The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

It’s always interesting when animals are shown to be humans. Not in the bizarre way that people dress up dogs to make them look like they’re going diving or for a round of golf, more in a “The Wind in the Willows” way. I mean, who could forget Mr. Toad? No-one! There are so many other stories of animals taking on some cooky role. Danger Mouse is another example that instantly springs to mind, as does anything featuring Donald Duck or the fabulous Scrooge McDuck. Ok, I’ve lost some of you here haven’t I? You’re sitting there thinking “what have you been blasting into your Phagey nostrils?” and you’re questioning my integrity as a (self-appointed) film critic. Well… there’s a link… and there’s even a link to blasting stuff into my nostrils. Yes, we’ve finally ventured out to see a film about a wolf. Sadly, it featured no wolves, just a very coked up broker. Welcome to The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

Yes, weird intros aside, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the tale of the “wolf” Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he schemes and manipulates his way up the ranks of the stockbroker world, just as the real guy did back in the 1990’s to amass millions from playing the system. We see the rise of Belfort and how he leads his gang of fellow brokers, notably including Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and how he battles to elude the long arm of the FBI, headed up by Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). I’ve probably made the story sound very staid and dull, but I can assure you it most certainly isn’t… This is a Martin Scorsese movie afterall…

First, let’s deal with the impression the trailer gives you about the film: high octane comedy featuring midgets, hookers, drugs and Matthew McConaughey. All of these elements are indeed in there (more of the drugs and hookers than the others), but the trailers do The Wolf of Wall Street a slight disservice, as this isn’t a laugh-a-second film. It certainly has some laugh out loud moments and some truly bizarre scenes with a paralytic DiCaprio sprawling around the floor with Jonah Hill. These parts actually reminded more of Pineapple Express than any other film! But as I say, this is a Scorsese film, so you’re getting a lot more depth here. I’d go as far to say that this is one of his best works, just because it flows so seamlessly and tells a truly interesting story over its 3 hour run time.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

Yes: 3 hours. This will be enough to deter some folks; especially those that were expecting a comedy. Although the run time is long, and some might say “indulgent”, I thought it worked well. I found myself wanting to know how the plot was going to progress and was glad of the extra minutes to really detail more about Belfort’s life and extravagances. What really drew me in here was DiCaprio, as he really owned the screen every moment he was on it. Belfort, as a character, should be a vile and despicable beast, but DiCaprio gives him heart and soul. Although you probably won’t empathise with him, especially so in the latter scenes of the movie, DiCaprio shines in making him at least relatable, even if you wouldn’t call him “loveable”. Then there’s a turn from Jonah Hill sporting some of the most bizarre teeth I’ve seen. I’ve had a lot of time for Hill since his great turn in Moneyball opposite Brad Pitt, and this does more to cement him in my mind as a solid actor. Hell, the fact that he was reported paid only $70,000 for this role (he just wanted to be in a Scorsese film and didn’t care about the fee) is testament to his dedication.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

Bringing these types of gritty crime-inspired stories to life has always been the forte of Martin Scorsese and The Wolf of Wall Street is no different. Whilst it veers into comedy at times, it still retains the man’s signature “feel”. I also think that the pairing of Scorsese and DiCaprio benefited the film immensely, leading to one of the most enjoyable Scorsese films in recent memory… and indeed one of the most enjoyable films period. As for how this will do in the upcoming Awards… well, time will tell, but after the stellar year we’ve had, I think it’s going to be a tough sell…

The Wolf of Wall Street is a vividly boisterous film that will enthral film lovers and deter those looking for quick, easy laughs. Although it’s certainly a lengthy tome, it’s entirely needed to really bring the story to life. It also helps having a fantastic cast to boot. What would be the point of a great story if it was acted out by chimps? Actually…

The Chimps of Chelsea… The Bears of Broadway… The Dolphins of Detroit. Yes, I can see many exciting extensions to this film, and I can see those hoighty toity chimps with their monocles, those bears blasting out show tunes and those dolphins… erm… talking at length about the once great automotive hub that was Detroit? Ok, maybe that last film isn’t a winner. Unless you gave them some hookers. Dolphin hookers… they make it hard to look at blow holes the same…

Phage Factor:

4.5 Stars

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American Hustle (2014)

American Hustle (2014)

I like it when a director shows favouritism towards working with certain individuals. I really believe it brings the best out of the actors. Perhaps one of the most notorious directors for this is Quentin Tarantino, who makes no great secret of the fact that he favours using Samuel L. Jackson at every opportunity, as well as Uma Thurman and Christoph Waltz when the opportunities arise. Another pairing that’s recently come to light is Neil Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley who will soon embark on their third outing together. So, when I saw the billing for David O. Russell‘s American Hustle, I won’t lie; I was excited. He’s seemingly done a great job of welding together the casts of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook to deliver his latest outing. How does Russell‘s Frankenstein’s Monster turn out though?

