The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorcese

 

Martin Scorsese’s latest is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker and founder of Stratton Oakmont, a company which engaged in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street during the nineties. 


First off, the performances are top-notch. Leonardo DiCaprio has managed to find new depths by playing a character that is even debatably worse than the racist plantation owner in Django Unchained. DiCaprio has done more than enough to win his Oscar, and winning for The Wolf of Wall Street is as good any of his other roles. My favorite DiCaprio performance is still Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Though my vote goes to McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club this year. Speaking of which, McConaughey has a great cameo as Jordan’s mentor, who gives Belfort the inspirational push. However, Jonah Hill is the standout as Belfort’s psychotic sidekick Donnie Azoff, delivering an even more impressive performance than in Moneyball.

At a 3-hour running time, the film is too long and it easily could have been shorter with less party scenes and throwing midgets into giant dartboards at the office. As a rise-and-fall story, it has too much ‘rise’ and not enough ‘fall’. I wanted the story to move on and inform us about the financial damage this all caused and all the lives it hurt in the process, but Scorsese does not seem interested in the forensics. Overall there are some very good party set pieces and funny scenes, but after a while, I was just numb.

The story is essentially told from the villain’s point of view. Extending this idea to the classic children’s storybook The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which is told from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective. The Wolf retells the Three Little Pigs story and asks the reader to consider his side of the story. The Wolf was simply trying to bake a cake for his grandmother’s birthday while nursing a bad cold, and things got out of hand. Therein lies my criticism: there is nothing redeemable from the Jordan Belfort character in The Wolf of Wall Street. Or at the very least, the filmmakers do not seem interested in showing anything beyond the surface. 

The breaking-the-4th-wall story device of having the villain narrate his story to the audience is raunchy and creative, but Scorsese totally forgets that it is supposed to be ironical. The premise of the black comedy is that we’re supposed to laugh at how vile and putrid these people are. But by the nth orgy scene, the characters are matted into two dimensions and we never get beneath the surface. The morality play tips over to the other side and it mistakenly justifies itself. Just because this a tale about self-indulgent shallow people doesn’t mean we have to tell their story in a self-indulgent shallow fashion.

The bad taste left in my mouth at the end is not the film’s self-indulgence, but out of worry that The Wolf of Wall Street is so unclear about its cautionary message, that there are certain viewers that will admire this lifestyle and become inspired to become a stock broker. For the rest of that find the Belfort character repugnant will feel empty wondering what justified the three-hour running time.

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The Heat by Paul Feig

The Heat by Paul Feig

An uptight FBI Special Agent is paired with a foul-mouthed Boston cop to take down a ruthless drug lord.

The Heat is a comedy that brings both familiar and fresh genre elements. The buddy cop movie elements are the familiar portion, but what’s fresh is the comedy pairing of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Most notably, it’s a buddy cop movie that stars two women.

Melissa McCarthy is a living comedy engine. The key to her performance is that she’s not approaching the part as a comedienne, but as a dramatic actress as well. She delivers every line like her character is totally serious. The story is partly about the social classes in Boston and it is established that McCarthy’s Mullins comes from a tough Boston neighborhood. She incorporates that into her performance. In a lesser actress’s hands, it would have been raunchy for the sake of being raunchy.

Sandra Bullock plays social awkwardness well and a good straight man to McCarthy. Again she brings her charming personable star quality and it’s hard not to like her for being so self-deprecating. This role has a similar arc to her character in Ms. Congeniality – an uptight by-the-book cop who needs to learn to let go. Suffice to say, Bullock and McCarthy make a great comedic duo.

The action scenes take a back seat and comedy is the main priority. The entire cast is full of comedians and comedy-capable actors. Standup comedian Bill Burr, Jane Curtin and Marlon Wayans add a variety of comedy dimensions with their supporting roles. Thomas Wilson, famous for being Biff in the Back to the Future films, as Melissa McCarthy’s emasculated police captain brought a huge gaping smile on my face. It was like watching Biff being upstaged in an alternate timeline.

