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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Based on a true story Comedy Drama DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies -- format


Posted on May 31, 2018 at 3:36 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, brief drug use
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 1, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 3, 2018
Copyright 2018 STX Films

If I ever decide to pursue a PhD, I think I will go for a combined film/economics degree and study the correlation between the quality of a film and the star also being the producer. There will be plenty of data.

Shailene Woodley produces and stars in “Adrift,” based on the true story of a young couple sailing across the Pacific Ocean in the early 1980’s, who were caught in a deadly hurricane. There is obviously a lot of appeal for an actress in a story of the struggle to survive with the opportunity to show courage, resilience, and determination. But the back-and-forth flashbacks weaken the intensity of that struggle and a weak script with a Gothika Rule-worthy twist ending make even a story of survival more disappointing than inspiring.

Tami (Woodley) is a free spirit as we see when the immigration official in Tahiti asks her what her profession is and she replies, “Whatever job pays me enough to get me to the next place.” She has been traveling full-time since she graduated from high school five years earlier, most recently as chef on a schooner. She meets Richard (Sam Claflin), a British Naval Academy drop-out who worked in a boatyard so that he could build his own sailboat and has been on the water pretty much full-time ever since. Though he tells her that being at sea alone is mostly being “sunburnt, sleep-deprived, seasick, or all three at once. And after a few days, there’s the hallucinations.” But there is something both of them find irresistible in sailing into the horizon, and both have an unquenchable desire to see what the world has to offer. In one of the movie’s best scenes, she says a sunset at sea is red (as in “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight”), and he makes her see all the different shades and colors within the red. While she teases him about it later, she loves seeing the world through his eyes. And he loves her spirit of adventure.

When a wealthy friend offers Richard $10,000 and two first-class plane tickets to sail his yacht to San Diego, it seems like a perfect way for them to begin their life of adventure. But we know from the movie’s first shot that they are sailing into terrible trouble. We first see Tami submerged, and then we see her come to, disoriented, in the wrecked and waterlogged hull of the yacht, with Richard gone. Later we will see their tiny ship buffeted about by waves (the special effects are fine but nothing we didn’t see in “The Perfect Storm”) interspersed with scenes of their early romance and scenes of the 41 days adrift, with no way to get help or let anyone know where they were.

I don’t want to spoil the movie’s twist here, but per the Gothika Rule will be happy to share it to anyone who writes to me at moviemom@moviemom.com. I’ll just saw that while I am sure it was a deeply spiritual and sustaining experience for Tami, it comes across poorly on screen, leaving the audience, yes, adrift.

Parents should know that this film includes intense mortal peril with severe and graphic injuries, some strong language, sexual references, nudity, brief drug use, alcohol, reference to suicide and teen pregnancy, and a sad death.

Family discussion: How many ways can you think of to describe red? Why was the frangipani so meaningful? Why did Tami say she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything? What problem-solving skills helped her the most?

If you like this, try: “Touching the Void” and “The Life of Pi”

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“Gothika Rule” Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray movie review


Posted on September 15, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 16, 2016

Copyright Endgame Entertainment 2016
Copyright Endgame Entertainment 2016
Who better to take on the story of Edward Snowden than cinema-of-paranoia director Oliver Stone? Well, Laura Poitras, who directed the documentary about Snowden, “Citizenfour,” and who is portrayed in this film by Melissa Leo. As is usually the case, the documentary is the better film. But Stone’s narrative version, “Snowden,” is an absorbing version of the story, presenting vitally important issues in an arresting, provocative manner, with some superb moments. It is flawed, as Stone’s “historical” films tend to be, by unnecessary stacking of the deck that detracts from the credibility of the film. Stone does not trust the government, which is fine, but he doesn’t trust his audience, which is distracting. If you are going to make your hero a seeker of Truth, then Hollywood-izing the story is counter-productive.

The movie takes on three big questions, answers one, partially answers another, and turns the third over to us. The first question is: what happened? How did a 29-year-old computer guy get access to what appears to be the entire scope of US intelligence, copy it, and turn it over to reporters? Second, why did he do it? And third, is he a hero or a traitor?

Snowden was an enormously gifted, deeply patriotic young man who was in training for military special forces when an injury forced his return to civilian life. “There are other ways to serve your country,” the doctor crisply advises him. Naming Ayn Rand as one of his influences does not raise any concerns in his battery of entry tests and interviews, including lie detector tests. And so he goes to work for the CIA, NSA, and private contractors for both agencies, gaining access to the information and intrusions into personal data that are being constantly combed and mined for possible terrorist activity. Think of it as the government having Google that searches not just all public material but everything we think of as private: every email, every phone call, every bank account and credit card transaction, even invading your non-digital, analog world, including your home. According to this film, the government can spy on you Big Brother style via your webcam, even if the indicator light is off. I will wait here while you go get a Band-Aid to cover it up right now.

A combination of consciousness-raising from his left-leaning girlfriend (Shailene Woodley), horrifying discoveries of 4th Amendment violations, disturbing revelations about the military-industrial complex (from Nicolas Cage!), and disappointment in President Obama’s failure to curb these abuses leads Snowden to decide to go public. Briefly touched on are some other possible factors: the abuse of Tom Drake, who tried to raise these questions through official channels, and, possibly, some psychological or cognitive disturbance resulting from the onset of epilepsy and the drug used to treat it, or from the level of work-related stress that may have triggered the seizures. There is one “Beautiful Mind”-style scene where Snowden’s CIA boss (Rhys Ifans) speaks to him via a Skype-ish video conference, with a looming, room-size head along the lines of the Wizard of Oz. It is not clear whether this is Snowden’s subjective viewpoint or intended to be a realistic portrayal, but the conversation is, even within the framework of this film about massive intrusions into private lives of citizens with no suggestion of any inappropriate activity, preposterously paranoic.

All of this would be so much easier to take if Snowden was not heroic and brilliant every single moment. Given 5-8 hours to complete a programming test at the beginning of his tenure at the CIA, he finishes in under 40 minutes (38, he corrects his instructor), and everywhere he goes, he blows everyone away with his mad skills. As he zippily downloads the files he plans to turn over to the press (in real life it took months, not minutes), colleagues knowingly nod their approval, hard to understand given his insistence that he was careful to make it clear that he alone was responsible for the breach. Gordon-Levitt is, as ever, an enormously talented actor, but he is playing something of a cipher, a person with low affect. The endlessly skilled Melissa Leo is playing a tough and savvy journalist but as written she has little to do but gaze adoringly as she points her camera. The standouts in the cast are two of the most versatile and talented young actors working on film today: Ben Schnetzer and Lakeith Lee Stanfield as two of Snowden’s colleagues. In their brief screen time, each of them creates vivid, three-dimensional characters we instantly connect to more than we do to any of the main characters.

No matter where we place the balancing point between national security and individual freedom, we can all agree that the decisions should not be made unilaterally by individuals in their 20’s like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Snowden says he is hoping to start a conversation. I hope that the conversations about this film will be less about its failings and more about what we should do to make sure the next Snowden does not decide to take this step.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and situations and some nudity, tense and perilous situations, and issues of betrayal.

Family discussion: Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? What would you have done if you discovered the level of government surveillance? Who should decide and how much should be disclosed?

If you like this, try: “Zero Days” and “Citizenfour

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The Divergent Series: Allegiant Part 1

Posted on March 17, 2016 at 5:26 pm

Copyright 2016 Lionsgate
Copyright 2016 Lionsgate
I can’t help it. They’re all beginning to run together in my head. How many post-apocalyptic stories featuring hot young stars as the brave teen heroes who are the only ones who can save the day for freedom and middle aged, classically trained actors as the totalitarian villains trying to stop them can we have?

At some point, I forget which one has Meryl Streep (“The Giver”), which one has Julianne Moore (“The Hunger Games”), which one has Patricia Clarkson (“Maze Runner”), and which one has Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts (“The Divergent Series”). When this latest and second-to-last installment of the “Divergent” series has its lead characters scaling an enormous wall in response to a message from an entirely unknown source outside (like “Maze Runner”) and the romance heats up (“Hunger Games”) and another distinguished actor shows up to explain what is going on (“The Giver”), the narratives all sort of begin to merge.

So, let’s try to get it straight. “Divergent” is the one where a post-apocalyptic Chicago had genetically modified its inhabitants so that they each had one strength: compassion, intelligence, courage, honesty, and peacefulness. At age 16, each person is tested and assigned to the appropriate faction. He or she must leave the family; the faction is the family now. The test reveals that Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) is “divergent,” with multiple strengths. That makes her a threat to the system and to the people who control it, led by Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who was killed at the end of the last chapter. As this film begins, Tris and Four (Theo James) are deciding what to do about a message calling on them to leave Chicago to find out more about what role the Divergents can play to solve the problems that led to the creation of the faction system. Tris believes she must answer the invitation, but Four worries that it could be a trap.

Four’s mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), formerly a leader of the rebel forces, is now beginning to show Jeannine-like tendencies (yes, this is a lot like “Hunger Games”), allowing public executions. She tells Four, her long-estranged son, she is doing it for him, but he sees what she is doing as yet another betrayal.

