Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lots of Robbers, A Couple Cops, and Two Towns

This week I saw two films about robbers who are totally impervious to the ruin and devastation they leave in their wake. One was about unshaven guys in Boston, and the other was about well-coiffed and tailored thieves on Wall Street.

What can I say about Oliver Stone’s return to finance in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps?” It shows its age. Gordon Gekko’s actions were amateur hour compared to those of the financial wizards of the 21st century empire that led us to 2007/2008, so you’d think the film would hit harder now than it did then. The days of M&A were ugly (not that they’re gone – M&A is just not as popular a media spectacle today as it once was) and that was reflected in 1987’s “Wall Street.” The world of high finance is even worse now, and I was tired almost as soon as the movie started, with its typically shouting traders and its tickers crossing the screen up, down, and diagonally. We’ve all seen those graphics before. Bored now. Really, hiring top rate actors can only disguise a mediocre script by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff so much. There were no surprises -- except for the hokey ending in which the film tied up loose ends and made the world pretty, I mean how ridiculous and anticlimactic is that?

Michael Douglas is as sleazy as ever, Eli Wallach is incomprehensible, Shia LaBeouf has worn out his charm…. most of these people are playing thoroughly unsympathetic characters. Carey Mulligan gives more to the role of Gordon Gekko’s daughter than was written. There’s some good acting going on here -- except for that of the director himself – but the movie does not deserve it. Yes, Josh Brolin’s depiction of Bretton James (great name) brings to mind the term “Come the Revolution!” but every male in the movie does the same crap he does, just not as expertly. There’s one exception to that – Austin Pendleton as the earnest but needy scientist who’s actually trying to produce something and use the Market for its real purpose (which, by the way, is to provide capital to the nation’s producers of goods and services. Apparently a great many people actually working in the Market aren’t aware of that.).

Mr. Stone showed us pretty pictures of downtown Manhattan architecture, glamorous and shiny and conspicuous. Then he brought us uptown for the best scene in the film, which was not really about the main characters of the story. Rather, it was about conspicuous consumption at a $10,000 a plate benefit. This scene showed what I believe is all Mr. Stone really had to say: If every woman attending that dinner had donated her earrings, and every man his watch, no more such benefit evenings would be required. For any cause. It made for a powerful scene that Mr. Stone couldn’t replicate for two hours traffic.

In a word: “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is disappointing.

On the other hand, I enjoy the trailer for “Red.” Not only does that film’s cast boast Helen Mirren, but Ernest Borgnine! Can’t wait!

In “The Town,” Ben Affleck tells us a sad but good story, peopled by sympathetic humans – even those who do decidedly bad things. It’s brisk, it’s well acted, well shot, well edited. This film is riveting and engrossing enough to get me to that special place from which I wish a certain character would violently kill another particular character, or two. Even the unlikely romance almost worked for me. I cared about all the characters, because they were well written and each actor created a real person, with sides, and depth, and hidden bits, plenty of warts, but not only those.

  • Kudos to Ben Affleck as co-writer with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard.
  • Kudos to Ben Affleck as director of a fast-paced, clear, bright and darkly shiny story (based on a novel by Chuck Hogan).
  • Kudos to Ben Affleck as leading man.
Affleck holds his own even with the fabulous and fascinating Jeremy Renner. I was almost as afraid of Jeremy Renner’s Jim Coughlin in this film as I was of Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men.” It’s not so much that Jim’s career criminal is as scary a human as Bardem’s assassin, it’s the fact that Jim lives everywhere: in Charlestown, in South Queens, in South Philly. Renner is one of those actors we’ve seen for years but only learned his name in “The Hurt Locker.” Now we’ll never forget it. He’s pitch perfect here, every look, every shrug, every underplayed line. Gorgeous.

Chris Cooper, Pete Postlethwaite, really everybody in this film -- they’re just living these gray, dingy, harsh lives, and we happen to be watching. Amazing work, film acting the way it should be done.

Blake Lively has no resemblance to the princess she plays on “Gossip Girl” – she’s very good here, pathetic, sadly real. Rebecca Hall is much better on film than on stage and was quietly vulnerable and needy as the victim and love interest.

