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Friday, Mar 28, 2008

Sorry for the hiatus—was busy moving. But it’s been business as usual in the lending industry: This story from The Oregonian, details the tricks used to circumvent Chase’s automated underwriting system, Zippy. It lays bare through one particular example how we have ended up in this full-blown credit crisis.


Chase, the nation’s second-largest bank, originates mortgage loans itself but also operates a wholesale arm that underwrites and funds loans brought to them by a network of mortgage brokers. The “Cheats & Tricks” memo was instructing those brokers how to get difficult loans approved by Zippy.
“Never fear,” the memo states. “Zippy can be adjusted (just ever so slightly.)”
The Chase memo deals specifically with so-called stated-income asset loans, one of the most dangerous of the mortgage industry’s innovations of recent years. Known as “liar loans” in some circles because lenders made little effort to verify information in the borrowers’ loan application, they have defaulted in large number since the housing bust began in 2007.


The story is always the same. No one—not the borrowers (who wanted a house), the mortgage brokers (who wanted their cut for getting the loan made), the banks who supplied the money (who wanted to sell the loans to Wall Street), or the Wall Street firms who repackaged the loans (who wanted more-enticing yields for the securities they made out of them)—wanted to interfere with the subprime lending, despite the obvious skepticism about the ability of the borrowers to repay. They were like tobacconists facing down the medical studies linking smoking to cancer. As Barry Ritholtz argues, “Anyone with even a modicum of experience in the mortgage industry will confirm the rampant disregard for lending standards and the corner cutting and shortcuts that were all but official corporate policy during the boom years. There was headlong rush to originate, process and securitize mortgages—and the ability to repay the loans be damned. (Predatory Borrowing my ass!)”


Martin Wolf, in an FT column, noted what Bernanke has come around to saying about subprime lending:


Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, famously understated, described much of the subprime mortgage lending of recent years as “neither responsible nor prudent” in a speech whose details make one’s hair stand on end. This is Fed-speak for “criminal and crazy”.


Everyone seemed to countenance fraud, perhaps figuring that the fraudsters would come up with new frauds to keep payments coming in or that rising house prices would allow refinancing to keep up payments. Or maybe they wishfully believed that the fraud risks would be spread thin enough across the many, many securities derived from mortgages that they wouldn’t matter in the end. They would be lost in the shuffle. But it hasn’t worked out that way, because eventually everyone caught on to the counterparty risks because everyone knew all the tricks that everyone else was pulling because they were pulling them too—so banks stopped feeling comfortable about lending to other banks on the collateral they knew to be dodgy. Tyler Cowen asked the relevant questions last week:


Does herd behavior, combined with agency problems, make things worse?
Is it the standard story that everyone is afraid of the other trader’s knowledge?  Or can liquidity crises become more acute in a hyper-informed world?  We like to think: “market—trade—liquidity—good, etc.”, forgetting the Glosten-Milgrom point that liquidity often rests upon the presence of fools.  Informing the fools eliminates one business cycle problem but creates another.


It’s hard to fool people when everyone is trying to do the fooling.


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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008
Yesterday, Rockstar Games announced the Rockstar Social Club, which sounds like a good idea despite the fact that there's nothing "social", really, about it.

Shh…did you feel that?  That little tremor, underneath your feet, did you feel it?


That was the hype train, embarking on its latest journey through mass media city, blog village, and all points in between.  Its passenger for the next month will be Grand Theft Auto IV, set to claim the title of most hotly hyped release of 2008 now that the buildup to Super Smash Bros. Brawl has passed us by.  GTA4‘s seat is likely saved until at least mid-May, when it will likely have to step aside for the adventures of Geriatric Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4.


The sparkplug that’s starting the train’s journey to April 29th, then, is the announcement of this:



That’s right, folks, the Rockstar Social Club will be opening on the same day as GTAIV‘s release, complete with all of the seedy connotations and orange neon you can handle. 


Before you start thinking that Rockstar’s games are going to turn into a dark, irreverent version of Second Life, one thing should be clear: There is nothing, at least according to the press release that showed up in my e-mailbox yesterday, “social” about the Rockstar Social Club.  It is an online leaderboard with a fancy name, which requires only a PlayStation Network ID or an Xbox Live Gamertag as admission to enter.  Offer up one or both of those things, and you get to measure yourself against the legion of other Grand Theft Auto junkies out there in a number of different ways.


That said, as far as leaderboards go, the Rockstar Social Club sounds pretty snazzy.  It’ll be keeping track of the race to get to 100%, and the first 10 insomniacs to do so will get an extra-special trinket of some sort that they will undoubtedly be able to Ebay for big bucks.  It’ll have a map keeping track of every recorded crime committed in Liberty City.  The bit that sticks out most, however, is the following:


The Liberty City Marathon—A ranking of special physical milestones achieved in the game - from the amount of miles walked, driven, or swam - to the number of bullets fired and stunt-jumps jumped.  There will be additional special marathon-based competitions in the future from this area as well.


I’m a huge fan of the achievement system, given that achievements can serve as suggestions, prompting ways to play games that one might never have tried had Gamerscore points not been attached, thus extending the life of a game beyond its immediate goals.  Still, there’s something more than a little humorous about the idea of keeping track of, say, who swam the most in a game called Grand Theft Auto.  You just know that there are going to be a few poor souls whose ultimate goal is to top the distance-swam leaderboard, and watching that race as it happens is going to be a little bit hilarious in a sad sort of way.  Still, kudos to Rockstar for finding ways, more than a month before the game is even released, to extend the play experience of a game destined to eat hundreds of hours of our time anyway. 


The full press release is after the jump, and the latest trailer is sitting below.  Looking forward to GTAIV?  Couldn’t care less?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy your weekend.



Grand Theft Auto IV Trailer: “Good Lord, What Are You Doing?”



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008


For the weekend beginning 28 March, here are the films in focus:


Stop-Loss [rating: 5]


...more of an artillery based Abercrombie and Fitch road trip than a concise character study.


The War in Iraq remains a tricky cinematic situation. Over the last few months, there’s been a myriad of motion pictures that have decided that the best way to interpret the conflict is to make the soldiery a kind of indirect villain. Instead of celebrating the bravery and duty of these incredible young men and women, they’ve turned the political/policy elements of the conflict into a means to murderous, madmen ends. No matter the theater – foreign or domestic, religious or military – it’s nothing but the worst of our fears made very, very human. Kimberley Peirce’s Stop-Loss wants to buck this trend. It hopes to illustrate the Bush Administration’s ridiculous reenlistment strategy, a revolving door that keeps haggard and harried defense forces in harms way long after their effectiveness has waned. But instead of getting to the heart of the matter, it mines the middle of the road for a series of clichéd contrivances. read full review…


Run, Fat Boy, Run [rating: 5]


For all its faults however, this is a romantic comedy that works - if just barely.


Romantic comedies are, by their very nature, saddled with two completely different sets of motion picture hurdles. First, the story needs to be quixotic, dealing with the emotional bond between two typically star-crossed individuals. If the chemistry or the charisma is not there, part of the filmic formula fails. Then there is the humor. While not needing to be outrageous or riotous, there should be a fairly consistent level of laughs. Both of these prerequisite issues come to bear when discussing the Simon Pegg vehicle Run, Fat Boy, Run. Directed by ex-Friend David Schwimmer and co-written by The State‘s Michael Ian Black, what we have is an attempt to turns a sullen London slacker into a lovable determined dreamer. The movie only gets part of this right. read full review…


Chapter 27 [rating: 5]


In fact, the real problems with Chapter 27 is it vagueness. Everyone here - Leto, Lohan, Friedlander - leaves us in the lurch, and nothing Schaefer does can save our confusion.


