Soros, Spitzer Slam Wall Street; John Lennon’s Torment: Movies

Glenn Hubbard, once George W. Bush’s top economic adviser, squirms in his seat when documentary director Charles Ferguson questions him about his close ties with financial firms in “Inside Job.”

Hubbard, now the head of Columbia Business School, evades an answer, tells Ferguson the interview is almost over and then challenges him to “give it your best shot.”

Ferguson does just that in his brilliant film about the causes of the financial crisis. “Inside Job” gives a clear, concise explanation of how deregulation, speculation, conflicts of interest and heavy lobbying by the financial industry led to the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

Ferguson received an Oscar nomination for “No End in Sight,” his step-by-step documentary on how the U.S. screwed up in Iraq after overthrowing Saddam Hussein. He uses the same formula in “Inside Job,” mixing incisive interviews with historical background, informative charts, helpful explanations of complicated financial terms and a brisk narration by Matt Damon.

If you’re still confused by the Great Recession, this is the best primer so far on what happened and why.

While none of the top corporate executives or government officials implicated in the crisis agreed to talk with Ferguson, he did interview an impressive array of economists, politicians and journalists who castigate Wall Street for its role in the financial collapse.

Soros, Spitzer

They include former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, billionaire investor George Soros and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, nicknamed the “Sheriff of Wall Street” for his crackdown on financial fraud when he was the state’s attorney general before his political career was derailed by a sex scandal.

Another talking head is Raghuram Rajan, a University of Chicago economist who in 2005 warned that risky financial practices could lead to a “catastrophic meltdown.”

He was right, of course, and Ferguson isn’t so sure it won’t happen again. He points out that many of President Barack Obama’s economic advisers have close ties to Wall Street, that huge bonuses are still being handed out and that not a single one of the financial bigwigs whose reckless behavior ruined the economy has been prosecuted.

The watered-down financial reform bill recently passed by Congress is a tiny step in the right direction. As Ferguson points out, giant steps are needed.

“Inside Job,” from Sony Pictures Classics, is playing in New York and Oct. 15 in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. Rating: ***1/2

‘Nowhere Boy’

To commemorate what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday tomorrow, Yoko Ono will light the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. His fans can mark the occasion by seeing “Nowhere Boy,” a tender film about Lennon’s tormented teenage years in Liverpool.

Though he’s too handsome for the role, Aaron Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) gives a fine performance as a young man torn between Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), the schoolmarmish aunt who raised him, and his free-spirited mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who gave him up after his seafaring father disappeared. (She was hit by a car and killed when John was 17.)

Despite his painful family situation -- or, possibly because of it -- Lennon developed a creative streak that led him to art school (he was bored by the routine) and to the music of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

First Guitar

After his aunt bought him his first guitar, Lennon’s career path was set. Lennon met Paul McCartney at a church festival, McCartney introduced him to George Harrison and the band that would become the Beatles was born. McCartney and Harrison were better guitar players, but from the very start Lennon was their dynamic, wisecracking leader.

In her directing debut, multimedia artist Sam Taylor-Wood shows Lennon’s many, often contradictory, sides. He could be selfish and cruel -- at a party, he makes a hurtful remark about McCartney’s dead mother -- but he also could be generous and loyal.

While it’s a formulaic film, “Nowhere Boy” doesn’t resort to the hagiography that mars so many biopics of famous people. No doubt that would please Lennon, who was gunned down 30 years ago in front of his New York City apartment building. He was always skeptical of heroes.

“Nowhere Boy,” from the Weinstein Co., is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ***

‘Stone’

Robert De Niro’s tailspin continues with “Stone,” a turgid melodrama in which he plays a parole office manipulated by a prisoner (Edward Norton) seeking early release from prison.

The film, directed by John Curran (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore”) and written by Angus MacLachlan (“Junebug”), wants to be more than a crime thriller. There’s lots of talk about religion, philosophy and morality, but the metaphysical musings can’t hide the fact that it’s basically a stock story about two damaged men desperate to change their lives.

De Niro’s Jack Mabry, on the eve of retirement, is stuck in a loveless marriage to a pious woman (Frances Conroy) who almost left him years ago. Norton’s Gerard Creeson, nicknamed Stone, is an arsonist whose sexy, flirtatious wife (Milla Jovovich) uses her body to persuade Mabry to give her husband a get-out-of-jail card.

De Niro, mired in mediocre films for much of the past decade, plays Mabry as a miserable, deadpan bureaucrat drowning his sorrow in booze. Norton’s quirky character has a cornrow hairdo, a gravelly voice and a penchant for religious pamphlets that call on him to become “God’s tuning fork.”

Jovovich, a supermodel who played an orange-haired alien in “The Fifth Element,” steals the spotlight as a hedonistic femme fatale with her own peculiar notion of justice.

“Stone,” from Overture Films, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: *1/2


What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Rick Warner in New York at rwarner1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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