Monthly Archives: May 2016

Snowpiercer (2013)

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*. In case you haven’t been following the news for the last decade or so, the growing economic gap between a super-rich 1% and everyone else has become a matter of pressing political concern. Not surprisingly, speculative fiction and filmmaking has started to address this situation, presenting readers and moviegoers with a variety of dystopic futures where an elite class (sometimes literally) preys on the proles. Think The Hunger Games, or the Elite Hunting society of the Hostel franchise. Or this movie.
*. I find the political message unoriginal and heavy-handed. Tilda Swinton’s big Shakespearean speech on social order lays it out (think of Ulysses’ speech on “degree” in Troilus and Cressida, or Menenius on the political/anatomical analogy in Coriolanus). The point is that everyone has to stay in their allotted, preordained station. You have to keep your place on the train of life and not try to move up.

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*. That political message is, in turn, everything. It doesn’t matter if the way it is represented is beyond far-fetched. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to imagine a train this big as a self-contained “rattling ark” capable of producing enough food for so many people, not to mention the power needed to keep it all running at such a pace.
*. For the most part I didn’t mind the crude politics, but I was more than a little disappointed to find that the kids were just being taken away to be gerbils running the treadmill at the heart of the divine engine. Come on. That was weak. I thought they were going to be the steak Wilford was eating. Because where else is that steak coming from? It isn’t vat-grown, as the rebels do pass through a freezer car filled with carcasses. So where are the cows? Come to think of it, where are they getting so damn many cockroaches to turn into protein bars?
*. In case you were wondering, in the book the meat is all vat grown except for mice, which are fed to those in the back of the train, and rabbits for those in the front.
*. Moving along, disappointment was my main response to most of what we gradually find out as the gang head to the front of the train. In a movie like this you expect some kind of a twist or surprising revelation at the end. Here there was nothing — aside, I suppose, from finding out that Wilford was orchestrating the uprising all along (and even that wasn’t very surprising).
*. The graphic novel it’s based on was published in 1982, though the only thing they kept for the film was the basic concept. It’s a completely different story.
*. On the DVD commentary Scott Weinberg mentions being baffled by people who don’t “get” the modern praetorian guards dipping their axes in fish blood. Apparently we’re supposed to know that the fish blood is poison. Well, I sure didn’t get it Scott. And even after being told that this was the point, I didn’t think it made any sense. To start with the obvious: if you’re hacking someone with an axe, what difference does it make if the axe is poisoned? And how long would the poison stay on the blade? How many axes could be poisoned by the one fish? Did they not have any poison on the train that didn’t come from the belly of a fish?

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*. Just as an aside, the DVD commentary was done by Weinberg and other guest commentators that he gets on the phone. They’re not bad, but this system (which Weinberg also uses for the commentary on It Follows) isn’t a great idea. The people on the phone aren’t watching the movie with Weinberg so he has to clue them in to what’s happening on screen and the whole thing gets to be rather awkward.
*. As a final point related to the commentary, the best part comes when Weinberg goes off on a mini-rant about what it means to call a movie “overrated” and how the critical process and critical function work. Given that I think this movie is overrated, I found this quite interesting to listen to. Weinberg’s point, I think, is that people who call a movie overrated or overhyped are engaged in conspiracy thinking. There may be some truth in this, but I felt he was protesting too much. Especially with all the online review aggregators available now, it’s fairly easy to chart and quantify large discrepancies between critical ratings (and their volume) vs. public opinion (as measured by user ratings, box office, etc.). And it’s also true that in some cases hype really is the product of marketing (as with the Blair Witch phenomenon, to take a famous example). But a discussion of this is by the way.
*. OK, so the first time the drug kronole is introduced we are told it is highly flammable. This is repeated a couple of times later in the movie just in case we might have forgotten. But from the first time it’s mentioned, you know it’s going to be used as a form of plastic explosive, right? Nothing subtle there.
*. That obviousness, even crudity, is apparent elsewhere. In order to find something out about Wilford and the story behind the train we have to sit through a schoolroom video that seems strangely dated (sort of like a 1950s educational film), not to mention pointless. Wouldn’t the kids have this film memorized by now? It’s obvious that the video has just been shoehorned into the movie to provide a bit of background exposition.
*. Tilda Swinton is great as Mason, but then (a) she’s playing a flamboyant, grotesque character, and (b) it’s not hard to stand out from such a dour cast. I mean, I didn’t even recognize Chris “Captain America” Evans as Curtis. I think Evans does a good job, but the character is a plank.

