Weekend Viewing Roundup: Margin Call and Another Earth

It’s been almost a month since I’ve last been to the cinema, but it’s customary for January as the new releases don’t interest me. I’m quite surprised to see the raves for The Grey however, Dan over @ FogsMovieReviews gave it a solid A, though Terrence @ The Focus Filmographer wasn’t as enthused about it. In any case, it proves to be quite popular this weekend as it took the number 1 spot with $20 million!

Well, for me it’s a weekend to catch up on recent DVD releases that I’ve been curious about. One of them actually nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. So let’s start with that one, shall we?

MARGIN CALL

Now, this film can be fittingly called ’24’ as the plot takes place over a 24-hour period during the early stages of financial meltdown a few years ago. The story can’t be more timely with the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement that continue to spread all over the country.

The key players work at a nameless investment bank in New York City. It begins with the lay-off of a veteran risk management executive named Eric Dale (the always excellent Stanley Tucci). As he’s escorted out of the building, he hands over a flash drive to his subordinate Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) with a word of caution, ‘be careful.’

If I were Peter, I’d do exactly what he did, which is find out just what the heck is on that drive. The severe reaction written on Peter’s face after he’s done processing the data that Dale started clues us in to just how significant his boss’ warning really is. What this data tells us is that the firm has been sitting on a large pile of liquid assets that are worth less than they ought to, which means the firm will owe far more than what they own, what they’ll do with that predicament not only threatens the markets stability but also triggers financial meltdown.

I’m glad I rented this movie as I don’t think I’d be able to get all the trading jargons here without using subtitles, though I think the filmmaker did a decent job in presenting them in layman’s terms. At the heart of this film isn’t the financial crisis itself, but how each player in question reacts to this given situation. I think writer/director J.C. Chandor is able to capture the moral compass if you will, of the main characters, which is the main strength of this film.

I’m truly impressed by Chandor’s direction and primarily the shrewd script, considering this is his first feature film. He’s also assembled a top notch cast: Oscar winners Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey and nominee Stanley Tucci are all superb in their roles. Spacey is a perfect fit in displaying a range of emotions his character goes through. Irons and Tucci’s screen time is considerably less than Spacey’s but both turn in memorable performance. Irons’ line that’s used as the tagline for this film, “Be first. Be smarter. Or cheat.” is such a chilling reminder just how ruthless and heartless these Wall Street folks are.

The younger cast are equally compelling. Most notably Zachary Quinto (in his signature stolid but sympathetic demeanor) as the rocket scientist (literally) who becomes a trader as the money is too good to pass up, and Paul Bettany as the senior trader who gives us a glimpse of the kind of life these yuppy bankers lead. He tells his colleague on the building rooftops as they’re waiting for the big honcho to arrive just what he spend his $2.5 millions he made in a given year. It’s disheartening to see just how removed these kids are from the real world — they’re so occupied with numbers that sincere connection with fellow human beings has no place in their lives. In fact, money is nothing more than means of pleasure or a measure of worth — Penn Badgley‘s character’s obsession with how much people make is an obvious sign of that.

Margin Call a solid thriller that relies on a clever script and nuanced performances in place of special effects. The fact that this film had a paltry $3 million budget and was shot within 17 days is all the more impressive. I do think it merits the Best Original Screenplay nod, I’m curious to see how it’d fare come Oscar time.

4Reels


ANOTHER EARTH

This is another small-budget film that delivers a sizable impact. What draws me in about this film isn’t the cast but the unique, implausible-yet-thought-provoking plot.

In a single day, the life of the protagonist Rhoda Williams, a bright high school graduate on her way to MIT,  is turned upside down by a tragic accident that kills a woman and child, and leaves the husband/father in a coma.

Though alcohol is certainly a factor as Rhoda just came home from a party, she’s actually distracted by the appearance of a new planet resembling earth that has moved into our solar system. Earth 2 as it’s called, supposedly contain a duplicate version of ourselves and its inhabitants mirror our earthly existence.

The film then jumps to the time when Rhoda leaves prison after serving her four-year sentence. Before long her path crosses to that of the Yale music professor John Burroughs who lost his family that very night. He’s recovered from his coma but understandably his life is never the same again. Clearly having lost his zest for life, his existence now consists of slouching in his sofa watching TV or playing video games. It’s inevitable that these two broken people end up being involved despite the unorthodox circumstances of their connection.

This is a sci-fi film done as a meditative human drama… there’s no CGI or technical mumbo jumbo, so don’t expect to see an extra-terrestrial creature of any kind, it’s just not that kind of sci-fi movie. The central themes are those of atonement and second chances. Reminiscent to the theme of Joe Wright Atonement, guilt-ridden and suicidal Rhoda has been hoping for a way to atone for her sins. By pretending to be a cleaning lady for John, she hopes that one day, that opportunity will finally come. The fact that she likes to clean is also a metaphor for her attempt to ‘clean up her mess’ if you will.

The film not-so-subtly asks the beguiling question of ‘if you get the chance to see yourself as a third person, how would you feel or expect to see?’  It may not offer a satisfactory answer and the ‘whoa’ conclusion is more of a head-scratcher than anything else, but it certainly is an intriguing concept worth exploring.

Like Margin Call, this film also marks the directorial debut of its director Mike Cahill. It’s certainly a worthy first-time effort though his rather barren style is perhaps an acquired taste. The visuals does have a low-budget quality to it but it’s not exactly a detriment, in fact, the simplicity and starkness adds to its indie charm.

Relative newcomer Brit Marling who also co-wrote the script with Cahill, turns in a pretty affecting performance as Rhoda. She is beautiful in an earthly kind of way, her naturally tousled hair almost becomes a character in itself here along with her melancholy gaze. Character actor William Mapother (Tom Cruise’s cousin) is pretty effective in displaying believable transformation from being morose to one who’s full of hope once again. The scene of him playing the solo musical saw to an audience of one is deeply moving. Thanks to SawLady who plays the saw in the soundtrack for sending me a link to this page, it’s definitely a soulful piece of music with a haunting quality about it.

I highly recommend this if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten path feature film. It’s a slow-burn story done in a mind-numbingly quiet way that makes even The Artist seems deafening. But if you can get past its stillness and allegorical quirks, it certainly is worth a watch.

4Reels


So what did you see this weekend, my friends? Any thought on either one of these films, do share them in the comments.