Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Immortals


It was a nice warm day in Los Angeles yesterday, so I did something not unusual on a day off from work.

I took a book over to the Century City shopping center, sat outside reading in the sun, then ducked into the movie theater for a show.

The book was a brand new translation of The Iliad by Stephen Mitchell. It places an emphasis on accessibility and flow rather than strict fidelity to sources that are questionable anyway.

As a consequence, it’s a delight to read.

My pulse actually pounded as I read of Achilles’ fateful split with Agamemnon, Odysseus’ repeated demonstrations that he is a clever bastard, and Hector’s gradual approach toward a climactic fight with an adversary he simply can not overcome.

Then it was time to see the movie: Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh, the heavy-on-visuals auteur behind The Cell and The Fall, as well as some lavish music videos and commercials. He’s about a third of a Kubrick, which means he has a better eye for visuals than almost anyone else out there right now.

The writers are a couple of newbies, a pair of Greek brothers who refashioned old myths into cinematic shape.

So how do they stack up against Homer?

Um, not too well.


Henry Cavill plays Theseus, a handsome but stupid peasant who spends much of his time chopping wood shirtless. He’s a favorite of Zeus on account of his tremendous courage, though how that courage has been demonstrated chopping wood is unclear.

Our story gets rolling when the dastardly King Hyperion rolls into town with an army of Cretans, intent on getting his hands on the Bow of Epirus, a magical weapon capable of freeing the ultra-powerful Titans, who are caged beneath the earth after losing a prehistoric battle against the Olympian gods.

Because naturally a magic bow is what you want to free people from a magic prison.

Don’t you know anything?

The only person who can stop Hyperion – played by a satisfactorily growling Mickey Rourke – is the wood chopper himself, Theseus. First, Theseus tries to keep the bow hidden from Hyperion by escaping with Freida Pinto’s oracular Phaedra, the only person who knows where the bow is.

Failing this, he tries to run off with the bow himself, but he gets knocked on the head by one of Hyperion’s soldiers, and Hyperion gets the bow instead.

So Theseus runs to the walled palace where the nefarious Titans are housed and organizes a defense against the approaching Cretans.

This defense doesn’t work too well – maybe because Theseus’ rousing speech to the defenders was so cliché-ridden – so Hyperion gets to fire off a magic arrow at the magic prison, and voila, Titans are running around.

The movie climaxes in a predictable and drab action finale, wherein the Olympian gods take on the Titans while Theseus tracks down Hyperion to engage him in fisticuffs.

Immortals has its visual treats, but whenever the movie slowed down for a dialogue scene between two characters, I slipped into the lighted hallway to read a couple pages of The Iliad. I kept an ear on the movie’s dialogue, just to make sure I didn’t miss any plot points (I didn’t), but there’s not a single memorable line – or action, for that matter – in the entirety of the film.

By contrast, everything that happens in The Iliad seems monumentally important, driving toward a fated climax that encapsulates the grandeur and sadness of the human condition itself.

For all her beauty, Helen is doomed to unhappiness. For all Hector’s nobility, he is doomed to die. For all Odysseus’ smarts, he is slated for a long, long trip home.

Great stories like this are so unthinkably difficult to compose that we still retranslate epic poems that are three thousand years old. We do so because great stories are just that awesome, and there are never enough of them to go around.

And Immortals certainly isn’t adding to their number.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 28/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 24/100

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hugo

A setting can be an enormous boon to a story. It can also swallow it whole.

Recently I criticized the movie In Time for not fleshing out its setting enough. I couldn't buy into the reality of the movie, so I couldn't enjoy the story.

The new Martin Scorcese-directed, family film Hugo has the opposite problem. It is so in love with its environment that it utterly derails the protagonist's narrative in order to explore the private lives of secondary characters with insane amounts of depth.

As a consequence, the movie feels episodic to the point that it's almost an anthology of unrelated tales, all of which happen to take place at a bustling train station slash shopping plaza in Paris in the 1930's.

