American Psycho (2000) [Review Re-View]
Originally released April 14, 2000:
American Psycho is based on the controversial 1991 best seller by Bret Easton Ellis though it got old fast. One can easily grasp how the lead connects with brand names on page one, but repeat it for 300 more and you’re tempted to add the book to your collection of firewood. Ellis’ novel was sadistically perverse, but director Mary Haron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has somehow managed to pull out an entertaining social satire from the pages of blood and name brands.
Christian Bale, mainly known as the boy-next-door in period piece films, plays Patrick Bateman with ferocious malevolence and vigorous life. Teen scream Leo was once considered for the part but after seeing Bale’s startling performance it should prove why he’s on screen and Leo’s swimming in The Beach. Bateman is an up-and-up Wall Street yuppie who glosses over appearance more than anything else. The only outlet it appears for our sinister shark from the soulless decade is by random acts of gruesome violence.
If Bateman blows off steam by blowing off companion’s heads than it only becomes more frustrating when no one believes his random confessions. Haron takes the grisly material of Ellis’ novel and mines it for pure 80s pulp. It only gets better the further it gets as you have so many points to discuss: Is Bateman acting out to prove his existence in a world that doesn’t humor him or others? Is he acting out deep-seeded rage from the actions of the decade on its people? Is he desensitized and so jaded that death does not even fracture him anymore? The questions are boundless.
The hit list of stars in Psycho includes Chloe Sevigny as a nailed home addition, Willem Dafoe as an investigative detective, Jared Leto as an axed co-worker, and sweet Reese Witherspoon as the apple of Bateman’s twisted eye. Everyone has fun in their tongue-in-cheek nostalgia romp through the absurd.
American Psychoshould not be confused with the successful teen sex farce American Pie. The only desserts in this film are just, and they’re usually left of the mayonnaise and behind the frozen head in the refrigerator. American Psycho is the thinking man’s slasher movie. A flick that slices, dices, and always entices. It only gets better after you’ve seen it. One of the best films of 2000 for now.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
American Psycho was a literary sensation upon its initial publication in 1991 and was deemed shocking, grotesque, perverse, and all those splashy adjectives that made it guaranteed Hollywood would turn Bret Easton Ellis’ novel into a film. Every young actor in Hollywood in the 90s was rumored to play narcissistic serial killer Patrick Bateman. By the late 90s, director Mary Haron was attached with Christian Bale as the intended Bateman on the condition that other name actors could be brought on (Haron secured Willem Dafoe and Reese Witherspoon for supporting roles). The producers kept pushing for their number one target, Leonardo DiCaprio as Bateman, and Haron said she would walk if he was hired over Bale. The producers went ahead and DiCaprio was hired for several months, with the budget ballooning to over $40 million, half of which was slated just for DiCaprio’s payday. Months later, DiCaprio left to film Danny Boyle’s The Beach, and the producers went back to Haron and her top choice, Bale, who was so determined to play Bateman that he didn’t take any other acting gigs for nine months just in case (new total film budget: $7 million). Looking back again twenty years later, it’s difficult to imagine late 90s DiCaprio in the part that became the first of many star-making performances for Bale, one of the most chameleon-like actors of his generation. Haron’s tenacity and instincts proved correct and the film still stands tall as a dark comedy and a character study of a compulsive narcissist.
The novel was set in the 1980s and intended to satirize the soulless suits of Regan’s America that made their ill-gotten gains on Wall Street, and the satire has only become more relevant after the 2008 financial meltdown and numerous white-collar scandals. The perception of Wall Street as predatory and vampiric and roiling with sociopathic greed has only become more pronounced, which makes the intended satirical targets even more worthy of their take-downs.
I initially wondered in my original review in 2000 whether, among other interpretations, Bateman was lashing out in a world that didn’t care about him in order to make himself feel heard, and that is exactly the opposite response. Bateman is acting out because he can and because he no longer cares about following rules. It may be a metaphorically simplistic application to make a Wall Street trader a serial killer but that doesn’t make it any less appropriate and resonating. The iconic business card scene still sends me howling, as Bateman and his colleagues (Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Matt Ross) compete for supremacy with who has the most accomplished little square of cardboard with their name on it. The hushed and awed voices, the detailed micro-analysis, the slow motion and beauty shots of the cards, it’s played to such wonderful heights of absurdity. When Bateman hires two call girls for a threesome, he spends more time flexing and admiring his own image in the mirror. He spends more time on his daily beauty care rituals than he does on introspection. For these hollow men, status and appearance is the only thing that matters in a world of imposters and transitory pleasures.
Bateman is meant to serve as a character study for a man who declares there isn’t anything there underneath him. It’s an expose of vanity in an era of venal excess and it’s also an indictment on privilege. As depicted on film, and later revealed why with an ambiguous conclusion, Bateman gets away with his wild and increasingly murderous antics because of his position. He’s a rich white Yuppie during 1980s New York City. He can get away with anything, which is why he can run around screaming, flailing a live chainsaw, wearing nothing but socks and blood, and nobody seems to be the wiser. It’s why he can go back to his own crime scenes to leave even more of his evidence, and DNA, around the premises. It’s why he can pose as Paul Allen (Jared Leto) even after he has hacked Allen into tiny little Yuppie pieces. It’s why he can hilariously wax on like a Rolling Stone essayist about musical artists like Phil Collins and Whitney Houston as he prepares to slice and dice his victims. As his actions become more and more blatant, the satire rises with Bateman to blanket his reckless impulses (these crooks can get away with anything, Haron seems to be whispering in your ear while elbowing you in the ribs). After two more decades of Wall Street scandal without consequence or credible jail time, as well as a president who is convinced rules do not apply to him, the satire has approached an even darker laugh-because-otherwise-you-might-cry territory than it was back in 2000 (“This confession has meant nothing.”).
With no one able to tell him no, how far will Bateman go? Haron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner (who also appears in the film as Elizabeth, a drunk friend of Bateman’s who becomes another victim) smartly dialed into the themes they wanted to send up and dialed down the grisly gratuitous details. In the book, Bateman’s depravity is described in as much detail as he gives to his rampant consumerism. We don’t need pages upon pages of description to understand that Bateman is sick in the head, and we don’t need examples such as torturing a prostitute by trapping rats inside her vagina. The grisly overkill of the book is smartly pulled back to its essentials, and an oft-reviled work deemed misogynistic by many critics has been transformed from a deep dive into rape, dismemberment, and cruelty into a satire on the men who aspire to commit such awful acts. There’s a noticeable difference there that some will miss. One perspective focuses on the actions and the other focuses on the meaning. Bateman is a privileged, entitled, and alienated white man teeming with unprovoked rage, a figure we’ve seen more often in the news in the ensuing decades. The American Psycho movie takes aim at the fragile male egos of past and present. Haron would later go on to write and direct other indies (2006’s The Notorious Bettie Paige) but she never seemed to get that career boost after American Psycho. Ellis decried the movie adaptation and later said he felt female directors were unable to accurately translate the male gaze, which is dubious when the starting point for Hollywood filmmaking is preset at “male gaze.”
Bale is phenomenal in what proved to be his breakout role. It was only a few years later that he nabbed Batman for Christopher Nolan. According to interviews, Bale modeled his performance after what he saw during a Tom Cruise appearance on David Letterman’s talk show. Bale says he saw an “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes,” and he then knew how to play the part. It was also the beginning of Bale’s trademark method transformations, becoming the muscled figure of Bateman’s desire, the only thing that ever truly mattered to the man. Bale’s thinly veiled contempt for everyone and ironic detachment are constantly entertaining and provide great laughs (his go-to excuse for departing, “I have to return some video tapes,” made me laugh every time). There’s a late scene where Bateman calls his lawyer to confess to his litany of sins, feeling cornered, and it’s a spellbinding performance all in one take where he approaches mania as he finally unburdens himself (“Tonight I, uh, I just had to kill a LOT of people. And I’m not sure I’m gonna get away with it this time.”). It’s a tremendous moment in a tremendous performance. The movie is filled with familiar faces (Chloe Sevigny! Samantha Mathis! Reg E. Cathy!) that it becomes fun to realize just how many great actors and future stars contributed to the movie. For trivia buffs, it also features Batman (Bale) killing the Joker (Leto).
My original review attempts many turns of phrase, like “blowing off steam by blowing off others’ heads,” but the core points are still viable: the satire improves from the book, Bale delivers an amazing performance, and there are many ways to interpret the film. The ending isn’t quite as ambiguous as perceived but it makes sense with the outlandish escalation of events, a point where even Bateman looks at his own power with befuddled curiosity. Back in 2000, I called American Psycho the “thinking man’s slasher movie” and I think that title still applies. It’s a vicious movie but the satire is just as vicious. Weirdly, there was a direct-to-DVD sequel that just went the “non-thinking man’s slasher” route by featuring Mila Kunis (Black Swan) as a criminal justice coed who embarks on her own bloodbath, including killing William Shatner as a professor. It’s like unintended satire on Hollywood itself; follow a cerebral and daring artistic work with run-of-the-mill slop under the same name, co-opting the appeal of a “brand” to make a buck. Much like Wall Street, Hollywood doesn’t know when to stop.
Re-View Grade: A
Think of it as a feminist companion piece to The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short. Inspired by a true story, Hustlers follows a diverse group of strippers who wine and dine Wall Street middlemen and execs, feeding off the spoils of their feeding frenzy, and then eventually upping their game, drugging them and fleecing them for one wild night that they’ll be too embarrassed to report that next morning. The story grabs you early on and is stuffed full of interesting details about the ins and outs of the stripping industry as well as how to service and manipulate the wealthier men who frequent said clubs. Hustlers becomes a combination of a crime caper, a con artist thriller, and a class-conscious drama about the haves and have nots, but it really becomes a showcase for the talents of one Jennifer Lopez, a woman who does not seem at all close to her fifty years on this planet (her introduction is quite the jaw-dropper). Lopez plays Ramona, the alpha leader of the group, a loving single mom with a healthy distaste for the hand she’s been dealt. She is sensational and delivers the best performance of her long career. Even when she’s doing bad things, even when she’s taking bold risks, there is a moral center to that woman, an unbreakable heart for the people she chooses to let into her life, and it does not budge, which was a poignant note. In many ways she is more the main character than Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), a figure that serves as more entry point than fully-fleshed out character. I enjoyed learning the various tricks of the trade writer/director Lorene Scarfaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) peppers throughout with her love of montage and stylish transitions, but it really picked up after the 2008 financial crash where the women cross over into direct criminality. At first they figure they’re just skipping ahead, drugging with MDMA rather than waiting for their marks to get drunk (“Drunk enough to order the bill but sober enough to sign the check,” Ramona cautions). Then things get escalated and sloppy and the women are in trouble. It’s a fun ride watching the ladies get theirs, and I was challenged to muster much of any sympathy for their Wall Street marks. Part of me wishes more women would be inspired by this movie and follow suit, fleecing the people who fleeced our economy. The movie rides that wave of the good times you know can’t last, prolonging the fall we’re all anticipating coming. The supporting characters can be a bit weak; several of the other girls involved in the scheme merit one note of description, and some of the humor feels a bit out of place, like a running joke where one of the women nervously vomits often (this is like her single character trait, and it’s weird). It’s also likely the stripper-centric movie with the least nudity I’ve ever seen, thanks to Scarfaria treating a sensational story with candor rather than exploitation. Hustlers is a glitzy drama that will entertain you with its flash and then surprise you with its edge. And all hail, Jennifer Lopez, ageless wonder and underrated actress getting her due.
Nate’s Grade: B
Tickled (2016) / The Lovers and the Despot (2016)
Some of the greatest stories are so bizarre and unpredictable that they could only come from real life, and documentaries are a terrific showcase for the strange-but-true realities of our world that have escaped notice. Two of the more fascinating documentaries of 2016 are also two of its most strange films that have to be seen to be believed. Tickled begins as an innocuous look into amateur competitive tickle videos online, an obvious minor fetish industry that swears by its integrity as legitimate sport. A curious New Zealand journalist is then beset by homophobic harassment, personal attacks, and legal threats, which only makes him more determined to unravel the source of these tickle videos. It reminds me of 2010’s Catfish except this story actually has the stakes that film ultimately lacked. It’s an investigative piece of journalism that involves working through false identities, spooked video participants that have had their lives ruined from persecution, interviewing lackeys on hidden video, and ultimately discovering the true source behind the web of lies, a man that uses his privileged class position and wealth to intimidate and exploit others. It’s a movie that starts off goofy and just becomes darker, more serious, and downright sad by the end, leaving you with the sinister impression of the danger of a powerful bully using Internet anonymity to satisfy his repressed kinks including emotional sadism. Tickled could be better as it feels disorganized and padded out, including an extended trip to another tickle fetish vendor. The ending leaves something to be desired as well and will send you online to scour for more information. Still, the story is naturally intriguing and the filmmakers don’t mess up a good thing by allowing the curiosity to grab an audience.
The same can be said for The Lovers and the Despot, a film that leaves you wanting more just because its own true-life tale is so engrossing and deserving of further examination. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was so frustrated with his country’s film industry that he kidnapped his favorite South Korean filmmaking husband and wife team, actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok. The couple made over 17 films for the dictator and had to earn his trust before they could plot an escape. This is a fascinating story about the power and entitlement others feel of art, with Kim Jong-il desperate for world recognition through the cinematic arts. He gave the couple a blank check and unrivaled artistic freedom, enough that some in South Korea suspect that Shin defected to the North rather than having been kidnapped. There are astonishing gets for this doc, namely Kim Jong-il’s actual audio conversations secretly recorded by Choi Eun-hee. When the couple defected to an American embassy, the U.S. government had never heard the dictator’s voice before, and here it was thanks to an actress. It feels like there’s so much more to this story that’s missing, either from the interview subjects’ reticence to share too much or the filmmakers reluctance to embrace more of the Cold War paranoia thriller trappings the story can veer into. There are some insights into the despot but they mostly fall into daddy issues. The omnipresent threat of the dictator is best visually showcased during the funeral marches for his father and then eventually Kim Jong-il himself. The masses are in a state of hysterical grief that crosses into parody, until you realize that these people are adopting a false front to protect themselves and their families just like Choi. Those not “properly grieving” could be punished, and so the miles of people wailing and hyperventilating becomes a chilling symbol of the hold one man has on the country even after death. The Lovers and the Despot is a fascinating story of artists held hostage by their biggest fan, who happened to be a ruthless dictator. It’s naturally compelling but you wish that someone else might better realize its potential on a second crack.
Both films follow the powerful exploiting others for their whims and both movies leave a little something to be desired for, but both are prime examples on how documentaries can shine a light on the wealth of human experiences we wouldn’t believe in other movies.
The Lovers and the Despot: B
Money Monster (2016)
Jodie Foster hasn’t acted in a movie since 2013’s Elysium, and if you saw that movie you might have some sense why she’s taking time away. As a director, she has few film credits to her name, which makes each new Foster directing effort raise the question, “Why this one?” I would assume her last effort, 2011’s The Beaver, was her desire to work again with her Maverick co-star Mel Gibson and perhaps give him a career boost. Money Monster is a would-be hostage thriller with a socially conscience message about the greed and recklessness of Wall Street; however, the Bernie Sanders faithful, let alone anyone mildly educated on the excesses of Wall Street, will find this movie surely lacking, as will anyone looking for a competent and engaging thriller.
Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of Money Monster, a financial entertainment show where he provides stock tips to his loyal viewers. One day and angry man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), wanders onto the set brandishing a gun. He demands Lee strap on a bomb vest. Kyle lost his life savings on a bad stock tip and he demands justice. Lee agrees to hear the guy out and get to the bottom of why this stock dramatically fell of a cliff, which leads him to suspect internal manipulation from the CEO (Dominic West). Lee’s director Patty (Julia Roberts) stays put through the duress and remains the voice in his ear, coaching him to safety and running research to discover the truth.
While I was watching Money Monster I had to remind myself that this wannabe message movie existed in our reality, because the brunt of its ire against Wall Street criminal shenanigans is targeted specifically against one bad trader instead of the system. It’s like this movie exists before the 2008 financial meltdown, before the Oscar-winning movies Inside Job and The Big Short, but it doesn’t. It’s borderline insulting that the screenplay myopically focuses all of its attention on one bad actor and lets the rest of the Wall Street elite escape blameless for criminal misdeeds. The bulk of the movie after Kyle begins his hostage standoff is tracking down this bad trader and digging through archives to pin the blame for a stock fall on this guy, all the while keeping him away from the news so he doesn’t get suspicious. It’s a ludicrous turn of events that manages to take a big picture story with relevancy and find the smallest, most insignificant way to tell its tiny story. The condemnation should be for the system and not one guy, and not one character breaks from this preposterous thinking. It feels like they exist in a different time and place. If you didn’t know anything about Wall Street before this movie you would still be left clueless. Is there supposed to be a happy ending when they bring this guy to justice? The movie sets up an ending that doesn’t exactly feel like anyone learned a lesson or even that the villain was properly punished (oh no, he suffers the scorn of Internet memes!). The final line is so glib and self-satisfied that I groaned. By the end of Money Monster I was wondering what any character had learned from the experience except, maybe, to have better locks on the studio doors.
The other debilitating problem is that Money Monster is a movie that cannot find a character for you to care about. The setup should be so obvious and elicit audience sympathy and a natural underdog to root for against a corrupt system. Instead Kyle is a moron. First off he invests all of his money into one single stock based upon one tip from Lee’s TV show. That’s a pretty big risk. Next he takes hostages and makes demands, and yet none of those demands are for the return of his money but rather a simple apology. There’s also the fact that he’s more a ranting and raving angry lunatic than somebody who has targeted ire against the body of Wall Street, making for a pretty uninteresting hostage scenario. You also have to factor in that there will be no good outcome for Kyle, and so he’ll be leaving his girlfriend and unborn child left to fend for themselves after he blew away all their money on a bad gamble. This is not a sympathetic character nor is he rendered in a fashion to make him that interesting. He’s an angry and impulsive man whose actions are almost always about himself and his sense of being wronged. The other two primary characters, Lee and Patty, are completely absent personalities beyond staying cool under pressure. If you put a gun to my head I would not be able to tell you anything about either of those characters as people. Lee doesn’t seem to go through any sort of introspection over his own culpability with his TV show, and Patty is so laser focused on the problem at hand that we know nothing about her other than her capability. Spending 90 minutes with this trio of lackluster characters is a waste of 90 minutes.
Despite the brisk pacing, I was bored mercilessly with Money Monster. I just didn’t care and Foster and company gave me no reason to care. The pacing made it hard to develop these characters; they felt like chess pieces being randomly assembled across a board, moved when the plot required it, and inert without these manipulations. When the movie goes outside is another example of nothing feelings believable. The will-he-be-shot suspense sequences are hackneyed and dumb. There are a couple of moments of solid comic relief at the expense of character egos, with Emily Meade (That Awkward Moment) serving as the highlight of an otherwise monstrously mediocre movie. Here is a list of other actors that are wasted in do-nothing parts: Caitriona Balfe (TV’s Outlander), Giancarlo Esposito (TV’s Breaking Bad), Christopher Denham (Argo), Lenny Venito (TV’s The Sopranos), and Chris Bauer (TV’s True Blood).
Money Monster is a disappointment in just about every stripe, from its perfunctory performances from it’s a-level movie stars, to the development of its characters, from its suspense sequences, and especially from its frustrating and laughably short-sighted vilification of Wall Street misdeeds on one culprit. It’s like this movie was pulled from a time capsule from the 1990s. Foster’s direction is perfectly acceptable though indistinct from any other journeyman. I cannot say what attracted her to this project as a director except for the opportunity to work with Clooney and Roberts. Otherwise, Money Monster is a thriller that keeps butting heads against reality, reminding the audience at every turn of its airless artificiality and stark superficiality.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Big Short (2015)
Adam McKay is not exactly the kind of name you associate with a prestige picture that’s building serious Oscar heat. McKay is best known as the director and co-writer of Will Ferrell’s best movies, from Anchorman and its sequel to Talladega Nights and the underrated 2010 buddy cop movie, The Other Guys. If you stuck through the closing credits for Guys, you were treated to an animated education lesson on the size of Wall Street’s greed and accountability in regards to the 2008 financial crisis. It was impassioned, angry, and an interesting note to end an otherwise goofy comedy. The Big Short is based upon Michael Lewis’ (Moneyball) best-selling book and it’s a disaster movie where the biggest disaster is the world economy. The movie McKay co-adapted and directed is bristling with intelligence, indignation, and a clear purpose. He wants to make you very angry, and by the end if you’re not, you haven’t been paying enough attention.
In the wake of the financial collapse in 2008, the fallout was so tremendous that many people felt nobody could have seen this coming. There were a few and they made out like bandits while trying to warn others about the impending doom. In the early 2000s, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a hedgefund manager who sees warning signs that the housing market is a bubble ready to burst. He sees the toxicity of the majority sub-prime mortgages wrapped together and sold as a seemingly safe security, a CDO (collateralized debt obligation). His bosses think he’s mad and they’re furious when they discover Burry has gone from bank to bank making big bets against the housing market. The banks are eager to take what they believe to be easy money from a sucker. How could the housing market burst? Other Wall Street investors take notice of Burry, notably Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who pitches the plan to “short” the housing market. Nobody takes him seriously except Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his small team who works for Goldman Sachs. Baum is curious how something so large could go unnoticed, so he and his team fly to Florida and Vegas to investigate the realities of the market and what they find does not match the rosy cheerleading from Wall Street. A pair of wannabe traders (Finn Witrock, John Magaro) stumbles across Burry’s analysis and try to make their own bets, except they need a bigger name to make the trades. They reach out to an ex-Wall Street trader (Brad Pitt) who agrees to shepherd them on this quixotic quest. Are these men righteous defenders of fraud or just people trying to get their own cut of the pie?
