Wednesday, January 8, 2014

December 2013


    A few well-written, insightful films, “Margin Call,” “Arbitrage,” and HBO’s “Too Big to Fail,” have done well in showing how questionable ethics and unchecked avarice led to the financial meltdown of 2008. But what Martin Scorsese’s new film does is rub our noses in what the financial world has permanently become; it pushes us into the excrement that was (as in) the lifestyle of many of Wall Street’s new wave of stock brokers.

      As seen through the memoirs of Jordon Belfort, the introduction of 401ks and the rush to make a killing in the stock market turned traders into kings, especially those who weren’t hung up on ethics. Like young athletes scoring their first multi-million dollar contract, Belfort and his colleagues weren’t shy about spending their questionably earned profits on clearly illegal activities.

      Few film have ever been so focused on depicting debauchery; the nonstop sex, drugs and full-contact partying starts out looking like great fun, right up until one loses consciousness. And then you get up the next morning, convince your clients to reinvest their money or invest additional funds—anything to increase your commission—and then start the partying all over again.

      Some critics and many filmgoers have been offended by what they perceive as the glorification of Belfort’s lifestyle and the failure to show the wrecked lives and devastated companies that often were the sources of these brokers’ ill-spent riches. Yet it’s crystal clear to me that Scorsese, by making the nonstop abuse of pills and cocaine the focus of the film and emphasizing the treatment of women as pleasure chattel, finds the entire culture both criminal and lacking in any redeeming value. He leaves it up to his audience to recognize that the obscenity isn’t the rampant sex and profanity, but the manner in which their money is earned.

     Truthfully, would it be less offensive if the brokers were spending (as obviously many do) their money on their children’s education, homes for their parents or creating charitable foundations? The virtually unregulated financial industry has turned the economy on its head in the past 20 years; you can become a millionaire by selling shares in a company at the same time, and often because of, thousands of workers are being shown the door.

     What propels this movie beyond its social commentary is what may be Leonardo DiCaprio’s most impressive, audacious performance. His Belfort starts out as an ambitious but naïve broker, a quick learner who turns his success in pushing penny stocks into creating his own company aimed at high-end investors. DiCaprio’s performance makes you believe in the devotion of Belfort’s workers and how this master salesman could build a huge, loyal client list. DiCaprio takes a hold of this role like Nicholson or Pacino once did, dominating every moment of the film, filling the room with charismatic energy. You don’t root for Belfort because he is such a despicable, arrogant ass, but DiCaprio makes you understand his truth, his bent view of life.

     He leads his cadre of sycophants, led by wide-eyed and shameless Donnie (played with unchecked gusto by Jonah Hill), into believing that they can do no wrong, that no behavior is unreasonable. Not even when the FBI and SEC are closing in does he believe anyone can touch him.

     A voice of reason amid this unending celebration of money is Belfort’s old-school father (hilariously played by Rob Reiner) who, at least at first, is appalled by the waste of money, the drugs, the sex. Reiner has never been funnier, more authentic, as he speaks the outrage the audience feels.

    Do I even need to mention that this film isn’t for everyone—and a far cry from Scorsese’s last film, the 3-D fairytale “Hugo”—as “Wolf” is stuffed with more bad behavior than Caligula ever dreamed of. I don’t try to understand the movie ratings system, but how this film avoided the dreaded NC-17 is baffling. The opening scene showing Belfort snorting coke off a prostitute’s naked body would have earned nearly every filmmaker not named Scorsese the restrictive rating.

     “The Wolf of Wall Street” is very comparable to the director’s “Casino” (1995) in both style and substance. Both films are about organized crime and the handsome payday corruption offers, portraying charismatic men who are very good at their job and refuse to live by anyone’s rules but their own. In the mob world, inevitably, you pay the price for your mistakes; less so in the “legit” world of high finances. But until getting rich quick goes out of style, guys like Belfort will always be around to take your money.


     One of the great ironies behind the creation of this timeless detective movie is that, despite the involvement of so many extraordinarily talented artists—director Howard Hawks, actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett and, of course, the originator, Raymond Chandler—it was the suggestions of a talent agent that helped cement its place in cinematic history.

    Charles K. Feldman, representing Bacall, wrote Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros. studios, urging him to reshoot and add scenes to the finished film to help boost the 21-year-old’s career. The film, completed in early 1945, had been shelved by the studio because it needed to get all its war films into theaters before the actual conflict ended. But Feldman was concerned about the bad reviews his client received for “Confidential Agent,” her second film after bursting on the scene in 1944 opposite Bogart in “To Have and Have Not.” Feldman wanted more of the feisty character that made her such a sensation in “To Have and Have Not,” which was not much in evidence in the original version of “The Big Sleep.”

