The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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I’ve always thought that you have to be a certain type of person if your job only entails taking money off people without a particular trade or skill set involved and nothing tangible to offer for your service, just simply talking people out of their money for your own gain. Technically it’s not theft but there’s a whole lot of lying involved and if you have no qualms about earning your living this way then you’re most definitely that type of person. The Wolf of Wall Street goes a little deeper in and shows the humble origins of a small New York stock market company and how it grew into an empire.

The Wolf of Wall Street was adapted from Jordan Belfort’s memoirs of the same name by Terence Winter who also collaborated with Scorsese on the sumptuous Boardwalk Empire and he produces a surprisingly light, funny script that flows neatly around Belfort’s stooges but centres wholly on the man himself. It also surprised me how much of a comedy the film was considering it has Winter on writing duties and Scorsese directing, plus DiCaprio revels as Belfort and hits the funny notes simply by concentrating so much on the character and giving one of his most focussed yet wild performances. After an uninspiring start together with Gangs of New York (2002) this director/actor pairing has developed into one of the more interesting duos around today.

After a frantic opening scene where Belfort is introduced to the rigours of his new work place, colleagues cuss each other in every sentence and label him ‘pond scum’, he is taken to lunch by his new boss (an hilarious Matthew McConaughey cameo) after impressing him in his interview. At lunch he’s taught to abide by the main two lessons of broking;” hookers and cocaine.” However, the day Belfort passes his broker exam happens to be Black Monday and the firm closes down so he finds himself jobless. This happens to be the making of him as he takes a job selling penny stocks and, through his successful selling technique, builds an empire after recruiting the help of some friends including a perfectly cast Jonah Hill as Donnie who gets the lion’s share of the funniest lines.

As the film develops we see this motley crew find more, underhand ways of making money like taking advantage of Donnie’s school friend and shoe maker, Steve Madden and we also see the excess with which they spend it. Multi thousand dollar client dinners, endless supplies of drugs, a constant flow of prostitutes and flamboyant jewellery are highlights of the decadence and debauchery on permanent display but it’s hard to take the film seriously as Scorsese’s leaning is always towards the more comedic aspect of the ridiculous situations the characters find themselves in; whether it’s Belfort negotiating his way back to his car in an eerily lifelike overdosing scene or their yacht sinking in a storm you never really feel a sense of peril or that any real danger will befall these people. Maybe it’s because they have so much money it seems impossible they can get hurt or maybe it’s because Scorsese has decided it’s time to inject more fun into his work so the focus is less on building tension unlike in Scorsese’s seminal Goodfellas (1990), specifically when Tommy gets ‘made’.

The Wolf of Wall Street is quite suspect on its morals, in fact it’s pretty murky; Belfort is shown as a great leader of his people, they confess their love and adoration for him, they protect him willingly from the boring feds and the only character who questions Belfort about his techniques is his first wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) but she is soon divorced and replaced by a younger, prettier model. Also, the only authority figure in the film is Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent, Patrick Denham and, due to a lack of serious screen time, his character isn’t elevated above two dimensions and is simply portrayed as a fun burglar, someone who wants to ruin the party like a drab, joyless school teacher but gets his comeuppance when he’s shown taking his miserable tube journey home with the “ugly, poor people” as Belfort categorises earlier in the film.

We laugh with him through his drug use, we cheer when he makes another few million and we cry when he’s close to ruin, it strikes me how the film promotes moral corruption as Belfort never really suffers even when he’s convicted, this is quickly brushed over in a short scene that shows how happy he is in jail and before you know it he’s out again giving sales seminars. I had originally thought that this was Scorsese’s best film since Casino (1995) but, having slept on it, it isn’t as memorable as The Departed (2006) and, even though it’s quite well paced for a three hour film (considering it could’ve wrapped up anywhere after the 120 minute mark), it peaks and troughs through a succession of superficial sequences and set pieces that lose their lustre soon after.

