Archive for September 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

September 26, 2010

Michael Douglas’ voice is one of the great instruments of American films (I hope he doesn’t lose it). Its timbre and buzz speak of a life lived fully and shrewdly; Douglas can’t persuasively play a dummy, not with those wised-up, insinuating pipes of his. Returning to his Oscar-winning gravestone role, Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street, Douglas sounds very much like a hungry spider returning to his silken web, waiting for gullible flies to come to him. The colors of the interiors run the gamut from blood to wine — deep burgundy, highly reflective espresso — and the older, grayer Gekko, in contrast with these surroundings, is no longer the sleekest shark in the tank. He’s a rumpled hermit in the back of a cave, reading financial omens everyone else is too far into the game to notice.

Age has chilled Douglas out more than a bit (maybe Catherine Zeta-Jones has helped). I once called him “perhaps the least relaxed of actors,” but now, in movies like Wonder Boys and this, he comes in and rocks the house as much as he ever did, only from a more centered place. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, also directed by Oliver Stone, Gekko is angry about his time in jail and sad about his estrangement from his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), but most of the time he kicks back like a Godfather or a returning king. It’s not a question of whether anyone will kiss his ring, but when. Hotshot Wall Street trader Jacob Moore (Shia LeBeouf), who happens to be involved with Winnie, gravitates to Gekko, and Gekko, after learning Jacob’s connection to his daughter, takes him into his confidence. Will he corrupt Jacob, as he did with Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox twenty years ago? No, his designs this time may be darker.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t the fast-moving bullet train its predecessor was; it feels enervated and somewhat irrelevant, behind the times (the original Wall Street was finished before the infamous ‘87 stock-market crash), commenting impotently on events from two years ago that ruined countless lives. (Jacob’s mom, a real-estate agent, played by Susan Sarandon, is shown suffering when the housing bubble bursts, but she’s all but forgotten about.) It’s tough to care about whether Jacob and Winnie’s young love will endure a season in Gekko hell, and the boardroom/backroom deals feel a bit dumbed-down. Josh Brolin’s suave hedge-fund manager bears most of the plot’s burden of guilt, effectively destroying first Jesse’s mentor (Frank Langella) and then, by association, the economy. “I was small-time compared to these guys,” Gekko growls.

There are several places the film could’ve ended and become a worthy, bitter update on Gekko and the world he helped create. But Stone keeps going; the result is disastrous. For all his radical posturing, Stone seems addicted to happy endings; he wants to make a difference, and a dark, realistic denouement wouldn’t gel with his deep-down instinct to keep hope alive. Despite unfolding during the last months of the Bush administration, and despite a plot thread involving green energy, this Wall Street is curiously apolitical, never making much of anything it shows us except that, for the most part, unseen people are understood to be impacted, somewhere, by the financial machinations. But Michael Douglas does what he can; he brings back the contemptible charmer Gekko, at least until the script shoves a sonogram in his face and sells him out to sappiness.

A Serbian Film

September 25, 2010

Somewhere in the late ’80s, there was a one-page vignette in the great Love and Rockets comic about a bar fight between two women — actually more like a one-sided beatdown. The ass-whupping is over almost as soon as it starts, and nobody else in the bar knows why it happened. The narrator of the vignette concludes, “We all sat around trying to top each other with our reactions.” Well, A Serbian Film is a bar fight, and a lot of critics have been trying to top each other with their reactions. I’ve heard it all — “The most disturbing film ever!” “I’ll never watch it again!” “I wish I hadn’t seen it!” “Please don’t see this, because you can’t unsee it!” And so on and so forth. A few of these critics were also kind enough to give away each and every outrage in the film (something I won’t do here). So by the time I saw A Serbian Film — the monolith of evil! the horned terror of international cinema! — I was working at a jaded disadvantage: I kept waiting to be shocked and appalled.

