The Wolf of Wall Street

Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, I was continually awaiting those moments of debauchery that, according to so much of what I have read, are excessive and, according to some pundits, gratuitous. Well, I must have been watching a different movie altogether because none of the goings-on that I witnessed were much different from the types of shenanigans taking place in college dorms on any given night, albeit on a much larger scale. I mean, drinking to excess, taking drugs and having sex. Who would have thought that the very rich might engage in such activities? To focus on such matters is to take the emphasis off what has been achieved by director Martin Scorsese and his cast of performers, led by Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life rip-off merchant Jordan Belfort. Based on Belfort’s memoir of the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street tracks his rise as a stockbroker, the hedonistic lifestyle that it funded and, ultimately, his inevitable fall from grace.

The Wolf of Wall Street poster

There will be a great many people who will hate this movie for a variety of reasons. For some, the three-hour running time will be reason enough, for others it will be the 550+ utterings of the F-word, for others the abundance of sex, drugs and nudity, while for others still it will be fact that, despite ripping off investors to the tune of $200 million without any hint of remorse for his actions – not to mention the measly 26-month jail sentence he received after ratting on his friends and associates – Belfort still presents as a likeable character. Yes, he is an attention-seeking egotist who sees wealth as the ultimate measure of success, but he has personality and charm in abundance which he, unfortunately, uses to scam naïve investors. We just can’t help but like him, even when we know we shouldn’t.

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Following his performance as another wealthy hedonistic gazillionaire in The Great Gatsby, DiCaprio is much better here. It has been suggested that DiCaprio was born to play this role given his off-screen reputation for partying, but such notions only serve to undermine the quality of his performance. This is a character who behaves appallingly most of the time and it is to DiCaprio’s credit that we are willing to stay the distance with him. Scorsese does not shy away from the abundant sex, drugs and other disreputable behaviours – such as dwarf tossing – in which Belfort, by his own admission, engaged because it would be nigh on impossible to tell this story in any other way. Scorsese is a master filmmaker and The Wolf of Wall Street is a further indictment of his talents. The film is an entertaining romp that doesn’t let up. From the opening moments in which DiCaprio’s Belfort is blowing cocaine into a prostitute’s anus; to the breaking of the fourth wall soon after as Belfort acts as a tour guide of sorts; to the decadent parties in apartments, mansions, yachts and even the trading floor of his Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm; to the final moments in which Belfort is setting forth on a new, and perhaps equally dubious, career path, the momentum never waivers. In short, Scorsese has delivered a rollicking ride of a movie that further enhances his status as a filmmaker of supreme talent.

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If anybody can be accused of playing self, it may well be Jonah Hill as Belfort’s arsehole sidekick Donnie Azoff, whose sheer grotesqueness may well be what makes Belfort far more palatable as a human being than might otherwise be the case. Australian actress Margot Robbie takes on the role as Belfort’s second wife Naomi, with Kyle Chandler excellent as always as Patrick Denham, the FBI agent methodically plotting to bring Belfort down. The verbal interplay between Denham and Belfort during a meeting aboard the latter’s luxury yacht is a particular highlight. Amongst the impressive international cast of supporting players are Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jon Bernthal, Christine Milioti and Frenchman Jean Dujardin (The Artist). Meanwhile, Belfort’s ragtag ensemble of sycophantic minions, played by television regulars such as Kenneth Choi and Ethan Suplee, are perhaps the weakest link in the film. Borderline stereotypes that seem designed purely to garner cheap laughs, it is hard to imagine any of them being successful at anything. However, this does not detract from the overall experience that is The Wolf of Wall Street. Whether it is the music, the cinematography, the dialogue or Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, everything works perfectly to deliver a thrill ride of a movie that is much more than the crass, over-the-top celebration of excess that the puritanical amongst us might have us believe. In short, Scorsese has done it again.

