The Emperor’s New Clothes


Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

(2015) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Russell Brand. Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Wealth inequality is a major social issue in 2016 and looks to be for a long while. The same people responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 that very nearly wrecked the global economy have benefitted from trillions of dollars in financial bailouts generated by the taxpayers of the United States and United Kingdom.

We hear about these issues from progressive bloggers, left-wing news outlets and progressive politicians. Few have made these issues more relatable however than comedian Russell Brand. While his movie appearances and brief marriage to singer Katie Perry have made him fairly well known on American shores, it is in Great Britain where he is much more of a well-known figure, thanks to his comedy specials and television programs.

He is something of a gadfly, a populist comic who has become a social activist. He has always leaned to the left in his comedy but of late he has emphasized his activism a lot more, as shown in this documentary collaboration with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (The Trip) as he tilts at the windmills that are British bankers.

While Brand focuses on the problems in his native United Kingdom, the issues there are somewhat depressingly similar to what is happening in the United States. Using memes and an occasional in-your-face rhetoric in which statistics are shouted in a strident voice, Brand nevertheless builds up a convincing argument that Fundamentalist Capitalism as advocated by economist Milton Friedman and put into practice by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and conservatives that have followed in their footsteps, is responsible for the runaway economic woes that have come from the rich not only getting richer and the poor not only getting poorer, but the disparity between the two growing wider than ever.

Statistics come at you like body blows from Rocky Balboa; OXFAM reports that the world’s wealthiest 80 people has the combined wealth of the bottom half of the world population, or that had the minimum wage gone up at the same rate as CEO salaries, then workers would be making a minimum salary of nearly six figures annually.

He utilizes a confrontational technique popularized by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in seeking out banking executives for interviews (who only give them when ambushed by Brand and his camera crew) to ask uncomfortable questions about the bailout, bonuses given by banking firms since then and their own excessively bloated compensation packages. Often he ends up spending more time with security guards with whom he discusses what he’s planning on asking their bosses, which is ironic since the guards are part of the 99% he’s preaching to.

And it is preaching. Even Brand himself admits that he’s a wealthy man and occasionally jokes about raising taxes on the wealthy to exclude himself, but he advocates 90% taxation on the wealthy, a plan that he seems to dash when he also brings up the tax havens in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere where trillions of dollars are being held benefiting essentially only the very rich.

Brand is an engaging and likable personality and when he is showing compassion to single working mums, he seems to be at his best although there are instances (as when he’s talking with a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy whose benefits were drastically cut) where you feel that he is playing to the camera a bit overly much.

I can’t say this is an indispensable documentary – there is a bit of pandering to the hipster left and some of the stunts are a bit disingenuous but the heart is in the right place. Your reaction to the movie will entirely depend on your political point of view; conservative audiences will no doubt dislike the film while more progressive viewers may well embrace it. Film buffs could admire the graphic presentation and disparage Winterbottom’s static camera work.

Certainly this is one of the more important issues (behind climate change) of our time. Brand makes a good case that this is money that these families didn’t actually earn, and whom for the most part inherited and used their power and influence to buy political votes in order to make the tax structures more accommodating to them and make it easier for them to not only keep their wealth but increase it – at the expense of everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A succinct explanation of wealth inequality. Brand is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes you feel shouted at. These sorts of confrontation hijinks have been done before.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two documentaries about Russell Brand’s crusade against wealth inequality released last year (the other being Russell Brand: The Second Coming by Ondi Timoner).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Roger and Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Danish Girl

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21


When Jim Sturgess says "Hit me," some might misinterpret the request.

When Jim Sturgess says “Hit me,” some might misinterpret the request.

(2008) Drama (Columbia) Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Ma, Christopher Holley, Scott Beringer, Teresa Livingstone, Jeff Dashnaw, Frank Patton, Colin Angle, Bradley Thoennes, Spencer Garrett, Sally Livingstone. Directed by Robert Luketic

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Getting an education is expensive but it is necessary these days if you want an express pass to success. Students go into outrageous amounts of debt just to make it through four years of college, let alone graduate school. Some students have had to think outside of the box in order to pay off what they owe.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has a brilliant mind, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee, and not even a very good one. He has achieved a great deal – he’s got nearly a perfect academic record at MIT and with his MCAT scores near the top of the scale, has been eagerly accepted into Harvard Medical School. The trouble is, he can’t afford the more than $300K that a Harvard Medical School will cost him and apparently he’s already maxed out on student loans. He takes solace in his misery with fellow nerds Miles (Gad) and Cam (Golzari), his two best friends.

