Equity (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 

Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have…

Hebrews 13:5a

NaomiBoss

Naomi confronts her difficult boss who is about to retire. (c) Sony Pictures Classics

That is not the advice that Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) would pay any heed to, as we see in this woman directed, written (Meera Menon and Amy Fox), and largely female produced feminist take on Wall Street greed and power plays. At one point Naomi, a senior investment banker, confesses frankly to a room full of networking women that she “likes money.” She likes it not only because of what it can buy—her diamond earrings and an education for her brother—but also because numbers fascinate her. Wall Street for her is a high stakes game.

Money is also power, and Naomi is very conscious of its prerequisites to which she feels entitled. There is a telling scene late in the film in which she is upset by the chocolate chip cookie an underling serves to her. She demands, “Count the f—ing chips!” “Three,” is the answer from the terror-stricken gofer. Naomi insists that in the future there had better be as many in her cookie as in th e ones served to the men.

Naomi is in line, along with several men, to replace the retiring Randall (Lee Terguson) at their underwriting company. However, he likes to keep her ill at ease, not letting her forget that she was failed recently to land a major account. We wonder, though, if Naomi had been a man, would her boss have made this such a big deal. Thus she is under great pressure for her negotiations with a new client in California to end well. An online investment company called Cachet is about to launch its IPO (Initial Public Offering), and Naomi has studied it from every angle so that it will open at least at $35 a share.

Naomi’s right hand woman is Erin Manning (Sarah Megan Thomas), a younger version of herself—brilliant, ambitious, hard working, and beautiful. Like Naomi, Erin refuses to wear the pants suits once thought necessary for women wanting to make a good impression in the male world. Both wear their hair long and skirts short, just above the knee. We see that theirs is not the old style feminism, one of sisterhood, in the scene in which Erin asks Naomi if she can put in a good word for her overdue promotion. Naomi abruptly and coldly cuts her off with no encouragement, telling her now is not a good time to push this. Erin becomes pregnant and tries to hide it. She also has to fend off the attention of Cachet’s CEO without disrupting the deal.

If Naomi is sort of an anti-heroine, a softer, more subtle version of Gordon Gekko, the closest the film comes to providing a heroine is Naomi’s friend from college, Samantha (Alysia Reiner), a state attorney investigating securities fraud. She tries unsuccessfully to enlist Naomi’s aid in sniffing out some insider trading among the latter’s colleagues.

Virtually all of the men in the film are slippery guys who would stab you in the back for gain, as does the man serving as the femme fatale in this role reversal movie, hedge fund manager Michael Connor (James Purefoy), Naomi’s supposed boy friend. He knows his way around women, turning on the charm over glasses of wine and trysts in bed. Because he and Naomi work at the same bank, there is supposed to be a firewall between them, but he occasionally asks a question or two, seeking tidbits of information. There is also Ed (Samuel Roukin), the CEO of the California tech firm that Naomi and Erin are wooing to hire their firm for underwriting its upcoming IPO. Erin is able to use both logic and her feminine charms to win his favor. However, as Naomi, with Erin’s able assistance, bring the negotiations to a successful close, she discovers just how treacherous the denizens of Wall Street can be—and that there really is for women a glass ceiling.

That this is not an overt critique of Wall Street and its ways we see in what Samantha does when she is unable to close her investigation successfully. Married (to a woman) with two young children, she realizes how low her government salary is compared to the lizards she is investigating. What if she should join them? She would be bringing some valuable knowledge and experience of government ways to her new employer. Is this selling out, or a matter of getting smart?

There are many movies whose characters one enjoys and with whom one would love to hang out. This is not one of them. Most of the characters are so success-driven that they seem willing to pay any price to reach their goals. The film has been seen as feminist, and it is certainly woman centered. But maybe we should question any celebration of the lives of these women. Did so many people struggle so long and hard for gender equality so that women can now be as mean and underhanded as men? Hmm, I suppose so. Real equality does have a dark as well as a bright side. Plenty to think about, especially if you have, or are, a daughter. In the past it was more the serving, or nurturing vocations that women went into. Indeed, two of those professions originally were male dominated—teaching and nursing. As women in society slowly become equal with men, they are free to join the predatory professions as well.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.

If you have enjoyed and used this and other reviews, please consider subscribing to the Visual Parables journal, wherein you will find more help in exploring film and faith.

 

 

Money Monster (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

For the love of money is a root for all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich

some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

1 Timothy 6:10

Kyl&Lee

In the studio Kyle threatens to shoot if anyone tries to intervene with his plan to seek restitution. (c) Sony Pictures Releasing

Although director Jody Foster’s film is much in line with Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ attack on the super wealthy, its bite is not nearly as deep, her film being far more of a hostage thriller than a social justice film like 99 Homes or The Big Short. However, this dramedy is well worth watching, especially the 3 minute or so hilarious scene in which young actress Emily Meade practically steals the show from its veteran cast members.

