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Holy Rollers Film Review: Are stories “inspired by real events” killing creative cinema?


Waiting around on plush leather sofas with the nibbles before the screening of Holy Rollers, one of the laidback critics said; “this must be a young person’s film”. A few of the other veterans nodded and chirped their agreement through mouthfuls of crisps and gulps of Coke. They surveyed us seated young’uns; youthful writers and bloggers seemingly suited to this tale of wild, animalistic New York and Amsterdam abandon, starring modern rising star and Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg. They began a conversation about The Hangover, prompted by Justin Bartha’s role in this movie.

It was a one sided debate that continued as we took our seats; a small posse of expert cinemagoers agreeing that they did not see the appeal or comedy in the outlandish drunken antics of middle aged Americans. For them its garish humour seemed emblematic of the sort of mainstream bile lapped up by the youth of today. Hollywood studios continually plump for safe, unintelligent films and when one of them catches on, they pounce on the premise to produce sequels. The Hangover 2 is on the way this year of course, spiced up with rumours of increasingly daft cameos.

Another filmmaking trend of recent years is the success of “inspired by true events” storytelling. Half of this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars were based on actual events or adapted from existing works. Of the genuinely original creations born specifically for the big screen, one of the most impressive was an animated sequel in the shape of Toy Story 3. The Social Network, The King’s Speech’s only serious rival, represented another growing pattern; the events that inspire filmmakers are in the increasingly recent past. Historical drama like The King’s Speech is an age old staple but the reimagining of stories that were in the news not so long ago is a fresher phenomenon.

What an ever swelling chorus of commentators bemoans about this is that it’s lazy storytelling. The Social Network was undoubtedly excellent and an absorbing piece of art as a whole that captured something of the essence of our time. But it was so dramatised and adapted that it was almost a work of fiction, built upon very loose foundations of fact. Wouldn’t energies be better spent on new stories rather than the complicated and potentially offensive fictionalisation of recent history?

The trouble is that as the Oscars went someway to demonstrating, when films are based on something real and interesting they can prove to be more skilfully crafted and lucrative. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on films like The King’s Speech and The Social Network; they are a valuable, enriching and enjoyable part of culture. But they should not stifle the flowering of completely different and new tales. They should not be made at the expense of thousands of undiscovered, productive and powerful imaginations. They mustn’t kill off the storyteller.

Wow what a rant. You’re probably waiting for me to start talking about Holy Rollers. But this is the overwhelming thing that struck me about the film, and at once the key and limit to its success. It takes a mostly unknown true story from the recent past (1998) of Hasidic Jews in New York smuggling ecstasy into the States from Europe. It should be applauded for shedding light on this remarkable tale and this is one of the pluses of adapting the truth I suppose; otherwise forgotten personal histories are preserved on film. However when aiming for a reasonably faithful retelling, as the filmmakers do here, their execution is constrained and drama can be minimised. Holy Rollers was unavoidably predictable and failed to engage as a result.

For Eisenberg, playing real people is becoming something of a habit. The comparisons between his character here, Sam Gold, and inexplicably likeable Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, are there from the start. Gold is bright but trapped in the unfulfilling monotony of study, much like Zuckerberg, only here he’s training to become a Rabbi. Like Zuckerberg Gold craves an immediacy lacking from his life and is clearly reluctant to embrace his lifelong fate in the prime of his youth. There’s something geeky yet rebellious about him. On the other hand he wants to succeed in the way expected of him. He wants to rise through the community and avoid losing face by truly impressing the beautiful wife arranged for him by his parents.  

His best friend and neighbour, Leon (Jason Fuchs) is more dedicated and accomplished at his studies. Now and then Gold seeks to rebel against his failings rather than stick at it, and eventually Leon’s brother, Yosef (Bartha) is there to offer him a way out and considerable extra cash to impress his family and prospective spouse. He works for an Israeli drug dealer importing merchandise from Amsterdam via above suspicion Jews. At first Leon and Gold go together on the understanding that they are bringing back important medicine. When the truth comes out Leon is appalled and knuckles down to study. But Gold has got the taste for both the money and the lifestyle.

He starts to show his knack with numbers and profit to drug dealer Jackie, becoming more and more integral to his operation. He is intoxicated and confused by the teasing sexual charms of Jackie’s girlfriend, played by Ari Graynor. There are some awkwardly hilarious scenes between Eisenberg and Graynor where both really show their comedy credentials with pleasing subtlety. Gold’s religious upbringing collides with this new world and prevents him from fully embracing the hedonism and the drugs and the sex. His naivety leads to the breaking of whatever bond he had with the girl.

