The Wolf of Wall Street

Quote of the film: “I want you to deal with your problems by getting RICH!” — Jordan Belfort

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is a Martin Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It is based on the book, with the same name, by Jordan Belfort (played by DiCaprio). The film follows the life and career of Belfort, from starting out as a legit stock broker, building up his own firm, and subsequent criminal activity.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives an incredible performance as the ambitious and substance-addicted Jordan Belfort. DiCaprio takes this character to many ends of the spectrum, from the young and innocent 22-year old just starting out in the stock business, to the inspirational speaker rallying his employees to do a morally-questionable job well done, and to the highs and lows of the drug addict. DiCaprio delivers his speeches with such vigor and and determination that chills ran down my spine. He accessed a myriad of emotions to convey the many sides of Jordan Belfort. A particularly amazing scene is Belfort’s reaction to the 15-year old Quaaludes, where he finds himself in what he calls the “Cerebral Palsy phase”, and crawls and flails from the country club to his car, contorting his body and face in every possible way. His performance is worth the watch.

The film itself is indulgence personified. It is exaggeration to every extreme. The movie focuses on Belfort’s extravagant lifestyle, spending the time to illustrate every specific detail. The film itself is extravagance, as the film lasts 2 hours and 59 minutes, and slams the audience with loud and bold material from start to finish. For that is the point of the picture, to highlight the absurdity of over-indulgence. Belfort and his business partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), have their entire beings literally saturated in anything and everything — from a plethora of drugs, alcohol, sex, and most importantly, money. An incredibly inspiring speech in the film, rallying his employees to sell Steve Madden stock or bust, Belfort delivers this profound statement: “I want you to deal with your problems by getting RICH!” At one point, making this broker firm was to make better money to make better lives for themselves, but now it’s about making money to escape from problems — while more money in fact causes even more problems.

The film is a striking look into addiction. It is not a satisfying film to watch by any means, as the film ends with Belfort continuing to profit from his past after a shockingly short prison sentence. He’s addicted to the money, but he’s also addicted to the attention, proven by the ending shot of the film where the camera pans out to the audience who has every ear and every eye focused on his every word.

American Hustle

Quote of the film: “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.” — Sydney

American Hustle (2013) is an American character film loosely based on the ABSCAM operation of the 70s and 80s. Directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), the film focuses more on character relationships between an all-star cast.

Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a businessman and conman, who makes money by feeding off desperate lowlives who need loans and by selling stolen and forged art. He is quick-witted, charismatic, and quick-tempered. He’s an aggressive businessman, loving father, indifferent husband, and tender lover — and Bale shifts between each side of Rosenfeld with ease. Bale even gained 40 pounds for this role, literally embodying his character.

Amy Adams plays Sydney Prosser, lover and business partner to Irving. She’s a seductive and alluring woman, struggling to turn her life around — managing to turn from stripper to con-woman. Her con is as Lady Edith Greensley, an English woman with bank connections in London. She’s a sharp and intuitive woman, who puts up a strong exterior to hide her desire to be loved. Adams, who tends to play a wholesome character, knocks it out of the park with this sexy role. She’s uninhibited, showing off her body in slinky dresses, and owning every space she enters.

Bradley Cooper plays FBI agent Richie DiMaso. He’s innately a good man, truly wanting to do a good job for the FBI and bring justice to “corrupt” politicians, but his good nature is carried out through a hot head, aggression, and impulse. Cooper does a great job mixing innocence and naivety with instability and drive.

Jennifer Lawrence dazzles as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn. Written specifically for Lawrence, this role is parody of the typical misinformed and mistreated housewife. She is accident-proned, fearless, and unintentionally hilarious. She’s selfish, more concerned about her needs than those of her husband or son, looking to fall in love. Lawrence nails a Jersey accent, and she portrays an unstable housewife with finesse. And, as always, every time Lawrence cries on screen, hearts break.

Jeremy Renner plays Carmine Polito, mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Polito is an honest-to-goodness politician. He works earnestly for the people in his city, doing his best to restore Atlantic City and create jobs for his citizens. Targeted by DiMaso, he’s brought down in the end by the FBI for bribery and corruption, with the utmost honest intentions at heart. Renner plays an incredibly charismatic and compassionate family man and the most respectful politician. The incredible switch that Renner delivers from optimistic hero to devastated and betrayed friend is powerful.

As David O. Russell has said: “I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” This film truly embodies that sentiment. The plot is engaging and interesting, but it’s nothing to the play between the characters. At almost 2.5 hours, the film feels a touch slow towards the end, but it’s worth the character dynamics that Russell takes the time to develop. The acting between this all-star cast is incredible. The most striking moments are scenes with pairs of actors: Irving and Sydney, Rosalyn and Irving, Sydney and Richie, Carmine and Irving. These moments delve into the cores of the characters, perpetuating the emotional gravitas of the plot. The way Irving is touched by Carmine’s friendship leads to heartbreaking shots of guilt on Irving’s face. The way Rosalyn is disgusted by Irving’s “whore” leads to a shocking kiss and maniacal laughter. These moments are the meat of the film, what make it worth the watch.

