The Big Short (2015)

As I begin writing this review for The Big Short, I am somehow reminded of the brilliant and darkly comedic satire American Psycho (2000).  The two films share very little in common except Christian Bale is in both and both have to do with Wall Street.  The Big Short is based on a true story whereas American Psycho is pure imagination and strictly speaking a more direct satire.  The reason I am comparing these two films is because I think they can be considered sister films (or at least first cousins).  Without spoiling ‘Psycho for you, I will say that film uses fantasy and violence to display the effect greed and one’s concern with placement on the snobbery hierarchy (in the United States) can have on the psyche; The Big Short is what actually happens to the USA if American Psycho‘s fantasies take on a real life form.

But let’s talk about The Big Short…..

Adam McKay’s The Big Short is the true story of the housing market bubble bursting in 2008 and how a handful of Wall Street outsiders predicted it and were able to make a LOT of money because of it.  The way McKay handles this material is risky and bold, but the result is very entertaining and one of the best films of 2015!

I will not explain the finer details of the plot; part of the many joys of this film is the way McKay has his characters explain it to the audience.  Not only is he treating the subject matter as satire, but McKay is also having a little fun with the based on a true story theme, and dare I say satirizing the genre as well.

McKay understands that this material is difficult to understand by the average film going American, so he uses brilliant meta moments to (not) dumb-it-down, but make it easier for the viewer to understand.  Here’s an example:

McKay implies that the country uses pop culture and celebrity to distract the public from the actual evil that goes on from time to time.  He employs the same tactic, but instead utilizes it to help explain the difficult financial terms and investment strategies.  In one example he has Ryan Gosling’s character breaking the fourth wall** telling the audience, “Now to help you understand, here is Margot Robbie drinking Champagne in a bubble bath explaining it to you…”  And then, yes, the gorgeous Margot Robbie also breaks the fourth wall from a bubble bath and directly explains to us viewers whatever the film’s plot is dealing with at that moment!   This method is used a few other times in the film with popular celebrities spanning many disciplines.

In addition to not delving too far in to the plot, I will also not use character’s names in this review, there are too many to count.  I will say that the cast is remarkable and none of them miss a beat.  Steve Carell’s character is my favorite of the film.  He moves through the film so smoothly with a steadfast ambition to get things done the way he wants to do them.  Just when you think he is getting in his own way with his manic tics, you realize this behavior is what will also get him out of his own way.  More than that, though, his character is (I believe) supposed to be an agent of the layperson – the viewer – us…. The events depicted in this film and some of the people portrayed who are partly responsible for this colossal financial collapse are reprehensible greedy A-HOLES!  Easy for me to say, but Carell’s character is a person with a strong and thoughtful understanding of this financial crisis, so when we the viewer see his character showing disgust for these bad people, we feel it’s okay for us to feel that way too.

In addition to Carell we get an almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt who in a moment at a casino interrupts his two partners’ celebration to remind them of what their financial gain is built upon: Other American’s misfortune.  As I mentioned, Ryan Gosling plays a cocky investor who with great command breaks the fourth wall from time to time to explain to the viewer how exactly this is all working.  Marissa Tomei shows up briefly as Carell’s wife.  Although it’s a small role, I believe McKay employed her celebrity and competence to let the viewers understand she is an important support to Carell’s character.  Christian Bale plays an M.D. turned financial adviser who is the first to recognize the downward trend of the housing market. I have come to expect nothing short of greatness from Bale and he does not disappoint here. Great minor supporting performances by all help to make this a very enjoyable film

I mentioned earlier how I feel McKay is not only treating this material as satire, but also satirizing the true story genre.  There are a couple of moments where I feel this is clearly indicated, but I will share with you the biggest example:

A lot has been made in recent years about the liberties films take with subject matter that is based on a true story.  People are complaining that the events as they are laid out in these films are not exactly how they went down in real life.  I say to those people that you need to watch this medium called film a little more closely to find the finer details that imply liberties are being taken, but I digress….
McKay does something really fun and funny in The Big Short to hopefully satisfy these people who want true stories to be truer.

