Category Archives: Big Money

Wild, Wild East: Citizen K (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 18, 2020)

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“In Russia, laws are kind of an iffy question. The strictness of Russian laws is compensated for the lack of obligation to follow them.”

 – Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K

Early on in Citizen K, Alex Gibney’s documentary about the rise, fall and (questionable) redemption of exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an associate of his observes “He had already decided for himself that he wouldn’t be going anywhere, and if he were arrested, he’d do his time. He’s strange that way.” If the film is any indication, Khodorkovsky is “strange” in more ways than one …at the very least, a hard nut to crack.

Khodorkovsky, the first (only?) of the “Big 7” Russian oligarchs to ever publicly bring into question the ways and means of President Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of absolute power, did in fact end up doing “his time”. Arrested in 2003 and accused of fraud and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky was convicted and spent 10 years in a Siberian prison (when you consider the fate of many of Putin’s critics, Khodorkovsky is one of the “luckier” ones).

Not that Khodorkovsky was a social justice warrior-or anything of the sort. In an archival Russian television interview from the 1990s, he is asked if he is “a greedy person”. Wearing a bit of a smirk, Khodorkovsky replies “Definitely, definitely, definitely. I used to be less greedy, now I’m greedier. It’s a professional trait.” This “professional trait” was shared by a number of successful practitioners of the “gangster capitalism” that flourished in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union during the “Wild 90s”.

The newly democratic country’s shaky plunge into capitalism created a “free for all” market, making it a textbook study in chaos theory through the Boris Yeltsin years (he was President from 1991 to 1999). This is the most engrossing portion of Gibney’s film, which is a recap of how the “Big 7” oligarchs ended up controlling 50% of the economy.

It was during the aforementioned period that Khodorkovsky amassed his wealth, initially seeding it with financial schemes and culminating with his highly profitable oil company, Yukos. As the present-day Khodorkovsky recounts with false modesty, “I found a book: ‘Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries’ […] I said, ‘Hey, I like this!’” See? Simple!

Khodorkovsky’s fortunes began to turn, however once Vladimir Putin became President in 2000. It’s no secret that Putin owed much of his initial political success to strong backing by the oligarchs, who as one interviewee in the film observes “…were looking for a successor [to Yeltsin] who would guarantee their safety and guarantee their wealth.”

That said, Putin cannily gleaned that if he wanted to consolidate his power, this beautiful friendship could only continue to flourish if one strict caveat was adhered to: the oligarchs must stay in their lane and leave all the politics to him. In other words, feel free to party on in your luxury yachts, but don’t rock the boat. Khodorkovsky rocked the boat.

While the other oligarchs toed the line, Khodorkovsky and Putin were at loggerheads from day one. When he took office, Putin felt threatened by reports that Khodorkovsky had half of the state Duma (the Russian assembly) in his pocket to protect his oil interests. “Did this require MPs?” Khodorkovsky cagily responds to Gibney when he asks if this was true, adding, “It was exactly as it happens in the United States Congress; ‘Will you support our campaign in the next election?’” Khodorkovsky does have a point.

Mixing excised footage from a nationally broadcast pre-taped TV special that featured President Putin, Khodorkovsky and other prominent businessmen discussing the state of the Russian economy with present-day play-by-play commentary by Khodorkovsky, Gibney cleverly reconstructs the precise “last straw” moment for a visibly angry Putin, after Khodorkovsky openly (and very boldly…considering) calls Putin out on his bullshit.

Next stop? Siberia. Well, prefacing Siberia was a series of show trials; Gibney also covers Khodorkovsky’s 10-year imprisonment and eventual 2013 pardon by Putin (prompted by public sentiment turning to Khodorkovsky’s favor) The final third of the film deals with Khodorkovsky’s current exile in London, where he has re-invented himself as a political dissident and outspoken Putin critic. This is where it gets a bit gray.

“I am far from an ideal person, but I’m a person who has ideals,” Khodorkovsky offers, undoubtedly self-aware of some healthy skepticism regarding an oligarch-turned-champion of the people. Gibney himself seems uncertain how to position the enigmatic Khodorkovsky-is he a sinner, or saint? Or is Khodorkovsky playing Gibney like a violin?

