The Big Short


Christian Bale is overwhelmed by script submissions.

Christian Bale is overwhelmed by script submissions.

(2015) True Life Drama (Paramount) Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Jeffry Griffin, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan, Margot Robbie, Stanley Wong, Rajeev Jacob, Vanessa Cloke, Leslie Castay. Directed by Adam McKay

The financial meltdown of 2008 was the worst economic event since the Great Depression. Millions lost their jobs and their homes. The repercussions of that event continue to be felt, but many don’t understand how it happened – and how it could happen again.

Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) is a one-eyed manager of a small hedge fund in San Jose, California who discovers that securities based on mortgages – once thought to be nearly recession-proof as the going wisdom is that most people pay their mortgages on time – are actually filled with mortgages that are much riskier, with balloon payments that will commence in 2007 that the homeowners will never be able to pay and create an economic meltdown. He wants to essentially bet against these securities as he knows they are doomed to fail; such securities don’t exist so he goes to Wall Street to places like Goldman Sachs to have them create those securities. He is nearly laughed out of the building but they are happy to take his money – in fact, nearly all of his fund’s cash which doesn’t sit too well with some of the investors.

Mark Baum (Carell) is also a hedge fund manager based at Morgan Stanley who has an anger management issue (Baum, not Morgan Stanley). His team discovers from investment banker Jared Vennett (Gosling) – who also serves as the film’s narrator – that these securities exist and that there’s a good chance that investing in these securities will result in runaway wealth. Baum, who has a hate on for the industry he works in, after talking to a number of bankers and securities industry insiders, becomes certain that Vennett is on to something and risks a good deal of his fund’s capital to buy these securities.

Two ambitious young Colorado-based hedge fund managers – Charlie Geller (Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Wittrock) also discover these securities through happenstance but their fund is too small and too unknown to be able to get a seat at the table to bid on securities like that. They enlist Ben Rickert (Pitt), a disillusioned former Wall Street titan who has become something of a paranoid recluse, out of the game until Geller and Shipley manage to reel him back in.

All of these players discover first-hand the venal stupidity of the banking industry whose blindness led to the near-collapse of the world economy; the corruption and absolute greed that was behind that blindness staggered even these members of the same financial industry.

Based on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, the film takes some real-life people involved in the market (Burry) as well as creates fictional ones – some out of whole cloth and some based on others (Baum, based on real-life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman), McKay does a credible job in taking some fairly esoteric financial market concepts like CDOs and credit default swaps.

He has gathered an eclectic but solid cast that brings to life the arrogance and testosterone-infused world of finance. It is definitely a boys club with an aggressive attitude with an absolute focus on money. Carell gives Baum a moral compass – maybe more of one than the other characters in the film – but also an angry streak that comes from a family tragedy. In many ways, Baum is the most compelling character in the movie because while all of the characters have an agenda, Baum’s is more than just making money.

I also like Bale as the real-life Dr. Burry, who prefers to be barefoot, rarely wears a suit and tie, and blasts metal in his office when he’s stressing out. His characters is a little bit more complex than the others and we don’t really get a decent grasp on him, which something tells me is true of the real guy. Pitt brings a little bit of New Age gravitas here as well.

McKay is known for his comedies and there is a kind of black humor here. His tongue is often planted firmly in cheek as he uses various celebrities in incongruous situations to explain various things in the script (like a naked Margo Robbie in a bathtub explaining the subprime mortgage market, or singer Serena Gomez in a casino talking about CDOs) and we are told that certain things actually happened but more interestingly, that some things actually didn’t as depicted in the film. You have to give him points for honesty.

I imagine your political outlook will drive how much you enjoy the film to a certain extent; those who are fairly left-wing in nature and distrustful of industry will no doubt find this film much more to their liking than those who are right-wing and who might look at this as tarring an entire industry with the same brush because of the actions of a relative few. The Big Short takes the point of view that the stupidity, shortsightedness and corruption was industry-wide and implies to a large extent that the culture of the financial industry of the bro-tastic almighty dollar have a big hand in driving that corruption.

