Thursday, January 02, 2014

American Hustle; The Wolf of Wall Street; Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee); The Time of the Doctor (Jamie Payne; Dr. Who Christmas Special)

(Warning: plot twists of the various titles mentioned are discussed in close and explicit detail)

Do the hustle

Call it the Year of True-Life Movies:  American Hustle is David O. Russell's take on the Abscam scandals, some of which, he cagily admits in an opening title, "actually happened." The succeeding events at most provide a rough outline on which Russell hangs a series of sexy, funny, occasionally poignant encounters between memorably sleazy characters, played by some very smart (and smart-looking) actors, filmed in the director's distinct adrenaline-rush style (frenetic cutting and handheld camerawork that somehow retains visual coherence), perhaps channeling filmmaker Martin Scorsese more than usual what with the outrageous '70s outfits and tremendous '70s hair. Bradley Cooper's Jheri Curls, Christian Bale's swollen belly, and Jennifer Lawrence's blonde fizziness got the most favorable notices from critics, but it's Amy Adam's faux English mistress--juggling her attraction to both Bale's swindler and Cooper's FBI agent and countering the threat of Lawrence's housewife--that feels more and more like the film's true heart: her and her comic struggle to remain true to a tangle of loyalties.

Some of Russell and co-writer Eric Singer's story choices are puzzling--I can see the need to depict mistrust of government, but is the Mafia that much more trustworthy, or effective? Is Russell saying you can cut a straight deal with gangsters sooner than with government, or that gangsters are so lethally effective it's better to screw the government? And granted the real-life equivalent of Bale's swindler really liked the real-life equivalent of Jeremy Renner's Camden mayor, did they really have to gloss over the fact that the latter was not as innocent as depicted onscreen?

Not perhaps as drenched in gritty pathos as Russell's The Fighter, or as stubbornly, imaginatively idiosyncratic as his I Heart Huckabees (in my book his masterpiece), but still a fine entertainment, and any excuse to watch Russell flex his considerable filmmaking muscles is in my book a perfectly valid excuse. Good hustle, sir.

The lower depths

There's Russell's vivid approximation of a Martin Scorsese film, and then there's the original. The Wolf of Wall Street is everything American Hustle is--sexy, funny, fluid, profane--and more: disgusting, despairing, demented, in both a good and bad way. 

Why watch a hundred and sixty plus minutes of Leonardo DiCaprio sniffing and screwing and screaming when Ray Liotta had done all that back in '90 and Robert De Niro had done it best (in my book, anyway) in '95? Because, well, no one does it quite the way Scorsese does, and I suppose if anyone has to repeat himself--switching the milieu from '70s Brooklyn to '70s Vegas to '90s Wall Street--Scorsese's earned the privilege, charting the grotesque rise (through violence, through business, through deceit) and ignominious fall (through violence, through hubris, through sheer accident) of a white male in American society yet again. It's a story so vast and broad (if not exactly profound) it could stand being repeated twice, the volume cranked up louder with each retelling--or at least that was what Scorsese must have thought when he did this film.

Christina McDowell makes a compelling case that the story shouldn't be told at all; that if anything Scorsese has done us a disservice telling Belfort's story with such cinematic brio. It's a heartfelt, harrowing letter, and should give the viewer pause; Scorsese does much in the picture but one thing he doesn't do is tell the victim's side of the story.

Hard to see Scorsese doing that, though. He rarely editorializes--simply tells the tale, whether it's Jordan Belfort's or Henry Hill's or Jake LaMotta's; shows us the glamor and dirt, then shows us the fall. The most he'll give us by way of message is that the man--any man--gets his, eventually. Scorsese practically insists on this point--even Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ is punished for wanting an ordinary life. We see Belfort snort up mountains of coke; we also see him struggle to his Ferrari, barely able to crawl because he's overdosed on 'luudes. We see him fucking everything in sight; we also see him atop his wife in one particularly excruciating scene, where she clearly doesn't want him there (I personally don't think Margot Robbie got near enough the credit she deserved).

And is all that high life--the booze, drugs, naked girls--necessary? Scorsese doesn't quite sell the decadence: you see what's happening, you get loud rock on the soundtrack, but he doesn't linger; the excess comes at you in a rush much the way you imagine it came at Belfort, or at least the way Scorsese imagines it must have come at Belfort. Scorsese's acting as anthropologist here, a cool observer with maybe a bit of inside information on the effects of being high (and other less pretty symptoms). He shows us the arc of Belfort's addiction (not to drugs--when he's compelled to quit he does so without much struggle--but to money and the power that money brings) in a way that's fascinating, almost addictive. We crave the high of Scorsese's style, the way Belfort--and Hill, and Rothstein, and LaMotta--crave the high of their respective vices. 

