This weekend was about two things: Brugge and movies! Specifically, the Oscar movies.
On Friday, I finally watched the Oscars the whole way through. I don't have anything to add to the discussion on the ceremony itself (Chris Rock was excellent, did Stacey Dash even know what she was doing, etc.) or the winners (mostly the people who should have won, won). But the movies themselves!
Prior to this weekend, I had really only seen Room, Mad Max, and The Martian. I enjoyed all three. But then this weekend, I had ten hours on an ICE train! Thanks to Amazon Video, I finally got around to seeing The Big Short, Spotlight, and Steve Jobs. I also finally saw In Bruges, but more on that later. My thoughts!
Also, Big Short was only available to buy, so I bought it, rented the others. This is about right as it's the only one of the three I anticipate multiple viewings.
The Big Short
I liked the book and expected to enjoy the movie. I did not expect to enjoy the movie as much I did, though. I mean, it's from the guy who wrote Stepbrothers. I wasn't expecting him to do a better take down of Wall Street than Scorsese did in Wolf of Wall Street. But he did! I think the biggest difference is the effect of the bullshit going on in the financial district. In Wolf, it's all about Jordan Belfort and his money and his abuses. We never see the poor schmuck he's screwing over. The Big Short does a great job of demonstrating the impact of these assholes' greed without beating you over the head with it. The effects are relatively simple - the flashes of real life imagery that serve to set the time also show insights into the impact of the financial crisis on various aspects of the country. At the end of the movie, we see the frat boy mortgage managers at a job fair, applying for jobs at KFC. We see the pissed off workers leaving Bear Stearns.
Also, we're on the side of our characters in Short like we never quite get with Belfort in Wolf. Baum and Burry and co. are all just as outraged and disgusted with the system as the audience is. The only difference is, they got rich off it. They're outsiders just like the audience. They just had enough insight to bet on it. Baum especially, played by the surprisingly great Steve Carrell, is the conscience of the film, depressed that his cynicism is for once outmatched by the greed and stupidity of the actual Wall Street guys. But it's hard to feel too bad for Baum - his final scene, as his frustration, his fear, and his anger over the system reaches its peak, takes place on a large balcony on Park Avenue, overlooking Central Park.
Also, both Wolf and Short agree on one thing: Wall Street is some dry shit. Breaking the fourth wall is necessary to describe what the hell is going on to your viewers. While Belfort occasionally faced the camera and explained things to the audience, McKay takes it a step further here. Multiple characters, Ryan Gosling's Jordan most often, turn to face the camera. But then there are the asides, like when Margot Robbie in a bath tub explains subprime mortgages or Selena Gomez and a Las Vegas black jack table demonstrate the CDO trickery. They're extremely effective. And like the book it's based on, these gimmicks never seems patronizing, This stuff is honestly just dense and difficult to understand. Wall Street doesn't even know what it's doing here!
Finally, I didn't really get the point of Wolf. It never really admonished Belfort. Sure, it was a fun, entertaining movie. The Quaaludes scene alone! And the acting and dialogue were predictably on point. But what else? Poor millionaire, lost all the money he tricked people out of, now he has to get money using get rich quick schemes. When I left the movie, I thought, wow, that was a lot of fun. But that was it. The Big Short? Yes, it was a fun movie. Like Wolf, it's entertaining and rewatchable and fun. But I left the movie pissed off, scared. This really happened. Everyone let it happen. And, given that coda on the end, it's probably going to happen again. And why not? The people it happened to, they got bailed out by the American taxpayers, got big bonuses, and went back to business as usual. How long until something like this happens again? And how big will it be next time?
But great movie!
I really wanted to like this movie. I love Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing's first four seasons are almost perfect, The Social Network was robbed at the Oscars that year, etc.). I like Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender. Steve Jobs is an interesting, complex guy, probably an asshole, who has had a major impact on our daily lives.
But I didn't. The acting was fine and the idea was admirable - boiling down the essence of a huge 21st-century figure into a few thirty minute patches. But the actual story and dialogue leave a lot to be desired. Everything seemed shoe-horned and forced and just fake. If you really want to know the guy, go pick up Isaacson's biography.
Saving the best for last! I honestly don't know if I ever would have gotten around to this movie if it hadn't won Best Picture. My Netflix queue is littered with movies that everyone said was great but I just never got around to. Hell, it took an actual trip to Bruges to make me watch that movie! But I'm glad Spotlight won and I'm glad that I watched it. Because damn.
