"THAT'S WHAT'S counterintuitive about the whole thing," says locally raised director James Scurlock about bankruptcy rates and the credit card business in his documentary Maxed Out. "Industry profits have skyrocketed. It's just this amazing story, very sinister. The poorest people and the most desperate are the most profitable [for lenders]." Scurlock, who now lives in L.A., became interested in the topics of predatory lending and bankruptcy after attending Wharton and working as a restaurant investor and freelance journalist.
Maxed Out Broadway Performance Hall: 1625 Broadway, 206-324-9996, www.seattlefilm.com. Not rated. 85 minutes. $5–$10. 6:45 p.m. Thurs., June 8; 4:45 p.m. Fri., June 9.
"I didn't have any kind of film background at all," he explains by phone, yet he sold HBO his very first, hour-long documentary, 2004's Parents of the Year, about illegal Mexican immigrants scrounging the beaches of L.A. to make a living. Casting about for his next subject, he saw Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me at Sundance, then asked himself, What's even bigger than food? Consumer debt, that's what.
"I wanted to ask the question of why people couldn't get out of debt," he continues. "It seemed like there was something systematic going on. The industry is indeed baiting these people." Meaning college kids, the poor, the already indebted, National Guard members just back from Iraq, people with overwhelming health care bills (and no insurance)—all of them receiving those come-hither, low-introductory-rate credit card solicitations. "There's so much psychology, so much manipulation in selling debt," he adds, and it's society's most vulnerable who are most easily manipulated.
Citing research by Harvard's Elizabeth Warren, a principal source for Maxed Out (and co-author of The Two-Income Trap), Scurlock says bankruptcy rates are today 20 times higher than during the Great Depression. "Last year it surged. The statistics are shocking, but it's the stories that stay with you." He describes interview after interview during the course of filming all over the country (including the Yuppie Pawnshop in Kirkland) where subjects broke down and cried on camera. "I had no concept of what desperation was," says the director, who grew up on Mercer Island and in Madison Park and still regularly visits Seattle. "There's so much shame and so much stigma." Though he says these tales of bankruptcy and misery are evenly distributed across the country, "liberal or conservative, red or blue state," less affluent regions are most affected. "The Bible Belt tends to be the worst."
As his film shows, however, none of this would be true without collusion between Congress (and not just the Republicans) and the banking industry. Last October, they placed new restrictions on bankruptcy filing, shifting consumer relief from the courts (a principle established in the '30s) to the less forgiving Legislature. And, as Scurlock's forthcoming fall companion book Maxed Out will likely further describe, credit pushers including Citibank and MBNA are, of course, big campaign donors (who also began drafting new legislative language back in the '90s).
For the Q&A following Friday's screening, Scurlock will be joined by experts in the new bankruptcy boom, including the Yuppie Pawnshop's sympathetic proprietor and David Huey of the Washington State Attorney General's Office, which recently helped negotiate a national $325 million settlement with Ameriquest Mortgage for its lending practices. "At the end of the day," Scurlock concludes, "it's about people's lives being destroyed." BRIAN MILLER
Another Gay Movie
The gay gross-out comedy Adam & Steve was a tame family outing compared to this teen sex farce, which basically puts a homosexual spin on American Pie, gag for gag. Meaning you've got your uncomfortable sex-ed talk with a well-meaning but awkward father; your embarrassing webcam sex escapade accidentally broadcast to the entire school; and, of course, pastry humping. AGM tries so hard to be extreme that it misses the key ingredient of the American Pie films—an underlying sweetness. We laughed at the Pie crew, but ultimately came to care for them. This is not the case with AGM's four high-school seniors, who vow to lose their "Big A" virginity before heading off to college. Nor do we care for the semifamous gay celebs in supporting roles, including comic Graham Norton as an S&M-loving teacher and Survivor winner/tax evader Richard Hatch. (Yes, he's naked in every scene, only without the box blurring his naughty bits. You've been warned.) Making the best impression is Ashlie Atkinson's Muffler, the lesbian analogue to Seann William Scott's obnoxious jock Stifler, who manages to deflower the entire cheerleading squad in one night. (NC-17) FRANK PAIVA Egyptian: midnight Fri., June 9.
Fans of soap operas masquerading as classy art-house films, rejoice! With a teenage trailer-park love triangle, rampant substance abuse, and terminal illness, the script for Dreamland would be right at home on One Life to Live or General Hospital. Thanks to sure-handed direction from newcomer Jason Matzner and some terrific performances, however, Dreamland avoids television territory entirely. Teen poet Audrey (Agnes Bruckner, herself a former Bold and the Beautiful regular) takes care of both her deadbeat dad (John Corbett) and her MS-diagnosed best friend (Kelli Garner) during a lazy summer in the middle of the New Mexico desert. When hunky basketball player Mookie (Justin Long) comes to town, complications escalate between the girls. Bruckner and Garner give tender, multidimensional performances. Keep an eye on both of them in the future. Dreamy cinematography seals the deal, making Dreamland the most rewarding trailer park you're likely to visit this year. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Lincoln Square: 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 9. Pacific Place: 9:30 p.m. Thurs., June 15.
