Continuing with the viewing of the Oscar Best Picture hopefuls, I took in The Wolf of Wall Street last week. Plus, as promised, here are the long-overdue reviews for films I had seen previously: Dallas Buyers Club (my pick so far for Best Picture) and Gravity.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Like an updated Goodfellas (1990) saga, The Wolf of Wall Street is filled with the greed-rabid, ego-deluded, sociopathic, drug-addled, megalomaniacal, and just plain sick antics that defined the rise and fall of penny-stock crook Jordan Belfort, based on Belfort’s own autobiographical account. Though some interpretations of people and events are exaggerated, it’s overwhelming to know that much of the depravity, corruption, and destruction depicted actually did happen.
If you’re a fan of director Martin Scorsese’s style of aggressive confrontation and abandoned debauchery, or a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio’s amazing acting, you’ll most likely enjoy this film. It’s almost as though Scorsese, who also directed Goodfellas, wanted to replicate the phenomenal cultish appeal of that effort, for and with his protégé and collaborator, DiCaprio—as though he’d remake it, if he could, with DiCaprio as Henry Hill (played in Goodfellas by Ray Liotta). But even in his most corrupt moments, Hill had a kind of likeability that allowed audiences to identify with him and cring at the downward spiral his life had taken. On the other hand, DiCaprio, a consummate actor who brings Belfort to squirming life on screen, cannot make likeable even for a moment the despicable character of the Wolf (a moniker that Belfort egotistically gave himself, while others usually referred to him as a cockroach).
While I count myself a fan of both Scorsese and DiCaprio (his acting, at least), lamentably this movie gets added to the list of aggrandizing films that document the deeds of sleazebags and criminals who have no redeeming qualities. There are those who claim that Belfort’s contribution to society is his amazing power to persuade and to teach others how to do the same. My jaw dropped when I saw that DiCaprio even shot a short “infomercial” for the slimeball, calling him “a true motivator.” Really?! I’m so disappointed. That reprobate Belfort is out there today, after serving just 22 months in federal prison, making a nauseatingly profitable living as a motivational speaker (shame on those who hire him) and having yet to make mandated restitution for the millions out of which he defrauded hard-working schmucks who were dumb enough to believe him and his hard-sell boiler room crew. And now he’s receiving money from this film. Really?! I think we can find more deserving people and events to make movies about. Sure, the depraved escapades of the characters resemble a real-life-inspired Hangover sequel, but wouldn’t we all prefer the worst behavior to stay fictional and not get rewarded in real life?e at the downward spiral his life had taken. On the other hand, DiCaprio, a consummate actor who brings Belfort to squirming life on screen, cannot make likeable even for a moment the despicable character of the Wolf (a moniker that Belfort egotistically gave himself, while others usually referred to him as a cockroach).
All right, allow me to climb down from my soap box. Let’s stick to the movie itself.
This film is WAY too long. Some movies need their expansive length to tell their story properly. This one is repetitive, goes in circles, and spends lots of time making the same points. After all, how many times do we need to see examples of how degenerate Belfort and his cohorts were? We get it. With skillful editing, there’s no reason it could not have been an hour shorter.
Still, Dicaprio performs remarkably throughout and makes it worthwhile to watch the entire film. Jonah Hill turns in perhaps his best portrayal ever. The entire supporting cast is excellent, with P.J. Byrne, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Kenneth Choi, and Jon Bernthal, as Belfort’s cohorts.
Other memorable characters are Matthew McConaughey as early mentor Mark Hanna, Rob Reiner as Belfort’s father, Jean Dujardin as the Swiss banker who helps Belfort hide his money, and Joanna Lumley as Aunt Emma. And I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of Aussie actress Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort’s second wife.
To be honest, I enjoyed writer/director Ben Younger’s 2000 film Boiler Room about pump-and-dump brokers more. It showed the human side of those pulled into and immoral business, and it too boasted an amazing cast, led by Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, and Ron Rifkin.
Scorsese is one of my favorite directors, but for me, his last truly phenomenal achievement was The Departed (2006). Nonetheless, this master director could rest on his laurels if he so wished, with credits like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Casino (1995), and The Aviator (2004). While I’m glad I saw Wolf for its masterful performances, it doesn’t make my list of great Scorsese films.
And now, FINALLY, a look back at two candidates for Best Pictures that I saw some time ago.
Dallas Buyers Club
Thanks to a friend who works at the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, I was privileged to see a special preview of Dallas Buyers Club that the studio did for the organization before the film opened in theaters. Unfortunately, life was a bit hectic and I never had the opportunity to write a review. But if I had, it would say the same thing this one does …
See this movie!
Well-paced, skilfully written by Craig Borten (The 33) and Malisa Wallack (Mirror Mirror, Meet Bill), and straightforwardly directed (by Jean-Marc Vallée, a Canadian director and screenwriter acclaimed for several French-language films), the film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, whose genuine claim to fame is the shake-up of the US healthcare system about attention to and treatment of HIV and AIDS. McConaughey, who shed some 40 pounds to play the role, presents a captivating picture of a brash, self-destructive, cocky SOB whose circumstances blow his whole world apart, but instead of lying down, he takes the bull by the horns. It transforms him, those around him, and all they come in contact with.
