FROM RUSSIA AND ITALY WITHOUT LOVE: COLD COMES THE NIGHT and THE BEST OFFER


cold-comes-the-night-cranston-eve-610x343Cold Comes the Night is a movie genre that is often described as: it does absolutely nothing, but does it very well—except that in this case, it only does it fairly well.  As usual for this sort of movie, it’s a thriller and revolves around a woman who runs a sleazy motel that a local police officer uses for his pimp trade.   She has a daughter who social services is threatening to take away (which is hard to argue with), so when a mob bagman who is going blind comes through and his driver is killed by a prostitute he attacks, the mother sees a way out of her circumstances. Continue reading

PREDICTIONS FOR 2013 OSCAR NOMINATIONS



These are my predictions for the Oscar nominations that will be revealed Thursday morning.  This is the hardest year in predicting nominations in some time.  Usually, out of the possible 45 nominations, I get 6-8 wrong.  This year, I expect to have a few more than that.
BEST PICTURE
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Captain Phillips
DallasBuyers Club
Gravity
Nebraska
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street
BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese The Wolf of Wall Street
BEST ACTRESS
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena

Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
BEST ACTOR
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb, Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Adbi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Spike Jonze, Her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska
David O. Russell & Eric Singer, American Hustle
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
Bill Ray, Captain Phillips
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

THE BEST FILMS OF 2013 or THE 2013 HOWIES


2013 started out strong for me when it came to films, but then took a downward turn, almost a kamikaze spiral, during the central months.  It then picked up again as the year came to a close, mainly because the major releases by studios and major independents didn’t crash and burn like a parade of Hindenburgs as they often do as December nears.
So what I thought was going to come up a cropper and end up being a disappointing year of film turned out to be a better one than last and, well, not totally unsatisfying.
With that, here are my top picks of the year.
For more information on each film, see my reviews.
BEST FILM-Top Ten
REALITY

