The Wolf of Wall Street

War Dogs

People often say that money is the root of all evil. False. The love of money is the root of all evil. I actually enjoy the tales of the wealthy, if for nothing more than the aspirational motivation I get from seeing a world I normally couldn’t witness. Whether it’s Wall Street or The Big Short, tales of the perils of wealth and excess fascinate me, and I love the story of a good “come up.” When I saw the trailer for War Dogs, which was inspired by true events, I was instantly hooked and wanted to learn how these upstarts cornered the market on international arms dealing.

Miles Teller (Fantastic Four) and Jonah Hill (Sausage Party) star as best friends David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli. The year is roughly 2006, and David is disenchanted with life. He can’t hold a steady job and is eking out a living as a masseuse. When he reconnects with Efraim, his old friend hasn’t changed a bit. He’s as obnoxious as ever, but seems to be doing well for himself. He started out buying seized illegal firearms from law enforcement and reselling them online. He’s moved on to small government contracts, selling weapons and ammunition to the U.S. government. One would think the world’s greatest military wouldn’t need to resort to buying small amounts of weaponry from individual gun purveyors, but blame the cronyism of the Bush Administration. Amidst allegations of nepotism against Dick Cheyney, Congress introduced legislation requiring the government to entertain offers from small companies. War is big business, and Efraim is cashing in.

He offers David a role in his company, and the pair embarks on a new course beset by dangerous greed. They attack the gun-running business with tenacious fervor, undeterred in the pursuit of lucrative government contracts. Efraim doesn’t mind playing fast and loose with the law if it keeps the money flowing, and David acquiesces. When trade legislation threatens a deal to export beretta handguns from Italy to the Middle East, the “war dogs” drive the guns through hostile territory themselves. Hill is superb as the brash, rotund Diveroli, delivering a performance reminiscent of his role in The Wolf of Wall Street. Efraim is the loveable asshole, and Hill infused his interpretation with quirks that made the character feel real.

Teller is serviceable as Packouz, though not as impressive as his co-star. I find his performances somewhat uneven, but his work in films such as Whiplash evinces great ability. Darker characters tend to be more nuanced and complex, and so Jonah Hill had more to work with, in many respects. His character’s duplicity allowed for a more layered performance, compared to Teller’s. Nevertheless, both actors had an abundance of chemistry and played to each other’s strengths. Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) is a master at capturing the fraternal dynamic between friends, and that ability is on display here. You can’t help but root for David and Efraim, yet that feeling is tempered by the clear white male American privilege from which they both benefitted, all while nearly running afoul of the law. War Dogs was insightful and entertaining, due in large part to an entertaining, compelling story and an anchoring turn from Jonah Hill. Grade: A-


The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) is at an interesting stage of his career. He’s been turning in critically acclaimed performances since 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, with no obvious missteps in his impressive catalogue. He has been nominated for an Academy Award for acting four times, though he has never taken home a golden statue. It’s becoming somewhat of a running joke that he hasn’t won; and it shouldn’t be. After viewing The Revenant, I can say that he’s turned in arguably the performance of his career, and hopefully that elusive award is within his grasp.

DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a weather-beaten trapper traversing the brutal frontier of 1820’s Midwestern America. We meet Glass and his fellow men as they fend off an attack from Native Americans, their party whittled down to just over a dozen men. This early scene sets the tone, as the men are equally vulnerable to both the harsh landscape and its native inhabitants. Glass faces an early challenge from fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road), who doubts his navigational abilities and questions his leadership quite disrespectfully. He insults Glass and his teenaged son Hawk (newcomer Forrest Goodluck), whose Pawnee mother was murdered when he was just a boy. Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina) acts as peacemaker, leading the decimated outfit while deferring to Glass as the more seasoned frontiersman.

While exploring the dense forest, Glass spies a pair of bear cubs. The mother isn’t far behind, and before he can fire a musket, she pounces viciously, instinctively protecting her young. The relentless grizzly slings a helpless Glass to and fro, mauling him mercilessly. This is the scene you’ve probably heard about, and it was incredible. Director Alejandro Inarritu (Birdman, 21 Grams) had me riveted, effectively employing creative camera angles and use of sound to transport the viewer alongside DiCaprio. We see, hear and feel what he does. As the beast heaves in and out the camera lens fogs with condensation, the fear primal and palpable.

After surviving the brutal attack, Glass’ men stitch him up as best they can. Realizing it’s impossible to carry him on a makeshift stretcher while climbing a steep, snowy mountain ridge, they agree that Hawk, Fitzgerald and a young trapper named Bridger (Will Poulter, The Maze Runner) will stay behind with the ailing Glass.  I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers, but if you simply consult the definition of revenant, you can deduce what happens when Fitzgerald is left to care for Glass. According to Merriam Webster, a revenant is one that returns after death or a long absence.

Inarritu has crafted a stunning film.  He extracted every ounce of ability from DiCaprio, down to the bone marrow. I’ve never seen an actor give so much of his body to a performance. Much in the way a prizefighter gives his body to his craft, DiCaprio completely immersed himself in the role of Hugh Glass. He was tender, vulnerable, physically and emotionally spent under the sheer weight of what he was called to do. He caught the flu several times while filming, consumed raw bison liver, and slept in an animal carcass. We’re accustomed to seeing actors transform themselves physically for roles, but this was different. DiCaprio didn’t alter his physique, but he endured tremendous physical hardship, and his performance was a revelation.

The landscape was ironically beautiful yet brutal, a brilliant juxtaposition Inarritu depicted masterfully. In one scene the snow swirled like interplanetary dust, one breathtaking scene of many. Moreover, I don’t usually pay attention to sound in film, but here it added to an overall feeling of visceral authenticity. Glass faced deadly internal and external conflict, battling the elements, animals and indigenous people alike. Inarritu harkened back to a period in American history influenced by the transcendentalism espoused by the likes of Thoreau and Emerson, capturing an aesthetic that belied the occasionally spiritual relationship between man and nature.  I could blather indefinitely about this film, a work of art. The Revenant is the first must-see film of 2016. Grade: A



Will Smith (After Earth) is becoming uniquely polarizing. In the beginning of his career, I would’ve wagered that almost everyone loved his affable personality and charming one-liners. Now, it’s hit or miss. Some think he tends to overact or rely on a certain “schtick” in his movies; but I’m still a fan. I appreciate his charismatic humor, and I knew what to expect from his latest movie Focus, a slick caper co-starring Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street).

The movie begins with a happenstance meeting between Robbie’s character Jess and Smith’s Nicky. Jess is a budding hustler, but quickly meets her match in the seasoned Nicky. After her amateurish attempt to con him, Nicky agrees to show her a few tricks of the trade. From grifter to pickpocket, Nicky has the hustler’s full repertoire and takes Jess under his wing, bringing her in on his latest hustle in New Orleans. Equal parts gambler, swindler, and magician – the silver-tongued Nicky approaches his craft with keen precision.

The second act of the film finds Nicky and Jess honing in separately on the same mark, but for very different reasons. They’re used to playing dangerous games, but the easiest way to get yourself killed is to steal from the wrong person – and one wrong move could make this con their last. Neither is willing to back down from a potential score, but for once is Nicky out of his league? His scheme goes awry when Jess is added to the mix, and their feelings for each other compromise their judgment. Sometimes you have to know when to just walk away.

While Focus was largely entertaining, I can’t say it was completely original. Of course Nicky and Jess have smoldering chemistry from the start. Just look at them. While their sexy banter made sense, it was almost too obvious. The two became an item nearly immediately, which didn’t leave much room for the characters to develop romantically. Admittedly I was surprised when Nicky abruptly ended their brief criminal courtship early on, but it was only a matter of time before they crossed paths again.

I enjoyed Focus, but it’s largely a forgettable movie. It was entertaining, and the plot twist caught me off guard, so I’d say it surpassed my meager expectations. It ranks solidly in the middle of Smith’s catalogue, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Robbie and Smith have undeniable chemistry, and the pair is rumored to reunite in the upcoming Suicide Squad. That film should reinforce Smith as the action hero we’ve come to love, and propel Robbie’s ascending star even further. In the meantime we have Focus, which won’t set the world on fire but was definitely worth watching. Grade: B

The Monuments Men

The intriguing thing about history is that there is always an untold story.  Against the backdrops of some of the most memorable historical events of our time lie fascinating subplots.  In times of war, for example – the prevailing story will understandably be one that focuses on human casualties.  The artistic or cultural loss of war may not be readily apparent, and most historical narratives don’t explore such considerations.  As a result, actor/director George Clooney (Gravity) found a unique opportunity to highlight a chapter of world history that was previously untold.

During World War II, Hitler instructed the Nazis to seize all works of art, including paintings, sculptures and other precious artifacts.  He supposedly had designs for a museum in his own honor and wanted to fill it with items he’d pilfered along the destructive path he carved through Europe.  In the event that Hitler was killed or captured, he instructed his troops to destroy the stolen art.  President Roosevelt recognized the value in preserving culture and authorized a commission to retrieve the items and return them to their rightful place.  Clooney stars as Lieutenant Frank Stokes, the man tasked with assembling the group that would be known as “The Monuments Men” for their willingness to sacrifice their own lives for the preservation of precious cultural monuments.

You might ask yourself, who cares about a painting when people are being killed? However, Stokes’ character conveys the purpose for The Monuments Men, answering the necessary question of whether or not a piece of art is worth a man’s life.  I’m paraphrasing the quote, but Stokes says that if you burn a man’s house down, he can come back.  But if you destroy his achievements and his history, it’s like he never existed.  That line struck me, and I think The Men’s sacrifice should be celebrated.

