Atlas Shrugged

Posted by Marc Hodak on April 26, 2011 under Movie reviews | Be the First to Comment

Unlike Ayn Rand, I will quickly get to the end of the story:  if you are an Atlas fan, or at least someone with strong libertarian sympathies, you will probably like this movie.  You will think the screenplay was a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel, and may even appreciate the degree to which it wasn’t, leaving out as it did much of Rand’s clunky dialogue.  You will think the scenes were visually rich, and the characters were superbly acted.  You would be generous, forgiving, perhaps charitable, in your critique.

If you hate Rand, or what you think Rand stands for, then you are likely to be objective, unforgiving, even ruthless.  Being in a skeptical mode, you will notice the residual unwieldiness of the screenplay (you simply can’t purge Rand’s writing from her story).  You will think that the visuals are cheesy, especially against the standards of modern epics being made for ten times this film’s budget.  You will think the acting looked forced because acting generally looks forced when you’re simply not into the story, and you refuse to view this film with the suspension of disbelief that one might normally accord to a cinematic experience.

This simple difference in perspective is very likely why 85 percent of the people who saw this film liked it, and 95 percent of the professional critics hated it.  The degree to which critics hated it worse than the viewers like it may account for the legitimate flaws in this film, but more likely that difference is caused by the mismatch between the medium and the message.  Rand’s writing style is more Dostoevsky or Tolstoy than, say, John Grisham.  Turgid, Russian novels are her literary heritage, and something no sane, modern Hollywood producer would consider committing to celluloid.  I’m frankly amazed that producers Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro did as well with it as they did.

To paraphrase Mad Men’s Don Draper, “When a man walks into a theater, he brings his whole life with him.”  One can claim that they are only reviewing the film on its artistic merits, but reading their reviews and seeing the audience data, their protestations ring hollow.  At no time is that pretense laid more bare than when they compare the Atlas Shrugged movie unfavorably against the insipid 1949 production of The Fountainhead.  Gary Cooper couldn’t save that hulk.  Patricia Neal looked positively psychotic.  I contrasted that with Grant Bowler’s sharp performance as the uncompromising Hank Rearden, and Taylor Schilling’s compelling ice princess portrait of Dagny Taggart.  They were a pleasure to watch.

I’m not hopeful that this film will be a commercial success.  It may not really be good enough for that.  I’m certain it would offend Rand’s sensibilities, everything she stood for, really, for her fans to encourage others to see the movie to artificially boost its returns in the hope of getting the sequels done.  Ironically, if the film’s parts two and three get made, it will likely be for non-commercial reasons.  Could a true Objectivist live with that?

Inside Job

Posted by Marc Hodak on November 21, 2010 under Movie reviews | Read the First Comment

I suppose I was expecting a reasonably complete, if not entirely coherent, exposition of the causes and consequences of the financial crisis of 2008.  What I got was the Mother Jones view of the financial world, and beyond.  A more appropriate title would have been “Hack Job.”

In this film, director/writer/producer Charles Ferguson spins a morality tale of capitalists rising up like a beast to devour the working class.  It’s not an original story, but it is imaginatively set in the modern day, like an avant-garde King Lear production.  As in any good morality tale, the villains are presented with ominous music and foreshadowing innuendo.  And the villains are many.  We start with Morgan Stanley, a small 1970s partnership of bond dealers reportedly earning $45,000 per year.  This seemingly harmless firm transforms into a behemoth paying its tens of thousands of employees an average of hundreds of thousands per year.

Then we have Goldman Sachs, doing what bankers do best, only better–unbelievably better, in a way possible only for one who has made a pact with the devil.  Read more of this article »

Any excuse will do

Posted by Marc Hodak on April 21, 2010 under Collectivist instinct, Economics, History, Movie reviews, Politics, Reporting on pay, Stupid laws | Read the First Comment

The IMF is pushing for a bank tax:

[T]o pay for the costs of winding down troubled financial institutions, the IMF proposed what it called a Financial Stability Contribution”—a tax on balance sheets, including “possibly” off-balance sheet items, but excluding capital and insured liabilities. That tax would seek to raise between about 2% to 4% of GDP over time—roughly $1 trillion to $2 trillion if all G-20 countries adopted the tax.

