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Monthly Archives: February 2016

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Adam McKay’s The Big Short is ingenious, economical, and expert in translating a difficult subject – the mortgage crisis of 2008 – for non-expert viewers.  McKay makes what could be an arcane and tedious topic move, and his use of characters and celebrities to directly address and instruct the audience is particularly effective. The film is also wildly entertaining, and for the most part, well paced. In adapting Michael Lewis’s book, McKay alternates between keeping a sense of humor and paying appropriate deference to the deadly serious nature of the crash, revealing the seeming lunacy of modern finance and inherent flaws in our system. As we cover the prescient characters who foresaw the collapse of the mortgage market, and created a new financial instrument to short it to their advantage, the film builds to a depressing climax that is educational and even moving.

But one has to remember, McKay tacked on tedious moral lessons about our financial system in, of all things, the moronic buddy comedy The Other Guys. So after watching Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg engage in their crazy hijinx, we received a sermon on the ponzi scheme that is Wall Street, though blessedly, only during the credits.  McKay did the same thing for campaign finance reform in the Ferrell/Zach Galifinakis comedy The Campaign, but his jeremiads actually crept into the film, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts he considers Anchorman 2 a modern Network.  Anybody who had to append morality epilogues to these light stinkers clearly was itching for more serious fare.

Unfortunately, when McKay got it, he made a riveting, rip-roaring, true life story, and then . . . he choked. A moral fable was not enough.  McKay wanted a moral scolding.  So, every representative of the establishment – bankers, investors, an SEC investigator, a bond rating company analyst, two Florida real estate brokers, the financial reporter – are to a person grotesque cartoons. As depicted by McKay, they might as well be spit-roasting the homeless. Worse, every single one of our hedge fund manager protagonists, all of whom made a shit ton of money off of the collapse, is presented as a tortured, morally conflicted hero. Profiteer Brad Pitt scolds two characters by reminding them that when unemployment rises 1%, 40,000 people die. They are chastened, though I doubt chastened enough to do much about it. Christian Bale, who made billions for his firm betting on the economy to fail, closes his shop with an email to investors that bemoans the cruelty of the market. And the third genius, Steve Carell, literally apes Christ on the cross as he weighs whether to sell. He is urged to do so by his staff as they call him from the steps of a church! And yes, he too cashes in, but only after much soul searching and many, many lectures. And after all that, McKay adds a coda where he warns us that it is all happening again, no one went to jail for it the last time, and so, we are not absolved.

It was all right there, the deed done with, if not a scalpel, a stiletto.  But McKay couldn’t trust his own narrative and so, he used a butcher knife. The ensuing bludgeoning is gonna’ pay off with an Oscar tomorrow night, followed by, I am sure, a sermon much like the one that kneecapped his own movie.

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The first half of this biopic whizzes by, introducing the three main characters (NWA founders Easy E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre) as young pop visionaries who see the future and impact of gangsta’ rap. They rise against the backdrop of racially-charged LA, and director F. Gary Gray gives each their own space and voice. We invest in them individually and collectively, while rooting for their success as they navigate fame, the music industry, the violence of their environment and financial and professional jealousies. Gray also skillfully juxtaposes the raw anger of their music with the brutality of Compton. It’s good, involving fun.  The second half, however, is slower, and the path is well-worn. Excess takes its toll, “the man” (i.e., manager Jerry Heller, the record company, cops and the government) does what he does, and it sure gets lonely at the top.

Overall, this is an entertaining and competent if overlong film. It’s also filled with factual inaccuracies, to be expected when rich men collaborate on the telling of their own rise (and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are mega-rich). A few, however, are problematic. Gray obviously wants to set a time of rampant police brutality and oppression, so he has Dre arrested for simply talking back to a thuggish Compton cop. All well and good, except Dre was actually arrested for . . . unpaid parking tickets! Ha ha ha. Not very gangsta’.

Similarly, there is a scene where the Detroit police, led by a Bull Connoresque whitey and his phalanx of all-white cops, chase NWA off the stage and beat them viciously, throwing them one by one into a van for processing, for playing “Fuck the Police.”  In fact, while NWA was arrested in Detroit, it wasn’t at the venue, nor were they beaten. Instead, later that evening, they were safely ensconced in their hotel when they went to the lobby to meet some girls.  There the cops took them in with little fanfare, and no body blows.

Oh well.  They still had attitude.

In the opening scene, Michael Shannon, a rising Florida real estate broker, walks out of a house where he has just attempted to evict a man. The tenant has blown his brains out in the bathroom. Shannon cares not a whit; he has the lives of many more good, hard-working, decent Frank Capraesque archetypes to ruin, and there are only so many hours in a day. This is the most subtle part of 99 Homes. I get the sense they show this picture to Bernie Sanders volunteers to get them jacked up before they go door-to-door.

