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.

Film Review: The Catcher Was A Spy (dir by Ben Lewin)


I was so impressed with Paul Rudd’s performance in Avengers: Endgame that, last night, I decided to watch another Paul Rudd film, 2018’s The Catcher Was A Spy.

Based on a true story, The Catcher Was A Spy tells the tale of Moe Berg (Paul Rudd).  When we first meet Moe, it’s towards the end of World War II and Moe has been sent behind enemy lines to investigate just how close the Nazis are to building an atomic bomb.  Intelligence suggests that physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) is leading the Nazi effort and, if the intelligence turns out to be true, Moe has been ordered to assassinate Heisenberg.  As Moe considers whether or not he’s actually capable of killing a man, we get flashbacks to how Moe eventually ended up working as a spy.

What we learn is that, in the 1930s, Moe Berg was a major league baseball player.  He was a catcher and, though he was never a great player, he was famous for being far more educated than the average professional athlete.  At a time when open anti-Semitism was socially acceptable among America’s upper classes, Moe Berg managed to get an Ivy League education.  Not only does he keep up with current events but he can also speak several languages.  The other players aren’t quite sure what to make of Moe, nor does Moe ever seem to make much of an effort to open up to anyone, including his girlfriend, Estella (Sienna Miller, playing yet another girlfriend in yet another biopic).

Because he can speak Japanese, Moe is selected to be a part of a delegation of players who will be sent to Japan.  While the rest of the players hang out around the hotel, Moe hangs out with an intellectual named Kawabata (Hiroyuki Sanada), discusses inevitably of war, and — for reasons that the film deliberately leaves unclear — decides to shoot a film of Tokyo Harbor.

Five years later, with the United States now at war with the Axis powers, it’s that film that leads to Moe getting a meeting with the head of the Office of Strategic Services, Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels).  No longer a baseball player and apparently bored with coaching, Moe wants to become a spy.  Donovan notes that Moe has never married and asks him flat out if he’s gay.  Moe smiles slightly and says, “I’m good at keeping secrets.”

And indeed, he is!  Unfortunately, Moe is so good at keeping secrets that we never quite get into his head.  It’s hard not to compare this film to the superficially similar The Imitation Game.  But whereas that film made you feel as if you were seeing the world through Alan Turing’s eyes, The Catcher Was A Spy always seems to be standing outside of Moe Berg.  In the film’s final title cards, it refers to Moe as being an “enigma” and that’s pretty much the way he is throughout the entire film.  We like him because he’s played by Paul Rudd but we never really feel like we know him.  The closest the film comes to suggesting what’s going on inside the head of its main character is when Moe — who has described himself as non-religious — attends a Kol Nidrel service at a Zurich synagogue and, for a few minutes, Moe lets his guard down.  But, for the majority of the film, Moe remains unknowable.

With the exception of one battle scene, it’s also a rather low-key spy film, one that’s more in the style of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than SPECTRE.  Again, that may be true to the actual story but, considering that it’s a film about a possibly gay Jew working to take down a homophobic, anti-Semitic war machine, it’s still hard not to regret the film’s lack of big “stand up and cheer” moments.  Clocking in at a rather brisk 97 minutes, it’s hard not to feel that there’s some big pieces missing from the film’s story.

Here’s the good news: Paul Rudd proves himself to be a thoroughly charismatic leading man in this film, showing that he can hold the audience’s attention even without special effects or a punch line.  Rudd does an excellent job playing a character who, to be honest, has very little in common with what we may think of as being a typical Paul Rudd role.  Rudd is always watchable, even while Moe Berg remains an enigma.  Hopefully, Rudd will get more opportunities in the future to show us what he’s truly capable of doing as an actor.

New Orleans Film Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (dir by Werner Herzog)


“Do you think fish dream?”

— Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Happy Mardi Gras!

Since today is not only Fat Tuesday but also rapidly coming to a close, I think it’s time for me to share one final New Orleans film review.  Admittedly, though this film takes place and was filmed in New Orleans, it doesn’t feature any Mardi Gras scenes.  However, it does feature a lead performance that is perhaps as bizarre as anything that you’re likely to see in the French Quarter tonight.  Of course, I’m talking about Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans.

Whenever I mention this movie to anyone, it only takes a few minutes before they get around to saying, “What was the deal with the iguanas?”  Everyone remembers the two iguanas who would randomly show up throughout the movie.  At one point, they were sitting in a coffee table while Lt. Terrence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) and Sgt. Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) were watching a house across the street.  When McDonagh demanded to know why the iguanas were on his coffee table, Pruit replied, “There ain’t no iguanas.”  McDonagh looked down at them and grinned.  This was followed by several hand-held close-ups of the iguanas, looking around inquisitively while McDonagh kept giving them the side eye.

