Posts tagged Leonardo DiCaprio
Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic big screen adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” is like drinking cheap booze to excess. It’s unpleasant going down, and even worse coming back up, but when the experience is over, you’ll feel much better.
Speaking of bad alcohol, Luhrmann’s film is a nasty homemade concoction. With his take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, he creates anachronistic moonshine that doesn’t mix effectively with the story’s Prohibition Era setting. His predilection for combining the old and new isn’t surprising, considering previous brazen films “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet.” However those stylistic blends were arguably more fluid.
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My latest round of reviews features my thoughts on “Not Fade Away,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” and “The Sessions.”
Not Fade Away
When I interviewed David Chase about his big screen debut “Not Fade Away,” the director/writer had some fascinating things to say about the connection between music and film as artistic mediums. He also provided interesting insight into his main character Doug’s emotional dilemmas and the movie’s ambiguous ending. The problem is that his intentions were not obvious during the film.
“Not Fade Away” is an angst-ridden, cliché period piece that’s more of an aimless coming-of-age tale, than an artistic statement about the power of rock n’ roll. A large part of that conception has to do with the abundance of banal elements like arguments about political issues at family functions, egotistical squabbling between band mates, parroted motivational statements, and the usual “parents just don’t understand” conflicts.
In positive ways, the film resembles Chase’s television creation The Sopranos, with a dark, moody aesthetic and superb soundtrack of classic rock songs. Additionally, Sopranos alum James Gandolfini reteams with Chase to give an entertaining performance as Doug’s crabby working-class father. He has a couple of poignant soul-baring conversations with Doug, so it would have been nice to see him more in the film.
Perhaps the most original thing about the movie is that (SPOILER ALERT) Doug doesn’t actually make it in show business. Chase realizes the ending may work against him with American audiences, who usually only want to see success stories, but at least it’s unique. This realistic outcome connects well with the filmmaker’s message that while you can lose it all, as long as you have good tunes by your side, life goes on. I just wish Chase had devised a less hackneyed vehicle for delivering his point.
My Grade: C
Quentin Tarantino has been paying homage to westerns for so long that it was satisfying to see him finally take the genre by the horns with “Django Unchained.” His version of a western is largely like you would suspect: aggressive satire in the vein of “Blazing Saddles,” silly push zooms, whip-crack sound effects, gratuitous slow motion, and blood splashing by the bucketful. Even with Tarantino’s strong track record, it’s hard to top the hilarity of KKK members arguing at length about the eyeholes in their hoods being cut unevenly. It’s also tough to surpass the excitement of the film’s Mexican standoff, which leads to an explosive shootout.
More than his last film “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino uses “Django Unchained” to comment on the horrific social climate of the time period (1850s). He tests your stomach with violent punishment, sadistic torture, and bare-nuckle brawls that have slaves fighting to the death. I consider myself someone hardened by his previous work, although I still had moments that made me queasy.
Normally I dig Tarantino’s anachronistic soundtrack, but this time it just felt off, especially the lengthy inclusion of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name.” Plus the film is bloated, taking what feels like forever to arrive at the epic showdown. I thought that the movie was anticlimactic until I was blindsided by the massive shootout. Then, the story continued for a while after, which surprised me. A tighter ending and a more direct arc toward the bad guy would have significantly changed this picture for the better.
Once again, Tarantino tailors dialogue incredibly well to his star Christoph Waltz, writing lines in the actor’s precise cadence. However the tension the writer/director created with Waltz’s exchanges in “Inglourious Basterds,” is not nearly as palpable here. At least magnetic performances by the actors make up for the movie’s shortcomings. Christoph Waltz is brilliant as Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter who frees Django (Jamie Foxx) and helps the former slave to rescue his wife. From the moment you see him on screen, Leonardo DiCaprio is clearly having a blast in his first bad guy role as the pseudo-intellectual egomaniac Calvin Candie. Samuel L. Jackson is equally unforgettable as Candie’s deceptively conniving head slave. Can someone please cast Leo as another villain ASAP?
My Grade: B
I saw “Lincoln” fairly late in the game compared to most of my colleagues, who caught it in November. By the time I watched it in early December, my hopes were pretty high because of all the praise I kept hearing for the film. What really took me aback were all the different types of viewers that were raving about the movie. I don’t think I heard a single bad thing about it. That’s a lot of pressure to like a movie, right?