Bridesmaids 
director Paul Feig understands that there is no moral barometer for comedy and isn’t afraid to risk bad taste for laughs. They hold nothing sacred here. There’s a running gag with an albino that had me in stitches. Underneath all the comedy, the movie is subtly about women working in a male-dominated workplace. I like how the film stays true to this concept. There’s no love subplot with a male suitor and it even draws comedy from women dealing with misogyny.

A great deal of improvisation was done in the comedic scenes. Despite of that, the film is well edited. The comedy never stops the story from moving forward and it seems a lot of comedy babies were killed in the editing room. I laughed consistently throughout the entire film. It’s a well made comedy by people that like and understand its workings. Now that they’ve announced a sequel, I look forward to that as well.

Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Jon “Don Jon ”Martello is dedicated to his family, friends, his apartment, church and one night stands with women. But none of these compare to the transcendent bliss he achieves with pornography. Dissatisfied, he embarks on a journey to find a more gratifying sex life, but ends up learning larger lessons of life and love from two very different women.

Don Jon marks as the debut film of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is the writer, director and star of the film. What’s most praiseworthy about JGL’s direction is how he puts the audience into the world view of his lead character Don Jon. It makes a good cinematic explanation of how Don Jon prefers pornography over bedding real women, a character trait that can easily be viewed as unlikeable or disgusting if mishandled. We never really venture outside his world, but yet Don Jon’s views seem logical enough to keep the audience invested in what happens to him.

Directing duties aside, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ability to transform himself amazes me. Having seen him in Inception, (500) Days of Summer and The Dark Knight Rises have familiarized me with the sound of his real voice, but I was still astounded by Don Jon’s macho New Jersey-accented voice. I was carefully listening to Don Jon’s dialogue and couldn’t detect any hints of Gordon-Levitt’s real voice underneath. It is artfully consistent and was the core element that sold me on the Don Jon character.

Scarlett Johansson has been said to be a wooden actress in the past. I think this was probably one of her better performances. This character felt like a real person to me. I have met and dated girls like Barbara. Furthermore, the allure of Scarlett Johansson is cinematically ramped up to eleven. She hasn’t been filmed to this level of sexiness since Match Point. For fans of the Black Widow, I’d even argue that this tops that. This is probably more to the credit of the direction. We feel Don Jon’s hunger for her. And like Don Jon, she too mesmerized me. And not just cause of her looks. She seemed like the ideal girlfriend at first and couldn’t really see her character flaws till late in the film. When I realized her character flaws, I was surprised I didn’t see them before. That was a very compelling moment for me in the theater. Honestly, Johansson’s character distracted me so much, I would need a second viewing to tell you anything about the Julianne Moore character.

Seeing Tony Danza as Don Jon’s father Jon Sr. takes me back to my childhood. He was the only man on TV who can make my dad cackle like a fiend in the English language. Danza’s presence adds warmth and makes for a convincing father. Brie Larson gets to do a Silent Bob type gag that is quite amusing.

The film’s brutally truthful display about the realities of men and women as a source for comedy, while handled tastefully with charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hits a little too close to home. I have had discussions like this with a girlfriend similar to the Scarlett Johansson character. It accurately captures why it’s hard for men to explain the joys of pornography to the opposite sex. As Louis C.K. once put it, men just need to release so they don’t go out and murder somebody. That’s really it, but it’s not a pleasing satisfying statement to convince a girlfriend with. I’d argue that any girl that needs an explanation wouldn’t be convinced anyways because they probably have double standards. The film seems to take the same stance. All that said, the film managed to end on a poignant tender note.

In the end, Don Jon is somewhat of an odd animal. I wouldn’t personally recommend it as a date movie with your girlfriend, for the very fact that it might just open the awkward discussion of “How much pornography do you watch?” with your girlfriend. I still think people should see it as it is a competent debut film.