I don’t want to spoil the fun, so I’ll explain just enough for you to recognize when it happens:

Two of his characters are trying to move up the financial totem pole and try to get a meeting with a big bank.  The meeting takes place in the lobby of a large office building in New York (as their current status did not warrant an invitation past the lobby).  After being rejected, there is some very deliberate dialogue explaining how often they get rejected and by how many firms.  Then they find something that just happens to be on the table in the lobby that turns them on to a new project.  That’s when one of the guys breaks the fourth wall to explain how it really happened in real life!  It plays as a funny moment, but mainly calls attention to how boring this passage of the film would’ve been had they shown the real way it occurred.  It’s not cutting corners, it’s efficiency….!

I mention a lot of the different techniques McKay uses in this film to move the material along.  Most of them employ humor, which makes a lot of sense given McKay’s filmography (Anchorman, Step Brothers  Some may argue that McKay was the wrong choice for The Big Short. These people may think he copped out and resorted to humor because that’s all he can do.  Firstly I’d respond to those people by saying, SO WHAT?  But secondly I’d politely tell those people they are wrong.  The humor serves as a buffer to this material.  We are watching a film that has to do with millions of people losing their jobs and retirement money and their homes because of the greed of other Americans.  The humor makes this subject matter a little more sugary and thus easier to swallow.  Not all of the scenes are funny; some are downright sad, but given the balance the humorous and satirical parts provide, this a film that is not only enjoyable, but also informative.

I think I have made it clear to you that I am no financial guru by any stretch of the imagination.  I like films like this that are informatively artful.  I mentioned American Psycho; I wonder if director Mary Harron knew what was on the horizon at Wall Street when she made it.  I wonder if Adam McKay revisited American Psycho before he made The Big Short.  It doesn’t really matter.  What matters is we are living in a country that stands on the credo of hard work and turns right around and devalues it.  It does so with the motivation of greed and the idea that if I have more than you, I am simply better than you.  Patrick Bateman in American Psycho knew this, but hated himself for it.  The real life people portrayed in The Big Short who are responsible for the financial mess knew it too, but they only hated poor people and immigrants.  Lofty accusations by me, maybe, but it’s not a new story.  The almighty dollar is a big motivation for Americans and gets incorrectly equated to realizing dreams.  If an underlying lesson can be taken from The Big Short, I think it is this: We mustn’t boil things down to buzzwords.  We mustn’t bastardize our dreams to a dollar sign.  Be earnest in your fight for survival and our country’s worth will rise….

This is one of the most important films of the decade….!!


** Breaking the fourth wall –
Speaking directly to, otherwise acknowledging or doing something to the audience through this imaginary wall – or, in film and television, through a camera – is known as “breaking the fourth wall“.

Creed (2015)

Here we go again, right!?  Another Rocky movie!  This time around (that’s the seventh time) it is a bit different.  The most obvious difference being the title, Creed.  This is the first time in the series where the word ‘Rocky’ is not in the title; this is the first time Sylvester Stallone has not written an entry to the series; and this is also the first time someone named John G. Avildsen or Sylvester Stallone did not direct an entry.  What all that really proves or means, I do not know, but what I do know is that Creed is the best film in the series since Rocky (1976) which won the Best Picture Oscar and also earned Stallone a Best Actor nomination (and Best Original Screenplay), and if the universe is fair, he will receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this surprising gem which is one of the year’s best films!


Although Creed is a continuation of the Rocky mythology, Rocky Balboa is not the focal point of the story.  The main character instead is Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, who was born after Apollo died in the ring (see Rocky IV).  Adonis is young foster child when we first meet him, and is adopted by Apollo’s widow Mary Ann Creed out of an orphanage, who treats Adonis as if he is her son.  Adonis is raised by Mary Ann in Los Angeles (the city where Apollo fought out of) in a beautiful home and grows up in to an intelligent upstanding man.  By night we see him travel to Mexico taking part (and dominating) in non sanctioned boxing matches, and by day we see Adonis donned in a pressed shirt and tie in a nice office, turning down a promotion by resigning so he can chase his dream of being a boxer.

Adonis’ last name Johnson is his late (biological) mother’s name which he keeps maybe out of respect, but also because he wants to make a name for himself in the boxing world without being known as Apollo Creed’s son.  So without his father’s name or his mother Mary Ann’s blessing, Adonis heads to Philadelphia to further distance himself from Apollo’s legacy and to seek out Rocky Balboa for training.

