Archive for the ‘movie review’ Category

Book Review: Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile.

June 3, 2016

The movie (created by people I would call the ‘dream team’:   director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts), came out in 2007… about 9 years ago.  This is the Wikipedia link to the review:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Wilson%27s_War

I came across the book (which I didn’t know existed) while traveling.  Crile was an amazing writer.  This is an absurd, almost unbelievable story. It’s actually a story about how ‘democracy’ works.

Do you remember where you were in the late 1980s?  I was in undergraduate school, working part-time grooming dogs,  and modeling for artists.  I had had a roommate who had volunteered with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  Related to that, I had an FBI file.  That’s another story, which I blogged about previously: https://disparateinterests.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/how-i-got-my-fbi-file/ .

The reason  my roommate volunteered to work for the Sandinistas was because of our ‘covert’ was in Nicaragua.  President Reagan wanted to  help the ‘contras’—a really ragtag group of’ anti-communists’ with no real strategy to govern the country, fight communism.  Unfortunately for them, in spite of  Reagan and the CIA pouring money into training and paying soldiers, they  really weren’t getting support of the Nicaraguans.   They did not exist at all, but were a contrivance.  Apparently, not only were there  several other political parties besides the  Sandinistas, the Nicaraguans did not fear communism or socialism the way we Americans had been led to.

This only matters because the war was not ‘covert’:  the news media knew of it, as did many Americans, who  pressured Congress to cut off funding.  We all knew Reagan was not a deep thinker, and he allowed key players  in the Republican Party to set policy.  What this has to do with the story of Charlie Wilson, and the war in Afghanistan (also covert—and a secret to us), is that, at one point,  Oliver North/the Reagan Administration asked the CIA and the Appropriations committee to hide money for the Contras in funds earmarked for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.  :”Wait!” you  shout.  “The mujahedeen?  Aren’t they the people  waging  jihad against us now?  Haven’t they been since…?”  Yep, You got it.

The movie  was written  as a comedy.  Charlie Wilson was a playboy congressman from Texas, whose constituents didn’t ask much from him.  Having served in the navy, and grown up during the cold war, he was  strongly anti-communist.  On the advice of a vivacious socialite, Joanne Herring, who had met the  president of Pakistan ( Zia ul-Haq…who had his predecessor assassinate…), Charlie, who sat on the Appropriations Committee in  the House of Representatives,  got money  appropriated for arms for people in  Afghanistan fighting Russians/Soviets.  The Russians were in Afghanistan to prop up a  socialist government.  As we believed at the time—and it could have possibly been true—according to the domino theory:  if the USSR got a foothold in  south Asia, they could dominate the world.  The reality was—and is—that Afghanistan —as a country—is a contrivance.  It is a geographic parcel of land within a border.  It will probably never be a country with a viable economy.  It is a failed state without ever really being a state.

Who writes our history?  Is it what we get in primary school history books?  Is it journalists who write news  reports and turn them into books?  No matter. At the time the CIA was  buying and providing arms for the Afghan rebels, I was a student working part time.  What I DO remember is that very suddenly, the Soviet Union fell into chaos, and the Berlin wall came down.  I don’t think many Americans understood why this happened.  All we really knew of the Soviet Union was that it was a dictatorship with no press freedom, and only of consequence to us insofar as their influence on other countries.  Crile  gives us a better understanding  of what really happened.

We have to  understand what we  did in the rest of the world.  While the do-gooders took to the Afghanis, who were not united in any way, and have proven to not be unitable, what the do-gooders did—with out tax money, was ignore their human rights record, ignore how they treated  each other—let alone women, and gave them the power to  terrorize us after they finished with the Russians.  As I write this, in early 2016, we have Syrian refugees fleeing the middle East, and a bunch of right-wing politicians calling them all terrorists…meanwhile ignoring the fact that  they supported the cause of all this.

Worse, the front-runner, Hillary Clinton,  the former Secretary of State, continued to allow the Pakistanis to hold us hostage, along with President Obama, so we could kill off Osama bin Ladin and temporarily slow down jihad leaders.  We are not going to stop how foreign aid is doled out unless we  organize for a radical shift in leadership (which is another reason I support Bernie Sanders). The   countries receiving it hire lobbyists, and the  companies manufacturing weapons also have a huge stake in  continuing the status quo.

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The Big Short and Understanding Finance

December 25, 2015
My 2 flat in Rogers Park, Chicago's 49th ward.

My 2 flat in Rogers Park, Chicago’s 49th ward.