I’ve only mentioned “Robbers” here, but the “Cops” are damned good too – Jon Hamm as the FBI guy who doesn’t shave any more than the bank robbers do, and Titus Welliver as the Boston cop who actually knows the guys from “The Town,” which makes the "Robbers" hate him far more than they do the Fed. Both of these “good guys” are pretty sleazy.

There’s a quiet intensity to the characters in “The Town” – they are revealed in their looks, their postures, their silences. No one wants to speak from the heart at all let alone out loud. It’s dangerous to be where everybody knows your name.

The film held my attention but for one moment when odd scoring made me analyze the scene – quiet but decidedly heroic orchestration played under Dougie (Affleck) crossing the prison yard to visit his father. This was incongruous and confusing.

About those masks in the trailers – truly creepy. All of them. They’re effective and I for one would certainly never look one of them in the face. Smart criminals.

In general, I don’t care about car chases or explosions, but DAMN, the chase scenes in “The Town” are terrific, filled with tension, excitement, and crazy Boston drivers!

Good stuff Mr. Affleck. You done the hometown proud. Again.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, locking the doors, and changing the passwords.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

2 Books and A Mini Vacation

The wonderful thing about vacations of all durations is not just that you’re not at work, not commuting, not fretting about the politics of the workplace – it is that you truly have choices. Choose to swim, to walk, to bicycle, to explore, to eat out, to eat in, to sit and stare at the ocean, to read. Not seeing films or plays this week, I’ve no reviews to write. Instead, I’m taking photographs of the smaller beach Montauk is sporting this season. And, in between walking along the Atlantic shore, the choppy rough waves pulling at me even though I’m not attempting to swim -- swimming in the pool only! -- I’m reading. Fiction, nonfiction, prose, plays, and occasionally poetry. Quite consistently, I’ve brought more to read than I’ll get around to, since I’m a slow reader.

Book The First
I started this book last week, reading on the bus and on the train. I don’t generally write about what I read because I haven’t a clue how to write a book review. And this is not a book review. This is just a blog about the feelings aroused when reading Terence Stamp’s autobiography -- well, book 2 of his autobiography -- Coming Attractions. Reading Coming Attractions makes me happy.

It’s like hanging out with a buddy, and you’re in a living room, in a basement playing ping pong, on a bus, in a pub, or a coffee shop (not a Starbucks, a regular coffee shop), better yet, a diner. And Stamp is just sitting across from you, talking. That’s what this book feels like. Cozy, the book is. And I like this man who wrote a joyous and cozy and life affirming book. In this autobiography, Stamp reinforces everything you know about how much family matters (family of bloodlines you’re born to and the other family you create in adult life, no bloodlines required), that contributing something, whatever it may be, to your family, by doing what you’re passionate to do is always in the back of your mind. It sounds rather like that “Follow your bliss” routine, but there’s no bullcrap here. There is just Terence Stamp telling his story the way he remembers it close to thirty years later (the book was published in 1988).

But he’s just an actor, you say. Yes, but as my friend Babs would say, he’s a Guy. Just a guy. A man you’d want to know, to barbecue with, to work with, to ride buses and trains with. To speak in the language of his time, he’s a cool cat. That’s what he is.

Stamp is chatting away and he’s very positive, upbeat, hopeful. Were this a novel, I’d fear the worst because I like him and there he is -- he works hard, his mind is open to new ideas, new rituals, infinite possibilities. In the real world as well as in fiction, when everything must and will go wrong, you know it does, so there’d be no joy. In fiction, film, plays, all the rest, that’s what creates dramatic tension. But this is Terence Stamp’s life, and he’ll have none of that pessimism or negativity. And so he succeeds, he does what he wishes to do, he achieves what he works toward, and therefore so may we, his readers. We cannot help but share his infectious certainty.

For this sometimes cynical critter, the simplicity of Stamp’s straightforward language and story telling makes me a total conquest.

