Greetings again from the darkness. The source material is the 1943 novel “The Human Comedy” from Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Saroyan; and it’s the directorial debut of Meg Ryan, the one-time ‘America’s Sweetheart’ who reunites with her Sleepless in Seattleco-star Tom Hanks (in a ghostly cameo). Due to these juicy ingredients, we can be excused if our expectations are a bit high.
As a viewer, it’s easy to relate to the emotions of young Homer McCauley (Alex Neustaedter) as his messenger job expedites the disillusionment that often accompanies adulthood. While Homer becomes more disenchanted the more he learns, we feel let down with each successive sequence. The adapted screenplay from Eric Jendresen never picks a direction, and instead teases us with numerous pieces from the novel with little follow through on any.
Homer’s dad (a very brief Tom Hanks apparition) has recently passed, and with his older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid) off at war, Homer takes it upon himself to secure a job to help support his saintly and melancholy mother (Meg Ryan), his older sister Bess (Christine Nelson) and his little brother Ulysses (an energetic Spencer Howell). He pledges to be the best bicycle messenger ever when hired at the local telegraph company run by Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater) and old-timer (grumpy and frequently inebriated) Willie (Sam Shepard).
Being that it’s war time, some of the telegraphs Homer must deliver are the worst possible news for the parents on the receiving end. As the film progresses, we see the light slowly go out of Homer’s once bright eyes. The accelerated coming-of-age aspect is at its best when his father-figure Willie brusquely tells him “You are 14 years old and you’re a man! I don’t know who made you that way.” It’s the most poignant moment of the film and the closest we get to a real theme.
The letters Homer receives from older brother Marcus contribute to his understanding of the world and the reading of the letters serves the purpose of story narration. The film is nostalgic and idealistic, but so unfocused that we are never able to fully connect with any of the characters. We are caught off guard when Homer proclaims his mother as the nicest person ever, although she has offered even less guidance than Forrest Gump’s mom. Ithaca, Ulysses, and Homer … we can’t miss the mythology ties, as well as the importance of home, but it always feels like something is missing.
In 1943, six time Oscar nominee Clarence Brown made a movie based on this same novel, and the cast included Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, Donna Reid and Van Johnson. In this new version, John Mellencamp provides the musical score, and Ms. Ryan has stated that the novel helped her work through a difficult time in her personal life. She’s likely to get more opportunities to direct; her first outing is easy enough to watch, but just as easy to forget.
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 Brothersto 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)
Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most prolific writer/directors since the end of the studio era, Woody Allen cranks out a script and film every year. A few are great, while the others fall somewhere between highly entertaining and watchable. None would be considered a true dud. His latest is a bit fluffy and falls comfortably into the watchable category … with nary a glint of anything more ambitious.
The line of actors maneuvering for a role in Mr. Allen’s films stretches around the proverbial casting couch. The list of those involved with this one is again quite impressive: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney, Catherine McCormack, and Hamish Linklater. They each perform admirably, yet aren’t enough to elevate a somewhat lackluster script. Ms. Stone and Ms. Atkins are especially enjoyable.
Woody mixes his love of magic with his cynical religious views, and blends those with his too frequent older man/younger woman sub-plot. The scenes with Firth and Stone are fine, but their onscreen banter would have been better served as Uncle and Niece than awkward rom-com aspirants. Despite this flaw, there remain some excellent lines and moments, plus some staggering shots of the south of France locale. The wardrobe and cars are beautiful … the film is set in 1928.
Screwball comedies are clearly a favorite for Mr. Allen to write, but his directing leans more towards the leisurely pace found in more traditional rom-coms. The mixed genres don’t always fit together, even when stacked with a superior cast. Still, it must be noted, that even at his least brilliant, Mr. Allen delivers films that are pleasant and watchable. As movie lovers, we can live with that as we await his next masterpiece … or at least his next movie in one year.
Greetings again from the darkness. After some soul searching, I have decided to turn off the critical side of my brain and concentrate on what is good about this movie. As a baseball and movie fanatic, a bit of trepidation creeps in when the two worlds collide. However, this isn’t really a baseball movie, though the story focuses on what may be the most critical turning point in baseball history. In fact, this turning point was much bigger than the American Pasttime … it was also a key step in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. The movie is a reminder of how different things could have been with the wrong man rather than the right one … Jackie Robinson.
Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (s/p for L.A. Confidentialand Mystic River) takes a look at what occurred in 1945-47, when Brooklyn Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) made the business decision to integrate baseball. We see his selection process … Roy Campanella “too nice”, Satchel Paige “too old”. He settles on Jackie Robinson after their infamous 3 hour meeting where Rickey confronts Robinson with his need for a black player “with the guts NOT to fight back”.
Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson as a man thoroughly in love with his wife Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie), and one who says he just wants to “be a ballplayer”, while at the same time taking pride in his world-changing role. We see his evolution from his stint as shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro Leagues to his time with the Dodgers’ AAA minor league team in Montreal and finally to his introduction to the Major Leagues in 1947. Boseman flashes the charisma and athletic ability to pull off the role … there are times he looks identical to the young Jackie.