After he gets settled in to his new city, Adonis does indeed seek out Rocky at his tucked away restaurant on a small Philadelphia street.  This is an important scene to the film because not only does it begin to establish the relationship on which the film’s plot will forge, but it also shows the subtle brash side of Adonis that is needed to complement a great fighter’s boxing ability.  After a couple scenes where the Italian Stallion gives him the brush off, Rocky begins to slowly acclimate to the role of Adonis’ trainer.  These scenes are handled with great care by director Ryan Coogler; he is in no rush to get to the fight scenes or training montages and instead allows for Rocky and Adonis’ relationship to blossom organically so that the audience may see and understand the love they have for one another and not love based on archetypal legend, which a lesser film may’ve done.

Coogler handles every scene with originality but also ties this new story to careful homage of yesteryear Rocky films: We hear mention of Paulie, Mick and Apollo; Rocky has Adonis chase a chicken; we get to see Phildelphia (which is a sort of character in this series); of course Adrian is etched in to the fabric of Rocky’s persona.  My favorite of the homages is when Adonis is closing in on the last days of training for the film’s big fight and he is running through the streets of Philly with an alternative version of the original Rocky score.  I assure you your goosebumps will have goosebumps when you watch this scene!!

Michael B. Jordan has been showing up in a lot of different kinds of movies these recent years including director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (which I have yet to see).  In Creed he proves he can give a sharp dramatic turn while carrying the weight of a tremendous physical performance as well.  I mentioned Stallone’s performance as being an Oscar worthy one and I have my fingers crossed this will happen.  The Oscars are meant for discussion and fun and it would be SUPER fun to talk about Stallone earning a nomination for reprising the role that shot him to super stardom back in the mid 70s!  Sure he is the same ol’ punchy (now former) boxer we have come to know and love, but this time around we get to see a side of him that is sweeter, and when we see his Rocky character face some personal adversity, it is with heartfelt eyes we watch him have to fight something (for once) without using his fists – this is by far one of the best performances of the year!***

We get to see Adonis compete in two (sanctioned) fights.  It is strange to see Rocky in the corner for both of them, but we really enjoy watching Adonis do his thing in the squared circle this time around.  One of the reasons for this is that the fight scenes are expertly filmed!  One of the rounds I swear was shot as one continuous take and in real time.  I honestly felt like I was getting hit by some of the right hooks!  Sure some of the punches would kill someone in real life, but filmgoers are supposed to suspend disbelief which is easier to do when the film is a well made one… like this one!

All in all Creed is a modern day sports film masterpiece!  It contains all of our favorite things we have come to expect in a sports movie and done with such care by Coogler that viewers will celebrate the cliches through which they would otherwise groan!  Instead of groaning, I found myself (along with the rest of the theater) fist pumping and cheering during the fights and being moved by the actions and kind words of the characters.  Should this be the last Rocky film, It is the perfect epitaph for this legendary series….


***Rocky gives a toast before a casual dinner in his dining room to Adonis and his girlfriend.  The words are so simple and heartfelt and Stallone delivers them with such ease and grace, that if there is justice in the world, Stallone will earn that Oscar nomination!



Almost Famous (2000)

What a wondrously wonderful film! From the opening moments where we hear the unmistakeable sound of a needle being placed on a vinyl record set to the different film studios’ logos, to the opening credits being hand written (and also erased at times) with a pencil, we know we are in for a fun film watching experience.  And oh, how fun indeed!  Besides the fantastic soundtrack from the rock n roll era of the 70s, writer director Cameron Crowe takes us on this semi-autobiographical adventure, where a boy poses as a man to experience life through rock n roll!  Displaying an envious romp through a concert tour with and up and coming (ficticious) band, Almost Famous shows us how rewarding life can be if you grab it by the balls, but also the virtue of being shamelessly intelligent in a world that tells you that it ain’t cool to be that way!  This is one of the best films of all time….!!

