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“He’s Smart, You’re Dumb!” The Cynical Idiocy of “The Wolf of Wall Street”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, just finished a season of coverage of director Martin Scorsese. The weekend before last, we discussed Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a fun, broad discussion that digs into the movie in a lot of depth. However, watching the film and talking about the film got me thinking about the film’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort.

Martin Scorsese was seventy-one years old when The Wolf of Wall Street was released, and had a filmography that stretched across six decades.

As such, it is heartening that Scorsese had a film like The Wolf of Wall Street in him. The film runs three hours, but moves with an impressive and exhausting energy. Critic Robbie Collin described The Wolf of Wall Street as “a picture that would have exhausted a director half his age.” Indeed, it seems fair to say that the film exhausted quite a few of its audience. The Wolf of Wall Street was the highest-grossing movie of Scorsese’s career, but there is some evidence it was divisive with audiences – earning a controversial “C” CinemaScore.

Indeed, the film earned no shortage of outrage. Scorsese himself was reportedly accosted at a screening for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by veterans chanting “shame on you!” The film’s portrayal of greed and excess prompted something of a moral panic. There legitimate concerns raised about where the money to fund the movie came from. There was also the reasonable observation that Scorsese had constructed The Wolf of Wall Street in such a way as to obscure the victims of Jordan Belfort.

Of course, this is something Scorsese’s films have always done, and a way in which they have consistently made the audience uncomfortable by effective immersing them in a world governed by characters who are hostile and dangerous. Taxi Driver seldom allowed itself to step outside Travis Bickle’s head, with the audience forced to confront “god’s loneliest man.” Raging Bull refused to pathologise or explain Jake LaMotta, declining to reduce his psychology to trite cause and effect. Henry Hill took centre stage in Goodfellas, but the film itself suggested he was not to be trusted.

Scorsese’s output is often framed in religious terms, and there is a strong spirituality that runs through his work. It is obviously most apparent in films like The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun or Silence, but it is a constant throw line – even where religious authority is defined by its absence, with Casino feeling like a story about what happens when man believes that God is not watching. However, Scorsese’s films also trade in doubt, challenging the audience with the fear that there may be no external arbitrator to balance the scales.

The Wolf of Wall Street offers little in the way of emotional catharsis, little by way of reassurance that people like Belfort will be punished for their crimes or that the victims will be compensated. After all, even by 2013, it was obvious that nobody actually responsible for the financial crisis would be held to account. Scorsese stated in interviews that the anger that The Wolf of Wall Street generated was part of the film’s point. “It should touch a nerve!” he insisted in interviews around the film’s release, explaining why he declined to offer a more moralistic movie.

Of course, like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas before it, The Wolf of Wall Street does condemn its subjects. Of course there are plenty of reports of stockbrokers on Wall Street loving the movie, just as many gangsters loved The Godfather. However, it seems highly unlikely that any reasonable person leaving The Wolf of Wall Street could feel any sympathy or warmth for Jordan Belfort, or that anybody paying attention to the film could imagine that his lifestyle would lead to anything other than disaster and betrayal, even if he avoided jail or bankruptcy.

More than that, The Wolf of Wall Street is notable for its refusal to glamourise Belfort himself. The film consistently portrays its subject as a moron defined only by his ravenous id, all impulse and no control. Indeed, some of that Scorsese spirituality shines through. Belfort often seems less than human, incapable of the reasoning, self-control and empathy that elevates a human being. Indeed, to frame the portrayal in Catholic terms, the elements that suggest the existence of a soul. The Wolf of Wall Street is about an animal more than a man.

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New Escapist Video! On Sam Raimi and What it Means to be a Good (Spider-)Man…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with the Monday article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film channel – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

With that in mind, here is last week’s episode. With the release of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, we thought it might be fun to take a look back at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, and the central stakes of the film: the question of what it means to be a good man, Spider- or otherwise.