Inside Llewyn Davis

With Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Cohen have skewered the romanticism so often embedded in tales of the folk music scene of the 1960’s. The titular Davis is a hapless folk singer clinging to the remnants of a career – if you could call it that, given that he has absolutely nothing to show for his endeavours – in the aftermath of the suicide of his performance partner. A modest film compared to their last outing – the western remake True Grit which has proved to be their most successful film yet – Inside Llewyn Davis is a melancholy comedy set within New York’s Greenwich Village that tracks the tribulations of a talented singer who, through an uncanny ability to piss off everybody who tries to help him, undermines his own career trajectory.

Inside Llewyn Davis poster

It is to the great credit of Oscar Isaac in the lead role that we are willing to spend this time with a man who is, by and large, eminently unlikable. Yes, it’s true that Davis can’t cut a break, but that is in large part due to his abrasive personality and refusal to compromise. Davis has a desperate need for acknowledgement, but is too often the cause – sometimes unwittingly, sometimes not – of the myriad setbacks that befall him in his effort to establish himself as a serious musician. However, he is such a hopeless case, that you kinda end up wishing for him to succeed, if for no other reason than it will enable him to stop sponging off the few people with whom he enjoys any semblance of friendship. Foremost amongst his diminishing circle of friends is Jean (Carey Mulligan), who takes great delight in reminding Llewyn about all of his shortcomings. Although married to Llewyn’s friend and fellow singer Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean has been having an affair with Llewyn and is now pregnant without any certainty as to the paternity of the child. Mortified by the thought that hapless Llewyn could be the father, she hits him up for money for an abortion. In one of the funnier moments of the film, Llewyn actually asks Jim if he can borrow the money for the termination (without revealing the reason for the loan, of course).

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Jean is unrelenting in her foul-mouthed attacks on Llewyn’s character, while at the same time unable to completely distance herself from him. Despite his shameless freeloading, the sheer hopelessness of Llewyn’s plight also draws sympathy from others, such as Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) and Pappi (Max Casella), the owner of the Gaslight Café where Llewyn performs regularly. As good as many of the performances are, with John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham, Garrett Hedlund and Adam Driver also featuring, there are some aspects of the film that seemed contrived. Jean’s attitude towards Llewyn is over-the-top given her complicity in their deception, especially when you find out that she has also slept with Pappi, while Llewyn’s road trip to Chicago, during which he is subjected to endless ridicule from Goodman’s disagreeable jazz musician Roland Turner, only serves as a distraction to a story that is as much about a particular part of New York as it is about any of the characters.

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The films looks fabulous, the images realised with crystal clarity and the scenes constructed with considerable authenticity, or so it seems to somebody who can only imagine what this city and its people were like at the time. This is not the first time that the Coen’s have presented a central protagonist who just can’t seem to get the break they need (think Barton Fink), but this is on par with anything they have done before. Whilst not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of their previous comedies (such as Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski for example), there are many moments of mirth embedded within Llewyn’s quest for the success that he, for most of the film anyway, believes he deserves. Whilst the film ends with Llewyn sitting slumped in an alley – having been beaten by the husband of a performer he heckled the previous evening – it is the glimpse of a young Bob Dylan performing at the Gaslight, coupled with our knowledge of the overwhelming success he has subsequently enjoyed, that ultimately delivers the knockout punch to Llewyn’s aspirations.

Her

Thank god for filmmakers like Spike Jonze. At a time when more and more movie releases are becoming more and more predictable in the hands of paint-by-numbers directors, along comes Jonze to dispense with the formulaic and offer up something completely different. With Her, Jonze has constructed a captivating, unconventional love story in which Joaquin Phoenix once again delivers a bravura performance. A film that perhaps only Jonze could make, Her is set in Los Angeles in the very near future and delves into the not-so-remote possibilities and potential pitfalls of advanced communications technologies. That is not to say that Jonze is sounding a warning bell because Her presents this future world as one in which notions of love and relationships have been expanded beyond the confines of what we might ordinarily see as ‘normal’.

