Catching Up With: Boyhood – 2014

 

“I was open to pain and crossed by the rain and I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and come out with my soul untouched
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd, but when they said, “Sit down,” I stood up
Ooh… growin’ up.”

-Bruce Springsteen

Richard Linklater loves time, or at least he loves making films in which people reckon with moments past, currently happening or about to happen off on some indeterminate horizon. Whether it’s high-schoolers trapped in Texas and the mid-70’s in “Dazed and Confused,” two tourists gallivanting across Europe and the stages of romance in the “Before” trilogy, Linklater has no issue letting his camera just hang back and watch two people wax nostalgically, poetically, fearfully, hopefully, whatever kind of wax it is, this Texan auteur thinks it’s necessary to capture it on celluloid if it has any connection to the stasis they find themselves in (or wish they found themselves in).

In my situation, three years out of college, working a retail job beneath the degree that’s gathering dust in some corner of your parent’s house, looking for some kind of release from said job and the lifeless, alien hometown you find yourself trapped in, it’s not a huge imposition to gather some kind of perspective on how you get to this point, not out of regret, but because 26 is an age in which you finally get an opportunity to do so. So it’s not hard to empathize with Linklater’s modus operandi as a writer/director.

In “Boyhood,” the justly-acclaimed, beautifully composed and profound new film from the Texan auteur, Linklater wanted to give that screw one extra, audacious turn. In 2002, he took a young boy named Ellar Coltrane, his own daughter Lorelei, and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, as their on-screen parents and filmed them for a few days a year every year until 2013, to tell a story of a boy named Mason growing up and actually aging before our eyes. Not just a coming-of-age story, but a becoming-of-age.

The late Roger Ebert often referred to movies as the great “empathy machine.” “Boyhood” rebuilds the machine from the ground up in it’s accumulation, never a compression, of the experiences that Mason has from pre-adolescence to the onset of manhood. But the enormous undertaking that is the film’s structure is just a blueprint. It is a truly great film because it’s filled with Linklater’s wit, his wonderful eye for time and place, his graceful, flowing dialogue, his unassuming style; those are what you need to build a movie. It’s not a slice of life, it’s the entire pie.

In 2002, we meet Coltrane as Mason when he’s six years old, underneath the endless Texas sky and the earnest jangle of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” His mother and father are divorced, the former going back to school to be a teacher and rebuild her life, the latter an amateur musician who sees his kids as playmates more than he sees them as parental responsibility. His smart-ass older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) is right along with him, filling in Mason’s watchfulness with brattiness that evolves into sardonic wit. And…that’s about it. Those wishing for traditional plots to needlessly pick apart can look elsewhere; the film’s few attempts at providing old-fashioned conflict, which is whenever Mason’s mom finds a new suitor or husband who turns out to be an alcoholic malcontent, are its clumsiest moments. This film doesn’t need melodrama, it succeeds because the central conceit, watching these people change as their lives go on in the movie and real life, brings about unprecedented emotional crescendos.

“Boyhood”‘s structure never gets in the way of its journey; it folds into it and compliments it seamlessly. The first time Mason and his family move to a new city, we get a shot of Mason’s friend waving him goodbye as their car passes. We see him painting over the height measurements on the wall of their old house. We see Masons’s face a couple years later, seething in a barber’s chair when his stepfather forces him to get a buzzcut to look “less like a little girl.” Mason and Samantha take in a Houston Astros game with their dad, their hairstyles change along with their tastes in music, on and on. Linklater matter-of-factly seams together these moments in away that feels, in the early stretches of the film when Mason is still a little kid, a tad choppy, but everything this movie does, from the structure of the script, the length of scenes, the musical cues, is all part of Linklater’s master plan: capturing the feeling of memory and putting it on screen. This is why the scenes where Mason and Samantha are pre-adolescents in elementary school feel shorter, more confined. Later on when Mason goes to high school and then college, scenes get longer; dialogue becomes more florid, the ambience becomes more distinct. We remember events that happened more recently with more clarity, so the film mirrors that process. We remember whatever ubiquitous novelty or manufactured pop songs were playing on the radio. Once you take in “Boyhood” and process it as you’re watching it, its power grows exponentially in a way I’ve never seen in a movie.

