Saturday, December 28, 2013

Greed Is Good, But Girls And Drugs Are Better

Reel To Reel: The Wolf Of Wall Street

Going Rate: Worth matinee price, if you have the stomach for it
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner
Rated: R (but really deserves an NC-17)
Red Flags: Graphic scenes of sex, graphic talk about sex, graphic use of cocaine and quaaludes, copious use of the "f" word -- more than 500 times. Not for teenagers, and not for many adults either, unless you are seeking to teach or learn a twisted lesson on how money and power corrupt absolutely.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a three-hour orgy of money, sex and drugs -- but mostly sex in gratuitously unashamed bursts interspersed with scenes of drug abuse and gritty frat-boy conversations about money and how to make it.  Directed by the great Martin Scorsese, people will remember it more for its unrestrained hedonism rather than its subject:  real-life stock hustler Jordan Belfort, who did two years in prison on charges of manipulating markets by pushing nearly worthless stock as part of a scheme to make his cronies rich on the backs of anybody pushing a dollar his way.

We meet Belfort (DiCaprio) head-on as somebody who loves everything in excess, and he narrates his rise to ruthless power broker from a phone-punching cold caller.  Turned on by both the excitement and courseness of the stock game, and with some disgustingly frank advice from a supervisor, he does okay for himself until Black Monday of 1987 leaves him without a job.  Through a newspaper ad, he finds the only place hiring stockbrokers is a storefront brokerage house pumping penny stocks for outrageous commissions.  Belfort's hard-driving selling skills quickly earn him money and respect, and with a newfound partner, Donnie Azhoff (Hill), he starts the Stratton Oakmont brokerage inside an auto-repair garage.  We see Belfort train a gallery of people who, to quote Gordon Gekko, "wouldn't know preferred stock from livestock" using a script designed to help them close even the most wary of investors in one phone call.

Stratton Oakmont quickly expands, as does its decadence.  Belfort gladly rewards his associates with booze and hookers, charging a lot of it to an American Express account.  Its employees wallow in depravity as the sales office becomes a circus of hard selling and insatiable indulgence, where signs tell people not to have sex in the bathrooms between certain hours.  Outside work, it only gets bigger and bolder as Belfort holds huge parties with even more Neandrathal behavior.  One scene is devoted to an office conversation about throwing midgets at a target for an office promotion.  Amazingly, nobody seems to draw any lines -- unless they're lines of cocaine -- leaving me to wonder whether Belfort attracted these kinds of boors or created them on the job.  He brings in his father Max (Reiner) to help keep some semblance of order, but his role is largely to wander through the picture in disbelief at the massive degradation of standards and deal with the lawyers.

But the office antics are nothing compared to Belfort's big vices:  sex and drugs.  He tears through cocaine and quaaludes multiple times a day, as do his pals, often in conjunction with lewd acts with women, which the film throws at us glibly and without remorse.  At times, the film gets so wound up in its lust and ludes that it loses its focus from a tale of excess to just excess. Nowhere do we see the effects of Belfort's firm on investors, who were mostly super-rich, and the film hints they could afford a rip-off or two.

Stratton Oakmont can't rake in millions of dollars on penny stocks and IPO fraud without somebody getting hurt, and eventually the feds take notice.  FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) stays on Belfort's tail, but can't move in for the kill as the firm's employees confound or block investigators.  Belfort decides it's time to move money offshore, resulting in logistical problems that signal the beginning of the end of this corrupt Roman Empire of the financial world.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a longer, crasser version of Scorsese's Casino, which was also crass, but its crassness was redeemed by its compelling characters and brisk pacing.  Take nothing away from Leonardo DiCaprio, though.  He envelops Jordan Belfort to the hilt, occasionally showing a hint of humanity, but mostly showing his overpowering greed which makes Gordon Gekko look like a two-bit broker. His twisted, hard-charging speeches on salesmanship are one of the film's few redeeming qualities, but even that seems to be pushing it. Everybody else in this film is along for the corrupt ride, save for possibly Jonah Hill, whose relationship with the title character gets to expand outside of wild parties.

I needed a shower after I saw this. I also needed to avert my eyes several times (Psalm 101:3: "I will set no worthless thing before my eyes") to edit out the most egregious displays of sexual vileness. Fortunately, my Royal Father and Queen Mother watched American Hustle a few screens away in the same multiplex.  Having read some advanced write-ups, I warned them this is not a film I would be comfortable seeing with my parents.  I was correct.  Some scenes seem more apropos for a porn flick than a Scorsese flick.  How this film dodged an NC-17 rating baffles me, leaving me to conclude it got in just under the wire, somehow convincing the MPAA that its sex wasn't excessive enough or long enough to warrant an adults-only certification.  That's a sales job Belfort would be proud of.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Altar Is Open

On this Christmas Eve, I present to you a true story from August 2011, of finding GOD in a storefront church.

The church on 4th Street in Flagstaff evades us. Nearly hidden in a strip mall, we overshoot it by about three streets, ending up at the top of the hill where the bigger churches stand.

We are hitting the streets in Scottish mode, dressing in our tartan finery on the summer morning after a Highland ball. I choose my red Royal Stewart kilt outfit and blue Jacobite bonnet with the red-and-white diced hose, and she matches it with her tartan dress and red shawl.

We finally locate the New Testament Christian Church in the middle of strip mall, right next to the shell of an old printing company. A man in a suit waves to us as we pull up to the door next to a homemade sign hanging in the window.

Madame and I glance at each other.

"Do you have a bad vibe about this place?" she asks.


Not a bad vibe, but a curious feeling. If GOD is working through this couple to lead us to this micro-church, maybe there is a reason we need to be here.

"GOD led us here," I said.

That man in the suit, Pastor Leonard, welcomes us into a small room of white walls and metal folding chairs with hymnals resting on the end of each row. A worn console piano stands in one corner. The pulpit stands in the other. In front of both of them, a prayer altar waits, presumably with room for two, flanked with boxes of tissue.

Madame and I quickly find seats, and the hymnals immediately attract her attention. Pastor Leonard's wife engages my lady in conversation as Madame flashes back to the church of her youth, that old-time religion with the prayer books instead of the praise band. I quickly deduce Pastor Leonard's wife is the one who had handed Madame the business card last month at the Flagstaff Celtic Festival that is our invitation for this morning.

"A lot of people arrive at the last minute," Pastor Leonard observes as the 11:00 service time draws nearer.

Two more women enter, one with a baby. They sit across from us, quiet and unfazed by this strange couple in bright Scottish dress.

Pastor Leonard starts things off with a prayer, a very charismatic prayer, the kind where people stand up and hold their hands up as the leader radiates with passion towards Heaven. I have not ever experienced anything like it in any church, not the Presbyterian Church of my youth, or the Cool Church of my present, or the other churches I have visited at one time or another. Feeling a bit awkward about it at first, I dive in with my hands out.

Our pastor switches to the role of music director as he sits down at the battered piano and invites us to turn to "Washed In The Blood," one of those old-time Gospel favorites. His voice booms through the microphone as the console instrument resonates powerful chords at full volume -- joyful noises, even if he makes some changes.

"I had to change the key on that," he admits with a humble, aw-shucks demeanor. "One of the keys doesn't work on that piano."

He soon makes another role change, to that of usher, as he collects the offering... from all four of us parishioners in the room.

Those other people who Pastor Leonard thought might show at the last minute have not arrived. He is preaching to his wife, his daughter, two ladies, one baby, Madame, and myself. This is more prayer meeting than worship service, but our Pastor goes on undaunted by the numbers, confident in his mission as he plunges into his teaching from the book of Isaiah, on what it means to be "Washed In The Blood" of CHRIST, as we had just sung.

Over the next half hour, he delivers a teaching of one part sermon and one part blue-collar stand-up act.

"But Pastor Leonard," he calls, his voice morphing into a high-pitched wail to imitate those people who think they are faithful but aren't, or weren't sure if they were.

And yet, he doesn't sound like an evangelist nor a televangelist, but rather just a guy who's own fire for GOD wants everybody to know it in his own way, freely admitting he had made lots of sinful choices before Getting Right With GOD. It's a refreshing honesty, or maybe it sounds fresh because we're sitting so close to it. It's GOD straight up in my face, undiluted, unhindered by what others would call a safe distance or an indoor voice.

As he winds down his sermon, he invites us again to pray with him, charismatically and to have our own conversations with GOD, especially if we feel we have unfinished business with HIM.

"And if you wish to come up here," he said, "the altar is open."

"Do you want to reaffirm?" Pastor Leonard's wife says.

Madame and I turn to each other. We didn't need to say a word.

Seconds later we kneel at that altar built for two, Madame in her plaid dress, me in my kilt, hands folded, heads bowed, Pastor Leonard singing with all his might as he plays the piano, his wife praying with exaltation and encouraging us to speak up so GOD could hear us. The tissue waits for us, but we won't need it.

The only things I can ask of GOD in that moment is for HIM to forgive me, to use me, to guide me. That's all I can see from where I kneel. Anything else seems self-serving in that moment, surrounded by strangers praying for us, not minding our clothes. It washes over me like a second baptism. I can tell Madame is hungry for it. She needs it. I need it.

The two women and the child leave shortly after the service. I can't tell if they've learned anything or made any connection with their MAKER, but Madame and I stay and talk with our newfound pastoral friends for what seems like half an hour as we share our lives and our love of history, particularly Scottish history on this day.

Eventually Madame and I climb back into the car.

"Remember what I told you?" I say. "GOD guided us here for a reason."

The reason stood clear: A church is not merely a building, but a group of people gathered in GOD's name. It's not about the pulpit or anything else up front, but the effort we put into understanding what GOD is trying to say to us, and the willingness of people to take up the mission of helping us along the way.

EPILOGUE: Sadly, the little storefront church is gone now. I have not been able to find Pastor Leonard or his wife, but I am sure GOD is taking care of them and leading them on to the next missionary assignment.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Everybody Wants A Piece Of The Action

Reel To Reel: American Hustle

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro (cameo)
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong language, brief spurts of violence, several scenes of sexuality or near-sex with only partial nudity

American Hustle is a darkly comic extravaganza where everybody's angling to get someplace better by nearly any means possible. But mainly, it's about two budding con artists in the late 1970's trying to pull off the biggest job of their lives, with the feds, the mob, and their lovers hovering around them. And yes, they flaunt those tacky disco outfits, the ones people can't believe were once so chic.

Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) owns a chain of dry-cleaning stores in New York City, but through years of acquired street smarts, he's making his real money fencing pilfered artwork and running a loan scam. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Adams), an ex-stripper who's hustled her way into Cosmopolitan magazine and has serious acting chops. They fall in love, but when Rosenfeld nearly blows up their romance in a moment of honesty about his finance racket, Prosser comes back to him with an angle of her own. She poses as Lady Edith Greensly, a dignified English woman with banking connections.

The two of them form a mutually beneficial partnership to shake money out of desperate people until they get caught hustling undercover FBI agent Richie DeMaso (Cooper). The agent offers Rosenfeld and his lady a deal to save their hides: help the feds take down financial fraudsters. Irving comes up with a sting involving a fake sheik to front money for bogus investments. Agent DeMaso's aspirations soon grow bigger when he finds out he can potentially bust politicians and even a mob kingpin.

As the scheme grows bigger, egos inflate, and the danger level rises as Rosenfeld and Prosser's relationship sours. DeMaso develops the hots for the English lady who's going to help him become an FBI star. Irving seems to be on the losing end, setting things up to see them spiral out of control, endangering his adopted son and his estranged loose-cannon wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) -- who could blow the whole operation.

Irving doesn't seem like a con man to us. He's more of a beleaguered businessman trying to work his way out of a bad deal without losing his leisure suit. Irv ends up befriending one of his marks, Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner), a New Jersey pol who has a big heart but needs developers and their money to get Atlantic City's newly-approved gaming industry rolling. Sydney is the more dangerous hustler, a casual seductress who leaves you unsure if she's playing you, even as she describes how she plans to play other people. Agent DeMaso is the pitiful soul, living in a run-down apartment with his dotty mother and a token fiancee while secretly wearing curlers to keep his hair in that hip 70's do. Robert De Nero even makes a short but memorable appearance in a key scene.

This picture kept reminding me of Martin Scorsese's Casino, with its multiple narrative tracks, its tangled web of criminals and love interests, and a world we know is going to come crashing down. But whereas Casino gets more frenetic as the film wears on, American Hustle remembers to breathe and let its compelling characters be compelling. Bale says much of the film was improvised, giving it freshness and energy. I didn't spot a weak performance anywhere.

The movie is loosely based on Abscam, the FBI sting which enlisted the help of a convicted con artist to snare a U.S. senator and several congressmen on bribery charges in the late 1970's. As originally scripted, the picture stuck closer to the true-life characters, but director David O. Russell smartly realized it wouldn't be as fun. He re-wrote it to crank up the intrigue and the danger levels, and it works as an ensemble caper film. Only this isn't about a con, but people trying to con themselves into thinking they can get what they want, any way they can.

One last note: those of you in Southern Arizona, be watching for a line from the fake sheik in this film. You'll know it when you hear it. And it might just have you applauding like several in the audience did when they heard it, myself included.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Fear And Loathing In Panem

Reel To Reel: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mostly bloodless gladiator-style competition, mild language, some mildly suggestive scenes including a woman stripping off her dress in an elevator in front of two people without you seeing the naughty bits, which begs that question, "Was this trip really necessary?"

Admit it. You want to see Effie Trinket (Banks), that handler whom taste forgot, thrown into the bloodsport death match of Suzanne Collins' novels instead of the innocent children who are "reaped" to serve the tradition of a corrupt regime. Let's see those frilly ruffles, styled hair, and lip gloss save her egregious bouffancy. Oh, but it's not to be, at least not yet.

The seeds are there, though, and that's primarily what the second edition of The Hunger Games trilogy is, seeds. The film is a continuation of its blockbuster prequel while planting for the conclusion. It's a two-hour, twenty-six minute transitory movie that plays like a loose remix of the original with a few new twists here and there.

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are on a victory tour through the districts of Panem after winning the 74th Hunger Games in an unexpected display of love -- or is it defiance? President Snow (Sutherland) thinks its the latter, and he warns Everdeen that if she really loves Peeta, she better prove it or her family will pay. Katniss and Peeta go through with the charade, but Kat still has a thing for Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth). But all's fair in love and war. Riots are already breaking out in some districts. Katniss soon realizes she has touched off the start of a rebellion against the ruling elite when they go off-script in a speech and a man is beaten in front of her.

The Capitol rulers step up the heat against insurrection as only they know how to do. More beatings. More crackdowns. That'll solve everything. And still the games go on, with new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) stepping in for the man who, let us say, took a permanent leave of absence. Heavensbee has President Snow's ear, and he knows a few things about PR. He suggests a twist in the 75th games, known as the "quarter-quell:" instead of reaping tributes from the general citizenry, why not have an all-star competition drawn from previous winners? We immediately know what that means. Just when Katniss and Peeta thought they were out, they're sucked in again, back to the arena and the reality that they might not make it out.

I will say this again: My chief problem with the Hunger Games universe is understanding how the grossly hedonistic, tackily-dressed citizenry of the Capitol could've won the war that put them in charge. I gather the current generation didn't have to actually fight that war, but I think of that line from Sheriff Buford T. Justice in Smokey And The Bandit: "There is no way, son, that you could've come from my genes." Consider, also, President Snow, who wouldn't have a lick of intimidatory power if he didn't control gangs of thugs. By himself, he has as much menace as a miniature Schnauzer.

Getting beyond that, Catching Fire is two fighters punching for range before mixing it up. Both the state and the germinating rebellion are figuring out what they can do, and we're watching them from both corners. This means the movie drags at times. You won't hear people complaining, though, because part of the Hunger Games' appeal is to get caught up in the universe and its parallels to the corruption in our own. While this second installment is not overtly political, we'll be snarking about one-percenters, elitism and the working class. And we'll come up with some ways we want to see Effie offed in the finale.