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Joker: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE. IT. NOW.

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and written by Phillips and Scott Silver, is the story of Arthur Fleck, a mentally-ill, down on his luck clown-for-hire and stand up comedian, who transforms into Batman’s arch-nemesis, the super-villain Joker. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Fleck, with supporting turns from Robert DeNiro, Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz.

Early Thursday night I put my life in my hands and made the dangerous trek to the local art house to see Joker in 70mm. Thankfully, no angry white incels were laying in wait for me, so I lived to tell the tale of my Joker cinematic experience…here it is.

I went to Joker with very high hopes, but paradoxically, because I had such high hopes, I assumed I’d be disappointed by the film. My bottom line regarding Joker is this…it is a brilliant film of remarkable depth and insight, a gritty masterpiece that is a total game-changer for the comic book genre, and a staggering cinematic achievement for director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix.

Joker is the cinematic bastard son of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece of 1970’s New Hollywood, Taxi Driver. Beyond being an homage, it is more an updated bookend to that classic, engineered for the corporatized Hollywood of the 21st century.

The film’s Taxi Driver lineage is hiding in plain sight, as it has similar music, shots, camera angles and even re-purposes the famed finger gun to the head move. Joker’s Gotham, is eerily reminiscent of Taxi Driver’s New York City of the 1970’s, which Travis Bickle aptly describes as “sick and venal”. I couldn’t help but think of my Los Angeles neighborhood when seeing Joker’s dilapidated Gotham, with its garbage piled high on every sidewalk and a layer of filth covering the city. In “sick and venal” Los Angeles, we are much too evolved to have garbage piled high on our sidewalks, no, out here in La La Land, even in million dollar neighborhoods, people are disposable and so we we have them piled high on the sidewalks instead, as homelessness is epidemic. Joker’s Gotham, Bickle’s New York and my Los Angeles also share a deep coating of grime as well as a thriving rat population that is disease-ridden and increasingly bold, both in and out of public office.

Joker’s depiction of Gotham as a Bickle-esque New York is fascinating bit of sub-text, as it is a throwback to a time before Manhattan was Disney-fied and Times Square turned from degenerate porn hub to hub of capitalism porn. Joker is also a throwback to a time before cinema was corporatized/Disney-fied, a pre-Heaven’s Gate age, when filmmakers like Scorsese could flourish and make movies like Taxi Driver, unhindered by suits blind to everything but the bottom line.

Joker ‘s genius is also because it is a “real movie”, a Taxi Driver/The King of Comedy covertly wrapped in the corporate cloak of superhero intellectual property. Unlike the sterile Marvel movie behemoths, which Scorsese himself recently described as “not cinema" and which are more akin to amusement park rides than movies, Joker is, at its heart, a down and dirty 1970’s dramatic character study, for this reason alone the film is brilliantly subversive and a stake into the heart of the Disney Goliath.

It is astonishing that Todd Phillips, whose previous films are the comedies Old School and The Hangover trilogies, was able to conceive of, and execute, Joker with such artistic precision and commitment. Phillip’s success with Joker is reminiscent of Adam McKay’s astounding direction of The Big Short (2015). Previous to The Big Short, McKay had basically been Will Ferrell’s caddie, making silly movies well, but they were still silly movies. McKay’s long term film making prowess is still in question, as is Phillip’s, but that does not diminish their mastery on The Big Short and Joker.

Phillip’s direction really is fantastic, but he is also greatly benefited by having the greatest actor working in cinema as his leading man. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck/Joker is an astonishing feat. Phoenix famously (or infamously depending on your perspective) lost a great deal of weight to play the role, and his wiry, sinewy frame at times seems like a marionette possessed by a demon outcast from American bandstand or Soul Train. Fleck/Joker’s madness is seemingly chaotic, but Phoenix gives it an internal logic and order, that makes it emotionally coherent.

Phoenix is a master at connecting to a volatile emotionality within his characters, and of giving his character’s a distinct and very specific physicality. What is often overlooked with Phoenix is his level of meticulousness and superior craftsmanship in his work. Joker is no exception as his exquisite skill is on full display right alongside his compellingly volcanic unpredictability. Phoenix’s subtle use of breath, his hands, as well as his attention and focus are miraculous.

Phoenix is a revolutionary actor. He is so good, so skilled, so talented, that he is reinventing the art form. His work as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) was a landmark in the art form, and his performance in Joker is equally earth shattering. If he does not win an Best Actor Oscar for Joker, whoever does win the award should be ashamed of themselves for stealing the statuette from its rightful recipient.

Contrary to establishment media critical opinion, Phoenix does not make Arthur a sympathetic character, but he does make him an empathetic one, and one with which we empathize. We don’t feel sorry for Arthur, we feel kinship with him as he struggles to maintain some semblance of dignity in a society allergic to compassion.

