“City Island”

“City Island.” Raymond DeFelitta, director. CineSon Entertainment, 100 minutes.

What is your deepest secret? Can you share it with the people you love most? This is the theme of “City Island,” a wonderful little Indie film set in a working class fishing community on the eastern shore of the Bronx. The film suggests that everyone has a secret, everyone wears a mask, and that true bonds are formed when you have the courage to take off the mask and reveal your whole self.

As the film opens, the Rizzo family is gathering for a holiday weekend. They seem like the typical working class family–loud, contentious, but solid. Each one has a secret. The film implies that this is typical too. Their secrets are probably a little more outlandish than yours: Junior (Ezra Miller) harbors a fetish for 300-pound women; daughter Vivian (Diminik Garcia-Lorido) is secretly working at a strip club to earn money for college; all of them are hiding the fact that they smoke. But maybe not. We all have secrets we’re afraid to reveal. “City Island” is the best kind of comedy, rich with understanding of human relationships and funny because it reveals our foibles, not because the characters mouth comic quips. The humor is natural and satisfying.

Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a prison guard who secretly longs to be an actor. His dream is so secret, in fact, that every week he tells his family he is going to a poker game when actually he is sneaking off to an acting class in Manhattan. You can guess what his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) will begin to suspect he’s sneaking off to do. Meanwhile, Vince discovers (and quickly hides) an even bigger secret: Tony Nardello (Steven Strait), a young man being paroled at the prison where Vince works, is his own son from an early relationship, a son he never acknowledged or supported. Tony needs a sponsor, so Vince decides to bring him home to do some construction work in their backyard, without revealing to anyone, including Tony, their true relationship. Vince wants to test the family dynamic first. Let’s see: hot wife, sexy daughter, and a handsome, bare chested ex-con lifting lumber in the backyard who doesn’t know they’re related…potential dynamite might be a more apt description of the dynamic.

The film’s underlying themes of acting and secrets give it depth and staying power. Shakespeare said it well: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” as we act our way through life. In this film, the acting class is a metaphor for life, and the characters are a training session for actors.
Michael Malakov (Alan Arkin), Vince’s self-important acting teacher, chastises his students for pausing as they read their lines: “Keep going! Say the line! What are you pausing for? Jesus, everyone thinks he’s Brando. Just say the line!” he coaches them impatiently. The film’s self-conscious focus on acting causes the audience to pay more attention to the subtleties of the actors on the screen, as well as to the masks we don in real life.

For example, when Vince and his acting partner Molly (Emily Mortimer) begin working on their class assignment together, which is to reveal a deep secret to each other and then use it in their next class dialogue, they pause, they think, they struggle to find the courage and the right words to say it. In short, Garcia and Mortimer do exactly what the acting coach has said not to do–and it works. Brilliantly. Suddenly we understand what it was that made Brando such a brilliant yet seemingly effortless actor–he let his character think before he spoke.

In the next scene, the Rizzo family are eating dinner together and everyone talks at once, stepping on each other’s lines the way we do when we’re having a conversation. No one pauses, no one listens. This style of acting was developed by director Robert Altman and perfected by Meryl Streep, who is the queen of thinking, listening, and acting at the same time. It reminds us that most of the time, we don’t think and we don’t listen. We just talk.

Later, when Vince reveals to Tony that he is going to acting school and is headed to his first audition, Tony tells Vince not to sweat it. Everybody acts all the time. He had to act from the moment he walked into the prison, he says, had to create a persona and act tough and unconcerned because if he revealed his true fears, those fears would have come true. Tony demonstrates this in Vince’s face, and Vince uses Tony’s demonstration word-for-word in his own audition. Use what you see and make it your own–that’s another mantra of acting. These three different acting techniques, strewn effortlessly throughout the film, make it an actors’ movie and give it an intellectual undertone not expected in this working class setting.

Of course, removing the mask and being oneself is the goal. One of my students at Sing Sing said recently, “We all wear masks in this prison. We have to act the tough guy, we have to act like we agree with things. But here in this classroom we can take off the mask. With these men in this classroom I can be who I really am and say what I really think. Then I put the mask back on and go back to the cell block.” “City Island” asks you to consider this: where can you take off your mask? Where can you be your true self? The person you can reveal your secrets to is your true family, your true friend.

“City Island” shows that it may not be easy to take off the mask, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Avatar

“Avatar.” James Cameron, director. Twentieth Century Fox, 160 minutes.
Many critics have called “Avatar” “‘Dances with Wolves’ in Space,” but as a story line the film is worse than that: “Avatar” is about as predictable as an ABC after school special. When humans arrive on planet Pandora, local residents unite to protect their land from being destroyed by wealthy military/corporate industrialists looking for mineral deposits. The obligatory peace-loving anthropologist (Sigourney Weaver) tries to protect the natives while the renegade military hotshot (Sam Worthington) changes camps to join them. You can guess the rest of the story without shelling out ten bucks for a ticket ($15 if you choose the 3-D version) or spending a whopping 3 hours in the movie theater.
So why did “Avatar” gross over a billion dollars in box office receipts in its first two weekends? Despite the predictable storyline, the film is pretty spectacular. Computer generated imagery (cgi) technology has improved to the point that watching this film is as magical as watching Disney’s first full-length animated movies must have been. The line between live action and animation have blurred so seamlessly that you simply forget it isn’t real. Background scenes of the alien planet with its light-infused flora and colorful fauna are breathtakingly gorgeous, works of art worthy of their own exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and likely to be displayed there one day in a retrospective of cgi.)
An avatar is a computer-operated, biologically correct robotic suit that allows a human to walk around in the body of a Na’vi, the alien life form found on Pandora. Like the characters in last year’s “Surrogates,” humans are hooked up to an EEG that allows them to control these alien bodies while they sleep. These devices have been developed at great expense to help the invading humans ingratiate themselves with the local tribes and obtain what they came for: “unobtainium,” the cartoonishly named mineral that sells for twenty million a kilo back on earth.
Jake Sully (Worthington) is an avatar whose job is to find out what the locals want, and then persuade them to trade their home for it. (Did I mention that the mother lode of “unobtainium” is located directly beneath the Na’vis’ Hometree? It wouldn’t be much of an After School Special if it were located anywhere else.) As he lives among the Na’vi and learns their ways, he becomes more and more a part of them. After a while, he says, “Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here [the human camp] is the dream.”
One disturbing aspect of the film is the mythical choosing of the “banshee,” a pegasus-like bird that provides transportation for the Na’vi. In Scottish folklore, a banshee is a female spirit whose wailing foretells impending death. In “Avatar” the banshee, we are told, mates for life–not with other banshees, but with the Na’vi who becomes its rider. As Jake performs the rituals that will allow him to achieve Na’vi “manhood” and become a member of the tribe, he must choose a banshee–or rather, allow a banshee to choose him. “How will I choose the right one?” he asks Neytiri, (Zoe Saldana) the woman who has been his guide. “The banshee will choose you,” she replies. “But how will I know?” he asks again. “She will try to kill you.”
Sure enough, one of the banshees hisses menacingly at Jake, and he hisses back. He jumps on her neck and she tries to knock him off. Battling fiercely, he eventually subdues her by jabbing his penis-shaped braid into her vulva-shaped appendage, and after a startled snort and enlarging of her eyes she calms down.
“Quick!” Neytiri urges him. “The first flight must happen immediately for the bond to be complete!” And off they go, Jake upon the wailing banshee’s back shouting, “Shut up and fly straight!” Eventually they establish a beautifully harmonious relationship, with the banshee doing all the work and the avatar having all the fun. It’s one of the most troubling, though I suspect unintentional, demonstrations of marriage that I have seen since the 1950s, when men gave their women a good slap to calm them down or kissed them stridently until their pounding fists melted into submission. Ugh.
So, what makes this very simple, predictable (and long!) film resonate with viewers to the tune of a billion dollars and counting? I think it is the mythical quality of both the art work and the many literary allusions. We seem naturally drawn to battles between good and evil, nature and science, war and peace. The film alludes to many biblical and mythical stories besides the banshee–Pegasus, David and Goliath, Pandora, Trees of Life and Trees of Knowledge, a chosen Savior, rebirth, and the Garden of Eden, to name a few.
In one particularly striking scene, Jake and Neytiri choose each other as lifelong mates, after having spent several weeks together. They awake from their offscreen lovemaking in a Boticelli like Garden, entwined in each other’s arms and covered in vines. This Eden ends abruptly, however, with the sound of tractors and backhoes ripping up the foliage to make way for the engineers. Their mating leads to the end of Eden and the beginning of Armageddon.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they do acknowledge the superiority of persuasion over force; the invading corporate bigwig (Govanni Ribisi) tries to use diplomacy and trade before unleashing the military. But what happens when, as Jake discovers, “There isn’t anything we have that they want”? Does the invading company just say “Thanks anyway” and go back home? Or do they resort to force? You haven’t seen many movies (or read many history books) if you don’t know the answer to that question.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

