by Steve Habrat
Just a few short weeks ago, director David O. Russell brought us American Hustle, a sexy, cool, and confident look at a bunch of leisure-suited misfits trying to obtain the good life in the amber glow of the late 1970s. Fast-forward the clocks to the late 1980s and enter legendary director Martin Scorsese with his equally sexy, cool, and confident The Wolf of Wall Street, another comical tale about a money-hungry American who will do whatever it takes to live in the lap of luxury, even if that means breaking the law to do it. At an epic three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is a slap of energetic entertainment that finds Scorsese at his absolute raunchiest, using the true story of Jordan Belfort as his road map through sex, drugs, and, well, even more sex and drugs. The ringleader at the center of this sleazy circus is Leonardo DiCaprio, who sinks his teeth into the role of Belfort with ravenous comedic fury and an Oscar statute burning in his twinkling eyes. DiCaprio has never seemed hungrier for the award, which makes the word “Wolf” in the title very fitting. While this may be DiCaprio’s show, coming up hot on his heels is Jonah Hill, who delivers another surprising performance as Belfort’s business partner, Donnie Azoff.
The Wolf of Wall Street picks up in 1987 and introduces us to young Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who has just been hired in as an intern at a firm run by Mark Hana (played by Matthew McConaughey). Hana takes an immediate liking to the up-and-coming Belfort, so he decides to take him under his wing and recommend that Belfort embrace a lifestyle of sex and drugs to get him through the workday. Things seem to be going smoothly under Hana, but Belfort ends up on the street after the firm closes in the wake of Black Monday. Determined to find another job, Belfort, with the help of his young wife, Teresa (played by Cristin Milioti), finds a job at Investor Center, a hole-in-the-wall business that specializes in pink slip stocks. Belfort quickly excels with this new company, making a small fortune that allows him to buy a flashy sports car and live comfortably. One day, Belfort is approached by Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), an owl-eyed salesman who is curious about what Belfort does for a living. The two strike up a fast friendship and together, they decide to open their own firm, Stratton Oakmont, which rakes in millions by using Belfort’s aggressive business tactics. The employees of Stratton Oakmont begin to embrace Belfort’s wild lifestyle, which is dominated with sex, drugs, and wild office parties, all of which catch the attention of Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler), an FBI agent convinced that Belfort is up to no good. Belfort is able to keep the FBI off his back for a while, but when he starts laundering money from the company to pay for his lavish lifestyle, Denham closes in and threatens to bring down Belfort and his merry inner circle.
The Wolf of Wall Street’s main focus is Belfort’s insatiable hunger for wealth and luxury, two things he obtains very quickly. Yet Scorsese explores Belfort’s excessive lifestyle in a comical light, making it seem almost cartoonish as marching bands parade through his office, hookers sprint topless through the cubicles, businessmen snort up cocaine like vacuum cleaners, and sex parties suddenly erupt in the bathroom. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Belfort starts his career on an honest note, refusing to sip martinis and do cocaine with Hana while the two dine on a four-star lunch that overlooks New York City. Yet you can see that Belfort is intrigued by all the flesh and powder dangled in front of him. He resists it at first, acknowledging it with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders, but after sticking a crack pipe in his mouth, he is sent into overdrive and the endless shower of money makes it impossible for him to control his debauchery. When the parties get bigger, the drugs gets stronger, the women get prettier, and the behavior gets even more reckless, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes absolutely revolting and hilarious in equal measures. One of the more shocking moments comes when the employees of Stratton Oakmont gather at a beachfront mansion for a gonzo party that culminates with a drugged and drooling Azoff coming up with the idea to approach up-and-coming show designer Steve Madden about allowing the company to sell shares of his company’s stock, Belfort meeting the beautiful Naomi Lapaglia (played by Margot Robbie), and the belligerent Azoff pleasuring himself to the gorgeous Naomi in front of the entire party. It’s unruly and downright hilarious in its extremity, showing off just how monstrous money and power can make people.
