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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.


. "Margin Call"

It's probably inevitable that this dramatization of a failing brokerage firm will be compared to Oliver Stone's treatment of the stock market, "Wall Street." Any comparison will expose the differences in the movie product of an indie on a short budget and a first-time feature writer-director against a big-time major studio tentpole feature. I wish the weaknesses of the indie movie weren't so apparent but, then, it's far from a total loss.

While writer-director J.C. Chandor was able to pull together an extraordinary cast on what must have been abnormally low wages (estimated budget was a mere $3,395,000), there still wasn't enough fire power to compensate for a dull episode on the street. Rarely has there been a feature movie that talked so far above its audience.

For one thing, who knows what a margin call is? And, if you can define it, or have experienced at least one of these things, how does it apply to the bind this firm finds itself in?

To answer the first question for non-traders in the stock market, it refers to the fact that a broker allows its customers to trade on "margin" or credit. The amount of it is a percentage of the actual dollar value in your account. If the market moves against your positions, causing your margin to exceed that percentage, you are called upon to send enough money to the brokerage to reduce the credit. If you can't or don't, the broker will sell your stock positions without regard to their current value (even if the market rises) or your selling preferences. They want you to trade on margin but will always maintain your account within its prescribed limits. The consequences to the stock holder has nothing to do with it.

The situation in "Margin Call," however, is on a higher level. It differs in that it's the brokerage itself is in a position of debt that exceeds the net worth of its stock. The big issue then is, are you going to close your doors and suffer the loss, or are you going to do the unethical thing and keep what you know from the public and dispose of your stock for whatever you can get in one frantic spurt of highly unethical selling?

The owner of the company is John Tuld (Jeremy Irons, "Appaloosa") and he opts for the selloff option. Much of the drama hinges on his obtaining the cooperation of the highly regarded and very reticent chief of the trading floor, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey, "Shrink"). Sam can't put his sense of morality aside and go along with it. But, he's the key guy. Without Sam's full-fledged support the operation doesn't stand a chance. Tuld dangles a large check in front of him for motivation.

Chandor knows his stock market and brokerage houses. None of the trading house's floor brokers will be deceived by what they're being asked to do. To counteract any defections, they are offered a payment of one million plus if they succeed in selling the company's stock for at least 93% of its exchange value by the end of the trading day. It means a lot of lying and playing greed for all it's worth, but it's easy to see how that kind of one-day payoff will swing a whole lot of compromise with the ethics, which many would say aren't all that stirling to begin with.

I've not been able to verify that Chandor wrote this first as a play, but the staging andand reliance on unending dialogue "scenes" cries out stage play and movie awkwardness. The middle to last acts, covering the long night before the selloff, during the selloff and after, the movie consists of brief scenes between two or three participants discussing what it all means, to the stock market, to personal careers, to survival after the earthquake and to dire futures.

Because of the skill of the actors to create and sustain strong characters, and the tension Chandor was able to create and maintain -- if you're still awake by this time, and understand the esoteric crisis involved, it's not a total turnoff. But, it's a big "if."

Read, borderline boring to the uninitiate.

It starts off cleverly, with veteran of the risk management department Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci, "Captain America: The First Avenger") getting axed because this heartless firm is doing a clean sweep of the old boys in favor of the younger squad. With telling irony, it occurs just as Eric is doing an analysis of the balance sheet and is alarmed by what he's seeing. On his way out, he passes off a flash drive to young Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, "Star Trek") to complete the study.

In the scene in which the realities are spelled out for CEO Tuld, it comes out that before Sullivan came to the firm he was a rocket scientist. "Numbers are numbers," he explains. "Their applications have a lot in common." (Or words to that effect). Irons gives us a man-at-the-top, upon whom everyone's job depends, who is nothing if not pragmatic even in the face of total disaster. He does what he has to do for his own good.

Comprising the various layers of middle management, Paul Bettany as Will Emerson is doing his best work because the part doesn't call for his usual stentorian delivery. Yes, we find, he can play a role without the airs of stage overemphasis. Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, and Demi Moore take their contributions as members of the management staff very seriously.

One of the interesting aspects of a margin call is that it's a courtesy of the brokerage. Since a condition of opening up a margin account for you is that the credit limit will be maintained, they have every right to just sell off your assets without forewarning you or giving you an opportunity to maintain your positions by sending new cash. But, when it's the firm that's getting called, no such courtesy is available.

This is great stuff for anyone with a stock (or bond) portfolio who may have a visceral (or deja' vu) reaction to the market situation described here. Of course, stock brokers should flock to see it for what it suggests as a possible scenario in their well-paid line of work. Anyone else who is compelled to see this because of what they perceive to be Wall Streets' contribution to our current economic woes and because they want some enlightenment, may instead feel somewhat confused by what is causing so much anxiety and grief to the people depicted here. To you I say, welcome to the risk factory that is our arcane stock system.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Kevin Spacey as trading floor chief Sam Rogers
When the numbers add up to zero.

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