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: Secret in Their Eyes

21 11 2015

Remaking a movie from another language requires more than just translating the dialogue. When done right, a complex series of subtle changes must take place to transplant the story across cultures.

Secret in Their Eyes,” a remake of the 2009 Argentinian film of the same (sans definite article), moves an intriguing thriller from 1970s Buenos Aires to 2000s Los Angeles. Naturally, that country’s “Dirty War” of state terrorism, which provides the setting for the original film, must be changed as America has no such equivalent. The closest equivalent that writer/director Billy Ray finds? Post-9/11 terrorism.

Yawn.

Juan José Campanella’s film dealt with tragedies that his country was still reluctant to acknowledge. Billy Ray milks the nation’s public anguish of this millennia for lazy dramatic stakes. Drawing parallels between the two changes the very nature of the story from a politically-tinged thriller to something that amounts to little more than a feature-length episode of a serialized crime drama.

Not even the talented cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts can elevate the material back to the level of its Oscar-winning source. Ray’s script, which cuts between a murder in 2002 and its continuing aftermath in 2015, intertwines its threads to such clunky effect that “Secret in Their Eyes” never has a chance to gain any momentum. He favors big, explosive moments from his actors as opposed to giving them rich, internal characters to work with on the page.

We know from films like “12 Years a Slave” that Ejiofor is capable of communicating so much with just his eyes, yet his tortured protagonist Ray from “Secret in Their Eyes” never gets the chance to draw us into his pain. He’s a counterterrorism agent with a crush on one colleague, Nicole Kidman’s Claire, and a friendly working relationship with another, Julia Roberts’ Jess. When a routine check on a body turns out to be Jess’ daughter, the boundaries between protecting the country and pursuing justice get rather murky.

The occasional ethical question about the merits of retribution gets raised here and there, but it’s usually forgone for yet another opportunity to watch Roberts hysterically contort her face. C+2stars





REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

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OSCAR MOMENT: Final 2013 Predictions! (Part 1)

14 01 2014

Well, folks, hard to believe that we’ll have a fresh batch of Oscar nominations in less than 2 days. Where has the time gone? Seems like just yesterday that I was posting my first (and, sadly, my only) predictions that included Naomi Watts in the thick of the Best Actress race for “Diana.” But now that all the ballots are in, the jury is still out on how a few of the races will go.

Who is about to have a great wake-up call on Thursday? I sort through the acting races races below.

BEST ACTOR

  1. Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  2. Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
  3. Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
  4. Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street

Bale HustleThe top 3 seem pretty secure to me.  There’s a slim chance of Hanks falling out simply because this isn’t his first rodeo and voters might want to give their vote to a fresher face.  But aside from frontrunners McConaughey and Ejiofor, very few of the top nominees are new to the game.

Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station,” both gave great breakout performances.  Maybe in a less competitive year, they’d have broken through.  In 2013, I’d be shocked if they could crack this field.  It doesn’t help that neither movie seemed to gain much traction during precursor season.  Past winner Forest Whitaker for “The Butler” and past nominee Robert Redford for “All Is Lost” seem unlikely as well as both of their movies have not been heavily recognized on the circuit.

Christian Bale stands a chance of showing up here, especially after netting nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, and BAFTA awards for his electric work in “American Hustle.”  He’s won once off his only nomination, which feels like a huge injustice for his vast talents.  If there’s enough love for the movie, he could land a spot.  But losing at the Globes, which clearly loved “American Hustle,” indicates that love for his performance may be wide but not very deep.

Bruce Dern has campaigned his tail off for “Nebraska,” and it’s clear that he really wants to win.  The film has found plenty of fans, and it’s hard to see him missing out since he’s responsible for so much of its efficacy.  He’s been nominated by the triple crown of SAG, HFPA (Golden Globes), and BFCA (Critics’ Choice), yet that’s no assurance of an Oscar nomination these days.  It’s not shocking that he didn’t win the Golden Globe since the organization probably wanted the ultra-wattage of Leonardo DiCaprio up on stage.  The Academy goes back-and-forth on being sentimental for veterans of the craft; I don’t think they’ll be able to resist at least a nomination for Dern though.

