The Queen of Versailles


The Queen of Versailles

David and Jackie Siegel, power couple.

(2012) Documentary (Magnolia) Jackie Siegel, David Siegel, Virginia Nebab, Lauren Greenfield, Richard Siegel, Oscar Goodman, Tina Martinez. Directed by Lauren Greenfield

 

The American Dream; we all have it to at least one extent or another. We want to be free of the cares of the world;  we want to have the freedom to do what we want when we want. That’s the freedom that money and wealth provide. Not all of us want to live extravagantly but most of us would like to at least live comfortably.

At first glance, the Siegels seem to be the embodiment of the American Dream. David is the owner of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately-owned timeshare company in the world. He is a billionaire many times over. He lives here in Orlando in the exclusive Isleworth community, where such celebrities as Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal live.

He is married to Jackie, a beauty queen, former model and incongruously a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology with an engineering degree. She’s beautiful, gracious and vivacious and 30 years younger than he. She’s also quite fertile – she and David have seven children together and are raising an eighth, the teenage daughter of Jackie’s sister.

The 26,000 square foot home – what Jackie terms a “starter mansion” – isn’t large enough for the Siegels however, so they set out to build a new one on the shores of a lake with a nightly view of the fireworks over in Disney. It just started out being a larger home but as the Siegels began adding in all the amenities they wanted – from a bowling alley to a functional baseball diamond which would double as a parking lot for their event parties – it soon became larger than life. When completed, it would be the largest private home under a single roof in America. The Siegels, who were inspired by the architecture of the Paris hotel in Las Vegas as well as the summer palace of the French royalty in France named it after the latter, Versailles, without a hint of irony.

They are riding at the top and throw lavish parties for the Miss America pageant, a program close to both of their hearts – Jackie as a former beauty pageant winner and David…well, as a man who likes beautiful women. Then comes 2008 and the economic meltdown. David’s business depends heavily on loans from banks and when they’re no longer lending, his business suffers. Suddenly, the Siegels are forced to cut back. Their staff goes from more than twenty down to four.

It turns out to be something of a trauma. David is forced to lay off workers, clearly an act that bothers him very much. When Jackie goes back to her hometown of Binghamton, New York she doesn’t fly on the private jet – she has to go on a commercial airliner which is startling to her children who wonder why so many people are waiting in line at the airport. Shopping trips are to Wal*Mart instead of to the high end retailers of Gucci and Tiffany. Construction on Versailles is halted and Westgate’s new centerpiece property, the Planet Hollywood Towers becomes the object of desire for banks who almost want David to go into foreclosure while he stubbornly tries to hold on to everything.

David boasts early on that he was responsible for George W. Bush getting elected, although he declines to give specifics, only giving us a bit of a twinkling eye and a wink about quasi-legalities. The irony there is that Dubya would preside over the meltdown that would caused him so much heartache.

Looking at all the above, it might be easy to think of the Siegels as arrogant one percenters who got what they deserved but I didn’t wind up seeing them that way. Jackie has a heart as big as they come, and she’s completely disingenuous. Sure, she is ditzy in places but we all have brain farts from time to time but she’s genuine. She’s a lot smarter than she sometimes lets on – between the cleavage and the Botox you probably get the opinion that she’s all sizzle and no steak – but I get the feeling that she uses her looks as a defense. People probably have underestimated Jackie her entire life. Brains can be a curse for a beautiful woman, if you subscribe to the ignorance is bliss theory.

David shows signs of stress near the end of the movie which is understandable, although in interviews he says that it was due to the presence of the filmmakers, whom he has since leveled a lawsuit at for misrepresenting the financial state of his company, which he claims is far more solvent than what the filmmakers let on. To be fair, Greenfield made it seem like Westgate was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy at times which, considering that David is still despite everything that has occurred, a wealthy man, seems unlikely.

