Thursday, September 30, 2010

Greed never sleeps

Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps has it's title explained by the ubiquitous manipulator Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) who stands in a busy subway car with the young and enterprising financial whizkid Jake Moore (Shia Leboeuf) as he waxes poetically about how money is a "bitch who never sleeps". The key word is bitch because it's the driving force behind merciless corruption, giant ego inspired game playing and soulless ambition at the cost of redemption. Gekko has just been released from prison after serving eight years for his crimes committed in the first Wall Street (1987) and now he emerges as a broken man who's written a book foreboding the market crash and is charming college students with his wit and candor in speaking engagements. But he's also looking for a second chance with the only person he may have left: his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) a liberal blogger who wants nothing to do with him. But since she is about to marry Jake, Gekko may have a window of opportunity to reenter her life by way of secret meetings with the young idealistic kid who's caught between the reserved and wise old sages of the old school and the pompous and killer-instinctive new school whose fear of a market downfall only fuels their greed even more. Gekko exists the middle as a kind of commentator.

Jake works hard at an old fashioned investment firm run by his father figure mentor, a weathered investor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) who mourns the forthcoming financial meltdown and is sold out of his own company by the oily Bretton James (Josh Brolin) who is the Gordon Gekko of today. Zabel, crushed by his loss of control, commits suicide and the devastated Moore is convinced James is responsible for motivating this so he turns to Gekko for advice on how to topple James in the most Machiavellian way possible. Gekko agrees as long as Jake can orchestrate a reconciliation between him and Winnie. But are Gordon Gekko's motives honorable considering his devious history?

The film deals with morally dubious themes in a skillful and knowing way; Can money earned dishonestly fund a greater good?--Jake works tirelessly to try and invest in green energy---and can someone akin to the devil compromise his nature to do the right thing?

Oliver Stone not only knows Wall Street, the location and the internal world, like the back of his hand, he managed to keep me engaged in this story that takes a larger and much more troubling look at the uncompromising and nasty financial world than his first foray into this milieu back in the go-go 1980s. The movie is also stunningly shot and captures the dizzying world of capitalism in a dynamic and sometimes feverish fashion.

As for the performances, they are unsurprisingly first rate. Even LeBoeuf, who by looking at the film's trailer, seems like a 14 year old stock trader, manages to pull off his role exceptionally well in what is essentially Doogie Howser in the stock market. His fiance is played superbly by the impressive young actress Mulligan. Josh Brolin makes an understated impression as the villain and continues to prove why he's a superior unsung talent. Appearances by Susan Sarandon, as Jake's overbearing realtor mother, Langella, and even Eli Wallach as an ancient Wall Street warrior, are all a welcome presence.

And of course there's Michael Douglas revisiting his Oscar winning role after 23 years. He doesn't dominate the film as people would expect and in fact, many critics are disappointed that he's not in the film more. But I think it was smart to have his character shadow the film in the scenes where he's absent like some kind of wild card. Is Gekko a changed man or does he still possess an evil agenda? When you find out for sure, the answer isn't an easy one to take.

Money Never Sleeps raises questions left for the audience to ponder even after a seemingly corny happy ending that beneath the warm and fuzzy surface, lies a dark subtext that is challenging. Money never sleeps and greed doesn't stop making the world spin.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Goodbye Sally...

A great film editor has died. Sally Menke, Quentin Tarantino's long time editor and close collaborator, is dead at the age of 56. She has edited all of Tarantino's films from Reservoir Dogs all the way to Inglourious Basterds which gained her an Oscar nomination. She was also nominated in 1995 for her work on Pulp Fiction. Her other credits include Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, All The Pretty Horses, Nightwatch and Mulholland Falls.

Tarantino was extremely proud of her and often made tributes to her during filming by having his actors look at the camera and say hello to her when it began rolling before a first take. These "Hello Sallys" are included as extra features on the Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds DVDs. They serve as a perfect and affectionate remembrance of a very talented person.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Listen to a great podcast: The Drunken Master's Revue

This week I sat in on my friends' radio show about movies, The Drunken Master Revue, which broadcasts every Wednesday 5-6pm on 93.1FM CKCU in Ottawa. It's a show by movie geeks for movie geeks and it's often extremely hilarious and informative. Click here to check out the episode I guested on and if you own a radio or a computer with Internet capabilities, listen to this great show weekly!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Town: The Wrong Side of the Tracks

