Tag Archive: Leonardo DiCaprio


Best of Movies: 451-500

This is going to be different than many of my Best Of lists simply because I won’t have an actual review to link to. So, instead, I’ll write very short 2-3 sentence blurbs about any film/performance/director that I don’t have any actual review of so you can understand my logic for picking them. If you want to see the scores for the various films that I watched during this 50 block (and want an explanation for why so many movies I don’t have reviews), check out this link which is about my hiatus and all the films I’ve watched in the meantime. Anyways, let’s talk about movies!

Best Picture – Drama:

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1. 12 Years a Slave

2. La Dolce Vita (A masterful and melancholic look into the hedonistic and empty lifestyles of the Roman jet-setters in the 1960s. Another all-time classic from one of cinema’s greatest, Federico Fellini.)

3. Memento

4. Boys Don’t Cry (A heartwrenching treatise on that most basic human yearning for more than the small, trapped world you know and the cruelty of those who refuse to accept that which they don’t understand)

5. Serpico

 

Best Picture – Comedy:

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1. After Hours (One of the all time great dark comedies and a perfect encapsulation of the ennui and angst of the 80s and Reagan’s America told through a series of Kafka-esque misadventures.

2. Chasing Amy (One of my three favorite films of all time. One of the most honest and clever depictions of modern sexuality and the 90s answer to Annie Hall, if not quite as great as the greatest American comedy of all time)

3. The Wolf of Wall Street

4. Fantastic Mr. Fox

5. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the best feature from Britain’s premiere pranksters. A master class in absurdism and high-brow humor. There’s more classic sketches in that film than can honestly be believed)

 

Best Director:

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1. Steve McQueen: 12 Years a Slave

2. Federico Fellini: La Dolce Vita

3. Sidney Lumet: Serpico

4. Paolo Sorrentino: The Great Beauty (One of the most visually stunning films since The Tree of Life and easily a modern response to La Dolce Vita. Sorrentino’s instant classic is an entrancing portrait of modern existential angst and a love letter to Rome)

5. Martin Scorsese: The Wolf of Wall Street

 

Best Actor in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Harvey Keitel: Bad Lieutenant (Simply put, this was one of the most fearless, balls-to-the-wall gonzo performances in movie history. If you want to see a man on the edge of oblivion, Harvey Keitel is phenomenal in this cult classic.)

2. Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler (Sean Penn was also spectacular in Milk in 2008, but the Oscar should have been Mickey Rourke for his bone-weary and tragic performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. His performance is so real, it hurts to watch.)

3. Al Pacino: Serpico

4. Chiwetel Ejiofor: 12 Years a Slave

5. Marcello Mastroianni: La Dolce Vita (If you want to know what it’s like to be an intellectual and realize that life itself is meaningless or at the very least, you’ve been living a meaningless life, watch Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. Existential breakdowns have never looked so good.)

 

Best Actress in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Hillary Swank: Boys Don’t Cry (This isn’t just the greatest performance by a female actress in the history of cinema. It is easily one of the greatest and most transformative performances of all time. This is one of cinema’s most legendary roles and performances.)

2. Cate Blanchett: Blue Jasmine (She’s basically playing a 21st century Blanche DuBois, but Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress Oscar this year was well-deserved in a Woody Allen film that is tough to watch because the emotions are so uncomfortable and intense.)

3. Adele Exarchopolous: Blue Is the Warmest Color (An electric and career-making performance from an extraordinarily talented young actress. Never has first love been so devastating to watch thanks to her soulful and wise turn.)

4. Judi Dench: Philomena

5. Patricia Clarkson: The Station Agent (She’s one of indie cinema’s darlings for a reason, and as the lonely divorcee that befriends Peter Dinklage, she brings gravitas to a role that could have too easily become cliche.)

 

Best Actor in a Comedic Role:

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1. Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street

2. Bill Murray: Broken Flowers (Alongside Lost in Translation, this one of the best roles of Bill Murray’s illustrious career, and few actors can channel the world wear misery of a washed-up Casanova while still bringing the laughs when called for.)

3. Christian Bale: American Hustle (Great things happen when  Christian Bale works with David O. Russell and while American Hustle might have been slight compared to last year’s masterful Silver Linings Playbook, Christian Bale was dazzling as the fast-talking con man.)

4. Ben Affleck: Chasing Amy (Gone Girl gives me hope that Ben’s career as a legitimate actor might be revived, but Ben Affleck hasn’t had a role as rewarding or challenging as Holden in over a decade, and it’s nice to remind yourself that the man can really act. His credentials as a director on the other hand aren’t in question. He’s very talented.)

