The East(6/16/2013)

Sometimes you’ve just got to give people time to develop.  That’s a truism that goes both ways; you shouldn’t write people off without giving them a chance and you also shouldn’t give out praise pre-maturely just because someone shows a little bit of promise in projects that are otherwise problematic.  That’s been the case with the Brit Marling/Zal Batmanglij/Mike Cahill filmmaking collective, which I’ve been less than complimentary towards up until now.  I thought that Another Earth (written by Marling & Cahill, directed by Cahill) was a rather dull film that squandered a good high concept on what was ultimately a clichéd little indie-story, and that Sound of My Voice (written by Marling and Batmanglij, directed by Batmanglij) was a film that wasn’t half as smart as it thought it was and also suffered because it looked like it was filmed in someone’s basement.  There was however a seed of something good in both of those movies, and I think the practice paid off.  Their latest film, The East, isn’t exactly a calling card of some great new talent but it does seem to suggest that they’re ready to at least try to play with the big boys.

The film’s title refers to a fringe anarchist group called The East, which has gained infamy for having flooded an oil executive’s house with crude oil in retaliation for the company’s policies.  The group has become so infamous that various corporations have contacted a private espionage agency called Hiller Brood to send people undercover to infiltrate the group and others like it.  One of the agents they fire to do this is Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), an ambitious woman in her late twenties who they believe will have success blending in with counter-culture types.  Indeed, it doesn’t take her long to find herself living in the run down cabin that The East has turned into their headquarters.  It doesn’t take her long to gain the trust of their second-in-command Izzy (Ellen Page) and after she participates in one of the group’s anti-corporate missions she even gains the trust of the group’s ostensible leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård).  She seems to be in perfect position to shut the groups down when her boss gives the order, but she comes to realize that The East might be reacting to some legitimate grievances and it starts to become increasingly hard to tell who the “bad guy” is.

I could be mistaken, but I don’t really think there are actually all that many groups like “The East” in the real world.  At least if they do exist I doubt they are successful enough at what they do to scare any companies into hiring under-cover agents to track them down.  Pretty much the closest analogue I can think of is the Earth Liberation Group, an organization that was profiled a couple of years ago in a good documentary called If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.  Pretty much all that that group managed to accomplish over the course of their late-90s “spree” was a handful of arson attacks against a few small logging companies.  What’s more, that group didn’t really operate in anywhere near as dramatic a fashion as “The East” does.

Of course whether or not organization in the film operates realistically isn’t really the point.  This isn’t meant to be some sort of exposé of eco-terror so much as it’s meant to be a spy/undercover cop movie that happens to be set in a milieu that’s less clichéd than most.  On that level the film is executed a lot better than Batmanglij and Marling’s previous work, in part simply because this is a generally larger production.  The film was produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony, and it’s clear that they gave the crew some good advice about how to make a film like this work.  Additionally, the film gets some extra credibility by bringing some name actors like Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page into the mix.  Brit Marling also holds her own pretty well amidst this more notable cast and I’m going to be interested in seeing what happens to her once she moves up from the indie world and gets hired to be some super hero’s girlfriend.

I also thought the film did a pretty good job of navigating the morality of the whole situation it depicts.  The film never fully condones the relatively extreme actions of “The East,” but it never really turns them into full-on villains either.  It also never loses sight of the fact that the group is not paranoid and that their corporate targets are, for the most part, genuine assholes who probably do deserve some kind of punishment even if it probably shouldn’t be in the form of dangerous terroristic pranks.  The film’s politics actually reminds me of an old Chris Rock bit from the 90s where he lists out the litany of social offenses that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman perpetrated against O.J. Simpson, and after each one stops and says “now I’m not saying he should have killed her, but I understand.”  Similarly, this film seems to be going “I’m not saying people should perform vigilante attacks on multi-national corporations, but I understand.”  And as someone who is also frustrated by how easily multi-billion dollar industries seem to get away with murder, I can sympathize with that attitude.

The East is not the best film about cult-like activity to come out of the independent scene in recent years, that would still probably be Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, but it’s a definite improvement over Sound of My Voice.  As far as 70s style paranoid thrillers go there are also better options, but still, this is a good movie that does a good job of dealing with the widespread and mostly justified anti-corporate sentiment that’s been all too slowly growing in this country and around the world since the 2008 meltdown.  I wouldn’t tell anyone to rush out too quickly to see it, but if you’re looking for something a little more subtle than the summer blockbusters but also a little more active than some of the artier counter-programming, this is a good option.

