By Marc S. Sanders

Could it have been possible that a rocket scientist and a bridge engineer uncovered one of the biggest market crashes in American history?  Writer/Director J.C. Chandor’s first film, Margin Call, will have you believe that.  It makes sense when you think about it.  Numbers and bar graphs and pie charts and zig zagging lines become so complex with themselves that you have to wonder how people wearing $1500 designer suits and selling products over the phone could decipher such nonsense.  So, it would take a rocket scientist to unravel such an exceedingly large ball of rubber bands in only one night.  Yet, how does a rocket scientist and a bridge engineer come to encounter this predicament.  Easy.  It’s all about money.  You might be the greatest scientist in the world, but if the pay isn’t right, is the science really worth it? 

Zachary Quinto plays Peter Sullivan, the rocket scientist from MIT.  Stanley Tucci plays Eric Dale, the bridge engineer.  They abandoned their college majors and specialties to go where the earnings are much more lucrative.  They both work in the risk management department for a large, unnamed New York investment bank.  On a Thursday afternoon, along with a whole slew of other people, Eric is fired.  His company cell phone is immediately shut off and he’s escorted quickly out of the building along with his personal belongings.  Before he leaves, he’s able to pass off a computer file for Peter to have a look at.  Eric was close to completing something deeply impactful, but didn’t get a chance to finish.  When Peter stays late after work to download the file, a stunned look eventually appears across his face, and he’s quickly calling back his workmates at 10 o’clock at night.  Those guys were getting hammered at the nightclub downtown, celebrating that they were not on the chopping block earlier in the day.

The cataclysmic results of Peter’s discovery is first passed on to his buddy Seth (Penn Badgely), then to the next level up which is Will Emerson, supervisor of trading (Paul Bettany).  Will then tosses it over to the higher risk supervisor, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who then passes it on to the Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), maybe the company’s second in command.  Jared assembles the men to meet with Sarah Robinson and Ramesh Shah (Demi Moore and Aasif Mandvi), who compute risk at even high level. 

Chandor is so genuine with his script and characters that as the earth-shattering news gets shared and then shared again and again, each higher up the food chain demands that it be explained to them in simple English.  By the time, Jared passes on this news to the head, HEAD Honcho, John Fuld (Jeremy Irons in a thankfully scene stealing performance), it is being requested of Peter to speak to John as if he were a golden retriever.  I guess in the corporate world, the sharper your clothes and hairstyle are, as well as the more formal your position title is called, the simpler the explanations need to become.  The ones who earn the big bucks don’t sit on the top floor to be belabored with charts and graphs that lack prestige and personality.

I want to point out a symbolic sequence here as well.  Each higher up seems to work on a higher floor than the other.  So, Seth and Peter accompany Will and Sam up an elevator to where Sarah, Ramesh and Jared are located.  After this meeting, Seth, Peter and Will go up on the rooftop of the building to smoke and commiserate.  Will even considers jumping.  They are then interrupted from an even higher level beyond the pinnacle of the building.  A helicopter arrives with John in tow.  God has descended at this inconvenient hour to tend to his prophets and their disciples.

Margin Call might sound like a complex assembly of numbers and math.  It really isn’t though, because Chandor approaches his film without ever really giving away how complex the issue is.  Instead, he demonstrates how deep it is.  Sam focuses on a computer screen and asks “Wait, is that number right?”  Peter’s nervousness is enhanced with his hands laced behind his head as he paces back and forth.  Will has been chewing on Nicorette gum up to this point.  Midway through the film, he’s back to smoking.  Seth understands that the mass firing he just survived hours earlier will inevitably catch up to him and all he can do is cry on the toilet.  Sarah comforts herself by asking Peter if the report he’s laid out is his work.  She wants to be excluded from being a cause of the crisis.  The best indicator of how serious and intense this has become is when an ice cool looking and handsome Simon Baker (even the blue tie he wears says icy cool) as Jared asks for the time.  It’s 2:15am.  He mutters to himself “Fuck me,” and then asks again for the time.  It’s 2:16. “Fuck me,” with a leap off the chair and a distant stare out the window.

The nature of the problem isn’t so important to grasp.  What’s necessary to take away from Margin Call, is that the gods of currency have irresponsibly and deliberately neglected the warning signs.  The returns have just been too damn good.  Now the boat has taken on too much water to stay afloat, though.  Chandor opts to focus on the response and behavior to the dilemma at hand.  There’s whispered blame to be exchanged.  There’s the need to stay silent.  When Jeremy Irons eventually comes into the fold, he holds a board meeting and calmly asks for someone to explain the situation.  Chandor points his camera on concerned close ups of middle age men not willing to speak up; messengers who truly believe they’ll be killed for delivering the dire news.  Even Jared can’t speak.

The sad outcome of the film is actually how the crash of 2008 with Collateralized Debt Obligations and Sub Prime Mortgage Defaults (see Adam McKay’s The Big Short) played out on the eve of its first day.  The investment bank in the film opts to sell off its worthless assets that enormously exceed the entire net worth of the billion-dollar company.  Chandor’s film reminds us that it’s legal to do so, and the buyers of this “odorous bag of excrement,” are John and Jane Q. Public.  At 9:30am, these brokers will put on the charm and sell at a price of $100/share knowing that by 2:00pm, it’ll be worth .65 cents/share, if they’re lucky.  Their customers paid for porterhouse, but went home with a cold burger in a doggy bag.  It’s the only way to survive. 

There are no heroes in Margin Call.  There are only profit makers.  Profits that are earned at the expense of everyone else on the planet.


By Marc S. Sanders

Claus Von Bülow was not a well liked man. In the 1980s he was put on trial for the attempted murder of his wife Sunny Von Bülow and was found guilty in a courtroom within the state of Rhode Island. However, even guilty men need a lawyer. Alan Dershowitz accepted Claus’ invitation to be his appellate attorney and successfully won the case with the assistance of the best students to come out of his law school classes. Reversal Of Fortune directed by Barbet Schroeder documents the month and a half that Dershowitz had to make a case for overturning Claus’ conviction. The film is based on Dershowitz’ book Reversal Of Fortune: Inside The Von Bülow Case.

Jeremy Irons won the 1990 Best Actor Oscar for portraying the cold and cavalier Claus. He plays the part as if he looks so completely guilty that it’d be foolish to actually think he committed any sort of crime. It’s too obvious to seriously jump to that conclusion.

Glenn Close is Sunny, Claus’ wife. She serves as a narrator from her permanent, seemingly brain dead comatose state. She also appears in flashback moments that account for either her perspective, or Claus’, or the suppositions of Dershowitz (played very effectively by Ron Silver) and his young legal team. Sunny’s voiceover asks the viewer early on “What do you think?”

Sunny was hooked on various pills, chain smoked, ate an abundance of sweets and drank very heavily. She preferred to stay in bed for most of her days. One instance seems to show her in a comatose state lying next to an unalarmed Claus. The maid is disturbed by the nonchalance of the aristocratic husband. A doctor or the police have yet to be phoned. Sunny comes out of that episode but a year later falls into another comatose state. Flashbacks hint at the theory that perhaps Claus was poisoning Sunny to obtain her fortune and keep up with his extra marital affairs. Following her second coma, Sunny’s children hire a private investigator to obtain evidence that was eventually used against Claus in his trial. As an honorable servant of the law, this infuriated Alan Dershowitz who believed this private investigation was biased from the start. Schroeder uses a debate scene with a student (a young Felicity Huffman) for the lawyer to justify his choice to fight for such a hateful man’s appeal. Why were private investigators permitted in the trial? Where’s the public investigation? It also helps that Claus agrees to a large fee to help Dershowitz fund the defense of two brothers on death row for a crime they did not commit.

Schroeder’s film does not make its own claim on the case or the circumstances that accompany it. Rather, he shows you a process. Dershowitz knows that Claus Von Bülow is a “very strange man.” Claus responds to him by saying “You have no idea.” Yet, that doesn’t add up to guilt. A victim can be a victim by means of numerous possibilities and a court of law is fallible. Dershowitz wants to be sure.

Jeremy Irons’ performance is that of a gentleman of an aristocratic and well dressed nature. He finds the humor in being considered the villain. Irons plays the role with determined vagueness. Vague does not account for guilt.

Glenn Close is very good too. Her intoxicated episodes are so delirious that it seems to work in favor of Claus’ innocence. Yet her voiceover narration is sober and clear, but not necessarily accusatory. So it’s hard to know what to believe.

Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz only focuses on the law and commanding a team of the best legal minds he ever taught. He turns his two story home into a headquarters where his students are compartmentalized into different aspects of the case from the drugs that Sunny took to the background of the Von Bulow’s turbulent marriage. As a means to keep them alert, the departments have basketball tournaments in his driveway. Dribbling the ball and slam dunking while still weighing evidence and legal precedents. Dershowitz is only interested in seeing if there is a case that shows Claus could have been innocent beyond a reasonable doubt. The case swept the nation and in the court of public opinion this creep was found guilty. Ironically, the one who is closest to him now is the one who does not see guilt, despite disturbances in his client.

Reversal Of Fortune is a different kind of mystery caught up in possible outcomes and nothing else. Barbet Schroeder with the help of Dershowitz’ case notes, book and public records made certain to offer all avenues for what really led to Sunny Von Bülow’s vegetative state.

The only concrete fact that this film does offer is that Claus Von Bülow was an untrustworthy creep draped in elegance and formality. There’s no crime in that. Is there?


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek
My Rating: 5/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 61%

PLOT: An outsider marries into the Gucci family, and her unbridled ambition triggers a downward spiral of betrayal, revenge, and violence.

Watching Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci was a curious experience.  I could see glimmers of a great entertainment through bars of slow pacing, a meandering story, and unanswered questions.  The performances are top-notch, no question, but they are at the service of a movie that doesn’t seem interested in meeting their level of passion.

Inspired by true events, the movie tells the story of Patrizia Reggiani, a young woman from humble beginnings who meets and eventually marries Maurizio (Adam Driver), one of the heirs to the Gucci fashion empire.  Patrizia is played with fury and fire by Lady Gaga, who seems destined for another Oscar nomination.  Her character is portrayed as a latter-day Lady Macbeth, someone who sees through the deceptions of her new husband’s business associates and manipulates people and events for her family’s benefit.  In true tragic form, her ambitions threaten to derail everything she loves.

Adam Driver plays Maurizio as a rather slow fellow who disinherits himself so he can marry Patrizia but finds a way back into the fold via his uncle, Aldo (Al Pacino), who sees Maurizio as a good substitute for his own disappointing son, Paolo.  Paolo is played by Jared Leto, in another of the film’s performances destined for Oscar recognition.  Buried underneath flawless makeup and a skin cap, Leto portrays Paolo as a self-deluded buffoon whose fashion designs aren’t so much daring as unfortunate.  (Apparently, pastels and brown were never meant to mix…who knew?)

I mention the performances because they are the sole highlights of the film.  For two-and-a-half hours, these performances play against a backdrop of one dreary scene after another. Sure, the performances are fun to watch, but at the end of the day, if they don’t have anything interesting to say, it gets a little boring.  We get behind-the-scenes intrigues and betrayals that seem to owe more than a little to earlier crime epics by Scorsese and Coppola, but there was nothing to get really excited about.  Nothing grabbed me.

Ridley Scott’s films are normally way more imaginative than this.  They look better.  The cinematography is usually more inspired.  I’m not talking about his action or sci-fi epics, either.  I mean his small-scale triumphs like Matchstick Men or Thelma & Louise.  What happened here?  Was he not inspired by the story?  There is great material here, more than enough back-stabbing and lying and cheating to go around.  Yet everything is subdued, and plods, and inspires more yawns than anything else.  I didn’t experience any kind of excitement or passion one way or the other for any of the characters, or for the story.  It just didn’t make me care.

By the time House of Gucci is over, we’ve seen betrayals, marital infidelity, divorce, back-stabbing business deals, sex, and murder.  I have a friend who wrote a stage play that has almost all of those things, and it was WAY more entertaining than this film.