Saturday, April 30, 2005
Sunday, April 24, 2005
I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview writer/director Alex Gibney about his superb new documentary called “Enron: The Smartest People in the Room,” based on the book by Fortune writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind.
You made a movie about Henry Kissinger and a movie about the blues, and now this movie about Enron. What do you look for in a project?
It can’t just be a subject. The theme has to have a dramatic component or it’s only an illustrated lecture. What I look for is not just a story, but characters. You can’t give people the level of detail in a movie that you can in a book, so the movie has to be an agent provocateur for the book, to get the audience to understand the basis of the story. And that is that together, the characters made Enron not a public trust but a reflection of their egos. That was interesting in dramatic terms, a classical Greek hubris tragedy. They were so concerned with their own performance that they could not see anything else.
Let’s talk about some of those characters. Give me your thoughts on some of the people, starting with Cliff Baxter, whose suicide opens the story.
He was a guy who was one of the “men with spikes” they used to talk about at Enron. He was an undiagnosed manic-depressive. He could do the huge deals, but he sunk into deep lows. He was somewhat unstable but at the right time dynamic and his ability to convince people was key. Some might call it marketing, but others would say flim-flam. He could persuade people that this is the place you want to be and this is the deal you want to make. But he so internalized everything that he took everything personally to an extraordinary degree.
Ken Lay was the politician.
Jeff Skilling connected with the business people and muscled the analysts. He literally said, “I am Enron.” He had to hold two opposing views and you can see him crack. He was an intellectual macho man, an intellectual bully, who externalized his transformation. He physically transformed himself to match the vision of what he wanted to project. It wasn’t about the money; it was about the cred. He wanted to be another Jack Welch. But his great weakness was that he found the details boring. Execution was beneath his notice. The idea was what mattered, partially because one person can take credit for an idea. He was more of a consultant than an operator.
Andrew Fastow was rules-oriented. Rules were a road map to the possible, and there was always a way around them. He was a morally weak individual put in place to do stuff that Skilling needed done but didn’t want to know about.
Sherron Watkins was the one to notice something was wrong because she came into Andrew Fastow’s department late, so she never got acclimatized to what was going on. You have to remember that when she walked into her lawyer’s office and told him that Enron was a fraud, it was as unbelievable as if she had said that Microsoft didn’t really have the assets and revenues it was reporting. In that environment, at that time, it took a lot of guts to do what she did. Lay went to Vison & Elkins to try to fire her.
The California traders – on the job they were rapacious killers, but off the job they were very decent, and that’s part of the larger cultural lesson of the film. We’ve given people permission to be killers.
One of the most striking parts of the movie is the Valhalla story, an early fraud that seems to be an indicator of what lies ahead.
Yes, that story shows that from an ethical perspective what mattered was making money, and the ends always justified the means. It was the beginning of an incremental pattern of “cheat a little and then cheat a little bit more to make up for the original cheating.” But this was not a case of a few bad apples. It was a case of letting people know what the values were, like, for example, giving bonuses to the people who committed fraud at Valhalla. Then people work to those values. Skilling really did have a vision. He did not intend it to be a scam. A lot of his innovations have remained. But he did not have the patience for execution. He thought it was beneath his notice.
There were a lot of complicated and arcane details in the story. How do you make that accessible?
We had to boil the story down to its essentials and look at it almost like a heist film. The only thing we went into great detail on was explaining “mark to market” accounting, and our explanation was so clear the prosecutors said they might use it to show the jury what it meant. We used visuals, like the stock footage of gambling and the sky-diver to show risk. One thing I didn’t realize until after we used the image of the sky-diver was the way it played into the idea of Icarus, flying too close to the sun and dropping out of the sky.
I wanted to show how they convinced everyone they were a respectable company, giving out an award to Alan Greenspan and hanging out with Henry Kissinger. It gives you a peek inside the world of the people who decide things like whether Social Security will be privatized. It’s like the Titanic. A few people sail away in lifeboats and everyone else drowns.