The movie is certainly well-made, effectively acted; all the technical ducks are in a row here. It’s not some grubby, grainy nightmare like the August Underground films, whose conceit is that they were filmed (badly) by psychopaths. (Nor is it as genuinely brain-fried, or as grungily haunting, as Roger Watkins’ Last House on Dead End Street, made for about fifty cents 37 years ago.) I’m not here to bash A Serbian Film; I’m just here to counteract some of the hype and hullabaloo, which dilute whatever impact the movie might have on virgin eyes. I’m willing, for the sake of argument, to go along with what director Srdjan Spasojevic and his co-writer Aleksandar Radivojevic say about the movie: that it’s a blast of hot contempt at the Serbian government. But what goes on in the narrative bears only the most tenuous political relevance, even metaphorically — it could be set anywhere, except that its Eastern European milieu, as with the Hostel films, might seduce American viewers into a xenophobic response along the lines of “Yeah, those Transylvanians or whatever the hell they are, they’re totally sick fucks.” (This attitude was buttressed recently by the notorious video of a Bosnian girl throwing puppies into a river, not to mention the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs.¹)

All you should know going in: Miloš (Srdjan Todorovic) is a former porn actor who gets drawn into a hush-hush porn project by Vukmir (Sergei Trifunovic), a bearded Mephistopheles who talks about extreme art and waves a big paycheck in Miloš’ face. (We never find out how much Vukmir is offering, but we assume it’s some formidable digits.) Since we spend most of our time with these two, it’s good that Todorovic and Trifunovic are compelling actors who, I hope, haven’t nuked their careers. (Well, Todorovic has been acting since 1986 and making music since 1981, and Trifunovic has been in recent American films like Next and War Inc., so maybe I shouldn’t worry.) The smiling, diabolical Vukmir reminded me of Brazil’s Coffin Joe, and Miloš is an appealingly schlubby protagonist with a warm family life — if anyone in America is nuts enough to remake this, Sam Rockwell would be the perfect “Milo.”

A Serbian Film is — no two ways about it — a provocation. It’s an extreme film for people who haven’t seen very many extreme films; like Man Bites Dog (a far sharper film) or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (a film whose excesses seemed more plausibly tied to a political point of view), it will do its dirtiest work among the unprepared at film festivals or art houses. Gorehounds who go into it with an “Étonne-moi!” attitude will perhaps be able to scratch off a few things on their Haven’t Seen That In A Movie Before checklist, but that’s about it. Ultimately, A Serbian Film is too movie-ish, too contrived, to deal any lasting psychic damage. It comes on like 8mm or Hardcore dialed up to 11, but the very dialing-up feels like a stunt, like a bunch of guys sitting around coming up with lots of ways to fuck with a man’s head.

For all that, as I said, it’s solidly crafted, shot in handsome widescreen by Nemanja Jovanov. Its feral reputation may precede it, but it clearly hasn’t been made by trolls with cameras — there’s a fair amount of artfulness here. I wasn’t bored. I wasn’t shaken to the core, either. Some taboos are shattered, but the movie is (understandably) so staunchly against the horrors it depicts that it just seems like a gallery of shock that doesn’t really hit us directly. (For it to be truly disturbing, it would have to have the power to lull us into complicity with the ghastly acts. Very, very few films can pull that off.) The problem with going over the top is that you cross a line between relatable horror and freak show. So the reaction you get isn’t horror so much as “Dude, this is pretty fucked up right here.” Well, we’ve got Jackass and Freddy Got Fingered for that.


¹ Sorry to say, but once you’ve watched the Dnepropetrovsk video — relax, that link goes to someone’s editorial about it, not to the video itself — purely fictional assaults like A Serbian Film seem very, very quaint. Also, look up the Rape of Nanking sometime, and the film based on it, Men Behind the Sun, which even in its rabid explicitude doesn’t even scratch the surface of the obscenities perpetrated by Japanese soldiers on the Chinese during those terrible six weeks. The point is, man’s real-life inhumanity to man (and woman) is often grotesque enough without inventing stuff like some of the cartoonish violence that takes place in A Serbian Film. By cartoonish, I specifically mean stuff like Miloš’ final revenge on a guard with an eyepatch. Wild and crazy, yes, but it takes the movie out of the realm of the distressingly real and into the surrealistically comforting midnight-cult-movie realm of something like Meet the Feebles.