Ben Affleck already proved himself a capable and promising filmmaker with his debut Gone Baby Gone (2007) a gritty thriller about an abducted child in south Boston. Here he returns to the same location for another unforgiving foray into a neighborhood where crime seems to be the number one employment opportunity. The Town is a story set in Charlestown, a burg in Boston known for it's tradition of breeding bank robbers. Young and angry punks are exploited by the local crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite) who runs a flower shop but is anything but interested in flowers. He runs a gang of well organized thieves with two loyal friends at the helm: Doug (Affleck) a conflicted criminal who walked away from a hockey career and the volatile and trigger happy James or "Jem" (Jeremy Renner). Both men have accepted their lives as criminals and seem despite being free men seem imprisoned by their obligation to their code and lawless life. A visit to Doug's father in prison (an excellent Chris Cooper) suggests their possible future.

While pulling a robbery at a local bank, Jem brutally wounds the assistant manager and they take hostage the main manager, a beautiful woman named Claire (Rebecca Hall) whom they set free after placing a blindfold on her. Doug's sense of guilt moves him into her life days after in a chance meeting at a laundry mat in which they have the kind of charmed meet cute you'd see in a romantic film. She's a warmhearted and generous woman (a volunteer at the nearby Boys and Girls Club) whose experiencing post traumatic stress from the robbery. They begin dating and once Jem discovers this, he's understandably furious that Doug is entering a relationship with the person who can give them up to the Feds. Jem's drug addled sister and Doug's part time girlfriend (Blake Lively) a girl tired of being used by her men, may also be a liability to them.

A hard nosed FBI agent (Jon Hamm) is convinced it's these men who pulled the robbery but lacks hard evidence since their system includes dumping bleach over every part of the bank they touch.

The Town is a well executed crime caper with strong performances and especially great cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and editing by Dylan Tichenor (another Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator) which aid in the solid action sequences that are of the quality of Michael Mann's films like Thief (1981) and Heat (1995). A third act heist at a baseball stadium reminded me of the robbery at a race track in Stanley's Kubrick's The Killing (1956).

I like the overall theme of men who are doomed to a life of crime based on their misfortune of growing up in a bad town with bad parents and essentially being put in the grasp of Postlethwaite's malevolent character, who operates like a pimp and the boys who do his bidding are his whores.

Affleck's performance is quiet and understated for the most part. Since he is also the director, I don't think he wanted his starring role to be showy. Renner is credible and solid as his brutal but loyal friend. Hall (who showcased her talent very well in films like Frost/Nixon (2008) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)) is well cast as the woman Affleck falls for.

The story covers ground that has been seen before but Affleck knows what he's doing here and aside from a Hollywood ending that's way too neat and tidy, The Town has conviction and great tragic thematic material.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Easy A: A comedy with the many alternatives for the 'S' Word

If you read my blog on a regular basis, you'll know of my infatuation with rising star Emma Stone, whose new film Easy A is her first starring role. Here she really gets a chance to prove herself front and center as a gifted and funny actress, wise beyond her years and with a natural charisma.

Easy A is a high school satire which tells the tale of Olive Penderghast (Stone) a whip smart but unpopular girl who fibs to her best friend (Aly Michalka) that she slept with a college student over the weekend. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, which this film hilariously rips, this little lie spirals into a wild rumor about Olive's sex life. To make matters worse, she agrees to fake a sexual encounter with her gay friend (Dan Byrd) in order to ward off his bullies and give him a reputation. Suddenly, Olive is the go-to-girl for imaginary sexual favors in exchange for gift cards and goodwill. She is now labelled viciously as the school slut by the student body, in particular the self-righteous Christian kids, led by the prissy Marianne (Amanda Bynes)

Olive handles this burden with a savage sense of sarcasm and irony. Her English class is reading The Scarlett Letter and she decides to symbolize the book by showing up to school dressed like a burlesque dancer with a red A stitched on her bustier. This is a high school where crazy things can happen especially since Malcolm McDowell is the principal.

Easy A skewers high school in the tradition of John Hughes films, which Olive lovingly references as she tells her story first person throughout the movie via webcam. We all know that nasty rumors spread rapidly but this generation's obsession with invasion of privacy and instant gratification via the internet and cell phones, embellished tall tales arrive to you faster than you'd want them to.

The film handles it's story with knowing wit and charm and sidesteps the tired cliches that are prevalent in many high school comedies, although this is another teen movie where once the girl has made herself infamous every single extra in the school courtyard looks at her with severe judgement.

Stone is the whole show here and she earns her starring role because she is the real deal. I can't say anything about her that I haven't said already in my previous blog post but to sum it all up she's 22 and she's going places.

She's also aided by a talented supporting cast which include funny turns by the underrated Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her sharp tongued and wiseass parents. Thomas Haden Church provides some chuckles as the hip and sardonic English teacher and Lisa Kudrow is a welcome presence as his estranged wife who's also the guidance counsellor who needs a guidance counsellor.

Easy A is PG-13 and despite it's tawdry subject matter, no one really gets naked or laid but it intelligently sheds light upon the desire of many young kids who are willing to compromise and just accept the rumor that they got to third base with someone rather than experiencing the real thing. If there's a sequel where Olive goes to college, imagine how deeply the game can change.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

R.I.P. Kevin McCarthy

"Listen! Listen to me! They're not human! Can't you see everyone?! They're here already!!! YOU'RE NEXT!!!"

Goddamn it, I hate writing obituaries, mainly because I don't like it when people die, especially great actors and filmmakers. Also, it's the job of a professional wire service reporter to compile a brief bio and list of film credits but I find myself doing that now when I think it's better to embed a youtube video that pays tribute showing what that person did best.

We lost Kevin McCarthy on September 11th at the age of 96. He had a major filmography, reportedly one of the IMDB's most extensive. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Death of a Salesman in 1951, but he was mainly a favorite of genre filmgoers with roles in such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pirahna, The Howling and alongside Weird Al Yankovic in a delightfully over the top and funny performance as the villain in UHF.

To display his underrated contribution to film take a look at these great videos.

You're Gonna Miss Me: The Music and Plight of Roky Erickson

Roky Erickson stood out amongst his peers of rock and roll lions like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and Jim Morrison. In his high pitched, southern twanged voice roared the soul of a transgressive artist. Here was a singer/songwriter, head of the Austin, Texas group the 13th Floor Elevators, who pioneered psychedelic rock and paid the price for bravely spearheading it's inception. He got in constant trouble with the police for marijuana and LSD possession and instead of jail time, was put into a mental institution where he emerged a damaged man suffering from the misunderstood cerebral monster that is schizophrenia.

This documentary about his life and battles with his mental health and family issues, shows him living a solitary and sheltered life supervised by his controlling mother Evelyn, who has a penchant for therapeutic practices like yoga and scotch taping collages of herself and her sons to illustrate her sense of pride as a mother. This is a woman who quietly and desperately clings onto a troubled past in order to survive a troubled present. She also won't let go of her adult son who according to his younger brother, Sumner, needs to get away from their mother and get real psychiatric care and medicine.

The custody battle hovers over the film and in between is the story of Roky's musical career which began with the wonderfully inventive and primitive garage rock of the Elevators and progressed into darker territory in the 70s and 80s where his personal demons and obsessions with horror movies and Satanic subject matter were ferociously thrown into his lyrics. Driving and fervently alive songs like "Mine Mine Mind" "Two Headed Dog" and "The Wind and More" are prime examples of this.

"Your Gonna Miss Me" shows a sad and wistful life and talent that has blessed American rock but was a casualty of it's drug milieu. But it's not without redemption. Sumner stands by his big brother faithfully and bravely out of love but also out of respect and admiration for his music. The movie also deeply focuses on Sumner's emotional struggles as he visits weekly with a therapist at a place called the Somatic Institute in Pittsburgh. Music has also provided solace and escape for him as he plays tuba with an orchestra. Both men are product of a sorrowful childhood that has left dark shadows in their adult life.

This film seems more about mental health and different ways one creates a survival method against it's horrors than it is a documentary about a rock and roll career. The filmmaker, Kevin McAlester, has amazing access and captures some real candid and private moments that display the power struggle between his mother and little brother that harbours resentment and hurt between them that has haunted the family for decades. We even meet their father, a man of very few words, who has a look about him that suggests someone who has survived a traumatic accident.

But if you've followed Roky Erickson's progress as of late, you'll know that he has prevailed. He has resumed recording, touring and playing music festivals. He has released a new album with The Okkervil River as his backing band. Roky has luckily survived his strife and the great music continues.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Forgotten Gem: Nighthawks (1981)

Recently I had the opportunity to view a print of the 1981 action thriller Nighthawks starring Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer. Here's an example of an underrated cop picture: lean, tense, stylishly directed, strongly acted and engaging in a simple, direct and efficient fashion. It's no frills genre filmmaking.

