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This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in a scene from ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ (AP)
‘Wolf’ ignites online brouhaha War over Scorsese’s latest epic

LOS ANGELES, Jan 1, (RTRS): If your social media networks contain film critics, film fans or filmmakers, it’s likely you spent the week after Christmas reading less about what people received from Santa and their resolutions for 2014 and more heated posts about “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Martin Scorsese’s latest epic of male bad behavior, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life stockbroker and fraudster Jordan Belfort, was always destined to generate controversy, from its three-hour running time to its explicit depiction of drugs, sex and overspending among financial titans. The donnybrook that has emerged online, however, covers much broader ground: Is Scorsese, some viewers ask, satirizing the outrageous behavior he’s portraying onscreen, or is he celebrating it? Belfort, after all, gets off (spoiler alert) with a slap on the wrist for his crimes, and the film never takes a pronounced stance regarding Belfort and his colleagues bilking their clients out of millions of dollars.

The brouhaha erupted Dec. 26, just one day after the film’s Christmas opening, when CinemaScore revealed the rating that “Wolf of Wall Street” got from first-night audiences: a lowly C, considerably below “Grudge Match,” a critically lambasted movie that opened the same day. As The Dissolve’s Matt Singer lamented on Twitter, “GRUDGE MATCH Cinemascore: B+. WOLF OF WALL STREET Cinemascore: C. HahahahahahahaHAHAHAHAHAHAHAhahahahehehohgodwhy” That lack of support from audiences, leading to less-than-dazzling word of mouth, drove “Wolf” from being second place on Christmas Day to several notches behind for the five-day weekend. CinemaScore, it should be noted, has drawn heat this year for not necessarily reflecting the overall response of the moviegoing public; as’s Erik Childress observed, only eight films in 2013 scored less than a C+, meaning that “Wolf” was nestled at the bottom of the list with “The Counselor,” “The Family,” “The Last Exorcism Part II,” “Movie 43,” “The Purge,” “Runner Runner” and “Scary Movie V.”

“The Wolf of Wall Street,” it bears noting, scored a strong 76% among film critics on aggregrator site, with an even more impressive 79% from fans. That still leaves one-fourth of critics giving the movie a “Rotten,” of course; Alynda Wheat of People magazine wrote, “There’s nothing exotic or empathetic about a bunch of scheming, loathsome creeps given a whole movie in which to play (again) on our dime.  There are no wages of sin on this ‘Street’ — in fact, it looks like sin pays pretty damned well.” Meanwhile, Joe Morgenstern at the Wall Street Journal called the film “three hours of incessant shouting and sensationally bad behavior ... It’s meant to be an entertaining, even meaningful representation of the penny-stock maestro’s life and times. But I couldn’t buy it, and couldn’t wait for the hollow spectacle to end.”

Scorsese himself was on the receiving end of an early attack following a screening at the Academy before the film’s release. Actress Hope Holiday posted on Facebook that an Oscar voter yelled “Shame!” at Scorsese after the Dec. 21 screening. (Holiday, as film critic David Ehrenstein later noted, appeared in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” and “Irma La Douce,” both of which were considered shocking and envelope-pushing in their day.) The anti-”Wolf” sentiment really heated up with the Dec. 26 publication of “An Open Letter to the Makers of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ and the Wolf Himself” in L.A. Weekly. Written by Christina McDowell — daughter of Tom Prousalis, who went to jail because of Belfort’s testimony — the article attacks Scorsese and DiCaprio, making clear much her family has suffered due to Belfort’s machinations and her father’s complicity.

She calls Scorsese and DiCaprio “dangerous,” the film “reckless,” and asks, “Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.” McDowell’s letter — and an accompanying piece by Paul Teetor, “10 Reasons Why the Real-Life ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Is a Schmuck Who Shouldn’t Be Glamorized” — made their way onto a lot of Facebook news feeds, which in turn drew response from defenders of the film who have pointed out that merely portraying behavior is not the same as endorsing it.

“I still remember Jonathan Demme saying, ‘I want to make this clear: I support making skin suits out of dead people,’” tweeted Cinema Styles and Turner Classic Movies writer Greg Ferrara about the “Silence of the Lambs” director. And filmmaker David Kittredge posted on Facebook, “It is singularly depressing that anybody has to point out that ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is a satire. I mean — seriously? In other news, “Dr. Strangelove” was not pro-Armageddon, Jonathan Swift did not want anybody to eat babies and “Network” didn’t advocate live television assassinations. A.O. Scott’s wrestling with whether or not Scorsese ‘glorifies’ Jordan Belfort’s insane life in the first half of the film makes me want to strap him down and make him watch ‘Salo.’”

Perhaps the most full-throated defense of Scorsese’s methods came from critic Nick Pinkerton, blogging at It’s must reading for anyone who’s got a dog in either side of this hunt, but in a nutshell, he warns against assuming that you, the viewer, understand the artist’s intent while “they,” the rest of the audience, will take everything at face value. Pinkerton writes, “While smart critics generally make a virtue of ‘ambiguity’ and ‘shades of gray’ in festival fare or films that play for the self-selecting cinephile set, this sort of hand-wringing censure seems to be reserved for movies that, like ‘Wolf,’ have a certain amount of entertainment value, and will potentially play for large, diverse audiences that, unlike cinephile sophistos, presumably aren’t so well equipped to navigate the straits of moral ambiguity without binary lighthouses to guide their way.”

Back in the days of the Motion Picture Production Code, filmmakers were forbidden from telling any stories in which crimes were not punished, and it always had to be made clear that criminal behavior was unacceptable. We now live in an era in which storytellers are free to portray such behavior without overtly moralizing about it or telling the audience what they’re supposed to think. Scorsese freely admits his film is brutal, acknowledging to TheWrap that it is definitely “not for everyone’s taste.” “It’s not made for 14 year olds,” he observed then.

On Monday, DiCaprio spoke up for “Wolf of Wall Street,” telling one trade publication, “I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, that we’re indicting it. The book was a cautionary tale and if you sit through the end of the film, you’ll realize what we’re saying about these people and this world, because it’s an intoxicating one.” Back in August, though, he certainly endorsed Belfort’s skills as an orator and motivator of men. Whether or not “The Wolf of Wall Street” is ultimately considered a successful or important film — and whether or not Belfort becomes the kind of anti-hero role model that the fictional Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street” became in some circles — is up to film history to decide. How this ongoing back-and-forth affects box office and Oscar consideration may be Paramount’s more pressing concern, but neither will be the last word on the subject.

Screen violence can be a gateway drug to other kinds of vices, according to a new study by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Take “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt tear off each other’s clothes when they’re not unloading rounds, or any James Bond movie featuring the ultra-suave super agent taking his license to kill out for a spin and washing it down with a martini — shaken, not stirred. They’ve got plenty of company. More than half of the highest grossing PG-13 movies over the past 25 years featured characters acting violently while also drinking, engaging in sexual behavior or smoking. The post-aggressive pleasure seeking usually happened within a five-minute segment, researchers found. “These are risky behaviors that teens have been known to engage in — behaviors like smoking, drinking and sex,” Amy Bleakley, lead author of the study and a senior research scientist at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, told TheWrap. “We know there’s evidence that teens imitate what they see on screen, which is problematic given that these behaviors are linked with violence.”

The implication is that the ratings system established by the Motion Picture Association of America to give parents a tool for figuring out what films are appropriate for children is flawed. Bolstering that argument is another recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which found that gun violence in PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985 and that movies with that rating contained more gun violence than the top-grossing R-rated movies in 2012. “It seems like (the ratings system) is not necessarily doing the job it set out to do in terms of shielding youth from inappropriate content,” Bleakley said. For studios, PG-13 is the most desirable rating and the one they seek for blockbuster hopefuls such as “Iron Man 3? and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” because it allows them to access a broader audience than R-rated films. The MPAA has made some moves of late to strengthen its system. Last spring, the studio-backed organization kicked off a “check-the-box” campaign, that included more expansive ratings descriptors for movies and that made the ratings blocks that accompany films more prominent in advertisements.

“It’s important to remember that a PG-13 is a strong warning to parents about the content of a film, and it is accompanied by a descriptor that gives parents specific detail about which elements of the film warranted the rating,” Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the MPAA, said in a statement to TheWrap. “The purpose of the rating system is to reflect the standards of American parents, not set them ñ the rating board tries to rate a film the way they believe a majority of American parents would rate it. Societal standards change over time and the rating system is built to change with them.” To be fair, there has been fierce ongoing debates for years about the impact that movie and television violence has on real world violence without any definitive conclusions. Moreover, it’s not just PG-13 films. Nearly 90 percent of the top-grossing movies from 1985-2010 feature main characters acting violently, and in 77 percent of the movies those characters also engage in sexual behaviors, consume alcohol or smoke, the study claims.

However, just as smoking has declined in the United States as people become more attuned to the health risks associated with the behavior, so too has tobacco use in films dropped dramatically. Tobacco use by main characters occurred in 68 percent of the movies studied from 1985, but in just 21.4 percent in 2010. Smoking was also more prevalent in R-rated movies than in PG-13 films (57 percent to 30.1 percent). Movie characters also are less likely to enjoy a cocktail today than they were in the Reagan era. From 1985 to 2010, alcohol use in movies fell from 89.6 percent to 67.3 percent, the study showed.
To arrive at they study’s conclusions, researchers examined 390 movies drawn from the 30 top-grossing movies each year from 1985, the first full year that the PG-13 rating was instituted. The study was published in the January 2014 issue of “Pediatrics” and funding was provided by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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