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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The Help


The Help

Viola Davis is tired of Emma Stone asking what it's like to be nominated for an Oscar.

(2011) Period Drama (DreamWorks/Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen, David Oyelowo, Aunjanue Ellis, Nelsan Ellis. Directed by Tate Taylor

Often those who work as domestic servants are relegated to being background characters, even in real life. They clean the houses of their employers, cook their food and even raise their children, but their stories are rarely told. That’s especially true of the African-American domestics of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s as America stood on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss with her head stuffed with the dreams of being a writer. Her mother Charlotte (Janney) has different dreams for her daughter; mainly of getting married, something Skeeter isn’t eager to do. Her friends mostly already have and can’t figure out why on earth a good looking girl like Skeeter remains unhitched.

Skeeter is surprised that her longtime nanny and maid Constantine (Tyson) is gone. According to her parents, Constantine has gone to Chicago to be with her family there but Skeeter senses that there is something she’s not being told. She holds her tongue however, considering her mother is battling cancer. Skeeter is also far too busy starting a new job as the columnist for the (fictional) Jackson Journal dispensing housecleaning tips.

Her friend Hilly Holbrook (Howard) has become something of a community leader, head of the local Junior League and writer and proponent of a bill that specifies that the hired help in Jackson homes must have separate toilet facilities. This doesn’t sit well with her maid Millie (Spencer), who doesn’t appreciate being sent out in a hurricane to use an outdoor commode. When she pretends to use the family restroom, she is shown the door much to the chagrin of Hilly’s mom (Spacek) who was Millie’s actual employer.

Millie is the best cook in Jackson so it won’t take her long to get another position, this time with Celia Foote (Chastain), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks blonde who is married to an ex-boyfriend of Hilly’s and has thus earned social shunning. Celia knows nothing of cleaning house or cooking, and she desperately needs someone who can train her in both, or at least convince her husband Johnny (Vogel) that she knows something.

Also in Skeeter’s circle is Elizabeth Leefolt (O’Reilly) whose young daughter Mae is being raised by Aibileen (Davis), who has raised seventeen white babies while her own son died recently. She keeps her grief to herself, pouring herself into taking care of the family she works for. She notices that Elizabeth doesn’t really interact with her daughter much, rarely picking her up and Mae has become as a result way more attached to Aibileen.

Skeeter is aware of Aibileen’s reputation as a housekeeper and asks Elizabeth permission to talk to Aibileen so she can get help writing her column. Elizabeth is reluctant and puts a stop to the conversations after a single session but Skeeter becomes fascinated by Aibileen and has the brilliant idea to write the stories of the domestics of Jackson and make a book out of them. Her publishing contact in New York (Steenburgen) agrees but is skeptical that given the climate in Jackson that Skeeter will see much co-operation.

It initially appears that the publisher is right when Aibileen refuses Skeeter but after a particularly impassioned sermon by the local pastor (Oyelowo) inspires Aibileen to change her mind. Aibileen also recruits her friend Millie and soon Skeeter is getting some pretty subversive stuff, things that are going to shake up Jackson to the core.

This is based by the 2009 bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett whose childhood friend Taylor adapted the work for the screen and directed. Taylor does a fair job with it, framing the story in the turbulent times; we see clips of Medgar Evers (and see the devastating effects of his murder on the community) as well as JFK and Martin Luther King. The archival footage dos help set the time and place.

It is the acting that is the real reason to see this movie. Davis in particular becomes the center of the movie and Stone, who is the erstwhile lead, seems to realize that and generously allows Davis to shine at her own expense. That turns out to be a good move for the film; Davis carries it. Her quiet dignity and expressive eyes are at the center of the movie. For my money, it’s an Oscar-caliber performance and I sure hope the Academy remembers her work come nomination time.

That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast isn’t impressive as well. Stone takes Skeeter and gives her sass and character. At times the character is written as kind of the “white person saving the black person” cliche, but Stone elevates it above stock character status. Speaking of sass, Spencer just about defines the term in her portrayal of Minnie who comes off as very spunky but there are moments when she reveals her inner pain, suffering in an abusive relationship and unsure of herself.

Howard has the juiciest role here, that of the hysterical racist Hilly. Howard has had some decent performances in a variety of movies, but this might be her finest. She captures the pettiness and vitriol of the part and her expression when Millie’s “terrible awful” is revealed is priceless.

