Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oliver Stone's 1987 Masterpiece, Wall Street

Later this year a sequel to Wall Street will be released. The film will be called Wall Street:Money Never Sleeps, which was a line from the first movie. It has been 23 years since the original film came out, and it is still the quintissential movie about New York stockbrokers and the world of high finance. An Oliver Stone film has never had a sequel. According to a documentary on the Blu Ray DVD version of Wall Street, stock brokers still quote lines from the film all of these years later. Traders have said that this movie is the best representation of what really goes on at the New York stock exchange. Michael Douglas says he gets people coming up to him all of the time telling him that his character influenced them to go into finance. He says that people do not seem to realize that his character of Gordon Gekko was not a good guy, but a bad person whom no one should view as a role model. Nevertheless, people seem to love the bad characters more than the good ones.

The multi-talented Oliver Stone co-wrote and directed Wall Street after writing and directing Platoon just a year earlier. He has an impressive resume, having written Scarface, Midnight Express and Conan the Barbarian. Post-Wall Street his writer/director resume grew with the films Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, Natural Born Killers, and more. His father had worked as a Wall Street trader, so he wanted to make a film about what goes on in that environment.

Wall Street is the story of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a young hotshot stock broker who wants to make as much money as he can, and he will do anything to get what he wants. He persistently calls Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) every day in an attempt to meet him and give him stock tips to make him money. Gekko is a giant in the finance industry. He buys companies, breaks them into pieces and sells the parts for enourmous profit. He is one of the richest people on Wall Street and Bud Fox becomes his protege. Fox realizes that to make the kind of money Gekko makes, one needs to engage in the illegal practice of insider trading. Fox's dad Carl (Martin Sheen) is an airline mechanic for Blue Star airlines and Bud gets inside information about that company that he gives to Gekko. Carl Fox wants his son to be successful, but he also wants him to stay on the right side of the law. He is concerned that Gekko has taken his son under his wing, and he does not like that his son seems to idolize Gordon more than him.

Wall Street is a morality tale. There is good money to be made as a stockbroker who follows the rules, but one who breaks the law can make endless money, but this comes with consequences. Hal Holbrook plays Lou Mannheim, Bud Fox's boss. He has a feeling that Bud is getting stock tips illegally and he has a memorable quote in the film:

"Man looks in the abyss, there's nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss."

Lou also says: "The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don't want to do."

The most quoted line from the film is when Gekko says "Greed is good." This is the context of where he says that, at a stockholder's meeting.

"Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can't figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I'll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I've been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much."

There are so many outstanding quotes from this film. The relationship between Bud Fox and his father explodes with this exchange:

Carl Fox: He's using you, kid. He's got your prick in his back pocket, but you're too blind to see it.
Bud Fox: No. What I see is a jealous old machinist who can't stand the fact that his son has become more successful than he has!
Carl Fox: What you see is a guy who never measured a man's success by the size of his WALLET!
Bud Fox: That's because you never had the GUTS to go out into the world and stake your own claim!
[Long Pause]
Carl Fox: Boy, if that's the way you feel, I must have done a really lousy job as a father.

Gekko and Bud Fox see the world of Wall Street as not unlike a conflict on the battlefield. At one point when about to buy stock, Gekko says: "We're in the killzone." Bud Fox, quoting "The Art of War" says: "Sun-tzu: If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight, and if not split and reevaluate." Gordon Gekko enjoys the thrill of being in a battle with someone else. There is a scene at Gordon's house where he is negotiating a stock deal with a rival. He shows off his collection of vintage pistols. Stone has drawn comparisons between the world of Wall Street, the Vietnam war battles, and the drug dealers in Miami he chronicled in the film Scarface.

I think that Wall Street is Stone's best film. Like directors such as Hitchcock and Scorsese, Stone had a cameo in his film where he played a broker on the phone during a montage of deals being made. Richard Gere and Warren Beatty almost got the role of Gekko instead of Douglas. Tom Cruise almost was given the part of Bud Fox. Stone worked with him in Born on the Fourth of July. Michael Douglas deservedly won a best actor Oscar for his pivotal role. The storyline was loosely based on Ivan Boesky and the insider trading scandals of the 1980s. Daryl Hannah played the role of Bud Fox's girlfriend and she has never seen the film. She has said that she had an "unhealthy working relationship" with Oliver Stone. I love all aspects of this film, even the soundtrack. Frank Sinatra's Fly Me to the Moon plays over the opening credits and later a song by The Talking Heads is used (This Must be the Place-Naive Melody). The film Boiler Room (2000) is a must see for fans of Wall Street. It is also about stock brokers, and the characters in the film are obsessed with Gordon Gekko and Oliver Stone's portrayal of the world of finance. Another film that Wall Street fans should check out is American Psycho (2000) since it also features the 1980s New York yuppie era. It is based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero), and it stars Christian Bale as a self obsessed, materialistic psychotic executive.

* Some information from

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Artistic Vision of Martin Scorsese

I wanted to write about this fantastic director since I admire his work so much. I will list his films which are some of my favorites, and provide a few words about each one. From 1968's Who's that Knocking at my Door, to this year's Shutter Island, Scorsese has had an amazing career. His 21 feature films have earned 64 Oscar nominations and 15 wins. He did not win a best director Oscar until 2007, for The Departed, a film about the Irish mafia. He had lost this coveted best director Oscar five times previously. But, after all, greats such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles never won best director Oscars. He has also directed several documentaries and short films, often about the classic rock artists he admires so much. He has had small roles in many of his films, just like another legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock. He is probably best known for his many films that are about the Italian mafia, but he has not limited himself to that genre. He did a period piece (The Age of Innocence) and a film about the Dalai Lama in Tibet (Kundun). Many of his films deal with emotional longing, loneliness, and some feature scenes of unflinching violence. He grew up in New York's Little Italy but lived a sheltered life due to being an asthmatic. He spent lots of time in church and going to the movies. Scorsese is known for his distinctive directing style in which the camera is often moving throughout the scene. Throughout the final three decades of the 20th century, Scorsese films often featured one of best actors of our time, Robert DeNiro. In recent years he has directed many starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He is a graduate of the legendary New York University film school, where his students included Oliver Stone and Spike Lee. Here are my favorites:

Mean Streets (1973) This was a breakthrough for Scorsese as well as stars Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. It featured a gritty, violent New York setting where the mafia rules, rapid fire editing and a rock soundtrack. This film is his most autobiographical, and it is a favorite film of many real life gangsters.

Taxi Driver (1976) This is one of the greatest masterpieces of film of all time, and my favorite Scorsese work. It is not a film for everyone. It is disturbing to say the least. It follows Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), a New York cabbie who says "Loneliness has followed me all of my life. I'm God's lonely man." He is man who has been broken by his time in Vietnam, his challenges to navigate through society and his worst enemy is himself. He is a powder keg ready to explode in a flurry of violence, and he does. He is trapped in a life which is an angry nightmare from which he cannot awake. He sees the world through twisted eyes and tries to "save" a prostitute from her lifestyle which she sees as her only option. On the other hand, he seeks revenge on another woman who had rejected his advances. Travis Bickle seems to view women as either angelic or as prostitutes. Cybill Shepard's character first appears wearing white and moving in slow motion, and Travis writes in his diary "They cannot touch her." He wants her, but at the same time his self destructive feelings are more powerful, and they keep him from doing the right things to win her over. This featured Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepard, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, and Harvey Keitel. Reagan assassin John Hinckley was obsessed with this film, and he thought that killing the president would impress Jodie Foster. Overhead shots are used repeatedly in this film showing guns for sale laid out on a bed, junk food at the adult movie theatre, and an long overhead tracking shot towards the end depicting the bloody mayhem left in the wake of Travis' killing spree. Scorsese has said that Travis Bickle saw what he had to do and it was a ritualistic, religious, sacrifice for him. The ultra violent, grimy, New York of the 1970s is much different than the more sanitized New York of today. Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Hardcore, Blue Collar, Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead), and the haunting melodies of composer Bernard Herrmann deserve a lot of credit for this masterwork. Herrmann also did the music for Citizen Kane (one of Scorsese's favorites) and Psycho, among other Hitchcock films. His final film to score was Taxi Driver, and he died just hours after recording it. The main title theme with its sultry saxophone fit the mood of the film perfectly. This was nominated for a total of 4 Academy Awards, including the best picture Oscar, but it lost to Rocky. It won the highly coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. One of Scorsese's biggest fans is my favorite film critic, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. He gave a perfect 4-star review to 14 of Scorsese's films. These include; Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, Casino, After Hours, The Departed, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and others. Regarding Taxi Driver he says "Taxi Driver is a brilliant nightmare and like all nightmares it doesn't tell us half of what we want to know. Taxi Driver is a hell, from the opening shot of a cab emerging from stygian clouds of steam to the climactic killing scene in which the camera finally looks straight down." Ebert has insights into film like no one else. He is the only film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Raging Bull (1980) This is a tale of the violent, aggressive world of professional boxing where Robert DeNiro plays Jake LaMotta. DeNiro's character has trouble separating the world in the ring, where violence is applauded, with the world outside the ring, where violence is not allowed. This film was in black and white, with use of slow motion and a moving camera. Many view this as the director's greatest work. Actor Joe Pesci played a key role, just as he would in later Scorsese works. Cathy Moriarty plays the wife of LaMotta, and she must deal with his violent outbursts. This was nominated for 8 Oscars, and it won 2.

The King of Comedy (1983) This comedic film was a change of pace for the director known largely for his dramatic films based around Italian American life in New York. DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, who is a sad character who has lost touch with reality. His dream is to host a late night talk show. Jerry Lewis plays Pupkin's idol, Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like comedian/talk show host. Carson was actually considered to play the role, as well as Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. DeNiro's character lives at home with his parents and interviews cardboard cut-outs of celebrities in his basement as practice for hosting his own show one day. The story turns dark as Rupert Pupkin finds a way to make his dream come true, by any means he can. In the film Rupert says "It's better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime." Scorsese has said this was an emotionally grueling film to direct. He and DeNiro did not work together again for seven years.

New York Stories (1989) This was a different approach for a film since it was broken up into 3 sections, each directed by a legendary film maker. It was not a big hit with critics or at the box office, but I enjoyed it. The first segment, titled Life Lessons was directed by Scorsese. The other 2 were directed by Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. Life Lessons was the story of a New York painter played by Nick Nolte who takes on a protege played by Rosanna Arquette who becomes his love interest. This included use of Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone in the soundtrack.

GoodFellas (1990) This film featured Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta as powerful figures in the world of the Italian-American mafia. I think that this film is on the same level as The Godfather, also directed by a legendary Italian-American, Francis Ford Coppola. It has scenes of disturbing violence and a great classic rock soundtrack. Roger Ebert called it "the best mob movie ever". Four years earlier, Scorsese's film The Color of Money was released, and it starred Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in a story about pool hall husters. This was his least personal film, but its success at the box office made a film like GoodFellas possible. The studios want nothing but blockbusters. This was nominated for 6 Oscars and it won 1, for Joe Pesci.

Cape Fear (1991) This marked the director's seventh time working with Robert DeNiro, and it is a remake of the 1962 film starring Robert Mitchum. Other Scorsese films have violent scenes, but Cape Fear felt more like a horror film than his other work. Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis also star in the disturbing but brilliant work.

Casino (1995) This mobster film takes place largely in Las Vegas and has a running time of about 3 hours. It is so well written and performed, the 3 hours goes by quickly and it left me wanting even more. I have only said this about 2 other works, The Godfather, and Brian DePalma's Scarface. It features Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and the best performance of Sharon Stone's career.

The Aviator (2004) Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this was a biopic about the odd but incredibly successful tycoon, Howard Hughes. It chronicles the love life, the business life and the obsessive-compulsive disorder which ruined a life which had so much potential. Like other films by this director, it shows one man's descent into madness. This was nominated for an amazing 11 Oscars, and it won 5.

Scorsese has a passion for music, and he directed directed the video Bad for Michael Jackson, the film The Last Waltz, about the musical group The Band, and Shine a Light featuring the Rolling Stones. He directed New York New York, which was a film where Robert DeNiro played a sax player, released in 1977, and it featured Liza Minelli. The original director's cut was 4 and a half hours, but it had to be trimmed significantly to play in theatres. There were challenges with this film in shooting the musical numbers, with the choreography, the lip-synching and the illusion of DeNiro playing a saxophone as well as his character. In May 2009, he confirmed he will direct a biopic about legendary crooner Frank Sinatra. In 2010 a Scorsese documentary will be released about former Beatle George Harrison. In 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore Scorsese directed the singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson. It made money, so this opened doors for him, and the film studios put trust in him to make more films. The TV show Alice, starring Linda Lavin, was loosely based on this film.

* Some information from,,, "Roger Ebert's Four Star Reviews 1967-2007" and "Martin Scorsese Interviews", Edited by Peter Brunette.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Elton John:40 Years of Captain Fantastic

A supremely talented musician was born in England in 1947. His name was Reginald Kenneth Dwight, but we know him as Elton John. This moniker came from combining two names of members of his band which was formed in the 1960s. Elton grew up in a family with parents who were musically inclined, but yet his father did not want him to be a musician for a living. He wanted him to have a more stable job, such as being a banker. Elton fell in love with rock and roll when his parents brought home records by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and the Comets. As early as 3 years old Elton played piano and found he could play songs by ear. His mom and dad had a turbulent relationship and they divorced when he was 15. Elton never felt accepted by his father and he was closer to his mother and grandmother. As a teenager he would play piano in a local pub, and at 17 he left school to pursue music. He was part of a group called Bluesology starting in 1964, and at first he did not want to be a performer, he wanted to write music for others to perform. Bluesology would back American R&B and soul bands, so Elton developed a love for this type of music. In 1967 Elton met a lyricist named Bernie Taupin, and the two of them would team up to create some of the most successful songs in the history of music. Elton's 1969 album Empty Sky did not have success on the charts, but the following year would be the start of a string of hits that led to Elton John selling over 250 million albums, with 35 going gold, 25 platinum and seven albums in a row hitting #1.

In 1970, Elton's first U.S. concert was at the Troubador, a legendary music venue in Los Angeles. He was introduced by Neil Diamond, and Rolling Stone magazine called this one of the 20 performances that changed rock and roll. Elton received high praise from one of his idols, John Lennon, who said that Elton was the first big thing on the music scene since the Beatles had broken up. The 1970 self titled album had the first breakthrough hit, Your Song. In November of 1970 an album was recorded live at WABC-FM in New York City. This release was called 11-17-70 and it included Elton's interpretations Get Back by the Beatles, Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones, and My Baby Left Me, by Elvis. Elton did not shy away from performing cover tunes, and later in the decade he would perform The Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Pinball Wizard by The Who.

The early to mid 1970s were a time of hit after hit for Elton, with such gems as Your Song, Levon, Rocket Man, Honky Cat, Crocodile Rock, Daniel, Bennie and the Jets, The Bitch is Back, Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me, and many more. In 1973 Elton played on the song Whatever Gets You Through the Night by John Lennon. He had one stipulation, if the song went to #1, Lennon had to join Elton on stage in concert. Lennon said yes, thinking it would not be successful. The song went to #1 and Lennon joined Elton on stage at a concert at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1974. Apparently Lennon was nervous since he had not performed in a long time since the Beatles had broken up in 1970. Many performers turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the rigors of being on the road and the stress of churning out hit songs. Elton was no exception and he battled addiction through his most prolific periods of his career.

The second half of the 1970s was a time of many challenges for Elton. In 1976 at the height of his success, Elton admitted to being a bisexual. This was a big risk since it may hurt his album sales. In 1977 he was burned out and announced at a concert at Wembley Arena that that concert would be his last. He returned to performing a year later and tried writing with some other lyricists besides Bernie Taupin. In 1978 he collapsed from exhaustion. He had been pushing himself too hard and something had to give. In 1980 he performed a concert in Central Park for a crowd of 500,000 people. Later this year, Elton was crushed when he learned his friend and idol John Lennon had been killed. The song Empty Garden was written in his memory.

The 1980s were a period where Elton did not see the commercial success he had the decade before. In 1984 he married friend and sound engineer Renate Blauel, and he was in denial over his sexuality. They divorced in 1988. In 1986, Elton had nodules removed from his vocal cords after his voice gave out. Since then his voice has gone from a falsetto tenor to more of a baritone, and in concert he sounds different than on his early albums. This seems to happen to many performers as they get older. All of the touring puts a lot of stress on a voice.

Since the late 1980s Elton became involved in the fight against AIDS. He befriended a young boy named Ryan White who was HIV positive and when Elton performed at his funeral, it was a turning point for him personally. He saw video of his performance and he knew something had to be done to face his own demons. He though he looked terrible, sickly and old. He sought help for his addictions to drugs, alcohol and food. 1993 was the year that Elton's AIDS foundation was formed and it has raised millions to fight the disease. This was also the year that Elton met his partner, filmmaker David Furnish, who directed a documentary about the musician called Tantrums and Tiaras. The film was an unflinching look at the artist, including some scenes of him losing his temper. He is a perfectionist, who expects only the best from himself and others.

In 1997 he became "Sir" Elton John after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth. This same year his friend Princess Diana died and he wrote an updated version of Candle in the Wind for her, which sold a record breaking 37 million copies. The song was originally about Marilyn Monroe.

Elton is secure enough with his own success that he helps other up and coming musicians to gain notoriety. He has written articles for Interview magazine about current artists he enjoys.

In recent years he has written music for Broadway shows and films. He won an Oscar for The Lion King, a Tony and a Grammy for Aida and 10 Tonys for Billy Elliott.

Billboard magazine ranked him as the most successful male artist of all time. They did a list called "The Billboard Hot 100 Top All Time Artists" and Elton is #3 overall, behind only The Beatles and Madonna.

The song Tiny Dancer found a new audience when the 2000 film Almost Famous included it in the soundtrack. The film is an autobiographical piece about Cameron Crowe, who toured with Led Zeppelin in the 1970s as a writer for Rolling Stone.

In the 21st century, Elton has toured with another pianist/music legend, Billy Joel. In 2005 he performed his Red Piano show over an extended period in Las Vegas. 2007 marked Elton's 60th birthday and his 60th performance at Madison Square Garden. In 2009, while touring an AIDS clinic in the Ukraine, Elton decided he wanted to adopt a 14 month old HIV positive baby he met there. He and his partner were turned down due to their age and marital status.

40 years after the big break at the Troubador, Elton John remains one of the most prolific artists in the history of music and his works will be appreciated for decades to come. I am impressed by his mix of sensitive orchestral ballads such as Tiny Dancer and Daniel, as well as his up tempo intense songs such as The Bitch is Back and Philadelphia Freedom. It is so difficult to make a living in music, and anyone who can do it, especially with the success and staying power of Elton John, is impressive.

*Some information from and the Biography channel's TV show about Elton John.