You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Friday, 17 January 2014


Apart from perhaps Steven Spielberg, the career of Martin Scorsese is unparalleled in the last fifty years of Hollywood. Not only does his contribution to cinema define an entire genre - name a modern crime film that doesn't owe some debt to Goodfellas - he consistently seems to take on only the films that he wants to make, only the projects that interest him. This has resulted in more than a few idiosyncratic blips en route - who, for instance, remembers Kundun? - but no one has done more to capture the bruised American psyche, the idea of compromised masculinity.

Case and point: Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who founded one of the world's most successful brokerage firms. A man who makes $49 million a year and yet finds time to be annoyed it's just off a million a week, a man with a supermodel wife who nevertheless occasionally finds himself strapped to a table by a dominatrix with a candle up his ass. Belfort, as brought animatedly to life by Leonard DiCaprio, is an avatar for what might cynically be called the latter-day Mafia. His intermittent voice-over throughout the film resembles Ray Liotta's in Goodfellas so strongly you'd be hard-pressed to remember it's not him. The Wolf of Wall Street, however, is beholden to its predecessor in a way that would make even American Hustle blush.

Straight from the off, The Wolf of Wall Street sweeps you away on a tide of excess, of cocaine and Quaaludes and midgets being launched like lawn darts. It's smart and engaging, full of tracking shots and slow-motion explosions of champagne. Through nestled flashbacks with explore the fresh-faced Belfort's arrival on Wall Street, his education over a boozy lunch by a swaggering Matthew McConaughey (now an Oscar rival for DiCaprio based on his performance in Dallas Buyer's Club), the collapse of his old firm, the birth of his own company, his rise to power. The film is at it's best in these early moments, imbued, as it is, with momentum and the sense of limitless potential.

Soon enough, however, things degenerate into an engaging but ultimately pointless study of excess. Stratton Oakmont, the firm Belfort creates, is guided by his vision, by a credo of self-serving salesmanship: you keep the customer on the phone and you don't let them go till you've milked them dry. The Wolf of Wall Street keeps its portrayal of the financial aspects simple, a dummy's guide that gives you enough understanding of what Belfort's getting up to that will eventually get him into hot water. The true reasoning behind it, though - the "why" to go along with all the "what" - is never touched upon. The film is all about the Bacchanalian but forgets the motivation.

The Wolf of Wall Street never asks us to judge Belfort as becomes immersed in increasingly shady deals, as he engages in increasingly outrageous, obscene behavior - like humping an air hostess en route to Switzerland. We buy it, of course: there are *lots* of drugs involved, a whole regime in fact, and these are those sorts of guys. Jonah Hill's Donnie, a former bedroom furniture salesman and Belfort's main partner in crime, is married to his first cousin. He jerks off at a pool party. All of this, though, is just behavior, not understanding. We walk away from the film knowing the slick, dark-eyed Belfort and plump, bug-eyed Donnie no better than when they first appeared. The film's objectivity, at first enlivening, begins to wear over the course of almost three hours.

In documenting the rise and fall of a Wall Street crook, the film makes a few suggestions at deeper inferences you could draw. Belfort compares his company, Stratton Oakmont, to the United States, a land of opportunity, even as FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) is working to bring him down. The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't necessarily valorize or condemn Belfort's actions: it merely presents them in a buffet of superfluity. There are great sequences - the growth of Belfort's company in a series of jump cuts; his torturous, physically comedic overdose - but no real sense of coherence. Comparisons are drawn between Belfort and Gordon Gekko, antagonist and "hero" of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, but any ideology Belfort might possess is subsumed entirely within his actions.

Belfort is not a hypocrite but nor is he a particularly bright or impressive human being. His success is grounded purely in his charisma, his ability to lay out a spiel. The film asks for no sympathy for him, just as the character himself doesn't, but nor does it offer any understanding. Scorsese here has replaced the violence of Goodfellas with sexual explicitness - the amount of flesh on show during an airplane orgy would make Caligula look restrained. The Wolf of Wall Street is in this regard most similar to Casino, an in-detail look at a particular time and place and style of living, and an examination of a group of guys who had it great but ultimately fucked it up.