It’s Christmas Eve, 2015, and I went  to see “The Big Short.”  Although the movie was not well reviewed (Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune said that  financial markets were too complicated for the average person to understand. Hence, this movie was boring), I found it well scripted, edited, and acted.

Perhaps  it is because I, also, could see how over heated the real estate market was…and I will tell you  how.

In the mid 1980s, seeing that I would never get rich by grooming dogs, no matter how well I  managed my budget, I decided to learn about the mortgage market and selling commercial paper.  That’s right.  I learned that not just banks, but private investors bought mortgages and you really didn’t need years of college education to sell mortgages.  You just had to know the concepts of present value of future cash flow, loan to value—and the formula to  figure out what a cash flow was worth.  That was it.  Simple as that.  Yes, you need a special calculator to  figure this stuff out, but you can easily learn the formula in a few minutes.

I  learned, via audio tapes, that  brokers sliced up payment streams, and sold portions of mortgages.  You didn’t have to buy 240 payments (a 20 year mortgage), but could by payment 12, 18, 32…whatever.  How would you manage to get paid if the mortgage was sold or the mortgagee defaulted?  Ah, there was the rub.

I wondered how this could be legal.  Well, it was legal because it was not ILLEGAL, and frankly, most people who buy bundles don’t look that closely at what they are buying.  I mean, they don’t look at the value of the property the mortgage is on, trusting appraisers.  They don’t look at the credit histories of the borrowers.  The assumption was that someone was  checking out this stuff…but in reality, nobody was. It just seemed to risky for me.  The only way you could  make money was if you were  a lawyer, and even then, it was an iffy investment.

My niece learned the  mortgage business (and was a lawyer), and I called her about a mortgage because I wanted to lower my payments.  She got me a ‘no document’ mortgage, meaning I didn’t have to prove income.  At the time, I was earning under $30,000 a year, but my credit was good, and my  ‘loan to value’ on the house was very good, so it wasn’t a problem.  After a few years, I thought I could do better, and wanted to retire a line of credit which was never very transparent, and I could never get a statement  on how much principle I owed, so I , again, refinanced with a broker who got me  a mortgage based on the LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate—a rather bogus index used in the USA), which was  at 3%, but adjustable. The broker told me  the rate was very stable, and rarely fluctuated more than .25, but that turned out  not to be so, and within  six months the rate climbed from 3% to 5%, and I again refinanced.

I just love HGTV, and I loved the shows about house flipping and people house hunting.  What I was seeing, on those shows, was people were being approved for  mortgages with no or hardly any (2%?) money down, based on their incomes, not expenses, and clearly people were buying much more  home than they could afford.  But it was legal.

I was seeing this with some friends as well. I thought that this could not possibly go on.  People were trusting banks, were carrying too much debt on credit cards, and all that needed to happen was for energy prices to go up or people losing jobs for whatever reason, or becoming over extended (a good one was  investors buying a bunch of property, not keeping the property up, getting rent payments but not paying the mortgages on time because  that’s how  some people manage their finances).

This movie shows that—all of that—really well…and virtually all the practices that led up to this are still legal.   Our Chicago area schools are not really teaching finance, or compound interest, or budgeting…especially not in low-income areas…and we still have people thinking this is  just not an interesting subject.  These are the same people who don’t bother to  check out the political candidates positions online (easy enough to do, but they go for the bloviators), and don’t vote, anyways.  Then, they complain.

I had read excerpts of Michael Lewis’ book, and learned about Michael Burry (excellently portrayed by  Christian Bale).  This movie should be shown  to every highs school student.

3 movies: Rosenwald, Our Brand is Crisis, & Trumbo

November 13, 2015

I am reviewing these  three movies together because they are all based on true history  that we might not be exposed to otherwise.

I saw Rosenwald a couple of months ago.  It’s a documentary about Julius Rosenwald, who was an entrepreneur and  owner of Sears, Roebuck.  He was Jewish, and strongly believed in giving back to the community.While most  philanthropists at the time gave to noncontroversial causes, Rosenwald believed in supporting education.  He funded the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (I come from a generation who remembers people calling it the Rosenwald Museum), but he also funded Rosenwald schools, mostly in the southern US, for ‘underserved’  (black) communities.  If a community could find space and the people to build the school, Rosenwald provided the plans and materials.  Many  now  well-known civil rights leaders attended Rosenwald schools.  If you are interested in American history, civil rights, or philanthropy, this is a film worth renting, It is very well  written, edited, and produced.


