Category Archives: Big Money

Kleptocracy Now: A Top 10 List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 14, 2017)

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“To assess the ‘personality’ of the corporate ‘person’ a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.”

– from the official website for the film, The Corporation

I don’t know about you, but my jaw is getting pretty sore from repeatedly dropping to the floor with each successive cabinet nomination by our incoming CEO-in-chief of the United States of Blind Trust. It seems that candidate Trump, who ran on an oft-bleated promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington D.C. bears little resemblance to President-elect Trump, who is currently hell-bent on loading the place up with even more alligators.

When I heard the name “Rex Tillerson” bandied about as Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, it rang a bell. I knew he was the former head of Exxon, so it wasn’t that. Then I remembered. Mr. Tillerson was one of the “stars” of a documentary I reviewed several years back, called Greedy Lying Bastards (conversely, if I hear the words “greedy lying bastards,” bandied about, “Trump’s cabinet picks” is the first phrase that comes to mind).

So with that in mind, and in keeping with my occasional unifying theme, “Hollywood saw this coming”, I was inspired to comb my review archives of the last 10 years to see if any bellwethers were emerging that may have been dropping hints that the planets were aligning in such a manner as to set up a path to the White House for an orange TV clown (the “self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful” kind of orange TV clown).

All 10 of these films were released within the last 10 years. I’ll let you be the judge:

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The Big Short Want the good news first? Writer-director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ eponymous 2010 non-fiction book is an outstanding comedy-drama; an incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The bad news is…it made me pissed off about it all over again.

Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this ever-maddening tale of how we stood by, blissfully unaware, as unchecked colonies of greedy, lying Wall Street investment bankers were eventually able to morph into the parasitic gestalt monster journalist Matt Taibbi famously compared to a “…great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Good times!  (Full review)

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Capitalism: A Love Story – Back in 2009, Digby and I did a double post on this film, which was Michael Moore’s reaction to the 2008 crash. Here’s how I viewed his intent:

So how did we arrive to this sorry state of our Union, where the number of banks being robbed by desperate people is running neck and neck with the number of desperate banks ostensibly robbing We The People? What paved the way for the near-total collapse of our financial system and its subsequent government bailout, which Moore provocatively refers to as nothing less than a “financial coup d’etat”? The enabler, Moore suggests, may very well be our sacred capitalist system itself-and proceeds to build a case (in his inimitable fashion) that results in his most engaging and thought-provoking film since Roger and Me […] at the end of the day I didn’t really find his message to be so much “down with capitalism” as it is “up with people”.

Digby gleaned something else from the film that did a flyover on me at the time:

But this movie, as Dennis notes, isn’t really about saviors or criminals, although it features some of both. It’s a call for citizens to focus their minds on what’s actually gone wrong and take to the streets or man the barricades or do whatever defines political engagement in this day and age and demand that the people who brought us to this place are identified and that the system is reformed. Indeed, I would guess that if it didn’t feature the stuff about capitalism being evil he could have shown this to audiences of all political stripes and most of the latent teabaggers would have given him a standing ovation.

If the film manages to focus the citizenry on the most important story of our time then it will be tremendously important. If it gets lost in a cacophony of commie bashing and primitive tribalism then it will probably not be recognized for what it is until sometime later. As with all of his films, he’s ahead of the zeitgeist, so I am hopeful that this epic call to leftwing populist engagement is at the very least a hopeful sign of things to come.

She called it. “Someone” did tap into that populist sentiment; but sadly, it wasn’t the Left.

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The Corporation – While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects everyone’s life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.

Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.

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The Forecaster – There’s a conspiracy nut axiom that “everything is rigged”. Turns out it’s not just paranoia…it’s a fact. At least that’s according to this absorbing documentary from German filmmaker Marcus Vetter, profiling economic “forecaster” Martin Armstrong. In the late 70s, Armstrong formulated a predictive algorithm (“The Economic Confidence Model”) that proved so accurate at prophesying global financial crashes and armed conflicts, that a shadowy cabal of everyone from his Wall Street competitors to the CIA made Wile E. Coyote-worthy attempts for years to get their hands on that formula.

And once Armstrong told the CIA to “fuck off”, he put himself on a path that culminated in serving a 12-year prison sentence for what the FBI called a “3 billion dollar Ponzi scheme”. Funny thing, no evidence was ever produced, nor was any judgement passed (most of the time he served was for “civil contempt”…for not giving up that coveted formula, which the FBI eventually snagged when they seized his assets). Another funny thing…Armstrong’s formula solidly backs up his contention that it’s the world’s governments running the biggest Ponzi schemes…again and again, all throughout history.

And something tells me that we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet…

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Greedy Lying Bastards – I know it’s cliché to quote Joseph Goebbels, but: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” That’s the theme of Craig Rosebraugh’s 2013 documentary. As one interviewee offers: “On one side you have all the facts. On the other side, you have none. But the folks without the facts are far more effective at convincing the public that this is not a problem, than scientists are about convincing them that we need to do something about this.” What is the debate in question here? Global warming.

Using simple but damning flow charts, Rosebraugh follows the money and connects dots between high-profile deniers (“career skeptics…in the business of selling doubt”) and their special interest sugar daddies. Shills range from media pundits (with no background in hard science) to members of Congress, presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices. Think tanks and other organizations are exposed as mouthpieces for Big Money.

Sadly, the villains outnumber the heroes-which is not reassuring. What does reassure are suggested action steps in the film’s coda…which might come in handy after January 20th. (Full review)

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Inside Job I have good news and bad news about documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.

Ferguson starts where the seeds were sown-rampant financial deregulation during the Reagan administration (“morning in America”-remember?). The film illustrates, point by point, how every subsequent administration, Democratic and Republican alike, did their “part” to enable the 2008 crisis- through political cronyism and legislative manipulation. The result of this decades long circle jerk involving Wall Street, the mortgage industry, Congress, the White House and lobbyists (with Ivy League professors as pivot men) is what we are still living with today…and I suspect it is about to get unimaginably worse.  (Full review)

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The International Get this. In the Bizarro World of Tom Tykwer’s conspiracy thriller, people don’t rob banks…. banks rob people. That’s crazy! And if you think that’s weird, check this out: at one point in the film, one of the characters puts forth the proposition that true power belongs to he who controls the debt. Are you swallowing this malarkey? The filmmakers even go so far as to suggest that some Third World military coups are seeded by powerful financial groups and directed from shadowy corporate boardrooms…

What a fantasy! (Not.)

The international bank in question is under investigation by an Interpol agent (Clive Owen), who is following a trail of shady arms deals all over Europe and the Near East that appear to be linked to the organization. Whenever anyone gets close to exposing the truth about the bank’s Machiavellian schemes, they die under mysterious circumstances. Once the agent teams up with an American D.A. (Naomi Watts), much more complexity ensues, with tastefully-attired assassins lurking behind every silver-tongued bank exec.

The timing of the film’s release (in 2010) was interesting, in light of the then-current banking crisis and plethora of financial scandals. Screenwriter Eric Singer (no relation to the KISS drummer) based certain elements of the story on the real-life B.C.C.I. scandal.             (Full review)

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The Queen of Versailles In Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 doc, billionaire David Siegel shares an anecdote about his 52-story luxury timeshare complex in Vegas. In 2010, Donald Trump called him and said, “Congratulations on your new tower! I’ve got one problem with it. When I stay in my penthouse suite, I look out the window and all I see is ‘WESTGATE’. Could you turn your sign down a little bit?” (how he must have suffered).

While Greenfield’s portrait of Siegal, his wife Jackie, their eight kids, nanny, cook, maids, chauffeur and (unknown) quantity of yippy, prolifically turd-laying teacup dogs is chock full of wacky “you couldn’t make this shit up” reality TV moments, there is an elephant in the room…the family’s unfinished Orlando, Florida mansion, the infamous “largest home in America”, a 90,000 square foot behemoth inspired by the palace at Versailles. Drama arises when the bank threatens to foreclose on it, along with the PH Towers Westgate. So does the family end up living in cardboard boxes? I’m not telling.

However, there is a more chilling message, buried near the end of the film. When Siegel boasts he was “personally responsible” for the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the director asks him to elaborate. “I’d rather not say,” he replies, “…because it may not necessarily have been legal.” Any further thoughts? “Had I not stuck my big nose into it, there probably would not have been an Iraqi War, and maybe we would have been better off…I don’t know.” Gosh, imagine a billionaire having the power to “buy” the POTUS of their choice. Worse yet, imagine a similarly odious billionaire becoming the POTUS. Oh.   (Full review)

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Welcome to New York While it is not a “action thriller” per se, Abel Ferrara’s film is likewise “ripped from the headlines”, involves an evil banker, and agog with backroom deals and secret handshakes. More specifically, the film is based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. In case you need a refresher, he was the fine fellow who was accused and indicted for an alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid employed by the ritzy NYC hotel he was staying at during a 2011 business trip. The case was dismissed after the maid’s credibility was brought into question (Strauss-Kahn later admitted in a TV interview that a liaison did occur, but denied any criminal wrongdoing).

I’m sure that the fact that Strauss-Kahn was head of the International Monetary Fund at the time (and a front-runner in France’s 2012 presidential race) had absolutely nothing to do with him traipsing out from the sordid affair smelling like a rose (as of this writing, we don’t know the veracity of intelligence reports alleging shenanigans in a Russian hotel room that involve a “certain” President-elect, so I won’t draw any parallels…just sayin’).

It is interesting watching the hulking Gerard Depardieu wrestle with the motivations (and what passes as the “conscience”) of his Dostoevskian character. It doesn’t make this creep any more sympathetic, but it is a fearless late-career performance, as naked (literally and emotionally) as Brando was playing a similarly loathsome study in Last Tango in Paris. Jacqueline Bisset gives a good supporting turn as the long-suffering wife.   (Full review)

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The Yes Men Fix the World – Anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (aka “The Yes Men”) and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world.

Once this springboard is established, the fun begins. Perhaps “fun” isn’t the right term, but there are hijinks afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. “Corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds. It’s a call to activism that is as timely as ever.          (Full review)

Funny games: Tickled **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 9, 2016)

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There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

-William Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

With a bit of luck, his life was ruined forever. Always thinking that just behind some narrow door in all of his favorite bars, men in red woolen shirts are getting incredible kicks from things he’ll never know.

-Hunter S. Thompson, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Oh yes, there are a lot of things going on, involving a lot of incredible kicks, behind a lot of narrow doors, that you and I will never, ever, know. Although…after watching David Ferrier and Dylan Reeves’ Tickled, I’m inclined to think that perhaps it’s all for the best.

That’s because I cannot un-see what I have seen in the course of watching the pair’s documentary, an expose that starts off like a fluffy nightly news kicker, but eventually morphs into something more byzantine and odious. Okay, it’s not All the President’s Men; it’s more aptly described as Foxcatcher meets Catfish. I’m speaking in generalities because Tickled is a difficult film to describe without possibly divulging a spoiler or two.

Ferrier, a New Zealand-based TV entertainment reporter, came across a click-bait item regarding a “sport” called Competitive Endurance Tickling. It was all rather amusing…at first. As he dug a little deeper, he was surprised to find himself becoming increasingly stonewalled by the organizers; soon after he was weathering harassment from lawyers and P.I.’s. What were they covering up? Now completely intrigued, Ferrier decides to go totally Mike Wallace on this (now) shady operation. What he discovers is…some shady stuff, involving some big money types. Nobody gets murdered, but it’s still pretty creepy.

You’ve been warned. Not essential viewing, but you won’t see this story on 60 Minutes!

Gall Street: The Big Short ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2016)

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In my 2010 review of the documentary Inside Job, I wrote:

I have good news and bad news about Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.

Remember 2008? That financial crisis thingie? Well, it’s time to dust off the pitchfork. Good news first? Writer-director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph have (somehow) adapted Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction book The Big Short into an outstanding comedy-drama that doubles as an incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system. The bad news…it made me pissed off about it all over again.

Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this ever-maddening tale of how we (meaning your everyday, average hard-working American taxpayer) stood by, completely unsuspecting and blissfully unaware, as unchecked colonies of greedy, lying Wall Street investment bankers were eventually able to morph into the parasitic gestalt monster journalist Matt Taibbi famously compared to a “…great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

However, what differentiates McKay’s film from the aforementioned documentary is its surprisingly effervescent candy-coating, which helps the medicine go down. For example, he sprinkles his narrative with helpful, interstitial tutorials that annotate some of the financial vernacular that gets tossed about. And as far as helpful, interstitial tutorials go, one could do worse than watching lovely Australian actress Margot Robbie take a bubble bath as she delivers an authoritative dissertation as to how junk bonds are created.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are other elements that help the film work as beautifully as it does; for one the impressive number of A-list cast members (shocking, when you consider the subject matter wouldn’t likely strike your typical Hollywood green-lighter to be as bankable as, let’s say…a story that is set in a galaxy far, far, away).

The narrative has several threads, encircling a quirky, Oscar-baiting turn by Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager (and possible Asperger’s sufferer) who appears to be a savant with numbers and financial trend spotting. He is one of the first to not only spot the needle heading for the “bubble”, but to figure out how investors, armed with such foreknowledge (and bereft of conscience) could become incredibly filthy rich.

Initially of course, everyone thinks he’s nuts. But as word gets around that the big banks (through oversight and pure greed) may have created an Achilles heel for themselves that could be exploited by a savvy few (at the expense of, oh I don’t know…the rest of us?) a few other players enter the story (played with equal aplomb by Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt). What makes these four primary characters compelling is that while each has disparate motivations, they all share one trait: thinking outside of the box.

