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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Oscar Prevue 2016

 -- By Tom Phillips

Christian Bale in "The Big Short"
When it comes to movie awards season, the answer is usually blowin' in the wind --- some political or social trend will reflect itself in the choice of winners.  This year, I devoutly hope the wind blows in the direction of one or two films whose message is -- the authorities who tell you everything is OK are lying.  At the top of my list is "The Big Short,"  a racy re-creation of the financial meltdown of 2008 --  followed closely by "Spotlight," a newspaper drama based on the Boston Globe's 2002 investigation of predatory priests and their protectors in the Roman Catholic Church.

In both movies, the heroes are scruffy outsiders who care enough to actually look at the records of what the establishment is doing.  In "The Big Short," Christian Bale plays a one-eyed, hyperactive hedge fund wizard with a drum set.  He pores over voluminous files of the mortgages that comprise the financial industry's hot product -- collateralized debt obligations, or CDO's.  These were invented in the 1970s, we learn, to reduce risk by bundling many loans into one package.  But they came to be used to hide bad loans under good -- and finally wound up hiding bad loans under bad.  Alan Greenspan obviously never looked at the records, and neither did Ben Bernanke, so when they lied about the safety of these securities, they did it unintentionally.  Not so the bankers and Wall Street investment brokers who set up these toxic investments, and then unloaded them on gullible clients before the crash.  Bale, as Dr. Michael Burry of Scion Capital, saw it all coming, and hung on in the face of mockery and vilification, disbelief and threats of lawsuits, until the scheme began to unravel on schedule in 2007.  The screenplay centers on him and a few other iconoclasts, weathering the storm of contempt they endure from insiders making fortunes in this game.  Steve Carell plays a screaming, cursing, righteously angry, psychologically wounded fund manager for Morgan Stanley, who insists on betting against the firm's investments in CDO's.  He pursues the truth with an eerie tour of Florida developments -- where laughing hucksters are selling multiple loans with locked-in rising rates to a clientele of immigrants and air-headed pole dancers.  A dancer is interviewed on the job by the agitated Carell, who asks her to stop moving -- he'll still pay her!  "The Big Short" is a sexy, funny movie where the sex is just another commodity, and the fun is at the expense of the poor ordinary people who wind up holding the bag.  In the end, Morgan Stanley gets bailed out, but the people don't.

Mark Ruffalo in "Spotlight"
In "Spotlight," Mark Ruffalo plays a wounded, workaholic investigative reporter for the Boston Globe.  He and his teammates pore through volumes of old Catholic Church directories, spotlighting priests who have been re-assigned again and again from parish to parish.  Then they find and interview the victims -- the same story over and over again, of priests who win the trust of children, molest and rape them, then move on under cover of the church hierarchy.  The other hero is the  new editor of the Globe, a Jew from Miami, who challenges the paper's small-town culture, and the church's untouchable status.  The first turning point comes when the editor, played by Liev Schriever, pays a courtesy call on the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law.  The good cleric, who has been protecting predator priests for decades, tells the newsman things are best when "the city's great institutions work together."  The editor responds that he feels a good newspaper has to "stand alone."

Standing alone is what both films celebrate.  It's a bitter business -- the contrarians get rich  betting against the banks and the housing industry, but they all wind up leaving the financial world, disgusted with the system's coddling of crooked institutions. 

Nobody gets rich at the Boston Globe.  Cardinal Law resigns, and the Vatican re-assigns him to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, one of the most prestigious churches in the world.  But the truth is out, and the Catholics of Boston have at least its protection. 

Oscars won't change the world.  Still, maybe the Academy this year could take a break from dreams and fantasies -- to honor the truth and those who, for whatever reason, labor to find it out.

Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips

Bonus Tracks -- movies I didn't like: 

"Truth" -- As "Spotlight" is a study of how to do investigative journalism, this is a study of how not to, and a lame defense of a CBS News team that walked into a trap.  As a Globe editor warns a reporter in "Spotlight" --- if you don't have multiple, credible sources and genuine documents, you don't have the story, even if you're sure it's "true."

"The Revenant" -- A wounded Leonardo DiCaprio groans, crawls and bleeds through a spectacular landscape, to get revenge for the killing of his son.  The bear should share his Golden Globe.  

"Steve Jobs" -- a psychoanalytic soap opera in which Steve cuts everyone to ribbons before revealing a heart of gold.   Best Supporting Actress: Perla Haney-Jardine as the 19-year-old daughter who tells him off.   

"Joy" --  a feel-good movie that made me feel so good I hit the eject button after 15 minutes.  That's not fair, I know!  But it's "true."