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*. Aside from Swinton’s performance, the art direction is the only thing that really stands out. But then this is the kind of film that a designer loves. Every car of the train is a Price Is Right showcase for a different style and look (colour schemes, lighting, wardrobe, props, etc.). And given the limited space for each showcase, it’s all very playful and theatrical. That said, I wasn’t blown away by any of the designs. Even the most fantastic (and improbable), like the aquarium car, didn’t take me anywhere I hadn’t been before. I wouldn’t call the look of the film visionary or ground-breaking.
*. I used the word “visionary” perhaps because I was looking at the DVD box and it tells us this movie comes from “visionary director Bong Joon Ho” (or Joon Ho Bong, as it’s sometimes rendered). Really? What counts as visionary these days? I would have thought it meant breaking some kind of new ground, at the very least. I don’t think this movie does. I didn’t think The Host did either.
*. When do you think Wilford changes out of his pyjamas? Ever? Does he have a pair of overalls he puts on when he has to work on the engine?
*. I don’t understand the cryptic one-word messages, tucked into pills, that Wilford sends Curtis. He even gives him one right at the very end saying “train.” The only thing I can think to say is that Wilford is (by his own admission) bonkers and making these fortune cookies is just some crazy shit he likes to do.
*. The ending has been interpreted optimistically by some, as showing that life still exists outside the train. It seems pretty bleak to me. The kids aren’t going to become farmers on a frozen mountainside, and that polar bear will probably run down and eat them quickly. They’ll both be dead for sure in a few hours.
*. It’s a bit disturbing, if not altogether surprising, how highly the critics rated this film (pace Weinberg’s thoughts on the overrating of movies).
*. It’s not bad, but it’s pretty much a run-of-the-mill dystopian SF film, with a tired political premise, poor effects, humdrum action sequences, unremarkable design elements, and a clumsy, somewhat ridiculous story. So how did it make so many annual “top 10” lists? Weinberg even calls it his favourite film of the year. I appreciate his enthusiasm and advocacy but . . . no. It’s an OK flick, sure, but what is there about it that makes it great? Has the bar been set that low?

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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

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*. $110,000. It’s hard to even think of that as a budget for a feature film. Originally the money was supposed to be for making a wrestling documentary, but that was going to cost too much so the producers signed off on this.
*. John McNaughton knew his limitations, and chose to make a virtue of them. There is a low-budget filmmaking aesthetic, one that makes a cheap look work for you. If your characters are dirt poor transients, as they are here, why spend money trying to make their lives look good? Just take your camera out on the street, shoot in 16 mm, and don’t bother decorating sets because the apartment Henry and Otis live in wouldn’t be decorated. Eschew fantasy. Embrace the rude and the raw.
*. This was, in turn, the major complaint that censors had with the film: that it was too gritty and raw, too realistic (it was originally rated X and then released unrated). That seems mistaken to me. Not because we’ve since moved on, and younger fans of films of this genre have grown up with much harsher fare, but rather because the shots of the victims of Henry’s violence are presented in such a stylized manner, like artfully arranged mannequins, with bizarre music and vocals playing in the background (presumably a stylized soundtrack of their murder). This is not realistic or gritty.
*. What does strike me as realistic, and perhaps even more disturbing, is Michael Rooker’s portrayal of the psychopath Henry. There is more to this than mere flatness and lack of affect. There’s also the casual and convincing way he lies about anything, and most of all the minimal thrill he gets out of killing.
*. We’re used to seeing serial killers portrayed as tortured souls consumed by their violent passions, driven to kill to slake a psychopathic blood lust. No doubt that’s what’s driving Henry here as well, but especially in the murder of the family captured on videotape we see how quick and momentary the release is. Henry wants to kill, but then he snaps a neck and it’s all over. The bodies are left in their death poses, or else disposed of as garbage.
*. People bounce off Henry. My favourite part of the film is when he listens to Becky tell her grim family history and only replies when she’s done: “You didn’t really get along with your daddy, huh?” This is a relationship that’s going nowhere. We don’t need to see his unresponsiveness when she takes him behind the curtain that serves as a doorway in a vain attempt to seduce him. In the earlier scene where she changes her top, Otis is the one who tries to sneak a peek at her. Henry isn’t interested.
*. What Henry’s feelings are toward Otis are anyone’s guess. He doesn’t need him as an accomplice, and doesn’t seem to care for his company much either.
*. The story was inspired by, rather than based on, the criminal career of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis (two t’s) Toole. I don’t think it’s necessary to drag them into it. This movie really doesn’t have much to do with them, and I think that after getting the initial idea from a television news special McNaughton went his own way.
*. McNaughton never went on to much, did he? I think he’s probably best known, outside of this film, for Wild Things and Mad Dog and Glory, a pair of movies that I don’t think will last (or have lasted). He also did one of the episodes on the first season of Masters of Horror that I saw. That doesn’t seem like much after such a notable debut.
*. I wouldn’t want to deny this movie the place it has won in the hearts of genre fans. It does do a lot with a little. It has a distinct, almost unique, look and feel. Michael Rooker and Tom Towles are both good. The family murder is harrowing. I really like the ending. If it leaves me cold, I think that’s by design.

