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Sundance: 'Margin Call,' a Wall Street drama led by Zachary Quinto and Kevin Spacey, powerfully captures the day the money died. Plus, 'The Black Power Mixtape'

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Image Credit: Jojo WhildenIn the ’80s, the movies that revolutionized American independent film, changing it from something earnest into something hot-blooded and knowing, were modern freakazoid noirs like Blood Simple and Blue Velvet, drenched in sex and violence and tantalizing dread. These days, the subject matter that has the equivalent effect is high finance. Money, and the corruption of money, is the new, sophisticated content porn of the indie world. More than ever, we’re all obsessed with the lure and the false promise of money, and with how so much of it went poof! over the last three years. The cautionary dawn-of-the-economic-crisis message movie has become a genre unto itself — think Up in the Air, The Company Men, and The Girlfriend Experience, the latter two of which premiered at Sundance. (Okay, the genre is still young, but it’s certainly a lot more promising than the post-9/11 where-were-you-when-the-towers-fell? soap opera.) Margin Call, which is set at a fictionalized version of Lehman Brothers, is steeped in the finance jargon of our time (one of its running jokes is that even the people who speak this language will stop to remark, “Say it in plain English!”), but the movie isn’t medicine. It has the avid hookiness of good David Mamet, the into-the-night tension of something like 12 Angry Men. Call it 12 Sleazy Men (and one woman — hello, Demi Moore).

 

It opens with one of those downsizing set pieces in which we get to observe the deliberately degrading rituals of corporate life — in this case, Stanley Tucci gets his e-mail and cell phone cut off and is given an hour to clean out his desk, as thanks for the fact that he’s been there for 19 years. Out of a final shred of loyalty, he hands the program he was working on to one of the two risk-assessment analysts he supervised, a young sharpie played by Zachary Quinto. Quinto, with his thick features, upswept hair, and eyebrows that are still more than a little Spockian, is a great camera subject who makes pensive contemplation look like something out of an action movie. What he learns is that the company’s leverage is veering out of orbit. The bundling and swapping of mortgages with no value has caught up with it. Once he delivers the bad news, the company’s executives spend one long dusk-to-dawn night (that’s the heart of the film) trying to figure out what to do. The plan that emerges is dastardly: The only way to save their financial skins, never mind anyone else’s, will be to dump the company’s worthless holdings onto an unknowing market — as each of them pockets millions and walks away.

This, of course, is just what happened in 2008, but the gripping intrigue of Margin Call is the way that it puts you right up close to the decision-making, the mix of greed and fear and cunning and what we can get away with. The writer-director, J.C. Chandor (it’s his first feature), knows how to weave a tale of ethics around scenes ignited by information; he gets the tone Oliver Stone was going for in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps with a lot less fuss. And what a director of actors! Everyone in the cast is at the top of their game: Paul Bettany as the hotshot trader who brags about spending 75 grand a year on hookers, Simon Baker as a weasel of cool, Kevin Spacey (in his best performance in years) as the veteran floor manager with pudgy vestiges of a conscience, Demi Moore as the company woman (in every sense) who warned everyone but has to take the fall anyway, and Jeremy Irons as the exuberant rotter of a CEO, a man who rationalizes avarice with such a lack of care that he makes Gordon Gekko look like a small-timer. Margin Call is deliberately paced, at times a bit too much so, but it captures, with a reality that can’t be shaken off, how our financial institutions became secret havens to a selfishness so undiluted it was sociopathic. It’s a drama of big money that you watch with a tingle of toxic fascination.

 

* * * *

 

As its nifty title suggests, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is a kind of archival scrapbook of the American black power movement that rose up as a militant wing of the counterculture. The movie, though, is far more idiosyncratic than that. It was directed by Göran Hugo Olsson, a Swedish documentary filmmaker who assembled never-before-seen 16mm footage shot by Swedish journalists during the ’60s and ’70s. This is, in other words, a historic chronicle of the former cutting edge of African-American culture made by some of the whitest people on the planet.

 

Image Credit: AP ImagesIt turns out that there’s a major value in that. The Black Power Mixtape doesn’t linger on the familiar fetishistic iconography of black-power militance: the Black Panthers posing with their guns and Che-knockoff Marxist berets, Huey Newton looking debonair in his rattan chair, Bobby Seale (that’s him, pictured at right) getting bound and gagged during the Chicago 7 trial, Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver at their most “Burn, baby, burn!” defiant. The footage gets beyond those images to reveal the more humanistic yearnings of the key players. Stokely Carmichael, beneath his rhetoric, was the gentlest of incendiary leaders (we see him being a sweetheart to his mother). In a 1973 prison interview conducted with Angela Davis during her murder trial (she was acquitted after 18 months), she offers the most forceful and moving testament I’ve ever heard to the stubborn sanity of the Malcolm X credo: that violence isn’t violence when it’s brandished in self-defense. (Her description of what it was like to grow up in Birmingham, Ala., explains those machine guns and berets in about three minutes.)

 

The Black Power Mixtape is a tangy raw stew of history, but it lacks perspective in not even trying to get a handle on the contradictions that bedeviled black militancy and ultimately brought it down. The movie never begins to grapple with the profound meaning of Malcolm X’s assassination — the founding father and greatest leader of the black-power movement, brought down not by the white man but by his own brothers. That dance of self-glorification and self-hatred, the obsessive thirst for manhood that pushed aggression to the forefront of black politics (and has kept it there in the hip-hop world), are beyond the film’s scope. Yet the movie is still onto something fascinating: an outsider’s view of Americans who cast themselves as outsiders, all as a means of fighting their way in.

 

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