Friday, April 11, 2014

Oscars 2013 Catchup: 'Dallas Buyers Club' & 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Well, all right all right all right.
As I mentioned almost a month ago, my work status and living conditions cut into my movie-going availability for this new year. When the Academy Award nominations were announced on January 16'th, I had only seen four of the eight nominees for Best Picture (which expanded to five when I took in Philomena). Consider the fact that last year's Oscars were the first in which I'd seen ALL of the Best Picture nominees and you can see what a precipitous fall that was. And despite needing to play catch-up on 2014 films (with movies like Ride Along and Non-Stop, I might be doing myself a favor waiting for DVD), I still want to know what made the most recent nominees tick and why they were so favored. And so I recently rented two of last year's Best Picture nominees, looking to see if either of them deserved to be spoken in the same sentence as big winners Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Matthew McConaughey won the Oscar for Best Actor for portraying the real-life Ron Woodroof in Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club, in which Woodroof goes from rodeo enthusiast and serial hellraiser to terminal patient during the giant AIDS scare of the 1980's. Faced with the impossibility of obtaining life-saving drugs in the United States, he heads south of the border to get help via non-FDA-approved medication in Mexico. With the assistance of a fellow patient and trans woman Rayon (fellow Oscar winner Jared Leto), Woodruff traffics and distributes this unapproved medication to others ostracized by the system.

Let's be honest; as much as I love Chiwetel Ejiofor, and as AMAZING as he was in 12 Years, McConaughey ABSOLUTELY put forth the best performance by a leading man in 2013. It's easy to point to his physical transformation - his Woodruff looks like he could be snapped in half by Lou Ferrigno - but its the acting side of this man which deserves the most praise. McConaughey absolutely masters the screen, and when you consider what he as already accomplished in the world of entertainment last year (Mud, HBO's True Detective, and even stealing some early scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street, which we'll get to later), that this is his (and the) greatest acting achievement of 2013 is really saying something. And while he's surrounded by a good supporting cast - including solid second-stringer Jennifer Garner as the requisite fictional love interest - the only one who steals any of the naked bongo player's spotlight is Leto, whose transformation into the (also fictional) Rayon is haunting in its perfection and commanding presentation. And to address the elephant in the room, I understand peoples' opinions that a real trans woman should have played the role. Their arguments make a lot of sense, however, to that I have two responses. One is that Leto's work does absolutely nothing to marginalize, insult or make light of the trans community. The other is that this is ACTING, and if Leto was the best actor - trans or not - to portray the role, than he was the right one to be cast. I know it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but does that also mean Idris Elba, Damien Lewis, Emma Watson and Daniel-Day Lewis can only play British people? That seems a tad restrictive, and kind of unnecessary. If someone is the best fit for the role, then it should be offered to them. And when they do as good a job as Leto does, there's not that much left to complain about.
Two of 2013's best.
Okay, tangent over... The story itself is also standout, with the screenplay by relative newcomers Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack doing an excellent job developing the characters and setting the tone. Vallee really transports the viewer back to the 1980's and captures the fears, prejudices and events of the era with a camera style that feels appropriately intimate. We're SUPPOSED to fall in love with these characters, and the director does absolutely everything within his power to make that happen. The only thing preventing the film from being perfect is the editing, which more often than not is excessively jarring and takes the attention of the audience away from the well-crafted story. It also draws attention to the rare story weaknesses, putting a small chink into what could have been a flawless film.
I love me some Rayon, even if she doesn't actually exist...
But even with those light missteps, Dallas Buyers Club is easily among last year's best offerings. Even if McConaughey and Leto hadn't won their well-deserved Oscars, you should do yourself a favor and see this movie if you haven't done so already. Between the excellent acting and mind-shattering story, this movie EARNED its Best Picture nomination.