The Big Short (2015)

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*. I came to this movie with high expectations. I had read and enjoyed the book by Michael Lewis. The movie adaptation had been very well received, with strong reviews. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as getting nods for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), and Best Editing. Adam McKay and Charles Randolph won for Best Adapted Screenplay. It also did strong box office given the kind of film it was, which is to say something aimed at a more mature audience than the usual superhero blockbuster crowd.
*. I also watched this movie right after watching Margin Call, a movie that didn’t get nearly as much attention. I was expecting to be underwhelmed by Margin Call but ended up liking it a lot. I was expecting to like The Big Short and came away thinking that there was nothing at all I liked about it.
*. Let’s stick with the comparison to Margin Call. In my notes on that movie I mentioned how strange it was that the characters were more believable than those we get in The Big Short, who are based on real people (basically the names have just been changed).
*. It’s one thing that the people we meet in this film — all of the people, and not just the smirking Ryan Gosling — are obnoxious jerks. I can accept that, indeed even expect that from a film set in this milieu. But that they are all such eccentric caricatures is harder to swallow. Despite this being a true story, it’s set up and played like a cartoon.
*. I don’t like the cast. How’s that for putting my cards on the table?
*. As noted, Ryan Gosling smirks a lot. Christian Bale is . . . Christian Bale. I don’t know what more to say. I guess he’s supposed to be intense. Like Bruce Wayne intense. Or Patrick Bateman intense. That seems to be his range. How many frozen degrees of intense does he have? And does he have anything else? Steve Carell has gotten a lot of praise for leading dramatic roles like Mark Baum here and John du Pont in Foxcatcher. I found him pretty unconvincing in both parts. Brad Pitt, hiding behind a beard, doesn’t do much of anything and he does that blankly (aside from one brief eruption meant to signal his virtue).
*. Together, the cast represent one of the popular myths of the financial crisis, that only a disparate group of outsiders saw through all the incompetence and lies to make the big score. When I say “myth” here I don’t mean a false narrative, but a way of shaping and interpreting the events. But in fact I don’t think this is an accurate portrayal of how it all went down. There were many people who read the writing on the wall, and the players in this story were hardly rebel outsiders. They were very wealthy, well-connected hedge fund managers.
*. The problem of how to explain what is going on is solved in an original way by having celebrities appear and give little primers to the audience. I guess these were some help to people who were really having trouble with the basics, but I found them awkward and unnecessary, and the whole breakdown of the fourth wall (with several of the characters directly addressing the camera) to be a distraction. I wonder if McKay lacked confidence in the story being strong enough to carry the film without such stunts.
*. Or perhaps I’m not picking up something in the film’s tone. I often hear it described as a comedy, but I’m not sure what that means. It’s not funny, but it does traffic in caricatures and has a kind of mockumentary feel to it. Are we allowed to think of a true story as satire?
*. The main source of humour is the fun it has in mocking the stupidity of the financial establishment and its bottom feeders, but these are overdrawn and again I have to wonder how accurate it is. Most of these people did OK in the end. I think anyone higher up had a pretty good idea about how rotten the system was, but . . . they were making money. As things turned out, the taxpayer got stuck with the bill, no one went to jail, and nothing changed. It’s going to happen again. So, if it was a comedy, who had the last laugh? Or are we talking about Balzac’s Comédie humaine here?
*. Drawing up my own balance sheet, I didn’t find any part of this film as compelling or interesting as Margin Call. Where that film took a very condensed, focused approach, here we get a shotgun blast of different narrative threads, not all of them connected. Where Margin Call didn’t have any good guys or bad guys but only real people attempting to manage their way through a crisis, here the moral lesson is laid on thick as tar and finally feels unearned.
*. As I indicated, I really had high hopes for this one. It was a movie I wanted and expected to like. But it just seemed to flounder along without any purpose. My favourite Led Zeppelin song playing over the end credits was, for me, the high point.

