The Wolf of Bedford Falls

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Merry Christmas – Week in Review

So here’s a new thing I’ll be doing primarily because there have been a few movies that I just don’t feel like writing reviews for or that I won’t write reviews for because I’m doing something else with them (i.e. the Bond Series).

If you ever want a head start on these you can check out my film diary at letterboxd here to see what films I’ve seen that week (I promise it will be updated with obsessive frequency). I’ll be posting these every week on Sunday and covering all the films and television I’ve seen that week with the occasional book or graphic novel I’m sure. The other plan is around genres where I want to keep running lists of my favourites. More on that later. 

This is going to be a part of my more frequent posting and will hopefully include a day of links (inspired by thefilmexperience.net) to articles and videos and other things related to film television and culture. These articles could be recent or they could be academic texts from decades ago. 

Any ways onto this week. 

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This week can be divided into Bond films, Oscar Bait, and David O. Russell films. 

For the Bond films this week has been excellent. I watched through Michael G. Wilson’s tenure as writer and producer and it shows how important his presence is to my appreciation of the series. He was a writer for For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View To A Kill, The Living Daylights, and Licence to Kill, and a producer on every film of the Brosnan and Craig eras. He has an obvious taste for depth in Bond films as all of those films are darker and have more character development than most of the films before them. On my ranked list only three films from before that era make the top 10 which to me makes Michael G. Wilson one of the most important people to the Bond Franchise. More details on the individual films will come when I finish the rest of my posts on the series. 

The Oscar Bait films from this week were American Hustle, 12 Years a SlaveLee Daniel’s The Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street and Saving Mr Banks. I don’t feel like writing much about Banks because it was so over blown and over done in every way that I want to forget about it as quickly as possible. It features my second most hated Emma Thompson performance (aside from Peter’s Friends) and I would rather watch Mary Poppins any day of the week. 

Finally I started going through all of David O. Russell’s films after seeing American Hustle and that has been an enlightening experience. Prior to The Fighter I had only seen I ❤ Huckabees so my opinion was obviously tainted to the weird side of his filmography. Silver Linings Playbook was one of my favourite films of 2012 and while my opinion is definitely mixed on Hustle I wanted to see his first three films and then watch the others again so I could see what David O. Russell was really about. First there was Spanking The Monkey which was an undeniably weird film about incest and was Russell’s take on the coming of age drama.

Next there was Flirting With Disaster which is an idiosyncratic take on the family film, however this one was laugh out loud funny and has been in my head ever since. It has one of the best ensemble casts ever and is probably my favourite Ben Stiller performance (although that is not saying a whole lot).

Following was Russell’s first really mainstream film in Three Kings. Definitely still a Russell film but this one is in Iraq just after the first Gulf War ended and is a satirical take on the action war film. Its not a funny film, but it says something kind of timeless about  American military intervention which is very well done.

Then I moved into the films I had already seen with I Heart Huckabees. Its such a bizarre film but if you can stand listening to dialogue that you won’t understand on the first (or second or maybe third) viewing, its a fun ride that leaves me feeling happier than I often leave movies. 

The first year that I got into watching movies seriously was 2010 and so The Fighter was on my list for that year. Going back to it I couldn’t remember exactly why I loved it, but its truly a David O. Russell film. While the film is about boxing, the film is primarily about a family and relationships. So while the boxing scenes are expertly done (better than any Rocky film and on par with Raging Bull), its the acting that makes the film special. The relationships involved are so interesting and so real. Mark Whalberg and Amy Adams are a couple worthy of David O. Russell’s track record and the two of them feel like full real people. Melissa Leo’s character is a twist on the neurotic mother with fleshed out desires and emotions. Christian Bale is the standout performance here with the energy and verve to make his scenes electric despite how desperate a character he is. 

Then there’s Silver Linings Playbook which I think best merges the idiosyncrasies of Russell’s early films and the mainstream success he’s achieved since Huccabees. The film is tightly written and perfectly acted but the real strength is in how he takes a pretty average romantic comedy story and makes it electric again. 

Here’s the ranking of his films now that I’ve seen them all recently. 

Finally, I promise later review posts will not be this long, the holidays are just when I get the best chance to watch a multitude of films. 

Funny Right? – The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street – 2013 – dir. Martin Scorsese

★★★★/★★★★

My first Scorsese film was The Departed when I was 13 and it has invariably changed the way I watch films and it totally affects the way I watch The Wolf of Wall Street. Wall Street and American Psycho also inform my viewing and the three should really be screened together (Gordon Gekko is even mentioned in the film at one point) because they are all about the same thing: the narcissism, the debauchery, the immorality of unbridled capital. Early in the film Matthew McConaughay points out that Stock Brokers don’t build anything and they don’t care what happens to their clients or the stocks that they trade, they get paid by making people take risky actions and that’s it. The Wolf of Wall Street is a scathing indictment of capitalism and the justice system because it’s telling a joke about that one time a guy got away with stealing millions of dollars and the punch line is that he ended up becoming a motivational speaker teaching people how to do the same thing… that’s funny right?