Rather than Sharon Stone's brittle sophistication, though, we have Margot Robbie's tawdry sex appeal. The closest thing we get to a Joe Pesci-style sociopath is perhaps Jon Bernthal's musclebound hustler, Brad. Joanna Lumley appears as Aunt Emma as Joanna Lumley while Oscar winner Jean Dujardin is a slick Swiss accountant. They're all to one extent or another, though, sociopaths, or, at the very least, simply amoral. Chandler's Agent Denham is the closest to a moral center the film offers us and he's little more than a jobsworth. The Wolf of Wall Street avoids becoming a polemic - notable given the inflammatory subject - but it provides no commentary either. It's simply a portrayal of fictionalized events, which, however accurate and/or caveated, will likely become a definitive account of  '90s Wall Street culture (with thanks to Chris Carr, see: Hyperreality).

There's so much incident, so much material to cover, such a sense of barely structured anarchism - not to mention the great direction and performances - that it's difficult not to buy into The Wolf of Wall Street, especially coming from the likes of Martin Scorsese. The film isn't a story of corruption or a morality play or even particularly a genre piece, but, for all its detail and texture, it risks succumbing to Great Gatsby Syndrome. Even if you're not looking for justification, even with no demand for "sympathetic" characters, I found myself left cold by Belfort's plight, unable to care about whether or not he went to prison. He did. He certainly deserved it. I think.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, beautiful, crass piece of filmmaking. The care and expertise that have gone into it are undeniable and in less strong a year it would deserve to walk with every award going. In the light of American Hustle, however, which was accused of being a Goodfellas rip-off, it's hard not to feel that Scorsese is aping himself. Why tell this story? Why now? With such a weighty topic, with all that potential I mentioned, there should have been more to The Wolf of Wall Street's "more!". I'm not saying that all films need to have a purpose, but, compared to, say, 2010's Hitchcockian Shutter Island, a touch more complexity would have made all the difference.

8.5 / 10

Saturday, 11 January 2014


August: Osage County opens amidst the hay bales of the American Midwest and with the words of T.S. Eliot - "Life is very long" - but the truest expression of it likes in the cramped confines of the Westen family's plantation-style home and the words of W.B. Yeats: "Things fall apart".

Following the disappearance of its scholarly, long-suffering patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shephard), the Westen's regroup with the supposed purpose of consoling his ailing, cantankerous wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). In the film's biggest performance, Streep, bewigged and gaunt with pain, swaggers around the house, doped-up and obnoxious, speaking out acidulously against her assembled relatives. She calls it truth telling: she's a drug addict; her beloved absent husband, an alcoholic; the marriage of her eldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts), is on the rocks.

The environment is, curdled, stewed in resentment and second-hand smoke, toxic - Violet is a chain-smoker in spite of her mouth cancer, what Barbara refers to drolly as "the punchline". Tracy Letts' writing in August: Osage County is superlative, as you'd suppose with the original play: the plight of each family member, blood or otherwise, is acutely, often painfully sketched.  "Little" Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) is saddled with a disapproving but otherwise humorful mother (Margo Martindale); Barbara struggles to relate to her teenage daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Even at a respectable two-hours run-time, the film feels overstuffed with relationships and performances, cluttered. Roberts turns in her best performance in years, perhaps ever, as a woman described by the adulterous Bill (Ewan McGregor) as "passionate", "deep", "funny", but "not open" (and a "pain in the ass!"). In a tighter, more compact film, the rivalry and resentment between the nervy Barbara and prickly Violet would be the focus; here it's just a feature. As such, when a protracted dinner scene erupts in sudden histrionic violence, it feels a bit overdone.

There's just no space for a proper run-up. August: Osage County's ensemble is second-to-none and every character gets their moment - Chris Cooper's "Big" Charles a hand-wringing grace; Julianne Nicholson's vulnerable Ivy a heartbreaking revelation; Juliette Lewis' self-involved Karen a moment of bitter self-awareness. The dramatic richness is undeniable, but, like any good stew, in need of reduction. The number of personalities battling for prominence, acknowledgment, actors as well as characters, makes the film almost a metaphor for itself.

The film veers from one family crisis, one earnest conversation, one face-off, to the next, and John Wells' workmanlike direction never quite manages to overcome the inherent theatricality. A critical mass of great dramatic actors doesn't make a great dramatic film, despite some great dramatic performances, and with so much material the payoff feels fatally incomplete. Still, with a Native American housekeeper providing yet more thematic subtext and Dermot Mulroney's scumbag "fiance with a Ferrari", the film is remarkable.

