Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sztuckzi - Tricks are not just for Kids

In Stuckzi ("tricks" in Polish), young Stefek (Damian Ul) dreams of reconnecting with his absentee father. His cute older sister Elka (Ewelina Walendziak) misses Dad too, but she's mad enough and proud enough to steer clear of him until he makes the first move. Elka wants to quit mopping floors and land an administrative job with the big Italian company that has an office in her small Polish town.

Stefek thinks he can trick fate into changing his destiny, and maybe he can, although his magical efforts keep him perilously close to the railroad tracks and the trains that speed ominously down them. Elka plans to help herself, learning Italian, even letting her ambition get ahead of her loyalty to Stefek for one sorry moment.

Stuckzi follows the fate of Stefek and Elka, telling the story so visually that the subtitles are almost unnecessary. As Good As News enjoyed the movie, the characters, the pacing and the small Polish town setting. There is humor aplenty, especially in the eddies of life that swirl around Violka (Joanna Liszowska), the neighborhood slut, Elka's loyal boyfriend, the car-obsessed Jerzy (Rafal Guzniczak) and Jerzy's life coach Turek (Grzegorz Stelmaszewski), who expounds at length on a uniquely automotive theory of romance. Based on the quality of the humor that does come through, As Good As News suspects there was even more here for those who understand Polish, dulled in the lost timing and lost subtleties of the subtitles.

Subtitles or no, Tricks is worth renting. See it in the theater if you can go with a Polish speaking friend.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Now when I talked to God, I knew He'd understand.
He said, "Stick by me and I'll be your guiding hand,
but don't ask me what I think of you,
I might not give the answer that you want me to."
Oh Well.

In The Answer Man, Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) talked to God, wrote up his notes, produced a book that captured "10% of the God market" then retreated into curmudgeonly hibernation for twenty years. Faber's awakening finally comes in two mysterious ways. A bad back leads Faber to a comely chiropractor (Lauren Graham). Romance ensues. Faber's desperation to rid himself of a collection of worthless self-help books leaves him indebted to Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci), an alcoholic book merchant who is equally desperate for wisdom. A bargain is struck. Faber coldly dispenses his godlike advice in response to Lucas's questions, on condition that Lucas must remove five books per question answered. Both plot lines march forward somewhat predictably to a hopeful, but not Hollywood sappy happy, ending. While the story is more than acceptable, it's only the beginning of the goodies in this film, a first for writer/director John Hindman.

First, let's talk about humor. Slapstick, sarcasm and sometimes scintillating dialog are scattered throughout to very good effect. Nothing says funny like a herniated disk and Jeff Daniels knows just what to do with one: listen to the same record over and over because he can't move to the turntable; get stranded by his agent because, well because he's been an asshole for twenty years; now listen to one single line of that same record over and over because a scratch develops; lastly, crawl slowly and painfully through traffic down a busy city street to the chiropractor and ask if you can go to the head of the non-existent line when you finally arrive. Well maybe one other thing does say funny like a herniated disk -a chiropractor's assistant, trying to drum up business by passing out leaflets while dressed in a foam rubber spine suit. Daniels and Pucci both play nasty enough to drop a snide bomb or two, but they keep it in check and neither becomes an object of hatred. While The Answer Man is not Juno (or The Gilmore Girls) there is witty dialog aplenty - the lines generate some big laughs, but not at the expense of believable characters.

Next, consider the characters. Faber wrote his book to deal with his father's struggle with Alzheimer's, but he couldn't cope with the book's success and his doubts about his own inspiration. Daniels captures both the harshness of Faber's stifled emotions and the humanity, the need and the hurt, they conceal in a performance made even more impressive because it's coming from a grumpy clown. Many will, aptly, compare this role to Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, but Daniels's style puts As Good As News in mind of Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple. Interestingly, Mr. Pucci says he studied Jack Lemon to prepare for the role of Kris. The homework paid off, as Pucci is funny, desperate, proud, weak and sometimes strong in a demanding role that makes the movie more than just a Daniels tour de force. Despite her Gilmore Girls resume, Lauren Graham doesn't get to carry much of the humor load, in a role that is not written with the same depth as the male leads. The rest of the cast is very strong, with too many fine performances to single them out.

As Good As News recommends The Answer Man for viewing in the theater (where the audience laughter will add to the experience) or at home - and we are not just saying this because the director is a stand-up comic.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Final Chapters, New Themes

Fuji (Alberto Fujimori) is in jail for 31 years after a multi-year, twelve post campaign here at As Good As News. He's probably in jail for the wrong crimes, but that is the Peruvian way. We are not prepared to spring him just to demand that he be tried as a kleptocrat. What more can As Good As News really do?

The Texas succession movement is firmly and successfully launched, thanks to innumerable posts here and the timely intervention of Texas Governor Perry. The vision of a republic where public school classes in creationism are taught by evangelist ministers packing concealed six guns is so irresistable that Texas independence is now only a matter of time. As Good As News's work here is done, although we may be unable to resist an occasional progress report.

Norm never really caught the blogging public's eye, while Andy got more attention than he wanted. Both are quiet now, although the Norm & Andy series still garners an occasional comment from an Andy ex.

Doc Gurby's banking system escaped the financial crisis unscathed, in fact the financial crisis provides Turkmenistan with the opportunity to create a banking system. As Good As News will proudly remain the official blog of Turkmenistan, but don't expect much until the campaign for election to gengesh heats up this Summer.

What does it all mean? Time to create some new recurring themes. Watch for future posts on news developments in these areas:

1. Dump the Preakness. It's too close to the Kentucky Derby. A three year old needs more rest between starts. It's too short. If the best horse is boxed in, a mile and 3/16 doesn't offer enough time to escape. It's in financial trouble. Most importantly, no one really likes " Maryland My Maryland".

How can you replace a tradition like the Preakness? Move this triple crown classic to a track that's even older - Saratoga Springs. Adjust the racing season and race schedule slightly so the Jim Dandy becomes a triple crown event, run at a mile and 7/16 on the last Saturday of July. Pimlico has had a great run, but one visit to Saratoga Springs will convince doubters that the Baltimore track will make a nice shopping mall.

2. Let's Get Serious About Restructuring Mortgage Loans - Toxic securities comprised of bundled mortgage loans are toxic because of uncertainty. How many of the underlying mortgage loans will go into default, will we be able to cost effectively foreclose on the mortgages and sell the properties for anything resembling a reasonable price? If the owner of the toxic security can keep a high percentage of those mortgage loans performing by dropping payments to a level the borrower can afford, then you can value the suddenly not so toxic assets without even trying to guess at the cost of foreclosures, carrying costs and fire sale prices in a disastrous market, not to mention the benefits to the homeowner/borrowers, who will have a roof over their heads.

Why is the banking industry fighting to the death on a bankruptcy law amendment that would allow bankruptcy judges to adjust the terms of mortgage loans (as they now do with other loans)? There are valid concerns, but so far the banking industry, which certainly understands the benefits of a performing loan, doesn't seem to be mobilizing a successful mortgage loan renegotiation campaign on its own. Maybe the bankers should stop fighting and let the bankruptcy courts help them out.

Here's one approach that would help in a bankruptcy plan or a private renegotiation of a mortgage loan. If the borrower can't handle the payments without a principal reduction, then give him a principal reduction - at a price. The borrower must commit to pay a kicker, an agreed portion of the sale proceeds, to the bank if and when the house is sold.

For example, Borrower A bought his home for $200,000 in 2007 with a $170,000 loan from Bank. Now A is working only part time and the home is worth $130,000. Borrower can refinance at a lower interest rate, but he still can't afford the payments and he is ready to walk away (or stop paying and hang out for free for many many months until the sheriff shows up following foreclosure). Bank agrees to reduce the principal amount of the loan to $120,000 but only if Borrower agrees that when he sells the home he will pay-off the (reduced) mortgage loan and pay the Bank a kicker equal to 50% of any sales proceeds over $120,000. The kicker can be capped at $50,000 (the amount of the mortgage reduction) plus interest. Borrower stays in the home, Bank has a loan that is worth less, but it's a performing loan that it can value for financial reporting purposes, not a toxic unknown. Bank and Borrower will both benefit if the real estate market recovers, and even the value of the kicker (which would be very small initially) would show up on the Bank's books.