Stamp’s life shows it is possible for a simple lad from the East End with dreams and a dense accent to succeed, therefore his readers can be who they wish to be and do what they wish to do. Why? Because Stamp tells us we can by telling us what he did. Not how many pictures and resumés he sent to whom – he didn’t have any. That’s part of the charm as well, of course, this very different time in which he lived – so near and yet so far. Stamp came of age in the second half of the 1950s, when I was a toddler. This whole story is reminiscent of simpler, truly more innocent times. Those years right after World War II and the Korean war, when London fog was toxic, and Vietnam was still an unfamiliar name and the Beatles had invaded no one, those seem to have been idyllic days to me. Not easier times, not at all. But clearer in their lack of technology and material things – the lack of clutter leading to a surplus of clarity. Whatever the hardship, (with probably some nostalgic gauze on the back-looking view), all the people in Stamp’s young life make it through.

Stamp drops names, but not in a name-dropping way. He went to school with Samantha Eggar, he worked as a stagehand on the London production of West Side Story, chatting and going about with George Chakiris; the first production of The Long and the Short and the Tall Stamp appeared in was with Harold Pinter who was acting under the name David Baron. Then Stamp toured – again, The Long and the Short and the Tall, this time with a fellow Londoner called Michael Caine (later his flatmate). I’ve toured, once in the States and twice in Europe. Fabulous days to look back on (not just because I was actually paid to do theatre), but tours are tough. Not according to Stamp – or “Tel,” as Michael Caine came to call him. But then, Mr Stamp toured the provinces by train, and I am jealous. Vans are not the same.

He tells us how he learned. He tells us what Dragon (a Polish athlete/trainer) told him -- that his head was crooked. “You must work hard to keep head on straight, very important,” Dragon told him. “Crooked head leads to crooked breathing. Every breath has influence but uneven breath, for long periods makes you off-centre.” Is there any better advice for an actor than that? I found myself paying attention to my posture as I walked. I felt my crooked head. I tilt it quite a lot: While I’m sitting before a computer screen, while I’m thinking, wandering, walking. As I walked, and then as I sat reading and scribbling, I kept trying to straighten my crooked head so that I wouldn’t have crooked everything and weaken my breathing. If only I can make my flat feet work! There are some inadvertently provided exercises for feet in Coming Attractions as well, things that Dragon taught Stamp. “Tel” offers a particular way of thinking (this is not a self help book, I assure you. It’s just a vibe, a mode, a way of being he has that comes through). That way of thinking assures me that while I’ll probably fail initially, maybe, if I focus and work hard, I can strengthen my flat feet and keep my head straight, not crooked, breathe stronger, walk stronger, be stronger. And succeed at those things I want to do.

I mull over what I learned from this book as I sit over a pint watching a Yankee game. I feel my crooked head. I straighten up.

Thank you Mr. Stamp. Looking forward to the next installment.

Book the Second
Some time ago my friend Horvendile gave me a copy of Posy Simmond’s Tamara Drewe. Go to the bookstore, pull it off the shelf. Look at the cover. Now look again. It’s not just a pretty cartoon face in a country landscape with sheep in the background. There is action there. Open it up and become mesmerized by the clever drawings, a human story told in both words and pictures.

Each character is sketched, painted in, its environs drawn succinctly. Facial expressions add to the words on the page, while perfectly composed panels advance the action. The slouches, the sprawls, the upright stances, the leaning in, all bring the characters to life. And not just people – country people, teenagers, writers, would-be writers, displaced city people, even a has-been rock star. Ms. Simmonds’ story includes dogs, cows, sheep, and goats, since country life includes them. Posy Simmonds honors all. Tamara Drewe is a simple story, wittily told. Simmonds is massively clever, talented, funny, thoughtful, hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud. Who cares if they think me mad?!

So, before the film comes out, read Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe. Not once, but twice. At least.

~ Molly Matera, signing off for a chilly swim before reading the next one. As the T-shirt says, so many books, so little time….

Monday, September 13, 2010

SALT - A Thriller with Curves, Thrown and Otherwise

Salt” is an espionage action thriller that throws curves. Aspects of the story range from the familiar to the expected for this jaded viewer, but only after the film surprised me by veering off the beaten path midway through.

