Tag Archives: paul bettany

Margin Call – Review

30 Jun

Many economists believe that the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 is the worst of its kind since the Great Depression. I don’t find that too hard to believe, but I’m just as much an economist as I am Elvis Presley. In 2015, an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ best selling book, The Big Short, was released, and it told the story of how this all happened using a comedic edge to help unravel the proceedings. Before this movie, however, was J.C. Chandor’s debut film from 2011 called Margin Call. Unlike The Big ShortMargin Call tells a fictionalized account surrounding one corporation while also using very little to no humor to tell its story. I’m not faulting The Big Short at all, in fact, I loved that movie. Margin Call is, however, a much sterner look at the inner workings and failures that made this crisis happen while also being an intriguing and intelligent film.

On Wall Street, a company is facing a day of massive layoffs, much to the chagrin of its employees. Amongst these employees looking down the barrel of a loaded corporate gun is Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a junior risk analyst who has the potential to be something even greater. After seeing his boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), get fired, he is given a USB drive by Dale to investigate with the ominous warning to “be careful.” What Peter finds is something that will destroy the company if it is ignored. The calvary is called in which includes the Head of Trading Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), and all the other higher ups until CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) arrives. What’s discovered is that the historical volatility of the company, which measures the risk of investments, is stretched incredibly thin and that if assets decrease by a certain amount, the company will go bankrupt. Thus begins the war of morals that takes places in the boardrooms on Wall Street about wether or not to sell these worthless shares or take the hit and lose a fortune.

One of my biggest fears with movies like this is if I’m going to be able to fully understand what’s going on. I haven’t the slightest idea about the ins and outs of Wall Street and trading and the stock market. Luckily for me, Margin Call had an excellent screenplay that deserves a lot of praise. The way the dialogue is set up and the way the actors are delivering their lines helps make a lot of the more technical stuff clear, but it never feels like I’m being talked down to. There’s scenes where stuff is explained, but it never stops sounding like Wall Street traders are having a discussion. When this movie isn’t in financial mode, it dives deeper into its drama and the characters. This isn’t a robotic film that shows these employees just as money hungry thieves that just so happen to be operating in the gray areas of the law. These characters are written as human beings, for better or for worse, and they’re all very memorable with all their faults and achievements.

One of the first things I noticed about this film is its all star cast of really fantastic actors. Zachary Quinto is one of the main driving forces of the entire plot and he sells his role with ease. Alongside him is the always excellent Kevin Spacey in yet another performance where he just commands the screen. He gives two speeches in this movie and while they are cinematic, they also feel natural. Another standout performance is Jeremy Irons in a role that’s the closest thing this movie has to a villain. There’s something about Irons that makes him the perfect choice to play the most reprehensible people. The way he carries himself in this movie is something I’ve seen before in real life. It’s this uncompromising and in your face smug confidence that contrasts his actual lack of important knowledge and human empathy. Probably my favorite performance in Margin Call goes to Paul Bettany, who like Irons, has a lot of confidence but it wavers ever so slightly as the story progresses until we see the real weakness behind people as rich and powerful as these characters.

While the characters in this movie are all top notch and the performers play them very well, this is also where the movie runs into a fault. In the beginning of the film, Stanley Tucci’s character is introduced, and he’s great. Unfortunately, after this beginning scene he’s not in it again until the end, and when he does finally return he doesn’t get a whole bunch to do except deliver a great monologue. After the monologue, he just falls into place with the rest of the cast. Other than underutilizing Tucci’s character, the balance of the cast and how much they are used is done very well. There’s a lot of people in this movie all with unique characterizations, so seeing them all balanced so well was a relief. It’s not rare to walk out of a movie thinking how unevenly represented all of the characters were. I’m looking at you Free Fire.

To put it simply, Margin Call was an excellent movie. After it was over, I had to really push myself to think of a couple negatives. That being said, it isn’t a perfect movie, but it is one of the most intriguing films about Wall Street and financial crises that can be found out there in the zeitgeist. There’s a great cast performing a really interesting story about a company that’s failing, but it’s also a strong tale of morality and the humanity of the people making these decisions. I say definitely give this movie a watch.

