Quick Takes: The Wolf of Wall Street, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Zombie

wolf_1The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
threehalfstar

Starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, P. J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Matthew McConaughey
Directed by Martin Scorsese

In my teenage years, when I getting serious about my film obsession, Martin Scorsese was one of my favorite directors. The years haven’t been too kind to our relationship, though, as Scorsese hasn’t made a single film since Kundun that I’ve flat-out loved. The Wolf of Wall Street still isn’t quite there for me, but it is a finely made film that is incredibly entertaining and watchable even at a full three hours. Most importantly, Scorsese successfully dredges up that exuberant energy that made his earlier films sparkle. Leonardo DiCaprio proves (once again) that he deserves one of those coveted Oscar statues, in one of his best performances yet. But honestly, it was Jonah Hill that surprised me the most. Hill is a surprisingly good actor, I guess “surprisingly” because I always wrote him off as “one of those dudes in modern comedies that I don’t like.” While most of the movie is best described as vapid exuberance, it does end up relating something insightful about the American psyche and the power of money. If you’ve been cold on the last few Scorsese films, The Wolf of Wall Street is the real deal.

Dawn_1Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
twohalfstar

Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer
Directed by Matt Reeves

I liked Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but for me it was a big step down from the first one. A lot less emotionally engaging, and all the human characters were cardboard and boring. The story didn’t really grab me either, although I don’t know what else this movie could’ve been about. It’s a movie about the dawn of the war between apes and men, so you kinda have to show why they’re angry at one another, but I think it could have been far better executed. A good majority of the FX work is outstanding, but alongside the amazing stuff are chimps with faces that look flat and completely fake (such as Caesar’s son). I don’t understand why, because Caesar, Koba, Maurice and a good majority of the other apes all look near-real most of the time. Whatever… apes with machines guns made me smile. And they ride horses! The third movie will likely be a pretty hefty action film, but I’m not going in with great expectations after the so-so showing here by director Matt Reeves (who is also directing the third one).

Zombie_Flesh_eatersZombie [Zombi 2] (1979)
AKA Island of the Flesh-Eaters, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us, Island of the Living Dead

twohalfstar

Starring Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay, Stefania D’Amario, Olga Karlatos
Directed by Lucio Fulci

Zombie is surprisingly dull for the most part, except when the zombies come around with their muddy, worm-ridden faces. The characters — if you can even call them that — do some really dumbass shit, and the “story” is like a vague premise with dialogue attached to it. It’s seriously not much more than: A woman searches for her father on a strange island where the dead rise from their graves. And the search for Daddy isn’t even that big of a deal, as it’s pretty clear from the first scene what happened to him. The last half hour or so is pure zombie killin’ entertainment, though, and the gore throughout is awesome. Lots of great flesh-rippin’ bites and other gruesome sights, especially the bit where a splintered wood beam pierces through a character’s eye!

Video Book Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of Planet of the Apes: The Art of the Films

What’s this? That’s right, I did a video review! I’ve considered doing things like this, as well as appearing on podcasts, for a while now, and this art book presented a perfect opportunity to try out the video review thing. It’s a completely foreign thing for me to do, and surprisingly I recorded it all in one take with no edits! I also did all my own stunts. Paper cuts are a real concern when you’re doing something like this. While I was unable to secure the insurance necessary for the shoot, I threw caution to the wind and shot it anyway! Take that, you bastards in suits!

Anyway…

WATCH as I nervously try to think of what to say next!

SEE as I fumble with turning pages while on-camera!

LISTEN as I go on tangents about CG ruining film and make jokes about apes!

READ what is probably the longest post title you’ll ever see, unless I’m intentionally trying to make one longer!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of Planet of the Apes: The Art of the Films was released by Titan Books on July 8, 2014 and it is available now via Amazon and other book retailers! If you’re a fan of the films and are also interesting in filmmaking, definitely consider picking up a copy (preferably by clicking that Amazon box above)!

Disclosure: Titan Books provided me with a review copy of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of Planet of the Apes: The Art of the Films.

Lawless (2012)

lawless_1Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, Chris McGarry, Tim Tolin, Gary Oldman, Lew Temple, Marcus Hester

Directed by John Hillcoat

Expectations: Low.

onestar


There is such a thing as “too star-studded.” I’m sure on paper Lawless looked like a sure-fire winner. With a cast like this how could it fail? Apparently, it can fail in numerous ways! It’s a shame because a lot of the production design is well-realized, and the locations look great. Director John Hillcoat’s camera often finds a nice image to linger on, the only problem is that the majority of these images aren’t artistically deep or resonant to the overall film, they’re the wide establishing shots. Lawless is the cinematic equivalent to one of my friend’s favorite Raymond Chandler lines (from the novel The High Window), “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

The story that Lawless tells is apparently based on the true story of three outlaw, moonshinin’ brothers in Franklin County, Virginia. Like all outlaw stories, they start small and their business gets increasingly bigger over the course of the film. Of course, there’s a detective gunning for the brothers’ business (played by Guy Pearce), but Pearce’s guide for the character must have been Jeffrey Combs in The Frighteners because this dude is like a goddamn comic book villain. Anyway, they go back and forth throughout, and every once in a while Gary Oldman comes in to look badass.

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Expectations: I expect to still love it.


It is always with a resigned sigh that I start to review a film I’ve seen a multitude of times. It’s always hard to find what to say, as my perceptions of the film are inevitably shaped by my previous experiences with it, and are therefore somewhat suspect. But even though I’ve seen Bram Stoker’s Dracula several times throughout my life, I’m still drawn back to it, and I still enjoy it every time. That says something right there about the power of the film, even if some of that power is just pure nostalgia.

