Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Credit: Mary Cybulski / Paramount Pictures 

The intoxication of greed and excess that Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" shares with its viewer is woozily addictive.  While the out-of-control lead character on screen - that would be a brilliant Leonardo DiCaprio in a wildly solipsistic, mesmerizing performance - and his cohorts routinely snort cocaine off the breasts, derrieres and privates of willing young women, the audience gets high on the complicity of it all.

Clocking in at a challenging, self-indulgent three hours (which, oddly, hardly seems enough), this modern operatic debauch is an attempt by Scorsese and his scenarist Terence Winter to showcase The Decline of the American Empire in all its naked, hollowed, self-hating glory, and to say that Scorsese nails it is a naive and rather foolish understatement.

Money here is worse than the root of all evil - it's rot. And at the center of this rot - and responsible for most of it - is DiCaprio's character, Jordan Belfort, a real-life stock trader so sociopathically crooked and so oblivious to his daily crimes that he almost seems like an innocent.  Belfort, by all accounts, couldn't care less whether his clients made money, so long as his cut was intact.  And his specialty wasn't fleecing the wealthy, but the struggling working man who he finessed into investing in crummy penny stocks. Even his supportive first wife, the sweet Teresa (Cristin Milioti), is empathetic enough to wonder why Jordan is targeting people who can't afford to lose money.  Her decency gets in his way and she's out.

Enabling him are people who should know better (his father, played by Rob Reiner); those who invariably wise up (his Barbie-doll second wife, played by a terrific Margot Robbie, above); those who share his lack of scruples and dubious values (his friend and business partner Donnie Azoff, played to perfection by Jonah Hill), and those who impressed him in the wrong way (Matthew McConaughey, below with DiCaprio,  in an extended cameo).  But Jordan is way beyond control, and the movie depicting his rise, fall and kinda redemption is as outsized and excessive as he is.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is like a big, brassy musical, but in lieu of production numbers, there's one outrageous orgy after another, with Scorsese serving as choreographer, caterer and maître d'.

But unlike your typical impresario, Scorsese eschews a big finish in favor of a series of telling scenes, one of which is of the F.B.I. agent (Kyle Chandler) who busted Belfort sitting in a subway car on his way home after a day's work - a sort of prison that Belfort smirkily refers to earlier in the film. A big finish, no. But it's appropriately quiet - and haunting.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Russell's "American Hustle"

Credit: Francois Duhamel / Columbia Pictures 

David O. Russell's compulsively watchable "American Hustle" could be taken for the unhealthy spawn of Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" and John Badham's "Saturday Night Fever."  It's a crime film but it dances.

Directed by a man both delighted with and driven by the wild theatricality of his juicy material, "American Hustle" is ostensibly about the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, which as Russell sees it, was an extravaganza of pitched acting, with F.B.I. agents, scam artists and politicians as members of a game ensemble.  It was a scandal, yes, but also something of a Shakespearean comedy with colorful characters pairing off, double- and triple-crossing and entrapping each other and often taking time off to party. And David O. Russell, serving as a master dramatist of his story's many little and big skirmishes, directs it all with a pop rapture.

Abetting him every step of the way is a hugely companionabe cast of actors who shine individually and in tandem. Christian Bale, by sheer willfulness and talent, turns his con man Irving Rosenfeld, a potential vulgarian, into an unexpected (and unexpectedly poignant) romantic hero; Bradley Cooper brings a pent-up physicality to his F.B.I. agent, a man as quirky as he is ambitious; Jeremy Renner finds a certain innocence in his cluelessly corrupt politician, and Jennifer Lawrence plays a Jersey provocatrice with a cartoon verve Frank Tashlin would have appreciated.

Best of all, however, is Amy Adams, an exquisite actress with apparently no vanity.  Her Sydney Prosse, working in cahoots with Irving, is both startled and appalled by what she lets herself do.  She does not exactly find the sleaze of her situation unpleasant or unappealing. She is the mistress of her own debauch and, as Adams plays it, we're with her every step of the way, cheering for her success.  Adams tears into this role as if it were a raw slab of meat and she triumphantly devours it.

