The Wolf of Wall Street

Vainglorious Bastards

wallstreet2Martin Scorsese is old. Not that I consider early seventies to be numerically ancient, but certain things happen to male filmmakers in their twilights that I thought might bypass the director of Taxi Driver: the women in their films get younger and nuder, concept rides shotgun while characters are locked in the trunk, and indulgence is mistaken for brilliance. I cannot speak for Scorsese in the literal sense, obviously, but The Wolf of Wall Street illustrates just how irresponsible the popular film industry can be.

The spectacle revolves around Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).  This is where I would normally delve into the protagonist’s involvement in the story, but this film does not have one, nor does it have any semblance of plot structure.  Belfort doesn’t actually do much of anything.  At the beginning, we know he’s already an accomplished stockbroker and con man, but we are still plunged into flashbacks about how he got there, followed by endless barely-connected scenes of vulgarity and debauchery that go on for far too long and emphasize the superiority of the wealthy ad nauseum in between tireless references to Scorsese’s and Terence Winter’s earlier work (Cristin Milioti as a carbon copy of Lorraine Bracco’s character from Goodfellas, DiCaprio crashing an aircraft, overt use of the word “schnook,” old footage of Steve Buscemi, and so on).

DiCaprio claims that the filmmakers purposely focused on Belfort’s schemes and deliberately left out anything about his victims so that the audience would become completely desensitized.  I refuse to believe that Scorsese would resort to such an amateurish “making a transparent point” technique.  On top of that, the film’s nihilism is subverted by the fact that it still contains conflict: we are supposed to care about Belfort’s marriage problems (despite the fact that he regretlessly cheats on both of his wives with hookers, dominatrixes, and each other), supposed to root for him to escape doomsday scenarios brought on by his own drug addiction and apathy, and supposed to be as riled up as his legions of fraudulent goons by his painfully protracted diatribes.

In Arbitrage, we were stuck with a protagonist who also happened to be a fraud-committing billionaire, a cheater, and a killer, but that film’s narrative was totally conscious of who the character was, and made great thematic points about the evils of the corporate world and how people with money get away with everything.  Wolf, though, is indulgence incarnate.  Belfort at no point relinquishes control, thinks he’s wrong, or evolves as a character (the latter of which would be fine if something around him changed, or there was another character to care about).  The film as a whole amounts to little more than an instructional video on how to be a vain asshole.  It’s a film comprised entirely of what would have been deleted scenes in any other film.  Belfort, like Richard Gere’s Robert Miller, more or less gets away at the end, and remains the person he was at the beginning, even though he’s in a minimum security prison, and the film even promotes the real-life criminal Belfort’s current motivational speaking seminars.  Why not make mention of the fact that Belfort was also legally required to provide restitution to his victims, and to this day has failed to do so?  Why strip away every shred of conscience or growth from the story’s characters and narrative?  Why pander to the very evildoers upon whom the movie focuses?  They’re not the only ones who can afford movie tickets, you know.

The film’s dialogue sets new records for offending everyone possible (and not in a funny or ironic way, though I suspect that the filmmakers think of it as such).  It goes without saying that every woman in the movie is a prostitute, naked, debased, objectified, publicly humiliated, or all five.  The “hookers” all have porn-star bodies and operate with a machinelike happiness, which is sad in and of itself, but especially heartbreaking when considering that Scorsese made Taxi Driver, one of the first films that truly and honestly expressed the fact that despite their profession, prostitutes are people with souls who might rather be doing something else.  The C-word is used enough times to make any of the characters from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels say “Okay, enough already.”  Little people are mistreated and talked about like animals, the only black people in the movie are servants or extras, the non-wealthy characters are portrayed as grubby and unhappy and jealous of the wealthy (including the FBI agent who finally nabs Belfort, played by Kyle Chandler), the word “fag” is thrown around in 12-year-old-boy fashion, and there’s even a derogatory reference to cerebral palsy.  Worst of all, the film takes no ownership of any of this.  The filmmakers are content to keep their distance and let us believe that this is simply how these people behave.  But as any (good) writer will tell you, “it happened in real life” is no excuse in fiction.  And when you have this big an audience, you cannot keep your distance from the social consequences.  Boys see a movie like this and adopt its ableist language (not to mention value the bullshit it venerates).

