Movie Review: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Starring
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Cristin Milioti
Director
Martin Scorsese

It’s been a while since Martin Scorsese’s last truly great film, but it’s good to see that the director hasn’t lost his touch, because “The Wolf of Wall Street” is another cinematic triumph that works almost like a companion piece, at least thematically, to earlier movies like “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” But while those crime films were about actual gangsters, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is about a different kind of criminal altogether: a Gordon Gekko-like stockbroker whose own greed and hard-partying lifestyle ultimately led to his downfall. The fact that it’s based on a true story only makes it that much more captivating to watch unfold, and between Leonardo DiCaprio’s brilliant lead performance and Terrence Winter’s excellent script, it’s without a doubt the funniest movie that Scorsese has ever directed.

The film opens in 1987 as go-getter Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) moves to New York City with his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) to pursue his dream of working on Wall Street. When the market crashes shortly after starting his new job at a big firm, however, Jordan accepts what appears to be a lowly position selling penny stocks at a strip-mall storefront. But he soon discovers that he can make big bucks selling desperate, blue-collar workers on the promise of instant riches, eventually leaving the company to open his own firm with friend and business partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Before long, the newly dubbed Stratton Oakmont is selling those very same penny stocks to the wealthy, turning Jordan and his closest pals into millionaires virtually overnight. Living the high life with a gorgeous new wife (Margot Robbie), more money than he knows what to do with, and enough drugs to tranquilize an entire zoo, Jordan feels invincible – that is, until he catches wind that the FBI has launched an investigation into the firm (and him in particular) for stock market manipulation and other related crimes.

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Stephen Frears (“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight”)

Director Stephen Frears has done so much notable work for the cinema that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s more than capable of dipping his toe into the world of television on occasion as well. His latest effort behind the camera, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” falls somewhere between the two mediums: the HBO Films production is making its TV debut on – where else? – HBO this Saturday, but it was actually screened in Cannes back in August, along with its small-screen brethren, “Behind the Candelabra.”

During this summer’s TCA press tour, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Frears and discuss his work on “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” including how he came to join the project and what he knew about Ali’s Supreme Court struggles prior to signing on, but he was also kind of enough to chat about a number of his other films. Although the conversation occasionally drifted in unanticipated directions, the sidebar excursions proved just as enjoyable and entertaining as anything that I’d gone in actually planning to bring up.

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Bullz-Eye: What was your familiarity with the Muhammad Ali story going into this project?

Stephen Frears: Well, it was both a lot and nothing. In other words… I remember Ali fighting (Sonny) Liston, so that’s how old I am. [Laughs.] I don’t remember the Olympics. But then I remember the trouble in America, of course. And then he sort of disappeared, and I couldn’t tell you what happened until he fought in Zaire and he became a sort of comedian. He became very, very funny. So this bit was like a sort of black hole.

BE: How did you come aboard as director?

SF: I ran into Shawn (Slovo) at a party. I said, “What are you doing?” She said, “I’m writing something very, very interesting.” [Shrugs, then laughs.] So I snooped around and found that it was very interesting. Simple as that.

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BE: Had you known her prior to that?

SF: I knew her to gossip to her, to say “hello” and talk to her at that party. [Laughs.] But now I know her much better.

BE: Was the script more or less filmed as written, or did you have to do some tweaking to make it work?

SF: I think there was a certain amount. I like to have the writer on set, because in a sense you’re writing all the time, but that’s just to make scenes clearer, things you learn as you go along. It must at some point have sorted itself out enough for us to say, “Right, let’s make this.” I can’t recall, there might’ve been a couple of drafts that we went through before we made it. And then we were writing the whole time on set, just to make things clearer.

BE: It’s interesting that the film focuses on a key moment in Ali’s career, yet it does so without ever portraying Ali. His presence is simply via archival footage. Was that always the plan?

SF: Yes, that was always planned, and the truth is that it was a great relief. The idea of casting Ali didn’t bear thinking about, so I was really pleased by that. But the interesting thing about archival footage is that people never quite say what you want them to say. [Laughs.] They don’t say what you’d like. But eventually we started finding a way how to deal with it. So it was very, very interesting.

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A Chat with Ray Liotta (“Snowmen”)

Bullz-Eye: I was able to check out “Snowmen” – they sent me a screener – and it was a great little movie. My highest praise is that I’ve got a 6-year-old daughter, and I’d be comfortable with her watching it with me.

