Tag: Scorsese

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

I’m no financial genius. I can barely keep a checkbook balanced, let alone invest in a diverse stock portfolio. If you’re anything like me in that regard, ignorant of the stock market’s inner workings, don’t worry. You can walk into The Wolf of Wall Street and know everything you need to know. And according to the tale’s narrator, all you need to know is that what’s happening on Wall Street is two things: very lucrative, and not always necessarily legal.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

That narrator is also our protagonist, Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and working off of the real-life memoir written by Belfort himself. He starts out as a wide-eyed, straight-laced new member of a brokerage, and is just starting to get a feeling for the business when the market crashes. Undaunted, Jordan gets involved with the seedier aspect of the business known as ‘penny stocks’, and is soon turning a substantial profit. He starts his own business, builds it into a real presence on Wall Street, and amasses a huge fortune. He uses his wealth on drugs, whores, parties, and more drugs, but considering his business is built on less than savory practices, he soon runs afoul of the FBI, and things start to go rapidly downhill.

From what we’re shown, Jordan is a textbook sociopath. His charm is glib and superficial, his abilities to manipulate are what make him such a good salesman, he is incredibly entitled to the point of grandiosity, he has no sense of remorse or guilt, so on and so on. He is unctuous and at times downright repugnant, and yet as shallow as that charm is, it’s so effective and attractive that we can see why he succeeds. Hell, his pitch is delivered so well that I caught myself thinking about stock investments. He not only surrounds himself with subordinates willing to do just about anything for him, he teaches them to make themselves stinking rich, even if they don’t quite have the same chops to charm as much as he does. And we see every aspect of his excessive lifestyle in sharp, uncompromising detail – this is Martin Scorsese we’re talking about, after all.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Despite being such a douchebag, whenever he’s behind a microphone, you’re hanging on every word.

Teaming once again with long-time editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker, we see Scorsese doing one of the things he does best: making a good story starring bad people. Look no further than GoodFellas and Casino for more of this type of tale. Much like another film to which it is compared, Scarface, The Wolf of Wall Street features a protagonist that has no heroic qualities, very little to redeem himself, and close to zero ground when it comes to gaining sympathy. And yet, Scorsese tells his story with such poise and aplomb that we’re not only capable of watching, we’re wrapped up in Jordan’s journey. We laugh at his drunken stupors. And you may even catch yourself laughing with him all the way to the Swiss bank.

It isn’t all on Scorsese’s shoulders, of course. The Wolf of Wall Street is an exemplary double-act of a skillful director and a thoroughly talented and entertaining leading man. I’ve said before that Leonardo DiCaprio has the screen presence and affability that puts him on par with Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, and this film really drives that home. His delivery of the facts of his life are so conversationally put, and his relationships with his peers so natural, that we not only understand how this utter sleazeball of a person can be so successful, we also find him making it look easy. It’s a powerhouse performance, not because it’s dramatically moving, but because it’s a case of an actor truly wearing another person’s skin for the better part of three hours.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
He may be drinking wine, but he’s selling snake oil, and making a bundle doing it.

The last thing that makes The Wolf of Wall Street a hands-down recommendation for me is that it’s a comedy blacker than the blackest pitch. For the majority of its running time, the film’s an absolute riot. Jordan makes no apologies for his life, pulls no punches in showing and describing in detail the drugs he’s on, and delivers monologues rivaling Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” mantra from Wall Street. The supporting cast keys into his electrifying presence, from Jonah Hill as his sidekick to Margot Robbie as his sultry second wife. Much of the dialog feels improvised and spontaneous, keeping the scenes clipping along and helping the movie not feel its length. Much like a good bender, the impact of the film doesn’t really hit you until the very end, and then long after the credits begin to roll, you’ll be thinking about it. Your head might even start to hurt, but in a good way. And there’s no nausea. At least, I didn’t feel any.

