Category Archives: Corporate Intrigue

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)

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.

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).

I bling the body electric: Chappie ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2015)

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The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

While the “A-I gone awry” prototype dates as far back as the metallic “Maria” in the 1927 silent Metropolis, it was “HAL 9000” that took techno-phobia to a new level, spawning a sci-fi film sub-genre that includes The Demon Seed, Colossus: The Forbin Project, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Robocop, I, Robot, and (of course) A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

There are echoes of all the aforementioned (plus a large orange soda) in Chappie, the third feature film from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. In this outing, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg (which provided the backdrop for his 2009 debut, District 9). And for the third time in a row, his story takes place in a near-future dystopia  (call me Sherlock, but I’m sensing a theme).

Johannesburg is a crime-riddled hellhole, ruled by ultra-violent drug lords and roving gangs of thugs. The streets are so dangerous that the police department is reticent to put officers on the front lines. So they do what any self-respecting police department of a near-future dystopia does…they send droids out to apprehend criminals.

The popularity of these programmable robocops has created lucrative contracts for Tetravaal, the company which employs mild-mannered designer Deon (Dev Patel). In his spare time, Deon has been working on an A.I. chip that approximates “consciousness”.

Jacked on Red Bull, Deon pulls an all-niter and makes his breakthrough. Excited, Deon approaches Tetravaal’s CEO (Sigourney Weaver) with a proposal to work up a prototype. Unfortunately, she doesn’t share his vision, and Deon is laughed out of her office. Who needs a police droid with “feelings”, right?

Determined to carry out his experiment, he re-appropriates a damaged droid scheduled for destruction. Before he can make it safely home,  he is carjacked and abducted by a trio of inept gang bangers (Ninja, Yolandi Visser, and Jose Pablo Cantillo) who figure they can coerce Deon into securing them a remote control that shuts down police droids (they are only speculating such a device exists).

What they do end up with is a droid with self-awareness, and the ability to absorb and mimic human behavior. Will he “grow up” as the enlightened being that his Gepetto-like creator intended, or will he turn into the “gangsta” that his thug “Daddy” wants him to be?

Through their creation of the character “Chappie”, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell have managed to put a fresh spin on a well-worn trope. When you cut through all the obligatory action tropes, “his” story resonates at its core with a universal, timeless appeal. The film has more in common with Oliver Twist than with Robocop.  Chappie is, by definition of his inception, an “orphan”; innocent and pure of heart. The child-like droid is shuffled by fate into the thug life, where he is tutored in street smarts and criminal behavior by “Ninja”, who plays Fagin to his Oliver (on one level, Blomkamp and Tatchell are exploring the “nature vs nurture” theme).

This is a return to form for the director, especially after his slightly disappointing sophomore effort Elysium. I really got a kick out of the performances, especially the scene-stealing Ninja and Visser, who are slumming from their day job as rap outfit Die Antwoord (apparently popular with the “zef” crowd…I’ll let you look that up, like grandpa had to prepping this review). Hugh Jackman hams it up as a heavy, and Blomkamp’s favorite leading man Sharlto Copley does a marvelous job breathing “life” and personality into Chappie (move over, Andy Serkis). BTW, despite my references to Pinocchio and David Copperfield, this one is definitely not for the kids; it’s rated ‘R’ .

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.

Hard driver – Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 12, 2011)

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Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview is just that; it is literally “found footage” discovered in director Paul Sen’s garage at his London home. The interview runs about 70 minutes; only 10 minutes of the footage ended up being used for the original miniseries presentation. It may be a bit dubious to label this as a “documentary” when you consider that a) the tape was found last month, which allows scant time for post-production (it shows), and b) it is basically just a VHS dub of an unedited interview that was conducted in 1995 by Robert Cringely for Sen’s 1996 PBS miniseries called Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise and Fall of Accidental Empires. In other words, don’t expect a slick production (although…the press screener I viewed was subtitled “rough cut” so it’s possible the version in theaters will be polished up). That being said, as an historical document, it’s a doozey.

