Wednesday, September 29, 2010
"Wall Street 2"
"Jack Goes Boating"
This week, Tyler unloads some classic films he has just gotten around to seeing. What are some of your most embarrassing ‘I Can’t Believe You’ve Never Seens’?
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
But greed is not the antagonist in “Money Never Sleeps.” Debt is. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released from prison after an eight-year stretch for insider trading only to discover that his money now torments him in its very absence. Picking up in 2008, the entire cast of affluent characters in the film is haunted by the global economic crisis and even more intimate money matters.
Shia LaBeouf plays Jake Moore, a trader who invests his million-dollar bonus the night before the market collapses, just after buying an extravagant wedding ring to propose to his girlfriend, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan). After Moore gets the opportunity to speak with his new father-in-law, the two begin a series of unorthodox transactions; Gordon wants an opportunity to get closer to his estranged daughter, which Jake orchestrates in exchange for the opportunity to further his career.
In that way, “Money Never Sleeps” follows a similar template to the original, with Gekko acting as protégé to a young, cutthroat trader. The sequel, however, has a more ambitious, branching story and what feels like a much larger cast. It suffers somewhat for its sprawling narrative, but the film is grounded by a strong emotional center. “Wall Street” is still the more rousing film, but “Money Never Sleeps,” is appropriately more dour, downbeat and moody; the films are alike only in their committed reflection of their respective economic climates.
Both “Wall Street” films seem to find Oliver Stone at his most experimental. His multimedia gimmickry doesn’t always work, but he never seems to be at a loss for a new way to present information. “Money Never Sleeps” paints the stock market index across the New York skyline, fractures into split-screens, and cedes itself entirely to illustrated figures that would seem more at home in a documentary. Stone can sometimes be a frustratingly predictable director, and small flourishes like these are what make the “Wall Streets” stand out in his filmography.
But viewer beware, for all its stylishness, “Money Never Sleeps” will bore many. It is an uncompromisingly slow film, especially in its drooping middle—devotees of the fast-paced original will be particularly let down. But while the clock-check quotient is relatively high in places, I believe it ultimately reaches a satisfying payoff.
After all, what makes these films tick is their characters, and this sequel is no slouch. They make not be as vibrant or distinct as the people who populated the 1987 film, but again, they have to support a modern disillusionment with the market that didn’t exist back then. The characters in Stone’s original are eccentric, quirky, domineering, and vivacious. The characters in “Money Never Sleeps” are sullen, worn, and scared.
And then there’s Gekko. It’s interesting that Douglas’ portrayal of him is the most enduring part of the original film; but then it’s obvious when you see him as that character. He is capitalism, a physical manifestation of it. Douglas owns the performance, and though Gekko has been beaten into a shell of his former self in “Money Never Sleeps,” he’s still plain fun to watch. The charisma is there, and Douglas supplements a terrific irony to the character in playing him broke. “Bet you don’t have one of these,” he boasts to Moore during their first encounter, flashing his NYC MetroCard.
“Money Never Sleeps,” for better or for worse, is the “Wall Street” our generation gets. It’s a time capsule from 2010, an imperfect but equally relevant window into our languishing economy. In twenty years, we can only hope it all looks like science fiction.
Friday, September 24, 2010
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Written by Brian Nelson (“30 Days of Night,” “Hard Candy”) and directed by John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine”), it stands to reason that M. Night, after pitching the idea and relinquishing creative control, would have receded into the background. The problem, I think, is that Shyamalan’s fingerprint is still so clear on the final product. Psychologically speaking, I suspect many are dismissing it purely by association.
And to be clear, there are perfectly valid reasons to dismiss “Devil,” but Shyamalan isn’t one of them. He did his job; the premise is solid, and the building blocks of the story are, for the most part, rightly placed. Its blemishes, therefore, would be more aptly laid on Nelson and Dowdle’s shoulders. While the work of either is only seldom outright bad, their collaboration is never better than average.
It’s their fault that “Devil” never gets under our skin, and the most obvious explanation is because half the film takes place outside the elevator, where a second storyline and protagonist divide audience attention. No doubt that dynamic existed in Shyamalan’s original outline, but Nelson and especially Dowdle seem to favor it and Police Detective Bowden’s (Chris Messina) attempts to break into the jammed elevator over its five passengers’ attempts to break out.
