Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. The Bitch is Back

In 1987, Oliver Stone made a strident, prancing picture about Wall Street greed, staring Michael Douglas as a soulless hedge-fund broker who made a killing by buying and gutting companies. Based loosely on the Drexel-Burnham-Lambert scandals, the film was a screed against financial rapaciousness, with Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, quotably declaring that “greed is good” as he destroys workers’ lives, while Charlie Sheen, as his protégé Bud Fox, works up the nerve to go against him (though for his own personal gain).

Sometime in the last few years Mr. Stone must have decided that the time was right for a reprise – only this time, events got ahead of him. The greed, stupidity, scandalousness, and rapaciousness of the financial crisis of 2008 / 2009 far surpassed anything that could be fictionalized or imagined by a single Hollywood director, even one with such ever present conspiratorial outlook as Mr. Stone. So while in Wall Street 2, Mr. Stone has Douglas reprise his Gordon Gekko (newly released from federal prison) and sets up a new protégé to do battle (Shia LaBeouf, who’s about to marry Gekko’s resentful daughter), the real story of greed and rapaciousness here is the actual recent news events, and that far out shadows the family drama of a pitiable Eighties trader.

However, Stone does a wonderful job of distilling that scandal into a couple of key characters and companies, personalizing it and retelling it in the context of his fictionalized Gekko family drama. The result is perhaps better than the original: more truthful and complex, though admittedly without the same dramatic punch as the original.

What we have here are a couple of stand-ins: Keller Zabel for Lehman brothers; Bretton James’ company for Goldman Sachs, and the story we get is largely the true history of how the Fed let Lehman fail and how Goldman picked up the pieces of the fallout while betting against the economy. There’s even some nearly word-for-word quoting of Hank Paulson as well as a fictionalized retelling of Matt Tiabbi’s Goldman expose in "Rolling Stone."

Perhaps as fascinating as the film was a little short piece of right-wing propaganda that my theater played just before the showing. This was some campaign film naturally declaring Obama/Pelosi as socialists out to micromanage the economy. Apparently meant to appeal to the hard-core financial audience for Stone’s movie, I found it ironic, since it’s the Republicans in the film who propose the biggest socialist act in history: Nationalizing the banks in order to save the world from calamity. To that act of government largess, none of the bankers in the room object for a second, since it basically means saving their scratch from their own popping bubble and putting them back in the game for another round of profit taking.

LaBeouf plays Jake Moore – a prop trader himself, working for the doomed Lehman stand-in. When Lehman falls, he gets his motive for revenge…and incidentally runs into his fiancés father, Gekko, who begins steering Jake for his own nefarious purposes (Gekko needs to recover some funds squirreled away in Switzerland so he can get himself back in the game). Gekko’s daughter Winnie, naturally, wants nothing to do with her ex-con father (she’s incarnated herself as a liberal, and internet blogger to boot), and so this sets up the movie’s emotional tension as Jake goes down the same route of lies and deceit as her father.

However, Stone is careful to delineate a difference between the young Jake and the manipulative Gekko. Gekko describes money as a woman – a seductress, really – who “never sleeps,” and it’s clear from the start that Gekkio is still deeply smitten. While both men have the “hunger” and personality type of a dedicated trader (addicted to fast bikes, thrills, and the macho posturing of the game), Jake also has a soft spot: instead of investing to tear down companies, he wants to build one up, specifically a company exploring a new type of fusion that could revolutionize the world’s energy supply. In other words, he’s a macho asshole with a liberal dream, unlike Winnie’s father, who’s just a macho asshole. This may be why Winnie has fallen in love with him.

But I liked this thematic distinction, because what Stone seems to be suggesting here is that there really are two sides to finance – yes, it allows assholes like Gekko and Bretton with money and connections to suck billions of dollars out of the economy for their own personal enrichment (Tiabi’s sucking squid). But finance is also the necessary fuel that allows industry, research, and innovation to move the world forward. Without investors, we would have no iPads, no wind turbines, no solutions to global problems like hunger and disease. So while Wall Street 1 was a screed, Wall Street 2 is more subtle: a cry of the heart, really, at how our best instincts and noble intentions are constantly betrayed by the greed of human nature.

