Thursday, May 19, 2016

Money Monster (and some Short Takes comments)

                                    The Bear Market Laid Bare

                                                Review by Ken Burke
 Periodically I get the chance to make direct contact with my Two Guys-so-far-silent-partner-Pat Craig who happened to be back in the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend to attend the premiere of a play that a friend of his wrote (theatre is still Pat’s primary passion; he’s even in a production in his new hometown area way up in northern Washington state), so I thought I’d offer this “proof of life” photograph to verify that he really does exist and that we’re all still in “waiting for Godot”-mode for him to finally write a film review for this blog.  Until that momentous day comes along, though, you’ll just have to be satisfied with whatever I churn out; therefore, I’ll gather up the raw milk of my recent movie consumption, process it through the agitated motions of my frantic brain, and see if I can come up with something like “buttah.”  (A riff on the old Mike Myers Saturday Night Live routines about Barbra Streisand, whom I’m thinking about, set for her concert next August when she comes to San Jose, CA as sort of a very-early-birthday-present for my marvelous wife, Nina, who’s never seen her in live performance either, despite being a devoted fan since her 1960s high-school-days [along with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett—both of whom she has seen perform; Nina tells me that she was a bit “unique” with the records that she brought to parties back in those British Invasion days]; as an example of mercantile processes I’ll never understand any more than the ones in Money Monsters, I got tickets on StubHub yesterday even though the advance-sale-option to American Express cardholders [not us] go on sale today, tickets for the general public aren’t available until next week, so who in the hell is already re-selling $300-a-pop-upper-balacony-seats we just bought?  I’ll leave that burning question for my international following—welcome, readers from Brazil and India, giving me an audience from 4 continents in my latest Google tally [France is way on top of the U.S., but I’m coming on strong in the United Arab Emirates]—to finally get to the review business at hand to give us all something to do while Pat’s pondering his next move.)
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                             Money Monster (Jodie Foster)
In the midst on a cable TV network broadcast a famed Wall Street “wizard” finds himself at the mercy of a gunman who’s furious that previous “solid advice” went bad resulting in a massive loss for this struggling guy who’s not so concerned about getting his money back as in confronting the company CEO whose quick stock tumble resulted in a mysterious $800 million loss.
What Happens: Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a hot-shot-Wall Street-stocks-guru (“Without risk there is no reward.”) whose Money Monster show on cable TV’s Financial News Network (now non-existent but was an actual cable channel in the 1980s) offers stock tips in the midst of high-energy-delivery backed up with flashy graphics, a couple of dancers, and even movie clips on the huge video screens that surround his set.  His assured personality seems to have paid off well for him, although his penchant for winging it on the set is a constant stress-inducer for his long-suffering director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts)—whom we briefly find out later has boldly taken another job but hasn’t told Lee about it yet (although he knows anyway so it hasn’t boiled over into a public spat as has been the case lately with ABC’s Live! where Kelly Ripa’s been steaming over co-host Michael Strahan’s move to their network’s higher-profile Good Morning America without her learning about it prior to the official announcement—another current event that Money Monster’s eerily-prescient about despite having been in development since 2012, with shooting started in early 2015).  The previous day the financial world was shocked by IBIS Global Capital’s stock taking a tremendously-quick-hit, resulting in an $800 million loss for the company; CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) was scheduled to appear on Money Monster to explain how a faulty algorithm started making bad moves which led to the collapse but now he’s off to a meeting in Geneva so his Chief Communications Officer, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), is standing by for a remote video interview from nearby IBIS headquarters when a deliveryman, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), wanders onto the show’s set, suddenly pulling a gun while forcing Lee to put on a bomb-loaded-vest set to explode if Kyle takes his left thumb off of the detonator, a move he insists he’ll do if Patty cuts the live broadcast to Lee’s audience.

 It seems that Kyle’s like many working Americans, barely able to survive on his $14-an-hour-job (just short of what’s now being promoted as a national standard to help vast numbers of working-class-citizens pull their way out of constant debt but still not much in an expensive place like NYC [I lived there in 1973-’73 making $13,000 annually at Queens College but that was just barely enough to get by on trying to support myself and my 1st wife, although 14 years later I was fortunate enough to luck into both a better job and a better spouse]) so when he took Lee’s advice to invest in IBIS, a company “more secure than a savings account,” plopping his entire $60,000 savings (inherited from his late mother) into this investment, he finds himself not only on the verge of being destitute but also furious that small investors such as himself are the ones constantly getting screwed by market fluctuations while high-rollers like Lee and CEOs like Camby never seem to be impacted by these losses (sound familiar, despite the much-earlier-aspects of when this script was written?).  Kyle actually brought 2 bomb-vests, the other intended for Camby until this self-proclaimed “little guy” gets some publically-explained-answers as to how such a huge debacle could have happened, so when Diana starts spouting the company line about the computer glitch (in truth, the only answers she’s got to work from) Kyle shoots out the studio TV screen she’s on, making it clear to Lee (and focused, rapidly-working Patty) that he’s serious about his threats, even as we get frequent cutaways to a growing worldwide audience anxious to see what becomes of this spontaneous-but-seemingly-made-for-cable TV-and-social-media event.