Easy A

September 19, 2010

Easy A is the story of a girl who, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, is not careful about what she pretends to be. Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) is a smart, witty high-school virgin who allows various outcasts — a gay kid, a chubby kid, etc. — to claim they’ve slept with her, thus improving their rep while degrading her own. For a while, this doesn’t bother Olive; she has a strong sense of who she really is, and when the school’s cadre of young Bible-thumpers shun her, she takes it as almost a badge of pride. Complications, of course, ensue.

We’re not looking at a masterwork here, but it’s amiable as hell, with effortless comic turns by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s hip parents. Indeed, almost every adult in the movie — Thomas Haden Church as a snarky English teacher, Lisa Kudrow as a guidance counselor with problems of her own — is presented affectionately and respectfully, with lives outside the narrative. (The exception is Malcolm McDowell as the hardcase principal, but this is forgiven because the mere thought of the erstwhile star of If… as a principal speaks ironic volumes.) We are not in the territory of John “When you grow up, your heart dies” Hughes, to whose movies Easy A explicitly genuflects.

The style, via director Will Gluck, is loose and conventional (aside from the odd opening credits, which hide in the background of shots and will likely be nearly unreadable on TV). It’s a pop song of a movie — a pop riff on The Scarlet Letter, through which vehicle the film tries to make salient points about how female sexuality is viewed with a leer or a scowl, while male sexuality is shrugged at. It’s true that some plot aspects feel too tightly wrenched into place: when was the last time any Christian student group held any social sway in a public school, particularly one in California? The Bible-thumpers are there to create conflict (and to provide a parallel to Hester Prynne’s travails), but secular teenage girls can be quite viciously judgmental all by themselves, as Mean Girls proved.

Okay, so Bert V. Royal (the credited scripter here) is no Tina Fey, and Emma Stone is no Lindsay Lohan — luckily for her. Stone, making her starring debut after several supporting roles, has a deep, no-nonsense voice and a way of delivering her fast, witty dialogue that suggests her brain works just as fast. Now that Lohan seems to have imploded, Stone might be Hollywood’s new go-to girl for smart, appealing young heroines who can also get laughs. Easy A is sweet enough balm, but it may herald an arrival.

Resident Evil: Afterlife

September 12, 2010

The Resident Evil films are probably better experienced in one big gulp, as a sort of ramshackle saga, than as individual flawed movies. The last time I reviewed one of these things, it was the second one, 2004’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and I made the mistake of judging it as a movie. What it was, actually, was one chapter in a larger movement, the movement being a showcase for Milla Jovovich kicking ass and looking impressive. And there’s nothing much the matter with that, especially considering that this is the first action/sci-fi/horror franchise with a woman front and center — much less one that’s hung in there for eight years and four films — since the Alien series closed its doors. As such, the Resident Evil films are of undeniable importance. And in Jovovich this franchise has an athletic yet attitudinizing heroine, a star who doesn’t act so much as indicate (as per her roots in modeling), but that never stopped all those male action figures, did it?

Does the plot really matter? Alice (Jovovich) is once again pitted against the evil Umbrella corporation, which wants to experiment with and capitalize on the virus that caused the zombie epidemic. Robbed of the superpowers she showed off in the previous film (2007’s Extinction), Alice flies a plane into Los Angeles with her rediscovered partner Claire (Ali Larter) in tow. A few survivors greet them, hoping they’ve come from the safe haven Arcadia to rescue them. One of them, the mistrusted soldier Chris Redfield (Wentworth Miller), is a character from the Resident Evil video game. On the streets below are hordes of zombies, some of whom extrude tentacles from their faces, and there’s one hulking creature called the Executioner, who wields a mighty axe.

