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The Grifters (1990)
The Literarlly Cut-Throat World of Con Artists
In most films about "grifters", or "con artists", they are almost always the ones the audiences root for, such as the lovable characters in "The Sting", Gondorff and Hooker (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) whose only marks are those who deserve it. In reality, grifters mark anyone they think they can take. And the more the mark has, the more the grifter thinks he or she can take from them. A con artist (aka confidence man or woman) uses camaraderie and deception to convince a potential victim to willfully give them money. In the best con games, the mark doesn't realize he or she has been "taken".
Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is a small-con grifter who was taught by an older con artist and magician. He perpetrates small-time tricks, like switching bills at bars, and getting in with strangers to play rigged games of chance. But he's never enacted bigger cons. His mother Lilly Dillion is also a grifter who works for the mobs which own many of horse racing tracks in California. She's paid to bet on long shots to decrease the pay offs in case the long shot wins, using the mob's own money, even though the track itself doesn't know the mob is actually paying into its own betting pool. For example, if a horse had 50-1 odds to win, and Lilly adds money into the betting pool making the odds 40-1, if the horse wins, the mob only has to pay off $40 to every $1 bet instead of $50. But there's a small hitch. Lilly is skimming off the top, betting less money than the mob has given her, and she hides the extra in the trunk of her car.
The wild card is a young female grifter name of Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) who was once in a big con game with a man name of Cole (J.T. Walsh). At the film's beginning we learn Roy is going with Myra, but he's not sure about her, and he doesn't know she's a grifter. After Roy unsuccessfully pulls one of his bate and switch the bills games on the wrong bartender which lands him a slug into the stomach, Lilly and Myra meet at hospital. From the get-go we know that Lilly and Myra are adversaries, both vying for the affections of Roy. Eventually, Roy and Myra leave on a road trip.
During the trip, Myra recounts her days with Cole and how they swindled Texas millionaires out of thousands in cash. They set up a phony office when oil prices were down and convinced Texas magnates to invest thousands of dollars into a scheme. Cole and Myra would convince the mark they could defraud the stock or bonds market by placing orders depending upon a shift in the market, such as a stock, bond or currency, and then cash in on the profits. The trick was a 7-second delay in which if there was a significant move of a stock and/or commodity up or down on the Tokyo exchange, they could either buy or sell before the information reached New York. When the mark brought the money, and all that was needed was to make the actual transaction, a phony scenario was presented to the mark involving authorities, and the mark and his money would soon part company.
But Roy has never tried anything so big before. And his mother Lilly wants Roy out of the con game, before he becomes like her, a loser who has sold her soul to the mob. She is physically punished by one of the mobsters for missing one of the high-stakes races when she takes Roy to hospital, and as luck would have it, one of the long-shots wins, forcing the mob to pay 70-1 odds. We know that this is a tug of war between these two women, the sexy upstart grifter Myra and the lonely loser old grifter Lilly.
An excellent film which probably more accurately portrays the cut-throat world of con artists. In reality, some con artists are playing deadly games, not like the characters portrayed in "The Sting", "The Film-Flam Man" and "House of Games". A French nobleman who had invested with Bernie Madoff committed suicide when the fraud was revealed, and others have been killed by con artists. The world of Roy, Lilly and Myra portrays a much deadlier world. While a great and compelling film, I would have liked Myra and Roy to engage the "big con" which in the end they avoid.
Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Romantic Love Rectangle in 19th-Century Rural England
"Far From the Madding Crowd" is the fourth novel by and first success of British writer Thomas Hardy, first published in a single volume in 1874. Its title refers to the setting of the story which is 200 miles from London, which was certainly by the late 19th century a noisy and overcrowded metropolis. By contrast the setting is in rural England among mostly farmers and merchants in small towns. The present film is an excellent adaption of one of the high-spots of English literature conveying well both its setting, time and sensibility.
The story centers around a woman who comes into an unexpected inheritance and how she navigates the romantic affections of three male suitors. Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), not long into the film, receives the inheritance of a large farm from a passed-away uncle. Her first suitor, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a sheep-raiser and herder who awkwardly makes his affections known. He is an independent entrepreneur and neighbor of Everdene who loses his stock and livelihood when one of his shepherding dogs goes crazy and forces the sheep to their deaths. As a result, he becomes a wandering worker-for-hire. Oak is soft-spoken but resolved, exhibiting subtle confidence in who he is and his knowledge of livestock.
Her next suitor is a 180-degree shift from Oak, William Boldwood. Boldwood is the wealthiest landowner in the surrounding county, possibly landed-gentry, but it's never made clear whether his wealth is from inheritance, business, or a combination of the two. Despite his wealth and prestige, the fine clothes he wears can't hide that he seems uneasy with himself, despite his name "Boldwood". He is not very confident around women, and when he becomes enamored with Everdene, his means of making his feelings known are worse than Oak, being uneasy and bashful. Despite being worth many times the other two suitors, he is the least confident of the three.
Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) is the most outwardly outspoken and seemingly confident of the three. While courting, he often dons his military uniform of bright red, the colour of British military. When a previous engagement to another woman fails, he seeks Everdene. Of the three, at first he appears to be the most successful in winning her affections, especially in a scene where he brandishes his sword in front of her. However, as events play out, the "confidence" of Troy is not all that it seems, and Everdene begins to see another side of Troy.
This is an excellent story about people living in rural Victorian England and the struggles of balancing both relationships and farming. While certainly the premise is somewhat fantasy in terms of three suitors vying for the affections of one woman, the storyline and characters never lapse into cliché. Also, the acting is first-rate, and I could see academy award nominations for the leads, particularly Carey Mulligan as Everdene. The photography is excellent with the lush English countryside in the background. Not to be missed if you enjoy movies such as this.
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
The Extended Version Is a Much Better Film: A Religious and Art History Thriller
I give the film 10 stars for the Extended Version, 8 stars for the theatrical version. When I saw the Da Vinci Code for the first time in the theater, I thought it was okay, but the whole experience seemed rushed. Much later when I bought the Da Vinci Code on Blu-Ray and saw it in the so-called Extended Version, the film was much more satisfying. The Extended Version is a superior film: more gripping, more suspenseful, and far more compelling. The Da Vinci Code the Extended Version makes better use of Ron Howard's fine directing, and the characters seem more developed. The first time around, everyone was in and out of the Louvre, and running all over Paris, not to mention everywhere else. In the Extended Version, the pacing seems more natural and the events aren't as hurried, allowing the story to "breath".
As has been pointed out by many a-reviewer, the plot is somewhat absurd. However, that's why we see films: to be taken away to another plane which may or may not work completely logically. The trick is whether or not audiences will suspend their disbelief and run with the story for two hours. The plot is essentially about the continuation of a religious "war" of sorts between two covert factions: The Priory of Zion, also known as the Keepers, and Opus Dei, an underground order within the Catholic Church which carries out extremist agendas, even without the knowledge of the Vatican. These factions and their 2000-year-old war have been kept hidden from the public at large. Harvard symbologist and cultural-history scholar Robert Langdon and a police researcher Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) become enmeshed in a diabolic religious plot in which the four top-ranking members of the Priory, called the Senechaux, have been assassinated.
The first scene involves an old man running for his life from a hooded assassin during after-hours at the Louvre Art Museum in Paris, France. The assassin, an albino named Salis (Paul Bettany) fires a fatal shot into Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle). Bleeding and dying, the old man drags himself to his feet with a pen in hand and engages in some kind of markings. The film then cuts to a lecture by Robert Langdon on the nature of symbols in world history. He is then confronted by the French police and asked to come to a murder scene. He was planning to meet the victim, Saunière, but the older man failed to show for their appointment.
He comes to the Louvre to see a horrific site: the body of Saunière splayed out like Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man with strange markings on his chest and invisible words on the floor. Unbeknownst to Langdon, the detective-officer in charge of the investigation Besu Fache (Jean Reno) believes Langdon guilty. By chance, Sophie Neveu arrives and through a secret message, informs him he is Fache's no. 1 suspect. The two flee together from the French police and become fugitives from justice. They engage in a two-day adventure in which they attempt to decipher anagrams, find artifacts and artworks, and reveal the meaning of codes all the while eluding the French police. The theme of the so-called "sacred feminine" recurs throughout the film, especially when the fugitives solicit the help of Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen). Teabing is a self-proclaimed solitary scholar and presumably independently wealthy Englishman residing in France whose historical conclusions are rather wide of mainstream academia. At the same time, the albino-assassin is hunting for an artifact called "the keystone". The secret order, Opus Dei, is trying to eradicate the long-held belief in the so-called Holy Grail.
If you like suspense films with some historical and art references added into the mix, the Da Vinci Code is one of the best films of its type. While the author Dan Brown certainly didn't invent the genre of art-history thrillers ("The Flanders Panel" by Arturo Pérez-Reverte was written over 10 years before "The Da Vinci Code"), it has become the most well-known and bestselling examples in its sub-genre. Some of the plot twists and explanations are certainly absurd if you analyze them critically. However, it really is a fun film. The only scene I don't care for is one in which they trick a young man to lend Langdon a cell phone on a bus to find out more about some historical names. In the book, this scene took place in the British Library, a much more interesting and appropriate locale to look up revered figures of the past. Still, a really fun movie that does give me the shivers at the end. I don't know why, but it does.
