Dirty Money

RATING: [B+|🍅]

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Between the four-part documentary based on The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson, the readily available and affordable book by Lawrence Lessing on the role of money in our government, or the most recent Oscar nominated documentary on the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the story of money and its immense role in our system of governance is anything but boring. And now, famed director, producer, and screenwriter, Alex Gibney, already well known for his impressive body of work on, e.g., Enron (in Smartest Guy in the Room), the War in Afghanistan (in Taxi to the Dark Side), Scientology (in Going Clear), and Wikileaks (in We Steal Secrets), coordinates a Netflix Original about corporate greed that is this years most captivating miniseries (so far).

Dirty Money centers around six-episodes.

EPISODE 1 covers the fraud perpetuated by Volkswagen (VW) when it lied to consumers about the environmental friendliness of their vehicles, while passing U.S. emissions standards for their diesel engines (TDIs) by installing “defeat devices” that gave false readings to regulators. This issue not only implicated VW, but the enforcement mechanism in Germany and a number of German car manufacturers who attempted to run contrived research studies (including testing on “non-human primates”) to continue in their deceit.

Dirty Money Ep 1

RATING: B+

EPISODE 2 is about Scott Tucker and his payday lending scheme that preyed on the poor living paycheck-to-paycheck by approving short-term loans and then gouging borrowers through finance charges. Among the strategies was hiding the payday enterprise using Indian Tribes exempt from state lending laws by virtue of “sovereign immunity” and shady lawyers who knew full well that the language in the contracts was unintelligible to average consumers.

payday

RATING: B

EPISODE 3 begins with “pharma boy” CEO, Marin Shkreli, who spiked the price of Daraprim (prescription medication) and got sent to prison for securities fraud. However, the episode is not about him, but about the industry that allows losers like Shkreli to thrive. Stories include: the rise of Valeant behind Mike Pearson; stock short sellers driven by the narrative of an incredibly interesting individual named Fahmi Quadir (obsessive in her research: a real life Taylor Mason); Philidor‘s con by contrived subsidiary pharmaceutical shell for the purpose of running prescriptions through insurance companies; and, the impact that healthcare fraud has on the average American. Richly complicated and deservingly so with a story of this magnitude.

valeant

RATING: A-

EPISODE 4 is about HSBC (Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) and their conspiracy with the Mexican drug cartel to launder money and enable the corruption, murder, and injustice already rampant in the country. Illustrated partly by an incredible journalist, Anabel Hernández (wrote about the Mexican cartel/government connection), this episode talks about the failure of the U.S. government to adequately prosecute HSBC, instead deciding through a deferred prosecution agreement that the banking executive can pay a fine to stay out of jail (precisely what happened after the housing collapse – “too big to jail”).

hsbc

RATING: B

EPISODE 5 is about Canada’s maple syrup federation, their attempt to control the production of maple syrup, and the theft of millions in surplus syrup by anti-federation producers. Episode touches incidentally on some of the themes prominent in the series, but it’s ultimately the ugly duckling of the group.

maple-syrup-21

RATING: C+

EPISODE 6 is about everyone’s favorite new president and how he climbed his daddy’s real estate ladder to wealth, how he failed miserably in Atlantic City, how he manufactured his delusion self-image, and how he went on to success once more by befriending corrupt foreigners and conning the American people through Wizard of Oz-type branding. Interestingly, this episode is listed as episode 2 on IMDB, suggesting the order was adjusted (I’m guessing) in a strategic move to stir up the viewers for maximum resentment against Trump.

trump-taj-mahal

RATING: B+

 

Hostiles

RATING: [B-|🍅]

“The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones”

An admixture of profound beauty with a cognitive dissonance to entertain, Scott Cooper manages to invoke those elements rarely seen on screen aside from the likes of Terrence Malick or some foreign director no one can sit through without Quaaludes. Yes, it’s interminable, but likely intentionally so because the softening of the protagonist could never be sold to an audience in under two hours. The beautiful collision of the coalescence of contrarieties could only be the product of a prolonged character fatiguing that shows, not so much the melting of hate into friendship, but a tiresome occupation inside misanthropy that gives way to forgiveness and compassion.

Host 2Christian Bale’s treatment of Rosamund Pike is perhaps the most redeeming feature; a lesson to men in the treatment of the opposite sex when they need to be accommodated during their moments of emotional and stark disconnect from the world. It is a rare film where Christian elements are met with rare consistency in matters of sexual ethics.

