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Review – The Wolf of Wall Street (18) [2014]

The Wolf of Wall Street - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Martin Scorsese – Goodfellas, The Departed, Shutter Island, Sinatra

Cast:

  • Leonardo DiCaprio – Titanic, The Departed, Inception, The Revenant
  • Jonah Hill – Superbad, Moneyball, 21 & 22 Jump Street
  • Margot Robbie – Neighbours, About Time, Focus, The Big Short
  • Matthew McConaughey – Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Lincoln Lawyer, MudInterstellar
  • Jean Dujardin – The Clink of Ice, A View of Love, The Artist, The Monuments Men
  • Kyle Chandler – King Kong, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Zero Dark Thirty, Carol
  • Rob Reiner – Sleepless In Seattle, Mad Dog Time, New Girl
  • Joanna Lumley – James And The Giant Peach, Ella Enchanted, Corpse Bride, Squirrels To The Nuts
  • Cristin Milioti – The Sopranos, I Am Ben, How I Met Your Mother, The Occupants
  • Jon Bernthal – Fury
  • Stephen Kunken – Still Alice
  • PJ Byrne – The Gift

Since the financial collapse in the autumn of 2007, there has been almost universal contempt, if not outright hatred for bankers, stockbrokers and anyone involved in high-risk finance-related jobs. The vitriol aimed at such people, as they have taken home huge paycheques and bonuses, has resulted in greater financial regulations. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street illustrates through Jordan Belfort how crooked the financial system can be without such regulations.

Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) advising the unknowing Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) on what one has to do to thrive in the industry.

Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) advising the unknowing Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) on what one has to do to thrive in the industry.

The film is based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, the titular character of the movie, and the book written by Belfort while he was in prison. The movie begins with the young, ambitious Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) getting a job as a stockbroker at Rothschild in the late 1980s. Shortly after joining the bank, his boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), takes him for lunch and gives him some (un-)sage advice in how to survive in the industry.

Skip forward a few years, and Jordan has founded his own stockbroking company, Stratton Oakmont, with his friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). But Belfort has also taken on board all that his former boss once told him, and lives the fast-life snorting cocaine, paying prostitutes for all kinds of sex, and making fortunes… until the authorities start chasing him and his company for their criminal wrongdoings.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an energetic, chauvinistic and engaging film. Despite its three-hour running time, the movie does not drag, which is extraordinary considering its length, the amount of swearing, and the vulgarity of the central characters involved, chiefly the Wolf, himself.

Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant as the dishonest Belfort. DiCaprio’s character brings to mind another corrupt financier: the fictional Gordon Gekko of Wall Street (who Belfort claimed was his inspiration). But while Gekko enjoyed the banking industry and making money for money’s sake, Belfort made money to live up the fast-life, and DiCaprio’s eccentric performance demonstrates this. For the vast majority of the film, DiCaprio has his foot on the accelerator, unable to slow down his obsessive greed for more money, drugs, cars, yachts and prostitutes (no wonder DiCaprio needed a break from acting after this).

A drugged-up Belfort having some non-work related fun with his equally drugged-up friend and business partner, Donnie (Jonah Hill).

A drugged-up Belfort having some non-work related fun with his equally drugged-up friend and business partner, Donnie (Jonah Hill).

Yet, for all his (many) flaws, DiCaprio’s character at least has some redeeming qualities; notably, loyalty to his friends. The same, however, cannot be said for Belfort’s repulsive friend Donnie, played by Jonah Hill. Hill’s character is Hill’s archetypal type-cast, since Donnie is foul mannered, foul speaking, grob, misogynistic, and without a compensatory feature in his bones. Hill has seemingly spent his whole career (with the exception of his excellent performance in Moneyball) playing roles that have been building up to this one in The Wolf of Wall Street since the crass and juvenile Superbad was released in 2007. It is no surprise, therefore, that Hill metamorphosis’s into Donnie with gusto and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Hill’s talents do not mean one can empathise with the disgusting Donnie as a person.

