Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wall Street


Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone. Starring Charlie Sheen (Bud Fox), Tamara Tunie (Carolyn), Franklin Cover (Dan)

Bottom line: Wall Street is known for Gordon Gecko’s monologue about greed but, as a whole, it is sexist and greasy movie that can, for the most part, be missed.
2/4

Wall Street is about an ambitious financial director, Bud Fox (Sheen), who is trying to make his fortune in New York. He comes from humble background: his father, Carl Fox (Martin Sheen), is the honest union leader of mechanics for a regional airline. He disapproves of his son’s profession, insisting that a traditional, honest hard working job is the ticket. But where’s the money and power in being a mechanic? Bud’s hero is the suspender-equipped, veritable God of Finance, Gordon Gecko (Douglas). After years of working, Bud is granted audience with the economic giant. With him, Bud brings a box of illegally ascertained Cuban cigars (Gecko’s favorite) and his best stock options. Gecko already knows the options so, in a last ditch effort to demonstrate his worth, Bud tips off some profitable (and illegal) insider information with regard to his father’s airline. This is the start of Bud’s downward spiral into corruption and greed.

The little stock tip leads to Bud tailing a CEO to figure out future market patterns, a move which could potentially end a steel company putting hundreds out of a job. After that, he literally breaks into a company’s office to find out more secrets. He starts to make fortunes beyond his dreams (which are hidden in offshore accounts) but at what cost?

Wall Street is famous particularly for Gecko’s monologue where he says, “Greed is, for lack of a better word, good.” Michael Douglas does a wonderful job of portraying the cold-blooded backstabber Gordon Gecko. He makes a twisted grimace of a smile much like the Grinch. Have you heard of Glengarry Glen Ross? Alec Baldwin won Best Supporting Actor for his seven minute monologue and yet I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has seen anything but that scene. Wall Street is like that too, you can go ahead and see that scene and you can get the idea of the movie.

I was talking to a friend about this movie and we discussed the role of money in Wall Street. It is the prime subject of the movie but we only actually see any cash once or twice. Everywhere they are talking about how this painting is worth two million or that rug one million; his wealth is virtualized. He explains that money is “a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses…” He plays within the constructs of the financial system, manipulating it. He “doesn’t make anything but owns everything”. In fact, Gecko doesn’t actually own anything he just owns the concept of wealth. Compared to other movies which feature money (like Scarface), money is the means not the ends.
Perhaps this shift is to show to universality of money, as opposed of US dollars, and a burgeoning global economy. What better way to illustrate a rapidly changing geographic presence than to have Carl Fox work for an airline? Even in honest work, the world is now accessible. We can also look at the other characters in the movie. One of Gecko’s rivals was recently knighted by the Queen and hopes to invest in American companies. We also see Gecko meet with Japanese businessmen.
To merge the ideas of a global economy and a changing sense of wealth consider the conversation between the Fox father and son. When Bud states, “There is no honor in being poor anymore,” is the movie disagreeing? I don’t think so. I am leaning more towards saying there is honor in general integrity or that economic standing does not necessarily correlate to character.

I’ve seen this movie twice and, to my surprise, there are two different version of the move: one with epilogue text and one without. Bud is arrested by the FCC and gives them information to implicate Gecko. The finale sequence shows Bud in a car with his father. “I am going to be arrested,” Bud says as he steps out and walks alone up the stairs to the courthouse. The camera zooms back to show New York as busy as usual as if nothing happened at all. Text appears to say that Bud served some amount of jail time and the information he provides was used to arrest Gecko. Without the text, this is a much more depressing finale. For all we know, Gecko is able to continue unabated in financial manipulation. The two different versions remind me of Blade Runner, the theatrical release included a voice-over which explained the plot and changed the ending because it was more palatable for general audiences. This was such a drastic change that it affect the movie as a whole, I just found the difference noteworthy.