The brilliance of The Big Short lies in its accessibility and the virulent passion that McKay has for the subject matter. The movie is structured like a heist and an underdog story, suckering in the audience to root for the upstarts trying to fleece the big banks and profit off their greed and stupidity. For the first 90 minutes or so, the film comes across like a caper and we follow our group of misfits as they fight against the conventional wisdom that the housing market could never topple. These guys see the signs and the risks that others could not or would not see, especially since the flow of money was rich and the good times could be shared, which lead to collusion from the very same agencies designed to regulate and enforce the financial laws. For those 90 minutes the movie flies by on its sense of whimsy and are-we-getting-away-with-this good fortune, putting our band of misfits in position to win big on the losses of the ignorant and fraudulent. And then, in one swift move, it all comes down and you’re reminded, rather indignantly by Pitt’s character, that what they are benefiting from is the meltdown of the U.S. housing market and by extension the American economy. What once felt like a celebratory caper now starts to feel queasy, and it’s in the last act that The Big Short reminds you just how awful the events of the 2008 financial crisis were and how these guys did nothing more than benefit from mass misery. These are not heroes, though Mark Baum is given plenty of moral grandstanding moments that present him as the closest thing we have in the picture. These were a bunch of guys who got rich betting on a lot of other people’s bad bets, bets that almost destroyed the world’s economic systems. The concluding half hour feels like a sudden stop after a sugar rush, where you’re left to question your decision-making but also come to terms with the reality of what seemed like a fun time. McKay lures his audience in with the guise of a heist/underdog story, appealing and accessible avenues of cinema, and then serves the cold hard medicine in the concluding moments.
McKay is admirably trying to educate and advocate while he entertains, but he truly wants the audience to understand why they should be sharpening their pitchforks. At several points, characters will break the fourth wall and talk directly into the camera, admitting that certain events didn’t happen exactly as we saw, or occasionally they’ll remind us that what we watched was exactly how it happened. It’s a measure that isn’t overplayed and helps juice the spirits of the movie, becoming something of a confidant in the schemes with the onscreen participants. When things gets a little hard to understand with the mountain of Wall Street lingo, McKay will cut to celebrity cameos to help explain the more arcane instruments of the financial system. Margot Robbie luxuriates in a bubble bath and explains sub-prime mortgages, Anthony Bourdain explains CDOs, and Selena Gomez, in a rather cogent analogy, explains synthetic CDOs as an endless chain of side bets being made off one hand of blackjack. The movie goes pretty fast and a viewer might experience information overload but McKay knows when to slow things down and provide a well-timed assist so that his learned audience will see the true extent of the corruption and greed rampant in how Wall Street handled its business.
Of the three storylines, I found Mark Baum and his team easily the most interesting and I think McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Interpreter) agreed, which is why he’s the biggest part of the movie. Burry gets things started but he recedes into the background after the first act, and that’s where Baum and his financial team step into the spotlight to further explore how unstable the housing market just might be. I think this is Carell’s best dramatic performance to date (I wasn’t wowed by Foxcatcher). He’s playing perhaps one of the angriest people seen on screen but that’s because he has a moral center and the bad business practices, let alone the sociopathic greed of his “peers,” constantly enrage him. He’s something like a flabbergasted crusading journalist who keeps shaking his head in stupefying revulsion at just how deep this whole thing goes. Having Baum as our entry into the moral morass of Wall Street allows the audience to feel a sense of ethical superiority, and then like Pitt’s character, it can all go away with one perfectly articulated retort. There’s a moment where Baum is lambasting a mortgage ratings officer (Melissa Leo, her only scene too) after she admits that if they don’t rate bad mortgages as good, the banks will just go to their competitor, and then she accuses Baum of being a hypocrite. His reason for the office visit is not his outrage at the fraud but the fact that this fraud is holding up his winnings. He’s not the crusader he may wish to be. Bale (American Hustle) and Gosling (Only God Forgives) are perfectly cast and provide strong supporting work in small doses spread throughout. Pitt is in 12 Years a Slave producer mode where he knows he needs to appear in the movie to better sell it to audiences, and so he’s here and rather unremarkable. There is a bevy of familiar faces (Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Max Greenfield, Karen Gillan) appearing in small moments as if everybody in Hollywood wanted to get in on McKay’s party.
There is one annoying misstep in the movie and it occurs about halfway and it’s made to stretch out the stakes in a haphazard manner. The Big Short is a disaster movie where the audience knows exactly when the disaster is coming, and yet there’s a section in the middle where the characters are all left in doubt whether their big bets will pay off because of the ratings fraud. Burry is threatened with losing his job. It’s silly because we know the economy is going to crash in 2008, but the movie throws out a weak obstacle that, hey, maybe it won’t crash. It reminds me of the Hinderberg movie from the 1970s. There were several moments where it looked like that zeppelin full of hydrogen was going to go up in flames… except students of history know that moment is fated in New Jersey, so all the close calls were foolish fake-outs for a major event that was well anticipated. We all know the economy is going down so there’s no need for the manufactured doubts.
McKay and company want to wake up a fairly apathetic general public about the crimes and negligence of the Wall Street robber barons that risked the world’s economy and then managed to skip out on the tab. The tones can juggle wildly, and I’d credit McKay’s background in comedy for his ability to maintain a reliable and firm comic footing for the film without losing the significance of his message. It’s hard to nail down a genre for the movie; it’s a dark comedy, a drama, a true crime picture, and a wake-up call. You have moments that feel like a heist flick and moments that feel like a sickening journalistic expose. It’s got highs, lows, laughs, groans, and plenty of human emotions, though the most prominent would be disgust and disbelief. The Big Short is advocacy populism as pop-entertainment, and it succeeds ably. It’s an economics lesson for the public. At the end of the movie, the closing text informs us about “bespoke tranches,” which are investment opportunities that banks are flocking to ($5 billion in 2013 to $20 billion in 2014). It’s just another name for CDOs. Unless an informed public demands action from the system, it seems that Wall Street is doomed to repeat its same high-risk mistakes and that same vulnerable public is doomed to clean up the mess.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Assault on Wall Street (2013)
When it comes to notorious German director Uwe Boll, many are still waiting for what could be the man’s first genuinely good movie. The man has been prolific over the past ten years but sure-fire candidates for First Good Film, like Max Schmeling or Attack on Darfur, inevitably have some tragic flaw or approach that places them back in mediocrity, the company of many of Boll’s other movies. After reviewing more Boll films than a human should be allowed to willingly, I feel like I’ve been beaten down enough that when I find something that genuinely works, be it an actor or a sequence or plot turn, that I should be just as vocal as with the contingent of failure. So allow me to refreshingly applaud Boll for Assault on Wall Street, on coming up with a topic and a story structure that… actually… works. It not just works, it succeeds, and if a more polished professional screenwriter got a hold of this, I think it could actually impress the masses. If it weren’t for the surprisingly effective war drama, Tunnel Rats, I’d say without a doubt that Assault on Wall Street is the best work of Boll’s much-maligned career. And yet… it has just enough minor faults that hold it back.
Jim (Dominic Purcell) is a regular guy working as an armored security transport. His wife Rosie (Erin Karpluk) suffers from a rare tumor that requires an expensive series of injections to keep it at bay. Their insurance company won’t pay, and so they have to rely on Jim’s savings. Except those are gone as well. Jeremy Stancroft (John Heard) has ordered all his brokers to dump toxic assets, eliminating most investor savings but profiting the shareholders. Jim and Rosie are broke. Vowing vengeance, especially after some drastic decision-making by Rosie, Jim sets off to make the high-priced traders and corporate raiders on Wall Street feel the pain of what they have wrought.
The setup is concise and Boll does a nifty job of compounding Jim’s problems and showing how all the industries are interconnected to put the squeeze on. Because of unscrupulous health insurers, his wife’s medical treatment, deemed experimental, is quite expensive and they’ve reached a cap. With the brokers pushing their clients assets into junk stocks, at the behest of the betters and for commissions, Jim loses his entire financial cushion. He hires a lawyer (Eric Roberts) but has to pay $10,000 just to retain him to fight the $60,000 penalty his broker says is owed. He goes into debt and refinances his skyrocketing mortgage (variable rate) to pay for his wife’s treatments. His employer takes notice of his perilous situation and is uncomfortable with enlisting someone in deep financial woes with guarding money. He loses his job. The bank is poised to foreclose on the house. His wife won’t get her treatments to save her life. All of this leads to a drastic and completely understood decision of desperation and sacrifice. Admittedly, Boll does a compelling job of connecting all the dots, making each new pitfall a result of the previous, each compounding the misery of Jim. It takes a little long to go through all these points, and I think Boll could have trimmed it down so that a key event happens at the Act One break point, but I was flabbergasted that the man found a story structure that succeeds.