I never thought I'd miss the acting ability of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious, but this Asian import has me reconsidering. Yet another story of fast cars and errant youth, Initial D follows a tofu delivery boy (Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou, a 98-pound moper with a one-note acting range) as he races up and down the dreaded hairpin curves of Mount Akini in the hot rod secretly prepared by his father, a former racer now turned drunk and son beater. (Though, oddly, dad's the most colorful and sympathetic figure in the film.) "Tofu-boy," as he's taunted by rival racers, is a master of the now en vogue "drift" technique of cornering, meaning little braking and much tire smoking, plus many shots of feet massaging the pedals. (Which, truth be told, adds tremendously to Chou's acting range—he has great feet.) And, for comic relief, our hero's best buddy gets carsick whenever they drive too fast. Vomit—always a crowd pleaser. After seeing this film, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (opening June 16 without Diesel or Walker) will probably seem, well, slightly less sucky by comparison. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Lincoln Square: 8 p.m. Thurs., June 8. 7:15 p.m. Sun., June 11.
loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies
A dozen years after breaking up, the Pixies' 2004 reunion was met with unanimous cheers, even though their motivations (ka-ching) couldn't be more transparent. Still, fans flocked to their reunion tour, which this short and satisfying backstage documentary follows. Should it be surprising what normal people they seem to be? Before the reunion, drummer David Lovering is occupied with magic and metal detecting. Joey Santiago is raising kids and playing to empty rooms with the Martinis. Bassist Kim Deal's mother says the reunion will give her daughter "something to do besides sewing and making snowflakes, crafty stuff." Group leader Black Francis (aka Charles Thompson) is interviewed in his underwear. More than once. Awkward. We also see how past tensions plague the reunion tour; they still barely speak between performances. For attendees of the reunion shows, the concert footage will be nothing special. The highlight is watching the Pixies come to realize their impact on popular music, particularly after the first show. "That was so exciting," says a wide-eyed Deal. "Those first few moments—I was fucking freaking out." She's not the only one. (NR) RACHEL SHIMP Neptune: 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 10. Broadway Performance Hall: 11 a.m. Sun., June 11.
The title of this Spanish film translates as "hard times," which is meant to reflect the difficult circumstances facing three people slogging through life in Madrid. At the screening, however, the only people I saw having a hard time were in the audience. They could barely stay awake during this depressing, overlong bore. It's obvious within the first 10 minutes that Malas isn't any good and won't get any better, a frightening sign for a film that runs an emotionally draining two hours. During which time, we care little about the principal trio: a Cuban refugee selling cigars, a weary social worker, and an ex-con trying to reform his life by teaching children to play chess. Malas is pretentious enough to think we can't comprehend the obvious ironic coincidences linking their three stories, so it beats them into our heads. If this is what Crash has done to ensemble dramas, I shudder to think of the future. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Harvard Exit: 6:30 p.m. Sat., June 10; 4 p.m. Sun., June. 11.
If you took out all the dull, slow bits of Everything Is Illuminated, you'd have something like the Russian Roots. Which, admittedly, is also missing the coherent bits. In Ukraine, con man Edouard hires poor, willing Russians to impersonate the long-lost Jewish relatives of Westerners now visiting (and paying) to discover their family roots. The original Russian title translates as something more like "Families for Sale," and that post-perestroika mercantile spirit considerably enlivens the proceedings. Everything is up for grabs. There's lots of eating, drinking, and frisking around in the bedroom. One sex scene takes place in a tree, while pigeons, which properly belong in trees, inexplicably swarm indoors. Everybody lies to everybody else, and there's a kind of reassurance in that. Like Emir Kusturica, director Pavel Lungin (Taxi Blues) puts his faith in farce, music, and colorful characters. If you can't follow the story, neither Lungin nor his rascally hero will hold it against you. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 7:15 p.m. Wed., June 7; 4 p.m. Fri., June 9.
As writer, director, and producer, Tsui Hark has been a dominant figure in Hong Kong action films for more than 20 years. His 1986 Peking Opera Blues still defines the hallucinatory outer limits of chop-socky storytelling, and the multisequel trio Swordsman, Chinese Ghost Story, and Once Upon a Time in China (to use their English titles) shaped high expectations worldwide for what had been a disregarded and despised if wildly popular hack genre.
Over the last decade, Chinese action films have become even more popular and increasingly respectable in the process, so respectable that the whole genre is beginning to stifle from the sheer strain of worthiness. Swords won its share of awards when it opened in Hong Kong last year, but the energy, the humor, the who-gives-a-hoot plotting have vanished from Hark's filmmaking. Swords is as pretty and decorous and romantic as can be, despite a visual palette emphasizing the dry, dusty, and drab. It is long, slow, and rather dull, too. Despite a story centering on setting the entire Imperial Chinese Army to work to destroy a simple village of martial-arts-savvy peasants, there's not much action, and what there is isn't conducted with much flair. Most of the fun is provided by Sun Hong-lei as the kinkiest warlord this side of the Amur. His performance is reminiscent of James Cagney in White Heat mode.
