Don't ask me what my favorite film is. It's like asking a parent which child is the favorite.
Welcome to my film blog. I strive for a synthesis of good/bad and theoretical criticism.
Welcome to my film blog. I strive for a synthesis of good/bad and theoretical criticism.
Sunday, January 26, 2014
The Distorted Reflection
A Review of Philomena
By Daniel Carstens
Early in Philomena, teenage Philomena, attending a fair, gazes at her distorted reflection in a funhouse mirror. The mirror then distortedly reflects the face of a teenage boy, who proceeds to sweet-talk the young girl. We soon find out that Philomena “took (her) knickers down” for the boy and became pregnant.
The funhouse mirror not only shows that the boy had perverted intentions, but it symbolizes the distorted views of the Catholic church as depicted in the film. The sisters neglected to tell an orphan girl anything about her body, and she knew nothing of the risks of pregnancy (not that 1950’s nuns would have condoned birth control, anyway). When the baby is born, the nuns refuse to bring in a doctor, even though the baby is breech. They insist that Philomena is paying penance for her carnal sin. Later in the film, we see the convent cemetery, where young girls and babies that did not survive the birthing process are buried. Those girls that do survive are forced into slave labor, only able to leave if they produce money that they have no opportunity to earn. The children are sold to Catholic American couples, who are told that the mothers abandoned the children. Even in her later years, Philomena still holds to the distorted beliefs that the nuns were inherently good, that she was just paying the price for her sins. The church had held the mirror in front of Philomena her entire life.
Elderly Philomena (Judi Dench) enlists the help of a shamed BBC reporter, Martin (Steve Coogan, who also shared writing duties) to find her long-lost son, Michael. They return to the convent, where it is revealed that all records of her son’s adoption were destroyed in a fire. This is highly reminiscent of The Omen, when hospital records of Damien’s birth were also destroyed in a fire. Philomena’s son is not the antichrist, but he became an important official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, like Damien becomes politically involved in The Omen III. Michael was gay, so perhaps he was a sort of antichrist for the Reagan-era Republican party.
As it turns out, the fire that destroyed Michael’s adoption papers was a bonfire, where nuns purposely burned documents that would allow mothers to find their children. They did keep the contract Philomena signed that stated she would never attempt to seek her son. The nuns prevented Philomena from finding her son, and also prevented Michael from finding his mother. After cleverly-justified product placement from Guinness reveals that Michael was interested in his Irish heritage, we learn that Michael had traveled to the convent to find his mother. They had told Michael that his mother had abandoned him, and they had no record of who she was. Even in the end, when Martin and Philomena return to the convent to confront the nuns, Sister Hildegarde condemns Philomena for her uncontrollable libido, justifying the actions of the nuns and the church. It is a distorted view of sin, indeed.
This lambasting of the 1950’s Catholic church is sprinkled within a wonderful “odd couple” story. Martin and Philomena are polar opposites, and it makes for many humorous moments. Martin quotes T.S. Eliot and enjoys a good Pinot Grigio, while Philomena enjoys romance novels and is excited to watch Big Momma’s House. Of course, being a British film where the characters travel to Washington D.C., there are the obligatory potshots at the United States. Philomena worries that her son died in Vietnam, or was crippled and homeless, or a drug addict. Worst of all, though, is the worry that he became obese from the massive American portions. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Philomena is the rare film that is humorous, heartwarming, and heartbreaking, while having something important to say. Coogan and Dench harmonize beautifully (though I thought Dench’s accent was at times inconsistent). There are a few questionable moments, such as Michael’s former partner’s unexplained Jeckyl and Hyde act and Philomena’s immediate acceptance of Michael’s homosexuality (despite her uber-strict Catholic values). However, the weaknesses are few and forgivable. Philomena may criticize the distorted mirror of Catholic values, but the film’s own reflection is beautiful.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Compassion or Corruption?
A Review of Dallas Buyers Club
By Daniel Carstens
“People are dying. And y’all are up there afraid that we’re gonna find an alternative without you. You see, the pharma companies pay the FDA to push their product.” This rant by Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is the overt message of Dallas Buyers Club. For those (almost everyone) who are completely unfamiliar with the film, Woodroof is a Texas electrician who enjoys drugs and sex, and, in 1985, learns that he has HIV. As a man who loves bull riding and beer, he is in disbelief that he, a straight man, has the “Rock Hudson” disease. Given only 30 more days to live, he desperately seeks medical treatments, and obtains AZT, a new drug that is being studied. His search for the drug brings him to Mexico, where a doctor alerts him to the dangers of AZT. The doctor gives him new drugs that are unapproved by the FDA. Ron begins a sort of business, smuggling and selling the drugs to AIDS victims, assisted by his link with the gay community, Rayon (Jared Leto). Despite the dangers of AZT and the proven success of Ron’s drugs, the FDA constantly battles to shut him down. This brings us to the rant, which is the film’s explicit message, perhaps too obviously shouted by Ron.
Yes, Dallas Buyers Club is about governmental corruption and corporate greed taking precedence over the health and livelihood of people with a terminal illness. However, much more interesting is the film’s underlying message about homosexuality. Set in the infancy of the AIDS epidemic, the film naturally tackles Reagan-era homophobia. Upon discovery of his illness, Ron exerts a slew of gay slurs that would offend Phil Robertson. Ron’s friends ridicule him, assuming he has been sleeping with men, and are even squeamish sitting near him. One powerful scene features Ron in a physical altercation with a former friend. Ron overpowers the man and forces him to shake hands with Rayon. The man quivers with fear for his safety. Such was many people’s perception of homosexuality and AIDS in the mid-80’s. Recall the scene in Philadelphia (1993) where Miller (Denzel Washington) visits his doctor to see if he could have contracted AIDS from shaking Beckett’s (Tom Hanks) hand.
Many “cross-over” films, that is, mainstream films which discuss homosexual issues, deal with homophobia. Philadelphia centers around the issue, as do more recent films, such as Milk (2008). In Dallas Buyers Club, however, homophobia is a relatively minor issue. Ron overcomes his homophobia early, and his friends are not prominent after the film’s opening half-hour. The government and pharmaceutical companies are not portrayed as homophobic at all. The film could easily center around lymphoma patients. The greedy do not discriminate. They love anyone who can make them vast sums of money.
Dallas Buyers Club differs from most cross-over films in that it does not attempt to make people embrace homosexuality. Philadelphia, Milk, Brokeback Mountain (2005), and many others portray homosexuality as normal, and at times attack those who do not view it as such. In Dallas Buyers Club, Rayon, the major homosexual character in the film, is far from normal. He is a transvestite and a heavy drug user. The film does not condemn Rayon, however. At first, Ron only uses Rayon as a means to make money. As the film progresses, Ron genuinely empathizes with Rayon and other gays, not because of their homosexuality, but their disease that those in power refuse to make less excruciating. Dallas Buyers Club does not force anyone to embrace homosexuality, but urges us to love everyone and help those who need it, even if we disagree with their lifestyle.
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Golden Globes for their performances in Dallas Buyers Club, and both are expected to take home the Oscars as well. This presents the perfect opportunity to discuss the difference between a great performance and a great character. John Huston once said, in regards to acting: “It’s a cinch, and they pay you damn near as much as you make directing.” While Huston was certainly downplaying the difficulty of acting, he had a point. The effect of an acting performance has much more to do with the writer and director than with the actor. We see this constantly. Jennifer Lawrence will not win an Oscar for The Hunger Games, but she rakes in awards for every David O. Russell film she appears in. The characters and the director often win awards for the actors. (See my American Hustle review for more on that subject)
Of course, it takes a great performance to bring out the best in a great character, but some characters require less acting prowess. Lawrence’s mentally unstable characters with quick, snappy dialogue are exactly what the Academy (and the public) loves. In Dallas Buyers Club, Rayon the character will win Leto awards. Leto immerses himself in the character and gives an excellent performance, but undoubtedly many actors would have brought the charismatic and tragic character to life in a similar, equally powerful manner. Personally, I wonder why a gay actor was not used for the character (which is common in cross-over films and a lengthy discussion on its own). Regardless, compare Leto’s performance with that of Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street. Hill breathes power and madness into the character that shocked me, and probably everyone else, who has never taken him seriously as an actor.