5. Paul Rudd: This Is 40 (This Is 40 was too long and had way too many moments that didn’t work the way they should have, but Paul Rudd brought unexpected emotional depth that made a film that shouldn’t have worked actually work because his performance rang so true.)

 

Best Actress in a Comedic Role:

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1. Joey Lauren Adams: Chasing Amy (A role that could have been too close to being one-note, or even worse, unrealistic because of the subtlety of Alyssa’s sexual identity/orientation. But Joey Lauren Adams brought a maturity and insight to the role that was often better than the role deserved.)

2. Leslie Mann: This Is 40 (Like Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann’s performance helped to salvage a film that might not have worked if the performances weren’t totally on spot. And even more than Rudd, Leslie Mann brought a desperation and sense of being trapped to a woman beginning to exit middle age.)

3. Shannyn Sossamon: The Rules of Attraction (Few films, although the book is infinitely better, capture the confusion of sexuality and lust and bad decision making in college as well as The Rules of Attraction, and Shannyn Sossamon totally inhabits her character’s lack of direction.)

4. Amy Adams: American Hustle (Let no one say that Amy Adams can’t act because once again, David O. Russell brings out the best in her although I wished that the role she played offered her even more to do.)

5. Idina Menzel: Frozen (Idina Menzel has the voice of an angel. What else do I need to say here?)

 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

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1. Robert Downey Jr.: Less Than Zero (The movie is a train wreck but Robert Downey Jr. gives one of the best performances of his career and one of the best performances of the 80s as a completely coked out college drop out with no idea how to live his life. It’s real-life subtext makes it almost too much to watch as Downey spirals further and further out of control.)

2. Michael Fassbender: 12 Years a Slave

3. Leonardo DiCaprio: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (At the age of 19, Leonardo DiCaprio gave a nuanced and authentic performance of a young man with a mental disability, and a star was immediately born.)

4. Peter Sarsgaard: Boys Don’t Cry (Peter Sarsgaard plays a man who commits monstrous acts in Boys Don’t Cry, but he never turns him into a monster. And Sarsgaard reminds us that you never know who is capable of terrible brutality.)

5. Bradley Cooper: American Hustle (This was the real star performance from American Hustle, and Bradley Cooper’s transformation from Hollywood pretty boy to A List acting talent is a wonderful breath of fresh air. He steals the whole film.)

 

Best Supporting Actress:

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1. Meryl Streep: August: Osage County (Another walking disaster of a film, but Meryl Streep gives her best performance in recent memory [far better than The Iron Lady] and should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars instead of Lead Actress because Julia Roberts had the film’s lead role. A stunning turn in an otherwise awful film.)

2. Lupita N’yongo: 12 Years a Slave

3. Jennifer Lawrence: American Hustle (J-Law continues her run as the most talented young actress in America. Lupita might have edged her out at the Oscars this year, but Jennifer Lawrence will have many more Academy Award noms and wins to come.

4. Marcia Gay Harden: The Mist (This movie doesn’t work if you don’t think Mrs. Carmody can convert the weak to her cause, and Marcia Gay Harden is such a terrifying vision of Christian rage and self-righteousness that you understand immediately why our tragic band of survivors want out of that grocery store and outside with the Lovecraftian monsters instead.)

5. Sally Hawkins: Blue Jasmine (It may not have been as substantive and challenging a role as she had in Happy-Go-Lucky, but as Cate Blanchett’s put-upon sister, she’s easily the most sympathetic and human figure in the film).

 

Alrighty! Come back in 50 films (which should take another three to four months), and we’ll have another one of these lists. Hopefully, I’ll find the time to review “A+” and “A” films again. Maybe we’ll even throw “A-” films in there for good measure.

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It takes an almost sociopathic disregard for good taste to begin a “prestige” film with a dwarf being thrown at a dartboard as hedonistic stock brokers gamble on the results. But coming from the man who had the deranged Travis Bickle take his classy love interest (Cybil Shephard) to a porno movie on their first date, it makes a certain deranged sense coming from the iconic Martin Scorsese who has built an entire career on crafting morality plays that may not seem as such on the surface. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most controversial films of the last two years, but anyone watching it with a clear eye for the director’s intention recognize it as perhaps the most scathing indictment of greed and excess since Glengarry Glen Ross.

We live in a world where reckless Wall Street gambling and a total disregard for the idea of risk vs. collateral wrecked not only the United States’ economy but the economy of the entire world. And a film where a self-described crook and liar gets a slap on the wrist for his crimes against the public does not, on the surface, seem like the right path to take when dissecting the mindset of the men who nearly dragged the U.S. into another Great Depression. But by turning Wall Street excess into a raucous satire, Scorsese is able to make points with more laser precision and immediate impact than a straight-faced serious drama could have hoped.

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Based on the autobiography of the titular Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s film is the true story of Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). After watching the devastation of the stock market during 1987’s Black Monday and losing his job as a broker for a prestigious Wall Street brokerage, Jordan starts his own brokerage, Stratton Oakmont, making money off of pink-sheet stocks: cheap penny stocks that give brokers a 50% commission on sales as opposed to the 1% commission on high-end blue chip stocks. The catch with the pink-sheet stocks is that they’re penny stocks for a reason and only fools would invest in them.

And it’s not long before Jordan and his friends, a hodgepodge of drug dealers and scam artists, turn Stratton Oakmont into a business where Jordan is bringing home $49 million a year. And while selling people stocks that aren’t actually worth a damn isn’t a crime, stock price manipulation is and alongside his founding partner Donny (Moneyball‘s Jonah Hill), Jordan gets involved in every illegal Wall Street crime imaginable, from insider trading to embezzlement to price fixing. And not even the relentless investigation of FBI Agent Denham (Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kyle Chandler) is enough to make Jordan stop his ways.

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It doesn’t hurt that Jordan, Donny, and company are hedonists that would put the most depraved nobles of the Roman empire to shame. Over the course of The Wolf of Wall Street‘s three hour running time, Jordan and his men consume enough drugs to fund a small South American government, and they sleep with enough hookers to solve the debt crisis (if said hookers were taxable). Jordan has more money than any person could possibly spend in one lifetime, and The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t afraid to explore the completely outrageous waste of wealth that happens when it becomes increasingly concentrated in just a few individuals (and particularly when those individuals are too coked out to spend it with any responsibility).

And what makes The Wolf of Wall Street so controversial and so repugnant to the traditional vanguards of the moral police (both on the left and the right) is that it is an undeniably fun film and that The Wolf of Wall Street crosses the line so many times in this film that it’s easy to lose track, including a particularly memorable moment where Jordan and the founding partners of Stratton Oakmont discuss the proper protocol for hiring dwarves to be thrown at dartboards. But, there would be no other way to tell this story. The film has fun with the drug scenes because, guess what, drugs are fun. That’s why people do them. There’s a certain comedic allure of sociopathic behavior and The Wolf of Wall Street knows it: like Jonah Hill pulling his dick out at a party and masturbating cause he took too many Quaaludes.

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And while the consequences for Jordan’s actions in the court of law amass to a 3 year stint at a Club Fed prison, The Wolf of Wall Street shows the consequences of the out of control lives these men live. Jordan loses his family. Donny nearly chokes to death while eating a sandwich after a particularly traumatic Quaalude experience. The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal’s Brad dies of a heart attack in his 30s cause that what happens when you abuse cocaine like Tony Montana. Jordan is reduced to betraying all of his friends in order to serve less jail time. The Wolf of Wall Street may not drape its ethical message in ham-fisted preaching, but it’s there if you take half a second to look for it.

And, like all of Scorsese’s films, The Wolf of Wall Street is a technical marvel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the opulent depravity that fills virtually every second of the film but is able to capture more intimate and darker moments in the starker images necessary to convey the emotions. Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker edits one of the most raucous moments of Scorsese’s entire career for the film’s famous Quaalude crawl which is conveyed in fragmented, delirious terms. When either Scorsese or Schoonmaker passes away, it will be a tragic moment in film.

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In no uncertain terms, Jordan Belfort is the finest performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career and the apex of DiCaprio’s decade long collaboration with Martin Scorsese. For anyone who’s ever doubted DiCaprio’s place as the heir to Robert De Niro as Scorsese’s muse, The Wolf of Wall Street will change your mind or nothing will. It’s a fearless, balls-to-the-wall performance and DiCaprio leaves it all out there. I have not seen Dallas Buyers Club, but I can not begin to imagine how McConaughey is better in it than DiCaprio was in this. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has already become one of the defining performances of the aughts for me.

Had you told me back in 2005 that the kid trying to buy fish boots would have two Oscar nominations, I’d have laughed in your face, but somewhere along the line, Jonah Hill transformed himself into a respectable performer even if I’m not sure what was particularly Oscar worthy about his performances in this or Moneyball. He’s great. Don’t get me wrong. Donny is part of the long line of psychopathic supporting men in Scorsese films begun by Joe Pesci, but his performance pales so completely in comparison to the masterclass of frenetic and crazy performing that DiCaprio puts on.

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My only complaint about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is long. I didn’t particularly feel the length when I watched the film for the first time in theatres because the film is so vibrant and alive (a quality lacking from some of Scorsese’s latest works), but upon a second viewing at home when I rented the film from Netflix, I felt those three hours. But, if you can make it through the film’s considerable length and you can handle with the film’s over-the-top content in the way that it’s meant to be handled, then you’re in for what is Scorsese’s best film since Gangs of New York and possibly even Goodfellas. It’s destined to be a modern classic.

