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.

THE GREAT GATSBY



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The new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is filmed by director Baz Luhrmann as if everyone and everything in it had a fever, which in many ways is probably a very acute approach to this story that takes place during a particular frenzied time in U.S. history.   Everything is hyped, over the top, as if it’s on Benzedrine.   As a result, this is probably Luhrmann’s best film to date.  This is not to say it’s a good film (it doesn’t quite go there), but it’s certainly far superior to Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! 
People always talk of the difficulty of adapting Fitzgerald’s classic novel (which wasn’t so classic when it came out; it flopped miserably when it was first published).  For me, the problem has always revolved around the character of Gatsby himself, who is, in many ways, the least interesting person in the book.   He’s not the central character; Nick Carroway, the somewhat callow observer, has that honor and it’s Nick who the story is about.  And most of what makes Gatsby interesting takes place in the past long before the story starts; and when this past is related, it’s often open to credulity.   So how do you dramatize a story about someone who is a secondary character and whose past is primarily myth?
Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, in many ways take the same tact that the writers and director did in the 1949 version starring Alan Ladd.  They downplay all the other characters and fight fiercely to bring Gatsby center stage.   The Ladd version did it by turning the story of Gatsby into a film noir, fully dramatizing in flashback his rise to gangster glory.  Luhrmann and Pearce do it by emphasizing the love story between Gatsby and Daisy, giving it a tragic, star crossed lovers feel.
This approach has its downside.  It often reduces the other characters to their bare necessities.  Jordan Baker now has so little to do, one wonders why she is even in the picture.  And the Wilsons, George and Myrtle, are now no more than mere melodramatic contrivances (this actually works the best because these two characters now feel more like toys that the well to do play with rather than real characters in their own right).  
But from a dramatic standpoint, Luhrmann’s approach was probably a sound stratagem because the romance is the part of the movie that works the best.   There is something touching, often beautiful, about these two doomed lovers.  Luhrmann is able to restrain himself a bit here and let the actors and the screenplay pull their weight such that when Gatsby is a terrified little boy waiting for Daisy to arrive for tea or when he is throwing his shirts down to Daisy, the moments become rather transcendental.   
Of course, Luhrmann and Pearce have to cheat a bit to make it work.  They up the tragedy by purifying the love story.  In the novel, one of the reasons Gatsby is attracted to Daisy is due to her background (the movie leaves out Gatsby’s line that Daisy’s voice sounds like “money”) and the writers downplay that one of the reasons Daisy first rejects Gatsby is because he has no wealth and then accepts him more to get back at her husband for cheating on her than out of true love.  And they also play a bit fast and lose on the death of Myrtle; in the book, there’s some indication it wasn’t totally an accident, that Daisy swerved the car purposely, while in the movie the suggestion is that it was completely unintentional and unavoidable.  No, Luhrmann instead decides to swoon in delirium over the couples feelings for each other.   And some good swooning it is.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Gatsby and it is his performance that holds the movie together.  When he appears, DiCaprio shows both Gatsby’s strength and vulnerability at the same time just by standing there.   His line readings are spot on; even the “old sport”, a phrase almost impossible to say with a straight face (maybe it works because DiCaprio pronounces the words as if they are as much of a sham as the house he lives in and the parties he throws).   This Gatsby is both so fierce and adorable in what he wants, he makes us want it to.  
And he gets able support from Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Joel Edgerton as her racist, to the manor born husband Tom.  They have great chemistry with DiCaprio and match him line reading for line reading.  It all results in a scene that feels like it’s torn from a boulevard drama: all the characters are trapped in a hotel room together when everything comes out.  Everyone plays it like they were doing O’Neill and they pretty much get away with it.   Sad to say, though, Tobey Maguire, as Carraway, is the weak point here.  He is given the thankless task of voice over narrating.  But the narration is clunky and Maguire is listless and flat, a deadly combination.
But in the end, though there is actually much to like here, and even much to admire, it never quite comes together in a satisfying whole.   It works best when Luhrmann matches his editing and directing style to the brilliantly chosen, but often anachronistic music.  However, the film is more of an interpretation of The Great Gatsby rather than a story that works in its own right.   This even leads to Luhrmann and Pearce working very hard to parallel the story to today: Nick works in bonds at a time just before the country will be hit by recession; Tom is a representative of the 1% while the Wilsons are the 99; and the authors really emphasize the increasing presence of blacks in society. 
But Luhrmann is also such a visual stylist and such an over director, that all subtlety is lost.  Everything is over telegraphed to such a degree that the weak parts of the book (the obvious symbolism of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the melodramatic contrivances of who is driving what car when Myrtle is killed) only feel weaker, while the strengths of the book are done so big they often get in the way of allowing one to become emotionally involved in the story as one would like.   Rather than feel the emotions, you are much more interested in critiquing Luhrmann’s approach to the material (though I have to say, I loved the Rhapsody in Blue intro of Gatsby at his party).
Tell me what you think.