If Scorsese is guilty of excusing or prettifying any of the facts, it's in suggesting that Belfort victimized mostly the rich (a lot of small business entrepreneurs got hurt); Belfort himself claims to have turned a new leaf (debatable) and has announced plans to hand over the profits from book and film to victims.*

*Possibly a moot point, as the film is doing disappointing business. Which leads one to ask: the film is encouraging what? Glorifying what? Seems to me the general audience understood well enough what critics didn't: that Scorsese's picture is less an entertainment than an ordeal, one we don't sit through so much as suffer, the way Catholics suffer through Lent.

Will Belfort's proposed generosity become reality? Frankly I think Belfort hasn't stopped hustling. But the biggest disservice Scorsese may have done is to call attention to flashier predators, instead of the real criminals living quieter, more respectable lives

But a film that probes into big-time financial corruption probably needs a different director with a different (more sober?) approach; even then you wonder if he (the theoretical filmmaker and his proposed work) could attract enough financing--or audience--to make a difference. 

Meanwhile we've got this, Scorsese's latest, and what he does manage to do--while hardly his best work--is pretty damned good, I'd say.
Brain freeze

Give the filmmakers of Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee) some credit: they take the standard-issue Disney princess and tinker with her a bit, make her more kickbutt, more assertive, less dependent on her Prince Charming (in this case a Danish lunkhead named Kristoff). In place of insensitive parents (they're killed off early) a troubled sister; in place of sneering villain, a smooth charmer. 

There's effort made in the digital animation department too, and when not being sandbagged by the inane songs one can marvel at the way the digital snow clumps and falls, or the way the digital ice gleams in the chill air (filled with digital flakes that seem suspended in silence, a nice little digital effect). 

But alas, movie, thy studio is Disney, and before long stupidity takes over. Enter an annoyingly cheerful snowman sidekick; notice the inordinate amount of time spent on extreme snow sports (sledding, tobogganing, ice sliding, etc.); marvel at the standard-issue happy ending, complete with lunkhead by the heroine's side (couldn't she opt to be single with her sister, or--better yet--shack up with a Danish hottie named Kristine instead?). 

After The Wolf of Wall Street I thought I knew something about disgust, and revulsion, and overwhelming nausea. Pfui--just had to sit through this and found myself wanting to see the Scorsese again, to wash away the thick taste of treacle coating my tongue.

Worse of all is the end credits, which reveal that the story was based on one of Hans Christian Andersen's greatest stories, The Snow Queen: about a brother, subverted into evil by a shard of glass in the heart, who runs away from home, and the loving sister who sets out to bring him back. It's a tale full of subtle psychological subtext (the brother might be undergoing the painful transitions and traumas of adolescence) and harrowing drama (the sister moves heaven and hell to find him), and really deserves a proper adaptation--by Studio Ghibli, perhaps? Certainly something far better than this mouse dropping of a movie.

Time to die

Not much I can say about director Jamie Payne and writer Steven Moffat's The Time of the Doctor except that Moffat tries to cram too much material into the hour and fifteen minutes allotted to him--though to be fair I'd say this is a far better problem to have than too little spread out over the same period of time. 

Oh, and while Moffat seems to have tied all loose ends into a more or less tight knot, the accomplishment hardly seems as significant as the special's real achievement: celebrating Matt Smith's tenure as The Eleventh Doctor before he hands the reins over to the upcoming Thirteenth, played by Peter Capaldi. 

Why, after ranging all of time and space, should Eleven waste the rest of his natural lifespan defending a piddling little town (named Christmas, of all things!) occupied by a mere few hundred lifeforms? More to the point, why waste so much of the episode's precious running time delineating Eleven's growing bond with the townsfolk, when we could instead watch the growing antagonism between Eleven and his countless foes?  

Because Eleven as Matt Smith has played and developed him through the years isn't really about foes, or fighting (or the First Question, or The Silence, or Gallifrey, or all the other piddling little subplots smaller minds have worried about all this time); Eleven as Matt Smith has played him is about the people--kids in particular--he's come to know, and who have come to know him. Smith loves the fans--the Whovians--and is loved in return, and that's what the episode's really all about.

So the premise is a bit silly--a town called Christmas, to be defended against the rising hordes--so what? It's a charming little town locked in an endless White Christmas, with a brief sunrise and sunset for variety; not a grand setting or even a logical setting for Eleven's final days, but a poetic one, a--yes--living Hallmark Holiday Card, with Daleks and The Silence and the odd wooden Cyberman hovering about the margins to add a bit of tension, a bit of cool.

