Category Archives: Financial

Working Girl (1988) 3.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.8
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Mike Nichols
Stars: Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver

Of its time but in the best ways possible, Mike Nichols’ Working Girl is a superior rom-com starring Melanie Griffith as an ambitious secretary who, on discovering that her ruthless boss (a delightfully obnoxious Sigourney Weaver) has stolen her idea for a lucrative merger, assumes the role of an executive to close the deal herself. Along the way, she inevitably falls for the man helping her to put it together (Harrison Ford in top comedic form) while evading any and all situations that might disclose her real identity to him and everyone else. Working Girl achieves that priceless balance between the drama and romance by laying out a well developed plot and seamlessly weaving it with the various romantic angles. Nichols compensates for Griffith’s acting limitations by setting a comedic tone just wacky enough to forgive her flat delivery but not so much that it detracts from the relative sophistication of the story. Ford greatly assists him in this endeavour as he demonstrates, yet again, his impeccable timing and instincts for light comedy while Weaver proves equally critical with a brave and perfectly judged turn that she uses, like Ford, to coax the best out of Griffith. Nichols composes the entire thing with polish and remains master rather than victim to the business and fashion cultures from which so much of the humour is derived but the jewel in the movie’s crown is undoubtedly Kevin Wade’s witty screenplay that Ford in particular has a ball with. All that plus an electric Alec Baldwin as Griffith’s old squeeze, and some glorious cameos from Oliver Platt and Kevin Spacey ensure that Working Girl sits right at the top of that era’s genre offerings.

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Boomerang (1992) 3.43/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.2
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Duration: 117 mins
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Robin Givens, Halle Berry

Eddie Murphy blew hot and cold during the 1990’s but when he got it right, he usually nailed it. This smart and unusually wise romantic comedy is perhaps the best example of him doing just that. Murphy stars as the soft cracking lady-killer who gets knocked off his stride when he falls for his new boss, a stunning Robin Givens, and sees his caddish ways thrown back in his face by the alpha female. One tends to pigeon hole Murphy as nothing more than a comic but this guy could act (and probably still can) and in Boomerang he mixes this with quintessential humour and bags of presence. He’s excels in both sides to his dual role, from the charming ladies’ man to the charmed boss-lady’s man-slave. Wright is pitch perfect as his ringmaster and the watching him jump through her hoops is genuinely amusing. A radiant Halle Berry is just as good as Murphy’s girl-next-door type love interest and, as his best friends, Martin Lawrence and In Living Color’s David Alan Grier play off each other to hilarious effect. There are so many standout moments here that it’s two hours running time flies by and with a (finally) properly used Grace Jones as a ramped up version of well…herself, most of them will stay with you well past the close of the movie. That said, despite the wealth of comedy talent, the funniest moments involve a man-servant grinning at Murphy as he’s being forcibly seduced by Eartha Kitt’s man-eating 80 year old. Reginald Hudlin gives the whole thing a softly polished vibe that gently evokes early 90’s New York without smacking of it but it’s Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield’s mature and witty screenplay and the manner in which the cast deliver it that allows Boomerang to stand so tall amid the several other rom-coms of the era.

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Blackhat (2015) 3.76/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71.5
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 130 mins
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang

Michael Mann has been a long time between films and while his latest cyber thriller is marked by his trademark style and dramatic distance, a vague meandering plot ultimately precludes it from ranking amongst his best work. Chris Hemsworth stars as a prodigious hacker released from prison on the condition that he helps a joint FBI-Chinese task force trace the source of a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant. The resulting investigation sprawls across the Pacific from LA to Malaysia sporadically interrupted by some lively gun battles the type Mann has, at this point, mastered to perfection.

Blackhat isn’t as bad as some critics and fans have made out and there’s much to be admired along the way. Despite flimsy character construction across the board, Hemsworth makes for a sturdy lead and Viola Davis cuts a confident figure of authority as the FBI agent in charge of his team. Leehom Wang is competent as the lead Chinese agent even if Wei Tang proves too slight to overcome her character’s writing as Wang’s sister and Hemsworth’s inevitable love interest. Mann’s visual and auditory style is at its impeccable best as the technically astute director seems to have finally come to grips with all aspects of Digital Video. Complementing this aesthetic is Atticus Ross’ grainy score which, while not quite matching that of Heat, is certainly on the same track.

