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)

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Selma


Marching into history.

Marching into history.

(2014) True Life Drama (Paramount) David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Charity Jordan, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Jeremy Strong, Lorraine Toussaint, Tara Ochs. Directed by Ava DuVernay

Selma is a watershed moment in American history and in particular the history of the civil rights movement. The brutality of Southern oppression on its African-American citizen was beamed to all our living rooms for all to see. Martin Luther King’s efforts to organize and call attention on the suppression of voting rights for African-Americans would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he had long championed and ended decades of African-Americans having no voice in the governing of their communities, states and country.

In 1965 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just come into law and while it is a magnificent piece of legislation preventing discrimination, in the South it may not have been signed into law at all. Those African-Americans attempting to register to vote, much as activist Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) was, were met with poll taxes, or impromptu quizzes that nobody could answer, white or black in a desperate attempt for white racist Southerners to hold onto power in Dixie.

Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), already a landmark civil rights activist or, as he is known by those who oppose him, agitator as J. Edgar Hoover (Baker) puts it, approaches President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation that will prevent the kinds of abuses taking place in voter registration in the South but LBJ is less inclined to do that; he has his War on Poverty to consider, which he feels will ultimately be more beneficial to the black community. He has just too much going on to put any energy into King’s demands at the moment, but being the consummate politician he assures the civil rights leader that he will get right on it…in a couple of years. Hoover, on the other hand, wants this whole civil rights thing nipped in the bud. His surveillance of Dr. King has revealed some strain in his marriage to his wife Coretta (Ejogo) and he wants to exploit that, but Johnson prevents it.

With the violence escalating in the South, King knows he can’t wait. He decides to go to Selma, a small town in Alabama whose sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) is particularly mean and stupid and likely to do something that will give King the ammunition he needs. Activists in the Selma area are only too happy to see a national figure like Dr. King arrive on the scene, although John Lewis (James) – a future congressman who is still serving today – and James Foreman (Byers) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are suspicious of his motives.

During an evening non-violent march, the protestors are attacked by police. Three of them – Cager Lee (Sanders), his daughter Viola Lee Jackson (Jordan) and his grandson Jimmy Lee Jackson (Stanfield) are chased into a diner. When the police arrive, they make a point of beating the crap out of the old man and his kin. When Jimmy Lee tries to protect them, he is shot in the abdomen and killed. This galvanizes the organizers, leading Rev. James Bevel (Common) to suggest a march from Selma to Montgomery.

This is exactly what Governor George Wallace (Roth) doesn’t want. His right hand man in the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo (Root) is enlisted to take care of things. In the meantime, in order to prevent the march, the President allows Hoover to carry on with his plans, delivering a tape of Dr. King allegedly having sex with another woman. While the tape is clearly fabricated, she gets King to admit to having had affairs. In order to repair things with his family, King decides to skip the March which is set for March 7, 1965. On that day, Alabama troopers face about 600 marchers and attack them on national television, bloodying the peaceful protesters – some of them, like Amelia Boynton (Toussaint) into unconsciousness – and horrifying a nation.

King, horrified beyond measure, returns to Selma with his wife’s blessing. He knows that the march needs to take place or else it would all be for nothing. He calls on the nation, to people of conscience of all colors to come to Selma and march with him. Many do come, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Ochs) and Unitarian minister James Reeb (Strong). With a tense stand-off between the forces of racism and the forces of freedom, would the march take place and would change come to the South?

History tells us that the March did finally take place successfully and that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson championed would become law (until it was dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago). Like Titanic, most of us know how the story ends. In the hands of a gifted director, we would feel the tension of those participating because they, unlike us, did not know how the story would end.

DuVernay for the most part accomplishes this. She is aided in this to a very large extent by Oyelowo who delivers a remarkable performance as the late Dr. King. There is a tendency for us to deify certain people – Dr. King, Gandhi, President Lincoln and so forth – to the point that we forget that they are human beings, far from perfect and full of frailties. DuVernay impressively gets that point across that Dr. King, as great a man and courageous a man as he was, also did things that he wasn’t proud of, also made mistakes and also had a playful sense of humor. At times he needed encouragement, phoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing a gospel song so that he might be reassured. At times he wasn’t as strong as his iron-willed wife Coretta was. Oyelowo captures these moments and makes the man relatable to all of us.

In fact most of the cast is impressive although Wilkinson is miscast as LBJ. The LBJ I remember was a force of nature and larger than life and Wilkinson makes him more of a backrooms conniver, which he also was but there was a charisma to him that Wilkinson doesn’t capture. Many who knew the late President have complained that the film does an injustice to his memory in its portrayal of him as obstructive and unsupportive which history tells us he was not, but this isn’t the LBJ story.

It’s not even Dr. King’s story, although he naturally dominates the screen time here. It is a story for all of us, about the tribulations of the Civil Rights activists and what they actually went through to get the rights we take for granted today. It also is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go, with events in Ferguson, Missouri mentioned pointedly in the movie’s post-credits Oscar-nominated song and parallels to modern oppression of the African American community.

Near the end we see footage purportedly of the actual March with some of it archival, although we mostly see celebrity marchers like Davis and Belafonte. Due to the rights to Dr. King’s speeches being owned by DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil Rights era that has not yet come to fruition, we don’t get to hear the actual words of Dr. King’s speeches; instead, DuVernay had to rewrite them so that they were in the style of his oratory but not his actual words. Shame on DreamWorks for not allowing the film to use the words inspiring to so many.

