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Christmas Week Film Reviews and the Best of Christmas

25 Dec 2013

All new films this week open Wednesday, Christmas Day.  There are lots of big ones including THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, GRUDGE MATCH and THE SECRET OF WALTER MITTY. 




Directed by Daniel Dencik


The end of the world has always fascinated human beings.  In this documentary, a boat tags along an assortment of professions from an artist, marine biologist, art photographer, archaeologist, just to list a few travel to the seas along Greenland, north of Iceland.

Global warming has allowed a track of ice to be melted as the boat breaks the ice towards unchartered waters.

One thing amazing about this doc is that director Dencil does not compromise and allows his film to play as it is.  This is territory in which there is no sign of life, no birds or humans or animals.  And the landscape is often more bleak and grey than stupendous.  So, if one is expecting an Arctic Expedition Cruise, one will be sorely disappointed.

The characters on the ship all have different agendas.  They communicate but have their own ideas on the meaning of life.  The music that plays on the soundtrack also varies from classical to heavy metal.

Still, Dencik’s documentary is a fascinating look at the Greenland landscape, one that many have never seen before.  What the characters say, however is a different matter.  It depends whether one agrees with their views.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_Bkpa3jKfI


Directed by Peter Segal


GRUDGE MATCH is as the title implies, the boxing match between two long time rivals played by Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro.  Both have been successful playing boxer in their prime (ROCKY and RAGING BULL), but does one really want to see a film about two old has-been stars?  Especially when De Niro has had at least 4 comedies out this year, two (THE BIG WEDDING and LAST VEGAS) being the worst films of the year while Stallone has not got a hit in ages (EXPENDABLES 2 barely broke even and ESCAPE PLAN lost money).

Stallone has always been fit but his face cannot hide the signs of ageing.  To De Niro’s credit, he lost quite a bit of weight for the climatic match in the film, and his gut can be clearly seen to be down several inches.  Still, a match about two rivals in which the film spends equal time on each character means that there is no villain or hero.  So, exciting as the final match may be shot, there is no winner the audience would be rooting for.  One would expect the two rivals to emerge as friends at the end of the film, especially when this film is out during the season of good cheer.

As a comedy, the film is not all that funny, despite a few good setups, including a pudgy lazy magazine-reading new trainer for The Kid..  Comedian Kevin Hart steals all his scenes coming off a the most hilarious thing about the movie.  Alan Arkin as Sharp’s trainer steals most of the comic scenes as well.  But it is the same old story with lost loves, and a lost girl stolen by one rival boxer and a father/son relationship that has to be redeemed, With two instead of one lead character, the film grows tedious quite fast.

So who would one want to win the GRUDGE MATCH at the climax?  Stallone or De Niro?  It makes no difference whatsoever.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bQSOBJCPQE




MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (South Africa 2013) ***

Directed by Justin Chadwick


The film MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM based on the autobiography of the recently just passed Nelson Mandela has all the aspirations of being an epic movie on freedom in South Africa.  It begins with a horde of children in the African wilderness running about in the bush and local river about to make the transition from child to manhood.  The scene recalls images of THE LION KING and indeed aspires to that grandeur.

Chadwick’s (THE OTHER BOELYN GIRL) film traces Mandela’s life from the time he was imprisoned to the time he was elected President.  His presidential term and his work with AIDs (South Africa has the highest percentage of AIDS population in the world) have been clearly left out.

The film tells the story of Mandela’s trials and tribulation and his victory in ridding the country of Apartheid without much fanfare.  This is expected as the film is based on the autobiography written by the man himself.  It is unlikely that a man imprisoned for almost 3 decades and one who has forgiven his captors and also one who has won the Nobel Peace Prize be one to blow his own horn.  The film contains only a few segments that gives this great man his due.  One is the speech he gives on television when he publicly declares his leadership and that as a leader he has to tell his people to take the option of peace followed by his confession that he has forgiven his captors in order to achieve the peace needed for his country.

The film also gives a bit of information of Mandela’s wife, Winnie.  Winnie is shown to be a hardheaded woman, who Mandela decided has to be left on her own.  The film does not do her justice and leaves her as an unexplained commodity.

Iris Elba does a good and credible Mandela invoking both the audience’s respect and sympathy.

The film opens at a timely period just after Nelson Mandela’s death.  The film serves as a worthy (though not complete) tribute of a great man who has changed the lives not only of the people of South Africa but for the world.

Trailer:  http://media.brisbanetimes.com.au/entertainment/trailers/trailer-mandela-long-walk-to-freedom-4985658.html 


Directed by Ben Stiller


There is a brilliant self realizing piece of advice given by Sean O’Donnell (Sean Penn) to Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), the LIFE Magazine still photographer Mitty has spent the entire film looking for, at the end of the movie.  Sean tells him that he prefers to savour his personal moments and not be distracted by the camera.  It seems that Ben Stiller (in his directorial debut) has taken this line of dialogue to heart.  His fantasy film, which contains lots of CGI effects, especially in the first third, eventually relies on human drama to make its point.  The result is a very sweet film – typically unexpected from the man who has acted in over-crazed films like THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and TROPIC THUNDER.

