Please Give


Please Give

Catherine Keener is amused at one of Oliver Platt's bon mots.

(2010) Black Comedy (Sony Classics) Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele, Ann Guilbert, Josh Pais, Elise Ivy, Amanda Peet, Thomas Ian Nichols, Scott Cohen, Lois Smith, Amy Wright, Romy Rosemont, Kathleen Doyle, Kevin Corrigan. Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Guilt works on us in funny ways. Some of us feel compelled to assuage our guilt by doing things for others, while others simply hide that guilt away and ignore it, much like listening to a long-winded preacher on Sundays. Few of us confront it head-on.

Alex (Platt) and Kate (Keener) own an antique furniture place which is primarily stocked by finds at estate sales, or having Kate find grieving children to buy large amounts of furniture for as little as she can get away with and having Alex sell the pieces for as much as he can get away with. Pretty much typical capitalism.

However, the circumstances work on Kate’s conscience and she tends to give cash and food to the local homeless in her trendy Chelsea neighborhood in New York City much to the irritation of daughter Abby (Steele) who sees little generosity from her mother.

Alex and Kate, eager to expand their small apartment, have managed to purchase the apartment next door which they will eventually knock down the walls to in order to make a larger living space for themselves. The problem is that Audra (Guilbert, who was once Millie the neighbor on The Dick van Dyke show) lives in that apartment currently, so Alex and Kate must wait for her to die in order to start construction. The fact that Audra is a bitch of epic proportions makes this an easier proposition. This also makes for an uncomfortable relationship with Audra’s grandchildren, who have issues of their own.

Rebecca (Hall) is a mammogram technician who is kind enough on the surface, but wishy washy and indecisive deep down. She has been guilt-tripped into caring for Audra who uses her for a verbal punching bag. Mary (Peet) is a cosmetologist who appears to be confident and strong but has some anger issues and a sharp tongue that occasionally rears its ugly head.

That’s really it in terms of plot. Holofcener, one of the better American independent directors out there, prefers to deliver slices of life and character studies more than telling a story from beginning through middle to end. There is a resolution of sorts, but the payoff is somewhat low-key and doesn’t really signal any sort of growth or change on the part of any of the people in the cast.

Holofcener, unlike other directors, tends to put more attention on the women of the cast which isn’t to say that Platt doesn’t get much screen time; only that Holofcener tends to pay more attention to the main female parts of Kate, Rebecca, Mary, Audra and Abby. Platt does get some of the better lines in the movie and makes a fine foil for Kate.

Keener, who has worked with Holofcener before, is the main focus here. She talks a good game about compassion and community involvement but she mostly uses these things as a means of making herself feel better because she’s well aware that while she is doing nothing illegal she is clearly in a moral grey area. That calls into question the genuineness of her actions and Abby’s caustic remarks about charity beginning at home at first seem self-centered and teen-centric but as you come to understand Kate’s motivations, Abby’s charges seem to be more right on the money.

Most of the characters aren’t always easy to get along with and Holofcener likes it that way; her characters are presented as being flawed and occasionally stepping over the line of decency (Mary stalks the girlfriends of an ex-boyfriend she can’t get over; Alex has an affair). The relationships are complicated and often muddied by the human frailties of those in them, which is pretty much what real life is all about.

This isn’t strictly speaking 90 minutes of non-stop entertainment but it is the kind of movie that you should find fascinating from beginning to end. Parts of it are painful to watch and others will make you smile in spite of yourself. If you are still thinking about a movie several weeks after you’ve seen it then the director has done his or her job and in my case Holofcener did her job well.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written and well-acted, particularly by Keener, Platt and Peet.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not always easy to watch, particularly since most of the character have some sort of hang-up that makes them unlikable for long stretches, particularly in Steele’s case.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, as well as some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The spa scenes were shot at Skintology, a chic spa in the Chelsea area of New York City where most of the movie was shot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel and a director Q&A from a preview screening.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.3M on $3M production budget; it’s unlikely this was profitable at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Micmacs

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf tells Michael Douglas that Indiana Jones was a better adventure hero than Jack Colton.

(20th Century Fox) Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton, John Bedford Lloyd, Vanessa Ferlito, John Buffalo Mailer, Sylvia Miles, Charlie Sheen, Ron Insana.  Directed by Oliver Stone

Filmmaker Oliver Stone has long had the reputation as a cinematic gadfly. Throughout the 1980s his movies took run after run against the establishment; movies like JFK, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July all of which were Oscar bait in their time. However, many consider his 1987 film Wall Street to be his magnum opus. Michael Douglas would win an Oscar as the Machiavellian Gordon Gekko, a Wall Street financier whose mantra “Greed is Good” would become a catchphrase and, ironically enough, a spur for many of today’s brokers to enter the business. Still, that was 23 years ago; has Stone mellowed with age?