Joker was described by its detractors as being “dangerous”, and I can attest that the film is indeed dangerous, but not for the reasons laid out by its critics. Joker is dangerous because it dares to do something that corporate controlled art has long since deemed anathema…it tells the very ugly truth.

Joker has the artistic audacity to peel back the scab of modern America and reveal the maggot infested, infected wound pulsating in agony just beneath our civilized veneer. Joker’s chaotic madness is a perfect reflection of the sickness of our time. Think Joker is too “nihilistic” or “negative”? Turn on a television, read a newspaper or take a cross-country flight, and you’ll see that the nihilism and negativity of Joker are nothing compared to the madhouse in which we currently live.

Arthur Fleck is America, as the country, populated by narcissists, neanderthals and ne’er do wells, has devolved and self-destructed, rotting from the inside out after decades of decadence, delusion and depravity. America is rapidly degrading and devolving, and that devolution is mirrored by Arthur Fleck has he transforms into Joker.

Joker is unnerving to mainstream media critics because it shines the spotlight on the disaffected and dissatisfied in America, who are legion, growing in numbers and getting angrier by the hour. As I have witnessed in my own life, the rage, resentment and violent mental instability among the populace in America is like a hurricane out in the Atlantic, gaining more power and force as every day passes, and inevitably heading right toward landfall and a collision with highly populated urban centers that will inevitably result in a conflagration of epic proportions.

Joker, the consummate trickster, is devoid of politics and ideology and exists only to feed and satiate his own voracious madness. Fleck is an empty vessel and the Joker archetype co-opts and animates him. Fleck, born again as Joker, is adopted as a symbol for the struggles of the angry and the desperate, in other words, Joker is the archetype of our times, a Trumpian figure, who unintentionally inspires others, friend and foe alike, to release their inhibitions and unleash their inner demons. Joker is dangerous because he is an avatar for the rage, resentment and desperation of millions upon millions of Americans who have been forgotten and left behind and are utterly despised by the elite. Joker is both apolitical and all political. The populist Joker is both Antifa and the Alt-Right. Joker is everything and nothing to everyone and nobody all at once. The media in the movie, and in real life, make Joker into a monster, an icon and an iconic monster for the dispossessed, elevating him in the eyes of those desperately seeking a savior.

In a perverted and brilliant way, Phillips and Phoenix make Fleck into a Jesus figure, who as he transforms into Joker, becomes an unwitting Christ/anti-Christ. The line between messiah and madman is a thin one, and depends almost entirely on projection and perspective.

Arthur Fleck, like Jesus, is literally someone who is repeatedly kicked when he is down. Like Jesus, society ignores and despises him. Like Jesus he is berated, belittled and beaten…and yet all he wants to do is make people smile. Like Jesus, Fleck’s birth story is convoluted and lacks coherence.

What makes Phoenix’s portrayal so chilling is that his Fleck earnestly desires to bring joy to the world just like Jesus…and just as Jesus is actually a good magician/miracle worker, Fleck is actually a good clown, filled with energy and purpose. But Arthur soon realizes that there are two jokes at play in the universe…the one where he is the punchline, and the one in his head, of which he is self-aware enough to realize regular people “won’t get it”. Jesus makes the same sort of discovery during his temptations, he hears a “joke” in his head too, but it is the voice of God, and he comes to realize no one else will “get it” either. Fleck and Jesus are presented the same two paths, Jesus takes the one of self-sacrifice and becomes the Christ, and Fleck takes the road of human sacrifice, and becomes The Joker/Satan.

At its core Joker is a character study, and so there is not a lot of heavy lifting among the cast besides Joaquin Phoenix. That said, Frances Conroy, Robert DeNiro and Zazie Beets all do solid work with the material they have.

The film is shot with an exquisite grittiness by Lawrence Sher. Sher pays adoring homage to Taxi Driver by using certain specific camera shots and angles throughout the film. Sher also uses shadow and light really well to convey Fleck’s/Joker’s perspective and his tenuous grasp on reality. Sher, like Phillips, does not have a resume that would make you think he was capable of doing such substantial work, but in the case of these two men past was not prologue.

Joker is one of those movies that reminds you why cinema matters, as it uses the tired and worn comic book genre to draw viewers in, and then sticks the knife of brutal cultural commentary deep into their chests.

Joker has been at the center of of a cultural storm ever since it premiered to a raucous ovation at the Venice Film Festival in September. The film won the Golden Lion (Best Picture) at Venice and was quickly catapulted into the Oscar discussion, which created a fierce backlash against the film from certain American critics and woke twitter. The common refrain from those critics who saw it at Venice, and those who hadn’t, was that the film was “dangerous” because it would incite disaffected white men to become violent. In researching an article I recently wrote about the controversy, I came across a stunning number of articles with the imploring and weak-kneed headline, “Joker is Not the Movie We Need Right Now”. Of course, the converse is true because Joker is exactly the movie we need right now.