It's an excellent, neat, tight film. By which I mean, nothing feels extraneous or unnecessary. Every scene, every bit of dialogue, is there for a reason.
One thing that I really appreciated with this movie: there was no romance. There really wasn't in Jobs or The Big Short either, but I was really struck by its absence in Spotlight. Except for Baron, all the major characters are married. And yet no one's marriage is shoved center stage with marital problems or a typical office affair. There are brief mentions of McAdam's husband and Ruffalo's marriage crisis, but it's in passing. Just a few hints to better understand the characters and what's going on outside their work. Other than that, it's relegated to the background. It's all about this story and how that impacts their personal points of view, their personal religious sway.
Also, the film is very much a Boston film. Accents aside, and there is a great range of Boston accents rather than the usual brash, stereotypical accent, the film is very much rooted in the town, from the locals to the baseball to the religion to the inside references. It's said once or twice that Boston is a small town and it's never felt more so in this film, as everyone knows everyone. The story take them to their own neighborhoods, even across the street from the Globe offices.
The editing does a great demonstration of all that data. This isn't just a few anecdotes of molestation. This is hard data that these guys chased down. They aren't putting out fluff pieces here. There is serious, hard work to get this story out. Lots of Excel spreadsheets and storyboards and hitting the pavement, chasing leads. They aren't willing to publish anything without all the necessary sources, on both sides of the story. The effort went into just getting a quote from the Cardinal! Where is that in today's 24 hour cable news clown show? One thing Baron keeps insisting: we want to change the system, not create noise. Just selling papers and scandalizing a few priests isn't enough. We need to take down the system. What an ambitious goal. Again, this is what journalism can do, what honest reporting can do. It's not all quizzes and clickbait.
There's also a protection of the story. The characters skillfully demonstrate the importance of telling the right story in the right way. But then there's an undeniable urgency to getting the story out, aside from the obvious fear of someone else scooping them. McAdams hides the truth from her religious grandma while James stakes out a treatment facility in his neighborhood. What does each delay cause?
While the movie is very much about journalism, it also presents the impact of the story the team is covering. At one point, a survivor lists the usual outcome of these abuses - bottle, needle, bridge. Another character, a lawyer describing drug-addicted and depressed client - he's a lucky one, at least he's alive. And how difficult it is for the reporters to have these discussions! It takes delicacy and patience and timing. And then there's the power of what the Church has done, why these guys can get away with it. Still, the film never beats you over the head with the story. We're all familiar with the harrowing tails. Instead, the film has the abuse itself flitting at the edges of the film, with large churches looming in the background little kids everywhere. Playgrounds and schools. Another really effective scene: Keaton's character meets with an alumnus of his high school. One of the priests that was at the school during their time has been accused of molestation. One of the boys he molested has no idea why he was singled out. The only thing he can come up with: the priest coach hockey, which he played as a boy. Keaton's character played track, his alumnus friend football. Lucky them. Maybe that's all it takes - a choice of sports to change your life.
When Tucci's character hesitates to get involved, he really understands the power of the Church (capitalized!), it's the reference to "Spotlight" that gets him involved. Only journalism, not the law, is enough to really take on this mammoth. Buzzfeed and Fox News might be bastardizing the trade, but there's still power there.
It took an outside, Baron, for anyone to even realize there was a story there. He comes in as a Jewish New Yorker. This isn't his story while the rest of the team can't separate themselves. As one character says - It takes a village to raise a child. And a village to abuse one. Even the Globe knew, as multiple characters remind the team that they tried to get the paper in on the story years ago to no avail. One victim's mom puts out cookies. And then we meet one of the priests. And he just justifies it, without even realizing his folly. I was just doing my job, being a good German. At one point, a major character has a drink with a guy representing the church. The church guy tries to get him to put the story away, find something else to write about. And he has his epiphany: this is how it happens, two guys at a bar, having a drink and agreeing right now isn't the right time. It takes a villiage.
This might be the most effective use of 9/11 without trying to make us all feel emotional and guilty. It becomes an excuse - we can't take down the church now, people need religion after this! And right there, on the day of the crashes, we see Cardinal Law. You can't escape the church.
Also, James is great and it's nice to see our original King George III doing well. Insert necessary My Shot reference.