The Big Short does a credible job of explaining a fairly complicated and often confusing situation that brought the economy to its knees, and warns that many of the same factors remain in place that may yet again take the economy down for another plunge. It reminds us that despite the blatant fraud that took place, only one person – and he relatively low on the totem pole – ever was tried and jailed for his role in an event that created so much human misery. This is an outstanding movie that may disturb some because the “heroes” of the story made enormous profits from that misery (a fact pointed out by Pitt’s Ben Rickert) and that the tone overall is somewhat snarky. I found that the tone made the events somewhat easier to bear and while I don’t condone profiting from the pain of others, I can say that at least none of the protagonists broke any laws, which is a fairly low bar for cinematic heroism but given the industry depicted here, probably about as high a bar as can be expected.

REASONS TO GO: Really explains some of the very confusing information about the 2008 crisis well. Extremely solid performances from the cast. Occasionally funny.
REASONS TO STAY: A very dry subject matter.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, some nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Adam McKay in which Will Ferrell doesn’t star.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Point Break (2015)

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues


The news team discusses the size of their paychecks.

The news team discusses the size of their paychecks.

(2013) Comedy (Paramount) Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, James Marsden, Christina Applegate, Kristen Wiig, Dylan Baker, Meagan Good, Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear, Judah Nelson, Josh Lawson, Fred Willard, Chris Parnell, Bill Kurtis (voice), June Diane Raphael, Tom Clark, Jennifer Gullick, Aubrey Drake Graham. Directed by Adam McKay

One of the characters that established Will Ferrell as one of the top comedy stars of the first couple of decades of the 21st century was Ron Burgundy, the conceited and laughably ignorant local news anchor of San Diego, the classiest city in the U.S. That was nine years ago. Since then a sequel has been clamored for but never realized until now.

Burgundy (Ferrell) has been absent from the San Diego news scene, having moved on to a higher profile news job in New York City, co-anchoring with his wife Veronica Corningstone (Applegate). The lead news anchor and the most respected newsman in New York, Mack Tannen (Ford) – no relation to Biff apparently – is preparing to retire and has decided to promote Veronica to replace him. As for Ron, Mack fires him due to his sloppy performance on air.

This causes a good deal of friction between Ron and…well, Ron and he leaves Veronica and their son Walter (Nelson). He languishes back home in San Diego until he is approached with an offer to work at GNN, the world’s first 24 hour news channel which is being fronted by an Australian billionaire named Kench Allenby (Lawson).First however he’ll have to reassemble the old Channel 4 news team. Sportscaster Champ Kind (Koechner) owns a fried chicken franchise that uses a cut-rate meat that isn’t chicken to skimp on expenses. Reporter Brian Fantana (Rudd) is considerably more successful as a photographer of cats. Sadly, Brick Tamland (Carell) is dead except he isn’t as he shows up to his own funeral. Of course, there is a school of thought that Brick was scared all along.

Once in New York, Ron and his team are assigned to the graveyard ship while arrogant Chicago anchor Jack Lime (Marsden) gets the primetime spot. Jack taunts Ron and his team and as a result Ron bets Jack that he’ll get higher ratings. Jack, knowing it’s a slam dunk, agrees.

The news team are desperate. There’s no way they can beat Jack Lime; even if Jack has nothing important to report he’ll still kick their butts by virtue of the timeslot he has. Then Ron has an epiphany; rather than telling people what they need to know, why not tell them what they want to hear? The concept turns out to be a huge success and broadcast news will never be the same. Ron’s attempts to reconcile with Veronica fall flat – she’s dating a psychologist (Kinnear). Ron’s boss, Linda Jackson (Good) takes a rather aggressive interest in him and the two start dating, if you can call lots and lots of casual sex dating.

But those who ride high fall further and Ron’s ego, never a small thing, is inflated beyond tolerance. However a tragedy will strike that will be the biggest obstacle Ron has ever had to face in his career. Can he do it and can he make it up to those he has wronged around him?

I had high hopes for this movie, being a big fan of the original Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. However this doesn’t even get close to measuring up to that movie. The jokes are for the most part old and make you feel uncomfortable more than laughing and most of the best jokes are outgrowths from the first movie (like the news team rumble). I’m not the most politically correct person in the world but I guess I don’t find sexism and racism real funny, even if you’re making the person with those sentiments look ignorant.

The first film had more cohesion while the sequel seems to be more of a series of gags strung together in a rough storyline. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that tried so hard to be funny. The first film didn’t have to try.

While I like the characters from the first film and the chemistry they possessed, they seem kind of tired and stale here and there doesn’t seem to have been much – if any – further development except that Brick develops a romance from fellow eccentric Chani (Wiig).

Maybe my problem is more that while the first movie had some heart and soul, this one seems to be talking down to us more – as if they realize that the first movie was a comedy classic so they don’t have to try at all here and anything these characters do and say is funny so laugh if you want to be cool. The vibe here just was unpleasant and I came away wishing that I hadn’t seen the film. It’s almost bad enough to make me wish that I hadn’t seen it because the first movie that I loved so much has been tarnished by this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some gags work.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly unfunny. Feels recycled. Drags on too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some drug use, a fair amount of foul language and some comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paramount initially passed on a sequel, citing the budget being too much for them initially but then abruptly changed their minds. Will Ferrell announced the sequel was greenlit in character as Ron Burgundy on the Conan O’Brien show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grown-Ups 2

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Wolf of Wall Street

New Releases for the Week of August 6, 2010


August 6, 2010

Will Ferrell has Mark Wahlberg fit to be tied.

THE OTHER GUYS

(Columbia) Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson, Steve Coogan, Eva Mendez, Michael Keaton, Ray Stevenson. Directed by Adam McKay

Danson and Manzetti are the city’s two most celebrated cops, collaring bad guy after bad guy. Gamble and Holtz aren’t quite up to their level; Gamble is a forensic accountant who would much rather sit in the office analyzing the paper trail, while Holtz has been banished to being Gamble’s partner after an itchy trigger finger put him in hot water with the Captain. These two unlikeliest of heroes will be called upon to save the day but as things usually do for the other guys, things don’t go quite the way they intend them to. McKay and Farrell have previously teamed up for movies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, language, violence and some drug material)

The Girl Who Played With Fire

(Music Box) Roomi Napace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Sofia Ledarp. The second installment in the Millennium trilogy penned by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson sees the publisher of Millennium magazine, who has made his living exposing corruption in high places, throwing himself once more into the fray when a young journalist comes to him with a story of sex trafficking in Sweden that goes up to the highest levels of authority. During the investigation, the computer hacker who works with the publisher is accused of three brutal murders, forcing her to go on the run while the publisher clears her name. The two stories turn out to be interrelated. The first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, made serious waves in the indie film circuit and is being remade into a major studio property being directed by David Fincher scheduled for release on December 23, 2011. The third of the Swedish films, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest will see a limited American release this fall.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language)

Step Up 3D

(Touchstone) Adam Sevani, Rick Malambri, Sharni Vinson, Alyson Stoner. A group of street dancers from the Bronx team up with a freshman at NYU to take on the world in a global breakdancing showdown that will change their lives forever. One wonders how relevant a movie is when their official website is a MySpace page.

See the trailer, featurettes, music videos and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Twelve

(Hannover House) Chace Crawford, Emma Roberts, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Kiefer Sutherland. A high school dropout turned drug dealer is living the good life; his Upper East Side clientele of boarding school preppies are keeping his business booming and he is able to successfully hide his secret life from his girlfriend. Things take an ugly turn when a new recreation drug du jour called Twelve is introduced into the market and his cousin is brutally murdered on an East Harlem playground. Now he is going to have to survive in a world he’s woefully ill-equipped to handle. This is based on the controversial novel by Nick McDonnell.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong drug content, alcohol abuse, language, sexual material, brief nudity and some violence – all involving teens)

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby


Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

For Ricky Bobby, winning isn't just the only thing, it's something else entirely.

(Columbia) Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Leslie Bibb, Michael Clarke Duncan, Gary Cole, Amy Adams, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, Greg Germann, Molly Shannon, Andy Richter, Houston Tumlin, Grayson Russell, Pat Hingle, Ted Manson. Directed by Adam McKay

I will admit to not being much of a NASCAR fan. The thrill of auto racing is something that has never really wrapped itself around my spine. I do get why people go gaga over it but it’s just not my thing so when I heard that Will Ferrell was making a NASCAR-themed movie, it wasn’t something I was particularly excited about.

