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by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008

Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the mainstream, which sees allegories in all manner of athletic competition, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. As the latest in a long line of race related travails, the history here is loaded with confrontation, outrage, and acceptance. But even with a strong handle on the situation with segregation, the movie can’t manage to overcome its predetermined purpose.

When he was young, Ernie Davis learned to run. It was a necessary survival skill in a small town where segregation and racial hatred ruled. Later, as he grew, Davis learned to use said talent to become an All American athlete. When colleges came calling, he had two choices - the University of Football, otherwise known as Notre Dame, or upstate New York school Syracuse. With an undeniable legacy left behind by a graduating Jim Brown, Davis soon found himself under the tutelage of no nonsense coach Ben Schwartzwalder. After an uneventful Freshman year, the newest Orangeman soon becomes a national name, leading his team to a National Championship and the first ever Heisman Trophy for a black player. Success in the NFL seemed certain - that is, until something unexpected came along to shatter his dreams.

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy. With trailers that give away one major reveal, and a narrative which foreshadows the final plot twist, this is an amiable if predicable portrait. Directed by Gary Fleder (Thing to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) with all the faked flash of a Tony Scott knock-off, we understand almost immediately where this story of struggle is going. Davis is introduced as a decent little kid picked on horrifically by a band of bullheaded boy bigots. Within seconds, his fleet footed abilities are revealed, and soon the shift is away from prejudice and onto pre-college success. When Dennis Quaid enters the picture as Ben Schwartzwalder, the equally pigheaded coach from Syracuse, we sense a confrontation ahead.

But in one of the few surprises in this otherwise routine biopic, our fabled football sage isn’t a raging extremist - unless you’re talking about football. Then, Schwartzwalder is as old school as George Halas and Vince Lombardi. His is a hard work and waste nothing ethic, the kind of aggressive approach that made Jim Brown into a legendary figure in the NFL. We see the fabled running back as he readies to play with the Cleveland Browns, and his active recruitment of Davis is one of the film’s few sparkling sequences. Otherwise, Brown is held up as a kind of compare and contrast with his protégé. Big Jim gets the concept of social isolation and fights to rise above it. Ernie is as sincere as his name suggests, shocked when faced with separate drinking fountains and restricted hotels.

Part of the pleasure within The Express is watching Schwartzwalder and the team respond to the growing controversy caused by their newest recruit. At first, there is lots of contention and chest puffing. One player in particular makes it his personal cause to give Davis nothing but ethnic oriented grief. But as he starts shining, and by example bringing the team into the national limelight, the differences cool. Soon we see a united front against the ridiculous laws and ways of a pre-Civil Rights South. A trip to Texas for the National Championship game is especially illuminating, since almost everything that happens both before, during, and after the contest speaks volumes for the misguided way of America circa the ‘50s. Had there been more of this material, The Express would play like a leatherheaded Malcolm X.

But Fleder knows that audiences won’t indulge in a film that spends most of its time in controversy and anger. So The Express offers up some moments of minor romance, and the typical non-erotic comedic male bonding that sports tend to mandate. In the lead, Rob Brown makes a convincing Davis. Not required to do more than play proficiently and look iconic, the Finding Forrester co-star fits the bill. Much better is Omar Benson Miller as the larger than life lineman Jack Buckley. Like an overprotective father to Davis’ ill-prepared novice, he’s a gentle joking giant and jester. Some ancillary support comes from Charles S. Dutton (as Davis’ ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ Grandpa) and Soul Food‘s Darrin Dewitt Henson as Brown.

As for Quaid, he’s the film’s toughest fit. While Schwartzwalder was in his late ‘40s when Davis first stepped onto the Syracuse campus, his big screen reflection feels too young for the part. Quaid can give convincing curmudgeon, but his boyish good looks keep getting in the way. Even when Fleder gets in close to accentuate the star’s crow’s feet, the 54 year old’s sunny disposition belies his (and the character’s) age. Besides, we expect more sour mash sass from a man who took a small university and built it into a strong athletic contender. Quaid tries to gruff up his gumption, but it never comes across as organic. And in a film which needs that strong outer source, Schwartzwalder is an incomplete core.

With an ending that attempts to balance triumph with tragedy and a feeling of incompleteness overall, The Express ends up being more and less of the same simultaneously. Anyone with even a minor degree in narrative predictability can see where all the nose bleeds and blurred vision is going, and the link to the classic 1971 weeper is undeniable. Besides, if we didn’t already understand Davis’ place in sports history, his lack of professional stature still wouldn’t be so surprising. When it sticks to the issue of race and how the Syracuse players responded to same, the movie makes us think. The rest of the time, however, The Express suffers from the same creative cruise control that has long since sunk the spotty sports genre.