As Belfort, DiCaprio becomes a party animal that would make Jay Gatsby blush. Once he snorts that little white line, pops the Quaalude, and downs a glass of wine, he becomes a wrecking ball that just can’t be stopped. Naturally, he develops a drinking and drug problem, at one point proclaiming that he refuses to die sober while aboard a smashing and crashing yacht. He’s wildly materialistic, chuckling at the suggestion that some of the dishes aboard his overdone yacht may get smashed in a particularly bump journey. When he isn’t busy destroying his Lamborghini, he is preoccupied with flying his helicopter home from a hookers-and-cocaine binge that results in him almost crashing the chopper into his home. When the FBI begins breathing down his neck, he contemplates bowing out of his company to avoid prison time, but in the heat of the moment, he just can’t say no to making even more money, something that he already has more than enough of. His destructive and disgusting behavior is egged on by his employees, who look at him like a pin-stripped god that has taken them all to millionaire heaven. Yet through it all, you can’t help but sort of like Belfort, even if he is a brash show-off who won’t listen to anyone. DiCaprio makes him a beam of charisma, even when he is dry humping a stewardess, laughing in the face of the law, or slithering his way out of the local country club in a daze.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, Hill never shies away from the ad-libbed humor that he has become known for. He lobs zingers as the equally excessive Azoff, a foul-mouthed salesman who is married to his cousin and who likes to party just as much as Belfort. McConaughey continues his hot streak as Hana, a fast-talking broker who demands martinis brought to him in rapid succession and who recommends that Belfort embrace a destructive lifestyle of sex and drugs to survive Wall Street. Robbie fogs up the screen as the beautiful Naomi, a goddess who loves money and nose candy just as much as Belfort does. Chandler is bullish and straightforward as Denham, the FBI agent who is convinced that Belfort may not be as squeaky clean as he likes to pretend to be. The secondary players consist of P.J. Byrne as Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff, another close friend of Belfort who proudly wears an atrocious headpiece. The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal stops by as Brad Bodnick, a juiced-up drug dealer who helps Belfort sneak cash into a Swiss bank account. The Artist’s Jean Dujardin turns up as Jean-Jacques Saurel, a Swiss banker who flashes false grins at the desperate Belfort. Rob Reiner gives a snappy performance as Max Belfort, Jordan’s father who tries to keep the boys of Stratton Oakmont in check. In smaller roles, Jon Favreau stops by as Manny Riskin, a seedy lawyer hired to keep Jordan out of prison, and even filmmaker Spike Jonez pokes in as Dwayne, the geeky Investor Center manager who hires Belfort.
In true Scorsese form, The Wolf of Wall Street is a snazzy piece of filmmaking that tickles your peepers with hilarious slow-motion shots, characters talking directly to the audience, and wicked narration from Mr. DiCaprio. Given that the film clocks in at nearly three hours, you’d assume that there may be one or two places where the picture is dragging its feet, but the endless scenes of wild parties never loose their bite, humor, or their entertainment value. You just can’t wait to see what grandiose act Belfort commits next. Scorsese also keeps each and every scene as stylized as possible, making the entire experience go by in a flash. Overall, while it may not be quite as sharp as American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street is still a raunchy examination of a man who had everything but still demanded more, more, more. You’ll find yourself buzzed by the racy script from Terence Winter, elated performances from DiCaprio and Hill, and a stinging sense of black humor that keeps you in stitches even when it threatens to cross the line into the inappropriate. The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, shiny Christmas gift from one of the greatest American directors alive.
