Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Nebraska

Back in the late 1980s, I remember reading a piece in which film critics were asked what they were tired of seeing in contemporary cinema. The New York Times'  Janet Maslin replied "..geriatric last visits around hometowns."  I think she was referring to films like THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. Ms. Maslin has since retired from film criticism, but I wonder if she's taken the time to watch NEBRASKA, the latest from director Alexander Payne. Would she stand by her carp? Or have the years softened her take? Do you have to be a weary senior citizen to appreciate the endless well of poignancy such a visit would provide?

Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, septagenarian, perhaps in the early stages of dementia. He's first seen wandering a highway outside of Billings, MT, the town where he raised 2 sons: David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). He's still married to the long suffering Kate (June Squibb). Woody receives a letter informing him he may have won a million dollars. It's sent from one of those companies trying to sell magazine subscriptions. Woody is convinced the money is waiting at their Lincoln, Nebraska office and wants to go there to collect. Since he can no longer drive, he sets out on foot, until David comes out to get him. This happens several times a week. David (and everyone else) repeatedly tells the old fool that he's falling for an obvious scam.

David finally relents and agrees to drive his old man to Nebraska. To appease him, to shut him up, to give his mom a break, yes, but also realizing that it may be the last quality time he will have with him. The backstory more than once reveals that Woody has been less than a model of paternalism. In a few brief scenes, we also see David's own life is less than fulfilling - his moment with an ex-girlfriend who comes to visit, by the way, is the only scene in the film that to me felt written, theatrical.

Woody's brother and his family live in Hawthorne, Nebraska, their hometown. It is there that the bulk of NEBRASKA unfolds. Through a misunderstanding, the entire town comes to believe that Woody really has come into a fortune, instantly making him a local celebrity. Old friends, enemies, and loves stir with excitement, a rare bit of activity in their depressed landscape with its near tumbleweed downtown and cow pastures.

You may know that Payne is from Nebraska. Several of his films have been set there. Even though he did not pen NEBRASKA this is a most certainly a Payne film. His eye, sense, and feel for the nuances and ennui of small town life is unmistakable. It's bleak, defeated, somewhat like what was witnessed in the great THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. But the director does not cast judgment or scorn, or ask us to feel sorry for these folks as they sit zombified on couches, tilting bottles of Bud into their maws and watching football, or even just watching traffic from the porch. He may get a few smiles at their expense, but he never mocks. Phedon Papamichael's black and white photography is gorgeously evocative, adding a downbeat shading to every moment, but it likewise doesn't feel contrived to make us feel superior or filled with pity.

NEBRASKA so vividly (yet quietly) examines that small town existence, how for some life ended decades ago. They never moved an inch. What do they think as they drive down the same roads they had as teenagers? Every corner a spark of memory? What of the news writer David speaks with, a former girlfriend of Woody's, who provides more information about the man than did the man himself.  How does she live with constant reminders of what was lost as she crosses those streets?

My favorite scene: the family visits Woody's childhood home on the outskirts of Hawthorne, his wanderings through the dilapidated house reminding him of the whippings he received from his father, the death of his brother at the age of 2. His mental fog lifts long enough to verbalize a few remembrances and for shadows of the past to cross his face. He finally dismisses the scene as a "pile of wood and some weeds." Dern, is such a beautiful portrayal, conveys the corrosion of this longtime alcoholic through his pauses, silences, body language. A gentle soul underneath the gruff, but never one for pat sentiment or embraces. But his eyes say otherwise.

Yes, Payne again provides a fair amount of laughs in NEBRASKA that will echo the sort of humor used in the director's earlier films.  Most come from the inertia of its charcters. In every Payne movie there are a collection of townspeople with distinctive faces and character tics. Squibb, previously seen as Jack Nicholson's wife in Payne's ABOUT SCHMIDT, gets the most guffaws with her feistiness, her nonstop blunt commentary on those she grew up with. Even during a trip to a cemetery she gives bawdy reminiscences.

As with Payne's THE DESCENDANTS and ABOUT SCHMIDT, the family dynamic (or lack of) is given a hard examination. What it means to be part of a union, to plant roots. To nuture.  David repeatedly asks his father about his life, his motivations to have a family.  The answers are abrupt, but not inconclusive. Woody is painted simply but pointedly. Does the son fear he will become his father?