Final Score: A

 

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In 2008, before Revolutionary Road was released, the film generated a ton of hype for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, it was the first on-screen pairing of Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed). It was also buzz-worthy for the fact that Kate Winslet’s then-husband, Sam Mendes (Skyfall), was directing her in a film that required her to have sex scenes with two different men. That’s a feat of marital trust that I’m not sure that I could pull off. While the film was generally well-received, it’s praise nowhere near matched the hype, and having come to the film five years later removed from the hype, I see Revolutionary Road as a film with infinite promise that is sullied by some of the worst, most overcooked dialogue I’ve ever encountered for this blog.

To Revolutionary Road‘s credit, the film is dark beyond compare. The only thing keeping this from being a Todd Solondz-esque journey into suburban malaise is a general lack of graphic material. As a portrait of a marriage on the perpetual verge of collapse and of lives (and perhaps an entire human existence) that are devoid of meaning and fulfillment, Revolutionary Road starts bleak, stays bleak, and ends bleak, and it never shies away from the most brutal and intimate moments in a marriage. With astounding performances from its leads (and supporting player Michael Shannon), Revolutionary Road could have been one of the most effecting character pieces of the 2000s. As it is, I found myself laughing every five minutes from the comically overblown dialogue and speechifying from its principal players.

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Dysfunctional barely begins to cover the marriage of the Wheeler family in the supposed perfectness of the 1950s. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) works as a salesman/copy writer for the same firm his father worked for and hates the complete lack of purpose in his life. April (Kate Winslet) was a former actress who now pretends to love her empty life as a house wife. Frank cheats on April with a cute secretary (Zoe Kazan) while April has eyes for their neighbor, Shep. When the duo decide that the only way to save their marriage and their lives by moving to Paris, have they found their last chance for hope or is it just another delusion that their lives can have any meaning?

While I have the sneaking suspicion that this is a movie I may actually appreciate on a second viewing, that didn’t make the first viewing any more bearable. It takes until the film’s final thirty minutes for the slow dripping of characterization to finally gel into something meaningful, and by that time, I had already exhausted my patience with the film’s snail-like pacing. Movies like Sunday Bloody Sunday show that deliberate peeling away of character can make for first-class drama, but Revolutionary Road betrays its thematic material and rich characterization with mind-numbing emotional histrionics and dialogue that nukes away any subtlety the scenes might have carried.

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Thankfully, the film had three simply marvelous performances to distract me from the stunningly awful dialogue in the movie (and it’s flaccid first two acts). Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet give one of the best performances of their careers as these spouses whose indifference towards one another spills over to near hatred. Each is lost and hollow and desperate for any form of acceptance and meaning, and through their emotionally explosive performances, Kate and Leo make us feel the years of pent-up resentment and frustration eating away at these two spouses. That they achieve this despite the dialogue hurdles in their way is even more of a testament to their performances.

The real scene-stealer of the film though was Michael Shannon whose dynamic portrayal of the mentally unstable son of the Wheelers’ real estate agent provided the film the emotional and manic jolt it needed to put the pieces in play for the film’s rewarding final stretch. Along with Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, this was a superb modern portrayal of mental illness (i.e. a portrayal set in the 50s). Michael Shannon was the only cast member to receive an Academy Award nomination. Kate and Leo deserved them as well, but more than anyone, Michael Shannon’s performance was incendiary.

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I’ll draw this review to a close because there are other ways I’d rather spend my Wednesday evening than rambling about a film I didn’t particularly care for. There’s a lot to like about Revolutionary Road (and Sam Mendes’s visual direction is superb), but there are even more things to hate about it. I can’t stress enough how “pretentious college theatre student” the dialogue in this movie felt and how much it drew me out of the experience again and again. If you’re a fan of good acting, I’m not sure if I can say that Leo and Kate make this film worth the price of admission, but they’re about the only thing that could.

Final Score: C+

 

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Oh Quentin Tarantino, why do you tease me so? When was your last truly consistent film? Jackie Brown? Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds (especially Basterds) are overflowing with brilliant moments, but they are either flawed in some structural way (Basterds) are simply, intentionally not serious (Kill Bill and Basterds). I honestly believe that he hasn’t been able to put together a consistently perfect film from beginning to end since his Jackie Brown/Pulp Fiction heyday. His penchant for excess and for cartoonish genre caricatures have taken over his rock solid characterizations and peerless ear for quotable dialogue. As a long-time fan of the Western genre and Quentin Tarantino, I’ve long awaited Django Unchained, and while the film is literally perfect for an hour and fifteen minutes (possibly the best work Tarantino has ever done for that time frame of the film), Tarantino’s juvenile sensibilities and lack of an internal editor turned Django into a bloated, imperfect “what could have been.”

