Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Also: House of D, Palindromes, Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela, Watermarks, and Winter Solstice.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Opens Fri., April 29, at Egyptian and Guild 45

Gordon Gekko lives, although not so entertainingly or flamboyantly as he once did. Eighteen years after Wall Street, history repeats itself with a new paraphrase of "Greed is good" in this interesting, but not interestingly told, documentary. The corporate mantra at Enron, founded in 1985 as a humble Houston gas pipeline company, is "Ask why." Sounds innocuous enough; there's nothing wrong with shaking up markets with a new approach to business. But Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay's mandate to do things differently and more profitably—including dubious accounting practices, outright fraud, and helping trigger California's 2001 power blackouts—omits its important moral corollary: Ask why not. In other words, when is it not OK to place near-term profits ahead of long-term sustainability? Of course Gekko, like Lay and his underlings Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow, would only roll his eyes at our naïveté for even asking.

Enron's big three criminals, all of them currently in varying stages of trial and imprisonment, are represented here in corporate videos, news footage, and perp walks. (Skilling: "We are the good guys. We are on the side of the angels.") Director Alex Gibney doesn't have any new interviews with the principals to offer; mainly he just follows the outline of the eponymous 2003 book by Fortune writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, who comment along with other journalists, stock analysts, and disgruntled former Enron employees. If you read the book, or followed the news headlines, the movie doesn't really add anything new. If you didn't, you probably aren't interested in business scandals anyway.

Gibney starts with a cheesy America's Most Wanted–style re-enactment of a suicide by one Enron conspirator; he also adds musical comment by Tom Waits, Marilyn Manson, and Billie Holiday to try to hold the interest of those who don't regularly turn to the morning newspaper's stock tables. But there's only so much you can do to enliven a story where the crux of all wrongdoing is "mark-to- market" accounting (essentially claiming hypothetical future profits as today's revenues). Talking heads are talking heads, no matter what they've got to say. Unless you've got a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock to personalize an important issue (even if that means buffoonery on their part), TV is the better outlet for the tale. You know a documentary is in trouble when it presents former California Gov. Gray Davis as a sympathetic figure.

We never really get a sense of what Lay, Skilling, and company were really like outside the boardroom. Nor are federal regulators' feet held to the fire (Bush 41 and 43 are loosely linked to Lay, but that's as far as it goes). We meet a few of the little people affected by a pension and retirement fund wipeout of $3.2 billion (!) without the hardships really being shown (think of the rabbit lady in Roger & Me). Gibney fails to capitalize on the enormity of the crime when it does, in fact, have all kinds of colorful potential. Thanks to a lawsuit brought by the Snohomish Public Utility District, there's a trove of Enron energy trader audio tapes that Neil LaBute would envy as material for the stage. As California suffers blackouts and brush fires, one guy crows, "Burn, baby, burn!" since the artificial electricity shortage was driving Enron's share price toward $100. Another adds, "Best thing that could happen is a fucking earthquake." Maybe that would've gotten our attention. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

House of D

Opens Fri., April 29, at Metro and others

There are some good things to be said about David Duchovny's largely bad writing/ directing debut. The story has real-feeling roots in his own life. Like the film's 13-year-old hero, Tommy (Anton Yelchin), Duchovny grew up with an unwealthy single mom in 1970s Manhattan, a private-school scholarship kid delivering meat via bicycle after class and dating Park Avenue girls whose luxe homes stunned him—the elevator door opened, and boom! You were standing in their vast apartments! Hookers in Greenwich Village's House of Detention used to holler at teenagers like him from their cells far above. Even the most stilted part of a stilted film, the framing tale in which Duchovny plays the grown-up Tommy—who's fled his troubled New York life to become a boho artiste in Paris—mirrors his actual past: His dad fled the family to be a novelist in Paris.

The grown-up-Tommy sequences are just a transparent excuse to get the film financed by putting Duchovny's mug briefly on-screen. Most of the movie covers Tommy's sad yet enchanted adolescence. Yelchin is pretty good as a gawky teen, making mischief at school—tricking the French teacher into uttering smutty English words—and delivering meat with his school-janitor friend, Pappas (Robin Williams), who has some strange form of retardation that takes the form of Williams' ghastliest, smarmiest sentimental performance. (Yes, he even out-Patches Patch Adams.) Téa Leoni (Duchovny's wife) isn't bad as Tommy's self-destructive, chain-smoking mom—also a sentimental role, but one closer to realism and not ruined by the self-indulgence of an 800-pound- gorilla star. (On his recent visit to Seattle, Duchovny mildly kvetched that Williams didn't take as much direction as Duchovny would've liked.)

