Sunday, March 31, 2013

Wolf of Wall Street Book Review

           Imagine a life working on Wall Street for an investment firm making millions faster than you can say “stock broker” and spending it just as quickly without a care in the world, knowing you’ll make more in due time.  Thus begins the autobiographical novel “The Wolf of Wall Street” by Jordan Belfort.  Belfort is a Long Island stockbroker who gets caught up in the world of power and greed.  The opulent life he lives with his trophy wife in his lavish mansion an hour outside the city soon falls to pieces ultimately due to corruption.  The film adaptation will be released in November, however the novel is a page-turner and we can only hope that the movie does Belfort’s tale justice.

            Belfort’s tale begins with his rise to power from day one at the Stratton Oakmont investment firm, and takes us through how the world of stockbrokers functions.  Hotel bills by the hundreds of thousands of dollars, hookers and private jet planes to anywhere in the world are just mundane aspects of the Wall Street lifestyle.  With a life full of scandal, drugs and wealth, Belfort could use his monetary power to make people do what he wanted when he wanted and evade anything that comes his way.    However, even someone as sly as a wolf can’t get his way out of everything. 

            Reading “The Wolf of Wall Street” was quite the experience.  Belfort’s descriptions of everything-from the boardroom’s everyday atmosphere to what his home is like with his beautiful wife (whom he refers to as the Duchess)-are beyond fathomable.  Lunches at restaurants where the bill for a few people run into thousands of dollars to wristwatches that cost millions are part of everyday life for Belfort.  He had such an obscene amount of money and was able to do whatever he wanted with it.  I was astounded by everything he did and how carelessly he would go through money.  And if the way he lived wasn’t crazy enough, his drug addiction was ridiculous.  He goes into detail with how many pills he would take of certain drugs, and what lengths he would go to just to make sure he wouldn’t go through withdrawal.

            Lord Acton one said, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Jordan Belfort’s life can justify Lord Acton, as he goes from partying all the time to doing time.  In the midst of a ruined marriage, a drug addiction and a pump-and-dump scheme, Belfort’s wild life leads him into federal crime and debts off the charts. 

            Martin Scorsese took on the challenge of making Belfort’s autobiography a movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the scrupulous stockbroker along with Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill and Julie Andrews.  I anticipate seeing the outcome, as I didn’t want to put the book down.  I recommend “The Wolf of Wall Street” for anyone who wants a first-hand account of the criminal side of Wall Street, along with those looking for a good read.  His tale epitomizes the highest highs and lowest lows you can go through in his position; everything is beyond excess in a way no one could make up.  I was immediately captivated and couldn’t put his book down.  “The Wolf of Wall Street” has definitely become one of my favorite books.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Oz" was Great AND Powerful

This winter was the release of Disney’s latest film “Oz the Great and Powerful.”  Based off of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series and as the prequel to the 1939 “The Wizard of Oz,” this film further explores the fantasy Land of Oz.  Audience members get to see how expansive it really is, as “Oz” is a feast for the eyes.  It awakened aesthetic appreciation I didn’t know I had. 

Director Sam Raimi takes on this heavily weighted project.  Previously the director of the Spiderman movies and many action TV series such as “Spartacus,” Raimi takes on a big task of reviving a classic while adding some distinct flare to it. 

Upon seeing the trailer for this film last fall, I was reluctant to express my excitement.  I grew up with “The Wizard of Oz” and I was nervous that the 2013 predecessor to the movie almost seventy-five years older than it was going to be a massive train wreck.  However, I was delightfully surprised to find that this film was not a disappointment. 

The film starts out with opening credits reminiscent of a nickelodeon from the 1930’s in sepia (very similar to its predecessor “The Wizard of Oz”), as it takes place in 1905 Kansas.  Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) is a small-town magician, looking to make it big with his sleight of hand tricks and prestidigitation.  His petty attempts to achieve fame and build up a fortune knock him down constantly.  His partner (Zach Braff) Frank loses faith as him as his ethics weaken and he slowly becomes nothing. 

When a tornado hits the circus, Oz takes flight in a flying air balloon that transports him to a Technicolor wonderland. Literally.  He shortly meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who informs him that he must be the wizard whose arrival will fulfill the prophesy of killing the bad witch and bring the Land of Oz back to its glory.  Even though Oz doesn’t possess the magic that the people of Oz think he has, he agrees to help in order to become king, once he kills the witch.  Before he knows it, Oz is thrown into a fantasy land where anything is possible, and becomes caught between three feuding sister witches, Theodora, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams). 

