Before Midnight. Directed by Richard Linklater. In many ways I think this is the most emotional film in Linklater’s “Before” trilogy since each sequel contains less fantasy and more hard truth than the film before it. After the loveliness of Before Sunrise (1995), in which two strangers, Jesse and Celine, meet and fall in love during one magical day spent in Vienna, and then Before Sunset (2004), which catches the pair in a surprise encounter in Paris that forces them to confront the consequences of their 24-hour fling from nine years earlier, Before Midnight is about the realities of what it means to actually be in a relationship and have children together. (The setting, Athens, is a place itself defined by history and the passage of time.) These struggles are reflected in Ethan Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s characters and in how the actors wrote the script with Richard Linklater. It’s great to see the evolution of each character; while some traits have stayed the same, others have changed with the passage of time. I’m tempted to say that Before Sunset is my favorite film in the trilogy since it provides a good balance of the romantic hope and bitter revelations expressed in Sunrise and Midnight, but I cried much more in Midnight because I guess I care more about Jesse and Celine than I initially thought.
P.S. The tribute to Amy Lehrhaupt in the end credits is a bittersweet touch.
Fruitvale Station. Directed by Ryan Coogler. As much as watching the Rocky sequels was part of my preparation for Creed in late 2015/early 2016, so too was my viewing of the debut feature film by Ryan Coogler and his first pairing with star Michael B. Jordan, who reteamed for Creed. Jordan as main character Oscar Grant (an African-American man from Oakland, CA, who was fatally shot by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009), Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer as Wanda (Oscar’s mother), who do a terrific collective job of bringing Oscar’s story to life, in addition to Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, which captures movement with natural light and handheld camerawork. I understand that many moviegoers felt that the film was “manipulative,” particularly because of the scene with the pit bull, but I find the film to be an effective and moving interpretation of Oscar’s last day on Earth. He is not painted as a saint; he made mistakes, for sure, and Coogler portrays the balance between Oscar’s flaws and his attempts to change, looking forward to a new year. Oscar Grant was so young when he died, and his life was not an extraordinary one; Coogler shows how painfully normal and mundane most of the actions on his last day alive were, as well as the cruelty of a tragic death that was the result of police brutality perpetuated by racism and fear.
Hateship Loveship. Directed by Liza Johnson. Like Linda Cardellini in Liza Johnson’s first feature, Return (2011), Kristen Wiig is given a good showcase for her abilities as a dramatic actress. The story is too ridiculous to take seriously – Wiig plays a caretaker so intensely introverted (quiet nearly to the point of being nonverbal) that it’s hard to believe that the object of her obsessive affection, a cocaine-addicted, pathologically lying louse of a single father (Guy Pearce), would see the light and fall in love with her. Wiig’s interactions with her employer, Pearce’s crusty father-in-law (Nick Nolte, undisputed king of crust), and the surly teenager she is charged with taking care of, Pearce’s daughter/Nolte’s granddaughter (Hailee Steinfeld), are fraught with tension because it seems as though Wiig has no idea how to talk to people. The strength of Wiig’s performance holds the flimsy Cinderella retelling together, although the film also picks up whenever there are brief but entertaining appearances by Christine Lahti (as Nolte’s love interest) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pearce’s similarly addicted on-again, off-again girlfriend). I don’t find the film particularly endearing since it’s so difficult to buy into the plot, but I appreciated the opportunity to see Kristen Wiig doing something other than wacky, unsubtle comedy.
