Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)

In a year where Noah Baumbach’s crack at Mauvais Sang turned out to be his Jason Reitman (pre Young Adult) picture, so Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street has to be contextualized as the aging director’s Salo. Like Pasolini’s disgusting, objectively moral masterpiece, it has been quite misunderstood. David Thomson derided Salo as mere “Gay pornography” and academy milquetoasts have already how-dared-you’d Scorsese as having made the cinematic equivalent of coke up your nose. Of course it is that, but in filming the human beasts of Stratton Oakmont Marty cops the same tactic as Pier Paolo: show us the lives of monsters by indulging them on their own terms. Scorsese has never disliked the subjects of one of his movies more than in Wolf, but aside from stray bluesman music queues and a rivulet of tearblood running down Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s face late on, Scorsese hides his hand beneath pure, pumping chaos. Thomson might as well call it “Frat-suit” pornography and he would be just as wrong.

Wolf completes one of those unofficial trilogies most great directors have stocked in the oeuvre, capping a whattatimeitwas saga that includes the overrated Goodfellas and the damned underrated Casino. Like the latter, Wolf runs a tight three hours (feels like two) and is enmeshed with Belfort’s behind the curtain voice-over that has the sensation of a life’s DVD audio commentary. With breathless arrogance he introduces us to his mansion, color-corrected trophy car, lingerie-pocked trophy wife (Margot Robbie, excellent and seemingly dubbed over by Debi Mazar) before flashing back to when he was green “pond scum” on the phone floor. A kind of overture takes place during lunch with senior broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who instructs Belfort in the holy trinity of stock labor: Cocaine, hookers and masterbation. He pounds his chest, intoning a dirge-like battle cry, and one of the only flaws in a movie about flaw is that McConaughey vanishes soon after. Jordon takes over though, starting from the bottom but soon inhaling a penny stock hole-in-the-wall run by Spike Jonze (who is verminlike and surreal to watch here after you’ve downed his masterly Her) and, with the help of the reptilian Donny (never better Jonah Hill) starts a rogue firm that goes after “Moby Dicks” with the net of Belfort’s phone call script. Sleazy guys from the old neighborhood, mostly pot dealers with nicknames like “Rugrat” and “Sea Otter” join in, and soon S.O. is grabbing the attention of Forbes and, to Belfort’s eternal chagrin, an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) desperate to deflate the Wolf’s shit eating gold grin.

At its orgiastic zenith--gangbangs in the office, substance snorted from between the mountainous ass-cheeks of another nameless hooker, dwarfs used for target practice and subhumanly categorized as “those things”, an airplane fuck fest that erupts in a turbulent blaze of fluids and Bolivian Marching Powder--The Wolf Of Wall Street is genuinely shocking. You feel things are not too far away from visual penetration (I never thought I’d be reminded of the XXX classic Wanda Does Wall Street in a Christmas Day screening). Hill is especially repellant, his thick shades and blindingly white chompers evoking some nebulous creature of the underground like Jamie Gillis (or one of Salo’s fat fascists-seriously, make it a double feature). It’s the kind of indictment-through-indulgence that Adam McKay and Will Ferrell botched in the unfunny and wretch-rewarding Anchorman 2. Scorsese/DiCaprio approach this material exactly right, by making Wolf a veritable advertisement for this lifestyle, letting fallout sneak in by frequently cutting to the apprehensive face of a secretary getting her head shaved in return for breast implant funding, just as Pasolini allowed doomed austerity to stand in for hand-wringing. Watching Wolf is a self-interrogative process: how much of this do we want for ourselves? How much would our own too much be? The brilliant final shot literally holds a mirror to the audience. Both times I’ve seen the film comments of “how awful this is” are silenced by that last composition. If you jerk off to Salo or The Wolf Of Wall Street you probably deserve to be locked up, but it means you’re human too, damn it.

The supporting cast happens to be the best Scorsese has worked with since Casino, with Rob Reiner being relevant for the first time since Spinal Tap as Mad Max Belfort, inclined to loose his shit when the phone rings during TV as he is to wax fondness for unshaved bush with his son. Robbie is a smoldering revelation, Chandler and the redeemed Jean Dujardin make for delicious foils, the ex-Artist especially smarting when allowed speech enough to call Belfort, and by extension his cohorts, “American shit.”

Yet it’s DiCaprio, freed from the noxious Luhrmann smog, who unequivocally exhilarates. As proven by Woody Allen’s Celebrity and QT’s Django, he’s probably at his best when himself unchained and insane. Throughout Wolf he screams and slams fist and mic upon his boiling frame. (A collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson simply must happen if Scorsese follows-through with his long teased retirement.) If this isn’t the best of his five films with Scorsese (I’m quite fond of The Aviator) it’s certainly the one most thoroughbred to earn comparisons with the unimpeachable Bobby D collaborations of yore. One particular tour de force set piece involving a car, Popeye, and an overdose of Quaaludes is, dare I say, worthy of Taxi Driver’s brothel shootout. You just cannot believe what you're watching, and when was the last time I experienced that? The fucking Counselor? 