Aside from this intriguing relationship and sub-plot, the unravelling of the narrative is far too clearly signposted. The visual style of direction in the film remains unchanged throughout, becoming bland, dreary and uninteresting. Eisenberg’s performance on the whole is solid and he does his best with some big emotional moments, but they never really ignited my interest. His transformation from a young man stifled by his surroundings into one embracing an illicit freedom, and calmly instructing new smuggling recruits to “mind your business and act Jewish”, doesn’t quite sit right or convince. Having said this despite the similarities to his performance in The Social Network, he does show a slightly broader range and give a good account of his talent. The failings probably lie more with the script.

Bartha’s believability as the volatile Yosef is strong and there is something charismatic and mysterious about his character. But once again the limitations of the true story format prevent us from seeing him develop into anything that exciting. The premise and setting of Holy Rollers may be initially interesting but ultimately the trajectory of the story is all too plain from the beginning. It might be a faithful reconstruction and it has its worthwhile moments, but this is a film that feels sanitised and seems to only scratch the surface of issues that could be explosively entertaining with greater imagination and drama.

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Let’s be clear from the start that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not a great or even good movie experience. It spends 133 minutes undecided as to what type of film it wants to be. As a result it’s a largely dull tale that takes time to get going and never really bursts into life as you might expect. I’ve never seen the original Wall Street and honestly couldn’t say if seeing the first film would enhance or diminish your enjoyment of this post-9/11 and banking bailout sequel. Certainly a fan would have got some of the references that left me unmoved, perhaps a cameo from Charlie Sheen’s wax work face would have made more sense, but they ultimately may have been disappointed by the nothingness of this follow-up.

The cinema was strangely empty for the first night of a film jammed with star performances and lavish shots of the Manhattan skyline, all marshalled by acclaimed director Oliver Stone. It was dotted with the odd couple who may have been young when the first movie came out. Indeed at times Stone’s direction felt dated, with nostalgic fades between scenes and a less than subtle focus on the image of bubbles throughout the film. You can spot a bubble billowing child in the background of almost every scene with a crowd. Much of what really grated about this movie, besides the ponderous plot, was the way in which motifs and messages were rammed down your throat. These ideas are never fully developed or explored, for instance the focus on renewable energy that seemed to be thrown in simply to be topical, and are far from intelligent or insightful. What really makes you shift uncomfortably in your seat is the way in which the script makes it plain, through some at times terribly clunky dialogue, that it thinks it is saying something clever and new that needs to be said. In reality it merely scratches the surface of some big themes from recent times and then quickly ties itself up in knots with another strand of the purposeless plot that rarely engages the audience.

The opening titles also felt dated and these informed me that there were original songs on the soundtrack, which also sounded distinctly 80s and not exactly in keeping with the tone throughout. However for all the film’s faults it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes it such a lifeless watch but easier to highlight the aspects that make it more bearable than expected.

The first surprise (I was tempted to say pleasant but it really wasn’t) was the way in which I could tolerate so much screen time from Shia “dollar signs” LaBeouf. Since his childhood role in Even Stevens, in which he was passably amusing, I have found his acting irritating in every major film that has catapulted him to mega-bucks star status. However in this movie, despite being given some terrible lines, he is watchable not only as the young adult trader with a conscience but also as the infatuated lover struggling to keep his relationship together. The object of his affection, Carey Mulligan, was also a strong point of a poor film, as expected. Here she demonstrates an American accent and short haired sex appeal that might see her cast in more big budget projects across the Atlantic, but I would hope she tries to stick to quality British film in the main.  

In fact if Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps gets one big review tick it is for the acting performances. Michael Douglas, despite looking drained even after his transformation at the end of the film, has an undeniable charisma in the role of Gordon Gekko and again this is despite the fact he is given some appalling dialogue to work with. The film, whilst continuously slow and plodding, feels even more so before Douglas makes his first proper appearance. The reconciliation scene with his daughter Mulligan is also the one genuinely moving and engaging moment in the entire movie, which is a real testament to both performers given how little I cared for the back-story. Josh Brolin also plays the big baddie banker extremely well.

So whilst there’s no need to rush out to see a film with an identity crisis that can feel like that annoying high minded acquaintance who doesn’t really have an opinion of their own, there are worse ways of spending two hours thanks to some quality acting and the beautiful, shiny gloss of extreme wealth present in every escapist scene.