I'm not going to write the film off entirely yet; at 144 minutes, this U.S. premiere edit is said to be a full hour shorter than the version that opened in China, and cutting that savage can make a long movie seem interminable by destroying the flow of the narrative and its pace. Anyone who's ever seen the old under-two-hour version of Seven Samurai knows just what I mean. (NR) ROGER DOWNEY Neptune: 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 9; 3:45 p.m. Sun., June 11.
Not to be outdone by the recent influx of period Chinese martial-arts romances where characters kiss, jump between trees, and stab one another with equal aplomb, here comes a Japanese samurai version of Romeo and Juliet. Gorgeous Oboro (Yukie Nakama) leads the Iga clan, and pacifist Gen-no-suke (Jô Odagiri) leads the Kouga. The Iga and Kouga are two long-warring ninja factions forced into exile during the 17th century by the shogun government because their residents have magical, X-Men-esque powers. Oboro can kill people just by looking at them, and Gen-no-suke can stop time. While the story ends up a little more Mr. & Mrs. Smith than Shakespeare, Shinobi is enormously entertaining, with a string of great fight sequences that are sure to please. You'll barely notice that 101 minutes have gone by at the film's conclusion. What more can you ask from a ninja movie? For action fans, missing Shinobi would be a grievous mistake. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Neptune: 9:30 p.m. Thurs., June 8; 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 11.
The Trials of Darryl Hunt
DNA testing has not only revolutionized our criminal justice system, it's also given documentary filmmakers a whole new genre of wrongful-conviction stories to tell. Yet when directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg began following this North Carolina rape-murder case in 1984, there was no such testing. With a white victim who worked for a newspaper, "justice" for young black Darryl Hunt was swift and sure. Subsequent appeals were denied, yet crucial evidence was preserved such that, after two decades in jail, he gets his chance to be exculpated by DNA. Like the similar recent After Innocence, Trials has a fantastic core story to tell, but the filmmaking is plodding and literal. As our legal system catches up to genetic science, our earnest and well-meaning documentary makers need to catch up to Law & Order and CSI. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Broadway Performance Hall: 4:30 p.m. Mon., June 12; 6:45 p.m. Wed., June 14.
We Go Way Back
Though women who've experienced a quarter-life crisis will relate well to this movie, a chick flick it is not. Local director Lynn Shelton's Slamdance prize-winning first feature film tracks Kate (Amber Hubert), an aspiring Seattle theater actress, as she wrestles with job, relationship, and identity questions. On her 23rd birthday, Kate opens a letter that she wrote as a precocious 13-year-old to her imaginary grown-up self. Among other things, the letter asks if she's happy. It is obvious Kate's not happy—she seems indifferent as men take advantage of her. Her bosses (including the wonderful Robert Hamilton Wright) make ridiculous demands that Kate passively accepts. Throughout, we hear 13-year-old Kate's voice echo in adult Kate's thoughts. Eventually, the young Kate character makes an appearance, leading to a moving confrontation. (NR) MOLLY LORI Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Tues., June 13; 1:30 p.m. Sat., June 17.
Who Killed the Electric Car?
Getting consumers to bite at a new product is always difficult, especially in the automotive industry. Why then did General Motors discontinue its line of EV-1 electric cars in California during the late '90s? Was it that the cars simply didn't have enough appeal to sell? Or was it for another, more sinister reason? These are the questions posed by this one-sided but reasonably entertaining documentary. It's unafraid to lay blame on pretty much everyone—manufacturers, consumers, regulators—for the failure of a more eco-friendly vehicle. The film does a good job of balancing the moral, financial, and environmental issues surrounding electric-car production, belabors its main points, and suffers from Martin Sheen's hammy narration. High points include a priceless Phyllis Diller cameo and the periodic interviews with former EV-1 owners who just want their cars back. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Egyptian: 7 p.m. Fri., June 9. Neptune: 11 a.m. Sat., June 10.
The World According to Sesame Street
In this long, tedious, and frequently digressive documentary, teams of Westerners try to bring Sesame Street to the poor children of Bangladesh, Kosovo, and South Africa. Thus we leap from country to country to watch the barriers Westerners unexpectedly breech (or don't) abroad. If bringing socially conscious puppetry to underprivileged Third World children is a career choice you're considering (that means you, idealistic liberal arts majors), you better sit through this doc. Here's a surprise—even among the palm trees and needy children, there are still lots of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. Viewers will also cringe in recognition of board meetings that go nowhere, applaud the impact of Kami, the South African Muppet that's HIV-positive, and possibly fall asleep. (NR) KATIE BECKER Pacific Place: 4:15 p.m. Sat., June 10. Broadway Performance Hall: 2 p.m. Tues., June 13.