Posted by Nell Minow at 12:55 PM
Friday, April 22, 2005
I am very taken with the growing movies-as-therapy genre of "working out my issues with Dad" documentaries. Tonight at the Washington D.C. Film Festival I saw Tell Them Who You Are, Mark Wexler's movie about his father, Oscar-winning cinematographer, leftist political activist and high-maintenance pain in the neck Haskell Wexler. Part history, part biography, part appreciation, and all therapy, it is a funny, wrenching, profound, and deeply moving film. It's reminiscient of the brilliant My Architect: A Son's Journey, but this time, the subject of the film is very much alive, and his efforts to direct the movie and his son provide some of the film's most meaningful moments. While the title refers to advice the elder Wexler gave his son about approaching someone -- his idea of who Mark was meant "Haskell Wexler's son" -- ultimately, it resonates more meaningfully as Mark uses the film about his father to truly tell us -- and himself -- who he is.
Other worthy films in this category include Five Wives, Three Secretaries, and Me, Tessa Blake's 1998 documentary about her multi-married Texas millionaire father, whose relationships with his secretaries lasted longer than any of his marriages (and whose wives had even more cordial relationships with each other than their still-friendly relationships with him). Two fine movies with related themes are Tarnation, Jonathan Couette's movie about his mentally ill mother, and Martha & Ethel, Jyll Johnstone's film about two nannies who played a larger role in the lives of the film-makers than their parents.
Posted by Nell Minow at 10:26 PM
Most critics pointed out that A Lot Like Love was a poor rip-off of When Harry Met Sally, and few could resist the temptation of playing off the title:
"a lot like a romantic comedy, except that all that's keeping these two kids apart is the trivially insufferable movie they're in."
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
"a lot like a lot of other romantic comedies"
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
A lot like love? Hardly. Would you believe, maybe, a little like mild indifference?
Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post
But I think Ebert says it best:
The movie is 95 minutes long, and neither character says a single memorable thing. You've heard of being too clever by half? Ollie and Emily are not clever enough by three-quarters...To call "A Lot like Love" dead in the water is an insult to water."
Posted by Nell Minow at 11:46 AM
Thursday, April 21, 2005
AP reports that "As support grows for a crackdown on overly sexual TV programming, broadcasters are working to develop tough voluntary guidelines they hope will stall government regulation." Of course the long time code of best practice subscribed to by all of the broadcasters back when broadcast was all there was worked very well until it was thrown out by the U.S. government in a moment of bone-headedly expansionist interpretation of the antitrust laws. While this will have little effect on the avalanche of raunchy and violent material that comes into homes over cable and the internet as well as DVDs and video games, there is still some merit in having those providers who operate under a license of the public airways to avoid bad surprises.
Posted by Nell Minow at 8:18 AM
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Congress has approved new legislation to permit people to use services that edit theater versions of films to remove sex, language, and violence that they do not want to hear. It is about time. Those who claimed this was a violation of intellectual property rights might just as well say that it violates their copyright and their artistic integrity when people fast forward through their films or leave the room to get a sandwich.
As I noted on this subject here,
Most of the material these companies take out of the films has nothing to do with art and everything to do with marketing. The DGA [Directors Guild] does not object to the adulteration of its members' artistic vision when they enter into multi-million-dollar studio contracts that require them to create a film that meets certain MPAA rating requirements and that also comes with the additional material required to provide "airplane" versions. Those alternates are used not just on airplanes, but also for broadcast television and overseas release. If the DGA is so concerned about artistic integrity, it should work to make those personally supervised versions available to families who want to see them.
[The services that edit films for families] open up new markets to parents who are eager for movies they can share with their children. "Legally Blonde" is no less delightful for the removal of a couple of crude jokes. "Lord of the Rings" is no less stirring because the violence is slightly less graphic.
This is not about artistic vision or about copyright infringement. It is about the right of parents to protect their children from the crude and violent material that Hollywood seems to think is essential for selling movie tickets.
Posted by Nell Minow at 11:06 PM
Friday, April 15, 2005
Salon's Stephanie Zacharek confesses that she actually walked out of "The Amityville Horror" in this review, worth reading for her comments on what's wrong with the the "relentless clubbing" of the first half of the movie and "the cycle of carelessly but often expensively made pictures that Hollywood studios are increasingly putting before us."
