Friday, October 8, 2010

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps

You can't go home again.

Or can you?

It's a question Hollywood has been determined to solve, in the affirmative, for almost a decade now.

The movie-going audience is long-accustomed to sequels and threequels and fourquels, remakes and reimaginings, adaptations and even the newfound "reboot."

But we're hitting fresher ground still with Wall Street 2, a sequel of a movie that seems almost impossible to sequelize. And why would you want to? The original Wall Street wasn't an action/adventure franchise, it was a trenchant slice of mid-80's cynicism; a critique of consumer culture in the midst of said culture's glory days. It was a welcome antidote to money mania.

The new movie's PR flacks contend that the collapse of the economic bubble started in the 80's makes this a perfect time to revisit the characters who embodied the bubble's creation, but if there's one thing we DON'T need in 2010, it's another cynical take on corporate greed.

We've got plenty of that, thank you very much.

But because corporate greed never goes away, we've got a sequel anyway. In this version, Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox is replaced by goody two-shoes stock trader Shia Lebeouf.

Strangely, Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko is replaced -- at least in story terms -- by Josh Brolin's titan of the banking industry.

NOTE: One way to tell a sequel is inferior to the original is to see how the names of the characters become less suggestive. Where once we had Gordon Gekko mentoring Bud Fox, now we have Bretton James mentoring Jake Moore. Downgrade!

In Money Never Sleeps, Michael Douglas' role is reduced to trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter, played by Carey Mulligan. The fact that she is engaged to marry Shia Lebeouf is what brings Douglas into our main plot.

That main plot deals with Lebeouf's attempt to get revenge on Josh Brolin for ruining the financial fortunes of Lebeouf's father figure, Frank Langella, who was the chairman of a Lehman Brothers-type banking house driven under in the collapse of 2008.

If you think this is getting complicated, you are right, and it doesn't stop there. Lebeouf is looking to gather money for a company trying to invent a cold fusion process, Carey Mulligan is pregnant, and Lebeouf's mom, Susan Sarandon, is a real estate agent who keeps borrowing money from her son because her properties are declining in value.

Money Never Sleeps tries to capture every aspect of the financial collapse, and it tries to do so by layering subplot upon subplot, character upon character.

This strays from the blueprint of the original, which captured the spirit of the 80's boom through a narrow plot with few characters -- nice guy Bud Fox gets mentored, and corrupted, by charming but diabolical Gordon Gekko.

All is not lost, however. To flesh out the screenplay, director Oliver Stone employed writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, who do an excellent job with indvidual scenes. The problem in Money Never Sleeps exists at the story level, not the script level.

Also shoring up the weakness of the story is some fine work from the brilliant cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the visual maestro behind the movies Lust, Caution, Brokeback Mountain and 8 Mile.

Money Never Sleeps is entertaining, well-crafted and worth seeing.

But it's not iconic and it's not a contribution to our culture, the way the first one was.

Hollywood has proven you can go home again.

But, as any real estate agent will tell you, home values aren't what they once were.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 67/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 66/100

SCORE FOR WALL STREET (1987)

How Accomplished: 94/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 96/100

Monday, October 4, 2010

You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger

At a screening in Toronto for his latest movie, Woody Allen -- who churns out a movie a year, and has done so for the past four decades -- was asked if his movies might benefit from, uh... more time spent in front of the keyboard.

Allen replied:

"They wouldn't be better. I have thought about that, yes, but they wouldn't be. When I've had time to do something, it doesn't come out better. There's no correlation between the time spent and how it comes out. It's really about the luck of a good idea. If you get a good idea you can execute it quickly."

So how good is the idea behind You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger?

Mediocre, alas.

The story follows a family composed of members with varying levels of self-delusion.

The most deluded is aging mother Gemma Jones, who has just been dumped by long-time husband Anthony Hopkins. He has taken up with blonde bubblehead and up-until-five-minutes-ago call girl Lucy Punch, a turn of events which sends Gemma to a sham of a psychic named, of course, Cristal, for guidance.

Their daughter Naomi Watts is married to Josh Brolin, a layabout who foolishly quests to write the Great American Novel. While waiting impatiently for this to happen, Watts has fallen in love with her married boss, Antonio Banderas, whom she hopes will some day leave his wife...

And so the plot tangles and tangles and tangles.

The central theme -- that we all depend on self-delusion to an alarming degree, and that the most deluded among us are often the happiest -- is really cool. And it shows why Woody Allen is such a brave artist. Allen himself has few delusions, but he can't bring himself to scorn those who do. Not overly much, anyway. The truth is, delusions are effective.

The problem with the story isn't thematic, and it has nothing to do with craft. Allen has more craft at screenwriting than anyone alive.

The problem is in the emotional underpinning of the story.

No one in Tall, Dark Stranger seems to like anyone else very much. The marriages are a wreck -- that goes with Woody Allen territory -- but even the familial relationships lack warmth.

Ultimately, there is no love in this movie, which makes it hard to hook into the characters. The unwavering affection between the brothers Colin Farrell and Ewan MacGregor made Cassandra's Dream work, as did the stormy, primal passion between Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

In movies, it's okay to be unhappy, it's okay to be ignoble and it's even okay to commit murder. But you have to love someone, somehow. We demand it.

Since there was no love within Tall, Dark Stranger, I have no love for it.

But it's only another twelve months till the next Woody Allen film rolls into theaters.

Maybe he'll have better luck with that one.

We'll see!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 44/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 44/100

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Easy A

Lots of things have to come together for a movie to work.

In Easy A, lots of things come together.

Young screenwriter Bert Royal -- you wouldn't think he'd be so young, age 33, with a name like Bert -- gets things going with his witty screenplay about a high school virgin who develops a reputation as a slut by pretending to sleep with a series of unpopular boys to boost their reputations.

"Pretending" is the key word here, a clever conceit which makes the virgin's character extremely likable because a) her motive is compassion, and b) the outcome of said compassion makes her a victim of undeserved punishment, two qualities that glue audiences to a character in a hurry. Throw in a sense of humor and we're in love.

Director Will Gluck, of last year's fizzy FU, adds his restless camera technique and affinity for speedy dialogue.

Then there's Emma Stone, the rising star of Zombieland, whose sarcastic smirk and comfort with big words (and lots of 'em) makes her ideal to play Olive, the virgin at the heart of Easy A.

There's something very modern about the movie, not only in the freshness of its fast-thumping, music-heavy approach but in the subject matter itself.

A slutty reputation would doom a heroine in any past era -- as it did in Easy A's literary forebear The Scarlet Letter -- but in our culture a scandalous reputation is not the end of dignity, it's merely a speed bump on the road to public recovery.

Also reflecting the cultural moment, Olive's scandal creates a split between social progressives and religious conservatives. The progressives are represented by gal pal Aly Michalka, currently starring in the new WB series Hellcats, while the conservatives are represented by Amanda Bynes, who plays the spiritual leader of the school's devout Christians.

There's a lot of good chuckles in the movie, a sparkling main character, a few thoughtful lessons on the nature of private and public morality, and a meandering dull spot where it always is, at the two-thirds mark.

This is not the deepest, most serious-minded film ever made, but it's eminently well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable.

Easy B.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 75/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100

Friday, October 1, 2010

Devil

I have this friend.

His name is Evan.

He called me about a year and a half ago with an idea for a script. In it, six strangers are trapped on an elevator by a sinister villain whose voice is the only one to come out of the emergency call box. Every fifteen minutes, the lights go out. When they come back on, another passenger in the elevator is dead.

One of the trapped riders is a murderous ally of the voice in the call box. But which one?

I told my friend it sounded great and he should get to work on it right away. He did, and the result was an excellent, tightly-written thriller called Elevator.

He got an agent excited by the project. A production company even started lining up financiers.

Then came word that M. Night Shyamalan, writer/director of the early hit The Sixth Sense and a string of recent bombs, had a very similar idea.

Shyamalan's project would be called Devil, and it too would involve average people trapped on an elevator. Every fifteen minutes the lights would go out and another passenger would be dead. Shyamalan's project -- which he conceived but did not write or direct -- had one additional element. Instead of being terrorized by an antagonist looking for Swiss bank account numbers, the opponent in Devil would be, well, the Devil.

Shyamalan always did love the supernatural.

My friend's project fell apart -- at least at the time -- and it was back to the drawing board. This is a somewhat common experience for aspiring screenwriters, but it's an awfully demoralizing one.

So this past weekend was especially tough for him, as he had to endure advertisements, reports and reviews of Shyamalan's exciting new thriller about -- are you ready for this? -- people trapped on an elevator!

He even had well-meaning but naive friends calling to congratulate him on his success in getting his story to the big screen.

Ouch.

Which leaves us with Devil. How is it?

For my friend's sake, I'd like to say it's an unmitigated disaster, but the key breakthrough seems to have been not letting M. Night Shyamalan write or direct his own movie.

Instead, Brian Nelson, who wrote the terrific Ellen Page thriller Hard Candy in 2005, takes scripting duties, and John Erick Dowdle, who directed 2008's fast and fun vampire thriller Quarantine, mans the camera.

No-name actors give life to the characters in Devil: the passengers trapped in the elevator, the building mechanics trying to get the elevator doors open and the police detective trying to figure out what's going on.

It's the police detective who takes center stage. He's the one who begins to understand the supernatural aspect of the situation, courtesy of a whispery latino building mechanic whose grandmother told stories of el diablo testing human morality.

It's also our police detective who arcs over the course of the story, for he too is being tested.

Much as I hate to admit it, Devil, while low-rent and cheesy, is also simple, efficient and even a little moving. I may not have cared much for the people stuck in the elevator -- all of whom personified various levels of guilt, but I did feel for our police detective, who carried a tragic past and had a big surprise in store for him.

Yep, there's a twist in this M. Night Shyamalan-inspired movie. Hard to believe!

But it's the kind of twist that makes a story better, not worse. It's the kind of twist that helps us understand character. It's not a show-offy trick.

Okay, I have to spoil the twist. I can't help myself. Here goes:

One of the inhabitants of the elevator is connected -- in a very culpable way -- to the personal tragedy in the police detective's past. So once the police detective gets that person out of the elevator, you can imagine the temptations that bedevil him. So to speak.

Like an episode of the old Twilight Zone TV show, Devil is a little spooky, a little mind-bending and, in the end, a little touching and hopeful.

Defying expectations, Devil isn't bad at all. It's even kind of good.

But Evan's script was better.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 58/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 61/100

How Bad I Feel for My Friend Evan: 92/100