Tag Archive: Sandra Bullock


Continuing with the viewing of the Oscar Best Picture hopefuls, I took in The Wolf of Wall Street last week. Plus, as promised, here are the long-overdue reviews for films I had seen previously: Dallas Buyers Club (my pick so far for Best Picture) and Gravity.

The Wolf of Wall Street

 
imagesLike an updated Goodfellas (1990) saga, The Wolf of Wall Street is filled with the greed-rabid, ego-deluded, sociopathic, drug-addled, megalomaniacal, and just plain sick antics that defined the rise and fall of penny-stock crook Jordan Belfort, based on Belfort’s own autobiographical account. Though some interpretations of people and events are exaggerated, it’s overwhelming to know that much of the depravity, corruption, and destruction depicted actually did happen.

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If you’re a fan of director Martin Scorsese’s style of aggressive confrontation and abandoned debauchery, or a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio’s amazing acting, you’ll most likely enjoy this film. It’s almost as though Scorsese, who also directed Goodfellas, wanted to replicate the phenomenal cultish appeal of that effort, for and with his protégé and collaborator, DiCaprio—as though he’d remake it, if he could, with DiCaprio as Henry Hill (played in Goodfellas by Ray Liotta). But even in his most corrupt moments, Hill had a kind of likeability that allowed audiences to identify with him and cring at the downward spiral his life had taken. On the other hand, DiCaprio, a consummate actor who brings Belfort to squirming life on screen, cannot make likeable even for a moment the despicable character of the Wolf (a moniker that Belfort egotistically gave himself, while others usually referred to him as a cockroach).

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While I count myself a fan of both Scorsese and DiCaprio (his acting, at least), lamentably this movie gets added to the list of aggrandizing films that document the deeds of sleazebags and criminals who have no redeeming qualities. There are those who claim that Belfort’s contribution to society is his amazing power to persuade and to teach others how to do the same. My jaw dropped when I saw that DiCaprio even shot a short “infomercial” for the slimeball, calling him “a true motivator.” Really?! I’m so disappointed. That reprobate Belfort is out there today, after serving just 22 months in federal prison, making a nauseatingly profitable living as a motivational speaker (shame on those who hire him) and having yet to make mandated restitution for the millions out of which he defrauded hard-working schmucks who were dumb enough to believe him and his hard-sell boiler room crew. And now he’s receiving money from this film. Really?! I think we can find more deserving people and events to make movies about. Sure, the depraved escapades of the characters resemble a real-life-inspired Hangover sequel, but wouldn’t we all prefer the worst behavior to stay fictional and not get rewarded in real life?e at the downward spiral his life had taken. On the other hand, DiCaprio, a consummate actor who brings Belfort to squirming life on screen, cannot make likeable even for a moment the despicable character of the Wolf (a moniker that Belfort egotistically gave himself, while others usually referred to him as a cockroach).

All right, allow me to climb down from my soap box. Let’s stick to the movie itself.

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This film is WAY too long. Some movies need their expansive length to tell their story properly. This one is repetitive, goes in circles, and spends lots of time making the same points. After all, how many times do we need to see examples of how degenerate Belfort and his cohorts were? We get it. With skillful editing, there’s no reason it could not have been an hour shorter.

Still, Dicaprio performs remarkably throughout and makes it worthwhile to watch the entire film. Jonah Hill turns in perhaps his best portrayal ever. The entire supporting cast is excellent, with P.J. Byrne, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Kenneth Choi, and Jon Bernthal, as Belfort’s cohorts. 

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Other memorable characters are Matthew McConaughey as early mentor Mark Hanna, Rob Reiner as Belfort’s father, Jean Dujardin as the Swiss banker who helps Belfort hide his money, and Joanna Lumley as Aunt Emma. And I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of Aussie actress Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort’s second wife.