I’m not sure what else I can say about The Wolf of Wall Street to encourage you to see it. It describes in detail how phony, superficial, and fickle the stock market is. It shows the kinds of people who exploit the gullibility and vulnerability of the stock market’s investors to make themselves rich. It makes us understand beyond a shadow of a doubt why the lifestyle is so attractive. And it warns us that anything that seems too good to be true is untrustworthy, especially if the salesman is as charming as Jordan Belfort. In another story, this message would be delivered without a hint of irony and completely stone-faced. But here, we’re smiling and laughing, enjoying a cracking good time at the movies. Like Scarface and Fight Club, The Wolf of Wall Street both glamorizes a dangerous and destructive lifestyle, and shows us exactly why such a lifestyle is so dangerous and destructive, at once holding up a public ideal for all to see and taking the absolute piss out of it. It’s absolutely brilliant and, unlike these brokers’ lifestyles, built to last.

Stuff I Liked: The supporting cast is fantastic. I’m not a big Jonah Hill fan, but I thought he did a great job being a complete sleaze which highlights just how charismatic Belfort can be. Rob Reiner does an excellent job and comes close to stealing the boardroom scene he’s in with the other leads. And I hope we see more of Margot Robbie’s acting, as I have the feeling the real actress completely disappeared into her role.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: There are a couple scenes that other directors might have cut a bit shorter, but the dialog is so natural and the cinematography so sharp that even as I noted a scene was running a bit long, I didn’t really mind all that much.
Stuff I Loved: Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better. Scorsese puts Leo and his other actors through an incredible series of situations and gets top-notch performances out of all of them. The nature of the narration is the perfect framework for the film’s tone, and makes you feel slightly more comfortable with Belfort’s antics even as he indulges in some of the most debauched situations since Caligula.

Bottom Line: It’s pretty safe to say that if I had gotten to see it before the end of the year, The Wolf of Wall Street would have been my top movie. It has everything I adore in a good film about bad people: charisma, unapologetic sleaze, a breakneck pace, and a long and ever-escalating ramp to a climax that comes before a slam-dunk fall that leaves you both empty and deeply satisfied. It’s signature Scorsese, DiCaprio’s best performance to date, a dazzling spectacle wrapped around an acid-edged takedown message, and definitely one of the best movies. Not just of 2013. Ever.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Shutter Island

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{No audio this week, still adjusting to the new work schedule.}

I’m sure that most of the people reading this review have at least one dog-eared copy of a paperback novel lying around somewhere. Let me ask you something: why have you read that book more than once? I’m willing to hazard a guess. Even though you know how the story ends, the telling of the story is still a worthwhile and entertaining experience. That, in a nutshell, is how I would describe Shutter Island.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Set in the mid-50s, the eponymous island is home to an asylum for the criminally insane. One of the inmates has escaped and there’s a gigantic hurricane bearing down on Boston. Enter US Marshall Teddy Daniels and new partner Chuck Aule, arriving on the island just before the storm. As much as their primary purpose is to find the missing crazy woman, Daniels is also looking for something, or someone, else. And on this island, it seems like everybody has something to hide, including Teddy himself.

Now, it’s a year on from when this movie came out, and it’s highly likely you’ve at least seen a trailer, or gotten the twist ending spoiled for you. No, I’m not going to spoil it here, but even if you have figured out how this one is going to end, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it. Like that beloved paperback, Shutter Island is less about telling a new story and more about telling a good one. And cinematic storytellers don’t come much better than Martin Scorsese.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Some of these visuals are just stunning.

It’s no secret Scorsese has an eye for talent. He’s worked with editor Thelma Schoonmaker since Raging Bull. He made eight films with Robert DeNiro, including the aforementioned Raging Bull which DeNiro convinced Scorsese to do for reasons that may have saved the director’s life. And here, in Shutter Island, we have his fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio. Once again, Scorsese gives Leo an opportunity to show his chops as a wise-cracking tough guy, an emotionally scarred and troubled man, an intelligent detective and even a veteran. Pulling off these disparate beats while keeping the character consistent and compelling is no mean feat, but DiCaprio inhabits his role perfectly.

In addition to this strong lead, Shutter Island features a fantastic supporting cast of character actors. While Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Michelle Williams do a great deal of the heavy lifting in this tale, there are some small or even one-scene performances that stick out in one’s mind, speaking to the power of these actors in their roles. Ted Levine, Jackie Earl Haley and Elias Kostas do such a fantastic job nailing their characters down in just a handful of lines – or, in Kostas’ case, about two lines and some very effective leering – that they’re likely to be remembered long after the credits roll.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Forgive me, it’s Sir Ben Kingsley.