At first we're led to believe the central character is Hugo, a pre-teen street urchin who lives inside the station's clock. Hugo is trying to repair a clockwork person, an automaton, who is Hugo's last remaining link to his father, a clockmaker who died in a museum fire.


Hugo keeps body and soul together by stealing food, which he must do while avoiding the cruel station inspector and his agressive german shepherd.

The station inspector is in love with a pretty florist, by the way, who lost a brother in World War One, but he's self-conscious about his gimpy left leg, a wound also acquired in the War -- whoops, whoops, I'm losing the thread here. Sorry.

Anyway, one day Hugo runs afoul of toy store owner Ben Kingsley, who steals the notebook which contains all of Hugo's mechanical sketchings. This leads Hugo to go to Kingsley's house, where he meets Kingsley's goddaughter Isabelle, a friendly girl who pledges to help Hugo recover his notebook.

Isabelle is a cheerful girl, but kind of lonely. All her friends are books, really, and she spends so much time at the bookstore she's on familiar terms with the owner, Monsieur Labisse, who -- whoops, off track again. My bad! Back to the main story.

Hugo and Isabelle discover, by sheer chance, that a key on a chain given to Isabelle by her godmother fits neatly into a lock on the automaton, which triggers the automaton to make a drawing, which leads Hugo and Isabelle to uncover the fact that the Ben Kingsley character was a prolific cinematographer in his younger days.

Kingsley is a bitter old coot at this point, but only because he'd rather be making movies than selling toys.

And... and... and...

...and the rest of the movie is pretty much about Ben Kingsley.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, wait a second, what about that notebook Hugo was after? Did he ever recover that? Did it make any difference to the plot? The answers, in order, are 1) What about it? 2) No, and 3) No.

Nothing really matters to the plot in Hugo because everything is carefully contrived to reveal character backstory. It's the backstory that matters to Scorcese, overrated screenwriter John Logan, and perhaps author Brian Selznick. (I can't be sure. I haven't read the novel.)

What's missing, unfortunately, is frontstory.

The things that happen in the here and now of Hugo are mostly irrelevant and always meandering.

The movie is rendered entirely in 3D computer graphics, which are now so convincing I almost remember the movie as live action. This raises the curious question that if CGI starts to look identical to live action -- if computerized Ben Kingsley looks just like real Ben Kingsley -- then why not just shoot the thing AS live action?

I'm not sure. And I'm not sure why the movie loses interest in the quest of its main character so completely that it devotes itself to alternate characters like Kingsley and the station inspector.

But it does.

Unfortunately, Hugo is all setting, and, in the end, only setting.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 18/200

How Much I Enjoyed: 22/100

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1

So I've got a theory on why there are so many Twilight haters out there.

(Obviously you'll want to stop whatever you're doing immediately.)

My theory is this:

The Twilight stories deal with adolescence. They are one big metaphor for sexual awakening. They begin when Bella Swan enters Forks, Washington; a symbolic passage into a "foreign land" which is the opposite of her old home. Whereas Arizona was sunny, happy and dry, Forks WA is wet, gloomy and overcast. Welcome to adolescence, Bella!

Bella soon meets a handsome guy who, now that we're freshly adolescent, is practically a different species altogether. Very attractive, but also somewhat scary and dangerous.

She falls for him, he falls for her, and we're launched into a series of hugely melodramatic adventures that magnificently capture the emotional experience of being a teenaged girl. All sixteen year-olds are Bella, and they've all got an Edward.

And that's amazing. Huge kudos to Stephenie Meyer, the writer who pulled it off.

This is actually the POINT of literature. To put us in a fictional setting that utterly captures the spirit of our (alas) non-fictional lives.

So why all the haters?

My theory says, it's because of the subject matter, and I don't mean vampires and werewolves. I mean adolescence.

I'm racking my brain trying to come up with a classic novel or movie which deals with adolescence. Not pre-adolescence, there are a billion of those, from E.T. to Harry Potter, and not post-adolescence, which comprises 98% of all stories.