As a result, the claustrophobia never sets in. The viewer never feels trapped because, narratively, they’re being transported to safety every five minutes. Dowdle also fails to demonize the elevator to the extent it really should be. Instead, he focuses on painting the entire building his antagonist, drawn against dark storm clouds and introduced in an ominous upside-down aerial shot. It’s a noble attempt, but it’s no small feat to conjure dread from a flat piece of reflective modern architecture.
For Nelson’s part, he runs with probably the worst idea of anyone by forcing all the ‘devil’ exposition out of a cringe-worthy (but thankfully short-winded) Catholic maintenance operator (Jacob Vargas), who unconvincingly persuades Bowden to consider the supernatural element at play. The character also narrates.
They may seem like minor gripes, but somehow, the individual misfires of Nelson, Dowdle, and Shyamalan add up to more than the sum of their parts; they comprise a film that is almost entirely unaffecting. “Devil” works, but it works the way an imitation Walkman works, which is to say, not very well. The whole thing has a plastic, perfunctory feel to it.
Still, “Devil” isn’t such a bad little flick. It was made on a $10 million shoestring, runs only eighty minutes, and still delivers on its premise with the benefit of established filmmakers behind it. It’s unclear how quick their production cycle was, but be it time, budgetary, or creative limitations, it’s a shame neither screenwriter nor director shine through. Ultimately, it might as well be a Shyamalan film, though I think even his most pink-faced detractors will agree “Devil” isn’t half as bad as “The Happening.”
Shyamalan’s fall from grace has been almost on the level of a political scandal; people now recognize his name and boo it. I suppose some of that hostility is warranted when you disappoint people as consistently as he has, but I can’t help but wonder how warranted his latest critical lashing has been.
“Devil” is far from a perfect film, but M. Night is the least of its concerns.
Monday, September 20, 2010
"Easy A" is kind of a minor miracle. Every shred of evidence indicated it would be another forgettable teen sex comedy; common sense should have kept me away. And yet, thanks to my self-regimented diversity quota (recommended), I inadvertently purchased a ticket to one of the goofiest, most effortlessly charming, surprisingly irreverent, and original satires in years—After all, it isn’t everyday you see a sex comedy about imaginary sex.
But "Easy A" treads tired ground in a pair of flashy high heels; its unique spin on the subject of high school promiscuity doesn’t condescend, nor does it overstate its relevance. Rather, the film manages to humorously capture the social enormity of sex without being explicit, perverse, or preachy. Quite the contrary. Olive (Emma Stone), our intelligent, precocious, and often glib protagonist turns the genre on its head, detailing her “rumor-filled and totally false account” of how she became the classroom slut.
What follows is an unusually forward riff on gossip in the information age and bizarro prostitution, whereby a white lie in the ladies’ restroom wheels its way through the rumor mill, only to come out a geyser on the other end. Olive’s notoriety for an alleged sexual encounter prompts the school’s desperate male denizens to bolster their own reputations through tales of carnal exploits with her—Boasting rights for which she receives hundreds of dollars (price negotiable according to the agreed-upon fiction) in Gap or Office Max gift certificates.
The sharp sense of humor and amusing social commentary really cannot be undervalued in an age where the foremost discussion of sexuality for teenage girls is in "Twilight." "Easy A" ultimately adopts a populist ‘when you’re ready’ sentiment in regards to sex, but its best quality is its consistent tonal levity. The film makes light of licentiousness, sexual orientation, religion, parenting, adoption, friendship, and more over a breezy ninety minutes, and though its flippancy sometimes comes at the expense of convincing drama, you’ll be laughing too often to care.
Judd Apatow be damned. His movies are undeniable landmarks in the topography of 21st century comedy, but it’s telling that one of "Easy A"'s best features is its cast—Conspicuously devoid of the likes of Seth Rogen and/or Jonah Hill. Instead, Emma Stone and Amanda Bynes lead a team of up and comers, backed by terrific character actors like Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church, and Malcolm McDowell, who make even the ‘boring adult’ roles pop. The ensemble seldom misses a beat, playing to their strengths and having a blast in the process.
