Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Flawless? - Would you settle for multifaceted?

Flawless opens on an interview. A haughty young reporter puts her cell phone down for long enough to patronize an old lady with a question about her not so successful career as a manager working for London Diamond in the 1960s. The old woman, Laura Quinn (Demi Moore), responds with a few enigmatic remarks, then pulls an enormous diamond out of her pocket,explains that she stole it and leaves the reporter with a manuscript. A heist caper, of sorts, unfolds from the manuscript. Much of this film is occupied by Laura Quinn, a bright, hard working beauty who suggests all the right decisions at London Diamond (a fictionalized Central Selling Organization -see historical note below) but can't get ahead thanks to sexism in the old boys club. Passed over for promotion year after year, Quinn's frustration boils over when Hobbs (Michael Caine), a mysterious janitor, tells her she's about to be fired. Why? Because her brilliant strategy to keep the Russians in the cartel is so secret that it must be confined to only the most senior management - she will actually get the axe because she's too junior to be trusted with knowledge of her own idea. Hobbs has a heist all planned and he's looking for an accomplice, someone like Quinn, to steal the vault combination.

Hobbs is a surprise package. This janitor on the brink of retirement is more than a would-be diamond thief, he's planned a master theft with a target, a motive and a modus operandi that are all far more than Quinn bargained for. Quinn struggles with the pressure as Hobbs takes control. Lon Di's executives (see historical note) battle with its insurors (see historical note). Lon Di tries to keep the theft quiet as insurance investigator Finch heads in the right direction, but will he put it together in time?

There is real suspense here, will the theft succeed, what's Hobb's really up to, how does Laura Quinn emerge from the heist to become the old woman we meet in the opening interview? Caine's understated Hobbs hits just the right notes, saving a character that might seem too good to be true in lesser hands. Moore does reasonably well as a bright, hard working executive and a panicky co-conspirator but stumbles when the film dwells overlong on her role as sexism victim. Demi is just not that convincing as an executive who's unceasing and unrequited devotion to the company has left her on the brink of cat ladydom, partly because the film as a whole bogs down on this issue at the same time it raises and resolves the mystery of Hobb's motive in the blink of an eye. The sexism theme is worth developing, but it could be more powerful with a lighter touch, one meshed more carefully with the suspenseful plot strains.

Not flawless, but an enjoyable film that more than held my attention, even as the back end of a double feature on a Monday night.

Historical Note - The fictional London Diamond is based closely upon a real organization, known in the 1960s as the Central Selling Organization, now the Diamond Trading Corporation. This organization effectively controlled the global supply of diamonds to maintain prices, not unlike today's OPEC (although OPEC, as an organization of governments, has no problem with the antitrust laws that led to criminal prosecution and civil claims against the CSO) . The CSO was essentially dominated by De Beers. De Beers Chairman from the 1950s into the 1980s was the South African billionaire Harry Oppenheimer. Although portrayed as a rough, gruff Boer in Flawless, Harry was the Oxford educated son of an English peer with a German Jewish background. Harry was also Chairman of Anglo-American, a global mining power with extensive gold and platinum operations. His son Nicky has succeeded him. Nothing wrong with a little dramatic license, but the Oppenheimers are an interesting family - worthy of a movie in their own right. Aside from being one of the world's richest men, Harry was an Anglican who supported Jewish causes throughout his life and a leading figure in South African politics despite his opposition to apartheid.

Lloyd's of London is not actually an insurer, but an intermediary for the "names", wealthy private individuals who underwrite the risks insured and are, as Flawless notes, personally liable for payment. For the names, the policies are an investment (usually just part of a much larger diversified portfolio). A name might participate in the risk on several policies, collecting a pro rata share of the premiums and return on required reserves and betting that the income from fractions of several policies would outweigh the cost of any claims paid down the road. No name would bet his entire fortune on a single policy.

Priceless - Do Not, Repeat Do Not, Give This Woman Your Mastercard

Priceless -Three days playing "uncle" to gold digger Irene (Audrey Tautou) on the French Riviera? - $17,486. Winning her cynical heart? Priceless.

Irene, a well-equipped niece if ever there was one, seems mercenary to the core when she meets Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a shy, overworked bar tender in a five star hotel. First she seduces him, believing (with a little help from Jean) that he is a rich hotel guest. Irene's wealthy fiance notices her dalliance and dumps her. She tries to liaise with Jean on a more permanent basis, then learns he is a lowly hotel employee and races to the Riviera to find another sugar daddy. Jean trails her like a lovesick bloodhound. When a simple "get lost" doesn't keep Jean out of her way, Irene decides to let him join her, but only for a few days. That's all she needs to bankrupt Jean with a non-stop spending spree. The sound of the machine processing Jean's credit card when Irene makes her first purchase at Jean's expense is the sound of a cell door clanging shut, one of several nice comic touches from Director Pierre Salvadori. The hotel discovers Jean can't afford his bill, but just as the manager phones the police, Jean is enlisted as a gigolo by Madeline (Marie-Christine Adam). This keeps him near his adored Irene, who shows him some tricks of the trade. Eventually the reluctant gigolo wins the gold digger's heart and they embark together on a motor scooter ride into the unknown future, penniless and happy.

