By Anthony Norton (Singapore)
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Hello everyone! It’s me again, and happy New Year to you guys! So work will be creeping up next week, which means that I will not be able to review films at the same rate as I have done so over the past few weeks (which has been a great experience by the way). But I will still try to get one review published each month, especially for lesser-known films. Ever since my last review for The Hateful Eight, I have been watching an average of one film a day, mostly awards contenders, as well as some 1950s classics, but none of them were compelling enough for me to write a good review about. Because I don’t really enjoy writing scathing or lukewarm reviews, since my purpose of writing is to share with readers the films that engaged me, so much so that I would like to put them up in writing for recommendation.

This time, I think I have found the last film of 2015 that I had been eagerly waiting to watch, and it was just sublime. I remember 5 years ago, when I was still a wide-eyed college student pursuing finance, a professor who taught the investment module that I took loaned me a book called “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis. I literally pored over the pages of that book, because there was so much information and circumstances that were new to me back then, and it was this book that fuelled my passion for banking even further, to champion a world where transparency and sincerity were the vices that governed the banking industry. Hence I was so excited that The Big Short was adapted into a film by director Adam McKay and starring a talented ensemble of actors. So let’s talk about this film.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I guess no spoiler warnings are required. Basically the movie is about the 2008 financial crisis and how a handful of individuals managed to reap themselves a great deal of money betting against the American economy. It all began when Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager with poor social skills analyzed the financial prices of the housing sector and realized that there existed a housing bubble. He then decided, for the interest of his clients and shareholders, to purchase credit default swaps from numerous banks. This reaches the attention of a trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Morgan Stanley hedge fund subsidiary manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and independent investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who enlist the help of their long-time ex-banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), all of whom decided to cash in on the bet and whose names have been changed at the request of their real-life persons.

What I loved about this film is that the script is so solid and absorbing that for the entire duration of 130 minutes there wasn’t a single dull moment. As the story progresses the audience discovers more and more shocking truths behind the fraudulent practices of the banks and rating agencies who work in tandem to fulfill their greed for money. The unravelling of the crisis is handled so well, there was a buildup of suspense even though we all know how this is all going to end. And there are so many characters here, despite them being caricatures of actual people, they are presented to you with starkly different personas, some arrogant, some deluded, some mentally tortured as they weave their way through a cutthroat society. In addition, even with all the technical jargon, the film still manages to engross the viewers with gripping finesse.

This is a palpitating picture from start to finish. It takes the atmosphere of a thriller and puts it in the context of finance to instill that sense of foreboding for the downturn of the economy. Most of the recurring characters start off in the film as carefree individuals, with tremendous faith in the market and expressing initial disbelief at an arbitrage opportunity, but as they delve deeper into the misconduct and conspiracies of the banks, they feel their faith shattered and their personalities change. That was very powerfully portrayed here. Because this is not simply a finance movie, it is a film about morals and ethics, the things that man would do without the confines of law. This is one crucial feature the film Spotlight failed to achieve.

Adam McKay was brilliant as the director. For such complex material, he sure knew his way around explaining tough concepts to the layperson. In particular, the film uses a device where famous celebrities give the audience a brief definition on certain financial terms. There was Margot Robbie taking a bubble bath and explaining about subprime loans, and Anthony Bourdain in his kitchen explaining Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and Selena Gomez talking about synthetic CDOs. Oftentimes, characters break the fourth wall. What’s not to love?

Because Adam McKay knows mainstream sense of humour, and while this film is more dramatic than comic, there are moments when characters blurt expletives in self-deprecating form that simply evokes much-needed comic relief. Thankfully, this is nothing as absurd or nonsensical as McKay’s Anchorman or Anchorman II (can’t believe he actually made two of that abomination). The only other McKay film that I rather liked was The Other Guys, which also had something to say about finance in Ponzi schemes. In this film, many aspects were surprising for a director like McKay. For one, the style of shooting was like something out of a documentary, with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s shaky-cam lens and crash zooms, which made it a unique choice for such a film. On that note though, while I didn’t mind the shaky camera, it might not have been the best choice for such a film, otherwise it should have been used sparingly because this is not an action film and that much grit and the feel of raw footage might be distracting for some, especially within an office environment where people are prim and proper, having shaky-camera is quite unnerving. Nevertheless, the point is that the cinematography showcased McKay’s capacity for dramatic vision with serious overtones, and he is telling us to take him seriously as a director.