Like Rayon, Ron is a great character, but Matthew McConaughey delivers a wonderful performance that is unassisted by makeup and accent (though he does deliver a fantastic Texas timbre). He superbly immerses himself in the character, makes us forget Matthew McConaughey entirely, and forces us to feel Ron’s pain and sorrow, as well as his joy and anger. McConaughey has earned his accolades for himself, while Leto, great as he is in the film, is riding the coattails of his character.
Dallas Buyers Club is a beautiful film, albeit often in a dark, depressing, and angry fashion. McConaughey delivers the performance of his life. Jennifer Garner unfortunately sticks out like a sore thumb. This poor casting choice is the only major weakness of the film, one that presents an unforceful message about homosexuality within a critique of governmental corruption and corporate greed, coupled with a powerful message of compassion.
Saturday, January 18, 2014
Please Mr. Oscar
A Review of Inside Llewyn Davis
By Daniel Carstens
January 18, 2014
“I don’t see a lot of money here.” These are the words of a Chicago club owner upon hearing Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) perform “The Death of Queen Jane.” The song is hauntingly beautiful, and, if one pays attention to the lyrics, tear-jerking. Set in the dark, empty club, this is a moment of pure, melancholy beauty that perfectly represents Inside Llewyn Davis. The club owner responds to such a moment with his only concern: money. Llewyn knows that his performance was wonderful, and he responds with a befuddled “ok.” The owner appreciates Davis enough to offer him a job playing in a trio, singing harmonies, but knows that Llewyn solo will not be profitable. Llewyn refuses to compromise his artistic integrity and leaves the club to hitchhike back to New York.
Inside Llewyn Davis is as much about the film industry in 2014 as it is about folk music in 1961. The club owner might as well be a major studio executive talking to a young, ambitious filmmaker who has just pitched a unique idea for a film. One could easily imagine the Coen brothers pitching Inside Llewyn Davis and eliciting a similar response. Llewyn Davis is so vastly different from the Coen brothers’ previous film, True Grit, a film that, as a remake of a John Wayne western, was practically a guaranteed money maker. Llewyn Davis is a film about a folk singer wandering aimlessly through life. It’s not exactly a recipe for commercial success, and apparently it took some time for the Coens to find an American distributor. And, after finally releasing across the country, the film has not been commercially successful. And that’s fine with Joel and Ethan Coen. They, like Llewyn, refuse to give in to commercial demands.
The most memorable character in the film, besides Llewyn, is the cat. Near the end, the cat’s name is revealed to be Ulysses, a clear reference to The Odyssey, given the plot of Llewyn’s journey (and the Coen’s history). The Hobbit is a current odyssey trilogy that represents the commercial side of the industry. There are many similarities between the films (besides Llewyn sounding like a hobbit name). Both Bilbo and Llewyn rely on their friends and random people whom they meet on their journeys. Both depend on a tool for survival (guitar and ring). Both films deeply concern wealth. And, ultimately, both characters return to where they began (there and back again). Of course, Llewyn is a much more cynical return than The Hobbit’s storybook ending. The Hobbit is the very sort of film Llewyn is critiquing, one small story stretched into three films that will collectively gross near a billion dollars in the United States alone. Peter Jackson is Llewyn’s friends who turn to commercial music. They will make money, but at the cost of their artistic integrity.