The Firm Meets The Insider, Michael Clayton: Dynamic Legal-Thriller Show But a Bit Overlong
I'll review Season 1 since that's the only one I've seen. The first episode hooked and reeled me in straight-away, a cinematic fisherman hunting for viewer-ship game. In the first minutes we see the front of a high-rise apartment in New York. The color of the visuals are rather strange, a kind of washy yellow somewhat blurred. The camera then zooms to an elevator and a young woman, 30-ish, emerges, bloodied. She runs from the elevator, into the lobby, and out into the streets of New York. She's eventually found by law enforcement and brought to a precinct where she is held for questioning. Her name is Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), and she's a "plaintiff's attorney", a lawyer who represents clients who have civil grievances against other individuals, groups, corporations, even government agencies. She works for Hewes and Associates, a plaintiff law firm run by an effective but amoral attorney, Patricia "Patty" Hewes (Glenn Close), who uses ruthless tactics and endless negotiations to get the law suit outcomes she wants.
A subtitle then states "6 Months Earlier". The blurriness disappears and the colors appear back to normal. This is how the series is organized. We flash back and forth between the events of "now", which is shown as yellow-blurred, while all flashbacks are shown in normal color, until by the series end, the two eventually merge. Parsons is being offered a job at a relatively prestigious law firm, but she turns down the offer, eventually working for Hewes and Associates. Hewes and Associates captained by the uncompromising Patty Hewes are involved in a class action law suit against a billionaire magnate, Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), brought by his former employees who accuse him of dumping millions of shares of the company stock, thereby making their stock options worthless. Also, we learn Parsons' soon-to-be sister-in-law, the brother of her fiancée, also has information and connections to Frobisher.
The series moves between the two periods of time, the "now" and the "then", and more pieces of each part of the puzzle are revealed, although the only way to tell if we're in the past or the present is the visual look. In the present, we soon learn Parsons had been attacked at an apartment flat. At first we are led to believe the apartment is hers, but then we find out she was staying at the apartment belonging to Patty Hewes. We also learn she has not only been attacked but she's accused of murdering someone else. As the series progresses, the flashbacks move closer and closer in time to the "now". The series balances between interesting corporate intrigue, like you might find in "The Insider" to urban violence, similar to "The Firm" and "Michael Clayton".
This is quite a compelling series from start to finish. Excellent performances by Rose Byrne as the young upstart attorney, Noah Bean as David Connor, Parsons' fiancée, Zeljko Ivanek as Ray Fiske, Frobisher's personal attorney, and Anastasia Griffith as Katie Connor, the future sister-in-law of Parsons. These are all "A" performances. The "A+" performances go to heavy hitters Glenn Close as Patricia Hewes and Ted Danson as Frobisher. I was particularly impressed with both actors in this series. The cutting stares and elongated silences of Close as Hewes practically draw blood, while Danson has a fascinating take on corporate magnate Frobisher, who flip-flops between moments of fair-minded reasonableness and ruthless detachment. Frobisher in particular is in constant denial about what he's doing, whether in work or pleasure, either cheating on his young wife or hiring hoodlums to carry out "dirty work". Similarly, we learn Hewes also plays a deadly game of lawsuit "cat and mouse", not only against her courtroom adversaries but even her own employees. I can't think of another actress who'd be able to play Hewes as effectively.
This is an extremely well-written and well-acted series. The only reason I give it 9 stars instead of 10 is I felt the number of episodes were too many. The story probably could have been told in about 7 45-minute episodes but instead the producers opted for 13. There were a few episodes in the middle, around 5 through 9, where I was getting impatient to get to the final denouement, and it felt like the story was being drawn out unnecessarily. Some of the forward-flash scenes, the blurry ones, were repeated several times with little new information, and I felt just a bit frustrated. Still the ending of the first season was a satisfying ending with the plot twists revealed, making sense more or less. I'll have to try the second season at some point, although I may have to wait to "recover" from this one.
National Treasure (2004)
A 21st-Century Indiana Jones in an Ocean's 11-Style Heist for Treasure:
In the wake of "The Da Vinci Code", "National Treasure" really is a very entertaining and fun fantasy-adventure film. While not perfect, it's better than most of the other treasure hunting of ancient artifact movies of this type, particularly the dismally disappointing "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull". The one compromise is that the viewer has to "buy' into some episodes which are almost laughably implausible. However, if you can get past some of the "are you kidding me" moments, it's still an engaging trek through some of early American history, enjoyable for family viewing.
Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is the next generation in the Gates family of treasure hunters who believe in secret societies, conspiracies and cults. They are obsessed with a vast treasure they believe contain ancient relics such as sarcophagi, monuments, and artifacts from Antiquity, worth the equivalent of the entire collection residing in the Louvre. Although displaced from the Eastern Mediterranean, the treasure was hidden somewhere by Freemasons in the United States, or so they believe. According to family lore, the treasure was discovered by the Knights Templar during the Crusades of the 12th century in the ground beneath the place where the Israelite Great Temple of Jerusalem once stood, which was destroyed in 66 C.E. by the Romans. The later heirs of the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, moved the treasure to a secret location in North America. Some of the early American Freemasons and maybe an American Founding Father or three, placed secret clues hidden in obvious but concealed places to aid in its discovery by someone "pure", who adheres to the code of the Freemasons and the earlier Templar Knights. An early 19th century member of the Gates family was offered one of the clues. For several generations, the legend has been passed down, and now it has fallen to Ben Gates, although his father Patrick Gates (Jon Voight), no longer believes in the existence of the treasure, having wasted several decades with his father John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer) trying to find the "treasure".
The first clue, revealed early in the first scene of the film, so I'm really not giving anything away, is "The Secret Lies with Charlotte". Benjamin Gates grandfather, John Adams, explains to the young Ben Gates the clue was given to his grandfather's grandfather from Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and supposedly a Freemason. (Carroll is a real historical figure, although probably this story was made up for the film.) The family has been unable to find the meaning of the phrase.
Fast-forward 30 years. Benjamin Gates is now in middle-age, and he is seeking Charlotte. He finds "Charlotte" and another clue. The deciphering of the clue points to another clue residing on the underside of the original Declaration of Independence, the hand-written document which formally declared the North American Colonies' desire to secede from British rule. Simultaneously, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), once a trusted partner of Gates in the quest at the beginning of the film, has turned into an enemy rival who also wants the Declaration of Independence to find the next clue, and hopefully, the treasure. The film becomes a series of chases and clues, somewhat similar to the Da Vinci Code. At one point, the FBI enters into the picture, literally.
To stop the baddie Ian and his entourage of nameless henchmen from stealing the Declaration first, Gates and Co. resolve to steal it first, in "Ocean's 11" style. A fun, sort of madcap adventure fantasy, somewhat similar to the Disney films of the 1970's, like "Candleshoe" in which a treasure lies hidden within an old mansion. (Interestingly, "National Treasure" was also produced by the Disney Company.) A few of the scenes are a bit implausible, especially a few moments where the Declaration of Independence seems in dire jeopardy. However, the acting is good enough and the ideas behind the hunt compelling enough, that overall it still works well. Just don't take it too seriously. And think twice if the film has led you to believe stealing such a document from a national archive is easy as it seems in "National Treasure". I guarantee you, it isn't.
Woman in Gold (2015)
Important Victory Over Fascism's Rape of Europa 70 Years in the Making: A Story About More than Art Restiutution
In 1907, early-modern painter Gustav Klimt (18621918) created the first of two portraits of a beautiful Viennese Jewish woman, Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925). The painting on canvas incorporates both oil and gold leaf giving the work a beautiful sparkle when seen in person, almost like a large golden jewel. The painting incorporates traditional representation and abstract elements. While the upper part of the woman is certainly discernible, i.e. face, neck, breast, and hands, the rest of the painting reflects both the Art Nouveau and modernist style coming into vogue in the 20th century. Ancient Egyptian-like eyes adorn her golden dress towards the bottom, and geometric patterns surround her face. Although the official name of the painting is simply "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" by Gustav Klimt, it has been nicknamed "Woman in Gold" and regarded as the Mona Lisa of Austria.
The Klimt portrait has a violent and horrific history. In the early 20th century, the family of Adele Bloch-Bauer was a prominent Viennese family making their wealth through commerce, and the painting hung majestically in their lavish apartments. Tragically, Adele Bloch-Bauer died young in 1925 and had requested her two portraits be donated to the Austrian State Museum upon the death of her husband. Of course, she had no idea the scourge of fascist ideology would overtake her country only 10 years later. In 1938, the sitter's widower was compelled to flee Vienna when the German Reich annexed Austria. Although he escaped, dying in 1945, he was forced to leave behind his art collection including "Woman in Gold" and four additional Klimt paintings which were confiscated by the Nazis. The Klimt paintings would then reside in the Austrian State Gallery for the next half century.
The story of the film begins in the 1990's. The niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren in an Academy-Award caliber performance), a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany now living in Los Angeles, has become aware of recent stories of so-called "art restitution", the reuniting of pilfered art to rightful ownership. Most of the restitution stories center on art plundered by the German Nazis in the 1930's and early 1940's, which, by some estimates, number in the 100,000's. She solicits the help of fairly green lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who, although born in America, has Austrian ancestry. In fact, he's the grandson of early-modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg who was also forced to flee Austria in the 1930's not only because of his Jewish background but because of his use of 12-tone serialism in his compositions, regarded as "degenerate music" by the Nazis.
