26 July 2008

Death To Remakes!

One year ago tomorrow, a film came out into wide release in the United States that, even then, I cringed at. The film was No Reservations, starring Aaron Eckhart (late of The Dark Knight where he plays the idealistic Harvey Dent who succumbs to his evil alter-ego, Two-Face) and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who hasn't needed much of an introduction since she burst onto the pop culture scene in 1998's The Mask of Zorro.

The reason I cringed then was because I knew, as few of my contemporaries did, that this film was based on a German film from 2002 called Bella Martha, better known to English-speaking audiences as Mostly Martha. During the summer of 2004 I went on a foreign film frenzy; I devoured almost three per week, and that few only because Netflix doesn't offer same-day delivery. A friend of mine got me started on this frenzy by lending me Babette's Feast and Mostly Martha. These films remain two of the finest films I've seen in the last ten years, and Mostly Martha in particular for its themes of grief, loss, and hope, all expressed and portrayed with such poetry and grace that I have rarely seen anything to rival it.

You might think, then, that the release of No Reservations would have excited me beyond belief. Many of my friends, when I told them about how wonderful Mostly Martha was, took it for granted that I would want to see this American remake. But experience has taught me that Hollywood remakes are more than often guaranteed to disappoint. And so it was with No Reservations. I finally buckled down and watched it today in honor of the (nearly) first anniversary of its release. Zeta-Jones and Eckhart demonstrate a great friendship on screen, but their sentiment fails to strike any deeper than that. At their first (and even second and third) kiss, I almost expect one of them to say, "So much for that," and get back to the business of the movie. They are too casual to be awkward, too warm to be aloof.

The film also stars Abigail Breslin, who tied with Tatum O'Neill for the youngest actress ever nominated for an Oscar in a competitive category (O'Neill won at age 10, while Breslin lost to Tilda Swinton in the Supporting Actress category; Shirley Temple won an honorary Oscar at age 6). While Breslin delivers (seemingly) real tears as a young girl orphaned when her mother dies in a car accident, she doesn't breathe any life into her lines, which weren't that stellar to begin with.

The film cannot decide whether to be about food, or family, or death, or female bonding (it tries for the latter with the compulsory pillow fight, complete with feathers flying all over the place). This adaptation of Sandra Nettelbeck's poignant Mostly Martha turned enchanting and genuine characters into caricatures of themselves, and the cast doesn't help sway the transformation at all.

Only in a few moments does this film tap into the original allure of Mostly Martha; but by the time those moments come along, you're so dejected and disappointed that you give no more thought to them than to a dead raccoon on the side of the highway.

People of the world, I implore you: don't tolerate lousy remakes and sloppy seconds. Hark ye the old adage: the original is the best. It's true about James Bond, Law & Order, and it's true about Mostly Martha. Do yourself a favor and give the original a shot.

25 July 2008

One Thing Mick Jagger Should Never have Started Up

It's said that there are two kinds of people in the world; the kind who, if their house was burning, would save their Beatles collection, and the kind who, if their house was burning, would save their Rolling Stones collection.

I've always been one of the former. I just never understood what people saw in the Stones. Sure, I've got a few Stones songs in my music collection - eleven or twelve, in fact - and you have to admit that, overplayed though they are, some of their songs are so emblematic that they embody not just a mood but an entire generation.

That, I get. What I don't get, what I've never gotten, is the thought that Mick Jagger is sexy or a god of rock n' roll. I remember watching some TV show about him when I was 12 or so that had all these famous women he'd slept with, swearing up and down that they'd never met any man who was sexier. They juxtaposed these confessional interviews with concert footage of Jagger doing what I guess is supposed to be a dance, but looks more like marching in place, bringing his knees up to waist level and moving his bent arms back and forth as he sang "Start Me Up." Right then and there, I knew that these women either had no taste, or that Jagger's sex appeal must be something that doesn't really come across on film.

In spite of this conclusion reached at a young age, I like to keep an open mind. So when I found the movie Ned Kelly on Netflix, starring Mick Jagger as the title character, I decided to give it a shot.

And my oh my, what a waste of two hours. I wonder how well this film performed at the box office in 1970, or if Mick Jagger's star power was even enough to carry it that far. Because from beginning to end, the acting was just plain bad, and not just by Jagger, who couldn't seem to decide if he should have an Irish accent (as Kelly was purported to have), an Australian one or a British one. So he opted for all three at different moments. The motley supporting cast, I'm sure, didn't help him in that regard, never mind that hardly any of them could act, either. Combined with the abysmal script, and the whole thing becomes a recipe for disaster, and not even Tony Richardson, the two-time Oscar winning director, can save the project.

