"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Truth is Like Poetry

... and people fucking hate poetry.

It's a line from the excellent film The Big Short, which is brought to us by Adam McKay, the director known for goofball comedies like Anchorman and Step-Brothers. But it's nothing like that. At all.

It's listed on IMDB as "Biography, Drama," but it has its funny moments. It's really a rare form of docudrama. It could be used for a flipped class in economics. Star-studded, the actors break the fourth wall from time to time to explain what really happened. And, even better, to help us grasp the essentials of complex subjects like derivative trading and synthetic funds, they use celebrities to act out analogies in mini-seminars throughout the story.

You can get essentially the same story from Inside Job, but nobody wants to see a bunch of talking heads explaining how the market collapsed. Instead of watching real people talk about real events that they experienced first hand, we want to see actors bring some colour and staging to it all. Curious, but there it is. And it really works!  People will see this and understand. Well... they'll understand more than they did two hours earlier.

It's similar to what happened with Trumbo, a 2007 documentary, and Trumbo, a 2015 drama. People will watch the latter because of the stars in it. Except the former documentary is significantly better entertainment.

Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett (Greg Lippmann)
Steve Carell as Mark Baum (Steve Eisman)

Christian Bale as Michael Burry

In The Big Short, the actors are perfectly cast, but what's particularly impressive is that they carried out the mission to create an engrossing vehicle for a very upsetting message that so many knew about and chose to ignore or actively bury with pleas like:  "Could you please stop being such a buzzkill, dude?"

Now if McKay could do it again for climate change....

ETA this link "debunking" the film (h/t Larry). The article clears up some aspects of the film, but I put debunking in quotes because the article takes the film to task for making these men out to be heroes saving the day. I didn't think they were portrayed that way at all. I thought it was pretty clear they were also con men taking advantage of, what they hoped was, the stupidity of certain players in the system. At one point, Vennett clarifies that he's no hero. And although Baum waited to trade his shorts until the very end, and even though he seemed to feel badly about it, he still did it knowing, very clearly at this point, that he was also part of the problem. They were heroes the way Newman and Redford were heroes in The Sting. They were conning the cons, but they were still clearly immoral themselves. It's just fun to watch them in action.

ETA another criticism. I'd say the errors listed in this one are errors of omission rather than inaccuracies. When I saw it, I noticed they don't get into the shift in governmental policies starting in the early 70s. It might be too much to ask in a film that passes the 2 hour mark, but it would have been amazing from a teaching p.o.v.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Ending 2015 With a Flurry of Films

I just wrote a comment on a blog that suggests that The Hateful Eight, a neo-spaghetti western with a damsel in need of rescue, is all about hate. Here's my response (You can see a longer analysis here, but there be spoilers):
I saw it twice now - I'm a big Tarantino fan. From a plot p.o.v. it's clearly tied to Django, but I think the style is more reminiscent of From Dusk to Dawn (which he wrote but didn't direct - so it doesn't count in his tally). He gave a brief interview in which he explained that the movie started as a continuation of Django, but then he decided to change the character to remove any hero in the film to ensure the film is devoid of a moral centre.  
I didn't pick up on hatred as a primary theme, however, despite the title. It felt more to me about a discussion of justice. They each have a personal moral code, although some waver more than others. There isn't one who stands out as the good guy in the bunch, but the film explores their reasoning behind their actions and allows each character's motives to be understood. The murders are either a means to enact a sense of justice or a mere necessity in furthering their own survival or that of a loved one (using the term 'love' loosely). When the original gang get to Minnie's, they don't kill the lot out of hatred - they feel no ill-will towards the women whose deaths are quick and relatively painless - but as a necessary step in their plot to save one of their own. Couldn't that be called an act of love?
Despite my second viewing, I didn't actually love the film as much as some of his others, well, all of his others. It's got some superb acting, and I agree with the hate-themed blogger that Jennifer Jason Leigh steals some of the pivotal scenes. Her quiet little grin speaks volumes. Many of the characters have likeable aspects and moments when they charm the viewer. But it's a movie about patience, and it's not just the characters who need it. It's a really long, claustrophobic film, for better or worse. I'd give it a B+, but do go see it.

The New Yorker links it to The Revenant. I had read much about the extremes Di Caprio had to endure to film this. He was excellent in it. There are some amazing, gut-wrenching scenes, but I didn't care enough about him to be fully engaged in the film. I wasn't emotionally affected by any of the deaths. It's just a brutal story of one man's quest for revenge. It's a beautifully shot film, but it's also really long! I'd give this one a B-. It's well done, but if it came to Netflix, I'd give it a pass.

Completely unrelated, except for the death of the main character, is The End of the Tour about one weekend in the life of writer David Foster Wallace. It's had some mixed reviews, but I was captivated. For most of the film, it's just two guys talking, mainly in a car, and reviewers have made the obvious connection to My Dinner with Andre. Eisenberg is pretty much exactly the same as he was in The Social Network: jittery and defensive. We kinda feel badly for him except he's pretty dickish. But Jason Segel was bang on. And what a stretch from anything else he's done! After the film, I obsessively watched a ton of interviews of Wallace, and Segel nailed his mannerisms, his dismissiveness, and his raw openness with others. It was similar to watching Will Ferrel in Stranger than Fiction. I'll give it a qualified A-. I think I liked it more than most people would.

The movie I really wanted to see, though, was Trumbo. And, unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations. I love old movies and old TV shows, and there's a marked difference in the way people move and interact in the films that can be seen in the talk shows and game shows of the period. Everyone has been schooled, from a young age, in walking and greeting and standing in a way that is lost on us now. I remember as a child being pulled upright in my desk by my hair by the teacher if I forgot my manners for a moment and dared to slouch. Sitting erect was mandatory as we listed to math drills - and that was 25 years after this film was set. That might go unnoticed except the film is otherwise seamlessly meshed with actual footage of the time. Bryan Cranston is solid, but, and I hate to say this, Louie CK's performance was jarring. It took me out of the film at every scene. I'm not sure if I've just seen too much of his stand-up to believe him in anything else, but he didn't have the same effect for me in American Hustle. I'll actually go so far as to suggest he ruined the film. It's a qualified C+. I might have just built up my prior expectations too much.

Spotlight was fantastic. A great cast. A suspenseful story. Excellent timing and story arc. It was excellent. Go see it. It's an A-.

Finally, Mommy, a Quebecois film about a mother with a son with extreme ADHD, was excellent. The actor who played the son, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, nailed the part. The behaviours were strikingly similar to those I've seen in my classroom over the years.  It's an exercise in extremes of mood taking us through back-to-back scenes of violence and joy repeatedly. This is no coming of age film. A-.

Left on my list:  The Big Short and Anomalisa. Neither are playing anywhere convenient, so I'll have to wait until I have the will to learn a new bus route.