Rather frustratingly, though, it’s the basic stuff that Blackhat fails to get right. The meticulously distanced relationship between Mann’s lens and his protagonists has traditionally helped to engender a documentary-like sense of realism to his stories but, during his prime, that was balanced out with well developed characters whose arcs were functionally relevant to the story as much as the plot. Here, like his previous movies Public Enemies and Miami Vice, the connection ends with the plot as the characters’ depths are kept hidden or at best implicit. If the main players are kept at arms length, then the bad guys are barely acknowledged. Missing is the traction of Neil McCauley’s motivations in Heat or even just the remorseless entitlement of Robert Prosky’s Leo in Thief. Instead, a straight line of inexplicable badness replaces any sense of personality and we struggle to care. Then there’s the equally inexplicable tactical training of Hemsworth’s computer jock. In place of a techno-intellectual showdown, things come to a head in a rather bizarre action face-off that smacks of rushed rewrites and/or studio interference.

Instead of a properly laid narrative, whatever successes Blackhat achieves are episodic in nature such as the visceral action sequences or those informed moments when Hemsworth and co. are hacking into the enemy’s servers or even their bank accounts. Not surprisingly, it’s here where Morgan Davis Foehl’s script comes into its own (forgetting the one or two moments of philosophical gibberish ala Miami Vice). Nothing is dumbed down but neither are the uninitiated left lost at sea. And of course, as is the case in most of Mann’s procedurals, its technocratic lilt adds abundantly to the movie’s overall sense of street smarts. With so much good and so much bad, Blackhat will, like most of Mann’s work since 1999’s The Insider, tantalise his fan’s but ultimately go down as an opportunity missed.

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The Secret of My Success (1987) 3.14/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 64.4
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 111 mins
Director: Herbert Ross
Stars: Michael J. Fox, Helen Slater, Richard Jordan

A big slice of 80’s nostalgia has bright eyed Michael J. Fox moving to the big city intent on making his fortune. Stuck in the mail room of his uncle’s corporation, he assumes the role of an executive, gets involved with his uncle’s wife and his mistress, and battles a hostile takeover. It’s the type of wacky plot you’d expect from such a vehicle but thanks to great casting and fun directing, it survives the inevitably lame jokes that were a hazard of the era (after all, this was the period of burgeoning pop culture references). Fox was at the height of his powers and in full-on cheeky charm mode. The arch scene-stealer himself, Richard Jordan, is delightfully lecherous as his uncle, Helen Slater is the softly lit 1980’s feminine ideal, while Margaret Whitton has a blast as the insatiable “Aunt Vera”. Of course, these comedies were a dime a dozen in the late 80’s but few had such a complementary cast of talented actors. Moreover, director Herbert Ross keeps them busy with one elaborate not to mention energetic comedy set piece after another. Whether it’s Fox speed-changing from mailman to executive, generally evading detection, or whether it’s the four main players tiptoeing from one bedroom to another in pursuit of a midnight rendezvous, you’ll find yourself smiling along for the duration. More than that, if you grew up on these movies, the whole thing immerses you in a warm hazy nostalgia that’s simply irresistible.

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The Social Network (2010) 3.43/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 92.9
Genre: Drama
Duration: 120 mins
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

“Creation myths need a devil.” The Social Network was hyped by some as one of the best films of all time on its release and actually, they just might have been right with this one. A master class in pacing and screenwriting, this story about the founding of Facebook and the man behind its creation is one of the most compelling films of the modern era. It may take dramatic license as it reconstructs the details of the personal and legal battles that followed the launch of the website but the result is as focused an examination of the digital generation as we’ve seen thus far.

