Tag Archives: Linklater

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: The Big Short

Big Short

The Big Short will make you lose all the respect you have in the banking system, if you’re even dumb enough to have any respect for it period.

We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.

The Big Short has been the surprise of this year’s awards season. It’s one of the Oscar entries with the least hype but is somehow coming out on top or pretty close. I decided to find out why.

The film begins in 2005 with Michael Burry, an eccentric hedge fund manager who’s socially flawed but very successful at what he does. He’s actually an M.D. but decided to go into the financial industry. One day he hears how housing prices have increased in Silicon Valley despite the decrease of jobs. He gets his answer. He finds out that the banks and financial industries are giving out subprime mortgages with big risk to underqualified people. The banks either don’t know about this or their too lazy to solve things.

Burry suspects this will lead to the collapse of the American economy within due time. However Burry is also creative. He knows how to ‘short’ the system by creating by creating a credit default swap market allowing him to bet against the housing market. He goes to the various banks offering megamillions to wager. The banks are willing to accept, feeling Burry will lose and the housing market is secure.

Burry’s deal catches the attention of Deutsche Bank trader Jared Vennett, whom the film is mostly scene through his point of view. Vennett hears about it from a banker he dealt with and investigates Burry’s claims for himself. Once he learns of the truth that the mortgages are high-risk, poorly-organized, sold-for-big-numbers and practically unsupervised by the banks and lending companies, he gets his own piece of the default swap action of his own.

An accidental phone call from Vennett to hedge fund manager Mark Baum catches Baum’s interest. Baum is a good businessman but is tough, cynical and isn’t afraid to let people know when something is going wrong. Heck, he was a Doubting Thomas since he was a child. Baum meets up with Vennett and is given a demonstration by Vennett and his assistant through a Jenga blocks set. Vennett demonstrates how the encroaching collapse is being further perpetuated by the sale of CDOs: Collateralized Debt Obligations. These poor loans are given incorrectly high loan ratings from A to AAA and B to BBB due to the dishonesty of the ratings agency. Baum is reluctant and this takes over his mind.

At the same time, Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley are making their way into Wall Street. The two young Colorado men formed their own investment and trading business in Jamie’s garage where the two helped turn $100,000 into $40 million in four year. Now they want to take it to the next level by achieving on Wall Street but despite their promise, they lack the stuff to play with the big guns. At a bank where they failed to get assistance, Geller encountered a paper where he learns of Vennett’s attempt to short and they want a piece of the action. However they will need an IDSA and they lack the minimum capital to profit from this. They are able to get what they need from their friend and mentor Ben Rickert: a retired banker who now gardens for a living.

The time after is not business as usual. Burry’s story may have gotten a lot of notice but it’s also gotten to the ire of his clients. They feel the housing market is very secure and he’s wasting their money. Many demand he stop what he’s doing but he refuses. He even keeps the percentage increase in his ‘shorting’ in big red numbers on his whiteboard. Geller and Shipley consult with Rickert on making a future deal. Geller proposes a large amount of money despite Shipley’s reluctance.

Baum is frustrated by all this and he enlists two of his workers to check up on the housing situation by driving into neighborhoods. What they see is not pleasant: people with low incomes owning two-storied homes and one home rented out to a low income family by a landlord owing five months on his mortgage which he took out under his dog’s name! The landlord himself abandoned his own home to the point an alligator was able to crawl into the swimming pool. In addition, Baum learns of successful mortgage salesman who are going as far as selling mortgages to underqualified immigrants and even giving out NINJA mortgages (NINJA: NO Income No Job no Assests) as well as a banker for a major bank who’s willing to let it happen for fear clients will take their business to the competition and get their mortgage there.

Then comes the American Securitization Forum in Las Vegas. Burry isn’t there but Vennett and Baum are there together along with Geller, Shipley and Rickert to get their IDSA and their own piece of the default swap. Baum comes across a CDO manager who reveals much to Baum’s horror that he’s created synthetic CDOs: a chain of large bets on the faulty loans which actually total more money than the actual CDOs. It’s there where Baum’s business partners convince him to take this on. Geller and Shipley get their IDSA and they find their piece of the action in AA CDOs which have been overlooked by most of the bigwigs. They get their opportunity but they’re reminded by Rickert of the immense hurt that will happen to the American public once they win in their gamble. The celebration of the two ends right there.

Returning back to their business expecting the doomsday to happen any day soon, Baum wants to be the one settling the score as he himself tries to get the word out at public meetings. Geller and Shipley try to get the word out to the news but no one from a former college classmate who now works for the Wall Street Journal to Jamie’s brother’s ex-girlfriend who is a broker to even Charlie’s parents believe their doomsday claims. Burry’s investors still continue to refute his claims and want to pull out until Burry puts a moratorium on their withdrawals, much to their anger.

The stock market crash of 2008 eventually happens. Burry, Vennett and Baum were right all along. Businesses collapsed, the unemployment rate went up, the homelessness rate skyrocketed, trillions of dollars invested by the American people were lost. Not to mention many countries, especially in Europe, went through their economic crises that still exist today. In addition Burry’s investments increased fivefold from his original investment, Vennett made a nifty $77 million and Charlie and Jamie got the big financial break they sought. But no one’s smiling. Oh yeah, did I mention that there was no bank reform done and there was only one arrest from this whole mess?

This is a film that gets inside the world financial crisis of today. We should all be angry and outraged with the system for what it did with the people’s hard-earned money. We had a banking system that was too laxed and had next to no restrictions in giving out mortgages to people even if they weren’t qualified. We had people who saw the eventual doom but opted to get a piece of the action. We had bankers and mortgage dealers who were irresponsible enough to make salesmen of themselves and only care about getting big numbers for bonus checks. We had the bankers, investors and other financial professionals either negligent or ignorant to what’s happening. People’s hard-earned investments, funds and savings were treated like gambling money by these professionals. In the end, it led to the biggest collapse in the world’s economy since the stock market crash of 1928.

The film gives us what we should have to be angry with the system. However the film also does a good job in making a comedy out of it. I myself have come across a lot of situations that have been very nasty or very stressful but also very funny because of the stupidity behind it all. This is the magic of the film. It finds the humor of the stupidity that occurred in the system. While The Wolf Of Wall Street made Wall Street look like a jungle, this film made the banking and loan system look like they treated the system like it was a playground of people’s money. The film gives us many characters we find entertaining and funny but also types we just want to give the middle finger to. The film also makes us laugh at the stupidity that’s going on while having us leave the theatre infuriated in our afterthoughts.

In the end, the laughter ends and even those that profited big are disheartened. Burry’s not celebrating the big returns his investments got. Baum is left with a huge stomach ache and looks like his soul is crushed in the end. Geller and Shipley have possibly the biggest impact as you can see as they’re in the abandoned NYSE building and they’ve lost complete faith in the system.

Another quality of the film is that it helps the average person make sense of a complicated system. The story of how it all happened is a long and complicated story that consists of terms the average person hasn’t heard of and exists in a system only those inside can make sense of and understand why it happened. In making this film, they had to make a film that would help the average person make better sense of the banking system and the products and outside products that come with it. Who outside of banking or investing knows what a CDO is or how to ‘short’ the market when it’s doing business or even what an IDSA is? This film helps make sense of these complicated terms and showed how they worked in a business that is supposed to make things work. The vignettes from celebrities giving an explanation or a demonstration of how things worked added to the humor of the film as well as the quality. Even that flashback to the late 1970’s of how Lewis Ranieri changed the bank system, and our lives ‘more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together’ also added to the story and make more sense of the irresponsibility.

I have to say this is an accomplishment for director Adam McKay. Adam is not known for directing serious movies. For the most part, he’s most famous for writing and directing Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Stepbrothers. This film is a completely different change of pace for him. However he succeeds in directing and co-writing with Charles Randolph an excellent film that’s as much a comedy as it is a tragedy.

It’s often a wonder why someone would take what is a terrible moment in American history and turn it into a comedy. I guess that’s what McKay and Randolph are doing is that they’re showing the bizarre stupidity that happened the whole time in a comedic way. They deliver a film that will have you laughing at the ridiculousness of it all and at the same time infuriate you for days or even weeks after leaving the theatre.

McKay and Randolph also succeed in delivering a film that defies convention which is all the better for it. The use of cameos from other people in an attempt to get the audience to understand banking methods and money-making methods adds to the movie. Most people would think something like this would subtract from the quality. Instead it adds. Additional tricks in the film that add to the quality are scenes and moments where the characters stop the drama in their scenes and face us explaining the real story.

Standout performance has to go to Christian Bale as an eccentric businessman whose socially flawed but smart enough to sense a danger and get rich off of it despite his anger. His social reclusiveness as well as his fixation on music adds to the character’s dimension. The other big standout from the film was Steve Carell. His character of a man who just can’t get the impending doom off his mind and is unapologetically frank but also troubled is another show-stealer. Actually there were a lot of eye catching characters including that from Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett despite the role not being as complex as Bale’s Burry or Carell’s Baum. Additional scene stealers include John Magaro and Finn Wittrock as the two young and hungry businessmen who want a piece of the action but have a lot of learning to do. They first come off as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the film but it’s right at the end you see how much the realities have bit them.

The film doesn’t prove much in terms of outside things like a score or cinematography or effects. However the film put together unconventionally worked on so many levels. Besides other unconventional qualities I talked about previously, there’s also the added element of showing pictures and film clips of average Americans as they would be the ones paying the hardest price of it all. Even the addition of various news clips and music videos add to the film. The addition of a wide variety of music from hip-hop to rock is another added quality. I feel the film ending with Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks was the right choice because the levee broke here.

The Big Short is one film that will get a lot of people thinking. I may be Canadian but I was shocked at what I was seeing. I too was outraged at how irresponsible the American banking system was and how it appears to have learned nothing from this. I consider myself lucky to be Canadian after seeing this. For all its headaches, the Canadian banking system is a lot more responsible in terms of who it lends its products to and even declines if it feels it has to. However it does have some careless elements of its own. For my own experience, I signed up for a credit card the very first week I was in university while under NINJA status and I still got it. There was another time I was at my bank during company time but a credit card saleswoman wanted me to sign up for a Gold Visa card. Since she wouldn’t take no for an answer, I signed up for it hoping she would get off my case. I thought I wouldn’t get it since I didn’t have the minimum annual income for a Gold card. I got it to my surprise. I’m still unhappy about this. Makes you wonder how and why banks seem to have forgotten their standards. No wonder that British man in a pub said to Rickert: “$100 million? Are you a banker or a drug dealer? Because if you’re a banker, you can fuck right off!”

The Big Short will make you angry with the banking system but will also make you laugh at the stupidity as well. It’s part drama, part comedy, part history lesson and that is probably what makes it a winner.

Oh yes. Another year of watching all the Best Picture nominees. This makes it the fifteenth year in a row I’ve done so! Here’s to another Oscar year.

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Movie Review: Boyhood

Boyhood is a movie of the growing years of Mason Evans Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) shot over a period of twelve years.

Boyhood is a movie of the growing years of Mason Evans Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) and was shot over a period of twelve years.

I know there have been a lot of people who liked my World Cup blogs but there are still some who feel like saying: “Jon, when’s your next movie review?” For those wondering about that, yes I have been watching movies over the summer and I have a few reviews to share. To start with, I’ll do Boyhood: a good choice for those who want something different.

The movie starts with six year-old Mason Evans Jr., a boy growing up in a small Texas town who’s more interested in nature and collecting arrowheads than playing football. He lives with his slightly older sister Samantha, single mother Olivia and her boyfriend. Things are not the best as Mason has to share a bedroom with his sister and that causes typical brother-sister issues. Then it changes one day after an argument with Olivia and her boyfriend which she claims she has no free time. She moves to Houston with the children. This causes concern for mason wondering if he’ll ever see his father again.