With an extra forty minutes or a few less characters, August: Osage County could have been a world-beater, instead of a just Harvey Weinstein's 2013 prestige pic, an overstuffed Christmas goose that, while nourishing, could well have been a domestic Glengarry Glen Ross.


Thursday, 9 January 2014


Above a dying mining town somewhere in the Rust Belt of the United States, one of the most talented actors of his generation, bearded and disheveled, pauses with a rifle to take a shot. A deer is in his scopes. Once upon a time, you get the sense, he would have put the creature down without a moment's thought, but now the act has taken on a symbolic weight that makes the man uncomfortable. He does not take the shot. The deer escapes unscathed.

This is a scene you might have seen back in the cinema in 1978 with Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, arguably the first film to explore the impact of the Vietnam War on the American psyche. While its cinematic legacy was tainted in providing Cimino with the clout to make the disastrous Heaven's Gate - a film so fraught it did with the "-gate" suffix for production nightmares what Watergate with it did for political scandals - it also won Best Picture and provided Christopher Walken with both the breakout and arguably defining role of his career. It seems unlikely that the second film to feature a similar scene, Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace, will have quite the same effect on the cinematic consciousness, but nor does it really aspire to.

Out of the Furnace is a lean drama-thriller that would likely have slipped completely under the radar were it not for a highly impressive cast. Instead of Robert DeNiro as a protagonist, we have Christian Bale, currently in contention for a Golden Globe for American Hustle (yes!). Working in the steel mill, comfortably dating Zoe Saldana, Russell Baze seems content with his slightly ramshackle existence. There's no chance of him going anywhere: he spends his night's at a local bar, visits his dying father on a daily basis. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) falls into the role of troubled veteran newly returned from the Middle East. The conflict may have changed, but the context of urban dilapidation thirty-something years on is very much the same. Apart, that is, from Harlan DeGroot.

Harlan DeGroot, played by Woody Harrelson, feels like he's stepped out of a different film. An antagonist backwoods psychopath, Harrelson naturally brings an unstable vibe to the role. This is a man who lights his cigarettes with a blow-torch, who brutally assaults an unfortunate interloper who attempts to stop him abusing a hook-up at a drive-in movie. Apart from a brief moment of terrifying tenderness - he dabs the face of a wounded fighter - DeGroot is a plain and simple antagonist.

Rodney's gambling problem and a refusal to settle into a nine-till-five puts him in hock with Willem Dafoe's put-upon bookie, Petty, who refuses to cut Rodney off but is worried that he will one day have to hurt him. Tanned and bouffant, chewing gum and a leather jacket, Dafoe's presence encapsulates the film. It might be the boonies, but this is a civilised world where people talk out their problems over a drink; all except for DeGroot. Leader of a clan of dangerous hillbillies, you know Rodney is doomed from the instant he enters DeGroot's sphere. DeGroot's brutality is contrasted with Russell's tenderness with Lena, his girlfriend, but this is the type of world soundtracked by Bruce Springsteen, a gritty, industrial, post-agrarian world where nothing thrives. Even police officer Wesley Barnes (a criminally under-utilised Forest Whitaker putting on a Mr. T voice) is cosseted.

Christian Bale is recognisably beard and straggly as Christian and displays his customary intensity: unlike with Cooper's Crazy Heart, an otherwise film for which Jeff Bridges won 2009 Best Actor, this is not an acting showcase. It's a study in slightness, in intentions gone awry. Casey Affleck is equally on familiar form as the traumatised younger Baze, a high-voiced, shave-headed loser trapped by the US military's stop-loss program and unable to return to civilian life.

Despite its storytelling debts, Out of the Furnace mostly manages to sidestep cliche. After drink driving, Russell ends up involved in a car crash that puts him in jail for a spell, estranging him from Lena. Bale's wide-eyed shock at the scene - the crumpled-in car door that won't open, the child's besocked feet visible in the back seat - has him looking like Paul Dano, all inarticulate shock. The prison is not predominated by skinhead and the time Russell spends in church never lingers on the religious iconography. Out of the Furnace is built on quiet human truths, Elmore Leonard without the dialogue (indeed, you might wish for a touch more talking). There's nothing particularly profound about it and if the film's final act steers into Death Sentence territory, it at least has never before been set among the deserted highways and byway of Ramapo County, New York.

As Bob Dylan recently sang, "This is hard country to stay alive in": you've got to do what you can to make it through the day. Out of the Furnace is by no means as remarkable as it predecessor, but it's remarkably solid, the definition of a four-star film. With Bale and Whitaker already during plaudits for American Hustle and The Butler and no other big-name star of which to speak, it seems likely to be a minor flop - so far the film's only grossed back half of its $22 million budget - and that's a minor shame.


Wednesday, 1 January 2014


AKA The David O. Russell Reunion,
Batman, Lois Lane, Rocket Raccoon & Mystique: The Movie,
or Golden Globes For Everyone!

I don't make a habit of using this space to gush over how much I love one film or another. Even those I've really enjoyed I try to approach from a more critical perspective. That being said, I've just got back from seeing 'American Hustle', the new film by David O. Russell, and I thought it was bloody phenomenal.

Clever, fun and hugely fucked-up - my friend Liam Fleming who contributes to this site described it as 'Goodfellas' meets 'Boogie Nights' - it's the only film I've seen this year that seems like it could make an appearance in nearly every awards category, which, given what I'll refer to only as The Argo Fiasco, probably means it'll end up with nothing. If so, it's a real shame.

The film opens with a title card proclaiming that "Some of this actually happened". Like previous Best Picture winner 'Argo', 'American Hustle' is based on real-life events, namely an FBI investigation into political corruption in 1970s New York/New Jersey. Unlike 'Argo', the film mines the deep dramatic and comedic vein of the material on which it's based instead of falling back on genre trappings.

Adapted from a script by Eric Warren Singer entitled "American Bullshit" - which appeared on the 2010 Black List - 'American Hustle' is a parable about the lies we tell each other, tell ourselves, the lies we inhabit in order to get by and how they come to define us. While negotiating this tricky thematic territory, it also somehow manages to frequently be hilarious.

Christian Bale stars as de facto protagonist Irving Rosenfield, a small-time con artist who makes a living out selling knock-off clothes from the back of his dry-cleaning store or embezzling from desperate. Then Sydney Prosser - an elegant, slinky Amy Adams - enters his life with her dreams of becoming a different person. Upon an offer of partnership, she storms out of his office only to return moments later with a cut-glass British accent and whole new persona ideal for rustling up further business.

They're a perfect match for each other - she loves his confidence, he her intelligence - but a relationship where both parties are as much in love with the idea of reinvention, of getting one over, as they are each other. This is a world where, as Bale's narration informs us, everything can be faked.

Complications arrive in the form of FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, a tightly-permed Bradley Cooper, who gets them on the hook for fraud. Looking to make his name, Richie offers them a way out: help him entrap four other criminals, four bigger fish, and he'll give them immunity. Soon enough, however, feelings seem to develop between Richie and Adams' Sydney, who he knows only by her alias of Lady Edith Greensley. Is this connection real or is just another hustle?

Bounded on one side by this love triangle between his would-be jailer and a woman he's no longer sure he can trust and other by his irreverence, narcissistic ex-wife - Jennifer Lawrence on stunning form - using his adopted son as leverage, Irving comes to understand the human cost of the life that he leads.

Each of these characters feed, in some way, into the notion of hustling, of getting one over, even if it's on yourself. Rosenfield grew up smashing windows to fuel demand for his dad's glaziers, but it's not until Mayor Carmine Falcone gets involved - played by a glad-handing, compassionate Jeremy Renner - that he has a face to put on his victims, that of a genuinely good man. Sydney start off with a stripper and, since then, has shut off access to her true self. It's impossible to know to what degree in playing Rosenfeld and DiMaso against each other, where her intentions truly lie, where the play ends and the person begins.

DiMaso is a live-wire who lives with his mother and is desperate for a break, callously oblivious to exactly who might get stepped on en route. Jennifer Lawrence's Rosalyn is an emotional mess, who, whether through calculation or self-absorption, puts her husband in serious danger. Louis CK appears as DiMaso's unfortunate FBI superior whose wonderful, recurring, ultimately unfinished ice finishing story is the film's only niggling loose end (*joke*).

