Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Case for Corporate Conundrums

Is it possible to make an interesting non-documentary movie of the recent economic crisis when so much of what actually happened appears incomprehensible, even to those who caused it all to happen?  In Margin Call, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and a few other well-known faces give it a go.  And while there are no car chases (though there are some lovely cars) and most of the film takes place in fairly mundane offices, the film manages to convey a tense situation and at least tries to explain what, exactly, happened.

But no one really seems sure.  In explaining the problem “as if to a child”, Quinto’s rocket scientist Peter Sullivan quickly lapses into econojargon that could well have been Klingon (or should that be Vulcan?  Though at least then I presume it would have had to have made sense) though everyone else at the board room table seems to find his explanation sufficient.  

My stab it at is this: traders decided to take a whole bunch of mortgages and lump them all up and sell them to other firms as long term investments that would pay interest and thus bring profit.  How much interest would of course depend on the interest rates that the mortgage repayments were based, and the traders speculated on what those interest payments and therefore profits would be, buying them on the idea of long term gain and selling these lots for huge immediate profits.  That meant that, in the here and now, some companies owned lots of these mortgage investments that had the value of the houses (and, long term, as the houses were paid off by the mortgagees, ought to make money due to the interest on the repayments).  But of course, this was all based on the idea the mortgages would be paid back, but with the sub-prime loan scheme, where people could probably not afford repayments at higher interest rates and could just walk away from the property, that meant that the investment companies could just be left with houses that, while pretty, might not actually sell, meaning that the companies would have a huge amount of homes but not a lot else, least of all money to afford sports cars and high class hookers.  

At least, that is how it all seems to work in my interpretation.  Whatever the actual mechanics, the people running company in the film realise that the bubble can burst, and decide they would rather do that bursting and leave some other company holding the can, or the mortgages.  This sounds a bit paranoid, and it is, and the moral implications of bursting the bubble, selling things now deemed to be worthless, and ruining the careers of those who knowingly sell “worthless” investments to other companies are the questions and decisions that generate all the tension.

Jeremy Irons plays John Tuld, the cold, calculating bad guy at the top, a role he has done before and done so well.  Spacey meanwhile plays Sam Rogers, the morally torn middle man (again, nothing new for him), with Quinto’s Sullivan the open minded up and comer and Moore’s Sarah Robertson the ice queen accountant who fears she will be made the scapegoat.  The main characters are all wonderful, my only real disappointment being the underuse of the awesome Mary McDonnell who appears only near the end of the film as Sam’s wife, with a plastic face and only a few minutes to make a mark.

The film shows the how the collapse happens (and tries its best to explain the way, though I was still a little unsure at the end of it), but then pulls up short of showing exactly what that “collapse” actually means.  There are references to the future, to the implications, but there is no actual follow through.  Perhaps though, that is because this is a film and not a documentary – Margin Call is all about the call, not what happens afterwards.  

One of the hardest things to swallow is that several people during the film claim to have seen “this” coming all along, and that warnings were made, but it seems that the call to action was only made because an underling discovered it all.  It is therefore a bit hard to feel any sympathy or empathy with any of the “higher ups” (though this might be a deliberate act on the part of the screenwriters), and it is also hard to feel much of a rapport with the “lower downs” too, considering they are all meant to represent up and coming greed an ambition.  Still, with all the thesping talent on board, the actors do a sterling job of making documentary-fodder entertaining and gripping, even if, by the end of things, it still is not particularly clear exactly what went wrong – or, more importantly, why anyone had faith in or thought they understood what was happening in the first place.

Verdict: Margin Call is one of those movies that give actors the chance to act and be seen as good citizens informing the public about what went on in the most recent financial crises to hit Wall Street.  The whole cast are on their best behaviour to fill out characters that are sometimes quite cliché (ruthless CEO, young ambitious middle manager shark; high placed woman who might have to fall on her sword) and to make sense out of something that even the most experienced traders and analysts seemed to not understand at all.  And they all do a great job, though personally, I would have liked to have seen more of the “and so what happened next?” to really understand the impacts of what they actually did.  7 cents out evey 10.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Case for Fallen Gods

A warning: while I try not to be a spoiler of these things, some for this movie may pop up.

A wee while ago, there was a film by Ridley Scott called Alien.  It was dark, broody and had a kickarse heroine.  James Cameron came along a few years later and made an explosive, site-nuking sequel.  And what followed has been a whole raft of movies that followed the adventures of Ripley (the merits of which are much debated) and then a few “prequels” that placed the condom-craniumed aliens on earth battling it out with different alien predators.

With Prometheus, Scott has come back to the Alien party, and he has decided to focus on a different aspect of the story: where did the spaceship upon which the alien was originally found come from?  And, 30 years after his original movie, he now has an amazing array of special effects and talented actors and technicians to bring the story together.

And so the film looks incredible.  The ship upon which our intrepid explorers find themselves is less industrial pipes, loose chains and dripping ventilations shafts, as, while we never see a cleaning crew, the shop is spotless, packed with the latest whizz-banging technology (though some of it is for boys only), including an artificial person that no one really seems surprised about.