Viewers may, to a much lesser extent, have a similar problem finding a way into Jordan’s wife, Naomi, played well enough by the strikingly attractive Margot Robbie. The Australian Robbie puts on a faultless Brooklyn accent to her credit, but that is the most noteworthy part of her performance (other than her physical beauty) because her role in The Wolf of Wall Street is not taxing. She mainly has to be Belfort’s eye-candy plaything, and her mercenary nature ensures that audiences feel increasingly less empathic towards her whilst Jordan messes about with prostitutes. Still, Robbie does a decent job with what she is given.

Where the film falls is on its moral stance towards Belfort’s practices. It is one thing if the film maturely takes a neutral stance on a subject-matter, as Zero Dark Thirty and Prisoners did on the matter of whether torturing suspects is ever permissible under certain circumstances. But by Scorsese failing to show the effects that Belfort’s unlawful schemes had on his victims, The Wolf of Wall Street unintentionally glorifies Belfort.

Three of the many instances of the stunning Naomi Belfort (Margot Robbie). What would possess a man to pay for prostitutes if he has her to come home to?

Three of the many instances of the stunning Naomi Belfort (Margot Robbie). What would possess a man to pay for prostitutes if he has her to come home to?

In addition, Scorsese’s style of directing is ill-disciplined. At times, the movie relays events in chronological order; at other times, we see flashbacks; at other times, we hear Belfort’s and other characters’ thoughts; at other times, the film is an advert for Belfort with him speaking directly into the camera; and at other times, we see events through Belfort’s eyes, rather than how they really were (which can be remarkably and hilariously different). The result of this inconsistent approach is that one leaves the film unsure as to what Scorsese wanted to achieve.

Over-all, The Wolf of Wall Street is a fantastic and enjoyable film, despite the rampant misogyny and the repugnant characters one endures for three hours. At the centre of it all is the immoral Jordan Belfort, who is played with great vigour and charisma by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film has its flaws in the directing and the stance it takes towards Belfort. Nevertheless, The Wolf of Wall Street demonstrates that people like Belfort, with his life of drugs, debauchery and fraudulent practices, are the reason for why banks, stockbroking agencies and the financial sector in general needed the regulations that are now in force. Now, future-Belforts will be prevented from repeating the Wolf’s ways and that is a positive.

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Review – Mama (15) [2013]

Mama - title banner

Star Rating 2.5/5

Director:

Executive Producer:

Cast:

  • Jessica Chastain – The Debt, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, The Help, Zero Dark ThirtyInterstellar
  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – Headhunters, Game of Thrones, Oblivion
  • Megan Charpentier – Jennifer’s Body, Red Riding Hood, Resident Evil: Retribution, Never Ever
  • Isabelle Nélisse
  • Jane Moffat – Alphas, Come Dance With Me, An Enemy
  • Javier Botet – Rec I-III, As Luck Would Have It, Al Final Todos Mueren
  • Daniel Kash – The Dresden Files, Alphas, Split Decision

Music Composer:

  • Fernandez Velázquez – The Orphanage, Devil, The ImpossibleA Monster Calls

The Woman in Black and The Possession are testament not only to the tiredness, comical and abysmal nature of the horror genre, they also signal that ghost stories and films about possessive/evil spirits have been done so many times that they seem to no longer be capable of scaring audiences. Despite being a notch up from most other recent horror movies, Mama does little to alter this view.

Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) talking with Dr. Dreyfuss. Lucas is determined to foster his late-brother's daughters, despite their problems.

Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) talking with Dr. Dreyfuss. Lucas is determined to foster his late-brother’s daughters, despite their problems.

  Mama begins with the mysterious death of Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in a cabin in the woods, leaving his two very young daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse), to seemingly fend for themselves. But were they alone?

  Five years later, the two girls are found, looking like wild barbarians, and are sent to live with their uncle, Lucas (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and his rock-chick girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). But something else has come with Victoria and Lily; something they call ‘Mama.’