When all is said and done, however interesting it was, I didn’t really like Wall Street. I found the sexism to be greasy and sleazy. It was enough to turn me off to the movie. When Bud gets his new office, for example, he “gets this pretty thing too” referring of course to his female secretary. Bud’s one coworker only wants “an eighteen year old Bimbette”. To say that Wall Street is a male dominated, sexist environment would be true but it isn’t like the movie is including this stuff ‘to show the reality of Wall Street’ it is a selling point. There isn’t any criticism of it. The worst example when we see Bud’s initial girlfriend (if you can call her that); she isn’t ever given a name but referred to as “that same French girl”. She is naked and getting out of bed while Bud works at his computer. She stands up, stretches and walks out of the frame; we see her entire body with the exception of her face. This is bad. It makes me want to wash my hands and eat a salad. At least the movie is consistent with this feeling. I associate it with Charlie Sheen so he is a perfect fit for the starring role.

I have to really think about how to recommend Wall Street. I didn’t like it and it wasn’t a particularly enlightening experience. It provided some pleasant enough food for thought but was it really worth it? With your critical hat on and if it is convenient then I would say “fine,” but otherwise you aren’t really missing much. You could always just see Gecko’s monologue and save yourself some time.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Little Scary Sound Experiment



In my review of Mama, I mentioned, for a horror movie, it wasn’t that scary because of strange, distracting choices. I previously made a video entitled “How to close a scary closet door” which highlights one such situation.

Before this shot, Annabel approaches the closet door and one of the girls says, “Don’t open it.” “Why? What’s in the closet?” After a pause, the little girl responds with a quiet, “Nothing.” We all know the monster is in the closet. If Annabel opens it, two things could happen: the monster won’t be there or the monster will appear suddenly and scare everyone. But Annabel has no reason other than curiosity to open it and up to this point she hasn’t been characterized as inquisitive. She came into the room to close the door and tuck the kids into bed so I had no reason to suspect that she would open it. If we expect her to close the door, what could possibly happen? The monster wouldn’t come out. 

Why then does the movie include the scary music? I feel like it would’ve been more effective to play the music with her opening the door to see an empty closet. Granted, this has been done before but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be effective

Here is another more minor example of timing. Consider this clip where Annabel wakes up from a dream to be startled by the child. The first clip is from the movie, the second clip was the result of a slight edit of mine. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have that much film making experience but I feel like the second one is slightly scarier. Let me explain.

The idea of this scene is pretty basic; Annabel opens her eyes and jumps when she sees the creepy kid staring at her. The stab (the sudden sound) is, of course, the most important part. It wasn’t until this scene in Mama that I considered the significance of the placement of this sound.

In the first clip, the actions are ordered like this: Annabel opens her eyes, the stab starts, cut other camera, the stab fades, Annabel jumps. The stab itself lasts for about a second, partially when Annabel opens her eyes and mostly when we see the child. The suspense is, in part, ‘what is she looking at?’

In the second clip, I removed the bit where she opens her eyes. Why? It was a question of timing and movement. Her eyes opening broke the ice in terms of movement. The stab occurred and I linked it more closely with her eyes because that was the initial point of interest. Annabel’s recoil feels slightly too late to match the cut to the girl and for the stab. We don’t need to actually see her eyes opening to understand why she jumps. She is jumping with us which, I argue, gets the audience more involved.

One might say that both clips are equally scary but to are geared towards different audiences. The first clip is suspenseful because she opens her eyes, we hear the sound and then wonder,” What is she looking at?!” The second clip puts the emphasis on the cut and surprise of seeing the creepy kid standing there. If you don’t find the kid creepy, then it won't work.

Which do you think is scarier? I mean “scarier” in a loose sense. Neither clips are actually scary per se, especially if you expect them to be but, hypothetically, if you were to see them in a movie theater, which do you think would be most effective? Please do leave a comment because I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks for reading and watching!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Premium Rush


Directed by David Koepp, Written by David Koepp and John Kamps. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Wilee), Michael Shannon (Bobby Monday) and Dania Ramirez (Vanessa)

Premium Rush follows Wilee, the best bicycle messenger in New York. As mentioned in the trailer, he prefers "steel frame, fixed gear, no brakes". I didn't know what fixed gear meant but they explain that "the pedals are always moving...the bike can't coast". He rides without breaks because he loves to live on the edge. He went to law school but never took the bar exam because he couldn't stand the idea of working a suit-and-tie job. I wonder how he is able to live in New York City and still pay off his $150,000 debts (especially when earning "$80 on a good day") but they never really discuss it.

