Monday, February 03, 2014

TALES OF HOFFMAN (A Death in the Family)

For the past 24 hours, I’ve struggled a bit to come to terms with my feelings about the death of character actor extraordinaire and quiet force of nature Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Like many who have reflected on his tragic passing, I’ve long admired his work, regarding his presence in any film as a de facto guarantee of at least some small bit of quality.  But actors like Hoffman don’t naturally inspire rabid fandom; he didn’t have the brooding masculine intensity of De Niro, the steely matinee idol glamour of Clooney, the livewire intensity of Pacino, the subversive charm of Bale.  Such is the curse of the character actor.  So why has his death hit me like this?

I think that my feelings were clarified while I perused David Thomson’s excellent film history tome The Big Screen, particularly its chapter on the films of the Russian revolution, which serves as a timely reminder of what those early artists hoped was the true power of cinema: the power to unite, to change society.  How quickly, Thomson notes, were their hopes weakened, as cinema’s prime appeal became that of a vehicle for escape from the uncomfortable realities of life.  But even today, don’t we all strive for some sort of transcendence in the cinema experience?  Don’t the sellout crowds at midnight premieres of mega-budget blockbusters lend credence to an enduring cultural desire for communal ecstasy?  Sure, the church of cinema might be increasingly enraptured with the matters of high sacrament, but it remains a quasi-religious experience, no?

And religious experience breeds familial fraternity.  In reflecting upon my love affair with big screens of all sorts, I’ve come to realize that some of the film artists who’ve captured my most passionate devotion are those who have a sense of family about them.  To wit: the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, in which I first discovered Phil Hoffman’s chameleonic dexterity.  To this day, Hard Eight/Sydney, Boogie Nights and Magnolia still have about them the air of a gifted prodigy playing with increasingly larger train sets, while also inviting his extended cadre of family and friends along to join in the fun.  Back in those halcyon days of the late 90’s, Anderson’s blooming Hollywood clout gave him free reign to resurrect the career of the great Philip Baker Hall, to remind the world of the card sharp precision of Mamet regulars Ricky Jay and William H. Macy, to give a late in life boost to old family friend/Ernie Anderson filthy joke partner Robert Ridgely, to cast the sublime Melora Walters in a truly emotionally raw role that most actresses could only feign at, and to turn old friend John C. Reilly into a genuine star.

And, of course, to draw inspiration from Hoffman, first as the sadly pathetic Dirk Diggler fan Scotty J. and then as the almost saintly Phil Parma, a small still voice of loyalty and goodness to Jason Robards’s dying Earl Partridge.  Like his mentor Robert Altman, Anderson found great delight in the ensemble cast dramedy.  Boogie Nights, in particular, draws much of its primal energy from a loose and hazy sense of sprawl, as characters both major and minor drift in and out of one another’s lives.  Hoffman’s screentime in the 70’s porn epic is somewhat limited, but the vulnerability he shows in that time is touching, turning a possibly one dimensional role into a full-blooded portrait of flawed humanity.

Those early Anderson films felt like family reunions, with your close relatives missing in with the eccentric aunt and drunk second cousin that you might only see once a year.  And in true familial fashion, those reunions became fewer and farther between.  Time progressed, careers grew and Anderson’s focus shifted from loose ensemble to focused (yet still subversive) classicism.  Yet still, some of the family members kept showing up.  And Hoffman remained a steady presence, as close to a muse as Anderson had.  His crowning achievement as L. Ron Hubbard surrogate Lancaster Dodd in The Master was a work suffused with equal parts bombast and empathy.