For an entire generation, the death of John Lennon resonates more clearly than the assassination of President Kennedy or the suicide of Kurt Cobain. As the peace and politics voice of arguably the most important musical act of the 20th century - The Beatles - the iconic man with the sad/sweet gaze paid a substantial price for his undeniable megafame. While returning to his home in New York’s swanky Dakota building on a December evening, a mentally unbalanced young man named Mark David Chapman pumped five bullets into his back. As he lay bleeding, a ruptured aorta sealing his fate, his killer pulled out a copy of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, silently reading until the police came. read full review…


Married Life [rating: 4]


There will definitely be an audience for this kind of slow burn situational potboiler, but for many, there will be too much stagnancy and not enough sizzle


Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry - and sometimes separate - that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs period piece drama, Married Life, is so downright flat? Could it be that this filmmaker has finally found the one cinematic category - the noir-tinged whodunit - that defies matrimony’s easy explanations and illustrations? read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


21 [rating: 4]


There is an inherently interesting story to be told about a group of Asian MIT students who used a complex card counting scheme to take Las Vegas blackjack tables for large amounts of cash. How that narrative translated into 21 – complete with several Caucasian leads – stands as just one of the film’s many mysteries. Based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Ben Mezrich, this real life thriller becomes a mediocre mainstream effort in the hands of Legally Blonde director Robert Luketic. It’s not just the confused plotting that undermines our interest. The cast, including Jim Burgess as our money desperate lead, Kevin Spacey as the group mastermind, and Kate Bosworth as the mandatory eye candy, seem hemmed in by unavoidable elements outside the narrative, from the Mensa mentality set up to the gaudy neon glitz of the Sin City sequences. There’s also a weird ethical malaise that celebrates materialism for the sake of common sense. While it’s understandable that a Harvard Medical School bound student would do anything to get the $300K he needs for tuition, such a nefarious enterprise seems contradictory to everyone’s collective IQ. Add in Laurence Fishburne as a no nonsense casino security expert, and you’ve got something that should be better. Instead, it tries to stand pat and fails to beat the house.


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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008


The War in Iraq remains a tricky cinematic situation. Over the last few months, there’s been a myriad of motion pictures that have decided that the best way to interpret the conflict is to make the soldiery a kind of indirect villain. Instead of celebrating the bravery and duty of these incredible young men and women, they’ve turned the political/policy elements of the conflict into a means to murderous, madmen ends. No matter the theater – foreign or domestic, religious or military – it’s nothing but the worst of our fears made very, very human. Kimberley Peirce’s Stop-Loss wants to buck this trend. It hopes to illustrate the Bush Administration’s ridiculous reenlistment strategy, a revolving door that keeps haggard and harried defense forces in harms way long after their effectiveness has waned. But instead of getting to the heart of the matter, it mines the middle of the road for a series of clichéd contrivances.


After leading his men directly into an ambush, Sgt. Brandon King returns home to Texas a decorated, if disconnected hero. He is celebrated by his hometown, along with buddies Steve Shriver and Tommy Burgess. With just a few days before he gets out of the service, Brandon hopes to restart his civilian life. But when he reports to turn in his gear, he learns he is being Stop-Lossed. In layman’s terms, it means he is being involuntarily reenlisted for another tour of duty. Angry over this perceived betrayal, Brandon goes AWOL. He decides to go to Washington and speak to a Senator who promised to help him out. Steve’s fiancé Michelle decides to be his driver. Naturally, the military doesn’t look kindly on deserters, and it’s not long before they send his friends after him. Desperate and on the run, Brandon can’t understand why the country he served would treat him so. It’s a horrible lesson that he and his fellow recruits will soon learn all too well.


