Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Wolf of Wall Street (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Suck it, The Big Short The Wolf of Wall Street is the best film to be made about Wall Street this century.

Martin Scorsese’s 2013 financial epic tells the true story of a group of rather sleazy people who got rich and who basically, to quote Robert De Niro from an earlier Scorsese film, “fucked it all up.”  Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving what I still consider to be the best performance of his career) is the son of an accountant named Max (Rob Reiner).  Fresh out of college, Jordan gets a job on Wall Street.  Under the mentorship of the eccentric (but rich) Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), Jordan discovers that the job of a stock broker is to dupe people into buying stock that they might not need while, at the same time, making a ton of money for himself.  With the money comes the cocaine and the prostitutes and everything else that fuels the absurdly aggressive and hyper-masculine world of Wall Street.  Jordan is intrigued but, after the stock market crashes in 1987, he’s also out of a job.

Fortunately, Jordan is never one to give up.  He may no longer be employed on Wall Street but that doesn’t mean that he can’t sell stocks.  He gets a job pushing “penny stocks,” which are low-priced stocks for very small companies.  Because the price of the stock is so low, the brokers get a 50% commission on everything they sell.  Because Jordan is such an aggressive salesman, he manages to make a fortune by convincing people to buy stock in otherwise worthless companies.  As Jordan’s boss (played, in an amusing cameo, by Spike Jonze) explains it, what they’re doing isn’t exactly regulated by the government, which just means more money for everyone!  Yay!

Working with his neighbor, Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill, at his most eccentric), Jordan starts his own brokerage company.  Recruiting all of his friends (the majority of whom are weed dealers who never graduated from high school), Jordan starts Stratton Oakmont.  Using high-pressure sales tactics and a whole lot of other unethical and occasionally illegal techniques, Jordan soon makes a fortune.  When Forbes Magazine publishes an expose that portrays Jordan as being little more than a greedy con man, Stratton Oakmont is flooded by aspiring stock brokers who all want to work for “the wolf of Wall Street.”

And, for a while, Jordan has everything that he wants.  While the Stratton Oakmont offices become a den of nonstop drugs and sex, Jordan buys a huge mansion, a nice car, and marries a model named Naomi (Margot Robbie).  His employees literally worship Jordan as he begins and ends every working day with inspirational (and often hilariously profane) sermons, encouraging his people to get out there and sell no matter what.  Of course, making that much money, Jordan has to find a way to hide it from the IRS.  Soon, with the help of Naomi’s aunt (Joanna Lumley), he is smuggling millions of dollars into Switzerland where a banker (Jean Dujardin, who is both hilariously suave and hilariously sleazy a the time) helps him hide it all.

When Jordan learns that the FBI and SEC are looking into his dealings, Jordan invites Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) to come visit him on his yacht and, in a scene that launched a thousand memes, the two of them have a friendly conversation that’s largely made up of passive aggressive insults.  Jordan taunts Denham over the fact that Denham washed out when he tried to get a job on Wall Street.  Denham laughingly asks Jordan to repeat something that sounded like it may have been a bribe.  When Denham leaves the boat, Jordan taunts him by tossing a wad of hundred dollars bills into the wind….

And here’s the thing.  Yes, the media and our political class tells us that we’re supposed to hate that Jordan Belforts of the world.  One can imagine Bernie Sanders having a fit while watching Jordan brag about how he cheated the IRS.  If Adam McKay or Jay Roach had directed this film, one can imagine that they would have used the yacht scene to portray Jordan Belfort as pure evil.  (McKay probably would have tossed in Alfred Molina as a waiter, asking Belfort if he wants to feast on the lost future of the children of America.)  But the truth of the matter is that most viewers, even if they aren’t willing to admit it, will secretly be cheering for Jordan when he throws away that money.  DiCaprio is so flamboyantly charismatic and Scorsese, as director, so perfectly captures the adrenaline high of Jordan’s lifestyle that you can’t help but be sucked in.  He may be greedy and unethical but he just seems to be having so much fun!  Just as how Goodfellas and Casino portrayed life in the mafia as being an intoxicating high (as well as being more than a little bit dangerous), The Wolf of Wall Street refrains from passing easy judgment and it steadfastly refuses to climb onto a moral high horse.  Jordan narrates his own story, often talking directly to the camera and almost always defending his actions.  As a director, Scorsese is smart enough to let us make up own minds about how we feel about Jordan and his story.

