Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Book Review: The Lexus And The Olive Tree, by Thomas L. Friedman (1999)

New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman takes a dive at the deep end of the globalization pool, and emerges with a weighty tome. The Lexus And The Olive Tree leaves no aspect of the modern-day economic system unexplored, but does so at the expense of brevity.

Friedman convincingly presents globalization as the defining world order in the post cold-war era. He wastes no time debating whether globalization should or should not exist; it does exist and indeed dominate the world, so the book quickly moves on to clarify the enabling conditions that came together to unleash the free flow of goods, people and money to where the most money can be made. In one of numerous, and eventually quite tiresome, attempts to create cutesy labels for everything, Friedman describes the Democratizations of Technology, Finance and Information as the three major streams that converged to create globalization.

He goes on to describe the domineering influence of the instantaneous and continuous global market search for good investments, which he defines as the Electronic Herd, and the power of the herd to handsomely reward countries that create the environment for safe investments, and mercilessly punish countries that prove to be risky grounds for international capital. This triggers the need for countries to adopt what Friedman calls the Golden Straitjacket, a defined set of government initiatives required to ensure transparency and battle corruption to protect capital and foster a healthy market environment, initiatives that rarely exist outside democratic regimes.

Written in the shadow of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis that saw countries such as Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia suffer at the hands of an Electronic Herd fleeing emerging markets that revealed themselves to be high-risk, The Lexus And The Olive Tree does not turn a blind eye to the cultural and societal downsides of globalization. From workers unable to adapt to the pace of the new world to long-standing cultural norms threatened by the internationalization of the world, he assesses the risks and offers ideas on how globalization will need to be sensitive to the "olive trees" of the world, or risk backlashes.

The Lexus And The Olive Tree suffers from an excess of wordage, and it's a good 100 pages longer than it needed to be. In addition to chasing branded titles for everything (DOScapital, Globalution, Glocalism, Self Empowered Angry Man...), Friedman never settles for one example to make a point when five are available. And he throws in far too many personal experiences with random street vendors, shop owners, and assorted businessmen and politicians in far-flung villages and cities, aiming for folksy but often drawing large conclusions from small encounters.

But Friedman also deserves a lot of credit for pinpointing the specific threat of Osama Bin Laden and his ilk, two years before the events of September 11, 2001. He also identifies the danger of recessions becoming more global in scope as world economies become ever more tightly dependent, and he accurately predicts the monetary crisis in Europe and its causes, namely the inability of some member countries to adapt to the Golden Straitjacket. Yet to transpire is another Friedman forecast: that China will be facing some not insubstantial turmoil, as the forces of economic freedom eventually collide with a rigid political system.

The Lexus And The Olive Tree is a mostly well-written, easy to understand guide to the capital forces shaping the world's economies. Friedman may sometimes slip into excessiveness, but his enthusiasm for understanding and explaining the topic is infectious.

Subtitled: Understanding Globalization.
475 pages, plus Index.
Published in softcover by Anchor Books.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.


Monday, 29 July 2013

The Movies Of Richard Dreyfuss

All movies starring Richard Dreyfuss and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

The Graduate (1967, uncredited)

American Graffiti (1973)

Jaws (1975)

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

Stand By Me (1986)

Always (1989)

The American President (1995)

Poseidon (2006)

RED (2010)

Book Club (2018)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

The Movies Of Jack Warden

All Jack Warden movies reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

From Here To Eternity (1953)

12 Angry Men (1957)

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)

Shampoo (1975)

All The President's Men (1976)

...And Justice For All (1979)

Being There (1979)

The Verdict (1982)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

The Movies Of Walter Matthau

All movies starring Walter Matthau and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

The Indian Fighter (1956)

A Face In The Crowd (1957)

Charade (1963)

Fail-Safe (1964)

Mirage (1965)

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Earthquake (1974)

I Ought To Be In Pictures (1982)

JFK (1991)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Movie Review: Jaws (1975)

A men-versus-shark thriller and the original modern high-budget, high-publicity summer blockbuster film, Jaws is a wild ride straight into the razor-sharp teeth of entertainment. Director Steven Spielberg's first massive hit is a gripping, suspense-filled battle between one small community and one mammoth killing machine.

At the New England summer resort town of Amity Island, a giant white shark starts a reign of terror. A skinny-dipping woman is the first to be killed, followed by the young Alex Kintner. Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), who has just moved to the community with his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) and young son, is afraid of the water and wants the beaches closed to safeguard the public from further attacks. But with the July 4th weekend fast approaching and the town's economic viability at stake, the town's Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) would hear none of it, especially when a large tiger shark is jubilantly caught and the threat hastily proclaimed to be over.