The story of David and Jackie is our story, believe it or not. They may not necessarily be able to relate to the problems of the middle class well but by the same token we don’t really relate to theirs. The prospect of losing things you dreamed of and worked for is just as painful for a billionaire as it is for you and me. David and I probably don’t see eye to eye on a lot of our politics, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a decent man. Jackie and I don’t have the same ideas when it comes to shopping but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a good woman.

I wound up wishing the Siegels well, which was something I didn’t expect. It’s very easy to paint all the top one percent with the same brush and declare them evil because they’ve had amazing success. I have no doubt David Siegel earned his success many times over – even in his 70s he is a driven, hard worker. I can’t begrudge anyone success – after all, it’s what I aspire to myself . I just begrudge those who have it working to prevent others from achieving it. Those that buy politicians and get them to enact laws designed to keep the super wealthy rich and the rest of us in our place as they see it, well, those are the actions I can’t stand. Those who simply want to live their lives in the lap of the luxury that they can afford, while I can’t help but envy them I can’t bring myself to hate them. After all, to a starving family in East Africa I probably appear to be rich as Croesus. I could probably be doing more to help them than I do. However, I would never support laws that would remove programs that they need to survive so that I could keep every penny of my wealth. I would hope more of the one percent would feel that way. I certainly hope David and Jackie Siegel do.

REASONS TO GO: A cautionary tale. You wind up liking the Siegels even if you come in wanting to despise them.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much dog poop. Hard to feel sympathy for the Siegels.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film crew had extraordinary access to the Siegels, staying in their home several days every month for nearly three years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”

CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION LOVERS: Throughout the film, we see the Siegels attitude of more is better; they aren’t shy about enjoying their wealth (not that any of us would be either if we had that kind of money); shopping trips – even to Wal*Mart – are epic excursions. They have a private jet, a fleet of limos and enormous closets full of clothes although David probably doesn’t – he seems a little bit more down to earth when it comes to his cash.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

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Catherine Keener is amused at one of Oliver Platt's bon mots.

(2010) Black Comedy (Sony Classics) Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele, Ann Guilbert, Josh Pais, Elise Ivy, Amanda Peet, Thomas Ian Nichols, Scott Cohen, Lois Smith, Amy Wright, Romy Rosemont, Kathleen Doyle, Kevin Corrigan. Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Guilt works on us in funny ways. Some of us feel compelled to assuage our guilt by doing things for others, while others simply hide that guilt away and ignore it, much like listening to a long-winded preacher on Sundays. Few of us confront it head-on.

Alex (Platt) and Kate (Keener) own an antique furniture place which is primarily stocked by finds at estate sales, or having Kate find grieving children to buy large amounts of furniture for as little as she can get away with and having Alex sell the pieces for as much as he can get away with. Pretty much typical capitalism.

However, the circumstances work on Kate’s conscience and she tends to give cash and food to the local homeless in her trendy Chelsea neighborhood in New York City much to the irritation of daughter Abby (Steele) who sees little generosity from her mother.

Alex and Kate, eager to expand their small apartment, have managed to purchase the apartment next door which they will eventually knock down the walls to in order to make a larger living space for themselves. The problem is that Audra (Guilbert, who was once Millie the neighbor on The Dick van Dyke show) lives in that apartment currently, so Alex and Kate must wait for her to die in order to start construction. The fact that Audra is a bitch of epic proportions makes this an easier proposition. This also makes for an uncomfortable relationship with Audra’s grandchildren, who have issues of their own.

Rebecca (Hall) is a mammogram technician who is kind enough on the surface, but wishy washy and indecisive deep down. She has been guilt-tripped into caring for Audra who uses her for a verbal punching bag. Mary (Peet) is a cosmetologist who appears to be confident and strong but has some anger issues and a sharp tongue that occasionally rears its ugly head.

That’s really it in terms of plot. Holofcener, one of the better American independent directors out there, prefers to deliver slices of life and character studies more than telling a story from beginning through middle to end. There is a resolution of sorts, but the payoff is somewhat low-key and doesn’t really signal any sort of growth or change on the part of any of the people in the cast.

Holofcener, unlike other directors, tends to put more attention on the women of the cast which isn’t to say that Platt doesn’t get much screen time; only that Holofcener tends to pay more attention to the main female parts of Kate, Rebecca, Mary, Audra and Abby. Platt does get some of the better lines in the movie and makes a fine foil for Kate.

Keener, who has worked with Holofcener before, is the main focus here. She talks a good game about compassion and community involvement but she mostly uses these things as a means of making herself feel better because she’s well aware that while she is doing nothing illegal she is clearly in a moral grey area. That calls into question the genuineness of her actions and Abby’s caustic remarks about charity beginning at home at first seem self-centered and teen-centric but as you come to understand Kate’s motivations, Abby’s charges seem to be more right on the money.

Most of the characters aren’t always easy to get along with and Holofcener likes it that way; her characters are presented as being flawed and occasionally stepping over the line of decency (Mary stalks the girlfriends of an ex-boyfriend she can’t get over; Alex has an affair). The relationships are complicated and often muddied by the human frailties of those in them, which is pretty much what real life is all about.

This isn’t strictly speaking 90 minutes of non-stop entertainment but it is the kind of movie that you should find fascinating from beginning to end. Parts of it are painful to watch and others will make you smile in spite of yourself. If you are still thinking about a movie several weeks after you’ve seen it then the director has done his or her job and in my case Holofcener did her job well.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written and well-acted, particularly by Keener, Platt and Peet.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not always easy to watch, particularly since most of the character have some sort of hang-up that makes them unlikable for long stretches, particularly in Steele’s case.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, as well as some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The spa scenes were shot at Skintology, a chic spa in the Chelsea area of New York City where most of the movie was shot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel and a director Q&A from a preview screening.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.3M on $3M production budget; it’s unlikely this was profitable at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Micmacs

Hancock


Hancock

The Fresh Prince don't get any fresher than this.

(2008) Superhero (Columbia) Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Eddie Marsan, Jae Head, David Mattey, Thomas Lennon, Johnny Galecki, Nancy Grace, Mike Epps, Hayley Marie Norman, Darrell Foster, Liz Wicker.  Directed by Peter Berg

We look to our heroes to be paragons of virtue. They are handsome (or beautiful), brave, selfless and modest. However, not all heroes are built that way. Sometimes it takes more of a hero to overcome the lack of those qualities and still remain heroic.

Hancock (Smith) is one such. He is irritable and socially awkward. He is also a raging alcoholic who often makes a shambles of his attempts to help – the clean-up bills for his appearances are often more than what he prevented from being stolen. The public despises him because of his attitude and his apparent uncaring that his actions cause millions misery.

One day he rescues an idealistic P.R. flack named Ray Embrey (Bateman) from certain death when he stops his car from being hit by a train. Grateful, he takes Hancock home for dinner, introducing him to his wife Mary (Theron) and his son Aaron (Head). Ray offers Hancock his services to help rehabilitate his image but Hancock sullenly declines. Mary, who has taken an intense dislike to Hancock, tells Ray he’s a lost cause and to forget him.

Part of Hancock’s issue is that he has no memory of his past. He doesn’t know how he wound up where he is, only that he’s there. Now he wants more, having had a taste of a normal life. Reluctantly, he agrees to have Ray rehabilitate him.

Part of Hancock’s rehabilitation involves him making amends, so Hancock agrees to go to prison to make up for all the damage he’s caused. While there Ray designs a new suit for him so that when the city becomes besieged by criminals who are attacking citizens with impunity, realizing Hancock isn’t around, Hancock will be ready to display his new image – and he does and as Ray predicts, people begin to love him. However, there is something on the horizon – something that goes back to the secret of Hancock’s past, something far more insidious or deadly than any super villain.

In many ways, this is one of the more imaginative super hero movies to come along. Here we have a hero who isn’t particularly likable, played by an actor who is known for his charm. The result is a little surprising. We’ve never seen Will Smith like this before.