Of course, when Jordan falls, it’s a dramatic fall.  That said, it’s not quite as dramatic of a fall as what happened to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas or Robert De Niro in Casino.  No one gets blown up, for instance.  But Jordan does lose everything that gave his life meaning.  By the end of the film, he’s been reduced to giving seminars and challenging attendees to sell him a pen.  (“Well,” one hapless gentleman begins, “it’s a very nice pen…..”)  During the film’s final scenes, it’s not so much a question of whether Jordan has learned anything from his fall.  Instead, the movie leaves you wondering if he’s even capable of learning.  At heart, he’s the wolf of Wall Street.  That’s his nature and it’s really the only thing that he knows how to do.  He’s a bit like Ray Liotta living in the suburbs at the end of Goodfellas.  He’s alive.  He has his freedom and a future.  But he’s still doesn’t quite fit in.  Much like Moses being denied the opportunity to physically enter the Promised Land, Jordan’s punishment for his hubris is to spend his life in exile from where he truly belongs.  And yet, you know that Jordan — much like Henry Hill — probably wouldn’t change a thing if he had the chance to live it all over again.  He’d just hope that he could somehow get a better ending while making the same decisions.

Unlike something like The Big Short, which got bogged down in Adam McKay’s vapid Marxism, The Wolf of Wall Street works precisely because it refuses to pass judgment.  It refuses to tell us what to think.  I imagine that a lot of people watched The Wolf of Wall Street and were outraged by the way Jordan Belfort made his money.  I imagine that an equal number of people watched the film and started thinking about how much they would love to be Jordan Belfort.  The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, long, and sometimes excessive film that dares the audience to think of themselves.  That’s one reason why it’ll be remembered after so many other Wall Street films are forgotten.

The Wolf of Wall Street was nominated for best picture of the year.  It lost to 12 Years A Slave.

Playing Catch-Up With 6 Quickie Reviews: The Big Game, The Connection, Graduation Day, McFarland USA, Taken 3, and War Room


Here are 6 more reviews of 6 other films that I watched this year.  Why six?  Because Lisa doesn’t do odd numbers, that’s why.

The Big Game (dir by Jalmari Helander)

In The Big Game, Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States and you would think that fact alone would make this film an instant classic.  Unfortunately, this film never really takes advantage of the inherent coolness of Samuel L. Jackson playing the leader of the free world.  When Air Force One is sabotaged and crashes in the wilderness of Finland, President Jackson has to rely on a young hunter (Onni Tommila) from a group of CIA agents disguised as terrorists.  Tommila does a pretty good job and the scenery looks great but at no point does Samuel L. Jackson says, “Check out this executive action, motherfucker,” and that’s a huge missed opportunity.  As for the rest of the film, it takes itself a bit too seriously and if you can’t figure out the big twist from the minute the movie starts, you obviously haven’t seen enough movies.

The Connection (dir by Cedric Jiminez)

Taking place over the 1970s, the French crime thriller tells the largely true story of the efforts of a French judge (played by Jean Dujardin) to take down a ruthless gangster (Gilles Lellouche) who is the head of one of the biggest drug cartels in the world.  The Connection run for a bit too long but, ultimately, it’s a stylish thriller that does a very good job of creating a world where literally no one can be trusted.  Dujardin, best known here in the States for his Oscar-winning role in The Artist, does a great job playing an honest man who is nearly driven to the point of insanity by the corruption all around him.

Graduation Day (dir by Chris Stokes)

Hey, it’s another found footage horror film!  Bleh!  Now, I should admit that this horror film — which is NOT a remake of that classic 1980s slasher — does have a fairly clever twist towards the end, that goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the inconsistencies that, up until that point, had pretty much dominated the film.  But, even with that in mind and admitting that Unfriended and Devil’s Due worked wonders with the concept, it’s still hard to feel any enthusiasm about yet another found footage horror film.

McFarland USA (dir by Niki Caro)

McFarland USA is an extremely predictable but likable movie.  Kevin Costner plays a former football coach who, while teaching at a mostly Latino high school, organizes a cross country team that goes on to win the state championship.  It’s based on a true story and, at the end of the film, all of the real people appear alongside the actors who played them.  There’s nothing about this film that will surprise you but it’s still fairly well-done.  Even Kevin Costner, who usually gets on my last nerve, gives a good performance.

