All the church’s children


The Spotlight team investigate decades of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the early 2000s.

Spotlight is the closest journo-movie heir to Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece, All the President’s Men, and it has the bloodline to prove it.

Enter the Boston Globe offices in 2001, a land of cubicles that is not very different from that of its journo-movie forefathers. A new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, so subtle and unrecognizable) arrives at the office, and redirects the Globe’s Spotlight team, an investigative unit within the paper, to cases of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area–a city that, director Tom McCarthy ominously reminds us often with with nearly every exterior shot, celebrates its Roman Catholic roots with a church in every neighborhood.

The Spotlight team is supervised by Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery, as effortless and charming as ever)–who is, yes, the son of the editor at the Washington Post during Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate, ergo, bloodline–and comprised of Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton, who is more refreshing here than he was in, say, Birdman), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, turning in an energetic performance), Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams, effective and appropriately restrained), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James, solid and sometimes even humorous).

The team discovers that the Boston Archdiocese have been covering up the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests for decades. And, it’s not just a Boston problem–it’s happening all over the United States, and perhaps all over the world. Although cases of pedophile priests  and their subsequent cover-ups have been on the evening news for more than a decade, it never becomes less disgusting, or less shocking. We know that, and the film understands that all too well.

What allows Spotlight a place in the upper echelon of journalism movies is that it’s really about the work itself. It can feel like a slow burn procedural sometimes, but it’s not a procedural in the way, say, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is a procedural, because it doesn’t play games with the audience, and it doesn’t treat its subjects like spectacles. The film is not afraid to shy away from the fact that important stories get shoved to the side all the time, and it’s easy to wonder why justice doesn’t prevail as quickly as it should, even when the film’s heroes are at the helm. And like all good journalism, it’s also an exceedingly straightforward, earnest, and compassionate film.

As much as the film wants to celebrate its journalistic heroes, it’s also a film that allows the disturbing abuse to speak for itself. There’s a scene at a diner where Sacha talks to a gay sexual abuse victim and he abruptly ends his description of his encounter with the priest with “then he molested me,” and Sacha urges him to be more specific, because, well, words, however painful, really matter in this story.

Sure, Sacha believes him, but she knows that her readers like details–or else, they–we, the public–may not believe it at all. However, it’s the kind of scene, if done poorly, could feel like a spectacle awaiting the dramatic swelling of a film score, but the subtlety alone gives the audience a sense that McCarthy and Co. care about the victims and want to give them a fair chance to tell their stories, without any judgment or distractions.

Similar to how journalists operate, McCarthy treats its audience like a court of public opinion. The film meticulously documents the discovery of each puzzle piece, proving it time and time again, until it is deemed fit to fall into place. It wants to be a film that doesn’t take that many chances, which works in the film’s favor.

Also working in the film’s favor is the ensemble cast. The cast spits out McCarthy and Josh Singer’s dialogue with serious urgency, and balanced by movie office-calibre wit. Other noteworthy performances include Stanley Tucci, as an attorney advocating for sexual abuse victims, and Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan, as attorneys who assisted the Catholic church in settling under-the-table sexual abuse cases.

Spotlight is not a frivolous film, nor is it an ambiguous film. It’s a film that treats its victims, survivors, and heroes with the kind of respect they deserve. Although it’s a film that clearly condemns its villains–the church and church leaders–it’s also somewhat empathetic to their plight, in a way that makes the situation more frighteningly human than purely monstrous. Yes, there’s a sense of black and white here, but the film is smart enough to acknowledge that the audience’s choice shouldn’t be so difficult at all.



Steve Jobs’ world’s a stage


Real-life person Steve Jobs (as played by Michael Fassbender) is a brilliant jerk who the film wants to help redeem.

I saw Steve Jobs on Veteran’s Day, after it was already pulled from 2,000 theaters. I had enough faith in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle–that the two of them, together, were going to make something acerbic and visually stunning, intelligent and sympathetic. Sorkin could be the conflicted half–idealistic, but jaded–and Boyle could be the nurturing half–idealistic, but hopeful.

Yet, I’m running out of cute adjectives to defend reasons why Sorkin and Boyle could be the right writer/director duo for this particular project, because deep down, I yearned for the encore partnership of Sorkin and director David Fincher, the collaboration of the ages.

However, Sorkin and Boyle were still trying for a breath of fresh air. It’s distinct from any traditional biopic, or any traditional movie of the past few years. Because it’s essentially a three-act play, a forgotten disclaimer, which, in a way, sealed its destiny to not be very financially successful, with a very different kind of seal from, say, a Steve Jobs movie starring Ashton Kutcher.

