Monday, January 30, 2017

MovieMonday: Hidden Figures




I had resisted seeing this movie for two reasons.  

First is that for all my life I have been reading and writing about "the first women to...."  The first woman city police chief.  The first woman longshoreman.  The first woman Navy Seal.  I'm sure that not all the barriers have been torn down, but still.  It's an old narrative.

Second is that I hate watching white racists mistreat African Americans.  I know that it happened and still happens, but seeing it on the screen makes me feel powerless and complicit. For a person with an activist nature, it's torture.

On the other hand, the movie was drawing big audiences and lots of praise.  So I went.

I'm glad I did.  "Hidden Figures" is a watchable movie with appealing characters, a well-paced plot and a satisfying conclusion. 


You know the story line -- three young African American women distinguish themselves by contributing to the NASA effort to launch an American into orbit in the early 1960s.



Why It Works

1.  These women endure and thrive.  One, a math whiz, shows a team of flummoxed white men how to calculate the trajectories of manned rockets exiting and then returning to the earth's atmosphere.  Another, whose focus is engineering, persists to win access to night courses offered only at a "white" school. The third, who knows that IBM mainframes will replace her computational work group, learns programming language and organizes her team to operate the new computers. 

2.  The challenges facing the women come as NASA is being challenged to match and surpass Soviet achievements in the space race of the early 1960s. 

3.  As the women show their stuff, the NASA leaders realize, over time, that their success requires them to stop excluding talented employees on utterly irrelevant grounds. When they win, the women win and the U.S. wins. 

The movie is a dramatization of a nonfiction book with the same title -- not a great film title, by the way -- about three actual women of distinction. It seems likely their most dramatic triumphs have been enhanced for dramatic effect, but their long and successful NASA careers cannot be denied.



Saturday, January 28, 2017

Grandma's Celebrity Gossip

Our California columnist reflects on recent losses.

Grandma


By December, so few celebrities had died that I worried my column was going to be about a few rock’n’roll nudniks  and a handful of sitcom shnooks. But Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher put the kibosh on that. 

Debbie Reynolds was a big movie star back when movies were movies and dinosaurs roamed the earth. She was in “Singing in the Rain” and “Tammy and the Singing Nun.” Only 84 years old. Still a kid. 

Her daughter Carrie was famous in the “Star Wars” movies as the girl with the bagel hairdo. What’s not to like about bagels? So sad. They died one right after the other like Siamese twins.

Zsa Zsa Gabor? As an actress she was a kalikeh. Famous she was for being famous, marrying nine men (one short of a minyan), and having tens of thousands of yappity little dogs named after her.  

Leonard Cohen I heard 100 years ago at the Rusty Nail. Even back then he was a kvetching old poet. A singer he wasn’t, but that didn’t stop him.  Oy! That was some voice. Canadian he was. Do they count? 

If so, then in mitske derinnen, Alan Thicke, dropped dead too. He was in the “Growing Pains” and later some genius talked him into doing a late-night show against Johnny Carson, who was still alive.  Better he should’ve hit his head against a wall. Who stays up that late anyway? Insomniacs, parents with a new baby, and up-to-nogoodniks. That’s who.

Patty Duke won an Oscar for playing Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” Then she played twins on TV (A piece of narrishkeit), went all meshugge, and married that fast-talking little shmoozer with the Mexican name on the monster show.  (John Astin, who played Gomez on “The Addams Family.”)

George Kennedy the actor died. Me, I’m not sure who he was, but it’s always sad when a Kennedy dies, except for the old man, the farbissener nazi (Joseph P. Kennedy). You can look it up.

I’ve said enough already.

Monday, January 23, 2017

MovieMonday: The Founder



You may think that two brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald, founded the famous hamburger chain.  In a way, you would be right.  

On the other hand, this movie shows us how a salesman on the make, Ray Kroc, turned the McDonalds' single burger store into an international dining phenomenon.

