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: Elysium

2 03 2015

In April 2014, I started watching “Elysium” when I observed that it had arrived in my library. I grimaced my way through roughly 45 minutes and either fell asleep or became unavoidably detained. Then I just never got around to picking it back up again and wound up having to return the disc in order to avoid facing a fine.

I kept telling myself that I needed to pick it up just to finish it for the sole purpose of formulating some coherent thoughts to write a review. This internal conversation continued for nearly an entire year inside my head until, finally, I decided to give it another go since “District 9” writer/director Neill Blomkamp would soon unleash “Chappie” on theaters everywhere.

In short, I regret this decision.

The most interesting aspect of “Elysium” is how on earth something so violently anti-capitalist, anti-1% managed to find funding in the first place. Sure, some of these movies do manage to get through, but they are usually independently financed and then released without the help of a major studio. They also seem to temper their rage, at least enough to prevent the enterprise from seeming like an all-out vilification of the wealthy.

Blomkamp formulates a compelling scenario for his film, a world where the rich have fled a polluted, overcrowded planet to inhabit Elysium. Here, in this literal representation of what the Greeks mythologized as a paradise for heroes, those who can afford it can frolic around a ring orbiting the earth knowing that their health is always secure. Of course, anyone who lives up in the air has to resemble a cartoonish villain, even Jodie Foster’s Defense Secretary Delacourt.

Matt Damon’s Max Da Costa, ailing from a workplace accident that left him exposed to dangerous radioactive material, leads the small proletariat revolution against those hoarding access to medical care. It might have made for a fascinating, discussion-worthy visualization of the figurative “class warfare” narrative that gets tossed around quite a bit in the political sphere. Instead, it’s a boring, derivative action flick where the only thing more simpleminded than the ideology is the violent melee.  C2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 18, 2013)

18 01 2013

When you think of the films of Spike Lee, I can imagine some of the things that come to mind are didactic, pugnacious, and aggressive political commentary.  In other words, you would think of a movie that looks nothing like “Inside Man,” a tight thriller about the perfect bank robbery.  But precisely because it resists the trappings of a typical Spike Lee movie, it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (And also because it’s an AWESOME movie!)

You’ve seen plenty of movies about bank robbers, but none quite like Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell.  He’s got a master plan to pull off the perfect heist, one that slowly and cryptically unveils itself in Spike Lee’s film.  Russell is interested in more than just getting quickly in and out with the money; he’s willing to play the long game with the police and the hostages in unconventional ways.  The tension is high as you wait to see when, if ever, his master plan will unravel.

Remarkably, it manages to hold up as some curious players with some very powerful ulterior motives enter the fray.  Namely, there’s the wild-card of Jodie Foster’s power broker tampering with everything she can to keep some secrets hidden inside the bank.  With so many people operating in the shadows and shades of grey, it makes the the quest of the righteous Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) all the more urgent and compelling.

There’s rarely a dull moment in “Inside Man,” and Lee manages to pull it off without ever needing to pull out a boombox and blare “Fight the Power.”  There’s a little bit of commentary on multiculturalism in New York, but it’s hands-off and not particularly distracting from the point of the film.  Which is, of course, to entertain for two hours and then yank the rug out from underneath the audience.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 23, 2012)

23 11 2012

It really is a shame that Mel Gibson had to go off the deep end right before the release of “The Beaver.”  The movie is a deeply powerful examination of family and interpersonal dynamics in the wake of an increasingly isolating digital world.  However, if you’ve watched E! any time over the last few years, you’ve no doubt become aware that Gibson isn’t exactly in his right mind all the time.  Thus, they were successfully able to sell Jodie Foster’s excellent film to the public as “that crazy Mel Gibson movie where he talks with a beaver puppet” as if it were autobiographical.

“The Beaver” isn’t the story of Mel Gibson; it’s the story of all of us who ever disappear into our screens at the expense of human connection.  For that reason, it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  It cracked my top 10 last year, and the more I think on the film, the more pleased I am that I went out on a limb for it.  I think in a few years, when all the tabloids quit running their sensational stories on Gibson, there will be a massive critical reevaluation of “The Beaver.”  And I will be proud to have been a supporter since I first saw the film at an early morning showtime in May 2011.

The titular beaver puppet is actually not a product of the insanity of Walter Black, Gibson’s character.  Well, at least not in the sense that TMZ tries to paint him as insane.  Walter’s been asleep at the wheel for years, failing as a parent and husband.  After a severe bout with depression, he discovers the beaver puppet and begins living vicariously through it.  The beaver becomes a psychological distancing mechanism, allowing Walter to separate himself from the guilt of past deeds that weighs down on him like a rock.

