Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oliver Stone - Back in Form

"It's ugly versus ugly and it's time for ugly to get going."

That quote, uttered by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) about two-thirds of the way through Oliver Stone's latest film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps has to do with a plot twist in the film that I will not give away. However, once I heard it, I couldn't help but think of the effect Oliver Stone has on film critics. He certainly has brought out the beast in a number of critics in his career, and while this work does not have the obvious political overtones that previous works such as JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995) had, the Stone bashers are once again outraged.

I mention this as I've seen mixed reviews of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, with a few writers extolling this as an insightful look at the stock market meltdown of 1998, with most reviewers knocking the film for its clumsy story lines or lacking the edginess of his original Wall Street (1987). While there are a few flaws in the film, I loved it and I started wondering what these critics were looking for? Once again, the very mention of Stone's name attracts the naysayers like a porch light attracts moths.

What few of these reviewers bother to mention is how entertaining this film is, especially visually. Throughout the years Stone has worked with some of the finest technical talent in the business and that professionalism is evident in this movie as well. Thanks to Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto, this is one of Stone's most visually arresting films, with dazzling views of the Manhattan skyline (occasionally shot in time-lapse, one of Stone's favorite approaches) along with beautiful high-key shots of brokerage offices.

Two scenes in particular are stunningly shot and composed by Stone and Prieto, one a gala affair inside a museum with muted browns and reds as the camera pans among the millionaires, often highlighting a particular necklace or pair of earrings worn by one of the society women, while the second is a lovely shot of the story's main couple, Winnie, Gekko's daughter (Carey Mulligan) and her finacé, Jake (Shia LaBoeuf), side by side in their loft at night with the Empire State Building beautifully lit up in the background in the middle of the shot. Prieto has become one of the most accomplished cinematographers in recent years (Babel, Alexander, 21 Grams); this is one of the most impressive realizations of cinematography that I've experienced over the past few years.

The editing by David Brenner (who won an Oscar for his work on Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, 1989) and Julie Monroe, is equally brilliant. There are all sorts of visual tricks here from split screen to iris in, but even without these sights, the editing conveys the rapid pace that is part of the world of the New York Stock Exchange. I loved, incidentally, the way one character's suicide scene is edited, as it unravels slowly, as he buys the morning paper and a small bag of potato chips from a vendor and then heads down into the subway. He then sits on a subway bench, nonchalantly munching a potato chip or two, before his ultimate decision. The tempo of the film rises and falls with the characters' motives and deeds and that's a credit to the editing team as well as Stone's direction.

If there is a flaw in the film, for me it's the fact that there's just too much going on; certainly the character of Jake's mother (Susan Sarandon) isn't necessary. The only reason I can think of as to why this character is present is to show us the mounting problems in Jake's life, but it seems to me that he's got enough to worry about, given his on-again, off-again relationship with Winnie as well as his encounters with Gordon Gekko; we don't need any more situations to embellish the fragility of his life. Also, while I think Sarandon is an extremely talented actress, her Jewish accent here is way over the top. (As a contrast, I love what Sylvia Miles does with her brief scene- she's got style!)

I don't quite understand all the goings-on with the brokers here; nor did I get everything in the original Wall Street as to the financial decisions. But while that bothers some critics, I don't have a problem. This is a movie, not a documentary and how much is Stone supposed to explain? Do you want a two and one-half or three hour movie? I see these scenes as intrigue and what's most important is not every detail in these transactions, but the emotional decisions undertaken by the characters. There's a real nice evil versus good theme here, but it's not dumbed down. Rather, this comes out over the course of the film, so we can enjoy this as it unfolds. Of course with most of these characters (especially Gordon Gekko), they're walking a fine line between good and bad; it's a complex life these people lead. "So I double dipped?", remarks one character. Stone and his writers seems to be saying that almost everyone in this game leads dual lives.

Again, I just don't see why the film has received such lackluster press. Perhaps in the eye of many critics, Stone is supposed to condemn everyone in the world, and by not doing so, these reviewers may feel that he hasn't brought the hammer down. Of course, if he did that, then some commentators would declare that he's delivered a heavy-handed film- the guy can't win. Say what you will about Oliver Stone's visual style and messages, but would you prefer a hack such as Michael Bay or Brett Ratner at work on some faux epic or dumb comedy? Let's be thankful that Oliver Stone continues to make thoughtful films about important stories in our recent history; after all, few other directors want to seem to make that commitment.

