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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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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

via GIPHY

IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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