Margin Call


Margin Call

Kevin Spacey discovers the wonders of Internet porn.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Aasif Mandvi, Ashley Williams, Susan Blackwell, Maria Dizzia, Jim Kirk. Directed by J.C. Chandor

Money makes the world go round, and certainly we all need it to get by. There are those, however, who can’t get enough of it and have plundered and pillaged their way into a global economic meltdown. The worst part of it is that there are those who knew what was about to happen but did nothing; they are at least complicit partners in the crime.

At a staid, respected Wall Street firm in 2008, layoffs are underway. A tap on the shoulder is the kiss of death as 80% of the workforce on this particular floor is about to be sent home. One of those being let go is Eric Dale (Tucci), a manager in the risk assessment team. As he is being escorted out, he hands a flash drive to his protégé Peter Sullivan (Quinto) and tells him it’s something he was working on and asks Peter to see if he can finish it. Then, somewhat strangely, he tells him to “Be careful.”

Well, that’s like catnip to a former rocket engineer like Sullivan so while the other survivors are out celebrating their stay of execution, Sullivan is working on the file and when he figures it out, the results are so monstrous that he has to call someone in. That someone is senior trader Will Emerson (Bettany) who in turn calls his boss Sam Rogers (Spacey), the head of trading.

What Sullivan has discovered is that the company has purchased a lot of mortgage-based securities that, if their value were to deteriorate by just 25% would mean that the companies losses would be greater than what the company was worth. That would mean bankruptcy and scandal and the end of the gravy train they’ve all been riding on.

During the course of the night, the findings are pushed up the ladder. The head of Risk Management Sarah Robertson (Moore) and her boss Jared Cohen (Baker) are brought into the loop and it soon becomes apparent they knew  a lot more about the situation than they had let on. It quickly becomes a case of looking out for your own tush as the firm’s British CEO John Tuld (Irons) flies in via helicopter as dawn breaks.

These executives will be making decisions that will have far-reaching economic implications, not to mention a moral dilemma as Tuld’s decision is to sell off the worthless securities before it becomes general knowledge that they’re worthless. Can Rogers order his traders to essentially destroy their own careers to save the firm? Should he?

The story is rather loosely based on that of Lehman Brothers (whose CEO is Richard Fuld) although there are certainly some factual differences. That there are those in the financial industry who played fast and loose with the rules and with morality there is no doubt. That the greed of banks, financial firms and those politicians who helped remove the safeguards and overseers that might have protected us from these rapacious sharks has put our economy down the tubes there is also no doubt.

Chandor, the son of a Merrill Lynch executive, has an insider’s perspective and he helps make a movie that really covers some fairly arcane numbers-based material without going too far over the heads of the average audience member. There’s some good writing here; understanding what happened in 2008 often feels like you need a degree in math just to grasp the basics. Here, it’s shown in fairly plain terms what happened to a lot of firms at the time.

The performances here are universally compelling. Spacey is more or less the focus of the moral dilemma; he alone of most of the executives has a pretty good wrestling match with his conscience. He isn’t possessed of a snowy white soul – he certainly is flawed – but at least his first thought isn’t of his own career but the ramifications on the general public when this gets out.

Irons is also amazing as the reptilian CEO. There is a moment when he’s rattling off the dates of all the crashes and downturns on Wall Street, seemingly not noticing how much closer together those dates are getting as the years go by. Does he really not notice or does he actually not care that each of those dates represent enormous human misery?

This isn’t what you’d call action packed fare; much of it takes place in conference rooms at high level meetings. It gets pretty talky at times. While this is mostly an indictment of the greed and arrogance of Wall Street, it also does put a certain onus on the general public for aiding and abetting, a charge which isn’t entirely unfounded. In that sense, this is as fair and balanced a portrayal of the meltdown as I’ve seen to date.