Also, you must add in the fact that although Linklater had some semblance of a script and shape he wanted the film to take, a lot of it is flying blind. The arcs of Mason’s parents are easier to handle. Patricia Arquette gives quiet strength and dignity to Mason’s mother Olivia, a woman desperately trying to hold her family unit together, despite her lapses in judgment. Mason Sr., given jittery, rascally warmth by a never-better Ethan Hawke feels more like an overgrown kid than a father, but Hawke’s own boyish appearance diminishes over time, as his character grows up right alongside his son. But Coltrane is the wild-card. Cast when he was 7-years-old with no acting experience, he starts the film as a non-descript kid, calmly observing the changes to the world around him (Linklater uses music and insert shots of gadgetry and other pop paraphernalia to capture the passage of time better than any title card could). But Mason, as teenagers are known to do whether they like it or not, becomes the true product of his parents and environment. He takes a liking to photography, and has an off-kilter political perspective. Coltrane becomes more comfortable in front of the camera and his performance deepens immensely (Lorelei Linklater as Samantha retreats as the film goes along, however). The film takes full-flight once this protagonist becomes a full-fledged character; since Linklater didn’t know what kind of actor he was going to have, he had to tweak the film’s progression on the fly; the film itself grows and learns as its characters do. This symbiotic relationship between the film’s presentation and its making is something to behold.

“Boyhood” is also a love letter to Texas; schools have their own pledge of allegiance. Mason receives a Bible and a rifle from his grandparents on his birthday. It’s a state home to endless hills and the sub-bohemian paradise that is Austin. A haven for outsider art and Confederate flags in equal measure. Few filmmakers make locations come to life more than Linklater does. Where you are has a direct relationship with who you are.

“Boyhood”‘s ramshackle yet hugely ambitious construction does nothing to drown out the film’s beautiful observance, it’s detailed depictions of everyday life, the heft that is built from personal experience. It’s 12-year-journey is its own complete beast. Richard Linklater’s greatest achievement is a series of landmarks, which is only fitting since the movie deserves to become a landmark itself.

Catching Up With: Breaking the Waves – 1996

Lars von Trier is a filmmaker whose reputation is hard to avoid, even if you have not seen any of his work. He refuses to spend any time in America, he was kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago for calling himself a Nazi, and for his downright sadistic relationship with the actors in his movies. But this Danish provocateur’s notoriety is mostly derived from his filmography, which is defined by unflinching portrayals of sexuality, class warfare, depression and in the case of 2009’s “Antichrist, talking foxes and genital mutilation. His cinematic universe isn’t exactly a picnic.

1996’s “Breaking the Waves” is emblematic of this well-known bleakness. Set in an isolated village on the Scottish coast with an affinity for the Old Testament, the film centers on Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a young, wide-eyed and deeply troubled young woman who is about to be married to Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a vivacious oilman who immediately sticks out among this rigid, puritanical community, which views something as mundane as church bells as a blasphemous intrusion. Bess is a fragile soul. She has a strong bond with God, so much so that she has conversations with Him that may or not be psychotic delusions. She’s been praying her entire life for a man like Jan, which is why she is destroyed when he has to leave her for his job on the oil rig for weeks at a time. She selfishly prays for his return, a wish that is granted…when Jan is left paralyzed from the neck down after an on-site accident. Jan is as fiercely devoted to Bess as she is to him, but there is a selfishness that defines him, which leads to an unusual request; Jan wants Bess to have sex with other men, and tell him in explicit detail the specifics of each encounter. On the surface, it looks like a desperate attempt to keep a suddenly compromised marriage alive. But Jan says he’ll die if she doesn’t go through with it, so the whole deal is really emotional blackmail.

“Breaking the Waves” is a story of a woman who’s been subjected by selfish men her entire life, trying to please everyone while rarely finding true happiness for herself. It’s a sometimes savage look at the abuse of desire and faith.

But most importantly, it is a masterpiece.

This film is a sometimes overwhelming experience, as we watch a damaged, naive soul battered by the unforgiving landscape and culture she’s been surrounded by her whole life. But it’s impossible to come away from this film, whether you’re entranced or repulsed by it, without at least thinking about what von Trier is trying to say.