The film starts with a bang as the words “Some of this actually happened” display on the screen. Loosely based on actual events, Russell is able to play around with his extraordinary characters and incredible actors. The film is suspenseful, engaging, and funny all in one. The masterful acting in this film is inspiring and powerful, sure to be acknowledged and rewarded this award season.

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) is a comedy-drama, directed by John Lee Hancock, about writer P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins novels. The film focuses on the 2-week long period where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), and his production crew, persuade Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign over the screen rights to her novels. The film parallels Travers’ time in Los Angeles with flashbacks of her childhood, growing up with her imaginative yet alcoholic father. The various flashbacks unravel the mystery of how the young and free-spirited Helen Goff/Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) transformed into the cold and rigid P.L. Travers.

Emma Thompson excellently portrays the stern and unyielding Mrs. Travers. Travers is a character burdened by decades of guilt and resentment, choosing to express herself through concise diction, appropriate gestures and dress, and through her books. Thompson delivers every line masterfully, strikingly similar to the recording played during the film’s credits of an actual session with P.L. Travers and the Disney production crew. Thompson’s stringent performance throughout the majority of the film makes those few moments where Travers lets down her guard that more moving. Her soft moments truly contrasted from her many hard moments. Travers an austere character, but the film’s care with her childhood story arc allows her to be a sympathetic character, despite her harshness. The audience wants to find out what has made her so firm and wants her to find peace.

The cast is delightful. Disney’s production crew is a bubbly and optimistic group of people — who really have to their optimism put to the ultimate test. Bradley WhitfordJason SchwartzmanBJ Novak, and Melanie Paxson give spirited performances. Their characters in general are happy Disney employees who have to go the extra mile to appease the difficult Mrs. Travers.

The film is named for Mr. Banks, the father character in Travers’ novels. As far as the production crew knows, Mary Poppins comes to care for and save the children, but the flashbacks into Travers’ childhood prove that there is a greater purpose for her presence. Mary Poppins was inspired by Ginty’s Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who came at the lowest point in her childhood to fix “everything”. She succeeds in almost everything, but she was not able to save Ginty’s sick father (Colin Farrell). Aunt Ellie’s failure stays with Ginty as she grows up. Mary Poppins comes to save the children’s father, illustrated in touching scene in the film where the song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” is born.

This delightful and moving film defies multiple expectations, the most important of which is Travers’ transformation. The film is not about forgiving herself. She does not need to save herself. The film is about forgiving her father, forgiving her aunt, forgiving Mary Poppins for not saving her father.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) is based off the book of the same name. Directed by author of the novel, Stephen Chbosky, the film tells the story of lonely and troubled Charlie (Logan Lerman, Percy Jackson) who begins his journey through high school. Dealing with the recent suicide of his friend Michael, Charlie enters this new stage of life alone and vulnerable. He’s befriended by two seniors: siblings Sam (Emma Watson, Harry Potter) and Patrick (Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk About Kevin). He finds himself a part of a group of friends, welcome and cared for.

The film (and the book) is a coming-of-age story, aimed at a specific group of youth in a specific time in their lives. It praises high school as the best time of our lives, where one realizes who s/he is. Whether one agrees or disagrees with that viewpoint, the film expresses some poignant themes about the value of friendship in this time of adolescent life. Sam and Patrick, while at first glance exhibit unfavorable traits (promiscuity and “weirdness”, respectively), they are true friends to Charlie, inviting him into their circle of friends, showing him new experiences, trusting him.

The film opens with the Fort Pitt Tunnel of Pittsburgh. This same shots occurs during the movie, when Charlie watches Sam personify freedom as she stands out of the truck, arms floating through the air as the wind blows around her. This same shot ends the film, as Charlie, after the many trails of his freshman year of high school, can finally embrace and experience the same freedom. The tunnel is a physical representation for the coming-of-age journey.

Ezra Miller is the star of the film. For those who saw We Need to Talk About Kevin, Miller’s portrayal in these two films could not be more different. Miller’s Kevin is a heartless psychopath, dripping with creepiness, while Miller’s Patrick is a bubbly, outgoing gay teenage boy. Patrick has his fair share of problems, but he (usually) faces the day with a smile on his face and a joke on the tip of his tongue.

The film is a highly romanticized view of high school. It shows the children in almost complete autonomy, as if they are college students living on their own. They go to “real parties”, stocked full with dancing, alcohol, and pot brownies. High schoolers are participating in late-night performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s as if Chbosky pulled college-level experiences and applied them to a high school setting, to make a high school life more meaningful than it really is. His screenplay is more college-light than high school. Regardless, the film effectively makes worthwhile comments on the value of young friendship.