Category Archives: Matthew McConaughey

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Image via Slate

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is the rare film in which its trailer is not misleading. If you came anticipating flying midgets and strippers with money taped to them, that is exactly what you will get.

Although he has dipped his toes into very different territory over the years (“The Aviator,” “Hugo”), Martin Scorsese returns to the world of crime and money again and again. Each time, he seems to have something new to say about it, and gives us another rags to riches villain to engrain into our memories.

Meet Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a middle class kid from Bayside, Queens who just wants to make millions. His ambition brings him to Wall Street where he meets a broker (Matthew McConaughey) who teaches him how to survive on Wall Street, mainly through increased sex and drug intake.

Through some successes and failures over the next few years, Belfort finds himself in the penny stock business and eventually, he becomes a multimillionaire. He begins to live a life of excess as opposed to luxury. Those with enough money are comfortable. Then there are people like Jordan Belfort, who have more money than they can spend, and thus have wealth-induced anxiety. I hate that I am about to type this, but I feel like I have to: more money really does mean more problems.

Scorsese fights excess with excess. With a running time that just hits the three hour mark, he revels in the insane behavior that took place at Stratton Oakmont and then reprimands it. “The Wolf of Wall Street” embodies the truism that crime doesn’t pay, and it has such a fun time in doing so. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a comedy, through and through, and by far one of the funniest movies of the year. This is a satire with consequences. It allows its actors to show off comic skills that you knew or didn’t know that they ever had.

Scorsese’s films with DiCaprio has proven to be one of the most successful actor-director collaborations ever, and about as close to the pairing that Scorsese and DeNiro once had. DiCaprio has never had a real comedic role before, which is a shame; he has never been funnier than he is in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” His drug-addled physical commitment to his performance turns Jordan Belfort into the weirdest kind of cartoon – the kind that will slink and slither as much as he needs to so long as it helps him put more money in his pocket. And while DiCaprio could probably make a rock seem charismatic, he has especially good chemistry with Jonah Hill, who plays his sidekick, Donnie Azoff. Many of the scenes are focused on Hill’s ability to bounce off another person in long banter sessions. He is as good with DiCaprio as he has been in past comedies with Michael Cera and Channing Tatum.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” proves that age has nothing on Scorsese. He recently said that he thinks he only has a few films left in him. However, his directorial style is as fresh today as it was when he first started. His view of the world lends itself to so many different times and places. However, it is fantastic to see him back in his home turf. Whether it is the 1860s in Five Points or the 1990s on Wall Street, Scorsese knows New York better than anyone. He captures the neighborhoods, the accents, and the attitudes. His hyperactive directing style lends itself so well to the chaotic energy of the city.

This film has been compared many times to “Goodfellas,” you know, that movie you will watch to completion anytime it is on cable. While the comparison sets “Wolf” up for high expectations, it is a fair one. “Wolf” is filled with criss-crossing perspectives and multiple voiceovers. This is Jordan’s story, and he gets a chance to try and justify himself with the perspective of time. However, allowing the side characters to comment is a sly way to let the audience know that the narrator cannot be trusted.

In the world of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” stockbrokers are the new gangsters: kids aspire to be them, women want to be with them. They see what they want and they take it. However, Henry Hill is something of a sympathetic figure, while Jordan Belfort does not come close to being sympathetic. The fact that the film is able to get this across is part of what makes it so good. While “Goodfellas” showed that gangsters could be average guys who found some short cuts to success, “The Wolf of Wall Street” portrays criminals as reverse Robin Hoods who got rich by ripping off the working class. “Wolf” is really about class warfare. The scene where Belfort and his gang launch little people for their own entertainment struck me as biting, yet sad comedy. It is about the equivalent of the scene in “History of the World: Part I” where King Louis shoots peasants for fun, the same people he is supposed to be looking out for.

Nobody contradicts himself for artistic gain quite as well as Scorsese does. Throughout the film’s run, quaaludes are snorted and orgies are had, and we get to experience the feeling of being involved in all of these. Scorsese has an amazing ability of being able to boil down the business of crime into something understandable. Sure, little pieces could have been trimmed off of the film here and there, but no scene really needed to be removed completely. There is never a boring moment in the film, something that cannot be said for most films that are half the length of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” You will enjoy every moment of what is on screen, and then question why you enjoyed something about a subject so dark. This is provocation done right in one of the best films of the year.