The director found a perfect vessel in Watson, who gives what is one of the greatest performances in contemporary cinema. Those enormous blue eyes that bulge with ecstatic wonder and narrow with frustrated subjugation, all funneled through that thick Scottish brogue, Bess is a person who has spent her life at the mercy of selfish men, both real and metaphysical.  The church that is like her second home feels like a tomb; women aren’t allowed to speak during services or even attend funerals. Bess was bred to live according to absolutes. Know your place, repress yourself sexually, wait for a husband to come and be prepared to mourn him when he inevitably dies. “You must learn to endure” is the credo her cruel mother bestows upon her. Bess doesn’t know how to compromise, and Watson makes her into a heartbreaking, unforgettable portrait of bruised womanhood.

Von Trier’s approach is stripped to the bone; the handheld cameras make the already gloomy Scottish countryside into a grainy wasteland of brown and tan, tarnished but able to contain moments of great beauty, portrayed in landscapes that underscore the chapter cards that divide the film. Watson throws numerous glances to these cameras like they’re her only friend, as if we are sharing in her ecstasy and tragedy.  But his approach to these characters is much more multi-faceted. As Bess desperately tries to please her husband via sexual torment with strangers, it’s easy to think this film is an exercise in misogyny, an accusation von Trier’s detractors often lob. But it’s not Bess’ fault she is sent on this journey. “Breaking the Waves” is a fable of selfish men and the damage they inflict on the women around them when they are subjugated. Bess is a virgin on her wedding day; she is released by the liberation provided by sex and the glam-rock soundtrack consisting of David Bowie and Mott the Hoople. Jan, who weaves between charisma and cruelty in the hands of the reliably great Skarsgård, thinks he’s doing Bess a favor by sleeping with any man she chooses, but it really is monstrous; Bess is a waif who learns far too late too start questioning what her world has taught her. Lars von Trier doesn’t have any misgivings about putting the women in his film through great persecution, but its apparent, in this film at least, that there is compassion in his approach.

“Breaking the Waves” is devastating, but it isn’t a slog. Great films can take on the characteristics of their protagonist, and this film is often as joyous, searching, howling and brutalized as Bess, who gives her soul to God and her body to her husband, both sacrifices unable to give her the happiness she wants more than anything. This movie’s notorious creator is trying to tell us something that should be universal: unconditional love and blind faith often devolve into cruelty, unconditional compassion, whether its from your countrymen or, as suggested in the film’s haunting, surprisingly hopeful final shot possibly from a higher power, is always essential. So is the movie.

Grade: A

 

Catching Up With: Inside Llewyn Davis – 2013

American movies are littered with stories of artists trying make their way through the world, serving their muse and by obvious extension, their art. These films, mostly biopics such as “Ray” and “Walk the Line” contrive the plight of their gifted protagonists, as we see how their art is strengthened and defined by the world around them and the people they meet.

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” although it is a completely fictional account of the titular also-ran folk singer played by the extraordinary Oscar Isaac, finds writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen putting the kibosh on any notion of traditional artistic perseverance. The Coens never make it easy for their characters, who in turn don’t exactly do a lot to help themselves and this magnificent film, one of the duo’s very best, is no exception.

So who is Llewyn Davis? Llewyn is having a difficult time figuring that out himself, in the harsh New York City winter in 1961. We first meet him at the legendary Gaslight Cafe, the cramped, smoke-filled room that was the hub of the early 60’s folk music revival. Llewyn is up on stage singing a song called “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Oscar Isaac has a piercing, vulnerable tenor that captures the resignation in this song; this is the story of a man who has given up on his place in the world. Davis can sympathize; his singing partner Mike Timlin has recently died, and Davis gets beaten up in an alley behind the cafe by a mysterious figure.

But Llewyn isn’t a criminal or a half-wit like a lot of other protagonists in the Coens’ work. Llewyn Davis is actually a bit of a prick. His first solo album is dead in the water, and he spends his nights going from couch to couch in apartments belonging to people who barely tolerate him, specifically his ex-girlfriend Jean (a volcanic Carey Mulligan, spewing profanity like bullets), who casually informs him that she may be pregnant with Llewyn’s child and wants an abortion as soon as possible.