But adolescence itself, in all its awkward, fumbling, pathetic glory.

My theory says that Twilight haters are embarrassed by memories of their own adolescence, and the Twilight stories bring all those memories back. Childhood's fun to revisit, with its uncomplicated friendships and its long summer days, and early adulthood too, with its heady optimism and newfound independence.

But adolescence, with its work-in-progress social skills, brutal high school hierarchy, and emerging sexuality -- also verrry much a work-in-progress -- well, heck, who wants to revisit that?

The haters sure don't. And they hate the fact that the Twilight stories force them to do so. Even if they refuse to read the books or see the movies, it's impossible to avoid all the posters and magazine articles. Wherever you go these days, Edward and Bella are staring back at you.

(I have a corollary theory about all the Kristen Stewart hatred. I think the prospect of being stuck with Stewart for the next forty years, constantly reminded of stupid things said or done when we were seventeen, is too much for some to bear.)

Anyway, that's my theory.

Armed with it, I was looking forward to seeing the penultimate Twilight movie. I had enjoyed the previous three, and when I enjoyed this one, I knew I would have the added satisfaction of demonstrating my calm sense of self-acceptance, and maybe even striking a blow for artistic integrity.

Woo hoo!

Then I saw the movie.



Part One of the filmic version of Book Four in Stephenie Meyer's vampires series simply doesn't work.

And truth be told, I'm not sure why. I probably spent all my intellectual energy thinking about why the overall series does work.

But here are some thoughts:

-The first half of the book, any book really, is all set-ups and exposition, with precious few payoffs. Cutting a book in half and making two movies from it can result in a very limp, overdrawn first movie. See the Harry Potter finale for an example.

-We've sort of wandered off the central metaphor with the plot of this book -- oh, I guess I'd better recount that plot. Here it is:

The first quarter of Part One deals with the wedding of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. The second deals with their romantic honeymoon on an island off the coast of Brazil, during which Bella and Edward have interspecies sex. The third and fourth quarters are preoccupied with Bella's unnatural pregnancy, the imminent battle between vampires and werewolves this pregnancy precipitates, and the birth itself, which practically defines the word "complications."

So if the central metaphor stands for adolescence -- and it does -- you can see how we're dealing with some not-very-adolescent issues all of a sudden.

Compounding this...

-Bella plays a passive role in the story. Things are done to her, not by her, and she has little freedom of action throughout. She's bedridden the whole second half of the movie.

Curiously, Stephenie Meyer was quite cognizant of this, and did something very clever with the book. As soon as Bella gets back from her honeymoon, Meyer shifts the POV over to werewolf and spurned lover, Jacob.

This has a bunch of positive consequences. It puts us in the shoes of someone who gets to run around and confront real adversaries -- his own werewolf clan, intent on killing the woman he loves. It also puts us back on familiar thematic ground. Jacob pines for Bella, but because of apparently insuperable obstacles in the way, he can't be with her. That's adolescence in a nutshell. Good POV shift, Meyer!

But the movie can't do that. It can't have Jacob stand there telling us about things. It has to show them. When it does, Jacob's POV is lost, and (new to the series) director Bill Condon doesn't show much interest in replicating it visually. Jacob, pivotal in the first half of the book, is relegated to minor status in the movie.

Maybe that's why the scene where the werewolf clan convenes to bark at each other was so embarrassing to watch.

Maybe it's also a function of the fact that the superatural elements of the story, once the undercurrent of the fictional world, are now very much in the open. Vampires don't live in the shadows anymore. We live with them. Werewolves don't lurk in the forest. They have staff meetings!

This can work okay in a book, where our imagination can beat any special effects house in the world. But on screen, squabbling werewolves just look silly. And even vampires lose much of their charm when we flip through their CD collection and see what's on their DVR list.

Breaking Dawn -- Part 1 disappoints, but Part 2, due in a year, will feature vampire Bella smashing trees, killing baddies, and getting mistaken for a fashion model.