Altmann and Schoenberg become a team resolved to reclaim through the legal process the Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis, including and most importantly "Woman in Gold". Their first step is to bring their case to the Art Restitution Board run by the powers-that-be of the state-run museums in Austria. Reluctantly, Altmann agrees to fly to Vienna with Schoenberg, the first time she has returned to the city of her youth. At first they seem to have a strong case. During their stay, the team of Altmann-Schoenberg find the documents of Bloch-Bauer regarding the paintings. It's not really a will in the legal sense, just a kind of "wish". The real will is that of Adele's widower, Ferdinand Block-Blauer, who names his heirs as his nieces, one of which is Maria Altmann.
However, the plaintiffs suspect the museum doesn't want to give up the paintings without a fight. The board rejects their case, citing as legal grounds that the sitter of "Woman in Gold", Adele Bloch-Bauer, had consented to donate the portraits to Austria. The Austrian government further believes they have legal claim to the paintings because of the surviving documents, in this case the document written by Adele. Of course, being of Jewish origin and given the events which would transpire 10 years after her death, the plaintiffs are convinced Adele, had she lived, would have retracted such an offer. Also, it's a minor miracle the paintings survive at all, considering much of this kind of art was regarded as "degenerate" by the Nazis. They can sue the Austrian Museums in Vienna, but the legal costs would be astronomical. They seem to have lost. Then, just before they leave Vienna, the two visit the Holocaust Memorial. Schoenberg has an experience which becomes a turning point in the film, and he resolves to continue the fight. If they have any chance of succeeding, they need to find another means aside from directly suing the government in Austria.
The film chronicles the plaintiff's continued legal battle to restore the Klimt paintings to their rightful heir, Maria Altmann. The Austrian government wanted to keep the Klimt paintings in Austria, in part because of its iconic nature. While they had an argument because of the importance of iconic art residing in countries of origin, there were greater issues involved. This case was not just about art; it was about justice, and the way the film plays out, the museum's argument dismisses fundamental issues about injustice.
Three-quarters of a century ago, some extremists overtook the governments of Germany and Austria, led by one Adolph Hitler. They put into place rules which made Hitler absolute and unquestioned ruler. He decided that particular law-abiding legal residences of Germany and Austria had no legal rights only because they were of certain ethnic and religious origins. These people's lives were destroyed, being forced either to abandon their homes or forced into concentration and death camps. Some of these people owned wonderful art collections, and these were "legally" but wrongfully confiscated by the fascist regime. Nothing will make up for these losses. However, we as a civilized culture have a moral obligation to make restitution of the objects lost by living heirs. The restitution of art is not just about whether a piece of art belongs in a museum. It's about a statement against the wrongs of fascism.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Goodfellas Meets Wall Street: Explicit Sex, Mind-Numbing Drugs, Gobs of Money, and Endless Expletives
When I saw "Good Fellas" during its initial release in 1990, I thought I had seen the goriest violence (outside of a horror film) and linguistically filthiest language I had ever witnessed in a film. While "The Wolf of Wall Street" was not as graphic in the violence department, it makes "Good Fellas" seem tame in the language department. Also, the sex scenes are so over-the-top and explicit, this film probably would have garnered an X-rating a few decades ago. It was almost too much, but luckily the story was compelling enough and the excellent performances by Leonard DiCaprio and Jonah Hill convincing enough that it still works fairly well as satisfying cinema.
The film centers around true-to-life penny-stocks trader Jordan Belfort played by Leonardo DiCaprio and his associate Donnie Azoff (Johan Hill) and how they built a multi-million dollar penny-stocks mini-empire which not only violated SEC rules of trading but engaged in securities fraud and money laundering. In typical Scorsese style, the story begins with the voice-over of Belfort, telling his story about eight years of his life in penny stocks trading and eventual securities fraud through his firm Stratton Oakmont from circa 1988 to 1995. Four things seem to drive Belfort: endless sex, gobs of money, constant drug-induced highs, and the endless spewing of expletives.
Belfort begins his story by telling us about the wealth he has achieved engaging in penny-stocks trading. He has a beautiful wife, a beautiful home, a beautiful car (not red but white) and endless amounts of cash in the bank. He can also have his way with just about any woman he desires, and he does, despite the fact he's married to a beautiful model who has family connections to English/British royalty. He seems to have it all, but it wasn't always this way. Time rewinds to the late 1980's when he was married to a different woman while renting an apartment in New York and gets his first position at a stock broker firm. There he meets Mark Hanna (Michael McConaughey) who explains the rules of the game: solitary vices, sex, and getting as much money as possible from clients. This firm sells respectful grade-A stocks to wealthy shareholders. Shortly thereafter, the firm busts as a result of the infamous "Black Monday" crash of 1987.
Belfort then becomes part of a firm trading in penny stocks, worthless low-trading stocks which may or may not have tremendous investment potential. He trades in a so-called "boiler room", a place usually in a low-rent district which sells penny and risky investments to lower-end investors. The one upside is brokers of penny stocks earn a 50% commission than the usual 1% offered at respected brokerage firms. Then an idea occurs to him: what if they can trick higher-end traders to buy the many penny stocks? They'll trade the high-end stocks to higher-income investors, gain their trust, and then manipulate them into buying thousands of shares of penny stocks, i.e. worthless investments.
