The Game of Their Lives

Posted on April 22, 2005 at 9:54 am

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in bar, characters get drunk
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

When a movie is called “The Game of Their Lives,” you know they’re not going for subtlety.

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Posted on April 22, 2005 at 9:50 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drinking, bars
Violence/ Scariness: Character commits suicide (off-camera)
Diversity Issues: Strong and honorable female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

“Ask why.”

That was the question at the end of the television commercials for Enron, five years in a row Fortune magazine’s “most innovative company” for the way it revolutionized the market for natural gas. But, as we all now know too well, its greatest innovation was in the area of financial fraud. It went from being the seventh largest company in the country in 2000 to the then-largest bankruptcy in American history. More than $60 billion just evaporated, much of it the retirement savings of workers at Enron and other companies. This movie asks: why?

And while it does a good job of explaining some of the financial shenanigans in a manner that is not just clear but entertaining, the great strength of the film is its conclusion that this is not a story about numbers; it is a story about people.

And the people at Enron made up a cast of characters no fiction writer could top. There’s former Enron vice chairman Cliff Baxter, whose suicide begins the story. He was one of the “men with spikes” the tough guys who created Enron’s macho culture. His bi-polar disorder problems made him especially suitable for the job of deal-maker for the company because of the energy and drive he had during the manic phases. But when things spun out of control, he was so completely devastated that he spiraled into depression and killed himself.

And there’s Enron founder Ken Lay, the son of a poor preacher, whose driving ambition led him to reward the perpetrators of an early fraud, thus setting the foundation for a corporate culture that rewarded people for the money they brought in, regardless of the violations of ethics or laws. Lou Pi was the executive who got away before it all fell apart, retiring to Hawaii with his stripper wife. Sherron Watkins was the whistleblower who first identified the accounting fraud in an email that warned, “I am incredibly nervous that we will implode in a wave of accounting scandals.” James Chanos was the man who tipped off Fortune Magazine writer Bethany McLean to the fact that Enron was not all it wanted people to think it was. (The movie does not reveal that he was a short seller who had a lot to gain if the stock declined in value.) John Olson was the securities analyst who was fired because he dared to criticize Enron. His firm got a huge business deal from Enron as soon as he was gone.

At the heart of the story, though, are two people, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow. Former CEO Skilling remade himself from a pudgy in glasses who sat at a desk to a guy with Lasik surgery who took everyone on extreme outings to see who was tough. More consultant than operating executive, he cared only about “big ideas,” and had no patience for the details of execution. Skilling accepted the job at Enron contingent on the company’s agreement to use a very agressive form of accounting called “mark to market,” meaning that they booked all of the potential returns from a deal the minute the deal was signed, without waiting to see if the deal proceeded as anticipated. So when a huge energy plant was built in India, they booked all the potential revenue of their rosy predictions immediately even though the energy produced by the plant turned out to be too expensive for the community to support, so instead of making money, it lost money. One of the film’s most stunning moments is video footage of a company skit in which Skilling jokes about using “hypothetical future value” accounting. But for Enron, that’s what “mark to market” really was.

But where they really got into trouble was when CFO Andrew Fastow created a series of “special purpose entitites” to hide the company’s debt. The board waived the conflict of interest rules to allow Fastow to be an officer of those companies and to essentially be selling assets to himself –and paying himself very, very well — he made $30 million from those deals. Meanwhile, the Enron traders (as one Senator says, “that’s t-r-a-d-e-r-s,” not “traitors”) were manipulating (and cheating) to squeeze Californians by denying them electricity so they could drive up the prices.

The movie has stunning documentation, including footage of a sales pitch by Fastow, looking like the cat who is still licking the cream off his whiskers, and audiotapes of the rapacious and ruthless California t-r-a-d-e-r-s. Writer/director Alex Gibney was fascinated by the way that the Enron executives were, in a real sense, telling a story almost as though they were making a movie. He uses the techniques of film-making, from stock footage inserts (gamblers, a magician) and historical context to soundtrack choices and and present-day interviews to reveal that their “real” story was fiction. He noted that one stock shot of a sky-diver, intended to convey risk-taking, in the context of the film is a reminder of Icarus, the boy who fell into the sea because he flew too close to the sun.

What made it possible for them to lie so much and so long? Part of it was that they really believed in what they were doing. They thought that if they just cheated a little bit, long enough to fool people while they got the thing going, eventually it would work the way they designed it. But it never did. They frantically tried to expand their original good idea, trying to make markets in everything from broadband to weather. They even (not shown in the film) created a fake trading floor to fool the securities analysts who flew in for a tour. What they saw were secretaries, pulled in from other floors, who pretended to be traders buying and selling when they were really just talking to each other.