For the first ten minutes or so, Stop-Loss crackles along on a bed of preconceived patriotism. We watch fresh faced young men battling ambiguous Arab enemies, rocket launchers sending Hummers – and humans – to a planned pyrotechnical reward. By the time we see the trademark tableau (dead Islamic family, including kids, lying in a pool of blood and bullets), we think this film might be ready to break from the formulaic mold. But alas, director Peirce (of Boys Don’t Cry fame) brings the drama back home, and it’s here where Stop-Loss stumbles. In fact, within a short time of landing stateside, the movie meanders into a series of vignettes that replay every tired post-service chestnut ever offered. Over the course of the 105 minute running time we get the doomed alcoholic, the commitment-phobic jarhead, the conscientious objector, the fading Vietnam Vet father and any other stereotype you can stomach.


This doesn’t make Stop-Loss dreadful, just predictable. The moment you hear a commanding officer warn the troops about banned leave conduct – no drunk driving, no wife beating, no sex with underage partners – we recognize the various plot point beats the narrative is going to traverse. Sure enough, Tommy takes his car for an inebriated spin, while Steve’s gal pal suddenly sports a shiner. When combined with the other archetypes abounding (rebel yelling soon to be recruit, compassionate care-giving mother), we get a veritable cornucopia of cornball cinematic extremes. That Peirce manages to keep everything from swerving into parody or direct outrage is commendable. Yet the script by the director and Mark Richard keeps veering into easy answers and simplistic sentiments. In the end, we feel like we’ve witnessed all these war stories - both at home and on the front lines – before.


As for the acting, there is some reason to rejoice. While he’s typically been known as Reese Witherspoon’s ex, Ryan Philippe actually redeems himself as a serious performer – albeit of a decidedly MTV era bent. He looks less like a waifish pretty boy and more like a Lone Star soldier here. Equally engaging, though far more limited in range, is Channing Tatum. Best known for being the badass stud muffin in tween treats like Step Off, he certainly looks the part of a tattooed marksman. But when required to bring the big guns, dramatically speaking, he slips just a little. And while she may have a jailbait Charlize Theron look to her trailer trashiness, Abbie Cornish is a vapid, vacuous female lead. Among the underused and downright forgotten are Ciaran Hinds as Brandon’s worn warrior dad, Timothy Olyphant as the crusty CO, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the consistently tanked up Tommy, and a blink and you’ll miss it turn by Rosanne‘s Laurie Metcalf as a grieving mother.


In fact, the movie is more of an artillery based Abercrombie and Fitch road trip than a concise character study. There is no desire to dig deeper into these men, to see why a series of tours in a remote Arab land turns some young boys into fractured, failed men. Sacrifice is stressed, but not the lingering horrors of being a hired killer. Stop-Loss is not a movie of insight. Instead, it skirts most important issues in favor of more post-adolescent angst. Peirce falls into the typical motion picture parameters. She relies on musical montages, pop culture cues, and the standard shaky-cam suggestion of chaos. And since we don’t have more meaning to the events, we end up losing interest. No amount of pizzazz or flash can permeate the failed policies of George Bush and company, and since the movie only gives the Commander in Chief cursory criticism (and an “F” bomb beratement), its possible points become moot.


This renders Stop-Loss anticlimactic and average. While better than ball buster bravado like Redacted and Rendition, it can’t compete with more serious efforts like In the Valley of Elah. In fact, the film is very much like our mission in Iraq – poorly defined, jingoistic, and destined to be unpopular. While marketing may drive the 20 something demo into theaters, audiences with more life experience will scoff at the black/white pronouncements. It is clear that this war is taking a toll previously unfathomable to those who initiated it. But what’s also evident is that Stop-Loss – as a movie and as a course of action is a failure as well. 



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008

For an entire generation, the death of John Lennon resonates more clearly than the assassination of President Kennedy or the suicide of Kurt Cobain. As the peace and politics voice of arguably the most important musical act of the 20th century - The Beatles - the iconic man with the sad/sweet gaze paid a substantial price for his undeniable megafame. While returning to his home in New York’s swanky Dakota building on a December evening, a mentally unbalanced young man named Mark David Chapman pumped five bullets into his back. As he lay bleeding, a ruptured aorta sealing his fate, his killer pulled out a copy of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, silently reading until the police came.


