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
After becoming the first woman ever to receive a Best Director Oscar for the 2009 teeth-rattler The Hurt Locker, the world anxiously awaited to see what director Kathryn Bigelow would produce next. It turned out that the next project she would tackle was Zero Dark Thirty, another War on Terror thriller that follows America’s efforts to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. Sparking controversy over the filmmaker’s access to classified information and its depiction of torture, Zero Dark Thirty could possibly be one of the most important American films of recent memory simply because it supposedly spills the facts that every single American is dying to know. While the debate still rages over whether the film is accurate, I can confirm that Zero Dark Thirty puts the viewer through the ringer, touching upon every single emotion that was collectively felt as a country from September 11th, 2001 through May 2nd, 2011. It begins with horror and confusion, opting to plunge the audience into the darkness of that terrifying day in September while frantic phone calls blare over the speakers and then instantly morphing into rage, then fatigue, then desperation, then hopelessness, and finally surreal relief. Despite how strong the picture is, Bigelow doesn’t drill into white-knuckle intensity as frequently as she did in 2009, leaving The Hurt Locker the true victor of the two films.
Zero Dark Thirty picks up in 2003 and introduces us to Maya (Played by Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer who is sent to work hand-in-hand with fellow officer Dan (Played by Jason Clarke) in Pakistan. Together, Maya and Dan torture and interrogate terrorist financer Ammar (Played by Reda Kateb) about the Saudi Group and the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. After a series of brutal interrogations, Maya and Dan finally trick Ammar into revealing more information about al-Qaeda and the name of bin Laden’s most trusted carrier: Abu Ahmed. With this new information and a blessing from station chief Joseph Bradley (Played by Kyle Chandler), Maya and Dan begin trying to locate Abu Ahmed but conflicting stories and information from other prisoners continuously prevent them from finding him. As the years pass and multiple dead ends are hit, the CIA’s determination to end the War on Terror begins to fade but Maya remains dedicated to smoking out Abu Ahmed and tracking down bin Laden any way she can.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline information overload. It is certainly hypnotic in its intimate moments of plan and debate and pinning in its suspense but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal always seem to find a way to remain politically neutral. They acknowledge the shift in approaches between George Bush and Barack Obama but they always leave you, the viewer, to form your own opinions on their approaches to this complex war. The film presents a horrifically brutal interrogation that will have your stomach tied in knots only to immediately cut to a bloody al-Qaeda terrorist attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which leaves multiple Americans dead. It is this staggering balance that will have the blood boiling and stirring up some lengthy conversations long after Bigelow closes the curtains on this manhunt, which to me is the mark of a really great motion picture. You can’t help but ask yourself or those you see the movie with, was torturing these men really the right answer? Was water boarding really necessary? Did humiliating them really get us any farther? Does torture really make us any better than the ones we are fighting? Bigelow leaves it up to you decide and she knows that these questions get under our skin.
The one who watches over this moral firestorm is Chastain’s Maya, a quiet yet self-assured CIA officer who will stop at nothing to take down the ultimate target. She is the iron lady standing tall next to a 100% guarantee that bin Laden is hiding in this mysterious compound in a room full of men who cower behind a soft 60%. She is simply magnetic the way sticks to her guns, chasing down every lead, and terrifying as she sharpens her torture skills, coldly detached when she warns one prisoner, “if you lie to me, I will hurt you.” Is she Oscar worthy? You bet she is. While Zero Dark Thirty verges on a one-woman show, the guys hold up okay too. Chastain finds a groove with Clarke, her disheveled partner who takes cigarette and ice cream cone breaks from the business-as-usual torture/interrogation. The casual manner that he approaches these situations does send a chill down your spine. He is constantly trying to escape Chastain’s engulfing shadow but he proves he can be one tough cookie when he needs to be. Chandler continues to prove he is the dark horse with a testy performance as Joseph Bradley, the station chief who dares cross Chastain’s ball of fury. I still cannot believe that he has not fully broken out yet but hopefully Zero Dark Thirty will help him become a household name. James Gandolfini drops by to play CIA director Leon Panetta, who is consistently impressed by the firecracker that is Maya. Chris Pratt (Parks & Recreation) and Joel Edgerton are also on board as Navy Seal Justin and Red Squadron Team Leader Patrick. Both are given minor roles but Pratt brings the funnies and Edgerton brings the macho toughness you expect.
So you’re probably wondering, how exactly does Bigelow handle the climatic raid on that compound? She handles it like a pro, filming in gritty night vision as the SEALs move stealthily from one floor of the compound to the next. Even though we know how this is all going to turn out, Bigelow still keeps you on the edge of your seat and holding your breath in spots, especially when the SEALs begin to draw the attention of the people living around the compound. Bigelow continues to jolt the viewer with sudden movement, shadows dashing for cover, and even return fire. This is all complimented by children’s cries as bodies fall limp and the women dive onto the bodies of these fallen terrorists and weep, “YOU’VE KILLED HIM!” When it comes to the money shot, with bin Laden staring down the barrel of a gun, it was handled quite differently than I expected. It is all a bit sudden, blurred, and even slightly surreal, something you really need to see for yourself. The wall of emotions that come crashing down after the shots are fired are really something else but they get tangled in the mad dash to get out of the compound as quickly as possible. The sequence is a real nail biter.
