The Wolf of Wall Street

To end our Oscar season, we’ll take a look at the one of the most polarizing films of year, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Directed by the aforementioned Scorsese, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, and Matthew McConaughey. It is rated R strong sexual content, graphic nudity, heavy drug use, explicit language, and some violence throughout.

In Scorsese’s 3 hour epic, DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, a Long Island stockbroker as he indulges in a life of corruption and indulgence that regularly features drugs, sex, and money. Belfort teams up with Donnie Azoff (Hill) and starts the brokerage firm Stratford-Oakmont. The company, using corrupt and illegal tactics, quickly grows in both size and relevance. However, with the FBI watching Belfort’s every move, he must find creative ways to cover his tracks and maintain his life of fortune and fun.

Thanks to Nic and Emma for being guest writers this week.

8 out of 10

The Mighty Roar. This is how Jordan Belfort describes the sound of his board room. It also happens to be how I would describe The Wolf of Wolf Street to someone who has not seen it. A Mighty Roar of a movie. It begins with Belfort tossing a Midget at a bulls-eye with dollar signs on it. We proceed to follow a pretty coked up Belfort through his life of extravagance and debauchery. All the while taking us back through how he made it to the top. When I first saw the trailer, I thought that it would be reminiscent of Inside Job, a wall street documentary about the financial crisis of 07-09. I was dead wrong. Unlike in his memoir, Belfort skips all of the wall street talk and moves straight to what people went to the theater to see: International crime, and Leonardo Dicaprio and Jonah Hill double teaming a secretary. And he delivers too. Money is stuffed into briefcases, rained on prostitutes, used to snort cocaine, thrown into wastebaskets, and taped to a mostly naked woman so that she can smuggle it across the border to Switzerland.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio

After reading the memoir, I understood one thing about Jordan Belfort. That he didn’t truly care about other people, especially women, because they were his playthings. Sometimes during a scene where a woman was yelling at him (the water splashing scene !!!) he would take that time, not to describe the argument but to describe their bodies and how horny he was. Scorsese decided that he would make the women in his life strong and calculating, as opposed to willing and objectified. At one point he agrees to give a female broker 100,000 dollars if she will shave her head in front of the whole board room. A marching band comes in and strippers deck the board halls. Belfort is looking proudly over his board room, and not looking at the girl who has already been given the money and looks like she is on the verge of tears. As she walks away from the shaver some people give her an understanding pat on the back, as if doing anything for Belfort’s money was routine. This is the opposite of Belfort’s T and A thoughts about his employees.

Leonardo DiCaprio really could not have done a better job at capturing all of the nuances that come with a character like Jordan. There are some times in the film where you can actually identify with his character, as a man who has lost himself. DiCaprio was supported by a surprisingly good performance by Jonah Hill as his equally greedy right hand man, Donnie Azoff. Margot Robbie not only feigns an awesome accent but held her own among bigger names, portraying Belfort’s wife as calculating and smart not just a bimbo. These performances were backed up by Jean Dujardin, Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, and even a small cameo from Spike Jonze. All in all the amazing performances many of these actors gave, among other things, gave The Wolf of Wall Street the depth it has past just a memoir.
~Emma

7 out of 10

Looking over the list of nominees for the Best Picture this year, there is no shortage of films with something to say. From Dallas Buyers Club’s thought-provoking treatment of the AIDS epidemic to the story of an old woman searching for the son taken from her by the Church presented in Philomena, the field is certainly rife with moral tales. Martin Scorsese in his latest film The Wolf of Wall Street, however, has little time for such sentiment. His protagonist Jordan Belfort, played adeptly by Leonardo DiCaprio, leads a life of debonair debauchery with remarkably few consequences. Belfort truly can have his Quaaludes and pop them too.

That is not to say, by any means, that the film is not enjoyable and indeed the first hour goes by in a flurry of excess and wonderment at the lifestyle Belfort and his fellow Wall Street newcomers live. It is certainly not for everyone but few movies in the past few years can claim to have constructed such an escapist ideal as this one has. Sure, there are a few moral speed bumps, prime among them that Belfort steals unsuspecting investors’ money and livelihood. But as Belfort says, he “spends it better anyway”, so it’s all okay really. But as the minutes stretch into hours, the Wolf’s legs seem to run out a bit, tired by the earlier frantic pace and one questions the necessity of some later scenes.

The obvious comparison to make would be to Scorsese’s earlier work Goodfellas as both track the legally questionable rise and fall of a handsome, enigmatic male plagued by demons. But where Goodfellas seemed continuously fresh throughout, Wolf gets somewhat stale. And where Scorsese did a masterful job of walking the moral tight rope with his last character which allowed him to portray how terrible some of the things his protagonist did were whilst maintaining sympathy for him, Belfort can be difficult to connect to.

Margot Robbie (left), DiCaprio, and Scorsese (right)

Margot Robbie (left), DiCaprio, and Scorsese (right)

But Belfort is not a hero, he is an anti-hero and DiCaprio embraces this fully. In doing so he certainly shines the brightest of all the cast and wholly deserves the award attention given to him. The rest of the cast is largely serviceable and little more. Margot Robbie however, playing Belfort’s second wife, does deserve a mention for her accurate portrayal of a feisty female without the coldness that is all too often characteristic of intelligent females in male-dominated films. And of course, Matthew McConaughey turns in a virtuous turn as Belfort’s mentor and provides the greatest moment of the entire film.

Some people will hate The Wolf of Wall Street. But most of these people were always going to hate it long before the first reel of film was shot. For the rest of us, it is an undeniably good film and provides fantastic entertainment for two hours. Sadly, the film is not two hours long and it is this final hour that makes what could have been a great film simply a good one.
~Nic

IMDB: 8.3
Metacritic: 75
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%

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Philomena

Up next, as we slowly approach the Academy Awards, is the British-French comedy-drama Philomena, based off the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Directed by Stephen Frears and starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, it is rated PG-13 for some strong language and sexual references.

Philomena tells the true story of the titular character, played by Judi Dench, who had her son taken away from her when she was a teenager living in a Catholic convent. Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a journalist who has been recently outcast by the Labour party, is approached by Philomena’s daughter, who asks him to write a story about her mother. Martin, initially hesitant, takes on the story and eventually ends up in America. The two bond, discovering much about each other, as well as uncovering her son’s fate.

6.5 out of 10

Philomena is an interesting film on many accounts. There are many things done well, but it seemingly failed in the thing it worked hardest to accomplish: preach forgiveness and forbid hate.

The film is charming, I’ll give it that. The comedy is cute and pretty funny for the most part. It does a good job in balancing out the tragedy of the movie with funny moments. Every unfortunate thing that happens is countered with a joke or two that prevents the audience from getting too depressed, which is relevant considering how sad this story can be. Judi Dench plays Philomena with a loving, yet sweet old lady persona. She is what helps to create the necessary balance between the sad moments and the hilarious moments. She is the center of tragedy throughout most of the film, but still manages to spit out humorous lines and phrases every once in a while. Her whole personality and tendencies were all very cute, but she still managed to be very likable.

The screenplay is also well written. I haven’t read the book, but the whole movie feels pretty realistic. The tone of the film isn’t too one-sided (meaning it’s not too happy or not too sad), which contributes to its realism. It isn’t a necessarily happy ending, more so a realistic one. The story is intriguing and something any audience would want to sympathize with. Everyone wants to know what happens. Everyone wants to see Philomena get her happy ending, to reunite with her son, and for everyone to be happy again. It’s a well written screenplay, clear through its ability to evoke these feelings.

Now, while Steve Coogan may have written the screenplay very well, I was not impressed with his character. I thought that overall, his character didn’t grow as much as he could have or as much as he should have. Throughout the film he was angry, and in the end, it was no different. The film ended with him angry at the nuns, and the resolution feels unresolved, to be frank. If Martin has learned, it doesn’t really show in his character. Maybe he’s become less bitter, but it was sincerely hard for me to tell if Martin changed as a person. It’s tough for me to come to any other conclusion without seeing a drastic change. And I’m honestly not one of those people who is so critical about character development, but since the growth in the characters is so important for this movie, I have no choice but to pick it apart. Martin’s lack of development kind of just feels like the movie didn’t actually come to a conclusive ending.

The biggest criticism I can present to this film is how it feels like a huge attack on the Catholic religion, and manipulates and utilizes emotions to exploit the hate. Up until the beginning till the end, the Catholic religion is viewed as evil and the hero is Philomena and her morality. How she refuses to sink, and remains hopeful and maintains her loyalty to God. It’s hard to get much out of this film when it’s just an emphatic attack on religion. I’m not the most religious guy in the world, but even I can tell you; this is just unnecessary and takes away too much of the focus on other aspects of the story.

