All posts by John Fitzsimons

The Queen of Versailles

David Siegel and his wife Jackie The Queen Of VersaillesIt’s your birthday. You want to celebrate in the best possible way. So you arrange a party at the top floor of the Gherkin, with Girls Aloud playing a set. Oh, and it won’t cost you a penny – your employer is footing the bill, as it’s being classed as an industry event.

Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it? But it happened, to celebrate the birthday of a big name in the mortgage market back before the credit crunch hit. I started in financial journalism in 2007, a year or so after this particular shindig, but it wasn’t that unique.

There was the invite to be flown down to a day at the races in Cheltenham by helicopter, the three-day ‘summit’ in Monte Carlo, the all-afternoon (and sometimes evening) lunches in London’s best restaurants. Nobody batted an eyelid.

That almost innocent attitude towards the most excessive of spending dominates the first half of The Queen of Versailles, a documentary by Lauren Greenfield, which follows billionaire David Siegel and his family as they attempt to build the largest single-family home in America.

It’s fair to say that, at the outset, none of the protagonists are that likeable. David Siegel is, genuinely, one of the most loathsome figures in a film that I’ve ever seen, a man able to say with a straight face that all of the people in his life are better off as a result of knowing him.

His wife, Jackie, doesn’t fare much better. An engineer turned beauty queen, she totters around talking the viewers through her grand ideas for the new home, inspired by the palace of Versailles. If you manage to tear your eyes away from her ridiculously oversized boobs, you subject yourself to having to hear her prattle on about how much this chair cost, or how the home is going to have its own spa and bowling alley.

This is a woman who lives to spend.

Both are asked separately why they are building such a vast home, and the answers are very telling. Jackie says that her husband has worked very hard to be worth so much money and so deserves the largest home in America, like it’s some sort of reward. David’s answer is much more succinct: “Because I can.”

Worst of all though is the look behind the scenes at Siegel’s timeshare business. We get to see David’s son, Richard, giving the sales team a pep talk which is genuinely beyond belief. I’ve worked with some bullshitting salesmen in my time – hell, my dad’s an estate agent – but this guy was something else, emphasising that by selling timeshares they were saving lives as people that go on holiday more often are less likely to suffer serious illness.

The contrast with the family’s home help, a collection of Asian nannies and housekeepers, tells its own heart-breaking story, particularly the nanny who hasn’t seen her child in two decades, instead having to work thousands of miles from home in order to send money back.

Her living quarters? A giant dolls house that the Siegel children no longer want.

Then the credit crunch hits. And it all goes to hell.

Suddenly the cheap credit that had been the foundation of Siegel’s business isn’t there anymore. Thousands of staff are made redundant, the purse strings are tightened, and the Siegels are forced to put their unfinished dream home on the market.

The way they deal with this situation is fascinating. David becomes a recluse, locking himself away in his office or study, desperately trying to find backers for his Las Vegas project. His disdain for those around him, his wife, his children, grows by the minute. Suddenly the cost of the trophy wife and family seems a little steep.

In contrast, Jackie goes on something of a journey. She flies economy class to visit friends and family she hasn’t seen in years, goes back to her roots to reconnect with where she came from.

She begins to realise that the crazy spending of the past is over, and while she has an awful lot of trouble adapting to her new financial realities, you can see she has a good heart and wants to help both the family she loves and those former employees who are suffering as a result of her husband’s greed and ambition. The tension when they are on screen together is compelling viewing.

I spoke with countless Davids and Jackies in the days and months after the credit crunch hit. Plenty of businesses whose models were now entirely obsolete reassured me that they’d be back, they just needed to sort out some funding. I don’t hear from them anymore.

I do hear from the Jackies though. The firms that got caught up in the world of easy money, who have had their fingers burned and learned a few lessons. There’s still plenty of lavish spending going on, but there aren’t too many birthday parties on the top floor of London monuments this days.

The Queen of Versailles is an excellent documentary, almost by accident, a fluke of timing. It’s also the most accurate portrayal I’ve seen of the madness that led to the financial crisis in the first place.

The Queen of Versailles is BBC4 at 10pm on Monday 28th January, and released on DVD the same day.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of SushiThe Sukiyabashi Jiro is not a relaxing place to eat. The Tokyo-restaurant only has ten seats, and you get to eat your meal under the stern, watchful gaze of the owner of the place, legendary sushi chef Jiro Ono. It’s also not a cheap night out, with prices starting at ¥30,000. That’s just shy of £210. Oh and the loos are outside.

Despite all that, the restaurant is one of the few in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars. According to the Michelin judges, that means it is worth travelling to Japan, just to eat there. High praise indeed.

