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friday five: movie gimmicks that will never, ever work again.

KeatonEvery so often, a film comes along that breaks the rules. It turns the structure and the traditional concept of filmmaking upside down. Sometimes, it’s sheer and utter brilliance (Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction). Other times, it fails spectacularly.

Then, there are gimmicks; some that worked—often prematurely hailed as “brilliant”—and others that didn’t. Either way, they will likely not be repeated anytime soon. Here are five examples I’ve culled for your reading pleasure. As always, in no particular order. Feel free to agree, disagree and/or offer examples of your own in the comments.

Hank & AshaHank and Asha
You never saw it. It’s a small, independent romance film with only two characters who share a long-distance crush via SnapChat-type videos. Credit director James E. Duff for making the viewer feel the connection between two characters who never actually share the same space for the duration of the film.

I’d give Hank and Asha three out of five stars. It’s clever, kinda charming and had characters for whom you could root. Using internet video letters (of sorts) as a device was an interesting way to move the story along, but it also left a sense of longing for more. It’s a decent gimmick, but let’s not do that again.

MementoMemento
I know. They’re remaking this film for some inexplicable reason. Seems unnecessary to mess with Memento since they nailed it the first time. It’s a great story with fascinating characters, peculiar twists and a plot that feels like a puzzle. Oh yeah the story is told in reverse. We’re not talking about nonlinear storytelling here. We’re talking a completely backwards movie.

Memento starts at the end and leads you back to the beginning so as to understand how and why we ended where we ended. It was great, but I don’t see how another filmmaker could borrow that storytelling device and make it seem unique. Memento ruined it for everyone else.

The ArtistThe Artist
A black-and-white, silent picture in the 21st century. It was fun and interesting, but in my mind, it was NOT the best film of 2011. It won its Oscar on the back of its hype and its anachronistic feel. Don’t get me wrong. I liked The Artist when I first saw it, but I immediately recognized this was a gimmick movie. That’s okay, but slow down with your finger snaps and orgasmic praise, art school, hipster nerds! You glommed onto The Artist as though Michel Hazanavicius re-invented the entire medium in a manner that became an oracle into the human condition. No. He didn’t.

In fact, he did the exact opposite. He aped a pre-talkies film technique nearly a century later and people went nuts sort of the same way they went nuts for Dane Cook when he first got famous. Pretty soon, people realized Dane Cook wasn’t funny. Or interesting. I’ll say The Artist was entertaining, but a pure gimmick.

Tree of LifeThe Tree of Life
Perhaps not so much a gimmick, unless you consider a steaming pile of shit a gimmick. For the sake of my list (where I make all the rules), I shall call it a gimmick in the hopes that no one ever tries to repeat the mistakes of this pretentious twaddle. No, art school, hipster nerds, I’m not “too American” to understand it. I completely understand The Tree of Life. I understand it sucks.

Perhaps I’m saying Terence Malick should never be allowed to direct another film. There. I said it. I seriously hated this movie and Malick owes me $10.

BirdmanBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Right out of the gate, I must admit I truly love this film. It was my favorite movie of 2014. I love everything about it. I love the performances, the visuals, the set…everything. I also love that it was shot as a single-camera, one-take sequence.

Sure, it’s a total gimmick, but it fit perfectly in telling a story about producing a Broadway play. Unlike movies and (most) TV shows, stage productions are performed live, in one take. There are no do-overs. Perfect or not, the audience takes it all in from one, single perspective. Using a single camera in one, long take goes hand-in-hand with the theme and was truly a joy to watch unfold. I suppose it could work again in another film, but why bother trying? Birdman perfected it.*

Too Late* Full disclosure: I wrote this Friday Five more than two years ago. Around the same time Birdman was being produced, independent film director Dennis Hauck was shooting Too Late, which employs a similar, single-take concept. And it worked very well here, too. Too Late stars John Hawkes and is worth checking out.