by Steve Habrat
Since its release in 2003, Marvel’s big screen adaptation of the lesser-known Daredevil has gained the reputation of being a downright stinker of a movie with a cringe-inducing Ben Affleck as the blind crime fighter. Daredevil isn’t nearly as bad as it has been made out to be. It is merely a decent movie that does have its fair share of flaws. Reeking of Matrix-esque fight sequences with a hints of Spider-Man and Batman thrown in, Daredevil is a clunky film set to awful wannabe grunge rock that was all the rage in 2003, but there are still a number of aspects to admire. Affleck molds the blind lawyer Matt Murdock into a captivating character who is more interesting during the day when he is fighting crime in the courtroom than when he is prowling the streets as the teeth-gnashing vigilante dressed up in red leather. Capitalizing on the popularity of 2002’s Spider-Man, director Mark Steven Johnson works hard to make something that is faithful to the comic lore (many shots are taken directly from the comics) but he trims his origin story down to a brief hour and forty minutes, too in a rush to get to the action and leaving several major characters and a romance underdeveloped.
Daredevil begins by flashing back to the troubled childhood of Matt Murdock (Played by Scott Terra), a nerdy kid from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Much like Spider-Man, Murdock is the target of neighborhood bullies who like to toss him around like a ragdoll. At home, his father is a washed-up boxer named Jack “The Devil” Murdock (Played by David Keith), who relives his glory days by guzzling countless bottles of beer and drunkenly rambling to Matt about fights he won and why it is important to get an education. Matt suspects his dad is working as an enforcer for a local mobster and his suspicions are confirmed when he bumps into his dad roughing up a local hood in an alley. Fleeing in horror, Matt stumbles into a construction yard and proceeds to be blinded by toxic waste in a freak accident. Matt’s father blames himself for the accident and the two make a silent promise to each other to never give up and better themselves. Shortly after the accident, Matt begins to discover that his other four senses are operating at superhuman strength and give him a radar-like sight, which he uses to stand up to neighborhood bullies. Matt’s father begins boxing again but he finds that he is unable to walk cleanly away from the mob. After Jack refuses to throw a fight, he is beaten to death in an alley by a towering enforcer who likes to leave roses on the bodies of his victims. The devastated Matt silently vows to find the people responsible for the death of his father and he assumes the identity of Daredevil, the man without fear.
Part Spider-Man and part Batman, Daredevil doesn’t really have any superpowers to speak of. He uses sound waves to create a radar sight to help him locate and knock out bad guys throwing punches his way. He leaps around the rooftops dressed in a goofy red getup that does have a slight DIY feel to it despite its silliness. Matt doesn’t stop fighting crime when the sun comes up. By day, he paces a courtroom as a lousy attorney who shouts, “Justice is blind!” When Affleck doesn’t have a mask pulled over his face, he is fascinating to watch as a blind man. We watch him perform daily rituals that help him get around the bustling New York City streets. He folds his money in different ways to help him figure out if he is reaching for a ten or a five and crams prescription painkillers into his mouth to help ease the pain of injuries that he suffers at night. You will genuinely like him as Matt Murdock and you will relish the moments he shares with Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Played by Jon Favreau), his chatty partner who likes to get drunk with Matt and describe beautiful women they encounter on the street. Together they are the saviors of Daredevil with their chuckle-worthy conversations and pranks they pull on each other.
Naturally, Daredevil has a love interest by the name of Elektra Natchios (Played by Jennifer Garner), a stunning Greek beauty that can hold her own in a schoolyard brawl. Daredevil does hint at a substantial romance between Murdock and Elektra but it doesn’t hold together once Elektra’s father is slain by the Irish hitman Bullseye (Played by Colin Farrell). Bullseye is hired by the hulking mobster William Fisk/The Kingpin (Played by Michael Clarke Duncan), a ruthless gangster who oversees organized crime in New York City and may be responsible for Jack Murdock’s death. In a rage, Elektra almost instantly morphs into a superhero herself and then disappears from the film like she was never there to begin with. Bullseye is easily the coolest character in the film, a resourceful bad boy who likes Guinness, has a nasty brand on his forehead, and can turn anything he touches into a deadly weapon. Farrell’s enthusiasm for the role is contagious as he slinks around hissing at our horned hero. The Kingpin is supposed to be the main villain of Daredevil but we hear about him more than we actually see him. He is probably on the screen a total of twenty minutes, making him more of a gigantic disappointment.
