Daily Archives: July 6, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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*. In 2010 Oliver Stone made a sequel to Wall Street (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). It was not well received. Instead, this movie would be Wall Street‘s true sequel, right down to verbatim quotations strewn about the script.
*. Fathers and sons. Stone’s movie was dedicated to his father and dramatized several different forms of fatherhood. Scorsese taught Stone at New York University. In The Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort is both Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko, his father (Rob Reiner) an unconvincing blowhard who just yells (which at least tells us where Jordan got it from). I can’t sort this out.
*. What has changed? We have gone from a morality tale to screwball comedy. The Masters of the Universe are bigger than ever, but far less capable and intelligent. It’s hard to believe such shallow creatures as we see here in Stone’s movie. Or, turning things around, to find any serious, adult people in Scorsese’s.

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*. Take the question of why they do it. Isn’t enough ever enough? For Stone this isn’t a real question, or at best it’s a superficial one. Competition is a biological urge. Here the superficial answer is the real one: you do it for the toys (the cars, the woman, the drugs, the yacht). Enough is never enough. Consumption can have no end, no satisfaction.
*. That this movie was based on a true story, is only more remarkable. The world has gone crazy, and is made even crazier by Hollywood’s inflation.
*. Naomi vs. Darien. The same car, or bottle of champagne, but a different year? At least Margot Robbie seems a little better adjusted to her role.

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*. Wall Street was a movie of rain and gray skies. The Wolf of Wall Street is all dazzling daylight, and bright lights in the big city at night. Which form of lighting is more realistic?
*. Seems odd to me that this movie set the record for the most uses of the word “fuck” in a mainstream, non-documentary film (which sounds like some kind of official award category). Perhaps I’m getting deaf to the f-bomb but I didn’t notice it that much.

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*. As with Wall Street, the seduction of the player lifestyle is irresistible. There’s simply no way to effectively criticize this sort of lifestyle, at least in a movie.
*. Denby thought the film an attempt to “out-Tarantino Tarantino.” I think this gives Tarantino too much credit for a style of film-making that has become generic. Is the hipster soundtrack (retro tunes either funked up or used ironically) a Tarantino innovation? I’m not sure, but I doubt it.
*. Mentioning Tarantino does, however, raise the same question I had after watching Django Unchained (a movie I liked a lot less): Did it take such a name director to make a film like this?
*. It’s both right and wrong to criticize such a movie for its excess. Wrong because it’s a movie about excess. Right for a more complicated reason.
*. I think it’s overdone. Not because there are just too many pills, too many strippers, the car too much, the house too grand, the yacht too big. And not because it repeats itself. But rather because Scorsese won’t let the viewer do any of the work. He was already going down this road with Goodfellas, but here he takes it to another level. There’s really no need to have Jordan break the fourth wall and explain what is obvious. There’s no need for the voiceovers, especially in the scene where Jordan’s contemplating seducing Aunt Emma. That scene would have been wonderful without all the nudges and winks. There’s no need for the cutaways to Popeye eating his spinach before Jordan revives himself from his ‘lude crash. Stuff like this talks down to the audience, as though we’re too stupid to figure out what is going on for ourselves.

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*. Also overdone are the number of scenes where characters can’t make themselves understood and so have to keep YELLING LOUDER, sometimes to no effect whatsoever. Yelling is false drama.
*. I do like how the final shot reveals what I think is the only interesting point being made: that the movie’s main subject is actually Jordan’s audience. The Wolf is only a performer (Gekko was a performer too, but also more than that). As such, he needs an audience. It is that audience – his enablers, cronies, toadies, suckers – that make him what he is. Without them, he’s nothing. They, in turn, egg him on and are complicit in their own ruin. Just look at the final shot here, with all those shining, eager, hopeful, greedy faces. They want so much to believe in this man.

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Wall Street (1987)

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*. These were the Masters of the Universe 1.0, the Medicis (yes) before the Bonfire of the Vanities. What made them different from their epigones? They were larger than life, angrier, and more worldly.
*. Michael Douglas was surprised to find the next generation of wannabe Gordon Gekko’s idolizing a villain. Stone, however, was consciously ambivalent toward his slick-haired devil. Like all devils, he gets most of the good lines.
*. In the original script Bud Fox was Jewish (his name was Freddie Goldsmith), but Stone changed this because he didn’t want to play to the stereotype.
*. I thought this was interesting because I’ve always wondered: Is Gordon Gekko Jewish? He certainly seems to despise not only the WASP establishment but WASPs themselves. The name itself is bizarre, as though sidestepping ethnicity. For the same reason they changed Freddie Goldsmith to Bud Fox I don’t think they could make the chief villain a Jew, but it does seem that they’re implying it at times.
*. I wonder if Darien’s fashion taste was intended as a joke, or if we are to take seriously her decoration of Bud’s apartment. Stone says it’s done in a parodic manner he invented called “demolition style.” I don’t care for the mud tones, or any of the paintings at all. At one point in the documentary “Money Never Sleeps” Stone says it was all meant as a send-up of the ’80s art scene, but apparently the walls also sport some of Stone’s own collection, and include work by Keith Haring and Julian Schnabel.
*. I am sure, however, that the robot butler at Gekko’s house was in bad taste, even at the time.

