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Cannes '10 Day 4: Mad (at) Money

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 15, 2010 09:46 AM

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A storm is about to overtake the Riviera. It's not movie-related, but from the wide-screen widows of the press room, it's certainly cinematic. The lasers of sunlight and shaving-foam clouds are being chased off by ominously gauzy skies. The Czech journalist to my left just contracted a computer virus. And I still have not heard from my missing phone. That poor man's virus aside, however: Who cares! It's Stevie Wonder day! Yes, in all the corridors and every bathroom of the Palais, his songs are bouncing off the marble floors and ceramic sinks. Needless to say, I plan to spend the day refilling my bladder.

Thumbnail image for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.jpgBetween trips to the loo, the day began with two adored directors back to back: first Mike Leigh, whose "Another Year" is in the main competition, then Woody Allen, whose "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" was screening outside the competition. This festival loves both men, and increasingly they have a lot in common -- what, I'll explain in a later post or in the actual newspaper. Basically,though, both movies in different ways dramatize an almost pathological phobia of loneliness. But Leigh's film works, and Allen's, with his return to hookers and frustrated writers, doesn't for the usual reasons recent movies by both men respectively tend to succeed and tend not to.

A few days ago, a friend expressed a fear that she was seeing fewer American journalists to go along with the few American films. Her guess was that the economy and the general state of woe for the news business in the United States were keeping writers and critics home. Her concern didn't fully hit me until this afternoon at a screening for Charles Ferguson's documentary "Inside Job." As it was, the film was being shown in a relatively small house and still it was only three-quarters full -- compared to the Leigh and Allen films, which played in a giant auditorium not big enough for the scores of people praying to get in. Ferguson's movie, about the current financial collapse, seemed somewhat relevant to its mediocre attendance. (It seems unlikely that the premiere of a new Gregg Araki movie, which was showing at the same time, had siphoned everyone off. But I put very little past him.)

In any case, "Inside Job" is a masterpiece of investigative nonfiction moviemaking -- a scathing, outrageous, depressing, comical, horrifying walk through what brought on the crisis. In much the same way he did in his previous film, "No End in Sight," about the run-up to the Iraq war, Ferguson finds many of the key players of the crisis and many people -- economists, lobbyists, journalists, Eliot Spitzer -- who have special knowledge about how it happened. The use of footage from last month's instantly legendary Senate cross-examination of suits from Goldman Sachs (hello, C-SPAN Classics?) gives the movie a hot-off-the-hard drive feel.

Inside Job.jpg

For the number of times we read or are told (Matt Damon works hard as our narrator) that so-and-so declined to be interviewed for this film, the movie has a deep bench of experts, several of whom seem unlikely to regain their integrity or the respect of their peers upon the film's release. For instance, it's unclear how a man like Frederic Mishkin, who, at the height of the meltdown, abruptly left his governor's post with the board of the Federal Reserve in order to "edit a textbook," will ever be able  to show his face anywhere again (and sadly for him; it's not easy to forget). 

This is a damning work of deliberate but unsparingly meted incrimination. You rarely see professionals exposed not simply as corrupt and mendacious but wretched. At best, many of the people who landed the world in this crisis are duplicitous and foolish. At worst, they're evil. Did you know John Campbell, the dean of Harvard's econ department, sees no conflict of interest in having members of his faculty taking big bucks from the financial industry and standing as obstacles to financial regulation? Campbell's being rendered speechless before Ferguson's camera runs a not-so-distant second to Mishkin in the self-immolation department. (Yes, it seems even the teaching of economics has been tainted.) 

"Inside Job" is scarier than anything Wes Craven and John Carpenter have ever made. Ferguson even corners the seemingly mild-mannered Glenn Hubbard, George W. Bush's chief economic advisor and current dean of Columbia's business school, into a chilling axe-murderer moment. The film treats the enormity of its subject with the gravity it deserves. Ferguson asserts himself to ask, "Are you kidding me?" or to say, "That just isn't true." But he does not get in his own way as Michael Moore did throughout "Capitalism: A Love Story." Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" sequel will have a tough time topping Ferguson. This is a reasoned, even-tempered, nonpartisan film. Its anger is always simmering, but it's not all consuming. The movie insists on revolution, as many such documentaries do. But this is one of the very few with the goods to send you out rioting in the streets. 

The City Below.jpgUnfortunately, I went straight from that film to "The City Below," Christoph Hochhausler's sex thriller about a Frankfurt investment bank that ends, obliquely, with a street riot. Or something. It's dull, dull, dull, despite its attractive leading man, Robert Hunger-Buhler. The emphasis on expensive decor, chic clothes, and art becomes ridiculous, as does the attempt to make bankers seem convincingly human, when it's distressingly clear that, at the movies anyway, it's not possible. As for the sex: meh. It's like watching a table make love to a chair.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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