American Hustle (2014)

The cast of American Hustle is like a glorious chef’s recipe: 2 parts The Fighter (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), stirred with 2 parts Silver Linings Playbook (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence), folded in with new turns from Jeremy Renner and a host of others. What’s delivered? A delicious slice of 1970’s Americana revolving around blagging, conning and a whole host of escalating events. To break it down, Irving (Christian Bale) is a con-artist – small time – but a con-artist all the same. He takes this up a notch when he falls for Sydney (Amy Adams), who completes his criminal duo perfectly. The first problem? Sydney isn’t his wife. Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is his wife. The second problem? Well, don’t try and con an undercover FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), as you’ll get enveloped into working with one wild agent. And third? Don’t make friends with your next con; especially when he’s the Mayor (Jeremy Renner)… Believe me, there are numerous other problems for our cast, but that would be spoiling things somewhat!

American Hustle (2014)

The strength of American Hustle is clearly in its cast, but the same too can be said of its plotting. But let’s first dwell on the performances. It’s no secret that The Phage is a huge fan of Bradley Cooper. We tell you this every time we see him in a film, and indeed, tell you at numerous other times too. Cooper is again on sterling form, with a role that’s got more in common with The Place Beyond The Pines more than his “typical” Hangover-esque portrayals. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even fair to use The Hangover roles to describe Cooper any more; he’s done far too many other films. Similarly, Christian Bale is on great form too, clearly relishing the role. Likewise, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence deliver solidly in their performances. I’m a little surprised to see Lawrence up for BAFTAs and Globes with her performance here, which isn’t as captivating as that of Silver Linings Playbook, but that’s mainly because she’s not strictly a main character here. I was pleasantly taken aback by Jeremy Renner’s turn here too. He’s new to the David O. Russell stable, but his role was interesting and deep.

Indeed, it’s this level of “deepness” that makes American Hustle as interesting as it is. It’s not some ham-fisted attempt at a con film, as each character has flaws and dilemmas. It’s not Oceans Eleven. Thankfully. The plot continues to thrust forwards, leaving you wondering just who is going to come out on top. I like the fact that films don’t necessarily end happily nowadays, as this introduces a lot of guesswork on the audience’s behalf as they try and second-guess where the film’s ultimately going to end up.

American Hustle (2014)

Having said all of this, the film isn’t perfect. It’s got a meaty run time, that perhaps almost outstretched its welcome. Considering I’m a fan of all people involved in the movie, that says something. Quite what I’m trying to say? I’m not sure; it’s just that there’s fat that could otherwise have been trimmed here. Even just a swift 10-15 minutes hacked off the run time could have done wonders. That’s not to say it makes the film back… it just stops it being a “classic”.

American Hustle is a wonderfully vivid movie set against the backdrop of the 1970’s. David O. Russell contnues his directorial run to deliver a beautifully written and shot film, albeit with a little extra fat than was perhaps absolutely necessary. As awards’ season looms large, I wonder whether we could see any wins for American Hustle; it’s certainly a great film, but in a year with so many enormously strong contenders, can it walk away with any of the big ones? Time will tell.

All of this just makes me interested to see what David O. Russell will deliver next, and who he’ll be using in his next ensemble piece. Although Nailed is cited as being his next production, it deviates somewhat from the more serious / likely to get acclaim films that he’s become synonymous with in recent years. We just want more Bradley Cooper, but who didn’t see that coming from us?!

Phage Factor:

4 Star

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi (2012)

The Life of Pi… It must be an interesting story, depending on which angle you take. You could follow it from its humble doughy beginnings. You’d recoil at the brutal kneading and stretching. Laugh when it hits the giddy heights of 200 degrees as it bakes to perfection. And you’ll weep when its whole life is obliterated by some greedy child (or Jim from American Pie). Oh wait, that’d be a pie. Still, an interesting story. Well, since the title’s not referring to baked goods, it certainly can’t be telling the tale of π, can it? That beautiful mathematical constant that spreads herself far and wide, penetrating every hole and circle in the world like some promiscuous lady of the night. No? Oh, so it’s Ang Lee‘s adaptation of the book “Life of Pi” then? Probably a safer bet than a tale about a number or baked goods then…

Life of Pi (2012)