For what it was worth, “Oz” was absolutely spectacular.  The sets Disney used seemed infinite, as the Land of Oz unfolded before me in the theatre.  Nothing pleased me more than watching James Franco fumble through the beautiful Land of Oz for two hours.  It was the perfect combination of the charm from the old film while incorporating the technology of the 21st century to expand upon everything.  Everywhere in the Land of Oz went in the film had its own style, especially the art-deco Emerald City.   

The costumes were elaborate as well.  Each character had one that reflected their personality, which is important.  If costuming is done wrong, then it is harder to relate to certain characters and understand why they behave in certain ways.  I was most impressed with Williams’ dress, which was simple but beautiful.  Make-up also reflected the personalities of the characters; the darker the eye-shadow, the less you were able to trust the characters for what they were up to. 

Compared to the 1939 film, “Oz” was a lot darker.  Everything wasn’t all singing scarecrows, ruby slippers and talking apple trees.  The special effects used were rather impressive.  Animated creatures were fantastic; the animators who created them were very detail-oriented as everything was so perfect. 

The cinematographic aspects of “Oz” were closely linked to that of “The Wizard of Oz.”  Most significantly, the film goes from a full-screen sepia experience and then turns into a full-screen Technicolor work of art.  The sound effects also shift from a mono-aural to surround sound experience. 

Franco makes it to Oz via tornado, like Dorothy in the 1939 film.  Characters in the Kansas part of the film also do cameos in the Oz portion (for example, Braff and Williams).  Producers snuck in the nuances of the classic characters the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion.  Glinda does travel by bubbles.  Williams wears a gingham dress in the film, the same pattern as Dorothy does.  Munchkin-Landers do indeed sing and dance (or at least attempt to until James Franco cuts them off).  The evil witches do indeed send flying monkeys upon the people of Oz to unleash havoc beyond what the 1939 film could do effect-wise. 

Most iconic, although it is not mentioned in the film, the characters continually travel along a yellow brick road.  If you pay attention enough to these nuances, you will be able to find them, and potentially more than what I had picked up. 

Due to Warner Brothers Pictures’ rights, Disney was unable to rebirth some of the more iconic aspects of “The Wizard of Oz.”  For instance, no reference or use of the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore is present.  Disney wasn’t able to use the exact shade of green for the witch’s make-up either from the original film.  However, their legal department was able to arrange for a slightly different color to be used called theostein. 

The casting for the film was pretty fair.  James Franco doesn’t take away from the film.  I found it very entertaining seeing him traveling through Oz, and I can’t see any actors playing the role of Oz and doing as good of a job as he did.  Although Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were both offered the leading role, I think they would have been too old to bring the gentle charm Franco offers.  The supporting actors and actresses were fit for the roles they portrayed.  I was particularly impressed with Mila Kunis, as her presence in the film made her become a more versatile actress in my mind. 

While watching “Oz” I forgot that I was watching a Disney film.  It is far from what I would expect Disney Studios to produce, which was a nice change from what normally comes out of there.  “Oz” takes on a dark, mature persona that will keep audiences captivated. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why We Quote Films