Taken 3 (dir by Olivier Megaton)

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is back and he’s killing even more people!  Fortunately, they’re all bad people but you really do have to wonder what type of dreams Bryan has whenever he goes to sleep.  In Taken 3, Bryan’s wife (Famke Janssen) has been murdered and Bryan has been framed.  He has to solve the case and kill the bad guys while staying one step ahead of the police (represented by a bored-looking Forest Whitaker).  Neeson does all of his usual Taken stuff — the intense phone conversation, the steely glare, and all the rest — but at this point, it has literally been parodied to death.  If you’re into watching Liam Neeson kill ugly people, Taken 3 will provide you with adequate entertainment but, for the most part, it’s but a shadow of the first Taken.

War Room (dir by Alex Kendrick)

I saw the War Room in Oklahoma.  It was being shown as part of a double feature with The Martian, of all things!  Anyway, this film is about an upper middle class family that hits rock bottom but they’re saved by the power of prayer!  Lots and lots of prayer!  Seriously, this film almost qualifies as “prayer porn.”  Anyway, the film was badly acted, badly written, incredibly heavy-handed, and ran on way too long but, on the plus side, it did eventually end.

Trailer: The Connection


They played this trailer at the Alamo Drafthouse shortly before the start of Ex Machina.  It appears to be a French version of The French Connection.  Who knows?  It might be good.  At the very least, it’s a reminder for American audiences that Jean Dujardin is capable of playing someone other than a silent film star.

Film Review: The Monuments Men (dir by George Clooney)


Remember when The Monuments Men was everyone’s pick for the best film of 2013?

It may be hard to remember now, especially now that the film has actually been released and dismissed by most critics.  But, during the summer of 2013, all of the people at Goldderby and AwardsDaily were convinced that The Monuments Men would be a major player at the Oscars.  Sure, the thinking went — 12 Years A Slave and August: Osage County would be major contenders but the surest bet for a win was The Monuments Men.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to laugh but, at the time, the logic behind this assumption seemed sound.

After all, The Monuments Men not only tells a true story but it also takes place during the only good war, World War II.  It’s directed by George Clooney, who is the epitome of a star..  The film features supporting performances from Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and John Goodman.  The film also has a valuable message about the importance of culture and how tyrants always try to control and suppress the imagination.

So, who can really blame all the usual suspects for deciding, without having actually seen the movie, that The Monuments Men would be great?  Even when the film’s release date was moved from December of 2013 to February of 2014, it was assumed that it was only being moved because 12 Years A Slave was such a great film that no movie — not even The Monuments Men — could hope to compete with it for the title of best film of 2013.

The Monuments Men?” they all said, “It’ll be the best film of 2014…”

And then, finally, The Monuments Men was released and we all got a chance to see it and…

Well, it turns out The Monuments Men was not quite what everyone was expecting.  It’s not quite bad but, at the same time, it’s also not quite good.  Instead, it simply is.

To its credit, The Monuments Men attempts to tells a worthy story.  During the final days of World War II, Frank Stokes (played by George Clooney) leads a seven-man team of art historians who are tasked with both recovering art stolen by the Nazis and keeping allied soldiers from accidentally destroying Europe’s culture while trying to save it.  Stokes and his team find themselves forced to deal with both soldiers who resent being told what they can and can not blow up and with a competing team of Russians who are eager to take as much art as they can back to Moscow.

The film makes a very relevent point about both the importance of art and why it must be preserved and protected for future generations.  As the proud recipient of a degree in art history, I really wanted to like The Monuments Men.  Especially considering what our President recently had to say about those of us who majored in art history, this is a film that I wanted to see succeed.

Unfortunately, The Monuments Men does not succeed.  It’s an almost painfully old-fashioned film, one that features every single wartime film cliché imaginable and which never manages to be as interesting as the story its trying to tell.  We like the monuments men because they’re played by actors like Bill Murray and John Goodman but we never get to know any of them as individuals and, as a result, their story falls flat.

A lot of the blame has to rest with the director.  As I watched The Monuments Men, I found myself thinking about the other films that George Clooney has directed.  Confessions of A Dangerous Mind is memorable largely for Sam Rockwell’s lead performance but, otherwise, the film tries way too hard to be wacky.  Good Night and Good Luck is sincere but rather simplistic.  Leatherheads is a comedy that’s not that funny.  And finally, there’s The Ides of March, a film which thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is.  I think, when it comes to George Clooney, there’s a tendency to be so blinded by his charisma that we tend to assume that he can do anything, including direct.  However, if one can manage to ignore Clooney the star while considering Clooney the filmmaker, it becomes obvious that he’s actually a rather unimaginative director whose good intentions often times disguise the fact that he’s not much of a story teller.

That, ultimately, is the main problem with The Monuments Men.  The film is full of effective scenes and charismatic actors but they never quite gel to form a compelling narrative.  At one point in the film, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are sent to one part of Europe while Goodman and Dujardin are sent to another.  We get a handful scenes featuring each team.  Murray and Balaban bond with a scared German.  Dujardin and Goodman deal with a teenage sniper.  Suddenly, in the next scene, Clooney drives up to an army camp in a jeep and there’s Murray, Balaban, Goodman, and Dujardin all standing outside a tent, waiting for him.  How did they all get back together?  Where is the camp located?  Did either team accomplish what they were sent out to do?  The film never tells us.

(Meanwhile, the less said about a lengthy subplot featuring a lot of awkward interaction between Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett the better.)

As I said before, it’s not that The Monuments Men is a bad film.  It’s just such a disappointing one.

Dance Scenes That I Love: Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in The Artist


artist

I love this scene from the 2011 Best Picture winner The Artist because, to me, it perfectly captures both the wonder of film and the beauty of dance.  If watching Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo dance doesn’t make you happy, then there is no hope for you.

Trailer: The Monuments Men (Official)


The Monuments Men

The race for Awards Season film releases has begun to heat up with trailers for American Hustle and The Butler already showing some major front-runners for the major awards at the end of the year.

We now have another trailer release for a film that looks to join in on all the end of the year awards scramble. It’s the latest film from George Clooney (doing a trifect as writer, director and actor) which sports an impressive ensemble cast that includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban.

The Monuments Men is based on the true story of archivers, museum directors, art restorers turned soldiers tasked with saving the cultural and fine arts treasures stolen by Hitler’s Nazi forces during World War II. As the war begins to turn again the Nazi’s this group of unconventional soldiers must prevent these treasures from being destroyed as part of Hitler’s “scorched earth” policy when it comes to the cultures he has deemed unworthy.

The film itself is adapted from the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel. There’s a camp out there who doesn’t look at Clooney’s work as anything but OScar-bait whenever they come around every other year, but there’s no denying that the man can direct and act. The question now is whether The Monuments Men will finally give Clooney that final push into getting his first Best Director Oscar.

The Monuments Men is set for a December 18, 2013 release date.

What Lisa Marie Watched Last Night: The 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards


Last night, I watched the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards.  I also got on twitter and made a lot of snarky comments.  People seemed to enjoy it and for that reason, I say, “Yay!”

Why Was I Watching It?

Because I am an awards show junkie!  Seriously, those glue sniffers on Intervention don’t have anything on me when it comes to craving the excess, glamour, and foolishness of a big, silly Hollywood awards show!  Add to that, this is still a fairly wide open Oscar season and the Golden Globes are, as they always say on E!, a “precursor to the Oscars.”  Winning a Golden Globe usually guarantees at least an Oscar nomination.  Plus — Ricky Gervais was back to host and like a lot of people last night, I spent the minutes before the ceremony asking myself, “What ever will he say!?” in feverish anticipation.

What Was It About?

For the past 69 years, the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association have thrown a big banquet in January and given out a lot of awards to various TV and movie stars.  Nobody’s really sure who the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association are and, to be honest, the Golden Globes always have a slightly unsavory air to them.  There’s always more than a few nominations that mostly seem to be designed to get famous people to show up at the ceremony,  Last year, they nominated the Tourist, this year they nominated The Ides of March.  Anyway, the Golden Globes are distinguished by the Oscars by the fact that they serve alcohol during the show and, in the past, someone’s always ended up giving a drunken acceptance speech or launching into an incoherent political rant and, for the past few weeks, we’ve been told that with Ricky Gervais returning to host the 69th annual banquet, anything could happen and probably would!  Yay!