On top of that, the IMF proposed that nations to adopt what it called a Financial Activities Tax, levied on the sum of profits and compensation of financial institutions. That would be paid to a nation’s treasury to help finance the broader costs of a financial crisis…

The IMF said that a nation didn’t need to put in place a specific resolution authority. Instead, the tax money could go to general revenues and used in case of financial crisis. But the IMF warned that the money would be spent by the time a problem arose.

OK, so let’s see how this would work.  Congress levies massive new taxes on every major bank.  Congress would then spend that money on…stuff.  A financial crisis hits, and certain TBTF banks get into trouble.  Congress bails them out, having to borrow gobs of money to do so because the tax revenues that were nominally for “Financial Stability” were in fact spent on…stuff.

So, how is this different from what happened last time?  Hard to see.  Does it do anything to reduce the systemic risks that regulators insist were at the root of the last crisis?  No.  Does it strengthen the banks to make them better able to weather such a crisis?  Not likely when so much money of their capital–enough to raise between 2% to 4% of GDP–is being sucked out of their coffers.  At least if the money were being held in a trust fund instead of dumped into general revenues, it would be there for frenzied politicians to disburse based on the rational workings of the government.  But, of course, the money will not be there.  It will have been spent not to support the financial system, but to support the reelection of incumbent politicians–the most short-term actors on the planet.

Oh.  Yeah.  THAT would be the difference.

So the lesson from all this appears to be:  When it comes to a justify raising taxes, any excuse will do.

UP

Posted by Marc Hodak on July 5, 2009 under Movie reviews | Be the First to Comment

Pixar’s secret to their dominance over other movie studios:  their films tell a good story.  Other studios offer great acting, as does Pixar.  Other films have great cinematography and graphics, often good enough to match Pixar’s spectacular animation.  But Pixar’s movies have to appeal to the imagination of kids, and they do so by telling imaginative stories.

As with other Pixar films, Up begins with a novel back story (think retired superheroes, as in the Incredibles, or the desolation of Earth via hypercommercialism, as in Wall*E), before getting to the real story.  Up begins with 10-year old Carl worshiping an adventurer named Charles Muntz who adorns the silver screen in the film’s alt-1930s.  Little Carl then meets little Ellie, who quickly pulls him into her vivacious, adventurer’s fantasy life, and then into an adult life, highlighted by a shared dream of going to Paradise Falls, South America, as well as the more mundane dream of raising a family together.  In 15 minutes, we see Carl and Ellie’s whole life which, alas, ends with neither children nor exotic travel.

The real story is how old man Carl decides to escape his retirement home destiny, and belatedly fulfill his promise to Ellie by flying their house to Paradise Falls using thousands of balloons.  Carl is unexpectedly joined by the young, fabulously obese Wilderness Explorer, Russell.  (There is nothing functional about Russell’s obesity in this story, which makes the device curious given Pixar’s target audience and PC morality.)  At first blush, Russell echoes the youthful explorer spirit possessed by Carl about six decades years earlier, now rekindled.  But Russell’s story turns out to a bit different.

Warning:  Spoilers under the fold.

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Watchmen

Posted by Marc Hodak on March 8, 2009 under Movie reviews, Patterns without intention | Read the First Comment

Dont mess with the naked blue guy

Don't mess with the naked blue guy

Notwithstanding the provenance of this film, there are no cartoon characters in Watchmen.  They were drawn much more richly and intricately than people you’d find in your average mass-market flick.  That alone would differentiate Watchmen from the ordinary pap emanating from Hollywood.  And being adapted from a graphic novel, its characters are drawn against a lush background, both literally and figuratively.

