Celebrity

Celebrity1Director: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith, Winona Ryder, Famke Janssen

After a favorable reception from my recent vintage review of Crimes and Misdemeanors, I thought I’d strike while the iron’s hot and review another Woody Allen film I’ve come to appreciate.  Celebrity is a comedy about a very topical phenomenon that has reached an even more unbelievable status than it had 17 years ago when the film was released.  That phenomenon?   That anybody, with a little luck, can achieve a celebrity status and find love. Every character in this film is either famous or in search of fame. Director Woody Allen’s main thought that he is trying to convey is that celebrityism is not achieved by people who earn it or deserve it, but rather by people who are lucky or more fortunate.

The story surrounds two paralleling main characters Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) and his ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis). After Lee attends his high school reunion and sees that all of his classmates are boring, old, and balding he begins to go through a mid-life crisis and he realizes that he has never actually felt true love. Accordingly after 16 years of being married to Robin, Lee decides to divorce her. Lee then goes on a quest to find love and fame. Allen places Lee in several situations where he conveys his opinion that we, as a society, do not celebrate the people that we should. First Lee meets the seductive, yet married actress Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith), whom he is supposed to write an article about. Nicole takes Lee to the house she lived in as a child, and although she states that she is happily married, she still feels it is ethical to service him orally, as long as she does not sleep with him. She denotes this by saying, “What I do from the nick up, that’s a totally different story.” Here, Allen demonstrates how people who achieve a high celebrity status, come up with a moral system that suites themselves, but not necessarily the rest of society. Her statement, besides having the sexual interpretation, also means that whatever she feels is moral in her mind is therefore justified.  Coincidentally, this echos a similar theme explored in Crimes and Misdemeanors as well.

Next, Lee meets a supermodel (Charlize Theron in one of her first major roles) that is popular solely because of her jaw-dropping good looks. Theron’s character remains nameless throughout the film. Allen purposely did not give her a name in order to stress how people who see these beautiful people are not concerned with who they are, just what they look like. This goes the same for Leonardo DiCapro’s character Brandon Darrow. Although he is a drug abusing, woman beating, hotel-trashing brat with no creative vision, he is still considered a huge star because he has got a pretty face.

After the supermodel leaves Lee, he becomes serious with a more practical and logical woman named Bonnie (Famke Janssen). Bonnie is made to seem virtually perfect; she is beautiful, sexy, intelligent, and nice. However, Lee loses interest in her and feels that he has to move on. The importance of Bonnie’s character, besides the fact that she shows what a shallow and low man Lee is, is that she is responsible for destroying Lee’s ticket to stardom, which is also directly related to the destruction of Lee’s chance for love.

Lee leaves Bonnie for Nola, (Winona Ryder) a woman who has been in and out of his life for some time. Nola is an actress with her own career on her mind. She is not willing to commit to a relationship and can not reach an emotional bond with Lee because she is on her own quest for fame, much like Lee.

Lee’s acts are strongly contradicted by the transformation of his ex-wife Robin. Robin, at first, is shown as a shy, sexually frustrated, Catholic woman. After Lee leaves her, Robin’s friend books her a session with a famous plastic surgeon that ends up examining her while he talks to a TV camera and interviewer. Robin’s transformation begins here when she meets Tony (Joe Mantegna) a television producer. Tony shapes her and makes her into a celebrity reporter on an Entertainment Tonight like show. No sequence shows Robin’s changed lifestyle better that the one near the film’s end where Robin is shown rushing around the tables of a restaurant, interviewing various stars. She eventually stops and talks to Donald Trump. Trump tells her that he is going to tear down a cathedral and put up a “really tall building.” At the beginning of the film, Robin’s Catholic upbringing would have come through and caused her to become highly upset by this statement, however, here Robin simply says, “Oh, that’s nice.” Here we see that although Robin has accepted love and been rewarded by fame, she has lost her identity.