Her Poster

Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a gifted writer employed by a company to write “hand-written” letters for customers: couples, friends, families. Theodore is very good at what he does, dictating poetic and heart-warming communiques to his computer, which designs and prints the letters. Still reeling from the end of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore lives alone in a luxury apartment and wiles away the time playing computer games. When he installs a new Operating System onto his computer, the program comes replete with the voice of ‘Samantha’, with whom Theodore can communicate via an earpiece and portable mobile phone-like device. Soon enough, Theodore’s reliance on Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) to take care of everything from managing his emails to proofreading his work develops into a much more profound relationship that ultimately morphs into a romance. As unlikely as this might sound, it is a great credit to Jonze, who also wrote the screenplay, and Phoenix that this relationship works. In this future world, in which high pants are seemingly back on trend, the relationship is accepted, by and large, by the people around him.

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High-waisted fashions aside, the future world of Her isn’t that much different to how we live today, with technology playing an ever increasing role in every aspect of people’s lives. However, whilst Jonze doesn’t shy away from the potential isolation this brings (people drift along, wired to the hilt and oblivious to those around them), but the film very much explores the potential for technology and artificial intelligence to facilitate new connections. Initially, it is hard to discern whether Samantha is simply responding to Theodore because this is what she is programmed to do, but eventually it seems as though a genuine friendship has developed. When a blind date (with Olivia Wilde no less) ends badly, Theodore’s disillusionment sees him turn to Samantha for solace and it is these moments that push the relationship into romance.

As he has done with his previous films (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are), Jonze presents love as a complicated state of being and certainly, as is to be expected, there are complications aplenty in this most unusual of couplings. Although, it must be said, many of the issues that emerge are no different to those that impact upon any relationship. The problem is that, whilst Samantha has seemingly developed emotions and a genuine affection for Theodore, it soon becomes apparent that a theoretical understanding of love cannot prepare her the challenges and expectations that a relationship entails. Theodore experiences the full gamut of emotions, from despondency to pleasure to satisfaction to resentment to jealousy, each representative of the various stages of the relationship, all of which are presented with a sense of authenticity that defies what should be an outlandish premise.

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With the exception of Catherine, whose displeasure seems more to do with the fact that Theodore has found happiness, the other characters in the periphery of Theodore’s life, such as his neighbour Amy (Amy Adams) and co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt), embrace Samantha (figuratively, if not literally) and Jonze somehow gets us to believe in this relationship, even though there is a sense of inevitability about how it might pan out. It is no surprise that Jonze has secured an Oscar nomination for the screenplay as the dialogue is exquisite and the interactions between Phoenix and Adams are beautifully executed. Make no mistake, this film won’t appeal to everybody, but it is a considerable achievement that delivers on many levels.

This Looks Pretty Cool

Regardless of what the rest of the movie might be like, the first three minutes alone look pretty awesome. Check out the video from Indiewire here:

Wetlands – First Three Minutes

I have included the trailer below and it all looks pretty fuckin’ cool. Of course, a great trailer and a great opening few minutes do not a classic make, but it looks very promising all the same.

Here’s hoping it makes it to Australia cinema screens so we can judge for ourselves.

The Book Thief

In what may be the most saccharine exploration of the German experience in WW2 ever committed to film, The Book Thief plays more like a television movie-of-the-week than a truly engaging cinematic experience. Based on the immensely popular and acclaimed novel of the same name by Australian author Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is clearly a film aimed at younger audiences, such is its superficiality in the depictions of the Nazi regime and the harm inflicted on so many during this time. In fact, the film presents the whole wartime experience as a mild inconvenience rather than a period in which so much of the population lived in a constant state of fear and repression.

The Book Thief poster

The story centres on golden-haired Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), abandoned by her mother and sent to live with the kindly Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his not-so-jolly wife Rosa (Emily Watson), whose bark is much worse than her bite. Liesel adapts remarkably well to her new circumstances and soon the trio are firm friends, with Hans taking it upon himself to teach Liesel how to read. Liesel’s subsequent fascination with words and reading leads her to salvage a book from a stockpile burned by the Nazi regime. When a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) arrives on their doorstop, the family offer him refuge in keeping a promise made many years earlier, the details of which are quite sketchy. With a shared passion for reading, a bond develops between Max and Liesel, who takes to ‘borrowing’ books from the home of the local Burgermeister.