And that's gotta be an improvement.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 44/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 49/100

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In Time

I felt morally obligated to see this film because it's science fiction, the genre I care about more than any other.

But sheesh.

I really had to make an effort.

Everything about In Time says "don't bother," starting with that lame title.

In Time?

Come on.

At least call the thing Just in Time, which has more heft, better rhythm, and the possibly dubious virtue of punning off the name of its lead, Justin Timberlake.

Yes, I would've been much happier going to see Just in Time.

But there's still that cast. Timberlake is pretty bland and inexperienced to carry a movie on his own -- no shame on him; it's a Herculean task -- Amanda Seyfried shouldn't really be in a movie at all, unless it's an E.T. remake and she's playing E.T., and Olivia Wilde, hotter than a nuclear furnace, still hasn't gotten herself into a decent movie. Does she even read the scripts she gets sent?

This means it's going to be the writer/director who will shoulder the burden of greatness. If [Just] In Time is going to succeed, it'll be because of Andrew Niccol, the man who brought us the forgettable sci-fi thriller Gattaca, and the further lumpen efforts, S1m0ne, The Terminal, and Lord of War.

The man has made a career of mediocrity.

Soooo it's off to the movies!


In Time explores an absurd near future where money has been replaced by time. You don't have dollars in your bank account, you have hours, days and weeks. Rich people have whole centuries. Working man Justin Timberlake -- suspension of disbelief begins now -- has less than a day. This means when he wakes up in the morning, he better show up at work to earn more hours than he spends. Otherwise the glowing digital clock on his forearm will dwindle to zero and he'll keel over dead.

Not content with this much stress in his life, Timberlake throws himself into harm's way helping a well-heeled but dissolute stranger escape the local gang of street toughs from a scrap in a bar.

In gratitude for Timberlake's help, the stranger gives him roughly a hundred years -- all the time he's got -- and then jumps off a bridge. Because he's depressed. Or he read the script and realized he was the catalyst who must provide the inciting incident.

The whole movie plays out like it was written by someone intimately familiar with Hollywood formula, as Niccol surely is, and someone devoted to slavishly following that formula, rather than using it as a springboard for creativity.

So there's a clean break into Act Two when Timberlake takes his bundle of time into the privileged sector of west L.A. -- oops, I mean New Greenwich -- and immediately checks into a ritzy Century City -- oops, I mean New Greenwich again -- hotel.

There he runs across Amanda Seyfried's sheltered heiress, and for reasons I can't determine, goes to the nearest casino and takes on Seyfried's dad in a high-stakes game of poker that will mean death for Timberlake if he loses.

The deck is clumsily stacked in his favor by Niccol, however, so he doesn't lose. (How cool would that have been?) Instead he gets invited to a fancy party in Malibu -- dang it, I mean New Greenwich again -- where he skinnydips with Seyfried and gets confronted by "timekeeper" police detective Cillian Murphy, who accuses Timberlake of having stolen his time from the dead, depressed guy.

You're not going to believe this, but a chase results, and the rest of the movie follows the conventional chase formula. Timberlake and Seyfried turn Bonny and Clyde slash Robin Hood, stealing time from the dastardly rich and redistributing it to the desperate poor.

What's most lame about In Time is not the paper-thin characters, rote plot or gimmicky premise. It's the utter lack of world-building. Beyond the time-for-money substitution, there is absolutely no difference between our world and the In Time world. That's an abdication of the central responsibility of the science fiction writer: to take us somewhere different.

Both Bladerunner and The Matrix took place in a contemporary or near future L.A., just like In Time does, but hoo boy, is there a lot going on behind the scenes in both worlds. One gets the sense there are many stories taking place every day in such imaginary worlds. The one we are watching just happens to be in the foreground.

That's a place worth visiting.

By contrast, In Time transports us nowhere visually, conceptually or thematically.It's just a cheesy crime thriller with a hasty coating of sci-fi varnish.

Which means it's not really sci-fi at all.

I've been had.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 28/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 26/100

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Descendants

Dramatic tension.

It’s the name of the game. The most fundamental building block of drama, more fundamental even than conflict.

Dramatic. Tension.

If the outcome of a scene, subplot, or overall story is uncertain, and if it matters, then we’re hooked. And if it keeps being uncertain, and keeps mattering, we’ll stay hooked. We’ll watch your two-hour movie with unwavering attention.

We may not love it. We may not remember it. But we’ll watch.

And that gives you, the filmmaker, time and opportunity to unspool thoughts on character, setting, theme and whatever else is bouncing around that cranium of yours.

But you’d better bring the dramatic tension.

Sadly, the new George Clooney movie, The Descendants, has not the slightest whiff of dramatic tension anywhere in it.

The story follows a middle-aged father of two who lives in Hawaii, has a wife in a coma, and is debating to whom he should sell his family’s historic – and immensely valuable – stretch of seafront property.

Clooney soon learns his wife will never come out of her coma. The doctors will have to pull the plug on her, so it’s up to Clooney to tell the rest of his extended family and make preparations for the funeral.

This entails bringing back daughter Alexandra from boarding school. Alexandra’s a misbehaving seventeen year-old brat – at first – and she only adds to Clooney’s woes.

But she does the plot a valuable service by revealing an early secret, and plot-driver: Clooney’s wife, it turns out, had been cheating on him.

The movie treats this revelation like it’s the shocker of the century, but in dramatic terms it’s pretty humdrum. After all, we’ve never even met the wife, and from what we can tell of Clooney, his law practice comes first anyway. Who cares if his wife – who is dead now and out of the story – was cheating or not?


Unfortunately, the Clooney character cares. He wants to discover the identity of his dead wife’s secret lover. He spends much of the movie trying to do so, with the help of Alexandra and her dim-witted boyfriend Sid, and with younger daughter Scottie tagging along, oblivious.

The investigation is haphazard and meandering, interrupted frequently with visits to various cousins – which comprise the real estate subplot – visits to his wife’s parents, and other tangents.

Mercifully, the relationship between Clooney and Alexandra thaws, and they become allies in the search for the dead wife’s secret lover. This reduces the annoyance factor of bickering co-leads, but it doesn’t do anything for the overall problem: the lack of urgency and stakes in the plot.

As befits a pointless quest, the discovery of the secret lover is anti-climactic. He’s just a normal doofus, a married real estate agent who happens to have a stake in Clooney’s upcoming land deal.

This makes Clooney rethink selling the land at all. He finds a sudden moral center, and decides that Hawaii itself will be better off if the land is not developed at all. As a cousin tells him, however, all he can do is slow down the sale of the land, not prevent it entirely.

So even that plot has no real consequences.

The Descendants tries hard to be a movie about real life, filled with real characters in real(-ish) situations. The trouble with this, as always, is that real life makes for bad drama. Dramatic authenticity must come from capturing the spirit of everyday life, not the form of it.

Because the form of it really sucks.

And so, ultimately, does The Descendants. Don’t listen to what the critics will say about this movie. They will give it plaudits merely for not having special effects or car chases. But there’s more to artistic achievement than that. You have to have scenes and subplots that are the emotional equivalent of special effects and car chases.

You have to have dramatic tension!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 26/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 24/100

Friday, November 18, 2011

Anonymous

The opening credits announce "a film by Roland Emmerich."

The movie hasn't even started, and already we're in trouble.

Emmerich is the arch-fiend behind such atrocities as Independence Day (many like that movie, but they are criminally insane), The Patriot (worst historical drama ever?), Godzilla and 10,000 B.C.

Emmerich is every bit as bad a filmmaker as Michael Bay, but somehow he avoids the scathing reputation Bay is saddled with. I don't know why.

Anonymous would probably hurt his reputation, if anyone were to see it. But that's unlikely. It was originally slated for a wide release, but once distributor Sony saw the finished movie and spit their coffee all over the theater floor, they quickly scaled back its debut to 250 theaters, with the idea of expanding that number if, by some miracle of God, the movie found traction with critics and/or audiences.

