Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Great Emancipator

Taking place in the months after the Gettysburg address, Steven Spielberg's latest film Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and based on the Dorris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals, tells the fascinating story of the passage of the 13th Amendment, the amendment that would abolish slavery. There aren't many great historical political dramas in the history of film. The Battle of Algiers and All the President's Men are, I suppose, the two classics, but if we break the genre into historical political films about the passage of a law, those are certainly rare. Lincoln is not only a great historical political drama, it's a near masterpiece and one of Spielberg's best accomplishments. Period. I just saw a free advanced screening, so for once, I'll say a few things about it before most others have seen it--I might even have seen it before most film critics. Cool.

First,  Day-Lewis will win the Academy Award. I can almost guarantee it--or, I would be shocked if he didn't. I can't imagine a better performance. It's a remarkably subtle characterization, especially considering his ridiculously over-the-top, overly theatrical performances in both Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood--both of which were a bit too much for me. In Lincoln, he plays a soft-spoken, pensive, psychologically complex, almost frail and seemingly vulnerable Lincoln. A kind but tormented president, Lincoln is troubled with the blood spilled and great sacrifices given daily on the battlefields of the Civil War, troubled by the fact that he recently lost his young son, troubled that he, as president, cannot grieve for him, and troubled that his eldest son wants more than anything to join the Union cause and fight. Lincoln is witty, warm, forgiving, and angry when he needs to be. He is a great listener, a man famous for placing former rivals in his cabinet, and a great storyteller. He always knows just the right story to tell in just the right moment. In one scene, his secretary of war storms off during a particularly tense moment, yelling that he can't take another God-damn story. But everyone else seems eager to listen.

And all of this praise is coming from someone who doesn't think very highly of Spielberg. In fact, Spielberg is one of the most overrated directors. His films are fun, popcorn fair, made for a mostly mindless mass audience. He almost always overdoes the musical score and cranks up the sentimentality with close-ups and lighting. I like Jaws well enough, and I'll always be a bit nostalgic for the Indiana Jones films, and first two Jurassic Park films were pretty fun, but I think Schindler's List is overrated. Rarely do we see Spielberg grappling with interesting ideas. He's usually only concerned with plot and character. This is why Lincoln surprised me. It was deliberate and stately, almost European in its pacing. There were a couple of cheesy Spielberg moments--one occurs right at the beginning where several soldiers start quoting the Gettysburg Address and the John Williams score plays in the background to make sure we know this is the moment we are supposed to be moved to tears. But mostly he tones down the sentimental music--at least compared to his other films. The fact that he has directed a moving and gripping drama about the passage of an amendment is saying something.

I wasn't a big fan of Tommy Lee Jones. He just sounds too much like Tommy Lee Jones and didn't disappear into his role. I couldn't get the person out of my head, whereas with Day-Lewis and Sally Field I could. But this is a fairly minor quibble.

What struck me from nearly the first moment was the relevance of the story. It was very difficult to get people from Lincoln's own party to support the amendment--and vastly more difficult to get the overtly racist Democrats to sign on. I couldn't help think about how difficult it was for President Obama to get the healthcare law passed. It's true that there wasn't bipartisan support, but there wasn't bipartisan support for the abolition of slavery either. The handful of Democrats who voted in its favor only did so because they were lame ducks and were promised lucrative political positions afterword. And it was a much more moderate amendment than the radical Republican wing wanted. Stevens and others wanted not just to free slaves but to give blacks the right to vote.

It was a monumental task, and Lincoln had to lie and cheat a little to get it done. Maybe honesty is a bit overrated.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Poetry of Woody Allen

I watched Woody Allen's latest film, To Rome with Love, a few weeks ago, and I was nothing but disappointed. Alec Baldwin should make any film watchable, but his role was so strange it bothered me throughout. He was both a character in the story and some sort of omnipresent life force who would appear out of nowhere to give one of the other characters advice about love and life. I guess Allen was attempting to resuscitate the Bogart character in Play It Again Sam (1972)--in both films only the male character can see the Baldwin/Bogart character; he's invisible to the women. On the whole, I've been pleased with most of Allen's recent films: Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) were masterpieces and Midnight in Paris (2011) was great--maybe not a masterpiece but very good. On second thought, despite my mad love for Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Whatever Works (2009) was pretty terrible and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) no better. Allen's problem is that he is so prolific that he doesn't seem to want to slow down to refine his work. It's either hit or miss for him.

