In addition to making this site’s machinery chug along, I’m also a filmmaker. No, I’m not plugging anything. But I am in a bit of a bind. If anyone who reads this knows someone who can answer a question about Final Cut Pro exporting audio to OMF, please click on my name and get in touch.
With weeks of Schiavo ’05, the Pope Deathwatch, and now Papal Idol, it’s been a sickeningly religious year so far. When you factor in “The Passion of The Christ“, President Bush, and the gay marriage brouhaha, we’re drowning in zealots. I imagine this will translate into some more “Left Behind” movies, and more flicks geared to the hopelessly faithful. Some might lament the faith-ization of movies, but I argue that American movies are already imbued with a thick religious vibe. The bad guys always lose, good guys win via a deus ex machina, order is restored, Allah hu Ackbar. Ever notice that the bad guys, if really evil, are never allowed to live? The hero defeats him in a one-on-one battle, then refuses to stoop to his level, and lets him live. The bad guy wrestles a gun from a hapless cop, and then the hero is allowed to kill in self-defense. How convenient. And how Old Testament. Real evil lives on, has civil rights, and gets parole in 20-25 years.
There are many, I presume, who will agree with my praise of that killer suspense sequence at the end of Act Two in Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter, but now I know New Yorker critic Anthony Lane is one of them. Here’s the passage from Lane’s current review: “Still, to be fair, there is one part of The Interpreter that would, without question, have earned [Alfred Hitchcock’s] smile. All the characters are in different places — one agent is following Silvia, another is tailing a Matoban suspect, and Woods and Keller are in a booby-trapped room. (Catherine Keener, by far the driest deliverer of lines in the movie, looks up at an overhead light strung with explosives and says, ‘Now, that’s just rude.’ Imagine Celeste Holm packing heat, and you’re there.) Gradually, Pollack pulls the figures together, [Sean Penn] starts to yell into his phone, and calamity opens its maw. It is one of the smartest passages of action, allegro sostenuto, that I have seen for a long while — as neat, indeed, as the infamous bomb-on-a-bus sequence from Hitchcock’s Sabotage, and true to his faith in the revelatory powers of excitement, in what it means to have movies burst against our nerves.”
Investigative sleuth Mark Ebner spent some time last week hanging with the “Minutemen” in and around Tombstone, Arizona. The Minutemen are a bunch of volunteer border patrol shmoes trying to stop the flow of illegals over the border from Mexico. Ebner’s report will appear in the Globe sometime next week. (There’s no URL link to the story.) Of course, there’s a journey-of-discovery love story in the basic situation, in the vein of Tony Richardson’s The Border (’82). One of the militamen — an unhappy married guy, no kids — falls in love with a Mexican girl with a baby, and ultimately decides to betray the Minuteman ethos in order to help this girl get started in the States and provide a decent future for her son.
Considering the Smiths
Things seem to be happening between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie these days. Stories about recent time spent together (shared vacations, swanky hotel rooms, etc.) have been inside all the supermarket tabs, including Us magazine. And the evidence seems conclusive. **
Question is, what effect will these tabloid shenanigans have on the fortunes of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (20th Century Fox, 6.10), an obviously pumped-up, very expensive action comedy from director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Go ) in which they play married-to-each-other professional assassins?
Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie in Doug Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
Liman is one of the best 40-and-under directors out there right now. I talk with him from time to time. He told me last January during the Sundance Film Festival that Mr. and Mrs. Smith is “the best thing I’ve ever done.” I don’t know what he precisely meant by this, but he said it persuasively.
But I have to be honest and say that right now, however great, good or not-so-good the film might be, the Pitt-Jolie affair could usher in some resistance.
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Whenever there’s hanky-panky on a movie set, especially when one of the lovers is married to someone else, women and conservative-minded types in the audience get their dander up and sometimes don’t want to go, and those who line up do so with a kind of a “show me” attitude. Okay, we’ve paid to see this thing…let’s see that chemistry!
If the romantic intrigue is there, fine. If it’s not, or if the director wimps out and tries to push it aside, the movie usually has problems.
