The Big Short


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.

The Dark Knight Rises

It’s been a long eight years for Bruce Wayne.

Setting aside the cape and cowl after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce holes himself up in his mansion like a Howard Hughes recluse – complete with dishevelled appearance, patchy facial hair and questionable hygiene. Peacetime, while it may have been good for Gotham, has not been good for its hero. Funny that the only thing to bring Bruce out of his stupor is not his city, but a new threat: a mysterious terrorist known as Bane.

That’s about the end of my plot synopsis – to mention it otherwise reeks of redundancy, and there are many other (more well-written) reviews that can do a much better job of explaining it.

I think this was probably the weakest of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It doesn’t help that it came after The Dark Knight, which is arguably the perfect blockbuster for its adept balancing of pathos, spectacle, storyline, and intelligence – with the most charismatic screen villain in recent memory as a cherry on top. That being said, this is by no means a bad film. It’s actually quite good in fact – it’s just overshadowed by the brilliance of its predecessors.

What’s disappointing about The Dark Knight Rises is that it revisits the League of the Shadows – the villainous cabal from Batman Begins – villains that were more of an afterthought in the first film than an entire concept to build the trilogy around. What I mean by that is the first film used the League of Shadows as a stepping stone for Bruce Wayne to develop the skills needed to become Batman, and once that transformation was complete, they weren’t necessary anymore – thus their defeat in the first film. The Dark Knight had different ambitions – neglecting to mention the League of Shadows (at least to my recollection) and allowing the central villain of that film – the Joker – to survive for a sequel. The Joker was a villain to build the franchise around, the League of Shadows merely a placeholder for better things – but real life tragedy hampered the trilogy going in that direction.

Rises also suffers from unfocused storytelling, an overly complicated plot to destroy Gotham, and too many characters and comic references shoehorned into its bloated running time. But after watching this, I realized that any criticisms of the film are minor irritants – this may not be the perfect blockbuster, but this is the type of blockbuster audiences deserve. Nolan and co. may have overreached with this film, which lacks the consistency of the other two, but it’s still a satisfying and worthy conclusion to one of the best trilogys – blockbuster, superhero, or otherwise – to hit theatres. Summer movies don’t have to be dumb – and the success of Nolan’s Batman series proves that audiences aren’t dumb either. And that counts for something.

Grade: B+

Rant of the Day: “It was all a dream” (or Outlandish Film Interpretations)

Isaac Asimov is a master storyteller. One of the first books I ever read by him was a collection of short stories called Robot Visions. What I love about Asimov is that he makes rules for the universes that he is writing for and then slavishly sticks to them. For his robot stories, he created the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

One of my favorite stories from the collection is called “Runaround” (which is also the first story where Asimov’s three laws were explicitly laid out). The story deals with a robot that needs to get a rare element on Mercury’s surface in order to repair the life support system for a mining base where two scientists are. However, rather than harvesting the element as it was asked, the robot is found to be running around the pool in a massive circle. The scientists realize that the rare element is dangerous to the robot, which conflicts with the Third Law (self-preservation). Generally, this would be trumped by the Second Law (obey human orders), but in this case, one of the scientists casually issued the order without a sense of urgency. The whole story thus revolves around a dilemma within Asimov’s rules: if the robot harvests the element, it conflicts with the Third Law, but if it doesn’t harvest the element, that conflicts with the Second Law. The ambiguity within the rules Asimov has laid out becomes the basis for the entire story, rather than the story being haphazardly adapted to arbitrary rules.

What does this have to do with movies? IMDb message boards, or more specifically, Outlandish Film Interpretations.

A lot of films have ambiguous elements within them. These elements are then discussed on message boards across the world with various voices explaining what they mean. Sometimes the interpretations are credible, and help reveal a subtle theme from the film that you didn’t realize. Other times (well, most of the time) these interpretations are outlandish and ridiculous. I remember reading an interpretation about Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige where someone argued that Christian Bale’s character was just a figment of Hugh Jackman’s character’s imagination. What?

The problem with these Outlandish Film Interpretations is that they don’t follow the rules that the film has set out for them. In The Prestige, the two characters compete with one another to become the greatest magician in the world. They both have romantic love interests, and the characters put on magic shows that generate large audiences. Where can you explain that Christian Bale’s character is imaginary within the confines of the film? The short answer is: you can’t. You have to go outside the boundaries (and rules) of the film to make this argument credible – i.e. the “It was all a dream” explanation and therefore the rules of the film are not legitimate. This explanation can work in some cases (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive…still one of my least favorite film experiences). But why not interpret a film based on the rules within it?