211. The Wolf of Wall Street – Summer of Scorsese (#142)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Jay Coyle and Darren Mooney, with special guests Luke Dunne and Aoife Martin, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, concluding our Summer of Scorsese with his most recent film on the list, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Martin Scorsese is one of the defining directors in American cinema, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that have shaped and defined cinema across generations: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Kundun, Gangs of New YorkThe Aviator, The DepartedShutter IslandHugo, The Irishman. The Summer of Scorsese season offers a trip through his filmography via the IMDb‘s 250.

Jordan Belfort developed a reputation as one of the most amoral stockbrokers working in the financial industry, wearing the name “the Wolf of Wall Street” as a badge of honour. Belfort is afforded the chance to tell his own side of the story, of the gaudy excess and tasteless indulgence that defined the industry for so many years.

At time of recording, it was ranked 142nd on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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“There’s Nobody Left But You”: The Existential Horror at the Heart of White Heat…

Last weekend, on the podcast I co-host called The 250, we discussed James Cagney’s 1949 gangster classic White Heat, with the wonderful Carl Sweeney from The Movie Palace Podcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the film since, and so had some thoughts I just wanted to jot down.

White Heat is a gangster film, starring James Cagney.

It’s frequently discussed in relation to The Public Enemy, which makes sense. Both White Heat and The Public Enemy are mid-century gangster films starring James Cagney. It also merits comparison to The Roaring Twenties, another gangster film starring James Cagney and directed by Raoul Walsh. There’s a tendency to lump these sorts of films together, to examine them as part of a greater whole. It certainly makes sense in this context. After all, a huge part of the appeal of White Heat at time of release derived from seeing James Cagney playing a gangster once again.

However, there’s something altogether stranger about White Heat. It isn’t a film that fits particularly comfortably into the gangster genre, despite the obvious trappings. James Cagney plays the role of Cody Jarrett, the leader of a vicious gang introduced conducting a train robbery and who go on to plot a chemical plant raid at the climax. There is all manner of betrayal and violence, backstabbing and revenging. There are cops in dogged pursuit of the criminals, while Cody demonstrates that nobody should underestimate him.

Still, there’s something simmering beneath the surface of White Heat. As much as the film follows the structures and conventions of a crime film, it plays more like a melancholy monster movie. It is a funereal salute to a mythic figure retreating into history, a horror story about an outdated evil lurking in the shadows, trying to navigate a world that no longer has a place for it.

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Can’t Let It Go: “Frozen II” and Grappling With the Past…

As far as animated sequels go, Frozen II works well. For better or for worse, it goes bigger and grander, sacrificing a little focus for a larger story.

However, the most striking aspect of Frozen II is the way in which it seems to grapple with one of the big existential anxieties of the modern era. Frozen II spends a lot of time and energy delving into the histories of Anna and Elsa, opening with a mythology-building flashback and offering a few tantalising hints about the source of Elsa’s power. However, this is part of a larger conversation that unfolds across the film’s runtime. Frozen II isn’t just about grappling with Anna and Elsa’s personal history, it is asking more ambitious questions about how the past shapes the present.

Of course, Frozen II is the story of two sisters embarking on an epic quest with an adorable snowman. However, it is also a story about the legacy of colonial exploitation of indigenous populations by nominally more advanced societies, and about coming to terms with the consequences of those historical injustices in the modern era. It isn’t always elegant or perfect. Indeed, Frozen II occasionally seems quite candid that it doesn’t know the answers to the questions that it is broaching.

Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see these topics permeating popular culture, with shows like Watchmen and films like Thor: Ragnarok grappling with questions of what it means to live in a society built on historical injustice.

Note: This piece contains spoilers for Frozen II.

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“For Infinity… and Beyond…”: In Praise of “Toy Story 2” as the Perfect Sequel…

Ranking films is often a fool’s errand.

I make this argument with no small amount of hypocrisy. Most obviously, I co-host a weekly podcast called The 250, which is dedicated to exploring the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. Even beyond that, I am guilty of participating in that periodic pleasure of pundits everywhere; the top ten… or forty… or fifty. At the end of every year, I produce a list of my favourite films of the year, whether on the Scannain podcast, on my personal Twitter, or even occasionally on this blog. In my defense, I rationalise that through a desire to draw attention to good films, and accept we can quibble on the order of said film.

At the same time, these lists can often be illuminating in terms of contextualising affection for a particular film, or for gauging the general mood. So when a film appears on a single list, it might be worth checking out if you trust the author. If it appears on multiple lists, it is probably a much stronger recommendation. (The Scannain annual top ten is an eclectic list, but it disparate viewpoints often settle on at least one consensus pick: You Were Never Really Here, Moonlight, Hell or High Water.) It helps to set a level of a particular film’s relative appeal and popularity.

By that measure, Toy Story 2 is generally considered the weakest film its franchise. At time of writing, Toy Story, Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4 all feature on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. Toy Story 2 is the lowest ranked entry in the franchise on lists compiled by Variety, Business Insider and The Ringer. It is the ranked as the weakest of the original trilogy on lists compiled by Slant Magazine, Collider and Polygon. None of this amounts to anything that can quantifiably be described as a “backlash.” After all, to be the worst Toy Story movie, a film still has to be pretty good.

However, there is a sense in which Toy Story 2 gets overlooked. There are any number of structural reasons for that. The middle part of a trilogy, picking up immediately after Toy Story but without offering the resolution expected of Toy Story 3, the film is neither a beginning nor an end. It is not an introduction to these characters, and it does not really function as a farewell either. More than that, the film may also be somewhat tarnished by its production history, originally mooted as a straight-to-video release before entering an insanely fast turnaround as a theatrical feature; it is partly why Disney owns Pixar.

Still, this tends to look past what makes Toy Story 2 such a delight. It is in many ways the perfect sequel.

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“… Because That’s What Heroes Do”: The Curious Definition of Heroism and the Politics of Power in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”…

Note: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t seen both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero films are the most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century blockbuster.

The summer season is increasingly crowded by blockbuster superhero releases. This year is actually a fairly tempered year for Marvel Studios. Only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame are on the docket from the company, with Sony handling the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home later in the summer. However, the space between the two Marvel Studios releases included films like Shazam! and Hellboy. Later in the year, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will effectively close off Twentieth-Century Fox’s superhero blockbuster slate before it is folded into the Disney machine. Indeed, even the non-brand superheroes look to have had a fairly decent year; other releases this year include Glass and Brightburn, both movies with original characters playing with genre tropes.

There are lots of discussions about why the genre has become such a dominant feature of the pop cultural landscape. Perhaps it is simply down to technology, with advances in computer-generated animation allowing for more convincing depictions of the scale and drama expected in these sorts of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy would have been very difficult to make even a decade earlier, when it would have been next-to-impossible to animate Rocket Racoon on a workable budget. However, it may also be cultural. The rise of the modern superhero blockbuster film roughly coincided with the War on Terror, a connection rendered explicit in films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Old-fashioned heroism was undoubtedly appealing at a time of political crisis.

This is interesting in the context of Endgame. In many ways, Endgame looks to be an event of biblical proportions. There is a reasonable chance that Endgame could become the most successful movie of all-time. There is a good chance that Endgame could have a one billion dollar opening weekend. Within hours of opening, the film film had already placed (highly) on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the top 250 movies of all-time. Endgame is a bona fides pop cultural phenomenon. It is a film that shakes the world underneath its feet. It is the culmination of a twenty-odd film journey, but it is also something of a conclusive statement on (at the very least) the modern iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most high-profile example of the superhero in modern cinema.

What is that statement? What is the film actually saying? To be fair, this was an issue with Avengers: Infinity War. It was very difficult to distill a singular thematic point or moral thesis from Infinity War, largely because the film was structured in such a way as to deny its central characters any agency or autonomy within the narrative. Infinity War was a breathtakingly cynical piece of corporate logistics, occasionally veering into downright nihilism. After all, the climax of the film unfolds in the way that it does simply because Stephen Strange sees that it is supposed happen that way. No choice that the characters make has any impact on what happens, because there is only ever one way that it could happen.

Endgame is interesting in how it builds on this. In particular, how Endgame chooses to define its central characters. If Endgame is to be the defining superhero story of the modern era, its definition of “heroism” is very esoteric.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Repentance (Review)

Repentance marks another example of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager groping clumsily and awkwardly towards an archetypal Star Trek plot.

The Star Trek franchise has cultivated a reputation for being a vehicle for progressive social commentary, largely on the back of episodes like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or Plato’s Stepchildren. Of course, those episodes were decidedly less progressive and more complicated than the popular memory would allow, but there is an argument to be made that the idea of Star Trek as a voice for social progress is worth something even if the franchise did not always live up to those ideals. After all, the franchise also gave audiences The Omega Glory and Turnabout Intruder.

In the neck of time.

The seventh season of Voyager seems to recognise this social commentary as something essential to Star Trek‘s cultural identity, something that essentially defines Star Trek as Star Trek and distinguishes it from other popular science-fiction. This explains why the seventh season of Voyager is so preoccupied with the Prime Directive, which even gets name-dropped within Repentance; it is a major element in stories like Flesh and Blood, Part I, Flesh and Blood, Part II, Natural Law and Friendship One. It is seen as something identifiably Star-Trek-ian in nature.

The seventh season of Voyager builds a number of episodes around big social issues of the late nineties and the new millennium; Critical Care grappled with the healthcare crisis, while Lineage wrestled with anxieties about designer babies. Repentance is very much of a piece with those episodes, although it turns its gaze towards the issue of capital punishment. On paper, this is archetypal Star Trek storytelling, an allegorical exploration of a hot button issue through the prism of science-fiction. However, as with so many of these episodes, the archetypal Star Trek trappings feel superficial.

Hologram for a king’s ransom.

Repentance has very little to actually say about the death penalty. More than that, what it does have to say is deeply confused and unfocused. Voyager is perhaps the most consistently conservative of Star Trek shows in terms of political philosophy, which has led to a number of spectacularly poor decisions like the characterisation of the Kazon from Caretaker onwards or the false rape accusation paranoia underpinning Retrospect. It seems entirely predictable, if no less disappointing, that Voyager stumbles clumsily into an ill-judged take on the application of capital punishment in Repentance.

As with Critical Care and Lineage before it, Repentance is an episode that understands the importance of using a platform to say something important about one of the most pressing issues of the era while also extending a great deal of effort trying to avoid saying anything at all.

“Cue the women in prison fan-fic.”

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“The Things You Gotta Remember Are the Details”: Reservoir Dogs and the Fragility of Memory and Meaning in the Nineties…

It’s always interesting to understand how much of being one of the defining artists of a cultural moment is down to understanding the zeitgeist, and how much of it is down to simply being in the right place at the right time.

This is not to denigrate the incredible skill and talent required to be perfectly positioned “in the right place at the right time”, as any amount of sustained success requires both a great deal of determination and an incredible amount of talent. Quentin Tarantino is undeniably determined and impressively talented. Tarantino has a unique knack with dialogue, a keen understanding of genre, and a fine appreciation of the history the medium. It is hard to imagine a world in which Tarantino would ever have been unable to parlay those skills into some form of success in filmmaking.

Still, there are very few directors who were so perfectly in step with the nineties as Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is a writer and director who emerged almost fully formed, to the point that many critics and pundits would argue that his first two films are the best films in his filmography; Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. (As an aside, there are a not-insignificant number of pundits who would argue that Tarantino’s best film was his third, the underrated Jackie Brown.) It seems fair to describe Tarantino, however controversial his legacy and however divisive his modern films might be, as a defining nineties filmmaker.

