The Movie Report
December 2013
Volume 2

#748 - 749
December 20, 2013 - December 27, 2013

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#749 December 27, 2013 by Michael Dequina


Dhoom:3 poster Dhoom:3 (Blast:3) *** 1/2
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One doesn't expect to see a bravura star performance when going into any popcorn action film, much less a Bollywood blockbuster action threequel, but such is what you get when you have the remarkable good fortune of being able to cast as famously dedicated an all-around talent as Aamir Khan--and the makers of Dhoom:3 take full advantage of having such a formidable asset in their arsenal to wildly entertaining effect, even if it means straying even further away from the series' original focus.

While not as overt and obvious as the radical shift of the other hit Indian action movie series that saw a threequel this movie season, the slick superhero series Krrish (which rather improbably originated with horribly inept, inexplicably popular E.T.-meets-Forrest Gump-meets-Close Encounters-with-a-dash-of-Space Jam family sci-fi fantasy Koi... Mil Gaya back in 2003), the Dhoom franchise has also undergone a dramatic evolution since the first installment hit screens worldwide in summer 2004. What began as a slickly produced but overly perfunctory Fast and the Furious knock-off with some buddy cop comedy, Bollywood dance, and not-quite-A-list stars thrown into the mix upped the ante considerably with its second installment, late 2006's Dhoom:2. The stunts became bigger and the action more explosive as one would expect, but also the film was noticeably less focused on the law enforcement odd couple of no-nonsense Jai (Abhishek Bachchan) and goofball Ali (Uday Chopra) than the duo cast as their adversaries: superstars Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai. In their first film pairing, Roshan and Rai not only united for some even-better-than-anyone-imagined dance numbers but--above all else--a sizzling screen chemistry so intense that it (yes) sparked a lawsuit from an offended moviegoer. With the box office returns then moving from the realm of mere hit to global blockbuster sensation, D:3 continues on the track laid by its immediate predecessor and then some. Right off the bat, regular series writer Vijay Krishna Acharya (also essaying the role of director this time) plants the emphasis firmly on the villain, devoting a lengthy prologue to the childhood origins of what will become circus performer/magician Sahir's lifelong mission of vengeance against the banker who caused his father's death. Once Khan shows up as the adult Sahir, Acharya does away with any remaining doubt as to who the star of this show is--and I'm not speaking of the opening heist sequence that culminates in a frantic chase through the streets of Chicago, but what immediately follows: the opening title sequence, with Khan fronting a group of dancers in a routine set to the latest variation of composer Pritam's familiar "Dhoom Machale" theme song. In theory it's no different from the template set by the second film, with the credits rolling over Roshan leading a troupe in some effortlessly nimble moves, and this film's opening number again takes place on a set that resembles a boiler room. But this involving the notorious perfectionist Khan, leave it to him to, even in this type of no-brainer entertainer, look to venture outside his comfort zone--and does he ever, challenging himself with (and downright murdering) a thunderously energetic... tap routine.

And that's only the start of how Khan, per his lofty norm, completely immerses himself in the role. Whether in taking on the grueling physical demands of some strenuous circus acrobatic routines or the increasing plot and character complexities as Sahir teases and taunts Jai in a tense cat-and-mouse game, Khan never gives any less than his all and thus commands your awe, making it just about impossible to give a second thought to much anyone or anything else. Acharya seems all too aware of this, with Bachchan and Chopra's roles further marginalized in all respects. Even in preposterous action movie terms, Acharya doesn't bother coming up with any reason, much less a marginally plausible one, as to why a pair of Mumbai cops would be called on by U.S. law enforcement to assist on a case (especially when they don't have any prior history with the criminal); neither Bachchan nor Chopra participate in any of the musical numbers, and the one action scene they carry by themselves takes would-be badass exaggeration into trying-too-hard self-parody. Also, one of the great advances of Dhoom:2, a bolstered female presence in the form of strong characters played by Rai and Bipasha Basu, is sadly not continued here. Katrina Kaif's role as Sahir's fellow circus performer Aaliya is more along the lines of typical action movie girl, offering up a nominal romantic angle and looking good while dancing up a storm, which at this point Kaif can do in her sleep.

