Reviews of The Hateful Eight, The Big Short and Spotlight

Strong ensembles shine in Oscar contenders Spotlight, The Big Short and The Hateful Eight

It's a cliche movie producers like to spout: "The city of (insert New York, Chicago or London) features so much in this film, it's a character in the story."

In all except a few cases, this is public relations nonsense. A few yellow cabs or a wide shot of Big Ben does not turn a community into a character.

But this week, two Oscar contenders do just that: They peel away the skin of a community to show the insides. In both cases, the sight is fascinating, if rage-inducing.

"If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one," says Boston Globe editor Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton) in Spotlight (NC16, 129 minutes, opens tomorrow, 5 stars ).

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Globe articles uncovering the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, this thrillingly ambitious movie lays out how dozens of paedophile priests in Boston not only escaped arrest, but were also shuffled to parishes where they preyed on more children.

The Globe's reportage would show that how, at all levels, the city had failed its young.

Best of all, while journalists at work are the heart of the story, they are not let off the hook. The investigative team, steeped in the culture of the predominantly Catholic city, were as blind to the evidence under their noses as anyone else.

It was not until 2001, with the arrival of outsider editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber), that change happens. Unhindered by institutional blinkers, Baron senses a pattern in the crimes. He asks Robinson (Keaton), head of the paper's investigative section, Spotlight, to follow up.

Making each character unique in an ensemble piece is a job few do well, but director and co-writer Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, 2003; Win Win, 2011) is a master. He reveals character through action, instead of through chatter. Each Globe team member has his or her own way of tackling the job.

It is this investigation, shot as an action movie, that gives the story such ferocious power.

The acting team of Keaton, Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (all playing journalists) and Stanley Tucci (as lawyer Mitch Garabedian) perform flawlessly, but the triumph of this work, nominated in the Best Picture category at the Oscars, lies in what it avoids.

Nobody makes a speech about the nobility of news reporting or complains about the sacrifices journalists make. The movie avoids making villains of people, instead going after the city's power structure.

Much has been said about the banality of evil. Spotlight shows the nightmare that can spring from cops, teachers, lawyers, judges and bureaucrats just doing their jobs.

Like Spotlight, The Big Short (NC16, 131 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4 stars) earned a Best Picture nomination for laying bare the inner workings of a broken system. The movie's audacious idea is that to grasp the horror of the 2008 financial crisis and how it ruined working-class America, the audience has to understand concepts such as collateralised debt obligations, credit default swops and subprime mortgages.

Martin Scorsese made The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013) a success by portraying securities traders as carnival freaks with money, creating a stereotype for the ages. The Big Short director and co-writer Adam McKay wisely incorporates a touch of the comic grotesque into each of his traders.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) despises anyone less shark-like than he is. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is an Asperger's numbers savant with a glass eye. Mark Baum (Steve Carell) flourishes because he trusts no one. Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is a bearded mystic of money. All believe that the banks are doomed because of risky bets on the housing market.

McKay, in adapting the book of the same title by "maths for common folk" popularist Michael Lewis (writer of Moneyball, also made into a movie), makes sure the infotainment segments pack the same chutzpah. Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez appear as themselves to deliver mini-lectures on financial concepts.

That self-aware silliness in the service of telling a story laden with technical jargon works because McKay's curiosity is infectious; he is like that goofy science teacher who is willing to don a ridiculous hat to demonstrate photosynthesis.

McKay trusts that you will be as keen to find out what happened in the crash, and where the blame lies, as he is. His assumption is correct - the trip is as fun and as informative as it should be.

And now, for another form of exaggerated - and far bloodier - reality. Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight (R21, 182 minutes,opens tomorrow, 5 stars) is the writer-director's second go at a western (after Django Unchained, 2012), but done as a chamber piece.

A group of people are forced by a blizzard to take shelter inside a spacious single-room trading post. Among them are two bounty hunters, Marquis Warren and John Ruth (Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell) and Ruth's prisoner, the brigand Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Each person has reason to despise another because of race and past Civil War atrocities.

The set-up - men with guns in one space, each with dark motives - has echoes of Tarantino's first feature, Reservoir Dogs (1992), but now in a spaghetti western version.

As inevitably happens with a Tarantino movie, debate has swirled around the liberal use of the n-word racial slur, and the graphic violence. That violence feels more disturbing than usual because it is a woman, Daisy, at the receiving end. She is beaten to a pulp, while handcuffed, seemingly for laughs.

Tarantino's love of provocation is known, but it's also accepted that his brand of violence manifests itself in too cartoonish a fashion to be taken seriously. Daisy's agony feels real, however. It sparks questions, about why there would not be a controversy at all if she were a man, and so on.

This tale of carnage in a cabin might not have the ambition of Inglorious Basterds (2009) or the scale of Django Unchained, but it remains a compact delight, packing plenty of suspense and surprises into its modest dimensions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Spotlight on hidden horrors'. Print Edition | Subscribe