If this film had featured a male movie star in the title role, “Salt” would have been a story we’ve seen before, pretty much every summer. Fortunately it starred Angelina Jolie. From this casting we can expect lots of action and stunt work since, when not doing serious films like Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” Ms. Jolie is known to enjoy roles with comic book action. “Salt” has plenty of that, with Jolie in her long blonde tresses leaping from buildings to roads to trucks to anything that will get her away from her pursuers, continuing with brunette Jolie leaping, climbing, falling, and fighting her way through the second half of the film. Suffice it to say, action fans can rejoice, especially if realism isn’t important to them. But if you want more than action sequences, “Salt” provides some twists and turns along the way.

To backtrack: Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a sophisticated CIA agent who dresses superbly. She is married to Michael, a German arachnologist (an expert on spiders, working at the Smithsonian and, conveniently, in North Korea), played by August Diehl. Their relationship, between his spiders on the table and a cute dog, is sweet and not what we expect for a spy. Michael was Salt’s white knight when her CIA buddies, by policy, abandoned her to a North Korean prison. Of course, the day the story begins is their wedding anniversary.

Ted White, another CIA agent, is stolidly played by Liev Schreiber. His stone face barely moves, but his eyes are worth following. The two colleagues are leaving their cover jobs when a Russian defector walks into a building he shouldn’t have known existed. This is Orlov, played in the past sequences by Daniel Pearce and in the present by Daniel Obrychski. Pearce is creepy and Obrychski is sleazy, and that one ages into the other is quite believable.

The other important character in the film is Peabody, another Fed, but not CIA. He is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a busy British actor American audiences may particularly recall as the Operative, the bad guy in Joss Whedon’s “Serenity.” In “Salt,” Ejiofor’s Peabody is a calm, cold, arrogant professional, and then he gets pissed off. He’s lots of fun to watch, and a good foil to Schreiber’s anxious but contained confusion as a friend of the presumed traitor Salt.

Once the plot starts with the set-up shown in the trailer – the scene where the Russian defector tells the CIA that there’s a Russian mole about to kill the Russian President at the funeral of the American Vice President, and that the mole’s name is Evelyn Salt – the dogs are loosed, and the action continues almost non-stop for the next hour and change.

  • From the get-go, Peabody totally believes the Russian defector, since the machinery of interrogation tells him the man is truthful. He goes after Salt with a vengeance.
  • From the get-go, White is hesitant to believe his friend is a long-term mole in his organization and, while he doesn’t interfere in the pursuit, he reins in the highly aggressive Peabody.
  • From the get-go, Salt knows exactly what is going to happen, and her first goal is to get away from the Feds to find and protect her husband. Her first spectacular escape brings her to their apartment, but only the dog is there to rescue. Next comes her second spectacular escape…

The Feds are always at least one step behind Salt. The action moves to New York City (Salt traveled there on a Bolt Bus, simple and smart) for the Vice President’s funeral, where heads of state are gathered at a grand Cathedral, surrounded by city and federal and probably foreign national police.

An error in this section distracted me for a moment – did they not expect to
release the film this year? A television newscast about the Vice President’s
funeral shows the man’s year of death as 2011. Oops.

After the well-executed yet standard shootings, explosions, kicks, gouges, punches, car chases and crashes, there’s a terrific explosion in a church where the story turned a dark and dangerous corner.

Once the film takes its tasty turn away from the standard fare, there’s no question that there must be Russian moles with high security clearance, unfortunately with too few choices of who it, or they, could be. At the White House, we see Andre Braugher as the silent Secretary of Defense. This distracted from the fast-moving story -- I couldn’t help but wonder how much of his role was on the cutting room floor. Had the producers and director added a few more familiar faces in the last third of the film – even if most of the audience doesn’t know the actors by name –the last 15 minutes would have been greatly improved. Ages for these actors could have ranged between Jolie’s and Braugher’s, giving the producers the opportunity to use actors like Jack Conley, Bruce McGill, Joe Morton, Max Perlich, Jessica Steen, Robin Weigert …the possibilities are countless. Is this feasible in terms of union contracts and standard hiring practices? I don’t know. Would it be better movie making? Yes. I’m not suggesting that director Phillip Noyce should have hired a bunch of disguised stars like those in John Huston’s cerebral murder mystery, “The List of Adrian Messenger.” I merely suggest that had there been some more recognizable faces in the second half, the focus of the search for the mole would not have pulled so unerringly to….. where it did. I’m sure you can guess without my telling you, which is the main problem of the second half of the film. It’s not thrilling to know where the thriller is going.