Llewyn is clearly talented; having the gorgeous soundtrack curated by T-Bone Burnett doesn’t hurt. He goes on about how folk music needs to be pure, that commerce isn’t his main goal. He acts like his art has no price, but that doesn’t stop him from singing backup on “Please Mr. Kennedy,” the brilliantly awful, paranoid farce of a song written by Jean’s new boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake, his high nasally croon fitting this folk setting like a glove). Mr. Davis is one of countless musicians through the generations who have failed to realize that art and commerce have always been intertwined. Artists who have an inflated notion of their own authenticity, usually don’t have a lot of walking around money. Llewyn’s only companion is the stubborn cat belonging to his old friends the Gorfeins, which the film gleefully suggests is a symbol for Llewyn’s plight but never actually becomes one.

Llewyn Davis is a man out of time, money, friends, collaborators, etc. That’s who he is in the context of his small little world. But who is he in the sense that the Coen brothers, feel the need to chronicle this specific world, at this specific time? It could be because Joel and Ethan are two wise-ass Jewish kids from Minnesota, and the New York folk scene in 1961 was about to be turned upside down by another wise-ass Jewish kid from Minnesota, thus changing the fortunes of countless real-life Llewyn Davis’? Is is about a man who doesn’t realize that being an artist doesn’t excuse you from the responsibilities that the less-enlightened “squares” have to deal with every day?

It could be all of these things, it could be just empty projection. Llewyn might be the cat, he might not be. The Coens like to get philosophical in their work, but never in this specific fashion. “Inside Llewyn Davis” most resembles “Barton Fink,” the Coens’ 1991 masterpiece that found another unlikable artist in a New York screenwriter played by John Turturro, who was crippled by writer’s block because he closed himself off to the common men around him (personified by John Goodman, who also appears in this film as a heroine-addicted jazz snob who abhors folk music). That film found the filmmaking duo literally spewing Hellfire and allegorical allusions to the rise of fascism to get their point across. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a much quieter, more wistful movie. Fink was a hack, his writer’s block being born out of his ignorance of the world around him, thus rendering him with nothing to say. Davis doesn’t have writer’s block; he has a category of gorgeous folk songs (expertly used in interludes that reveal more about these characters and bring on emotional breakthroughs previously unseen in the Coens’ filmography, but still laced with their own brand of arsenic). He has existence block, dismissing anything outside of his art, not realizing until he goes on a trek to Chicago to meet with a powerful record executive (F. Murray Abraham) that art and commence are always intertwined, the music business being…an actual business.

This film may look aimless, as we watched this bearded misanthrope bum around Greenwich Village trying make some money and find a bed to sleep in. But this film, apart from the endless philosophical and thematic readings that can be found within the soft-focus beauty of the world cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel makes out of New York City, has the reliable pleasures found in all of the Coen brothers’ work. The dialogue which comes at a rhythm set to a time scale no other screenwriter can crack. The memorable faces and hilarious supporting turns (particularly from Stark Sands from an impossibly earnest Army cadet and Garrett Hedlund as a Kerouac-esque loner who represents the culture shock about to hit the folk scene), the immaculately structured story, the touches of surrealism in the scenes that bookend the film and the great performances, particularly by Oscar Isaac in what should be a breakout role, bringing misanthropic grace to this starving artist.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t just about failure; it deals with how failure is born, whether it’s out of losing your musical collaborator, ignoring the realities of your chosen field, brushing aside the needs and wants of the people around you. It’s appropriate that “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song Bob Dylan (who makes an appearance of sorts at the end of the film) wrote after leaving acoustic folk in the dust, describes Davis quite well: out on his own, like a complete unknown, no direction home. But the Coens portray this man’s plight with strange wisdom, not lunatic subjugation like in their early work. That’s one of countless reasons why “Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of their greatest achievements.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: Computer Chess – 2013

Computer Chess (2013)

Even though the film is shot on ancient black-and-white video cameras with tubes in them that can’t even handle sunlight, Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” has an air of familiarity to it. It depicts a chess tournament in a non-descript hotel, likely somewhere in the Midwest, where the players are computer programmers, each with their own chess program, and the prize is $7,500 and the chance to play a game against the doddering, almost oblivious Professor Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary). The film opens like a mockumentary, with a panel lined with professors who do nothing but bloviate hot air about the future of technology. The film cuts to the competitors in the audience, zombified and trying to stay awake. Bujalski is keenly aware of how dull this man vs. technology struggle can be on the surface.

