'Cash Crop' rises above the smoke

Posted: 11:50 AM September 30, 2010

“Cash Crop” is all about marijuana. But it also is about much more.

The film, absent talking heads, absent a polemic voice-over, takes the audience on a road trip from the Mexican border to the northernmost counties of California — Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino — commonly known as the Emerald Triangle, where marijuana as a cash crop has replaced the anchor industries of fishing and timber. And so the film creates a nicely framed contradiction — call it widespread cognitive dissonance — between the use and farming of marijuana and the federal and local laws that continue to criminalize pot.

It’s impossible to watch “Cash Crop” and not be reminded of the train wreck called prohibition. Consider the reality on the ground today, specifically in California: it’s been reported that marijuana as a crop produces some $14 billion in annual sales, is the mainstay of many communities and is referred to as the California Green Rush. Nationally, marijuana is thought to be, by some researchers, a pervasive part of the American economy and the No. 1 crop in 12 states and among the top three in 30 states.

From small, mom-and-pop farms, with back-to-the-land characters, to much larger operations, it becomes clear that weed, as its often referred to in the film, is not only part of people’s lives — from recreational to medicinal use — but its is viewed as a civil right. A choice. And who, folks ask, should decide what is pharmacologically efficacious? Big Pharma?

“Cash Crop” explores these questions nicely while never being tedious. Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 19, a ballot initiative slated to legalize marijuana for cultivation and sale. Fourteen other states have similar proposals in the works. Clearly, our culture and attitudes are changing.

And therein is the rub. Though the feds know that there is a rising tide to decriminalize marijuana, it still is enforcing federal laws that create a tension between Washington and the rights of states to act according to the wishes of their citizens. If you’re in California, you’re no longer in Kansas.

“Cash Crop” is a journey north, a window into American culture wherein Adam Ross, the award-winning director, parallels small vintners and pub owners with cannabis growers of all types, implicitly pointing out the lack of any real distinction between alcohol and pot in terms of social norms. In fact, one local sheriff comments that he has never been called to a domestic disturbance because of marijuana.

Embedded in the film is the question: When will our lawmakers catch up with the people and finally admit that, as a Mendocino County sheriff dryly comments, it’s time to “move on?” A county supervisor candidly points out, “The fact of the matter is, Americans like their marijuana.”

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

The year is 2001. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, who famously said, “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works”), a Wall Street bandit and a man with panache even in prison clothes, walks out of prison after an eight-year stretch for insider trading. Holding a cell phone the size of a lunch box, he looks around. No one is there to meet him.

Fast-forward to 2008, and there’s a financial tsunami on the way, one that feels a lot like 1929, headed toward the nation’s arbitragers and investment banks. Its momentum will shred esoteric instruments known as credit-default swaps and the real estate market in general.

Wall Street is awash in debt and a Lehman Brothers clone is about to go down, taking thousands of traders with it. Jake Moore (Shia LaBeof) is one of those traders. In desperation, having lost his mentor and his job, and since he is engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Cary Mulligan), he seeks out Gordon for advice, and things get complicated.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” has a nice intensity. It runs along the precipice of financial double-dealing, while men stare at computer screens and place huge bets with other people’s money, always in the shadow of imminent disaster.

While the story is familiar, it is nevertheless solidly entertaining. But what is compelling about “Money Never Sleeps” is the actors who deliver superb performances.

Testimony to Douglas’ talent, spanning almost four decades, is his ability to embrace a wide spectrum of characters from the anti-heroes (or existentially challenged) of “Wall Street,” “Fatal Attraction,” “A Perfect Murder,” “Basic Instinct” and “Falling Down,” to the urbane roles found in “American President” and “Wonder Boys.” He has demonstrated a strong comedic talent in “Romancing the Stone,” and “The Jewel of the Nile.” In other words, Douglas is always eminently watchable.

A character actor that has been remarkably consistent and durable is Frank Langella. In “Money Never Sleeps” he portrays Lewis Zabel, Jake’s mentor and the head of the company that’s about to crater. He gives a fine performance as an old-school trader who remembers a time when Wall Street wasn’t scorched earth (or so he insists).

Both LaBeof and Mulligan also deliver convincing portrayals of twenty-somethings who are finding their way in what is referred to by Gordon as the time of the ninja (no income, no assets). But as the film telegraphs, Gordon and the ninjas are back, as is Wall Street.

Easy A

As long as there is a stage of life known as adolescence, and as long as there are places called high school, where said age group is asked to congregate under the guise of getting an education, well, there will be movies made about this intense, vital and quirky subculture.

In truth, films about teenagers too often head over a cliff of stereotypes, clichés and caricature with plots that are immensely shallow and uninteresting. Occasionally, a gem comes along that even though it might not get high school quite right, it’s still charming and funny. That would be “Easy A.”

What makes the film entertaining, and likely hugely appealing to teens, is due in great part to Emma Stone, portraying a very bright, geeky, kind-hearted Olive Penderghast. Surrounded by mean girls, in the guise of teen Christians who strive for purity and abstinence, she manages to navigate the halls of Ojai High with a sense of self and an understanding of her marginalized standing in the school’s social hierarchy.

Inadvertently, she runs afoul of the high school’s gossip network and finds herself the target of malicious stories about her virginity — splashed from text to cell phone to computer. How she frees herself from the web of misunderstanding and fabrications makes for an interesting tale, one that happens to coincide nicely with a book her English class is reading: “The Scarlet Letter.”

Surprisingly, the supporting cast is exceptional, led by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive’s very accepting and hip parents. They are wonderful and clearly are having a hoot. And they’re not clueless. The movie also pays homage to the fine teen moviemaker John Hughes, whose signature film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986), will always be the gold standard for great teen comedies.