Andre the Giant


Andre the Giant in action against Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) Andre the Giant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, Vince McMahon, Rob Reiner, Jerry Lawler, Ric Flair, Shane McMahon, Gene Okerlund, Dave Meltzer, Antoine Roussimoff, Noel Matteos, Dr. Terry Todd, Gino Brito, David Shoemaker, Dr. Harris Yett, Jackie McAuley, Hortense Roussimoff. Directed by Jason Hehir

 

In the 1980s professional wrestling took off from essentially a group of regional promotions into a massive worldwide phenomena thanks largely to the aegis of the WWE (known as the World Wrestling Federation at the time until the World Wildlife Fund objected to the use of their initials) and some of the wrestlers in it. I have to say that I was a wrestling fan back then and watched regularly Monday Night Raw and the other wrestling programs that the WWE and to a lesser extent the NWA ran to keep the ravenous fans sated.

Remembering the big stars of that era – Hulk Hogan, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Junkyard Dog, Demolition, The Ultimate Warrior, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Iron Sheikh, Nikolai Volkoff, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Ravishing Rick Ruud, Ric Flair, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, Sting, Arn Anderson, Ted DiBiase, Jesse Ventura – I remember them all and more.

While Hogan was the biggest superstar of his time in terms of popularity, the most unforgettable wrestler of that era had to be Andre the Giant. Born Andre René Roussimoff in the small village of Molien in France, he began experiencing unusual growth spurts due to gigantism; by the time he was 12 he was larger than most adults.

Most of our portraits of Andre as a young man come from family photos and recollections of his siblings. The family, who worked (and still work) a farm in Molien were close-knit; in one poignant moment near the end of the film his brother shows off the chair that his mother built for her growing son. It is empty now but the care that went in to making her son comfortable in a world which largely wasn’t geared towards making people of a certain size comfortable is touching.

The footage of Andre’s early career is absolutely astounding. Most of us have only seen him in the latter stages of his career when the pain from his acromegaly (which developed from his gigantism) and of course the constant toll on the body that professional wrestling takes made any sort of movement excruciatingly painful.

There is a lot of interview footage here, but as far as Andre himself is concerned it is almost all given in his in-ring persona. He was a private man outside the ring and other than one 60 Minutes interview he rarely allowed people in. A lot of insight comes from his wrestling colleagues, although much of the subject regards his extraordinary appetites for food, women and booze. Andre loved to party after a wrestling match and was known to drink as many as 106 beers in a single night; drinking a case of wine wasn’t unusual for him either.

The more poignant material talks about Andre having difficulties getting into cars, hotel beds, and planes. He was simply unable to use an airplane bathroom and considering how much flying he had to do as part of his brutal wrestling travel schedule he often ended up having to hold it, sometimes for hours. He loved the adulation of the fans but there was no escaping it – when you’re his size you can’t escape anything.

Many people know Andre from his role as Fezzig in The Princess Bride and while two of his co-stars and the director talk about his time on the show (by which time his physical deterioration was making it nearly impossible for him to do his own stunts) the beloved movie only takes up about five minutes of screen time in Andre’s story.

Andre died in a Paris Hotel room on January 27, 1993 of a heart attack brought on by his gigantism. He was just 46 years old but had made an indelible mark on the world – and not just the world of wrestling. Always a gentle giant and recalled fondly by friends and family, he was the sort to go out of his way to make his fellow wrestlers look good. His epic battle with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III – one of the last matches he would wrestle as it turned out – is still thought by many to be the best professional wrestling match ever.

The movie will be a godsend for pro wrestling fans but even those who aren’t particularly fond of the squared circle will find something to enjoy in this well-made documentary that looks back at the life of a gentle giant. Great footage, engaging interviews and a marvelous subject are sometimes all it takes to make a good documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, the movie documents the difficulties in day-to-day living Andre had to experience. Some of the footage is phenomenal.
REASONS TO STAY: We get a lot of Andre’s on-screen persona but not a whole lot about who he was off-camera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action and violence as well as some bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original nom de wrestling for Andre Roussimoff was Jean Ferré, a kind of French Paul Bunyan which was later changed to Géant Ferré. American promoters were unwilling to market him under that name because it sounded too much like “Giant Fairy” so Andre the Giant was born.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Resurrection of Jake “The Snake” Roberts
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
The Cloverfield Paradox

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Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The Last Laugh


Springtime for Hitler.

Springtime for Hitler.

(2016) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, David Steinberg, Larry Charles, Alan Zweibel, Etgar Keret, Carl Reiner, Robert Clary, David Cross, Lisa Lampinelli, Jake Ehrenreich, Zdenka Fantlova, Jeffrey Ross, Susie Essman, Abraham Foxman, Roz Weinman, Malala Sagal. Directed by Ferne Pearlstein

 

Humor is an intensely personal subject; everyone’s idea of what is funny and what is inappropriate varies, sometimes to astonishing degrees. There are always taboo subjects that even comics shy away from, but not all of them. There are subjects that some comics tackle that make even other comics a little bit uncomfortable.

This new documentary by Ferne Pearlstein tackles the interesting subject of what is inappropriate material for comics, concentrating on one of the most horrible events in human history – the Holocaust. More than 70 years have passed since Nazi Germany surrendered but there are plenty who think that jokes about it – even by Jewish comics – are wildly inappropriate. Even Mel Brooks, whose cult classic The Producers dropped jaws when it was released in 1967, says that there is a difference between jokes about the Holocaust and jokes about the Nazis.

Much of the film is devoted to Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor who talks about cabaret shows in the camps used to keep the workers entertained and about the gallows humor employed by the prisoners to help make the days bearable. Other survivors of concentration camps take the opposite tack – the Holocaust was no laughing matter and that the prisoners couldn’t even crack a smile, let alone a joke.

I tend to side with Renee – humor is a mechanism that many humans use to cope with stress and what could be more stressful than living under the constant threat of death? Still, six million Jews and others died in the camps – can we joke about them without trivializing them, or upsetting those who lived in them?

These are the kind of questions that are brought up by various comedians of different eras – old school like Brooks and Carl Reiner, mid-school like David Steinberg and Gilbert Gottfried and more recent vintages like Lisa Lampinelli and David Cross. There are also writers like Alan Zweibel, Malala Sagal and Etgar Keret as well as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League which monitors anti-Semitism in the media. Foxman has some strong opinions as to what is appropriate and what is not, some of which you may agree with or disagree with. I think it’s a telling point that when Foxman pooh-poohs the argument that some comics make that the jokes keep the Holocaust from being forgotten; Sarah Silverman ripostes that if we haven’t forgotten the Holocaust why do genocides continue to this day?

To the filmmaker’s credit, no side seems to be given advantage other than that of the Survivors themselves and particularly Firestone. She is the emotional centerpiece of the film and some of the most moving moments take place as she remembers being separated from her sister whom she never saw again and having to deal with the death of her husband much later in life. Robert Clary, who played a French prisoner of war in the comedy Hogan’s Heroes used his real-life experience in the concentration camps for his character and reveals almost casually of 13 members of his family to be arrested, he was the only one left alive by the end of the war. How does one survive that? Clary doesn’t say and perhaps it’s better that we don’t know.

Towards the end of the film other taboo subjects are tackled such as 9-11 and use of the “N” word but almost in so casual a manner that they might better have not been mentioned at all. Clearly the Holocaust is the big subject here and thus it should have remained. I suspect the filmmakers were aware that there might be some backlash “what, only the Jews have suffered?” which is completely unfair. Nobody’s saying that these other subjects aren’t important and shouldn’t be handled delicately but quite frankly, I think the filmmakers would have been better served sticking to the subject that brought them to the dance, as it were and use it maybe as a gateway to other taboos. Perhaps that was what they were trying to do but quite frankly I think it was a case of trying to do too much. That’s really the only issue I had with the film.

There are, of course, plenty of jokes here and quite a few of them will get you laughing. One of my favorite bits is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number from the 1967 version of The Producers and the audience reaction shots which might be how some modern audiences in this era of political correctness might react to some of the humor here.

I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and comics, as Mel Brooks himself observes are the conscience of the country. They allow us to look at ourselves and how we react to things that are controversial and uncomfortable; restricting them with political correctness is an absolute abomination and one of the most things that as a liberal I’m most ashamed of my left-leaning friends. It is a healthy thing once in awhile to be outraged.

There is some thought-provoking stuff here and no ready answers. Like everything else, it’s all up to how you perceive things and what affects you. You may be offended by some of the jokes here – or you might laugh your tush off. Is there a line that cannot be crossed? I don’t know; maybe. Should only Jewish comics joke about the Holocaust or gay comics about AIDS or African-American comics about slavery and racism? There are those who think so; I do not. At the end of the day, we are all humans and if we believe that, truly believe that, then all experiences are shared experiences. While the Holocaust was aimed mainly at those of the Jewish faith, we can mourn the loss of these people because we believe we are all brothers and sisters; the loss of even a single Jew makes all of us less.

