The Big Short

Posted on December 10, 2015 at 6:16 pm

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 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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Posted on September 22, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language (much less than the book)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Chewing tobacco, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family situations, sad references to injuries and letting players go
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2011
Date Released to DVD: January 9, 2012 ASIN: B0060ZJ7BC

Brad Pitt is underrated as an actor.  But he is the best there is when it comes to calibrating the deployment of his onscreen star power, which he uses as expertly as Meryl Streep does accents.  Pitt can dial it down to one when he wants to play character actor and make it work.  But here he dials it back up to eleven, giving the role of Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane a shot of pure movie magic in this real-life story about the man who turned baseball upside down by using computer formulas to select “undervalued” players.

The Oakland A’s feel like “a farm team for the New York Yankees.”  They make players great and then lose them to the teams with budgets more than three times as large.  All that money makes the playing field anything but level.  “We’re a small market team and you’re a small market GM.  I’m asking you to be okay spending the money we have,” the owner tells Beane.  “There are rich teams and there are poor teams and then 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us,” is Beane’s frank appraisal.

The A’s cultivate and train players who leave for the teams that can pay the most.   A game that is supposed to be about skill and drive seems to be just about money.  And then Beane, in the midst of a negotiation with another team that is not going well, notices a nerdy-looking guy in the corner who seems to have some influence.  After the meeting, that nerdy guy becomes Beane’s first draft pick.

He is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a shy wonk who comes to work for Beane and together they pursue a different direction.  Instead of the century-old system of watching players hit, catch, throw, and run and try to figure out if that means they will be able to perform in the big leagues — a system that failed badly when Beane himself was recruited right out of high school — they will look at computer algorithms about what produces wins.  Brand and Beane develop a roster like Warren Buffett puts together a stock portfolio.  They look at fundamentals to figure out unrecognized value.  Sort of a grown-up Bad News Bears.  Or, as Brand puts it, an Island of Misfit Toys.

The script from two of the best screenwriters in history, Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) and Steven Zallain (“Schindler’s List”) is well-structured and filled with smart talk.  The scenes of Beane’s own pro career are too long and too distracting.  But scenes with Beane visiting his ex-wife (Robin Wright) and her new husband and especially those with Beane and his daughter add warmth and urgency to the story.  But it is Pitt who is in every way the heart of the movie, his natural confidence and grace a lovely balance to the formulas with Greek letters and the endless statistics.  It is nice to see baseball, that most number-centric game, get upended by numbers.  And yet it succeeds because it is that most cherished of traditions, the come-from-behind underdog story.


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The Blind Side

Posted on March 22, 2010 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses drugs, social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Gun violence and some peril, car accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 20, 2009
Date Released to DVD: March 23, 2010 ASIN: B002VECM6S

“The Blind Side” is a movie about football that had its own broken field running challenge. It is the true story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher, a homeless black kid adopted by a wealthy white family. So, it could so easily have been syrupy, or condescending, or downright offensive. At worst, it could have been a cross between the Hallmark channel and “Diff’rent Strokes.”

There have been too many “magical Negro” characters in movies, the non-white character whose role in the story is to give some white people a spiritual or ennobling experience. And there have been too many of what my friend Tim Gordon calls “mighty whitey” movies, where some needy non-white person is helped by some saintly white person. And there have been way too many movies where someone says, with a catch in his or her throat, that “he helped me more than I could ever have helped him.” This movie risks failing in all three of these categories and somehow it manages to deftly come together to make the story genuinely touching. You may find yourself with a catch in your throat, not to mention a tear in your eye.

It helps that the story is true. The wealthy Touhey family did take in and then adopt a homeless black teenager whose life had been so chaotic that there was almost no record of his existence. He happened to go along with a friend who was applying to a private school on an athletic scholarship and was seen by the coach who recognized his ability. He is enormous and he is fast, both valuable in an offensive lineman. And this happened at just the time that the role of the offensive lineman was becoming one of the most critical positions on the team. Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock, in her Oscar-winning performance) explains at the beginning of the film, based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, that New York Giants lineman Lawrence Taylor changed the game. He went after quarterbacks like the Washington Redskins’ Joe Theismann, who received a career-ending injury because Taylor came after him in his blind spot. Hence the increased focus on protecting the quarterback, and that is the job for which Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) seems to have been designed.

It isn’t just that his is very big and very fast. It is another quality, the one that was identified when he was given a battery of tests as the only stand-out ability in a long list of failures. Tests showed that he had an extraordinary level of protective instinct and experience showed that he had an extraordinary ability as well.

She was never tested, but Leigh Anne is probably off the charts for protective instinct as well. It is this quality they share that makes us believe in their connection.

And it is another of Leigh Anne’s qualities that keeps the story from getting too sugary. She is kind of obnoxious. Girl-next-door Sandra Bullock shows us Leigh Anne’s determination and passionate dedication to her family and her ideals and makes us understand that she has a bit of a sense of humor about herself. When she has to admit her husband was right about something, she also concedes that the words taste like vinegar. She has no problem telling pretty much everyone from her condescending friends to the high school coach what they should do. But it is her vinegary spirit that makes the situation and the movie work. She does not cry over Oher’s trials and she does not act like he is her St. Bernhard puppy. She is just someone who has a strong sense of justice fueled by her faith, a quality too rarely portrayed in the media. And she has that protective instinct. Oher is not the usual gentle giant, which helps as well. He has a sense of humor and self-respect that makes clear that he is a full partner in becoming a member of the family, giving as much as he gets.

So this movie is smarter than it had to be, which gives its emotional core even more of punch. You’ve seen the highlights in the trailer. But the quiet moments in between and lovely performances by Bullock, Aaron, and Tim McGraw as Leigh Anne’s husband make this one of the best family films of the year.

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