Monday, February 3, 2014

2014 Movies: This one's about bad guys with money. Also I saw Spirited Away for the first time.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Martin Scorcese

Man.  This was a looong movie.  I liked it well enough, but I guess there was some kind of controversy around this one about whether or not it was satire.  All of the scenes of capitalist excess are supposed to be so over the top that it just has to be a satire, right?  I don’t think I was so sure about where I fell on this one.  On the one hand it’s over the top because it has to be in order to assert itself as meaningful entertaining commentary (and maybe satire) on those days of Wall Street excess.  Jordan Belfort gets caught in the end and we get that he’s not a good person.  But on the other hand this guy (a real life person) is still out there teaching seminars on how to be him.  There was a lot of fun and indignant horror to be had, but it all kind of falls apart when you try to consider what the movie was trying to say.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort right on the line of lovable rogue with a dream and irredeemable monster, but I feel that Scorcese’s film did land on Belfort’s side, and that’s partly because all of the globe-trotting parties, the beautiful people, the drugs, and the aggressive workplace environment is shot to get you wrapped up in the excitement.  Every party scene is brimming with bacchanalian self-indulgence, and every scene at the office features Jordan firing up his employees with a speech about being a master of the universe, inevitably sending them into a tent-revival frenzy.  Money is their religion and they are all devoted followers.  It inevitably comes crashing down, and Belfort is left in debt, still addicted to drugs, and with a divorce pending as sort of tent poles of sympathy.  Where the film really seems to take his side is at the end where Jordan tells us that he was worried until he remembered that he is rich and consequences for the rich are not the same as the consequences for ordinary men.  We see a shot of him in his country-club jail, playing tennis and having a fine time rubbing elbows with other wealthy offenders.  Perhaps it is meant as an indictment of our legal system and how it will favor the rich, but up to this point the movie is structured in such a way that rather than speculating on how Belfort will finally get stopped and get what’s coming to him, the audience is meant to be inured to this lifestyle and as a result they are meant to speculate on how their buddy Jordan is gonna get out of this one.

In order for this movie to have better portrayed itself as satire or an indictment of that lifestyle, I feel like it would have to have more closely anchored itself to the emotional toll this lifestyle has on Belfort and his friends and family.  To be fair, the movie does have certain moments where we are meant to look upon these scenes of greed-fueled debauchery with fear and dread (the scene where that one secretary tries to hold it together after getting her head shaved stands out in my mind), but the impact of what we do get is mitigated by all those fun and exciting party and office scenes because the movie prefers them, and as a result the emotional toll on the characters during Belfort’s downfall becomes a sort of Behind The Music decline period checklist.  The Wolf of Wall Street seems less like a satire and more a celebration of this scoundrel life; doing what you want, taking what you want, not caring about the consequences because you’re rich and powerful and charming enough that they don’t even matter.

It’s problematic.  And I haven’t even gotten to how they treat ladies in this one.

The Bling Ring (2013) Sofia Coppola

This one’s about the kids who robbed a bunch of celebrities in Los Angeles back in 2009, and it’s based largely on this Vanity Fair piece by Nancy Jo Sales.  I’ve never been that hot on Sofia Coppola, but I try to give her movies a look because I guess I just want to like her movies despite the fact that I haven’t really enjoyed any of them.  It’s one of those things where I appreciate what she’s trying to do, but it just doesn’t ever seem to resonate with me.

Anyway, this was another one I wasn’t so hot on.  The tone of the movie and the sound of the dialogue was weirdly discordant.  Sofia Coppola’s movies have this sort of quiet, detached feel to them that typically works to contrast the comedic moments, putting a sort of deadpan twist on them, but that trick didn’t seem to do it for me with The Bling Ring, and I think it’s an issue of balance for me.  The tone of the movie is persistently aloof, but the dialogue (most of it direct quotes) comes off as too ridiculous and superficial.  Maybe this is more a problem with the actors’ takes on the dialogue as I thought their line readings seemed to be trying to poke fun at the superficiality of these characters while the tone of the script seems to call for something I think more oblivious than superficial.  I understand superficiality is one of the movie’s concerns, along with the fascinations with the private lives of celebrities, but when the tone and look of the movie so distant and reserved, it can only balance a specific style of humor, one that seems to fit Bill Murray in Lost in Translation better than it does any of the actors in The Bling Ring.

Coppola does some cool things with sound in this movie.  A lot of the sound goes from muffled to too loud, playing on the idea of isolation and interaction, the idea that sometimes dialogue and sounds are too muffled or too loud to mean anything significant to you.  Similarly, that trademark detached visual style of hers makes for some cool looking scenes, particularly one where the group is robbing Audrina Patridge’s house.  The camera keeps the whole house in frame, and we watch the robbery at a distance through floor-to-ceiling glass windows.  There is no sound.  It’s these sorts of quietly compelling moments where Coppola excels, her detachment turning the audience into willful voyeurs, accessories to this crime.

Maybe Sofia Coppola just wasn’t the right fit for this story.  The sparseness of her style certainly has a purposefulness to it, and she definitely had something to say with her film, but at the end of it, the style clashes with the content and objective, making the film as a whole seem uncomfortable with what it is and unsure of what it wants to be.

Argento’s Dracula (2012) Dario Argento

I’m hesitant to scream “Dario Argento’s still got it!” but I was definitely down with this one.  I’ll admit that some of this drags, and I think it was partly because you know how the usual beats of a retelling of Dracula tend to go, but Argento is still excited to show you a bunch of sex and violence, ready to show you he’s still a fucking mad man.  It’s not an entirely faithful adaptation, which is fine because I’m pretty sure Bram Stoker’s original text didn’t include Dracula turning into a giant praying mantis to stab a villager, something I didn’t even know I wanted to see until I saw it.  

There’s this strangeness to how the lighting works in this movie that I think serves the tone of it very well.  Every scene looks over-lit, so the movie looks like it’s being shot in a bunch of little dioramas with a halogen desk lamp shining on all the actors looking like dolls.  It all looks and feels so unnatural and I don’t think it’s just because it was shot for 3D and I was watching it in pitiful 2D.  The actors alternate between wooden and over-the-top (all in probably the worst wigs I’ve seen in a movie), invoking a kind of campy feeling that’s reinforced by how soundstage-y everything looks.  Maybe you can look at it as Argento taking a more Brechtian approach to adapting Dracula, trying to constantly remind you that what you are watching is staged make-believe?  Or maybe Argento wanted to do something with cool effects and not a lot of cash or taste to back it up.  Either way it’s over-lit, over-acted, over-the-top fun.  Oh hey, also Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing was some unexpected casting that I enjoyed.  Maybe there’s some Argento in how Hauer plays Van Helsing?  This vicious old man getting the shit kicked out of him and still prevailing?  It’s probably a reach on my part, but we should all be so lucky.

Spirited Away (2001) Hayao Miyazaki

The only other Miyazaki movie I’d seen before this one was My Neighbor Totoro, and yeah, after that and Spirited Away, I definitely get why everyone loves him so much.  I love that this one’s structured in a fairy tale or fable style, but done in such a way that the usual tropes are almost unrecognizable.  We get familiar things like a dashing prince and an evil witch, but the movie takes our main girl Chihiro through so many different twists and turns that we’re never really sure which archetypes or symbols Miyazaki is really playing on, so as a result it feels like something new and different.  Spirited Away also features a lot of very beautiful animation with these amazing and strange character designs.  It reminded me a bit of The Fifth Element in terms of just going for completely inhuman looking things.  My favorites were the Radish Spirit and the three green heads.

Typical of a fairy tale or fable, Spirited Away uses fantastic situations and allegory to describe a certain change in Chihiro’s outlook and worldview.  She starts out uptight and afraid, and throughout the course of meeting all these crazy characters she learns to overcome that, becoming fearless and free.  One of the things I liked so much about this movie was that all the aforementioned twists and turns in the plot come as Chihiro begins to change.  Chihiro learns something about herself, she changes, and as a result the world around her and the characters she meets change as well.  For instance, Yubaba, the witch who runs the spirit bath house starts out as a totally evil creature, ready to kill and eat Chihiro at the drop of a hat, but by the end of it when Chihiro has reached the end of her arc, Yubaba is something more like a demanding but certainly manageable boss or authority figure.  And I think that’s a great extrapolation of the “Happily Ever After” ending.  We are so frequently told that it’s the end of the movie and everything is fine, but with the end of Spirited Away we don’t need to worry because our girl Chihiro learns that she is able to find strength in herself, ensuring that she will be able to handle anything that comes her way.

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