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Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: The Wolf Of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street scammer with a drug-fueled lust for riches and a false sense of invincibility in The Wolf Of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street scammer with a drug-fueled lust for riches and a false sense of invincibility in The Wolf Of Wall Street.

“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26 as the head of my own brokerage firm, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”

“Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.”

I was curious about Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf Of Wall Street. I was wondering if it was something Martin’s never done before or just simply a great movie to have out at the time.

The film is a semi-biographical picture of Jordan Belfort, Wall Street scammer extraordinaire. At the start of 1987, Jordan is just a rookie in the stock-broking business who manages to come through and successfully woo clients. He even wins the appeal of his boss who tells him during a dinner that a lifestyle of casual sex and cocaine will help him succeed. However Black Monday happens and the business collapses, leaving Belfort unemployed. While looking for work, his first wife Teresa recommends he work for a small boiler room office that invests in penny stock. He agrees and the rest…is infamy.

That penny stock job pays off for Belfort as his aggressive style of selling earns him top sales and a higher commission rate than at his former Wall Street job. That inspires him to start his own business. It’s starts rather humbly first with furniture salesman Donnie Azoff who lives in the same building as him, along with his accountant parents and several friends of his, three of which were experienced marijuana dealers. He forms Stratton Oakmont, a penny stock company with a professional-sounding name. The business however is fueled by ‘pump and dump’ scamming promoted by Belfort. The business is so successful, it lands Belfort in a Forbes magazine article of him titled ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ and soon attracts hundreds of financers who are ‘young, hungry and stupid.’

The business skyrockets and every successful salesperson benefits with bonuses and privileges. Belfort however benefits the most with big-time pay. With it however came the lavish lifestyle of parties, sex and drugs where Belfort frequents prostitutes and becomes addicted to cocaine and Quaaludes. His excess even leads to the end of his marriage with Teresa as she catches him having sex with Naomi LaPaglia, an attendee at one of his parties whom Belfort eventually marries after the divorce and gives birth to their daughter Skylar months later.

Meanwhile the FBI get suspicious and it prompts agent Patrick Denham to begin investigation of Stratton Oakmont and include the Securities and Exchange Commission in on it. While Belfort doesn’t know what the FBI is doing, he even opens a Swiss bank account to evade being taxed for the $22 million deal made with Steve Madden Ltd. and uses Naomi’s wealthy aunt’s name to disguise it. He even uses friends with European passports to smuggle in cash to the account. However there were some close calls to that scheme when the participation of Donnie and friend Brad would get into fights.

Belfort does sense the FBI is on his case, especially after Denham meets with him personally in his yacht. He hires his own private investigator Bo Dietl to stay one step ahead of the law. But there are soon giveaways, like the time Donnie made a phone call to the Swiss Bank associate from a wire Jordan knew was tapped. He tried to stop him but the seemingly-weak Quaaludes given by Donnie suddenly kick in. By the time he tries to stop Donnie, Donnie himself his high on the Quaaludes during the phone call and is choking on a ham sandwich. Fortunately through a sniff of cocaine, Jordan is able to save Donnie’s life. Nevertheless it doesn’t take away from the threat of legal enforcement. It gets to the point even Jordan’s father is pressuring him to step down. Jordan refuses and the whole office cheers on the rebellion from Belfort and Donnie to the FBI’s subpoenas.

It’s not long before Jordan gets signs that his luck is about to run out. The first big sign came on a yacht trip with Donnie and their wives in Italy. They’re given the news that Naomi’s wealthy aunt has died of a heart attack. Jordan decides to sail to Monaco to avoid capture along the way to Switzerland for the bank accounts but a violent storm sinks the ship. All survive but the rescue plane sent to take them to Geneva for the accounts explodes. This causes Jordan to decide break free from drugs.

Eventually the FBI do crack down on Jordan, while filming an infomercial. The Swiss banker, who was arrested in Florida over an unrelated charge, tells the FBI everything about Belfort. The evidence against Belfort is overwhelming but Belfort decides to cooperate by giving the FBI information about his colleagues in exchange for leniency. Jordan’s optimism over the possibility of leniency starts to run out as his wife decides to divorce him with full custody of their children. Jordan reacts angrily, even abusively, and attempts unsuccessfully to abscond with his daughter while high on cocaine behind the wheel. Any hope of leniency all ends when Jordan interrogates Donnie, warning him in a piece of paper about the wire. Agent Denham finds out about it and it’s the end for Jordan’s freedom and Stratton Oakmont. However after his three years in prison, Jordan has found a new life…hosting seminars on sales techniques.

Looking back, I don’t think Martin Scorsese was trying to reflect on too much of a current theme in his movie. I feel he was trying to tell the story of Jordan Belfort most of the time. Often it would come across as another example of the American Dream gone wrong or how it’s often mistaken as the quest to be the richest. Nevertheless the narration from Leonardo as Jordan does give a reflection of our business society. Many of the quotes Jordan and others say are reflections of the drive of the business world and sometimes a reflection of how many in the business world often are oblivious to the difference between their own greed and personal drive and ambition to be #1.

Another reflection Martin was probably trying to show was how being at the top of the game in the United States is like living in a jungle. The office of Stratton Oakmont did come across as a wild jungle in the corporate wilderness known as Wall Street. All the workers who wanted to excel came across as the vicious ferocious animals with a false sense of invincibility, especially Jordan. Sometimes you’re left thinking the business world is so vicious, one has to make a wild animal of themselves to excel. Is it worth it?

If there are any core themes of this movie, I believe it would have to be about lust and addiction. Right as a young investor when he gets the advice from his boss about a steady habit of sex and drugs, it already set the stage. Jordan became addicted to sex with his wives and other women. Jordan also made a steady habit of drugs to make him excel in the business world only to end up addicted to them. However it appears that the biggest drug in Jordan’s life had to be the money. Working in the stock market, Jordan gets the popular first-hand feel that ‘more is never enough.’ Money gave him that sense of power and invincibility one can get from a steroid. It also made him a slave to his habits and act out of control like any other addictive drug. “We were making more money than we knew what to do with it,” Jordan says. Eventually it would hurt him and everyone else around him in the end.

There was a lot of talk about all the elements Martin included in a film like this like over-the-top swearing, sex and drug use. Even with the violence being rather tame for a Scorsese film, there was question of that too. One thing I have to say is that my expectations in film have changed quite a bit since I was a Generation-Xer of the 90’s. I know I first talked about my Generation X attitude towards entertainment back then in my review of Django Unchained. Back then I had the common attitude that the arts should push envelopes and was convinces that the best artists or best works of arts challenged the status quo of their times. I’ve changed since then and even though I like envelope pushing, I don’t believe it should make compromise for entertainment value or showbiz expectations. Yeah, don’t let being an artist get in the way of doing your job in this biz.

Getting back to the content, I came to the movie with the full knowledge of the 500+ f-words and all kinds of raunch and obnoxiousness anticipated for it. So I went with the attitude: “If you’re going to have this many F-words and all sorts of over-the-top stuff, you better justify it.” I wouldn’t approve of censorship but I would question a lot of what happened in those offices. Was it really loaded with foul language and flipping the tweeter at everyone including the boss? Was there really sex on the workfloor? Or a monkey in the office? Or a marching band one day? Did Donnie really pee on his subpoena on his desk for all the office to see and cheer on? Did a female worker really volunteer to have her head shaved if the team hit a target? I find that hard to believe especially since my own workplace imposes professional behavior. However Jordan Belfort has maintained in many interviews it did happen. Scorsese refused to water things down and Leonardo agreed it shouldn’t have been. I myself wasn’t shocked or outraged by the content on screen. As mentioned earlier, I was more shocked at these things as chronological events. Nevertheless it does have me asking: “Blue Is The Warmest Color got an NC-17 rating but this is rated R?”

This was a very good biographical movie done by Martin Scorsese. It’s not done epic-style like The Aviator. Nevertheless it is central to its themes and depicts Jordan as anyone on Wall Street who’s determined to do what it takes to rise amongst the top. Martin and scriptwriter Terence Winter knew how to do a movie very thematic of that. The main glitches is that I feel three hours is too long for a story like this. I question the length of it and I also question certain scenes like the one of Jordan and Donnie having delayed highs from the dated Quaaludes. If there’s one thing I give it kudos for, it’s that human elements didn’t get lost in it. In fact one scene I liked was near the end when Jordan’s parents are in tears when they hear of his sentence. The parent/son part of the whole story was a good addition and it was most valuable in that end scene. For the record, this is not the first movie of Jordan Belfort’s exploits. The first was 2000’s Boiler Room where a rising star by the name of Vin Diesel played Belfort.

As for the acting, Leonardo was excellent as Jordan Belfort. I was first expecting Jordan to be like Gordon Gecko of Wall Street. However while Gordon was more of a control freak, Jordan was like a Trojan warrior on a mission to conquer. Leonardo did an excellent balance of doing a character who appeared invincible but was oblivious to how out of control he was and ignorant to the limits of his power. Name any movie character synonymous with power–Braveheart, King Kong, Maximus from Gladiator— you can see it in Leo’s depiction of Jordan. Jonah Hill also did an excellent job of character acting in his role of Donnie. I have to say Jonah has really grown with his acting abilities ever since I first saw him play his big doofus roles early in his career. His performance as Donnie is a sure sign of his maturity as an actor over the years.

Margot Robbie has the most underrated role in the movie as wife Naomi: possibly the one person that can bring Jordan back to Earth and remind him of the limits of his powers. Sometimes Naomi appears to be one of Jordan’s drugs and Margot did a great job. There were also good minor performances from Jean Dujardin, Kyle Chandler and Joanna Lumley but the best had to come from Rob Reiner. He was great as the father watching both nervously and heartbreakingly as it all comes crashing down. Actually the whole ensemble caught your attention from start to finish. Hardly ever a dull moment. And the mix of music from various decades also added to the energy rush of the movie.

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street is an intriguing movie and will leave you shocked at the story being told. However it is not worth the three hours of running time given. Yes it does entertain and there’s rarely a dull moment but it makes you question whether all that time is worth it. Yes, it’s worth seeing but worth three hours of time?

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Movie Review: Moneyball

We are all told at one point in our lives that we can no longer play the children’s game. We just don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some get told at 18, some get told at 40, but we’re all told.

I don’t know about you but I don’t understand the whole deal about sports and the dollar. One thing I do know is that the mix of sports and money has sure changed professional sports in the last 40 years. It’s the reason why a franchise stays in a city or moves. It’s the reason why stadiums and arenas are now named after corporations. It secures broadcasting rights and merchandising marketing rights. It’s led to numerous league strikes; two of which either prevented a season from happening or ended a season prematurely. Most of all, it has the biggest bearing on how far up the league a team excels. Major League Baseball player-turned manager Billy Beane was the subject of the book Moneyball on his experience as a manager and introducing the use of sabermetrics in managing the Oakland Athletics team of 2002. It’s been made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman and it’s worth seeing.

The movie begins just after the Oakland Athletics were eliminated from World Series play in the 2001 American League Division Series by the New York Yankees; a team with three times the money as the A’s. After losing its three star players to teams with bigger money, general manager Billy Beane tries to assemble a winning team with Oakland’s limited budget but is irritated with his scouts’ decision making. Billy does have a personal issue with baseball scouts. When he was 18, he was scouted out as a phenomenal talent and was signed up with MLB, foregoing a promising college education. His career as an MLB player didn’t pan out and his promise was never realized. After retiring from baseball having played his last game with the A’s in 1989–ironically the last year the A’s won the World Series–Beane became GM of the team years later.

Upon visiting the Cleveland Indians, he meets Peter Brand, an economics grad from Yale with radical ideas in scouting baseball players but is very inexperienced with the business of Major League Baseball. Billy is so impressed with Pete’s thinking and choosing–including how Pete would draft Billy– he hires Pete as assistant GM. Pete’s assessment of players via sabermetrics, statistical analysis of players, and his ability of noticing qualities in players most MLB scouts overlook impresses Beane and helps him make some good player choices. However the scouts at the A’s and manager Art Howe are unimpressed with their use of sabermetrics and believe it’s effectiveness is trumpted by team play on the field. Despite it all, Beane has hope in Pete’s influence on his choices.