Continue reading

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET



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The first two thirds of The Wolf of Wall Street, the new fevered dream about evil doings in the stock market, written by Terence Winter and directed by Martin Scorsese, is a roller coaster ride of sex, drugs and (no, not rock and roll, though there is a lot of that thrown about in the background, along with a marching band in their underwear) greed. 
This is Scorsese at his glorious best.  It’s a return to (do I dare use the “f” word; I mean, it’s such a “c” word; okay, I’ll do it) form (the “c” word, if your dirty mind didn’t guess it, is “cliché”).  It’s the Scorsese of Raging Bull, New York, New York, and Goodfellas.  The Scorsese that will pull every directing trick he can out of his bursting at the seams bag and explode it on the screen.
It’s the old Scorsese where you felt (pardon the vulgarity) that when there was fucking on the screen, he was banging away himself; that when people were stuffing white substances up their noses, he was using hundred dollar bills to do the same; that when people are conning the life savings out of poor hapless people, so was Scorsese (well, maybe that’s one screw turned too many, but then again, maybe it does sort of apply here in a way). 
But as splendid and invigorating as his directing is, I think this movie demonstrates one very important aspect of Scorsese’s talent.  Scorsese is a great director, but he’s only a great filmmaker when he has a good screenwriter at his back. 
I mean, to be ruthlessly honest and in full disclosure, I have not cared for a Scorsese film, outside a few documentaries, since Kundun.  But I never thought the issue was Scorsese’s direction.  No matter the film, he seemed as in command of the screen as ever. 
But what always seemed to let him down was his screenplay.  Scorsese has always been one of America’s finest directors, but he has also been one who seemed especially dependent on his screenwriter.  And over the last number of years, he has careened like a pinball from bad screenplay (The Gangs of New York), to perfectly okay, but nothing great screenplay (The Aviator, The Departed), to awkwardly written and it just doesn’t work screenplay (Hugo), to perfectly dreadful screenplay (Shutter, or is it “shudder”, Island)—and most of the time with the movies ending up in tilt.  
But here it looks like Scorsese may have found someone to save the day in Winter, a writer who also has many an episode of the TV series The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire to his name.  Winter has created fascinating and fully realized characters, a narrative that is turn the page captivating, and dialog filled with wit and energy. 
It is Winter (unless someone else came in and rewrote the screenplay behind his back, which does happen, I guess, but I’ve no reason to believe it here) who has come up with such priceless scenes as the hero Jordan Belfort’s first day selling penny-ante stocks where he mesmerizes his hapless fellow workers; the scene where his future second in command Donnie Azoff will quit his job if Jordan can show him a $72,000 pay stub; a talk about marrying first cousins; a riotously funny incident where a quaalude kicks in at just the wrong time; a scene where… 
Actually, I could go on and on, I loved the writing so much.  But the scene that really stands out as a remarkable piece of authorship is the pas de deux between Jordan and his father where the father (played effectively in a change of pace role by former meathead turned director Rob Reiner) comes into Jordan’s office furious over some expense reports and then stays for a private conversation concerning what Jordan likes in prostitutes.  It’s the sort of scene where a screenwriter could die happy knowing that he has written it.
Again, for the first two thirds of the movie, the film is captivating and frequently surprised me.  Winter and Scorsese would often structure a scene the same way: it would start out hysterically funny (as in the marching band scene) and then suddenly turn ugly and revolting, often ending up looking like a homage to Hieronymous Bosch.  It’s obvious that Scorsese is fascinated by these Alpha-male wannabees.  It’s equally obvious that he is also disgusted by them as well.  
