Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nog On Wall Street

Perhaps Stone's upcoming Wall Street sequel is nothing more than a calculated business effort, cobbled together because the director needs a hit and saw a chance to revive his most famous character, Gordon Gecko. But it seems to me like an interesting opportunity to revive a fascinating film figure during economic circumstances very different than the booming 80's stock market. At any rate, I figured it was a good time to revisit the original, which holds up pretty well 20+ years down the line. Essentially the film is a rags-to-riches tale of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), an enterprising young broker who finds himself taken under the wing of Michael Douglas' seductive and ruthless Gecko and his "Greed is good" worldview. Gecko praises the "illusion" of the market, at one point drawing a parallel to the art world: paintings become defined by what someone says they are worth as much as by their inherent value. And Fox is initially more than happy to let his life be "designed" by Gecko, even quite literally (Fox meets an interior decorator played by Darryl Hannah at a Gecko function, and she tricks out Fox's new penthouse for him). Of course, the film builds to Fox's moral quandary as he finds himself torn between father-figure Gecko's corruption and the old-fashioned business principles of his old man (nicely played by Sheen's real life father Martin). Stone isn't known for subtlety, and this film is obviously a none-too-subtle indictment of 80's corporate greed that holds up as well as it does largely due to the wonderfully entertaining Gecko. Douglas' hypnotic delivery of long speeches truly makes you feel the dangerous lure of power and money, and I'll happily give Stone my ticket price when the new film appears.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"And So the Legend Begins" (very tediously!): Nog and Robin Hood! / Plus, Nog's Classic Corner: Bigger Than Life!

I guess there's no law that says a Robin Hood movie has to be a light-hearted action romp, and Ridley Scott apparently wants his take on the legend to be a historically accurate and very serious war film. But I suspect that's not what audiences want. Russell Crowe seems to have wandered in from Gladiator and the up-close battles feature the same furious, near incomprensible quick cuts that I remember from that film. Distant shots work better. Obviously, Scott remains a sometimes-impressive visual stylist, and the oceanic arrival of the French army in the climactic battle scene has some cool visuals (a striking shot of arrows entering the water, striking bodies beneath the waves, blood rising up). Yet the sequence itself calls to mind the famous opening D-Day invasion of Saving Private Ryan. And the film itself, throughout, never shakes the been there/done that feel of other, better epics (notably Braveheart, or even Gladiator). If you're going to turn in something this familiar anyway, why not just follow the classic Robin Hood model and give audiences a little fun. Instead, we get yet another origin story and perhaps a particularly pointless one since this Robin Hood feels so foreign to our conception of the character. "And So the Legend Begins," the final title card reads, just before an utterly bizarre graphic novel approach to the story rolls during the credits. But surely there's no way this is going to spawn a deadly serious sequel, right?


As Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life begins, James Mason's Ed Avery is sacrificing himself (working a second job that he keeps hidden from his family) to support a suburban lifestyle that he's already beginning to see through. After a dinner party early in the film, he calmly explains to his wife that they and everyone else at the party are dull, none of them capable of saying a witty thing all night. A life-threatening illness soon leads Mason to the (then new) "miracle" drug Cortisone, and his subsequent addiction spirals into a "psychosis" that leaves him railing against every institution we are meant to hold dear (education, the family, religion). For my money, the film is at its best before he reaches sheer bonkers status. It seems, for awhile, that Mason has become a kind of truth-teller, a figure whose "insanity" allows him to say things that otherwise can't be addressed in polite suburban society (very much akin to the neighbor/mental patient John Givings in Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road). Ray cleverly fuses the standard "addiction film" with these moments of penetrating social insight. Sure, the final moments lapse back into the kind of ending likely dictated by the studio system, but that's easy to forgive in a film full of brave moments and a great performance by Mason.

Thanks to Matthew for first passing along a TCM version of this then-hard-to-find gem and thanks to Criterion for now restoring it to its full glory. Please put it in your Netflix queue, posthaste!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Nog and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo / Plus: Iron Man 2!

The huge success of the series of novels beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a bit bewildering. How did America get hooked on these Swedish thrillers? Based on my reading of the first one over Christmas break, the books (pleasantly) lack the breakneck pacing and thinly drawn characters of John Grisham or Dan Brown's thrillers nor do they contain a single tweenage vampire or boy wizard or any other element one might expect from a runaway bestseller these days. Basically, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a clever variation on what's often called the "locked room" mystery (except this is a "locked island!") with two well-drawn characters at its center. And one of these, the titular "girl," is likely the reason for the series' success. Lisbeth Salander is definitely a fascinating character, a punk tattoed pierced bisexual Swedish computer hacker, and the film could not have worked without finding the perfect Salander. Luckily, they did. For the first few minutes, the woman on screen (Noomi Rapace) didn't quite coincide with the image of Salander I had in mind, but that vanished quickly enough. It's a very strong performance, and Lisbeth remains as interesting on-screen as on the page, a strange mix of fragility and toughness. The film streamlines the over-stuffed novel, jettisoning much of a storyline about financial intrigue in favor of the murder-mystery plot. It's a smart decision, but still a long film, with a few too many last minute revelations (typical of the genre) that try the patience a little. Still, take a look at this beside any "serious" mainstream American thriller (for instance, Gibson's comeback revenge-thriller Edge of Darkness) for a lesson in what's missing from those films: namely, character, atmosphere, suspense, etc). One is left wondering how badly the American remake of Girl will screw things up. But there are rumors that David Fincher is attached. So maybe it won't be as bad as imagined.


Jon Favreau's first Iron Man was a pleasant surprise: a kick-ass superhero film with a light touch and an intriguing, somewhat complex character in Tony Stark (played to the hilt by a wisecracking Robert Downey Jr.). Unlike so many summer blockbusters, it was a film where dialogue and character were not totally secondary to expensive action sequences. Much of this is still true of the sequel, but yet it often feels too much like its sagging under the weight of genre expectations, with bigger battles and characters that mainly exist to set up other films in the ever-expanding cinematic Marvel universe. Even so, there's fun to be had with new characters such as Mickey Rourke's Whiplash (that man loves his bird!), Scarlet Johannsen (can't we please keep her in that skintight suit just a little longer?), Garry Shandlings' sleazy politician (can we please have EVERY Larry Sanders' episode on DVD), and, perhaps especially, Sam Rockwell (watch that funky little James Brown shuffle-dance late in the film when he's taking the microphone). The film seems, for awhile, as if it might push its way beyond its comic book surface into a darker riff on the corrupting power of celebrity (RDJ's Stark, seeing himself as the sole savior of world peace, has let his power go to his head). Those ideas never press very far, naturally enough: after all, this is Favreau, not Christopher Nolan. And, in the matinee screening that I attended, the geeks seem pleased: "Dude, I TOLD you there was going to be something after the credits!" shouted one of them to his friends. But of course all of us geeks knew that already, which is why we had remained seated through these (very long) credits in the first place.