In the years after Wall Street was released in 1987, Oliver Stone has occasionally expressed regret that lead villain Gordon Gekko had become a sort of role model for stock traders, who adopted Gordon’s haute couture and greed-is-good mentality. And there’s little doubt that, through Michael Douglas’s slimily charismatic performance, Wall Street does romanticize Gordon’s lifestyle. So flash-forward to the present day, where the cellphones and hairdos may be smaller but Wall Street is in the news for, y’know, crashing the economy while betting against it then going to the government hat in hand, and now the time is right to give the clamoring masses want they’ve wanted for so long: a Wall Street sequel. And this time, Stone and screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff aren’t going to let anyone get confused: Wall Street is evil, greed is bad, and Shia LaBeouf is so believable as a man whose testicles have dropped.
By almost any objective standard, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not a good film. It’s loud, preachy, simple-minded, completely lacking in anything even approaching sophistication or control. But, for these very same reasons, it can also be tremendously entertaining, playing a bit like a knowing self-parody of Stone’s typical bombast. He loads up on the split screens and fancy dissolves; uses irises, superimpositions, and animated diagrams of how fusion energy works to hilariously cheesy effect; and invites Charlie Sheen to waltz into a party, a girl on each arm, for a deliciously self-aware cameo. Dialing everything up to 11 draws so much focus to the script’s more ridiculous aspects that, as with W., it’s hard to believe that it isn’t on some level intended as a comedy.
Which is not to say that Stone still doesn’t take a lot of it deadly serious. Money Never Sleeps opens with Gordon getting out of jail after an eight-year stint, but it’s really more interested in LaBeouf’s Jacob Moore, a young Wall Street hotshot, and his relationship with Gordon’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan, outclassing the joint something fierce even with her wet blanket of a part). After the firm for which Moore works goes under—with a little help from competing bank-head Bretton James (James Brolin, deliciously hammy)—and its chief officer takes the front-end of a subway to that great big bull market in the sky, Jacob seeks out the newly free Gordon at a speaking gig. Gordon’s speech—in which he lashes out at nearly every shortsighted, dishonest trading practice that put us in our current mess—spells out Stone’s thesis and jump-starts the narrative.
Jacob introduces himself, and before long he and his future father-in-law are plotting revenge against Bretton while Gordon, by expressing regret for his past sins, convinces Jacob to reunite him with his daughter. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gordon has something a little less honorable than daddy-daughter brunch planned, but his financial gamesmanship mostly serves as a backdrop for Stone’s wider systemic critique. (And as I write that, I realize that a phrase like “wider systemic critique” gives him way more credit than he deserves; he’s really just venting.) And as the film goes on, even its politics start to take a back seat to increasingly soggy developments in Jacob and Winnie’s relationship and Gordon’s tentative final steps toward redemption. For some reason, Stone backs off the throttle in these moments, trying to let the unconvincing emotion speak for itself, which is a mistake; they may not be any dumber than the scenes surrounding them, but they’re a hell of a lot less fun.
Romanian director Cristi Puiu made quite a splash at Cannes in 2005 when his film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu debuted in Un Certain Regard. It won the sidebar’s best picture prize, more or less single-handedly bringing Romania into the modern world-cinema spotlight, and became the following year’s consensus best film for a certain stripe of cinephile. I was not crazy about it myself; I found it overlong and intermittently tedious, with a contrived deterministic streak that clashed with Puiu’s putatively naturalistic style. Still, I admired aspects of the film, primarily Puiu’s formal rigor and the skill with which he executed the film’s many long takes. Lazarescu wasn’t for me, but Puiu was clearly a director to watch.
I bring this up for two reasons. One, so Lazarescu partisans can understand where I’m coming from with regard to Puiu and ignore everything I’m about to say, and two, to explain why I was genuinely sort of looking forward to his new film Aurora. Would Puiu harness his clear talent into something more successful, something more consistent and moment-to-moment compelling? Something more…well, more like fellow countryman Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days? No such luck. In fact, not only does Aurora fail to improve on Lazarescu, it’s actually a regression. I’m not quite ready to give up on Puiu yet, but Aurora strikes me as a firm step in the wrong direction.
Like Lazarescu, Aurora proceeds through long, slow scenes shot in mostly single takes, all—with the exception of a comparatively brief pre-credits sequence—taking place over the course of a 24-hour period. Puiu himself stars as Viorel, a man who we first see getting a co-worker to pay back a long-overdue debt. Over the course of the next hour and a half, he gets two custom-made rifle firing pins from another co-worker, walks around his apartment, walks around the city, buys a rifle, drives around the city, walks around his apartment, deals with a leak caused by his upstairs neighbors, walks around the city, walks around his apartment, walks around his apartment, drives around the city, walks around his apartment, then drives to a parking garage, where he murders an unknown man and woman. The next hour and a half follows a similar pattern, with long stretches of nothing broken up by Viorel’s escalating agitation and acts of violence.
Puiu’s goal, clearly, is to de-romanticize violence, to reveal it as something at once banal and complex, unsuited for reductive cinematic representations. This he unquestionably achieves, because the large majority of Aurora is unrelentingly boring. I certainly don’t have any a priori opposition to long or slow films (Jeanne Dielmann is a masterpiece), but the hard work they require of the viewer must be justified by their intellectual or emotional projects. I don’t think Aurora does that. Deconstructions of cinematic violence are hardly fresh or profound anymore, nor are examinations of the banality of evil; nor is the way Puiu goes about these projects particularly unique in a long-shot-favoring international film culture. Aurora asks us to suffer through nearly three hours of tedium to get a rather obvious message, and I frankly don’t see why I should. The film finally breaks the mold a bit in its terrific final scene, which I won’t spoil except to say that’s it’s a hoot, a genuinely clever postmodern prank that cheekily fulfills and repudiates the audience’s desire for firm knowledge. But it’s far too little too late. That Puiu could conceive of and execute such a scene keeps me hopeful that he has a great film in him; that he thinks it makes worthwhile such empty tedium makes me wonder if that film will ever get made.
I ended up walking out of Hideo Nakata’s Chatroom at around the 20-minute mark, in order to give myself time to catch up on some much-needed work and sleep. Well, that and because I couldn’t take one more excruciating minute. Chatroom is about a group of British youngsters who meet in a chat room—represented visually by a big imaginary hallway of rooms designed around participants’ desires—where they can discuss and try to work out what Nakata seems to think are serious teenage problems. (You know, things like: I don’t like it when people tell me not to watch TV! And: Cotillon class is fucking boring!) But it also provides a powerful forum for pranks and manipulation; I walked out soon after two kids try to talk a third into hurting her parents, and apparently the narrative’s main thrust involves one teen goading another into committing suicide. It’s all blatantly stupid thriller nonsense, but it might have been less dire if Nakata realized that no teenager has used a chat room since approximately 1997. It would also help if it didn’t look so ungodly hideous; the teens’ real world is a wretched, washed-out monotone (because their lives are so bloody drab, get it?), and the Internet world is a garish, loud eyesore. I managed to escape before I got trapped in my seat out of pure despair; many colleagues weren’t nearly so lucky.