The critical opinion of Joker, especially among the critics at influential media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New Yorker and Time, is aggressively negative and dismissive, riddled with a belittling and condescending commentary. The criticisms leveled at the film from these effete establishment critics are obviously contrived, petty, personal, political and entirely predetermined. The amount of intentional obtuseness on display about Joker, its cinematic sophistication and its artistic merits, by these supposed important critics is stunning and revealing.

The critical malevolence toward Joker is undoubtedly fueled by a need to virtue signal and pander to woke culture, and is born out of personal contempt for the filmmaker (who dared defend himself against “woke culture”) and manufactured anger at the subject matter. The poor reviews of Joker by these American critics says considerably more about those critics, their dishonesty and lack of integrity, than it does about Joker. Make no mistake, Joker is a masterpiece in its own depraved way, and the critics who succumb to the myopic social pressure and cultural politics of the moment by reflexively trashing the movie as immoral and artistically and cinematically unworthy, will be judged extremely harshly by history.

In looking at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Joker currently has a critical score of 69 and an audience score of 91. The disconnect between critics and audience on Joker is similar to the disconnect on display regarding Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix stand up special Sticks and Stones. Chappelle’s show was pilloried by critics who were horrified by the comedian’s “unwoke” and decidedly politically incorrect take on the world, as the critical score is currently at 35, while the audience score is a resounding 99. It would seem that in our current age, bubble-dwelling, group-thinking critics in the mainstream media, are no longer interested in artistic merit, cinematic worthiness, skill, craftsmanship or talent, but rather in personal politics, woke ideology, political correctness and conformity, and are dishonest brokers when it comes to judging art and entertainment.

Joker is a watershed for the comic book genre. In the future film historians will look back on this time and say that there comic book films pre-Joker and comic book films post-Joker. There is no going back for the genre. That does not mean that Marvel will immediately crumble and fall into the sea, but it does mean that the genie is out of the bottle, and there is no getting it back in. Jason Concepcion and Sean Fennessy at The Ringer recently pondered if Joker is to the superhero genre what The Wild Bunch was to westerns back in 1969. They are not so sure, but I certainly think is as genre redefining or killing as The Wild Bunch. The Disney/Marvel model, post-Endgame and post-Joker, will only see diminishing cultural resonance and relevance, as well as financial returns, from this point forward. The superhero genre will not disappear overnight, but it has begun its long retreat from its apex, and God only knows what will eventually replace it.

In conclusion, Joker is a mirror, and it reflects the degeneracy, depravity and sheer madness that is engulfing America. Joker is an extremely dark film, but that is because America is an extremely dark place at the moment. Joker is unquestionably one of the very best films of the year and should be, but probably won’t be, an Oscar front-runner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. I highly recommend you go see Joker in theatres as soon as you possibly can, as it is must-see viewing for anyone interested in cinema, art or in understanding what is rapidly coming for America.

©2019

Vice: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. Although a cinematic misfire of sorts, it is worth seeing for the extraordinary performances and for the civics lesson.

Vice, written and directed by Adam McKay, is the story of the meteoric rise of former Vice President Dick and his Machiavellian use of power. The film stars Christian Bale as Cheney, with supporting turns from Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell.

Vice is another one of those films of 2018 for which I had high hopes. I absolutely loved director Adam McKay’s last film, The Big Short, which brilliantly dissected the 2008 financial meltdown and I hoped that when he set his sights on Dick Cheney he would be equally effective in his vivisection of that worthy target. McKay proved with The Big Short that he was more than capable of turning a dense, intricate, complex and complicated topic into an entertaining and enlightening movie, a skill that would be desperately needed for a film about Dick Cheney.

Watching Vice was an odd experience as I found the film had multiple great parts to it, but on the whole, while I liked it, I didn’t love it and ultimately found it unsatisfying. I was so confounded by my experience of Vice that I have actually seen it three times already to try and figure out specifically why I feel that it missed the mark and is not the sum total of its parts. And yes…I realize that seeing a movie I don’t love three times makes me sound insane.

Why am I so interested in figuring out why Vice is not great, you may ask? Well, the reason for that is that Vice desperately needed to be great because it is such an important film for the times in which we live. Trump did not come out of nowhere…he is a fungus that grew out of the shit pile that was Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush/Cheney and Obama…and as we all know, past is prologue, so if we don’t fully understand and integrate the lessons of Dick Cheney’s nefarious political career, we are doomed to stay stuck in the tyrannical rut in which we find ourselves.

Dick Cheney was a pivotal, behind the scenes player in American politics for four decades (70’s through the 00’s) and so bringing his sprawling yet mundanely bureaucratic career successfully to the screen is a massive and difficult undertaking. It is also an vital undertaking as the argument could be made, and Vice makes it, that Cheney’s underlying cosmology and his political and bureaucratic success are what has brought the U.S. and much of the world to the brink of collapse.

