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Bankruptcy, greed from US to Venice ‘99 Homes’ strong contender for Golden Lion

VENICE, Aug 30, (Agencies): It’s suburban America, but it could be anywhere hit by the economic crisis: eviction drama “99 Homes” is a portrayal of bankruptcy, greed and despair as compelling as it is disturbing. The movie, premiering at the Venice Film Festival and a strong contender for the Golden Lion, stars Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network” and “Amazing Spiderman”) as Denis Nash, a father who falls behind on his mortgage payments. Nash, who lives with his young son and mother, is desperate to save their home but gets evicted by pitiless real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon from “Revolutionary Road” and “Man of Steel”), and is forced to move into a rundown and dangerous motel.

It is the first in a series of emotionally wrenching scenes in which whole families — even the elderly — get turfed out of their homes without warning, with just two minutes to collect their belongings under threat of arrest for trespassing. Unable to get work as a contractor, a humiliated Nash finds himself forced to decide whether or not to accept work from the reptilian Carver in a bid to recover his house, or take the moral high ground but see his family suffer.

Carver tries to reel Nash in by showing him how to rig and exploit the system to his own advantage, screwing the banks and stealing bailout money. “America doesn’t bail out losers. It’s a nation that was built on bailing out winners,” he says. Director Ramin Bahrani told journalists in Venice it was “in many ways a ‘deal with the devil’ movie.” “It’s a global subject, the corruption in the film has become systemic across the world... (and) the perpetrators are hand in hand with the government,” he added. Bahrani, of “At Any Price” fame, said he researched the film in Florida, attending foreclosure courts, visiting motels housing middle class families and meeting “the richest and craziest hedge fund managers you can dream of.”
Quick-paced, with a glimpse at the soulless life of the wealthy, “99 Homes” is a muscular flick with a gangster edge, the repugnant developments between evictor and evictee playing out in an atmosphere of barely-restrained violence. “I was with hoodlums and thieves and after about three weeks i was dizzy with corruption. I never saw so many guns in my life, it’s like the wild west with palm trees,” the bespectacled 39-year old Bahrani said. The “99” from the title refers both to a corrupt housing deal in the film and the slogan used by demonstrators to decry the growing economic divide between 99 percent of Americans and the richest one percent despite the crisis.
The choice to set the movie in Orlando, near Disney World, came naturally, Bahrani said, because while “Florida is golf carts, retirees, magic kingdoms and castles,” is it also “where the housing crisis began, before spreading globally.” The foreclosure crisis has seen at least 10 million people evicted from over four million homes in the US since 2007, with Florida topping the chart. Bahrani was given an insight into the brutal world of the courts by whistle-blower Lynn Szymoniak, who in 2012 unveiled a massive mortgage fraud scam by which banks were foreclosing on houses by using phony documents — a trick which is picked up in the film. “Foreclosure courts are called ‘rocket dockets’ because it all happens in 60 seconds flat. I couldn’t believe it, cases are just thrown out,” he said.
At the heart of the film — addressed with rare honesty for a commercial US film — are the governmental and banking policies behind the housing bubble and crash. “From the post-war period, but from 1979 onwards in particular, regulation in the States dramatically changed — a type of regulation which would only benefit the extremely wealthy... creating a crisis the tentacles of which reached all over the world,” Bahrani said. “And not one person went to jail. It’s a system rigged for those who win.” However, the socially-driven director said he hoped “this film will spread its tentacles out from Venice and mean something to the 99 percent that are tired of it all.” “Change is coming,” he said.
The number of properties referred to in the title of Ramin Bahrani’s fifth feature may have a literal narrative significance, but it must also refer to the population percentage routinely branded as the victims of Occupy-era economic downturn. The perils of illegally gained One Percent privilege make for engrossing, high-stakes viewing in “99 Homes,” which sees Andrew Garfield’s blue-collared Florida everyman enter a Faustian pact with Michael Shannon’s white-blazered real-estate shark. Following the lead of 2012’s underrated “At Any Price” in matching the socially conscious topicality of Bahrani’s early films to the demands of broader-brush melodrama, this dynamically acted, unapologetically contrived pic reps the filmmaker’s best chance to date of connecting with a wider audience — one likely to share the helmer’s bristling anger over corruptly maintained class divides in modern-day America. 
Just as Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” — a film that took a mildly more sanguine view of the past decade’s far-reaching financial crisis — made its viewers endure repeated scenes of humiliating personal disenfranchisement at the hands of corporate America, so does “99 Homes.” Where George Clooney’s professional downsizer spent much of Reitman’s film coolly relieving people of their jobs, here it’s an unblinking Shannon paying house calls to deliver even worse news to hard-up Orlando residents: that their homes have been foreclosed, and that they have mere minutes to pack their things and find new lodgings.
It’s a scenario we’ve winced through in other cinematic portraits of down-at-heel America, though rarely has it been quite so cruelly presented. The very first image in the film is of the blood-sprayed bathroom wall of one evictee who preferred to take his life rather than exit his property. As hardened, duplicitous real-estate broker Rick Carver, Shannon grants such horrors little more than a disinterested glance before taking a drag on his e-cigarette and moving on to the next victim. The script, co-written by Bahrani and veteran Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi from a story by Bahareh Azimi, makes no attempt to present Carver as anything but a pale-suited Satan from the get-go.
Still, he’s rather an admirable villain in one sense: A wholly self-made property baron who has clawed his way up from working-class roots by gaming the government at every available opportunity, Carver reasons that the American Dream does not come to those who wait. When sent to evict single father Dennis Nash (Garfield) from his lifelong family home, Carver recognizes similar class-scaling potential in the young man’s enterprising defiance. An unemployed construction worker willing to do anything to get his preteen son Connor (Noah Lomax) and weathered, resilient mom Lynn (Laura Dern, currently the go-to actress for weathered, resilient moms) out of a rough downtown motel heavily populated with other foreclosed families, Nash reluctantly accepts Carver’s offer of piecemeal employment, cleaning and repairing houses recently seized by his unlikely new benefactor.

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