Leo Does It in “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Leonardo DiCaprio gave what I have always thought of as the performance of his career in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.  Since then he’s always been a little studied–you can see him thinking.  Not this time!  Get this–not only does he absolutely nail the charisma, the magnetism, the shallowness, the lust and debauchery, but he does one of the best physical comedy sequences I’ve ever seen.  I was howling laughing in this movie, and definitely in the delayed reaction qualude scene.  He should win an Oscar.  Christian Bale has more layering and depth in American Hustle, and I absolutely don’t care (since these are the things I care most about, that’s saying something).  There are people who should be movie stars for the sheer force of their performance power, and The Wolf of Wall Street proves that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of those people.

Then, there’s Scorcese.  The use of camera angles, voice over, monologue to camera, quick cuts, infomercials–he is a brilliant director and brilliant in how he uses the camera.

BUT.  And there is a but.  This movie shows the greed at the heart of capitalism, the drunk-with-power Wall Street success stories, and it disturbingly made me want part of that story.  No problem so far.  But the sex–all the beautiful and very nude women, the graphic nature of the sex, the overpowering lust, and the abundance of those scenes, made me feel sick.  It was like watching pornography.  And on one hand, that’s kind of the point of the lives these men lead, and how incapable they are of any love, and women are just holes to them, and even sex is a way to bond with and compete with other men, who are the only people that matter.  But on the other hand, the women looked like they were enjoying it, and so did the men.  Contrasted with Oliver Stone’s film, Wall Street, in which the emptiness and betrayal of self, the lack of morality, tells on people and their relationships, Scorcese’s film made it all look kind of fun.  Unless, of course, you’d lived any part of it (my grandfather was rich and my uncles were a bit like these men) and then you might bring a little more information to the party and just want to puke.

The film is so well made, and DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are unbelievably brilliant, but I’m not sure the message is that greed is bad.  At the end, we’re offered a colorless and miserable contrast of normal people compared to the wild animalism of what we’ve seen so far…and it makes the animalism look appealing.  And though the film offers nothing of depth about women, and makes abject objectification titillating, its sexism is countered by its self-aware portrayal of sexism…you see my dilemma and intense ambivalence.  I’m watching pornography that knows it’s pornography and degrading, and wants to say that, but it’s also made to be appealing and funny.  Basically, pukeville for women.

However, if Scorcese is intending to reach us and change us, I can say two things:  1) if that’s what sex was really like, I’d never have sex again (I thank whatever/whoever it doesn’t have to be) and 2) I’m seriously thinking of selling all my stocks and moving into a Buddhist monastery to get as far away from capitalism as possible.  I might not be able to resist the temptation of the get-rich-quick fantasy otherwise.

Disturbing.  But worth seeing.  If you don’t mind wanting to puke at knowing that some women really live these lives.

August Osage County: Review

I don’t get it.

I mean I seriously don’t get it.

I saw this play on Broadway, interested mostly because it came out of Steppenwolf, which meant Meisner actors.  I was disappointed then.  And irritated.  Very irritated.

Nothing much has changed, except that the writing in the movie is much worse.  (I watched because I vote for the SAG awards and it was free.)

I know, the play won a Pulitzer.  But I’m damned if anyone can tell me why.  It’s a Southern melodrama, slightly modernized, but utilizing so many cliches I can’t see the point of even watching.  I find the incest cliche/revelation so boring and insulting.  I mean, Lone Star did it so much better, and in that movie, which I loved, I cared about the characters and what they were going to do.  In this one, I was like, bummer for them.  Yawn.

So, I don’t like the writing.  Meaning that I don’t like the structure, and while I LOVE family as subject, I expect a contemporary writer to give me something new.  Tracy Letts doesn’t.  But at least in the play there was some pathos, something at stake for the characters, some hope of reconciliation, some hope the mother might not be quite as terrible as she seems.  In the movie, there are almost no stakes at all.  Which means, quite literally, snooze.  My partner and I both fell asleep and had to keep waking each other up.  And we were both super curious about Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts working together, and about Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Cooper (we’re in love with both of them).  Still, zzzzzzzzzzzz.

Mind you, these are good and great actors, and no one did a bad job.  Julia Roberts did okay, and I’ve been holding out hope that as she gets older and holds out for more substantive roles (which she seems to be doing), she’ll rediscover her early promise–because she had mad chops as well as charisma in Mystic Pizza.  Of course, the big dinner scene was dominated by Meryl doing her character actor thing, and no one does it better (except perhaps Chris Cooper, who held his own better than anyone else with very few lines).  Of course, Meryl hit every character note, and even made Violet, who is crazy mean, charming at times, which was a nice touch.  I’m still not a huge Meryl fan, because she doesn’t make me care and doesn’t seem to have chemistry with most of her colleagues, but she shone in her dinner monologue with interruptions.  She’s a solo performer in ensemble, so it was a great scene for her.  One could even hope that Julia would take note that it’s okay to be both charming and miserable at the same time.  That’s the problem with the acting as well as the writing in the movie–these people are living at rock bottom, they’ve already lost and they know it, and their fighting seems a feature of their lives rather than an exception.  It’s like, whatever is the worst behavior, they’ll do it.  (There is one wonderful surprise in the movie with a shovel, but I won’t ruin it for you.)