Chapter 27, the long delayed indie film dramatization of these events, proposes to be a character study of Chapman, a look inside the scattered, soured mind that decided that John Lennon must die. It also features one of those notorious star stunt turns, a DeNiro/Raging Bull, Theron/Monster physical transformation by pretty boy emo band member Jared Leto. Packing on 60 pounds of purposeful bloat, and diving Method like into Chapman’s baffling brain (thanks, in part, to taped interviews that formed the basis of the film’s inspiration, the book Let Me Take You Down by Jack Jones), our lead wants to create a gripping portrait of insanity unleashed. Part of the time he’s semi successful. At other moments, it’s the same old schizo song and dance.


As the first feature from filmmaker J.P. Schaefer, there is a determined effort to make Chapman’s tale parallel the events as played out in Salinger’s book. The main plot point travails of adolescent antihero Holden Caufield - trip to New York, a night with a hooker, the ducks in Central Park - are intertwined with Chapman’s own obsessions to form one part of an intriguing paradigm. What drives a supposedly ‘normal’ person to destroy that which they admire requires an intricate, complex dissection, however. All Schaefer gives us are nonsensical pronouncements from a clearly sick mind. The use of Jones’ book offers its own limits, since it can’t give us the analysis necessary to figure out Chapman’s malfunction. It’s like listening to bad poetry from depressed tweens - not the ravings of the fatal lunatic fringe.


And then there is Leto’s performance. He doesn’t really play a character. Instead, he’s the physicality of Chapman fused with tired, tic-laden theatrics. It’s more like an animatronic version of the notorious madman than a flesh and blood portrait. It’s not just that Leto is restricted in what he can bring to the role. The script constantly shuffles him over into nutjob mode without ever allowing us to see the real Chapman inside (if one truly existed). Constantly being “on” renders much of Chapter 27 redundant. When we see our lead lumbering toward Lindsay Lohan (playing a ubiquitous fan named Jude), we just know their conversations are going nowhere. A last act confrontation with a photographer essayed by Judah Friedlander is equally anticlimactic.


No, Chapter 27 wants this entire experience to be one long Catcher tinged internal monologue, and Leto’s ersatz lisping narration (he is affecting an odd Southern drawl here) can grow grating at times. But because of the setting, the seedy back alley way in which Chapman went about his business, and the exterior element of a very public protest (the movie has been shelved since its 2007 Sundance debut for lack of a willing distributor), the film contains a morbid curiosity that can’t be helped. Call it a bow to our current tabloid mentality, but with his eerie resemblance to the famed shooter, Leto keeps our attention - at least until he starts rambling like a fool to any cab driver who will listen.


Schaefer is also his own worst enemy when it comes to directorial flourishes. First, he makes the big mistake of announcing Chapman and his intentions right up front. We get several foreboding flash forwards to the events that will lead to Lennon’s death. Had he hidden the fact that he was dealing with The Beatles’ infamous killer, and let the three day ordeal unravel organically, we’d have a much better dramatic arc. Similarly, by leaving the victim almost completely out of the picture (surely for legal and music catalog copyright reasons), we never feel Chapman’s fascination. The link to Catcher in the Rye is remote, and the voice over explanations ambiguous at best.


In fact, the real problems with Chapter 27 is it vagueness. Everyone here - Leto, Lohan, Friedlander - leaves us in the lurch, and nothing Schaefer does can save our confusion. While it may sound sick to say so, there is an innate allure to this story. We want to understand what happened, to get some insight into why this lowly schlub would take his failed ego fascinations out on a social symbol of a man. It remains the most captivating aspects of the assassin’s tale - and it’s the part that’s definitely missing here. To call Chapter 27 a failure would be a mistake. To call it worthy of the tragedy involved or the figure lost is also extremely shortsighted. Somewhere in the middle lies this less than impressive film.



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