So on a more politically neutral note, I’d say guys would have more fun with it watching it with their guy friends and likewise with girls and their girlfriends. It’s probably better to be charmed by it separately than leaving the theater together primed for an awkward argument.

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2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

A DEA agent and a Naval Intelligence officer find themselves on the run after a botched attempt to infiltrate a drug cartel. While fleeing, they learn the secret of their shaky alliance: they are both undercover agents.

2 Guns is reminiscent of buddy cop movies in the late eighties and nineties. Unlike a lot of recent throwback 80’s action films, it tastefully retains much of the fun factor by concentrating on character and dialogue and removing some of the modern tropes that have gone stale, like the oversaturation of pop culture references. With its setup and buddy dynamic, at times it actually reminded me of the 1996 Adam Sandler and Damon Wayons buddy cop movie Bulletproof.

What elevated 2 Guns from standard action fare were exactly the snappy dialogue and the buddy dynamic between Washington and Wahlberg. The two lead actors create a believable long-time friendship and it gave the movie a sizzling charm that you just can’t look away from. Watching Walhberg and Washington rapidly throw zingers back and forth alone made the price of admission. After seeing his facetious performance in this film, it’s easy now to imagine Mark Wahlberg taking over the role of Tony Stark in future Marvel films.

The film has a good supporting cast. James Marsden and Edward James Olmos seem overqualified for these supporting roles. It’s nice to see them but they have too little time to truly shine. Paula Patton is cast in a seemingly intelligent female role, but is ultimately there for her sex appeal. Bill Paxton is the only one who gets to properly chew up some scenery as a scary CIA agent with a flair for torturing his victims.

The story moved along fast like a shark, for fear that stopping for a thoughtful pause would ruin its momentum and shatter the illusion of how complicated the plot seems. The action scenes are fun. More importantly, they are visible and you can follow what’s going on.  When it came to the finale, the film said “Screw it!” to all the dramatic buildup from the first two acts and serves a lesser solution to its conflict.
 Had it been a slower moving story with less charming leads, I would have considered the finale a cop out ending and been pissed.

But this time, I just went with it. I’m a sucker for buddy cop movies. 2 Guns just oozes old school charm, and charm can go a long way.

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This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

While attending a party at James Franco’s house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

First off, I want to say I am a fan of the Judd Apatow team. Before Judd Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I wasn’t really into the American comedies that were dominated by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrel and Vince Vaughn. The improvisational nature of Apatow’s comedy and the crude sophomoric jokes infused with a heartfelt message hit me on a deeper level. As a lover of buddy cop movies, I’m also generally a sucker for bromance movies, of which I would argue is a close relative. Most of all, I like Apatow’s cast of actors. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, James Franco… they’re all funny in their own idiosyncratic way and seem to have free reign over their own personas.

This brings me to my first critique of This is the End. The central gag of having the actors play themselves isn’t as funny as the film thinks it is. For example, This is the End‘s version of Michael Cera is a foul-mouthed cocaine addict. Why? Because the filmmakers thought it’d be funny to do a total reversal on Cera’s real life persona. That gag is only truly funny if we know what Michael Cera is like in real life. Most of us, unlike the filmmakers, can only drawn upon Michael Cera’s timid onscreen persona. That creates enough of a contrast to elicit laughs and it does. However, the filmmakers are ultimately more connected to the joke than the audience can ever be, and that is problematic on some level. I get the feeling I should be laughing harder than the film is making me.

Just to reiterate, I did laugh. There were times when the celebrity gag won me over. I liked how the character relationships were set up and they all have great chemistry. Jay Baruchel plays the audience’s avatar and reacts to all colors of obnoxious behavior exhibited by the other actors. Actually, the film even takes it one comedic step further. When Danny McBride enters the film, he does his brand of obnoxious behavior that happens to be so overwhelming, the other annoying actors call him on it and ask him to stop.