Those familiar with THE STRAIGHT STORY will also see many similarities. Though David Lynch's film is a bit more sentimental,  NEBRASKA examines both the inherent good and the baser impulses of Midwesterners, especially when they think Woody is about to collect a hefty sum. Both films, however,  have a warmth that is never forced. The final sequence, as Woody leaves Hawthorne for likely the final time, shows 3 key people from his life, their very different reactions as he passes by. It's a great moment. We've learned enough about them for the scene to have incredible weight. In the final seconds, a lesser film might've gone all gooey. NEBRASKA ends on a warm note in a simple bit of blocking, the style of which I wish was more common in dramas.

NEBRASKA is a very deliberate, somber film. It is a relief to watch a film take its time, develop charcters, not bombard us with an emotional catharsis every few minutes. It's no accident that the Paramount logos that bookend the film are the ones they used in the '50s and '60s. It is as if we've discovered a real chestnut, a lost mini classic from a bygone era when films respected our intelligence and our blood pressure. Thank you again, Mr. Payne.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Her

Spoilers!

How can any romantic relationship hope to remain stable when its 2 participants are inherently dynamic? Two continually evolving individuals, who, as someone states in the new film HER, learn and change with each new experience? We pledge to a certain hopeful degree of longevity, ostensibly for life when we propose marriage, but are we too complicated for that? Our own worst enemies? We like to think that despite our differences and tendencies to grow in different directions that we can hold it together and stay that way. Some, though, feel that they have reached another plane or dimension of growth that is no longer compatible with their mate and move on.  I've been careful not to use words that imply that both parties in our hypothetical relationship are people, humans. Writer/director Spike Jonze's film is set in a near future Los Angeles (largely Asian and filled with architecture that does indeed echo BLADE RUNNER) where artificial intelligence has evolved to allow users to have meaningful discourse with their operating systems. Even have romantic ties to them.

This does not seem completely implausible to me. It may well already be possible. But for the OS to reciprocate those feelings? To progress far beyond how they were programmed? Artificial Intelligence's name indicates that the decisions and actions of a computer are entirely preprogrammed, a composite of the designers' IQs and assorted quirks. As the programmer learns new things, he/she makes the creation more sophisticated. But what if the author is no longer needed for advancement?

This question will loom largely long after HER's credits roll, at least if you're the sort of moviegoer who appreciates a film that dares to even attempt to have Ideas. You don't expect a disposable entertainment from Jonze, whose previous films similarly twisted viewers' brains into pretzels. The earlier films were smug, brilliant, coldly clever gems (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION). WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was less chilly, more hopeful. With HER, a heart is revealed beneath the cerebral and in this case, the tech. Maybe because Jonze wrote this himself, rather than with his frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman?

Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, a 30ish introvert whose job it is to articulate the emotions those who hire him can't in a series of love letters. He's quite gifted at this, earning longtime loyalty from clients and respect from his boss. Of course, he is not as well versed in his own personal life; he is soon to be divorced from another writer, his lifelong crush, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Blind dates don't go well. Perhaps his ex is correct, that he is unable to handle real emotions in a real relationship.

Theodore purchases an OS that he decides to use with a female identity - Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Her voice is much more appealing than that flat male drone who sorts his e-mail. There is real character, even flirtation, in her pitch. Like a good friend. To his amusement, Samantha and he begin to chat about more than credit card bills. She encourages him to go on dates. Their bond grows deeper which each session, which begins each time he pops in an earpiece. They fall in love. He is not nagged that his partner lives in his desktop. I found their courtship similar to the regular long distance variety, a voice from a faraway place.

Samantha is not a mere pleasure model who acquiesces to her user's whims.  She develops emotions and thoughts. She recognizes his tone when he's angry or down. They fight. They even have, er, phone sex (in a blacked out scene that will make some viewers uncomfortable, others embarrassed, and will have still others on the floor laughing). In another scene that could've in lesser hands been unrelievedly creepy, Samantha suggests a surrogate woman to act out their encounters. It is very uncomfortable to watch, but expresses volumes about the difficulties of both in person and virtual relationships in ways that could take days to fully think over. I was struck with the notion that perhaps Samantha was like a deity, attempting to take human form to reach her beloved in some tangible manner.

