Cinema Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

15-outrageous-scenes-in-martin-scorseses-wolf-of-wall-street-we-cant-wait-to-seeGone Gonzo

“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well…maybe chalk it off to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.” Hunter S. Thompson

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is nothing more than Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a fitted suit. Both stories retell the story through the inebriated mind of the criminal protagonist who’s in pursuit of an unreachable destination: The American Dream. Instead of the sleazy, sunburnt cascade of Las Vegas, we’re thrown into the concrete jungle of New York City– the city known for its lack of care and compassion. But which dream is it, you ask? The dream of becoming insanely rich. So rich, so quick that it couldn’t possibly be true and definitely not legal. Sell your soul for an early retirement. Why see your child when you can see your yacht? The plan is to out trick the trickster. Then when caught, deny the whole thing.

Martin Scorsese has proven his ability to transcend genres through his ability to capture his audience’s attention at every turn. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has again teamed up with his regular title-card actor, Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed (2006), The Aviator (2004), Shutter Island (2010), and Gangs of New York (2002)) for the fifth time and created his darkest comedy to date. In both The Aviator and Shutter Island, DiCaprio was tasked with playing the manic sociopath. Instead of saving his own urine or choosing to be a mental patient, Dicaprio knocks it out of the park with his bewildering and drug-enriched portrayal. Just remember that this entire story is based on fact.

Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) is a young man trying to make a name for himself on Wall Street. Not long after losing his job for a large reputable firm, he spins off and creates a new sector of investing. This sector utilizes Belfort’s greatest asset which is his ability to sell to people by tapping into a part of the psyche where people are most vulnerable – their hopes and dreams. He cons those looking for a sweet deal. The deal that is too good to be true. Those who only have a few thousand in savings and no retirement in sight. Belfort knows that people’s greed will eventually overtake their ability to think critically and when they do he will be there ready to pounce.

Once the dreams have been plundered, the fun can begin. Parties and drugs. Women and boats. At times, The Wolf of Wall Street feels more like a advertisement for cocaine use. Need a lift? Cocaine. Need to sell more stocks? Cocaine. Need something to even out your quaaludes? Cocaine. Cocaine – the miracle drug. I would say that coke should get a supporting acting credit for how much it brought to the table.

Soon enough, the drugs begin to weigh on people’s judgement and poor (i.e. more illegal) decisions continue to be made. Belfort decides to branch out. He creates a monster in his own image: a firm in Manhattan trading penny stocks. He diversifies his liabilities by opening offshore accounts. The success is publicized, but unlike Belfort’s gullible ‘investors’ the FBI knows when an investment is too good to be true and can smell the spoiled meat leftover from ‘The Wolf’.

My favorite scene is when the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) is confronts Belfort on his million-dollar yacht for a casual discussion on why the FBI has been so interested on Belfort’s dealings. To paint the scene, once FBI agent Patrick Denham and his partner are welcomed aboard, there are two skimpily clad women, a buffet, and all the drinks you could imagine. What begins as a casual discussion, turns into a discreet and cheeky bribe by Belfort, and the ‘aww-schucks’ mentality of the FBI turns out to be part of the ploy. Belfort realizes he screwed up and loses his composure.

Still, for Belfort, the only crime is getting caught. He begins to blame others’ weaknesses and stupidity for his eventual downfall. Never once accepting the blame for evaporating millions in others’ retirement funds. His menace and straight lack of compassion is always expertly placed at the forefront. For all the credit that DeCaprio has gotten, I feel a lot more needs to go to the director.

Scorsese includes two scenes that are completely unforgettable. In their meticulous debauchery, you are unsure whether to laugh or be disgusted. Quaaludes instigate the disasters. Both scenes are as austere and unsettling as Jonah Hill’s teeth; at the same time, the scenes are so well choreographed that Scorsese’s vision shines. The energy jumps from the screen and into your lap (or up your nose).

Although the story reaches unbelievable heights, it isn’t until there’s an ill-timed drug overdose that the film manages to achieve its fever pitch. Things unravel and individuals’ true colours come to light when the money begins to dry up.

The pure insanity of the story has Gonzo in its marrow. Rising above the insanity there is a story wrestling with its morals. But you simply realize that story has no morals. There is no soul. It is nothing more than a buzzed weekend stroll through the desert and into the board room. Still, it is a drug you will not forget.