Margin Call (2011)

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*. The subprime mortgage crisis, which kicked off in 2007, entered the cultural bloodstream with a rush. There were countless books attempting to explain it, as well as documentaries (Inside Job being perhaps the best known), and dramatic treatments. Indeed, there’s enough material out there that it would be an interesting project to aggregate it and see if there is some kind of mythic shape that the story has taken on, a distillation or interpretation of its larger or deeper meaning.
*. I won’t be undertaking that project here, though I think Margin Call would have an important place in any such discussion.
*. It’s approach to the crisis is almost abstract. Condensing the popping of the bubble into the events of a single day, and a single building, it unfolds like a classical theatre piece respecting the unities of time and place, with a restricted ensemble cast and no effects.
*. It’s also a very quiet movie, very subdued in tone. The people we see are tired and under pressure, but they don’t crack. Nobody ever raises their voice. Eric smashes his cell phone and Seth cries in a stall, but they quickly recover and carry on. This is daring and refreshing, as the essence of most (American) films is to raise the decibel level to show drama. But here even the score is understated.
*. The sound of silence is used quite effectively to make a point in the scene where Irons informs the board that the music has already stopped. His ability to “hear” the market is why he makes the big bucks, and now he’s afraid he can’t hear a thing as he stands at the head of the conference table.

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*. I’m not sure what the title refers to. There is no margin call in the movie. I think the plan is for the firm to avoid a margin call, or something like that.
*. As with all of the subprime movies, a central matter to be dealt with is how to explain the complicated events going on. I think this is a weakness of this film. Explanations are introduced through the expedient of having various characters express ignorance of the most basic elements of their job. I don’t doubt for a moment that many people in positions of power and authority in fact did not understand what was going on, but relaying that here introduces a couple of problems.
*. In the first place, because of the compressed time scheme and plot requirements, the problem the company faces has to be something both very simple and completely earth-shaking. But what is it, exactly? The company is over-leveraged with bad mortgage-backed securities? What secret formula did Eric and Peter discover?
*. The other problem is that the higher-ups have to all be presented as pretty thick. They repeatedly ask for things to be explained to them in “plain English” for the audience’s benefit. Kevin Spacey’s Sam Rogers takes one look at a computer screen and says “I can’t read these things.” What? A spreadsheet?

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*. The most extreme example of this, however, is Jeremy Irons’ CEO John Tuld. It’s a role that comes close to that of The Office‘s Michael Scott, from his mangling of metaphors (“spilt millk under the bridge”) to his insistence that things be explained to him very, very simply. Again, this might be realistic, but when he asks Peter to “speak as you might to a small child or a golden retriever” he is taking a line almost directly from The Office when Michael Scott asks the accountant Oscar to explain a budget surplus to him in terms a five-year-old might understand. I understand the point of this, to make a bit of necessary exposition fun (The Big Short would try to do the same thing in an even more exaggerated way), but it undercuts our belief in the character.
*. Spacey and Irons are both great, but their roles don’t require them to work their acting muscles very hard. I think they could have read their lines perfectly on a very bad day, maybe even if they were down with the flu or nursing a hangover.

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*. Instead of these two, the actors I found myself enjoying the most were Simon Baker and Demi Moore. I really felt they stole the show, both projecting quiet menace and grit. On the commentary a lot is made of a scene where Irons says nothing but you can see him clenching and unclenching his jaw. It’s that kind of movie, filled with those kinds of subtleties. But if you watch Moore’s scene with Irons, where he tells her that she’s to be sacrificed, you can see her working the same jaw action, and I think it’s even more effective.
*. As for Baker, he’s great throughout, slick with charisma and intrigue. He also gets to deliver my favourite line in the film, when Seth confesses to him that all he (Seth) has ever wanted to be is a Wall Street trader. There’s a pause and Baker says “Really?”
*. A lot has to be packed into the line. A little bit of disbelief, a bit of surprise, perhaps even the sense that he is slightly impressed . . . all outweighed by his indifference to what Seth wants, or wanted, to do with his life. It’s a great moment.
*. Does Zachary Quinto have eyebrows, or are they just painted on?
*. I didn’t quite buy Spacey’s moral qualms, but still thought he was far more believable than Steve Carell’s righteous turn in The Big Short. Indeed, despite this being such a theatrical, artificial production in so many ways (the abstraction I mentioned earlier), its characters are far more believable than the “real” people we get in The Big Short. There are no heroes and villains here, and the moral questions — involving issues of loyalty and responsibility — are far more honest and compelling.

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*. As far as the meaning of the crisis is concerned, the keynote struck here is the unreality of the world of high finance. The Masters of the Universe are set against other people who are up all night breathing “real air” out in the streets, or the janitorial staff cleaning up the offices. These, the movie tells us, are real people doing real jobs. In contrast, when Seth tells Will that this is going to affect people, Will’s response is that “Yeah, it’s going to affect people like me. No real people.”
*. If the corporate traders aren’t real, the work they do is even less so. Both Eric and Peter are trained engineers, and there’s something made throughout the movie about how talents should be used to do something of greater social utility than playing around with numbers on a screen. Peter might have built more bridges. Sam Rogers might have only dug ditches, but then “at least there’d be some holes in the ground to show for it.” Meanwhile, money has no reality at all. As Irons puts it, “It’s made up, pieces of paper with pictures on it.” It’s the virtual economy, being run by virtual people. The impact of what they do in the tower will have a real impact, but nobody in the tower will feel it.
*. Good ol’ Sam Rogers does get to dig his hole at the end. I guess the main point being that death operates as a kind of ultimate reality in his make-believe world. And I love how the shoveling noises are kept on the soundtrack as the final credits roll. The traders and CEOs aren’t building anything. They are the gravediggers of capitalism.