The iguanas show up a second time, after McDonagh has tricked one gangster into killing another gangster.  “Shoot him again,” McDonagh demands, “his soul’s still dancing!”  Herzog pans over to show us that, indeed, the man’s soul is still dancing next to his corpse.  After the soul gets shot down, an iguana wanders across the floor.

What do the iguanas represent?  Some people think that they actually are meant to be hallucinations.  As the result of a back injury that he received saving a prisoner during Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh has permanent back problems and this has led to him getting hooked on drugs.  The perpetually high McDonagh sees and does a lot of bizarre things over the course of this movie.  Perhaps the iguanas are just a part of his addiction.

Myself, I think the iguanas represent the fact that, no matter what McDonagh and anyone else in New Orleans does over the course of the film, the randomness of nature is going win out in the end.  After all, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens with Katrina, which is perhaps the ultimate example of how helpless modern society is in the face of nature’s whims.  The film takes places in neighborhoods that have yet to recover from the flooding.  Every corner of the film is full of physical, emotional, and mental debris.  McDonagh pops pills and snorts cocaine in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control but ultimately, the iguanas are going to show up regardless of how much control he thinks he has.  Just as how Klaus Kinski, at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, couldn’t keep the monkeys off of his raft, Terrence McDonagh can’t keep the iguanas off of his coffee table.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans apparently started life as a reboot of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant.  The script (which was credited to William M. Finkelstein) is full of moments that mirror scenes from Ferrara’s film.  Once again, the protagonist is a corrupt police lieutenant who spends almost the entire film fucked up on drugs and whose only friend is a prostitute.  Again, there’s a disturbing scene in which the lieutenant harasses a young woman in a parking lot.  Again, the lieutenant has gambling debts and again, the lieutenant has to solve a horrifying crime.

While promoting his film, Herzog always said that 1) he had never seen Bad Lieutenant and 2) he didn’t even know who Abel Ferrara was.  Judging from the way Herzog directs the film, which is the complete opposite of the approach that Ferrara took to similar material, I’m inclined to believe Herzog.  Whereas Ferrara’s film was a grim and humorless plunge into the depths of Hell, Herzog takes an almost satirical approach to the story.  The running joke throughout Herzog’s film is that the bad lieutenant gets results precisely because he is so thoroughly messed up and incompetent.  The final part of Herzog’s film features so many sudden twists and turns that it’s hard not to conclude that Herzog is poking fun at how American crime films always have to wrap everything up within the final fifteen minutes, regardless of how messy or convoluted their plots may be.  Whereas Ferrara’s film featured Harvey Keitel naked and bellowing in soul-searing pain, Herzog gives us Nicolas Cage grinning, laughing, and apparently having a ball.

This has got to be one of Nicolas Cage’s wildest performances.  He yells.  He bulges his eyes.  He grins maniacally at the strangest moments.  He interrogates a suspect while taking hits off a joint.  Because his character has a bad back, Cage moves stiffly, carrying himself almost as if he were a living Golem.  McDonagh may have his demons but, at the same time, he also seems to be having a blast every time we see him.  Wisely, Herzog also allows the character some quieter moments.  When the lieutenant talks about how he used to imagine there was pirate treasure buried in his back yard or when he and an ex-con sit in front of a gigantic fish tank, Cage gets a chance to show that there actually is something going on underneath all of McDonagh’s bluster.  This not only one of Cage’s most over the top performances but also one of his best.

Herzog not only gets the best out of Cage but also the best out of New Orleans.  He may not make New Orleans look beautiful but he still captures the atmosphere that has made New Orleans one of the most legendary cities in the world.  Cage, Herzog, and New Orleans make for a great combination.

A Halloween Film Review: Kong: Skull Island (dir by Jordan Vogt-Roberts)


You may have noticed that, in the title of this post, I specifically referred to Kong: Skull Island as being a Halloween film but not a horror film.

That was very much intentional on my part.  Kong: Skull Island is really not a horror film.  (I think you could argue that the only King Kong film that can legitimately be considered a horror film would be Peter Jackson’s version and that’s just because he tossed in a few scenes that were obviously inspired by the old Italian cannibal films.)  I watched Kong: Skull Island a few months ago and I really can’t say that there was ever a moment where I was scared or even uneasy.  It’s just not that type of film.

At the same time, it is a fantastically fun and entertaining monster movie, one that has a good sense of humor about its own absurdity.  Halloween is not just a time to get scared.  It’s also a time to have fun and, for that reason, Kong: Skull Island is a perfect movie for October.  In fact, I think that it was actually a mistake for Warner Bros. to release the film in March.  They should have released it during the first weekend of October.  It could have provided a counterbalance to all of the depressing films that have been released this month,

Kong: Skull Island is a throwback to the gleefully absurd monster movies of the past.  Just so we don’t miss that point, the film starts with a 1944 prologue before then jumping forward to 1973.  (Significantly, not a single scene takes place in the 21st Century.)  Samuel L. Jackson plays Lt. Col. Preston Packard, the tough, no-nonsense commander of the Sky Devils helicopter squadron.  The Sky Devils are finally on the verge of leaving Vietnam but they’ve been asked to carry out on more mission.  They’ve been asked to fly an expedition over a newly discovered island.  The official story is that they’re going to be mapping the island but everyone knows better than to trust the government.

Kong: Skull Island is very well-cast, which is a good thing because the majority of the characters are thinly written.  Among the civilians in the helicopters: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  Of course, they’re all playing characters but, for the most part, you’ll spend the entire movie thinking of them as being Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  For that matter, you never think of Samuel L. Jackson as being Preston Packard.  He simply is Samuel L. Jackson.  When they eventually discover a castaway living on the island, it doesn’t matter that the man’s “name” is supposedly Hank Marlow.  He’s played by john C. Reilly and that’s who you’ll always think of him as being.   They’re all charismatic actors so you certainly don’t mind watching them but, at the same time, the film understands that the main reason we’re all here is to see the giant gorilla.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t take long for King Kong to show up.  This is not one of those films where things are dragged out in an unnecessary attempt to create suspense.  (After all, the audience already knows that King Kong’s on the island.)  Almost as soon as the helicopters breach the airspace over Skull Island, Kong shows up and starts knocking them out of the sky.  The survivors end up stranded on different parts of the island.

Of course, it’s not just Kong that they have to worry about.  In fact, from the start, the audience is smart enough to know that Kong is actually one of the good monsters.  However, Skull Island is also inhabited by bad monsters, like these giant reptiles that Kong keeps having to fight.

Early on, there’s a scene in America where, in regards to the Watergate scandal, John Goodman says that Washington, D.C. is never going to be more screwed up than it is at that moment.  That line pretty much epitomizes Kong: Skull Island.  It’s a lark with a knowing sense of humor and it is not meant to be taken at all seriously.  At it’s best, Kong: Skull Island satirizes some of the most pompous monster movies of the past.  Whenever someone says something portentous, you can be sure that the film will quickly find a way to puncture the somber mood.

And it’s all terrifically entertaining.  Watch, enjoy, and don’t worry too much about whether or not any of it makes sense.  A trip to Skull Island is a trip worth taking.

Film Review: Cop Car (dir by Jon Watts)


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Cop Car opens with two young boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) walking through a field.  Over the course of the film, we really don’t learn that much about either Travis or Harrison.  They speak in the tones and accent of childhood and the trailer park.  They’re just two ordinary kids, who appear to be bored out of their mind and who can blame them because it appears that they live out in the middle of nowhere.

And then, suddenly, their boredom ends.

They comes across a deserted cop car sitting in the middle of the wilderness.  After a successive number of dares, they end up inside of the car.  And then, they discover that the keys are still in the car as well.  Soon, Harrison and Travis are taking turns driving the car, roaring down the highway, nearly running an irate motorist (Camryn Manheim) off the road and basically having a great time.

What the kids don’t know is that the cop car belonged to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), a grim-faced lawman who isn’t going to allow two little kids to make a fool out of him.  Even while Harrison and Travis are playing around in the car, Kretzer is pursuing them.  Along the way, Kretzer is reduced to stealing a truck, gets stopped for speeding, and basically sacrifices any ounce of personal dignity that he may have.  Along the way, cars crash and cows are nearly run over.

And it all sounds like the making of a comedy, doesn’t it?  Just from reading the plot description, you might be justified in thinking that Cop Car is a white trash version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Well, make no mistake.  Cop Car has its funny moments but it is definitely not a comedy.  Sheriff Kretzer may occasionally be a bit of a bumbling adversary but he is no Principal Rooney.  Instead, Kretzer is a vicious and effective killer.