The commission is comprised of former military, all of whom have a unique knowledge of art either through study or creation.  Matt Damon (Elysium) co-stars as museum curator Lieutenant James Granger, while Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom) and John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis) are featured as Sergeants Richard Campbell and Walter Garfield, respectively.  The cast notably includes Cate Blanchett (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), and Jean Dujardin (The Wolf of Wall Street), with all of the characters filling unique roles that were integral to advancing the storyline.  At the helm both literally and artistically is Clooney, and the men he commands share his passion and commitment to the cause.

The Men contend with Nazi soldiers as well as resistance from Allied troops who don’t share their passion for art, at least not when weighed against the potential risk to American soldiers.  However, I never doubted the validity of their cause, and perhaps that is a testament to Clooney’s storytelling and direction, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the film is based on a book by authors Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.

The Monuments Men was a solid movie, and I found it well made and well acted.  However, it’s not the type of movie that drives foot traffic to the theater, though my show featured high attendance.  This is a quiet movie that you can see with your mom.  You’ll learn something, you’ll chuckle a few times, and you’ll probably be pleased overall.  But this is not the type of movie that will have you talking and telling your friends that they’ve “gotta see it.”  While it was enjoyable, I found myself ready for the credits to roll, despite some good performances and entertaining moments.  This is the kind of movie you’ll stumble across while flipping channels, and you’ll be glad that you did – but it was a bit too understated in its direction for me to give it a ringing endorsement.  Grade: B

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

Dallas Buyers Club

My quest to see the Oscar nominees continues, as I decided to check out Dallas Buyers Club last week.  Matthew McConaughey (The Wolf of Wall Street) stars in the semi-biographical account of AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, a patient who sought alternative means of procuring medication after being frustrated domestically by U.S. pharm laws and their attendant bureaucracy.  McConaughey is enjoying a career renaissance, having recently shed his image as a rom-com mainstay in favor of more complex, challenging roles.  In Dallas Buyers Club, his career continues its surprising divergence as he gives a tour de force performance.

Woodroof is a hard-living rodeo rider, depicted as the macho, archetypical cowboy. He is diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and given 30 days to live, facing the unbelievable realization that his life is over.  His friends ostracize him, believing that he is homosexual.  Now a pariah, Woodroof’s options are limited.  When his doctors suggest that he participate in an AZT trial, he signs up in the hopes that he won’t receive the placebo.  He feels helpless and at the mercy of his doctors, as he’s unable to guarantee that he’ll receive AZT in the trial and unable to purchase it out of pocket due to FDA regulations.  Jennifer Garner (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) co-stars as Eve, a doctor who finds genuine friendship in the ailing Woodroof.

Desperate for life prolonging drugs, but unable to secure them from American doctors, Woodroof begins to obtain AZT illegally from a source inside the hospital.  This routine transaction leads to a connection in Mexico, and soon Woodroof is smuggling drugs into the U.S. and selling them out of the trunk of his car to other patients, many of who were in the AZT trial.  Only these drugs are different.  While in Mexico, Woodroof meets the rogue Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, Broken City), who educates him about the deleterious effects of AZT and administers a cocktail of various supplements and vitamins that will be more effective.  The components aren’t FDA approved for usage in the U.S., but as a man on borrowed time, what does Woodroof have to lose?  Soon he is smuggling the product back to Texas and selling it to patients as an AZT alternative.  As clientele and profits grow, he decides to form a club where the black market drugs are given freely with the cost of membership.  If you aren’t a member of the Dallas Buyers Club, he can’t accommodate you.

During a previous hospital stay, Woodroof reluctantly befriended a fellow patient and trial participant named Rayon, a sensitive transvestite beautifully portrayed by Jared Leto (Chapter 27).  Initially Woodroof’s homophobia prevents any real connection, but eventually they bond through the futility of their shared condition and warmth of companionship.  The film takes us on an emotional journey as Woodroof grapples with his own fateful mortality, while becoming a cult crusader in the field of healthcare reform.  Why should it be illegal for him to improve what little life a dying person has left?

The filmmakers explore our notions of morality and justice, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit and will to survive.  McConaughey’s dedication and preparation for the role cannot be denied.  The physical transformation he undertook resulted in the gaunt, haggard appearance of a dying man.  I can’t imagine the wealth and depth of emotion it takes to convey the despair and frustration of impending death, and then to reveal a flicker of hope and passion as you fight for a larger cause.  Bravo.

Everything I just said about Matthew McConaughey can be applied in equal measure to Jared Leto, who gave a performance that shows he can hold his own with anyone.  It was beautiful and courageous, and I have a hard time deciding if he or Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is more deserving of an Academy Award in their supporting category.  Dallas Buyers Club was poignant, but inspiring.  It will challenge your perceptions about disease and how you treat others; it will connect you with your own humanity.  Although certain aspects of the film were draining to witness, I thought it was meaningful and deserving of its critical acclaim.  Grade: B+