THE WOLF OF WALL STREET



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The first two thirds of The Wolf of Wall Street, the new fevered dream about evil doings in the stock market, written by Terence Winter and directed by Martin Scorsese, is a roller coaster ride of sex, drugs and (no, not rock and roll, though there is a lot of that thrown about in the background, along with a marching band in their underwear) greed. 
This is Scorsese at his glorious best.  It’s a return to (do I dare use the “f” word; I mean, it’s such a “c” word; okay, I’ll do it) form (the “c” word, if your dirty mind didn’t guess it, is “cliché”).  It’s the Scorsese of Raging Bull, New York, New York, and Goodfellas.  The Scorsese that will pull every directing trick he can out of his bursting at the seams bag and explode it on the screen.
It’s the old Scorsese where you felt (pardon the vulgarity) that when there was fucking on the screen, he was banging away himself; that when people were stuffing white substances up their noses, he was using hundred dollar bills to do the same; that when people are conning the life savings out of poor hapless people, so was Scorsese (well, maybe that’s one screw turned too many, but then again, maybe it does sort of apply here in a way). 
But as splendid and invigorating as his directing is, I think this movie demonstrates one very important aspect of Scorsese’s talent.  Scorsese is a great director, but he’s only a great filmmaker when he has a good screenwriter at his back. 
I mean, to be ruthlessly honest and in full disclosure, I have not cared for a Scorsese film, outside a few documentaries, since Kundun.  But I never thought the issue was Scorsese’s direction.  No matter the film, he seemed as in command of the screen as ever. 
But what always seemed to let him down was his screenplay.  Scorsese has always been one of America’s finest directors, but he has also been one who seemed especially dependent on his screenwriter.  And over the last number of years, he has careened like a pinball from bad screenplay (The Gangs of New York), to perfectly okay, but nothing great screenplay (The Aviator, The Departed), to awkwardly written and it just doesn’t work screenplay (Hugo), to perfectly dreadful screenplay (Shutter, or is it “shudder”, Island)—and most of the time with the movies ending up in tilt.  
But here it looks like Scorsese may have found someone to save the day in Winter, a writer who also has many an episode of the TV series The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire to his name.  Winter has created fascinating and fully realized characters, a narrative that is turn the page captivating, and dialog filled with wit and energy. 
It is Winter (unless someone else came in and rewrote the screenplay behind his back, which does happen, I guess, but I’ve no reason to believe it here) who has come up with such priceless scenes as the hero Jordan Belfort’s first day selling penny-ante stocks where he mesmerizes his hapless fellow workers; the scene where his future second in command Donnie Azoff will quit his job if Jordan can show him a $72,000 pay stub; a talk about marrying first cousins; a riotously funny incident where a quaalude kicks in at just the wrong time; a scene where… 
Actually, I could go on and on, I loved the writing so much.  But the scene that really stands out as a remarkable piece of authorship is the pas de deux between Jordan and his father where the father (played effectively in a change of pace role by former meathead turned director Rob Reiner) comes into Jordan’s office furious over some expense reports and then stays for a private conversation concerning what Jordan likes in prostitutes.  It’s the sort of scene where a screenwriter could die happy knowing that he has written it.
Again, for the first two thirds of the movie, the film is captivating and frequently surprised me.  Winter and Scorsese would often structure a scene the same way: it would start out hysterically funny (as in the marching band scene) and then suddenly turn ugly and revolting, often ending up looking like a homage to Hieronymous Bosch.  It’s obvious that Scorsese is fascinated by these Alpha-male wannabees.  It’s equally obvious that he is also disgusted by them as well.  
However, it must be said, though, that it’s also equally obvious that it’s not always easy to tell when Scorsese’s fascinated by them and when he’s disgusted by them, something that will lead to problems in the last act.
And like so many end of year films, the movie is cleverly cast.  I mean, who would have thought that of all the people who came out of the Seth Rogan/Judd Apatow School of Performing Arts that it would be little Jonah Hill of Superbad that would end up showing the most interesting and exciting acting chops?
With Hill’s performance in Moneyball and this one as Donnie, he’s demonstrated that there is much more to his ability than adolescent frat movies (and I have nothing against adolescent frat movies, some of my best friends are adolescent frat movies).  He’s a whirling dervish of a character actor going powder filled nose to powder filled nose with Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan.  And they make some of the most beautiful timing together of the year.
DiCaprio, for his part, gives an equally strong performance in the title role.  He may not be quite as convincing when he tries to play poor working class, everyday, normal Jordan, but once the cocaine hits the nose, there is nothing stopping him from commanding the screen. 
And both are supported by excellent performances from a cast including Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley, Jon Favreau, Christine Ebersole, and Fran Lebowitz (basically playing the same character she played regularly on Law & Order).
But then it happens.  We reach that final third.  And then things stop working as well as they were earlier.  And I think there are a couple of reasons for this.  First, Jordan not in command of his empire of the sun, but stuck ala Charlie Sheen at his mansion, complete with a tracking bracelet, just isn’t very interesting; he’s back to being the Jordan in the opening scenes, and there’s just not a lot for DiCaprio to work with here to keep the energy up.
However, more important, I think Winter and Scorsese make a very serious misstep here.  Everybody involved in the making of the movie keeps claiming that, even though at times Winter and Scorsese seem to be celebrating what the characters are doing, they aren’t really condoning how these characters act and what these characters have done.  And I believe it. 
But where Winter and Scorsese go wrong is that they ultimately make the story about what Jordan does to Jordan, what he does to himself.  But that’s not really what Jordan’s story is about.  The story is about what Jordan has done to the American economy and the myriads of people whose lives he destroyed.  But that aspect of the story doesn’t interest Winter and Scorsese for some mind boggling reason.  In fact, all of that is chopped liver as far as they are concerned. 
All the two really care about is Jordan.   But Jordan, though fascinating, isn’t really a character worth caring about in the end.  It’s his victims who are worth caring about.  It’s sort of like doing a movie about, I don’t know, the notorious Civil War prison Andersonville and having the important aspect of the story be about Henry Wirz and what he did to himself, while completely ignoring the 13,000 POW’s who died there.  
And after all, isn’t Jordan’s drug taking and sexcapades really the least of his sins?  I mean, if that’s the worst that Winter and Scorses can bring themselves to accuse Jordan of, there’s something really screwy with the morality here and it’s not all on the screen.
So the writer and director had a chance to rise above what their movie ultimately was, but they bunted instead.  And thus the mighty movie stumbles and to a certain degree fails as it approaches the finish line.  For Winter and Scorsese, it’s enough for them to just show that Jordan ended up in a country club prison playing tennis and after being released, becoming a second rate huckster on second rate TV shows in Australia, drumming up business on how to become a salesman.   
With the result that rather than a movie that shows us what a monster Jordan became, we have a movie that, to quote a friend of mind, says little more than “sex is good, until it isn’t; drugs are good, until they aren’t; greed is good, until it isn’t”.
And in the end, Winter and Scorsese get conned by Jordan Belfort as much as the American public did. 
And it’s a shame.

MAN OF STEEL and THIS IS THE END



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On 9/11, terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers as acts of war.  In Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder utterly demolishes almost half of Manhattan for no other reason than to show off and to make the audience go “ooh” and “neat”; I’m sorry, but I think that’s sad and pathetic.   Man of Steel is a movie in which Superman’s adopted father suggests his son should let kids die rather than reveal who he is and in which his mother has no issues with sending a man to his death to save a dog during a tornado.   Not only is Man of Steel a movie that has its priorities shockingly out of whack, it’s simply one of the worse movies in recent memories. 
But it’s not like anyone should be surprised or shocked.  It’s not like Snyder and the writer David S. Goyer lied to anyone or misrepresented the movie in any way.  This is what studio films have become like in the last fifty years.  Some are better than others, true, but generally speaking they are more and more becoming soulless monsters and no one has a right to get mad at anybody about it because, by now, everyone knows the drill, everyone knows this is what they’re going to get before they buy their ticket (the audience is becoming more and more like Louise Renault in Casablanca: I’m shocked, shocked that studios are making such horrific films).   