Slate's David Edelstein lasted only five minutes. "I'd like to believe I was propelled from that room by a beneficent spirit. Dude, I owe you a drink in the afterlife." He manages to be not just more entertaining than the movie, but more illuminating than he would have been if he had stayed with it.
Both were better off than the critics who lasted through the end of the movie, but some managed to find new ways to say that there's nothing either new or watchable here:
"From the team that decided it was a good idea to remake 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' comes this unpleasant, exploitative and stupid film." Laura Clifford, Reeling Reviews
"Since 1979, you can argue that human intelligence has failed to advance. The evidence: Characters still can't keep out of basements, no matter how spooky.
You can, however, say that there has been cultural deterioration: The filmmakers have managed to take a mediocre movie and make it worse.
The horror. The horror."
Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News
"The only lasting horror in The Amityville Horror is in what it takes from your wallet." Brent Simon, Now Playing
"This replacement of irrational otherworldly imagery with a safe, comprehendible portrait of the supernatural reeks of reductive, lowest-common-denominator pandering (as usual, mainstream Hollywood fare exhibits scant faith in its audience's ability to cope with any potentially inexplicable material). Andrew Douglas's moronic and flashy remake simply offers B-grade chills while resorting to convoluted exposition to explain the unnatural goings on at 112 Ocean Ave." Nick Schager, Slant Magazine
Posted by Nell Minow at 9:07 AM
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Posted by Nell Minow at 10:58 PM
Sunday, April 10, 2005
In Scare Tactics (washingtonpost.com), the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic, Stephen Hunter, reveals the real reason for the enduring popularity of horror movies. It's the same reason "Dead Poet's Society" revealed as the purpose of poetry -- "to woo women."
Posted by Nell Minow at 9:04 AM
Friday, April 08, 2005
Thursday, April 07, 2005
Sunday, April 03, 2005
Slate movie crtic David Edelstein asked his readers to recommend remedial viewing for Woody Allen, films to remind him that while comedy and tragedy may be as intertwined as he suggests in "Melinda and Melinda," other films make the point far better -- and more entertainingly, too. The overwhelming first choice was Sullivan's Travels (though Edelstein prefers The Lady Eve.) The Washington Post's Desson Thomson has an insightful look at where Woody went wrong (and where he used to go right). And this New York Times piece by Manohla Dargis includes Sturges' movie-making rules, well worth the attention of Woody Allen and everyone else making movies:
1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
2. A leg is better than an arm.
3. A bedroom is better than a living room.
4. An arrival is better than a departure.
5. A birth is better than a death.
6. A chase is better than a chat.
7. A dog is better than a landscape.
8. A kitten is better than a dog.
9. A baby is better than a kitten.
10. A kiss is better than a baby.
11. A pratfall is better than anything.
Posted by Nell Minow at 9:49 AM
Friday, April 01, 2005
Going to several awful movies every week is not a problem; the really bad ones at least give you something to write about. It's the mediocre movies that provide the real challenge because there are only so many ways to say that there's nothing especially good or horrible. I often think of just writing the line attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like."
It's a challenge to write an interesting review of a not-so-interesting film. So you'll have to forgive us if in our efforts to find some new way to say that a movie is so-so, and that usually means adapting the vocabulary of the movie's setting to provide an apt metaphor (or a groaner of a pun). In the case of Beauty Shop, the hairdressing metaphors proved impossible to resist. At least two critics declared that the movie "doesn't cut it."
Bruce Westabrook, Houston Chronicle: Beauty Shop needs highlights and a trim.
Nick Schager, Slant Magazine: About as fresh as a Jeri curl.
Bill Muller, Arizona Republic: Any humor left in the Barbershop series is limited to a few stray clippings on the floor.
Dallas Morning News: Lacking Barbershop’s cutting edge, Beauty Shop is a fluff job.
And in my review: As synthetic as cut-rate hair extensions...it's time for this series to get a makeover.
Posted by Nell Minow at 6:59 AM
Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival Ebert has put together another terrific line-up of neglected gems...with the exception of "Primer," which I found pretentious and dull (and hardly "overlooked" as it won the grand jury prize at Sundance). Great to see "The Saddest Music in the World," "Playtime," and "The Secret of Roan Inish" on the schedule.
Posted by Nell Minow at 6:54 AM