Review – The Wolf Of Wall Street

The ugly reality of what constitutes the modern day American Dream is writ large over Martin Scorsese’s outrageous and intelligent trawl through the moral sewer of a world fuelled by power, prostitutes and pesos.

Far from slowing down in his autumn years, Scorsese's The Wolf Of Wall Street finds the director back at his very best.

Far from slowing down in his autumn years, Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street finds the director back at his very best.

The Wolf Of Wall Street begins with an advert for Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) church of capitalism, Stratton Oakmont, espousing the firm’s “stability” and “integrity”, before cutting to its “trained professionals” betting huge sums of money on a dwarf throwing contest.

It’s none-too-subtle – like much of the film – but this observation of the unbridled hypocrisy and moral vacuum at the black heart of Belfort and his army of disciples runs through the core of Scorsese’s exhilarating and exhausting 22nd feature.

Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets taken under the wing of sulphurous boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets taken under the wing of sulphurous boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Scorsese revisits the dwarf tossing scene later in the film when Belfort, his best friend and Vice President Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and a couple of other senior traders discuss how best to exploit the dwarf and agree not to “consider him a human”. It’s a cleverly symbolic moment – we are the ‘little people’ being taken advantage of by these monsters for financial gain and their own amusement.

These guys know they’re crooks but are having too much fun in their grotesque bubble to care. When a potential client remarks over the phone that Belfort seems like “a pretty sincere guy”, his team collapse into howls of laughter; while Belfort literally and figuratively ‘closes the deal’ by simulating having sex as he makes the sale.

Naomi (Margot Robbie), Jordan's trophy wife in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Naomi (Margot Robbie), Jordan’s trophy wife in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Told through Belfort’s unreliable eyes, we follow him from his wet-behind-the-ears early days through to his rebirth following the Wall Street crash of 1987 to become a wildly successful stockbroker making money hand over fist by selling worthless stocks to unwitting schumcks who have bought into the get rich quick mantra peddled to them by the ‘free’ market.

Belfort’s success leads to the creation of Stratton Oakmont, a boiler room where illegal activity and corruption go hand in hand with opprobrious excess and decadence on a scale that would make Caligula blush.

The best of times... stockbroker-turned-rock star Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

The best of times… stockbroker-turned-rock star Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

It’s easy to get blindsided by the film’s numerous scenes of drug taking, orgiastic partying and general debauchery, but those who claim the director gives Belfort a pass are completely missing the point of The Wolf Of Wall Street. It is politicians, the legal system and society in general who let – and continue to let – snake oil salesmen like Belfort off the hook by allowing ourselves to be seduced by empty promises of riches beyond the dreams of avarice.

A key scene takes place towards the start of the film involving Matthew McConaughey’s obscenely immoral broker Mark Hanna taking a young Belfort out to lunch to explain to him – and us  – that the name of the game is to “move the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket” and to “keep the clients on the ferris wheel and keep the park open 24/7/365”.

The worst of times... the wheels start coming off for Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

The worst of times… the wheels start coming off for Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

As appalling as Hanna’s pep talk is, we laugh in spite of ourselves, thanks in no small part to McConaughey’s inspired cameo. A similar reaction is had throughout what is at times a laugh-out-loud comedy. Belfort lives and breathes the words Hanna has taught him, which makes for numerous scenes of ridiculous comedy, most notably when he’s almost paralysed by an particularly strong batch of Quaaludes.

Based on Belfort’s book of the same name, the film follows in the ‘visual novel’ footsteps of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino by relying heavily on narration to tell the tale. Just as Ray Liotta’s delivery sucked us in to a tale of New York gangsters, so too does DiCaprio, who builds an irresistible rapport with the audience through a mix of buddy-buddy repartee and matter-of-fact exposition.

FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) investigates Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) investigates Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf Of Wall Street

It’s an electric performance from DiCaprio, arguably the highlight of his career and certainly his best under Scorsese’s mentorship. The over-the-top banter with his besotted staff and explosive physicality may be what grabs the headlines, but his more nuanced work, particularly opposite trophy wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) and FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) are what sets the performance apart. DiCaprio is lent excellent support from all quarters, especially Robbie and a never-better Hill.

As you’d expect from a Scorsese picture, the needle-drop soundtrack is a music lover’s delight (although Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter is notable by its absence), while Terrence Winter’s volcanic script justifies the film’s three-hour running time.

Far from slowing down in his autumn years, Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street finds the director back at his very best.

In Retrospect – The Departed (2006)

This review forms part of the Martin Scorsese Guest Review series on the very impressive Rorschach Reviews site. If you’re a lover of film like me, you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff over there.

One of cinema’s great injustices was finally laid to rest at the 2007 Oscars when Academy voters ended Martin Scorsese’s 30-year wait for a best directing award.