180 mins.

Obituary: Ray Harryhausen

harryhausenMonster maker

Picturenose is delighted to welcome the return of Cillian Donnelly, who takes a look at the life and work of special effects genius Ray Harryhausen, who passed away on 7 May 2013 aged 93.

Everyone has a favourite movie moment; one that, for them, defines all that is magical about the most magical of art forms. If I had to venture forth with my own suggestion it would be the skeletal army climax to Jason and The Argonauts (1963).

Having sprung forth from the teeth of the Hydra, a phalanx of heavily armed warrior skeletons besiege the titular Argonauts, engaging in a life-or-death scrap of – quite literally – monstrous proportions. It’s as thrilling and visceral a scene as you’re likely to encounter in the post-war canon of American action movies.

The sequence was the brainchild of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, who pioneered extravagant stop-motion fantasias in films such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956) and It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955), and who passed away, aged 93, on 7 May 2013.

Raymond Frederick Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on 29 June, 1920. After seeing King Kong in 1933, the young Harryhausen was inspired to follow the movie’s effects designer, Willis O’Brien, into the world of stop-motion animation. After watching King Kong again and again, Harryhausen put together some efforts of his own, and eventually secured a job at Paramount.

After the war, he became special effects assistant to his mentor O’Brien on the film Mighty Joe Young (1949), again about a giant ape. The film won an Oscar for its special effects, and the rumour persists to this day that it was actually Harryhausen who did the majority of the work.

Harryhausen’s first solo effort was the classic Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, (very) loosely adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story. The movie featured a rampaging, reanimated dinosaur running amok in modern day San Francisco before being brought down by Lee Van Cleef. It was a major influence on the output of Japanese studio, ToHo.

It Came From Beneath The Sea, starring cult favourite Kenneth Toby (The Thing From Another World (1951)), came next. Like its predecessor, it featured a giant sea creature terrorising the US, this time an overlarge squid. The budget on the film was so tight that the monster could not be completed as planned, and thus has only five tentacles!

More impressive work, such as Earth Vs the Flying Saucers, The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958) and Mysterious Island (1961) followed, but it was in 1963 that Harryhausen completed work on what he considered to be his masterpiece: Jason And The Argonauts.

Based on classical Greek mythology, the movie was an infectious mix of knockabout sword and sorcery, nautical adventure and ever-so-slight camp frolicking, all topped off with a rousing musical score by Bernard Hermann. It contains not only Harryhausen’s most celebrated scene – the aforementioned skeletal swordfight – but also a number of other spectacular set pieces, such as the evasion of the giant bronze statue, Talos.

Following Jason…, Harryhausen animated more dinosaurs for One Million Years B.C. (1966), starring a pneumatic Raquel Welch, and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), about a marauding Allosaurus in 1912 Mexico, which features, undoubtedly, the greatest Pterodactyl-lassoing scene in all movie history.

Two more Sinbad films followed in the 1970s and, in 1981, Ray Harryhausen completed his last movie as special effects creator: Clash Of The Titans, another tale culled from Greek mythology (albeit one that features a sea monster cribbed from Norse legend).

These days, stop-motion animation has all but died out. While the art form is still practiced occasionally, such as with Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005), these tend to be fully animated features, rather than live action films that incorporate stop motion for their effects. Before they became heartless exercises in computerised imagery, the Star Wars films made great use of Harryhausen’s techniques, but such outings are, sadly, rare. Harryhausen’s legacy is simply spectacular, and he will be sadly missed.

Ray Harryhausen: 29 June, 1920 – 7 May, 2013

DVD Movie Review: Taking Sides (2001)

Questionable conduct?

It’s a question that will probably haunt the German people forever – who knew? How much did they know? And how many of them turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Holocaust? These are the questions at the heart of ‘based on a true story’ Taking Sides (2001) by István Szabó (Sunshine (1999), Mephisto (1981)), and the man in the dock is acclaimed and controversial conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Dr. Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård), who chose to remain in Nazi Germany during World War II and, furthermore, had alleged ‘associations’ with Nazi high command. Well, the war is over, and the Americans are very keen to bring justice to bear on the Nazi party, and Furtwängler’s is just the calibre of scalp that they are after. The hard-nosed Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) is given permission to move without let or hindrance in his efforts to prosecute the beleaguered conductor, who has not been able to work while the investigation is proceeding. The former members of Furtwängler’s orchestra are at pains to vouch for his morality and the fact that he even assisted Jews during the war, but is this the whole story?