When the film doesn’t rely on the celebrity gag and gives something for the characters to do to survive the Apocalypse, it’s much more creative and funnier. I liked the graphic novel-like style that went into the world creation of the apocalypse. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliver some surprises to what’s going on outside James Franco’s house. The parts in between that didn’t pertain to surviving the Apocalypse are strung by improvisational dialogue scenes and they stick out as the weaker moments. I recognize the ability to improvise scenes and be funny on camera, but watching the cast react to the fantastical elements was more interesting than watching the celebrities react to each other. As the audience’s avatar, Jay Baruchel ends up being outnumbered as he is the only genuine likable character in a cast of six. So for somebody isn’t already warm to these actors, they easily come off as very unlikable. And that can get taxing rather quickly. The writing isn’t doing enough to build enough character for the cast and the film is completely reliant on what we know of these actors and their past works.

Due to its leaning towards it’s own self-referential quality than being a apocalyptic survival film, This is the End is ultimately a fan film for the Judd Apatow audience. (Think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for Kevin Smith’s Viewaskew Universe) If you never liked any of the comedies from the Judd Apatow team, this movie isn’t going to convert you. If you don’t like none of these actors, I’d tell you to just skip it altogether. I am part of the Apatow audience and like these actors, and even with that, it felt like watching one gigantic inside joke.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

When a street magician’s stunts begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act and their friendship.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, for a lack of a better comparison, is akin to a by-the-numbers Will Ferrell comedy, that it is about a cocky professional at the top of his game, who falls from grace and must learn to be humble again. Character act dumber than they would realistically seem. Unlike many Will Ferrell comedies, this film actually focuses more on character, even though they often act inconsistently to serve the comedic gags. I don’t have a big problem with this, but it’s that kind of movie.

It’s important when showing a magic trick onscreen, unless there’s something more interesting going on in the plot (i.e. The Prestige), that it includes the audience to be a part of the spectacle as well. The film does this with by presenting a few magic tricks in-camera which genuinely give the “Hey, how did he do that?” sensation. But again to serve the random comedy, some of the tricks don’t make sense. It’s the kind of thing you laugh at when you see it, but the moment you think about it again, it completely falls flat. The awe of the in-camera tricks fare better in comparison.

Steve Carell is funny in his over-the-top theatrical voice and bleached bombastic wigs and carries the film well.  Jim Carrey is a fun antagonist but I am scratching my head about his role. I wonder what drew Jim Carrey to the role as it seems he’s played similar roles before. . Carrey’s magician is reminiscent of Fire Marshall Bill from In Living Color. It seems too small of a part to really explore anything acting wise and they could have gave him something more special to do. Watching Carell and Carrey’s scenes, they all seem to be following the script and I wonder how much they were allowed to veer off from script. Steve Buscemi is a central role to the arc of the story and the film unfortunately forgets this. They could have used more of him as well.

The script was shopped around for many years before it was produced. Unfortunately, the material is a little out-of-date. Comedy does rot after all. Celebrity magicians just do not seem relevant now as they were years ago. I am semi-aware that the three lead magician characters are meant as a parody of actual real-life magicians, but I don’t know who they are specifically drawing from. So unless you are a magic fan, it feels like there’s a layer of humor that we all do not have access to.

The final resolution to Burt Wonderstone’s conflict is funny, but it is a politically incorrect cheat that also betrays the heart of the protagonist. The antagonist is also done away in a deus ex machina fashion that feels too easy. This would be acceptable for a short comedy sketch, but for a theatrical film it feels lazy. To think about it seriously, the ending actually betrays the integrity of magic and stage performance.

Do I care? Not really. If The Incredible Burt Wonderstone didn’t star Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Busemi and Alan Arkin, I probably would have turned it off. But lying down watching it on my laptop for 100 minutes was the right way to experience it. I laughed, but probably would never watch it again.  It’s not incredible, but good enough.