At its core, Daredevil is a gritty tale that is loaded with untapped potential. The opening flashback of the film is thrown off by lame acting from the child actors, removing us from the moment entirely. I am also bothered by the wiry action sequences, where the actors go spinning effortlessly through the air with no explanation at all. It is painfully obvious they are dangling from wires and it is sloppily executed. Daredevil could have also used more of The Kingpin, a mildly frightening villain who could have been even more menacing had we gotten to know him a little bit better. We have to take into consideration that Daredevil was made in a time where the superhero genre was experiencing some growing pains, many filmmakers viewing them as mere escapist thrill rides that were heavy with wild action scenes and perfect CGI. To be fair, Daredevil attempts to put more emphasis into the characters when they don’t have their masks on and I will give it credit for that but we still have to like the costumed hero and I can honestly say Affleck lost it for me when he was wearing the horns. Overall, it was a step in the dark direction for superhero films and it does feature some fine performances, but the skimpy runtime prevents Daredevil from having the depth it is so convinced it has.
by Steve Habrat
With 2008’s Iron Man, director Jon Favreau set the bar extremely high for the Iron Man franchise. While it left us all starving for more of the cocky hero, there was the feeling that if there is a sequel, it will most likely be unable to live up to the stellar first installment in the series. My fears were slightly confirmed in summer 2010 when I rushed out on my birthday to see Iron Man 2, which ended up being one notch below the original Iron Man. Sadly, Iron Man 2 was an even more expensive trailer for the upcoming Avengers film and not even really bothering to act as it’s own film. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Iron Man 2. It was clear that Favreau and Marvel Studios rushed the sequel into production and they simply drew up a loose story just so audiences wouldn’t have to wait until 2012 to see Iron Man rocket across the screen again. It was also apparent that nobody wanted to tinker with a good thing. Iron Man 2 tries desperately to capture the same clinking and clanging action, the sweet romance, and the clever laughs that made the original such a must-see, but there is too much interference from Marvel which takes some of the flesh and blood out of all the studio steel.
Iron Man 2 picks up with the world at peace in the wake of the Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.) revealing the Iron Man armor to the world. The U.S. government is harassing Stark to hand over his Iron Man armor over to authorities but Stark maintains that it is his own property and all the other foreign competitors are miles away from emulating his powerful weapon. Stark is also finds himself harassed by rival defense contractor Justin Hammer (Played by Sam Rockwell) who desperately wants to create his own line of armor of his own. While racing in the Circuit de Monaco, Stark is attacked by a mysterious man named Ivan Vanko (Played by Mickey Rourke), who has designed a powerful suit of armor of his own with lethal whip-like contraptions hanging from his arms. It turns out that Vanko’s father was an old partner of Stark’s father Howard, who was deported after he tried to profit from technology that he worked on with Howard Stark. Hammer takes notice of what Vanko has done and he recruits him to create a line of deadly drones that he can unleash on Stark. Stark, meanwhile, finds himself slowly being poisoned by the palladium core in the arc reactor that keeps him alive.
Iron Man 2 introduces us to two new characters including S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson, who showed up in a brief cameo in Iron Man) and secret agent Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (Played by Scarlett Johansson), who acts as Stark’s new personal assistant. Both Fury and Romanoff are present in Iron Man 2 to simply allow the film to set up Iron Man’s place in the Avengers film rather than actually enrich the whole experience. While it is a neat Easter egg for diehard Marvel Comics fans, at times Romanoff seems a bit irrelevant in all the action, as she posseses the bigger role in the film over Fury. This is the exact problem with Iron Man 2, it reeks of studio involvement and control. It is very clear that Marvel demanded Favreau work these characters in at any cost and it takes a minor amount of the enjoyment out of this film. I wish things had felt more natural, much like they did in the original Iron Man. The one character that is allowed to grow is Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played this time by Don Cheadle), who gets his wish to don the Mark II suit with some pretty hefty modifications and transforms into the scene stealing War Machine. Cheadle outshines all the forced characters that have been worked into Iron Man 2 and I loved it when Favreau would explore the destructive friendship between him and Stark.
