Saturday, 8 February 2014

'The Wolf of Wall Street', 'Inside Llewyn Davis', and 'August: Osage County': review round-up + A Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman

'The Wolf of Wall Street' - Dir. Martin Scorsese (18)

Funnier than most straight comedies, Martin Scorsese's biopic of stockbroker Jordan Belfort is consistently entertaining over its daunting three hour running length. In many ways it's very similar to 'Goodfellas', albeit following a different (less physically violent) type of criminal, but the beats are the same and the same questions remain, namely "why would somebody choose to live this life?" - with the suggestion made that we will all envy the Belfort even as we come to despise him as a human being. And despicable he is. For all the moral panic about the film failing to condemn its protagonist, Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio paint a picture of a charismatic but morally bankrupt figure, ultimately without any real friends or meaningful human connections. He's an out of control, drug-addicted monster by the film's final third, punching his wife (Margot Robbie) and driving his young daughter into a wall. If you think the film doesn't make his life seem unappealing enough, or that it doesn't show the dark and sinister side of his character, then I don't know what version of the film you saw.

The performances are great across the board, with DiCaprio getting to demonstrate a deft comic timing and lightness of touch we haven't seen in years, whilst physically he's also required to do some incredible and very odd things. Yet the star performer is Jonah Hill as his business partner and supposed best friend Donnie Azoff, who owns the best moments and generates the biggest laughs in a film full of them. Matthew McConaughey is typically brilliant in what amounts to an extended cameo at the start and Kyle Chandler is similarly memorable as the straight-laced, incorruptible FBI agent seen in just a few key scenes. I also have to mention how enjoyable and inspired the casting of Rob Reiner is as Jordan's hot-tempered father - a force of nature who blusters into several key scenes to great comedic effect.

It's typically slick and punchy from beginning to end, carried briskly along by DiCaprio's playful narration and it never really stops for air. That Scorsese continues to make such dynamic, exciting and contemporary films in his 70s (long-serving editor Themla Schoonmaker is showing the likes of 'Spring Breakers' how it's done at 74) is quite something and possibly part of what makes his a unique and enduring voice.

'Inside Llewyn Davis' - Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (15)

A slight and deceptively simple entry into the Coen canon, in the mould of the criminally underrated 'A Serious Man', Oscar Isaac stars here as the title character - a struggling folk singer, moving from couch to couch in the Greenwich Village of 1961. As he bumbles from sometime lover to casual acquaintance we're introduced to a number of strange and variously pathetic and/or unlikable characters, given life by a half-dozen impactful cameos from the likes of John Goodman, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake. In the Coen tradition all of them seen to have some measure of private sadness, whether it's a hidden box of unsold records, a crippling drug problem or a decision to sell-out artistically and settle down in the suburbs. Llewyn is vaguely contemptuous of nearly all of them and yet he is simultaneously beholden to them as he endlessly rotates through his New York contacts for places to stay or people to hitch a ride with.

Llewyn is an interesting character. Superior, aloof and prideful - refusing to sell out his artistic sensibilities, living hand to mouth and playing 'real' folk music with thankless results and no commercial future. A user and a man without responsibility or attachments. Yet he is on occasion, paradoxically, upstanding and decent in his quiet way. Both humble and egotistical. Emotionally detached and yet harbouring his own grief and inner turmoil. A complex and nuanced character perfectly suited to Isaac's intelligent and introspective demeanor. He's not a hero in any sense; he's infuriating and maybe a little pretentious - but he's entirely human. The Coen's get criticised often for not liking their characters enough, but this kind of nuanced depiction of people - with all their faults and idiosyncrasy - to my mind comes from a place of empathy and understanding. I think they understand people very well, but they aren't afraid to admit that we're all basically a bit rubbish.

'August: Osage County' - Dir. John Wells (15)

I imagine a slight variation on this short conversation accounts for every single factor behind the making, distribution and ultimate viewership of 'August: Osage County': it goes "hey, Chris Cooper! We got a great part for you." "Yeah?" he replies "What's the movie about?" "Well, I'm glad you asked, Chrissy boy. It's an adaptation of a stage play about a dysfunctional mid-Western family dominated by a cruel matriarch and rocked by incest, substance abuse and general misery." "Oh, I dunno" replies Mr. Cooper "that sounds kinda interesting but I think I'll pass." "That's a shame, pal, because Meryl was personally extremely interested in you coming aboard with us." "Excuse me? Meryl?" "Yeah, didn't I mention Meryl Streep is taking the lead part?" "Oh my lord! Meryl Streep!? Where do I sign! This is going to be amazing!"

I think that's an accurate transcript of how this film came to be and the sum total explanation of why audiences are going to see it, in spite of the fact that it's a hoary old bag of cliches adding up to a glorified episode of 'Eastenders'. Though it's easy to see why Meryl Streep took the role: she's this out of control, bitchy, shouty monster of a mother, parading around in a bad wig with a drink in one hand and a fag in the other - falling over, maniacally cackling and not so much chewing the scenery as violently chomping it to within an inch of its warranty. It's a role and performance preconfigured to make audiences say "oh, how brave!" And as Meryl Streep sprints over the top, all of the other actors race to join her - most notably Julia Roberts, whose "eat the mother-fucking fish, bitch" rant rivals that bit in 'The Paperboy' (where Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo watch Nicole Kidman masturbate) for shear "oh my god, what am I watching and is it really happening?"-ness.

There's one very nice father and son sequence between Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch, which is the closest the movie comes to feeling genuine and intimate. Then there's the film's real stand-out performance, delivered by Julianne Nicholson who plays Streep's meek and downtrodden youngest daughter with tenderness, vulnerability and genuine heart. But the rest is all histrionics and 'dark heart of the rural American family' tropes that we've all seen a thousand times before in better movies. Maybe Tracy Letts' play works better on the stage, where hammy excess is often part and parcel of the experience - but this big screen adaptation borders on ridiculous as it goes from one melodramatic family revelation to the next in all its plate-smashing pomp.


Finally, I've been saddened by the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman - a man who could legitimately have claimed to have been the actor of his generation. He was certainly one of my all-time favourites and I'm upset that we won't be seeing whatever he might have gone on to do as an actor and director. As an actor he was always believable and could be relied upon to be the best thing in the rare bad movie that he appeared in. He was one of those talents that elevated bad material and made great material really sing. There is no such thing as a bad Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, at least not that I've seen.

In tribute, below are some clips of my favourite of his roles.

A good scene (and great performance) from a less than great movie...


And one from the best film ever made...

I'm genuinely going to miss this guy.

1 comment:

  1. An amazing film with an equally amazing performance by Leo DiCaprio. The intense relationship between Mr. DiCaprio and Jonah Hill reminded me of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in Raging Bull. Its the very best by all involved. I find the criticism of this film because it degrades women, glorifies money, and promotes drug use down right silly. Its a great movie about men who degrade women, glorify money and use drugs.