During the Friday, Sept. 24 "Cort and Fatboy" podcast, we talked about "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" and that movie where the owls wear helmets and fight. Also discussed: my opera-comics experience and the inherent superiority of Daffy Duck over Donald Duck.
Cort and Fatboy (Friday, Sept. 24, 2010)
Movie review in the Friday, Sept. 24 Oregonian....
"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" starts well, builds drama and then proceeds to fly sort of crazily off the rails.
The problem, I think, boils down to this: Toward the end, the sequel to 1987's "Wall Street" feels tragically unsure of what it wants to do with Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko -- the iconic character who represents '80s excess (and is, let's face it, the entire reason for this sequel's existence).
"Wall Street" (1987) is one of my favorite Oliver Stone flicks, in part because it feels more like a classic moral drama and less like a sweeping statement than many of Stone's films from his mid-'80s-to-mid-'90s prime. Bud Fox's corruption as he falls under the influence of Gekko the corporate raider is a great Faustian riff. Stone's use of roving cameras and split screens makes trading feel like melodramatic bloodsport, with Gekko as its ruthless champion gladiator. Stone certainly intended Gekko to be "Wall Street"'s villain, but Douglas is so much fun to watch, the movie leaves you with a perverse admiration for Gekko's drive and bluntness -- even as Stone punishes him for prizing the deal over the rules and profits over lives.
(Of course, there's also "Wall Street"'s increasing pleasure as an awesomely dorky cultural artifact -- Gekko touting "The Art of War" and doing business via a cell phone the size of a horse's leg while showing off his Sony Watchman, '80s art collection and blinking robot butler, for starters.)
For a while, "Money Never Sleeps" has a lot of fun playing with the audience's feelings about this character -- exploring the idea of Gekko as a chastened man struggling with his own relevance on the sidelines, in a more complicated world where technology and epic corporate greed make his insider-trading crimes seem quaint. The new movie starts just before the subprime-mortgage-fueled economic collapse. Gekko is finally out of prison and making the lecture circuit with his new book, "Is Greed Good?" -- railing (prophetically) against the credit-fueled recklessness that will rob the next generation of any chance at wealth.
He also wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Soon he's making morally gray "deals" with the film's protagonist, Winnie's boyfriend Jake (Shia LaBeouf) -- a young proprietary trader trying to attract investors to an experimental green-energy company. If Jacob helps reconcile Gordon and Winnie, Gordon will help Jacob get revenge on a shared enemy: a hedge-fund manager (Josh Brolin) who helped put Gekko behind bars and drove Jake's mentor to suicide.
For a while, this story works rather well, even if the financial skullduggery this time around is a bit overwhelming (Stone doesn't explain the market to mainstream audiences as well as he did in 1987, and the only reason I wasn't completely lost was because I'd recently read a Vanity Fair feature explaining how credit-default swaps work). LaBeouf and Mulligan are perfectly competent as the naïve lambs awaiting slaughter, though it must be said that they're both sort of blandly nice -- neither of them has the easy corruptibility of Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox. There are amusing cameos by Sheen and the realtor from the first film, and Stone and Douglas add regretful nuances to Gekko's aggressive patter.
Stone also tries to capture the complexity of our modern financial problems by going epic: The first film's relatively stripped-down tale of corruption is replaced with a dense saga of hubris and revenge that includes vast emergency meetings at the Fed and a blog-accelerated news cycle, and the split-screen montages are now jam-packed with over-the-top computer animations.
But shortly after Douglas delivers a killer soliloquy of regret on the steps of the Met -- the movie's emotional high point -- "Money Never Sleeps" starts inexorably losing control of its storytelling.
Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that the last third of the movie isn't uninteresting, but feels at times like a bad last-minute rewrite. Among the dramatic crimes:
I was excited by the idea of Stone and Douglas using this sequel to dramatize a bigger and more troubling era of epic financial hubris, in which the stakes include the future of our entire economy, not just a few corporations. But after a promising start, the movie dulls its edge to a degree that's frankly a little stunning.
(133 min., rated PG-13) Grade: C-plus
'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' (The Oregonian, Friday, Sept. 24, 2010)
On Monday, Sept. 20, the Portland Opera invited me -- and nearly 20 other, better cartoonists -- to watch a dress rehearsal of the Opera’s production of "Pagliacci" and "Carmina Burana."
I drew another “live comics adaptation” during the performance, mostly from my theater seat. The pictures were speed-sketched in a spiral-bound sketchbook during the show. The comic strip was assembled the next day from the drawings.
You can also download a PDF version of this comic right here. (It contains two bonus panels of "Carmina Burana Funnies.")
Before the show, the Portland Opera plied us with complimentary food and wine at Morton’s, then gave us a backstage tour at the Keller Auditorium. The evening was dubbed “Comic Artist Night @ The Opera.” (Here's the official press release.) I hope it’s the first of many — because it was an absolute gas.
The "Comic Artist Night" sketches will be on display in the Keller Auditiorium during the Friday, Sept. 24, 2010 performance of "Pagliacci" and "Carmina Burana," with a few of the cartoonists (including yrs. truly) in attendance. Come on by and pick up a free print version of this comic and maybe even my "live comics adaptations" of "Rigoletto" and "The Barber of Seville," while supplies last.
Click here to check the Portland Opera's collection of dozens of sketches from the other artists who attended — some of Portland’s finest cartoonists, no joke — working in media ranging from pen and ink to finger and iPad screen. You can also find more work by the individual artists online at these links:
Thanks to the Portland Opera for letting me participate in yet another of their barmy/cool PR experiments. The Opera’s ridiculously open-minded marketing team (which includes Jim Fullan, Julia Sheridan and Claudie Fisher) cooked up "Comic Artist Night" as a fun/inclusive way to expand on the "live comics adaptations" I’d done previously for their productions of “Rigoletto” and “The Barber of Seville.”
Thanks to all the remarkable performing artists involved for letting us scribble while they worked. You can learn more about the show and buy tickets here. It's a great show.
'Pagliacci: The Live Comics Adaptation' (CulturePulp @ WebcomicsNation)
Movie review in the Friday, Sept. 17 Oregonian....
It's been weirdly thrilling to watch Ben Affleck reinvent himself as a cowriter/director of thoughtful crime dramas. It really is the best and most surprising thing he could have done after the fickle pop culture turned on him somewhere between "Pearl Harbor," "Gigli" and that "Jenny on the Block" video. (I can hear the tag line now: "Not since Sofia Coppola followed her 'Godfather III' performance with 'The Virgin Suicides'....")
Even better, as a director, Mr. Affleck already has a strong point of view. His terrific 2007 debut "Gone Baby Gone" and his new sophomore effort "The Town" share the same concerns: Both movies adapt well-liked crime novels and fixate on loss, distrust of the law, class warfare in the Boston area and the long-term cost of bad choices -- all while reveling in dirty-brick environments and letting actors with real human faces have long conversations.
Story-wise, "The Town" isn't nearly as tight as "Gone Baby Gone." But Affleck mostly makes up for that by revealing two additional filmmaking gifts: He's really good at staging unpretentious action scenes and at directing himself as an actor.
The new film is set in Charlestown, Boston, a working-class Irish-American enclave now invaded by gentrifying Yuppies (nicknamed "tunies" by the locals). Charlestown, we're told, produces bank-robbers the way the Colonies produced tobacco, and "The Town" kicks off with a heist by one of the better crews -- a disciplined four-man outfit that includes Affleck as a clean-and-sober failed hockey player and Jeremy Renner as his lizard-eyed loose cannon of a best friend. The team is hired and backed by a crime lord played by Pete Postlethwaite, who has physically reduced in size so all that's left of him is eyes, ears and hate.