Theodore also has a dear friend named Amy (Amy Adams), a software developer (her current project: a game that follows a "supermom" who racks up points as she feeds her children in record time and one ups other parents with her skills) he's known since college, someone he dated "for a few minutes" but in an instant knew it wasn't to be. Amy's husband leaves her midway through the movie, causing her not only to reassess, but yes, grow. Realize how she has compromised herself. Do we do that in relationships? Of course, to make things work requires dying to ourselves, sacrifice. But how much is acceptable has much to do with your point of view and also your faith (or lack of).

On that point, HER again has many obvious and not so theological parallels, particularly in the closing scenes, when Samantha reveals that she speaks with thousands of users, and is in love with 600 of them. An operating system can of course calculate things in a nanosecond, and be omnipotent, but what to make of one that espouses love to you in such an individual way, only to reveal she is that to many (but not all). Perhaps I'm reaching, but viewers with devotion to God will certainly see the metaphors. Samantha is always there (except once) when Theodore puts in his earpiece. She watches through his phone's camera eye. The twist may be that Samantha is not God, but Theodore is, depending on whether you believe God created Man or vice versa.

But HER has so many other dimensions, and most viewers will discern the bittersweet ruminations on something as old as mankind: the difficulty of maintaining a loving, nurturing union. Jonze's writing is so swift, so heady. The behavior of his characters never pigeon holes them, always allows a deeper layer, even if the scenarios (and the film's ultimate resolution) seem familiar and even predictable. When Theodore and Samantha have arguments, there are indications that the male and female roles have reversed - the human is so hard to understand; the OS is trying to use logic to follow.

There is much to admire in HER. The obvious genius of the screenplay. The heartfelt performances. Arcade Fire's score. Big and small symbolic imagery (drifting smoke, swooping electronic billboard owls).  I enjoyed the evocations of other films like LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, a film that also attempted to examine the complications of relationships (albeit a bit more one-sided,  yet with the live character creating drama that might've naturally occurred with 2 beings). It seems possible that HER is Jonze's response to his ex-wife's (Sophia Coppola) somewhat autobiographical LOST IN TRANSLATION. The obvious connection being Ms. Johansson, who delivers one of the best vocal performances ever. Theodore and Catherine may well represent Spike and Sophia, two relentlessly creative people with complexities to match.

For me, HER worked equally well emotionally and intellectually. The concept does, at first, seem potentially ridiculous and creepy. Certainly sad, from beginning to end.  I was oddly reminded, perhaps appropriately enough, of A.I., a film many dismissed as Spielberg's dilution of Kubrick's original thoughts. The final minutes of A.I. are the source of disgust for many with its unabashed sentiment. Spielberg insists that these scenes were Mr. Kubrick's idea. Either way, they worked for me. In HER, as the final scene deliberately plays, I felt something similar. The philosophy and pathos merged in a quiet, strangely beautiful moment.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Find the Fish!

A gleefully silly moment from MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE, a film you may see reviewed here one day.

You may find it daft, but be thankful I'm not posting the scene that occurs just after this..


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hard Times


In the wake of the many terrible vehicles Charles Bronson slept walked his way through, it's easy to forget the handful of decent pictures he made. This would include HARD TIMES, Walter Hill's 1975 maiden effort as director. It isn't one that gets much mention in the laconic leading man's resume, but is easily one of Bronson's most enjoyable and colorful entertainments.  

During the Great Depression, a drifter named Chaney (Bronson) hops train cars town to town and looks for fights - the bare knuckle type that gentlemen wager over. Calling them "gentlemen" is being polite as they snarl and drool while 2 men bloody each other within an inch of death. Hill makes this point vividly during a scene when fighters jump around during a cage match but it's those outside of it, the spectators, who are presented as animalistic.

Chaney hooks up with a dapper fellow named Speed (James Coburn, excellent again) who arranges his brawls and eventually becomes his manager. This is a no-brainer as Chaney tends to KO his opponents with a single punch. Even the frightening, smiling hulk named Jim Henry (Robert Tessier) is no match for Chaney's skills. This attracts the attention of a New Orleans businessman - and Henry's manager-named Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire) who repeatedly tries to lure Chaney away from the crafty but hapless Speed,  who is often reduced to borrowing from loan sharks.

