The Silver Bullet ~ Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Synopsis: A faded TV actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Release Date: July 26, 2019

Thoughts: To be honest, this first look at the 9th film from Quentin Tarantino is not what I expected.  Though this movie apparently has some connection to the infamous Manson murders that occurred a half century ago, you’d never know it by watching this teaser trailer which mostly focuses on A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) and Brad Pitt (World War Z) as a has-been star and his wise-cracking stunt double making one last go in La La Land.  You barely see Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Sharon Tate and the Manson family members pass by quickly if you aren’t paying attention.  What is there smacks of a lot of “acting” going on, especially from DiCaprio (yikes, that last shot!) and a little of that can go an awfully long way.  It’s clearly a teaser trailer for something more to come but usually Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained) offers up something a tad more enticing as an appetizer.  Still, from the looks of it he’s recreated 1969 California as only a truly fanatic film nerd could so I’m absolutely interested in the main course.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Revenant

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Synopsis: The frontiersman, Hugh Glass, who in the 1820s set out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead after a bear mauling.

Release Date: December 25, 2015

Thoughts: You can tell the summer season is nearing its end when the movie previews shift from action spectacular blockbusters to films aiming for awards season glory. Already this week we’ve seen Joy, David O. Russell’s bid for a best director Oscar nomination and now comes the newest film from the most recent winner, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It also marks Leonardo DiCaprio’s first film in two years after The Wolf of Wall Street, surely an effort he hopes will nab him his fifth nomination. I’ve always found DiCaprio to be a good actor that takes himself perhaps just a tad too seriously, a reason why Oscar gold has eluded him all these years. Teaming with Iñárritu is a wise choice as he’s known to push actors out of their comfort zone…just the thing that DiCaprio has needed for some time. Co-starring Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), Domhnall Gleeson (About Time), Will Poulter (We’re The Millers), and Paul Anderson (Passion) there are some stunning images in this first look at The Revenant…this one looks like a tough watch but Iñárritu and his cast have their work cut out for them.

Movie Review ~ Virunga

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of brave individuals risk their lives to save the last of the world’s mountain gorillas; in the midst of renewed civil war and a scramble for Congo’s natural resources.

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Browsing your Netflix queue you may lock in on Virunga’s cover image, that of an imposing mountain gorilla and young baby sitting in front of an armed solider and have thoughts of other monkey movies pass through you head. There’s a bit of false advertising going on if you think that Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar nominated documentary is just about the protection of the gorillas in the Virunga National Park situated in the African Congo because in reality the film is an engaging look at larger conservation efforts underway at this pristine national park.

Established in 1925, the park was intended to be a sanctuary for the endangered wildlife population being driven out of their natural habitat by land developers and oil companies. Poaching has become a serious problem with the illegal killing of these protected animals as a way to undermine the necessity of the park and acting as a gateway to have the park become less and less expansive.

Following several stories/people that pass through the park, Virunga puts a lot of information out there in quick succession about the history of the Congo as it brings us to the present problem at hand. We meet the various people working to protect the land and all that live and make a living within, from a kindly man that works in the gorilla sanctuary to the rangers that risk their lives stopping the vicious poachers.

All well and good for a portrait of life but the film goes a step further by bringing to light investigative journalism that points to oil companies taking extreme measures to ensure their place in the front of the line for tapping into new oil deposits purported to be under the land deemed protected. A French journalist risks her neck to meet with shady sub-contractors that may or may not work from multi-billion dollar corporations while a family-man ranger wears a wire and secret camera to catch officials attempting to bribe him for looking the other way.

It’s hard-hitting, eye-opening stuff, shining a light on problems that exist half a world away. It’s no shocker that noted conservationist Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) hung his hat on Virunga as an executive producer, it’s exactly the kind of slick product the actor has focused his humanitarian work on in the last decade.

Even if it can feel a bit catch-all at times with its moments of breezy gorilla antics giving way to a breathlessly tense journey through an active warzone, Virunga feels both affective and effective. Make sure to stay until the last credit has rolled.

Movie Review ~ The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stockbroker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Pj Byrne, Kenneth Choi

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rated: R

Running Length: 179 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:

Review:  After making a brief detour to PG-rated family friendly fare with 2011’s wondrous Hugo, director Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear) makes up for lost time with the ribald and very R rated The Wolf of Wall Street, a film arriving with much buzz due to the pedigree of the director, its starry cast, and its butt-numbing running length that will test the bladders of even the strongest leg crossers amongst us.

When asked by a few friends what my initial opinion of the film was, I responded with “it’s an entertaining 135 minute movie that unfortunately runs for 179 minutes” and that’s probably the most succinct review I can offer for Scorsese’s excessive and excessively long opus looking into the boom of Wall Street in the late 80’s/early 90’s.

Let’s start with the good, shall we?  That would be Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic), an actor I usually have little patience for due to his penchant for playing variations on the same role.  With 2012’s Django Unchained, however, the actor showed some sinister dexterity that was appealing to watch and which should have netted him an Oscar nomination.  Though earlier in 2013 audiences and critics were divided on Baz Lurhman’s 3D take on The Great Gatsby, it was generally agreed that DiCaprio’s vulnerability in the leading role was one of its saving graces.

So it’s nice to see that DiCaprio once again shines as Jordan Belfort, an upstart stockbroker that easily is sucked into the dizzying world of money and all the trappings (booze, drugs, women, etc) that seemed to go with it.  The layers DiCaprio adds in addition to Terrence Winter’s hefty dialogue are admirable and more than a few times I found myself getting lost in the film thanks to the conviction and brio DiCaprio brings to the role.

Also making a good showing is Margot Robbie (About Time) as Belfort’s second wife that isn’t much of a pushover.  It’s nice to see a female character in a Scorcese film portrayed as more than just a wife or sex object (though Robbie is one of many, many, many actresses in the film that is seen fully nude) and there’s a dynamic chemistry between Robbie and DiCaprio that gives the film some extra oomph when needed.

In addition to DiCaprio and Robbie I also enjoyed some comically dry turns from Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud), Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now), Rob Reiner (The Mystery of Belle Isle), and Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist)…actors that Scorsese uses to his advantage whenever the movie needs a boost of energy (which happens quite often in the bloated second and third acts).

I’m leaving Jonah Hill (This Is the End) for last because now we’re into the elements of the movie that didn’t work for me.  Hill’s puffy stockbroker colleague of DiCaprio is nearly governed by his costume choices (day-glo sweaters, loafers, large glasses), his impeccably white teeth that give him a beaver-esque quality, and a nasally New Yah-k whine that started to give me stroke symptoms as the move droned on.  The early word was that Hill was set for another Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (after 2011’s Moneyball) and if that’s the case then I’m clearly missing something because I found Hill to be drastically out of place, however believable his connection to DiCaprio’s character was.

Then there’s the length…good lord the film is overlong.  Even the casual moviegoer would have been able to edit at least 30-35 minutes off of this monster and I’d challenge anyone to sit through the film twice and not find the exact moments where Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker should have excised large passages of dialogue and story that had no bearing on what happens later in the film.  I don’t mind long movies…but they have to have a reason for being long and there’s absolutely no rationale for the movie to lumber on as long as it does.  And keep in mind the film was already edited down from an even longer cut…a task that moved the original release date from its original Thanksgiving release schedule.

Scorsese is truly one of the most legendary filmmakers out there and while The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t a turkey, it’s not one of the director’s best thanks to a curious lack/slack of pace.  I’ve always found Scorsese’s films to be taut experiences, no matter the genre but I get the feeling Scorsese couldn’t come to a decision on what he was trying to reveal in the life story of Belfort so he simply left in most everything that he captured during filming.  Removing 30 minutes would have made Scorsese’s film truly howl and been an even better showcase for DiCaprio’s well thought out performance.  It also would have monumentally reduced Hill’s role which is what the film very much needed…a sacrificial lamb for this Wolf to be a winner.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Wolf of Wall Street

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Synopsis: Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stockbroker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government.