Anyhow, in a season of some very good movies indeed, I’d give this one a pass.  Glad I saw it for free!  (Instead, see American Hustle, arguably David O. Russell’s best…or Philomena, or Enough Said.)

Happy New Year!

Saving Mr. Banks: My Review

The thing about the “good” Hollywood movies is that the world view they offer is so in the common pool, and usually terrifically biased.  This doesn’t mean they don’t feature excellent performances; they often do.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t shot beautifully; they are.  But the lack of subtlety and intellectual sophistication, the uncomplicated world view, undermines much of what Hollywood has to offer.

This is all true about Saving Mr. Banks.  The story of Mrs. Travers, played by the admirable Emma Thompson with subtlety and complication, nevertheless shows her as nothing short of a difficult bitch for almost the entire film.  The story then goes on to explain her difficult bitchiness with moving scenes of her tragic childhood in Australia.  You might say that this offers a level of complication, but the problem is that it gives us an American understanding–we’re difficult because of our difficult childhoods.  Psychologizing ourselves, we rest easy that we understand.

Now, there was a great deal of pathos in the revelations of Mrs. Travers/Helen Goff’s childhood, don’t get me wrong.  I cried.  I related.  But I also fumed at Tom Hanks’ super genial nearly perfect Mr. Disney (call him Walt).  The writing led us to see the story as an explanation of a difficult woman, and though our sympathy toward her grew, we were always firmly on Walt Disney’s (and therefore Hollywood’s) side.

This may sound like a truly negative review, but what I mean to say is that this film, like most films coming out of Hollywood, frustrates me.  The film is about artistic collaboration, in the end, or should be.  And there is great truth in the difficulty of bringing an original artist into a collaboration with an unlike aesthetic.  Mrs. Travers came into the collaboration with a dislike of Disney’s cartoons, his lack of subtlety, his artistic stamp….and the only reason she came was for the money, which she desperately needed.  Add to this the deeply personal underpinnings of the story, and you have a recipe for disaster.  I should know, by the way, since I have done this, twice.

What the film is missing is the exploration of the artistic conflict.  If it had questioned Disney’s aesthetic instead of championing it, if it had revealed the final product of Mary Poppins as a strange mixture of Travers’ need for pathos and the cartoon/Hollywood easy answer style of Disney, it would have been a great movie.  But instead, it only personalized the conflict–and while you eventually understand that both Disney and Travers are trying to tell the story of their very different fathers (which is interesting), Tom Hanks’ playing of Disney as relentlessly likable made this admission on his part just…more Hollywood vanilla.  More easy answers.

I left the movie feeling moved, but also wanting to stomp my feet and go write a story about artistic collaboration and the way conflicting aesthetics and a director/producer’s need to tell one story and the writer’s need to tell another create an angst-driven mess.  In the end, it’s always whose world view will win.  Disney won in the making of the movie (Mrs. Travers never did like the film Mary Poppins), and he won in the portrayal here.  Problem is, that isn’t fundamentally interesting.

What I Know About Marriage and Homicide (For a friend, on her recent nuptials)

1. Being known is great. Except when it’s not.

2. After 26 years, I’m still waiting for her to turn into the suave, handsome, rich doctor or lawyer I was supposed to marry, instead of this completely authentic, loving, neurotic putz who makes me laugh.

3. Loving her so much challenges all my fears. So I try to be friends and keep getting back on the same side. Otherwise I might kill her.

4. I can only do as much intimacy as I can tolerate—so I don’t open my heart all at once. Or I might kill her.

5. It’s better to tell on myself than to confront my partner. Because then she won’t kill me.

6. I have so many parts of me that see her as every monster from every nightmare and think my survival is threatened. When this happens, it’s time to go in my room and hide. And then try to soothe myself. So I don’t kill her.

7. Marriage is a disappointment factory. I keep creating expectations or recycling old ones, just so I can learn that she’s not here to take care of me. (This makes me want to kill her.)

8. For 26 years, she has told me, over and over again, that we don’t have to do anything I don’t want to, that we can go as slow as I need, that she never wants to hurt me (even though she does), and I forget this the minute she says something stupid. (And then I want to kill her.)

9. When the voice that tells me I’m better than her, and she doesn’t deserve me, gets activated, it’s better if I don’t share that with her (so she doesn’t kill me), or believe what that part of me is telling me (so I don’t kill her).

10. Once in a while, we get close, and no one freaks out, and I notice, one moment at a time, the way her hands seeks for me, the way she touches me as if I am the most precious person in the world, and the way I explode with joy (and make inappropriate jokes) at all of it, so grateful to be alive and know what this feels like.