Though her role is wincingly improbable, Erykah Badu does fine as the hooker who advises Tommy from on high about life and love. Williams' teenage daughter Zelda does better than fine as Melissa, the rich girl of Tommy's dreams. The best scenes are the unforced ones about their dates and school dances. Duchovny clearly knows about being a longing loser in love: He was still chasing girls at Yale, such as Jennifer Beals, who found his courtship so annoying she refused years later to costar with him as Scully in The X-Files.

Duchovny incompetently tries to shoehorn in too many of his memories in a threadbare script he batted out in six days. The hopscotch plot is an arbitrary accumulation of scenes, the character development contrived, and the connection between Tommy's grown-up and childhood lives hopelessly ridiculous. Still, the flick achieves passages of sweetness. It's three-fourths of a waste of time, but not a hateful waste. (PG-13) TIM APPELO

Palindromes

Opens Fri., April 29, at Harvard Exit

It's going to get harder and harder to defend your affection for Welcome to the Dollhouse with Todd Solondz's latest film. It begins with the funeral service for Dollhouse heroine Dawn Wiener, apparently a suicide following her college years. Her 13-year-old cousin Aviva worries that she might end up like Dawn, but her mother (Ellen Barkin) tries to reassure her that mental illness, unhappiness, obesity, ugliness . . . well, those bad things aren't meant for a pampered Jewish girl from the New Jersey suburbs. Aviva's life will be different, better, provided she follows certain rules, expectations, and codes of conduct (never Dawn's strong suit, come to think of it).

Aviva has different plans. She wants one thing and one thing only: a baby. And her steadfast, unyielding nature is explained by her cousin Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber) in terms of her name, a palindrome, constant whether forward or backward: "It never changes." Neither does Aviva—though, in Palindromes' big conceptual irony, the actresses who play her, about a dozen in all, change throughout the movie. She's variously a little black girl, a gangly white adolescent, a fat black woman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. (Of course! No surprise that that misery magnet should be drawn to this project.)

In short order, Aviva gets knocked up, runs away from home, experiences the cruelty of the world (chiefly male), and finds shelter at a Christian-run group home in Kansas. It's not a happy trip, and Solondz takes pains to point out every freak by the side of the road. Look! There's a pedophile truck driver! Over there! See the hypocritical Bible-thumpers and hear their awful music!

Not that Aviva's all peaches and cream. Whatever her fitness as a mother or the (in)appropriateness of her choice of sexual partners, she's also a girl who cheers on a killing with, "He deserved it!" Even Dawn, with her budding misanthropy, would never make such a mistake. It's left to fatalistic Mark to be the voice of reason in Palindromes, and he's branded a criminal by his community for his truth-telling (here one senses an authorial surrogate).

Apropos of Solondz's first film, Fear, Anxiety & Depression, this one might be called Discomfort, Unease & Ridicule. The child sex stuff isn't what's so disturbing (nor is it particularly graphic); rather, it's how vague Solondz the artist is about the purpose for all the shock and squirming. We can accept that the world, especially New Jersey, is horrid. And its aggressively homely inhabitants, too. Fine, Mr. Solondz—we'll grant you all that. But there's got to be a point to Palindromes' tautology, or it ends up, like Aviva, right where we started. The suburban determinist Mark says, "Genes and randomness—that's all there is, and none of it matters." That may be true, scientifically speaking, but that's not why we go to the movies. For that reason, Solondz is stuck in an artistic cul-de-sac. No wonder Dawn killed herself. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela

Runs Fri., April 29–Thurs., May 5, at Varsity

The Kumbh Mela is the world's oldest (at least two millennia) and largest religious gathering—crowd estimates for the most recent festival range from 30 million to 70 million. Million. Held every 12 years, with the location rotating among four Indian cities, the Kumbh Mela was especially auspicious in 2001, taking place at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna, two of India's holiest rivers.

There to capture it were filmmakers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day. Vast tent cities, ranging from sturdy if temporary wooden buildings to sheets on sticks, house the pilgrims. Subdivisions surround each particular holy man. The paths to enlightenment include some Ripley-esque stunts (one sadhu has held his twiglike right arm in the air for 20 years); others are right out of the Jim Rose Sideshow (one involves an extremely malleable penis and a 4-foot wooden dowel).

The festival is a joyous riot of ritual, chanting, drumming, lights, street theater, Internet kiosks, the Dalai Lama, a bagpipe band, and healer-hucksters—the readiness of some people to allow a complete stranger to poke some mystery ointment into their eyes is the film's most startling evocation of the faith of the devout. Unstartling are the messages of serene common sense delivered by the dozen or so gurus interviewed: All religions are one; it's not about money; love is all around, no need to waste it.