During their hit on a Cambridge bank, Renner takes a Prius-driving bank manager (Rebecca Hall) hostage. She's blindfolded and released, but then the boys find out she lives four blocks away from them. Affleck starts stalking her to find out if she can I.D. them, and ends up dating her and giving her legal advice. Oops. At the same time, a surly FBI agent (Jon Hamm) is closing in on the crew, trying to catch them in the act.
"The Town" is adapted from a crime novel by Chuck Hogan (who now cowrites vampire books with Guillermo del Toro), and it's clearly Affleck's attempt at a "Heat"-sized Boston crime epic. Affleck comes closest to realizing that goal during the movie's three heist sequences, which are all beautifully staged and escalate from the bank to Fenway Park -- with an alleyway car chase thrown in that suggests Affleck had some meaningful conversations with John Frankenheimer on the set of "Reindeer Games," so that movie was finally good for something. Affleck smartly cuts to moments of silence in the middle of action sequences for effect, be it surveillance-camera footage or a slow look around an empty stadium underbelly before all hell breaks loose.
Also, in a development that won't surprise fans of "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck gives his actors room to breathe and gets strong performances from nearly everyone (although I can't decide if "Gossip Girl"'s Blake Lively is decent as Affleck's trashy townie ex or if she's channeling Jenny Slate doing a trashy townie impression on "SNL"). Renner is particularly great, pulling off the neat trick of making his dead-eyed, wild-animal menace look effortless instead of "actorly," and Hall ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") gives a wonderfully plain performance, honest and sweet.
Hamm uses his knack for subtle facial shifts to make his FBI character seem like a weasel -- though I wish he'd been given more to say than a bunch of grandstanding tough-guy speeches of the "Let's get to work, people" variety. (The FBI-procedural part of the movie feels fairly bogus, actually, particularly when it comes to the consistency of the Feds' surveillance and the way they use Hall.)
Unfortunately, like "Heat," "The Town" kind of whiffs it in the male-female relations department, though in Affleck's case it hurts his movie more than it hurt Michael Mann's.
The film spends a lot of energy early on getting you to care about the Affleck/Hall romance and the revelations hanging over it. But then the film shifts its attention to focus on its second big action set piece and aftermath, and when it tries to return to the couple, the suspense feels broken and the relationship suddenly feels underwritten and a bit clichéd -- building to some final moments that feel studio-reshoot false. I'm also slightly torn on just how much of a conscience Affleck's character is supposed to have, exactly; sometimes he's troubled by violence, sometimes he isn't.
It's a testament to the things Affleck does well that this somehow doesn't break the movie -- not even close. The grit, performances and male-bonding and heist-action scenes are strong enough that "The Town" is still one of the year's better big-studio thrillers and an impressive continuance of Affleck's career rehab.
(125 min., rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use) Grade: B
'The Town' (The Oregonian, Friday, Sept. 17, 2010)
During the Friday, Sept. 10 "Cort & Fatboy" podcast, we talked about "Centurion," "Flipped," Adam Carolla, "The Hobbit," "The Dark Tower," James Bond, and my podcasting variation on The Actor's Nightmare. Also, the boys made horrible puns that caused me to do like three facepalms over the course of the hour. The usual stuff, really.
But I also went a little off-script, for a good cause. At the top of the show, I asked listeners to throw a little money Jake French's way if they can.
Jake (pictured) is a 24-year-old forestry student who became a quadriplegic after a freak accident. He's now undergoing aggressive -- and very expensive -- physical therapy at Adapt Advanced that offers him a fighting chance at regaining some of his lost mobility.
Here's are some Web links about Jake and the people he's inspired. He's an amazing, positive, hardworking guy. I don't usually make charitable appeals on this site, but please consider donating a few bucks if you can. He's worth it.
Cort and Fatboy (Friday, Sept. 10, 2010)
Movie review in the Friday, Sept. 10 Oregonian....
Writer/director Neil Marshall is a gore-hound who loves to sample the sci-fi, action and horror classics that clearly turn his crank. He's pretty shameless about the sampling, but to my thinking he's also fairly good at it: When he's firing on all cylinders (as he was with 2005's "The Descent"), his movies have a confident, glandular, lizard-brain B-movie kick and stronger-than-strictly-necessary performances.
But yeah: Marshall's "Dog Soldiers" and "The Descent" owe more than a little to "Aliens." "Doomsday" gleefully plunders from "Mad Max" and "Escape from New York." And his latest -- the vaguely historical action-survival flick "Centurion" -- may contain more "Lord of the Rings"-style helicopter shots than Peter Jackson's entire trilogy. (It also starts with that totally played-out wailing-woman music from "Gladiator.")
Still: Marshall is having enough fun smashing the skulls of talented actors while knocking off every men-on-a-mission and survival flick ever made (from "The Naked Prey" to "Apocalypto") that I enjoyed it as a solid beer-theater watch. And because the film is opening at Portland's Living Room Theaters, which happens to serve beer, it all works out rather well.
"Centurion" is the second of Marshall's films (after "Doomsday") to incorporate Hadrian's Wall; the new film luridly speculates on the fate of the Roman Ninth Legion, which may or may not have fallen to the Picts in Britain around 117 A.D. It's essentially a chase picture in which a handful of Roman soldiers (played by the likes of Michael Fassbender) try to rescue their captured general (Dominic West) and avoid getting picked off by a hunting party of Celtic guerillas led by a mute warrior princess (Olga Kurylenko).
The movie probably starts better than it ends -- the early ambush of the Ninth Legion is a grisly set piece that makes "Braveheart" look like "Sesame Street," and Marshall never tops it. Things also bog down briefly when the movie tries to introduce a love interest in the form of a bland outcast herbalist (Imogen Poots). There's also the small matter of everyone speaking in clichés.
But the movie mostly moves at speed, and it's awesomely, needlessly, hilariously gory -- Mr. Marshall never, ever sticks a blade in someone without cutting to a close-up of it popping out the other side or showing you exactly where the lopped-off head landed, and the earnest cast somehow sells it as drama. If I believed in the concept of "guilty pleasures," I'd classify "Centurion" as one, but I think I maybe just kind of enjoyed it.
(97 min.; rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence, grisly images and language; playing in Portland at Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-minus
'Centurion' (The Oregonian, Friday, Sept. 30, 2010)
Movie review in the Friday, Sept. 10 Oregonian....
"Flipped" is something I haven't seen since about 1992: a charming Rob Reiner film that more or less works as intended. (Seriously: I mourn what happened to that man's filmography after "A Few Good Men.")
This surprising late-career tiptoe back to form is a sweet, simple story about young crushes -- adapted from Wendelin Van Draanen's young-adult novel, which Reiner has for some reason transplanted from the book's modern-day setting to around the same nostalgic era as "Stand By Me."
Bryce and Juli meet as second-graders. Juli has an instant crush on Bryce. Bryce ignores her for years -- until she finally gives up on him. Reverse and repeat. Enjoy the period rock songs on the soundtrack. This exceedingly modest, narration-driven little tale (fewer than 90 minutes long if you don't count the end credits) is stretched by the movie's storytelling conceit: Each chapter is told twice, from both Bryce and Juli's perspectives.
"Flipped" is pretty low-key stuff that occasionally flirts with rose-colored schmaltz, and there's one brief scene in which Kevin Weisman plays a mentally challenged man flipping out in an ice-cream shop that probably doesn't work. But its slight, simple charms still worked on me -- mostly thanks to solid performances by Callan McAuliffe and (especially) Madeline Carroll as Bryce and Juli. Carroll nails several small moments, especially when a fed-up Juli completely freezes out Bryce while remaining in his presence.
The kids provide an earnest emotional through-line to a tiny story, and I sort of hope it kicks off a new mature period for Reiner as a filmmaker.