Tris and Four make it beyond the wall (an extreme version of rappelling is the film’s best action sequence and the only one to match the adrenalin-surge and dynamism of the earlier film’s zip-wire scene) and, behind a digital “camo wall” find a community of “pures,” non-genetically modified people, led by David (Jeff Daniels), who explains in near-folksy genial terms that Chicago was an experiment and its inhabitants were constantly monitored, somewhere between lab rats and “The Truman Show.” Meanwhile, Four, her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and her friends have been assigned to either monitor or fight (with some cool new drone gear).

There are some fancy visuals but as with the earlier chapters no special effects are close to the impact of Woodley’s hazel-colored doe eyes or James’ smoulder. And there’s a bright spot when we meet a new character, Matthew, sympathetically played by Bill Skarsgård, who looks more like the younger brother of “Madame Secretary’s” Erich Bergen than the real-life brother of the various handsome members of the Skarsgård family.

But the plot is overly complicated on the surface, padded (really, can we stop turning three books into four movies?), confusing, and unsatisfying, without the exhilaration we felt as Tris discovered and deployed her power in the first two. She spends too much time in a room listening to David, and a visit to Providence for a meeting with the Council is poorly handled. If this movie had a faction, it would be: placeholder until the last chapter.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive sci-fi/action violence with guns, explosions, and crashes, with many characters injured and killed, brief strong language, and non-explicit nudity in shadow.

Family discussion: Why did Evelyn think she had to use force, despite what had happened before? How did Four and Triss look at the invitation from outside the wall differently? Why did David lie?

If you like this, try: the earlier films in the series and the “Hunger Games” and “Maze Runner” films

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Science-Fiction Series/Sequel Stories about Teens


Posted on March 19, 2015 at 5:52 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language
Profanity: Several strong words, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs used for suppression and torture
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive peril and violence, disturbing images, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 20, 2015
Copyright Summit Entertainment 2015
Copyright Summit Entertainment 2015

This second in the “Divergent” series suffers from sequel-itis. The exuberance of the premise buoyed the first episode, as we and the central character, Tris (Shailene Woodley) explored the post-apocalyptic world that divided all citizens into strictly segregated factions. But now that the foundation has been laid, the next steps are not nearly as exciting.

There is Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). The tasks of the society are assigned according to the qualities of each. Amity are the farmers. Dauntless are a combination of law enforcement and military. Candor are the judges. Erudite make the laws. Abnegation care for everyone, even the factionless, and due to their tradition, culture, and ethos of putting the good of others before themselves, they are the governing body.

But over time, the system has eroded. When Tris is evaluated for assignment to a faction, she is found to be “divergent,” with more than one of the qualities, and that is considered profoundly threatening to the system.

At the end of the last episode, she had joined the Dauntless and survived their brutal series of tests and escaped with Four (Theo James), following a battle that killed her mother, as Jeanine (Kate Winslet), an Erudite, is consolidating her power and turning the community into a dictatorship. As this chapter begins, Tris and Four are hiding out in Amity with Tris’ Erudite brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and a member of Dauntless named Peter (Miles Teller).

Tris chops off her hair so that she spends the rest of the film looking like a cross between Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. Her Dauntless side is impatient in the tranquil community of Amity, where people murmur, “Go with happiness,” as they hand out food in the cafeteria line. She is determined to go back into the city and kill Jeanine.

Meanwhile, Jeanine has found a box that was hidden by Tris’ mother (Ashley Judd), and can only be opened by someone who is fully Divergent, possessing in equal amounts the qualities of all five factions. She is certain the box is the key to controlling everyone, and she must get Tris — alive — to get it open.

Four and Tris end up in Candor, where they are given a powerful truth serum. “May the truth set you free,” is not just rhetoric as the serum is administered. It will determine whether Four and Tris are turned over to Jeanine. They are proven to have been telling the truth but it is a painful experience and they end up captured anyway. Tris is forced to endure a series of excruciating “sims” to qualify to open the box (not clear why she couldn’t just try it to see), and the results are not what Jeanine was expecting.

Some of the plot developments, from a book written by an author in her early 20’s, simply cannot hold up to being portrayed onscreen. At times it’s just a weaponized vision of the highly cliquish tables at the high school cafeteria. Even pros like Winslet and Naomi Watts (as a rebel leader) cannot quite put their thinly conceived characters over. But Woodley never lets us forget that the biggest struggle Tris has is not with the repressive regime but with her own fears and regrets. Her sincerity and resolve outshine all the fight scenes and give some depth to the superficiality of the storyline.

Parents should know that this film includes constant peril and intense violence with guns, knives, suicide, and threatened suicide, many characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, a sexual situation, a storyline about repressive government and personal and political betrayal, and several swear words.

Family discussion: Why does Jeanine think she is acting on behalf of the greater good? Why does Caleb? How does our society try to categorize people?

If you like this, try: the “Hunger Games” films and “The Giver” and the books they are based on

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Fantasy Movies -- format Series/Sequel
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