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Capital Crimes: Why the Latest Costa-Gavras Film, "Capital," Was Cut from Bay Area Screenings

An investigative movie review by Gar Smith
Friday February 07, 2014 - 10:25:00 AM

Costa-Gavras' latest film (about predatory hedge fund investors in Europe and the US) was listed as one of the top films of the year in a recent edition of the East Bay Express. Costa-Gavras has been called "the world's greatest political filmmaker" and critics hailed Capitol as "fast-paced, financial thriller," a "darkly comic, suspenseful drama." So why was the film "banned in Berkeley"? 

Reviewers received "screeners" — advance copies of the film on DVD disks — in mid-November along with Capital's press release, which promised the film would open on November 22 with screenings in San Francisco and East Bay. The locations for the film's commercial opening, however, were listed as "TBD" — To Be Determined.

I gave the film a positive review and I was looking forward to promoting it to the Berkeley/East Bay crowd -- a perfect demographic.

But the film mysteriously went from TBD to MIA.

Reviewers were informed by email that Capital, regretfully, would not be screened in the Bay Area after all. I was told (off the record) that the film's disappearance involved a question about the amount of money available to promote the film (with newspaper ads, etc) — specifically, the amount offered was deemed insufficient by the managers of a prominent Bay Area theater chain.

I'd never before paused to consider the dynamic between ad budgets and the decisions about which films make it onto theater screens. Ironically, in this case, it looks like Capital was sabotaged by capital -- or a lack thereof.

Even with multiplexes, there are only a limited number of screens to hire out in the Bay Area. In this regard, a movie screen is like a billboard. There are only so many. The space goes to the highest bidder.

In the case of Capital, the film company couldn't match the level of ad buys that Landmark Theatres demanded, so the screens went to other films from competitors with deeper pockets.

Seeking more information, the Planet placed a call to the distributor's West Coast rep in LA. The call was not returned. We soon learned that people in the industry who know how the game is played are not eager to talk about it — at least, not on the record.

"As I understand it," one anonymous source told the Planet, "Landmark was requesting an ad buy for Capital that they [Cohen Media Group, the film's producers] just could not afford. So they pulled the film."

On January 8, in the lobby of the Roxie Theater, members of the local film community (gathered for a press screening to kick off the 16th Annual SF Independent Film Festival) had more to say.

"It's not just Landmark," one widely read film critic explained. "Metreon and all of them do it."

"The movie companies all want to make their cash up front. A lot of these films are 'one-week wonders' so it's crucial to get the crowds in during that first week. It might be your only week."

"It's not just print ads. The filmmakers are also expected to pay fees if they want to place those stand-up displays in the theater lobby. And there are other special deals for publicity and promotions on the theater's websites."

Film buffs should be thankful that independent films like Alexander Payne's Nebraska and the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis make it to the big screen in a big way. But, even here, money plays a role.

"The Coen brothers paid for a three-page spread in the New York Times," another local critic told the Planet. "They even thanked – in print – more than 400 movie reviewers who gave the film a positive review. From the New York Times to the Georgia Strait [a Vancouver weekly]."

"Sometimes when a Times' critic writes a negative review, the film company will hit back with a full-page ad in the Times filled with positive reviews — all pulled from other newspapers."

How many worthy films are denied a theatrical screening on the basis of "red-tooth-and-claw, free-market" economics? Hard to say, but the numbers are certainly in the high double digits.

The irony is that, while some films can't "pay to play" on commercial screens, moviegoers often wind up in multiplexes where the same Big-Buck-backed film is showing on two or three different screens simultaneously.

With all this as background. Here is the Planet's review of Capital. You won't see it on the big screen but look for it on Netflix. 


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Capital: Costa-Gavras' New Film Skewers Capitalism 

Review by Gar Smith 

The celebrated French-Greek director Costa-Gavras, renowned for a series of powerful, politically charged films ("Z," "Missing," "State of Siege") is back in action. This time, his target is nothing less than "Capital" itself. Based on a French novel, Le Capital, Costa-Gavras' film pulls viewers into the murky world of hedge funds and international banking with the force of a rip-tide tugging beachcomers into a confusing cross-current of intrigue and hidden agendas. 

From the first moment, it's clear that Costa-Gavras has made a decision to create distance and sow confusion in this portrayal of Bankers Gone Wild. Capital appears to have been shot on HD video, which immediately gives the movie a disquieting "hyper-real" immediacy. Further undermining the visual comfort of traditional film, Costa-Gavras toys with the digital record, suddenly accelerating or slowing the motion as people cross a street or emerge from limosenes. 

The "surreal reality" of Capital is further hyped when the lead character – Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmale), a coolly charismatic banker-on-the-make – breaks the "fourth wall." In the very first scene, he steps out of the action and addresses the audience directly from the screen. 