Overall, this film is alright, but nothing more. It does have a few solid things going for it, but its hypocrisy—how it preaches against hate, then turns around and fuels it towards Catholicism—causes me to look upon Philomena with a frown.

9 out of 10

To what degree do you know your family?

That is a question that may seem very, very easy to answer at first but really think about it. But pick a relative and delve into everything you know about them and you may find surprisingly little. Now, imagine that person was estranged from your immediate family and then try again. It gets hundreds of times harder. Philomena focuses on a lot of things but it mostly focuses on family roles. Specifically, it shows that some relatives are jigsaws waiting to be solved and, if you are very lucky, you might solve some puzzles that your character offers.

Last week, I mentioned how one of the main categories of contender that turns up every year in the Academy Awards is the ingenious fiction or non-fiction story; one that somebody should have thought of at one point but never did. Philonema was a great story that was hidden in a dark niche somewhere like the majority of great historical stories do. In fact, most get lost in the mix of personal stories out there. To Hollywood, these types of stories must be a dime-a-dozen.

But (Not unlike Dallas Buyers Club) I am very glad when a movie like this (A non-fiction piece like this) wins the Mainstream Lottery and gets to surface. Historical stories, biographies and memoirs all bring events to alienated events to life. Sure, we know a lot about the working class of the 20th century but we hardly know about the individuals who made it up and their story. Moreover, if its effective enough, we should see reflections of modern problems.

And that’s where family comes in in Philomena, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are expected to guide us through a half-century journey in a runtime that amounts to a little less than The Lego Movie (For future reference, my pick for the 2015 Academy Awards. No joke.) and, as expected of these all-stars, they keep it believable and mature the relationship between the two main characters. Arguably, the story deals with Sixsmith and Lee’s increasing dedication to the subject of Lee’s kid as much as anything.

Dench and Coogan

Dench and Coogan

One of the hardest things one can do is uncover a loved-one’s character and Philomena undeniably acknowledges that. It keeps to one story for its entirety and doesn’t look back whatsoever. One of the few complaints about the film is that its just one more criticism of Catholicism launched by filmmakers and, while it may seem that way in general, I don’t think it holds much water. Religion is a wide topic that’s very popular to deal with. Its all over history so many films are bound to deal with it at some point.

Otherwise, while its main characters are very multidimensional, there’s a feeling of emptiness whenever there aren’t too many supporting characters. In that sense, it isn’t as concerned on its characters as it is its theme but its ideas are able to hold it up.

Philomena hasn’t succeeded any of the nominees so far for me but it’s a fine addition to the 2013-14 season.

IMDB: 7.7
Metacritic: 76
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

Nebraska

Next up, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. The comedy-drama, directed by Payne, stars Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb. It is rated R for language. 

Nebraska tells the story of an alcoholic father, Woody Grant (Dern), as he attempts to make the trip from Billings, Montana all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a million dollar sweepstakes prize that he believes he has won. Stubbornly intent on collecting his money, Woody and his son David (Forte) take a road trip that includes a stop in the town Woody grew up in. Along the way, they face unnecessary, unwarranted publicity as their relatively weak relationship is put to the test.

8.5 out of 10

Seeing Nebraska was honestly kind of forced. You could tell by the trailers that this movie was not going to be two hours of fun and enjoyment. Any movie told in black and white, is about old people, and is named after a notoriously boring state won’t appeal to many, especially teenagers such as myself. However, I surprised myself and really enjoyed it, thanks to its strong acting, beautiful direction, and wonderful writing.

I had never heard of June Squibb before this movie, but now I’m a huge fan. She was absolutely hilarious as Woody Grant’s sassy, gutter mouthed wife Kate. She played it with a simple, old lady innocence who is struggling with her husband’s status, but she did not let that get in the way of her spitting out bold, racy and hilarious comments every now and then. Bruce Dern was also fantastic. He never lost his persona. You could tell he was struggling the whole movie, yet we never lost his sense of ignorant hope. His relationship with his son, or lack thereof, is really crucial to understanding the struggle each of them face, and thankfully, both Dern and Forte play their part in making the movie successful. Speaking about Forte, he delivers a very solid, underrated performance as an estranged son who is clearly struggling, but must hide it. Overall, the leading trio has great chemistry that help display the true love and affection they have for each other, even if it is hard to see. Hey, even Saul—I mean Bob Odenkirk (as Ross, Woody’s other son)—is pretty good!

