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Leonardo DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in his role in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Just Another Wolf on Wallstreet

There’s an old French idiom that describes an overly ambitious person as one who has long teeth. “The Wolf of Wall Street” has long teeth. Jordan Belfort, the stockbroker whose life story inspired the film, was found guilty of manipulating the stock market and defrauding investors through a brokerage company called Stratton Oakmont.

Martin Scorsese, nominated for an Oscar for “Best Director” for the film, is a master of documenting how people get themselves into trouble, and DiCaprio’s character may be his most obnoxious troublemaker so far.

The film showcases quite a bit of slow-motion shots featuring financial brokers in drug-induced deliriums, accompanied by background opera music. Not to mention, the movie comes with a ton of swearing (Variety Magazine reported that “The Wolf of Wall Street” used the word f*** more than any feature film ever made.) The film’s comedy is instantly gratifying—just like the protagonist’s moneymaking schemes must have been – while at the same time leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

The film isn’t about DiCaprio’s character’s overindulgence in drugs, women, or boats. It’s about a powerful man who is crippled by his ad dictions. His obsession with money is nothing new; DiCaprio’s character is a younger, more carefree and glamorous version of Gordon Gekko (whose signature line was: “greed, for lack of a better word, is good”).

“The Wolf of Wall Street,” for lack of a better word, is good. It was recently nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Motion Picture,” among other honors. However, these nominations may have been awarded thanks to a well-timed release. While Dicaprio’s character made his mistakes in the 90s, it is fitting to watch bankers messing up in the post-recession era.

While Belfort’s fixation on money is nothing new, the film calls attention to the public’s lack of concern towards the boring, technical side of financial ethics. The script often has the protagonist beginning to explain complex financial terms to the audience only to stop midway through, declaring that all we want to see is the naked girls, drugs, and money anyways. This theme is repeated at the end of the film, when the FBI agent that led the investigation against Belfort flips through the newspaper to discover that the story about Belfort’s conviction is just a short blurb in the business section. It is likely that this incident truly occurred when the real Belfort, who is now a motivational speaker, was convicted. Not many people took notice.

The public did take notice of Hollywood’s depiction of the event though, and the movie has already grossed more than $175 million worldwide. You’re probably going to want to watch this film just because everyone’s talking about it. Go ahead, satisfy your curiosity, and just don’t bring high expectations or grandma with you to the theater.

Anchorman 2

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” Does Not Disappoint

With the explosive success of “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” fans were left with high expectations for the second film of the Ron Burgundy series.

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” offers the same outrageously funny, and often non sequitur dialogue that made the first film such a unique success. When asked if there was any pressure to make the sequel better, director Adam McKay said, “There was no pressure, we just had to make each other laugh. It had to be sort of free form. You can never recreate the first movie; there will always be something about that first one that’s unique to it. We just tried to make it decent. We didn’t want to have the big giant let down of ‘Ahh they just redid the first one,’ which is what I think lead to some epic choices.” The epic choices McKay refers to are the all-new setting of New York City, and surprise cameo appearances of Hollywood’s finest to make the film a new classic all its own.

The dynamic between McKay and Will Ferrell certainly attests to a new era of comedy. There is an obvious dedication to plot that reigns through the film. The sequel takes into account the shift in media, from strong newscasts to fluff shows on television. “We thought it would be funny to make Ron Burgundy responsible for the entire change of news media,” adds McKay. Along with satirical commentary on media, the film covered topics such as sexism and racial bias as seen through the eyes of Ron Burgundy’s misogynistic news team.

In short, “Anchorman 2” is a must see. While aiming to break away from the first film’s success, the sequel does, however, include the many quirks that just had to be included in order to serve the series justice. Expect ridiculous situations, glorious battles between newsmen, and an epic mustache that seems to have gotten fluffier over time.

(Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The odds are far from Katniss Everdeen’s favor in the second installment of “The Hunger Games” series.  Back in District 12, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) prepares for the “Victory Tour,” following her win in the previous 74th Hunger Games. She discovers that her defiance of the Capitol in the previous film has ignited a rebellion throughout the nation’s districts. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) pays visit to District 12 to instruct Katniss that she need not only convince each district of her love for Peeta as the reason for her actions but also convince Snow himself.

“Remember who the real enemy is,” the phrase of mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), sets the tone for the 75th annual Hunger Games Quarter Quell. The last stop on the “Victory Tour” leaves Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in the Capitol. This time they are thrown back into yet another Hunger Games, only to be surrounded by fellow victors of earlier games.

The supporting cast features a number newcomers to the film. Sam Clafin (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) as Finnick Odair, and Jena Malone (“Sucker Punch,” “Donnie Darko”) as Johanna Mason bring a sense of danger to their roles as they form an alliance with Jeffrey Wright (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Casino Royale”) and Amanda Plummer (“Pulp Fiction”) as the eccentric and genius characters Beetee and Wiress.  Actress Elizabeth Banks, portrays the role of Effie Trinket as seen in the first movie, but this time we see the injustices infringed upon her and how much she truly cares for the victors.

