Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

The latest Martin Scorsese / Leonardo DiCaprio project, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a whirling howl of a movie about insider trading and money laundering during the lustful Clinton era. DiCaprio, whose highly profitable association with directorial giant Scorsese dates back to 2002's Gangs of New York, plays real-life Wall Street bad boy Jordan Belfort, whose biography is the source material for Terence Winter's screenplay. Belfort -- addicted to coke, coitus and cash -- starts a small investment firm in the early '90s that scams its clients but enriches the brokers -- a principle laid out in a marvelous scene between DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey early in the film. In short time, the modest firm of a half-dozen serial losers turns into a trading behemoth that is run like a Tony Robbins seminar. The boiler room banter crackles and the profanity and vulgarity are non-stop but there's a heart (although a fairly small one) beating underneath all of the cheating and double-crossing. Scorsese, who is a peerless master of unconventional storytelling, stages a half-dozen  outlandish set pieces that allow the cast to wallow in the narrative excesses of this delightful bacchanal. DiCaprio's work during the quaalude overdose scene reminded me of the physical comedy of a young Jerry Lewis, who was at the top of the screwball comedy heap during the '60s. Jonah Hill -- who stars as Belfort's second in command, the pearly-toothed Donnie Azoff -- is a wonderfully intuitive actor with Swiss-made comedic timing. His performance in Wolf is a true joy. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

American Hustle

Characters in David O. Russell's films approach one another at odd angles, sometimes glancing off, sometimes colliding. This angularity is depicted not just in his movies' unusual narratives (from Spanking the Monkey's tale of incest and self-loathing to Silver Lining Playbook's unflinching depiction of the chaotic courtship of two emotional disasters) but also in the way the characters talk to one another and, indirectly, to us, the audience. It often feels like Russell's people are mining for a just-so aphorism or bon mot that will settle the matter at hand -- whatever that matter might be. The results of this scramble are nearly always delightful and more often than not revealing. In American Hustle, the matter is a con (based on the Abscam sting of the late '70s) being staged by an unhinged federal agent (Bradley Cooper) who extorts the cooperation of two grifters, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (a paunchy Christian Bale and barely clad Amy Adams), to try to bring down some greedy New Jersey congressmen. Also caught up in the caper is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and Rosenfeld's cluelessly narcissistic wife Rosalyn ("It Girl" Jennifer Lawrence). The actors spin around each other like skaters on ice, teasing and enticing and terrorizing, sometimes as part of the con and sometimes simply because they know of no other way to behave. All of the principals and featured players are wonderful in their roles, which occasionally are upstaged by the disco-era coifs and bling. Highly Recommended.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson's winning formula of eye-popping visuals and affecting characters is on full display in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but more is not necessarily better. Though episode 2 of his latest trilogy includes some marvelously uncanny set pieces of derring-do (the dwarves' barrel escape alone is a stunning bit of film-making) and a winged menace voiced by uber-villain Benedict Cumberbatch (the dragon Smaug of the title), it still pales in comparison to his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. Unlike the earlier triology, which also starred Ian McKellan as the wizard Gandalf, this picture, which is brimming with Jacksonian splendor, feels attenuated, relying more and more on spectacle and less and less on narrative and dramatic tension. Even so, it is so much fun and is highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club features two wonderfully transformative performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto but a script, though based on true events, that is plagued by emotional hollowness. McConaughey, bowlegged and skeletal, plays Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician and rodeo bull-rider, who was diagnosed with HIV back in 1985 and given 30 days to live. He rejects the diagnosis, defiantly declaring he's not homosexual and so can't possibly have HIV and rejects an offer to take part in trials for an experimental drug, AZT. An inveterate horn dog, Woodroof changes his mind as his mind as his body, and libido, succumbs to the ravages of the disease. While in the hospital for treatment he meets Rayon / Raymond, a cross-dressing hustler who becomes Woodroof's partner in a scheme to smuggle vitamins and mineral supplements into the country and sell them to HIV patients. Abandoned by his rodeo friends and hounded by the FDA, Woodroof finds himself fighting both his disease and the system. McConaughey and Leto deliver fine performances that are more than stunts but still lack the resonance needed to fully connect with the audience. Vallee spends little time exploring the nature of Woodroof's transformation from ignorant, racist homophobe and a scene between Rayon and his disapproving father, who oddly looks younger than Rayon, is painfully off-key. Vallee lets the viewer assume that Woodroof's proximity to the mouthy but clearly self-loathing Rayon was enough to break through Woodroof's tough exterior. I, for one, wasn't buying it.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Out of the Furnace

Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) has a message in his new film Out of the Furnace that is neither cathartic nor revelatory. It's just distressing. The film, co-written by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, is the story of two brothers (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) in a hard-luck Pennsylvania town where hope is stillborn. Affleck's Rodney is an emotionally war-torn veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Bale's Russell is the dutiful son who toils in the town's failing steel mill, while loving up on the lovely Lena (Zoe Saldana) and caring for his dying father with his uncle Red (Sam Shepherd) and trying, without much success, to keep his younger brother out of trouble. Rodney, a raging bull of a guy, channels his anger through the local fist-fighting circuit run by a bar owner (Willem Defoe) but Rodney wants to make bigger money and has heard that the action in the New Jersey mountains run by a psychopath named DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) is the way to go. A horrible idea not just because the bloody outcome is inevitable but because it forces the viewer to check any further emotional investment in these miserable people. The acting throughout is fine and the muted autumnal palette is beautiful and fitting, but the pay-off, much like the one young Rodney chases, is elusive. Also stars Forest Whittaker as the local police chief.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...