In Rosamund Pike, we find perhaps the second best declaration of the feminine strength in 2017 (first in Wind River) that is so often refused in Hollywood for typecast optimism and fulsome buoyancy. It’s dissapointing how boring and one-dimensional even female writers tend to make the female characters in their stories. Despite what the incredulous Boston Globe writer Ty Burr says regarding “the feelings that grow between the captain and the settler woman,” the deep loss accrued by Bale’s character and the immediate total loss of Pike’s character makes their collision immensely likely and even that is drawn out well into “suspense” until the very last moment. That said, I could have live with a less reckless finale and carrying the image of Schopenhauer, I readily agree with Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune):

for “Hostiles” to fully make sense of its introductory on-screen D.H. Lawrence quotation — “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted” — we’d need a tougher, less comforting ending than the one Cooper provides.

In the end, given our political climate where entrenchment is the stepchild of comfort, it takes courage to embrace the moderate no-mans land, tacking fire from both ends. In Hostiles, we find an imperfect film with much to appreciate: a film with much to learn from no matter the depths of our entrenchment from one another. 

RATING: B-

 

Blame

RATING: [D|👎]

“we are only what we always were”


This first directoral film from Quinn Shephard, ostensibly based on Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, loses its bearings and careens itself into the abyss of what high school writers should rightly be called, which is not very good. Grounded on a few vague literary references, this film carries few of the creative moments in those books throughout the performances and reduces its actors into mean girl redundancies with (unintelligible) daddy issues and an obsessiveness over impressing young boys through bra-and-panty gyrating and promiscuity. Even the lead character, who should know better, is absurdly naive and desperately in need for a richer background story aside from vague references Shephard provides concerning her psychological state of mind.

The film, aside from the warning to parents that high schools are full of predatory teachers and impetuous girls who accumulate regret after giving themselves over to immature boys, teaches little. Cliché themes matched by subpar acting, throw away side dramas without meaningful development, Christian themes having little to add to the underlying narrative, unfolding endings without the requisite foreshadowing from accomplished writers, and this Rotten Tomatoes aggregate rating system that confuses the audience by suggestng that a D- project has garnered wide scale support (at the time of publishing, the film was at 80% with 25 reviews).

I hate to crap on this directorial debut because Hollywood certainly needs more female directors telling their stories from their unique vantage point and the story behind the funding of the project is certainly unfortunate, but Blame is an absolute waste of time, from start to finish: even with the generous, clap trap overlays from Rogerebert.com reviewer, Sheila O’Malley. Compared to Kelly Fremon Craig with The Edge of Seventeen (female directorial debut) or Greta Gerwig with Lady Bird (female directorial debut), Quinn Shephard’s competence is perhaps beyond correction, despite what Pete Vonder Haar thinks: “it’s a deliberate film, and a brilliantly constructed one as well. We definitely haven’t heard the last of Quinn Shephard.” 

Sorry Pete, I think we have. Consider the quality of Shane Carruth’s first film (Primer), consider Sofia Coppola’s first film (The Virgin Suicide), consider the quality of Mike Cahill’s first film (Another Earth), on and on, and you will see that talent is often on display from the very beginning and it is hard to imagine that Shephard, at least as a writer and an actor, has the capacity to do much better. We have more than enough average productions each year and it’s time for critics to criticize instead of pandering to the filmmakers for an opportunity to get limited access.

Do your job, folks.

RATING: D


NOTE: I’ve qualified my “daddy issues” comment with the term “unintelligible” after actress Nadia Alexander accused me of minimizing what what supposed to be a reference to rape. The narrative itself gave me no such impression. This was not the first time she misconstrued what I wrote.  

 

 

David Bowie: The Last Five Years

RATING: [C|👎]

“something happened on the day he died”

David Bowie was a force: his death impacted me greatly despite me never claiming to be his biggest fan prior to his departure. It was the sense of impact that I felt when a larger piece of a whole is suddenly removed and its absence finally illuminates the sheer scale of its prior presence. He was one of the more remarkable and creative collectors of personas—in his words: “synthesizing those things in society . . . and producing some kind of glob.” He fought through this indelible urge to escape his temporary vocation of Fame, i.e., needing rock-and-roll in order to “get off and do other things.” His Berlin Trilogy is unmatched by anything he’d done prior to or after. August Brown (L.A. Times) writes:

Bowie’s albums evoked the city’s concrete Brutalism as metered out in martial rhythms and empty spaces. He conjured its eerie isolation with synthesizer experiments and melancholy vocal melodies and wrote poignantly about connections forged in spite of (and perhaps exactly because of) East and West Berlin’s literal disconnection from the other half of the city. Fans of dark, difficult, synthetic and lonely music have glamorized it ever since.

He was truly an artist until the end, rarely seeking entertainment above the truthfulness of his vision. He was a performer, his glam rock and artistic birth into the modern is unparalleled and, unlike the insufferable, pseudo-intellectualism of Lady Gaga (see Five Foot Two), he appears to be a bearable human being to be around.