Note also how Scorsese often limits his directorial virtuosity in many passages, sometimes just simply recording (as Peter Bogdanovich said of Howard Hawks’ style) the macho high jizz fireworks in the room. DiCaprio is Marty’s ultimate tracking shot here. In a ‘13 glutted with academy compromises (12 Years A Slave), failures of nerve (Gravity) and the genuinely risible (The Great Gatsby-how dare they!) a border smashing clusterfuck like this should be equally savored and loathed. Welcome to The 180 Minutes Of Sodom.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


“Got the kids and the wife life/but can’t wake up from the night life”-Kanye West, “I’m In It”

Kanye West’s Yeezus is ugly, sparse, pornographic, abrupt, alienating and scary. To hear it is to take it’s beating. “The monster about to come alive again,” he says in the first cut, and its a strategically placed warning, like the bashing of a television set as overture for David Lynch’s un-Twin Peaks Twin Peaks movie. “Monster” was the name of the angriest bile-spewing track on West’s last album, and signifies that that guttural style with hold the most sway in this new collection.

There’s no joy here. Boasts of sexual conquests aren’t boasts at all under the mangled scrim of West’s hoarsely pained vocal delivery and handheld, lost-in-the-club production (a much chided line about being with Asian women thus “all I need is sweet and sour sauce” is layered with a demonically dubbed second voice, rendering the sentiment ominous and tension-fraught). It’s sprinting production and recent completion only weeks ago gives Yeezus the emotional moistness of a recently recovered suicide note. The 70s soul samples that brought so much communal hearth to his beats in the days of producing for The Blueprint and solo albums like Graduation are gummed and distorted beyond repair. Having just begun a family seems to have augmented, rather than staunched, his demons.

If anything, the persistence of the demons has brought him to an unprecedented musical despair. Tracks like “New Slaves” and “Hold My Liquor” rise and fall in choppy pixilated waves of rough acceleration and heartrending free-fall. He’s not happy, not with his continued subtle subjugation by the mainstream media (remember his Good Morning America interview where Matt Lauer spoke to him like he was 5 years old?), not with the vacant materialism of his fellow black success stories, and especially not with the decadence and endless pampering available to him as a God. Mostly, though, he’s unhappy about the fact that he’ll never be happy. His gross ego is justified only in his talents, so how would you feel if you were one of the great modern popular artists and were only known for having a “make a sad girl cry reputation”? On Yeezus he isn’t asking for our sympathy but, like Trent Reznor (the musician this album most shockingly recalls) he’s invited the listener into a nightmarish, chaotic headspace.

Screaming and apocalyptic sirens plague Yeezus. Techno bass and house acid rain isn’t employed for groove, but rather as the horror movie soundtrack for catastrophically failed relationships and emotional terrorism. “Blood On The Leaves” is the album’s most lacerating passage. Layering high notes of Nina Simone’s voice from the track “Strange Fruit.” (The callbacks to nature juxtaposed with the machine music of the record’s whole give the listener a Brechtian image of an artificial tree on an empty stage, perhaps circled by Dogville chalk.) Kanye spills out an oblique, traumatic narrative of---we can only presume---a failed relationship with a groupie who, in the year’s most unnerving lyric, couldn’t handle her liquor so it “came out of your body.” Unlike many other hip-hop kiss off tracks, “Leaves”’ violence and misogyny are underlined by a sensation of total waste, the immolation of talent, connection, intimate potential. Everyone is guilty, the star fuckers and the stars who have come to see others as little more than shown-off Instagram photos. In a reference to the glorious “Runaway”, of which this song is an obvious parallel, Kanye is reduced to mumbling inaudible noises, static tears, into the Auto-Tune ether.

Yeezus is, like his last two albums, and despite its intentional aura of tossed-off dirtiness, an architectural scourge. Lyrics and sonic portents wind and click and compliment each other on different cuts. The overrated Justin Vernon is vocally isolated in a lonely lament of pain before the underrated Kid Cudi is similarly displayed singing “If you loved me so much then why’d you let me go?”, his anguished solo pouring down like hard rain on the album’s minimalist tarp. Beats and voices are blasted into strobe echoes, most disturbingly at the instance of a female orgasm. No joy anywhere. Kanye chants “God” at the close of the bleakly exhilarating “Black Skinhead” which leads into the next track, “I Am A God.” He sees blood on the leaves before “Blood On The Leaves.” Ragga and Dancehall artists like Beenie Man are sampled throughout, partly as a classic West means of enlightening the listener about the history of black music while simultaneously seasoning the composition, but also as a hint to this album’s ultimate aesthetical signpost, which reads “This Way To The Club.”