Brain Farts From The Edge (Minor Spoilers/Spoilers For Real Life Ahead)

  • Matthew McConaughey is barely in the film, but he still deserves an Oscar nomination. I also like how most directors seem to have given up on trying to get him to drop his Texas accent.
  • As Always, Kyle Chandler plays the authority figure. Luckily, he has more of a personality than he did in “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Plus, he gets to curse. Go coach!
  • The chimp in roller skates needed more screen time. He is as intriguing as the llama they always show backstage on “Saturday Night Live” but never explain.
  • Apparently, Belfort’s main influence for his get rich quick scheme was Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street.” This once again proves that people are really, really bad at understanding simple irony.
  • The quaalude tripping scene is unbelievable. From the Popeye reference to Belfort’s attempt to gain control of his own body, this is one of the funniest scenes of the year. Like tear-inducing laughter. It’s like a slightly more down-to-earth version of the drug trip sequence from “21 Jump Street.”
  • During the drug trip, one very long lasting shot weirdly reminded me of the hanging scene in “12 Years a Slave.” Talk about two very different kinds of struggles.
  • Something about this movie really makes me want to go eat in a diner in Queens.
  • I immensely enjoyed the scene where Rob Reiner yelled at his wife over the TV show. It is really fun to watch old Jews argue.
  • On that note, I don’t know what “The Equalizer” is, but I would totally watch it.
  • One scene I could have done without (SPOILERS!): After Naomi (Margot Robbie) tells Jordan she wants a divorce and Jordan tries to steal his own daughter. It felt both unnecessary and painful to watch. At this point, I didn’t need any more evidence that he was selfish and pathetic. This scene just felt like overkill.
  • The storm scene. Terrifying. “The Perfect Storm” has nothing on this. (Note: I have never seen “The Perfect Storm,” so it’s probably best to ignore this).
  • I really enjoyed that nice little bit of subway symbolism in the end.
  • The fact that this escaped an NC-17 rating is beyond me.
  • F***ing Benihana.
  • Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch “Goodfellas.”

Mud & Killing Them Softly: The Lost Reviews of Cannes

The line for “Killing Them Softly.” But was it worth the wait?

While at Cannes, I watched “Killing Them Softly” and “Mud.” However, I never got to publish reviews of them. Here they are now.

Killing Them Softly

 When Brad Pitt is in your movie, you are bound to get plenty of attention from the French.

“Killing Them Softly” surfaced with some bad early buzz but received favorable reviews when it actually opened. I compare it to “Lawless” simply for the reason that they are both gangster films. “Lawless” has the makings of a minor American classic. It goes for something a little more old fashioned, yet very refreshing. “Killing Them Softly” goes for brutal and meditative, and gets halfway there.

Here is a film that has a standout script, but doesn’t bring its characters anywhere. The dialogue is detailed and familiar-sounding enough that it mimics real conversation. The banter between Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) gives “Killing Them Softly” a nice, humorous heart. While Brad Pitt is the selling point, McNairy and Mendelsohn are the film’s true stars.

That is not to insult Mr. Pitt’s role at all. Many people were unimpressed by his performance, but he did everything right as a very professional hitman. “Killing Them Softly” felt like a knockoff “No Country for Old Men” morality tale, with Pitt’s Jackie Cogan substituting for Anton Chigurh. Like Chigurh, he has an calculated and mysterious air to him. Unlike Chigurh, his moral compass is less fascinating and less defined. Without giving too much away, the title refers to Cogan’s standard of killing his victim from far enough away so as not to become emotionally attached. Strangely though, Cogan kills many people up close, and that doesn’t seem to change him in any way, shape, or form.

I’m Brad Pitt, and you’re not.

The story of “Killing Them Softly” is quite simple: it is about a hit being pulled off. And if you follow that brief premise, it delivers on that exactly. “Killing Them Softly” was directed by Andrew Dominik of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” fame. “Killing Them Softly” replaces the open spaces of the west for the confined, gritty backdrop of New Orleans. What “Jesse James” has in silence, “Killing Them Softly” has in dialogue.