Robin attains fame without even looking for it while Lee never reaches a celebrity status after all of his attempts. This again restates the film’s statement that love and fame are attained purely by luck.  Allen drives his theme home in an ending scene that is crucial in establishing the film’s meaning.  First of all it re-introduces the characters to the audience, so we can see where many of them finally end up.  Allen’s techniques used throughout the entire film prove to be some of his most ambitious. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s eloquent shooting in black and white requires a creative use of lighting. The music is always soft and relaxing. Beethoven’s 5th and the “…So You Want to be in Pictures,” song are heard throughout the film in different situations. One more solid technique is Allen’s relaxed cutting rhythm throughout the film. Most of the film’s shots are long and relaxed. There are very few short or fast paced scenes.  Allen seems to have a lot to say on this subject and with a running time of 113 minutes, this is one of his longest films.

At the end, this is another vibrant and beautifully rich film from Woody Allen both contextually and artistically.  His career is one of reinvention and sometimes that can result in films that are a little ahead of their time.  This is likely the case with Celebrity.  Agree or disagree with Allen’s theory on love and fame, but to me, this film plays much better today than it did in the late 90s.  A-

Celebrity is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes.  

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The Wolf of Wall Street

ImageIn 1986, a young People’s Critic was playing with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, reading Spiderman comics, and watching Knight Rider; meanwhile The Wolf of Wall Street suggests that there was an entirely different story of the 1980s to tell.  Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate for the fifth time and the result is their most polarizing effort by far, but also DiCaprio’s greatest performance of his career.

Last year at this exact time, I made quite a bit of noise about Leonardo DiCaprio’s sneaky but brilliant performance as Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  This year, I will make even more noise about his turn as Wall Street stockbroker, Jordan Belfort.  The film depicts the rise and inevitable fall of Belfort after he gets a taste of what the high life is like and never stops wanting more.

That “taste” comes in the form of an early scene in the film.  In it, Belfort the naïve intern meets the senior partner of his firm (Matthew McConaughey) for lunch.  Here Belfort is seemingly learning the ropes from a guy who’s been around for a while, but on second look Belfort is actually staring his future self right in the face.  McConaughey fiercely and skillfully poisons and corrupts Belfort but leaves him dazzled and impressed.  He sells Belfort just like another client, setting the wheels in motion for the “wolf” to rear its head.  When his brokerage closes after Black Monday in 1987, Belfort recruits a band of like-minded sleezeballs and opens his own brokerage firm called Stratton-Oakmont.  With consciences checked at the door and a script of Belfort’s own design, Stratton Oakmont prays on the rich and the poor, selling worthless “penny stocks” and reaping commissions hand over fist.  Belfort’s partner in crime, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), represents the “Greed is good” adage from Wall Street to precision.  Together the two cut a swath through the financial market and find themselves absurdly wealthy and yet impossibly insatiable. Balfort symbolically leaves stability behind when he leaves his  kind and caring wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) for sexpot, Naomi (Margot Robbie).

While clearly a Scorsese film, the director’s presence from a technical standpoint is rather restrained.  He fills the frame with decadence, debauchery, and dishonesty, but never has he relied on his actors to make a film work as much as he does here.  Fortunately, they are up to the task, but this circumstance is why The Wolf of Wall Street is not the classic Scorsese film that it could have been.  Nonetheless, like all other Scorsese films, the plot is nothing but a mode at which to create a commentary on a deeper subtext.  Belfort’s story is used as a way for the filmmaker to tell a story about intoxication, greed, and the destruction of the American fabric.  He does all of this with a playful tone however, which is what gives the film such energy!  The irreverence of this film is impossible to capture into words and that’s exactly what Scorsese intended.  With a running time of three hours, it is clear that Scorsese did not want to shy away from the bacchanalian excess that plays such a large part in the film.  At the risk of hitting the audience over the head with this fact, the drug of choice for most characters is the “lude” (short for Quaalude), which tenaciously reflects the conduct of everyone in this film.  In one scene, high on ludes, DiCaprio has lost all sense of mobility and yet must crawl, writhe, and tumble his way to his Ferrari in the hopes to then drive home and stop Donnie from revealing money laundering evidence into a tapped phone.  This scene is one of only a few characteristically Scorsese scenes, and for DiCaprio it is particularly impressive.  Never has DiCaprio been more physical, comedic, energetic, and kinetically charged than he is in this film.  Jay Gatsby would literally implode after one second in Jordan Belfort’s shoes.