Donnie Azoff (i.e. Danny Porush) played by Jonah Hill, a neighbor in Belfort's apartment complex asks to be in the business and eventually becomes an important partner in the firm. They rename it Stratton Oakmont Inc. to sound more official and legitimate. The firm grows as a result which leads to an exposé in Forbes Magazine where the article labels him "The Wolf of Wall Street". As the money grows, so does Belfort's desires for more money, more sex, and more Methaqualone, or Quaaludes. And so does his need to use more expletives in practically every other word he utters. The story forms an arc about how he keeps gaining more and more, climbing higher and higher, but simultaneously digging himself a deeper in which to take a huge fall.
So many of the Scorsese devices are present in this film: the voice-over (as mentioned), introductions and short biographies of the major characters, in this case those working at the firm, the height of the characters' successes, all leading towards the climax in which authorities eventually enter the picture. The entire form and arc of the story closely resembles "Good Fellas" and "Casino". I would almost rate the film a "5", but it gets a "4", not because of what it leaves out but for having too much other things. I thought the many sex scenes and endless expletives became overwhelming. They started to detract from the main thrust of the story. There were parts where I wanted to understand better their financial schemes and see less of the sex. Also, Belfort engages in many speeches to his traders, some of which were too long-winded. Whenever the characters enjoy a major success, there would be along speech followed by a huge party and orgy-fest with lots of explicit sex bordering on pornography. I think once or twice would have been plenty, but the parties and orgies are so numerous I lost count. Still a compelling film with an outstanding performance by DiCaprio and honorable mention to Jonah Hill.
Der Untergang (2004)
The Crumbling of the Reich During Its Last Days from Hitler's Bunker: The Ideology Was More Difficult to Topple than Germany's Armies
According to the events of the film, which I assume are mostly accurate with some liberal aspects for cinematic effect, the ideology of the Nazi regime took much longer and was far more difficult to crumble than the buildings, infrastructure and military operations of the Third Reich. This film not only takes the viewer inside the bunker where Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in late April, 1945, it takes us inside the heads of the most loyal Nazis. And what we learn about these people is as terrifying in many ways as what the Nazis did to millions of people across Europe outside the confines of Hitler's final residence.
The structure begins and ends with an interview as cinematic bookends. A real-life survivor of the Reich who had been one of Hitler's private secretaries during the final years of the Third Reich, Traudl Junge, appears on screen. Now an old woman, she describes how she was enthralled to receive the opportunity to become a member of Hitler's inner circle. At the end, she alludes to the fact she didn't think for herself.
The narrative scenes begin in 1942 with Traudl Junge among a group of aspiring young women wishing to work for Adolph Hitler (Bruno Ganz), dictator and self-proclaimed savior of Germany. Not surprising, Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) is chosen for the job by the Führer himself. Then the film cuts to April 20, 1945, Hitler's 56th birthday. It's inevitable to everyone involved that not only is Germany going to lose the war against the allies, but Berlin is only days away from being taken by the Russian Army. Hitler's inner circle, including Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, insist that it's time for him, Eva Braun, and the rest of his inner circle to evacuate Berlin. Hitler refuses, claiming it would be a sign of cowardice and surrender. Before going underground, he awards Iron Crosses to members of "Hitler's Youth". Then he moves his operation into an underground bunker where he and his closest associates will try to keep the Reich together during its final days.
The events which transpire in this film are some of the most disturbing and devastating as any film about World War II and the Reich I've ever seen. While all the residents of the bunker, save the children of Goebbels, know the war and the Reich are coming to an anti-climactic but tragic end, they cling to their ideology like moths in front of a lighted bug zapper. They must have known in their heart-of-hearts that this was not going to end in their favor. However, they can't imagine life without the Reich and their Führer. He had become the acknowledged decision-maker, philosopher, and thinker for the entire country. In several scenes, the people around him acknowledge over and over again that only Hitler can make the decisions, no one else. And if they question him, or, God forbid, refuse his orders, they are labeled traitors, even in the face of impending destruction.
Barely a week and a half before Hitler and Eva Braun will commit suicide, Hitler is still barking orders, arresting wayward soldiers, and sentencing perceived traitorous officers and AWOL soldiers to death, as if he is still in charge of his country, even though the allies have by now taken most of Germany, and the Russians are on the outskirts of Berlin, a few kilometers away. He rants and raves to the highest officers in his command, chastising them for not winning the war. He instructs his officers to mobilize army units in other parts of the country, even though they have all been defeated by the allies. He continues with his maps and strategies, like a chess player contemplating his next move, even though his king has been surrounded and near checkmate. However, surrender is beyond him, even at the price of more killing and destruction. The real eye-opener is not that Hitler wouldn't let go of his ideology, but those around him couldn't bring themselves to stop following his orders.
