Showing posts with label Mkt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mkt. Show all posts

Friday, January 29, 2016

"The Big Short" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "The Big Short" as well as DVDs "Diary of a Teenage Girl" and "John Denver: Country Boy."  The Book of the Week is Ruth Reichl's "My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life."  I also bring you up-to-date on "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" and review my latest dining experience at Ethan Stowell's little Seattle restaurant Mkt.]

The Big Short

This film exposes the dark underbelly of the financial world that led to the collapse of the credit and mortgage industry in 2008.

Back in the 1970's, a guy named Lew Ranieri got this brilliant idea - mortgage backed securities, selling bonds that were also bundled with mortgages - and the financial world was never the same again. 

At first, it was considered a secure investment, because who doesn't pay their mortgage, right? That was a boon to the banking industry because they were always looking for a way to make more money. And all went well for awhile until the investment world realized that there were only so many "good" Triple A-rated (secure) mortgages they could bundle. 

So along came another bright - and "criminal" - idea. 

Let's start adding to that bundle mortgages with adjustable loans that are not rated as highly as those Triple A's, and let's sell those adjustable loans to people who really, really want homes but who we know really, really can't afford them (subprime).  Of course, we won't tell them that.  And hey, if one guy wants to use his dog's name to buy a house, who cares?  We aren't going to check his credit or his ID.  We just want to sell these loans so we can sell them to other people and make lots of money. 

And then let's put those bad loans in with the good loans and everything in between and create a new form of mortgage-backed securities (CDOs), a sort of Ponzi scheme with a series of "tranches," where the promise to pay investors is based on who has the best loans.  If any loans default, the investors with the safest loans get paid first and usually, those with the lower "tranches," are out of luck.

And let's get Standard & Poor's and Moody's, those guys who rate our bonds and loans, in on it too, so no one will know about those really bad loans. And to really make it interesting, let's let investors and traders place wagers on how well the bonds will do ("Synthetic CDOs").  And let's not care how damaging this might be to the country or the world.  Let's just get as rich as we can.

Anyway, I think that's right, but it doesn't matter if you or I understand all of the in's and out's of the financial world. 

All you really need to know is that it was sleaze and greed that ruled the banking world, and then, when the financial collapse finally happened, it was blamed on poor people making bad decisions to buy houses they couldn't afford, instead of the greedy bankers, investors and real estate brokers who lured people with the American dream of owning a home into a web of financial corruption where no one cared if they could afford the homes or not.

But, before the collapse, while the banking world was creating all of these unsupportable financial instruments, a small group of investors saw the impending real estate bubble and what was going to happen and decided to bet against the housing market, something unheard of.  And that was "the big short."

That's the basis of this dark comedy and what really happened when the mortgage industry collapsed and put the world on the brink of financial ruin. 

The investors that got wind of what was going on were, first, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric hedge fund manager who realized how unstable the housing market really was and decided to create a credit default swap market to bet against the banks - hence "the big short."

Next, slightly sleazy trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) heard what Burry was doing and wanted to get in on the action; then Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hedge fund manager with anger issues, got wind of this and joined Vennett; and finally a couple of young investors, Jamie Shipley (Finn Witrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), who were running an investment firm out of their garage, found out what was going on and got retired investment banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them sit at "the big boys' table." 

They all profited financially for predicting the collapse and betting against the mortgage market, but they all paid the price of knowing just how broken the financial world really was, and sadly, in many ways, still is.  And this is not a spoiler because we all know about the housing market collapse and we all know there is always someone profiting, no matter what happens. There are no good guys in this.

All of this may sound very somber and hard to understand.

It might have been without skillful director Adam McKay at the helm and the darkly humorous script he brought to life from Michael Lewis' 2010 book (Lewis also wrote "Moneyball," and this film has a "Moneyball" feel).  Though we know the story, the fun is watching it all play out in this brilliant film.

Original cinematic devices abound as well as a clever use of breaking through the fourth wall (at times the actors talk directly into the camera to the audience) to give the film humor and freshness and a fun way to explain some of the financial jargon used in the film.

For example, the beautiful Margot Robbie plays herself and explains how the mortgage backed securities failed when they were packaged with risky subprime mortgages. She does this while sitting in a bubble bath sipping champagne.  Talking directly to the camera she breaks it down in easy to understand (and sexy) language. After she finished, my husband leaned over and whispered, "I liked that." I replied, "Duh...I think that was the point." He didn't fall asleep after that.