Life in Houston starts to work out fine for Mason and the family. Olivia is able to attend classes at the University of Houston while Mason and Samantha attend school. They’re able to meet up with their father Mason Sr. but it’s not so frequent. Even as Mason Sr. drops the kids off, friction between him and Olivia come back. In the meantime, Olivia meets up with Professor Bill Welbrock. He appears to be a good man with a head on his shoulders and even takes a liking to Mason, willing to introduce him to his own son Randy who’s a similar like. The two marry and his children Mindy and Randy move in together. The family appears close knit as the stepsiblings have fun together and Bill appears to be the ideal husband. However things turn for the worse as Bill develops a drinking problem he first tries to keep secret only to have it exposed as he becomes abusive to Olivia and the children, even forcing Mason Jr. to get his head shaved. Olivia immediately leaves the household taking Mason and Sam with her.

The three find a new life in a town close to Austin. Olivia becomes a psychology teacher and falls in love with one of her students Jim who’s a former Afghanistan War veteran whom she eventually marries. Mason Sr. has married and has become a father to a newborn. In the meantime, Samantha and Mason Jr begin social interaction of their own as they make friend and start dating. However Mason’s drinking and earrings have gotten on the nerve of a visibly drunken Jim. Not surprisingly Olivia divorces him.

In the meantime Mason has a girlfriend named Sheena, works part-time at a seafood restaurant and has developed a passion for photography. His work in taking pictures and developing in the darkroom inspires him to be an artistic photographer. However it doesn’t sit well with his teacher because he knows how competitive of a field photography is and how gimmicks are easier moneymakers than art. The teacher then makes Mason photographer for the football team.

Grade 12 is a life changing year for Mason Jr. Sam has moved onto college but she does allow Mason and Sheena to ‘visit.’ Sheena soon breaks up with Mason for a boy on the high school lacrosse team. Mason also wins second prize in a photography contest and receives scholarship money. His graduation is celebrated with family and others close in his life like his teacher and his boss at the restaurant. Going to college is the next chapter in Mason’s life. However it’s not without heartache as his mother finds it hard both her children have moved out and wonders of her own life. The film ends with Mason attending college, becoming friends with his roommate and being introduced to his roommate’s girlfriend’s best friend who shares a lot of common interests and common dreams with Mason.

Now this is something. Director Richard Linklater tells a story of Mason Jr. over the years and the people around him. He uses all the same actors, no replacements. This was very chancy because a lot can change over a period of twelve years. It’s possible Ellar could have gotten tired of acting and wanted nothing to do with it anymore within that time. It’s even possible one of the actors in one of the main roles could have died. Any one of them. But it worked. And it wasn’t just simply the technical bits. It was also a story about a boy whose life over the years catches our intrigue. We’re astonished to see Mason Jr. (or should I say Ellar?) grow over a twelve year span. We also see the lives of his mother, father and Sam pave their way too. All those who were part of the film and its ‘aging process’ contributed significantly. Also as it progresses over the time, Linklater doesn’t leave anything out as far as aging goes. He doesn’t get the adult actors to hide their facial aging. He doesn’t replace the child actors if any one of them go through the ‘awkward stage’ or get braces. He keeps it all as is. That’s another quality.

The thing is the film doesn’t really tell the typical story that has a beginning, middle and end. Rather it tries to paint a portrait of Mason Jr. growing up over the years and of the boy he was and would grow up to be. It’s not too thick on a plot but rather lets time unravel itself and tell the story as it goes along. Almost like childhood through Mason Jr’s eyes. It’s common with Richard Linklater’s movies that they’re not too heavy on the plot and give more of an atmosphere. Another thing this film can do is remind audience members of their own childhood growing up. It may tell a story of a boy who’s not into sports and more of a dreamer but I’m sure there are some parts of Mason’s childhood that will remind them of their own.