The film also has no fourth wall, with Belfort narrating the entirety of the film via thematic voiceover (one of the cheapest devices in film), and also by sometimes looking right at the camera and speaking to us as if we’re walking through the offices with him.  Wait, who are we supposed to be?  His fucking stenographer?  Mark Twain you are not, Mr. Belfort.  There is no explanation for these sequences (even a four-camera, sweep-pan-abusing TV series like The Office made the effort of explaining the “found footage” narrative, despite countless other shows not offering the same concession), and there are often voiced-over one-liners that are supposed to be funny, but do nothing other than explain exactly what just happened.  For example, his wife’s aunt (Joanna Lumley) blatantly flirts with him.  Then there’s a long, unrealistic shot of Belfort’s face, over which he narrates, “Jesus; is she fuckin’ hitting on me?”  Is this necessary in a film that already breaches three hours and actually has nothing to do with this relationship? It might work if this technique were employed in every other scene, but it only happens here, and the tense of the voiced-over Belfort’s narrative is never consistent.

Here we have an indulgent disaster that glorifies drug addiction (going so far as using the snorting of coke as a way to save someone’s life), is lazily edited, features plenty of DiCaprio dry-humping an actress practically half his age (Margot Robbie, whose character’s one-dimensionality and anti-feminism are only further drilled in by the fact that her sole power in the film is her sexual irresistibility), defies any and all logic, internal or otherwise, and basically tells us that if we have a problem with it, we’re just jealous that we’re not wealthy.  If anything, this film is Belfort’s final con: getting the world to worship him by indirectly manipulating one of the planet’s most revered filmmakers (who in turn will also profit from and be worshipped for the film).

wallstreetThe Wolf of Wall Street (2013); written by Terence Winter; directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Hedgehog goulash, anyone?

I find it interesting that Noomi Rapace’s American film debut occurred within a week of the release of not only an American film featuring Michael Nyqvist, but a remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  It’s like an excellent-actors-out-of-type party.

Rapace’s Hollywood debut comes in the form of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the second (and final?) in Guy Ritchie’s series, loosely based on the cozy detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.  Although the anachronistic fighting and quota of explosions are still present, Ritchie (director of such powerhouse films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and RocknRolla) makes at least a small effort to use material from Doyle’s original stories (which should have been part of the plan all along).  The story once again follows Holmes and Watson (Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, the latter of which would have made a better Holmes had they based him on the character from the books) as they attempt to take down their greatest adversary, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), whose motivations are far less murky and Bond-villain-ish in text form.  His plans involve the brother of Sim (Noomi Rapace), a fortune teller who tags along with Holmes and Watson and runs through the woods with them a few times.  Also in the cast are other characters taken from the original stories: Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother; Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler; and Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, a villain from the books who was defeated but never killed off, and whom Ritchie wisely doesn’t kill off in the film (y’know, in case there’s another one).

If there is one thing Ritchie is consistent about, it’s style.  As he does in Snatch, he shows us bareknuckle fights percussed with beautiful folk music.  The steampunk overtones remain prominent, and the entire landscape seems to be washed green.  The banter between Downey and Law hasn’t quite staled yet, and there is enough to go around in the two hours twenty minutes that this film runs, but we also get something we didn’t get before: personal drama for Holmes.  When he loses someone important to him, the search for Moriarty goes from a gentlemen’s game to a quest for revenge, and when they finally confront each other atop a waterfall that will look all too familiar to anyone who has read Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” it truly feels like the final scene.