"Easy A" gleams with their bright performances, but the real treasure is buried just below its surface: the screenplay by Bert V. Royal. As a first time screenwriter, Royal deserves special recognition for his success, especially in a genre as delicate as comedy. "Easy A" might even be the funniest film of 2010, although there’s next to no contention for that title. Royal never quite gets his big narrative cogs going, but his comedy runs like clockwork, with the benefit of a very strong premise to keep it going.
The title of his film is a less than subtle reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which Olive and her classmates are conveniently studying in school. However, the reappropriation of the crimson "A" as a badge of honor is just one of the many ways Royal refreshes not only a tired comedic subgenre, but a hundred and fifty year old novel as well. "Easy A" is one of the most amiable left-field surprises of the year, and an experience for which I have only my complete lack of common sense to thank.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Whether Phoenix’s performance is manufactured or not, though I believe it is, is beside the point. If we take it at face value, than his actions are deplorable; he treats the people around him like shit, while neurotically painting himself the wounded victim. He’s fixated on the conspiratorial judgment of the oppressive world, and whines that preconception clouds his audience’s ability to appreciate his ludicrous venture into hip-hop. But get real. The character is built that way to support a deliberate statement, which makes “I’m Still Here” even less valuable.
Who exactly is Phoenix meant to represent, and better yet, why should we care? The idiosyncrasies of the character are obvious, but unlike Sasha Baron Cohen’s alter egos Borat, Bruno, and Ali G, Phoenix’s goal is unclear. Worst of all, the character isn’t funny. Hiding behind a pair of stupid shades, usually with a cigarette or joint hanging out of his mouth, he mumbles incoherently about his inner-frustration and his inability to garner respect along his new career path.
Are we meant to feel sympathy for the megalomaniacal millionaire? Or are we meant to sneer at the idiot white boy who thinks he can rap? Affleck wants it both ways, but achieves neither. He plays Phoenix’s awkward a cappella for cheap laughs, but expects us to defend him when heckled. Probably most telling, however, is that the funniest moments in “I’m Still Here” come at Phoenix’s expense. Replaying the infamous Letterman appearance to an audience that’s still laughing at him is the greatest proof of the experiment’s emotional failure. The character is supremely unlikable, and no honest attempt is made to humanize him or to peer below his portly, unkempt façade.
Still, the lowest point comes from the scenes Affleck implements to falsely contextualize real moments, like Ben Stiller’s impression of Phoenix at the 2009 Oscars. Affleck preempts the jab with an early scene in which Stiller offers Phoenix a role in “Greenberg.” In the film, Phoenix had already announced his retirement from acting, so besides making no sense sequentially, the retroactive intention of the exploitative scene is solely to make Stiller seem cruel later on.
Sorry guys, but I’m on his side. Phoenix doesn’t deserve our pity. Earnest or otherwise, when you draw attention to yourself the way he has, you open yourself up to parody. Furthermore, if he truly is just being himself, it’s a wonder that he lets the skepticism get to him.
But put-on or not, the Phoenix in the film has no arc. His character is no closer to achieving his dream by the end, nor are we any closer to understanding what that dream means, to him or anyone. He plays a couple of miserable shows in a Miami nightclub, and spends weeks moping around one of his dingy apartments because hip-hop producer Sean “Diddy” Combs won’t take a meeting with him. World’s smallest violin.
The film is practically and thematically insubstantial. The only profound statement made is that a studio agreed to distribute “I’m Still Here,” and idiots like me paid to see it. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, maybe Affleck and Phoenix were issuing a condemnation of the very notion of buying tickets to an artistic breakdown, but somehow that seems like a stretch. Either way, the joke’s on us.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
So instead, he swills a bland pastiche that passes from the eyes directly to the cerebral outbox. Sitting through “Resident Evil: Afterlife” evokes an atmosphere of weightless detachment, especially from his characters, who are human beings only in the physiological sense of the term. You also feel a sort of sleepy sympathy for Anderson himself, who’s trying too hard to be cool, and stretching himself beyond his means in the process.
But my sympathy for the man dead-ends there; “Afterlife” is plain bad. When you get to the fourth film in a franchise like “Resident Evil,” inspiration has less to do with innovative story than it does untapped locations. “Where in the World is Milla Jovovich?” more or less describes the creative process, and this week she’s in a jail and on a boat along the California coastline, where she meets yet another readymade team of post-apocalyptic survivors, and uncovers yet another marginal scientific abomination from the Umbrella Corporation.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m biased. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t seen either of the middle two “Resident Evils,” but the shit-sandwich formed by parts one and four make me more than a little suspicious of what’s in between. Mostly, however, I take issue with Anderson because as a fan of the video games, I know exactly what he had to work with, and exactly where he came up short: everywhere. He doesn’t get it; the influence of “Night of the Living Dead” on the games of is obvious, yet his adaptations bear more resemblance to “The Matrix” than anything. He might as well have remade “Silent Hill” as a musical.
However, like me, the studio granted him another opportunity based on two measly characters: “3D.” In a ceaselessly underwhelming film, one of the biggest disappointments of all is how underwhelming the use of said technology is. Anderson employs it as neither an over-the-top spectacle nor for subtle immersion. The effect is merely there, underutilized and as quickly forgotten as the images themselves.
And Anderson is just warming up in the disappointment department. What quickly becomes apparent in “Afterlife” is that he’s incapable of or uninterested in self-improvement. In fact, if anything, my distant memory of his original film outshines this unnecessary addition to the over-dead franchise. Each of his lame action sequences is still gaudily accentuated by the usual suspects of technical gimmickry: slow-motion acrobatics, bullet-time, and of course, plenty of emo-rock accompaniment. And that's brilliant in comparison to the clunky, ugly, lifeless expository scenes that divide them. He's a filmmaker I can’t even advise to play to his strengths.
Still, I have no doubt that Anderson has a genuine passion for the properties he ruins. Flourishes from the latest “Resident Evil” videogame in “Afterlife” are proof that the writer/director is first and foremost a fan—And that’s exactly his problem. Anderson is delivering disposable fan service, a hodgepodge of inarticulate regurgitation, rather than a proper adaptation. With complete disregard for the intents of the original artists, he flagrantly reappropriates their work for his own silly operas.
That stuff may fly at comic con, where everybody knows you did it in your basement with a couple buddies—But when a major studio sinks sixty million dollars on it, it just seems like a waste of money and everybody’s time.
Monday, September 13, 2010
"Resident Evil: Afterlife"
The comparative whisper of Anton Corbijn’s “The American” heralds a spy-thriller set so far apart from its “Bourne” brethren that it barely qualifies as a thriller at all. Certainly not the kind that a mainstream audience, baited with an intentionally misleading trailer, had come to see. That it stars George Clooney, one of the most trusted faces in Hollywood, only rubs salt in the wound. But if you don’t have the patience for it, it’s your loss; “The American” is exactly the breed of careful, confident filmmaking that has become an endangered species in Hollywood.
Corbijn makes a bold commitment to his images in an age where the exploits of Jason Bourne and James Bond are obscured by a quivering camera and half-second cuts. Atmosphere is everything in this contemplative, introverted espionage film, and he lets each frame hang like a painting. In all, there is probably less than a combined ten minutes of hard action in “The American,” but the patient will be far from bored.
Based on the novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth, the plot ostensibly revolves around the construction of a custom rifle, which admittedly, is not the most exciting synopsis ever committed to paper. However, due in large part to Clooney’s subtle presence, and seen through Corbijn’s keen eye, even the methodic weapon-construction is riveting to watch. His character is further revealed through his relationship with two decidedly asimilar characters, a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a prostitute (Violante Placido).
The performance isn’t especially nuanced or layered, but Clooney brings an effective solemnity to the title role. Besides his natural magnetism, he plays the character like Bond’s very antithesis: quiet, lonely, meticulous, paranoid, old. Clooney is refreshing in his absolute uncoolness. When his character is forced into action, we aren’t given the impression that he derives any enjoyment from what he does. He’s good at it, but his fear is evident when he’s pressed into a compromising situation. Self-preservation is constantly his top priority, and the exploration of his capacity for trust begets “The American’s” most suspenseful moments.
If there is a problem with the film, it’s that its propensity for understatement is played almost to a fault. It is, after all, ostensibly about the construction of a rifle. The plot is exceedingly simple, but somehow it feels all the smarter for its bare bones approach to the genre. By stripping away the layers of predictable and convoluted intrigue that pockmark most marginal capers, “The American” presents itself as something far closer to a character study, profiling a particularly solitary assassin.
The result is a compelling portrait of isolation, a theme that the title indirectly supports. The film takes place almost entirely in Abruzzo, where the nationality of Clooney’s character is his sole distinguishing feature. It is only through his bourgeoning relationships with two unlikely Italians that we come to better understand him. He is repeatedly subjected to the consequences of his past mistakes, and though he is far from the world’s most exciting action hero, Corbijn is clearly more concerned with empathy than entertainment.
And frankly, we don’t get enough of that. “The American” is a film appreciable probably only to a minority of filmgoers, and unless you’re deliberately in the market for a more downbeat “Bond,” my recommendation comes with an asterisk.
But those it ensnares will be quietly appreciative, and when the lights go up, the hum of the theater fan will sound deafening.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Maybe that’s why I’m so surprised “Machete” got made. Or maybe it’s my surprise at how much fun I had that’s bleeding over—Who can tell? “Grindhouse” still ranks among my most memorable theater experiences, and “Machete,” a feature-length expansion of the faux-trailer that played between the two films, picks up precisely where "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" left off.
Here, Rodriguez co-directs with his long-time editor Ethan Maniquis, but for all intents and purposes, it feels like Rodriguez is pulling the strings. Double-dipping in the sometimes corny, frequently outrageous, and purposely campy lost and found of cult seventies B-movies is a weird choice for the director, and one that runs the immediate risk of overstaying its welcome. Fortunately, “Machete” earns its existence and then some with a deranged and offbeat mash-up of tawdry action, black comedy, and current events.
It’s no wonder Rodriguez, being of Mexican American dissent and having grown up in San Antonio, Texas, has illegal immigration and border control on the brain. But the way he creatively parlays today’s hot button issue into the silly, cobwebbed genre film of yesteryear is his real stroke of genius. Granted, his sense of humor skews more slapstick than satire, with a levity that might annoy political purists, but it’s all in good, tasteless fun.
At heart, “Machete” is cinematic wish fulfillment for a social subset we’ve never quite seen represented: the Mexican day laborer. Machete (a grizzled Danny Trejo) is our near-mute anti-hero who’s hired by an aide to a political hopeful, only to unwittingly stand as proxy in an assassination attempt—It’s a shot in the leg that gives Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) the shot in the arm his anti-immigration campaign needs. The film eventually climaxes with an appropriately gratuitous (but admittedly overlong) Mexican/redneck battle royale.
The overall successfulness of such sequences highlights exactly what I disliked about this summer’s other action throwback, “The Expendables.” All you can hope for from films like these is some modicum of creativity, and where Sylvester Stallone stutters, Rodriguez concocts a slew of inventive executions, the most notable of which involves the use of human intestines to propel down the side of a building. The dark humor also sets it apart; it keeps the film far and away more engaging than “The Expendables” in its often stifling self-seriousness.
Weirdly, both films also feature gags about texting, and again Rodriguez mines the more entertaining moment. Sorry, Stallone, but it’s tough to top a line like “Machete don’t text.”
Still, “Machete” can hardly be called perfect, and to a large extent it represents a success for Rodriguez both redundant and unchallenging. It is a minor victory, to be sure, and yet “Machete” may be even better than the film that spawned it. That the director managed to repeat himself repeating the actual seventies exhibitionists and still come away with a handful of fresh surprises and laughs is remarkable in itself.
Like “Grindhouse,” it isn’t a film for everyone. If you take any stock in the box office numbers, apparently it isn’t a movie for anyone. Sensitive stomachs need not apply, and those expecting more than a cartoon discussion of border control will be sorely disappointed. But that “Machete” exists at all is a minor miracle for the rest of us—That is, if you can muster any more enthusiasm for this particular, charming breed of unapologetic schlock.