Based on a short story by James Thurber (well-known cartoon satirist) and written by Steven Conrad (THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS), Stiller’s film is a remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye film, but with quite the few differences.  The changes suit the actor Stiller playing Mitty, rather than Kaye.  Stiller as Mitty does many crazy stunts like skateboarding at super high speeds and leaping between building (courtesy of CGI), but these antics occur in Mitty’s mind while he is daydreaming.

Mitty is the negative (as in photography negatives) assets manager at Life Magazine.  Shy but diligent, he is taken to bouts of day-dreaming.  One day, his company is taken over and the magazine is to be terminated.  Sean O’Donnell has sent the negative that is to be on the cover of the last issue but Mitty cannot locate it.  He literally has to scale great heights, the Himalayas in this case to hunt O’Donnell down.

WALTER MITTY is a very likeable film, suitable for the festive season for many reasons.  For one. Mitty himself is a likeable character, with hardly a mean bone in his body.  He does not resort to revenge or anger when bullied by Hendricks (Adam Scott), the guy hired for downsizing the company and on his case to locate the negative.  Mitty is an underdog who falls in love for the first time to a girl (played by Kirsten Wiig) who is also very shy and sweet.  The ending has no action type climax but a real feel good satisfactory ending in which the good people get their reward.  The overbearing mother in Danny Kaye’s film is toned down to a tolerable one played by Shirley MacLaine.  (She accepts the sale of her grand piano for Mitty’s needs).

Jim Carrey was originally slated to play the Mitty character.  Judging from the result of this film, Stiller’s Mitty is a less funny, more thoughtful, sweeter and eventually more effective one.  This makes THE SECRET OF WALTER SMITTY the most festive appropriate film for the holidays.

Trailer:  http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=walter+mitty+trailer&docid=4609669379457894&mid=254C837FF9E509FDC259254C837FF9E509FDC259&view=detail&FORM=VIRE3#view=detail&mid=254C837FF9E509FDC259254C837FF9E509FDC259


THE WOLF OF WALL SREET (USA 2013) ***** Top 10

Directed by Martin Scorsese


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a 3-hour epic by Oscar Winner Martin Scorsese based on the autobiography by Jordan Belfort.  Scorsese has made epic duds like GANGS OF NEW YORK and HUGO but he has also helmed classics like THE DEPARTED, GOODFELLAS and RAGING BULL.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET falls into the latter category.

The credits at the end of the film state that many of the events depicted in the film had been dramatized for effect and did not necessarily happen.  Scorsese really ups the angst in his latest film that contains spirited madness such as in the office orgy scene and ripe, sardonic dialogue.

The film, based on the script by Terence Winter traces the quick rise and slow fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).  Starting from humble beginnings including a loving wife, Teresa (Cristin Milloti) and a level entry job with a weird mentor, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), Jordan transforms into a coke-snorting monster who needs hookers to satisfy his sexual appetite even though he owns a mistress (Margot Robbie).  But the financial wizard resorts to crooked schemes that eventually run him foul of the Feds led by Greg Coleman (Kyle Chandler).  The confrontation between the two aboard Jordan’s yacht is exceptionally hilarious.

Being the 5th collaboration between DiCaprio and Scorsese, Scorsese allows the actor the freedom to strut his stuff.   There are lengthy segments including a 10-minute long office setup in which DiCaprio overacts or performs his best stuff, depending on  how one looks at it.  Supporting cast wise,  Rob Reiner as Mad Max or Jordan’s dad stands out.  Jonah Hill, Joanna Lumley (from Absolutely Fabulous) playing Ant Emma and Jean Dujardin (THE ARTIST) also provide a lot of the film’s black humor.

This is one Scorsese film that shows the director at his most edgy.  But Scorsese is still under control.  He has one segment in which the camera pans from the front to the back of  Jordan’s Wall Street office illustrating the reactions of all his staff during an IPO (Initial Public Offering) announcement.  This is redone towards the end of the film when Jordan announces his decision not to resign.  Scorsese is also unafraid to compromise with the result of a film full of drug induced and sexually charged scenes.  Dialogue is also quite foul at times.  But all in moderation, though this rule is not applied by Jordan in the film.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET follows the same idea of many of his previous films like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, THE KING OF COMEDY and GANGS OF NEW YORK.  They all track the downfall of the protagonist though the protagonist has taken many forms from comedian, aviator,  boxer and now world-class stockbroker.  But the variations are sufficient to keep audiences not only entertained and hooked but also often unable to realize the difference of one from another.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszwuX1AK6A



Reviewer’s Best 5 films (in order) of the Week Currently Playing:

  1. American Hustle
  2. The Wolf of Wall Street
  3. Inside Llewyn Davis
  4. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  5. Philomena
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