Sunday, December 29, 2013


Martin Scorsese’s new film THE WOLF OF WALL STREET makes Gordon Gekko, famous for his “Greed is Good” speech in Oliver Stone's 1987 movie WALL STREET, look housebroken and tame by comparison. This wild and offensive cinematic experience is overly long, with a kinetic performance by Leonardo DiCaprio portraying the real life, shameless Jordan Belfort (who wrote the book from which this movie was made,) an individual who reminded me of an evangelical preacher - stirring up his congregation of hungry, amoral brokers to bilk working class people - seducing them to invest in fraudulent penny stock transactions. The rapid ascension to personal enrichment is made to seem smooth and simple.

While many people in the audience laughed at Jordan and his team’s gaming of the “suckers”, I wore a dour expression during the three hours of what some experienced as exhilarating entertainment. I despised Scorsese’s celebration of the perks of debauchery. Though some critics might see this film as a sharp indictment of the culture of Wall Street, I found the opposite to be true; there was absolutely no penetration of the surface capitalist veneer of grasping wealth at the expense of others. On the contrary, this movie plunges into the dank, muddy swamps of excrement and attempts to beguile us with the empty putrid spoils that are found there.

Jonah Hill is proving to be a good actor playing Jordan’s co-conspirator, Donnie Azoff - introducing him to the world of getting “high”, giving him the "gift" of hallucinatory release, ecstasy and eventual addiction. Also Matthew McConaughey in a very short cameo role, almost steals the show as Belfort ‘s early “mentor” in the business of exploiting corporate acquisitiveness. It was also good to see Rob Reiner as Jordan’s father, the one sane person in a room of “animals” all unfettering their “ids” in unison.

We witness the hackneyed culture of “the good life,” lots of drugs, (quaaludes  and cocaine,) constant screwing – women’s bodies were all of the typical  fantasy mold  - existing to satisfy the “boys” in both classic and extravagant positions. Despite the illusion of “extreme” dissipation, the unfeeling and repetitive acts of dissolution became tiresome, and that was one of my major problems with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Jordan Belfort is a cardboard,  onanistic testosterone driven, self-indulgent man who can motivate others with the passion of his own greed, but there is no sense of an actual person behind the beautiful clothes and cars that he surrounds himself with, and so frankly I don’t give a damn about him or his ilk.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Peter Jackson, the wonderful maestro of the magical world of Middle Earth has now directed THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, the second in a trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s great novel The Hobbit, prequel to The Lord of The Rings, and it is another big budget film, and more importantly to the studios and its investors, a huge successful moneymaker. Looking at the closing credits took at least 15 minutes – filled with name upon name of all those involved in the making of this spectacular “much of the same” and for me alas a yawning bore of a cinema experience.

My problem with the film is that it felt like last year’s model, the territory including the mood and “light” is visually too familiar. The landscape and special effects are panoramic, both natural and artificial – products of the digital age we live in - filled with fierce, snarling animals, teeth bared accompanying equally vicious and savage creatures called Orcs, along with gigantic spiders weaving viscous entangling webs, and a rapacious fire-breathing flying dragon, Smaug – of the title - who resides in The Lonely Mountain protecting his copious bounty of purloined coins and jewels.

Despite the inclusion of many of the same actors such as Gandalf the Wizard (a bit more bedraggled Ian McKellan) who can still conjure up enchanted divinations, and the beautiful Orlando Bloom, heroic as ever as an Elvin Prince, I felt confused by the addition of characters that were never in the original book. I can accept a director creating composites in their screenplays that diverge from the book, but this time it was at the expense of the wonderful  Bilbo Baggins (delightfully played by an often bewildered Martin Freeman,) the brave Hobbit who reluctantly again leads a band of 13 dwarves on their urgent quest to reclaim their homeland, the dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the overlord of Middle Earth, Smaug, the green-eyed, molten bellied monstrosity, at any moment primed to expectorate flames annihilating all those who step into his realm. Unfortunately, Bilbo’s humanity disappears in the CGI effects, and for much of this barely under three-hour movie, he is an ancillary personage in the plot. One inclusion I did respond to was that of a female Elfin warrior Tauriel (lovely Evangeline Lilly,) who is excellent at her craft and refreshingly human, inserted into this practically all-male cast to attract female audiences, creating a whisper of a possible “interspecies” romance.

The most intriguing part of THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG addresses the age-old question of isolationism vs. interventionism in the face of dictatorial chieftains preparing to expand their territory. Absolute power vs. the exploited; tribal factions, self-interest, and ethnic purity with its accompanying disdain for the “other,” are still recognizable in our contemporary universe. The grab for world superiority aligned with the corrupting dominance of lucre is never-ending, and the fictional Middle Earth is no exception.