Woodroof (who was a boisterous Texan electrician in real life) is portrayed as a reckless, sex-and-drug-addicted, confrontational homophobe. Controversy has erupted about this portrayal, mainly about whether Woodroof really was straight (at least before this ordeal), since many who knew him testify otherwise. Perhaps the writers (especially Borten, who interviewed Woodroof before his death in 1992 and believes he was as straight and bigoted as they come) chose to ignore truth for the dramatic value of presenting a cathartic human drama. Whether or not this aspect is rooted in reality, though, does not detract from the main point, which is one man’s irreverent and inventive contribution to how a devastating epidemic and its victims are perceived and treated.
What is true by all accounts is that Woodroof was diagnosed with AIDS in or around 1986 and given the prognosis that he’d be dead in a month. He was told he was too sick to participate in drug trials. He met others who were in the trials but were just not getting any better. Woodroof took matters into his own hands, smuggling drugs in from other parts of the world (mainly Mexico), and—since he couldn’t sell them legally—setting up the Dallas Buyers Club: membership meant one received those drugs for free. Self-medicating with a concoction of his own researched innovation, Woodroof lived for six more years and arguably helped countless others who were not being helped by the healthcare system.
As is typical in film, other facts are stretched or altered. For example, the doctor who empathizes with Woodroof’s perspective and winds up helping him was in reality a man—Texas physician Steven M. Pounders. In the film, it is a woman (maybe to add a feminine perspective, maybe to inject the movie’s romantic twist?) played by Jennifer Garner (probably the weakest character in the film). The other doctors, as well as federal agents and additional authority figures, are not much more than caricatures that represent greed, indifference, big government, and red tape. This is one detail of the film I thought could have been richer, but I guess it gets the point across more quickly that Woodroof’s efforts were uphill all the way.
But the best performance, besides McConaughey’s, is turned in by Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Panic Room, Lord of War) as Rayon, a gay transvestite drug addict who is a composite of many who helped with and were helped by the Dallas Buyers Club. Leto, an incredibly versatile actor who can put this role at the top of his resume, also underwent a transformation with significant weight loss. He presents a painfully candid depiction of the suffering involved not only in having AIDS but also going through it without the support of a judgmental parent. In one of the most agonizing scenes of the film, Rayon takes off the dress and makeup and puts a suit on his withering frame to grudgingly approach his father for funds that the Buyers Club needs.
Another terrific performance is provided by Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf in London) as the expatriate Dr. Vass, who provides Woodroof with ideas and contacts in Mexico. He brilliantly embodies a world-weary and disenfranchised healer who is compelled to provide whatever succor he can in his manifestly limited way. In the few lines he has, his character’s entire likely backstory comes to life. He thought he’d change the world, or at least become rich, and now he’s doling out pills to indigent patients in a Mexican border town.
Yes, there are some distressing and unpleasant scenes. Most of these have more to do with the bad behavior of Woodruff and his old “friends” than any of the effects of AIDS. Yet this is not a film even the squeamish need avoid. It is, more than anything, a film of resourcefulness, salvation, and hope.
The movie Gravity could have been called No Gravity, since it depicts the tribulations of two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) stranded in space after a disabled satellite hurtles debris toward their shuttle, kills other crew, and leaves them floating—and running out of oxygen—many miles above Earth.
Then again, the term gravity carries other definitions besides that of a force which attracts anything with mass toward the center of the Earth. It also means enormity (like of the space in which the astronauts float), solemnity (of a situation that often seems truly hopeless), and seriousness (which the circumstances epitomize). The big issues and questions, which go far beyond the illustration of a space mission as the setting, are handled with all the “gravity” they justly deserve, yet the film still allows for some comic relief and, above all, courage and hope.
Basically, Sandra Bullock is the star of this film, though Clooney’s presence and contribution are indispensable. There is one ingeniously inserted scene in which his character provides a break to the intensity of Bullock’s one-woman plight and provides both relief and a climactic turning point.
Bullock does a marvelous job of portraying a capable, smart person who is nevertheless as flawed and scarred as the rest of us and wrestling with a genuine defining moment in her life. The setting is delicious icing on this satisfying cake.
Necessarily, most of the action is weightlessly slow, and it is all the tenser and more excruciatingly inevitable for it. You know how people say that they see things in slow motion when they have a car accident? They can see what’s coming at them, but they are powerless to stop it? Yeah, it’s like that.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men), this is the kind of film that IMAX was invented for. In its atmosphere and space-exploration motif, it evokes the fearsome vastness and isolation and of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, or Solaris. In its themes of loss and despondency versus courage and choosing to live, it conjures It’s a Wonderful Life, Harold and Maude, and Shawshank Redemption. And it’s all packaged in one heck of an exciting roller coaster ride.