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Review: American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle, The Not-So-Potent Sting

Courtesy of myreelpov.wordpress.com

Courtesy of myreelpov.wordpress.com

For a conservative and religious nation with a black and white ethos on good and evil that stringently embraces discipline and morality, it is fascinating how millions of Americans are drawn to movies that romanticize crime and criminals. Historically, average Americans are a very obedient and conformist people, yet many films time and time again encourage us to root for the anti-hero or a morally ambiguous protagonist, capitalizing on our desire to vicariously live dangerously and perhaps to hold on to the myth that we are individualists.

2014 Oscar-nominee American Hustle fits into this mold. At its base, Hustle is a love story between two small-time con artists Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) who unwittingly get swept into high crime by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper).

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Hustle, unlike many current films, has a very evocative mise-en-scene wonderfully rendered by costumer Michael Wilkinson, production designer Judy Becker, and an extensive hair and makeup team. They capture the essence of 1970s gaudiness and the naïve, unsophisticated “modernity” that quickly became quaint and laughable. (In one scene Christian Bale’s mustard yellow shirt matched that of the wall in his bedroom.) Also on the plus side is a suspenseful casino sequence (and an uncredited cameo by Robert DeNiro, playing a mobster, duh), and an inspired clever plot twist. This amounts to about ten minutes of the film.

Unfortunately for the audience, there’s another two hours to endure.

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Courtesy of theguardian.com

As in the case of many “important” Hollywood films, Hustle takes a fairly interesting (if not slight) story and bloats it without enough wit, gravitas, suspense, energy or spontaneity to recompense the overblown treatment. The screenplay, written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, desperately tries to present itself as an intricate, edgy, non-linear narrative. The out-of-order chronology, multiple POV narrations, panning back and forth to scenes, and other cinematic bells and whistles sounds the alarms to the film’s lack of substance and redundancy. Worse, it severs all of the potentially interesting themes, giving the impression of a series of films in progress.

Russell, the current It-man in Hollywood, is regarded as a creative genius whose work also appeals to the masses. His last three films (including Hustle) have reaped oodles of Oscar-nominations. After watching Hustle, I am totally flabbergasted as to why.

Courtesy of cinemablend.com

Courtesy of cinemablend.com

Widely known as a method director (which reportedly makes him a demented nightmare to work with), Russell is reputed as being immersed in his craft. However, I think this approach might be the root of the film’s problematically fractured core. The Method can help create masterful performances (though it can just as easily make for unwatchable self-indulgent performances), but unlike an actor, it does not serve a director to micromanage, as they are (or should be) the person that brings unity to a whole bunch of people’s creativity to make a cohesive final product. Hitchcock, who paid painstaking attention to every square millimeter of the frame but had the whole story in his head, is probably the closest thing to a perfect director.

I found Russell’s direction to be quite sloppy. Certain elements, such as the film’s attempts at broad comedy, as in the scene where Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent busts the wrong room or basically any scene with Jennifer Lawrence, consistently misfire. The quality of performances he gets from his actors varies considerably.

Courtesy of nydailynews.com

Courtesy of nydailynews.com

Christian Bale, who is often an intense and broody actor, gives a nicely measured unflashy performance in the lead role of a small-time con artist over his head that shines through the over-the-top comb over toupee and pot belly. Bale also imparts a great deal of vulnerability, which could have been great had the story not been so muddied.

The other great performance came from Bradley Cooper as the egomaniacal, unhinged FBI agent. In what could have easily been a cartoonish performance (like when the character is in curlers), Cooper extrapolates the flawed and complicated side of his character and most effectively elicited my investment.

Courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

Courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

Amy Adams, an actor for whom I’ve had a long distaste, has reached new heights of unwatchability. In what is supposed to be a bold departure from the drab long-suffering wife and girl-next-door types she usually plays, Adams gives an incredibly self-conscious look-at-me-I’m-totally-against-type performance. Still equipped with her grating sing-song Disney princess voice and mousy presence, Adams is incredulous as somebody who came from the lowest rungs of society to become a vixenish femme-fatale who has two men under her spell. Having her tits hang out in every costume made her look even more ridiculously out of place.

Jeremy Renner as a benignly corrupt mayor gives an incomplete performance, although it is not his own fault as the script doesn’t provide the necessary framework to give him the sympathetic or tragic qualities that he needs to make his screen chemistry with Bale’s character palpable. Pretty much all he’s left with is an Elvis wig on top of his head.

