Saturday, April 23, 2011

Parental Discretion (The Fighter, Never Let Me Go, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps)

Catching up to the Winter (2010) releases, as I do inevitably every Spring (2011), always yields belated Christmas gifts of confirmations and surprises. In the case of the latter, I had avoided The Fighter because the idea of a go-for-it Oscar-bait true-story boxing movie shot with epileptic camerawork and performed by a hollering Boston-accented cast seemed almost as appealing as a nail drilled through my head -- indeed, the director, David O. Russell, took up the project only after his latest unbankable black comedy on that very subject (Nailed, starring Jessica Alba), was aborted by the studio. I should have had more faith, though. Beantown stepbrothers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) are indeed followed by a camera crew filming an HBO documentary, but Russell keeps the integrity of his own superb framing, maintains his own humorously-askanced yet emotionally-invested point-of-view.

Russell's approach is beautifully in-synch with his star, Wahlberg, who occupies the still center of a familial storm that includes drug-addled Dicky, emasculated father George (Jack McGee), seven scary sisters and an even more terrifying matriarch Alice (Melissa Leo). Dicky, a former welterweight who once gave Sugar Ray Leonard a run for his money, is the central figure of the HBO doc, and for a while this conceals the predictability of Micky's sports-triumph arc, adds a layer of comedy and complication to what becomes ultimately Micky's story. At 31, Micky, a plowhorse junior welterweight, knows that his days as a contender are nearing an end, and is forced to consider whether his loyalty to what his advising barmaid girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) and encroaching boxing professionals call "the circus" -- his brother-trainer and mother-manager -- is keeping him from fulfilling his potential.

The Fighter is Russell's most commercial movie since Three Kings (1999), and just as that film made compromises to the war genre (including an upbeat ending that the director himself has expressed misgivings about), so too does this one embrace sports movie cliches. The boxing matches, filmed in the same ESPN style in which they were originally telecast, offer little strategy beyond the dubious Rocky notion that getting beaten to a pulp makes you stronger. Fortunately, The Fighter also marks a return to the comedies of family suffocation with which Russell launched his career. Both Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting with Disaster (1996) are about characters trapped in families they are desperate to escape; The Fighter extends this theme into the effect of parents and siblings on one's vocation, with Alice and Dicky depicted as hyper-supportive, well-meaning individuals who don't know when to back off. The histrionics of Bale and Leo in their respective roles have come under some criticism, and while I found the latter's Oscar campaign particularly odious, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed their performances. They play their characters as constantly circling, negatively-charged electrons, no doubt precisely what their director had in mind. David O. Russell may be a thug, a bully, and a maniac, but The Fighter shows, once again, that he's also enough of an artist to examine how he got there.

If nothing else, the over-the-top dynamism of The Fighter makes a refreshing tonic to Never Let Me Go, a drizzly, plinky thing about a trio of nearly-human clones who accept a cruel fate as organ-donors the jolly-old-English way: because to revolt would be rude. Adapting a reportedly hugely popular 2005 novel (I have to take that at its word more and more these days) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Danny Boyle's favorite screenwriter Alex Garland fashions a common love triangle whose uncommon elements are barely emphasized or explored. At the telegraphically-named Hailsham boarding school, young Harry, Ron and Hermione Kathy, Tommy and Ruth become, at various turns, friends, love interests, and romantic rivals; yet not even growing up to be played by well-bred twentysomething movie stars like Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley is enough to deter their destinies as "donors." True love may, possibly, be grounds for a "deferral," a rumored pardon to be granted by the enigmatic school headmaster (an underused Charlotte Rampling). But, alas, Kathy and Tommy are kept apart by Ruth's machinations, until a reunion years later gives them One Last Chance.

Ishiguro also wrote The Remains of the Day, adapted into a fine 1993 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The Merchant/Ivory imprimatur was often misinterpreted as mannered: their best work (including Remains) conveyed the tension between stoic appearances and emotions roiling beneath the surface. Never Let Me Go is too refined to roil. The director, Mark Romanek, has had a long career with the likes of Madonna and The Red Hot Chili Peppers(not to mention a foray into feature films with the terrible Robin Williams stalker-picture One Hour Photo); I never thought I'd use this as a criticism, but he brings nothing that he's learned from directing music videos to the table. Scenes are static; the editing is uninspired; the score, by Rachel Portman, is the same piano-based tuneage she always delivers (Emma, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, et al.). Mulligan and Garfield are pleasant as star-crossed Kathy and Tommy, Knightley effectively unpleasant as the scheming Ruth. Although she could have easily played the lead, Knightley was shrewd to take a smaller part that pays bigger dividends -- a jealous, insecure young woman whose motives are so ambiguous that her final act of manipulation could be taken either way as an act of penance or vengeance. It's the kind of unsympathetic performance in a drearily tasteful movie that would have made Pauline Kael pull her finger out of her throat in admiration.

Kael once quipped that she retired because "The thought of sitting through another Oliver Stone movie was too much to bear." That was during Stone's early-90s age of agitprop, with JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon sending film critics running from early screenings to the nearest CNN panel discussion. Yet modern American cinema's most controversial director has been accused more recently of toothlessness, which Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps does sadly little to dispel. It's a deeply strange movie, with an odd piggy-back structure that keeps Gordon Gekko, its ostensible uber-villain and sole reason for existence, on the sidelines before suddenly vaulting him to the top of the pyramid. (The easily distracted screenplay was co-written, ironically, by former critic and Kael apostle Stephen Schiff.) With Michael Douglas appearing only incrementally to spit his lines and waggle his eyebrows, Shia LaBeouf, as Gekko's latest young pawn and prospective son-in-law, engaged to his lefty-pixie daughter (Carey Mulligan again), is required to hold our interest for the majority of the running-time, an inadvisable strategy no matter how many Hollywood pictures continue to use it.

The original Wall Street (1987) is minor Oliver Stone, but it made for entertaining melodrama and served as a warmup for the full-bore multimedia assaults he would come to helm a few years later. Money Never Sleeps features even more intricate split-screen sequences (complete with Stone cameo) and is amazingly smooth on a visual level for a story that narratively makes no sense. Stone's father, of course, was a stockbroker, and this might explain the weird sentimentality of the movie, which transforms Gordon Gekko from the kind of shark who devoured old-school financiers like Stone Senior into, essentially, the patriarch himself. Is Greed Good? is the title of Gekko's fresh-out-of-prison bestseller, an apparently rhetorical question, given our economic climate, belied by an unexpected answer: Yes, when tempered with a pregnancy ultrasound photo.


Adam Zanzie said...

Yeah, the sentimental ending of Money Never Sleeps was pretty... arbitrary. Basically, the message is: at least a newborn baby can keep us rich and happy!

My problem with Money Never Sleeps was that it just played it so safe. I hate to ask the inevitable question, but: is Oliver Stone getting soft? This was an entertaining movie, and I enjoyed it. But where is the agression?

I guess what bothered me most is how Stone really sugarcoats the film. Gordon Gekko is the good guy now, and even though he briefly reverts to the greedy businessman he once was, he suddenly becomes a good guy in those abysmal final scenes. It's like Stone can't decide who he wants Gekko to be: the hero or the villain? My theory is that ever since the AFI voted Gekko as one of its Top 50 Villains, Stone has figured out that businessmen 'round the world mostly learned the wrong lessons from the first Wall Street, took the "Greed is good" slogan more seriously than they needed to--and therefore, Stone feared that if he made Gekko the villain AGAIN, it would only make today's businessmen learn the wrong lessons from Gekko all over again. But I think Stone's getting too paranoid.

Still, as a fan of the first film, I liked some of the nostalgic touches here. The David Byrne music, for example: just hearing "This Must Be the Place" over the end credits made me smile. And even though the Charlie Sheen cameo was pretty stupid (why are Bud Fox and Gekko treating each other so nicely when they SENT EACH OTHER TO PRISON?), I was nevertheless amused by it. Same with the performances by Langella and Brolin. Also, sespite my reservations with Shia LaBeouf as an actor and as a personal figure, he performes admirably here. Douglas, of course, remains ever so much a Hollywood star with enormous screen presence. And Eli Wallach's one big scene where the camera closes in on him while he gives a speech about 1929 was just perfect. It's funny because I see the outputs between Wallach and Max von Sydow last year as a kind of war between the aged screen legends: von Sydow got to work with Scorsese and Ridley Scott, and Wallach got to work with Polanski and Stone. Great directors still know how to cast great stars.

I must also acknowledge Stone for at least trying to address our economic pains, even if the end result isn't quite satisfying. I liked the touch of the Susan Sarandon character realizing she'd have to go out and "get a real job, with a boss" because of the betrayals of the real estate community. And in Wallach's big sequence, the moment when the Federal Reserve chairmen realize that they'll have to give in to socialism in order to rescue the country from depression (I guess this is Stone giving credit to Bush for the economic bailout--the most liberal thing he did during his presidency... next to No Child Left Behind, at least). Whatever the case, I'll say this: Money Never Sleeps, as a movie about the modern American ecnomic collapse, is better than Up in the Air. Of course, I give extra credit to Stone for giving himself a cameo in the movie.