But simply staying out of the way of Khan and his virtuoso one man show proves to be the right call. As the film progresses, the role Acharya has written for him becomes even meatier and more demanding--physically, comedically, dramatically--and Khan clearly has a ball getting to flex his figurative muscles along with his literal ones. Clearly inspired by his star's commitment, Acharya also comes up with increasingly imaginative musical numbers (the "Malang" production number is every bit the spectacular sensory feast that one would expect from what is reportedly the most expensive song sequence in Bollywood history) and increasingly improbable but undeniably exciting (can you say... motorcycle jousting?) action sequences that put the Chicago locations to great use. In marrying the unique blockbuster tendencies of both Bollywood and Hollywood in one crazy whole, Dhoom:3 thus takes place in a realm that much further removed from any semblance of reality, but with Aamir Khan's wide spectrum of talents and the creative energy he inspires in all around him on full, irresistibly entertaining display, audiences around the world will truly experience the title's English translation--a blast.

The Wolf of Wall Street poster The Wolf of Wall Street (R) ****
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By now one would think one would fully know what to expect from Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, both individually and most especially together. The Wolf of Wall Street, a true life, epic-length (literally just shy of 3 hours) tale whose release is strategically timed in the thick of awards season, appears on the surface to be hardly much of a deviation from the high-quality, high-class standard they've set for themselves over the years. "Class," however, is just about the opposite of what the pair serve up in their fifth collaboration, which is no less than a brazenly brash and unabashed middle finger to any and all genteel expectations and sensibilities. Even after all these years and all these films, that this electrifying jolt to the system can classified as being revelatory for the both of them is not only a testament to the depth and range of their talent, but how even as justly decorated and respected veterans of the business they continue to experiment and shred the envelope as they evolve as artists.

From literally the first scene, there's a sense that after operating in a more austere mode for the better part of the last two decades (best exemplified by his most recent film, the handsomely mounted but oh-so-respectable Hugo), Scorsese is finally releasing all of his pent-up, aggressively antic movie madman energy and never lets up. Think of the drug-addled insanity of the home stretch of GoodFellas sustained with nary a breath to feature length, and one gets an idea of just how loose and unhinged Scorsese's style is here--an all too appropriate approach to tell the story of the titular "wolf," hot shot stock broker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio). As gleefully cocksure as he is perpetually coked-up, Jordan tells his own story via copious voiceover and uncommonly frequent direct addresses to the camera. Not so uncommon, however, is Jordan's arc, which follows a traditional rise and fall movie trajectory. Young broker enters the shark-infested waters equal parts idealism and naivete; he gets chewed up and spit out when the infamous Wall Street crash of 1987 forces him to re-evaluate and regroup; he finds his unlikely calling selling worthless penny stocks at first to clueless commonfolk and then the high-rolling 1%, in turn building himself a vast fortune and lavish life of hedonistic excess that can only, inevitably, come crashing down.

These are the makings of many a movie cautionary tale, but Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (working from Belfort's own memoir) convey that message in a manner so unconventionally clever that more prudish and sensitive viewers may not recognize, much less give them credit for. Gone is any trace of the knee-jerk, comforting moralizing that typically follows such a spiral of selfish and self-destructive sex and substance indulgence, especially when taken to the outer-reaches-of-R-rating as it is here; and there is certainly not the faintest tinge of regret nor apology. As such, it would be easy and understandable to accuse them of glamorizing such vulgarity and all-around immorality. But Winter and especially Scorsese are operating on a higher plane than the most immediately obvious, regardless of how shameless the debauchery. What is actually even more shamelessly in-your-face is Jordan himself, not simply in DiCaprio's appropriately larger-than-life-and-totality-of-existence portrayal, but in Scorsese and Winter's remarkable adherence to the character's first person perspective. In their deeper thinking hands, having the character's literal voice as a constant presence through the narration is just the tip of the iceberg, with his bottomless wells of flip confidence and smug self-absorption not only informing every word we he speak in dialogue and voiceover but--crucially, and brilliantly cinematically so--every image one sees. So what unfolds onscreen should not be taken as an objective account, but something told through the amused filter of subjective memory, akin to how one would recount tales of their wild and crazy antics of yore: the understood admittance of being young and more than a little stupid, but overshadowing all of that are the funny stories that came about of all it.

