Thursday, June 23, 2016

Money Monster

MONEY MONSTER             C+               
USA  (98 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Jodie Foster

A dark film with timely ambitions of having something relevant to say about the global financial crisis of 2008 and the inexplicable bailout of Wall Street that actually caused the crisis, cynically suggesting the rich get richer by fleecing the public with get rich schemes that require manipulating the market, where there are winners and losers, but few questions asked, even under the most dire circumstances.  At the same time, the film caters to our prisoner of the moment fascination with the news, where only catastrophes get our attention, and then only for a moment to see how it all plays out before moving our attention elsewhere.  The film may unintentionally offer validation that we’re living in a police state, that the lives of the poor are not only marginalized, but sacrificed on a regular basis in the interests of protecting an elite class, whose own crimes are so willingly overlooked.  Featuring A-list Hollywood actors and tabloid icons, not to mention perennial People’s Choice nominees George Clooney and Julia Roberts, who first worked together in Soderbergh’s OCEANS ELEVEN (2001), they come across as best friends both on and off the screen, where Clooney plays Lee Gates, a smug TV host of his own show entitled Money Monster, complete with a musical theme and dancing girls, with a supposed knowledge of all things Wall Street, handing out stock tips, while Patty (Roberts) is the behind-the-scenes producer in the booth.  Their all-too ordinary lives get upended by the presence of an armed intruder on the set, Jack O’Connell as Kyle Budwell, an irate investor that lost $60,000, his entire life’s savings, who decides to hold the host hostage, claiming he’s responsible, placing him in a bomb-rigged suicide vest for insurance while holding the detonator in his hand.  From that point on, events unravel in real time, as viewers around the globe become fascinated with a live feed of the entire experience.  The question of whether Jodie Foster can direct is answered by the sheer conventionality of the film, which offers surprisingly few new ideas, lacking originality and a better screenwriter.  The product of a Hollywood system in which she was raised as a child actress, Foster probably thought this was a big story that would fill headlines, where there’s an urge to enlarge everything and make it bigger than it is, as if that’s entertainment, while a more carefully crafted film would break it down to smaller, more poignant moments that actually matter, where we might delve under the surface for intimate details of the character’s lives. 

“I might be the one with a gun here, but I am not the criminal,” explains Kyle to the cameras, reminding Gates that he was the one who recommended a certain stock named IBIS as a sure thing, but yesterday the stock plummeted, costing investors $800 million dollars, where the company’s vague explanation was the action occurred inexplicably due to a computer glitch.  Unable to grasp what that even means, but threatening to blow them all up unless they provide real answers, there is a side story following executives at IBIS, who are perplexed by the sudden disappearance of their CEO Walt Canby (Dominic West), who left unexpectedly for Geneva, Switzerland and is supposedly in the air on his executive jet, though he was scheduled to be a guest on the show.  Instead, they send a PR talking head, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), who was hooked up to a TV monitor, but makes a mad dash back to the office when she sees what transpires, where she and another male executive are simply befuddled about what to do other than stall until their CEO surfaces.  It’s interesting that the film takes great interest in exposing the layout of the television studio from all angles, how it looks from the booth, hearing Patty’s specific instructions to each of them, calling up certain monitors for the live shot, following the camera operators doing their jobs, yet this careful examination gets greater scrutiny than any of the characters, where instead we get neverending wisecracks from everyone involved, where the routine of the job has simply allowed them to tune out anything serious happening in their lives.  As a result, the film pales considerably from works it obviously drew inspiration from, such as Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976), iconic 70’s thrillers that doubled as absurdly humorous yet incisive cultural critiques.  Unfortunately, there’s an absence of humor and insight here, where small talk is allowed to take its place, ending up with the kind of dialogue that’s easily forgettable.  What is remarkable is that no one takes the computer glitch remark seriously, where instead this comes across as utter fiction, yet the news team goes to great lengths to identify the Korean computer programmer that designed the algorithm allegedly used by the company, whose explanation is that only a “human hand” could have caused the system to act the way it did. 