After watching Rome, I decided to revisit some classic Allen films, including Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) and Husbands and Wives (1992). I guess I was second-guessing how highly esteemed Allen is. I mean, how is it possible that the same person who wrote and directed Celebrity (1998) also did Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)? But after re-watching those classics, my doubt was alleviated and I was fawning over Allen once again. While I still absolutely love Annie Hall and Manhattan, I was especially taken by Hannah and Her Sisters. It's a moving and dramatic film about love, adultery, loss, and death.  But its power lies in its balance between drama, philosophical profundity, and humor. It's true that the main story follows Hannah, her husband, and the affair her husband has with one of Hannah's sisters.

But the subplot with Allen's character makes the film beautifully poetic. Allen plays Hannah's ex-husband, a television producer and severe hypochondriac. While he is with the doctor for a routine phisical, the doctor finds something he wants to check out. It might be cancer. The possibility of this throws Allen into a tailspin of paranoia and existential dread while he waits for the test results. He visits the doctor again, finds out that he does not have cancer, and leaves the doctor's office literally jumping and skipping for joy. But suddenly he stops. And in that moment, that perfectly paced and edited moment, he realizes that while he is not going to die of cancer, he will die eventually, and this fact fills him with more dread. He then spends time turning to religion, testing out different denominations other than the Judaism he was brought up with: Catholicism and Hari Krishna. Not surprisingly, these options don't work out for him but add lots of classic Allen moments. Ultimately, he learns the great lesson about life--that life is a struggle, that death is inevitable, but that we can all find some measure of happiness despite these ineluctabilities.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Citizen Lame

I'm teaching a film class for the first time, and I thought I would start the class by watching Orson Welles's classic 1941 film Citizen Kane. The film appears on the top of many best-of lists. It's number one on the American Film Institute's top 100 American films, number two on Entertainment Weekly's list (just below The Godfather); and while the most recent Sight and Sound list upended CK with Hitchcock's Vertigo, if you look at any other list since 1962, CK is number one (the list comes out every 10 years). So, I thought, why not start with the best and talk a bit about why critics and filmmakers consider Welles's film the creme de la creme? My idea was that we would discuss the film before opening our textbook, before learning any technical terms. I would have students evaluate and analyze the film based on their past English-class reading knowledge. While I speculated that students may not recognize every element of the film's formal style, I thought it would be a nice foundation for us to refer back as we proceeded through the year's instruction.

But as I watched the film for probably the fifth or sixth time (though the first time with students), I quickly realized I was bored, and I didn't care much about the story or the characters. My perception of the film in this viewing may have been clouded or influenced by what I thought my students were thinking while they were watching: Are they bored? Are they paying attention? Did they notice that shot? Do they regret signing up for the class?

To their credit, my students didn't sound off any displeasure or physical or emotion pain for making them watch the film. And when we spent a couple of days discussing the film and its merits, many students offered keen insights into the film's characters, themes and visual qualities. And I should qualify my grossly hyperbolic post title by saying that even though my personal reaction was one of boredom, I still recognize the film's technical qualities. It is impressive in its visual complexity; every shot seems perfectly crafted with the lighting, props, and placement of characters clearly adding complicated meaning to every scene. The editing is equally complex, not only in its overall non-linear structure but in its variation of cuts, montages, and overlapping shots. Even the makeup is impressive, especially for a film from 1941. I've seen several current films where characters are aged and the makeup looks horribly unrealistic. Finally, the film is thematically rich; it's a film about ideas, about time, power, memory, truth, and perceptions. I like big ideas, so why couldn't I get into the story this time?

