Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Film Review: "Drinking Buddies" (2013).


"A comedy about knowing when to say when." This is Drinking Buddies. This comedy-drama film written, directed and edited by Joe Swanberg. A chance weekend getaway makes two co-workers realise how much they mean to each other. This realisation, however, may spell doom for their current relationships.

The idea of the film, and especially its setting in a brewery, came when Swanberg received a brewing set-up as a birthday present. By late July 2012, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston, and Jason Sudeikis were cast in Swanberg's comedy-drama. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and took place in Chicago, Illinois; and Lake Michigan, Michigan. The dialog was entirely improvised. There was no script. Instead, the actors received vague outlines which covered the major plot points, and the order in which certain events would take place. In addition, they were told each day what had to happen in that day's scenes. Furthermore, all of the actors chose their character's names. The actors actually drank real beer during the filming and even did real work for the brewing company.

The film stars Wilde, Kendrick, Johnson, Livingston, and Sudeikis. The performances help raise the film above the realm of self-indulgent cinema to something worth seeing. The actors were allowed to ad lib, and the result is that the characters talk like real people, it's keenly observant about social issues and offers a flippant comical look at relationships for the social media set. How can a movie with such a charming cast and believable dialogue (seemingly taken from the actors' real lives) go wrong? It can't. Wilde and Kendrick prove themselves to be a charming screen presences who manage to make their characters somehow appealing despite her utter self-involvement.

The film delivers clever pacing, solid technique and a deeply soulful performances from Wilde, Kendrick, Johnson and Livingston. Stocked with low-key and entirely believable characters and a sly (but not nasty) sense of derision towards the modern tools that keep us apart, the film is, by my estimation, a solid step up from the director's first flick, and I feel pretty confident that the guy has something even better lined up for his next outing. Smart and engaging, but too many meandering breeze-shooting sequences. Swanberg has an uncanny talent for making the randomness of downtime feel as alive as it seems generationally true. Each film Swanberg does is a little more of an evolution in style and form and the film is like watching a natural progression of talent. Most of the audience will respond warmly to the film for its moments of sharp perception and its stringent, comic-wistful realism. It's a wonderfully goofy movie that was a fun watch. The film may be modest in budget and muted in its ambitions, but for anyone who imagines that truly independent American cinema is dead, this most chaste of romances is a quiet film worth shouting about. Swanberg's movie is dangerously honest about the territorial dynamics of relationships and the confusion we're left with when they end.

Simon says Drinking Buddies receives:


Thursday, 26 December 2013

Film Review: "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013).




“My name is Jordan Belfort. I'm a former member of the middle class raised by two accountants in a tiny apartment in Bayside, Queens. The year I turned 26, as the head of my own brokerage firm, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.” This and more is what you’re going to get when watching The Wolf of Wall Street. This biographically satirical black comedy film directed by Martin Scorsese, based on Jordan Belfort's memoir of the same name. The screenplay was written by Terence Winter. Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, and tells his story from his rise to a wealthy New York stockbroker living the high life to his fall involving crime on Wall Street, corruption (such as stock manipulation and namely the practice of "Pump and dump” in the corporate banking world) and his refusal to cooperate with the federal government.

Jordan Belfort is an American author and motivational speaker, who was convicted of fraud crimes related to stock market manipulation and running a penny stock boiler room for which he spent 22 months in prison. Belfort was born in the Bronx. He is the son of Leah and Max Belfort, who were accountants. In the 1990s, he founded brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont which functioned as a boiler room marketing penny stocks, where he defrauded investors with fraudulent stock sales. During his years as a stock swindler, Belfort developed a hard-partying lifestyle, which included a serious drug addiction (Quaaludes). Stratton Oakmont employed over 1000 stock brokers and was involved in stock issues totaling more than $1 billion, including an equity raising for footwear company Steve Madden Ltd. The notoriety of the firm, which was targeted by law enforcement officials in the late 1990s, inspired the 2000 film Boiler Room. Belfort was indicted in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering. After cooperating with the FBI, he served 22 months in federal prison for a pump and dump scheme, which resulted in investor losses of approximately $200 million. Belfort was ordered to pay back $110.4 million that he swindled from stock buyers. In prison he met Tommy Chong, who encouraged Belfort to write down his stories and subsequently publish them. They remained friends after their release from prison. Reportedly sober since 1998, Belfort then wrote two memoirs, The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, which have been published in approximately 40 countries and translated into 18 languages.

