Monday, May 25, 2015

Wall Street (1987) ****

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is Good.” These words, spoken by Michael Douglas's character Gordon Gekko, are some of the most famous words of the 1980's. What's amazing is that even now, when the quote has long since passed into the realm of parody, Douglas manages to make it sound plausible when you hear it in the context of the film. He delivers the line at a stockholder's meeting, where he is trying to win over the other stockholders for an important vote. He goes on to explain that greed, whether for money, for love, or for life, is the force driving mankind's advancements, and that it is the profit motive that will allow them to cut out the excess fat at the company they all own and turn it into a lean, successful business again. At this point in the film, we know Gekko is sleazy, but his argument seems to have some merit.

Later in the film, we see just how far Gekko's dishonesty goes, and that his form of greed is only a destructive force, not a creative one. As he explains to his protege, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), “I don't create anything...I just transfer wealth from others to myself.” Bud, a hungry,young broker hoping to emulate Gekko, has placed himself in orbit around the great man, helping Gekko engage in insider trading on a regular basis. In exchange, Gekko makes Bud rich and hooks him up with Darien (Daryl Hannah), the kind of high-class beauty that only rich men can afford. When Gekko finally stoops lower than even Bud will go, Bud is forced to choose between his fancy new life and his tattered conscience.

“Wall Street” has come to be considered a defining film of the 1980's, but the movie is really timeless. Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen fit these roles perfectly. Martin Sheen (as Bud's working-class father) and Hal Holbrook (as a senior stockbroker) can be perhaps a bit preachy at times, but they serve their purpose as representatives of traditional, hard-working values in the face of Gekko's amoral, short-cut-taking greed. The only weak link in the film is Daryl Hannah, and I've read that Oliver Stone regretted casting her. Apparently, she couldn't reconcile herself to her character's amorality.

I'm always interested in why some movies age so well. “Wall Street” is about guys who wear slicked-back hair and dark suits all the time, a style which really doesn't change much over the decades. In fact, the only time this film looks dated at all is when Daryl Hannah rocks some big shoulder pads. What really makes the film timeless, though, is it's theme of greed and consequences. It's easy to see how this film plays well now, in the receding wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, caused as it was by the greed of Wall Street bankers. Audiences in 1987 had their own reasons to despise fat cats, with the headlines full of high unemployment, insider trading scandals, and failing Savings and Loans. The truth is, it isn't in the American nature to be embittered towards the rich. We are much more likely to want to emulate a rich man than to begrudge him his wealth. Our respect for Capitalism, however, is predicated on the image of a capitalist as someone who invests money in a worthy enterprise, then profits when that enterprise is successful. In this scenario, everyone wins, because the growth of that enterprise expands the total wealth of society. Guys like Gekko, though, make their living off of arbitrage and speculation, which are zero-sum games. For Gekko to win, someone else has to lose, and the total wealth is not increased. If a guy like Gekko gets a tip that you are headed to the store to buy milk, he'll swoop in ahead of you and buy up all the milk, then jack up the price when you arrive. He would never stoop to actually milking a cow. These Wall Street guys claim that their activities create liquidity in capital markets and make our economy run more efficiently. It seems, however, that the headlines of every era are full of stories about these guys lying and manipulating until, repeatedly, they manage to break the economy. That's why “Wall Street” has aged so well. It's a tightly-woven story about this form of greed, and there isn't a decade in the last century in which this story wouldn't resonate.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

La Notte (1961) ***

Like a less dramatic, more boring “Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?,” Antonioni's “La Notte” explores the resentments and discontent of a dysfunctional marriage. Marcello Mastroianni plays Giovanni, a successful author, and Jeanne Moreau plays his wife Lidia. “La Notte” (Italian for “The Night”) begins with the couple visiting another author, a long-time friend who is dying in the hospital. At the hospital, Giovanni is accosted by a beautiful but crazy young woman who draws him into her room and seduces him, although the nurses burst in before consummation. He later confesses the experience to Lidia, who seems coldly unconcerned about the near-infidelity. Giovanni is worried by her reaction, as are we, because everyone knows that it's a bad sign if your lover doesn't care enough to get jealous.

Later, Giovanni glad-hands the public at a book reading, and Lidia slips away to wander around Rome, visiting old haunts. Later still, on Lidia's request, the two go out to a nightclub, where a couple put on an interesting, gymnastic strip show. This show is the coolest thing in the movie, but Giovanni and Lidia are bored and restless, and Lidia finally suggests they attend the party of an acquaintance, a wealthy industrialist. They party the night away, each pursuing a possible infidelity, before finally hashing out their deteriorating marriage in the light of the new dawn.

“La Notte” is considered an important film by critics, part of the great period of Italian film roughly corresponding to the French New Wave. Then, as now, the film was lauded for the subtlety of its storytelling. There is a lot of talking, but “La Notte” could probably work as a silent film, as so much of the movie consists of silent, beautifully photographed scenes of the characters walking or leaning up against walls. These scenes focus on the inner life of these characters, and we are often left to speculate on the content of their thoughts and emotions, with subtle clues from these two excellent actors.

All of this subtlety comes at a price, however. Without mincing words, I have to say that I was bored for much of the 2-hour run-time. The scenes are long and slow, and one wonders if Antonioni couldn't have edited it to a more watchable length while preserving the tone. You wait and wait for something big to happen, then finally realize that nothing will. It's a slog, a movie that feels like work.  Towards the end of the film, a character tells Giovanni and Lidia, "You two have worn me out tonight."  I understood how she felt at that point.

