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The Big Short

Posted on December 10, 2015 at 6:16 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Fraud, corruption, economic upheavals
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 11, 2015
Date Released to DVD: March 15, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B0177ZM3LO
Copyright 2015 Plan B Entertainment
Copyright 2015 Plan B Entertainment

Director Adam McKay is so obsessed with the 2008 financial meltdown that he inserted a series of charts and graphs and statistics about it over the closing credits of the silly buddy-cop comedy, The Other Guys. Yes, there was a villain played by Steve Coogan who was up to some financial jiggery pokery, but only the most careful viewers of that film could have deduced that what McKay, best known for raunchy Will Ferrell slob comedies, secretly yearned for, as Michael Caine might say, was to blow the bloody doors off the Wall Street bankers who treated the American economy like a bull treats a china shop.

We’ve had sober documentaries like The Flaw and Oscar-winner Inside Job and the superb drama Margin Call, all outstanding, insightful, and illuminating and essential companion pieces to this movie. But “The Big Short” has several advantages in telling the story. First, by giving us someone to root for, however imperfect the heroes of this story are, it keeps us emotionally connected to the story. Second, because it is in most respects a comedy, McKay has a wider range of tricks on hand to make us understand what happened. This fierce, fiery rant of a film is going to make you understand that the people we entrusted with our economic stability were truly despicable and truly stupid. It is funny and infuriating and then funny again and then, when he tells you that the bad guys went to jail and the big banks were broken up — no, just kidding, they weren’t — it is monumentally infuriating.

I’ll add a footnote below to give my own very short explanation of what happened.* (And one thing they got wrong.** Pretty much everything else is literally right on the money.) Or, you could listen to Margot Robbie talk you through it, as she sips champagne in a bubble bath. Yes, McKay knows what gets people’s attention and he uses Robbie and other celebrities to come in and explain the parts that the bankers intentionally did their best to obfuscate, using words guaranteed to put everyone to sleep so they could pick our pockets a little while longer. Ryan Gosling also serves as a guide, playing a real-life insider who saw that the mortgage-backed securities were going to tumble down like a Jenga tower.

The real-life acronym used by the bankers during this period was IBGYBG, which stood for “I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone,” meaning that if they could just keep passing the hot potato of economic Armageddon going around the circle a couple more times to collect the fees, they could get out before it all came tumbling down. And many of them did. As Michael Lewis notes in the the book that inspired this film (subtitled The Doomsday Machine), and, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this: the heroes of his book, the small group that bet against the bankers, made fortunes. But so did the people who lost that bet. Everyone on both sides of these deals made a lot of money. Everyone else across the country lost a lot of money, jobs, and homes.

As noted, Lewis’ book and McKay’s movie (the Oscar-winning script is co-written with Charles Randolph of the underrated “Love and Other Drugs”) wisely allow us to enter the story via the scrappy little group of misfit toys who figure out that the game is cooked, that it can’t stay that way, and that there has to be a way to bet against the other side. This grown-up Bad News Bears bunch (two of them barely qualifying as grown-ups) have a couple of things going for them. First, they are skeptics. Actually, they are cynics. They assume everyone is lying to them and just about everyone is cheating them. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who insists on being called Dr. Michael Burry (he’s a neurologist-turned investment manager) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell) are both men who were already inclined to be skeptics and then faced terrible pain and loss that disabused them of the sense that life was fair. Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), two young partners literally running an investment firm out of a garage, had made almost $30 million finding unseen risks but were so naive about Wall Street that they did not know what the requirements were for being able to trade as an institution and not as an individual. These guys were all outsiders. (All names are fictional except for Burry.)

