If you haven't yet, please make time to see “Margin Call,” before it slips out of theaters.
This terrific cerebral thriller, anchored by tightly wound performances from Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Penn Badgley and an exceptional Zachary Quinto, takes you inside the boardrooms and the backrooms of Wall Street in the first days of the financial meltdown that shaped our present woes.
That may sound like stuffy, depressing stuff -- and I'll grant you the depressing part. But it’s the human dynamics and moral dilemmas of suddenly discovering that you’re on a rapidly sinking ship that makes for such gripping drama. In writer-director J.C. Chandor's impressive feature debut, he takes us into the heart of darkness and exposes the darkest of hearts.
That “Margin Call” is able to humanize anyone involved in one of the most devastating cases of asset covering this country has seen is a measure of his considerable artistry. You won’t forgive them, but you will understand them -– at least marginally better.
"Inside Job" explained the financial crisis, and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" dramatized it. But if there's a need for a character study about the panic felt by Wall Streeters up and down the food chain in the cataclysmic days of 2008, J.C. Chandor is here at the Sundance Film Festival to fill it.
The writer-director, whose father has worked at Merrill Lynch for nearly 40 years, struggled for years to get an independent feature made before hitting on the idea of writing a drama set during the worst hours of the financial collapse. As the crisis was raging in November 2008, he banged out a draft in less than a week.
The result of that feverish bout of productivity is "Margin Call," a star-laden movie about the night that executives at an unnamed bank realize that the world as they knew it is crumbling around them. (Some have speculated that financial institution in question is Lehman Bros., but the movie's intimation that the bank survived and even profited from the crisis suggests Goldman Sachs.)
The film features a top-level cast that, in order of their places on the corporate totem pole, includes Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker and Jeremy Irons.
Chandor unveiled the movie to members of the media and film industry on Friday morning, and it promptly drew comparisons to David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," which also chronicled would-be alpha males brought low in a collapsing business. While it begins like a thriller, Chandor's movie is more of an exploration of what happens when masters of the universe realize they don't control much of anything at all.
"There are people who, when we were trying to get it made, said it's not a thriller. And I said, you're right, it's not," said Chandor at a Park City, Utah, condo a few hours after after the screening. "The movies like that, 'Wall Street' and some others, have been made. And they did what they needed to do. But that's not what I set out to do."
In fact, as he was seeking backing, studios and financiers pushed Chandor to include scenes like the obligatory man-in-handcuffs. But the filmmaker held fast.
"These aren't criminals. They're [and here Chandor made an anatomical reference]. We want them to be that. These guys are on the sword tip of capitalism," he said.
Even with all the star power, Chandor struggled to get the low-budget film made as independent financiers tightened their wallets in 2009 and 2010. "The irony of it all is that the script wouldn't have been written if not for the recession, and for a long time it couldn't be made because of the recession," he said. More from Chandor later.
The Sundance Film Festival’s "Short Program I" had no shortage of visceral kidney punches and visual shockers for the jam-packed audience at the Library Theater in Park City, Utah, on Thursday night.
Director Ariel Kleiman’s “Deeper Than Yesterday” provoked deep unease depicting the rage that lurks beneath man’s civility –- or at least the simmering hostility manifest in pasty-faced mariners deep beneath the ocean’s surface in a Russian submarine. “The Terrys” (directed by Tim Heidecker and Eric Warheim) presents an extreme slice of White Trash excess (“ice” gets smoked, Zubaz pants are worn, a surprise pregnancy results in a not-quite normal baby). And “The External World” (directed by David O’Reilly) shows us a video game universe where Japanimation characters find themselves in disquieting –- but nonetheless hilarious -- predicaments that play up an almost shockingly complete list of comedic taboos: pedophilia, genocide, spontaneous combustion and gratuitous pooping.
But the short movie that a large contingent of the opening night showing had come specifically to see was “Fight for Your Right Revisited,” directed by an individual named Adam Yauch. That would be the guy better known as MCA from the seminal hip-hop trio the Beastie Boys.
Yauch’s aliases are myriad. He sometimes goes by an alter ego named Nathaniel Hornblower to direct short films and movies such as “Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot” and “Awesome I … Shot That.” And at the Indie movie distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories, he goes by the title chief executive.
Yauch directed the 20-minute movie as a kind of bizarro companion piece to the Beasties’ smash 1986 frat boy anthem “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).” The film follows actors impersonating the group in period-perfect costumes in the denouement to the wild party (where pies are thrown, Spanish Fly is dumped in punch and a TV is famously sledge-hammered) depicted in the video.
