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Before Nov. 3, Watch This and This and This



Jeff Daniels agreed to play James Comey in Showtime’s “The Comey Rule” on the promise that the four-hour mini-series would be released ahead of the election. The documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney worked at a breakneck pace to complete his feature-length film “Totally Under Control,” an indictment of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, so it could debut before Nov. 3.

And Aaron Sorkin began courting streaming companies at the end of May when it became clear that the global pandemic would impede Paramount Pictures’ ability to release his film about protests at the 1968 Democratic convention in theaters this year.

For Mr. Sorkin, the decision to forgo a traditional theatrical release — “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is available on Netflix starting Friday — was all about being part of the conversation when the conversation was happening.

“There is going to be exhaustion a year from now,” he said in a recent interview. “Now is when you want to release it.”

Hollywood rarely shies away from politics. This election cycle, however, a plethora of movies, documentaries and TV mini-series are hitting the marketplace with immediate relevance. That stands in contrast to the usual industry practice of waiting for events to pass into history before depicting them onscreen. Think Oliver Stone’s “JFK” or Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.”

(Mr. Sorkin’s “Chicago 7” falls into that category, too, though the nationwide protests this summer give it urgency, as does Mr. Sorkin’s meant-for-the-moment dialogue like having Abbie Hoffman, one of the Chicago 7 activists, say when he testifies during the trial, “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things which right now are populated by some terrible people.”)

ImageAaron Sorkin’s film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” feels of the moment because of the nationwide protests over racial injustice.
Credit…Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Netflix

“I can’t think of any writer-director who ever had the opportunity I had, to write about the collapse of a building while it was still collapsing,” said Billy Ray, who began working on “The Comey Rule” in 2018 when Mr. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, released his memoir, “A Higher Loyalty.” The mini-series, which features Brendan Gleeson as President Trump, generated mostly positive reviews, and the first episode was seen by 2.5 million people across various platforms and the second by 2.1 million.

Whether these projects can influence the election is another matter. And with less than three weeks until Election Day, the window to reach undecided voters is quickly closing anyway.

“The percentage of voters who are swayable in the states that matter are 2 to 5 percent,” said Tanya Somanader, the chief content officer for Crooked Media, left-leaning political content company, and a strategist in the Obama administration. “And that number is collapsing by the day because people are voting early.”

That won’t stop Hollywood from trying. Last month, Amazon Studios released the documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” which both tracks Stacey Abrams’s run for governor in Georgia in 2018 and its contested result and examines the history of voter suppression in the United States. The film was accompanied by a 22-city bus tour and an extensive voter-registration drive.

“We are hoping to inspire people to fight for what is theirs,” said Liz Garbus, who directed the film with Lisa Cortés. “That means voting.”

Credit…Niko Tavernise/Netflix, via Associated Press

On Wednesday, HBO will debut “537 Votes,” a documentary about the disputed 2000 presidential election. The director Adam McKay (“Vice”) is the executive producer. On the same day, the magazine The Atlantic will unveil its first documentary, “White Noise,” about the rise of far-right nationalism.

Next Friday, Amazon will start streaming “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” a sequel to the 2006 satire starring Sacha Baron Cohen as the clueless Kazakh journalist Borat. While the plot has not been revealed, the film’s trailer shows Mr. Cohen’s alter-ego crashing the Conservative Political Action Conference while Vice President Mike Pence is speaking. (Mr. Cohen also plays Mr. Hoffman in “Chicago 7.”)

Showtime will air Alexandra Pelosi’s “American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself,” an examination of the country’s hyperpartisan landscape over the past 12 months, next Friday, too. “Us Kids,” a documentary centered on the teenagers turned activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the March for Our Lives movement, will become available via Alamo Drafthouse Virtual Cinema on Oct. 30.

Mr. Gibney began his “Totally Under Control” project in May after the coronavirus ripped through New York, killing one of his friends and putting another one on a ventilator. He and his co-directors, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, trace the administration’s delayed response, its failure to secure proper protective equipment and the subsequent politicization of science regarding the pandemic.

The documentary features, among others, Dr. Rick Bright, the whistle-blower from the Department of Health and Human Services; Kathleen Sebelius, the department’s secretary under President Barack Obama; and Max Kennedy Jr., a grandson of Robert F. Kennedy who sent an anonymous complaint in April to Congress detailing the “dangerous incompetence” of the Trump coronavirus task force, for which he was a volunteer.

“I hope it makes a huge difference,” Mr. Gibney said of his film, which became available on demand on Tuesday and will stream on Hulu next week.

“It’s a crime film, and the crimes we discovered were fraud and negligence,” he added. “If you are looking at it from the perspective of ‘Did this administration do all it could to protect American citizens?’ — that’s an important piece of information to have when you are going to the voting booth.”

Hollywood’s liberal leanings have long been known, and that hasn’t changed this year. Last month on Instagram, Dwayne Johnson announced his support for Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee. Mr. Johnson was soon followed by Taylor Swift. Last week, a group of naked actors including Sarah Silverman, Mark Ruffalo and Tiffany Haddish demonstrated in a viral video the proper way to send in a mail-in ballot.

Credit…Neon and Participant

Their efforts are not usually welcomed by those on the right. “Hollywood can be very off-putting to the other side, who are very much about staying in your lane,” Ms. Somanader of Crooked Media said. “It’s not that they actually reject entertainment, but rather they feel they are being rebuked by the people who entertain them.”

That’s not stopping Mr. Sorkin, who argues that actors have as much of a right to their political opinion as dentists do. The day before “The Trial of Chicago 7” became available on Netflix, HBO Max aired the “The West Wing Special,” a restaging of an “ode to voting” episode of the NBC show Mr. Sorkin created in 1999, to promote voting via Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote initiative.

With “The West Wing” often categorized as a “liberal fantasy,” Mr. Sorkin is bracing for a withering response from conservatives. He even wrote his defense into the introductory remarks that the actor Bradley Whitford read at the start of the special:

“We understand that most people don’t appreciate the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors, and if HBO Max was going to point a camera at the 10 smartest people in America, we would gladly clear the stage for them,” Mr. Whitford said. “But the camera is pointed at us, and we think that the risk of appearing obnoxious is too small a reason not to do something if we can get even one person to the polls.”


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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.


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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.



The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.


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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.



As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.


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