George Clooney and Jack O'Connell in Money Monster

MONEY MONSTER

In Money Monster’s opening sequence, you can sense director Jodie Foster and her cast going for the slick, workplace-comedy pizzazz of Aaron Sorkin’s walk-and-talks in The West Wing and Steve Jobs and not quite getting there. George Clooney, as the braying host of a Mad Money-esque financial-advice program, alternately smooth-talks and ignores technicians and guests minutes before air time, and Julia Roberts, as the show’s director, trails him with exasperated good humor. Yet something feels off. You recognize the jokes as jokes, but because they’re delivered with such over-calculated disregard and nobody appears emotionally connected to their dialogue, they’re not very funny. However, right after the live broadcast begins, a young man with a gun and bomb-lined jacket interrupts the proceedings, and threatens to kill the host unless his demands are met. And then the oddest thing happens: Money Monster starts to become really funny.

Foster, of course, became a child star and prodigiously talented performer in the 1970s, so it’s perhaps understandable that she’d be drawn to a script (by Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf, and Jamie Linden) with direct echoes to everything from Dog Day Afternoon to Network to The China Syndrome. The happy surprise is that, for the most part, she proves so capable of reproducing those films’ sly media satire and paranoid electricity. As a director, Foster has a trio of features under her belt, all of them domestic dramedies that are visually proficient yet hardly exciting. (One of them – 2011’s The Beaver – is even borderline-unwatchable.) Yet Money Monster displays a new confidence and freedom in her filmmaking. Once Jack O’Connell’s low-rent terrorist Kyle Budwell shows up, having lost his life savings in a stock tip recommended by Clooney’s Lee Gates, Foster seems liberated by his arrival, and unconcerned about aiming for the telegraphed hostage-thriller elements we’re primed for. Instead, while not exactly ignoring genre convention, she and her screenwriters play with this potentially explosive scenario in unusual and unanticipated ways, principally by taking advantage of every possible opportunity to make us laugh.

Julia Roberts in Money MonsterYou’re first shocked into an involuntary cackle when Gates, forgetting (or maybe not caring) that the cameras are on, drops an F-bomb in front of his tormentor, and a control-booth employees asks Roberts’ Patty Fenn, “Did he just say ‘f---’ on television?” The cackle comes with the director’s response – “That’s what you’re worried about?!” – and from that moment, we’re invited to relish the morbid humor of Money Monster’s conceit: Yes, Gates’ life is being threatened on live television, but there’s still a show to put on. In short order, Fenn is directing her cameraman to pull in for a closeup (“We’re getting some shadow on his face”) and advising Budwell on the best place to stand for a medium shot, with the confused, distraught kid warily complying; faced with such professionalism, he’s clearly out of his league. And as Budwell grows more desperate, he and Gates find their comic humiliations continually compounded through distinctly 21st Century reversals in traditional narrative expectations: the pleading Gates organizing a de facto Kickstarter campaign for his release and finding himself not as popular as he thought; Budwell’s pregnant girlfriend (a spectacular Emily Meade) being brought in to talk him down and instead giving him a savagely mean dressing-down.

It’s unfortunate that the film’s thriller aspects aren’t nearly as engaging as its satiric ones, unless it comes as huge news to you that corporate CEOs (embodied here by a smarmy Dominic West) actually don’t have our best interests at heart. For all of his shouting and red-faced mania, the energetically hammy O’Connell is never much of a menace; we’re clued in awfully early that this twitchy dope with the honking Noo Yawk accent is more bark than bite. (Maybe that’s why, when Budwell and Gates take a midtown walk late in the film, onlookers don’t demonstrate any fear about being in close proximity to a man with bombs for outerwear, which you’d think would freak anyone out – especially a Manhattan-ite.) But even some of the satiric leanings are too on-the-nose. I, for one, could’ve done without quite so many shots of millennials staring at TV screens with bemused half-interest, and without the cast of RightThisMinute giving a collectively terrible performance as the cast of RightThisMinute.

Yet between the direction, the largely compelling and clever script, and the performers, Foster’s latest is still a fine time. Panic and distress look good on Clooney, as does abject ridiculousness, and his role as Gates is just expansive enough to support a full onslaught of the actor’s screen charisma. Given less to do and really no one to physically interact with (as at least 80 percent of her role involves Fenn delivering terse instructions into a microphone), Roberts glides through with natural wit and verbal panache. And with Caitriona Balfe particularly excellent as a corporate PR hack who slowly grows a conscience, the film also boasts first-rate work by a host of character actors including Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, and the invaluable Giancarlo Esposito. Money Monster is no Dog Day Afternoon. But it inspires a similar, and similarly edgy, rooting interest, and demonstrates a pretty sharp understanding about what true punishment in 2016 America looks like – not the guilty being sent to prison, but rather the guilty being turned into GIFs. Now that’s harsh.