All of this great acting is framed in the extremely atmospheric setting of Shutter Island itself. Between the old Civil War construction, the archaic equipment and the period dress of the 1950s, the film takes on a noir detective feeling that works as a great, concrete counterpoint to the psychological horror that is the crux of the narrative. As much as Daniels begins to question and cling to his sanity, so does the audience attempt to hold onto the mystery as it was introduced, even as a new mystery slowly emerges to take its place. Granted, some viewers will have seen the ‘new’ mystery coming from the beginning, but as I said before, this is a yarn more concerned with telling the tale well than the tale being told.

In that aspect, the only real flaw that can be pointed out in Shutter Island is the nature of the plot that makes the twist at the end, in some measure, predictable. For a movie that seems to be aiming to be equal parts Inception and old carnival spook house (a comparison that wouldn’t have made sense when the movie came out), the lack of screenplay contrivance can seem incongruous, like it’s too straight-forward in the telling. The film, however, plays this weakness as a strength, making the plot just about the least important thing about it. The talent, artistry, atmosphere and characters completely overwhelm the plot and construct a very good storytelling experience. It belongs on your Netflix queue if you’re a fan of any of these actors, detective stories right at home in a Lovecraft anthology, old-fashioned head-screwy horror or, it goes without saying, Martin Scorsese. The man’s proven over and over that his talent for telling stories through film is peerless, and Shutter Island is no exception.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Casino

This week’s IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! brought to you by a generous donation by Mike Jarossy. Thank you for your support!

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

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Good filmmaking is rightly lauded in modern cinema. Consistently good filmmaking is damn close to a miracle. Take a look at the films of Martin Scorsese, and it’s very possible that this little guy with bushy eyebrows is the closest thing filmmaking has to a god amongst men. Casino is no exception.

Courtesy Universal Pictures

Told mostly as a narrated flashback, Casino introduces us to life-long friends Ace & Nicky, who come to Las Vegas in the service of their old-school Italian mob leaders. The old men saw Vegas as virgin territory for profit and their agents go to ensure the cash flow. Ace, a natural born gambler, quickly becomes involved with a casino, the Tangiers, helping the already-assumed house wins to grow to giant proportions while Nicky begins carving out a little criminal empire of his own, free from interference or even much oversight from back home. A grifting hooker, corrupt politicans and the hubris of these friends are the aggravating factors that cause their endeavors to start coming undone, and in the process it’s likely Ace and Nicky will come undone as well.

There was a time when a film like this would have Ace and Nicky be a close-knit wise-cracking criminal duo. Ace would be the smiling, charming face of the operation, while Nicky works behind the scenes with brass knuckles, a baseball bat and a silenced .22 to get the real business done. In other words, they’d be the villains in the story. Casino instead focuses on Ace and Nicky as protagonists. We don’t see them as victims or even great guys, but they’re still human beings with dreams and ambitions just like any other. Putting a face on ‘the bad guys’ is something Scorsese is legendary for doing, and Casino is a shining example of this work.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
“I am, in fact, talkin’ t’ you, Ace.”
“Yeah, well, you amuse me, Nicky.”

Scorsese is also known for having an eye for talent. Casino was the 8th film he made with Robert DeNiro. Playing Ace, DeNiro’s intensity is focused entirely on how his character is trying to keep things together. Here’s a man who knows a sure bet when he sees it, bets with confidence and never loses. The very prospect of losing doesn’t even occur to Ace; left to his own devices, he’d achieve just about anything he went after. When Nicky and Ginger get involved, though, you can feel Ace’s frustration, the sort of anger a stereotypical villain might rant abouot at the drop of a hat only to put some outrageous scheme of revenge into motion. Ace is too smart for that, though. He plays his hand close to his chest.

Nicky, on the other hand, may not be playing with the entire deck. As much as it seems sometimes that Joe Pesci only has one role, he plays things so well here it’s hard to hold some repetition of roles against him. Nicky is as ambitious as he is uncompromising. Where Ace does business with a handshake, Nicky does it with a bat. Where Ace tries to keep the peace, Nicky itches for action. Yet these two are friends, and very close ones. They really are flip sides of the same coin, a bright and lucrative coin that spins through the air and catches the lights of the Vegas strip. As the film goes on, it’s hard to say which side of the coin is going to land right-side up.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
Yeah. She’s pretty distracting.

