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.

Related Links
Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino
Hugo by Martin Scorsese

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The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann

The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann

An adaptation of the classic novel by F. Scott Fitgerald, a Midwesterner becomes fascinated with his nouveau riche neighbor, who obsesses over his lost love.

I had a fear that watching this movie before having a solid memory of the original novel will taint my mind’s eye of the original story. I read the original novel in high school but don’t have a distinct memory of it. So before watching the movie, I reread the original novel. So on with the review…

The film starts off blasting at full volume and ramps it up to maximum for its entire first act. Fortunately, Luhrmann does takes a step back and tones down for the latter two-thirds and lets his actors do their magic. The film is well-casted. The actors are playing Fitgerald’s character descriptions exactly to a tee.

Leonardo DiCaprio chooses to play Gatsby as a hopeless romantic with a big dream. He’s able to find a lot of depth to the character without going to darkness and projects the necessary charm. A darker approach to playing Gatsby that would be equally legitimate and interesting. For all the times he has tried to cover his baby-faced looks with facial hair, Leonardo DiCaprio plays young here. In my favorite sequence where Gatsby reunites with Daisy, DiCaprio feels and acts like a young trepid boy who hasn’t imagined a life beyond his grand vision. The lack of an alternate choice in Gatsby’s eyes is such a stark contrast to when he’s playing host in his parties. Give him an Oscar, he’s earned it so many times now.

Carey Mulligan plays to my image of Daisy from the novel, the light empty way Daisy carries herself and particularly the way she speaks. Mulligan’s Daisy says things just to say them but does not necessarily believes the meaning in her words. Joel Edgerton plays a convincing jerk as Tom Buchanan, and it’s played in a way where we can see Tom’s side of things as well.

Tobey Maguire has a natural kindness to him that makes his Nick Carraway a believable third wheel and keeper of everybody’s secrets. The narrations start a bit awkwardly, but they get better as they go on. I didn’t like that Luhrmann cut off the opening paragraph from the novel. Luhrmann could have helped the actors a lot more by giving them more space to breathe out the scenes. He’s directed them to speaking very quickly and constantly overlapping each other. That said, the best dramatic parts of the novel are retained. The actors are what ultimately save the film from spiraling out of control.

There’s been a common complaint about the use of modern hip hop music in the film. Let me say that the hip hop music did not bother me. Why? Luhrmann isn’t concerned of the story’s historical context or presenting the class conditions that the original novel was addressing, but rather re-energizing this classic story with a post-modern sensibility. There’s no way to take Luhrmann’s world completely seriously as a real-life depiction of America in the 1920’s. The world presented in the film has a texture akin to a Jay-Z hip hop music video that happens to have a Great Gatsby theme running through it. If you think about it for a minute, life did not move as quickly back then as this film depicts. Nobody conversed or drived their automobiles at light speed. A sports convertible back in the day wouldn’t have roared like the Batmobile.

Luhrmann is not operating in terms of reality, but hyperreality. He’s punctuating the story purely in terms of emotional states. It’s as if the director is pondering, “How does Nick Carraway feel the moment he meets Jay Gatsby? How can I make that feel like a nuclear explosion?” “What now would equally communicate the materialistic excess in 1920’s New York? Gangster rap!” So in that light, I rather enjoyed the soundtrack. Ultimately, the film remains Luhrmann’s interpretation of Fitgerald’s novel, not a definitive film interpretation of its literary source. Being aware of Luhrmann’s stamp is important to truly enjoying this film. Perhaps the novel is such a classic, a definitive film version of The Great Gatsby probably is not possible. Similar to a Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare film adaptation where the literary source is open to a director’s individual interpretation and is passed on from author to author. Fitzgerald’s novel is tight and well-written enough that it can allow multiple filmic interpretations.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. For my purposes, I’m glad that I reread the book first. I may have to check out the Robert Redford version now.

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Set in the antebellum era of the Deep South and Old West, a freed slave Django (played by Jamie Foxx) who treks across the United States with a bounty hunter Doctor King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) on a mission to rescue his wife Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington) from a cruel and charismatic plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).

I’m just going to right into it…

The best performance by a mile is Christoph Waltz – he is the heart of the movie. Waltz’s Doctor King Schultz single-handedly balances the entire film, evening out the tone between moments of intense horror and humor and mediating the film’s internal battle between historical fact and its post-modern aesthetic. He is the Yang to the film’s Yin, filling out the missing part of the scenes and even providing a human perspective into what’s happening when the audience does not what to feel in certain situations. Whenever Christoph Waltz is not in the movie, it is heavily felt.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J. Candie is a great villain and brings a scary presence. Scary is something we haven’t ever seen Dicaprio accomplish so it was quite fresh to see. He sings Tarantino’s dialogue, projecting a charming demeanor on the surface while carrying a constant petty evil underneath. It’s not Oscar worthy (if anything, he should have won for The Aviator) but a powerful performance nonetheless.

Jamie Foxx’s lead performance as Django seemed off to me. Particularly his voice threw me off because his inflections sound too modern. Everybody else seems to have an accent from the era, but he does not use a southern accent, or any accent. He just sounds like a black man from 2012. Django’s progression of intelligence was unconvincing to me as well. There were times where he seemed dim-witted and other times where he seemed sharp, and it felt unnatural. It is not a screenwriting issue, but in how the performance was delivered. It was as if Foxx focused on playing the “Man with No Name” western genre hero and did not know how to balance it with the historical context of black slaves in America. He just did not carry enough pain in his eyes.