Meanwhile, even as the set is under siege, with Gates’ life repeatedly threatened by an increasingly unstable hijacker whose righteous anger is desperate to begin with, he seems to run out of options, so Gates, with Patty whispering instructions to him through an earpiece, is forced to try to find this kid some answers, turning him into something of a sympathetic figure, going into full investigative journalism mode in order to scour the inside operations of IBIS, while simultaneously the New York City police surround the set, install a few carefully placed snipers in the upper regions of the rafters, while they examine the possibility of shooting out the electric detonator receiver located on the suicide vest just above the kidney region, questioning whether Gates would survive a shot.  All bets are off, however, when the police find Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend (Emily Meade), putting her on a monitor with a live feed, but instead of sympathizing with Kyle, she rails against him in a lengthy tirade telling him what an idiot and complete loser he is before the police finally cut the feed.  This seems to sap all the life out of Kyle, turning him into a broken mess, where Gates has to come to his rescue.  As Diane begins to doubt the truthfulness of her boss, realizing he was never in Switzerland, she begins to feed inside information exclusively to Patty, which is then fed to Gates on the air.  Initially skeptical, Patty is forced to reassure Diane, “We don’t do gotcha journalism here, Diane—we don’t do journalism, period.”  It turns out Canby has returned to New York and intends to speak to the press at Federal Hall nearby, the site of the nation’s first capitol.  Unbelievably, Gates encourages Kyle, along with loyal cameraman Lenny (Lenny Venito) to march down the streets of New York, like a scene out of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), surrounded by a legion of cops with guns and rifles aimed straight at them, with Kyle continually blocking the vest transmitter, receiving hoots and catcalls from the mobs of bystanders on the street as they make their way to Federal Hall to confront Walt Canby.  Preposterous as it is, there is little to no suspense, largely due to the unimaginative way it’s filmed, losing its way in an attempt to tie up loose ends and make it all perfectly understandable, while the case against global capitalism simply fizzles into thin air.  Unfortunately, unlike the work of a professional investigative journalism team from a reputable news organization, like what was uncovered in Spotlight (2015), Foster resorts to manipulation tactics when the damning evidence is instead provided by a couple of drunken hackers in Iceland playing video games, who instead of proving the system is rigged, or making the case that corporations conspire to manipulate the markets by duping investors, which would be boring and way too complicated, can instead only provide evidence that Canby is lying to cover up his real intent, where his response to the cameras is simply, “What’s wrong with making a profit?”  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and while hardly an exposé equivalent to the tobacco industry’s decades-long history of lies and cover-ups that resulted in Michael Mann’s THE INSIDER (1999), the real conspiracy would be finding viewers who are stupid enough to place their financial fortunes in the hands of a TV Quiz Show host dressed in gold lamé pants, a glitter top hat, and surrounded by Fly Girls.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Nice Guys

THE NICE GUYS                 B-                   
USA  (116 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Shane Black

With a tribute to Isaac Hayes and the long intro of the musical theme from SHAFT (1971), the film opens in a soulful groove of Norman Whitfield’s incredible musical arrangement of Papa Was A Rolling Stone (UNCUT) - The Temptations - HQ (12:04), one of the more recognizable intros, featuring the kind of extended psychedelic arrangement that takes you back to a distinctive place and time, that existed in a brief window of time before it was extinguished.  What follows is an introductory prologue that sets the scene of pure lunacy, a kind of adolescent porn fantasy that springs to life when a kid in his pajamas steals his dad’s porn magazine and eagerly examines the merchandise before a car comes tumbling down a hill straight through the house before coming to a stop nearby.  The kid checks out the accident scene where a well-endowed, completely naked porn star named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) is laying on the hood of the car, who is, in fact, the exact same centerfold he was just examining.  Covering her with his pajama top, she murmurs a weird expression just before she dies, “How do you like my car, big boy?”  Set in a pastel, candy-colored universe of Los Angeles in 1977, the film is a comic spoof, a throwback to the noirish detective stories driven by pulp fiction writers, though in this case, two unlikely private eyes team up on a case of common interest, though they loathe each other, with both teetering on the edge of sleaze and moral depravity themselves, where they’re actually a couple of numbskulls that find themselves using screwball comedy dialogue while searching for the elusive bad guys through the stench of regular smog alerts, professional hit men, and layers of entrenched corruption at the Justice Department.  Basically a showcase for the acting skills of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, both wearing Hawaiian or paisley shirts with leisure suits, we witness the hard edge of a somewhat overweight Crowe as Jackson Healy, who narrates his opening scene, where his specialty as a heavy is roughing people up for a living, sending a message of warning that they should stay away from certain individuals unless they wish to receive another house call.  Paralleling his introduction, Gosling as the goofy, mentally challenged Holland March agrees to take the case of an elderly woman reporting a missing husband, who hasn’t been seen since the funeral, though an urn with his name attached is sitting on the mantle. 

