Margin Call

Jeremy Irons in Margin Call

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

6 March

 

Alan Greenspan born, 1926

On this day in 1926, the economist Alan Greenspan was born in New York City. His father was a stockbroker and analyst but Alan initially seemed to be heading towards a career in music, studying clarinet at Juilliard, playing with Woody Herman’s band, before switching to economics. He gained a bachelor’s and a master’s in economics before becoming an analyst, then a consultant. In 1974 he was appointed by President Gerald Ford as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Greenspan was a member of the Group of Thirty (wise men of economics, essentially) in 1984 before becoming chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1987, a position he held until just before his 80th birthday in 2006. Greenspan was a monetarist, a rationalist and a follower of Ayn Rand, but he was first and foremost a numbers man. When the figures didn’t match the theory, it was the theory that was wrong. He admitted in congressional testimony in 2008, after the worst financial collapse since the great depression, that his belief in deregulation had been “shaken”.

 

 

 

Margin Call (2011, dir: JC Chandor)

Director/writer JC Chandor really seemed to come out of nowhere with this debut, a remarkable thriller about the financial collapse – who’d have thought such a thing possible – that boils everything down to one fateful night in one investment bank, where some geeky junior has suddenly realised that the numbers don’t add up and that fiduciary apocalypse beckons. The junior is a junior actor – Zachary Quinto – who spends the film accompanied by his more doltish chum Seth (Penn Badgley) who is there to explain any of the sticky stuff, of which there is remarkably little. The structure of Chandor’s film is remarkably simple – over the course of the night Badgley, Quinto and whoever they have picked up en route, are bussed from one meeting to another, constantly moving up the pecking order, from daily offices to executive suites, the plebeian to the patrician, the outer to the inner sanctum, up, up, up they go. At each level of this glass and steel edifice everyone has to get used to breathing a slightly more rarefied air. And there are a lot of levels. This is a film where all actors concerned seems to understand that what they’re doing is momentous; everyone is pulling out the good stuff. Early on we meet Stanley Tucci, as the lowest level of the big players, the guy who is fired in the opening scenes, shrugs and then goes home. Paul Bettany is the tic-driven, adrenaline-snorting salesman. Kevin Spacey is his superior, the first of the financial big players to make our stand-ins, Quinto and Badgley, a little loose bowelled, and the last who has any humanity (his dog is dying at home) left inside. Demi Moore plays another formidable executive, a woman in a man’s world who wears the glass ceiling almost as jewellery and so is not as frightening as the next guy up the ladder – Simon Baker, a brash street guy done good, a man who drank greed is good with his mother’s milk. We think we’re at the top already but then we go up one more, to meet Jeremy Irons, in the sort of role that Laurence Olivier would once have played, all affability and stiletto, the CEO of this mighty financial empire who has arrived at dawn in a helicopter like a bird of prey. It’s with Irons that the full dastardly logic of self-preservation plays out – he takes decisions that he knows will cause the market to collapse, but they will ensure that his firm will survive. It’s the small guy who is going to suffer, the same small guy who is left out of the reckoning when bonus season comes around. Chandor doesn’t rely on his viewer having even a slender grasp of economics to make this film work – it’s essentially a human drama about minnows awed by sharks. And doesn’t this world of big money look fantastic – the workers reduced to faceless drones while the fixtures and fittings have real character. A perfect film? Nearly. Maybe someday somebody will just tighten up the last third a touch, remove one of the too-many speeches that defend the way money guys do things, so it runs with the same pitiless speed as the first two thirds. Or maybe I’m just nitpicking. In a very short list of great films about money (Greed, Glengarry Glen Ross, Boiler Room, both the 1928 and 1983 L’Argent spring to mind), this is the best film about the 2008 crash, no question.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The arrival of writer/director Chandor, fully formed
  • A great cast on top form
  • A thriller from finance – remarkable
  • John Paino’s formidable production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Margin Call – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Usual Suspects