Director Taylor Hackford cut out some love-scene footage when he edited Proof of Life , the Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan movie that had the same kind of attention from the tabloids during filming due to Crowe and Ryan’s affair. Hackford’s strategy worked against the film. The general reaction seemed to be, this is what all the fuss was about?
Gigli had problems of its own, but didn’t the Ben and J. Lo affair (which everyone was sick of before it opened) help sink it?
Besides, aren’t all those women who buy the supermarket tabs presumed to be more in Jennifer Aniston’s camp? Vaguely resentful, I mean, about Pitt having cheated on Aniston and taken up with this vaguely wacko hussy type? I’m addressing the situation with dopey tabloid cliches, but you know what I’m saying.
To me, the tone of the Mr. and Mrs. Smith trailer feels arch and a bit staid. It tells me the movie might be funny or clever here and there, and that Pitt uses his charm in a scene or two, but also that Jolie gives up very little.
She doesn’t have a screwball temperament, she doesn’t break down and weep, she doesn’t have a wacky Julia Roberts-type laugh. She’s poised and chilly.
The assassins-out-to-kill-each-other plot is apparently being used as a kind of metaphor for today’s high-powered couples who concentrate so much on their jobs and individual tasking than they don’t know how to unload all that stuff and just “be” with each other.
I know they’re supposed to be a bored married couple (initially, I mean), but the trailer never seems to show Pitt and Jolie being warm with each other or looking into each other’s eyes with any kind of excitement or fear or anything. It seems to be selling a rather dry and aloof film that’s mainly about thrills, aggression and physical comedy. And a lot of hardware.
We’re taking about the trailer, mind. I presume the movie of Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about more than what it conveys. Liman doesn’t make assembly-line crap.
Not an actual Pitt portrait, but a Worth 1000 Photoshop thing.
There’s one really funny bit at the end when a guy says to Pitt, “You’re ticking!” and Pitt realizes Jolie has planted a bomb on him.
There’s a piece about this very subject by Ann Donahue in the May issue of Premiere. It discusses the film’s “rocky” production history and on-set arguments, etc. Liman is quoted as saying he has never had a movie be under such tabloid scrutiny.
(Donahue uses the word “controversial” to describe “Liman’s belief that he can bring the small-scale independent film ethos…to major studio productions.” Wanting to make big-budget films sharper, quirkier and more flavorful is controversial?)
Pitt is a bigger star overseas than he is here. Troy earned much more over there than it did here. But he can act when the chips are down (I’ve always loved him in Se7en) and he’s basically likable.
I don’t think Jolie is very likable at all, and I wonder if she means all that much to general audiences. Her second Tomb Raider flick was seen as a tank (cost $90 million, earned $65 million in US theatres), and the responses to her last few films — Beyond Borders, Taking Lives, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow — were underwhelming.
Angelina’s got those great lips and all but she’s also seems kind of crazy, no? Heavily into her own orbit, I mean, in an over-indulged, rich-actress, Tallulah Bankhead-type way. Smooching her brother at the Oscars, refusing to speak with her dad (Jon Voight), blowing off Billy Bob with her U.N. spokeswoman thing and then jumping whole-hog into adopting third-world kids, etc.
She seems like a moment-to-moment person. Not much of an investor in long-term relationships. But really great in bed, I’ll bet…or so goes the general assumption.
I was talking about Brad and Angelina with a woman the other night in the checkout line at Pavilions. Neither of us trusts her, we decided. We also agreed that Brad is in a typically randy, post-divorce rebound mode and his Angelina relationship is not long for this world.
But for the movie’s sake, they should probably try to stay together until the opening.
** Pitt’s p.r. rep Cindy Guagenti has called stories about the Pitt-Jolie romance “untrue.” In a statement given yesterday (4.14) to the Associated Press, Us magazine, which has a cover story saying the Pitt-Jolie thing is very real, said, “Pitt has long denied stories involving his personal life, beginning with reports of trouble in his marriage to Jennifer Aniston prior to the separation. Multiple sources both on and off the record confirmed Pitt and Jolie were physically affectionate in public areas of [a desert] resort where they were [recently] staying.”
It doesn’t matter which big-studio tentpole movies are going to make the most money this summer. What counts is which ones will be good.
The best films of the May-August season are going to be Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (20th Century Fox, 5.6); Paul Haggis’s Crash (Lions Gate, 5.6); Marilyn Agrelo’s Mad Hot Ballroom (Paramount Classics, 5.13.05); Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man (Universal, 6.3.05); Sebastian Cordero’s Cronicas (Palm Pictures, 7.1); Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow (Paramount Classics, 7.15); Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (IFC, 6.24), and Tony Scott’s Domino (New Line, August 19).
Jon Hawkes, Miranda July in Me and You and Everyone We Know.
My apologies for being so buried in the hurlyburly that I somehow missed the announcement (earlier this month?) about Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, which I put into this piece yesterday (4.15), having been moved from a late July opening to October 14th.
I also failed to include Me and You in yesterday’s posting. I didn’t see it at Sundance last January, but this much loved film has been urgently brought to my attention my friends and readers, so I’m accepting their endorsements on faith.
Crash went over extremely well with my UCLA Sneak Preview class, which is made up of mostly older viewers. Cronicas may do marginal business, or it could do better than this. (It’s a dark piece, but gripping as hell with an above-average John Leguizamo performance.) The rest will all be “audience” pictures. Maybe not as big as the monster tentpoles, but popular.
I’m rock solid about Kingdom, Crash , Ballroom , Cronicas and Hustle & Flow because I’ve seen them. I’ve read Richard Kelly’s Domino screenplay and can’t imagine Scott not making something startling and fully alive with it.
I haven’t seen Cinderella Man but I’ve been hearing pretty good things for a long while and the trailer sells you on the prestige-level elements.
I would like Richard Linklater’s The Bad News Bears to be a bit more than Bad Santa-manages-a-kids-baseball team…but maybe that’ll be enough.
Based solely on the trailer, I have massive hopes for The Wedding Crashers (New Line, 7.15).
I would like to see Mr. and Mrs. Smith and John Stockwell’s Into the Blue (MGM, 9.30) pan out.
(l. t. r.) Hustle & Flow‘s Taraji P. Henson, Paula Jai Parker, Terrence Howard and Taryn Manning.
Hooray, sight unseen, for George Romero’s Land of the Dead (Universal, 6.24)! And here’s hoping Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm (Dimension, 7. 29) turns out to be somewhat better than the advance word has indicated for several months.
Long Lines, Few Surprises: Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of The Sith (2oth Century Fox, 5.19); Madagascar (DreamWorks, 5.27); The Longest Yard (Paramount, 5.27); Batman Begins (Warner Bros., 6.17), The War of the Worlds (Paramount, 7.1); XXX2 (Sony, 4.29); Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros., 7.15); The Bad News Bears (Paramount, 7.22); The Island (DreamWorks, 7.22); Dark Water (Disney, 7.8); Fantastic Four (20th Century Fox, 7.8); Bewitched (Columbia, 6.24).
For some reason, Monster in Law (New Line, 5.13) isn’t making me tingle with anticipation. Same deal with Aeon Flux (Paramount, 8.12); The Honeymooners (Paramount, 6.10); The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (Disney, 4.29); The Lords of Dogtown (Columbia, 6.3); The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Warner Bros., 6.3); and The Pink Panther (MGM, 8.12).
That rollicking commentary track by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church on the Sideways DVD made me think of a few others.
You can’t listen to this anymore unless you’re a laser disc collector, but Howard Suber’s commentary about The Graduate for the Criterion Collection laser disc is the most insightful I’ve ever heard or read about this film.
Suber’s commentaries on the Criterion laser discs of Some Like it Hot and High Noon are, I feel, just about perfect, and it’s a crying shame they’re not available on DVD.
The late John Frankenheimer’s commentary about the making of The Train is one of the best of its kind — the most candid, intimate and precise. It was first available on an MGM/UA laser disc for The Train that came out in the mid ’90s. Wonder of wonders, it was actually transferred to the MGM/UA Home Video DVD.