Veterans Steenburgen, Janney and Spacek lend further credibility to the film which is well acted from top to bottom. There are moments of genuine comedy (the terrible awful) as well as some heartstring tuggers (when Aibileen reveals to Skeeter what happened to her son). Mostly, you get a sense of the attitudes towards African-Americans of the era. We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a very long way to go (as evidenced in the treatment of our President and the continued use of racial profiling). The Help isn’t the best movie of the year but it is on a very, very short list.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and compelling source material. Drama, comedy, pathos; this movie has something for everybody.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be emotionally manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The thematic material is on the mature side; younger kids may not understand the historical context but for teens who might be learning about the civil rights movement this makes for some fine viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book the movie is based on was rejected 60 times before finally being published, a testament to persistence by author Kathryn Stockett.

HOME OR THEATER: As studio films go this one’s pretty intimate but the shared experience factor tends to make me lean towards theater for this one.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: GasLand

Mary Poppins


Mary Poppins

Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke discover you just can't find good help anymore.

(Disney) Julie Andrews, Dick van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynnis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Else Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell, Arthur Malet. Directed by Robert Stevenson

Some movies transcend their original material. Very few remember the children’s stories of P.L. Travers but nearly everyone has seen and/or loves the Disney movie version.

The Banks children Jane (Dotrice) and Michael (Garber) have gone through nannies like Bill Cosby has gone through sweaters. Their father (Tomlinson) spends most of his day working at the bank and when he is home, he expects it to be run like a proper British household. His wife (Johns) is far too busy with the women’s suffragette movement to really spend time with her children. When they drive the latest nanny out, it’s the last straw. Mr. Banks determines to oversee the recruitment of a proper nanny himself.

The children have ideas of their own. They write a letter with the qualifications that they would like, which their father pooh-poohs. However, strangely enough, the torn-up letter of the children makes its way to the world’s most famous nanny; the estimable Mary Poppins (Andrews) herself. When a stiff British breeze blows the other applicants away, Mary Poppins floats in on the Eastern wind and gets the position.

She then proceeds to take her charges through a series of wonderful adventures through chalk drawings, on the rooftops and around London. She is assisted by her friend Bert (van Dyke), a jack of all trades who is best known as a chimney sweep. All of these are set to the most marvelous musical score ever set to a children’s film. And when the broken family is at last mended, Mary Poppins quietly sails away on the East wind that brought her to Cherry Tree Lane.

My wife recently posted on her Facebook status a query about a film that reminds her most of her childhood. I thought and thought and thought about it and came up with this one. If you define childhood as the ages before the affectations and cynicism of the teenage years set in, then this is the movie that defines my pre-teen years most closely.

Julie Andrews gave a career-establishing performance and along with her role as Maria in The Sound of Music (a role she attained due directly to her work here) is the one she is most closely identified with. Much to the distress of P.L. Travers, the Disney brain trust made Poppins more cheery, less cold than the one in the book. Andrews made her fresh and sweet, to go with the prim and proper veneer she affected. It would give Andrews the Best Actress Oscar at the 1965 Academy Awards.

No less outstanding is van Dyke as Bert the chimney sweep. His singing and dancing would establish him a one of Hollywood’s leading actors for the era and elevate him from the television fame which he then enjoyed. Van Dyke holds his own with some of the more intimidating actors of the era, including Wynn as the contagiously jolly Uncle Albert.

The music however is particularly outstanding and nearly everyone has a song that is close to their hearts from this film, from “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” to “Stay Awake” to the classic “A Spoonful of Sugar.” My own personal favorite is “Feed the Birds,” something I have in common with Walt Disney himself. I used to have an album with some of the music from Mary Poppins and I feel oddly comforted whenever I hear this song; I used to play it as a child when I was troubled and would feel immediately better. I think a lot of children use music that way.

Simply put, this is one of the all-time classics, one which in many ways doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves. It is symbolic of childhood and families, of the wonder and magic that is all around us and that we can rediscover if only we choose to. Children have no need to – they know it’s there, they live with it every day. How I envy them that.

So there you have it. The movie that most brings my childhood back to me is this one. I suspect that I’m not alone in that regard. So go ahead, whip out the disk or rent it (it’s available nearly everywhere and it’s almost always in stock) and settle in for two hours of childhood reclamation. It will do your soul good.

And feel free to add your voice to the discussion. Is there a particular movie that brings back memories of your childhood? Post it in the comments!

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful music, great performances, an imaginative premise and simply put, makes you feel like a kid again regardless of how old you are.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ve lost contact with the child inside you.

FAMILY VALUES: This family classic is suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only movie produced by Walt Disney himself to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The most recent 45th Anniversary edition comes loaded with special features, included several related to the recent Broadway production based on the film. There’s a feature on composer Richard Sherman, as well as a deleted song set to storyboards for the scene, and a short film based on a Mary Poppins story by P.L. Travers.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Dragonball: Evolution