VICE (2018)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While it’s happening, we don’t always recognize life in terms of future historical merit. Time passes and perspective becomes possible. It’s at this point when we can reevaluate the actions and results of those involved. One might call this the benefit of hindsight, but philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Filmmaker Adam McKay has moved on from his sophomoric comedies (STEP BROTHERS, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY) to full bore political satire, first with his “Funny or Die” videos (co-produced with Will Ferrell), then to his searing look at the financial crisis of the mortgage market with THE BIG SHORT (for which he won an Oscar for adapted screenplay), and now to the power dynamics within the Bush-Cheney administration … and how a quiet, unassuming insider became the most powerful man in America.

In one of the biggest casting head-scratchers of all-time, Christian Bale takes on the role of Dick Cheney. We are barely one scene in before all doubts are assuaged, and we are reminded yet again why Mr. Bale is one of the most talented and fascinating actors in cinematic history. With the weight gain, the hair, the growling voice (not unlike Bale’s Batman), the asymmetrical smirk – Bale becomes Cheney on screen and that allows us to focus on the manner in which filmmaker McKay unfolds the events – many of which we remember, even if we were blissfully unaware of the backstory.

Cheney is first seen in 1963 Wyoming as a drunk and somewhat rowdy youngster. The film then bounces the timeline to key events such as Cheney’s time as Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carell) intern/lackey and the 1970’s (Bethesda, his being named youngest White House Chief of Staff, Ford’s loss to Carter, and the campaign for Wyoming Congressman). Cheney’s wife Lynne (played by Amy Adams) is portrayed as more ambitious than her husband (at least early on), and in one searing scene, yanks a young Cheney out of his funk and onto the upwardly mobile track. Were the timing 15 years forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Lynne as the rising political star.

The story really gets interesting once George HW Bush is elected and Cheney is brought back to D.C. as Secretary of Defense. From this point on, his near subversive quest for power is in overdrive. There are many quotes cautioning to ‘beware the quiet man’, and most fit the Cheney on display here. You’ve likely seen in the trailer where a finger-lickin’ George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) chows on barbeque as he offers the VP job to Cheney. Surprisingly, this is one of only two scenes where McKay makes Bush look like a buffoon. If you haven’t figured it out by now, it should be clear that McKay is not one to give the benefit of the doubt here … his mission is to highlight all ludicrous actions of our nation’s leaders during this time.

Supporting work is provided by a deep cast including Lilly Rabe and Allison Pill as the Cheney daughters (Liz and Mary), Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Don McManus as David Addington. There is also Bob Stephenson as Rush Limbaugh, cameos from Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina, and Jesse Plemons as the narrator whose true role is held at bay until near the film’s end.

September 11, 2001 brings on a very interesting segment when there is an emergency White House evacuation, and Cheney is whisked into a secure room and appears to overstep his authority … at least that’s how it appears to everyone other than Cheney. He is described as having power “like a ghost”, and it’s this scene and the follow-up discussions about Afghanistan, that McKay believes best exemplifies Cheney’s lust for power, and how ‘right and wrong’ are secondary to him.

Actual clips of Nixon, Reagan, bin Laden, Carter, and Obama are dropped into segments providing a quasi-documentary feel at times. Cheney’s heart issues, the political quandary resulting from his daughter coming out as gay, and the involvement of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Koch brothers all play a role here, as does the Unitary Executive Theory and the legal specifics that cause much debate. Also on display is some of the least complementary eyeglass fashion across 3 decades.

Even though his approach leans pretty far left, filmmaker McKay is to be applauded for a most entertaining look at how our government officials can manipulate policy and public statements, and may even stoop to focus groups in better understanding the views of the American people. Editor Hank Corwin (Oscar nominated for THE BIG SHORT) is a big part of maintaining the quick pace of the film, and the use of fishing as a metaphor somehow works.  “America” from WEST SIDE STORY is a fitting song to end the clever, funny and thought-provoking film and our look at the rare politician who amassed power while mostly avoiding the publicity that other politicians seek. Watch at your own risk – depending on your politics.

watch the trailer:

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THE BIG SHORT (2015)

December 24, 2015

big short Greetings again from the darkness. Since there are so few subjects more hilarious than the 2008 financial crisis, let’s get the writer/director of Anchorman and Step Brothers to adapt the Michael Lewis best-selling book. OK, so it’s improbable that was the thought process, but kudos to whomever was responsible for bringing Adam McKay to the project. Before you go assuming it’s a poor fit, it should be noted that McKay is also one of the creative minds behind “Funny or Die”, a site filled with political and social satire. It’s that satirical approach that makes this explanation of what went wrong so accessible to the masses. Make no mistake … this is entertaining and educational and thought-provoking and nauseating and infuriating and funny and disheartening.

