The Wolf of Wall Street

ImageIn 1986, a young People’s Critic was playing with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, reading Spiderman comics, and watching Knight Rider; meanwhile The Wolf of Wall Street suggests that there was an entirely different story of the 1980s to tell.  Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate for the fifth time and the result is their most polarizing effort by far, but also DiCaprio’s greatest performance of his career.

Last year at this exact time, I made quite a bit of noise about Leonardo DiCaprio’s sneaky but brilliant performance as Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  This year, I will make even more noise about his turn as Wall Street stockbroker, Jordan Belfort.  The film depicts the rise and inevitable fall of Belfort after he gets a taste of what the high life is like and never stops wanting more.

That “taste” comes in the form of an early scene in the film.  In it, Belfort the naïve intern meets the senior partner of his firm (Matthew McConaughey) for lunch.  Here Belfort is seemingly learning the ropes from a guy who’s been around for a while, but on second look Belfort is actually staring his future self right in the face.  McConaughey fiercely and skillfully poisons and corrupts Belfort but leaves him dazzled and impressed.  He sells Belfort just like another client, setting the wheels in motion for the “wolf” to rear its head.  When his brokerage closes after Black Monday in 1987, Belfort recruits a band of like-minded sleezeballs and opens his own brokerage firm called Stratton-Oakmont.  With consciences checked at the door and a script of Belfort’s own design, Stratton Oakmont prays on the rich and the poor, selling worthless “penny stocks” and reaping commissions hand over fist.  Belfort’s partner in crime, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), represents the “Greed is good” adage from Wall Street to precision.  Together the two cut a swath through the financial market and find themselves absurdly wealthy and yet impossibly insatiable. Balfort symbolically leaves stability behind when he leaves his  kind and caring wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) for sexpot, Naomi (Margot Robbie).

While clearly a Scorsese film, the director’s presence from a technical standpoint is rather restrained.  He fills the frame with decadence, debauchery, and dishonesty, but never has he relied on his actors to make a film work as much as he does here.  Fortunately, they are up to the task, but this circumstance is why The Wolf of Wall Street is not the classic Scorsese film that it could have been.  Nonetheless, like all other Scorsese films, the plot is nothing but a mode at which to create a commentary on a deeper subtext.  Belfort’s story is used as a way for the filmmaker to tell a story about intoxication, greed, and the destruction of the American fabric.  He does all of this with a playful tone however, which is what gives the film such energy!  The irreverence of this film is impossible to capture into words and that’s exactly what Scorsese intended.  With a running time of three hours, it is clear that Scorsese did not want to shy away from the bacchanalian excess that plays such a large part in the film.  At the risk of hitting the audience over the head with this fact, the drug of choice for most characters is the “lude” (short for Quaalude), which tenaciously reflects the conduct of everyone in this film.  In one scene, high on ludes, DiCaprio has lost all sense of mobility and yet must crawl, writhe, and tumble his way to his Ferrari in the hopes to then drive home and stop Donnie from revealing money laundering evidence into a tapped phone.  This scene is one of only a few characteristically Scorsese scenes, and for DiCaprio it is particularly impressive.  Never has DiCaprio been more physical, comedic, energetic, and kinetically charged than he is in this film.  Jay Gatsby would literally implode after one second in Jordan Belfort’s shoes.

In a montage towards the end set to the Lemonheads cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” the line “Every way you look at it, you lose,” critically suggests that the intoxication of the previous 150 minutes is beginning to ware off.  We have a moment to finally catch our breaths after the yachts, the mansions, the sex, the money, and the helicopters are all out of sight and we are amazed at what we’ve witnessed.  
After an Academy member premier of the film, a screenwriter very publically shouted, “Shame on you!” at the legendary director.  Accordingly, I witnessed several people walk out of the screening that I was in. Certainly, the world DiCaprio and Scorsese explore this time around is fearlessly audacious.  Nonetheless, the film is based on Belfort’s own memoir, and the screenplay is co-written by the man who wrote and produced The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter.  Those shows and this film all have the united goal of exploring morally bankrupt people who fill that void with the greatest drug of all, money.  Our society is badly hooked on this drug and as good as we are at hiding the evidence of what greed has done to us, stories like The Wolf of Wall Street serve as reminders, reminders that make some filmgoers uncomfortable.  Still, as much of a fan as I am of this film, I submit that The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas-Lite: Henry Hill enters stock market.  I think a 5 and ½ hour American nightmare double feature is in my future!  A-

The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R and has a running time of 3 hours.  Look out for many recognizable faces in supporting roles including the real life Jordan Belfort.  This film is packed to the brim – there is so much to discuss and mention, but this review is long enough! 
Also, prepare yourself for that ‘ludes’ Ferrari scene, it’s phenomenal! 

