Movie review: The Big Short (2015)

Over ten years later, it can feel like the global market crash never happened. Or it can feel like it just happened yesterday. Watching The Big Short, I wondered how the System could be so greedy, so stupid. But it was. And really, nothing has changed. No regulations. No bankers (except one) went to jail. No banks were broken up. The rigged system continues as before.

While The Big Short is a major downer, it is a well-done look at what happened, through the eyes of three different people or groups of people who saw the demise of the mortgage market before anyone else.

Michael Burry who headed an investment fund took a look at the mortgages included in mortgage-backed securities. What he saw was the collapse of the mortgage market. Most were subprime adjustable mortgages with rates that would soar in 2007. It was a ticking time bomb.

Funny thing was that no one else saw it. No one looked at the numbers. No one believed him. He wanted to bet against these mortgage-backed securities. The only problem was that no instrument existed to do this. So he took the initiative and approached bank after bank about creating a credit default swap on mortgages.

No one bets against mortgages. No one. The inherited wisdom was that mortgages were a sure thing. Well, perhaps in a system run without fraud or corruption. But such a system is not ours.

He was laughed at and ridiculed but bank after bank that he went to gladly created the investment instrument. They were more than happy to take his money. After all, mortgages are a sure thing. You do not bet against them.

Others in the financial industry stumbled across what Burry did and researched it themselves. Jared Vennett, a salesman at Deutsche Bank, reached out to a company but mistakenly got a different company instead—FrontPoint Partners. FrontPoint Partners listened to his offer and started looking into the mortgage and real estate market. The fraud, they discovered, was everywhere. The global economy was set to tank.

Two other investors in a small company, Brownfield Capital, stumbled across Vennett’s pitch to various banks. As small-time players, they couldn’t gain access that would let them invest in the credit swap—until they reached out to an acquaintance who was a former securities trader, Ben Rickert. With his help, they were able to invest and profit off of the 2008 global economic collapse.

None are really portrayed as evil Wall Street villains. They profited off of the villains who created the crisis. Fair enough. There is some truth to that. In the end, many of them closed their funds and got out of the business or downscaled their financial activities.

The movie is partially narrated from Vennett’s point of view. On occasion, the movie stops and shows Vennett talking directly to the camera. In one scene, when the Brownfield Capital guys see Vennett’s proposal about the credit swap on a lobby table at a big investment bank, the actors step out of their roles to talk to the camera and explain that this wasn’t really how they learned about the credit swap. Or at the end, when the hope that bankers go to jail and big banks are broken up is expressed, the movie suddenly stops and rewinds. That is clearly not what happened. No one went to jail. No banks were broken up.

The movie also takes an innovative approach to explaining financial items like CDOs. Famous people like Anthony Bourdain, Richard Thaler, and Selma Gomez appear on camera to explain these concepts through more relatable activities like making fish stew or playing blackjack.

I cannot say that I completely understand what happened to cause the 2008 crash. But the movie helped show some of it through the eyes of various investors as they looked into the mortgage market and learned about CDOs themselves. There is something profoundly disturbing to see people working in investment funds sickened by the practices and lack of ethics around them.


Movie review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

You can be forgiven for thinking that the movie gets its name from the unofficial mission of WikiLeaks. Perhaps it does. But the line “we steal secrets” in the movie comes directly out of the mouth of the former Director of the National Security Agency, Michael Hayden. That, Hayden was saying, was the point of all countries trying to provide national security. You must steal secrets from other countries in order to protect your own. Stealing secrets also implies that you must keep these secrets, well, secret.

This documentary is another look at Julian Assange and the organization he founded. It seems more poignant to know the background of the man and WikiLeaks given his recent removal in April 2019 from self-imposed exile in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. The movie is an excellent recap of his early hacking life, WikiLeaks, and all of the controversy surrounding him. Of course, the movie ends in 2013 so we are left with a six-year gap.

Also, caveat emptor. Everyone has a slant on Assange, WikiLeaks, whistleblowing activities, and the whistleblowers. To some they are heroes, to others traitors. The reality is muddier but where the mud lies depends on your perspective.

The movie is well made with interviews from people on both sides of the issues—people who formerly worked with WikiLeaks as well as high-ranking people in the national security apparatus. The movie weaves together a cohesive narrative about his early involvement in the international WANK worm through all of WikiLeaks activities to Assange’s paranoia and legal woes.