This is an earnest and sincere movie that removes the complexities of the times and the main characters. Much of it is portrayed as good guys versus bad guys. The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad. Alan Tudyk has the unenviable task of portraying Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who famously unleashed an in-game verbal assault of vile racism on Robinson. Mr. Rickey credited Chapman’s public small-mindedness as the single biggest factor in unifying the Dodger team around Robinson. The other famous moment given time in the movie is when beloved shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) put his arm around Robinson, shushing the hostile Cincinnati fans. Of course as a baseball fan, I enjoyed the all too brief antics of Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) whose place in the Robinson story would have been much more profound had he not succumbed to the weakness of the flesh (so to speak).
Other supporting roles include John C McGinley, who is spot on as the Hall of Fame announcer Red Barber, Derek Phillips as an unusually quiet Bobby Bragan, Jesse Luken as Hall of Famer Eddie Stanky, Andre Holland as Wendell Smith (the Pittsburgh Courier reporter assigned to follow Robinson), Peter Mackenzie as Commissioner Happy Chandler and young Dusan Brown as a 10 year old boy who would grow up to be major leaguer Ed Charles. Some comic relief is provided by Hamish Linklater as pitcher Ralph Branca (one of the first who welcomed Robinson to the clubhouse, and who would go down in baseball history as the pitcher who surrendered the 1951 “shot heard round the world” by Bobby Thomson).
Filmmaker Helgeland provides a tale of morality and social change, and provides a glimpse at the character and strength required by those involved. The story has much more to do with demonstrating how the times began to change than it does with how Jackie Robinson, an unpolished ballplayer but superior athlete, transformed himself into a perennial all-star and league MVP. And that’s as it should be. As Rickey stated, acceptance will only occur if the world is convinced Robinson is a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. That burden must have weighed heavily at times, but it’s very clear that Robinson was the right man at the right time.
**NOTE: the time frame for this story is limited to Robinson’s historic, barrier-crashing major league debut, but it should be noted that Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the MVP in 1949, played in 6 all-star games and World Series in his 10 year career,and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962. Prior to his baseball career, he was a four sport letterman at UCLA and also served in the US Army. Robinson died in 1972 from a heart condition and complications from diabetes. His wife is still active and still running the foundation that provides scholarships for youngsters. Quite an amazing lady.
Here is a photo of the real Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey:
Greetings again from the darkness. Thanks to her 2005 debut film Me and You and Everyone We Know, I became a fan of Miranda July. Unfortunately that means reading a few of her short stories and waiting six years for her second (and equally independent) film. There is no rushing a creative genius, and there is certainly no obvious goal for capitalistic gains. With her second film, it appears she will somehow generate even fewer viewers, despite being a festival favorite.
The movie is bookended by the narration of Paw-Paw, an injured cat waiting to be adopted by Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). In the cat’s voice we hear the hope of a new life – one that includes love and security. Things aren’t quite the same from the perspective of our two heroes.
Sophie and Hamish are in many ways a typical couple. They sometimes speak their own language and when things are going good, they believe they can conquer all. However, hitting a bump means much doubt and and an avalanche of self-defeatist attitudes. The latest bump is the belief that adopting this cat will suck the freedom right out of their daily lives … in fact, they discuss the fact that because of their age (35), life and dreams are basically over. So, with 30 days til adoption, they seek to live life to the fullest. You know, before it’s all over.
They both quit the jobs that have evidently been the burden keeping them from greater purpose. Jason works from home as an IT Help Desk agent and Sophie is the world’s absolute worst dance instructor for kids. Jason tries to find meaning by selling trees to save the environment. Sophie decides to make youtube videos – 30 Dances in 30 Days, but with mounting pressure, ends up under the bed covers before even one video is complete.
These two remind me of 8 year olds with advanced vocabularies. Somehow they think society or the universe owes them something and just by dreaming big, their lives will be complete. They each believe they have special powers: Sophie can move things with her mind (not really) and Jason can stop time (not sure). We see Jason fall under the spell of the most interesting character in the film – an octogenarian played by Joe Putterlik. We see Sophie fall into bed with Marshall (David Warshofsky), a 50ish single dad living in the suburbs.
So here is some of what the film offers us: a slacker couple in a rundown apartment, same couple overwhelmed by the burden of adopting a cat, a crawling security blanket (t-shirt) that stalks its owner, a narrating cat, an empty affair with a mis-matched couple, an old man philosopher and his dirty-talk greeting cards, a discussion with the moon (yes, the moon), a young girl (wonderful Isabella Acres) who buries herself in the backyard with the approval of her dad, and (twice) the terrific Peggy Lee song “Where or When”.
Ms. July is married to filmmaker Mike Mills, who is responsible for this year’s terrific Beginners. She is a fabulous observer of life and people and personalities. She seems to understand doubts and dreams, and carries an interest in what time lapse really means for us. Her manner of making these points and sharing her insight is quite off-beat from what we typically see in movies. I believe that makes it most important that she continue to produce her works. Unlike what I will say about her character in this film, The Future looks awfully bright for Miranda July.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Miranda July OR you just want to tell your friends that you have seen a movie where the narrator is a re-habbing cat named Paw-Paw.
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you rolled your eyes even once while reading the next to last paragraph in my review