Well, I’m pleased to report that “Lincoln” not only met my expectations, but it actually exceeded them in a number of categories. From a technical perspective Steven Spielberg is a highly skilled director, so his superb work didn’t come as a surprise. Also, I knew that as a story, this picture wouldn’t be the standard biopic, choosing to concentrate on the last year of Lincoln’s life and presidency. I liked the narrow scope of the tale.
What truly blew me away were the quality of Tony Kushner’s screenplay and the powerhouse performance by Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Kushner’s dialogue is whip smart, plus his portrait of the era’s politics is quite thorough. Daniel Day-Lewis is notorious for throwing himself into every role; however nothing can adequately prepare you for the intensity of his efforts. He truly embodies the Lincoln in all senses, from his appearance to his raspy falsetto voice. The other actors are no slouches either. Sally Field gives a nerve-wracking, tortured performance as Lincoln’s wife and Tommy Lee Jones excels at oratory insults as Senator Thaddeus Stevens.
What’s fascinating about the film is that you get to see Lincoln from multiple angles: the devoted family man, the suffering husband, the jovial storyteller, and the fiery politician. Perhaps the most captivating part of the movie is its examination of the American political process, as the president does everything in their power to pass the 13th Amendment and end slavery. At points Lincoln can become monotonous with the character’s constant jokes and goofy stories, although at least they make light of that in the film. Plus the silly wigs and facial hair are a distraction.
However there are some brilliant moments when the writing, acting, and directing come together to create compelling scenes. The one that really sticks out involves Lincoln’s pondering about the legality of The Emancipation Proclamation. As the depth of his statements affect you, Spielberg slowly closes in with a zoom, and then Daniel Day-Lewis surprises you with his spirited ultimatum. It doesn’t get any more thrilling than seeing the soft-spoken kind president, threatening to exercise his immense power, should his will not be done. Not exactly the stuffy man you remember from the history books. This guy is pretty damn cool.
My Grade: A-
It’s hard to think of a Hollywood movie that treats sex with sincerity and sensitivity, that’s why a film like “The Sessions,” is surprising, because it manages to treat both sex AND disability with care. This tale is a heartwarming, honest one about Mark O’Brien’s (John Hawkes) quest to complete his human experience. As someone who is severely physically disabled, he has never been able to know love or even sex despite the fact that he’s perfectly capable of the act. Social stigma surrounding his condition has prevented women from becoming intimate with him, but should he be denied that pleasure due to circumstances beyond his control? Of course not.
That’s how Mark ends up seeking out a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him become comfortable with his body, as well as the act of sex. Their sessions together not only teach Mark what to do in the bedroom, they aid him with overcoming his own mental roadblocks.
One of the amusing things about Mark is that since he was raised very religious, he leans heavily on his faith. His priest (William H. Macy) doesn’t just hear Mark’s confessions; he becomes a friend to Mark. At first he’s wary about Mark’s quest, however he quickly ditches his hang-ups to support what he feels to be a vital initiative to putting Mark on a better path in life.
This film is shot in an understated way, without using fancy camera tricks, allowing the dialogue and the actors to drive the film. Director/writer Ben Lewin creates witty, candid exchanges between the characters that will make you chuckle with their quirky humor without distracting you from their serious message. A large reason this works is the comedic timing of John Hawkes. He delivers Mark’s lines with unbridled honesty and the perfect balance of self-deprecation to prevent the film from slipping into depressing territory. There are moments though, where Mark is a very unlikable character. He’s rude, insensitive, and singularly minded about women as objects. Thankfully, this dissipates as he grows into a more mature person.
The other performances on in the movie are so-so to Hawkes’s by comparison. They’re not bad, just not nearly as captivating. Although Helen Hunt bravely disrobes several times during the picture, her Massachusetts accent is heavy-handed and she comes off a bit stiff at times. William H. Macy seems to be on autopilot for his part as well, which is fine for his character.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is its predictable tear jerker ending. Since the movie is based on a remarkable true story, it obviously pulls from real events, but Lewin didn’t need to go with such a low blow to the audience.
My Grade: B+
To his credit, Leonardo DiCaprio never shies away from challenging roles. The 37-year-old actor relishes the test, consistently exceeding expectations with the nuance he brings to his parts. DiCaprio’s performance as the title character in Clint Eastwood’s biopic “J. Edgar,” is no different, providing depth, and exposing the man behind the legend.
J. Edgar Hoover was one of America’s most powerful men, yet also one of its most enigmatic. He dedicated his life to the FBI, where he forged a reputation as a cutting edge criminal investigator, with solid moral fiber.
In his private life though, Hoover was far from squeaky clean. Rumors abounded of blackmail, cross-dressing, and closeted homosexuality. With his screenplay, Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), sets out to debunk Hoover’s public image, by focusing on these darker aspects of his persona.
