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:

 

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A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND (2015)

September 9, 2015

a brilliant young mind Greetings again from the darkness. Somewhat surprisingly, mathematics has been the basis for some pretty interesting movies, including Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind.  Equally surprising are the quality movies with lead characters struggling with Asperger Syndrome or Autism – Adam and Rain Man, to name a couple.  Also fascinating, albeit in a different way, are movies that have depicted child prodigies or geniuses. Examples of these are Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Akeelah and the Bee. However, it’s this film from director Morgan Matthews that is the first I can recall to combine all three elements.

Mr. Matthews’ directorial resume is filled with documentaries and he brings that no-nonsense approach to this story based on the life of David Lightwing, a young math genius with Asbergers. Asa Butterfield plays Nathan, a boy whose only love is mathematics. He lost his beloved father at an early age, and has since not connected with anyone … even his most devoted and long-suffering mother, played by Sally Hawkins.

Nathan begins studying under Rafe Spall’s Martin, himself a former child math prodigy, whose struggles with Multiple Sclerosis act as a defense mechanism that prevents him from having any semblance of a well-rounded life. The two are a perfect match, and within a few years, Nathan is competing to join the prestigious International Mathematics Olympiad held at Cambridge. Martin has his own personal history with both the event and the team’s coach, played by Eddie Marsan.

The film does a really nice job of illuminating the pressures on both loved ones (parents, teachers, etc) and the prodigies themselves. It explores the question of whether being “gifted” is really a gift or a burden. This is brought to life through the performances of Butterfield (and his many pained faces), Spall (as a man searching for meaning), and Hawkins (as a mother who yearns for nothing but a flash of reciprocity from her son). Also effective is Marsan as the coach, and Jo Yang as Nathan’s Chinese study buddy.

It’s a very touching story, and easily accessible for those of us who fall a bit short of the genius level. It also takes a shot at explaining love in math terms – not something previously featured on screen. And finally, it has one of the most heart-warming and sincere movie hugs one could ask for. In simple terms, it all adds up to a fine movie.

watch the trailer:

 


LIFE OF PI (2012)

November 26, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. Every now and then we are reminded of just how stunning movies can be. Periodically a filmmaker proves to us that pushing the envelope of creativity still drives some auteurs. James Cameron brought us Avatar, which demonstrated that 3D technology could be beautiful and breath-taking. As beautiful and new as Cameron’s breakthrough was, it lacked a story worthy of it advancements. Now, we get director Ang Lee’s vision of Yann Martel’s worldwide bestseller, and we are left gasping at what happens when you combine a fantastical story with technological advances and perfection.

Ang Lee has provided us with a varied selection of films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; and Sense and Sensibility. He refuses to be limited by genre and takes a global and philosophical view of filmmaking. He wants us to think and discuss and think some more. His Life of Pi film purposefully leaves many scenes, events and thoughts open to interpretation. You can see as much or as little of humanity in this story as you like.

The brilliant opening depicts real animals in the real zoo located in Pondicherry, India. The colors, sights and sounds are dazzling and give us an immediate sense of the area and culture. We meet young Pi and his family. Pi is inquisitive and ingenious from an early age. His father imparts such wisdom as “If you believe in everything, you believe in nothing“.  This comes as Pi is absorbing multiple religions and considers himself Hindu/Muslim/Christian. At an early age, he seeks answers and meaning.  Events transpire and soon enough, Pi and his family take their most valued animals and board a ship to Canada to start a new life. Disaster strikes when a storm capsizes the ship and Pi (Suraj Sharma) is the lone human survivor. He finds himself in a small lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a huge Bengal tiger. Yes, that sounds like the first line of a bad joke, but here it’s the beginning of a remarkable journey.

The developments need not be discussed here, but rather the focus of the story is the spirit of survival that Pi possesses. His ingenious methods of learning to coexist with the ferocious tiger force us to consider what the human race has done to nature in our attempts to gain  control. Pi’s religious spirit and insightful ways, coupled with a very fortuitous and specific survival guide, lead him to maneuver 227 days adrift in the Pacific. In the process, we are treated to some of the most spectacular visuals ever seen on screen. At times the sea, and its sea life and sky, are phosphorescent. The story (screenplay by David Magee, who also wrote the underrated Finding Neverland) is so amazing that we find ourselves not caring how much is real and how much is caused by Pi’s hunger and thirst. Some of the visual effects are tranquil, while others are quite violent. A sequence featuring flying silver fish is something to behold.

The structure of the story is such that an adult Pi (played by Irrfan Khan) is re-telling the tale of survival to a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall). While this is a traditional story-telling device, it takes nothing away from the anything but traditional story of Pi and Richard Parker (the tiger’s name). We are told “This is a story that will make you believe in God“. Whether it does or it doesn’t, it certainly makes us believe in the magic of movies.

Some will compare to Castaway, while others will think of 127 Hours. My best advice is to let go and give yourself to the story and the film. There is always time afterwards for debate and discussion. Instead, enjoy the moment and be thankful that a movie like this can get made … it will lead the industry to even more creative productions down the road. So, just this once, forget what I have said many times, and go see this one in 3D. Allow it to take you away.