Deeply sophisticated parallels are forensically drawn through the centre of this story as director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin intertwine Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to prominence with the traditional concept of social popularity while reflecting on the dynamic the latter shares with the new order. Characters and plot are richly conceived as the drama unfolds in Shakespearean proportions and by the time it’s all done, we feel we’ve been let in on something really special. Everyone involved acts their socks off but this film is built around the ever excellent Jesse Eisenberg’s sensational performance as Zuckerberg. It’s an intricate piece of work because much of the character’s thoughts and emotions occur very internally and are therefore left to the audience to infer. But thanks to an abundance of carefully orchestrated and delightfully timed micro-expressions, we do.

For a film which was largely built around an emotionally reserved protagonist, the score was always going to be important and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross respond to the challenge in resolute fashion with what could arguably be referred to as one of the best scores of the decade. Their subtly balanced electro-rock compositions are perfectly weighted to the different segments of the film and wonderfully carry the audience through the complex social worlds the characters inhabit. As they do in the script, the parallels present in the different compositions help to tie them together into one overarching score that feels as comprehensively part of the film as the cinematography or production design (which by the way were also just about the best we’ve seen in the last decade).

However, the final words of praise should be saved for Sorkin and in particular Fincher who craft this complex, multi-tiered tale into an astute study of the struggle for acceptance in the modern world. In the streamlined focus of the latter’s direction, the former’s writing found its perfect outlet as Sorkin’s potentially wearing indulgences are shorn away in favour of properly individuated character conceptions. Fincher doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to edit scripts but one look at the “behinds the scenes” footage of his writing meetings with Sorkin quickly reveals how he steered Sorkin’s lush script away from the pretentious self-glorification of something like The Newsroom.

But it’s Fincher’s overall command of the project that makes The Social Network such a magnificent experience. A low hum of anticipation builds through the picture, particularly during the early scenes, giving the audience a genuine feel for the magnitude of the project Zuckerberg was embarking on. It’s an implicit but irresistible feeling engineered through structure and Fincher’s impeccable understanding of how much distance to keep between his actors and the camera at all times. In those moments of revelation and/or accomplishment when this sensation actualises, we are witnessing the consolidation of truly mesmerising direction. The ultimate example being the arresting sequence in which Fincher parallels Zuckerberg’s facemash assault with the Phoenix Club’s first party of the fall semester in their mutual misogynistic glory. As a scene of pure drama, it is a peerless piece of impossibly sleek film-making and damn near the best sequence in modern cinema.

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) 3.19/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 70.2
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Duration: 180 mins
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

The self told story of Jordan Belfort is turned into a marathon of hilarious vignettes as Martin Scorsese shows how the audacious and unscrupulous stockbroker built a corrupt empire of equally ruthless traders out of a group of drug addled, testosterone charged meat heads. Regardless of how much liberty the director and writer Terrence Winter took with the material and even though the ravings of a confessed egomaniac are at best in need of a rather large piece of salt, there’s something real about the three hours of rags-to-riches mayhem we are exposed to here. It’s not the crashing of private helicopters or the sinking of yachts that’s recognisable but the inanity and potential depravity of immature men in close circles that catches and it’s the foundation on which this film is built. As we watch what is essentially a loose collection of gratuitous comedy episodes, it’s the recognisable eccentricities within these greedy traders as opposed to the overblown stuff that generates any lasting interest.

A quirky ensemble of contrasting performers spearheaded by Scorsese’s 21st century muse breathe a modicum of personality into Winter’s alternative, lesser used archetypes for twenty-something men (leaving the women to inhabit the full blown archetypes). Leonardo DiCaprio has had several different coming of age performances depending on which critic you’re reading but his genuinely funny and endearing portrayal of drug, sex, and money addict Belfort is the first performance that demonstrates a real command of his craft. Within the scope of what he had to do, he barely puts a foot wrong here and so he allows the audience to continually root for a very unsympathetic character with no real substance. As his altogether ridiculous right hand man, Jonah Hill both raises the comedy stakes and keeps Belfort ever believable by being the most unreal character on show. It’s a cracking “OMG” performance and the film needed it but it’s another step forward on a more obvious career path that he has occasionally and to interesting effect diverted from. That said, he and DiCaprio are so outrageously funny together (the out-of-date Quaalude sequence is worth the price of admission alone) that any such lament quickly dissolves away.

