Tagged: michael lewis

Six months of movies


Chandler, Woodley, and Teller in The Spectacular Now

The Circle–Disappointing film from James Ponsoldt, whose previous films were so good. But a naturalistic, small-scale filmmaker like him is probably a poor fit for this adaptation of Dave Eggers’ attempt to satirize and warn about the encroaching social media dictatorship. Judging from the film, the problems start with the novel. Emma Watson and Tom Hanks star, to diminishing effect.

Game of Thrones: Season One, Episode 1–Got the first seven episodes out from Redbox. Made it 30 minutes into the first episode, found the whole thing tacky and average and not a promising use of 75 hours. I’m sure it gets better, but I bailed.

Mad Max: Fury Road–All right. Maybe it’s a little long, and I’m not sure I need to see the sequels that are supposedly on the way, but who cares? Bonus for me was seeing all the echoes of John Ford films, especially action sequences from Stagecoach and The Searchers. Here’s the former (it’s probably a good idea to pretend that Geronimo’s Apaches here are actually zombie goons sent by Immortan Joe).

The End of the Tour–James Ponsoldt again, with maybe the best movie to come out of a killed magazine story? Not a whole lot happens, and this wouldn’t be a movie but for the suicide of the real-life David Foster Wallace, but I appreciated it as a recreation of a mythologized author at the height of his success: living alone in an anonymous Illinois ranch house, eating junk food and watching junk TV, and doting on his dogs. And hoping his hot new book will help him with the ladies!

Amy–The rise and fall of a talented young woman, told through scraps of cell phone videos, tabloid TV clips, voiceover recollections by her oldest and truest friends, and more. Sad and relentless, but worthwhile.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia–Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s police procedural has some striking images and scenes, but much of the film is a near-real time nighttime excursion to the countryside in search of a corpse. Although our TV is 54 inches or so, the experience would have  been better in a theater. Still, I enjoyed the actor playing the good-natured but vain, and decadent prosecutor.

Antichrist–Lars von Trier’s provocation from 2009. What he has in common with purveyors of splatter films: He makes us physically react to what’s on screen. I appreciate someone so committed to jolting us out of our complacency and putting something visceral and real on screen. Still, hated this film.

The Big Short–Entertaining enough, but like the Michael Lewis book upon which its based, a bit too smooth, too glib, too narrative-friendly for the complex phenomenon of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Enjoyed the sequence where Steve Carell’s character travels to Florida to see firsthand the overbuilt McMansions, and a stripper who owns a half-dozen of them.

The Right Stuff–Coincidentally, I watched this a few days after Sam Shepherd died, and a couple weeks after I read the Tom Wolfe book. The film is a sweeping historical drama in the best sense, with aerial photography that still holds up against today’s CGI fakery, so it’s astounding that the film was a box office failure. Quibbles: Shepherd’s widely lauded turn as Chuck Yeager, playing him as a laconic, high-plains-Ralph Lauren cowboy didn’t do much for me, and he’s nothing like the real Yeager, either in appearance or personality. That said, it’s not a deal-breaker. Ed Harris was very fine as the upright, self-promoting John Glenn. Wish they’d given Pancho Barnes’ backstory though–Barnes was the proprietor of the bar at Edwards Air Force base, and Wolfe tells us she had a flying history herself.

Die Hard–I watched this film for the very first time, so I’ve checked off another 1980s classic that I missed while growing up (another one on the list that I ticked off a couple years ago was The Princess Bride, while Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains on the unseen list). There’s not much more to say about Die Hard, but I notice that this late-’80s film shares more with a 1970s classics like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three than with 21st-century films.

Showgirls–This movie isn’t so-bad-it’s-good. Nor is it, as such arbiters as Quentin Tarantino and J Hoberman maintain, some trenchant satire about showbiz and capitalism. It’s just stupid and bad. Sure, I could sit with a drunken midnight crowd and enjoy laughing at the movie, but really, it’s bad.

Inherent Vice–The only Thomas Pynchon adaptation we’re likely to see. It’s not a great movie, but I’m glad P.T. Anderson made it. He captured the druggy decadence of the period, and I watched it with gauzy recollections of Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Joan Didion’s essay about Haight-Ashbury, Norman Mailer’s writings on the period, and the Pynchon fiction I’ve read. Oh, and some Kurt Vonnegut is in there, too, I think. Jena Malone’s monologue in the first act had me in stitches, and I enjoyed Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay, kind of a combination of the lost bad girls of Chandler’s The Big Sleep and the film Chinatown. Joaquin Phoenix’s fantastically shambling performance rid me of any desire I might have had to ever smoke pot again.

Passengers–What was this? Chris Pine, maybe? Jennifer Lawrence? Intriguing set-up, but once the dialogue started the mediocrity became apparent. Bailed.