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American Hustle

ImageLast year, a film about a top-secret 1979 CIA mission to rescue American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis took home the best picture Oscar.  This year, David O. Russell looks to keep this trend alive with American Hustle, a stylish story about the top-secret 1978 FBI sting operation, ABSCAM.     

David O. Russell has been an exciting filmmaker for several years now.  His previous three films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now American Hustle, have thrust Russell’s notoriety into a new echelon, however, by examining his previous quirky, clever, and unique films, Russell’s evolution can be clearly perceived.  1996’s Flirting With Disaster showed Russell’s quirky comedic tone.  In what some consider his best film, 1999’s Three Kings showcased Russell’s clever style.  Additionally, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees solidifies Russell’s unique writing.  Now it seems he’s hit his stride as his previous three films represent all three of these talents repurposed and mixed with tremendous results.

Russell’s renaissance involves making films about memorable characters with his emerging cast of regular actors.  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams have all been in at least two of his last three films, and all of them have received at least one Oscar nomination as a result – including two winners.  While rumors swirl around Russell’s ease to work with, he is able to coax performances from his actors like none other, and American Hustle is no exception.

American Hustle opens against the gritty backdrop of 1978 New Jersey with a tone-setting title card that reads “Some of this actually happened.”  We are immediately introduced to con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who runs a fledgling at best money lending scheme.  That all changes when he meets the seductive Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party.  As a team, they bring Rosenfeld’s scheme to the next level attracting the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  DiMaso uses his leverage on the two con-artists to coerce them to cooperate with him in a series of operations designed to entrap high ranking politicians and power brokers including New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). 

Now the story might seem complex enough as it is, but under the guise that “some of this actually happened,” Russell does this story one better with the introduction of Irving’s impulsive wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who could be the one who sends this whole operation crashing down.

Bale gives another transformative performance, this time with an added 60 pounds, a comb-over, and a Bronx accent.  Adams continues her quest to become this generation’s Kevin Bacon by being in a movie with every relevant actor in existence.  She also gives a very strong performance as the mysterious Sydney who is “hell-on-wheels” wrapping every man around her finger and perpetually driving Irving crazy in the process.  Lawrence steals every scene she is in as Irving’s wildly capricious wife who won’t grant him a divorce and doesn’t know how to use a “science oven” either.  Renner and Cooper are very effective at representing both sides of the law in this wildly outrageous story where the line between hero and villain is very, very thin.

Mayor Polito wants nothing more than to re-invent Atlantic City and make New Jersey a better place, but with his hands tied politically, he seeks the necessary capital from a seemingly interested Arab investor who is actually part of agent DiMaso’s operation.  Thus, what makes American Hustle most intriguing is Russell’s conscientious effort to construct an irony where con-men and FBI agents are working together to ostensibly take down a criminal who may be the most honorable character in the film.  American Hustle does have one element working against it, running time.  At around 130 minutes, most of which is rapid dialogue, the film feels a bit bloated.  There are many characters and they all have a lot to say.   From an acting standpoint, it is quite impressive, but from an audience standpoint the film slags a bit through its second half. 

There is plenty to like about American Hustle, far more than what’s not to like.  For those looking for an amazingly well made and well acted film that does not include the brutality of slavery or the primal fear of being lost in space, this is your movie.  B+

American Hustle is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes.  Keep any eye out for some great and surprising faces in some of the supporting roles. 

Saving Mr. Banks

ImageWhen nominations were being made for the 2014 Golden Globes, I read that if Saving Mr. Banks were to get a nomination, it would have been in the drama category.  That sounded odd.  I mean Tom Hanks as Walt Disney trying to get the author of Mary Poppins to sign over movie rights, a drama?  Now, the Golden Globes don’t always get it right – it’s kind of their thing, but regarding Saving Mr. Banks as a drama – they were right about this one. 