*** out of Four

This is the End(6/12/2013)

There was a comic book series about ten years ago called “Y: The Last Man,” about a plague that wiped out the entire male population (well, except for the titular protagonist).  I never got around to reading too deeply into it, but I do remember a scene from an early issue where a group of women start thinking about all the male celebrities like Bob Dylan and Woody Allen who also must have been killed in this mass extinction.  That’s something you don’t really think about right away when you watch a disaster film, but it must be true that whenever Roland Emmerich casually decides to have Los Angeles ripped apart by tornados, earthquakes, or Alien invaders he’s almost certainly sentencing all the talented filmmakers and actors we’ve come to know and love over the years to death.  I’m sure one could jokingly rejoice at the notion of Paris Hilton or Brett Ratner getting offed by one of these disasters, but the thought is a lot less funny when you think of someone like George Clooney or Steven Spielberg being among the nameless victims of these catastrophes.   Then again, there is some comic potential in the idea of Hollywood actors actively trying to survive a Hollywood style cotastrophy, and that idea is at the center of the new Seth Rogen vehicle This is the End.

The film begins with Seth Rogen (who, like almost everyone with a speaking role in the film, is playing himself) waiting at the airport to pick up his friend and fellow actor Jay Baruchel.  Baruchal is one of the less famous names in the film, he’s probably best known for playing the retarded guy in that sub-plot from Million Dollar Baby that no one talks about, but he and Rogen were friends back in Canada and both were in that early Judd Apatow clique.  That evening Baruchal reluctantly agrees to go with Rogen to a party at James Franco’s house where a ton of other celebrities are present and celebrating.  Little do they know that this party is being held the night of a major catastrophe that will kill most of the party-goers and leave a core group of Rogen, Baruchal, Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride holed up in Franco’s house hoping to keep whatever or whoever is causing all the chaos out.  Hilarity ensues.

The idea of having celebrities play themselves for comedic effect is not a new one.  Actors have been creating exaggerated comedic versions of themselves for years on shows like “Extras” and “Entourage,” where they depict themselves as narcissistic assholes, often for the purposes of reassuring their viewer that they aren’t really one of “those” kind of celebrities.  It’s almost come to the point where it’s more unusual for celebrities to portray themselves in a light that’s overtly flattering.  Most of the actors here aren’t really being caricatures like that, for the most part they’re just doing riffs on their usual comedic personas: Rogen is a shlubby stoner who matures over the course of the film, McBride is a dickish man-child with an inflated ego, and Robinson is an affable fellow who occasionally takes to the piano to sing a pseudo-Motown song.   Only James Franco really seems to be playing with his personal image, in that he plays a fun-loving young man with certain artistic pretentions.

For the most part it’s smart that these actors stick to their usual shtick because the basic meta-premise of actors playing themselves is not a sustainable premise and the movie knows it.  After about a half hour the film more or less lets you forget that you’re watching a bunch of famous people playing themselves and begins to feel like it’s just a solid comedy about a bunch of random slackers and stoners trying to survive the apocalypse.  In other words, the film has plenty of good dick jokes that don’t need this particular high concept in order to work.  Most of the film is set in James Franco’s house, so it kind of takes on the energy of a good “bottle episode” from a sitcom, and you can tell that these guys had a lot of time to really work off each other and come up with some good improvisations.

Later in the film, things start to deal more directly with the apocalyptic mayhem, and the film turns into a sort of Ghostbusters style fusion of comedy and visual effects.  Most people will correctly tell you that CGI effects are anathema to good comedy, but they work here, in part because they’re only something like 20% of the movie and don’t really outstay their welcome.  The effects themselves are a little inconsistent.  Some of the early shots of fireballs and holes opening in the earth look almost deliberately poor, as if the film was trying to say “you get the point, and since this isn’t a real action movie, let’s move on.”  But later the film brings in some CGI effects that actually do look like they belong in a big budget Hollywood movie, and that makes me a little less forgiving of that early section.  Otherwise I thought the craftsmanship here was pretty good.  Directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg give the film a sort of earthy digital look in order to differentiate it from the usual comedy and show that this is the “real world,” but they wisely avoid trying to turn it into some kind of found footage shaky cam thing.

