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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and Our Hitler

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Oliver Stone, 2010

Oliver Stone’s new movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps returns us to one of Stone’s great subjects of the 1980s: the glamour and corruption of the American financial markets. A sequel to Stone‘s 1987 Wall Street, this show plunges us back into the seductions and pitfalls of the casino mentality on the trading floors and the stock market, of inside guys making huge, quick profits and the dangerous games and ruinous consequences of playing with other people‘s money, other people‘s lives — and not giving a damn about it.

And it returns us also to maybe the greatest fictional character Stone ever invented (with co-writer Stanley Weiser): Gordon Gekko, the brilliant, slick-as-a-whip, high-energy, amoral corporate raider with the combed-back hair, the custom made shirts and the fashion-smartie suspenders, the omnipresent half-smirk and whiplash flow of callous cracks and cynical Wall Street “wisdom” — the man whose motto was “Greed is good.”

As played by Michael Douglas, who won a well-deserved Oscar for the performance, Gekko was intended by Stone as the ultimate bad example, an amoral, selfish bastard who betrayed and exploited people, a graveyard dancer who bought up companies, squeezed them for all he could and then, heedless of collateral suffering, gutted and maybe destroyed them — while soaking up all the millions he could and living a high life beyond even the TV-and-movie- stoked imaginations of most of us. Why did he wreck companies, and also destroy jobs and lives, and swill like a sleek hog in the profits? “Because they’re wreckable,” Gekko casually explained.

What a guy! He was the ultimate hedonist with the ultimate toys, and a dark, mean heart. And Stone and Weiser tried to make sure we’d realize what a bad guy he and what an awful example he set, by clearly showing to what would seem even the slowest and densest of movie audiences, how evilly and unrepentantly Gekko damaged and hurt people, by finally exposing him, by wrecking his life and sending him to jail in Wall Street — using, as the agent of his destruction, the movie’s handsome juvenile lead and half-sympathetic, somewhat moral, up-from-the-working-class protagonist, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen). Bud wore a wire on Gekko to expose the bastard and goaded him into a screaming, revealing, rip-it-open tantrum.

But, in the ultimate irony and the ultimate bad real-life joke, Gekko — whom part of the audience at least knew was a heavy getting his well-earned come-uppance (maybe because they’d seen a lot of movies) — became instead an ultimate role model for a generation of swine. Sheeesh! Incredibly, he became the fantasy best pal/mentor and patron saint, for scads of ambitious, wolfish, proudly unscrupulous young Wall Street traders and raiders, who worshipped Gordon, had a hard-on for Gordon, wanted to be Gordon, and took “Greed is Good” as their own private credo.

Then these “Little Gekkos“ and other money-mad speculators — taking advantage of the horrendous and stupid deregulatory financial market policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations — proceeded to wreck what was wreckable, exploit what was exploitable, rob what was robbable, screw what was screwable, maybe even Ponzi what was Ponzable and Enron what was Enronnable, and to live high lives (some of them only in their 20s and 30s) beyond the dreams of even Gordon Gekko himself — until these rotten little high-rolling, high-fiveing parasites and their cohorts finally helped hurl us all into the great crash of 2008, and to what might have been the next Great Depression (and still could be, if the F.O.X.-G.O.P. ever gets back in power, dives into the loot and starts another deregulated feeding frenzy).

Most of the Little Gekkos probably thought the great lesson of “Wall Street” was not “Greed is bad,” but “Greed is good. Do it all pal, but watch out for wires and don’t get caught.”

I guess one or two Little Gekkos may even be reading this (though I doubt many of them waste much time on movie reviews written by lefties). And, if they are, all I can say is: Take an express-train ticket to Hell, buddy, because that’s where you belong.

That was then. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is now.