In a montage towards the end set to the Lemonheads cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” the line “Every way you look at it, you lose,” critically suggests that the intoxication of the previous 150 minutes is beginning to ware off.  We have a moment to finally catch our breaths after the yachts, the mansions, the sex, the money, and the helicopters are all out of sight and we are amazed at what we’ve witnessed.  
After an Academy member premier of the film, a screenwriter very publically shouted, “Shame on you!” at the legendary director.  Accordingly, I witnessed several people walk out of the screening that I was in. Certainly, the world DiCaprio and Scorsese explore this time around is fearlessly audacious.  Nonetheless, the film is based on Belfort’s own memoir, and the screenplay is co-written by the man who wrote and produced The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter.  Those shows and this film all have the united goal of exploring morally bankrupt people who fill that void with the greatest drug of all, money.  Our society is badly hooked on this drug and as good as we are at hiding the evidence of what greed has done to us, stories like The Wolf of Wall Street serve as reminders, reminders that make some filmgoers uncomfortable.  Still, as much of a fan as I am of this film, I submit that The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas-Lite: Henry Hill enters stock market.  I think a 5 and ½ hour American nightmare double feature is in my future!  A-

The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R and has a running time of 3 hours.  Look out for many recognizable faces in supporting roles including the real life Jordan Belfort.  This film is packed to the brim – there is so much to discuss and mention, but this review is long enough! 
Also, prepare yourself for that ‘ludes’ Ferrari scene, it’s phenomenal! 

The Great Gatsby

ImageMay 10th, 2013 marked the highly anticipated release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. This film marks the fourth time F. Scott Fitzgerald’s glitzy classic has seen the big-screen treatment. It seems that in an almost poetic piece of truth, filmmakers have been reaching for their own ‘elusive green light’ in that no one has been able to cinematically capture the full power and prestige of the classic novel. It’s unusual for a book to be adapted to film every 25 years or so, but that is precisely what has happened. Alan Ladd played the mysterious Jay Gatsby in 1949, Robert Redford in 1974, Toby Stephens in the deplorable A&E TV movie in 2000, and now Leonardo Dicaprio steps into that legendary yellow car’s driver’s seat. Is the fourth time a charm?

It’s the roaring 20s in America and in the midst of America’s strongest economic boom in history, Nick Caraway (Toby Maguire) puts his writing career on hold and leaves the Midwest for the magic of New York as a bond salesman. Caraway becomes fascinated with his mysterious neighbor (Gatsby) as rumors about the man and his wealth circulate all around him. Nick is drawn into Gatsby’s lavish world and through him, the audience is presented Fitzgerald’s cautionary fable of excess, greed, and moral decay that lies beneath the surface of social luxury.

Fourth time a charm? The answer to this question is a complex one. The appeal to this film rests in the impeccable casting of Dicaprio as Gatsby and the choice of such a distinctive director in Luhrmann. Luhrmann and Dicaprio have, of course, successfully updated a classic once before with 1996’s Romeo + Juliet. While The People’s Critic was not that impressed with that film, it can be admired for its style and individuality. The Great Gatsby does not disappoint in terms of its style, which is no surprise given Luhrmann’s reputation.

The film chooses to introduce Caraway slightly differently from the novel, and in that commits its first mistake. The tone of the film is altered right from the start, and Caraway’s character is strangely identified as a flawed and beaten down man; he is introduced as a man clinging to sanity. Fans of the book will also be incredibly disappointed in some glaringly missing elements from the film’s final act. These changes result in a sacrifice of some major complexities within a major character’s past. Nonetheless, the middle section of the film is faithful to the novel and develops very well.

The cast is rounded out nicely with Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Joel Edgerton as her husband Tom. Isla Fisher plays Tom’s mistress Myrtle and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki plays the vapid vamp, Jordan Baker. Luhrmann is guilty of rushing the pace a bit too much when it comes to developing these characters, but this is likely because he knows the story swings on the hinge of Gatsby and Caraway’s relationship. Unfortunately the pacing does affect the film’s effectiveness. This and some astonishingly poor editing reduces the film’s overall impact. Consequently, Maguire effectively sets up awe and majesty for the appearance of Dicaprio, although the anticipated reveal of his character is not quite as satisfying as it should be.