Bateman, who is currently one of the most sought-after comedic actors in the business, was more or less known more for his TV roles as a juvenile (and getting his career jumpstarted again with “Arrested Development” after essentially losing the 90s to drug use and alcohol) before Hancock and it is his performance here that really ignited his movie career.

Theron has good chemistry with Smith and her little secret is surprising (if you haven’t seen the movie I won’t reveal it here) and well-played. Unfortunately, the studio blundered into revealing the secret in the trailer so if you haven’t seen the trailer, don’t watch it before renting the movie.

The special effects are surprisingly unremarkable, although I think most of the big-budget big-ticket superhero movies have pretty much shown off all a superhero can do, at least at present. There is a climactic battle that doesn’t seem particularly spectacular, although there are some shots that are pretty nifty.

What I like about the movie is the smart premise and the different take on the superhero, one who is vulnerable emotionally and not always there to save the day for the right reasons. He is fully capable of messing up, and often does, doing more harm than good despite his best intentions – and his intentions aren’t always his best. Hancock is depicted as going through the motions, another day at the office. Even a superhero has off days.

There is a generous amount of humor here but the filmmakers play it surprisingly safe, which I think is a good call. Turn this into a spoof and it just becomes another shot at comic book fandom (and there are plenty of those out there). However, play it straight and it becomes a serious look at what makes a hero heroic. We see that the best of men can be humbled, and it is often the not-quite-the-best of men who make the best of heroes.

WHY RENT THIS: An unusual take on the superhero genre. Bateman is awesome in a role that helped turbo charge his career. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A noticeable shift in tone from the first part of the movie to the last reel.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of action-like violence peppered by a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Mary gets ready for bed, she is wearing a Macalester College t-shirt; that is director Peter Berg’s alma mater.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a single disc DVD with just the movie, a two-disc Special DVD edition which has both the theatrical release and unrated versions of the movie, also available on the Blu-Ray which gives viewers the option to watch the eight-part making-of featurette as a picture-in-picture accompaniment to the main movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $624.4M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Eat Pray Love


Eat Pray Love

Julia Roberts looks soulfully at the Eternal City.

(Columbia) Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, Billy Crudup, James Franco, Tuva Novotny, Luca Argentero, Giuseppe Gandini, Rushita Singh, Hadi Subiyanto, Christine Hakim, Anakia Lapae, Arlene Tur.  Directed by Ryan Murphy

Most of us, at one time or another, undergo a rigorous self-examination of the soul, one usually brought on by some kind of crisis. We are forced to face our own deficiencies, define who we are and compare ourselves to who we need to be. Most of us must do us all by our own lonesome; some of us use the benefit of a therapist. Others take a different route.

Liz Gilbert (Roberts) is a successful freelance writer who’s married, lives in a great apartment in Manhattan and is surrounded by a coterie of friends and admirers. Of course, this means she’s absolutely miserable. Her husband Stephen (Crudup) is a bit of a self-involved dweeble, perpetually trying new careers in an effort to find something that’ll stick. He has announced that he is going back to school to get his masters, just as Liz is looking forward to spending some time in Aruba. When he asserts “I don’t wanna go to Aruba,” she replies tearfully “I don’t want to be married.”

Stephen contests the divorce and doesn’t want to let go. Liz does what any sensible woman just getting out of a marriage to a decent enough guy that she was miserable in – she leaps into the bed of David (Franco), an off-Broadway actor who has adopted Eastern philosophies and follows an Indian guru. He is just as superficial as Stephen is, and Liz decides to leave on a year-long journey of to find out who she is since she feels numb inside, as she tells her best friend Delia (Davis). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that despite being cleaned out in the divorce, her publisher paid for the trip with an advance on the book that Liz would eventually write (a fact not mentioned in the movie).

Her first stop is Rome, where she meets Sofi (Tuvotny), a Swedish ex-pat; Giovanni (Argentero), Sofi’s Italian boyfriend and Luca Spaghetti (Gandini), who claims his family invented the namesake pasta. Here, she dives headfirst into Italian cuisine, from Neapolitan pizza to Roman pasta to gelato and everything in between. She eats without feeling guilty, launching herself into La dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing. Check.

