Film: The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Scorsese’s latest film may be brash, sexist, drug-addled and reckless – but don’t hold that against it

-Kathryn Bromwich

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Scene one: a raucous office party culminates in a midget-throwing competition. Scene two: Leonardo DiCaprio blows cocaine into a prostitute’s arse. We couldn’t be further away from Martin Scorsese’s last film Hugo, a gentle, whimsical paean to early cinema’s Georges Méliès. Eventually cut to under three hours after a tortuous development process marked by funding problems, this film about excess examines why the stock market went wrong.

It turns out, it went wrong in a haze of orgies, yachts and cocaine. DiCaprio looks as if he was born to play the slick, charming and morally repulsive stockbroker Jordan Belfort, on whose memoir the film is based. Gross-out comedy star Jonah Hill’s slapstick talents work surprisingly well alongside the acting heavyweight as his fun-loving business partner Donnie Azoff. The duo swing from frenzied “Greed is good” speeches reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko to the drug-crazed antics of 80’s stoners Bill & Ted, including a memorable scene where they writhe around in a Quaalude-induced stupor.

The supporting cast go to town on the “sleazy banker” roles: Jean Dujardin is deliciously seedy as a corrupt Swiss banker, and Matthew McConaughey delivers a seven-minute performance of borderline-insane virile overload. In this testosterone-fuelled world, female characters are confined to the binary roles of “hot babe” and “nagging wife”, occasionally combining the two functions.

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Film: Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)

Vodka martini with a dash of bitters… Blanchett’s tour de force as brittle, flawed Jasmine is a tragicomic delight

-Kathryn Bromwich

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Ah, the Woody Allen comeback: we get a new one every year. He’s back on form, the crowds cry. It’s his best since Hannah and her Sisters, critics declaim. It invariably isn’t. But there’s always the hope that this time, maybe, it’ll be different.

And this time it is. Woody has finally abandoned his InterRailing holiday and rose-tinted view of Europe and returned to the US. But instead of the usual grey Manhattan, we meet Jasmine as she’s flying over to golden San Francisco.

Cate Blanchett, a first-time collaborator for Allen, plays Jasmine, who is recovering from the arrest and suicide of her Bernie Madoff-like property tycoon husband Hal (Alec Baldwin in an inspired bit of casting). Jasmine has to join her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in her New Age flat, alongside Ginger’s muscular salt-of-the-earth boyfriend Chili wearing Brando-esque wife beaters.

It’s a bravura performance from Blanchett, veering effortlessly from deliciously awful Upper East Side snob to distraught grieving widow. She’s got the mannerisms and voice modulations, but she’s also got the gravitas. As her carefully-constructed delusions come crashing down around her, we simultaneously laugh at her and pity her.

There are some problems: Woody Allen evidently hasn’t met a working class person since 1975, and the portrayal of mental illness as comedy is not unproblematic. But the one-liners (“Who do I have to sleep with around here to get a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon?”) and Blanchett’s tragicomic turn make this one of Allen’s finest in a long time.


Film: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

‘Epic’ does not even begin to describe this masterpiece of blood, sand, and messianic delusions, majestically restored for its 50th anniversary

-Kathryn Bromwich

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With the hair and ego of Bowie in the late ’70s and the fashion sense of an exotic prince, T.E. Lawrence is one of the few individuals in history worthy of a film as glorious as this. Re-released after a 4K digital restoration, the 7-Oscar winning Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen is a breath-taking experience.

Based on a true story, the film follows eccentric British officer Lawrence in his quest to single-handedly conduct the Arab Revolt of 1916-8 against the Ottoman Turk invasion and to create a unified Arab state. Starting with Lawrence’s death in 1935 in a motorcycle accident and then retracing his career, we follow him in his unlikely rise among military ranks.

Lawrence’s aristocratic origins come through in his calm confidence and classical accomplishments: he is educated in literature, languages and the arts, and is coolly self-composed at all times. However, he is unpunctual, insouciant (‘I may look as if I am being disrespectful, but it is just my face, I can assure you’) and generally a bit of a maverick. Yet, he is a frighteningly clever war strategist: he congregates an army out of nowhere and leads them to an unthought-of victory at Aqaba. His officials, though wary of his unconventional methods, recognise his achievements and grudgingly promote him to Major and then to Colonel.

Lawrence is fascinated by Arabic culture, winning over the admiration of the locals with his ability to ride camels through deserts with hardly any water, willingness to try local foods and customs, and the fetching way he wears his exotic robes. ‘Where are you from?,’ he is asked. ‘Oxfordshire. It is a place of fat people.’ ‘You are not fat?’ ‘No,’ he replies, ‘I am different.’

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Film: L’eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

Antonioni’s film about stockbrokers and urban alienation is like its protagonists: baffling, beautiful, and strangely clinical

-Kathryn Bromwich

l'eclisse

Apart for the admittedly problematic blackface scene, Antonioni’s L’eclisse has largely withstood the test of time. The BFI recently revisited some of the Italian director’s other films, including L’avventura (1960) and Red Desert (1964), yet L’eclisse would appear to be a more timely choice. This exploration of the stock market, juxtaposed with the characters’ ennui and solipsism, strikes a chord with the disillusionment rife in a post-Lehman Brothers economic climate.

Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti stars as literary translator Vittoria, who at the start of the film breaks off a relationship with her academic, socialist boyfriend. Vittoria is like a modern-day Madame Bovary: well educated, elegant, and hopelessly bored. She is certainly enigmatic. Her thoughts and motivations are never fully explained, but we are left to understand that she is full of restlessness and joie de vivre (she is flown about in a small private plane, recklessly demanding to be flown into a cloud), and that she is unhappy in a middle-class sort of way (she is fascinated by Africa, where she assumes life must be simple and easy).

Just before the film disappears into an insufferable cloud of narcissistic first-world problems, Vittoria makes an unexpected encounter. The film follows her as she visits her mother at the Rome Stock Exchange, effectively gambling away her money after the death of her husband. There, she meets an uncannily young-looking Alain Delon, playing the fast-living, no-nonsense City boy Piero.

Everything about him should make us, and Vittoria, recoil in horror. Piero is loud and rude, and shrugs off clients who have lost millions because of him with a breezy “the stocks go up, and they go down, what can I do about it?” He can’t sit still for a second, is an amateur philanderer, and has a penchant for blondes. The stock market is presented as being like a boxing ring, with the investors shouting, squabbling and cheating their way to affluence. Like gambling, it attracts lonely and vulnerable people, not least of which is Vittoria’s mother.

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Film: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

This momentarily-entertaining piece of fluff will leave you feeling dirty and ashamed. But then again, most fun things do…

-Kathryn Bromwich

If the Twilight saga were a pizza, it would be a Domino’s. Not any particular flavour: whether it is Pepperoni Passion, Mighty Meat or Vegetarian Supreme, it all tastes exactly the same. The Twilight films, similarly, display vestiges of an unnecessarily complicated plot, but true fans know what really matters.

And that is Edward Cullen. Dreamy, brooding Edward Cullen, who listens to Debussy and who the other girls at school find ‘totally gorgeous, obviously’. He is also really wealthy. Oh, and since girls like diamonds, his skin sparkles in the sunlight. Or, depending on your taste, what really matters is buff Jacob, whose aversion to wearing a shirt is matched only by his total lack of a personality.

The first film lured in the legions of fans, with its relatable high school plot about sulky teenagers seduced by dangerous men: it was stupid as hell, but hilariously so (Edward: “And so, the lion fell in love with the lamb”, Bella: “What a stupid lamb”, Edward: “What a sick, masochistic lion”). Director Catherine Hardwicke managed to give it some Thirteen-style gravitas, and it was even, incredibly, critically lauded by the Guardian.

And then the plot went totally bonkers. Highlights included a shot of Bella sulking in a chair for a full year following an apparent break-up with Edward; a tense scene in a tent in which the ‘plot’ demands that hot-blooded Jacob spoon Bella in front of her boyfriend; werewolves talking to each other in weird Batman voices; blood milkshakes; and the most disturbing Caesarean section ever to appear in a 12A.

The strangest thing is the weird insistence on marriage, babies, and opposition to non-marital sex. Nothing in the first film implies that jaded teenager Bella will turn into a married über-mum cooing at her baby within less than a year. A lot has been written about whether Bella is a good feminist role model or not, which perhaps imbues the saga with a significance it should not have. Yes, it is a film where the protagonist is a girl, but it is blatantly just a rather odd sexual fantasy of Stephenie Meyer’s, and as such should not be over-analysed. It also spectacularly fails the Bechdel Test.

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TV: Girls, HBO

Zeitgeisty and hipsterish as it may be, Girls is funny, self-deprecating and well-written

-Kathryn Bromwich

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Is it a witty revision of Sex and the City seen through Woody Allen’s thick-rimmed spectacles, or the over-hyped creation of an over-privileged girl? Many viewers will predictably side with James Franco’s preachy and humourless take on it.

Sure, men don’t come out of it well: revolting venture capitalists, substandard thespians unwilling to ‘compromise on their art’, nice-but-dim small-town boys, bland indie musicians, or sleazy dads having a mid-life crisis. And yes, the girls are bitchy, self-obsessed, and prone to falling out with one another. But what makes this show bearable is the fact that writer/director/creator/protagonist Lena Dunham knows this. Unlike most television shows, the girls are not presented as perfect role models of achievement, virtue and beauty: they are realistic, flawed and, yes, goddamn irritating.

Franco also speciously argues that Lena Dunham is not well-placed to write about or act as a struggling writer, seeing as she is (now) so successful. Yet, following this circuitous logic (in which he has presumably misunderstood the concepts of both ‘writing’ and ‘acting’), surely world-famous actor, Yale grad student and self-satisfied Renaissance Man Franco is in no position to judge a show aimed at directionless young people who are struggling to find their place in the world and, more prosaically, a job.

In a nutshell, the story follows four female protagonists who live in New York and occasionally have sex with men. There are, of course, similarities to Sex and the City: the atavistic figures of Writer, Uptight, Sex Goddess and Career Woman transform slightly into Writer, Uptight, Sex Goddess and Virgin. But the difference is that here, they are not going on and on about Manolo Blahniks and Roberto Cavalli in the same lobotomised and consumeristic fashion of Carrie & co. Instead of presenting an unfeasibly successful lifestyle to aspire to, these girls struggle to pay the rent, have bad sex with inappropriate men, throw tantrums, depend on their parents, and have badly paid jobs in unglamorous offices. In Britain this kind of TV is hardly a novelty, but in the US it is being hailed as nothing short of revolution.

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Film: Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)

As Werner Herzog goes face-to-face with convicted murderers, his latest documentary explores the death penalty, the hearts of psychopaths, and squirrels

-Kathryn Bromwich

“Tell me about your encounter with the squirrel.” In the opening scene of Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog’s apparently light-hearted question immediately digs deep into the heart of the film. The pastor being interviewed, up to then cheerful and full of platitudes, gradually crumbles and starts to cry. Although he can brake his car for a squirrel, he says, there is nothing he can do to stop the execution of the young man he is about to administer last rites to.

This is the latest in Herzog’s string of recent documentaries, and explores the issue of the death penalty in the United States. The choice seems almost too straightforwardly political for Herzog, whose preoccupations are usually more metaphysical and, well, recherché. However, Herzog is not only preoccupied with the question of whether or not the death penalty is immoral: he establishes early on that he is firmly against it. The film goes further, focusing on the disturbing impact of the execution on the individuals who actually have to perform it, the effect the murder has on the families, and, most importantly, what the motivations or reasons behind the crime could have been.

Herzog chooses a single, gruesome case to address the wider topic. Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, who were teenagers at the time, are accused of murdering a woman, her teenage son, and his friend. The woman had been baking cookies when she opened the door to them. The object of the crime, horrifically, was a joyride in the woman’s new red convertible. Herzog does not shy away from the futile and brutal nature of the offence, showing in painful detail precisely what happened. There is no doubt that the defendants are guilty, although both accuse the other and plead total innocence. Burkett is sentenced to life, Perry is sentenced to death.

Herzog aficionados will be familiar with his ability to find the weird and the uncanny in even the most normal circumstances. With this group of characters, who range from the simply grieving to the deeply disturbed, he finds a new level of strangeness. Despite his limited interview time with the defendants, Herzog’s penetrating questioning brings to light their most disconcerting characteristics. Both Burkett and Perry demonstrate cold, psychopathic qualities and subtle signs of mental illness; however, it is never clear whether this is a result of the long incarceration or the cause of it.

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