Courtesy of close-upfilm.com

Courtesy of close-upfilm.com

Worst in show is definitely Jennifer Lawrence, totally miscast as Bale’s manipulative and psychologically damaged rescue wife. It’s a performance that entirely feels like playacting as her baby fat apple cheeks don’t fit the beaten down slobby housewife character description. With a hammy New Yawk accent that continually comes and goes, Lawrence has an ingratiating stilted delivery of lines that sound like they should come out the mouth of a middle-aged Yiddish woman (perhaps somebody who looks like Edith Bunker). The Jennifer Lawrence that fans love is the unpretentious spontaneous persona she effortlessly dons in public appearances; so why not cast her in roles that capitalize on that rather than have her play characters that should be done by actresses ten years older.

Out of the large supporting cast, only Louis C.K., who gives an appropriately low-key performance as Cooper’s sensible and exasperated boss, has enough latitude to make an impression.

I can take comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who didn’t jump on the Hustle bandwagon. Peter Debruge, critic for Variety, an industry trade paper that usually produces populist non-confrontational reviews, wrote the first negative contrarian notice on the film. Though it popped up in (too) many categories at the Academy Awards, the silver lining is that it lost all ten of its bids.

Heroes of Black Entertainment Part 2

Courtesy of teem.org

Courtesy of teem.org

Last week, I wrote tributes to five incredibly talented and inspiring black entertainers to celebrate Black History Month. Five doesn’t cut it. This week, I’m honoring five more wonderful talents. Ten still is nowhere near enough, but it’s better than five.

Eartha Kitt

Courtesy of harryallen.info

Courtesy of harryallen.info

I can almost guarantee you that you’ll recognize Kitt from her signature gravelly purr and her champagne-gargled helium voice (which was featured in The Emperor’s New Groove). There was always a trace of wariness and a sad-eyed expression behind her gregariously coquettish persona. It could easily stem from her traumatic childhood. Born on a cotton-picking plantation in South Carolina to a white plantation owner father (whose identity was withheld from her by local authorities for her entire life) and a black mother, she was given up for adoption where she was regularly abused by her half-siblings and even raped by one of the half-brothers. At nine, she fled to Harlem and started singing and dancing as a means to escape living in subway stations. She struggled with an identity crisis at the beginning of her career in the 1950s because white film and TV producers were afraid that white audiences wouldn’t accept a sexualized black woman. She made the most of her stage and nightclub appearances where she donned the persona of “the original Material Girl,” singing tongue-in-cheek songs about gold-diggers and la grande vie in seven different languages.

Courtesy of cheesecakeslice.blogspot.com

Courtesy of cheesecakeslice.blogspot.com

Her eccentric persona, which was most iconically displayed as the second Catwoman on the cult 60s TV series Batman, overshadowed the fact that Kitt was also a powerhouse dramatic actress. Her Emmy-nominated performance as a heroin-addicted nightclub singer in I Spy is one of the most uncompromisingly gritty portrayals of addiction I have ever seen (many people seemed to agree as it was widely thought she was actually an addict after this performance). On a Ben Casey episode she gives a heartbreaking performance of a well-to-do and loved doctor’s wife who suffers from crippling clinical depression and mental illness. In spite of the many hard knocks, Kitt has never shied away from her beliefs. In 1968, she was pretty much professionally ostracized from the US for almost ten years when she confronted Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. I am still partial to her 80s disco phase where she humorously basks in her own outrageousness and otherworldly sexiness.

Louis Armstrong

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

It may seem cliché now since what seems like every musician has cited Armstrong as a musical influence, but it’s totally justified as he was one of the pioneers of modern music. His sense of rhythm and improvisation were as transformative for the times as those who were firsthand recipients of electricity. He coined the terms “cat” and “chops” which are still used in musical vernacular today. When he was starting out in New Orleans in the teens, jazz, which was billed as “race music,” was still very much a niche genre (and almost completely unknown to whites at the time). Once whites became hip and started diggin’ the music, in typical fashion, the press gave all the air time to white musicians and ignored most of the black pioneers. Armstrong, who had a distinctive vocal and trumpeting technique coupled with an effortlessly warm and captivating stage presence (apparently in real life he had a volatile temper), simply couldn’t be relegated out of the spotlight. His enthusiasm for his craft is contagious, even when listening to him or seeing him perform. What I found most interesting to learn about Armstrong was the liberal use of profanity in his vocabulary. On a recording with Billie Holiday his audible use of “fuck” drew much fire from critics and audiences of the day. His presence made even the most tedious of projects such as the Hollywood films High Society and Hello Dolly worthwhile. Although Armstrong was demoted to playing second fiddle to whites on screen, off camera he didn’t put up with their crap. He publicly called out President Eisenhower for not doing enough for civil rights. He was going strong until his bulimia caught up with him and contributed to a fatal heart attack in 1971. Thankfully his soul lives on in the countless recordings and film and TV appearances he made in his productive and jiving career.