Well, it could just be this particular viewing. Maybe I'll change my mind next time.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Richard Matheson: Idea Man

I just finished reading my third Richard Matheson story collection, and I have to say I'm hooked on this guy. Of course, he's been writing since the 1950s, so he's not exactly a recent fad. Like Kurt Vonnegut, Matheson served in the army as an infantry soldier during WWII, got married after the war, and then began writing short stories. Also like Vonnegut, Matheson dabbles in the science-fiction genre, but where Vonnegut is a satirical humorist with a distinctively simple style and primarily interested in exploring whether free will exists, Matheson's styles, tones, and themes are far more wide-ranging. Stephen King said, "I think the author who influenced me the most as a writer was Richard Matheson." And if you read just a handful of Matheson's often disturbing stories, you see why this is true. While Matheson is sometimes interested in breaking free of genre conventions, many of his works are decidedly fixed in the horror, fantasy or Western genres.

Several of his stories and novels have been adapted into television shows and films, including I Am Legend (1954), "Steel" (1956, adapted as Real Steel), The Shrinking Man (1956), A Stir of Echoes (1958), "Duel" (1971), "Button, Button" (1974, filmed as The Box), Bid Time Return (1975, Somewhere in Time), and What Dreams May Come (1978). He also wrote scripts for several Twilight Zone episodes, including the famously shocking "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1963 and remade in 1983). Matheson continues to write today; one of the anthologies I read included two of his recent stories, one from 2009 and one from 2010. But he seems to have slowed down his rapid production quite a bit in the last few years.

Here's a sampling of the types of stories he writes: A woman is told she will be given $50,000 if she presses a button on a box which will result in killing someone she doesn't know, a man goes to a funeral home and makes arrangements for his not-yet-deceased wife, a man searches for the origins of dirty jokes and finds a secret society, a family prepares to live in an underground tunnel system as a result of an impending nuclear attack, a young girl shows her friend a possessed dress belonging to her deceased mother, a scientist travels back in time to witness the crucifixion of Jesus, a man discovers he has a double, large groups of people walk into the Pacific Ocean and drown for an unknown reason, a young man discovers that being a gunslinger in the Old West is far more difficult than he ever imagined.

I like Matheson because he is first and foremost a good story teller. He knows how to begin and end stories well, and many of the stories have surprising "twist" endings (often a bit like the ending in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"). And he is a pretty good writer of sentences. He's no Cormac McCarthy or Joseph Conrad, but he's not trying to be poetic and dense either. He writes with a natural rhythm with often surprisingly sophisticated diction that doesn't get in the way of his rapid pacing.

What I like most about his works is his emphasis, and this isn't always the case but often is, on ideas, on moral questions and unsolvable dilemmas. For instance, I Am Legend raises lots of interesting questions, some directly, some indirectly: if you were the last human on earth, would it be better to die than live alone? Is sexual desire and consummation an essential quality of the human condition? What is the worth of human life? How much effort would you put into saving your own life? Do we have control over our desire for vengeance? Similar types of questions could be asked in relation to "Button, Button": Is it morally right to will the death of an innocent person? Is there a price on innocent suffering? How well do we know our spouses and family members?

Of course, Matheson doesn't answer these questions. He is not completely ambiguous in his leanings, though. His overall vision seems pretty dark. Matheson's world is a world where innocent people suffer for no real reason. It's a world of pain, of darkness, of pure evil, where terrible monsters lurk, where people betray their families and spouses, where you can't rely on the compassion of others, where machines and mankind itself is working against you and there is nothing you can do to stop it from coming. But it is also a world of the individual, a kind of dark and realistic Ayn Randian vision (as opposed to her romantic individualism). For Matheson, the individual can will himself to survive or fight, and he can accomplish great things, but it's usually only temporary. Eventually, the individual loses. In this way, Matheson is like a Greek tragedian. His characters are caught up in a world that is out of their control, and there is no winning or escaping. But like many of the Greek characters, there is something noble in Matheson's characters attempts to do the impossible. To persevere in a world where the deck is stacked against them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Existential Spider

When I first saw the trailer for the latest Spiderman film, I, along with I assume many others, wondered why so soon? The first Tobey Maguire  film only came out ten years ago, and this latest film covers much of the same territory as the earlier one. Are two origin stories in ten years really necessary?  I could see an alternate origin story told, say, twenty or thirty years apart, but not ten.

