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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.


by L.B. Jeffries

8 Oct 2008

With the conventions over and vice presidents chosen, the electoral process is in full gear in America. Both sides have chosen candidates based on the gimmicks and audience they claim as their base, manifesting political divisions that have existed since Nixon first launched a campaign based on these nonsensical cultural divides. As an impressively neutral column over at The Economist explains, any hope of those cultural divides being put aside for the sake of saving our Nation have been all but forgotten. The Republicans all jeer about the liberal media whenever the flaws in their platform are pointed out, the Democrats ignore every flaw in their economic plan that doesn’t involve taxing the rich. Palin is legitimately inexperienced and ignorant of anything beyond the few issues she dealt with in Alaska. Obama’s inexperience is equally a legitimate point, making the Third party arguments more interesting than ever before in this election. And the fact that I’m comparing the Vice-Presidential nomination and the Presidential nomination’s qualifications instead of say, how they plan on saving the economy, speaks volumes about how idiotic the process has finally become. We will, as with the past two elections, get the President we deserve in this country.

I was not overly kind in my review of Stardock’s The Political Machine 2008 but I also admitted that I could very easily be biased because I just wasn’t in the mood for a lighthearted game about Presidential Elections. I’m not sure many Americans are at this point. Yet it must be conceded that any game that induces some kind of discussion about the election has value. Stardock has recently released a free to download shrunken version of their game that takes away your ability to make up candidates or tweak variables. Instead, you play as Obama/Biden or McCain/Palin in a set 24 week period. Just the mere act of pumping deceitful ads and tweaking your campaign message to your target state as a player heightens one’s awareness of the process in the real world. It is still not the deep and complex experience I pined for in my review, but perhaps it does not need to be. Whether you’re painting Obama as a snooty liberal or McCain as a dying old man, participating in the action raises awareness. And if we can do that, perhaps we’ll deserve a better leader than the ones we’ve been getting.

by Bill Gibron

8 Oct 2008

Poor Clint Howard. It must really be a pain in the package having ultra-high-profile Oscar-winning long-time American sitcom favorite goody-two-shoes talent-hog Ron as a brother. While Big Brother’s off making movies with Russell Crowe and collecting big fat residual checks from Happy Days and his various Imagine Entertainment products, you’re stuck playing insane shlubs in B-movie muck like Ice Cream Man and The Dentist II. And that glory-hoarding older sibling has to rub it in, handing out minor roles in his movies like pity dates (probably at the behest of the rest of the Howard clan) to his balding bro.

Though Clint claims to be content with letting his redheaded relative cop all the limelight while he basks in the dank, dreary coolness of the celebrity afterglow, one always senses a secret angst and/or anger whenever he discusses one Opie Cunningham. It’s not the Gentle Ben or tranya questions that seem to push his buttons, nor does he feel ashamed of such onscreen stinkers as Barb Wire, Carnosaur, or Leprechaun II. But mention the fact that “Ron” is making some big-budget epic about the actual discovery of the meaning of life, and Clint’s goofy gap-toothed smile goes just a little crooked. The glint leaves his eye and a deep-seated seething starts. Suddenly, he’s on the defensive and ducking even the obvious softballs lobbed at him. You just know Clint is an angry wannabe auteur just waiting for the world to recognize his own special gifts. Otherwise, why would he be so convincing as the put-upon orphan who’s the butt of all the jokes at his private military academy in Evilspeak? It’s got to be low-self-esteem sense memory!

Thanks to the do-gooders over at the welfare bureau, newly orphaned Stanley Coopersmith gets the privilege of going to school at the snooty West Andover Military Academy, whose motto is “Never Pick on Someone Your Own Size.” From the moment he arrived on campus, Stanley became the school’s resident scapegoat. All the teachers think he’s a slacker. All the students think he’s a wanker. And because he’s a government sponsored poverty case, he’s treated like an indentured servant (go figure).

Anyway, while cleaning out the basement of the chapel, Stanley stumbles across a couple of things. One is Sarge, an alcoholic arsehole who loves to torment the cadets. The other is a secret passage to an underground lair. Stanley discovers that it is the primeval domain of Esteban, a 15th century defrocked priest and certified Satan worshipper. Since our hero hates how everyone on campus treats him, he decides to call up the powers of Darkness to do his own unholy bidding. Besides, he’s really sick and tired of being called ‘Cooperdick’ all the time.

Hooking up the ultimate instrument of evil—an Apple II—and typing in Latin terms from an ancient manuscript, Stanley soon has the man-goat making down pat. Teachers are impaled on spikes, and crusty-curious old Sarge discovers the ultimate neck massage. But when the jock jokes of the school use Stanley’s pet pooch as a pincushion, all Heck really breaks loose. Stanley completes the CPU sacrifice and before you know it, his fallen-angel avenger has arrived to help him get all Evilspeak on their asses.

You have to acknowledge one thing about Clint’s character, Stanley Coopersmith, in this film. Even though he’s really a minor presence in the everyday running of the school, he has somehow managed to be at or near the core of every issue, both administratively and personally, for most of the staff and student body. Though he is no more portly than most boys, he is ragged on and called fat. Though there are dozens of other nogoodniks around, he seems to be stuck doing all the dirty grunt work. And while he does resemble a wild albino chipmunk with hairline issues, that’s really no excuse to treat him like an animal. He’s the reason why the soccer team is losing, why the school’s reputation is sullied, and why the pigsties still stink.

To West Andover Military Academy, Stanley is the dark cloud on Inspection Day, a Democrat in the White House, and freeze-dried peas in the K-rations. And yet, when mysterious deaths and disappearances start happening, and the once-reliable whipping boy goes missing for hours on end, no one seems the least suspicious. As long as he’s around to be picked on, Stanley has free reign to commune with whomever he wants. So, naturally, a date with the Devil is not so far-fetched.

If you were raised on the hackneyed horror of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, then Evilspeak will be like paging through the yearbook of Missed Opportunities High School, Class of ‘81. This movie has so many good things going for it, that when it finally flops over onto its back and bares its soft, static underbelly, you get a tad perturbed. There is Howard’s unhinged performance, an odd reinterpretation of Carrie as a boy who shops in the husky department at Sears. Then we’ve got the homoerotic shirtlessness of Luca Brazzi, a.k.a. Lenny Montana, the only cafeteria chef at an all-boys school who doesn’t wear a shirt under his apron. R.G. Armstrong’s drunken dope Sarge is a miserable menace that doesn’t hear the numerous pranks and demonic spunk going on around him, but wakes up whenever someone drops a book.

And of course, who could forget, the Satanic Pigs of Hate! That’s right, for no real reason except to have killer porkers in the narrative, Evilspeak employs dozens of Hell’s heinous ham factories to feast on the flesh of infidels. They tear out organs and rip off heads. They chase a naked babe into a shower, giving a whole new meaning to “makin’ bacon in the bathtub.” And when Clint finally figures out the formula for resurrecting the excommunicated priest Esteban (no, not the sunglass-wearing, guitar-shilling infomercial king. That’s a whole other kind of evil), he sends the swine assassins to wipe out the entire soccer team. Let’s face it, this movie should have really been about Beelzebub’s badass blood-and-guts boars, and left all of the bullying boyhood trauma to John Hughes. No amount of the red stuff—and there is plenty here—can make up for what happens to this movie during its second act.

Evilspeak is indeed a film backheavy on gore. Coopersmith spends so much time getting picked on and blamed that you sit back and wait for his persecutors to pay. And you wait. And you wait. And you wait. Indeed, as the entire middle section of the movie meanders around from obvious grabs at sentimentality (the entire cook/puppy portions) to attempts to stay in tune with the demographic (a Miss Heavy Artillery Contest, the aforementioned nude bathroom romp) Evilspeak loses its spark. What started as a standard wish fulfillment/revenge scheme mixed with Satanism flounders with a lack of focus.

Not even the novelty of the computer (back then, about as sci-fi as the butt-kicking androids of I, Robot) conjuring up the Black Mass in easy-to-program PASCAL can save the slide. So when all the grue comes blasting at the screen (to ape a certain Texas Drive-In expert: “Heads roll. Intestines roll. Hearts roll.”), it’s a little too late. Actually, it’s a couple dozen gallons-full too late. With some of the deleted sinew restored in this remaster of the movie, the end elements of iniquity are particularly ooey, gooey, nasty, and fright-flick satisfying. But unless you find a way to entertain yourself until the soft tissue starts soaring, you’ll find Evilspeak as dull as a demonic quilting bee.

//Mixed media

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