Dumb Money

Posted on September 14, 2023 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, sexual material, and drug use
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2023
Date Released to DVD: November 13, 2023

Copyright Sony 2023
Crazy times create crazy events. There has seldom been a crazier time in the United States than the early months of the pandemic and there has seldom been a crazier series of events in the modern history of investing than the time a group of small individual investors with very little capital took on some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on Wall Street and they kind of won. Now that sounds like a movie, and, for the second time, it is.

First there was the documentary, Eat the Rich: the GameStop Saga. And now, the feature film, “Dumb Money,” with an all-star cast, a smart screenplay by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, and lively direction from Craig Gillespie. The movie does a good job of conveying the intricate details of investing and finance in the context of a movie that maintains a heightened tone through sharply executed editing, provocative needle-drops on the soundtrack (beginning with WAP), and minimal exposition.

In very sharp contrast to the music on the soundtrack, Paul Dano plays the central figure, mild-mannered Keith Gill, who lives with his wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley), and their baby daughter in a modest home in Brockton, Massachusetts. Like a movie superhero, he has a secret identity. By day he was a financial analyst with MassMutual. By night he had not one but two personas, one on the subreddit r/wallstreetbets (DeepF***ingValue) and one on YouTube (Roaring Kitty). In both, he talked about stocks he liked and he revealed his own trades. In January 2021, he announced that he had invested in 50,000 shares and 500 call options for GameStop, the store that sells video games in malls. Most investors, including Wall Street billionaires, thought GameStop was going to go bankrupt. The US was still in pre-vaccine pandemic lockdown, though GameStop somehow got listed as an essential business because it sold some computer peripherals, so the stores were still open. But Keith explained his reasons for thinking the stock, trading at under $4 a share, was undervalued.

The Wall Street billionaires also put their money where their mouths were and bet against the company by going “short,” meaning they would make money if the stock went down. Normally, they would have succeeded. But nothing in this story was normal. It was a perfect storm. First, the pandemic shut everything down and made people feel even more mistrustful of big institutions than they were before. This was especially true of the people of Keith’s generation, who were in school on 9/11 and were entering the job market just as the financial meltdown hit the economy with no consequences for the people who caused it. Second, social media made it possible for anyone, like Keith for example, to express views on platforms that were as accessible as traditional media. And it made it possible for followers to support each other and bring in more. Gill went viral. Third, thanks to a new app with no fees, buying and selling stock and even complicated securities like puts and calls (options) was suddenly as easy as sending a text. And fourth, people were stuck at home. They felt stuck in an unfair world. They did not have access to complex investment securities analysis about big, complicated corporations. But they could understand Roaring Kitty, and they could understand GameStop.

And then, Roaring Kitty. People followed his recommendations because he showed them that he was using his own money, because he was an outsider and therefore more like them, because that trading app on their phones was called Robin Hood and trades were “free,” and, this is the key point, after a while, when it was clear that they were costing the Wall Street short sellers billions as their purchases made the stock go up, they were just as happy to be beating the mega-wealthy as they were to be making thousands, tens of thousands, and in Keith’s case, millions for themselves. The trading app was named Robin Hood, which sounded anti-Wall Street. These new investors came up with a new meme-able term: “stonks,” meaning “we’re doing it our own way and it is more about the fun than about making money.” Their loss is almost entirely limited to their modest investments while the short sellers risk losses one television commentator (in real-life archival footage) calls “infinity.”

Gillespe has a sure hand with a chaotic story, giving us just enough information to follow what is happening without weighing us down with the details of finance. Schuker Blum and Angelo have a sharp sense for telling detail. One of the investors is a GameStop employee (Anthony Ramos) with a bureaucratic boss. We get a glimpse of the gulf between the MBAs at headquarters sending out lists about which products have the highest profit margins (“push the loyalty card!”) and the reality of the tiny shop in the otherwise-empty mall. Other investors include a nurse and single mother (America Ferrara) and a pair of debt-ridden college students played by Talia Ryder and Myha’la. Sebastian Stan appears as Robin Hood co-founder Vladimir Tenev. He claims that they were inspired by Occupy Wall Street and his coyness about how they make money when they do not charge a transaction fee turns out to be very significant when Robin Hood’s connection to another player in this story comes out.

There’s an “Empire Strikes Back” element when the people with billions at risk start playing hardball. But Gill understands that Wall Street is overlooking the app investors the way they look the customers of GameStop and his followers, dazzled by their gains and thrilled by schadenfreude. If they had not felt that they were being treated like losers for so long, the win would not mean as much.