I did like Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker. He's appropriately nerdy and awkward but also genuine and sweet. He delivers his lines with a natural purity of expression, pausing at the right moments, smiling a charming smile that I'm sure makes all the girls swoon (he doesn't do much for my wife, though). He makes us believe he is in high school. One small problem I had, though, is that Garfield's body in the Spiderman suit is a bit too lanky. I'm not saying he should be ripped or anything, but Tobey Maguire's body was more believable as a superhero. Emma Stone is also great as Gwen Stacy, even though it's not very believable that she is in high school; she looks much too old. And it's a little odd that she is the head intern at Oscorp--what high school student would be in charge of taking future interns on a tour of a major research and development corporation?

This latest Spiderman film is much less campy or silly; the first really plays up on the corniness of the comic. I found this one much darker--or darker than I remember the first anyway. I think the darkness of the story and the mise en scene is appropriate for the story, though. Spiderman's world is a dark, absurd one, a world that is devoid of meaning. This existential hero is the only figure who can establish order in this meaningless reality. He may still conform to traditional notions of love and relationships--at least to some degree, but he does everything in his own terms. Sartre and Camus and Nietzsche would approve.

One thing I missed from the first film is Spiderman's discovery of his powers. There is this kind of cool scene in this version of Spiderman skateboarding, but I loved the Tobey Maguire scenes where he figures out that he can climb walls and learns how to swing from his webs.

All-in-all it was a fairly entertaining film and I mostly enjoyed it--not exactly a resounding endorsement, though.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Game of Dragons, Direwolves, and Death

All the hype about the HBO series Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, sent me to the library to discover the first book, titled A Game of Thrones (1991).  I finished the 600+-page novel a couple of weeks ago and was somewhat surprised how much I enjoyed it. The story is engaging from the first page and was often difficult to put down, but I was finishing it in the last weeks of school, so, alas, I had to succumb to sleep or grading those final exams. In my experience few authors have truly mastered giving characters really distinctive voices and personalities. There are surely others but Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible comes to mind. Each of the Price daughters sounds nothing like the other. I think Martin is in the same league here in terms of characterization and voice. Whether it is a seven-year-old boy who must come to terms with his immobility (Bran), a thirteen-year old princess who must step out of her brother's cruel shadow (Dany), an honorable 30-something Lord who reluctantly accepts the offer to become hand of the king (Ned), or a dwarf who compensates wit for his lack of height, Martin imbues each of these and many others with richness and distinctiveness. His characters are all flawed. None are purely good nor are any purely evil (well, maybe that is debatable). These are characters who are real, who are human. You know you love a book when something happens to a character or a character does soemthing (and I'm thinking of a couple of examples), and you are shouting at the book: "No!" or "Don't do that, please, please!"

Another admirable quality is the array of interesting and complex female characters. So often in fantasy stories do female characters (if they exist at all) get minimized or placed in cliche roles like prostitute or loving wife. Martin has a prostitute and a loving wife but they are interesting, intelligent, powerful, and not at all stereotypical.

Martin also has a distinctive style and uses several clever idiomatic expressions such as "he's not yet a man grown" or "take the black" or "unleash the dragon." For me great writing has little to do with plot or characterization. Greatness is in the language. And Martin writes with a poetic, even classical, quality that takes the reader to a whole new world.

There were a few minor issues I had with it, though. I found it a bit odd that the novel begins with a vidid and haunting supernatural scene but no other supernatural or fantastical element occurs for another 500 pages. In other words, the supernatural seemed rather inorganic to an otherwise highly political and realistic book. I'm assuming Martin will return to these supernatural elements in his later books, several of which he has already published but I haven't yet read. On a related note, the dragon witchcraft scene at the end was a bit odd in relation to the rest of the story.

I did also watch the first season of the HBO series, and I liked it. But the book is much better. The series is very faithful, but they do add some elements. For instance, they make the king's brother gay and give him a lover. I guess I don't have a problem with that; it was just a little surprising. The question I kept wondering is, why do they always have to make movies out of great books? Why can't people just read the book?

All in all, a great read.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A New Republic?

I recently read Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig's new and powerful book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress--and a Plan to Stop It. He explains in clear and convincing terms how our representative democracy, our republic, no longer functions as such because congressmen are entirely beholden to special interests groups and rich people who give huge but legal donations. Congress, he argues, doesn't even bother to take up pressing issues like the environment, our massive debt, and health care because, essentially, Wall Street and other major corporations wouln't profit from changes to the current system. Instead, congress passes a very weak law (Dodd-Frank) that does very little to curb the powerful forces that got us into the current financial crisis.