Famously, Jobs had a tendency to shun in-depth interviews (perhaps due to some, oh, I don’t know, control issues?) which is what makes this piece so riveting. He’s relaxed and quite candid throughout; it’s obvious that he trusted Cringely. The whole of Jobs’ dichotomy is laid out right there in that 70 minute conversation-the charisma, the vision, the shrewd intelligence -as well as the ego, the arrogance and the snarkiness. Jobs is also frequently quite funny (which I didn’t expect), especially when he’s ripping Bill Gates a new asshole with a few choice comments (“The only problem with Microsoft is that they just have no taste.”). He’s also a master of the Double Putdown, chasing his zingers with “…and I don’t mean that in a small way.”

To be honest, I’ve always been somewhat immune to the Cult of Steve Jobs. While I certainly understand and appreciate the game-changing nature of his innovations, I’ve never owned an iMac or an iPod or an iPad. But I have to say, this film was a real iOpener for me. I think I “get it” now. Oh, Bill? You can have your ring back…

This band of Lehman Brothers-Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 1, 2010)

Don’t evah take sides against the family again. Evah.

Has it really been 23 years since writer-director Oliver Stone and co-scripter Stanley Weiser first “released the Gekko” in Wall Street? Michael Douglas’ indelible portrayal of a ruthless, soulless corporate raider transformed the character of “Gordon Gekko” into the pop culture figurehead for the Decade of Excess. Gekko’s immortal credo-“Greed, for lack of a better word…is good”-became a mantra for self-absorbed yuppies and anathema to anti-corporate activists.

Of course, with Oliver Stone being the lib’rul, anti-‘Murcan, Chavez-lovin’ DFH filmmaker that he is, he wasn’t about to let Gekko get off scot-free for his veritable laundry list of highly profitable capitalist crimes. When we last saw him at the end of the 1987 film he was getting hauled away by the Feds, after being betrayed by his protégé (who learned from the best). It looked like the man who once admitted that “I create nothing…I own” was about to learn a new creative skill-how to make license plates.

The real world has since not only merged with Stone’s hellish vision of a financial system driven by the avarice and bemused gamesmanship of a handful of self-serving weasels who “create” nothing but bigger piles of personal treasure, but surpassed it. The real life Gekkos of the 80s, like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky (who also ended up in handcuffs) have since been eclipsed by financial super villains like Bernie Madoff. And so it goes.

In view of current events (I assume) Stone and co-writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have seen fit to resurrect Gordon Gekko, in the new film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. In the prelude we catch up with Gekko in 2001, as he is being released from prison. Stone has a little fun with this sequence, especially as Gekko’s personal effects are summarily returned to him. “One gold money clip…no money,” says the poker-faced clerk. The biggest audience laugh in the film is prompted by a cameo of Gekko’s elephantine DynaTAC mobile phone, an amusing techno-relic from our not-so-distant past.

Fast-forward to 2008, on the eve of the Lehman Brothers collapse. Gekko is making a comfortable living (if not up to the standards to which he had been accustomed) on the lecture circuit, where he is plugging that inevitable memoir that every white collar crook publishes after getting out of prison. In the meantime, we are introduced to an up and coming young Wall Streeter named Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan)-a liberal blogger who happens to be Gekko’s daughter. Winnie has disowned her father for years, blaming him for a family tragedy.

Unlike the recklessly ambitious young stockbroker played by Charlie Sheen in the previous film, Jake brings a certain amount of idealism to his work; he is trying to steer his employers (a group of investment bankers) toward putting capital into “green” projects (talk about lost causes). The only sympathetic ear belongs to his long-time mentor, Louis (Frank Langella) who is the managing director of the company. Louis is also a Wall Street rarity-a thoughtful man who actually seems to possess a heart and soul; you can glean why Jake looks up to him.