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the film. Django Unchained is an unquestionably great film. The missteps it takes generally remain in the shadow of the moments of true inspiration in the film although they are just glaring enough to consistently draw you out of the picture. The stretch of the film where Tarantino nails the themes he’s trying to capture (more on that later) are dark, complex, morally ambiguous, and consistently subversive in a way that only Tarantino seems to be able to achieve. But because the film decides it has something to serious to say, it’s general inability to see through on those grand statements and it’s constant devolvement into slapstick-levels of comedic violence creates a frustrating and ultimately immature emotional dichotomy for the movie that begins to tear itself apart from the inside as Django progresses.

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Two years before the beginning of the Civil War (which lends a dark fatalism to the timing of most of the film), German bounty hunter/retired dentist King Schultz (two time Oscar-winner Christoph Schultz) makes a living killing criminals for the U.S. Government. They may be wanted “dead or alive,” but dead is easier to transport. As the film begins, Dr. Schultz is hunting the Brittle brothers, three former foreman on a large slave plantation. Schultz’s only lead is Django (Horrible Bosses‘ Jamie Foxx), a slave from that same plantation who has been separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Schultz buys Django (in a classic Tarantino cold-open) with the promise that if he can help him find the Brittle Brothers, Schultz will give Django his freedom and $75. And the hunt for the Brittle brothers is only the first act of the film.

After Django and Schultz score the Brittle Brothers Bounty (I can’t possibly imagine that being a spoiler), the real meat of the film begins when Django joins Schultz to become a bounty hunter in his own right so that he can buy the freedom of his wife. And after a winter of hunting criminals, Django and Schultz track down Broomhilda’s new owner, a Francophile slave master and slave fighting ring baron, Calvin Candie (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). Understanding that Candie won’t sell Broomhilda at a reasonable price willingly, Django and Schultz concoct a plan to infiltrate Candie’s plantation, “Candieland” (I shit you not), to free Django’s beloved. And if that means that Django will have to go undercover as a black slaver (the lowest of the low in the 19th century black community), so be it, although the real threat may not be Candie but Candie’s scheming head house slave Stephen (The Avengers‘ Samuel L. Jackson) who immediately loathes the free Django.

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Like every Tarantino film before it, Django Unchained‘s greatest strength in addition to its stellar dialogue is the absurd depth of its cast. Jamie Foxx’s performance is probably the slightest out of the primary characters (well, Kerry Washington’s performance is fairly forgettable but she’s rarely on screen and her characterization is intentionally paper-thin), but even he finds the steel and anger that transforms Django into the force of pure revenge he becomes by film’s end. Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for playing King Schultz (his second for a Tarantino film) and while Schultz isn’t nearly as compelling or complex as Basterd‘s Hans Landa, but Christoph Waltz is one of the best foreign actors to grace American screens in decades so I’ll forgive Tarantino if he couldn’t make this role quite as great as the past one (though Philip Seymour Hoffman should have won for The Master. Him or Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln).

Funnily enough, I don’t even think that Christoph Waltz gave the best performance in the film. That was either Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie or Sam Jackson’s Stephen. I know that’s an unpopular opinion but both characters were far more complex and better written, and they required more talent to play, and both actors seemingly totally lost themselves in the part. I might even go as far to say that Candie is possibly the best performance of DiCaprio’s career. He took to the bad guy so much better than I could have ever expected. Candie has a slick, charming side, but DiCaprio also displays the fierce evil and anger rooting in his heart. And Sam Jackson… just Jesus. In the entire Tarantino canon, Stephen makes a strong case as the most despicable/brilliant villain yet (only behind Hans), and Sam Jackson’s devotion to brutalizing every classic Uncle Tom stereotype ever is insane. DiCaprio and Jackson were robbed of Oscar nominations.

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And, as I’ve said, the film’s second act is perfect. Literally. It’s probably the best hour or so any Tarantino film ever made. And that’s saying something since I worship the man. It has something serious to say about slavery, revenge, and the moral inequities we are willing to commit in the name of something good. Unlike a lot of films about slavery, it is not watered down in this movie whatsoever. In fact, its portrayal of slavery is so dark (and accurate) that it may come as a shock to many modern audiences. And Django nearly loses himself in the character he has to portray in order to enter Candie’s farm. He allows slaves to die and be beaten and he is as awful to them as the whites just to rescue his wife. It’s moral ambiguity at it’s finest, and up to a climactic dinner where Django and Schultz are on the cusp of freeing Broomhilda.