Shortly after the car accident, March is approached by Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith), the nearly blind aunt of the recently deceased Misty Mountains, who insists she saw her niece several days after her reported death alongside her friend Amelia (Margaret Qualley), but they vanished before she could pursue them.  Skeptical of her claim, though curious about her sidekick, March agrees to take the case, though he’s pretty sure he can verify a dead body.  Simultaneously, a young girl (Amelia) is seen chatting with Healy, claiming some guy has been getting too close to her, and before you know it, Healy arrives on the front door of March, giving him the standard treatment before grabbing one of his arms and instructing him, “When you talk to your doctor, tell him you have a spiral fracture of the left radius.”  Later that evening, a couple of mob guys, Blue Face (Beau Knapp) and his older partner Keith David, are lying in wait for Healy, with the duo also looking for Amelia, turning into a raucous skirmish of heavy blows before Healy finds a hidden shotgun and sends them fleeing.  Finding himself back at March’s front door, March, now wearing a cast, is not exactly happy to see him, where his precocious thirteen year old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) acknowledges, “Isn’t that the guy that beat you up, Dad?”  Making amends at a local diner, they try to figure out their situation of finding Amelia before the mob does, where Holly reveals her personal misgivings about her father’s working methods, as he routinely swindles his clients out of extra days, claiming he’s onto something even as he has nothing to show for it.  Both these guys are scumbags of the lowest order, yet their appeal is their humorous back and forth banter, where they’re fuck ups even when they try to do good, yet Holly, bright and intelligent, is easily the best thing in the film, actually showing them up throughout the film, and turns out to be the voice of conscious for both of them, continually sticking her nose in their business, despite her Dad pushing her out of the way.   What they discover is Amelia was working with Misty Mountains on an experimental porn film called How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?  The filmmaker named Dean, along with Misty, both turn up dead, with Dean mysteriously dying in a house fire, while the producer, Sid Shattack, is having a glamorous Hollywood party where all interested forces converge. 

Decorated in costume glitter with all manner of Hollywood weirdos and perverts, they fit right in, weaving in and out of the opulence of the party, with March taking full advantage of the free drinks, pretty much getting plastered, literally stumbling upon the dead body of Shattack while Holly is the one that actually discovers Amelia, but falls into the hands of the killers as well, who are also there trying to kill Amelia while acknowledging a hit man named John-Boy (Matt Bomer) has been hired to eliminate any and all witnesses.  It gets a bit convoluted and ridiculous at the same time, including murders and miraculous escapes, especially when a sharply dressed black woman Tally (Yaya DaCosta) arrives on the scene and our tag team of private eyes are suddenly directed into the offices of a high ranking official in the Justice Department, none other than Kim Basinger as Judith Kutner, Amelia’s mother, (remember Basinger worked so well together with Russell Crowe in his 1997 breakout movie, LA CONFIDENTIAL), who claims her daughter is so delusional and paranoid that she thinks her own mother is out to kill her, asking for their help in returning her back home safely, as otherwise she’s falling into the hands of the Las Vegas mob as they attempt to expand their pornography ring into Los Angeles.  It only grows more ludicrous, where there are shootouts at an airport hotel and a miraculous discovery of Amelia, who reveals to them that it’s the film they’re after, as it exposes all the precious little secrets about a corporate exposé involving the Detroit auto industry, air pollution, and their collusion to suppress the supposed effectiveness of a bogus catalytic converter that regulates exhaust emissions.  In disbelief, March inquires, “So let me get this straight:  You made a porn movie in which the point was the plot?”  With Detroit behind all the evil machinations, where better to promote their product than the high rollers and corporate executives attending the Los Angeles Auto Show?  With the porn and auto industries blending into one, with dueling party sequences along with slogans like “What’s good for Detroit is good for America,” a manic hit man on the loose, and a mafia-like conspiracy theory suppressing the truth, it’s only fitting that everyone’s trying to get their hands on that little porn film which will expose the truth.  As preposterous as it sounds, it all leads to a giant shoot ‘em up sequence, where a decent comedy is infiltrated by excessive violence that feels obligatory and necessary for an American audience, where it remains contrived and cartoonish throughout, like something that exists only in the movies, bearing little resemblance to reality, yet has become so commonly accepted in the movie world where we’ve simply gotten used to vulgar, overglossed Hollywood fabrications, the bigger the better (Trump, anyone?), where most have grown numb to it after a while, but the point remains it’s completely unnecessary in a movie like this that is so character driven, as the heightened levels of humor are the real story, but somehow the intimacy gets lost in the hyperbolic exaggerations.