The Big Short – A Review

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When I heard that Adam McKay (Funny or Die, Anchorman) was directing a movie about the 2008 economic collapse, I was a little confused. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of humor in what happened on Wall Street, so I wasn’t quite sure what McKay was bringing to the table. The man who brought us Ron Burgundy wasn’t the person that I expected to adapt Michael Lewis’ book about the housing credit bubble finally bursting. However, McKay had assembled an all-star cast and I’ve enjoyed all the other adaptations of Lewis’ books, so I figured that there was something to this project that I just wasn’t seeing that would make this partnership make sense.

Turns out that McKay might have been the perfect person for this job, as The Big Short finds humor in the lunacy of the behavior that contributed to the recent recession while at the same time educating the viewer on what things like subprime loans, CDOs and bond ratings are without being boring. The Big Short will make you laugh, make you angry, and make you smarter about economics all at the same time – no small feat. It’s rare when a cast of such famous people can all disappear into their roles, but Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt do just that. The Big Short will make you chuckle, but this is not necessarily a comedy; there is a slow burn of anger that is simmering just under the surface of this film and if you don’t walk out of this film a little more outraged than when you walked in, there is no hope for this country.

The Big Short tells the story about a handful of investors who saw what so many people missed or willfully ignored – the pending housing collapse caused by banks giving out loans like candy to people, many of whom were in over their heads financially. Hedge Fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) crunches the numbers and realizes that the housing market is being artificially supported by a series of subprime loans; when interest rates on these loans increase in 2008, Burry predicts that there will be many people who will default on their mortgages. He approaches numerous banks and asks to essentially bet against the housing market; the banks, believing that the housing market is secure and that this is easy money for them, accept this offer with no thought to the potential catastrophic economic impact that will result if Burry is right. Other investors, including Jared Vennett (Gosling), Mark Baum (Carell), Charlie Geller (John Magano) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) hear about Burry’s investment and agree with his analysis. Further analysis by Baum’s team lends further credibility to Burry’s predictions – rating agencies are inflating ratings on bad loans to keep the bank’s business and that mortgage brokers are not even conducting preliminary background checks on potential loan recipients. All the investors bet against the market and essentially profiting from the pending economic meltdown that will cost thousands of people their job, their pensions and their homes.

This could have been an extremely boring film, but the development of the personalities of the individual investors helps keep this film from feeling like an economics lecture from Ben Stein. Christian Bale’s Murray is definitely an eccentric – a former M.D., he analyzes trends while barefoot and blaring heavy metal – and that gives Bale a lot to work with. Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert serves as the conscious of the film, reminding his friends Geller and Shipley that their profit will come at the expense of a lot of people’s suffering. Steve Carell’s character is full of self-righteous anger at a system that is not only fiddling while Rome burns, but irresponsibly throwing gasoline on the fire.

The film also uses an innovative technique to explain some of the more technical terms and concepts that contributed to the collapse; it breaks the fourth wall and uses celebrity cameos to provide insight into what these intentionally confusing words actually mean. I have a degree in economics, so I’m probably a more willing audience than most, but having Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining sub-prime loans is perhaps the most accessible way to make people understand what exactly was happening. Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez are used similarly (minus the bathtub). These bits are of course humorous, but they are also educational; I walked out of The Big Short with a much clearer picture of how the economic recession of 2008 came to pass. And the more that you understand what happened, the more incensed you become. If you weren’t already mad at bankers for their role in the collapse, you will be after The Big Short, especially after you are reminded how little they paid for their negligent behavior. The Big Short may mine the crisis for laughs, but make no mistake about it that this film also wants you to be infuriated as well. The film smartly doesn’t lecture, but  under the farcical behavior  there is an undercurrent of anger that eventually becomes palpable.

Some other thoughts:

  • This film is lucky enough to boast all-star actors in even the smallest of performances; Oscar winner Melissa Leo briefly appears as an employee at the rating agency. Marissa Tomei also has a small part as Carrell’s wife.
  • I’m really only familiar with Finn Wittrock from his work on American Horror Story, so I was kind of conditioned to think that when he appeared he was going to kill everyone. Sadly, he didn’t slice up even one banker, which would have made for an even more satisfying movie.
  • I would 100% sign up for an economics class taught by Anthony Bourdain.
  • This shouldn’t be a deciding factor in seeing the film, but Gosling and Pitt have much less screen time than Carrell and Bale.
  • Bale’s character rocks out to Metallica in the movie, which makes him aces in my book.
  • Even though you are rooting for all the investors in the film, they aren’t heroes. They all profit from this broken system, with varying impacts on their consciences. In a way, they are the lesser of two evils.

The Big Short manages to do what many people would think is unthinkable – create a movie that doubles as both entertainment and an economics lecture. The stellar cast and smart directing choices makes The Big Short an immensely watchable film that also serves as a primer for understanding why the global recession of 2008 occurred. It’s a fun, yet frustrating movie, since it is clear that because so few people were held accountable for their role in the collapse, they continue their dangerous practices, just under another name. The Big Short is a smart and funny movie that will also make you angry. It’s a heist movie, a satire and true crime, all rolled into one.