             How many times have you stood on your porch and screamed, “I’m the king of the world!” Or wandered around in the dark and uttered “I have a bad feeling about this?”  How about reassuring your mopey best friend that “you aren’t dying; you just can’t think of anything better to do?” Often, we incorporate movie lines into everyday life, keeping the spirit of film alive.   
I find myself quoting movies countless times daily. I’ll admit I go beyond solely that. I’ve ran miles in a garbage bag like Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook.” I’ve rocked a Gryffindor scarf and crazy wavy hair like Emma Watson from the Harry Potter films. I own an aviator jacket, scarf and shades similar to the ones Leonardo DiCaprio wears in “the Aviator” so I can charade as Howard Hughes at my leisure. I even carry around a lightsaber in my bag just in case, and enjoy singing and dancing in a rainstorm.  Even when part of a film can be such a nuanced one, using the right one at the right time brings us closer to the silver screen.
Quoting movies are an inside joke between the film and me-rather, the film and the viewer. Anyone who understands the reference or has seen the motion picture is in on it. However, when no one else laughs and I am stuck looking awkward for my allegedly irrelevant commentary, then I’m on my own.
    Comparing film to life has become an enormous aspect of how I approach things.  With every bad scene, there is a new one coming up. However, unlike film, life isn’t scripted. We have to “take life as it comes at us, to make each day count.” so, why do we choose to place someone else’s words into our own moments of victory or moments of pain? Why do we choose to cite something already there instead of making up our own lines to describe our highest highs, and our lowest lows?
    Let’s take a look at the evolution of quoting. In general, it isn’t something new-the first thing that anyone quoted was the Bible. In the fifteenth century, the invention of the printing press caused the literacy rate to skyrocket. Once the majority of people were reading, the Bible was the go-to source to quote. People were able to reassert their religious knowledge.  
Four hundred years later, the radio was invented and radio shows became popular. Programs like “The Shadow” were put on to listen to. Eventually, the line "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" became submersed into pop culture. By 1933, sixty percent of American households had radios and tuned in weekly to hear their favorite program.   
Quotable quotes from the radio then evolved into television ones. Lines like “what’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” (from Different Strokes) and “No soup for you!” (from Seinfeld) became fads and are still used today.  
Now, quoting movies is the current thing to do. Lines become trends; they are born from a film and once they reach their height, they either become a lexicon for the average vocabulary, or fade back to the film from whence they came.  
Certain phrases from movies define an event of life or create more meaning to situations we face. For example, if someone says “we’re gonna need a bigger boat,” the reference to “Jaws” is a boating movie icon. Or when you hear “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “The Godfather” is immediately what comes to mind. Later gangster films use this mentality when telling a story.  John Belushi’s shouting “TOGA! TOGA!” from “National Lampoon’s Animal House” is quite often incorporated into movies about college life. Students even hold toga parties today in their dorms on campuses everywhere. “It’s in the hole!” from Caddyshack has become the lexicon for golf motion pictures. Iconic phrases become the lexicon for a movie  genre.  
Even “to be or not to be” from Hamlet is so often used. The four hundred year old quote is the most famous one of Shakespeare’s, as the matter of action versus inaction can be posed for virtually any situation.  
The reason to why we quote films has actually become an interest for one professor, as he investigated why we quote films. Richard Harris, a psychology professor at Kansas State University has analyzed this. He has done extensive research on young adults’ memories of watching movies. By citing films in everyday life, you can make things more tangible to others. It is similar to telling a joke, even. Harris says “people are doing it to feel good about themselves, to make others laugh, to make themselves laugh.”
"Almost everybody has a very good memory for something," Harris said. Some people are hardwired to remember mathematical equations. Others are best at remembering every country in the world and its capital. If one can pull a line from a staged situation into a real life situation and apply it appropriately, then a film (or a portion of it) has impacted an individual only so much.  
By quoting films, we once more become a part of escapism, which is defined as the avoidance of reality through absorption of the mind in entertainment.   Even though the moment is brief, we are connected to the film and temporarily escape reality through our own words. 
            Only few things can bring people together. Aspects of life such as food, music, books, and now film are the most universal parts of pop culture. Movie quotes unify people, now more than ever. So the next time you say “there’s no place like home” or advise someone to “keep their friends close, but their enemies closer,” you’re keeping alive the trend of quoting iconic movies. Every day, lines like these are becoming increasingly immersed into our culture.

Silver Linings Playbook

            Released last November was David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel Silver Linings Playbook.  This rom-com/drama stars the handsome Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano, a young man mentally recovering from his divorce.  Anyone who has read Quick’s novel should see the film adaptation, and vice versa.  Audiences will find this film simply charming and inspiring. 

The film starts with his return home from a mental institution to live with his parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro)-a superstitious Eagles fan.  Between therapy sessions and coping with bipolar disorder, Pat meets a troubled widow, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) through a mutual friend.  She promises to help Pat communicate with his ex-wife under one condition-he dances with her for a competition.  With Pat Sr. pulling him back into the family in an almost sick way and Tiffany’s endeavor to make Pat a five-star dancer, this feel-good film is delightful, as we see Bradley Cooper struggle. 

Audiences will cheer for Pat as he gets through his “apart time.”  We cannot help but feel empathy for Pat.  Cooper offers a moving performance, proven so by his Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for this role.  His on-screen chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence is simply wonderful. 

The film is up for eight Academy Awards this year: Best Director (Russell), Best Motion Picture, Best Actor (Cooper), Best Actress (Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (de Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Weaver), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best  Editing. 

This is David Russell’s second nomination from the Academy for best director, the first being for his critically acclaimed film The Fighter.  His previous films have made quite the impressions at film festivals, especially Silver Linings Playbook. This film in particular hit home for him; he was inspired by his son’s reforming school to take up the project.  Russell’s son is bipolar and has OCD and attends the Devereaux Glenholme School in Connecticut, and the film’s theme of recovering and rediscovering one’s self became especially tangible.  "I was so familiar with the issues in the story that I knew how emotional and funny and original it could be,” said Russell. “Without this community I would never have made this film."   His motley crew of actors is so diverse, but they complement each other so naturally.