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There is a lot about this film that bothers me. First and foremost is the ridiculous German-accented English used by the cast that is more reminiscent of Hogan’s Heroes and proves an infuriating distraction. When singing in the school choir, Liesel and her fellow students use German, yet they speak in English at all other times, including in the classroom. The obvious need to attract a wide audience has no doubt been the catalyst to use English dialogue, but the dubious accents only serve to magnify the anomaly. Another irksome aspect of the film is the fact that, although the story spans a period of five years, neither Liesel, nor her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), look a day older at the end of the film than they did at the beginning. Don’t even get me started on how quickly Liesel morphs from completely illiterate to a voracious bookworm under the tutelage of a man who, by his own admission, is not a very good reader.

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It seems that director Brian Percival (TV’s Downton Abbey) has opted for a somewhat literal approach to adapting the novel and, as a result, has seemingly cast aside the cardinal rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. On too many occasions, significant events and key information are addressed superficially in conversation, rather than through visual renderings of what has taken place and, as such, these moments are not articulated with the level of exposition that allows the audience to clearly understand the actions and motivations of key characters. However, perhaps the most bothersome element of the film is the way in which the war itself is presented. This version of history presents WW2 as a completely bloodless affair in which people, whilst a little wary of the Nazis, simply go about their business in their somewhat quaint neighbourhood. There is no real insight into why Max is hiding and what may happen to him and his hosts if he is found. I mean, there is a scene where Jews are being marched through the streets, but nothing that hints at the horror that awaits them. Likewise, in the final moments of the film when the streets are strewn with rubble and houses have been destroyed, those killed are laid neatly on the street, nary a cut or bruise to be seen. Certainly, there are no limbs torn asunder or gaping flesh wounds that we might reasonably expect from a moment of such destruction.

The film, and the book as well I assume, is rich in sentimentality, offering a respite from the real horrors of war. Whilst it might not be a film about the Holocaust as such, any story connected with these events does carry an obligation to, at the very least, offer some hint as to the horror that unfolded. There is little doubt that everybody involved in this was well-intentioned and the performances are fine (accents aside) for the most part. Unfortunately though, The Book Thief sugar-coats a particularly dark period of history and I can already envision a rush by teachers to utilise this film as a way of making the Holocaust palatable for younger students and quell any concerns by parents and school administrators about material that may prove upsetting. Heaven forbid that young people should face the realities of what took place.

My Best Reads of 2013

Books, remember them, that combination of paper and ink that has been enjoyed by millions of people for hundreds of years? Containing characters, paragraphs, passages and pages that have brought entertainment and enlightenment to the masses, books transcend cultures, time and place. I’m talking about the real thing of course, not the so-called e-book or other such digital incarnations.

So, given how much we all love lists, I thought I might take the time to list my top ten reads of 2013. Now, this list is all about the books I read in 2013. It doesn’t matter when the book was first published or when I may have first read it, any book that I read (or re-read) in 2013 is eligible for inclusion. This is not a ‘best books of 2013’ list as that would be impossible. This is just a reflection on, and evaluation of, the books I read last year. Needless to say, these are real books, none of this e-book malarkey. It seems to be lost on many that you can’t read a book in a digital format, because a book is a tactile object that is more than just the words and imagery contained within it. Stories can be experienced in myriad ways and, yes, you can read a story in a digital format, but that does not qualify you to claim that you have “read the book”.

The books I have included are not listed in any particular order of preference and nor do I claim that all, or any, are classics demanding your attention, so make of this list what you will. Some are serious, some are just fun and some have interesting characters, themes and/or ideas, while some can be appreciated purely for the skill with which the story has been constructed. I am certainly not a literature snob who believes that anything outside the ‘canon’ should be treated with contempt, but nor do I have much tolerance for those authors who treat the reader with contempt and churn out the seemingly endless supply of mind-numbing derivative drivel that fills bookshop shelves.