When Gandil recruits a Chicago street fighter to fight Chaney, the latter refuses. This spells trouble for Speed as Gandil decides to square the man's debts with the Mob and hold him hostage, threatening to kill him if Chaney doesn't agree to the match.

HARD TIMES is good old unpretentious, meat and potatoes fare. That is not to say it is simply for the undiscriminating or easily amused. Hill, writing with Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell, layer their violent tale with much commentary on the code of machismo and the the folly of hero worship, especially notable in a scene where Chaney shoots an image of himself in a mirror in a bar after a roustabout/shootout.  And how about that mysterious cat Chaney adopts for a time, how similar it is to him? The finale makes the case.

What I noticed most, aside from the rock solid fight choreography and rich period flavor, was how deliberate this film was. No quick cuts or attempts to be artsy. HARD TIMES plays with the economy of a Hemingway short story or even your average 1930s potboiler. As usual, Bronson says very little, and his real life wife Jill Ireland, playing a lonely woman with whom he vainly attempts a relationship, fails to impress with her acting. Sadly, Hill also again demonstrates how poorly he handles female characters in his films.  To nearly the same degree he is successful with his male ones.

And about that ending. I was reminded of the closing moments of POINT BLANK, how a big confrontation does not provide the expected vicarious payoff, but something more thoughtful (here, something far less ambiguous than in John Boorman's classic). "Shouldn't we say something?" someone asks. No, sometimes, no. You should not.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS has some of the most beautiful melancholia I've seen in some time. It's the sort of film best viewed by oneself, preferably on an overcast, chilly afternoon or evening. Following what is debatably an anticlimax, you sit and continue to experience the sort of loneliness its title character is left with. Maybe also some shred of new wisdom to boot.  The sense of solitude the Coen Brothers' new film inspires made me feel the way a slow, minor key, poignant song might. So sad but so satisfying in a work of art that touches your emotions and your intellect (maybe not your soul).  So appropriate as this film follows a less than successful folk singer around Greenwich Village and beyond in 1961, before Dylan took the stool and changed the music world.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) wanders New York City forever in search of a couch on which to crash. He's broke, seeing not a nickel of residual from an album he and his former partner (who committed suicide) cut, as well as his solo LP, "Inside Llewyn Davis".  His agent is all but useless (though one of those great Coens faces, played by Jerry Grayson). There's a sister in Queens and friends/lovers in the Village and Upper West Side, all of whom are disgusted with his blatant narcissism and lack of responsibility.

A young lady Llewyn got pregnant named Jean (Carey Mulligan), and she's not the first, is also the girlfriend of his buddy/sometime collaborator Jim (Justin Timberlake). They all play at the Gaslight Cafe for peanuts, but it's still exposure. A university professor and his wife, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) are Llewyn's last resort/go to crash pad when everyone else understandly tells him to fuck off. One morning, their cat escapes as Llewyn is leaving and he henceforth has a companion. Will the Coens attempt to tell a story ala 1974's HARRY and TONTO, the lovely film that featured Art Carney as a retiree who travels cross country with his beloved feline?

Sort of.  Llewyn eventually hitchhikes to Chicago to meet with a well known producer named Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in the hopes of an audition and/or gig.  There's a cat with Llewyn but it's not the same one he inherited, though it looks just like it. The cat(s) in this film are fun to watch, and will allow you later to wonder of their significance as they watch subway stops and stare sadly at their troubled human.  On the journey, Llewyn meets a junkie jazz musician (John Goodman) and his laconic valet (Grant Hedlund) in a series of vignettes that are pure Coens. These scenes will either provide sly grins or painful sighs.  You know who you are either way.

The film begins and ends with the same scene: Llewyn is attacked by a stranger in the alley behind the Gaslight for reasons that are essentially the film's themes.  I will refrain from further elaboration. Though whether the events around it are exactly the same as presented in the film's opening minutes will prompt debate among viewers. Such ambiguity is also vintage Coens.

For all its solemnity, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS has many hilarious moments, some of the point and laugh superiority genre, others quieter, observational. Sometimes both, as in the scene with Llewyn at dinner with the Gorfeins and their rather square friends (more great faces/character actors).  The scene is a perfect ballet of comedy, then shifts to explosive, even heart thumping drama, quite deftly.

