The most awkward aspect of Leslie and Andrew Cockburn's sensationally effective subprime-mortgage–catastrophe doc, American Casino, is also its most compelling. The movie leaps back and forth between two milieus seemingly a million miles apart: talking white heads — Wall Street analysts and ex-traders (faces shadowed and voices distorted), who explain how much money could be made pushing loans on people with little chance of paying it back — and neighborhoods where the damage has hit home.
The Cockburns travel to Baltimore, where dazed, middle-class African-Americans cope with foreclosures and evictions, having been misled into thinking their monthly payments would be hundreds of dollars less than they were. After more white talking heads (footage of former Senate Finance Committee chairman Phil Gramm calling us "a nation of whiners" and a chastened Alan Greenspan — looking a hundred years old — admitting to Congress that there was "a flaw in his conceptual framework"), more graphs and charts, more accounts of obscene amounts of the house's money gambled away by greed-drunken traders, we're in Stockton, California, among the empty (or soon-to-be-empty) mini-mansions, where abandoned swimming pools are a hotbed of West Nile Virus. What a metaphor! An infamous internal e-mail from one Standard & Poor's analyst to another should be emblazoned over Wall Street: "Let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters." The Cockburns’ own gamble — the abrupt changes in scale — pays off. You'll never hear an economist explain derivatives again without thinking of the woman who walks away from the camera, weeping, as her mortgage broker refuses her check, or children's dolls splayed out on the floors of empty homes.
Given the way humans have ravaged the planet, it's hard to get worked up about yet another postapocalyptic fantasy in which it's the machines that have exterminated mankind. But Shane Acker's animated 9 certainly has the "Wow!" factor. It's set amid what looks like the ripped-out bowels of civilization. The hero (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a burlap sock puppet with a zipper up the middle and goggle eyes, who refuses to accept the fatalistic warnings of another sock puppet (there are but nine), voiced by a sonorously raspy Christopher Plummer. The predatory creatures owe something to the brothers Quay, but that's a heck of a model (especially scary is the spider with the baby-doll head). But for all the Saturday-matinee heroics, the movie is dreary and monotonous, the vision junky in more ways than one.