 We also get cutaways to the evolving response from the NYC police SWAT team planning to slip into the studio in hopes of somehow preventing a disaster (although their best option—which Lee later learns about from the earpiece-info provided by Patty—is to shoot the receiver located in the vest roughly over Lee’s kidney [the better strategy, they note for those of you planning a copycat-crime, would be for it to have been set at heart-height]), hoping that Lee could survive the wound.  Another snide evaluation of Lee’s seeming worth to anyone occurs when he tries a quick strategy of getting his viewers to buy IBIS stock (“What’s my life worth?”), thereby reinflating its value but that hopeful scenario quickly falls flat as no majestic-rally emerges for this clearly worthless stock.

 Patty’s rapid, frantic connections to every source of help she can get finally results in a connection with Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend who’s brought to the studio in an attempt to diffuse the standoff but—through video-screen-interaction—she just berates him for his stupid actions until the police shut her off, as she’s only pushing itchy-trigger (and detonator)-finger-Kyle into a more-agitated-state.  Unknown to anyone in the story (just seen by us) Camby’s involved with Diane but when he private-jets back to NYC she secretly checks his passport to find that he’s really been traveling to and from Johannesburg which leads her to contact Patty with this info, along with what she learned from the Korean algorithm-writer who swears his program couldn’t have malfunctioned in this manner unless it was hijacked to do so.  Patty manages to locate a couple of Icelandic hackers who start an immediate probe into Camby’s activities, even as Lee learns the truth about who the snipers’ actual target is so he and Kyle (along with Lenny [Lenny Venito] keeping them on the live feed with his portable camera) head off for lower Manhattan’s Federal Hall where Camby’s supposed to deliver an explanation about the stock crash but this leaves Lee out of contact with Patty for awhile.  What she finds is that Camby secretly made a clandestine deal with a South African platinum miners’ union to go on strike depleting its company’s stock value, then sank the $800 million into the mine with a plan for its value to rise enormously again when the strike’s suddenly called off; however, the ruse fails when honest union leader Moshe Mambo (Makhaola Ndebele), who met with Camby during his covered-up-trip, refuses to halt the strike so IBIS’ stock tanked along with the mining company’s.  Lee finally gets all of this news when his pressed-into-track-star-status-producer, Ron Sprecher (Christopher Denham), manages to get a remote earpiece to him as he and Kyle continue their trip toward Wall Street, surrounded by police and Budwell-supportive-crowds; however, Kyle accidently shoots Ron severely in the shoulder, further increasing the tension of the experience.

 Ultimately, Lee and Kyle make it to Camby’s formal intended-press-conference-hall, now emptied by the police but still on live TV due to Lenny’s camera, so they confront—supported by hacker-supplied-video (including surveillance-camera-footage of the meeting with Mambo)—the defiant CEO who admits everything but insists that nothing he did was illegal.  Kyle now forces Lee to put the bomb-vest on Camby in order to at least pressure him into admitting that his actions may have been legal but they were still wrong, given both the manipulation and the loss of so much investor cash (by this time, though, we and Lee know that Kyle’s “bomb” isn’t that at all but simply a fake intended to help him get the results he was looking for on behalf of all of the others who likely lost everything when Camby’s scheme failed; he twice rejected offers to have his $60,000 replaced as it wasn’t so much about the money for him as about the stacked-deck against the working class, a theme that’s been driving the Democratic and Republican Presidential primaries for the last few months).  But, with tensions this high, even as Kyle releases his useless detonator to reveal his own scheme the police fire, killing him instantly.  As our story ends, Lee and Patty are at the hospital awaiting results on Ron’s progress as they seem to bond over some take-out-food (getting us back to the opening scenes where he kiddingly-berates her for likely spending her Friday night at home in her pajamas watching TV while eating a to-go-dinner, something he says he’s never done for years) while watching a news report that Camby’s plan actually amounts to some SEC international crimes which will likely lead to years in prison 
(we assume the best for Ron, adding to his previous mostly-comic-moments in this story, beginning with his interest in a local inventor’s erectile cream which we find is quite effective, giving his hidden dalliance with a co-worker as Patty’s trying desperately to find him when all of the chaos begins).