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Inside Job (2010)

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*. I’m not a huge fan of documentaries. That’s because film is an emotional medium. If you want to learn about a subject, or get information on it, print is still a far richer source. So if you want to find out about the financial crisis of 2008 there are any number of books I’d advise you to consult ahead of watching this movie, as decent as it is. There’s even a sort of companion volume to the movie written by the director, Charles Ferguson, called Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America.
*. But if you’re not a reader, or not interested in the details, Inside Job is a well-packaged outline, albeit one with a clear political agenda. It isn’t the full story, but then the full story, contra Charles Ferguson’s assertion that it was a simple bank robbery committed by the bank managers, is rather complicated, with a lot of moving parts.
*. I think what Ferguson means, mainly, is that the issues involved are morally simple. While the technical legality of what the financial industry was up to is in many cases debatable, there’s no denying the fact that the financial industry behaved very badly. Not irrationally, given the incentives, but badly.
*. The essence of Ferguson’s take is that the crisis was brought on by a lack of regulation, which was in turn the result of the dismantling of the regulatory state that presided over America’s economic golden age. Given this weakening, and even gutting, of the regulatory apparatus, the fallout was predictable: the useless theatre of the congressional hearings and lack of indictments, followed by the maintenance of the status quo under Obama. Nothing changed. There is still the same system of public losses and private gains, with the system backstopped by the taxpayer.
*. Of course in a “talking head” style documentary like this, with a clear political slant, some interviewees are going to fare better than others. But I don’t think this is because of “gotcha!” style interviews that ambushed people with new information. Instead, the most embarrassing moments in the film tend to come when the interviewee is an academic oblivious to having been got.
*. This leads me to an aside, or rant. Why is it that these people in particular — professors, deans, heads of departments — fared so poorly in their interviews?
*. At one point on the DVD commentary, producer Audrey Marrs even expresses wonder at this (specifically why the dean of Columbia Business School agreed to an interview in the first place). She speculates that, “like the others, he wasn’t used to being challenged.” Ferguson agrees with this assessment.
*. As a general point, I think this is an important observation. Academics work within an intellectual bubble. They are not used to being challenged. They are used to being held in a position of respect, their teachings accepted as dogma by classrooms of students. This breeds a certain level of arrogance and entitlement.
*. It is also a point worth stressing that a modern university is, in every meaningful way, a large corporation. I don’t mean by this that a university is an institution infected with alien “corporate values” (for example, a drive for profit), but that it is a corporation, which means it operates by rules that are essentially the same as those governing banks or insurance companies. Such people fit right into the corporate structure and mindset of those organizations, with the added benefit of having lifetime sinecures in the form of tenure.
*. To my mind the film comes off a bit heavy at the end, with the closing shot of the Statue of Liberty and Matt Damon telling us that “some things are worth fighting for.” I’m not sure what sort of mythic vision of America Ferguson is promoting here. The dream of endless, and ruthless, exploitation, has always seemed to me to be something deep within the American grain.
*. At bottom, however, it’s still the old dream of the philosopher’s stone. As Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore puts it, “when you think you can create something out of nothing it’s very difficult to resist.” Or, in the words of Don Henley: “It’s the lure of easy money, it’s got a very strong appeal.”