This film is set in the early 1980’s so the nerds that populate this lo-fi universe are still 30 years away from “geek chic.” Thrift store polos, thick aviator eyeglasses and social graces only a few steps above Raymond Babbitt rule this community. We get to know the MIT team (who make waves by having the tournament’s first-ever female participant), and the Cal Tech team, whose computer defies its own programming and intentionally loses chess matches. And then there’s Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who personifies smug amusement but also arrives broke, roomless and with a penchant for stealing pills.

I have not seen Bujalski’s previous films, most notably his 2003 film “Funny Ha Ha,” which is considered a key text in the “mumblecore” sub-genre (for those who don’t know, mumblecore makes higher-profile independent films look like “Ben-Hur” in comparison, with more stuttering). And for a while, “Computer Chess” mines the comedy from this tournament in the hilariously designed computers (some look like mini-refrigerators, others look like revved-up typewriters), the spectacularly tone-deaf commentary from the organizers, and Papageorge’s misaventures in trying to find a place to stay. It’s a story of computers that have more humanity than the players.

And then things get weird. Really weird.

The Cal Tech team’s computer betrays it’s own algorithm and loses matches at will, so much so that the team forfeits a match before making a single move. A group of middle-aged couples arrive at the hotel as part of a self-help seminar that consists of digging through bread and re-enacting human birth in an attempt to reconnect with each other. The filmmaking, already odd in its approach thanks to cameras that make your childhood Christmas home movies look like they were shot by Roger Deakins, gets even more and more screwy. The editing becomes faster and more haphazard, images are randomly super-imposed, and scenes get repeated like a vinyl record with a stuck needle, or even shift into color. Also, an army of cats show up and commandeer their own hotel room.  And this is all before two members of the couple’s therapy group try to seduce Peter (Patrick Riester), the timid virgin from the Cal Tech team, into a menage a trois.

As these scenarios pile up and the film’s themes of man vs. technology become more twisted and infused with what little narrative the film has, “Computer Chess” doesn’t just go off the reservation, it goes off “Planet Earth.” Bujalski puts up a front of techno-parody only to indulge his inner David Lynch and unleash a plethora of ghosts into this run-down machine. But this isn’t a horror film. As it becomes more and more of a mindfuck, leading up to a shocking, bizarre and hilarious final confrontation between Peter and a mysterious woman, “Computer Chess” cements itself as one of 2013’s most surprising, daring and altogether fascinating films. Andrew Bujalski flips the script by setting speculative science-fiction in the recent past, by using technology that’s even older. “Computer Chess” starts out as a lark and becomes a strange thoughtful exploration into what computers are built to do, whether it’s to play chess or reach a point of self-awareness and develop a soul, and whether human connections are permanently out of whack or doomed altogether. The film’s surreal pleasures are best left unspoiled, but I will say that in this hotel, which starts to feel like the last place in the universe, “Computer Chess” shows us that artificial intelligence may not stay artificial for long.

Grade: A-

New Arrivals: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

In retrospect, it’s appropriate that the teaser trailer for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest opus from the incomparable Martin Scorsese, was scored to the pounding march of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” That song, along with the album it was taken from, “Yeezus,” is a scalding document of rampaging male id, meant to both exhilarate and appall in its lack of inhibitions. This film, chronicling the rise and fall of stockbroker/fiend Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the Hell he raised, drugs he took, money he stole and lives he ruined, is also a scalding, hilarious descent into madness and excess.

Scorsese has built a career out of confrontation. Dangerous men, some who poisoned by isolation (“Taxi Driver”), sexual impotence and personal inadequacy (“Raging Bull”) or who come on as charming rogues only to turn into drug-ravaged monsters (“Goodfellas”) populate his work. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the longest, wildest, and possibly greatest film from his late period, is an onslaught of all the great director’s favorite themes, as we see Belfort and his cohorts at Stratton Oakmont recreate their own Roman Empire, built on money, sex, cramming every toxin they can find into their blood streams, etc. “Wolf of Wall Street” is a comedy on the surface, a brilliant one for most of the run time. But there is a seed of darkness that runs through.

We meet Belfort in 1987, as a bright-eyed kid from Queens ready to chase the American Dream on Wall Street. This is more difficult than it seems, since the stock market is built on destroying everyone around you to chase the Almighty dollar. This is white male privelege on steroids. Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in ten minutes of reptilian lunacy) lays down the stockbroker mantra: get high, get rich, fuck everything and everyone. Black Monday sends Hanna into unemployment and Jordan to Long Island, selling penny stocks to people naive enough to think the stock market is supposed to be a fun way to make money. These stocks give 50 percent commission to the broker, a loophole that Jordan will exploit to build his empire.

The degenerates who populate his boiler room are led by Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, also totally unhinged), who will become the court fool to Belfort’s Lear, and jumps feet first into the stockbroker racket for the respect but mostly for the high you get from gobbling Quaaludes like candy.

The firm grows in power. Their office is filled with whores, dwarf-tossing, drugs, fighting and basically the fall of Western civilization in microcosm. Jordan dumps his first wife for Naomi (Margot Robbie, giving a nothing role cunning and depth), a piece of blonde royalty from Queens who toys with Jordan’s sexual dependency.

“Wolf of Wall Street” is paced like the film itself is on cocaine; it’s like the helicopter sequence from “Goodfellas” stretched to three hours. All the power these guys have reduces them to their base, primal states. More money, more sex, more drugs, more everything. DiCaprio is one hell of a ring-leader. His towering performance is the most complete he’s ever given. His movie-star charisma, his boyish, age-resistant face and his inner rage combine to make Jordan Belfort a force of nature. The movie is a force of nature, as Scorsese, and the dense, cracking script by “Boardwalk Empire” showrunner Terrence Winter, pummels us with debauchery. It’s the funniest movie he’s ever made; recalling the black-comic New York anarchy of his little-seen 1985 film “After Hours.” For the first two thirds, this film is a punk rock bonanza as Scorsese’s camera flies around like a maniac and editor Thelma Schoonmaker gives shape to the chaos.

But as the movie goes on, rock and roll retreats back to the blues. This is foreshadowed in an early scene where the firm pays a woman working in their office $10,000 to shave her head to pay for breast implants. At first she’s in on it; even the women in the office are just like the boys. But as her blonde hair falls in crooked chunks to the floor, there are cracks in her oblivious smile. The rumble of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” slows down, as does the film. When the movie takes a breather, we don’t see men; we see deranged children, we see monsters. We are far away from Henry Hill gliding through the Copacabana. There’s little romance here. Scorsese’s films have dealt with themes like guilt, masculinity, identity amongst a specific group and remorse. Belfort has no remorse. He doesn’t care that the FBI (personified by the always excellent Kyle Chandler) and the SEC are circling him like sharks.  Not since “Raging Bull” has one of Scorsese’s protagonists been so monstrous. So Scorsese gets to focus on something  that he’s dealt with in his own life but never to this degree on film: addiction.

Jordan and Donnie refuse to be sober, no matter the situation or consequences. This is demonstrated when they dig out some “Lemmons,” ultra-concentrated Quaaludes that rob the user of all motor skills, showcased in an insane, screamingly funny scene allowing DiCaprio to unleash his inner Charlie Chaplin. The film becomes exhausting and darker in tone because we are seeing everything from Jordan Belfort’s perspective. Consuming copious toxins wears you down. The film is still hilarious, but the laugh have a chaser of horror and disgust to go along with them. It’s hard not to think of someone like Jake La Motta, especially when looking at the deterioration of his marriage.

In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort doesn’t get wacked, or gain 40 pounds or go into hiding. Neither do his cohorts. In 1983’s “The King of Comedy,” Scorsese showed an audience lauding a man who committed atrocities to become a celebrity. Jordan Belfort and countless others on Wall Street did the same. When we get to that quietly devastating final shot, as a cycle of adulation continues, “Wolf of Wall Street” cements itself as one of the director’s most uncompromising and dangerous films. It’s an epic farce on the surface, but underneath, this bull is still raging.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: Frances Ha – 2013

The quarter-life crisis is hard to capture on film. Unless you are burdened by some horrible personal tragedy, life in your mid-20’s after you graduate from college is hard to make into interesting comedy or drama, because in the big picture it’s pretty insignificant in the spectrum of life. But director Noah Baumbach took a stab at it anyway with “Frances Ha,” a black-and-white comedy about an eccentric, 27-year-old woman with a degree in modern dance named Frances (the wonderful Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script with Baumbach), who tries and fails to get her shit together in a romantic but still foreboding New York City. This is a character study, since there is nothing in this film beyond the perspective of Frances, as we are invited to observe a few weeks in her life, which undergoes several upheavals.