So What? Jodie Foster’s consistently proven her worth in front of the camera winning 2 Best Actress Oscars for her stunning roles in The Accused (Jonathan Kaplan, 1988) and The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), with Money Monster adding nicely to her directorial credentials as well.  The pace here is one of constant motion; the presentation is kept compact by the frequent intercut-scenes that show us ongoing, tense parallel actions (from when Kyle's entering the studio as Lee’s going into his absurd opening routine to Lee being held hostage on his set while Diana’s trying to get real answers for Lee and Patty to Diana kissing Camby then prowling through his passport while Kyle and Lee make their way through NYC, etc.) so we never get to settle in on a set of actions while others are occurring that impact the final result; the acting is marvelous throughout with Clooney shifting from pompous to terrified to negotiator-intense, Roberts as horrified not only by everything that’s happening but also by what’s led up to the present crisis yet she never loses her command of the situation even as her parallel panic and anger rise, O’Connell is completely believable as a guy laid low by life pushed to the edge so that he hardly knows what he’s doing nor what he hopes to accomplish next with a previous track record so dismal that even his girlfriend horribly-harangues him rather than trying to help end his hopeless plan, Balfe as the conned-then-furious coworker/lover reaching for a higher standard than simply protecting her boss who could be quite beneficial to her if he can dodge the literal/rhetorical bullets Kyle’s aiming at him, West as a deviously-scheming CEO who at the end of the turmoil raises the pertinent challenge that nobody like Kyle is complaining when stock prices are rising no matter what it took to get them there, and Denham as useful comic relief (until he gets shot by Kyle) in his early-indiscretion-scene and his later footraces around downtown trying to help Patty get the assistance needed for Lee's safety.

 While some after-screening-considerations (see the next segment immediately below) call some of these plot elements into question, the whole package is always engaging to watch while mixing legitimate concerns about stock-market-manipulation into more-immediate-worries about the fates of both Lee and Kyle, given that each constantly has a gun trained on them even though we eventually learn that the even-more-dangerous-bomb-vest is just a hoax.  Your nerves are constantly stretching while watching all of this action, but it’s a satisfying experience well worth the time-investment (just short enough to establish premises, kick the abrupt confrontation into motion, complicate everything that first emerges, and speed us to a conclusion that itself isn’t as simple as we might expect as we’re rooting for the finale of an “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” moment—so that if you’re energized by Money Monster you might also want to relook at a longer, more satirical, true masterpiece of this kind of social critique, the 4-Oscar-winning [Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay] Network [Sidney Lumet, 1976], a true 5-star-masterpiece by my quirky-ratings-standards) and even your money’s investment if your schedule requires that you pay nighttime-full-ticket-price for the value received.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: Maybe some aspects of Money Monster are a bit too facile—Kyle’s fake bomb (which makes him less of an unhinged-threat than he seems to be, just a desperate guy without even the full resources that real [horrible] terrorists have far too easy an access to, along with setting up the [unintended?] possibility of lumping him in with other victims of trigger-happy-police so that what’s essentially an anti-Citizens United-stance in this script [speaking out not directly about big-money-influence in politics but more broadly the corrupting-strategies of any sort of influence-peddlers] could quietly morph into a pseudo-Black Lives Matter-stance as well—even though no one of consequence in this movie is Black), Lee’s quick transition from fear for his own life (he has a panic attack upon the initial confrontation, which even Kyle can tell isn’t a heart attack that needs medical intervention), to investigative-reporter on behalf of Kyle’s destitute masses (although some of that may just be a personal response again, after he learns that he’s now become the target of the police snipers—but what choice did they have, because if they shoot Kyle then everyone’s assumption at that point [including ours] is that his relaxed thumb on the detonator would ignite the bomb?), along with Lee’s emergence at the end as a sincere champion of the downtrodden in his confrontations with Camby on live TV (which will likely not lead to a major change of heart or career when he gets to his next cablecast on Monday [or, if that’s the intention, then a couple of hints in his final conversation with Patty would have been a useful indication of this transformation, although we are left with the clear indication that they’re now headed for something more than a professional in-studio relationship]).

 But if you’re going to offer a tightly-executed-drama that’s ultimately more about screen events than ideological arguments (even better, presented in an effectively-concise 98 min., a viewing pleasure compared to the mind-numbing-time-and-expense-extravaganza of something like Captain America: Civil War [Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 13, 2016 posting]) you have to move quickly, allowing plot events to substitute for nuanced-character-evolution.  Thus, while I don’t think that Money Monster will be dubbed a repeat-viewing-classic I did enjoy it a lot and recommend it at the level of thoughtful entertainment, with the emphasis on the latter term.

