Not one ray of light shines from The Counselor . The movie is a void of roughly 120 minutes, showcasing ugliness and misery. It meanders almost without plot from one inconsequential character to another as each pontificates about how life is “all shit.” It’s a huge departure for director Ridley Scott, who’s known for movies with intriguing messages or at least some kind of technical excellence. But in The Counselor, one gets the impression that Scott is very unhappy and wants his audience to leave the theater feeling the same way. Ridley Scott’s brother—Tony Scott, also a director—committed suicide early on during the production of The Counselor , and it’s hard to imagine that this didn’t have a big effect on him. There’s also the fact that the screenplay was written by Cormac McCarthy, that infamous nihilist who was the brains behind No Country For Old Men, directed by the Coen brothers. That movie was very similar to this one, centering on a failed drug deal and a sociopath killer—subject matter right up the Coen brothers’ alley. It is a shock, however, that Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Thelma and Louise, and Kingdom of Heaven should take on such a script. The Counselor is about an unnamed lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who decides to work for his drug-dealer friend Reiner (Javier Bardem, doing his best Robert Downey Jr. imitation). Reiner manages a $20 million drug trafficking scheme, but a deal goes sour thanks to conflicting players and back-and-forth struggles between couriers when a massive truck, carting a septic tank full of drugs from Mexico to Chicago, goes missing. Fassbender’s Counselor takes much of the blame. He then spends the rest of the movie crying, moaning, whimpering, simpering, and desperately trying to save his fiancée, Laura, from the nasty people who want to ruin their life. The Counselor’s relationship with Laura (Penelope Cruz) is a positive one, but it’s exhibited mostly through sordid scenes such as when he tells her how much he loves her during phone-sex. The only tender moment comes the Counselor proposes to her during dinner, presenting her with the ring he has very carefully picked out. Fassbender plays it perfectly—he’s nervous and awkward as he watches for a reaction, but viewers can also see anticipation and excitement. Cruz, meanwhile, seems to see her entire life flash before her eyes as she experiences conflicting disbelief and joy. The nastiest of characters is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), the resident sociopath. Whereas Bardem plays a comparatively jovial guy—a far cry from his role as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men— Diaz’s Malkina is a veritable Whore of Babylon, heinously rich to the point that she has two pet cheetahs with diamond-studded collars. She’s even had cheetah spots tattoed on her back and eyes that look as if they’ve seen everything and laughed at it all. Most of the horrible schemes that dominate the film are of her engineering, and she delights in manipulation. “To see a quarry killed with elegance is just moving, to me,” she says. Her exploits include tormenting innocent and good-natured Laura, harassing a priest during confession, and dry-humping the windshield of a Ferrari. Brad Pitt appears in the movie as an overgenerous tipper and drug-lord, and Rosie Perez, rounding out the star-heavy cast, shows up as an incarcerated mother. But for some reason Scott chooses to give copious attention to incidental characters like waiters, waitresses, and an overly philosophical diamond salesman. The camera ambles, focusing on the nonessential and the irrelevant. There are numerous close-ups of innocuous inanimate objects, such as the bloody marys which the Counselor imbibes in mass quantities. There’s no surprise when the movie ends in an equally random and abrupt way. All this transpires near the Mexican-American border around Juarez and El Paso, which Scott paints as a bleak landfill, a world where “decapitations and mutilations are just business.” There’s no end to the amorality evidenced by its denizens: Immediately after a major character is killed in a gunfight, some children emerge from the shadows and loot his warm corpse of virtually everything on his person. When the drug truck has been shot to pieces and covered in viscera, it passes through a truck-stop, where a number of women clean the car with chilling efficiency, nonchalantly filling bullet holes and scrubbing blood off of seats no differently than if it were dirt. Scott obviously wants us to see this region as the North American version of the Heart of Darkness. One of my friends suggested that perhaps Scott doesn’t sanction the nihilism of Cormac McCarthy and instead intends to hold up a mirror, indicting the drug war and showcasing some of the monsters that it creates. As for me, I hope this is just a phase for him, a chance to release some of his demons. I’m just sorry that moviegoers have to be inflicted with them in the process.
Read more from the original source:
Ridley Scott’s The Counselor
Is it good to publish state secrets? What if you endanger lives in the process? Does dedication to truth require sacrifices? These questions propel the drama in The Fifth Estate, but this focus ensures that other moral dilemmas are taken for granted when they ought to be pondered with equal intensity. In the high-speed, high-stakes world of leaks and breaking-news journalism, there’s not much time to escape the groupthink and wonder about the efficacy and morality of the mission. The Fifth Estate begins with a montage reminding us about the evolution of media, culminating in the rapid creative destruction that characterizes modern news, where relevance must be fought for tooth-and-nail, and where a front-page story can be rendered obsolete in seconds. From this churning brew of ideas and experiments came the anomaly of WikiLeaks.org. WikiLeaks is a website that publishes sensitive and highly controversial documents, encouraging whistleblowers to leak because of that promise that the WikiLeaks platform will allow their identity to “remain concealed in clouds of code.”
Staggering, without direction, not quite dead and in search of brains, the Republican Party is giving a really good performance as the Zombie Party. According to the media’s current narrative, it has to rid itself of the Tea Party’s influence or die. That narrative tells us the state of the Party is entirely the fault of conservatives, Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in particular. They — with Cruz’s filibuster — led Republicans into a battle they couldn’t win. If only the House Republicans had gone along with the strategy of the Republican Establishment, they’d have come out of the latest round of crises stronger than they’ve been since, well, we’re not sure when. If conservatives had obeyed their betters, there would be a chicken in every driveway and a piece of Ted Cruz in every pot. Or at least that’s what the media narrative — propelled by the Republican establishment and the Dems — would have us believe. There are a few problems with that narrative. To dissect it, we need to be energetic in a way we can only feel if we’re really angry. Anger and frustration are permitted here. Whining is not. And context is important. The context of the current round of crises — and the temporary solution to them — is that President Obama has never yet been compelled to compromise. Not on Obamacare, not on tax rates, not on individual budgetary items or overall spending. Heaven forbid that any government spending be limited. On none of those things will Obama bargain. He simply won’t negotiate any compromise, so Republicans have spent the past two years trying to find a way to force him to negotiate with them. And they have failed. Problem One with the Republican establishment’s narrative is that they — the leaders of the House and Senate Republicans and their allies — haven’t come up with any strategies that have succeeded in forcing Obama to bargain a compromise. If they had a better idea than Ted Cruz’s filibuster, we’ve yet to hear it. We’ve seen this movie again and again. In the so-called “supercommittee” exercise of 2011, the Republicans were negotiating with themselves, not with Obama or even his congressional cohort. There was no negotiation or compromise in the 2012 “fiscal cliff” crisis or the twin debt ceiling and government shutdown crises this month. And there was no Establishment Republican strategy to even oppose Obama, far less to compel him to compromise. After those sad experiences, it’s absolutely clear that the Republican establishment leadership — House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Boehner’s “leadership team” and senators like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the others opposed to Ted Cruz’s filibuster — have proven themselves incapable of devising any strategy that will rein in government spending or put a dent in Obamacare. The Republican Establishment has nothing to offer other than their demand that conservatives keep silent. They are apparently content to let Obama continue to ravage our economy and destroy our power to influence events in other nations. Yet conservatives in the House joined with their weak sisters in giving Speaker Boehner a standing ovation when the deal to reopen the government was passed. And that’s the root of the problem. Boehner can fail and still be lavishly praised. The Republican establishment isn’t only similar to the media and the Dems because they’re totally uncomfortable with conservatives. The other disabling factor is that the Republican establishment isn’t uncomfortable with big government. George W. Bush, the oxymoronic “big government conservative,” saw to that. The only difference between the Republican establishment and the hyper-liberal Obama establishment is a minor disagreement on the size of big government. Congressional leaders have two big responsibilities: first, to craft strategies to control or influence legislation so that it will implement Republican principles; second, to persuade their fellow Republicans to unify around those strategies. If they cannot perform either of those jobs, it’s time to replace them. There are a lot of inhabitants of Congress who will want to give these leaders another chance. They will whine that Obama is a political powerhouse, that Republicans only have “one half of one-third of the government” so a better outcome is a pipe dream. How many times will they be allowed to fail and not suffer the consequences? Obama is a powerful and skillful pol, but he’s not unbeatable in every battle. Why should Republicans treat him as if he were? By their repeated failure Republicans have trained Obama and his congressional allies to expect Republicans to roll over. Obama and Harry Reid have no expectation of different conduct in the future. The congressional leadership has already eschewed future government shutdowns. What else is there but surrender? That’s the job of the leaders to figure out. If they can’t they need to be replaced. Obama doesn’t live on Mount Olympus: he’s just at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. At this point, the Republicans look like they’re content to just wait Obama out. But he’s got three and a quarter more years in his term. If Republicans give up on opposing him — which is what they seem to be doing — they are well and truly finished as a political party. We will have seen the last Republican president in our lifetimes, perhaps ever. And that’s a fate the Republicans would deserve, but we would not. At this point in a column, I’d always shift to a “what’s to be done to fix this mess” theme. But there’s no hidden magical solution to cure the Republicans of their zombie-like state of failure. Yes, Republicans can go back to the grass roots and try to energize the Tea Party to be like the Tea Party when it created itself in the summer of 2009 when townhall meetings erupted everywhere in opposition to Obamacare. Yes, Republicans can go back to their wayward supporters in what used to be the conservative media and give them a kick in the pants. But wait a minute. Who are these “Republicans” we’re talking about who have the ability to stand up to their few allies in the media, who can ask the Tea Party members eager to hear from them to rally the grass roots to action? I can’t think of a single one. The Republicans have only the same people saying the same things and telling us that they’d fix everything if it weren’t for those problem conservatives. Before Republicans can energize the Tea Party, before they can do anything to craft legislative strategies to turn back Obama’s tide, Republicans have to be unified around a central ideological theme. They haven’t had an ideological candidate since Reagan. And they have to have a Party that isn’t dominated by the liberal Washington Republican establishment. That’s not going to happen as long as the money people make up that same liberal establishment. Republican unity, therefore, is not going to happen at least before Obama leaves office and perhaps not even then. Republican unity only happens when there is a person — a presidential candidate or at least a strong congressional leader — to unify around. Maybe it’s Ted Cruz. And maybe it’s not. But we know someone like that is out there. There’s some political Thomas Edison who can invent a light bulb strategy to generate light and heat in the wilderness we’ll be living in for at least another three years. Photo: UPI
“And cut!” Politicians and the establishment media are weaving an epic tale of the events that froze the markets five years ago this month and led to massive bailouts of the biggest financial firms. Yet, their retelling of the financial crisis, to use a filmmaking analogy, leaves a lot on the cutting room floor — namely, the role of the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in fueling the subprime boom. When Fannie and Freddie are discussed, their role is minimized. A recent USA Today editorial , for instance, conceded that some reform of the entities is necessary, but quickly added, “The two companies came late to the subprime party and didn’t cause the financial crisis.” The storytellers, quite simply, want nothing to distract from their narrative that the crisis was caused by rampant deregulation and the economy was “saved” by big-government rescues. But the data say otherwise. As Peter Wallison, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a dissenting commissioner on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission created by Congress, put it recently in the Wall Street Journal , in September 2008, “[H]alf of all mortgages in the U.S. — 28 million loans — were subprime or otherwise risky and low-quality,” and of these, “74% were on the books of government agencies, principally the GSEs.” He adds, “We hear plenty about Wall Street rapacity but any discussion of the government’s central role in the disaster is neatly avoided.” As for the GSEs coming to “the party” late, the GSEs actually designed, purchased, and sold loans with subprime characteristics as early as the 1990s, as Wallison, New York Times financial reporter Gretchen Morgenson, and lawsuits against GSE executives by the Securities and Exchange Commission, document. One way to illustrate just how far the media narrative deviates from reality is through a variation of the pop culture trivia game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” where the object is to link actor Kevin Bacon to fellow actors and actresses in six films or fewer. For instance, Kevin Bacon was in JFK with Jack Lemmon and Lemmon was in Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe, so that places Kevin Bacon and Marilyn Monroe two degrees apart from each other. Let’s try a similar game with the financial crisis, “One Degree of Fannie-Freddie.” The object is to link the private firms that the media designates as leading to the downfall of the financial markets with Fannie or Freddie — or both — in business transactions. As the game shows, the GSEs had co-starring or at least supporting roles providing invaluable assistance to bad actors in the private sector. Ready, let’s play. Countrywide Financial Countrywide Financial and its founder and longtime CEO Angelo Mozilo have been cast as financial crisis villains, with good reason. Mozilo features prominently as a bad guy in Inside Job , a leftie documentary about the financial meltdown, and made Time magazine’s list of “25 People to Blame For the Financial Crisis.” Time proclaims that while Countrywide “wasn’t the first to offer exotic mortgages to borrowers with a questionable ability to repay them, its all-out embrace of such sales… did legitimize the notion that practically any adult could handle a big fat mortgage.” All true, but Time and other media outlets neglect to mention that Countrywide had an essential partner in these mortgages — Fannie Mae. In fact, according to the New York Times ’ Morgenson (who stands virtually alone in the establishment media for thorough reporting on the GSEs’ roles in the crisis), Fannie actually recruited Countrywide to make these loans to help fulfill Fannie’s own “affordable housing” goals. As Morgenson and co-author Joshua Rosner write in their book Reckless Endangerment , in 1998, “[Fannie Mae CEO] Jim Johnson had agreed to charge Mozilo’s company far lower guarantee fees than its rival on mortgages Fannie Mae bought from the company and sold to investors.” Morgenson also reports that over the following