If the film were described as a tutorial on MBS (Mortgage-backed Securities), CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations), Credit Default Swaps, Tranches, Bond Ratings, and Sub-Prime ARMs, most people’s eyes would glaze over and they would keep skimming for showtimes of other new movie releases. In truth, it is those things – and so much more. This is the story of how the housing market collapsed leading the government to the massive bailout that saved some of our largest financial institutions … and how a small group of people recognized what was happening and literally bet against the U.S. economy. It follows the bread crumbs to re-assemble the slow process of spotting the fault in the analysis that lead to massive corruption that finally crossed over into systematic fraud … and does so by using creative presentation approaches like a Bond Rating game of Jenga, and celebrity snippets for definitions and examples.

Ryan Gosling stars as Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), a slick Deutsche Bank trader who acts as our guide through the muck of shorting securitized mortgages, while simultaneously working the system for his personal benefit. He works with Mark Baum (a character based on Steve Eisman, played by Steve Carell) who manages FrontPoint Partners, and Baum’s team played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong (whom you might remember as Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland). While this is going on, there are two other similar story lines we are following. The first is Christian Bale playing hedge fund manager and savant analyst Dr. Michael Burry at Scion Hedge Fund. Burry is often cited as the first to recognize the impending collapse and invest against the market. Finally, we have the “garage band” investment company based on Cornwall Capital run by (names changed) Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) with a big boost from former trader Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt in a role based on Ben Hockett). The stellar cast is rounded out by Marisa Tomei as Baum’s concerned wife, Tracy Letts as the head of Scion, Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen who play cocky and clueless subprime mortgage brokers, and Melissa Leo who plays a Standard & Poor’s employee.

It’s difficult to tell this story without casting blame, and few escape the wrath of Lewis, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Those absorbing shots to the bow include: the Federal Reserve, the SEC, Rating Agencies, big Banks and Investment firms, Fund Managers, Traders, Realtors, and Mortgage Brokers. Companies specifically named include JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, WAMU, Option One, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and The Wall Street Journal. The point made is that the problem goes/went beyond greed, and is/was truly system-wide, with each segment protecting themselves and their turf. Somehow the name Barney Frank is not mentioned, and FNMA and FHLMC escape mostly unscathed, while CRA lending requirements are not discussed.  It’s not politically correct (and not mentioned here) to question why so many borrowers who couldn’t pay their rent regularly accepted loans that they knowingly couldn’t afford to repay. But that’s a topic for another time.

With full disclosure, I will admit to having been in the mortgage business for 18 years. Though I was never involved with subprime loans, I will always disagree with the stance that the industry and institutions were not aware of the risk and impending collapse. It was common knowledge that “no doc” loans were absurd, and the adjustable rate schedules and prepayment penalties for subprime (and some conventional) loans were beyond impractical and more like homicidal (from a lending perspective). In the film, Baum interviews an exotic dancer who owns multiple homes … all loans made with minimal documentation due to the cash basis of her business. The terms of the loans set her, and other similar borrowers, up for financial ruin … right along with the housing sector and economy. The subprime mortgage brokers portrayed by Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen may seem cartoonish, but Baum’s confusion with their “confession” versus “bragging” is spot on. There were many just like these two clowns who considered themselves “rock stars”, when in fact, there were really “bartenders who now own a boat”.  These weren’t the type to question whether the loans made sense … only how many could they close to pad their 5 and 6 figure per month income levels.  Of course, in defense of these morons, it was the banks and lenders who designed the loan programs to “feed the machine” with more and by necessity, higher risk loans … to the point where it was no longer possible to spread the risk wide enough for protection. Hence, the collapse.

By the end of the movie, you should expect to have a headache and feel quite cynical towards the system. Despite the humor interjected by quick-hit segments from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdoin, the seriousness of the topics is more than bubble baths, blackjack and fish stew. The film leaves us angry and nauseous from what happened in 2008, but more importantly questioning … Has anything changed? Have we learned anything? These answers are likely to cause a more sickening reaction than looking back seven years.