Roland Turner (John Goodman) is a critique of films on the opposite end of the spectrum: art films with zero commercial appeal that draw audiences who only watch art films. Turner’s ridiculing of Llewyn for his relatively simplistic music might as well be a film festival snob who feels the Coen brothers are too commercial. In reality, Inside Llewyn Davis is, like Llewyn’s music (and the Coen brothers’ films in general), the perfect middle ground between artsy and commercial.
There is conflict within Llewyn. Though he fights for his artistic integrity, he struggles to make a living as an artist. He participates in a recording session for a catchy tune about space travel, “Please Mr. Kennedy.” He dislikes the song, but needs the money. Llewyn perhaps sells out to record on this song, but his low point comes later. When he is pressured into playing at a dinner gathering and his deceased musical partner is mentioned, in a fit of rage he yells that he only makes music for a living. He reduces his art to its commercial value. He has discarded his music as art, reduced it to a job, but even so it makes him little money. Perhaps the Coen brothers’ “Please Mr. Kennedy” was True Grit. They may not have made the film for monetary purposes, but undoubtedly they knew it would have commercial success. Despite Llewyn’s disgust with the song, he appears to actually enjoy performing it, at least ever so slightly. Likewise, I found myself smiling and bobbing my head. The Coen brothers probably enjoyed making True Grit, as I enjoyed watching it. There is nothing wrong with catchy songs and popcorn movies. They are indeed fun, but they should not destroy thought-provoking films and music for their lack of financial return. Not long after recording the catchy song and denouncing his music, Llewyn regains himself and travels to Chicago, where he beautifully plays “The Death of Queen Jane.” Likewise, Joel and Ethan Coen have traveled far from True Grit, and have beautifully made Inside Llewyn Davis.
Recently, the Academy nominated nine films for Best Picture. Inside Llewyn Davis was not one of them. This deplorable act is actually very fitting, given the film’s nature as commentary on popular entertainment. The Academy was happy to nominate True Grit in 2011, and this year total commercial films like Gravity and Captain Phillips, as well as faux-art films like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street. Like Llewyn refuses to give in to commercial demands, undoubtedly this Oscar snub and commercial failure will not deter the Coen brothers from making the films they desire to make, wonderful fusions of art and entertainment like Inside Llewyn Davis.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
A Review of Gravity
By Daniel Carstens
January 12, 2014
There is a brilliant shot in Children of Men where a five people ride in a small car. They make small talk, play with a ping pong ball, are attacked by an angry mob, and chased by police. The shot clocks in at nearly four minutes. The camera is inside the car, moving and rotating to film all of the action. A custom rig was built, and the single shot took twelve days of production time. The result is one of the most incredible shots in any film, and the defining moment of director Alfonso Cuaron's career.
In Gravity, Cuaron attempts to upstage the famed Children of Men shot with a thirteen minute long opening shot. The shot takes the audience from beautiful outer-space serenity to destruction and chaos, as astronauts Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Kowalski (George Clooney) are sent flying through space, struggling to survive and return to Earth. The shot is incredible, but when one considers the only non-digital creations in the shot are the actor's faces which were digitally plastered into the space helmets, its impressiveness pales in comparison to the Children of Men shot. The shots are reflective of their respective films.
Children of Men doesn't need much CGI. The plot is incredibly compelling, the acting is wonderful, and the cinematography is breathtaking. The choreography of the long takes are nothing short of amazing. The entire film if fantastic in just about every way. Gravity, of course, has to be heavily dependent on CGI (enough so that it might qualify as an animated feature). And it is gorgeous, truly a sight to behold. Cuaron ensured every bit of CGI looked perfect, and it shows. Visually, few films, CGI or not, look as beautiful as Gravity. But would the film have near the same impact without the 3D and big screen?
No. The visuals are so incredible, they distract from the film's issues. Bullock is solid as Stone, but many actresses could have played the role with equal impact. There is a difference between a great performance, and a great character in a well-made film. Clooney, however is absolutely perfect in his role. Acting aside, the major problem with the film is its utter predictability. The film constantly asserts that Stone will survive. When she nearly commits suicide, there is absolutely no suspense, because the audience has been told throughout the film that she will return to Earth. There are many suspenseful moments in the film, but they are just moments. It is not a question of if, but how she will return to Earth. It is disappointing that Cuaron did not create some ambiguity. Also disappointing are the cliches. Kowalski's fate was obvious the moment the audience learns that this is his last mission. Not only was his sacrifice unnecessary and cliched, it unfortunately contends that the female protagonist cannot survive without the help of a man. This is reiterated again when Stone almost commits suicide. Kowalski returns, in the form of a hallucination, to encourage her to keep going. Even in her mind, Stone needs male help to survive. In Children of Men, Kee, the only pregnant woman in the future infertile world, needs Theo to survive. However, she is the source of life and the hope of humanity. Theo is like a queen's guard, performing his duty (in this case for the good of humanity), rather than the cowboy saving the damsel that is Kowalski in Gravity.
Weaknesses aside, Gravity is a beautiful film. Never has space looked so real. Cuaron should be commended for his commitment to realism. Gravity is worth viewing for this reason alone. However, similar to Avatar, those who missed out on the theatrical release will likely not be as moved. Bullock and the predictable plot are not strong enough to carry the film to cosmic levels without the big screen and 3D. Personally, I will choose to let my theatrical experience be my lasting memory of Gravity. But if I ever again have the opportunity to see it in 3D on the big screen, I will not miss it.
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Beauty and Brutality
A Review of 12 Years a Slave
By Daniel Carstens
January 8, 2014
Some films leave us speechless.
Just before the climax of 12 Years a Slave, there is a close up of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Very slowly, he changes the direction of his gaze. Eventually, thunder claps. Nothing else happens in the shot, which lasts well over a minute. This shot perfectly personifies the power of the film. Solomon is speechless. His gaze changes direction, so he is not in deep thought, but appears as if he is simply taking a minute to absorb the previous twelve years of his life. Likewise, during this shot, I, as an audience member, simply gazed at the screen, not in deep thought, but simply let the previous two hours assimilate into my consciousness. The shot is simple, subtle, and beautiful.
Conversely, there is a shot just ten minutes prior where Solomon whips another slave, Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o, in her stunning film debut). In one single hand-held shot, nearly five minutes long, Patsy is tied to a post and stripped. The master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), forces Solomon to whip her. He does, but not with full force. Epps pulls a gun on Solomon, who relents and whips Patsy with all his might. He quits, and Epps grabs the whip and brutally and relentlessly lashes her. He finally ceases, and Solomon goes to Patsy as she falls to the ground, massive gashes in her backside.
This shot is as powerful as any shot in any film. It is brilliantly choreographed, acted, and filmed, and the complete antithesis of one of the most famous whippings in film. In The Passion of the Christ (2004), during Jesus' flogging, the audience is subjected to spattering blood and pieces of flesh being ripped apart. It is a powerful scene, but the shot in 12 Years a Slave is much more subtle, and more moving. Director Steve McQueen extracts incredible performances from his actors. The audience is more deeply affected by Solomon's facial expressions, Patsy's cries, and Epps' rage than by the gore of Passion.
Much of 12 Years a Slave's brilliance stems from the contrast between the two shots previously described. McQueen juxtaposes beauty with brutality. Shots of serene bayou landscapes follow shortly after shots of hangings. The plague of caterpillars that kill Epps' cotton plants perfectly showcases this juxtaposition. Caterpillars, cold-blooded plant-killing machines, contrast with the pure, white cotton. The cotton is the United States, not pure because of whiteness, but because of Democracy and the principals the country was founded upon. The real plague is not caterpillars, but slavery.