Anyway, back to the list. The titles below are the 10 best books I read in 2013. Of course, it doesn’t mean any of them are any good in the larger scheme of things, but they are the books I enjoyed the most from those that I consumed over the last 12 months.

The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
1Q84 – Haruki Murakami
Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon
Hello Darkness – Sam De Brito
After Dark – Haruki Murakami
Open City – Teju Cole
Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan
The Street Sweeper – Elliot Perlman
Ludmila’s Broken English – DBC Pierre
The Good Life – Jay McInerney

Covers

I might get around to making a list of my all-time favourite books one day soon. But, alas, a look back at my best books of 2013 will have to suffice for now. Read it, enjoy, and by all means let me know what you think.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

The weight of expectation was always going to be a burden for any film that dared follow in the footsteps of hit comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and, as such, it is difficult to disassociate oneself from the fervour surrounding the sequel – Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Whilst the first film didn’t enjoy overwhelming success upon initial release, its subsequent popularity via other mediums has seen the film itself, and the various characters, propelled into the popular culture lexicon. Cashing in on this popularity, the follow-up has already far exceeded the box office takings of its predecessor, thereby making any review somewhat redundant. The reality is that those who loved the first film, and that seems to be a large portion of the population, are going to see the sequel regardless of what I, or anybody else, has to say on the matter.

Anchorman 2 poster

Having said that, I will go on the record as declaring that Anchorman 2, whilst hilarious at times, lacks the comedic consistency and sheer originality of the first film, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. Set in the early ‘80’s, the clueless Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is sacked from his position as news co-anchor alongside wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) and, after a series of subsequent failures (which includes a gig at Sea World), finds himself in the depths of despair. Alas, soon enough a saviour arrives in the form of Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) with an offer too good to refuse. Burgundy, with his trusty news team in tow, decamps to New York as part of the first ever 24-hour television news network.

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The film works best when it is skewering contemporary news culture and genre conventions. When Burgundy’s obtuseness inadvertently leads to a revolutionary shift in what constitutes ‘news’ – live car chases, animal stories and extreme patriotism – the filmmakers are taking a none-too-subtle swipe at the declining standards in journalism and the way in which news is presented. Similarly, the absurdity of the RV crash pokes fun at the ways in which so many comedies derive their humour from illogical contrivances – in this case the inclusion of scorpions, bowling balls and a deep fryer in a scene for no other reason than to inflict maximum pain to the characters and thereby extract maximum laughs from the audience.

There are some parts of the film that just don’t work, such as the segment involving Ron’s blindness, a lighthouse and a shark named Doby; or the romantic sub-plot between Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and new character Shani Lastname (Kristen Wiig). On the other hand, Harrison Ford is a lot of fun in his small role as Mack Tannen, while the over-the-top rehash of the first film’s “battle of the news teams” is amusing for the myriad cameos and the sheer absurdity of it all. Whilst there is a lot more going on in this film than the original – such as Ron’s attempts to connect with his son Walter (Judah Nelson) and reconcile with Victoria – the plot is muddled and the shtick of Brick, Champ Kind (David Koechner) and Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) fails to generate much mirth this time around. There are still plenty of laughs to be had, most often through the sheer inappropriateness of the things that Ron says and does, utterly oblivious to the upset that it causes around him.

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES

With the likes of Greg Kinnear, Meagan Good, James Marsden and Australia’s own Josh Lawson (as media mogul Kench Allenby) also featuring, the film is certainly overloaded with talent. However, as funny as Ferrell can be as Burgundy, he and director/co-writer Adam McKay, have failed to construct a narrative that is either cohesive or consistently funny. The best bits become bogged down by the too many moments that take us away from the arrogant ignorance of the titular ‘legend’. As a satire, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is far superior to its predecessor, but this sequel falls short of the original in every other way. Such shortcomings, of course, make this movie no different to almost every other sequel that has gone before it, but it is disappointing never the less.