Monday, September 27, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Twentieth Century Fox)

By Harry Forbes

At the start of Oliver Stone’s sequel to his 1987 “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko is being released from prison in 2001 having served eight years time for securities fraud and insider trading. Fast forward to 2008, and a variant of his iconic motto from the first film -- “greed is good” -- is now the subject of a best-selling book, "Is Greed Good?"

But Gekko is no longer a player in the financial system that brought him down. When young proprietary trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) -- who just happens to be dating Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) -- turns to Gekko for guidance, after the death of Jake’s boss and mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), Gekko agrees to help Jake.

In return, he wants Jake to help bring about a rapprochement with Winnie who blames her father for the death of her brother. Having turned her back on her father’s world, she works as a reporter for a leftist Web site. Though Jake is, of course, in the same business as Gekko, what compensates in Winnie’s eyes is Jake’s genuine zeal for alternative energy.

Jake is wooed by ruthless investment banker Bretton James (James Brolin) whose machinations led to the plummeting of stocks of Keller Zabel Investments and subsequent easy takeover by the investment bank Churchill Schwartz of which James is a partner.

Nonetheless, Jake allows himself to be momentarily swayed from his course of vengeance on James whom he holds responsible for Zabel's death, and joins James’ team. Meanwhile, you just know Gekko is planning to get back to his power broker position.

Douglas gives another dynamic performance, even if this is a mellower – and, in some respects, nicer -- Gekko than in the first film. LaBeouf makes an empathetic protagonist and we follow the events of the film through his eyes. Mulligan – channeling Samantha Morton’s brand of moist vulnerability – shows another facet of her talent after her Oscar-nominated turn in “An Education” with a plausible American accent, too.

Brolin – his second film of the week (after Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”) – skillfully blends charm and ruthlessness.

Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff’s script includes references to the banking crisis of a couple of years ago, the results of deregulation, but it’s the human dynamic among Gekko, Winnie and Jake that predominates.

This is one of those films where New York looks absolutely splendid, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park Zoo, and iconic skyline really sparkling.

(The film is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and thematic elements.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Sony Pictures Classics)

By Harry Forbes

Spiritualism is bunk, and life is nothing but random luck and misfortune, followed by nothingness. Those are the not surprising underlying themes in this latest cinematic permutation of Woody Allen’s nihilistic world view. But until the end of the film, he’s fairly light-handed about it, and thematic material aside, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is one of the writer-director’s most consistently enjoyable films.

Returning to the London setting of “Match Point” and “Scoop,” Allen’s story focuses on two couples Alfie and Helena (Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones) and Roy and Sally (Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts). The wealthy Alfie keenly senses the passage of time and his youth and perhaps the onset of the grim reaper (the symbolic titular figure).

He has left Helena to marry a spirited but common call girl (Lucy Punch). Roy’s a novelist who’s failed to replicate the success of his first book, and has gone to seed, while Sally’s mother (Helena) pays their bills.

Sally, daughter of Alfie and Helena, desperate to have a child and fed up with Roy’s inertia, develops a crush on her gallery owner boss (Antonio Banderas), while Roy pines for the attractive woman (the fetching Frieda Pinto) he watches from his window across the alley.

In her loneliness and confusion, Helena becomes smitten with Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) the rotund owner of an occult bookshop. But all are, in one way or another, ill-matched to the people they desire, and are deluding themselves by thinking otherwise.

Allen has assembled a spot-on cast, all of whom deliver some of their finest work, as actors generally do in an Allen film. Watts is particularly outstanding as the frustrated wife pinning her goals on something unattainable. The scene where she finally tries to confess her pent-up feelings to Banderas is a highpoint.

Versatile Brolin, who put on considerable weight for the role, demonstrates anew what an adept character actor he is.

PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” diehards will fondly recall Jones as “The Duchess of Duke Street,” and will relish seeing her all these years later in such a meaty screen part. And speaking of PBS, “Upstairs Downstairs” alumna Pauline Collins plays the charlatan fortune teller to whom the vulnerable Helena turns when she’s abandoned by her husband.

But it’s almost unfair to single out anyone, as the ensemble cast is so uniformly excellent.

Allen uses some of his trademark narration here, which I’ve sometimes felt has been a lazy substitute for dialogue, but this script is solidly constructed, and gives his actors a solid foundation. The plot consistently holds your interest with a delectable O. Henry-like twist late in the film.

(Rated R by the MPAA for some language.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Town (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Ben Affleck returns to the same gritty Boston milieu with which he found success as a director in 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” in “The Town,” a gripping action-drama and love story.

This time he also plays the lead, and he impresses mightily on both counts, much like Clint Eastwood whose mantle Affleck seems poised to inherit.