Richard Ayoade

Courtesy of movies.yahoo.com

Courtesy of movies.yahoo.com

Indie films and TV shows are supposedly greater outlets for people who don’t fit the norm (anyone not young, fit, conventionally attractive white men and women). Counterintuitively, people of color have fewer opportunities in the alternative sector than in mainstream venues. British comedian, actor, writer, and filmmaker Richard Ayoade has infiltrated this whity tighty community, but strictly on his own terms. His droll delivery, nerdy persona, drawing laughs from constructing the humor of jokes, and his penchant for an absurd point-of-view make Ayoade one of the brightest personalities in interviews, comedy specials, and panel shows. He first gained prominence as one of the nerdy, socially awkward computer geniuses in the Britcom The IT Crowd. In the meantime, he’s directed two films, Submarine and The Double, both of which sound like wholly original concepts done with a dark, quirky touch. The latter film, which should be released sometime this year, is currently on the festival circuit and is drawing great reviews commending his inspired take of a Dostoevsky text. Right now, he’s one of the regular panelists and truthfully the only bright-spot of a too-thin premise British game show Was it Something I Said? His sarcastic defense of Hitler in the first episode is priceless. Since it’s only in its first series, it has potential to get better.

Dee Rees

Courtesy of stuffflypeoplelike.com

Courtesy of stuffflypeoplelike.com

As in life, black women in the film industry are on the lowest on the totem pole, with almost no chance to direct a feature film (though that is slowly changing). It is super inspiring (and perhaps slightly insane) that young writer-filmmaker Dee Rees would double up on what is considered box-office poison; a film that is largely an ensemble of black females and concerns lesbianism as one of its central themes. Yet she has persisted with this vision for years. The film, Pariah, began as a short that made festival rounds in 2007, drawing great acclaim. Despite the positive notices, Rees only received $500,000 to make the feature-length version. In what must have been trying circumstances, she managed to make an excellent film in terms of narrative, production values, and acting, using the unpolished roughness to create a tone that is in accordance with its realist and impressionist mood.

Courtesy of www.blackonblackcinema.com

Courtesy of www.blackonblackcinema.com

Pariah examines the repression and rigidity of the middle class in an upwardly mobile New York City black neighborhood through the experiences of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a thoughtful young adult grappling with being in the closet and trying to deal with her quietly dysfunctional family. Rees’ nuanced script evocatively presents the complexities and contradictions of all its characters, so that no one is strictly one-dimensionally good or bad. Instead, her approach is to present all of her characters as people, rather than archetypes, who are worthy of scorn, empathy, and sympathy. Had an art house theater owner in Rhode Island not shown Pariah, even though he knew he would take a loss, chances are good I never would have seen this film. Although there have been black female directors before Rees, like Julie Dash and Euzhan Palcy, their directorial careers typically fizz out quickly. When Pariah the feature was released in 2011, to another round of raves, Rees didn’t receive much attention from entertainment publications and wasn’t part of any of the major panels of independent filmmakers. If we want challenging films that aren’t the typical Hollywood fare, it is in our best interest as consumers to support artists like Rees who have the vision and the craft to execute them.

Steve McQueen

Courtesy of thewrap.com

Courtesy of thewrap.com

While he shares his name with the iconic (white) Hollywood star of the 1960s and 70s, McQueen, a black writer-director from London, has firmly carved out his own identity. What white McQueen was for escapist action entertainment, black McQueen is for gritty and hard-hitting character dramas. This year, McQueen is the critical toast of the town with his stellar and unrelenting masterpiece, 12 Years a Slave, which by multiple accounts is a faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. Slave’s lucid somber treatment of blacks is perhaps the first significant antidote to the racist and problematic depictions in Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation. The epic scope of the film unflinchingly depicts them as people with their own feelings and points of view, rather than mere victims. It also convincingly shows how slavery is detrimental to white people’s sanity. Slave has received bits of criticism; some have claimed that McQueen’s art school sensibility overly prettified things while others, like well-known contrarian critic Armond White decried it as “torture porn.” Interestingly, Slave is McQueen’s first film dealing with race issues.

