Friday, September 24, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Leopards And Their Precarious Spots In The
Land Of Gangster Capitalism

Michael Douglas returns as Gordon Gekko and Shia LaBeouf is Jake Moore in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money
Never Sleeps". 
Twentieth Century Fox

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, September 24, 2010

Stylish, cool and seductive, Oliver Stone's follow up to his Oscar-winning 1987 film "Wall Street" operates as a prescient cautionary tale, released in theaters exactly two years and nine days after the 2008 Wall Street stock market crash that plunged the blue-chip stock index 777 points, punctuating the ongoing global financial crisis.

Mr. Stone, a filmmaker good at excavating the filthy sinews of human behavior in his films ("JFK", "Natural Born Killers", "Nixon", "W."), does so again in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps", a much better sequel than one might expect.  The film was supposed to open last April but was held back and opened across the U.S. today. 

Mr. Stone's new film operates as an anthropological thesis on greed, the lizard brain and human impulse, not necessarily to justify but to instruct today's young, iPad-occupied generation that history will inevitably repeat itself.  Money is the object.  Avarice and the hunger to remain viable is the drug.  Staying in "the game" and the power play, are the keys to longevity (and infamy).

Gloriously shot by Rodrigo Prieto (the opening credit sequence of languorous skyscraper shots are scintillating), the film's occasional narrator Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) represents an updated breed of young stock market trader.  Fresh, fearless, ambitious, Jake doesn't take no for an answer.  Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) writes a blog entitled "The Frozen Truth", an underground muckraking blog of exposé.  She tries to push money as far from her rear view mirror as possible.  She and Jake live together in Manhattan's tony Upper East Side.

The film begins in 2001 with Winnie's father Gordon (Michael Douglas) walking out of prison after an eight-year stint.  "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" however, ostensibly focuses on June 2008, three months before financial disaster hits a Lower Manhattan already struck by a crushing, almighty and fatal blow seven Septembers prior.  As played by Mr. Douglas, Gordon Gekko is now a silver-haired reformist of sorts, less villainous than victorious, more sage than saboteur.  Mr. Douglas, who reprises his Oscar-winning role (and who played Steven Taylor, a murderous Wall Street investment banker in "A Perfect Murder") operates here more as an antihero and aging poster boy of the Reagan era than anything else.

Mr. Douglas' presence and many of his lines (written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff) in this new film are poignant, more impactful now because of the actor's recent disclosure of his throat cancer, as well as for the faded glories of Mr. Gekko, an 1980s icon and composite of numerous crooks of capitalism.  As you watch Mr. Douglas you can't help but think foremost of Michael Milken, the Wall Street junk bond trader who served two years of a ten-year prison sentence in the 1990s and whose prostate cancer is in remission.  Mr. Milken has since spent years speaking out against the corporate titans and criminals and become a philanthropist.  The comparisons are unmistakable.  Yet Gordon Gekko is a lifer who has grabbed the last life-preserver floating in the sea having revoking its sale to the poor soul who is about to drown.

"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" covers a lot of ground in just over two often highly entertaining hours.  There's a smaller, no less important subplot involving Bretton James (an excellent Josh Brolin), the new king in town and Jake's hedge fund manager at a notorious investment banking house.  The film recreates a moment at the Federal Reserve Bank in a scene about whether to keep Keller Zabel, the film's venerable and fictional investment banking house afloat.  (Think: Lehman Brothers.)

One of the many arresting shots in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps", lensed by Rodrigo Prieto.
This one in particular is a mournful view of the former footprint of the World Trade Center.  Twentieth Century Fox

This film showcases the scent of power and represents New York City's landscape so very well.  Skyscrapers and those that have fallen seem to be the only things that can humble the city's nefarious Masters of the Universe.  Mr. Stone has ably captured the scents, sounds and sights of high-class, high-powered New York, perhaps even better this time around than he did in 1987 in "Wall Street", whose look seemed more dour and damp than the rush of high, bright energy that "Money Never Sleeps" possesses. 

Mr. Stone (who also directed this summer's documentary "South Of The Border") has taken a piece of marauding menace and convicted Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling's after-work vocation: off-road biking, inserting a few of those moments here, albeit far-less high-risk ones than those shown in Alex Gibney's riveting documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room".  Also, Bernie Madoff isn't mentioned directly here, but he's alluded to, and as "Money Never Sleeps" points out, in context he's hardly the problem. 

Pricy attributes -- shots of ladies' earrings, necklaces, rings and high-heels look very sexy or at least feel like an aphrodisiac.  The costume design captures the male wardrobe of choice: wide tie-knots, small wing-shaped collared shirts, crisp suits.  This corporate uniform represents -- if you will kindly forgive the phrase -- a Cosa Nostra of Wall Street Gangsters: dressed to kill a billion financial futures.

I personally lived this sexy life for about four years.  I worked on a New York City trading floor in the early 1990s keeping up with the frenetic pace of trades in emerging markets bond instruments.  The adrenaline rush was there.  Stress.  High-stakes.  Money.  Suits.  Parties.  Clubs.  I wasn't even close to being the Master of The Universe that Tom Wolfe chronicled in his best-selling book The Bonfire Of The Vanities, but I felt on top of the world.  I did no wrong but I enjoyed the genuine rewards that hard work, not graft brings.  Back then for me, working 15-hour days wearing the suits and suspenders seen in Mr. Stone's original "Wall Street" was nothing at all.  So much of this new film and its predecessor reminds me of those times and it's funny, coincidental and ironic that the last name of principal protagonist in Mr. Stone's new film is Moore.

Speaking of which, Mr. LaBeouf has become adept at playing the young protégé to an older mentor or father ("Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull").  His energy and eagerness are underlined by a genuine approach to playing a character in peril and learning fast how to extricate himself from it.  Here, Mr. LaBeouf uses guile and cockiness rather than any physicality, silences or whiffs of melancholy ("New York, I Love You") to adapt to his situation.  As Jake, he fits well as an impressionable young man who learns fast on the job.  Other standouts include Susan Sarandon, whose Long Island accent is priceless.  She plays a struggling real estate agent and mother of Jake.  In a smaller role as Winnie, Ms. Mulligan hints at the talents she utilized in "An Education".

For all the emphasis on green that enervates this twisting, floating and sometimes exhilarating drama, it's shades of gray that dominate.  Most, if not all the characters' dualities and dimensions are on display in ways both large and small.  Everything in this film is about the art of the deal or the steal.  We aren't sure that the characters have really learned from their exploits and wild carnival rides or if they will succumb to or plot more of them, but we know their consciences have never slept.  One thing is for sure: humility is far from view in this rugged, relentless New York City.

With: Eli Wallach and Frank Langella.

"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for brief strong language and thematic elements.  The film's running time is two hours and 14 minutes.

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