Saturday, December 28, 2013

Martin Scorsese's THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (uncut review)

(This film review will go up soon on but it will be edited somewhat.  Now get to watch the 4 hour long review of the film!  I mean... that didn't sound right)

“It was obscene – in the normal world… who the f*** would want to live there?”   

 At one point Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) says these words in his narration – it’s a Scorsese “gangster” movie (with stocks instead of guns, but we’ll get to that in a bit) – after being told by his father “Mad” Max (Rob Reiner) that what his son was doing with his business was just that.  This is one of those moments that makes the distinction more than clear: Jordan has to put what he is doing with his company, Stratton Oakmont, in unloading crap “penny stocks” into this category of it not being the normal world.  It’s part of the mind-set of this character, which is to acknowledge that this whole mega-rich money-crazed LET’S-GET-NUTS lifestyle, which spreads natural as can be for his pupils he has trained, was not “normal”, but to indulge in it all the same.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a monumental look, at three hours (which every critic and their mother has pointed out as if it’s their duty to point out the length, also more on that in a moment), of a master sociopath, and a sorta-man-child, a high-functioning version of one of those dunces that Will Ferrell plays in his movies.  After striking out at actually being a real stockbroker on Wall street – he went in and got his license just as the market crashed in 1987 – he took a job selling these penny stocks (mostly worthless junk that was sold to low-level working class people, advertised in Hustler), and making 50% commission buy using a level of BS-speak that is meant to dig in to easily-persuaded folks.  

But making two grand in one sitting wasn’t enough.  When you’re addicted to money, and this is one of the keys to Belfort’s personality (a flaw but part of his modus-operandi), nothing is ever really enough.  So he went out on his own, after being approached by a geek neighbor with big fake white teeth (Jonah Hill, a performance worthy of Joe Pesci, but younger and a bit goofier), and made his own small-time racket with small-town crooks (one of them a near unrecognizable Jon Bernthal from The Walking Dead, complete with gaudy goatee and muscles).  And from here, things just began to grow and grow.
Scorsese’s latest film is a gangster saga because it’s about folks doing criminal things with the attitude of ‘Hey, we *liked* doing it’, and with the aid of a narrator, like Henry Hill in GoodFellas, is not only unapologetic, but with the sense that if he wasn’t caught he would still be doing it, at least in theory.  The frightening thing, but also something the director and his writer Terence Winter (of Boardwalk Empire fame) use for their satirical aims, is that they used this environment where everything was technically, kinda sorta, ‘legal’, and just went nuts with it.  Why not have a competition involving dwarves being literally thrown at a dart-board?  Why not have madcap orgies on the way *to* the insane bachelor party in Vegas?  When excess is the name of the game, don’t stop at the roof, tear it off to crash through the sky into the solar system.  On Quaaludes.

The filmmakers don’t shy away from making this character, what I would dub a sort of ‘anti-villain’, in the sense that he is, really, the villain of his own story but someone we almost wish could be different and change but won’t, and how far he plunged into his terror, and the scary obliviousness to real pain and suffering.  When Belfort is caught by his first wife cheating on his future 2nd (the wildly sexy but insanely talented Aussie actress Margot Robbie), there is a split-second where he looks ashamed… until he informs us he divorced three days later and quickly brought his new flame to move in with him.  When he discusses certain former employees he mentions how one or two of them did this or that, then later died or killed themselves, “but anyway”, he’ll quickly follow it up with.  He gets most incensed, now that I think of it, about getting busted due to, in a roundabout way, the owner of Benihana restaurants (!)
DiCaprio gives it his all as this guy, as he has to.  There’s no other way than to make this man like a devil, first in training under the tutelage of the Master of the Universe Matthew McConaughey plays (five of the funniest moments put on film in the past twenty years), then as a born leader if only because everyone else around him is either dumber or just easily impressionable.  He’s charming, in a way, but what’s great is that he never makes Belfort too sympathetic while at the same time still making him painfully human, a complete f***-up at other times (the other funniest moments put on film in so many years is him and his partner-in-crime Donny played by Jonah Hill on a motherload of Quaaludes and stumbling around in manic-comic precision).  

This is the thing that I think makes the film both so electrifying, but something that is by its very nature divisive.  It’s not a big crowd-pleaser like GoodFellas – it does go too far, it is, possibly, too long (but where exactly to cut is a much harder question, at least for me, since it moves faster than most 90 minute movies) – and its protagonist is the antagonist.  It’s Patrick Bateman, one of the Jerky Boys (watch as he and his first team call up a seller, it’s a full-blown childish prank call), and a Roman general all rolled up into one package.  And it’s DiCaprio’s best work.  