June Squibb

June Squibb

One of the most notable things about this film is that it is shot in entirely black and white. Extremely smart decision by Alexander Payne. The unique lack of color allows a sense of authenticity. It stylized the vibrant Midwestern background, while also allowing Bruce Dern’s face to stand out. I know that may sound ridiculous, but it’s really effective in making his character the focus of our attention. There are so many subtle things that give the film a melancholy but intimate feel. The beautiful camera work that allows us to get a feel of the Midwestern setting. The music accomplished the same feat. It’s all done exceptionally well. The entire film just has a nice simplicity to it. Alexander Payne did a phenomenal job in providing this film with the tone and feel that it has.

Now the plot isn’t anything special either. There isn’t much that will excite you, or keep you into it. It isn’t actualy about a guy going to get a million dollars, nor is about the people who are trying to get that money. It’s really about the relationship between Woody and his son. This isn’t a plot driven film in any way. It makes up for this with its comedy. As I mentioned before, this movie is so funny. There’s a wry sense of humor to it that makes it so funny. It’s an extremely applicable, realistic type of humor as well. It’s something that allows the movie to be really enjoyable, despite its natural tendency to lack excitement.

I’ve seen people label this film as ‘one of those movies you have to watch once, but never again’. I see the reasoning behind this statement. It’s definitely something you should watch at least once because of how it emphasizes relationships and explores family love. Is it something I would watch again? It is a great movie and I really enjoyed it, but I don’t think it is a movie I would watch for fun.
~Vig

7.5 out of 10

Of course, it would be kind of a pointless task to try and assign a topic that each of the Best Picture nominees live up to thematically. But, if I had to pick one, I would definitely say that the topic this year was the idea of what makes up a relationship.

That is a very broad theme indeed. Yet, Her, Philenoma, Dallas Buyers’ Club and 12 Years a Slave live up to it. Heck, there wouldn’t be a problem if Gravity and maybe Captain Phillips were in that list. And I would certainly not have a problem if somebody were to throw Nebraska in there.

Nebraska is what many have deemed as a “hipster” movie. For those of you aren’t quite with it these days, a “hipster” movie is defined as one that drags, has a lot fluff in terms of plot and, most visibly, is shot in a purposefully crude or peculiar fashion. Most would call it ironic maybe. In case adjectives aren’t negative enough for you, yes, “hipster” movies have gained a fair amount of detractors. Now comes the part where I stick up for Nebraska and deem it as the least ironic picture you’ll ever see.

Except, no. It is an absolute irony fest. How could it not be? It’s built on the premise of an old man being paraded around as though he’s won the lottery when all he really has is a scam letter that probably counts as textbook mail fraud and it’s all filmed in black and white. Most importantly, it has that feeling of malaise that comes with the setting the state of Nebraska has to offer.

No, I am not a fan of hipster films. But did Nebraska dig itself out of its ditch?

Half way out. Half way’s good enough for me and apparently good enough for the Academy. The fact is Nebraska does have a lot to say. One can not help but feel the weight of it while he or she watching. It is, very much, about the decay of things. About attempting to polish the broken objects of the past and, mainly, failing to do so. The protagonist, David, is trying to give his father, Woody, the best time he can.

Back in his day Woody was a war veteran who had a business and a united family but now, in the twilight of his life, all of it has evaporated. There’s a scene in which Woody visits his old house which is now ratty and tattered that basically spoon feeds that feeling of deterioration to the audience. One day, you’re a prosperous individual but eventually time could have its way and the most exciting thing in your life is some obscure sweepstakes. That is, unless, you’re able to round up your loved ones and important things once more.

Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern

There’s kind of a conflict between whether a film is about what it’s about or how it’s about it. And (Roger Ebert please don’t strike me down) I think Nebraska has just enough to just be what it’s about (It makes sense when you think about it).

Not the strongest of its tier and definitely not for everyone, Nebraska is a battle you’ll have to choose.
~Zach

IMDB: 7.8
Metacritic: 86
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%