I’m sure it has something to do with first seeing the film while I was a young, impressionable kid, but this has always been my favorite telling of the story, and it remains so. This version was billed as being true to the novel, and while it’s not exactly that, it’s definitely much closer than the previous adaptations. This time through, I noticed that Bram Stoker’s Dracula felt in spots almost like an amalgamation of the previous Dracula films, creating a distinct and unique version of the tale, but still paying homage to what had come before as well. Specific shots reference Nosferatu, Oldman’s Dracula voice contains shades of Lugosi’s, and the Gothic overtones and vivid color scheme remind me greatly of the work of the Hammer studio on 1958’s Dracula.

Continue reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) →

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Starring Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine, Alon Aboutboul, Ben Mendelsohn, Burn Gorman

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Expectations: High. I expect it to be the worst of the three, but I’m pumped.


[Editor’s note: I’m gonna try to stay spoiler-free, but if want to see it unspoiled you really should just get out there and see it! The comments below I can’t vouch for at this point, but I’m guessing they’ll be spoiler-filled.]

Having just watched all three of Nolan’s Batman films in the space of a few days, I can say one thing definitively: this is an excellent superhero trilogy. Each film has its share of flaws, and I’m of the mind that each subsequent film is worse than the last, but each one is made with supreme skill and care, delivering some of the best films based on comic books we are ever likely to see. It’s a stroke of genius not to adapt any specific Batman story from the comics, instead combining multiple storylines into one cohesive narrative that blends together into a cohesive trilogy. While The Dark Knight feels removed from Batman Begins, like another story about Batman as opposed to a direct sequel, The Dark Knight Rises is a direct sequel to both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

I’m going to forgo my traditional second paragraph plot synopsis because I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone. I went into the film only having seen the first trailer once, and even then I felt like I had seen too much. As it turns out I hadn’t, as the film is nearly three hours long and the trailer seemed to focus on the one scene that I really didn’t care for. It’s set in a football stadium, and while the scene itself is well constructed, I hate the CG FX employed to achieve the big “WOW!” moment. Nolan is, and hopefully always will be, focused on mostly practical FX, and this one moment sticks out among the rest of the realistic explosions and car chases. My fear from seeing this in the trailer was that Bane would bring the pain, not only to Batman and Gotham City in the form of massive destruction, but to me in the form of ugly, painfully obvious CG. Thankfully, everything else was splendidly done, and even this one moment isn’t horrible, but it does look a bit too ridiculous to blend in with the rest of what’s going on visually.

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The Dark Knight (2008)

Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Ron Dean, Chin Han, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Expectations: High. Haven’t watched it since the theater.


[Editor’s note: I may spoil this movie, so if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it and you care, just watch it.]

Let’s just get this out of the way: Batman Begins is the better movie. I’m not trying to stir up controversy or anything, I’m just being realistic. Batman Begins sets up the world of Batman, sets up the character of Batman, sets up your attachment to this version of Batman. The Dark Knight plays off of that and builds on it, but the framework is already there. Also, The Dark Knight isn’t so much a Batman movie as it is a Gotham City movie, so with the focus shifted it allows for something completely different — and awesome — to occur, but I think it’s easy to be wowed by the machinations of The Dark Knight and forget how great that first Batman movie was. I know that’s what happened to me when I saw this in the theater, but watching them both at home in the space of a few days has allowed me to appraise them in a much more realistic way.

So as The Dark Knight is a movie about Gotham and its arc, it has a tendency to become detached from the things that made Batman Begins great. That character connection to Bruce Wayne/Batman is almost non-existent here, but it is replaced by the Joker’s wild brand of anarchy and the noble “White Knight” pursuits of Harvey Dent to finally clean up Gotham City once and for all. This makes The Dark Knight a harder movie to get inside of and feel connected to, but it doesn’t inherently make it a bad movie like it might in the hands of a different director. This is because Gotham and Batman are so closely tied together that in a way Gotham’s story is Batman’s story; Batman is an incorruptible symbol that will do anything necessary to help the city he lives in.

Continue reading The Dark Knight (2008) →

Batman Begins (2005)

Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Rade Serbedzija, Rutger Hauer, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, Mark Boone Junior, Morgan Freeman, Larry Holden

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Expectations: High. This is the third time around with this one.


When I first saw Batman Begins in 2005, I thought it was pretty good. I was impressed by it for sure, and I thought that Christopher Nolan was definitely the right man for the job. I had become a fan of his with Memento, so I was excited to see him ascend to the big leagues of cinema. I re-watched Batman Begins in 2008, right before seeing The Dark Knight in the theater, and found it to be better than I remembered. Re-watching it now, a couple of weeks after the release of the third and final Nolan Batman film, I am absolutely floored by how great it is. Batman Begins is a brilliant piece of work, expertly taking the Batman franchise and elevating it far beyond anything that Burton or Schumacher could have ever dreamed of doing. Nolan did the impossible: he made a Batman film that walks the line between realism and comic book thrills, without ever crossing the line into the schmaltz that categorized every film in the 1989-1997 series.

Batman Begins is exactly what the title suggests, an origin film for Batman. Instead of wasting half the runtime on setting up a villain that will only be vanquished by the end of the film, Batman Begins focuses on what makes Bruce Wayne and Batman tick. Batman doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie, but the story is so thrilling and well told that it doesn’t matter. I know I said in my review of Batman that I loved how they ditched the origin and got straight to the Batman, and I do, but the character setup on display here is flawlessly pulled off. It succeeds in making Batman a psychotic, tortured man with toys, but one that we care deeply about. His arc over the course of the film never lets up, keeping Bruce/Batman always at the forefront of our thoughts. And to have three villains, all of them largely unknown to the public at large, and then to not provide any of them with origins proves definitively that the current superhero movie formula that everyone else uses is null and void. Seriously, have any other filmmakers seen this movie?

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