The Wolf of Wall Street

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Jordan Belfort was released in 2006 after spending nearly two years in prison. Being incarcerated for stock swindling, he was left with plenty of time to write his memoirs. His autobiographical writings are the basis for this recent crime comedy directed by Martin Scorsese. The Wolf of Wall Street has both been praised and criticized for its depiction of events. One thing is for sure: the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays Jordan Belfort, is an entertaining ride.

The ambitious Belfort takes a job as a stockbroker at a reputed firm. He quickly learns the ropes, including extensive drug use, but unfortunately the firm goes bankrupt. Belfort is forced to accept a job at a small company that trades penny stocks. Being an excellent salesmen he is highly successful and founds his own firm together with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a group of salesmen he befriended. His new firm, Stratton Oakmont, focuses on the ‘whales’: clients with lots of money. Essentially they inflate the value of a company by convincing clients to buy shares, but then quickly sell their own shares, profiting of the increased value and duping the clients in the process. And more money, for Belfort and his peers, means a matching lifestyle.

The Wolf of Wall Street paints an exuberant picture: yachts, parties, women, midgets (what?), cocaine, quaalude (look it up). It’s all there and the mix is right: it’s an entertaining roller coaster ride. Of course: you are looking at con men. Although I understand the controversy, some of the most enjoyable movies and series are about questionable characters. Secretly, everyone (also) likes characters that are not brave and honest. Though the movie does show Belfort’s downfall, it does so only very briefly. Perhaps rightly so, otherwise this would have been a very different movie.

Leonardi DiCaprio portrays an excellent Jordan Belfort, which at times borders on insane only to swing back again to overly friendly. His motivational speeches are perhaps a bit too long-winded and further drive up the running time, which is already a hefty 180 minutes. Nevertheless, perhaps this is offset after the office turns into a crazy monkey cage afterwards. There’s very little to criticize from a cinematic point of view. The story is a bit light, but that’s also characteristic of the crime comedy genre. One could also see this as satire: a complaint against a part of society where money is no longer a means, but an end. Recommended, regardless of the interpretive angle. Sell me this pen!

★★★★★★★★☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Paramount Pictures.

Gravity

2013-11-26-GravityEvery once in a while you come across a movie that is special enough that you tell everyone to go and see it. Gravity is such a movie. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who also helmed the third Harry Potter film as well as the excellent Children of Men, delivers a masterful piece of contemporary cinema. I realize I have already given away my conclusion in this introductory paragraph, nevertheless I urge you to read on, so I can tell you why you should see it.

Gravity starts with a peaceful scene in which three astronauts perform maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope. The Earth serves as a serene backdrop as they go about their way. For Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) this is her first time in space, for Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) it is actually his final mission. Unfortunately for them, the destruction of a nearby satellite triggers a chain reaction which causes a debris field to fly their way. The peaceful scene quickly turns into a messy hell with debris tearing up everything, and that’s only the start.

What makes Gravity so effective is the frequent use of first-person perspective, close-ups and long takes. The entire opening scene is in fact a single shot up until the moment the chaos breaks out. The viewers can literally feel both the vastness of space as well as the claustrophobic feeling of being in space suits and shuttles. We predominantly see the point of view of Dr. Ryan Stone, who has to really struggle to survive. Sandra Bullock does a very good job with this (heavy) role, which is in some ways reminiscent of that of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien, though far less action-oriented.

Some scenes are perhaps a bit overly dramatic, but when those come you are likely to be so drawn into the film already, that it won’t be a distraction. The drama is not even really the focal point of the movie, what sets Gravity apart from other science fiction films is the extreme roller-coaster-like feeling of suspense. In fact some scenes may actually leave you feeling slightly nauseas.

Despite some minor flaws, like an unrealistic brief moment at the end of the movie, this is overall one of the best two science fiction movies I’ve seen in the past five years (Moon being the other one). A must see!

★★★★★★★★★☆

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Copyright © 2013 Warner Brothers

Elysium

2013-11-19-ElysiumThis summer was filled with major science fiction blockbusters. However, disappointments like Oblivion and Pacific Rim left me with little hope that any good original science fiction would hit the theaters this year. Luckily I was proven wrong, twice in fact. The second one will be the subject of an other post. Let’s first take a look at Elysium by Neil Blomkamp who was also responsible for District 9.

For those who forgot: District 9 was about aliens that – for a change – weren’t vastly superior to mankind. They just happened to make a crash landing on earth in a quite unpredictable place: South Africa. Being the polite and welcoming species that mankind is, we relegated them to live in slums. Though Elysium does not involve aliens, it does deliver the same type of social criticism that made District 9 an above average flick.

In Elysium we learn that in 2154 most of humanity still lives on earth, but in poor conditions. The wealthy minority – let us call them the one percent – live on an artificial torus-shaped space station named Elysium. Filled with villas, green pastures and advanced technology, Elysium is the dream of any earthling. However, we quickly learn that it is not easy to actually get there for the vast majority of people.

When three rogue ships carrying refugees approach the station, the minister of defense – an ice-cold lady portrayed by Jodie Foster – ruthlessly orders two of them to be shot to pieces. The third one barely manages to land on Elysium. A young mother carrying an ill child rushes into one of the deserted villas to place her child in a ‘med-bay’. To the mother’s relief, the child is instantly healed. Though a second later both are apprehended by human-form robots labeled ‘homeland security’.