 When I was briefly contemplating what to choose for my usual review-wrap-up-Musical Metaphor, to accompany my comments on Money Monster, the 1st thing I thought of was The Beatles singing one of the few songs on their records that they didn’t write, “Money (That’s What I Want),” (you'll find the original recording on the 1963 U.K. album With the Beatles and the 1964 U.S. The Beatles’ Second Album), which I share with you here from a 1963 live TV performance at com/watch?v=_awAH-JJx1k with plenty of shots of screaming girls in the audience but a curious minimum of images of John Lennon singing lead so here's another one seemingly with no studio audience so we just see the band (but in poorer video quality with the original 4x3 format stretched into modern widescreen).  However, I also kept thinking of Pink Floyd's “Money” (from the 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon album), so I’m making it a Musical Metaphor double-feature this week with that song's official video at https:// www. coupled with a great alternative version if you’d like to see a live performance (a rare reunion of Roger Waters joining former bandmates David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright at the London Live 8 concert, July 2, 2005).  I’ve used each of these cuts twice before (something I try to avoid), but they’re just too appropriate not to bring into action again in connection to Money Monster, with the 1st one focused on our current society’s desire for wealth through any means possible, especially huge payoffs from the stock market (or the many state and national lotteries available) and the 2nd noting the unhealthy, antisocial effects of this obsession with big payouts, especially the economic disparity between those who run our financial system and the vast number of others attempting to find a winning strategy to move out of bare-stability (or much worse in many cases) into that alluring, unknown realm of the storied 1%.

 I doubt that any of these lyrical or cinematic musings on the awful destructive force of wealth accumulation will help much in bringing about the kind of rapid-economic-redistribution-revolution that Senator Bernie Sanders is now advocating.  (Nor am I immune to my own lesser-level of comfy accumulation if I can afford to spend $300 a ticket just to see a woman sing [not to mention the hefty, considerably-larger-sum that Nina and I sunk into seeing a full-blown-collection of “oldies”—the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, "Pink Floyd"-David Gilmour, and The Who—at the 3-day-Desert Trip festival in Indio, CA in October 2016, a likely once-in-our-collective-lifetimes-event, a sort of “bucket list-Woodstock,” especially for the majority of us in this sentence who weren’t at the original 1969 event]; I’m just thankful we’ve got enough spare retirement money to indulge in such extravagances while still being able to contribute to worthy charities to balance out our hedonism.)  Still, it’s useful to keep being reminded in our art (and politics) that there are far too many unfortunate people in our world who can’t “depend on the kindness of strangers” to help them make ends meet on a daily basis in societies increasing run by financial or military oligarchies (which have replaced the monarchies and aristocratic oligarchies of past centuries where true democracy was still a rare beast), with the hope that stories such as we see in Money Monster (as we recognize the real implications of that 2nd word) will add to the need to reform how material wealth is shared rather than just fueling individual lust to achieve upper-crust-status at the expense of whichever poor slobs are left behind in our money-mad-“rapture.”
Short Takes
 While lack of interesting choices and logistical inconvenience resulted in me seeing only 1 first-run-film during the previous week I did find some other cinematic options through Netflix and (gasp!) broadcast TV.  The first one, Nina and my weekly-through-the-mail-disc (nope, no streaming; we’re got enough to keep us occupied without that further distraction), was Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993), chosen largely as a refresher on what actually went on in this “spiritual predecessor” to the current Everybody Wants Some! (director Linklater doesn’t use this term to describe his earlier work, but considering he calls the new one a “spiritual [rather than literal] sequel” to Dazed … it seems a likely term of reference; my review of Everybody … is in our April 14, 2016 posting).  Both of these are enjoyable enough reminiscences of end-of-high-school/beginning-of-college years—at least in their central Texas settings in 1976 and 1980, effectively capturing the flavor of those times, including the reality that (from 1973 until 1981) you could legally drink at age 18 (which didn’t do me any good in my high school and 1st-half of undergrad days, as I had to wait until I turned 21 back in 1968) so that all of the guzzling you see in these movies is legal, at least up to the point of intoxication (which doesn’t seem to happen to most of these characters but I assume they’d already had plenty of practice by the time we meet them), although in respect for the anti-smoking-campaigns directed toward younger Americans of the past few decades you never see any of those bars, dance halls, or discos of the Linklater movies covered in the thick haze of cigarette smoke that would have been de rigueur for any Texas indoor location of those days.

Ben Affleck (second from left) as a
different sort of "batman"
 Dazed … is still a lot of fun to watchalthough more from a nostalgic-reminiscence-stance than anything mildly intriguing about its virtual-non-plot (George Lucas does a lot more with that concept in his American Graffiti [1973])poses the reasonable question of whether Everybody 
Wants Some! isn’t just more of a remake than any sort of a sequel (with this new one also enjoyable in its easy, meandering sense of nothingness but just barely worth the 3 stars I gave it); if I were rating Dazed and Confused I guess I’d go with 3½ because for its time it was another useful step in the marvelous career-trajectory of my fellow-central-Texan, Linklater, plus it fully introduced us (despite some previous minor credits here and there) to Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, and, most especially, Matthew McConaughey, so what else can I say for this movie but “Alright, alright, alright!”  (Although I do wonder what kind of response Nina would have gotten with those Streisand, Sinatra, and Bennett records if she’d have been at this ZZ Top-era high school, even though the guys there were after beer more than the "tush" [from the 1973 Fandango! album] obsession of the Everybody Wants Some! collegians—except for the senior guys looking for freshmen butts to paddle [I’m still not clear why if these just-finished-with-their-junior-years boys are now seniors that the just-finished-with-9th-grade kids are still called freshmen, but, then, I never understood that much about Texas even when I lived there].)

 My other celebrated-joyful-cinematic-reacquaintance this week is with another true 5-star-classic from long-ago days of yesteryear, The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940), in which Cary Grant and James Stewart vie for the affections of Katharine Hepburn in one of the genre-defining-examples of screwball comedy (although from a purely anal-retentive-academic-perspective I’d say that’s really a minor subgenre of the larger, amorphous overall genre of Comedy).
If, for some reason, you’d really like to immerse yourself in an academic exploration of this movie by reading a critique of how the screwball comedies of the 1930s-‘40s didn’t really feature the strong, independent women that they’re purported to do, you might try David Shumway’s article “Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage” (in Barry K. Grant’s Film Genre Reader III [University of Texas Press, 2003—possibly in other editions as well; sorry that it’s not available as far as I know on the Internet but here’s a source of where the original article or its anthology book might be found at a nearby library, if that’s not too much of a primitive concept for you]) where he argues that these seemingly-liberated-women ultimately are returned to the control of their fathers, husbands, or former-husbands.  (A sub-branch of this [sub]genre, the comedy of remarriage, is celebrated by Stanley Cavell in Pursuits of Happiness [1981] but challenged by Shumway and Rosa Maria Strengholt in a [very short by my standards but well-written] 2013 Bachelor’s thesis [downloadable at the site I’ve cited] from Utrecht University that follows a little of Shumway’s argument; a related available document is another undergrad thesis, by Fletcher Parrott Thornton IV, from California Polytechnic State University, 2014 [a considerably-longer—also downloadable—well-detailed-study of screwball comedy as a whole, seemingly factually-useful from my quick couple of scans of it {also briefly cites Shumway}, although neither the author nor his faculty advisors caught the mistake of saying that Barbara Stanwyck, instead of actual Rosalind Russell, played the lead role of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday {Howard Hawks, 1940} so you might be careful what else you choose to quote from this essay in cocktail conversation].)

 One final thing to note before disappearing until next time is that while I’m glad that Stewart won a Best Actor Oscar for some role in his long, respected career it’s a shame that it was for The Philadelphia Story which is not only not his best performance (you could easily make an argument that Anatomy of a Murder [Otto Preminger,1959] or his equally-famous-later-work with Hitchcock might be the mostly likely place to find such honors, especially Vertigo [1958]—but he didn’t even get a nomination for that one, nor did this famous film itself for Best Picture despite now being voted in the most recent [2012] Sight and Sound critics’ poll as the best film ever made [my money’s still on Citizen Kane {Orson Welles, 1941}]).  However, this seems to be one of those Hollywood make-up-awards (not for facial- or bodily-enhancement; they didn’t even give a Makeup [and Hairstyling] Oscar until 1981) intended to rectify a previous snub, in this case Stewart not getting Best Actor in 1939 for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra), voted instead to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips to get a major award to MGM for one of their own films (although made by their British Denham Studios division) to balance the honors for Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming)—10 Oscars that yearwhich they merely distributed but clearly was the property of producer David O. Selznick.  Unfortunately, that kind of crazy-catch-up continues to happen with the Oscars, no matter how they attempt to change their voting process.
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Here’s more information about Money Monster: (39:35 interview with director Jodie Foster, including commentary on her extensive acting and occasional directing career)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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