 

 

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friday five: worst acting jobs ever.

Even a great actor has a bad performance. Rarer still, is when a bad actor has a great performance. But for today’s purposes, we’ll focus on the former. The list of bad movies is too long to analyze for a Friday Five, so I thought I’d focus on what I consider five of the worst hatchet jobs of acting I’ve ever watched. In some cases, a bad actor can make a movie entertaining, in its own, weird way. In most cases, it just ruins a good thing. Without further adieu…

Al Pacino in Scarface

If you thought Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian-American portraying a Native American in a TV commercial, was as low as it gets for racial stupidity, get a load of Scarface. Scarface wasn’t presented as satire, but no one told Al Pacino. How Pacino hasn’t been called out for his over-the-top racist minstrel show of an acting job in this movie is beyond me. His scenery-chewing acting is embarrassing. ”You leeeetle cock-a-rooch!” Seriously? The fact that producers hired an Italian-American, painted him bronze and told him to feign a horrendous accent and no one said, “hey, is this all right?” escapes me. How does that happen?!?!

I like Brian De Palma films, but Scarface is just awful; from beginning to end, AWFUL! It’s hot garbage; and a harbinger of more scenery-chewing acting from Al Pacino, sadly.

Keanu Reeves in…anything

What’s the difference between Keanu Reeves and a cardboard cutout of Keanu Reeves? The cardboard cutout is more lifelike. Tell me: does his agent have naked pictures of studio execs he uses as blackmail on behalf of Keanu Reeves? Because I can’t think of any other way he gets so many A-list roles. The only time Reeves has ever been even close to watchable is when he’s playing a stoner. But as a lead in an action movie? Eesh. As a lead in a romantic movie? Eesh. I seriously don’t get it. Not for one second. The man has the acting range of a tree stump.

Cameron Diaz in The Counselor

The idea that every actor should have the range to play various characters is nice, on paper. In reality? Not every actor has that range. In fact, many simply can’t do it. Case in point: Cameron Diaz. She’s great in comedies and lighter roles. But when she’s thrown into the deep end as a heavy character? She flails and flops. As Malkina in The Counselor, we’re supposed to believe Diaz is this soulless, cold, calculating, evil mastermind. Yeah…not happening. She delivers her lines with all the gravitas of a shampoo commercial. I like Cameron Diaz—and make no mistake, comedy is not easy—but her work in The Counselor is a reminder to think twice when straying out of your comfort zone.

George Clooney in Batman & Robin

Hard to remember how adrift at sea the Batman franchise became back in the 90s. Despite a valiant attempt, Tim Burton never fully connected the dots on the Dark Knight; turning him into a goth, anti-hero in a Gotham City that was long one fog and short on lighting and superhero action of any sort.

Then along comes Joel Schumacher and his parade of primary-color cartoonishly hammy heroes and villains, prancing about a Gotham City that looks more like a bad Cirque du Soleil production. Jim Carrey as the Riddler as bad enough, but it wasn’t until Schumacher cast A-lister George Clooney to play Batman when he successfully piled the franchise into the ground. While Clooney is a solid actor and handsome enough to play the regal Bruce Wayne, his performance in Batman & Robin was horrifying. He delivered every line as though he were still on the set of ER. He was nothing more than Doug Ross in a cowl. In fairness to George, he had remarkably little material to work with. Everything about Batman & Robin felt more like a spin-off of the 1966 TV series than an honest attempt to create something epic and dramatic.

Thankfully, Chris Nolan came along and fixed everything.

John Wayne in The Conquerer

Before Chuck Norris, there was The Duke. The original tough guy actor, John Wayne was in charge, whether you liked it or not. His characters were grizzled, hardscrabble heroes who loved ‘Merica, stood up for what was right, would backhand you if you got out of hand and could shoot out your eyeball with a rifle from 100 yards out. He wasn’t some foppish dandy like Hugh Grant, fawning for the affections of a woman in a plucky, British rom-com. He was John freakin’ Wayne!

The iconic cowboy in American cinema; the quintessential embodiment of the rugged, American frontiersman of the Old West. I could go on and on.

When you picture Wayne in your head, you probably see a cowboy hat, a six-shooter, a horse, a bandana around his neck and, quite possibly, an eyepatch. But, in 1956, he traded in his boots and spurs for Mongolian armor as…Genghis Khan? I would love to hear the story of how this period piece came about.

True, filmmaking has gotten more sophisticated over the years, as producers and directors strive for authenticity beyond cartoonish portrayals of ethnic characters (unless you’re Al Pacino in Scarface). Nevertheless, John Wayne as Genghis Cogburn is my all-time favorite worst performance ever.

Sofia Coppola in The Godfather III

It’s not a stretch to figure out how Sofia got a major role in The Godfather Part III. Someone really should’ve talked Francis Ford Coppola out of it. In fact, someone should’ve talked him out of The Godfather III. The entire production is a nightmare, and his daughter looked completely lost in every single scene. Her dead eyes and expressionless face gave no life to the dialogue falling out of her mouth in this disastrous final chapter in the Godfather trilogy. Her performance would barely play in a community theater version of Our Town.

Fortunately for Sofia, she found her talents behind the camera as a writer and director, just like her dad. She won an Oscar for Lost in Translation. Her acting will never win an award. Ever.

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friday five: five launchpad projects for entertainment superstars.

Before we start, let me preface this by saying I intentionally omitted sketch comedy shows from this list. In my mind, sketch shows like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and The Sid Caesar Show are supposed to be launchpads for budding talent. We could have a separate list for this category to cover the many great sketch shows throughout television history that launched careers. But that’s not what we’re covering in this list.

I’m focusing strictly on films television and music that, intentionally or not, were incubators of talent and unforeseen future success long before any of those who were involved were A-listers. Perhaps it was pure coincidence, but I’d like to think these projects are what got them noticed and kickstarted their massive success.

School Ties (1992)
school-tiesPut it this way: Matt Damon was a supporting actor in this Brendan Fraser vehicle. I think we know how he’s done since then. School Ties, a 1960s boarding school period piece, featured a slew of young, male actors who would go onto bigger things. While it’s easy to forget, Fraser’s star hadn’t risen yet, prior to this movie. He would go onto become a 90s actions movie star in the Mummy flicks as well as play a major role in the 2004 Academy Award winning film, Crash.

Who else was in School Ties? Chris O’Donnell, Ben Affleck and Zeljko Ivanek, to name a few. Ivanek certainly didn’t rise to the level of movie stardom like Affleck and O’Donnell, but this film was really the starting point of a long and ongoing career for Zeljko as the wormy guy you hate in virtually every TV show created. And it all started in School Ties.

As for Affleck and O’Donnell, think about this: they would go on to play Batman and Robin in separate franchises of the DC Comics characters. Who saw that coming???

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Fast TimesThis classic is somehow forgotten in the pantheon of 80s high school movies; probably because it’s not a John Hughes film. Nevertheless, Fast Times may be the best of that era, of that genre. It’s not a stretch to say it launched the careers of Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But start poking around the supporting cast and you stumble across a couple of Oscar winners: Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage, along with Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Taylor Negron.
Fast Times Forest
Fast Times Cage
Lest we forget its writer, Cameron Crowe. This was his maiden voyage. And oh yeah, you might’ve heard about a certain scene involving Phoebe Cates and a red bikini.

American Graffiti (1973)
American Graffiti_3The cast, at the time, boasted a few working actors and maybe one or two known commodities. Sure, everyone knew Ronny Howard (yes, that’s how he was billed) as Opie on the Andy Griffith Show, but this was one of his first “grown-up” roles. I think we know how it turned out for him.

Harrison Ford in American Graffiti.

Harrison Ford in American Graffiti.