The giddy, almost drunken-sounding chat between Kurt Russell, Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale on the Used Cars DVD is a real hoot.
So is the commentary track between Ron Shelton, Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins on the Bull Durham special edition DVD.
The chat between Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs on the DVD of The Limey is a classic, especially when Dobbs starts laying into Soderbergh for ignoring chunks of his screenplay and thereby inviting commentary from critics that the explanation of story and character in the film was threadbare….when in fact it wasn’t on the page.
I loved Soderbergh’s chat with Mike Nichols on the Paramount Home Video DVD of Catch 22, and I can’t imagine that the Soderbergh-John Boorman chat on the forthcoming DVD of Point Blank won’t be worth its weight in gold.
David Thomson’s commentary about Out of the Past for the old Image laser disc version that came out in the mid ’90s is lost to the world (and will probably never be heard on DVD), but it was truly a masterful verbal essay.
If anyone has any others they’d like to mention….
For me, a great commentary isn’t about how brilliant or informative or well prepared the talkers are, although obviously that matters. It’s about how much they get to you.
Does what they have to say seem open, engaging, amusing? If it’s a filmmaker talking, is he/she offering some kind of deeply sincere exploration of the process, or is he/she giving what might be called a good-enough performance?
“Have you seen the trailer for The Lords of Dogtown (Columbia, 6.3) yet?
“As an avid skateboarder from 1975 through 1990, I can say with some authority that none of those guys would have said any of the lines in the trailer. The dialogue is atrocious. I’m predicting this thing is going to laughed right out of the theaters by skaters when it hits.” — Jody, c/o, www.guruphiliac.org.
Jeff to Jody: Like what, for example? What doesn’t ring true?
Jody to Jeff: Here are some examples:
“‘Now get out there and surf, you little grommets.’ I think it would be more like ‘you little assholes’ or ‘you little fuckheads.’
“‘With these you can do the same hard turns you do on your surf boards.’ It would be more like, ‘You can shred the street, dude.’ Or, ‘With these you won’t slide out anymore.’
“‘This wave breaks 24 hours a day, everyday. You know what, bros? You’re going to be the first to ride it.’ From Tony Alva? No way. I don’t know the man, but I do know he wasn’t known for his verbal expressiveness.
“And it’s not like these guys suddenly decided to ride pools. There was a distinct progression from ramps and drainage ditches to pools, half-pipes and full-pipes.
“‘Yeah, surf it like a wave, man.’
“‘We can’t bail on Skip. We’re Z-Boys. We’re family.’
“‘Hey Tony, it looks like it’s going to be you or me.’
“‘We’re going to be on summer vacation for the next 20 years.’
“It all sounds cloying and false to me, as if they’ve dumbed it way, way down for general consumption.
“These kids were basically the gangsters of their era and area. Some of them may have been intelligent, but none of them wanted to sound it. It just wasn’t cool back then. Insight was not approved.
“I wasn’t there, so I guess I’d have to admit I’m talking out of my ass with regards to the actual Z-Boys.
Heath Ledger (long blonde surfer hair, black shades) in scene from Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown.
“But I did work for a California pro skater in his distribution company. I also sold skateboards at a skateshop in Orange County. And I was at the birth of the Orange County punk movement at the Cuckoo’s Nest in Costa Mesa. I also worked at Gotcha Sportwear and Stussywear, both in Orange County.
“Now I’m a middle-aged graphic designer living a few thousand miles away from the ocean, and I’m an occasional fruitbooter (rollerblader) to boot.
“I could be completely wrong, but the dialogue in the trailer just wasn’t ringing true at all for the time and venue. That’s not at all surprising given Hollywood’s penchant for dumbing everything down to the LCD, but I hoped it would be different for this movie. So far that doesn’t appear to be the case.
“Then again, maybe they used all the worst dialogue for the trailer in the hopes of pulling the widest audience.”
Pitt, Jolie, Aniston
“What is it about beautiful, confident, talented, take-charge women like Angelina Jolie that scares the bejesus out of everyone? And what is it about Jennifer Aniston, who in all her movies seems to be re-cycling simpering, clueless Rachel, that makes people want to leap to her defense and assume that everyone else in the saga is a villain?