So, in many ways, I feel like I’ve lost an extended member of the family, so close did I associate Hoffman with the deeply familial Anderson oeuvre.  But Lancaster Dodd’s deeply submerged emotional neediness is just as telling an indicator of my connection to Hoffman.  In a career of playing common men, villains and one legendary author, he excelled at embracing total vulnerability.  Sure, his physical heft and understated demeanor lent themselves to turns like this.  But he was also fearless in his pursuit of anti-glamorous roles, while still infusing them with a magnetic charisma.  His Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous steals the show, but is still the man beneath the myth, a sad and lonely figure whose speed-addled rambling hide the idealistic little boy underneath.  Dan Mahowney, in the criminally underrated Owning Mahowney, is free falling through his corrosive gambling addiction, but even though he embraces all the ugliness of the character, Hoffman is still fascinating to watch.  And there’s the infamous opening shot of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a precursor to the descent into Hell that Hoffman and Ethan Hawke embark upon.  And the wry world weariness of his Paul Zara in The Ides of March.

But in particular, I’ve always been haunted by his turn in the climactic scene of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour.  His Jacob Elinsky is an inherently decent, but weak man, a high school English teacher caught up in the turbulent emotions of his best friend’s (Edward Norton’s Monty Brogan) final day before extended prison time and his secret crush on a student.  He serves as the ying to the alpha male yang of Barry Pepper’s Frank Slaughtery (a great, often overlooked turn), a dichotomy that finally reveals itself in full on that hungover morning of Brogan’s departure for the big house.  Knowing that a good looking boy like himself will be fodder to the shark tank of prison. Brogan implores Slaughtery to rough him up, to at least buy him a few months of ugliness in which he can find stability behind bars.  But Frank, who’s hidden behind his macho bluster all night, won’t do it.  It’s only then that Monty, left with no other choice, assaults Jacob, the sacrificial lamb; it’s the one act that Frank can’t tolerate, this attempted destruction of the weakest of their crew, and he finally breaks down and annihilates Monty’s face, while also howling with the grief for his best friend’s possible death sentence that he has kept tamped down.  It’s a devastating moment, one that draws so much of its emotional power from the audience’s empathy for Phil Hoffman’s character.  His full embrace of vulnerability isn’t pretty, but that’s the whole point.

There’s so much more to remember, but it doesn’t change the fact that today a man is dead, his partner deserted, his children now fatherless.  Philip Seymour Hoffman left a bevy of cinematic riches in his wake.  But his death also leaves a gaping hole in the film world, one filled with the ghosts of what might have been.  And on a human level, it cuts short a life well lived.  The term tragedy is too often blithely tossed around in our culture, but in so many definitions of the word, Hoffman’s death was truly that.  He will be missed.

Friday, December 27, 2013

WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?: Martin Scorsese torches the American Dream in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET


As loaded and over the top as that word might be, it keeps popping up in my mind as the first one I’d use to describe the exhilarating, profanely funny, warped, epic, megalomaniacal acid trip fantasia, cinematic shotgun blast to the face that is Martin Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

Now you all know the knock on modern-day Marty, or at least, oh let’s say, post-GOODFELLAS/CASINO nexus Scorsese.  That he stopped making personal films a long time ago.  That even though he’s arguably the most respected and lauded modern day American director, he can’t get projects made without $100 million budgets and mega-star Leo attached to them.  That he long ago resigned himself to this reality and started making prestige pictures that were essentially extended tributes to past genres and directors (the visual mini-film history of THE AVIATOR, the Val Lewton gothic horror of SHUTTER ISLAND, the silent film tribute of HUGO.)  That none of these films holds a candle to the raw power of TAXI DRIVER, MEAN STREETS, RAGING BULL.

And you might even be able to wring some truth out of those criticisms.  But hey, it’s Hollywood.  How many major directors not named Spielberg, Lucas or Cameron maintain a sizeable amount of control after their prime years?

Well critics, I’d like to introduce you to the Martin Scorsese of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, who’s taken a pre-sold property that almost didn’t feature his directing skills and molded it into an epic modern masterpiece that ranks among some of the best work of his career.  Working for the first time with lensman Rodrigo Prieto, but also once again with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese imbues Terence Winter’s ace script with a zest and verve that feels like the work of an artist 20-30 years his junior.  Or, more accurately, like the director of GOODFELLAS and CASINO hopped up on some powerful speed. 