George Clooney is cable news host Lee Gates, patterned after Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money.” In the 19th century Lee would be a traveling snake oil salesman. Today the costumed host stages bizarre routines involving hip-hop dancers to introduce each program in which he dispenses stock tips. Embellished with goofy sound effects and film clips, his outlandish show would have fit in well with the weird shows in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. Indeed when Lee’s producer/director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) is lining up a satellite connection with Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) for a story about her Ibis Clear Capital’s current problem, she assures the corporate spokeswoman that the interview will not be a grilling one, “We don’t do ‘gotcha’ journalism here. Hell, we don’t do journalism, period.”

Lee and his staff are preoccupied with their preparations for today’s show, so they do not notice that a deliveryman has managed to sneak by security and is lurking in the wings of the set. Patty does catch a glimpse of him in her monitor, but assumes he is part of her boss’s opening act. After his opening routine, Lee launches into a report that Ibis has just reported a loss of $800 million due to a “glitch.” The company and its loss are so huge that it is has having a ripple effect on the whole stock market. Before Lee can connect with Diane Lester, a young man brandishing a handgun rushes onto the set. The crew also thinks he is part of Lee’s act until the intruder fires into the ceiling to convince everyone that he is serious. The young man is angry at Lee because, based on Lee’s enthusiastic stock tip, he had invested all of his inherited money in Ibis. Lee denies ever having done so, but when the gunman angrily demands that the control room bring up the clip, Patty frantically orders a technician to search for it. Sure enough, Lee not only had pushed the stock, his recommendation was way over the top.

The smooth talking Lee tries to reason with the man while taking in information from Patty on his tiny earbud. He repeats the claim by Ibis that the money loss was due to a “glitch” in the Internet, but the gun brandisher will not accept this. We soon learn that the interloper’s name is Kyle (Jack O’Connell), who has been living in an outlying borough. Trying to build a nest egg for himself and his pregnant girlfriend Molly (Meade), he had followed Lee’s enthusiastic advice, impulsively investing his entire savings of $60 K in Ibis. During his loud rants he keeps saying what is now a signiture charge from both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, “I’m telling you it’s rigged!” Opening the boxes he takes out a vest filled with explosives wired to the detonator he holds in his hand. Forcing Lee to put it on, he explains that the remote he is holding has a dead-man button which, if he lets up on it, will trigger the explosive device.

Other networks pick up the live proceedings, and soon people all around the world are watching, including a code writer in Korea who briefly had written something for Ibis. (We will see more of him later.)The New York Police Department are out in full riot gear and stationing snipers around the building while some sneak inside air ducts and up to a high catwalk where they have clear views of their target. Kyle refuses to talk with a hostage negotiator, demanding instead that the station get the head of Ibis so he can talk with him.

During this period the police bring in Kyle’s girlfriend Molly in the hope that she can plead with him to stand down. This back-fires (in a humorous way, but only to the audience) when the angry young woman curses and roundly berates him for his stupidity, telling him that he is no man, but a born f-p. This tirade only strengthens Kyle’s resolve to continue on. (There is a very sobering moment when Kyle, fully aware that he is being targeted by the snipers, quietly tells Lee that he will not walk out of the studio alive.)

There follows an interview with Diane Lesterm, even though her immediate superior had told her not to go on the air until they could talk with CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). The executive has been unavailable because he is in the corporate jet returning from an overseas business trip. This is where the film obviously becomes a conspiracy thriller that involves searching the internet by Patty’s hacker friends and a lot more. As the story enlarges beyond just the angry screwed guy seeking justice or retribution, we see Lee beginning to change from a smug jerk to a caring person Lee’s sympathy for Kyle grows as he realizes that the police are trying to get a clear shot of the electronic connector on his vest so that they can then kill Kyle. Through all of this Patty keeps her cool, calmly giving Lee instructions on what he should say and do, while also, like a circus ringmaster. staying in contact with Diane, the camera and stage crew, the police and hackers. She and Lee now are convinced that Kyle is right, that the loss of the money is due to a complicated conspiracy, and not by an accident.

Jack O’Connell as the wronged little guy is as good in his role as are Roberts and Clooney, so we come to care about this young man and his fate. Through him Lee becomes a better human being, thus making this thriller also a character transformation film. It may be dramedy, but the denouement is a mixture of Hollywood fantasy and reality. There is just enough of the latter to touch our hearts and leave us with—well, you go and see it for yourself.

Good preaching/Teaching moment about job dedication: After the film’s climax the cameraman Lenny (Lenny Venito) who could have slipped away numerous times, stays with Lee and Kyle, even grabbing the hand-held one when they leave the studio and travel on foot to Wall Street to confront the CEO of Ibis. When asked why he did not leave the dangerous situation, he responds simply, “It was my job.”