Pete Postlethwaite, Stephen Baldwin and Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 January

 

 

Pete Postlethwaite dies, 2011

On this day in 2011, aged 64, the actor Pete Postlethwaite died of pancreatic cancer. It had been diagnosed in March 2009. Postlethwaite had already survived cancer once, having been diagnosed of testicular cancer in 1990, which went into remission after he had a testicle removed. An actor simultaneously of great force and nuance, Postlethwaite’s relatively uncommon name marks his family down as having originated in Postlethwaite in Cumbria, England (the name means Postle’s Farm). His relatively uncommon looks – huge bony cheekbones, honest putty nose, angry skin – were matched by his trajectory into acting. He was a drama teacher before becoming a repertory actor at the Liverpool Everyman and only came to film roles relatively late. But once he got noticed – most notably in Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives – he was off. Soon he was playing small parts in the biggest films (Jurassic Park), big parts in smaller films (In the Name of the Father) and anchored British classics such as Brassed Off, or Hollywood experimenta, such as Romeo + Juliet. However he is probably most fiercely, cultishly remembered by lovers of The Usual Suspects, where he brought a touch of mystery to the role of Kobayashi, the right hand man of the even more mysterious Hungarian mobster Keyser Soze. That he managed to stand out in an ensemble of scenery chewers/scene stealers such as Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey probably says all that needs to be said about Postlethwaite’s ability to do the “presence” thing.

 

 

 

The Usual Suspects (1995, dir: Bryan Singer)

The Usual Suspects is one of those generational movies, like Heathers, or Apocalypse Now or The Social Network, that are seized first by people of a certain age, but whose greatness takes a while for others to appreciate. Roger Ebert didn’t like it much when he first saw it. He didn’t like the fact that the film was withholding information, and when it did finally show its hand, he didn’t much like what he saw. Fair enough. But so much of The Usual Suspects is not about what is revealed but in the way it is revealed. And by whom – five villains, five different stories about a hijacking in New York, all of them plausible, kind of. If the acting calls for actors with downbeat faces, or careers, or both, the template is straight from one of those old 1940s film noirs – The Big Sleep, perhaps – which deliberately weave and re-weave a plot until it becomes a mess of tangles. Drop into this the character of Keyser Soze, a man of mystery, a Turkish drugs baron so insanely committed to his trade as a gangster that when his children are kidnapped by rival mobsters, he kills them himself on the way through to get to the bad guys. Then he kills them, their wives, their children and still he isn’t satisfied. Or that, at least, is the story that’s told about him. Soze operates off screen, and the very fact that no two people can even pronounce his name the same suggests he might exist only as a legend, possibly. Is Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), Soze’s attorney, really Soze himself? Might be. But then so could any of the “suspects”. But then so could Chazz Palminteri too, playing one of those hat-brim world-weary detective that the 1940s noirs loved so much. The film was the second collaboration of director Bryan Singer (X-Men, Valkyrie) and writer Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher), two men who understand smart, funny and violent, and the way each can be enhanced by the other. Sure, there’s more than a wave to Quentin Tarantino in there, in the way that The Usual Suspects mixes violence and comedy. It’s in the big “ahaa” reveal, when all is kind of explained, that it becomes clear what a smart movie The Usual Suspects is too.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Singer and McQuarrie’s best work
  • Great ensemble playing by a bunch of actors chosen because they, like the characters they are playing, are on the skids
  • Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings, Drive)
  • To answer the “who is Keyser Soze?” question

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Usual Suspects – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Moon

Sam Rockwell times two in Moon

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

 

