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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Four formidable film features for the New Year


Gerald Schmitz

Flying today to Park City, Utah, to cover the 32nd Sundance Film Festival, I’m anticipating a raft of world premieres, some of which will eventually make it to Canadian screens. In the meantime here are four major releases already in theatres that merit attention, including the triple Golden Globe winner The Revenant (best picture, director, actor) which is nominated for a leading 12 Academy Awards.

The Big Short (U.S.)

Author Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Liar’s Poker) never thought his 2010 book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine could be made into an entertaining mass-audience movie. How to explain on screen complex speculative instruments from credit default swaps to collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)? How to make an engaging story out of the unusual manoeuvres employed by some market mavericks who anticipated, in order to profit from, the subprime mortgage meltdown that preceded the 2008 financial crash? With an assist from Brad Pitt, who also plays the role of a key investor among the stellar cast of financial traders, director Adam McKay has turned the trick.

McKay uses a variety of techniques to probe and puncture the fraudulent froth of financial market exuberance, including a memorable vignette of a naked starlet (Margot Robbie) giving the straight goods on a financial derivative while sipping champagne in a bubble bath. He sometimes has Ryan Gosling’s composite character of Jared Vennett narrate the plays to the camera. Vennett is a slick banking insider with the lowdown on the housing bubble’s massive toxic assets — triple-A-rated due to the craven collusion of the ratings agencies — accumulating on the balance sheets of Wall Street’s biggest financial firms. He approaches a group affiliated with Morgan Stanley led by an irascible money manager, Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum still broods over a brother’s suicide and his qualms and histrionics add an edge of manic-depressive tragedy and guilty conscience to the biting satire.

Even more bizarre is the behaviour of real-life California neurologist turned hedge-fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale). In 2006, convinced of the certainty of an imminent financial implosion, he shorts the mortgage market big time by betting on its failure. In other words, the worse the quality of the corruptly packaged financial products he buys, the bigger the eventual payoff. His impatient incredulous investors mutiny until later in 2007 his bet reaps them spectacular rewards.

Another storyline involves a pair of small-time Colorado investors — Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) — with big ambitions who get wind of the shorting opportunity of a lifetime and convince high-rolling mentor Ben Rickert (Pitt) to deal at the big boys table on their behalf. The result is an impressive windfall amid the carnage of bank failures and consequent crisis of confidence and credit.

Accompanying the comic absurdity of the capitalist excesses these situations expose is a palpable churning anger at a corrupt system. The fallout is no laughing matter: described in an endnote as $5 trillion of financial losses, 8 million lost jobs, 6 million Americans losing their homes. Baum, whose group cashes in while so many others on the street are devastated, rails that the most responsible, those “too big to fail,” get bailed out by taxpayers while populist blame falls on “immigrants and the poor.” The guilty have not been punished and there’s a warning it could happen again. Led Zeppelin’s ominous When the Levee Breaks plays over the closing credits.

There have been fine documentaries before pointing the finger, notably Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning Inside Job. What McKay has done successfully is to make a hugely enjoyable drama using humour to drive home a serious message about a complex subject. (While McKay’s background is in comedy he’s also a supporter of outspoken socialist Democrat presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders.) Writes Michael Lewis approvingly in Vanity Fair: “Wall Street, like a clever pervert, is often suspected but seldom understood and never convicted. It is my hope that (this movie) might actually help change the situation.”

The Danish Girl (U.K./Germany/U.S.)

Eddie Redmayne has an Oscar best actor nomination, following his 2015 win for playing Stephen Hawking, with another striking physical transformation based on a real person, Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener who became a transgender woman named Lili Elbe. In director Tom Hooper’s delicate adaptation of David Ebershoff’s loosely biographical novel, we meet Einar as a slightly effeminate smartly dressed gentleman in 1926 Copenhagen, apparently happily married to fellow artist Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Gerda’s whimsical suggestion that he don women’s garb and accompany her to a society ball as her fictional “cousin” Lili sets off a chain of events beyond her control. What began as an innocent prank quickly turns into a dramatic struggle as Einar increasingly questions his sexuality. Gerda is naturally distressed when Einar as Lili becomes the objection of affections by a young homosexual man, Henrik (Ben Whishaw). Einar’s childhood friend Hans also enters the picture.

Convinced that Lili is his/her true nature, the personality of Einar disappears in Lili’s determination to be a pioneer of risky sex reassignment surgery, a decision supported by Gerda. “God made me a woman,” Lili insists. “The doctor is curing me of the sickness in which I was disguised.” But such a radical action for the time has no happy ending in this careful telling of that traumatic transition.