As is often the case in the kind of films that Rogen and company are in, there is a legitimate plot to be found here and actual character arcs throughout the movie.  The central “bromance” here is between Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, who have grown apart as friends as Rogen has gotten more famous and has established himself in Los Angeles.  Over the course of the film their friendship is front and center.  There’s also some legitimate end of the world “how far will we go to survive” type stuff, which does remain compelling even as it’s constantly being undercut by laughs.  This is probably why I’m so much more compelled by this particular crew of talent, they know that they can’t just try to be funny at every turn, they actually do try to make solidly constructed films.  I’m not going to say this is a perfect comedy.  The first fifteen minutes aren’t the best, a handful of the jokes kind of fall flat, a few of the references didn’t age particularly well in the time it took for the film to come out, and in general it could have used some trimming.  But at the end of the day I didn’t really care, because it still worked better than 90% of the other comedies out there.  I rarely seek out comedies or leave them satisfied, and when one does work for me I tend to rejoice rather than worry about whatever little flaws can be found, and this one definitely worked for me.

***1/2 out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Chicken Run/Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

One of the smartest things that John Lasseter ever did was to very publicly express support and admiration for the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.  I doubt that the strategic alliance that Pixar formed with Studio Ghibli ever gave him too much money directly, but it gave the studio all kinds of artistic “street cred” and also gave the critics a sort of permission to take Pixar a lot more seriously than they might have otherwise, and in return it offered Miazaki the vast resources of the Disney distribution empire when bringing his films to the west.  Being the craven copycat that he is, I think Jeffrey Katzenberg was trying to do the same thing by forming an alliance between Dreamworks animation and the quaint but well respected British studio Aardman Animations.

Though it took them a while to break through to the mainstream, the history of Aardman Animations goes back to 1972 when they were founded as a sort of cottage studio that would produce low budget shorts for British television.  Their most famous work from this era was probably the effects work on the famous video for the Peter Gabriel song “Sledgehammer,” but aside from that most of their work remained very small-scale and local.  Eventually the studio’s creative control began to form around a team of three men: Peter Lord, David Sproxton, and Nick Park.  Together they made a number of animated shorts (many of which earned Oscar nominations) and over the years they slowly began to earn a following in the animation industry and among people in the know.  All that goodwill finally paid off in the late 90s when they signed a five-film deal with Dreamworks for $250 million dollars which would finally allow them to make feature length films.  The first of these was to be a project that Aardman had long had in production called Chicken Run.

Chicken Run

While people don’t seem to talk about it much today, Chicken Run got a lot of positive press when it came out in the June of 2000.  Toy Story 2 had come out the November before and this was often held up alongside that film as an example of an animated family film that was going above and beyond what was usually expected from those kinds of movies.  It’s garnered a Pixar-esque 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was also a surprise box office success: it took in $224 million world-wide, making it the all time highest grossing stop-motion animated film to this very day and that’s without even adjusting for inflation.  That’s a hell of a lot of success, so why don’t we hear more about the film today?  Well, I feel like a lot of the reason is that what people expect from a family film has changed a lot since 2000, and I suspect that if Chicken Run were released today the response to it would be positive but not necessarily as rapturous.  There is of course something to be said for being ahead of one’s time, so I’m not completely dismissing the film on that level, but this is still something of a transitional film in the world of modern family cinema.

Chicken Run is essentially an animated parody of the 1963 classic The Great Escape except with the POW plant turned into a chicken coop and the Nazis turned into chicken farmers complete with references to specific shots from that earlier film.  The Steve McQueen role here is filled by a rooster named Rocky, who’s voiced by the film’s only Hollywood actor, Mel Gibson.  The Richard Attenborough role is taken by chicken named Ginger (Julia Sawalha) who is, interestingly, a strong female character.  In fact I thought it was more than a little interesting that the film accurately portrayed the gender ratio you’d expect to see on a chicken egg farm with the hens vastly outnumbering the roosters.

For the most part, the film’s story leans pretty heavily on clichés.  We’ve seen a trillion movies where an outsider comes to help a group of oppressed outsiders, bases his promises on lies, is shunned when said lies come to the surface, but then comes back to save the day at the last minute.  The relationship between Rocky and Ginger is also a pretty standard “opposites attract” type thing.  Of course if Avatar taught us anything it’s that a formulaic story like this still can still work pretty well if the execution is really above and beyond usual expectations, and while I wouldn’t call the execution here “amazing” it is mostly fun enough to make the film work.  The animation here isn’t terrific, the characters move kind of slow and awkwardly, but that’s okay really.  Unlike other forms of animation, you kind of want claymation to have a bit of a rough DIY feel to it.  What’s more important is that you add in a lot of neat little details to all the sets and models; you want the world of the film to feel like the most over-ambitious fifth-grade art project of all time, and that’s certainly what Aardman delivers here.