“Jesse James” ran over two and a half hours long. It is said that an original cut of “Killing Them Softly” is about the same length. I would very much like to see this version, as what was shown at Cannes felt like a summed up version of a much better movie. I’d like to see how much more depth, and what new directions, Dominik had intended for the characters. I’d like more scenes with Frankie and Russell, and more with the Bukowski-type Mickey (James Gandolfini), who has some of the film’s most entertaining scenes.

I admire “Killing Them Softly” for its ambition. The film takes place during the 2008 presidential election, and uses this event as a means of criticizing the greed of American capitalism. It seems to exist in a world of many Gordon Gekkos. I am not sure if Dominik’s point totally came through, but I believe a second viewing, and a longer running time, might clear some things up. I will say this though: the final line of “Killing Them Softly” will end up on an AFI Top 100 list one day.

After the Jump: Mud


When at Cannes, the distinction between American movies and movies from foreign countries becomes more and more apparent. Even the best of American cinema can succumb to trying to wrap dark little stories up in a pretty, Disney-colored bow. That is the Achilles heal of “Mud.”

First, let me be clear: I did not hate “Mud.” In fact, I liked it very much, and I recommend you see it when it comes out. Had I first viewed “Mud” during its actual theatrical release, I probably would have liked it much more. It makes most American movies look bad. But when paired up against the fare at Cannes, it looks a little trite. This is why no matter how hard you try, being a film critic can never be an objective job. If someone tells you otherwise, answer by saying, “shut up, Peter Travers!”

“Mud! Mud come back!” -Someone who misquotes movies a lot.

But I digress. “Mud” is yet another major American release at Cannes that took place in the South (“Moonrise Kingdom” might have been the only one that wasn’t). And it is the third release of 2012 in which Matthew McConaughey turns on his southern swag*. McConaughey plays the titular Mud, a runaway and a hopeless romantic living deep in the Arkansas woods. Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is the object of his affection. The young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are taken under his quiet, charismatic spell.

“Mud” is directed by Jeff Nichols. Nichols previously directed “Take Shelter,” which I have yet to see, but I hear that it is excellent. Nichols has a very restrained style of directing that lets the story, and not the style, shine. As Mud, McConaughey plays a character who seems to be a legend unfolding in every frame. Watching him, I was somewhat reminded of Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke.” Not to say that McConaughey is on Newman’s level, but they both had that same, relatable rebellious spirit.

Where “Mud” went wrong for me was in its ending. Maybe I’m just being a tin man, but I didn’t feel myself getting overwhelmed with emotion by the finale. The movie spent a lot of time trying to turn Mud into this mythical character and in the end, he feels nothing like that. What at first feels very satisfying in the end feels like nothing more than comfort food. Also, “Mud” suffers from the very easy to catch Multiple Ending Syndrome.

I would like to reiterate once more that “Mud” is a very likable movie. It feels a bit like a “Tom Sawyer” or “Huck Finn” type adventure, but a lot more family friendly (and by that I mean, a lot less racial slurs).

*Remind me never to use this word in any sentence ever again.

Movie Review: Bernie

When we are first introduced to Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), he is making a dead body smile and look at peace. Surprisingly, being a mortician (or, in “gentler” terms, a funeral director) is no joke of a job, it is an art. What is so interesting about “Bernie” is not the art, but rather the artist.

While I hate to use such a tired phrase, “Bernie” is a story that truly is too strange to be fiction. In short, it can best be described as “Crimes and Misdemeanors” shot like a Christopher Guest movie. However, one simple sentence, and even one review, will be hard to do justice by the absolute surprise of the movie’s complexity. This is unlike any work that director Richard Linklater and actors Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey have ever done.

With “Bernie,” Linklater returns to his homeland of Texas, the state that made him famous with “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” and “Waking Life.” However, “Bernie” has a totally different feel from any of those films. As one of the locals points out in “Bernie,” Texas is basically like a diverse country of its own. “Bernie” moves away from Austin (or as it is described in this movie, “The People’s Republic of Austin”) and into East Texas. This region lacks the flat desert lands that usually define the Lone Star State and instead is covered in the forests usually seen in Louisiana. East Texas is a little more south than west. This is not the Texas usually seen on film.