Clearly not, as Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of his own play delineates with more than a little flair and passion. The clash at the heart of the story is provided by Arnold’s young assistants Emmi Straube (Birgit Minichmayr) and Lt. David Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu), both of whom at first provide dilligent support to Arnold in his quest for the truth, but by slow degrees find their sympathies moving towards Furtwängler. Straube’s own father is revered as a national hero, as he was one of the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler near the war’s end but, as she herself says: ‘He only took part because he knew we couldn’t win the war.’ So, was Furtwängler wrong to stay? Did he play for Hitler’s birthday? And why was he honoured by Goebels?

Keitel is very well cast as Arnold, while Skarsgård brings a rare sensitivity to his portrayal – the simplistic, but entirely justified, notions of right and wrong at the story’s core are well developed by the narrative and performances, but I must admit to having a problem with Keitel’s character ultimately emerging as being the closest of the pair to a Nazi-esque interrogator, so driven is he by his horror for what the Nazis perpetrated (as is demonstrated, perhaps too frequently, by shocking footage from the death camps).

Ultimately, the question posed by the film is whether any good can be achieved by attempting to work within a system, no matter how abhorrent, rather than leaving it to its own devices. It is this that Furtwängler claims he did, working to preserve something honourable in German culture through his work. A question for each of us, and one that the film manages to evince in a mostly honourable fashion.

108 mins.

Danton (1983)

Riveting Revolution

And another new recruit arrives at Picturenose Towers – young John Tennant of Brussels opens his innings with a look at one of the great accounts of the French Revolution, Danton (1983).

A few years ago, I was a little frustrated at the lack of decent films concerning the French Revolution, being a bit of a Revolution buff myself – sad. isn’t it? However, as some of those at Picturenose know only too well, my love of a certain TV soap makes me perhaps even sadder!

One of the better attempts to depict the Revolution was the Franco-British La révolution française (1989), directed by Robert Enrico and Richard T. Heffron with a brilliant musical score by Georges Delerue, but even this film annoys me a little with its lack of depth.

However, Danton is a tour-de force depicting the realities of the French Revolution whilst the Terror is in full swing, with a haunting climax. It is an adaptation of the Polish play The Danton Case by Stanislawa Przybyszewska, with Wojciech Pszoniak’s Robespierre very compelling alongside Gérard Depardieu’s popular, larger than life, Danton. This is a Polish-French production with a mixed cast from the respective countries and despite some obvious dubbing with certain characters, the film really portrays the political difficulties between the Comité de Salut Public and the rising dissatisfaction with the Terror among Danton and his followers. An excellent and in-depth depiction of the two titans of the Revolution, Robespierre and Danton, culminates in a scene where they meet for dinner, which brings home the huge distinction between the two men – Robespierre is calm and collected, as opposed to the brash and heavy-drinking Danton.

Spoilers ahead – the eerie musical score, as well as the excellent cinematography really brings you into the film, getting a feel for the uncertainty of life in Paris 1794. Quite how this film was released as a B movie is beyond me – Pszoniak is truly believable as Robespierre, his powerful presence is reminiscent of many documents that note Robespierre’s demeanor, as well as his controlling manner. Depardieu is equally strong in his role, one of his earliest, and manages to just miss out on stealing the show. To me Pszoniak is too good to be beaten in this film and he deserves some series credit for his supporting role. Beware the final moments as Danton is condemned to a very graphic exit from this mortal coil, as Robespierre begins to see that he has destroyed the very ideals he believed in.

The film attempts to draw some parallels between the Terror and the Polish Solidarity movement, with director Andrzej Wajda clearly making a political statement with this masterpiece. For French Revolution fans, this is a must-see – it’s certainly one of the best films about the Revolution in existence.

Judge for yourself here.

136 mins. In French.

Modigliani (2004)

A question of perspective

Another night, another plea by my good lady to choose the evening’s viewing. She used the age-old trick of offering two dire alternatives (one being Coco before Chanel (2009), which I know was there to cut the field down). The only viable alternative was Modigliani (2004), starring – by lucky hap – the guy for whom she goes all gooey, Andy Garcia. Talk about agendas.