To his credit Gibney does ask him directly about one of those “gray areas”, which involves Khodorkovsky’s alleged involvement (never proven) in the 1998 assassination of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk (in 2015 a Russian court issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, officially charging him with ordering the hit). Nefteyugansk was the Siberian town where Khodorkovsky’s oil company was headquartered at the time. Khodorkovsky has yet to respond to the summons. However he is aware that living in London doesn’t guarantee he is out of Putin’s reach; a number of exiled Putin critics have suffered untimely and rather suspicious deaths in recent years.

While Khodorkovsky remains a shadowy figure, Gibney’s film does succeed in shedding light on how the “interesting” relationship between Putin and the oligarchy developed and how it continues to inform Russia’s ongoing experiment with “democracy”. And considering the “interesting” relationship that has developed between Putin and Trump, Citizen K may very well prove to be less of a cautionary tale …and more of a bellwether.

Blu-ray reissue: Local Hero ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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Local Hero – Spirit Entertainment (Region “B” Blu-ray)

This magical, wonderfully droll and observant 1983 social satire from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth has been on my Blu-ray wish list for many years. I was beginning to despair that I was waiting in vain for “someone” to do a restoration/HD upgrade…and bam! Two studios simultaneously release 2K digital restorations on Blu-ray in 2019 (more on my dilemma in a moment).

Peter Reigert is perfectly cast as Macintyre, a Texas-based executive who is assigned by the head of “Knox Oil & Gas” (Burt Lancaster) to scope out a sleepy Scottish hamlet that sits on the edge of an oil-rich bay. He is to negotiate with all the local property owners and essentially buy out the entire town so that the company can build a huge refinery.

While he considers himself “more of a Telex man”, who would prefer to knock out such an assignment “in an afternoon”, Mac sees the overseas trip as a possible fast track for a promotion within the corporation. As this quintessential 80s Yuppie works to ingratiate himself with the unhurried locals (quite impatiently at first), a classic “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ve ever seen.

Full disclosure: I can only base my assessment of image quality on the disc that I own, which is from the UK outfit Spirit Entertainment (please note it is Region “B” locked). As mentioned earlier, this is a new 2K restoration, and it’s breathtaking (it’s a beautiful looking film to begin with).

Now, the “other” studio who has put out an edition of the film is The Criterion Collection. I have not viewed their edition, but based on their product description, I can safely assume that their 2K transfer is from the same recently struck restoration. Both editions have good extra features (several of them duplicate), but what swayed me to the Spirit Entertainment version was a new 2019 interview with Mark Knopfler (which the Criterion edition does not contain) discussing his classic soundtrack.

Blu-ray reissue: Shampoo ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Shampoo– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Sex, politics, and the shallow SoCal lifestyle are mercilessly skewered in Hal Ashby’s classic 1975 satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment issues regarding the three major women in his life (excellent performances from Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie).

Beatty allegedly based his character of “George” on his close friend, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring (one of the victims of the infamous 1969 Tate-LaBianca slayings).

This was one of the first films to satirize the 1960s zeitgeist with some degree of historical detachment. The late great cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs infuses the L.A. backdrop with a gauziness that appropriately mirrors the protagonist’s fuzzy way of dealing with adult responsibilities.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a 4K restoration (previous DVDs have been less than stellar in picture and sound quality). Extras include a conversation between critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich and a 1998 TV interview with Warren Beatty from The South Bank Show.

Blu-ray reissue: The Magnificent Ambersons ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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The Magnificent Ambersons – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

It’s sad that the late great Orson Welles has (unfairly) become the perennial poster boy for “squandered talent” in the film industry. Granted, he was a rapscallion who loved to push people’s buttons; unfortunately, some of those “people” were powerful producers and studio heads who didn’t get the joke back in those days when “maverick” and “genius” were dirty words in Hollywood.

But he was a maverick, and he was a genius…he just wanted to make the movies he wanted to make, precisely the way he wanted to make them. But alas, the “boy genius” became enslaved by his own legend soon after making Citizen Kane at age 25.

Welles’ disillusionment with the studio system began with the release of The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, as what hit theaters was essentially a butchered version of how he had envisioned the film. Unfortunately, he had conceded final cut in a deal made with RKO (a decision he came to regret). Adding insult to the injury of the 50 excised minutes from Welles’ original rough cut, studio heads ordered that the negatives of that footage be destroyed as well. Regardless, the film is still heralded as one of Welles’ finest efforts.

Welles adapted the script from Booth Tarkington’s eponymous novel. It’s the story of a well-to-do family whose “magnificence” (as Welles’ stentorian voice-over narration informs us) “…began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city.” This sets the tone for what ensues, which is the rotting of that “splendor” from the inside out; not only the decline of a family dynasty, but of a mannered, measured way of life whose destruction was assured by the onslaught of the Second Industrial Revolution (the price of Progress can be steep).

Criterion’s new 4K restoration is a real showcase for Stanley Cortez’s striking chiaroscuro photography, and a testament to Welles’ mastery of visual storytelling. Extras include two commentary tracks by film scholars and critics, new video essays by film historians and scholars, an excerpt from the 1925 silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons, written essays, and more.

Can’t buy me love: Dark Money (***½) & Generation Wealth (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 4, 2018)

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If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.

-Dorothy Parker

What is this “dark money” of which “they” speak these days? You know, “them”…all those smarty-pants news anchors and political pundits and conspiracy theorists on the internet, radio and TV who bandy the term about with worried tone and furrowed brows?

According to a new documentary by Kimbery Reed helpfully entitled Dark Money, that term should be bandied about with worried tone and furrowed brow. To paraphrase Jason Robards’ wry understatement in All the President’s Men: “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.” Oh…there is also a little matter of the continuing integrity of our elections.

Before you panic, I should clarify that there is a “New Coke” (New Koch?) element here. The implementation of “dark money” is nothing new. The concept of “buying an election” is deeply embedded in the DNA of our republic… it’s as American as apple pie. It’s just that the semantics have evolved. Terms like “graft” and “influence peddling” have been part of our lexicon for a long time (“a rose by any other name”…and all that).

Even the Father of Our Country played a little footsie under the table (some 30 years prior to the Constitution, no less). From a 2014 Washington Post article by Jamie Fuller:

When George Washington lost an election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1755, he decided to improve outreach. Two years later, he bought about $195 worth of punch and hard cider for friends and managed to win. However, the newly elected legislature quickly passed a law prohibiting candidates from giving voters “meat, drink, entertainment or provision or…any present, gift, reward, or entertainment etc. in order to be elected.”

How quaint. The point of course is that campaign finance reform has unquestionably been there all along, as well. However, the effectiveness of such legislation is perennially…questionable. One thing’s for sure…the Founding Fathers could never have envisioned the SCOTUS’s “Citizens United” decision of 2010. Also from Fuller’s piece:

2010-In Citizens United vs. FEC, the Supreme Court held that independent expenditures by corporations and labor unions were protected by the First Amendment, which struck down BCRA provisions—building on previous campaign finance laws—banning these types of expenditures.

A few months later, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals applied the decision in Citizens United to the case Speechnow.org v. FEC. The federal judges decided arguments that unlimited independent expenditures would lead to corruption were invalid. The chief judge noted that these arguments “plainly have no merit after Citizens United.” These two cases paved the way for the creation of super PACs and the growing power of 501(c) 4s.

Man that is some byzantine postmodern influence peddling, in contrast to a couple jugs of hard cider and a set of wooden teeth. I am aware that most of Digby’s regular readers are much more politically astute than I. But for someone like me, who doesn’t know a “501(c) 4” from a petit four…you have to literally draw me a picture.

Thankfully, the “star” of Reed’s documentary, investigative journalist and founder of the online Montana Free Press John S. Adams, does just that at one point in the film. He summarizes thus: “[Backdoor corporate campaign financing via super PACs] is not the people controlling the government. It’s a government, controlled by a corporation, controlling the people.”

Reed has found two perfect framing devices for her treatise; firstly, Adams with his mission to expose the insidiousness of elections that are (“thanks” to the Citizens United ruling) bought and sold by untraceable corporate money, and secondly the state of Montana itself, posited as the “front line” in the fight to preserve fair elections nationwide.

Montana makes a fascinating case study on many levels, from its “citizen legislature” (a unique practice shared by a handful of states), to its history of campaign finance reform (e.g. the “Corrupt Practices Act of 1912”). Rich in resources, the state has a sad tradition of being exploited by special interest groups; every level of their political system is dominated by corporate interests (not unlike many Third World countries, n’est-ce pas?).

