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





Star Trek

Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana in Star Trek


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



28 December



Birth of Nichelle Nichols, 1932

On this day in 1932, Grace Dell (aka Nichelle) Nichols was born, in Robbins, Illinois, USA. Having studied in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, she first arrived in showbiz as a singer in a 1961 musical called Kicks and Co, then went on to have roles in Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, before touring as a singer with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton’s bands. In 1964 she appeared in an episode of a TV series called The Lieutenant, produced by Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry cast her again in his next TV series, Star Trek, as Lieutenant Uhura. The series ran from 1966-69 and after it ended Nichols became an advocate for more racial and gender diversity at Nasa. Personnel her organisation helped recruit included Charles Bolden, the current Nasa administrator and Lori Garver, deputy administrator. She has also served on the board of governors of the National Space Society, a nonprofit educational organisation founded by Dr Wernher von Braun, aka “the Father of Rocket Science”.




Star Trek (2009, dir: JJ Abrams)

Just calling it simply Star Trek suggests either boundless arrogance, or that JJ Abrams and crew knew they had got it right. They so have. From beginning to end this reboot pays full homage to the original, aping its humour, its humanism, its folksiness and its out-there plotlines. The casting is flawless – Chris Pine plays William Shatner playing Kirk (sitting cross-legged on the captain’s chair, brilliant); even better is Zachary Quinto as Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Karl Urban also catches that suggestion of a tremor in his comic portrayal of DeForrest Kelley’s Bones McCoy. You can argue that Simon Pegg is the weak link as Scotty, but he might argue right back that he’s one of the few not aiming for impersonation. And Zoe Saldana as Uhura does seem almost improbably sexy, but then Zoe Saldana is improbably sexy, so what are you going to do? In terms of genre this is your origins story meets breathless actioner, with just enough time spent sketching in characters who are, let’s face it, already known to us. As to the CG effects, well much money and a lot of time has been lavished on them. Abrams seems fully aware that special effects in sci-fi movies are often a bit of a letdown – many directors seem to abdicate control when green-screen technicians get involved – and it is noticeable that the more complicated and intense the CG, the more Abrams insists on physical, balletically controlled work by the actors too – see the space jump scene, and then look up the actors’ anguished stories about dangling about in harnesses for hours on end. The story? No idea – after we’ve met the youthful, bratty Kirk, and the remainder of the gang of Sulu, Chekhov and so on has eventually been got together, it seems that it’s about the Romulans doing something dastardly involving the swallowing of planets using black holes, or something. Led by a relatively inconsequential Eric Bana as Romulan aggressor Nero, this entire plotline is the worst thing about the film. But then that’s a minor quibble. This is not a story about earthlings versus aliens, it’s a film introducing us to characters we already know, who are then observed easing themselves into positions we’re familiar with, while an appreciative audience claps as their guys arrive at each recognisable mark. Enter Leonard Nimoy as the old Spock, accompanied by a lump in the throat as he reads out the familiar “these are the voyages of the Starship enterprise” lines. We are all Trekkies now.



Why Watch?


  • Because you missed Winona Ryder and Chris Hemsworth first time round
  • Of the 11 Star Trek films (up to this point), this is the best
  • Because Roddenberry wanted someone younger in the future to redo Star Trek “bigger and better”
  • The space jump scene


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Star Trek – at Amazon