“Jolie can act circles around Aniston, does not seem nearly as high maintenance, and does not seem to need everyone around her constantly reassuring her as Jennifer reportedly does.
“I love the spin on this. The Jennifer camp says Brad broke Jen’s heart and that all was a paradise before homewrecker Jolie came along. The Pitt camp says he’ll let her have the house and that he was powerless against Jolie…Brad Mouse to her Angelina Cat. And the Jolie camp just says the hell with all of you, I don’t need to sleep with married men, they’re lining up for me, plus I work for the U.N.
“Why can’t it be as simple as this? Pitt, wanting children, seeing his wife booking movies into her 40s and realizing that it ain’t gonna happen? And Jennifer seeing that the family promises she made during Friends don’t hold a candle to grabbing movie offers before her heat dies down and she hits the Hollywood women-over-40 ceiling?
And Jolie being flabbergasted that Pitt has allowed it all to come to this and nature taking its course?
“Will I see Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Nope. Partly because the trailer looks lame and the story does not sound that compelling. And also partly because of the whole Pitt-Aniston-Jolie saga. I am tired of reading about it and don’t need to pay money to watch Pitt and Jolie play house.” — Zoey.
Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) was all set to start shooting the high-profile World War II drama Good in Berlin, starring Hugh Jackman as a literature professor seduced by the Nazi propaganda, when she apparently suffered some nasty accident and had to drop out. Looks like instead she’ll segue into directing the semi-biographical Erik Nietzsche: The Early Years, surrounding the misadventures of a rebellious film student. And who was it that had the Danish cinematic community in stitches with his pseudonymous screenplay? You guessed it: Lars von Trier. But why did the director give away such a small personal screenplay? “It’s a self-centred, vanity project” he told ScreenDaily.com. “[Scherfig] can give the main character a little love and some understanding.” But if von Trier feels he was unable to do this himself as a director, does this prove once and for all that he’s a sadist, or a masochist? — Nic Kockum
After The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas had a chance to enter the pantheon of great human storytellers. Go ahead, laugh…but his Star Wars movies brought him to the edge of greatness. After his first two and even after the disappointment of Return of the Jedi, all Lucas had to do was a great prequel trilogy. Had he blown us away with Episodes I – III, he would have joined…brace yourselves… Shakespeare, Kurosawa, the Brothers Grimm and the others in the Hall of Stories. His influence on movies and marketing is not in dispute. I’m saying the stories themselves were good, and had potential to be great. His characters, their universe, the backstory…they bored into our minds until they became archetype. Jedi-ism is even a recognized religion in some places. He was right there and he blew it. Like the Wachowski brothers, he had a chance to make something great…bigger than him, bigger than all of us. Something to last into the future. Had he made a cohesive six-story epic that excited and held our fascination, he’d be in, and they’d still be talking about The Force and Darth Vader a thousand years from now. But like the makers of The Matrix, Lucas is going down in flames. Of all the storms creative people weather in their lives, why must the hardest be success?
This sounds a bit sappy coming from me, but warmest, cutest and most irresistably affecting film I’ve seen this year? Marilyn Agrelo’s Mad Hot Ballroom, hands down. I can’t imagine this professionally shot, superbly edited documentary not ending up as one of the five nominees for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar…but it’s early yet. (Honestly? I think it’s going to win.) I showed it to my UCLA Sneak Preview class a few weeks back and the mostly older crowd melted in their seats. It recently played the Cleveland Film Festival and the Chicago Documentary Film Festival and picked up audience awards at both. New Yorkers should try to catch the big outdoor screening in Battery Park on 4.24 being organized by the Tribeca Film Festival.
I was in my local Pavillions last night and as I was standing at the checkout stand I saw I don’t know many cereal boxes with promotional plugs for Stars Wars, Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith. This is standard marketing for a big tentpole movie aimed at kids, but right away I could feel the irritation starting. Then I went home and watched the new trailer again (see? the cereal boxes worked!) and re-connected with my old feelings about this series. Trailers always tend to emphasize the familiar, but this one, to me, seems to promise that Revenge of the Sith will be absolutely no different and all of a tonal piece with the previous two Star Warsfilms…same pacing, same tone, same constricted dialogue, etc. George Lucas has been saying this is a much heavier film and don’t take the kids, etc., but unless he had some kind of secret DNA or personality transplant operation in Switzerland a couple of years ago, Sith will surprise or upset no one. But at least we’ll finally get to figure out how Hayden Christensen’s Annakin gets to grow as big and mountain-like as Dave Prowse was in Episodes 4, 5 and 6…and how a kid with the worst nasally Canada accent in the history of motion pictures gets to suddenly sound like a synthezied James Earl Jones.
The Big Stink
Deep down there’s something in us that enjoys the art of financial hoodwinking and flim-flamming… as long as it’s presented in a suitably fictional and charming package.
There’s an appealing example of this in The Sting when Paul Newman’s Henry Gondorff is talking about his days with the O’Shea mob in Chicago in the 1920s, when corruption was rife and “the feds took their end without a beef.”
(l. to r.) Former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, former COO Jeff Skilling, sullied execs Andy Fastow and Lou Pai
And then Newman’s smirk grows into a shit-eating grin as he says to Robert Redford’s Johnny Hooker, “And it really stunk, kid.”
If you’re honest, you’ll admit your reaction when you first saw this scene was something along the lines of “yup…corruption can smell like nectar when there are no squealers and everyone’s equally dirty” or “there’s something to be said for graft and payoffs if they’re handled in a civilized manner.” Right? Especially if guys like Newman are in on it.
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In real life, of course, financial snookery isn’t quite as sexy.
Nine times out of ten the grifters are high-end corporate types with fleshy faces and boring haircuts and heavy political connections and an ability to put people to sleep with their inane remarks at stockholder’s meetings, or in their statements to the press.
And so it was with the Enron meltdown that began to break about four years ago, and spilled over into total scandal in early ’02.
Nothing remotely charming in this mess. The leading Enron bad guys, CEO Kenneth Lay and COO Jeff Skilling, were just odious. And yet Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Magnolia, 4.22 in New York and Houston, expanding on 4.29) manages to make their story a gripping thing.
It is, in fact, fully entertaining, and I never thought I’d say that about a documentary recounting the wrongdoings of a bunch of George Bush-supporting pirates.
“It’s like a heist film,” Gibney told me earlier this week. “When you think of it that way, it takes on a certain dimension.”
Over-valued and increasingly founded on imaginary concepts as it got closer and closer to the financial precipice, the Houston-based Enron, which got rolling in the `80s as as a gas-pipeline energy company but began to get into all kinds of stuff in the late `90s, was this country’s seventh-largest corporation before collapsing in 2001.
Lay, Skilling and other bigwigs walked away with over a billion dollars in their pockets, leaving lower-level investors and employees holding the bag, in some cases with their life savings wiped out.
Gibney has based his film on the 2003 bestseller of the same name, co-written by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. He began working on it just over a year ago and finished it last Thanksgiving,
(l. to r.) Skilling, Lay and former Enron executive Joseph Sutton.
Enron adds new reporting about stuff that has come out since ’03, including some indictments that have come down. The feds are putting Lay and Skilling on trial for fraud in January ’06. If they get a conviction, stiff sentences may result.
There is also TV coverage of Congressional hearings, several on-camera recollections from eyewitnesses and various folks who got burned. Lay and Skilling didn’t talk to Gibney but their statements are covered with TV news footage, C-SPAN clips and corporate videotapes originally meant for in-company viewing.
The basic message is that as things got more and more vision-driven in the mid to late ’90s, Enron became an absurdly overvalued company. Its stock was pumped up by deceptive maneuvering, and it borrowed heavily to make itself look good to the world, and eventually the fakery couldn’t sustain itself.
In ’91 Skilling introduced one of his cuter moves, which he got SEC approval on, called “mark to market” accounting. It was a scam by which Enron could project millions of dollars in potential profits from some newly launched endeavor or acquisition in their stockholders reports. If the venture wasn’t profitable, Enron was obliged to cover the losses with heavy borrowing.
A key component in all this, Gibney says, is that Enron wasn’t hassled all that much by federal oversight agencies, partly, he feels, because of a certain chumminess between Lay and George Bush, who accepted millions in Enron campaign contributions. Enron’s freedom to pretty do what it wanted to do seemed linked in a lot of people’s minds to an attitude on Bush’s part to go easy on “Kenny Boy” and his pals.
It turns out Enron was behind the big California energy crisis of 2000 and ’01. As footage of California brush fires are shown in the film, tapes are heard of Enron guys chortling about the success of their plan to artificially create the crisis. This was partly achieved by selective “maintenance” shut-downs of power plants, which allowed for hikes in electricity rates.
Former California governor Gray Davis, whom Enron tried to blame for the rolling blackouts that were happening back then, is shown trying to point the finger at Enron. Gray “suspected something [like this] was going on but he couldn’t prove it at the time,” says Gibney. “When 50% of the power plants were down for maintenance on a single day, you have to wonder what’s going on. That smelled fishy.”
Enron suggests that a May ’01 conference between Lay and eventual California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger gave the latter information that he used to make Gray look bad over his handling of the energy crisis.
The one note of compassion (or at least empathy) comes when the doc briefly focuses on Lou Pai, a Skilling associate who had a yen for strippers and strip clubs. It reminded me of Mort Sahl’s crack that revelations in the early ’80s of sexual impropriety by a certain Republican fat cat was “a cynical attempt to humanize the Reagan administration.”
The most chilling scene for me happens during a morale-boosting meeting among Enron employees right when the meltdown is happening, and some guy asks if he should invest all of his money, “all of my 401 K” in Enron, and he is told by a spokeswoman who happens to be standing at the mike, “Absolutely!” And then she laughs.
Bottom line: a lot of people were being paid a lot of money for working with Enron and being good team players, and as long as the checks were coming in none of them wanted to know anything. Nobody being paid good money ever does.
An Enron employee named Cliff Baxter killed himself in January ’02.
How much did Lay and Schilling walk away with? In the film Lay is quoted as saying he’s down to his last $20 million and something like $1 million in liquidity. Skilling reportedly paid $23 million to his attorney as a retainer fee.
Andrew Weissman is heading the prosecution of Lay and Skilling in the upcoming fraud trial. He was also the lead attorney in the government’s prosecution of fraud charges against the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, which cooked and then shredded the books for Enron during its big-calamity phase.
The Justice Department has been investigating the Enron debacle since January 2002. Why has it taken so long to put together a case against Lay and Schilling? “Because it’s very complicated,” says Gibney. “It’s going to be very tough to try because they’re going to have to prove intentional fraud. They may be found not guilty.”
President Bush “is, I think, happy to have the Department of Justice pursue this case as aggressively as possible. Now he can just say ‘I didn’t know’ and if they did something crooked, they have to pay the price.”
Gibney says “if I were king of the world, and it’s probably a good thing that I’m not, I’d like to see Ken Lay work as a grill man for McDonald’s and be forced to ride only public transportation for the rest of his life.”
Here’s a link to Bethany McLean’s 3.5.01 Fortune magazine piece, “Is Enron overpriced?”
If McLean’s piece has a money paragraph, it’s this: “‘Enron is an earnings-at-risk story,’ says Chris Wolfe, the equity market strategist at J.P. Morgan’s private bank, who despite his remark is an Enron fan. ‘If it doesn’t meet earnings, [the stock] could implode.'”
Fortune has put up a special webpage linking to various other aspects of its Enron reporting.
The thing that sticks with you at the end of Gibney’s film is the look in Lay and Skilling’s eyes as they try to sell the concept of Enron’s financial health.
I don’t know if these guys would have gotten off any easier if they had some of that Henry Gondorff charm, but I know audiences tend to respond to this on all sorts of levels.
If I had been an Enron stockholder five or six years ago in a buy-sell position, and all I had to go on was the way these guys presented themselves and the deep-down attitudes they conveyed, I would have unloaded like that. I feel sorry for the people who kept their Enron stock and lost everything, but that’s life in the big city.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room “is kind of a moral report card,” says Gibney. “There is a moral dimension to our economy that has to be reckoned with. It says, in a way, that the free market ultimately makes us slaves….utterly free but slaves at the same time.”
HDNet, the high-definition cable station owned by Enron producers Mark Cuban and Philip Garvin, will screen Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room concurrent with the 4.22 theatrical debut. It will play at 8 pm eastern (5 pm Pacific) and then at 11 pm eastern (8 pm Pacific).
Bill of Goods
The thing that made me want to buy Universal Home Video’s new 2-Disc Anniversary Edition of Apollo 13 was a promise on the jacket art that the IMAX version of this 1995 film is included on the second disc.
I saw a piece of the IMAX version on this Ron Howard film at a special invitational press screening a couple of years ago, and it made the images look sharper, fuller and bolder than those in the theatrical version, which was pretty good to start with.
The IMAX version looks better because each frame of the original has been digitally tweaked so as to make everything look richer and more vivid, in order to meet the blown-up standards demanded by the much larger IMAX screen.
Actual frame of IMAX film, indicating the appproximate 1.33 to 1 aspect ratio in which IMAX films are projected in theatres…
I wondered at first how this would work since the aspect ratio of an IMAX screen is kind of boxy (close to 1.33 to 1), and Apollo 13 was originally released in Scope (2.35 to 1). The solution, I learned at the press conference, is that Apollo 13 was actually shot in Super 35mm, which captures a 1.33 to 1 image but is then cropped in post-production to create a Scope aspect ratio. So there was plenty of extra top-and-bottom image space to fill the IMAX frame.
Pretty much all Scope films are shot in super 35, or so I’ve heard. This is how DVD pan-and-scan versions of Scope films are assembled — not by cropping off the sides of the Scope image but by using the original 1.33 to 1 super 35 image.
Anyway, knowing all this I was shocked when I played the IMAX version last night and discovered it’s not the IMAX version at all. What Universal Home Video has released on Disc 2 is a cropped IMAX image with an aspect ratio that looks roughly to me like 1.75 to 1.
(A critic on www.dvdtalk.com wrote that the IMAX DVD version uses a 1.66 to 1 aspect ratio. He’s wrong. Check out the Warner Home Video DVD of Barry Lyndon — that’s 1.66 to 1.)
I’m not strenuously complaining about this. Image quality-wise the IMAX-on-DVD version of Apollo 13 looks quite superb. It has a knock-down, almost startling clarity and all kinds of ripe bountiful colors. It is so appealing and soothing to the eye that I stopped working last night in order to watch it.
But — but! — to tell DVD buyers they’ll be getting the IMAX version of this film when they buy the new DVD is a cheat. It’s the IMAX image quality without the actual shape of the image shown in IMAX theatres, and in my book to sell it as a “the IMAX Experience version” is at least a half-lie. To me it’s a flat-out fib.
…and the 1.75 to 1 aspect ratio of the “IMAX Experience” version as presented on the new Apollo 13 2-Disc DVD.
I enjoyed Apollo 13 when it came out ten years ago, but I hadn’t looked at it again since last night and it plays better than I remember. Well shot, professionally paced and believably acted, this is a fully involving, methodical recreation of a true-life event. I still love Dean Cundey’s photography and while the special effects look a bit dated by today’s standards, they’re still decent.
It’s always the mark of a good film when the third-act tension (i.e., will the possibly damaged heat shield hold during re-entry?) in the third-act works even when you know astronaut Jim Lovell (i.e., Hanks character) and the other two guys made it and there’s nothing to worry about.
I had forgotten how young Hanks used to look, and how thin he once was. Kevin Bacon looks so much younger also; ditto Bill Paxton. I know it sounds banal for an industry journalist to mention age and weight issues, but this is the first thing you notice when you watch this DVD. You say to yourself, “Wow, time really moves along.”