I have to say that I found that one of the most jarring aspects of the film.  While Prometheus obviously bases itself on the original Alien movie, there are some parts of it that really don’t seem to gel with the world the other films created, and, as a person who enjoys continuity in these sorts of things, I found some of the liberties taken a little hard to swallow.  And then, there are other things that relly just didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Besides the casual acceptance of the android, the fact this exploration of a far off world takes place at all, with no follow up, is the most bizarre continuity issue, especially considering the fairly high profile people aboard.  Similarly, Weyland has yet to merge with Yutani, but company men and women are still calculating capitalist swine aware of the bottom line but apparently not aware that underlings should be sacrificed rather than top brass.  I was also a little surprised when alien holographic security camera footage comes out of nowhere and is highly selective (and fortuitous) in what it shows.  

There are other convenient discoveries and more obvious story developments that likewise left me a little cold.  Speaking of cold, Charlize Theron’s ice queen corporate cow is completely awesome (even if she can only run in straight lines – “turn left!!”), but, like most of the cast, including the awesome Ildris Elba, is mostly wasted.  I am a fan of Michael Fassbender, which is good, as his character David seems to dominate the entire film (more so than Noomi Rapace’s Dr Elizabeth Shaw, whom I believe is meant to be the star of the film) although I was a little unsettled that he played David as a morally ambiguous blond version of Star Trek: the Next Generation’s Data.

I suppose, considering what I brought to the film with me, I was really unable to look at the film with fresh eyes.  I did appreciate the incredible effort and expense in the whole look of the film (thanks Weta!) and the cast, while underutilised, is an incredible assembly of acting talent (was that really Guy Pearce in there?  I am sure he has aged better than that).  However, for me, the expectations of the Aliens universe that I brought with me, and my own natural cynicism when it comes to some of the plot contrivances when considering alien psychology (would they really give directions to a place that they rarely use, akin to some in Wellington asking a pen pal from Australia to meet them to perhaps one day pop along and see them on Christmas Island?) left me feeling a little underwhelmed by the film.  

Prometheus seems more a step back than a step forward, cruising on the laurels of the original Alien movie, upping the number and type of creatures while subtracting a lot of the tension and atmosphere.  I will be interested to read what others think about the film, as it might just be me who was a little underwhelmed by it all, though I did appreciate a lot of what I saw nonetheless.

Verdict: Prometheus came burdened with a lot of expectations, and I had kind of hoped those expectations would have made for a tighter, more well thought out movie.  Instead, I thought Prometheus was a beautiful looking film, with a great cast nodding in the direction of the original Alien movies, but more often than not pointing in its own direction, one that I was not convinced that I wanted to go.  6 flamethrowers out of 10.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Case for Being Back in Black

The Galaxy Defenders are back after a long hiatus and they are bringing with them… well, a lot of sentiment.  And Jermaine Clement.

And Clement is awesome.  If New Zealanders were tall, vile intergalactic gangsters with bodies constructed of smaller spider-like organisms (but that can somehow still lose arms), and who still seemed to be someone rather amusing who would blend in fairly well with the Flight of the Concords crew, then this is the form they would take.

It’s a pity then that the rest of the cast of Men in Black 3 just looks and feels older.  Will Smith as J is as likeable as ever, but despite his strong physique, he seemed to be having a hard time carrying the weight of this film on his broad shoulders.  Tommy Lee Jones is absent for a great amount of the film, and while Josh Brolin does a great impression of his Agent K, the repartee between J and K doesn’t really fire as once it does, the whole “wise and jaded mentor” thing not really working when K is (supposedly) younger than J.

Emma Thompson is along for the ride for a bit, and there are a few other faces that pop up from time to time, though for the most part, I found the secondary characters either unfortunately obvious, serving the needs of the story rather than being interesting in themselves, or else just irritating.  

But, as mentioned, this is mainly Smith’s show, and as I always have time for him, I didn’t find the film itself that bad.  In fact, the special effects are spectacular (the 3D version I saw had the odd effect that looked really good in the third dimension) and there are a few jokes in there (Lady Gaga taking Michael Jackson’s place in the wall of aliens) that made me smile, though some of the more “obvious” ones kind of fell totally flat.

I suppose that I was really mainly disappointed by the over-sentimentality of the film.  I was expected a madcap ride of ridiculous adventures with crazy aliens and a bonkers storyline, and while I got some of that, I was amazed (in a bad way) how much cloying “sweetness” also made its way in and, if that was the film’s objective, how clumsily it was all put together.

And the less said about the alien clairvoyant the better.

Verdict: Men in Black 3 may save the Earth again, but it did nothing to make me think the franchise had been saved.  I can watch Will Smith in almost anything, but this film was definitely at the lower end of that spectrum.  Bright, flashy, and with an hilarious but still mortifying bad guy, the film had lots going for it, but got bogged down with a whole lot sappy stuff that took away a lot of the fun and replaced it with big doe eyes, probably alien ones.  5 neuralisers out of 10.