A recommended Economic Movie Marathon would include: Inside Job (2010 documentary from Charles Ferguson), Margin Call (2011, JC Chandor), The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay), and 99 Homes (2015, Ramin Bahrani)

watch the trailer:

 


ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (2013)

December 29, 2013

anchorman Greetings again from the darkness. Will Ferrell has been everywhere the past few weeks making promotional appearances as the golden voiced, perfectly coiffed Ron Burgandy. He clearly enjoys this character and is proud (deservedly so) of the franchise he created with business partner and director and co-writer Adam McKay. The first Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy was released in 2004 and nine years is an unusually long period to wait for a comedy sequel. But it’s not like either Ferrell or McKay need the money, and the golden rule of comedy … timing is everything.

The original movie has reached both classic comedy and cult status, and is one of the most frequently quoted movies from the past decade (“I’m kind of a big thing“). Having such a loyal following means guaranteed box office success for this sequel. So while I found this one somewhat lacking, the true Anchorman fans will embrace it … as proved by the loud laughter throughout the theatre.  And in a movie year strong on drama and somewhat lacking in comedies, it’s nice to hear laughter again.

The gag to get the doofus gang back together centers around the 1980 development of fictional Global News Network – the birth of 24 hour news (and a lightly veiled reference to CNN). The Ron Burgandy gang is all back: Paul Rudd as Brian Fantana, David Koechner as Champ, and Steve Carell as Brick. Christina Applegate also returns as Veronica Cartright, though sadly she has very few scenes. Newcomers include James Marsden as Ron Burgandy’s professional competition and Meagan Good as the station manager. Kristen Wiig weirds out as the soulmate for Brick, and the bus load of cameos arrives for the gang fight at the end … kind of a spoof of the 1979 cult favorite The Warriors.

I will never criticize a movie that makes so many people laugh. However, I will admit to finding only a few giggles in the two hours (including the Dan Issel reference). It did strike me that many of the best jokes and gags would be difficult for anyone under age 35 to “get”. Period humor abounds. The best jab at the news industry occurs when Ron Burgandy says “Why do we need to tell people what they NEED to know? Why can’t we tell them what they WANT to know?”. That kind of approach would have fit the cerebral humor I could appreciate.

**NOTE: if you are somehow unfamiliar with Anchorman humor, know that nothing is off limits.  There is plenty of humor based on racism, sexism, disabilities and most any other politically incorrect topic you can name.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the first movie and/or Will Ferrell OR you want to see the most star-studded gang fight in movie history

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are confused by the laughter of others brought on by such movies as Step Brothers, Semi-Pro, or Blades of Glory

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VdGI5-z_hg


THE OTHER GUYS (2010)

August 8, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Much of Will Ferrell’s box office success has occurred thanks to his collaborations with writer/director Adam McKay. This includes Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, and Anchorman. McKay’s long history at Saturday Night Live is often on display in his movies, but never more than during The Other Guys. While there was some effort put towards a story, the film often has the feel of individual skits.

The first skit revolves around two supercops played by Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Of course, the kicker is that they really aren’t great cops, but masters of Public Relations. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are partners and the titular ‘other guys’. We get minimal background on each but quickly understand that Ferrell’s cop comes from accounting and is obsessed with regulations and safety. Wahlberg was a former rising star until an unfortunate accident involving Derek Jeter snuffed out his promotions.

Obviously, there needs to be a super case that these two solve and it involves a corporate financing scheme with Steve Coogan. The story itself is really unimportant (luckily) and the humor is derived from individual moments between Ferrell and Wahlberg, that same duo and Eva Mendes, or scenes with Michael Keaton.  As a baseball fan, I got a chuckle out of Keaton’s character name – Capt. Gene Mauch.

There are a couple of running gags that work (hot girls are always hitting on Ferrell, Wahlberg’s dancing, Keaton and TLC), and the best visual gag is an extended freeze frame montage set in a pub. It is pure comic genius. On the downside, I was really baffled as to the over-the-top approach taken by Mark Wahlberg. His anger and bitterness were so exaggerated that it has to be considered a spoof of his role in The Departed. However, if you try to view the film as a spoof, it just doesn’t work (outside of Samuel L Jackson).

Overall, this one has the laughs you would expect but is certainly not at the class of Anchorman. Comedy remains one of the most difficult film genres, and McKay remains one of our best hopes.