Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Margin Call

Oh My God

Written and directed by debut feature filmmaker J.C. Chandor, Margin Call belongs to the pedigree of a few where a strong, gripping contemporary story that affected societies worldwide one way or another, gets made on a relatively shoestring budget, yet uncompromising on its vision and production values, and best yet, boasting a bevy of an ensemble class act that delivered all round stellar performances. Based on a fictitious financial institution that you can't help but reference that it's loosely modelled after Lehman Brothers in the dawn of the most recent financial meltdown, Margin Call is what I would deem a superb take on the crisis, positioned just at the cusp of real life hindsight, and its reel life breaking point prior to the fall of the first domino.

Chandor's script is tight, and is what made the story riveting as we get to be that fly on the wall watching how proceedings get escalated up the food chain to the prime decision maker of any company during a crisis, yet feeding our guilty pleasure of watching how board room fat cats may be getting what is deserving unto them for their greed. But the story goes beyond that, and points its fingers in a lot more directions, giving us just cause to imagine just how deeper the rabbit hole goes, and how it's indeed a vicious circle brought about by man's primal, insatiable greed in wanting more, no thanks to rejoicing at the availability of fast and easy credit, with mortgages done in many times over, over nothing more than a paper trail of value that isn't backed by solid, concrete assets.

It played out like a fish bowl experiment with the myriad of characters all mixed together in primarily a single setting of an office, beginning with major corporate layoffs for the bottom line to look good, and Stanley Tucci's Eric Dale happened to be one of many given their unceremonious marching orders. But before he made his final way out, he handed over his uncompleted current task to junior staffer Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto who also served as one of the film's producers) who had worked all night to try and unravel what Eric's parting shot of "Be Careful" was all about. And lo and behold, the discovery that the company is sitting on a financial time bomb, becomes the catalyst for escalation and crisis management over the next 12 hours.

Which opens up the floor to the brilliance of Kevin Spacey to expand upon his role as head of sales who is about to address a conflict of conscience against a bloodbath waiting to unfold no thanks to decisions set by bigwigs such as securities chief Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), head of risk Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), legal counsel Ramesh Shah (Aasif Mandvi) and CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), some caught offguard, while others knowingly aware of the road bumps, and trying to rally and consolidate for advantageous positions, which you know just how the rich can get richer, and the poor not knowing just what had hit them.

Unlike the toxic assets which were the cause of the firm's impending doomsday scenario, Margin Call the film is built upon the foundation of a solid story and a solid cast, paced to allow you to think about implications and the gravity of the situation at hand, that can be extrapolated to just about any serious crisis any company in any industry can face. It's about doing what's ethical versus doing what may be, as a key character puts it, first past the post, the smarter thing to do, or just plain cheating just to ensure basic survival of the fittest, ethics be damned. It's at times a morality tale, and one that holds up the mirror against ourselves, and society at large in general.

Executives aren't where they are without stepping on a lot of toes, and the film doesn't make any apologies for its characters' behaviours in the cut-throat world of business, and especially when their numbers chasing contribute directly to their ladder climbing potential, and the fat paychecks and bonuses awarded at the end of a successful year. Little moments in the film stem from incidents in life you'd come to identify with, such as disbelief at the incredulous salaries and perks banking executives draw, and what they actually stand to gain in whichever way the market moves, even with things that will irk such as how Wall Street has the cheek to reward itself despite the debacle created. Margin Call the film epitomizes these issues and more through its many layers.

What I thoroughly enjoyed about the film is to say so much without having to go through most of the dry, minute details that only rocket scientists could understand, and that's precisely how the world got into one of the messiest financial tsunamis just exactly because nobody bothers about the nitty gritties, but gotten seduced by the big picture potential, and I mean potential, of what could be the size of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is this corrupting system that the planners and risk managers know how to package and sell, that the greedy and gullible accept wholeheartedly, hook, line and sinker. It mirrors real life so vividly and accurately that it's really scary, cutting so close to the bone how schemes can actually be poisonous to the layman.

Chandor also nailed it accurately on the different layers of staff and management in a corporation, where you have the rank and file really employed for their skill sets and are the Ivy Leaguers, the middle managers and number crunchers who have to manage them, knowing just enough to milk and motivate the best of minds, and those who live at the top of the food chain in board rooms who can only deal with, and have time for, simplified watered down summaries on the basis of which to make their decisions. Which worked for the film in witnessing how different levels react with the issue at hand. Any working adult will lightly chuckle at the absurdity of it all and will not find a lack of choices to plop in their real life counterparts into the multi-faceted roles here.

Should you be keen in a "shit hitting the fan" narrative film after recent local debacles involving our transportation system, then Margin Call, even though belonging to a vastly different industry, would be that choice at the cinemas. In essence the crisis decision making, the scapegoats and the likes are all up there on screen, except of course in real life the personas may not always be that engaging, though its impact equally as far reaching across all segments of society.

It's a late entry of the year by the time it hits our shores, but it's definitely saving one of the best that this year had to offer since premiering in Sundance at the beginning of the year. Making a film about the financial industry and doing so on the relative cheap may be an oxymoron, but Margin Call just proved that it can be done, convincingly, engagingly, and enjoyably. It's forcing its way into my top 10 of the year, and is for sure, highly recommended.

Margin Call opens 29 December 2011 at Cathay and Filmgarde Cineplexes.

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