Oscars Combat: Jennifer Lawrence vs. Lupita Nyong’o

Patsey makes death sound so sweet when she’s begging Solomon Northup to kill her. It’s the essential tragedy of the most tragic character in “12 Years a Slave”: Killing her, she says, through tears and a smile, would be “an act of kindness.” Solomon can’t run because he doesn’t want to die; here’s someone whose life is that much worse than his.

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“American Hustle” is nominated for an Oscar in every acting category. Deservedly. And the best performance was Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” She has the fewest screen-time minutes of the top four actors, which helps because she can focus her power on fewer scenes and make them count that much more. nyongolove.getty

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Patsey picks over 500 pounds of cotton per day. The other men in the field can barely crack 200. For this she is singled out as extraordinary by Epps, the plantation’s insane owner. Epps is sadistic. He strokes Patsey’s neck and calls her Queen of the Field. At night he rapes her. His wife is jealous. She maims Patsey with a heavy glass bottle thrown point-blank to the face, and with a skin-tearing scratch through Patsey’s cheek.

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Lawrence outshines the other “American Hustle” actors because their characters all have to reckon with her. She’s socially on offense, always doing something. She befuddles Christian Bale’s character, her husband, to where he’s stuck staring with a pained and helpless expression. The couple has amazing fights in the movie, and she always wins, even though she’s the one who starts the house on fire, or almost gets him killed by mobsters.

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After the first scene of cotton weighing, when Patsey’s shown to be so much more industrious than the others, we get a short scene of her sitting outside, humming and braiding corn husks into dolls.

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The dolls are dark and light, together just fine. Patsey has such a sweet, gentle soul. She’s a beautiful person. This movie’s universe has absolutely no sympathy.

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If there’s a single character in “American Hustle” with the best claim to hate Rosalyn it’s Amy Adams’s Sydney. Sydney has more skin in the con than anyone else, because she took the check from the FBI agent’s hand. She’s caught red-handed. And Rosalyn is messing with everyone to not be bored. They’re also romantic rivals for the same man. Yet when they’re finally facing off in that bathroom, yelling, even Sydney gets ensnared by Lawrence’s sexiness. Lawrence plants a sudden sticky kiss on her lips, and then cackles maniacally.

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Lupita Nyong’o is brilliant because she’s perfect as this character experiencing specific horrors at the hands of a monster. Patsey. Patsey, man. Jesus. She has to beg to be clean, please, just once, can’t she use soap because she’s earned it? She has to be stripped and whipped for trying, one time, to be a normal person. She has to beg for her own death, and be told no. How would someone in that situation act? Exactly like this. It’s beyond heartbreaking.

Lawrence brings her unique personal energy to Rosalyn. Sheer awesomeness is why Rosalyn is so memorable. IMDB.com says “American Hustle” director David O. Russell told Bale “Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” Much of the dialogue is improvised. That cranks the pressure on the actors. They have to inhabit their parts to where what they do comes naturally. Lawrence’s character scares everyone on multiple levels. And she’s funny.

That’s why I’d vote for Lawrence. Impossible choice though.

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Oscars Combat Prelude: Marty and Leo Take Bronze

Some major tussles are coming to The Flip Side in the coming weeks. Was Jennifer Lawrence’s bipolar(ish) big-con wild card in “American Hustle” better than Lupita Nyong’o’s gentle, tragic, beyond-abused “queen” of the cotton field in “12 Years a Slave”? Should a documentary about death be more journalistic or artistic? Is anything better than Evil Meryl Streep? Which emotion is more powerful when stirred—sympathy (Jared Leto), or fear (Michael Fassbender)? And how the unholy f*ck does “The Lone Ranger” have better special effects than “Pacific Rim”?

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Not even nominated.

The Oscars are never really about a corporate-glossy award show. They are about comparing great movies. (Incidentally, did you know if you walk out of a movie before it’s over, at Regal theaters at least, you can get your money back? The wife and I found that out at “Pain and Gain.” Apt title.)

Before answering the unanswerable, we must delve for a moment back into “The Wolf of Wall Street,” because it will rightly be second or third runner-up in Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

There are occasions when the critical response to a movie makes that movie even more fascinating. (On TV, the ultimate example of this is “Mad Men,” which reviewers almost exclusively criticize, even though they all think it’s the best show on television.) “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a long and stunning Martin Scorsese movie, with the best performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career. It is also insane.

(Click here for The Flip Side’s full, slobbering review of “Wolf.”)

Scorsese does very cinematic stuff in “Wolf of Wall Street.” His camera swoops around huge rooms full of greedy traders either lying to clients en masse to take their money (while miming sex acts), or partying like Romans the night before the fall (while committing sex acts). When Jordan is busted, and told he needs to rat on his friends to avoid prison, Scorsese’s camera tracks forward through a crowd of young traders. There’s a bright light behind them, but we don’t see what’s causing it. They all have to get out of the way first. For Jordan to see the light, he has to sell out his army of clones.

Other Scorsese tricks include telepathy between Jordan and the Swiss banker who can hide money from American authorities, and a huge special-effects scene when Jordan’s ridiculous yacht is destroyed in a storm.

And then there’s the comedy. This is where the criticism comes in. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” from its opening scene, is funny. Our first glimpse of Jordan comes when he’s throwing a midget at a dart board. Then the camera freezes on him, and in voice-over he says something like, “Oh, lemme introduce myself.” Then we get our second glimpse of him . . . snorting coke out of a hooker’s ass.

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Critics who don’t like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” (they’re all over Slate and NPR, at least), say it’s too much, and that the sex and drugs and ridiculousness are repetitive and relentless.

You sad, silly feebs. Why do you even go to the movies? Just because they pay you? (The Flip Side is jealous.) This is like complaining about “The Godfather” because it’s just so full of mobsters. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is about maniacs misbehaving—that’s why they’re misbehaving.

Everyone who dislikes “The Wolf of Wall Street” seems to agree about the scene where Belfort is so high on super quaaluds that he can’t talk or walk. There’s this broad physically comedic scene where he rolls down some brick steps, barely manages to get behind the wheel of his Ferrari, and drives home, where his sidekick (also too high to function) starts choking on a slice of meat. He’s going to die unless Belfort can come to and save him. Inspired by the Popeye cartoon his daughter is watching in the living room, Belfort finds a stash of cocaine in his kitchen, inhales a bunch of it, and saves the day.

Cocaine is to Belfort as spinach is to Popeye. He’s a cartoon character personifying the corruption at the heart of our country’s biggest problem. And DiCaprio has a blast in the role. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is brilliant.

But it’s not as good as “12 Years a Slave.”

To Be Continued. . . .

Internet Sports Lord Biffs on Big-Eyes: See Here, Oscar

The funeral. Do not listen to Bill Simmons. (Here’s his link.)

In “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor plays someone who’s kidnapped and imprisoned in a nightmare world. He is considered a subhuman and tortured. Multiple critics describe in their reviews his “deep, soulful eyes.” They’re big eyes, and when he’s scared they beam desperation.

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He doesn’t want to die, but there’s a madman with a gun in his face, screaming into his ear to whip Patsey until the skin on her whole back is shredded. You believe it, and want badly for this poor guy to survive such raw horror.

Ejiofor played the villain in a modern-classic science fiction flick: “Serenity,” written and directed by pre-“Avengers” Joss Whedon. Ejiofor’s character, The Operative, is a charming, interesting snake, hunting the heroes across space with a samurai sword and an army.

“12 Years a Slave” is a step above great villain. Three steps. Despite all the killing, Solomon Northup does fight back, and he hangs for it. He runs, and the universe sends a message with one of the saddest, most coldly violent things you could imagine seeing. We watch him face hell on earth with huge, sharp, sad, scared eyes.

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Bill Simmons is ESPN’s best brand. His fan’s-take writing style was so fun to read he gained a massive following and now runs a website (Grantland.com:

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God bless it) where many younger versions of himself cover every interesting topic in all sports and pop culture (movies, TV, music, novels sometimes). It’s made him an authority, with a TV show and a blockbuster podcast.

On that podcast, he said “It’s a slightly controversial opinion, but if I was gonna rank the best performances in that movie, I don’t know if, uh, if, if the. Say his name; I can’t say it.”

Responded Wesley Morris, Pulitzer-Prize winning movie critic on Grantland (sagely): “Chiwetel Ejiofor?”

“I don’t think he’s in the Top 3 for me, in that movie.”

Then Simmons started asking if younger versions of Denzel Washington or Don Cheadle would have been better as Solomon Northup. That’s what he walked out of the movie theater wondering.

The answer is no. They don’t have the eyes.

“I didn’t love the performance,” Simmons said. “I thought it was good. I didn’t think it was amazing, you know?”

No. Bullshit. That is no argument, and Ejiofor must be a contender for Best Actor.

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There’s a funeral in “12 Years a Slave” for a man who dropped dead in the cotton field from heatstroke. The slaves are all singing and clapping.

Solomon Northup was kidnapped into that world. He doesn’t want to be a slave. He doesn’t want to sing with them. But they keep singing, and he’s looking at that grave, and he fights it and fights it but they keep singing. You see the entire struggle on his face, in his eyes, until he gives in and sings. Accepts he’s a slave. This is his family now.

That scene was amazing. He’d better be a Best Actor contender.

“Goodfellas” is Still Scorsese’s Best Movie, But “The Wolf of Wall Street” is Awesome

“Lemme understand this. Maybe it’s me. I’m a little f*cked up, maybe. I’m funny how? I’m funny like a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to f*ckin’ amuse you?”

Joe Pesci’s character Tommy DeVito in “Goodfellas” is my favorite character in any Martin Scorsese movie, even over Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York.” His famous “funny like a clown” bit is the first time we really hear him talking, but not the first time we meet him—he appears in the film’s first scene, stabbing a pleading man 10 times with a kitchen knife. Later, he’ll shoot and kill a teenager (Spider) for basically nothing. In between shocking eruptions of psychotic brutality, he’s absolutely hilarious, an ultimate comedic sidekick.

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Jack Nicholson was pretty classic as Frank Costello in “The Departed.” He also played a maniac having fun. Bill the Butcher was a maniac having fun.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is another maniac having fun. And his fun is more fun that any of these other guys’ fun.

The setting is Wall Street, obviously, where Belfort runs his own incredibly successful brokerage firm. He is an animal of unconscionable greed, but that’s an abstract analogy; at the real, basic level he’s merely a dude who loves to get wasted. Drugs are “awesome,” he says at the beginning. At the end, cleaned-up and miserable, he says of sobriety “It sucks. I wanna f*ckin’ kill myself.” He does not talk or act like a mature adult. He’s a frat boy. He even argues with his dad about expenses.

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Great movie poster

Matthew McConaughey is outstanding as an incredibly skinny cowboy with AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club.” But I prefer Cocky Badass McConaughey, like in the short flashback scenes that launch “Wolf of Wall Street.” Belfort’s first day on a trading floor, curses are flying over phone calls all around him. (“I couldn’t believe how these guys talked to each other.”) McConaughey, a top dog there, makes a big sale and writes it on a piece of paper. He puts the paper into a tube, and hands the tube to Belfort to insert into an opening while the men around him cheer.

Then they have lunch. McConaughey is getting drunk and snorting cocaine as he lectures on the money game. This lunch is Genesis. “F*ck the client,” McConaughey says. He goes on a brilliant enlightened stoner’s rant, describing investing as “fairy dust.” “We don’t create sh*t and we don’t build anything.” He says “the name of the game” is to move dollars from your client’s pocket into your pocket. Keep the suckers investing, he says, so they’re getting rich “on paper” while the broker pays himself real cash in commissions.

Why? Inserting the tube. McConaughey tells Belfort he needs to jerk off twice a day. Do it often enough and you’ll get good at it, he says, and you’ll start to think about money while you do it.

He begins pounding his chest and growling a song, right there at the table. Belfort will eventually be leading an entire small horny army of trained traders. They will celebrate million-dollar days by pounding their chests and hooting and humping hookers, strippers and each other like crazed apes.

These people are truly crazy. In the first big party at the beginning of the film, they pay a woman $10,000 to let them shave her head. The clippers cut out her long hair as the traders cheer “Scalp! Scalp! Scalp! Scalp!”

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is about apish bad guys. Anyone who thinks this movie glamorizes or endorses its characters has somehow completely missed the point.

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The American Flag. It’s there for a reason. Bill the Butcher draped himself in an American flag for the scene in “Gangs of New York” when he quietly explained his method for maintaining power: “You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.”

There are American flags everywhere in the “Wolf of Wall Street” scene where Belfort confronts the FBI agents investigating him. They’re on Belfort’s yacht, fit for a “Bond villain.” (His words.) He tries to bribe the lead agent. When it doesn’t work—because the agent is Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights” and thus a man of character impeccable—he gets mad and kicks them out. “Good luck on the subway back to your ugly f*cking wives,” Belfort calls as he throws lobsters at them, “I’ll be having Nicole lick caviar off my balls.” Then he pulls a wad of cash from his pocket—”Look what I found! A year’s salary!”—and starts flipping hundreds at the agents as they walk off.

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In real America the government is absolutely bought off by Wall Street. Check out the reporting of Matt Taibbi, an angry genius who might be the best reporter in journalism right now. (I have argued this point with actual reporters. It is an argument I always win. Taibbi is fearlessly covering corruption at the highest levels.)

Taibbi, in fact, wrote a piece for Rolling Stone about Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign, in which he compared Romney’s professional deal making at Bain Capital to a classic scene in “Goodfellas”:

Fans of mob movies will recognize what’s known as the “bust-out,” in which a gangster takes over a restaurant or sporting goods store and then monetizes his investment by running up giant debts on the company’s credit line. (Think Paulie buying all those cases of Cutty Sark in Goodfellas.) When the note comes due, the mobster simply torches the restaurant and collects the insurance money. Reduced to their most basic level, the leveraged buyouts engineered by Romney followed exactly the same business model. “It’s the bust-out,” one Wall Street trader says with a laugh. “That’s all it is.”

Here’s a picture of young Mitt Romney:

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Did Romney ever bang his blonde wife on a heap of cash like Leo’s Belfort? I bet yes.

There’s a part where Belfort starts explaining what an IPO is into the camera, then he stops. You don’t care about this, he tells us. And it doesn’t matter anyway. His life is about the spoils. He’s destroying people’s lives to satisfy an insatiable need to be wasted at all times. He says the N-word, flies a helicopter hammered, and picks up gorgeous women while his wife watches. The first time he shows his underlings how to convince a potential investor to sign, he keeps lying to the targeted middle-class sap over speaker phone while he simulates raunchy sex moves in the air and flips off the phone. The silly minions cover their mouths to keep from cracking up.

This phone scene is what they should show for DiCaprio’s clip right before the Best Actor Oscar is announced. It is so mean, and so funny. The timing is flawless, where he’s finally putting his dick up inside an imaginary sex partner exactly as the sap agrees to invest. Belfort hates the guy on the other end of the phone, and he gets a raw, sexual rush from taking his money.

Belfort and his lackeys aren’t gangsters. Blood sprays once in this movie, and it makes Belfort’s partner (Jonah Hill, who’s perfect) puke. They aren’t killers; they’re douche bags. Because of what they did, though, and how they lived, they are definitely villains, and this makes them absolutely worthy of Scorsese’s cinematic magic. (Huge set pieces are full of moving parts—see the poster—and his camera goes everywhere.)

In Scorsese’s great modern classics, zany villains have been side characters. Tommy was funny like a clown, and “Goodfellas” wasn’t about him. “Gangs of New York” wasn’t about the Butcher, and “Departed” wasn’t about Costello.

Finally, the craziest bad guy is out front. He’s a wolf, and a clown.

Belfort drives even though he’s so wasted he can’t talk or walk. Cocaine-fueled cartoons like him have owned America’s economy. That’s legitimately funny, but it’s also terrifying. Like Tommy.

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