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008

There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.

Though she longs to be with her sexy school chum Earl Grey, Lady Georgiana Spencer is promised to the dour William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, by her scheming mother. As a marriage of convenience and financial windfall, both households triumph. The Duke gets a Duchess to bear him an heir, while the Spencers align themselves with noble lineage. Almost immediately, Georgiana learns her frustrating fate. The Duke is a desperate lover, a horrible conversationalist, and a wanton womanizer. After befriending the fallen Lady Foster, our heroine soon discovers her taking up with her husband. Pursuing Grey, Georgiana becomes an outrage. But her popularity, founded on a love of gambling, fashion, and politics, keeps her favor with the masses. Even as she enters into an uncomfortable ménage a trios with Foster and her spouse, she finds ways to pursue her more ‘private’ passions.

Maybe it’s the casting of Keira Knightley. It could be the compromise of having TV director Saul Dibb behind the lens (apparently, he wasn’t the first choice). Maybe it’s the mediocre allusion to modern times. Clearly, we are supposed to see this Spencer as a pre-dated carbon copy of a certain Candle in the Wind - aka Princess Di. Whatever the rationale, however, The Duchess can’t help but be a massive bore. While others are keening for Oscar noms all around, audiences can expect another helping of half-baked Harlequin romancing draped in the kind of unbelievable beauty of an era unnaturally ornate. Few films reflecting the period play realistically with the obvious issues of disease and hygiene, and it’s a fair cop to argue that viewers don’t want such authenticity. But by prettying up everything, the production removes whatever teeth the tale had to offer. 

Knightley is also a problem here, putting on the pout she perfected while playing pirate for the last few years. Unlike Atonement which allowed her a much larger emotional range, The Duchess demands she be happy or sad, nothing more. Even in sequences where the dimensional arc should be much broader, Knightley offers little nuance. Things aren’t much better for costar Ralph Fiennes. As the dour, glum Duke of Devonshire, his character is more constipated than anything else. We are supposed to see the sadness behind the manor-born, to understand that he is simply playing by prescribed rules laid down after centuries of wealth and ritual. But Fiennes fails to find any spark. He’s so subtle as to be almost inert.

It is Dibb, however, who draws most of our ire. While the locations chosen have all the necessary pomp and circumstance, the spectacle seems to be missing. Crowd scenes feel claustrophobic, while lush interiors are underlit and frequently misused. You can hear the filmmaker defending himself: “this is a film about people, not places.” But part of the allure with such subject matter is the wish fulfillment fantasy of revisiting the days of the decadent, the dandy, and the unctuous uppercrust. For a film founding its narrative on such a supposedly scandalous lady, The Duchess is cloying and conservative. Even the sex scenes, and there are a couple, keep things direct and decent.

Dibb also demonstrates little insight into human nature. Again, it could be the timeframe being referenced, but dramatic license does allow for a few post-modern moments of clarity. When Georgiana confronts William and Lady Foster over their affair, the scene should sizzle. Instead, it’s rendered routine and matter of fact. However, when the Duke gets to gloat over his knowledge of his wife’s trysts with Grey, it’s handled in a much more bombastic manner. One could argue that Dibb is simply staying within the paternalistic power base of the epoch, giving Fiennes the freedom Knightley would never have. But again, this is fiction, not a fully factual recreation. Give your actors some room to breath, or suffer the stifled, uneven consequences.

Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined. Aside from the lack of a clear contemporary context (the Diana element isn’t even mentioned), one gets the impression that all this plays better on the page, where imagination and inner vision can compensate for the limits of the players onscreen. Someone once said that the further you go back into the past, the more similar to science fiction your effort becomes. That’s because the relationship to the modern world is so alien and arcane. The Duchess wants to draw parallels to the present by suggesting that people in the past were just the same as you or I. And maybe it’s true. After all, the conclusion being delivered here is that, no matter the century, affairs of the heart are often quite boring.

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008

Ridley Scott used to make daring, original movies. No matter the subject matter - outer space alien invasion, magical sword and sorcery adventure, revisionist Roman peplum - he’d place his visionary signature on every frame of film. Sure, he dabbled in pseudo realism, taking on the crime genre with Someone to Watch Over Me and a female facsimile of the buddy picture with Thelma and Louise. But when his name was attached to a project, we expected something innovative and outsized. Yet with his latest, Body of Lies, we get nothing more than a journeyman thriller. Even with a big named cast and intercontinental setting, Scott simply shows up and sets things in motion. The results are uninspired, to say the least.

