor throughout, TWOWS provides us with an interesting glimpse into stock market manipulation while entertaining us at the same time.  Guided by Scorsese’s deft touch, the movie is tightly paced and never floundered even at 3 hours, which is more than you can say for DiCaprio in one hilarious scene when he and Donnie were half paralyzed by slow-acting Quaaludes.  While there’s no denying that DiCaprio’s Belfort is a despicable scum-sucking scoundrel of the highest order who fleeced people of their hard-earned savings (i.e. 'moving his clients’ money into his pocket'), one must also grudgingly concede that he was simply marvelous on-screen, a personality radiating so much confidence and charisma that he can sell virtually anything to anyone, anytime.  Whether he's galvanizing his peeps before a big IPO or giving a moving speech about how  a single mother pursued the 'American Dream' and rose from the depths of poverty and despair, you can't help but give him your undivided attention and applause.  Bravo, Leo, bravo!

Grade: A
Well, this makes my 50th and final review of the year.  Have a safe and happy new year, everyone.  Next up: American Hustle.  Until next time.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

L5R: The Movie

Fantasy and history with a distinctly oriental flavor collide in Keanu Reeves' latest actioner set in the breathtakingly picturesque landscape of feudal Japan.  Based on a well known and beloved Japanese folk tale, '47 Ronin' is the story of forty-seven masterless and disgraced samurai (ronin) who defied the Shogun in order to avenge their lord, who was forced to commit seppuku as a result of the duplicitous deceit and treachery of a rival daimyo.
Being a fan of samurai history, Kurosawa and Japanese chanbara as well as jidaigeki, I had high hopes for '47 Ronin.'  Japanese cult film director Takashi Miike, whom Quentin Tarantino idolizes and cites frequently as an influence, recently brought samurai flicks back in a big way with his robustly violent '13 Assassins' and the more understated 'Hara-kiri.'  Therefore, it is really a shame that '47 Ronin' squandered a great opportunity and failed to further broaden the appeal of Japanese samurai cinema to American viewers. 
So what went wrong?  Purists argued that combining history with fantasy (the movie has an evil shape-shifting witch, forest demons, a giant Silver Samurai right out of 'Wolverine' and a Chinese dragon) was a mistake.  However, the story of the 47 ronin has been told on film twice already straight, the first in 1941 and more recently in the 1962 movie 'ChÅ«shingura,' so I won't blame the producers and writers for giving this retelling a fantasy element in light of the success of 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit.' 
The fact is simply that '47 Ronin' is bland, uninspired and tepid.  None of the characters, least of all Keanu's half-breed outcast Kai, are compelling or sympathetic enough for us to care about.  His monotonous, droning proclamations of love to Lady Mika (Kou Shibasaki) lacked resonance and the ring of authenticity, and the over-reliance on CGI only made the movie appear superficial and less 'human.'  They spent $175 million on this?!

Grade: C

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Bilbo and the Thirteen Dwarves

When it comes to bringing large scale sword-and-sorcery to the big screen, perhaps no one is better than Peter Jackson.  In three ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, the New Zealand native has established himself as a master at breathing life into the enchanting realms of not only men but of Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, Trolls, Halflings (Hobbits) and Drakes.  A gifted storyteller and cinematographer, Jackson’s movies are always breathtaking in beauty and scope, lending his movie a grandeur few of his contemporaries can match.
In ‘The Desolation of Smaug,‘ the middle installment of Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit,‘ Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield and his merry band of dwarves continue their quest for the Arkenstone and to reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor from the bane dragon Smaug, with the help of the wizard Gandalf (for the first quarter of the movie anyway) and the halfling Bilbo Baggins, armed with the One-Ring he took from Gollum which renders him invisible.  Their ‘unexpected journey’ becomes an even more unexpected adventure as the hapless PC's (that's 'player characters' in D&D parlance) evade Orcs, a Man-Bear ‘skin-changer’ named Beorn, get cocooned by mandibled Giant Spiders, run afoul of Wood Elves in the forest, before finally arriving at Lonely Mountain to face an awakened and royally pissed off fire-breathing Dragon.  “What have we done?!” indeed.
‘The Desolation of Smaug’ moves at a livelier clip than the unevenly paced ‘An Unexpected Journey’ and, like the dwarves in their white-water barreling escape from their wood elf captors (including Tauriel played by the comely Evangeline Lilly from ‘Lost‘), we can’t help but get swept along for the ride.  At 2 hours, 41 minutes the movie could have been trimmed down to a better length; the dragon talked a bit too much and the last scene in which the dwarves and hobbit evaded the dragon seemed to ‘drag on’ and on (no pun intended), but given the movie’s merits this is a small transgression I am more than willing to overlook.
Grade: A

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Sex, Lies and Hammer

Spike Lee’s latest ‘joint’ is the American remake of South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s excellent but subversive 2003 cult hit ‘Oldboy,’ the second installment in his so-called "Vengeance trilogy" that is also widely considered to be its best.  Chances are, if you - like me - have seen the original ‘Oldboy,’ this movie will offer nothing new for you because ‘Oldboy’ is one of those delicious “riddles wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” with such a shocking twist slowly but methodically revealed that watching it again invariably loses some of its impact.
However, for those of you who haven’t seen the original, this Americanized version is well worth the look because ‘Oldboy’ is really a splendid mystery and sordid tale of revenge that never holds back, packed with ultra-violence, creeping suspense and sheer, good old fashioned storytelling, even if it’s guilty of being outlandish and highly implausible.  In fact, like David Fincher's 'The Game,' it is the plot's very outrageousness that lends the movie its strength, as we're drawn into its intricate web of deceit and realize with bone-chilling horror just how far people will go to serve the cold dish of revenge in calculated fashion.
‘Oldboy’ 2013 is more-or-less a faithful remake of Park Chan-wook’s original, with some minor tweaks in details.  Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley and Samuel L. Jackson all performed their parts well in this Coen Brothers-meets-Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller that could have been directed by Quentin Tarantino if one didn’t know any better.  Alas, ‘Oldboy’ is an art-house genre film that will never have mainstream appeal due to its highly provocative and taboo content.
Grade: A
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