In some ways, this is a very French film, it features luxurious settings in Paris and Nice, depicts a society that accepts gigolos and "nieces" without question and deftly doles out an engaging blend of farcical and sophisticated humor that keeps the audience smiling wryly with an occasional chuckle. Even had I missed those cues, I would have noticed that I was reading subtitles while everyone in the film spoke French. In other ways, the film could play in Peoria. Yes, no one seems to mind that Irene is basically a hooker, but it's the dogged, unquestioning romantic love of Jean that wins the day. True, there's no car chase, but the elimination of transitional action scenes that would not aid plot, character or comedy actually speeds the film and avoids what might otherwise have been a serious pacing problem.

Priceless? As Good As News would not go that far, but the film is worth seeing. A nice movie for a date if you are going out, definitely worthy of a rental.

Monday, March 17, 2008

For my next trick

Curbs on Protest in Tibet Lashed by Dalai Lama - China has a once in a lifetime magic act prepared for the Olympic opening ceremony - it will make Tibet disappear.

Aside from jailing Tibetan protestors as they become available, China has closed Mt. Everest for the duration to avoid the mere possibility that a plucky Sherpa will plant a Tibetan flag on its summit and tell the world he still doesn't like his Chinese big brothers running his country.

Hello Dalai, it would be nice to see you back where you belong.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Is it a left at the North Pole?

Clawing for Edge, Democrats Fight Over "Winner" - Hillary's staff argues that Barack is winning most of his votes and delegates in Southern and Western states that will surely vote Republican in the Fall, thus Hillary, with primary wins in swing states like California and Ohio, is more electable and deserves the super delegate vote. Not so fast. The premise is true, states like Mississippi and Wyoming will vote Republican in November no matter how strongly the local Democrats support Obama. The conclusion is shaky. Hillary's primary wins in states like California and Ohio show she is more popular among Democrats, but nearly all of the Democrats who are committed enough to vote in a primary will vote for the Democratic nominee in November, even if it's Barack. To assess electability, look at polls showing how well the candidates do among all registered voters when running against John McCain. Either will hold the Democratic base, which Democrat will attract independents and Republicans in the swing states?

This is not the first misstep from the Clinton campaign staff. In February a trio of senior aides embarked upon a desperate mission to lobby super delegates on their home ground, but despite spending three weeks and over $100,000, the trio failed to locate the fortress of solitude. Meanwhile, back in New York, Hillary's learning from her mistakes. She stood by Bill but it took her about fifteen minutes to erase the Spitzer endorsement from her website.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Trainwreck: My Life As An Idoit - Trainwreck A Near Miss

Trainwreck: My Life As An Idoit - Jeff (Seann William Scott) is a young man aging fast as he stumbles through a life muddled by severe ADD, dyslexia (hence the title), tourette syndrome and a loving mother and stepfather who solve his problems with a checkbook so that he never has to grow up. Based on The Little Yellow Bus, a memoir by comedian Jeff Nichols, Trainwreck's closing credits feature Nichols killing with his stand-up act at Caroline's while the text explains that he finally earned his merchant marine license. As the only reviewer with a merchant marine license and a dozen appearances at Caroline's, I wish I could say I loved this movie, but despite a story with tremendous potential and a fine cast, the film misses as both comedy and drama.

The core of the drama is Jeff's successful battle with his disabilities to find a niche as a comedian and construction worker and make a real life for himself, one that includes romance and independence. Most of the time Jeff's problems show up only as bad decisions with disastrous consequences, but two scenes delve a little deeper into his synapses. The film opens with Jeff buying a yellow shirt on his way to a job interview, then fleeing the interview because he's obsessed with the fact that his shirt isn't white like everyone else's. The whole scene, last second purchase, maniacal interaction with store clerk, inner turmoil leading to flight at the interview - captures both the reality of Jeff's disabilities and the resulting humor. A later scene demonstrates Jeff's complete inability to handle daily life, as the need to perform a sequence of basic tasks - find paycheck, open account and deposit check, find phone bill, pay phone bill, call Mom's accountant about parking tickets - creates confusion and panic. These two scenes show what could have been, but Jeff's affair with the beautiful Lynn (Gretchen Mol), his career in stand-up (which requires booking gigs and consistently showing up on time - not just developing an act), his dream job (literally) in construction and his maritime captains license all seem to appear by magic. Whatever happened to Jeff Nichols in real life, on-screen Jeff never really grapples with his problems, gets help and learns to deal with them, he just skips straight to the relatively happy ending, leaving the drama with a major whole in the middle.