He plays Doug MacRay, the leader of a gang of bank robbers from Boston’s notorious Charlestown neighborhood which, we are told, has spawned more bank and armored car robbers than anywhere in the country. In the opening scenes, he and his partner and closest friend, Jem (Jeremy Renner from “The Hurt Locker”) and their accomplices break into a bank disguised in skeleton suits, terrorize the workers and leave with cash and the bank manager Claire (an especially fine Rebecca Hall) as temporary hostage, though they soon set her free.

Later, loose canon Jem learns Claire lives nearby and fears she may finger them and suggests he might permanently silence her, so Doug – not wanting to add murder to their crimes -- contrives to watch her himself. In short order they fall in love, and Doug sees a way out of his dead-end life, and the chance he blew years before when he was a promising hockey player.

Meanwhile, the gang is pursued by FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) who, though he knows the identities of the masked criminals repeatedly fails to nail them.

The sharp script, co-written by Peter Craig, Affleck, and Aaron Stockard was based on Chuck Hogan’s 2004 novel, “Prince of Thieves.” Affleck filmed the story on location with locals taking parts, but the authenticity of the entire cast is most impressive.

There are many compelling scenes including one almost worthy of Hitchcock in which Jem happens upon Doug and Claire at an outdoor cafĂ© and learns that Doug has been secretly dating her. But Doug knows that Claire saw Jem’s tattoo on the back of his neck during the robbery, and worries that if Jem turns his head, Claire will see it.

The relationship between Doug and Claire is beautifully limned by Affleck and Hall, though the love story aspects are balanced by the extremely violent – but not, I think, gratuitous -- heist scenes.

Renner, a sort of modern-day James Cagney, makes a compelling counterpart for Affleck. His Jem has served nine years in prison and is determined never to go back. He’s like a brother to Doug, further bound to him by Doug’s off-again, on-again relationship with his sister Krista (Blake Lively) who holds a torch for Doug.

Hamm gives a polished performance as the relentless agent, though perhaps through no fault of his own, it’s difficult to forget his “Mad Men” character, Don Draper. Chris Cooper is marvelous as Doug’s father, doing time at Walpole’s maximum security prison. He has only has one scene, but he makes it count. And Pete Postlethwaite is aptly frightening as a crime kingpin with a florist business.

The action scenes – car chases through the Beantown streets, shootouts, narrow escapes – are all excitingly done, but it’s the human story that stays with you after.

“No matter how much you change, you still have to pay the price for what you’ve done” someone says late in the film, underscoring the movie's redemptive theme. But "The Town" is as much about the validation of Ben Affleck’s impressive talent as that of the character he so memorably portrays here.

(The film has been rated R by the MPAA for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Going the Distance (New Line Cinema)

By Harry Forbes

It’s difficult not to like Drew Barrymore even under the worst of circumstances – and I’m sorry to say that “Going the Distance,” a lumbering romantic comedy considerably short of both descriptors, is pretty much the worst of circumstances – but she stretches our tolerance to the limit here.

She plays 30-something aspiring reporter Erin who, during an internship at a New York newspaper, meets mid-level record company guy Garrett played by her real life off-and-on-again real-life beau Justin Long. When her internship ends, and she must return to the west coast, they decide to continue the relationship long distance, staying faithful to each other across the miles.

However his friends, smart-alack co-worker Box (Jason Sudeikis) and sad sack roommate Dan (Charlie Day), with a penchant for sitting on the john with the door wide open, and Erin’s protective sister (Christina Applegate) do everything they can to undermine the relationship, while the couple – whose onscreen chemistry is, sorry to say, pretty much nil – hang tough.

What keeps them going is the hope they’ll eventually be together, but when Erin gets a job offer from the San Francisco Chronicle, their plans threaten to derail.

What truly sabotages the film is the leaden dialogue, with its unremitting sophomoric vulgarity. “We’re not afraid to…hear F-bombs,” Day declares proudly in the press notes. It’s distressing to see Barrymore saddled with a drunk scene in a bar, and yelling at a burly bully “Suck my d--k, bitch,” while being unceremoniously bundled off the premises.

Throughout, Geoff LaTulippe's script runs the gamut from soppy sentiment to the crudest of language. The film’s nadir finds Erin and Garrett engaging in split screen bi-coastal phone sex, a far cry from Doris Day and Rock Hudson’s truly witty bathtub repartee in “Pillow Talk” with a similar split screen presentation. The scene is even more offensive than Applegate’s character catching the couple (including a bare-assed Long) having sex on her dining room table.

Like Barrymore, Long is a basically likable presence, and certainly Sudeikis, Day, and Applegate are pros, but they’re fighting a losing battle with the material, which continually undermines what I presume is meant to be, at heart, a sweet romance.

In fact, wit is the crucial element that’s entirely absent here. In the press notes, the producers brag like naughty children about the film’s subversive humor and the freedom for the characters to “talk the way that people really talk.” No one I know!

The proceedings are unremarkably directed by documentary maker Nanette Burstein.

(The movie is rated R by the MPAA for sexual content including dialogue, language throughout, some drug use and brief nudity.)