All bets are off, however, when the financial collapse of 2008 intervenes, and Jake’s employers feel themselves beginning to circle the drain. When Louis attempts to finagle a government bailout, he finds himself “Gekkoed” by an old rival, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who buys out the company at pennies on the dollar.

Although he knows his girlfriend (and now fiancée) would not be pleased, the suddenly rudderless Jake, curious about his future father-in-law, introduces himself after attending one of Gekko’s public appearances. The two begin a cautious relationship, based on “trades”. Gekko wants to re-bond with Winnie; Jake wants to exact Machiavellian revenge on Bretton James. Of course, this is Gordon Gekko-so maybe he has his own Machiavellian plan brewing here.

Curiously, Stone has not so much made “Wall Street 2” here, but remade Godfather III. Gekko is at a point in his life not unlike that of Michael Corleone in the aforementioned film. He is older, his empire has crumbled, and the pull of the abyss is now more palpable than the lure of acquisition. Both characters are taking inventory of their past; and each man, in his own self-deluding fashion, is making atonement for his sins.

And Stone’s emphasis, as was Coppola’s, is on the family melodrama, not the family “business”. It’s about trust and betrayal. It’s about the father-daughter relationship. I could go on with the parallels (and point out that weirdly, Eli Wallach has a supporting role in both films), but at this point, you’re likely wondering about the most important consideration: does Stone tell an interesting story? Well, that depends on what you seek.

If you seek the Oliver Stone of Salvador, Talk Radio, and JFK– i.e., the passionate, angry prophet of the American cinema, denouncing the hypocrisy of our times, you might want to look elsewhere. Considering the potential he had here to be “bullish” and deliver a scathing, spleen-venting indictment of our royally fucked-up financial system, Stone is leaning more on the “bearish” side.

On the other hand, if you’re up for a slightly better-than-average family soaper (with a beautifully captured NYC backdrop by DP Rodrigo Prieto), then go for it. Douglas steals the show as Gekko. Langella is excellent. Brolin is suitably slimy as the villain. Also, it was fun to see Austin Pendleton (!) back on the big screen.

Not all of the casting works; Susan Sarandon’s formidable talents are wasted. As for the leading man-this was only my second exposure to LaBeouf (my first was when he hosted Saturday Night Live a while back, when I said to myself- “Shia who?”) so I’m ambivalent about his performance; it’s not “bad”-but not particularly noteworthy either. I hope that Stone (and know I am a fan) still has more great films in him down the road. It would be a lesser, more complacent universe where people felt compelled to say “Oliver who?”

Who are the brain police? – Inception **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 24, 2010)

Somnambulance chasers: DiCaprio and Page in Inception

So-how do I best describe Christopher Nolan’s boardroom thriller/sci-fi mindbender, Inception, without sounding like I’m off my meds? Executive Suite meets Solaris? No? The Bad Sleep Well meets Fantastic Voyage? Still too obscure? What’s that…I’m showing my age? Fine, I see how you are. How about…Duplicity meets Dark City?

Think a heist film- but in reverse. Reverse, forward, up, down-it’s just another day punching the clock and free-falling through the looking glass, for professional “extractor” Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Because you see, his “job” is not necessarily grounded in everyday reality (kind of like a movie critic). You know how some people are so adept at what they do that we say that they could do their job in their sleep? That’s the only way Cobb can do his job-in his sleep. He extracts secrets from dreams. Other people’s dreams.

 I’m a spy, in the house of love

I know the dream that you’re dreamin’ of

I know the word that you long to hear

I know your deepest, secret fear

 -The Doors

What Jim Morrison said. Except “love” rarely enters the picture (alright, sometimes it does-but no spoilers). Typically, Cobb offers his special services to some evil corporate bastard, who wants to steal information from some other evil corporate bastard. He gets a lot of gigs, because he’s tops in his field (of dreams).