Remember the legendary Sunday May 11th, 1980 scene in GOODFELLAS, the manic, coke-fuelled microcosm of Henry Hill’s encroaching paranoia that serves as his last day as a truly free man?  THE WOLF OF STREET does it one better.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET does it three hours better. 

But whereas GOODFELLAS so richly chronicled the rise of Henry Hill by seducing the audience with the same enticing, erotic allure with which the mob life seduced him, before descending into the degraded personal hell of betrayal and addiction, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET marries the heady rush of Jordan Belfort’s ascent to power with that same coke binge mentality at the genetic level.  And on a literal level.

For it’s the ubiquitous white powder that fuels the lives of Belfort and his army of stock hustlers and the tone of the film.  The first half of WOLF, in particular, is an almost non-stop race to the bottom, each scene an ever-escalating master class in giddy depravity.  The cutting is as New Wave-influenced as some of the more propulsive moments of THE DEPARTED.  And the soundtrack is littered with amped up versions of classic tunes.  Ahmad Jamal’s fleet cover of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” underscores Belfort’s extravagant gift of jewelry to his wife, one of the first fruits of his newly scammed success.  Me First and the Gimme Gimmes turn Brian Wilson’s jaunty “Sloop John B” into a ferocious punk anthem for a yacht scene. And The Lemonheads’ accelerated version of “Mrs. Robinson” narrates the final bust of Belfort’s empire.  The lyrics accompanying Belfort’s bus ride to jail?  “Joltin' Joe has left and gone away.”  By the time that Devo burst into the room with “Uncontrollable Urge”, it feels almost elementary. 

And make no mistake about it: this is also some of the funniest, darkly comedic work that Scorsese has ever produced.  It’s telling that the dwarf-tossing scene that opens the picture is only the beginning of the delirious hijinks.  In the hands of the revelatory Jonah Hill (who twists his typical screen persona into a henchman straight out of Hieronymous Bosch) and the resurgent Matthew McConaughey,  Winter’s script sizzles with a comic fury.  And special mention should also be made of P.J. Byrne, who turns in a less flashy, but equally hilarious performance as Belfort aide Rugrat, a total loser who’s elevated to demi-rock star by the Jordan manual for success.

But at the heart of the insanity is Leonardo Dicaprio, who gives the performance of his career as the charismatic moral vacuum that is Jordan Belfort.  I’ve long been ambivalent about Leo, especially during his run with Scorsese.  He’s routinely shown a willingness to champion challenging projects (indeed, WOLF has been his baby for a long while), and he brings a charged intensity to most of his roles.  But he’s also tended to fall back on tired ticks and mannerisms, too often gritting his teeth and flaring his eyes to convey intensity and anger in a manner that recalls some of the worst excesses of Tom Cruise.

But in the Jordan Belfort of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Leo has found a character whose very existence is rooted in the overly theatrical, the wildly mannered.  He’s constantly hustling the world with alpha male displays of devilish charm or thunderous pep rally speeches to the assembled troops.  Or with direct seduction of the audience, breaking the fourth wall to impart insider’s advice on the good life (and even reassuring us that, naw, we don’t really need the fine details of an IPO or how his scam works.)  Henry Hill and Ace Rothstein also spoke directly to the audience, but the former was gradually plagued by his conscience and the latter remained a fascinating emotional cipher.  But Jordan is like Don Draper living in the pitch meeting 24/7.  DiCaprio also shows himself to be a gifted physical comedian, especially in the long march to the sea that is his epic Quaalude bender near the ¾ mark of the narrative, in which he has to roll down a set of stairs, crawl into his Ferrari Lamborghini(which appears to devour him whole in one of the film’s keenest visual metaphors) and eventually lumber his way toward a choking Jonah Hill (the solution for which might be WOLF’s comic highlight.)