However, it must be said, though, that it’s also equally obvious that it’s not always easy to tell when Scorsese’s fascinated by them and when he’s disgusted by them, something that will lead to problems in the last act.
And like so many end of year films, the movie is cleverly cast.  I mean, who would have thought that of all the people who came out of the Seth Rogan/Judd Apatow School of Performing Arts that it would be little Jonah Hill of Superbad that would end up showing the most interesting and exciting acting chops?
With Hill’s performance in Moneyball and this one as Donnie, he’s demonstrated that there is much more to his ability than adolescent frat movies (and I have nothing against adolescent frat movies, some of my best friends are adolescent frat movies).  He’s a whirling dervish of a character actor going powder filled nose to powder filled nose with Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan.  And they make some of the most beautiful timing together of the year.
DiCaprio, for his part, gives an equally strong performance in the title role.  He may not be quite as convincing when he tries to play poor working class, everyday, normal Jordan, but once the cocaine hits the nose, there is nothing stopping him from commanding the screen. 
And both are supported by excellent performances from a cast including Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley, Jon Favreau, Christine Ebersole, and Fran Lebowitz (basically playing the same character she played regularly on Law & Order).
But then it happens.  We reach that final third.  And then things stop working as well as they were earlier.  And I think there are a couple of reasons for this.  First, Jordan not in command of his empire of the sun, but stuck ala Charlie Sheen at his mansion, complete with a tracking bracelet, just isn’t very interesting; he’s back to being the Jordan in the opening scenes, and there’s just not a lot for DiCaprio to work with here to keep the energy up.
However, more important, I think Winter and Scorsese make a very serious misstep here.  Everybody involved in the making of the movie keeps claiming that, even though at times Winter and Scorsese seem to be celebrating what the characters are doing, they aren’t really condoning how these characters act and what these characters have done.  And I believe it. 
But where Winter and Scorsese go wrong is that they ultimately make the story about what Jordan does to Jordan, what he does to himself.  But that’s not really what Jordan’s story is about.  The story is about what Jordan has done to the American economy and the myriads of people whose lives he destroyed.  But that aspect of the story doesn’t interest Winter and Scorsese for some mind boggling reason.  In fact, all of that is chopped liver as far as they are concerned. 
All the two really care about is Jordan.   But Jordan, though fascinating, isn’t really a character worth caring about in the end.  It’s his victims who are worth caring about.  It’s sort of like doing a movie about, I don’t know, the notorious Civil War prison Andersonville and having the important aspect of the story be about Henry Wirz and what he did to himself, while completely ignoring the 13,000 POW’s who died there.  
And after all, isn’t Jordan’s drug taking and sexcapades really the least of his sins?  I mean, if that’s the worst that Winter and Scorses can bring themselves to accuse Jordan of, there’s something really screwy with the morality here and it’s not all on the screen.
So the writer and director had a chance to rise above what their movie ultimately was, but they bunted instead.  And thus the mighty movie stumbles and to a certain degree fails as it approaches the finish line.  For Winter and Scorsese, it’s enough for them to just show that Jordan ended up in a country club prison playing tennis and after being released, becoming a second rate huckster on second rate TV shows in Australia, drumming up business on how to become a salesman.   
With the result that rather than a movie that shows us what a monster Jordan became, we have a movie that, to quote a friend of mind, says little more than “sex is good, until it isn’t; drugs are good, until they aren’t; greed is good, until it isn’t”.
And in the end, Winter and Scorsese get conned by Jordan Belfort as much as the American public did. 
And it’s a shame.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY



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Pacific Rim is a big, expensive through the whazoo, blockbuster, tent pole film that was cast with second tier actors (or less), because, I suspect, after all the money was allotted for CGI (probably equal to the gross national product of all third world countries combined), there wasn’t anything left for A-listers.  August: Osage County was made on a much more modest budget, which means they could fill the cast with top of the line Academy Award nominees and winners and other actors who critics have been raving about and who are hot, hot, hot.
Well, the budget may have been less, and the actors greater, but the size of the disaster feels exactly the same.
I’m sure it all seemed like a good idea at the time, taking a critically acclaimed play (a Pulitzer Prizer at that) that was hugely successful on Broadway and fill it with plenty of Hollywood royalty to make the audience swoon.  After all, it worked for Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, didn’t it?  Hell, I’d have done it.  Who wouldn’t have?  And it stars Meryl Streep, too, for God’s sake.  Who could resist?
And it should have worked.  It has all the right ingredients.  It screams to be a memorable and searing drama of a dysfunctional family.
But to quote a friend of mine, “it’s a mess”.  And he’s right.  I mean, it’s a real mess.  And the result is A Long Day’s Journey Into Night lite.  No, it’s a bit worse than that.  It’s Long Day’s Journey… without caffeine and salt as well.  It’s about as blanded down and derivative as one can get.
Everyone who doesn’t like the movie seems to be pointing their finger at Streep herself, saying that her over the top, ham fisted performance as pill popping, vicious, Bette Davis-channeled, matriarch Violet Weston just bulldozes over everybody and everything in her path.  But I have to strongly disagree.  I’m not convinced there’s anything essentially wrong with her or her acting.  Indeed, I posit that she’s as good as she’s ever been.
I also sort of think that she’s getting bad press because she’s been so good for so long, people are desperate to take her down a peg or two—“finally, Streep gives less than a stellar performance, we can die now”.
No, I think the essential problem is not her interpretation, but the character itself. 
The screenplay, written by Tracy Letts and adapted from his own play, has this supposed force of nature at its center, but a force of nature that doesn’t seem to have a reason for acting the way she does.  She has her whole family gathered around her, everybody together for the first time in who knows how many years, but what does she want from them?  What does she want to do to them while they are there?  What is she hoping to get out of it?  I had absolutely no idea.  
In fact, I found her to be pretty forceless, full of sound and fury, but not signifying much of anything when it came down to it.
And there’s a key scene that I believe demonstrates what I’m getting at.  At the funeral lunch, Violet suddenly, out of nowhere, insists that grace be said.  But why?  What is her motivation (as they say in the biz)?  What does she hope to achieve or get out of it?  I mean, I know why Letts includes it; it’s a pretty cheap laugh.  But I had absolutely no idea why Violet asked for it, so the scene just seems so…purposeless.
And for the whole of the movie, every action of Violet’s seems constrained by this same problem.  It feels as if she’s supposed to be in the driver’s seat of the story, determining where everything is going, but she can’t find the GPS, until finally I started thinking of that theater joke when the method actor asks what his motivation is and the director says, your paycheck at the end of the week.   That she’s able to do anything with the part I think is a tribute to her ability.
The other characters also have the same issue at times.  Why they put up with this crazy person at the head of the table when they know she’s high as a kite and is acting completely irrational was something of a mystery to me.   The screen door is right there and, as the screenplay is written, now that the funeral is over, there’s nothing really keeping them there.   After all, most of them haven’t been home for years.  If they had no problem leaving before, what’s keeping them there now?  Everyone sticks around, but no one seems to have a reason to, psychologically or practically. 
So, the whole drama sort of flails around as it keeps trying to find something to hold it together, something to grab onto and focus on.  But in the end, it just feels like a series of scenes that seem to have no real logical connection, all on the same level, all waiting for Godot.
And then the whole thing stops.  It doesn’t end.  It just…stops.  In fact, in the final scene, I was fully waiting for another whole act yet to resolve everything, to bring it all together, for it all to mean something.  But no, the music comes up and the credits start and it’s all over.  With the result that I had no idea what the point of the whole thing was.
I also suspect that in making the change from stage to screen, something else may have happened to throw things off (but I have not read the play or seen it, so this is just wild inexcusable speculation).  The whole movie feels like a drama that started out as an ensemble piece that became a movie about a mother/daughter relationship, here between Violet’s oldest Barbara (played by Julia Roberts with a Mona Lisa frown) and Violet herself.
I mean, it’s Julia Roberts.  How do you not try to make the movie revolve around her in some way?  And the fact that the producers couldn’t figure out who to push for best actress and best supporting actress when it came to the Oscars (changing their minds at least once), just buttresses my opinion…in my opinion.
But since the two don’t have a relationship in the first place, never create one during the movie, and end up not having one at the end, this emphasis on these two characters seems muddled and unconvincing, and just plain puzzling.  At when it’s all over, when Barbara stops her truck and looks out at a field (a field that has no significance to anyone or anything in the story as far as I could tell), then pulls that frown upside down into a triumphant smile and takes off heading away from her childhood home, I wasn’t sure what she was triumphing over.   She’s not heading anyplace new.  She’s heading back to status quo, to the place she was before the movie started.
At the same time, there is one aspect of the movie that deserves high praise and that is the remarkable acting of Margo Martindale, as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, and Chris Cooper, as her husband Charlie.  These two performers have a palpable chemistry that no one else in the cast seems to come within country miles of having.  The actors feel so much like they have been married for the thirty eight years their characters have, it almost brings one to tears.  And they show that deep affection coupled with built up resentment that so many couples have who have been married for that long show. 
And whenever they are on screen, there is some indication of what the movie might have been.
But part of that is because Mattie Fae has a definite reason for acting the way she does.  She holds a secret that affects a large number of people in the story, a secret concerning her son Little Charles and Violet’s daughter Ivy.  And it’s amazing how much of a difference that can make.  While Streep seems to be floundering for a character to play, Martindale and Cooper walk away with the acting honors because there is something definitely at stake for them.  And they play the hilt out of it.
Yet, at the same time, once you find out what the secret is, it’s something of a let down.  For one thing, it’s quite a cliché, a plot twist that’s been very popular these last few years on various and sundry TV series that incorporate crime and mystery stories of some sort as their basis. 
But I also have to be honest here.  When it was revealed, I know I was supposed to go, OMG, poor Ivy and Little Charles.  But I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t.  Instead, I went, so? 
Okay, for those of you who have seen the movie, I know, I know.  I’m going to hell.  I’m immoral and my opinion is just one of the signs of the coming apocalypse.  But I just didn’t care and just didn’t see the problem.   I just didn’t see what the big deal was.
Sort of how I felt about the movie, I suppose.