Unknown said...

For me, "Never Let Me Go" was one of the surprises for me last year. I actually appreciated the filmmaking style, which I thought was the best approach to that material, which could have easily went a more sensationalistic and plot-oriented approach. It was the first time I also took Keira Knightley seriously as an actress.

As far as the other two films, I"m still wondering why, with the exception of "Three Kings", Russell's films just rub me the wrong way. Yes, there were many complaints about the scenery-chewing in "The Fighter", but the script was pretty dire. Every character announces their feelings in every scene. There's no drama but just a lot of yelling. A movie completely devoid of subtext. I remember slapping my head at Bale giving the crackheads his cake, which seemed to come out of the Paul Haggis school of symbolic gestures.

And "Wall Street" is fascinating only to see a director revisit material and make many of the same mistakes with it again. Both Sheen and La Beouf are boring characters/actors. Both movies raise moral questions that they're afraid to answer. I think Gekko is an interesting character who's sidelined for chunks of screen time. Overall, these films needed the rabble-rousing Stone, whose underrated sense of humor could have turned these movies into biting satires about greed rather than gently scolding bankers and brokers for their reckless ways.

Craig said...

Adam: I agree that, perversely, "Money Never Sleeps" features some of Stone's most relaxed filmmaking, reaching a point where he tosses off his effects almost effortlessly. The question I think we all have is: Should it be (relaxed)? The angry charge isn't there, not even to the degree it was in the first "Wall Street." Some complained (and you and I have argued about it before) that this was missing from "W." too, but I felt its presence in that one, mainly by how Stone deliberately left out the most significant events of Bush's presidency to emphasize his mediocrity. I'm not automatically opposed to sentiment, but here it's just bewildering. That final scene plays like the end of a 1980s Michael J. Fox comedy, described by one critic as the kind of movie where the hero realizes money isn't everything before a windfall lands in his lap. I don't think that was the intent, though with Stone it's hard to tell.

Saving Gordon Gekko and damning Bud Fox may have sounded on paper like a nifty twist, but it's the kind of irony that just lies there unconvincingly. And bringing Gekko to the light through family is about as reactionary as it gets -- I can see Judd Apatow fighting back tears of joy.

Craig said...

Steven: I must confess I wasn't thinking about the symbolism of the cake scene, since I was still laughing and squirming at the family dysfunction that led to it. "The Fighter" is a film of outsized characters and gestures, and the humor (and warmth, and pathos) derives from the tension between those desperately needy characters and the one who internalizes everything so deeply that the only way he knows how to express himself is by pummeling people in the ring. I have nothing in common with any of those characters, yet on an elemental level Russell makes me relate to that.

More importantly, Russell relates to it too. Both here and in, for me, his best film, "Flirting with Disaster," he takes the TV notion of family -- "Gosh, folks sure can be exasperating but loving" -- and peels back the scab to find the pain behind it. Oddly enough, he also makes it even funnier. He employs TV actors like Alan Alda, Mary Tyler Moore and Lilly Tomlin in "Flirting with Disaster," and their manic energy rockets to the stratosphere. At the other end of it, he's used Mark Wahlberg marvelously three times now: What other director brings out his sensitivity and sweetness? M. Night Shyamalan tried his damndest to torpedo Wahlberg's career, so I'm glad Russell was there to put him on track again. And I'm glad he was there to show the toughness in Amy Adams (her standing up to Leo and the seven evil stepsisters was one of the year's highlights), before she got sentenced to romcom hell.

Craig said...

As for "Never Let Me Go," no doubt the director made the movie he wanted to make. It's just hard for me to get excited about a movie that can't seem to work up any enthusiasm for its own existence. Had it shown the characters enjoying life to any degree, then their fates may have registered more with me. They're two different movies, of course, but I thought "Gattaca" took the theme of genetic fate and made it work better.

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Jason Bellamy said...

I'm glad I didn't see Wall Street, but I sure enjoyed reading your thoughts here, and Adam's in the comments. Seems to line up with my hunch about the film.

Your take on The Fighter isn't all that different from mine; I found things to enjoy but found it underwhelming on the whole. Like Steven, I was irritated by the ways the characters were constantly articulating their feelings. But the dynamic between Adams' character and the sisters was well done, as is the scene where Wahlberg takes her to the movies.