Anyway, Wilee is sent to Columbia Law School to pick up an envelope from his girlfriend's Chinese roommate. She tells him to deliver it to a store in Chinatown in 90 or so minutes. Upon leaving Wilee is confronted by Officer Bobby Monday who demands the envelope. Brushing off the officer, Wilee rides away. The movie then becomes a cat and mouse chase of Wilee and the cop. Jumps in time, inform us as to the backstory of the situation.
 
The Chinese girl, Nima, worked "three jobs over the past two years" to save up $50,000. She trades it into a Chinese mobster for a ticket. This ticket acts like cash, so whoever holds it, owns it. We don't know how it really works but, you know, its just one of those Mobster things. Nima needs to give the ticket to the woman in Chinatown so her son can be brought over from China. Illegally, I might add. Monday needs the ticket to pay off his underground gambling debts.

Much like Wilee's student loans, the whole illegal immigration thing isn't ever addressed. They mention, in passing, that it has something to do with her student visa. What about when that runs out? Never mind the fact that her son is being cared for by her mother. This becomes an issue of a mother and her son so it is A-Okay.
While I really disliked the villain, he does discuss the illegal immigration. He says to Wilee, "What did she give you? A sob story about her 7 siblings living in a little hut?" tearfully Wilee looks at him and says "It's for her son," to which Monday responds with a laugh. Monday isn't convinced, and quite frankly, I am not either.

Jabbing at Wilee's bruised ribs Wilee cries out and calls him a "douchebag". "Douchebag is so over used now," Monday complains, "kids these days just throw it around." I agree with him again. He continues in a little tangent about how inappropriate tv and movies are nowadays. "At the end [of some tv show], the kid says 'suck it' and, everyone laughs...there are kids watching this? How is this appropriate?" Take a guess at Gordon-Levitt's big line when the villain is defeated. Monday switches gears and interrogates/tortures Wilee more but his comments aren't substantially addressed.

Is that little tirade just to characterize Monday as the mean-adult type? Aside from this moment of sympathy, I hated his character. He was really goofy and loud. If he is a crooked cop (and a murderer) why does he have to act like a nagging parent?

Much like an teenager full of angst, this movie focuses on "community" for support. Government, be it police, immigration, or parents, is no good. When Wilee goes into the police station to report Monday, (before realizing Monday is a cop) he is treated with contempt. The bicycle community, however, is always ready to lend a hand; to protect Wilee as he makes the drop, all the couriers come together in a "flash mob". Nima, can't go to Immigration, so she turns to the Chinese community *cough* mafia *cough* who provide protection and transportation for her son.
The disappointingly immature position on issues is what kills Premium Rush for me. Aside from the immigration and students loans, the icing on the cake, is one of the last lines of the movie. Wilee is riding and he says "Someday I'll probably get a suit job but not right now..." I am game for romanticizing the tough reality of following your dreams but let's be consistent. With a line like that, the movie is saying "Hey, we're young and we want to have fun. Someday we'll grow up.... but not today! Yeah!" If Wilee wants to ride bikes, why not say "Hey, I'm going to ride until the day I die and I'm going to love it"? It's like Koepp decided that you can't realistically be a bicycle courier for the rest of your life so why even suggest it?

Bottom Line: This whole bicycle thing sounded and looked cool but it turned out to be a really sophomoric movie with questionable values.
1/4

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Iron Man 3



Directed by Drew Pearce (screenplay), Shane Black (screenplay), Stan Lee (comic book), Don Heck (comic book), Larry Lieber (comic book), Jack Kirby (comic book). Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes).