decade, Fannie “assiduously… pursued Mr. Mozilo and 14 of his lieutenants to make sure the company continued to shovel loans its way.” In the late 1990s, Countrywide created a mortgage the company literally called Fast-N-Easy loan to sell exclusively to Fannie. A forerunner to the subprime loans of the coming decade, Fast-N-Easy, as Morgenson and Rosner note, “required no documentation of a borrower’s income or assets.” By 2004, Countrywide was Fannie’s top mortgage supplier, accounting for 26 percent of the loans purchased by Fannie. Countrywide also kept key Fannie executives happy by supplying them with Countrywide’s now-infamous “VIP loans,” which contained massively discounted mortgage rates. An investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found that Countrywide gave 27 employees a total of 153 of such loans. Countrywide also gave VIP loans to its chief defenders on Capitol Hill, including former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), co-author of the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” of 2010 that left the GSEs untouched. Bear Stearns In March 2008, Bear Stearns became both the first Wall Street firm to fail — and then the first to be declared too-big-to-fail. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson, and New York Fed President (and future Treasury Secretary) Tim Geithner hastily arranged a government-backed rescue of Bear by JPMorgan Chase. The “Bear precedent” set a market expectation that the government would not let a firm it deems “systemically important” fail. A strong case can be made that had Bear been allowed to fail, Lehman Brothers (more on it, later) may have never been at the breaking point in September 2008, because it would have deleveraged and sold assets much earlier, knowing that no bailout was coming. In any event, in 1997 — more than a decade before it went bust — Bear began its exotic mortgage ventures, partnering with Freddie Mac to securitize low-income home loans mandated by the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). A 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research study found that the CRA led to substantially riskier lending. The press release from the 1997 deal — excerpted by George Mason University economist Russ Roberts on the Cafe Hayek blog — claimed that this was “industry’s first public securitization of CRA loans.” Roberts added in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that, “[O]ver the next 10 months, Bear Stearns issued $1.9 billion of CRA mortgages backed by Fannie or Freddie.” Bear Stearns also was the issuer of preferred stock for Fannie Mae. Fannie and Freddie also bought several mortgage-backed securities issued by Bear, which are the subject of a lawsuit brought by the GSEs’ regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). Fannie and Freddie officials are employing the Sgt. Schultz defense — that they “knew nothing” about the risks of default. (By the way, John Banner, who played Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes , can be linked to Kevin Bacon in three degrees. Banner was in The Prize with Paul Newman, Newman was in The Color of Money with Tom Cruise, and Cruise was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon.) Lehman Brothers The story of disgraced Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld loading up on risky mortgages and then looking for a Bear-like bailout when these hit the rocks has been told many times. Fuld has stayed out of the spotlight, so when he made one of his rare public appearances recently, he chose an interesting venue — a party at the Sun Valley, Idaho, mansion of Jim Johnson, former head of Fannie Mae and, as noted, close pal of Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo (who was also at the party), according to Bloomberg Businessweek . Fannie bought billions in commercial mortgage-backed securities from Lehman, and the two firms were also counterparties on derivatives contracts worth billions. As for Freddie, a March 2013 FHFA Inspector General report found that that the two firms “had extensive business relations. Lehman sold mortgages to Freddie Mac and also served as one of Freddie Mac’s investment bankers. Lehman underwrote common and preferred stock offerings for Freddie Mac as well as various debt securities offerings.” Epilogue As these “degrees” and other evidence show, the GSEs were a major cause of the crisis, but they were not the sole cause. Other factors included the related mandates of the Community Reinvestment Act, loose monetary policy, the embedding of an oligopoly of credit rating agencies into financial solvency regulations, and pro-cyclical mark-to-market accounting rules that exaggerated and exacerbated bank losses. Yet the scariest part of this movie is that Fannie and Freddie are still around, ready to cause a financial crisis sequel. And they are more powerful than ever, thanks in large part to Dodd-Frank’s qualified mortgage rules , which burden private sector securitization but exempt the GSEs. While the government-induced financial crisis could never have a Hollywood happy ending, rolling back Dodd-Frank as well as carefully phasing out Fannie and Freddie, along the lines of the House Financial Service Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling’s (R-Texas) PATH Act , would allow the true good guys to get the economy going again. But to choose the right ending, the storytellers must stop hiding how it all began. Photo: UPI
Follow this link:
One Degree of Fannie-Freddie
A key piece of information which is only revealed in the final minutes of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and which, therefore, I must not reveal here changes everything we have thought about the film’s victim-heroine, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), up to that point. It’s obvious from the beginning that Jasmine — lately the wife of a fabulously rich Wall Street type who, like pretty much all Wall Street types in the movies, has turned out to be crooked — is an emotional wreck. We see her apparently chatting to her first-class seat-mate on a transcontinental flight about having met her husband to the strains of the Rodgers and Hart standard “Blue Moon” as if it were just a fond romantic reminiscence. We soon realize that she is talking to herself, as she does periodically throughout the movie, her own flashbacks to her comfortably well-heeled life with the fraudster Hal (Alec Baldwin) tracking closely with the movie’s. Only in the last of these do we learn what has brought her to this pass, taking refuge not only in vodka and Xanax, but also in the fantasy of her former life on Park Avenue from her much less desirable real life in the present. “When Jasmine doesn’t want to know something, she has a habit of looking the other way,” says her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) with whom she has come to live and whose supposedly proletarian apartment in San Francisco — are there still such things in the Mission District? — represents her new reality. Though both Jasmine ( née Jeanette) and Ginger were adopted, Ginger jokes about Jasmine’s having got the family’s “good genes” as a cover for her own presumed inferiority. That is echoed in the vulgarity of her ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), and her new boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Chili tries to match Jasmine up with a similarly low-life pal, Eddie (Max Casella), whose blindness to his own unsuitability as a romantic attachment to this exquisite creature is the principal evidence of his social inferiority. There is something much too easy and formulaic about this sketch of what Mr. Allen imagines to be the American class-divide, even if you overlook Ginger’s suspiciously large apartment and apparent middle-class life with her two sons — who are, equally suspiciously, seldom seen and almost never heard. The movie appears to accept by default the cruel meritocratic class-consciousness assumed by Jasmine when she refers to Chili and his pals as “losers.” This class system, in other words, has no place in it for the virtuous poor. The only virtue it recognizes is intelligence, taste, and education — the qualities of the media and political élite to which Woody Allen and his natural audience all belong and which is now sometimes referred to as “the ruling class.” Above this level, so we are meant to understand, there are only greedy crooks, like Hal; beneath it, only losers, like Chili, even though Chili appears to be making a decent living as a garage mechanic and otherwise lives a respectable life. By the way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “loser” has only been in the language in the sense it is used here (“an unsuccessful or incompetent person, a failure”) since 1955, a good eight years after Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire , generally agreed to have been Woody Allen’s inspiration for Blue Jasmine and of which it is a sort of analogue. But if Jasmine is in some ways a plausible Blanche Dubois, Chili is no Stanley Kowalski, nor would anyone have thought back in 1947 to have described Stanley as a loser. Not coincidentally, there is no sexual chemistry between Chili and Jasmine, who may be as self-deceived as Blanche was but who is no longer deceived, as Blanche was, about being a tramp (as they would have put it in her day) — presumably since a reputation for “loose morals” (to use another out-of-date expression) no longer holds any terrors for women. Instead, Jasmine is self-deceived by thinking that she can somehow retain the privileges that come with money after the money is gone, and that the life which now stretches before her is “too menial” for her. Ginger, too, is self-deceived by believing, at least for a while, that Jasmine is right in saying she can do better than Chili and his “loser” friends. The illusion in both cases appears to be bound up with a larger romantic illusion suggested by the dissonance between the typically jazzy score — El Jazz Caliente is the name Woody Allen gives to a bar or night spot near Ginger’s apartment where most of the action takes place — and the emotional kick we are meant to get from compassion for the misfortunes of the central character. We might almost see the movie as a bitterly ironic commentary on the lyrics of “Blue Moon,” which tell the story of a quasi-miraculous encounter with “the only one my arms will ever enfold.” What a laugh that is! As in even the best Woody Allen movies, and this is the best I have seen since Match Point , a yawning despair lies just beneath the surface. Like that of his God-haunted idol, Ingmar Bergman, Woody’s despair, as I take it, is born of a lingering but constantly disappointed expectation of finding any moral order in the universe. Once we have grown used to the kind of cynicism in which he specializes, formerly for comic, now for tragic effect, we won’t be very much surprised by the surprise ending to Blue Jasmine . Nor, I believe, will the new slant it gives us on Jasmine and her plight make very much difference to the pity which is all that we can feel for her and all that the author aspires to make us feel. Miss Blanchett makes as much of the role as can be made, and will almost certainly get an Oscar nomination out of it, but the bleakness of her sad situation hardly compares with the bleakness of the world view out of which Woody Allen created her.