The second half of the film is Jim planning his vengeance, and after all of the callous movers and shakers have bled him dry, you’re onboard for some sort of righteous payback. Boll takes on Wall Street and the healthcare industry (double the populist outrage). Jim as a character could be made much more compelling, but he’s really serving as a symbol for how the forces are ganged up against the little guy, how the fix is in. When confronted, the big CEO of the brokerage firm barks that it’s always the same old story, that the titans of industry were all crooks and manipulated the system to their advantage, and he’s no different. In short, the little guy always loses.
What holds back Assault on Wall Street, beside the fact that the titular assault is reserved for the last fifteen minutes of the film, is its too slick ending and Boll’s obvious transparency when it comes to his political message. After Jim suffers loss after loss, he puts together a plan pretty quickly, utilizing that Army training we’ve heard about. It’s actually too easy with little complications that can’t be solved in a David Fincher-style montage of death. It’s a full 70 minutes before he takes out his first Wall Street fat cat, and that’s just way too much dawdling. And then from there the climax involves Jim just going on a rampage in an office building, shooting several faceless employees who could very well be innocent for all we know. I think Boll is satisfied with a guilt-by-association catch-all for Jim’s fury, but it would be more satisfying just from a payoff standpoint if we saw these people in villainous lights prior, kind of like what Saw 6 did with its insurance characters before turning the tables on them. The last thing we need in our populist screed is to worry that the wrong people were dispatched. And what kind of office building fails to evacuate after a confirmed shooter has attacked?
This storyline could have also worked in a Falling Down turn, where a man consumed with evening the scales of a system broken loses his moral bearing and lumps all guilty parties together and condemns them all. Perhaps it was meant to examine the slippery slope of vigilante justice and how this too can decay one’s sense of self, sort of like what Jodie Foster went through in 2007’s The Brave One. However, I don’t think Boll was intending this direction because he’s not very subtle about anything in the movie. Oftentimes the characters just become mouthpieces for ideological talking points: “We’re busy busting some homeless guy when the real criminals are on Wall Street.” The bad guys actually say, with no hint of self-awareness, “We all took a loss. When I told my wife we couldn’t vacation in Barbados any longer…” It’s all just a little too on-the-nose to remind you of the overall intent rather than the story. Therefore, I think Boll is just going for a sense of (misplaced?) justice in the end, in a ludicrous plan that somehow invalidates witnesses, forensic evidence, and security footage to pin the blame on someone else. It’s too clever by half that it undercuts the final payoff. It gets even worse with the Batman-esque voice over to close out the film with a promise to all evildoers.
With such a tight focus on the plot, the acting is a marked step up from previous Boll outings. Purcell (TV’s Prison Break, Killer Elite) doesn’t exactly come across as a regular Joe but he has enough onscreen presence to pull off his character’s anguish as well as the requisite badass stuff. And apparently Boll has become fond of him because Purcell is scheduled to appear in future Boll films. Karpluk, a Canadian actress best known for the TV show Being Erica, has a natural grace to her, forgoing big moments to concentrate on the gnawing guilt and concern her character feels. While she’s a bit too willfully ignorant early on, Karpluk makes you care and provides whatever depth can be applied to Jim. I’m actually curious to see her comic skills since she has a face tailor-made for romantic comedies. Heard (Sharknado, Home Alone) doesn’t seem to embrace his duplicitous CEO role with enough gusto, appearing to be annoyed when he should be menacing. This is not the kind of movie to hold back.
There are plenty of other Boll Players, including Edward Furlong (3 appearances), Lochlyn Munro (2 appearances), Tyron Leitso (5 appearances, also stars in Being Erica), Michael Eklund (8 appearances), Natassia Malthe (4 appearances), and the stalwarts of Clint Howard (6 appearances) and Michael Pare (13 appearances). It’s been 13 years since Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight) last appearance in a Boll film. Most of these are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, but then there’s Keith David (The Thing, Cloud Atlas) in a thankless role that didn’t need to exist. But hey, I’ll take Keith David in anything.
A welcome surprise, for the most part, Assault on Wall Street is a finely structured revenge tale with clear and precise plot points and a natural buildup. It’s Boll on a soapbox and the naked transparency of his ire and populist messages limits the effectiveness of his storytelling, but you might not mind, especially if you are a person who has slogged through far less competent Boll ventures. There is a marked improvement in just about every facet of filming. It genuinely works, that is, until the pacing becomes lopsided and the end just reverts to celebratory action mode. A more professional writer could take this film and whip it into a crowd-pleasing populist thriller. It’s got so much that works, and genuinely works well, that I feel like a buzzkill to keep harping on the elements that do not succeed. But if Boll wants to earn an undisputed victory, he’s got to earn it without lowered standards. Assault on Wall Street is so tantalizingly close to being Boll’s First Good Film but it doesn’t capitalize enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese. The greatest living filmmaker on the planet. Enough said. When his latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, was pushed back due to an editing crunch, the rumor mill started as it normally does. Are there problems? Is it any good? Will it be forgotten this late into the awards season? While I can’t speak for the Academy, but for me The Wolf of Wall Street just about blows every competing movie out of the water this season. It’s brash, exhilarating, uproarious, mesmerizing, and just about every other adjective you can fetch from a dictionary. This is first-class filmmaking from a master, and consider Wolf of Wall Street the white-collar companion piece to Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece, Goodfellas. It’s that good, folks.
Based on his memoirs, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rises on Wall Street from a rookie stock trader to the king of his own empire. From the late 80s to the 90s, Jordan assembles a cutthroat team that knowingly sells lousy stocks to gullible investors and stuffing their pockets with hefty commissions. “Better there money was with me. I knew how to spend it better,” he admits. His closest friend and business partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), literally quits his job to work for Jordan after spying one of his pay stubs. The guys start their own firm, specializing in high-pressure sales and on penny stock commissions. From there, they expand and expand until they’re making their own noise on Wall Street. The trading floor more closely resembles a frathouse party, complete with chimp, strippers, marching bands in their underwear, midget tossing, and other objectionable behavior. Jordan easily succumbs to the sex and drugs of the high-finance world of money, leaving his plain wife for Naomi (Margot Robbie), a gorgeous underwear model. He’s got a giant estate, a huge yacht, his own helicopter, and more money than he can spend. He’s also got the attention of the FBI and Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). With the feds circling in, Jordan has to take extra steps to keep the good times rolling.
With a running time exactly one minute shy of three hours, it’s easy to call The Wolf of Wall Street self-indulgent and excessive, except that’s exactly the point. The movie is an orgy of unchecked male ego, a perverse bacchanal of Earthly pleasures that Caligula might blushingly admire. They are literally two orgies depicted in the movie and plenty of thrust-heavy sexual congress (I counted eight walkouts in my theater, most of them the little old lady variety). Here is a tilt-o-wheel of madness. These people were living like there was no tomorrow, had more money than they knew what to possibly do with, and would figuratively dance while Rome burns (in this instance, the stability of the U.S. economy). What’s important is to communicate that these individuals were having the time of their lives. It wasn’t just the hedonistic pleasures and the mountains of drugs; it was the power, the uninhibited embrace of a life available via poorly regulated capitalism. Many of those brokers in Jordan’s company were people from ordinary backgrounds. Their self-made success (that wasn’t so much earned as swindled) is a point of pride that fills them with purpose. They are seizing their full potential. There is no doubt in my mind that every broker in this movie would do it all again in a heartbeat. There is no remorse on display anywhere. The only remorse is having the ride unceremoniously end. “Was it obscene? Yeah it was obscene. In the normal world,” Jordan narrates. “And who wants to live there?”