“Wall Street,” directed by Oliver Stone. 20th Century Fox, 1987, 126 minutes.
“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” directed by Oliver Stone. 20th Century Fox, 2010, 133 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
“Wall Street” (1987) was one of the first films focused on the inner workings of the financial markets, and is loosely based on the scandals involving junk bonds and insider trading in the 1980s. Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his performance as Gordon Gekko, the ruthless insider who takes down several companies before he is finally caught. His character’s name has become so tied to Wall Street shenanigans that business schools reference him in their courses. Hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci called his investment memoir “Goodbye Gordon Gekko” (2010), knowing that no one would have any trouble understanding the title. Libertarian reporter John Stossel borrowed Gekko’s most famous line, “Greed . . . is good” for the title of one of his best known TV specials (1998). As the sequel to this landmark film opens, it is worth taking another look at the original.
“Wall Street” (1987) begins with a sweeping panorama of downtown Manhattan and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Seeing it today is eerie, since the Towers are now synonymous with terrorism. But it is a reminder that the Towers were once the greatest symbol of capitalism and finance. Symbols don’t matter much, however, to Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen). He is a young, ambitious stockbroker making cold calls to potential clients and begging them to give him “just five minutes” of their time. He eventually gets sucked into the glamorous world of massive profits from insider trading. It starts innocently enough, when, in a casual conversation over a beer, his father (Martin Sheen) mentions that a lawsuit against the aviation company he works for, Bluestar, is about to be decided in the airline’s favor. Desperate to impress Gordon Gekko with a good investment deal when he finally has that “five minutes” of his time, Bud blurts out that Bluestar is going to be getting some good news. “I just know,” he says intensely, when Gekko asks for details. Gekko knows that look.
As Bud is pulled deeper and deeper into the web of deceit, we see how easily stocks can be manipulated through a whisper here, a nod there, a phone call to the Wall Street “Chronicle” to get a stock puffed in the news, even some old-fashioned detective work to figure out what a competitor is getting ready to do.
Gekko stands as the giant of confidence, swagger, and bravado, his name already synonymous with financial villainy. And maybe for good reason–he does use insider information that is technically off limits because it isn’t available to the general public, and he often uses illegal means to obtain that information. He brags, “If you’re not an insider, you’re an outsider,” and tells Bud, “The most valuable commodity I know of is information” (as he sends him out to ferret out some insider info).
Bud doesn’t resist very hard being pulled into Gekko’s world. When his father chides him because he is so focused on earning money instead of contributing to charity, he responds, “You gotta get to the big time first. Then you can be a pillar and do good works.”
But the most famous speech in the movie (inspired by a commencement speech that Ivan Boesky gave in 1986) is delivered by Gekko, and it has actually suffered unfairly from bad press all these years. In fact, it’s pretty sound. Having bought up a large percentage of a paper company, he addresses the shareholders to convince them that they should fire the 33 deadweight vice presidents, streamline the company, and make it profitable again. As he tells them, “I am not a destroyer of companies, I am a liberator of them!” It’s an important point. Investing in stocks is not just a gamble in paper money. It is the way businesses raise capital and maintain their ability to produce, invest, and employ.
Gekko continues, “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the evolutionary spirit . . ..What’s worth doing is worth doing for money. It’s a bad bargain if nobody gains. And if we do this deal, everybody gains.”
Gekko is right on both counts. Greed is good, and he does lack a better word. If greed motivates people to work harder and produce more, it’s good. If it motivates real estate developers to buy decrepit buildings, fix them up, and sell them for a profit, the community gains. If it motivates a health food aficionado to build grocery stores that sell organic fruits and vegetables and expand the business around the world so that others can enjoy healthier food, that’s good too. But “self-interest” might be the “better word” Gekko seems unable to find. Greed is good, but self-interest is a better brand.
Unfortunately, the word “greed” carries with it a sense of unfairness, of taking more than you should get, at the expense of others. Gekko contradicts himself when he later says, “It’s a zero sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Money isn’t lost or made. It’s simply transferred.” That’s a crowd-pleasing line, and it reveals Oliver Stone’s own philosophical bias. It is also a falsehood. The idea that there is a finite amount of wealth in the world, and that the only way to gain wealth is by taking it from others, harks back to mercantilism, and was the basis for the colonialist drive to plunder other nations. Adam Smith blew that theory out of the water when he showed in “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) that wealth can indeed be created and expanded, simply by adding time, innovation, and labor to raw materials. A pound of iron may be worth 10 cents, but turn it into horseshoes and it’s worth $10. Add coal, heat, and manufacturing to turn it into pins or knives or a toaster oven, and it’s worth $100 or more. Capitalism is not a zero sum game. It is the vibrant process by which the western economy has expanded to an almost incredible extent during the past two centuries.