Silence–This Scorsese film was weak. A film like this can’t have a bland pretty boy, a creature of the 21st-century celebrity machine, like Andrew Garfield. He may be a decent actor, but there’s nothing he can do to convince us he’s in the 17th century, and he certainly doesn’t put his body through the meat grinder in the way Christian Bale or Charlotte Gainsbourg would have.

Elle–Overrated crap, with Isabelle Huppert gamely playing an unintentional parody of an Isabelle Huppert role.

Julieta–Almodóvar tackles Alice Munro, with results that improve as the movie goes on. The heartbreaking rift between mother and daughter eventually makes the film succeed.

The Last of the Unjust–Claude Lanzmann’s four-hour footnote to Shoah is a fascinating eyewitness recounting of one Jewish man’s collaboration with Adolf Eichmann in the management of the sham “model” internment camp called Theresienstadt. The propaganda film that was produced at the time–parts of which have survived–is one of the most awful things I’ve ever seen. You have to assume that everyone seen in the film was dead within months or a year.

Toni Erdmann–I’d heard some hype for this German comedy. It had its shaggy charm, but it was too loosely and haphazardly edited and plotted for it to have any real power. The piece de resistance–the naked office party–felt surprisingly undercooked, as if they came up with the notion but didn’t have time to script or block it thoughtfully.

The Sorrow and the Pity–I first learned about this movie a quarter century ago, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. At the time, I thought the film was a gag–how could there be something with such a title?

Blackboards–Rented this film, directed by the young Samira Makhmalbaf in 2000, but I wasn’t up to the challenge of appreciating what the film had to offer, other than its bleak vision of itinerant schoolteachers peddling their nearly worthless skills with portable blackboards on their backs.

Margaret–Kenneth Lonergan’s white whale of a film. Reviews were generally poor, and indeed, the film didn’t really go anywhere, or didn’t get anywhere fast enough to redeem its unpleasant, pampered protagonist (who is not named Margaret). But on a scene-by-scene basis, it was occasionally spellbinding. Bonus: I now know who Jeannie Berlin is.

Crazy, Stupid, Love–Come for Marisa Tomei, leave before the last act, which features multiple endings and a revolting resolution to a subplot involving a pubescent teen’s crush on his babysitter.

Maggie’s Plan–Perhaps a bit preciously situated on the Washington Square-Morningside Heights axis of academic self-importance, but in spite of its painfully self-conscious class trappings, this comedy of remarriage has winning moments and scenes–including the final one. But time may be running out on Greta Gerwig’s scatterbrained shtick, and I don’t want to see Ethan Hawke playing bad writers anymore. Maybe he should get to be a good one?

Masterminds–Don’t have a clear recollection of this one. Something about hillbilly bank robbers and Kristen Wiig. Owen Wilson as a bad guy. Kate McKinnon funny as a redneck dyke (I think).

Mississippi Grind–Ben Mendelsohn OMG. Also, I’d lost track of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Good to see them still making good films.

Felicia’s Journey–William Trevor died earlier this year, giving me an excuse to watch Atom Egoyan’s 1999 film adaptation of this story about a desperate young Irish woman alone in England, and the serial killer tracking her. I don’t think the film has aged well (though I missed it when it was young). It’s stiff and awkwardly campy–the latter effects were terrifying in the novel, as I recall.

3:10 to Yuma (1957)–I thought this movie would be set on a train. Disappointed.

The Spectacular Now–By all rights, Miles Teller shouldn’t be such an appealing actor: His face is so fleshy and frat-boy complacent. But boy can he act. Also, Kyle Chandler can act, and so can Shailene Woodley. This film is from James Ponsoldt, who also made the very fine alcoholism drama Smashed, which I just re-watched (OMG Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The two films end on identical shots.

Get Out–Very entertaining and pretty creepy, especially the notion of racist white people putting the brains of their late family members inside the bodies of healthy black people.

Book: Michael Lewis’ The Big Short

My excursion into the literature of finance continues with Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.

It’s an intriguing premise: He tells the story of the subprime mortgage crisis that culminated in 2008 with the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers by focusing on a small group of money managers who made a killing shorting the market.

These clear-eyed gamblers at the table understood the worthlessness of the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that had been gaining popularity since the 1980s (ironically, Lewis’ old employer Salomon Brothers was one of the pioneers in this product), and they opportunistically bet against them by purchasing credit default swaps (CDSs).

Lewis does his best to excite our interest in the financial dealings, but even he can’t hide his bored contempt as he relates such occasions as the conference call in which one card sharp barks at a bunch of suckered Morgan Stanley suits that they owe him $1.2 billion. Or his pure boredom as he reminds us, again and again, what a CDO is, and that it’s helpful to think of them as apartment towers with the worst bonds on the bottom floor, and thus the first exposed to the flooding of defaults.

