'The Project'
'The Project'

Humanity sure looks to be in short supply in the Horn of Africa, where criminals and militant Islam have forged an alliance. “The Project” by Shawn Efran and Adam Ciralsky takes us to Somalia, where contractors (i.e. mercenaries) are training local troops to fight pirates and Al Qaeda militants, who have turned that country into the most failed state in the world. There is always competition for that status. Not that the mercs are much less unsavory. They are South Africans from apartheid days, US veterans (assembled by Eric Bright of Blackwater), and ragtag soldiers from the bloody last African coup. The filmmakers get close to the action, after an Indian ship is high-jacked, and its crew is held for more than a year.

It takes more than guns to clean up a country. The mercs end up learning who is behind the highjacking, but the joke ends up being on them. Their local unit has been infiltrated by the terrorists, and one of their men is killed. Eventually they do save the highjacked ship and free the hostages.  This has fictional remake written all over it.

In this doc that is structured around a single maneuver, the strategy to target terrorists in Somalia is initially bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates, who are forced to pull out when the United Nations objects to the freelance vigilantism. Somalia isn’t much safer today. Now you know one reason why.
One export from Somalia is people – some of the tall lean elegant Somalis have become famous models (see: Iman, wife of David Bowie).

“The Director,” a profile of Frida Giannini, Creative Director of Gucci since 2006, begins with something less elegant, the selection of male models for an upcoming runaway show. She sets her eye on a young man who looks great, but walks as if he’s imitating a bizarre London trance victim. After gently drilling him on how to walk naturally, she asks,” What kind of shoes do you usually wear?”

“Sneakers,” he says.

“We’re going to try to show something more than sneakers in this show,” she tells him. Clueless, Part Deux.

Directed by Christina Voros (who shot the ‘making of’’ feature for "127 Hours"), and produced by James Franco, "The Director" looks like an elegant commercial. Will it sell movie tickets? Probably, since the audience for fashion films seems to be expanding. It will sell bags and loafers. Gucci had couture, shoes, handbags and fragrances. Now it has a movie. 

Don’t expect anything in this film to break the mold. Remember that Gucci, which began as a Florentine leather shop, sells predictability, not invention. But one section in which Giannini gets attention has her sitting with her staff, looking at new designs. Not catty, not nasty, but clever and lethal.  

I haven’t seen the evidence of whether Bernard Madoff was a Gucci customer, but he was enough of an aspirant to the lifestyles of the rich and famous to qualify as one.

“In God We Trust” tells the Madoff story from the point of view of his secretary, Eleanor Squillari, an abused daughter of a Staten Island cop who made the journey on the ferry to New York (and to the Lipstick Building where Madoff’s inner circle strategized the ripoff of its investors on the 17th floor) much as did Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl.” Both eventually learned how business works. In Squillari’s case, as documented extensively in Vanity Fair, her enlightenment came way too late.

Besides its first person Noo Yawk narrative that brings a poignancy and fierce doggedness to a much-told story, "In God We Trust" is a reality check on news that has been published but still needs examination. Madoff’s biggest customers were not the investors who lost everything. They were the large individuals and institutions who laundered money with him. Some of them committed suicide, like Jeffry Picower, who was found dead in his Palm Beach swimming pool. (His wife settled with the US government for more than $7 billion.) Some have been pursued by regulators and law enforcement. Most are still out there.

It’s oddly humanizing to Madoff – still a monster – that people more ruthless or just smarter and richer than he were using him. It’s enraging that they are still free. This doc makes you wonder why he took a plea so quickly.
People who think they know the whole Madoff story will disparage “In God We Trust” – starting with the cliché of the Statue of Liberty seen from the State Island ferry. Don’t believe them. It’s the defeatist “that’s old news” idea that everything’s been said and reported that enables the villains in this story to conduct business as usual.