With these people as our guides, we are only to happy to be their accomplices to their invigorating American hustle.

Note in Passing:  And just love that old '70s Columbia logo.

Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks"

Credit: Francois Duhamel/Walt Disney Pictures

Pamela Lyndon Travers (1899-1996), below, was an Australian-born, British-based actress, journalist and novelist - she created the beloved "Mary Poppins" - and a handful.  Her famous book was something of a fabulist's autobiography in which Travers traced over memories of her sad childhood to create something more magical and, for her, more tolerable.

She was so driven by her affection for her beloved father, Travers Goff - and so willful in her need to overlook his flaws - that she changed her name in his memory,  Born Helen Lyndon Goff, she redefined herself as P. L. Travers and, in that incarnation, she continually challenged her loyalty to her father. Her greatest test came when, plagued by financial troubles (her books had stopped selling), she entertained the suggestion by Walt Disney to turn her most precious possession - her book (and, by extension, her father) - into a big, slick, family-friendly Hollywood film. She went into this kicking and screaming.

In bringing the story of  "the making of 'Mary Poppins" to life on screen, the director John Lee Hancock filmed two separate movies, alternating between 1901 Australia and the story of the fierce devotion shared by little Helen (the preternatually gifted Annie Rose Buckley) and her father (an excellent Colin Farrell, below with Buckley), and 1961 Hollywood, where Travers (a towering Emma Thompson) would knock heads with Disney (good, gray Tom Hanks) and his creative "Poppins" team.

Travers' incorrigible, obstructionist behavior had everything to do with daddy issues and, in Disney, she grudgingly found a willing father figure.

Each movie here has its own ambiance, thanks to the distinctive looks and sounds contributed by cinematographer John Schwartzman and composer Thomas Newman, respectively, and it's fascinating to observe how little, throwaway details in the "Poppins" film both complemented and contrasted with Travers real-life, death-tinged story. Travers' father was a failed banker but she blamed his failure on the assorted banks that employed him and she went further, demonizing the idea of money.  And for her, Disney represented money.  Not a good thing.  Guilt by association.

And the father in "Poppins" could not be a negative one.  "Why must he be cruel?," Travers asks of Mr. Banks.  "Why?"

One of the more witty touches in the film is whether or not David Tomlinson, who played Mr. Banks, Travers Hoff's alter ego, in "Poppins," should be clean-shaven like Travers' father or have a mustache which Walt preferred - you know, sort of like his own.   One can only guess about the veracity of "Saving Mr. Banks" - Travers is pretty much vilified, while Disney is spared any criticism - but on its own terms, it works.

With Thompson's scrappy, starchy yet quite vulnerable Travers in command, "Saving Mr. Banks" emerges as an unexpectedly powerful film biography, one old-fashioned, menalcholic in design and yet artfully, fastidiously done. I'm confident that P.L. Travers would approve.

It's a surprising discovery.

Note in Passing: The film's terrific ensemble includes the fetching Ruth Wilson as P.L./Helen's mother in the alternate movie and Rachel Griffiths as a take-charge aunt who was probably the inspiration for Mary Poppins; Bradley Whitford as "Poppins" scenarist Don DaGradi; Jason Schwartzman (half-brother of the aforementioned John) and B.J. Novak as the song-writing Sherman Brothers; Paul Giamatti as P.L.'s chauffeur in Hollywood, and Kathy Baker & Melanie Paxson as two Disney secretaries.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

façade: Chris Lilley/Ja'mie

Credit: Ben Timony - © Wokashama

Whereas America has dared only to lightly flirt with narcissistic teenage girls as exploitable material - see Amy Heckerling's "Clueless" and Mark Waters' "Mean Girls" - it's an Australian auteur who not only has had the comic/socio-political vision to confront the subject with a masterful gaze, but the inventiveness to also play the meanest of mean girls himself.

Meet Ja'mie King, a private school girl who makes life hell for those less gilded, as well as everyone else who gets in her way.  (That's Ja'mie, mean girl extraordinaire, above in a typical pose.)