As far as horror films go, the plot for Mama is actually not bad for the first 60 of the movie’s 100 minute running time. The film may not be particularly frightening, despite a few jumpy moments, but at least it can make one’s heart-rate speed up a bit at times (which is almost novel for horror films these days).

But, disappointingly, Mama loses its way at the hour mark. Subsequently, it descends into the normal clichés and follies that are symptomatic of the genre: parts of the plot get thrown by the wayside; plot threads don’t add up; and the parts of the storyline that do work become so contrived that they might as well not work. Worse, long before the end, even the things that made the film tense and jittery lose that ability.

Annabel concerned by what devilry has come with Victoria and Lily, and is now in the house.

Annabel concerned by what devilry has come with Victoria and Lily, and is now in the house.

The key reason for why Mama can sustain viewer’s interest for as long as it does is due to the acting and the dialogue. For once, both are acceptable by anyone’s standard (and not just in comparison to the acting and dialogue in abominations like Jennifer’s Body and The Wolfman). Unsurprisingly, Jessica Chastain holds her all as the lead character, albeit in a far more casual manner than in Zero Dark Thirty, and makes conversations about evil spirits seem mundane and normal, which is not as easy as one would think (as The Woman in Black and The Possession attest). The two young girls also perform unexpectedly decently. Lily’s behaviour is particularly weird and unsettling, yet Isabelle Nélisse makes it look nothing out of the ordinary due to her character’s peculiar circumstances.

Indeed, the only actor who is somewhat disappointing is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and for no fault of his own. Lacking the smugness of Jaime ‘the Kingslayer’ Lannister from Game of Thrones, Coster-Waldau does alright with what he is given. But his role is quite minimal and modest, meaning that his talents are largely wasted in Mama. The rest of the cast, including Jane Moffat, as Jean, Lucas’ sister, and Daniel Kash, as the suspicious Dr. Dreyfuss, have even less to do than Coster-Waldau, rendering their value to the film close to irrelevant.

However, the person with arguably the most irrelevant impact upon Mama is Guillermo Del Toro. Was he solely made executive producer to enable debutant director Andrés Muschietti to ride on the coat-tails of his 2006 Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth? Well, that and to dupe people (like me) into the cinema most probably.

There is little doubt that Mama is not a par with Pan’s Labyrinth, but it has its own music and that should be commended. The music lacks the power, depth and variety of the scores in The Lion King, The Dark Knight Rises and Lincoln, and it might be limited in range too, but at least it does not recycle the standard stringy music (followed by a sudden crescendo) that is sadly all too common in horror movies.

Annabel with Lily and Victoria, as they realise, with horror, that 'Mama' has come to pay them a visit.

Annabel with Lily and Victoria, as they realise, with horror, that ‘Mama’ has come to pay them a visit.

  The same can roughly be said for the special effects in Mama as well. They’re not bad and, initially, whatever ‘Mama’ is can make one feel like something is crawling underneath one’s skin (which is a good thing!). But this wears out soon enough, making the effects little more than an unpleasant, immaterial sight.

  Overall, Mama is not a terrible horror film and is certainly better in every respect than The Woman in Black and The Possession. Mama shoots itself in the foot after an hour, so to speak, but at any rate, it has some suspense with passable acting and dialogue, and curious music. Nevertheless, even with all of the above and a new director, Mama underlines the exhaustion and lack of innovation in the paranormal-inclined horror genre, which has been going on for too long.

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Review – Zero Dark Thirty (15) [2013]

Zero Dark Thirty - title banner2

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Kathryn Bigelow – The Loveless, The Weight of Water, The Hurt Locker

Cast:

Music Composer:

When it comes to films about historical events, like Titanic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Lincoln, one knows how they will end before even starting them. Yet, such movies can be just as, if not more entertaining and gripping than movies where one does not know what is going to happen. The same is true for the arresting Zero Dark Thirty, which also sends out a potent message to America’s enemies.