Robert Downey, Jr. also gets the chance to build upon his raucous playboy Tony Stark, taking him down the darker routes that the first film slyly avoided. In Iron Man 2, Stark realizes that he is near death from the palladium core in his chest. He desperately searches for a new design but he also has accepted his death and he is determined to live out his last days in boozy style. In the comic books, Stark was a big drinker and it was nice to see Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux work that aspect into the film. I know many fans were upset that this aspect of Tony Stark was glossed over in the original film. At times, Stark’s one-liners seem a bit forced and frankly not as sharp as they were in the original film. Further troubling, Downey, Jr. seems like he is pushing the funnies out rather than allowing them to flow naturally. Nonetheless, he is still having a great time as Stark and his enjoyment is incredibly infectious.
Iron Man 2 ends up getting a handful of juiced up bad guys to terrorize Tony Stark. Mickey Rourke shines as the vengeful Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, a frankly much neater villain than Iron Monger (I did enjoy Bridges!). The electrifying showdown between him and Stark at Circuit de Monaco steals the entire movie and had me on the edge of my seat when I first saw it. Equally cool is the snide Justin Hammer, who desperately wants to upstage Stark and humiliate him. Rockwell is basically filling the businessman villain role that was left open from the first film and he does it with just as much enthusiasm as Bridges did. Paltrow also returns in a stronger role than she had in Iron Man, finding herself promoted to CEO as Stark Industries and courted by the stumbling Stark. Favreau and Theroux still can’t help themselves and once again find it necessary to toss her in harm’s way, making her character flirt with the typical superhero girlfriend in distress.
Iron Man 2 attempts to be bigger than the original film, with bigger showdowns, more armored brawlers, extended action, and spiced up special effects. I wish that Iron Man 2 would have taken on a personality of its own and Marvel would have backed off the project. I feel that if Favreau wouldn’t have had Marvel breathing down his back, there may have been a different outcome. Yet there is still fun to be found in Iron Man 2, especially the final battle with Iron Man and War Machine battling a group of deadly drones created Hammer and Whiplash. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 did not feel the need to convert itself into 3D, which I think was a wise decision since 3D was all the rage (and still is) at the time. Overall, there is a bit of magic missing in Iron Man 2 and that is mostly because the film goes through the same song and dance that the first film did, just building slightly on its character which I suppose is a positive. It’s no Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight but Iron Man 2 is still a spirited follow-up to its predecessor.
Iron Man 2 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
There is no question that Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man is one of the best Marvel Studios films out there. It’s a rollicking good time with an incredibly poised and charismatic hero carrying the whole project to dizzying heights that I never thought possible. Iron Man, which clocks in at a speedy hour and fifty-five minutes, remains light and breezy for much of its runtime, never wandering into any overly dark territory or dealing with subject matter that will whiz over the heads of younger viewers, which is who this is all clearly aimed at. Yet Favreau and his army of screenwriters ground Iron Man in the modern world where terrorism is very much alive and deadly, giving the film a level of relevance that makes things interesting for the older viewers. What makes Iron Man such a great film is that is manages to strike a perfect balance of hearty belly laughs, steamy love story, and heavy metal action that will please every man, woman, or child out there. To make things even better, Favreau populates his film with a remarkably strong supporting cast, all who make sure that Iron Man never has a monotonous moment. Iron Man also happens to be the comeback vehicle for Robert Downey, Jr., who cheerfully embraces clanking around in a red and yellow iron suit, zipping around destroying weapons of mass destruction and trading punches with the dreaded Obadiah Stane.
