“Tulip Fever”: a 2008 financial collapse in 17th Century Holland

Tulip Fever”, directed by Justin Chadwick, based on the novel by Deborah Moggach, presents a period piece with a parallel story of a financial bubble – the “tulip mania” in the Netherlands in the 1630s.

Sophia (Alicia Vikander) has been forcibly married to a rich merchant Cornelius (Christoph Waltz), who commissions a young painter Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan) to do her portrait. At first she resists, the way someone might resist having their photo tagged on the Internet today. But soon they fall in love. Jan can’t make a living just as an artist, so they plot to make a killing by “flipping” tulip bulbs.

But, as with all bubbles, the mania bursts, probably because of the intrusion of a pandemic, the bubonic plague. Tragedy ensues, although Jan survives with a prosperous second life in the Dutch East Indies, eventually to become modern Indonesia.

The film is quite erotic in a few spots, and DeHaan’s boyish body is often on display. A few scenes convey the energy of the physical passion that was expected in those days.

Wiki picture of the tulips.

Name: “Tulip Fever”
Director, writer:  Justin Chadwick
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic 2017/9/9
Length:  105
Rating:  R
Companies:  Weinstein TWC, Paramount
Link:  FB, distribution controversy

(Posted: Saturday, September 9, 2017, at 11 PM EDT)

“Abacus: Small Enough to Fail”: how New York State targeted a local immigrant cash “off the books” economy

Okay, there ought to be a moral impulse to start small businesses, especially financial institutions that can work intimately with the members of local communities.  Such was the case with Abacus Federal Savings Bank founded in Chinatown in New York City in 1984.

In 2012, prosecutors in Manhattan indicted the bank and 19 former employees for fraud regarding mortgages sold to Fannie Mae, maintaining that the bank did not properly report the risks of some consumers.

That’s the background of the new documentary film “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” by Steve James.

The film takes us through the courtroom drama of the trial and jury deliberations, which almost hung. The customers tended to work with cash and “under the table” through their own social capital a lot more, so it was harder to prove resources.  In some cases “off the books” transactions didn’t get reported to the IRS.  One employee was fired and plead guilty to fraud, but the others, as well as the company, were finally acquitted.  The company maintains it did not underwrite subprime mortgages. But this was the only financial institution actually prosecuted in any connection with the 2008 financial crisis.

It was rather interesting to hear testimony about the physical placement of workers on the bank floor, as if that could add to evidence of collusion.  I was once a witness to workplace litigation where that issue was raised in a deposition.

I’ve also heard that Fannie Mae used to be a very difficult place to work in the I.T. area, especially in the 1990s.

Name: “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”
Director, writer:  Steve James
Released:  2016
Format:  1.66:1
When and how viewed: Landmark E St, 2017/7/5, afternoon
Length:  88
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS Frontline, ITVS
Link:   NYTimes reviewofficial

(Posted: Thursday, July 6, 2017 at 2:30 PM EDT)

“Occupy Unmasked”: documentary work of Stephen K. Bannon, White House strategist and campaign manager for Donald Trump

Stephen K. Bannon is now President-elect Donald J. Trump’s appointed Chief Strategist for the White House (as of Jan. 20), and was the CEO of Trump’s 2016 campaign, and has been an executive at Breitbart News.  His activities and associations are described by others as “alt-right” or “far-right”. And he has been described as a filmmaker.  So I wondered what his films look like.  Ii checked, and found I had seen “The Steam Experiment”, which he had produced (see Index).

So I looked for a film he had directed, too, and there’s not a lot available.  But Amazon offered his 2012 76-minute documentary “Occupy Unmasked” for $3.99.

The film does come across as a bit of a rant in its non-stop chatter castigating the Occupy movement. But a lot of what it says is probably true.  And there was nothing in the film hateful or phobic of individual people over race, gender or sexuality issues.

The film maintains that the series of camp-outs that would morph into Occupy Wall Street and Occupy DC got started in the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  I had never heard that “rumor” myself (is it “fake”?)  I drove through or near the area in a rented car in February 2006.  A church group sent volunteers down to help the residents, and the volunteers were not allowed to do much because of mold.

The film also talks about Anonymous, and claims it targets individual capitalists and marks them for attack by hacking their work.  I’m really not aware that this happens to people just because they are “rich” or able to make a good living or are even visible in a reasonable manner.

The film turns into an indictment of the radical Left.  It traces some history back to the New Deal, and to Mafia involvement with labor unions after Prohibition ended.  It does mention some of the more vigorous (sometimes violent) organizations of the far Left in the 1960s and 1970s, like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen.  The film was made before Black Lives Matter came into being (after Ferguson in 2014), so I wonder if Bannon imagines updating the film to cover that.

The attitude of the radical Left is depicted as saying something like “Capitalism is slavery” and as nihilistic, trying to destroy the idea of “unearned wealth” with no plan of anything to replace it with other than authoritarianism – that is, extreme Communism.  That goes beyond what happened in the Soviet Union to the more radical Communist China and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Maoism, where every intellectual took his turn becoming a peasant. It also led to groups like the Khmer Rouge and now to North Korea (although that history has some other factors related to Japan).  The far Left is depicted as hating rich white people – yet it shows Michael Moore’s vacation home.

My own experience with the radical Left settled out in December 1972, when I “spied” on an activist meeting of The People’s Party of New Jersey in a drafty rowhouse in Newark, NJ, and listened to their proposals:  limit incomes to $50000 a year (no Trumps), mass expropriation by force, abolish all inheritances, use revolution and violence if it becomes necessary.  I never had contact with them again.