Beyond Howard, look at who else was in the cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Mackenzie Phillips; even Suzanne Somers had a small, but meaningful part in the movie. And there was this guy named Harrison Ford in a bit part. I wonder if he ever turned into anything.

And oh yeah, who co-wrote and directed American Graffiti? George Lucas. His next film was Star Wars. Gotta wonder if he even gets to make that movie if American Graffiti isn’t a hit.

N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988 Ruthless Records)
NWATwenty-seven years ago almost to the day, this groundbreaking hip hop album was released. It is not hyperbole to suggest it changed everything. When N.W.A. burst on the national scene in 1988, they were “gangsta rap.” They were real-life street kids who turned their experiences into a monster-selling album. They were dangerous. And people couldn’t get enough of them.

Without N.W.A., there is no hip hop scene like we see today. True, N.W.A. wasn’t the first hardcore rap act to break out, but they busted down the door and everyone followed behind them.

Beyond the music industry influence, look at where founding members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are today. One is a successful actor and film producer and the other is an executive with Apple and is widely regarded as one of the best music producers in the business. Nobody saw any of that coming the first time they heard Straight Outta Compton.

As a hip hop act, N.W.A. was short-lived; splintering apart and eventually breaking up in 1991. There were public feuds in the intervening years (which largely came to a halt when founding member Eazy-E died in 1995), but N.W.A. as an act were pretty much done. Their collective time as a group was brief, compared to other influential music artists, but there’s no denying Straight Outta Compton is the birth mother of Cube’s and Dre’s careers as well as an entire genre of music.

Mean Streets (1973)
Mean StreetsAlternate title: When Marty met Bobby. Unlike other projects mentioned here, Mean Streets does not boast a plethora of young actors and actresses who broke out after this film’s release. But Mean Streets is pivotal because it was the first time a budding young director named Martin Scorsese worked with an actor by the name of Robert DeNiro. Truly, the rest is history.

Scorsese and DeNiro have combined for some of the greatest American films of the 20th century, and it all started with Mean Streets. What came next?

Taxi Driver. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. Cape Fear. Casino.

It is not an overstatement to call Scorsese the greatest living American filmmaker and DeNiro the greatest living American actor. Their résumés—both collective and individual—speak to that. But their greatness is not defined solely within their work. They, too, have elevated the careers of many other actors and filmmakers over the years. Undoubtedly, Joe Pesci, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sharon Stone, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and many, many more have benefited from working with Scorsese and/or DeNiro. And the flashpoint for it all was Mean Streets. Oh yeah, do you know who else was in that movie? A guy named Harvey Keitel. I wonder if he ever went on to do anything substantial.

Honorable Mention
Freaks and Geeks (1999 – 2000)
Freaks and GeeksInitially, I was going to say Knocked Up was the launchpad, but it wasn’t. Before Judd Apatow and co. went on to massive careers after that 2007 comedy movie, there was Freaks and Geeks; a canceled-too-soon TV show that gave birth to many successful Hollywood careers. Apatow wrote and directed several episodes. We know the rest of his story. But what about the cast? Jason Segal, James Franco and Seth Rogan all have become Hollywood A-listers. Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, Busy Phillips and Martin Starr all have found steady work on a slew of highly successful television shows.

No matter how well everyone continues to do, Freaks and Geeks fans still feel cheated out of what could’ve been a great series.

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friday five: five great las vegas movies.

121713-shows-106-park-robert-deniro-movie-roles-casino.jpg
For decades, Las Vegas has been a favorite movie setting for producers, and why not? No matter the era, Vegas represents the same things: partying, losing inhibitions and a series of bad decisions. There are several Vegas-themed films I haven’t seen, including Viva Las Vegas (believe it or not), so this list represents only those movies I’ve personally watched. Feel free to make your case for other Vegas flicks in the comments.

Oh, sure, there are a few stinkers worth mentioning (Showgirls, anyone? That movie was HORRENDOUS!), but let’s just stick to the positive. After all, it’s Friday!