But while you can see at a glance why Dallas Buyers Club earned a nomination, it's not so easy to say, unseen, where The Wolf of Wall Street fits in. On one hand, it's from a filmmaker (Martin Scorcese) who easily sits atop many experts' Best Director lists, and has absolutely earned that distinction. It's also headlined by superb talents in Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill (who now has more Academy Award nominations than an embarrassingly long list of talents like Gary Oldman and Bill Murray) and even a scene-stealing McConaughey. It's even got a screenplay by a man (Terence Winter) who cut his teeth on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. On the other hand, a LOT of controversy came out of this release, from the accusations that condones greed and sexism, amongst a litany of other transgressions carried out the film's characters. It has the distinction of containing the most uses of the word "fuck" in a mainstream motion picture, and that level of f-bomb dropping usually indicates a lack of creativity, rather than a surplus. Based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Jordan Belfort, this definitely wasn't going to be as cheer-worthy as any of the other nominees. Of course, that didn't matter as it still turned out to be one of the best flicks I've seen in recent years.
Little known fact: Leo doesn't crumple up and throw away money, but James Franco does.
As I mentioned before, Wolf of Wall Street is based on Belfort's life, most notably his glorious rise on Wall Street to his equally precipitous fall from grace, fueled by a life of drugs, infidelity, outrageous behavior and general hooliganism, which eventually got him caught by the FBI. From the word go, you get a real impression of what kind of movie you're in for. The language is crude, the pace is hectic, and personalities are outrageous to the point of lunacy. And whether or not this is consistent with the tone of the book (and many reviewers say it is), this kind of energy with the New York Stock Exchange set as the background is entertainment incarnate. The acting is also top notch. As I mentioned, McConaughey steals a few scenes, even though they are decidedly at the beginning of the picture. Kyle Chandler shows up and puts in a suitable Kyle Chandler offering as an FBI investigator. And while I'm not entirely certain how I feel about Margot Robbie's performance as the mandatory female love interest, two items seriously impress me. First is that her pitch-perfect Brooklyn accent came out of an Australian actress. Second, she plays a vastly different role than her admittedly-smaller part in romantic comedy About Time. She never steals the scenes from the leads, but holds her own opposite more experienced talent, so that at least is commendable.
But the show belongs to these boys.
But this film is definitely a boy's club, and three men in particular are the ringleaders of this circus: Scorcese, DiCaprio and Hill. The director tackles a topic that is not quite as offbeat for him as the kid-friendly Hugo but still feels a bit apart from even his New York-set titles. On the surface it's the kind of nihilistic glorification of greed and selfishness that had NYSE audiences cheering at the inappropriate bits upon its release. But in reality it's easy to see where the guy in charge draws the line. When the boys are running a successful firm and (arguably) harming no-one, or when Belfort is comically embroiled in the middle of a life-altering scandal, it's easy to be drawn in and amused by the hilarious antics of the protagonists. But then there are the jarring scenes, especially a violent one in the last act, where someone IS getting hurt and suddenly the drug trip isn't funny anymore, and you realize that all those good times and funny bits were hiding something much, MUCH darker, something Scorcese makes no effort to cover up or excuse. Much like Kathryn Bigelow refusing to villify prisoner torture in Zero Dark Thirty, Scorcese actually leaves the actual condemnation up to the audience's discretion, which is exactly what a good director does.
Well, we know his kryptonite...
Scorcese's leads help him perfectly in his narrative effort. DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Belfort, but to be honest it doesn't appear much of a stretch as some of his better performances over the years. Lately, it seems like he's been playing this same kind of prideful, self-centered role in The Great GatsbyJ. Edgar and Revolutionary Road. And so I only have to assume those who cry that the actor should have beaten out McConaughey and Ejiofor for the Oscar are merely DiCaprio fanboys, as here he is not quite on their same level (Don't get me wrong, he definitely deserved the nomination). But while DiCaprio puts up predictably strong work, the one who absolutely OWNS every scene is Jonah Hill. Honestly, I can't believe this is the same guy who brought us Superbad and 21 Jump Street. He's always been funny, but here he seamlessly blends into the role in a way I never would have thought him capable. If only one person from this film could have been nominated for an Oscar, it ought to have been Hill all the way. Not only has the actor been the lucky recipient of two Academy Award nominations, but he absolutely EARNED them, as well.
Well... that's different...
Now, as much as I loved The Wolf of Wall Street, I also admit that it has its share of problems. At three hours, it's either thirty minutes too long or short (better editing in the third act would have made for a watchable extended cut). Scorcese falls into his usual trap of obvious metaphors on occasion (one particular scene comparing Belfort to the cartoon Popeye is especially groan-inducing), a habit inexcusable for such a seasoned director. And the movie DOES contain a ton of controversial material, from the objectification of women to a relative lack of punishment for the protagonists, though it should also be pointed out that the real fault for this lies with Belfort and his cronies who played out the real-life story, not the filmmakers who faithfully adapted it to the screen. In fact, Scorcese should be lauded for taking such a despicable character and such a horrible story and making them interesting and utterly compelling to a movie-going public. It's incredibly easy to admire much of what Belfort did all those years on Wall Street, even if it turned out to be more harmful than anything else. And Scorcese's project is absolutely a condemnation of the events in question, even if it doesn't seem like it all the time. It isn't made for everybody, but I still think everybody should see The Wolf of Wall Street at least once. If nothing else, it's a window into a world you may never be a part of, and a cautionary tale so that this true story is never repeated again.

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