Trainwreck has tremendous potential as comedy, and the writers and director understand this, but the film never recaptures the balance that produced successful comedy in the opening "yellow shirt" scene. Jeff hones his stand-up act at AA meetings, although he has been sober for a decade and seems more interested in an audience than the program. This brilliant premise captures one fundamental of humor - Jeff gets laughs at AA when he is honest, even if he is honest about tragedy - but instead of using the AA meetings to showcase a few minutes of Nichol's best stuff, Trainwreck sticks to long-winded stories that got few laughs in the screening. Disasters that could have produced a strong element of farce, a sunken yacht and a family home burnt to the ground, are presented without effective comic set-up or timing. They generate empathy for Jeff and his family, but they just don't produce any laughs.

Despite the potential and the cast, As Good As News can't recommend Trainwreck. We can recommend that you see Jeff Nichols at a comedy club near you.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Turkmens fear Snark Attack + blogolio

Nothing can snap As Good As News to attention faster than an attack on Turkmenistan. Reduced publication or not, we remain the official blog of Turkmenistan, and while we're at it, here are some other stand outs from the Times.

Turkmenistan - Eight Is Just Enough -Cry the beloved Turkmens - Beautiful Turkmenistan, 5,000,000 Turkmens inhabit its rolling dunes, Southern mountains and Caspian coast. 5,000,000 Turkmens in a country slightly larger than California that sits on a sea of natural gas and petroleum. What could possibly make Turkmenistan better? Doc Gurby's answer is more Turkmens, as he offers a bonus to mothers of eight or more children - free public transportation (Doc is always the environmentalist), free public utilities, free dental care (Doc, a dentist himself, dreams of a smiling populace) and $25. News, blog and comedy outlets are already jumping all over crazy Doc Gurby and reclusive Turkmenistan - the snarky set can't resist noting the obvious fact that $25 will not go far when raising a family of eight, not to mention the all important point that, at an average of $3.12 per child, the minimum wage for labor pains is low in Turkmenistan. Ignore the snark attack and consider the facts. The total package has real value. More importantly, it's a reward not a threat. Unlike China, which enforces a one child limit with penal sanctions, Doc gives people a choice.

Cell Phone Anthology - Want a show featuring Mary Louise Parker as a woman who receives the cell phone of a dead man, see Dead Man's Cell Phone. Want a comedy bit featuring me as a man who receives the cell phone number of a deadbeat, see Let Me Speak To Victor.

Gay marriage reprise - How do you resolve a bitter dispute over the right to "marriage" in California, where that state's domestic partnership law grants gay couples legal status very comparable to marriage and the question is whether the difference between marriage and domestic partnership is mere semantics or a separate but equal second class citizenship? How do you avoid challenges to New York's recognition of Canadian gay marriages? The answer remains - leave marriage to God and limit the state's role to licensing domestic partnerships for qualifying couples, straight or gay.

Frozen Waterfall Climbing seen as key attraction in developing successful retirement communities - OK, I needed a picture - But the guys doing this really are my age.

Oxymoron of the day -Blogging ethics - Dial M for Blog, a recent post here, lobbed some questions at Agency Spy for defending its right to anonymously criticize (and publish anonymous comments dripping vitriol about) a "public figure", while defining public figure as anyone it chose to write about. Contrast this with Cuban cyber rebel Yoani Sanchez, who insist on using her real name while posting on Generacion Y, "in which she has artfully written gentle critiques of the government by describing her daily life in Cuba. Ms. Sánchez and her husband said they believed strongly in using their names with articles despite the possible political repercussions. "

Anthony Weiner Quiz- Barry Bonds, compelled by subpoena to testify under oath before a grand jury, states that he didn't knowingly use steroids although he admits to applying the "clear and the cream". Bonds is indicted for perjury. Roger Clemens demands a hearing from a congressional committee, insists on testifying undeer oath in public, ducks and dodges every specific question and retreats constantly to the unqualified mantra that he never took steroids or HGH despite the fact it contradicts the relatively credible testimony of trainer McNamee, the very credible testimony of Andy Pettitte, medical records about the abscess in Roger's butt and Mrs. Clemens use of HGH. The FBI investigates Clemen's possible perjury. Congressman Weiner writes to A) Bond's prosecutor, urging discontinuation as a matter of prosecutorial discretion because the case is not clear cut and doesn't justify the resources involved. or B) the FBI, urging them to drop the Clemens investigation as an unjustified use of resources despite the fact that it was Clemens himself who demanded, then abused, the opportunity to speak publicly under oath at considerable expense to Congress. Congressman Weiner is running for mayor of A) San Francisco or B) NYC, where Clemens was a popular pitcher. Wake up Congressman. Voters will recognize obvious pandering. If someone deserves a break here it is not the guy who insisted on testifying under oath when he could have just kept his mouth shut, evaded like Mark Maguire, lied when not under oath like Rafael Palmiro or come out with a non-specific apology/admission like Giambi or LoDuca.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Billy The Kid - Q&A