That said, HBO recently released David Bowie: The Last Five Years, which feels more like special features for Criterion than a competent documentary about a rock star to rival, e.g., Long Strange Trip, Gimme Danger, or Stop Making Sense (to name some of my favorites, here are others). Despite the focus on Bowie in his last five years, he makes infrequent cameos; the filmmaker (Francis Whately) instead relying primarily on earlier footage and commentary from members of his band, who come off as stupendous bores.

There were certainly poignant moments, though, in particular the discussion surrounding his stay in Berlin and the story surrounding the song “Where Are We Now?

The last 20-minutes saw a beautiful rendition of “Heroes” by Michael C. Hall in Bowie’s stage production, Lazarus. It was an excellent finale that overlapped well with Bowie’s own struggle and eventual defeat to cancer mere days after releasing his final album.

It was a sobering moment and a sense of congratulation for finishing well. For die-hard Bowie fans, this documentary will be a worthwhile 90-minutes. For the rest of us—don’t forget your smelling salts.

RATING: C

The End of the F***cking World

RATING: [C|👎]

Based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman, this Netflix original tells the story of two anti-social children (Jessica Barden & Alex Lawther) facing parental neglect who try to escape their problems by being a problem for other people. It’s the type of millennial version of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) one can expect, setting the viewers off in boredom before the first 20 min episode can euthanizes itself, only to follow with another seven episodes of soporific bag watching. Feels like a freshman art major just saw Badlands (1973) and Raising Arizona (1987) and decided to give filmmaking a try.

Between the implied lived experience by abortion, the frontal disinhibition syndrome from lead female character rivaling the level of annoyance of Ellen Page in Juno (2007), and the incompetence of the writers (i get it, it’s a graphic novel) in their unseemly plot holes, predictable nuisances, or insatiable profanity quips from the tiny adults, there is plenty to dislike. The fact that nothing happens aside from two kids running away from home and ending up on the beach in an ending that begs for The Departed (2006) finale is everything you need to know. (If only James had stuck with his original plan.)

Aside from the soundtrack (which is quite good), this inane theatre of mindless repetition has very little to keep it going, but it probably will (ending notwithstanding) thanks to the facile pool of critics who haven’t seen a show they didn’t like for the better part of a decade.

 

Thankfully, at least one critic (Brian Donaldson, and only one, so far) has had the wherewithal to recognize rubbish when he sees it. He writes:

While there’s little that could have been improved upon the central performances (Lawther has ‘the new Ben Whishaw’ stamped all over him), overblown editing choices (the constant quickfire snippets of blood-soaked flashbacks also get on the nerves), and dialogue, that’s not as hilarious as it thinks it is, dilute what could have been a moving exploration on how difficult it can be for some teenagers to escape the darker edges of a painful upbringing.

In the end of the day, there is one line almost worth sitting through the entire cinematic burlesque: “you shouldn’t just make people if you’re going to abandon them.

Amen.

RATING: C

 

 

January

Here is what we’re excited to see this month

BLAME – January 5

Blame

Directorial debut* from a twenty-something year old actress Quinn Shephard involves jealous Goths causing high school drama and an English professor seemingly committed to being arrested for statutory rape. Premiering in the U.S. Narrative section of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, the project, according to Shephard, was inspired by a vision to “modernize [Arthur] Miller’s Salem Witch Trials-set drama.” While the films seems largely forgettable, with a few positive reviews from Top Critics at IndieWire (Michael Nordine), Hollywood Reporter (Jon Frosch), and LA Times (Noel Murray) — it may just be a debut that puts this young director on a promising path to be noticed for something truly good. To say nothing of Nadia Alexander who won the Best Actress prize at Tribeca.

Trailer.

* 81 Movies Directed by Women to Look Forward to in 2018. Read more at Film School Rejects: https://filmschoolrejects.com/movies-directed-by-women-2018/#ixzz535x2rgDJ.

SATURDAY CHURCH – January 12

Saturday Church

In another directorial debut (at Tribeca Film Festival), Damon Cardasis brings the story of 14-year-old Ulysses, a shy and effeminate boy, who finds himself coping with new responsibilities as “man of the house” after the death of his father. Variety’s Peter Debruge writes that Saturday Church blends Moonlight with La La Land to bring a narrative that’s sure to delight young LGBT-audiences. Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney writes that “Cardasis threads introspective songs and dance interludes into a tender coming-of-age story of queer identity exploration.” With two impressive releases in 2017 (BPM and Call Me by Your Name) highlighting the LGBT-community, this film could showcase a break through performance from unknown actor (Luka Kain) that shines another light on issues of gender identity within the black community.

Trailer.