    In early 1946, Hawks and newly married Bogart and Bacall, along with some other cast members, reshot about a half-dozen scenes for the film, most importantly the now famous “horse racing” seduction scene, reportedly written by Jules Furthman, who, with Faulkner, had written the screenplay for “To Have and Have Not.”

     The beauty of the movie version of Chandler’s crackling first novel is that, unlike most Hollywood detective yarns to that point, the film treats the convoluted plot as an outlet for character development and romance. Faulkner and Brackett, working separately to adapt different sections of the book, muddy the plot beyond what Chandler wrote, in part because they can only suggest that Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) is a slut and mostly because the point of the movie (as Mr. Feldman so wisely pointed out) was to cash in on the Bogart-Bacall chemistry.

     Three years earlier, Bogart had played a much more serious detective in “The Maltese Falcon,” a great film but one that is devoted to getting to the bottom of the crime. Who has the black bird? In “The Big Sleep,” no one cares who killed Geiger or why Joe Brody was shot or how the Sternwood chauffeur ended up dead (even Chandler couldn’t answer that one)—just sit back and savor Bogart offhanded delivery of some of the funniest lines ever written for a crime novel.

    The opening sequence showing Marlowe’s first encounter with all the Sternwoods at their mansion is taken virtually word for word from the novel. Not only does it quickly establish Marlowe as a blunt-talking, sarcastic, yet ethical detective, but it prepares the audience for the type of film it’s about to see. It’s a textbook introduction that lays down the visual and vocal grammar of the movie and mentions, at least in passing, virtually everyone who is going to play a key role in the story and its blackmail scheme.

      The script diverts from Chandler’s original for a sparklingly frisky scene in which Marlowe flirts with a bookstore clerk, who closes the shop and pulls down the shades as the detective waits for a man to arrive at a store across the street. The suggestion of what goes on is pretty clear for a 1946 film after the clerk (played by Dorothy Malone) takes off her glasses and undoes her hair.

     Even as Bacall’s Vivian lies to Marlowe and tries to get him off the case, it’s obvious that she wishes they would have meet under different circumstances. In terms as blunt (and vulgar) as movie dialogue could be 65 years ago, he tells her, in horseracing parlance, “…I don’t know how you’d do over a stretch of ground,” and she replies, “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.” As marvelous as the scene is, it completely interrupts the arc of their relationship and makes a later scene, in Eddie Mars’ casino, confusing. Suddenly, she’s acting demure and surprised by his attention, after practically inviting him into her bed minutes earlier.    

    In the novel, Vivian is corrupt and too involved in the crimes to ever end up with Marlowe, but in Hollywood, even as the studio’s romantic period was coming to a close, the pair is destined for a final clinch. But typical of a Hawks film (see “Only Angels Have Wings,” “His Girl Friday,” “Ball of Fire”) the film is filled with free-thinking, independent women, including Vivian, the bookstore clerk and con artist Agnes (Sonia Darrin).

    There’s a bit of rain and fog to give the Southern California setting a sense of the classic noir alleyways and shadowy nights of New York (though a pair of henchmen manages to find an alley to drag Marlowe into and pummel him), but the desperate disillusionment of film noir was not in Hawks’ vocabulary. By emphasizing the comedy, the witty wordplay and the romanticism of Bogey and Bacall, he’s made something quite different from a crime film. He, and his illustrious writing team, turned Raymond Chandler’s prose into a Howard Hawks film. It doesn’t get much better than that.      


NEBRASKA  (2013)
    There’s nothing very original about a character and those around him coming to terms with their lives by returning to their hometown. It’s a story that has become a virtual rite of passage for any budding fiction writer. Yet director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson, with insightful detail, subtle Midwest humor and sincerely crafted characters, have brought something fresh to this well-worn scenario.

      Not unlike Payne’s “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” this new film offers a collection of characters whose lives are not turning out as they planned and they are pretty clueless as to how to rectify their state of being. David (Will Forte, longtime “Saturday Night Live” writer and cast member) is sliding toward middle age with a dead-end retail job and a broken marriage. He is also always on call to handle his alcoholic, obstinate father (a dazed, unkempt Bruce Dern), whose dementia symptoms have his wife and other son convinced he should be put in a nursing home.