Our on-screen guide through all this is the bespectacled, puppyish Swami Krishnanand, a novice to the holy life, who hooks up with two earnest American students, Justin and Dyan. As for Benazzo and Day, they're about as gentle and unobtrusive as documentary makers can be—really, the only value judgment they make is that the whole thing's worth the trouble of filming. Beyond that, they step back and leave you to smile, nod in agreement, gasp in awe, or roll your eyes at everything their camera records. (NR) GAVIN BORCHERT

Watermarks

Runs Fri., April 29–Thurs., May 12, at Grand Illusion

This Israeli documentary succeeds in part because its subject—Hakoah Vienna, a Jewish athletic organization founded in defiance of a 1909 Austrian law that banned Jews from sports clubs—is an underreported part of Holocaust history. Director Yaron Zilberman isn't a polished interviewer, and his premise is pure Hollywood formula: Reunite the old gang, seven core members of the women's swim team, for one last go-round. Still, Watermarks quietly celebrates the virtues of athletic competition and the complexity of memory in a way no formulaic sports movie could.

When we meet the septet of bathing beauties, they're in their mid-80s and scattered to the corners of the Earth (all fled the Anschluss as teenagers). Some are eager to return to Vienna's Stadionbad swimming facility to do a few more laps together; others have reservations. Shortly after arriving in Vienna, breaststroker Anni Lampl has an awkward conversation with a cab driver that illustrates his (and, by implication, his countrymen's) ignorance about Austria's role in the Holocaust. Lampl, now blind, subsequently describes the city as an "old lover" whom she no longer loves. Yet when her companion guides her around the Stadionbad, then asks if it sounds the same as it did in the '30s, the scene is tremendously poignant. Despite her memories of persecution, Hakoah remains an inextricable part of Lampl's youth. She can't fall completely out of love with Vienna, and her blindness only heightens her nostalgia.

Zilberman builds the film's emotional momentum toward the Vienna reunion, but the stops along the way are even more satisfying. A comparison of the 1935 Maccabiah Games (aka the Jewish Olympics, held in Tel Aviv) and the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics hammers home Hakoah's higher purpose. By demonstrating world-class strength, its athletes rebelled against Hitler's anti-Semitism in a way that was physical, not philosophical, thus controverting Aryan theories of racial superiority. Yet the rewards of their athleticism run even deeper. Like all Holocaust survivors, the seven women experience moments of darkness, but Zilberman's scrappy perspective reflects their own unsentimental view of themselves. Freestyler Ann Marie Pisker describes her 1938 escape to London matter-of-factly, in athletic terms. "I emigrated with two suitcases and 5 pounds," she says. "You sink or you swim." (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER

Winter Solstice

Opens Fri., April 29, at Uptown

C.S. Lewis used to complain that looking for a good line in Paradise Lost is like looking for a good brick in a cathedral. But it's easy to find a good scene in writer-director Josh Sternfeld's Sundance-developed debut feature. They're pretty much all good, lapidary micromasterpieces of burnished ordinariness, with ace acting and dialogue as eloquently inarticulate as any minimalist novel. The problem is, there's no cathedral. Just a pile of disconnected bricks.

Star and exec producer Anthony LaPaglia does understated wonders as Jim Winters, a New Jersey gardener whose grief has barely thawed five years after the loss of his wife. He could beat David Duchovny and Peter Riegert in an underacting contest, and maybe even Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner. With the slightest grunt, glance, shrug, or Mona Lisa smile, he can register emotions that connect as deftly as an Ali punch. He's got the best sparring partners imaginable: Allison Janney as a shyly romantic divorcée neighbor, Aaron Stanford and Mark Webber as his grunting, shrugging late-adolescent sons (Gabe and Pete, respectively), and Michelle Monaghan as Gabe's spurned girlfriend.

Solstice impressively and convincingly sketches the family's emotional landscape. Jim painfully fails to connect with his kids, but at least he tries. The boys, being boys, deal with emotions by ducking them. Big brother Gabe waits until the last second to tell everybody he's abandoning them and their one-Dairy-Queen town for a still-more-backwater burg in Florida. Kid bro Pete cultivates a stoner's indifference, vexing the kindly remedial-school tutor (Ron Livingston) trying to pry his eyes open to his own potential. The teenagers seem as authentic to me as the ones in Garden State. Everybody says plenty in as few words as possible. Few movies score so many true moments in a row.

And few add up to less. LaPaglia proves himself more than a character actor, but his lead role goes nowhere. His relationships with the kids are touching, but nothing gets resolved; his budding romance with Janney withers quicker than the flowers in the title sequence of Six Feet Under. The virtually plotless poignance is so muted that it's practically silent, like a cross between an early Bruce Springsteen ode to thwarted Jersey dreams and John Cage's composition 4' 33". (R) TIM APPELO

 
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