ArtsWatch goes to the movies

The light dawns on Kevin Spacey in "Margin Call."

Editor’s Note: You may know that I post every Monday on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts & Life page, a series we call “Weekend Wrap.” I’m never sure what to do with that post here at Oregon ArtsWatch, because most of the time I’m simply referring to shows and concerts that I write about here, often at far greater length. This week, though, I wrote about three movies, and I doubt that I’ll ever deal with them here. So I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting part of that post.

I used to see more contemporary movies than I do now. Lots more. And during the 1990s, I even served a couple of stints as The Oregonian’s movie critic, when the paper was “between” critics.That may sound like a dream job, but once you’ve seen 10 movies in a week, and still have seven of them circling around your noggin waiting to land — in the form of a review — the charm wears off fast. Usually, we go to movies that we think we’re going to like, right?  Movie critics set their jaws and bravely charge into dark theaters showing movies they know they’re going to hate, even though they can’t (or shouldn’t) admit it to themselves.

Now, my movie-going is sporadic (I still see lots of movies on TV, one way or another), but as I type this, I have three of the little devils in my head from this weekend: “Margin Call,” “Moneyball” and “The Guard.”
“Moneyball”: See? Just about everyone who is going to pay movie palace dollars to see the movie version of Michael Lewis’s book extolling the virtues of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane must have seen it by this point. I was late to the party, even though I’m a baseball fan and know the story really well. I’m really glad I went, though I tend to hate biopics — the movie is well written, well-acted and has real baseball scenes seamlessly integrated into the action.

Beane (the real one) changed the way baseball teams evaluated players, which meant for a short time, he was able to locate “market inefficiencies” — players who were able to contribute to a winning team even though they were available for peanuts because their skills weren’t valued highly enough or because they didn’t look like the prototypical baseball player for some reason. Beane was so successful at leveraging the tiny payroll of the Oakland A’s into victories that pretty soon, just about every team changed its approach, hiring “sabermetricians” to create and parse reams of new stats so they could evaluate players as well as Beane could.

This sounds like a boring movie. Fortunately for Columbia Pictures, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (the film went through two previous versions, so I’m not sure what’s Sorkin’s and what’s not) and director Bennett Miller leave most of the math out and focus on the drama inherent in a company when its manager decides to start doing things completely different, upsetting the rules of a very conservative business and bushwhacking new territory n the process.

That’s exciting, in a quiet way, and to his credit, Brad Pitt as Beane keeps it “small” and intense, revealing the stress of change in a variety of subtle (and a few not-so-subtle) ways. Pitt has developed a nice dry sense of screen humor. I wouldn’t call him a comic genius or anything: It’s more a complementary humor, not the main event. (He’s fine in the “Ocean’s 11, 12, whatever” movies, for example.) And that helps make “Moneyball” more watchable for non-baseball fans, along with the more centrally comic Jonah Hill (a composite character), whom Beane plucks from anonymity in Cleveland and brings to Oakland to help him plot a new direction.

Hill, who with his schlub-like dead-pan couldn’t look less like a baseball guy, plots the graphs, and Beane sticks to the plan. And there’s a little family drama involved — Beane is divorced but a very involved dad to his 13-year-old daughter. The success of his experiment of the A’s will make it possible for him to continue working in Oakland, and failure may mean he’ll have to leave. But then, of course, there’s the remote possibility of wild success…

“Margin Call”: OK, I’m a sucker for work place movies and plays, especially when Kevin Spacey’s involved. I thought he was terrific in “Hurlyburly” (which is about Hollywood “types,” though technically not a “work place” play/movie) and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and I figured he’d play the same slick, amoral type in “Margin Call.” But, goodness gracious, I’ve gotten so much older since those movies came out, and so has Spacey, who now is heavier and more complicated than he was back then.

“Margin Call” tracks a day in the life of an investment firm that resembles Lehman Brothers, the day, in fact, when it became clear that all those toxic real estate assets they’d been bundling, selling and buying really were toxic. Oops. You know those big salaries, fancy cars and strip clubs? Kiss those babies good-bye.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor hasn’t made a satire here, though. He’s serious, and so is “Margin Call.” When a company hits the rocks, Chandor asks, how do its employees react? How principles do they stand by? Does anything faintly resembling ethics figure in, business or personal? Is there at least some teeth-gnashing over what’s happened, beyond the personal loss of money?

Spacey gets that there’s a moral dimension involved, based in the pragmatics of business, as he supervises the sell-off of assets he knows are nearly worthless. He worries about it, warns the Big Boss (Jeremy Irons, who makes a great corporate master of the universe, so sinister!), worries about it, arm wrestles with his immediate supervisor (Simon Baker, “The Mentalist”) and then worries about it some more, as he and his sales staff unload a lot of desert lots in Arizona to other, unwitting investment firms. Why does he go through with it? “Not because of your little speech,” he tells Irons. “I need the money.” Perfect!

At the heart of “Margin Call” are a couple of observations we would be wise to test ourselves. The first is simply that the bubble that burst in 2008 was filled with the gas of our very human desire to live beyond our means, gas that permeates our financial “system,” namely, credit based on assets that aren’t intrinsically worth very much. The second is the Wall Street excuse, embedded in Irons’ speech: The investment banks were simply middle men moving that gas around until the inevitable bursting of the bubble. “Margin Call” doesn’t muster much of an attack on that particular proposition, but it’s difficult to leave the film without beginning one yourself.

Dark, quietly nerve-wracking, “Margin Call” is really quite gripping, and the acting is pretty great, starting with Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto, and making its way to Irons, Baker and Spacey, who is sublime as usual. Demi Moore makes a solid appearance, too, though this is even more a dudes’ movie than “Moneyball.”

“The Guard”: Another Sundance movie like “Margin Call,” “The Guard” is the most successful box office attraction in the history of independent Irish moviemaking, replacing “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” at the top. It’s a little on the formulaic side: The American expert arrives at a foreign port thinking he knows it all and gets an education from the locals he misjudges, and develops a grudging respect, even affection, for them, once they’ve all been through a bit of turmoil together.

In this case the American is an FBI agent played by Don Cheadle (one of my favorites), the foreigners are the Irish as found in Connemara, and the turmoil is a big drug deal, greased by the corruption of the Irish police. Except for one Sergeant Gerry Boyle, of course, played with great charm and comedic timing by Brendan Gleeson (best known as Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody in the Harry Potter movies, though his career is full of good performances).

“The Guard” is a little movie, full of charming bits, endearing characters, strange little plot twists and villains that are definitely on the comic side, though they meet dire ends. It’s sentimental, silly, touching, bawdy, slapstick-y and good-hearted. It’s performances are fun, no one but Gleeson, who’s on camera almost the entire film, works up much of a sweat, Cheadle is underemployed but what the heck, and it’s easy to see why audiences, especially Irish audiences, like it. I liked it, too.

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