      Woody’s latest ridiculous whim is that he’s determined to walk (his driver’s license has been revoked) from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he expects to collect the $1 million he believes he has won. No matter how many times David explains to his father that this is just an advertising come-on, the old man insists on going to Lincoln. Ignoring his mother’s objections (she’s tired of him catering to Woody), David agrees to drive him to Lincoln and satisfying his crazy notion that he’s won.

      Just when Woody’s antics and David’s mopiness are starting to become tedious, they make a stop in Hawthorne, the father’s hometown, to visit his brother and other relatives. It’s here where the film really shines, brilliantly capturing the world of small-town, rural America; especially the men, who are stoic, nonverbal, seemingly waiting around to die. At his brother’s home, the conversation mostly centers around how long it took them to drive from Billings, until Woody reveals that he’s about to become a millionaire.

       Payne has made a touching, funny movie centered on a rather unpleasant person, Woody, who has been a sad excuse for a father, not much of a husband and is nearing his end filled with regrets. Yet, Dern, one of the most enduring actors of our time—he made his debut on TV in 1960—clearly has a bead on Woody and he slowly emerges as someone we sympathize with. There is a memorable scene when he returns to the home he was raised in and walks from room to room remembering his severe upbringing. Looking out on the barren fields, he says, “The barn’s still standing.” Meaningless, it seems, but loaded with every sad memory that has turned him into the man he is.

     Shot in soft, almost drab black and white, “Nebraska” sometimes feels like a journey to the past, but, in fact, it looks at a contemporary world that just hasn’t changed much in the past half century. And like so many people who live out their lives in remote locals, these characters never stop reliving the past, revisiting old disputes, lost loves, bad decisions.

     The acting, as in every Payne film, is exquisite, led by Forte’s low-keyed portrayal of David, who, most importantly, makes us see his father’s seemingly idiotic belief in the million dollar sweepstakes as something with deeper meaning. Dern’s performance slowly emerges; at first he’s just a cliché of the crazy old man but as more is revealed and he opens up, mostly in heated arguments with his son, we discover a more complex character.

     The most surprising and humorous performance in the film is by June Squibb, as Woody’s blunt speaking wife who loves him in her way, but prefers to ridicule him in public. Stacy Keach is hilarious as a bullying, pseudo tough guy who once was Woody’s business partner and Angela McEwan gives a moving, quietly powerful portrayal as the editor of the local paper and a former beau of Woody’s. She has a moment near the end of the film that wordlessly conveys everything there is to know about regret, lost chances, the life not lived.

    Without the media hype of his contemporaries—Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, the Coen brothers, David O. Russell—Payne has emerged as one of the finest filmmakers in America; he doesn’t need supercharged characters or outrageous storylines to excavate the truth about the ways we live our lives and what we do to make sense of it all.


      Focusing on a struggling, grumpy folk artist, the latest quirky offering from Ethan and Joel Coen captures the evolving Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the early 1960s, the tail end of the beatnik era that served as an incubator for the poets, comics, folk troubadours and jazz geniuses who would influence entertainment for the next 20 years.

    Llewyn Davis (a perfectly cast Oscar Isaac) sees himself as a serious alternative to the chipper, comfy folks acts gaining popularity—just before the ground-shifting arrival of Bob Dylan—as folk enjoys its short time in the spotlight. It filled the vacuum between Elvis being drafted and the arrival of the Beatles.

      This moody ne’er-do-well, walking the winter streets of New York without an overcoat but always with his guitar, leads the viewers through the folkie world, starting with his close friends Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), whose couch is one in a series he crashes on. The seemingly demure Jean lets loose a torrent of profanity every time she sees Llewyn, who may or may not be the cause of her unwanted pregnancy. It’s just the latest travail in his life as he is still recovering from the suicide of his singer partner. But whether it’s the crass commercialism of folk music, his friend’s pregnancy or losing the Gorfein’s cat, Llewyn (partially based on real life folkie Dave van Ronk) remains convinced that life is a conspiracy against him.

    His journey (led by, what else, but a cat named Ulysses and its doppelganger) takes a strange detour when he agrees to help drive a crippled, drug-addled hate-spewing jazz musician (John Goodman at his grotesque best) to Chicago. Once there, he visits a legendary music producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham in one of the best five-minute performances you’ll ever see) who, after hearing Llewyn perform, offers up a decisive, God-like verdict. The simple, brilliantly set-up scene in a dark, empty nightclub may be the quintessential statement on creativity vs. commercialism, art vs. business, emotional depth vs. surface gloss.

     Isaac’s performance holds this rambling, discordant picture together; an impressive starring debut (his most prominent role previously had been as the evil Prince John in the Russell Crowe version of “Robin Hood”) for this Juilliard trained actor-musician who must make the audience care about an abrasive and sarcastic discontent. The writers-directors aid in overcoming this obstacle by having Davis, and the other performers, sing their songs in full, creating an intimacy and bond not unlike what happens when you actually see a musician in a small club. 

     Like so many of the Coens’ films (“The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “A Serious Man”), “Inside Llewyn Davis” is made for an audience with a particular sensibility, far from the typical Hollywood moviegoer. Let’s face it, the audience for a movie about the New York folk scene of the 1960s is pretty small. But in this franchise driven world of moving making, it is a joy to see acclaimed filmmakers (actually Oscar winners) who are willing and able to explore whatever interests them.

     Don’t believe the ads and gushing reviews though; this isn’t the Coens’ best film or even a film that will appeal to 10 percent of filmgoers. But it’s a superbly made period piece (the era beautiful recreated by Bruno Delbonnel’s camerawork—it looks like the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”) that addresses a timeless issue that every artists faces: Who will I serve, my artistic vision or the tastes of the audience. We know which side the Coens come down on.


CLEO FROM 5 to 7 (1962)
      As much as I recognize the importance of the early films and filmmakers of the French New Wave, I always felt they were largely overrated. Of course the movement produced some wonderful, influential movies, including Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless," Claude Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge,” Francois Truffaut’s "The 400 Blows” and "Jules and Jim," and Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad.” Yet just as interesting, experimental and entertaining pictures were being made at the same time in Italy, Poland and even Britain. 

      But one New Wave picture I overlooked until recently was Agnés Varda’s "Cleo From 5 to 7," which turns out to be one of the best of the era, a subtle, poignant character study of a pampered pop singer who is dealing with the news that she may have cancer.

       Corinne Marchand, a picture-perfect blonde beauty who had a small role the previous year in “Lola,” a film made by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, plays Cleo (short for Cleopatra), a pop singer who the camera follows from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the day she's to learn the results of her tests.

       We first meet her as she rides in taxi with her personal assistant, struggling to deal with the state of her health while clearly drawn to the world around her. She’s impatient with everyone around her—her motherly assistant; an older, uncaring lover and a pair of songwriters, one played by soon-to-be legend Michel Legrand, crafting songs for her—until she heads out into the streets on her own.

     The coddled, privileged woman finds some comfort in confessing her fears to her best friend and then, meeting and bonding with a young soldier, also facing the possibility of death, as he heads off to war. 

     The many long shots of street scenes, with Cleo mingling in with the reality around her, give the film a documentary-like look while the dialogue is equally down-to-earth. It is the rare New Wave film that manages to create both an entertaining, watchable story and utilize the cutting-edge, unadorned, anti-Hollywood filmmaking style of the movement.

      What makes the film work so well is Marchand, who finds just the right balance between showing a woman who enjoys her life of comfort and being catered to, while appreciating the small things in life, especially as she contemplates the possibility of sickness and death.

     Both sides of Cleo are on display in a revealing, thoughtful scene set in an outdoor cafe in which she plays her hit song on the cafe's juke box and then walks among the customers hoping to see them react. I think she expected someone to recognize her or at least notice the song, but everyone is too indulged in their own world, their own conversations, to notice her or the song.

      Marchand seems like a film star in the making—charismatic, enigmatic and extraordinarily photogenic—very much like the equally beautiful and subtle actress Catherine Deneuve, who, ironically, became a star in Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” two years later.  Marchand spent the rest of her career working on French television while Deneuve has gone on to have one of the greatest careers in the history of film acting    

      Varda has focused her career—still going strong at age 85—on making political documentaries, best known for “Gleaners and I” (2000), about the French lower class, and the biographical “Agnés at the Beach” (2008). Her most successful feature since “Cleo” was “Vagabond” (1985), which earned numerous international awards for the director and the film’s young star Sandrine Bonnaire, now one of France’s finest actresses.


      What’s most disappointing about hot director David O. Russell’s latest comedy-drama is that there is so much to like about the film.

     The picture features at least half-dozen hilarious, superbly acted scenes that perfectly capture the excesses of the late ‘70s; a nutty yet partially true scenario that keeps getting stranger and stranger; an endless array of outrageous characters; and another chameleon-like, mesmerizing performance by Christian Bale. Despite all that, Russell fails to deliver the great film he was clearly aiming for.

      What sinks “American Hustle” is its pedestrian, repetitive script (by Russell and Eric Singer), which fails to provide these wonderfully costumed and coiffed actors with anything interesting to say, along with Russell’s plodding pacing. This tale of a pair of brazen con artists forced to help a rogue FBI agent entrap bribe-accepting politicians plays out in a such a leisurely manner (at 2:17, at least 30 minutes too long) that the tension and energy are all but drained out.