I won’t say that there aren’t scenes and moments that could have been trimmed, but I was enjoying myself way too much to care about the bloat. This is the fastest three hours you’ll ever experience in your life. There’s some fat, yes, but man does this picture just move along like a freight train. The screenplay by Terence Winter (creator of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is impeccably drawn. The movie just courses with energy and watching it is often an exhilarating rush, communicating the highs the characters are undergoing. The supporting players are used to great effect to punctuate the comedy moment to moment. I loved Rob Reiner’s exasperated and profane performance as Jordan’s father. Naturally the bad behavior is entertaining in how absurd and over-the-top it can get, but one key sequence ranks up there with the finest sequences Scorsese has ever put to film. It’s the “Lemon” sequence, named after a legendarily potent batch of Quaaludes. It is a sequence of pure movie bliss, brilliantly edited and staged, as Jordan is placed in a precarious position when the drugs kick in, and his comic floundering is riotous. Winter and Scorsese have taken what, in other hands, could have been a modern American tragedy and decided to portray it as a darkly comic fantasia. I laughed long and hard throughout the movie. There are numerous scenes I can think back on and start laughing again. The ridiculous nature of moments, like discussing the logistics of tossing midgets at a dart board (“This is their gift”) is to be expected, but it’s the overall degenerate lifestyle these clowns chase after with impunity that kept me laughing.
I’ve read cantankerous critiques of the film, chastising Scorsese for celebrating the lavish lifestyle and excessive hedonism of his characters. I could not disagree with this appraisal more. The error is assuming that witnessing Jordan behaving badly is akin to celebrating it, as if adopting the perspective of our lead is the same as excusing his actions. Scorsese makes it clear early, and often, that Jordan Belfort is not a good person. Hopefully you don’t need him hitting his wife for this point to stick. This guy is fleecing people out of their life savings, living high off the fat of the land, and openly admitting to the camera how deeply illegal his activities are. But you’re under his spell, much like his brokers that worship him with unflinching zeal. Jordan, especially as portrayed by DiCaprio, is a volcano of energy and single-minded determination. He whips his troops up like a religious revival, manipulating you with every tactic in his employ. Early on, he’s defrauding ordinary middle-class and low-income clients, but because we’re all addicted to the adrenaline rush of the sale, of the con, we push this troubling reality from our minds. When he moves onto wealthier clients, we adopt a similar attitude of Teresa, Jordan’s first wife, mainly that these people can afford the losses and therefore get what they deserve from a silver-tongued shyster. It’s the audience that proves to have a selective memory because we’re drawn to Jordan’s charisma, expertise, and talent, so we ignore the pesky details of who gets stuck with the bill. Don’t pin that on Scorsese. He makes it abundantly clear that Jordan is a bad man, and the depths of his greed is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Wall Street. Jordan’s firm was a tiny player. Think of what horror stories Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers would offer if ever exposed.
This is my favorite Scorsese film since Goodfellas, and they have plenty of similarities. It makes sense because these men of finance take their cues from movie gangsters, styling themselves as tough guys. At one point, brokers hold a guy over a building to intimidate him. There’s also certainly as much cocaine as there may have been in Scarface. But like that classic of the gangster cinema, Scorsese propels us into the hidden world of the financial institution run amok, allowing us a backstage pass to the people profiting from wrecking the economy. It’s a fascinating perspective that confirms some of our worst fears about stockbrokers. It’s a misogynistic boys club and the few women that do participate have to play by their hyper masculine, juvenile rules. These are people that find any number of ways to skirt the law, rip off their clients, and live in luxury until they can find another sucker. It’s a system built for the entertainment of the few on the backs of the many, and it’s just as relevant today as it was in the 90s. With Jordan’s inside knowledge, we’re educated on the many corrupt ways of Wall Street.
Marking the fifth collaboration with Scorsese, this may be the finest DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) performance yet. The man sheds his vanity, easily fitting into the shark that is Jordan Belfort. He’s ruthless in one moment and completely inept in another, at the whim of his vices. DiCaprio taps into Jordan’s leadership qualities with the dynamite sales speeches, but he also shows what an insecure man he is at heart. He’s got a taste for the good life and is reinventing himself, including trading up in wives to attain that proverbial American Dream. He’s living empty pleasure to empty pleasure and he doesn’t care. DiCaprio acts as our ringmaster through his own circus, and you’ll be delighted and horrified by his actions (and also his peculiar, bird-like dance moves). There’s not a bad performance in the whole cast, and this is one huge cast. Hill (This is the End) is a becoming more and more credible as a dramatic actor, though he excels at the blustery outrageousness as Jordan’s number two. He’s a treat. Robbie (About Time) nails her New Yawk accent but more importantly nails the portrayal of a trophy wife who recognizes and eventually resents her lifestyle. And oh does she just exude sexual heat.
I want to focus on the very end of the film, so there will be some mild spoilers in this paragraph but nothing I feel that would ruin the viewing experience. You have been warned, spoiler phobes. As expected, Jordan eventually winds up in jail for his felonious misdeeds. Ordinarily this would be the end of our traditional law-and-order morality tales; the bad guys are locked away to pay for their crimes. Jordan tells us how nervous he was on his first day of prison, that is, until he remembered one very important fact: he’s rich. White-collar prison is not the same as other penitentiaries, and we see Jordan loftily playing tennis. His sentence is only three years as well, which seems like an insult given the thousands of lives he may have instrumentally ruined. But that’s the ultimate condemnation in the end: the system is rigged for people like Jordan, people with money. In the end, he wins. He goes to prison, his family life is torn asunder, and his personal relationships are strained, but the guy wins. He continues his speaking engagements motivating everyday saps how, with his cherished expertise, they too can rake in wealth. The final shot of the movie tells me everything I need to know. It’s a slight pan out to the crowd in attendance of Jordan’s speaking session. We see the collection of faces, each person hanging onto Jordan’s every word, each filled with idolatry. They want to be him. Despite everything, the bad behavior, the crimes, the waste, they all want to be him, and that’s why people like Jordan will always succeed, will always prevail, will always have the last laugh. There will always be a healthy supply of suckers that want to believe whatever nonsense he’s peddling. That’s the point. He won.
Recently I watched the very good crime caper American Hustle and noted that its director looked to be fashioning a loving Martin Scorsese homage. Well, after watching The Wolf of Wall Street twice (not back to back, mind you; I’m not nuts) I can say that there is no Scorsese like the source. This is vintage Scorsese. This is brilliant filmmaking, a bold movie that practically sings, it flies by with exhilarating force and acumen, daring you to keep watching. The fact that 71-year-old Scorsese could make a movie this highly energetic, this debased, this brash, this borderline indecent, and this awesomely entertaining is encouraging. It’s even more hilarious to me that older Academy members at a recent screening of the film accosted Scorsese, essentially being termed a “debauched scoundrel.” That’s got to count as some badge of honor. Yes, at three hours the movie can get long but it’s never dull or taxing. The propulsive narrative, the hilarious humor, the shrewd characterization, the wanton excess, the filmmaking bravado that hums, it all coalesces into a disturbing and disturbingly enjoyable condemnation of greed and our inherent celebration of this lifestyle. There is not one aspect of this movie that falls flat. The Wolf of Wall Street is an invigorating piece of cinema. The choice of music, the swinging cinematography, the wide ensemble of actors, the feverish editing, it all comes beautifully together to form a whole that surpasses everything else in cinema this year. Dig in.
