Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movies: American Hustle

(Drivebycuriosity) - Politics and business are often inseparable entwined. There are corruption scandals almost everywhere. In the late 1970s and early '80s the FBI convicted an U.S. senator, plus six members of the House of Representatives and other U.S. politicians of accepting bribes (Abscam scandal wikipedia).

The movie "American Hustles" is based on this scandal. Director David O. Russel and co-screenwriter Eric Singer enlaced a slick comedy about a conman and his partner who in cooperation with a FBI agent are trying to convict top politicians (imdb). The flick blends capers with politics into a delicious & sly melange.

"American Hustles"  lives from its phenomenal cast. There are at least 4 outstanding actors: Watching Christian Bale as a crafty con artist is a lot of fun, but he easily gets outplayed by the superb Amy Adams as his swell partner in crime and the amazingly alterable Jennifer Lawrence, as the conman´s unstable & but glib wive. With Bradley Cooper, as a crafty FBI agent, they worked together and shaped a perfect circle of scheming. 

American Hustles" proves that big Hollywood cinema can be intelligent and highly entertaining as well.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Movies 2013: An Alternative Top 10 List

(Drivebycuriosity) - Here are my 10 favorite movies from 2013 which might be not really mainstream cinema:

I don´t have a clear number one, but there are 3 films on the top of my list:

Gravity, by director Alfonso Cuarón. The drama is pure cinema magic and might be the first film that lets us experience awe and horror of space travel while sitting in a cinema theater. Cuarón, who also was co-writer, co-producer and editor of "Gravity", shows what modern cinema is capable to. The audience gets sucked into a cinematic maelstrom thanks to cutting-edge special effects and advanced 3D techniques (driveby).

Stoker, by Chan-wook Park. The complex mystery thriller has many different layers: The film can be seen as a coming of age story, as a subtile vampire tale, a very special  family film or as a cynical fairy tale about people who behave far outside the boundaries of the common world. I also  fell in love with the magic of the camera. Park and his cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung delivered amazing compositions of picture and color (driveby).

Trance, by Danny Boyle. The eclectic British film director, who has a reputation for challenging movies since "Train Spotting", delivered again a film which could stir and provoke you. This time he focused on psychology and the mysteries of the unconscious mind. Boyle and his cinematographer Anthony Dod take the audience on a psychedelic trip and create a furious dance of pictures which could make you drunk (driveby).

There are some movies I liked almost as much:

Kiss Of The Damned, by Xan Cassavetes. This erotical masterpiece of the vampire genre tells us about living forever, having strange powers, being not able to see the sun. The film is a stylish exercise about eternal desire, passion, thrill & gore - and pure fun. The superb cinematography captures the sinister but alluring ambience with intoxicating pictures. Joséphine de La Baume & Roxane Mesquida are gorgeous vampires and demonstrate why this genre is loved by so many cineasts (driveby).

Ain't Them Bodies Saints, by David Lowery. The story about an outlaw who escapes from prison is also a psychological study about sacrifice, passion, competition, stubbornness and violence (driveby).

Europa Report, by Sebastián Cordero. The super realistic science fiction thriller describes a human expedition to the Jupiter moon Europa with dramatic consequences. The plot, which is based on real science and partly on data acquired by the NASA, shows the bliss of deep space travels but also the risks (driveby).

Blue Jasmine, by Woody Allen. The master draws a thin line between comedy and tragedy. The movie is a dark tale about conflicting philosophies of life,  mental problems, self-deception & self-destruction. It seems that Woody Allan, who is a product of New York City himself, was reckoning with Manhattan´s culture of blowhards and praised instead the common people of the West Coast. The film is very dark chocolate for cineasts (driveby).

There were at least 3 foreign language movies which also belong into my 10 top ten:

Blue Is The Warmest Color, by Abdellatif Kechiche (French). The love story between 2 girls - garnished with generous filmed sex scenes -  also is a psychological drama about pleasures and pains of an intense relationship. Their exchange of pleasure and the way they were teasing, stimulating and exploring each other is highly esthetic.  The newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos is a canvas for the emotional awakening of a teenager. Her curiosity and her hunger for life, food & sex defines the movie (driveby).

In The House (Dans La Maison), by François Ozon, (French) is a fine mystery tale which blends entertainment with smart object lessons on manipulation, seduction, desire, sex, family and delivers charming discussions about art and literature. The ambiguity and a lot of surprises make the film enthralling (driveby).

The Wall (Die Wand), by Julian Pölsler. The Austrian film tells the story of a woman who spends a weekend in a hunting lodge in the Austrian mountains (Alpen) when suddenly an invisible wall appears and bars her from the rest of world. It is a modern Robinson Crusoe story. Alone, just accompanied by a dog and a cow, this involuntary hermit has to struggle for her existence in a paltry mountain environment. The voice-over (in English) lets the audiences participate in her hopes, fears & philosophies. "Die Wand" is a beautiful meditation about a solitarily life in the nature without any human support (driveby).

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Movies: The Wolf Of Wall Street

(Drivebycuriosity) - Wall Street is a place where fortunes can be made in no time. No wonder that the financial center attracts all kind of gamblers, high rollers and crooks. There might be just one place which could match Wall Street: Hollywood. No wonder that Tinseltown is obsessed with Wall Street and produces a lot of films about the new Babylon.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is based on the memoirs of the New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who received a long prison sentence because of securities fraud, stock manipulation and money laundering (imdb). The film focuses on his "hedonistic life throughout the ’80s and ’90s, consistently indulging in women, drugs and alcohol"  (wegotthiscovered)

It seems that director Martin Scorsese, one of Hollywood`s godfathers, and his superb ensemble had a lot of fun while shooting the "Wolf". The film doesn´t waste much time on the complex financial implications, instead the flick looks like a huge party with a big hangover or a "Kindergeburtstag", which is when rich parents give a birthday party for their spoiled kids, with clowns, silly games and plenty of popcorn, marshmallows and other food.  Wolf translates it into the world of adults with pussies, coke and booze.

"Wolf" is hilarious, flamboyant and way better and more believable than "The Great Gatsby", which was another glimpse into the world of the super rich. There is just one downer: The producers cut some sex scenes to avoid a NC-17 rating (no admission for persons below the age of 17  wegotthiscovered). Now the film has a R rating which allows Americans to bring their children with them to the show. Maybe the difference attracts a bigger audience?

It seems that Leonardo DiCaprio was born for the role of stock broker Belfort. The actor had shown before, that he is the perfect cast for the hedonistic charmer with the f…k the world attitude ("Catch me if you  can", "The Great Gatsby"). As the seductive financial Wolf he reached another peak of his career.

Margot Robbie is not just eye candy she also shows how bitter it could be to be the wife of such a dazzling seducer.
The comedian Jonah Hill as Belfort´s partner in financial crime is a power house of goofiness and gives the movie a lot of speed.
 Matthew McConaughey, in a short appearance as an elder finance man, delivered an adequate frame for the Wall Street spectacle.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" delivers 178 minutes full of fun, spiced with some elements to think about. Well done Marty!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Street Art: My Top 20 2013

(Drivebycuriosity) - I am connoisseur of street art. I indulge in murals, graffiti, stencils and other incarnations of this elusive art form and take pictures when ever I can.

There is so much to discover, so many ideas, provocations & surprises. Street art is a feast of creativity. Many artists display their work on places where others already had expressed themselves. This leads often to clusters and creates an art work of its own.

This year I got a quite nice collection. The pics are mostly taken in downtown Manhattan: Lower East Side, Soho & East Village. I love them all, therefore I didn´t give them a specific ranking. Here are my favorite 20 or so.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Movies: The Invisible Woman

(Drivebycuriosity) - Charles Dickens was one of the super star authors of the 19th century. The Briton is still one of the most read writers and many movies are based on his novels. The film "The Invisible Woman" focuses on the author himself and his extramarital love affair with a much younger woman (imdb).

The drama deals with a relationship which seemed scandalous in the puritanic Victorian era (England late 19th century) and focused on the pains this imposed on all involved. Hence the film has a somewhat masochistic attitude. The cinematography suited this in adequate pictures. I enjoyed especially shots from the tidelands and I indulged in the close ups of the face of Felicity Jones, who performed as Dicken`s love interest.

If you need a movie which is somewhat bitter and romantic to counter the deluge of Hollywood spectacles on the screens; "The Invisible Woman" could satisfy your taste.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Economy: Musings About The Sex Appeal Of Scarcity

(Drivebycuriosity) - What do bitcoins, apartments in London and contemporary art have in common? Their prices are going up into the sky.

In the beginning of the year a bitcoin (financial software) cost just $13.55 (cnbc). Now they pay around $ 700  for of a unit  (bitcoinity). Prices and rents for apartment houses in London have been rising for years sharply (telegraph). And Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Basel and other fairs show that "postwar and contemporary art has been on fire” (bloomberg newyorker).

Bitcoins, London`s apartments and contemporary art have more in common: They are scarce. According to Wikipedia new bitcoins are created at an ever-decreasing rate (wikipedia). The total number of bitcoins is capped at 21 million.
The situation is somewhat similar to London`s apartments. Regulations hinder the city to grow beyond her green belts (wikipedia). London cannot grow much vertically either because there are height limits for skyscrapers (contrary to New York City ). Both regulations are limiting the supply of London`s apartments.
And the supply of contemporary art is restricted by nature, at least created by fashionable artists. Super stars like Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons can just produce a limited amount of original work, if they are still alive (and if you ignore forgeries).

Scarcity is attractive. If you own something that is rare, that could make you special. The rarer the thing is, the lower is the risk that your neighbor (or anybody else) has it and the more you can distinguish yourself. As owner of a rare item you could earn a lot of reputation, attention & envy. Therefore the more scarce something is, the more it it desired.

It seems quite natural that people who are rich and powerful like to collect scarce things to demonstrate their superiority. This isn`t confined to things. Traditionally rich & powerful men - hedge fund managers, CEOs, rock stars, politicians, kings - have been equipping themselves with especially beautiful women like top models, movie stars and so. These trophy women are often selected because of their scarce beauty. They are usually rewarded with invitations to 5-stars restaurants, luxury yachts and precious (scarce) gifts like diamonds and maybe even bitcoins, London apartments and contemporary art. It seems scarcity attracts scarcity.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Stock Market: Merry Christmas

(Drivebycuriosity) - Christmas is the season for reflection but also for giving gifts. Investors received this year ample presents. Today, Christmas Eve, the U.S. stock market closed on an all-time high. The S&P 500, a gauge for the U.S stock market, gained 28% year-to-date. The rally is a response to an economy which is getting stronger. The stock market also signals growing optimism for the year 2014.

This rally also is a gift for the whole economy. Many Americans hold stocks. They got a lot wealthier this year. The rising wealth also lifts their optimism. Thus they will spend more money next year which is good for retailers, other consumer companies and their suppliers (wealth effect).

The positive impulse form the stock market is accompanied by another wealth effect generated by rising home prices and climbing incomes thanks to a healing job market. Therefore we should get strong economic growth 2014. This - in combination with a recovery in Europe, continuing growth in China, relatively low interest rates and soft commodity prices - should fuel the continuation of the stock market rally in the coming year.

Merry Christmas to everyone.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Geopolitics/Economy: Viva La Independence

(Drivebycuriosity) - 2014 could change the map of Europe. In September Scotland, a traditional part of the United Kingdom (UK), will have a referendum about becoming an independent nation (theguardian). In November Catalonia, today a region of Spain, will follow and also vote about getting independent (rt.com). According to the New York Times there are several countries - including Belgium - which could break apart which would lead to new countries (geocurrents).

I think these secessions (if they become reality) are a good idea. The Scots could be better off if they go their own ways, Catalonia and other regions too.

Secessions aren`t a new idea. In the 1990th many regions used the breakdown of the defunct Soviet Union to gain freedom and to become independent states: The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) plus Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and more. At least some of the them have flourishing economies now. Other parts of the former Soviet empire also broke apart: Yugoslavia  (now the separate states Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia & Slovenia) and Czechoslovakia (now separate Czech Republic & Slovakia).

History also shows that even very small countries can prosper after becoming independent. Singapore, which gained 1965 independence from Malaysia, is one of the most developed and wealthiest countries in Asia. The citizens of the tiny state gained more income & wealth since the secession than people in Malaysia, thanks to the intense trade relationships with the rest of the world. And Switzerland has been proving for many centuries that little countries can do well. The Swiss are wealthier than the citizens of their neighbors Germany France and Italy.

This is no coincidence. Small countries (and independent regions) are less complicated than huge states. They are easier to govern and to manage and therefore are less bureaucratic. The government of a small country is closer to their citizen and can respond better to local needs. Economists have often described the benefits of decentralization.  Wikipedia writes that decentralization "increases efficiency - and effectiveness - due to reduction of congestion in communications, quicker reaction to unanticipated problems, improved ability to deliver of services, improved information about local conditions, and more support from beneficiaries of programs" (wikipedia).

The Italian Renaissance happened as Italy was just a cluster of independent city states like Milan, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Genoa, Ferrara, Mantua, Verona and Venice. The competition between these places created an creative environment that inspired advances in arts, science and business (wikipedia). The independent Greek cities (Athen, Byzantium, Sparta, Troy and more) developed democracy. The huge Roman Empire instead, which spread from Northern Africa to Southern England, broke down under its own weight.

I believe that small countries (and separate regions) have just one disadvantage: They are military weak and could be easily overrun by enemies. But the existence of Switzerland, Singapore, Luxembourg and other tiny countries shows that this risk is very low. It is not likely that Scotland will be attacked by its neighbors  UK or Norway.

Viva la independence.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Culture/Economy: A Defense Of Christmas Shopping

(Drivebycuriosity) - Christmas - originally a Christian religious event - is now a season for being contemplative, but also the time for giving presents. Thus every year the Christmas season leads to a wave of shopping.

Purtians - and other fundamentalists - might criticize the connection between Christmas & shopping, but I appreciate  that link.

1. Giving Christmas presents demands that you think about the needs of the beneficiary. You have to find out - or to speculate - what she or he might like. You have to invest time & efforts to discover things that might enjoy another person. I believe that you could learn something in this process and that both, donor and presentee, could discover new things.

This reminds me of Christmas during my childhood. Then presents where given on Christmas eve around 6pm when it was already dark outside. In the wake of this event there was a climate of excitement and lustful anticipation. And then came the moment of unwrapping the packs!

2. The Christmas spending spree (and similar events in other culture like Chinese New Year) is certainly good for retailers and a lot of other companies. The tradition of giving Christmas gifts creates tons of jobs and incomes and keeps the whole wheel of the economy running.