The Wolf of Wall Street

Posted on December 24, 2013 at 6:30 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Every possible kind of substance abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Peril including a crashed helicopter and a sinking ship
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, insensitive treatment of little people
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2013
Date Released to DVD: March 28, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: 0345549333

Wolf-of-Wallstreet-585x370

Jordan Belfort is a selling machine the way a shark is a killing machine.  Every single element of his being is optimally designed for just one purpose, with no extraneous or pesky attributes like a conscience to slow him down.  And so, when he interrupts the story right off the bat to make sure that we see the color of his Lamborghini was white (like in “Miami Vice”) not red, he knows it will encourage us to believe that he cares about making sure we get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  It’s his version of it, anyway, as told in his book, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Belfort actually doesn’t spend much time on Wall Street, but those magic words make for a better sales pitch.  The man knows how to tell a story.  He gets a job on Wall Street at age 22, a “smile and dial” position where he is supposed to get 500 people a day on the phone and ready to talk to a broker who will pitch them some stocks.  A senior broker (a still painfully skinny post “Dallas Buyers Club” Matthew McConaughey, perfectly capturing the insanity of people who make a ton of money pretending they understand something that makes no sense) takes him out to lunch.  He tells the waiter to keep the liquor coming, and explains to Belfort the key lesson: brokers are not there to make money for the clients — they are there to make money from the clients.  He also advised Belfort to keep his lower half, uh, relaxed, and his upper half, uh, stimulated.  This is advice that Belfort will take, uh, to heart.

But first he has to lose his job when Wall Street firm collapses following what we then called a crash back in October of 1987, but now, having recalibrated following far greater financial disasters, we call a momentary dip.  Belfort then discovers a whole new world of not-quite-legal penny stock brokerages on Long Island (director Spike Jonze has a very funny cameo as his new boss) and soon he is running his own boiler room operation out of what once was a car repair shop.  This was, in fact, the inspiration for the terrific movie “Boiler Room,” starring Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Affleck, and Vin Diesel.  He gives his firm a made-up name, brilliantly constructed to sound established, solid, and vaguely familiar: Stratton Oakmont.

Here Belfort learns two more important lessons.  First, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  A story in Forbes that calls him a reverse Robin Hood, stealing from the poor to make money for himself, gets him an avalanche of job applicants eager to join his Merry Men.  Second, too much is never enough. Belfort does not fall into every possible kind of addiction and substance abuse; he embraces it.  There are mountains of drugs and hookers in this movie, plus a helicopter crash (while Belfort was high), sinking a yacht “suitable for a Bond villain” that once belonged to Coco Chanel (while Belfort was high), midget tossing and a crazy-hilarious conversation about the parameters  of  midget-tossing (and, in passing, the ethics), a near-naked marching band in the brokerage, and then more drugs and hookers.  This is all in the book, and screenwriter Terrence Winter told Joe Nocera of the  New York Times that “when he interviewed the F.B.I. agent who finally nailed Mr. Belfort, the man said, ‘I tracked this guy for 10 years, and everything he wrote is true.'”  That includes the macabre but over-the-top hilarious scene of a drug overdose that leaves Belfort incapable of standing or speaking coherently that comes at the worst possible place and time.  The cocaine and ludes are not nearly as powerful as the most intoxicating substances of all: greed mixed with testosterone and pure id.

“Is this legal?” Belfort cheekily asks us as he explains what he is up to?  “Absolutely not!”  He knows we are not interested in the details.  We are too busy being dazzled by the excess and how much fun everyone is having with it.  By now, Belfort has left his pretty first wife (big-eyed Cristin Milioti, the mother from “How I Met Your Mother”) for a second, spectacularly beautiful wife he calls “The Duchess of Bay Ridge” (Margot Robbie, nailing the accent and the attitude).  He has houses, horses, Coco Chanel’s yacht, and two security guards, both named Rocco.  He is taking a hospital’s worth of pills and a “Scarface”-load of cocaine.  And an FBI agent (“Friday Night Lights'” Kyle Chandler) is looking into his activities.  We know he’s serious because he has one of those cork boards with pieces of paper thumb-tacked onto it to keep track of the case.

Like his “Goodfellas,” Scorsese’s storytelling here is utterly mesmerizing, with brilliant performances in every role.  DiCaprio is electrifying.  If Stratton Oakmont was still around, there would be a line of eager applicants around the block tomorrow.  In smaller roles, Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s father and compliance officer, “AbFab’s” Joanna Lumley as a willing accomplice and “The Artist’s” Jean Dujardin are stand-outs, and Jake Hoffman (son of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Byrne) is just right as shoe designer Steve Madden, whose company was taken public by Belfort’s firm.  In one brief but key scene, Stephanie Kurtzuba beautifully creates a complete and compelling character who tells us a lot about her life and about Belfort as well.

