The Big Short

The-Big-Short-Poster-2015

If you saw the Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg 2010 comedy The Other Guys, you may have noticed something a little bit “off” about the end credits. While the feature was a typical over-the-top comedy (Ferrell and Wahlberg play “odd couple” partners who inadvertently solve a major case despite plenty of hijinks along the way), the end credits took a surprisingly serious turn with facts and figures from the 2008 financial crisis. After the fun and lightheartedness of the film itself, the end credits splashed a dose of cold water on the whole thing. It was clear that the people behind the film were justifiably outraged about the crisis and the fact that no one in the financial industry suffered any consequences for their creation of the whole mess. It felt like a message to the audience – if you thought this comedy was outrageous and unbelievable, just look at how nuts the real world is. So for those who saw The Other Guys, it probably wasn’t that surprising that Adam McKay, the director of that movie and other acclaimed comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, was tackling a dramatization of Michael Lewis’ 2010 book The Big Short.

Essentially, the film is about a select group of financial outsiders who realize that the mortgage-backed securities market is destined to crash (like a Jenga game, which the film uses as a nice visual metaphor) and decide to place big bets to make a fortune off of the disaster. The outsiders are played by Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, among others. And yes, these are the heroes of the film.

In arguably the film’s most important scene, Brad chastises our “heroes” after they confirm their suspicions that the whole real estate market is being run by idiots. They giddily jump up and down on the floor, until they are reminded (by Brad, the only unambiguously good man in the movie, of course) that what they are celebrating is the collapse of the American economy. That sobers their celebration pretty quickly.

That’s the scene that stuck out for me from The Big Short. Are these characters heroes? It’s nice that they’re outraged and indignant about the reckless greed of Wall Street, but they profit off that very arrogance and recklessness. At the end of the film, only two groups emerge unscathed: the Wall Street firms that are bailed out after brokering the whole mess in the first place, and our heroes, who vastly multiply their bank accounts.

The Big Short tackles the same themes as The Wolf of Wall Street, but whereas Scorsese’s film felt like a chocolate sundae this one is a steaming helping of broccoli. Its frustration with the financial system is its greatest strength, but the heavy-handedness with which it tells the tale leaves the film feeling a bit like an after-school special.

Grade: B-

Side note: I have to commend The Big Short for characters breaking the fourth wall to address that some events that play out onscreen didn’t actually happen, but make for better drama. A refreshing acknowledgement to take the film, although based on facts, with a grain of salt.

Advertisements

TIFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave Review

TIFF-2013-12-Years-a-Slave-Review

Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”

Steve McQueen (the director, not to be confused with the star of the 1968 thriller Bullitt) is making a career out of unflinching and brutally honest truths about humanity. From a prisoner’s life in Hunger to a man’s private demons in Shame, McQueen expands his focus in 12 Years a Slave to a dark period in a nation’s history.

In 1841, Solomon Northup is a free man. Living in New York, Solomon makes his living as a talented musician and is approached by two men with an offer too good to be true. It is, and Solomon wakes up in a dank hole, chained to the wall. He’s been kidnapped to be transported to the South and sold as a slave. The title of the film explains how long his ordeal lasts.

Chiwetel Ejiofor will win the Best Actor Oscar this year. He does amazing work depicting a man trying to salvage hope, and to simply survive, in an impossible situation. He does more with an anguished look than other actors can do with monologues. It’s an incredible piece of work. One thing can be said about this film – it has the best talent roster in recent memory. It’s like the All-Star team of Hollywood. Michael Fassbinder plays against type as a cruel and sadistic slave master, Paul Dano leaves a lasting impression as a weaselly and weak foreman Solomon enrages, Brad Pitt plays the only nice (and Canadian!) man in the film who for some reason has the same “frog voice” accent of his Inglourious Basterds character, and Benedict Cumberbatch as a slave master with a conscience. Meanwhile, Sarah Paulson plays an evil Lady Macbeth type and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o gives a heartbreaking performance as favoured slave that endures unspeakable cruelties. Yes, I could list more actors.

In addition to its acting, 12 Years a Slave has incredible cinematography. I’d say McQueen films are known for their striking imagery (the dung-scraped wall in Hunger comes to mind) and in this film he focuses on creating beautiful natural vistas to juxtapose the human savagery portrayed onscreen. It’s very well done.

However, the film takes a detached and almost clinical look at the human suffering on display, robbing the images of some of their power. The images are raw, vicious, and assaultive, but two scenes in particular are shot in long takes that undercut (or perhaps the better word is overemphasize) the brutality at the expense of emotional feeling. Take this criticism with a grain of salt. The theatre I saw the film in was packed with tears and anguished reactions. Maybe I was desensitized from seeing a baker’s dozen worth of films in a short period of time, or it could be I’m particularly fond of emotional manipulation (i.e. blasting heart-wrenching violin strings to evoke a reaction), but I found myself to be more intellectually appreciative of the artistry rather than instinctively moved.

12 Years a Slave is fantastically shot and acted. It’s a powerful and unflinching depiction of this brutal period in North American history, but refrains from delivering the sucker punch I think the material deserves.

Grade: B+

Moneyball

While I liked Moneyball, the science that drives the story is never really explained. It was probably a conscious choice, as dialogue about the interpretation of statistics isn’t exactly riveting stuff. Unfortunately, the whole plot hinges on this point – that a nerdy, overweight statistician possesses a magical system that transforms the game of baseball. It’s interesting stuff – but understanding the science behind the numbers is overshadowed by the challenges General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) faces in implementing it.

