Archive for January, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street: Afterthought

January 21, 2014

This is not, technically, a review. More of a general impression some weeks after seeing it.

Yes, it’s overlong and repetitive. While never boring, you often laugh and are disturbed at the same time. The lead character, Jordan Belfort, is – and this is saying something – the most repellant scumbag ever to be in a Scorsese film. He has NO redeeming attributes. None. He overwhelms you, but without charm. Is this DiCaprio’s fault? Or was it intended? I certainly felt unease while watching it, despite a few bravura set pieces, especially the quaaludes scene.

Yet the film has staying power and stature. Among many memorable scenes is this one: the roomful of traders has gathered to hear their boss, DiCaprio, who beams triumphantly. He reminds them – yet again – how lucky they are to be working for him, and how their future will be golden. Then he points to one of them, a woman, and tells the crowd her story. She had come to him to ask for help in a family emergency. She needed money badly. With extravagant compassion, he tells of his overwhelming sympathy and generosity by giving her much more than she even asked for. The room is dumbstruck.

This scene conveys a terrible truth. While Belfort’s need for more money is an addiction that can never be satisfied, like his need for drugs and sex, there is always another need, a hunger that grows along with success: the need to be loved. Belfort was using his power to demonstrate what a good person he was. All of the spoils that come from the ruthless pursuit of money and power can never replace the one thing that make it all matter: the approval and love of others. It was as if Belfort was waiting for the right opportunity, and he was going to grab it.

But behind this, and it’s the ugliest part, there is always a threat, a hidden message that I am sure was clear to everyone who applauded him for his selfless act: do not dare to cross me! If I can do this much to make you love me, I can do just as much to make you wish you were never born.

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Film: Inside Llewyn Davis

January 11, 2014

Let me say right off that I  enjoyed this film, with one strong reservation. The Coen brothers know how to present their quirky charmers, and how to make us care what happens to them. Oscar Isaac plays a young folk singer in Greenwich Village, 1961, and the milieu is so perfectly rendered that I felt I could walk through the doors of those coffee shops and settle down for a cappuccino, like I did then. The music, the settings, the fashions and hairstyles, just the overall look of the film is “just right”, and I applaud that.

And the story is pleasing too, right down to the “reprise” ending. The title character is shown dealing with the kinds of problems a lot of young music hopefuls dealt with then: flopping at friends because you didn’t have the money for rent; betraying those friends by sleeping with their girlfriends; random sex with various other girls; paying for the occasional abortion; rushing to music gigs that paid by passing the hat around; listening to your married sister tell you what a bum you are, and assorted other humiliations. Oh, and finding and returning a cat that you let escape from your friend’s apartment. While Llewyn doesn’t really change as a result of these events, we see that his resolve to continue his dream of music stardom is severely tested, but not destroyed. Above all, the film depicts a time and place that we can look back on nostalgically because life, while it could be harsh, was also innocent and simply understood.

The trouble is, it wasn’t. The standard refrain is that America was “innocent” until the shocks of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam; that young people were only just beginning to question middle class values, and stepped outside of them with great trepidation. But actually, the young people in New York at that time were already steeped in cultural and political defiance. It was called the “counterculture” for a reason. As an artistic and educational center, New York was attracting young people who were already openly hostile to a society that glorified war, racism and materialistic excess. Unmentioned in the film, but so prevalent at the dominant academic giants at the time – Columbia and NYU – was the fact that you could attend lectures in those classrooms, every single day, about how America’s future was going to be glorious because Capitalism was dying, and the imminent triumph of Communism would finally bring justice to this country, and to the rest of the world.

My point is that, even for a self-absorbed, insensitive louse like Llewyn, there was the conviction that art would change the world, and there was no finer way to live than to liberate society with one’s “genius”. All of that other “little stuff”, like using and betraying one’s friends, and living off others, was for the greater good. And anyway, an artist should be appreciated for what he’s giving to the “cause”.

I can’t overstate how the omission of politics from the folk music scene at that time, in that place, lessened my appreciation of the film’s virtues. But I think this reaction is largely due to my intimate connection to the world it portrays. Most viewers won’t have that problem, and should have a good time.  The characters are rich and individualized, and the cast was perfect, starting with an electric Oscar Isaac. Only next time, I hope he gets to play a character with some backbone.


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