Reed takes a few side trips around the country as well, to illustrate the many tendrils of dark money interests. For example, she points to the 2010 election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose victory was due in no small part to the Koch brothers-funded conservative political advocacy group Americans For Prosperity. Walker is also held up as an example of how crucial the control of state supreme courts is to dark money interests (pointing to his cronyism in appointing some of his major supporters as justices).

Admittedly, it’s all a bit of a downer. Still, Reed gives us glimmers of hope here and there. Case in point: Beginning in February 2019, right here where I live, in Seattle, the “Democracy Voucher” program will kick in. As explained on the Seattle.gov website:

In November 2015, Seattle voters passed a citizen-led initiative known as “Honest Elections Seattle” (I-122). I-122 enacted several campaign finance reforms that changed the way campaigns are typically financed for Seattle candidates.

One major reform allows the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to distribute “Democracy Vouchers” to eligible Seattle residents. Other campaign reforms include campaign contribution limits for lobbyists and contractors.

Seattle is the first city in the nation to try this type of public campaign financing. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission is committed to increasing transparency, accountability, and accessibility for how Seattle elections are financed.

It’s a start. But Seattle is only one city, and it’s a big country (and look who’s in charge).

If “dark money” is the antithesis of “democracy” to you, and gives you cause for concern, then this film is in your wheelhouse. Granted, if you are a political junkie Reed may be preaching to the choir, but her film is accessible enough to work for the casually engaged and/or wonky-curious voter as an easy-to-digest primer on a complex (and timely) issue.

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Greed is the lack of confidence in one’s own ability to create.

-Vanna Bonta

Here’s a stupid question: Who wants to be a millionaire? Yeah, pretty much everybody. But is a million enough? And if not, why not? Why is it always “more more more (how do you like it, how do you like it?)”. And why are people who have more than they could ever spend so goddam unhappy until they can figure out a new way to make even more?

In 2008, filmmaker and photo-journalist Lauren Greenfield set out to answer those questions. The culmination of her decade-long project is a “multi-platform” release including a museum exhibition, monograph book, and the documentary Generation Wealth. This is solely a review of the film portion of Greenfield’s triptych.

Spurred by the accelerating worldwide obsession with wealth and all that it implies, Greenfield literally goes all over the map (L.A., Monaco, Russia, China) in this sprawling study. She profiles a jarringly disparate cavalcade of subjects, from porn stars and plastic surgery addicts to convicted Wall Street swindlers; people who have gained and lost fortunes, people who live beyond their means to feed their narcissism, to people who got fucked up because they were born into wealth…pretty much the entire, erm, rich pageant.

It’s a great concept, and I understand what she was trying to do, but unfortunately, the project turns into a case of the dog finally catching the bus but not knowing what do next. Adding to the unfocused approach, and glorified reality show memes, Greenfield does a 180 and turns the camera on herself and her family.

In a tangential sense, this reminded me of one my favorite documentaries, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South but ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and validation, filtered through McElwee’s search for the perfect mate. Now, there’s one thing money can’t buy.

SIFF 2018: The African Storm **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018

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Writer-director-producer-star Sylvestre Amoussou’s political satire (a cross between The Mouse That Roared and O Lucky Man!) is set in the imaginary African republic of Tangara. There are no Marvel superheroes in sight, but there is the nation’s forward-thinking President (Amoussou), who issues a bold decree: he is nationalizing all of his country’s traditionally Western-controlled businesses and lucrative diamond-mining operations. Naturally, the various multinational corporations concerned immediately bring in their “fixers”, who employ every dirty trick in the playbook to sow political upheaval, public discord, and outright violence throughout the tiny nation. Undeterred, the President continues to rally, even daring to denounce (gulp) the IMF and The World Bank. Can he pull this off? I really wanted to love this plucky anti-colonial parable, but…it’s overly simplistic, to the point of cringe-worthy audience pandering.

Game theory: Trophy (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 16, 2017)

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I did not mind killing anything, any animal, if I killed it cleanly they all had to die and my interference with the nightly and the seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all. We ate the meat and kept the hides and horns.

