It is an Article of Faith – though I’m not sure what an “Article of Faith” is, other than it sounds sonorously certain – that they don’t make movies like they used to. That always seemed curious to me, since, in the “like they used to” times – generally synonymous with the “studio era”, where movies were controlled top-to-bottom by a handful of all-powerful Hollywood film factories – it appears that those studios took greater risks in their selection of the lineup of the films they produced than they do today, an era where nobody’s at the helm, and you could, theoretically, make any movie you want.
Well, you can’t. Because of the money. Expensive movies, with budgets surging above two hundred million dollars, require a guaranteed return, or there’s trouble with the shareholders (not of the movie companies, but the multi-national conglomerates that own the movie companies.)
As a result, as a bitter maker of “serious” films complained in an article I read recently, the big money is allocated towards big-ticket blockbusters made for twelve year-old boys, leaving the crumbs for everybody else.
The result – “Summer movies” that no longer just come out in the summer.
So there’s that.
Then, there’s the fact that, being old, nostalgia inevitably seeps into memory, polishing the past in ways it may not totally deserve. Hand-in-hand are the inevitable changes in taste with which the old are not entirely comfortable, including increased visual gore, louder soundtracks that take a disproportionate toll on older ears, and a shrugging acceptance of storytelling that makes that do not make any sense.
Consequently – oh, and there’s a “sour grapes” component as well, as my resume will expose me as a total failure in movies – I have a great deal of difficulty recalling any recent movies I’ve liked. The funny part, however – “funny” at least for someone who takes an inordinate pleasure in laughing at themselves – is that if a particular recent movie is brought to my attention, I surprisingly often reply,
“Oh, yeah, I liked that.”
So, before I forget that I liked them, I commit to – well, not paper, but whatever this is – recorded evidence of two currently playing movies that I thought were pretty darn good.
Is an independently produced movie concerning the recent Wall Street meltdown that nearly decimated our economy. Although low budget, Margin Call boasts a cast of first class – and usually high-priced – actors, among them, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons.
You can easily see why these stellar actors agreed to participate. It’s a wonderful script. Unlike the movies these actors do for money, Margin Call is written with a sharp-eyed insider’s savviness (though its dialogue is a little faux David Mametty for my liking), it’s tense, it’s insightful, it’s often funny, and it makes eminently coherent sense.
The movie’s clarification of the “heart of the problem” – that the “debt position” on this fictional brokerage’s books has become greater than the value of the company – makes the story of the night they (at least temporarily) saved the firm from extinction compellingly comprehensible to those who are fuzzy about what happened on Wall Street circa 2008 – one of them being me.
The only problem I had was that I was being asked to care about people, who, had I been one of their clients, would have cold-heartedly not cared about me. To obtain my sympathy, the moviemakers were, metaphorically, trying to persuade me to invest in a smelly stock, and, for me at least, there was no sale. Still – an intriguing movie about a tumultuous moment in our recent history. Smartly done. And happily worth the “Senior” price of admission.
Which I do not often say.
George Clooney is a “tough sell” as an ordinary person. Even an ordinary person living in Hawaii whose extended family owns twenty-five thousand acres of pristine property ripe for development yielding the family half a billion dollars and whose comatose wife who’s been cheating on him is about to be taken off “life support” and whose two daughters – aged 10 and 17 – are totally out of control and he doesn’t know what to do about any of it.
There’s a not entirely admirable tendency in me to say, “Fuck you, George Clooney.” You’re rich, you’re successful, you’re way too attractive, and your aunt sang “Come-ona My House.” I know, I’m confusing the actor with the character, but sometimes, it can’t be helped.
I wonder if that bothers him.
“I want to be respected as an actor!”
“Look in the mirror, George, and take the money.”
With The Descendants, Clooney jettisoned the “movie star” props, except for the face, which doesn’t come off, and he really went for it. And he got really close. When he cried, I almost believed him. And I would have. Except it was George Clooney crying.
What does George Clooney have to cry about?
The Descendants' continually disarming script pushes inter-relational moments to agonizing – sometimes comically agonizing – extremes, making the movie constantly interesting to watch. Writer/Director Alexander Payne (Election, among others) regularly tells his exquisitely painful stories with, what, for me, is an accompanyingly enjoyable loose screw. When Clooney races to a neighbor’s house to demand information about his dying wife’s infidelity, he clomps over, hilariously, in flip-flops.
The casting is all-around “on the money”, the performances, never less than solid. And, of course, Hawaii, as always – and they visit three different islands in this movie – is “I wanna be there right now” beautiful. Every breathtaking shot looks like a Chamber of Commerce postcard. Which, for all I know, may be satirical as well. And if so – “Ha!”
It should also be noted that The Descendants was distributed by the movie subsidiary of Fox Studios. So big studios can back decent pictures. As long as they’re cheap, and George Clooney is in them, working for the minimum.
So, there you have it. Now, if you’re ever around me, and you hear me complain,
“There are no new movies I like.”
“What about Margin Call and The Descendants?”
To which, I will reply,
“Oh, yeah, I liked those.”
And you’ll have nailed me to the wall.