The second thing they had going for them was that they were not just willing to do their homework; they insisted on it. While the money gusher was going, no one else wanted to check the math (and no one was getting paid to do so). But, in some of the most entertaining moments of this riotously entertaining film, these guys who did not believe what they were told, went to check it out. Burry unpacked the securities to examine each of the hundreds of mortgages they contained to see if they were as secure as promised. They were not. Baum’s colleagues (Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater) went to Florida to see the homes that were mortgaged. They were abandoned. Baum’s guys spoke to the mortgage brokers who happily explained that they preferred to give mortgages to people who had no possible means of paying them. (Max Greenfield is superbly sleazy in this role.) “They’re not confessing,” one of Baum’s partners says in amazement. “They’re bragging.”

By the time a stripper explains to Baum that she has mortgages on five houses and a condo and has been assured she can refinance when her adjustable rate jumps up, he begins to see the potential in betting that these securities will fall as people like this cannot pay the mortgages. When he goes to a convention of financial types working in this field (Byron Mann is almost deliciously corrupt as the arrogant and ethically vacant Mr. Chau), he knows he is right.

At the same convention, Shipley and Geller are jubilant when they are able to make a big bet against the bankers. And then they get a reality reminder from their their mentor, played by co-producer Brad Pitt. He could not take the corruption of Wall Street any more and left for a life somewhere between disaster prepper and artisanal farmer, wearing a face mask when he goes to town and urging everyone to get colonics. He met the young investor when they were walking their dogs. He reminds Shipley and Geller not to be so happy. When they win big, it will be because the economy is collapsing, causing real, devastating pain.

This is an outstanding film, with sensational performances by a brilliant ensemble cast. It is one of the best of the year and the most important as well.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, vulgar sexual references, strippers, nudity, and extreme widespread fraud and corruption.

Family discussion: What made just these men able to see what so many other people did not? How did they verify their analysis? Will it happen again?

If you like this, try: the book by Michael Lewis and documentaries about the financial meltdown including “The Flaw” and “Inside Job” as well as feature films “99 Homes” and “Margin Call”

*Here’s what happened, without the jargon or the bubble bath. As you see at the beginning of the movie, Lewis Ranieri, now one of the wealthiest people in the world, came up with the idea of essentially crowd-funding mortgages. He took lots and lots of mortgages, bundled them into bonds, and let big institutional investors, like pension funds, buy them. It was a great investment for them because pension funds need a safe and secure source of income to pay retirees and these were safe and secure — much more than stocks — because people almost never defaulted on their mortgages and because so many mortgages were bundled up together that even if some did default it would have almost no impact. These bundles of mortgages were so popular that the banks ran out of safe and secure mortgages to put into bonds. And so, they started pushing mortgage brokers to issue more mortgages, and that meant giving mortgages to people who would not otherwise have qualified. (Some people will tell you that the government was at fault for pushing home ownership on people who could not afford it. They are wrong. Most of the pressure was coming from people who wanted to buy mortgages, not people who wanted to buy houses.) So, the formerly safe and secure bonds started filling up with less and less safe and secure mortgages. And the people responsible for differentiating the risk of the bonds, including the rating agencies, decided to just keep rating and selling the new, less secure securities as though they were exactly the same as the earlier ones. All of the “formulas” (sometimes called “algorithms” or “models”) used to justify this were bunk. Imagine it this way: there’s a vineyard that makes superior wine that everyone wants to buy and there are strong legal and economic incentives to buy it. But you only have so many grapes, so you start watering it down, still selling it at the same price, and getting the people who rate wine to continue to give it the same rating. Then you run out of water so you start blending it with turpentine, and all of your projections show that it is just as good and will still sell just as well so you price it that way and assume there is no risk.

Here’s the important part: everyone at every part of this conveyer belt of increasingly risky securities all being treated as though they were not risky was being paid based on the number of transactions, not the quality of the transactions, a sort of very big, very expensive game of tag, where there was never any “it” until finally “it” was everyone.

**Actually, because of the immense lobbying power of the bankers (see 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown) the SEC had no authority to regulate these mortgage-backed securities. The agency that should have had jurisdiction was the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. When then-Chairman Brooksley Born suggested that they might look into some kind of oversight, Congress and the then-Treasury Secretary made sure she could not. Also, there are post-employment restrictions that prevent SEC staff from going to work for the people they supervise.