It’s hard not to cast a hypercritical  eye at the storytelling tactics of Lewis, who by now is a very successful journalist with a special corner on popular financial journalism (Liar’s Poker, Flash Boys) and sports journalism for thinking fans (Moneyball, The Blind Side).

Here, the seams of his narrative are a bit too evident. He cherry-picks three sets of protagonists, chosen presumably because they will fit the underdog prototype that Hollywood prefers. One guy is a brilliant cynic with a loud mouth and ruinously bad social skills; he’s backed up by a pair of conventional, unpretentious sidekicks. There’s another guy who is built up (beaten down) by a lengthy description of his glass eye and poor social skills. (Unsurprisingly, it turns out that he has Asperger’s.)

Most tellingly, there’s a group of young money managers, situated as innocents in a nest of vipers who just happened to stumble into money management after goofing off for a few years after college. Perhaps that’s so, but I don’t believe Lewis mentioned that one of them, James Mai, is the son of Vincent Mai, who runs one of the country’s oldest private equity firms. Not exactly off the bus from Palookaville.

This is how Lewis introduces his Jimmy Stewart-like naif:

James Mai was tall and strikingly handsome and so, almost by definition, had the air of a man in charge–until he opened his mouth and betrayed his lack of confidence in everything from tomorrow’s sunrise to the future of the human race. Jamie had a habit of stopping himself midsentence and stammering–“uh, uh, uh”–as if he was somehow unsettled by his own thought.


Jamie’s first job out of Duke University had been delivering sailboats to rich people up and down the East Coast. (“That’s when it became clear to me that–uh, uh, uh–I was going to have to adopt some profession.”) At the age of twenty-eight, he’d taken an eighteen-month “sabbatical,” traveling around the world with his girlfriend.

I checked the index for any mention of Vincent Mai. Unfortunately, there’s no index, so you’ll have to trust me on this.

Movie not coming soon.

Books this year: 9

Now reading what may be the best thing about my experience reading The Big Short: a title called You Can Be a Stock Market Genius, by Joel Greenblatt. An unbelievably cheesy title, but a couple of different characters in The Big Short swear by it. As the Asperger’s guy says, “I hated the title but like the book.”

I don’t quite hate The Big Short, but I like the title

Book: Liar’s Poker

I remember Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker being the subject of discussion when it came out. I was in college then, in New York City no less, and I’m really glad I didn’t read it at the time.

Here’s why: In an essay Lewis wrote in 2008 for Portfolio.com, he wrote:

I had no great agenda, apart from telling what I took to be a remarkable tale, but if you got a few drinks in me and then asked what effect I thought my book would have on the world, I might have said something like, “I hope that college students trying to figure out what to do with their lives will read it and decide that it’s silly to phony it up and abandon their passions to become financiers.” I hoped that some bright kid at, say, Ohio State University who really wanted to be an oceanographer would read my book, spurn the offer from Morgan Stanley, and set out to sea.

Somehow that message failed to come across. Six months after Liar’s Poker was published, I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.

If I’d read Lewis’ book when it was first published, I, like the Ohio State students, certainly would have become very interested in entering the world he describes.  Had I done so, I would have begun my career in the bull market of the 1990s, and then lost a bunch of money–my own and my customers’–in the tech bust of 2000. I don’t think I could have survived in that environment without becoming an horrible, horrible person, a substance abuser or worse.

All that said, I still find finance, equities and debt pretty interesting, and I relished the few stray bits of financial play-by-play in Lewis’ book as much as the colorful anecdotes.

Liar’s Poker is a pretty good account of one undisciplined firm and the culture it created. It’s a little thin on the personal side–both what Lewis and his wife did on nights and weekends, and what his co-workers did. The narrative is almost strictly in the office, like the movie Margin Call, a bunch of sweaty, aggro traders and salespeople working the phones frantically.

I haven’t been a huge fan of Lewis’ work that I’ve read in magazines, but this, the first book of his I’ve read, was a vivid and funny read. Next on the Lewis docket: The Big Short, his version of the 2008 financial crisis.

The rest of Lewis piece I quoted above later surfaced in The Big Short. What I learned from the essay is that the people who were aware that the toxic subprimes were about to blow up actually contributed to the bubble by shorting the bonds–that is, by providing liquidity to the market in collateralized debt obligations.

The rest of his piece is here. (Sorry for the dodgy link, but Portfolio.com, a $100M venture from Conde Nast, went bust after three years, more or less at the time of the 2008 crisis.)

Books read: 6

I’m already midway through Medici Money, by Tim Parks.