The counterfactual element of this background should be interesting for fans of political economy.  In the story, the first gen Watchmen appear around the 1940s, when the U.S. was looking for heroes.  The public welcomed the “Minutemen” (as they were then called) who fought crime at home and inspired victory abroad.

Alas, no one remains a media darling forever, especially if you’re fallible and powerful.  The backlash coalesced around the slogan “Who will watch the Watchmen?”  The answer of course was, “the government,” which led to something quite predictable in our world–licensing and regulation.  In order to be allowed to continue their heroics, they would have to register with the authorities.  The public choice mavens among you would no doubt ask, “Who will watch the people watching the Watchmen?”

So, Dr. Manhattan, the one Watchman with supernatural, almost god-like powers, becomes a civil servant tasked with preventing a nuclear holocaust.  He eventually becomes so detached and melancholy that he ends up hardly caring if the whole human race dies.  Don’t you get that feeling from the folks behind the counter at the Post Office?

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Quantum of Solace

Posted by Marc Hodak on November 17, 2008 under Movie reviews | Be the First to Comment

Someone needs to let director Marc Forster know that a Bond film doesn’t have to pace itself like a kaleidoscopic zebra stampede. There is such a thing as gratuitous action. Forster and the writers seem terribly constrained by the need to try to convince their audience that their main character is in mortal danger all the time. They toss up an endless series of close-shave death matches, and manic, nick-of-time escapes. When those become too predictable, they accelerate the pace with quick-cut scenes that become almost a blur. And then they blur them. And then add noise.

All this is basically a wasted, hopeless effort to overcome the thing that cannot be overcome in any Bond film–one’s certain knowledge that Bond can’t die. We know he can’t. No technical or cinematic wizardry can convince us otherwise. Really, they should just give up trying to convince us that Bond might lose a fight if they just throw enough unnamed extras at him, and instead provide some evidence of thoughtful, creative planning, and the exquisitely timed use of whiz-bang gadgetry that might allow us to suspend disbelief. Gives us back the clever Bond with cool toys.

Of course, the perennial problem with Bond flicks is the economic rationale supposedly motivating its villains. In this film, the Brits suspect that a shadowy organization fronting as a Big Green Project, led by the bug-eyed bad guy (played with admirable creepiness by Mathieu Amalric) is trying to horde something–like oil. Oil, you see, is critical to everything; so if someone can control oil, well, they can control everything.

I know what you’re thinking: but isn’t oil a fungible, globally available resource, so that if Russia or Venezuela simply stopped selling us their oil, we’d just end up paying marginally higher prices from less convenient producers, while they would make less money from less convenient customers? Posh. You merely have to assume a fragmented market. If we can’t get oil from one of our neighbors, the lights will simply go off.

At this point, one has to start wondering if this film isn’t a right wing conspiracy. A green, save-the-planet organization fronting for a cynical corporatist? A fragmented market for oil that plays into the hands of madmen? (Wasn’t that the mistaken rationale that got us into a pointless war?)

SPOILER ALERT below the fold

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The Dark Knight

Posted by Marc Hodak on July 21, 2008 under Movie reviews | Be the First to Comment

Awesome.

Christopher Nolan has convinced me that Batman is the only comic that has grown up into a mature movie, albeit by tapping into its original, dark roots. It has an arguably fuller story than Hulk or Spiderman, a mix of story characters with that perfect mixture of predictability and depth driving the action, gripping scenery that evokes a self-contained otherworld, and–the necessary element of every great film–a score that meshes perfectly with the rich imagery.

Spoilers from here:


Heath Ledger screws the other Gyllenhaal

I also liked that the Joker was an experimental economist. In the initial heist, he convinced each accomplice to kill the next in a well-timed string of murders that would leave him alone with the loot. Survivor is for wusses.

One of his next tests was telling three thugs that he was hiring only one of them, cracking a pool cue in half to create a spear, and tossing it into the middle of the three–a kind of gladiatorial job interview. Cold, man. Very effective sorting mechanism. Worth keeping in mind when I need to get rid of a surplus analyst.

Later, when the Joker forced the caped crusader to pick Dent or Dawes, he meant it. No Hollycrap saving of both. The willingness to sacrifice a key character is the sign of a great story.

Then, at the end of the film, those two groups, each with the power to blow up the other, and the promise that both would be blown up if neither acted by a certain time–what an awesome example of applied game theory.

A stickler might ask how the Joker could afford his obviously elaborate set-ups if he burned all his money just for yucks, or why he was madly touting chaos while executing diabolically intricate schemes that clearly required more planning than could fit in an architect’s portfolio. But mad people do that, sometimes, don’t they?

Everyone is gaga over Heath Ledger’s acting. The hype reflect reality, for a change. It drove home how we will all be missing a lifetime of great performances. Some people were less enthusiastic about Christian Bale’s Batman. I found him a bit wooden, but still captivating. I didn’t think a non-smoker could rasp his voice like that, but I guess it’s an effective part of his disguise. No one can blame him of being transparent, like Clark Kent, of whom my then-eight year old son once mentioned, “Uh, he’s just wearing glasses.” For my money, the only weak spot in the acting was Maggie Gyllenhaal. It might be me, but I just didn’t find her compelling as Rachel Dawes. Or maybe it was Dawes that was not compelling? Anyway, they needed a girl that I would be a little sorrier to see blown up. Sorry Maggie.

WALL*E

Posted by Marc Hodak on June 29, 2008 under Movie reviews | 5 Comments to Read

The movie was pretty good, despite having the most illogical premise ever.

I’m not talking about the robot love story, where machines go against their programming to acquire free will and human emotion. I grew up with Hanna-Barbera. I’m cool with smart-ass robot maids and rambunctious robot pets, so I have no qualms about robot romance. What bothered me is the inexplicable strategy of the humans in this film.

B’n'L, a rapacious corporation-cum-government, has taken consumerist pandering to such obscenely wasteful levels that the earth is no longer fit for habitation. (OK, Hollywood blames the Earth’s environmental destruction on a monolithic corporation; nothing surprising there.) Then, as they deploy robots to clean up the planet, this same company has chosen to build a mammoth, luxury space liner, called Axiom, to transport the people away, with robot servants catering to their every whim. Think Starship Enterprise meets Royal Caribbean. Then, as B’n'L would, super-size it. And Axiom provides this luxury indefinitely, for centuries at a time, even though it was only designed for a five-year cruise.

Maybe I’m just a victim of my aerospace engineering training, here, but it seems obvious to me that a spaceship is a self-contained environment. It has to provide everything needed to sustain the basics of life, let alone its luxuries. It must have a permanently renewable source of energy. It has to be able to recycle everything–water, air, waste of every kind–otherwise this ark would eventually be depleted. (There is a moment where we see that the ship regularly ejects waste from a trash hold into space, but let’s ignore that.)

So, if B’n'L could, and would, create this sustainable, self-contained haven as a space-borne habitat, why couldn’t it have built it as a earth-bound biosphere? I mean, it could be as sealed off on Earth as it would have to be in space, except that it wouldn’t need all that extra propulsion and navigation equipment. Ask Hilton; a land-based hotel is much less complicated and costly than a sea-borne one. At least some people would presumably prefer a hotel to a high-end prison, even if that hotel were on a spoiled Earth. (That was, in fact, a conclusion quickly reached by the humans in this film.)

I can abide retro notions of robots that don’t (quite) take over the world, and Brave New World monopolies that do. I can laugh at human stupidity in a dystopian future, and at human kinkiness in a post-apocalyptic paradise. But I can’t help but notice when people make totally uneconomic choices about technology right there in hand. That does not compute.

Knocked Up

Posted by Marc Hodak on May 25, 2008 under Movie reviews | Comments are off for this article

Too late for the epidural.