The Great Gatsby is a story of mood. A successful adaptation must transcend regurgitation of plotpoints and allow the viewer to feel and experience the raw nature of desire and time’s fleeting nature. It is here that Luhrmann does succeed. The major victory for this film is in its capturing of the essence of the novel, the time, and the message. Bold choices from contemporary music, effective use of slow motion, and inventive camera placement make the movie exciting and at times, well…Great. I do, however, question the decision for executive producer Jay-Z to use four songs by himself or Beyonce in a film that so urgently attacks bravado, audacity, and arrogance. The Great Gatsby is the best adaptation of Fitzgerald’s material, and Dicaprio adds another iconic role to his ever impressive career. While the film is not perfect and will certainly provide some disappointments for fans of the book, the film does stand on its own as a determined, flashy, show-piece of entertainment. B

The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes. It is released in 3D, but it offers nothing by artificiality. Learn a lesson from the film and enjoy it in modest 2D.

Django Unchained

ImageQuentin Tarantino has said publicly that he wants to retire after his tenth film. He is looking to leave behind a strong filmography that shows no weakness or slump at the end. His eighth entry (counting the Kill Bill volumes separately) into this abstract Decalogue is Django Unchained, and it may be his greatest achievement since Pulp Fiction.

Django Unchained is the finest American slavery period bounty hunter Western ever made, but clearly that doesn’t mean much. As preposterous as that description is, that’s what is so great about a Tarantino film; he digs deep into a traditional genre and develops it into something distinctive. The same can be said about his Holocaust revisionist historical war film, Inglorious Basterds. The title character, Django (Jamie Foxx), is a slave with a horrific past who through a chain of auspicious events becomes partnered with a slavery opposed ex-dentist and current bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). This partnership is sealed with an agreement that Schultz will help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from an infamous Southern plantation.

Django Unchained is void of any superfluous substance. From the opening scene of dialogue where Django and Schultz are introduced all the way to the final “showdown,” Django Unchained has momentum and remains in stride. Tarantino should win his second Original Screenplay Oscar since no other film that can be nominated for this category combines such compelling dialogue with such a spirited and ambitions story. The film unfolds in a series of distinct acts. Furthermore, Tarantino takes his flair for the irregular timeline to a more subtle place by interjecting small contextual flashbacks at key points to reveal critical or entertaining pieces of background that enhance an approaching scene. You may never look at the Ku Klux Klan, or Don Johnson for that matter, the same way again.

The cast is impeccable and is sprinkled with familiar faces beyond the leads, but the leads are all excellent. Christoph Waltz gives Tarantino another Oscar worthy performance as the film’s moral compass, Dr. Schultz. Schultz’s character also works to deepen and broaden Foxx’s turn as Django. Django has a goal, but lacks direction and Schultz literally provides that for him, which gives Foxx some real dimension and power. However, the film’s crown jewel is found in the film’s closing acts when Leonardo DiCaprio appears as Calvin Candie, owner of the massive and legendary plantation known as Candyland. DiCaprio’s performance is a sneaky one, and while initially campy, it becomes very real all too quickly. His character shows a severe authenticity as a symbol for the evils of supposed “gentlemen” during a deeply deranged time in American history. As fun as Django Unchained is to watch, it is still a Quentin Tarantino movie, which implies vulgarity and violence. It delivers on both of those qualities to excess, which is a good thing in this case. As part of the Western genre, a lot of justice is sought out against a lot of bad people, and a six-shooter is basically the only tool. The balance between good acting, strong writing, unpredictable circumstances, and sudden bursts of violence creates a suspenseful tone that could not otherwise be achieved. Django Unchained is a front-runner for one of the year’s best films as well as a front-runner for one of Tarantino’s best films. If this is any indication of what the nearly 50-year-old director has left in him, it is hard to imagine him walking away after stepping behind a camera only two more times. A