Full disclosure. I really like most of Oliver Stone’s movies. I love them even at their most outrageous and screamingly preachy and punch-in-the-gut unfair; I tend to dig them even when they’re “bad.” And, even though, like Stone, I had a Jewish father, and I was not happy with his recent London interview comments about Jewish politics, I’m willing to forgive him a lot, even forgive him my disappointment that this Wall Street is not as savage, punchy ad brainily aggressive as I’d like it to be — that it really does seem to have been mostly written by its two credited screenwriters, Allan Loeb (of 21 and The Switch) and my old colleague Stephen Schiff (True Crime), rather than Stone.

I don’t know why anybody would want to make an Oliver Stone movie about Wall Street and high finance that wasn’t written, primarily or substantially, by Stone, an Oscar-winning screen writer whose father was a Wall Street insider — though Writers Guild credits rules mean, I guess, that he could have written up to 50%, and still not gotten script credit. But I’ll trust Google for the moment. (Loeb, by the way, worked as a stockbroker.)

Anyway, business is business, art is art, and this script is certainly out of the ordinary: smart, gutsy, its subject, and better than most of what we get from the big studios. It’s not more trash for the young and horny, the Little Gekkos and their Gekkettes, and all the wanna-be Gekkos. Stone’s hand is there in the script, somewhere, if only as an inspiration. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps just doesn’t have the rip-it-open smack and the take-no-prisoners wallop of the 1987 movie.

What it does have is perspective, mellowness, maybe a little more obvious humanity. Sometimes, that gives us a surprise or two. And it keeps pulling us in.

When we first see the new Gekko, he‘s being released from prison in 2001, with all his paltry carry-in loot being stuffed in a bag and nary a friend, relative, reporter or telejournalist, there to push a mike in his face and ask if he‘s learned any lessons. (I didn’t buy that media freeze-out. And, in any case, I think the writers threw away a possible sharp, satiric scene to get their little Gekko-chastening “God, so alone, so alone!” moment. )

Flashing gecko forward to the mid 2000’s, before the crash, he‘s on the lecture circuit, peddling a book called “Is Greed Good?”, exposing what he used to celebrate. Did Gekko actually write it all, we wonder, or as with most public figures and politicos, from Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to Hillary Clinton, did he hire an interviewer/ghost-writer? (According to The New York Times, more than 80%, of the Times nonfiction bestseller list were not written by the name on the cover. The old Stone would have had the ghostwriter at the lecture and cracked a few jokes about this.)

It’s a new world, a new time, a new Gekko, new greed. The new villains of our day are the investment bankers, and the Wall Street-is-a-casino crowd, all those guys who got from George W. Bush and others, a license to steal. (And did.) In Gekko’s audience is the character we’ve met in the meantime, this movie’s equivalent for Sheen‘s up-and-comer Gekko acolyte Bud Fox: Shia LaBeouf as Jake Moore, a young financial stud with alternative energy principles. Jake, working on Wall Street, witnessed and lamented the crushing (which we see too) of his own father-figure/mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella And, coincidentally he’s dating Gekko’s daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan, at her cutest and wariest), who hates her dad, won’t talk to him, and is running a left-wing blog political website where she celebrates the kind of stuff and attitudes the old Gekko thought were for losers.

So the hook is baited, by Loeb, Schiff, Stone or whomever. Jake hooks up with Gekko, because he wants an insider‘s savvy and advice, so he can go after Zabel‘s wrecker/assassin Bretton James (Josh Brolin, looking like a dark cloud in an Armani suit). Gekko wants Jake so he can get back to Winnie, build a bridge to his old family, be a mensch maybe. James wants Jake on his team, because like Gekko before him, he has a strange weakness for young men on the rise, seems to have a weakness for seeing himself reborn in obvious movie juvenile leads.

Here’s one thing I don’t like about the new script. Like too many sequels, it tends to repeat the original and its patterns too much — though here, much less obviously. But noticeably. James is the new Gekko. (So, maybe, is the old Gekko.) Jake is the new Bud. Lou Zabel is the new Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook) or maybe Lou Stone. There‘s no new Darien (Daryl Hannah), unless it’s Winnie Gekko and blogging has become the new interior decoration, but some mistakes I guess we can learn from. Susan Sarandon, as Jake‘s mother, may be the new Martin Sheen (Bud’s dad) and also the new real-estate flogging Sylvia Miles, but the original Sylvia is back too, still hustling apartments. There’s no new John McGinley as the loudmouth in the other cubicle and I miss him. (“Knicks and chicks!“) Stone himself is on the trading floor, wearing just the right dissolute grin.