And like “Goodfellas,” this is the story of a ruthless entrepreneur that illuminates the best and worst of the American spirit, big dreams,  ambition, energy, focus.  We know Belfort is a crook who exploits the trust of people who don’t know better but we can’t help being sold ourselves because he makes it look like so much fun.  And we know that while he spent less than two years in jail, where he played tennis and came out to a lucrative new career as a motivational speaker and got to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a Martin Scorsese film, the real Wolves of Wall Street will love this movie.  And then they’ll go back to their hundreds of millions of dollars, houses, horses, and two security guards named Rocco who, along with the loopholes they made sure stayed in the laws, will protect them from even the slap on the wrist faced by Belfort.

Parents should know that this film has NC-17-level content with extremely explicit and mature material, with explicit sexual references and situations including orgies and nudity, extensive drinking and drug abuse, crooked dealings and fraud, constant very strong language, peril, and some violence.

Family discussion: Why were Belfort’s colleagues so loyal to him? Why were the customers so willing to be cheated? Was justice done?

If you like this, try: “Boiler Room” (also inspired by Belfort), “Goodfellas,” and “Wall Street” and Michael Lewis’ books Liars Poker and The Big Short.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Posted on December 24, 2013 at 6:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Action-style peril, no one seriously hurt, references to sad parental death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2013
Date Released to DVD: April 15, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00H7KJTCG

Ben Stiller in a still from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

We all know what it feels like to be Walter Mitty, imagining ourselves as achievers and darers far beyond our normal lives. The original short story by James Thurber is about a middle-aged, hen-pecked man who daydreams about dashing adventures as he is out running errands with his wife.  In this version, directed and starring Ben Stiller, Walter runs the photo library for LIFE Magazine.  (For you young people out there–this is not a metaphor.  There actually was a photojournalism magazine called LIFE.  From 1936-1972 it was kind of like a proto-version of Buzzfeed that came in the mail every week.  Before television and the internet, it was our first chance to see what the rest of the world looked like, with gorgeous, indelible, iconic images of movie stars and ordinary people, world leaders, athletes, and military battles.)

Every day, Walter walks to work past enormous, blown-up images of LIFE covers and the magazine’s motto: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer,to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Walter once planned to see the world but family obligations kept him at home.  Now, he spends his days as a “negative asset manager” cataloguing images taken by the dashing photojournalist Sean O’Connell (a rugged gem of a small performance from Sean Penn).  While one is risking his life, the other takes no risks at all.  He can barely bring himself to touch the computer key to “wink” at a woman on a dating website.  When asked to fill in the “been there, done that” space on his profile, he realizes he has not been anywhere or done anything.

She isn’t a stranger.  Cheryl (Kristin Wiig) has just come to work for LIFE.  If he cannot work up the nerve to cyber-wink at her, you can bet he does not know how to begin to talk to her in real life.  Walter might have stayed in his quiet, safe, lonely little world forever, living through his daydreams and half-living in reality.  But there comes a time when real life intrudes on dreams.

Things are coming apart at LIFE and in life.  The magazine has a new boss (nicely smarmy Tony Scott) who uses a lot of smug corporate-speak like “Some of you are non-vital.”  Walter’s mother (Shirley MacLaine!) is moving into assisted living.  And Sean sends in a roll of film with what he says is his best image ever, with a special note for Walter.  But that image is missing.  And to find it, Walter will have to discover how close he can get to being the daring, adventurous hero of his dreams.

As a director, Stiller is developing a more assured visual style and there are some bracingly robust images, befitting a story about LIFE photographs, the man who takes them and the man who sorts them, the man who goes places and the man who looks at the pictures of places.  The only way to find Sean’s photo is to find Sean. He takes pictures in places so remote and exotic they are not reachable by text messages or Skype.  That means a journey, physical and spiritual, through rocky, icy terrain and using every kind of transportation, including helicopter and boat.

The film is filled with lovely and surprising touches.  The story unfolds organically.  Like a video game hero, the items Walter gathers along the way turn out to be vital in keeping him on his journey.  Along the way, Walter keeps checking in by phone with the tech support guy who was supposed to fix his online dating “wink” function, as though he does not realize how his life is transforming around him.  I won’t give away the surprise by naming the actor on the other end of the phone; I’ll just say that he is ideal for the part. I liked  seeing Walter drew Cheryl into his search very naturally, and how Walter was able to be shy but still very capable around her and around her young son.  There are moments of true exhilaration and the end has an unexpected sweetness. If you’ve been daydreaming about a great film for the family to enjoy together over the holidays, take them on a journey to see this one at your local theater.

Parents should know that this film has some sexual humor, mild language, and action-style peril, reference to sad death of parent

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Walter to take risks? Which of his real-life adventures was the scariest?

If you like this, try: “Stranger than Fiction”

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