From the director’s chair, Scorsese brings a tantalising level of class to the film interweaving the “plot” and set pieces with Belfort’s first person perspective as seamlessly as he did in his 1990 gangster opus. Kudos also to his new DP Rodrigo Prieto who, as he did with Argo, draws just the right amount of personality out of the excellent era-specific set and costume design to set an atmosphere complementary to the mood of the time and place.

On the downside, the story of a hungry go-getter being seduced and then corrupted by money only have it all go south is at this point an over-familiar one. Wall Street gave us the serious version, Boiler Room gave us the cool version, while a host of other films have looked at the same arc across a variety of genres. Scorsese himself made this one before in Goodfellas which compares right down to its brilliantly intonated narration. But what most of these films had going for them (despite being fresher) is that they placed the story and plot above all else. Shooting this as a straight comedy (albeit with nicely woven moments of drama) puts Scorsese at a disadvantage from the get go but his decision to make it a three hour comedy simply exasperates the problem. There’s a reason comedies don’t usually go beyond 90 or 100 minutes and that’s because when narrative is sacrificed for standalone moments of humour (the most typical approach to making a comedy), you’re not as much carrying your audience as distracting them for an hour and a half. The latter will only work for so long and so lengthier movies need to bring them along for the ride. That’s where plot comes in. Films where the comedy is written into the very plot fabric of the story (like “Some Like it Hot” or “The Big Lebowski”) are few and far between and this is a far cry from those. On a more technical front, Scorsese’s long established editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is surprisingly untidy at times but perhaps we should give her some slack given the demands her old pal Martin made of her in this film especially.

Despite these negatives, The Wolf of Wall Street is very much a film with its own identity and a magnetic turn from its lead. It’s not the masterpiece Goodfellas was (few are) and it’s later to the trough than other quality films telling the same story but its unique approach and carefree humour more than justifies its place on their list.

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Disclosure (1994) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.2
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Barry Levinson
Stars: Michael Douglas, Demi Moore, Donald Sutherland

Michael Douglas stars as an IT executive who struggles to keep his job when his new boss and former girlfriend (Demi Moore) accuses him of sexual harassment after he spurns her advances at a late night meeting. Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel could’ve been dismissed as just another sexual thriller coming as it did on the back of Douglas’ controversial Basic Instinct, but thanks to some delicious plot and character construction, it becomes a cleverly gauged and robust investigation into sexual politics set against a colourful background of corporate intrigue.

Douglas was always a dab hand at playing the wounded cad but he puts a nice spin on the concept in this movie by playing a dedicated family man who, with the exception of partaking in a few risky water cooler jokes and some presumptive behaviour towards female colleagues, has put his wildcatting years behind him. As the splash of ice water from his past, Moore is impressively biting, and her character is used exquisitely to phase plot and commentary multiple times over. Some impressive acting talent rounds off the cast with Donald Sutherland and the always excellent Dylan Baker playing the ruthless head honcho and slimey lackey respectively and Roma Maffia weighing in as an expert sexual harassment attorney (“She’d change her name to “TV Listings” to get it into the paper”). Most importantly for a dramatic thriller, the cast and director are all working from the same page. A persistent yet delicate intertwining of the various subplots arises not just through their characters’ energetic dialogue but also their mannerisms and the way in which Levinson’s lens seems to nonchalantly capture them.

But what truly sets Disclosure apart from the standard thriller is the confidently skewed approach from its director. The palette of soft colours and generous lighting combine with eye catching production design to give the film a distinct personality which Ennio Morricone’s imaginative and low humming score keys in on. This furnishes the proceedings with a terrific sense of excitement in place of more traditional physical drama and prevents the 24 carat mind-games from setting too dry a tone. Enriching this context further is the 90’s tech boom, in the middle of which, the story is set. As usual, Crichton gauged the future of digital application with a certain degree of insight but more important than any such historical relevance is the manner in which it helps sets a modern “verge of the future” vibe and so augments the more updated conceptions of sexual harassment that the film presents us with. Disclosure has been unfairly pigeon holed over the years as everything from a run of the mill thriller to a piece of fluff. If anyone cares to inspect it, they will see it’s much more.