The 2nd film is Our Brand is Crisis.  It’s a political movie,  produced by George Clooney, and stars Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thorton, and it is based on a documentary (about an election  in Bolivia) of the same name. That combination had me right there.  However, I did not enjoy the movie.  If you want to know how the sausage is made, you  might enjoy it, but all the political consultants are creeps.   It’s a satire, but hardly funny.  They help (with our State Department paying the bill) a discredited  leader make a political comeback.  It looks like a lost cause…and the wrong guy wins.  Sandra Bullock’s character gets a conscious in the end.  It is well written, directed, acted, and produced, but  pretty aggravating.  Mostly because it is true.

The 3rd movie is Trumbo.   It is based on the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who wrote Johnny Got His Gun,  and the screenplays for Roman Holiday and Spartacus).  Very relevant considering Bernie Sanders,  the only democratic socialist in Congress, is running for president.  For those who don’t know (because  hardly anything about that era  is taught in U.S. schools), after World War II—after we were allies with the Soviets against the Nazis, suddenly the mindset  of political leaders shifted to find a Communist threat.    In fact, during  the 1930s  Depression and through the war, many Americans were  Communists.  There was no  civil rights movement at that time, but it was brewing, and a significant number of  Black Americans were  Communist party members.  Significantly, so were many people in Hollywood, where  a congressional committee chose to focus.   Was this because so many in Hollywood were also Jews?  Or  able to  tell stories that would influence  people through entertainment?  In any case, Trumbo was  sent to prison for being in contempt of Congress, and  could no longer get work.  This  film is about how he and many other coped.  It could happen again, but  you  learn from how the story is told about how to get around it.  This is a very well done film.  I encourage  people interested in American history and Hollywood to see it.

Movie Review:Love And Mercy—Foxes Minding the Henhouse

July 10, 2015

I’m not much of an audiophile.  there is so much noise in my life, I generally listen to NPR on the radio, and go for jazz.  However, I still enjoy the rock of my youth.  On my desert island playlist is Good Vibrations….  I’ll say that straight off.  Next thing I’ll say  is that I have been mentally  ill on and off. Mostly depression, but the fact is that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and I  just  don’t fit anywhere.  I’m on the Wrong Planet.

Because I love Beach Boys music, and so many people told me they enjoyed this movie, I had to see it.  It’s a visually beautiful movie, taking place in southern California, and a story well scripted and edited.  The music is great, of course.   Paul Dano and John Cusack both  do  an excellent job of playing Brian Wilson young and old, in all his turmoil.

I don’t  think that most of us who enjoy Beach Boys music realized  Brian Wilson arranged so many of the hits we love.  He really is a genius.  However,  it’s hard to be an artist. It appears that his fellow band members had a different idea of what they wanted to do.  Coupled  with an abusive  father, and whatever stresses cause mental illness, he was really tortured for a very long time…  Psychotherapist Eugene Landy, who  somehow got  guardianship of  Wilson, also abused him more.

We in America are so trusting of care providers. We just assume they are altruistic and have your interests at heart.    I saw several psychiatrists and psychologists  as an adolescent.  They made a lot of money off my parents and really did no more than assure me I was not crazy.  When I was starting my college career, I was thinking of majoring in psychology (because I wanted some insight into how  people make decisions).  I had the  amazing luck to  get a ‘self-taught’ intro to psychology course  with a textbook written by James V. McConnell :  “Understanding Human Behavior” (http://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/12/obituaries/james-mcconnell-psychology-teacher-and-researcher-64.html), the genius (no joke—he got a MacArthur grant) worm biologist, who addressed the practice of psychology on humans.  He said, in a nutshell, that 1/3 of people who go to  psychologists/psychiatrists for  talk therapy get better, 1/3 stay the same, and 1/3 get worse.  It’s  essentially the dynamic between the patient and the  doctor.

Brian Wilson had the extreme misfortune to come under the control of Landy, who alienated him from his family even  further, and it was just by a stroke of luck that he met Melinda Ledbetter.  She had the integrity to  try to disentangle him.  Of course, this could have gone either way.

Mental illness is  sort of like diabetes in that  if you take care of yourself. are a bit introspective,  and avoid stress, you can  function in the  world…but it never really goes away.  And what is it? A chemical imbalance?  Thanks to Temple Grandin,  there is a lot less  ambiguity to  human psychology than there used to be.  However, the foxes are still in charge and , coupled with lawyers, they tend to keep us oddballs suppressed.
This is a sad story with a happy ending, and it  does a lot to show that not everyone who is mentally ill is schizophrenic.