Saturday, December 26, 2015

It's The Economy, (And Wall Street Is) Stupid

Reel To Reel: The Big Short

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Rated: R
Red Flags: Multiple f-bombs and two scenes inside a strip club

In one my Royal Father's favorite movies, Trading Places, the characters portrayed by Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy reek revenge against their bosses and get rich by short-selling futures in the commodities market. The Big Short shows us the same process, only billions of dollars bigger and all true. It zooms in on the securities nobody thought would crumble -- until they did and took the economy down with them in 2008. It's easily my favorite movie of this year and the best movie about Wall Street I've seen since Wall Street.

The film, based on Michael Lewis' book of the same name, follows three sets of traders as they discover dangerous problems with mortgage-backed bonds. Brokers have been pushing their stability and quality, but it turns out the securities -- which are bundles of individual mortgages sold as investments -- contain oodles of sub-prime loans. Sub-prime, by the way, is Wall Street politeness for saying, "These loans are [bleep]!"

Eccentric, dressed-down hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) discovers it first by looking under the hood of the bonds and discovering an alarming amount of loans about to go bad. The fat cats don't see it yet, but the analysis from his think-tank mind predicts massive defaults are coming as people get shocked by adjustable rate mortgages or end up falling behind on loans they never should have gotten in the first place. Burry wants to take the groundbreaking step of betting against the housing market. It's so unheard of, he doesn't even have a way to do it until he convinces big investment firms to create credit-default swaps, a form of insurance that's not technically insurance nor regulated like it.

Other traders smell trouble. Button-down investor Jared Vennett (Gosling) hears Burry is buying up massive amounts of swaps and decides to get in on the action after doing his own homework. A misdialed phone call accidentally tips off capitalist crusader and trader Mark Baum (Carell), who is already convinced the financial world has it in for the little guy. Vennett and Blum team up after Blum's team discovers the flimsiness of the mortgages and the cracks forming in the housing sector. In a garage, financial whizkids Jamie Shipley (John Magaro) and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock) also get wind of what Vennett knows. But they can't pull off the massive financial operations they need to cash in until they turn to reclusive retired banker Ben Rickert (Pitt), the man who can get them to the big boys' table.

The financial instruments at the heart of this can be hard to comprehend. The film takes the inventive step of breaking the fourth wall and bringing in celebrities to give us quick Wall Street lessons, including Selena Gomez explaining issues with collateralized debt obligations and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain using a stew to demonstrate how Wall Street makes bad bonds look good. Many of the key players themselves also speak directly to us, aided by flashy editing and illustrations, making this a mashup of Wall Street and GoodFellas with a touch of Oceans 11. It feels like the kind of film Martin Scorsese and Guy Ritchie would crank out if they combined directorial forces, only it's directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman) as a rollicking black financial comedy.

The Big Short doesn't present us with any clear good or bad guys. It reminds us the people who are getting rich off multiple layers of convoluted Wall Street risk are betting against the American economy. As they win, financial institutions collapse, millions lose jobs, and the recession hits. Wall Street's big players are stupid, clueless, criminal, or just problem gamblers. We see how fast and loose the markets play with securities, as one risky bet becomes an even bigger risky bet which is then folded into an even larger bet. Yet we can still relate to all this financial abstraction on a human level through the traders who discover it. They -- and we -- are shocked to find so much money flowing into such crummy investments, ones people don't even understand.

I have told you before that derivatives -- which include mortgage-backed securities -- are a bad habit Wall Street just can't kick. Even though the feds have tried reining them in, the financial lobby is a powerful player, and we are once again seeing the kinds of risky instruments on the market that got us into this mess.

Many of you will also be asking, "Why didn't the fat cats go to prison for this?" It's a simple explanation: in Las Vegas, you don't go to jail for making bad bets. You just lose money. However, in Vegas you're playing with your own money. On Wall Street, the big shots are playing with your pension fund and IRA's, but it's considered a bet, not an investment, at all the convenient times.

The Big Short brings this all into focus and makes us understand it all. You don't have to be a financial guru to love this picture. You just have to have a brain and a willingness to accept the truth everybody else believes they can trade away.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Force Is Strong With This One

Reel To Reel: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Going Rate: Worth full price admission in IMAX
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Lightsaber battles, blaster fire, X-wings vs. TIE fighters... you know the drill

Getting Star Wars away from George Lucas is the best thing to happen to this saga in a long time. While Lucas created the trilogy and the mythology, his three prequels to the classic trilogy lacked emotional depth to go with their visual dazzle. At times, it felt like he was mailing it in. More often, the first three pictures felt lame. Apart from a few scenes in The Phantom Menace, I don't have any standout memories of them. When Lucas sold his studio to Disney, and Disney announced it would make new Star Wars pictures, you knew things were going to be different, and better.