This device is used throughout the film to comic effect, with Tony Bourdain explaining CDOs ("collateralized debt obligations"), comparing them to using three-day old fish to make fish stew.  When you use old fish to make fish stew, now it's no longer three-day old fish.  It's something new - it's fish stew!  No one will know it stinks! 

And Selena Gomez and economist, Richard Thaler, explain Synthetic CDOs while playing blackjack in Las Vegas.  I first saw this use of calling upon celebrities to help explain the action in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," when Woody called upon Marshall ("The medium is the message") McLuhan to put down a pedantic film professor while waiting in line for a movie.

This all works really well in the film, because one of the weapons that the banking and securities industries used to their advantage was the fact that laypeople didn't know what the hell they were talking about, giving them a fog bank of jargon to hide behind while they did their evil deeds creating financial instruments that were doomed to fail, an irony since they tried to blame poor people and irresponsible borrowers for the financial collapse when in fact they were selling them loans that they couldn't pay back.

Those subprime loans might not have been Triple A, but I rate the ensemble cast as Triple A.  Christian Bale is right up there with Tom Hardy and Eddie Redmayne, in my estimation, as our best actors, a trifecta of actors who inhabit their roles. Bale creates a character that is mesmerizing. But Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling and the other actors also stand out.

Adam McKay's direction is worthy of his Best Director Oscar nod as is the screenwriting nomination for him and his co-writer Charles Randolph.  But who knew?  McKay is not known for sophisticated comedy/dramas in the David O. Russell vein (the energy, odd characters and look of this film reminded me of "American Hustle," which coincidentally also starred Bale), as heretofore he has directed Will Ferrell movies ("Anchorman," "Talladega Nights").  But he showed his directing and screenwriting chops with this one.

Brad Pitt, one of the producers, should also be congratulated for getting this important film made.

I am starting to get these visceral reactions to really good films.  My eyes tear up at the end.  And I am not talking about when there is a sad ending.  That happened to me at the end of "Spotlight" and it happened again here.  I attribute it to my love of film, an emotional response to one that is wonderful. It's like shouting "Bravo" after a wonderful operatic aria or paying homage to a rock god by waving a lighter around at a rock concert.  Both "Spotlight" and this film are really, really good films in every way and do what really, really good films are supposed to do.  They make you feel something.  This one should make you feel angry.

Bravo!  And if I had a lighter, I would wave it around!

Rosy the Reviewer important film that should be required viewing for all Americans.


***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)

Now Out on DVD

Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

A teenager in 1970's San Francisco has an affair with her mother's boyfriend.

Minnie Getz (Bel Powley) lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig, who continues to show her acting versatility) and her mother's boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). She has just had her first sexual encounter, is enjoying the hell out of this revelation and is now obsessed with sex. She has a crush on Monroe and basically seduces him, though he should know better than to mess around with a 15-year-old girl. 

Minnie is an artist and draws cartoons very much like those Zap Comix some of us remember from the 70's.  The cartoons come to life to demonstrate her angst and obsession with sex.  She also records her diary on tapes and when her mother discovers the tapes and her affair with Monroe, all hell breaks loose.

The film directed by Marielle Heller (she also adapted the screenplay from the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner) is the juxtoposition between a young girl's fantasies and the reality of sex and adult misbehavior.  It's also a reminder that there were not a lot of boundaries in the 70's. But it's also refreshing to see a film where the female takes control of her own sexuality, even if that female is only 15.  It's also refreshing that the film doesn't really judge Minnie, or anyone else, really.  It's just life.

It's a reminder that when you are 15, you feel like you are the center of the universe.  You wallow in your teenage angst and hopeless relationships...and yes, sex.  Though the film does not make a point to judge, if this film is a barometer of what men are really like, then men are basically pervs.  C'mon, a three-way with Minnie and one of her girlfriends?  Geez, Monroe.  And I can attest that Minnie's Mom with her drinking, smoking and drug use is not a typical librarian, though some of us librarians were pretty wild in the 70's.

The story is quirky and engaging, but this film is all about Powley, a British actress, whose long hair, big eyes and Bettie Page bangs compel you to watch her every move and root for her. 

Rosy the Reviewer says...see it for a wonderful performance by Powley and as a reminder of what teenage girls get up to!

John Denver: Country Boy (2013)

A documentary about the life and career of singer John Denver.

Denver grew up a military "brat" in Roswell, New Mexico as Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.  Because his father was a bomber pilot in the military his family moved around a lot and John's guitar was his entre to making friends.

