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The Opportunists 

Wall Street and the wilderness

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THE BIG SHORT. Adam McKay is best known as a comedy writer and director. His tenure as head writer at Saturday Night Live opened the door for a younger, edgier sensibility, simultaneously establishing a bond between McKay and Will Ferrell that would produce some contemporary classics (Anchorman, Step Brothers). McKay is also something of a subversive, though, a progressive populist displeased by corporate greed. His mainstream work first hinted at this in The Other Guys (2010), a hilarious, rollicking buddy-cop comedy featuring a sleazy, big money banker. The animated end credits, though, are where McKay's righteous indignation shines through. In a few colorful minutes, that sequence lays out and takes down the systematic undermining of the American economy that resulted in the collapse of 2008. It was the best, most succinct indictment of the tie-bar-and-cufflink bottom feeders (politicians stumping for a billion dollars per day, two-front war effort not withstanding) responsible for our most recent recession — until now. Somehow, McKay drummed up enough support to make a feature about those seditious acts. And he managed to make a brilliant, engaging, entertaining, troubling one in the process.

Adapted by McKay and Charles Randolph from the book by Michael Lewis (Moneyball), The Big Short first steps back to the 1970s, when the trouble started. Clever broker Lewis Ranieri (Rudy Eisenzopf) bundles mortgages together to form mortgage-backed securities, turning the rock-solid housing market into a speculative goldmine. At the time, this was an innovative, relatively low-risk method for producing greater dividends from traditionally stagnant investments. Give the financial industry enough time, though, and it'll find an artery in a rock. Three decades on, those mortgage-backed securities are filled with garbage loans, destined to fail, with everybody except the homeowners getting rich.

Once these securities are institutionalized, the central narrative of The Big Short really gets going. A few disparate groups of outliers see both opportunity and crisis in the future. This is the story of three of those groups. Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an M.D. from San Jose with a glass eye, minimal social graces and a genius for finance, manages his own investment company. Burry concludes that the booming US housing market is destined for imminent collapse. Thanks to his sterling record, his capital partners give him full autonomy, and he goes all in to "short" the housing market. He approaches big banks that are happy to take hundreds of millions of dollars from a guy they see as a Left Coast crackpot. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a self-centered opportunist and the movie's narrator, catches wind of the plan and scrambles to gather investors of his own, stumbling into Frontpoint Partners, a tiny investment think-tank headed by Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum, reeling from a personal tragedy, uses his rage at the usurious world of high finance as a sort of therapy, and down the rabbit-hole they go. Meanwhile, a couple of precocious nerds trying to break into Wall Street hear of of Vennett's prospectus and solicit the aid of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former broker whose conscience has turned him into a refugee.

Each group's investigation into mortgage backed securities yields the same troubling conclusion: Yes, there is voluminous money to be made, but at the expense of America's economy — maybe the world's. Of course, we all know how that ends.

Whether or not one agrees with the "politics" of The Big Short (I do) is incidental to our purpose here. More important is the fact that this is a bright, insightful, dynamic movie. McKay uses a hybrid-documentary technique to shoot the thing: He breaks the fourth wall, incorporates news footage and music videos to create a collage effect, and lets the camera move like a living thing through the action. He also uses sound and music editing to manipulate mood and tone masterfully. The result is a narrative in constant motion, grounded in real emotion and acted with aplomb by a tremendous cast. It succeeds both as a heroic work of art and as cultural commentary. R. 130m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

THE REVENANT. No one could argue that Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's latest is anything but visually gorgeous, powerfully acted and thematically punishing. It's Big and Important and demands attention; I admire it technically but probably won't watch it again.

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) scouts for a beaver-trapping expedition on the western frontier in the 1820s, accompanied by his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). His former affiliation with the "savages" provokes the ire of members of the party, particularly John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). After Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear, Fitzgerald betrays him and leaves him to freeze to death in a half-dug grave. But Glass claws his way back to life and pursues revenge, seeing and doing some alternately beautiful and horrible things along the way.

DiCaprio and Hardy put on an acting clinic here, meanwhile demonstrating the filth and degradation of frontier life. The locations, and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography of them, are stunning. Iñárritu's dark, singular sensibility is prominently featured, and it makes The Revenant an interesting, if not particularly resonant, exercise in technique and a study in suffering. Iñárritu's insistence on finding a beautiful way to depict ugly things and DiCaprio's exertions obscure the emotional center of the narrative. Ultimately, this is a movie about survival, revenge, the existential dilemma, etc. But it's so busy being poetic that it somehow forgets to tell the truth. As admirable as that commitment is, and as intermittently enjoyable as the spectacle is, the effect is as emotionally distancing as it is impressive. R. 156m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

— John J. Bennett

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.


13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI. Drama based on the 2012 terrorist attack starring John Krasinski. R13. 144m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE RIDE ALONG 2. Caffeinated Kevin Hart and scowling Ice Cube buddy up again as in-laws-to-be, planning nuptials and busting kingpins. PG13. 102m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

NORM OF THE NORTH. An anti-development polar bear and a herd of lemmings head to New York City to stave off condos in the Arctic in this animated comedy. With Rob Schneider and Heather Graham. PG. 90m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.


ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS: ROAD CHIP. The singing rodents you can either stand or you can't are out to thwart the romance of their handler Dave (Jason Lee) and keep the band together. PG. 86m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.

DADDY'S HOME Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as dueling fathers in predictable and innocuous comedy that offers laughs nonetheless. With a good supporting turn by Hannibal Buress. PG13. 96m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

THE FOREST. Natalie Dormer plays a woman searching for her twin in the haunted suicide-magnet woods at the foot of Mt. Fuji. PG13. 93m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Director Quentin Tarantino's excellent Western locked-room mystery draws on history and hate, especially race-hate, in a long, talky drama that still delivers signature quirks and brutality. With Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. R. 187m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

JOY. David O. Russell's story of a young, down-on-her-luck divorcee-turned-inventress (Jennifer Lawrence) is compelling if unsurprising. PG13. 124m. BROADWAY.

SISTERS. Comedy stateswomen Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are funny enough, but play it safe in this coming-of-middle-age comedy. R. 118m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. The writing and visuals are a bit too faithful to the original, but they work in this nostalgic return. Leads John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are as compelling as more familiar faces. PG13. 135m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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