Saturday, September 5, 2009

In Theaters: "American Casino"

American Casino is a documentary so timely, it feels like they finished cutting it last night. It deals with the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent recession with such immediacy and clear-headedness, you’re willing to forgive it for perhaps taking on too much, for taking too many detours (interesting though they may be). It’s a solid, workmanlike piece of nonfiction craftsmanship.

The title is explained right in the opening sequence. The thesis is that the investment bankers and insurers who (initially, anyway) reaped the benefits of the mortgage market were moving around questionable markers and credit-default swaps like chips on the table. “I don’t think people realized that they were in a casino,” an expert notes. We’re then shown that notorious clip of Phil Gramm, scoffing at this “nation of whiners” and our “mental recession,” before traveling back to December of 2000, when he co-sponsored the Senate version of the notorious Commodity Futures Modernization Act.

The film’s first act is primarily spent on Wall Street, examining how that deregulation enabled the “casino” to go into business. Director Leslie Cockburn talks to numerous experts, gets some candid commentary from an (anonymous) former Bear Sterns employee (“You have to follow the money,” he advises), and shares some shocking internal emails from the S&P, detailing exactly how diligently they were rating those bonds with all the dodgy mortgages in them. This section is smartly edited and mostly clear—Cockburn does her best to keep the language plain, although the film does occasionally get bogged down in the jargon (and the decision to occasionally use on-screen text during interviews confuses more than it helps).

We then move into the more personal stories of those who were hurt worst by the mortgage crisis (thankfully, Cockburn doesn’t trot out the tiresome “Wall Street/Main Street” meme). We visit Baltimore, where block after block of boarded-up row houses (a familiar site to any of us who watched The Wire) serve as powerful symbols of the city’s brutal housing market. The process of “reverse redlining” is explained—basically, the targeting of minority and elderly homeowners for financing or refinancing at less desirable, subprime rates that ultimately add up to unmanageable debt and foreclosure. The numbers are startling: according to the film, minority borrowers were 3.8 times more likely to receive a subprime loan, while 61% of those who received subprimes had qualified for a prime rate—they just weren’t given one.

This section of the film is not about the numbers, though. American Casino’s most effective scenes are those where we’re told the more personal stories—they’re the ones that make it real and tangible. In a heartbreaking sequence, a high school teacher named Denzel takes the camera crew on a tour of his foreclosed home, which we see being auctioned (to an audience of one) on the courthouse steps that very day. We’re then shown exactly how his mortgage became one of the giant pools of money. “Nobody told Denzel that he was a chip,” we’re told.

We meet other families who have lost or are losing their homes, and talk to counselors and other experts with anecdotal evidence to refute the “they knew what they were getting into” arguments of the Santellian blowhards. We see housing department crews as they board up more row houses, which have become inhabited by squatters. And lest we infer that only the poorest Americans have been affected, we visit upscale communities in places like Stockton, California that have been ravaged by foreclosures. Cockburn doesn’t push in these segments, or tell us what to think. More often than not, she lets the pictures and the people speak for themselves.

The only real structural problem is that the film is occasionally too ambitious, getting off on tangents that are of interest but ultimately don’t move us the way the rest of the film does. Some of this is valuable context, but what are we to make of the sequence at the end, where we see how untreated pools in abandoned homes are drawing mosquitoes that may carry the West Nile virus? It’s gross, yes (as are the big close-ups of rats floating in the pools), but it’s a strangely secondary matter to deal with so close to the film’s conclusion.

Cockburn’s use of music is sometimes problematic; the many Moby cues in the first half of the film are atmospheric and appropriate, but the original hip-hop songs from Baltimore artists about the housing crisis just call attention to themselves (they’re too on-the-nose), and the sequence where the bailout and AIG hearings are chopped up and scored with Herbie Hancock’s “Everybody’s Broke” is a groaner; it’s too damn cutesy for a serious picture.

It’s hard to make too much of a fuss over these minor infractions, however (when was the last time you complained about a movie with too much information?). As it is, American Casino is a smart and frequently devastating dissection of a disaster—how we got there, why we got there, and what to know now that we are there.

"American Casino" is currently playing in limited release.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Today's New in Theaters- 9/4/09

Extract: I'm all kinds of excited for Mike Judge's latest; all of his previous films stand up, and this time, he's actually got a studio that's, y'know, promoting it. And it's full of people we like: Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck. However, some of the reviews have been a little lukewarm-- though not cold enough to keep me away.

Gamer: This one and the upcoming Willis movie Surrogates both feel, to me, like that little run of movies around '95 or so, like Virtuosity and Johnny Mneumonic that were all virtual reality/five minutes into the future, and nobody went to see them. This is all I have to say about Gamer. (Oh, and Orndorf calls it "undeserved torture.")