Sure, that’s a bit simplistic (and sorry this movie review has appeared to become a rant) but the message is that it’s harder to hate someone if you feel connected to them. If there were fewer divisions between us wouldn’t there be fewer reasons to hate? I’m not sure if that’s the message that these comedians are trying to send by joking about the Nazis or even the Holocaust but it’s a message that can be inferred and wouldn’t it be a better world indeed if we all looked at the world that way?

REASONS TO GO: The subject is truly thought-provoking. Some of the jokes are hysterical. There are a few moments that are heart-rending. Brooks is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: Segments on 9-11 and other taboo subjects seemed a bit rushed and didn’t add anything to the film overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find plenty of profanity, humor that some might find inappropriate and a few images that are unsettling.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Freedom to Marry

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You


Little Norman at the lectern.

Little Norman at the lectern.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, Amy Poehler, John Amos, Russell Simmons, George Clooney, Louise Lasser, Mel Brooks, Bob Saget, Carl Reiner, Bill Moyers, Jon Stewart, Lyn Lear, Kate Lear, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Jay Leno, Martin Mull, Jimmie Walker, Bud Yorkin, Sally Struthers, Mary Kay Place, Valerie Bertinelli, Adrienne Barbeau. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Florida Film Festival 2016

One of the giants of the television landscape is Norman Lear. While there are those who criticize his politics (he’s an unabashed liberal who brought progressive thought to the airwaves back when it was dominated by conservative sorts) nobody can deny the success that he enjoyed (the only man to have six shows in the top ten simultaneously) nor the legacy he left behind.

This documentary is mainly aimed at the glory days of Lear’s career in the 70s, as we follow the creation and execution of shows like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons among others. There are some interesting things worth noting, like Carroll O’Conner had a very hard time reconciling his own liberal beliefs with the racist dialogue his character had to say. He often fought Lear on certain elements of dialogue because he felt so uncomfortable about saying it, even as a character not himself. Generally, Lear prevailed and as such we got Archie Bunker, America’s favorite bigot as TV Guide once termed him.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews, the most interesting are with Lear himself who even as a nonagenarian is clear-eyed and a charismatic raconteur. While some of the interviews come a bit close to fawning, certainly if anyone warranted such treatment its Lear. As we hear from such modern comedy icons as Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart (as well as Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal) one gets a real sense of just how influential the man continues to be. Certainly the modern television landscape would be a very different place without him.

Best of all, we get to see a goodly amount of clips of some of the various shows’ best moments. For those like myself who grew up in that era, the sense of nostalgia is palpable, and very welcome. While I didn’t religiously watch these shows (I grew up in a conservative household with a dad who thought Lear was too political and certainly too much of a leftie for his tastes), I did watch them often and enjoyed them.

There is a bit of a misstep; there are some linking devices here with a young boy, wearing a hat similar to the one that Lear has become known for wearing (for more than 50 years, no less) apparently playing Lear as a young man re-enacting some of the events of Lear’s life on a bare stage. While I give the filmmakers props for at least trying to get out of the typical talking head/archival footage mode that characterizes most profile documentaries, it just doesn’t work.

What does work is Lear himself. He had a difficult relationship with his own father, who was jailed when Lear was just nine years old. One of the more powerful moments is when Lear unexpectedly breaks down when discussing his relationship with his dad. It’s one of the times we get to see inside the inner Lear.

And there’s the rub. I don’t think we get a very complete view of who Lear the man is, but you’re not really going to do that in an hour and a half in any case. Thinking that any documentarian can do so is simply unrealistic. We do get a good sense of Lear’s accomplishments and what he means to modern television in general. We also come to the understanding that as influential as Lear is, and as much as his work echoes into the modern day small screen ethos, nobody makes ‘em like the master anymore and there is a hint of the bittersweet in that fact that is inescapable. There will never be another quite like him.

REASONS TO GO: Some very powerful emotional moments. A trip down memory lane. Really gives you an idea of how influential Lear is.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure we needed Little Norman.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lear was 93 years old when interviewed for this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Wrestling Alligators

Sleepless in Seattle


An affair to truly remember.

An affair to truly remember.

(1993) Romance (Tri-Star) Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Ross Malinger, Rita Wilson, Carey Lowell, David Hyde Pierce, Barbara Garrick, Frances Conroy, Tom Riis Farrell, Rob Reiner, Gaby Hoffman, Dana Ivey, Calvin Trillin, Michael Badalucco, Kevin O’Morrison, La Clanche du Rand, Tom Tammi, Valerie Wright, Caroline Aaron. Directed by Nora Ephron

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-5

Back in the 90s (and who knows, maybe it’s still true) radio call-in shows were big. Many of them provided a kind of social service, therapy for those who couldn’t afford a therapist and didn’t mind thousands of people (and maybe millions in the case of syndicated talk show hosts) listened in on their problems and phobias.

Annie Reed (Ryan) is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She doesn’t really believe in romance, although she believes that she doesn’t want to be alone. She’s engaged to Walter (Pullman), a nice enough guy who clearly adores her but she just doesn’t feel inspired, particularly as Walter is allergic to – um, everything. She listens to the Dr. Marcia (Aaron) show late at night and yaks about it with her good friend and editor Becky (O’Donnell) the next day.

Sam Baldwin (Hanks) – not one of the lost Baldwin brothers – is in a deep funk. His wife Maggie (Lowell) succumbed to cancer a year and a half ago but things just aren’t getting any better, not even after moving to Seattle from Chicago with his son Jonah (Malinger). Jonah worries about his dad, who can’t seem to get past his wife’s death and resume living and maybe even find happiness. Sam is skeptical about it – he knew he had found his soulmate from the first touch. “It was magic,” he muses, “You don’t get that lucky twice.”

Jonah is so concerned that he phones in the Dr. Marcia show and calls his dad to the phone. Reluctantly he gets on and tells his story and as Dr. Marcia coaxes his feelings about Maggie out of him, Sam is so eloquent, so heartfelt, so lost that he stimulates the maternal instincts of every woman listening. From then on he gets bags of mail from women proposing marriage or just wanting to meet.

One of the listeners is Annie who is drawn to his story. After watching a rebroadcast of An Affair to Remember she impulsively writes an expressive letter to Sam, proposing that they meet at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. At the urging of Becky (who also mails the letter after Annie chickens out), she flies out to Seattle to ostensibly do a story on the talk radio phenomenon but primarily to find Sam. However, after seeing him with his sister Suzy (Wilson) she gets the mistaken impression that he has a girlfriend and flees back to Baltimore, ready to marry Walter.

In the meantime, Jonah reads Annie’s letter and tries to get his dad, who by now is dating a co-worker (Garrick) that Jonah hates, to make the rendezvous but Sam refuses. Instead, Jonah writes Annie as Sam and tells her that he’ll be there.

More I will not tell you. Either you know what happens so there’s no point in recapping the plot further, or you don’t know and I don’t want to ruin the expert heartstring tugging you’ll undergo. Romantic movies tend to be very much formulaic these days, but this one is certainly not. Yes, it does borrow liberally from classic romances (particularly the aforementioned An Affair to Remember) but it’s smarter than most rom-coms and treats its audience as intelligent people while gently poking fun at how men and women express their emotions.

The interesting thing about this movie is that Hanks and Ryan spend very little screen time together but are often considered to be one of the prime screen couples of the last 20 years – yes, it’s been two decades since this came out. The characters are so compelling thanks in no small part to the sterling performances by Hanks and Ryan that people root for them to be together with unbridled fervor. The chemistry between the two is often discussed when this picture comes up for discussion, but maybe people are channeling their performances from Joe vs. the Volcano which they both previously starred in. They would go on to do one more movie together but for many they are the greatest screen couple since Hepburn and Tracy.

The interesting thing is that Walter, Annie’s fiancée, is really a nice guy whose only fault is that he’s not Tom Hanks. Pullman and O’Donnell both deliver solid supporting performances. The only acting letdown belongs to Malinger and it’s really through no fault of his own; the script (particularly during the last third which focuses more on him) calls on him to do more precocious things and instead of being cute it becomes painfully obnoxious. He’s one of those screen kids who knows better than adults and outwits them, often with the help of his friend Jessica (Hoffman).

This is one of the classic romantic movies. There are women who get misty-eyed at the mere mention of the film. As Valentine’s Day cuddle movies go, you could certainly do much worse. Undoubtedly putting this on the TV and snuggling up together with some microwaved popcorn and a couple of glasses of wine could lead to a memorable evening of your own.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by Hanks and Ryan. The prototypical multi-hankie modern romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kid can be a bit obnoxious.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The radio call-in listener Desperate in Denver is voiced by Nora Ephron.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The most recent limited edition Blu-Ray includes a separate score only track as well as a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $227.8M on a $21M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Affair to Remember

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The LEGO Movie

The Wolf of Wall Street


Leonardo di Caprio knows he's getting an Oscar nomination.

Leonardo di Caprio knows he’s getting an Oscar nomination.

(2013) True Life Drama (Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi, PJ Byrne, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Miloti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, MacKenzie Meehan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

We are all aware that there is something broken on Wall Street; it is often depicted as a kind of testosterone-infused drug-fueled locker room in which over-stimulated men essentially rob America blind. While there are plenty of honest stockbrokers, there is some truth to the notion that the culture of greed exists.

Jordan Belfort (di Caprio) is the poster boy for that culture. He starts off as an ambitious stockbroker, taken under the wing of a successful broker (McConaughey) who initiates him in the cult of screw you – making the customer money is not the first order of business. Getting his fees are. And keeping those fees coming in even if that means selling some poor schmuck stocks he can’t afford or worse, stocks the broker knows are going to lose money.

Belfort quickly realizes that the real money is to be made in owning his own firm and that selling penny stocks were a vastly underserved market in which the brokers can make a huge amount of money in a short amount of time. With partner Donny Azoff (Hill) Belfort founds Stratton Oakmont, a literal boiler room where brokers make high-pressure sales of penny stocks.

Belfort found that defrauding his clientele was far more profitable for him personally than actually working for it and soon finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. Of course, men with more money than they know what to do with usually find things to do with it – drugs, prostitutes, a luxury yacht, a trophy wife. In Belfort’s case, the latter turns out to be Naomi (Robbie), a Jersey shore princess and model.

As Belfort’s shenanigans grow more egregious he and his firm attracts the attention of the FBI in the person of dogged agent Patrick Denham (Chandler). Constantly in a drugged haze of cocaine and Quaaludes, Belfort and Azoff decide to launder their money and use drug dealer Brad (Bernthal) and a loathsome Swiss banker (Dujardin) to do it. But as those who ride too high will tell you, the fall is inevitable and not very pretty when it comes.

Scorsese has delivered another masterpiece in his storied career. Frequent collaborator (this is the fifth movie they’ve done together) di Caprio is at his best. His manic portrayal of Belfort is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination later this month and is at the moment the odds on favorite to win the gold.

He is mesmerizing every moment he’s on the screen and this with a character that is basically a douchebag. He basically thumbs his nose at everything decent and does everything to the point where you could charitably call him evil and yet di Caprio is so good that we can’t turn away. Belfort is a train wreck of a human being and di Caprio keeps our eyes glued on him.

Hill also delivers what might be a superior performance to his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball. His Azoff is smarmy, smart but not as smart as Belfort and a bit cowardly. He is the kind of guy who wants to live the high life but doesn’t have the brains or the charisma to get it himself so he rides on Belfort’s coattails. At the end of the day, Hill makes this guy less of a rat and more of a flawed human being whose mantra of every man for himself informs his every decision.

I’ve noticed that conservative viewers tend to look at this movie as a liberal Hollywood hatchet job on Wall Street so those who tend to get their information from Fox News might want to give this one a skip. While the excesses here seem over-the-top, they are all documented – by the real Jordan Belfort himself. I must also add that while Belfort bilked his customers out of more than a billion dollars, he did go to jail for it. Some of the Wall Street bigwigs from established firms stole far more from their clients and damn near bankrupted our economy yet none of them are in jail. I guess it’s all in who you know.

Part of the downfall for Belfort is his drug use and that is depicted pretty graphically here. If the sight of di Caprio snorting a line off of a naked woman’s breasts is uncomfortable for you, if the idea of seeing the results of Quaalude intoxication makes you queasy, this might not be the movie for you. I must admit that a scene late in the movie in which Belfort and Azoff take some powerful Quaaludes that don’t have a reaction in the normal amount of time turns into one of the funniest scenes of the year. I have to admit I felt a little guilty about laughing at it; watching a drug addict having a seizure after an overdose sounds cruel but I suppose if you can’t laugh at someone who has to roll their way down a staircase and only able to communicate in a kind of hooting grunt, who can you laugh at?

Like some of Scorsese’s best films, there’s a hint of controversy involved and the movie definitely isn’t for conservative Wall Street apologists. However for everyone else, there is something to be said for watching someone playing so fast and so loose without a care for the consequences of his actions get his which leads to my next point; if I have one gripe about the movie it’s that there isn’t anything about the very real human consequences to Belfort’s clients. That aspect might illustrate the real tragedy of the Jordan Belfort story in that the people who paid for his crimes and continue to do so never really get a face.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio and Scorsese hit another one out of the park. Hysterically funny in places, heartbreaking in others.

