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White Collar Kingpins and Wall Street Corner Boys

Posted: 14/09/2013 10:12

Every fall, summer blockbuster season gives way to award season when studios roll out their much anticipated Oscar bait. It's their best shot at reeling-in the critics and getting their foot through the Academy Award door. But there's more to it than just the industry patting itself on the back. One Oscar can pump up a film's revenue multiple times over. It's like an unofficial stamp guaranteeing higher payouts for the main cast and crew in their forthcoming films.

It's all about raking in the money!

Interestingly enough, that's what this year's top two contenders - Ridley Scott's The Counselor (October 25) and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (November 15) - seem to be about. Making quick money. Both are set for a textbook awards-season-run and will be competing for the same audience.

Scorsese's latest The Wolf of Wall Street has Leonardo DiCaprio playing real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort, the founder of a 90's pump-and-dump firm Stratton Oakmont. The film follows his drug and sex addicted, multi-million meteoric rise in the 1980's to his federal conviction and life ban from the securities business in 1994.Based on Belfort's memoir, the screenplay is written by Terence Winter (The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire). Combined with the Scorsese and Dicaprio duo, this black comedy promises to do for Wall Street what Goodfellas did for gangsters, though Scorsese refutes these claims. According to him,

"the parallel between the Mafia and Wall Street works only to the extent that they're all interested in making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible."
Unlike Goodfellas, the dark comedy here isn't created by external violence; it's shown through Belfort's breathtaking downfall. Ironically, the real Belfort is paying back the $100 million he had swindled from clients through the money he makes through his two autobiographies and via his work as - believe it or not - a public speaker on the 'evils of greed and importance of ethics'. According to him his life is a cautionary tale and Hollywood seems to agree.

Scorsese almost always picks alienated and morally compromised characters in search of some sort of modern day redemption, however small or insignificant. This is true of all three of his most talked about movies - Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. And all of these three central characters are based in New York. Just like Belfort. Scorsese can't seem to decide whether he's attracted or repulsed by the violence that pervades his work. And as his audience, we can't seem to either. Many won't see Belfort's Gatsbyesque excess and subsequent collapse as a cautionary tale but as something to emulate without the getting caught bit. Despite the amount of brutality, his every scene is cinematic and apt. If required, his camera work takes the back seat. His long time editor (since Raging Bull), Thelma Schoonmaker's contribution gives his vision the proper shape. Once when asked how 'such a nice woman could edit Scorsese's violent gangster movies', she replied with a smile, "Ah, but they aren't violent until I've edited them".

The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, from a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), follows a lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who thinks he can dabble in the drug trafficking business, make a quick buck and jump right out. But nothing goes as planned in a Scott movie. The drugs go missing, a courier is beheaded and the blame is passed around like a last minute project on a Friday evening. The thriller is already being touted as the next Carlito's Way. A recently released excerpt from McCarthy's screenplay reads like a Nicholas Winding Refn film (Drive, Only God Forgives, Bronson) with long periods of quiet punctuated by sudden outbursts of violence. The author's sparse prose mixed with Scott's vibrant imagery offers much promise. The film features a ridiculously envious ensemble which includes Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt and a cheetah tattoo wielding Cameron Diaz. There might be brilliant performances in store but the risk with having such a well known cast is that it could easily turn the movie into a high budget competition for profile. It's pretty much a 'hit or miss'.

Scott's films don't cohere the same way as Scorsese's do. Maybe it has something to do with his early career making TV commercials. From Chanel to his famous Apple computers' Orwellian spot, he's made ads for many brands. Similarly, his movies too focus on vastly different subjects and themes, with only his distinct style holding his films together. He's known for his arresting visual style, meticulous production design and innovative, atmospheric lighting, which has influenced many later directors. In fact, his trademark slow pacing, seen in 'Blade Runner', led to LA Times critic Sheila Benson rechristening it 'Blade Crawler'. His need to improve his films further even after their release earned him the nickname 'the father of director's cut'.

Both the films have been a long time coming. 'The Wolf of Wall Street' spent a long time on the shelf after Scorsese initially turned it down. In fact even Scott was approached to direct it at one point in time. This is Scorsese's and Dicaprio's fifth film together and seeing how the director was awarded the golden statue in his mid 60's, it would be interesting to set a wager on whether Leo will share the same fate. On the other hand, The Counselor's shooting was put on hold due to Scott's brother, Tony Scott's suicide last year. But finally it's complete and both Scott and Pitt seem eager for their own award after various past nominations.

Post-financial crisis, a white-collar piranha makes for a more compelling villain than murdering sociopaths from other planets. The real mobsters are the ones inside the swanky buildings, walking the corridors of power. Like Bardem's character patiently explains to Fassbender,

"I always thought a law degree was a license to steal but you really haven't capitalized on it".
These films might be competing with each other but at the end of the day, hopefully it's a win for the audience.

 

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