I don’t have words for Samuel L. Jackson’s performance, it’s quite the spectacle to behold. Watching it transported me into a weird nether place. Maybe I need to go leaf through a history book on slavery or something. I don’t know what to make of it. And on that awkward note…

However one may feel about Tarantino’s frequent use of the N word, he definitely has a strange obsession with it. As horrible as this sounds, I was surprised how other racial slurs from that era were not spoken in the film. (I am not going to name them here. I will defer you to watch that scene in Clerks 2.) There is a quality in Tarantino’s crass, in-your-face direction that suggests that he gets off rebelling against social taboos. That telling him that something is politically incorrect will push him to do it in order to disprove you. That’s my speculation anyways.

The film is way too long. Simply put, it’s ill-disciplined in the sense that Tarantino wants his cake and eat it too. He wants to tell his story and communicate a statement but also wants to amuse himself by inserting things that he enjoys and cannot reign himself in. There is a gag where a major comedy star shows up in a cameo which I found problematic. In fact, it was problematic in the exact same way I found Mike Meyer’s cameo was in Inglourious Basterds. In a film where it’s trying to balance historical fact and a post-modern aesthetic by mediating film genres, seeing a modern comedic actor show up for a cheap laugh is just one extra layer too many and it took me out. Did the gag make me laugh? No. Did it progress the story? No. Then why is the gag there? Tarantino wants it to be, that’s why.

A reason that I prefer Django Unchained over Inglourious Basterds is that Tarantino doesn’t try to make every scene into a dialogue set piece. The opening set piece in Inglourious Basterds is the best thing Tarantino has written (he says so too), but every proceeding scene seemed like he was trying to recreate that for the rest of the movie and it got tiring. There is a point in the Django Unchained‘s final act where the story could have concluded but it proceeds for another half hour. I could have cut 20 minutes out of the film and it is that exact 20 minutes that holds the film from being something masterful. Yes, that includes Tarantino’s cameo. Tarantino shouldn’t act in his own films. Maybe he shouldn’t act at all in anything but he was the worst part of his own film.

All that said, I enjoyed it much more than Inglourious Basterds ( I am so relieved it didn’t end with a character uttering “Hm, maybe THIS is my masterpiece.”) Tarantino fans may love the extra fat, but I would have preferred a leaner steak with more discipline. It’s just that little difference, if only Tarantino reigned himself in.

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Before I review this movie, I have to talk about exposition in screenwriting. If you already know what exposition is, please skip ahead.

Exposition is the facts that you need to know to follow and understand a story. As film is a visual medium, the general rule in giving exposition is that you should always “show, don’t tell”.  i.e. You should never have a character say he is deadly killing machine, instead you show him taking out 10 people at the same time in a scene.  The best exposition is done as invisible as possible. The viewer should not be aware of it. At the worst of times, it disconnects the viewer because all of sudden they are shown the nuts and bolts of the story. It is simply not engaging or entertaining.

As a screenwriter, I wrestle with the idea of exposition. First of all, you have to get certain information across for the story to work. So you have to do it. Second of all, you have to make exposition interesting. What constitutes as interesting? Where is that line? My personal favorite example is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where they have a character named Basil Exposition whose sole purpose is to give exposition. So he’s giving you the exposition but because of the “wink wink” postmodern factor it is interesting again. So where is that line between interesting and uninteresting exposition? In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, often characters are explaining what’s going onto each other. Can we justify that it was interesting because Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was teaching Ellen Page’s (whose character is representing the audience) how the dream world works? Was there another way to show the audience what’s going on without the dialogue?

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a drama pasted on top of a horror movie skeleton. It is about a young woman named Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who has just escaped an abusive cult in the Catskill mountains to stay with her older sister  Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by Hugh Dancy). As she recovers, Martha deals with delusions and paranoia from her dark past.

Elizabeth Olson is an engaging actress and carries the film competently, she plays a naive innocence against massive trauma and we experience the inner turmoil she is hiding from everybody. What can I say? I like underplaying performances. John Hawkes is great as the leader of the cult. It’s a very subtle performance that is quite creepy. I have noticed him in several movies (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice where he played an informant) and even a Canadian short film where in the opening sequence he sets his arm on fire (I cannot remember the name of it). He’s a fine screen presence. I hate that there is not enough of just normal dudes on film. Hawkes will probably have to work his way up through playing disheveled creeps or crazy people to get a starring role like Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. I wish him all the best.

So how is it horrific? It is how Martha acts and what she says that suggests remnants of an odd warped view of the world (from the influence of being in the cult) that contrasts with societal norms represented by Lucy and Ted. Martha is taciturn about her past, she never directly tells Lucy what has happened (No exposition! Hurrah!). However the audience knows as we switch between the past and the present, the story shows pieces of what happened and leaves plenty of space for us to imagine the in-between. The horror forms out of everything between the cracks.

Non-linear storytelling is the trend this year with the likes of The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and We Need to Talk About KevinMartha Marcy May Marlene contains the best justification of the non-linear storytelling device this year so far.

It’s well-written, disciplined piece of drama that knows the subtlety of it’s own punches. And you know what? Basil Exposition is nowhere to be seen and I was rather marveled by that accomplishment.