Courtesy of npr.org

Courtesy of npr.org

In fact, McQueen’s debut feature, Hunger, is uniformly populated with white bodies, as it tackles the hunger strike taken by Irish Republican Army prison inmates led by leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbinder). Hunger acted as a calling card for both McQueen and Fassbinder, but they gained more prominence with their next collaboration, Shame, a NYC-based drama about the tortuous life of a sex addict. Although McQueen has made only three features, he’s been producing art-house shorts featured in museum exhibitions for nearly twenty years, many of which seem to be more about ambiance and movement than plot. Although his works are more towards traditional narrative, McQueen doesn’t seem likely to tamp down the content of his works. Hopefully the success of Slave will grant him (and other black directors and writers) the opportunity to create more hard-hitting and necessary dramas.

Black Heroes of Entertainment

Courtesy of thefeministgriote.com

Courtesy of thefeministgriote.com

Although blacks have continually been treated as if they were second-class citizens for hundreds of years they, arguably more so than any other group of people, have played a fundamental role in the foundation of the American identity as we know it. While many choose to (literally and figuratively) whitewash the history of popular culture and exclude the number of talented black artists from their narratives, I would like to recognize some of these individuals who have enriched our society with their originality. It would be impossible to give justice to every talented black artist in a single blog post, so I’ll start out by paying tribute to 5.

Pam Grier

Courtesy of theroot.com

Courtesy of theroot.com

Alas, she wasn’t one of the million black women named by Halle Berry in her rambling Oscar speech; though that isn’t too surprising as she tends to be snubbed in “respectable” circles because of her prolific association with the Blaxploitation film industry. The films’ ultra-low budgets and salacious content lead many to write off these films and the numerous young women who starred in them as less-than-worthy, but what people tend to forget is that there were few opportunities for black actors (particularly women) in mainstream cinema, and most of those roles were reduced to peripheral saintly Negro parts. Artistic merits of the films aside, they gave black female characters not only leading roles, but ones with agency and where they kick ass. Even in the early days amidst the large female ensembles, Grier proved that she was more than just T&A, as she enlivened her roles with genuine eroticism, but more importantly she exhibited a gift for intelligence and gravitas. To see her acting skills, check out her affecting performance as Jim Brown’s long-suffering wife in Mars Attacks! (1996) and as a tough but ethical states attorney who sparred with Stabler and Benson on occasion on Law and Order: SVU.

Billie Holiday

Courtesy of last.fm

Courtesy of last.fm

Like many icons, Holiday tends to be remembered as a one-dimensional myth. As popularized by the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday is conceived of as a poor lost soul who abused heroin as a means of enduring physical and emotional abuse from a string of worthless men. This is certainly all true, but it is only one side of her dynamic, multifaceted personality. While her life was strafed with tragedy and hardship, Holiday by numerous accounts lived life to the fullest and had a wild, raucous sense of humor. Other than her otherworldly vocal adeptness and one-of-a-kind phrasing, I’ve always gravitated towards her straight-forward philosophical insightfulness that permeated her songs, interviews, and her autobiography (also titled Lady Sings the Blues). The ironically named “God Bless the Child” remains a timeless and salient critique of the inequality of the status quo and how it’s predetermined from childhood. She always remained true to her voice, which is a near impossible thing in the music industry. The consumer has benefitted from her bravery; the minimalism of her voice and arrangements still feels fresh and contemporary today as then with none of the overproduced saccharine popular in the 1940s and 50s. She was light years ahead of her time, perhaps still way ahead of ours.

At a time when lynching was still legal, Holiday boldly sang “Strange Fruit” as a closing song after nearly every show, often with just a piano background and a spotlight on her face to make the harrowing lyrics inescapable. In her compelling autobiography, she frankly discussed the horrors of being raped (even using the word at a time when it simply wasn’t discussed) and articulated the futility of “The War on Drugs” and how addiction should be treated as a sickness rather than a crime. She may have not overcome all of her demons in the end, but she is far from being a victim and should be celebrated for her trailblazing accomplishments rather than lamented for her tragic demise.