Bottom line: Iron Man 3 seemed like it was trying to be funny and cool and had too little to say about too much. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it in 3D.  
2/4

The basic plot of Iron Man 3 doesn’t really matter, right? Sure, the movie follows Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) as he battles The Mandarin, a terrorist whose nationality was somewhat unclear to me. He sounded like he was related to Bane from Dark Knight Rises so maybe a nondescript Middle Eastern country. Largely though, we are here for the super fancy special effects and Robert Downey Jr.’s snarky, glib dialog. The movie knows this and it shows. It opens and closes to a Robert Downey Jr. voice over a la Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In line with the other movies of the franchise, Iron Man tries to be the cool kid in the class.

Is it possible to be a hip with a budget of $200 million? It feels like a teacher who wants to be the “cool teacher”. Take, for example, the role of computer hacking in the movie. We hear all over the place ‘cyber-attack this’ or ‘hack that’. “How did he hack my phone,” asks the President. At one point, Stark says to Col. Rhodes (Cheadle), “Stop saying ‘hack’. No one says ‘hack’ anymore.” Because of the repeated use of ‘hack’ in the rest of the movie, it makes you feel like Stark’s statement is just another construct in this production. It would be great if the movie is being meta but it isn't. It is a big cold product of a big cold corporation. This statement makes the movie, once again, come across like it is trying to be hip. It doesn’t stop with Stark either. At least three times in the movie, a character says ‘My/An old man once said: <insert an incomplete/misquoted turn of phrase>…or something like that. I don’t know what it means though.’ These characters are too cool for school so they don’t have the time or inclination to remember old sayings. Give me a break, movie.

According to screenrant.com,“…Marvel wants Black to deliver not only ‘a better Iron Man movie but THE BEST Marvel movie, hands down.’” How do we up the visual ante? More Iron Mans- (or is it Iron Men?) The result is literally, at more than one point, a firework show. To be honest, I bet it looked really good in 3D. If you have read any of my other reviews you know I refuse to be won over by visual masturbation. As the movie provides Robert Downey Jr. as a counterbalance, I left Iron Man 3 wanting.

I've noted product placement in past reviews but let me reiterate my feelings. I don't really mind product placement. I understand that if a movie costs $200 million, that money has to come from somewhere. I do, however, very much appreciate subtlety. After all, the product placement shouldn't interfere with the film any more than necessary. Iron Man 3 was about as subtle as a brick through a window. Let me describe a couple shots for you.

When doing initial testing with the computer system Jarvis, Stark video records everything like he did in Iron Man. We get a clear shot that he uses a Samsung HD video camera. It is only a couple seconds and I noticed it because I like to look for this type of thing. A shot that made the packed theater laugh out loud was that of a newly renovated garage. It has a cool new car, fancy tools and a new computer, right in the middle of the shot, with the words "FIOS" on the monitor. Wow, this must be tricked a out garage. Thanks Comcast! My main beef was with the placement of Oracle Database servers. Jarvis (Paul Bettany) mentions that they were using Oracle servers. That's fine. It was a passing comment that integrated into the plot of the movie. But this passing mention wasn’t enough. Stark is talking to someone and he stands in the middle-right of the frame and the other character is on the fringe of the frame-right and behind Stark is an Oracle database server. It is a really ugly, distracting shot that lasts, what feels like a minute or two. Clearly, it was successful because I am talking about it but do we want our movies to be reduced to fancy commercials? I, for one, don’t.
I may not hate product placement but do you know what I do hate (in movies)? Precocious children.

Before Iron Man 3 I would’ve said that I ‘dislike’ them but now it has gotten to the level of hatred. Tony Stark crash lands in Tennessee and takes shelter in a garage. The garage belongs to a single mother and her snarky, glib son. The movie spends a solid twenty/thirty minutes with the banter between the kid and Stark. I am a fan of suspension of disbelief but this little punk is much more than I am willing to give. ‘Yeah, my face was almost just melted off by a fire-breathing mutant. It’s what’evs.’ I don’t think it is cute or funny.