I suppose I’d be more enthusiastic about the film in general if I thought its comedy was genuinely funny.  While the jokes here don’t necessarily descend into the realms of outright stupidity, they did strike me as being kind of dopey.  For example, Mel Gibson’s character is introduced with a really lame Braveheart parody and there are a couple of other Dreamworks style references for adults, but otherwise puns and physical comedy seem rule the day whenever the film is trying to be funny.  I guess eight-year olds will find it funny.  Anyway, Chicken Run clearly isn’t my kind of film, but it’s also hard to really get mad at it.  It works well enough both as a parody and the animation is pretty fun, and since no one’s really proclaiming it to be some kind of modern classic that’s probably good enough.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Chicken Run remains Aardman’s highest grossing film, but their most famous and lasting creations are almost certainly the characters of Wallace and Gromit.  This inventor/cheese enthusiast and his long suffering dog were dreamt up by Nick Park and debuted in his in the 1989 short film A Grand Day Out and would recur in the short films The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave.  I’m not exactly sure how these films caught on with the public, but they did.  One admirer was my sixth grade science teacher, who would occasionally pull out his VHS copy of the films and show them to the class whenever he thought the class had earned some downtime.  They were sort of like the “Downton Abbey” of children’s entertainment: simple enough at their core to be liked by a wide audience but English enough that people could latch onto it and feel sophisticated for enjoying them.  By the time they finally used the characters to make a feature length film in 2005, there was a whole network of people familiar enough with the characters to turn Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit into a box office smash to the tune of $192 million worldwide.  On top of that, the film even managed to snag an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, partially because it came out in one of the few years when Pixar had opted to take a breather and not release a film.

Like Chicken Run, this Wallace & Gromit film serves as a sort of cute little parody of an older film genre.  In this case they take on old monster movies, specifically werewolf films, but they also throw in a little bit of Frankenstein and King Kong.  This time out our “heroes” have started working as “humane” pest exterminators, who go to various clients homes to capture the rabbits that plague their gardens (and it seems that the people in this village are positively obsessed with their gardens).  The film’s villain is a dude named Lord Victor Quartermaine, who fancies himself a “great white hunter” of sorts, and would much rather just shoot the damn vermin.  Between this and Chicken Run’s less than flattering portrayal of the poultry industry, I’m beginning to wonder if Aardman is funded in part by PETA or something.  Anyway, after a couple of comic misadventures, the town’s vegetables start to come under siege every night by a gigantic “were-rabbit” and it’s up to Wallace & Gromit to stop it.

For those who don’t know, Wallace & Gromit have a dynamic that’s not completely dissimilar to that of Inspector Gadget and his niece Penny: one is the ostensible hero with a bunch of impractical gadgets, but also a blundering idiot, while the other is the secret brains of the operation that gets no credit once the day is saved.  Aardman hasn’t done a whole lot to change the look and feel of the characters, they still have kind of weird freaky looking lips and Wallace is still voiced by the aged English sitcom actor Peter Sallis.  The budget is lower here than it was on Chicken Run, and it shows, but Aardman is still able to do a handful of pretty cool claymation things.  The film’s comedy isn’t much funnier than in Chicken Run but there are fewer moments of blatant pandering and I was at least slightly amused by some of the little puns and references that they peppered throughout the world of the film.

For the most part I think Aardman did a pretty good job of sticking to their guns and I don’t think they let Dreamworks push them around too much.  They managed to make a feature length version of what they delivered with the shorts, but that’s not entirely a good thing.  At their heart these are a pair of really slight characters, I don’t think they were ever really meant to sustain any kind of extended narrative like this.  As such, there isn’t a lot of character development here and the story itself seems kind of low stakes and hard to really invest in on any kind of serious level.  At the end of the day I think that these characters were really meant to star in short films and I suspect that the people at Aardman feel the same way because they’ve never tried to make another feature length film with the characters again even though they could probably get the funding if they wanted to.  Instead, the last we’ve seen of the characters has been in a 2008 short film called A Matter of Loaf and Death.

In Conclusion

             The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was a pretty big success for Aardman, but in retrospect it was probably also something of a peak.  Their next film, Flushed Away (which was computer animated instead of stop motion), was pretty much a bomb and it led to them being dropped by Dreamworks.  Since then they’ve shacked up with Sony Pictures Animation and have made two films: Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! Band of Misfits (AKA The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!).  Both of those films achieved some moderate box office success, particularly in international markets, but neither of them had the success of their first two film in spite of having much larger budgets.  They also haven’t really been able to recapture the imagination of critics, and I suspect that that’s partly just a matter of a certain novelty factor having worn off.