OSCAR RACE: Best Supporting Actor



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Continuing my analysis of the Oscar race (or as I call it, I need to get a life), it’s time to focus on the supporting acting categories.  One would think that supporting categories, whether male or female, would be much more difficult to predict and in one way they are.  While there is only one, maybe two, leads in a film (per gender), every film is crowded with supporting since, by deduction, if you’re not one of the two leads, you only have one alternative—supporting.   At the same time, like most categories, the possible nominations actually, and perhaps surprisingly, tend to settle rather fast to usually little more than six, or on rare occasions, seven possibilities.
I’ll start with the Best Supporting Actor category or as I and a friend of mine call it, the Don Ameche Award, named after the win by that actor for his role in Cocoon, not so much for his acting skill (which was often considered a joke by critics and film aficionados, though he did get better as he aged, like fine wine and cheese), but as a career award (like James Coburn, Christopher Plummer, Jack Palance, Sean Connery, Martin Landau, Alan Alda).  At the same time, I’m being facetious.  This doesn’t happen as often as one might think, and most of these performances were very deserving.  But I believe someone once did a study and discovered that supporting actor winners on average were older than supporting actress winners.  In the supporting actor category, it helps to have paid your dues more than in the distaff side, where voters (mostly male) tend to like their winners young and up and coming (even to the point of being a bit too Humbert Humbert in their choices, perhaps?).
At any rate, the dust has started to settle and it looks as if the list is becoming fairly clear.   At the same time, predictions are a bit hampered here by some of the films not having opened yet, so the performances in those movies are still somewhat unknown quantities.
Alan Arkin for Argo to win.  This now seems pretty settled and it would take a lot to unseat his position.   He’s already won his career award for Little Miss Sunshine, but that probably won’t cause him any problems this time around.  It’s a tremendous performance, a masterpiece of comic timing, in a very popular movie.   At the same time, Argo may have peaked a bit too soon and I may be speaking a bit too early. 
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master.  The Master went totally over my head (and apparently, based on audience reaction, I’m not the only one).  Everything about The Master is a bit iffy when it comes to nominations just because it didn’t connect with viewers, including Oscars voters.  But everyone is still saying that Hoffman is a shoo in (some think he may even win, but I don’t see it yet).  A lot may depend on the campaign, since the movie has disappeared and may take a little doing to get people to remember it even opened this year (critics’ awards may help here).
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln.  He steals every scene he’s in and somehow breaths life into the somewhat stilted dialog.  Lincoln is coming along as a major contender against Argo for best picture with a success at the box office that exceeded expectations (Argo may now have peaked too soon), and Daniel Day-Lewis is almost certain to win best actor, which could give Jones’ nomination a boost.
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook.  It has now opened, been reviewed, is doing very well at the box office and no one has stopped saying de Niro is going to get a nom, so it seems that he will be included.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.  This is an unknown quantity as the movie hasn’t opened yet (apparently a story about a slave rescued by a bounty hunter with said slave now out to get revenge against the white men who abducted his wife is seen as the perfect choice for a Christmas opening).  What helps is that DiCaprio is a leading actor doing a supporting role, and this is always a plus when going for a nomination (and sometimes you win—Robin Williams and Renee Zellweger).   But until the movie opens, it’s hard to say.  This has caused some problems for Christoph Waltz.  The talk is he has been pushed to go for Best Actor (an unlikely nom at best), possibly to give DiCaprio a better chance.  But that’s mere speculation based on information I don’t really have, so do with it what you will.
Also possible is Dwight Henry, so deserving for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it’s a very crowded category and he may get squeezed out; Russell Crowe for Les Miserables, too unknown a quantity right now; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike, and in a weaker year he might have a chance since he’s done so many movies this year and has worked hard to broaden himself as an actor, which translates as really paid your dues (which the voters like), but it looks like he won’t make it; anybody else from Argo—very doubtful.