With that three-act play format, Sorkin’s playing homage to an era of film that wanted to transport all the things that made theater great–the acting and the writing–rather than being overtly cinematic. By focusing on three chapters of Jobs’ life–the launches of the Apple Macintosh, NeXT, and the iMac–Sorkin is able to follow the same man, in different circumstances in the grand scheme of things, but in similar circumstances if you had a microscope–a narrative technique that allows some fun with time, place, and characters, who act more like hyper-verbal leitmotifs than actual people. And the best part is, in every act of the film, Jobs is preparing to go on stage. Because, well, get it?

That’s sort of at odds with Boyle’s style, which is one that is incredibly cinematic, visual, uplifting, personable–the kind of style that relies on a movie camera and an editing room to portray well. But ironically, that’s precisely what makes Sorkin’s script a bit more humane, and more than a screenwriter’s experiment. Thanks to Boyle, the film is unafraid to be sentimental, apologetic, and well, preachy.

The flip-side of being a somewhat gooey film is that it makes it easy to humanize an unlikable character. We meet Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender, in a thrilling performance)–demanding, egotistical, nervous. We are meant to hate him, but also sort of like him, in all his Sorkinesque, anti-hero glory–because he’s brilliant, and witty, and hurls all those hyper-articulate insults that we wished we had the power to say.

In the course of the film, Jobs confides in his marketing executive, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, a good foil for Fassbender’s ultra-intensity), who plays every female role in Jobs’ life, with the exception of a lover; demands the impossible from his engineer, Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, in what is probably destined to be an overlooked performance); shuns his ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston, a serviceable performance) and his daughter; disregards his old friend’s Steve Wozniak’s (Seth Rogen, doing his best in a dramatic role) contributions to Apple; and tries to both reject and hold on to the only father figure in his life, Apple CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, who is really wonderful here). At the end of the day, though, it’s evident that Sorkin and Boyle agree on one thing: we’re supposed to like their version of Jobs, because underneath all that assholism is a poor boy who wants to love, and be loved.

While watching it, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Social Network, for obvious reasons–Sorkin, tech, prestige picture. The Social Network was both timely and timeless–a masterpiece, and the best film of the decade, thus far. To put Steve Jobs’ box-office failure in perspective, it’s integral to look at why The Social Network was so wildly successful. Simply put, The Social Network came out when Facebook just became a really big deal, and Mark Zuckerberg was sort of an enigmatic wunderkind in the tech industry. Sorkin was able to mold his version of Movie Zuck into whatever Tech Movie Universe he wanted to drop this kid in, and it would feel persuasive. Because at its heart, The Social Network was not just a Greek tragedy, but it’s about a time and place–a social commentary, if you will–and not really about Mark Zuckerberg at all.

That said, Steve Jobs is really about Steve Jobs, the man. Or it was really trying to be–or trying to concoct a version of Steve Jobs that may or may not be real. But too much is already known about Steve Jobs–too many movies, documentaries, and books have attempted to both mortalize and immortalize the man–that the public is surely suffering from Jobs fatigue. That’s the only part where the movie feels a bit disingenuous, in the sense that it’s atoning for a real deceased man’s sins, or sometimes, preaching to a deceased man, but that deceased man has been fictionalized to serve plot purposes. Yes, it’s pretty ambitious, but also pretty silly. Because the public already knows too much about the man to believe in a cheesy movie version of him–and that’s where I think Fincher would have done better.

But it’s even sillier to dwell on what-ifs. Not to say that Steve Jobs is not the movie it was supposed to be. In fact, it was simply the case that it was not the movie I wanted it to be. Despite everything, though, Steve Jobs is still a very good movie–great, even. Visually stunning, beautifully edited, sharply written–it demands your attention, if you care about dialogue, acting, cinematography. However, even if it did sell tickets along with its critical acclaim, there wasn’t any promise that the general masses would have enjoyed an esoteric three-act play disguised as a movie.

Sorkin and Boyle has made a film that’s conceptually absurd in its ambitions–sometimes chaotic, sometimes sweet, sometimes moralizing–but it sort of captures what a cinematic-theater sub-genre could be like, with all its loose ends and tied knots, creating what is ultimately a staged spectacle projected onto the silver screen.

Eclipse of the truth

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) playing the cool girl.

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) playing the cool girl.

It has taken me a few weeks to collect my thoughts about David Fincher’s brilliant adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. So as a disclaimer, this review is going to contain spoilers.