I recommend viewers to watch the film in IMAX to enhance the experience.

Although the first “Hunger Games” movie remained true to its book, “Catching Fire” captured Suzanne Collins’ story like no other sequel movie has done. Often, literature adaptations fail to embody the very essence of the story itself, and in doing so fail to succeed in reviews. “Catching Fire” encompassed all the elements of the book: action, sacrifice, emotion, and a looming sense of danger.

“Catching Fire” played in 4,163 locations in North America, dominating the box office during opening weekend. Lionsgate increased the budget to an estimated $140 million; the first movie had a set budget of $78 million. This budget went into visual effects, use of IMAX cameras, and due to the sequel’s story line, more expansive filming was needed.

I recommend viewers to watch the film in IMAX to enhance the experience. Each scene is deeper and darker, and the surround sound will throw you off your seat. It will be as if you entered the film itself.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

“Nebraska”: A Successful Black and White Midwestern Film of 2013

Watching “Nebraska,” the new film from director Alexander Payne, is a bit like flying home to visit your family at Christmas. You’ll laugh, you’ll get weepy, you’ll love till it hurts, and you’ll probably — more than once — feel an intense desire to punch someone in the face. “Nebraska,” in short, takes every emotion and experience of a family get-together and paints them liberally, with both Midwestern grit and artistic nuance, into a breezy 110-minute film. It’s deliriously good.

The film stars acting legend Bruce Dern (you may recognize him from a brutal cameo in “Django Unchained”) as Woody Grant, a crotchety, increasingly senile old man on a mission: to get from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim $1 million from one of those bogus sweepstake ads. Along the way, he visits his rapidly disappearing hometown in addition to his equally antiquated extended family. Dern carries the film with equal parts hardheaded swagger and fragile vulnerability: a role that truly shows his talents as an actor. Dern won a well-deserved Palm d’Or, the highest prized award, at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance. I’ll be shocked if he isn’t considered an Oscar frontrunner.

Despite his lofty win, Dern spoke humbly about his achievement as a reflection of the entire film, praising writer Bob Nelson’s script: “The French — they got it, which surprised me because they’re reading subtitles…You just do the story; the story’s on the page.”

The film is shot in black and white, which, although probably not essential, does give the viewer the sense of the stark, disappearing Midwest.

The film also stars Will Forte as David Grant, Woody’s youngest son, who agrees to drive him to Nebraska. Forte, best known for his wacky characters and impersonations on “Saturday Night Live,” proves that he is perfectly capable of providing some seriousness. His performance is completely genuine, and I look forward to seeing more of him in similar roles.

Fortunately, despite getting teased from Dern (“He’s out in Cloudy with Meatballs Part Two — I mean, how dramatic do you want him to be?”), Forte seemed enthusiastic about this change of pace for his career. “I’m really so proud to be in this movie. I would love to have more opportunities like this,” said Forte.

The supporting cast is top notch as well. June Squibb plays Kate Grant — Woody’s wife and David’s mother — a foul-mouthed, miserably married woman dealing with Woody’s dementia and pig-headedness. Squibb is a true, live wire.

Stacy Keach also makes a memorable appearance as the scheming Ed Peagram, Woody’s old business partner. Despite acting pleasant and pleased for Woody, Peagram quickly takes advantage of him, trying to weasel out a cut of the money. When asked if either of them had experienced a similar kind of pressure, Forte and Dern had differing responses. Forte complimented his friends and explained his growing ability to choose the right people with whom to spend time: “I have a wonderful group of friends. You just kind of evolve as a friend-chooser.” Dern, however, has gotten plenty of requests. “Can you get me an interview with him? Can I meet Jack [Nicholson]? They press their advantage.” Dern also admitted, with a wry smile, of being “just as much a whore as anybody.” He once crossed off Harry Dean Stanton’s name from a casting director’s register and put his own name down, taking Stanton’s prime 3 o’clock slot.

Overall, “Nebraska” is excellent at creating comedy out of everyday family experiences. Nothing feels forced and most of the jokes are simple — the kind of thing that would naturally happen and cause a quick giggle to ripple across a dinner table. (You couldn’t keep a straight face if you heard a karaoke version of “In the Ghetto” at a cheap steakhouse, could you?) The obvious contrast between Woody’s sons and his Nebraskan relatives also provides some of the funniest moments in the film, as does Woody’s increasingly poor ability to pay attention.

The film is shot in black and white, which, although probably not essential, does give the viewer the sense of the stark, disappearing Midwest. It also contributes to the difficult relationship between Woody and his son. Alexander Payne’s film is very nuanced, with nearly every shot set up to provide artistic or emotional depth. It is a graceful film, full of warmth and heart, and one that anyone could and should enjoy.

