The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” makes “Spring Breakers” look tame.

Of all the excess bursting from the frame in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, what’s missing is a trip to the normal world. That’s because, who would honestly want to go there? Jordan Belfort certainly doesn’t, but that inability to show the other side of the fence may be part of “Wolf’s” problem.

Martin Scorsese’s film about a real life Wall Street broker who swindled millions from clueless investors in fraudulent stocks and led his firm into a tailspin of sex, drugs and corruption has received a notable amount of criticism; perhaps such a crook doesn’t deserve a wacky, fun biopic based on his life, the critics say.

The question goes, does “The Wolf of Wall Street” glorify the actions of Jordan Belfort? In one way, yes. Jordan’s behavior in the real world is nothing but obscene, and Scorsese gives us three hours to revel in this wild peek behind the curtain.

But in Belfort’s world, this is the norm. The sex romps, the montages and the drug trips all blend together over time, and it provides all the more jolt when in a bizarre twist, something from “fucking Benihana” brings him down.

Scorsese’s film makes “Spring Breakers” look tame in comparison. It languishes on each wild act of depravity and sensationalized moment of mayhem, immersing us in Belfort’s world and his narrative revisionism (“My Ferrari was white, not red,” he barks in narration at the open of the film) without any of the context of the people who aren’t making $49 million a year.

But one wonders what can be gained from a film that shares the same lack of nuances as its perverse characters. Even James Franco’s Alien had some layers to him, but Belfort is all haircut and a sales pitch.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” constantly borders that fine line between exploitation and poignant satire. Like Jordan’s life itself, the movie plays like a mess of outrageous set pieces connected only by their sheer energy. It grasps at the political, psychological and philosophical straws snagged by “Spring Breakers,” “The Bling Ring,” “American Hustle” and even Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” but lacks the specifically distinct aesthetic style all of those films had that would give it an extra kick. Continue reading “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Rapid Response: New York Stories

“New York Stories” is three interesting, if flawed vanity projects from some of the best directors living, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola.

How come filmmakers don’t make love letters to Chicago? That’s the movie I want to see. There are already enough odes to New York, and even in 1989 when Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen together made “New York Stories,” a collection of three short films taking place in the city, the three of them had already made movies in which the Big Apple was a vital player. None of these are as good as “Taxi Driver,” “Mean Streets” or “Manhattan,” and yet all three are at least interesting, if flawed vanity projects for some of the greatest directors living today.

New York Stories Life Lessons

“Life Lessons”

“Life Lessons” is so clearly a Scorsese film before the title credits even roll because of the stylization that dominates the film. Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” is blared at us as the camera lunges away from an abstract painting and swivels and edits with alacrity. It strongly asserts the magnetic, but strange relationship between the artist Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) and his young assistant Paulette (Rosanne Arquette). She’s returned to New York from a vacation in Florida even though she’s assured Lionel she is leaving and never coming back to him, a sure sign of how people may be reluctant to return to New York, but it always seems to call them back. Continue reading “Rapid Response: New York Stories”

Rapid Response: Cape Fear (1991)

Sometimes you wonder when you’re watching “Cape Fear” if Martin Scorsese was making a remake of the 1962 horror movie or of “Vertigo.”

He’s got the Saul Bass title sequence, the Elmer Bernstein score channeling Bernard Hermann, Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in minor cameos, stark fades into solid colors and a film that is intentionally pitched at a level of sheer insanity.

“Cape Fear” was not well received by critics upon its release. It was seen as yet another genre picture by a director capable of so much more, least of all immediately after the masterpiece that was “Goodfellas” a year prior. But it has a lot more style and personality from Scorsese than “The Color of Money” did, because Scorsese isn’t just looking to make a genre picture but a film with dark characters, heavy themes, strong cinematic references, big ideas and even bigger performances.