Here's a brief video of Lessig speaking on the subject:

Lessig's proposed solutions are very interesting and compelling, even though he is skeptical about whether congress or the people will have the courage to carry them out. The first solution he mentions briefly is that all political donations should be anonymous. Lessig doesn't agree with this approach partly because he thinks people will stop donating. I like the idea, though. I mean, what better way to neuter powerful lobbying forces than to make it impossible for them to directly contribute to politician who help make laws favorable to the businesses and individual who profit from them? He spends much more time on his other solution: No contribution can be over $100. He then spends time talking about different strategies to make this law.

1. Congress should pass the law. But he is very skeptical that this will happen. Why would congress enact a law that changes the entire political system as it operates today? It's currently advantageous for politicians, who often only work in politics for a few years before becoming very wealthy lobbyists.
2. Several "supercandidates" should run in several jurisdictions across the country and quite as soon as real campaign finance laws were passed.
3. The president could force the issue and not allow anything else to happen until meaningful laws were passed.
4. This one is the most interesting: A constitutional convention could be called. Since congress won't do it, the people should.

A fascinating read!

Here's a link to a website that shines a light on the money in D.C.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Transcendent Driving

I finally watched Drive, the most recent Nicolas Winding Refn film. And I was transported to another world for an hour and 40 minutes. It's a world that sounds and feels and looks like the 1980s: pink flourescent lights, ethereal synthesized music, brown leather driving gloves, and a white ribbed-satin jacket with black collar and cuffs and embroidered with a gold scorpion on its back. While no date is given, the film's setting is actually more recent, probably 2011, judging from the cars and other clothes. Refn infuses the film with certain '80s stylistic elements not make a period film or even necessarily to demonstrate his nostalgia for the era. He certainly does not long for the egoistic materialism of the '80s. I see the slightly archaic elements as a metaphor for Driver (Gosling's character is not given a name). He is a man not from the '80s per say but from a different time and place. He comes from a long line of terse and rule-oriented action heroes: I'm thinking specifically of Gary Cooper in High Noon and Alain Delon in Le Samourai. Much more could be said about this if I had the time.

Drive is an intense action film stripped of typical dialogue and, well, action. In fact, Gosling's character says very little. He speaks with his actions, his face, and his driving. And the action scenes come in short violent bursts. But the film is so much more than an action film. The rest of the film is basically a European art film--think Tarkovsky.  It's suffused with a kind of earthy mysticism, a spirituality that transcends its most brutal moments. And when the violence comes, the build-up to it is so restrained and slow and tense that the violence is all the more shocking and oddly cathartic. Drive is ultimately a humanist film. Despite its focus on criminals and a couple of purely evil characters, it seems to be saying that human beings with all of their foibles and faults have the potential for goodness and can be redeemed. You must see this film!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Best Feature Films of 2011

OK, buckle your seatbelts. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

I have to start with my probably obvious disclaimer that I’m not a professional film critic, and since I hold a full-time job doing something other than watching and writing about movies all day, I unfortunately don’t get to see everything. I guess there is a silver lining to that fact: at least I was spared the pain of The Smurfs, Chipwrecked, Zookeeper, the most recent Twilight, The Beaver (what was Jodie Foster thinking?), Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, and that lame gnome version of Romeo and Juliet—most of which my six-year-old either saw with his mom or wants to see. Thank you for indulging him, Tracy. It makes me shudder just thinking about them, and I sort of feel sorry for professional film critics who have to see stuff like that. Unfortunately, I was not spared the pain of a few truly horrible blockbusters. I’m thinking specifically of Cars 2, Battle: Los Angeles, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’ll never get back those six hours!!

A few notable films I didn’t see yet include Shame, Drive, The Skin I Live In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Take Shelter, United Red Army, Margaret, and A Separation. If they are good enough, I might write about them later.

Also, this year I decided to split my “best of” list into two and remove the documentaries from this one. There are several docs I really liked, so I’ll work on that one soon.