It's sad but true. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this film. The opening scene of Kelly's execution by hanging is utterly flat and emotionless, and from there the film segues into corny and overblown, devoid of charm, grace, or even that most elemental of filmic qualities, timing.

Though it does have some very pretty scenes of the Australian outback.

Then again, so does National Geographic. Minus all the bad acting.

18 July 2008

R.E.M. in the context of Private Equity

What follows is an article I submitted privately today that will never see publication anywhere else. My lawyers tell me I still have the rights to it, so I'm posting here just for fun. Because as soon as anyone thinks of fun, you just know the words "private equity" aren't far behind.


If private equity had to choose a theme song, R.E.M.’s ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ would be a top contender.

Henry Kravis, founding partner of the firm Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts (KKR) might have had that song running through his head yesterday. Protesters from MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and political and economic activists gathered outside of KKR offices in New York, Menlo Park, Calif., Hong Kong and London to voice their objections to the tax breaks and loopholes that private equity firms use to make billions of dollars on buyouts.

Other protests, organized in 24 countries on six continents, according to the Global Day of Action website, included a rally outside the campaign headquarters of Senator John McCain, the conservative United States presidential candidate, in Washington, D.C.

Activists organized these demonstrations to raise awareness about pending legislation in the U.S. Senate that would close some of those tax loopholes and, according to the petition on the Global Day of Action website, will “generate almost $31 billion in much-needed revenue over the next ten years.”

If the legislation passes, KKR may face the troubles already experienced by many of its competitors. Private equity firms saw unmitigated growth in the early and mid years of this decade, with nine of the ten largest private equity buyouts announced within an 18-month period between 2006 and 2007 according to Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post. But since the latter part of 2007, the sector has slowed to a crawl. The depression of the credit and housing markets have made it increasingly difficult for small firms to borrow funds from banks, which are decidedly more cautious in money lending, and many have had to close their doors.

Even larger firms, such as the D.C.-based Carlyle Group, have invested their own money in their companies to keep afloat. For Carlyle, this embarrassing incident, reported by the Washington Post in September 2007, was further compounded in March of this year when shares of Carlyle Capital fell nearly 90 per cent.

Carlyle would have liked to mimic the success of a third major U.S. private equity firm, The Blackstone Group. Blackstone went public in June 2007 and has enjoyed great success, if its 80-page 2007 Annual Report can be believed. But the company’s performance on the stock market tells a different story; the shares are presently estimated at $17.02, according to BusinessWeek.com, only thirteen months after it ended its first day of trading at $35.06.

Elsewhere in the world, the future does not look so bleak. The Glasgow Herald reported earlier this month that while the number of private equity deals in Scotland fell for the second time since 2006, firms “carried on spending freely,” with monetary investments increasing more than £200 million in the same time frame. The Birmingham Post stated last month that the government of the United Kingdom would begin to encourage private equity firms to do business abroad, citing China as a particularly favourite location due to “political and economic tensions between Beijing and the White House.” Should they succeed, much of Southeast Asia could follow suit in favouring British firms, causing more small U.S. private equity companies to close up shop.

On Blackstone’s first day of public trading, June 22, 2006, the NYSE had an unusual visitor. Author Tom Wolfe said to CNBC from the stock floor just before trading opened on that day, “We may be witnessing the end of capitalism as we know it.”

R.E.M. could definitely write a rock song about that.

15 July 2008

Kick Ass Woman of the Day

Always remembering how important it is to learn more about women throughout history who have totally kicked ass, I present: Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

Yes, that Cleopatra.

Hollywood has (and will likely continue to) tried to show us through extremely exorbitant and ornate sets and costumes exactly how rich, glamorous, sexy, et cetera, Cleopatra was, but she was also someone who really couldn't bear to be outdone in anything. While entertaining Marc Antony and his officers on her royal barge outside of Tarsus (now in modern-day Turkey) Cleopatra made a bet with Antony that she could consume a fortune in a single meal. The next night she put on another lavish dinner, and at the end of it Antony declared himself the winner, saying that this meal, while very nice, wasn't any more expensive or impressive than the one they'd had yesterday.

To this, Cleopatra had a glass of vinegar brought to her. She took off one of her pearl earrings, estimated at "the value of fifteen countries" (this is just one earring of the pair, mind) and dropped it into the glass. When the vinegar had dissolved the pearl, she drank the vinegar.

Now that's determination. Because, seriously, have you ever tried to drink vinegar? Yech! Robitussin is like finely-aged merlot by comparison. No matter how many pearls you put in it.

So, here's to Cleopatra. The Kick Ass Woman of the Day.