Friday, January 24, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street: A Decadent Jungle

After witnessing Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, you'll need to pop a Valium to wind down from it's elevated portrayal of mass excess. A Scorsese picture can be recognised by many factors and one of these defining characteristics is energy. His filmmaking style exhibits an incredible sense of adrenaline, most notably in Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, and with Wolf he has enhanced this spark to boiling point. With it's lightening speed dialogue and never ending source music audiences are taken on a dark, comedic roller coaster. Wolf pushes the envelope in the depiction of greed and decadence in American culture that would make ancient Rome blush.

There is no real plot, but more a landscape of anecdotes from the life of Jordan Belfort, a real-life, ruthless Wall Street broker played by Di Caprio. This is Di Caprio's strongest leading performance to date. Leo changed his course on his "Titanic" career via collaborations with Scorsese to become one of today's greatest leading male actors. However, because of his youthful appearance he was somewhat limited. He didn't possess the same tough demeanour as De Niro in his heyday. When Di Caprio raised his voice you could hear a boyish squeak. As Belfort, he commands a deep Queen's accent, which strengthens his aura as the megalomanic CEO of his firm, Stratton. He's ferocious. It would appear he has graduated from the boy wonder to a man. 

The theme of Wolf is very serious, but the manner in which it is expressed is extremely funny and extravagant. It's by far the funniest movie of the year, yet it's based on the most immoral individuals. Scorsese has made a career out of presenting audiences with a glimpse into the lives of mobsters, crooks, pimps, sociopaths and their violent lifestyles, yet this comedy conveys his most deplorable characters yet. They possess no redeeming qualities. They are anti-social, ruthless, misogynist, greedy bullies is what they are and its hilarious. This is due to the pace of Scorsese's filmmaking and the wit of Terrence Winter's screenplay.

There is a masterful sequence involving Di Caprio, Jonah Hill, a phone call, a car, Popeye and an old batch of Quaaludes that places Di Caprio's physical comedy up there with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. What is so remarkable about Scorsese's work is that although he is known for making some of Hollywood's darkest and grittiest films, he also is capable of stirring some great comedy within these nihilistic tales. 

Wolf also contains a great supporting cast, most notably Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, Belfort's partner in crime. Taste clearly matters for Hill when it comes to directors as he has seemed to take the same stance as Warren Beatty did in the 60s/70s "I only wanna work with the good directors". He also seemed to be endowed with (no, that was a prosthetic) telekineses because as soon as he saw the Duchess of Bay Ridge, Naomi (Margot Robbie) he did what every man in the cinema wanted to do. Margot Robbie will be huge after this, not only is she an incredible hard body, but as the movie unfolds we can see that she is a fine actor, capable of both comedic and dramatic roles. Director Rob Reiner plays the hot tempered father of Jordan Belfort and also acts as his good conscience. Matthew McConaughey is Mark Hanna, Belfort's charming mentor, who gives him a great lecture about the benefits of "feeding the geese". Kyle Chandler plays the straight arrow Agent Patrick Denham on the hunt for Belfort and his company. In addition to these great roles there are a hundred secondary characters and extras with great faces that will stick in the viewers memory. 

There are also the other performances that play an intrinsic role in an underlying theme throughout the movie. The animals. We see lions, fish, monkeys and dogs among the chaos, supporting the theory that Wall Street is like a jungle or as Belfort describes it; a wolf pit. There is a surreal sequence in which a marching bad and stampede of hookers invade the Stratton offices in a celebration of money making. Carnage occurs in a dreamlike state when Belfort's employees attack each other and harass the hookers as if they were animals themselves. This is Scorsese's way of showing us the primitive nature of capitalism within American society, it's a survival of the fittest mentality that illustrates the ugliness of greed and human nature. There is a fetishism with money and power that not just upper class aspire to, but all classes. This is brilliantly demonstrated with the closing shot of the film as a crowd of onlookers at a Belfort seminar in New Zealand gaze upon him and catch his every word with infatuation, all wanting, all eager to learn his secret to becoming rich.