When the great white makes an audacious attack against Brody's young son and his friends in a supposedly sheltered  inner pool, Brody teams up with grizzled shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfus), and they head out in Quint's boat to hunt down the predator on the open water. With tension mounting between the gruff Quint and the college-educated Hooper, they soon make contact with the seemingly indestructible and incredibly powerful shark, and the determined hunters become susceptible prey.

Drawing on eternal themes of man versus monster and the need to confront existential fears in order to survive, Jaws is a simple story of a large shark terrorizing a small community. But the movie adaptation of the Peter Benchley novel started shooting without a script, with an inexperienced director, and with a mechanical shark that rarely functioned. Over budget and way over schedule, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown demonstrated remarkable faith in a 28-year-old Spielberg, and through talent and serendipity, he delivered a classic. Jaws went on to become the highest grossing film in history (until Star Wars came along).

The malfunctioning mechanical shark meant that Spielberg had to suggest the presence of the beast much more than show it. Jaws was therefore transformed from a horror film to a suspense thriller, the lethal predator lurking but unseen, its presence mostly suggested through point-of-view shots, and confirmed with the agony of churning water turning red with the gushing blood of mangled victims.

The imagination always creates the most powerful of visions, and the shark became the most menacing threat that every viewer could individually imagine. When the shark finally does appear it causes a jolt, never more so than the startling over-Brody's-shoulder shot, leading to the classic and prophetic "You're gonna need a bigger boat" line, ad-libbed by Scheider to Shaw.

The brilliantly minimalistic soundtrack by John Williams became as much a part of the film as the shark itself. Built on an astonishingly simple but incredibly sinister tuba two tone, the chilling music ignited Williams' career and started and long-lasting association with Spielberg.

Among the actors, Robert Shaw makes the strongest impression. Enjoying Quint as a larger than life and naturally abrasive hunter, Shaw lets loose with the dry laugh, the bad jokes, the long stories and the abuse directed mostly at Hooper. But he also gets the most deadly serious monologue in the film, recounting his background as a crew member of the USS Indianapolis, torpedoed by the Japanese at the end of World War Two with the survivors mercilessly attacked by sharks as they awaited rescue. It's a riveting island of quiet personal terror in the wide open seas of Jaws.

Roy Scheider plays Brody as a stoic man trying to do what is right, an outsider to the community objectively assessing the risks much to the consternation of the locals. He is finally forced to confront his fear of the water, although how a man with water phobia ever landed the position as Chief of Police at a seaside resort remains to be explained. Dreyfuss is slightly annoying as the academic shark expert Hooper, a know-it-all almost deserving of the abuse dished out by Quint.

Murray Hamilton brings delicious smarminess to Mayor Vaughn, and he gets the second best line of the movie when confronting the idea that the dead tiger shark may not be the killer terrorizing his community: "This is not the time or the place to perform some kind of half-assed autopsy on a fish. And I'm not going to stand here and see that thing cut open and have that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock."

Jaws delivers extraordinary suspense in the water, an unforgettable story of evil lurking beneath the surface, a killing machine operating with beady-eyed efficiency.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Movie Review: Shampoo (1975)

A sex and politics farce of sorts, Shampoo is weighed down by petulant characters engaged in uniformly selfish behaviour. The lack of anyone remotely sympathetic, or halfway intelligent, sucks most of the enjoyment out of the movie.

It's the eve of the 1968 presidential election. In Los Angeles, George (Warren Beatty) works as a hairdresser. He dreams of opening his own salon, but does not have the credit or business savvy to secure a loan. Extremely popular with his lady clients who find him sexually irresistible, George is sleeping with Jill (Goldie Hawn), who is naive enough to think that she is the only woman in his life. In fact, George jumps into bed with any willing woman, including Jackie (Julie Christie), the mistress of the pompous, rich and politically-connected Lester (Jack Warden).

Jackie suggests that George approach Lester to secure a private loan. While Jackie is torn between the promise of what Lester can offer her (should he ever leave his wife) and George's raw passion, Lester is intrigued by George, but also suspicious of him. As well he should be: George is also sleeping with Lester's wife Felicia (Lee Grant). Meanwhile, Lester's daughter, Lorna (Carrie Fisher) wants in on the action with George. As Nixon is confirmed as the winner of the election, a night of stuffy political banquets and wild sex parties provides a backdrop for George, Lester and Jackie to sort out their futures.

Shampoo bids a fond adieu to the free-wheeling, sex-drenched days of the 1960s social revolution, and ushers in the era of cynicism and corruption, as marked by Nixon's election. It's an interesting seam in cultural history, but Shampoo is unable to do much with it. Bogged down by uninteresting and unlikable characters, the film is a tiresome merry-go-round of sexual obsession among a group of desperate dullards. It's rarely funny, nor does it carry any meaningful weight of drama.

Director Hal Ashby struggles to create something watchable out of the Robert Towne script, finding only so much story in the ongoing sexapades and half-hearted attempts at irony. Precious few laughs and fewer sober thoughts are generated, and none are sustained. Shampoo settles down to a series of set-piece parties and hair appointments interrupted by brief couplings that admittedly were risqué in 1975.

Warren Beatty rides around on his motorcycle from house to house and bed to bed (or just the floor will do, on some occasions) having sex with every desirous female, and he sports a serious contender for the most ridiculous hairdo in the history of motion pictures. As is typical for the Beatty persona, he mostly just is, a catalyst around which women flutter and dissolve, for no apparent reason related to ability, smarts or prospects. George is a great summary of things that women regret wasting their time on in their later years.

Jack Warden, usually confined to limited screen time, gets one of his more expansive roles. Representing a 1950s man beginning to get really lost at the end of the 1960s, Warden makes Lester the most interesting character in the movie as the man with everything but inching towards a variety of self-destruct buttons to counter the growing boredom and detachment.

The ladies of Shampoo are hampered by having no brains to overcome the sexual gravity generated in proximity to George. The characters played by Julie Christie, Lee Grant and Goldie Hawn never answer any questions related to what is attracting them to a big-haired loser stuck in a dead-end job. Hawn's Jill seems able to grab any man she wants (and indeed she tries to arouse George's jealousy); Christie as Jackie is already wrecking one home by carrying on with Lester; with George, she risks destroying her destruction, which may be quite appropriate. And Grant's Felicia is pretending to be jealous of Jackie while cheating on Lester with George. Sympathetic, these women are not.

Only Carrie Fisher as Lorna seems to get it right: she uses George to scratch an itch, and has no other agenda or expectations. Welcome to the 1970s.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Movie Review: Mirage (1965)

A psychological thriller that demonstrates some promise, Mirage proceeds to overcomplicate itself to the point of silliness. The meek resolution, when it arrives, buckles and snaps under the weight of lofty expectations.

As he evacuates a New York high-rise during a power outage, David Stillwell meets the mysterious Shela (Diane Baker). She seems to know him but he does no know who she is. Indeed, David is severely disoriented. On the same day, noted humanitarian and global peace activist Charles Calvin (Walter Abel) appears to jump to his death from the same high-rise in an unexplained suicide.

After encountering two threatening goons named Lester and Willard (Jack Weston and George Kennedy), who refer to a man known only as The Major, David visits psychiatrist Dr. Broden (Robert H. Harris) for help, and begins to realize that he is suffering from severe memory loss, with possibly the last two years of his life now a blank. With Shela drifting in and out of his days, seemingly either trying to help or trap him, David finds himself on the run, and hires wise-cracking private detective Caselle (Walter Matthau) to try and piece his life back together again.

Beware thrillers built on the fragile premise of memory loss. Mirage attempts to overcome one of the weakest of plot devices by layering on mysterious events, interesting characters and some action, but ultimately the film disappoints. The complexity loops back onto itself and demands an exceptional explanation. Instead, the screenplay by Peter Stone and Howard Fast can only deliver a flimsy struggle over a most unconvincing MacGuffin, a literally paper-thin climax that crumples into a small ball of overwhelming disappointment. Worse still, the resolution undermines plenty of what went on before in the movie.

While the bedraggled final 20 minutes cause a lot of damage, Mirage is not a total loss. Under director Edward Dmytryk's steady hands, and making full use of Joseph MacDonald's slick black and white cinematography, the film offers up a dense enigma, with plenty of hard boiled crime elements, including goons full of guns, a lady full of lies and lust, and a droll detective full of dry discernment.

David does not know what is going on or who these people are, but with no memory of anything better to do, he plays along, avoiding the bad guys and seeking help where it can be found, as he tries to assemble the scattered puzzle of his life. It's all a bit of Hitchcock meeting Sam Spade's world, and it only starts to fall apart when the cake caves in with too much dark cream.

Gregory Peck cruises through Mirage with a pre-set I'm Determined To Get To The Bottom Of This expression, and he is less than convincing on the few occasions when he loses his temper or has to get physical. Diane Baker flutters in and out of the movie at the whim of the script, the character of Shela being the most intriguing role, except that she remains intriguing well past the time when mystery should have been replaced by cohesion.

Walter Matthau and Robert H. Harris chew their roles with a conviction that hints at unintended comedy, as they both creep over a line into a whole other movie. Harris' Dr. Broden auditions for a Carry On Psychiatry farce, while Matthau's detective Caselle wisecracks his way out of incompetence and into Cousin of the Pink Panther.

Mirage shimmers in the imagination: a thriller which could quench the thirst for top class entertainment, but it disappears into the sand just when the anticipation peaks.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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