Sadly though, Vice is so structurally unsound as to be nearly untenable. McKay cinematically stumbles right out of the gate and makes some poor directorial decisions that lead to a lack of narrative coherence and dramatic cohesion that diminish the impact of this important movie.

I could not help but think of Oliver Stone as I watched Vice. Stone’s Nixon is an obvious cinematic parallel to Vice in that it is a bio-pic of a loathed political figure whose career spans multiple decades. The problem with Vice though is that McKay not only lacks Stone’s directorial skill and talent, he also lacks his testicular fortitude and artistic courage.

In Nixon, which is a terrific film you should revisit, Stone and his cinematographer, the great Robert Richardson, go to great lengths to show us Nixon’s point of view and perspective, and it works in drawing viewers into the man who otherwise may have repulsed them. Stone and Richardson occasionally used the technique of switching film stocks and going from color to black and white in order to distinguish Nixon’s point of view and to emphasize flash backs and time jumps. (Vice certainly could’ve used this sort of approach to make the time jumps it uses more palatable and cinematically appealing)

Of course, Stone was pilloried for his dramatic speculation in Nixon by the gatekeepers of Establishment thinking, but despite the critical slings and arrows, it was the proper creative decision. Stone turned Nixon into a Shakespearean character and we knew him and understood him much better because of it, which turned the film about his life into fascinating and gripping viewing.

Cheney, like his one-time boss Richard Nixon, is also cold and distant figure in real life, but McKay never emulates Oliver Stone and bridges that distance by using dramatic speculation in telling his story. McKay makes the fatal directorial error of only on the most rare of occasions allowing viewers into Dick Cheney’s head and giving them his distinct perspective and point of view. For the majority of the film the audience is forced to be simply spectators to Cheney’s villainy and not participants or co-conspirators, which undermines the dramatic power of the film.

The most interesting parts of the film are the two parts where we are actually given Cheney’s perspective and inner dialogue. The first time that happens is when we hear a voice over of Cheney’s thoughts as he meets with presidential candidate George W. Bush to talk about the Vice Presidency. In this scene we are given access to Cheney’s Macchiavellian musings about the man, Dubya, that he will use as an avatar to bring his dark vision to life, and it is intriguing.

McKay’s brief speculation of Cheney’s inner thoughts in the Bush scene propels the audience into Cheney’s head…which is where we should have been all along. We are then ushered out as soon as we arrive and are left with only a bird’s eye view of Cheney’s world until the final scene. Vice would have benefited greatly from McKay throwing the audience into Cheney’s head from the get go, but instead we get a rehash of Cheney’s greatest hits, or worst hits, depending on your political point of view, which is neither illuminating nor gripping. ( to be fair, McKay’s refusal to speculate on Cheney’s inner thoughts and motivations could be a function of the fact that Cheney is still alive and able to sue, but regardless of the reason, it does a terrible disservice to the cinematic enterprise)

McKay was obviously going to great lengths trying to be “historically accurate” in this bio-pic, but he falls into the trap of many, if not most bio-pics, in that he tries to recreate history instead of creating cinematic drama. McKay simply shows a series of well-known events in Cheney’s life (hey…remember that time Cheney shot somebody in the face!) without any new or interesting insights into them. In this way, Vice is less a drama/comedy than it is a docu-dramedy that merely skims the surface of its subject and re-tells history for those who already agree with its political perspective.

The biggest hurdle though in telling the story of Dick Cheney is…well…Dick Cheney. When your film’s lead character suffers from an egregious charisma deficit and has created a persona of impenetrable banality, you have quite a hill to climb. Besides mastering the art of dullness, Cheney is also an unlikable and politically despicable person, which only adds to the burden that this film must carry. Unlike in The Big Short, where McKay was able to use multiple characters to propel the narrative, each one different and interesting in their own right, in Vice, McKay is forced to have Cheney be the sole focus and driver of the narrative.

As vacant a character as Dick Cheney is, Christian Bale makes him a genuine human being. Bale disappears into Cheney and crushes the role to such an extent that he solidifies his place amongst the best actors working today. Bale’s confident use of stillness and silence is volcanically potent. There is no wasted motion with Bale’s Cheney, and it is when he isn’t saying anything that he is saying everything. Bale fills Cheney with very specific and detailed intentions that radiate off of him and penetrate his intended target with deadly precision.

The rest of the cast do outstanding work as well. Amy Adams is simply one of the best actresses on the planet and her work in Vice is a testament to that fact. Adams’ first scene as Dick’s wife Lynne is so dynamically compelling I nearly jumped out of my seat. Right out of the gate Adams tells the viewer everything we need to know about Lynne, she is smart, tough and will not put up with any bullshit. Adams’ Lynne is insatiable when it comes to power, and she is the Lady MacBeth behind Dick’s throne. Amy Adams has given a plethora of great performances over her career, but she has never been better than she is as Lynne Cheney in Vice.