Frances is an understudy in a local dance company. It doesn’t matter at first, since the streets of Brooklyn are her stage, as she joyously pirouettes through the masses. She shares an apartment with Sophie (Micky Sumner), and they have a friendship that’s described as being like “a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” Frances is so committed to her relationship with Frances that she breaks up with her boyfriend after refusing to move in with him. Unfortunately, Sophie is moving in to her boyfriend’s apartment, leaving Frances out on her own for the first time in her adult life.

Frances is a fascinating character. She has a naivete about her, but she isn’t quite dumb. She’s a free-spirit who’s constricted by her surroundings and her own immaturity. In other words, she’s a human being. Greta Gerwig, full aware that this is a role perfect for a budding movie star, deftly brings all of Frances’ hang-ups to life. She has a face Norma Desmond would approve of; expressive, imperfect, awkward, yet still beguiling. Gerwig personifies unconventionality.

A more glib title for this film would be “Living Arrangements: The Movie” since that’s what Frances goes through after Sophie leaves her behind. She moves in with two pretentious artists (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) who are just as immature as she is but are far more stable. She briefly lives with one of her fellow dancers, which after a disastrous dinner with her family inspires her to spend a whopping two days in Paris, most of which is dealing with the jet lag. Frances is stuck in that post-college limbo that ensnares a lot of us recent graduates. You don’t know what to do will your life until the “rest of your life” phase kicks in. Along with that is the fear that the “rest of your life” phase is happening right now.

“Frances Ha” registered strongly with me, since I’m in a similar stage in my life as our dear Frances. Peers thinking your old at 27 (25, in my case). Having friendships weaken when one of them matures faster than the other. Lying about  and embellishing your career prospects when the real adults ask about them. Going on spontaneous trips or misaventures only to immediately realize they were pretty fucking stupid ideas. What Baumbach and Gerwig do with Frances is not play up her misfortunes to the point where they seem petty to those outside of her demographic. This movie never says “poor me.” Frances isn’t destitute. She’s in a city bursting with opportunities. Guys, find her “undateable,” but the movie doesn’t delve into her love life, and thank God for that. “Frances Ha” has moments of sadness and discomfort, but it isn’t a drama. It’s a comedy; a spirited, even joyous one, in some moments. Scenes where Frances experiences a setback, such as a heartbreaking phone call with Sophie during which both friends are concealing personal miseries, end in punchlines, or non sequiters. “Frances Ha” doesn’t have, or need, much plot. It has dancing in the streets. It has David Bowie crooning about “Modern Love,” even though Frances doesn’t find any, at least not in this film. It’s a love letter to an imposing city that is also a romantic one, even in lo-fi digital black and white.

That’s what makes “Frances Ha” such a unique character study.  It doesn’t have the raw sexuality or darkness of the similar HBO show “Girls” (which Adam Driver also appears in) but it doesn’t need it. Baumbach and Gerwig don’t need to show us rock bottom. Their film is about possibilities, both good and bad. The film’s title is a reference to a punchline revealed in the final shot, which I won’t reveal here, but it sums up the movie perfectly. Frances is a dreamer who doesn’t fit neatly into reality, but she’s willing to make herself fit. And to do that, you have to literally and figuratively look back and laugh.

Grade: A-

New Arrivals: American Hustle

American Hustle (2013)

David O. Russell is a filmmaker who loves the people who populate his movies. His recent films are filled with eccentrics, crazies, dreamers and criminals, all filtered through Russell’s neurotic, madcap sensibilities (or if you’ve seen the video of him arguing with Lily Tomlin on the set of his 2004 film, “I Heart Huckabees,” he’s just an abrasive dick, but that’s another conversation).

