Thursday, 30 September 2010

'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' review:

Love him or loathe him, Oliver Stone is an interesting modern American filmmaker. Stone is not a director whose work I generally enjoy, or even particularly admire, but (as I have no doubt written here before) the source of my interest in him is twofold. Firstly, I am fascinated by the fact that he remains something of a chronicler of contemporary American history, covering everything from sporting life ('Any Given Sunday') to counterculture and popular music ('The Doors').

The filmmaker has made three films directly about the Vietnam War and as many covering American presidents, including one, 'W.', whilst the subject was still the incumbent. He also made his 9/11 movie, 'World Trade Center', within five years of the tragedy. Similarly films he has written but not directed, such as 'Scarface', have just as much to say about the American experience and (invariably) the evils of capitalism. This recurring interest in certain themes and issues is what marks him out as an auteur. This leads on to my second reason for finding Stone interesting.

I also really respect the fact that in an age where overtly polemical storytelling and documentary making is discouraged (or at least readily disregarded) Stone remains energised by a sincere politicism which he won't compromise. Whether you agree with him or not: Oliver Stone always wants to tell you something. More than that, he wants to convince you of something and even improve your understanding of the world. This is a rare trait – and, I think, a rather welcome one. Yet I must always come back to the fact that, in spite both these qualities, I am never moved to actually like his work. A fitting example of “good Stone/bad Stone” can be gleamed from his latest movie: 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'.

A sequel to 1987's original 'Wall Street', 'Money Never Sleeps' is a self-consciously timely look at the world of banking and finance in the wake of the current worldwide economic difficulties (archive news footage of which Stone blends into the film). Michael Douglas steps back into his Academy Award winning role as Gordon Gekko, who when as film begins in 2002 has spent the last eight years in prison as result of sleezy, insider trading crimes committed in that previous movie.

The first film focussed around Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox, but save for a small cameo role, this is not his story. Instead the sequel stars Shia LaBeouf as an opportunistic, up-and-coming Wall Street trader who begins a clandestine friendship with Gekko after becoming engaged to his estranged daughter, played by the illuminescent Carey Mulligan. As you'd expect, Stone wastes little time being subtle and early on Gekko gives a speech in which he tells us exactly what to think about corporate greed (whilst promoting his book “Is Greed Good?”).

The evils of Wall Street are also shown to us via high-level meetings in which a cast of really good old character actors, including Frank Langella and Eli Wallach (a scene stealer at 94), enact the sort of backroom deals that run the world. These scenes are reminiscent of situation room bits in 'W.', in which a lot of exposition is sold as dialogue. Also present is Josh Brolin as the film's antagonist, Bretton James (the “son of Satan”), the film's avatar for the ultimately self-destructive A-morality of corporate greed. Brolin, a last minute replacement of Javier Bardem (who chose to be in 'Eat, Prey, Love' instead), is flat as James, lacking the charisma that would make his attitude and lifestyle seem appealing. By contrast Douglas imbues the similarly morally bankrupt Gekko with considerable gravitas.

Stone makes it abundantly clear where his politics lie and what he thinks of these characters and this is the director at his most heavy-handed. The camera is forever circling characters, often zooming and panning around, often seemingly at random. But amongst his usual hyper-active grasp of cinematic style he does manage some genuinely inspired visual motifs, such as a graphic that likens the New York skyline to a diagram of boom and bust economics – a fitting metaphor, given how closely the growth of the city was itself tied up with the growth of international capitalism (with skyscrapers built by the biggest tycoons of the early twentieth century).

But generally, the director's bombast approach left me as cold as it ever has. He is helped a little in this instance by solid performers, with even LaBeouf shinning. But the focus on the relationship triangle between LaBeouf, Mulligan and Douglas is surplus to requirements (not to mention deadly dull) in a film which would do better to keep its eye on Wall Street. The resolution of this storyline is also pretty dire, feeling rushed and contrived – it seems to come from nowhere, not based on anything we have seen in the preceding two hours.

'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' is, to my mind, the quintessential Oliver Stone film. It's overlong, brash, simplistic and oddly proud of itself at the same time. The camera is never still, the dialogue is trite and feels written, with an emphasis on style over substance which runs counter to Stone's obvious genuine interest in his chosen subject matter. However, it is also, like the rest of his work, boldly topical and daringly propagandist.

In the end it feels reminiscent of watching him interview South American leaders earlier this year in ‘South of the Border’, having unprecedented access to people like Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez, but in the end wasting the opportunity asking them to play soccer with him or enquiring about how many pairs of shoes they own. I'm thrilled that he is out there making these films, usually attracting big stars and big budgets. I just wish that he had the intellect or the artistry to support his obvious ambition - and, what I believe, are good intentions.

'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' is out in the UK on the 6th of October and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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