The film opens with some of the summer 2011 debate over the debt ceiling, which it never connects well to the rest of the movie.  Republicans are shown as claiming we don’t have the money to pay the country’s bills, and Democrats claim seniors will go without social security.  It is true, the debt ceiling is about authorization to pay bills the US has already ratcheted up, not new spending (see this ).

Andrew Breitbart does appear in the film, but he died at age 43 suddenly in early 2012 of cardiomyopathy.

The film is in three parts, with titles like “The issue is not the issue” and “structured chaos” (or “organized chaos”, which is how a somewhat conservative local pastor describes a monthly community assistance program in Arlington VA — with “mental illness” thrown in as a major explanation of systemic poverty).

Name:  “Occupy Unmasked
Director, writer:  Stephen K. Bannon
Released:  2012
Format:  1.85;1
When and how viewed:  Amazon instant, 2017/1/8
Length:  76
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Citizens United; Magnolia Pictures, Magnet, Amazon
Link:  official

Wikipedia lower ninth ward destruction picture.

Posted Monday, January 9, 2017 at 11 AM EST

Picture of tent is in December 2011 in Washington DC near McPherson Square, taken by me.  One time when I took a picture of the camp, a man called out to me and chased me down K Street, saying, “I’m speaking to you.”  Is this the “No spectators” idea?

“Equity”: Wall Street soap opera indeed

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Name: “Equity”
Director, writer:  Meera Menon, Amy Fox, et. a;
Released:  2016/8
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2016/8/21, late afternoon, light attendance
Length 100
Rating R
Companies: Sony Pictures Classics, Broad Street (no relation to Broad Green?)
Link: official 

Equity” (directed by Meera Menon, based on a story by Amy Fox, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner) is a nice little soap opera set in Wall Street, where women can have it all, and get into pretty much the same ethical and legal conflicts as the guy.

The boss lady is a macho Namoi Bishop, played by a burly Anna Gunn, as the somewhat defrocked head of a hedge fund.  She sees the chance to redeem herself by bringing a particular company, Cachet, to IPO.  The company claims to be a “privacy company that has set up a social network”.  There is some interesting jabber about NSA surveillance, Ed Snowden, secure socket layers, and defeating the “man in the middle attack”.

Other players are Naomi’s right hand (Sarah Megan Thomas), a probing and ambitious assistant district attorney Samanta (Alysia Reiner, whose mannerisms reminds me of the character “Kate” in the NBC soap “Days of our Lives”, mixed with an extinct character, Sami), a middle-aged boyfriend Michael (James Purefoy), and the whizbang programmer who built Cachet, a red-haired and hairy chested kid Ed (Samuel Roukin), who shows he knows how to be mean when a programmer has to be.

Needless to say, sexual politics and affairs ensue, and a bedroom is the best place to get by the best smartphone security.

The film happens largely indoors (a lot of it shot in Philadelphia), with some effective outdoor shots of Manhattan and Brooklyn, San Francisco, and, I think, Shanghai.

At the end, Samantha gets the last line, which says there is nothing wrong with women liking to make money for its own sake.

There is something complacent about all this, people who believe that this special sheltered financial world will be there forever.

The oblique reference to doing business in China is interesting.  In 2013, I got persistent emails about whether I intended to try to “brand” my “do ask do tell” site and books in China, and it’s very curiosu that I would get an inquiry like this.  And it wasn’t spam; it was legitimate when I checked it out.  How would they get past China’s firewalls and censors?

The pre-show included a 4-minute short “Waveform” by Stefan Nadelman, abstract and animated, about surfing (like “The Endless Summer” in 1966).

(Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2016 at 9:15 PM EDT)

“Money Monster”: a finance entertainment show host is held hostage, with a twist

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Name: Money Monster
Director, writer:  Jodie Foster
Released:  2016/5
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, afternoon, 2016/5/20 (Friday), light attendance
Companies: Sony Tri-Star, Smokehouse
Link: Official site

Money Monster” sounds like a takeoff on Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money”.  But what happens in the movie would be pretty much off the charts, even if tantalizing to people in bars all over NYC watching the hostage drama unfold.

Lee Gates (a charismatic George Clooney) is pulling out all the stops on his stock market show, when a young, irate investor Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) sneaks onto the stage with two packages, and, at gunpoint, forces Gates to put on a suicide bomber vest.

At first, Kyle sounds like a nutcase.  True, he got shafted by one of Gates’s tips on a mining company, but it sounds like he and his pregnant girl friend had intended to get by with a “flipping houses” mentality we have seen on “Dr. Phil”.

But then, the film (maybe cheating on the “omniscient observer” idea) starts showing us clues:  programmers in South Korea, hackers in Iceland, and mining workers in South Africa.  It gets interesting how Gates and Burdwell start to bond (to the consternation of set director Patty Fenn – Julia Roberts) against a common enemy, rogue investor Walt Camby (Dominic West).  Without giving away too much, let’s say that the moral concept is akin to the movie “Blood Diamond” (or a new book “Blood Oil” by Leif Wenar, which I will read and review later).  Call it “blood platinum” if that makes sense.  (It reminds me if the lithium mines in the movie “Salero”, here May 10).  At the end, we regret a tragedy.

The film does not have the wry cynicism of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” (2015).

(Published: Friday, May 20, 2016, 7 PM EDT)