Monday, October 24, 2011

"Margin Call": almost like a stage play, it examines the people on Wall Street just as a financial crisis (2008) is about to erupt

The compelling play-film from “rookie” director J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call”, was not part of Reel Affirmations, but it might as well have been. In the early part of the film particularly, the camera lingers and dawdles (as if staring at them while in person) on the two most likeable (or at least physically spectacular) male characters in the Wall Street meltdown, Peter, played by Zachary Quinto, and Seth, played by Penn Badgley.  In Street suits with coats removed, sleeves rolled up, ties loosened and shirts open, masculinity is to be beheld here.  Badgley, for one, looks much “better” with the mangy chest hair back, after losing it to play a teen in “Gossip Girl”. (Check out his primary image on imdb.)

And Wall Street traders are pretty much like preppy kids in this film, which reenacts the last 24 hours in the life of “The Firm” before a financial crisis (2008) breaks wide open. Generally, The Firm is like Lehman Brothers in September 2008, but the fact pattern in the play doesn’t match history exactly. No matter, it’s compelling stuff.  The film opens on a summery Thursday morning as managing analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is invited to a meeting from a female from HR, who first mistakes Peter for him. Pretty soon, he is told his email and cell phone are cut off, his severance is generous, and the like.  But Eric already suspects the company has something to hide – called derivatives, and too many credit default swaps.  He gives a flash drive to Peter as he leaves the building (and tells Peter “Be Careful”). Peter shuns going out to the bars with the boys and stays at work and analyzes what’s on the drive (it's what the math of the "tranches" shows is about to happen).  It’s this sequence that makes Peter so winning as a character. Pretty soon, he calls his buddies (Badgley and Paul Bettany’s character Will) back from clubbing. By midnight, management is back with a real crisis as Peter’s numbers proves that the film will go under.

The movie movies into a lot of meetings and other confrontations, including a field trip to Brooklyn Heights (not far from my favorite “Bargemusic”) to get Eric back.  Kevin Spacey, as Sam Rogers, and Jeremy Irons as Tuld (the CEO), as well as Demi Moore and Mary McDonnell round out the A-list cast for this little indie film.  There’s a great line, “I hate Brooklyn”.

The script has the characters passing the buck, showing their mettle, whereas Peter keeps his head above the storm, but has to explain the numbers in plain English to the CEO in a critical scene that is supposed to happen at 2:15 AM.

Pretty soon, Spacey and Irons (that is, their dopplegangers) are bypassing ethics and dumping the house. Spacey offers bonuses to those who sell enough, in exchange for deep-sixing their careers and personal reputations forever.  Many will be fired and never work on The Street again.  It’s Friday, and Sunday is coming. 

As for the layoff, I remember mine, on Dec. 13, 2001.  The Netware system told me that my account was disabled while I was talking to an internal client to solve a problem.  I didn’t sign off until finishing the call.  Then my manager appeared in my cubicle and said “We have a meeting.” 

Badgley’s character starts to become a sidekick as the movie progresses.  At one point, he sits on a toilet seat and weeps, and then watches Bettany shave (just his face) to get ready for the day after the all nighter.  You wonder why Badgley wears yellow socks.   The characters get yummy omelet breakfasts catered (you could have eaten the food right off the screen), and Bettany asks “why did they include fruit?”  And most of the characters – except for virtuous Peter – smoke (and that’s depressing).  Why does a Ph.D. physicist work on Wall Street?  For the money. (Sounds like "Double Indemnity", doesn't it!)

Then, there is the City (Donald Trump's favorite), shown outside as the night and day progress.  In one sequence, a Chopin prelude is played in the background. Yes, I think Trump would hire Peter as his next "Apprentice". (He'll make somebody a lot of money -- honestly -- even if on Mars, some day.)  Trump, of course, doesn't have a monopoly on "You're fired"; it happens a lot at the end of the film. (And a bankrupt firm would have trouble with severances and outplacement for ordinary paeans.) 

The theatrical version is distributed by Roadside Attractions, but Lionsgate is offering the film for on-demand viewing at the same time. (LionsgateVOD charges $6.99 to watch on YouTube; I paid $10 at an AMC Shirlington, which had a fair crowd for a Monday night.) The film is shot in regular aspect ratio because of the expectation of heavy cable and Internet viewing; I wonder if this marks a future trend.  It could have used the wider aspect.  I think this film would also benefit for enhanced digital projection in large, new theaters.

It's going to be in the running for Best Picture of 2011.  

Here’s the official site  

It does seem that when you make independent movies today, you still want an A-list cast.

Here’s a YouTube video of cast interviews.
See also my GLBT blog today for story about Zachary Quinto and Kevin Spacey. The film can be rented legally on YouTube from Lionsgate for $2.99. 

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