The man behind the restaurant, 85-year-old Jiro, is the subject of David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and it’s a fascinating watch. Cutting up raw tuna is not an obvious visual treat, yet it’s handled masterfully here. Combined with a fantastic score, you find yourself gazing adoringly as an octopus is massaged to death. Seriously.

In truth, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not really about fish, cooked or otherwise. It’s a tale of drive, obsession and ambition. Jiro was left to fend for himself from the age of nine, and it’s clear throughout the piece that this is a man with no time for those who are not prepared to scrap and claw their way to the top. He only takes time off for national holidays and funerals, and still talks of finding sushi perfection. An incredible man.

What’s most interesting though is not Jiro himself, but the effect he has on those around him. There’s the food critic who speaks of Jiro with the kind of saintly reverence of a true believer. He admits that he gets nervous each time he eats there, even now, decades after his first visit. There’s his former apprentice, a man who must be in his 60s and runs his own restaurant, but speaks of the great man with such respect and fear it reminded me of the way former Manchester United footballers talk of Sir Alex Ferguson.

But the most absorbing subjects are Jiro’s two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi. As the elder son, Yoshikazu knows that it is his duty to take over the restaurant when his old man finally retires. Takashi, knowing he would never get to run the place, has broken out on his own with his own restaurant, which is the mirror image of the Sukiyabashi.

It’s clear that Yoshikazu is desperate to take over, ready to break out of his father’s shadow and make his own name. He’s also clearly envious of his younger brother setting up his own restaurant, which itself has now won two Michelin stars. It seems to have all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. But because this is Japan, where duty and responsibility weigh heavy, Yoshikazu simply soldiers on, waiting for his day in the limelight.

Who knew a documentary about an octogenarian sushi chef could be this tense?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is out now in UK cinemas, and is available on Netflix in the US.

The Departed (2006), Infernal Affairs (2002)

There are some films that you just know you’re going to like even before they begin. The Departed was one of those for me.

How could it not be good? Directed by Martin Scorsese. Big names like Matt Damon, Leonardo Di Caprio, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen.

Even Mark Wahlberg was supposed to be good in it.

And so it proved. The plot can sound a lot more complicated than it really is. It’s cops, led by Sheen, versus gangsters, led by Nicholson. Each side has a mole in the other camp, Di Caprio the cop turned mobster and Damon the opposite. And each mole is trying to identify their rival mole, in order to protect their own cover.

It’s a black and white tale really. Di Caprio has spent so long on the wrong side of the law that it’s beginning to eat him up. You can see in every scene how passionately he wants to draw a line underneath his undercover days, go back to a normal life. All he has to do is deliver Nicholson. Meanwhile, Damon, for want of a better phrase, is a sneaky piece of shit. I couldn’t help taking an immediate dislike to his character.

One thing that does take a bit of getting used to is the Boston accent on show. Before this film I had no idea there was such a thing, and it can take a minute or two to tune your ear to it. But it’s almost a character in itself and really adds to the pace and the rhythm of the dialogue.

Speaking of dialogue, Wahlberg’s performance is one for the ages. It’s not just the foul content of his lines, but the venom with which he spits them out (and no, that’s not a reference to his hip hop days as Marky Mark).

It’s not Scorsese’s greatest film, by any stretch, and you’ll never hear a worse Irish accent than that attempted by Ray Winstone. But it’s a fantastic way to spend two and a half hours

Or at least, that’s what I thought before this week, when I sat down to watch Infernal Affairs on Netflix.

Infernal Affairs is a Hong Kong film from 2002, and was the ‘inspiration’ for the Departed. It’s basically the same story, but in Cantonese. And it is out-of-this-world brilliant.

For starters, there’s the sheer speed at which the story rattles along. The Departed’s running time is 151 minutes. Infernal Affairs gets the job done in 101 minutes, the best part of an hour less. There’s no dawdling about, it gets on with it and sucks you in immediately. The placing of the respective moles is over within a matter of minutes, before we even see the title of the film.

I thought that Di Caprio’s performance was the very embodiment of quiet desperation, an undercover cop on the edge. I was wrong – Tony Leung is on a different planet. It’s a heart-breaking display, a guy watching, absorbing everything, in the hope that he can take down the top Triad – Sam, played by Eric Tsang – and get back to a life he knew before.

Any time his secret identity was at risk of being exposed, my heart was in my throat, pounding, even though thanks to the Departed I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen.

Tsang is another who puts his American successor in the shade. Nicholson is smarmy and charming, but I never really bought him as a ruthless gangster. Tsang on the other hand oozes charisma and quiet menace. His eyes were utterly chilling.

And what of the Triad’s man inside the police, Inspector Lau (Andy Lau)? It’s a very different performance to Matt Damon’s. Here is a man fighting himself – and his Triad leaders – to find out who he really is, whether he wants to be defined by his relationship with the Triads or move beyond it. I found him a far more sympathetic character, one who is aware that his mistakes have caused the deaths of good people and who feels genuine remorse for that.