Here’s my list:

1. Hugo. Directed by the brilliant Martin Scorsese, Hugo tells the story of a young orphan boy living in a Paris train station in 1930s. His goal is to repair a mechanical man his late father worked on. Based on an award-winning book by Brian Selznick, the film is also a fictionalized account of Hugo’s relationship with the great Frenchman Georges Méliès, whose Trip to the Moon and other magical and surreal films of the early 1900s established him as one of the earliest and most revolutionary filmmakers in the history of cinema. Méliès was almost completely forgotten by the time the film takes place with nearly all of his films seemingly lost and film historians thinking him dead. The film added to the excellent novel by including a couple of minor romantic pairings and fleshing out the book’s cruel station master, making him a comedic but more fully human character played by the surprisingly restrained Sacha Baron Cohen. What is truly memorable about the film is that in addition to its compelling story, Scorsese demonstrates with images, music, and editing his great passion for the silent films of the early 1900s (The Artist also does this, and while I liked it overall, I didn’t feel its middle quite matched the amazing beginning and ending). I have to say that it’s a contagious passion because immediately after seeing the film with my six-year-old, Wyatt said, “Dad, we should watch some Georges Méliès.” And we did! He loved most of the films and even watched nearly a whole 2-hour disc without me. Visually rich, touching, and quite funny, Hugo isn’t to be missed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. And this is one of those films that you want to see in 3D; Scorsese utilizes the technology to enhance the story and not for showing off the effects.  

2. 13 Assassins. Since I wrote about this elsewhere on this blog, I won’t say much here. This is quite simply an excellent samurai film directed with (mostly) untypical restraint by Takashi Miike.

3. Poetry. This Korean film tells the fascinating story of an aging grandmother who enrolls in a poetry class as she finds herself in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Living with the grandmother is her apathetic and self-centered grandson, and she struggles to maintain a relationship with him beyond merely cooking him dinner or whisking him off to school. It’s a moving story about aging, generational conflicts, deep moral questions, and the creative process. Poetry becomes a metaphor in the film for coming to terms with life and all of its unsavory and seemingly meaningless aspects. If my description makes it sound boring, trust me, it isn’t. There’s a whole complicated plot about the rape (not shown) and suicide of a young girl, so it’s not just a film about old people sitting around writing poetry—which, I should add, I would probably enjoy. It’s a film about life, love, family, art, and death. It’s about what it means to be human.

4. Tree of Life. I’ve written twice about this film elsewhere, so I will just say that even though parts are slow and certain elements are confusing, this is on the whole one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking films I have ever seen. I need to see it again.

5. Certified Copy. Directed by the renowned Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy unfolds the mysterious story of two people, one is a British writer and the other a French art dealer (played by the always exquisite Juliette Binoche). The writer has just published a book titled Certified Copy—it’s about the idea that a copy is just as beautiful and important as the original and the silliness of our society’s frowning upon copied art. I won’t give anything away, but I will say that about half way through something very interesting is said that calls into question our very understanding of this couple and their relationship. A film about art, love, relationships, and the past, Certified Copy is an engaging and enlightening film that takes us in unexpected directions.

6. City of Life and Death. A powerful black-and-white film about the Japanese conquest and occupation of Nanking in China in 1937. It’s an unconventional film in that it doesn’t follow a single story line—though there are several characters—and doesn’t really have much of a plot. I suppose the best way to describe it would be to call it a poem, a poem about the horrors of war. Controversial in China when it was first released, City of Life and Death does not demonize all of the Japanese nor does it romanticize the Chinese.

7. Crazy, Stupid Love. I’m surprised this groundbreaking comedy isn’t showing up on more (or any?) top-ten lists. Ryan Gosling, who is possibly the greatest living American actor, is paired with Steve Carell, who normally underwhelms me but in this case he was just right. It’s a hilarious movie (also starring Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon, and Marisa Tomei) that walks a fine line between being conventional and breaking lots of rules. I put it on this list because it thoroughly entertained me but also because it said some insightful things about relationships and what it means to be happy as a human being. Steve Carell’s character is a bit like Siddhartha in his search for happiness and enlightenment. Think about it.