REASONS TO STAY: Belfort is such a scumbag it’s really hard to identify with him let alone root for him.

FAMILY VALUES:  More drug use than you thought humanly possible, graphic nudity and sex, enough profanity to make Lenny Bruce blush and even a little violence for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Footage of the actual beach party in the Hamptons depicted here with the real Jordan Belfort can be found on YouTube.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boiler Room

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Punk Singer

The Story of Us


You mean...Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

You mean…Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

(1999) Romance (Universal) Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tim Matheson, Rob Reiner, Julie Hagerty, Rita Wilson, Ken Lerner, Colleen Rennison, Jake Sandvig, Victor Raider-Wexler, Albert Hague, Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston, Betty White, Red Buttons, Alan Zweibel, Art Evans, Lucy Webb, Paul Reiser, Marci Rosenberg, Bill Kirchenbauer, Jessie Nelson. Directed by Rob Reiner

Hollywood is a town built on ego. The stars, the producers, the directors, the studio execs all have heads so swelled they won’t fit into ordinary cars – that’s why they take limos everywhere. Hell, even the bicycle couriers got ‘tude.

Isn’t it funny, then, that with all that excess of self-worth, nobody will break Hollywood’s critical commandment: Thou Shalt End Happily (unless Thou Art Remaking Shakespeare). Sometimes, that formula gets in the way of a good movie.

The Story of Us chronicles a marriage in its final stages of dissolution, as Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a once-happy couple who can hardly be civil to one another for more than a few moments at a time. As their marriage crumbles, they try to figure out how they’re going to break it to their kids, who are away at camp. At the same time, they’re wondering where things went wrong.

Like so many Rob Reiner films (When Harry Met Sally most notably), both characters are likable enough to keep us interested, but flawed enough to be just like the people who surround us in Real Life. Although the focus here is on Willis, Pfeiffer’s character seemed more sympathetic to me. Thrust into the role of disciplinarian, pragmatist and organizer, Pfeiffer hates what she’s become (i.e. her own mother), but feels powerless to escape her situation. She takes out her rage on her husband, whom she blames for not lifting her burdens, or at least sharing them.

For his part he is bewildered by her behavior and is unable to sympathize, yearning for the happy-go-lucky woman he married. Neither one is able to see the other’s viewpoint, and therein lies their problem.

Willis followed one of his all-time career performance in The Sixth Sense with an outstanding effort here, his best romantic comedy work since his Moonlighting days. While Academy members have never really had Willis on their dance card, one wonders if they tended to view him as little more than Mr. Demi Moore, a label which hounded him when he was unable to match the success of the Die Hard film series throughout the ’90s. Then again, he’s generally played pretty much the same character with astonishing regularity with occasional diversions like The Jackal.

Viewers are bound to notice Rita Wilson, however. As Pfeiffer’s best friend (and wife to Willis’ best friend) she positively dominates the screen every time she’s on it. She is, as Da Queen put it, just like every woman’s best friend in real life. That is to say, brassy, catty, vulgar and supportive. It is no accident that most women who view the film howl at Wilson’s jokes while the men tend to squirm and scratched their receding hairlines perplexedly.

That Pfeiffer and Willis were both dealing with the breakup of their real-life relationships while The Story Of Us was filming undoubtedly gave both actors an additional wellspring of emotion from which to draw. A profound scene near the end of the movie when Willis at last sees himself through his wife’s eyes couldn’t help but get one wondering if he was thinking of Demi at that moment.

My biggest gripe with this movie is the denouement, which is forced and happens in such an unbelievable and predictable manner that it leaves you spitting out “Hollywood!” in a scornful tone at your empty popcorn bowl as you turn off your screen. We spend two hours exploring why the marriage is breaking up, but we never really understand what puts it back together again.

Pfeiffer and Willis are appealing, but it’s the realism of their characters that make this movie satisfying, until it’s shattered in the final reel. I still recommend it strongly, based on the performances and the depiction of a relationship that is not unlike those of friends and family. Not a bad date movie for a couple going through a bad patch.

WHY RENT THIS: Good chemistry between Willis and Pfeiffer. Extraordinary performance by Wilson. Realistic characters and situation.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE. Oh that Hollywood ending! Gaah!

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and some sexy stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The last full-length feature film for Red Buttons and Albert Hague.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A featurette on the locations the film was shot at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $58.9M on a $50M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jobs