Another additional element that adds to the film are the surrounding scenes that add to the atmosphere. Linklater has done that in past films where he would show elements in the film that would actually add to it. We see it here too with Sam’s like of popular culture from Britney Spears to High School Musical to Lady Gaga. We see it in the computer technology as the cast go from Apple computers with big box screens to iPhones. We see it in Mason Jr. growing up in highly conservative Texas and the values the state tries to instill with the people and through the schools. We also see it in how it with Mason Sr. being a liberal Democrat in a state that has a lot of staunch conservatives. We also see it with scenes with other artistically-minded people in the film. It all adds to it.

This film also adds to a common theme of Richard Linklater’s movies. Linklater has never been one to dwell into the typical Hollywood fanfare. He’s always been one to do his movies his way. His movies have featured people pursue their passion and even dream out loud. He often focuses on the visionaries and the inspired ones and he presents them as the ones to be admired. I think that’s why he has such a following with Generation X. We can see that in Mason Jr. He falls in love with photography and wants it to be his life passion. The problem is those around him don’t think highly of his choice. The teachers question it and whether it’s a career choice that will allow for a decent living. His father wonders why he doesn’t pursue something that ‘wins chicks.’ His girlfriend drops him for a jock because it doesn’t make him look cool enough. And his friends razz him about it. But it’s his passion. I think that’s what Linklater is showing. About how passion is what matters. Especially for a boy like Mason.

Without a doubt, this is an accomplishment from Linklater. It was a unique idea from him that was creative but risky and it paid off very well. However this is also an accomplishment from actor Ellar Coltrane. It was not an easy job to play the same role over twelve years of filming. Nevertheless he did an excellent job in the role. It wasn’t so much a role filled with emotional range or drama but rather a role that required the actor to grow along with the role and have the personality of the dreamer Linklater intended to have as the central protagonist. Much of it was natural personality but a lot of it was maturity over age. And Ellar did it. Very excellent.

Patricia Arquette was also very good as the mother almost to the point it appeared she stole the movie. The movie was also about the mother over the years improving her life, raising her two children and falling into two marriages that appeared right at the time but would soon make a turn for the worse. Her struggles added to the story not just to add to Mason Jr’s story but to also mix it in as her own story too. Ethan Hawke was also good as the father who makes the annual visit. He too shows maturity over the years but his overall role was not as challenging as his past roles. Lorelei Linklater was also very good. She may have been cast as Sam simply because she’s Richard Linklater’s daughter–much the same way Ethan was cast because of working in his Before Sunrise series– but she wasn’t just simply there. She was given a role too that involved her to grow along with Ellar and also portray Sam as this sister who was liked pop culture, had her own individual style, had ambitions of her own and was a typical older sister in both the fun times and the bad times with Mason.

One thing to note as well. It has been noticed in the last few years the lack of buzz alternative or independent cinema has had over the years. There hasn’t as big of a phenomenon from Sundance or any other film festival promoting independent film in the last while. I don’t know if Boyhood would qualify as a phenomenon but it is one film that has gotten bigger notice over time and has grown with the buzz. It currently has made $22 million in the US and $37 million worldwide. It has also received a lot of critical admiration and a lot of praise for its uniqueness. Definitely a big boost for independent cinema this year.

Boyhood is one of those summer movies one who wants to get off the beaten path of your typical summer movie fanfare would want to see. It’s definitely worth it.

Movie Review: Before Midnight

Greece becomes the setting for the latest film of  Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Midnight.

Greece becomes the setting for the latest film of
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in
Before Midnight.

It’s the summer which means now is the time for movies to win crowds over for the top of the box office. Before Midnight doesn’t seem like the type of film that the summer movie crowd would rush out to see. Those lucky enough to give it a chance will be delighted.

NOTE: I know that Before Midnight is the third film in a series that includes Before Sunrise and Before Sunset which I will refer to as the ‘Jesse & Celine’ series. For the sake of the review, I will review Before Midnight without comparing them to the two previous films.

