A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Leonardo DiCaprio has replaced Robert De Niro as Martin Scorsese's go-to leading man, but he has yet to make his Raging Bull (1980) or Taxi Driver (1976), which many people -- including me -- think of as the peak achievements of both Scorsese and De Niro. The Wolf of Wall Street comes close to being DiCaprio's GoodFellas (1990). Both movies are based on true stories that illuminate the dark side of American experience: In the case of GoodFellas, the mob, and for Wolf, the unholy pursuit of wealth in the stock market. Both are in large part black comedies, full of sex and drugs, and both end in an inevitable downfall. And both have been criticized for excessively glamorizing the lifestyles of their protagonists. Terence Winter's adaptation of the memoir of Wall Street fraudster Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) spares no excess in depicting a life corrupted by unchecked greed, and yet neither Winter nor Scorsese seems able to put the course of Belfort's corruption into plausible shape, the way Scorsese and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi made Henry Hill's rise and fall plausible in GoodFellas. It's a flamboyant film, with entertaining and sometimes frightening performances by DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Bernthal, and Jean Dujardin, but the film often seems to be carried away with its own determination to get away with as much outrageous behavior and language as possible. I would have welcomed a little less Jordan Belfort and a little more Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who was based on Gregory Coleman, the FBI agent who finally managed to bring Belfort down. But as in GoodFellas, the emphasis is less on the law than on the disorder.

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

Andy Weir's best-selling science fiction novel was one of the few that manage to emphasize science almost as much as fiction. The film version, being aimed at a somewhat less cerebral audience, doesn't quite keep that balance, but Drew Goddard's screenplay is an admirable effort to keep up with protagonist Mark Watney's (Matt Damon) determination to "science the shit out of" the problem of surviving after he has been marooned on Mars. And in an age when science has fallen afoul of politics, The Martian nobly attempts to bring some luster to this essential human endeavor. There is also a political undercurrent in the film, namely the hurdles that NASA administrator Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) has to leap in order to achieve the rescue of his stranded astronaut. It's gratifying, too, to see so many actors of color -- Michael Peña, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, among others -- given key roles in the effort to rescue Watney, all of them given parts emphasizing their skill and intelligence. On the other hand, there were protests that the ethnicity of some of the characters in the film had been changed. In the novel, for example, the mission director is called Venkat Kapoor, and he is a Hindu. His first name is changed in the film to Vincent, and he's played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British actor whose parents were born in Nigeria -- the change is signaled by an explanation that his father was Hindu and his mother was a Baptist. One reason for such protests is that director Scott's previous film was Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), in which all of the Egyptian and Middle Eastern characters were played by white actors like Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, a continuation of an old Hollywood tradition that increasingly seems wrong-headed. Fortunately, in The Martian Scott kept the novel's prominent female roles, including mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and astronaut Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara).