You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Monday, 4 January 2016


Sorry it's been so long since I last published - it's been a busy couple of months. I'm trying out a new thing as part of this double bill. The first review has footnotes; the second does not. Let me know which style you prefer and I'll stick to it from hereon out.


REVIEW: Spotlight

As a drama about child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, Tom McCarthy’s latest, Spotlight, has a lot to do with second chances. For those involved in the story, namely the titular investigative at the Boston Globe, it’s a second chance to take on an injustice that had gone undiscussed for more than a quarter of a century.1 For McCarthy it’s also a chance to once more touch upon a grand modern theme — the decline of print journalism — that the fifth season of The Wire arguably shortchanged in favor of personal axe-grinding on the part of show-runner David Simon.2

While the cover-up would seem to have been something of an open secret for many years, it wasn’t until the arrival of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber)3 in 2001 that the Globe deigned to really look into the allegations. A New York Jew with no skin in the game, so to speak4, the soft-spoken Baron seizes upon a small column as catalyst for an in-depth Spotlight investigation. Against an organization that thinks in centuries, though, it’s understandably an uphill struggle.

Led by the shrewd, craggy veteran, Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton)5, the team is comprised of well-meaning pain-in-the-ass Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo)6, the tireless Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), family man Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James); and, off to one side, the sceptical, even oppositional supervisor Ben Bradlee (John Slattery). All lapsed Catholics to one degree or another,7 they’ve spent their lives in close proximity to the Church and its representatives. but even they aren’t prepared for the level of deliberate blindness they must confront.

This can be seen in the guise of two lawyers, litigators to be precise: the amiable Eric MacLeish (an engagingly slimy Billy Crudup), who seems to have made negotiating under-the-table settlements with the Church into something of a cottage industry8, and would-be ally Mitchell Garabedian (an intense, shout-y Stanley Tucci)9, who refuses to even let them take notes. In a city where the judge might well inquire what parish you belong to, he has every reason to be paranoid.

Within the broader scope of these systemic abuses, Spotlight also singles out heart-rending individual stories. There’s the hard-knocks former Southie kid, shortly to become father, who was abused when at his most vulnerable, and a bashful gay man who relates how a priest convinced him to play strip poker — “Of course I lost”, he says with a sad little smile. These are the stories that, up until the Boston Globe’s investigation, were largely ignored. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one”, says Garabedian, and the paper bares some culpability in this.10

With its crisp yet faded cinematography from Masanobu "Masa" Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, Warrior), Howard Score’s solemn piano score, and masterful performances, Spotlight deftly handles complex moral and social issues. The note that Carroll sticks on the fridge — a warning to his kids about the pedophile down the street — over time gets buried beneath layers of pictures, menus, shopping lists; all the detritus of everyday life. As images go, it’s a sober, considered one, utterly fitting with the film that surrounds it.

A lot of great cinema has leaped from the wellspring of investigative journalism. There is something inherently dramatic about the search for The Truth (or at least a truth), especially when it goes hand-in-hand with important real-world issues. The best of the genre manage to balance the scope and complexity of the case – case and point: All the President’s Men’s handling of the Watergate scandal in – with the more basic human element. Spotlight is just such a film.

Spotlight gets 9 out of 10

1 The film opens at a police station circa 1976 where representatives of the Church, in conjunction with an Assistant DA, are participating in hushing up one such incident. “I guess the Father was ‘helping out’”, a stocky old-timer wryly comments to a redheaded rookie as a likely sex offender is ushered into the back of a snow-frosted black sedan and away from prosecution. It's a scene whose cinematography and corruption would feel equally at home in Black Mass.
2 In it McCarthy, also an actor, played Scott Templeton, a self-righteous fabulist whose largely concocted stories earn him career advancement and even a Pulitzer Prize.
3 Wonderfully understated in mutton-chops and wire-frame specs.
4 As Spotlight team member Carroll says, “The new editor of the Boston Globe is an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball” — and why shouldn’t he be?
5 A small but well-crafted character may seem like a step back after his extravagant leading man performance in Birdman — which I would argue deserved the Oscar over Eddie Redmayne’s technically brilliant but strangely unaffected Stephen Hawking — but it’s great just to see him acting again. Next up, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian (or not, as one might hope).
6 Who continues to prove himself the most dependable character actor of his generation: Zodiac, The Kids Are All Right, Shutter Island, Foxcatcher, Infinitely Polar Bear. Twitchy and impassioned, and again sporting an unflattering barnet, nobody does relatably tortured humanity quite like him.
7 One of Spotlight’s most emotionally raw moments comes when Rezendes, angry and frustrated, reveals the hope he had held of eventually returning to the Church — a reminder that, for all its culpability and wrongdoing, of the comfort and security the institution represents to many people.
8 Though the film is wise enough to give these dealings another dimension.
9 Cagey and hostile, Garabedian would be immensely unlikable were it not for the plain-dealing bluntness Tucci helps to make borderline endearing. 
10 Truth, meanwhile, fails as a film about journalism precisely because it fails to hold its journalists to a higher standard. By taking investigatory shortcuts the 60 Minutes team blew their investigation into the allegations that President George Bush had gone AWOL from the Texas National Guard and, as such, essentially let him off the hook. The film prefers to focus on corporate interference and the half-baked notion they may have been set up, and can’t help but feel evasive for it.