McKay cleverly employs a variation of the network narrative; all of the primary characters may not literally cross paths, yet once all is said and done, you come to understand how each of them represents (if I may extrapolate on Mr. Taibbi’s cephalopod theme) a mutually exclusive tentacle of that great vampire squid, jamming and sucking.

Ew. I think that’s the most disgusting sentence I’ve ever written. Anyway…see this film!

Horrible bosses: Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 13, 2015)

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“How big of an asshole do you have to be to be successful?”

I am so glad you asked that rhetorical question, Random Guy from the new documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, because it’s a conundrum I have often pondered myself (speaking as one of those “nice guys” who is doomed to “…always finish last”).

Maybe it depends on how you define “success”. Join me in welcoming our musical panel:

First you get that money, then you get that power

If you tune ya nose up, boy he on that powder

-from “Power” by Young Thug

Thanks, Y.T. You say money is the starter. But isn’t there a nicer way to get the money?

If you want to be rich

You’ve got to be a bitch

-from “White Horse” by Laid Back

I see. But what about the aesthetic? Money doesn’t speak for anything; as does, say…art.

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole

Not like you

-from “Pablo Picasso” by the Modern Lovers

Jeez, no need to be insulting…but I think I hear what you’re saying. Back to the review…

So, was Steve Jobs an asshole? Was he a soulless capitalist? Or was he an aesthete, as he frequently positioned himself? Is it possible he was both soulless capitalist and aesthete?

Director Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) tackles the dichotomous nature of the Steve Jobs mystique head on in his latest film (in theaters and available on VOD). Gibney borrows a page from Citizen Kane; opening with the massive media coverage of Jobs’ passing and the (surprising) profundity of the grief around the world, then running the chalk backward from there in hopes of unearthing his “Rosebud”.

Good luck, right? Like Gibney, I was amazed by images of candlelight vigils and tearful consumers holding iPhones aloft like sacred talismans. Yes, it was sad, but it’s not like he was Gandhi; I don’t necessarily get misty-eyed over Alexander Graham Bell whenever my phone rings. It’s interesting that Gibney’s previous film was about Scientology, as there is an undercurrent to the Jobs/Apple success story that always struck me as cultish (ever received one of those “PC vs Mac” sermons from a Mac disciple? Jesus H. Christ!).

Gibney doesn’t expend much screen time on Jobs’ pre-Apple biography; a judicious choice considering it’s been retold ad nauseam in previous documentaries, feature films, books, print articles, blogs, and stories around the campfire (college dropout, trip to India, study of Buddhism, Steve and Woz in the garage, blah blah blah). This is more the story of Apple, which ultimately is the story of Jobs anyway, because in essence he was the corporation (and the corporation was him). This is an unauthorized project, so Gibney lets all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out. Jobs was a marketing genius and major game changer, but (just like a corporation) he did also show a few sociopathic tendencies.

I’ve never owned an Apple product, nor hungered for further details regarding Steve Jobs’ rise to iconography than have already been chiseled into the stone tablets of Silicon Valley mythology. That said, I did learn a few things about Jobs’ personal life that were new to me. On a sliding scale, this is one of the more compelling documentaries about him. If you miss this one, don’t despair, because you shouldn’t have to wait too long for the next Steve Jobs biopic. Oh look, here comes one now! Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is due out on October 9th, with Michael Fassbender in the lead. Put that in your Blackberry.

 

UPDATE: He has risen. There is a corollary linking the Jobs legacy to the current Syrian refugee crisis in the form of an internet meme that has been gaining momentum over the past week. As you may (or may not) be aware, Jobs’ biological father was a Syrian political refugee. It’s a hopeful reminder of what America is supposed to be about, and an immunization against the moronic, knee-jerk fear-mongering already being propagated about how ISIS operatives will surely embed themselves with U.S bound Syrian refugees.

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, to me. Except for you. I didn’t mean you.

Good god.

Death by Cocoa Puff: That Sugar Film **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 1, 2015)

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Coconut fudge really blows down those blues. On the downside, it also leads to metabolic syndrome, obesity, cardiovascular disease, a fatty liver, and type II diabetes. Well, the coconut fudge itself is not The Devil, per se, but rather a toothsome delivery system for the actual culprit. And ye may not recognize him; for his name is legion, and they are many: Agave nectar, barley malt syrup, cane juice crystals, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, lactose, molasses, sorghum or (my favorite) treacle. Yes, the correct answer is: “Sugar”.