Man of Steel. Directed by Zack Snyder. In another case of preparing myself for an upcoming sequel – this time, the behemoth Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I saw last month – I watched the 2013 reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel, starring dimple-chinned Henry Cavill as everyone’s favorite Kansan by way of Krypton. From what I can tell, Cavill is not much of an actor (he actually makes me miss “Smallville’s” Tom Welling, which is downright shocking since Welling wasn’t exactly Shakespearean in his abilities), and I find Cavill’s overly-muscled physique distracting, like he’s a hirsute Ken doll chiseled for the viewer’s enjoyment rather than looking like a real person. (Or are there guys out there who actually look like that without putting in endless hours with a personal trainer?) I’m biased in preferring Man of Steel’s villain, Michael Shannon, though; as General Zod, a Kryptonian warlord with a Caesar haircut of Supreme Evilness, Shannon brings his bug-eyed flair for craziness, imposing 6′ 4″ physique and incredibly hammy line readings (“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal. Trained my entire life to master my senses. Where did you train? ON A FARM???”) to his embrace of such an over-the-top role. It’s a pity that Shannon seems to be the only actor who really sinks his teeth into Man of Steel; I had hoped that Amy Adams would provide some fun and pluck as Lois Lane, particularly because she appears to be adventurous at the beginning of the film, but the character is quickly turned into a stereotypical damsel in distress, constantly getting into scrapes that require Superman to save her. (The worst scene: when Lois is aboard Zod’s ship and, despite being in control of her own faculties, she needs the ghost of Supes’ dad, Jor-El – played by Russell Crowe in phone-it-in mode – to tell her each direction she needs to turn in to shoot her space-gun at advancing foes.) Maybe if Zack Snyder’s film had incorporated more humor than it has (which is to say, almost none), I might have forgiven Man of Steel for some of its misgivings – primarily the lack of exciting dialogue and the by-the-numbers retelling of the Superman story, although the worst part is Snyder’s overuse of crash zooms to take us even closer to the action, a real headache-inducer that I’m glad I avoided seeing in IMAX – but perhaps the cruelest blow for the viewer is a Superman-Lois romance with zero chemistry between Henry Cavill and Amy Adams. Maybe someone should have sent them copies of “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” and told them to lighten up a little and welcome the weirdness.
P.S. I didn’t mention Diane Lane and Kevin Costner at all, but they were both pretty good as Martha and Jonathan Kent, Superman’s (or, I should say, Clark’s) Earth-bound parents. It must be strange for Lane to have had to play a woman visibly older than herself when, at the time of filming, she was only 46 and usually looked like this. That’s Hollywood for you.
The Wolf of Wall Street. Directed by Martin Scorsese. A three-hour exercise in excess and indulgence, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of former stockbroker/scam artist Jordan Belfort and it is a sorry excuse for a Scorsese movie. Only one part of it, the scenes in which Leonardo DiCaprio slowly crawls across a country club floor (and into his car) while high out of his mind on expired Quaaludes, is truly well-executed and enjoyable; you get a feeling that you’re back in the hands of the old Scorsese. Everything else, however, is unfunny and, with few exceptions, displayed in subpar performances; going by this film alone, it’s hard to understand what anyone sees in Margot Robbie as an actress (unless people mistake “daring to do nudity/sex scenes” for “comedic/dramatic ability”). Scorsese stuffs Wolf to the gills with song after song, including Billy Joel, Cypress Hill, “What Power Art Thou” from the opera King Arthur (which I know best as Klaus Nomi’s “The Cold Song”), a Dap-Kings cover of “Goldfinger,” Sir Mix-a-Lot, Foo Fighters, the original Italian-language version of “Gloria” by Umberto Tozzi, Plastic Bertrand, The Lemonheads (my favorite cover of “Mrs. Robinson”) and Matthew McConaughey’s advice from the beginning of the film turned into “The Money Chant.” But what does all the music matter when the story isn’t interesting? I presume that Scorsese must have enjoyed filming all the sexual content (there are so many scenes involving it that I have no idea what the exact number is), but what some people may view as bold or fun is just a glitzy distraction trying to hide the problems of the narrative. It’s like nobody dared tell Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker what to cut out; the result is that many scenes run on far too long, and what’s worse, they don’t help move the story along or deepen our sense of character development. There is little to no depth in any of the characters – you see/get exactly what you would imagine – and the only performances worthy of any merit are only notable because of the actors playing the characters and attempting to rise above the material (Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti). Unless you are a Scorsese fanboy or fangirl, or you love Leonardo DiCaprio so desperately that you are willing to forgive obvious issues with filmmaking, you should avoid The Wolf of Wall Street. You are not missing anything special or profound.
P.S. I’m glad that director Meera Menon and screenwriter Amy Fox have made Equity (in theaters this July), which is a drama about women working on Wall Street. That’s a story I’d like to see told. Throughout Wolf, I kept wondering: what about the women who work in Jordan Belfort’s office? How do they deal with this boys’ club? Why do they subject themselves to this lifestyle? Are they more “human” than the male characters? (The story about Kimmie Belzer makes it seem so.) Etc., etc.