December 29, 2013

Not quite halfway into this (VERY LONG and VERY REPETITIVE) movie, financial con man Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) repeatedly throws cold water into his face.

Hoping this scene would mark a turning point that would launch a counter-narrative to combat the idea that debauchery is fun and bilking the little people is okay because, after all, Wall Street sharks are winners who know how to really spend money with style, I looked down at my watch to mark the moment.

Okay, let me come clean.

I looked at my watch more than once. According to the friend seated beside me, it was more like a half dozen times. All of my time references followed the aforementioned scene because I kept waiting for something new and revealing to happen to salvage the film for me.

It never happened. In the second half of The Wolf of Wall Street, I grew increasingly bored and detached as I realized the turn I hoped for would never come. If there is no character arc for an eponymous character, then other characters or major themes or important plot elements need to provide the larger context that makes the narrative engaging and meaningful.

The film is certainly long enough to cut the repetitive bilking and partying and to enhance the role played by FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) or, alternatively, to show some of the damage inflicted by Belfort and his cohort rather than continuing to celebrate their excess and his ability to recover from his losses without learning anything or even having to reinvent himself in meaningful ways.

SPOILER ALERT: Most troubling to me is the final shot of Agent Denham taking the train home. Since we know nothing about this character other than what Belfort has suggested in his taunts, viewers are left with the troubling sense that Denham may a bitter schmuck, just as Belfort asserts.

Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, I was reminded of the very different response I had to Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas. Goodfellas seemed remarkable to me then because finally I had seen a film – captivating on multiple levels – that presented gangsters as two-bit, lowlife thugs instead of iconic characters to be glorified.

Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) may have missed his days living the gangster life after he ended up in witness protection, but viewers knew just how tawdry that life had been because of the contrasts drawn between narrator Hill’s perspective and the events depicted on the screen.

The Wolf of Wall Street would benefit greatly from a perspective that contrasts rather than echoes the narrator of Scorsese’s latest biopic.

The Wolf of Wall Street


Three “New” Christmas Movies

December 29, 2013

After all these years, would you believe that I’m still finding new (to me) Christmas movies courtesy of TCM?

This year there were three of them: Sun Valley Serenade, I’ll Be Seeing You, and Holiday. I can’t swear that I’ve never seen Holiday (after all, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant!), but I don’t remember it so must have been really young if I did see it before.

Sun Valley Serenade (1941). IMDB logline: When Phil Corey’s band arrives at the Idaho ski resort its pianist Ted Scott is smitten with a Norwegian refugee he has sponsored, Karen Benson. When soloist Vivian Dawn quits, Karen stages an ice show as a substitute.

The best thing about this film besides seeing Sonja Henie ice skate (she plays Karen) is seeing Glenn Miller (Phil Corey) and his band. The film is beyond predictable, and Henie is an athlete not an actor, but I’m glad I saw it.

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944). IMDB logline: A soldier suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) meets a young woman on Christmas furlough from prison and their mutual loneliness blossoms into romance.

Though unlikely to replace my favorites (including Christmas in Connecticut, The Bishop’s Wife, It’s A Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, and A Christmas Story), I will watch I’ll Be Seeing You Again because Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten are great together. The film is surprisingly touching and captures the darker mood of the WWII era particularly well.

Holiday (1938). IMDB logline: A young man falls in love with a girl from a rich family. His unorthodox plan to go on holiday for the early years of his life is met with skepticism by everyone except for his fiancée’s eccentric sister and long suffering brother.

George Cukor directs Cary Grant (he’s so young!) and Katharine Hepburn in this film two years before The Philadelphia Story, and this should be reason enough to watch it. I was also taken by how relevant this commentary on the very rich seems amid current discourse on the lack of connection and empathy the 1%-ers feel for the rest of us. I will definitely watch Holiday again.

The image I’ll close on is a provocative publicity still of Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers. I felt so moved by Cotten’s performance in I’ll Be Seeing You that I watched The Magnificent Ambersons” last night to prolong the feeling. If I didn’t have so much work to do, I might dip into The Third Man today. Gotta love Joseph Cotten.

I'll Be Seeing You


December 29, 2013

He’s back.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for Alexander Payne, and I’m happy to add Nebraska to my list of his best films, a list that also includes Election and Sideways.

I like About Schmidt, find The Descendants well-made but not indelible, and appreciate the intent behind Citizen Ruth, but Payne achieves a high water mark with Nebraska that matches his work in Election and Sideways.

