“The Wolf of Wall Street” is Audacious, Unhinged, Drugged-Out Filmmaking Mastery

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If there is a common thematic thread to be found in the films of 2013, or at least the ones I’ve bothered to consume, it’s one of excess. Of pushing limits. Of pushing one’s moral and physical boundaries to their thinnest possible point, then continuing even further. In fairly rapid succession (if with varying degrees of success), Pain & GainThe Great Gatsby, The Great Beauty, American Hustle, The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers have held up a mirror to these concepts that are increasingly embedded in our culture — yet it only feels appropriate that the most kinetic, unhinged exploration of this theme should come at the end of the year, in Martin Scorsese’s three-hour hand-grenade of an epic, The Wolf of Wall Street.

For a man so enamored with preserving cinematic history and evidence of its progression, Scorsese has really developed his own language with these sorts of pictures: sprawling, broadly textured, rampantly entertaining explorations of industries that use sin as a fuel, as a virtue. Goodfellas and Casino were famous for these qualities, and The Wolf of Wall Street not only completes this makeshift trilogy, but is every ounce the equal of its predecessors.

It’s the true story of deliriously corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort, rendered to an almost scarily accurate degree. The film charts Belfort’s rise — over the late ’80s through the ’90s — to a position of almost unthinkable power and wealth. But rather than focus on the financial ins and outs that Belfort had to navigate, Wolf of Wall Street is considerably more interested in the senseless, pummeling hedonism that his firm launched itself into: the orgies, the overdoses, the parties, the sexual deviancy, the mountains of cocaine, and their ultimately crippling effect on the soul and conscience.

Where this film seems to divide many, however, is its refusal to make a stark judgment on the events that unfold. The Wolf of Wall Street is fairly merciless in that it never shows the endless victims of Belfort’s despicable financial crimes, nor gives its characters any of the standard monologues written for movie characters to show a moral conscience. The truth is, these people don’t have one. The movie’s function, instead, is depicting the seductive, often ingenious power plays they take in order to attain a position of such trust and financial intimacy.

The film then, whether it means to or not, subtly links the seductive power of Wall Street risk with the mega-watt charisma of Hollywood stars — seeing as two of its biggest ones are the forces that propel Wolf of Wall Street forward at every minute. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill fearlessly throw movie-star ego and likability by the wayside, with the results being the funniest, most expressive performances of their respective careers. The two must communicate an articulate, smarmy evil while also absolutely losing their minds and physical composure at key intervals — one Quaalude overdose late into the film is, without exaggeration, among the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen on film.

This, to my taste and to my preference, is one of the most entertaining films ever made. It runs at 179 minutes, handily feels half that amount, and creates an insatiable need in me to see Scorsese’s original cut, rumored to run over an hour longer. With the coked-out panache that Scorsese’s held in him since his days as an addict in the ’70s, this film zips by at the speed of a bullet, and with comparable force and impact.

Martin Scorsese, at 71, has made a film with the bravado, breathless utilization of technique, and cocky amorality of someone a third his age. His career genuinely stands alongside the all-time greats of world cinema, when considering the sheer breadth of masterpieces he’s bequeathed over the decades. With this said, The Wolf of Wall Street may not be one of them. It’s a little too jagged, too unkempt, too willfully imperfect. But it’s audacious, fearless, raunchy as shit and the exact film I’ve been waiting to see through a long, dreary moviegoing year.

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“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” review.

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Skillful and engaging though last year’s young-adult novel adaptation The Hunger Games may have been, it still felt like a film much more interested in pleasing its youthful, intensely ravenous fanbase than leaving any sort of mature cinematic imprint. Francis Lawrence’s highly anticipated sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, actually seems to acknowledge and respond to this criticism, resulting in a film that fulfills standard expectations that a sequel expand its conflict and darken its tone while feeling totally organic in doing so.

Jennifer Lawrence’s warrior-lover-heroine Katniss Everdeen returns, immediately battling the guilt and trauma over her victory in the first film’s titular hunger games, with would-be-boyfriend Peeta. The dystopian, post-nuclear government of Panem is rather displeased with their subversion to the already-fragile power structure, having defied the rules and both emerging alive from the games, which typically demand one lone survivor in their 24-man deathmatch.