“Wall Street” appears regularly on such cable stations as AMC and TNT, and is available on Netflix. It has held up well in the nearly quarter century since it was made. The story is compelling and the acting is superb, with the exception of Daryl Hannah as Bud’s love interest (Hannah won the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress of 1987, and says she has never watched the film.) I like it better than the sequel.
In some ways “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010) feels more like a remake than a sequel. It begins with Gekko (Michael Douglas) being released from prison, so we know the time frame is 15 years later. But it all seems so familiar, as though we had been here before, as indeed we have. It opens with the same sweeping panorama of the New York skyline, though this time with the Twin Towers conspicuously absent. Once again the story focuses on a young, ambitious investment broker, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), trying to break into the big time and keep up with the pros. Once again we watch the ticker tape of the young broker’s first big trade falling steadily until the thud of the closing bell at the end of the day. Once again the wise fatherly stockbroker is named Lou (perhaps because Oliver Stone’ own father, Louis, was a stockbroker). Once again the young broker is trying to get funding for a company he believes in. We even see the same real estate broker (Sylvia Miles) that Bud Fox used in the original “Wall Street.” And yes, Charlie Sheen does make a cameo appearance, with a babe on each arm, channeling his alter ego from the TV show “Two and a Half Men” more than the sadder but wiser Bud from the 1987 movie.
The story line is similar, too. Gekko wants revenge against a rival investor, and he uses the cocky young broker to help him get it. The details are different, but the story is essentially the same. While “Wall Street” focused on the junk bond-insider trading scandals of the mid-1980s, “Money Never Sleeps” focuses on the economic meltdown of 2008. Scaramucci acted as a technical advisor on the film, and the result is technically accurate, though sometimes to a fault. As the film moves from boardroom to boardroom and talking head to talking head, it is often difficult to understand and process their words before the next dialogue-heavy scene appears. At 2 hours and 13 minutes, the film is long, and the editing is a little too tight. We keep stumbling into conversations that have already started, between people who already know what is going on.
Often those conversations and talking heads are presented in split-screen projections, along with a graph or two, so while we’re still listening to one speaker, the next one has already started. It’s almost as though the editors knew they couldn’t make the movie any longer, but they couldn’t bear to throw anything out, so they presented it all at the same time. Some of the computer graphics are pretty cool, such as the one that outlines London’s Tower Bridge in the background as it demonstrates a company’s rise and fall. Yet I suspect that ten years from now, on cable TV, those graphics will look dated and hokey.
I happened to attend a private screening in Manhattan with a theater full of investment brokers and financial experts. They all loved the film, even those who said they seldom go to movies. I’m sure that for them, it was as simple as a primer. But at one point I just decided to stop trying to understand all the techno-jargon and focus instead on the storyline: Something bad is happening, and those two attractive young lovers are caught up in it. That worked for me.
The two young lovers are Jake and Gekko’s daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who hasn’t seen or spoken to her father in several years. Jake wants to bring the two of them together again, ostensibly “to help her heal,” but really to get closer to his idol, Gekko, who, despite being a jailbird, is still packing in the crowds on the lecture circuit, promoting his new book, “Is Greed Good?”
Once again, the film shines when Michael Douglas is on the screen. Yes, he is older, but he still has that great self-confident smile, that swagger. He’s still talking about greed, and he’s still just as flippant. He quips, “Once greed was good. Now it’s legal . . . ,” and everyone laughs cynically, as though greed was ever [[il]]legal. I wanted to counter, “Theft is illegal. Fraud is illegal. Greed is human nature.”
Gekko continues, “Greed makes the bartender take out three mortgages he can’t afford. . . . Greed makes parents buy a $200,000 house and borrow $250,000 against it to go shopping at the mall. . . . Greed got greedier with a little envy mixed in. . . . They took a buck and shot it full of steroids and called it leverage.” He’s right about those things happening. Many people who are underwater on their mortgages got there today by borrowing the equity out of their homes and using it to pay off credit cards, invest in businesses, or pay their children’s college tuition. Or, yes, go to the mall. Others got there because they bought at the top of the market, expecting the bubble to continue rising. But they couldn’t have done it without banks giving them outrageously unsubstantiated loans – or the government’s encouraging such loans to be given. So why are we bailing them out? Greed was always legal. It just wasn’t healthy for certain people.
And maybe the economy needed to get sick enough for us to learn that. Today people are using debit cards more and credit cards less. They’ve figured out that airline miles and rewards points aren’t really free if they come with 18.6% interest rates. Learning some economic truths has required some belt tightening, but that’s a good thing in times like these. We’ve learned, as Gekko says, that “money is a jealous lover. If you don’t watch her carefully, in the morning she’ll be gone,” and that “speculation is a bankrupt business model.” As private citizens we are becoming more frugal and setting our own houses in order. Many businesses are building up their cash reserves instead of borrowing money, so they will have more to spend on future investments. In this economic climate, it’s in their best interest to do so. That’s called capitalism. And it works. “Greed” is good, but self interest is better.