In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
Much has changed in the world of finance since Oliver Stone first explored its grubby innards in 1987’s Wall Street a film that netted Michael Douglas a Best Actor Oscar for his iconic portrayal of scheming corporate raider Gordon Gekko. Technological advances regulatory changes a terrorist attack a global economic meltdown and the emergence of China as a dominant player have combined to transform the securities industry in the two-plus decades since Gekko paraphrasing Ivan Boesky first captured its more sinister aspects in those famous words “Greed is good.”
What hasn’t changed is Stone who remains every bit as hubristic and heavy-handed as ever. With his sprawling spotty follow-up Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps he has once again taken it upon himself to put forth the definitive portrait of the culture of money and the film suffers badly for it. Set in 2008 in those halcyon days just prior to the subprime mortgage crisis and its subsequent leveling of financial landscape the film is told through the wide eyes of young Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) the 21st-century heir to Bud Fox’s mantle. (Charlie Sheen who portrayed Fox in the first film resurfaces in a fun but ultimately pointless cameo in the sequel.)
Jake we are told is a successful proprietary trader but his countenance more closely resembles that of a venture capitalist. (The risky practices and alleged conflicts of interests of prop traders are widely believed to be among the causes of the financial collapse; the Obama administration has recently proposed their ban.) Though he’s as profit-driven as any other young Wall Street turk he also boasts something of an idealistic streak and hopes to use his position at the prestigious investment banking firm of Keller Zabel to further the cause of a cutting-edge green energy startup. No doubt it’s this noble trait that appeals to his girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan) a progressive pixie who runs a muckraking leftist blog and who also happens to be Gekko’s estranged daughter.
Jake’s bright future takes a dark turn when rumors of over-exposure to “toxic assets” swallow up first his company Keller Zabel and then its founder Lou (Frank Langella) who opts to retire beneath a speeding subway train after the Federal Reserve denies his request for an emergency bailout. Devastated by the suicide of his boss and mentor Jake vows to exact revenge upon the slithery brute he believes to be the source of the poisonous rumors: Bretton James (Josh Brolin) a prominent partner at Churchill Schwartz (read: Goldman Sachs) Keller’s chief rival.
And where exactly does Gordon Gekko figure in all of this? After the opening sequence during which he emerges from a lengthy prison stay to find no one waiting to greet him Gekko doesn’t re-enter the story until about the 30th minute and lurks mainly on its periphery for much of his screen time. In the years since his incarceration for the various misdeeds chronicled in the first film he’s rebranded himself as a sort of populist crusader against speculator avarice hawking a book about the ills of the financial system entitled Is Greed Good? (“You’re all pretty much fucked ” he instructs a lecture audience.) Gekko’s got a grudge of his own against Bretton his one-time protege turned state’s witness in his securities fraud conviction and he agrees to supply Jake with crucial insider info in exchange for help in brokering a reconciliation with his daughter Winnie.
All of this is set against a backdrop of the collapses and bailouts of the 2008 financial tumult — a topic that could easily warrant its own film. (Indeed HBO is currently readying its adaptation of Aaron Ross Sorkin’s book about the crisis.) His ambition outstripping his ability Stone labors awkwardly to integrate the macro of the crisis with its many backroom deals and soap-opera intrigues and the micro of Jake’s increasingly complex relationship with Gekko. Mulligan’s character meant to serve as the film’s emotional anchor as well as its conscience is ultimately little more than a distraction diverting us from the story’s more compelling elements. The last third of the film which focuses on Gekko’s reemergence as a Wall Street player feels tacked-on as if driven by data from test audiences dissatisfied with his relatively minor presence in the early goings.
There are moments in Money Never Sleeps where Stone successfully invokes the heady verve of the 1987 film but for a story dealing with such titillating subject matter its pace too often drags to a near-halt as it wallows excessively in Gekko family melodrama. (The performances it should be noted are all terrific though LaBeouf is an exceedingly tough sell as a would-be BSD.) And a topic as sexy as money should never ever be boring.