Adrian Lamao is interviewed about his contact with Cheslea Manning when she was still a private in Iraq under the identity of Bradley Manning. However you feel about what Manning did, the movie provides insightful interviews with Lamao and transcripts of texts between Manning and Lamao. We get a glimpse into Manning’s tortured life and motivations for what he did—as well as Lamao’s tortured decision to turn Manning in.

Assange appears on film in interviews at specific times during WikiLeaks’ spotlight on the international stage. None of these interviews were done for this particular movie. Neither Assange or Manning participated in the creation of this documentary.

We Steal Secrets runs down the various leaks that WikiLeaks participated in during the 2009-2010 time period. In rapid succession, WikiLeaks broke leaks on the Icelandic financial collapse, Swiss banking tax evasion, Kenyan government corruption, toxic-waste dumping, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and diplomatic cables. Then following systematic attacks on Assange and WikiLeaks, both came crashing down.

The documentary suggests that Assange’s longstanding paranoia was finally warranted. The powers that be did not go after the established news agencies (The Guardian, New York Times, etc.) that worked with Assange to publish news about the leaked information. The established new agencies seemed to have been intentionally ignored. The focus was on Assange. A smear campaign on him and WikiLeaks ensued.

Assange however was a master manipulator; it was suggested that he duped his supporters around the world. The landscape got muddier and muddier. Who was being duped? His supporters, or those who believed that his leaks were a danger to our national security (but those by the established media weren’t)?

The irony of course is that the man who set out to unmask corruption in all its forms and demand transparency and accountability was cloaking himself in transparency. He appeared to be part of the same corruption, just in a different form.

Movie review: Bill Nye: The Science Guy (2017)

I missed out on the Science Guy. He was slightly after my time. I knew of him. Heard about him. But didn’t really know him. He hosted a science show aimed at kids. That was about all I knew.

Bill Nye: The Science Guy showed up on the Heartland Film Festival roster a couple years ago but unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it into my movie-viewing schedule. And then it appeared on Netflix. Finally! I was going to be introduced to Bill Nye.

This documentary covers quite a lot, jumping back and forth to discuss different points of his life. It doesn’t feel like a typical documentary or biography. Bill isn’t interviewed as much as he is followed. Others who worked closely with him, old friends, and even profession colleagues like Neil deGrasse Tyson are filmed with him and interviewed separately.

The movie touches on his famous persona and even dives into psychological reasons behind starting his famous show on science aimed at kids. After the TV show ended, he disappeared for a while. But he couldn’t stay out of the limelight—at least according to a psychological profile of him.

The movie also delves into family relations, discussing his parents and siblings. (His mother, it turns out, was a code breaker for the Navy during World War II!) Although his relations are a vehicle to understand the man, they are also a teaching opportunity. A rare disorder runs in his family: ataxia. His father suffered from it. His brother and sister with whom he is close both suffer from it. The movie follows them through medical evaluations about the progress of the disease. Bill is fortunate to have not inherited the disease. Possibly passing on the disease is one reason he did not have children.

After a hiatus, Bill re-entered public view as a science advocate, taking on the wave of anti-science that has been building into a crescendo over the last couple decades. After spending years getting kids excited by science, Bill was bewildered and disheartened by the movement against science. His mission in the 1990s was to inspire the younger generation to get into STEM. And yet now all the progress he helped make was crumbling away. Now the younger generation was being indoctrinated by adults opposed to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Bill took the dangerous step of engaging with big anti-scientists. Other scientists shy away from interacting with those who challenge anything science-related, but not Bill. The movie shows him going head-to-head with climate change deniers such as Joe Bastardi and then evolution deniers such as Ken Ham. Audiences attend his debates with them. And camera crews film him touring the Creation Museum and the Ark at the invitation of a big evolution denier. Of course, the outcome isn’t a triumph over the deniers. But Bill cannot seem to stop trying. And frankly, we wouldn’t want him to.

The movie clearly shows that he is a hero to kids of the 1990s who grew up watching him and learning science from him. Everywhere Bill goes for talks people take pictures of him and selfies with him. Young women scream and gush as though he is a rock star from across the Atlantic. (That actually was kind of cool. People who are gaga for a science instructor.)

Bill was attacked by the anti-science people for his lack of credentials (never mind their lack of credentials). He is not a scientist, they rant. He only has a degree in mechanical engineering (and studied with Carl Sagan). Yes, he admits, that is why I talk to the experts in different fields.

The movie shows Bill flying to Greenland to visit scientists at the ice core project. We learn what the scientists are doing, why, and what it all means. (The movie educates us about Bill Nye AND science at the same time. How cool is that.)

