Films In Review • The Wolf of Wall Street & Saving Mr. Banks

    icon Jan 09, 2014
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The Wolf of Wall Street

I must admit it has taken me awhile to appreciate the thespian talents of Leonardo DiCaprio and to understand his working relationship with filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

When Scorsese first started using DiCaprio as a lead actor in 2002 on the film Gangs of New York, and later in Aviator and The Departed, DiCaprio didn’t seem to have quite the same star power and acting chops as Scorsese’s earlier favorite actor Robert DiNiro, who starred in such great films as Raging Bull and Goodfellas.

Slowly but surely I came around, sometime around the time of the DVD release of Scorsese’s Shutter Island, where DiCaprio shined as a detective investigating a missing inmate on an island prison. Shutter Island turned out to be one of my favorite movies and DiCaprio won me over.

So it comes as a great pleasure that The Wolf of Wall Street is DiCaprio’s most outrageous acting performance yet. DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, who rode high and proud while running one of the most flamboyant stock brokerage firms ever to hit Wall Street.

Belfort’s Stratton Oakmont was one of the most egregious securities fraud companies during the Go Go Nineties. And Belfort soon became addicted to drugs (primarily cocaine) and prostitutes which he came to feel were his rewards for the multi-million dollar profits his firm racked up, violating several dozen securities and exchange laws.

During the Seventies Scorsese lived a high life like Belfort and he seems to have been the perfect director to bring Belfort’s highflying lifestyle and excesses to the screen. DiCaprio, no stranger to the fast lane himself, is perfectly suited to portray the self-destructive habits that later bring him down and land him in federal prison (albeit a country club prison, because the rich are so very different than you and me).

Working from a script adapted by Boardwalk Empire creator Terrance Winter from the memoir by Belfort, Scorsese paints a sordid picture of the road to ruin that Belfort road so high and so far. And the movie portrays more sex and drug use than any movie since Oliver Stone’s Scarface.

What is most satisfying for moviegoers is how truly funny the film manages to be. DiCaprio is the narrator of the film and it appears that Belfort managed to realize after the fact just how crazy his life was before he was caught and shipped off to prison. Apparently Quaaludes were Belfort’s second favorite drug, and one scene shows him so stoned he can hardly move let alone form a coherent sentence. While the scene is one of the funniest in the film, it also vividly portrays just how lost in debauchery Belfort’s life had become.

Jonah Hill is terrific in a supporting role as Belfort’s main right hand man, Donny Azhoff, who meets Belfort early in his career as a junk bond dealer. When he learns how much money Belfort earns he instantly quits his job in order to hitch his wagon to Belfort’s star.

Much criticism has been leveled at the film for not portraying the very real and sizable damage Stratton Oakmont caused to its investors, and there is a legitimate point to be made there. Still, that was not the goal of Scorsese and DiCaprio, who also served as producers of the film. Their goal was to tell Belfort’s story, warts and all - and when the credits roll, no one should leave the theater thinking that Belfort was anything but a drug and sex crazed thief.

 Saving Mr. Banks

Is there anyone who hasn’t seen and loved the Disney classic Mary Poppins? Saving Mr. Banks is a chance for Disney to tell the story of how the beloved children’s classic (written by P. L. Travers) was made into a box office and critical smash starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

Early on in the film it is made clear that Travers, portrayed with prim and proper stuffiness by Emma Thompson, was none too keen on the idea of adapting her novel for the big screen. And she certainly was not eager to have songs and cartoons added by the Walt Disney studio.  But, alas, her agent tells her she needs the money, so off she goes to Hollywood, ready to fight tooth and nail to preserve her vision of Mary Poppins.

But the making of Mary Poppins by Disney and company is only half of the story told in Saving Mr. Banks. It turns out that much of Mary Poppins was based on the hard childhood of Travers, who was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia in 1899.

Her father was an alcoholic banker, who struggled to make a good life for his wife and children. But alas, his drinking got the better of him and the tragic backstory of the film makes for a bittersweet counterpoint to the lighter and merrier portrayal of Disney and his writers attempting to win over Travers to their vision of a musical comedy.

Colin Farrell plays Travers' father, Travers Robert Goff, and his memory inspired Travers to reimagine her childhood with a magical flying nanny to make everything right. She so adored her father that later in life she adopted his first name as her pen name. Part of her battle with Disney (played with lighthearted glee by a genial Tom Hanks) was over the portrayal of the father in the story as stuffy and hard hearted.

“Why does he have to be so mean?” she cries out at one point.

The movie alternates between flashbacks of Travers’ childhood and the struggles of the Disney team to get Travers to accept their changes to her cherished story, and it is a delight to see the songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) working to create such classic songs as “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”. Most viewers will leave the theater with a smile and humming those Disney classic songs.

Still, to be clear, Saving Mr. Banks is not a film for children who love Mary Poppins. It’s a sometimes heartbreakingly tragic tale of how art redeems pain, and a glimpse behind the curtain at the making of Disney magic.

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