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Weasel: Columbia Business School dean and ex-Bush advisor Glenn Hubbard in Inside Job.

Gassing the Buck

By Ann Morrow

Inside Job

Directed by Charles Ferguson

During an interview in Inside Job, a financial-sector professional is asked about a Wall Street CEO needing to own six private jets, to which the answer is: “. . . and a helicopter.” Yet that’s not the most absurd reply in this investigative documentary into the 2008 global financial meltdown and its devastating consequences. Written, directed, and (notably) produced by Academy Award-nominated documentarian Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight), Inside Job picks the best—and worst—minds in high finance, and though it makes no pretense of being entertaining (a la Michael Moore), the import of what’s being said builds to almost edge-of-your-seat indignation. In traditional, talking-heads-and-charts format, narrated by Matt Damon and enlivened by footage of the staggering accumulation of wealth by the leaders of the most prominent financial institutions contrasted with bleak landscapes of economic desolation, the film concentrates on making extremely complex information as clear and incisive as possible, which it does successfully.

Inside Job begins with a simple overview of mortgage lending practices in the 1930s, when banks were local and careful about who they lent money to, and how much, because they wanted to be repaid. It then follows the labyrinthine escalation of financial services through Reagan-era deregulation, the stock boom of the 1990s, and the collusion of the Bush presidencies, and culminates in an examination of the particularly tricky topic of derivatives: What they are, how they came about, and the destruction that’s caused when banks pass the buck on bad debts. Especially when these inflated debts are sold and resold on the global market, a tactic referred to by the perpetrators as “spreading the risk”—as if that’s a good thing.

Some of the film’s most unnerving material comes from the financial professionals who issued easy-to-understand warnings, and who were ignored, and the sheer scale of losses that resulted from Wall Street profiteering. This totalled $20 trillion worth of lost jobs, homes, and pensions, with the tab for damage control being footed by taxpayers while the banking hierarchy pocketed astronomical sums in personal bonuses—along with some not-so-gray-flannel perks, such as cocaine binges and high-priced hookers. Former prosecutor Elliot Spitzer earns a little credit for going on-camera about the secret nightlife of government-supported high-rollers, and one has to wonder why he was the one to be to be busted, since he was hardly the worst offender in arrogant carelessness—as is reported by former madam (and failed candidate for governor) Kristin Davis, who says that after she was arrested, no one bothered to ask for records from her Wall Street-vicinity bordello. In contrast, SEC chairwoman Mary Shapiro declined to be interviewed. As the film illustrates, the toxic consequences of big-banking domination are like a contagion, including influence peddling in academia. As French minister of finance Christine Lagarde says, “There’s nothing we can trust anymore.” After seeing this documentary, you still won’t know who to trust, but at least you’ll know why.

 

Evil Geniuses

Megamind

Directed by Tom McGrath

In Madagascar, director Tom McGrath made us laugh hysterically over the antics of a band of penguins modeled after the standard unit found in any war movie. It was sublime and crazy all at once, so good in fact that it spawned a Christmas-related short film, and was far better than the main story. McGrath giddily plays with our assumptions and, most of all, what we’ve come to expect from animated movies and superhero plotlines, with Megamind, a winning new 3D from DreamWorks.

I saw Megamind with all my children, who range in age from 4 to 14, and this in itself was something of a rarity. I worried that the older two would be bored, or that the younger two would be scared, that somehow the twain in their ages and experiences would not meet happily in the darkness of the Madison Theatre. I mention this because it’s important to understanding just how good Megamind is. The movie centers on the age-old battle of good versus evil, with the former being represented by Metro Man (Brad Pitt) and the latter by Megamind (Will Ferrell). Metro Man’s muscles are eclipsed only by the size of his ego, the startling gleam of his teeth surpassed only by the megawattage of his star power. He’s so beloved by the citizens of Metro City that they erect a gigantic shrine to him, which he accepts while literally walking on water. The thorn in Metro Man’s side is Megamind, a stick figure punctuated by an enormous blue head, who came to his life of evil by dint of never having been any good at anything else. That said, he’s not all that adept at evildoing, as his inventions and conceits have about as good a track record as that of, say, Wile E. Coyote. But in an apparent triumph, Megamind offs Metro Man, taking over the city and wreaking havoc. Until, that is, he realizes he’s bored with it all, in the absence of a real nemesis.