Bud Fox is back too, and that‘s one scene I really liked. (Some didn’t.) David Byrne is on the soundtrack as this movie’s Frank Sinatra. Byrne is good, but “Money Never Sleeps,” Talking Heads and all, doesn’t have an adequate substitute for the Chairman of the Board‘s great opening Wall Street (‘87) ballad opener “Fly Me to The Moon” — though, if they were in a humorous mood, they might have tried The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” Or Billy Joel‘s “ Moving Up,” or even, as a bow to the Little Gekkos, Joel‘s “(I Love You) Just the Way You Are.”

SPOILER ALERT

Afterwards, we do tend to go through the original archetypal moves and dramatic rituals again — though there are changes or evolutions, and this time, only an idiot wouldn’t realize that Brolin’s Bretton James is intended as a bad example. (I‘m not saying that a lot of idiots won’t.)

END OF SPOILER

Money Never Sleeps deepens Gekko, seemingly, and shows his more human side, which Douglas only let out in little dribbles and sips, if at all, in the first movie. (Hey, the guy liked Bud.) And it works here because of the acting and the top-chop cast. Douglas is a great movie actor, and a born star (just like his own Jewish dad, Kirk, aka Issur Danielovitch Demsky). He holds the screen here and usually, in ways that most of the younger leading men, cutie-pies though most of them may be, can’t. He holds it better here than even the often on-target LaBeouf, who’s a kind of champ of his generation of casual, watchful underplaying and sincere realism.

I’m happy to see Douglas showcased this year, maybe get an Oscar nomination, for Solitary Man or Wall Street 2 — though sometimes it seemed that the filmmakers in Solitary Man wanted to wreck their character because he was wreckable. And though there may be a little too much mellowing going on in Wall Street 2 — even though the movie still has a nasty surprise or two up its suspenders.

As for the other actors, Carey Mulligan palms her usual low-key ace, even though she has the least well-written, most sentimentalized character in the movie. Langella cracks your heart on that subway platform. Eli Wallach is here as Julie Steinhardt, backing up James like another consigliore, and I must say I’d rather watch a Wallach seduction ( as in “Baby Doll”) than a Josh Duhamel one any way. Warren Buffett, maybe tired of his day job, shows up as local color. And, just as Wall Street, shot by Robert Richardson while Frank flew us to the moon, looked great and classically Manhattan, cold light shimmering over the skyscrapers and the memories, so does Wall Street 2, in a new world without a Trade Center, shot by Rodrigo Prieto.

Stone has mellowed. Gekko has mellowed. We’ve all mellowed — except maybe Mad Money’s Jim Cramer. And though mellowing can be good — though there are things about Money Never Sleeps (mostly the personal drama sections) that are better than is predecessor — I was sorry this wasn’t the Wall Street we, or a lot of us, wanted to see.

Most movie audiences probably don’t know enough about investment banks, unless they caught it in passing on Kudlow or heard it being screamed about by Cramer — and even the smartest among them may think derivative means something ripped off from Executive Suite or Citizen Kane. It wouldn’t have been belaboring the obvious, for at least 90% of the audience, to take us through a dramatic primer on how all those deregulated assholes manipulated the system, lived their high lives, and devastated the economy for most everyone else.

Greed? Good? Give me a break. A month or so ago, I was talking to an older guy in my building, a retired hospital administrator, telling him some horror stories about what happened to my 94-year-old mother Edna in the local medical system — such as the time I found her lying in sheets and her blanket drenched with blood because of an I.V. insertion error that nobody had caught. He looked at me sadly, and said he was sure that it was all true — that there was an unspoken policy at many hospitals to give second or third rate care to the elderly, because it was felt, they took up too many beds and decreased profits.

Maybe my mother wouldn’t have died in our apartment, six or so hours after the hospital released her, breathing softly “Help Me,” if there had been better medical care, kinder policies — and a few less parties, a little less Coke, one less political donation, a few less Knicks and Chicks, a few less derivatives, a little less clout, and a few less assholes, on Wall Street.

Sometimes it’s good to make your villains obvious, even too obvious, because in life they sometimes aren’t, even when they’re saying things like “Greed is good.” I’ll never forget the time one of my supervisors said to me, during an evaluation session, “You know, you’re a genuinely good person. But you’ve got to realize that there are people around here who are evil.” His exact words. I looked at this guy, surprised, and he was grinning from ear to ear. (Did I mis-hear “Evil?“ Did he really say “E-mailing?“) But I didn’t hear any alarm bells, didn’t think he was maybe tipping a hand. I thought he was complimenting me, perhaps even warning me. How naïve! Maybe I should have been wearing a wire.

Now as then, in the 2000s, as in 1986, just as Stone likes to show us, good is good and bad is bad. Greed is greed. Wall Street is Wall Street. Money never sleeps — and love of money, as they say in the Bible, is the root of all evil. Listen, you Little Gekkos, you Little Gekkettes: Greed ain‘t good and to hell with you.

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Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (Two and a Half Stars)

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A no-holds-barred adaptation by the energetic Zack Snyder of a Tolkien-ish children‘s animal adventure series by Kathryn Lasky, all about warring owls, and two kids birds Soren and Kludd (voiced by Jim Sturgess and Ryan Kwanten) torn between the good owls, the Guardians, and the bad ones , the Pure Ones.

I’m going to have to see this one again, because on a first viewing, with what I would have to say was a not-perfectly-sharp sound system, it struck me as beautiful and exciting, even dazzling, but also somewhat incoherent and hard to follow. There’s certainly a lot of amazing 3D, and one hell of a last battle — and two terrific voice characterizations by Geoffrey Rush as the grizzled good owl Ezylryb and Helen Mirren as an ivory faced femmey bad one, Nyra. But owls have generally similar, and often non-expressive faces. It’s actually hard to tell one from another, unless you hear a voice like Rush‘s or Mirren‘s. And the movie didn‘t reach me, didn’t kill me. Then again, it still might.
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Our Hitler (Hitler: A Film from Germany) (Four Stars)

Germany; Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, 1977

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s bizarre and brilliant seven hour investigation into Adolf Hitler and his cultural-political roots is a hermetic spectacle, a political grand opera and one of the remarkable films of its era.

Shot on a sound stage, with an ingenious use of back projection to create multiple backgrounds and environments, the movie takes many of its texts from Hitler’s speeches and ruminations and those of his cohorts (Josef Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, etc.), employees and analysts. For Syberberg, Hitler was not an aberration but the mad logical end point of part of German culture, a mélange of Wagner, The Ring Cycle and Nietzsche that Syberberg recreates in authentic, fact-based writing and eloquent sound and image.

Our Hitler was imported to the U. S. by Francis Coppola, and it’s so unusual and ambitious — and so richly textured, theatrical and unashamedly philosophical — that it requires a real adjustment from the viewer. You have to take Our Hitler with a seriousness, you might usually reserve for deep intellectual books and classical art. One of the film’s major admirers. Susan Sontag called it “the most extraordinary…film I have ever seen” and “one of the great works of art of the twentieth century.“

And though some will be alienated or confused by Syberberg’s Hitler, by its dense content and unique style, the film holds up. It also reminds you that, in cinema and history alike, we often just scratch the surface of the world. (In German, with English subtitles.) (Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago)

One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and Our Hitler”

  1. dianna says:

    Does anyone know where I can get a copy of this film (Our Hitler) for a reasonable price…Amazon is the only place I see where it can be bought for some outrageous price.

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