Ricky Bobby (Ferrell), however, would undoubtedly be absolutely smitten with a movie about going fast. He was born in the back of a car doing 100 MPH with his ne’er-do-well drug dealing dad (Cole) at the wheel. The one bit of paternal advice he would give his son before disappearing out of his life entirely is this – if you don’t finish first, you’re last. They would be words that would drive Ricky Bobby his entire life.

It’s no surprise, then, when he becomes part of a pit crew for a sad-sack NASCAR racing team that has become the laughing stock of the circuit, with a driver who stops mid-race at the concession stand to enjoy a chicken sandwich. When opportunity knocks, Ricky Bobby leaps into the drivers seat and his innate ability to go real fast – and drive without fear – makes him the hottest thing in NASCAR, with the help of his best friend Cal (Reilly) who is content to play second fiddle to Ricky Bobby’s diva.

He marries a hot-looking NASCAR groupie named Carley (Bibb) who gets his attention with a timely boob flash, and the two create a family with two demonic kids named Walker (Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Russell) who torment Carley’s dad (Manson) and everyone else. He wins race after race, but irritates the head of the race team (Germann) because he never wins the points championship because he gets penalized for unsportsmanlike-like conduct so often, but that’s just Ricky’s obsession with winning – anything else just doesn’t occur to him.

Bobby’s on top of the world, but it begins to unravel with the arrival of French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Cohen), who wants to prove himself better than his cocky American rival. Girard turns out to be even more ruthless on the track than Ricky Bobby, and the inevitable happens – Ricky Bobby gets into a crash. He walks away from it, convinced at first that he is on fire but later on, convinced that he is paralyzed. Neither is true, of course, as Cal and Ricky’s harried crew chief (Duncan) try to convince him. The truth is, Ricky Bobby has lost his nerve.

He winds up losing a lot more than that, as his sponsors drop him, the race team fires him and his wife leaves him for his best friend. Ricky Bobby is reduced to moving in with his mom and delivering pizzas on a bicycle. Fast is a distant memory.

That’s when Ricky’s dad re-enters the picture, and if ever he needed a father figure it’s now. Of course, Ricky’s dad is something of a whacko, so battling the fear that still lives inside him is no easy task. Everyone he’s ever counted on has left him – can he ever count on himself?

I have to admire the instincts of Ferrell and McKay, who also co-wrote the movie. This movie plays to Ferrell’s strengths without getting so over-the-top that the audience gets lost. Ricky Bobby is not unlike Ron Burgundy had Ron been born in an Alabama double-wide.

Also wisely, the movie never makes fun of racing itself, only some of the things that go on within it – the bitter rivalries, the pressure brought on by corporate sponsorships and the sometimes eccentric personalities of the drivers, crew and fans. NASCAR fans will probably not take too much offense, although there might be a few who find the movie crude.

This is as good a cast as you’re going to find in a comedy, with Oscar-nominated actor Reilly once again playing second banana, but doing it as well as anybody. Baron hams it up as the nearly indecipherable Frenchman and Cole shows a surprising comic talent in his part as well. Blink and you’ll almost miss Amy Adams’ turn as a loyal assistant, although she figures much more in things near the end of the movie – and she does a great job in a role which others might have phoned in.

The laughs are plentiful – if I’m laughing out loud during a movie when I’m supposed to, I figure the filmmakers are doing their job. While you don’t need to be a big NASCAR fan to enjoy the movie, a lot of in-jokes undoubtedly went whizzing by me. I liked this movie a bit more than I thought I was going to – which is turning out to be a theme in this week’s newsletter and that is the kind of theme I can get into.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s laugh-out-loud funny, certainly one of Ferrell’s better efforts to date. Some of the most iconic comedy sequences of the decade can be found here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like most comedies, it can be pretty scattershot. Those who really cannot stand NASCAR or auto racing in general may not find much in the movie to grab onto.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the jokes are a bit on the crude side and the language occasionally drifts into the foul lane but by and large reasonably acceptable for younger crowds.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Blu-Ray Discs of the movie were included with the first 400,000 PlayStation 3 units sold.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As you might expect, there are a plethora of them including a gaggle of fake interviews with the cast members in character, the now-standard Line-o-Rama feature that is included with most Judd Apatow-produced DVDs as well as a commentary track that is a spoof of DVD commentary tracks with the director acting pretentious and giving out facts that are patently untrue.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Fantastic Mr. Fox