The superb cast includes Clancy Brown and Kate Burton as Keith’s parents and Pete Davidson as his slacker brother, whose job in the movie is to contrast and target for exposition. Nick Offerman is excellent as billionaire Ken Griffin and Seth Rogen is in top form as Gabe Plotkin, the guy whose highly leveraged bet against GameStop turns out to be a monumental mistake. In the beginning of the film, his casual entitlement in talking to a contractor who is supposed to be tearing down a house so Plotkin can have a tennis court is in sharp contrast to his unraveling as things go south. You can see the real Plotkin’s testimony here. (Don’t feel sorry for him. He’s now an owner of the Hornets.) There are a dozen clever details that give the story texture, from the recreation of the stonk memes to the coaching for the zoom testimony to a Congressional committee. (You can see Gill’s testimony here.)

It’s entertaining and thought-provoking. With any luck, it will inspire other Gills to find what the experts overlook, which is, after all, how capitalism works.

Parents should know that this film has non-stop strong and vulgar language, spoken by the characters and on the soundtrack, including the n-word. Characters drink alcohol and briefly smoke marijuana and there is a bawdy, sexualized game at a college party.

Family discussion: Who would you trust to give you investment advice? Why did so many people trust Keith?

If you like this, try: the “Eat the Rich” documentary, the book by Ben Mezrich, and “The Big Short” (Note a brief appearance by the real-life character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort)

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The Fabelmans

Posted on November 20, 2022 at 3:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief violence, some strong language, and drug use
Alcohol/ Drugs: alcohol, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Bullies
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 23, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal
A small boy is about to see his first movie, and it is 1952, so it is in a big, dark theater, on a big, bright screen. His engineer father is explaining persistence of vision, the optical/neurological factors that make us think that still pictures shown to us 22 times a second are moving. “The photographs pass faster than your brain can keep up.” His artist/musician mother has a different description of what movies are: “They’re like dreams that we never forget.” And of course, both are right.

That boy will be dazzled by the movie, which would go on to win the Oscar for best picture in 1952, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” an exciting story of a circus. The train crash sequence was so big and so real that he could not get it out of his mind for days and days. He asks his parents for a train set for Hanukkah, and as he opened up a new train car each night he imagined re-creating — understanding — controlling — that crash. His father (Paul Dano as Burt) chides him for breaking the train. His mother (Michelle Williams as Mitzi) suggests that he take the family’s home movie camera and film one last crash, so he can watch it as many times as he likes.

As the title suggests, “The Fabelmans” has a touch of myth, of movie magic, as Mrs. Fabelman would say, a dream. But it is also as Mr. Fabelman would approve, grounded in facts and mechanical reality. Steven Spielberg co-wrote the film with Tony Kushner, based on his own life as a child and a teenager. It brims with love for his family, with the kind of understanding that it takes decades to achieve, if ever. And it is told with the true mastery of a brilliant filmmaker equally grounded in the mechanics of movies and the creation of big, engrossing dreams for us to watch together in the dark.

No one understands cinematic storytelling better than Spielberg, and seeing him tell his own story using the very techniques this film gives us a chance to see as they develop makes this one of the best films of the year and one of the best films ever from a master storyteller. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and music by Spielberg’s longtime favorite John Williams gorgeously evoke the past without making it seem musty or distant. Watching it feels like a gift.

As the movie begins, money is tight and Burt has to supplement his salary by fixing televisions. But his gift in designing the fundamentals that would lead to personal computers leads to a new job offer in Phoenix. The Fabelmans move, and Burt brings along his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), so beloved by everyone that he feels like family. Burt is a loving husband and father but very serious and methodical. Bennie is fun, always making everyone laugh.

Sammy keeps making movies, casting his younger sisters and later his Boy Scout troop in remarkably ambitious and creative films (you can see the real ones, meticulously re-created here, on YouTube). As a teenager, now sensitively played by Gabriel LaBelle, his movies get more complex. In one lovely moment, a hole punched in sheet music by a high heeled shoe inspires a brilliant and very analog special effect only the son of both an artist and an engineer could concoct.