Vegas Vacation (1997)
Vegas VacationBelieve it or not, there was a time when Chevy Chase was funny. As Clark Griswold’s nemesis blackjack dealer, Wallace Shawn steals each of his scenes. When I was a dealer in Vegas and would have to check a young guy’s ID at my table, I always said the same thing when I’d hand him back his ID: “Good luck, Mr. Pappagiorgio.” It’s a little sad to watch this movie today and realize Randy Quaid is now crazier than Cousin Eddie, and not in a good way. But we’ll always have Vegas Vacation to remember he used to be funny.

Lost In America (1985)
lost-in-america-movie-posterPerhaps this is more of a personal, sentimental favorite and not really a “Vegas” movie. However, a pivotal scene in this Albert Brooks comedy takes place at the old Desert Inn and has been a reference point for my brother and I for years when getting our brains bashed in gambling. I played at the Desert Inn on my first-ever trip to Vegas in 1999. For my money, the Desert Inn has heart.

The Hangover (2009)
Hangoverposter09Has any movie embodied what people hope is how their Vegas vacations turn out? Well, perhaps without the tiger and the naked Mr. Chow jumping out of the trunk of a car, but The Hangover captures the essence of a weekend on The Strip everyone wants: complete, unadulterated debauchery. After all, bad decisions always make for good stories.

Ocean’s Eleven (1960) & Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
oceans-11-poser-2ocean039s-eleven-2001-poster-artwork-george-clooney-brad-pitt-matt-damonI’m including both films here because, even though the George Clooney-led remake is phenomenal, there’s no way I could exclude the original Rat Pack flick from this list. Let’s start with the first Ocean’s Eleven: it is a time capsule of a Vegas era that no longer exists. Everyone and everything was wild, cool and swingin’!

Certainly, the Rat Pack version looks dated, but that’s part of its charm. And there’s one other reason this movie makes the list: Dean Martin. There is no one alive today who oozes that much “cool cat” awesomeness. No one.

The 2001 reboot is easily one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s smart, funny, witty and purely entertaining from beginning to end. You feel like you’re in on the caper with the gang.

Casino (1995)
casino_1995The most incredible element to this movie: it’s a true story. Sure, the names were changed, but those characters were based on real-life people who are still legendary names in Las Vegas lore. My favorite aspect of Casino is the detail. They get it right on the gaming floor. For example, when Ace (Robert DeNiro) walks past a dice table and catches a dealer splashing a payout, he stops and corrects him: “Heel it off. Pay the bet proper!” From beginning to end, Casino is pure entertainment. It’s vintage Scorsese, vintage De Niro and vintage Joe Pesci.

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for your consideration: birdman or (the unexpected virtue of ignorance).

birdman-clickBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Regency Enterprises, New Regency Pictures)
A washed up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself in the days leading up to the opening of a Broadway play.
Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo. Executive Producers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole.

Maybe it’s just me, but it is a bit of a thrill when you’re watching a movie and realize you’re watching something bold and daring and makes you say to yourself, “I have never seen anything like this before!” That’s what it’s like watching Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) for the first time.

Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thompson, a has-been actor best known for playing a costumed superhero two decades ago. He’s trying to make a comeback and be taken seriously as an actor by producing and starring in his own Broadway production adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. What transpires over the course of two hours is one of the most fascinating exploration of emotion, self doubt, love, hate, fear and a bit of madness…all in one, continuous, single shot.

A film about a play production is nothing new, but Birdman breaks convention stylistically to capture the essence of theater in a manner unlike ever before. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki collaborate to present Birdman as in a single, continuous camera shot for the duration of the picture. Imagine the Copacabana sequence in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Now imagine that’s shot continuing for two hours. The genius, simplicity and complexity it takes to compose a film with this technique is rather amazing. It allows the actors to truly delve into the meatier dialogue of their roles and inhabit the entire space, rather than be confined to a series of one- and two-shot angles.

