REVIEW: Money Monster

16 05 2016

Money Monster“You don’t have a clue where your money is,” quips George Clooney’s Jim Kramer-esque TV pundit/entertainer Lee Gates at the start of “Money Monster.” He’s not wrong. His sarcasm-laced lecture on the process of making money virtually invisible in the name of faster trades and higher returns provides a simplified primer on the transformations in financial markets – money is, more than ever, just a holder of value that serves as a means to an end.

No wonder, then, that the American justice system has such a hard time prosecuting activity in the financial system. As money becomes even more fleeting, it gets harder to pin down wrongdoing with it. The crimes may be bloodless, but they are far from victimless.

The premise of “Money Monster” springs from an attempt to make that fact known. Jack O’Connell’s Kyle Budwell, a rough-hewn youngster, decides to hold up Gates’ television program to exact revenge on IBIS, a multinational corporation whose algorithmic hiccup depleted his life savings. The idea is interesting, combining residual post-recessional anxiety with a hijacking of the media-industrial complex. But the film’s problems derive from uncertainty over what to do after the logline.

Budwell is, to steal a phrase used to describe Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” a walking contradiction. On the one hand, he possesses the ideological resolve of 2016’s Twitter trolling Bernie Bros, fiercely committed to making a passionate case for justice. The media trial he holds against IBIS is a largely symbolic one; he demands not just the $60,000 he lost but also the entire $800 million that magically disappeared from the company’s coffers.

Yet Budwell is also a hair-brained firebrand who feels like an extra pulled from the background of a Southie-set Ben Affleck film. Once he bursts onto the set, he seems incapable of planning a strategic, intelligent next move. O’Connell’s performance, with its heavily laden accent and manic physicality, makes the character come across as more aloof than enlightened.

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REVIEW: ’71

22 07 2015

'71As someone relatively unfamiliar with the conflicts that ripped Ireland apart, I always find it a little confusing trying to keep track of all the various factions, rivalries, and competitions in any cinematic representation of the fracas.  (Surely any nuanced portrayal of the wedges that led to the American Civil War might baffle foreigners as well.)  “’71,” as exciting as it might be, proved no exception.

Writer Gregory Burke does not much give much of a learning curve or vast simplification of history – plus, it’s not like you can easily discern a Protestant or a Catholic from any physical characteristics.  Like the film’s lead character, Jack O’Connell’s British peacekeeper Gary Hook, we are just plunged directly into the bitterly divided Belfast streets.  Amidst a botched operation, Hook gets separated from the rest of his unit and must navigate his way back through some rather hostile territory.

The adventure involves a complex array of people and parties trying to help and harm Hook.  While keeping track of the minutiae are a little challenging, director Yann Demange ensures the macro level tension is always exciting and intelligible.  Chief among his smart moves, he employs a pulse-pounding heartbeat of a score that keeps “’71” relentlessly tense.  The film makes for a quite thrilling and entertaining watch, though if it aimed for any kind of deeper commentary … well, it was probably lost on me.  B / 2halfstars





REVIEW: Unbroken

21 12 2014

In terms of below-the-line talent on “Unbroken,” director Angelina Jolie assumes the role of Nick Fury by essentially assembling The Avengers of the cinema.  Every writer credited on “Unbroken” has penned an Oscar-nominated script.  Behind the camera as director of photography is Roger Deakins, cinematographer to great directors like the Coen Brothers as well as franchises like James Bond.

Those images are then spliced and joined together in the editing room by William Goldenberg (Oscar winner for “Argo“) and Tim Squyres (a consistent collaborator of Ang Lee who was Oscar nominated for “Life of Pi“).  And underscoring it all is Alexandre Desplat, the absurdly prolific composer for everything from “Philomena” to the “Harry Potter” series.  Essentially, “Unbroken” boasts what would be the ultimate fantasy squad if such a concept existed in Hollywood.

Rather than exuding passion for the craft, though, everyone phones it in. This dream team works in service of a rather bland and familiar inspirational story, and their respective skills do little to change that.  Instead of elevating the material, they are complicit with Jolie in playing it safe to ensure “Unbroken” plays to the least common denominator of audiences. They color by numbers when they could have been painting something truly inspiring and extraordinary.

The incredible true-life heroism and survival of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) has all the makings of a truly rousing film.  He had to triumph in the face adversity and anti-immigrant taunts as a child.  He funneled all that into the sport of track, which eventually took him to the Berlin Olympics in 1936.  Then, he survived for months at sea in WWII before getting captured as a POW by the Japanese.  These events give “Unbroken” quite a story to work with, yet the extraordinary feels rather ordinary.

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REVIEW: Starred Up

21 09 2014

Starred UpStarred Up,” not unlike its apparent next-of-kin “Bronson,” falls firmly into the category of great but not sensational British prison movies.  It’s entirely engaging and entertaining, even though it does not look beyond its confined setting.  And I’m totally fine with it.

The film begins with a silent bang as its protagonist, Eric Love, arrives to be locked away.  He’s the spiritual progeny of anarchic Randall P. McMurphy from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and James Dean’s renegade Jim Stark from “Rebel Without a Cause.  Already hardened by years in a juvenile facility, Eric arrives to play with the big boys and establish his position at the top of the pre-ordained social structure.

Rising star Jack O’Connell brings writer Jonathan Asser’s creation to vivid life with a viciously physical performance.  O’Connell neither entirely humanizes nor animalizes Eric, yet he’s still a staggering force.  Even as he erects barriers preventing us from really sympathizing with Eric, he becomes all the more enticing of a character.

His insurgency, of course, causes conflicts with other hardened criminals in the pen.  But it also draws the interest of two figures who feel compelled to save Eric from his foolish youthful mistakes.  One is, somewhat predictably, prison counselor Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) who takes more interest than usually in psychologically stabilizing a potentially dangerous inmate.  More surprisingly, the other is Eric’s estranged father Neville (the highly underappreciated Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to make sure his son finds his place in the pecking order.

There’s no conventional battle for Eric’s soul.  There’s no giant climax the film towards which the film heads.  And, yes, there’s also nothing of particularly extraordinary merit in “Starred Up.”  But it has great storytelling and great acting that is wholeheartedly effective for the film’s entire duration.  Sometimes that in itself is sufficient.  B+ / 3stars