Scorsese could possibly be the best to ever do it. Wolf of Wall Street is no way as daring or as ambitious as Taxi Driver or as fascinating as Goodfellas, but it shows a director who is always in touch with audiences, old and young. He adapts to the contemporary pop culture and humour as he adapts great scripts or books, and truly makes it his own. Some filmmakers of his vintage have lost touch (De Palma, Lucas, Coppola), some have grown with him (Woody Allen, Spielberg), but none of them have stayed as sharp.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

12 Years a Slave: Lashings are so hot right now, lash me Hollywood!

Sorry to lighten the mood, but after a viewing of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, I think we all could to with a chuckle or a stiff drink. It is a brutal, powerful and unflinching portrayal of slavery during America's darkest period. Wonderfully acted and beautifully shot, without cutting scenes short in order to please censors or allow audiences take a breath. Viewers do no get off easily. 12 Years a Slave is so perfectly directed and true to the original book, but it doesn't provide us with anything else. Hope? Nah...maybe luck, and directly a year after the highly original Django Unchained was released, we are essentially flung back to the age old story of the powerless black slave. That isn't taking a pop at this movie, which is brilliant and based on a true story, hence can't stretch our imagination like Django Unchained did. It's a movie about human suffering and the evil men do, not a glimpse, but a long hard stare.

Based on a true story, we follow Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he is deceived and abducted, thrown into the world of the slave trade down south where he is treated like an animal. He is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a sympathetic plantation owner who was just born in the wrong century. Northup survives and keeps his sanity by doing the best he can in plantation activities such as carpentry, construction and other slave pass times such as whippings, taunts and listening to a ridiculous  sing along Run, Nigger, Run'. The tension between Northup and an ignorant overseer played by Paul Dano, who is actually threatening here (unlike There Will be Blood), eventually explodes into a great scene of catharsis. Northup, frustrated by this man's stupidity and abuse, fights back by lashing him with his own whip. However, the punishment for this outburst is severe and snaps the audience right back to the heinous reality. This punishment unfolds slowly in a great scene as Northup is lynched, but survives only by pushing himself up on the mud with his tippy toes. This scene plays out for what seems like eternity, from day till dusk we witness him struggle until he is cut down. 

This extension of scenes and refusal to cut away or even enhance it with music is the true achievement of McQueen's film. He lets his movie breath, allowing the fierce emotion and atrocities resonate with the spectator. After Northup is transferred to Master Edwin Epps' (Michael Fassbender) land, our young protagonist's health doesn't improve much. Like Di Caprio's Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, Epps looks for an excuse that allows him to continue this savagery. Epps' reasoning is religion rather than science and phrenology, but just as incorrect. His character is closer to Amon Goeth then Candie though. As he, like Ralph Fiennes terrifying character in Schindler's List (1993) is smitten by one of his victims. Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) is Epps' Kryptonite when it comes to his cruelty. This adds layers to his character and the class system among the slaves that was previously explored in Django Unchained. 

Another scene in which McQueen lets play out, and the movies most violent, is when Patsey takes a lashing, many lashings, so much so that you can feel the audience in the theatre getting angrier and angrier to the brink of fury. It's an extremely unsettling sequence. However, not all of these extended scenes are for the purpose to display violent acts. At some stage, the camera has a close up on Solomon as he stands alone in the muggy, swampy woods of Louisiana and takes in all the natural surroundings. We see exotic trees, hear birds and flies as if we were standing right there with him. Which brings me to the cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, who makes the antebellum south look like it could be a Butlin's family holiday package deal, if weren't home to all the horrendous evil shit. The camera glides through cotton and cane fields as if it were Huck Finn running amuck again. Sunsets, stars and moonlight are all captured beautifully looking over the racism below on Edwin Epps plantation.

The conclusion of 12 Years a Slave comes as no surprise as it is based on the memoirs written by Solomon Northup, who we know escaped this living hell in order to write the book. We are left with no  satisfying catharsis like the explosive shootout at the end of Django Unchained, but we let out a mere sigh of relief. Northup was one of the very, very lucky individuals who escaped. This is a hard study of humanity and human bondage. It would be completely idiotic to compare 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained as they are completely different forms of film genre so I'll do so, because even though I have no problem with either films, there seems be a lingering aura with audience and critical reactions. I'm beginning to gather that many believe 12 Years is a more powerful and artistic film, "a real film". I don't buy that shit. Of course, McQueen's vision and portrayal of Solomon Northup's tremendous and harrowing story is courageous in terms of showing the extent of violence and trauma unleashed during this period, but it leaves nothing to the imagination. Tarantino's approach was subtle, delivered through a genre piece with an original story, a modern day fairytale that gave the black man and black audiences a sense of power and freedom. Obviously it was sensationalised for entertainment purposes, but it gave hope and propelled our imagination. If slavery were to occur again, which movie would you use as a guideline? As great and emotionally stirring as 12 Years a Slave is, it is a film for the past. Django Unchained is one for the future.