Cinematic technique notwithstanding, Birdman is full of huge performances. As Riggan, Michael Keaton turns in the role of a lifetime that, in many ways, feels inspired by his own career trajectory. Always a much better actor than ever credited, Keaton taps into Riggan’s insecurities and fears as he rolls the dice on his production. Keaton’s performance raised the bar for everyone in the cast. Zach Galifianakis and Edward Norton both turn in sterling performances in supporting roles. As Riggan’s lawyer, confidante and chief supporter, Galifianakis is showing he is more than just an oafish member of The Wolfpack. Norton’s performance as self absorbed stage actor Mike is, at times, overwhelming, but that’s because Mike is an overwhelming character. As a method actor who detests celebrities, Norton’s Mike is pompous, obnoxious and completely engrossing.

Reflecting the rhythm of an actual play, all the lead characters in Birdman have their respective moments in the spotlight. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough—lead actresses in the play—are able to inject depth and emotion into their limited roles which are severely limited by Keaton and Norton’s heavyweight performances. They don’t get outshone. They just don’t have as much material to work with as their male counterparts. As Riggan’s daughter/assistant Sam, Emma Stone turns in the best performance of her career. Her darkness and vulnerability aren’t too far beneath the scar tissue her character has built over time as a result of addiction and an absent father. The chemistry between Stone and Keaton as father and daughter are magnificent.

More than just about producing a risky play, the subtext of Birdman is hardly concealed. Though slightly preachy, its indictment of art vs. commercial blockbuster, actor vs. celebrity is rather prescient in an era where every other release features a costumed comic book superhero.

So what is it all about? What is the virtue of ignorance? You’ll have to figure that out for yourself. Birdman is beautifully constructed and acted; a truly groundbreaking film. Birdman one of the best films you will see.

RATING: ****-1/2 stars (out of five)

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for your consideration: nebraska.

Nebraska_PosterNebraska (2013 Paramount Vantage)
An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb. Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Bob Nelson. Produced by Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa.

Getting old sucks. This universal truth is hitting Woody Grant squarely in the face, but it’s his family who pays for it. Woody, played brilliantly by Bruce Dern, is a stoic, aging man on a mission to claim a $1 million prize in Lincoln, Nebraska…only it’s not real. It’s a scam. His wife knows it. His adult sons know it. His obsession leads him to wander off from his Billings, Montana home en route to Nebraska.

But this is not really a story about Woody’s decline. It’s about Woody’s youngest son, David, trying to forge a relationship with his father while he still has time. Unlike his mother and his older brother Ross, David has more outward patience for Woody’s wandering obsession with his prize. As David, Saturday Night Live veteran Will Forte turns in a story performance as an ordinary, down-on-his-luck fellow who’s trying to reclaim himself in his own way while trying to protect his father from himself.

The relationship between Woody and David is the centerpiece of Nebraska as they embark on a journey to claim Woody’s prize. For David, it’s an opportunity to bridge the growing distance between he and his withdrawn father and to learn about his life. It’s heartfelt and touching because it feels like a real father-and-son relationship. Neither men emote, which is something nearly any grown man can relate to, when pondering his relationship with their father.

For Dern’s part, his portrayal of Woody is simply stellar. Woody is a man of few words, but Dern brings out the character’s heart and soul in every scene in such a manner that you can’t help but feel sadness and empathy for him. Nowhere is this more evident than during Woody’s visit to his childhood home. It’s broken down, falling apart and occupied not much more than dust and broken remnants of furniture. It’s not hard to see the metaphor Payne was going for with this scene as it evokes a sense of sadness and mortality.

