Saturday, March 7, 2015

Retro Trio: Take Shelter (2011); The Wolf of Wall Street (2014); The Negotiator (1998)

Take Shelter (2011)

Director: Jeff Nichols

This is a great movie. Unsettling, to be sure, but great.

Take Shelter follows Curtis (Michael Shannon), a family man in the mid-west who starts having terrifying dreams at night and apocalyptic visions while awake. He becomes convinced that a menacing storm of Biblical proportions is coming, and that he must make preparations in order to save his wife and young daughter, at any cost.

What we soon come to realize is that paranoid schizophrenia runs in Curtis's family, Curtis does realize this and even does some research, but he is too terrified to completely admit the possibility to himself or his family. The result is anguished confusion and confrontation with those he loves the most.

The whole movie is outstanding drama told from the unusual perspective of a person in the earliest stages of severe mental illness. Director Jeff Nichols uses sparing but extremely powerful special effects to allow us viewers to experience the terrible visions that haunt Curtis, making him a very sympathetic character. The acting is excellent, most notably by Michael Shannon as the caring husband and father who slowly becomes an unintentional menace, and Jessica Chastain is great as his caring but increasingly-frightened wife.

It's not an "enjoyable" movie, but it's one that I would recommend to everyone. It is one of those rare films that can give us a glimpse into the dark and terrible places that people can find themselves falling into, through no fault of their own.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

Director: Martin Scorsese

This was the second time I watched this one. My feelings are about the same - it's entertaining enough, but belabors its points and becomes rather tiresome, if not highly disturbing, by the end of its nearly 3-hour running time.

This image says a lot. The full film will test just how much
debauchery you can take while dealing with a smug, smirking
Jordan Belfort.
It follows the real-life exploits of Jordan Belfort, a modern personification of avarice and hedonism in its purest form. Belfort was an ambitious stockbroker from Queens, New York, who spent the better part of the 1990s pulling highly illegal stock deals to fatten his pockets to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. He tirelessly put his considerable skills as a salesman and motivator to recruit like-minded locals into his own brokerage firm, which quickly grew into a juggernaut by the mid-90s. Along the way, Belfort and all of his cronies indulged in every manner of drug intake, conspicuous consumption, and sexual deviancy that they could dream up.

The movie can be quite amusing at times, which is a hallmark of Martin Scorsese's more modern "East Coast Crime Movies." We see plenty of wretched people doing horrible things, but presented in often hilarious ways. As with Scorsese's 1995 film Casino, we also get to witness the ascent and descent of highly driven individuals, giving Wolf the same appeal of any similar construction/destruction tales.

However, the joke tends to wear off at roughly the 2-hour mark. At that point, I found that I didn't need to see yet another example of how degenerate Belfort or his followers had become, and it was evidently clear that he was a disgusting human being. The film continues to try and present most of the debauchery as humorous, but when you realize that these were real things done by real people, it all becomes simply reprehensible.

Great acting and great direction go a long way to making the movie mostly enjoyable, but it will never hold the place in cinema history that Scorsese's earlier movies have.

The Negotiator (1998)

Director; F. Gary Gray

This is a really solid movie, and I'm not completely sure why it has always flown so far under the radar. I have a few guesses, though.

The nutshell summary is that Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is an expert hostage negotiator for the Chicago police department. Through a nefarious scheme, Roman is framed for the murder of a fellow police officer and large-scale embezzlement of police funds. A desperate Roman takes an Internal Affairs officer, whom he suspects is involved in the plot, hostage along with a few others. This sets up a hostage chess match between Roman and outside negotiator Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), who takes an intelligent and unbiased approach to the whole affair.

The Negotiator has every element that an action/thriller movie fan could want: a taught, high-stakes premise and plot. Amazing acting. Outstanding direction and cinematography. All of the ingredients are there for a box office hit, yet the movie was a financial bust despite strong critical reception. I have a few theories as to why, and most of them are disturbing.

One reason may be that several massively popular movies were released in the weeks just prior to The Negotiator. Saving Private Ryan, There's Something About Mary, and Armageddon all came out within three weeks earlier, to huge success. The most upsetting is, of course, Armageddon, one of the best/worst examples of Michael Bay's insulting film making. This and the others likely swallowed up much of The Negotiator's potential audience.

The more disturbing possibility is that wider audiences simply were unwilling to accept an African-American in the lead role of an action thriller. Samuel L. Jackson had already cemented his place as a fantastic actor, having been nominated for an Academy Award for Pulp Fiction and been in other solid movies like Losing Isaiah, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Jackie Brown, and more. Still, people didn't seem interested in seeing him completely take the reins. I can't shake the feeling that, if an established white actor like Bruce Willis or Russell Crowe had played the part of Roman, the movie would have been a blockbuster. It doesn't speak well of us as moviegoers if this is, indeed, the case.

I wish I hadn't waited so long to see this one, but I'm glad to have finally remedied this omission.