Damn, is the whole thing an intoxicating brew of graphic sex with models, the finest drugs that money can buy and rock rock rock rock ROCK around the clock!

The film is set on Wall Street in the past.  What does it say about the world today?
Terence Winter: How history repeats itself and how we’re not learning from our mistakes.  I mean, it’s just holding a mirror up to what’s still going on.

Martin Scorsese: It goes back to what the concept of America is.  Yes, you can have extraordinary opportunities.  But is it a place where the main opportunities are to get rich or about human rights?  Is it about a sense of freedom, a pursuit of happiness, or is it just about getting rich?
(The Hollywood Reporter/December 13, 2013)

And yet……and yet……there’s the inevitable comedown.  And the reality behind the coke dream.  The second half of the film takes on the mannerisms of the Quaalude/coke mix that begins to define the lives of Belfort Inc.  We get the hints of the slit wrists and heart attacks that claim the lives of some of the most loyal members of the entourage.  The narrative pacing grows slack, snaps back into full speed ahead, then goes slack again.

And the ultimate comedown is the realization that Scorsese and company have crafted a tale that, underneath its amphetamine frenzy surface, is a brutal indictment of the myths that we as a society have bought into.  To quote the extended trailer for DAWN OF THE DEAD: “It is a horrible, hauntingly accurate vision of the mindless excesses of a society gone mad.”  For years, America has told itself that it’s had enough of the wheeler dealers who, every decade or so, abscond with retirement investments or blow out the housing market.  And then a new generation of Gordon Gekko wannabes comes along and the plot repeats itself (to quote another film within a film from this holiday season: “Can't put me finger on what lies in store, / But I fear what's to happen all happened before.”). 

And, sadly, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET will probably be seen by some of these same people as the ultimate party movie of the decade.  In its recent profile of the real life Belfort, New York magazine hit upon this essential dichotomy: former prison mate Tommy Chong marvels at the legendary tales of excess without mentioning the lives that Jordan helped to annihilate, and the FBI agent who ultimate busted him (played by Kyle Chandler in the film) admits that even though he considers his relatively short jail term to be “a slap in the face”, he still occasionally has lunch with him (“He tells a good story.”)  We’ve come to lionize high stakes swindlers like Belfort as modern-day gunslingers, the only guys on the street with the balls to make it big (or, as today’s Jordan tells his admirers, “If you want to be rich, you have to program your mind to be rich.  You have to unlearn all the thoughts that were making you poor…”).

It’s the get rich quick fantasies of this country that enable Jordan Belfort to shoot his way to the top.  Early in the film, there’s a hilarious scene in which DiCaprio schools his new charges in the ways of how to sell a sucker rotten penny stocks by reading from the officially approved Belfort script.  It’s a hilarious bit of business, but the poor schmuck on the other end is still there, betting his mortgage on a ship that will never come in.  We may never hear from him, but the understanding is there: his life will soon go up in smoke.  The film’s dramatic payoff for Belfort, the comeuppance for his crimes, is a fairly short stay in a minimum security white collar prison where he gets to play tennis.  And a cushy landing into the motivational speaker world.  For the rules of the modern American Dream allow for the creation of suave monsters like Jordan.  He’s the spawn of our collective desire for that one last shot at glory.

In THE DEPARTED, Scorsese (along with screenwriter William Monahan) created a modern world where there is no honor among thieves.  Or cops.  Or psychiatrists.  A post-9/11 environment where deception is now the default mode.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET shows that he hasn’t drifted from his convictions.  But just like that Oscar-winning pic, it’s still one hell of a thrill ride on the road to damnation.

*UPDATE* The always erudite Glenn Kenny weighs in on some of the critical reactions to WOLF.  Sometimes, you gotta wonder...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

See the Glory of the Royal Scam:Steely Dan explain AMERICAN HUSTLE

(SPOILERS AHOY!  Wait, does this mean that I’m nautically sensual?  Eh, lighten up Frances!)