There isn’t the clumsy love triangle that the Departed attempts, and the film is all the better for it.

According to IMDB, the Departed is the 52nd best film ever made, with an average rating of 8.5, compared to Infernal Affairs’ rating of 8, leaving it in 210th place. If everybody who rated the Departed were made to watch Infernal Affairs, I fully expect that positioning would be switched.

Great films stay with you long after the credits have ended. I enjoyed the Departed, but once it was over, I didn’t think about it (beyond the odd delayed chuckle at a Wahlberg line). In the 24 hours since I finished Infernal Affairs, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I implore you to watch it. You won’t regret it.

John Fitzsimons is the editor of personal finance website lovemoney.com and writes about things other than money to keep him sane. His wife still hasn’t forgiven him for subjecting her to Green Street simply for the chance to hear Frodo sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”.

@johnthejourno

Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Guest contributor John Fitzsimons tells us why IMDB Top 250 film Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrells turned him into a RIGHT FAHKIN’ MUG!

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a film that does strange things to people.

It prompted a chap in my class at school to phone me – twice – within an hour of finishing the movie to explain the plot. It convinced Hollywood that Vinnie Jones could act.

Most troubling of all, it led to me adopting the accent of an East End geezer.

This wasn’t an immediate thing. After all, the film came out in 1998 when I was still at school in East London, so had something of an accent anyway. But it was when I went to University in sunny Southampton in 2002 and sat my new friends down for a watch of the movie that it turned me into a tragic, bespectacled Ray Winstone tribute act.

The story itself is nothing revolutionary. A card game goes wrong. A group of friends end up hugely in debt to the sort of chap you don’t want to owe money to. And they only have a week to pay it off. Hilarity ensues.

But it’s the way that story is told. There’s a real swagger to the film, the sort of cocksure arrogance that was all over the place in the days of Cool Britannia. If ever a film smelt of Lynx Africa, it was Lock, Stock.

The film-making itself is very slick, with the sort of camera angle flourishes that – for better or worse – are synonymous of Guy Ritchie films.

And then there’s the dialogue. It’s punchy, it’s memorable, it’s funny. I’m a sucker for a film that’s quotable in everyday life, and lines from Lock, Stock very quickly became standard fare down the pub. Honestly now, who among us hasn’t seen a bargain down the shops or online and responded: “It’s a deal, it’s a steal, it’s sale of the fucking century!”

The music also deserves a mention. There has rarely been a more perfect soundtrack. From the opening montage and Ocean Colour Scene’s 100 Mile High City to James Brown’s The Boss via Dusty Springfield’s Spooky, every song perfectly fits the characters on screen and the mood at that moment.

If Quentin Tarantino had been born in Bow he would have made Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

There are a number of stand-out performances in the film. Jason Statham was the epitome of gravelly cool – if I was Kelly Brook, I would have slept with him too. You’d never believe this Dexter Fletcher was the same guy from Press Gang and that awful spell hosting Gamesmaster, while Frank Harper’s Dog is a genuinely unsettling thief with a mean golf swing.

The cameos are great too: Rob Brydon’s parking attendant, Sting as a bar owner and Danny John-Jules (better known as Cat from Red Dwarf) in a fabulous scene spoofing the excesses of cockney rhyming slang.

But really, the movie is all about one man.

Vinnie Jones was an untalented hacker as a footballer, and he’s not much better as an actor. Yet he is by a distance the best thing in this movie as Harry the Hatchet’s debt collector Big Chris.

He oozes charisma and menace, bringing the pain to anyone who doesn’t pay their debts or dares to swear (or even blaspheme) in front of his son, Little Chris. It’s not just the violence though – Jones demonstrates some beautiful comic timing and is clearly relishing every second. It’s difficult not to get caught up in that.

Great films don’t just leave a mark on their audience; they also influence other filmmakers. Just as Blair Witch Project led to a flurry of handheld footage movies (which are still rife today), Lock, Stock also saw a revival in the British gangster movie.

Sadly, many of these feature Danny Dyer. But genuinely brilliant films like Layer Cake simply would not exist if not for Lock, Stock. That’s a fantastic legacy.

As for me, it didn’t take long to realise I sounded like an absolute berk. Besides, when I read the philosophy texts I was supposed to be studying, the voice in my head did so in a Cockney accent. Cogito ergo sum, you mug.

John Fitzsimons is the editor of personal finance website lovemoney.com and writes about things other than money to keep him sane. His wife still hasn’t forgiven him for subjecting her to Green Street simply for the chance to hear Frodo sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”.

@johnthejourno