Bradley Cooper in the past has been known for being in comedies, such as The Wedding Crashers, The Hangover, and Failure to Launch.  Outside of Limitless and The Words we haven’t seen too much of a serious Cooper.  Silver Linings Playbook will definitely open up doors for his career, as we see Pat struggle and express a range of emotions wider than the Pacific Ocean.  His performance was outstanding, and even though there is a some tough competition for Best Actor he has a shot just as good as the rest of the nominees. 

Jennifer Lawrence shines in Silver Linings Playbook.  After seeing her previous performances in Hunger Games and House at the End of the Street, I wasn’t confident her career could ever flourish.  Solely being pretty and young can only get you so far in Hollywood.  After seeing her in Silver Linings Playbook, I have higher hopes for this Golden Globe winning actress.  This film just might be her game changer. 

The Australian actress Jacki Weaver is known as a symbol for the Australian New Wave that began in the 1970’s and was nominated by the American Film Institute for her performance in Caddy.  Us Americans know her best for her roles in Animal Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook, both of which she has been nominated for the Academy Award of Best Supporting Actress. Though she is up against other Oscar veterans for her category, she might take home the award. 

Robert de Niro is a true icon of the silver screen, as he is a director, actor and producer.  De Niro has been in films varying from The Godfather: Part II and Taxi Driver to Meet the Parents and Raging Bull.  He has won two Academy Awards as an actor in the past and nominated for seven.  Winning for his roles in The Godfather : Part II as best supporting actor and Raging Bull as best actor, he has the best track record of the actors nominated in this film to take home an award.  He is up against Christoph Waltz is in his category, who won the Golden Globe for his appearance in Django Unchained for Best Supporting Actor. 

The Academy was especially generous this, year considering the four leads got nominated for their roles in this film.  This is the first time a film has gotten nominations in these four categories since 1981 in the film Reds.  Many films in the past have filled up three of these four categories, but for a movie to receive a nomination in each category is a rarity.  Only thirteen films in the past have done it, and none have been successful in conquering these categories across the board.  If Silver Linings Playbook can, it will be the first time in Oscar history.  There is a .0016 chance this will happen, and a .0004 chance they will win all four PLUS film of the year.

Among its pending nominations, Silver Linings Playbook is also the first "Big Five" (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Writing) nominee since Million Dollar Baby

As the film progressed, I fell more and more in love with every character.  The four Oscar nominated actors complimented each other so flawlessly.  De Niro, Cooper, Lawrence and Weaver kept the plot flowing naturally as their relationships on screen flourished.

Silver Linings Playbook really shows that you can find the solutions to ones problems in the most unlikely places and through people you wouldn’t expect.  Every cloud has a silver lining; you just have to find it. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Gangster Squad Review

Ruben Fleisher’s film Gangster Squad hit theaters last month.  This film got more hype than it deserved, but it had so much potential to be better than it actually was.  A phenomenal cast was pieced together consisting of Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte and Ryan Gosling.  With the director of Zombieland working with these critically acclaimed actors, one could not expect such a recipe for disaster.  
 Gangster Squad is the story of Mickey Cohen’s (Penn) gang activity in 1950’s Los Angeles.  Cohen was known for his ruthless mob activity with the Jewish Mafia, along with the American Mafia.  The LAPD led by Chief Parker (Nolte) enlists Sergeant O’Mara (Brolin) to assemble a team of policemen in hope of taking down Cohen and his mob.
 As far as the dialogue goes for this film, it could have been so much better, considering the roster Fleisher had to work with.  The script was terrible as all emotion was sucked out of lines that should have made the film more thrilling.  Although the “film noir” air mustered up on screen calls for hard-boiled dialogue, it felt more forced than natural.  One of the officers O’Mara hires, Jerry Wooters (Gosling) gets swept into an affair with the beautiful etiquette coach of Cohen.  The sub-plot of his affair with Grace Faraday (Stone) was disappointing.  Compared to the on-screen chemistry Gosling and Stone had in Crazy Stupid Love, they had nothing in Gangster Squad.  Stone does a decent job at portraying the damsel-in-distress stereotype.  
The typical crime-drama stereotypes are seen in this film, but sadly aren’t expanded upon.    Nick Nolte, who played Chief Bill Parker, got little to no screen time, which is simply a waste of talent.  The result of this film was wasted talent and wasted potential in what could have been a good film noir.    
For what the film had to offer, the costumes and make-up were well done.  Stone’s appearance displayed an accurate interpretation for the “femme fatale” stereotype.  Penn spent three hours every day getting ready for the film.  The result was impressive, but sadly make-up alone couldn’t bring this film back on its feet with regards to the plot.  
 Another redeeming quality of this film was its soundtrack.  Any fan of The Aviator’s soundtrack will love it, as I bought it the night I saw the film.  Featuring classic artists such as Peggy Lee, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, you can’t go wrong with this upbeat compilation of 1950’s jazz music.
 Overall, Gangster Squad was a disappointing guppy of a film in a sea of box-office hits.  It is only worth the twelve dollar movie ticket if you are looking for something to do to pass the time.  The positive aspects of Gangster Squad don’t necessarily outweigh the bad.  Pure satisfaction would only be guaranteed if you watched the film with no dialogue and only the soundtrack playing in the background.  Only then would aesthetics will take over for the better as the dialogue is completely eliminated.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

