Tag Archives: Matthew McConaughey

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: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

How to Make a Profit and Save Lives

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

By Adam Tawfik

Dallas Buyers Club has all of the elements for a Lifetime-esque treatment. The protagonist, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a homophobic white-trash drug and sex addict, who receives a shattering HIV diagnosis giving him 30 days to live. In order to fight the odds, he must stand up to the FDA and medical establishment by smuggling and using illegal drugs.  He encounters a flamboyant transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), who becomes his business partner, and an idealistic doctor (Jennifer Garner) who initially opposes his tactics.

Under the helm of director Jean-Marc Valleé and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas resists all temptations to be pat and preachy (save for a couple of scenes, but they’re minor enough to be forgiven). Dallas instead opts for a lucid and intellectual approach to AIDS, a disease that tends to get overly politicized and emotionalized in popular discourse and films due to its characterization as a gay disease. The film widens its scope so that it’s more than about rectifying homophobia, or about homosexuality and AIDS, or simply one man fighting against the government; it illuminates all of the above.

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

The filmmakers wisely let the facts and the characters speak for themselves. The first act consists of a subtle ripple effect of Ron coming to terms with his diagnosis. Although he acts like he’s invincible on the outside, little things show us he’s frightened. As he reads articles and realizes his drug use and unprotected sex gave him AIDS he is uncharacteristically unable to participate in the orgy in his trailer. There is an almost subliminal split-second image of him looking at the calendar and a flashing of red for 30 days representing his limited life span.

Dallas also shows how AIDS victims were ostracized. First, we see in a bar scene that Ron’s friends fear that he’s infectious. When he spits on them after a fight, they freak and cleanse themselves of the evil germs. Then his community shuns him by menacingly standing over his car and not letting him come to work and shutting off his trailer with an eviction notice. This is shown with surgical precision, using concise, short scenes.

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Ron puts himself in danger by illegally taking AZT and almost dies, but we understand why he takes the risk, as doctors simply gave him 30 days to live, with no hope or medical options. They are impervious to the urgency the AIDS victims are feeling. Once Ron figures out there are more effective treatments that are illegal in the US and begins importing them from other countries, he sets up a distribution center, which he calls the Dallas Buyers Club, making them available to anyone with money by monthly subscription.

The rest of the film then centers on the legal tug-of-war between the FDA and the Dallas Buyers’ Club.  There’s an excellent monologue delivered by a Supreme Court judge where he explains that the law isn’t logical or fair when ruling against Ron’s petition to continue the buyers’ club. This is still timely, considering the healthcare crisis today.

Courtesy of gazette.com

Courtesy of gazette.com

Even as Ron’s life totally changes, the film doesn’t magically transform him into a saint. He remains a character we admire more than like. He manages a true trajectory, beginning as a disgusting, rude, uncouth rube, slowly transforming his life.  He is never a part of the gay scene and stays resentful of his forced association. But from the beginning his ethical streak is evident and grows as the film progresses.  He approaches the Dallas Buyers Club as a business and he’s always a bit of a huckster, as is his partner, Rayon, whom he enlists to get more clients, particularly the flamboyantly gay ones, with whom Ron is very uncomfortable.

He never entirely gets over his homophobia. So his final scene with Rayon is touching, because the script shows that although he cares about Rayon (even though they constantly spar), he still is squeamish and is reluctant to hug him; this rings true and feels human. He manages to see each individual as a person regardless of their sexuality.

Courtesy of eonline

Courtesy of eonline

McConaughey once again proves that he’s more than a pretty boy and gets full in to his physically demanding role. There’s considerably little of his trademark roguish charm. He gives full conviction to his unsympathetic character, adding moments of humor while never losing sight of the gravity of his situation.  He undergoes a subtle yet alarming physical transformation. In early scenes he is active and physical and as his disease progresses he becomes thin and fragile, all the while maintaining a fierce emotional spirit. This is probably his best dramatic role.

Jared Leto, returning to the big screen after a five year acting hiatus, is back in excellent form.  He delivers a confident, flamboyantly gay character; he portrays the bitchy “queen” very well.  Rayon is also the first character to stand up to Ron and force him to meaningfully consider his situation. We gradually learn it’s all a façade. Rayon has a lot of insecurities. He has been beaten down by life. As he’s in final stages of the disease we see he’s not dying with dignity. He attempts to numb his pain and sorrow with cocaine, thus speeding up his death sentence. It’s made more haunting by the last image we see of him, saying “I don’t want to die” and coughing up blood.

Courtesy of apnatimepass

Courtesy of apnatimepass

[Interesting trivia: some of the wonderful supporting Dallas cast were also featured in the marvelous 12 Years a Slave. J.D. Evermore shines as the hateful, stupid and despicable best friend who becomes the ringleader in ostracizing Ron.  Deneen Tyler, with her cigarette-inflected baritone timbre, brings the right amount of sleaze, toughness, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of the Buyer’s Club manager. ]

The sorely underrated Griffin Dunne is almost unrecognizable as a rogue hippie doctor practicing alternative medicine in Mexico, who becomes Ron’s first ally.

Courtesy of filmequals.com

Courtesy of filmequals.com

I was most pleasantly surprised by Jennifer Garner’s character and acting. The female character in male-oriented dramas usually lacks depth and is reduced to a love object. Here, Dr. Saks is a well-defined character, and has agency occupying her own storyline. She progresses from an idealistic, but very by-the-book, doctor to one who rebels against protocol for her patients’ best interests. Garner, who’s drop-dead gorgeous in a girly way, subtly plays down her looks.  She nicely shows intelligence and inner strength, and makes the transformation of initially opposing Ron to allying with his cause believable.