What made The Social Network a very special film back in 2010 is that it said something to people living and breathing in 2010, yet it could easily mean something as important and relevant to people living in any other year. Because ultimately, Fincher made both a timely and timeless film about our collective hopes and dreams; he tapped into our dirty aspirations for an envy-inducing social status and our deepest desires and expectations from our friends. It’s the kind of film that necessitates a strong, lively voice to stay afloat and Fincher, luckily, found exactly that in Aaron Sorkin’s ferociously fast-paced, bitingly witty script. From Sorkin’s script onwards, Fincher is able to supply his composed, introspective, Trent Reznor-scored canvas with splashes of humor and–dare I say it–heart.

And now Fincher has made Gone Girl, based on Flynn’s adaptation of her own blockbuster novel. The film’s twist is probably more fun if you haven’t read the book, but as expected, it’s a very loyal adaptation. Although, to be honest, Flynn’s book is an easy beach read. It’s not as sharply observant or beautifully written as Flynn’s previous effort, Dark Places, but it contains some of the most insightful, daring passages I’ve read on womanhood in ages. Anyone who accuses Flynn of misogyny has so entirely missed the point because the crucial point of Flynn’s book (and Fincher’s film) is a defense of the woman, and a critique of the man.

For the uninitiated, Gone Girl opens as Nick Dunne’s (portrayed by a marvelously cast Ben Affleck) wife, Amy (portrayed by a radiant Rosamund Pike in a perfect performance), has gone missing. What starts out as a possible kidnapping case on the Dunnes’ fifth anniversary quickly unfolds in the media as a possible murder in a marriage turning sour. Everyone begins to suspect that Nick Dunne–apathetic, reserved all-American male, with a local bar started on his wife’s trust fund–may have very well killed a wife who could have done much better.

Yet Gone Girl is less about the mystery and more about the Dunnes’ marriage. It joins the long tradition of stories that are, at its core, about marriage–the relationship between two people and their expectations for each other. Oftentimes, those expectations are unrealistic, and in the Dunnes’ case, frighteningly so. The film’s mystery pretty much ends at the halfway point, a telling punctuation that the film is not really about where Amy has gone, but more about why Amy is gone.

Flynn’s iconic “cool girl” monologue from the novel has been beautifully adapted to the screen by Fincher, a director who is equipped with the intuition that the monologue must stay. That monologue contains some of the sharpest social commentary about women and men I’ve encountered in a while. It’s a confession that women everywhere would inevitably recognize–that women often mold themselves into the male’s version of the “dream girl,” that women restrain themselves from what they really want to do or say in fear of male judgment, and most importantly, the fact that women no longer can be themselves because most men, especially in this day and age, have been rendered into a perpetual state of man-child syndrome, unable to take disapproval and only open to the auto-pilot rituals of sycophantic flattery. Women are told to “get over things” by their male overseers and their female peers–don’t make a fuss, it’s not a big deal, just be chill about all the shit, let the poor boy win. Women are no longer living in the era of a Rhett Butler who likes Scarlett O’Hara the way she really is; women are now trying to get the attention of an ADD-prone Judd Apatow hero who masturbates to the filtered photo of that girl who advertises her tight ass on Instagram because she thinks that is the easiest thing about her to like. Flynn gets all of that–she knows that the girl with the tight ass has so much more to offer to the world as a fully realized human being–who can hurt and be hurt, who can think and incite thought–than as the object of the clinical male gaze.

And that’s why Amy is gone. Because Amy has realized Nick likes the facade more than the truth.

In this day and age, it’s getting easier to be the person you want people to think you are–both from a distance, and up close. You can update your Facebook status, post a photo on Instagram, and people will come to an instant conclusion on the type of person you are. And, even in real life, we’re all being programmed to reach a conclusion–what type of person are you? versus the more chilling, what type of person do you want people to think you are? But what happens when everyone–including your spouse–thinks you are, and should be, the identity you’ve projected, or promised, rather than person you truly are? And is it your fault or theirs?

Gone Girl battles all those things, making it a painful zeitgeist of our times. Like Fincher’s The Social Network, Gone Girl forces us to examine and confront our relationships and our identities.

None of this would work without Pike’s chilling, star-turning performance as Amy Dunne. Pike has been a steady working actress for years, but under Fincher’s direction, she finally has an opportunity to blossom. Fincher understands Pike’s knack to slip into any role, from the sweet older sister from Pride & Prejudice to the sophisticated, posh socialite in An Education. Vulnerable and calculating, Pike’s performance as Amy allows all of Pike’s previous personas to seamlessly come together in a complex–and sometimes terrifying–portrait of a woman scorned, yet still unusually desperate and sympathetic.

Then there’s her marital foil, Nick Dunne, played by Affleck in one of his most natural performance to date. Affleck has never been good as the romantic comedy lead and I’m glad that the Affleck era of rom-coms seems to be over. He had always seemed somewhat uncomfortable, stiff, and uncharming in those roles (see: Gigli, Forces of Nature, the list goes on). When I saw Affleck in State of Play as the slimy politician, it just seemed like that was the kind of role he was meant to play. So perhaps Affleck became a director so he can properly cast himself instead of being inappropriately typecast. But here, Fincher cleverly shapes him into the Average Joe husband well–constantly longing for validation, gradually feeling tired of all the games that he isn’t able to quite keep up with. Affleck’s performance is certainly overshadowed by Pike’s more expertly crafted one, but there’s no denying: Affleck as Nick Dunne is genius casting; it’s a casting that turns Affleck’s weakness–lack of actorly bravura–into a strength.

Pike and Affleck lead a strong supporting cast, including Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s former lover, Tyler Perry as Nick’s lawyer, Carrie Coon as Nick’s no-nonsense sister, Kim Dickens as the clear-headed detective on the case, Patrick Fugit as the comical cop on the case, Missi Pyle as the Nancy Grace-esque TV journalist, and Sela Ward as the TV journalist set to interview Nick in an exclusive.

Gone Girl is film that says something about our times, our expectations, our dreams. For a film with such a dark subject matter, it’s actually a pretty funny film. Fincher and Flynn dare us to laugh as they tease and haunt us with the possibility that all that we’ve ever wanted can go horribly wrong because it went wrong for their picture-perfect couple. If anything, we’ve all been prisoners of some twisted, misguided sense of entitlement at some point in our lives, but for the Dunnes, it may be too late for them to redeem themselves.

Man with style

Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) prove a relentless team against suspicions.

Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) prove a relentless team against police suspicions.

Generally speaking, I like Wes Anderson. I’ve seen Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic. From those experiences, I can confidently gather that, if he and I were ever to meet over coffee for an hour or two, there is a lot of potential for pleasant conversation. We can talk about Salinger, Peanuts, ’60s and ’70s music, our favorite color palettes, our thrift store finds, and so on–it wouldn’t be too shabby, is what I’m trying to say.

Which leads me to wonder: Do I actually like Anderson’s films, or do I simply just think he has impeccable taste? It is 2014, and we’re all still wondering whether or not Anderson is style or substance.

Perhaps The Grand Budapest Hotel could answer this once and for all. It is certainly one of Anderson’s most tightly-plotted films and shows his incredible growth as a storyteller, transcending from his usual status as a platonic paramore of his own creations. Of course, it contains all the usual Anderson trademarks–quirk, whimsy, wit, and nostalgia–but he’s figuring out how to use his trademarks to complement his stories, rather than dominate them. However, the film still struggles to be much more than a bittersweet lullaby.

The film follows the adventures of Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a dedicated concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel, and his trusted lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). The plot unravels when Gustave inherits a famous painting, “Boy with Apple,” after the death of his extraordinarily wealthy, but enigmatic lover, Madame D (Tilda Swinton). Madame D’s family members are displeased with her decision, especially her sinister son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who subsequently tries to make Gustave’s life a living hell. Gustave enlists his trusted Zero’s help in these times of desperation and the two grow ever closer to each other.

And to tell you any more about the story would spoil all that Anderson has to offer. Here, he’s made a film that’s meticulous, not only by design and characters, but also by plot. I admire that. Even if you don’t care for Anderson’s affinity for mid-twentieth century decor,  there is a lot to be said about his willingness to not only be meticulous, but also unique.

Anderson also possesses a keen talent for characterization, which is probably why so many great actors are attracted to being in his films. No matter how minor the role, the actors seem to get an opportunity to chew the scene up. In addition to Brody’s wonderfully fun performance as the sinister son, some other highlights include Edward Norton as the police inspector, Saoirse Ronan as Zero’s love interest, and F. Murray Abraham as the older Zero. But, most evidently, the film belongs to its star, because, who knew Fiennes had such great comedic timing? Anderson wrote Gustave as a larger-than-life character and Fiennes convinces us that that Gustave H is a larger-than-life character, with all his contradictions and charisma. And newcomer Revolori adequately keeps us with Fiennes’ antics, providing some necessary humanity in a cast of established eccentrics.

Despite Anderson’s recent foray into giving great care to the plot, this film still feels warily episodic. Sure, there is an arc that ties everything together, but it also largely relies on the mechanics of dramatic irony. This just demonstrates that Anderson still cares more about his characters’ journeys, rather than their ultimate destination–and should it be this way? Compare Anderson to his fellow writer/director contemporary, Christopher Nolan, whose characters seem to be purely ornamental to his story, and you get an idea of the kind of filmmaker is and isn’t. Anderson often explores the nature of emotional restraint, but to what end?

