Crime

The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest from that freewheeling observer of American crime, Martin Scorsese, can be viewed as a worthy companion piece to the director’s 1990 gangster saga, Goodfellas. Both movies deal with criminal underworlds–Goodfellas with the Italian mafia, Wolf of Wall Street with our financial world’s sub-culture of sleazy stock traders. Both movies’ protagonists come at their respective milieus as outsiders with starry-eyed ambitions: While Henry Hill ingratiates himself into the local mafia so he can bask in the glories of gangsterdom, Wolf’s Jordan Belfort (Leornardo DiCaprio) aspires to become one of the conniving stock traders surrounding him when he’s hired at a successful Wall Street firm. Both Goodfellas and Wolf deal with the inner workings and relationships of crime syndicates and, running parallel to this, are themes of marriage, career, ambition and loyalties within their respective organizations. These movies together gives you the sum total of Scorsese’s stylistic brilliance and his barbed social consciousness.

Absorbing performances, stylistic wit, a lacerating and subversive sense of humor: The Wolf of Wall Street delivers all of these in spades, more so perhaps than Goodfellas. It belongs in the top half-dozen of the director’s films and could’ve been his best film ever if only the material had been shorn of 30 minutes of bulk. As it is, Scorsese drags out and indulges every possible story beat and subplot such that it belabors the whole enterprise. There are probably a few too many office orgies (we get the point after the first few that these guys are unchecked hedonists), several scenes stretch out far too long because Scorsese can’t bear to dispose of a punchline or gag. An awkward plot line involving an elderly British relation whom Belfort uses as a front for his offshore accounts feels tacked on and pointless. Had the director and screenwriter, Terence Winter (adapting Belfort’s memoir), taken another pass at their script with an eye for narrative economy, Wolf would’ve been the lean, mean machine befitting the predatory metaphor of its title.

It’s to the credit of the performers, to the energy of Scorsese’s direction and to the inherent appeal of this subject matter that Wolf is one of the year’s most entertaining films. Yes, the jokes are often in poor taste, the content is scandalous, out of control, over the top. The resulting comedy is on the order of last summer’s inappropriately hilarious post-apocalyptic laugh-fest This Is the End. This is This Is the End done up as a cautionary example of white-collar hubris. The two movies share the comic spirit of Jonah Hill, the selfless buffoon who’s never a met a joke he didn’t mind being the butt of, and that’s what makes him a crucial presence in cinematic lampoons of social archetypes.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy about a bunch of clowns, really, who get away with terrible things. No, not a bunch of  clowns, but a tribal clan as, every so often, Belfort will lead his trading floor through primitive rounds of whoops and howls that paint these Wall Street con-men (and -women) as cannibalistic savages. Some have wondered how it is that Belfort survived those years of defrauding investors, of whoring, partying and gluttonous drug-taking, but the more apt question is: How did he not harm even more people? Leonardo DiCpario delivers one of his finest performances in a role that’s at once tragic and farcical. At times, he’s channeling Ray Liotta (as Goodfellas’ Henry Hill). He’s got the attitude, the swagger, but this man is too unhinged to take seriously what with the helicopters, the yachts, the MTV-Spring Break lifestyle, the parade of strippers and prostitutes. His life is an orgy of excess; disturbing, yes, but certainly more fun to watch than poor Spider getting blown away in that seedy bar in Goodfellas.

Keeping up with DiCaprio is a crackerjack cast that includes the aforementioned Hill, sporting Chiclets-like teeth, as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s business partner, and the stunning Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort’s trophy wife, Naomi. As Henry Hill and his crew rose from trafficking in stolen cigarettes to robbing Lufthansa airlines, so Belfort, Azoff and friends rise from trading penny stocks to gullible postmen to opening a dazzlingly successful trade firm on Wall Street. As Henry and his wife Karen sparred over Henry’s affairs, so Belfort and Naomi bicker over the same. But, as in Goodfellas, the wives are soon on-board with their husbands’ back-room profiteering, leading to the long, delirious downward spiral of drug-addled insanity that follows. This is when Scorsese is in peak form: Depicting the alternately frightening and comical choices that his increasingly compromised characters make.

Functioning as their counterpoint here is FBI Agent Denham, played by the always-excellent Kyle Chandler. As the modest, middle-class law enforcer, Denham is the moral heart of the film. Scorsese is careful not to make Denham too square though; the man has regrets of giving up past dreams for a police career, and he wonders fleetingly if he’s truly the schmuck that Belfort makes him out to be. While riding home in a subway, Denham stares out at his fellow commuters: The hard-luck, but honest 99%, young and old, for whom he does what he does. In their pasts, Denham and Belfort had come to the same crossroads. But where Belfort chose selfish gains, Denham chose to ride the subway.

Remember the “May 11, 1980″ sequence in Goodfellas that took audiences through that dizzying final day in Henry’s criminal life, when he has to accomplish several things (selling guns, preparing heroin, making the perfect tomato sauce) while a police chopper whizzes overhead? The problem with Wolf of Wall Street is that there are too many sequences pitched on that same frazzled wavelength; there are too many “May 11, 1980s” here. Thankfully, DiCaprio is that peculiar kind of star who can make even the most thoroughly dislikable characters likable. His confidence, charm and underlying sincerity wins our trust, so we don’t mind following him from one script indulgence to another. Likewise, Scorsese is too dazzling a filmmaker–Wolf of Wall Street’s comic playfulness, its endless invention recalls Fellini at his most daring– and this is his headiest whirl yet through his patented universe of compromised morality.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley

American Hustle

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The best scene in the spazzy, long-winded, 1970s-set shaggy-dog story American Hustle is the opening one, in which the paunch-bellied grifter Irving Rosenfeld gets gussied up in a hotel room ahead of a crucial con job. Writer-director David O. Russell lingers over the details of his dressing process, his clothing and accessories, leading to the coup de grâce: the toupee and combover. Irving’s fussing over his hair-do is emblematic of everything right and wrong with Russell’s confidence-game comedy-thriller. First, there’s the hair itself: luxurious on the back and sides where it still grows naturally but, on the top where it doesn’t are lanks of hair layered under and over the tribble-like hairpiece that Irving oh-so-carefully cements into place square atop his crown. This shot holds for quite a while as Christian Bale, in a terrific tragicomic performance, arranges and adjusts his precious combover, perfecting this sad illusion offset by his beard and his use of ’70s-style aviator sunglasses.

As an exercise in constructing a comic character, this is wonderful stuff. We’re awed, appalled yet somehow drawn to Irving, as detailed by Russell and played by Bale. The dynamic of period details and performance is what works so well in Hustle, but the film’s comic virtuosity is surrounded by an unrelenting tornado of visual style that eventually serves as a smokescreen to cover up the fact that there isn’t much of a story here.

When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) blows the lid off the fraudulent lending operation run by Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, who gamely commands the film’s dramatic and comedic tones), he gives them an ultimatum: Do time or help him stage an elaborate sting to bring down corrupt New Jersey politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the effusive mayor of Camden. Irving and Sydney take Richie up on it, developing a scheme they know will reel in Polito: They tell the mayor that a Middle Eastern sheik is ready to invest hundreds of millions into revamping the down-in-the-dumps Atlantic City into a modern gambling mecca. They dupe Polito, but soon Irving and Sydney finds themselves in over their heads when the mafia also wants in on the action. This all makes the cocky, career-driven Richie giddy with delusions of his own greatness, especially after several politicians take bribes to help speed up what they believe to be a huge windfall for their state.

Irving and Sydney, meanwhile, find their relationship under strain. This is really the story struggling for breath at the heart of the film’s smothering style and con-game theatrics: A love triangle in which the plucky survivalist Sydney leverages her sex appeal vis-à-vis the horny, crazy-for-love Richie to gain the loyalty of the sad-sack Irving, really the love of her life but who’s married (unhappily) to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), his crackpot Jersey-wife who’s in turn using her son as leverage to keep Irving from divorcing her. The chemistry that this triangle sparks among all the above makes it fun to sift through their tacit deceptions and ulterior loyalties, and it’s where Russell approximates most successfully his gift for depicting how love and sex can trigger comedic anarchy.

On balance, the con game in Hustle, the real-life, so-called Abscam scandal, is a non-starter. A cameo by Robert De Niro as a seasoned mafioso is meant to instill suspense and fear, but it registers only as a gimmick of an aging star riffing on his on-screen legacy. And the actual sting in which Congressmen consent to take the bribes from Irving and company doesn’t read as a clever ruse to bring down bad guys; in legal terms, it’s only entrapment, a play that only a dunderhead like Richie would think is ingenious, but, in reality, is just pressuring people to make a bad choice for what they believe to be a good cause. The only legitimate sting in Hustle takes place over a couple of minutes toward the end, when Irving and Sydney attempt to pull out the rug from under Richie. But now it’s too little, too late.

By the end, more successful than any of the cons on-screen is the con Hustle plays on its audience, which has now sat through two hours of every ’70s hair and wardrobe cliche, an enjoyable but predictable 70s pop soundtrack and a camera that refuses to sit the hell still. There’s hardly a shot in this film that doesn’t involve the camera flying into or away from a character’s face, presumably to accentuate their drug-addled, anxiety-ridden vortex; the style becomes so repetitious that it soon becomes a lampoon of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and After Hours (both better films by a long shot). Once you’ve untangled the film’s style, which over-wraps the story–exactly as Irving’s combover shrouds the lie underneath–you’ve got a hollow shell of an enterprise, filled only by the hot air of homage, gimmicks and throwbacks. As the end credits roll, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

Grade: C
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Alessandro Nivola

Looper

Looper is among the cleverest, most skillfully crafted and entertaining sci-fi thrillers of the past 20 years. Writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the smart, savvy high-school-set noir Brick in 2005, opts for a cat-and-mouse action-movie with not the easiest gimmicks driving it: Time travel. Often raising more questions of narrative logic than the filmmakers’ originally intended — and which detract from the movie’s ultimate enjoyment — the time-travel gimmick can become more trouble than is worth for all concerned. But with its swift, sure-footed pacing, Johnson’s shrewd staging and framing, and pitch-perfect performances, Looper is so winning and absorbing that any plot holes and time-travel gaffes are easily overlooked.

It’s 2044, and there’s a new breed of criminal thriving in the mercenary underground: Loopers. These are killers hired to assassinate individuals from the future, sent back 30 years — from a time when time-travel has been invented and immediately banned — by a criminal syndicate commissioned to eliminate them. Apparently, disposing of dead bodies in the future is a tricky ordeal, so it’s a better bet to ship those you want to kill back in time and have the loopers do it for you.

Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper who’s made a killing — pun intended — at his profession who works for Abe (Jeff Daniels), a kingpin in the time-travel assassination business. Business is brisk, but a wrinkle appears when the loopers discover that more and more of their targets are older versions of themselves, shunted back 30 years from the future. It turns out that a nefarious figure, dubbed The Rainmaker, is tyrannizing the future, bringing governments to their knees, and one of The Rainmaker’s decrees is to eliminate every ex-looper still living.