The official Billy the Kid site includes this synopsis:

"BILLY THE KID is a sensitive and humorous vérité portrait of Billy, a 15-year-old outsider growing up in small-town Maine. Billy appears, in many ways, like other teenage boys. He's into heavy metal and martial arts, is desperate to find a girlfriend, and aspires to a career as an actor and rock star. Yet in other ways Billy is unique. A troubled past and ongoing behavioral issues have left him marked. But he is unapologetic about his personality and refuses to be victimized, creating his own techniques to help him survive in an environment of pain, conformity, and prejudice. Billy is funny, sharp, strangely wise for his age, and remarkably candid. We witness life from his perspective—from intimate conversations with his mother, to being bullied at school, to his fantasies of becoming a superhero. We also experience the exhilarating pangs of first love as Billy pursues Heather, a shy 16-year-old waitress. Will Billy get the girl? Will his community accept him on his own terms? BILLY THE KID challenges viewers to imagine themselves beyond labels."

Theft of the official synopsis is an editorial decision driven not entirely by sloth. The facts are set forth briefly and lucidly, we can do no better. The questions are subjective and evoke the films merits, which are significant. We must, however, add some Q & A of our own.

Why did the lady next to me bring a purse full of wax paper and spend the first ten minutes of the movie crinkling it? There is no known answer to this question, but we can't blame it on Jennifer Venditti, a veteran casting director making her directorial debut.

Why did the same lady begin snoring halfway through the picture? Tough day, warm theater, recurring struggle with narcolepsy - all possible, but Billy The Kid was making a lot of people drowsy - this is real cinema verite (someday I will learn how to do accent marks- until then you must live with that troubling verite/real redundancy) and the pace of life is slow sometimes.

Why was Billy so incredibly comfortable in front of the camera? A) It was there so often he just got used to it, like many documentary subjects B) Billy constantly gushes his inner thoughts. Fifteen year olds generally self -censor any utterance that might subject them to the disdain of their peers, but Billy never pauses for a coolness edit. Unlike his peers, he's living in the open all the time, adding the camera just doesn't dent this guy's psyche. C) Billy is lonely and desperate for listeners, the microphone and camera, and Heather for that matter, are a welcome opportunity to gush to an audience. D) With few peer relationships, Billy learned life from the movies, now he gets to live one. E) All of the above.

What will happen to Billy? - Middle school and high school are the pits - the years when conformity matters most and even casual contact with a misfit like Billy can brand you a geek by association. Billy has some big problems, villainous father, vanishing step-father, Asperger's -but he has some real assets. He's a bright, noble, courageous guy with a caring mom who might become a happy lawyer, blogger or a comedian someday if he can just survive high school.

Where can I see this movie, should I see this movie? Watch Cinemax and HBO listings, Billy the Kid should appear soon. Billy comes right at you and grabs you (unless, perhaps, you were very popular in high school). Watch the first twenty minutes carefully, if the pace is putting you to sleep you will still leave the TV on while you are doing something else, I don't think you will shut Billy off totally.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Dial M for Blog

After Suicide, Blog Insults Are Debated - Advertising Executive Paul Tilley died after jumping from an upper floor of the Fairmont Hotel on February 22. On February 11 Agency Spy, an advertising industry blog, published a moderately snarky critique of Mr. Tilley's motivational efforts, which edged only slightly across the line from business to personal. The same blog then published numerous comments from readers offering far more scathing criticism of Tilley as a manager and human being. In a subsequent blog post, Agency Spy's anonymous author disclaimed credit for Tilley's demise, noting that movie reviewers and political columnists also dished out harsh criticism. In an e-mail interview for the Times she argued that Tilley's job as an ad exec made him a public figure under the new rules of blogdom. She also noted that traffic had grown since the suicide, with no complaints from advertisers. More traffic, of course, means more revenue for the anonymous proprietress of Agency Spy.

Smells like a business opportunity. Although As Good As News includes no advertising, services are available on a contract basis. If you are interested in arranging a blog assisted suicide for your boss, competitor, ex-spouse, etc. just send target identification and background information to the gmail address shown in the header. As Good As News offers competitive rates and guarantees 1) client anonymity, 2) vicious and persistent personal attacks on the target and 3) extremely liberal comment publication policies, including seeding with arranged comments specially designed to trigger threads of despair. Target "suicide" cannot be guaranteed. Discount available for clients including their own specious rationale for target's status as a public figure in background information.