What director Jodie Foster and writer Kyle Killen explore in “The Beaver” with such dexterity is how each of the other characters have their own beavers, so to speak.  Each erect false facades designed to convey a persona that does not match the person underneath.  Walter’s son, Anton Yelchin’s Porter, is trying to project that he is the polar opposite of his dad.  Yet in his evasion, he becomes even further disengaged from his family and increasingly abrasive – the very traits that precipitated his beaver crisis.

There’s also Jennifer Lawrence’s Norah, Porter’s high school classmate who is by all means considered to be the paradigmatic girl of their class.  Yet she’s struggling with dark issues of grief behind closed doors, and she is even willing to pay Porter to write a big speech for her to hide it from others.  While their unconventional romance is a subplot to the larger arc of the 90 minutes of “The Beaver,” it makes a big impact because Yelchin and Lawrence act from such a dark recess of their souls.  They manage what many actors twice their age cannot, a connection on both an intellectual and an emotional level.

So get over Mel Gibson, sit down with an open mind, and watch “The Beaver.”  If you are willing to really think, you’ll find some very interesting questions being raised.  What are the beavers in our life that keep us from loving others?  Jodie Foster shows you those of Walter, Porter, and Norah to devastating effect; it’s up to you to figure out your own.





REVIEW: Carnage

25 03 2012

Every medium has its distinct storytelling capabilities.  The written word can inundate us with rich details and vivid characterization.  The stage can engage our hearts and our eyes with proximity and unflinching reality.  Film can wow us through fast manipulation of image and story that words or actors alone cannot illuminate.  Some, but not many tales can bounce between the different media.  Those that make the jump require strenuous retooling to fit the expressive purposes of their newfound home.

The fatal flaw of Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is that it is merely a carbon copy of its source play, Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play “The God of Carnage.”  The two masters of their respective crafts, collaborators on the script, ultimately fail to realize what is cinematic about the story.  As a result, it just feels like a performance of the play itself (which I have read and deeply admire!) merely caught on film.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly happy that more people will be exposed to Reza’s keen insights into our primal natures.  Not everyone can afford to see it on Broadway, nor are touring or repertory companies going to be performing this in every town.  But it does the work a disservice to merely slap it onto a screen when it belongs on a stage.

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FINCHERFEST: Panic Room

28 09 2010

Fincher moved onto a more Hollywood-friendly thriller in 2002 after “Fight Club” was a pretty risky studio gamble that didn’t fully pay off in the short run.  “Panic Room” was a financial success and was fairly well-received by critics.

I think that “Panic Room” is fantastic and totally unfairly derided.

Most people tend to think of it as Fincher’s ugly stepchild (when you don’t count “Alien 3,” of course) and write it off because it lacks the style of a “Seven” or a “Fight Club.”  But for what it’s worth, “Panic Room” could have been a terrible movie in the hands of a lesser director.  With the help of a good editor, such direction could make the movie an hour and twenty minutes.

But the movie succeeds because Fincher resists the temptation to give into horror filmmaking clichés.  Sure, this isn’t a highly original concept, yet it works because he treats it with reverence and respect like he would for any other movie.  While the atmosphere of terror isn’t exactly profound, it is genuinely terrifying because the idea governing it is scary.  We all consider our home a haven, a place where no one can get at us.  Thinking that someone could violate that sense of tranquility is unsettling indeed.

Fincher takes his time sweet time with the movie, and the slow, deliberate pacing just makes the tension all the more taut.  His utilization of subtle scoring and lavish cinematography sets a really eerie aura in the New York City townhouse of Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her diabetic daughter (a classic 12-year-old Kristen Stewart caught in an awkward phase).  The plot doesn’t get much more complicated than a mother and daughter trapped inside their panic room when three robbers invade their home.

There’s a little bit of typical shenanigans with everything that can go wrong going south, but “Panic Room” still holds us in its grip because of the very real and palpable terror.  The closed-in claustrophobic sense is exactly what drew Fincher to the movie; according to him, “[he] wanted to make what Coppola called ‘a composed movie’.”  For those not willing to look deeper into the artistic darkness of “Seven,” this is Fincher’s pitch-perfect filmmaking at its most accessible.

And if nothing, the movie did manage to add a new phrase to the English jargon.  Because let’s be honest, who actually knew what a “panic room” was before 2002 and could pepper it into conversation?