Unlike some of the other forces in family entertainment, Aardman hasn’t really been successful because of any attempt to make family movies deeper or more sophisticated.  Instead they’ve mostly managed to get by because they had a certain quaint charm in their favor.  In other words, their films are really cute.  There’s nothing wrong with any of that as long as things are kept in perspective, and for the most part I think they have been.  I found both of these films fairly amusing, but I wasn’t thrilled by either of them and I’m probably not going to be seeking out any of the studio’s other films any time soon.  But I also don’t blame anyone for digging these flicks either because they are more or less what they promise to be: above average children’s entertainment made with a decent amount of skill and creativity.  Next month I’ll return to the Harry Potter franchise and look at the two films which are said to have really set that series off on the right direction: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Before Midnight(6/8/2013)

Two weeks ago I was listening to a podcast hosted by someone with access to advance critics’ screenings of the latest releases.  The subject of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight came up on this podcast and I completely freaked out when the commentator just casually described the relationship of the film’s main characters.  With any other film that wouldn’t be a spoiler, but Before Midnight is the third film in a long treasured film series that began twenty years ago with 1995’s Before Sunrise and continued in 2004’s Before Sunset.  Both films looked at an evolving relationship between two characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy over the course of two long discussion filled nights and each film ended on a note of ambiguity about whether or not the characters would meet again after the events of each film.  I was hoping that I’d be able to blindly enter Before Midnight and let Linklater reveal what became of the two lovers, but that wasn’t to be.  Truth be told, that was probably an unrealistic expectation, even the film’s trailer gives away the film’s scenario and I was going to end up seeing that anyway.  Furthermore, now that I sit down to write this review I realize that there really is no way to discuss this film without spoiling that basic premise, so this review will hold no greater standard in that regard than it would for any other film.  Also expect full spoilers for Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

Before Sunset ended with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Celine’s apartment, and it’s not entirely clear if Jesse is going to decide to stay in Paris and leave his loveless marriage in the process.  It turns out he did.  Before Midnight is set ten years later and Jesse and Celine have been in a long term relationship ever since and have two twin daughters.  This new installment is set on a Greek island where the whole family has been vacationing at the estate of an elderly writer who admires the novels that Jesse had previously written about his earlier meetings with Celine.  The film begins with Jesse at the airport seeing off his son Henry (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) who is going back to live with his mother in Chicago after having spent the summer with Jesse and Celine.  Afterwards he and Celine drive back to the estate and on the way Jesse floats the idea of moving back to the United States to be with Henry, which Celine reacts quite negatively to.  And that will be the seed of a new series of candid discussions and revelations for the audience to watch.

These movies are so simple.  The first two movies were basically just: man and woman talk, go.  They probably wouldn’t have even bothered having them walk through the European cities while having these conversations had they not needed to add visual interest to the proceedings.  At its heart this movie is mostly more of that, but it isn’t a slave to the formula either.  There isn’t as much of a ticking clock this time around for one thing, and the film is also less strictly a two-person-only affair, at least in its first half.  It makes sense that the dynamics would be different this time around given that it’s about people who have been together for years rather than people who are just meeting or just reuniting.  Some of the conversations this time around are a lot more heated as well, it’s not a film about doe-eyed love, in fact it’s in many ways about the consequences about what came before.

In particular, Jesse is experiencing the fallout of his decision to follow his heart and leave his first wife.  It’s the fact that Jesse misses his son that plants the seed of the conflict between Jesse and Celine for much of the film, and we really get to see both sides of the situation.  Celine has pretty good reason to not want to entertain the notion of uprooting her family over Jesse’s sentimental desire to be with his son every weekend and she also has good reason to call him on some of his passive-aggressive bullshit.  On the flipside, Celine is being more than a little strident and accusatory in some of her arguments and Jesse’s reasons to want to move are mostly selfless urges that shouldn’t have to be shut down so vociferously.

I’ve talked a lot about the arguing in the film, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is some kind of modern version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe or Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.  The film shows the good times as much if not more than the bad, and not all of the conversations are about the couple’s personal problems.  Through more mundane (but equally interesting) discussions we get a very complete picture of what Jesse and Celine’s lives have been like and continue to gain insights into both complex individuals.  And the series isn’t really just about these individuals, there’s something more universal going on here.  Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (who have all collectively co-written the screenplay) seem to have really tapped into some larger truths about the way that men and women interact with one another and about the life patterns that people tend to follow.