REVIEW: The Big Short

You wouldn't think the recent global financial crisis would be the stuff of comedy, but, directed and co-written by frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) and with an all-star cast, including Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Ryan Gosling, The Big Short makes for a highly entertaining (and instructive) study of greed, fraud, and the three groups of people who sought to profit from the meltdown before it happened. 

When hedge fund manager and former medical doctor Michael Burry, Phd. (a yet-again transformed Bale) discovers that America’s booming housing market is built on a bedrock of bad loans, he decides to bet against it through a series of credit default swaps — a whole new type of deal that will compensate him if and when the number of mortgage owners defaulting hits critical mass and the whole thing collapses. Since no one else can foresee that happening, the banks are all-too eager to take his money.

As a result, shark-like investor Jared Vennett (a dark-eyed, oh-so-slick Gosling) can smell money in the water and, seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity get seriously rich, ropes in trader Mark Baum (a fuming Carrell) and his team into putting up the cash. Ignorance may be bliss, but they’re using the knowledge to beat the market while there’s still a market to beat.

From Gosling’s slick opening narration about the birth of modern banking — and frequent breaking of the fourth wall throughout the film’s two-hour-ten-minute run-time (“I never hung out with these guys. I had fashion friends” — to its use of of handy popup definitions for financial jargon and celebrity info-dumps (see: Margot Robbie explaining subprime mortgages from a bubble bath), The Big Short manages to convey the highly convoluted information necessary to tell it story in a form that’s not only bearable but fascinating.

It's all the more impressive that this mockumentary style doesn’t detract from the drama, but instead serves to heighten it, making it perfectly clear the exact stakes at play

It takes a guy with a glass eye and a Supercuts haircut to figure out that the bubble — which as Michael’s boss snarkily notes, as a bubble, no one can see — is about to burst. Characterized by distracted mutters and the occasional crooked smile, Michael may be superior and uncommunicative, but he’s also the only one checking the numbers, the only one who sees the situation can’t last.

Nobody that is except Carrell's Mark.

A cynical man made angry by tragedy, Mark interrupts a support meting to rant about the corruption he sees every day. A rogue element, work at a bank but not for a bank, his team — including comically dour Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, and Rafe Spall as an optimistic foodie — initially think it sounds simultaneously too good to believe and too terrible to comprehend.

Cutaways to clouds moving over Wall Street and shake your money-maker music videos may seem like distractions, but they lend to the air of distraction that suffuses The Big Short. Mark realizes that the world economy might collapse over sushi with a smirking shit in an expensive suit — the red lighting and ambient Sweet Child of Mine only lending to the surreal nightmarishness of the situation. There’s a definite “final days of the Roman Empire” feel to the Securities Forum that takes place at Caesar’s Palace and, for all the technical jargon, the money, it seems, is definitely dumb.

Frat bro mortgage lenders who target cash rich strippers looking to invest in property and leave the income section blank; credit rating agencies scared to refuse to give the bank’s the credit ratings they desire; and finance journalists refusing to support on the situation for fear of what they might lose -  the whole system is rigged and the whole things about to come tumbling down.

There are no obvious heroes here. Even the “little guys” — two plucky young investors from Boulder, Jamie (Finn Witrock) and Charlie (John Magaro) — are ultimately out for a buck. The first guys to undercut the AA tranche — don’t worry, this will make a surprising amount of sense — their mentor, retired banker turned self-sufficient farmer farmer Ben Rickert (cameo-ing producer Brad Pitt) solemnly reminds them, it’s ordinary people who will pay the price here. The film offers up the sobering statistic that when employment goes up 1% 40,000 people die.

Making a recce down the Florida, the team find whole upmarket communities abandoned, floors littered with bills; the only ones left behind are those trying to scrape out a living amidst the devastation — like the guy who discovers his landlord is a) defaulting and b) possibly a literal dog.

The Big Short connects abstract financial issues to real lives, real stakes. It’s a very masculine world, one populated by absent husbands and fathers — Marisa Tomei appears briefly as Mark’s wife, Melissa Leo as an (ironically) near-blind ratings agency rep  — where everyone knows enough to think they’re smart, to think they’ve got it made, and no one can see that the sky is falling in.

At best willfully naive, worse negligent, or worst outright crooks — encouraging people to buy, buy, buy even as stock goes into free-fall — the film is a desperate plea for intelligence and awareness; that we listen to Chicken Little.

As the maxim  says, “The truth is like poetry, and most people fucking hate poetry”; The Big Short simply gives it a rhythm.  When it comes to turning a dry, stats-driven narrative into an A-Grade dramedy, this is Moneyball standard stuff. Btw, if you’re looking for a stock tip, Michael Burry is now investing exclusively in water — and if that doesn’t fill you with fear, you haven’t been paying attention.

The Big Short gets 8.5 out of 10

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