Tag Archives: B

ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM

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B-

Though Enron has become a byword for the corporate chicanery of the last decade, and there’s been lots of news coverage of the duplicitous accounting and horrific practices of the Houston-based company (including the best-selling book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind which serves as a major source of this documentary), most Americans are probably still hazy about the precise facts of the scandal. This film by Alex Gibney does a fine job of presenting the story in an accessible, if obviously charged, fashion. One could never accuse it of taking a calm, objective approach to the scandal–it’s an activist film–but under the circumstances that’s quite understandable and defensible. And its attitude isn’t one of stern, righteous indignation–which would certainly be justifiable–as much as of almost bemused amazement that such a grotesque perversion of ethics and propriety could have gone undetected and unpunished for so long.

Of course, Gibney is fortunate in that Enron–not unlike the bureaucracies of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes–left behind a huge archive of its own malfeasance, saving evidence of its own perfidy to such an extent that even frenzied last-minute efforts to purge the files, as it were, came up very short. So part of the material presented here consists of filmed pep rallies given to bolster employee morale by Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and other executives as the company devised more and more “innovative” means to expand its activities and bolster its balance sheet. (Most notable among the latter was Skilling’s highly imaginative scheme to count future estimated profits as though they were already in hand, thereby camouflaging present losses with prospective gains.) And there are the tapes of those horrifying telephone conversations between company energy traders, joyously manipulating electric production in California to exacerbate the blackout crisis there and so increase Enron’s profits. But these “primary” sources are put into proper context by the clear, crisp narrative delivered without exaggeration by Peter Coyote, news clips, excerpts from interviews with corporate whistleblowers and journalists who covered the scandal, and portions of congressional hearings in which company executives were grilled by members of the U.S. Congress, some of whom had probably profited from the largesse Enron distributed to politicians over the years.

Enron’s story, of course, has become a cautionary tale of how corporate greed can overcome every scruple and circumvent all the trip-wires supposedly designed to detect it early on. (After all, the company couldn’t have flourished, in its duplicitous way, had not the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson, Wall Street brokerages, financial news organizations and governmental watchdog committees been somewhat complicit in the process. (Some, like Anderson, paid a very heavy price.) And Enron was only the tip of the iceberg: WorldCom wasn’t far behind. The tale also grows poignant when some caught up in the operation take their own lives, and thousands of employees discover that they’re not only out of work but that the pension funds they so assiduously invested in company stock, at the encouragement of their own executives, are now totally lost–even though those same executives were pocketing millions as the stock price went south.

One might complain that at times “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” comes off as a bit too smart itself, almost smug in its often jokey post-mortem of the company’s excesses. But on the whole it acquits itself remarkably well. And while the film might serve as instructional source in business schools about what not to do, that’s probably too much to hope for. At best it will serve to suggest the sorts of questions outsiders should ask about any corporation’s doings in judging the actualities of its performance.

Good luck in the market! Looks like you’ll need it. But at least this movie is a pretty sure bet.

HELLBOY

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B

Yet another movie made from a dark comic book (sorry, “graphic novel”) hardly seems likely to afford much pleasure, but Guillermo Del Toro shows how it should be done; Mike Mignola’s Dark House series is reportedly one of the director’s favorites, and his adaptation proves the rare labor of love that should both satisfy die-hard fans and excite newcomers as well. “Hellboy” is about a horned, red-faced son of Satan (Ron Perlman, looking as though he’s wearing garb left over from Tim Curry’s demonic turn in Ridley Scott’s “Legend,” though this demon grinds down his antler-like horns to mere nubs in an effort to “fit in”) who’s gone good and fights Evil under the tutelage of a grizzled, professorial type (John Hurt), the head of a secret FBI appendage called the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Just think of “X-Men” with a different sort of mutant or “Angel” with an ugly anti-hero instead of a pretty one and you’ll have some idea of the template that’s being followed here.

But “Hellboy” is hardly a simple copy of anything, and Del Toro’s filmization of it is happily different from the run-of-the-mill comic movies that have proliferated of late. It’s hardly a serious piece; rather, like the best comics, it combines amusing absurdities with a world just real enough to be recognizable, and adds to the mix plenty of good jokes in the dialogue and situations to brighten the dark ambience. Thus we find a plethora of disparate elements that include not only a scarlet demon but a repeatedly resurrected Rasputin, a clique of Nazi officers involved in the occult, a near-immortal faceless Gestapo ghoul equipped with long knives that are wielded in kung-fu style, a good-natured version of the gill man from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” some squishy lion-like monsters spawned from a bottle of salt long concealed in a statue of Dionysius the Areopagite (!), a doorway to hell, and what appears to be a giant, drooling land squid sent from Hades to begin the apocalypse. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s a romantic triangle involving Hellboy, a young FBI agent named Myers (the likable Rupert Evans), and a pyrokinetic young woman (Selma Blair), in which Hellboy’s jealousy is played (quite successfully) for comic relief; a typically officious FBI head (Jeffrey Tambor, who makes the fellow’s preening self-importance amusing); and even a skeletal Russian corpse that’s disinterred by Hellboy to provide information on the location of a mausoleum in a Moscow cemetery–a character that, contrary to all expectations, is very funny in a haunted horse sort of way. And, as topping to it all, there are plenty of big, elaborately staged fight scenes, done up in true comic-book fashion, with pulverizing blows, collapsing walls and long, humorously extended reactions from the unfortunate recipients of the punches.

With all of this going on, it’s nearly impossible to summarize the narrative (or, perhaps, even to understand it all, unless you’ve an aficionado of the books). After a 1944 prologue in which the young Professor Broom (played by Kevin Trainor at this stage), President Roosevelt’s paranormal advisor, foils an effort by Rasputin and the Nazis to open a portal to hell, he discovers that the impish hellboy has passed into the world in the process. Broom adopts the demon tyke and raises him to become the chief agent of the FBI’s B.P.R.D., a Sasquatch-like figure sent out to deal with unexplained phenomena using both his fists (his oversized right hand looks like a big red mallet) and huge guns when necessary, always quipping along the way (and occasionally glimpsed by civilians, to the delight of supermarket tabloids). He’s accompanied by gill-man Abe Sapien (acted in heavy makeup by Doug Jones, but voiced with impeccable comic timing by David Hyde Pierce) whenever necessary, and pines away for Liz Sherman (Blair), who’s locked herself up in a mental hospital to deal with her unwanted powers. At the very moment when Broom has discovered he’s terminally ill and chosen Myers as his replacement, a dangerous challenge emerges, in the form of monsters unleashed by the revived Rasputin to serve as bait to lure Hellboy, after a whole series of encounters and fights, to an underground Russian cavern where the Mad Monk needs him to unlock the door that will unleash the destruction of the earth.

The cast plays this material with precisely the right blend of tongue-in-cheek seriousness. Perlman, who’s always looked good in heavy monster makeup, is hilariously hard-boiled as Hellboy, and he pulls off some charming change-of-pace scenes (watch the one where he spies on Liz and Myers from a rooftop, in the company of an advice-giving young boy). Hurt uses his Shakespearean tones to excellent effect as the eccentric Broom, Evans is surprisingly pleasant as the fumbling young hero, and Blair brings both strength and vulnerability to Liz. And while Roden is pretty much standard-issue villainy, the Jones/Hyde Pierce combo makes Abe a touching and funny creature, and Tambor seethes with stupidity as the self-important FBI head (he also enjoys a nice final scene with Hellboy, in which they come warily to respect one another).

But the real heroes of “Hellboy” are the strip’s creator, Mignola, who’s served as a visual consultant and helped to insure the picture’s faithful recreation of the comic’s world, and Del Toro, who captures the zest, adolescent spirit and sheer panache of the original. The movie doesn’t have the profundity of the director’s smaller efforts (“Cronos” or “The Devil’s Backbone”), and in the final reel it does tend to go on a bit too long. But it’s better that his “Blade II,” and especially in comparison to the many failed adaptations of comics (just think “Daredevil”), it’s a triumph, and lots of fun besides.