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Trailer: The Big Short with Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Christian Bale

Posted on September 22, 2015 at 1:54 pm

There is no movie I am looking forward to this year more than “The Big Short,” based on the best book I read about the 2008 financial meltdown, written by Michael Lewis. It is directed by Adam McKay, who was so angry about the meltdown he put a powerpoint presentation about it over the credits of “The Other Guys,” and stars Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale. Plus, though it is not in the trailer, I’ve been told the boring financial reports are explained by Selena Gomez in a bikini standing under a waterfall.

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Before They Were Stars: Television Commercials With Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, and More

Posted on January 25, 2015 at 8:00 am

Phil Hall has a delightful collection of “before they were stars” television ads featuring Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, James Dean, Morgan Freeman, Matt LeBlanc, Steve Carell, and more.

Here’s one I love that he left out, with pre-“Laverne and Shirley” Penny Marshall and pre-“Charlie’s Angels” Farrah Fawcett.

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Fury

Posted on October 16, 2014 at 5:58 pm

fury brad pittHistory, Winston Churchill reminds us, is written by the victors. But sometimes those victors have some second thoughts, more complex thoughts, about the nature of heroism, patriotism, and the spoils (in both senses) of war. And sometimes people want to comment on contemporary conflicts but find that it is more compelling in an historical framework. That is how we get “Fury,” a fictional story set in the last days of WWII, with Brad Pitt as “Wardaddy” (everyone gets a “war name”), the leader of a tank team pushing through an increasingly desperate Germany.

“Fury” is what is painted on the gun barrel of the tank. Death, both German and Allied Forces, is everywhere. Our forces, we are told at the beginning, are “outgunned and out-armored,” with “staggering losses.”

The first person we see looks like a cowboy hero, a lone figure on a horse, silhouetted against the sun.  He is not a cowboy and he is not a hero.  He is about to be killed, and not in a Hollywood, glamorized, bang bang way.

“It will end, soon,” Wardaddy tells Norman (Logan Lerman), his fresh-faced and terrified new driver, a kid fresh from the typing pool who has never been in a tank or fired a gun in combat. “But before it does, a lot more people have to die.”

I’m in favor of movies that show war as brutal, morally compromised, and horrific. Ultimately, though, it has to have more to say than that.  It is a movie, a work of drama, and if it is not going to be about something bigger than how terrible war is, it runs the risk of making the very horrors it depicts turn into entertainment and have exactly the opposite impact from the original intention.  Steven Spielberg did it with “Saving Private Ryan,” making both the personal story of the individual characters and the larger story about sacrifice and honor compelling and meaningful.

But writer/director David Ayer, whose previous films included the pulpish law-and-order “SWAT,” “Sabotage,” and “End of Watch,” is no Spielberg (though this film borrows a lot from “Saving Private Ryan”).  This film tells us very little about history, war, or the human experience.

Parents should know that this film includes very intense and graphic wartime violence with many characters injured and killed, executions, disturbing images, sexual assault, looting, constant very strong and crude language, drinking, smoking

Family discussion: How does this differ from other portrayals of WWII combat? What are the different ways the men in this movie cope with the moral compromises of war? Why did the men choose “war names” and what did they signify?

If you like this, try: WWII dramas “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Big Red One” and the Israeli film “Beaufort”

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Action/Adventure Drama War

The Counselor

Posted on October 24, 2013 at 6:00 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealers, drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Very graphic and disturbing violence with characters injured and murdered, decapitations, guns, sexual violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 25, 2013

the-counselor-posterCormac McCarthy’s spare, bleak, and very literary prose has made for some compelling cinema, most effectively in No Country for Old Men and The Road and the adaption of his play for an HBO movie, The Sunset Limited.  In his first original screenplay, he shows his flair for dialog that is half gangster, half poetry, but he is still more writer than visual story-teller.  He needs to learn to trust the audience.  If you show something, you don’t have to tell it, and you certainly don’t have to tell it more than once.  Some good ideas and some gorgeous talk get lost in an awkward, over-the-top, you’ve got to be kidding me mess.  Other writers are better at adapting his ideas for film than he is.

Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a handsome lawyer with a lot of low-life clients and a gorgeous girlfriend (Penélope Cruz) who adores him.  What he does not have is a name.  We never hear him called anything but “counselor.”  He does have — a very bad combination — a plan to get a lot of money very quickly, some friends and clients involved with some very bad people, and a wildly unrealistic notion that he can veer off of that path of what’s legal just one time and then get right back on.  If you have any confusion about what happens next, check your ancient Greek dramas with the hashtag #hubris.  Or, just listen to the loving description of a method of killing people from Reiner (Javier Bardem) that involves a wire noose that tightens inexorably around the neck.  METAPHOR ALERT.  Don’t even get me started on the diamond seller the counselor visits to buy an engagement ring, the one who explains that in the world of diamonds, what we look at are the imperfections, sells him a cautionary stone, and tells the counselor, “We will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.”

Renier also has a girlfriend named Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who not only MORE METAPHORS COMING loves to watch her pet cheetahs chase and devour jackrabbits but has cheetah-themed tattoos and eye make-up, a gold tooth, and an amber ring the size of a cheese sandwich. She also brings new meaning to the term “auto-erotica” in a crazynutsy scene narrated by Bardem that is literally over-the-top.  Note: Diaz is very limber and has lovely long legs.  “I asked her whether she had ever done anything like that before and she said she had done everything before,” Renier says, a little dazed.  Also, the drug smuggling involves trucks carrying human waste and occasionally a dead human body.  On the side, it says, “We pump it all!”  Is it just me, or is that a METAPHOR, too?  Did I mention Renier lives in a glass house?

Ridley Scott’s direction, the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, and outstanding performances keep the movie watchable, even when it isn’t working, until the literary pretentiousness overcomes it with a series of speeches near the end that tip the scales from poetic, and ironic to purplish and self-parodying.  In small roles, Rosie Perez, Rubén Blades, and Natalie Dormer create vivid characters who evoke the work the counselor thought he could keep himself apart from and does not realize he has already been changed by.  “If you think that, Counselor, that you can live in this world and not be a part of it, you are wrong,” Renier tells him.

McCarthy knows this is a world where the problem that brings you down is one that in normal world would be quickly explained and quickly forgiven.  These people do not believe in explanations.  “They’re a pragmatic lot.  They don’t believe in coincidences. They’ve heard of them.  They’ve just never seen one.”  There are no second chances.  And then, as Renier explains, “it’s not that you’re going down.  It’s about what you’re taking down with you.”

I enjoyed the elliptical epigrams tossed around by the characters, especially Brad Pitt’s cowboy, a loner who has a bit more perspective than the others.  “How bad a problem?” the counselor asks the cowboy.  “I’d say pretty bad.  Then multiply it by ten,” he answers.   These are people who expect they are being listened to by law enforcement, so it makes sense that they would corkscrew their communications.  And it was fun to see the actors having fun with their roles, especially Diaz, with her asymmetric hair, cut to a point that looks like it could etch metal, swanning into a church to try out this confession idea she had heard about.  With all the flamboyance, though, the movie’s best moments are the quiet ones.  Everything ends up turning on a decision that was not really a mistake.  And the most terrifying moments are not the ones with spurting blood or automatic weapons.  They are a quiet phone call and a simple, “Hola!”

Parents should know that this film is an extremely violent crime drama with very disturbing and graphic images including decapitation. Many characters injured and brutally killed.  It includes guns, crashes, drug dealing, drinking, smoking, very explicit sexual references and situations, and very strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Who suffered the most? Why do we never learn the counselor’s name?

If you like this, try: “No Country for Old Men” and “The Lincoln Lawyer” and the books of Cormac McCarthy and James M. Cain
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