This movie puts a human face on the greed and how the mentality of CYA and testosterone-fueled “profits first, people second” culture in Wall Street made what happened in 2008 inevitable. This is the dark face of capitalism and that the executives sound uncannily like prison guards at Dachau only makes this movie more compelling.

REASONS TO GO: A very realistic look at what goes on behind the curtain on Wall Street. Terrific performances and a well-written script augment this.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the talky side.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly at One Penn Plaza in New York on a floor recently vacated by a trading firm.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: In Time

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Easy A


Easy A

Emma Stone is going to stand out in any crowd - particularly dressed like THAT!

(2010) Teen Sex Comedy (Screen Gems) Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Cam Gigandet, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm MacDowell, Stanley Tucci, Aly Michalka, Fred Armisen, Dan Byrd.  Directed by Will Gluck

Who we are perceived to be is very rarely who we really are. Sometimes people just make up their minds about us and nothing we can say or do will change that. Other times we have a hand in deliberately misleading others about our true natures.

Olive (Stone) is an ordinary girl at East Ojai High School. She doesn’t really stand out among her peers; she’s just kind of there. Nobody really cares enough about her to pick on her, so she might well count her blessings. In a John Hughes movie, her classmates might have been tempted to play cruel jokes on her.

Her friend Rhiannon (Michalka) is anxious for Olive to come camping with her and her hippie parents, while Olive would rather have had her eyeballs spooned out of their sockets and fed to her as a frozen desert treat, so she makes up a college boyfriend to get out of it, preferring to spend the weekend alone. Monday in school, Rhiannon pressures Olive to tell her all about her weekend and Olive, mostly to get Rhiannon off her back, fibs about how far she went with her imaginary boyfriend. This is overheard by Marianne (Bynes), the Bible-thumping daughter of the local pastor (Armisen) who might have been the offspring of the Church Lady had she been raped by Satan.

Before you know it, Olive has a reputation as being somewhat available. At first, she’s appalled but as she finally begins to get noticed, particularly by the attractive Woodchuck Todd (Badgley) whom she’s had a crush on since the 8th grade, she begins to enjoy her new role a little bit.

When her good friend Brandon (Byrd) confesses to her that he’s being bullied for being suspected of being gay (suspicions which were pretty much dead on), he pleads with her to spread a rumor about the two of them getting on. She decides to make it more than a rumor by meeting him at a party and having loud but faux sex in a bedroom. This changes Brandon’s status from zero to hero and soon Olive’s dance card is getting filled with every outcast in East Ojai, all willing to pay her what they can to get their manhood card punched by Olive.

Of course complications begin to set in, some derived by the troubled marriage of foxy English teacher Mr. Griffith (Church) and his estranged wife (Kudrow), the school guidance counselor who made the incredibly foolish mistake of sleeping with one of the students. Olive offers to take the bullet for Mrs. Griffith which leads to worse complications, including Rhiannon’s decision to leave Olive’s shadow and join the Bible thumpers. Olive is fortunate to have the world’s best parents (Tucci and Clarkson) but can even they extricate her from the mess she’s in?

Gluck hasn’t exactly set the cinematic world on fire (see Fired Up!) but he’s done some fine work on some cult classic television shows (including the sorely missed “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” and “Grosse Pointe”) and this is the Will Gluck we get here. The writing is also inspired, with sharp dialogue that while suffering from the “far too glib to be teenagers” syndrome, at least is clever.

While the plot is a little bit sitcom-y, it is handled with enough creativity to make it stand out among most comedies last year. Part of the reason it stands out is the perfect casting of Stone. You can tell that a casting director gets it right when you can’t imagine anyone else in the role, and so it is with Olive and Emma Stone. She has always performed capably in supporting roles; here she makes the most of a leading lady opportunity and shows that she can carry a movie on her own. She’s the center of this movie, so having the right actress in the part was crucial.

Kudrow and Church, both terrific actors in their own right, do good work here, as does Bynes in what was supposed to be her final role (she had planned to retire from acting, but later changed her mind). In fact, I thought Bynes – who I’d always dismissed as being something of a one-note performer – was surprising in a role that was a stretch and also poked some fun at her image. I look forward to her further stretching her reach.