Anderson purposefully doesn’t tread across certain territories, and that is part of the beauty and part of the frustration of his films. He asks his audiences to take things at face value–things just are. He wants to leave several doors unopened. There’s a sense of dishonesty and superficiality to that. He’s fine with his scenes being a little absurd and his characters being a little cartoonish–it’s all part of the fun. But, like his characters, it’s almost as though he’s restraining himself from exploring his own possibilities as a filmmaker. He’s cynical, but not too cynical; he’s hopeful, but not too hopeful; he’s ambitious, but not too ambitious. For all the stylistic extremes Anderson seems to relish in, the tone of his films perpetually oscillates between extremes, much like his characters’ emotional states.

That being said, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fine film. It tells and engaging story, is an aesthetically beautiful film, the performances are zany and lovable, and Alexandre Desplat’s score suits the film well. But something is being unfairly withheld, and until Anderson could express that, his films would continue to wield an unfortunate ratio of style over substance.

As she lays aging

Joe Gillis (William Holden) and Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) yearning for the Hollywood spotlight in Sunset Boulevard.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) and Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) yearning for the Hollywood spotlight in Sunset Boulevard.

I remember seeing The Last Picture Show for the first time in junior high and thought it was boring and morally degrading. I saw it a second time near the end of my senior year in high school and was compelled by it. It was a film about a period of life, which includes relationships, the local movie theater, past transgressions, coming to a bittersweet close. You kind of have to live a little and mature a little (and I mean this in the most chaste way possible because I didn’t really live at all in high school) in order to appreciate the rich themes conveyed in that film.

We all grow up. Sometimes, we don’t even notice until our tastes have gone surprisingly awry.

I remember seeing Sunset Boulevard when I was 13 or 14 (probably around the same time I first saw The Last Picture Show) and not really enjoying it at all. I found it rather grim and boring. I just saw it last night, before bed, and it was one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences I’ve been through. I’m still thinking about it. I’m still haunted, still enthralled by it. I want to re-watch it, but I’ve convinced myself that my time could be better wasted (i.e. writing this thing).

I don’t know what changed. I still don’t know how it feels to be a silent film actress trying to make a comeback in a talkie-infested Hollywood.  I haven’t had to work in the film industry, though I suppose I have read more about the film industry since I last saw this film. However, I think it’s that I simply have a greater, deeper appreciation for a well-written film that I didn’t possess before.

I envy the writers–Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman–for being able to write such a brilliant, witty, bitingly funny script, with such satirical, yet honest insights on Hollywood, tight, fast-paced plotting and dialogue, and wonderful characters. And Wilder never gets enough retrospective credit for being a great director–not as just an actor’s director, but a Great Director. While he’s been known to shun the intentional technical spectacles of his contemporaries, complaining that they’re distracting to storytelling, his films remain so eloquently made, with great detail attended to the set, the costumes–the general atmosphere of it all.

Think of the scenes in Norma Desmond’s own version of Satis House. The only things that are missing are the spider webs and the wedding cake–the madness is still ever so present. Think of that scene when Norma Desmond visits Cecil B. DeMille’s film set and how light is so expertly used. Norma sits down and she’s in the dark, until she’s noticed by the lights guy, who slowly shines the light on her once again, attracting the attention of the actors on the set–and once the lights disappear, the fans disappear also, making that scene so harshly symbolic of the fallen star’s career. Even think of Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen) at the New Year’s Eve party and how their faces barely touch–but it’s hotter than any forcibly erotic film scene from the past 10 years. Wilder can capture them all–the highs, the lows–his camera is always keenly observant and aesthetically marvelous.

And I can refer to Norma and Joe with such ease, despite the fact that the actors certainly have distinct identities of their own. Gloria Swanson and William Holden are certainly not unknowns. Yet, they embody their characters so well–Swanson as the delusional has-been silent film star, so eager for her comeback, or “return” as she would prefer, and Holden as the desperate (but handsome) Hollywood screenwriter trying to help her out, until he realizes that she can’t be helped. Swanson and Holden are fabulous in their roles, embodying their characters with such energy and pinache. Swanson, with her exaggerated silent film star facial expressions, is so close to self-parodying, but self-aware enough to not be. Holden’s voice-over narration, in typical Wilder fashion, is a treat.

At the heart of the film is Erich von Stroheim’s Max von Mayerling, as Norma’s director/husband turned servant/chaffeur, who feeds her delusion by writing her fan letters. He loves her, so he tries to protect her from herself–hides things from her, makes things up to please her–but tragically, heartbreakingly, he’s perpetrating the lie that goes on and on and on. He’s a willing participant–or is he still the director of it all? The ending begs those questions.

It’s hard to write anything on Sunset Bouleveard that hasn’t been written already. However, it’s important to note that this film is still being written about. I initially wondered whether or not that was ignorant to say, but think about the classic films that are being still extensively written about, talked about, studied, and seen by people–it’s a mere handful compared to how many pictures Hollywood churned out back in the days. Many have been forgotten or lost. Sure, there are surviving films that are deemed classics, but even the Great Films don’t necessarily age that well–as much as I love Gone with the Wind, I would be lying if I said that it has aged perfectly. But Sunset Boulevard probably remains as fresh and exciting as it was when it was first released in 1950. And that could easily be said about many of Wilder’s films–The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity. All really fantastic, timeless films.

So if you’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard, see it. If you have, see it again. Hollywood has always liked making films about themselves, but this is the queen bee of that genre. No other film about Hollywood has been so willing to be both a brutal critic and an affectionate fan of that absurdly royal machinery.

Smells like capitalism

Leonardo DiCaprio is the titular wolf of The Wall of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio is the titular wolf in The Wall of Wall Street.

So if you want to read a another review of The Wolf of Wall Street, there are thousands all over the Internet. Also, count mine in. If you want to read another review paying its respects to Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, here it is.

For many orthodox Scorsese fans, this should be considered a return to form. Because of its subject matter and time period, Wolf is mildly reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s original Wall Street. However, stylistically, it’s the psychotic bastard son of Scorsese’s own GoodFellas and Casino–so all in all, welcome back, Marty. And for a 71 year old filmmaker, he remains as fresh and invigorating as ever.

There is a painfully low number of filmmakers out there that can make a film as energetic and alive as the one Scorsese has just released. Part of Scorsese’s magic as a filmmaker is that when you watch his films–especially when he’s at his finest–you feel like they are about engulf you. It’s as though the characters and the settings are all about to spontaneously self-implode, and–get this–these films are also engaging, insightful, and exceedingly clever.

That’s definitely no different in Wolf, one of Scorsese’s most fast-paced, entertaining films to date. It’s not a perfect film–it doesn’t show us anything we don’t already know, nor is it particularly innovative, since it is kindred spirits with Scorsese’s previous ventures–but it’s still an appropriately brutal portrait of wealth, excess, and greed on Wall Street of the late 1980s and mid-1990s. It’s cinematic debauchery at its finest–booze, drugs, sex, cash–before the inevitable downfall. Nevertheless, Scorsese proceeds with this familiar cinematic story arc with so much bombast, so much bravura. It doesn’t feel like he’s entirely repeating an oft visited and revisited by filmmakers before him–and soon enough, after him, especially in this recent day and age of Occupy Wall Street.

I understand that what has made Wolf so controversial is the on-going debate on whether or not it is a glorification or condemnation of the “wolf” of the title, Jordan Belfort’s, lifestyle.  From what I’ve read, though, the people who liked this film are very adamant to say that the film is definitely a condemnation, while those who disliked this film believe that it’s a glorification. It’s very hard to imagine the situation the other way around, though.

I’m partial toward the argument that it’s a condemnation–the portrayal of Belfort and his cronies are just too grotesque and too incredibly disgusting to me for me to see the film has a collective glorification of their actions. While the characters are undoubtedly having fun doing the wild, awful things they’re doing–and the audience is just getting a kick out of it–it just shows how great the film is at capturing the ambiance of the characters’ perspective of the moment. The debauchery is fun for that particular fleeting moment–it’s like you’re there. But if people walk out of this film thinking that they want to be like Belfort and Co., or have all the things that Belfort had throughout the film, despite all the trouble it caused, perhaps they should consider some serious therapy. Because the film shows the moral consequences, all perversely splattered on screen–harshly splintering all the usual suspects. Sure, Belfort gets a shortened sentence, becomes a motivational speaker, and ends up getting a book deal, which the film is based on, but the guy kind of had to sacrifice his soul. While Wolf is not nearly as blatantly violent as Scorsese’s mobster films, it’s morally violent–it’s a film that is aware that it’s telling the story of the morally degraded and it visually screams that the powers that may be really do and should think all of that shit is wrong.

But at the heart of this film is Leonardo DiCaprio’s undisciplined, unhinged, insane performance as Belfort. While I’ve grown to admire DiCaprio’s body of work or, more accurately, his choice of scripts and filmmakers, he’s never seriously impressed me. I remember walking out of Inception thinking that DiCaprio delivered a wonderful performance in a film that doesn’t necessarily demand stellar acting from its ensemble cast, since its script calls for its actors to merely act as functions in this imaginative world that Christopher Nolan has created–but realizing that DiCaprio didn’t care and delivered this really complete, beautiful performance, anyway. But after a second viewing of Inception, my admiration for DiCaprio returned to an oscillating positive ambivalence.