But God was not in a miracle kind of mood. The movie, which cost $30m just to make, let alone market, has grossed less than $5m in its first two weeks.

That makes it a big enough flop to have gotten Emmerich's next project, a massive sci-fi movie called Singularity, put into turnaround.

I bet Emmerich wishes he'd never even heard of the Shakespeare authorship question.


Said question has been bouncing around academic circles for at least a hundred years. It rises from two principal facts. You'll notice both are a little slippery.

Fact One: We don't have any solid evidence Shakespeare did write the plays. The surviving copies are all in someone else's hand. In fact, the only penmanship we have from Shakespeare comes from his will, in which he spells his name three different ways, apparently by accident. Hmmm.

Fact Two: Whoever did write the plays seems to be well-read, well-traveled, comfortable in several languages, and possessed of a keen insight into the psychology of the nobility. All qualities hard to imagine existing in the elementary school dropout and wannabe actor named William Shakespeare.

And that's pretty much it.

However, there's another strongly compelling reason to doubt Shakespeare's true identity, and that reason is: it's fun to doubt Shakespeare's identity. It's fun to debate the evidence, it's fun to speculate about who might have really written the plays, and it's fun to watch certain Shakespeare-loving geeks turn bright red when you say, "There's no way some average schmoe like Shakespeare could have written those plays. Impossible."

Boy, does that drive them crazy.

So Emmerich got pulled into the Shakespeare authorship question because it seemed like a good time, but then he had a very bad thought. Why, he thought, hasn't this idea been turned into a movie?

Uh...

So here's the movie he came up with.

The real author of the plays is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and clandestine lover of Queen Elizabeth. As a youth, de Vere gets separated from his true love by a scheming courtier who wants de Vere to go back to his wife, who happens to be the scheming courtier's daughter.

That's one half of the movie. (We jump back and forth.) It happens when de Vere is in his twenties. The other half takes place when de Vere is in his sixties. It concerns de Vere's attempts to -- okay, brace yourself here -- warn Elizabeth of a palace coup being fomented by the son of the original scheming courtier. The way he does this is by writing genius-level plays and filling them with secret codes that will get Elizabeth's subconscious mind spinning until she realizes her life and crown are in imminent danger.


I know, I know, you've got a million questions, starting with: "Wait a second, why not just TELL Elizabeth her closest advisor is plotting against her? Why go to the trouble of writing the cornerstone of the western literary canon?" There's no convincing answer to this question, nor to all the others that spring up, and get roughly trampled, throughout.

Part of the problem is that we are subjected to a massive array of characters, events, locales and subplots, as often happens when writers have to do historical research. This lack of focus is magnified by the chronological back-and-forth, whose confusion is absurdly amplified by the fact that young Edward de Vere looks nothing like old Edward de Vere.

Thus, a misconceived premise, haphazard structure, unrealized characters, a phony setting, embarrassingly stilted dialogue, and one of the most insultingly shallow lines ever uttered about art, by the man who theoretically wrote Shakespeare's plays -- "All art is political," he says, "otherwise it would be mere decoration" -- which is so offensively off-base I don't want to get into it or I'll start turning bright red myself -- as a result of all this, it's easy to think Emmerich maybe shouldn't have made a movie about Shakespeare at all.

But he did. His name's right there on the credits.

Though he probably wishes it weren't.

That authorship thing cuts both ways.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 18/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 17/100

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Margin Call

Best movie of 2011 so far.

It probably won't win Best Picture, since it's fundamentally about business, instead of a disability, or an historical event, or a disability during an historical event. (The King's Speech was perfectly designed to win that Oscar.)

But it probably should win Best Picture. It's the movie The Social Network was trying to be: a socially relevant exploration of the most impactful phenomenon of our time.