The town of Carthage, Texas largely consists of people who were born there and never left. And Bernie Tiede. Bernie, the assistant funeral director at the local funeral home, is the most beloved man in town. He is friends with everyone. If you need someone to paint your house or help you with taxes, Bernie is there. He has the best best side manner that any mortician could have. He even treats the dead with love and respect.

“Bernie” is about a mortician who becomes a murderer. It steps into the mind of a killer by removing itself almost entirely from the killer’s mind. This works well here, as a morally questionable villain is the most interesting kind of villain there is. Black gives a career-defining performance here. Playing someone who actually exists, in ways, could be easier than playing a fictional character. Black had the physical mannerisms to work off of (such as Bernie’s somewhat effeminate style of walking). The challenging part, which Black nails, is the emotional core. While Black usually plays slacker characters who start off unlikable and then become likable as the story progresses, “Bernie” is the first time he plays a character who starts off likable and by the end, it’s hard to tell whether or not he should be.

Despite his good deeds, Bernie’s motivations are constantly in question. His relationships with the older widows are a little too close for comfort, especially his possibly romantic one with cold-hearted Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). If you knew Marjorie Nugent, who will take advantage of your kindness and then chew her beans in a way that angers you, you would probably hate her, too. If you know the true story of Bernie Tiede, then you know the fate of Marjorie Nugent. But knowing the truth does not ruin the story. “Bernie” sets up her demise in a way that is actually kind of shocking, and what happens to her body afterwards is funny in a darkly comedic way. The fact that she has died is not funny, but what is funny is that Bernie still feels the need to give her a proper burial. An unconventional one, at that.

While Texas once wanted to secede from the country, “Bernie” is a very American satire, from 10 gallon hats to 10 gallon Coke cups. It explores the bedrock of traditional American values, such as the law and Jesus Christ himself, and supposes that they may be filled with lies. We have seen men who use religion to hide evil, but I have never thought this much about how the individual members of a jury could effect the outcome of a trial so much. This is coming from someone who has seen “12 Angry Men.”

Later on, the story’s real hero turns out to be District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey). This is a big turn for a man who at first seems to be able to look for any opportunity for a PR stunt. Davidson might take his job a little too seriously, but he’s also very good at it. Linklater has a habit of getting the best possible performances out of McConaughey, and by that I mean getting him to actually act. As Davidson, McConaughey doesn’t even feel like he’s giving a performance, he just seems to be existing as Davidson. He blends in with the locals, yet he has a big city attitude that clashes with rural life of Carthage. Plus, he provides one of the film’s biggest laughs with his terrible mispronunciation of a famous play.

“Bernie” seamlessly blends fiction with reality. It is not a mockumentary, but rather half scripted, and half documentary. The residents of Carthage steal the show, despite Jack Black’s fantastic performance.   Some of the stories and words of wisdom that the Carthaginians (is that a thing?) share are the kind of things that seem to only be able to come from memory, and not a screenplay. Sure, the movie has fun at the expense of the obese folks on jury duty, but the minds behind the film seemed to have done enough research and close observation of the region that they have to be hitting it on the head. Or at least, that is what a man at the theater who grew up in East Texas told me.

Having the semi-documentary format is perhaps the only way to tell the story of Bernie Tiede. There are never any real private moments of Bernie in contemplation. Therefore, some of his deeper emotions are never reveled, and his intentions are left up to interpretation. A movie that explores if someone could possibly have two personalities, and if someone could commit cold-blooded murder and still be loved, is one that is deep and though-provoking. A movie like that doesn’t leave the viewer’s mind once the film ends. The fact that “Bernie” explores these themes in a way that is both funny and endearing is a mini-revelation.

“Bernie” has yet to receive a wide release. That may be because “The Avengers” is all anyone is going to see, but I believe this movie has about the same amount of mass appeal. And the fact that many believe this movie is not entirely accurate just adds further to the intrigue of it.

Everybody Loves Bernie