And against this background Smith rallies the people; takes a moment to speak to young Barnable (Jack Hollington)--from his very first episode he's always had good rapport with children--and yes, dons rubbery age makeup that fools no one, only there's something comfortingly paternal about Smith despite his age (he's the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor), and the makeup brings this out. Do the scenes of Smith as an old man crimp his manic energy? Perhaps, but they complete him, or our image of him, filling out the portrait in our heads of his entire unnaturally long life, from moment of arrival to moment of departure (added bonus that when he's re-energized--wrinkled and feeble and bowed, suddenly bellowing at the top of his voice--it's a mighty moment). 

Eleven's final scenes are blessedly brief--no extended bathos a la Russell T. Davis' sendoff of David Tennant--but no less finely written. Actually Moffat's suffered a lot of (to my mind undeserved) grief over his plotting (complex, to put it kindly) and characterization (eccentric, says fans; shallow and annoyingly cute, says non-fans), but I say he's at least master of the brief vignette that drives a barbed hook to the heart, and here manages two such scenes: Clara's grandmother's anecdote ("I wanted everything to stop.") and Handle's passing (which channels both Castaway and, weirdly, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). 

"I will not forget one line of this; not one day," Smith promises, and we believe him--at that moment man and character seems to have perfectly fused, in intent, in feeling, in our feelings for him. Moffat allows Eleven a glimpse of "the first face this face saw," a kind of circling back or return, not to mention discarding (the bow tie falling to the floor), and then--zap. New face, moved on. We're caught off-guard but that's Moffat for you: never quite doing the expected thing. Farewell, Mr. Smith; we will miss you.



Quentin Tarantado said...

Don't be too hard on "Wolf of Wall Street". "The Hobbit" is expected to be a blockbuster. "Wolf" is a little harder to watch (3 hours of controversial content). Its box office is not typical of a blockbuster. Ten days after it opened, it's earned half its budget already. It's got (in industry parlance) "legs".

Noel Vera said...

I respect that in Scorsese--that he doesn't want to pander to the lowest common denomination. Box office is not his god--just an occasional customer he has to service once in a while.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you have ever seen "Saving Mr. Banks"? It just got its theatrical release here in Australia. I bet it's the better Disney movie than "Frozen".

Just seen it and the cast and the script were just brilliant. And the stand-out performances for me were Emma Thompson and the surprising turn of Colin Farrell, who I've never always been fond of as an actor, but has proven in here that he can be just as compelling to watch as Emma Thompson when directed well.

The ironic thing was that I saw this one from a downloaded source and not from a cinema. It was the best Disney movie I've seen for ages; very character-oriented (which I like to see more in blockbuster movies).

But there's for me a special mention of Paul Giamatti's off-beat performance whose character was the most empathetic to me from everyone in the film.

Apologies if this isn't anything related to the topic at hand. I have not seen the sequel of "The Hobbit" - the trailer looked like it's just another fantasy action flick of its sort from Hollywood. Admittedly, I feel underwhelmed by those films made mention of here (except for the Dr. Who Christmas special).

Noel Vera said...

No I haven't. Does it mention his homophobia and hatred of unions?

Quentin Tarantado said...

When I read Frozen is being re-released with a sing-along feature, I pictured you rolling your eyes ;-)

Quentin Tarantado said...

Scorsese's god is not the box office, but it does enable him independence. Wolf of Wall Street did well globally. As of Feb. 9, 2014, it grossed $107 million in the U.S., earning back its budget. Then it did $160 million outside the U.S. So Scorsese can still make his next movie with little difficulty.
American Hustle's box office is more interesting. It earned a bigger $138 million in the U.S. and only $51 million outside. However, Hustle cost less than half of Wolf, so in both cases, the directors and financial backers are happy.
Meanwhile, Frozen is approaching a billion, worldwide.

Noel Vera said...

"Frozen is approaching a billion, worldwide"

Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.

maggie said...

Jordan Belfort is now peddling his "The Straight Line System" (comparable to other wealth guru products) to the general public. It was the training method he used on his former employees at Stratton Oakmont in the 80s & 90s. Yes, he might still be hustling, but damn...he's just such a likeable guy (I'm aware that he's also possibly a sociopath.) And I, having personally worked & partied with Wall Street types in NYC (the "Suits", we called them) some years ago, have to say that the film is quite accurate in its depiction of personalities (just take the intensity down a couple of notches.) Mr. Scorcese told it like it is.

Noel Vera said...

Well that's a ringing endorsement there...

maggie said...

Mr. Vera, "Everything's a sale..." Lol.

Noel Vera said...

Had to delete a rant that I would've left in, only it turned out to have a link to a website selling Jordan Belfort's sales technique. Ain't the internet grand?

Noel Vera said...

And yes, I believe it was for the 'Straight Line System'