But so it is for Hill, too, who we’ve never seen be this hysterical – sometimes from the script, sometimes from his own improv – and making this supporting character just as memorable and vital to this story.  Neither of these men really “has it together”, but Donny is the more obvious screw-up type, married (no kidding) to his first cousin, and does eat a goldfish when the time comes.  And Robie, who I don’t remember seeing before, is a major find as Belfort’s “Duchess of Bayside Queens”, able to go head-to-head with the star and sometimes (as when she throws glass after glass of water at his face) tops him.  There’s also a wonderful bevy of walk-ons, if not simply small roles, by the likes of Spike Jonze as the penny-stock guy early on, and Jean Dujardin as a slimy Swiss banker.  
Ultimately, Wolf of Wall Street asks a lot for its audience, with this character and it’s world, because it is that mirror facing back to the financial upper-echelon, or just those that are going so mad to get there.  At the same time I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much during one of Scorsese’s films, ranging from wild physical comedy, pratfalls, and taking on Winter’s dialog and building upon it with the actors into scenes that have a real madness but scary clarity of their superiority over those that (gasp) don’t care about money every second of the day.  The sickness of the world hits those who really don’t think anything else is wrong, and the final shot of the film, showing a group of people watching and listening attentively to a Belfort “sales” lecture (“Sell me this pen,” is his shtick), and none ever question that they are learning from an ex-convict indicted on multiple acts of fraud.   

Wolf of Wall Street is the darkest, most excessive comedy there can be, depicting the obscenity of the con being what stems off all the sex, drugs and wildness thereafter – you laugh at this man and his ilk, for three hours, and then realize only as you leave the theater even if Belfort never commits a crime like this again, his mentality and other Belforts live and profit on and on and on and on. 


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Madadayo, Used DVDs! - #2: Abel Ferrara's 'R XMAS

The series goes on to its next entry!  It's that time of the year, specifically it's Christmas Eve!  And what's more festive than... a venerable grungy New York filmmaker like Mr. Abel "Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45 motherfucking' Ferrara?  Not sure....

'R Xmas opens almost deceivingly, but for a reason - it shows a bunch of kids in 19th century garb on a street, the music is very cheery and quaint, like we've opened up a picture book to look into an innocent time in history (or a perceived, even painted one).  And it's true, the lie and fakery of it - it's really a school play for the holidays, with all of the parents just off to the side of the stage and in the audience, smiling, shooting on their cameras, singing along with the kids on stage to 'Oh Holy Night'.  This is one of 'those' moments that people want to cherish with their kids.

It's escapism.  At least, really, for the main protagonists (I looked on IMDb and though I thought they were given names, they're credited only as 'The Husband' and 'The Wife', which sounds about right, and played by supporting actors from The Sopranos - Lillo Brancato, Jr, and Drea de Matteo).  They love their daughter, without question.  They are happy for her for the holidays, spend time with her, sing lullabys for her to bed.  And buy gifts - some, like a special doll (no relation to Chucky but it might as well be), which people actually fight over in stores (this one brief scene, where two women fight over a doll almost to a violent extent, is the first moment where the "Ferrara" touch can be felt - rough, raw, and from an outsider looking on as The Husband is waiting to see if a doll is available in the back for a bribe).

 This is the illusion, the fantasy of a swell life in Washington Heights in NY.  But in reality, the Husband is a drug dealer, and the Wife an accomplice if not partner in crime.  He has another apartment where he cuts his coke, gets it out into the world (this is 1993 by the way), and the Wife reminds him every so often that he needs to watch being ripped off.

Tis the season for drug dealing, fa-la-la-la-la?  Ferrara shows most of this in small scenes that dissolve from one to the next.  Some of these almost seem mundane - perhaps by design, the usual thing of a dude in a hoodie crossing a street, shaking another dude's hand, giving a certain 'baggie', and then going back across the street, scored to music by rapper Schooly D.  Then as a couple of guys do a bet involving shooting a basketball in a hoop, a bad dude with a gun shoots the ball away and drives off.  A warning?  Just another day in these parts really.

The "plot" as much as it is doesn't even really kick in until the half-way point.  Perhaps this was also by design, but I was starting to feel dulled in the introduction section.  Everything is shown without any frills, and that's a positive, a strength of Ferrara's, no bullshit, direct movements with the camera.  This isn't a pretty world - this is just straight-up drug dealing, drug cutting, and deception from the likes of the child sleeping in her bed.  It's all observing this stuff going on... which is, upon some further reflection, clever in placing it in the context of Christmas.  Not *too* much is really different at this time of year for the adults, except the occasional 'Hey, cabbie, Merry Christmas' nod.  Oh, and some family members or fellow dealers go home back to the Dominican Republic for the holidays.