According to federal prosecutors, Belfort has failed to live up to the restitution requirement of his 2003 sentencing agreement. The agreement requires him to pay 50% of his income towards restitution to the 1,513 clients he defrauded. Of the $11.6 million that has been recovered by Belfort's victims, $10.4 million of the total is the result of the sale of forfeited properties. The sentencing agreement mandates a total of $110 million in restitution. In October 2013, federal prosecutors filed a complaint that Belfort, who had income of $1,767,209 from the publication of his two books and the sale of the movie rights, plus an additional $24,000 from motivational speaking since 2007, paid restitution of only $243,000 over the past four years. The government is currently not holding Belfort in default of his payments in order to keep negotiations open, but it is unclear when the full amount of the mandated restitution will be repaid. As of 2013, Belfort was residing in Manhattan Beach, CA, and was engaged. Recently, he gave a seminar at Auckland, New Zealand's Langham Hotel in 2012.

In 2007, Leonardo DiCaprio won a bidding war against Brad Pitt for the rights to Jordan Belfort's memoir The Wolf of Wall Street. During pre-production, Scorsese worked on the film's script prior to working on Shutter Island (2010). He describes having "wasted five months of [his] life" without getting a greenlight on production dates by the studio Warner Bros. In 2010, Warner Bros. had offered Ridley Scott to direct the film, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the male lead. Warner Bros eventually dumped the project. Years down the line (after Warner Bros) financiers Red Granite gave an ultimatum for the film to have "no limits or censor of anything". In 2012, a green light was given by the independent company Red Granite Pictures. Scorsese came back on board knowing there were no limits to the content he would produce; as it stands, the movie has a hard R rating. In the film, most of the real-life characters' names originally in Belfort's memoir have been changed. Donnie Azoff is based on Danny Porush; the FBI Agent known as Patrick Denham is the stand-in for real-life Gregory Coleman; and lawyer Manny Riskin is based on Ira Lee Sorkin. Belfort's first wife, Denise Lombardo, is re-named Teresa Petrillo, while second wife Nadine Caridi became on-screen Naomi Lapaglia. In contrast, Mark Hanna's name remains the same as the LF Rothschild stockbroker who, like Belfort, was convicted of fraud and served time in prison.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort, along with Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey, among others. DiCaprio gave his finest Scorsese role since The Departed (2007). His performance unleashed a bizarre mixture of financial genius and party, sex, alcohol and drug induced madness. From the very beginning you root for the character even though he and his associates are complete "wankers." The entire cast including Hill, McConaughey, Robbie, Chandler, Reiner, Bernthal, Favreau, Dujardin, Byrne, Choi, Lumley and Jonze gave their finest and most outrageous performances in their careers for this film.

Hard-hitting, stylish, visceral, outrageously funny and hard-edged, The Wolf of Wall Street touches a nerve in the human psyche that is still debated in newspapers across the world today. The film offers an accurate portrayal of businessmen now. It is shaping up to be the best mainstream Hollywood satirical meditation on America since Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). To conclude, the film is a satirical classic – and arguably the high point of Martin Scorsese's career since Goodfellas (1990).

Simon says The Wolf of Wall Street receives:



Also, see my review for Hugo.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Film Review: "The Spectacular Now" (2013).


"From the writers of (500) Days of Summer" comes The Spectacular Now. This coming-of-age romantic drama film directed by James Ponsoldt, adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Tim Tharp. The film tells the tale of Sutter Keely, a high school senior and effortless charmer, and of how he unexpectedly falls in love with "the good girl" Aimee Finecky. What starts as an unlikely romance becomes a sharp-eyed, straight-up snapshot of the heady confusion and haunting passion of youth—one that doesn’t look for tidy truths.

By late July 2012, Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Dayo Okeniyi, Andre Royo, and Bob Odenkirk were cast in an adaptation of Tharp's 2008 novel with Ponsoldt, and Neustadter and Weber penning the adaptation. After The Descendants (2011), Woodley had not been given any scripts she was passionate about making and had seriously considered dropping out of acting to pursue another career. Thankfully this project came her way and she fell in love with it. According to Ponsoldt, he was worried that Teller and Woodley wouldn't get along after he saw them interact at a lunch he arranged. Teller (who was late to meeting because he had been in Las Vegas with friends the night before) was outgoing and energetic, while Woodley, though amused by Teller, was quiet and for the most part kept to herself unless she was spoken to. After the lunch was over and Ponsoldt was driving away, he noticed Woodley and Teller talking in the parking lot, but decided to leave them alone - he later found out that the two of them spent two hours talking and getting to know each other in the parking lot. Teller and Woodley are now close friends. However, at one point during preproduction, the script began to change. Woodley was worried that the new rewrites would make the story less honest, and at one point even called Teller to tell him that she was thinking of dropping out. Teller managed to convince her to stay on the movie, and the rewrites never happened. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and filming took place throughout Georgia.

The film stars Teller, Woodley, Larson, Leigh, Chandler, Winstead, Okeniyi, Royo, and Odenkirk. By combining a light, frank, comic touch with real emotion and weighty, human performances were given by all those involved. Teller is immense in this picture, a true force of nature who embodies so many complexities and demons that make him this perpetually broken protagonist. Woodley comes into her own in this lightly directed and disarmingly enjoyable film.

There's nothing completely astonishing or shocking that goes on in the film, but that's not to say it isn't captivating and completely worth your time. While the film doesn't flinch away from some grim realities of alcoholism, it's not an unrelentingly grim kitchen-sink drama; there are attempts at a bit of teen comedy.

Simon says The Spectacular Now receives:


Film Review: "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" (2013).


"It's Kind of a Big Deal" in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. This comedy film directed by Adam McKay, and co-written by McKay and Will Ferrell. It is the sequel to the 2004 film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. With the 1970s behind them, San Diego's top-rated newsman, Ron Burgundy, returns to take New York City's first twenty-four-hour news channel by storm.

In May 2008, McKay said that he and Ferrell had talked about wanting to do a sequel. In late July, McKay announced that he and Ferrell had begun work on the sequel. Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, both of whom had become major stars since Anchorman was released, agreed to take pay cuts for the movie, as did Ferrell himself. In late April 2010, McKay announced that Paramount Pictures had turned down a proposal for the sequel, despite the proposed pay cuts. However, by March 2012, Paramount changed their minds and agreed to make a sequel, and ferrell officially announced the film on Conan, in character as Ron Burgundy. In April, in an interview, McKay said that the script was a work in progress, and that the story might include a custody battle and bowling. In a May 2012 interview, he was quoted as saying that nothing was set. In May 2012, Ferrell confirmed that script writing had begun and that filming would begin around February 2013. By June 2012, parts of the story had solidified, including a move of the location from San Diego to New York, and a focus on the onset of the cable news era in the 1980s. By March 2013, Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Fred Willard, and Chris Parnell retuned to reprise their roles, with Dylan Baker, James Marsden, Kristen Wiig, Greg Kinnear, and Harrison Ford rounding out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and filming took place in Atlanta, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York City, New York; San Diego, California; and Jersey City, New Jersey. In late November 2013, Paramount Pictures moved the release date up two days from December 20 to December 18, 2013. Paramount notified theater owners that the film would be their last film with a US release on 35mm film stock.

The film stars Ferrell, Carell, Rudd, Koechner, Applegate, Baker, Marsden, Willard, Wiig, Parnell, Kinnear, and Ford. Ferrell is still such a lovable doofus and the gang (Carell, Rudd, Koechner, Applegate) such a well-intentioned naif that it's hard to get down on them, especially considering that the heirs to their niche in pop iconography are Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and The Other Guys.

The characters are still endearing, but the jokes in Anchorman 2 are more hit-and-miss the second time around. There is something weirdly droll about the further misadventures of Ron Burgundy and gang. Catchphrases and sexual innuendo abound in goofy sequel. Though the film became more about an excuse to party. Sure, that fits Wayne Campbell's style, but I was hoping for some more story, even if it was a bit silly.

Simon says Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues receives:


Friday, 13 December 2013

Film Review: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" (2013).




" Well, thief! I smell you, I hear your breath, I feel your air. Where are you? Where are you? Come now, don't be shy... step into the light.” This famous line is finally here in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The epic fantasy adventure film co-written, produced and directed by Peter Jackson. It is the second installment of a three-part film series based on J. R. R. Tolkien's 1937 novel The Hobbit, beginning with An Unexpected Journey (2012) and set to conclude with The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). The three films together act as prequels to Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film series (2001, 2002 and 2003). The storyline continues in which the hobbit Bilbo Baggins travels with the wizard Gandalf and a company of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield into the Kingdom of Erebor, taking them through Mirkwood, Esgaroth, and Dale continuing their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, and to combat with the dragon Smaug.

Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage reprise their roles of Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield. As well as Graham McTavish, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Dean O'Gorman, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter and Sylvester McCoy as Dwalin, Balin, Kíli, Fíli, Dori, Nori, Ori, Óin, Glóin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Radagast the Brown. The film also stars Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry and Orlando Bloom reprises his role of Legolas from the original trilogy. And lastly, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, the Magnificent and the Terrible. Like the previous film, the performances in this film was still disparaging at times. Not really feeling any character development or arc like in The Lord of the Rings. The original cast repeated themselves and brought nothing new. With the addition of the romance between Kíli and Tauriel, there is not a romantic word they exchange that has not long since been reduced to cliché. But what made this film a spectacular achievement in casting and other elements was Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug the Dragon. He pretty much stole the show with his menacing, cool, mesmerizing and Shakespearean approach to a classic character. Thus giving birth to the greatest cinematic dragon.

Containing more of what made The Lord of the Rings series fun, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement over An Unexpected Journey. Though the script still feels stiff and flat, and the acting feels rather disparaging (except for Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug). In a time when, more often than not, sequels disappoint, it's refreshing to uncover something this high-profile that fulfils the promise of its name and adds another title to a storied legacy. As someone who admired the freshness and energy of the earlier films, I was amazed, at the end of the film, to realize that I had not seen or heard anything memorable (except for Smaug). To conclude, it is an improvement in the series, but not that much better. Let’s hope the final chapter will be better than this.

Simon says The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug receives:



Also, see my review for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Film Review: "Oldboy" (2013).


"Ask not why you were imprisoned. Ask why you were set free." This is the question lurking throughout Oldboy. This neo noir mystery film directed by Spike Lee, written by Mark Protosevich, based on Park Chan-wook's 2003 South Korean film of the same name. In this rendition, an advertising executive is kidnapped and held hostage for 20 years in solitary confinement. When he is inexplicably released, he embarks on an obsessive mission to discover who orchestrated his punishment, only to find he is still trapped in a web of conspiracy and torment.

In November 2008, DreamWorks and Universal were securing the rights to remake the South Korean film with Justin Lin initially attached to direct. Steven Spielberg was later announced as director, with Will Smith expressing interest to star. Mark Protosevich was in talks to write the script, although the acquisition to the remake rights were not finalized. Smith later clarified that Spielberg would not be remaking the film: he would be adapting the manga itself, which is considerably different from the film. In June 2009, the comic's publisher launched a lawsuit against Park, Hwang Jo-yoon, and Lim Joon-hyeong, the Korean film's producers, for giving the film rights to Spielberg without their permission. Later in November, it was reported that DreamWorks, Spielberg and Smith had stepped back from the project. In the same month, the producing team announced that the project was dead. In early July 2011, it was announced that Spike Lee would helm the remake with a screenplay written by Protosevich. Josh Brolin was cast to star in the remake as the lead character. Christian Bale, Colin Firth, and Clive Owen were reportedly offered the villain role before Sharlto Copley had officially been cast in May 2012. Lily Collins, Rooney Mara, and Mia Wasikowska were offered the female lead, but all declined before Elizabeth Olsen accepted. Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, and Nate Parker were all later announced to have joined the cast. Parker was later replaced by James Ransone, due to a scheduling conflict. Principal photography began in October 2012, filming throughout New Orleans, Louisiana.

The film stars Brolin, Olsen, Copley, Jackson, and Imperioli. The cast gave less-than-stellar performances that did not add anything new to the characters and story nor elevate the material whatsoever. Brolin, Olsen, Jackson, Imperioli's performances came off as stale, and Copley gave an embarrassing performance that just came off as cartoonish.

The real mystery here is why a filmmaker as talented and unique as Spike Lee would want to devote several years of his life to recreating someone else's movie. Who would have thought that Lee had a movie as bad as Oldboy in him? For all the filmmakers' efforts, this project is something of an artistic albatross. A classic case of what happens when Hollywood takes a South Korean Neo-noir thriller and turn it into a glossy, overproduced big-budget movie that lacks distinct identity. It's an insult to the South Korean classic. It's nearly two hours I'll never get back.

Simon says Oldboy (2013) receives: