The holiday season brings more than jolly old elves and visions of dancing sugar plums. It’s also the time when Hollywood delivers the flood of movies they believe to be worthy of accolades, preparing for a seemingly endless awards season — a horserace that will take us through the next couple of months, culminating in the Academy Awards in February. This year, as usual, there are a slew of movies receiving press well before they ever are made available to the general public. Early contenders this year that are not playing at a theater near you include “Carol,” “The Hateful Eight,” “The Revenant,” “Joy,” and the two films we’re going to talk about this week, “The Big Short,” and “Spotlight.”
Open Road Films
2 hours, 8 minutes
“Spotlight,” is a brilliant and highly emotional film from director Tom McCarthy and starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schrieber, Stanley Tucci, and Rachel McAdams, among others. In a style not unlike “All the President’s Men,” it tells the tale of how the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, an in-house investigative unit doing in-depth, long-form reporting on important issues, helped uncover the full depth of the Catholic priest scandal that broke in the early 2000s. The film is straightforward and meticulous as it traces the story from a few allegations about which the Cardinal may or may not have known, to the ever more horrifying realization that the scale of the scandal was far larger than anyone could have imagined.
The film is also remarkably clear-eyed about the near universal willingness of people and institutions to look the other way. The Catholic Church in Boston is a powerful influence, and when it comes to matters of religion and the eternal, the question of the fallibility of the clergy is much more than simply an academic exercise. The police, the city, and even the Boston Globe itself had, at one time or another, cast a blind eye at what was obviously an epidemic. In the end, the scandal included thousands and spanned the globe, and did more to tarnish the reputation of the church than did the Inquisition.
Michael Keaton is top billed here, but it’s definitely an ensemble affair. Most impressive is Mark Ruffalo as a man raised Catholic who later became disillusioned. Ruffalo is a stellar actor, and this film will only add to his impressive resume. Keaton is also very good — subtle and low key, even when going for the throat. The acting, writing, directing in this film are all top-notch.
If I had to find a negative, and this would only be in comparison to the other film on the docket this week, it would be that “Spotlight” is very straightforward. It never goes in unexpected directions, which, for a film about meticulous and vital reporting, is probably what you want.
“The Big Short”
2 hours, 10 minutes
The next film, “The Big Short,” is my favorite of the two, but that’s probably only because it’s funny — something “Spotlight” didn’t really have an option to be.
“The Big Short” is based on the book by Michael Lewis and is directed by Adam McKay, who you may remember from “Anchorman” and “The Other Guys.” It tells the tale of the 2008 economic meltdown from the point of view of a handful of guys who saw it coming. The film is enormously entertaining, an impressive feat when you consider that a) none of the principal characters are particularly likeable, and b) the subject matter is particularly depressing.
The story begins with Christian Bale as Michael Burry, an anti-social hedge fund manager with a talent for diving into the intricacies of stocks and bonds and finding the underlying strengths and weaknesses. When he begins to delve into the particulars of a type of bond made up of individual home loans, he discovers the terrifying truth. The people who are supposed to verify and regulate these bonds are asleep at the wheel and what are supposed to be incredibly safe investments are actually made up of loans on the verge of default.
Instead of calling Congress or the papers, he decides to “short” the bonds, which basically means betting that they will fail. He bets massively, in the hundreds of millions, and soon attracts the attention of several other groups of traders. Each of these groups, armed with knowledge available to anyone willing to look, bets against the system, figuring on getting massively rich when everything starts to fall apart. It’s only when the actual meltdown begins that the traders actually fathom what it means for their investment to pay off. As the world economy slides off a cliff, it is a sober realization at how precarious the entire system was to begin with.
McKay, fully cognizant of the density of his subject matter, employs effective gimmicks in an attempt to convey the information. At times the actors will turn and directly address the audience, breaking the fourth wall. At other times, McKay will employ actors not actually in the cast to provide complicated explanations in unusual scenarios. My favorite was “Margot Robbie in a Bubble Bath.” The famously beautiful actress is luxuriating in a lavish bath, sipping champagne while distilling the intricacies of Credit Default Swaps.
The acting in “The Big Short” is uniformly excellent. Christian Bale, as Michael Burry, brings to life a man who likely suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, but does so subtly. The cast also includes Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell, who, though very good, was the only cast member I had difficulty buying into at first. Carell’s Mark Baum, an acerbic bull-headed pessimist, was too similar to characters played by Carell’s alter-ego, Michael Scott on the office. I don’t know if that means that Carell’s range is limited or that Scott’s is universal.
Regardless, as the film goes on you forget the television connection and get fully immersed.
What makes “Short” really pop is how well McKay and crew are able to take depressing and, frankly, boring material and make it seem vital, suspenseful and often very funny. Aside from a certain adventure in a galaxy far, far away, “The Big Short” in one of my favorite films of the year.
“The Big Short” is rated R for language and nudity. “Spotlight” is rated R for language and adult themes.