And, I think that’s mainly because DiCaprio has always been an actor who is often very disciplined, very controlled, very calculated in his work. His intensity has forced him to become a marionette to his own actorly conscience. I say that, not as a criticism, but as an observation–it doesn’t necessarily take away from his performances, but it also doesn’t make his performances better. The last time he seemed to be able to let go was in Catch Me If You Can, but ever since he became a Serious Actor, his performances feel like it’s being run on an engine that’s being continuously greased. Sure, he gets the job done–but he doesn’t do the job in a memorable, exciting, or even interesting way.

Oh, but in Wolf–it’s like DiCaprio kicked down that door that was holding him back. It’s a fearless, confrontational, loud performance–every bit as bold and bombastic as the film itself. The ridiculously moving motivation speeches, contrasted with the arrogant conversation Belfort has with the FBI agent on his yacht–that’s just pure, monstrous characterization that only an actor as skilled as DiCaprio could pull off. Because his performance is the film, essentially. Without DiCaprio, Scorsese wouldn’t have been able to make the film Wolf is. I couldn’t have said that about any of their other collaborations; the only film Scorsese has done in the past few years that really blew me away was Hugo, and that’s the only non-documentary film he’s done in the past decade without DiCaprio. Well, Wolf finally changed the tide for me and I’m damn glad it has. I hope this is the energy that DiCaprio will bring to his future performances–and especially in any future collaborations with Scorsese.

While this is very much a showcase for DiCaprio’s audacious performance, I would like to mention some of the standouts of the rest of the ensemble–Jonah Hill as Belfort’s right hand man, Margot Robbie as Belfort’s wife, Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent pursuing Belfort’s case, and Jean Dujardin as the Swiss banker in charge of Belfort’s Swiss bank account all hold their own against DiCaprio and are pleasures to watch.

DiCaprio’s performance as Belfort has been compared to his recent performance as Gatsby, which I wrote about a couple of months ago. While I feel the gaudiness in The Great Gatsby completely missed the point of Fitzgerald’s classic (and who Nick Carraway is as a character), I do not feel that the gaudiness in Wolf misses the point of in depicting the poor taste of the Wall Street lifestyle. In Wolf, it’s supposed to be tasteless–everyone just likes it because it’s a product that champions all that capitalism has to offer.

That being said, with this film, Scorsese has just proven that he’s the premiere cinematic author of the beautiful, elusive American dream. And while I want him to continue to challenge himself as a filmmaker, I do hope he revisits this theme again. Because many filmmakers have tried, but very few tell the dream, and the subsequent tragedy, with equal parts unbridled giddiness and compelling insight as Scorsese so ardently does.

What’s the deal with John Hughes?

Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, and Mia Sara in the delightfully endearing museum scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, and Mia Sara in the delightfully endearing museum scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I turned 13 in 2005. So obviously, I know very little about being a teenager in the 1980s. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I know a thing or two about being a teenager.

I absolutely hated high school. Because of the trauma I’ve experienced in my suburban high school experience (you know, with running water and AP classes and all), I’ve sort of gotten into the habit of categorizing the world around me into traditional high school stereotypes. I also believe college, in its profoundly libido-fueled shit-hole ways, has only intensified that need to stereotype things and verbally piss on things I hate. Except college has allowed me to be more vocal about things and have people actually nod their heads in unison with me. I can be a really immature brat sometimes, but I also strive to be a very honest, immature brat at my best. That is why college is great and high school will forever suck.

So if you are 17 years old and love movies and think no one understands your love for Billy Wilder, hang in there, because college is going to be great, even though there are still going to be people who don’t know who Billy Wilder is. Maybe you’re still going to be rejected by the pothead on your dorm floor and develop a really awkward (and mostly antagonistic relationship) with stoner culture in general–it’s going to be okay, it’s all going to work out. If it’s any consolation, you’re finally going to meet real people who know a thing or two about irony and how great it is. And you’re going to think they are brilliant, even though all they did was laugh at your poor attempts at wit.