Limited access to resources, like the med-bay which can instantly heal any disease, is what this movie is all about. Max is one of the lucky few earthlings that has a job. He works in a factory where the human-form robots are built. If that sounds good: it really isn’t. He is transported to work by a ramshackle bus, and the owner of the business treats his employees in a manner similar to how he handles robots: as replaceable parts. Getting to Elysium is Max’s childhood dream, and due to unforeseen circumstances he has to make that dream come true sooner rather than later.

In contrast to the other recent action science fiction films mentioned earlier, Elysium really does make you think about the story’s deeper implications. Besides that, it has plenty of action as well, which is at times perhaps a bit too visceral and too much. Luckily, the thing Elysium does gets right is populating its story with a diverse set of characters who all have clear motivations. No character is plain evil just for the sake of it.

Though not as thought-provoking and creative as District 9. With a clear story and good acting work (Matt Damon, Carly Shane, Jodie Foster), Elysium brings back some life to the action science fiction genre, in contrast with the rather lackluster attempts released in early summer. Worth watching, even if you’re not into science fiction.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Columbia TriStar

The Lone Ranger

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I was (involuntarily) exposed to the first trailer of The Lone Ranger multiple times – prior to other movie showings – and was not particularly impressed. The prospect of Johnny Depp as a kind of Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean) in the desert did not seem at all appealing. Regarding the Pirates movies: as most will remember the first one was good, but its successors less so, in part due to their absurd story-lines. Since The Lone Ranger more or less stewed in the same pot – Gore Verbinski as director, Disney as production company and of course Johnny Depp as the lead actor – my expectations were not high.

The film starts with a boy that enters an attraction at a fair. Upon entering, his attention is drawn to an exhibition of an old native Indian wax sculpture. That Indian, named Tonto, turns out to be alive and tells him about his adventures long ago in the Old West: the film’s narrative. Some sixty years earlier, the then young Tonto travels by train as a prisoner. He shares a carriage with Butch Cavendish, who is saved from the train by his henchmen. John Reid, a lawyer who is also on the train, find himself in the middle of Cavendish’s escape and tries to prevent it. His attempt is unsuccessful and he finds himself chained to Tonto. This forms the start of a long hate-love relationship between the two men.

The Lone Ranger does not present a very meaningful story, but it also does not ever pretend that it will. It feels like a Disney ride with plenty of laughs and absurdity, though never to the point of breaking suspense of disbelief. In fact, it has a flow and feel similar to that found in (early) Indiana Jones movies. Though the film relies on a fair amount of stereotyping – William Fichtner as bad guy Butch Cavendish and Helena Bonham Carter as a brothel owner – this is quite fitting for the genre. As a relief, Johnny Depp delivers an enjoyable different character from Jack Sparrow, with good chemistry with John Reid (Armie Hammer). Not all is perfect though. The flash forwards to the fair with the boy are an unnecessary disruption of The Lone Ranger’s flow. The movie could have been a bit shorter in places, and there is some drama and sentimentality which seems to have been added as an afterthought. Luckily, the finale is actually a great ten minute train jumping roller coaster ride supported by a Hans Zimmer version of the William Tell overture: a signature of the Lone Ranger films.

Though, not as good as the first Pirates movie, The Lone Ranger is certainly not bad either. The movie has been panned by critics and is supposedly a box office bomb, but I don’t really see a plausible reason for this. It’s better overall than other (modern) adventure westerns like Wild Wild West and Cowboys & Aliens, and also better than other recent blockbusters (like Pacific Rim). If you are looking for a decent light ‘popcorn’ western movie, The Lone Ranger will provide you with an evening of entertainment. I have attached the second trailer – better than the first one that I saw so many times – below.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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Pacific Rim

2013-08-27-Pacific_RimIn Pacific Rim the world has to deal with giant monsters crawling out of the sea. These ugly creatures, referred to as Kaiju, enter the bottom of the Earth’s oceans using portals connected to some other dimension. Conventional human weapons proved ineffective against them. Hence, mankind developed a new answer: giant fighting robots. And thus, we have the ingredients for a summer blockbuster.

The robots, called Jaegers, are subject to interesting, though somewhat arbitrary, constraints. For one, they have to be operated directly via a neural interface. However, since this puts too much strain on a single human mind, two people have to operate the robot together. To do this they need to neurally synchronize, exposing their memories and lives to each other in the process.

The main character, Raleigh, operates a Jaeger robot together with his brother Yancy. Unfortunately, Yancy is killed in a battle against one of the Kaiju, leaving Raleigh in severe mental shock as a result of the abruptly severed neural connection. Distraught, Raleigh turns away from the Jaeger operating life. A long time passes until he is visited by Stacker Pentecost, the Jaeger program’s leader. He asks him to to come back and fight again against the Kaiju.

Pacific Rim mostly shows giant robots fighting with giant monsters. While the combat scenes are well done in terms of visual effects, they also become somewhat tiring as the movie progresses. More interesting are the effects of the neural synchronization and the traumatic memories shared between the operators. A pair of scientist also provides a rather welcome humoristic distraction.

Unfortunately, the movie is not helped by cheesy dialogue: “Today, we are canceling the apocalypse”. Although there are connections between characters that work well, for example between Raleigh and the Japanese Mako, there are also plenty that miss the mark.

Although Pacific Rim is certainly visually pleasing, writer/director Guillermo del Toro can do much better than this in terms of storytelling. Recommended only for those who like looking at very large fighting things (though even then, Real Steel is more fun).

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Warner Brothers Pictures