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!

Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)

whosthatknocking_1Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)
AKA I Call First

Starring Zina Bethune, Harvey Keitel, Anne Collette, Lennard Kuras, Michael Scala, Harry Northup

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: Moderate and very interested to see where Scorsese began.

twohalfstar


There’s no dispute that Martin Scorsese is one of the great American filmmakers, so watching his debut film for the first time is something of a loaded experience. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is definitely not at the same level of quality that his later films deliver, but it shows flashes of his brilliance throughout (though, surprisingly, no Rolling Stones songs 🙂 ). Harvey Keitel also makes his debut here, so even if it’s not an exceptionally great film, it marks the beginning of two great careers in American cinema.

The story is rather loose and free-flowing, like something of an American take on the French New Wave style. There are also elements of the great neorealist Italian films of the ’50s and ’60s, so Who’s That Knocking at My Door? carries a distinctly European flair while also being rooted deep in its New York setting. While this is interesting and admirable, Scorsese is rather blunt about this, having Keitel go on and on about a picture of John Wayne in The Searchers appearing in a French magazine read by a woman he meets (and later falls in love with). At the time I just thought it was a way of Scorsese slipping in references to movies he liked, Tarantino-style (and it is some of that), but it’s clearly a way to push the film’s American identity forward while also tell us something about the main character’s psyche.

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The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (1996)

typewriterriflemoviecamera_1Starring Samuel Fuller, Tim Robbins, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino

Directed by Adam Simon

Expectations: High.

threehalfstar


The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera tells the story of Sam Fuller through the three tools that defined his character. The typewriter represents his youth spent as a journalist, first as a copy boy and later as a 17-year-old homicide reporter. The rifle represents his time in the army, fighting in World War II from North Africa all the way to the liberation of a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. The movie camera is obvious, and references his time as a director. These experiences combined to deliver a kind of hard-hitting, no-bullshit cinema that no one before or since has quite captured.

This documentary is made all the more vibrant by the participation of three “current-gen” directors (Tim Robbins, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino), one ’70s-era filmmaker (Martin Scorsese), and the man himself, Samuel Fuller. Scorsese offers the wise opinions of an older man who has been deeply affected by the works of Fuller since the age of six when his father took him to see Fuller’s debut film, I Shot Jesse James. Tarantino and Robbins hang out in The Shack, Fuller’s home office in Los Angeles where he kept all his scripts, mementos and artifacts from movies long past. Robbins also serves as interviewer, directly asking Fuller questions. Jarmusch serves a more traditional documentary role: the filmed interview. And Fuller, of course, relates stories from his incredible life and career with the vibrant flare that only he can. He seems visibly excited to be conversing with the youth of Hollywood, and I’m sure it was quite flattering for the aging director to be so well-respected by these young men towards the start of their careers.

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The King of Comedy (1983)

kingofcomedy_1Starring Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Shelley Hack, Margo Winkler, Frederick De Cordova, Ed Herlihy, Lou Brown

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


The experience of watching The King of Comedy felt like looking at a shirt with a single loose thread. At first everything seems perfect, but once you notice the flaw, it’s all you can focus on. Robert De Niro’s character Rupert Pupkin is this thread personified, and as Scorsese pulls him through the film, I wondered how far he would take it. He couldn’t possibly pull the whole shirt apart, could he? The King of Comedy goes in directions I never would have expected, and this is exactly what makes it a riveting experience. It was a flop upon its initial release, but thankfully intrepid film fans have kept this one alive over the years, as it most definitely deserves to be seen.

As good as it is, though, it’s not a film for everyone. The comedy that runs throughout the film is dark and uncomfortable; the type of stuff that you feel bad for laughing at. What makes the comedy so uncomfortable is that Rupert Pupkin is such a sad character at his heart. He’s likeable to a point because De Niro’s inherent charm goes a long way, but with each passing scene Pupkin pushes this boundary further and further towards the edge, daring you to keep following him. He is a fascinating character; a king in his own mind, Pupkin just has to convince everyone else of it.

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Hugo (2011)

Starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: High, but really cautious. Everything I hear sounds good, but whenever I see footage it looks dumb.


OK, I’m going to try and rein in my negativity. I did like Hugo, but I take issue with much of it as a film. With all the film history stuff contained in the film Scorsese is preaching to the choir with me, and I doubt that any kids in the audience are going to take the film’s look back at the life’s work of George Méliès and run with it to their nearest DVD retailer to snatch up a copy of A Trip to the Moon. I don’t know… I think this is another case of me just being too jaded to truly appreciate the film at hand, although I have to say that I don’t think it’s an entirely well made film. For Scorsese to get so much respect for this movie is ridiculous as it shows very little of the clever, powerful director he once was. I have to imagine it’s because this is easily one of the safest and most boringly mainstream movies of his entire career, but hey, I generally hate movies about movies, so your mileage may vary.

Hugo is about a boy name Hugo who lives in the crawlspaces of the train station. He winds the clocks and pretty much keeps to himself, except to steal a little clockwork gear every once in a while. He does this because he’s got an automaton stashed away in his home, and he’s desperately trying to fix it. Despite this fantasy setup, the film is a lot more grounded than you’d expect it to be from the marketing. Don’t get me wrong, everything plays out in somewhat comical, ridiculous ways, but it still feels tied to our reality by all the film history lessons sprinkled throughout.

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Goodfellas (1990)

Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: High. Love it, does it hold up?


If someone were to tell me that they thought Goodfellas was Scorsese’s best film, I really couldn’t argue with them. I might not agree but it is a completely valid position, as Goodfellas is one of the best films of the 1990s and still holds up today. The film is just as skillfully made as you remember it being, 20 years later. Goodfellas opens in the middle of the story, in the middle of a scene even, after some minimalist but effective Saul Bass titles. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci drive through the dark of night when strange sounds come from the back of the car. They pull over and open the trunk, revealing a bloody mess of a man. Joe Pesci violently stabs him repeatedly before De Niro opens fire. Liotta chimes in via voiceover, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” This scene serves as an introduction to the film, but repeat viewers will recognize it also as one of the most important moments in these character’s lives, defining and shaping everything that ultimately comes to each of them.

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Shutter Island (2010)

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Patricia Clarkson

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: High.


Scorsese’s first film back after winning Best Picture and Director for The Departed is Shutter Island, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name. Much as I’d like not to say it, Scorsese’s best films are behind him but Shutter Island is still leagues better than your traditional mainstream fare. His last truly great film in my eyes was Kundun, a long 13 years ago, and while Shutter Island doesn’t even come close to its level, it shows that he still holds the power to make a good film.

The story follows Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall from Boston played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) as they make their way to Ashecliff Hospital. Their case is to find Rachel Solando, a patient that somehow escaped from her cell and has gone missing. I will leave it at that as a good portion of the fun comes from unraveling the mystery.

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