There are tragically too few historical films like 12 Years a Slave that tackle race issues head on and appeal to both wide audiences of all races. All too many films that attempt to tackle race issues actually perpetuate notions of white supremacy. The "help" in The Help (2011) is not the black female housekeepers and nannies, but the help that the white protagonist gives to those black women. Despite the numerous despicable whites in the film, in the end white film goers can feel good knowing that there were white people willing to help blacks who seemingly could not help themselves. In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon does require the help of a white man, a Canadian who is apprehensive about the simple act of writing a letter. He is an afterthought. Solomon alone is the reason he survives. He is a powerful black character, even while a slave.
12 Years a Slave, about a free black man taken into slavery, is a fantastic story. In a Hollywood starved for new ideas, it is shameful that so few films exist about slavery and the Civil Rights movement. There are countless incredible stories that could provide studios with films like 12 Years a Slave that not only move audiences, but educate them. Films reach massive audiences, and educate those who will not seek knowledge themselves. In a politically-polarized society where racism is still rampant, black history is barely taught in schools. As an aspiring history teacher with a film background, I realize film's power to educate. Ten minutes of 12 Years a Slave will create a lasting impression of life as a slave that a forty-minute lecture could only dream of. Films like this need to be much more prevalent. Of course, Hollywood needs more black directors with both the capacity for excellent film making and the willingness to make films that appeal to all races. Tyler Perry and Spike Lee are very influential directors, but Perry appeals mostly to blacks, while Lee's films are not made for massive commercial success and reach smaller audiences. Steve McQueen is the sort of director Hollywood needs to properly bridge black history with popular film. I greatly anticipate his next attempt at leaving me speechless.
Saturday, January 4, 2014
A Review of The Wolf of Wall Street
By Daniel Carstens
January 4, 2014
In a climactic scene of The Wolf of Wall Street, FBI agents raid the Stratton Oakmont brokerage offices. Chaos ensues as they arrest half of the employees, accompanied by a garage-rock version of the 1968 Simon & Garfunkel classic, "Mrs. Robinson." The song is most famously featured in The Graduate (1967), a groundbreaking film that, upon release, was both revered and reviled for its lewdness. Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and her affair with 21-year-old Ben (Dustin Hoffman) was viewed as scandalous and offensive by older audience members in 1967. To younger audiences, Mrs. Robinson was a sex symbol. The film's blend of drama and comedy was innovative and influential. The film was like nothing ever before seen in mainstream American cinema.
Like The Graduate, The Wolf of Wall Street will no doubt be denounced for its rampant vulgarity. It has reportedly set the record for number of f-bombs, and is saturated with quasi-pornography. Martin Scorsese is well-known for pushing the limits of decency, but this film has reached new heights of obscenity. In genre, it is also a blend of drama and comedy, a common synthesis since The Graduate. Like The Graduate, many audience members will be unable to overlook The Wolf of Wall Street's excessive vulgarity. Those who are undeterred will find a compelling film with fantastic acting performances, but ultimately one that is not substantial enough for three hours and will likely appear on few all-time great lists alongside other Scorcese films and The Graduate.
Undoubtedly many film goers will notice the thematic similarities between The Wolf of Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio's previous film, The Great Gatsby, but the most compelling connection to classic American literature is acknowledged in the film by Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) himself. He refers to himself as Captain Ahab. Indeed, The Wolf of Wall Street is a modern retelling of Moby Dick.
Jordan's white whale is a satisfactory amount of money. The catch-22, of course, is that no matter how much money Jordan has, it is never enough. His unending pursuit of more wealth has many parallels to Captain Ahab's relentless hunt of Moby Dick. Jordan's ocean is the stock market. His first mate on the ship Stratton Oakmont is Donnie (played by Jonah Hill in perhaps the most surprising performance of the year). Throughout the film, Jordan rouses his employees with passionate speeches. The employees clap and cheer every word. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab gathers his crew and garners their support for his quest. Like Ahab, Jordan prioritizes his own desires over the lives of his crew. His illegal tactics draw the attention of the SEC and FBI, and ultimately lead to the arrest of his associates, just as Ahab's crew goes down with the ship. In The Wolf of Wall Street, however, the Ishmael, the only survivor and narrator of the story, is Jordan. He gives up his associates in exchange for a light sentence in a prison where he passes the time playing tennis.