Ja'mie - née Jamie (and called that by all the adults in her life) but pronounced ja-may by the princess herself  (and her private school minions) - is the creation of Chris Lilley, who is some kind of wunderkind Down Under who has created a series of linked television shows (one leads to the next), in which he plays multiple characters.  Ja'mie King is one of those characters and she is the star of one of Lilley's most recent efforts, "Ja'mie - Private School Girl," currently airing (gleefully) on HBO.

Ja'mie was introduced in Lilley's earlier shows, "We Can Be Heroes" (2005) and "Summer Heights High" (2007) and he played the character in both previous incarnations, as well as on "Ja'mie - Private School Girl."

The show itself, which consists of only six episodes, is jaw-dropping hilarious, a mocumentary that follows Ja'mie and company around Hillford Girls Grammar, a tony private school in Sydney, Australia. But the titanic supporting structure of the show is Lilley himself whose performance as Ja'mie is uncanny in its frightening accuracy.  Here, we have a grown man in drag as a teenage girl and yet we never - never - see the grown man.

Lilley inhabits the role so completely and with such precision that it isn't the least bit camp.
The six episodes are all about Ja'mie's quest for the Hillford Medal, an honor she covets with so much naked lust that you'd think it was the Nobel Prize.  Beyond that ambition, Ja'mie (1) rules her harem of sycophants (who she "fucking loves") , (2) invents new code words ("quiche" for anything that's really hot) and (3) demonizes all her enemies as fat lesbians.

As for Lilley, he started his hyphenated career (writer, producer, director and star) in 2003 with "Big Bite," in which he played both an extreme sports enthusiast and a gay high-school drama teacher (who would also pop up in "Summer Heights High").  This was followed by "Hamish and Andy" in 2004 and the aforementioned "We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year," a six-part series in which Lilley played no fewer than six characters including a 47-year-old houswife named Pat Mullens and Daniel, a teenage boy who donates an eardrum to his deaf twin brother, Nathan. Both Daniel and Nathan would show up in Lilley's 2011 show, "Angry Boys" (that's them, er Lilley,  in the photo above), about "issues faced by young males in the 21st century - their influences, their pressures, their dreams and ambitions." It's a comedy, natch.

Ja'mie, as noted, was also in "We Can Be Heroes," followed by "Summer Heights High," which aired on HBO in 2008.

There's a prodigious amount of talent in Lilley's joyful art - and it all belongs to the man himself.  "Ja'mie - Private School Girl" is a spastic explosion of ideas and unsubtle humor about a girl who is defiantly self-centered and, in spite of herself, very, very funny.

The Coens' "Inside Llewyn Davis" / connection: Mazursky's "Next Stop, Greenwich Village"

Credit: Alison Rosa / CBS Films 

The artist who becomes paralyzed with self-doubt when left adrift and alone by a creative partner is something of a subgenre among films about musicians.  One example: Dean Martin played just such an immobilized composer way back in 1960 in Vincente Minnelli’s “Bells Are Ringing.”  It took perky Judy Holliday to rouse him out of his stupor and self-pity.

"Inside Llewyn Davis,” Ethan and Joel Coen’s idiosyncratic take on the material, is much less commercial or corny.  It is a visually striking mood piece about the blossoming folk culture of the 1960s and about one man, the titular Llewyn Davis (a blank Oscar Issac), who just can’t cut it.

Davis can't gain entrée into this somewhat cloistered word – either because he doesn’t have the ambition or the great talent or because he cannot curb his aggressively self-directed and alienating ways. The Coens have created a film around an annoyingly unlikable person who is also quite uninteresting.  Davis is so thoughtless and in so many different ways - and, frankly, so stupid - that it’s impossible to feel any sympathy with or empathy for him, although I’m not sure if the Coens even want us to.

The character’s negativity seems to bring out the worst in the people around him – Carey Mulligan as an ex reduced to hurling insults and expletives at him; John Goodman as a decrepit hipster who sees through Davis, sizing him up in no uncertain terms, and Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as a patient academic couple finally driven to distraction by their narcissistic, addlepated friend.  (They are the owners of one of three unlucky cats that have unfortunate encounters with Davis.)