The Hateful Eight (U.S.)

Director Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, with its epic conceits of an overture and intermission in the 70mm version, has pretensions of being a great wide-screen western saga played out on a wintry frontier (Colorado standing in for Wyoming) in the years after the Civil War. It turns into a three-hour slog ending up drenched in Tarantino’s trademark blood and guts without the glory.

In the striking opening image the camera pans out from a snow-encrusted stone crucifix to reveal a horse-drawn stagecoach approaching across a white wilderness expanse. What follows, however, is as anti-Christian as it gets. The passengers are John Ruth (Kurt Russell), “the hangman,” who’s taking his “wanted dead or alive” prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to Red Rock where he expects to collect the $10,000 reward. The stage picks up two horseless gunslingers before arriving at Minnie’s Haberdashery as a blizzard closes in — Union army Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter with a load of bodies, and rebel renegade Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be the new sheriff in town.

Except there’s no Minnie, or Sweet Dave. Instead they’re greeted by a Mexican, “Señor Bob” (Demián Bichir), with a story to explain their absence. The other guests are a white-haired Confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a big ol’ cowboy, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and a Brit, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), claiming to be the official hangman. That Marquis is black is an excuse for lots of racist as well as raw, vulgar dialogue, and a particularly disgusting flashback involving the general’s ill-fated son. So far, so bad.

Then the questions start taking over: Who made the stew? Who poisoned the coffee? Who’s trying to free Daisy? Which of them are imposters? Who is that other gunfighter (Channing Tatum) hiding in the basement? Chapter five enlightens on the murder and mayhem earlier that morning, all leading up to a gorefest in which the only question is: Does anyone survive? That makes more than eight but who’s counting?

As Roy Orbison’s Vietnam-era There Won’t Be Many Coming Home plays over the end credits (clue: strike the “m’ in many), there’s one thing I can agree on: this sure is a hateful movie.

The Revenant (U.S.)

Partly based on Michael’s Punke’s eponymous 2002 novel, which was inspired by actual events during the 1820s on America’s rugged Dakotan frontier, last year’s big Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) helms an epic wide-screen production fully justifying its 156-minute runtime. The tale of survival and revenge begins in a large camp of trappers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleason) that includes the guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio in a career-topping performance), his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) with whom he speaks in the native tongue, the young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and the hot-tempered, partly scalped John Fitzgerald (an almost unrecognizable Tom Hardy).

The action is soon savagely fast and furious as a raiding party of Arikara warriors attacks, seizing pelts and horses. A decimated group escapes by river barge. More savage still is the next attack, of a she-bear on Glass when he is hunting alone. Thrice mauled, the gravely injured Glass is retrieved, barely breathing, able to make only guttural sounds through a ripped larynx, surely a dying man. With winter approaching in a hostile territory the men need to make haste back to the sanctuary of Fort Kiowa. Fitzgerald wants Glass quickly put out of his misery but, for a big payoff, agrees to stay back with Hawk and Bridger to care for Glass until it’s time for a “proper burial.”

Adding murder and deception to Fitzgerald’s treachery, Glass will be abandoned but refuses to die, promising retribution over his son’s body. What follows is a tale of impossible survival over several hundred kilometres of mountainous terrain and icy rivers. Glass, like a wounded wild animal, at first crawls on all fours. He’s stoked by a revenant revenge, fortified by bison innards, protected by a horse’s belly (don’t ask), aided by a lone Pawnee hunter on horseback, until the latter meets a bad end at the hands of a vile gang of thieving French-speaking trappers who fully live up to their warning “on est tous des sauvages” (“we are all savages”). There are hallucinatory flashbacks and striking images — of massacres, a pyramid of buffalo bones — that suggest precious little nobility among the grasping white intruders on native land.

From death’s door, through deadly ordeals, Glass endures, growing stronger, recovering enough voice to help free a captive native woman named Powaqa from the French. When found by a search party from the fort, there is the unfinished business that calls down divine vengeance on Fitzgerald. In this unforgiving male-dominated universe the final frames evoke a fittingly feminine spirit of native justice.

It would be hard to imagine more physically arduous conditions than those to which DiCaprio submits. Talk about suffering to master a role. Mostly shot in Alberta and B.C., digitally using only natural light, the awesome cinematography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki is the movie’s other triumph. As he told an interviewer, “we wanted the audience to truly feel immersed in this world. We wanted to take them through this journey. We wanted the style of the movie to be completely determined by the conditions (outdoors) when we shot it. We wanted to make a movie that had that visceral quality.”

Mission accomplished in spades and arrows.