All in all this is a reasonably (and somewhat surprisingly) smart movie that takes subjects of teen sex and the importance of peer acceptance, subjects that have been done to death, and makes something new and original of them. I’m not saying that Easy A sets the world on fire, but it is a surprisingly good movie that I enjoyed much more than I thought I would.

WHY RENT THIS: Stone makes good on her leading lady potential. Snappy dialogue is the highlight of a surprisingly well-written story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clichés abound.

FAMILY VALUES: There are definitely some bad words and thematic elements that include teen sexuality, statutory rape and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening scene of the movie was also Emma Stone’s audition, captured on webcam.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD has a gag reel and an audition tape made on her webcam by Emma Stone (see above). In addition, the Blu-Ray offers a trivia track and a featurette on movies of the 80s and how they influenced this movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $75.0M on an $8M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Switch

New Releases for the Week of September 17, 2010


Something smells bad on this elevator and I think it's coming from YOU!

DEVIL

(Universal) Chris Messina, Geoffrey Arend, Logan Marshall-Green, Bojana Novakovic, Jenny O’Hara, Jacob Vargas, Bokeem Woodbine. Directed by the Dowdle Brothers

Five strangers get on an elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise. Midway through their trip up, the elevator gets stuck. Not an unusual situation, granted, nor one that’s generally more than inconvenient. However, one of the people aren’t who they say they are, and what’s going on in the elevator is nothing natural at all. This is the first in a series of Night Chronicles, movies produced and conceptualized by M. Night Shyamalan but not directed by him.

See the trailer, promo and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and disturbing images, thematic material and some language including sexual references)

Alpha and Omega

(Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Long, Hayden Panattiere, Dennis Hopper, Danny Glover. Two Canadian wolves – one an Alpha, one not so high up in the pack – are tranquilized and delivered to Idaho to repopulate the wolf population. That is so not happening, so the two make their way back to Canada and find they have to work as a team in order to make it back in one piece – and they make a pretty darn good team.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for rude humor and some mild action)

Animal Kingdom

 (Sony Classics) Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver. After a young man’s parents die, he goes to live with his grandmother, who turns out to be the doyenne of a Melbourne crime family. Not only is she the nastiest piece of work since Ma Barker, she and her three cold-blooded sons are also deep in a war with the Melbourne police, some of whom are more unscrupulous than the crime family itself.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Drama

Rating: R (for violence, drug content and pervasive language)

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinski

(Sony Classics) Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Elena Morozova, Natacha Lindinger. In the Paris of the Jazz Age, an unorthodox fashion designer and a controversial Russian composer meet and begin a torrid affair that will mark the most fertile creative period for both parties. This covers a different period in the life than that of the earlier biopic Coco Before Chanel.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for some strong sexuality and nudity)

Easy A

(Screen Gems) Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Patricia Clarkson. A high school girl who has no reputation whatsoever pretends to have sex to help out a gay friend, which changes her reputation – and the way she’s viewed by her peers – overnight. Unfortunately, there are unintended consequences as other guys who are getting picked on are lining up to have their reputations enhanced by having the world think they’ve slept with her. It’s “The Scarlet Letter” for the Nickelodeon generation!

See the trailer, interviews, promos, a featurette and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Teen Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements involving teen sexuality, language and some drug material)

The Town

(Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner. When an attractive bank manager is taken hostage for a brief time by a group of bank robbers, she thinks her ordeal is over. However, she didn’t count on one of the robbers falling for her and pursuing a relationship. Not that she knows it’s him – she was blindfolded at the time. Oh, and an FBI agent who looks a lot like a Mad Man is on his tail and she might be the key who can connect the dots, which might make the bad guys nervous enough to bump her off. Did I mention Affleck also directed this movie? What was I thinking?!

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Drama

Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use)