Nevertheless, Phillip Noyce does a fine directing job overall. The story requires flashbacks that could last for multiple chapters were this a novel (it is not based on a novel, but on a screen story by Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland), but they did not feel too long or intrusive. Rather, they colored in the story despite the grayness of the scenes. It’s a comic book kind of movie, and yet… not what I expected, for which I thank director Noyce, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, and yes, Angelina Jolie.

The more I think about “Salt,” though, the more I want from it. That’s the fault of Noyce and Wimmer. If they hadn’t surprised me with the turn off the usual track into a dark tunnel, I wouldn’t have looked for more than the action thriller this is. Oh well, in a perfect world – which reminds me of another Clint Eastwood-directed film I really liked, with what is probably Kevin Costner’s best performance. My favorite Jolie performance before “Salt” was Christine in Eastwood’s “Changeling.” This one is gaining on it in my mind. Jolie’s face, her stance, her eyes, her movements tell me there’s more than meets the eye here: This is not just an action heroine. This woman has a brain behind her eyes, and a whole life has brought Evelyn Salt to this place. Jolie’s performance makes us want to see how the rest of it goes.

I liked “Salt,” I liked the performances, I liked the structure. I extend cheers to director Noyce and writer Wimmer for surprising me at least twice, and cheers to Angelina Jolie for leading the pack of female action stars as the one who is more than a pretty face and athletic body.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a good thriller…

Monday, September 6, 2010

The American” is not a summer movie. It’s a leisurely-paced somewhat interesting film. It is not terribly concerned with the story being told – it’s not a new story -- but rather with the art form of the film telling it. “The American” is visually arresting, from snow-covered fields to medieval towns clinging to Italian mountainsides, to long quiet shots of unrecognizable cars driving along the winding roads of Abruzzo. Anton Corbijn has made as beautiful a film as a photographer would wish to make. But he was the director.

The American,” in a pitch perfect performance by George Clooney, uses various names depending upon who he’s talking to. Let’s call him “Jack,” the name he uses when speaking to the European fellow with the long lined face who gives him assignments, a hard time, and orders. This is Pavel, a brusque man played by Johan Leysen. Jack is at a crisis point in his career as an assassin – they are all out to get him.

In Castel del Monte, Jack is a ghost wandering beautiful streets alone. He somehow makes a friend of the local priest (simply played by Paolo Bonacelli), and he has his occasional phone calls to Pavel. Clooney’s is the only familiar face in this film, so absolutely everyone is under suspicion.

Jack clearly needs human contact -- he starts the film with a woman (Irina Björklund) in a romantic interlude in Sweden. Things go wrong. Hiding out in Abruzzo, trying to obey Pavel's orders to not make friends, he finds a lovely prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). Of course there’s more between them than just sex. We meet a third woman in the film, who identifies herself as Mathilde (Thekla Reuten); she is the client sent on by Pavel, looking for a quiet and compact sniper weapon. For most of the movie we watch Jack making this weapon. His concentration is intense, his expertise clear, his awareness of his surroundings acute. When not working he walks, he gazes, he visits the beautiful Clara. Guns, shadows, winding alleys and stairways, and a river running through the countryside are lovingly photographed, with Mr. Clooney drawing us along with him.

Visually stunning, perfectly acted, well scored, all the elements of this film are excellently executed. But something was lacking. Rowan Joffe’s script is terse, but rather obvious. How many times must Clooney be identified as American? "The American" feels like a leisurely short story put up on the screen, but one of those stories in which, while the language is beautiful, the story is less than satisfying. The tension does build, but not the suspense. Precisely how this will end is perfectly clear from the first five minutes of film. Perhaps a release in autumn or winter would have been more appropriate. “The American” is not the thriller advertised, it’s a character study.

~Molly Matera, signing off. Time to dream of Abruzzo and Clooney without guns.