MEEK AT THE MOVIES — THE WOLF OF WALL STREET ( 4 stars )

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^ Leonard DiCaprio as penny stock pusher in Martin Scorcese’s “Wolf of wall Street”

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“The Wolf of Wall Street” is everything “American Hustle” wanted to be and more. It’s smart, mean and makes a pointed political statement while roiling in the excess of its characters. As far as drama goes, let’s face it, : rags to riches and success isn’t so alluring. No one wants to see a nice guy make it, they want to see someone claw their way up, live large and fall hard. Take, “Scarface,” “Goodfellas” or “Wall Street” to name a few. “Wolf” and “Hustle” are less violent and black and white, but the elements, greed, lust, envy and hubris, are all there in fine, fermented form.

Both films are based on true stories and take place in New York City during high flying eras that predate cell phones and the rampant use of the internet. “Hustle” jogs through the Abscam scandal of the 1970s via a petty con who, ensnared by the Feds, helps draw in corrupt pols. “Wolf” is smaller fare, following the hilariously self-destructive travails of a hungry wanna-be who, from humble origins, gets his brokerage license on the eve of the Black Friday market crash of 1987 and instead of cashing out and moving on to something more sure-footed, goes on to parlay his smooth cold-calling skills into a pump and dump scheme, manipulating the penny stock market and making a killing on the fifty-percent commissions. The sad underlying truth to “Wolf,” as wonderfully articulated by an over-the-top broker (a blazing Matthew McConaughey adding to his banner year) teaching the naive ‘Wolf’ pup the ropes over a five martini lunch, is that money in motion is change in your pocket. Always be selling and always be buying; forget about value added, if they make money, good, but it’s all about movement.

As that young fry of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, who morphs into a coked-up kingpin of crack and cash, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers one of the strongest performances of his impressive career. It’s also Martin Scorsese’s best film since “Goodfellas.”

Marty, who’s a soft spoken reflective soul, has made some of the most violent, in-your-face films of all time. “Wolf” is no exception. Sure, there’s no real gun play or jaw cracking per se, but “Wolf” is brutal. You never see the plumbers or middle class mom and pops who are defrauded, led astray and into ostensible ruin, throwing their life savings on junk because a faceless, confident voice on the other end of a telephone told them he was going to make their dreams come true and put them on easy street. Jordan, too, is a train wreck, snorting coke and entertaining escorts in the office during working hours. Yes the film’s pretty racy, working women work the conference rooms during work hours, servicing the execs, before giving the new hires a turn, and female co-workers, either caught up in the frenzy of money, the desire to get ahead or the sheer love of sex, are as happy to get on their knees and perform felatio as they are excited by closing a deal. Belfort lives big and he’s fairly generous, unless you do something to irk him; then you are fired in the most humiliating way possible. And he does all this while popping qualudes, getting a candle inserted into his rectum and raising a family.

How a self-interested SOB like Belfort spins so rivetingly, and for three hours, is both tribute to DiCaprio and the screenwriter Terence Winter (“Boardwalk Empire” and “The Sopranos”) who get at the decadent depravity and don’t try to make Jordan heroic as his moral compass falls out. “Hustle” tries to have its cake and eat it. The characters too don’t feel real or likable. Jordan lives the American dream and nightmare, and it couldn’t be more illumination or a reflection of what ails us. Jordan is Gordon Gecko with a heart and insecurity, a boy with a supermodel and a race car. The formula has played out tragically for celebs and athletes before, but none have done it with such bombastic aplomb as Jordan.

The supporting cast which includes Jonah Hill as Jordan’s wigged-out wingman, Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent on Belfort’s tail, and Rob Reiner as pop Belfort.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

CHRISTMAS : GOOD WILL TO ALL MEN

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^ the tree, the light, and the presents = good will to those we love an d to all men

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There is mankind at its worst, mankind in the ordinary, and mankind at its best. If today means anything, it means celebrating mankind at its best. That is what those who believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God celebrate in him. How can a human being be better than to be God’s only begotten son ? Believers in Jesus believe that there is a “best’ in human life, that it has been witnessed, that it will come again. But first of all, that a best human being was born, because being born is proof that he existed; that it is possible actually to encounter the best of human beings.

Today is the date that the Christian polity, under Emperor Constantine’s guidance, set as the date of Jesus’s birth. His actual birth day was not known. Nobody recorded it; when Jesus was born, he was born a very ordinary child to a very ordinary family. No early writing mentions the day of his birth, because none of the writers of that time (excepting possibly the beloved disciple in John) knew Jesus personally; and those people who did know him did not follow him because of what day he was born but because of what he was doing, decades later, when they recognized that he was very special. Thus the Church gathered 300 years later in synod assigned a day to Jesus’s birth. It was no ordinary day. On December 25 began the Roman world’s most important festival, the very pagan, very raucous, but entirely celebratory festival, the lupercalia. That festival celebrated the lengthening day after the Winter Solstice ; the return of the sun, of light, of planting season and bounteous harvest to come. It was a festival of hope, of optimism, of — good will to all men, that all might propser from the coming of the light.

By decreeing December 25 as the birth day of Jesus, the Church ┬ámade Jesus’s birth a symbol of the light, of all best things. And so it has been ever since. The addition, much later, to December 25 of the St. Nicholas story — of the giving of presents — simply reiterates what Constantine and his bishops had in mind. The day symbolizing Jesus’s birth is to be a day of ritual bounty in honor of the bounty to come — to all men, in good will.

It really seems a miracle, that a bishop of Constantine’s day, St. Nicholas of Myra, became — ┬ávia German folklore, of all things — the jolly German burgher named “Santa ‘Klaus,” a jolly symbol of the happiest day in the lives of everyone he visits this morning. But so it is. Santa really does live, doesn’t he ? And for those who, despite the history, think Santa just a cute invention, I refer you to the immortal 1890’s newspaper editorial “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.’ in which the writer assured his reader’s 10-year old daughter — for such she was — that Santa Claus (as we call him) is as real as happiness is real, as good will to all men is real.

You do not have to believe — in the Church that Constantine gave legal recognition to, form and process; and which well before Constantine’s day had taken to heart and soul the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth for proof of God’s good will to all men — to accord good will to all men a central place in your own life. You are not on this earth alone. None of us is here alone. We depend on each other in almost everything, every day; each of us accords respect to every one of us wherever we meet, when instead of injuring or being mean to someone, we encounter them with courtesy, patience, a smile, hospitality, a collaboration, a purchase, a conversation. We do this almost without realizing. It is second nature to us as members of the human community. but especially on this day set aside to honor — even worship — the best of men and the best in men, we restore the health of our souls, the clarity of our vision, the strength of our purpose, the charity and courtesy that we give to our fellows — no matter who we are or what God we believe in .

And of course the presents and the Christmas cards. Dear readers, take this little message as our Christmas card to you. You can even sing it : “Good will to all men, the light is come !”

—- the Editors / Here and Sphere