LeBeouf is also a more emotive actor than Charlie Sheen, and can express deep feeling with authenticity, and so this film has an emotional core that the first Wall Street lacked. If anything, this film is Shia’s coming out movie, as he finally exhibits a range here that will serve him well as a leading man for years to come. Stone does an admirable job of simplifying the complex story of our recent economic implosion and tying it to the simple family dynamics of a family falling apart, or a mother living off the generosity of her son.

There is one thing, however, that irritated me, and that was how quickly, in the end, that Winnie forgives not only her beau (which clearly – being pregnant – she needs to) but also her father (who does nothing whatsoever to deserve it). Perhaps what Stone was suggesting here is how Winnie is like the American public, mad for a time at how they’ve been screwed, but quick to forgive both the necessary and the greedy elements of our financial system. It’s nice as a metaphor, but lacking in dramatic realism. This may be what some critics don’t like about the movie, which is how thin the Gekko story seems in the end.

But that’s to be expected. When the world is falling in, the problems of one small crook hardly amount to a hill of beans. I’m glad Stone decided to go after the larger story here. If anyone can personalize the drama of epic, nihilistic, self-destructive, American greed, it’s Oliver Stone.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Get Low: Tennessee Tale of Redemption

My prediction: Get Low will be remembered at Oscar time – at the very least for Robert Duval’s headline performance as an old coot planning to have a funeral party before he kicks the bucket, if not for supporting actors like Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray or the real heart of the movie, the cinematography and set design. In fact, this is probably the first serious contention in this year’s Oscar race.

For this is a movie in which a lot of extraordinary loving talent has been hung on a rather simple story. Though the ending revelation is a bit under whelming (if you can fault this movie for anything, it’s for a lot of cackling resulting in a tiny egg), getting there is pure enjoyment.

It’s the 1920’s and the film portrays the tension between rustic and modern eras beautifully: horseless carriages careen down the road, drivers wear leather gloves and bill caps and ladies wear hats, photographers have learned to gussy up pictures with fake backgrounds and poses, and yet the center of town is an unpaved road and a coffin serves as a better depository than a bank.

In the middle of this is Duval as Felix Bush, a bearded, cranky shut-in hiding away on 300 acres of raw beauty in the Tennessee hills. He chases away the boys who throw stones through his windows with a shotgun, builds his own furniture, makes a killer rabbit stew, and has a daguerreotype of an old flame which he cherishes like a religious chalice. To describe him as a throwback is an understatement. He’s more of a force of nature, a kind of human Hades, inhabiting his own private hell. One of those rock-throwing boys grows up to be Buddy, a new father and apprentice to Bill Murray’s funeral director. When Bush comes looking for a funeral before he’s dead, Buddy spies an opportunity to make some money for the flagging funeral parlor, and they become the sponsor of Bush’s improbable event.

But it turns out that this is no simple “funeral party.” What it really is is an elaborate confession – the story of what’s driven Bush to shut himself away for almost forty years, denying himself not only the comforts of modern life but of human companionship. You see he’s done something terrible – not the terrible things the town gossip about, but some actual heartbreak – and he’s been punishing himself for it ever since. Bush’s self-inflicted punishment is to slowly rid himself of everything around him, not only companionship, but also his legacy, and eventually even his land.

The beauty of the story isn’t so much in what this terrible act is…as I said, it turns out to be a bit lightweight, in the end. Instead, it’s in how Bush manipulates the people around him to carry out what’s essentially an elaborate attempt for a recluse to give his big confession at public speaking. Bush has to enlist Sissy Spacek’s Mattie as well as an old preacher (played by Bill Cobbs) to really be able to tell his story.

In the process, we slowly get to understand Bush’s character. He’s both smarter, and more savvy, than he comes off. “We’re all a mix of light and dark,” says Bush’s preacher. Even though that’s so, eventually we understand that there are still two types of people in the world: those who are ruled by the good side, and those who, when the going gets tough, will succumb to the dark. Bush, like Bill Murray’s funeral director, has always been the latter. But Buddy is the former, and as the two of them drive around the Midwest pursuing their machinations for Bush’s confession, they form a mutual understanding and bond.

So even though the story appears, on its surface, to be about a wounded man finally making his confession to the town, what it’s really about is the idea of trust and character. Everyone in the town believes from the start that Bush cannot be trusted. And possibly he can’t. But as Bush sizes up the character of those around him, he’s able to find the right people he can trust with his soul.

No detail in this film is wasted. Whether it be the shades of light and dark streaming through the Tennessee forest, or Bush’s parable about a dog’s dream (“we think a dog is dreaming about rabbits, but what can we know what a dog really dreams?”), each detail exposes the nature of the characters and draws us along the story.

The one complaint about the movie is that the essential act – Bush’s original sin, if you will – is never sufficiently dramatized. Though Duval delivers a masterful recitation of what’s brought his life to this point, the final revelation falls a bit flat, compared to all that’s come before. Bush is essentially in the act of disappearing, and in the end, he does. Perhaps he does so a bit too completely, because from what we get to see in this film, he really is a remarkable flawed and human character, one that we would be happy to continue to have learned more about.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The American: Reinventing the Spaghetti Western

The American is one of those difficult, against-the-times, auteur-driven films that I suspect many audiences will be disappointed in and which I absolutely loved.

First, let’s explain what director Anton Corbijn is doing. He has created a slow paced, romantic film about a sensitive assassin (a character of possibly military past who has developed sufficient tricks for staying alive so far, but has stayed too long in the business; not too dissimilar from Fred Zinneman’s Jackal). Using wide framing shots of the Norwegian and Italian landscapes, as well as techniques of Italian cinema (off-center camera, distanced point of view, loving scenes of Clooney’s daily morning gymnastics), Corbijn evokes the feeling of a bygone era. There are no slam cuts in this movie, no pounding techno soundtrack, no overly hip dialogue or sound effects to distract and bombard the viewer. This makes it seem like a film from another age. At the same time, it makes me remember what movie-goers use to love about cinema: the ability of the camera to take you deeply into a simple story.

The set-up is basically that of a Western. Clooney’s character, Jack, comes to town (Castle del Monte – Castle on the Hill – which is a quaint Italian Tuscan town that is literally a fortress). He’s being chased by unknown assassins (“the Swedes”) and has been asked by his handler to perform one last job. The job turns out to be building a weapon (which he’s supremely good at doing) for a beautiful female hit-woman to use on some big hit, while he lays low in this anonymous town. We see the locals practically scatter behind the doorframes and shutters as Jack rolls in: they smell trouble. Jack has been told to not make any friends (lest he get them – or himself – killed), but he immediately ignores that advice and makes two essential ones: the local priest, who becomes Jack's confessor, and Clara, a beautiful prostitute who finds herself falling for Clooney’s silent-but-deadly type.

Corbijn wants to keep the movie as Zen-like and spare as possible, and so we get no information about who the intended target of the assassination might be or even very clear revelations about who wants him dead (though there are clearly some implications). This – like the slow pacing and loving shots of Italian scenery – is likely to displease some movie-goers who are used to finding their assassin movies delivering esoteric but digestible answers about brainwashing, the CIA, Arab terrorists, or some such pleasing conspiracy. The American traffics in none of that and some people may find that leaves the movie uncomfortably empty. I found it a refreshing relief and something of a rare treat. Think of this as Italian cinema borrowing Western tropes starring an American actor. It must have been a thrill for Corbijn to recreate the Sergio Leone style in his homeland and that pure enjoyment in film making is contagious for those who appreciate these things.