What Worked

Last night, I mentioned on twitter that if nothing interesting happened on the Globes or if Ricky somehow failed to deliver the expected amount of snark then I would devote this section of my review to talking about my boobs. 

With that in mind, what can I say except that they’re a little big and heavy and they pretty much ended my dreams of being a ballerina but I like my boobs, or as I call them Pride and Joy.  They go great with every outfit I own and I’m pretty sure that they’re also the reason why I’ve never had to pay a speeding ticket.  Plus, they allowed me to say stuff like, “I should be Ms. Golden Globes!” while I was watching the show last night…

Actually, I’m being a little bit unfair to the Golden Globes (the awards ceremony, not my boobs).  The tribute to Morgan Freeman was well-done and was probably the high point of the ceremony but then again, how can you go wrong with Morgan Freeman?  Seriously, when I’m on the verge of doing something silly (like using a review of the Golden Globes to show off my boobs) , I imagine Morgan Freeman saying, “Now, do you really think that’s a good idea?”

Fashion-wise, I saw a lot of red dresses last night and that made me happy because I look really good in red.

Among the winners, Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor for Beginners), Jean Dujardin (Best Actor In A Comedy Motion Picture for The Artist), Martin Scorsese (Best Director for Hugo), and Claire Danes (Best Actress In A Dramatic TV Show for Homeland) all gave good and classy acceptance speeches that made me feel good to be alive.  And Uggie the dog was so adorable up there on stage when The Artist won Best Motion Picture Comedy.  Actually, speaking of The Artist, it was kinda nice to see so many French people accepting awards last night.  (Oh, stop it!  I love France!)

I enjoyed it when Madonna won for best song because she was so shocked that she forgot to speak in her fake accent. 

On an admittedly petty note, Rooney Mara did not win Best Actress for David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and that amused me greatly because I knew that all the little AwardsDaily Fincherites were torn about how to whine about Mara losing with coming across as if they were criticizing Meryl Streep for winning.

What Did Not Work

So, let’s start with the main problem.  Last night’s Golden Globes ceremony was so respectable and predictable and slow that it might as well have just been the Oscars.  Ricky Gervais started out the ceremony by telling us that he had signed an agreement to not make any offensive or outrageous statements and then he did just that.  What’s especially annoying is that Ricky didn’t seem to be neutering himself as an act of protest or anything of the sort.  Instead, he just came across like he was too smug and sure-of-himself to realize that he was bombing.  It was as if he just expected his reputation to convince us that he was being funny and outrageous without actually being funny and outrageous.  Last year, Ricky Gervais skewered Hollywood phonies.  This year, Ricky Gervais was a Hollywood phony.  I sat there waiting for him to say just one thing that could potentially end his career and he refused to do it.

But Ricky wasn’t alone.  Seriously, where were the drunk winners launching into incoherent politically themed rants.  I mean, it’s an election year for God’s sake.  People on twitter were using the occasion to make all sorts of silly and naive political statements but the actual celebrities — the people who we depend on to act like a bunch of dumbasses — just sat there in this sort of placid anxiety like they were waiting for someone to show up for an intervention.

BLEH!

The majority of the night’s acceptance speeches were neither good nor bad.  They were just boring.  Listen, Meryl Streep is a great actress and I have no problem with her being recognized and awarded for her talent but oh my God, I nearly fell asleep trying to listen to her.  Now, if Meryl (or any other winner) had gotten up on stage and started slurring her words or making dirty jokes or something like that, it would have made for great television.  (Though I do have to give Meryl some credit for being the only winner to get bleeped.) 

The Descendants won Best Motion Picture Drama but seriously, it’s hard for me to accept that this well-made but essentially unchallenging and rather forgettable film is now the Oscar front-runner.  Seriously.  Much as with every other award it has won, The Descendants felt like something of a compromise choice and, considering that Scorsese won best director, it’s hard to gauge just how much momentum the Descendants is going to get from this victory. 

Oh!  And another thing that sucked — how did George Clooney win a Golden Globe for essentially playing the same character he always plays while Michael Fassbender’s brilliant work in Shame was ignored?  What type of game is that?

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

To quote Joan Crawford, “I’ll show you a pair of Golden Globes!”

Lessons Learned

This is shaping up to be one of the worst Oscar seasons in recent history.  Seriously, if just one deserving film or performance wins in February, I will be amazed.