The Big Short: Watch How You Vote!

Directed by Adam McKay
Regency Entertainment, 130 minutes, R (language and brief nudity)
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The Big Short was nominated for five Oscars, but only took home a statue for Best Adapted Screenplay. This has more to do with bad timing and willful forgetfulness than with the film's quality. By the time it hit the market, Inside Job (2010), Too Big to Fail (2011), and Margin Call (2011) had already probed the topic of the 2005 collapse of the housing market.  Of those three, however, only the documentary Inside Job is The Big Short's equal. Watching The Big Short now on DVD is a potent reminder of why the real issue for 2016 election is whether the nation has the will to rein in Wall Street. If we don't, a future economic disaster is a matter of when, not if.

Writer/director Adam McKay's screenplay is a thinly veiled look at the fall of Lehman Brothers and of conventional thinking that "nobody loses money investing in housing." Yes they do–especially when amoral sleaze-meisters get to invent their own rules on how to defraud at will. The view of Wall Street from The Big Short is one that scarcely rises above definitions of treason­, which makes it all the more galling that only one poor sap in Switzerland went to jail over any of it. And the fact that Wall Street is currently doing almost everything it did in 2005 makes one wonder why there's no hunting season on bankers and investors.

The only name The Big Short doesn't change is that of Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the California-based autistic hedge fund manager who foresaw impending disaster and sounded an alarm to which few listened. Those who heeded his warning–Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a Deutschebank trader (Greg Lippmann in real life); Ben Rickertt (Brad Pitt playing real-life Ben Hockett); Mark Baum/Steve Eisman (Steve Carrell); Charlie Geller/Ledley (John Magara); and Jamie Shipley/Mai (Finn Whittrock) "shorted" their housing investments; that is, they dumped them at what long-term investors thought was a bargain price. Those who shorted made some coin when the lid blew off of a shell game built upon unsustainable subprime mortgages and CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), a credit swap deception in which bad loans are packaged with seemingly sound investments to make the entire bundle seem stable.

The Big Short is a surprisingly taut drama–a tribute to McKay's directorial skills given that we already know that Burry was right and we lived through the consequences. He tells a complex story that many viewers may find difficult to comprehend. After all, how many of us are familiar with Wall Street jargon such as CDO, quant, hedge fund, credit swap, or tranche? McKay suggests a lot of this is arcane for a reason: it's like Masonic mumbo-jumbo whose real purpose is to shield insiders from a regulatory gaze. In other words, if you really understood what they were doing, you'd buy the hunting license mentioned above. McKay does something very unconventional to demystify Wall Street—he infuses splashes of needed comic relief. Actress Margot Robbie soaks in a bubble bath and explains subprime loans and mortgage securities; chef Anthony Bourdain chops veggies and compares CDOs to stinky fish; Selena Gomez and behavioral psychologist Richard Thaler unravel Synthetic CDOs at a blackjack table. Some critics took McKay to task for cheap theatrics, but I see these as akin to the way Shakespeare inserted Falstaff into his Henry V tragedies: they give viewers a chance to collect their wits whilst indirectly being given a few puzzle pieces.

If you've not already seen The Big Short, do so before you cast your vote this fall. Don't worry if some of the intricacies go over your head; you'll learn enough to know that American taxpayers were taken to the cleaners by the breed of fraudsters the Chinese execute when they catch them. Pay attention to the film's coda–it's business as usual on Wall Street and that is not good news for those who live among the 99%. If it doesn't make you wonder why the two leading candidates are among the 1%, watch it again. 

Rob Weir


Ralston Hartness, Brad Armstrong/Brandi Carlile and Old Crow: June Roundup # 1

A few weeks ago I had my annual you-should-have-never-let-down-your-guard colds I often get after filing my final grades with the registrar. With stuffed head and medicated body, I took a brisk walk to try to clear the cobwebs. (Full disclosure: Okay, it was actually a languorous wobble.) On my MP3 player was a download of a new singer/songwriter, Ralston Hartness, and his debut EP, Atlas (Underground Records). It made me feel better than any meds sold at my local CVS. Hartness—still a student at Washington & Lee University in Virginia–has made the perfect debut–one where you go with what you know, are true to yourself, and lay your soul bare. The result is six gorgeous tracks about yearning, searching to belong, thinking about home, and feeling a bit lost. (By God, if a college student isn't allowed to feel these things, who can?) Hartness has a fine, clear, and emotive tenor, one that reminded me a lot of Greg Greenway when he was young, or Noah Gunderson in his more tender moments. My favorite track was "81-S," and not just because that's the road I take from New England to my own Pennsylvania hometown. I admired both the beautiful simplicity of the melody and Hartness' confessional: 81 South's a long straight shot/So think about the man that I know I'm not/Trying to see through the lies I know have names/Now I wrestle with my soul just to stay awake. I remember those days, Ralston, so thanks for that. And thanks also for five other outstanding tracks and for bringing balm to a befuddled brain. Now, dear readers, log on to Noisetrade and throw some bread this young man's way.

Empire (Cornelius Chapel records) is a damn fine solo debut from rock veteran Brad Armstrong. It's gritty and pulls no punches, but it's honest. Some of it is rated R. Like "School Bus" and its line "Every morning was like a wet dream." Okay, so you won't be hearing Brad Armstrong on a radio station near you, but that's no reason not to go online and take a hard listen. Besides, this dude can be smooth when he wants to be. "Them Old Crows" is a nice acoustic country song rendered in mostly sweet tones, though that hint of a spit alerts you he can get down in the gravel whenever the mood strikes. That's rather often, as it turns out. On "No Vain Apology" he practically spews lyrics like "I don't care about my wife/She left me here in Babylon/I watched her walk out the door/With a rifle in her hand." Or the sex and violence allusions in "Cherokee Nose Job."  That one is dark and dirty and explodes into heavy rock that skirts the edge of cacophony before pulling back. Its feel, though not the tune, reminded me The Doors' "The End." Yep—we're talking that level of danger. Again, though, there's a lot of diversity on the album. There are nice ringing harmonies on "Brothers," and some sonic resonance in the background of a robust sound wall. Armstrong goes futuristic on "2045" with atmospheric electric guitar, reverberant vocals, and a trippy sci-fi/acid folk-rock groove. Cool stuff.

I mentioned Brandi Carlile in a recent column. If you really want to hear Carlile in all her glory, check out a sampler from a 2016 tour she's doing with Old Crow Medicine Show Okay, so maybe both performers are a bit Nashville slick, but if they ever decide they want to go the Natalie Merchant route and just make music they want, they'll find legions who will stay loyal. Carlile takes the lead on two tracks, and the shouter/kick-butt "Mainstream Kid" proves she can front any band, while the vulnerable, sweet "The Eye" demonstrates her ability to blend in. She can also step away from the spotlight, as shown in two Old Crow songs where she simply adds her voice to the spirited chorus: "O Cumberland River" and "Bootlegger's Boy." If you've yet to discover Old Crow Medicine Show, you're in for a treat. Fiddler/lead vocalist Keith Secor sizzles with a heat even Old Nick can't touch without sustaining burns. These guys do breakdown bluegrass at speeds that coast faster than an Indy driver.

Rob Weir


The Last One: When TV Meets Reality

Alexandra Oliva
Ballantine Books
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We all know that “reality” TV shows bear as much resemblance to truth as does the Tooth Fairy to scientific dentistry. They are the ultimate junk TV--Dumb and Dumber brought to the small screen. But what would happen if actual reality collided with reality TV? That’s the setup for Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel The Last One, which releases this summer in time for deck chair reading.

Oliva is the latest to enter the post-apocalypse genre, hence her book invites comparisons to recent offerings such as The Road, Station Eleven, The Dog Stars, and The Hunger Games. The hook is that twelve people have been recruited for “In the Dark,” the Mother of All Reality Shows, one with a big budget and a million dollar prize for the titular last one standing. Call it “Survivor” on steroids. Contestants are warned that they will be put through grueling challenges that will be physically and emotionally demanding and, at times, dangerous. They can quit at any time by uttering the phrase ad tenebras dedi, Latin for “I surrender to the dark,” but will not know until the end who wins. They are also told there will be clues and opportunities along the way, which they’ll recognize by assigned colors. (Shades of The Hunger Games.)

Oliva only gives us hints about the contestants, which are based upon short descriptors of their defining personality traits: Air Force, Banker, Biology, Black Doctor, Carpenter, Cheerleader Boy, Engineer, Exorcist, Rancher, Tracker, Waitress, and Zoo. The story is narrated by the last of these, a young married woman seeking a final big thrill before settling into respectable motherhood. Zoo is also the source of all that we know about the others, including their actual names. After a series of gross group and solo “challenges” which thin the herd, the survivors set out alone.

It gives away nothing to say that they no sooner strike out on their own than a mysterious pneumonic plague-like disease wipes out most the population. Given all that Zoo has already been through, she assumes putrefying bodies are brilliant f/x props and that each horror or obstacle she encounters is an elaborate illusion to test her resolve—right down to a mewling “doll” lying beside a lifelike corpse. Hence, when Zoo meets up with Brennan, a traumatized 13-year-old who becomes her traveling partner, she assumes he’s also a producer’s plant, refuses to believe his tales, and continues to play by the rules. She does, however, accept that she could be seriously harmed on her journey and becomes a warrior/thief/survivor.

Zoo’s journey is a bit of a mash between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It’s a harrowing tale, though I could have certainly done without all Zoo’s schmaltzy mommy urges. These annoyed me, as did periodic suggestions that Zoo’s toughness and resourcefulness are mere reflections of her resolve to be safe in her husband’s arms. What, are we afraid to just let Zoo be a feminist instead of begrimed poster gal for family values?

Though Oliva pushed some of my ‘ick’ buttons, this book engaged me. That surprised me, as I loathe “Survivor” and all other reality shows. As apocalyptic novels go, this one is (if I may!) middle of the road and simply doesn’t measure up to any of the books to which it has been compared. It doesn’t have to. It will fit the bill nicely for what it is: breezy escapist fare for summertime reading.
Rob Weir