Sam Rockwell is also outstanding, playing the cocksure but dim-witted poseur of a president George W. Bush. Rockwell plays Bush as an unwitting moron and dupe who is so stupid he doesn’t know how stupid he really is. Cheney’s manipulation of Bush is seamless and entirely believable with Rockwell playing the insecure second generation President. Rockwell never falls into caricature with his Dubya, and fills this empty man with a delightful and at times poignantly meaningful nothingness.

Steve Carell is also great as the enigmatic Don Rumsfeld. Carell morphs into the irascible political climber Rumsfeld with ease and shows a deft touch in making Rummy a genuine human being, a sort of arrogant fly boy whose wings never get permanently clipped.

All in all, the entire cast do great work with Bale, Adams and Rockwell all deserving Oscar nominations for their work, and Bale and Adams very much deserving of the trophy.

As much as Adam McKay won the casting room, he did have other failures when it came to filmmaking. I am sure it is no coincidence that McKay hired editor Hank Corwin to work on his film, as Corwin edited Stone’s Nixon as well. Surprisingly since he was so good on Nixon, Corwin’s editing on Vice lacks a cinematic crispness and is one of the weak spots of the film. Corwin repeatedly uses a black screen for transitions which I found broke the pace and rhythm of the film and scuttled any dramatic momentum. Of course, this is not all Corwin’s fault, as McKay may have demanded that approach, but regardless of why it happened, it happened and the film suffers for it.

Another issue with the film was the use of a narrator. Well, to be more clear, it wasn’t the use of a narrator, but the choice of the narrator and how that character fit into the story. Jesse Plemons, a fantastic actor, plays the role of the narrator but it never quite comes together. Plemons is fine in the part, but considering the amount of information that needed to be passed along to the audience, a more direct and straight forward narrator would’ve been a better choice. Once again, Oliver Stone comes to mind and his mesmerizing opening to his masterpiece JFK, where Martin Sheen (and phenomenal editors Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing) masterfully set the complex stage for everything that follows.

As much as I was frustrated by McKay’s direction, there were some moments of brilliance. McKay’s use of Alfred Molina as a waiter explaining the crimes of the Bush administration was absolutely magnificent. His expanded exploration of the idea of the “Unitary Executive” was smart and well done too.

Other sequences by McKay that were simply sublime were when McKay would show the global and life altering power of the Presidency. In one sequence we see Nixon and Kissinger having a discussion about their Vietnam and Cambodia policy…and then we see the catastrophic results of that policy on regular people. The same thing occurs in relation to Bush and Iraq in one of the finer cinematic moments of the movie, where all of the power politics in America reduce people half way around the world to cower under a table in fear for their lives.

There was one other scene that is worth mentioning, and not because it is so great, but because it reveals something nefarious about the film itself. In one scene where the principals of the Bush administration, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice etc., are debating whether to invade Iraq or not, there is a bit of dialogue which states in essence that Israel is opposed to the U.S. invasion because it will destablize the region. This is historically completely inaccurate and entirely at odds with reality. Why would Adam McKay put this bit of Israeli misinformation into his film that purports to tell the truth about the Bush administration? I think I know the reason why…but that is an uncomfortable discussion for another day.

In conclusion, as much as I wanted to love Vice because it shares my vision of the world and of the Bush administration, I didn’t love it. Cheney, like Nixon before him, should have been prosecuted and imprisoned for his crimes, instead of having his lackeys turned into exalted talking heads on MSNBC and CNN. If Vice were better made, if it were more coherent, cohesive and effective in its storytelling, it could have done to the Bush/Cheney administration, what The Big Short did to Wall Street…exposed them bare for the repugnant, amoral and immoral criminal pigs that they are.

Sadly, Vice doesn’t rise to the challenge, and so the historical myopia that pervades our current culture will persist and prosper. Liberals will continue to think everything was great before Trump and that Trump is responsible for all that is wrong in the world…and thus they doom themselves to repeat the cycle that brought us Trump in the first place. Just like Nixon gave us Reagan and Reagan gave us Clinton and Clinton gave us Bush/Cheney and Bush/Cheney gave us Obama and Obama gave us Trump…Trump will birth us another monster and it will devour us all unless we wake up and understand that it isn’t the individual that is rotten, it is the system that is rotting.

With all of that said, if you get a chance I do recommend you go see Vice, it is worth seeing for the exquisite performances of Bale, Adams and Rockwell alone. It is also worthwhile to see Vice to understand that as much as we’d like to blame others, be it Russians, Republicans or Democrats for all of our troubles, the truth is that Cheney bureaucratically maneuvered to give us the fascist tyranny for which we were clamoring. The fight is simply over who gets to control it the beast that is devouring us, and to see how much we can make selling rope to those who wish to hang us. My one solace to this national existential crisis is revenge, and the hope that I will get to see Dick Cheney and the rest of his gang at the end of one of those ropes before I die.

