Margin Call

Jeremy Irons in Margin Call


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



6 March


Alan Greenspan born, 1926

On this day in 1926, the economist Alan Greenspan was born in New York City. His father was a stockbroker and analyst but Alan initially seemed to be heading towards a career in music, studying clarinet at Juilliard, playing with Woody Herman’s band, before switching to economics. He gained a bachelor’s and a master’s in economics before becoming an analyst, then a consultant. In 1974 he was appointed by President Gerald Ford as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Greenspan was a member of the Group of Thirty (wise men of economics, essentially) in 1984 before becoming chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1987, a position he held until just before his 80th birthday in 2006. Greenspan was a monetarist, a rationalist and a follower of Ayn Rand, but he was first and foremost a numbers man. When the figures didn’t match the theory, it was the theory that was wrong. He admitted in congressional testimony in 2008, after the worst financial collapse since the great depression, that his belief in deregulation had been “shaken”.




Margin Call (2011, dir: JC Chandor)

Director/writer JC Chandor really seemed to come out of nowhere with this debut, a remarkable thriller about the financial collapse – who’d have thought such a thing possible – that boils everything down to one fateful night in one investment bank, where some geeky junior has suddenly realised that the numbers don’t add up and that fiduciary apocalypse beckons. The junior is a junior actor – Zachary Quinto – who spends the film accompanied by his more doltish chum Seth (Penn Badgley) who is there to explain any of the sticky stuff, of which there is remarkably little. The structure of Chandor’s film is remarkably simple – over the course of the night Badgley, Quinto and whoever they have picked up en route, are bussed from one meeting to another, constantly moving up the pecking order, from daily offices to executive suites, the plebeian to the patrician, the outer to the inner sanctum, up, up, up they go. At each level of this glass and steel edifice everyone has to get used to breathing a slightly more rarefied air. And there are a lot of levels. This is a film where all actors concerned seems to understand that what they’re doing is momentous; everyone is pulling out the good stuff. Early on we meet Stanley Tucci, as the lowest level of the big players, the guy who is fired in the opening scenes, shrugs and then goes home. Paul Bettany is the tic-driven, adrenaline-snorting salesman. Kevin Spacey is his superior, the first of the financial big players to make our stand-ins, Quinto and Badgley, a little loose bowelled, and the last who has any humanity (his dog is dying at home) left inside. Demi Moore plays another formidable executive, a woman in a man’s world who wears the glass ceiling almost as jewellery and so is not as frightening as the next guy up the ladder – Simon Baker, a brash street guy done good, a man who drank greed is good with his mother’s milk. We think we’re at the top already but then we go up one more, to meet Jeremy Irons, in the sort of role that Laurence Olivier would once have played, all affability and stiletto, the CEO of this mighty financial empire who has arrived at dawn in a helicopter like a bird of prey. It’s with Irons that the full dastardly logic of self-preservation plays out – he takes decisions that he knows will cause the market to collapse, but they will ensure that his firm will survive. It’s the small guy who is going to suffer, the same small guy who is left out of the reckoning when bonus season comes around. Chandor doesn’t rely on his viewer having even a slender grasp of economics to make this film work – it’s essentially a human drama about minnows awed by sharks. And doesn’t this world of big money look fantastic – the workers reduced to faceless drones while the fixtures and fittings have real character. A perfect film? Nearly. Maybe someday somebody will just tighten up the last third a touch, remove one of the too-many speeches that defend the way money guys do things, so it runs with the same pitiless speed as the first two thirds. Or maybe I’m just nitpicking. In a very short list of great films about money (Greed, Glengarry Glen Ross, Boiler Room, both the 1928 and 1983 L’Argent spring to mind), this is the best film about the 2008 crash, no question.



Why Watch?


  • The arrival of writer/director Chandor, fully formed
  • A great cast on top form
  • A thriller from finance – remarkable
  • John Paino’s formidable production design


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Margin Call – at Amazon





Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



24 November



Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, 1859


On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (to give it its full title).

Building on work by Joseph Hooker, Robert Chambers and others, Darwin rushed into print a book he had been mulling over for two decades, because he knew that the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had, quite independently, come up with theories remarkably similar to his own.

Written for the layman, the book set out Darwin’s observations and theories about the evolution of the abundance of different life forms on Planet Earth.

Evolution is no mystery and even the most creationist of fundamentalist Christians believe in it. It is nature’s version of something humans have been doing since the dawn of their own species – selecting desirable characteristics and breeding for them.

What makes Darwin’s break important is his suggestion that new species can develop from this evolutionary process. A species being defined as something that cannot breed with another (so a Jack Russell terrier is not a species, it’s just a variant of dog).

Breaking with the orthodox scientists of the day, who were almost all clergymen and believed in the ideas of “natural theology”, Darwin’s book was an immediate success because it gave voice to ideas that were already in the cultural ether.

Though he never wavered from his core theory, Darwin adjusted the text of his book with each new edition, borrowing, for example, the phrase “survival of the fittest” from Herbert Spencer as a poetic and pithy way of rendering the idea of natural selection (“fit” here in the sense that the survivor has fit into a niche, not that he/she has been working out).

In spite of some problems with the theory, many of which Darwin himself acknowledged, Darwin’s theories became, and have remained, the primary scientific model for describing the biology of the world we live in, and the place of human in it.




Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, dir: Peter Weir)

That long title, with a colon halfway through, is clearly saying something. What’s it’s saying is “franchise”.

But in spite of Russell Crowe’s strenuous attempts, Peter Weir’s adaptation of one of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels remains the only one in the series. Which is a great pity because it is an unusual and satisfying film, which sticks close to O’Brian’s schematic of spending as much effort on describing life on the ocean wave as in telling any “adventure on the high seas” story – with O’Brian there’s a fair chance you will come away actually knowing how to splice a mainbrace.

Crowe plays gutsy Captain Jack Aubrey, Paul Bettany is cerebral Dr Stephen Maturin, a scientific man much in the Darwin mould, and we follow them as they chase an enemy French ship through gales and calms, into a cannons-blazing battle and finally onto shore in the Galapagos.

Skilfully blending fascinating insights into life on sea – the sight of Crowe and Bettany playing string duets sticks in the mind – with rollicking old-school adventure of the sort Errol Flynn used to make, this is a big budget epic that treats the viewer with a certain amount of intelligence. Which is not how the viewer wants to be treated at all.

Master and Commander debuted not long after Pirates of the Caribbean had announced that the seafaring adventure was back with a bang. But unlike Gore Verbinski’s pirates-and-CGI pantomime, Peter Weir’s film lost a king’s ransom at the box office. So no, no franchise.



Why Watch?


  • One of Crowe’s best roles
  • A sensitive and respectful adaptation of one of O’Brian’s much loved books
  • Another intelligent movie from Weir (The Truman Show, Dead Poet’s Society)
  • Shot at sea on a real ship – and you can tell


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – at Amazon


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