Form and content follow each other and intertwine, especially with a sensational final shot, as Sammy/Steve begins to understand the potential and the power of story-telling. When his mother is sad, his father asks him to make a movie to cheer her up. When he is editing one of his family films, he sees on celluloid what he missed when he was standing there. When he cannot tell his mother why he is upset, shows her a film to explain. In an agonizing moment, he cradles the camera like a teddy bear. Through chance, he is able to use a professional camera and through a combination of determination and chance he meets and gets some surprising advice from one of the all-time movie greats.

He is confronted with the challenges of family conflict and adolescence. He is bullied for being Jewish. He wants to kiss a girl. He feels betrayed by two people he loves. An uncle in show business (a terrific brief role for Judd Hirsch) tells him that he will always be torn between love and art — and that he will choose art.

Williams and Dano are superb as the Fabelmans. As Mitzi watches the movie Sammy made for her and as she tries to explain a difficult decision to Sammy we see clearly the range of emotions she is feeling, including the perpetual struggle of all parents between her needs and the wishes of her children. Spielberg and Kushner bring compassion to these characters that they themselves struggle to find.

They also convey the exceptional ability to observe and analyze that is the great gift of any artist, to be cherished and nourished by imagination, but that must be reined in to allow for personal connection. Only the rarest of talents can bring both to their work and that is what makes this film a joy.

NOTE: My daughter worked on some of the costumes of this film which are, of course, outstanding under the direction of Oscar-winner Mark Bridges.

Parents should know that this film includes family tensions, adultery, and divorce, some strong language, alcohol and marijuana.

Family discussion: Why could Sammy see things more clearly through the camera than he could without it? Why was Logan upset by the Ditch Day movie? How did each of his parents influence Sammy?

If you like this, try: “Belfast” and Spielberg movies like “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

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Seth Rogen, Bradley Cooper, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal Audition as Cher in “Clueless”

Posted on January 19, 2016 at 6:49 pm

W asked Seth Rogen, Bradley Cooper, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano to audition for the part of Cher in “Clueless,” reading her famous speech about the “Hate-ians.” While they make the mistake of pronouncing it correctly, I’d love to see them in some of the other scenes from the film. Or, let’s face it, in pretty much anything.

They’re great, but they will never improve on the original. Keep watching for more stars’ takes on classic scenes from “Dirty Harry” and “Gone With the Wind.”

For more on “Clueless,” read the oral history of the film by Jen Chaney.

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Prisoners

Posted on September 19, 2013 at 8:08 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture and language throughout
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Substance abuse to deal with stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive and disturbing violence, including torture
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2013

The subject matter of the movie “Prisoners”– parents desperately searching for their kidnapped little girls– is so potent that it requires a strong, sure director to maintain control.  Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”), in his first Hollywood feature film, is mostly successful but along the way he is sorely tested by emotionally charged social, religious and moral themes struggling to break free of the excruciating situation and gallop off in the direction of  political metaphor, propaganda, violence, or sermonizing.

Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a strong, self-reliant, religious man whose six-year-old daughter disappears while walking in their neighborhood with a friend.  Dover’s wife, played by Maria Bello, becomes so distraught that she soon sedates herself into helplessness.  Their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) whose daughter also disappears, look for a different path out of their nightmare.PRISONERS

As the hours tick by, the parents lose patience with police detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and begin to take matters into their own hands. The distraught father yells at the cop,  “Two little girls have to be worth more than whatever little rule you have to break.”  Loki does not agree, and the race is on, to see whose tactics will be most effective, and whose tactics are morally justifiable.  Jackman makes clear he is willing to do anything to get his daughter back, including torturing a suspect: “He’s not a person anymore, he stopped being a person when he took on our daughter.”

Prisoners is a dark, tense crime drama with an excellent cast and some important topical themes.  It is not for the faint of heart.  Director Villeneuve says that he hopes his film will inspire audiences to debate these issues “long after the movie ends,” and in this he surely succeeds.  There are issues to debate regarding the treatment of the mentally ill, civil liberties, law enforcement, self-reliance, and morals in modern society, and especially the ultimate question of whether the end justifies the means.  The movie has some excellent, artful moments, cleverly filmed with flair and style.    However, there are also moments when the movie gets carried away with itself, losing its sense of proportion, and taking already extreme situations a notch or two beyond credibility.

Parents should know that this story concerns kidnapping and child abuse, extensive violence (including torture and shooting, alcohol, substance abuse to deal with stress, and constant very strong language.

Family discussion: When is it appropriate for people to take the law into their own hands?  Who is right?  Who does the director think is right?  How does this story relate to issues in geopolitical conflict?

If you like this, try: “Ransom”

 

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