Simon Reynolds called electronic dance music and rave culture a “journey into sound,” and while Kanye’s overwhelming auteurist presence (not to mention Rick Rubin’s) negates Yeezus as proper house, he’s chipped enough thematic concrete from that music to make his career-long concerns pulse with the blood of rave abandon. Yeezus is a journey into dark sound, and as Pitchfork commented it resembles in the West(ern) canon 808s And Heartbreak most of all. There’s a personal pain merged to the inherently impersonal genre of electronica, but the dancefloor can be a breeding ground for a thousand little tragedies. West can talk about fucking and stacking paper all he wants, but he knows, and the music knows, that it can contradict the speaker and tell the real story. The pumping beat lends both gravity and bodily thrill to the album-wide expression of dissatisfaction, resentment, loss and exhaustion.

Exhaustion is a key component to understanding Yeezus, and the creepy lethargy is articulated in the final song. “Bound 2” samples an old soul tune but unlike a similar brushstroke on, say, Late Registration, the song is grainy, lost in fuzz, as if we’re listening to a 3rd generation bootleg or a radio station that’s going out with the tide the farther we drive from the tower. Kanye’s ferocious flow diminishes to a halting stop-start speech, where he airs grievances in regards to a certain relationship (with a certain culturally noxious figure that all but makes a great work of art disposable gossip fodder for philistine rags.) It’s good dog day hemp music, until. Until. Amid Kanye’s lightly lobbed orders about this being “don’t tell your mom shit,” everything-the degraded sample, his impotent rambling-is stopped dead by an emphatic vocalist who breaks through the numb to bravely intone “I know you’re tired of loving, of loving, with nobody to love.” Then we’re returned to the stoned quotidian, a Nothing To See Here reversal, like the actors in The Truman Show quickly repairing a collapse in the immaculate show set. This breakthrough epiphany comes back in full longing and force, only to be suppressed one more time before the song pathetically deflates. “Bound 2” is difficult stuff and not easy to like, especially if you compare it to “Lost In The World.” Don’t, that’ll get you nowhere. Instead, focus on the sound story “Bound 2” is dramatizing. Think of how much like life the shifts mirror, your daily mired routine in waxy perception and circuitous bitching-until, until that one geyser of passion bursts through your brain, telling you you’re tired, that you can strive for something better, that you can leave with someone else, a metaphorical person or a warm passionate body. And yet, since even the dream is too wretched to consider because you’ve wasted enough time, and striving and failing would be worse than doing nothing (you tell yourself), that outpour is bottled again and stopped.

Uh-huh honey. I’m tired, you’re tired, Yeezus wept. Thank god.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Reviews of Frances Ha, etc.

In Whit Stillman’s incandescent, Lubitsch-worthy Damsels In Distress, Greta Gerwig’s idiosyncratic screen presence was mined for all its potential riches; In Stillman’s hands she could be linguistically complex, stubborn, even sinister. Now dating Noah Baumbach, Gerwig is the front-and-center Muse and co-creator of his Frances Ha, a brief, B&W character study of a 27-year-old dancer whose life in Manhattan is just as uncoordinated as her steps. It’s likeable and well photographed, but in his fawning Baumbach has peeled off layers from both Gerwig and himself. Frances Ha is self-consciously slight, a snapshot that fails to develop.

I haven’t followed the “Mumblecore” movement since 2010, seeing Andrew Bujalski’s mature Beeswax and Aaron Katz’s stylish Portland mystery Cold Weather as symbolic kiss-offs to this very insular, very mid-aughts DIY phenomenon. Clearly Baumbach was taken with it, no doubt first noticing Gerwig in her ex-comrade Joe Swanberg’s seminal Hannah Takes The Stairs and casting her to poignant effect in Greenberg. Baumbach dabbled in Mumblecore, having produced Swanberg’s haunting 2008 film Alexander The Last before stepping in and escorting Gerwig across the ballroom. At this point though, Swanberg has blossomed into one of the most talented young filmmakers in American cinema, and his recent features Silver Bullets (the best horror movie in five years) and the wrenching Art History have probed intersecting themes of lust, art making, psychosis and betrayal in taut, innovative ways that don’t fall under the “Mumblecore” tag or any tag at all. Frances Ha is a late entry in the Mumblecore cycle and its effects---stumbly “improvised” dialogue, threadbare running time, examination of an aimless (also white, upper class, Artistic) Lost Generation—feel dated, even archaic, especially after the advancements made by Swanberg. This wouldn’t be a problem if Baumbach had simply updated the sensibility of his debut feature Kicking And Screaming, which certainly influenced Mumblecore, but his lax compositions and Hipster’s Digest scenes are redolent of a desire to imitate the work of Bujalski and Swanberg. If this is Baumbach “re-inventing” himself, may I suggest retroactive appraisal.