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Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, the founder and CEO of Stratton Oakmont after he lost his job as a broker on black Monday in 1987. He sold penny stocks on high commission to live the most debaucherous lifestyle ever put on film. Hookers, drugs, booze, partying and more of all of that hundreds of times over are played before us between the scenes of him breaking the law as a fraudster and narrating his lifestyle in classic Scorsese fashion.

This film is without a doubt a comedy. As I said in my review of American Hustle sometimes drama’s get mistaken for black comedies but this is not that. This is a hilarious movie and I was laughing in the theatre more than I ever have in recent times. Leonardo DiCaprio is so funny and so manic that you are magnetically drawn to him because of the energy he produces. He seduces you with the glitz and glamour of his lifestyle and as he says when trying to start his company, “Everyone wants to be rich!” But that’s the point of the movie, you laugh at the antics and the ridiculous events that transpire until a point in the film where you realize, “why am I laughing at this.” The debauchery takes its toll and where a lesser film would have outright condemned the acts (2000s Boiler Room did this), this film forces you to understand them, but never sympathize. It doesn’t say, “See, you can understand why I did this, it’s not my fault.” It says “This is wrong and because of my ego I made decisions that hurt thousands of people.”

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The key to this film is the editing. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s long time editor, makes a three hour movie feel like three hours of a TV show that you’ve chosen to marathon on Netflix. It has peaks and troughs but it never loses your attention. However no editing could have saved this film if it weren’t for the best performance Leonardo DiCaprio has ever given. For someone who has been a fan of both of DiCaprio’s most recent performances (Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby) and all of his collaborations with Scorsese, it was a thrill to see him do something different here. The energy and the verve with which he plays that role is remarkable and for those who feel like there is always something fake to DiCaprio’s performances, this will show what is probably the most honest performance he has ever given. There are moments where the duplicity in his character breaks into something that I’ve never seen in him, a vulnerability that puts on display the façade we’re party to through the whole film. That’s not even to mention the incredibly physical performance he gives (with the best drug addled performance I’ve ever seen).

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The rest of the cast is just as rich with three actors who in lesser years could all earn a nomination for supporting actor. Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, and Rob Reiner are all great in the film and along with Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Jean Dujardin, and Cristin Milioti provide further insight into Belfort’s character. They are all sounding boards for his ridiculousness and yet you get to know each of them by their reactions.

As for the rest of the Oscars, I have to say it’s a shame that this came in such a strong year of Oscar bait because in an ordinary year this would be a contender for most of the big awards. It will probably garner a nomination for Picture and Editing and potentially Actor, Supporting Actor (for Hill), Screenplay and Director (although I doubt it). It won’t win any of them except possibly for editing unless there is an Argo sized public campaign for it (which given its content it won’t get). If it weren’t for Ejiofor I would have hoped DiCaprio could finally get the statue he so deserves after years and years of great work. The Wolf of Wall Street is a black comedy that wants to make us incredibly uncomfortable. And if you got what the film was trying to say, you would see that it is trying to make you angry with that discomfort. It wants you to be pissed off that no one in the stock business has consequences for their actions. It wants you to realize that those people and that system are not in it for your good, but for their own. And the only way to make that hit home is to make us understand not just why that life is attractive, but why it’s wrong.

Disclaimer: The last picture is from the Huffiington Post website and the first two are screen captures and gifs from the trailer for the film. 

The Wrong Side of History – The Butler [Short Review]

Lee Daniels’ The Butler – 2013 – dir. Lee Daniels

★★.5/★★★★

I was working this summer when The Butler came out so I only now got the chance to see it and that means my perception is tainted by having already seen 12 Years a Slave. This film got quite a lot of praise this summer and it doesn’t surprise me because it is completely unchallenging. By the end of the film it almost feels like racism is over because Barack Obama got elected president in 2008. The film is dedicated to those who “fought for our freedom in The Civil Rights Movement” even though the film dismisses the Black Panthers for the work they did at the time. There are so many problems with the history in this movie I can’t get my words around it, but the biggest problem is that the film’s sentimentality leads it away from the issues it was dealing with. The only nomination I think this should get at the oscars is for David Oyelowo who played the son in the film. It may be called the Butler but without his son’s political activism the film would be pure sentimentality without an ounce of message. 