Shannon soon moves to the house of Andrew Garfield, a construction worker who is behind on payments for his childhood home, which he shares with his mother (Laura Dern) and son. Garfield gets the boot through the collusion of the courts, the sheriff and indeed, modern American capitalism, but fate brings him back to Shannon, who sees something in the lad. Soon, Garfield is working for Shannon, evicting a passel of George Baileys and making serious bank. But what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Yup. It’s that kind of movie, a bludgeon, without a hint of nuance or depth. It’s also repetitive (if you want a “how to” on evictions, this is your flick, because we see scads of them) and unwittingly undermines its message. Garfield is a pretty stupid poor person and an even dumber rich person; he equivocates and Hamlets through the entire picture, so much so that you actually feel bad for the devil Shannon in having to negotiate the soul of this dimwit.  Also, director Ramin Bahrani obviously knows squat about the Florida police.  The film ends with an extended scene where a man resisting eviction fires a rifle out his window at the cops numerous times and yet, miraculously, they don’t shoot him.  Poppycock.

Shannon is the only reason to see the movie; he does his level-best to give real estate Satan some heft and depth, and he is one of the most interesting actors around.

Naturally, the movie was adored by the critics (“makes you understand how this poisonous financial ecosystem thrives” – David Edelstein; “nails the predicament in which so many working-class folks now find themselves. Although they cling to the American dream, for many of them it has become a nightmare” – Calvin Wilson), who – as everyone in the know knows – have for years been in the pocket of the anti-eviction lobby.

It’s difficult not to compare this Academy award-nominated documentary about singer Amy Winehouse with Montage of Heck, the documentary on Kurt Cobain. Both tell the stories of young popular artists who were undone by drug abuse and depression. Both individuals suffered childhood ruptures and significant medical problems (Winehouse suffered from bulimia while Cobain had serious stomach issues). Both killed themselves, Cobain actively, Winehouse as close as you can without actually pulling the trigger.

The comparisons, however, end there. Cobain’s raw talent was nowhere near that of Winehouse. Winehouse’s voice was so powerful, nuanced and unique, it was staggering, and as evidenced by the documentary, she was a beautiful lyricist as well (thankfully, as she sings, we get to see her lyrics in print). Winehouse also comes off as extremely sympathetic, a sweet and vulnerable girl too fragile for this world (pardon the cliché), someone desperately looking for unconditional and protective love in the hard environs of celebrity. Conversely, Cobain was angry, spit at his success and pretty much made drug addiction a career goal, a decision very difficult to pigeonhole into tragedy.

Director Asif Kapadia uses the ample footage of Winehouse to guide us through her rise and fall (the advent of camera phone video gives us the paradox of Winehouse plagued by paparazzi but constantly videotaped even in private), and while he maintains a veneer of dispassion, he ties her self-destruction in part to a passive mother, an absent and then craven father (it is almost unbearably painful to watch him arrive in St. Lucia as she convalesces from an overdose with a camera-crew for his own reality TV show), an opportunistic boyfriend (if you have even an atom of chivalry in your bones, the moment you meet the creepy, clingy Blake Fielder is the moment you want to beat him senseless) and the cruelties of the press. Indeed, Kapadia is so skillful in communicating his thesis that my own bullshit meter senses oversimplification, and in pressing his case, he flirts with casting Winehouse as victim, when, in fact, she was a willing driver of the ills that befell her (she died of alcohol intoxication at 5 times the legal driving limit). Still, the film as portrait of an artist remains vibrant even if the thesis is hokum. Winehouse’s unfairly or accurately maligned father may have said it best, “Half of me wants to say don’t go see it. But then the other part of me is saying maybe go see the videos, put your headphones in and listen to Amy’s music while they’re watching the videos. It’s the narrative that’s the problem.”

This may be Daniel Craig’s last Bond, which is a shame, because it’s really awful and his turn revived the series. Like Skyfall before it, we again find ourselves delving into Bond’s psyche, but unlike the previous installment, the action sequences in Spectre are humdrum, the plot is even simpler and more obvious, its execution is lazy (at one point, without even a hint of foreshadowing, Bond procures a plane in a matter of 30 seconds, and he ain’t on an airfield), it recycles (an old building collapses in Mexico City, just like an old building collapsed in Venice in Casino Royale) and the bad guy – Christoph Waltz – is barely part of the film.  When Waltz’s true, hilarious motive is revealed, I guess his scarcity makes some sense.  That motive is the only thing that hints at a sense of humor but the inducement of chuckles was assuredly unintentional.  Otherwise, we are apparently supposed to take this seriously.

Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) doesn’t help matters by focusing on visually striking images above all else. Bond seems to simply appear from the mist in every scene, impeccably and nattily tailored, and after enough of these fashionista turns, the movie feels more like a cologne or car commercial than a picture. Bond romances a woman (the underused Monica Bellucci) against a big mirror in the vast open room of a Roman villa, and you can’t believe the scene does not end with “Obsession. By Calvin Klein.”

Spectre is also cursed by the most vacuous Bond girl since Tanya Roberts. Leya Seydoux is the daughter of his nemesis. In, I am guessing, her late 20s, she is a brilliant and accomplished psychologist with inconvenient but lush offices in the Austrian Alps (she actually has Bond fill out a medical questionnaire; oh to have seen his answers under the section “Sexually Transmitted Diseases”). She’s also weightless and dull as dishwater. It’s as if the producers went out of their way to find a French Taylor Swift.

