Saturday, September 25, 2010

One Scene in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a flawed movie. Gordon Gekko gets out of prison, turns ruthless money-monger once again, and then turns loving family man. Meanwhile, at times, the movie becomes a Michael Moore-type muckraking documentary about the excesses of the economic collapse. Perhaps that’s the film Oliver Stone wanted to make.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is also a silly movie. Stone uses children’s soap bubbles as a symbol of the recent bursting of the economic bubble. A mere glimpse of this image might have been clever. But the camera follows a single bubble up and up and up, making sure we get the point of this simplistic symbolism, and the bubbles come back AGAIN at the end of the movie. Also, the cameo appearances of Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox, his face pasty, his acting horrid, and of Oliver Stone himself as a sort of documentary-style talking head, are simply ludicrous.

Any strength in this film can be found in some of the cinematography (a shot of the Empire State Building through nighttime mist that is to die for) and in the performances of Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan. As Jake Moore, a hotshot investor who is snared by the allure of the devious Gordon Gekko, LaBeouf proves he can take on a mature roll and that he is not just an unlikely boyfriend for Jennifer Fox in an action movie with more explosions than World War II. As Winnie Gekko, Gordon’s estranged daughter, Jake’s social activist fiancé, Mulligan negotiates a tricky role with conviction and presence.

But the purpose of this post is not to analyze this film as a whole, partly because I am at a loss when it comes to explaining the economic strategies employed by characters to ruin other characters. I’m not a Wall Street expert – never have been. In fact, I wasn’t a big fan of the original Wall Street, and I would be unable to explain exactly what Gekko and Bud Fox do to make thier big bucks. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the economic chicanery is even more elusively explained. All I can say is big bad Bretton James, played by Josh Brolin, ruins poor old Louis Zabel, played by Frank Langella, and then Jake turns around and tries to ruin James, and then Gekko ruins James, but I can’t explain how they do it. How money works is a mystery to me probably because I don’t have enough to worry about the clever tricks I could be doing with it if I had it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Three in a Row: The Town, Easy A, and Devil

Friday: The Town

Ben Affleck’s The Town uses Charlestown, Massachusetts, as a refreshingly new location, with Bunker Hill Monument and the rundown streets of this blue collar neighborhood as backdrops. Achieving something very challenging these days, it even delivers a rather gripping car chase. As Bullitt uses the hills of San Francisco to pump up its chase, The Town uses the narrow colonial streets of Charlestown, many of them one way and choked with parked cars, all of them terminating in a tight turn onto a perpendicular street, and none of them going anywhere that makes sense.

But after bank robber Doug MacRay (Affleck) establishes a rather unlikely romantic liaison with a traumatized robbery witness/bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the film fills out the rest of its length by borrowing from Michael Mann’s Heat to a shameful extent: the tight-knit gang that pulls off heists like clockwork and leaves no evidence; the dogged FBI agent obsessed with nabbing the bad guys; the woman in love with the gang leader who is shocked by the truth but willing to forgive; the surveillance shots of the gang members relaxing and funning at a family dinner; the single mother (wonderfully played by Blake Lively as a busty, dope-head sleaze) whose custody of her child is threatened by the FBI to force her to sell out the gang; and even the pulsating musical notes that accompany the massive gun battle in the streets – that starts in the same way with a desperate gang member blazing away at the SWAT team.

In The Town the energy and the choreography of its set piece gun battle inside and outside Fenway Park delivers some gripping moments, but ultimately it's an overblown attempt to outdo Heat that fails to achieve the same intensity.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Battle of the Pyramids

If you could make a movie on any subject, novel, play, or historical event, what would it be? Inspired by a novel I read recently set during Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt and by the stunningly exotic image of French infantry squares pitted against hordes of Mameluke cavalry charging across the desert with the Pyramids of Giza as a backdrop (as depicted above) - I would love to see a sweeping historical epic about this event.

Troops in an alien land. The invasion of a desert country. Fighting insurgents in the streets of a Muslim city. The contemporary parallels are obvious. Also, a grand chance for an up and coming actor to play the young Napoleon. The novel I read - Napoleon's Pyramids, by William Dietrich - is much like an Indiana Jones adventure full of cliffhangers and action. The protagonist, Ethan Gage, is an American opportunist who dabbles in science and solves riddles of antiquity much like Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nic Cage; Gates - Cage - Gage! Ah, ha!) in National Treasure and Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code. He is also a crack shot with his custom-made flintlock rifle and he is an inveterate Casanova. The publisher bills him as "our Indiana Jones-like hero," but one character refers to him as "a dilettante, a hanger-on, a dabbler, a wanderer." In a movie verion, Robert Downey, Jr. would be the perfect actor to fill the role of Ethan Gage.

Told in the first person with a style similar to Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, Napoleon's Pyramids covers Gage's adventures in battle and bed with vivid historical detail and a very entertaining sense of humor. In the sequel, The Rosetta Key, Gage witnesses Napoleon's 1799 invasion of the Holy Land and participates in the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. An episode set in the ancient ruins of Petra seems blatantly borrowed from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In the latest installment, The Dakota Cipher, he travels across the Great Lakes to the Dakotas in 1800 with a Norseman searching for Thor's hammer.