For some context - here is last year's review of the first of this Hobbit Trilogy:

THE HOBBIT 12/25/12

Very simply The Hobbit is a tale of a displaced people (in this case Dwarves) struggling to reclaim their Lonely Mountain Kingdom; in doing so wandering through the lands to reach that home. There are trials by fire and the "help of Wizards - one being Gandalf The Gray - subtly and merrily not-so-subtly played by the wonderful Ian McKellan and Galadriea the fairest and most powerful Maiden in Elve Land acted by the beautiful Cate Blanchett. I regretted not seeing more of her as she is such an aesthetic feast for my eyes.

That this adventure takes place in Middle Earth - prequel to The Lord of the Rings does not change a basic tale of mankind's journey and fight for their homeland. I found the early scenes in the Hobbitshire charmingly fairytale-ish and the dialogue between Bilbo Baggins ( a well-cast Martin Freeman) and Gandalf quite amusing and also touching on another universal theme - the quiet, unassuming home-body who goes on an adventure and steps out of his/her "ordinary" life and thereby changes him/herself and the "world."

I must admit to terrible boredom with fight scenes between goblins and various creatures on scary wolf-like animals and wait for those scenes to end-my only fascination with them is how they are choreographed.

The pivotal and most moving scene in the film is between the wonderful Andy Serkis as the schizophrenic Gollum (fighting between his dark and light side - evident by his eyes and facial expressions) and Bilbo who discovers more about his own character through this encounter.

This film also uses special effects, and all that CGI can do to make a small lovely book The Hobbit, into a 3 part movie - with all the money that it will rake in. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013


The con artist mentality – everyone is a sucker and the more you say NO to “marks”, the more they want what you are selling; conversely everyone likes to play the flim-flam game – that is the basic premise of David O. Russell’s goofy, madcap new film AMERICAN HUSTLE. And the Federal Government turns out to be the ultimate hustler in the “idealistic” pursuit of justice or “entrapment”– a thin line that bends and sways depending on the ambitions of prosecutors. The word “real” is used in the dialogue over and over and over again…disguise is the norm – being “real” involves a rare moment of trust and exposure of your inner self which always reeks of a putrid scent, barely camouflaged by the fragrance of nectar that we employ as a shield of body armor.

This convoluted, crazily complex movie originated “somewhat” with a true story-the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970’s. Understanding the source will help make sense of AMERICAN HUSTLE, giving you the opportunity to relax and be entertained, without being distracted trying to puzzle out what is going on. ABSCAM was an FBI sting operation in the late 1970s and early1980s, initially trafficking in stolen property but later converted to a public corruption investigation. The FBI hired Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con man, to help plan and conduct the operation. "Abscam" was the FBI codename for the undertaking, because it involved Abdul Enterprises, Ltd., as its front company, using an FBI employee posing as Karim Abdul Rahman, a fictional Middle Eastern sheikh bribing targeted government officials in videotaped meetings. Suffice it to say Atlantic City and its burgeoning casino industry were in the mix, ultimately leading to the conviction of a United States senator, six members of the House of Representatives, one member of the New Jersey State Senate, members of the Philadelphia City Council, and an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Christian Bale (terrific) still handsome after gaining over 40 lbs playing the beer bellied mastermind and proud-of-it charlatan, Irving Rosenfeld (based on Abscam’s Melvin Weinberg) who owns many dry-cleaning and window glass stores in the Bronx and Manhattan – all small time establishments fronting illegal loan activities. The movie opens with Irving fashioning his daily make-over on an elaborately funny and very serious comb-over – a source of pride and concealment before attending a cocktail party where he glances over and BAMMM sees a gorgeous Amy Adams who portrays the seductive, alabaster toned Sydney Prosser, and Irving Rosenfeld is hooked on the spot – meeting his match in brains and larceny. But this dame is a classy one, who has already “masked” her persona, and intuiting a fellow traveler responds to Christian Bale in kind.  A love story is in the making, despite the fact that Irving is married to a surprisingly, (for me) wonderfully, eccentric, often inept, and unsuitable (to his chosen profession) wife, Rosalyn played by Jennifer Lawrence, who might be the most authentic person in AMERICAN HUSTLE.

Adams and Bale join forces and become partners in crime, and business is soon flourishing until a wildly enterprising, tightly curled poodle cut, FBI undercover agent, Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso) shows up and snares them in his net.  From then on our heroes are working for the impulsive, righteously manic, Cooper in order to stay out of jail.