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of VP.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 3 hours

Our Advisories(1-10): Violence 2; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 9

Our star rating (1-5): 3

  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,slanderers, God-haters,insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

Romans 1:28-32

Speech

Jordan Belfort is a master at arrousing his employees to become as ravenous as wolves in closing a penny stock sale.
(c) 2013 Paramount Pictures

Based on real life Jordan Belfort, the main character of this Wall Street tale of greed certainly is a predator. Isaiah the prophet wrote, “The wolf shall live with the lamb,” but Belfort is not ever likely to live with lambs in the harmony envisioned by the prophet. He has divided people into two categories, clever wolves and naive victims deserving to be fleeced.

Serving as narrator, Belfort says with a swagger in his voice, “My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.” This wolf is better described by the apostle Paul in the opening chapter of his Letter to the Romans than by the ancient prophet. As you will see at the end of the film, this is not a character transformation film, but rather a report from the front lines of the cynicism, greed, and debauchery that constitutes so much of the life of wealthy America today.

Jordan Belfort, skillfully, so exuberantly, played by Leonardo De Caprio, makes Gordon Gekko seem like Francis of Assisi, so engulfed in the lustful life is he. “Greed is good” has been replaced in his life by “Greed is God.” He starts out at a high end Manhattan trading firm as “a connector,” the initial caller to prospective buyers on a list. Top broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), becoming his mentor, teaches him during a long lunch hour at a fancy restaurant, that he is not to work for the customer but for himself—he is not to serve the clients’ interest but to extract as much money from them as possible and then move on to the next sucker. He concludes the session by rhythmically beating his fist against his chest while chanting, as if he were some gorilla celebrating a victory in the jungle. Later, when he has formed his own wildly successful penny stock boiler room named Stratton Oakmont, he gets a whole room full of greedy employees to perform this victory ritual, which made me think that the film might just as easily have been called The Gorilla of Wall Street.

I won’t further describe the plot except to say that later, when the incorruptible FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), whom Belfort has so taunted and insulted, is closing the noose on him, forcing him to wear a wire to implicate all those working with him, he does show one shred of decency by silently warning his chief acolyte Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) not to say anything that would incriminate him. But that is it, as we see him next giving a powerful pep talk to his employees: so charismatic is he in creating an atmosphere of group think and acting that they burst forth in wild dancing, cheers, and praise, not knowing that soon most of them will be arrested and charged with financial crimes based on evidence supplied by their supposed benefactor.

Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter make no judgments about Belfort and his greedy followers. Judging by the reaction of many in the audience, some approve of his cleverness, laughing at the scenes of excessive sex, drug sniffing, and clever seduction of people gullible enough to believe the wild promises of wealth from a stranger calling them on their telephone. (And also look at the large number of Americans calling themselves Christian who petitioned A&E to restore to their popular show the homophobe and racist they had dropped!)

Long gone are the days of the old Hayes office when the gangster films of the time were required to show that “crime does not pay.” Our anti-hero in this film is sentenced to four years for security fraud, but have you seen the palatial prison quarters that he and others of the ruling class are sent to? Our’s is a society in which even in prison wealth and power rule. Out in almost half the sentenced time, Belfort is barred from a career in financial wheeling/dealing, but he is still raking in money as a motivational speaker. For more on this and a link to an interesting article on Belfort’s numerous victims “”Investors’ Story Left Out of Wall Street Movie,” go to Spirituality and Practice. (at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?”id=25760) Indeed, if you are not familiar with Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat’s invaluable film and literature website, I encourage you to bookmark it for frequent reference: harking back to the days when church leaders judged “godless movies” from a moralistic standpoint, they are pioneers in seeing film through the lens of spirituality

There are so many scenes of full nudity and sexual intercourse, of cocaine snuffing, and gutter language that it is doubtful that a church leader would use the film in a group. Perhaps the sickest scene is not of expensive call girls engaging in group sex, but the one in which tBelfort and his employess lift up a helmeted dwarf and toss him at a large target, those hitting the bullseye receiving a reward.  Therefore the few questions that I’ll append in the journal will be more for reflection than discussion. That it is regarded by so many as a comedy is a reflection on our cynical society, especially if we think of comedy in the classical tradition of “all’s well that ends well.” Tell that to the thousands of victims who lost to Belfort more than $100 million dollars, money that most of them could not afford to lose. If you want to see a film in which a Belfort-like character is transformed, then be sure to see the excellent father-son film The Boiler Room or Wall Street itself. In the meantime, I am hoping that this film is not embraced by those voting on the ten films to be included in the list of Best Picture Oscar contenders. The cast is so persuasive in this over the top three-hour immersion in greed and corruption that such an endorsement might mislead more viewers into thinking that greed is indeed the best way to achieve the American Dream.