P.S. Very smart decision of Stone and his casting directors Kathleen Chopin and Sarah Finn to use Eli Wallach to portray the character of Jules Steinhardt (last photo above). Though Wallach has only a few lines, he brings a stern presence to his role and I love his little business with the bird chirps!

Wallach also had a small role in Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, back in the spring, so what a wonderful year for this 95 year old actor. How many people even live that long, much less get to work in two films by celebrated directors in the same year? To top it off, Wallach will receive an Honorary Academy Award in a few weeks. Great for him!


  1. Just to copy and paste something I said about the movie on another blog, my problem with Money Never Sleeps is that it just plays it so safe. I hate to ask the inevitable question, but: is Stone getting soft? I kept hoping for more aggression. You're absolutely right though, Tom: it's a tremendously entertaining movie. Stone still knows how to put on a show!

    I guess what bothered me most, though, is how Stone really sentimentalizes the film; Gordon Gekko is the good guy now, and even though he briefly reverts to the greedy businessman he once was, he suddenly becomes a good guy in those odd final scenes. It's like Stone can't decide who he wants Gekko to be: the hero or the villain? My theory is that ever since the AFI voted Gekko as one of its Top 50 Villains, Stone has figured out that businessmen 'round the world mostly learned the wrong lessons from the first Wall Street, took the "Greed is good" slogan more seriously than they needed to--and therefore, Stone feared that if he made Gekko the villain AGAIN, it would only make today's businessmen learn the wrong lessons from Gekko all over again. But I think Stone's getting too paranoid.

    Still, as a fan of the first film, I liked some of the nostalgic touches here. The David Byrne music, for example: just hearing "This Must Be the Place" over the end credits made me smile. And even though the Bud Fox cameo was pretty stupid (why are Fox and Gekko treating each other so nicely when they sent each other to prison???), I was nevertheless amused by it. Same with the performances by Langella and Brolin. Also, sespite my reservations with Shia LaBeouf as an actor and as a personal figure, he performes admirably here. Douglas, of course, remains ever so much a Hollywood star with enormous screen presence. And Wallach's one big scene where the camera closes in on him while he gives a speech about 1929 was just perfect. It's funny because I see the outputs between Wallach and Max von Sydow this year as a kind of war between the aged screen legends: von Sydow got to work with Scorsese and Ridley Scott this year, and Wallach got to work with Polanski and Stone. Great directors still know how to cast great stars.

    I must also acknowledge Stone for at least trying to address our economic pains, even if the end result isn't quite satisfying. One thing I liked about the Susan Sarandon character was her realizing she'd have to go out and "get a real job, with a boss" because of the betrayals of the real estate community (since our last economic crash was entirely the fault of our hands-off attitude towards real estate). And I also liked, in Wallach's big sequence, the moment when the Federal Reserve chairmen realize that they'll have to give in to socialism in order to rescue the country from depression (I guess this is Stone giving credit to Bush for the economic bailout--the most liberal thing he did during his presidency... next to No Child Left Behind, at least). Anyway, it's good to see that Stone hasn't stopped being an interesting filmmaker, but hopefully by his next film he'll have gotten back his taste for blood.

  2. Adam:

    Wow- very insightful comments on your part.

    I understand your point on Stone playing it safe. This is not as hard and mean look at economics as was the original WS. However, one's opinion of Gekko going soft depends on your definition. He turns to love of family at the end, but he is still wheeling and dealing, so he hasn't gone completely nice.

    I'm glad you liked the performance of Shia LaBoeuf. I had read so many negative comments on his work, but I thought he was quite good.

    I would agree with you that Stone is still a bit troubled that Gekko's character was so admired by so many people in the financial business ("You made me want to become a broker"), so maybe that's why the shift with his character.

    I titled this as Stone back in form, but I didn't really explain. That was a reference to his film "W", which I thought lacked dramatic punch or even much of a point of view. Also, there certainly wasn't the usual technical expertise on display in that film as with most of Stone's movies (I thought he rushed that to get it in theaters before the end of Bush's presidency). So WS: MNS is a return to the technical professionalism that we're used to with Stone and if it isn't as angry as other works, well I think we can let him give us a kinder, gentler world that is still one with evil not far from the foreground.