From there, she goes to the ashram of the Indian guru that David follows. Here, she meets Richard (Jenkins), a garrulous Texan who, as she puts it, speaks in bumper stickers. He chides her into finding a way to meditate despite the attacks of mosquitoes and an inability to clear her mind. He calls her “Groceries” because of her appetite and the two wind up being pretty good friends, enough so that Richard confesses to her the reason he’s there in one of the movie’s more compelling scenes.

She also befriends a young girl (Singh) who is about to enter an arranged marriage, which troubles the both of them. Eventually she gets with the program, but Liz not so much, the wedding reminding her inevitably of her own. Eventually, she finds some inner peace. Check.

After that, it’s off to Indonesia – Bali to you and me – to meet up with the medicine man Ketut (Subiyanto) whom she met a year earlier and predicted that she would be back to teach him English. She stays in the area, translating old parchments for him in the mornings and exploring Bali in the afternoons. It is here that she meets Phillipe (Bardem), a Brazilian ex-pat who runs an import business. The two begin to fall for each other, but Liz doesn’t need a man anymore – does she?

This is based on the New York Times bestseller, and it’s appeal to women can be measured by its appearance on Oprah (the daytime talk diva devoted two entire shows to the book) and the number of women in the audience at the movie, which was roughly about 80%. There is certainly an empowering element to the book and the movie, which teaches women that they need to find fulfillment from within.

At least, that’s the message I think is intended, but the movie doesn’t really bring that across so much. Most of the wisdom that Liz arrives at comes from others, be it the irascible Texan in India, or the gentle healer in Bali. She seems to bring little to the table internally other than a penchant for whining about how unfulfilled she is.

I don’t know the author personally so I can’t guess at how accurate the portrayal of her is. I’m sure she couldn’t have been disappointed to have Roberts, one of the most beautiful women on Earth, playing her. Roberts is a fair actress in her own right, as Erin Brockovich conclusively showed, but this won’t be measured as one of her finer performances. To be fair, it can’t be easy to portray someone whose chief trait seems to be inner emptiness but you never get a sense of that emptiness being filled in a significant way. Perhaps that’s a subtlety I overlooked.

She is also matched with two of the best actors in the world in Bardem and Jenkins, and neither one disappoint. Jenkins’ rooftop soliloquy in the Indian portion alone may win him Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actor, if Academy members remember that far back come voting time this winter. Bardem plays a wounded divorcee who desperately loves his children, but is terrified of getting his heart broken again.

Murphy crafts a very slick, good-looking movie that runs a very long time – I was definitely shifting in my seat right around the India sequence – and doesn’t have as much depth as it purports to. As Liz accuses Richard of speaking in bumper stickers, so is the movie a series of motivational posters of cats hanging from ledges and eagles gliding into sunsets. There is nothing truly profound here, other than the simple advice not to worry so much about what you eat, find balance in your life, and then find a hot Brazilian to fool around with. Sage advice all, but especially for those who can afford to take a year off and embark on an all-expenses paid journey of self-discovery. Most of us don’t get that kind of opportunity.

The secret to finding self-realization is to look inward. You’re simply not going to find it in a book or a movie, although those desperate enough will look in those places first. As Richard says repeatedly to Liz (repetition is a theme in the movie), you have to do the work. Nothing comes easy in this life, not even something simple like a plate of spaghetti. Realizing that is the first step towards wisdom.

REASONS TO GO: Bardem and Jenkins are two of the best actors working and are worth seeing in their roles. Gorgeous cinematography makes this worth checking out.

REASONS TO STAY: Spiritual aspects are a bit hazy. Quite frankly, this seems quite self-indulgent and new age-y.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and occasionally bad language, as well as a bare male derriere; otherwise, it’s suitable for teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Murphy is responsible for creating the hit Fox Network show “Glee.”

HOME OR THEATER: There is some beautiful cinematography here, but not the sweeping majesty that would compel home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Trucker