Celebrity Profile: Jennifer Lawrence

Last month at the Academy Awards, twenty-two year old Jennifer Lawrence took home the Oscar for best actress.  Her portrayal of the troubled widow Tiffany Maxwell in “Silver Linings Playbook” was brilliant as it proved her versatility.  Although she is internationally known for bringing Katniss Everdeen to life from the “Hunger Games” series, there is much more to Lawrence than these two roles.

Of recently, Lawrence has been getting lots of attention for her presence at the Oscars ceremony.  She looked elegant that evening wearing a light pink Dior Haute Couture ball gown with a string of diamonds draped backwards down her back.  Compared to how she looked in the past, Lawrence appeared very grown-up.  She had finally found a look that reflects her successful awards record. 

Her reaction to everything that night was so natural.  A celebrity amongst celebrities (Oscar Winners at that) she was star struck.  Seeing someone in her position so genuinely excited was refreshing.  Lawrence was so caught up in the moment of winning an Academy Award, and she didn’t let her ego get to her.  From having Jack Nicholson crash her post-Oscar interview to falling up the stars to receive her Oscar (where, to her excitement, Hugh Jackman helped her up!), she remained graceful. 

Surprisingly, as a child Lawrence never took any drama classes or acting lessons.  She participated in her local theatre growing up.  When she was fourteen, she decided she wanted to pursue a career in acting, and convinced her parents to sojourn to New York City for her to get an agent.  Once they found one, Lawrence managed to graduate from high school two years early in order to get a jump start on her career. 

Although may people recognize her solely as Katniss from the film adaptation of Suzanne Collin’s “Hunger Games” trilogy, she has had other acting gigs beforehand.  Her first big break was a regular cast member on the Bill Engvall Show, which won her the Young Artist Award for Outstanding Young Performer in a TV Series.  Her on-screen presence here brought her recognition as an actress with potential.  Lawrence’s career picked up as she was cast in “The Garden Party,” “The Poker House” and “The Burning Plain.”

“Winter’s Bone” was the breakthrough in J-Law’s career.  In this American indie film, her portrayal as Ree Dolly proved herself as a strong actress.  Countless awards and nominations from the Academy, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes showed the world that Lawrence has an ability to take on diverse, challenging roles. And do a good job at it, at that. 

In 2012, Lawrence appeared in three films.  The first, “The Hunger Games” launched her into international stardom.  Highly successful, the remaining part of this franchise is sure to make waves in theatres as she returns next to Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth.

Sadly, “House at the End of the Street” was a failure, in general and as a horror film.  With a clich├ęd storyline and a terrible script, I could easily argue this was a comedy. Definitely limiting Lawrence, I had little hope that her career would be able to pick up beyond “Hunger Games.”

However, “Silver Linings Playbook” was the game changer for J-Law.  With a crapshoot of a career thus far, this film confirmed my belief that the young actress has potential.  Among the talents of Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, her performance was captivating.  The challenging role was anything but overlooked, considering the Golden Globe and Oscar she received from it. 

With a down-to-earth attitude about her, I can proudly say I consider J-Law a role model for me, especially after her Academy Award ceremony antics.  She is the youngest actress to receive two Academy Award nominations for best actress, ever.  Lawrence said, “I like when things are hard; I'm very competitive. If something seems difficult or impossible, it interests me.”  I anticipate seeing her take on more challenging roles in the future, as she will be able to handle anything that comes her way.