In this movie, Kroc, played well by Michael Keaton, is a 52-year-old Willie Loman in waiting  when he drives from the Midwest to California to investigate the first McDonald's hamburger stand in San Bernardino.

The McDonald brothers have devised an efficient, popular, very successful operation; their plan is to operate the single location for the long term.   

Kroc admires what the McDonalds have accomplished and decides it is the best opportunity he ever has seen.  He signs a contract to open more McDonald's stores, and he never looks back. 

Initially, his style offends the McDonald brothers, and he hangs up the phone when they remonstrate against his plans.

As Kroc's vision expands and he gains more control of the operation, Dick McDonald objects and hangs up the phone on Kroc.

The movie suggests that the McDonalds are better human beings than Ray Kroc, which undoubtedly is true.  But successful innovators succeed in part because they brush all obstacles out of the way.  For Kroc this means divorcing a conventional wife, breaking with his small-town friends, and steamrolling the McDonalds, who are never really interested in changing their original business. 

As Kroc becomes more successful, his focus and confidence sharpen.  He learns how to recruit ambitious franchise owners, how to reduce operations costs and how to enrich himself by changing his contract with the McDonalds, grabbing more and more control of the business along the way.  

The movie is interesting for its discussion of how the expansion of a single innovative restaurant disrupted an industry of small operators (a story we have seen again and again in the last 50 years) and for its examination of what it takes for an ambitious person to transform himself into a captain of industry.  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

HIgh Stakes on a Plane





Not the same guy, but you get the picture


Recently I overheard a phone conversation that has had me puzzling ever since.

It was initiated by a man who sat next to me on a cross-country airplane flight.

He was a normal-looking fellow traveling with a normal-looking colleague.  They both were dismayed to learn that their firm's travel booker had got them window seats.  

(Try flying in the middle seat, I could have said, but I prefer not to intrude on other people's conversations.)

After they sat down, the man next to me made a cellphone call while the last passengers straggled to their seats. 

Here is the gist of his end of the conversation:

         "We have a client who wants to put $4 million into a wholly owned company, 
          maybe a restaurant franchise, with no outstanding debt.
               "Six months later, the client will receive $3.5 million back, and the whole 
          business will be over."



-----

That's a weird proposition.  Who would be willing to pay $500,000 to hide money for six months?   Annualized, that's 25 percent, not counting the fee charged by the phone call guy to arrange the transaction.

I've been turning this over in my head for 10 days now, and I have come up with three scenarios, none of them admirable:

1)Tax fraud.  If the "client" had sold a real estate investment property whose value had been depreciated to near zero, he would be liable for federal and state capital gains taxes, plus the ACA net investment gain tax on virtually all the proceeds, a cost of 30 percent ($1.2 million on $4 million) in some states, or possibly higher.  Such taxes can be avoided with what is known as a "1031 exchange," essentially reinvesting sale proceeds in a similar property investment.  The downside is that purchase and quick resale could trigger a tax audit.  Perhaps the "client's" plan was to sell the exchange property back to the seller, quickly and at a loss, and to invent a ruse to justify the flip.  A tax judge most likely would disallow the deductions if he or she learned that avoiding taxes had been the intent of the original $4 million purchase.  

2) Divorce fraud.  Perhaps the "client" is involved in a divorce and wants to hide assets from a soon-to-be former spouse.  In a community property state, the couple would split the $4 million, 50-50, and the "client" would net only $2 million.  If the client could invest the money in an instrument that his spouse and the spouse's lawyer could not discover, he would be left with $3.5 million, considerably more. 

3) Money laundering.  If the "client" obtained the $4 million illegally -- perhaps by selling street drugs for cash -- he would have a hard time depositing the money in a financial institution.  Banks are required now to report large cash transactions to regulators.  (In theory, he also would be required to report the income to the IRS and pay taxes on it.  Hahahaha.)  The "client" could launder the money through a cash business, maybe a restaurant, which could deposit the money as business proceeds, replacing other unreported income and harboring its own money from tax exposure.  At the end of six months, the restaurant could buy back the "client's" equity at a loss.  That repayment could be run through a regular financial institution without arousing regulatory attention.

Any of these ploys could work, I suppose, but I don't think a reputable advisor would involve himself any of them. Except for conducting sketchy-sounding business over the phone in a crowded airplane cabin, the man in the seat next to mine seemed perfectly normal.


-----

I did not discuss this or any other matter with the man, but I did notice his stockings.  Later I found similar pairs available online, in men's and women's versions, sold by a classy outfit called The Joy of Sox.  Here is a picture.





Cute, huh?


Friday, January 20, 2017

Zebra Shoes


There are certain design themes that are come up again and again in women's fashion.  One is color-block clothing. Other recent ones are camo fabric, cargo pants and combat boots.

The most popular theme by far is animal prints.

The latter got its latest revival last fall when Milan's Gucci house released a whole batch of shoes inspired by zebra stripes.  

(Please note, the zebra patterns discussed below are not made of actual zebra hides. Only Cruella Deville advocates wearing actual animal skins anymore, and she is a cartoon character from 60 years ago.)

Here is the most-photographed of Gucci's zebra offerings.


What is remarkable about this shoe is its innovative ponytail, reportedly made of goat hair.  

Perhaps because of the unusual nature of the shoe, there were suggestions as to the different ways to wear it.

         -- England's expensive Selfridge's store offered this idea: "Channel the brand’s
            runway look by pairing with a printed shift dress and jewel-coloured tights."

        -- And Gucci offered photographs of the shoe worn with the new look in hosiery.
           (See last year's Idiosyncratist post on the new popularity of short socks.)


It is likely that the ponytailed zebra pump was designed mostly to attract attention.  There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but few women are willing to spend $1,290 on four-inch shoes that get more comments than their well-tended faces or coifs, or their shapely legs.

In fact, Gucci released a more sedate version of the zebra pump, sans ponytail.  It retailed for $990.



There also came a zebra version of Gucci's Marmont pump with its famous double-G gold buckle, priced at $950.  I think of this as the Kate Middleton version.



A taller Marmont model, in black and gold, was priced at $980.



Then a nice shearling-lined slipper in the same price range for people who have more dollars than sense.


And finally, a high-top sneaker version, in men's and women's models, initially priced just under $1,000 and now available at deep discounts for the obvious reason.




It is possible that the point of the whole zebra exercise was to promote these traditional pumps, also by Gucci, which cost $400 and appear to have sold very well.  
This shoe style is very flattering, at least on women who have are disciplined enough to walk in such things.  It's a variation on the basic stiletto that fashion-forward gals might add to their wardrobes and wear occasionally over many years.


Copies

Like most fashion innovations, the zebra thing has been copied.  Here are a couple tagalong versions.

The British retailer Topshop is offering what it calls "Women's Pointed Zebra Heels By Unique."  They look uncomfortable, but the price is less than $300.



And, for real bargain shoppers, here are "Shoespie Zebra Open-toed cut-outs Ankle Wrap Stiletto Heel Sandals" for less than $80.  These are a dreadful appropriation not just of the zebra theme but also the strappy shoes phenomenon that I discussed recently.




Junk like this helps us understand why people like Gucci's design chief, Alessandro Michele, earn the big money. 




Monday, January 16, 2017

MovieMonday: Silence



This is a pretty good movie, but it sure isn't for everyone.

The plot sends two Portuguese Jesuits to 17th century Japan to find the priest who trained them, a missionary who has not been heard from in many years.  The rumor is that the lost padre has been "apostasized," a verbal construction that I had not heard before but that is spoken constantly in the film.

The source material is a novel by Shūsaku Endō, a story set in a little-discussed period in Japanese history.  As the history goes, a Portuguese ship blew ashore in the 1540s, and the result was a Japanese infatuation with European guns and, perhaps to a lesser extent, with Christianity, which may have been mistaken for a form of Buddhism.