I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch's BROKEN FLOWERS by this scene and several others. So much droll, unexpected, blink and you'll miss it humor to be discovered among a bleak and seemingly hopeless landscape. A flawed lead character we nonetheless root for but also want to slap or punch, hard at times.  I'm sure there is a wealth of meaning in this movie I've yet to discover. Suffering for your art, for starters.  Some viewers may feel they are suffering for Ethan and Joel's.

Thus, many people will dislike INSIDE LLEWEYN DAVIS.  My wife's boss, who lived in the Village during the time period depicted, was dismayed at how inaccurate she felt the movie was.  But this is the Coens' world, not the real one. The atmosphere is somber and dark. Off-putting to some. It is filled with the sort of mordancy and cynicism, to say nothing of great music (again produced by T. Bone Burnett), fans have come to appreciate. Music is what allows Llewyn and some of the other characters to breathe.

"I am the surgeon and music is my knife. It cuts away my sorrow and purifies my life." Paul Simon once sang in a tune called "God Bless the Absentee". It fits Llewyn, too.  He's much better at communicating through it than anything else.

I did not see INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS by myself, but the highly individualistic and idiosyncratic style of it made me ignore the theater full of yentas with little trouble.

Monday, January 6, 2014

American Hustle

For his latest, AMERICAN HUSTLE, director David O. Russell actually dials down his trademarked caffeinated direction. Viewers familiar with his work note the quick shot hyper edits that keep audiences on edge, a bit disoriented. I recently gave THREE KINGS and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK another look and could discern with wiser eyes (first viewings usually mostly only allow response to the more tangible elements) how the method suits the material, regardless of storyline or setting.  How appropriate such restlessness is to getting into the actors' skin.  There is always an urgency in Russell's characters, comic or otherwise. They're nervous, and if the director has succeeded, we should be too.

AMERICAN HUSTLE features a gallery of nervous types, all of whom are desperate to improve their lot in life, to gain some measure of approval. They employ duplicities, clutch defense mechanisms, and are plagued with haunting self awareness.  They also strive for some bid for legitimacy, though each figure would have a different definition of what that would constitute. Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, all graduates of previous Russell pictures, play the 4 principals.  They know the territory: the rhythms, the modulation of intensity that can ebb and flow on the drop of a dime.  In AMERICAN HUSTLE, it's more about them than their director; they give the film its true pulse.

But Russell has not lost his mojo or forsaken the energy he brings to each project. He still commands the frame with verve, though this time it is channeled a bit differently.  He lets his cast breathe a bit more.  Note the long opening scene. The film is not so frantic (most of the time).  Mainly, he seems to emulating those 2 hour + operas of the past that showcase that oh so cinematic of decades: the 1970s.  His new film reminded me at times of BOOGIE NIGHTS, BLOW, and especially Scorsese's GOODFELLAS and CASINO.  In fact, AMERICAN HUSTLE plays as if Russell holed up with the latter films and watched them several times in one day, absorbed them, then was sufficiently inspired to create his own polyester epic the next day.

As with the other films, HUSTLE is based on real events, the opening disclaimer informing us "Some of this actually happened." The "Abscam" sting operation - an elaborate series of meetings designed to expose corruption among high level politicians - was so named for the Federal Agents who posed as Arabs armed with briefcases stuffed with cash. In what many critics considered a methodology of entrapment, the Feds set up appointments in fancy hotels with a variety of officials, some members of Congress, to offer bribes.  AMERICAN HUSTLE spends much time with the mayor of Camden, NJ, here named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a well-liked palm presser anxious to pump the local economy by raising funds for new casinos.  Shady means never necessarily ruled out.

Polito is set up/befriended by Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), longtime con artist and owner of a chain of dry cleaners. He sports one of the most elaborate comb-overs you'll ever see and narrates the movie much the way Ray Liotta's Henry Hill did in GOODFELLAS, right down to the childhood flashbacks. He and mistress/fellow operative Sydney Prosser (Adams) become highly successful at collecting 5K a pop application fees from individuals who otherwise have no chance at loan approval. Of course, these loans will never materialize. Eventually, the duo is busted by arrogant, ladder climbing Agent Richie di Maso (Cooper) when he poses as a client. He will force them to assist in the Abscam plot, using Rosenfeld's unparalleled skills in the long con. Too bad di Maso forgets why he hired the guy.