What seems a fairly simple choice proves to be its boldest and most subversive, as Scorsese doesn't downplay but rather plays up the fact that, however reckless and dangerous the behavior ultimately may be from a morally and politically correct standpoint, in the immediate, raw experience of the moment comes a lot of undeniable fun. And therein lies the most surprising and ultimately defining quality of The Wolf of Wall Street: its wicked and ceaselessly cynical sense of humor, as one alternately laughs both with and at Jordan and his crew as they prey on innocents for their own gain while voraciously indulging in every last one of their vices. Those with more conservative sensibilities may not see the entertainment, much less humor, in much of it (if not be downright offended), but those on the film's twisted wavelength will savor how Scorsese and especially DiCaprio uninhibitedly flout any sense of decorum, to often hilarious results. DiCaprio proves to be as fearless a comedian as he is a dramatic actor, letting loose heretofore untapped timing and slapstick abandon and thus proving more than up to the task of going toe-to-toe with the likes of comic stalwart Jonah Hill. Hill's own manic energy never better used as Jordan's overeager, overly excitable, just about over-everything right-hand man Donnie; and a briefly seen but highly memorable Matthew McConaughey sets the pitch black comic tone early as the seasoned broker who gives young Jordan a crash course in high stakes Wall Street survival tactics--much of which involves ample amounts of (of course) sex, drugs, and even more selfishness.

The admittedly repeated notes that come as a byproduct of the first-person approach can lead one to believe the film endorses such a philosophy and lifestyle, and that's what will certainly be the many detractors' core argument. But in not skirting the issue of those immediate highs and pleasures, however hollow and unscrupulously acquired they may be, one can see how and why Jordan can be so easily attracted by them and even more easily consumed by them--the negative consequences of which are just as unflinchingly depicted. If Scorsese and Winter remain fixed in the protagonist's point of view, other perspectives are more than adequately represented and vividly expressed by the large, impressive ensemble. That everyone is given and takes full advantage of their moment to shine speaks not only of Scorsese's remarkable generosity but their own formidable talents, which impress even when pitted against DiCaprio at his most charismatic and compelling. As frenetic as the film is as a whole, Scorsese knows to make the scant quiet moments count, and the performances make these scenes linger in the memory even longer than they do on screen. Especially notable is a confrontation between Jordan and the straight-arrow Fed (Kyle Chandler) doggedly determined to take him down, where a simple lunch meet escalates into a coolly tense match of wits; and newcomer Margot Robbie emerges as a real find as Jordan's glamorous second wife, whose blonde bombshell looks do not necessarily mean she's ready nor willing to be a mere trophy.

But even through whatever severe crises and setbacks, both personal and professional, he may go through, Jordan's ever-unrepentant bravado and ever-growing ego and ambition remain unfazed, even encouraged and celebrated. Contrary to surface appearance, however, Scorsese and Winter's point is not to reinforce such celebration but rather question the why and how, especially given the intense, intimate microscope under which Jordan's story is told for three hours. That easily missable and misconstrued intent could not be more subtly yet powerfully summed up in the film's closing images. While still of a piece of its narrator's self-serving cynicism, they also play as, to us passive third-person observers, a self-reflecting mirror of rather damning sadness. To be overly preoccupied by all the outrageous depravity on display in The Wolf of Wall Street is to be caught up in its trap just like Jordan, but unlike him, it's also to be too easily distracted to the point of blindness about how it's in this big, bad world's nature to nurture wolves such as him.

