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:

 


LOVE IS STRANGE (2014)

September 13, 2014

love is strange Greetings again from the darkness. In a remarkable opening 6 to 8 minutes, we see John Lithgow and Alfred Molina prepare for, execute, and celebrate their official marriage after almost 40 years together. During this sequence, we quickly understand that Ben (Lithgow) is the emotional one, and George (Molina) is the pragmatic, balanced one. The brief ceremony is filled with love, admiration and happiness, and leaves us with no doubt that these two are dedicated to each other.

Director Ira Sachs (Married Life, 2007) also co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, and the film excels while Lithgow and Molina are on screen together. It comes across as a contemporary version of the 1937 Leo McCarey film Make Way For Tomorrow (with Beulah Bondi) and highlights the obstacles faced by an elderly couple who face financial hardships, New York real estate misery, and the not-so-welcome generosity of friends and family.

The gay component is not played up, rather the story is told in straight-forward manner as the couple is forced to live apart, and deals with loneliness and unease as they each feel out of place living in a party house with friends (Molina) and sharing a bunk bed with a typically awkward teenage boy played by Charlie Tahan. The boy’s parents are Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows, who face their own marriage and parental issues.

The happiness of the opening wedding ceremony quickly dissipates into real life misery for all characters. The only happy people are the grown men playing a Game of Thrones board game. Literally everyone else is unhappy, or at least disinterested.

Although conflict is ever-present, the Catholic Church is the closest to a real villain. John Curran plays a Priest in the terrific scene in which Molina is fired (because of his wedding) from his Catholic School teaching job. The poor town of Poughkeepsie takes a couple of shots as well, but mostly it’s the pent-up frustrations of Tomei, the passive-aggressive approach of a few other characters, and the crazy teenage mood swings of Tahan’s character that keep Ben, George, and we as viewers quite uncomfortable. Instead, the joy comes from the subtle moments courtesy of the two leads. See this one for the performances of Lithgow and Molina, and for the beautiful Chopin piano throughout.

***NOTE: this makes a fine movie, but it’s easy to imagine it as a much more effective live production on stage

watch the trailer:

 

 


IDES OF MARCH

October 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Political thrillers can be so juicy and filled with “gotcha” moments and “oh how could he/she” scenes. Inevitably, most come down to an “I believed in you” showdown and reckoning. This latest one based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, gives George Clooney an opportunity to play out his political aspirations without opening himself to the real thing.

Clooney also directs and the smartest move he made was assembling an ensemble cast of some of the best actors working today. Clooney plays Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, who is one of two still-standing Democratic Presidential contenders on the verge of the Ohio primary. His Campaign Manager is grizzled campaign veteran Paul, played with staunch principals and a black-and-white rule book by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Their talented and idealistic Press Secretary Stephen is played by Ryan Gosling, who talks more in the first scene than he did in the entire movie Drive. Their opponent’s manager Tom Duffy is played by Paul Giamatti. Duffy oozes cynicism and seems to have misplaced the rule book that Paul holds so dearly.

 The film begins with the set-up so we get a feel for just how strong or weak of character each of these men are. Morris (Clooney) is obviously an Obama-type idealist who claims his religion is the US Consitution. He says this while gently poking fun at his opponent’s Christian beliefs. We see just how talented Stephen (Gosling) character is at handling the words that his candidate speaks and we see Paul (PSH) in full back room politico maneuvering.

 The film has two huge points where the mood swings. The first is a contrived, definite no-no meeting between the ambitious Stephen and the shrewd Duffy. The second is a sequence between Stephen and a 20 year old campaign intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who also happens to be the daughter of the Chairman of the DNC. These two events turn the film from political thriller to melodramatic Hollywood fare. That doesn’t make it less of a movie, it’s just different than it began.

 Cat and mouse games ensue and we see just who is the master manipulator amongst a group of professionals. This is one of those films where the individual pieces are actually more interesting than the whole pie. There are two really excellent exchanges between Gosling and Hoffman. Ms. Wood steals her scenes with ease. Jeffrey Wright nails his brief time as a desperate Senator negotiating the best deal possible. Giamatti’s last scene with Gosling is a work of art. The only thing missing is a confrontation between Giamatti and Hoffman. THAT alone would be worth the price of admission.  We also get a glimpse of the give-and-take gamesmanship between the campaign (Gosling) and the media (Marisa Tomei).

You might be surprised that Clooney actually minimizes the political meanderings, though he does get in a few jabs at the Republicans. This is more character drama … how far can your ideals and morals carry you. What is your breaking point? Where is the line between realist and idealist? Is it betrayal if you act for the right reason? The final shot of film is superb. Et tu, Brute.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a mixture of political drama and traditional Hollywood melodrama, especially when performed by a group of top notch actors OR you are convinced that only Republicans do bad things

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you only want a full-fledged political expose’ around running for political office OR you still believe that politicians and idealists are above reproach.

watch the trailer:


CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.

July 31, 2011

Greetings again from the darkness. From the opening scene it is clear we aren’t in for a typically lame rom-com with caricatures instead of characters and punchlines instead of feelings. Instead, this one is all about the characters and their feelings … realistic feelings of pain, anger, hope and frustration. Now don’t misunderstand. It doesn’t go too deep and there is still plenty of humor in the moments.

Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) are sharing one of their many restaurant moments over the course of their long, steady marriage. Only  this time, something spoils the comfort zone. Emily says she wants a divorce and later tells Cal that she had an affair with a co-worker (Kevin Bacon). What follows is as close to real life reactions as we could ever hope for in a rom-com. Cal is hurt. The kids are angry. Emily is confused. Their friends take sides.

The intertwining story lines and characters are both sad and funny. We see how people react when they are attracted to others … or not. We see how people react when they wonder if a decision was rash. We see how basically nice people try to do the right thing for themselves and others, but still mess it up sometimes.

 After moving out, Cal heads to a local upscale lounge that seems to be stocked with gorgeous women and only a handful of men … every night. In real life, the line of men waiting to enter would be wrapped around the block. Still, one of the regulars is Jacob, played by Ryan Gosling. He is a thing of beauty himself, and always quick with just the right line. His science is making women believe he cares about nothing but them. Cal is discouraged by Jacob’s incredible success rate. Jacob notices Cal’s negative vibe and agrees to train him. But first, the makeover … wardrobe, haircut and conversation skills.

The polar opposite effect of what you might expect from Hollywood – these nice people begin to question their direction. Cal longs for Emily. Emily still thinks about Cal, but dates her co-worker. The son (Jonah Bobo) has a crush on the older baby-sitter, who has a crush of her own. Even Jacob falls hard for new attorney Hannah (Emma Stone) who has just walked out on her wet rag boyfriend (Josh Groban) who offered her a job, rather than a ring. Oh what a tangled web we weave. And that’s just the stuff I can tell you!

 Cal’s first conquest utilizing his newly learned skills is a teacher played with full energy by the terrific Marisa Tomei. She only has a couple of scenes, but as usual, Ms. Tomei makes the most of her screen time. The high school baby sitter is played well by Analeigh Tipton, but it’s interesting to note (in real life) she is 3 days younger than law school grad Hannah (Stone).

 All of the actors are top notch here. Steve Carell continues to get better … this is a superior movie to Date Night (with Tina Fey). Julianne Moore is solid, though her character is mostly mopey. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both outstanding. Gosling is known for mostly offbeat, dark independent films but shows again how easily he slides back into sex symbol. Ms. Stone is headed for super-stardom. She was really good in Easy A and has a star-making turn in the upcoming film The Help. After that, it’s on to the new Spider-Man for her.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are the co-directors and were responsible for the much less mainstream I Love You Phillip Morris, with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. Surprisingly the film was written by Dan Fogelman, who is known for his script writing on the animated Cars movies.

Chances are good that more women will want to see the movie, but the surprise is, many men will relate to what’s going on with the Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling characters. There is enough humor to keep everyone happy and enough strong writing to say this is a very good movie.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s date night and you are looking for a good comedy/drama made for adults

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find it difficult to find any humor in watching a couple struggle through a divorce, no matter how well made it is.