Plenty of film fans disagree with me, and I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing “La Notte.” It is quite thought-provoking, and Antonioni puts together some amazing-looking camera shots. I would not, however, suggest that someone watch this as their first experience of classic foreign cinema. For a film of the same period that explores similar emotional content, but in a more dynamic, entertaining way, I would recommend de Sicca's “Marriage Italian Style.”  For a movie with Marcello Mastroianni staying out all night exploring his existential angst, “La Dolce Vida” is an essential film, and much easier to watch than “La Notte.” For those who are as enthralled by Jeanne Moreau as I am, she is riveting in “La Notte,” but “The Lovers” or “Jules and Jim” are much more watchable introductions to her work.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Three Kings (1999) ***

Somehow I had gotten it in my head that Spike Jonze directed this film. Maybe it's because the actor/director is so hilarious as the idiot, redneck character Conrad. “Three Kings” is, in fact, directed and partly written by David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”), and it is better than it has any right to be. On the one hand, Russell has written a highly implausible heist movie combined with a rather preachy morality tale, all set in the first Iraq War. On the other hand, the combined performances are so compelling that the movie somehow works.

Troy (Mark Wahlberg), Conrad (Jonze), and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) are army reservists finishing up an almost action-free stint in Operation Desert Storm. While processing Iraqi POWs, they find a map that appears to lead to one of Saddam's secret bunkers full of stolen Kuwaiti gold. Before the guys can even process the possibilities, Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney) has sniffed out the situation and muscled his way into it. This is just as well, as none of the other guys would have a chance of putting together a way to steal that loot. Under Archie's guidance, they find and steal the gold, relying on the reluctance of the defeated Iraqis to instigate hostilities with American soldiers.

During the heist, the men discover that with the fighting officially over, Iraqi forces are concentrating on suppressing those Iraqis who tried to rise up against Saddam during the brief war. They are rounding up and torturing rebels and starving out entire villages. Faced directly with this reality, the men have to chose between completing their heist as planned or intervening.

While Wahlberg and Clooney get top billing in this film, they are far from the most memorable characters. The interaction between Spike Jonze's moronic, racist Conrad and Ice Cube's Chief easily steals the show. Nora Dunn provides some excellent comic relief as a war reporter hustling for a story. Best of all, however, are the actors who portray the Iraqis. Cliff Curtis, who is actually of New Zealand Maori descent rather than Arab, is a magnetic presence as the rebel leader. Said Taghmaoui is unforgettable as an Iraqi officer who tortures Troy while calling him “my main man.” His “What's the problem with Michael Jackson” speech may be the best part of the movie.

Ultimately, “Three Kings” is about individuals making hard choices in the face of a hypocritical U.S. foreign policy and an uncaring military machine. The movie addresses a little-discussed aspect of America's Iraq wars. America encouraged Iraqi dissidents to rebel against Saddam, and they did so thinking we would be invading to back them up. When we stopped the war instead, they were left exposed to torture, disappearances, and execution. Is it any wonder that America has trouble finding reliable friends in Iraq now?

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, May 14, 2015

My Summer of Love (2004) ***1/2

Life in small-town England is no idyll for teenaged Mona (Natalie Press.) With her single Mom dead, she has only her brother, an ex-con turned born-again Christian. He is too busy speaking in tongues with his prayer group to provide any meaningful guidance to her in her adolescence, including when her older, married boyfriend dumps her. Life takes a turn for the better when she meets the rich, alluring Tamsin (Emily Blunt.) Tamsin is home from boarding school, where she was expelled for “being a bad influence on people.” Despite their differing backgrounds, they are quite simpatico. Over the summer, the girls become close friends, then lovers.

“My Summer of Love” reminds me a bit of a more recent movie, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” although the sex scenes in “My Summer of Love” are not nearly as graphic. It's still quite sexy, and an excellent coming-of-age movie. The viewer gets swept along in the intensity of these teenaged girls' emotions. The camera work is mostly hand-held, and some viewers may find the film too talky. Honestly, I barely noticed the occasionally shaky camera; I was too busy enjoying the story and the two beautiful actresses.

3.5 stars out of 5

Friday, May 01, 2015

Tron: Legacy (2010) *

This is one that I can't truly review, because I could only stomach 15 minutes of it. I had mentioned wanting to see it in my review of “Oblivion” , because the movies share a director, Joseph Kosinski. I enjoyed “Oblivion,” so I had high hopes for “Tron: Legacy,” despite its dubious, belated-sequel status. Hopes = dashed!

The movie starts out with computer programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, reprising his role from the original “Tron”) telling his son, Sam, the story of how he entered the virtual world back in “Tron.” It's the lamest piece of movie exposition ever. Kevin goes on to disappear, leaving his software company in the control of money-grubbers who care nothing about his noble goal of making digital information free for the masses.

Skip ahead a decade, and we meet Flynn's rebellious son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who likes to speed around on his motorcycle and create mischief for the greedy board that runs his missing dad's company.

This is where I gave up. The movie is just one stock scene after another, a total turd. I'll give Kosinski credit for good cinematography, but a lame script is going to turn into a lame movie, no matter how well it is shot. I can't really remember whether the original “Tron” was any good, but I definitely wouldn't waste any time on the sequel.

1 star out of 5