Which makes the rest of the film such a frustrating affair. Don’t get me wrong, I could watch the film’s final forty minutes over and over again. I could watch Jamie Foxx kill slave-owners in an orgiastic display of blood lust all day, but what makes that explosion of violence different from Basterds is the lack of a metatextual subtext shaming the audience for enjoying the gore so much (i.e. Inglourious Basterds eventually became a satire of overly nationalistic war films). Django is simply a revenge fantasy played brutally straight. Except not because it’s a cartoon in live-action for gore-chasing grown-ups. I understand that something can be both serious and juvenile, but Tarantino doesn’t toe that line as well in Django as say Woody Allen or even Chasing Amy-era Kevin Smith. And because of the movie’s constant mood whiplash, you can never tell when you’re supposed to be taking a scene seriously and when you’re supposed to be laughing at the silliness of it all.

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I loved Django Unchained. When it was done, my dad and I talked about how much I enjoyed it but I also had to immediately temper it with the various criticisms that I laid down before. I would have loved to see a version of this film that Tarantino plays more seriously. I think that could have been the best movie Tarantino had ever made. As it is, Django Unchained has all of the hallmarks of a great Quentin Tarantino film. Sharply realized characters, quotable dialogue, a distinct visual style, and a never-ending supply of fun. But it also falls prey to all of the curses facing his most recent crop of films, mostly an excess of violence removed from a serious context. It’s not enough to make me not love this movie and I’m sure I’ll watch the hell out of it like I have every Tarantino film, but it fails to reach the apex of Tarantino greatness because it doesn’t seem to know exactly what movie it wants to be.

Final Score: A-

P.S.: It may however have the best Tarantino soundtrack ever for what that’s worth.

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If there’s ever been a movie made that comes as close to absolute perfection as one can get but errs ever so slightly along the way, it’s Gangs of New York. In many ways, I have always found this film to be Martin Scorsese’s most ambitious and artful enterprise, but it’s Scorsese’s very ambition that leads the film to stray from its path. Along with Woody Allen, Marty Scorsese is arguably one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors. From the modern day cops & robbers thriller The Departed to the bustling children’s fantasy of Hugo to the lush, romantic period drama The Age of Innocence, his skills know no bounds (obvious, we include his now iconic crime epics like Goodfellas). Gangs of New York is Scorsese’s swing at bat for the historical epic, and it’s a home run like the rest of his career. In one of his darkest, most pessimistic works, Scorsese casts a prophetic eye to America’s political splits by looking back at our ethnic schisms, while wrapping it in a Shakespearean tale of revenge and American history.

If Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life became the summation of every theme and trick Malick had used in his films before hand, Gangs of New York fits into the Scorsese canon in the same way, and to be honest, none of his films have reached these heights since. As a man obsessed with the conflict between religious identity and our most base instincts and desires, Scorsese has become the definitive American director to explore religious guilt and the psychic conflict it breeds. He has also crafted tales centered around men and women defined heavily by ethnicity in worlds where that is all many others see. He loves men of great stature but even greater fallibility, and perhaps no American director besides David Simon is so acutely aware of the role that environment and birth play in our fate. And through Gangs of New York, Scorsese makes his grand, cynical statement once and for all on all the themes that have propelled his career.

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Before New York City became the commercial center of the world and Times Square was the most trafficked and wealthy spot on this planet, it was a poor city in the 1800s with rampant crime and plagued by ethnic strife. Though Tammany Hall, led by Boss Tweed (played in the film by Jim Broadbent), seduced the flood of immigrants entering the city as soon as they got off the boat, nativist xenophobic sentiment was not far behind from the strong-arm tactics of members of the Know-Nothing Party who wanted the nation’s docks closed to all foreigners. And, just as the United States is instituting its first draft to man the Civil War, foreign resentment and massive wealth disparities feed the fuel of public discontent, and the slightest disturbance would mean blood on the streets (when the gangs aren’t causing it already). It’s clear that one doesn’t have to make much of a stretch to find parallels from the film to not only the early 2000s that birthed the movie but also the increasingly polemic America we live in now.

The film begins in 1849 with a battle to the death between the Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang led by Priest Vallon (Michael Collins‘s Liam Neeson), and the Natives, a brutal American-born gang led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis). When Bill defeats the Priest in hand-to-hand combat, the Dead Rabbits are no more, and the Priest’s son, Amsterdam (played as a grown-up by Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), is left an orphan. Amsterdam is sent-off to the Hellgate reform school, and sixteen long years he waits and lets his anger and desire for revenge grow. When he’s finally released from the asylum sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to the city of his birth seeking nothing less than the death of the man who killed his father. But when Amsterdam returns to New york, Bill “The Butcher” is stronger than ever, and though he is initially trying to simply infiltrate Bill’s organization, Amsterdam quickly finds himself becoming a son figure to Bill who doesn’t realize Amsterdam’s true identity.