The reason Kretzer was away from his car is that he was busy burying a body in the woods.  And what the kids don’t realize, at first, is that there’s another body in the trunk of the car.  Kretzer is determined to get back his cop car and he’s willing to kill the boys to do it.  Even worse, Kretzer’s badge and uniform give him both the ability and the authority to do so.

There’s one particularly effective scene where Harrison and Travis playing with the weapons that Kretzer left in the car is juxtaposed with Kretzer pouring a baggie of cocaine into a toilet.  But, at the same time, I almost wish that the whole drug dealing subplot had been left out of the film.  When we first meet Kretzer, he’s scary precisely because his motives are unknowable.  He’s an authoritarian with a badge, and a bad mustache.  The more specific the film gets about Kretzer’s motivations, the less interesting he becomes.  Imagine if Kretzer has simply been an unstoppable force of wounded machismo, motivated by nothing more than his belief that his law is the only law that matters.  By making Kretzer a criminal as well as a cop, Cop Car dilutes its otherwise strong critique of the pro-authoritarian strain that currently runs through American culture.

As a thriller and chase film, Cop Car works pretty well, though the first half is significantly better than the second.  (The second half gets a little bogged down with the man in the trunk.)  Director Jon Watts keeps the film moving at a good pace and he shows that he knows how to generate suspense.  There’s a lengthy and narratively risky scene where Kretzer repeatedly tries and fails to pick a lock but the scene pays off in the end and Watts deserves some credit for having faith in the patience of his audience.

But really, Cop Car works largely because Kevin Bacon has become a national treasure.  It’s always fun to watch him throw himself into playing off-center roles like Sheriff Kretzer.  Bacon is smart enough to play up Kretzer’s stupidity without ever downplaying his dangerous and cunning nature.  It’s a great performance in a pretty good film.

A Late Film Review: Non-Stop (dir by Jaume Collet-Serra)


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With 2014 rapidly coming to a close, I am currently trying to get caught up on some of the movies that I either missed seeing or did not get a chance to review earlier this year.  After all, in just another month and a half, it’ll be time for me to make out my “Best Of the Year List” and I want to have as many options as possible.

With that in mind, I just finished watching Liam Neeson in Non-Stop, an action-suspense film that came out way back in February.

In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks.  It’s interesting to note that Bill Marks has the same initials as Bryan Mills, the very specifically trained CIA agent that Neeson plays in the Taken films.  And really, Bill Marks might as well Bryan Mills because Neeson pretty much gives the exact same performance in Non-Stop that he previously gave in Taken.  That’s not necessarily a criticism.  There’s a reason why Liam keeps getting cast in these type of roles.  He’s good at them.

In fact, I would say that Liam Neeson is one of the few action stars who I can imagine actually killing someone in real life (though only if he had to).  He has a rugged, world-weary cynicism about him.  You look into the eyes of a character played by Liam Neeson and you realize that he’s had to do things that you probably don’t want to know anything about.  At the same time, Neeson also projects a certain old-fashioned decency as well.  He’s the epitome of a decent man forced to use bad methods for the good of us all.

As for Non-Stop, I imagine it was probably pitched as being “Taken on a plane.”  Bill Marks is an air marshal who is on board a non-stop flight from New York to London.  Shortly after the plane takes off, he starts to receive mysterious text messages telling him that, unless he arranges for a 150 million dollar ransom to be paid into a specific bank account, someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes.  While Bill tries to discover who is sending him the text messages and various people on the plane die, the authorities on the ground are convinced that Bill is hijacking the plane.  Why?  Well, mostly because the bank account is in Bill’s name…

That’s right!  Somebody’s trying to frame Bill Marks!  Can Bill — with the help of a passenger played by Julianne Moore — figure out who is trying to frame him and why?  I have to admit that there was a part of me that was hoping that it would turn out that Bill really was the mastermind behind the whole scheme but instead, the movie offers up a solution that is even more ludicrous and illogical.  Naturally, there’s a twist.  The hijacking is not what it originally appears to be.  Perhaps if Non-Stop itself was more fun, the total implausibility of the twist wouldn’t bother me.

Director Juame Collet-Serra (who previously directed Neeson in Unknown) manages a few good action sequence but, ultimately, Non-Stop is really saved only be the presence of Liam Neeson.  Regardless of how implausible or silly the film may get, Neeson always brings a lot of authority to his role.  He’s never more convincing than when he’s walking up and down the aisles, glaring at the passengers and barking out orders.

It’s the type of performance that leaves us assured that the world will be safe as long as Liam Neeson is around to kill people.

Liam Neeson, about to kill someone

Liam Neeson, about to kill someone