As if the figurative sinking ship, the shutdown of Stratton Oakmont and the arrest of the employees, was not enough to parallel Moby Dick, Jordan's literal ship sinks. In one of the most amusing moments of the film, Jordan's aunt-in-law, who opened a Swiss bank account to hold Jordan's money, dies, leaving $20 million in jeopardy. Jordan and Donnie (who were ordered to stay in the country), are on Jordan's yacht off the coast of Italy. The Swiss banker gives Jordan three days to get his money. Despite the captain's warning of "chop" on the sea, Jordan risks everyone's lives for the $20 million. Chop turns out to be massive waves, and the ship is capsized.
Like Moby Dick, The Wolf of Wall Street explores gender and masculinity. Unlike Moby Dick, women are allowed on Jordan's figurative ship, Stratton Oakmont, but usually only for sex and amusement. A sad scene early in the film shows a woman shaving her head for $10,000, for the sole purpose of entertaining the mostly-male office. In one of his speeches, Jordan uses one of the few female brokers to portray his generosity. When she first began at Stratton Oakmont, she had difficulty paying her bills and asked Jordan for a $5,000 advance. He wrote her a $25,000 check. The women on Jordan's ship are only present either for sex or amusement, or dependent on Jordan. Jordan and his male associates constantly assert their masculinity, usually sexually, but also in their dominance over women in the office and at home.
"Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors that they are?" Herman Melville devotes an entire chapter of Moby Dick to a discussion of whiteness. In pre-Civil War America, this was an immensely provocative discussion, less about the whiteness of the whale than a critique of white supremacy in the United States. Ishmael fears the whiteness of the whale. In The Wolf of Wall Street, whiteness is also to be feared. There are no blacks at Stratton Oakmont. The only notable blacks in the film are Jordan's housekeeper (a slave's job in Melville's day), and Steve Urkel and Carl Winslow of Family Matters (a sort of modern minstrel show), which Jordan and Donnie watch on television. Wall Street is for white men, and blacks are for amusement (like women), or for serving white men.
The Wolf of Wall Street is compelling when viewed as a modern Moby Dick, probably even more so than when considered by itself. The opulence of Jordan and his associates transcends the story to the film itself. The extreme vulgarities are extravagant and excessive, and distract from the substance of the film. No doubt audiences will be discussing the obscenities rather than the plot, superb acting, or rich subtext of The Wolf of Wall Street.
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
A Review of Grudge Match
By Daniel Carstens
December 31, 2013
"I always told ya, boxing and women don't mix." So says Moe Howard to Curly in the classic 1934 Three Stooges short, Punch Drunks. This sentiment has been echoed in many boxing films since. In Raging Bull (1976), Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is an endlessly jealous husband, convinced that his wife Vicky has cheated on him. LaMotta is extremely verbally abusive towards her, and physically aggressive with almost every man who gets near her. He is unable to confine his aggression to the ring, and Vicky divorces him. In Rocky II (1979), Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) retires from boxing, due to health problems, and marries Adrian. When Rocky decides to fight again despite the extreme health risks, Adrian refuses to support him. An argument with Rocky's brother about the fight causes pregnant Adrian to faint and fall into a coma. Boxing almost kills Adrian. Both films showcase the difficulty, indeed impossibility, of a boxer holding a real relationship. Boxing and women don't mix.
Grudge Match features De Niro and Stallone as a pair of former boxers, now in their sixties. Their bitter arch-rivalry, both in the ring and out, has left both men with unresolved hatred that can, of course, only be resolved in the ring. The film naturally liberally references Raging Bull and Rocky, but the first three-quarters of the film actually bears more resemblance to Punch Drunks (perhaps best symbolized by De Niro's pre-training physique, almost identical to that of Curly). At times, Grudge Match closely resembles the slapstick physical comedy of the Stooges. When "Kid" (De Niro) and "Razor" (Stallone) circumstantially meet for the first time in decades, a comedic fight ensues. Several of these zany physical altercations occur throughout the course of the film.