Robert De Niro is so effing brilliant as the sadistic ex-con Max Cady. It hearkens back to a time when De Niro actually, you know, acted. In terrorizing Nick Nolte and his family, he has this calming, charming, attractive eloquence that puts the rest of the family’s neurotic insanity into perspective. He pulls a lot from Robert Mitchum’s playbook for his performances in both the original “Cape Fear” and “The Night of the Hunter,” but he makes the character his own. He displays charismatic insanity and proves to be capable of surprising violence and intensity.

So thanks to his performance, Scorsese is able to go ape shit. Nolte, Jessica Lange and a young Juliette Lewis are all flawed, weak members of their own dysfunctional family, but ultimately they’re fairly thin, capable of going crazy with just a little prodding. Scorsese has them and us jumping at just the sound of a phone ringing, jolting the camera towards it and blaring its ringing aggressively. Later, Scorsese turns our world upside down and dangles us by a thread, with the camera in a close up of De Niro hanging from a pull up bar, his hair flailing wildly like the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”

This Max Cady character, what with his clever ability to never cross into territory of breaking the law, always finding ways to get one step ahead of Nolte and nitpick at his mind, the bible warnings printed all over his body and finally his superhuman strength against thugs and lighter fluid, he strikes me as more of an allegory about insanity than an actual person. But the sheer madness of the film’s final moments as Cady continues fighting and screaming against all odds even goes beyond the stretches of what could possibly be considered allegorical.

“Cape Fear” is possibly more exaggerated and intense than even something like “Shutter Island,” another Scorsese that veered from his comfort zone into the realm of madness. But it resonated with audiences as the 12th highest grossing movie of 1991 and earned De Niro his most recent Oscar nomination for Best Actor. It’s by far not the finest work from Scorsese but so indicative of how versatile an artist he has become in the modern day.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Perhaps the movie furthest away from Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre is not “Hugo” but is the late 19th Century period romance “The Age of Innocence.”

The 1993 film is an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s famous novel, and yet Scorsese makes it his own by reaching out to a complex, passion filled protagonist struggling for identity in a vicious, rough world. “The Age of Innocence” may lack the violence or blood of some of his masterpieces (this one deserves to be up there with his best), but it’s a biting and bittersweet character drama in which people are trapped within a rigid society of rules and tradition beneath luxurious decorum.

First off, this is a drop dead gorgeous film. “The Age of Innocence” may be 20 years old and the setting may be over 100, but Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design haven’t aged a day. Every frame is lusciously picturesque, but the world Scorsese depicts is bleak, flat and two-dimensional. We see Newland Archer’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) wedding photo to May Welland (Winona Ryder) as it is being taken, and at that moment we realize how much this character’s world has been turned upside down. Constantly this dichotomy between the film’s look and its tone makes for a gripping experience.

Newland’s engagement to May is one dictated by society to be a good match, but Newland is in love with a woman who has just returned to New York from Europe, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). She’s an outcast because of her crumbling marriage and her subtle defiance for other social norms. “Why should America be a copy of another country,” she asks as she and Newland bemoan New York’s stringent and too utterly polite traditionalism.

The powerful difference is that none of this is really what it seems. “Everything is labeled,” Newland says, “But everybody is not.” “The Age of Innocence” has a devilishly engaging twist near the end in which we learn how the entire society has politely turned on him and Ellen and composed one marriage necessity that here plays out like a death sentence. This is a movie that calmly obliterates you. Continue reading “The Age of Innocence (1993)”

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

There was an article in which a man was nervous to ask his son who his favorite member of the Beatles was. The writer had been a John guy, and he feared that this son might say Paul (gasp!).

But when the son replied George, the father said, “George?”

We may know the Quiet Beatle’s history as a kid in Liverpool and as a spiritual follower of the Maharishi in India, but Martin Scorsese shows us in his documentary “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” how artful and significant his life was and what that means to us.

For Beatles fanatics and those who have followed George’s solo career faithfully, there may not be much new information about him to be found here. And only in the film’s second half do we begin to realize its profoundness as Olivia Harrison speaks about his spirituality, but the entire film is handled with a sincere level of artistry and grace. Continue reading “George Harrison: Living in the Material World”