So, if you don’t want to die from metabolic syndrome, obesity, cardiovascular disease, a fatty liver, or type II diabetes, the answer is obvious, right? As Marlene Dietrich wryly advises the corpulent Orson Welles in Touch of Evil: “You should lay off those candy bars.” While a good place to start, that’s not necessarily The Answer. That is, if you believe everything that Damon Gameau has to say in his documentary, That Sugar Film.

As Morgan Spurlock did for his 2004 fast food expose, Super Size Me, Gameau donates his (living) body to science, in the interest of public health. Also like his predecessor, Gameau is a (usually) health-conscious individual who sets out to attempt what some might consider an act of nutritional suicide, and to document his experiment for posterity.

Spoiler alert…he lives to tell his tale (but you knew that). Whereas Spurlock scarfed (and barfed) nothing but McDonald’s fare for a month, Gameau super-sizes his study, ingesting the equivalency of 40 teaspoons of sugar daily for two months. While that seems excessive (and undoubtedly is, from a health perspective), Gameau was simply only replicating the daily teenage average consumption of sugar in his native Australia.

The twist is that Gameau did lay off those candy bars. And cookies, and cake, and ice cream. So how did he get all that sugar in his system? He ate healthy…as in “healthy” foods like low-fat yogurt, granola, and Jamba Juice smoothies (he conducted part of his experiment grazing in the U.S.). These are foods laden with “hidden” sugars that many of us (much less teenagers) shovel down our gullets daily. That’s a scary enough thought to process, but by the time Gameau shares that 80% of our processed foods contain sugar, it’s downright depressing (I immediately consoled myself with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s).

The effects of these 60 days of sugary self-abuse on Gameau’s overall health prove similar to Spurlock’s physiological (and psychological) deterioration following his fast food diet: weight gain, an alarming proliferation of fatty tissue in his liver, lethargy, mood swings, and pre-diabetic symptoms (all confirmed by attendant doctors and psychologists). Perhaps the most startling revelation is that Gameau’s daily caloric intake remained nearly identical to his pre-experiment numbers; the difference being that his normal diet consists of healthy fats and proteins (it’s those empty calories that kill you!).

But is any of this really news to anybody? After all, everyone from concerned nutritionists to tyrannical Socialist first ladies have been touting the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits, nuts, veggies and lean protein to the ‘murcan public for some time now. Yet diabetes remains at epidemic levels, and heart disease is still America’s #1 killer. So I suppose most of us must have our heads too firmly implanted in the stuffed-crust pizza.

And know that I am just as guilty as the next rube. I know ice cream is “bad” for me…but it tastes so fucking good! I know I shouldn’t eat sugary cold cereal for breakfast every morning…but I’m too goddam lazy to cook. But that’s a “PP” (personal problem), so what about society at large? The problem, Gameau posits, may go deeper than behavioral issues of self-control, or kicking sugar addiction. He digs into sociopolitical factors, including a parallel study between sugar-related health crises in two economically depressed backwaters; an Aboriginal settlement in Australia and a town in Appalachia.

And then there’s the other “P” word. Profits. The sugar industry (for obvious reasons) has a keen interest in keeping consumers hooked on the sweet stuff, and Gameau delves into some of the more insidious manipulations they routinely engage in, from buying off scientists to pass off puff pieces as “official studies” to the (inevitable) lobbying tactics.

While visually “busy” and distractingly frenetic at times (the film is edited and color-timed like a Katy Perry video) I think the substantive message will be absorbed by viewers. It’s possible that Gameau infused his film with broad theatricality (e.g. hammy cameos by Hugh Jackman and Stephen Fry) to soften the blow. I mean, who really wants to be told they’re digging their grave with an ice cream scoop, or that jolly old Captain Crunch is in reality the Antichrist, in a tri-corner hat? Hey, I know…who wants Trident?

SIFF 2015: The Forecaster ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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There’s a conspiracy nut axiom that “everything is rigged”. Turns out it’s not just paranoia…it’s a fact. At least that’s according to this absorbing documentary from German filmmaker Marcus Vetter, profiling economic “forecaster” Martin Armstrong. In the late 70s, Armstrong formulated a predictive algorithm (“The Economic Confidence Model”) that proved so accurate at prophesying global financial crashes and armed conflicts, that a shadowy cabal of everyone from his Wall Street competitors to the CIA made Wile E. Coyote-worthy attempts for years to get their hands on that formula.