Like most romantic comedies, Knocked Up is basically about placing mismatched elements A and B in a crucible, throwing in a catalyst, and watching the crazy reaction as they become a bonded pair. In this case element A, Allison Scott, played by the stunning Katherine Heigl, is a girl that pretty much has it all together; she’s a junior producer on E! network who just got a promotion. Element B, Ben Stone, played by the lumpy Seth Rogan, is as his last name implies someone who would rather wake up to some good weed, and without much of a planning horizon beyond that.

I’ve never seen Heigl before on TV or in film. Now, I could watch her all day long. I hear she plays a doctor on TV. In this film she plays a patient looking for a decent Ob-Gyn. But this film is really about what she’s looking for in the man who impregnated her. Decency is a given. Ben is immediately taken with Allison–who wouldn’t be–and quickly owns up to his responsibility. Allison is a decent person, too, so it’s not like he has to take the good with the bad on that count.

The “baby on the way” is, of course, the catalyst in this crucible. The pregnancy establishes the timetable for this relationship as well as the pace of this movie. The birth itself happens at such a pace that the doctor must tell Allison that there is no time for the epidural. That’s how comedy works–we laugh at the pain of the characters. The acting and writing was uniformly good–a perfect Apatow blend of goofy and grounded.

I think that romantic comedy endings are scarce in real life because people are too impatient to let a relationship grow, or tend to succumb to the destructive fantasy of “the one for me.” I’ve always believed that two strangers stranded on an island would figure out how to make it work happily ever after…or there would soon enough be only one left. But no two people are on an island. We’re inundated with choices and friends and relatives and all the rest of civilization telling us “you can do better.” And lots of unhappy relationships.

I read that Heigl got banged up a little about comments about this films “sexism.” I’m sure the public reaction was overly politicized and highly unfair. She clearly liked making this film, and did a fabulous job. One of the things I have liked about Apatow films have been their apolitical nature, which is often misinterpreted as “politically incorrect.” Politically incorrect is what a Mel Brooks did. Everyone else is just a pretender.

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The Counterfeiters

Posted by Marc Hodak on April 27, 2008 under Movie reviews | Comments are off for this article

OK, I accidentally took my wife to a Holocaust film. She would have been perfectly happy never to have seen one; she can’t stomach the violence. So, to prevent any similar misunderstandings out there, let’s be clear this is not a heist flick.

Instead, it’s a very well done film about a master counterfeiter, Salomon Sorowitsch, whose particular genius was put to use by the Nazis in a massive, desperate scheme to undermine the Allied economy. The film was “based on a true story” which, of course, means everything in it was made up except for the basic premise. The German’s Operation Bernhard, for real, created a lot of fake money–over 130 million British pounds in small denominations. But, like all good stories, this is mainly about relationships, which are revealed through the emotional and verbal content of the script. This script relied on the recollections of one of the survivors, Adolph Burger.

In the end, the interactions are stylized and organized in a sensible and powerful manner. That’s probably the best one can do for an event that evokes as much senselessness and powerlessness as the Holocaust. That Burger’s character is neither central nor particularly sympathetic, lends authenticity to the author’s recollections. Burger was willing to sacrifice himself and his fellow prisoners to deny the Germans the fruits of their talent, while Sorowitsch stood against him to preserve their lives for as long as possible. Both goals in a sense represented a blow to their enemy. In the end, via a delicate, somewhat accidental balance of sabotage and achievement, the counterfeiters sufficiently delayed their work so as to preserve their lives, while limiting the amount of cash that the Nazis could use.

The era was beautifully evoked with a photochrom feel and vintage tango music done slow. Sorowitsch was well-acted by Karl Markovics, whose face would do justice to a broken boxer. That the other prisoners and the Nazis were portrayed as two-dimensional characters is not a criticism of the film so much as a commentary of the extreme constraints under which all of these characters existed in that place and time. The film certainly deserved its Oscar. If you and your date can deal with the intensity of institutionalized violence, then you won’t be disappointed.

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