And then the fun begins! Larger and more intricate schemes including Abscam (Arab scam) loom ahead. Passionate avidity blossoms as a Mafioso - a critical bit part by a barely recognizable Robert De Niro - gets enmeshed into the conspiracy. Despite harebrained shenanigans and lots of heedless bungling, and plot twists, the underlying romance perseveres, complicated by Christian Bale’s hesitant equivocation concerning the age-old choice between wife and girlfriend. Another memorable character, a linchpin of the FBI shakedown operation - Jeremy Renner is startling as the oblivious, charismatic Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden NJ, complete with an Elvis-style mop of hair, and the only politician who actually cares and works for his constituents. He is the one genuinely tragic figure in this tale.

AMERICAN HUSTLE is a complicated mosaic of cynicism, questions of credibility, legitimacy and the art of illusion tempting desire. The energetic soundtrack weaves through each scene punctuating the activity; passages are episodic - some hilarious and others predictable. Absurdity nesting in farce can be sublime…those resplendent moments appear and vanish like the hypothesis of the film itself.

Friday, December 13, 2013


I was on my way home on an icy day in NYC, after going to art galleries in Chelsea, and decided to pop into a theater and see Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.  The wintery weather befitted the mood of this slow, strange, original movie  which left me with a lingering unexplainable feeling of pensive melancholy. I exited the cinema confused and stunned thinking of beginnings, endings, and repeated beginnings, a cycle which spins round and round – “ the times they are a-changin.” Afterwards, I took the bus home to my Greenwich Village apartment - deep in thought - the very locale where in 1961 an aspiring folk-singer named Llewyn Davis attempted to maintain his creative integrity in the face of commercial and personal ambush, often self-inflicted; youth is the period for reckless and self-righteous inquiry as well as outbursts of peevish anger and defiance.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is a road trip with an expressive dark-eyed, bearded Oscar Issac playing the lead character – a young man stumbling along the path he has chosen for himself; a young man determinedly serious about being a folk singer who wants to be taken seriously; a young man who is careless and yet caring, a young man who is finding out about himself and his effect on others with haunting revelations from his past and present shaping future actions. Llewyn’s songs sung in a mellow, resonant voice (arranged by executive music producer T-Bone Burnett} are an audible measure of the depth of the complexity “inside” Llewyn Davis - more so than any of the dialogue he laconically utters.

Communication with family and friends are almost farcical if they were not so ruefully inadequate. The Coen brothers skirt the line of caricature and burlesque when depicting these incidents, lightening the acutely dispiriting ambiance. There are many weirdly compelling bit parts by actors that contribute to the surrealistic mood of the film. One example being John Goodman who is grotesquely sinister, playing a fellow traveler in the claustrophobic atmosphere of an automobile, spraying a frenzy of wildly bizarre dialogue during those staccato moments when he is not “nodding off” from whatever actions he is performing every time he staggers off to the bathroom.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS flows at a pace all its own. A cat by the name of Ulysses flits in and out of various scenes, referencing Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, alluding to the “trials” that our hero must go through to return a changed man to himself. This is also a movie about being an artist, hanging on to one’s own vision in the face of the marketable embrace of mediocrity. The sadness I felt when INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS ended was the bitter shroud of familiarity. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013


I am drawn to dark, edgy films depicting characters that are nasty, brutish and amoral, doing inexpressible acts to their fellow man; not horror films - they are too over the top - but movies that awaken my dread of what many people gravely experience as reality. The idea of vengeance quenched is quixotic, but in the transported world of the movies retribution is possible and often probable. Director Scott Cooper’s OUT OF THE FURNACE falls into the above category, joined by a terrific cast, but disappointedly full of plot inconsistencies which to a person like myself – who tries to figure things out, those incongruities loom large getting stuck in my head becoming a prickly disturbance.

This is a film that does not equivocate about the bonds between family; the responsibility of being your “brother’s keeper”; tending to one’s ill parent, attempting to sustain an ethical life despite the roadblocks that chance and circumstance put in life’s path. The lead actor, Christian Bale, who gets better and better with each movie, stars as Russell Baze – a man who cannot “catch a break” - who we first encounter working amidst the hot, blazing steel mill furnaces in a working class, economically scarred town in Pennsylvania. Bleak images of rows of clapboard houses are familiar – we have seen them many times in many movies - photographed in the beclouded grays of hopelessness. Russell is a bright light in this fog of desolation, an inference of religious “saintliness” hangs over his persona; penance and redemption follow.