And once Armstrong told the CIA to “fuck off”, he put himself on a path that culminated in serving a 12-year prison sentence for what the FBI called a “3 billion dollar Ponzi scheme”. Funny thing, no evidence was ever produced, nor was any judgement passed (most of the time he served was for “civil contempt”…for not giving up that coveted formula, which the FBI eventually snagged when they seized his assets). Another funny thing…Armstrong’s formula solidly backs up his contention that it’s the world’s governments running the biggest Ponzi schemes…again and again, all throughout history.

An eye-opener!

 

Rich and strange: Welcome to New York **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 4, 2015)

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In my 2009 review of Tom Tykwer’s conspiracy thriller, The International, I observed:

The timing of the film’s release is interesting, in light of the current banking crisis and plethora of financial scandals. From what I understand, certain elements of the story are based on the B.C.C.I. scandal. I predict this will become the new trend in screen villains-the R. Allen Stanfords and Bernie Madoffs seem heaven-sent to replace Middle-Eastern terrorists as the newest Heavies du Jour in action thrillers. You can take that to the bank.

While it is not a “action thriller” per se, Abel Ferrara’s new film, Welcome to New York, is likewise “ripped from the headlines”, involves an evil banker, and agog with backroom deals and secret handshakes. More specifically, the film is based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. In case you need a refresher, he was the fine fellow who was accused and indicted for an alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid employed by the ritzy NYC hotel he was staying at during a 2011 business trip.

The case was dismissed after the maid’s credibility was brought into question (Strauss-Kahn later admitted in a TV interview that a liaison did occur, but denied any criminal wrongdoing). I’m sure that the fact that Strauss-Kahn happened to be head of the International Monetary Fund at the time (and a front-runner in France’s 2012 presidential race) had absolutely nothing to do with him traipsing out from the sordid affair smelling like a rose.

There’s no question that Bronx native Ferrara loves New York; nearly all of the two dozen or so films to his credit have been set in the Big Apple. And like many New Yorkers, Ferrara loves a parade, which is likely why he opens his new film with a veritable parade of high-priced call girls, rotating in and out of one particular NYC hotel room in cadres of three or four at a time. Their insatiable client is one Mr. Devereaux (Gerard Depardieu), a powerful international financier. Sweaty, wheezing and boorish, he’s nobody’s dream date, but the sad fact remains…money talks, bullshit walks (bringing to mind my favorite line from Swingers: “What do you drive?”).

Sometime after the revelries subside, a maid enters (thinking the room unoccupied), and encounters our apparently still frisky Mr. Devereaux, fresh from the shower. Ferrara cleverly (and thankfully) pulls away before we can bear witness to what happens next, but then devotes the remainder of the film dealing with the fallout.

This film left me feeling  ambivalent; I think this is because the director seems ambivalent toward his subject. Not that a film inspired by a true story (especially one that so closely mirrors the actual events) is required to be didactic, or a morality play, but Ferrara has taken a hyper-realistic approach that can be stultifying at times.

Still, it was a pleasant surprise to see Jacqueline Bisset back on the big screen (as Devereaux’s long-suffering wife). She seems to have made a graceful transition into a full-blooded performer; while perennially easy on the eye, I always found her characterizations wooden-but she puts more “character” into her work nowadays.

It is interesting watching the hulking Depardieu wrestle with the motivations (and what passes as the “conscience”) of his Dostoevskian character. It doesn’t make this creep any more sympathetic, but it is a fearless late-career performance, as naked (literally and emotionally) as Brando was playing a similarly loathsome study in Last Tango in Paris (not to go so far as to say that  Ferrara is quite in the same league as Bertolucci, mind you).

People they do bad things: Serena *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 28, 2015)

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Off the rails: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Serena

It’s a damn shame to see a good cast wasted. Such is the case with Danish director Susanne Bier’s curiously off-putting period melodrama Serena, which gets inextricably bogged down somewhere between torrid soap opera and watered-down Shakespearean tragedy. It appears Bier, despite having several acclaimed films to her credit (including 2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World), may have nodded off at the wheel this time out.

The story is set during the Great Depression. Bradley Cooper stars as George Pemberton, a burgeoning lumber baron who is carving (well, more like chopping) out an empire from the rugged woodlands of North Carolina. Being one of the most eligible bachelors in the holler, George is ever on the lookout for a wife. One day, while he’s out shootin’ at some food, he spots the eponymous protagonist/future missus (Jennifer Lawrence), who literally comes riding into frame on a white horse; confident, mysterious and purty as all get-out. Serena, as it turns out, is no shrinking violet. In fact, she is so headstrong that George’s second-hand man (David Dencik) takes an immediate disliking to her, especially after she muscles her way into hubby’s business. She’s also a sociopath, which becomes apparent as she morphs into a backwoods Lady Macbeth.

