The Wolf of Wall Street

justin perich wolfThe Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest venture is earning a fair amount of praise and a fair amount of criticism. Based on the bestselling memoir by Jordan Belfort, the film tells the story of one corrupt stockbroker and potential sociopath’s rise to wealth and power, as well as his inevitable decline–though many would say he never fell quite as far as he deserved. Critics an audiences alike are charging the film with glorifying immoral behavior and endorsing Belfort specifically (the now motivational speaker made $1 million on movie rights), but for me this is besides the point. The real problem with Wolf is not that it glorifies bad behavior, but that it actually partakes in bad behavior, cinematically speaking. The movie attempts to match Mr. Belfort’s excessive, obnoxious, and hollow story by being excessive, obnoxious, and hollow in its writing and editing, making for an exceedingly dull story thinly veiled in the shocking spectacle of yachts, nude women, and copious drug mounds. It is impossible to care about any of these characters or their situation, and one walks out of the cinema feeling conned. Jonah Hill’s presence only serves to the muddle the tone–as soon as he’s on screen, the scenes devolve into awkward, reality-breaking adlib which comes off as overly smug, as though the film is laughing too hard at its own jokes. While it’s true that Wolf condemns the lifestyle it depicts, it doesn’t really do so until the very last shot, as Belfort confounds an audience at a sales seminar and they look on in hapless wonder. “Look at you, sitting there,” the movie is saying. “Something in you is charmed by behavior, and because of that you’re the problem.” The moment is heavy-handed and frankly unearned, as the film is not nearly so charming as it thinks it is. 3/5 stars.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

justin perich hobbitThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – The best thing that can be said about Peter Jackson’s second stab at Bilbo’s tale, and fifth stab at Middle Earth, is that it has more in common with what The Lord of the Rings did right than it has in common with what An Unexpected Journey did wrong. Pretty much everyone agrees that the first Hobbit movie was too long, too bloated, and too slow–we watched with dropped jaws as the dwarves washed dishes for fifteen minutes–and this second installment at least does not seem to suffer as much from Peter Jackson’s overly abundant love for his source material. This film charges forward from the very start with all the drive and purpose it’s predecessor lacked, and it finds almost enough pure popcorny, blockbustery charm, wonder, and suspense to justify its near three-hour length. In the film, Bilbo (played by the always impeccable Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen obviously, what hobbit hole have you been living under if you don’t know that?), and thirteen dwarves make their way into the Kingdom of Erebor, past Orcs and Giant Spiders to eventually battle the terrifically CGI-ed Smaug (Freeman’s Sherlock co-star and notable sea otter Benedict Cumberbatch), and there’s plenty of subplots involving Elves, Wizards, and bear-men. As always, Jackson proves capable at creating more and more worlds within Middle Earth, each more aesthetically pleasing and/or terrifying than the last. But when it comes right down to it, he’s still taking nine hours to tell a story J.R.R. Tolkien told in less than 300 pages. It’s still butter scraped over too much bread. In order to pad the material, Jackson makes every event important, and if everything’s important then nothing’s important. And he still hasn’t got a handle on his biggest flaw as a filmmaker and story teller–too much action divorced from character. 3/5 stars.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

justin perich catching fireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire – The second installment of the bestselling Suzanne Collins series was made with almost twice the budget, and for once a sequel has twice as much to recommend it. For starters, there’s the new director Francis Lawrence, a vast improvement over the talented but somewhat ill-fitting Gary Ross, who helmed the first of the franchise. Not that the original was bad, no not at all, but every book in the series was practically written for a film adaptation, and The Hunger Games (2012) only succeeded in that it didn’t mess up a good thing. On the other hand, Catching Fire takes its source material, honors it, but actually improves upon it, finding subtle levels of human condition and cultural relevance that just aren’t there in the written word. This is in part thanks to the widely accomplished screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 HoursThe Full Monty) and Michael Arndt (Oblivion, Brave, Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), and partly thanks to the special effects team, but mostly due to the movie’s star, Jennifer Lawrence. In her second time embodying Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence expands out into the role and recreates the character in even more detail, even more honesty, and even more strength. The rest of the film’s elements amount to very effectively collected and very carefully placed tinder, but her performance is the flame that keeps the film alight the full 140 minutes. 5/5 stars.

Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips

Justin Perich Captain PhillipsCaptain Phillips – It’s always a pleasant surprise to see an actor who’s been an A-lister for 25 years hit notes you didn’t know they had, and Tom Hanks hits a whole slew of them in Paul Greengrass’s latest true-life piracy thriller. While the accent is reminiscent of his turn as Carl Hanratty in Catch Me If You Can, Hanks brings to life the character of Captain Richard Phillips with stunning power, depth, and authenticity that helped keep me on the edge of my seat the whole 134 minutes. The other knockout performance in this piece that won’t get nearly enough hype is Barkhad Abdi’s portrayal of the pirate leader Abduwali Muse. It’s his screen debut, and he’s managed to create one of the most captivating villains I’ve seen on film. I also give top marks to the writing, directing, and cinematography–rarely does a Hollywood blockbuster make me care so much about the characters, and and unfold their story with so much detail and nuance. Unlike Gravity, I missed the IMAX experience so I can’t say whether or not the extra ten bucks is worth it, but I can say with certainly that Captain Phillips will blow you away on the average big screen. 5/5 stars.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity

Justin-Perich-GravityGravity – An unapologetic nonstop thrill ride, Alfonso Cuaron’s latest may be short on story and character development but it’s one of the most beautifully shot films in recent memory. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play astronauts servicing the Hubble Space Telescope when their shuttle is damaged by debris from a Russian missile strike on a satellite. What follows is an intense survival thriller combined with a powerful meditation on love, loss, and what it means to be human. While Clooney is charming as always (even if his signature head bob is obscured by his space helmet), it’s Bullocks show and she nails the fraught performance from start to finish. With Cuaron’s longshots, switching effortlessly between objective and subjective perspective, and excellent zero gravity effects, this simply put is what 3D Imax is made for, (and this is coming from a guy who’s never enjoyed any 3D film experience before other than Avatar). 4/5 stars

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Justin PerichBlue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s latest re-imagines Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire in modern day San Franscisco beautifully, but without any of the complexity and danger of the original plot and characters, instead choosing to meander generically and repetitively in the well worn territories of infidelity and corporate greed. While the performances are stellar (especially Cate Blanchett as Jasmine/Blanche, Alec Baldwin as Hal/Stanley, and Sally Hawkins as Ginger/Stella), the plot jumps abrasively back and forth between the present and past without a lick of clarity, reason, or effectiveness, and by the end, we’ve found that any interest we ever had in any of the characters was lost in the shuffle. 2/5 stars.