Corbijn does have to supply and ending of some sort and the one he comes up with is impossibly romantic (there’s a metaphor of the butterfly – Jack’s nickname, in fact – which is the one heavy-handed gesture, used like a splash of bright color in an otherwise drab painting). As Clooney creates his gun for the female assassin, we see how the two are naturally suited for each other – there’s a lovely dialogue in a meadow where the two pretend to have a picnic, and she asks Jack to shoot the gun at her so she can assess the craft behind the silencer (and only the most naïve moviegoer could miss the metaphor). But ah, such love is not meant to be, and Jack instead must place his affections, and hope for salvation, in the hands of the blank but pretty prostitute. One senses that there is a cycle here (in fact, this is about the point of the relationship where we first entered the movie, with a different…one assumes…prostitute, and that relationship didn’t end well), but this time, Jack is determined to change his fate, and that of his lover.

It’s no coincidence that Jack has chosen to befriend a Priest, another “sinner” who seems to be able to speak a simple truth that has so far eluded him. That truth, a traditional Catholic idea of confession and forgiveness illustrated in an unconventional context, drives Jack’s ultimate decision to change his fate. Jack’s decision to embrace what’s essentially a romantic image of salvation seems – well, a bit contrived – but is forgivable, given all that Corbijn has done throughout the movie to earn his ending sentiment.

The American is actually fully Italian, then: beautiful, deliberate, spare, symbolic, Catholic, overly sentimental. And a throwback to the great Italian Neorealismo of the Sixties.

Hot Tub Time Machine: All Wet

As a Judd Apatow rip-off, the premise of Hot Tub Time Machine has possibility: send a crew of dead-ender forty-somethings back to their twenties where they have to re-live a lost weekend, avoiding the mistakes they made the first time around.

As a forty-something myself, I get the sense the movie is trying to talk to me: see, this is your generation it is saying…or, rather, gurgling incoherently…and certainly the movie gets the costume design for 1986 mostly right. The big hair, spandex, and wrap-around sunglasses speak to me of my youth.

But that’s about the only familiar reference in this film.

The characters here have been only half fleshed-out, the jokes omitted, the plot half-baked. That might be enjoyable if we were half baked, but for a movie aiming at the forty-something generation, something more needs to be delivered.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the film is the implications it holds for its actors, specifically John Cusack (as one of the four friends who are inadvertently sent to relive their youths via the machinations of a malfunctioning ski lodge hot tub) and Chevy Chase (as the inscrutable hot tub repair man who mumbles clues as to the problem). Both of these actors seem to have fallen into some kind of casting parody of their former careers and with such stalwart figures, it’s a bit sad to see. Only Rob Corddry – as the most dead-ended of the dead-end friends – seems to be having fun in this flick, but even his brand of stupid-pet-tricks humor feels diluted.

The friends relive the critical night from the past and end up circumventing their fates through their foreknowledge of the future. Thus nothing in the movie gets learned and watching Corddry get set-up for the “big fight” is a bit like watching a truck crew lay asphalt: it takes forever to manipulate and you know it’s going to be flat in the end anyway.

Which is a shame, since the Eighties are really ripe for a good parody. Some good music (Haircut 100 or ABC) plus a genuine love interest or ambition of some sort at stake could have really brought this flick back from the dead. One is tempted to compare to the recent Greenberg, another movie about a forty-something loser that really has its finger on the culture change. Both movies suggest that there was something special about the generation who came of age listening to ska, inventing the mobile phone, wearing skinny lapels, and deluding themselves into thinking that some kind of pure, romantic art (music, writing, pot smoking, whatever) could be a salvation from the relentless advance of techno-business.

There’s a wounded, nostalgic heart at the center of this Time Machine, but Hot Tub never washes it off enough to see it. Instead, we get the kind of movie that these characters would have instantly dismissed as half-ass and cynical. Hot Tub keeps circulating around some kind of ripe joke, and I appreciate the sentiment, but better luck next time around, boys.