It may seem a bit self-indulgent for a movie studio to make a movie about how amazing they were when they made another movie, but there’s more to this story than just that.  Primarily, Saving Mr. Banks is the behind the scenes story of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) furiously courting writer P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in the hopes of getting her to sign over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins children’s books. Hanks summons all of the likability of well, Tom Hanks, to portray the larger than life filmmaker.  His motive is to fulfill a promise to his daughters 20 years in the making, that he would produce a film about their favorite childhood books.  Travers is the holdout as she has seen Disney’s films over the past 20 years and does not want her beloved characters to be romping around stage, singing, and worst of all…as cartoons!  In 1961, Disney finally convinces Travers to at least visit Los Angeles, sit in with the writers, and see what happens. 

Travers is a terror on Disney, his writers, and his staff.  Her arrogant British ways are on full display, but it is clear that she has high defenses for a reason; these characters are important to her for reasons Disney can not possibly understand.  Director, John Lee Hancock explores the layers of Travers through flashback, sporadically inserting scenes of her childhood with her parents Travers (Colin Farrell) and Margaret (Ruth Wilson).  Through these flashbacks, the audience gets a rueful sense of Poppins’ origin.  Hancock and his editors are brilliant at sensing when these scenes are necessary.  This is especially evident in a fine scene set to the Mary Poppins song, “Feed the Birds.”

Cleary, Mary Poppins becomes a film and a film beloved by generations of people for 50 years now, so whether the film is made is not a source of tension whatsoever.  The strength of the film is in its way that Travers and Disney slowly are able to find common ground.  Doubtless, we are seeing some revisionist history.  I’m sure that if another studio had been granted the rights to tell this story, we might get a different vision of Walt Disney, the man.  However, Saving Mr. Banks does not seek to disparage its characters.  Rather, it desires to explore some of the “magic” that makes characters and stories meaningful to us.  The film is actually quite clever in its construction as it subtly mirrors the conflict in Mary Poppins through Travers’s fear of what blind capitalism might do to something she sees as so precious and pure. 

Disney fans will also find much to enjoy as the nostalgia level is through the roof and hypnotizing.  Memorable songs from Mary Poppins are strewn all over the film, and it is very enjoyable to watch these songs develop and be performed all over again.  In one scene, as Paul Giamatti’s character, Ralph, drives Travers into Walt Disney Land for the first time, he may as well come back and pick us up too!  In fact, during the credits photos of Walt Disney and all of the characters from the film are displayed and a real audio sample of the real P.L. Travers bossing around the writers can be heard.  The film is laced with Disney, but the contact high is pleasant.  

Thompson is irrepressibly repressive as Travers.  It is a delight to see her take the lead again for the first time since reprising her role as Nanny McPhee in 2010; however, this is her finest and most substantial performance in many years.  By the end of the film, she has the audience in the palm of her hand and conveniently one of the film’s final scenes takes place in a movie theater where the audience has no choice but to fully experience and empathize with her literally from per point of view.  Hanks does an ample and sufficient job as Disney, but most of his scenes involve making puzzled looks or smiling a lot.  There are several times throughout the film where viewers will ask themselves, “how is he ever going to get this woman to sign over the rights?” and he succeeds in making us understand, chiefly thanks to one fine speech towards the film’s end.  Otherwise, Hanks is a recognizable caricature.  It is certainly P.L. Travers’s story, but it would have been nice to get a bit more into Disney’s head than this film had intended. 

Saving Mr. Banks is a surprisingly rich contextual film, appropriately layered to tell not one but two deeply related stories.  I was surprised how caught up I found myself with the flashback scenes and consequently with how much I liked this film.  A-

Saving Mr. Banks is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours.       

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

ImageI have struggled to accurately articulate my feelings about films being split into multiple parts.  I’m not talking about sequels, trilogies, or franchises, but rather the recent trend of taking one story and splitting it into different films with different release dates.  Mixed reactions have surrounded the decision to split films like Kill Bill, Breaking Dawn, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, and the upcoming Hunger Games installment, Mockingjay into two films.  Some appreciate the expanded devotion to detail these films receive while others feel they result in bloated, watered down films designed to get doubled the box office.  Director Peter Jackson is mostly known for his Lord of the Rings films.  While, the third film in that series, Return of the King, clocks in at nearly four hours, Jackson never considered dividing it in half.  The film went on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won every single one of them.  Jackson took a different route with J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, dividing the book into three films.  If anyone can make a film that convinces me of the merits of this decision, it’s Jackson, and The Hobbit’s second installment, The Desolation of Smaug just might be that film.