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Wall Street (1987) 4.29/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 83.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 126 mins
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Daryl Hannah

Oliver Stone’s story of stock trading and the high life in 1980′s New York stars Charlie Sheen as the ambitious young trader who catches the attention of the greed celebrating master of the universe Michael Douglas and is recruited into the attractive but perilous world of insider trading. Naturally, it isn’t long before he realises that he is nothing more than food for the big fish as his lavish lifestyle begins to have professional and emotional consequences.

Rarely has a film captured the essence of a time and place like this one. Robert Richardson’s cinematography gives the city a life of its own (check out those early morning and late evening shots) particularly when accompanied by Stewart Copeland’s perfectly weighted score. The acting is generally first rate and even the much maligned Daryl Hannah’s performance seems in retrospect to be perfectly in keeping with the vacuous spirit of the times. Martin Sheen is brilliant as the working class father roped into his son’s wheeling and dealings while his son Charlie (real life and on-screen) brings just the right amount of arrogance and vulnerability to the role. Of course, Wall Street is Michael Douglas’ film from start to finish as he devours the scenery and everything else in his vicinity. His iconic portrayal of Gordon Gekko perfectly captured the greed of corporate America and in doing so, it rightly garnered him an Oscar.

Stone’s directorial style changed dramatically in the 1990′s as if to keep up with the inane quick cuts and angled shots of the MTV movie making generation (a style that’s only ever served him well in JFK and Any Given Sunday) but this film proves he had all the patience and skill of the very best directors. Rather than relying on quick cuts between shots he lets the sharp dialogue set the pace (kudos to co-writer Stanley Weiser) and when combined with the great central performances the result is a captivating and thoughtful exploration of greed and ambition that resonates to this day.

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Rising Sun (1993) 3.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 64.4
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 129 mins
Director: Philip Kaufman
Stars: Sean Connery, Wesley Snipes, Harvey Keitel

Philip Kaufman takes on the task of adapting Michael Chrichton’s novel and creates a largely uneven but interesting story of murder and Japanese corporate intrigue. Sean Connery plays a seasoned cop specialising in Japanese relations who is asked to shepherd a younger detective (Wesley Snipes) as he investigates a murder that seems related to the Japanese corporate takeover of an American company. It’s a fascinating premise and Kaufman does a nice job in imbuing the proceedings with a sense of other-worldliness as we are introduced to the intrigue and ruthlessness of Japanese business culture (using some of the techniques he mastered in his version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The two leads work well together and Harvey Keitel pops up here and there to steal the show as a bigoted cop with a chip on his shoulder. Crichton’s story entertains and at times, it even captivates but unfortunately, there are too many broad strokes employed in its adaptation particularly when it comes to the plot construction. Ultimately, Rising Sun counts as an opportunity missed but as a thriller it does manage to offer something different to the norm.

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Margin Call (2011) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 107 mins
Director: J.C. Chandor
Stars: Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey

There have been a few attempts to depict the types of wheeling and dealings that underlay the catastrophic financial meltdown of 2008. Some have missed the mark such as Oliver Stone’s Money Never Sleeps while some have got closer like Curtis Hanson’s TV movie Too Big to Fail. However, all fall in the wake of J.C. Chandor’s elegant Margin Call. It won’t take long to guess the real life investment bank that the story focuses on even though it’s never named and the film plays carefully on the audience’s still raw nerves to augment the sense of impending doom.

Margin Call begins with a series of humiliating and utterly tactless firings by the corporation in question as they proceed with their most recent culling. As one of the higher profile victims of the purge (Stanley Tucci’s risk manager) is escorted out of the building, cardboard box in hand, he gives his protege (Zachary Quinto) a disk containing a risk analysis he was in the middle of completing. When the younger analyst stays late and completes the work, he discovers that the bank is chronically over extended and has somehow ended up with more potential dept on its books than the entire value of the company. The cavalry are scrambled and a series of panicked meetings are held proceeding up the echelons of the company until the head honchos, led by Jeremy Irons’ master of the universe, are choppered in to take drastic action.