To be honest, I enjoyed writer/director Ben Younger’s 2000 film Boiler Room about pump-and-dump brokers more. It showed the human side of those pulled into and immoral business, and it too boasted an amazing cast, led by Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, and Ron Rifkin.

Scorsese is one of my favorite directors, but for me, his last truly phenomenal achievement was The Departed (2006). Nonetheless, this master director could rest on his laurels if he so wished, with credits like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Casino (1995), and The Aviator (2004). While I’m glad I saw Wolf for its masterful performances, it doesn’t make my list of great Scorsese films.

B-

And now, FINALLY, a look back at two candidates for Best Pictures that I saw some time ago.

Dallas Buyers Club

dbcThanks to a friend who works at the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, I was privileged to see a special preview of Dallas Buyers Club that the studio did for the organization before the film opened in theaters. Unfortunately, life was a bit hectic and I never had the opportunity to write a review. But if I had, it would say the same thing this one does …

See this movie!

Well-paced, skilfully written by Craig Borten (The 33) and Malisa Wallack (Mirror Mirror, Meet Bill), and straightforwardly directed (by Jean-Marc Vallée, a Canadian director and screenwriter acclaimed for several French-language films), the film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, whose genuine claim to fame is the shake-up of the US healthcare system about attention to and treatment of HIV and AIDS. McConaughey, who shed some 40 pounds to play the role, presents a captivating picture of a brash, self-destructive, cocky SOB whose circumstances blow his whole world apart, but instead of lying down, he takes the bull by the horns. It transforms him, those around him, and all they come in contact with.

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Woodroof (who was a boisterous Texan electrician in real life) is portrayed as a reckless, sex-and-drug-addicted, confrontational homophobe. Controversy has erupted about this portrayal, mainly about whether Woodroof really was straight (at least before this ordeal), since many who knew him testify otherwise. Perhaps the writers (especially Borten, who interviewed Woodroof before his death in 1992 and believes he was as straight and bigoted as they come) chose to ignore truth for the dramatic value of presenting a cathartic human drama. Whether or not this aspect is rooted in reality, though, does not detract from the main point, which is one man’s irreverent and inventive contribution to how a devastating epidemic and its victims are perceived and treated.

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What is true by all accounts is that Woodroof was diagnosed with AIDS in or around 1986 and given the prognosis that he’d be dead in a month. He was told he was too sick to participate in drug trials. He met others who were in the trials but were just not getting any better. Woodroof took matters into his own hands, smuggling drugs in from other parts of the world (mainly Mexico), and—since he couldn’t sell them legally—setting up the Dallas Buyers Club: membership meant one received those drugs for free. Self-medicating with a concoction of his own researched innovation, Woodroof lived for six more years and arguably helped countless others who were not being helped by the healthcare system.

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As is typical in film, other facts are stretched or altered. For example, the doctor who empathizes with Woodroof’s perspective and winds up helping him was in reality a man—Texas physician Steven M. Pounders. In the film, it is a woman (maybe to add a feminine perspective, maybe to inject the movie’s romantic twist?) played by Jennifer Garner (probably the weakest character in the film). The other doctors, as well as federal agents and additional authority figures, are not much more than caricatures that represent greed, indifference, big government, and red tape. This is one detail of the film I thought could have been richer, but I guess it gets the point across more quickly that Woodroof’s efforts were uphill all the way.

But the best performance, besides McConaughey’s, is turned in by Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Panic Room, Lord of War) as Rayon, a gay transvestite drug addict who is a composite of many who helped with and were helped by the Dallas Buyers Club. Leto, an incredibly versatile actor who can put this role at the top of his resume, also underwent a transformation with significant weight loss. He presents a painfully candid depiction of the suffering involved not only in having AIDS but also going through it without the support of a judgmental parent. In one of the most agonizing scenes of the film, Rayon takes off the dress and makeup and puts a suit on his withering frame to grudgingly approach his father for funds that the Buyers Club needs.

