At The Movies

Movies that come in pairs

Margin Call & In Time

A few weeks ago I reviewed two movies about diseases, “Contagion” and “Life, Above All,” and noted that the drama about AIDS in South Africa was scarier than the fictitious account of an epidemic hitting closer to home. I ended that comparison with the observation that “some people don’t need to imagine their nightmares.”
The same seems true again with “Margin Call” and “In Time.”  

The former is based on the beginnings of the recent collapse of the financial sector. It’s set over a 24-hour period in a single firm as they first come to realize the enormity of the potential losses associated with the trade in mortgage-backed securities. There isn’t a great deal of time spent describing the developments in the catastrophe, as the assumption is that the audience is already quite familiar with both the problem and its outcome.

“Margin Call” starts with a scene familiar from two recent films, “Up in the Air” and “The Company Men,” as a significant number of employees are suddenly fired by the folks who are brought in for that reason and that reason alone. However, unbeknownst to those higher up the expensive food chain, one of them (Stanley Tucci) has stumbled onto the risky investments. His work is continued by a young analyst (Zachary Quinto), formerly under his supervision, who then calls in assorted others, after hours, to share the doom and gloom.

At that point, it becomes somewhat like a ‘Glengarry Glen Wall Street’ drama of much talking about the way business is conducted and the financial world operated, as levels of senior management are appraised of the problem. Of note along the way is the fact that multiple characters are shown to not even understand the nature of the investments that were made, or the analysis related to them. If you don’t fully get what mortgage backed securities are, don’t worry. The implication is that neither do the folks who screwed them up in the first place.

What we get instead is a reaction that is as ruthless as the attitude that caused the problem, as the solution becomes one of minimizing exposure and getting ahead of the curve, at whatever expense is passed onto colleagues, clients, and the rest of us. We’re never given any indication that the decision-makers involved wouldn’t do it all over again the same way if the situation repeated itself – on an individual level they made money on the way up, and made money again losing other people’s money on the way down.

“In Time” is a look at a future in which people have been bio-engineered to stop aging at 25, with the ability to live beyond 26 being something that is bought and sold through the currency of the day: Time. People pay for things in time, are paid in time, and can transfer time from one person to another to reduce or extend life expectancy. In this world, the poor literally work for a day to earn enough time to work again the next day, while the rich store up enough time to live for thousands of years in decadence.  

At its heart, it’s an allegory of the financial system and the disparity between economic classes. Justin Timberlake plays a 28-year-old factory worker who gets to see how the other half lives after a wealthy man, tired with immortality, gifts him 116 years of time before “timing out.”  

There are aspects of the film that are appealing, including the simple chase and adventure, but it also manages to undercut itself. Initially, we’re given the impression that people carry all of their time-based wealth in clocks on their forearms. Which, along with the ability to transfer time, makes them vulnerable to attacks, theft, and murder and in need of personal security forces. Think of our world without banks or any way to stockpile money – a world in which we each carry all of our wealth. That was interesting until being shown devices that can store time, be transported, and stored in vaults – which suddenly seems ordinary, as time looks more and more like money.

The film also undertakes a neat and blatant sidestepping of the question of how society changed so dramatically, by simply having the lead character tell us via an introductory voiceover that it doesn’t matter. Apparently it also didn’t matter enough to explain to us why, in the distant future, the cars all come from the distant past – indeed, the cars seem even more immortal than the majority of the people.

So we’re left with two films, one of which asks the question “how bad could things be?” and one which shows us just how bad things already have been, are, and most likely will be again. The callousness of the perpetually young and obscenely wealthy Vincent Kartheiser in “In Time” ends up being far less perturbing than the more chronologically gifted and equally wealthy Jeremy Irons in “Margin Call,” because the latter isn’t shrouded in a fictional landscape. Not only does he exist in our world, but there are a bunch of him and no shortage of replacements. The people may not be immortal, but the attitude is.

Moviebriefs that also come in pairs

The Three Musketeers & Puss in Boots

“The Three Musketeers” is swashbuckling crap of the highest magnitude. The dialog is awful, the acting is flat, and the one-dimensional characters can be seen in your choice of two or three redundantly projected dimensions. It turns the classic story into a comic book adventure set in a steampunk world of flying galleons and the kinds of booby-trapped vaults that appeal to nobody outside of the art department. By about 20 minutes into the movie, I was suffering from motion sickness from the constant eye-roll-inducing action scenes and had witnessed D’Artagnan’s father, played by an English actor, attempt to appear more French by faking an American accent. It went downhill from there.

With fewer buckles to swash, the animated “Puss in Boots” (a spinoff from the “Shrek” franchise) fares somewhat better, despite being a little dull. It attempts to tell the back story of Puss, but it quickly manages to lose what seems like a fairly neat and unique premise of a boot-wearing cat by introducing another character that happens to be, you guessed it, another boot-wearing cat. The art of animating cat characteristics was far better done in last year’s “How to Train Your Dragon,” in which the lead dragon has mannerisms that will be better appreciated by any cat caregiver. The best thing the film has going for it is an uninterrupted window of opportunity over a three-week period with no similarly positioned films targeted towards small children. It’s not so much harmless fun as just harmless – but either way it’s well timed.

Directed by Mateo Gil
It’s generally thought that Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid were killed in 1908, following a payroll heist in Bolivia. However, no compelling evidence has been found to prove their deaths or the identities of any bodies. Multiple anecdotes suggest they lived past that date, with most pertaining to Cassidy’s continued life and return to the U.S.  
“Blackthorn” is a story based on conjecture as to what might have been if Cassidy (or Robert LeRoy Parker) had continued to live in Bolivia. Here the older Cassidy, going by the name of James Blackthorn and making a living breeding horses, is played wonderfully by Sam Shepard. But he still wants to go home and is set to return when he finds himself, unexpectedly, caught up in another robbery and grueling cross-country ch
ase that mimics his own past.  

It’s an intriguing character study and a western somewhat like the grander “Unforgiven” that follows an older, ex-gunfighter on a last adventure that also offers a chance at some degree of redemption. It’s also a beautiful glimpse at the varied landscapes of Bolivia.

Directed by Craig Brewer
OK – the big question surrounding “Footloose” is whether it lives up to the original and will it grossly offend those who are outraged that it’s even been remade? The answer is essentially a double no – it’s not as memorable, but it’s also not bad. The story is the same conflict between over-protective elders and a ban on public dancing, and the younger members of the community who can’t hear a beat without their feet taking on a life of their own. Kenny Wormald does a decent job in the central role, as the new kid in town who can’t believe the world he finds himself in. And he can certainly dance, with one of the best “angry dance” scenes since “Billy Elliot.” But, if the original had never existed, it’s hard to believe this retread would come to have the same iconic status or be likely to spawn its own remakes. It’s fun but it’s also a little lacking in wattage, like a feature-length episode of ‘dancing without the stars.’

Brighton Rock
Directed by Rowan Joffe
This is a dark movie that never lets up in its tale of a small-time hoodlum in 1960’s Brighton, England, against a backdrop of the youth violence between mods and rockers. Pinkie’s father-figure and gang leader is killed, upsetting the balance of power both within the group and in relation to a larger, rival organization. Sensing opportunity, Pinkie attempts to manipulate those around him, including Rose, a young tearoom waitress who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elevated by neat supporting performances from Helen Mirren and John Hurt (and a relatively rare opportunity to see Golum’s Andy Serkis in a live-action role), this adaptation of the classic novel remains compelling despite the relentlessly amoral actions of Pinkie and his associates. It’s essentially a character study of a psychopath no longer bounded by the guidance of his mentor. While uncomfortable for some, it’s an intriguing descent into the darker depths of a human nature unhindered by remorse.

Machine Gun Preacher
Directed by Marc Forster
“Machine Gun Preacher” is based on the true story of Sam Childers, an ex-con with a background in violent crime and drug abuse, who found religion and built a church and orphanage in war-ravaged Sudan. It’s an intriguing story that suffers by feeling like it’s probably less interesting than a documentary might be – a feeling that’s reinforced by the snapshots of the real Childers that are screened over the end credits. It’s also likely to be uncomfortably preachy for those who don’t share the same faith, even if the accomplishments themselves might be of interest. That said, it does do a good job of reminding viewers of the scale and nature of real danger and brutality (rape, murder, and the forced recruitment of child soldiers), as compared to “first world problems,” such as his daughter’s disappointment over not having a rented limousine for her school dance. But I wish I had stumbled upon a Biography Channel special rather than what ends up feeling like an abruptly halted, half-story.

What’s Your Number?
Directed by Mark Mylod
Funnier than I had expected, “What’s Your Number?” is centered around a young woman (Anna Faris) who is alarmed after reading a magazine article that makes her realize that she has had far more boyfriends than average. In trying not to increase that number, she attempts to revisit old relationships, in search of more potential than she originally saw. This sets up some amusing and pleasantly brief encounters with a broad array of characters including, for example, an English ex-boyfriend around whom she fakes an English accent. It’s also worth noting that while her accent varies from moment to moment, that’s both intentional and funny – whereas Anne Hathaway’s wandering accent in the recent “One Day” was neither. There’s virtually nothing surprising here, but it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

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