As mentioned previously, the cast was superb. Of notable mention would be Christian Bale and Steve Carell. The former looked like a vagabond, acts like one and simply puts one on edge with his awkward demeanor and inappropriate smiles. Because the actual Michael Burry is besotted with Asperger’s Syndrome, and Bale’s proclivity to act upon his own will based on adamant and strong beliefs is uncanny and perfect. Meanwhile Steve Carell plays his character with natural aplomb. His shock and disgust with the market system was palpable and realistic, while also managing some really emotional scenes about his past with regards to a regretful decision involving his brother. He depicted a harrowed individual, who has no qualms about raising his opinions no matter how hurtful, but for the greater good.

Then there is Ryan Gosling, playing the exact same character he played in Crazy Stupid Love, also enjoyable to watch nonetheless. Brad Pitt was probably the most emotionless character, which is not important because his role is quite small here. But honestly anyone could have played his role, they didn’t have to spend that much money hiring Brad Pitt for such a laidback character. Everyone else was great, I cannot possibly list each and every performance in particular, but all of them acted with so much realism and the conditional flaws of humans. I can’t think of any film that actually has characters repeat the same line again just because another character could not hear it properly the first time. That was how real the acting was, although sadly this is not the kind of performance the Oscars would favour.

More on the story. I enjoyed how all-encompassing the story was. What I mean by that is the film doesn’t merely take place within a few locations or toggling between a few groups of people from the same demographic. With its subject matter on housing, it was really great to watch scenes that take place away from the corporate environment and into the heart of the suburbs and with the main characters speaking to regular Joes from all walks of life, people trying to avoid a foreclosure and even a prostitute who chalked up a whole lot of debt, yet is able to have 5 houses and a condo. The best part was towards the end when the final climax occurs with the credit crunch in full swing and the staff of Lehman Brothers grudgingly exiting the building with their personal belongings. That was when the young investors decided to sneak into the office, now empty and dead, yet still breathing life with all its computer systems running. That scene in particular was haunting and surreal, a mark of filmmaking ingenuity.

And there were so many throwbacks to yesteryears, like the Las Vegas forum scene recreated with booths bearing the names and logos of financial institutions that no longer exist, such as Washington Mutual Bank. It’s like a look at a time when people could afford to be nonchalant and proud, living lavishly, much like the 1920s before the Great Depression. Then there are the despicable bankers in the film who put on facades even on the brink of insolvency. This is bound to stir emotions in people who were affected by this global phenomenon. The film is so extensive on its coverage of the story that it is not afraid to show you every scenario that took place around these central characters, where they travelled to, what they saw and experienced, which a fellow Golden Globe nominee could well take heed from. I’m referring to Steve Jobs.

There are but a couple of things that bugged me about the film though. And most of these grouses are an inadvertent result of the documentary style of filming. In a couple of scenes, conversations between characters are cut in between so as to show montages or clips from the news or elsewhere. I personally (really a personal opinion) prefer that the characters are allowed to complete their discussion before these montages are flashed as they could sometimes distract or disrupt a train of thought especially when dealing with some very technical financial concepts. Also despite the screenplay’s attempt to dumb things down for viewers, I thought that the pace of the film might have been too fast for us to be able to comprehend a lot of the dialogue and grasp the concepts. This is in contrast to another fabulous film about the same theme, Margin Call back in 2011. Margin Call was superior to The Big Short in a sense that everything was made in total consideration and empathy for audiences who had no prior knowledge in finance, yet was able to equally engage very well. And it didn’t even use a shaky cam for that matter. Also, while I applaud the eclectic mix of music in The Big Short, there were some heavy metal tracks, because Michael Burry apparently loves listening to them. It was loud and noisy and I DISLIKE heavy metal. Don’t really care that it is central to the story, I have prejudice against heavy metal tunes used in films. Another really deafening snippet was the beginning of the Las Vegas scene when the overture of The Phantom of the Opera can be heard. Simply cannot stand that tune, because it is overused, I’ve heard it so many times, and a church organ is really not the ideal instrument to be played in this film. So I do admire Adam McKay’s choice in music, but for the sake of a film, maybe his choices were not so great after all.

In conclusion, The Big Short is a very important film for this generation, and though it may require repeat viewings to truly appreciate the beauty of this picture, it is no less tragic, funny, well-acted and with a moral to the story that everyone should listen to. This is definitely one of my top 10 movies of 2015, not because of the biasness behind my financial background, but because of the sheer guts to adapt a factual book into an amazing screenplay with added devices that connect with audiences on so many levels. For those who are now interested in the culmination of the 2008 financial crisis, I highly recommend reading the book as well as another book titled “The Lost Bank” by Kirsten Grind that may be more of something up your alley if you are not ready to take on highly technical vocabulary.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

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