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

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*. Oh, the missed opportunity. Oh, the unrealized potential.
*. Here was a chance to revisit a classic film, and an iconic role with Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, that had taken on even greater relevance due to the financial crisis of 2007-08. Douglas and Oliver Stone were back in the saddle. With one exception there was a more than adequate cast. How could they go wrong?
*. Lots of ways. I’ll start with the “one exception” to the cast. That would be Shia LaBeouf, who plays the main character, Jake. Shia LaBeouf is not a great actor. To be fair, the part he’s playing here is crap, but even so he’s no Charlie Sheen.
*. The contrast with Sheen’s Bud Fox (who shows up here for a disappointingly brief cameo) is worth pursuing. Bud Fox was a sleazy young man on the make, and Sheen fit the role perfectly. Part of the problem LaBeouf has is that his character is ridiculous, being a sensitive, idealistic fellow who is also, at different times, an arrogant jerk, sucker, and wheedling heel. That Gordon Gekko’s daughter, played winningly by Carey Mulligan, loves him makes no sense at all. But then little in this script does.
*. Later films dealing with the financial meltdown (Margin Call, The Big Short) would employ different strategies to explain enough of the details to make the proceedings sensible. Money Never Sleeps doesn’t even try. As a result, it is never entirely clear what is going on.
*. Take the motif of the bubble. In the opening voiceover Jake talks about how different extinction events in Earth’s history (Cambrian, etc.) were bubbles. Gekko later gives him a lecture on Tulipmania, the most famous of all stock bubbles. Children are seen playing with bubbles in the park, and the movie ends with a bubble rising over Manhattan.
*. But the financial dealings don’t really have much to do with bubbles. The subprime mortgage meltdown is an event, but is that what brings Bretton James (Josh Brolin) down? Churchill Schwartz is shorting subprimes. Are CDOs what Zabel was involved in? It’s not clear. Nor is it clear exactly what Brolin is doing with his Locust Fund. Presumably some kind of insider trading, though the news reports we hear jumbled together in a rush at the end are hazy on whether he’s done anything illegal.

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*. These matters are strangely left unexplained. I say it’s strange because nothing in the movie seems overly complex. Jake is able to torch Bretton James for a $130 million loss just by spreading some silly rumours. Then later he brings Bretton down simply by revealing the existence of a private fund that isn’t even a secret. Meanwhile, Gekko is able to get his hands on his daughter’s nest egg by the rather simple expedient of having Jake talk her into signing it over to him, after which he runs away with the loot. Wow. That was tricky. I can understand Jake not seeing that coming.
*. By the way: putting aside his criminal liability, hasn’t Jake ruined his career by spreading the false rumour of the nationalization of the African country’s oil reserves to all of his best clients, which is trading on his credibility as an energy insider?
*. They could have done so much more with the angle of how times had changed. Especially the new high-speed financial trading, that Gekko would probably not have understood. Indeed, Gekko’s brand of insider dealing would make him a dinosaur in today’s markets.
*. I like Susan Sarandon, but she’s terrible here as a caricature mom getting wiped out in the real estate bust. Luckily this leads to her redemption in a Rise of Silas Lapham sort of way (you lose the world but gain your soul), and she is able to return to real, useful work as a nurse. A job where she can do good. As Stone puts it on the commentary, she “has returned to her roots and is better for it.” This is a theme we see in many of the films dealing with the crisis: the unreal financial sector juxtaposed with a real world that has value and meaning. Only here it’s a message that’s delivered with a hammer.
*. Indeed the whole ending of this movie is a mess. Brolin destroying his Goya in fit is hilarious. Meanwhile, the laser fusion/ocean thermal energy conversion project seems to be a go, which means that good capitalism has indeed saved the world.
*. Most troubling, however, is Gekko’s redemption: returning to his daughter the $100 million he stole from her. This somehow makes everything right. Now there’s the power of money being felt on the personal level! At the end of the day (or end of the film), money has the ability to cure all ills and unhappiness. The future is green.
*. That ending was a late addition. When the film originally screened at Cannes it ended with Gekko in his office looking at the ultrasound video. Why did Stone feel the need to be so sentimental?
*. If you listen to his commentary you’ll hear him arguing that he is only being true to his essentially romantic vision of life. He believes in the human spirit, is a moralist, and doesn’t understand people who want him to be more cynical. That’s not who he is. He thinks we live in a disturbed age where people want to see unhappy endings and the bad guys winning. He thinks filmmakers should “light a candle in the darkness.”
*. I don’t buy it. Or at least I don’t buy all of it. It’s a fact that every artist loses their mojo eventually. Stone is still a rebel in a lot of ways, but he’s just not as bold and provocative as he used to be. His most recent films have ranged from poor to terrible (Savages being one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen).
*. And so the opportunity is missed. This is a real shame because Stone does evil well, and the other finance movies I mentioned steer away from giving us real portraits in villainy (Margin Call paints in shades of gray, and the bad guys in The Big Short aren’t so much villains as morons). But there’s a lack of anger here, and Stone is more interested in redemption than in assigning blame. The bursting of a bubble will lead to a glorious new day. This is capitalism’s creative destruction. As bad as it may seem, it’s all for the best. Justice is served in perhaps the most fanciful part of the story when we see Brolin doing a perp walk. A baby is born. Money breeds more money. The system works.