The Departed

The Departed will be best remembered as the film that bagged Scorsese that elusive Oscar. Judged against the director’s other work, however, it’s an entertaining footnote, but a footnote just the same.

That it was for The Departed, a solid, entertaining crime thriller and not for any one of his five previous nominations, most of which are better pictures, must have been a bittersweet feeling for Scorsese, who joked it probably won its accolades because it was “the first movie I’ve done with a plot”.

After directing what were arguably the landmark American films of the 1970s (Taxi Driver, 1976), 1980s (Raging Bull, 1980) and 1990s (Goodfellas, 1990), Scorsese entered a new phase of his career in the 2000s, flip-flopping between prestige studio pictures like The Aviator and personal documentaries, such as his Bob Dylan project No Direction Home.

William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover in The Departed

William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover in The Departed

Arriving in 2006, The Departed feels like the last throw of the dice for Scorsese, who at this time must have been wondering if he’d ever collect one of those little golden statuettes.

A remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s superb Infernal Affairs (2002), William Monahan’s script stays pretty faithful to the original, but transfers the storyline from Hong Kong to the mean streets of South Boston.

Psychopathic mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed

Psychopathic mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed

Irish mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) plants young acolyte Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) as a mole within the Massachusetts State Police. At the same time, William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a kid trying to escape his family’s criminal ways by becoming a cop is persuaded to go deep undercover into Costello’s notorious gang in order to expose its murderous leader. Essentially negative images of one another, the stakes are raised as each risks life and limb to expose the other ‘rat’.

The Departed feels like a Scorsese Greatest Hits package in many ways. With long time Editor Thelma Schoonmaker once again on board, the kinetic editing style he employed to such great effect in Goodfellas and Casino is used throughout the picture, as are the director’s trademark freeze frames and restless, back-and-forth camerawork, lending the film a hyper-reality.

Costello's mole in the police, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed

Costello’s mole in the police, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed

Music has always played a major part of Scorsese’s oeuvre and here it’s no different. Although the soundtrack is fantastic the songs tend to telegraph the action on screen a little too obviously. The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter (seriously, how many times has Scorsese used that song in his films?) is played as Costello takes Sullivan under his wing, while Comfortably Numb (the version featuring Roger Waters, Van Morrison and The Band) soundtracks Costigan finding solace with state-appointed psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), and Roy Buchanan’s cover of Sweet Dreams is used to ironic effect over the closing credits.

A celebrated film historian, Marty also litters the movie with homages, from Scarface (both versions) to Night and the Hunter and The Third Man among others.

Psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), torn between two men in The Departed

Psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), torn between two men in The Departed

One of the film’s biggest diversions from Infernal Affairs is its preoccupation with Catholicism, specifically its hang-ups with sin, guilt and redemption. For someone who almost entered the priesthood in his formative years, it’s no surprise many of his films deal with these issues, although not since his breakout film Mean Streets has Catholicism been so integral to the story.

The church and the streets (literally) bleed together, most viscerally when Costigan uses a picture of Jesus to smash over a guy’s head. Costello represents the devil, luring an impressionable Sullivan into his fold, while Sullivan tellingly purchases an apartment in view of the local church. Also, the guilt Sullivan feels manifests itself in his struggle to perform sexually with Madden.

Foul-mouthed cop Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) in The Departed

Foul-mouthed cop Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) in The Departed

The concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are integral to The Departed and fascinated Scorsese, who said in an interview: “Good and bad become very blurred. That is something I know I’m attracted to. It’s a world where morality doesn’t exist, good doesn’t exist, so you can’t even sin any more as there’s nothing to sin against. There’s no redemption of any kind.”

The film is full of memorable performances, including Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, who make a great double act as Costigan’s chalk and cheese undercover handlers. Likewise, Alec Baldwin has a ball playing big as Sullivan’s boss, while Farmiga holds her own in the picture’s only significant female role.

Martin Scorsese with the Best Director Oscar he won for The Departed

Martin Scorsese with the Best Director Oscar he won for The Departed

Damon, a far more talented actor than he’s given credit for, gives a performance of impressive restraint. DiCaprio on the other hand goes in the other direction and too often falls back on that trademark look he gives of squinting his eyes, pursing his lips and jutting out his jaw to imply anger or stress. It’s to DiCaprio’s credit as an actor that in spite of all that he still gives an impressive performance.

But DiCaprio’s positively catatonic when compared to Nicholson. A legend he may be, but when let off the leash he generally can’t help going way overboard. It’s well established that Costello is a psychopath (his reaction to executing a woman says as much – “Jeez, she fell funny”), but Nicholson’s rabid portrayal bypasses unhinged and goes straight to cartoonish.

The Departed will be best remembered as the film that bagged Scorsese that elusive Oscar. Judged against the director’s other work, however, it’s an entertaining footnote, but a footnote just the same.