(As an aside, it should be acknowledged that Tarantino arguably had something of a similar moment towards the end of the first decade and into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight are films that have generated a lot of polarised debate, but they also seemed very much on-the-pulse in terms of the tensions and anxieties that bubbled to the surface of American popular consciousness at towards the end of the twenty-tens. However, that is perhaps a debate for another time.)

Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction speaks specifically to a collection of nineties anxieties and uncertainties that seem only to have crystalised in retrospect, as if working through an existential crisis that the decade didn’t realise it was having in real time. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fictions are stories about memory and meaning, and how fleeting the human understanding of a chaotic world can be. They are stories about the breakdown of social order, and of trying to find some way to navigate increasingly turbulent and unstable times.

They are films that embody the tensions of nineties as effectively as Forrest Gump or the films of Oliver Stone or Chris Carter’s work on The X-Files and Millennium.

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Non-Review Review: 2 Fast 2 Furious

I’m rewatching The Fast and the Furious for a separate project, as solidarity with fellow film critic Jay Coyle for his “Cinema of Experience” project to look at the changing face of cinema in the twenty-first century. He’ll be writing up his account of how the experience of watching movies has changed in the past twenty-or-so years, but I found my rewatch of The Fast and the Furious interesting enough to write a longer-form review of it.

The Fast and Furious franchise exists somewhere in the space between The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious, but is never quite caught on camera.

The Fast and the Furious is a late nineties undercover urban western about lawlessness in turn-of-the-millennium Los Angeles, of the dead end of the American Dream where young men (and occasional women) drive fast cars in circles to nowhere in particular, living their lives “one quarter mile at a time” without any purpose or any escape. It is a moral quagmire, a tribal wasteland in which law and order mean nothing. The film centres on a police officer sent to infiltrate this world of fast cars, who ultimately cannot bring his target to justice – because there is no justice in this empty and nihilistic world.

2 Fast 2 Furious is effectively a soft Miami Vice reboot. It is a bright and colourful thriller which follows former undercover police officer Brian O’Conner and his old friend Ramone Pierce as they are tasked to infiltrate a drug kingpin’s organisation in Miami. It is a much more conventional and delineated film, and also a much less existential. There are clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and O’Conner has absolutely no ethical objection to bringing in this particular criminal. The film is also appreciably brighter, both be virtue of its heavily saturated surroundings and by an increased emphasis on neon.

Watching 2 Fast 2 Furious, there’s a real sense that the production team had no idea what a hypothetical sequel to The Fast and the Furious would look like, only that it should exist… and maybe it should have some cars in it. Indeed, 2 Fast 2 Furious is pointedly at its most ridiculous when the script is forced to shoe-horn the “obligatory racing bits” into a conventional “undercover Miami drug bust movie.” There’s a weird disconnect between the two films, that goes beyond the absence of Vin Diesel.

Even with Paul Walker present and few small continuity references, there’s little to tether 2 Fast 2 Furious to The Fast and the Furious. It recalls the sort of old-fashioned Hollywood cynicism that produced sequels like Die Hard with a Vengeance, when familiar characters would be clumsily bolted on to a completely unrelated script to create a new franchise installment. Of course, with Dom Toretto in the wind, 2 Fast 2 Furious doesn’t even really have that many familiar characters to anchor it. Brian O’Conner was never going to be the franchise’s breakout character, after all. 2 Fast 2 Furious only has the name.

In some ways, the spark that would drive the Fast and Furious franchise is found in neither The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious. After all, the later blockbuster installments of the franchise feel like a completely different breed than either film; espionage-style superhero films involving the fate of the world. That spark is found in the gap between The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious, in the cynical idea that just about any kind of movie can be a Fast and Furious movie if you stick enough cars in it.

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