There’s a brief set of shots near the end of director Jodie Foster’s Money Monster that are chilling. They almost seem like an afterthought, and one might assume that by the time they are on the screen, audience members will be mentally and actually packing up and getting ready to leave the theater. Just to back things up a bit, the film is a real-time story of a working-class man who lost every cent he has because, as he perceives it, a showboating TV financial host gave a bad stock tip on the air. He sneaks into the host’s studio with a gun, holds him hostage, and demands answers as to how a supposed computer glitch caused the company he invested in to lose $800 million in a single second. The whole drama plays out with cameras rolling, on live TV, with all of New York watching from various bars, homes, workplaces and electronics stores across the city.
When the drama is over (don’t worry, I won’t ruin anything), bullets have been fired, blood has been spilled, and the truth about the missing money has been revealed quite dramatically and unforgettably…or so we think. And while I originally believed that Foster’s goal with Money Monster is to underscore how financial institutions devour everything in their path, with no regard for the little guy (or even the medium-sized guy), in the quest for the most money, it was in those final shots that I discovered a truth far more terrible.
Once the hostage drama has subsided, the film revisits the series of locations around the city and shows us, not outraged citizens demanding answers and remedies to social injustice, but instead, shot after shot of people going back to their days as if nothing has happened. They go nose-first into their mobile devices or back to dinner or drinking or studying. The world keeps turning because most people don’t understand the full ramifications of anything to do with corrupt banks and savings and loan institutions. The moment took me so by surprise, I felt like I’d be gut-punched by the realization that we have a desperate need for things to go back to normal, and we’re willing to push aside anything that threatens that feeling, especially if we’re not totally clear on what the danger actually is. Director Foster (and writers Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf) are smart enough to understand this phenomenon without feeling the need to underscore it with a neon yellow highlighter.
Part of the reason Money Monster’s secondary message is so powerful is because most of the film works as a fast-paced thriller. The show’s host, Lee Gates (a going-for-broke George Clooney) is enough of a self-absorbed ass that you can believe a member of his viewing audience might actually find him at fault for a bad tip. But when Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, who still considers heavy breathing and letting his mouth hang open to be the marks of a serious actor) walks into the studio with gun in hand, a bomb-rigged vest for Gates, and a slew of four-letter words to let loose on basic cable television, his demands are just vague and unthought out enough that we get a sense that maybe Gates’ audience members are about as sharp as a marble. O’Connell’s look and accent are about as canned as any one of the Dead End Kids, but he grows on you to the degree.
Gates’ longtime producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), sits in the control room, talking into his earpiece, trying to feed him helpful information and general ideas about how to calm the raging maniac in the studio with him. Budwell’s primary objective is to get the company’s CEO (Dominic West) down to the studio to answer the unasked questions about this supposed glitch, but he is nowhere to be found for a time. Instead, the company’s communications officer, Diane Lester (an impressive Caitriona Balfe, the Irish actress best known stateside from her role in “Outlander”), who tows the company line before she begins to suspect her boss might be hiding something.
I liked the idea that these splashy TV personalities are actually forced to become investigative reporters for a day, with admittedly a few too many of the answers to their questions coming rather easily. The film is quite critical of the financial press for not digging deeper whenever an impropriety occurs involving banks or investment companies. Money Monster spends a bit too much time dealing with the teams of law enforcement and hostage negotiators outside the studio trying to find a way to end this standoff. I like Giancarlo Esposito as much as anyone, but the hostage situation isn’t really the point of the story.
The film has an unexpected amount of dark humor, which is typified when Gates makes a plea to his audience to buy stock in the failing company that Budwell invested in to help bring the stock price up, regain some of the lost revenue, and save his life in the process. The viewership doesn’t respond quite the way he expects them to. The film’s final act has the remaining studio team (including a single cameraman) head out to the street of New York to meet with West, who is beginning to sense that this day may not end in his favor. As much as I was willing to suspend disbelief for the film’s in-studio drama, which plays out like a theater piece, I didn’t buy the walk of shame segment, with New Yorkers screaming at Kyle to pull the trigger on Gates, who at this point, is more of an ally than anyone realizes.
With the exception of O’Connell’s playing-to-the-upper-balcony style, the acting in Money Monster is strong and convincing. Roberts, in particular, rattles off producer commands like an old, slightly jaded pro, who is actually not so secretly planning to leave the show for a competing channel soon. Gates negotiates for time and answers from Budwell like a great wheeler-dealer, and it’s fascinating to watch him cut loose like he’s been doing it his whole career (which he most certainly has not). He’s brash, emotional, hot-tempered and scared, and he makes it all look easy and maybe a little bit fun. Money Monster has its flaws, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less watchable or entertaining. It moves at a nice clip, with very little fat on the bones, and you might even learn something about human nature (even if you’re not learning much about the way the financial world ticks).