Further complicating matters is Sharon Stone as Ginger. At first appearing as the sort of arm candy that shows up with high rollers to skim a bit for herself, Ginger becomes the one unpredictable variable in Ace’s life that starts to unravel the disparate threads he’s woven together. While none of the main characters are unaffected by Las Vegas, and indeed all of them succumb to varying degrees of decadence and depravity, Ginger is the one most dragged under by the the booze, drugs and lifestyle that was Sin City in the 70s and 80s. We watch her fall apart practically before our eyes, from her inability to seperate herself from her manipulative boyfriend and pimp to the lengths she’ll go to further her own ends, especially when it comes to the daughter she has with Ace. Everything goes to hell in a gradual fashion, a painful and inevitable backslide that unfolds as the movie rolls on.

While the movie is not painful in a bad or sickening way, it’s quite an ordeal to sit through. It’s nearly three hours long, and much of that is featuring fights, arguments, breakdowns and discomfort on a public or private level. There’s moments of levity and vindication, to be sure; the acting, writing and direction are all fantastic; the soundtrack is top-notch and walks us through the changing times as much as the cinematography does – but the overall length of the narrative begins to wear on the viewer. And it’s only at the very end that Scorsese delivers the ultimate point of his story.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
“You sure I should be wearin’ this color, Marty?”
“Bobby, I ain’t let ya down yet, I ain’t startin’ now.”

This movie is a eulogy for Vegas of old. It’s the sort of movie that longs for old-fashioned machismo, the slight haze of cigarette smoke in back rooms while the glitz and glamour flash in the eyes of suckers betting against the house run by the Mob. Nowadays, suckers bet against the house run by corporations. Ace lays it out for us: “In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s like chekin’ into an airport. And if you order room service, you’re lucky to get it by Thursday.” His arc follows that of Vegas itself. He rises out of nowhere into the Nevada desert, fastitious and self-assured. His life begins to spiral out of control, from his ne’er-do-well wife to his taste in clothes. And when all is said and done, he’s still the same guy – but hollowed out, older, a shadow of his former self.

That’s what makes Casino such an effective tragedy. That’s what makes it worth the long running time and Sharon Stone’s chewing of scenery. That’s why it’s one of Scorsese’s many great pictures, and why it should be on your Netflix queue. It is, like many memorable and timeless stories, a cautionary tale: Excess and success are not the same thing. If you’re unable to moderate your excesses when you’re successful, life’s circumstances are likely to take it all away from you. All you can count on, in the end result, is being who you are, and if you aren’t careful, they can take that away from you, too. Just a little bit of wisdom, and a touch of keeping your goals in sight, goes a long, long way.

Sorry, this is getting preachy. Watch Casino to see DeNiro in a salmon-colored suit. He looks fabulous.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Departed

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Among other things, The Departed hammers home the lesson of not judging a book by its cover. For a long time, I considered Leonardo DiCaprio an actor that got by on looks rather than talent. Mostly this was due to how unimpressed I was by the acting in general in Titanic. That happened in a period in his career that saw him in the midst of what the media called ‘Leo-mania’. There’s a reason his Wikipedia page doesn’t even mention The Beach except in passing. However, Leo hooked up with some guy named Martin and they started making movies together. I mention this because The Departed is the first film in which I found myself liking Leo as an actor and got the impression that he was just as disenchanted with ‘Leo-mania’ as I was. Against the stone of Scorsese, DiCapro sharpened himself and has definitely gotten back his edge.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

The Departed, set in Boston, follows Leo as Billy Costigan, a very smart young man enrolled in the Police Academy with ties to organized crime, and Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan, a guy from South Boston groomed from a young age by Irish mobster Frank Costello to become a mole within the State Police. Billy is selected to go deep undercover, does time in jail and ends up joining Costello’s crew. What emerges from this setup is a tense game of cat-and-mouse, or perhaps ‘rat-against-rat’, as each of these men move into and out of each other’s lives in their disparate goals: Sullivan to further his career by any means necessary, and Costigan to bring Costello to justice.