Some people are almost certainly going to be asking if this is a film that can be seen without having seen the previous entries in the “before” trilogy.  Well, the answer is “yes,” you can see this film without prior knowledge of the previous films, but that doesn’t mean that you should.  There’s enough exposition here for the uninitiated to put together the basic plot points of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which isn’t saying much because the basic plot outlines of those movies aren’t all that complicated, and I do think that Before Midnight can stand on its own.  However, to see this film outside of the context of the trilogy it inhabits is to rob yourself of the incredibly rewarding experience of seeing Jesse and Celine grow and mature in front of you.  Not since Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy (which interestingly also featured Julie Delpy) have we seen a film trilogy for adults come together this perfectly, and if this installment could have been any better I don’t know how.

**** out of Four

Fast & Furious 6(6/2/2013)

This isn’t how film series are supposed to work.  Series are supposed to peak with their first or second film and then release a much hyped third film which is supposed to be advertised as the end to a trilogy.  Then everyone involved is supposed to rest on their laurels for only to then sell out and make the fourth installment that they promised they’d never make, and then make a series of increasingly underwhelming sequels with or without the original cast and crew, often to diminishing box office returns, and they’re also supposed to drop their original numbering system somewhere around the fourth or fifth installments in place of the “title colon subtitle” system of naming sequels.  There was nothing about the “Fast and Furious” franchise that made me think it would buck that trend.  If you’d asked me in 2007 where I thought the series would be in 2013 I would have said the series would either be completely dead or at least in some kind of direct to DVD purgatory.  And yet, here we are twelve years after the release of the original film and the series is more popular than ever and at least as respectable as it’s ever been.

The latest adventure of Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) merry band of thieves kicks off when each member of the team is contacted by agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the man who was actively pursuing the gang in the previous film.  Hobbs isn’t calling to arrest the team; he’s calling to recruit them to help hunt down a rouge SAS team that he believes are plotting to steal a military device that could cause major devastation if sold to “the wrong people.”  In exchange for their help, Hobbs is offering both a cash payment and a pardon for any crimes that the crew previously committed.  The crew agrees to this and head to Europe to follow the trail.

Fast Five re-invigorated the series by combining the franchises usual urban car chase thrills with an Ocean’s 11 style heist plot.  This time the plan seems to be to take a “Fast & Furious” approach to the spy movie, albeit a very over-the-top brand of spy movie in the James Bond mold.  Indeed, some of the action scenes here do rival the kind of lovably over-blown nonsense that one would expect from a Bond film.  There’s a chase involving armored F-1 racers that can run into cars and flip them, there’s a chase involving a tank, and there’s of course the scene made famous by the trailers involving a jumbo jet bring brought down on the runway by a bunch of sports cars.  In short, these scenes are nuts.  They’re mass spectacles and anyone looking to see fast cars and big explosions will probably not be disappointed by them, provided that they’re willing to overlook some questionable physics and aren’t too interested in questioning just how long air-port runways are in this world.

The film is pretty clearly built around these three set-pieces, and no matter how good they are the film would still fall flat if the scenes between them were boring.  Time passes pretty enjoyably whenever this time is used to just have Tyrese Gibson, Gal Gadot, The Rock, Ludacris, Gina Carano, and Sung Kang screw around while ostensibly investigating the group their trying to find.  All these actors have a pretty good chemistry at this point and their masculine comradely is fairly enjoyable.  The film suffers when it starts following the Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez storyline.  Rodriguez was supposed to have died in Fast & Furious (that’s the fourth one), and the movie really just wastes a whole lot of time trying to justify bringing her back.  That this justification involves amnesia and requires a mostly pointless sub-plot in which Paul Walker goes undercover in a prison really just suggest to me that they should have just handled the actresses return with a simple retcon.

There’s a lot I’m willing to overlook in order to enjoy this guilty pleasure of a series, but there are limits to what I’m going to put up with.  That amnesia storyline as well as a ridiculous decision that the characters make in order to justify the final action scene come right up to that line, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t really enjoy Fast & Furious 6.  In a world that’s filled with pretentious action films that all think they’re The Dark Knight, there’s something kind of refreshing about a big budget movie that unapologetically just revels in fast cars, hot women, and big explosions.  It’s not the kind of movie that’s going to rock your world, and it certainly isn’t any kind of artistic achievement, but if you’re feeling down and you need something to do on just the right kind of summer day this movie will have just what you need.

*** out of Four

Crash Course: The 2008 Wall Street Crisis on Film

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

I was nineteen when I first heard that the housing bubble was going to burst, and I didn’t think much of it at the time.  It was something that I naively thought would amount to little more than a small hurdle in some Wall Street fat cat’s latest get rich scheme and that it wasn’t something I’d ever have to concern myself with.  Little did I know that two years later the economy would more or less take a nose dive because of this and that it would drag a whole bunch of similarly naïve people down with it.  For the next four years and perhaps into the foreseeable future this economic climate and the one percenter machinations that caused it have replaced the Iraq war as the go-to topic for topical “issue” films.  With more films like these on the horizon, like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, it seemed like a good idea to catch up with the various ways that recent cinema have decided to depict the frontlines of the economic crash in my latest installment of Crash Course.

 

Margin Call

The first of the four films about this topic that we’ll be looking at is Margin Call, a small film which came out in 2011 without a lot of fanfare initially, but which built an audience through a VOD release to the point where it was able to snag a “best original screenplay” nomination at the Oscars along with a bunch of “best first feature” awards from various award bodies.  It’s set in an unnamed investment bank the night before the 2008 crash and watches the various employees as they realize that the formula they’ve been working with was false and that everything was going to change within 24 hours.

That it would mainly thrive on VOD makes sense because this movie isn’t exactly what you’d call “cinematic.”  It takes place largely within the confines of a single office, is told mostly through dialogue, is set over the course of a day or two, and has a limited cast of characters.  In many ways this is a stage play that’s been brought directly to the screen; in fact it almost seems to hearken back to the days of live teleplays like “12 Angry Men.”  All of the film’s production value seems to have been wisely pumped into its cast, which features famous actors like Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, and Demi Moore.

This film is all about the feeling that people have when they’re looking into the abyss.  By the time the film starts everything is already in motion and all of these people are already screwed, but that’s something that they’ve only just found out.  Over the course of a single night we see the pressure mount for these guys as they move toward a very questionable tactic that will possibly save themselves while screwing over the economy at large.  The film does not forgive this company for the mess that’s been brought on because of their negligence and greed, but it doesn’t go out of its way to judge them either.  All the individuals involved are largely depicted as confused people caught up in something bigger than themselves who didn’t even know that for the last few years they’d been riding a nuclear bomb down to earth like Major T. J. Kong.

Margin Call isn’t a great movie.  It has relatively low ambitions given the subject matter and even at 109 minutes it feels a little longer than it needs to be.  Still, it chooses an interesting way into the subject matter at hand and does a good enough job of putting a human face on it.  It doesn’t make too much of a statement about the broader factors at hand in the economic collapse but there is value to its psychological insights.

*** out of Four

Too Big to Fail

No one makes better TV series than HBO and no one makes better mini-series than HBO and no one produces better comedy specials than HBO, but a ton of people make better two hour movies than HBO does.  Make no mistake, the made-for-TV movies that debut on HBO are better than the ones on most other networks, but they tend to be average at best when compared to films with actual theatrical releases.  That’s especially true now that they’re mostly just making skillfully crafted but ultimately bland “ripped from the headlines” fare like Recount, Game Change, and the film at hand: Too Big to Fail.

If Margin Call was about the calm before the storm, Too Big to Fail is about the people in the middle of the raging storm trying to save as many lives as they can before it’s over.  As such, this is a lot denser and more franticly paced than Margin Call and it also differs from that film (and the other films I’ll be looking at in this post) because it names names.  For the most part the film is a re-creation of what Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had to do in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crash as he tries to decide the fates of Lehman Brothers and AIG and ends with the passage of the TARP bill.

Too Big to Fail opens really hectically and pretty much throws the audience right in the deep end from the get go.  It took a while for me to catch my bearings, but I did start to get into it as it went along.  The film does a pretty good job of showing the audience why Paulson made the choices he did and why he felt like he didn’t have any other choice, even if the title card at the end suggests that the eventual choice he made had some very unpleasant side effects.  The film supports an all star cast and almost everyone play a real person who was involved in the events, and while most of these figures are not exactly household names, you still sense a certain authenticity to the various performances.  The film was directed by Curtis Hanson, but it’s decidedly less cinematic than the films he made in the early 2000s.  There’s no mistaking that this is a TV movie, but as an energetic re-enactment it mostly works.

*** out of Four

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Oliver Stone was unquestionably one of the most important American filmmakers of the 80s and 90s, he had an amazing ten year run and no one can take that away from him, but pretty much every movie the guy made after Nixon has been underwhelming to some degree or other.  To his credit, he at least isn’t making large-scale disasters like Alexander anymore, but they have been depressingly average and unfortunately Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not an exception.  That’s a big disappointment because this seemed like a really good idea on paper.  The Wall Street Crash seemed like exactly the kind of topic that Oliver Stone should be making statements about and a sequel to his 1987 classic Wall Street seemed like the perfect vehicle to do it.  Maybe a little too perfect.  I feel like he saw an opportunity to be topical and snatched it up even though he didn’t really have all that many insights into the world of modern finance.

The original Wall Street was made during an era when the stock market was booming, and the idea of making a film that stepped back and wondered what was being lost in the process was much needed.  Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser positioned the film as a battle for the soul of a young stock trader played by Charlie Sheen, between the world of honest business represented by his father (played by Martin Sheen) and the world of unscrupulous junk-bond trading represented by Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko.  At its heart it was a simple morality play, but the moral seemed to be lost by a generation of young traders who were so swept up in Michael Douglas’ portrayal that they didn’t notice that he was playing the bad guy.

That film’s belated sequel seems to also be setting up a battle for the soul of a young trader (this time played by Shia La Beouf), but this time a seemingly reformed Gordon Gecko is on the side of “money isn’t everything” and a Wall Street shark played by Josh Brolin is on the side of “greed is good.”  When the film seeks to merely recreate the first film it mostly fails, it just isn’t all that compelling this time around and the actors involved don’t recapture the fire from the 1987 film.  When the film seeks to add new elements to the equation it doesn’t really work all that well either.  I don’t think Oliver Stone really has his finger on the pulse of contemporary finance and he doesn’t bring too many great insights to the table.  The movie’s also over-long and lacking in any truly memorable scenes or elements, but I don’t want to completely dismiss it as a failure either.  It seems to fall squarely in “nice try” territory.

**1/2 out of Four

 Arbitrage

This movie is less directly related to the specific issues of post-2008 Wall Street than I had been led to believe, but I think it still fits if only because it explores the same one-percenter mindset which caused the crash in the first place.  In the film, Richard Gere plays an entitled billionaire whose questionable business decisions are about to catch up with him.  On top of that, he finds himself under investigation for manslaughter after he tries to cover up a car accident that leaves his mistress dead.  As such he must dodge questions from a detective played by Tim Roth, his suspicious wife played by Susan Sarandon, and his daughter played by Brit Marling who also works at his hedge fund and is beginning to realize all the shady stuff he’s been doing there.

So, we have a guy who’s in a world of shit that’s almost entirely of his own making, and yet the audiences is along with him the whole way hoping that he’ll get out of it.  Why is that?  Well it’s partly because he’s turned a young guy named Nate Parker into a semi-unwitting co-conspirator, and we know that if Gere’s character goes down Parker’s character will go down with him.  I don’t know if this is intentional, but that may well be a very apt metaphor for the notion of “too big to fail.”  But there is more to it than that.  At the end of the day, Richard Gere does do a good job humanizing his character.  It may speak to our cultural biases, but as much chaos as these “banksters” cause both directly and indirectly it’s just really hard to look at them with the same distain that we have for a more overtly violent class of criminals.

Despite all that, I do think that Arbitrage isn’t quite the exploration that it could have been.  For one thing, I would have liked a more detailed look at exactly what Gere’s business malfeasance was and how it was going to affect people.  For the most part the film seems a lot more interested in the car accident investigation than it does with the corporate crime side, and that seems like a mistake to me, especially considering that a lot of the criminal investigation stuff was a lot more familiar and wasn’t too far removed from what we see every week on shows like “Law & Order” and “The Good Wife.”  The film is a good little morality play, but it never seemed to interested in shifting into that next level.

*** out of Four

 

So what can we conclude about Wall Street as a subject for films in the early 2010s?  Mostly that it has inspired a lot of well intentioned if not overly accomplished cinema.  In fact the quality of all these films have been in the “it’s mostly alright” range.  The best of the lot is probably Margin Call, which is a film which I may have been a little more generous too if I’d seen it last instead of first, but even that film is only a success on a rather small scale.  Too be fair though, I would probably have come to the same conclusion about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as a movie subject if I’d rounded up all the movies about those conflicts sometime around 2008, so maybe the economic crisis is due for its The Hurt Locker pretty soon.