The film starts as Jesse is seeing his son Hank off back home to Chicago after spending the summer with him and Celine in the Greek Peninsula of Peloponnese. On the ride back to the house of their friend Patrick, the two have a discussion while their twin daughters are sleeping. Jesse has been doing well as a writer but wants to spend more time with Hank and give him a healthy childhood. Meanwhile Celine has been considering a job with the government back in Paris.

The visit at Patrick’s place becomes a moment of tranquility as the people staying with them, especially the other couples, talk about love and life. The couples even share their own experiences and feelings about each other and their relationships as Jesse and Celine are the centerpiece of it all. Patrick even gives his insight about Jesse future as a novelist in this time of electronic media.

Then Jesse and Celine head to the hotel the guests bought for them so they could spend some time alone. The walk seems light and sweet as the two talk about how they’ve met and how they’ve changed since then. However it’s in the suite that the friction starts. We learn that Hank’s mother back in Chicago is a suicidal alcoholic and citizenship laws can’t bring him to live with the two. We also learn that this government job is an opportunity of a lifetime for Celine. Then the fears about their future start pouring out from both of them which causes Celine to storm out of the hotel room leaving their relationship in question. The movie ends on the right notes in tune with the reality of the situation and allows the audience to decide the end of this story for themselves.

Even without the whole ‘Jesse & Celine’ factor, the film has the ability to stand well alone. The best quality of the film is that it’s one of the most thorough scripts I’ve seen when it comes to being about a relationship. The film focuses on the highlights and the struggles of the relationship between Jesse and Celine but it also features a scene at the house of Patrick and the other couples at the villa. The scene shows the couples young and old and their relationships where they talk about all the factors going into their love and their relations. There’s even talk from those no longer married. That scene adds to the story of Before Midnight. It’s a common trait of Richard Linklater to add conversations of others in situations involving the main plot of his films.

The other quality of the film is not just the film about being about relationships but of how two people can make or break it either by who they are, what they do or even what point in their lives they’re at. A lot of it has to do with the development of the characters. Jesse is the dreamer writer who tries to balance his imagination with his reality. He has become a successful writer as he’s on the verge of writing another novel. He appears to be in a happy relationship to Celine and a good father to his twin girls. However he wants to spend more time with his son in Chicago because he doesn’t trust his son’s mother. In the meantime, Celine is on the verge of a major career opportunity. This request from Jesse couldn’t come at a worse time. Celine however is the opposite of Jesse as she is very business oriented and does let her surrounding factors get to her. At the beginning of the film, you think this is a problem that will eventually sort itself out over time but it doesn’t. In fact all factors come into play such as the couple’s individual personalities, their vocations, Jesse’s fame as a writer, their roles as parents, their past selves, their genders, their current middle-ages and even their concepts of what they will be many years from now.

The thoroughness of the subject of relationships is one of the best qualities of the story. Another quality of the story is how the status of the relationship changes with every trip they make and every location they’re both at. In fact it’s all within a single day for changes to happen for the two to go from a family during a drive from the airport to one of the couples at Patrick’s house to a happy couple walking the streets of the town to a relationship in trouble at the hotel suite. That’s another strong addition to Before Midnight having all this happening in one day.

You have to give kudos to Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. It’s this trio that made it work in their collaborative scriptwriting, Richard’s directing and Ethan’s and Julie’s acting. You can bet with this series practically being Richard’s baby he would deliver a third movie that adds to the story of Jesse & Celine and he does it very well. Ethan and Julie have to know their roles of Jesse and Celine if they want to deliver performances that show them aging and growing believably in order for this movie to make the story of the two progress and even add to the series. Mind you it’s not just Richard, Ethan and Julie that deliver in this movie. Walter Lassally was a charming scene-stealer as Patrick and the dinner guests also added to the film very well. Another standout was the cinematography of Christos Voudouris that captured the feel of Greece in the movie.

Before Midnight may or may not be the last film in the Jesse & Celine series. Nevertheless it is an excellent and intelligent movie as it is and adds to the series. People who loved Before Sunrise and Before Sunset will not be disappointed.Those from the summer movie crowd who don’t bother to see this film don’t know what they’re missing.