This is one of the better movies of the Holiday Awards season and it justly received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some are moaning about DuVernay not receiving a nomination for Best Director but truth be told those that did receive the nomination also deserved to be nominated; what separated the five films that got the nod and this one are essentially splitting hairs; to my mind, she had a tendency to be a bit ham-handed in some of the activism scenes with swelling strings to the point that you couldn’t hear the dialogue but were supposed to feel inspired. It is a bit manipulative and could have been handled better. She should have trusted the material to bring out those feelings without hitting us in the head with them.

Nitpicking aside, this should be mandatory viewing for all of us who think that the need for activism has ended. We should all understand what was endured by those who fought for the rights of African-Americans and continue to be endured. Freedom is not given, it must be fought for and so many continue to fight. The legacy of Selma is with us still and should inspire all of us to rise up and support those who still need to shine the light on practices that should outrage all Americans – but still doesn’t. We shall overcome indeed, but we haven’t yet.

REASONS TO GO: MLK is humanized here. Captures the scope of the march and the events surrounding it. About damn time there was a movie about Selma.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure about the LBJ portrayal. Could have used archival footage better.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some disturbing violence of defenseless people being beaten, some brief strong language, adult themes and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Free screenings of the film were made available to 275,000 high school and middle school students.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Detachment

The Judge


The awkward moment when Vincent D'Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

The awkward moment when Vincent D’Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Lancaster, Lonnie Farmer, Matt Riedy, Mark Kiely, Jeremy Holm, Catherine Cummings, Tamara Hickey. Directed by David Dobkin

The relationship between a father and a son is often a difficult thing. Men have a tendency towards competitiveness. Fathers love their sons fiercely and want them to be successful which is, after all, a reflection on them as dads. However, there is a part of every dad who is terrified that the day will come when his son surpasses him as a man. That’s where the difficulty comes in.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a high-powered defense attorney in Chicago. When asked how he is able to defend the guilty, he quips “the innocent can’t afford me.” If Tony Stark were a defense attorney, he’d be Hank Palmer.

In court one afternoon he gets the devastating news that his mother has passed away suddenly. Not really looking forward to it, he returns to his small town Indiana home for the funeral. There he meets up with his two siblings; older brother Glen (D’Onofrio), once a promising baseball phenom, and younger brother Dale (Strong) who has emotional challenges and usually can be found using a Super 8 camera to record snippets of his life which he edits into films that have no context for anyone other than Dale.

And then there’s Hank’s dad (Duvall), whom Hank refers to as “The Judge” – not Dad, not Pop, not Father but the title. It’s not just Hank defining his father by his chosen career as a dispenser of justice, but also coloring the relationship he has with him. Talk about daddy issues.

The two get along like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid jostling for space in front of the news camera and Hank is only too happy to return home despite reconnecting with Samantha Powell (Farmiga), an old flame. Hank is in the market at the moment as his marriage to his wife Lisa (Lancaster) has collapsed after her infidelity. His precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay) is torn between her two parents when it comes to who she wants to live with.

Hank is sitting down in his seat on board the plane when he gets an urgent call from Glen – the Judge has been arrested for a hit and run accident. The victim was Mark Blackwell (Kiely), a man the Judge had put away in prison but had recently been released. The two have an unpleasant history.

With a suave district attorney (Thornton) looking to put the Judge away for good, it will take all of Hank’s skill as a defense lawyer to keep his dad out of jail. But said father isn’t necessarily being the most cooperative defendant ever and there are things that Hank discovers when he begins digging that turn his perception of the case – and his father – on its ear.

Dobkin, whose career thus far has been fairly uneven, has a solid winner here and it starts with the casting. Duvall is one of the world’s best living actors and at 83 he still can deliver a powerful performance. He lends gravitas to the movie as well as a kind of moral certainty. Downey who at one time was on the road to being one of America’s most promising serious actors until his career was briefly derailed, moves back into proving that his Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder were no flukes. This may be his best performance ever, showing a deeply conflicted man wrestling with the demons of his past and the guilt that accompanies the decisions he’s made. D’Onofrio is the rock of the family in many ways now that his mom is gone and his performance is also very compelling. Farmiga as the girlfriend who got away continues to amass an impressive resume of performances.

Some of the plot points seem to come right out of the TV lawyer handbook and that can be distracting. Not that this is a police procedural in any sense of the concept, but it is definitely something of a legal procedural, although the movie tends to spend less time with the nuts and bolts of preparing a case and more with what happens during a trial. In its favor, the movie’s ending isn’t neat and tidy by any stretch of the imagination. Like most human endeavors, court case rarely end with satisfaction over the outcome by everyone involved.

Dobkin cast this movie extremely well and has given us a very strong courtroom drama that is also portrays a dysfunctional family dynamic which sets this apart from other courtroom dramas. Downey references Atticus Finch and to be sure this is no To Kill a Mockingbird but the performances here make this something worth seeking out for anyone who appreciates strong acting.

REASONS TO GO: Duvall brings gravitas. Downey, D’Onofrio, Farmiga and Thornton all give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Has kind of a TV drama quality to it.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language with some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature release from Team Downey, the production company that Downey and his wife started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Book of Life