Director J.J. Abrams delivers on that new hope. He has made a picture that will resonate with both fanboys and casual fans. It's a picture that works because of its economy, taking us back to the familiar with plenty of inside references rather than trying to create vast new worlds. It creates likeable new heroes while catching up on the old ones. Yes, Han Solo (Ford), Princess Leia (Fisher), Chewbacca (Mayhew), Master Luke Skywalker (Hamill), C3-PO (Daniels) and R2-D2 are along for the ride. Yet they are more of a bridge between old and new without having to prop the film up.

I refuse to get into plot points because so much of Star Wars' fun comes from letting it play out before you. I also don't want this site to get blocked by various spoiler-sniffing apps floating around. I will just tell you that planetary scavenger Rey (Ridley), reluctant stormtrooper Finn (Boyega), and ace fighter pilot Poe (Issac) are all thrown together into a mission to defeat another plot from a new form of the old Empire. Leading the way and stealing the show is the nerdily-cute BB-8 rolling ball droid, which will remind you of how much you enjoyed first watching R2-D2. BB-8 is sure to end up on many a Christmas list.

All you really need to know beyond this is that The Force Awakens contains everything you want and nothing you don't. You won't find aberrations like Jar-Jar in this film, nor Ewoks, nor pod racers. Like he did with the Star Trek reboot several years ago, Abrams has transformed something with waning cool into current cool. At least two more sequels are in the works. Let's hope Abrams keeps it going.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

War Of Words

Reel To Reel: Trumbo

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren
Rated: R
Red Flags: Multiple uses of the f-word, brief male rear nudity

I had never heard of Dalton Trumbo before I saw this picture, even though he wrote dozens of screenplays -- some classic, some fine, some just skirting the garbage can -- along with several novels. I turn out at least two dozen short TV news scripts a day. Trumbo could crank out a 100-page screenplay in three days with some baseline of quality, all with a typewriter, scissors and cellophane tape. But his overwhelming contribution to Hollywood was breaking its notorious blacklist, something intended to protect American values while violating the spirit of a sacred American tenet: the First Amendment.

Trumbo walks us through the story of its title character (Cranston) as the Red Scare closes in around him. He's one of the highest paid contract writers in Hollywood when word of his Communist sympathies filters back to Washington. He and nine others in the film industry are subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo and the others realize it's a kangaroo court and refuse to answer questions. Congress finds them in contempt, sending Trumbo and the others to jail.

After nearly a year in the can, he returns home to find a strong family but a broken career. He can't work for any major studio. He sells a screenplay for Roman Holiday through a front writer, but he realizes he will have to take on more work to keep the lights on. Trumbo goes to work for a small B-movie studio whose co-topper Frank King (Goodman) unapologetically unspools garbage onto the screen. King is ecstatic to see the quality of Trumbo's work, and the studio gives him steady work as a writer and script doctor. Trumbo soon devises an underground network to keep himself and fellow blacklisted writers in business.

A key ally is fellow screen scribe Alan Hird (Louis C.K.), an idealist who wants to take the studios to court. Being a member of the Communist party isn't illegal, the argument goes, and somebody needs to stand. Trumbo argues the deck is stacked against the Hollywood Ten, and they need to find other ways to stand on principle while still winning by making a living. Hird is in a fight for his life on multiple fronts; he's suffering from lung cancer along with a career in crisis. Trumbo also puts a lot on the line as he involves his entire family in his work, forcing them to help retype and ferry scripts.

On the other side of the equation, you have the Hollywood brass who lack spine. They're putty in the hands of powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren), the Nikki Finke of her time. Michael Stuhlbarg turns in a capable performance as Edward G. Robinson, who named names to keep working and found no peace. But the film belongs to Bryan Cranston, whose irascible portrayal of Trumbo -- wit, warts and all -- powers the film. Even though we have a hard time understanding whether the famed screenwriter had method to his madness or just madness, we can't stop watching him puff his cigarettes and pound his typewriter between riffs and bouts with Hollywood's players.

It's hard to ignore the present-day parallels. As this post hits, we are in the middle of a national debate over freedom of religion versus terrorist religious extremism and how this nation should respond to it. Several are raising the spectre of Hitler. The spectre of HUAC seems much more fitting.