13 November

Nasa finds “significant” water on the Moon, 2009

On this day in 2009, Nasa reported that it had found “significant” amounts of water on the Moon. The word “significant” is significant, since scientists had already discovered water on the Moon, but it seemed to be locked in mineral grains – so-called magmatic water, which comes from deep within the Moon’s interior. The 13 November announcement reported the findings of an experiment which crashed a 2,200kg rocket stage, followed by a probe containing a near-infrared spectrometer, into a crater at the Moon’s south pole, where it was hoped ice would be kicked up. This is exactly what happened, but it was the amount of water vapour and ice that scientists saw that surprised them – “a dozen two-gallon buckets”. Anthony Colprete, Nasa’s chief scientist for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission elaborated – “We didn’t just find a little bit; we found a significant amount”. It’s an important find because the water can act as a resource for future astronauts, providing drinking water, breathable air (once it’s been broken down) and the components oxygen and hydrogen – “potent rocket fuel”, as Mike Wargo, Nasa’s chief lunar scientist for exploration systems described it.

 

 

Moon (2009, dir: Duncan Jones)

People these days rarely mention that Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son. When Moon came out Jones, largely an unknown quantity, seemed to be perilously close to treading in dad’s footprints – Bowie’s breakthrough song Space Oddity being all about an isolated spaceman singing about how distant Earth looks and how helpless he feels – “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”. Moon, too, is about an isolated spaceman, played by Sam Rockwell, whose long lonely stint on a moonbase is about to come to an end, so he thinks, when a freak accident wakes from the chiller a Sam clone that the original Sam knew nothing about. But is Original Sam even the original Sam? Into this fascinating, twist-driven plot is added the “character” of Sam’s only companion up there, an affectless computer, voiced with full cognisance of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL by Kevin Spacey – in space no one can hear you sneer. The reason why the “he’s Bowie’s son” mentions stopped very shortly after Moon came out is because it’s so good, achieves so much with so little. Jones had clearly watched the Clooney/Soderbergh Solaris and thought “nah, I could do better than that.” And he has – Moon is a lean and sleek piece of elemental, cerebral sci-fi that wears its 2001 looks on its sleeve. And let’s not forget the often slightly underrated Stockwell, who brilliantly differentiates between the different Sams by offering us different grades of human box-freshness (OK, the beard helps too). Like the film itself, beautifully, elegantly done.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A two-hander sci-fi, one of the hands being just a voice
  • A sci-fi movie loved by sci-fi writers
  • The Bowie-Eno-esque soundtrack by Clint Mansell, formerly of Pop Will Eat Itself
  • Futuristic sci-fi for retro sci-fi fans

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Moon – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

American Beauty

Mena Suvari in American Beauty

 

 

London theatre director Sam Mendes’s debut as a movie director has been treated by some critics as if it were a missive from the gods. Perhaps it was the opening scene which showed Kevin Spacey jerking off in the shower which did it for them – so bold, so adult. The film locks straight in to a long line of suburban dystopian drama and hangs its story off the jowls of Spacey, playing the worm that turned, the comfortable middle-class corporate Joe who chucks it all in for the easy release of drugs and sex after he becomes infatuated with his daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari). His wife, meanwhile, is filling in the odd minutes she has left over from giving too much of herself to her job as a realtor by embarking on an affair. His daughter, also, is up to something she shouldn’t, with the strangely stalkerish boy next door (Wes Bentley). Whatever you think about the film, there is no doubting Spacey’s performance – it is a humdinger. Spacey squeezes the script to bulk out a character who is, on closer examination, one-ply. The other characters, too, verge on the one-dimensional. But are Annette Bening the wife and Thora Birch the daughter deliberately so thin – for some sort of comic effect, or are we watching artless caricature? The settings, dreamily photographed by Conrad Hall, are worryingly familiar too. Depending on inclination, or mood, they might seem necessarily sketchy, to allow the plot to unfold and the drama to take flight. Or on another day completely unrealistic, a fragile chimera only there to be knocked down, in order for the drama to claim some spurious victory – yay, suburbia vanquished! Is it Noh theatre? Or just a case of no drama? That’s, perhaps, the beauty of American Beauty.

© Steve Morrissey 2000

 

American Beauty – at Amazon