In his final days and hours, according the film, Hitler never wavered from his ultimate ideology, even though the ideology itself is what led to the final demise of the Reich. His ideology for Germany was relatively simple: a national socialist government in which Hitler himself is absolute ruler without question or pause, and ethnic minorities, particularly Jews, Poles, and Gypsies have no place and must be swept aside. These ideas proved immoral and ruinous.
It's not surprising that Hitler failed to see his ideology not only meant the destruction of Europe and the deaths and suffering of millions, but it also meant the near destruction of Germany itself. What is surprising is that those around him couldn't see passed Hitler's madness. During many scenes, high-ranking members of his inner circle could have refused his orders to save the German people, but they did not. They were so hypnotized by his rhetoric and ideology they had no concept to believe they could make decisions to save Germany and deny the Führer his power. Most follow him to the very end, and the price some of them pay for this loyalty is almost unimaginable. Goebbels's wife in a moving scene breaks down because she can't bear the thought of the country being without its socialist ideology and dictator.
The tragedy of Germany and those most loyal to him and the Nazi cause was a blind refusal to see how their ideology was self-destructive rather than life-affirming. They believed in one leader who would do all the thinking for them and therefore they couldn't and shouldn't think for themselves. Such a tragedy that that leader happened to be Adolph Hitler. At one point, Goebbels says he has no sympathy for the country, since it was the country itself which allowed these madmen into power in the first place.
Possibly the Best First-Time Superhero Film Since Reeve's Superman of the 70's
The first time an iconic superhero flies across the big screen in his (or her) tights, cape and/or mask, the end product often has mixed results. The bar was set pretty high with the first "Superman" film starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, and Gene Hackman, still probably the finest superhero film ever produced. The first "Batman" film, directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton in the title role and Jack Nicholson as the Joker had problems, some wonderful moments in between lagging scenes. (Some people have called "Batman" the best mediocre film ever produced! Or is it the most mediocre film among good ones?) Either way, the end result may or may not hit the mark. Luckily, especially for fans of the original comic book, the first Spider-man film, based on the character created by Stan Lee, works on a level towards the original Superman film.
When you boil down the raw elements needed to create a good film, you need three things: a good premise, good actors, and a good screenplay. And let's not under-appreciate the last one. While a good screenplay still may save mediocre acting, often the opposite isn't true. In Spider-man, all three are present in spades. Let's look at them in terms of how they are portrayed in the current film.
The Premise. Well, the premise must be a good one because, since its inception in the 1960's, Spider-man has become one of the most important comic heroes alongside Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. However, Lee brought a bit of a twist to the character. Like other superhero characters who have some magic-like abilities, in this case the abilities of a spider inside a human body, Spider-man's alter-ego, Peter Parker is a troubled adolescent suffering from the typical angst of all young people around that age. Unlike Superman, Parker is still finding out where he fits in. In terms of the present film, the original premise, although updated slightly for the 21st century, is still adhered to. Parker/Spider-man is an angst-ridden kid, loving a faraway female, trying to navigate school, and dealing with bullies.
The Acting. The acting takes us right into the heads of the three most important characters: Spider-man/Peter Parker (Toby Maguire), the Green Goblin/Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), and Mary Jane Watson, a.k.a. MJ, (Kirsten Dunst). Maguire offers both the angst-riddled teen and the resolved superhero. I particularly appreciated the way he was portrayed in the film. Not a bad-looking kid but not a GQ cover model either. He's rather nerdy, a science wiz, like Lee had envisioned him, but not the best at getting dates. The absolute stand-out is Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin/Mr Osborne. Character actors like Dafoe, similar to Gene Hackman as Lex Luther, are the best suited to play villains. Dafoe is terrific as a kind of Marvel equivalent of Two-Face, having two sides to him. On one had he's the upper-crust businessman who's tough but confident. However, the other side, the Green Goblin side, emerges and confronts the "waking" self. He becomes a kind of split personality that few actors can pull off, and the scenes in which the two sides speak to one another are entirely believable. Also honorable mention to Dunst who is a very attractive high school girl but certainly not someone who will be entering teen beauty pageants. She attracts the likes of Peter Parker at a very human level.
The screenplay, probably the most important ingredient, works well, and much better than the Keaton/Burton "Batman". Parker is a typical high school kid just trying to navigate through school, being cared for by his adoptive uncle and aunt since the death of his parents. Then a strange circumstance changes his life: he's bitten by a radioactive spider which gives him spider-like abilities. A nice series of sequences shows him testing his new-found talents. At first Parker uses them to earn money in trashy athletic events, but then he switches gears and decides to use them to combat evil. Certainly we know this will be Spider-man's calling but a conversation with his uncle puts him on track, reminiscent of Brando as Superman's father.
