The Big Short

The Big Short is one of those movies that is intended to make you uncomfortable — and it succeeds, twice over.

The film tells the story of the housing bubble and sub-prime mortgage fiasco that led to the economic collapse and stock market crash of 2008. It begins with the handful of loners and clear-eyed if vulgar realists who investigated, read what others didn’t, identified the unsustainable reality, and then figured out a way to make lots of money, even as the financial and political establishment was smugly convinced that the impending disaster couldn’t possibly occur.

bigshortbaleDon’t worry if you don’t know much about finance or economics — as the movie progresses you’ll get humorous little tutorials on the key concepts from exotic-looking women taking bubble baths, Anthony Bourdain figuring out what to do with old fish, and a prize-winning economist and Selena Gomez playing blackjack.  And, of course, all along the viewer knows the catastrophe is coming.  Even so, it’s uncomfortable to watch it unfold and to hear once again about Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and Countrywide and bailouts and the other events that made some people wonder if the American economy and capitalism would even survive the cataclysm.

It’s a powerful story, and The Big Short tells it well.  Its ensemble cast, which features Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell, is excellent, but it’s not an ensemble movie in the traditional sense, because some of the principal players never interact on screen.  They’re each running their own funds, dealing with their own investors and institutional pressures and insecurities, seeing the overall mess from different perspectives and wondering whether they are witnessing fraud or imbecility or incompetence.  And, as the movie reaches the point where the world economy teeters on the brink, they convincingly portray the sense of astonishment and shaken wonder at how the hell it all happened in the first place.

So, reliving those grim days when fortunes were lost and the country plunged into recession is uncomfortable, for sure.  And the second uncomfortable moment comes when the movie ends — because the final message of The Big Short questions whether the same thing could happen again and whether new bubbles are percolating even as we speak.  One of the core themes of the film is that most of the Wall Street wizards really aren’t so wizard-like after all — just greedy hustlers who don’t really sweat the details or even fully understand why they’re making the obscene amounts of money they’re making and are oblivious to the risks they are creating for the rest of us who have to deal with the aftermath.

It doesn’t exactly make you feel super secure about your 401(k) plan, now does it?

American Hustle And The ’70s

This afternoon Kish and I went to see American Hustle. It’s a clever, interesting, highly entertaining movie that features terrific performances by Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert DeNiro, among many others.

Of course, one of the biggest stars of the movies gets no credit whatsoever. It’s the decade of the ’70s, of course. The movie screams out the ’70s, from the embarrassing hairstyles to the embarrassing clothing to the over-the-top decor of Irving and Rosalyn Rosenfeld’s suburban home. It’s a world of dancing and three-piece suits, gold chains, hairy chests, and skin, cocaine snorts and glitz, where bras apparently weren’t worn and a pop music soundtrack played all day and all night long.

I’m not sure that the movie got all of the lingo and looks exactly right — at the end of the film, for example, one character says “my boss knows you did him a solid,” which I don’t remember as a phrase that was used back then — but it’s clear that a lot of the fun of the movie came from that temporal setting that seems so absurd to us now.

The American understanding of the ’70s seems so fixed that I think it is likely that the decade will always be a popular setting for movies. Just as writers of thrillers and historical fiction can’t resist dipping into the Nazi story, so movie producers and writers will always have a tender spot for the era of leisure suits, elaborate coiffures, and disco.

Out Of The Furnace

It’s cold and bleak today, so Kish and I decided to go see a movie.  A bleak day seemed to demand a bleak movie, so we went to see Out of the Furnace — which is bleak, indeed.

Out of the Furnace is purportedly the story of two brothers, one of whom avenges the other, but in reality it’s a grim tale of small town and rural America.  The brothers, played by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, live in a mill town.  One of the brothers has a job at the mill, the other has served multiple tours in the military only to return to find . . . nothingness.  No opportunity, no hope, and no way to shake the demons created by his experience overseas.  He turns to bare-fisted fighting, and the fight scenes are brutal.

Without spoiling the plot, the brothers run afoul of Harlan DeGroat, a twisted sadist played with blazing intensity by Woody Harrelson.  You realize that DeGroat is as much a victim of the dead-end world in which he lives as are the two brothers — he’s just turned to drug manufacturing, drug pushing, gambling, and other forms of criminal activity because that’s a way to use his talents.  Harrelson is astonishingly believable in the role, and his portrayal of DeGroat is harrowing and will probably inspire a nightmare or two.  This is not a guy you’d want to encounter even in broad daylight with a policeman nearby.

Out of the Furnace is a riveting ride, but it isn’t a movie for the faint of heart, and not just because the story is a sad one.  We left the theater wondering if the tattooed, beer-swilling, snaggletoothed hopelessness depicted in the movie really reflects what is going on in for young people in small town and rural America — and hoping that it wasn’t.

The Dark Knight Rises, In IMAX

Yesterday Kish and I went to see The Dark Knight Rises, in IMAX, at the Easton AMC Cinemas.

First, about IMAX:  I frankly don’t think it’s worth the extra money for standard Hollywood fare.  Before yesterday, the only IMAX movies I’d seen were nature-type movies about hiking on mountains or rafting through the Grand Canyon — movies where the spectacular scenery, on the huge screens, made for an overwhelmingly memorable experience.  Action-movie footage of Gotham City, car chases, and hand-to-hand combat just don’t have the same impact, no matter how loud the explosions might be.  IMAX gives you a bigger screen in a bigger theater, but I wasn’t able to appreciate any other material differences from your normal movie experience.

As for The Dark Knight Rises, the film is very, very long.  It has the standard elements of a seemingly indestructible, unbeatable villain and a plot that places Gotham City in mortal peril yet again, thereby allowing Batman and his comrades to show their superhero stuff.  Batman suffers mightily, as he always does, and speaks with that annoying growl when he wears his suit, and gets to use some new high-tech gadgets in the Battle Against Bane.

It’s a perfectly acceptable end to the Dark Knight trilogy, as characters and scenes from the prior two Dark Knight films make appearances.  Christian Bale has the Batman and Bruce Wayne characters down cold, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman play their enjoyable supporting roles well, and Gary Oldman is steady and unflappable as Commissioner Gordon.  My favorite characters were Anne Hathaway, as an untrustworthy cat burglar thief turned ally, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cop trying to deal with the carnage.  It’s rare that you appreciate acting — as opposed to action — in a film like this, but Hathaway’s performance broke through the explosions and fistfights.  And I think Gordon-Levitt makes a very convincing, and believable, action movie hero.

All of that said, I found it impossible to watch the movie without thinking of the subtext now put on the film by the Aurora, Colorado shootings.  The Dark Knight Rises is a dark, violent movie where innocent people going about their business get shot and killed by masked bad guys.  How can you watch Bane’s crew kill people at the Gotham Stock Exchange, for example, without thinking of the people at the midnight show when James Holmes burst in and began firing?  For me and probably for many people, the grisly backdrop of the shootings make it impossible to enjoy the movie as it was intended — as escapist, superhero fare.