It’s not long before Joe finds himself face-to-face with his future self, played by Bruce Willis — at his chiseled action-hero best. Unlike his previous targets, Willis isn’t going to go so easily; he escapes his assassination and sets off on a mission to hunt down and kill The Rainmaker — the sole cause of all his grievances, including the death of his future wife. Willis narrows down his targets to one of three possible suspects — all young boys — and, it’s at the home of one of them that Gordon-Levitt arrives, anticipating that Willis will soon show up. Watched over by a tough-as-nails, protective mother — played by the always-captivating Emily Blunt — the young boy (Pierce Gagnon) is alert, observant, and he possesses seismic telekinetic powers, enough to tip anyone off that he’s the boy Willis is after. The dramatic tension between Gordon-Levitt and Blunt earn the romantic sparks that ensue while the former’s growing bond with Blunt’s son is also richly layered with close scenes of the two. With Gordon-Levitt, determined to save his charge, and Willis, bent on erasing the evils of his past, on a collision course, the final third of Looper becomes a riveting example of how shrewd storytelling can hold audience sympathies with both its lead characters, despite their being in direct opposition with each other.

Gordon-Levitt and Willis play two versions of the same character, that is to say, Gordon-Levitt does an impression of Willis. And, as impressions go, it’s an incredible one, channeling Willis’s tics and mannerisms to a tee. But it’s also performance that stands on its own — Joe is a tough, business-as-usual killer with a deference to his employers and with a cocky, assured sense of his future. All of that comes crashing to pieces when he slowly, surely falls for Blunt and vows to protect her son at all costs. Willis is commanding as always but now, showing his age and his wear-and-tear, he’s becoming our next Eastwood, especially since his on-screen persona — laconic, morally clear, and purposeful — is in line with Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Dirty Harry.

If Looper has a fault, it’s that it has too many moving parts, too many plot lines weaving together motives and counter-motives to keep track of. For plot-driven sci-fi thrillers, this is an occupational hazard and as clean as Johnson’s script is, it’s too busy — especially once Daniels and his minions go hunting for both Gordon-Levitt and Willis — to allow for a full immersion into the story’s wonderfully drawn characters. That frenetic quality also rules out any chance for Looper to achieve its potential for exploring those themes it openly invites — the meaning and purpose of life, the ethics of altering the future, and of sacrificing oneself for the good of humanity. It’s all there, touched upon, but Johnson could’ve slowed or simplified his plot for these themes to breathe and permeate our experience of his otherwise excellent storytelling.

Grade: A

Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon, Quing Xu, Tracie Thomas, Garret Dillahunt

Mr. Arkadin

An exasperating movie whose beauties need to be extracted from the mire of its bungling weaknesses. Mr. Arkadin is the cinema equivalent of a down-and-out scamp with an irresistible personality, a movie whose topsy-turvy production history is typically Wellesian: Shot in 1954 as a Spanish-French collaboration, Welles fiddled with editing Arkadin for months before his producer wrested it away and edited it as a conventional, chronologically linear story (contrary to Welles’s more intricate, Citizen Kane-like vision of it) and called it Confidential Report. That was, more or less, the release version of Mr. Arkadin until the Criterion Collection helped assemble what it calls The Comprehensive Version, that is, a version of the film as close to Welles’s vision as possible. The Comprehensive Version stays true to the flashback structure that Welles had in mind and posits about 15 additional minutes of footage in conformance with his original script. So, if you’re going to watch Mr. Arkadin, Criterion’s Comprehensive Version is probably the one best in line with what Welles would want you to see.

Welles himself dons the beard and opera cape of the titular Arkadin, an eccentric, pompous, egotistical billionaire (a variation on the kind of roles that Welles excelled at playing, beginning with the equally tragic, equally imposing Charles Foster Kane). Claiming amnesia, Arkadin enlists the services of Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), an American ex-pat in post-War Europe, a black-market smuggler, to investigate his origins. Van Stratten’s job is to find out how Arkadin came to become Arkadin; that is, how a poor refugee from Poland rose from the ranks to become one of the world’s most legendary industrialists. It’s only as Van Stratten becomes aware of the trail of bodies lying in the wake of his investigation that he suspects that Arkadin has more up his ample sleeves than he bargained for, and that he himself is in line to be one of Arkadin’s victims or his fall guy. What links Van Stratten to Arkadin is the latter’s daughter, Raina (Paola Mori). Van Stratten is in love with Raina while Arkadin wants to shield his daughter from anyone with knowledge of his less-than-squeaky-clean past.

With its hectic, lurching pace, uneven (if not downright awful) performances and a hodgepodge of a script riddled with scenes that barely make dramatic sense, Mr. Arkadin wears all the battle scars of a movie hobbled by budget and a slapdash production (and post-production) made all the more tenuous by Welles’s capricious working methods. That his vision for Arkadin was never fully realized is less a surprise than Criterion being able to piece together the Comprehensive Version, thanks to meticulous scholarship and research.

As pulp noir, Mr. Arkadin is not particularly successful because it’s haphazard elements prevent any coherent sense of story and suspense. Van Stratten, as a character, is never very appealing; he never projects the authentic desperation and contained poise of a noir anti-hero, a fugitive in search of redemption, and there’s nothing romantic about his persona at all. What Welles needed was a strong, silent Robert Mitchum or Sterling Hayden type. What he got was someone closer to William Bendix by way of Andy Devine, garrulous and irritable.

Granted, Arden’s performance speaks less of his talent and more of Welles’s ill-thought-out direction of it. Indeed, weak or slapdash performances abound in Arkadin: Mori as Van Stratten’s love interest is neither particularly sexy nor charming, and she comes off as just a rich girl wearing the costume of a grown-up sophisticate; Patricia Medina as Mily, who also wants the goods on Arkadin, is so temperamentally all over the place, we can’t be sure if she’s a sly gold-digger or an innocent naif in a bad situation. In any case, Welles’s preoccupation seems to have been with his own role. Welles plays Arkadin with his always-amusing blend of kitschy, charismatic bravado; he’s a commanding presence eliciting either delighted chuckles from fans of his larger-than-life stagecraft or groans from those who’ve had enough.

Still, for all its flaws, Mr. Arkadin is a mesmerizing experience, a schizoid crime caper that’s half-potboiler and half-reverie. While the script threatens to implode with its incoherence, the acting can be awful and the pacing erratic, there are also scenes of pure cinematic bliss. And the last is why we come to Welles anyway. The scenes, for example, in Arkadin’s Spanish castle draw from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in their expressive, geometric use of interiors and of the vast landscapes. The sequences in Munich, Mexico, North Africa and a terrifically oddball one inside Arkadin’s storm-tossed ship are all hallmarks of kooky expressionism (a la Carol Reed’s The Third Man) melded with a chic, ultra-modern visual posturing that presages Fellini and Antonioni.

A personal favorite is the scene in which Arkadin asks Van Stratten to investigate his past. The exchange takes place in what is presumably a secretary’s office, littered with filing cabinets, but, in the spell of the movie’s imagery and setting, this office becomes an obscure catacomb in some bizarre alternate reality. Watching this scene, I always wonder what secrets those filing cabinets contain, why there are no windows in this “office,” and ponder the room’s stuffy, claustrophobic atmosphere. Knowing that Welles shot the movie in scattershot fashion, the scene and space have a hit-and-run, spit-and-glue quality about them. It’s a scene in which we really have to play “pretend,” because Welles insists we do and the fact that we don’t fully buy what’s being sold on-screen only pulls us more insistently into the story.

I suppose that these details — some deliberate, some incidental, some subjective — are what sets Mr. Arkadin apart. Details packed into moments that combine to make Arkadin less a movie than a dream of a movie you thought you once watched. It’s that dream-like quality that makes this an eternal, ethereal experience, something that’s rarely felt at the movies. And only when the movies in question are conjured by the most wizardly of filmmakers.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Cast: Robert Arden, Orson Welles, Michael Redgrave, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff, Paola Mori, Katina Paxinou, Gregoire Aslan, Peter van Eyck

Kontroll

A killer is terrorizing the subway stations beneath Budapest. Like the Angel of Death, he stalks the tunnels and platforms in a black hood, sneaking up behind late-night commuters and shoving them into the path of oncoming trains. It’s into this Langian netherworld that Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), the roguish young hero of writer-director Nimród Antal’s debut feature, “Kontroll,” has exiled himself from life on the surface.

When he isn’t curled up on a desolate platform, Bulcsú is riding the rails as a ticket control officer for the metro. Alongside his ragtag crew, he patrols the subways, making sure they’re free of freeloaders. Judging from Antal’s depiction, it’s a hellish gig, prone to frequent scuffles with authorities, fellow inspectors, not to mention the host of belligerent, ticketless commuters, each itching for a fight, a chase or both.

“Kontroll” finds its footing not upon the rungs of plot, but through a succession of vignettes depicting the inspectors’ workaday grind. Antal gets the textures right, all urban grime and pallid lighting that gets under your skin, but there’s a jokiness to these sequences, a gimmickry in the cutting and the theatrics, that points to the filmmaker’s background in commercials and music videos And for a movie about a killer on the loose, there is scant dread and paranoia at work here: Neither the ticket inspectors nor commuters seem terribly concerned, and there’s none of the morbid sense of inquiry behind the killer’s motives, both ingredients with which thrillers achieve their credibility. The movie, instead, settles in on Bulcsú as he tangles with rival inspectors, falls for Sofie (Eszter Balla), the lovely, self-assured daughter of an aging metro driver, before he finds himself the lead suspect in the subway killings. You can see the final showdown between Bulcsú and the killer coming as clearly as the headlights of the next train. It’s not the destination that counts in “Kontroll,” however, but the visceral delights to be had in getting there.

Above all, “Kontroll” is a gleeful demonstration of Antal’s flair for the medium. He is clearly a natural, as comfortable with the classical fundamentals of craft as with the hyperkinetic attitude of the modern action movie. Propelled by a dance-fevered soundtrack, Antal has fashioned an enticing allegory about lives suspended in self-imposed purgatory and seeking to rise again into the light of the real world.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Nimród Antal
Written by: Jim Adler, Nimród Antal
Cast: Sándor Csányi, Eszter Balla, Csaba Pindroch, Zsolt Nagy

Intermission

Dizzily paced and structured, the Irish import “Intermission” charms with its “never-let-‘em-see-you-sweat” exuberance. Theater denizens, Mark O’Rowe and John Crowley, the movie’s writer and director respectively, juggle elements of romantic comedy and farcical crime caper with hardly a misstep or stumble. After a somewhat annoyingly “virtuosic” opening that comes staggering at us with a chopped-up, documentary-style jitteriness, “Intermission” finds a sure and brisk footing. Before long, you’re swept away in its pell-mell of interweaving narratives by a couple of crack storytellers who seem audaciously at ease in their newfound medium.

Dewy-eyed and pouty-lipped John (Cillian Murphy) calls it off with his girlfriend, Dierdre (Kelly Macdonald), and almost immediately regrets it. He finds that it’s too late to make amends, however, because Dierdre is already bedding down with Sam, a middle-aged and married bank manager in the thick of a raging mid-life crisis. Eager to mend her tattered self-esteem, Sam’s jilted wife, Noeleen (Dierdre O’Kane) sets her sights on Oscar (David Wilmot), John’s rangy, sex-starved pal. Noeleen’s unleashed libido, not to mention her pent-up rage at her delinquent husband, loosens Oscar’s goose but it also, comically and mid-coitally, beats the poor schlub to a pulp.

John and Noeleen aren’t the only ones stung by rejection. Ever since her last boyfriend shit on her, literally, Dierdre’s sister, Sally (Shirley Henderson), has let herself go and has the moustache to prove it. Sally’s bitterness has her hissing and snarling, but she’s got a tender soul which her widowed mother (Ger Ryan) tries patiently to nurse back to health.