We first meet our young hero William Miller when he is just 11 years old (although he thinks he is 12 – long story).  He lives with his over protective yet loving mother (Frances McDormand) and rebellious older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) in sunny San Diego, California.  Mom is a nonconformist who is raising her children to think for themselves, so long as they abide by her rules which include celebrating Christmas on a day in September, no rock n roll music and NO DRUGS!  When Anita can no longer handle living at home (just after she turns 18) she packs up and leaves with her boyfriend to become a flight attendant, and does so quite ceremoniously to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel!  Before she departs, she informs William to look under his bed where he finds an emergency style tote of rock n roll records with handy notes advising William as to the proper way to listen to each record!

Cut to four years later and we meet the 15 year old William (Patrick Fugit) who looks like a typical 1970s teenager with the scruffy hair and long pants.  There is nothing typical about our hero, so discovers famous rock n roll critic for Creem Magazine, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  Through the persistence of sending him his articles from the high school newspaper, William gets to meet Bangs and have a sit down with him to learn the ins-and-outs of rock journalism including the virtue of being unmerciful and honest and no matter what happens, DO NOT MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE ROCKSTARS!  In this brilliant scene, William is given an assignment by Bangs to write 1,000 words on Black Sabbath after going to their concert that night.

Not having a ticket, William is forced to find a clever way in to the concert via backstage; after a couple of failed attempts, he finally makes it in, and it is in that moment the real WIlliam Miller is born!!  As he enters the bowels of the arena, a look of gracious awe falls about his face as if he knows he is exactly where he needs to be at that moment in his life – we should all feel so lucky!  It is here where he meets the world: An up and coming band called Stillwater, many rock clingers and many groupies (excuse me, Band-Aids), including the world renown and beautifully exotic (Miss) Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

Stillwater is comprised of four total members, but mostly the world is interested in lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).  William makes fast friends with Penny and despite Lester Bangs’ advice, William is seemingly infatuated with Russell.  After the show William and Penny make plans to go see Stillwater play in Los Angeles, which makes William as excited as any teenage boy would be making plans with a beautiful young lady!

Despite learning in LA that Russell and Penny Lane are some sort of an item, the trip is very rewarding for William and it leads to Rolling Stone Magazine hiring him to travel with Stillwater on their tour across the United States.  The man who hires William is Ben Fong-Torres who mistakes William for a fully grown well adjusted adult, maybe due to his writing ability and the way he pitches his ideas to him.  Whatever the reason, William finds himself having to convince his overprotective mother to let him go on tour with the band!  Not for nothing, but God bless actors like Frances McDormand who know just the right amount of spice to add to a role that may have otherwise been a cliche.  The scene where she grants permission is short and to the point and the way in which McDormand delivers the lines is priceless – good on ya Frances!

So we find our hero travelling across the country trying to write this article for Rolling Stone (sometimes on napkins in a bathtub) about the up and coming band (from Troy Michigan) Stillwater!  He learns lesson after lesson and DEFINITELY becomes friends with the band!  He calls Lester Bangs at all hours of the night seeking advice as he has trouble writing his article.  These scenes between Bangs and William on the phone are an important piece to the film.  Most of the tour scenes are super fun to watch and are happening at a breakneck frenetic pace, and the meetings between William and Bangs help provide a calm center in the rock n roll storm and to the film!  One of the calls comes after the tour and the conversation is filled with beautiful honesty and artful sweetness where Bangs explains the integrity it takes to be a great writer – judicious and prudent…!!

Every film lover DESERVES to see this incredible film!  Not only is the plot exciting and inspiring, but the music is great complementing each scene/moment perfectly!**  Crowe at the helm is on fire directing his script giving us all interesting characters to watch do their thing!  From the Rolling Stone execs to the groupies on tour, we are constantly entertained by all of them throughout the film.  Even at the end where the film gets wrapped up in a nice little bow, it is done so with such charm and with a really cool and unique set up, that we don’t mind.  Crowe trusts the audience to trust that his characters are intelligent to realize life doesn’t always have a happy ending – just this moment of this character’s life does.  It takes some serious confidence as a filmmaker to do this, and Mr. Crowe, we are happy that you did…..

** Elton John’s song Tiny Dancer is set to a sort of crossroads moment of the film and is perceived by many as one of the best uses of a song in a movie ever.