He does rub shoulders with the gods of the science world. He was a student of Carl Sagan and a friend of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson actually recommended Nye to head the institute (The Planetary Society) that Sagan started before he died. The movie shows a demonstration of the institute’s project, which was a dream of Sagan’s: a solar sail. (Sagan actually took a model on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978. Nye is now overseeing the launch of these solar sails.)

And I’m thinking, wait, solar sails? The use of sunlight to power a spacecraft? How come I haven’t heard of them before? (So I researched them. In 2015, LightSail 1 completed a shakedown cruise—basically a test run where it deployed its solar sails in space. In August 2019, LightSail 2 completed a “controlled sail flight in Earth orbit”.)

The movie is a great introduction to Bill Nye—his most famous role on TV, his crusade as a science advocate and denier debater, and his latest incarnation as head of a science nonprofit. But the documentary isn’t necessarily a lovefest. It looks at the human aspects of the Science Guy, his love of the limelight, his human foibles, and the effectiveness of engaging the science deniers.

The wave of science deniers—whether it is about climate change or evolution—is a disturbing trend. Currently there is a weird dichotomy in society: an emphasis on STEM as the way to future and others who turn their backs on science. Since the 1990s, too many people have spoken out as so-called experts to sow doubt around science and scientific issues. (For a good documentary on the rise of these so-called experts doing damage to the public understanding of critical issues, see Merchants of Doubt.)

The science community has largely stayed silent in the face of those rejecting science. To engage with them rarely brings positive results; for some reason science has moved into the realm of religion for people, something you believe in rather than a training that you use to understand the world. Bill Nye is one who has been passionate about educating others about science and combatting the science deniers. Sadly, the latter feels like a losing battle. The former though could ultimately cause science to win the war.

Movie review: East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden was on my to-see list for several years. I seemed to have escaped ever reading Steinbeck’s classic. A visit to Steinbeck’s museum in Salinas, California prompted me picking up The Grapes of Wrath, but time got away from me and his other books didn’t make it into my orbit.

A visit to Fairmount, Indiana last year with all of the James Dean sites and museum reminded me that I hadn’t actually seen a James Dean movie.

So it was with some delight that I saw East of Eden. Having not read the book, I really walked into the movie fresh, with no idea really of the plot. I also have no idea how true to the book the movie was. How well did the movie do with covering Steinbeck’s story? That will have to wait for another time.

East of Eden is set in Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula—not very far apart geographically but they seem to occupy entirely different worlds. The story is set just prior to the US entry into World War I. Railroads connect the two worlds of the farmland of Salinas with the city of Monterey, with James Dean’s character (Caleb) hitching rides to get from one world to the other.

Railroads were also the defining moment for the fertile farmland in California’s Central Valley. If only there was a way to keep produce fresh during transport from the California farmland to places back east. Caleb’s father tinkers with the idea of putting lettuce on ice for transport by rail. Unfortunately, his attempt ends in failure; he bet heavily on his idea and lost.

East of Eden uses this backdrop to explore ideas of identity, the self-made man, and parent-child relations. Caleb is the bad child compared to his perfect brother Aron. References to Cain-Abel are stark. Caleb doesn’t kill Aron but rather eclipses him. As the story progresses, Aron becomes the sulky one, brooding and beset with troubles. Caleb steals the heart of Aron’s betrothed. In the end, Caleb assumes the long-desired place in his father’s heart.

Caleb is bedeviled by the role he seems to be forced to play. Others see him and thus he sees himself as the bad brother, a disappointment to his father and to everyone else. He assumes this interpretation of himself and becomes obsessed with the idea that his badness was inherited. His mother was long gone from the scene—died after childbirth. Or did she? Somehow Caleb suspects that she is still alive and tracks her down. As he suspected, he takes after his mother—a woman who refused to conform to the roles assigned to women at the time. She is a successful businesswoman. To break free of the constrains on women at the time, she had to leave her family and personal relationships behind.

After interacting with his mother, Caleb seems to accept himself more. He is like her. Genetics are destiny it seems. But he still strives for acceptance and love from his father—a highly unlikely source of either. He devotes himself to helping his father succeed in his endeavor to send fresh produce east. His father partially accepts his hard work and inventive ideas.

After seeing his father’s money and dream disappear when the venture ends in failure, Caleb uses his talent and skills to earn back the money his father lost. He takes advantage of the times, knowing that the US entrance into World War I would result in increased food prices. Borrowing money from his mother, he invests—along with a partner—in produce futures. At a birthday celebration for his father, he presents his father with the money. Sadly, his attempt to receive love and acceptance fails. He and his work are rejected by the high morals of his father who views benefiting from the high prices caused by the war as immoral.