In Brief

47 Ronin poster 47 Ronin (PG-13) * 1/2
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One always wants to assess a film based on what's on screen and not any of the drama that may have occurred en route to that destination, but while watching 47 Ronin one cannot help but be distracted by the scars that came as a result of creative differences, a protracted post-production, and an out-of-control budget. While certainly not a doomed movie idea from the beginning--a retelling of the Japanese historical legend about the titular group of samurai on a mission to avenge their master's death--the road to ruin began shortly thereafter. Apparently an old fashioned sword-battle samurai picture wasn't deemed enough of a hook for young, modern audience, and so a fantasy element was added, with unearthly creatures stampeding about and a witch (Rinko Kikuchi) weaving all sorts of magical malevolence in this vision of 18th century Japan. If this sounds like an ill fit with a story about timeless and decidedly real world issues of loyalty and honor, it is, and as much fun as Kikuchi has, she seems to have wandered in from a completely different, campier film than the gravely serious drama this otherwise tries to be. But that's more than can be said for lead Keanu Reeves, who appears to have wandered in from the street, delivering an even more vacant than usual performance as the focal ronin, a half-breed who was taken in by the slain master. Like the commercially-driven casting of Reeves, the other concession to blockbuster aspirations, the fantasy visual effects, are far from impressive; even cheaper looking still are the very soundstage-y sets, making one continually wonder how exactly credited (and ultimately, infamously ousted) first-time director Carl Rinsch let the budget run up to the neighborhood of $200 million. Granted, a portion of that expense obviously went to reshoots, but that such a would-be lavish production would end up coming off so slapdash in look and feeling (the conclusion doesn't even begin to approach earning the level of gravitas it clearly, desperately strives for) shows just how very little everyone involved ended up caring and simply gave up.

Grudge Match poster Grudge Match (PG-13) ***
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In the thick of pretentious prestige project season, a fairly low-key but solidly engaging studio genre exercise can be a welcome refreshment. And contrary to the confrontational title and premise of Grudge Match, which pits the portrayers of arguably the most iconic big screen boxers, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, against each other, Peter Segal's movie fits the undemanding bill. The glibly dismissive label of "Grumpy Old Boxers" is not completely inaccurate, what with old age jokes and cranky quips certainly not in short supply as De Niro and Stallone's archrival yesteryear fighters face off for a much-belated third time to settle the score once and for all. But the film ends up far less sillier than it would initially appear, with Segal and writers Doug Ellin, Tim Kelleher, and Rodney Rothman generally operating on a quieter, more gently agreeable gear that elicits consistent grins with Alan Arkin (as Stallone's grumpy old trainer) and Kevin Hart (as the fast-talking fight promoter) popping up from time to time to elicit more audible laughs. If Arkin and Hart's roles--and, for that matter, Stallone and De Niro's--aren't exactly stretches, and they hit their marks like pros, what is surprising is the very believable warmth to the overall affair. De Niro getting to know the adult son (Jon Bernthal) he never knew and Stallone rekindling his romance with his lost true love (a stunningly well preserved, and fairly natural looking at that, Kim Basinger) may also come from the formula playbook, but the actors and their easy chemistry sell the sweetness without being too schmaltzy--which befits the beguiling balance struck here: enough laughs, enough boxing, enough emotion. It may not be the most groundbreaking material told in the most innovative way, but this likable film shows there's still much charm to be savored in a mid-level star-driven programmer that zeroes in and hits its modest target, no more, no less.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty poster The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG) ** 1/2
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With his source material, James Thurber's 1939 short story, having already long proven both its popularity and sturdiness for screen adaptation (the well-liked, if not exactly Thurber-faithful, 1947 film version starring Danny Kaye), director/star Ben Stiller somewhat understandably turns the bulk of his attention to the visuals for his take, and the often breathtaking results are befit the title magazine office drone's (played by Stiller) daydream-driven existence. While there are some clever uses of more fanciful CG effects, particularly in incorporating what would otherwise be mundane text cards, the most memorable images Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh capture are simply that of real world locations, whether building lobbies in New York City or more naturally pristine settings such as the Himalayas or mountains in Iceland. That would be considered everyday sights are the most striking underscores the main message of the piece, which is how one can live an even grander and more rewarding adventure in the here and now than in one's head. But that then also points up how little attention Stiller pays to anything aside from the look of the film, for Steve Conrad's screenplay rarely rises above that type of greeting card-level would-be inspirational banality. As such, while Stiller and an equally understated Kristen Wiig (as a co-worker of whom Walter is enamored) strike an appealing warmth together, it reinforces one's appreciation of their not-often-exercised dramatic range as performers than truly care about the characters they are playing, despite how beautiful the backdrops are.

#748 December 20, 2013 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Anchorman 2 poster Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (PG-13) ***
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It isn't at all a stretch, however reductive it may be, to liken the original Anchorman film to the first Austin Powers movie. After all, like that other starring vehicle for a Saturday Night Live alum, the introduction to the 1970s San Diego TV news legend that is Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) was a solid hit in summer 2004 but not exactly a blockbuster. Yet thanks to DVD, television airings, the growing prominence of Ferrell and his supporting cast (specifically, Paul Rudd, Christina Applegate, and most especially Steve Carell), and--possibly above all, in this digital day and age--social media memes, over the years the film and even more so the character of Ron have become pop culture icons. But that's where the similarities, for the most part, end, for Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay are far more unpredictable and downright out there in their comic sensibilities than Mike Myers has ever been.

This isn't to say that there is a certain air of déjà vu going on, never mind the setting has shifted to the early '80s, and Ron and co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Applegate) are now married with child and anchoring the news in New York City. Ron being Ron--that is, all pompous, would-be macho bluster, however innocently clueless--he manages to screw all that up within minutes of screen time, but he's on the comeback trail with his old news team of Brian (Rudd), Brick (Carell), and Champ (David Koechner) to help launch the latest innovation in television: a 24-hour news network. There, Ron quickly butts heads with both the pretty boy prime time anchor (James Marsden, as usual most effectively used in lighter roles) and the no-nonsense network manager (Meagan Good, a good, glamorous sport), the latter of whom brings out not only his chauvinism but latent racial insensitivity. Besides those undeniably amusing, if predictable, comedic angles, Ferrell and McKay also use the scenario as a springboard from some very trenchant digs at the far-from-hard-hitting norm of TV news today--the origins of which can not so surprisingly be traced back to the mustachioed legend himself. Relevant satire makes way for the flat-out bizarre, when around halfway through Ferrell and McKay veer Ron's story into a wild left turn that doesn't entirely work but compensates in its out-of-nowhere audacity. But however weird the proceedings do eventually get at times, and however indulgent the long spot-the-celeb parade of cameos becomes, the film consistently delivers on the smile-to-laugh-out-loud spectrum, due mostly to the ever-crackling comic timing of and chemistry between the entire ensemble. Both series veterans and newcomers (in addition to Good and Marsden, Kristen Wiig has a small but choice part as Brick's equally strange love interest) alike able to wring laughs from whatever whims Ferrell and McKay throw at them, and that's ultimately the bottom line, regardless of how loose and random the film may be structurally.

A Madea Christmas poster Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas (PG-13) **
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For better or worse, Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas serves up exactly what one would expect: silly holiday-themed shenanigans with the pistol-packing great-grandma butting heads with and hurling tart-tongued one-liners at anyone and anything that gets in her way. Whether or not that sounds at all appealing to a potential viewer should be well figured out by now, given that this is the eighth (!) big screen venture into the Madeaverse. As someone who always preferred it when the character is used in moderation (best exemplified in 2009's I Can Do Bad All by Myself, where she is fairly well utilized--and sparingly at that--in a narrative-necessitated supporting capacity), with Perry's well-worn, play-to-the-nosebleeds schtick drowning out anything as far as basic craft, I simply tried to find some vague points of interest, of which there actually are a couple. First, unlike in most of the other films, Madea's main sparring partner is not another character played by Perry himself, and so there's a bit of a refreshing energy having Madea exchange verbal volleys with another actor, in this case, of all people, Larry the Cable Guy. Second, Tika Sumpter, playing the small town teacher daughter of Madea's niece (Anna Maria Horsford), proves again that she is a naturally luminous presence and is destined to land a lot more high profile roles. But that's about it, for what passes as a plot is tired even by sitcom standards: Madea and Horsford make a surprise Christmas visit to Sumpter's house, not knowing that (1) she's in a relationship with a white man (Eric Lively), and (2) his parents (Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy) are also stopping in for the holidays. Aside from the fact that the self-proclaimed "rednecks" of the piece are actually the most open and tolerant, the hijinks that ensue are predictable and tiresome (it's fitting that Perry corrals viral video celebrities Antoine Dodson and Sweet Brown to do unfunny reprises of their played-out memes), with perhaps the most amusing bit of the entire proceedings being how Perry abruptly wraps up--or, rather, simply halts--a number of dangling storyline concerns in literally the closing minute or two.


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