The film tastefully and subtly portrays the victims’ progressive decline due to the disease and the makeup and drastic weight loss wasn’t gimmicky, allowing the characters to maintain center stage.

Yves Belanger’s cinematography has an intriguing balance of impressionistic beauty, whilst maintaining the seediness of the locations, especially in the rodeo scenes. Martin Pensa and Jean-Mark Valleé’s brisk and frenetic editing sets the stage for the film’s theme of urgently racing against the clock.

Review: Mud (2013)

Rolling on the River

Courtesy of collider.com

Courtesy of collider.com

Review of Mud (2013)

By Adam Tawfik

Making a film is a hard battle, but enticing the audience to see it is where the real struggle takes place. Several excellent films have been neglected or overlooked due to a poor marketing campaign, while countless terrible ones become box office bonanzas thanks to splashy promotion.

Misrepresenting one’s film, especially if it deviates in any way from the formulaic genre conventions, to make it “marketable” is hardly uncommon. Lionsgate’s publicity department employs a reverse tactic on the summer release, Mud, presenting it as a gritty thriller with specific emphasis on the grey color palate and a grimy, scraggly Matthew McConaughey.

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Mud, as presented on-screen by the Arkansas born writer-director Jeff Nichols, is a heartwarming coming-of-age story, subtly told with total honesty and humor. Although the film is entitled Mud (to capitalize on McConaughey’s celebrity) the protagonist is Ellis (played by newcomer Tye Sheridan), a taciturn and intelligent 14-year-old who lives in a houseboat along the Arkansas river with his mother (a naturalistic and sympathetic Sarah Paulson) and fisherman father (Ray McKinnon) who are undergoing a turbulent divorce. Ellis’ livelihood is threatened when his mother, who owns the cabin, wants to relocate to the city.

One day when accompanying his best friend Neck-Bone (Jacob Lofland) to a deserted island to retrieve an abandoned boat they encounter “Mud,” (McConaughey) who’s wanted by an influential crime family after murdering one of their much beloved members. While the scrappier Neck-Bone has reservations about the mystery man, Ellis and Mud immediately bond. The two boys agree to bring him food and supplies and act as the go-between for him and his sexy but flakey girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), on whose account he committed the murder.

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

In Mud, Ellis finds a fatherly figure that his own father cannot be due to his alcoholism and bitterness about his dire prospects. The filmmakers and actors go beyond conceiving their relationship as simply a father-son dynamic. In the course of the narrative, Mud has the same idealism and romanticism about life as the adolescent Ellis, and must learn many of the same lessons about love, survival, and reality as his younger counterpart.

Like his previous effort Take Shelter (his debut Shotgun Stories also received good notices although I cannot vouch for it), Jeff Nichols creates an authentic portrait of the rural South, balancing the poverty -barren landscape with a Southern homespun humility in a way that isn’t sentimental or cloying, because the film approaches its subject and characters with understatement and genuineness.

Unlike many Southern story-based films in which the Yankee or British cast ham up the screen with their over-the-top mannerisms and made-up accents, Mud wisely rounds up an ensemble of Southern actors who for the most part bring an earthiness that’s convincing to being in the swamp.

Courtesy of ctcmr.com

Courtesy of ctcmr.com

Particularly good are the two teenagers, Sheridan and Lofland, who anchor the film. Sheridan conveys wisdom and sensitivity as well as a quiet but resilient physical and mental strength beyond his years, especially through his soulful eyes. He also embodies a ruggedness that makes doing things like punching strong 18-year-old boys believable.

Lofland infuses his lines with an acerbic wit and has the precocious charm that nicely offsets many of his crass remarks about such subjects as “titties,” which he says with considerable relish. Although the louder and brasher of the duo, Nichols and Lofland show how Neck-Bone is influenced and dependent on Ellis until the finale when he takes charge after Ellis has a weak moment.

Courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

Courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

The supporting cast is stellar, starting with McConaughey in the titular role. Retaining his roguish amiability from his inane popcorn flicks, McConaughey gives more nuance to the archetype with the aid of Nichols’ superior script and direction, adding humor, pathos, and a fetching mixture of cynicism and naiveté.

In his third collaboration with Nichols, Michael Shannon makes a humorous departure from his usual heavy dramatic roles as the well-meaning but irresponsible uncle who acts as Neck-Bone’s guardian. Sam Shephard is both humorous and touching as Mud’s frustrated, cantankerous, but protective surrogate father. Ray McKinnon convincingly presents a man angered and afraid by the ineveitble changes in his livelihood and family life. While self-pitying and snappy one moment, McKinnon’s Senior is also the moral backbone for Ellis.

Joe Don Baker, who plays the patriarch of the vigilante group after Mud, is always a welcome presence. Even though he portrays a ferocious character, Baker manages to elicit audience sympathy in his final scene without being untrue to the role.

Courtesy of welcomefrnds.com

Courtesy of welcomefrnds.com

Only the robotic Reese Witherspoon is insipid. Witherspoon lacks the allure, nuance, and surprisingly (for her) the sexiness to make her confused catalyst femme-fatale character credible. Although it’s a small part, her presence (or lack of) slightly dampers Mud’s third act. Although she isn’t Southern, Cameron Diaz’s combination of a shapely figure and a pretty blonde face plus the (underrated) dramatic chops would be better suited for Juniper.

While it doesn’t quite have the rawness and narrative innovativeness of Take Shelter, Mud is still a noble follow up and one of the better films this summer.