– Greg Foster

The Wolf of Wall Street on IMDB

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Django Unchained (2012)

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Self indulgence is something well known to Quentin Tarantino and is evidently displayed heartily and unashamedly coursing throughout his directorial back catalogue. It’s hardly a surprise though that the Weinsteins give him free reign since he almost single-handedly saved Miramax from going under in the 90s with Reservoir Dogs and, most notably, Pulp Fiction. The problem now is that he doesn’t have anyone to actually produce his films properly, say no to him or edit the fluff in the cutting room, in fact Tarantino has only one film in his canon that follows a recognisable narrative structure and holds the interest for its full run time, Jackie Brown.

It seems that Tarantino’s onanism reached something of a nadir following the eye-gougingly boring Deathproof and the sloppy Inglorious Basterds as with Django Unchained he returns to the Jackie Brown template of telling an actual story in a comprehensive manner. Maybe he listened to the negative press regarding his recent output and noticed that general interest in his work was cooling with only his fan base showing the levels of appreciation that have plummeted since his mid 90s heyday or maybe he just wanted to show that he can still be considered a cutting edge director with his finger on the filmmaking pulse.

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Django Unchained follows QT’s latest muse Christoph Waltz as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz and an ice cool Jamie Foxx as the titular hero around the American south in search of the latter’s German born girlfriend Broomhilda. Along the way they meet a variety of Tarantino-esque villains and curiosities, as usual all filled by aging and past it stars ripe for the QT resurrection, Bruce Dern makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo and Don Johnson shines as a caricature of Colonel Sanders. The ace-in-the-hole though is when our mismatched heroes reach the Candyland cotton plantation where Broomhilda is being kept and we’re introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie and his house slave Stephen as played by Samuel L Jackson.

It’s here that the story jumps into fifth gear, helped no end by the performances of the principal cast with DiCaprio and Jackson in arguably their best character roles. Leo, complete with tobacco stained teeth and dark bags under his eyes, plays Candie with an unsettling megalomaniacal tension that bubbles just under his pristinely dressed surface and viciously erupts when lessons need teaching, which we see when he has one of his Mandingo slaves torn apart by dogs, and when he discovers the duplicitous nature behind Waltz and Foxx’s reason for visiting his property which leads him to threaten the life of Broomhilda in the film’s best scene.

Jackson gives Stephen a limp and a cat like sneer to prove that this isn’t as grey as a black men versus white men battle of good against evil as it turns out that Stephen could just be the baddest of the bad with constant back-stabbing of and snitching on our protagonists even wishing a slow and painful death against Django after he could walk away a free man. Waltz is a joy as ever but does basically play a benevolent version of exactly the same character he was in Inglorious Basterds and Foxx plays it the straightest out of all the leads.

There’s been a lot said about the amount of negative cultural language used in the film and its depiction of racial inequality but this is a film about a time and a place in America where this behaviour wasn’t just rife it was the norm. It’s painful to see how humans without white skin were treated then and some of the punishments bestowed on them like the hot box are particularly disgusting but these things happened, it’s understandable that some people don’t want to be reminded of it but we do need to look back to move forward and when we’re faced with the reality of mistakes from our past then we’re more likely not to repeat them.

Because of the grotesquely vibrant characters and the ridiculous situations they find themselves in I can understand why the racial issues can be misunderstood, since at times, it verges on the cartoony, but that would be missing the point of the film, it’s just a story that takes place when this other stuff took place, nothing is glorified or gratuitously overplayed and there are good and bad people from all races. In fact the two main sympathetic characters, one black and one white (Waltz and Foxx), need and rely upon each other to fulfil their individual tasks.

The film is about half an hour too long displaying lingering remnants of Tarantino’s vanity but fortunately it’s not overly detrimental to the final product and the more familiar structure helps the pacing not to sag or dwell just when it seems it might. The stellar acting, cracking screenplay, beautiful costumes and typically booming soundtrack make Django Unchained an entertaining, gloriously violent trudge through a beautiful part of America in a time when the people were anything but.

– Greg Foster

Django Unchained on IMDB
Buy Django Unchained (DVD + UV Copy) [2013]