The machinations that ensue in Christopher Kyle’s muddled screenplay (adapted from the 2008 novel by Ron Rash) are at once so underdeveloped and over-the-top that, coupled with the somewhat histrionic performances, the film just misses qualifying as an “instant camp classic” (Fifty Shades of Grey is the one to beat this year). There are a few steamy, pseudo-explicit moments with Cooper and Lawrence that may make you sit up straight and pay attention, but as the bard himself said…two or three inspired hump scenes alone do not a good melodrama make.

The 1% rundown: Child’s Pose ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 8, 2014)

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I’m sure you recall the “affluenza” case in Texas, in which a 16 year-old from a wealthy family received 10 year’s probation and a stint in rehab as “punishment” for killing four people in a drunk driving accident? A psychologist for the defense defined “affluenza” as an affliction unique to children of privilege; claiming that the young man’s coddled upbringing led to an inability to connect actions with consequences. We have to assume that he said this with a straight face, because judge and jury bought it. Which begs a question: Does the world have two justice systems…one for the rich and one for the poor?

Child’s Pose, a new film from Romanian writer-director Calin Peter Netzer, would seem to reinforce that suspicion. Shooting in a unfussy, Dogme 95-styled manner, and armed with a script (co-written by Razvan Radulescu) that blends droll satire with social realism, Netzer paints a portrait of contemporary Romanian class warfare through the eyes of a haughty bourgeoisie woman named Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu).

We are introduced to Cornelia, a middle-aged, well-to-do architect who power-puffs every cigarette like it’s her last, as she is lamenting to her sister (Natasa Raab) about her relationship with her adult son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache). Why does she always have to initiate contact? He hasn’t phoned her for weeks…it must be that controlling wife of his (“That creature…she’s got him by his tail, like a little mouse.”). “Stop pestering him,” her sister says. It quickly becomes apparent that Cornelia is the one who has control issues.

Cornelia’s need to know every detail of Barbu’s life seems to go above and beyond the normal parental concerns. In a particularly telling scene, she invites her housekeeper (who she has hired to regularly clean her son’s home as well) to take a break and join her for a cup of coffee. Cornelia masterfully turns the chit-chat into an intelligence-gathering session. How is their place…”messy as usual”? When she dusted Barbu’s nightstand, did she happen to notice which book was there? Is it the one she recently sent, she wonders? Cornelia casually offers the maid a 200 Euro pair of shoes she found whilst cleaning out her closet; a payoff, disguised as an act of noblesse oblige.

One evening, Cornelia is attending an opera recital when she is suddenly torn away by her sister, who has bad news. Barbu is down at the police station; he has been involved in a car accident. He’s okay, but he has struck and killed a teenage boy. The look on Cornelia’s face speaks volumes. There’s none of the expected shock, or sense of panic. Rather, you can see all the gears turning. This is it. This is her “in”. Barbu is in trouble. Big trouble. But mama can help. Mama has her connections. She knows what to kiss, and when. She knows how the system works. She’s already formulating an action plan…not necessarily out of a maternal drive to “save” her son from jail, but to get him back under her thumb, where he belongs (Gheorghiu telegraphs all of this beautifully, wordlessly).

As you watch Cornelia serpentine her way though Bucharest like a preying viper, playing the cops, witnesses, and the victim’s working-class family like violins, it almost becomes a moot point that her spoiled, ne’er do well son is guilty as hell of negligent homicide. That’s because you’re so gob smacked by Cornelia’s gumption that you develop a morbid fascination with whether or not she is actually going to pull all this off. Of course, there would have to be some enabling factors involving the inherent corruption within “The System” as well, and Netzer doesn’t spare any barbs there either.

While some viewers may be put off by the deliberate pacing (I’ll confess it took me about 20 minutes to get in tune with what the film was even going to be about) those with patience will be rewarded. Gheorghiu’s performance is the most compelling reason to stick with it; she’s the most conniving, insufferably narcissistic maternal nightmare you’ll love to hate this side of Livia Drusilla .

It would be easy to say that the film’s message is “money talks, justice walks”, but the ambiguous denouement gives me pause. It seems that no victory that’s bought and paid for comes without a hidden cost. I’m not a religious man (had to look this up on Mr. Google) but how does that quote go…“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul”? Erm, amen to that.