Stallone plays a focused and dedicated NYC cop who patrols the streets at night either dressed in drag or expensive attire to attract and nail muggers. Billy Dee Williams is his buddy and partner. Their basic job of baiting and hooking dumb criminals is halted when a bold terrorism expert (Nigel Davenport, an interesting addition to the cast) comes to the NYPD to train street cops with military experience into becoming assassins to pursue a vicious German terrorist named Wulfgar (Hauer) and his female companion (Persis Khambatta) who have fled from overseas to bring fear and unpredictable violence to the Big Apple and it's United Nations representatives.

Stallone becomes frustrated in feeling co-opted into changing from a cop who practices due process and follows prodedure into a hunter with orders to shoot to kill his one target on sight. Despite his impressive record in Vietnam, he doesn't believe in being a cop cum soldier with a license to kill, but his ethics are put to the test when he must confront Wulfgar in the gritty urban jungle.

Nighthawks has fairly predictable police movie cliches: the cop who's more attentive to his work than his long suffering wife, the wise cracking partner, the angry superior (well played by the late great Joe Spinell, most famous for playing a psychopath in Maniac) But makes inspired use of the cat and mouse formula: a cop accustomed to practicing restraint
and now ordered to shoot to kill his target on sight.

Hauer is frightening and convincingly cold as a terrorist who claims to be killing in the name of "the people" but seems to be doing it more out of pathological enjoyment. Witnessing Hauer's character make his moves from Paris to London to New York are chilling and build some real tension.

The set pieces in the film are expert. The first time Stallone and Hauer come face to face in a disco with The Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar and Keith Emerson's driving score is pitch perfect. A harrowing scene on a cable car involving Stallone transporting a baby away from a hostage crisis is well executed.

Although lacking in real depth or character development, and what even seems like compromised editing (apparently Universal Pictures cut the film severly), Nighthawks contains solid suspense, action, outstanding stunt work, tight pacing and forceful performances. After it's release in the spring of 1981, a year before Stallone started the Rambo franchise with First Blood, Nighthawks received mixed reviews and mediocre box office. It deserves a second look thirty years after the fact.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Winnebago Man is God#$%@ funny and revealing!

Jack Rebney is not an easy subject for a documentary. A former TV news director, Rebney later became an internet celebrity thanks to an infamous blooper reel from an industrial demo tape shot for Winnebago, in which he curses a blue streak and berates his crew during an extremely hot and fly ridden shooting day in Iowa, 1989. The tape was bootlegged endlessly and is now a YouTube staple. The problem is, Rebney doesn't exactly embrace the attention and interest.

But filmmaker Ben Steinbauer does and devotes his time and passion for this obscure viral video to make this revealing documentary about a man with a lot to say and a colorful way of saying it. In his attempt to track down (or stalk) Rebney, he discovers that he is living a reclusive life as a caretaker of a fishing resort in northern California. A symbolic contrast to the fast paced noise of the urban centres and high tech world. He agrees to be interviewed at his home and presents a calm, friendly and mysteriously low key version of himself. Steinbauer is disappointed. Where is the angry and profane man seen in that video? Can his subject sustain a feature length documentary after one brief and banal interview in which Rebney reveals almost nothing?

Ah, but there's a great twist. Steinbauer returns home and receives a surprise call from Rebney. He confesses that the nice, even tempered man Ben met was just an act. Rebney really is the man you see in the Winnebago tape: short fused and pissed off, but with eloquent vocabulary laced within the coarse language.

Steinbauer returns to Rebney's cabin and the film really begins. Ben and Jack become an unlikely duo as they argue over the value of discussing Jack's personal life and career. He would rather rant about the evils of Wal Mart and Dick Cheney than delve into his childhood or any other personal matter.

Winnebago Man sheds some often hilarious light on the cult of reluctant celebrity in the age of instant gratification. Rebney detests this part of the culture. He doesn't care for the internet whatsoever. At one point he refers to YouTube as "that fuckin' abysmal piece of shit tube" His modest house contains shelves of books you'd probably find in a university professor's office.

This character study displays a contradictory man; someone who seems to desire a soapbox for his anger (mostly political) but resists any on camera attention and often throws irritated fits towards Steinbauer, who wants his biography instead of a filmed diatribe of society and politics. There's some real tension in the battle of wits and words between the two. We don't know how this story will end because Jack Rebney may not want it fully told.

But he opens up enough for the filmmaker to show a sensitive side but he still retains his pessimistic and profanity filled grumpiness. Rebney is smart and funny enough to belong in front of the camera despite his insistence on privacy. This film perfectly captures this conflict. The F word will always be funny and fascinating but Jack Rebney certainly enhances it with his one of a kind character and personality.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Machete is bloody exploitation to the bone

If you saw Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse (2007), and since it was a major flop, you may not have, maybe you know that Machete originates as one of the fake trailers in that throwback to 70s exploitation double bills. Now a feature length film from 20th Century Fox and with a big name cast, Machete still retains it's gritty and ultra violent B-movie motif.