At a young age, he knew he wanted to be a singer so he moved to L.A. and was hired to be a part of the New Christy Minstrels.  Because Henry John Deutschendorf didn't fit on the posters, he was named John Denver, "Denver" being one of the songs they sang. He later became part of the Chad Mitchell Trio.

One Christmas he decided to record his own album as a Christmas gift for his friends.  On that self-published album was a song he had written called "Baby, I hate to go," which came to the attention of Peter, Paul and Mary.  The song was later changed to "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and became a huge hit for them.  However, John was still toiling in the Chad Mitchell Trio, but when they broke up, he struggled to get a solo career going.  But when legendary talent agent Jerry Weintraub took a liking to him, he recorded "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and the rest is history.   Denver became a star.

Denver moved to Aspen before it became the playground of the rich and famous and started many of his activist work centered around nature and environmentalism.  "Rocky Mountain High" was inspired by his life there.

Denver's personality served him well as he was deemed a natural for a TV variety show and his singing career thrived, though he was not a good fit for the rock and roll 70's.  He was ridiculed by the rock press and Rolling Stone Magazine castigated him, calling him the "Mickey Mouse of Rock." His fans loved him but he failed to move the critics.

Annie Denver, John's ex-wife and muse for "Annie's Song" is interviewed along with others.

Little known facts from the film:  He had an African-American son, was a proponent of EST and despite his "gee, golly, far out" persona, he was actually a quiet, introspective guy. He was also an early environmental activist and under the Carter Administration worked to stamp out hunger.  He also was scheduled to go up in the Challenger Space Shuttle but Christa McAuliffe trumped him for that honor and we all know how that ended.

But then Denver's star faded.  He wasn't even asked to be a part of "We Are The World," despite his charitable work with hunger relief.  His marriage to Annie had ended after 15 year and his second marriage after only four.  That was followed by some DUI's, but despite all of that, he could still enthrall an audience.  He was working on his career when he died on October 12, 1997 flying an experimental plane over Monterey Bay.

When Denver died in the 90's, he was no longer the huge star he had once been.  But when he was big, he was as big as Elvis.  However, his exuberant personality ("Far Out!") and pleasant tunes and vocals were dismissed by the music critics who called him "The Ronald Reagan of Pop." And this hurt him.

I feel a personal connection to John Denver.  First, he was introduced to me by a friend from long ago when I was going through some things and, second, Denver's plane went down in Monterey Bay, right off the beach of the town of Pacific Grove, the town I was living in at the time and had been for almost 30 years. Denver was only 53 when he died.

This is an affectionate portrait which first played on BBC and later on PBS (it's available to stream on Netflix).

Rosy the Reviewer says...a happy and sad film experience that honors Denver's legacy.


***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

263 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

Ace in the Hole (1951)

A big-city news man finds himself toiling in a dead-end job at a small Albuquerque newspaper until the story of a lifetime falls into his lap.

Out-of-work newspaper reporter (he has been fired from his big city jobs), Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) talks his way into a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin but after a year of covering fairs and small-time events, he is restless and spends his time taunting his office colleagues. 

While on his way to cover a rattlesnake hunt, he stops at a gas station/diner in the shadow of some Native American cliff dwellings and discovers that a man is trapped in one of the caves. Sensing a story, Chuck goes into the cave and finds Leo (Richard Benedict) pinned under some fallen debris.  He befriends Leo and engineers the rescue effort, but instead of making sure Leo is rescued the fastest way, Chuck manipulates the situation to play it out as long as possible so he can milk the story creating a media circus and getting him his old New York City job back.  The longer Leo stays down there the better it is or everyone.

As the days go by, more and more people arrive to watch the rescue efforts.  It's a literal circus with tents, rides, souvenirs and people camping out.  Leo's wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling, who came to typify the tough talking gun moll), is making a lot of money in the diner as more and more people arrive to watch the rescue efforts.  She also comes on to Chuck, who has now become a media sensation himself as he goes into the cave everyday to see Leo. 

And Leo lies in the cave as the media circus plays out and things go horribly wrong. The film has a dark twist ending I never saw coming. 

This film was prescient in its depiction of the sensationalism that would overtake the media in years to come with so-called "human interest stories," that profit on the misfortune of others.  The story is reminiscent of Baby Jessica McClure who was stuck in a well. Remember that one? The media loves stories that they can milk as long as possible, thus creating an audience that keeps coming back for more.