      At points in the film I felt as if I was watching a first run-through of a scene; that Russell was letting the actors work through it before he settled on how he was going to shoot the final version. Maybe, I theorized, that since he was making a film about the 1970s, the director was trying to capture the less-structured, spontaneous feel of movies of that era. For me, it didn’t work. But, as evidenced by the glowing reviews and critic awards, most filmgoers are forgiving of the slow pace, weak script, flabby filmmaking and happy to bask in amusement over these wonderful characters.

     And I’ll admit that the film is well worth seeing, if only for Bale’s unforgettable Irving Rosenfeld, a born hustler who, as a kid, helps his father’s glass repair business by breaking windows. Now, with a comb-over/hairpiece contraption that has to be seen to be believed and a beer belly that makes him look 10-months pregnant, Irving hooks up with sexy Sydney (Amy Adams), who reinvents herself as British aristocrat Lady Edith Greenleigh, and their first-rate con game is on. Promising loans for an upfront fee of $5000 (in an era when interest rates were 15%), the pair make a killing, though the film never explains why victims don’t immediately go to the cops or seek revenge.

      Of course, the law eventually catches up with them, in the form of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who recruits them for what became known as Abscam, a real-life sting operation that netted a handful of congressmen.  In the film, the focus of the operation is to entrap Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a sincere New Jersey mayor who wants to rebuild Atlantic City as a gambling magnet. For all involved, things get complicated; especially when they forget that to build a casino (even if it’s just a make-believe scam) you have to go through the mob.

     Of course what really becomes sticky are the relationships: Irving and Sydney, Irving and his hair-brained wife (Jennifer Lawrence), Richie and Sydney, Richie and his boss (Louis CK) and Irving and Carmine, just to name the prominent.

      Bale, who won the Oscar for his work in Russell’s “The Fighter,” nails the sleazy smarts that have made characters like Irving a staple of America’s criminal class, along with his Jersey accent and unlikely appeal. As his wacky wife Rosalyn, who has a knack for getting things to go her way, Lawrence plays another, if very different, needy, quirky young woman to follow her Oscar-winning performance in Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” She’s convincingly clueless and self absorbed, even as she nearly brings down the entire operation.

      Adams and Cooper, also Russell alumni, give less satisfying performances, in part because the script never really finds the heart of their characters. Renner is fabulously flamboyant (with a great bouffant hairdo) as Carmine as is Elizabeth Röhm (once of “Law and Order”), unrecognizable as Carmine’s loud, devoted wife.

     There’s a long, beautifully structured sequence with Irving and Rosalyn having dinner with Carmine and his wife in a traditional Italian restaurant that is intercut with Sydney and Richie getting sweaty in a decadent disco club. In those 15 minutes, we get a taste of how good this film should have been and occasionally is, but Russell never manages to close the deal.


FRANCES HA  (2013)
    It seems that in every Noah Baumbach’s film there is a character, or two or three, who makes inappropriate, insulting comments in social settings and we’re expected to find it endearing. Immature, yes; slightly amusing, sure; but at some point the clueless behavior just becomes irritating and an easy way to label the character as eccentric, quirky, someone “special.”

     This approach takes center stage in “Frances Ha,” a rather pretentious slice-of-life look at a twentysomething woman attempting to find her focus. Frances (an energetic Greta Gerwig) shares a New York apartment with her college roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner); the pair seems so attached that, at first, it’s easy to assume that they must be lovers. They’re not, but it doesn’t make it any less painful when Sophie announces that she’s moving in with her boyfriend. Frances, barely making a living as a less-than-principle dancer in a small modern dance company, ends up moving in with a couple of guy pals.

    Not much happens in Frances’ life, even when she tries to spice it up with an unplanned, ill-advised weekend visit to Paris. Which is the point: In this world of ambitious young professionals and cut-throat go-getters, is there still a place for the free-spirit who has bigger dreams than talent, who isn’t on a well-plotted path toward an acceptably defined successful life?  

      I so wanted to like Frances, highly verbal and self deprecating (describing herself as “undateable”) and this movie—Baumbach shot it in black and white to further entice me—but halfway through I starting hoping another character would appear to hijack the movie. And, in maybe the ultimate sign of the times, Francis seems to accept her limits and make the best of them, instead of, like Bobby Dupea of another era, walking away and hitching a ride out of town. Being a discontented eccentric isn’t what it used to be.