This bring me back to being a teenager in the 1980s. I know nothing about being a teenager in the 1980s, which is why I initially thought I had such a deep disconnect with John Hughes films. I recently re-watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with my apartment (because someone demanded a movie night–long story, boring story). I’ve never loved Ferris Bueller. It’s on television pretty much three or four or five times a year and I would sometimes stop and watch it–especially for that superbly entertaining “Twist and Shout” scene in downtown Chicago–but I never loved the film, in the same way I love some of my favorite channel-surf films. I never loved it because it never made me laugh out loud. It’s never particularly resonated with me. I don’t care for those so-called “classic” moments in the film–I never really understood the appeal of “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller” or “Save Ferris” because, really, whatever. Sure, I love Matthew Broderick’s performance as Ferris–such a natural, breezy performance–but I never actually celebrated the film itself.

I may be wrong about the whole time period difference, though. I certainly know people my age who are in the cult of Hughes. And, I suppose, I “get” it. I suppose it has nothing to do with being a teenager in the 1980s, but more with being a teenager in general. I suppose that Hughes’ films capture the spirit of being a teenager–or how some people perceive as the spirit of being a teenager–and that is why his films have been such culturally timeless pieces of Americana. And sure, I guess I buy that theory. I guess I buy it in the way that adult television reviewers seem to think The Secret Life of the American Teenager badly interprets teenagers while I think it perfectly encapsulates the nonsensically insufferable mindf-ck of modern teenage culture. I suppose we are all measuring the authenticity of the teenage spirit with different barometers.

Except I’ve never even liked The Breakfast Club. I’ve actually seen it twice. Everyone I know loves it and I never understood the popularity. The second time I watched it was in my high school junior year English class where we watched it as a companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye, which made me upset because The Breakfast Club and The Catcher in the Rye are two completely separate entities that should never associate with each other. The disparity sort of lies in the fact that people who actually relate to Holden Caulfield are not the ones who care about any of the “issues” addressed in The Breakfast Club. But everyone in my class ate up The Breakfast Club. (I would argue that Rushmore and Igby Goes Down would have been better cinematic companions pieces for Salinger’s angsty classic.) Nothing in the film really rang true to me, nothing actually resonated with me, nothing spoke to me. We can all talk about how different we are or how similar we are–but so what? So nothing–it’s all fantasy, it’s all fluff. The Breakfast Club always felt like a very dishonest film because it desperately wants to be honest. I think what really left a bad taste in my mouth is that I don’t like the ending, especially since I never really understood why certain characters ended up together. It just made no sense to me.

I suppose I don’t care much for Pretty in Pink either, but I still find it slightly more entertaining than The Breakfast Club. I’m one of the few people who is okay with who Andie ended up with, but that is also just motivated by my general distaste for man-children, no matter how darn endearing they may be. I guess it’s also because Andrew McCarthy is so darn dreamy in that film, too. Ergo, it’s entertaining, at least in that sense. But it’s still not a film that proves that Hughes deserves to the all-time narrator for the American teenage experience.

Then there was a moment in Ferris Bueller that made me understand. There was a moment when Ferris breaks the fourth wall about how he and his best friend Cameron are going to graduate high school, go to different colleges–essentially live different lives. And how his girlfriend, Sloane, is still going to be in high school when he goes off to college and how he really meant it when he said he would marry her. And at that odd moment, I finally understood Hughes’ appeal: he captures a moment for those who love to hate and hate to love high school. He successfully captures the spirit of the yearbook note, the slow dance at prom, the moment when you make eye contact with your crush in the hallway. They are all fleeting moments in the grand scheme of things, but they were great when they happened. All those things I’ve always thought I was too cool for back in high school (because I was a nerd with misguided aspirations to be sophisticated), Hughes gets it and he makes it into a movie and he sometimes think it’s all bullshit, yet sometimes he thinks it’s something special. And people wax nostalgic about things like that.

And I think I get it in the sense that I am a college senior and I’ve actually sort of liked college, in the sense that some people actually sort of liked high school. And watching Ferris Bueller made me realize something about Hughes’ popularity: his films aren’t solely about being a teenager in the 1980s (though, I suppose, you can see them that way), but it is about a moment. It could be a really long moment, or a really short moment, but it’s a moment, nonetheless. It’s something that has passed or will pass. And it’s something that you will certainly miss, despite the anguish, the frustrations. Because you know that in retrospect, it will be a really, really beautiful moment that deserves to be looked back with fondness. And Hughes gets that. And so does the rest of sentimental America.

As a footnote, I’ve always really loved St. Elmo’s Fire. I realize it’s not a John Hughes film and it’s more of a brat pack film and it’s not a film about high school at all, but I think my love for it is worth mentioning. Not just because Andrew McCarthy is dreamy in it, but I do think it’s this absurdly entertaining and endearing testament to friendship. I watched it when I was 18 and had like, three friends who I more or less felt ambivalent toward, and it actually made me want to stop watching so many movies and go hang out with them.