Aside from the product placement and annoying child, it is somewhat hard to describe the thematic weaknesses of Iron Man 3 without giving away too many spoilers. There were three major themes: terrorism, evil big corporations, and the threat of new technology. It probably would've been a better movie if it just stuck to one because each of these feels unfinished. It doesn’t even quite say enough to have a discussion. Even though the movie criticizes buzzwords like ‘hack’ it still uses them. For example, when the villain captures someone, they go to an old oil tanker. That oil tanker had spilled causing untold damage yet the executives got off scot-free *cough* BP *cough*. "That is why you are bringing me here", asks the hostage. The villain responds with "Nah, I just needed a good sounding reason". The fact that the movie brings up the topic of oil spills is significant but why doesn’t the movie doesn’t explore the subject? It is a disappointing cop out. Maybe it ties in with the cool attitude of the movie. It throws out provocative buzzwords but doesn’t care enough to make an actual statement.
 
Overall, despite how pretty a movie it is, I wouldn’t really recommend going to see Iron Man 3. This is what happens when a movie has too little to say about too much. It makes more of a clear effort to be funny but it comes across as forced and/or disingenuous.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mama

Directed by Andrés Muschietti. Written by Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti. Starring Jessica Chastain (Annabel), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Lucas/Jeffery), Megan Charpentier (Victoria).

Bottom line: Pretty average horror movie: story is bland and odd technical decisions minimize the scariness.
2/4

Discussing horror movies makes me a little uneasy. How much can I reveal about the plot before I give away too much? Let me use the trailer as a baseline.
 
When the market crashed, a businessman killed his partners and estranged wife before running into the woods with his two children. The man's brother, Lucas (Coster-Waldau), an artist, has spent nearly all of his money looking for the brother and children. His bass-guitar playing girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), doesn't really care about them nor does she want children. Upon discovery of the two, Annabel must battle the supernatural while adjusting to the new lifestyle of a...mama. After being lost for five years, who...or what...could have been taking care of the two children?

After watching Drag Me to Hell and Dream Home and reading them from an economic perspective, my initial inclination was to read Mama that way too. We have a bunch of economic concerns from the onset: the volatility of the market causes this horror, Lucas is spending all of his money searching for the children, on the meager salaries of being in a rock band and "drawing pictures" how could the two afford children, etc. But, this type of reading wouldn't really be fun for you if you haven't seen it too plus I would have to be worried about spoilers. Instead, let's look at some of the film's interesting mechanical choices. I am normally terrible with scary movies; even if they aren't scary, I imagine how they could've been scary. Mama, fortunately, was so not scary that I was OK and it makes me wonder why.

The first problem is that the monster is revealed too soon. For me, it isn't about the monster itself as much as the anticipation. I won’t describe the monster to you but you can see it in the trailer.
The second problem was an odd sense of timing with the sound effects. It always seemed like the sounds were a fraction of a second too soon or too late to get the effect across. I think I will devote a blog post about it soon. It is obvious that a jump scare isn’t just the music and it isn’t just the visuals but a combination of the two. If either sense is off, the effect will be compromised.

Without describing the ending, I will say that it is sad. I wasn’t surprised or shocked and it fits in well with an economic reading but it still didn’t make me feel good.

I was pleasantly surprised by Megan Charpentier’s performance of Victoria, the older of the two children. She isn’t loud or obnoxious or precocious. Go her. The other little girl is fine; she is too young to talk so she just crawls about.
 
Overall, I wouldn’t recommend Mama. It doesn’t provide anything new or fun. It is, at best, mildly creepy and mildly thrilling. I suppose thrilling cannot, by the nature of the word ‘thrilling’, be mild so I just stick to mildly creepy. The acting and cinematography are all fine but, again, there isn't anything notable. If Mama was on your list of movies to see, you could do worse but if it wasn’t don’t feel the need to see it.

How to close a scary closet door


Yesterday, I watched Mama and this scene made me laugh. The review will be coming sooner than not.