Look no further than The Departed to see a director using everything at his disposal in a judicious and brilliant way to bring a story to life. Martin Scorsese is one of the most successful and influential of the ‘movie brats’, a label he shares with Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. He shares with his cinematic brethren a unique style and a penchant for focusing on what was once considered a ‘low’ form of cinema – crime drama. While his resume includes interesting but no less powerful departures from this, such as Cape Fear and The Aviator, but when most people think Scorsese, they think Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, Casino and Gangs of New York. The Departed is classic Scorsese, steeped in his style and themes, even if it takes place in Boston instead of his usual New York.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
“Feels like something’s missing. Like the Empire State Building. Or a decent pizza joint.”

The city of Boston is almost a character in and of itself in this movie. The neighborhoods, ancestry and even accents come into play now and again. It’s been tempting to do this review in a Bostonian accent, but I’d probably butcher it pretty horribly and I don’t wanna antagonize Red Sox fans. Anyway, Scorsese captures the essence of a town that’s unashamed of its heritage, proud of its people both good and bad, fully invested in being the best it can be and imbuing her people with that same energy, that same impetus. It’s this energy that permeates The Departed and brings out the best in its cast.

I mentioned Leo in the intro because, as I said, he’s very likable in this movie. Many of his actions as one of Frank’s guys are not very nice, but this is a man driven to do what he feels is necessary to get his job done. His dedication is admirable and the stress it places on him is telling. He’s exceedingly, painfully human. So to is Matt Damon, and while his stiffness might be partially due to his acting in general, it could also be attributed to his character’s discomfort around people in true authority and fear of being found out. One of the best decisions Scorsese made, however, was in letting Jack Nicholson off of his leash. As Frank Costello, Jack needs to portray a smart, charismatic and completely unpredictable man used to both the trappings and abuse of power. Scorsese let Nicholson improvise a lot of his scenes, to the point where even Leo didn’t know what to expect of him.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

However, if you were to look up “scene-stealing” in the dictionary, don’t be surprised if you see the face of Mark Wahlberg. Never has the phrase “jerk with a heart of gold” so accurately described a character as it does his Staff Sergeant Dignam. Verbally abusive, quick to anger and uninterested in making friends, Dignam is still every bit as dedicated to justice as Costigan and, if you follow his arc all the way through to the end of the film, shows his true colors as a man who forges deep bonds with those he works with in undercover policing. He looks up to Martin Sheen’s Captain Queenan and sees Costigan as something of a protege, a fellow warrior in the trenches. He’s not afraid to pull punches with Billy but he’ll have the man’s back one hundred and ten percent when anybody else even mentions coming close to him. Couple this complexity with authentic Bostonian bluster and charm as well as Wahlberg’s own surprising screen presence and you have what Tropers would call an “Ensemble Darkhorse,” a somewhat minor character who will run away with your total allegiance if you’re not careful.

All of these characters are woven into an excellently paced story. The Departed is a remake on a Hong Kong crime thriller called Internal Affairs, but as I mentioned, this film of Scorsese’s becomes so steeped in Boston that it’s likely a different animal entirely. I haven’t seen Internal Affairs myself, but comparing the two would probably be an interesting exercise, and I’d have to watch this film again, gee darn. If there was any doubt in your mind that this is a superlative film, look at the accolades it’s won. If nothing else, it finally won Scorsese an Academy Award as a director, along with itself winning for Best Picture of 2006, and earning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and writer William Monahan Oscars as well. Scorsese is quoted as saying that this film won after being nominated so many times, not because he deserved it after a lifetime of cinematic achievement, but because The Departed was “the first movie I’ve done with a plot.”

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Yes, that’s Alec Baldwin in there. Did I mention this cast is excellent?

In summary, The Departed is one of those rare films that delivers on every level possible. It may seem like a by-the-numbers crime drama at first to some, but with the richness of its characters, the invasive nature of the setting, the canny directing and taut writing, it quickly shows itself to stand on its own. There’s a weight of realism to this story, no particular performance tears us away from being immersed in it and Scorsese’s directing never breaks pace to keep us a part of it. If I were asked on the street to briefly deliver a recommendation for The Departed, I’d have to paraphrase Movie Bob once again: “You hafta ask?? It’s Scorsese! Getcher ass on Netflix and get this movie!”

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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