-from Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway

He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun                                         In case of accidents, he always took his mom                                                     He’s the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son                              All the children sing  

 -From “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by Lennon & McCartney

I can count the number of times in my life that I’ve fired a gun on less than ten fingers. I have never had a fascination for them, in any shape or form. And as far as hunting goes, I have taken the life of approximately one animal; albeit reluctantly. I think I was 14 or 15, on a trip with my family to visit some friends of my parents, who had a farm in upstate New York. I somehow got roped into joining a hunting party comprised of my dad, my uncle, and the man who owned the farm. The mission was to rid the property of varmints.

Actually, they were woodchucks, which apparently are considered pests in some quarters. Long story short, I ended up bagging one of the critters with a .22 rifle. I’m sorry to report that I did not eat the meat, nor did I keep the hide and horns. What’s that? Oh, right, woodchucks don’t have horns (although I understand that they chuck wood like nobody’s business). That was enough for me. I felt awful. I suppose on one level, it was a classic rite of passage for an all-American boy (you know…killing something with dad).

In a 2015 TIME Ideas op-ed, author Bartle Bull opens with this observation:

The murder of Cecil, the magnificent Zimbabwean lion, is a vivid but shabby illustration of the dilemma posed by the hunter-conservationist. President Theodore Roosevelt epitomized this dilemma. No other American President has ever been as close to nature, or loved it more. No other president has killed, or saved, as many animals.

The cognitive dissonance is not lost on co-directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, who kick off their provocative documentary Trophy by similarly naming Roosevelt as the poster child for this dichotomy. The fact that Bull uses his T.R. reference as a foundation for what essentially becomes a partisan defense of the “hunter-conservationist” concept, while Schwarz and Clusiau use theirs to nudge viewers to ponder whether there ever was such a thing as a “hunter-conservationist”…demonstrates why this issue is so polarizing.

Now I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about Trophy, which is not all about the tragedy of Cecil the lion, or the confounding legacy of Teddy Roosevelt (although they are both mentioned). Nor is the film necessarily designed to make you despise smug trophy hunters, or for that matter to roll your eyes at sign-carrying, self-righteous vegans (although you will witness the worst of both “sides”…all straight out of Central Casting).

What you do get is a fairly evenhanded look at the interactive “industries” of big-game hunting, breeding, and wildlife conservation in the U.S. and in Africa, and the complications that ensue (legal and existential). Despite what you may expect going in, this is not a cut-and dry, black and white, good vs. evil, morality vs. commerce scenario.

Not that it makes the film an easy watch (although it is visually stunning and beautifully constructed). One particular scene has haunted me for days. An elephant is brought down by a trophy hunter. The camera tracks behind the hunters for what seems to be an eternity as they cautiously approach the dying animal. As it lies on its side, struggling to raise its head while taking its final breaths, it begins to emit what can only be described as the most plaintive, primal, bone-chilling wail of surrender to the void that I have ever heard from any creature great or small. If there is ever a demand for unimpeachable proof of sentience in such creatures, this heartbreaking, funereal sequence should be Exhibit “A”.

No matter where you stand on the issue of big game hunting (or “harvesting”, if you prefer), the sad fact remains many magnificent species are on the brink of extinction; and if it takes an occasional deal with the devil (or the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son) to facilitate their survival, does the end justify the means? The film makers may not offer a pat answer, but provide enough deep background to let you be the judge.

Blu-ray reissue: Being There ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Being There – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

For my money, the late director Hal Ashby was the quintessential embodiment of the new American cinema movement of the 1970s. Beginning in 1970, he bracketed the decade with an astonishing seven film streak: The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and this 1979 masterpiece.

Like Sidney Lumet’s Network, Hal Ashby’s 1979 film becomes more vital with age (and especially timely in light of Donald J. Trump’s ascendancy). Adapted from Jerzy Kosinki’s novel by frequent (and here uncredited) Ashby collaborator Robert C. Jones, it is a wry political fable about a simpleton (Peter Sellers, in one of his greatest performances) who stumbles his way into becoming a Washington D.C. power player within an alarmingly short period of time.

Richly drawn, finely layered, and superbly acted; from the leads (Sellers, Melvyn Douglas, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart to the small roles (especially the wonderful Ruth Attaway).

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a beautiful 4K restoration and a plethora of enlightening extra features.

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!