Most of Grudge Match's humor is comprised of awkward sex jokes and obvious age gags, but there are some genuinely funny moments, particularly when Stallone and De Niro sing the national anthem at a real monster truck show. My personal favorite was the use of a song that was featured in a series of erectile dysfunction medicine commercials (this joke was lost on the rest of the audience). Ultimately, however, Grudge Match delivers fewer genuine laughs in two hours than Punch Drunks does in seventeen minutes. As the film progresses, though, it proves to be more than an endless string of geriatric jokes, and morphs into a moral tale. Kid is a heavy drinker and womanizer, and he pays for it. The emergence of his son, B.J., (Jon Bernthal) causes Kid to change his ways, but he relapses, brings his grandson to a bar, and chooses a loose woman over his grandson. Kid consequently loses his relationship with his son and grandson.
In the film, Razor's hobby is to weld pieces of scrap metal into small dog sculptures. Razor remarks that in the rusty scrap metal he sees something beautiful. Likewise, amidst the rusty scrap metal that is Grudge Match, something beautiful emerges, in the form of a single shot. In this shot, B.J. emotionally energizes his father prior to the fight. The shot is a closeup of the two, but due to a mirror, Kid's head is in two places, both the center and left side of the frame, while B.J. is on the right. In the surreal shot, Kid on the left speaks to B.J. on the right, with Kid in the middle. Kid is literally between himself and his son, a perfect visual representation of his reality.
The morality of Grudge Match reaches its climax in the ring. Kid punches Razor with his back turned, and Kid is scorned by B.J. Before the fight, Razor is revealed to be blind in one eye. The loss of half of his peripheral vision gives him a major disadvantage that could be exploited if Kid were to discover the weakness. During the fight, B.J. is told of the blindness. B.J. informs Kid, not to exploit the weakness to win the fight, but to urge Kid to fight Razor straight on. Kid cannot be satisfied if he wins an unfair fight, and so he heeds B.J.'s advice. This melodrama in the ring also features each boxer helping the other up. Kid and Razor have put aside their differences, fought fairly, and are happy regardless of the outcome of the fight.
The moralistic messages of Grudge Match are a paradox, however, because the film occasionally exhibits some rather poor judgement on the part of the filmmakers. Multiple oral sex jokes that play on a nine-year-old's naivety are both unfunny and in poor taste. The depiction of blacks in the film is also questionable. The most prominent black character is Dante, the fight promoter. Kevin Hart, with his best Chris Rock impression, plays the overly-obnoxious black man amongst whites, with the obligatory "white people" jokes. He is completely self-serving, concerned only with his image and making money. Likewise, LL Cool J plays a trainer who refuses to train Kid, until he realizes the potential for promoting his gym. The only morally upstanding black character is Razor's friend and former coworker, who only has about a minute of screen time. The portrayal of blacks in Grudge Match is unfortunate, especially in a film with such assertive moralistic messages.
Moe's advice to Curly about boxing and women is as relevant to Grudge Match as any boxing film. Thirty years ago, Razor was in love with Sally (Kim Basinger). She had an affair with Kid (ultimately the source of the feud). In the film, Razor realizes that Sally left him because he spent months away training. Boxing and women don't mix, and Razor chose boxing, so he lost Sally. In the film, their relationship is rekindled, but when Razor's half-blindness is revealed, Sally initially refuses to support his reckless decision to fight. Ultimately, she realizes that for Razor to mentally let go of boxing, he must go through with the fight, and she supports him. Still, because boxing and women don't mix, one thing remains until Razor has completely given up boxing: Razor and Sally only kiss after the fight is finished.