 

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton in Sing StreetSING STREET

Writer/director John Carney’s Sing Street is the rare movie that’s fantastically easy to both under- and over-praise. I certainly recognize that a bare-bones plot synopsis for this coming-of-age-in-the-’80s saga barely rises above Mickey-and-Judy territory: Hoping to make an impression, the frequently bullied, 15-year-old Irish lad Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) asks the beautiful, damaged 16-year-old Raphina (Lucy Boynton) to star in his band’s music video, at which point Cosmo has to (a) form a band, and (b) find the means to make a video. As a musical fantasy, albeit one set in a recognizably real lower-class-Ireland borough, nothing that happens next will come as much of a surprise; our hero will triumph over the expected economic, social, and familial obstacles, and the ’80s, as rendered, will emerge as a gloriously tacky hodgepodge of stylistic influences. (An early scene finds Cosmo and brother Brendan watching the new Duran Duran video “Rio,” which premiered in 1982, and by the time we’re at the school prom several months later, we’re hearing Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” which debuted in 1987.) On many levels, Sing Street is predictable, lazy, and, for Gen X-ers such as myself, a little insulting.

What it also is, practically from beginning to end, is utterly magical – maybe especially for we Gen X viewers who get the impossibility of successfully singing the chorus to a-ha’s “Take on Me,” or who fully understand Brandon’s appraisal “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins.” There are filmmakers – Scorsese, Tarantino – who intrinsically glean what kinds of music might seep into their characters’ souls. Carney, though, is a filmmaker/songwriter (his previous directorial credits include 2007’s Oscar-winning Once and 2014’s Begin Again), and as such he appears more interested in having characters express themselves in self-performed compositions than in soundtrack selections. Consequently, long scenes here are devoted not just to Cosmo and his fledgling bandmates (primarily the wonderful Mark McKenna) performing their best approximations of the Jam, the Cure, Joe Jackson, and others, but of actually creating their original tunes – scenes that movies are notoriously bad, or at least negligent, about delivering. The beautiful origin and execution of Cosmo’s and company’s debut “The Riddle of the Model” is soon topped by the exultant pop of “Up,” and by the time Cosmo is performing his angrily soulful “Brown Shoes” at the prom, you’re so swept up in the Sing Street journey that all complaints about plotting and contrivance and wish-fulfillment are banished from your head forever. Brandon, whom actor Jack Reynor portrays with looks and charm and charisma indistinguishable from those of a young Chris Pratt, tells his younger brother that the key to musical success is “happy/sad,” And the deeply romantic, sensationally funny, gorgeously acted, musically divine, heartbreakingly awesome experience of Sing Street is the ne plus ultra of exhilarating happy/sad. Am I over-praising? Maybe. But it’s been exactly 25 years since Alan Parker’s Irish-band masterwork The Commitments was released. I think that, at long last, we may have a successor.

 

Radha Mitchell, Lucy Fry, and Kevin Bacon in The DarknessTHE DARKNESS

On three or four occasions in The Darkness, we get a scene between lead Kevin Bacon and second banana Paul Reiser, making the film at least a moderate Diner reunion. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be worth celebrating. Director Greg Mclean’s fright flick, however, is nothing but ordinary circumstances, and the reunion still isn’t worth celebrating. A dully convoluted tale of demons released after an autistic boy (David Mazouz’s Michael) brings home some unwise Grand Canyon souvenirs, the movie is all horror signifiers – mysterious noises, strange odors, malfunctioning appliances – that don’t result in anything remotely horrifying happening, unless you count 57-year-old Bacon still trying to rock his Footloose haircut. Thankfully, expectedly weak CGI effects are employed only sparingly, and the haunted house’s besieged family is more intriguing than such clans generally are, given dad Bacon’s adulterous history, mom Radha Mitchell’s alcoholism, and daughter Lucy Fry’s bulimia. Yet the script only teases us with real-world problems before abandoning them in favor of incessantly unconvincing Poltergeist-lite thrills, and there’s no sustained terror to speak of – just the usual collection of PG-13 shock cuts and soundtrack blares and pets popping out from nowhere. Viewers with autistic children, too, might be deeply offended by how crassly the mental condition is explained as a potential “demonic gateway,” even if the silliness of the film’s plotting, and the randomness of its editing, make everything here easy to laugh off. (What’s with the time-consuming subplots devoted to characters who have no effect on the narrative? Why is Michael’s invisible friend – a demonic entity that we’re meant to believe is Native American – named “Jenny”?) It’s all just bland, scare-free nonsense, although The Darkness does seem to go out of its way to be offensive, or at least grossly insensitive, at its climax, which finds a pair of Mexican women (Alma Martinez and Ilza Rosario) brought in to perform a dangerous exorcism that leaves them bruised and bloody while an unharmed white guy, in the end, gets the credit. Typical.

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