26 December 2013

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Genre: Comedy

Halfway through The Wolf of Wall Street you, like I or really any theatergoer, may find yourself wondering whether you may have accidentally intruded into another theater, screening Spring Breakers instead of this new collaboration of Mr. Scorcese with Mr. DiCaprio; debauchery, I'll concisely say here and then be done with it, abounds and, in its abundance — spanning the smorgasbord of sex, drugs, and emotional outbursts — at first grounds but later undermines the skill of this new film. A story of trust among the rowdy, the film aspires to be a bit like 'Julius Caesar [Shakespeare] meets Marie Antoinette [Coppola, 2006] featuring a male protagonist circa Wall Street [Stone, 1987] and beyond ' but fails to really sew together those far-flung patches of narrative filmmaking. Odds preponderate evens and, like Virginia Madsen's character in Sideways (Payne, 2006), I have to conclude, "Too much alcohol overwhelms the fruit."

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Now, my dismay is not to say that all aspects of the film are lacking; surely, high-flying features like Sandy Powell's costuming, Jonah Hill's supporting performance, and Mindy Hall's make-up and hairstyling redeemed what otherwise may appear indifferent from a more mature and certainly more highly financed version of Project X (Nourizadeh, 2012). The verisimilitude that Ms. Powell and Ms. Hall imbue into the characters on screen takes after not only their eras and stations but also their emotional appeals in both comedic and dramatic fashions; a lavender crushed-velveteen belt on an infuriated cursing power broker cleverly snickers at the pretension of the fight that he foments, while a pristinely white polo underscores the protagonist's bid at being an upstanding, fiercely moral man. And Mr. Hill simply lives the part that he plays, with pugnacious honesty; like some of the best performances I've seen this year, his turn as the compatriotic bon homme and fuel tank to many a fire cultivates even at the wrists a thorough understanding of what in far less adroit hands could have been a meagerly sinister or even fecklessly foppish sidekick. However, these pieces alone truly shone here.

Regarding Mr. DiCaprio, whose own performance I've yet to mention here despite its being the centerpiece of this voracious enterprise, I must demur; pronouncements of excellence — though perhaps predictively accurate of his to-be-determined end-of-awards'-season accolades — feel overly generous to me. True, he does stretch his muscles over quite the range of emotional plot points and, true, he does offer some wonderful episodes in this film; yet, true also, to shout and cavort recklessly through scene after scene doesn't really press a thespian for his talents and, true also, to ride a rollercoaster doesn't make one a master engineer. Perhaps the fault, dear Leo, is not in the star but in the screenplay; perhaps the rather lumpy writing of non-film-veteran Terrence Winters ceases to allow any actor beyond adequacy in completing the realization of this quasi-real man. Even still, to lay in these shortcomings is to inhabit them and to inhabit them, to own them; falling into the potholes on the road lain before one is shoddy driving. Flirting with innocence at the film's beginning, Mr. DiCaprio doesn't really convince of what his lines suggest is his character's otherwise impeccably shiny youth and related exuberance, even though he does hammer down the awkward sheepishness of a minor public spectacle on one's first day. Stumbling through benders in the film's middle, Mr. DiCaprio doesn't really delve into the longer-term motivations of his character, even though from an script reader's perspective the character has no longer-term vision than that of the next few hours. Finally, mellowing in abnegation at the film's end, Mr. DiCaprio doesn't really exude contempt for his character's lawful remission, contempt that even a cursory script reader knows must be there. Mr. DiCaprio is here but a prince, not yet a king.

The only remaining comment that I can and will make at this time is that, to close the film with a somewhat oblique panegyric hearkening back to the earliest scenes but bestowing the spectatorship not on the audience again but rather on some extras against the audience anew is threatening storytelling at best, Mr. Scorcese. Don't misunderstand, reader; I am all for passive complicity with less than ideal characters. However, here to transform a specimen that you've until this close handled with mystified gloves into an icon of demonstrated admiration is to (attempt to) wrest opinion from the minds of your viewers and inject into its place preformulated and campaigning artifacts. Yes, we include the people whom the real-world counterpart of this fictionalized protagonist lured and deluded and, yes, we all — not simply those deludables — should be drawn to acknowledge that fact; but, no, under no circumstances is our acknowledgement to be a broad indictment of our our predictable gapishness and mawkery (both sic on purpose). The lingering question that you effectually propose is a finger in the eye of the viewer, Mr. Scorcese; I'd urge you to have reconsidered that finale. (Otherwise, your work was fine in every respect.)

Grade: B-.

18 December 2013

Review: Philomena

Genre: Drama

Director Stephen Frears seems to hit well when featuring the grand dames in his films. Three films are certainly only scant evidence of a pattern, but the salience of his The Queen (2007) and Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) when it be allowed to be coupled with the quality of their younger American siblings Dangerous Liaïsons (1988; featuring Glenn Close) and The Grifters (1990; featuring Anjelica Huston) admits a winking trend toward artfulness within this particular dramatic plane. Better than their past collaboration, (I'll call it) Mr. Frears and Dame Dench's Philomena is a wonderfully coaxed description of a classic dialogue: that between commanded virtue and cured ethicality.

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To say that the pairing here breaks new ground would, not surprisingly, be an overstatement; the film walks no lines that have not seen considered — carefully even — elsewhere (see this year's Hannah Arendt for example). However, the film does shine in the same way as, though not to the same extent, as, say, The Tree of Life (2011) did; it hums a new vibrancy into the old bones that it resurrects (in good condition) and invests passion, fortitude, and accessibility where there may not have been before in describing its exchange. That the unfolding of the narrative envelopes not merely history personal and social, emotions on screen and behind it, and contentions political and theological but moreover comedy honest and quotidian, taxes interpersonal and individual, and a thorough thread of intertemporal disconnection speaks to its intelligence. The film thus understands that the dialogue in instances lives and may be investigated, changed, and resolved within actual people and their interactions (or lacks thereof). We see, for example, the simplicity of its eponymous character's ways, heaping in one scene croutons from a salad bar upon her plate for her delight, counterpoised by her wiles, frankly and coolly acknowledging bi-curiosity or clitoral stimulation in another scene. Such an artful counterposition is revealing; the character upends expectations yet breaks no lines, at once encompasses social change and (at least at one time and in one place) highly contended moral issues and submits under minimal delectations and elementary cues. She is Shakespearean in this way — the play is; it makes no pardons for its academic aspirations (though it may smart them on the side of their conscientious head at times) but also connives to jibe with the common crowd — explicitly sometimes. The film therefore succeeds most excellently where it began: in its screenplay itself. Writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope — and not surprisingly actress Judi Dench — are to be most congratulated for expressing most clearly a complex conceit. 

Ultimately, while we as the audience know that this conceit can never achieve a resounding or clear resolution — an issue that the screenplay in passing itself points out to comic effect — we nevertheless arrive farther along than where we began, armed with more intellectual substance for our own positions than we'd possessed at our independent starts. Learning then is the stuff of film-making here.

Grade: A-/B+, well done.