The storyline is simple. An old man receives a notice that he has won a million dollar sweepstakes prize, and everyone laughs at his foolishness except his younger son, who takes him from Montana to Nebraska despite realizing there is no jackpot to claim.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is not particularly likeable, frequently confused, and an alcoholic. His wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) criticize the cantankerous old man, who keeps leaving home to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize.

Younger son David (Will Forte) takes stock of his own modest life and disappointments, listens to his father, and decides to take Woody to the sweepstakes headquarters.

The journey includes an unexpected side trip to Woody’s hometown and a reconsideration of the past that is revealing and inspires David to continue to give his father attention and dignity.

Among many interesting supporting performances, Stacy Keach is extremely good (at being very bad) as Woody’s onetime business partner, Ed Pegram.

What unfolds in this film is a delicate and powerful from of storytelling that is revealed through the interplay of characters so well-written and performed with such truth that the lessons emerging from the narrative are as close to universal and timeless as I am prepared to acknowledge may exist.

I’m not big on “universal” and “timeless” because those terms have been used most often to justify a particular white, male, Western view of the world.

But, I am big on Nebraska.

In a year marked by a lot of great films, Nebraska is a standout.



December 24, 2013

I never thought I’d write about these two movies together, but I have the exact same criticism of both of them: the first hour drags, but things pick up (more for one than the other) after that.

Saving Mr. Banks is as one dimensional as, well, most Disney movies without much magic. I enjoy watching Emma Thompson work, but she doesn’t have a great deal to work with here since the storyline told in flashback sequences holds the emotional center of the film and her character is so prickly and unlikeable.

Maybe I’d feel differently if I had a stronger connection to Mary Poppins, but I haven’t seen it in decades.

The plot is straightforward, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) wants to convince P.L. Travers (Thompson) to let him make a movie of her book series, and the author needs the money but is reluctant because she doesn’t hold Disney’s work in high regard.

Of course, whether or not she’ll relent is a foregone conclusion, so the film considers why she wrote the story as she did and what it means to her by digging into her difficult childhood.

The supporting cast is good (in addition to the leads), the period details are fun, but the film is too long and the emotional payoff a bit lackluster.

I expected more from American Hustle. After all, I admire David O. Russell’s work, especially The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and Three Kings.

American Hustle is very loosely based on the Abscam sting that sent congressmen, a US senator, and some New Jersey officials to jail on corruption charges. You’ll recognize a lot of actors from recent Russell films – Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams – but who the actual politicians are, who the FBI agents are, and even who the con artist at the center of the operation is has been embellished or completely re-characterized to serve Russell’s storytelling goals.

I have no gripe with that, but the first hour of film, leading up to the launch of the big sting operation, seems slow while the second hour picks up considerably. For me, this film is more fragmented thematically than my three favorites among Russell’s films that are mentioned above.

I don’t mind fragmented storytelling – and even relish different types of narrative structures when the structure serves the film – but there must be a larger coherence that is apparent throughout or revealed by the end of the film for this choice to make sense.

There are a lot of interesting pieces at play in the construction of American Hustle, but the elements don’t seem to be in an optimal final placement.

Both films are worth seeing. Neither film will make my top ten list.

American Hustle

Duck Dynasty and Free Speech

December 22, 2013

What would Phil call the conundrum that I experience now after reading the article in GQ that got him into trouble and, subsequently, watching six episodes of Duck Dynasty? Would he use the same phrase I do, that I am “between a rock and a hard place”?

Competing principles are at play, and that is always a tough one. I hate what he says but defend the principles of free speech. Is ignorance, and I have no evidence that Phil’s ignorance is willful, a mitigating factor?

When a person lives in a bubble, and West Monroe, Louisiana sure looks like a bubble to me, without higher education or other types of exposure to the larger world, this is what the result sometimes looks like.

I thought many things while looking up and down from my knitting to watch a sampling of episodes from the series. And, curious things popped into my head.

1. This is what the Beverly Hillbillies would be like if they had stayed in the backwoods. Well, maybe not. Jed is wise. But, you know what I mean. Give Jethro a bit of an edge and a hint of opinionated meanness in the face of any type of authority, and there’s Jase.

2. In a curious way, Duck Dynasty reminds me of The Jersey Shore, a series that makes us feel smarter and more content with our own lives after peering into the routines of various characters. Both sets of series characters are presented as exotic others. Both sets have questionable work ethics. And, both series inspire a bit of morbid curiosity viewing but (to me at least) wear thin very quickly.

3. Perhaps I understand where Phil is coming from because I know people just like him. Most of us with a certain type of proudly self-sufficient rural roots (even one generation removed like mine) know people like Phil and may even have a few of them on the outer branches of the family tree.

I would take Phil’s comments with more seriousness if I took him seriously. No, I’m not trying to minimize the egregious things he said. And, while it’s clear that his homophobic comments come straight from his religious tradition, I’m not sure where his comments on race come from, which makes that statement from the article even harder for me to take.

But, it takes time and exposure to competing ideas and some degree of willingness to accept change for minds to open.

On some level, I’m just as bothered by the hypocrisy of the A & E network. Producers and crew surely know all about Phil’s attitudes, which are obviously carefully edited from the series.

That’s fine. Sanitize the series and take the money to the bank. But, there should be no surprises for the network that this is who the patriarch of their cash cow really is, which means the suspension feels a little bit like Captain Renault closing down Rick’s club in Casablanca — “I’m shocked…shocked to find that gambling is going on in there” – right before an employee brings him his winnings.

Suspending Phil from the series is disingenuous, though the network has the right. On the other hand, I’m suspending him and all the other members of the dynasty from my DVR, which seems fitting.

And, so you know, I avoid Alec Baldwin as much as I can, too. Hate speech from the left still hateful.

One other note about hypocrisy while we are on the topic….I saw the funniest (because it’s true) thing on Facebook this morning and had to share it on my own page.

It is a photo of the Dixie Chicks with the caption “If there is one thing people in the red states respect, it is freedom of speech” above the photo and the caption “Just ask the Dixie Chicks” below.

TV-Duck Dynasty


December 19, 2013

I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch all of the conventional holiday classics this year, but maybe you should add Meet John Doe into the mix…

Check out my commentary on Triad Arts Weekend.Meet John Doe


December 19, 2013

I am a huge fan of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, a work of great formal achievement and narrative strength. It was hard for me to believe that a commercial director could produce such a polished film so early in his motion picture career.

The earlier film feels like a much more mature work for this writer-director than its follow-up, All Is Lost.

For me while watching it, I felt as I do when watching other directors’ “can I do that” films framed as exercises in form – what Hitchcock did in Rope, for example, or in Lifeboat without the interplay among the characters (and without the clever before and after weight loss ad cameo floating by the boat).

All Is Lost plays out like a film school assignment. Your charge: take a single actor and a single location and tell a story without using dialogue. What emerges here is well-crafted, certainly far above the level of a student film, but there isn’t enough “there” there for me to consider this an exceptional or particularly memorable movie.

And, bits feel clichéd. I waited for the storms. I waited for the sharks. I waited for the near miss with a would-be rescue boat. Predictably, these things come along. Please, don’t tell me this is a spoiler. In All Is Lost, the “what” is much less important than the “how,” and I haven’t taken that away from you.

My biggest problem with the film is something that never happens. Aside from Robert Redford’s craggy good looks and convincing abilities as a sailor and problem-solver, there is never a sense in the film of who this nameless man is beyond the external skill-sets he possesses.

I want some inkling of his interiority. In fact, I need that information to form a connection with him.

Three years ago I dragged myself to see 127 Hours because I like director Danny Boyle’s work even though this story seemed doomed to disengage me. A man is trapped under a rock in a canyon for 127 hours? I mean, it’s a true story, but how engaging can it be?

Uh, the movie is pretty darn riveting, as it turns out. I ended up on the edge of my seat even though the outcome was a foregone conclusion. James Franco gives a terrific performance with elements – call them devices if you want – that provide a sense of who he is so that I care deeply and personally about what happens to him.

Watching the utterly convincing Robert Redford, “Our Man,” as he confronts global capitalism and mother nature in a series of predictable challenges is less engaging for me than watching another man trapped underneath a rock because the man in the boat is a total cipher.

As an assignment film, Chandor hits it out of the park. But, as a film that gives me something to grapple with or a film that illuminates something authentic about the human condition or a film that scales formal heights of achievement or even a rollicking bit of entertainment, All Is Lost doesn’t work particularly well for me.

Possible spoiler: I detest the ambiguous ending. The only part of the film open to multiple interpretations of meaning feels as if it is the coda to a different type of piece. The final trajectory should have been down as a matter of fit.

Robert Redford