©2019

The Big Short : A Review, a Diagnosis and a Warning

ESTIMATED READING TIME: TEN MINUTES

 

****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!!****

 

MY RATING: SEE IT IN THE THEATRE!

 

"IT AIN'T WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW THAT GETS YOU IN TROUBLE, IT'S WHAT YOU KNOW FOR SURE THAT JUST AIN'T SO." - MARK TWAIN

The Big Short, directed by Adam Mckay and written by McKay and Charles Randolph (based on the book The Big Short by Michael Lewis), is the story of a collection of men who foresaw the financial collapse of 2007/2008 and bet big against the housing bubble and Wall Street and won.

The Big Short is a truly remarkable film, without a doubt one of the very best of the year. It takes the difficult and complex subject of finance in general, and the collapse of 2007/2008 in particular, and not only breaks it down into understandable pieces, but does so in an extremely entertaining and insightful way.

When The Big Short ended and the credits rolled, I was curious as to who directed the film. I was stunned when I saw that Adam McKay, of all people, had directed it. Prior to The Big Short,  Adam McKay was better known as Will Ferrell's director, having been at the helm for the Ferrell films Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Stepbrothers, and Anchorman 2 : The Legend Continues. In my mind, directing a singular comedic talent like Will Ferrell amounts to turning on the cameras and getting out of the way. It was previously unthinkable that a director with Adam McKay's resume would have the skill to make a film as impeccably crafted as The Big Short. McKay's direction is nothing short of masterful. McKay is able to flawlessly weave together the multiple, complicated narratives of the film, all while never losing the mesmerizing pace of the story. He shows a tremendously deft touch even with the most minor of scenes and lets the visuals tell as much of the story as the dialogue. 

There is a subtlety and specificity to McKay's direction that speaks volumes to his talent and vision. Two sequences stand out in this respect. The first is when we see a brief daytime long shot of Las Vegas with a freeway in the foreground where a homeless man urinates in the shadows of the traffic. The man, with his shopping cart filled with his possessions by his side, is barely visible in the shot, but that is the point, because those obliviously driving by him on the freeway above are blind to his plight and the one that awaits them as well.

The second shot is of a man and his family, who we meet very briefly earlier in the film, evicted from their rental home because of a landlord who gets foreclosed upon. The family now live in their van parked at a convenience store. This scene, which is visuals accompanied by a voice-over not directly connected to the action, shows a little boy running away from the family van. The shot is maybe three seconds long, but it stops your heart it is so well done. This shot cinematically conveys to the viewer absolutely everything they need to know, and all without a word. It shows how vulnerable and dangerous life is for people on the margins in America. My reaction to that brief shot was visceral…how could it not be? The shot is so quick you can only react to it on a gut level, and at that level, you instantly fear that the little boy will run into traffic. That shot connects the bigger story of The Big Short, to the human story of those devastated by the housing collapse. That little boy is in danger and it is because of the shenanigans of the big banks. These two shots/sequences are the type of small details that make all the difference in a film, and they highlight Adam McKay's exquisite direction of The Big Short.

The acting in the film is solid across the board. Ryan Gosling easily does the best work of his career as Jared Vennett, a bond salesman at Deutsche bank. He gives a funny, dynamic and charismatic performance that is the engine driving the film forward. Steve Carrell does exhaustive work playing the unlikable but ultimately compelling Michael Baum, the manager of a hedge fund whom Vennett approaches to invest against the housing market. Christian Bale gives a layered and intricate performance as Dr. Michael Burry, the eccentrically awkward mastermind who uncovers the fraud at the heart of the housing bubble. Brad Pitt brings a surprising gravity and humanity to the film as former JP Morgan trader Ben Rickert, and acts as a counterbalance to Gosling's fast talking and ego-driven Vennet. The rest of the cast is superb as well, with Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen among others who all do standout work.

"TRUTH IS LIKE POETRY, AND MOST PEOPLE HATE POETRY" - OVERHEARD AT A WASHINGTON, D.C. BAR

I saw The Big Short in the theatre on the same day that I saw Spotlight. This was just by coincidence, but in hindsight it is easy to see that the movies are actually companion pieces. They have a lot in common as both The Big Short and Spotlight are flawlessly crafted films. Both pictures are superbly written, acted, directed, shot and edited. In addition both The Big Short and Spotlight explore similar themes, namely institutional blindness, perverted forms of religion, and the moral and ethical rot at the center of American life. 