Resident Evil: Afterlife is being shown in 3D in some theaters, and unlike many fake-3D efforts this year, this one’s the real deal, shot with the same stereoscopic process James Cameron devised for Avatar. The look is clean, crisp, hermetic — you can almost feel the air conditioning in the vast chambers of the Umbrella lairs. With 3D, you can’t go hog-wild with herky-jerky editing and a shaky-cam, which seems to suit director Paul W.S. Anderson just fine; indeed, so much of this 90-minute movie is filmed in ponderous slow motion that I suspect there’s only enough actual footage for a short film. There certainly isn’t enough script; the movie just kind of comes to a stop instead of, y’know, ending. But there are worse ways to pass an hour and a half than watching Milla Jovovich and Ali Larter shooting the hell out of zombies and mutants. Larter’s a former model too, so these two are like glam sisters in mayhem. It may not be a step up from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, but I can’t bring myself to call it a step down, either; a step sideways, perhaps.


September 5, 2010

I drove up to the theater with ‘80s hair metal blaring on my car stereo. It helped me get in the mood for Machete, an ‘80s throwback if there ever was one; instead of a fancy 20th Century-Fox logo celebrating the studio’s 75 years, it should be preceded by the logo for Cannon Films or Vestron Video. If you’re familiar with those two names, Machete may be for you. It emerges from co-director Robert Rodriguez’ fake trailer from Grindhouse, the pulp diptych he created with Quentin Tarantino; apparently having run out of movies to remake, Hollywood is now making actual movies based on trailers for nonexistent movies. (Hobo with a Shotgun, based on another fake trailer that won a Grindhouse contest, is also coming soon to a plex near you.)

Rodriguez’ half of Grindhouse, Planet Terror, reiterated the cheerfully derivative Austinite’s devotion to John Carpenter flicks; Machete, though, is a much better Carpenter tribute, complete with a scowling anti-hero — Machete Cortez (Cortez the killer?), an ex-federale played by fanboy favorite Danny Trejo with a lifer’s scowl and a tender spot for the ladies. Trejo, who turned 66 in May, has always looked older than his years; now he seems to have caught up, though he still looks hardier than his co-star Robert De Niro, who’s only a year older. De Niro, as a corrupt senator running on an anti-immigrant platform, is in his I’m-in-it-for-the-laughs mode; most of the other performers follow his lead.

So does Rodriguez (and his credited co-director Ethan Maniquis), who as usual wears a hundred hats: co-writer, co-editor, co-producer, and even co-composer (as guitarist for his band Chingon, who perform the excellent score; if you want to know why people download things illegally, you might want to ask why a Machete soundtrack isn’t commercially available — I’ll have to content myself with Chingon’s album Mexican Spaghetti Western.) Machete feels like a party; its hero may be driven by vengeful rage, but Rodriguez treats that as an opportunity to revel in unapologetic schlock. That’s his strength as well as his weakness; he’ll never make his Schindler’s List, but he’ll never make his Amistad either.

Everything in Rodriguez’ universe is filtered through junk movies and comic books; he loves women, but he loves them more when they’re scantily clad and packing heat. Michelle Rodriguez (no relation), as a liberator running a taco stand as cover, gets to ground her usual sullen demeanor in kindness, a strange mix that pays off; Lindsay Lohan shows up and gets to parody and exorcise her drugs ‘n’ daddy issues; Jessica Alba tries hard as an immigration officer who sees the light, but the role would’ve been better served by Salma Hayek (who, at 44, would’ve been more credible, and more fiery). Rodriguez also takes a page from his buddy Tarantino and hands out plum roles to guys who haven’t been working much lately: Jeff Fahey (a standout), Don Johnson, even Steven Seagal, who manages to wrest smug comedy out of his drug-kingpin role. The movie is too loose and fun-loving to treat its political theme with any sting, much less any seriousness, but a lot of the old exploitation flicks (particularly blaxploitation) used to muster a passing nod to current events before getting to the good stuff. Machete, which stands foursquare against the bigots, is pretty damn fine Mexploitation; luckily, Rodriguez is on the right side of the border between preachy and entertainingly trashy.