Yes, Life of Pi is the big screen adaptation of the novel by Yann Martel – the critically revered book about one man’s life and all the highs and lows that it brings. Without delving too much into the story, it follows the life of Pi (played by numerous actors, but mainly Suraj Sharma as Pi the younger, and Irrfan Khan as Pi the elder) – a young Indian boy who travels with his family (and their zoo) across the Pacific Ocean to begin life anew in Canada. Tragedy strikes when the freighter they’re travelling on sinks to the depths of the ocean. But Pi survives. As do some of his fellow travellers. Mainly those that don’t speak very often: his animals. The film / book works as a retrospective, as Pi recounts the story to a budding novelist, played by Rafe Spall. It really is a bombastic and incredible story, filled with stunning visuals and heart warming moments, but I left the screening feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

Life of Pi (2012)Well, where to begin. This film has been the subject of much hype with critics branding it as the cinematic event of the year. And on paper you could understand why. First up, we have the choice of director: Ang Lee. This is the guy that was once the darling of tinsel town following his big one-two hits of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, but he’s been rather quiet in recent years. He also toyed with Hulk back in the day. Back before Hulk started smashing puny Gods… and before his alter-ego was played by Edward Norton. Lee’s Hulk was derided far and wide for being rather too serious and taking far too long to bring the big, green guy to the screen. But this was the pre-Batman Begins and pre-Iron Man era. A time when superhero movies were nothing but a blemish on the income sheet of studios around the world. Oh how things have changed…

But back on track. You have the big name director in place, renowned for great stories and/or gorgeous visuals, and you have a critically-acclaimed, best selling novel to back it up. What can go wrong? Well, nothing’s wrong per se, but there’s not a whole lot that I feel merits such great praise. Yes, the 3D technology feels at home for the first time since Avatar and the CGI animals are simply fantastic, but past that I don’t feel there’s a whole lot to rave about.

Whilst the story is interesting, it’s certainly not compelling enough to justify the 120+ minute run time in my opinion. Despite the fact that The Hobbit was a long movie, it never felt that way – the plot constantly developed and evolved. New locales were uncovered and new characters encountered. But Life of Pi is a pretty lonely story for the most part. Whilst it takes a long while to get to the boat’s sinking, that was fine – it enriched Pi’s character and helped us understand his upbringing. But when the story breaks down into Pi and his animal friends, it gets slow. It gets really slow. This may work very well as a book (I wouldn’t know, I’ve not read it), but it doesn’t work so well as a film. As I say, it’s not a poor stab at what must be a very hard story to translate to film, but I feel that it might just not be possible to pull off, regardless of director and screenplay writer.

It sure is a lonely life. Would probably be made better with pie.

It sure is a lonely life. Would probably be made better with pie.

One thing I can agree with is how smooth and stunning the CGI-generated animals are on-screen. If I hadn’t just come off the back of seeing The Hobbit in 48fps and cooing at Gollum’s animation, I wouldn’t hesitate in calling these creatures the finest creations this year. You’d swear that our young adventurer was aboard his life raft with Richard Parker (his tiger). It’s going to be a tough call for the Academy to decide who walks away with the Best Visual Effects’ Oscar in 2013, but I’ll bet you it’s someone associated with one of these two films.

Ultimately, I just failed to connect with the story. Myself and others left the screening uttering phrases such as “is that it?”, “I don’t get it” and “that was different”. I’m glad I go to such vocal screenings sometimes (though if that punk kid on my aisle slurped the ice out of his empty cup one more, I’d have had to educate him in the Life of Pain). The story, whilst lovely to look at, feels a little empty at the end of it all. Especially when you factor in the “twist” ending that those familiar with the book will already know of. Sure, it’s an adventure. Sure, it’s nice to look at. But ultimately, it’s much like a painting – beautiful to behold, and it may tell a fascinating story, but it won’t appeal to every viewer. Some people just prefer Spider-Man to Rembrandt.

Life of Pi is certainly one of the most ambitious films of the year. But with ambition comes an inherent risk – the risk that it was too ambitious. Whilst I commend the whole team behind the film for really striving to bring the story to life, I can’t help but feel that it just isn’t a story that translates into a 2 hour cinematic adventure. I’m sure it’ll scoop some awards this season, but it certainly isn’t the darling some would have you believe. And as for being a “family adventure film”? I’d leave the kids at home. Especially if they’re going to slurp ice every 20 seconds.

This Christmas season I’m more interested in the Life of Pie than the Life of Pi. Whilst I type, I can smell fresh mince pies cooling downstairs and I can’t wait to tuck into every pie under the sun whilst I enter my festive bloating-session. I’d much rather invest my hours into ensuring those pies are golden and delicious than have to invest another two hours into a film like Life of Pi. Though one thing I’m certain of is that no-one really wants to hear the story of π and how it gained all its digits. Let me start that story off for you right now… 3.14159… bet you can’t wait for that killer twist “7” that’s coming up…

Phage Factor:

3 Star