This is a story about hubris; an updated version of an ancient Greek drama. Like Icarus, the Enron executives flew too close to the sun. It’s a story of greed, arrogance, selfishness, and a complete lack of empathy or consideration for others. Most of all, though, it is a story of people who, contrary to the slogan they touted in their ads, never asked “Why.”

Parents should know that this movie is unrated. It includes very strong language (many uses of the f-word) and brief footage of strippers. It also includes the portrayal of selfish, greedy, unethical, and illegal behavior.

Families who see this movie should talk about the importance of “asking why.” Why didn’t more people ask “why?” How do people allow themselves to become part of a culture of corruption? Who do you think is most responsible for what went on at Enron? Families should talk about some of the ethical dilemmas they have encountered and observed as well. They may also want to learn more about the famously “shocking” Stanley Milgram experiments shown in the movie.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the documentary The Corporation and fictional portrayals of corporate corruption like Wall Street and the delicious comedy The Solid Gold Cadillac. Those who want more information should read the book, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Bethany Mclean and Peter Elkind, and Power Failure, co-authored by whistleblower Sherron Watkins, who appear in the movie.

When I am not watching movies, I am o
ften writing about Enron and other corporate governance meltdowns. You can see my interview with the director of this film on my blog and the textbook I co-authored, Corporate Governance, has a DVD devoted to the Enron story.

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King’s Ransom

Posted on April 21, 2005 at 7:10 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some crude and strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, including punch in the crotch
Diversity Issues: Most characters African-American, makes fun of religious character
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

At times, during this movie, I looked up at the ceiling, not so much casting my eyes heavenward for assistance as trying to find something more interesting to look at than what was on the screen. The ceiling won, hands down.

Then there were other moments when I watched the movie trying to imagine how it would have been different if the screenplay had been written, not by Wayne Conley of Nickelodeon’s “Kenan & Kel” and “Nick Cannon Show” but by the Grand Klagon of the Ku Klux Klan, and deciding that other than possibly being more sophisticated and less racist, there would have been almost no difference at all.

This is a dumb, offensive, poorly paced, and downright incompetent movie about three different plans to kidnap a very wealthy and obnoxious man named King (Anthony Anderson) who is about to get divorced. He plans his own kidnapping to keep his assets away from his wife. Meanwhile, an aggrieved employee (Nicole Ari Parker) wants revenge and a guy who lives in his grandmother’s basement (Jay Mohr) needs $10,000 for his gangsta sister.

The three plans collide, giving rise to a series of scenes in which people either explain what is going on or make fake jokes, mostly low comedy-style insults and comments indicating that the characters are rapacious, greedy, stupid, liars, old, have too much sex, or have too little. Then it sinks even lower as the kidnap victim teaches the kidnapper to be more assertive (by smacking him in the face with a mustard-smeared slice of bread) and the estranged couple has to find a way to work together and it brings back fond memories. The comic timing is way off and even talented performers like Anderson, Mohr, Parker, and Regina Hall (as the mistress) do little more than shout and wave their arms. I think I caught a couple of distress signals; I know I wanted to send one back.

Parents should know that this movie has a great deal of crude humor, including “jokes” about menstruation, bikini waxes, prison rape, and oral sex and some homophobic situations. There is some strong and raunchy language and potty humor. Characters drink and smoke. The movie has a good deal of “comic” violence, including a punch in the crotch.

Parents who see this movie should talk about what was important to King, Andre, Miss Gladys, and Renee. They should also talk about the movie’s use of caricature.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the classic kidnap comedy (mature material) Ruthless People, 9 to 5, and the one that started it all, The Ransom of Red Chief. The Ref is a scathing comedy about a robber who holds a warring couple hostage, with outstanding performances by Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, and Judy Davis.

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The Interpreter

Posted on April 19, 2005 at 8:07 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and violence, including shooting, characters in peril and some killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

“The Interpreter” is a watchable, if not always absorbing thriller, thanks to sheer star power and top directing talent.

Nicole Kidman is Silvia, an American raised in Africa, who works as an interpreter at the United Nations. One night she overhears an assassination plot that appears to be about a controversial head of state who is about to make a speech to the General Assembly. Secret Service agents Keller (Sean Penn) and Woods (the superb Catherine Keener) are assigned to evaluate the threat. That means that they have to decide whether to believe Silvia. Is she holding back some of what she knows because she is afraid, or is she part of the plot? “What is she now, a victim or a suspect?” one character asks.