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Another terrific performance is provided by Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf in London) as the expatriate Dr. Vass, who provides Woodroof with ideas and contacts in Mexico. He brilliantly embodies a world-weary and disenfranchised healer who is compelled to provide whatever succor he can in his manifestly limited way. In the few lines he has, his character’s entire likely backstory comes to life. He thought he’d change the world, or at least become rich, and now he’s doling out pills to indigent patients in a Mexican border town.

Yes, there are some distressing and unpleasant scenes. Most of these have more to do with the bad behavior of Woodruff and his old “friends” than any of the effects of AIDS. Yet this is not a film even the squeamish need avoid. It is, more than anything, a film of resourcefulness, salvation, and hope.

A

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Gravity

 
The movie Gravity could have been called No Gravity, since it depicts the tribulations of two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) stranded in space after a disabled satellite hurtles debris toward their shuttle, kills other crew, and leaves them floating—and running out of oxygen—many miles above Earth.

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Then again, the term gravity carries other definitions besides that of a force which attracts anything with mass toward the center of the Earth. It also means enormity (like of the space in which the astronauts float), solemnity (of a situation that often seems truly hopeless), and seriousness (which the circumstances epitomize). The big issues and questions, which go far beyond the illustration of a space mission as the setting, are handled with all the “gravity” they justly deserve, yet the film still allows for some comic relief and, above all, courage and hope.

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Basically, Sandra Bullock is the star of this film, though Clooney’s presence and contribution are indispensable. There is one ingeniously inserted scene in which his character provides a break to the intensity of Bullock’s one-woman plight and provides both relief and a climactic turning point.

Bullock does a marvelous job of portraying a capable, smart person who is nevertheless as flawed and scarred as the rest of us and wrestling with a genuine defining moment in her life. The setting is delicious icing on this satisfying cake.

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Necessarily, most of the action is weightlessly slow, and it is all the tenser and more excruciatingly inevitable for it. You know how people say that they see things in slow motion when they have a car accident? They can see what’s coming at them, but they are powerless to stop it? Yeah, it’s like that.

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Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men), this is the kind of film that IMAX was invented for. In its atmosphere and space-exploration motif, it evokes the fearsome vastness and isolation and of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, or Solaris. In its themes of loss and despondency versus courage and choosing to live, it conjures It’s a Wonderful Life, Harold and Maude, and Shawshank Redemption. And it’s all packaged in one heck of an exciting roller coaster ride.


A

The summer blockbuster season is officially in full swing, and here are two more of the movies that are making moviegoing a blast this summer.

Yeah, I know, I jumped from early June to early July. What in the world happened to late June?  Well, let’s see … I was out of town for a few days, then dog-sitting for neighbors, and it just kind of whizzed by in a blur, with no theatergoing at all!  But I plan to make up for that now.

The Heat

melissa-mccarthy-photoshop-uk-poster-the-heat__oPtSophomoric comedies are usually the territory of the boys. But once in a while, a terrific female-cast funny movie shows that anything the boys can do, the girls can do too.  And I have to admit that I love many female comedies, like the classic 9 to 5 (1980), the goofy Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), the silly The House Bunny (2008), and the hysterical Bridesmaids (2011). Female comedies still are few and far between, unlike the constant barrage of male-centric absurd comedies. That’s probably as it should be—let boys be boys.  Only sometimes, when talented female comic actors team up, the result can be inspired fun.

The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock as an FBI agent disliked for her condescending efficiency and Melissa McCarthy as an abrasive but effective Boston cop, is hilarious. There’s the obvious clash of the two “types” the main stars portray, the odd-couple effect, which is so often the basis of such comedies.  Sure, it’s formulaic, and that’s OK for a movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Sometimes laughter is just good medicine. The plot is not bad in setting up why these contrasting characters must work together, and then Bullock and McCarthy are unleashed to make us giggle. There are some hysterical scenes in this film, but it also has a subtlety and pacing that I find lacking in many over-the-top male comedies.