One day, he catches the eye of Mickey Rosa (Spacey), one of his professors, for his ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure. When Rosa investigates further, he finds that Campbell has a keen mind for numbers a talent which is clearly being wasted as the assistant manager for a men’s clothing store.  Rosa decides to invite Ben to join a project he has underway, which involves having his genius students count cards at blackjack in Las Vegas casinos. While perfectly legal, it is frowned upon by the casinos because it is a way of beating the odds, which casinos are not known for tolerating.

Although reluctant to join at first, Campbell is finally persuaded to join by Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a girl he has had a crush on for some time. Spacey introduces him to fellow card counters Choi (Yoo), Kianna (Lapira) and the current big dog in the yard, Fisher (Pitts). Rosa trains Campbell in the nearly foolproof system which is designed to fly under the radar. After a training session, Rosa flies the team to Vegas to give Campbell his trial by fire. At first nervous and unsure, Campbell is able to focus on the task at hand while playing and becomes the team’s best card counter. This gives Rosa the warm fuzzies for his new prodigy, even as it brings envy and anger from Fisher and a certain amount of chemistry with Jill.

As the team grows more and more successful, they begin to attract the notice of security consultant Cole Williams (Fishburne), whose livelihood is being threatened by security software. Ever the old dog sniffing out wrongdoing (at least as far as the casinos are concerned), he begins to keep a wary eye out on the young man who seems to be winning an unusually high percentage of the time.

In the meantime, the thrill of the game and the fruits of success begin to take their toll on Ben. Initially in only until he earned his tuition for medical school, greed and arrogance are getting the better of him as he begins to alienate those who are closest to him, while initiating a growing conflict with Mickey, who has hidden depths of vindictiveness. Will Ben be able to win back what he’s lost while staying out of the clutches of the stone-fisted enforcers of Vegas?

Sturgess who turned some heads in Across the Universe is a charming lead. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gotten the script to put him over the top, although this movie was successful enough that it looked like it just might but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Spacey is absolutely delicious as the villainous Mickey Rosa, smooth as a snake and twice as lethal. Fishburne is one of those actors that I wish would be cast in films more often; he is always interesting. I take some solace in that he has been very present on television recently with lead roles in CSI and Hannibal.  Most of the rest of the young cast manages to look good but for the most part, their characters aren’t particularly well-drawn.

The visual effects can be a bit much, but at least they manage to capture the excitement of big-time gambling, Vegas style. The interminable chip effects that often scream “I’m a pretentious film school graduate directing this movie – watch how clever I am!” appear so often they finally induce vertigo more than move the story along. A truly nifty soundtrack and some flashy camera work make this clearly a work of the MTV generation (the preceding statement should at least give readers a clue to my age).

Sturgess and Spacey do some very nice work, particularly Spacey. The young cast is attractive. Of course, any movie that spends as much time on the Vegas strip as this one does is near and dear to Da Queen’s heart. The blackjack sequences, which could have conceivably been unutterably boring, have some snap and pop to them which will allow even non-gamblers to get into the movie.

Unnecessary (and unforgivable) geography errors take you out of the movie in a jarring kind of way. Also, the shots of the ultracool and hip card counters walking in slow mo were cliché when it was made; it is twice that now.

There’s far more style than substance here if you ask me. The fact that this is based on actual events (the real person that the Ben Campbell character was based on makes a cameo as a dealer) makes you wonder whether the truth might not have made a better movie than the fiction based on it. While it can be visually stunning at times, there are too many clichés spoiling this pot. Not bad, but not great either.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating subject matter and nifty presentation. Blackjack sequences well-staged. Some good work by Sturgess and particularly, Spacey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary and foolish errors in geography and logic. Overuse of “chip effects” and “badass slo-mo.” More style than substance.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language is salty throughout. There’s some sensuality and violence as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Ben Campbell makes a cameo appearance as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the history and game play of Blackjack. There’s also an interview with one of the actual MIT students involved in the incident. The Blu-Ray adds a video blackjack game through the BD-Live option.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $157.9M on a $35M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clockers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Levitated Mass