Finally, Mendes has elevated Bond to the status of super hero.  As he escapes Waltz’s lair (Waltz is experimenting on him with drills for reasons that still don’t make any sense to me but harkens uncomfortably back to Dr. Evil), he manages to blow the entire installation up with a gunshot while killing a dozen heavily armed henchmen with a handgun.  After taking a vicious beating at the hands of a new thug – Dave Bautista, who promises to be a recurring figure ala’ Jaws – Bond and Seydoux are quickly dusted off for a quickie looking no worse for wear; indeed, they actually look better.  And at the end, Bond simply snaps cuffs off of his wrist, one presumes by the mere force of his personality.  Yes, Bond is an exceptional assassin, but one of the joys of Craig was the return to a gut-level, human 007.  Now, he’s Captain America.  Or Captain England.

Even the Sam Smith song is godawful, as is its accompanying, bizarre title sequence.  Poorly done all around.

I loved Tower Records and so did my father, a classical music nut.  His apartment was littered with the ubiquitous yellow bags and his visits to its D.C. location (the store was a few blocks from his apartment) were long meanders through the aisles and aisles of inventory.  Colin Hanks has done an admirable job of evoking the nostalgia of Tower, which rose from a small shop selling singles in Sacramento to an international conglomerate in a matter of thirty years.  In the process, he recounts not only an incisive story about the music business from a retail and merchandising standpoint, but of a family business, where all of the early stock boys and clerks who got stoned and drunk in the back grew to become VPs and store and district managers.  The fall –  a combination of technology, overreach and a bit of profligacy – is sad, but not tragic.  Every one of the individuals interviewed extols the organization, its singularly decent and quirky founder Russell Solomon, and the positive impact working there had on them.

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Not an apologia, nor a self serving justification, but rather, an opportunity to listen to the methodology, nuance and capacities of one of the more influential policymakers of our generation. Documentarian Errol Morris is astute enough to let Donald Rumsfeld roll with little interruption, but with occasional prodding, to attempt to reach his core. Unlike with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, who eventually reached an acknowledgment that seemed near confessional with regard to his failures in Vietnam, Rumsfeld is not of the same mindset. He is not prideful in his cheery resistance to apology: he’s quite capable of admitting error, but he refuses to accept the premise that in the commission of error, there necessarily lies moral failure or self-serving and political calculation.

Morris is a little cheap on occasion, and with someone who is as careful with his words as Rumsfeld, it is problematic. For example, Morris goes “gotcha!” when he juxtaposes Rumsfeld’s denial that the Bush administration cast Iraq as a major player with al Qaeda in the direct planning of the 9-11 attacks with his statement in a press conference that al Qaeda and Iraq certainly had a relationship. Mostly, however, Morris feels flummoxed by Rumsfeld, which is actually a good thing. Morris approaches him as a dramatist and a provocateur, asking “why obsessed with Iraq?” and “why not just assassinate Saddam?”  He receives answers, albeit answers you can tell he feels are not obfuscatory so much as unsatisfactory.

No neat wrap-up, no target hit, no successful gotchas, just a rumination on Rumsfeld’s mind, peculiar process and recollection. There’s a great exchange where Morris advances that Shakespeare wrote about large personality filled power struggles, Rumsfeld replies that in fact those struggles are really just people with different perspectives, Morris exclaims “Did Shakespeare get it wrong?” and Rumsfeld thinks about it, shrugs, and suggests maybe Shakespeare got it right . . . for his time. In that same vein, Morris pushes for lessons between Vietnam (the end of which Rumsfeld oversaw serving President Ford) and Iraq, and Rumsfeld parries that one hopes to heed lessons in history, but the primary lesson is “some things work out and some don’t.”

Morris wants questions like, “How do you know when you are going too far?” answered to his satisfaction and Rumsfeld is literally the last person on this earth equipped or inclined to provide him a satisfactory answer.  Are you saying, “Stuff just happens?”, Morris asks at one point, in exasperation.  Rumsfeld looks back at him with the look of someone who has just been asked “Are you saying you breathe air?”  Morris conceded his agenda, and perhaps the thwarting of same, in an interview: “You’re left with a strange anxiety about [Rumsfeld].  I suppose if I was Mike Wallace or David Frost or whoever, I’d back [him] into a corner. But I love those moments, because I don’t even know where I am anymore. I don’t know whether he’s in any way self-aware, whether he is lying, whether he’s just in some strange alternate universe, the Rumsfeld universe. . . . There’s a ‘j’accuse’ there, but it’s my ‘j’accuse’.”

The consensus from the dummy contingent of film critics is that Rumsfeld was given the rope with which to hang himself, or his artful dodging is in and of itself proof of the indictment as to his treachery, but what Morris has actually accomplished is a demonstration of the incongruity between the needs of artists,  or those who see the world through a Shakespearean lens, and policymakers, who take it one memo at a time.

On Netflix streaming.