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.

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The agency of Kay Adams

 

Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in the unforgettable wedding opening scene in The Godfather.

Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in the unforgettable wedding opening scene in The Godfather.

It’s been over a decade since I saw the first Godfather film. This only seems like a big deal because of my age. I look forward to the day when “a decade” isn’t really that long ago. But I remember precisely how it happened. I was looking through the online TV Guide listings and told my mom that The Godfather was going to be on TV that afternoon. My mom had never seen it before and of course, she was curious, it being a famous film and all. I told her I’ve seen clips of it that past Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ apartment–my cousin had brought the box set for casual viewing and flipped to his favorite scenes–and it didn’t interest me to sit in front of the TV for four hours (including commercials) watching an old and potentially boring film. My mom said it didn’t matter if I wanted to watch it or not; she could watch it by herself, anyway. I backed down and eventually watched it with her.

We watched it on that small TV in my bedroom–the only TV we had for a while after our bigger one broke. I was intrigued by the opening scene. And, once the film cuts to the wedding, Al Pacino’s electrifyingly sober performance as Michael Corleone completely held my attention and never let it go. While Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone may leave a legendary impression on anyone who watches The Godfather, Pacino’s Michael has always been the heart and soul of the trilogy.

However, perhaps the most overlooked performance of the trilogy has been Diane Keaton’s performance as Kay Adams. Despite all the famous names people can name from the trilogy (Brando, Pacino, De Niro, Duvall, etc.), Keaton, a star in her own right, often seems to be forgotten from that roster. If Pacino’s performance is the heart and soul, then Keaton’s performance accompanies it, acting as all the veins and arteries that allow Pacino’s heart to beat and break, again and again. I understand I may have pushed it with my high figurative aspirations, but that is, in short, how I feel about Keaton’s Kay, the most fleshed-out, complex female character in a very male-dominated narrative.

And, of course, the stories are male-dominated. The Godfather is about a mafia family–Italian crime families with strong patriarchs and wives who quietly stay at home, cook, and take care of the children. While Michael’s younger sister, Connie Corleone (deliciously played by Talia Shire) may be an uncontrollable torch to be reckoned with, it’s still Kay who, while trapped, breaks traditions in the confines of a very traditional world.

Ever since my love affair with The Godfather began, I was always surprised by the lack of welcomed reception toward the character of Kay. If anyone has ever visited message boards dedicated to the trilogy, there is always some sort of debate on whether or not Michael ever loved Kay, whether or not she was just a wife of convenience, whether or not he wished he could have had his innocent Sicilian first wife, Apollonia instead when he became don. Most people seem to find Kay annoying–the perfect, disgusting example of the nagging cinematic wife, a caricature we all know and hate too well. She’s hated among the usual boys’ club worshipers. She’s certainly not supposed to be eye candy–not to say that Keaton isn’t beautiful in all her quirky glory, but Kay is simply not perceived as such. She’s rarely written about extensively, except for this interesting article on the evolution of Kay’s clothes.

And, that puzzles me. Because, as far as I’m concerned, Kay is the love of Michael’s life. I don’t mean to romanticize things–but the films themselves are romanticized versions of an awful reality, anyway–but that’s how I’ve always seen things. Kay represents what Michael always have wanted, always have tried to hold on to, but can never seem to even get close. That’s just precisely what makes his character a twentieth century Shakespearean tragedy–he’s almost there, but not quite, and never will be.

We first meet Kay at Connie’s wedding within the first few minutes of the first film. She is introduced as Michael is introduced, making her, in the first few minutes, a good reference point as to understanding her wedding date, who will emerge as the most important character in the film. She is undeniably WASPy looking, a rarity in a sea of first- and second- generation Italian-Americans. Michael is shockingly honest with her–he tells her that his father does what he does and he doesn’t intend to be anything like him.

When Michael returns from Sicily and asks Kay to marry him, it is definitely not for the sake of convenience. Michael could have found another nice Italian girl if he wanted to but no, he wants to marry Kay. If he marries Kay, she would remind him of the man he once was and still wants to be. Sure, he may have love Kay for what she represents, but that’s not a good enough reason for him to pull her into his world. He loves Kay and sincerely thinks she’s the woman who can best persuade him back into legitimacy.

Lest we forget, the door closes on her at the end of the first film. Whatever Michael promises her, it has to be put on hold. And of course, we, as the audience, must live in doubt with her. We see Keaton’s unsettled visage as the film ends. We, like her, were merely intruders.

But persuade, she does, indeed. Near of the beginning of the start of Part II, Michael promises a pregnant Kay that he’s trying to legitimize the business. Of course, the violent forces that may be have halted all plans for legitimacy. The Corleones have expanded from New York to Tahoe, right at the rise of the lucrative casino industry. However, as bullets fly through the windows of Michael and Kay’s bedroom, legitimizing the business seem to be even farther from reach.

Halfway through the film, Kay confesses to Michael she had an abortion. Because it was a son. Because she couldn’t bear to allow everything, as it is, to continue on. Michael is enraged. And here lies Kay Adams’ and the film’s tremendous complexity–because we’re shocked by her actions, yet impressed by her courage, but saddened at what happened, or what could have been, or what will be. It’s a horrifying, triumphant, heartbreaking scene.

Kay’s actions don’t merely break the rules of Michael’s world, but it breaks the rules of 1950s society in general. It’s not really about whether or not she’s a feminist, but it’s really about how she still possesses agency that she had before she married him, and always will have. Perhaps she’s exactly the wife Michael wanted her to be when he married her, but instead, turned into the wife he only wishes he wanted her to be.

This is what makes Part II the richer film. Apart from the beautifully composed parallel story lines between the young Vito (a performance so expertly concocted by a young Robert De Niro) and Michael, Michael’s relationships with the people in his life have become increasingly complex and messy. Everything Michael does seem so chillingly rational, yet so morally disgusting. The other characters are the same, but they are surprisingly more sympathetic when compared to the monster Michael has so tragically become.

Despite the crap reception Part III has unfairly endured over the years, it still offers closure to Michael’s story. And it’s the film where Michael’s and Kay’s stories are so intertwined, yet so disparate. The films are a tragedy of contradictions and there is no greater contradiction than Michael’s and Kay’s relationship and all that it insufferably emulates. After all these years, Kay, still the mother to his children, tells him that she can’t stand him, yet she still absolutely cares for him, and he for her. There are scenes where Michael and Kay are in Sicily together and Pacino and Keaton’s chemistry is so engaging. The tug of war that they’ve started over 20 years ago still seem to go on and on, with no end, but it’s apparent that they still love each other–but so what? You can’t change the past, and all the pain and regret that go along with it. Director Francis Ford Coppola even notes in the DVD commentary that Michael and Kay’s relationship parallels the real-life relationship between Pacino and Keaton (the two dated on and off for more than a decade), which makes their scenes together all the more bittersweet.

Kay Adams is a significant force in the trilogy, in a way Apollonia is not, no matter what angle you look at it. Part of that is the writing of her character. Without Kay Adams, perhaps we would have never known Karen Hill or Carmela Soprano or even Jennifer Melfi. Sure, they would have existed, but they would not have been so fully realized. The existence of Kay Adams motioned forth these female characters in the midst of testosterone to be written as more human than wife. And that’s the way it should be.

And, another essential part of it is Keaton’s measured, intelligent performance. Keaton is all too well-known as the quirky, neurotic Woody Allen muse in Annie Hall and Manhattan, or in more recent years, the aging, but still quirky, neurotic Nancy Meyer romantic lead in Something’s Gotta Give. Keaton is undoubtedly just a fantastic comedic actress with impeccable timing, but her penchant for dramatic gravitas has been forgotten in recent years, mainly because she hasn’t starred in a major dramatic vehicle for years. And her performance as Kay proves that that’s a damn shame. What makes Keaton’s performance so special is that it’s oftentimes an understated, introspective performance, intricately compatible to Pacino’s calculated, somber performance. Not to say that Keaton’s performance only exists to exalt Pacino’s. Instead, their mutual presence helps crafts the other’s performance in a way that’s nearly symbiotic and irreplaceable.

What a complex character Kay is, and how great it is that Keaton consistently gives such a mature performance that the character deserves.

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.

When you can’t look away

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) dance to some Jay-Z because that is exactly the kind of thing this film is.

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) dance to some Jay-Z because that is exactly the kind of thing this film is.