THE LINCOLN LAWYER

March 20, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Major dilemma: sucker for courtroom dramas vs. no fan of Matthew McConaughey. I decided to give it a shot, and given my low expectations, found the movie to be quite entertaining – despite its numerous flaws. If you are a fan of the endless stream of John Grisham book-turned-movie, then I expect you will find this one to your taste.

Based on the Michael Connelly series of novels built around Mick Haller, this one has the look and feel of part one (and also of a TV series). Haller is the Lincoln Lawyer, so named because of his propensity to handle much of his work from the backseat of a classic Lincoln Town Car. The choice of McConaughey as Haller seemed all together wrong given his annual appearance in some lame ass Rom-Com, where he spends most of each movie shirtless and smirking. Luckily for us, Mr. McConaughey manages to re-capture some of the acting skills he flashed in A Time to Kill, so many years ago.

 In addition to his close to the vest portrayal of Haller, the movie works because of an incredibly deep cast that includes Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife and frequent courtroom adversary (she is an ADA), Ryan Phillippe as the accused rich boy, William H Macy as the long-time and streetwise private investigator, Josh Lucas as the ADA in the main case, Bryan Cranston as the detective in charge, plus Michael Pena, Bob Gunton (warden from Shawshank Redemption), John Leguizamo, Frances Fisher, Laurence Mason (Earl the driver), Shea Willingham (Boardwalk Empire), Trace Adkins (the country star as the leader of a biker gang) and Michael Pare (Eddie and the Cruisers). Seriously, this cast allows every scene to have something worth watching.

 The two things that prevent the movie from being top notch are the beyond-belief exaggerated moments (including about 3 too many endings) and the absolutely distracting camera work courtesy of director Brad Furman. In the hands of a more experienced director, many of the flaws could have been corrected.

This is not presented as an ultra serious courtroom drama in the vein of 12 Angry Men or Judgment at Nuremberg. Rather it is a character driven story with a multitude of twists … some of which work and some of which don’t. I found it to be  enjoyable despite the script issues and the hey-look-at-me direction.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too are a sucker for courtroom dramas OR you doubt my claim that McConaughey can avoid going shirtless for 2 hours.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you demand perfection in your crime thriller scripts OR you believe the only reason to see a McConaughey movie is because he does go shirtless


CYRUS (2010)

July 4, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Trying to come up with the best way to describe this one. It seems to be billed and marketed as a comedy, but it’s very dark and only funny in a few places. The drama is pretty weak at times and uncomfortable all of the time. The comedy really stems from the mano y mano of John C Reilly and Jonah Hill. Marisa Tomei is a not so innocent bystander.  The film just doesn’t lend itself to a particular label.

If you have seen the preview, you know the basic story. John C Reilly is a socially inept oaf who gets dragged to a party and makes a fool of himself. Marisa Tomei views him as something of a lost puppy and takes him under her wing. The big reveal occurs when Tomei’s grown son (Hill) shows up at an inopportune time. Yes, he lives with her and they have a very unique and close relationship.

Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (writer and director) are known as part of the mumblecore movement – they subscribe to the less rehearsal and minimal script school of film-making. Luckily for them, Hill and Reilly take to this beautifully. Their scenes together are very good at creating an inner turmoil and utter frustration. Luckily for the audience, Reilly’s character has two scenes where he can unleash the lines that the viewers are all thinking! It makes for a nice release of tension.

Hill creates Cyrus as the epitome of a “sneaky little devil”. OK, he’s not so little, but the rest fits. His acts of subversion are well thought out and pure acts of passive aggressiveness. These three characters make for quite the odd little group, but there is surely some insight into single parenthood, loneliness and over-protective parenting. Don’t expect a slapstick comedy in the Judd Apatow mold … this one is a bit creepy and dark.  John Malkovich played the role in Con Air, but Jonah Hill is the real Cyrus the Virus.