Release Date:  November 15, 2013

Thoughts: I know I should be more excited about this one and perhaps I’ve just seen this overly ADD trailer one too many times but I find myself exhausted by the time the preview ends.  There’s no doubt that DiCaprio is Scorsese’s modern day De Niro and the two have collaborated on several strong films (The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island, The Departed).  This adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s raucous memoir is said to be Scorsese’s most explicit movie to date, probably because it’s so very easy to go all out when you’re documenting the lives lived in excess during the 80’s.  DiCaprio has had two good showings in his latest films (Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby) and unless the zany supporting work of Jonah Hill (This is the End) or Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike, Mud), overshadow him he could be looking at another Oscar nomination.

Movie Review ~ The Great Gatsby (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Adelaide Clemens

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

Trailer Review:  Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It would be hard to graduate high school without having had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby”.  A treasured tome for some and a hollow warning on the price of the American dream to others, the novel wasn’t a success when it was first released and only became popular after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940.  Over the years it’s been adapted for stage and screen (both large and small) but the key core of the novel’s brilliance has never been truly captured accurately.

This 2013 version of The Great Gatsby also misses the mark of what made has made the novel so timeless but it does capture the mood and feel of the era the best of any previous incarnations of the work.  Yes, it’s over the top, flashy, and delirious at times…but so were the roaring 20’s!  Director Baz Lurhmann has been faithful to the book as much as possible and utilized a well conditioned cast to the best of all of their collective abilities.

It’s the summer of 1922 and NYC is in the middle of Prohibition and right on the cusp of some major social change.  The days of wine and roses are numbered with The Great Depression right around the corner but no one is the wiser as they roll down their stockings, bob their hair, spend money like there’s no tomorrow, and dance the night away in speakeasies and at Jay Gatsby’s massive Long Island mansion.

Our narrator/moral center is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and as the film opens he’s relating a story of love and loss from the icy confines of a sanitarium.  Unable to bring himself to speak the words, he begins to write and so truly begins the story of how he found himself a bystander to a doomed love triangle between his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained), his cousi Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis), and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty).

All of the elements from Fitzgerald’s novel come to life under the stellar work of production designer Catherine Martin (who also designed the jaw dropping costumes and happens to be Mrs. Lurhmann).  The green light that sits at the end of the Buchanan’s dock and acts as a beacon to Gatsby across the bay, the watchful billboard of a forgotten optometrist, even the classic lines and descriptive phrases are nicely incorporated courtesy of Lurhmann and Craig Pearce’s everything but the kitchen sink script.

That being said, even with everything in place there’s a severe lack of “the underneath” as I like to call it.  While the characters move around this gossamer landscape enacting acts of love and revenge, there’s precious little sympathy for any of them…which is largely the way Fitzgerald wrote them.  That may be hard for some people to get over when watching the film but Fitzgerald didn’t see these people as heroes in need of salvation but as indictments of the time and place in which they flourished.  Even so, I kept wishing there was more blood and guts on display rather than just flesh and bone.

Strangely, I’m not usually a fan of most of the leads in The Great Gatsby.  DiCaprio is constantly mentioned as one of our great actors and while I can give it to him that he’s turned in solid work in the last decade I haven’t thought his work was that underappreciated.  He was refreshing in Django Unchained and should have nabbed an Oscar nomination for his efforts but it’s with The Great Gatsby that I finally saw in DiCaprio the actor that I think he should be.  The haunted and deeply fragile Gatsby seems the most natural fit for DiCaprio and he’s quite acceptable in the part.

Mulligan is making a habit of playing these delicate, bird-like characters and this just seems another exercise with Mulligan using the tricks she’s accumulated in her cinematic wheelhouse.  Though I think she’s ultimately well cast, those familiar with her work won’t see anything truly new.  DiCaprio’s best friend Maguire is well suited for playing the closest thing Gatsby has to a best friend and thankfully ditches his puppy-dog mumble technique to really deliver as the flawed narrator of the piece that isn’t so innocent in what happens over the course of the film.