**NOTE: Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi on the lifeboat, is a remarkable first time actor.  Irrfan Khan, who plays the adult Pi, is known for his excellent turns in Slumdog Millionaire and The Namesake.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in it or not OR you have doubted whether 3D technology can enhance the movie going experience

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t care to see the year’s most remarkable combination of story and visual

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/user/thelifeofpimovie?v=mX2HBsHbNZM


ANONYMOUS

October 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While it is clear that writer John Orloff and director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) believe that Edward De Vere, The Earl of Oxford, and not Will Shakespeare, wrote the infamous and iconic plays we have celebrated for 400 years, my advice is to watch this as a Hollywood movie and not a docu-drama. Hollywood is at its best when exaggerating, twisting and dramatizing historic events and figures .. .and presenting the lot as fact.

You may be an expert on Shakespeare and even Elizabethan history, but whether you are or whether you are not, my guess is that you will find this to be interesting and thought-provoking. You may agree with the idea that Shakespeare was not the prolific and talented author, but this movie provides only one possible alternative … with no scientific proof or actual documentation. We see Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower portray Edward De Vere as the older and younger version respectively. Both capture his passion for writing and frustration at being unable to live the life for which he was born.

 Vanessa Redgrave and her real life daughter Joely Richardson portray Queen Elizabeth at the older and younger stages, and we certainly get a distinctive impression of how “the Virgin Queen” may have been mis-labeled as much as any figure in history. Many lovers and illegitimate children are mentioned and the web of secrecy would have been exhausting, given the vast responsibilities of her position.

 Rafe Spall portrays Will Shakespeare as what one might call The Village Idiot. The buffoonery we see from this man is an extreme that weakens the case for De Vere, rather than strengthen it. Though talented writer Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) was De Vere’s first choice, the lack of morals by the illiterate actor Shakespeare allows him to seize a capitalistic opportunity and soak up the audience love.

The best part of the film is the realistic look and feel of the streets, the Globe Theater and costumes. Rhys Ifans is exceptional in the role of De Vere, and the story itself plays out much like one of Shakespeare’s plays. The downside is, I believe most will find the multitude of characters and time-lines and sub-plots to be quite confusing at times. Don’t take a bathroom break or you’ll miss new babies being born and royal overthows being planned.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Shakespeare buff OR you subscribe to the theory that the Bard has been mis-identified for 4 centuries

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to need a note pad to keep up with the players and plots

watch the trailer:

 


ONE DAY

August 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I have not read David Nicholls‘ novel, but my understanding is that it is extremely well written and its loyal readers really connected with Emma and Dexter. If that’s true, then this film version is even worse than I thought while watching.

This literally is my least favorite type of movie. An uninspired movie that assumes its viewers are unable to think for themselves or judge the actions of its characters. In other words, the filmmakers take for granted that we will accept whatever is shown on the big screen.

 First let me say that I completely understand the school girl crush that a young Emma (Anne Hathaway) has on her classmate Dexter (Jim Sturgess). He is handsome and charismatic and comes from more money than she. I also understand Dexter’s attraction to the lovely Emma. She is very pretty – despite the ridiculous over-sized glasses used for effect in the early scenes – and very intelligent, and a significantly nicer person than he.

What makes absolutely no sense is her continued attraction to this drunken, empty soul for the next twenty years. She is too smart to pine away the years hoping he will wise up and coming running to her. We are supposed to believe that she has no interest in any other relationship except the non-threatening one with flopping stand-up comedian Ian (played by Timothy Spall‘s son Rafe) and a “boring” French Jazz Pianist.

 Dexter’s mother is played by Patricia Clarkson. As she is dying from cancer, she tells him that she believes he will grow into a good man, but isn’t there yet. I guess we are supposed to take her word for it. Instead we only see Dexter go from a selfish pig as a TV personality to a defeated man who must perform manual labor for the first time in his life. My issue is that a defeated man is not necessarily a good man. A man resigned to his life has not necessarily reached enlightenment. Where is Emma’s proof that he deserves her? Where is the indication that her life with him will be better? I tell you where … in the mind of that school girl from years ago.

 Please don’t mistake my words as that of one who has no faith in romantic stories. There are so many ways this story could have turned that it would have captured me. Instead it chose a path that assumed I was ignorant … totally accepting of the ridiculous story being laid out in front of me. 

My final comments on the film involve the cast. Anne Hathaway is an incredibly talented performer. She is not, however, British. Her accent is terribly distracting. Jim Sturgess is a handsome guy, but just not showy enough to pull off the TV personality role. Patricia Clarkson is a fantastic actress, but she is not British either. Seriously, are there not enough British actresses? The casting reeks of a money-grubbing production team. As for director Lone Scherfig … her previous film An Education was cinematic excellence. This is an unacceptable follow-up and we expect better next time.

Since I usually look for the good in movies, I will say the locations of Edinburg, London and Paris were beautiful and different than we usually get from the movies. That provided the only real enjoyment from this highly disappointing movie.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: this is the only way you can see some beautiful scenery from the U.K. and France, and can block out the horrible story onscreen.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the book and don’t want to spoil that good vibe

watch the trailer: