Tag Archives: Comedy

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: In a World/Enough Said (2013)

Two Rom Coms: Half a Gem

Courtesy of circlecinema.com

   Courtesy of circlecinema.com

Courtesy of perezhilton.com

Courtesy of perezhilton.com

In a World/Enough Said Review

By Adam Tawfik

Judging by a majority of the romantic comedies that are churned out, the businessmen who create these vehicles seem to think that women, to whom they target their cynically sentimental drivel, have the collective IQ of a gumdrop. More insidiously, this genre has a tendency to espouse an evil ideology where characters (particularly the female ones) are reduced to their love lives and being romantic objects, and they perpetrate the status quo where men are in authority and women and children are subordinates, doing it in such a cutesy manner to cover up the sweeten the cyanide.

Unlike most years where romantic comedies pollute the cinemas in the early season and the summer, they have largely been abandoned this year by the major studios, with more hyper masculine action packed pelt-‘em-ups in their place.

Interestingly this autumn indie female directors and writers have coopted the genre as a way to provide a more insightful character study of a female protagonist. While the results are not as crass as their mainstream counterpoints, out of a sampling of two recent films, In a World and Enough Said, the final results are decidedly mixed. Let’s get the negativity out of the way.

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

It’s not unreasonable that many creative people in front of and behind the camera would come on board with Lake Bell’s most recent project, In a World. World, which Bell wrote, directed, and starred in, has an intelligent thesis about the sexism in the oft forgotten voiceover-world and how women’s voices in that profession are either very girly or sultry.

I must confess that I was excited to see this film after hearing Bell’s amusing and insightful NPR interview, but honestly she pretty much lifted her talking points from the final scene in the film. Unfortunately, there’s 90 minutes of mostly humdrum inaction before that moment. Bell, instead of being a triple threat, ends up being uninspired on three counts.

Courtesy of digitalshortbread.com

Courtesy of digitalshortbread.com

Her screenplay never achieves a consistent tone, swinging from moments of uncontrollably broad humor to chunks of pseudo-naturalistic awkwardness, neither of which comes off with precision. Subsequently, there’s a gaping discrepancy between characterizations and performances. Fred Melamen as Bell’s jealous and unsupportive father, Ken Marino as a narcissistic misogynous voice actor, and Stephanie Allynne as an obnoxiously idiotic receptionist are cloying caricatures while Michaela Watkins as Bell’s uptight and disciplined sister and Dimitri Martin as a socially awkward recording producer enamored with Bell’s character are cookie-cutter indie comedy archetypes.

There is sentimentality that feels more in place with a 1943 film than one in 2013. At one point, when Rob Corddry (delivering one of the few good performances), as Watkins’ mild-mannered and patient husband, discovers a romantic recording of his wife and an Irish guest at her hotel, we learn that it’s not as bad as it sounds. As if this isn’t annoying enough, this plotline has the annoying resolution of an audio recording of Watkins expressing her love for Corddry courtesy of the chirpy do-gooder Bell.

Courtesy of krellabs.blogspot.com

Courtesy of krellabs.blogspot.com

The single worst moment is when Melamen, who viciously undermines his daughters for most of the film, has a very public change of heart after a pep talk from his chirpy and much younger girlfriend (Alexandra Holden). This is also the point where we see she may act like a bimbo for 90 minutes but isn’t actually a bimbo, in one of the film’s many crude attempts to try to show us that we shouldn’t judge people by the way they look and speak.

Lake Bell, who has provided solid support in various films and TV shows, is too wise and grounded to make the flighty and quirky aspects of her character believable. Ultimately, she doesn’t have enough dynamism to carry the film.

Geena Davis, making a rare recent screen appearance, shows us what real star quality is in about a minute of screen time. Portraying a video game executive with a feminist agenda, Davis shows how her character is a cynical hard-ass about getting her larger message out there, providing a nuance that most of the film lacks.  I can only recommend World for those that indiscriminately feed off of feel-good fare.

Courtesy of blogs.commercialappeal

Courtesy of blogs.commercialappeal

If you can stomach a small dose of genuine pathos in exchange for a higher quality film, then check out Enough Said. Written and directed by indie favorite Nicole Holofcener, Said follows the life of Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a middle-aged divorced masseuse whose monotonous life is interrupted by her daughter (Tracey Fairaway) leaving home to go to college and the meeting of two important people, her future best friend and client, an affluent and influential poet, Marianne (Holofcener muse Catherine Keener) and Albert (James Gandolfini), the first man to win her heart in a long time.

Said does not make a good first impression as the earlier passages have a sitcomish construction, sort of a third-rate copycat of The New Adventures of Old Christine or Seinfeld, with the punch lines or comic timing not as sharp. Stay with it as the film hits its stride in a big way when it establishes its unconventional triangle and how Eva eventually figures out that the ex about whom Marianne incessantly complains is actually Albert and how she slowly becomes more and more like Marianne in her relationship with him. The funny and sometimes strange romance between Albert and Eva is wonderful to watch as Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have great screen chemistry.

Courtesy of latimes.com

Courtesy of latimes.com

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, an iconic TV comidienne who’s made supporting performances in lackluster films, is impressive in her first film lead. She brings some of her neurotic and abrasive qualities of her sitcom persona, but also proves herself to be a compelling dramatic performer and convincingly shows vulnerability the final act where she tries to repair the damaged relationship with Albert and how she forms an inappropriate relationship with her daughter’s best friend (Tavi Gevinson). She makes for an emotionally flawed, but highly empathetic if not always likeable, character.

Apparently James Gandolfini, best known for his intensely dramatic work, had trepidation about taking on a romantic lead. Onscreen he seems completely at ease with the film’s lightly comic tone, bringing a kindness and gentleness interspersed with a droll delivery of some of the film’s funniest lines. In many ways he is the film’s heart as his character is unpretentious and comfortable with himself.

Courtesy of cinemaviewfinder.com

Courtesy of cinemaviewfinder.com

Marianne’s lack of nuance hurts the comedy triangle. It’s hard to figure out why Eva is so awed by Marianne. Supposedly, she’s chic and sophisticated, but her costumes are frumpy, the dress she wore at the party looked like a beige potato sack and her hair is a mousy brown and unkempt. Her house is supposedly superior to Eva’s and allegedly slobby Albert’s; while perhaps a bit more colorful, all the sets had a certain sanitation and classiness. Keener, with an unsettlingly hoarse voice, is transparently a shrew, and had she had some dimension like Albert and Eva, it would have elevated the triangle and given Eva more motivation to go against Albert.

A few of the other supporting characters never really gel. Other than in scenes where they take Eva to the party or where they act as a counterweight to Eva’s belittlement of Albert on their double date, Eva’s friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone), a married couple who incessantly bicker, are mostly irritatingly superfluous intrusions.

Marcelo Zarvos’ overblown score is the single most abrasive element. It never fits in with the quiet low-key charm of the overall film and it often arrives at the most inopportune moments, inadvertently undermining the quirkiness of many of the scenes and giving it a glibness that isn’t on the screen.

Courtesy of zimbio.com

Courtesy of zimbio.com

Holofcener, who has written and directed feature films for nearly twenty years, has carved out a sizable niche for herself. Yet Enough Said is the first work of hers that I’ve seen. Maybe because she is close to the age of her protagonists’ accounts for the authenticity she brings to the story. Admittedly, I never took the time to catch her other films as they always struck me as pedestrian looking, but I suppose I’ll Netflix some of them now.