Tag Archives: Movie Reviews

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: Prisoners (2013)

Hearts of Darkness

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

 Review of Prisoners (2013)

by Adam Tawfik

At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of entrepreneurial men and women ingeniously concocted a simple but effective formula that have kept motion pictures as one of the more entertaining diversions for over 100 years. In film’s illustrious history, a vast majority of the products are imminently forgettable seconds after consumption. Every few years there’s one film that goes beyond rousing entertainment and worms its way into your psyche for its haunting provocativeness. In 2010, that film was Incendies, written and directed by French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve, a gut-wrenching account of a modern civil war.

While (unfortunately) it lost the Best Foreign Film Oscar to an inferior In a Better World, it put Villeneuve on Hollywood’s radar. In many cases, a Hollywood career tends to rob distinctive directors of their unique voice. While Prisoners, Villenvue’s debut Hollywood film is not standard assembly-line work it lacks the nuance, intelligence, and humanity of his prior Oscar-nominated effort.

Courtesy of mechodownloads.com

Courtesy of mechodownloads.com

His direction and the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski are ambitious and clearly aimed for sophisticated audiences, even if its basic premise seems to resemble an action flick; on Thanksgiving, the youngest daughters of two friends the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terence Howard and Viola Davis) are kidnapped and Keller Dover sets out to rescue them, often resorting to vigilante tactics. But there’s not enough substance in terms of twists and turns or character developments to justify its 153 minute running time.

Firstly, it’s a structural mess. From the first act where Jackman and son are killing the deer, and we see Jackman’s (the Dovers) and Howard’s (the Birches) families enjoying Thanksgiving for about twenty minutes before the kidnapping of their two youngest daughters, it is apparent that this film is going to be overlong. The second act drags because it spends too much time focusing on Keller’s sadistic torturing of Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a retarded man whom Keller thinks is the kidnapper.

Courtesy of joblo.com

Courtesy of joblo.com

Many critics hail Hugh Jackman’s performance in Prisoners as his best. While he certainly has some stellar microcosmic moments – his delivery of the line “the moment he took our son he stopped being a human being” or his breakdown in the car when he’s yelling at Gyllenhaal about how it’s on him to find his daughter- he’s basically playing Wolverine again (complete with the rugged beard and animalistic rage) minus the supernatural powers and the CGI blades.

Guzikowski deserves part of the blame as the character as written is a one-note volatile lunatic from the opening scene. It’s impossible to have much empathy with him and as a result we’re not as invested in his plight, giving the overall film a repetitive tediousness.

Courtesy of vzmoviefree.blogspot.com

Courtesy of vzmoviefree.blogspot.com

The character of Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is too elusive for two thirds of the film, only making an impact in the final act. Gyllenhaal emerges as the best in show as he gets ample opportunity to emote the emotional weight of his inability to solve the case and haunted by the memory of the girls still missing. This gets undermined in the last few minutes by the script’s tendency to wrap things up too neatly and to grab at straws for plausibility.

As this is essentially a two-person drama, everyone else in the very talented ensemble is relegated to the background. Viola Davis and Terence Howard act with professional dignity but they are stuck with characters who are limited to protesting Jackman’s sadistic methods but not stopping them.

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Maria Bello does some harrowing grieving, but she doesn’t get a chance to do anything more. Paul Dano is reduced to whimpering and screaming, mostly in a box as a tortured victim to Jackman’s wrath. Melissa Leo as Dano’s aunt nicely underplays her part in earlier segments, but her role veers towards the outlandish as the film progresses, especially in her final scenes.

The technical side isn’t much better. Roger Deakens, one of the more distinctive working cinematographers, delivers surprisingly uninspired work, casting the film with a monosyllabic shade of grey. The editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach is sloppy. I particularly found that the long fade to blacks glaringly emphasized the film’s disjointedness.

Courtesy of reverseshot.com

Courtesy of reverseshot.com

A lot of the narrative conventions are recycled from Incendies, none of which here are as good as in the former film. We have two protagonists, Det. Loki and Keller, but neither is well defined enough as a character, so shifting between the two is usually more jarring than interesting.

Another thing borrowed is a certain object that becomes important for revealing the twist in the story, but sadly like everything else, it’s too singular. It’s such an obvious motif that I was surprised that Det. Loki didn’t figure it out sooner.

Prisoners is a harrowing journey that has moments of quality, but for a cinematic experience that leaves you with total emotional and intellectual shell shock, watch Incendies.