The full review with a set of 10 questions for reflection or discussion is in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables. If you are not a subscriber and plan to discuss this film with a group, go to The Store to buy either the single issue or for a year’s subscription.

Blue Jasmine

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -0; L -4; S/N-5 .

Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

 Jasmine with husband and son (far left) lived a lavish life style in the Hamptons before fall into the impoverished class.  (c) 2013 Sony Pictures Classics

Jasmine with husband and son lived a lavish life
style in the Hamptons before fall into the impoverished class.
(c) 2013 Sony Pictures Classics

‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Luke 6:24-25

 We hear much in op eds and political debates about America’s class warfare, about how the 1% of Americans who allegedly control as much wealth as the bottom 90% are imbued with a sense of entitlement and superiority. I can think of no better illustration of this than Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine, in which Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of a once wealthy wife is bound to earn her a Best Actress nomination.

Flower lovers will know that the title does not refer to the plant, the flower of which is usually white or blue, but to the mood of the character named after it. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) were raised together as adopted children from different sets of biological parents. Their parents showered more attention on beautiful Jasmine over the plain Ginger, so the latter left home as soon as she could to make her own way. She married working class Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), the two of them producing two boys, both of whom are destined to have weight problems. Then comes the day that they hit the California Lottery big time, winning $200,000. Intending to start his own business, Augie sees this as their way out of their life of living from paycheck to paycheck.

Meanwhile Jasmine has dropped out of college to marry the handsome and wealthy Hal (Alec Baldwin), a rich Wall Street schemer who is always using other people’s money to fund dubious new ventures. As evidence of her upward mobility drive she has changed her name from Janette to the more upscale name of the flower. They have one grown son Danny. Jasmine’s life of conspicuous consumption in the Hamptons is filled with Manhattan shopping sprees, lunches at elegant restaurants, and hosting parties and lavish charity events. They feel put upon when Ginger and Augie pay them a visit during their trip to New York City, but when they learn that the pair have just won a big sum of money, smooth-talking Hal seduces Augie into investing it in what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme. Ginger, who was not enthusiastic about this, becomes even more worried when she spies Hal lunching with and kissing a woman who is not her sister.

All the above is told in a series in intermittent flashbacks as Jasmine, now popping pills and taking frequent sips of vodka from her flask or glass, tries to cope with her new distasteful circumstances. Not only has she finally caught her philandering husband in one of his numerous affairs, but also she precipitates the series of events that leads to Hal’s arrest, conviction, and imprisonment. Unable to cope he has committed suicide. Jasmine’s survival plan involves her moving in with her sister, whose marriage had ended with divorce after they had lost their money. None of this may seem funny, but Allen’s wit is scattered throughout the film.

As has been pointed out by several reviewers, the plot is very much like that of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Ginger’s fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a lowly (to Jasmine) garage mechanic, quickly developing a passionate hatred for the one he calls “A phony!” Chili is upset that his plans to move in with Ginger have to be put on hold now that Jasmine is there. Ginger feels caught in the middle, her sister loyalty strong despite the way Jasmine has always looked down upon her.

Jasmine wants to start life anew by finishing college and taking a computer course so she can obtain an interior decorator’s license, but has to find work to fund this, reluctantly following Chili’s tip to obtain a receptionist’s job at a dental office. However, this soon ends when Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to follow through on his lust for her. Then she meets the man who could restore her to the status she feels she deserves, the well-heeled wealthy diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). He has long range plans to enter politics and needs a trophy wife like Jasmine. But will her less than wholesome past marriage and tendency to dodge reality and deceive herself and others get in the way?

Every member of the ensemble cast performs well, but Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the once wealthy Jasmine is unforgettable, perhaps the only other portrayal of a Narcissistic neurotic     woman that compares being that of Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara (she also played Blanche!). Her character is so fully defined—nervous tics, almost incessant drinking, tendency to talk out loud inappropriately in public places, disdainful expressions, and elegant dress—that she emerges as a real person. And even though we see what a despicable person she is, we are still drawn to her and, if not root for her, wish that she might achieve a measure of self-understanding. This is a fascinating, detailed study of a woman whose worst enemy is herself. Her fate seems to bear out what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a far different situation, but which applies to Jasmine’s fate, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice” Although not intended as a social justice film, Mr. Allen’s revelation of the hollow lifestyle of “the rich and famous” as seen in Jasmine could be a midrash of Jesus’ denunciation of the uncaring rich, or of the equally harsh denunciation of the wealthy by the prophet Amos. One of Mr. Allen’s best films in years, this must not to be missed!

The full version with 7 discussion question appears in the Sept/Oct issue of Visual Parables