Asimov’s short stories outline the numerous ways a few simple rules can be interpreted and creatively reworked for an almost limitless supply of explanations (or discussions). So why throw out the rule book when you can work with it? Here’s the rule to avoid an Outlandish Film Interpretation: Everything you see onscreen is not a lie, unless explicitly indicated otherwise. This avoids the confusion of labeling the Lord of the Rings character Gimli a metaphor for labour rising up against the technological aggression of the industrial revolution (Sauron’s forces). He’s not. Gimli is a dwarf, Sauron’s forces are evil gremlins, goblins, and other creatures that go bump in the night. This first rule also helps with a film like The Usual Suspects, which does explicitly indicate that some of what we see onscreen is a lie – this can be interpreted within the world of the film (i.e. how much is bullshit and how much of the story has truth to it). Follow this, and the discussions based around the film seem much more interesting, rather than outlandish.

This rant was written because I’m tired of seeing people arguing that characters only exist as figments of other characters imaginations. The damning legacy of Fight Club continues to haunt our viewings of films (though it did explicitly state that a character was imaginary, and therefore adheres to the rule of a Decent Film Interpretation).

The Fighter

The Fighter is anything but a movie about boxing. While the sport is important to the film and leads the plot it’s more of a metaphor for family life and the struggles that Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) has to overcome. The boxing sequences are exhilarating and incredible, but what David O. Russell and his cast are really interested in is the story of the boxer before the fight. It’s too often that movies focus on making the action as gritty and realistic as possible that they forget that as long as we care about the characters every punch that lands on one of them hurts.

The movie has been criticized as being “predictable.” It is. But how can that be a criticism when the movie is done so well? Most movies are predictable, and its only a problem when we’re bored by where the film’s going. The Fighter never  does. Ward may win the championship match at the end, but that’s overshadowed by the film’s real conflict: not hurting anyone he loves. His family, his trainers, and his girlfriend are all complex characters that have difficulties getting along. His girlfriend (Amy Adams), doesn’t think that his family has his best interests at heart and steers Ward away from them to become a better fighter with a dedicated training team. While this may be true, it hurts Ward to hurt his family, and he spends the  entire movie trying to reconcile his feelings for his family, managing a successful career, and caring for the woman he loves. Sure, the outcome may be predictable, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting to watch.

The acting is spectacular by everyone in the central cast, but the two actors that really deserve mentioning are Christian Bale as the wiry, energetic Dicky Ecklund, and Melissa Leo as the domineering and bossy matriarch of the family. Bale is without a doubt one of the best actors of our generation, and his performance in this movie guarantees that the Best Supporting Actor Oscar will be (and should be) his this year. Ecklund is a crack-addicted former boxer who’s title as the “Pride of Lowell” came from knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a bout that took place more than a decade ago. He’s the favourite child of his mother, Alice Ward (Leo), who lavishly praises him while willfully ignoring that he’s become a has-been and needs help. Bale completely disappears in a frenzied performance that it’s impossible to believe that this is the same actor who plays the somber and collected Batman.

Melissa Leo’s performance is another awards-worthy one. Sporting an awful bleached haircut and perpetually smoking a cigarette in nearly every scene, Leo’s Alice is a character who can’t relinquish control over her children, even if it may be in their best interests to do so. Leo portrays a character who is equally unlikeable and sympathetic when she realizes that her boys are slipping away from her. She lives in a house (more aptly called a cocoon) with her several daughters who all seem to be mirrors of her personality and opinions. There’s a vulnerability to the character that Leo finds and brings out; in several scenes the hardened visage Alice uses to protect herself is on the verge of crumbling and you can’t help but feel for her, especially in a scene when she picks Dickie up from a crack house.

The Fighter is one of the best pictures of the year, and if it won that coveted award, I would be ecstatic. One more scene from the film needs to be talked about: the first date that Micky and his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) go on. Micky, embarrassed about having a bruised and stitched-up face, takes Charlene to an out-of-town movie theater where no one will see his face. The film that plays is a subtitled art-house flick that Micky falls asleep during and Charlene hates for not even having “any good sex scenes.” That movie was probably unpredictable but it was also totally unsatisfying. The Fighter manages to be perform cinematic alchemy: being entertaining while at the same time having something important to say. And it does so without any good sex scenes.