A BIGGER SPLASH
The elements are all there for A Bigger Splash to be very good, beginning with a highly anticipated reunion of I Am Love director Luca Guadagnino and star Tilda Swinton. The film is actually a remake of a lesser-known 1969 Jacques Deray film La Piscine, starring Alain Delon. This new adaptation co-stars some exceedingly interesting folks, including the simmering Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes and 50 Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson. And while the film works its way through a plot that is both erotic and tense, it doesn’t quite stick to landing as it should and leaves us a bit cold and empty, and perhaps that’s the intension.
Swinton is fantastic and sexy as Bowie-like rock star Marianne Lane, who has just had surgery on her vocal chords and is recuperating with her longtime lover Paul (Schoenaerts) on the remote island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Italy. Firstly, the idea of Swinton not being able to speak is absolutely fascinating and adds an element to the entire structure of the film that is unnerving, as she must find other, more exaggerated means of communicating. Their blissful, lustful rest is rudely interrupted when famed record producer and Marianne’s ex-partner Harry (Fiennes) shows up on the island with his teenage daughter Penelope (Johnson). Although we don’t know exactly why Harry is there, he brings with him a flood of memories and feelings of a bygone and fairly happy time in Marianne’s life, and his presence re-invigorates her.
Paul is more than a little annoyed at these uninvited guests who are mooching off Marianne’s goodwill, and through a series of interwoven flashbacks, we learn exactly how this love triangle began six years earlier. Penelope sits around in various states of undress, sunning herself and spouting sarcastic remarks as her father unleashes an unstoppable jovial essence. Soon it becomes clear that Penelope’s purpose there is to distract Paul, while Harry makes a play at rekindling things with Marianne.
A Bigger Splash is part travelogue, part erotic thriller, part romantic drama, as some parties fall for the bait and others, well, we’re not quite sure, since a fair amount in this film happens off camera, so we’re never quite sure how guilty some participants truly are. The location is hypnotic; the performances are top notch, even if they don’t always blend the way they should; and the tone is appropriately bizarre and unsettled. But when tragedy strikes this small community, the film goes into a strange, Keystone Cop mode that kills a lot of the emotional momentum of what has come before it. We’re fairly certain from the get-go that the crime being investigated will never be solved, but I’m fairly certain that director Guadagnino is attempting to lighten the mood when it ought to be anything but light.
A Bigger Splash has one major element working for it: It’s largely unpredictable, almost to a fault. People burst out into laughter or fits of rage for no particular reason, as if to check to make sure the audience is still paying attention. You can blame the drunkenness of the characters, but it feels more like a lazy improv class. The film is often frustrating, but it still manages to keep us guessing and always wondering where it’s going to land. There’s a power in that, but if the final destination isn’t all that interesting, the film can suffer greatly. It’s not quite a failed experiment, but A Bigger Splash is still something of a disappointment. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
I’ve never read the 1975 J.G. Ballard novel High-Rise upon which director Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers) has based his latest film, but it really shouldn’t matter. I don’t make a habit of comparing films to their source material. The films should stand on their own as separate works of art, and they either function and entertain or they don’t. Adapted by Wheatley’s frequent collaborator Amy Jump (also his wife), this film involves a luxury and quite high-tech apartment complex that Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into, and it doesn’t take him long to realize that there’s a strata in place—a separation between the wealthy tenants on the top floor and the less rich below.
At first, these divides don’t seem to impact life on the block too much, but when the technology starts to fail and the lights don’t always work, unrest begins to take hold, especially among the have-nots, including single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller); a philandering documentary filmmaker (Luke Evans); and his pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss). There are some who float between the upper and lower levels, including Dr. Laing, who makes friends with the building’s designer Mr. Royal (Jeremy Irons), who seems perfectly reasonable until you meet his friends, who include the rather nasty Pangbourne (James Purefoy), who seems to delight is mistreating the residents of the lower floors.
High-Rise establishes its social order, and then immediately begins tearing it down, just as the building itself begins to crumble and fail around all the residents, who fight over food, drink and an array of creature comforts. In case the metaphor wasn’t clear enough, Dr. Laing’s psyche also begins to fall apart as he has trouble disconnecting his thoughts of the building’s evaporating structure from the rest of his life and work. Not knowing who to trust or believe, Laing becomes a conduit between the classes, drifting between them, often aimlessly observing, and we too get a little lost in the chaos and disorder.
Director Wheatley has always been something of a glorious nonconformist, and Ballard’s source material seems to fit his sensibilities rather nicely, but I’m not really sure what the takeaway is meant to be with this film. It’s great seeing Hiddleston lose his mind a bit—I’m always up for watching an actor do his job admirably—but to what end? High-Rise is interesting people watching, but deeper messages about class, entitlement and a possible working-class revolution all get a bit muddled in the process. Still, there’s some fun to be had and inspired production design in each room of the building, so it’s far from a waste of your time. But both Wheatley and his team have done better, and I urge you to seek out his previous works before seeing this one. It’s a close call, but I can’t quite get on board with this one. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT
Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia’s strongest gift has always been capturing the fine art of conversation. In his earliest works such as Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and Nine Lives, simply structuring an interesting back and forth between two people made his works quite memorable. He directed every episode of the first season of HBO’s American version of “In Treatment,” which featured a series of therapy sessions between one analyst and five separate patients. Garcia must have been in heaven. With his latest work, Last Days in the Desert, Garcia tackles what might be his most daunting set of conversations yet—one between a struggling family of three and Jesus, as well as an ongoing inner discussion between Jesus and the Devil, both played by Ewan McGregor.
Garcia’s original screenplay is set during Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and praying in the desert, during which he sometimes is tormented by the Devil, who looks pretty much exactly like Jesus but slightly grungier. Jesus pleads with God, as a lost son might seek a sign or some form of guidance on his travels, but God never talks back, and it’s clear this is frustrating to the son of God, who is also having something of a spiritual crisis at this time in his life.
He stumbles upon a wayward family, building an isolated home in the middle of nowhere (the film was actually shot in the rocky California Badlands). The son (Tye Sheridan) and father (Ciaran Hinds) are constructing the home, stone by stone, while the sickly mother (Ayelet Zurer) rests in a makeshift tent nearby. Jesus is torn about wanting to help this family with their turmoil, but also not wanting to rob them of the chance to rely on their faith and the strength that provides them.
The setting appears rugged and dangerous, swept clean and sandblasted by harsh winds, and to a degree the souls of these poor people are much the same. They have painful stories from their past, especially the father, and while they are happy to share them with Jesus, they don’t indicate that they want any relief from their physical or spiritual burdens. Last Days in the Desert is a compelling and carefully told piece that has a foreboding atmosphere, since the Devil can, in many cases, see into the future of this family.
Not unlike The Last Temptation of Christ, this movie looks at Jesus as a man and not an all-seeing, all-knowing being. He’s a human being uncertain of what his life or death will mean in the end, and somehow bettering the lives of this family becomes a priority to him. At its best, Last Days is an interesting experiment in using known religious figures in fictional storytelling, probably giving the world a more accurate portrayal of what they might have been like on this earth than any faith-based work. This is an easy film to slip into and contemplate after viewing, and sometimes that’s exactly what is required of cinema.
Leave it to a first-time Bulgarian filmmaker to make a sprawling treatise on female suffering as a result of epic mother issues, set against the backdrop of the fall of communism. Writer-director-producer Maya Vitkova’s Viktoria is about three women beginning with a perpetually glum Boryana (Irmena Chichikova), trapped in a largely loveless marriage to a decent man (Dimo Divov) because of an unwanted pregnancy. But it just so happens that the resulting daughter, Viktoria, is born without a belly button and for some reason is also named Bulgaria’s Socialist Baby of the Decade, thereby affording her and her family a fairly cushy lifestyle with a new apartment, an escort to and from school every day, and a hotline in her bedroom directly to the nation’s president at the time (circa the 1980s).
Little Viktoria is seen at three different ages—infant, 9 years old, and in her early teens—and each year represented in the film corresponds to a significant period in Eastern European history. By the time she’s 9 (and played by Daria Vitkova), Viktoria is already something of a terror, cruel and dismissive of other children, nasty to her mother, but getting along with her doting father. Every achievement is praised by the Party leadership, even when she simply bangs on piano keys in a huge concert hall or dances a ridiculous dance in a grand performance hall. Her mother has somehow not found any happiness in her daughter’s success, and much of that has to do with the destructive relationship she has with her own mother, a silent, grimacing woman who seems more gargoyle than human.
The easy metaphor in Viktoria is to see the girl as the embodiment of communism in all its faded glory. Before she is born, the filmmaker gives us glimpses of the young fetus still in the womb absorbing the sounds of communist anthems when her mother attends one of an endless succession of parades. Viktoria is a restless and fussy baby who grows into a spoiled creature who treats even her best friend (born on the same day, in the same hospital) deplorably, although he doesn’t seem to mind. But in 1989, communism collapses, and Viktoria and her family’s lives are thrown into turmoil, and she is seen as an unnecessary indulgence of a failed system by the rest of the country. Her mother grows more weary of her life, and begins to strongly consider her lifelong ambition to head to the West, to drink Coca-Cola and watch American movies and television.
The last portion of Viktoria deals with the teenage incarnation (played by Kalina Vitkova), who is attempting not to get caught in the same cycle as her mother and grandmother, who has re-entered her life in an unexpectedly comforting way. And much as the politics of the region were in chaos for a time and eventually settled down, so did Viktoria’s own world, with even the possibility of her mother and grandmother finding peace between them after years of not communicating.
Viktoria is both brutally honest and cautiously hopeful. It’s filled with absurd visuals that collide with some truly staggering and unforgettable moments that are made all the more remarkable when you remember that this is filmmaker Vitkova’s first feature. The dedication to her mother at film’s end makes us also realize that something about this story is autobiographical, and we don’t know whether to be shocked or grateful that such an upbringing results in his stunning work of art. Vitkova blends archival footage of the various periods shown with her material, and the result is a repurposing of the feminist mantra “The personal is political.” The movie will haunt you, but it’s also enriching from every perspective, and that is rare indeed from any film. It slips under your skin and into your mind, and clings for dear life, because, indeed, that is what is at stake in this work. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.
HERE COME THE VIDEOFREEX
There’s something somewhat comforting in the knowledge that during the often-idealized social revolution era of the late ’60s and early ’70s, even the hippies realized that to keep a movement going and thriving, you had to find a way to monetize it. In the case of the New York-based Videofreex, a collective of young people who just happened to get their hands on a few of the earliest available portable video cameras, they had the means to capture some fairly significant footage but absolutely no way to distribute or broadcast it, which begs the question: if you start a revolution and no one knows about it, does it count as a revolution?
From co-directors Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin, Here Come the Videofreex is an undeniably fascinating and illuminating tale of a handful of radicals who met each other filming at Woodstock and decided to document what was going on in America from a participant’s perspective. They film protests, marches, speeches and even did the occasional interview with the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (not long before he was killed by Chicago police during a raid). The collective attracted the attention of a CBS executive, who saw their point of view as vital to telling the complete story of the changing face of the American citizen, and the Videofreex were hired to produce news segments for the network, with predictably disastrous results.
The group decided to keep filming, and there’s no denying that the energy and technological knowhow was present. What seemed to be lacking was both a cohesive vision (which was maybe the point), money and a means to get their final pieces in front of viewers. It may not have helped that the core members of Videofreex seemed to be high about 90 percent of the time they were shooting what might have been a genuinely game-changing alternative record of history.
Interviews with the surviving members of Videofreex are interspersed with the carefully restored original tapes (some of which is nearly 50 years old), and while a great deal of the footage isn’t what we would consider professional quality in the way it’s shot and edited, there are flashes of true brilliance and significance throughout the film. In an unexpected twist, the group moved into a giant house in upstate New York to take advantage of arts grants being given out (and because it was cheaper). The small town was not initially accepting of the Videofreex, until they launched the first-ever pirate television station and involved the townspeople in their programming. An entire film could be made just focusing on those early templates for the strange array of shows that often land on public access channels. But the collaboration also shows us what happens when hippies and rednecks find a common ground.
I’m not sure there’s a lesson to be learned from the story of the Videofreex. But as a footnote in the chronicles of broadcasting and creativity borne out of the protest movements, it’s truly eye-opening. It’s also a crucial reminder—especially in this day and age when people are accusing the mainstream media of largely ignoring the grassroots campaign of Bernie Sanders—that behind every “official” version of the news, there is at least one other perspective desperate to be revealed.
It just so happens that the Videofreex archive is housed at the Video Data Bank (VDB) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Learn more about the archive.
Here Come the Videofreex will screen Tuesday, May 17, at 8pm, and Thursday, May 19, at 8pm, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The showing on May 19 will be followed by a Q&A with VDB executive director Abina Manning, VDB archive and collection manager Tom Colley, and Tom Weinberg, founder of Media Burn Independent Video Archive. Weinberg was a founding member of the video collective TVTV and enlisted support of the Videofreex to provide alternative coverage of the 1972 Presidential nominating conventions.