Archive for September, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Gordon Gekko’s release from prison, thoroughly documented in the trailer of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” takes place near the beginning of the film and provides the gag that also serves as the movie’s clearest link between past and present: the return of Gekko’s Motorola DynaTac 8000X, a bulky relic of a mobile phone long eclipsed as a state-of-the-art communication device. In an instant, director Oliver Stone conjures the brilliant visual flair that has been missing from his work for at least the last decade. And then the movie settles down, Gekko disappears for the rest of the exposition, and “Money Never Sleeps” lumbers along, not bullish but most definitely bearish – hibernation imminent.

The sequel’s enticing title suggests an exhilarating race through the high-stakes world of stocks and bonds, but Stone settles instead for a lukewarm summary of the recent global financial crisis. Set on the eve of the 2008 meltdown, “Money Never Sleeps” substitutes fictionalized emblems for the likes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman Sachs, but the broad shorthand divides good from evil with a zeal that eliminates any moral shadings that might have stirred greater audience interest.

Admittedly, Shia LaBeouf’s idealistic hotshot Jacob Moore flirts with the dark side, even keeping secrets from fiancée Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be Gekko’s estranged daughter. There is no doubt, however, that LaBeouf’s green energy-embracing trader wears the white hat: he genuinely believes in the saltwater laser fusion outfit he champions to potential investors, he buys Winnie a shimmering boulder of an engagement ring, and he cries at the death of his principled mentor. Meanwhile, devilish billionaire villain Bretton James (Josh Brolin) crows about his rare study of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” and puppeteers closed-door, dimly lit meetings of the Federal Reserve Board when he is not busy sharpening the tines of his pitchfork.

Once Gekko slithers into the center of the action, “Money Never Sleeps” briefly perks up, with Michael Douglas in full possession of the dangerous twinkle that allows his iconic inside trader/traitor to straddle the line between antagonist and anti-hero. Unfortunately, Mulligan shares few scenes with Douglas, whose character is far more comfortable “recognizing a fellow fisherman” in his future son in law. The father-daughter conflict proves no more than a convenient plot mechanism, and Mulligan pays the price. Despite her greater share of screen time, Mulligan is nearly overshadowed by nonagenarian national treasure Eli Wallach, whose whistled cuckoo trills suggest that he might be the only actor in the enterprise playfully winking at the material.

Weirdly, Stone eventually asks us to believe that the soulless, reptilian, backstabber Gekko recognizes the fragility and transience of life, and “Money Never Sleeps” ends with a howler of a feel-good birthday party, criminally scored to “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” by the Talking Heads in a reprise of the original 1987 “Wall Street” closing credits. That song contains the line “Never for money/Always for love,” a sentiment Stone sidesteps, overlooks, or ignores for the duration of the movie that has preceded it.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/27/10.

The Town

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Ben Affleck returns to Boston in “The Town,” a generically titled reference to armed bank robbery academy Charlestown, the gentrified neighborhood that tough Irish mobsters once called home. Based on Chuck Hogan’s 2004 novel “Prince of Thieves,” “The Town” swings hard for Fenway’s Green Monster, and its pastiche of blue-collar drama, class-divide courtship, and jittery heist thriller will appeal to viewers who enjoy the adrenaline rush of movies like Michael Mann’s “Heat,” to which “The Town” owes a sizable debt. Despite the repetition of its shootouts, Affleck the filmmaker confidently stages car chases and gun battles, even if his facility with delicate romance lacks the same flair.

As a director, Affleck fails to top the quality of his debut “Gone Baby Gone,” due in no small measure to the challenge of pulling double duty as lead actor. Affleck’s Doug MacCray is pure Hollywood fantasy: a vicious thug and thief capable of tenderness and compassion. While the other members of his gang pound whiskey, sober MacRay nurses cranberry juice and a broken heart over the long-ago disappearance of his fragile mother. It is no wonder that he falls for Rebecca Hall’s Claire Keesey, the bank manager kidnapped and terrorized by MacRay’s disguised crew during a successful stickup. Of course, Claire has no idea that her new boyfriend held her hostage at gunpoint, and the viewers wait anxiously for the other shoe to drop.

Doug’s feelings for Claire strain the bond he shares with childhood friend Jem (Jeremy Renner), a combustible sociopath on a collision course with the FBI agents closing the net on the crooks. Also complicating Doug’s life is Jem’s sister Krista (Blake Lively), a single mother and drug addict whose child may or may not have been fathered by Doug. Unfortunately, the masculine swagger of “The Town” leaves little for the two key female characters to do, and both Hall and Lively take it on the chin, although the latter shares a terrific scene in a gritty dive with John Hamm’s federal agent. No believable explanation is offered for the ease and speed with which the more sophisticated Claire falls for the jagged Doug, and the movie’s twist on Stockholm syndrome is its most problematic component.

“The Town” has already been sized up against other Boston-set movies, including “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “The Departed,” and “Mystic River,” and the city certainly announces its presence as a colorful, major character. Shots of the Bunker Hill Monument, the Charles River, the Zakim Bridge and the dense maze of North End construction abet the filmmaker’s desire for credibility, even if locals will scoff at the range of accents displayed by the cast members. The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr helpfully points out to residents and non-residents alike that “The Town” takes place in Movie Boston, and reminds the hyper-sensitive Suffolk County skeptics who chortled during the trailer that one of author Hogan’s aims was to comment on the drawbacks of border-defined insularity. Affleck, as expected, is more interested in getting the fantasy right, and on that score, “The Town” is not half bad.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/20/10.