Another confusing element is Tourneuil's internal monologue, which erupts in unexpected and initially perplexing fantasies. We're used to "flash-backs" and "flash-forwards" in cinema but Capital presents us with "flash-ins" – or, perhaps, just "flashes" – that reveal the hidden inferno that seethes beneath Tourneuil's glacial exterior. 

Appropriately, for a film called Capital, the film's sets and props glow with the fevered reflections of great wealth – custom-tailored suits, expensive designer gowns, stretch limosenes, posh yachts, view apartments (with windows opening on the Eiffel Tower), and financial favors handed out like Halloween candy. One of the early scenes in Capital takes place in a luxurious French cabaret adorned with the motto: "Luxury Is a Right." 

It will help if you speak French. The film relies heavily on subtitles and, for much of the film, the subtitles are barely-to-not-at-all readable owning to highly contrasting background compositions. Sometimes, when the subtitles are readable, they carry the awkwardness of unedited mistranslation. Case in point: when the chief of France's Pheonix Bank is stricken with testicular cancer, the subtitle announces: "The cancer has offended his balls." 

Once he's selected to fill in for the ailing CEO of Phenix Band, he critical thing for Tourneuil is to determine "Who on the board is for me or against me." But Trouneuil's biggest threat lies across the Atlantic, not the Seine. 

A conniving American financial operator named Dittmar Rigule (an unctuous and flammable Gabriel Byrne), invites Tourneuil to Miami in an attempt to capture and colonize the new leader. There are profits to be made, he insists. "We can't be judged by 'French banking ethics.'" 

These French and American capital-mongers may be the "smartest guys in the room," but it's clear that Tourneuil (described as a former academic with a PhD in economics) is a lap ahead everyone else on the track. 

In one satirical conversation, two master manipulators have the following exchange:
What exactly are we selling?" "I thought you would be telling me." 

Costa-Gavras gives the modern financial world of derivatives and ? a polished shellacking. 

This is a film in which everyone seems to be flashing "the look" – a cold, clenched-eyebrow look to the side – signaling macho detachment and shark-like cunning. 

At stake: the future of Phenix Bank and whether it will be devoured by the Hedge Hogs based in Miami. Also at stake: the soul of Marc Tourneuil. Will he honor his wife's plea for a non-moniterized identity? Will he choose principal over power and write a "tell-all" book exposing the chicanery of global speculators? 

"Money never sleeps," Tourneuil proclaims (in an apparent nod to Oliver Stone).
"You have to watch it like milk on a stove or it will boil over and you have to fire people." 

"Money isn't a tool," Byrnes' character consuls, "it is a master." 

And one of the simpler tricks of mastering the trade, Capital demonstrates, is boosting a company's profits by staging mergers and hostile take-overs that allow you cut overhead and fire workers. Lay off 10,000 employees can boost annual earnings 18% earning a CEO a $2 billion bonus from the board of directors and stockholders who also get a nourishing cut of the proceeds. 

And it's not just the banksters that get a cinematic whupping from Coasta-Gavras. The world of supermodeldom also gets a tawdry turn in the person of Nassim (Liya Kebede) who initially appears as "recruitment bait" on Rigule's Miami yatch. Nassim transfixes Tourneuil and runs him ragged in a game of transcontinental tease. I may never be able to look at a supermodel again without thinking of Capital's phrase, "million-dollar hooker." 

Throughout the money chase, Tourneuil's real allegiance remains confused and unclear. In his first masterfully staged speech as the new head of Phenix Bank, he appears before a packed auditorium of stockholders and fellow executives. At his back is a huge screen filled with an incredible montage of Skype screens showing the faces of lower-ranking bank employees from all around the world. Tourneuil gives a speech that essentially promises to "green" the bank -- promoting renewable energy, workers rights and racial justice. The stunned shareholders can barely rouse themselves to offer a lack-luster patter of applause. Meanwhile, the Skypeiverse erupts with cheers. Tourneuil turns his back on the men in suits and his smiling face glows in the reflected light of the bank's minions. 

But we are still stuck with Tourneuil's evil twin. When his wife protests that she doesn't want to "dress like a CEO's wife" and is perfectly happy without a burgeoning bank account to draw on. "Why do you want the money?" she asks. "Because," he explains, "money means respect." And Tourneuil is in this game to win. 

Capital follows in the path of scores of adventure-conspiracy films. There is one "hero" who is smarter than everyone else. He casts a cold eye over the landscape and issues orders that leave his underlings (and competitors) stunned – but, at the same time, awed. You know he's going to outfox every other predator on the horizon. 

Throughout the film, Tourneil's moral arc records more dips and peaks than the rails of a roller-coaster. The film ends with a closing discontinuity. Is Tourneuil evil or is he merely pragmatic -- a man who has abandoned principles in the pursuit of compound interest?