On another front, the father of a friend of Parker's, Norman Osborne, is head of a tech company testing a machine which would improve human metabolism in soldiers, probably for the military, a bit like Captain America. Osborne built the company, but now the board of directors are selling the company out from under him. He retaliates by testing the metabolic-altering machine on himself and hence a different side emerges after the experiment. Simultaneously, there's Mary Jane, the distant love of Parker, who knows he exists but is dating a much more athletic and popular guy at school. Eventually, these three stories clash in a wonderful and believable climax. Parker becoming a crime-fighting disguised hero, Osborne becoming an adversary of Spider-man, and Dunst caught in the middle.
The story is about transformations. All three characters undergo transformation during the course of the story. Not all seem to relish this transformation and none of them understand fully what it means. Some of them embrace the transformation more than others, but in the end it's unclear whether or not the characters are better for what has happened to them. Two survive the transformation while another doesn't. And that's the mark of a great story: when what seems the inevitable outcome isn't quite what the characters and the audience foresaw. Ultimately, it comes down to caring about the characters and what transpires which evolves them into something else, be they heroic or villainous. Maybe that's the problem with many superhero films, the filmmakers forget that we need to be reminded to care about them, not just be awe-struck when they fly around.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Strangely Maybe the Best Fictional Sports Film of All-Time
While "Rocky" was about an athlete overcoming obstacles to pursue a dream, "The Natural" centered on an older man's comeback in professional sports, and "Jerry McGuire" told a story of transcendence between a sports agent and his fiery unpredictable client, "The Bad News Bears" focused much more on organic down-to-earth issues. Aside from films derived from real-life true stories, such as "42", "Hoosiers", and "Rudy", "The Bad News Bears" may be the most poignant fictional sports film ever produced. "The Bears" deals with prejudice, inequality, injustice, racism, and obsession, on one hand, while simultaneously searching and finding acceptance, bridge-building, and determination. Yet, the characters and setting are so real, the dialog so true-to-life, you don't realize you're being offered these larger ideas. They just emerge from the plight of the characters. Who knows whether or not the filmmakers were setting out to make a social statement, but they did which is the mark of a truly great story.
The essential plot is pretty basic. A group of junior high school age baseball players are thrown together to play on a team called "The Bears". They only have one thing in common: they are, for the most part, terrible. They can't pitch, they can't bat, and they can't field. Walter Matthau, in one of his best performances since "The Odd Couple", plays Morris Buttermaker, a swimming pool cleaner who is asked by a City Councilman to coach this team of athletically challenged misfits. The Councilman had filed a lawsuit against the city because the Little League was excluding players with less ability, and the Bears team was the city's "restitution", allowing less-skilled kids a chance to play the game.
What makes the film as good as it is has to do with the characters of the players as much as Matthau as Buttermaker. These kids were literally ripped right out of reality, and seem so similar to the kids I played with when I was of junior high age that it's almost scary. I can't name them all, but I offer a few of the ones which stick in my mind. In no particular oder: Toby, son of the councilman, who's probably the most vocal of the kids, Ogilvie, the most intellectual of the boys but not the best player, Amanda, their best pitcher and the only female in the league, Kelly, the trouble-maker who smokes and rides a Harley but is an amazing outfielder and hitter, Tanner, my favorite character, the shortest but craziest of the team who would give Napoleon Bonaparte a run for his money when he takes on the entire 7th grade. He defends Lupus against some bullies at one point in the film. Lupus is perhaps the worst player on the team and shows little knowledge of social decorum. At first Tanner and the others are put-off by Lupus, but at one point the team appreciates him.
At first, there seems little hope for this group of unskilled oddballs when they're slaughtered during their first game. However, as the film progresses we learn more about the characters and how they start to pull for one another. Several of the Bears are either dismissed or harassed at various moments in the story, and the teammates begin to learn to stick up for one another, both on and off the field. As a result they slowly begin to play better. Even Buttermaker changes during the story. At first he's not the best coach, but he starts to see things in his players the other teams around the league don't see. We also witness the obsession and over-zealousness of the parents, whose attitude becomes more about the kids winning than simply experiencing the game. In the climactic final game, Buttermaker makes a realization which is as profound as any in sports films of this type.
This is just an incredible story which says much more about modern culture, particularly about young people, then it may have set out to do. The dialog seems like it was derived right out of a junior high school baseball diamond. While most child characters speak dialog which is unrelated to their age and experience, the script of the Bad News Bears must have come from the mouths of babes, literally. I imagine the screenwriters must have spent time at actual Little League games and written down the dialog. The ending is one of the best in all of sports films, and it is not only completely believable but it fits with the rhetoric of the entire film. An absolute breath of fresh air, especially if you're tired of those fictional sports films where you can guess the outcome.