But not just any actors. Seth Rogen portrays the Beasties’ Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Elijah Wood embodies Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and a trash-talking Danny McBride channels '80s-era Yauch via four-day growth of beard and sleazy leather jacket.
The trio rob a bodega, spray beer all over passersby on a New York-esque (read: Hollywood movie studio backlot) street and generally raise havoc wherever they go, terrorizing a Who’s Who of movie bigshots in the process: Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Will Arnett among them -- but also Kirsten Dunst, Rashida Jones and Orlando Bloom (wearing a vintage Def Jam jacket in homage to the group's former record label). But the Beastie party mayhem doesn’t stop there. The “Beasties” are picked up by “metal chicks” portrayed by Chloe Sevigny and Maya Rudolph with whom they ingest whippets and drop liquid acid.
EXCLUSIVE: Journalists often turn up in films as supporting characters, but we're rarely the main event (and a good thing, too, given how most of us spend our days). When we do play a central part, it's rarely doing the workaday realities of the job but in more extravagant contexts like crimefighting ("State of Play") or scandal ("Shattered Glass").
A new inspirational drama, though, looks to change that. Stanley Tucci is shopping a movie based on the true story of the vision-impaired sports journalist Ed Lucas. Blinded by an errant line drive while playing baseball at the age of 12, back in 1951, Lucas overcame his handicap to become an award-winning reporter covering the Yankees and the New York baseball scene. (You can see one of his interviews below.)
The script that's being peddled, according to those who've read it, is a biopic with an inspirational undertone; think "The Soloist" meets "Scent of a Woman." The project's writers, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, are well-known practitioners of the dramatic and dramedic arts. They've written "A League of Their Own," "City Slickers," "Parenthood" and other hits that have been stalking you on cable for several decades. They also have a predilection for sports stories; in addition to "League," the pair wrote "Fever Pitch" and "Tooth Fairy."
Tucci would direct and possibly star in the Lucas film (he also has a production company, Olive Prods., that would come on to produce). The project has been circulating to studios and there's no deal in place as yet. But Tucci probably would do better than most at getting difficult material like this set up, since he's an actor pretty much every studio wants. And with "The Blind Side" exceeding all expectations last year, life-affirming sports stories are in demand.
Tucci has been very savvy about his choices in recent years. He's taken on a number of female-oriented dramedies -- "The Devil Wears Prada," "Julie & Julia," the in-development "Mommy & Me" -- that are commercial plays that still give him enough room to strut his acting stuff. He's also mixing in bigger studio pictures ("Captain America") with quirkier material (the current "Easy A," upcoming banking indie "Margin Call").
The actor hasn't had anything approaching a lead part in a major theatrical feature since -- can this be right? -- 1996's "Big Night," another passion project in which he was involved as a director. May be time to make one happen again.
In the last decade, pop divas haven't exactly had the best track record on the silver screen. Sure, there were some solid turns from Beyonce, but she's the exception. Miley Cyrus didn't bowl over critics with her performance in the Nicholas Sparks tear-jerker "The Last Song." Britney Spears made her big-screen debut (and swan song) with the road-trip classic "Crossroads." And before "Precious," Mariah Carey had (gulp) "Glitter" and "Tennessee."
Now it's Christina Aguilera's turn to show her skills, which she attempts to do in "Burlesque," a star-is-born drama out in November from Screen Gems. The singer plays Ali, the prototypical small-town girl with starry eyes who buses herself all the way from Iowa to the Hollywood sign to fulfill her dreams of stardom. She starts waiting tables at a "neo-burlesque" club, run by the world-weary Tess (Cher). Ali tries to convince the lounge's owner that she has what it takes to be a part of the club's act, but Tess and her surly counterpart, Sean (Stanley Tucci), don't think she has the chops.
That is, until she gets on stage and belts out a song like — well, Christina Aguilera.
Judging by the trailer, the film looks like it's overflowing with camp and schmaltz — even if the pairing of Cher and Aguilera seems appealing. The story is basically preposterous, a la "Coyote Ugly": All a girl really wants in life is to wear very little and dance atop a bar! (Or in this case, wear very little and dance in a bar.) And the bits of dialogue we hear here are so hokey that we can't imagine taking the movie seriously.
"You gotta make me believe that you belong on that stage," Cher's character implores her protege. "That it's yours! And that nobody can take it from you. Now you wanna show me something? Show me that!"
She and Tucci do seem to have good chemistry. And one of the many doctors from "Grey's Anatomy" (Eric Dane) serves as a potential love interest, which is a plus, if only for the eye candy. But while we're looking forward to the song-and-dance numbers from Aguilera, her acting looks like it leaves a lot to be desired. She's trying so hard to be innocent as her character pleads with Cher, "Just tell me what you want!"
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