Rating: ★★★★★

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

D. Jon

Don Jon Pushes the Envelope

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s film “Don Jon” premiered last week on Sept. 27. The actor—now making his directorial debut—described the film as his “project” that he has been working on for a few years, and endearingly welcomed the criticism of the audience.

Don Jon’s interesting opening credit sequence—consisting of sexy clips taken from game shows, commercials, and music videos intertwined with the names of the cast members—set the tone for the film ahead.  Having been roused, audience members seemed to inch closer to the screen as they awaited the much anticipated reveal of Levitt’s character Jon, a New Jersey resident and quasi-porn addict who is obviously bemused when it comes to love, relationships and meaningful personal connections as a whole.

The film keeps its audience members on their toes, as it offers humorous scenarios of nightclub escapades and sex from the point of view of the modern man.  While the film gives the initial impression of being a romantic comedy, it does not pause to sway away from the typical romantic clichés.  Although there are scenes reminiscent of the typical meet-cute, Levitt is quick to satirize the idea of “sailing off into the sunset” through Jon’s moments as the film’s narrator.

With that said, as opposed to gooey sentiments of love, motifs of sex, manipulation and objectification reign wild throughout the film.  Scarlett Johansson offers a convincing role—alongside her spot-on New Jersey accent—in which she portrays the sexy vixen who catches our protagonist’s eye.  While Johansson serves as the main eye candy for the film, her role does not end there.  Rather she serves as a symbol for the objectification of women and the impossible fantasy that exists in nearly every man’s soul.

It is clear that Levitt has been inspired by his own career in the limelight and his perception of how society now interacts with one another.  Numerical ratings of women, and men being described as “sexy beasts” throughout the movie calls to attention how we value relationships in the modern world.  Amidst the comedy, there seems to be a stressor on the idea that we rarely interact with each other beyond superficial situations.

The film is in a way similar to 500 Days of Summer—which also stars Levitt—in that it revolves around the hope of achieving love, but touches upon the inevitability that one must overcome their own misconceptions before achieving it.

Alongside the audience’s laughter and cheers, there was an air of understanding; Don Jon is relatable in that we all experience the fantasy of love followed by a crushing realization that our perception of someone or something is false.  This awareness seems to be happening at a slower pace now that we have the perks of media to dull our sense of reality.

In short, Don Jon is simply a breath of fresh air amongst the trite films of today.  Offering subtle, yet articulate commentary on everyday situations, Levitt shows great promise throughout his debut. If this movie is any indication of his success beyond acting, it appears like he’ll be heading into the world of directing and screenwriting with great vigor.

Insidious: Chapter 2 Flops as a Horror Movie

Courtesy of FilmDistrict

Courtesy of FilmDistrict

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell teamed up again to revisit the tale of the Lambert Family.  Earlier this summer, Wan released The Conjuring which is arguably one of the best horror films of the year, so needless to say I had high expectations.

Packs of teens and college students gathered at the AMC Metreon on Market Street to see the late night premiere of Insidious: Chapter 2 Thursday evening. The sequel takes place almost instantly from which it left off with the Lambert’s still questioning their predicament of housing two members of the family that can somehow communicate with the paranormal world.

As a horror film, Insidious: Chapter 2 had all the clichés: cellar doors that would mysteriously open, lamps that flicker on and off, and of course, a bride dressed in black who has beef with the protagonist.  What the movie lacks in horror, the actors make up for in performance, setting them apart from the usual mindless screaming and running.  Patrick Wilson, returning as Josh Lambert,  gave a chilling performance of a man gone mad.  Creepy smiles for the win! And Rose Byrne, returning as Mrs. Lambert, still maintained her character of a panicked mother.

With that said, it is clear that as a director, Wan is trying to add his personal touch to the horror industry.  Unsteady camera movements, obscure perspectives, and an eerie grey shadow looming over the cast members are just a few quirks that I’ve noticed in nearly all of Wan’s films.  In addition, he seems to favor superfluous dialogue, as if to add a more realistic effect. Much of the movie’s conversations consisted mostly of small talk or characters talking to themselves as we would in everyday life.

It should also be noted that Wan and Whannell pay close attention to the detail and structure of a story.  The two movies intertwine with each other in a way that I’ve never seen done before in a horror film.  Personally, I feel it’s something to marvel at considering the lack of ingenuity amongst horror films today.  Many directors seem to forget the importance of a good story when they’re trying to satiate their audience’s thirst for blood and guts.  The combination of both a good story and horror is what makes a great scare film, which is why I think the Saw saga was so successful amongst horror lovers.

It’s embarrassing to say that most of the audience’s reactions throughout the premiere consisted of laughs and scoffs.  The film’s PG-13 rating didn’t seem to help either. I believe that many movie goers, including myself, would assert that good scary movies are usually rated R.  Maybe the film could have cut it as a thriller or suspense, but as a horror, Insidious: Chapter 2 simply dropped the ball when it came to scaring the audience.