In many ways, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is hugely reminiscent of Paul Mazursky's autobiographical film, "Next Stop Greenwich Village" in its mise en scène and the delineation of a young professional - in Mazursky's case, a struggling actor named Larry Lapinsky and played by the late Lenny Baker (that's him below) - who, like Davis, may be too scattered and unfocused to succeed. But the difference, as Pauline Kael opined in her review of "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," is that the Mazursky character has a "manic generosity that holds the film together." 

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is inarguably evocative and hugely atmospheric, thanks largely to Bruno Delbonnel's brooding cinematography, but with Davis at its center, there's, well, simply no there there. And like its anti-hero, the movie challenges us to like it.  It dares us."

Credit: 20th Century-Fox

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

McKay's "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

  Credit: Paramount Pictures

Will Ferrell, in character as the delusional news anchor Ron Burgundy,  has been so ubiquitous, tireless and clever in promoting “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” his latest collaboration with writer-director Adam McKay, that the movie itself is somewhat anti-climatic – not nearly as much fun as the marathon marketing prelude leading up to its release.

It’s also something of a missed opportunity.  Ferrell and McKay have material here that’s ripe for a scathing satire – the advent of the 24-hour news cycle – but they apparently were more intent with regenerating gags and situations that, over the past decade, has turned 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” into a cult favorite.   Case in point:  Their restaging of the first film’s memorable rumble sequence is twice as big and twice as long and boasts twice as many cameos, but what was so exhilarating in the original now feels leaden and obligatory.

The movie’s one original comic high point has Burgundy whipping a nowhere car chase into a sensational news story and ratings winner, but Ferrell and McKay don’t take the joke any further.  All those wasted cameos in the rumble could have been scattered through similar faux headline pieces,  the kind of nothing stories that cable news shows currently – and routinely – beat into the ground with wild-eyed fervor.

Instead, the film gets waylaid by an extended and endless sequence that has the Burgundy character going into hiding at a seaside lighthouse to rehabilitate himself.  It’s very odd, not very amusing and it stops the film cold. “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” never bounces back from this bizarre, needless detour and never becomes the bigger and better follow-up that it was designed to be.  Besides, Ferrell and McKay more than topped themselves two years after the original “Anchorman” with“Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013



One of the many virtues of Turner Classic Movies is how it always honors film people in all areas of the art in its year-end In Memoriam feature.

Never less than fastidious, Turner has been traditionally inclusive. In fact, it routinely puts the Oscars' yearly botched obit tribute to shame.

Seemingly - seemingly - no one is disregarded or omitted by Turner.  Until this year...

I appreciate that many more film people pass away who can be fit on any reasonable list, but for some inexplicable/inexcusable reason, the 2013 edition of TCM Remembers neglects Paul Walker, the appealing actor who died in a tragic car accident at a young 40 on November 30th. His death was major news that one would think could not be ignored.  But it was.

I would day that Turner simply didn't have time to include him, but wait! Eleanor Parker, who died more than a week after Walker - just two days ago, on December 9th - is very much included.  Funny how they were able to accommodate Parker on such short notice, but not Walker.


And unlike James Gandolfini, who also qualified for Turner's list, Walker wasn't known largely as a TV actor.  He had a solid film résumé. 

So Eleanor Parker and James Gandolfini make the grade (and deservedly so) but not Paul Walker. OK, but also feted by Turner are Virginia Gibson, who danced in a few films and, from time to time, even got to speak a line of  dialogue; Rossella Falk and Diane Clare.  Diane who? Who's she?

Well, Diane Clare is a prime example of Turner's admirable inclusiveness.

But apparently not Paul Walker.

So exactly what's going on here?  By appearance, it smacks of a disturbing case of film snobbery - you know, the "he's not one of us" mentality that is way beneath what Turner Classic Movies is supposed to represent.  Heck, Turner is so democratic that it regularly allots precious air time to the dubious films of Elvis Presley and Frankie & Annette.

Regardless of the rationale for this exclusion, it's still hugely disappointing.