Iron Man introduces us to wealthy playboy and genius Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), head of Stark Industries, a weapons defense company that he inherited from his father. Stark loves a strong drink, a beautiful woman on his arm, and to vocalize how great he really is. Stark travels to Afghanistan to show off his menacing new weapon called the “Jericho” missile and while there, Stark and his military bodyguards are ambushed. Party boy Stark is kidnapped by a terrorist organization called the Ten Rings, who demand that Stark build them their own “Jericho” missile and in return that will free him. Instead, Stark builds a heavily armed iron suit that allows him to barely escape with his life. Upon returning the United States, Stark attempts to regain control of his company from Obadiah Stane (Played by Jeff Bridges), his father’s old business partner and company manager. Stark declares that Stark Industries will no longer produce weapons, which upsets Stane and sends the media into a frenzy. Stark also reunites with his pretty and uptight secretary assistant Pepper Pots (Played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and his close friend and military liaison Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played by Terrence Howard). After Stark learns that weapons made by Stark Industries were provided to the Ten Rings, Stark begins building a modified suit of armor to set out and destroy the weapons that were provided to the terrorists. Soon, Stark realizes that there may be a traitor close to him who is upset with Stark’s decision to change the course of the company and is working on a deadly suit of armor of his own.
Iron Man never shies away from what it truly is, a sleek summer blockbuster meant to slap a big smile across your face. It succeeds in doing just that, even on repeat viewings. You’ll still chuckle during the first disastrous tests of the Iron Man suit or when Stark throws a witty one liner your way. My personal favorite is when Stark would interact with his robot helpers, who are all fond of blasting him with fire extinguishers. The action sequences are finely tuned with wondrous CGI and rock ‘em-sock ‘em force, leaving you clamoring to see the next action packed situation Iron Man finds himself in. Iron Man isn’t all razzle-dazzle, as the film does offer up a true original in the character of Tony Stark, who has to go form uncaring playboy to embracing what he was destined to become. The fact that Downey, Jr. makes Stark come alive is what makes Iron Man the titan that it is. You begin to feel like you actually know this guy, which makes it even easier to root for him. His transformation is rocky at first, but that is part of what makes Tony so human and win our hearts. He has trouble adjusting from nonstop party boy to a man heavy with responsibility.
While this is Downey Jr.’s show, the background players make sure that you walk away from Iron Man remembering their presence too. Paltrow is smoking as Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts, who at times I feel isn’t really given that much to do by Favreau and his screenwriters (Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway). She is basically asked to just chase Stark around and shake her head at his childish actions but she does it well. I enjoyed her awkward love story with Stark, another aspect that adds a little flesh and blood to Iron Man. Terrence Howard is his usually top notch self as Rhodes, who tries to be the voice of reason and authority to the free-spirited Stark. The die hard fans will also get a money moment when Rhodes checks out one of the prototype Iron Man suits and makes a comment that hints that War Machine may show up in latter installments. The most surprising turn here is Jeff Bridges as the baddie Obadiah Stane, who whips up an iron suit of his own and becomes Iron Monger. It was great to see Bridges, who shaved his head and grew a beard for the role, get to play antagonist for a change. At times his role seems a bit familiar (a sinister business man), but Bridges seems to be having a grand time in all the superhero chaos and he does such a memorable job, you’ll forgive if some aspects of his character slightly derivative.
Director Favreau smartly gives Iron Man a human heart, which helps to win ours over. While it is obviously a set up for the future Avengers movie, this installment of Iron Man does seem to have a life of its own outside of being an overly expensive trailer for what is to come. Iron Man does come with a few scuffs in the armor, mostly the final battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger, which seems suspiciously short for all of the build up. I have to suspect that Marvel may have held back a bit and viewed Iron Man as sort of a test run to see how audiences would react. It turned out that they had a new Spider-Man on their hands and that they had something that we didn’t know we wanted to see. The main reason to see Iron Man is for Downey Jr.’s comeback. This is the role that placed him back on the A-list and put him in high demand for countless other projects. A superhero classic and one of the best that you will see, Iron Man is a feisty and playful escape that you won’t mind returning to time and time again.
Iron Man is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.