However, even for a Hollywood blockbuster, this one is almost bottom of the barrel and is so bad, I just can’t bring myself to waste any more time and words on it.
Where Snyder destroys half of Manhattan, director and writers Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg destroy not just Los Angeles, but the whole world in This is the End.  Not only do they destroy the world, they kill off large numbers of people in particularly gruesome, offensive and horrifyingly grotesque ways.  But where Snyder’s film just seems sad and pathetic, Rogan and Goldberg’s film is often very, very, very funny…very.  
This is the End stars just about every friend Rogan has playing just about every friend Rogan has, and as themselves.  The result is a huge number of in-jokes that get quite the chuckle now, but may make the movie harder to enjoy years later when no one knows who the hell Danny McBride is anymore.   
The basic premise revolves around the Rapture and Armageddon literally happening and the few stars (i.e., the ones who have played leads in successful movies and/or earned an Oscar nomination) that manage to take refuge in James Franco’s earthquake (and apparently rapture quake) proof renovated house in the Hollywood Hills (which are hills, not mountains, since you can get over them in ten minutes by taking Cuhuenga Pass, a joke that will make sense once you see the film).   The humor is based on the same style as another end of the world comedy that came out this year, This is a Disaster: the people involved keep focusing on unimportant things, like the petty problems in their various relationships, rather than the world collapsing around them.
This is the End is not a perfect movie by any means.  It has a wonderful first third and the onset of the rapture and the resulting cataclysms is wondrously delightful, at times beautiful, and just rather clever.  But once the second act begins with Franco, McBride, Rogan, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Craig Robinson barricaded into the house, the movie has difficulty finding places to go.  No one has an overall goal, no one is that interested in trying to figure out what is really going on, or coming up with a game plan for survival; so instead, the audience gets stuck with many of the same jokes over and over…and over, again.   It’s not that the laughs go away or that there are no interesting scenes here, but this section tends to lose forward momentum (in contrast, This is a Disaster is much tighter, more focused and in the end a much better written film).
However, what actually may be the most disturbing aspect of the film is that there are no woman around (well, Emma Watson has a fun little bit).  But Rogan, et. al., don’t need them, or even want them, really.  They can get all their emotional needs met from each other (one of the more than reoccurring jokes is the idea that the guys have no problems relating to each other like gay men–for no other reason, it feels, so that they all can prove to the audience that they are really, really straight, really, even if they take a demon’s cock up the ass).  And if they want sex?  Well, Franco has a porn magazine.   (In fact, they all seem amazingly sexless and make one wonder if that’s the real reason why movies are so female-less these days—filmmakers and actors are all like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory.)
Once the survivors are forced back out into the world, the whole thing picks up steam again and Rogan and Goldberg manage to somehow get their characters out of the corner they have painted them into.   Of course, the result is a heaven that resembles a James Franco party, and it’s a little disturbing that Rogan and Baruchel reveal that they like The Back Street Boys more than Hill and Franco, but based on Rogan and Goyer’s view of Revelation, the characters could have ended up far worse.

DJANGO UNCHAINED



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I’m not sure I know what to make of writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s new spaghetti western/slavery pastiche, Django (as in jango with a hard “j”—the “D” is most pronouncedly silent) Unchained.  However, I strongly suspect it may be genius.
Django… is in many ways a mirror image of Tarantino’s last film Inglourious Basterds, which was a giallo take on World War II films (there were times when I jokingly wondered whether Tarantino should consider suing himself for plagiarism).  Neither is about what they are about.  I mean, really, …Basterds is no more about Nazism and the Holocaust than Django… is about slavery.  What they are both about is movies, and how many movies can Tarantino quote and pay homage to, and how brilliant a director Tarantino is, and how he can out post-modern any post-modern filmmaker. 
At the same time, as in …Basterds, Tarantino takes his subject matter with a deathly seriousness.  He doesn’t turn a blind, aesthetic eye to either Nazism or slavery.  In fact, he, in many ways, proves the truth of that phrase, “more Catholic than the Catholics”.  His view of slavery is probably the most gruesome, revolting and honest in any movie I may have seen.  Though I do think his comments on the landmark TV miniseries Roots a bit too cavalier, in one way he has a point: his view of that institution is far more devastating and much harder to watch. 
And I think it’s this approach that may be causing some people discomfort.  In one way he trivializes his subject matter by making it subservient to his aesthetic approach: this is a post-modern spaghetti western before it is anything else.  At the same time, he treats his subject matter with much more seriousness than people who treat it seriously.  And it’s this aesthetic conflict that gives his movies their power: he makes highly entertaining movies about subjects that should not be entertaining.  And what is worse, from his distracters’ viewpoints, he gets away with it.  He not only gets away with it, he’s managed to make himself perhaps the most important and influential American director of his generation.  It’s one thing to do something your rivals dislike; it’s another thing to do it better than your rivals.  Failure is forgivable, success is not.
There are only two other filmmakers who I can think of who can also get away with what Tarantino does.  The first are the Cohen Brothers who have also embraced the post modern approach creating movies which are often more a comment on the genre they are seriously parodying (in the true sense of the word) rather than using a purely straight approach in making their films.  The second is Roberto Begnini who, I think I can safely say, is not post modern in any shape, form or matter.  But he takes subject matter like organized crime, serial killers, the Holocaust and the American invasion of Iraq and sets them against the backdrop of a romance, usually a rom com.
So first and foremost Django… is a spaghetti western.   It may be set against the U.S. south whereas a large number of the Italian ones are set against the Mexican revolution (with an anti-capitalist, pro-communist bent to them), but if it looks like a spaghetti western, sounds like a spaghetti western, and if it was in smellovision, would probably have the odor of a spaghetti western—well, draw your own conclusions.  The sets and costumes are not what one would find in the fake West of a John Ford/Howard Hawks, but the fake West of a Sergio Leone/Sergio Corbucci.  The music is often overloud and thunderous with a slight tinny sound to it here and there.  The opening titles are tackily period.  The cinematography betrays a certain cheap look to it at times (tres 1970’s).  The only thing missing is the very bad dubbing no Italian film would be complete without.
Django… stars Christoph Waltz as a dentist/bounty hunter; Leonardo Di Caprio as a slow on the uptake slave owner; and Jamie Foxx in the title role, a freed slave who can understandably see the pleasure in killing white people and getting paid for it.  Here again we sort of have …Basterds redux with Waltz playing the Brad Pitt role; Di Caprio playing the Waltz role; and Jamie Fox playing the Melanie Laurent role.  The cast is filled out with what my friend called “the usual suspects” and I described as Tarantino phoning his casting director and telling him to call up every 1960’s and ‘70’s icon from small and large screen who no longer have a career to speak of and hire them (Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Russ Tamblyn, Dennis  Christopher, Don Stroud, Michael Parks-not quite the approach Spielberg used for Lincoln).  There are also some nice turns by Samuel L. Jackson, James Remar, Jonah Hill and Walton, he with the Cheshire Cat smile, Goggins.   In addition, keep a look out for the in-joke Franco Nero appearance.
Waltz and Di Caprio give turns that are often called bravura.  Waltz savors every moment he has.  It’s as if he told Tarantino, I don’t care how many pretentious lines and words you give me to say, I’m going to say each one of them as if I was eating an oyster.  Di Caprio relishes his villain role as if to the plantation born.  And Foxx does well in a role that is far less showy.  The structure is a bit of catch as catch can.  There’s an improv feel to it and Tarantino certainly doesn’t push the events as if a meteor was plummeting to earth.  This is especially noticeable in an ending that has two climaxes a bit too close together.  This same ending also suffers a bit because certain characters are conspicuously missing.  But, as in …Basterds, it revels in an ahistoric revisionist revenge fantasy that is dynamite (pun intended).   And more important, it’s never boring.
When the movie is over, one wonders what film genre, style, or aesthetic is left for Tarantino to appropriate for his own purposes.  Where does he go from here?  I believe even he wonders what is left for him and whether he has finally reached the end of his aesthetic sensibility.  Personally, I’d love to see what he could do with a Bollywood musical.   But only time will tell if post modernism is, in the end, a matter of diminishing returns for him.