This is a shadowy world to work in, literally and figuratively, and it has caught up with him. He’s still for hire, but he’s also on the lam, so he has to choose his employers carefully. When a tycoon (Ken Watanabe) offers him a unique challenge (to plant a thought, as opposed to stealing one) he can’t resist the allure of pulling off the perfect “inception”. Like any heist movie worth its salt, the protagonist must now assemble a crack team of specialists (bet you’re  glad I didn’t say, “dream team”).

In addition to his long time partner in crime (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb enlists a newbie (Ellen Page) to be the “architect”. Her job is to design the dream world that the team will need to navigate in order to plant the thought into the subconscious of their target (Cillian Murphy) without arousing the “suspicions” of his, erm, subconscious self. Suffice it to say, much cerebral copulation ensues, with enough conundrums to start a fistfight in heaven between Freud, Jung, Adler and Perls. Not to mention our hero sorting through some issues regarding his late wife (Marion Cotillard) while still on the clock.

Nolan (who wrote as well as directed) has proven in the past to be a consistently intelligent, imaginative and inventive filmmaker; whether working with a modest budget (Following, Memento) or blockbuster-sized bankroll (The Dark Knight), which is why I was disappointed to see him stumble here (more on that in a moment).

From a production standpoint, the film is extremely well-crafted; Wally Pfister’s cinematography, Lee Smith’s editing, and the production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas are all outstanding, and the CGI work is impressive. The cast (which also includes support from Michael Caine, Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite) does a fine job (although DiCaprio, while adequate, has done better work).

But…here’s the rub: For a story that takes place in the boundless universe of the subconscious, a wholly “other” world of symbols, signs and wonders, there’s too much reliance on standard-issue action film tropes, and with a 2 ½ hour running time, it starts to feel like an endless loop of an action movie within an action movie, into infinity (I’m sure Nolan was aiming more for the dream within a dream). The film lurches toward thought-provoking Tartovsky territory, but ends up in shoot ‘em up Bruckheimer land. This is not an altogether bad film, but considering all the talent and money involved, it’s a squandered opportunity, and that’s a real shame.

SIFF 2010: Miss Nobody *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2010)

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“Black comedy” is a fickle art form. Too dark-nobody laughs. Too “ha-ha” funny, and it’s just comedy. One thing that does not work for black comedy is “cute”-although it can provide a touch of irony, if the doses are carefully measured (see John Waters). Miss Nobody, which premiered at SIFF this week, is just  too cute for its own purposes.

Leslie Bibb stars as mousy (but cute) secretary Sarah Jane, a “nobody” in the food chain at a large pharmaceutical company. At the urging of her workplace confidante (Missi Pyle) she applies for an open junior executive position. Much to her surprise, she gets the job-only to have it snatched from her by a weaselly, Machiavellian corporate climber (Brandon Routh) who offers her a job as his executive assistant with transparent pseudo-sincerity. Sarah Jane swallows her humiliation and disappointment and takes the offer anyway. Her mother (Kathy Baker) sees a silver lining, urging her to go ahead and dig for the gold. WTF, Sarah Jane figures, if she can hook up with her new boss, she can at least become “Mrs.” Machiavellian corporate climber (besides-he’s, you know, so cute).

Her “plan B” however is dashed when, in the midst of putting the moves on her in his apartment late one night, her boss lets it slip that he already has a fiancee. While physically struggling to put the kibosh on his advances, Sarah Jane inadvertently causes his death by freak accident. She is still in shock the next  day at work, fully expecting to be “found out”. She receives an even bigger shock when she is called into the chief executive’s office, not to be turned over to the authorities, but to be congratulated on her promotion-to her late boss’ position. The gears in her brain click, and a more sinister “plan B” for climbing the ladder emerges. What a kooky setup!

It’s been a while since I sat so stone-faced through a “comedy”. I could sense that director Tim Cox and writer Doug Steinberg were going for a Serial Mom vibe, but their film plays more like a glorified episode of Sex in the City, right down to the chirpy narration by the protagonist. Cox’s film has a slick, glossy look, but the flat and predictable story line drags it down. Even the usually dependable Adam Goldberg (or as I like to  call him, “Gen Y’s Joey Bishop”) can’t save this one. The film seemed awfully similar to a 1997 indie starring Carol Kane, called Office Killer (which I rather enjoyed). Maybe it’s just bad timing-the employment situation is grim enough these days.