Nate’s Grade: A
Killing Them Softly (2012)
A funny thing happened while watching Killing Them Softly, the latest film from writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). After an hour, I noticed a couple people stand up and leave, never to return. Then another and another like permission had been communally brokered. I counted ten walkouts at my showing, which was more than I had at Cloud Atlas, a film that I can at least understand the possible exodus. But this? It also got a rare F grade from CinemaScore, joining the ranks of The Devil Inside, Wolf Creek, and The Box. Before you put that much stock in what is essentially a movie going exit poll, Alex Cross was given an A grade from audiences. But why all the venomous hate? I can only theorize that the mainstream audience feels it was sold a bill of goods, a crime thriller with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The audience did not want to go on the lengthy talky detours. They wanted people to get dead. Whatever the reason, Killing Them Softly has killed its audience, who choose not to go softly in their disapproval.
Set amidst the economic meltdown of 2008, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Frankie (Ben Mendelsohn) are two lowlife thugs hired to rob a mob-affiliated card game. The trick is that local gangster Markie (Ray Liotta) had previously paid a group of guys to rob his own card game, fleecing his own customers. In his drunken revelry, Markie admitted as such to his pals. Now the situation is ripe for exploitation. Because any future robberies will have their suspicions pinned firmly on Markie, whether he had anything to do with them or not. As a result, no one is gambling, the public has lost confidence in the markets, and the mob needs to get things back to business. Jackie (Brad Pitt) is called in to make that happen. He’s a professional killer, who prefers to kill at a distance, without all those messy emotions. He has to trace the culprits responsible and give them the reckoning they have coming.
From a plot standpoint, Killing Them Softly is pretty thin. It’s just about the ramifications of two nitwits robbing a card game. This lack of narrative depth will rankle most filmgoers, but I didn’t mind it so much because Dominik uses the crime thriller veneer to examine the sheer ugliness of a criminal lifestyle. This is a pretty character-driven crime flick, and it has to be when there’s a malnourished plot. It takes some lengthy sidesteps, notably with James Gandolfini’s (Zero Dark Thirty) character, Mickey. He’s supposed to be a professional, but the man is a complete wreck. He’s belligerent to those in service positions (waiters, prostitutes), chronically drunk, and weirdly empathetic for his struggling wife, yet seemingly powerless to change his life’s downward slide into self-medicated self-destruction. Mickey is the ghost of Christmas Future, the vision of what this lifestyle does to people who make a living out of it, who actually live into their retirement age. The two young crooks, Frankie and Russell, are idiots yes, but even when they have money their lives are so empty. Russell is so disgusting, sweating profusely, that you can practically taste his stank. Frankie is a little more cognizant of the danger he’s in, and yet the moron doesn’t leave town after his big score. I’d think that’s the first thing you do when you rip off the mob. The day-to-day anxiety of a life of crime is just not worth the effort. You constantly have to look over your shoulder, a life dominated in paranoia, where every stranger or furtive glance could have sinister meaning. Even when you make money, you’re theoretically taking money away from someone else’s profit, and these are the kind of people that don’t take kindly to friendly competition. This is no enviable, glamorous life.
I think Killing Me Softly would be a better, easily more satisfying movie had it eschewed the attempts at extra weight and commentary. It’s no surprise that the scenes that follow a more traditional crime thriller route are the best. There’s palpable tension when Frankie and Russell are in over their heads. The conflict is prevalent and the suspense is nicely stretched out, notably during the card game robbery. Being neophytes, you don’t know what they’re liable to do but you can bet it won’t be smart. This is when the movie is most alive, most engaging, and most entertaining. When it plays it straight, and explores the sliding power plays at stake in a world of cash and guns, it can be a nasty but taut little movie. I’m just sorry that Dominik took a functional crime thriller and gave it an extra sheen of Important Things to Say (”America’s not a country. It’s a business.”). The political parallels never feel more than tacked on attempts to grope for deeper meaning. Oh I get it, I understand the comparison of mob enforcers and corrupt Wall Street execs, hoodlums and crooks in different casual wear, but that doesn’t mean the parallel is that meaningful. It’s on-the-nose and a bit in your face (really, people are watching C-SPAN in dive bars?).
Given Domink’s last film, I expected there to be some visual flourishes, though I’m unsure of whether they added much to the proceedings. Dominik sure can make violence entrancing, setting a slow motion slaying in the rain with stirring beauty to ironic Motown music. But he can also make the violence feel brutal, like a beat down on Markie that uses choice sound effects and editing to make you feel the punches. Even the opening seconds feel like an artistic assault to the senses, the loud static of noise interrupted by bursts of Obama’s sound bytes. The extreme camera angles, the visual felicities, the ironic music selections, they all seem to underscore the movie’s subtext-as-text approach.
Pitt (Moneyball) doesn’t come into the movie for the first thirty minutes. You’re welcome to see him, especially since he has such a coolly threatening demeanor, but also because here’s a character that will mix things up. I found myself rooting for the guy, partially because he was an accomplished professional but also because I wanted there to be consequences for idiots doing dumb to powerful enemies. I enjoyed the slow-burn intensity of Pitt when he was turning the screws on the screw-up. Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods) is also enjoyable as a mob shill left to communicate the wishes of his higher-ups. McNairy (Argo) gives a performance that screams desperation, as he realizes the depth of trouble he finds himself into. And even Liotta (Charlie St. Cloud) does a fine job as a lout who misjudges the friends he keeps, discovering the costs of bragging.
In many ways, I feel like Killing Them Softly is akin to last year’s Drive, a more meditative crime thriller with bursts of gruesome yet beatific violence. Likewise, many filmgoers will be sore thinking they were catching straight crime thrillers and been given arty genre ruminations instead. And like my ambivalent feelings toward Drive, I can’t work up that much enthusiasm for Killing Them Softly either. It’s certainly got more ambition than most crime flicks but I’d rather it concentrate on telling a more engaging story. Dominik’s film is a bit too indulgent for its own good, given to visual flourishes and a narrative routinely sidetracked. And yet, I found it fairly interesting at just about every turn, well-acted, and intensely suspenseful and effective at different points. But it doesn’t add up to enough to recommend. The political allegory probably rubbed the walkouts the wrong way as well. The political allegory is too obvious, too pat with its “they’re all crooks” broadside. I wish the movie had abandoned the squalid, nihilistic art house ambitions and just kept things straight. When it has less on its mind, it works best. But for many, Killing Them Softly will be too tedious to see to the bloody end.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Margin Call (2011)
Set during the first twenty-four hours of the 2008 economic meltdown, Margin Call feels like David Mamet’s classic play Glengarry Glen Ross just set fifty floors higher. It’s a tense stew of ego and hubris and cunning and manipulation and self-preservation, peppered with some salty language. The corporate bigwigs of a fictional financial firm scramble to get out the door first before everyone else catches on to the looming market crash. “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat,” says the CEO (Jeremy Irons). Debut writer/director J.C. Chandor brilliantly captures the rationalization of sociopathic greed; the CEO waxes about the historical inevitability of our own self-destructive influences, glibly recounting other market crashes and saying he will survive because the nation’s class systems are fixed. The behind-the-scenes scheming has a sick appeal, witnessing how Wall Street wriggled free of responsibility. This isn’t a far-reaching look into the financial meltdown; it’s more of an insular, thoughtful, occasionally meditative play about the moral questions at play. The prosaic pacing caused quite a slew of yawns in my audience. There does seem to be a never-ending cascade of scenes where two characters will just sit and talk. However, when the writing is this sharp and the actors are all at the top of their game (Kevin Spacey is emotionally spent in a test of loyalties; Irons is charmingly sleazy), then you can forgive some stagnate pacing. Margin Call has a few heavy-handed metaphors (Spacey putting his dog down = the economy!), but overall it’s astute, insightful, sophisticated, and compelling enough to forgive its overreaches.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Inside Job (2010)
Charles Ferguson is a man I’d love to sit down and have a conversation with. The former political scientist first waded into the waters of documentary film with his brilliant Iraq War doc, 2007’s Oscar-nominated No End in Sight. He’s a filmmaker that absorbs himself in the comfort of clear logic and facts. Now he takes that same rigorous and analytical eye to the story of our generation, the worldwide financial meltdown from the fall of 2008. The global event eliminated trillions in money, millions in jobs, and still confounds thousands of us. If you don’t leave Inside Job absolutely infuriated, then you weren’t paying close enough attention.