8. The Descendents. This is George Clooney’s best role. It’s interesting how “normal” he can look and act. Normal hair, normal clothes. In this film he is a normal guy, a guy with two kids who finds out after his wife has been in a terrible accident that she was cheating on him. On the surface the film is about his discovery of this information and what he decides to do with it. But it’s also about his coming to terms with his less-than-mediocre parenting skills and taking small steps to becoming a better father—and a better person. Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, About Schmidt), The Descendents is what Payne himself has called a “minor” film, but that’s what I liked about it. It’s a small film about a small family crisis. There’s nothing outwardly deep or philosophical or showy about it. But there is something moving and profound in its small way about Clooney’s character’s realizations and actions. He’s a normal guy who has to choose whether he’s going to do the right things. Also, Shailene Woodley, the 20-year-old actress who plays Clooney’s daughter, is a revelation.

9. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was a little surprised how much I liked David Fincher’s new film. I had read the books and enjoyed them—though not as much as some people. That is, I thought they were fairly entertaining and Lisbeth Salander was truly an original, but to me they were merely genre fiction and didn’t really transcend any literary boundaries. (I realize how snobby that sounds). I started watching the Swedish film version of Dragon Tattoo but stopped after about ten minutes. I was bored. So, I went into the new American version with very low expectations. Fincher’s version, perhaps not surprisingly if you’ve seen anything else by him, is much darker than the earlier film or even the novel. The lighting, the overall mood, the near total lack of humor. Even the sex has a dark edge to it. And I should add that this is a very adult film with a couple of very brutal rape scenes and several serial-killer aftermath photos. Watching it just confirms what I have felt for years: that David Fincher is one of the greatest living American directors. The film is very well constructed, beautifully (and darkly) shot, and well paced. This is what all Hollywood films should be like.

10. Melancholia. Lars von Trier is a pretty arrogant and annoying person, but with Melancholia he’s made a philosophical and provocative film. A film about melancholy, dysfunctional families, quite possibly the worst imaginable wedding-reception ever, and an impending collision with a huge planet, Melancholia is ultimately about the need to find human connections in a world that pushes us toward isolation. I’m pretty sure it’s also a metaphor for embracing melancholy and not treating it like an illness.  

Other independent or art-house films I enjoyed: Le Quattro Volte (a completely wordless and poetic film about the transmigration of the soul); The Artist; Incendies (a French film about two grown twins discovering their family history in the war torn Middle East); Jane Eyre; Ides of March; Midnight in Paris; A Dangerous Method (Keira Knightley was a bit too much for me, but who can pass up the story of Freud and Jung?); Win, Win (one of the greatest sports movies ever!); Red State (Kevin Smith makes a horror film that also makes a total mockery of red staters), and The Trip (has three or four of the funniest scenes in any movies I saw this year).

Other blockbuster/popular films I enjoyed: Moneyball (Brad Pitt is great and it’s simply an inspiring story about how hard it is to break free of conventional thinking), Kung Fu Panda 2, Bridesmaids (hilarious at times; pretty crude in others), X-Men: First Class (I thought this was the best of the X-Men films and the best superhero film this year), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (not a great film but it has some seriously amazing action sequences), Super 8, Point Blank (a French action thriller about a male nurse on the run for a crime he didn’t commit), and Limitless (a smart and gripping mainstream film).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Our Economic Woes

There are a few more films I want to try to see before I do my annual “best of” list. Until then, I thought I’d say a few things about our less-than-rosy economy. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, I’ve been interested in reading or just hearing about its causes and what we or the government can do to remedy the myriad complicated problems that manifested themselves in early 2008. I’ve read several books and watched a few documentary films related to the topic, including most recently Michael Lewis’s Boomerang—which takes an international perspective on the crisis by examining several of the worse-off countries like Iceland and Greece and explaining why they are in such a sad state—and Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men—which focuses on the Obama presidency, how Obama was able to use his knowledge of the economy to propel him to victory in 2008 and how, according to Suskind, President Obama squandered several opportunities to truly address the problem.

