Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The China Hustle,’ ‘The Outhouse,’ ‘Mr. Universo’

Tourists celebrate capitalism in The China Hustle

Way back in 2005, tireless documentarian Alex Gibney produced and directed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, an Academy Award-nominated feature that revealed the gory details of how Texas-based predator capitalists precipitated the 2001 ‘energy crisis’ that almost brought the state of California to its knees. Enron, of course, only proved to be the tip of the predator iceberg: seven short years later, a different set of questionable business practices led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, kicking off the ‘too big to fail’ catastrophe that threatened to topple the world’s economic order.

Thirteen years and an astonishing 35 films later, Gibney returns to the business corruption beat with The China Hustle (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 30). This time, the scope is international: whereas Enron gamed the system from Houston and Lehman Brothers from New York, The China Hustle suggests the next crisis is — with the eager participation of American investors – brewing overseas.

The hero of Gibney’s film – though he denies being such – is Flint, Michigan native Dan David, an investment professional setting off alarm bells about Chinese growth figures and stock values. David notes that, since the crash of ’08 there have been around 400 ‘reverse mergers’, in which privately held Chinese firms purchased shell companies in the United States in order to go public and reap big cash rewards on Wall Street.

The China Hustle offers evidence that many of these companies have vastly overstated their value and are, as a consequence, inflating the next economic bubble. It also suggests there are plenty of Americans in on the scam, including highly paid lawyers, the Big Four auditing firms, and, most critically, the Securities and Exchange Commission, another federal agency that’s fallen victim to regulatory capture. As outspoken money manager Jim Chanos notes in the film, “At the end of the day… investors counting on the SEC to do their due diligence are kidding themselves.” Let the investor — and any of us with pension funds — beware.


‘The Outhouse’ — Not the least bit boring

Good times in The Outhouse

Those of us involved in the late 70s/early 80s California punk scene were vaguely aware something was going on in Lawrence, Kansas, the home of Fresh Tapes, The Mortal Micronotz, and William S. Burroughs, who spent the last 16 years of his life there. If you enjoyed last year’s Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, you’ll want to see The Outhouse, playing at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 29. Telling the story of the eponymous Lawrence punk venue that hosted Green Day on June 8, 1992, The Outhouse mirrors Turn It Around in length, clocking in at a robust 135 minutes — none of which are in the least bit boring.

‘Mr. Universo’ — Prepare to be charmed

87-year-old Arthur Robin pumps iron in Mr. Universo

Finally, Pacific Film Archive offers three screenings of Mr. Universo (2016), the neo-realist tale of Tairo, a circus big-cat trainer in search of a misplaced lucky amulet. The film’s first hour meanders a bit, but the payoff is more than worth it as Tairo reconnects with his childhood hero, former Mr. Universe (and real-life octogenarian wonder) Arthur Robin. Prepare to be utterly charmed.