All About Steve: Best line from Ebert's pan: "[H]ow does she (Sandra Bullock) choose her material? If she does it herself, she needs an agent. If it's done by an agent, she needs to do it herself."

Tickling Leo: This low-budget character-driven indie is the kind of movie I wanted to like more than I actually did; it's well-intentioned and nice enough, but hard to get drawn into.

American Casino: A top-notch documentary about our current economic crisis; even-headed and informative, though it tries to take on a few too many side points.

In Theaters: "Tickling Leo"

If overall quality were based solely on good intentions, Tickling Leo would be one of the year’s best movies; it’s so earnest and likable, you want to just give it a pat on the head and send it on its way. Unfortunately, it’s just not terribly compelling. It marks the writing, directing, and producing debut of actor Jeremy Davidson, and it feels like a first film—deeply felt and clearly personal, but also derivative and predictable.

Daniel Suli plays Isaac “Zak” Pikler, a New York writer estranged from his mentally unbalanced father Warren (Lawrence Pressman). A phone call from his uncle Robby (Ronald Guttman), inviting Zak to join them for a visit to Warren over the high holidays prompts him to take a trip to the Catskills, where his father lives with his dog and spends his days wandering around, frequently nude. Warren doesn’t respond well when Zak and his girlfriend Delphina (Annie Parisse) show up in his living room, but their presence, and that of Uncle Robby and his wife, ultimately opens up old wounds from which secrets spill out, particularly those concerning Warren’s father Emil (Eli Wallach), whom he hasn’t spoken to in thirty years.

Davidson’s screenplay follows a pretty standard floor plan—the troublesome family conflict, the simmering tension and buried bitterness, the reveal of past hurts via impassioned late-night monologues. So we’re not exactly dealing with a shockingly original narrative—but a film like this isn’t about the plot, it’s about character and texture, the execution and the playing.

On those fronts, it’s rather a mixed bag. Pressman, a ubiquitous TV character actor (if you’re like me, you’ll spend half the movie trying to figure out what all you’ve seen him in) is very good—his role is a bit of an old hat, but he slugs some life into it (and indulges his director admirably—in all seriousness, I know we’re supposed to get right away that he’s losing his marbles, but how much old man nudity do we need in the first reel?). Parisse is an engaging presence; she has an easy, natural way with a line reading, and her scenes with Pressman are quite effective (even if they involve a turn to flashbacks that the picture has trouble negotiating). On the other hand, Suli, without many interesting notes to play, comes off as a bit of a dullard. And though Guttman brings a nice energy to his scenes, his performance is too broad—he plays like a stage actor who hasn’t quite toned himself down enough for the camera.

The technical elements are pretty mediocre; it’s full of smeary, grainy video photography and frequently shoddy camerawork, and Davidson (and cinematographer Peter Masterson) can’t find a way to make the film feel aesthetically consistent. The handheld look of the picture doesn’t seem to grow organically from the material (as it does in something like The Celebration)—it feels like what it probably was, a necessity of a low production budget. Abel Korzeniowski’s tinkly score doesn’t help either; it gives numerous scenes the feel of a made-for-TV movie.

By the time Eli Wallach finally turns up, there is, without question, some involvement in the film’s narrative; the fact that we know roughly where it’s going doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in getting there. But it is a work in a deliberately minor key, and it frequently attempts to take on more than it can handle. Tickling Leo has, no doubt, a soul and a real heart—and that’s almost enough. Almost.

"Tickling Leo" opens in limited release on Friday, September 4th.

Monday, August 31, 2009

On DVD: "The Simpsons: The Twelfth Season"

By the time it began its twelfth season in November of 2000 (with the customary season-opening “Treehouse of Horror” episode), The Simpsons was well established as one of the smartest, sharpest, and most consistently funny shows on television. Cynics and diehards will argue that the show’s so-called “golden age” drew to a close around the end of season seven, complaining that in its later years, the series has relied less on characterization and more on silliness. To that, this viewer calls bullpucky. Then as now (as it, astonishingly, enters its 21st season), The Simpsons remains fall-down funny, continuing to mine the rich comic persona of its primary family while stretching out and providing more screen time to the fullest supporting cast on television.

This is not to say that the show isn’t capable of occasional sputters—the bad reputation of episode five, “Homer vs. Dignity,” isn’t entirely unearned, and this year’s “Treehouse” episode is surprisingly weak (there’s only one really good section, the Lisa-heavy “Night of the Dolphin”). But even in those episodes (the only two of season twelve in which the writers seem off their game), there are at least mild chuckles, and the big laughs of episodes like “Hungry Hungry Homer” and “Skinner’s Sense of Snow” more than make up for those slightly muffled shows.

