There won’t likely be a worse tagline this year that “proof is the burden”, the ludicrous sentiment adorning posters of Reasonable Doubt, whose title joins its tagline in attesting the loose grasp of legal terminology the movie maintains, not to mention the loose grasp of logic. But the judicial system, to be fair, isn’t entirely the concern of Peter Howitt’s thriller, though quite what is remains by the time the credits roll a defiant mystery. This is a movie that plays as though it might have been thought up on the spot, its myriad plot twists plucked from the air on the morning of shooting and introduced to the actors moments before their scenes. Would that that were as interesting as it sounds.
Based on a true story, Jamesy Boy tells the story of James Burns who in his teenage years descended into a life of crime and gang violence. During his subsequent imprisonment he discovers hope and humility through writing and follows the advice of a fellow inmate as he tries to slowly turn his life around.
There’s a dead little girl, a victim of a horrible crime whose killer is still on the loose. There’s a suspect who everyone has decided must be guilty. There’s a desperate cop who will stop at nothing to catch the killer. And there’s the little girl’s father, out for revenge and just a taste of solace. If this sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it’s the sort of story you’ve seen played out a million different times with slight variations pasted over it until it hopefully looks like something new.
Big Bad Wolves doesn’t look like anything new; in fact, what it transposes over its basic narrative is also lifted from a variety of sources, barely repurposed and certainly not reimagined with any sense of storytelling, character depth, or style. This is the same old story, told again at a slightly higher volume, as if by the pedantic relative you’re pretending to tune out at a family gathering, if that relative really liked torture.
There are times when a film comes out that is complete rubbish with the exception of one scene. There’s a scene near the end of all-but-forgotten 2013 action film Getaway, starring Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez, where we are shown a tracking shot from the point of view of a car as it weaves in and out of traffic, passing cars and swerving out of the way just in time avoid crashing into a car. It’s a fantastic scene and easily the best part of a movie that is otherwise an over-edited, atrociously written mess. 2012’s Tom Cruise-led Jack Reacher had a magnificent car chase scene, one of the best in recent memory; pity the rest of the film didn’t match its exciting brilliance. The third act of Attack of the Clones almost makes up for the torture we were forced to endure before reaching that spectacular climax. Hell, even Rock of Ages had a pretty legit scene. I could go on.
Martin Scorsese is a master at making compelling films about horrible people. His aim is never particularly to make you feel sympathy for them or to glamorize them but to show the seedy underbelly of society that isn’t often shown in fiction films. Normally, he makes films about low-level gangsters like in Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) or people on the bottom who can’t seem to get up like Taxi Driver (1976) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Occasionally, he’ll make a biopic about a famous lowlife as in Raging Bull (1980) or someone with intense mental instability like The Aviator (2004). His latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street combines much of those themes into one long trek of a film.
The story centers on the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man with a middle-class upbringing who became an enormously rich stockbroker on Wall Street in the late ‘80s through the 90’s. It’s a sex and drug filled cornucopia of excess. Most of what Jordan does is illegal, both on the trading floor and off. He pops Quaaludes like they are candy and snorts cocaine out of prostitute’s various orifices, marries the woman he cheats on his wife with (not illegal but on similar moral standing) and even kinda-sorta offers a bribe to an FBI investigator.
The powerful and complex thriller Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve opens with a scene in the middle of the snowy woods, where the main protagonist, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is out hunting with his teenage son (Dylan Minette). Before they are about to shoot a deer, a prayer can be overheard off-screen. On their way back home, the father gives his son a lecture about being ready for anything, to live with possible consequences and to take actions when necessary. The opening scene and the serious conversation already introduces the audience to the key themes of the film, such as religion and justice.
David’ O’Russell’s American Hustle (2013) is a testament to sincere filmmaking. The charm and affection he displays through his affable characters is recognizable in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), but has never been as fully realized as in this energetic, self-assured portrayal of an American scandal. O’Russell’s sensitivity is today quite unparalleled in Hollywood filmmaking; his unique visual style illustrates a great sensibility for character exposition. While the story itself—though well written—is nothing to write home about, O’Russell’s characters, their relations and interactions amongst one another, and how they present themselves to the world before them set a precedent of earnest filmmaking amongst the 21st century studio system.
The Coen brothers have a real skill for surprise, zigging when everyone expects them to zag. Take their run of films from the mid to late 2000’s. After the underwhelming one-two punch of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they rebounded by winning their first and only Best Picture Oscar in 2007 with No Country for Old Men. The next year saw them making Burn After Reading, which completely befuddled critics on its release; initially dismissed as fun but light fare, the film has over time gained a cult following. Two years later they made True Grit, their greatest commercial success and as close to a “crowd pleaser” as the idiosyncratic brothers have ever made. Nestled between these two came A Serious Man, a small budget film (by Coen standards - it cost $7 million to No Country’s $25 and Burn’s $37) released without much fanfare. It differs largely in tone from the films which surround it, having neither the dourness of No Country or the lighter touch of Burn or True Grit. Of all the brother’s films it probably has the most in common with 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, minus that film’s noir trappings, but in reality it stands as a singular creation. At once small in scale and breathtakingly ambitious, the film finds the Coens in top form as writers and directors. Many will disagree, but for my money A Serious Man is not only the most Coeny Coen brothers film, it’s also the best, and one of the best American films in decades.
“Greed is good,” someone somewhere once said. I can’t remember who. By the time you’re done watching The Wolf of Wall Street, you won’t remember either. Because greed is awful. Just awful.
But oh is it tempting. Temptation really is the theme of this movie, the latest from Martin Scorsese, one of the last American masters still in the business. Working with one of the finest casts he’s ever assembled, from a merciless true-story screenplay by Boardwalk Empire boss Terence Winter, Scorsese draws you into a world of bacchanalian excess and grotesquery, and invites you to excuse all the illegal activity that funds it because… well… damn it looks fun!
Joel and Ethan Coen are masters at creating characters. Their genius lies in how they drive those characters by making them frolic randomly across the screen. The Big Lebowski was made during a really confusing time in history. The Cold War had long thawed out and the real impact of mass communications (the internet) was a palpable topic with the dawn of the Y2K threat. Disenfranchisement was less punk and turned to different expressions through grunge and the loser aesthetic. While the world searched for a new identifier (Who’s the new unifiying threat? We must create the new “in” thing!”), the idea of just going with the flow seemed more appealing than stressing it all out. Anxiety was for the doers, the makers, the innovators, and the corporations. Real life was sitting outside the convenience store, the beach, or by the television watching the world go by. Place The Big Lebowski outside of that mindset though and it still holds up.