There are many serpentine details to this story, so amusingly fleshed out by Russell and Eric Arren Singer.  HUSTLE sweeps you into a wildly entertaining ride, highlighted by the joys of watching clever characters reacting to/with ones less so. There are nods to some of David Mamet's capers, here. The actors own the film, and everyone gets to boast their ranges (and yes, shout a lot).  Reportedly, many scenes were improvised. Bale is most impressive, again shelving his Brit accent to play American, this time an old school neighborhood hoodlum, effective disappearing behind his 70s garb (and hair). He's very convincing, even when snatches of Robert DeNiro sneak out of his performance.

But the entire cast is on fire, including Lawrence in her near over the top turn as Irving's suburban wife, passive aggressive to the max: she puts metal in a then-new microwave oven because no one should tell her not to.  After the inevitable fire, we see the burn marks on kitchen cabinetry for several scenes afterward.

Russell follows the um, playbook pretty closely, what with grainy film stock, extreme close-ups, and use of period pop and rock tunes to comment on the action - I especially enjoyed the use of Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" during the opening titles. The director pays homage to those luminaries mentioned, at times dangerously close to plagiarizing but just this side of it, to fashion his own imperfect cinema. He smartly allows a '70s like pacing, letting the audience enjoy the beats and silences between meltdowns. But in all, the fewer films you've seen, the more likely you will be dazzled by AMERICAN HUSTLE.

And don't let anyone spoil the cameo appearance by another Russell veteran halfway through.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Minor Spoilers

When my screening of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET concluded, I sat with some wildly conflicted emotions. I felt bewildered, exhilarated, exhausted. It was tough to decide if I "liked" this highly anticipated movie. My initial thoughts were either Martin Scorsese created one of the best pictures of his career or one of the worst. It was difficult to tell.  Certainly the messiest, perhaps the most so since CASINO.  After several days of bouncing WOLF around my head, I find that all of the above have strong defenses.

I often use the word "audacious" when describing movies.  The word so perfectly describes Scorsese's three hour assault, this often grotesque circus that wallows in the debauchery of Jordan Belfort's (the real life anihero of the film's title) lifestyle.  If you've read about the film, you've learned that there are multiple scenes of excessive behavior.  Battalions of naked revelers (male and female) partying in every imaginable position.  Mounds of cocaine defying gravity into many of the main characters' noses. There are more Quaaludes in this film than probably any other in history.

Belfort, a convicted stock market swindler who made millions off both high rollers and the common man with fraudulent penny stocks, had already inspired 2002's BOILER ROOM, a mostly forgettable flick, aside from a scene where the young turks chant along with Michael Douglas while they watch 1987's WALL STREET. You recall the iconic "greed is good" speech.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in another bravura turn and his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, plays Belfort and gets his own Gordon Gekko diatribe late in WOLF, a lengthy apologia for his shady methodology, his large living, his unbridled materialism. The case is laid out to his employees (and the film's audience) the same way he silver tongues those clueless schmendricks on the telephone as he peddles inflated shares.  Unrepentant to the end.

So is Scorsese, who has no apparent mea culpa for his very long parade, his over-the-top burlesque that, like other such filmic grandiosities, makes most of its points early on and then plays the record again. And again. The challenge here is to determine whether the entire thing is merely a "3 hour jerk off" as one critic so aptly described, or an epic that is necessarily lurid, an underlined in red cautionary tale.

But other than some curiously unflattering camera angles and a Voice of Conscience via Jordan's first wife, the director does not cast judgment. He observes, and orchestrates with his usual mastery of cinematic technique. The fast zooms, slow motion, extreme close-up of inaminate objects in motion, razor sharp editing. He does not cue us to damn his protagonist. This is no morality play.  Some viewers may take this as an endorsement of the lifestyle depicted.  A group of young guys at my showing were cheering Belfort's less-than-exemplary actions throughout the movie. To them, the guy was some sort of hero, it seemed. While consequences are shown in the later passages of WOLF, as the FBI closes in and spouses are lost, the final scene brings Belfort back front and center, training a new group of would-be wolves.