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Executive Suite (1954)

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*. If you’ve been reading these notes for a while you’ll know I have a fascination with things that are fashionable and then are fashionable no longer, or how some films date while others remain timeless.
*. Some of it is due to the subject matter. Some of it is due to changes in the way films are made — for example a style of directing or acting coming into or going out of vogue. Sometimes what changes are audience expectations. Some of it is the result of technical advances. And sometimes it reflects a larger cultural change.
*. That last point is what I think happened here. This is a good movie, but even as you’re watching it you’re aware of how representative it is of a time that is no more. Not because the clothes have changed, but because our attitudes and values have. Capitalism in the twenty-first century is something different than it was in the age of the man in the grey flannel suit.
*. The seeds of that change are here though. And they are nicely explicated by Oliver Stone in his DVD commentary, which is something I want to spend some time talking about.
*. If you’ve listened to Stone’s commentaries on Wall Street and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps then you aleady know how important an influence Executive Suite was on him. He can’t stop talking about it. In part because he thinks it’s a great movie but also because of the vision of American business that it presents.

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*. Underlying Stone’s analysis is a view of American history which I’ll get to. But let’s begin with Avery Bullard, who is an old school captain of industry. He’s introduced in a provocative way, with the camera giving us his point of view until he collapses on the sidewalk. We never see him, even an image of him reflected in a mirror, and his empty chair at the head of the boardroom table becomes a weighty symbol throughout the film.
*. In fact, Bullard seems to have been all things to all people. Julia adored him, Alderson accepted his place as his number two, and Walling flat-out idolized him (“He was a great man. The greatest man I’ve ever known.”). Shaw seems to have honestly thought that he was sympathetic to his approach to running the business, and perhaps he was. Erica (Miss Martin) remains totally loyal to him even after his death. The workers liked him. Louis Calhern’s Caswell is the only one who takes a swipe at him, and nobody approves of that.

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*. Stone says that Bullard “looms like a god, or Hamlet’s father, over the ensuing drama.” I hadn’t thought of that. It put me in mind of The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Not stopping there, Stone goes on to compare him to Alexander the Great because “his ego takes over and he leaves no heirs” which leads to a “war of successors.” Hm.

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*. In the struggle among the successors Stone sees the coming “battle for the soul of America.” In the red-white-and-blue corner we have all-American hero Don Walling (William Holden). He doesn’t really belong in the boardroom, feeling more comfortable with his workers down at the Pike St. plant. He doesn’t get his picture in Fortune magazine but likes to get his hands dirty building things. His wife is Mrs. Cleaver June Allyson, a girl next door who can play catch with her son and run a household at the same time (with the help of a maid, naturally). These two are so apple-pie even Stone feels somewhat embarrassed by them, while admitting that Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek in JFK are their doppelgangers.
*. Indeed, Don Walling may be the real John Galt: the heroic engineer battling against the bureaucrats and the bean counters who don’t have the best interests of the People at heart (a point that today’s worshippes of Ayn Rand have largely lost sight of).

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*. In the evil corner is Loren Shaw (Frederic March). He represents heartless corporate scheming, a cancer of corruption that, in Stone’s view, would grow throughout the ’50s and come to fruition with Vietnam. His type is not John Galt but Robert McNamara, the whiz kid accountant who ran Ford before running the war in Southeast Asia. Shaw also represents, sticking with Stone’s analysis, the movement away from production and manufacturing toward the triumph of the financial sector (a real transformation, to be sure, but not something that happened until much later).
*. That is the Oliver Stone version of history, and it holds up pretty well. He readily admits that “America went the other way,” taking a direction different from where we see it going at the end of this film. The Robert McNamaras won. And as for the much-maligned K-F line of crap furniture built by Tredway, it would conquer the world as Ikea. But this is a movie, and we needed a happy ending.
*. Stone doesn’t just accept that ending, he applauds it. This may seem odd, given that the ending is a lie, but Stone doesn’t mind. It fits with his idealism, which he confesses to at length in his Money Never Sleeps commentary. For Stone, movies are supposed to be about “the triumph of humanity.” This is the spirit that made Hollywood great, and he is unhappy about there being less of it today.

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*. I like Oliver Stone, and I think this is a wonderful commentary. But there are a lot of “huh?” moments. They begin with his admitting that he hasn’t read the novel the film is based on but that he thinks it (the novel) has great plot points and “you have to admire it for its complexity of thought.” How would he know this? The complexity of thought, and the plot points too, might have come from Ernest Lehman (who would go on to do the screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success, which was based on his own novella).
*. Another great Oliver moment comes during the final scene when Shaw loses the vote to be made the new director and Stone says “he just lost his ass.” What?
*. Of course it’s a theatrical piece. I doubt it’s a very realistic depiction of how such a succession crisis would be handled. I don’t even understand why Shaw tears up the letter transferring the stock to Caswell at the end, since it was made out pre-emptively by Shaw in his role as president and thus was no good. But ripping it up makes for a  nice, theatrical gesture.
*. How seriously can we take Holden at the end? His company will “never ask a man to do anything that will poison his pride in himself or his work.” That’s a statement that would have no credibility whatsoever today.
*. But this was such a different time. Listen to Barbara Stanwyck’s advice to June Allyson at the end: it’s not her place to undertsand her husband, it’s inevitable he will ignore her and make her feel cold, but this is all right because he’ll always come back in the end, making her realize how fortunate she is to be his wife.
*. These are all aspects of those larger cultural changes that I suggested date this film the most. Business has changed. Ethics are for losers. Women are no longer expected to quietly stand behind their man.