Edgerton makes a strong showing as Tom Buchanan, a man that doesn’t appreciate what he has until it’s nearly gone.  Though having an affair with a mechanic’s wife (Isla Fischer who’s better here than she is in Now You See Me), he clings to Daisy when he sees her getting close to Gatsby.  Ultimately, Tom sets into motion the tragic final act of the piece involving the mechanic (Jason Clarke, so good in Zero Dark Thirty and Lawless), all the while knowing what the outcome will be.

Special mention needs to be made for Elizabeth Debicki’s strong supporting work as golf pro Jordan Baker, a friend to the Buchanan’s, Gatsby, and Nick.  Though she could be viewed as working all sides, in Debicki’s capable hands the role is smoothed out and is the best representation of a character that would believably be living and breathing during the 20’s.  Keep an eye on this actress, she’s fascinating to watch.

Much has been made of Lurhmann teaming with rapper Jay-Z to bring a modern sound to the film and I was nervous after hearing early reports that the film was sidelined by its soundtrack.  So I was happy to see (well, hear) that the music is worked in rather unobtrusively to the film and in some cases works to heighten the happenings onscreen.  Lana Del Rey’s spine chilling “Young and Beautiful” is laced into several scenes in a few different iterations, its lyrics and sound perfectly capturing the longing and fears of our characters.  Other efforts, like Beyonce’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” don’t land right but that’s the problem of the re-working of the song not the movie.

Filmed in 3D, the first half of the movie is very much like previous Lurhamann efforts…meaning that it’s fast edited within an inch of its life.  The editing really represents what’s happening on screen because the first part is a fever dream of excess and confusion.  When Gatsby and Daisy are reunited (in a scene that I’ll admit had my pulse racing) the movie settles down and only works itself up again as it careens into its finale.

Though it was brought to television in a 2000 effort starring Mira Sorvino, the last time Gatsby was on screen was in 1974 starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  While that sounds like ideal casting, the final effort was a dreadful bore – it’s 1 minute longer than this version but feels like an hour.  Though this still isn’t the perfect Gatsby, for me it’s dang close.  Still without a vibrantly beating heart, the movie swirls and twirls around you and is more engaging than you might think.  Ultimately, it’s a film that’s been on my mind a lot in the last few days and one that is worth seeing in the theaters.

Movie Review ~ Django Unchained

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Kerry Washington,

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If you’re headed into a Tarantino film chances are you are expecting certain mainstays: coarse language, outrageous violence, non-linear storytelling, an eclectic soundtrack, and Samuel L. Jackson.  This holiday season, right in time for Christmas, Tarantino is releasing his latest epic yarn that thankfully gives his audiences/fans exactly what they’ve come for – amped up a few notches.  Django Unchained is one of Tarantino’s most enjoyable films, one that takes the standard spaghetti western and gives it a nice bristle brush scrubbing thanks to an assured bravado most filmmakers today wouldn’t dare to employ.

Beginning in 1858, Tarantino opens his film with slave Django (Foxx) trudging along in chains through a desolate landscape after being sold at auction.  A superlative theme song and the director’s trademark bold titles establish that the movie is operating in a slightly altered reality, though it is set in the heart of a country on the brink of civil war.  This was the age of slavery and the film pulls no punches in how black men and women were treated, painting a fairly revolting picture on the way. 

All hope seems lost for Django until a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) waltzes into his life and changes his path from plantation to salvation.  Schultz needs Django to help identify a trio of wanted men…and in exchange he will give him his freedom and a split of the earnings.  When this initial bounty hunt show promise, the men decide to team up for a winter until Django can return to Mississippi and find his wife (Washington). 

The first half of the picture is really a breezy buddy film as Django and Schultz make a killing (har har) tracking down the men that are wanted dead or alive.  In between scenes of gruesome violence/vengeance there are some solid exchanges that Foxx and Waltz work wonders with.  Waltz still shines from his Oscar winning turn in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and returns in another memorable performance here in a role tailor-made for him.  I often find Foxx to be a little overrated but his work as Django is exciting and commendable – starting off as a man with spirit but without hope, you gradually see the life reentering his body as his friendship with Schultz thickens and a reunion with his wife draws nearer. 

It’s about halfway through the movie that things take a curious, but no less interesting, turn as Schultz and Django set their sights on finding the location of Django’s wife Broomhilda von Shaft (just one of the memorable character names  along with Jinglebells Cody, Tennessee Redfish, Chicken Charlie, and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly).  Information comes to them that Broomhilda or “Hildy” is now the property of one Calvin Candie (DiCaprio)…a silver spoon fed plantation owner Django and Schultz must outsmart if they are to save the girl and make it out alive.

The final act of Django Unchained plays out in Candie Land, and it in and of itself could have been expanded into an entire film thanks to some fascinating dialogue from Tarantino, scenes of violence that are both hysterical and horrifying, and a troupe of actors doing some very brave work when you consider their previous film roles.  It’s touchy subject matter but instead of shying away from it, Tarantino encourages all involved (the audience included) to go with it and stay engaged. 

Some early reviews of the film criticized Django Unchained for being too talky and long but I found it to be easier to get through than Inglourious Basterds (which I also liked).  This is probably because the nearly three hour film is episodic in nature so it just has a natural flow from one adventure to another. 

In typical Tarantino fashion, the violence is surreal, stylish, and in your face.  Nearly everyone comes face to face with a bullet at some point and they do one of two things: go quietly or die in screaming agony as the blood drains from them.  It’s gory and grotesque but there’s something definitively cinematic about it that keeps it from feeling too exploitative. 

Though Tarantino packs his film with more recognizable character actors than I’ve seen in any film recently (including Ted Neely – the Jesus Christ Superstar of stage and screen), the leads carry the film with ease.  In addition to the strong work from Waltz and Foxx, you have Washington playing the physically and emotionally taxing role of Django’s wife with beautiful confidence and Johnson as a Colonel Sanders looking plantation owner resisting the urge to be a cartoon.  Johnson in particular has a riotous passage with would-be Klansmen that wind up fighting over the sacks they wear over their head.  It’s a wonderful scene courtesy of Tarantino that gets the audience laughing at the bigoted bickering.

DiCaprio finally figures out the formula to turning in an award-worthy performance: be a supporting player.  Though many have cried foul that DiCaprio hasn’t received the award recognition he deserves over the years, I’d say that he really hasn’t truly earned it in any picture up until this point.  Here, in a large supporting role, he does his best work in ages as a vicious southern brat that has the tables turned on him in royal fashion.

Though much of the pre-release Oscar buzz has been for DiCaprio, I’d argue that the best performance in the film belongs to Jackson as DiCaprio’s head slave.  As slyly evil a character as I’ve seen Jackson play, he goes all out in the vile department without tipping the scales to farce.  I actually didn’t recognize Jackson the first few frames of the film he’s in, but once it sunk in and the audience saw him…it truly was his picture to steal and that’s exactly what he does.  If DiCaprio is to receive an Oscar nomination (as he probably will) here’s hoping that Jackson gets one as well.

The movie has about four endings and as the third hour was approaching I do admit that I was ready for the film to end.  Tarantino just can’t leave well enough alone (or resist a personal and oddball cameo) and while the ending was satisfying and felt right, I also wouldn’t have minded if it had said its goodbye twenty minutes prior.  That may not have worked for some audiences that demand explanation or a true wrap-up…but it would have made the ending of the film feel as special as the proceeding two and a half hours.

Tarantino has done wonders with this genre…turning the Western picture into what he’s called a Southern.  It’s a fast, funny, ferocious affair and it’s either going to send you out of the theater dazed and amazed or dazed and confused.  I thought it was a splendid film for mature audiences and wouldn’t mind putting it on my end of the year Best of lists.