David O. Russell’s sprawling tale of the late 70’s FBI Abscam operation prominently features Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” over its opening credits.  And what other ‘70s musical act would be more appropriate for these proceedings than the Dan, those masterful purveyors of acid-drenched cynicism wrapped in smooth, seductive jazz rock?   So what else can Messers Fagen and Becker tell us about the inner workings of HUSTLE’s dedicated scammers?  Well kids, if you want some fun, see what you never have seen.  Take off your cheaters and sit right down.  Start the projection machine.


Irving Rosenfeld’s combover is a character unto itself.  The first shot of the film is of Christian Bale’s authentically bloated belly, but it’s directly followed by a lovingly detailed single shot of just how that Rosenfeld faux do is maintained (and boy, can spirit gum go a long way in maintaining fading male potency.)  In a film with scams of all stripes, it’s the most benign of falsehoods, but one that sets the tone for the higher stakes games soon to be played, which will be fuelled by the same sense of pure ego stroking.  And following his mirror time, Bale’s next move is a confrontation with Bradley Cooper’s permed up peacock federal agent Richie Di Maso, during which he accuses him of raiding his polyester laden closet.

Is there a modern major screen star more willing to physically commit themselves to a role than Bale?  He’s gone from insanely buff in AMERICAN PSYCHO to dangerously emaciated in THE MACHINIST to ruggedly bulky in BATMAN BEGINS.  But he’s truly abandoned any sense of aesthetic ego in his two collaborations with Russell; the rail thin, crackhead physique and receding hairline of THE FIGHTER’S Dicky Eklund and the indulgent bloat of Irving Rosenfeld are mirror images of two men consumed by their own vice.  Bale’s total immersion extends into his subtle mannerisms and lumbering physical gait.  Despite an Oscar win for THE FIGHTER, he’s still not recognized enough for the idiosyncratic career he’s forged; maybe the end of his Batman days will rectify that problem.

(“My Rival”)

(“Deacon Blues”)

And speaking of male heartthrobs willing to subvert their matinee idol looks….there’s much to commend about Bradley Cooper’s work with Russell in this film and last year’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  His live wire turn as the bipolar Pat Solitano in that film exploded the easygoing stud image that Hollywood had cultivated in most his post-HANGOVER career.  He’s ostensibly the hero of the opening salvo of HUSTLE, but as the story progresses the manic obsessive vampire within him beings to emerge.  As Richie’s wild-eyed hubris metastasizes, Cooper displays a feral quality that’s both absurd and frightening.  At heart, he’s a mediocre cop who’s too driven by Eliot Ness fantasies to realize how badly he bungles parts of the investigation; check out the giddy excitement that he can’t conceal as he’s about to bust Irving and Sydney at the beginning of the film, that same leering grin coming to the forefront again at the film’s climax when he’s about to score the most temporary of major validations by recording mob lawyer Alfonse Simone’s over the top admission of criminal guilt.  Early in the film, as their loan shark scheme begins to reach fruition, Irving and Sydney marvel at how hard marks will push against people who tell them no.  It’s also an accurate assessment of what (aside from swarthy good looks) is really Richie’s only strength as a cop: his stubborn sense of determination in the face of rejection. 

(“Only a Fool Would Say That”)

In truth, Richie’s foremost enemy is his boss Stoddard Thorsen, who, in another of the film’s sly reversals, seems to be the archetypical pencil pushing bureaucrat, but who’s later proven to be a much needed voice of pragmatism in a New York FBI office hellbent on rewarding preening egomaniacs like Richie and US Prosecutor Anthony Amado (Allesandro Nivola).  And who better to play Thorsen than that modern saint of maligned, schlubby masculinity, Louis C.K.  His befuddlement when Richie phone whips him and stares him down in a pistol packed standoff (“Come one, that’s not you” Richie patronizingly tries to reassure Stoddard, even though Richie himself is a far cry from the gunslinger persona he envisions for himself) is a thing of beauty.  And Russell once again expertly manipulates audience expectations during Richie’s post-Simone busting celebration, C.K. serving as the impotent butt of the joke in a scene that’s genuinely funny while also serving as a savage indictment of Amado’s headline chasing boy’s club (who’ve inadvertently stumbled into a fake mob attorney and a $2 million transfer into the account of the very scam artists who they’re employing.)