Following the old rule that if you can’t get them back, then get back at them, John throws in with Lehiff, a petty, thuggish punk (played with gusto by Colin Farrell) in a scheme to kidnap Dierdre and hold her ransom to Sam. It so happens that Lehiff is in the cross-hairs of the brutish Jerry Lynch (the indomitable Colm Meaney), Dublin’s answer to Popeye Doyle by way of the self-serious vanity of Inspector Clouseau. Lynch is on a one-man crusade to scour Dublin’s streets of scum and achieve local stardom, while he’s at it, if a reality-TV producer has his way. Meaney mines the great tradition of comic blowhards; he clads Lynch in the armor of male bravado, but one that can’t hide his pathetic inner gloom nor his idiosyncrasies (in this case, an obsession with Celtic mysticism).

Through all its whirl and bluster, “Intermission” comes through a remarkably winning and tender character study—a patchwork of contemporary Dublin’s lovers, hoods and regular Joe’s. O’Rowe and Crowley impressively dovetail their various stories through well-timed turns, parallels and intersections. Add to its ambitious script and direction an ensemble of on-target performances, and you have a rare seasonal treat: a rowdy comedy unafraid of honesty and with a direct appeal to the heart.

Grade: A-

Directed by: John Crowley
Written by: Mark O’Rowe
Cast: Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, Kelly Macdonald, Brian F. O’Bryne, Colm Meaney

Elephant

Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” won the Palm d’Or and Best Director prizes at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, marking the resurgence of a gifted filmmaker whose talents seemed tamed recently in service of more traditional dramas. If “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989) and “My Own Private Idaho” (1991), were dazzlingly wrought portraits of lives on the fringes of society, “Elephant” meanders through the more recognizable territory of high school. More importantly, it’s bravura filmmaking, subtler in approach than either “Cowboy” or “Idaho,” but just as exhilarating.

The title of Van Sant’s movie refers, among other things, to the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. The conspicuous pachyderm, in this case, is the issue of gun violence in American schools, something that stampeded through our collective consciousness in the late-90s, brought most vividly to mind by the Columbine incident. In “Elephant,” Van Sant sets out to talk about it. Just how incisively or effectively he manages to do so, though, is frustratingly questionable.

The movie offers a portrait of an American high school. Van Sant’s characters are students whose paths intersect in the course of a routine day. There’s nothing routine, though, in Van Sant’s approach as he weaves together a mosaic of delicately interlaced storylines. “Elephant’s” most bustling scenes in hallways, offices and classrooms are so assuredly choreographed that they recall the most adroit Altman movies. The movie builds on a cyclical structure, following one storyline before flashing back to pick up another. In this way, Van Sant fleshes out vividly believable characters, bringing them, one storyline at a time, to the edge of his narrative, while allowing a hypnotic, unsettling tension to hang over the movie as we anticipate its inevitable outburst of violence.

Harris Savides’ camera glides along in step with “Elephant’s” largely non-professional, teenage cast. The movie’s immaculate visuals are matched by Leslie Shatz’s expressive sound design, intermingling Beethoven’s classical piano with ambient noise and wild sound to arrive at a disconcerting blend of disparate elements that perfectly serves the movie’s tone.

Van Sant shrewdly withholds judgment and steers clear of moralizing his subject. But, after it’s finished, you’re still wondering what it all adds up to. “Elephant” may be pointing to the insidiousness of violence, lurking in the woodwork of our society, no more unusual than the rest of the banalities of high school life. But Van Sant ends his movie so abruptly, glibly cutting away from his final scenes, that he left me to trip all over myself to come up with the movie’s justification or even any sense of its message. “Elephant” is one of this year’s boldest movies, technically, but, in refusing to assert any point-of-view about what troubles modern American youth, Van Sant’s loses heart and flees the scene of the crime.

Grade: C+

Written/Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Carrie Finklea