Some say yes. The movie opens with Gekko (Douglas, reprising the role from the original) being released from prison after doing eight years for insider trading. He leaves the facility with a mobile phone the size of a loaf of bread and a gold watch. There is, however, nobody to meet him; even the rapper/thug has a limo awaiting him.

Seven years later, his daughter Winnie (Mulligan) still hasn’t spoken to him in more than a decade. She blames him for the overdose death of her brother. She has a different life now anyway; she runs what is self-described as a “lefty website” and she’s living with Jake Moore (LaBeouf), who works as an investment banker for the established firm of Keller Zabel (said to be a fictional version of Bear Stearns) as an alternative energy specialist. Even though he’s essentially part of the system she despises, he’s still idealistic enough to give her reason to overlook it.

Their life is far from ideal, however. Keller Zabel is in trouble, the victim of rumors of insolvency based on bad debt (rumors which turn out to be partially true). Senior partner Louis Zabel (Langella), who is also Jake’s mentor, goes to the Federal Reserve, hat in hand, but is turned down, mainly due to the poisonous words of Bretton James (Brolin), the CEO of Churchill Schwartz (the fictional counterpart of Goldman Sachs) who had an axe to grind with Zabel.

When Keller Zabel fails, Jake decides to take in a lecture by Gekko who is promoting his book “Is Greed Good?” that, among other things, predicts the economic meltdown that would take place later that year (the movie is set in 2008). He manages to get Gekko’s ear by telling him that he’s getting ready to marry his daughter, which he is. Gekko agrees to talk to him.

Gekko agrees to get some information about who initiated the rumors about Keller Zabel in exchange for Jake helping to reunite him with his daughter. Jake arranges dinner with the three of them but Winnie walks out, unable to be in the same room with the man whom she blames for destroying her family. Jake stays in contact with her dad behind her back, however; Gekko responds by telling Jake that it was Bretton James behind the rumors that sunk Keller Zabel. Jake decides to initiate some rumors of his own. James is in turn impressed by the passion and smarts of young Jake and hires him. This lasts only as long as it takes for Jake to find out he’s being used.

Things really begin to fall apart then. Just as Winnie is beginning to move towards reconciliation with her father, Gekko reverts to his true colors and the revelation that Jake has been in contact with him behind her back threatens to submarine the relationship. Can someone like Gordon Gekko find redemption in this world, and more to the point, does he deserve it?

I asked earlier if Oliver Stone had mellowed with age, and I tend to agree with some of those who think that he has. Stone’s best works, including the original Wall Street, all carry a degree of anger to them. They are strident, opinionated and abrasive in some ways. He carries the courage of his convictions whether you agree with them or not, and in all honesty there is little ambiguity about his cinematic work.

That’s not as true here. Gekko at one point says, “I was small time compared to these crooks” referring to the Lords of Wall Street circa 2008, but he is in many ways as corrupting an influence as ever, although he isn’t even the villain of this piece – Bretton James is. While Brolin is a great actor in his own right and he does a magnificent job as the unrepentantly corrupt and greedy James, the movie could have used less of him and more of Michael Douglas.

Douglas, as I mentioned earlier, won an Oscar for the first Wall Street and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he could win another for the same role 23 years on, although I would probably characterize it as more of a supporting role. Gekko is sleek, seductive and completely amoral; he is super-competitive and will pay any price in order to win on his own terms. It’s a fascinating role as much of the movie the lion has no teeth or claws, only to reveal that he had them all along about two thirds of the way through. Douglas is the reason to see this movie, first and foremost.

He has some company, however. Langella, who has been delivering terrific performances every time out of late, does so again here. His role is small but crucial, and he imbues it with dignity and honesty. Louis Zabel is a man who finds that his business has changed into something unrecognizable and something he doesn’t much like. He’s lost in this world that he helped shape, and the irony isn’t lost on him. Sarandon also has a brief role as Jake’s real estate selling mom, who is constantly in need of funds to keep her house of cards from collapsing.

This might have gotten a better rating, but unfortunately the movie is torpedoed by its ending, which I found literally preposterous. The characters turn completely on their own internal logic and act completely out of character. It’s about as jarring as ordering a pizza delivery and receiving liver and onions instead, especially if you hate liver and onions.

Having been employed by a financial institution my own self, I can tell you that the world created here is pretty much accurate; the hypocrisy and arrogance truly exists particularly the closer to the executive suite that you get. Of course, that’s pretty much true for any industry these days; it’s just that the financial industry has been in the spotlight more because of the sub-prime shenanigans.

There are a number of documentaries out there that examine the financial meltdown and its causes that are more likely to give you insight into just what happened. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t really a good substitute for them, since it really relegates much of the reasons behind the collapse to the periphery of the film, preferring to concentrate on the characters of Jake, Winnie and Bretton and to a lesser extent, Gordon Gekko. It does make for fine entertainment, but I suspect it will seem a bit dated 23 years after the fact and doesn’t have the advantage of prescience that the original Wall Street had. It’s more a rehash of current events, and it may be fair to say that you could have gotten the same insights by watching MSNBC.

REASONS TO GO: Langella, Douglas and Brolin do some pretty impressive work. The character of Gordon Gekko is as relevant today as he was back in 1987.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is absolutely preposterous. Some of the direction is a bit self-indulgent.  

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a little rough and some of the concepts are on the confusing side, but the average teenager should be able to follow it and maybe even appreciate it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A scene in which Donald Trump made a cameo appearance as himself was left on the cutting room floor.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the New York City vistas look far more majestic on the big screen, the movie is nonetheless perfectly adequate when seen at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Leaves of Grass

Repo Men


Repo Men

Jude Law is knocked for a loop.

(Universal) Jude Law, Forrest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, Alice Braga, Carice van Houten, Chandler Canterbury, RZA, Joe Pingue, Liza Lapira, Tiffany Espensen, Yvette Nicole Brown, Wayne Ward, Tanya Clarke, Max Turnbull. Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

In the modern capitalist society, if you fail to pay for a purchase it gets repossessed, whether it is a car, a computer or a home. In the future, that also might extend to artificial organs that are keeping you alive.

Remy (Law) is a repo man working for The Union, the worlds largest broker of artificial organs. Prohibitively expensive, generous credit plans are available so that people can purchase a chance at an extended life – at an exorbitant interest rate of course. When people start missing their payments, people like Remy and his best friend Jake (Whitaker) will find you, stun you into unconsciousness with a tazer and remove the artificial organ (which are called “artiforgs”) quickly and efficiently via home surgery. The patient usually doesn’t survive the procedure.

Business is pretty good and Remy is the best there is, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his boss Frank (Schreiber). However, it is taking a toll on his marriage to Carol (van Houten) who wants him to get a job that involves regular hours so that he might spend more time with their son Peter (Canterbury). A sales job pays much less than repo and as Jake points out, Remy is far more suited to the repo life than to sales which they both regard as weak.

However, after Jake executes a repo in their front yard during a barbecue, she gives Remy an ultimatum; make a change or get out. Remy decides to do one last job, to take the artificial heart from T-Bone (RZA), a producer of soul music that Remy admires. Remy allows him to complete mixing one last song, but when he goes to stop the artificial heart with a faulty defibrillator, the resulting shock about kills him.

He wakes up with a top-of-the-line artificial heart inside of him and is absolutely terrified. There is no way he can continue making payments on the expensive piece of equipment, especially now that the experience of being a client himself has led him to lose his nerve as a repo man, now seeing the clients as human beings with names…and wives. While his own wife has left him, furious that he went on that last job, Remy prepares to go on the run with Beth (Braga), a lounge singer he’s taken under his wing and a girl with more artificial parts than a Chevy. However, in a society where it is impossible to hide from barcode scanners and bioscan devices, how can they possibly beat a system that is so stacked against them?

This is director Sapochnik’s first feature, and as first efforts go, it’s not too bad. The action sequences are nicely directed with a nod towards the Matrix school of stunts and the overall look of the film is gritty and believable. Whitaker and Law have good chemistry in the leads and while Braga is a bit colorless as the romantic interest, she fulfills her function pretty nicely.

There is a lot of blood here. A whole lot of it. You’re gonna feel like you need a shower after jumping elbow deep into this mutha. Those who get squeamish at surgical films are going to be making a bee-line to the bathroom watching this, so my advice to those with weak stomachs is to go in forewarned.

One of the big problems of the movie is the transformation of Remy from repo man to rebel. He goes from being derisive of clients, sneering throughout “a job’s a job” in a thick cockney accent to being heroic. I understand he went through a life-changing trauma (and to be fair, it seems to me that the period in which the change takes place is probably a period of several months to a year, although it seems very quick onscreen) but there’s no transition. One moment he’s vicious and uncaring and the next he’s a saint. That lack of evolution is the biggest drawback to the movie. I think that they could have used an additional ten minutes or so of illustrating the character’s changeover. If you don’t believe his change of heart, you can’t believe the movie.

In all honesty, this is another movie in which the concept is better than the execution. There’s an interesting parable to be had here about public health care I think, and that may have been what the filmmakers were going for all along. Unfortunately, because they made the decision to accentuate the action over the character development, I think the movie ultimately misses the mark. It’s worth seeing, but just barely so.

REASONS TO GO: Decent action, decently photographed, decently acted. An interesting parable for the health care debate.

REASONS TO STAY: Law’s changeover from violent and amoral to caring and concerned is a bit abrupt and unbelievable.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of violence and plenty of gore, lots of foul language and a little bit of sexuality – put it all together and it adds up to not for kids!!!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jake teases Remy about the title of the book that he writes as being weak, but it’s the actual title of the novel the movie is based on.

HOME OR THEATER: A very mild nod towards the big screen for some of the effects shots, but you could go either way with this one.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stranger Than Fiction