Connect with us

Blog

Cog in the Slot Machine: American Casino

Published

on

Cog in the Slot Machine: American Casino

Newbie filmmakers Leslie and Andrew Cockburn, the director/producer/writer and producer/writer, respectively, behind the doc American Casino—which attempts to uncover the heart of darkness lurking inside the subprime mortgage meltdown that’s made “foreclosure” a household word—have been in-the-trenches journalists for nearly three decades. The husband and wife team have resumes boasting investigative reporting for the likes of Frontline and 60 Minutes, and it shows. I don’t mean that as a compliment. For while interviewing dictators and covert ops officers may make for great TV programming it does nothing to prepare one for the story sustainability required in long-form filmmaking.

The Cockburns take a scattershot approach to their subject, talking to anyone and everyone touched by the financial fiasco, from bland suit financial reporter Mark Pittman to “The Man in Shadow,” a Bear Sterns specialist who, when asked who was buying some of the nonsensical securities he was hawking, answers “Idiots.” (Why the filmmakers chose to cut directly thereafter to a shot of singing church congregants in a black community where foreclosure is rampant is a mystery only they can explain.)

Then there’s good guy Denzel Mitchell, a Baltimore social studies teacher who, we’re told via title card, filed for bankruptcy the morning of the interview. He’s trotted out to add a human element to the overabundant images of stock tickers and computer screens. Pittman refers to Mitchell as an innocent “chip” in Wall Street’s casino, but the term could just as easily have been applied to his role in The Cockburns’ film. Who wouldn’t root for a public high school teacher and father that gardens and composts in his backyard over the big bad bulls of Wall Street who literally hide in the shadows? American Casino is not only predictable in its “cut to Baltimore’s foreclosed homes then cue hip-hop” approach. It’s also about as nuanced as the stark red and black of a roulette wheel.

Besides, a roulette wheel is certainly more cinematic and more thrilling to watch. From shots of talking heads sitting in offices (often pointing out obscure numbers on their PCs), to the use of title cards, to footage of senators asking the usual questions at hearings, American Casino would seem more suited to print than to a visual medium like film. (Indeed, the information presented is often so dense and detailed that it practically begs for the slow-moving meticulousness of print.) But then most of the information The Cockburns present, from the banks’ targeting of minority communities to the current Treasury Secretary’s ties to Goldman Sachs, has already been exposed exhaustively in magazine and newspaper articles, not to mention in TV news magazines. The film isn’t telling us anything new and groundbreaking as did Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which also happened to include a cast of engaging, larger-than-life characters seemingly made for the big screen.

Not incidentally, that film was based on a book by Enron’s own screenwriters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, which gave the director a strong cohesive storyline to focus on and to sink his teeth deep into. In contrast the American Casino team appears to be taking small bites of whatever comes their way, assuming that simply showing greed, hubris and its consequences is enough to warrant a feature film. (Though the weird choice to interview some random guy from the Northwest Mosquito Vector Control District, who expounds on West Nile virus, meth labs and marijuana farms, has the makings of an episode of Dirty Jobs.) In fact, it’s almost a full hour before the filmmakers interview the woman who should have been their main character: Patricia McNair, an elegant black grandma and mental health professional in a battle to keep her home.

She’s the only interviewee to address the elephant in the room alluded to by another Baltimorean who claims to have lost everything to foreclosure, including her very “identity.” Why on earth would so many people stake their very souls on a piece of property? Isn’t this the mentality that got us into this mess in the first place, regardless of race or class? Isn’t American homeownership as a symbol of an individual’s worth the real con? McNair thoughtfully addresses the global complexity of the situation she’s found herself in, and is able to connect her plight to, as she says, some “village in Denmark.” In other words, she sees the bigger picture. Now if only someone had thought to stick McNair behind the lens.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

Advertisement
Comments

Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

Published

on

Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

Published

on

Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

Published

on

BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Donate

Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:

Patreon

You can also make a donation via PayPal.

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending