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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Susan Granger at the Movies: ‘The Big Short,’ “13 Hours…’ ‘The Benefactor’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

Based on Michael Lewis’s best-seller, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” “The Big Short” is the story of how “affordable and flexible” home mortgages encouraged borrowing by homeowners who were unable to repay their loans, causing the financial collapse of 2008.

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Working with screenwriter Charles Randolph, it’s adapted and directed by Adam McKay, best known for collaborating with Will Ferrell on “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” That explains why “Wolf of Wall Street” sexpot Margot Robbie explains mortgaged-backed securities while sipping champagne in a bubble bath.

Starting in 2005, this grimly comic drama revolves around two anti-social money managers. Scion Capital executive, bohemian Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), says that the mortgage market is a Ponzi scheme that’s doomed to fail, expressing his concern to Wall Street’s Mark Baum (Steve Carell).

Confident, far-sighted Burry buys millions of dollars of financial instruments called ‘credit default swaps,’ or shorts, which will only pay off if and when the subprime market collapses.

Two ambitious younger guys (Finn Wittrock, John Magaro) want to play in the big leagues, enlisting advice from an ex-broker (Brad Pitt), on their quest to get rich quick.

Serving as narrator-guide to the apocalypse is cynical Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) with a strong supporting cast that includes Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong and Marisa Tomei. Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain play themselves.

Problem is: there’s little or no backstory or character development, nor is there any suspense. So they repetitively chronicle what happened in technical Wall Street language. 

Intrigued? I urge you to see “99 Homes,” a timely thriller exploring the same territory; starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, it’s far better and scheduled for DVD release in February.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Big Short” is a perplexing 6, concluding that financial institutions are still corrupt.

Regarding “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz said, “This new movie will relate the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives in Benghazi and the politicians that abandoned them,” while Donald Trump rented an Iowa movie theater and distributed free tickets.

Problem is: while this $50 million thriller allegedly relates the attack on the diplomatic compound in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in 2012, the now-retired CIA station chief, identified only as Bob, denies he ever issued an order to “stand down.”

“There never was a stand-down order,” he told the Washington Post/Associated Press. “At no time did I ever second-guess that the team would depart.”

And a two-year investigation by the House Intelligence Committee found that the CIA and military acted properly in responding to the attack by Islamic extremists and determined that there was no delay in sending a CIA rescue team and no missed opportunity for a military rescue.

“No one will mistake this movie for a documentary,” stated CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani. “It’s a distortion of the events and people who served in Benghazi that night. It’s shameful that, in order to highlight the heroism of some, those responsible for the movie felt the need to denigrate the courage of other Americans who served in harm’s way.”

The real Benghazi contractors were the Global Response Staff, created by the CIA. And then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s name is never mentioned, although blame is implied.

Based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s best-seller, adapted by Chuck Hogan and directed by Michael Bay, it purports to be a true story and is peppered with violent shootouts, firebombs and a bus explosion.

Hunky John Krasinski plays a rugged Navy SEAL-turned-private security contractor, along with Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini, James Badge Dale, David Denman and Dominic Fumusa.

On the Granger Gauge, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is a patriotic, action-packed 4. Just don’t expect accuracy or clarity.

With a dazzling resume that includes “Pretty Woman” and “An Officer and a Gentleman,” 66 year-old Richard Gere is choosing eccentric character studies, following “Arbitrage” (2012) with “Time Out of Mind” (2014) and now “The Benefactor.”

Haunted by guilt, arrogant yet affable Francis “Franny” Watts is a wealthy Philadelphia philanthropist. As his story begins, he’s developing a children’s hospital project with married friends (Cheryl Hines, Dylan Baker).  Smoking pot in the back seat of their car, euphoric Franny’s impulsive but distracting hug leads to an automobile accident that kills the couple.

Five years later, living in seclusion while recovering from devastating injuries, Franny receives a call from their twentysomething daughter, Olivia (Dakota Fanning).  Newly married to Luke (Theo James) and pregnant, she wants to move back to Philadelphia.

Exuberantly extravagant Franny gets Luke a prestigious position at his now-completed children’s hospital, pays off his student loan and buys them the suburban house Olivia grew up in.

But Franny has become addicted to pain-killing morphine, and Luke refuses to refill his prescription.

Novice writer/director Andrew Renzi says he was inspired by John E. DuPont, whose strange proclivities were previously depicted in “Foxcatcher.” But clichés abound in this clunky melodrama, and there are so many implausible plot holes that even Gere’s legendary silver-fox charm cannot fill them all.

On the Granger Gauge, “The Benefactor” is a bumbling 3, an addiction parable revolving around guilt and generosity.

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( Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)


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