Oh, that mean, mean, mean, lean green: The Wolf of Wall Street ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 4, 2014)

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Do funny things to some people: DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

A few weeks back, in my review of David O. Russell’s American Hustle, I wrote that the film was “…best described as New Yorkers screaming at each other for an interminable 2 hours and 19 minutes”. I went on to lament that it was “…kinda like GoodFellas, except not as stylish.” OK, so it’s time for full disclosure. On one level, The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s very similarly-themed film, could be described as “New Yorkers screaming at each other for three hours” (and I suppose that technically, most Scorsese films fit that bill). One could also say that it is “…kinda like GoodFellas“. However in this case, it is as stylish…because (as they say) there ain’t nuthin’ like the real thing, baby.

The American hustle takes many forms. For example, your everyday “con artists” can’t hold a candle to the institutional grifters of Wall Street. And when it comes to the American Oligarchy, nothing exceeds like excess. That axiom seems to propel Scorsese’s deliriously vulgar, spun-out tweaker of a biopic, based on the 2007 memoir by Jordan Belfort, a successful “penny” stockbroker whose career crashed in 1998, when he was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering. Belfort wasn’t shy about reveling in his wealth; and Scorsese is not shy about reveling in Belfort’s revels.

Breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera a la Ray Liotta’s protagonist in GoodFellas, Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) narrates his own rise and fall with that air of smug, coked-out alacrity that has become de rigueur for such self-styled Masters of the Universe. We see the wide-eyed neophyte at his first brokerage gig, where he receives the first of several variations on the classic “second prize is a set of steak knives” monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross that screenwriter Terence Winter sprinkles throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, delivered by his boss (Matthew McConaughey). He imparts a dictum that comes to define Jordan’s career: “Fuck the client.” He also ascribes his financial acumen to a daily regimen of masturbation and cocaine consumption (hmm…a few possible root causes for the Global Financial Crisis are suddenly coming into focus, eh?).

Belfort takes to both the work and the lifestyle like a fish to water, soon becoming a top earner. However, when a recession hits (1988, I’m guessing?) he finds himself unceremoniously out of a gig. After scraping by for a spell, he lands a job at a low-rent Long Island brokerage that specializes in “penny stocks”. His effortless mastery of the “boiler room” bait-and-switch playbook gives him the inspiration to start his own brokerage. With a stalwart (if initially ungainly-seeming) right-hand man named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) by his side, Belfort leases a vacant warehouse, persuades some of his pot dealer pals and boiler room co-workers to come aboard, bestows the business with a prestigious-sounding moniker (“Stratton Oakmont”), and he’s off to the proverbial races.

The 1990’s turn out to be belly belly good to Stratton Oakmont, which starts raking in money by the truckload, in fact so much that Belfort starts running out of ways to spend it and places to put it (hello, Switzerland!). I mean, you can only buy so many cars, mansions and yachts, snort so much coke, drop so many ‘ludes, and hire so many hookers (or little people, to be tossed at Velcro targets) before you have to really start getting creative. But…but…what about the victims of the financial scams Belfort and co. cooked up in order to make all that filthy lucre, you might ask? Well, fuck them!

This is the most polarizing aspect of the film; and indeed Scorsese has been catching considerable flak from some quarters for seemingly glorifying the bad, bad behavior of the perpetrators, and barely acknowledging the countless number of people who were fleeced by these scam artists. To my perception, however, that is precisely the point of the film-to demonstrate how inherently corrupt the culture of Wall Street is. It is a culture that rewards the Jordan Belforts and Michael Milkens of the world for their arrogance and enables them to thrive. Oh sure, eventually they “get caught” and “pay” for their crimes, but more often than not it amounts to a slap on the wrist (Belfort and Milken both served a whopping 22 months in jail), after which they happily reinvent themselves; in this case Belfort as a motivational speaker, Milken as a philanthropist. It’s the American Way!

This is one of Scorsese’s most engaging films in years, and a return to form; even if its overdose of style borders on self-parody (Swooping crane shots! Talking directly to the camera! Hip music cues! Marty does Marty!). I probably should warn anyone who is offended by excessive use of profanity…there is excessive use of profanity (according to Variety, the film has set the all-time record for what they timidly refer to as “the f-bomb”…506 utterances (Fuck! I feel sorry for the poor fucker who had to sit through all three hours pushing a fucking clicker every time someone said “fuck”. I hope he gets fucking Workman’s Comp for the fucking carpal tunnel. Fuck!).

DiCaprio and Hill pull out all the stops in their over-the-top performances; but then again they are playing over-the-top characters, so it is apropos. Other standouts among the sizable cast include Rob Reiner (as Belfort’s father) and the always delightful Joanna Lumley and Jean Dujardin (adding continental class as Belfort’s British aunt and Swiss banker, respectively). As your movie broker, I advise you to buy a share (or ticket) immediately.