Many (who are not already Scorsese disciples) will understandably wonder if the time investment for this movie is worthwhile. If watching the behind the door activities of a brash, amoral capitalist gone berserk who might rightly be termed a world class douchebag will add anything to their lives. I would finally say that it will, that there is something valuable here, that this relentless ride is worth taking, that it is never dishonest. The subject, while interesting, is mired in an unsavory pattern of sin, and I certainly wouldn't want to be around him or his brood. But here as in so many other films, what's valuable is the Method, the storytelling, the themes and allusions.  The art.

About that: Scorsese, as mentioned, sports his unmistakable flash, though along with it is an unfortunate sense of deja vu.  Again we have the eclectric soundtrack, songs used for their commentary to a scene as much as for their coolness factor (note Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge"; this would be at least the second time the director has used a track of theirs).  This also includes Belfort's front to back narration, similar in many ways to Ray Liotta's in GOODFELLAS (DiCaprio even sounds like him at times).  Belfort and Henry Hill do in fact tell similar based on truth tales, perhaps what in part attracted Scorsese to this project. Belfort baldly explains his devil may care viewpoint, cynically explaining that money doesn't only finance hookers and blow and midgets to be tossed at targets for sport, but can also be given to the church or the charity of your choice. Just like the Mob does.

 Belfort's firm, Stratton Oakmont is in fact similar to the Mafia in a few respects. They take care of their own.  Note a teary testimonial from a female employee during Jordan's big speech. Loyalty is key. Not ratting out your colleagues is paramount; this will be explored during the film's climax. But unlike in other Scorsese films, there is no violence to speak of in WOLF.  It's the one element absent form this inexplicably R-rated motion picture.

There is a lot of humor. How funny you find this movie depends on your tolerances and sensibilities. I enjoyed the scenes where several characters' thoughts are audible, and a quick moment during Belfort's first telephone penny pitch at the low level shopping center boiler room, the cutaway showing what that alleged corporation the broker hawks really looks like.  Much of the laughter in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET comes (at least for me) from the recognition of going for broke. So desperate, so believing you're in control and failing miserably. The constant drug use provides what is sure to be considered a classic sequence: Jordan's "Lemmon" Quaaludes finally kick in (he didn't realize they were timed release) causing a (not so much for him) memorable drive home and a kitchen struggle with his business partner, Donnie (Jonah Hill, quite good). The scene is pathetic, sad, and hilarious. One moment really sums it up: when Donnie falls to the floor, choking on a cold cut, Jordan has to take a hit of cocaine to get the energy to get up and perform the Heimlich.

There is probably a really solid, perfectly honed movie to be whittled out of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Maybe a 2 hour pic.  That's the problem; there's too much fat, wayyyy too many sex scenes, too many wild moments that become didactic and even dull. Even if the reality of Belfort's life was worse than this film, artistic judgment should've known when to pull in the reigns. With that, I might have left out that scene where Donnie becomes so aroused by his first meeting of Belfort's future bride, Naomi (Margot Robbie) that he visibly whips out his member and begins masturbating in front of party guests.  Also, a flashback with the Belforts' homosexual butler and his unauthorized orgy.  Gratuitous. To think that Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker originally pieced together a 4 hour edit?! This is one "Director's Cut" I'm not necessarily anticipating.

I would've happily traded the endless shenanigans for more character development (though no performance can be faulted, including Matthew McConaughey, seen all too briefly early on) and some deeper analysis of stock market mechanics. The first hour of CASINO and much of GOODFELLAS excelled with their breathless explanations of their respective characters' trades, fascinating nuts and bolts play by plays that deepened our understanding of their larcenous worlds. Worlds that share more than a little with the Market. Here, other than a recurring lesson in how to sell, we get precious little. Even TRADING PLACES taught us more about Wall Street!

But THE WOLF OF WALL STREET does include a lengthy, emblematic, perfectly realized scene as Jordan Belfort, scoring his first big sale at Stratton, convinces a reluctant client over the phone to buy some near worthless shares. As the scene unfolds, the broker and his cronies are sneering, pointing middle fingers, and high fiving around the desk. It probably says everything about what has been wrong with our coveted system for some time.

And for all this film's problems, Scorsese again demonstrates why I love the movies.