The Most Important Film of the Year – 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave – 2013 – dir. Steve McQueen    

★★★★/★★★★

Before we continue, I want to point you towards an article: “Why I Wouldn’t See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person” by Enuma Okoro of The Atlantic. I acknowledge right here that I am a white person and that this film, while unflinchingly moving, is something that I will only ever understand intellectually. Okoro says this in her article which I think is important to remember when discussing this outside of cinematic contexts, “I had no desire to dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people.” I look at this film as a film, and an incredible one at that, but I will never know the visceral experience of someone able to “see themselves in the skin of the enslaved men and women on the screen.” So go read that first to see another perspective, and a far more educated perspective than mine, before you read this which will be from a purely cinematic perspective. 

12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northup who was born free in the Northern United States, kidnapped and sold into slavery in adulthood, and who eventually regained his freedom 12 years later. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in one of the greatest performances ever put on screen and features a massive supporting cast including McQueen regular Michael Fassbender as the sociopathic Slave Master Epps, Benedict Cumberpatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, and best in the film (both deserving of Oscar nods and one the win) Alfre Woodard and Lupito Nyong’o. The story is heart wrenching and unflinchingly told by a master filmmaker who knows the language of film better than just about any contemporary director alive today.

While watching 12 Years a Slave so many things came to my mind. The previous films of director Steve McQueen Hunger and Shame came to mind for it was obvious that this came from the same mind and the same cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Films like Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut from director Stanley Kubrickcame to mind for both the beauty and horror in the artistic camera-work. I thought of films like Lincoln and Django Unchained from last year and The Color Purple, Schindler’s List and Amistad from further back. How the similarities and differences between these films that deal with oppression say a lot about society.

Steve McQueen’s film is better than the last five mentioned above because it takes the great start that Django made in making a film about oppressed people actually ABOUT THE OPPRESSED PERSON/PEOPLE. The problem with the Spielberg films mentioned above is that they are all either about someone other than the oppressed people or they are told from a 3rd person perspective. What Django does right is make the film about the slaves, and what 12 Years does better is it gives them status as complicated human beings and as the tellers of the stories. There is a moment where McQueen almost breaks the fourth wall by having Ejiofor just stare towards the camera but not directly at it. His eyes move up as though to stare at God and then it’s obvious that he is staring, accusing not only God but every person who sees the film. But the accusation is not one of blame for slavery; it is blame for forgetting about slavery, for not acknowledging the reality of slavery. Nyong’o has similar moments in the film where she just stares at Fassbender, Paulson and even once at Ejiofor. McQueen knows the language of film and how important the power of the gaze is and he uses that gaze to give Nyongo and Ejiofor more power than any of the characters in the other mentioned film had.

McQueen has given the world the first mainstream film that looks at oppression and gives more than a “oh, how sad,” reaction. I think this may be the first time since I started following the Oscars that I admit I will be legitimately mad if a film doesn’t win Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave may not be my favourite picture of the year, but it is certainly the best. Just as it’s impossible to argue with how great films like The Godfather and Casablanca are, 12 Years a Slave deserves to be among the pantheon of great films and deserves to win Best Picture at the Oscars. I can’t see it not getting a nomination for Picture and it will likely also be nominated for Director, Screenplay, Actor (for Ejiofor), Supporting Actress (for Nyong’o), Cinematography,             Sound Mixing, Film Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, and potentially ( although I would say undeservedly) Supporting Actor (for Fassbender). While I haven’t seen all of the big Oscar contenders for this year, this could and should win the big four (Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actor) that it will be nominated for. I hope it wins more; there hasn’t been a film this important to hit the mainstream in a long, long time.

One of the biggest complaints about the prestige films of Steven Spielberg is that they have become the accepted historical narratives of the periods they show without focusing on the right story. 12 Years focuses on the right story, and says the right message, and above all else it says that this story is not the only story of slavery. When Solomon is eventually returned to freedom, he gets put in the same situation as he was in 12 years before except on the other side of it, being set free while people he had connected with were left enslaved. But where the man set free at the beginning left without empathy or mention of connection, Solomon hugs Patsy (Nyong’o’s character) in a bittersweet moment. He’s going free, but it is not a happy ending, because his story isn’t the only one. 12 Years makes no pretentions about being the sole dramatic telling of slavery, and that is why it should be remembered among the greatest films of all time. 

Films for the Readers – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – 2013 – dir. Francis Lawrence

★★★★/★★★★

I will admit that I have yet to find an easy way to write reviews for movies I unabashedly love. I hate just listing out the things I loved about the film so here I will give a short review of a movie that I can’t stop gushing about.

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It was only while listening to Sound on Sight’s podcast about Catching Fire that I understood how important it is to have loved the books when going to see the film. While watching Catching Fire I was singularly blown away. Every part of the film made me happy because not only was it faithful to the book, every bit of faithful adaptation was done so incredibly well from a cinematic standpoint. Jennifer Lawrence is sinking more and more into the role of Katniss and continues to prove her star power. Early in the film she stands toe to toe with Donald Sutherland and holds her ground with a gravitas not often found in actors that young (23).

They take the victory tour which encompasses half the novel and compress it without losing its narrative effect. They bring all the relevant characters in with a continuation of the great casting from the first film. The entire cast develops a humanity that was missing in the high concept angle of the first film. The hunger games, as they were, were a perfect adaptation from the novel and utilized computer and practical effects excellently, showing both how real it felt to the characters despite knowing how constructed they were narratively.

The film will definitely be placing in my top ten of the year (right now it is in the top five) and if I decided the oscars I would give a nomination to Woody Harrelson an nomination for best supporting actor along with a slew of technical award nominations. It’s an amazing film, but much of that relies on how the film relates to the novel and meets the expectations that book readers have. 

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Good Times, Sad Times – American Hustle

American Hustle – 2013 – dir. David O. Russell

★★★.5/★★★★

David O. Russell has achieved a status in my mind as the other side of a coin occupied by Wes Anderson. They are both directors that make quirky idiosyncratic films and they both have avid fan bases. Anderson is the style, his films have yet to gain much traction with awards (outside of animation and screenplay) but it is abundantly clear from the camera work and shot composition that you are watching a Wes Anderson film. Russell on the other side is the star power with a place in the mainstream, each of his films is identifiably different particularly in how they bend the genres they inhabit. For Russell, the actors and the message mean more than the style and this has resulted in two nominations for best director, three wins and another four nominations for the actors in his films. One thing this awards season is for sure, that number will be increased to double digits because of American Hustle.

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The Abscam scandal was an FBI entrapment of a number of eastern politicians in the late 1970s on bribery and corruption charges. However, the film isn’t really about that. In fact, considering all the recent charges of corruption in Canadian municipal politics, this film is more of a cautionary tale and character study of what happens when you force good people into bad situations and bad people into roles of power. There are five main players in the film, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), his girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams), her boyfriend FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and their target Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). DiMaso catches Irving and Sydney doing their con act and he offers them a chance to mitigate their sentences by helping him catch other fraudsters. It’s obvious that the intent of the operation is to catch people in power abusing their positions and influence, but the intent of the people is pure self-preservation and self-advancement.

This is the greatest strength of the film. There is an excellent moment where Jeremy Renner has just heard from Bale that their whole friendship has been a part of the FBI investigation and he asks Bale if anything he had done was for his own benefit. Bale knows that and realizes that he had let his personal desperation and Cooper’s ambition put good people in bad situations. While in real life the accused politicians did some worse, in the film these people were acting for the good of their communities and took bribes as a part of the process rather than for personal gain. Bale points this out to Cooper at the end saying that he hadn’t even come close to the big fishes he was after.

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The reason this is so poignant for me is that it reminds me of Senator Mike Duffy and former MP Bev Oda here in Canada. He has been lambasted for getting caught misfiling residency claims and she was (among other things) found to have over spent while on international trips, most famously on a 12$ glass of orange juice, all on the tax payers dime. People claimed these as abuses of tax payer money and made them out to be evil people. I couldn’t think of them as such because they were simply the first to be caught doing what politicians had been doing for decades. The same applied to the film. These politicians commonly dealt with the mob because they were more community organizers than anything. When dealing with the mob they did unsavory things to do good for their constituents. That Is the question this film forces us to ask ourselves: we want transparency, but do we blame people for doing things the way they have always been? American Hustle is a sad film with laughs, not a funny film with drama. Its nomination at the Golden Globes for Best Musical or Comedy Film is pure category fraud.

Back to the film and what works more tenuously. The five main actors all deserve acting nominations for their roles. Jeremy Renner is the best of them, showing that he can do more than act stoic and somber. Renner is the good man thrown into a bad situation and he plays him with a believable integrity and caring. The other four are excellent, but in this year so far, only Renner is in territory to deserve a win (although there’s no way he’ll win over Jared Leto). What’s odd is that those performances are also the worst thing about the film; they bring the moral tale and the character study to life but they definitely run a tight wire act of believability. I can see how some will hate the movie because of it and if it weren’t for the sheer emotional content I might have been on that side of the fence as well.

While it’s a far cry from the gems of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook it’s still a good ride, and definitely worth a watch. If you were a fan of Boogie Nights or Goodfellas you will likely love this film because it is from the same vein. It may not be perfect, but what it says about our times is something not said often enough.