Casey Affleck, an actor who physically looks like the classic clean-cut high-school football star, though slighter in build, portrays Russell’s younger brother Rodney – wounded, erratic and traumatized from multiple tours of duty in Iraq; the sibling who his Uncle (a reliably comfortable and comforting Sam Shepard) tells us in an aside was “trouble even as a kid”. Psychologically seared by the war, Rodney cannot adapt to the ordinariness of existence and the economic deprivation he finds at home, propelling him to bizarre solutions, including gambling and bare-knuckle fighting; his Manager, a greedy and rapacious William Dafoe pushing the plot into even darker regions of emptiness and abyss.

Woody Harrelson is riveting as the vicious personification of evil ruling over his inbred clan of loathsome reprobates dealing drugs and wagering on mano-a-mano battles - not in the mountains of Appalachia but in the hills of Ramapo, NJ. Soon the “lost” brother becomes a master brawler in the arena of predatory slugfests, surrounded by fierce bloodthirsty spectators. Eventually the two worlds –one from the factory and the other from the backwoods - collide in an explosion of violence and reckoning; the interior core values of Christian Bale's character teetering at the tipping point.

Despite good supporting performances by Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana (though women play a small part in this testosterone suffused film,) OUT OF THE FURNACE has scenes that made me groan with frustration – how can a director get away with interspersing a deer-hunting stalk-and-kill spectacle with images of dripping blood from the movie's climactic combat fisticuffs, without resorting to cheap pretentious obviousness? There were also anomalies concerning time and place that I felt were due to sloppy editing, unsuitable to an otherwise gripping and sensitive cinematic production - a tale of a man, Russell Baze, scorched by the contingencies of fortune, fiercely struggling to maintain his innate compassion and humanity when faced with the depraved ambiance that he is impelled to confront.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

PHILOMENA 12//1/13

PHILOMENA directed by Stephen Frears is a fact-based film, which on the surface might seem like a sentimental “human interest” tale, but the impact of one woman’s heartrending story and the ramifications on society and its outdated laws and customs loom much larger. Martin Sixsmith (played with a certain cynicism and dashing aplomb by Steve Coogan,) a recently unemployed BBC journalist searching around for a book topic to keep him occupied as well as warding off incipient depression, serendipitously meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who urges him to write about her mother’s secret/ silent preoccupation with finding the son that was monstrously wrested from her 50 years earlier. Sixsmith reluctantly agrees and his life is inexorably transformed when he meets Philomena (Phil) Lee, beautifully played by Judi Dench, a wonderful actor able to convey with convincing authenticity a steadfast woman of deep, devotional faith, who at the same time revels in a childlike delight and humor. The two begin a journey into a harrowing past that eventually reveals the present.

This is a movie about connections and aberrations; the ineffable bond between mother and child; the clash of cultures, religious beliefs, and individual moral convictions all played out against the background of a devious and powerful system that fosters abuse and corruption, and piously believes in the “truth” of their mission.

Philomena conceived a son 50 years earlier when she met a handsome lad at a Carnival during a moment of youthful abandon and joy; the teenage Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is both innocent and seductive, becoming pregnant at 18 years of age - a shameful act in 1952  - whereby she is sent to live in a “home for unwed mothers” run by the nuns of the Sacred Heart Convent in Roscrea, Ireland. In this establishment we witness the cruel, manipulation of the adolescent inhabitants who are forced by the rigid, sanctimonious nuns to near servitude, signing away their rights to their offspring - with the "reward" of being able to spend one hour a day in physical contact with them. When the children become toddlers they are then “sold off” to rich Catholic American tourists. The mothers are agonizingly kept ignorant of their whereabouts. And that is the history of a painful era in Ireland between 1945-1960’s in which thousands of infants were placed in homes as “forced adoptions.”

The conflict between the Church’s teachings and the doctrinaire callousness of the nun’s brutality is starkly drawn, as is Philomena’s own essential humanity and her ability to forgive, when contrasted with Martin Sixsmith’s more pragmatic investigative instincts, and his often sardonic wry approach to the idea of theological dogma; nevertheless  they make a good team.  The “road trip” that the two of them undertake to find Philomena’s son, and the disclosures that are unearthed, creates an irrevocably poignant bridge between individuals of different class, education, beliefs and temperaments. PHILOMENA addresses issues that I was unaware of; concerns that need to be brought into the glare of light, so that all of us can see with greater clarity, in the hope that the exploitation of women in the name of  spiritual "chastity“ is forever eliminated.