The Heat - 5Perhaps what I appreciate most about female silly comedies is that women do bring a certain softness and empathy to even the stupidest situations and densest characters. And then there is the emotional payoff; there’s a big difference between “I love you, man” moments and the kind of “Now we are sisters” sentiments snuck in between the slapstick in this movie.  One of those actually made me tear up for a moment. That doesn’t typically happen when I watch, say, a Will Ferrell movie.

There are some issues, of course. The one that most sticks with me is the absolute waste of talent in putting Jane Curtain in an all-but-silent role with not much comic involvement.  Other than that, for what it is—a light, humorous summer flick—The Heat mostly hits the mark.

A-

The Lone Ranger

lone_ranger_ver12_xlgThis movie kind of relates the Lone Ranger story we all remember, but on acid. Think Hell on Wheels meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  The Lone Ranger is a comedy, an FX-ridden adventure, a supernatural tale, and a peek at the carnage that helped build this country, all rolled into one and filled with anachronisms and wildly implausible moments. Thanks to the talent involved, it all works together as pure entertainment.

I can’t believe how many nasty reviews I’ve read about this film, most seeming to dwell on the fact that The Lone Ranger seems to be modeled on Pirates of the Caribbean, spewing vitriol at Disney for banking on a winning formula, and criticizing the lack of faith to the original materiel (Really? Like that was high art?). Lighten up, people!  It’s summer entertainment.  I truly enjoyed this fun film, and so did the rest of the audience laughing itself silly all around me in the theater. My only points of dissatisfaction (and hence the minus after the A grade) were at the sometimes uneven pace and the lack of solid female characters.

The-Lone-Ranger-Movie-PosterYes, it’s true that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise team is back, including director Gore Verbinski (The Mexican, Rango) and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek franchise, Zorro films), with the addition of writer Justin Haythe (The Clearing, Revolutionary Road). And of course, the film stars Captain Jack Sparrow himself, the inimitable Johnny Depp. As I mentioned, some of the reviews jump on this reunion as a negative, but I judged the movie on its own merits. If you didn’t care for the Pirates movies or are weary of Depp’s characters in general, don’t go see The Lone Ranger. Some of us aren’t yet tired of this team’s creative contributions.

Johnny Depp is mesmerizing as a demented, tragicomic Tonto who spends most of the film feeding the stuffed crow that rides atop his head and deriding our hero, John Reid, who is portrayed by Armie Hammer as an uptight attorney slowly tuning in to the realities of the lawless West. Though the film focuses on telling the tale from Tonto’s point of view, Hammer does a great job of rendering the changes that take place in Reid because of all he witnesses, to the point of knowing he must give up his dreams to pursue justice.

1372956869000-LONE-RANGER-MOV-jy-0550-1307041258_4_3_rx404_c534x401The rest of the cast is equally memorable.  William Fichtner is frightening in an uncharacteristic villain role as Butch Cavendish.  Tom Wilkinson handily plays an unscrupulous railroad tycoon.  Other striking characters include Helena Bonham Carter as a deadly-legged madam, Barry Pepper as a avaricious cavalry commander, Leon Rippy as a pivotal posse member, and Mason Elston Cook as the boy listening to Tonto tell the whole story through a frame narrative.

Best of all, this movie is hysterically funny, in spite of (or thanks to) how dark its underlying story is—I won’t give away details, but it includes slaughter, kidnapping, and even a little cannibalism. Hmm, funny stuff. Maybe precisely because these topics make us feel uneasy, and some scenes are pretty harsh, we laugh all the harder at the juxtaposed clowning and marvel all the more at the fabulous stunts, explosions, and chases.  Some of the one-liners and jokes are priceless, and of course Depp’s facial expressions add a level of hilarity all by themselves.

The story is light years from what aficionados of the radio and TV series ever appreciated about the masked man who pursued justice in the Wild West. It’s a reinterpretation, a wild and crazy one at that, but it is faithful in a few ways: it preserves the innocence of the righteous approaching malevolent circumstances, the futile fumbling of disparate cultures trying to interact, and of course the satisfaction of a legendary story entertainingly related.

A-

Post-Oscars Wrap-up

First and foremost, congrats to all the winners!

Yesterday I wrote that it was unlikely for any film but Avatar to win Best Picture. I’m so glad I was wrong! It was heartening to see that the Academy’s voters considered commercial success (which Avatar continues to enjoy in abundance) separately from what makes a great, award-worthy film.

The Hurt Locker Cleans Up

Who would have thunk it? Avatar and The Hurt Locker both went into the show with nine nominations, and The Hurt Locker walked away with six Oscars, while the highest-grossing movie in history, Avatar, only received three.  Everyone was blown away as the excellent but “small” film The Hurt Locker ended up top dog. Kathryn Bigelow received the best director Oscar, Mark Boal got the award for original screenplay, and the film snagged film editing, sound editing, and sound mixing.

No one turned a camera on the former King of the World (James Cameron) so we could see his reaction as his ex-wife and talented better half gave an acceptance speech that focused on supporting our troops and others in uniform rather than on herself.  *big smile*

Disappointments

Well, Sandra Bullock did end up with the best actress award. As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of hers and love watching her silly movies. But I completely disagree that her performance was better than those of her fellow nominees. She probably said it best in her speech when she joked, “… did I just wear you down?” That must have been it.  But congratulations anyway, Sandy, and enjoy the ride.

Even more maddening was that chunk-o-rama Up winning best animated feature. Besides the way the characters are drawn, none of them is truly likeable. It’s a mystery to me why this film was so praised, and all I can think of is that it had the best PR somehow.  No idea.  I’m stumped here.

My biggest disappointment by far, though, is that District 9, one of my favorite movies of the year, won nothing at all. Hey, at least this off-the-beaten-path film was recognized by several nominations … and I have a DVD copy I can watch anytime!

On with the Show

To my surprise and chagrin, the hosting team of Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin was not as funny as I’d hoped.  There were moments when they made me laugh out loud, but fewer than I’d anticipated. 

The other weird turn on the show was Tom Hanks coming out at the end to announce, rather abruptly and without further fanfare, that the best picture winner was The Hurt Locker.  The show was a bit over on time, as it typically is, but it just seemed strangely hurried to me.

What was marvelous was Neil Patrick Harris’s opening number!  Now, that’s entertianment! And, as a friend wrote to me, who knew he could sing and dance like that?  Otherwise, pretty boring and uneventful ceremony.  Come on, people … at least make it fun to watch.

Over and out!

Z

And the Winner Is…

It’s Academy Awards day.  Guess you know what this movie freak will be watching this evening. 

Stephen King, in his Entertainment Weekly column, made the excellent point that it’s the films we movie-lovers like to watch, not the goofy award shows—and I agree.  But for me, the spectacle of the Oscars has been a long-time institution connected to the film industry, and for good or ill, decisions made here about the year’s best influence upcoming projects, careers, and theater runs for months and years to come. So, like King, I’ll be watching with some snacks on tap, and I won’t be falling asleep before the end!

Everyone and his second cousin makes Oscar-winner predictions, so it feels rather silly to add to that melee, but I promised I would chime in, even though I have waited until the last minute to do so.  I don’t really want to predict as much as offer a few comments and some sincere hopes—most of which are not news to those who have talked to me over the past couple of months.

Best Picture

The commercial favorite is, of course, Avatar, and I do think chances are very good that this entertaining and technically advanced film will win.  I won’t be heartbroken (or surprised) if it does win, as it is wildly entertaining and groundbreaking in some ways for its effects.  However, it doesn’t have the depth of story that I’d like to see triumph.  What does? My personal favorite is District 9 for overall storyline and performances plus its genius combination of genres, and eye-popping action and effects on a small budget. People have argued that it won’t win because it’s a science-fiction movie … so, what is Avatar?