Roger Ferris has been working undercover in the Middle East since the War on Terror took hold. He is usually a very effective agent, that is, when office jockey intelligence director Ed Hoffman isn’t interfering. Playing most missions for maximum political effect, the Washington based overseer manages to mess up many of Ferris’ best laid plans. While working with the government of Jordan, the young gun uncovers an Al-Qaeda safe house. Approaching Hani, the Minister in charge of security, Ferris sets up a deal to take down the terrorist cell from the inside. Naturally, Hoffman steps in and screws things up. This sours his agent with the Jordanians, the local population, and the evildoers he is charged with destroying. Soon, everything - and everyone - is threatened.

Anchored by an amazing performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and little else, Body of Lies limps along for over two hours, never amounting to more than a decent, if derivative nailbiter. While it may sound like beating a dead cinematic mare, we expect more from Scott. Clearly, his fixation with Australian antagonist Crowe has been a dull spot in his otherwise bright career. Gladiator was no great shakes (Oscars be damned) and A Good Year and American Gangster prove that tying your fortunes to a single signature actor is not always a guarantee of DeNiro/Scorsese success. Here, Crowe is reduced to a supporting player, a piggish US bureaucrat with his Southern drawling mug so far up his buttocks that he can’t see the reality of how ineffectual his efforts really are. It’s an interesting turn, but nothing more.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, succeeds in drawing us into this material, making his sympathetic spy - especially when it comes to the non-terrorist elements of the region - incredibly inviting. Looking a little rough around the edges, and dropping most of the mannerisms that highlight his still budding youth (he’s only 34), the superstar steals everything in Body of Lies - the performance points, the moral compass, and the entertainment value. While Brit Mark Strong offers an equally smart turn as Hani, the Jordanian heavy, this is Leo’s film from beginning to end. Had Scott simply settled on one of many fresh faces craved from the cathode that pass for big screen talents today, nothing here would work. As it stands, with DiCaprio’s Academy worthy turn, we can tolerate the rest of the redundancy.

Indeed, Body of Lies is nothing more than The Kingdom with more talking, Rendition with less torture - unless you count the convoluted screenplay by William Monahan. Still suffering from the careful clockwork plotting necessary to make The Departed ebb and flow, his adaptation of David Ignatius’ novel seems far more complicated than need be. Because Crowe is out of the locational loop most of the time, the forward motion of the story is shuttered so Hoffman can phone up and get his bungling and barbs in. And since we see how Hani sets up his own brand of insurgent infiltration, we can more or less guess the outcome - especially with Scott foreshadowing the denouement several times within the finale. In fact, Body of Lies suggests both Monahan and the man in the director’s chair got a little lost while bringing this project to life.

Thankfully, DiCaprio keeps us grounded - and interested. One of the movie’s biggest mistakes is assuming that American audiences, deadened as they are to the bumbling Bush policies of the last eight years, still have a rooting interest in seeing Arab bad guys biting the dust. Unlike the aforementioned Peter Berg actioner, which gave us characters and concerns to champion, Body of Lies is more insular. The focus frequently shifts from the big picture and the overall goal to Ferris and Hoffman’s high school style one-upmanship. Scott tries to countermand the contentiousness by cutting to shots of things blowing up. Yet like much of the movie’s context, these sequences play as sidelights to more cellphone conversations between name celebrities. We want action and intrigue. We are stuck watching Crowe spewing epithets during his daughter’s soccer game.

Basically, Body of Lies is one of those “who cares” productions. Aside from DiCaprio (and to a smaller extent, Strong), there is little else here that is compelling. Competent? Sure. Commercial? Who knows? Last year’s spite of Gulf War efforts failed because screenwriters decided that American soldiers should be recast as the bad guys. Scott and Monahan avoid this, yet they toss in the kind of surreal Executive Branch stratagem that also makes citizens want to revolt. Apparently, we need white hat/black hat simplicity when it comes to something as multifaceted as the War on Terror. If anyone could have made such a one-note approach work, it’s Scott. Sadly, whatever imagination and originality he possessed 20 years ago has all but disappeared. Body of Lies represents Ridley Scott Mach 2, and as upgrades go, it’s not successful.

by Rob Horning

9 Oct 2008

Promoting homeownership remains a bad idea, as Felix Salmon reminds us here.

The last thing we need right now is a resurgence in homeownership. Too many people own their homes already, including a lot of families who really shouldn’t. Let’s start thinking in terms of affordable housing, and not in terms of home equity.