Danny Trejo, a Charles Bronsonesque character actor who has worked with Robert Rodriguez (who co-directed this with his editing partner Ethan Maniquis) several times. Now Trejo gets his turn to shine in his first lead role, letting his scowl and scarred face do most of the acting as he conveys real convincing menace with few words and some real understated intimidation.

Machete is an honorable Federale whose wife and child are murdered by the evil Mexican drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal, a near equal to Trejo in the speak softly and scowl roughly department.) Machete then jumps the border into Texas and crosses paths with two sexy women: one, a taco truck operator who moonlights as the leader of a network of border jumpers (Michelle Rodriguez) and a U.S. Immigration agent with Mexican roots (Jessica Alba) who is torn between following the rules and helping her poor native countrymen find a better life in the States. A threat to this is a slimeball state senator (Robert DeNiro) whose racism and anti-immigration stances are not at all hidden in his re-election campaign and his vicious aide (Jeff Fahey) who gets Machete to be the patsy for a staged assassination attempt on the senator, which sets up a war against disenfranchised illegal aliens and fierce Texans. Also in the colorful cast of characters is a murderous border patrol cop (Don Johnson) Fahey's drug addled sexpot daughter (Lindsey Lohan) a gun toting padre (Cheech Marin) and even horror movie legend Tom Savini shows up as a hired assassin.

The cast has real fun getting their hands dirty in the elaborate gore and over the top comedic violence and sex. Mexican stereotypes are also part of the savagely blunt satire. Machete is really a joyful live action comic book that is rich in wonderfully vulgar humor and abundant in dismemberment and murder with various sharp garden and medical tools. The human intestines also play a helpful role in helping the hero escape out of a window.

Rodriguez knows how to stage skillful, modestly budgeted and efficient action pics. He has always had a sly sense of innovation and resourcefulness that dates back to his $7,000 debut feature El Mariachi (1992). He's not subtle, but never boring.

Machete works as a violent comedy disguised as a political action movie. It's ballsy and very ridiculous but gleefully fun.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

First Blood Redux: A Love Story

"Flooding With Love For The Kid" is one of the best films of 2010 but it's not a conventional piece of filmmaking but a bold and ingenious piece of underground art. Here is a film scripted, edited, shot, directed and starring a stage actor named Zachary Oberzan, who with $96 dollars in hand and only his New York City 220 sq. ft. studio apartment at his disposal, made this film no holds barred and played every role in the movie. He performs each character with diversity and conviction.

The film is based on David Morrell's 1972 novel First Blood, which inspired the 1982 Sylvester Stallone movie of the same name. The difference screenplay wise is Oberzan's interpretation is more faithful to the novel. Prose from the book are even placed on screen to give scenes more context and mood.

The story of John Rambo, a quiet but volatile Vietnam vet who runs afoul of the local sheriff in a small town after he is arrested for vagrancy and then starts a one man war against the town's authorities is well known by most action film fans. But what Oberzan does is dig deeper into the original story's themes that the Stallone film ignored: the war fatigue and scarring of two bitter veterans (Rambo and the sheriff, Will Teasle, a Korean war vet.) and the disenfranchisement they both face in post war life. This film also further develops the Teasle character almost to the point where Rambo takes a backseat. Teasle is in the middle of a rough divorce from his wife who has left him and the challenge of pursuing Rambo after he has escaped from his custody only puts his self worth as a man to the test even more.

The film's total lack of production value is pretty much an opportunity for laughs. But, he doesn't hide or apologize for his no budget limitations but instead embraces them. Oberzan uses basic costumes and any small props he can get his hands on. Stuffed animals are used as forest critters, a ceiling fan is used as a helicopter propeller, and a sink faucet is utilized as a river stream! His use of simple sound effects also forces the viewer to suspend disbelief and use the imagination to compensate for the lack of locations. His kitchen is used in a diner scene, his living room is used for not only the police station but also the treacherous forest that Rambo finds himself trying to hide and survive in!

Oberzan displays real ingenuity, invention and above all else, bravery with this project. What could have easily been a laughing stock becomes a highly ambitious and soulful story of post traumatic stress, survival, loss, violence and male machismo gone to tragic extremes. At 107 minutes, you become absorbed and compelled by the power of the tale being told. This film proves that story is king.