What that action is we probably already know and it ain’t good for the rest of the world but Chandor’s great achievement here is that he nonetheless keeps us on tenterhooks. He also prevents this film from becoming a finger pointing exercise, thereby distracting from the overarching issue, the inherent fault within the system. There are no unequivocally bad guys here. They’re all human beings just trying to make the best of their situations. Yes, some are more ruthless than others within those parameters and all are guilty of looking after themselves without the smallest consideration for anyone else but there’s nothing that would reflect typical evil archetypes. As it happens, this approach also makes the film more engaging because each of the characters are allowed to grow into something more real than a caricature and so the crisis is continuously informed by their strengths and weaknesses. Everybody is extremely smart at their own job, egocentric enough to remain ignorant of the other’s, and reckless enough to ignore that problem.

If the story of the crisis describes a perfect storm of contributory factors, the film represents an almost perfect coming together of writing, acting, and directing. The script is often electric and pitched at just right level. The dialogue is technical but not so it loses the audience. It’s also articulate and infused with an escalating anxiety. But amazingly, it’s also very subjective. Every sentence uttered reveals more about the characters’ sentiments while assuredly driving the subtle emotional angles to story. There are moments towards the end of the film when the dialogue runs a little flat but thankfully the personality of the players fills the breach. Kevin Spacey is better than he has been in some time as the head trader whose personal life intersects with the emerging crisis in a manner that both steels him to pressure from above and makes him more sensitive to the implications it will have for the profession he still values. Quinto (who also produced the film) is the slightly incredulous number cruncher extraordinaire who is almost imperceptibly assimilated into the machinery of his company as the night rolls on.

Spacey and Quinto both put in interesting shifts as do Tucci and Demi Moore but it’s Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, and surprisingly Simon Baker who churn and burn through their lines. Bettany adds an important vigour to the slow pace of the film as the cocky trader. It could easily have veered towards just another too cool for school turn but he underlays it all with a nervous energy not to mention a curiously revealed moral compass. Baker makes for a terrific second in command who levels his well written character with an unscrupulous calm. But he still manages to sheen his unflappable exterior with the odd bead of sweat which again helps to emphasise the seriousness of the situation. The arch scene stealer himself, Jeremy Irons, after a tasty if not brilliant directorial buildup from Chandor, is introduced later than the rest but he owns the camera when he enters its frame. He is the very definition of commanding as is required of his character but he too finds all manner of near invisible ways to imbue his character with subtle desperation. But at all times, his delivery is suave and erudite and he makes for addictive viewing.

The final touch of class is Chandor’s polished stewardship. Okay, so there are a couple of coarse metaphors scattered about the film but, for the most part, Margin Call is wonderfully constructed. Feeding off his precisely structured script, Chandor paces the film immaculately so that the film glides forward under the invading tension. There are also some artfully sculpted interior and exterior shots which are adroitly complemented by Nathan Larson’s softly mechanical and very beautiful score. However, it’s Chandor’s general use of sound that adds perhaps the most depth to the drama. Whether it’s from the nervous, defensive, and/or accusatory back-and-forths of the protagonists or the diegetic sound of the offices during varying states of business, this film seems to exude a natural unease from the use of its sound. And during a stunning 120 second segment, those sounds come together with that score to produce the movie’s critical scene. With so much quality, Margin Call should have fared better at the box office but the financial drama remains a niche draw. However, if ever there was a representative to demonstrate how good it can get when done right, it’s Margin Call.

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Arbitrage (2012) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 107 mins
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Stars: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling

The thriller is very much the forgotten art in Hollywood given the easy applicability of its format to the modern television episodic template and the fact that in the 21st Century, it has been almost entirely conflated with the action genre. It’s a shame because few films can engage the audience like a taut, economically written thriller that’s given between 100 and 110 minutes to play out. Thankfully Arbitrage is one of the few films to defy this trend and build a classy, modestly premised thriller from the ground up tightening all (or at least most of) the nuts and bolts as it goes.

Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, the head of a family owned financial empire that is in the process of being acquired by a larger corporation. A delay in the signing of the contracts at the beginning of the film generates an early sense of unease even though there seems, at least outwardly, no cause for concern. As Miller goes about his business, the veil is slowly drawn back on a financial overextension which places him and the deal on a complicated timetable. It’s at this point that writer-director Nicholas Jarecki turns the screw and plunges Miller into a nightmare of compounded pressures. An auto accident involving him and his mistress, prompts him to flee the scene and leave the dead art dealer behind in the wreck. As the pressure for him to finalise the acquisition escalates, so does the inevitable criminal investigation which Miller is simply trying to stay ahead of. Loyalties are tested, contracts both financial and emotional are made and broken, and the perfect image of him and his family tarnishes.

Critically for a purely dramatic thriller, Arbitrage establishes a series of layered tensions early on so the film has a low-key but rock solid momentum. The writing in these early stages is impeccably levelled so that the personal and business angles play off each other intuitively and not a scene is wasted. Gere reminds us what an accomplished lead he has always been. The good guy/self-server dichotomy that most find difficult to pull off has always been a staple of Gere’s and he continues to use it masterfully with every glance and half-smile. He is surrounded by a seriously impressive cast too. Best known of which is Susan Sarandon as his wife who does more than her bit to help Jarecki project such a sophisticated air of make believe (within the context of the Miller’s world) throughout the first act (there’s a look she conceals from the investigating detective as she gets into her limousine that is unleashed perfectly once in the safety of the car – a look that could be dismissed as nothing but means everything).

When it hits the fan, Jarecki doesn’t miss a beat either, and he keeps a steady hand on the proceedings. As such, the tension in Arbitrage feels very organic and brilliantly contained. There are a few moments here and there (mostly including Tim Roth’s ridiculously over-boiled detective) where the dialogue grates and a key scene in which Miller attempts to equate money with God (in a not too subtle commentary on modern money culture) partly misses the mark. But everywhere else the dialogue is sharp, polished, and wonderfully delivered. Jarecki shows a genuine talent in his physical set up too discretely phasing between cold and warm palettes and composing some striking shots along the way (there’s a conversation in a park which is like something out of a painting). This gives the dialogue-centric story a visually engaging vibe that will help justify the multiple revisits the story will more than likely prompt.

Where Arbitrage really stands up is in its conclusion. In a determined effort to insulate this genre within its traditional boundaries and embrace the inwardly dramatic climaxes of the best thrillers, a series of subtle face offs provide the stepping stones to a subtle but effective statement on life’s priorities and personal ambition. There are many things to admire in a film like this but best of all is that there are no traditional winners or losers in this story. Even if this does not facilitate a prescient commentary on the state of the modern financial world (though it probably does), it works because it’s just so damn refreshing. A class above.

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Boiler Room (2000) 3.57/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.5
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Ben Younger
Stars: Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Nia Long

Boiler Room is a surprisingly good tale of a young man seduced into the slick world of illegal stock-brokering only for it to inevitably blow up in his face. There’s lots to admire about this film. It has all the energy of a film aimed at a 20′s-something audience but with a more mature dramatic tension and subject matter. The idea of finding one’s way in a generation where ambition has been distorted by MTV attention spans takes a prominent place in this story with the authentically constructed world of fast and loose stock brokering providing a reflective background in much the same way as it did in Wall Street. In fact, Boiler Room could quite justifiably be regarded as a spiritual sequel to Wall Street, at least far more so than the disappointing 2010 Money Never Sleeps. Its cast is replete with a who’s who of turn of the century up-and-comers led by the excellent Giovani Ribisi proving he does indeed have the chops to carry a film. Vin Diesel and Nicky Katt are equally good as the high-flying brokers who take him under their wing and Ron Rifkin is his usual brilliant self in the role of Ribisi’s disapproving father. Writer/director Ben Younger deserves most of the plaudits though for not only crafting an edgy and riveting script but for also pulling off a rare blending of film-making styles in shooting it. There are a number of secondary dramatic plots playing out across the entire film but thanks to the hip hop infused energy of his direction, they all pull in the same direction. The result is a sharp and relevant drama that brushes up against some interesting themes while entertaining throughout.

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