Advised by others to leave the area and the family, Caleb seems destined to strike out on his own. But fate intervenes. On what will apparently be his deathbed after a stroke, his father asks Caleb to stay and care for him. Caleb, the wayward son continually rejected by others, seems like a vulnerable little boy who has finally received what he needed all along: love and acceptance from his father.

As his first major film, James Dean played the role of Caleb well. Critics point out that he played sulky teenagers well but that was all he played; his accolades may be misplaced. Perhaps if Dean lived, we would have discovered that this was the only type of role he could play. Or perhaps we would have discovered that he really was a great actor with a wide repertoire. We will never know.

I enjoyed the acting Dean brought to the role as well as the film in general. The themes explored were engaging and the film shots interesting, sometimes off kilter at an angle. I am looking forward to watching his other films…and reading more Steinbeck.

Movie review: Incredibles 2 (2018)

Often sequels are a bad idea. Incredibles 2 is not one of those bad ideas. The movie is quite engaging and entertaining. I loved the expressions on Baby Jack-Jack’s face, the ways he kept his dad up all hours of the night, and his stay with Aunt Edna—the family’s designer of their superhero suits. I liked Aunt Edna (aka Edna E Mode) too.

At the opening of the movie, our superhero family is in the midst of saving the world: father Mr. Incredible, mother Elastigirl, daughter Violet, son Dash, and baby Jack-Jack. (In all fairness, Jack-Jack wasn’t involved in any world saving. Yet.) They, of course, save the day. But the villain gets away. And the world doesn’t rejoice.

In fact, supers—as superheroes are called—are illegal. Throughout the world. They are banned due to the damage they inflict on the world.

But a billionaire businessman of a telecommunications company approaches them, offering to be their sponsor of sorts. His late father loved superheroes and had phones with direct lines to them. This is before the supers were banned. According to this businessman (Winston Deavor), all supers need is good PR. Then the public would come to their senses and make supers legal again.

How to run this PR campaign? Well, Mr. Incredible is all gung-ho to get started. But no, no. As a man, Mr. Incredible would not do as the face of the campaign. But his wife, Elastigirl, would. An interesting twist of events that parallels the rise of female superheroes in other recent movies, female politicians in the US, and women actors. Yes, 2018 was the year of the woman, even cartoon women.

The PR campaign is rather a commentary on the role of women in movies. Once upon a time, a lead role by a woman, especially in action movies or ones involving heroes that save the day, was unheard of. Strong women were not seen as good box office draws—until actually it turned out that they were. Incredibles 2 clearly pokes fun at this with the PR campaign that focuses on putting Elastigirl front and center.

It really isn’t all that radical for a wife and mother to be working or the sole breadwinner. This is the late 2010s. But I felt that I had fallen down a wormhole back to the 1980s. (In fact, I had. The Incredibles movies are set in the 1960s/1970s.) Mr. Incredible was crushed that he wouldn’t be out there battling villains. He had to take second seat to his wife and relinquish the limelight to her.

He belatedly offered to stay home and take care of the kids: helping them with their new math homework, fixing relationship problems, and watching the baby constantly. He seemed to be a bit insecure and nurse a fragile ego. And, of course, there were jokes about the work to care for kids as not being hard work (until he actually had to do it).

The daughter Violet deals with her own relegation to the stereotypical lesser female role. She and her brother Dash are left to care for the baby. And then Dash leaves her to babysit. (Later she arranges things so he has to look after the baby while she goes off to fight the bad guys.)

All in all, Incredibles 2 was an enjoyable watch. I already miss Elastigirl answering a call from Dash about where his shoes were while she was on her motorcycle chasing bad guys, or Mr. Incredible staying up all night to learn new math so he could help Dash do his homework.

And I miss the artistic Edna Mode with her large glasses, pageboy haircut, and kimono. She is the quintessential creative designer type.

She causally notes that Mr. Incredible’s way of placating Jack-Jack and preventing him from transfiguration by giving him a cookie is not a good solution. “Any solution involving cookies will inevitably result in the demon baby.”

Her solution is a creative one. Whenever Jack-Jack bursts into flames from anger, his superhero suit encases him in a fire retardant. “The fire retardant is blackberry-lavender, darling. Effective, edible, and delicious.”

I am already looking forward to another sequel. I hope it doesn’t take as long as the last one (fourteen years). I need more Edna in my life.