Viola Davis

Courtesy of independent.com

Courtesy of independent.com

No, I’m not including Davis because she is a fellow alum of Rhode Island College (though that doesn’t hurt). I’m blowing my horn (though it’s the complete truth), but I was a diehard Davis fan before she achieved her long-overdue critical and mainstream success. The first Davis performance to blow me away was her guest appearance on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, where she played the ringleader of a group of murderous cops with chilling intensity. This character is interesting in that she is an insecure outcast with some some justifiable anger. She was a formidable opponent for Detective Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio); in one memorable scene, she shows her intelligence where she profiles Goren with the same, sharp observation skills as the detective. Her portrayal was so convincing that it sparked controversy among black organizations. She is one of the few bonafide scene stealers in the business. In just a minute or two of screen time, Davis rose above the tedium of Denzel Washington’s directorial debut Antoine Fisher, contributing a mesmerizing performance as the titular character’s drug-addled mother, one made mostly of reactions of grief and pride. She first rose to widespread prominence with her 15-minute bravura performance in the otherwise dreary drama Doubt, where she etches the only human character as the mother of a student who might have been raped by a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who pleads mercy with a nasty self-righteous nun (Meryl Streep).

Courtesy of collider.com

Courtesy of collider.com

Again, she was stellar in The Help, transforming her archetypal servant role to something profound, giving a three-dimensional performance of a kind, intelligent woman who is stifled and quietly angry by her lack of opportunity. While the film on the whole was lightweight and frivolous, Davis was robbed of a Best Actress Oscar. Many speculated that she would have had the award in the bag had she campaigned for Supporting Actress, but she bravely (and rightly) went for the top prize because she wants leading roles where her character has agency, and she’s still strongly vying for that goal even though she’s almost 50. Let’s hope she makes it as she certainly has the talent and charisma.

Ivan Dixon

Courtesy of nndb.com

Courtesy of nndb.com

Even if you don’t recognize Dixon’s name, if you’re of a certain age or a classic sitcom buff, chances are good that you’d know his face, as he was the sole black cast member of the 1960s WWII sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. It is a pity that it is his best-known work as the limited, token part gave him the least room to show his quietly powerful acting where he played complex characters who were not always sympathetic. Higher quality roles came from guest appearances on other TV dramas of the time. Highlights include the dark and dramatic pilot of I Spy (the first show to feature a black actor, Bill Cosby, in a leading role), where he plays a sports star who defects to China for monetary reasons with abrasive gusto; as the cold and clinical psychologist and a gentle and generous African ambassador on separate episodes of The Fugitive; as a hard, militant but intelligent black power leader and a nonconformist and idealistic politician on separate episodes of The Name of the Game. He received an Emmy nomination for his starring role in a TV special The Final War of Olly Winter, which from what I’ve read is one of the first hard-hitting portrayals of the Vietnam War; it is perhaps more notable for having a black man and an Asian woman (Tina Chen) as the protagonists. By the 1970s Dixon almost exclusively directed films and TV episodes.

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

His most notorious effort was the highly controversial 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door that was a hit before it was abruptly seized by the FBI who feared that the content would incite blacks into overthrowing the government. It didn’t see the light of day until its release on DVD in 2004. Spook, a favorite of the Black Panthers, is about a man (Lawrence Cook) who is the token black hire for the CIA. Angered by the racist and condescending treatment by the bureau, he uses his training and organizes a race war. It is more known for its unrelenting treatment of its subject and message than final artistic product, but that message continues to impact audiences today.

Ice-T

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Throughout its entire stay, most cultural critics have decried rap music as a crass and immoral force on (white) American society. Certainly like every other musical form, rap produces its fair share of mind-numbing inanity and no-talents. However, there are some thoughtful artists like Ice-T who have used rap as a means of protest, to illuminate the hard truths of the ghettoes that Middle America and the news media choose to ignore.

Ice-T’s 1992 punk song “Cop Killer,” about a vigilante killing cops who have systematically abused him, sparred national controversy and made him the target of criticism from the LAPD and President George Bush Sr. Like many of the edge 90s works, it was wrongly branded as being gratuitous. The impact of the song is how it unflinchingly reflects the deep seated antagonism between the police and people on the streets and its suggestion that the two can’t co-exist, which might be true. Although he’s shifted to acting these days (ironically most famous as a cop on TV), Ice-T hasn’t lost his edginess. As one of the SVU detectives on the dark series Law and Order: SVU, he gives his role a gritty realism and a flawed, but overall decent character, not like the typical clean-cut cop.

Tune in next time for more tributes of some iconic black artists and entertainers. Who you include on your list?

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Raging Brokers

Courtesy of clemmiepem.com and complex.com

Courtesy of clemmiepem.com and complex.com

Review of The Wolf of Wall Street

By Adam Tawfik

A majority of people worldwide were blindsided by the meltdown of the global economy in the summer of 2008. Like all other historical fiascos, it was the culmination of a series of unfortunate events. The roots of this disaster originated back to the 1980s when President Reagan implemented deregulation, which gave big business license to do whatever they hell they wanted. The financiers on Wall Street, who have always been ingenious at subverting legal loopholes for their own opportunistic means, had a field day with laissez-faire Reagonomics.

Martin Scorsese’s latest feature, The Wolf of Wall Street, uncomfortably closely thrusts the viewer into the twisted mind of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an entrepreneur who began his stock-market empire by selling worthless penny stocks to working class schumcks before infiltrating the pocketbooks of the wealthy and becoming one of the most notorious but most desired people to work for.

Courtesy of themovieblog.com

Courtesy of themovieblog.com

The film’s success is first and foremost attributed to screenwriter Terence Winter. Winter, the visionary behind the gritty HBO crime series The Sopranos, imbues Wolf with a visceral black humor and creates a cesspool populated with irredeemable but eminently fascinating diabolical antiheroes, whose crudeness and ruthlessness matches those of mobsters. At various points, I felt as though I knew what was going to ensue since the characters were predictably reckless, but Winter consistently raised the stakes of insanity and the outcomes led to something satisfyingly unexpected, which kept the film accelerating at a queasy pace. The voiceover is cleverly written as it leads us to unequivocally trust Belfort because of his brash, tell-all style, though by the second act, we begin to realize that he is a sneaky and highly unreliable narrator.

Wolf being classified as a comedy at awards shows has inspired much snarky dissent from the internet. Certainly, the surface plot has all the elements of a dark, depressing piece, but on-screen the action is expertly executed with kinetic comedic timing. There are several vignettes of unrelenting broad hilarity, with a deeply vitriolic subtext, that also with Winter’s savvy writing advance the plot.

The script’s only weakness is in the prologue scenes where Belfort learns the ropes from experienced Wall Street parasite Mark Hanna (well played by Matthew McConaughey); I didn’t buy Belfort’s naiveté, it felt too forced and obligatory to contrast his later ruthlessness. They’re the only pedestrian scenes in a highly outrageous story.

Courtesy of honeycuttshollywood.com

Courtesy of honeycuttshollywood.com

After making sprawling, but ultimately disappointingly conventional films for the past few years, Wolf finds Scorsese back to his raw, unique style of filmmaking. He demonstrates a deft visual touch of orchestrating debauchery both on small and epic scales with abandoned irreverence. The composition of excessive crowd scenes matches the glorious prodigality of 1920s silent film sagas. Scorsese could have easily trimmed thirty minutes by eliminating several of the slow-motion drug taking scenes, which felt gratuitous after a while.

Wolf will not really be an iconic Scorsese film, due to the missed opportunity in the mise-en-scene to capture the gaudy, audacious 80s style. Sandy Powell’s costumes (save for Jonah Hill’s multi-gumdrop colored shirt and mom-jeans in his first scene) and the makeup department’s efforts look more Mad Men. Bob Shaw’s sets and Chris Shriver’s art direction have a generic, overly formalistic look. This is disappointing as Scorsese’s films usually have excellent mise-en-scene, like Taxi Driver whose barren, apocalyptic New York City greatly increases the tension, or Raging Bull, whose dark black and white cinematography and grungy sets create the aura of claustrophobia.

The eclectic soundtrack consisting of an assortment of Motown, bebop, and old school rap is in tune with the frenetic pace and Wolf’s overall wonderful discombobulation. As a diehard jazz lover, I especially liked the use of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’ vocalese classic “Cloudburst” and pianist Ahmad Jamal’s “Reefer Madness” rendition of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”

Courtesy of drafthouse.com

Courtesy of drafthouse.com

Leonardo DiCaprio has skillfully played several difficult antiheroes on-screen for nearly twenty years, yet there’s still a tendency to underestimate his talent because of his handsome appearance and relative youth. His work in Wolf should dispel any doubts. His combination of movie star and serious actor make him ideal for the megalomaniacal Belfort. Dicaprio flares the screen with manic energy, but behind the excessive exuberance, there’s a cool, calculated mind that’s equally forceful. At some points especially when he put on sunglasses in the boat scene, DiCaprio looks like and has the manic essence of Jack Nicholson.

Although Jonah Hill’s name appears below the main title, he is truly co-lead alongside DiCaprio. Hill stellarly portrays Donnie, Belfort’s best friend and partner-in-corruption, using his obese, average looks to make the gleefully soulless monster inside of his character more alarming. Many times when he’s sweaty and ungainly we think that he might cave in to the pressure, but he’s a very smooth operator. Hill has many of the most audacious one-liners all of which he delivers with relish.

Courtesy of thedailybeast.com

Courtesy of thedailybeast.com

There is a great supporting cast comprised of relative newcomers and veteran performers. Rob Reiner is hilarious as Belfort’s volatile and exasperated father, who tries to act as his son’s conscience in a morally dubious manner. Kyle Chandler turns in another great character performance as the ethical FBI agent determined to stop Wall Street corruption. Jean Dujardin is droll as an underhanded Swiss banker. P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, and Henry Zebrowski are perfectly slimy and crass as Belfort’s business cronies.

There are several female performers who shine in capsule-sized roles. Aya Cash as Belfort’s menacingly barking assistant and Stephanie Kurtzuba as a wired stockbroker add a crude and ferocious humor to their roles. Joanna Lumley gives a charming performance as the adventurous English aunt-in-law who participates in Belfort’s money laundering scheme. As another money launderer, Katarina Cas imbues her part with a hard-boiled femme fatale allure.

Courtesy of unifiedpoptheory.com

Courtesy of unifiedpoptheory.com

Following the trend of most Scorsese films, the leading female characters (Margot Robbie and Cristen Milloti), who do little other than cannily emulate the Queens accent, are the weakest in the cast. Millotti is overly syrupy as Belfort’s loving and naive first wife. The role of Naomi, Belford’s second wife, initially offers Robbie a chance to be deliciously bawdy and bitchy, but the character and her performance become too opaque in the film’s second half.

This year Wolf is the target film for the reactionary legion of political correctness, who claim that the film condones Belfort’s tactics, once again forgetting that representation does not necessarily equal endorsement. The filmmaker’s exuberant depiction of the excessive drugging and gambling could be construed as glorification of greed. Behind the façade is a cautionary tale of the ugly underbelly of capitalism. The conflict is ours; we despise them, yet we envy them. Ultimately, we empower them by our unwillingness to change the system as we see ourselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The final shot of a bunch of eager highly average-looking people of diverse ages, classes, and races attending Belfort’s seminar, is a horrifying image as it indicts all of us and how we want a part of the action, forsaking all our morals and good sense in the hopes of becoming rich. It is one of the best final visual shots since the famous kaleidoscopic mirror shot of an opportunistic, scheming fan going after an equally unscrupulous actress in All About Eve.

Review: Philomena (2013)

Catholic Guilt

Courtesy of alexandralomax.wordpress.com

Courtesy of alexandralomax.wordpress.com

Review of Philomena

By Adam Tawfik

For hundreds of years the Catholic Church has been one of the more powerful political and economic forces in the world. Their influence has significantly shaped American film history as their lobby led to the implementation of the Production Code, the first censorship regime undertaken by the major Hollywood studios from the early 1930s until the 1950s. In contrast to their insentience on the sanitation in films, the Church has been rocked with homophobia, pedophilia, and misogyny. The lid burst open only recently, but the Catholic Church’s reputation is progressively escalating to the deepest depths of hell.

Courtesy of johnpetterson.blogspot.com

Courtesy of johnpetterson.blogspot.com

One of the more prolific scandals centered around the Magdalene Sisters, a group of Irish nuns that stole the babies of unwed mothers and sold them to wealthy American families. In 1952, Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clarke and Judi Dench) was one of the victims of this human rights violation. Fifty years later after many years of mourning the loss, the kindly retired Irish nurse falls into a depression. Her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) who is waitressing at a fancy literary party, approaches Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a recently sacked highbrow journalist to help her mother track down her missing son.

Naturally, there has been some backlash to Philomena, a British film based off of Sixsmith’s account. New York Post film critic Kyle Smith angrily denounced it as “another hateful attack on Catholics.” Unlike Smith’s reactionary article, Philomena’s script co-authored by Coogan and Jeff Pope never attacks Catholicism, but the bureaucracy. The execution of this theme is one of the film’s strongest points.