In other words Prada--based on the bestselling novel by Lauren Weisberger--unfortunately plays upon the sitcom-y boss-from-hell scenario in which the young flunky manages to one up her superior in some valiant way. There are no surprises save for the fact that its set in the world of high fashion invoking all the fabulousness that entails and incorporates the amazing Streep as Miranda Priestly editor-in-chief of THE fashion magazine Runway. Oozing contempt and demanding perfection Miranda at first terrorizes her new assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) an impressionable lass who wants to be a serious journalist and has no desire to be a “Clacker.” But that lasts for all of about 10 seconds. Andy is soon wearing those Jimmy Choo stilettos and clacking across the floor with the best of them--and the better she gets at her job the more her personal life falls apart. Naturally Andy wises up and realizes life isn’t about Dolce Gabbana and the rest of the gang. Still maybe she could keep one Prada handbag. You know just to remember the experience. Streep is having a nice little resurgence this year with two spectacular performances. In Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion she plays the sunny yet heartbroken half of a singing sister act--and in Prada she’s Satan incarnate. Quite a switch but in the ever-so-capable hands of the Oscar winner it’s a flawless transition. The best part of Streep’s Miranda is all the things she doesn’t say. It’s the searing looks the languid move of the hand--and the hushed tones. This isn’t Kevin Spacey’s screaming lunatic producer in Swimming with Sharks; this is about the threatening quiet and the sacrifices Miranda makes to be lonely at the top. Hathaway as a lovely Audrey Hepburn look-a-like manages to keep her head above water but still hasn’t quite gotten rid of her Princess Diaries gee whizzed-ness. But there’s potential. In supporting roles Stanley Tucci makes a memorable appearance as Miranda’s right-hand man at the magazine doling out snarky but sage advice to our heroine while Adrian Grenier (HBO’s Entourage) plays nice as Andy’s patient boyfriend. The only other real standout star of Prada is the clothes. And the shoes. Oh and the handbags hats belts scarves and other accessories. Director David Frankel--a HBO flunky himself having directed several episodes of Entourage Sex and the City and even HBO’s hit mini-series Band of Brothers--captures this high-powered world of trend and style succinctly giving all fashionista wannabes everywhere a brief but meaningful inside peek. But the real kudos go out to costume designer Patricia Field (an Emmy winner for her work on Sex and the City) who must have had a lot of fun with Prada. She magically produces designs from Valentino (who also makes a small cameo) Donna Karan Bill Blass Galliano and of course Prada. It must be like a painter being given permission to recreate a Picasso or a Monet. Prada is predictable it’s true--but with Streep’s streaked white Cruella De Vil and all the great fashion it’s worth its weight in Versace.
With four days left before his execution notoriously reticent death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) decides at last to share his story with the press. He chooses as his vessel reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) who's just spent a week in the slammer for refusing to reveal her sources on a kiddie porn cover story. As Gale's story unfolds (and we see it in flashback) Bitsey becomes convinced he's innocent and she and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) begin a race against the clock to discover the truth that will save him. Sound like an overblown blurb from a movie studio's press files? Apologies for that but the best way to talk about this story's climactic points is to resort to hyperbolic clichés of this ilk--the movie's key moments are without exception melodramatic and overblown. Nonetheless most of the movie is suspenseful the story has several interesting (I wouldn't go so far as compelling) twists and there are plenty of reasons to root for Gale's cause especially if like him and admittedly like me you're a political liberal who fancies yourself at least somewhat intellectual.
If there's one thing that defines Kevin Spacey's acting style it's his unparalleled ability to discourse at length on philosophical minutiae a gift that undoubtedly contributed to his getting this role in the first place. But Spacey gets to stretch a bit more playing Gale--the professorial character in his pre-death row life was a loose cannon even by academia's standards: he partied with his students talked about fantasy and desire in class and belonged to Death Watch a liberal advocacy group opposed to the death penalty. Beyond that his personal life was a disaster. His wife was having an affair with a Spaniard Gale was a borderline alcoholic and his ego was the size of a generously proportioned watermelon. So there are plenty of challenges for Spacey in the part--both in the flashbacks and the death row sequences--and he obviously embraces them all; unfortunately sometimes he squeezes the life out of them in the process foregoing for example the tragic nuances of real alcoholism for the stumbling sobriquets of an overblown town-drunk philosopher. The equally gifted Laura Linney as Constance--Gale's stalwart friend fellow professor co-director of Death Watch and alleged murder victim--finds herself in less familiar territory. Her character is complex yet remarkably one-dimensional for most of the movie which leaves the talented actress turning--albeit reluctantly--to melodrama for support. Winslet too is on unfamiliar ground with an American accent (quite well done old chap-ette) a mission and a bitchiness that's too little seen from this pristine young girl.
It's truly unfortunate that director Alan Parker didn't keep a tighter handle on The Life of David Gale's more dramatic moments since had they come off better this would have been a more even and generally more watchable film. As it is each of the talented lead actors has a scene in which they really let loose on the hysterical wailing waterworks--Winslet lucky gal has two. They may not be bad enough to make you cringe necessarily but they're obviously overplayed. The film would have benefited from a wail-o-meter that would have allowed the bawling to go so far and only so far. All that aside though this film is ultimately less melodramatic than its equivalent TV movie version would have (and probably has) been--and that leads me to my final point. The Life of David Gale is about what TV pundits would call a hot-button issue and while the public is intelligent enough not to be emotionally swayed by the hue and cry of activists on either side of the argument we can--and by God we will--be entertained by it. So I just want to say thank you Hollywood for once again one-upping the 6 o'clock news and for showing that even discussions of the most important issues of our time can be squeezed into a two-hour movie and manipulated in the interests of suspense and drama.