My interest in the crisis probably began with a series of shows from the always excellent This American Life. The first aired in May of 2008; it was called “The Giant Pool of Money” and its focus was on the housing crisis.  The episode explained in as simple terms as possible how the housing bubble burst. Later in October, This American Life aired a show plainly titled, “Another Frightening Show about the Economy.” Even though I had heard the terms collateralized debt obligation, derivatives, and credit default swaps before listening, I didn’t really know anything about what those terms meant until I heard these shows. (Confesion: I still couldn’t really explain what most of those terms mean in much detail.) Then I read William Cohan’s House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street. Cohan’s book was an in-depth analysis and story of the fall of the colossal Bear Sterns. I finished it but was sort of bored by it: too much uninteresting detail. It easily could have been half as long. While I’ve enjoyed most of the films and books, one I hated was Guaranteed to Fail, a detailed account about the housing crisis and the failures of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac—both initially created by and ultimately backed by the federal government so that they were quite literally “guaranteed to fail.” Written by economic professors from NYU, the book, which I heard about on The Daily Show, was far too jargony and mired in professor-speak. It was certainly not written for a general audience. Aside from Confidence Men and Boomerang (also Lewis’s The Big Short), one of my favorites was the documentary Inside Job, which I wrote about elsewhere on this blog. It was the most engaging and, frankly, entertaining of them all.

Here’s a brief overview of what I have learned about why things went the way they did:

  • President Reagan instituted a series of deregulations in the 1980s that weakened the government’s ability to oversee Wall Street. These deregulations continued under both Bushes and the Clinton administration.
  • Inside Job explains that academic economists advocated deregulation for decades and most opposed new regulations even after the crisis.
  • Also in the 1980s, the Federal Reserve created historically low-interest rates in order to enable people to spend more and improve production and the economy; ultimately the low-interest rates had the impact of accruing unprecedented debt for millions and millions of people because it was easier than ever in the 1990s and 2000s to buy more than people could afford.
  • Because the stock market and housing were performing so well in the 1990s and early 2000s, most Wall Street firms began leveraging, which means that they didn’t use their own money to make investments—they borrowed it. When the market performs well, leveraging is highly profitable. Of course, the market does not always perform well and lots of companies could not repay debts they owed.
  • The rating agencies (Moody’s and Standard & Poors) clearly inflated the ratings for many if not most of the Wall Street firms. They gave the highest AAA ratings to companies that were over leveraged and taking on more and more very risky debt. Lewis makes the convincing (and seemingly obvious) argument that one of the main reasons the rating agencies failed to rate the firms properly was that since the rating agencies pay substantially less that Wall Street firms, all of the smartest people went to work for Wall Street.
  • The creation in the late 1980s of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which are basically bets on how well loans and bonds will perform. CDOs are broken into “tranches” or levels based on how risky the loans or bonds are. One of the reasons these lead to the housing crisis was that Wall Street firms poured billions into what they believed were safe CDOs, the highest level—that there was a safe tranch was a myth.
  • It was quite clear after reading Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short that ignorance was one of the main reasons the crisis occurred. Many investors and Wall Street firms had little or no knowledge of the complicated investments they were making.
  • Another way to interpret the firms’ inability to see how risky their loans and bets were becoming is to argue that it was pure hubris. They thought they were invincible, and their seeming invincibility led them to foolish acts.
  • Fannie Mae was originally created during the Great Depression to provide local banks with federal money and encourage home buying, but in the late ‘60s it was turned into a private corporation that was backed by the federal government. The government would hold the companies up no matter how disastrously they performed.
  • The Clinton administration passed legislation that encouraged Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and others to loan money to people who couldn’t afford them by lowering interest rates and introducing adjustable rate mortgages, where monthly payments were initially low.
  • Lots of investment firms and mortgage lenders pushed subprime loans onto people who clearly couldn’t afford them. Lewis tells of a migrant worker in California making about $20,000 a year who was able to buy a $700,000 home with no money down.
  • While their CEOs continue to deny culpability, it’s clear that, at least on some level, fraud was involved. Some people clearly knew that they were selling crappy loans, CDOs, and derivatives to clueless investors. Very few people, and none of the big firms’ CEOs at least to my knowledge, have been prosecuted.
  • Inside Job also makes it clear that many if not most of the academics who were parts of the Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama Whitehouse’s had conflicts of interest in that they were advising their presidents on economic policies while also being paid to write reports or paid consulting fees from various Wall Street firms whose interest would be better served with less regulation and policies that bailed them out.
  • President Obama’s administration has done little to nothing about remedying the problems that underlie the crisis. The Dodd-Frank bill was finally passed this last summer but it so full of loopholes that most people say it will have very little or even no effect.