I’d also be quite pleased if The Hurt Locker took home the Best Picture statuette. It is deserving for its amazing performances, flawless pacing, fantastic cinematography, and more. The subject matter may be a bit narrow for the top prize, though many are hoping that if the film can’t take Best Picture, Kathryn Bigelow will snag Best Director (I’d love for that to happen especially if Avatar gets Best Pic!).

I’ve watched all three of these movies twice now, and I can say unequivocally that one of them should win. Any other choice from the ridiculous ten-strong category will be a travesty.

Actors

Unfortunately, I have not seen some of the films that feature the Best Actor nominees, so I’m all good with frontrunner Jeff Bridges winning.  I also haven’t seen some of the Best Actress performances, but I pray and hope that a serious actor like Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep takes it.  I like Sandra Bullock, especially in fun movies, but she is just not of the same caliber as many of the nominees. Neither are the films in which she appears, including this year’s The Blind Side. I’ve always said I’m no film snob, but I’m feeling like a bit of one in this case. Nonetheless, I will be sorely disappointed if the Razzies winner (or rather, loser) also takes home and Oscar.

Other Categories

There are not many categories this year that I feel very strongly about, so it will just be fun to watch who and what wins. There’s one exception, though.  For Animated Feature, I’m fervently hoping that Up, which I failed to see why everyone liked so much, doesn’t win.  My favorite of those animated films I’ve seen is Coraline (hooray, Neil Gaiman!), but I fear it may be too dark to prevail in its category.

Well, that’s it for me. Everyone have fun at your Oscar parties, or watching in the comfort of your easy chair, of ignoring the festivities altogether.  I’ll be back in a day or two with some reflections after the fact.

Cheers!

The Xmas Vaca Movie-Watching Post

Over the holidays, I did some movie watching (gee, what a surprise) with the other movie freak in my family, my mom, and went to see a flick at the theater with her and also one with my brother.  It was a banner movie-watching holiday!  Here are some observations about these movies, old and new.

It’s Complicated Is Simply Funny

This is a silly film that could have been a throw-away in lesser hands. But the loads of talent involved in It’s Complicated makes it hilarious and very worth watching. Who would have thought that an older-set romance could be so much fun?  My favorite moment was probably when Meryl Streep, all giggly from realizing she’s having an affair with her ex-husband and even lying to her grown kids about it, catches herself and suddenly realizes how goofy she’s being — priceless facial expressions.  John Krasinski is adorable as the secret-keeping Harley.  B+

The Blind Side Is an After-School Special

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad film. But after all the hype I had heard, frankly I expected more. The Blind Side follows in the tradition of movies based on sports-connected true stories like Rudy and We Are Marshall but fails to inspire in the way that these films did. Why is that? One reason may be the lack of loquacity of its main character. Big Mike doesn’t talk much. It’s part of his character and makes sense, but it also makes it difficult for an audience to connect with him. The lack of connection is aggravated by other characters talking about and to him in simple terms. The after-school special feel of the film comes from its simplistic treatment of complex issues. It surely could not have been quite so easy for Leigh Anne Tuohy to get her family on board and to keep her household in order. Were there really no fights, no ill effects, no resistance? One small glitch is hinted at when Leigh Anne tells Michael he’s ruining the expensive couch he’s sleeping on, so she’ll clean out the guest bedroom for him. Perhaps it would have helped to see this damage and other understandable domestic complications, making the story more realistic at a visceral level. She’s also able to quiet friends and relatives with a “Shame on you” when they worry about “a large black boy” in the house with her young daughter. I don’t know many good friends or real family who wouldn’t storm over to see just how this situation was shaping up. Despite Oscar buzz, I see this as a rental.  C-  Continue reading

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