Performances drive Nebraska. Credit director Alexander Payne and his casting director John Jackson for assembling a group of actors that feel authentic for the material and the setting. There is no glamour in the plain states Midwest or the small-town, farming lifestyle of Montana and Nebraska. Even the extras and bit players look like normal townspeople who were enlisted for the production. Stacy Keach turns in a fine performance as the aggravating and obnoxious Ed Pegram, an old friend of Woody’s looking to cash in on his fortunes. A muted Bob Odenkirk plays Ross, David’s slightly more successful older brother. While not a comedic role, Odenkirk still draws out laughs quietly and subtly. But it’s June Squibb as the cantankerous and no-bullshit matriarch of the Grant family who gives the performance of a lifetime. In a film that is more quiet than loud and draws its inspiration from the small, mundane moments in small-town living, Squibb’s Kate Grant is a welcome breath of fresh, ornery air in Nebraska.

Initially, Alexander Payne’s decision to shoot Nebraska in black-and-white seemed more like a gimmick befitting pretentious film school nerds who use it as a cheap, parlor trick to achieve “abstract” emotions. But as the film went on, it made sense. The contrasts and grays elevate the story and its performances. The scars and wrinkles appear deeper. The hollowness of life’s down moments feel more hollow. And the tender, gentle moments feel softer and more meaningful.

Nebraska is a wonderful, simple story about trying to squeeze just a little bit more out of a life that’s had its ups, downs, regrets and failures. But that’s what makes life worth living sometimes, isn’t it? Trying just one more time to get something right. But yeah, getting old still sucks.

RATING: **** stars (out of five)

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for your consideration: the wolf of wall street.

WallStreet2013posterThe Wolf Of Wall Street (2013 Paramount Pictures)
Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stockbroker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill & Margo Robbie. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book). Produced by Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland & Emma Tillinger Koskoff.

“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26 is the head of my own brokerage firm I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”

And with that, The Wolf Of Wall Street shot out of a cannon in vintage, Martin Scorsese style: the protagonist narration throughout the film, the perfect use of music to augment scenes, the in-your-face cinematography, the mile-a-minute pacing and, of course, the f-bombs. This is hardly an indictment of Scorsese at all. He has a formula that works time and again and The Wolf Of Wall Street succeeds on every level.

The story may seem cliché, and it really is—the rise to success, the decadent lifestyle, the endless parade of women, drugs and money, and the ultimate chase by the feds looking to bring it all crashing down—but when told through Scorsese’s lens, the story is anything but cliché. The man makes selling a bullshit penny stock captivating and engrossing through more than just clever camera angles. The dialog throughout The Wolf Of Wall Street is clever, snappy and funny. But it’s the actors who truly are the straw that stirs this drink. Whether it’s the top line cast, big-name cameos or smaller roles by semi-known people, Scorsese draws out brilliant performances from everyone in this picture…even Bo Dietl, the former cop turned Arby’s ad guy!

As Jordan Belfort, aka “The Wolf,” Leonardo DiCaprio once again delivers a performance for the ages. His intensity as the coke-snorting, ‘lude-popping, hooker chasing Belfort electrifies every scene. But the onscreen chemistry between DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s right-hand man Donnie Azoff, is priceless. Looking back at SuperBad, who knew Jonah Hill would become so recognized for his acting? As the bespectacled, gregarious guy with “phosphorescent teeth,” Hill steals this movie. He absolutely steals it through his comic timing and ability to hang in there with Hollywood elite and become the most memorable character in the movie.

For better or worse, women are merely props in The Wolf Of Wall Street. It’s really a story about a bunch of frat boy types all hopped up on power, greed and cocaine pillaging the American financial sector every chance they get to satisfy their hedonistic desires. That being said, Cristin Miliote and Margot Robbie turn in solid supporting performances as the first and second wives of Jordan Belfort, respectively.

Here’s something you already know but bears repeating: Scorsese is a genius at telling great stories about people who are flawed and, at times, rotten to the core. He proves once again that he is one of the true giants of American cinema. Funny, intense and a bit jarring, The Wolf Of Wall Street is another Martin Scorsese epic masterpiece.

Rating: **** stars (out of 5)

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