Leo Wolf

Upon its release, I would have counted Leonardo DiCaprio out of the race for Best Actor.  But he’s been more active than ever speaking up for his movie, and it really pushed “The Wolf of Wall Street” into the conversation.  The late surge of momentum may not be enough to counter his omission from both SAG and BFCA – DiCaprio netted the precursor triple crown for “J. Edgar” but still found no love from the Academy in 2011.  The Globe win, however, gives me the sense that he’ll slide into a nomination.

It would be his first since “Blood Diamond” in 2006 … since then, he’s starred in “Revolutionary Road,” “Shutter Island,” “Inception,” “Django Unchained,” and “The Great Gatsby.”  This might very well be a nomination rewarding that whole string of excellent performances.

BEST ACTRESS

  1. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine
  2. Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
  3. Judi Dench, “Philomena
  4. Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks
  5. Amy Adams, “American Hustle”

MerylBlanchett has this all but sealed up now.  It would take a major blunder on-stage for her to lose Best Actress at this point, but we all know that’s not going to happen.  It’s Cate Blanchett – she’s about the classiest actress around.

Bullock, Dench, and Thompson should all coast right in with no problem.  All 3 prior winners have been nominated by SAG, HFPA, and BFCA, and their films all have a sizable base of fans to pull them through.

The last bit of suspense in this category will come on nominations morning as we wait to see if it’s Meryl Streep for “August: Osage County” or Amy Adams for “American Hustle.”  Streep’s case is … well, she’s Meryl Streep.  The Oscars rarely pass up an opportunity to nominate her, but maybe the reflex will not be as strong now that she’s won the third Oscar for “The Iron Lady” two years ago.  She’s hit all the big precursors so far, scoring all the same major nominations as the previously mentioned actresses.  Her film, though, has not been particularly well-received.

Adams HustleAmy Adams is an Academy favorite herself though, racking up an impressive four Best Supporting Actress nominations in the past nine years.  She’s never been recognized as a leading lady, and a nomination here would send the message, “We’re working on getting you that Oscar win one day, Amy, we promise!”  Though she did not land a SAG nomination, she’s been recognized by the BFCA and BAFTA.  Moreover, she beat Meryl Streep for Best Actress at the Golden Globes.

It’s unclear if the Academy will love “American Hustle” as much as the HFPA did.  I feel pretty confident, though, that respect for Adams and the film she commands will overpower the impulse to give Streep her bazillionth nomination.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  1. Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  2. Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
  3. Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
  4. Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
  5. Daniel Brühl, “Rush

AbdiWhile I remain hopeful that Fassbender can pull an upset, this category looks to be all Jared Leto.  He’s been taking everything in his path, and I don’t think that will stop until the Oscar.  For Fassbender, though, he should at least take solace in getting his first nomination without campaigning a bit.  (If he had to work so hard only to be denied recognition for his astounding work in “Shame,” then why bother lobbying anymore?)

Debut performances often fare well at the Oscars, especially in the supporting categories.  22 have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and I suspect that number will rise to 23 this week.  Barkhad Abdi’s first role ever as the lead Somali pirate in “Captain Phillips” has been highly praised and won him recogition from SAG, HFPA, BFCA, and BAFTA.  Especially given the praise that his film has received, I think a snub would be rather inconceivable at this point.

Though he wasn’t nominated by SAG, Bradley Cooper has collected every other key nomination for his work in “American Hustle.”  The film is beloved, and his performance is one of the best parts of the movie – hilarious but also heartily dramatic.  Two years ago, back-to-back Oscar nominations for the guy who was a staple of rom-coms like “Valentine’s Day” might have seemed an absurdity.  Now I see it as a practical inevitability.

Cooper HuslteCooper was passed over by SAG in favor of a posthumous recognition for James Gandolfini in “Enough Said.”  While he was certainly a beloved actor, Gandolfini was more revered for his television work than his film roles.  (“Killing Them Softly” was fantastic, just going to point out once again.)  The SAG nomination committee has plenty of television actors, and that may have accounted for his appearance.  Otherwise, he’s been spotty, picking up a nod from BFCA but not from the HFPA.  “Enough Said” really hasn’t been a big part of the Oscar conversation, and I think that will ultimately cost Gandolfini a slot in this line-up.

The final slot is likely to go to Daniel Bruhl, who I really shouldn’t be doubting as he’s racked up nominations from all significant precursors.  But aside from the Golden Globe Best Picture nomination for “Rush,” the film hasn’t really been lighting up awards season.  Bruhl’s work is solid but seems to draw no fervent support.  I could see him losing a spot to Gandolfini or even a left-field player like Tom Hanks in “Saving Mr. Banks” or Jonah Hill in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  In my wildest dreams, James Franco’s brilliant work in “Spring Breakers” could trump Bruhl.  But I have to predict what seems predictable.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  1. Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
  2. Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
  3. June Squibb, “Nebraska”
  4. Oprah Winfrey, “The Butler
  5. Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”

Nyong'oIt’s down to Nyong’o vs. Lawrence for the win here.  Though Lawrence prevailed at the star-powered Golden Globes, I still have my doubts as to whether she can swing back-to-back Oscar wins.  I think this category could also be a way for us to gauge on Oscar night which film will win Best Picture.  Both films are likely to need one acting victory, and Best Supporting Actress is the most probable place to earn it.  (Ejiofor has a shot for Best Actor, and that might pan out for the film.)

I think 84-year-old June Squibb is pretty much locked in for her fantastic performance in “Nebraska.”  She’s had all the requisite nominations leading up to the Oscars, and her film is well-liked too.

The last two slots, however, could go any number of ways.  Sally Hawkins got a Golden Globe nomination for “Blue Jasmine,” and the British contingency that got her a BAFTA nod could break her into the field here.  I have to wonder if “Blue Jasmine” is purely the Cate Blanchett show, however.  Scarlett Johansson’s vocal work in “Her” got her a nomination from the BFCA (it was ineligible at the Globes), but the Academy generally strays away from rewarding unconventional performances like that.  Maybe Sarah Paulson, silent on the trail so far, could shock and give “12 Years a Slave” its second nomination in the category.

RobertsMy guess is that the Academy will stick to some long renowned actresses to fill out the roster.  Oprah Winfrey surprisingly missed with the Golden Globes for “The Butler,” but she’s been touted by the BFCA, SAG, and BAFTA.  Even though the film has lost its buzz after it scored surprisingly well with the SAG, I think the Oscars will still want to give something to one of the few screen performances given by the cultural icon.

I think they’ll also be welcoming back Julia Roberts, who hasn’t been nominated since she won in 2000 for “Erin Brockovich.”  As previously mentioned, “August: Osage County” hasn’t been met with rapturous acclaim.  But it does have the support of the actors, who gave it a coveted Best Ensemble nomination at the SAG Awards.  If anything for the film is recognized, it will be the acting.  And Roberts, who many view as a co-lead, is the most likely to reap the goodwill.

Check back tomorrow to see my predictions for the writing/directing categories as well as the granddaddy of them all … BEST PICTURE!





F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 1, 2011)

1 07 2011

Back at the end of 2009, my first year of blogging, I caught some heat for including Tony Gilroy’s sophomore directorial venture, “Duplicity,” among my top 10.  To quote directly, “Duplicity? Really?”  There was also a slightly more detailed explanation of someone’s distaste for the movie, with that blogger describing the film as “dull.”

So now, with Julia Roberts headlining “Larry Crowne,” I have the perfect opportunity to defend the movie that charted as the 7th best movie of 2009 for me as the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  For my money, “Duplicity” was a fun, sleek, and stylish spy thriller that kept you on your toes every step of the way.  Coming after the flop that was “Quantum of Solace,” espionage was desperately in need of a facelift.  And at the beginning of 2009, originality wasn’t exactly plentiful at the theaters.

And in addition to being insanely well-written as an espionage movie, it also doubles as a romantic comedy with a dynamite couple in Julia Roberts and Clive Owen (who shared the screen as lovers in Mike Nichols’ “Closer,” a past F.I.L.M.).  The two play all sorts of games with each other, but since they are both corporate spies, all the lying, cheating, and stealing is for their job.  As the movie cuts back and forth between their history as lovers and their current scheming, it keeps us wondering where the line between work and play is drawn by these two spies.  Do they draw it at the same place?  What happens when this line is crossed?  By mixing the two genres, Gilroy gets us more engaged than ever in the business of these spies.  (Not to mention he cuts out all the contrived mumbo-jumbo we’ve been told to tolerate time and time again by Hollywood.)