I saw Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby on the plane. It would just be a great injustice to call it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for fairly obvious reasons. It is just such an unpleasant, dreadful film. It is a CGI mess. It is a vapid adaptation of a very well-written novel.

In fact, I wrote my friend an e-mail that sort of sums up how I feel about the film:

The Great Gatsby has to be one of the most aesthetically unpleasant films I’ve ever seen. It’s just so gaudy. As a film, it kind of reminds me of an ogre–and not the friendly ones from Shrek, but a really loud, bombastic, stupid, villainous ogre. When the film (or an obnoxiously well-executed train wreck–whatever you’d prefer to call this thing) shows Gatsby’s party for the first time, I actually felt visually assaulted; it’s a pretty ugly film. Sometimes I feel like filmmakers forget that cinematography isn’t supposed distract the audience, but to enhance the film itself. Some of the scenes were filmed for 3D and I can’t even begin to imagine how disgusting that cinematic experience must have been for the poor souls who had to endure it.

While I’ve never been a fan of the Gatsby story, I do admire Fitzgerald’s writing. And what makes Gatsby such a quintessential novel about the downfall of the American dream is that, through narrator Nick Carraway, the reader understands the seductive beauty of Gatsby’s wealth, but comes to term with the fact that it’s just this superficial facade to win the heart of a shallow, ditsy girl. However, director Luhrmann seems to think the story’s emphasis is the sheer excess of Gatsby’s wealth–and sure, that is part of the novel too–but the excess isn’t supposed to be a circus of disco ball puke. It’s supposed to be charismatic, it’s supposed to be pretty. Or else someone like Nick wouldn’t have been so drawn to it.

(That said, I was kind of okay with the modern soundtrack. At first, it was bizarre to see 1920s Americans jamming to Jay-Z all the time, but I quickly got over it. There is actually a lot of Jay-Z on the soundtrack; when the credits rolled, I realized that Jay-Z is credited as a producer on the film. )

And I’ve always sort of resented films that are so intent on reminding its audiences that it’s an adaptation of some beloved book. It just makes me think that the filmmaker already thinks his film won’t be able to stand on its own because he already knows it’s terrible; he’s given up, he’s waving the white flag. Gatsby sort of takes it too far, though: Fitzgerald’s words literally appear on the screen. Yes, you see and hear the words, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Someone needs to tell Luhrmann that he is trying to make a film, not trying his hand at blatant literary plagiarism.

Honestly, some books just can’t be properly adapted into films. Gatsby just looks dumb when he’s reaching for the green light, or throwing his shirts around. In film, those scenes just come off as heavy handed rather than cleverly symbolic. I suppose there is a filmmaker can pull those scenes off without trying so hard, but Luhrmann evidently loves trying too hard.

Without getting too into it, the acting is generally pretty bad. None of the actors have any chemistry. Well, I take that back–Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, who play Nick and Daisy, respectively, seem to have some sort of chemistry going on, though I can’t really decipher whether it’s a romantic kind of chemistry or a sibling-esque kind of chemistry. So this is when you know your adaptation of Gatsby is problematic–the only actors in your cast with any chemistry are the ones who play Nick and Daisy. Also, one of the most cringe-worthy scenes is when Nick helps Gatsby and Daisy meet for the first time. I haven’t read the book in years so I don’t actually recall what happens, but the film version tries to squeeze some humor out of it and it’s actually kind of embarrassing to watch. That scene feels like it was taken out from a really bad and cheesy romantic comedy musical from the 1950s.

So ugh, The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald is rolling his grave right now.

Which brings me to films of recent years that are marinated with so much misguided ambition, so much boldness. And I think, oftentimes, I’m more inclined to admire the film for its balls. In fact, I tend to admire films for their balls–period. In an era where so many filmmakers can be lazy, it is always sort of refreshing to see a filmmaker go over-the-top, with such blistering bravado. I remember in my conflicted review for The Dark Knight Rises from a year ago, I knew I walked out of the theater thinking the film I just watched sort of sucked. However, I couldn’t find it in me to say, “The Dark Knight Rises sucks” because I know that, deep down, there are parts in Christopher Nolan’s clunky epic that I really did find it in my hearts of hearts to admire.

In my review, I sort of mentioned my weird admiration for Spider-Man 3 as well. I remember finishing Spider-Man 3 and thinking that it was a really moving film. I don’t know if it was Snow Patrol’s “Signal Fire” playing over the closing credits that got to me, but I really thought it was a flawed, but very harrowing, genuinely moving film, and despite all the hate I get for it, I stand by my opinion. Sure, it’s not nearly as great as Spider-Man 2 and yes, the plot is really convoluted, but I don’t think I’ve seen a superhero film that is so fearlessly, emotionally charged as Spider-Man 3 and I don’t think I’ve seen one since. Spider-Man 3 feels like a superhero film that isn’t afraid to cry.

In a kind of twisted way, I couldn’t keep my eyes away from Luhrmann’s disastrous Gatsby adaptation. I could have turned it off. I could have started watching something else. No, I kept watching. There is something really alluring about misguided ambition. There are very few directors who are as ballsy as Luhrmann; he’s so confident in his work and it shows up on screen, in every elaborate set piece he has selected. Sometimes it works beautifully–namely, in Moulin Rouge. Sometimes it feels sort of oddly amateurish–as demonstrated in Romeo + Juliet.  But sometimes the mantra of “more, more, more!” can get a little crazy and you end up with something as awful as Gatsby.

I also think my general distaste of Gatsby may be due to the fact that it’s also an adaptation of a novel that I’ve read. While I haven’t read it in a while, Luhrmann gives off the impression that he’s completely missed the point. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is not a romance, and for Luhrmann to paint it as a romance just shows how little he actually understands the novel. I would even say that Jack Clayton “got” it in his bland 1974 adaptation, in all the ways that Luhrmann did not.

However, there are certainly film adaptations that seem to completely miss the point, or seem to completely disregard their source material, and I still sort of end up enjoying them anyway. And I don’t mean this in the way that Harry Potter fans whine about the Harry Potter films; I mean this in a way that there is a blatant lack of devotion to the source material, not just cutting things out, but adding things in. I think there is a tendency for filmmakers and screenwriters to take their favorite works, adapt it, and add in a bit of fanfiction. I think that’s what happened with The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Prince Caspian is probably one of my least favorite books in the Narnia series, but the film adaptation is just so much fun. I don’t care if there are fight scenes or a romance that didn’t occur in the book. Harry Potter book loyalists would have gone insane if a film so blatantly bastardized Rowling’s works the way Prince Caspian did to Lewis’s work. But would it have been okay if it was as fun as Prince Caspian? We’ll never know.

Ambition is sort of ubiquitous. You don’t have to look all the way back to Elaine May’s infamous box-office bomb Ishtar or Francis Ford Coppola’s critically ridiculed The Godfather: Part III to see ambition at its most evident–though, personally, I find both films to be quite good. Or, even the soaring, over-saturated audacity of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which I happen to love so very, very much. Dreamgirls is heavily ambitious. You can feel that the film was out for Oscar blood in every frame–and I ended up loving it. Definitely, Maybe is fairly ambitious for a romantic comedy, in the sense that it’s obvious that it wants to be much, much more than a romantic comedy, but it sort of ends up in the mundane trappings of its genre to be anything truly lively or original. Hell, even New Moon is pretty ambitious, with its rich, textured cinematography and its attempt to elegantly weave together a bunch of terrible, stupid subplots. And oh goodness– the recent musical adaptation of Les Miserables, probably the worst abuser of ambition, mainly because it flaunts its “real” singing and its badly conceived close-ups without shame. Perhaps ambition is the most often-abused quality in cinema, but it is also the best defense.

I like ambition. I can’t find myself to actually hate Definitely, Maybe, Les Miserables, New Moon, and evidently, The Dark Knight Rises because they are so damn sure of themselves–well, actually the jury is kind of still out on New Moon because that is a truly terrible story with one of the most despicable protagonist of recent times. There is a sense that modern films like to play it safe, so it’s always a welcomed sight when the audience actually feels like the filmmaker is actually attempting something different, even when he or she isn’t really sure what that “something” is.

So if there is one compliment I can pay Luhrmann, it’s that he’s not apathetic. He’s passionate–oh sure, sometimes pathetically so–but he’s willing to take risks in a way that many filmmakers are too shy, too modest to do. While Gatsby is an awful film, Luhrmann is clearly something else–I’m not sure what that “something” is yet, but I sure wouldn’t mind finding out the answer in the future.