His films also walk a tightrope. 2010’s “The Fighter,” 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and even his 1999 masterpiece “Three Kings” all walk a delicate line between genre convention and self-indulgent craziness. His latest film, “American Hustle” was shot guerilla-style, supposedly detailing the crazy antics surrounding the ABSCAM scandal, a sort of sting operation conducted by the FBI in the late 1970’s. I don’t have more information about ABSCAM, because Russell and his stable of actors do not give a fuck about this scandal. Or making an interesting film, for that matter. True to its title, “American Hustle” is about hustlers; con men and women who live for the art of the steal, ruining suckers to fill the void in lives as fake and outlandish as their haircuts.

These con artists are Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, 4o pounds heavier with an impossibly elaborate combover) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, sexy as hell), two melancholy souls who finally found purpose setting up a fake loan office in New York, robbing cash-strapped marks at $5,000 a head. Irv’s a sad-sack Long Island Jew, lonely and melancholy, trapped with a beautiful idiot of a trophy wife named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Sydney seeks solace in Duke Ellington records and putting on the guise of a British Lady with good banking connections.

These two get involved in an even bigger swindle, spear-headed by near-insane FBI agent Richie DiMasso (a miscast Bradley Cooper, doing a terrible Robert De Niro impression), involving the take-down of politicians including Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, underserved) and the mob, and fake sheikhs…and…well…screw it. This film doesn’t care about the ABSCAM plot, or any plot for that matter. Describing the damn thing is an exercise in futility. “American Hustle” is an incomprehensible, self-indulgent, self-amused and completely up its own tacky polyester-clad ass. The slow-motion, constantly roving camera, and wall-to-wall pop songs on the soundtrack are emblematic of a film that tries desperately to be something like “Goodfellas.” Except that film had a point, coherence, character development, and any other compliment one might use to describe a movie that actually works.

It’s inexplicable to me that people find this enjoyable and propulsive, not hollow and tedious like it was for me. 130 minutes felt like an eternity. Why? Because every scene of this film is drained of purpose; it’s just an enormously talented cast riffing on a theme that isn’t nearly as profound as it thinks it is. Hold on to your hairpieces guys, but some people in America lie to themselves to get ahead. And sometimes they feel bad about it. The tone of this review might be condescending, but that’s because the movie was condescending. The director thinks just having his cast wax poetically on the nature of fakery and forging your livelihood is enough to carry an entire film. If “American Hustle” was committed to being a plotless, ramshackle affair, akin to something like another Scorsese film, “Mean Streets,” it might have been easier to sit through. There are plenty of great films made in the ’70s that treated plot like a nuisance.  But the film wants to have it both ways. It’s both driven by its plot and it doesn’t care about its plot. That battle makes the movie a well-acted chore, because so many moments are based on plot developments that are so cluttered and dispensed in random chunks that makes “The Big Sleep” look logical. As a result, this movie was numbing, with every moment ringing hollow since it didn’t earn any profundity.

Although this film is the Donovan to Scorsese’s Bob Dylan, some of the actors are committed to this hairsprayed wreck. Amy Adams is fantastic, nailing the sexuality, loneliness and desperation of Sydney, filling in the blanks that the script co-written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer didn’t bother itself with. Renner does what he can with Carmine, the naive mayor who…I’m honestly not sure what he’s trying to do in this movie. At least he doesn’t mumble and loaf around as the least-convincing Jew in recent memory like Christian Bale does (the Batman voice is now the second-most ridiculous voice in Bale’s repertoire, after the community-theater Woody Allen impression put on display here). Jennifer Lawrence does have a lot of fun playing the screeching Long Island stereotype, but a little goes a long way, and the dramatic moments she’s given at the end of the film feel shrill, like Russell was too afraid to reel her back in.

“American Hustle” isn’t just a wannabe Scorsese riff. It reminds me of why I hate Judd Apatow movies now, its just a smattering of scenes where the actors do things for the sake of doing them, narrative momentum be damned. This movie is an impeccably-decorated jam session with a band without a rhythm section. David O. Russell loves his cast so much that he forgot he was supposed to make a damn movie, not a cluttered, store-brand version of other great films. You don’t get elated watching “American Hustle,” but it does achieve something, perhaps, if a movie about con artists leaves you feeling totally conned.

Grade: C