Funnily enough, the phrase “no loose ends” is repeated several times in the film, yet the film itself has quite a few (Moran being one of them).  I won’t spoil the background details of the story, but after you see it, try to explain to me what everyone’s motivations were and how everything got resolved.  In addition, Rapace is criminally underused, and Anderson overused considering how things turn out.  Fry, however, finds a happy medium, and aside from when he’s walking around nude, is a refreshing presence, and his character gets some truly funny moments.

Ritchie is well documented for his lack of ego, and it’s plain to see why actors like to work with him.  With the way this movie’s story turned out, however, there’s no need for a third one.  He’s said he plans on making the sequel to RocknRolla, so let’s see that happen.  After all, Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes so he could focus on more serious literature, but he eventually gave in to his fans and wrote more stories after “The Final Problem” (whether or not we acknowledge the preposterous circumstances under which Holmes “survived” the incident).  Ritchie already jumps that particular shark in the end of this film, but it’s still enough.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011); written by Keiran Mulroney (based upon the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle); directed by Guy Ritchie; starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace and Jared Harris.

The Guard

Well, that’s pretty f*ckin’ rude.

guardThe Guard is the newest film by Irish director John Michael McDonagh, brother of Malcolm McDonagh (director of In Bruges).  It’s a crime comedy in the vein of “Like Guy Ritchie, but…”, though the “but” is in this case indicative of the fact that it isn’t much like a Guy Ritchie film at all.  It has Mark Strong, as did Ritchie’s RocknRolla, but aside from that, the well-timed black humor, and the fact that there are nearly zero prominent female characters, it’s McDonagh’s creature through and through.

The film is carried by the lovable Brendan Gleeson (who may be on his way to becoming the Irish John Candy).  Gleeson plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, an unorthodox member of the “garda” (Irish cops in Gaelic-speaking Galway).  He’s not a bad person, he just doesn’t take his job seriously.  When he’s not taking hits of acid from drug-dealers’ corpses and keeping them for himself, Boyle spends time with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) at a retirement home.  In these scenes, which are equal parts madcap and surprisingly tender, we see where Boyle gets some of his traits (his language, for one).  When Boyle’s new partner (in whom he has no interest) is whacked for almost no reason by a trio of infamous drug-runners (Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot), Boyle’s unit is visited by FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle, the one Yank in the film).  Through one thing and another, Boyle and Everett are partnered up in order to solve a series of crimes involving these villains.  The scenes between Gleeson and Cheadle feature the classic Odd Couple character development, but McDonagh allows the characters to retain multiple lines of tension with one another and also to spend time by themselves.  From their second scene onward, we can tell they sort of like each other, but have fundamental issues with the other – Everett’s issues with Boyle’s erratic on-the-job behavior and his sheer laziness, and Boyle’s seemingly innocent ignorance about black people, the FBI, and pretty much anything but Galway.  The latter leads to some wonderful scenes between the two, during which we hope with all our hearts that Boyle won’t say something that completely ruins the already strained friendship.  (“I thought black people couldn’t ski.  Or is that swimming?”)  Cheadle’s reactions to Boyle’s comments are priceless, both in facial expression and dialogue.

Cunningham, Strong and Wilmot play the villains as people who know they’re the bad guys in a movie.  They stand perfectly still in immaculately-framed shots of beautiful scenery and talk about being bad.  Strong, also a fish out of water character, plays the film’s sole Englishman, and behaves so harshly that his partners must warn other characters, “Eh, he’s English.”  Cunningham plays the de facto boss of the three, and comes close to the fourth wall a few times.  Wilmot gets a great one-on-one scene with Gleeson, during which McDonagh employs the Fallacy of the Talking Killer (the old movie ploy in which the bad guy, about to kill the hero and need only pull the trigger, foolishly explains all of his plans, giving the hero time to plan and execute an escape).

EDIT (2014): I wasn’t happy with the rest of what I typed here, so I deleted it.  Just watch the film.

The Guard (2011); written and directed by John Michael McDonagh; starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Fionnula Flanagan and Mark Strong.