There’s one approximation of an innocent in the constellation of double dealing wannabes and shysters: Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey.  AMERICAN HUSTLE treats Abscam as the great macguffin at the heart of a story about egos and broken dreams, but Carmine is the story’s true believer, striving to improve the lives of his largely beaten down black and Puerto Rican constituency and to resurrect Atlantic City the money of a faux shiek.  His political survival depends on paying tribute to the local mob dons, but in the film’s ethically gray world, it’s perhaps one of the smallest offenses.  As he heads off to reduced jailtime at the film’s conclusion, he’s a shamed good man; in voiceover, Irving testifies that the loss of Carmine’s friendship still haunts him, but he gets to walk away with Sydney at the end of the story.

(“Show Biz Kids”)

At the film’s 2/3 mark, it realizes that it needs to up the ante and muddy the con.  So bring on Meyer Lanksy’s muscle, the Miami connection Victor Tellegio.  And bring on Robert De Niro, in an unbilled turn as the mob heavy who nearly upsets Abscam’s fragile foundation.  Victor’s emphasis on getting Michael Pena’s faux shiek American citizenry in order to speed his acquisition of a gaming license makes you wonder if he crossed paths with Ace Rothstein years before.  And there’s a definite frisson in the stareoff between De Niro and Bale at the backroom meeting, two actors renowned for a commitment to abusing their good looks for film silently acknowledging one another.

(“With a Gun”)

Jennifer Lawrence’s presence as the gradually vengeful Rosalyn is one of the knottier aspects of AMERICAN HUSTLE.  Her manic intensity opposite Cooper in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK produced genuine sparks, but those two were clearly playing the misfit kids in an otherwise straight world.  Russell populates HUSTLE with lead characters who are always straddling the line between drama and absurdity, which too often makes Rosalyn stick out as a cartoonish figure.  There’s a difference between playing an annoying character and just hamming it up.  She’s given a few nice moments of levity, but her comic relief duties soon wear thin.

(“Night by Night”)

Everyone in the film feels like they’re living a lie, that they’ll do anything it takes to transform themselves, sometimes totally unaware of the irony of the new lies they’re embracing.  Irving admires Sydney for her willingness to transcend her seedy past as a stripper (which, she tells herself and the audience in voiceover, could sorta be sexy) by scamming her way into his life, while also starting himself on his road to ruin as a young man driven by the disappointment with his father’s life.  Rosalyn detests Irving’s crooked ways, still clings to the fantasy of an idealized marriage, but then later latches onto Jack Huston (mob connections and all) as her knight in shining armor.  Richie holds aspirations of being New York’s undercover crusader, but he feels trapped by his pedestrian home life with his mother and fiancĂ©e.  But his frustration with the seeming limitations of that life thrust him headlong into the manufactured allure of Sydney’s Edith Greensly persona, a front that she fully embraces to hide from her frustrations with Irving’s romantically ambivalent ways.

And how could an examination of AMERICAN HUSTLE be complete without lauding Amy Adams, who gives a gives a seductive, bravura turn as Sydney Prosser?  It’s a much more challenging role than Lawrence’s Rosalyn, but it ultimately ends up being more rewarding.  Between this film and THE MASTER, she’s shown incredible range, deftly manipulating her wholesome beauty and injecting a sharp sense of cutthroat self-preservation into it.  Whether staring into Joaquin Phoenix’s/the camera’s eye while seducing him/us deeper into The Cause or subtly oscillating between her American and British accents as she lays out her plans to Irving, she’s a serpentine presence, exuding sex appeal and menace in equal measures.

(“Time Out of Mind”)