THE POST – January 12

The Post

Whatever one thinks of journalism, the importance of transparency for a well-informed citizenry cannot be overstated to the well-being of democracy. The Post may not be the next All The President’s Men and Network, or even Good Night & Good Luck, Shattered Glass, Absence of Malice, or Spotlight (to name a few), but it does have the potential to entertain and to inspire a young audience to actively seek out the information that makes up their world (my twitter @gortnacul_house is constantly providing this content) instead of obsessing every week on who Arie Luyendyk will send home or how their respective sports teams will do next week.

BUT, this will only happen if the writers of The Post make a film (Liz Hannah & Josh Singer [who also co-wrote Spotlight]) about investigative journalism and not a film about the self-importance of mainstream media. If the film can avoid media aggrandizing copulation, we may yet be changed for the better. If the film can avoid pandering to political aisles and focus on the process and the truth, we may yet learn a thing or two. If the film doesn’t use “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” I may yet sit through this one without vomiting.

Trailer.

VAZANTE – January 12

Vazante

This Brazilian-Portuguese historical period drama released at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival from director Daniela Thomas’ solo debut tells the story of a young woman who faces physical and emotional unrest after marrying a slave trader in Brazil in the early 1800s. BFI’s Christina Newland writes how Vazante depicts the “tragic brutality of colonial-era Brazil’s chattel slavery in an elliptical epic, shot in potent black and white.” Between the perfect score (so far) on Rotten Tomato, the foreign language, and the black and white debut, the film will probably be a nightmare for most viewers.

Trailer.

THE POLKA KING – January 12

The Polka King

When you combine the likes of Jack Black with singing, you get some pretty great stuff. Add to that a Polish accent and Jason Schwartzman, well, hopefully that can make it even better. Even though this movie is only ringing in at 5.8 and 64% on IMDB and RT respectively, I am still excited to see it. Why you ask? Jan Lewan (Jack Blacks character he plays in the movie) is a real person who back in the 90s decided he was going to run a Ponzi scheme and start taking lots of money from a slew of people (long story short: he started issuing promissory notes to clients promising certain returns). When this started getting to the millions of dollars range, the FBI became alerted and started an investigations. He was soon arrested and sentenced to 5 years in prison (where he almost died because someone slit his throat). I have high hopes for this movie, but also the fear that those hopes will be dashed. -C.B.

Trailer.

PHANTOM THREAD – January 19

Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson reunites with Daniel Day Lewis for what is said to be the latters final film as he heads into retirement having solidified his legacy as being (i think) the greatest actor of all time. The film, set in the 1950s, is based on renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock and his sister Cyril, who dress members of the royal family, film stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes, and dames with the distinctive style of The House of Woodcock. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive (see, e.g., this, this, & this), but expect this film to suffer the fate of There Will Be Blood and be largely overlooked by the incompetence of The Academy Awards.

Trailer.

MOSAIC — January 22

3A6ED122-CD2C-4F68-9823-D066AA14BE93

Steven Soderbergh’s next brainchild is here, and it may be a bust. Soderbergh is trying to take a different spin on movies, where the viewer gets to pick different paths to the story. Mosaic is available now as an app, or will be available on January 22nd via HBO as a short series. When Vulture caught up with Steven and asked why he decided to make this story in this way he said,

“I guess because it fell somewhere between a movie–slash–TV show and a game. I’m not a gamer. I wanted a fixed universe. I didn’t want your choices to alter the characters’ decisions or paths. But I did want you to be able to choose whose perspective you were in at a designed ‘choice’ moment.”

The plot circles around a writer-type exentric character being murdered, and a “who dun it” ensues. It has received mixed reviews and it doesn’t seem like too many people like the app, so I will be waiting to see it on HBO. -C.B.

Trailer.

THE INSULT – January 26

Insult

Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri brings a courtroom drama triggered by a civilian dispute blown out of proportion between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee. Back in September, Doueiri was released from detention in Beirut over his 2012 feature. In October, The Insult was dropped from Ramallah festival “after the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and other activists launched a campaign against the showing, opposing the director’s previous work in Israel.” The Insult was shortlisted* by the Academy for an Oscar nomination (Best Foreign Film) after winning Best Actor (Kamel El Basha) at the 74th Venice Film Festival. With modern honor cultures and blasphemy laws, this film has a seeming and rare due process element embedded in its narrative.

Trailer.

* Short-listed films are: Chile’s ‘A Fantastic Woman,’ Germany’s ‘In the Fade,’ Hungary’s ‘On Body and Soul,’ Israel’s ‘Foxtrot,’ Lebanon’s ‘The Insult,‘ Russia’s ‘Loveless,‘ Senegal’s ‘Felicite,’ South Africa’s ‘The Wound’ and Sweden’s ‘The Square.’ NOTE: The entire Academy gets to vote on the final five.

____

Other things to keep an eye out for: Westworld Season 2, Paterno (by Barry Levinson starring Al Pacino), Sharp Objects (written by Gillian Flynn the mind of Gone Girl and starring Amy Adams).