Houses are not investment vehicles, treating them as such is pretty foolish and potentially destructive. And the economy as a whole is far less flexible when too many workers are tied down in one spot with a home. And when fringe exurbs are developed to allow for more lower-income families to own, it leads to enormous inefficiencies and a massive amount of energy wasted on extreme commuting. Etc.

Conservatives seem to want to blame Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for the crisis, but though they went broke in part by facilitating the mistaken ideal of the “ownership society,” they did not cause the current economic turmoil. Along with a choice quote from President Bush from 2004 in which he promotes “agggressive lending” to first-time borrowers—how surprising that this hasn’t worked out well—Barry Ritholtz has a good concise explanation of what did cause the crisis:

To repeat my prior arguments, the proximate cause of the Housing crisis were (1) Ultra-low rates; and (2) Abdication of traditional lending standards, thanks to (3) originators ability to resell mortgages for securitization purposes, and hence, (4) not have to worry about loan defaults.
The credit crisis was caused by (1) the above securitized mortgage paper, that was (2) rated triple AAA by Moody’s and Standard & Poors, which then (3) Which was then “insured” by credit default swaps (CDS)—the unreserved for, shadow insurance products (4) whose exemption was made possible by the Commodities Futures Modernization Act. That legislation exempted these derivatives from any supervision or regulation. The lack of reserve requirements is why there is now $62 trillion in CDS, many of which will never pay their counter parties the promised insurance.

Encouraged by the society-wide celebration of home ownership, mortgage lenders believed that their business was exempt from ethics or rational due diligence about the way funds were being distributed. So they lent to people without verifying whether they had any chance to pay off the loan, because that repayment was basically someone else’s problem. (In some instances, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which would repurchase mortgages from the negligent bankers who originally made them as long as they “conformed”, i.e. were not “jumbo” loans for McMansions and the like, or subprime loans. These restrictions were supposed to protect Fannie and Freddie, only many borrowers turned out to be subprime, in effect, once house prices began to drop and they couldn’t refinance. When these people began to default in high numbers, Fannie and Freddie were on the hook, having resold the mortgages as high-rated securities to other, mainly institutional investors who expected them to be guaranteed by the U.S. government—hence bailout.) All these loans were made into securities, and they were rated highly because the rate of default was presumed to be low, and defaults were supposedly protected by the default-swaps, which provided for some other company to basically pay the mortgages if the lenders didn’t. But defaults were much higher than expected, and no funds were reserved to cover the losses by those who provided the insurance—instead, those insurers were leveraged to the gills. Hence A.I.G. gets nationalized, and banks stop lending to one another (aka Libor jumps astronomically), because they don’t know which ones will go broke next. Lots of consumer rates, unfortunately, are pegged to Libor, which ordinarily tracks the Fed Funds rate closely. Right now, though, it’s off the chart. So consumers can’t afford to borrow anymore, which means the rest of the economy scales down for a recession. Welcome to Great Depression redux, according to economist Nicolas Bloom:

So why is this banking collapse and rise in uncertainty likely to be so damaging for the economy? First, the lack of credit is strangling firm’s abilities to make investments, hire workers and start R&D projects. Since these typically take several months to initiate the full force of this will only be fully felt by the beginning of 2009. Second, for the lucky few firms with access to credit the heightened uncertainty will lead them to postpone making investment and hiring decisions. It is expensive to make a hiring or investment mistake, so if conditions are unpredictable the best course of action is often to wait. Of course if every firm in the economy waits then economic activity slows down. This directly cuts back on investment and employment, two of the main drivers of economic growth. But this also has knock-on effects in depressing productivity growth. Most productivity growth comes from creative destruction – productive firms expanding and unproductive firms shrinking. Of course if every firm in the economy pauses this creative destruction temporarily freezes – productive firms do not grow and unproductive firms do not contract. This leads to a stalling productivity growth.

But at least people got to live in their “own” homes for a few years. It really gave us such a sense of pride while it lasted.

by Rob Horning

9 Oct 2008

The abstract of a new study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology suggests that girls don’t get “heavy music”:

The present study extended previous findings of gender differences in young people’s musical taste by examining whether identification with gender-related expressive or instrumental traits contributes to these differences, and by examining the underlying structure of musical taste by gender. The results confirmed greater liking of heavier contemporary music among men and of chart pop music among women. Gender was a stronger predictor of taste for gender-stereotyped styles than identification with gender-related traits. The structure of style preferences in dimensions relating to mainstream styles varied by gender. Men and participants with higher scores on expressiveness gave higher ratings to more styles. The findings are discussed in relation to gender differences in the use of music and gender-role socialization.


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