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(side note. every part of this review before this sentence was written yesterday. I passed out writing it and I’ve only just now had time to return to it. So, my apologies if my thoughts now seem disconnected)

Much like The Age of Innocence before it, Gangs of New York is everything you could possibly want in a historical epic and it mostly avoids the trappings of the era. While the costumes and period detail are astounding (though it turns out that Scorsese used a hodgepodge of different times and looks to create the feel of the film), the “period” of the film isn’t the point. It’s not a film meant to dryly capture historical facts. History books and documentaries exist to do that. Instead, Scorsese uses the class discontent, racial animosity, and seething anger of the era to turn a mirror back onto the current age. And, in the process, he asks very uncomfortable questions about one of the few wars that everyone (at least in the North) in this country can agree on today, the Civil War. By peering into darker pages of American history and wrapping it in a tragic story of revenge, Scorsese finds universal truths of the American experience. With  a script partially written by Margaret and You Can Count on Me‘s Kenneth Lonergan, the power of the story and characters should be no surprise.

In classic Scorsese fashion though, Gangs of New York is an enthralling film to look at, not just because of the striking period detail but also because of the striking cinematography from Michael Ballhaus. When the film centers around the Five Points (the area of New York City that would later on become Times Square), there is a darkness and messiness to the film’s visual style and production design (though any history buff could tell you there wasn’t nearly enough shit on the streets). And when the film briefly takes a visit to the richer parts of the city, you could be forgiven for believing you’d stepped onto the set of The Age of Innocence, and the movie’s visual style matches the new feel. And lest we forget, the movie has one of the most famous closing montages of all time as the old New York is quickly swept away and we see the ever evolving New York City skyline til it reaches the present.

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Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest film actor that’s ever lived. If you can watch his body of work and not come to that conclusion, we evaluate acting differently. His dedication to his craft is simply peerless. To prepare for the role of Bill “The Butcher,” Lewis listened to old recordings of 19th century NY politician William Jennings Bryan in order to master a New York accent that has ceased to exist. He refused to take modern medicine when he caught pneumonia during principal photography for this film because it hadn’t been invented yet (he eventually caved when it nearly killed him). Yeah, that’s sort of crazy, but it’s that type of commitment to his parts that makes Daniel Day-Lewis such an extraordinary talent and why he’s won three Best Actor Oscars (more than anyone else). I haven’t seen The Pianist yet so I can’t say if Adrien Brody was better, but man, he must have been really good to beat Daniel Day-Lewis for this film.

This was one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s first really mature roles in a post-Titanic world and the beginning of his partnership with Martin Scorsese (which I hope just lasts forever cause the two work magic together), DiCaprio still brought his A-game even if he wasn’t able to meet the heights he would later set in The Departed. But, with Amsterdam, we got to see much of the boiling anger mixed with naked vulnerability that would help to define some of DiCaprio’s best roles. Although, hilariously like The Departed, he does have trouble maintaining his accent over the course of this film (though just like in The Departed, the script does try to hand-wave this away). Cameron Diaz also gives easily her best performance other than Being John Malkovich as the pick-pocket that catches Amsterdam’s eyes but also threatens to be his downfall.

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If the film can be faulted then, it’s that it has so much to say and not nearly enough time to say it all. I think that the film’s climax is one of the best things Scorsese’s ever done in terms of sheer Hellish, apocalyptic destruction, but it becomes so unfocused that on your first viewing (or three), it may not be terribly apparent why everything that is happening is happening and why it’s necessary for Scorsese to show it all. And the only time where the film really feels like it’s starting to lag over it’s nearly three hour running time is immediately following… well, a moment in the film that I don’t want to spoil, but the movie begins to feel a little bit more like  history lesson than the Shakespearean tale it had before. Although those moments do dovetail to give the film it’s messy, tragic finale.

I’ll draw this to a close. I’m re-making the list for this blog (I think I’ve accidentally been deleting movies from my list rather than just the one’s I’ve watched), and as someone who’s done that twice before (I straight up lost my first list. Yes, that was as terrible as it sounds), I can already tell you how long it’s going to take me to remake the list for this blog. But, now, I’ll be keeping it in the Cloud so I don’t really need to worry about losing it. Cause if I lose it again, I’ll probably just say f*** it and quit doing this blog. Anywyas, that’s a time consuming activity, and I want to finish at least one decade every day in terms of repopulating that list. I did the 2010s and 2000s yesterday. Today’s the 90s. My last words on this film then are, if you’ve managed to not see Gangs of New York yet, do so immediately. It just misses perfection, but it many ways it’s the most impactful film Scorsese’s ever made .