The offbeat beauty of Megamind is the way it employs the standard-issue devices of such movies, such as the almost-daily kidnapping of the leading lady (in this case intrepid reporter Roxanne Ritchi, voiced by Tina Fey) and inverts them, as when Roxanne asks Megamind to stamp her frequent hostage card so she can just be on her way. Without the thrill of the competition, Megamind is bored out of his big blue head, so he schemes with his sidekick, Minion (David Cross), to create a new hero, namely Roxanne’s besotted cameraman Hal turned Titan (Jonah Hill), or, as the hapless Hal spells in bold letters, Tighten. Titan, who looks like SynDrome in The Incredibles on steroids and without conditioner, seems an appropriate vessel for returning some semblance of normalcy to Metro City, but a lifetime of loserhood translates into sheer and utter joy at the opportunity to use his power for vengeance. Scripters Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons take enormous chances by refraining from coloring their leads in one-color brush strokes, something which could be confusing for some, but it gives the movie a strange but potent undercurrent of reality. When Roxanne tries to reason with Titan, saying that she “knows” Hal, he strikes back, truthfully, that she never cared or knew a thing about him. The movie skewers the nice idea we like to have that how a person looks doesn’t have anything to do with our attraction to them.

The 3D effects are dazzling and scary, as when Roxanne is flung through the air and left hostage at the top of what looks like the Seattle Space Needle, only much higher. The dizzying sense of abandonment in such a precarious situation is palpable, to the point where this acrophobic reviewer had to remove my 3D glasses for a bit. Ferrell’s aptitude for improbably blending childhood wonder with maturity is well suited to the title character, plus he gets do blistering riffs off Marlon Brando’s Superman role and even Ben Stiller. Fey’s Roxanne is a rarity in the genre that usually calls on its female leads to look pretty and scream mightily in their frequent moments of peril. And Pitt is a riot, seemingly soaking up the chance to play the BMOC as a cocky ass. Altogether, the movie succeeds more as a send-up of genres, not to mention egos, than as a straight cartoon, and we’re all the better for that.

—Laura Leon

 

The Big Finale

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Directed by Daniel Alfredson

The girl is Lisbeth Salander (played by the indelible Noomi Rapace), and in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth is back—but not with a vengeance. Hornet’s Nest is the slow-burning third installment of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larssen’s best-selling Millennium trilogy, and in it, the complex plot is satisfyingly (if less shockingly) resolved. In The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth’s horrifying past at the hands of men in power, whether criminals or authorities, was intertwined with corruption in Swedish society that escalated to some of the highest levels of power. A hardened biker punk with an aptitude for technology, Lisbeth partnered with journalist Michael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) on her long and brutal odyssey to attain freedom from the system while fighting back against the misogynist and pathological forces aligned against her. Opening with flashbacks to Dragon’s grisly ending, Lisbeth is in a vulnerable position while she recovers in a hospital. Meanwhile Michael is writing an investigative piece to further her cause, which puts the staff of his progressive magazine in mortal danger.

Hornet’s Nest is slowed by long stretches of exposition detailing the complexities of the ever-widening plot, but the conversational slogs—and flashbacks—help to make the film engrossing for audiences who haven’t seen the previous films, as well as for fans of the books who can’t get enough of the novels’ various psychopaths and unexpected do-gooders. One of Lisbeth’s protectors is her surgeon, who helps to fend off the repulsive Dr. Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom), the psychiatrist who has been lurking in the shadows of Lisbeth’s life since her childhood. Dragon director Daniel Alfredson has honed his ability with precision cinematography for the eruptions of violence that are the trilogy’s nongratuitous hallmark. But even more so, it’s strategic exchanges of information, hair’s-breadth escapes, daring hacking, and especially, the story’s luridly pulpy psychology and astringent acting that combine for a tour-de-force conclusion that the upcoming American remake will be hard-pressed to match.

—Ann Morrow


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