Maybe the biggest surprise of all was the depth of my own reservoir. Robert Rodriguez is one lucky bastard, and so is his audience.
Tuesday, September 7th
Venue: Reservoir Park- Levitt Pavilion
Address: 100 Concert Drive, Harrisburg, PA 17103
Rain: In the event of rain, this event will be held on Wednesday, September 8th
6:30 PM: Doors Open
7:00 PM: Live Music
8:00 PM: Film Begins
9:30 PM: Q&A with Director Josh Fox and Local Activists
There is no admission charge for this show. For more information, please visit:
Thursday, September 9th (tentative)
Venue: The amphitheater at Thornden Park
Address: Syracuse, New York 13210
Rain: In the event of rain, this event will be held on Friday, September 10th
6:30 PM: Doors Open
7:00 PM: Live Music
7:30 PM: Film Begins
9:30 PM: Q&A with Director Josh Fox and Local Activists
There is no admission charge for this show. For more information, please visit:
Saturday, September 11th
New York, NY
Venue: On the pier along the East River at Solar One
Address: 2420 FDR Drive, Service Road East at 23rd Street and the East River
Rain: In the event of rain, this event will be held on Sunday, September 12th
6:00 PM: Doors Open
6:30 PM: Live Music
7:30 PM: Film Begins
9:30 PM: Q&A with Director Josh Fox and Local Activists
10:00 PM: After Party
For more information, please visit:
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
A direct follow up to probably his most well known film, 1998’s “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” provides a notably more contemplative take on the lives of Solondz's characters, who have been deliberately and entirely recast for this sequel. Yes, it has its moments of biting humor, dark caricatures, and discomfort, but this time around, he approaches them with a subtler, more refined eye. “Happiness” is a busy, sprawling movie—“Wartime” is a brief string of conversations reactive to the action of that film.
It has the tendency to come off initially disappointing, perhaps because it is his least funny film. But if it is his least funny film, then it is intentionally so; for a director who has tirelessly redefined the term ‘mature content,’ Solondz finally feels as though he himself is maturing. The result may be less fun, but it’s probably more valuable.
And his characters breathe that maturation. In “Happiness,” Bill Maplewood (then Dylan Baker, now Ciarán Hinds) is a struggling pedophile; he is defined and condemned by the things he does. His reintroduction in “Life During Wartime” is upon release from prison, where his sole motive is to track down his son and conduct an amateur psychoanalysis on the damage his behavior caused. Hinds is solemn and introverted in the role; Baker was oily, narcissistic, and well—Childish, if you’ll forgive the phrase.
Maplewood’s recurring dream is a perfect visual metaphor for not only the changes he has undergone between films, but the tones of the films themselves. In “Happiness,” he dreams of an unspoiled park, complete with picnickers and strolling couples enjoying absolute tranquility—Before he loads an assault rifle and lays them all to waste. In “Wartime,” Maplewood revisits the park, where a single elusive individual, scrubbed and out of focus, turns to him with a rose in hand.
What I find most interesting, however, is not the way Solondz reconsiders these characters, but how he reconsiders the idea of the sequel. He’s dabbled before in casting multiple performers in a single role—His last film, “Palindromes,” had eight actresses portraying its protagonist. But with “Life During Wartime” he commits entirely, while at the same time creating a film purposefully asimilar to the existing work.
It may not be as exciting or as groundbreaking a film as “Happiness” is and was, but it’s more interesting for its reservations. The converse, ‘Hollywood’ approach would have been to outdo the original, to push the envelope even further, and the result would be infinitely less genuine. Instead, Solondz throws a curveball: treating his characters with unprecedented compassion (though only by comparison to his other films), and challenging our preconceived notions of both what a sequel is, and what a Todd Solondz film is.
“Life During Wartime” won’t win over many detractors (they probably haven’t heard of it anyway), and it even runs the risk of aliening fans expecting more vitriol—Leave it to Solondz to polarize audiences even when his shroud of controversy dissipates. The man has an absolutely uncompromising vision, and he’s still one of the greatest comedy directors working today, whether you’ve heard of him or not.