In classic “middle-film-in-a-series” fashion, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens with a brief flashback scene between Gandolf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage) to remind the audience about what’s happening.  Bilbo (Martin Freeman) continues his quest to assist thirteen dwarves in reclaiming their lost kingdom.  A pivotal step in the process involves recovering the arkenstone from a terrifying dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) who dwells in the caverns of the Lonely Mountain guarding his riches.  Those who complain about how Jackson’s Tolkien films spend too much time walking will be happy to hear that Bilbo and company do arrive at the Lonely Mountain with plenty of time to spare.  Like in the previous Lord of the Rings films, the characters do not all stay united in one plot for long.  Smaug finds Gandolf abandoning the band of dwarves to investigate the rise of a being known as the “Necromancer” whose threat on Middle Earth was introduced in the previous film.  Furthermore, the Mirkwood Elven Guard led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) are introduced.  Tauriel represents the first major evidence of Jackson’s and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s decision to expand The Hobbit into three films.  Her character is not in the book and is created for the film.  Her role appears to be to add some romance into the mix as she catches the eye of both Legolas as well as one of the dwarves.  While introducing a female character for  strictly romantic purposes would be a bit shallow, Tauriel fits in well and holds her own as both a lover and a fighter.     

The Desolation of Smaug, like The Two Towers, improves on the previous film.  There is more action, more humor, higher stakes, and purposeful character development.  Bilbo is in the throngs of ring delusion and Freeman plays this ambiguous stage in Bilbo’s life with deliberate hesitation and false bravado.  While the film catches a small snag when Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) enters the scene, it in no way minimizes the excellent final act where Bilbo and the dwarves square off against Smaug.  If you enjoyed the classic game of wits between Bilbo and Gollum in the first film, you will love the battle of egos between Smaug and Bilbo as he attempts to fulfill his role as Burglar. 

The Desolation of Smaug is an exciting, beautiful, and thrilling film with plenty of excitement for any moviegoer.  The debate on whether the decision to split this film into three parts takes a substantial hit as the second installment is quite good.  Tolkien aficionados may resent some of the additional material added like Tauriel or Gandolf’s scenes, but these additions are in keeping with the look, feel, and tradition of The Hobbit and the Tolkien universe.   A-

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 41 minutes.  It was released in both 3D and 2D, but the 3D craze is dying down and this film works very well in the traditional 2D format.

Out of the Furnace

ImageOut of the Furnace poses a rather critical conundrum.  On one hand, the film’s gritty exploration of one man’s quest for justice is finely acted, but on the other hand, it is substantially conventional. 

Director Scott Cooper follows up his enormously successful 2009 film Crazy Heart with Out of the Furnace.  In it, steel mill worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in order to take care of his terminally ill father while his Iraq-War veteran brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) tries to find a way to adapt to life back at home.  On the surface, it is a film about fathers, sons, and brothers.  However, Cooper opens his film with an alarmingly tense and violent scene at a drive-in movie theater that includes neither of the film’s two main characters.  This scene sets the tone for the film as well as attempts to set the stage for its ambition.  Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace can not quite maintain its balance between narrative and ambition.

The ambition angle aims to document and test the two brothers as life locks them in a metaphorical “furnace.”  Russell spends several years in prison for a drunk driving accident and Rodney begins a downward spiral after the war that leads him to an underground fight-ring headed up by a ruthless kingpin, DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, in his most frightening role in years).  When Rodney suddenly disappears, Russell takes matters into his own hands and goes on a manhunt.  This is when Out of the Furnace ends up stepping on the heels of a film released earlier this year, Prisoners.  Both films want the audience in a “what would you do?” type of scenario, but Prisoners executes it much better.  Both films even have a deer hunting motif!

Out of the Furnace is clunky structurally and it is heavy handed in its treatment of flawed characters who “just want to do the right thing.”  However, the film did attract big, big stars who all came to play.  Affleck and Bale turn out career performances, and the supporting players include Willem DaFoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and the aforementioned Harrelson who are all quite compelling as well.     

Out of the Furnace is all guts and not much glory.  The film desires to resonate with the audience, but I was left feeling unsatisfied and disappointed.  I appreciate great performances, but they are rarely enough to carry a film on their own merits.  C

Out of the Furnace is rated R, and has a running time of one hour and 46 minutes.  I say see Prisoners instead.