Spousal chicanery aside, I would have probably watched it eventually – although I have to admit that it wasn’t high on the list. If I were pushed into a corner, I could not give a definitive yes-or-no answer as to whether I liked it or not. I will attempt to pin down the reasons why I did or didn’t enjoy it if you will indulge me.

The main issue I had was the casting and the performances. They were, almost to a man, fantastic. Garcia’s lead, Elsa Zylberstein as his muse, lover and mother of his child Jeanne Hébuterne and a barely recognizable Omid Djalili as Pablo Picasso were – while not faultless – very, very solid and believable indeed. Even the casting of Garcia as a man who was some twenty years his junior in real life made little difference, as everyone handled the script to the very best of their ability. Peter Capaldi, Eva Herzigova and Miriam Margolyes  all provide solid and competent support.

The script…ah, the script. Despite the glowing tributes I just heaped upon the actors, I fear I cannot do the same for the script, penned by director Mick Davis. As a director, he knows how to set mood and to squeeze empathy out of scenes other directors would stumble over. The way the whole thing hangs together visually shows he knows exactly what he’s doing on the set, and all due respect should be shown for that. His screenwriting skills, however, stand out for a very different reason. I think the word ‘clunky’ would best do it justice. The script was poorly paced, badly constructed and over-long, weighing in at around two hours. Had it been tightened up, I think a fair effort could have been made bringing it under 90 minutes and cutting out a lot of the chaff, including some lengthy and unnecessary monologues and scene-setting parole.

My chief problem – and I will admit to being a bit of a stickler for this – was the soundtrack. Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose featured, probably just to add Parisian flavour. Even though the song is fantastic, it didn’t fit in the mood of what was displayed on the screen. The rest of the soundtrack is a horrible mish-mash of airy strings, pseudo-classical pieces and some poorly executed ‘modern’ stuff that sounded like sub-par trip-hop. Just awful.

If you want to see a relatively true-to-life tragedy about a painter, his muse and his on-off rivalry with Picasso, I recommend you watch it muted and read every other subtitle. Otherwise, you’re in for a long evening.

128 mins.

Cloclo (2012)

Renier reigns

I’ve not really seen that many biopics in my time – it’s not a genre that I deliberately avoid, it’s just it’s rare that I am sufficiently interested in the lives of the rich and famous to want to spend a couple of hours learning about them. However, Cloclo (2012) by French director Florent-Emilio Siri (L’ennemi intime (2007), Hostage (2005)) is something else again, not least because it has at its centre a performance by Jérémie Renier as France’s über-chanteur malheureux Claude François that is nothing short of astounding.

Truth be told, I was a big fan of François (or ‘Cloclo’, as the French affectionately moniker him) before watching the film – he first came into my orbit with the simply splendid Podium (2004) by Yann Moix, starring Benoît Poelvoorde as Cloclo impersonator par excellence Bernard Frédéric, but Moix’s film, while still very respectful to the memory of CF, was nevertheless a very broad (and very funny) pastiche of the man and his music.

Bravely, in that it is only eight years since Podium swept all before it, Cloclo instead opts for the straight story, a faithful and, considering that it was produced by François’ sons, unflinching look at the tragically short life of a singer-personality who is still a legend in la France.

Born the son of a shipping-company owner in Egypt, we see a little of Cloclo’s early life, and the beginnings of his vexed and ultimately completely estranged relationship with his father Aimé (Marc Barbé), who completely rejects his son’s musical ambitions and subsequently disowns him.

A pity that more could not have been made of this relationship, or lack thereof, because it is just about the only lacuna in an otherwise immaculately complete account of Cloclo’s life which, you may not know, ended on 11 March 1978, when François electrocuted himself trying to mend a light-bulb while standing in his bath.

Now, let me tell you about Renier – even at my first look at the poster for the film, which shows François’ face in profile, I knew that I was in for a treat – as one of Bernard Frédéric’s competitors remarks in Podium, ‘he’s not an impersonator this guy, he’s a clone’, and the same can absolutely be said of Renier (L’enfant (2005)) in Cloclo.

And it’s not just a question of the look being absolutely spot on – Renier mimics the body language, posture, voice and on-stage rythmns of François so well, I guarantee that after 30 minutes or so, you will be convinced that Cloclo lives.

Very little more to be said, really – it opens in Belgium and France on 14 March. You must see this film.

128 mins. In French, Italian and English.