Sadly, Zero Dark Thirty has been attacked by the left as a pro torture film and dismissed by the right as simply left-wing propaganda to make President Obama’s administration look heroic. While I can imagine that some of the events that play out on the screen are fabricated for the sake of drama and action, I really wish people would leave their politics at the door when viewing the film. I admire the film because it has the guts to include it all and then leave it up for debate. Bigelow and Boal are practically screaming at you to view it as it as is and form your own decisions about what you see. It should also be noted that Bigelow and Boal dare to slice the tension in spots and actually make us laugh, something that they were not overly enthusiastic to do in the relentlessly serious The Hurt Locker. Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is an aggressive and massively essential thriller that is ripe with hard-boiled performances and brooding tension. It is a film that every American should see.
by Steve Habrat
Did you ever think that Ben “Gigli” Affleck would become a respected Hollywood director who now has three great films under his directing belt? Yeah, I would have never guessed that either, especially after also seeing Reindeer Games and Daredevil. I thought he was doomed for the bargain bin but over the years, he slowly climbed onto the A-list by carefully choosing roles that would repair the damage done to his career by J. Lo and J. Gar. I was seriously impressed with his 2010 Boston heist thriller The Town and left wondering what Mr. Affleck would deliver to us next. Now we have his political/hostage thriller and Hollywood send up Argo, which is based on recently declassified events. Vacillating between chuckle-worthy jabs at Hollywood and their big budget copycat projects and knee-jerking suspense set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Affleck smoothly explores jaw-dropping history (with tweaks here and there) while measuring out a pinch of nostalgia for cinema buffs (that retro Warner Bros. logo stamped on the beginning of the movie). Basically, Argo is one of the best films of the year, a real crowd pleaser brimming with starry-eyed jingoism and unmatchable performances that all deserve to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They sort of owe Affleck one, especially after overlooking The Town for a Best Picture nomination.
Argo begins on November 4th, 1979, with militants storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the U.S. provided shelter for the recently deposed Shah. All the employees inside the embassy are taken hostage but six lucky ones manage to escape to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Played by Victor Garber). With the group’s safety in question, the U.S. State Department begins devising ways to pull the group out without getting them killed. The State Department calls in Tony Mendez (Played by Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist who has had experience in getting people out of nasty situations. One evening while watching Battle of the Planet of the Apes with his son, Mendez gets the idea to use the story that the group is actually a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo. After finally convincing his cranky supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Played by Bryan Cranston), the two get in contact with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (Played by John Goodman) and sleazy film producer Lester Siegel (Played by Alan Arkin) to help them create a fake movie. As Mendez and his team race to make the Star Wars knockoff seem as authentic as possible, the militants begin to suspect that some of the employees escaped right before the embassy was stormed and they set out to track down every last escapee.
While Argo never does much to really shake the viewer out of the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before in thrillers past, Affleck still gets a free pass with the idea that these events really took place (you can’t deny real life heroics). He may manipulate here and there for effect and granted, it works for dramatics, but it is such a crazy slice of reality that you easily ignore the predictable beat. And while the thrills may be familiar, they feel like they are cranked up to eleven. Affleck’s previous films had plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments and hold-your-breath action and Argo is no different. You’ll tense up every time the film leaves U.S. soil and ventures into chaotic Tehran. Affleck never misses a moment to capture the agony and fear that those six Americans were feeling as they waited for a way out of their extremely dangerous situation. And just wait until the end escape; with Affleck and the shaky six as they march through an airport loaded with steely-eyed guards sniffing out Americans. These scenes are the work of someone who truly understands suspense and how to put the viewer through the ringer. Affleck breaks up this suspense with witty moments of hilarity as Arkin and Goodman deadpan about the Hollywood studio system. The comic moments are a much-needed break from the somber warnings of life and death (bodies hang from cranes in the streets of Tehran, a grim reminder that the stakes are high) and give the film a flamboyant quirk.
Further making Argo a must-see are the performances from the main players, all of which are Oscar worthy, in my humble opinion. Affleck has never been better as the weary CIA escape artist Mendez, who rarely sees his son and turns to a bottle of hard liquor when things aren’t going quite his way. Cranston is his usual rock hard self as he O’Donnell, Mendez’s boss who can unleash fury like you wouldn’t believe when the chips are down. I’m still amazed that Cranston quietly flies under the A-list radar but he manages to do it. I just wonder when this guy is going to explode. Goodman is fantastic as make-up artist Chambers, who squints through oversized glasses and burns through lines like, “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!” It is a dream come true when he is paired up with Arkin as the smart aleck film producer Siegel. Arkin doesn’t stray from his usual cranky demeanor and it fits perfectly when he declares, “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” His best moment comes when he snarls, “Argo fuck yourself!” Kyle Chandler (King Kong, Super 8) also drops by and really sizzles as Hamilton Jordan, the Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter. He’s another one, along with Cranston, who is on the verge of really breaking out but just stays low-key.
Argo never ceases to amaze considering all the different styles that Affleck blends together throughout its two-hour runtime. The scenes where Mendez and his team sit inside earth toned government offices and suck on Pall Malls seem like they were ripped out of any political drama from the 1970’s. There is a warm affection for classic science fiction and forgotten B-movies from the mangy days of Hollywood, when trash was king. There is a chilling urgency and grainy realism to the scenes where the Iranian revolutionaries rock the gates to the U.S. embassy before storming over and breaking in. It’s all a bit too unsettling, especially with recently events in Benghazi filling the evening news. Yet nothing clashes in this liberally charged plea for peaceful approaches to violent conflicts. It is a virtually flawless film that leaves you stunned that this outlandish idea actually saved the lives of six Americans. Politics aside, Argo is certainly going to be an awards season darling when the race for Best Picture begins. It is astonishingly consistent (not one scene seems wasted or useless), staggeringly hopeful even in its darkest moments, and beautifully acted at every turn. I can’t wait to see what Affleck does next.