SIFF 2009: The Yes Men Fix the World ***

By Dennis Hartley

Live bait: The Yes Men chum for corporate sharks

What do you get when you throw Roger and Me and The Sting into a blender? Probably something along the lines of The Yes Men Fix the World, an alternately harrowing and hilarious documentary featuring anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. This is a more focused follow up to their ballsy but uneven debut, The Yes Men. In that 2003 film, they established a simple yet amazingly effective Trojan Horse formula that garnered the duo invitations to key business conferences and TV appearances as “WTO spokesmen”. Once lulling their marks into a comfort zone, they would then proceed to cause well-deserved public embarrassment for some evil corporate bastards, whilst exposing the dark side of global free trade. (Most amazingly, they have managed not to suffer “brake failure” on a mountain road, if you know what I’m saying).

In this outing, Bichlbaum, Bonanno and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a very 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. Of course, there is not much our dynamic duo can do at this point to take the man himself down (as the forlorn expressions on their faces during a visit to his grave site would indicate); but the Idea survives, as do those who would “drink the Kool-Aid”.  And thus, the fun begins.

Perhaps “fun” isn’t quite the appropriate term, but there are definitely hijinx 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: they want to smoke out some corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. I know that “corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one still has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds.

Case in point: the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant mishap exposed 500,000 people (200,000 of them children) to a toxic gas. Between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths occurred within 3 days. Since then, an estimated additional 25,000 Bhopal residents have since died from complications due to exposure. Union Carbide eventually paid an insurance settlement to the Indian government of 470 million dollars in 1989 (it sounds like a lot of loot…until you split it 500,000 ways). To add insult to injury, Union Carbide pulled up stakes (read: fled the scene of the crime) without ever cleaning up the site; to this day residents are drinking groundwater leached by toxins.

In 2004, BBC News did a special report on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, which included an appearance by a spokesman for Dow Chemical (the corporation that had just recently acquired Union Carbide at the time of the broadcast). The spokesman, a Mr. “Jude Finisterra” made an astounding, headline-grabbing announcement: In an effort to truly atone for the Bhopal incident, Dow Chemical was going to invest a tidy sum of 12 billion dollars to clean up the area and compensate the victims. For several hours, all hell broke loose; Dow stockholders panicked and dumped over 2 billion dollars worth of stock in record time. To anyone with a soul, it was too good to be true-corporate criminals coming clean on live TV, in front of 300 million viewers? There’s hope for humanity! Well, not exactly. “Jude Finisterra” was really a member of our intrepid duo.

But the point was made; in fact, the real beauty of the ruse didn’t come into full flower until the Yes Men were “exposed”. When the real Dow Chemical spokespeople jumped into the fray to denounce the prank, they only made themselves look more ridiculous (and culpable) by essentially saying “Obviously, we would not commit such a large amount of money in this manner (i.e. of course we would never publicly take responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people).”

The most distressing thing to observe is how quickly the MSM jumps in to toe the corporate line; in the case of the Dow sting (and later in the film, when they pose as HUD spokesmen, announcing that the government agency will provide housing for all the Katrina victims it had originally displaced in order to clear the way for redevelopment by private sector contractors) the newspapers and TV news anchors condemn the “cruel hoax” that gave “false hopes” to the victims of Bhopal and Katrina, respectively.

When the concerned Yes Men travel to Bhopal to personally apologize to the residents for their “cruelty”, they are greeted with open arms; one Bhopal victim tells them that even though he was admittedly disappointed, he was, for an hour or so, “in Heaven”. By the end of the film, the Yes Men may not actually “fix the world”, but they certainly succeed in giving it hope with their sense of compassion and infectious optimism. And for an hour or so, I was in Heaven.