This part doesn't sit so well once the story comes, which is that, at some point while going about his affairs and meeting up with a "rat", the Husband gets kidnapped by some supposed thugs, Ice-T ("The Kidnapper") tells the Wife that she has to get ALL the cash to them from ALL the deals if she wants to see him again, and so she has to go about finding what she can.  Does he have more money she doesn't know about?  It's the acting here from de Matteo that really ratchets up this whole second half of the film, where her calmness, and occasional snap-like attitude (she speaks Spanish too), gets into a higher gear.  I always believed in the drama because of how simply, almost like a documentary at times, that Ferrara shows this.  Only in some of the car shots, where he starts on the hood and swoops around sometimes to characters faces, does he get 'flashy' or close to it.  And those dissolves...

Actually, the dissolves are a good stylistic choice.  We know time is passing, but it's more about things always moving from one thing to the next, one body moving to another building, getting this or that.  Until the second half scenes are short, but then they get longer, more intense.  When the Wife has to figure out what to do and can't really hide it anymore from her mother and mother-in-law (I think it was the mother-in-law), most of this long scene (they over-hear her being talked-to quite firmly by the Kidnapper), this scene goes on for a longer than one might think it needs to.  And most of the scene is in Spanish as well - Ferrara doesn't subtitle it, a decision that I'm not sure was correct in my head, but emotionally everything comes out so strongly that it works on that gut level, like you could turn off the sound altogether and it clicks).

There are a lot of decisions to be pondered over for the characters, and the time frame it's set in in NY comes into play, and Ice-T is always a mean mother-fucker on camera when it's called for (and here, well, just imagine if his cop character on Law & Order used his genuine bravado for more sinister, corrupt ends).  A good deal of 'R Xmas plods along, in a way, because so much of it feels improvised (I'm not sure if it was, but knowing a free-flowing, let's-see-where-the-hell-it-goes director like Ferrara I wouldn't be surprised), and the main part of the story gets resolved in a way that is a little too quick.  A crucial piece of information is left out at a moment about the Kidnappers, and while it works in a greater social context that Ferrara is portraying, from a story point of view it doesn't quite make sense.

I won't ever in a million years expect this on a list of "Christmas Classics".  In a bizarro-world perhaps it would play 24 hours a day on a TV channel.  Whole lotta de Matteo smoking in that surreal land of Ferrara films getting TV play at all outside IFC.  But the point is, this is on its own terms a gritty answer to the Spirit of Christmas via this director, who has made for the most part a career out of depicting characters on the edge, out for themselves, greedy, barbarous and sometimes quite cruel, but somewhere deep down inside, to varying extents, all of the protagonists try to find good in themselves, or just a reason to keep on going.

The Husband and Wife are in the drug business, and get pushed around by some nasty people, and probably (really) not without some reason.  It's a hard-knock life.  But the questions that Ferrara poses to us about how they live their lives, what they could do, vs what they should, especially given their ethnic and economic and just educational circumstances, that's interesting.  And put with these equally (under his direction) raw performances, the film is good.  Could it have been better?  It's as good as it could get, I think, and much better than expected from the cover of the film, which portends to give some lame direct-to-video schlock.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Madadayo, Used DVD's! - #1: Lynn Shelton's MY EFFORTLESS BRILLIANCE

And now on to what my previous 'Something's Coming' post is all about: a new review series!  For the present, this will be capped at fifty titles, and what it's about is this - in the next couple of months, I'm expunging many of my DVD's.  I'm keeping around those that I may be worth something, or I have a sentimental attachment or can't be replaced (Goodfellas, you stay right where you are).

But for many of the DVDs in my collection, they were used titles that I picked up from the now rotting corpse that is Blockbuster.  And many of those titles I have yet to see, through lack of effort, time (that's the biggie), or just picking up a title that on the spur of the moment looked interesting and then suddenly get it home and realize 'what did I almost step in?'  Other times, a title looks mildly entertaining, and costs just little enough to be worth it.

I've discovered that I own about fifty titles that have not graced my eyes and ears, and I've decided that instead of simply just copying them and getting rid of them (either throwing them out, or, as I'm doing with many of my other DVDs and films I've seen that I actually am copying before they move on to their new owners), I'll do what they were meant to do: be spun around like a record at 88 miles per hour, and consumed into my solar plexus.  And for each title, every day (that is the goal, let's see if I can keep it up), I'll spout out a review of such a film.  If I miss a day maybe I'll make up for it with a double shot of TWO films the next day.  Or just play catch up at some point.

Consider it my long goodbye to a place like Blockbuster (I didn't pick up ALL the titles from the venue I should admit, but most of them are from the establishment that died a slow and painful death, partially deservedly).  And as for the films themselves... some are by great and/or established directors (a little taste of what's to come: Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Twyker, Abel Ferrara, the Duplass') and others are... sub-par Nic Cage films and Christian Slater vehicles.  But I'll give ever title my undivided attention (unless I gotta rush to the bathroom, which happens), and put forth a review of varying length.  Oh, and by the way, the 'Madadayo' up top is translated as "NOT YET!" and was the name of Akira Kurosawa's final film (apt title).