Final Grade: A-

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Dogville (2003) & Manderlay (2005) – review

17 Oct

I can’t stay away from the works of Lars von Trier, the self-proclaimed “greatest film maker in the world” and the “Mad Genius of Denmark.” I could continue with all of the nicknames this eccentric guy has garnered over the years, but I’d like to instead look at two of his films that are supposed to be the first two in a trilogy. The trilogy is called USA: The Land of Opportunity and the two films are Dogville and Manderlay. Now, I knew nothing about these movies, other than they were made by Trier, but what I got out of them were two piece of experimental film that I haven’t quite seen the likes of before.

First, let’s tackle Dogville.

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Somewhere neatly tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, near an abandoned silver mine, is the small town of Dogville. Tom Edison, Jr. (Paul Bettany) is the moralist and philosopher of the town who does his best to teach the people of Dogville the proper way to live. Late one night, Tom hears gunshots and finds Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious woman who has just so happened to stumble onto the hidden little village. It turns out that Grace is on the run from the mob for some unknown reason, and a logical place for her to hide is this is hidden town. It takes a while for the townspeople to agree to let her stay in Dogville, and the only condition that she can is that she does labor for all of the people living there. This works well for a while, but soon the residents of Dogville begin to take advantage of Grace to the point of abuse. What they don’t realize is the dangerous secret the Grace is holding behind her unassuming demeanor.

Let me set the scene for you. I put in my DVD of Dogville, grabbed some food, and set myself up for what I thought was going to be a pretty run of the mill movie watching experience. Let me just reiterate that I had no idea what this movie was going to be like. When I saw what the movie actually was, I thought that I wasn’t going to make it through the entire three hour run time. Basically, the entire thing takes place on a stage with very little set design or props. It’s as minimalist as you could possibly get. As the film progressed, I realized that this is really the only way to tell this story, since Dogville isn’t about the the town itself, but more so the residents. Because of the minimal set, we can see into their houses for some of the most private moments and really learn what their characters are all about. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is one of the most brilliant films that Lars von Trier has ever made.

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Dogville isn’t just about visual flair, though. There’s also a really tricky story filled with memorable acting to back it up. Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany really steal the show as their characters. Supporting actors like Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgård, and James Caan also do great, and let me just say that John Hurt should narrate everything. Sorry Morgan Freeman. As far as the story goes, it’s subtle and effective. It plays out like an interesting character study of the evils that can broil in small towns like this, and the whole thing kind of plays out like some strange experiment in human psychology and morality.

The only thing I really have to add is that Dogville is a fantastic movie watching experience and may be my favorite of all of Lars von Trier’s works.

The sequel, Manderlay, continues Grace’s story not long after the events of Dogville. Even though it’s made in a similar style, my reactions to the film were far from that of its predecessor.

Manderlay_movie_poster

Now on the road with her father (Willem DaFoe), Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the rest of the travelers happen upon an Alabama plantation called Manderlay. What shocks Grace is that this plantation is filled with slaves, even though at this point slavery has been abolished for 70 years. As soon as Grace arrives at the plantation, Mam (Lauren Bacall), the head of the plantation dies and Grace, angered by the idea that there are still slaves, writes a new contract for the people there. The white people living on the plantation become responsible for the hard labor, while the black slaves are allowed to live a more free life. Grace begins to see improvement, but there are many secrets of Manderlay that she doesn’t know.

While Dogville was a subtle film with a strange story that somehow made perfect sense, Manderlay practically bashes you over the head with it’s preachy morality tale. Even though the set remains similar to the first film with its minimalist style, that is just about the only similarity. Bryce Dallas Howard is nowhere near as affective as Nicole Kidman, in fact she just comes off as ignorant and annoying for pretty much the whole movie. The most interesting characters are the former slaves of Manderlay, with some of the most important of those characters played by Danny Glover and Isaach de Bankolé, but sadly their talents are underutilized and Howard’s played up too strong.

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To me, it sort of seemed that Trier didn’t care about Manderlay as much as he did Dogville. While some people may find this idea very upsetting, some of the main themes of these movies are very anti-American. That’s fine with me as long as I don’t feel like I’m getting preached to by someone who thinks they are far superior than us commoners. That’s what watching Manderlay felt like. It’s true that it is still a visually beautiful movie, but that’s all I can really say about it.

While Manderlay is a pretty rotten movie in my opinion, Dogville is a genuinely fantastic piece of experimental drama. The style of these movies take a little bit to get used to, but once you do Dogville is definitely worth your time, if not just to experience a different style of film making. Manderlay, however, can be left well enough alone.