The beginning of the 2002 season does not look well. Oakland finds itself in the lower rankings at the early part of the season. Mostly it’s because Howe’s roster decisions conflict with that of Beane and Brand. Even as the A’s find themselves in last place in their Division, Brand still believes his prediction that the A’s will make a huge turnaround in July. This comes as a problem as Howe is still stubborn in his choices. This leads Beane to make tough trading choices for his more struggling players while Howe favors. Beane even gets Brand to tell a player he’s traded.

Now with the new set-up happening in Beane’s favor, we do see a turnaround. The A’s start winning, winning and winning. After winning their 19th straight game, they’re poised to break an MLB record for longest winning streak. One thing Beane notices is that whenever he’s at an A’s game, it’s bad luck for the team. This is the first game of the streak he attends. They have an 11-0 lead when suddenly things go wrong. Error after error happen and the game goes into extra innings. Nevertheless the miracle happens and the streak record is there’s. But it doesn’t stop there. The A’s find themselves back into the running for the World Series playing the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS. They hope it’s not a repeat of what happened to them against the Yankees the year earlier. This also appears critical since this could be whether Beane is kept on as the A’s GM. The game doesn’t go as expected and the aftermath doesn’t either as Beane rejects an offer from the Red Sox to stay with the A’s. I’ll wait for you all to see the movie to find out how much the BoSox offered Beane.

Without a doubt the biggest theme in the movie is money and how it’s changed the sport forever. It plays a role in how it makes certain teams excel further than others. It plays a role in how new players are selected and often enough it’s about their marketability instead of skill. When I saw that scene at the beginning when Oakland’s scouts are choosing players based on image, I asked: “Since when did playing sports become showbiz?” It plays a role in how players are hired, traded and terminated. It even tempts young players, like Billy himself back in 1979, into making an all-or-nothing decision where only time decides if it’s the right choice or not. Sometimes it pans out and sometimes, like in Billy’s case, it’s the deal with the devil. It even causes a power struggle between the managers and the coaches. Often the biggest team issues are more off the field than on the field.

As much as the mix of sports and money is the predominant theme of the movie, it’s also trying to introduce something new into Major League Baseball. Now Major League Baseball has to be the sports league most reluctant to change. While every other baseball league uses aluminum bats, MLB is still strictly wood-only. Drug testing was only introduced in recent years. Even decades ago, video relays and the lights at Wrigley Field caused huge debate. Now for Billy and Pete to introduce sabermetrics via computer into use on their team, even that comes into question with the men with traditional mindsets. I’m sure sabermetrics has attempted to make its way in before even without computers but it never really left much of an impact. Even after it helps the A’s break the winning streak record, it’s still debated after the A’s were eliminated from World Series play. Eventually it does become accepted by some, but not in a way expected.

Another theme that gets overlooked in this movie is about personal relations in such a cutthroat business. Billy has to be a cutthroat fiery worker if he’s to be a manager of a Major League Baseball team. Nevertheless in this fierce business, he’s able to befriend Pete. Interesting since Billy is fierce and cutthroat while Pete is shy and reserved. The movie is also about how Billy comes off as a father to his daughter. You can tell how much of a bond that means to him.

The best quality of the movie is how it’s able to make a story that’s very smart very winning on screen. It’s able to take a very intelligent and very popular topic and create a story about it that’s able to entertain audiences and keep them in suspense. It’s able to have an ending that’s different from your typical Hollywood ending and still come off well. Scriptwriters Steve Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin did an excellent adaptation to make a story thrilling with unexpected turns. Bennett Miller also did an excellent job of direction. Mychael Danna delivered and excellent accompaying score. However the movie’s best quality is its acting.  Brad Pitt did a very good job in paying a role that wasn’t your typical Brad Pitt role. Jonah Hill was also excellent in a role that was different from the ‘big goofball’ roles he’s been known for. Philip Seymour Hoffman again becomes the character in his latest role and again pulls it off excellently. It’s this type of work that has to make Moneyball the best baseball movie in years.

Moneyball is definitely this fall out-of-leftfield surprise winner. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, it will open your eyes about sports and actually get you hoping for the A’s. Even if you don’t like baseball, or movies about it, you’ll find something to like about it.