So, let's see how this goes, shall we? 

Lynn Shelton's second feature film (I mistakenly thought it was her first, it has the appearances of it, but before this she made another little character piece called We Go Way Back in 2006) is 'about' a writer Eric Lambert Jones (always gotta have three names, played by musician Sean Nelson) lost with what to do with himself after his latest book comes out and deciding to go out to see an estranged friend Dylan (Basil Harris) who lives out in a cabin in the woods of Washington.  It's a bit awkward at first - Eric says in a simple, 'hey it's nothing', voice that he drove four hours to get there, got Dylan's address by going to his office, and got lost on the way there.  Oh, and can he stay there for a day or two?  Sure, why not?

This awkward tension between males and their sense of themselves and others, how they as many of us could say the truth about something but tap-dance around it, find other words to fill in, is where Shelton's eye and ear for comedy come in.  It would get into full bloom in her film Humpday made a year later about a couple of 'bros' who decide, oh, let's shoot a gay porno.  My Effortless Brilliance doesn't really have that kind of a hook, where you tell someone the premise and eyes widen up and you rush out to get a copy.  But it's a good trial run, and displays some attention at the simple (but sometimes difficult) act of showing character talking naturally on screen.

The film has all of the actors credited as writers.  This is something of a staple of the "Mumblecore" movies - see works by Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers for more details - where everything is improvised to the point where a sense of generosity comes in (and not giving a damn, or perhaps really submitting to, the requirements of the WGA).

After all, if all the actors, even those in one scene like when a female interviewer (a very good Jeanette Maus) is gushing over Eric's books and flirting before revealing she has a boyfriend in casual conversation, are making it up as they go along, is that not 'writing'?  I don't know quite what the process was for Shelton, if she went the Apatow route (have some semblance of a script and make up stuff on set) or Scorsese (improv only in rehearsal and then on set the script is God), or another method (one I suspect) which is that she had an outline, knew this or that where to go, and everything else in this movie was loose to the breeze.

It certainly feels that way, which is both a plus and a negative here.  She sets up a simple conflict, but it's one that the actors set up pretty well: Dylan tells Eric straight out he's an asshole (it's one of those moments that's painfully funny, mostly for Eric's blank-but-taken-aback expression) and they seemingly don't talk again until Eric's impromptu appearance at the cabin, where Dylan has another friend there helping him chop wood (Calvin Reader).  The idea I would think is that the two guys confront their problems with themselves and each other.  There is *some* of this, briefly, as the three of these dudes get drunk in the cabin, wax awkwardly about Bukowski and there's a small argument about how Dylan and Eric have taken their respective careers as a journalist and writer respectively.

This scene feels like it's about to lead to something explosive... and then a detour comes up as Jim, leading the way (I think it was Jim, the one without a beard), leads the way in a drunken frenzy - there's a cougar apparently out in the woods, and in a Wake in Fear type of decision they decide to go out and kill it... in the middle of the night.  This isn't at first a bad turn of story, but it goes nowhere, except, I think, to show Eric and Dylan becoming better friends again.  There wasn't enough *there* there, however, in how quickly things seem to have made up.  Or if things have been patched at all.

The acting is fine, especially by Sean Nelson and Basil Harris, who really could have had their own film together Godot-style and it would have been captivating.  They have a good friendly chemistry (even, or because, they are sometimes awkward in not quite knowing what to say or aproaching the truth in how their characters feel).  The natural-part of the mumblecore aesthetic here isn't an issue.  But it's almost too short - there could be more here, the second half just feels rushed in a way - and at the same time what's here isn't enough to sustain the premise.  Among the crop of these hand-held chronicles of men at crossroads, it's not as aimless as something like Old Joy (where one, if memory serves, just watches two guys in a sauna for half an hour).

Art Garfunkel's little brother
 Shelton and company do get at the conflict here, and in the process mine some awkward laughs, even out of something as simple as Eric's sorta-frightened reaction to reading a book about spiders in the cabin.  Little observances in this film, like in the set-up as Eric is trying to 'write' but BS-es more often than not, are splendid and feel true.  But it's too aimless when it should get going bigger emotionally speaking.  Perhaps Shelton learned from this, or wanted to go for more, when Humpday came around, which has that epic last third with the two men in the motel room.  For what it is, though, My Effortless Brilliance is a partially slight, pleasant diversion with some guys in the woods unsure what to do with themselves or their lives.


It also has a fun Dracula reference.  No spoilers on that, goodness knows. 

PS: Two friends named Eric and Dylan.... hrm... where have I heard that before...