Update:  I subsequently engaged in a friendly email conversation about this subject with a Turner rep, who acknowledged the chore of weeding through so many deaths, but who noted that those who are finally chosen are selected with "an eye towards picking personalities whose film work resonates strongly with the TCM community."  Um, OK.  Also, I was told that Diane Clare, a name that still means nothing to me, was selected because she was "best known for appearing in Hammer horror films which make sense with our brand." I guess I understand that.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Frears' "Philomena"

Credit: Alex Bailey/Weinstein Company

As a Catholic-turned-Lapsed-Catholic-turned-Collapsed-Catholic, Stephen Frears' heartbreaking "Philomena" resonated with me.  My reasons for appreciating the film oddly coincide with the reservations of those Catholics who condemn the film: It is an unblinking attack on the Church.

And deservedly so.

The film is "based on a true story," and ironically, those sections that deal with the Church's harsh treatment of its title character are the only ones based on fact.  Just about everything else about the movie has been fictionalized.  There are areas of "Philomena" where one can question its veracity but, by all accounts, its depiction of the Church in this particular time and place are based on an eyewitness account and are accurate.

Initially, the story here is almost Dickensian - It is 1952 and a teenage Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark), pregnant and unwed, is sent to a convent in Roscrea, Ireland, where she gives birth and is then put into viritable servitude, seeing her infant son only once a week.  The nuns there treat their wards with contempt, intolerance and utter disregard, the latter epitomized by their routine of selling the babies in their care to wealthy Americans.  That's how Philamena loses her little Anthony.

Flashforward to today when the 70-year-old Philomena (Judi Dench), distracted by guilt and curiosity, sets out to find her son with the help of a jaded journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who is there to cover her plight/journey for a magazine piece that eventually became the book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”  They travel to American to locate Anthony and "Philomena" becomes a road film with an odd couple at its center. Entertaining as this is, it's also blatantly untrue.

Philomena never traveled to America.

But the film remains fascinating nevertheless - and disturbing, thanks to those nuns, who worked for decades to keep mother and son apart as one looked for the other.  And "Philomena" also remains wrenchingly sad.

What Philomena eventually learns about Anthony only validates her lifelong fears for him, her dread. She lived a nightmare that never went away and, yet as played by the great Judi Dench, she was everything that her tormentors, the nuns, weren't - forgiving and humane.

Dench's masterful performance here effectively humbles the audience.

Payne's "Nebraska"

Credit: Merie W. Wallace / Paramount Vantage

In her review of the 1974 Paul Mazursky fillm, "Harry & Tonto," Pauline Kael noted that it was "the most difficult kind of comedy to bring off, because it comes directly from the moviemaker's feelings about life."

The exact same observation could be made of Alexander Payne's hauntingly spare and gnawingly moody "Nebraska," another "old-man-on-the-road comedy," as Kael also described "Harry & Tonto."

The tricky part, I think - and the reason Kael opined about the difficulty of the genre - is that these films aren't entirely comedies.  There's also a melancholy to them. especially "Nebraska," which takes the risk of coming close to depressing its audience with its clear-eyed, sometimes harsh. view of a certain area of Middle America, one in the state of stasis.

Payne offers no surcease from his depiction of a people left immobilized by a paralyzed economy as he follows the plight of Woody (Bruce Dern, excellent), an old man who has deluded himself into think that he's the big winner in a millionaire sweepstakes and is intent on collecting his prize, much to the chagrin of snappish wife (June Squibb, also excellent), a woman who has had to develope a tough skin and alienating persona in order to get through life with a man who was always an easy touch.

Accompanying him on the pointless trip is Woody's younger son, David (Will Forte), who feels empathy for the old man, perhaps seeing his own beak future in him, and who sees this as one last opportunity to finally connect with his father.  As wonderful as Dern is in the film, "Nebraska" really belongs to Forte, whose relaxed, naturalistic turn as  a decent man is quietly powerful. His performance is entirely transparent.

The mood of hopeless that pervades "Nebraska" is sustained by the gorgeous, evocative black-&-white, wide-screen cinematography by Phedon Papamichael.  It completes the picture.
Credit: Paramount Vantage / Courtesy of Paramo