Maybe the problem with The Social Network was that Facebook, despite being really cool and really useful, is simply not the most impactful phenomenon of our time. The 2008 recession is. And that's what Margin Call explores.

Sort of.

By conscious intent, the year is never mentioned, nor is the investment firm at the center of the story ever named. In this way, the movie transcends the current moment. It's not just about the 2008 recession, it's about the 1928 crash, it's about the Panic of 1835, it's about every bust in the history of the boom-and-bust cycle.

And it's about how people handle that transition from boom to bust.

The genius breakthrough of the story -- written and directed by first-timer J.C. Chandor on a very low budget with a bevy of stars working for essentially no pay -- is that the action takes place in a mere twenty-four hours.

Those twenty-four hours begin with a round of layoffs at a major Manhattan firm. The people getting laid off are risk-management executives. Who needs them anyway? One of them is Stanley Tucci, who has been nibbling around the edges of a troubling development in the company's overall portfolio projections.

Before leaving the building, Tucci passes his work via flashdrive to a subordinate who survived the culling, Zachary Quinto, with the admonition to "be careful." This warning sets Quinto's mind spinning. He stays late at work that night, plotting out the ramifications of the projections Tucci had examined, and he comes to a startling conclusion: the global economy is about to crater. And no one knows it yet.

He jumps on the phone to his even-younger colleague Penn Badgely, who is at a nightclub with their new uber-boss Paul Bettany. At Quinto's urgent request, Bettany and Badgely return to the office. Bettany takes one look at Quinto's projections, puts down his bottle of champagne and calls his own boss, Kevin Spacey. It's after midnight now, and Spacey is mourning the death of his beloved dog, but Bettany convinces him to drive all the way back into the city.

Spacey's not happy to do this, but as soon as he sees Quinto's projections, he calls his OWN boss, played by the Mentalist himself, Simon Baker. The Mentalist is a cold, ruthless blue-eyed killer who convenes an immediate conference with all our known players, plus Demi Moore. His primary goal is to determine if Quinto's projections have merit. Once he's satisfied that they do -- he gives Moore forty-five minutes to crunch the numbers -- he calls in HIS boss, a friendly, charming, thoroughly terrifying corporate titan played by Jeremy Irons.

This is called escalating action, and it makes the middle act of Margin Call an awful lot of fun.


Once the entire upper echelon of the investment firm -- plus underlings Quinto and Badgely -- are on the eightieth floor of the darkened skyscraper at two in the morning, an earnest, smart, high-stakes discussion unfolds over what the firm's proper course of action now is.

Brilliantly, the film handles complicated economic concepts without ever delving into jargon -- except for one brief speech from Quinto, which Irons confesses to not understanding. Likewise, it broaches major philosophical questions of the modern world, such as the moral responsibilities of a massive international corporation to the economic environment in which it thrives, and it does so without demonizing or exculpating anyone.

Every character in Margin Call has a different perspective on what is going down, a different view of what it means, and a different idea of what must be done now.

In the end, they all come together to sell a hell of a lot of worthless stock derivatives before everyone else figures out what's happening.

In interviews, auteur Chandor has said he conceived the original idea in 2006, two years before the recession happened. His inspiration was a real estate deal he was involved in. A friend with a godfather in high finance suddenly warned him to sell his stake in the deal.

Chandor wondered what that guy in high finance knew, and he wondered what it felt like to walk around with information no one else had.

"What if" questions like these are often fruitful, and the timing of this one gave Chandor a serious head start over competitors who might also have liked to write a smart script about the onset of the recession. Since it takes roughly five years for a script that's going to get good to get good (most scripts won't be good even after a million years of revision; sadly, you never know which is which till you invest your five years), the earliest we should be seeing good movies about the recession is 2013. And that's the very earliest. But Chandor had his head start and he took full advantage. Good for him.

My only real question about Margin Call is whether the movie will age well. I'm curious if it's still engaging in twenty years, when we're in the midst of the Great Boom of the 2030's.

Because I'm already convinced it's a great film now.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 92/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 93/100