With a couple of superb new indies making well-deserved waves, Matt Brennan’s “Now and Then” column pulls extra duty this week by taking on two double features for the price of one: Margin Call vs. Wall Street, and Weekend vs. Before Sunset. Trailers below:
At the heart of Margin Call, JC Chandor’s thrilling look inside a fictional Wall St. firm on the eve of 2008’s global financial meltdown, is an 11-minute board meeting that puts most action movies to shame. Framed as a series of verbal pas de deux between the company’s philosopher-king CEO (Jeremy Irons) and the employees who’ve discovered that the emperor has no clothes, it moves fleetly from exposition to ruthless calculation, and encompasses in the process all of the decisions that led to the mess we’re in today. This is exciting stuff, a microcosm of a film that refuses to see the “1%” as a bunch of faceless cogs. Instead, these are people who made choices at every turn, including the choice to wreck the world economy for their own material gain.
Every conceivable point of view comes across: the greenhorn analyst who discovers the assets are worthless (Zachary Quinto); the veteran trader with trepidations about the dirty work he’ll be called on to perform (Kevin Spacey, understated and affecting); and the ruthless executives who knew the instruments were faulty and proceeded anyway (Simon Baker and a note-perfect Demi Moore). But in the end all are subordinated to Irons’ helmsman---in a performance that is mannered but captivating — and his calm internal logic: periodic panics are one of the rules of the game. Irons has the assured insanity of Lear, raging against the storm. Like Lear, he created this storm; unlike Shakespeare’s king, he’ll get off scot-free.
If Margin Call implies that capitalism is systematically designed for predators, Wall Street (1987), Oliver Stone’s tale of Reagan-era excess, seems almost quaint in its reliance on the “a few bad apples” trope. Most worrying, the binary it sets up between the work ethic of union laborer Carl Fox (Martin Sheen) and the amoral money-grubbing of corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is woefully simplistic. But I can’t hold Stone to account for that: like most of the rest of us, he could not have predicted that the 1980s’ wicked party of deregulation, tech savvy, and greed would leave us with such a hangover. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t end up matching its message: the sharp satire of the film’s iconic line (“Greed, in a manner of speaking, is good”) is blunted by Douglas’ ample charm and warm humor. Where Wall Street papers over, Margin Call cuts to the quick. Lately I’m more in the mood for blood.
Romance can be bloodsport, too, at least as revealing of our human foibles as Wall Street shenanigans. But Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004), an 80-minute conversation that winds through Paris streets and the protagonists’ complicated pasts, stumbles on the gentle glow revealed when misdirection and self-protection fall away. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) spent a night together nine years prior (in the delicious Before Sunrise) and made a pact to meet again exactly one year later. What happened, or didn’t happen, is unimportant; what matters is how Hawke, haggard and gray, regains his youthful suavity; how Delpy dispenses with shyness in favor of a startling vulnerability; and how the conversation develops into an intimacy at once sweet and full of regret. Watch her sing him a waltz, and watch him watching her: you’ll be swept away.
Sometimes the best part of being a film critic is seeing a great, small movie and shamelessly promoting it. If I had been writing criticism back then, Before Sunset might well have fit this mold, so it’s probably unsurprising to hear that I can’t stop talking about director Andrew Haigh’s precise, affecting, and breathlessly romantic film Weekend. It knocked me flat. (Here's TOH's interview with writer-director Haigh.)
It would be reductive to say that Weekend is about two young gay men in Nottingham, England who spend a weekend falling for each other, because its real achievement is to create the atmosphere of a faded color photograph — all soft, rosy light and dimming color, as though it’s being made a memory as it happens. Actors Tom Cullen and Chris New vibe effortlessly, so that even the film’s most delicate moments have an erotic charge. From a sidelong glance in a subway car to the two-step of flirtation, it nails the details. Even the film’s one seemingly false note, a taped interview the morning after their first encounter, comes back with a mighty payoff. Weekend is one of the best movies of the year, and certainly the best romance, because — like an old photo or a sense-memory — it captures with acute feeling the grasping, awkward, painful, unnerving wonder of coming to realize “this is love.” And love it I did.
[Weekend photo and trailer courtesy of The Film Collaborative; Margin Call photo and trailer courtesy of Roadside Attractions; Before Sunset trailer via joegreentea/YouTube; Wall Street trailer via C64b/YouTube]