Director Sidney Pollak (who appears in a small role as a Secret Service official) knows how to create an ominous tone and his sense of pace and timing is superb. One scene that takes place on a bus should be used in master classes on how to direct a thriller. The script has some clever lines. “I’ll be honest with you,” Silvia says to Keller. “I don’t know how honest I can be with you.” It cleverly uses structure to help tell the story. A series of frustratingly incomplete phone calls evolves into connections in both technical and emotional terms. Finally, two people communicate in person, revealing their secrets.

Those scenes with Silvia and Keller are the heart of the movie, and Kidman and Penn have the conviction and the charisma to deliver all that the script offers them and more. The UN setting is fresh and intriguing and the film avoids some of the expected developments. Keener makes a strong impression as more than the usual wise-cracking sidekick.

But the story begins to work against itself by not giving us a clear enough reason to root for any side in the larger picture. It goes on for about 20 minutes too long and at least one of the plot twists dissipates the tension and our attachment to the characters.

Parents should know that the movie is a tense and scary thriller with characters in frequent peril and several very violent situations, including shooting and bombs. Characters are injured and killed. The movie also includes brief strong language and some drinking. A character appears to drink to numb feelings of pain and loss.

Families who see this movie should learn more about the United Nations and the Hague, where international trials are held. Organizations like Human Rights Watch provide information and advocacy on “ethnic cleansing” and other issues like those portrayed in the movie. They should talk about the importance of using exactly the right word, especially in sensitive communications like diplomacy. And they should talk about Silvia’s story about her country deals with murderers and the families of their victims.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the classic romantic thrillers Charade, in which Audrey Hepburn briefly plays an interpreter, and Arabesque, with Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck, which also concerns an assassination plot. Director Pollack is responsible for a nicely paranoid thriller starring Robert Redford, Three Days of the Condor. And another good thriller about a Secret Service agent is In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood.

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The Amityville Horror

Posted on April 15, 2005 at 5:26 pm

Going over the same ground as the original 1975 cult classic and its many derivative offspring, this “Amityville Horror” provides enough of a shiver for novice horror fans to guarantee an opening-weekend audience but, for more well-versed fans of the genre, will feel like a redundant round of recycling.

The script here differs slightly from the original but still has not figured out how to solve the ending. With the ominous (and highly suspect) intro “Based on a true story,” this version cuts quickly to the premise. A young man living at home wakes one night and shoots his family one by one. When the police bring him in for questioning, he explains that his family was demonic and that the house told him to do it.

Flash forward a year to young married couple, George (Ryan Reynolds) and Kathy Lutz (Melissa George), who are working together to build a good home for her three children, who are still dealing with their father’s death. They come to the house, now for sale at a discount, and snap it up despite the visible nervousness of the realtor and her passing reference to the tragedy that took place there.

Within hours of moving in, everyone from the family pet to the young daughter have seen serious signs that this house needs a lot more than a Fab Five make-over. Ghosts, some chatty, some just ghastly, lurk in the shadows, the windows open and shut like eye-lids, and the vents have a habit of whispering. As the days pass and George begins to get testy and more than a little red in the eyes, Kathy realizes that she has a mystery to solve before she and her children fall victim to the house’s new plaything.

The recent rash of horror flicks prompts a soul-searching all their own: if you have seen it all before can they still scare you? When done well, old stories and equally familiar images will have you rattling your popcorn by the time the opening credits roll. This remake, though, has fair special effects, some jump-out-at-you surprises, decent acting by attractive performers, but its familiar antics just as likely to leave your popcorn static. Does the step-dad get possessed? Is there a creepy kid? Does the family pet make it to the last reel? What do you think?

Parents should know that this movie earns its R rating and then some. Besides the murder of children, the images of torture, references to suicide, the death of innocents (including a pet), and near constant peril, this movie dwells on the psychological metamorphosis of a gentle, family man into an abusive monster. There are sexual references as well as a fairly explicit sex scene between a married couple. Playing to horror’s growing female demographic, actor Reynolds spends a considerable amount of his time with his shirt off. Strong language is used, at times directed at family members. There are social drinks and drug references. Possibly the world’s worst babysitter smokes pot and makes sexual references to the children.

Families who see this movie should talk about a common theme of many ghost stories: the unhappy soul with unresolved issues. Families might also want to talk about George’s insecurity about his role as step-father and how his relationship with the house exacerbates his worst characteristics. They should also talk about the fact that while the original book was published as nonfiction, the story has been thoroughly discredited.

Families who see this movie might want to look at the very unusual reviews by two critics who didn’t make it to the end of the movie. Families who enjoy watching scary ghost movies might want to see the original Amityville Horror (1975). Also picking up the ghosts with unresolved issues theme are The Grudge and The Ring. The Shining is one of the best of the genre.

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