Final Score: A

 

Here’s something that may shock my readers. While I’m a self-admitted fanatic of William Shakespeare, I am not especially fond of Romeo and Juliet. There’s no denying that the play contains some of his most memorable lines and that the and the violent spiral of events leading up to its ending are suitably tragic, but I’ve never been able to buy into the love story at the center of the play. Romeo is a love-sick puppy dog pining over a woman named Rosaline at the beginning of the play to the point where he’s become depressed over not having her (I won’t even get into Juliet’s complete lack of a personality) but after seeing Juliet, a member of his family’s sworn enemies, he falls heads over heels in love with her (as does she to him), and they are married within a day. Within a week of being together, they are so madly in love with one another that Romeo commits suicide when he believes Juliet is dead and Juliet does the same when she finds her Romeo when she awakens from her self-inflicted coma. It’s hogwash and completely unrealistic to the point of being patently absurd. Shakespeare’s prose was as brilliant as ever, but I’ve never been able to emotionally invest myself in this story the same way I could with Hamlet, Macbeth, or (my favorite) King Lear.

Well, leave it to Baz Luhrmann to take an already problematic play and turn it into an over-stylized and cartoonish mess. Anyone who has seen Moulin Rouge knows that Luhrmann isn’t exactly the most subtle director out there (and don’t get me started on the sin of including “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in that film), but Luhrmann’s modernized adaptation of Romeo and Juliet left subtlety behind in pre-production and went for almost unwatchable camp instead. Luhrmann’s versin of the play takes place in (then) modern America in Verona Beach, California (an obvious play on Venice Beach) while still maintaining Shakespeare’s original dialogue, therefore guns are still called swords and everyone is talking like they just stepped out of the renaissance fair. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes take the roles of the two star-crossed lovers with back-up support from Lost‘s Harold Perrinau as the flamboyant Mercutio, Super Mario Bros‘ John Leguizamo as the villainous Tybalt, Role Models‘ Paul Rudd as Juliet’s betrothed Paris, and many others.

This film is hit and miss, but when it misses, it’s a trainwreck. Luhrmann actually does several things right. Leo and Claire Danes were cast perfectly for these roles, and while Leo wasn’t quite at the prime of his acting ability yet, even at that age, he was still very talented and you could catch glimpses of why he would eventually replace Robert DeNiro as Martin Scorscese’s muse. Claire Danes has been criminally underrated her entire career (where is the love for My So Called Life), and she’s only just now started getting credit for her talent with her award-winning role on Homeland. Despite the fact that Juliet is an absurdly shallow character, Claire Danes makes it work. Harold Perrinau was the real scene-stealer as Mercutio, and he brought a vibrancy and intensity that managed to seem natural for easily the play’s best character and not make it seem absurdly campish like everything else in the film. I’ll refrain from eviscerating the performance of John Leguizamo who was seriously miscast as was Jamie Kennedy in a smaller role. Luhrmann has a Fellini-esque ability to capture faces and use them for optimum aesthetic effect and there are many moments in the film where he is simply able to transform the already gorgeous faces of DiCaprio and Danes into something extraordinarily beautiful.

This film’s opening scene, which is lifted straight from Scene I of Act I of the play (except for the obvious setting switch), is one of the most horrendous things I’ve ever seen in the history of this blog, and that includes Christine and The Girl with the Pistol. Everyone in the scene (but John Leguizamo) are hamming up the material to almost satirical levels, and Luhrmann uses such frenetic and unnecessary cuts and edits that it almost gives you motion sickness. If this were intended to be comedy, it would be one thing (though I doubt I would enjoy it), but instead, it’s meant to be played straight and it’s so terrible that it goes past the point of being hilariously bad. It simply becomes horrendously aggravating. That’s the film’s problem though. You have moments here and there where the cinematography is actually brilliant and Luhrmann just lets the story speak for itself, but then he feels the need to inject this hyper-stylistic element to the film and 9 times out of 10 it simply doesn’t pay off. There’s more mood whiplash in this film than a Joss Whedon production but without any of the charm that makes Whedon so lovable.

I am open to radical re-interpretations of Shakespeare’s work (Akira Kurosawa’s samurai re-imagining of King Lear with Ran remains one of the best films I’ve reviewed for this blog), but Luhrmann’s inconsistent film is an almost unmitigated failure only saved by flashes of brilliance that rarely shine through. If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, don’t watch this. If you’re a fan of Leo or Claire Danes, this should only be seen just so you can know how far they’ve come in their careers. There isn’t a subset of my reading audience that I would subject this film to, and if the score I’m giving it seems too high for a movie I hate so much, it’s because of those flashes of brilliance you see which really are that good. It’s a shame they are suffocated on all sides by almost complete incompetence.

Final Score: C-