"TO SEE WHAT IS IN FRONT OF ONE'S NOSE NEEDS A CONSTANT STRUGGLE." - GEORGE ORWELL

The institutional blindness on display in The Big Short runs not only through Wall Street, but also the media and Washington. When you hear talking heads on television say that no one saw the financial collapse of 2007-2008 coming, realize that this is just one more form of that blindness. Hindsight is usually 20/20, but not when you are unable to admit you were catastrophically wrong in the first place. As the great American Prophet (or is it Profit?) Dr. Phil is fond of saying, "you can't change what you don't acknowledge"…you're god-damned right about that, good doctor. Besides the characters at the center of The Big Short, there were other people who saw the collapse coming too, but they were the "wrong" people, so no one listened to them. Hell, even a clueless dope like me saw it coming. Ask my poor clients who had to listen to me ramble on and on about it day after day. Of course, most of those clients, and most of my friends, just nodded politely at my ramblings and ignored them…and lost a ton of money. I, and a very tight circle of friends, ended up being right not because we were geniuses, God and you dear reader know that isn't true, but rather because we weren't infected by the mania brought on by the lure of easy money that had gripped, and still grips, the nation. One of the glaring symptoms of this mania is that it brings with it a greed-induced frenzy that makes it, to paraphrase Orwell, 'hard to see what is right in front of your nose'.

The institutional blindness at the core of American capitalism comes from years of uncritical thinking from the people inside its foundational institutions. No one at any level of the American capitalism food chain, from University economics and finance departments, to the media to government to Wall street, dare question the basic premise of American capitalism because it has become a most-holy, sacred religion. This religion deems insatiable greed not only healthy for the economy, but a "good" and worthy attribute for everyone. This new church of American capitalism found a cinematic saint in Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street, but St. Gordon was just preaching the gospel of the semi-non-fictional Saint Ronald Reagan from the early 1980's. Both St. Gordon and St. Ronnie were followed by free market saint and snake oil salesman extraordinaire, Bill Clinton in the 90's, who cleared the way for "unfettered, free-market capitalism" to take a giant shit on all of us.

"THE CAPITALIST WILL SELL YOU THE ROPE WITH WHICH YOU INTEND TO HANG HIM" - VLADIMIR LENNIN

Ask anyone with an advanced degree in economics or finance if during their long years of schooling they ever had to take a course on an alternative economic system to capitalism. The answer will be a resounding "no". That is not to say that socialism or communism or any other "ism" is better than American capitalism. But it is to say that when people are taught, or more accurately, conditioned, to NOT think critically about their economic system (or anything else for that matter), then that system stops being an economic one and starts being a religious one. Religion is based on faith and to its faithful adherents, is beyond reproach…see Spotlight as evidence of that. When something as profane as American capitalism becomes sanctified, corruption and collapse are sure to follow, just as it did with Soviet "socialism". With religion comes magical thinking, and so it is with American capitalism, which must contort reality in order to reinforce its faith based belief system. So we get deformed and distorted economic information from the powers that be because they must keep the house of cards standing at all cost. The Big Short humorously shows how while the underlying mortgages crumbled, the mortgage backed securities made up of those same bad mortgages actually went up. That is what happens in religion when reality doesn't conform to the sacred belief system, magical thinking kicks in and…MIRACLES OCCUR…up can become down, black can become white, or as those of us living in reality say…FRAUD HAPPENS. This charade of American capitalism can only last so long, as reality has a funny way of cutting through the bullshit of magical thinking and kicking you right in the nuts…just ask Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns.

"TELL ME THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STUPID AND ILLEGAL AND I'LL HAVE MY WIFE'S BROTHER ARRESTED" - JARED VENNET, THE BIG SHORT

See, in American capitalism, fraud is not a bug, but a feature, it is baked into the cake. Fraud and magical thinking are at the very heart of American capitalism. The fraud that runs rampant is easy to see.  We have all of the big banks rigging bids on municipal bonds and bilking every city in the nation for billions of dollars. Then we have Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays, Bank of America, UBS and Citigroup and the LIBOR scandal, where they manipulated the world's interest rates and in so doing a good portion of the world's economy. Then there is the fraud on display in The Big Short where big banks defrauded their customers in order to cover their asses as the mortgage market tumbled. This doesn't even touch upon the criminality of banks laundering money for drug cartels, or rate-rigging the currency rates

In all of these scandals, no one was sent to prison. No one was held criminally liable. The Banks simply paid a fine, sometimes in the billions of dollars, but never had to admit to wrong doing. This is the casino-gulag business model, banks make $10 billion in fraud and only pay $1 billion in fines. That is a pretty good deal if you can get it…and the big banks know how to get it.

I had a conversation recently with an older friend, very conservative, who told me that he was "sick and tired of all the big bank bashing" because Wall Street "creates a lot jobs and a lot of wealth". I nodded politely so as to not offend his religious belief in American capitalism. The reality is that Wall Street, like Las Vegas, "creates" nothing, but they do "engineer" more gambling opportunities where the house always wins, and the concept of "the common good" never has to rear its ugly head.

"THE IGNORANT MIND, WITH ITS INFINITE AFFLICTIONS, PASSIONS AND EVILS, IS ROOTED IN THE THREE POISONS. GREED, ANGER AND DELUSION." - BODHIDHARMA

This taps into the moral and ethical rot at the center of America. Wall Street and Main Street, both infected with an insatiable greed, no longer invest, they speculate. The myopic greed and lure of easy money that has infested America makes corporations and regular people cut off their nose to spite their face, all in the name of higher short-term earnings and to the detriment of the long term, the common good and common sense. This is no way to run a company, or a country…but it's what is happening all around us. We have CEO's who mine their company for short term profits, which often times includes profit through fraud, in order to appease shareholders and get their bonuses before moving on, all the while ignoring the long term health of their business. The same is true of government, where politicians ignore the long term health of the country in favor of the short term health of their political careers and the next election. Regular Jane's and Joe's did the same thing by "flipping" houses and trying to run with the wolves on Wall Street…but found out the hard way that it is a rigged game. Now, they do the same thing in a different way by going into debt just to pay their bills month to month. This myopic approach to finance, politics and life, can only last so long before the bill comes due. Robbing Peter to pay Paul only ends up, at best, with either Peter or Paul breaking your thumbs, or at worst, with the two of them burying you in a shallow grave out in the desert.

The Church of American Capitalism and the moral and ethical rot that comes with it, has also infected American Christianity in the form of the "Prosperity Gospel". This Prosperity Gospel is the perfect symbol for the lascivious and lecherous greed, that like a cancer, has metastasized through all walks of American life and bastardized Christianity into little more than Santa Claus for adults. Turning greed into spirituality and religion is the last straw in the fall of the moral underpinnings of any nation and its people. Gordon Gekko once said, "Greed is good", but the Prosperity Gospel of the Church of American Capitalism teaches , "Greed is God".

"WHENEVER I WATCH TV AND SEE THOSE POOR STARVING KIDS ALL OVER THE WORLD, I CAN'T HELP BUT CRY. I MEAN I'D LOVE TO BE SKINNY LIKE THAT, BUT NOT WITH ALL THOSE FLIES AND DEATH AND STUFF." - MARIAH CAREY

The other religion, besides the church of American capitalism and greed, so masterfully on display in The Big Short, is the uniquely American religion of Celebrity. Director McKay wisely uses famous people to talk directly to the audience and explain complicated financial terms and processes. This has a dual effect, one, it breaks down the complex language of finance which Wall Street uses to make people think only they can do this stuff, terms like Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO), Mortgage Backed Security (MBS), and Credit Default Swap (CDS), into language the layman can understand. Two, it surreptitiously tweaks the audience for being so mindless as to only pay attention when a celebrity is talking. The celebrities involved, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and chef Anthony Bourdain, all get the point across both on the surface level of explaining the information, but also on the subversive level of proving the audience as suckers for the famous, a.k.a. high priests and priestesses of the Church of American Celebrity. If Collateralized Debt Obligations, Mortgage Backed Securities and Credit Default Swaps were explained by some dry academic, people would, as they've been trained to do, instantly tune out, but when it is done by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath…attention will most surely be paid. 

"WE FORGET THAT THE WATER CYCLE AND THE LIFE CYCLE ARE ONE." - JACQUE COUSTEAU

Speaking of bubble baths…at the end of the movie, there is an update on what the main characters are up to since their big short paid off. We are informed that Dr. Michael Burry, who closed his hedge fund right after the collapse of 2007/08, now focuses his investments on one commodity…water. This is pretty interesting because running throughout the film there is a very subtle subtext about water. If you watch the film again, pay attention when water is in a shot (like Ms. Robbie's bubble bath cameo), what characters drink it and when they drink it. There is one scene where Dr. Burry, while talking about shorting the housing market, chokes on a swig of water from a bottle, which, knowing the context of his later investing work, is very intriguing. Another scene involves a swimming pool with an unwanted reptilian guest lurking in it behind an abandoned Florida house. The house no doubt abandoned because of the "gully" (definition of a "gully" is "a water worn ravine") in the housing market. That scene is juxtaposed with a scene of a lavish swimming pool at Caesar's Palace, which is populated by investment bankers (from Goldman Sachs!!) and a woman from the SEC. Gators, bankers and feds…oh my!!! Water is the hidden secret within The Big Short, and the secret about water in today's world is that it will soon replace oil as the commodity over which we go to war.

"EVERYONE, DEEP IN THEIR HEARTS, IS WAITING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD TO COME." - HARUKI MURAKAMI

In conclusion, The Big Short is a phenomenal, must-see film, that shows us what went catastrophically wrong back in 2007/2008, and what is still wrong with our system. It is up to us to break free from the magical thinking brought on by the Church of American capitalism, and the distraction from thinking brought on by the Church of American Celebrity, and to see the truth that sits right in front of our nose…the American financial system is not only fundamentally and structurally flawed, it is irreparably broken and untenable. The house of cards is coming down whether we are ready for it or not…it isn't a matter of if…it is a matter of when. You can either prepare for the coming tsunami* or not, that is up to you…but what you cannot do this time around...is say that no one told you it was coming. 

*See what I did there? Tsunami…water? C'mon..pay attention!!!

©2016