The Oakland Athletics have the odds stacked against them. They’ve just lost their top three players to other teams, and with one of the lowest player payrolls of the league, it’s difficult to attract competitive talent. Set during the 2002 season, Beane is tasked with rebuilding the team with limited options. His scouts pitch players to him using the typical tools – their experience and intuition – that Beane regards as ineffectual and archaic. While a trade with the Cleveland Indians is unsuccessful, Beane manages to pick up a important ally – Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) – with a revolutionary new system for assessing value in players.

And so, using the sabermetric approach – something to do with on-base percentage rather than the traditional batting statistics – the duo assemble a team of “misfit toys” and look to demonstrate the value of their method by taking the team all the way to the World Series.

The baseball players are merely window dressing for the story – each is given a handful of short scenes that are neither indicative of their untapped baseball potential nor do they add much to their characterization. It’s interesting for an inspirational sports movie to be so unconcerned with the dynamics of the team. This is a sports movie seen from the perspective of the managers and administrators – the generals of the game whereas the players are merely pawns. This theme is expanded on with flashbacks to Beane’s past as a sought-after prospect courted by scouts to give up college for the big paychecks of the MLB – only to play in The Bigs with disappointing results and dwindling compensation.

Moneyball isn’t a typical sports movie. Much of the action takes place in boardrooms and offices away from the field where characters bluff and parry with one another over trades, contracts, and the minutiae of running a baseball team. It’s a movie about the business of running a game, and while I would argue it doesn’t have the same emotional impact of other underdog stories, they give it a good go. And like implementing an untested system that goes against years of tradition, that’s all that matters.

Grade: B-

Sidenote: I find it interesting that Billy Beane becomes a valued General Manager over the course of the film. It just seems ironic that what makes him a hot commodity is that he’s applied the system that Peter Brand developed to assess undervalued players – and ends up becoming an overvalued General Manager.

Malick’s The Tree of Life is Awful

Don't believe the hype.

I want to be really careful what I say here, and how I say it. I feel that when critics almost unanimously praise a movie, I tend to agree with their opinions. There must be something good about a film if so many intelligent people have positive reactions to it. When I see a well-reviewed flick, I’m usually not contrarian. I tend to agree with what the critics have to say and maybe my knowledge that it has been well received colours my perception and experience of the film in question. I’d hope not, but I’m sure sometimes that can be the case. I think a lot of us would rather go with the herd that proclaims a film to be a “masterpiece” rather than go against the grain – mainly because our contrary opinion is viewed to reflect intellectual shortcomings or the inability to understand (or “get”) what the film means. It’s one thing to not like a film and say it. It’s another to say it and be called an idiot for doing so.

I’m surprised that I am writing this post. I was the perfect audience member to see Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I’ve seen the trailer countless times and marveled at the beautiful imagery, haunting voiceover, and powerful soundtrack. I’ve urged friends and family to see the film, citing the numerous positive responses from critics and Malick’s auteur status as the reasons for doing so (“he’s only made five films over an almost three decade career – this is an event movie that you must see”). I was overly enthusiastic about the film before I had even seen it. And when I saw it, it’s been one of the only films I’ve considered walking out of, and the only time I’ve been disappointed when I didn’t.

Sean Penn in a desert. Deal with it. It's a metaphor for something.

The words I used to describe The Tree of Life (before I saw it) were “meditation” and “experience.” As in: “The Tree of Life is a meditation about life and death” or “The Tree of Life isn’t a film; it’s an experience.” Yes, I can be slightly pretentious. But I still agree with those statements (especially the experience one) – The Tree of Life is not a film. The best possible “viewing experience” of The Tree of Life would be as background noise at a party. The pictures are beautiful, the sound is great, but don’t dare pay attention or try to make sense of it. As an aside, I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey and Koyaanisqatsi – two films that The Tree of Life has been favorably (though I would argue shallowly) compared to.

This is the film: a series of images (all incredibly shot and lit) with whispered rhetorical questions. For two hours and eighteen minutes. Let me clarify something: a series of rhetorical questions does not make a movie profound nor important. Rather, this movie is the equivalent of an earnest and indulgent drama student who thinks they have something to say and directs a play with two characters (named Grace and Nature) whispering nonsensical phrases at one another for twenty minutes. It deserves a snicker, or for the more sensitive audience members, a feeling of sympathy for the director’s embarrassing display. Malick overreached on this one – it’s okay to call him out on it.

I can understand why some people enjoy (and perhaps even revere) this film. It’s unquestionably beautiful. But there’s not much else. People who have vocalized their dislike of the movie have been attacked for not “getting” it or for being cinematic simpletons who probably should just go see low-brow fare like Fast Five or Transformers. First off – one of the characteristics of The Tree of Life is that no one gets it. The “praise” I’ve read about the film is that it means something different to every audience member. Which is dressed-up language saying that the film has no intrinsic meaning – i.e. it has no point – which is something you can’t say about low-brow fare. Fast Five delivers car crashes and Transformers delivers robot-on-robot action. Mission complete.

One of the sequences I was most excited for was the celebrated “creation” scene of the film. It was underwhelming. This fifty-second clip from Adaptation is much better.

Watching this movie reminded me of a post by Roger Ebert about Jean-Luc Godard’s latest movie Film Socialisme – which Ebert hated, saying “[Film Socialisme] is incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and heedless of the ways in which people watch movies.” Here’s the four-minute version of that entire film. To me, it sounds exactly like my experience watching The Tree of Life.

Here: just watch the trailer on repeat for two hours. It’s more moving than the actual film itself (and I wouldn’t argue with anyone if they wanted to give it the Palme D’Or or call it a “masterpiece”).

Grade: D+ (only for the visuals)

Side note: I challenge anyone to justify why The Tree of Life is a masterpiece without referring to the visuals (I’ll concede the point that it is a visual masterpiece). I dare you to.