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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “Margin Call”

Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “Margin Call” (photo)

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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11 is a column with one simple goal: to help you decide what films you need to see before making your end of the year top ten list. Each installment features my thoughts on a critically acclaimed 2011 movie, a sampling of other critics’ reactions, the odds of the film making my own list, and the reasons why it might make yours.

This week, we’re covering one of the biggest hits on the festival circuit this year, the financial collapse drama “Margin Call.” Is it more entertaining than watching your retirement fund vanish in an afternoon? Let’s find out.

Movie: “Margin Call”

Director: J.C. Chandor
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Plot Synopsis: Twenty-four hours inside a powerful investment bank on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse. A young analyst (Zachary Quinto) stumbles onto a formula that forecasts doom for his firm, then watches as the news makes its way up the corporate ladder to the very top of the company. Did they catch disaster in time to prevent it? And if they did, will they even try?
What the Critics Said: “It’s a hell of a picture,” David Edelstein, New York
“Feels like the ‘Fail Safe’ of our time,” Scott Tobias, The AV Club
“The best Wall Street movie ever made,” David Denby, The New Yorker

Were They Right? I don’t know if it’s the best Wall Street movie ever made, but it is a hell of a film. It’s a hell of an unusual one too; I can’t recall the last time I watched a movie this engrossing in which, moment to moment, I had no earthly idea what anyone was saying. The characters in “Margin Call” talk like (and in some cases literally are) rocket scientists. Though some of their colleagues occasionally ask them to dumb their math talk down, they never really do. Most of the specifics pass over our heads. All we know is things are bad and they’re about to get much worse.

And that’s all we need to know. The 2008 financial collapse is a fait accompli from the second “Margin Call” begins with a bunch of people, including risk management analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), losing their jobs. As he’s escorted out of the building, Dale gives his former subordinate, Peter Sullivan (Quinto), a flash drive and a two-word warning: “Be careful.” Sullivan pops in the drive, crunches a few numbers, and realizes what we already know: the end is nigh.

The apocalyptic overtones would be hard to shake in any film set in this time and place, but writer/director J.C. Chandor really plays up parallels between his story and the Biblical end of the world. When Dale and three out of every seven people at the firm are all let go on the same morning, that’s the Rapture. Those left behind are initially relieved to still have jobs. But Sullivan’s discovery means those that got fired were lucky; the survivors now have to face Armageddon.

With meltdown a foregone conclusion, “Margin Call” is less of a thriller than an ethnographic study of what happens to people of a small, insular world as it crumbles around them. We can follow the story even if we can’t follow the math because the root of the problem goes deeper than a misguided algorithm; it’s the people and their uncontrollable urges toward self-enrichment and self-preservation that are truly to blame. In their tower high above Manhattan — Chandor repeatedly frames the players in this drama in front of enormous windows that overlook the serene, oblivious skyline — Sullivan’s bosses have found ways to divorce themselves from the moral implications of their work. “It’s just money. Made up. Pieces of paper of pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other to get something to eat,” says Jeremy Irons‘ chairman of the board as he nonchalantly plots to destroy the an entire global economy just to save his own skin. The perverted ethics of this company are utterly believable and totally terrifying.

Chandor’s script occasionally goes overboard with heavy-handed metaphors; for a bunch of characters who communicate almost entirely in incomprehensible arithmegibberish, they’re weirdly prone to poetic observations. But his film is almost as ruthlessly effective as the executives it follows. My favorite scene comes in the third act; for several scenes, characters have pressured Kevin Spacey‘s character into acquiescing to Irons’ plan and encouraging his team to participate in a truly heinous act. We know he’s going to motivate his team to perform an unsavory task and we’re wondering how he’s going to do it. The answer, in or any world, is so simple: just offer them a shit-ton of money.

Could Get Oscar Nominated For: Best Supporting Actor, Kevin Spacey. Also if they gave an award for Best Screenplay That I Couldn’t Understand Half the Time, it’d be a mortal lock.
Chances of Making My Top Ten: Slim, but that says more about the overall caliber of movies this year than it does the caliber of this movie.
It Might Make Your Top Ten List If: you love character dramas with great ensembles; impenetrable financial jargon turns you on.

“Margin Call” is now playing in limited release. It is also available on VOD and iTunes. If you see it, tell us what you think; leave us a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in Countdown to Top Ten 2K11
“Bill Cunningham New York,” directed by Richard Press
“Hanna,” directed by Joe Wright

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.