'American Hustle' is a character study first and foremost, and it's remarkable that out of a central cast of four with maybe half a dozen more in support no one feels shortchanged. Apparently whole scenes, swathes of plot development and character interaction, were "largely" improvised, though it's impossible to tell exactly what: like all improvisation, it fits so well as to be unobtrusive and the whole film feels more-or-less evenly inspired.

Bale once more shows a willingness to transform himself physically almost beyond recognition: the film opens with him shirtless and paunchy, applying an elaborate wig/comb-over. Its Irving's self-belief that Sydney claims drew her to him and Bale's customary intensity and charisma in the role that makes this believable.

Similarly, Adams here shows the same capacity for reinvention that marked her performance in Russell's 'The Fighter', a prescient trait for a character who's her own worst enemy: her pursuit of a sense of self hampered by her chameleonic ability to change. Cooper, meanwhile, brings his usual "messed-up nice guy" persona and draws both laughs and pathos from it as a guy who's nowhere near as nice (or as good) as he probably thinks he is.

Of the central quartet, Lawrence's role is the showiest, that of the alternatively detached and histrionic housewife. The film's best, most memorable scene occurs between her and Bale in their bedroom, the crux of which I won't spoil other than to say it shows a boggling capacity for adaptation and self-deception that puts Sydney et al in the shade.

'American Hustle' also works as a wonderful evocation of the period, from the uniformly terrible haircuts sported by seemingly every male character to the wonderful (if predictable) Seventies soundtrack that manages to never feel overblown or asinine. There's a segue between disco tunes and a club restroom to a raucous restaurant dinner party set to Tom Jones' "Delilah" that's almost stunning in its audacity, verging on lunacy. Perhaps no director since Martin Scorsese has used popular music so effectively in this context.

While the soundtrack of Baz Luhrman's 'The Great Gatsby' highlighted the shallowness and sumptuous of the age in which the film is set by perversely using modern tunes, 'American Hustle' succeeds where Luhrman failed in making it more than a simple matter of style.

With its swooping camera, tight close-ups and subtle jump cuts, 'American Hustle' also feels like a masterclass in direction, one which recalls the likes of Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson while never feeling like it's resorting to a simple playbook.

Despite the fast-and-loose pacing - the film runs at 138 minutes and never feels overlong by a single frame - and the flurry of emotions, 'American Hustle' felt to me like a much more mature and coordinated work than either 'The Fighter' or 'Silver Linings Playbook'. It may be billed as a comedy, possibly to allow it access to the less rigorously contested awards categories at the Golden Globes, but that doesn't discount how compelling 'American Hustle' is in dramatic terms. Irving's repeated betrayal of Carmine, a man of integrity he has come to like and respect, leads to one of the most affecting scenes I've seen in cinema all year.

Throughout 'American Hustle', the simple feeling of enjoyment I was having somehow seemed to belie the notion that this was a serious film, a piece of cinema. I even feel a strange sense of guilt in considering it, perhaps, my favorite film of 2013, given the presence of the more demanding, "important" '12 Years a Slave'.

While others films this year offered their own specific pleasures (and trials), 'American Hustle' seemed to have everything: compelling performances, ingenious scripting, masterful direction; even Costume Design and Makeup & Hairstyling, categories I usually take for granted, seem to be vying for my attention. It's a flashy, but there's also substance to it, an elusive combination. It's the type of film where Robert DeNiro himself makes an appearance as an elderly mobster and it doesn't feel like pandering. He too seems to get the quality of what he's in.

There's a scene featured in the trailer, so I don't mind spoiling it, in which Rosenfeld draws DiMaso's attention to a painting in an art gallery. It's by one of the Grand Masters, very revered: people come from all over the world to see it. It's also a fake, and, as Rosenfeld asks DiMaso, who does that make the true master, the painter or the forger?

Maybe 'American Hustle' is inconsequential compared to, say, 'Captain Philips' (a big dramatic release I forgot to review) and maybe it won't endure the test of time, but, for now, I have no reservations about including it, at the very least, in my Top 10 Films of the Year. If 'American Hustle' is - to quote another new release - fugazi then I for one have no shame in saying I've been taken in. As confidence scams go, there are worse ways to lose £12.