Just like he did with No End in Sight, Ferguson lays out his case with clear-eyed precision. He doesn’t rely on ad hominem attacks, a la Michael Moore’s myopic Capitalism: A Love Story; he lets the facts do the talking, and as presented they are damning. Inside Job sounds like the title of a heist movie and that’s exactly what was propagated on the world stage. This is a wholesale plundering brought about by unchecked avarice, greed, and hubris. I’ve been waiting since the financial collapse for a filmmaker to produce an authoritative step-by-step document that could meet out deserved blame and scorn, while presenting complex mathematical calculations in layman’s terms. This is that movie. Ferguson has crafted a definitive synopsis of the 2008 global meltdown that is scarier than any horror movie Hollywood could churn out.
When you learn about the forces that led this country into economic disaster, you begin to realize that it all centers on the old Gordon Gekko pronouncement that “greed is good.” I’ve never fully understood how capitalism is somehow absolved of any sin or that free markets are the same thing as democracy. Somehow the screwy idea that business would behave if nobody were watching became an intractable ideology. The Reagan revolution of the 1980s brought with it deregulated markets and lax oversight, which has brought waves of financial scandals that have only led to bigger consequences (Savings and Loan to Enron to the 2008 collapse). With the dense derivatives market, the financial industry found new tools to manufacture money at alarming rates. Rather than betting on simple stocks, investors could now bet on anything. Derivatives helped turn the entire world into one large casino. Short-term profits became the total goal and risk became just another four-letter word. Just like the insightful 2005 doc Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, these events are not stories about math, they’re stories about people. You don’t have to know a CDO from a CFO. It’s the unchecked hubris of men and women, but mostly men, and the slippery slope of business when the only protectors for the consumer is getting paid by Wall Street profits.
But all those greedy bankers and CEOs were not alone. Days before the several lending firms went bust, their ratings were stuck in the AAA to AA range, the same rating as a U.S. bond, meaning non-existent risk. The ratings industry got used to big paychecks dependent upon the number of high-quality ratings they passed out. As one interview puts it, if a New York Times journalist was offered $5000 to write a positive story and zero to pen a negative one, what do you believe the outcome would be? Insurance companies, notably AIG, were gambling with all that collateralized debt, betting that it wouldn’t get paid off. This allowed companies to sell loans they knew were poor and bet against them. The systems of regulation, like the Fed and the SEC, were ridiculously negligent at best and criminally complicit at worst. Rather than investigate and prosecute, regulation officers sat on their hands, relying on an ironclad belief that the industry knew best. Congress passed a law in 2000 that prohibited government from regulating the derivatives market. Then in 2004 the regulatory bodies decided to relax requirements for capital reserves. This meant that banks could take on even more borrowed assets, leveraging greater debt (ratios of capital to borrowed capital went from 3:1 to as high as 30:1). Both of these regulatory omissions allowed Wall Street to gamble even bigger. Don’t forget that many of those high-ranking officials meant to operate as referees had been former employees of large financial firms. It all became an incestuous boys club that looked out for its own interests. Why haven’t there been any prosecutions even concerning the drugs and hookers? It seems that the only people who get prosecuted for their vices are the ones fighting for reform, like former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (he gets his own doc this fall too). The collusion among the financial sector, regulators, and legislators is staggering.
To Ferguson’s credit, he lays out a sober and exacting analysis of the mess. This cannot be dismissed as some sort of partisan hatchet job like a Michael Moore production. Like it or not, Moore has become a caricature of himself and his dubious sleight-of-hand practices hurt the merits of his message. Ferguson, on the other hand, is a reasonable fella who assembles a crack team of experts and officials, the people directly involved with the financial meltdown. Several big names like Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers declined to be interviewed, lest they have to atone for their actual culpability (Summers is getting slammed twice this fall, after his irritable appearance in The Social Network as the dean of Harvard). Ferguson serves as an intelligent inquisitor, ready and willing to challenge his subjects when they try and hide between weak rationalizations or inaccurate facts. Inside Job plays a serious subject fairly seriously. There are no easy gags or frivolous attempts at comedic relief, despite some ironic usage of pop songs. Ferguson makes use of several unsophisticated charts and graphs to help grasp the explosive rise in profits and debt. They aren’t fancy graphics, in fact most are red bar graphs you’d find in a junior high report. But Ferguson’s great asset is his collection of key participants. Inside Job isn’t much more than a talking heads piece with a smattering of visual aids and narrative elucidation. But when your subject is no less than the financial state of the world, you’ll be forgiven for keeping a professorial approach.
Ferguson is one of the first I’ve seen to shed due attention to the area of academia and its cozy relationship with the financial institutions. Many of the same names involved in the accumulated financial disaster are teaching economics at prestigious Ivy League universities. These men, the devoted disciples of deregulation, are teaching the next generation of capitalist sharks. Ferguson even examines the non-disclosure of who is paying all these business profs. A professor can have a lucrative side business when it comes to consulting, so the companies that benefit the most from deregulation are paying the men championing the ideology of free markets. Professor will write scholarly articles about the merits of various financial firms, failing to note that the firms paid them. It’s another in an endless series of maddening conflicts of interest that go unimpeded.
Inside Job ends on a somber note of resignation. As we’re informed, not one body has been brought to justice over the worldwide financial collapse or the crimes and outright fraud that got us there. In the wake of the doom and gloom, banks gobbled each other up and now Too Big to Fail has gotten even bigger. In a world where companies book potential earnings as current earnings, bet against their own stocks, and employ a phalanx of high-priced lawyers and lobbyists to resist any minute reform, whom is the American public supposed to trust? Who isn’t on the payroll? Ferguson’s lacerating documentary is the best starting point for novices to history, but even Inside Job is far from definitive. This is because the complete scope of the 2008 crises cannot be contained to a two-hour movie, even with the talents of Ferguson. As the movie comes to a close, and the audience is generally feeling numb to all this high-stakes larceny, it looks like things are depressingly settling back to the way they were. President Obama has appointed several people involved in the financial collapse to cabinet and regulatory positions. I’m sorry Mr. President, but that doesn’t count as change by the most generous definitions. The coterie of Wall Street elites feel that they are indispensable, that what they do is just too complicated for the rest of us plebeians to fathom. I don’t know about other folks, but I’m tired of the top 0.1 percent holding the rest of the nation hostage and expecting everybody else to foot the bill for their gambling losses. The narration ends with a righteous fury, declaring that some things are worth fighting no matter how hard. Inside Job is required viewing for every man, woman, child, and dog in this country. The future of the world depends upon people seeing movies like this. An informed public is the best defense against Wall Street firms and bought-and-paid-for politicians getting away with murder — again.
Nate’s Grade: A
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