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

It subtly but forcefully shows how the institution is crooked and underhanded and how it changes over time. In the olden days, the monastery was a barren and dark place cast in monochromatic brown and gray palettes, while most of the nuns (with the exception of one) were nasty and unempathetic to the unwed mothers. Things look more progressive in the present day: the convent looks nice and welcoming, they offer visitors tea, and there’s even an African nun. As soon as Philomena and Sixsmith begin probing, it is quickly apparent that the nuns are still devious under the friendly façade. The convent has become a commercial operation with teleshopping products for sale at a display table.

The film loses steam in its second half, after the pair discover the identity of Philomena’s lost son. I wished that the film probed more into his life and the hidden reality of unhappy family dynamic that was only briefly alluded to, to counteract Philomena’s notion of his great, privileged life that she couldn’t give him. Instead, there’s an overreliance on flashbacks that don’t advance the action. Answers from leads come too early, not leaving enough time for suspense or anything resonating. For example, when Philomena confronts Pete Olsson (Peter Hermann), the companion of her son, he’s incredulously forthcoming with a major key to the puzzle, but up to that encounter, he’s quite hush-hush and hostile.

There are certain comparisons to be drawn to another of Coogan’s films, The Trip. Trip, more characteristic of Coogan’s caustic brand of comedy, had two strengths over Philomena. Firstly, the script was sharper and dialogue had more punch, but more importantly, especially for a road film it had two rounded, three-dimensional characters.

Courtesy of totalfilm.com

Courtesy of totalfilm.com

Outside of being a sarcastic atheist and being confrontational with the nuns, Coogan has given his character very little to do and is just there for the most part. He is clearly uncomfortable at conveying the softer side of his role. It’s a huge step down from the highly comic and tragic performance he gave as the flawed protagonist in The Trip.

On the other hand, Dench deserves all the critical acclaim and awards attention. Interestingly, two of her better roles in the last seven years came from going against her grain of playing confident, sophisticated upper-crust women, and portraying working class women. Philomena is the polar opposite of the bitter, obsessive and emotionally unstable teacher in Notes on a Scandal, as she is kind, gentle, and loving. Thanks to Dench’s skilled performance, this almost-too-good-to-be-true character doesn’t feel like a romanticized idealization.

Courtesy of londoncitynights.com

Courtesy of londoncitynights.com

Dench, who has proven herself to be a deft light comedienne, handles many of her character’s corny one-liners with aplomb. The film’s highlight is when Philomena recounts the plot of a trivial romantic novel with painstaking detail, making it sound far better than it is. The childlike wonder and lack of sophistication catch us by surprise, but Dench instills this performance with great wisdom and intelligence. Her warm expression and an almost Zen-like demeanor is juxtaposed by the strong undercurrent of forlornness, grief, and resentment imprinted in her eyes. Scenes depicting Dench in quiet reflection are the film’s most endearing moments.

While the rest of the cast ably play their roles, two supporting performances stand out. Michelle Fairley takes the familiar role of the pushy, impersonal book editor and adds color by subtly satirizing her single-minded and opportunistic character. Veteran stage and screen actress Barbara Jefford is stellar in her tiny but crucial role as the older deceptive Sister Hildegarde, showing the shiftiness in her eyes and putting self-righteousness on full unpleasant display. Jefford gives the audience an inkling that she might have erred in her thinking after Philomena forgave her for her callousness.

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

As a classic film buff, I enjoyed the moment where Sixsmith cheekily mistook Jane Russell for Jayne Mansfield just to irk the nun. There’s something there that relates to a larger theme of the film about the hypocrisy of the Catholic bureaucracy. Russell, who starred in the then highly controversial The Outlaw and continued in a succession of roles that capitalized on her voluptuous bosom and hour-glass figure, managed to achieve respectability from the industry and the movie-going public because of her vocal Christian and right-wing beliefs. The busty Mansfield, in spite of showing great promise as an able and intelligent comedienne, was given more and more degrading roles in B-movies and Euro porn, and was looked down upon by the audience and film industry.

Philomena is a well-crafted film that had moments of greatness, but afterwards, I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. By no means did I feel cheated the price of admission, yet I was expecting something a little more substantial than a sweet, unsuspecting little old lady and a cynical and unsentimental journalist forming a personal and professional friendship. Considering all the great films out this year, you might want to wait for this to come on Netflix.