The “official” season opener, “A Tale of Two Springfields,” also marks the show’s 250th episode; it’s a smart and funny half hour that makes good use of guest stars The Who, and gives Homer plenty of screen time as he leads a protest over the splitting of Springfield into two area codes—a split that seems to fall among socio-economic lines. Homer also shines in “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” an episode that finds comedic gold in his initial computer incompetence, before turning into a smart piece of social satire when Homer becomes a Drudge-style web “journalist.”

Other highlights include “New Kids on the Blecch,” in which Bart, Nelson, Ralph Wiggum, and Millhouse are recruited by a skeezy promoter to be members of a pre-fab boy band (it doesn’t quite top South Park’s “Something You Can Do with Your Finger” episode, but few things do); “The Great Money Caper,” which turns Homer and Bart into a pair of grafters (and prompts Grandpa Abe Simpson to deliver one of my favorite lines of the season: “Now this scam was in The Sting II, so nobody’s seen it”); “HOMR,” in which Homer gets hilariously smart; and the outstanding “Trilogy of Error,” which spins Homer and Marge, Bart, and Lisa into a series of interlocking, Run Lola Run-style simultaneous storylines, and has the good sense to use the Lola music while doing so.

And again, one of the pleasures of these later editions of the Simpsons is their willingness to indulge the smaller supporting characters with subplots and episodes of their own. The presence of Comic Book Guy on this cover is no accident; his heart attack (and stomach-churning romance with Agnes Skinner) makes “Worst Episode Ever” far from it. He also dominates the opening scenes of “HOMR,” which take place at the “Totally Sick, Twisted, F***ed-Up Animation Festival”; these provide some of the concepts for the set’s ComicCon-style box layout and design. Ned Flanders doesn’t get much screen time through the early portion of the year, but his late-season episode “I’m Goin’ To Praiseland” is one of the set’s best. Krusty also gets two episodes to really shine: “Insane Clown Poppy” concerns the clown’s discovery that a distant one-night stand led to a precocious daughter (well-voiced by Drew Barrymore), while “Day of the Jackanapes,” concerning his retirement and the end of his show, lands some well-aimed inside jokes before moving on to the return of Sideshow Bob.

Throughout the season, the show’s trademark comic elements are firmly in place—quick wit, unexpected references (kudos for the Updike stuff in “Insane Clown Poppy”), dry understatement (“That ad campaign may have crossed a line,” notes Lisa, of the commercial for Itchy & Scratchy’s gruesome “Stabby-Os” cereal), throwaway sight gags (the on-screen credits for a music video by Bart’s boy band lists Ang Lee as director), and, my favorite element of the Simpsons narrative style, the wandering storyline. Their habit of using the first act as a red herring, only semi-connected to the rest of the show, is ingenious and hilarious; “Simpsons Safari,” for example, begins with an extended bit about a bagboy strike, which leads the family to desperate culinary measures, which then leads Homer to a box of animal crackers in the attic, which then leads to the discovery of a prize inside the box for the safari trip that encompasses the rest of the episode. They’d been doing this kind of thing for years, but it still plays; what’s more, they’ve begun to acknowledge it, and wink about it. “Tennis the Menace” begins with Homer and Abe making Abe’s burial plans; five minutes later, when the elder Simpson exclaims “I can’t believe we went through all that just so you could get a tennis court,” Homer’s response (“I’ll bet you didn’t see that comin’!”) is more for the audience than for his father. A moment like that is The Simpsons at its best: smart, knowing, and ridiculously funny.

The Simpsons: The Twelfth Season arrives on DVD, as the last several seasons have, with two packaging options: a standard, slim keepcase (which I was sent for review), or the controversial “cartoon head” box, which looks cool but takes up a lot of shelf space. Inside is a pull-out disc holding case, with art of the cast of characters at a comic book/sci-fi convention, “Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con”; the discs themselves are illustrated in a similar comic book-inspired style.

The Simpsons: The Twelfth Season offers a healthy dose of the pop-culture references, witty guest shots, and inspired silliness that have helped make it the longest-running series in primetime. These early 21st-century episodes may not approach the sheer perfection of “Marge vs. the Monorail” or “Mr. Plow,” but then again, what on this earth does? These “lesser” years of The Simpsons still represent the best of modern television comedy, and Fox’s latest batch of episodes offer the expected first-rate quality and top-shelf bonus features.

"The Simpsons: The Twelfth Season" is currently available on DVD.