Over years, as many as 300,000 Japanese were baptized, but by the time of the novel the country had teams of inquisitors rooting out Christians.  Those who renounced their faith might live, but those who did not were tortured and killed.

In the movie, the two young priests meet up with communities of hidden Christians who are persecuted and sometimes killed for their faith.  Fate causes the separation of the two padres, and the handsome one (who resembles a Jesus character in a 20th century movie) is followed as he refuses to apostasize and then is forced to watch the torture and killing of devout Japanese believers.  The inquisitors explain that Christianity is inconsistent with Japanese culture. 

The handsome priest's personal tortures are watching the suffering of the innocents and his sorrow at the  failure of God to intervene, the "silence" of the title.  When he tells his chief inquisitor that the dead Christians are dying for God, he is told, "They died for you."

(If the movie has a flaw, it is that the superficial beauty of the priest -- or perhaps the actor's limited skills -- undermine the believability of his horror.) 

This is the challenge for Christians.  From the time of Jesus, they have been taught to endure the torments of an imperfect world in the hope of eternal life. Interestingly, as torn as the padre is about the cruel treatment of Japanese Christians, they seem to accept their own fates more calmly.  They may be more true to their common faith.

The movie is beautifully shot and generally well acted. But in a largely post-Christian era where virtuous political beliefs sometimes seem like the dominant religion of the moment, the story told in "Silence" may strike most audiences like something out of a 500-year-old time capsule.


Director

Martin Scorsese had wanted to make "Silence" since reading the source novel many years ago.  It has been reported that the famed director considered entering the priesthood as a young man and before getting into filmmaking; if so, it is not surprising that he would be interested in a movie that examines the challenges of faith.  

Raising $50 million to make "Silence" was not easy, and there is a strong likelihood that the film will not turn a profit. After three weeks in limited release and a broad rollout (in which it came in 16th) last weekend, it had grossed just over $3 million in domestic revenues.  

It's interesting to contrast the muted reception "Silence" has received with that of Scorsese's last movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street." That film, based on the autobiography of a greedy pump-and-dump stockbroker based in Long Island, was notable mostly for its coarseness and vulgarity.  (Yes, I hated it.)  Scorsese was able to attract $100 million to make that film, whose worldwide ticket sales were nearly $400 million.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Red Notice



This book is an investor's first-person account of his experiences in the Russian economy in the 1990s and the early aughts.  What began as a satisfying and profitable undertaking turned over time into a nightmare and a cautionary tale about the nature of Russia today.

Bill Browder arrived in Russia as a young management consultant. He speaks of one assignment in which he was sent to advise the new owners of a Russian fishing fleet who were considering whether to borrow $2.5 million in order to buy $10 billion worth of fishing boats. (The answer, of course, was YES.)

Experiences like this convinced him that there was money to be made as Russia's economy was being privatized and where companies appeared to be drastically undervalued. 

Browder founded Hermitage Capital Management, which invested early in Russian businesses and did very well as stock prices ratcheted sharply upward.  At one point, he mentions that Hermitage's return on investment was 100 times, i.e., $100 for every dollar invested.  Hermitage was for a time the largest foreign investor in Russian markets.

Unfortunately, the rule of law did not keep pace with economic growth.  Ultimately, politically connected insiders used various means to enrich themselves at the expense of their countrymen.  

Here's a 2009 youtube video, made by Hermitage, that explains what happened when government agents and crooks set out to strip the fund of some of its holdings. 





Later in 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, the Hermitage tax lawyer mentioned in the video, was beaten to death in the last of several hellhole prisons where he had been starved and tortured.  Magnitsky, an honest and brave man, refused to his death to lie and take responsibility for crimes he had not committed.  We all should wish to bring such strength if faced with such circumstances.

Hermitage used Magnitsky's prison diaries to identify the authorities who punished and then killed him.  In a rare show of political accord, Congress voted in 2012 to deny U.S visas to those individuals and to ban them from participation in the American banking system.  (The Obama administration resisted for a time, fearing the bill would damage its Russian "reset," but it relented in the face of adamant bipartisan support.)