Owen’s Ray Kovacks and Roberts’ Claire Stenwich are fascinating to watch unfurl courtesy of their nuanced portrayals.  First spies for competing governments, then from competing corporations, their alliances are never completely evident nor are their motives fully crystalline.  But as their quest to be the smartest guys in the room takes them on a crazy path that only a brilliant screenwriter like Tony Gilroy could imagine, their worlds and minds begin to unravel, ultimately laying them bare.  Some might call the movie’s never-ending plot twists excessive and ultimately self-destructive, but in the current Hollywood climate, “Duplicity” doesn’t have enough to compensate for the lack of complexity in a calendar year.  The twists can be electrifying if you choose to let them shock you, and the movie’s ride can be tremendously rewarding for those with the commitment to follow it.





REVIEW: Larry Crowne

29 06 2011

The recessionary spirit has started to manifest itself in American cinema at full force, and thanks to “Larry Crowne,” it has entered mainstream romantic comedy.  While it’s less like “Up in the Air” and more like a double-length sitcom episode, the movie works as a reminder that dignity, integrity, and the will to work are three powerful weapons against the tough times facing our country.  This commentary mostly takes a backseat to the been there, done that genre tropes – but just the fact that it has subtext makes it deeper that just about every romantic comedy in the past decade.

Say what you will about the declining power of movie stars, but I don’t think this movie would have worked without its marquee names, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.  We’ve all seen the good-natured person melt the cold exterior of someone else, although “Larry Crowne” does invert it by making the man nice and the woman chilly.  The characters are one-dimensional; Hanks’ Larry being an embodiment of good while Roberts’ Mercedes Tainot representing a heart hardened by a bad marriage and the frustrating public education system.

Yet it’s watchable, even fun, because our heads process it as Erin Brockovich falling in love with Forrest Gump.  The romance isn’t good enough to be cared about if we were watching two no-name indie actors, and we accept it because we have a history with these two actors and we trust them.  We aren’t watching Larry Crowne; we are watching Josh Baskin, Andrew Beckett, Joe Fox, and Chuck Noland.  Similarly, we aren’t watching Mercedes Tainot; we are watching Vivian Ward, Julianne Potter, Maggie Carpenter, and Anna Scott.  Where the script lacks, the decades we have spent having these two actors entertain us compensates.  (So if you aren’t a fan of either of the actors, maybe it’s best to steer clear.)

When it’s not quietly extolling American virtues, “Larry Crowne” is light, breezy, and warm.  Its titular character meets an interesting cast of characters at the local community college, explores new hobbies and passions, and confronts the changes in his life with determination and willpower.  While I expect a little bit more from Nia Vardalos, the woman who had me in tears of laughter with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” in the way of humor, the movie has a sort of pleasant wit to it.  Combined with the likability factor of Hanks and Roberts, the movie makes for a nice and decently satisfying watch.  B / 





“Eat Pray Love” Poll Results

22 08 2010

“Eat Pray Love” third wheeled it at the box office this weekend, scrounging a nice $12 million on a fair 48% decrease from its opening.  With $47.1 million in the bag, it’s outpacing last year’s “Julie & Julia,” which wound up with about $94 million overall.  But that

Anyways, box office speculation aside, it’s time to talk about awards.  Back before anyone had even seen the movie, I wrote an Oscar Moment on “Eat Pray Love” speculating on its chances in Best Actress and Best Picture.

With a low 38% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s doubtful that the movie will garner the critical support necessary to get a Best Picture nod.  Then again, that’s just one point higher than “Nine,” which was still in the hunt for Best Picture last year, albeit as a bottom-feeding disappointment.

But there hasn’t been any hating on Julia Roberts, and good actresses have gotten into the Best Actress field with worse ratings – just ask Cate Blanchett, who scored a nomination in 2007 for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” a movie with a 35% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So I asked the readers where the awards season run for “Eat Pray Love” would end.  Would it wind up with an Oscar nomination of any kind or just be a Golden Globes movie?  Or, heck, would it even have an awards season?

No one seemed particularly optimistic.  Only one-fourth of voters in the poll thought it could manage an Oscar nomination.

The other six were split half and half.  Three think it will be nominated for a Golden Globe, while three others think it won’t have any luck in the winter.  It’s really tough to tell, but Julia Roberts would be an easy fallback if the rest of the season disappoints.  So for now, we will just have to wait and see.