When we think of the movies from the 40's and 50's, we tend to think of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald musicals or screwball comedies.  We forget that long before "Spotlight" or "The Big Short," some of our greatest message films came out that era and this is one of them.

Directed and written by acclaimed director, Billy Wilder, this is classic film noir with Wilder's trademark snappy dialogue:

"I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but are 20 minutes" or "I don't go to church.  Kneeling bags my nylons."

Why it's a Must See: "[This film] is noted for two things: It's the only collaboration between Kirk Douglas and Billy Wilder, and it's one of the angriest and most bitter films ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system...The anger lingers far beyond the story's end, and Wilder's trademark verbal zingers barely sugarcoat the story's bitter core, which indicts us all.  Poignant and thoughtful."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Director Billy Wilder is probably best known for the film "Some Like it Hot," and Kirk Douglas is probably best known by the younger generation as Michael Douglas' father.  But in the Golden Age of Hollywood, well before movies like "Spotlight" and "The Big Short," Wilder was directing some of our best and most thought-provoking films ("Sunset Blvd," "The Lost Weekend," "The Apartment") and Douglas was as hot an actor as Brad Pitt is today.  And here he is at the top of his acting game as a man doomed by his own arrogance and cynicism.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a riveting indictment of American culture and our insatiable desire for sensation by one of our greatest film directors. (b & w)

***Book of the Week***

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl (2015)

Editor-in-Chief of the much-loved and now defunct Gourmet Magazine, Ruth Reichl, shares her sadness and dismay when the magazine folded and how getting back into the kitchen helped cure her blues.

When Reichl first heard that the magazine was folding after 69 years, she was stunned.  She herself was 61 and wondering what she was going to do for the rest of her life or if anyone would hire her.  She retreated to her kitchen for comfort.

I tend to do the same thing.  When I am at loose ends, I like to cook.  I wrote my version in a blog post called "Cooking in an Empty Nest."

Foodies may know Reichl from her food critic years or her current tenure as a judge on "Top Chef," but if you want more information about her or are unfamiliar with her, I recommend starting with her wonderful autobiographies "Garlic and Saphires: The Secret Life of a Critic at Large (2006), "Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table (2009)" and "Comfort Me With Apples: More Tales Growing up at the Table (2010)."

In this book, she takes us through the seasons, starting in the fall, when she was first informed of the magazine's demise, and cooks the food that coincides with the seasons and comforts us when we are snowed in, noticing the first buds of spring or sweating from the summer heat.

Who could resist recipes with names like "The Cake That Cures Everything"  or "Hot Fudge to Soothe Your Soul?"  My particular favorites are the "Longchamps Rice Pudding with Raisins" and her "No Knead Bread."  But you might enjoy the "Thai Noodles," her takes on spaghetti carbonara and the grilled cheese sandwich or weigh in on whether her "Real Fried Chicken" and "High-Heat Turkey" are the best.

However, despite the delicious recipes, this is not just a cookbook. It's also a memoir written in Reichl's inimitable and intimate style about a difficult time in her life and how returning to her kitchen where she could enjoy the long, slow ritual of making chicken stock or the bright green color of parsley as she ran it under the faucet as a meditation that helped her figure out where to go next.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a soothing reminder of the healing power of cooking really good food.

***Restaurant of the Week***

Mkt: a tiny little gem tucked away in Tangletown.

There are only 28 seats in this Ethan Stowell restaurant (which joins his other 11 Seattle restaurants, giving restaurateur Tom Douglas's 13 and counting a run for his money), but there also aren't any bad seats.  Those that allow you to watch the kitchen in action are the best, especially when the chef reaches over and hands you a lovely amuse bouche of stuffed endive while you are waiting for your entre.

With a lovely seasonal menu of plates meant to be shared, it reminded me of Stowell's "How To Cook a Wolf" restaurant up on Queen Anne, but here you can watch your own food being prepared in the open kitchen.  There's no Gordon Ramsay histrionics amongst the staff as they efficiently go about preparing the whole trout or the seared scallops.  From the charred brussels sprouts with black umami sauce to the grilled fingerling potatoes with gremolata to the baby lettuce salad with soft cooked egg, everything was prepared and sauced to perfection.   

Rosy the Reviewer sure to make a reservation or you will miss out on a divine meal.

That's it for this week!

Thanks for reading!

See you Tuesday


"Some Thoughts on Thoughtfulness"

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