Worth

Feinberg and Wolf meet at the opera

Worth is a film about 9/11 and its aftermath and if you were about on that day and old enough to take in what was going on you might feel there’s little reason to watch it…  The shock was so intense and keenly felt that 2001 still seems so present, no reminder necessary, thanks. There might be political qualms too (the endless War on Terror, the ill-justified war in Iraq). And there might also be the suspicion that Worth is going to be… worthy.

While it’s never going to put all those concerns back in their box, Worth turns out to be an adroit, astute, brilliantly conceived and played procedural drama in the All the President’s Men or Spotlight ballpark, which rather than taking in the full sweep of that day, focuses largely on one man, Ken Feinberg, the lawyer who took on the job of running the fund that was set up in the aftermath of 9/11 to compensate the victims.

Feinberg (Michael Keaton) is a lawyerly guy first glimpsed teaching a class headlined What Is Life Worth (the movie’s original title), and making clear to his students and us that it’s not an easy question to answer once you’ve gone beyond simple loss of life – loss of earnings, dependants, age at death, expected trajectory etc can all make the payout vary massively.

In another bit of swift setup, Feinberg is also in the room when the implications of the government-run compensation scheme mandated by the hastily passed Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act are being discussed. Woth makes clear that this act was designed to prevent airlines from being litigated to the point of bankruptcy, which was on the cards, rather out of some noble desire to compensate the victims – corporate capitalism at its most bare-faced. A dry man but a decent one, the dutiful Feinberg volunteers himself to do the job no one wants, to be the “special master” of the fund, which will tally up what a life is worth – a waitress at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center versus a fireman with the NYPD versus a high-net-worth individual.

The job of the “special master” is to keep the payouts low and resist the lobbying of lawyers representing rich guys. But he’s also allowed to apply his own discretion when a special case presents itself. The story of Worth is the story of Feinberg’s dawning realisation that every case is a special one and that the “formula” he’s using to come up with compensation amounts might lack humanity.

Humanity personified arrives in the shape of the finicky, polite, quiet but resolute Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a man who’s going to push Feinberg off his base of certainty, an opera-lover (like Feinberg) who lost his wife in the attack and who runs the Fix the Fund campaign on the World Wide Web, as we were still calling it then, to campaign against Feinberg and his “formula”.

There are other players, like Tate Donovan as the slippery lawyer lobbying on behalf of the wealthy for an even bigger slice of the pie, and Amy Ryan as Feinberg’s right hand woman, conscience and touchstone in all matters emotional. But really this is about the battle for Feinberg’s soul. Is he a dry, number-crunching government wonk, or a good guy who might have found himself on the wrong team?

Amy Ryan as right hand woman Camille Biros
Amy Ryan as Camille Biros



Max Borenstein has written a ruthlessly structured film that doesn’t give too much screentime to the likes of Donovan and Ryan, even less to Feinberg’s other co-workers, Priya Khundi (Shunori Ramanathan) and Darryl Barnes (Ato Blankson-Wood), and Worth is all the more engrossing for it. It’s Keaton first, as good as you’ve ever seen him, Tucci (another fantastically humane Tucci performance) a long way second, then Ryan… and the rest trail along in the wake adding sprinkles but not disturbing the narrative.

With her feature debut, 2014’s Little Accidents, director Sara Colangelo demonstrated that she was a big talent who could wrestle a multi-stranded procedural drama into being and get great performances out of her actors while doing so. It’s a case of same/same here, though Worth comes with the added sensitivity of the atrocity itself. Sensibly, Colangelo keeps visual references to 9/11 off the screen. What she does keep in our faces, though, are sombre reminders of the paticularity of the tragedy – this claimant has cancer and will soon be joining her dead husband in eternity; this one likes fishing; this one is gay and the relationship he had with his dead partner isn’t recognised by law; this one didn’t realise her dead husband had another secret family. And so on.

Big political points are largely ducked, or they’re put up on screen and left there for the audience to draw its own conclusions. The relationship between money and lobbying and justice in the USA, for instance. This is more about the fight for one man’s soul, rather than the redemption of the US government’s legal justice system. More generously, it also demonstrates that the existing system can yield when it’s administered with a bit of heart. Which will either fill you with a warm glow about the adaptability of the system or make you puke.







© Steve Morrissey 2021









Supernova

Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth in a field


Supernova is an admirably tight drama starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci. It gives us the who and the where immediately – Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci), a long-established couple on holiday in the Lake District in one of those tiny RVs, a Fiat Autotrail, that offer all the creature comforts (cooking, sleeping, sanitation) a crab could want.

There’s a bed (the opening shot of a naked Sam wrapped around Tusker) and there’s banter as the two drive from one location to another, Tusker wheeling out the terrible jokes, Sam groaning in response, the pair of them reacting to the landscape and the songs on the radio as the vehicle snakes along tight roads, while their mongrely spaniel farts in his basket.

The “what” comes a bit later, when Tusker wanders off and an alarmed Sam has to find him. Tusker, it turns out, has been diagnosed with dementia and is liable to suddenly not knowing where he is. This trip together is both a reminder of happier times – they came this way when they first got together all those years ago – and a farewell, to their life together and to Tusker, who is disappearing bit by bit.

There’s barely any fat but a lot of poignancy in writer/director Harry Macqueen’s drama, which has roles so well suited to the actors – the wry humour of Tucci, the solidity of Firth both bubbling up into the characters of Tusker and Sam – that it’s a shock to discover that each man was originally cast in the other’s role. Tucci and Firth had to persuade Macqueen to let them at least try it the other way around. And here we are: it worked.

Stanely Tucci and Colin Firth by a lake
Co-starring the Lake District


Apart from a sequence set in the house where Sam grew up – a suprise party with his sister’s family and friends – it’s pretty much a two-hander, with Tucci having the hardest role. However many ways you think “putting on a brave face” can look, Tucci seems to have found a few more. There’s a sweet scene at the surprise party, where Sam’s sister, Lilly (Pippa Haywood), leans over and talks to Tusker about some new experimental treatment she’s just heard about. Tucci responds with a kindly “everywhere I go I get offered off-grid medical advice” expression. No more need be said.

In the dementia stakes Supernova is probably going to be overshadowed in the short term by The Father, with Oscar-talk buzz about Anthony Hopkins’s performance as the old guy losing his grip etc etc. But here the story is about two people being robbed – one of his identity, the other of the love of his life – and the film it’s closer to is Sarah Polley’s 2006 drama Away from Her, which starred a 66-year-old Julie Christie (Tucci was 60 when this was made) as a woman losing her memories while her husband looked on helplessly.

The austerity and beauty of the Lake District are an excellent backdrop, and the way that sun suddenly breaks through a sheet of grey cloud to turn the landscape into a sparkling thing of wonder is caught evocatively by DP Dick Pope.

Macqueen gives us an analogue of the “intimations of immortality” of Wordsworth – the poet most associated with the Lakes – in Tusker’s fascination with astronomy. We’re all made from dead supernovas, he tells Lilly’s daughter as they stare up into the night sky, in a little exchange also extolling the virtues of retaining a sense of wonder.

A tenderly wrought portrait of love – though there is a spoilerish depth charge for those who worry that “not much happens” – with a distinct movement from the superficially jovial to the more elegaic and mournfully sad, the light (but despairing) to the dark (but accepting). And there, having said what needs to be said and nothing more, it ends.

Supernova – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021






The Devil Wears Prada

Women in black: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt

 

The sort of film that has an inbuilt media audience – women’s magazines – who will receive it with the same lack of scrutiny as they treat each launch of a new beauty product, The Devil Wears Prada is a clever title halfway towards being a clever film. It’s adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna from Lauren Weisberger’s chick-lit novel, and since Weisberger’s spent some time working at American Vogue as editor Anna Wintour’s assistant we don’t have to look too far for its inspiration. Anne Hathaway plays the simpering Weisberger avatar, an intern/newbie at a fashion magazine not unadjacent to Vogue. And Meryl Streep is also clearly styled on the fashion bible’s redoubtable editor, who isn’t nicknamed “Nuclear” Wintour for nothing, a woman whose helmet-haired pronouncements make and break careers both inside the magazine and out in the big designer-y world.

So far, so frightening. Getting the best of it is Emily Blunt, playing the posh English cow who guards the boss (and her own job) like a hound at the gates of hell. Stanley Tucci, meanwhile, puts in another of those amazingly camp performance he seems to be able to pull out of nowhere and provides an otherwise slightly absent beating heart as the magazine’s fashion stylist. The plot? Hathaway cowed, gulled, at bay, crossing fashionista swords with Blunt, shrinking in awe at Streep’s every utterance, consoled by Tucci, rinse and repeat. There’s more meat on a supermodel, but – as with the fashion world – what is on offer looks tasty enough. Structured like a fashion mag, it’s a case of one page of substance followed by ten pages of name-dropping, product placement and status-shaming. In the old-media world these are called advertisements. However, as readers of fashion magazines will tell you, the advertisements are every bit as much part of the experience as the editorial. And in among all this glossy stuff is a nub of something delicious, a drama that teases us about which way it’s going to go. Is this Cinderella (Hathaway blossoming and going to the ball)? Or a slo-mo Faust (Hathaway selling her soul for a gaudy bauble)? Not quite sharp or angry enough to be a satire, it’s clearly aimed at people who know their Jimmy Choo from their Dolce and Gabbana (yes, that’s an easy one) and don’t, unlike me, tend to buy their clothes on eBay.

 

The Devil Wears Prada – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Conspiracy

Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann in Conspiracy

 

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

 

 

20 January

 

 

The Wannsee Conference, 1942

On this day in 1942 a short meeting was held at 56-58 Am Großen Wannsee, in the suburbs of Berlin. It was called by Reinhard Heydrich, boss of the SS, and gathered together the heads of various government departments to facilitate the removal of Jews from Germany and occupied territories, their deportation to Poland and their extermination. It lasted only about 90 minutes and was arranged to put in place the practical measures to ensure that the process ran smoothly, and to make sure that the various government departments cooperated. A secondary concern was to hammer out, once and for all, who was to be considered Jewish and who among the Jews was to be spared (those who simply could not be replaced, was the answer). It was in effect a power-grab by Heydrich, who arrived at the meeting with a sheet of paper on which were written the numbers of Jews estimated to be living in the various countries of Europe. The estimated number was “over 11 million”. The idea was to ship all of them out to Siberia, where they would all work till they died, and those who didn’t die would be killed, on account of their tough constitutions being too valuable to pass on to future generations. Though the entire meeting was couched in euphemism – Jews were to be “evacuated”, survivors of severe work details were to be treated “accordingly” – everyone present knew what was actually being discussed, as testimony from Adolph Eichmann at his trial in Israel in 1962, attests.

 

 

 

Conspiracy (2001, dir: Frank Pierson)

Conspiracy tells the story of the Wannsee Conference, and it tells it largely from a record of the meeting found in Hitler’s Foreign Ministry after the war had ended, which also provided the raw material for the German-Austrian film Die Wannseekonferenz. Kenneth Branagh heads the largely British ensemble cast, playing Reinhard Heydrich, while Stanley Tucci plays Adolf Eichmann, the high-level penpusher who facilitated the transportation of Jews across Europe, made sure t’s were crossed, i’s were dotted and trains ran on time – the “desk murderer” as the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal later called him. Heydrich is pivotal, the cool sinister presence nudging, cajoling, urging the other factotums present into endorsing what they have been summoned to that room to endorse. Disagreements are few, and tend to be of a pedantic or legalistic nature – on the exact definition of what a Jew is, according to 1935s Nuremberg Laws, for instance, which Colin Firth’s Dr Wilhelm Stuckart gets hung up on – rather than the moral awfulness of what they were planning. Heydrich was in effect asking the room to drop the legal pretext for killing Jews and just get on with it. In Branagh’s Heydrich we have not a portrait of evil but of cold efficiency, “the man with the iron heart” as Hitler called him – Branagh later talked about wondering whether Heydrich, if asked to eliminate 11 million tennis players, might not have done it with similar ruthlessness. Beware the civil servants, the managers, in other words. Director Frank Pierson (who had written another largely single-room drama, Dog Day Afternoon, years before) keeps the camera at head level. We’re at the table with Heydrich as he moves the agenda from one item to the next, moving from the less controversial (“immigration”) to the more (“evacuation”) and focusing his frightening intensity on any backsliders he finds as each item is dealt with. We are at the table. It is mass extermination as high-level board meeting, murder as business.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An informative if chilling history lesson
  • The great cast includes David Threlfall and Ian McNeice
  • Fifteen men in a meeting has rarely been less boring
  • The Second World War from an entirely revelatory angle

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Conspiracy – at Amazon