A director with as vast a knowledge of film history as Baumbach should realize that in his ardor of Gerwig he’s fallen into the “Auteur/IngĂ©nue” syndrome that claimed Peter Bogdanovich, whose affection for Cybill Shepherd led him to grossly misuse and overestimate her talents in the likes of Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love. The sad fact is that Gerwig isn’t much for physical comedy, and instead of calling back to the awkward grace of Marion Davies she futzes around on the dance studio floor and a woebegone waitressing (or “pouring”) job in the vice of her director’s constricting monochrome halo. The eeriness and complexity of her “Let’s do the Sambola” call to arms in Damsels is narrowed here to pissing off a subway platform and making the most out of bite-sized vignettes like Frances’s visits to her parents in Sacramento or an impromptu, melancholy Parisian jet. She’s also upstaged by the tic-free, genuinely unpredictable Adam Driver, as a womanizing roommate she crashes with after being ditched by her BFF (Mickey Sumner). It should be noted that Frances briefly resides with Driver’s Lev and another young turk in a unisex living situation vastly inferior to the wit and gender dynamism displayed weekly by Zooey Deschanel, Max Greenfield and Jake Johnson on the excellent show New Girl. But of course Frances Ha is better than that fluff. It could tell you itself.

In his derivation of outmoded indie style, and distracted by the delight of showing off his new lady, Baumbach largely eschews the pointed, astute storytelling that made past films like The Squid And The Whale so powerful. In Squid, the foreshadowed, symphonic use of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” to augment domestic misery smacked one right in the gut. There’s nothing as tricky or effective here. Frances Ha’s passages are largely cut to ribbons, as she breaks up, flirts, hangs out, contemplates, travels and lives in a perpetual gimcrack zap without dramatic anchor. Thus most of the film feels oddly tossed-off and enervating at the same time. Her magical dance down a city street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” is deflated by jump cuts that should have stepped aside for an extended, graceful track. Also unnerving are the staccato bursts of Baumbach’s trademark pornographic dialogue exchanges. Amidst the preciousness we’re suddenly hit with talk about how a boyfriend loves to “cum in my face” or how a sexual conquest can only climax in the 69 position. Far from objecting on moral grounds, I’m only struck with how distracting these bon mots are. Appropriate for the poison pen Hamptons drama Margot At The Wedding, but for this love letter to the French New Wave, Woody Allen, and Ms. Gerwig?

The film finds agreeable footing in its third act, where Frances hits her nadir in a university regression and tries salvaging her relationship with her friend and the future. Still, the concluding charms inevitably cast a pall over what came before. What if the majority of the film were allowed to breath? What if it were more disciplined and focused on one or two aspects of Frances’s life, her dancing or relationships? Would they yield the same concentrated pleasures as Robert Altman’s The Company or Eric Rohmer’s A Good Marriage? Or was the modest enterprise cursed from the moment Baumbach and Gerwig decided to have their damsel trip and fall while running down a sidewalk, garishly disappearing from view?

The Internship

Despite the occasional guff routine and motes of unfortunate ethnic humor, this Own Wilson and Vince Vaughn reteam is considerably more winning than Frances Ha, being the first PG-13 Vaugn vehicle that isn’t atrocious and even sneaking in some wise observations about getting older and counting your losses amidst enjoyable Revenge Of The Nerdsian set pieces. Two hour commercial for Google? Of course. But who cares, there are worse companies. Seeing these veteran pros I’ve basically been watching my entire life team up with an engaging bunch of ragtags in a techie decathlon is increasingly pleasurable. It has a good-natured glow.

The Hangover III

Rotten Tomatoes, the consensus worshipping cultural tragedy of a movie site, delivers a stone, final judgment on this last entry in the comedy franchise. The Hangover III is poor because it’s an “angrily dark action movie.” And that’s a bad thing? By making the third entry so gustily gonzo, Philips seems energized in a way he hasn’t been since chronicling the fringe ramblings of Al Goldstein and G.G. Allin. The inspired elements of the first Hangover were hampered by a scrim of “Bro” misogyny, which was thankfully corrected in the superior sequel and this crowning entry. (It’s as if the first film was helmed by Bradley Cooper’s douchebag Phil and the others by Galifianakis’ spacey manchild Alan.) Hangover III is a kinetic, bruising crime story with incidental humor, which makes it even funnier. Philips’ rejuvenated energy allows for some unexpectedly gorgeous widescreen cinematography, and it has a creepy, frenzied mirth that Guy Richie and Martin McDonagh have tried and failed to pull off. Like the later Saw movies it’s a reminder that good results can spring from the Studio demand for extended narrative, and its invention leaves a noted indie feeling increasingly rote.