Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain


Waiting for that cover of Wired.

(2018) Documentary (SingularDTV) Rosario Dawson, Lauri Love, Laura Shin, Imogen Heap, Jamie Dimon, Bill Tai, Tim Draper, Mark Jeffrey, Vinay Gupta, Gary Wright, Spiros Michalaskis, Michael Oved, Steve Mnuchin, John Lyotier, Matthew Green, J. Christopher Giancarlo, Gramatik, Sky Guo, Bettina Warburg, Chris Hayes, Naomi Colvin.  Directed by Alex Winter

 

Even the non-technology oriented will be aware of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Some might even know that Blockchain is the technology behind it, a program that is very nearly impervious to unauthorized alteration and is a nearly foolproof way to record transactions between two parties electronically. It is the basis of how cryptocurrency works.

I had always thought cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin (there are thousands of cryptocurrencies out there currently) were essentially a universal digital currency that could be used for Internet purchases but that’s a bit simplistic. A cryptocurrency uses cryptography – mathematics-based codes – to control financial transactions and also the creation of additional units.

Governments and financial institutions look at cryptocurrencies with wariness and for good reason; by their nature cryptocurrencies are decentralized – not beholden to a specific government or financial institution as normal currency, credit cards and most traditional types of exchange are. A popularization of cryptocurrency could threaten the status quo in ways that would pull the rug out from under those in the corridors of power currently so it isn’t surprising that most billionaires, financial executives and the Secretary of the Treasury have denounced them.

But as Winter points out, Blockchain is far more than cryptocurrencies. Winter travels the world to show how Blockchain facilitates other uses that may be deemed revolutionary. For instance, he looks at how solar power users in Brooklyn can buy and sell excess energy without going through a power company. He also goes to Jordan where UNICEF has founded a super grocery store for refugees that uses eye scans for payment and cryptocurrency as a means of exchange.

Winter is clearly a proponent of the technology but let’s face it – there may be no two subjects on earth that are more boring than technology and finance and this film heavily covers both. I give Winter points for trying to tackle the subject and to make sense of it at least to a degree, but the people interviewed – and there are a lot of them – use a ton of both computer and financial jargon that are not always defined and before too long one’s non-technical head may end up spinning as mine did.

But as hacktivists like Lauri Love, whose fight against extradition from the UK to the United States is also detailed here, will tell you that decentralization is a way to fight corrupt governments and corrupt institutions. It’s not a shock when considering the role banks had in the financial crisis of 2008 that affected so many and ruined so many lives, and that the apparatuses that were in place then that permitted it to happen have never been truly corrected.

I don’t know that cryptocurrency and Blockchain are panaceas to effect real change but they certainly could be. I do know that human greed tends to ruin every good thing and I suspect that will be the eventual fate of Blockchain as well, but as Rosario Dawson intones in her narration, Blockchain will require some sort of regulation in order to survive. Given the current administration in place, one wonders if such regulation would be set up to benefit billionaires as has most of the policy to come out of it has.

REASONS TO GO: At least attempts to bring a very important technology into some sort of layman understanding.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a whole lot of jargon that may cause non-computer geeks to tune out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Winter is best known as Bill S. Preston in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Job
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bilal: A New Kind of Hero

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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)

Mary Poppins


Mary Poppins

Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke discover you just can't find good help anymore.

(Disney) Julie Andrews, Dick van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynnis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Else Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell, Arthur Malet. Directed by Robert Stevenson

Some movies transcend their original material. Very few remember the children’s stories of P.L. Travers but nearly everyone has seen and/or loves the Disney movie version.

The Banks children Jane (Dotrice) and Michael (Garber) have gone through nannies like Bill Cosby has gone through sweaters. Their father (Tomlinson) spends most of his day working at the bank and when he is home, he expects it to be run like a proper British household. His wife (Johns) is far too busy with the women’s suffragette movement to really spend time with her children. When they drive the latest nanny out, it’s the last straw. Mr. Banks determines to oversee the recruitment of a proper nanny himself.

The children have ideas of their own. They write a letter with the qualifications that they would like, which their father pooh-poohs. However, strangely enough, the torn-up letter of the children makes its way to the world’s most famous nanny; the estimable Mary Poppins (Andrews) herself. When a stiff British breeze blows the other applicants away, Mary Poppins floats in on the Eastern wind and gets the position.

She then proceeds to take her charges through a series of wonderful adventures through chalk drawings, on the rooftops and around London. She is assisted by her friend Bert (van Dyke), a jack of all trades who is best known as a chimney sweep. All of these are set to the most marvelous musical score ever set to a children’s film. And when the broken family is at last mended, Mary Poppins quietly sails away on the East wind that brought her to Cherry Tree Lane.

My wife recently posted on her Facebook status a query about a film that reminds her most of her childhood. I thought and thought and thought about it and came up with this one. If you define childhood as the ages before the affectations and cynicism of the teenage years set in, then this is the movie that defines my pre-teen years most closely.

Julie Andrews gave a career-establishing performance and along with her role as Maria in The Sound of Music (a role she attained due directly to her work here) is the one she is most closely identified with. Much to the distress of P.L. Travers, the Disney brain trust made Poppins more cheery, less cold than the one in the book. Andrews made her fresh and sweet, to go with the prim and proper veneer she affected. It would give Andrews the Best Actress Oscar at the 1965 Academy Awards.

No less outstanding is van Dyke as Bert the chimney sweep. His singing and dancing would establish him a one of Hollywood’s leading actors for the era and elevate him from the television fame which he then enjoyed. Van Dyke holds his own with some of the more intimidating actors of the era, including Wynn as the contagiously jolly Uncle Albert.

The music however is particularly outstanding and nearly everyone has a song that is close to their hearts from this film, from “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” to “Stay Awake” to the classic “A Spoonful of Sugar.” My own personal favorite is “Feed the Birds,” something I have in common with Walt Disney himself. I used to have an album with some of the music from Mary Poppins and I feel oddly comforted whenever I hear this song; I used to play it as a child when I was troubled and would feel immediately better. I think a lot of children use music that way.

Simply put, this is one of the all-time classics, one which in many ways doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves. It is symbolic of childhood and families, of the wonder and magic that is all around us and that we can rediscover if only we choose to. Children have no need to – they know it’s there, they live with it every day. How I envy them that.

So there you have it. The movie that most brings my childhood back to me is this one. I suspect that I’m not alone in that regard. So go ahead, whip out the disk or rent it (it’s available nearly everywhere and it’s almost always in stock) and settle in for two hours of childhood reclamation. It will do your soul good.

And feel free to add your voice to the discussion. Is there a particular movie that brings back memories of your childhood? Post it in the comments!

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful music, great performances, an imaginative premise and simply put, makes you feel like a kid again regardless of how old you are.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ve lost contact with the child inside you.

FAMILY VALUES: This family classic is suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only movie produced by Walt Disney himself to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The most recent 45th Anniversary edition comes loaded with special features, included several related to the recent Broadway production based on the film. There’s a feature on composer Richard Sherman, as well as a deleted song set to storyboards for the scene, and a short film based on a Mary Poppins story by P.L. Travers.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Dragonball: Evolution