Review – Django Unchained

For a writer and director who’s the unashamed king of the movie homage there really isn’t anyone else out there making films quite like Quentin Tarantino.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – arguably his most outrageous film yet

Django Unchained, Tarantino’s eighth feature is arguably his most outrageous yet and serves up a similar stylistic mash-up as his previous film Inglourious Basterds.

In that movie, he somehow got away with making a World War Two spaghetti western (complete with Ennio Morricone music) where a squadron of Jewish-American soldiers give the Nazis a taste of their own medicine.

Here, Tarantino uses a similar mould for his most fully realised and satisfying film since Jackie Brown, jettisoning the episodic structure that has been so familiar throughout his filmography.

Django Unchained is a western with extra spaghetti sauce and features a blaxploitation hero even cooler than Shaft. From the title, which directly references the 1966 spaghetti western Django starring Franco Nero (who makes a cameo here), to the red-painted opening credits, music, ultra violence and theme of revenge (common to virtually all of Tarantino’s work), the film sends the homage-o-meter up to 11.

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) shows Django (Jamie Foxx) the way of the gun in Django Unchained

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) shows Django (Jamie Foxx) the way of the gun in Django Unchained

It’s also the writer-director’s most overtly political work to date, addressing the still thorny subject of slavery in a frank and often brutal way. Our hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in 1858 Texas who wins his freedom thanks to the intervention of Christoph Waltz’s German dentist-turned bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (it can’t be a coincidence that a character who abhors slavery shares his name with Dr Martin Luther King).

The sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained

The sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained

Schultz takes Django under his wing and trains him in the art of bounty hunting (“like slavery, it’s a flesh for cash business”) and, in return for assisting him, Schultz agrees to help Django win the freedom of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a slave forced to work at the perversely named Candyland, owned by the despicable sadist and racial supremacist Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting horribly blackened teeth).

Tarantino has never been one to shy away from throwing in the kitchen sink when it comes to on-screen violence. It’s a facet of his work that has attracted considerable consternation from critics and commentators throughout his career, but while he no doubt takes great pleasure in seeing how far he can go he also never lets you forget that violence and bullets hurt – a lot. When we see slaves being killed in the most vicious of ways at the hands of Candie, we’re left in no uncertain terms that this is no laughing matter.

The deplorable house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) in Django Unchained

The deplorable house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) in Django Unchained

That being said, just as the Nazis have it coming in Inglourious Basterds, there’s a certain gleeful satisfaction in seeing a black man administer justice of the most merciless kind to the racist white trash who have profited from and exploited the slave trade.

In the film’s most amusing scene , a group of proto-Ku Klux Klansmen led by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) go in search of Schultz and Django, only to bicker among themselves because they can’t see properly out of their white hoods. It’s a nicely observed comment on the absurdity and cowardice of racism.

Tarantino also nods to classic John Ford westerns, framing his heroes against a series of expansive vistas, beautifully filmed by cinematographer Robert Richardson, and conjures up a number of arresting images, most strikingly when blood splattters over pure white cotton on a plantation.

Quentin Tarantino directs and unfortunately stars in Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino directs and unfortunately stars in Django Unchained

As verbose as Tarantino’s scripts are, his rich dialogue is a gift for the superlative cast he’s assembled here. Waltz almost steals the show as the kind-but-deadly Schultz, as memorable a screen presence as his diabolical Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds.

Foxx does a nice line in man-with-no-name quiet intensity (can you imagine what Will Smith, Tarantino’s original choice, would have done with the role?), while DiCaprio has a whale of a time tearing it up as the dapper southern aristocrat out of control in his own private fiefdom.

The colourfully dressed Django (Jamie Foxx) kicks ass and takes names in Django Unchained

The colourfully dressed Django (Jamie Foxx) kicks ass and takes names in Django Unchained

However, all pale in comparison to the quite brilliant Samuel L Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s house slave who’s so servile he makes Uncle Tom look like a Black Panther. Hidden behind that frail, shuffling walk lies a truly abominable human being who, when he isn’t perched on Candie’s shoulder like a parrot repeating his every line, is punishing his fellow slaves and conspiring against them to get in his white master’s good books. It’s a very disturbing performance that only Tarantino and Jackson could have dreamt up.

What Tarantino still has some trouble with, however, is acting and he’s truly terrible as an Australian (!) slave driver. He can’t even resist affording himself the film’s most colourful death. This entire section is the only weak spot in the whole movie. There’s a natural end point before this, but Tarantino (who has previously admitted to not showing enough discipline when it comes to a script) gives himself another half an hour before he finally wraps things up, all be it in a pleasingly brutal way.

The thing you have to admire about Tarantino is that he’s a rock’n’roll director in the truest sense, a film geek who wants to share his love of cinema’s outer margins and with Django Unchained he hits it out of the park.