Winter’s Bone

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Bleak, laconic and as chilling as its title, “Winter’s Bone” shares a rarely seen snapshot of American poverty and despair in rural Missouri. Based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, director Debra Granik’s adaptation exchanges Woodrell’s poetry – which can feel simultaneously sinewy and rawboned – with a more lived-in realism that suggests documentary as much as tragic fable. Following the backwoods Ozark Mountains odyssey of seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who must quickly locate her missing father Jessup Dolly or lose the family property, “Winter’s Bone” earned top honors at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where it was also recognized for its screenplay, written by Granik and Anne Rosellini.

“Winter’s Bone” operates on the surface as a quiet procedural, in which Ree risks her life by assuming a role that makes her part bounty hunter, part detective, and all tenacious daughter. Despite her youth, Ree manages a household comprised of her barely functioning mother and two younger siblings, who entirely depend on their older sister for survival. Neither Granik nor Lawrence sentimentalize the character, whose fierce dedication to her loved ones knots around a generations-spanning code of behavior that governs the actions of clan and kin, especially in the service of settling disputes internally and keeping legal authorities as far away as possible.

“Winter’s Bone” is not a perfect film, and its greatest deficiency is the way it underutilizes the indispensable and magnetic John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s uncle and reluctant ally. In “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” “Deadwood,” and an impressive number of other television and film credits, Hawkes has built a reputation as a phenomenal talent. As Jessup’s brother Haslam, who goes by the nickname Teardrop, Hawkes dances from livewire menace to haunted paranoia to dutiful resignation. He surely doesn’t want to discover his brother’s fate, as that knowledge will demand the kind of retaliation that can only end in his own murder.

One of Granik’s toughest, smartest, and most surprising choices is the almost total elision of scenes in which methamphetamine openly claims the center of the action. Instead, the drug and all of its painful, destructive ravages disperse through the movie’s atmosphere like a menacing cloud of toxicity. Ree turns down several offers to snort crank, but at no time does Granik resort to sensationalized ravings of high abusers that typically come standard in mediated interpretations of films with the illegal drug trade as subject. The audience never sees an active crystal meth lab or anyone engaged in the manufacturing process. As a character named Megan points out when Ree mentions that Jessup is known for his crank cooking, “Honey, they all do now. You don’t even need to say it out loud.”

At one point, Ree meets with a representative of the United States Army, played by non-actor and professional recruiter Russell Schalk, to find out how quickly she might be able to secure the signing bonus that would ease the pressure to make ends meet (and offer Ree the opportunity to escape the black hole of her foreseeable future). In just a few short minutes, Schalk’s character thoughtfully, even tenderly, dismantles Ree’s desperate naivete. One of the film’s most powerful scenes, it serves as a reminder of Ree’s daily hand-to-mouth struggle as well as the extent to which she is rooted to an unsustainable way of life. Along with a scene in which Ree begs her catatonic mother for help, we are only offered these briefest reminders that the film’s heroine is still a teenager.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/13/10.

The American

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Legendary music video director and rock photographer Anton Corbijn’s second foray into feature filmmaking presents George Clooney as “The American.” Loosely based on Martin Booth’s 1990 novel “A Very Private Gentleman,” the movie delights in subverting action, espionage, and thriller genre expectations by way of a stylistic monasticism that withholds the trappings of wall-to-wall gunplay, high-speed car chases, and the otherworldly refutation of the laws of logic and physics. The film’s deliberate pacing and contemplative silences and stillness complement Corbijn’s artful sense of spatial dynamics, which are gorgeously framed by cinematographer Martin Ruhe in frequent long shot.

Clooney plays a tight-lipped gunman known to some as Jack and to others as Edward. A formidable opponent, Jack eludes death in a Swedish snowscape, but makes a regrettable decision that casts a shadow of impending doom over his relocation to Italy, where he agrees to craft a high-powered rifle for a demanding and beautiful client. Jack is resourceful and disciplined, and moves with the economy of a person who long ago grew eyes on the back of his head. Clooney is adept at comedy and drama, and knows there is little to laugh at in the contours of this stealthy killer. At one point, a clip of Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” plays on a TV in a café, reminding us that sometimes, our favorite good guys need to be bad,

“The American” has drawn comparisons to the poetics of Michelangelo Antonioni and the impossible cool of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai,” and Corbijn goes out of his way to match the tailored, impeccable elegance of Alain Delon and the monochromatic palette of Francois de Lamothe’s ferociously spartan production design and set decoration. The movie also brings to mind Jim Jarmusch’s killer-for-hire films “The Limits of Control” and “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” but Corbijn’s straighter portrait lacks most of Jarmusch’s irony and all of his absurdity.

Even though Corbijn strips away plenty of Hollywood fat, he never fully accounts for some wonderfully implausible embroidery, including the title character’s ongoing dialogue with a thoughtful priest, a senior thesis project’s worth of butterfly symbolism, and a whore with a heart of gold (a world-class beauty as played by Violante Placido, one marvels that she works out of a tiny Italian village). The “one last job” premise goes hand in glove with the inescapable occupational hazard often identified as the “you can never leave” clause, which makes one wonder how any master assassin of the movies could be so deluded to think that a safe and pleasant retirement awaits.

Deliberately, the viewer never learns key details that would shed light on Jack’s journey or personal history, and the mystery encourages an amount of anxiety that serves Corbijn’s detached agenda. Without knowing whether the protagonist works for a government or as a mercenary or as a willing hand to the highest bidder, we never get a grip on the man’s sympathies and allegiances. Certainly, Jack understands the consequences of his vocation, and at one point – since he knows better than to ask who will be on the receiving end of a bullet from the weapon he has built – he resigns himself to the likelihood that he will soon read about the result of his gunsmithing.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/6/10.