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*. This said, I was surprised at how little had dated. Yes, the tech seems silly now: the tiny television Douglas shows off, the portable photocopier Sheen uses as a corporate spy, Michael Douglas’s ginormous remote phone. And as with technology, so with fashion. The final outfit Darryl Hannah appears in is not flattering, and her hair is awful throughout. But perhaps most striking was how bad the music by David Byrne sounds. He didn’t last, did he? Sinatra, on the other hand, is seemingly eternal.

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*. There’s so little sunlight in this film. It’s raining during the limo scene. The sun is just coming up on Gekko as he walks on the beach. The final confrontation takes place in a dismal Central Park. The shots of the city are usually just at dawn or dusk, and even the final shot pulls back from the staircase to a cityscape on the cusp of another gloomy day. It’s such a grey world.
*. Do financial types all wear suspenders? Or was that just the ’80s talking?
*. David Thomson: “What does it say about Stone’s casting instinct or his human judgment that he should have elected Charlie Sheen for his innocent, everyman figure, the weather vane of modern morality?” Yes, we get the joke. Charlie Sheen. But Bud Fox isn’t an innocent. He’s a crass jerk who is on the make, falling for the first coke and pussy that comes his way. So what does the casting say about Stone’s judgment? Impeccable.

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*. Actually, all of the casting, or at least that of the male leads, is terrific. Sheen is very good, Douglas (who Stone had been warned against) is perfect, and became an icon. And Terence Stamp was a beyond-inspired choice to play the British prick.
*. There’s no missing Stone’s ambivalence toward his subject matter, his simultaneous critique and celebration of the money culture of Wall Street. I’m not sure you can make an anti-capitalist movie, especially in America/Hollywood. Money is just too flashy, exciting, and seductive.

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*. How much is enough? It’s the question Jake Gittes poses Noah Cross at the end of Chinatown and it gets the same answer here: that the question misses the point. It’s not about the winnings but the playing of the (zero sum) game. There are only winners and losers, you are either inside or outside, “a player or nothing.” Gekko wants to establish himself as the former: he is an evolutionary success story, surviving and breeding a chubby-cheeked heir. Like Noah Cross, it’s the future he wants.
*. Of course, only the very rich, the 1% (perhaps first christened here by Gekko), can indulge in speculations and rationalizations like this. What they say tells us something about them, but not really about us or the world in general. At least I don’t think it does.
*. It’s interesting that Stone says that he saw the movie as an extension of his Scarface script, as this is the movie I was most reminded of as well. It’s another morality tale of gaining the world and losing your soul, of power leading to excess leading to downfall.
*. According to Stone, Daryl Hannah was never happy with her role, and he confessed himself confused as to why she took the part. Note David Thomson on Stone having “startling little use for women” in his movies. In his commentary Stone objects to such criticism, claiming only to be a realist. Political correctness he describes as a “creation of the intelligentsia,” and adds that “Tonya Harding is probably closer to reality than Gloria Steinem.” You had to be there in the ’80s to get that.
*. I understand Hannah’s frustration. She’s just a trophy. She looks good in a wetsuit, but Darien is only a shallow piece of eye candy exposed as hopelessly out of her depth even in her very limited specialist field of art. Stone thought her character had a “vacuity” at the centre of her mind.

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*. The “greed is good” speech is justifiably famous, but for me the best part of it comes when it’s over and Douglas gives Fox a little smirk that tells him (and us) that it was all a performance. Was it also a genuine statement of Gekko’s philosophy and values? Maybe, but that would have only been incidental to his purpose, which was political.
*. I also think Gekko’s later speech about the zero-sum game wherein he creates nothing but owns everything is a juicier bit. It should be even better known, especially today.
*. It’s in that later tirade that Gekko explains how “the richest 1% owns one half of our country’s wealth”. I think this was an exaggeration at the time. I believe the number now is around 40%, and that is after a long period of steadily growing inequality.
*. As noted above, I like James Spader in his role, but it is kind of hard to figure what he’s doing. Roger Ebert thought he should have played Bud Fox. I disagree, but as it is, his character has no real role in the drama. (What was his name? “Roger Barnes.”) I get the feeling more had been written for that part and that later it was edited out.
*. A “three-father film” (Stone): Sheen, Douglas, and Holbrook all providing older exemplars for how to be (or become) a man. Sheen and Holbrook have the good advice, but Douglas has the best lines, best clothes, best everything. So who wins? Isn’t it a bit odd that we never see Gekko doing the perp walk?

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