Ray Liotta: Yeah, it’s really a good movie, and it definitely…it’s more than just entertaining. It definitely touches on a lot of issues for grown-ups or kids.

BE: How did you find your way into the film?

RL: It just so happens that the producer has a kid in school where my kid goes, and they were gearing up and had cast all the kids, and they were thinking about the adult roles, and my name came up. We talked, he gave me the script, and I loved it and decided to do it.

BE: So how much of the character was on the page, and how much were you able to bring to the character?

RL: It was all on the page. All of it. It was really well written. I mean, my job is to make it as real as possible and try to add as much depth and dimension to it as I can. To pretend that I was a dad whose son was sick and thinks he’s going to die, the bills that I have to pay, the guilt that I have from just working too much to pay those bills, maybe missing some of the things that are going on in his life.

BE: How well did you and Bobby Coleman get on? You seemed to have a pretty strong father-son dynamic going on.

RL: Yeah, he’s a really special kid. He’s a really nice kid, and he’s been acting for awhile now. He’s just serious about the work, so he was very committed to every scene. He had done his homework and knew his lines, and he was raring to go. He was in the pocket. So it was easy. One of the great things when you work with a kid is that you really realize something that, as an  adult, you sometimes forget: you’re just playing pretend. He pretends that I’m his dad, and I pretend that he’s my son. You just play pretend, and that’s it. It’s nothing more or less than that.

BE: A film like “Snowmen” is one which may surprise some, since you’re not generally perceived as Ray Liotta, Family-Friendly Actor, but you’ve been doing family-friendly films as far back as “Corinna, Corinna” and “Operation Dumbo Drop.” Does that get frustrating, that people try to put you in a particular niche?

RL: Yeah, within the business, it gets frustrating. But then something like this comes along and you get a chance to do it. I did a movie with Tobey Maguire called “The Details,” and that’s a little more…I’m not a nutjob in that one. [Laughs.] See, what happens is that even if people see the movies – and I think it’s true with any actor who plays good guys and bad guys –  the bad guys just tend to stand out in people’s minds. You can’t expect everybody to see every movie you’ve done. I had one woman come up to me at the gym the other day, and she said, “Oh, my gosh, all you do is play bad guys. Why are you always such a bad guy? You scare me!” And I’m…I mean, I’m not going to sit there and list the movies that she hasn’t seen. It just kind of goes with the territory.

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Is “Boardwalk Empire” the next “The Sopranos”?

If the strong critical support, the record-setting ratings, and HBO’s decision to renew the show for a second season the morning after its premiere is any indication, then yes, I’d say it has a pretty good chance. But first, it’s going to have to do a lot more than deliver a captivating pilot episode – one that was directed by Martin Scorsese, the man behind some of the best mob films of the last 20 years – if it ever hopes to reach the same level as “The Sopranos.”

One good episode doesn’t exactly make a great series, but you can definitely tell that the pieces are all there to create something really special. And to help make sense of all the corruption, backstabbing, and every sordid piece of back-alley business in between, Will Harris will be blogging “Boardwalk Empire” throughout the season. Here’s a brief taste from his post about the premiere:

“I don’t know about you guys, but I was sucked into the show almost instantly, in no small part because of Steve Buscemi. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t been a fan of his work for years, but it’s great to see him in the lead role for a change. He’s perfect for it, too: Nucky’s a guy who’s got a lot of power but isn’t necessarily the most intimidating fish in the pond.”

In addition, Bullz-Eye is currently running a “Boardwalk Empire” contest asking our Facebook friends to tell us about their favorite cinematic mobsters. The contest runs through next Wednesday, September 29th, and one lucky winner will walk away with a branded flask, a “Boardwalk Empire” book about the real-life characters, and a keychain flash drive preloaded with exclusive content. Head over to the official contest page to find out how to enter and then be sure to visit our “Boardwalk Empire” blog every Sunday night for a recap of all the latest action.

  

King of the world, again? Catching up with the inaugural class of Bullz-Eye’s Directors Hall of Fame

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In March 2007, Bullz-Eye inducted its first class into the Bullz-Eye Directors Hall of Fame. It’s an unconventional list, to be sure, and that was the idea. With all due respect to Howard Hawks, David Lean, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Akira Kurosawa, et al., they will just have to wait their turn.