The Putin Record

The Russian economy is not nearly as large or as transparent as the American one, and its uneven distribution of wealth is much more striking than ours.  

In 2013, Credit Suisse reported that more than one-third of Russian wealth was held by about 100 individuals. The most wealthy of those was a man whose net worth was estimated at more than $11 billion.

Actually, the richest man in Russia is Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.  He began building his net worth after leaving the KGB (now FSB) and taking an administrative job in St. Petersburg.   When $100 million worth of raw materials were set aside to exchange for food for the then-hungry city, the sales were completed, but no food ever arrived.  A city council member, now deceased, said Putin pocketed the money as well as proceeds from other asset sales.

During his first presidential terms, Putin's government imprisoned an insufficiently servile oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the CEO of Yukos Oil.  The action sent a message.  Afterward, according to Browder, other oligarchs cut Putin in for nice helpings of equity in exchange for personal protection.  (The New Yorker ran a 2015 profile of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was released and exiled after 10 years in prison.)

The lowest estimates of Putin's wealth run to $40 billion, but Browder believes the real total is closer to $200 billion.  Who knows or cares, except him?

Unfortunately, Magnitsky is not the only Russian who has died on the wrong side of Putin's regime.  The dead and disappeared include hundreds of journalists.  A non-cooperative former FSB agent was poisoned with polonium-laced tea in a 2009 meeting at a London hotel.  In late 2015, a prominent Russian politician was shot in the back and killed near the Kremlin; his most recent offense had been to oppose Russian adventurism in Ukraine.  

Browder himself was convicted of false charges in a Russian show trial and could have been extradited to serve a prison sentence in Russia if western European companies had not intervened to prevent Interpol from acting on the order. 

Our political system has wacky aspects, it is true, but we all are much more fortunate than the beleaguered citizens of Russia.


The Book

"Red Notice" is an interesting read because it has a good story to tell, but for a self-made billionaire its author is a bit full of himself.  (Does he mention that he graduated from Stanford Business School?  Why yes, yes he does, several times.) It's a little surprising that so much of the book is devoted to his personal bio and family life when the details of his improbable career and unfortunate persecution are the real substance of what he has to share. .  To his credit, he has devoted years to agitating for accountability in the Russian government and seeing to the upbringing of Sergei Magnitsky's two fatherless sons.  

Monday, January 9, 2017

MovieMonday: Sing



This is a perfectly pleasant film from the people who brought us "Despicable Me" and its unfortunate 2015 follow-on, "Minions."  A trailer at the theater suggested "Despicable Me 3" will be in theaters later this year.

The story here is about Buster Moon, the owner of a theater that is going broke.  Buster is an enthusiastic and well-dressed koala with an iguana secretary, Miss Crawley, whose glass eye keeps popping out and causing no end of trouble.

Buster sets out to recapitalize his showhouse by staging a competition like "The Voice." Trouble begins when the size of the grand prize is announced erroneously as $100,000 and not the $1,000 Buster had intended.   

When auditions begin, thousands of animals of all types -- except songbirds -- line up around the block.  ("Sing" is set in a city that looks like a regular city except that its occupants are animals.)  

After tryouts, a group of finalists is selected.  Here the story goes a little "Rent" and "Chorus Line" with the finalists' stories of frustration.  My favorite was the sweet Cockney gorilla kid whose father expects him to join the family bank-robbery gang. Others will sympathize with the overworked and resourceful housewife pig.

Anyway.  Things get worse and worse for Buster Moon and his ragtag crew of striving singers, but it all works out in the end.  

Sixty-five familiar pop songs are sung or sampled, mostly in 12-bar segments.  Big-name actors read the characters' lines and do their singing.  And of course there are twerking pigs and rabbits.  These elements palliate the parents and older, worldlier siblings of the small children for whom the movie purportedly was made.  



Note

Last year was a pretty good one for children's movies.  Of those I saw, my favorites were Storks and The Jungle Book, the two that I believe small kids would enjoy the most.




Monday, January 2, 2017

MovieMonday: Fences




It's about time that one of August Wilson's theatrical plays made it to the screen.

It has happened now with "Fences," directed by and starring Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, a complicated man with a good and long-suffering wife, Rose, played by Viola Davis.  Both actors won Tonys for the Broadway stage production of "Fences" in 2010.   

Washington completely inhabits the central character, Troy Maxson, who calls to mind Willie Loman, King Lear and Terry Malloy ("I coulda been a contender" from "On the Waterfront.")

Troy's dream, a career in professional baseball, was frustrated because he aged out before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Of Troy's many resentments and regrets, this one is the most raw.  

He boasts of his Negro leagues career, batting home runs off Satchel Paige pitches.  He still swings his bat at a baseball strung from a tree in his backyard.  He peppers his speech  with baseball metaphors, especially the one about three strikes. 

Instead of baseball stardom, Troy has worked 18 years as a garbage collector, which he also resents.  When he complains that the trash company has no black truck drivers, he is the first one to get such a job.  This was an accomplishment in its day, the mid 1950s, but not the kind of enduring triumph a proud man like Troy would have wished.  It also separates him from Bono, his genial coworker and very good friend.

Troy broods constantly on what might have been, and he cannot let go.  When told that his 17-year-old son is a candidate for a college football scholarship, Troy effectively kills the opportunity, so absorbed is he with his own disappointment.  

"How come you ain't never liked me?" his hurt son asks, and Troy hurls back a hurtful answer that is mostly about Troy.  

And on it goes from there. 




August Wilson



August Wilson wrote the screenplay for "Fences," which is based on his play of the same name. He found his voice in African American speech and poetry, and he sets his stories in Pittsburgh's Hill District, where he spent most of his youth.

By the time he began writing plays, he understood that milieu, as well as Shakespeare and the Iliad -- why else would he name his troubled character Troy?

The result, called the Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle, is 10 plays about the African American experience, one per decade, for the period between 1900 and 2000.

All but one of the plays has been produced on Broadway, and there are occasional productions at regional theaters.  But it is a bit sad, given the plays' quality and distinct subject matter, that few American are acquainted with them.   

In fact, Wilson was wary of film versions.  When a studio optioned "Fences" in 1990, Wilson insisted on a black director.   He acknowledged that the themes of his work were universal, but he was adamant that an honest presentation required life experience in African American culture.  The project was shelved.

Wilson died in 2005, at age 60.  Charles Isherwood's thoughtful biography and analysis of Wilson's work ran afterward in the New York Times.  It's worth a read.

Many years later, Wilson's estate authorized Denzel Washington to direct films of Wilson's plays.  "Fences" is to be the first of many. 


Theater v. Film

In some ways, I wish I had seen "Fences" in that 2010 theatrical version instead of this movie.

It seems likely that the fence Troy was building would have been a more central element of the play and its themes -- the barriers Troy has faced and the barriers he puts up between himself and those who love him.   I'm also guessing that the play's scenes began each Friday afternoon after Troy dropped his paycheck on the kitchen table and spent time with his wife, their child and Bono, his coworker.

More to the point, a theater experience differs from a filmed one.  When an on-stage Troy loses his temper in frequents outbursts, he would share his emotions with at least one other actor.  In the film, Troy is talking to the camera.

Conveying deep emotion to a large stage audience requires some intensity to succeed; on camera it requires less.  The camera closes in on the single actor and, in some ways, magnifies that intensity and its effect on a viewer.

Also, the movie runs to more than two hours.  It uses the time well to tell its story, but an intermission, perhaps between the second and third acts, might allow members of a film audience to absorb what they have seen and to prepare themselves to watch how the plot elements already set in play will be resolved.

The film is very, very good and deserves a broad audience.  But it is very intense.