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*. I’m not sure the rest of it holds up that well. The ensemble cast is good, but I just didn’t think anything lived up to the first few minutes. The credits rushing up to fill the screen with the clanging of the bell (the only music in the film). The way we follow Bullard out of the building, the camera taking his point of view. The sudden shock of his death. And the interesting business, pointed out by Stone, of his death being followed by two crimes: Caswell shorting Tredway’s stock (which I don’t think is, technically, a crime) and the anonymous man in the street stealing Bullard’s wallet. As on the street, so in the tower. As on earth, so it is in heaven.

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The Changeling (1980)

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*. There’s a now standard and widely accepted view of recent film history that has it that the late 1970s marked a watershed in terms of audience. With the success of Jaws and Star Wars the industry became geared, almost exclusively, to summer blockbuster popcorn movies for teenagers. The adult audience disappeared. The only demographic that mattered was 17 to 24-year-olds.
*. Genre pictures responded in the same way. It’s no coincidence that this same period, post Halloween, saw the rise of the slasher film, or “dead teenager” movie. In the early 1980s these movies took over. A horror movie was, almost by definition, a slasher movie.
*. I say all this just to emphasize how much of an outlier this film was at the time. There’s George C. Scott, just in his early 50s but looking ten years older, huffing and puffing through the snow as he pushes his station wagon down the road. He’s the hero. And there isn’t a teen in sight.
*. There’s no psycho killer wearing black gloves, stalking girls POV-style as they take showers or go skinny dipping. There are no gory kills. In fact, there’s little violence at all. It’s just an old-fashioned haunted house story, with a mature cast.
*. A note on phone booths. Unless you’re of a certain age you may have no familiarity with them. Here’s one thing: they weren’t often located by remote roadsides. There’d be a phone at a gas station or rest stop, but not in the middle of nowhere. As there is here.
*. A note on hot water home heating systems. You may have no familiarity with them either. They were noisy. Really, really noisy. I remember the slamming, pounding in the pipes being forceful enough to knock books off of shelves. So I wonder why John Russell gets so perturbed by the regular pounding he hears in the old house. Obviously it’s just a problem with the heating. Annoying as hell, but not spooky.
*. It serves him right. What on earth is he doing moving in to such a giant mansion for anyway? He’s one guy! The house is so damn big they couldn’t even find a location for it and so the exteriors are all of a false façade.
*. I mentioned that this is an old-fashioned haunted house movie, and one thing that means is that it’s a movie that seems overwritten, if not downright literary. Haunted houses are the stuff of Gothic romance, of books, and of writers like M. R. James, Shirley Jackson and Robert Aickman.
*. This can get you into trouble in a movie, and I think it does a bit here. The back story has too much going on. I wasn’t quite sure about the legal business behind the murder and the will. And the medals, while full of personal significance, are of little evidentiary value as a clue to what happened in the past. So why is the senator so worked up over them?
*. The moral of the story is also muddy. What did Senator Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) do that was so bad? Sure he was the beneficiary of his adopted father’s evil scheme, but there’s no indication that he was party to it. I guess he’s just guilty of the cover-up.
*. Screenwriter William Gray would dumb things down considerably for his next credit, Prom Night.
*. Now really, what is that wheelchair going to do to Claire? Run her down? Bang her in the shins? I would say push her downstairs, but she does that on her own.
*. Ringu obviously borrowed a lot from this film, and Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black, acknowledged a debt.
*. I think Peter Medak does a decent job handling the suspense. He’s a little too attached to overhead shots, but to some extent that comes with the territory. Richard Schickel remarked that such high angles “prove nothing except that they just don’t build 12-foot high ceilings anymore.”
*. The ending is baffling. Or at least I find it so. Has Senator Carmichael astral-projected to the house? Why bother with any of this (that is, Russell seeing his “illusion” climbing the burning staircase)? I don’t see how it’s necessary, and it just ends up being confusing.
*. I still think this a pretty effective ghost story, complete with the spooky nineteenth-century charm of its faux mansion and séances. I just don’t think the story has enough juice though to keep turning the screw. Some of that is, unfortunately, due to the star. It’s just scarier watching teenagers being chased around in their underwear than to see old men being awakened at 6 a.m. to the sound of clanging heating pipes.

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