And so to assert dominance over these two superstars and instill fear in the people of Panem again, a Hunger Games tournament is established again — this time, however, forcing Katniss and Peeta to compete amongst 24 past victors.

Given the much more vicious competitors and constant, oppressive governmental presence that the protagonists face, Catching Fire is a film of considerably weightier stakes than its predecessor. There is often a genuine sense of dread, even despair bubbling beneath the surface here. Given all of the blockbusters we’re forced to watch in which the protagonists have constant tactical advantages to the point of near-parody, here is a film in which its characters are often helpless in the wake of the forces governing their lives.

And when they fight back, it actually becomes rather spectacular. The extended battle set-piece, taking up the second half of the film, is vividly imagined and flows together immaculately. Admittedly, one of my major qualms from the first film — the impact-free, Disneyesque portrayal of violence — has not been addressed, but given how much more brisk and exciting Catching Fire is as a whole, such issues feel small.

Jennifer Lawrence remains one of the shining stars of new American cinema, imbuing gravity and grace to a role whose ass-kicking qualities are near-iconic with only two films. Josh Hutcherson’s limitations as an actor are gently easing up with age, bringing a new level of calm and authority as her friend and would-be lover, Peeta. The remaining supporting cast, stacked with veterans like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson, goes a long way towards lending Catching Fire’s oft-fantastical scenarios gravity.

Director Francis Lawrence, a man whose past work (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) revealed little beyond passionless proficiency, seems an oddly inspired choice to helm the remainder of this franchise. Suzanne Collins’ novels certainly provide Lawrence with a rich source of thematic texture and dramatic weight, leaving him to focus on simply translating the text to screen skillfully and with rhythm, grace and excitement. It’s odd to say this, given my fairly distant attitude towards the first installment, but The Hunger Games may have just become one of the most exciting franchises on the planet.

“Thor: The Dark World” inspires nothing but indifference

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The more enthusiasm Marvel pours into making its cinematic brand the center of pop-culture, the more difficult it is to give a damn about any of it. This much is apparent emerging from Thor: The Dark World, the eighth installment in their Avengers-centered universe and the second revolving around egotistical, beautifully-sculpted Norse god Thor. By far the weakest film in a brand that shows no signs of slowing, The Dark World lives in the shadow of the multi-billion critical smash Avengers — yet unlike Iron Man 3 of earlier this year, it doesn’t use these constraints and expectations to test its characters’ boundaries.

Iron Man 3‘s cleverest decision was to make its lead a total nervous wreck in the wake of Avengers, and so inverting one of the key tropes to heroism in the movies — the idea that the handsome, good-looking lead can brush off psychological trauma whenever he pleases. The Dark World, then, feels like a total regression in its unswerving allegiance to giving Thor as much surface charm and little depth as possible. With such a shallow foil as our lead, then, Thor: The Dark World feels less like a film and more like the worst qualities of television and video-games, all in one package; allowing episodic structure to rob its events of consequence and allowing poor computer-effects work to give the endless action sequences a decidedly cartoonish sheen. The film cost $170 million and never feels above a third of that figure.

It doesn’t help that, even in a cinematic universe where handsome leads fight with large shields and inter dimensional portals open in the middle of New York, Thor: The Dark World genuinely stretches one’s credulity past a recoverable point. The premise involves some vaguely distant enemies of Thor’s galactic kingdom, Dark Elves, and their return after thousands of years to destroy Earth, the universe, and all the rest. (If this review reads like the product of intense apathy, I assure you that’s because it is.)

If there’s life and vitality to be found in Thor: The Dark World, it’s in the dual male leads, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s gleefully villainous Loki. You may recall Loki was the chief antagonist of last year’s Avengers, and adding him back into the fold, assisting the film’s lead, adds a dynamic of unease and paranoia to the proceedings. It’s the only dimensions to be found in these characters, however, as their development is reduced to terse one-liners and what role they play in the film’s endless, endless sequences of destruction.

Thor: The Dark World is a film of small consequence, no matter how hard it may attempt to persuade you otherwise. Its conflicts are petty, its explosions are huge, and its identity is one of a lingering, haunting sadness for the state of $170-million filmmaking.