DiCaprio portrays both sides of Hoover with great ease. As the fearless leader of the FBI, DiCaprio’s Hoover is a stubborn workaholic with an overinflated ego, who advocates for a firm stance against Communism. He’s equally convincing though as the private Hoover, a socially awkward momma’s boy struggling with his sexual identity. DiCaprio’s efforts are so subtle with this version of Hoover, that when he is around his overbearing mother (Judi Dench), he softens his tone of voice in deference to her.
Kudos should also go to Armie Hammer, who plays Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s love interest and longtime partner. He gives Tolson a quiet sweetness about him, which is strangely contrasting with Hoover’s acerbic personality. Hammer pulls on your heartstrings, getting you to truly believe that Tolson loved and cared for Hoover unconditionally, every moment the two were together.
Stellar performances aside, “J. Edgar” is beautifully shot, and the makeup effects are phenomenal. Director Clint Eastwood shows great reverence for the locations where the film takes place in Washington D.C. His high shots in The Library of Congress, for instance, focus on its grand architecture, establishing the weight of Hoover’s presence in our national government.
Lighting plays an important role as well in Eastwood’s visual styling. He uses high saturation, to give Hoover’s memories a slightly washed out feel, which cast doubt on the accuracy of Hoover’s recollection. In contrast, Eastwood utilizes dark, natural lighting to increase the emotional impact of more turbulent moments, like the scene following the death of Hoover’s mother.
Makeup and aging effects used on the lead actors look superb, right down to the little details, like liver spots on their faces. The result is characters whose mortality is more palpable because they actually look old and weary from their career driven lives.
If you’re looking for a tough procedural drama about how the FBI was formed, this film probably isn’t the right one for you, but if you’re hoping for a more intimate look at the complex man who built it all, then you should see “J. Edgar.”
My Grade: A
Another similarity between the two is the setting of Boston; the mental institution of “Shutter Island” is located on an island in the Boston Harbor Island chain, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Teddy Daniels is a U.S. Marshall from Boston. The film is based on a novel by the local author Dennis Lehane, who penned two other books about Beantown that went on to become fantastic movies: Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. Since I have not read the novel on which “Shutter Island” is based, I’m at a bit of a disadvantage to comment on whether it was a faithful adaptation, however as a thriller the film is quite intriguing.
U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels is assigned to investigate the disappearance of a deadly criminal from the mental institution on Shutter Island. He travels with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to the island, where he is forced to defer to the authorities on the island while conducting his investigation. Daniels feels that the head of the facility Dr. Crawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) does not want him to find the woman who has disappeared, offering little cooperation in the case.
It’s not long before Teddy starts to feel that something is awry, when a hurricane traps him on the island, and it’s clear that the authorities have no real interest in finding the missing patient. A series of bizarre dreams, tied to events from his past and an increasingly paranoid thought process develops for Teddy, as he starts to believe the hospital administration is guilty of dastardly deeds and experiments on its patients. As he starts to realize he is trapped on the island with no escape, he decides to get to the bottom of the conspiracy he believes is taking place no matter what the cost.
“Shutter Island” a good job of planting the seeds of doubt and conspiracy with you, as you start to piece together elements from a series of bizarre dreams DiCaprio’s character experiences. You immediately distrust Dr. Crawley and you grow to doubt Teddy’s partner Chuck, as you start to suspect some seriously shady dealings on the part of hospital administrators. For most of the movie you spend your time wondering how Teddy will make it out alive and how the resolution will play out.
Once the film arrives at the moment of revealing the truth however, the film goes to painstaking lengths to over explain itself. This is seriously the most frustrating aspect of the story, since as a thriller it succeeds in capturing your attention. Instead of being given the clues to put together, I felt I was being beaten over the head with all of the answers at the end.
DiCaprio turns in a strong performance as Teddy Daniels, an individual truly haunted by his own past, struggling to combat significant inner demons in order solve his case. Kingsley’s Crawley is eerily creepy in a way you can’t put your finger on, and possibly evil.
As a director Scorsese has ceased to wow me as he did with his earlier work. He has fallen guilty to cliché camera tricks like the overdone 360 degree pan, or the Michael Bay effect as I like to refer to it. That being said, he has not gone completely senile like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, and can still make decent movies, even if they are not the same caliber as previous hits like “Casino” and “Goodfellas.” ”Shutter Island” is entertaining as a thriller even though its resolution is completely over explained.
My Grade: B+