The film is a politico-historical drama based around real events. ‘Zero dark thirty’ is a military codename for half past midnight, and it is the time that the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden took place on the night of 1st/2nd May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden's location.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden’s location.

Zero Dark Thirty is all about the CIA’s attempts to find the world’s most wanted man following his masterminding of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on 11th September 2011, and his subsequent vanishing. The film is an unhurried, yet captivating thriller that does not feel like it is 157 minutes long. Like with The Hurt Locker, it has a grounded feel, and therefore lacks the hyperbole and surrealism of 24. Even the ending mirrors this mood, which is rare and noteworthy for Hollywood.  It is too early to know how true Zero Dark Thirty is to the reality, but it feels like a realistic and fair representation of events. First, it illustrates how dangerous it is for Americans to be in Afghanistan/Pakistan, thereby emphasising how heroic they are being out there. Second, it demonstrates some of the difficulties CIA agents face operating in the field, trying to unearth information about their targets (who have multiple identities and never seem to stay in the same place twice). Third, the movie shows the CIA adopting dubious torture methods and degrading treatment upon suspected and actual terrorists in undisclosed locations in their desperate bid to find leads on Bin Laden.

There has been much controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s depiction of torture adopted by US personnel in 2002 and afterward (when it was officially outlawed). Arguably, the film enables Bigelow to reveal her anti-American/anti-war bias again, like she did so painfully in the critically-acclaimed The Hurt Locker. Yet, it is doubtful that she glorifies torture here. Instead, she lets viewers decide for themselves, in a similar vein to Rendition, if torture is ever necessary or useful, which is an intelligent way of kicking off a moral debate on an important and current subject.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) arguing with his and Maya's boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke, right) arguing with his and Maya’s boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler, left), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

But what is even more striking than the portrayal of ‘enhanced interrogations’ in Zero Dark Thirty is how the film has painted the War on Terror as merely Osama Bin Laden. Yes, he is the figurehead of modern-day Jihadi terrorism and his death is a symbolic hammer-blow to the cause. But by 2011 it is dubious how influential Bin Laden was to the pursuit of world Jihadism, due to the emergence of numerous Al-Qaeda splinter groups, such as Al-Aqaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Shabaab, among others. Yet, these other terrorist groups are barely given a mention, which is strange considering the security threat they pose to the world.

Additionally, Zero Dark Thirty does not explore, even for the sake of context, the complex and conflicting relationships between America, Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the contradictory nature of the Pakistani state itself. (Anyone remember David Cameron saying that Pakistan looks “both ways” on terrorism?)

However, if one can ignore the lack of political background, one can enjoy strong performances from all the cast. At the forefront, is Jessica Chastain, who demonstrates, for the first time, that she can play a leading role just as solidly as she can a supporting one when given the chance. Her single-minded character, Maya, is given the central task of finding Bin Laden. Maya might get her way sometimes in a contrived manner for reasons of plot, but Chastain looks so natural in the role, and the way Maya changes under the circumstances is indicative of Chastain’s talent.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Maya’s solemnity is in mild contrast to her two main colleagues, the tough-yet-amusing Dan (Jason Clarke) and the bitchy Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Both Clarke and Ehle play well, and are more empathetic than Maya. Nevertheless, they are both outshone by Chastain’s performance.

Over-all, Zero Dark Thirty is a sincere and honest attempt to recreate the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden. That one knows how the movie will end is irrelevant, as it is an engrossing and tense watch. The film might be devoid of much of the current context vis-à-vis the War on Terror, and it might be overly-simplified; yet, what it lacks on those fronts, it makes up for in compelling performances, not least from Jessica Chastain. Furthermore, Zero Dark Thirty sends out a stark message to America’s enemies: it doesn’t matter where they hide or for how long they hide, America will find them and bring them to justice.

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