So what has our illustrious founding class of directors been up to since their induction? As it turns out, they’ve been rather quiet, though one of them finally decided to make his first movie in 12 years, and would you look at that, he’s completely changed the game for a second time. Let’s take a look and our directors’ newest credits. And, in some cases, debits.

Alfred Hitchcock

Mr. Hitchcock has not been terribly productive lately – for anyone who just snorted that he’s dead, don’t say that; he’s just…unavailable – so his legacy remains unblemished. And thankfully we’re past the point of anyone speaking of one M. Night Shyamalan as the next Hitchcock. Those were dark days, indeed.

Tim Burton

Burton’s been pretty quiet since his induction. He unleashed the bloody good musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in late 2007, and produced “9,” the animated film about a group of puppets in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, last year. He does have two tantalizing projects on the horizon, the first of which is the much-anticipated “Alice in Wonderland,” a live action 3D affair that has Burton teaming up with Johnny Depp for the seventh time and boasts one of the creepiest trailers we’ve seen in years (two words: Cheshire cat). Then, in 2011, Burton brings one of his very first creations to life on the big screen. Yep, “Frankenweenie.” And they damn well better not change that title.

Steven Spielberg

As director and/or producer, our resident manchild has racked up some monster hits since his induction…but at a cost. His lone directorial effort is “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which made $317 million but also coined the term “nuke the fridge,” which some view as the modern-day equivalent of “jump the shark.” He served as executive producer for both of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies (insert your own explosion porn joke here), and God help him, he even executive produced “Eagle Eye.” There is hope on the horizon, though, as Spielberg is elbows deep into the production of “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” a motion capture adaptation of the Belgian comic book series starring Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, and Nick Frost. After that, Spielberg is scheduled to direct “Interstellar,” a wormhole and gravity-centric film co-written by Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan, and he is producing or executive producing eight (!) other projects, including the awesomely titled, Jon Favreau-directed “Cowboys and Aliens.”

Martin Scorsese

He finally got his Oscar. About damn time.

It was actually one of the funniest set-ups in recent Academy Awards memory; the award for Best Director during the 2007 Oscars was given out by Scorsese’s longtime friends Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas, all of whom were looking at Marty as if to say, “Hey buddy, do you think they picked us to hand out this award for a reason?” The theater, of course, went nuts when they read his name, and as he made his long-overdue walk to the podium, it reminded us of when Michael J. Fox received an Emmy for his work on “Family Ties,” and said, “I feel four feet tall!”

Marty has only released one movie since 2006′s “The Departed,” the Rolling Stones concert film “Shine a Light,” but he directed a short Hitchcock tribute called “The Key to Reserva” as well as the pilot episode of the show “Boardwalk Empire,” the story of Atlantic City man about town Nucky Thompson. His upcoming thriller “Shutter Island,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was originally scheduled for last fall, but was abruptly bumped to spring. Usually that is an ominous sign; we’re hoping that is not the case here, but February is generally more hospitable to horror movies than it is to period-piece thrillers. Good thing “Shutter” has a supernatural element to it as well.

And just this Sunday, Scorsese was just awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Award by the Hollywood Foreign Press at this year’s Golden Globe Awards. Everything’s coming up Marty. As we said before, about damn time.

James Cameron

So there’s this movie, you might have heard about it…

Love him or hate him, James Cameron does nothing by half, and once again, he swings for the fences, and once again he hits one that lands over the fence on the other side of the highway from the ballpark. “Avatar” only needed four weeks to become the second biggest worldwide box office hit of all time. This despite the fact that Cameron released his movie in the face of rampant speculation that he had finally bitten off more than he could chew, and the movie could not possibly live up to the 12-year hype. Whoops.

Is it finally time to give the man the benefit of the doubt? He now owns the #1 and #2 spots on the all-time box office charts – and yes, we readily acknowledge that 3D and IMAX upcharges have played a large role in “Avatar’s” performance – and has done so without pandering or playing it safe. He could use some assistance on writing dialogue, but we’re none of us perfect, and Cameron’s good points as a director far, far outweight his drawbacks as a writer. Let’s just hope he doesn’t take another 12 years to make his next movie.

  

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