All three novels are very well researched, especially the military history, and although they involve too many secret doorways and forgotten underground chambers, as in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and include yawn-inducing cataloguing of the rites and beliefs of the Masons and the Templar Knights, as in Dan Brown's books, the vivid prose (unusual for a Da Vinci Code spinoff series), humor, history, and action, both military and of the amorous kind, keep you engaged throughout.

An adaptation of Napoleon's Pyramids would make a fun adventure movie, but I'd prefer to see an epic depiction of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, the Battle of the Pyramids, and the Battle of the Nile, in which Lord Nelson's navy destroyed Napoleon's navy and trapped Napoleon in Egypt.

(Painting by Louis Lejeune. Click to enlarge.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Loved The Godfather - Hated Animal Kingdom

My mother was a movie lover back in the Golden Age of American Cinema. During the 1930s and 1940s, often for as little as a nickel, my mother went from single-screen theater to theater to see, as she puts it, “great movies every time.” Imagine going to the movies in 1939 and seeing Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Beau Geste, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, and Goodbye Mr. Chips - only to name a few. Movie heaven!

But at 88, with excellent health other than a little high blood pressure, my mother, avid moviegoer and voracious reader, has been dealt one of life’s cruel ironies in the form of macular degeneration. She lives on her own – in the house where I grew up in San Mateo, California – by means of peripheral vision, but everything else is a blur. She can’t distinguish faces. She differentiates between people by identifying clothing, especially shoes. She can’t read books. She can’t write letters. In a region with limited public transportation, she can’t drive.

“Watching” Larry King on CNN is a favorite pastime. All she has to do is listen. She has also listened to many books on CD, but for someone who was never very techno-savvy when her vision was perfect, operating her little portable CD player is an on-going challenge. If you’re experienced with a particular machine, you can probably do it blindfolded. As an experiment, I blindfolded myself and inserted and played a DVD successfully after some initial fumbling. But for someone who never manipulated technology, a CD player and a DVD player are nightmares. She runs through countless batteries because she forgets to turn off the CD player. After much coaching, she always forgets to press play when the DVD menu appears. “It keeps playing the theme to Lawrence of Arabia over and over again. I think something’s wrong with the tape… I mean the CD… I mean the DVD.”

Even though playing DVDs is a major source of frustration, my mother still tries. My wife patiently renews her Netflix account after each time my mother gives up on DVDs and says the struggle isn’t worth the five dollars per month. But my mother has enjoyed some movies on Netflix: North Face (subtitled in English but she understands German) and The Young Victoria (she loves historical epics).

Going to the movies is a problem. She loved March of the Penguins because she could see the penguins: mostly black against the white Antarctic. (Actually, I closed my eyes and snoozed during that movie and I could still see penguins.) She has to sit up front, and she can’t see anything if the scene is dark. But for the most part, it’s not worth the effort for her because there’s nothing out there that delivers the satisfaction she got from the Hollywood classics or David Lean epics she loves.

Nevertheless, when I went to California for two weeks this summer, I decided to try taking her to the movies.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Shoot Kill Drink Coffee - The American

As does Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, the mysterious Jack/Edward (George Clooney) in The American goes to a small hilltop town in Italy hoping to change his life. He eats and drinks wine; he doesn’t pray, but he is befriended by the town priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who serves him lamb stew; and he visits a local prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) and gradually falls in love with her. Unlike Ms. Gilbert, however, Jack is not disappointed with his marriage. Jack is beginning to regret the moral cost of his job as a gunsmith making lightweight, concealable rifles for professional assassins, and he wants to stop his involvement in the killing, both indirectly by making guns and directly by self-defense – which sometimes means killing a “friend” to hide his identity.

With its picturesque Italian setting and its very European pacing and tone, Anton Corbijn’s The American echoes at least two other films with similar European tone: The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Behold a Pale Horse (1964), both directed by Fred Zinneman. Like the nameless assassin for hire (Edward Fox) in Jackal, Jack is a sophisticated professional who kills swiftly. Also like the Jackal, he expertly modifies a rifle to make it concealable, he tests it in the Italian countryside, and he provides explosive bullets. Like Manuel Artiguez (Gregory Peck) in Behold a Pale Horse, he is an outlaw suffering a midlife crisis and hiding in a small European town. Jack is tired of the killing and he wants this job to be his last, modifying a rifle for a sexy, leggy female assassin (Thekla Reuten). Similar to The American as well, both these films have a tone that make you feel the European atmosphere.

At the center of the story, Jack kills, seemingly, without remorse to protect his identity. He hides in a peaceful Italian town, a grim, soulless loner who sits in vacant cafes or austere rooms that suggest the emptiness in his life. Throughout, George Clooney sets his jaw, glowers darkly, and acts the part, but as the ruthless killer, he is never convincing. He merely seems to be going through the motions, setting his jaw and glowering darkly. But Clooney’s discomfort with the character of Jack, the bad guy, could easily stem from a screenplay that does little to develop Jack’s backstory. We know what Jack does; we know he wants to change his life; and we know he is falling in love with Clara, but other than that we know nothing about him. Jack seems devoid of a soul until Clara's earnest love for him wakes up a glimmer of it.