12 Years a Slave – A Review

“All you ever did was wreck me”

-Miley Cyrus

Starting off a review of 12 Years a Slave with lyrics from Miley Cyrus may seem counter-intuitive; it is certainly not done to minimize this powerful movie. But it seemed apropos as when I left the movie theater after my screening, I felt like I had been hit by a wrecking ball. This film is tough to watch and I was emotionally drained when it was over. That is a compliment – the actors and director tell such a compelling story that you cannot help but be affected by it. It is a movie that should be seen, even if it is a challenge. All of the praise that this film has received is totally warranted.

12 Years a Slave is the adaptation of a true story: Solomon Northrup is a free black man living with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY. A talented musician, Solomon is approached by two men who offer him a lucrative deal playing music in a traveling show. He accepts the deal and accompanies them to Washington DC. While there, the two men drug Solomon and sell him into slavery; he awakens to find himself chained with no memory of how he got there. His protests that he is indeed a free man fall on deaf ears. And so beings Solomon’s nightmare of being enslaved for 12 years, with his family having absolutely no idea what happened to him and having no way to prove who he is. In an instant, he is reduced to a piece of property. What follows is an honest and brutal depiction of the life of the slave.

12 Years a Slave is far from the first movie to tackle to issue of racism and slavery; however, most recent depictions of the institution have focused more slavery from the point of view of the white men who are debating its morality. Lincoln was a very good film, but it paid more attention to the process of passing the 13th Amendment than on the people who would actually be affected by it. That is a valid story, but it isn’t the full story. By telling Solomon’s story, 12 Years a Slave provides an unflinching look at what many had to endure and why such legislation was needed. In telling one man’s story, it is telling the story of thousands of others who suffered. Many films about slavery allude to inhumanity and cruelty that many had to endure but back away from depicting the true savagery. 12 Years a Slave doesn’t shy away from the truth – it isn’t violence for violence’s sake, but a necessary look at a dark chapter of our history. I am normally pretty unflappable, but there came a point in the film where I simply had to look away from what I was seeing. I closed my eyes for a few seconds to compose myself, tears streaming down my face. I’m not an idiot – I knew slavery was an unspeakable horror for many – but actually seeing a recreation of it that felt so authentic was just too much for me. I was far from the only person sobbing in the theater.

Solomon’s story in and of itself is captivating tale, but the reason that it resonated so much with me was because of the impeccable acting in 12 Years a Slave. The cast was uniformly incredible, anchored by an amazing performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. His transformation in this film is a revelation, as he changes from a happy family man to someone who is simply enduring, with dwindling hope that he will ever escape his imprisonment. Ejiofor is why this film works so well; you would sympathize with Solomon’s plight regardless, but Ejiofor makes Solomon’s story truly come alive. More importantly, he makes it all real. It is such an elegant and nuanced performance that it is really beautiful to watch. He can convey so many emotions without speaking a word.

Michael Fassbender is also unsurprisingly outstanding as slave owner Edwin Epps. Much of the worst brutality that befalls Solomon and the other slaves occurs on his plantation. It would be easy to let Epps become a one dimensional character, the epitome of evil, but that would be lazy filmmaking. Fassbender gives Epps depth and makes him believable. Epps is much harder to dismiss because of the intensity that Fassbender brings to the table. He fully commits to bring this unspeakable human being to life. It speaks to just how good Ejiofor is that Fassbender doesn’t steal this movie.

The film also shows the spectrum of slave owners – as Master Ford, Benedict Cumberbatch is not necessarily a bad man, but a weak one. He prides himself on the kindness that he shows his slaves and he certainly does not relish in his role of master like Epps does. But he is still a slave owner and when faced with Solomon, a man that is clearly educated and was not raised in slavery, he runs from the truth. He may try to be more humane than most – he expresses sympathy for a mother being ripped from her children – but he is not willing to rock the boat and challenge the structure of the South. The best he is willing to do is to make it a little less unpleasant.

Also worthy of singling out is relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (this is her first feature film). As Patsey, a slave that has caught the eye of Epps, she gives a star making performance. While being an object of lust of the slave owner may garner her some special treatment, it also makes her a target for the wrath of Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson). In a film full of pain and suffering, her character may suffer the most. It is a haunting performance that leaves its mark on you.

Some other thoughts:

  • I have not yet read the book that the film is based on, so I cannot speak to how loyal of an adaption this is. It’s now on my list, though.
  • Don’t let the commercials fool you – Brad Pitt is only in this movie for ten minutes or so. He doesn’t really disappear into the role – he’s a good actor, but his face is just too familiar – but I was thankful when he showed up, if for no other reason than it provided a much needed break from “reality.” Plus there is no way that Pitt was standing for this inhumanity.
  • About halfway through the film, I was rooting for Jamie Foxx to show up and bring some much needed vengeance into the film. Sadly, the real story doesn’t provide the kind of closure that Quentin Tarantino can provide.
  • Having grown up a stone’s throw from Saratoga, I immediately thought of Congress Park during the scenes in the city. I don’t know if that was where they were actually going for, or if I was projecting, but that was the first thing that came to mind.
  • My one complaint about the film – not enough Michael K. Williams (Omar, The Wire). He only had a bit part, but I am always happy to see him.
  • I was shocked that there were people who wouldn’t stop talking in a movie like this. I have no idea why they were even in this movie if they didn’t want to see it; if you want to be an a**hole, go across the hall and go see Bad Grandpa where you’ll be less of a distraction.
  • This is clearly a difficult movie to market, as evidenced by the random assortment of trailers that preceded the film. Usually trailers are selected to compliment the interests of the assumed audience, but based on the hodgepodge of ads that they selected I don’t think that they have a clear idea of who exactly is going to see this film.
  • Paul Giamatti also has a small part in this film as a slave trader.  Giamatti makes the most of his limited screen time.
  • On my way home from the theater I had to stop and get myself a treat just to cheer myself up a bit after watching such an emotionally devastating feature. Probably not the best way to kick off my weekend, but I have no regrets.

I have some very minor complaints about 12 Years a Slave – there were some scenes that I’m not sure why director McQueen chose to include – but they don’t detract in any way from the magnificence of this film.  I don’t see how this film will not be a prominent player come Oscar time; it is so beautifully acted and filmed that it would be a travesty if the movie wasn’t recognized with many nominations. 12 Years a Slave is definitely the newest member of my YOWO club; it was powerful and affecting and I have absolutely no interest in putting myself through that emotional wringer ever again. It is because it is so challenging to watch that I think everyone should see it. If a movie can make me tear up when I’m writing the review, it is clearly doing something right. 12 Years a Slave forces us to suffer for two hours so that we can have some small glimpse into the lifetime of suffering that so many had to endure simply because of the color of their skin. It’s been almost a week since I saw 12 Years a Slave and yet I can’t stop thinking about it and discussing it. This is a film that will stay with you long after you leave the theater and should be required viewing for everyone.

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Early Bird Edition

You’re getting the pop culture round up early this week because I had it done and my schedule this week is a bit out of whack. So rather than sit on this post for tomorrow, I thought I’d give it to you a day early. Change is good. Embrace it.

So take an extra-long coffee break and catch up on things that you might have missed from the world of pop.

  • Marcia Wallace, best known as the voice of Edna Krabappel on The Simpsons and her work on The Bob Newhart Show, sadly has passed away. In her memory, here’s a compilation of her character’s sarcastic laugh:

 

  • We also lost music legend Lou Reed. The Artic Monkeys paid tribute to him by playing “Walk on the Wild Side” at a recent show:

 

  • Who knew Regis was a Wu-Tang Clan fan?

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  • Lorde’s “Royals” is the latest to get the country cover treatment:

 

  • I am not ashamed to say that I totally nailed this quiz where you match Brad Pitt’s hair to the corresponding  movie role.
  • A new poster has been released for Muppets Most Wanted:

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  • The full cast for Adam Scott’s The Greatest Event in Television History Part III has been revealed. Based on the photo, I’m guessing they are doing Family Ties.
  • George R.R. Martin has seen the Game of Thrones porn parody and is not impressed.
  • Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango” reimagined with Disney villains (and some familiar faces):

 

  • I really liked the song that Howard sang to Bernadette on last week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory. Entertainment Weekly has the lyrics, which were written by the musical comedy team Garfunkel and Oates (of whom I am a fan).
  • Triumph the Insult Comic Dog visits The Great American Beer Festival:

 

  • A Star Wars blooper reel was just released:

 

  • Watch Jimmy Fallon and pals bowl against the Nerdist Team in All Star Celebrity Bowling:

 

  • I have no idea if this is actually real, but if this is what Britney really sounds like – yowza:

 

  • Wait…what? Chuck Lorre wrote the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song? This changes everything.

Trailers:

  • The trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past (whatever that means) is finally out!

 

  • A new trailer for HBO’s True Detective. Can’t wait until this starts!

 

  • The final trailer for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

 

  • A new trailer for FOX’s Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

  • NBC has released the first promo for live production of The Sound of Music:

 

  • The cartoon Mr. Peabody & Sherman is heading to the big screen:

 

  • Zac Efron and Seth Roan in Neighbors:

 

  • A first look at the upcoming Justice League: War

 

  • “Blurred Lines” as an Appalachian bluegrass – style square dance arrangement:

 

  • Watch Dolly Parton rap on The Queen Latifah Show:

 

  • I’m enjoying the “What if Walter White Told Stupid Chemistry Jokes” meme on Reddit.
  • Comedian Pete Holmes has a new sketch show that follows Conan on TBS. This skit where he fires the X-Men shows some promise:

 

Mashups and Supercuts

  • Sesame Street did Homeland….and the results are better than the current season of Homeland:

 

  • The Ring meets Seinfeld:

 

  • This mashup from Conan proves that local news anchors didn’t show much creativity in announcing Mike Myers newest offspring:

 

  • And finally, hear Chris Cornell mashup Metallica and U2:

Happy Tuesday!