Featuring a high class ensemble cast –Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Penn Badgley, and Stanley Tucci all put in an appearance- Margin Call attempts to tell the events of 2008 resulting in the global financial crisis from an insider business trader’s point of view. Needless to say not many will leave the cinema feeling any more sympathy towards the financial bigwigs playing fast and loose with the financial structure many rely on, providing they had any sympathy in the first place. The first time writer and director J.C. Chandor manages to coax solid performances out of his impressive cast even if Paul Bettany’s accent whilst playing trading desk manager Will Emerson falters as precariously as the unnamed company’s finances and on occasion is downright weird. Despite this Chandor does manage to capture the reptilian nature of the self serving ethics of high powered business and its total lack of integrity when it comes to saving its own skin and although the film is reliably conventional in both its narrative drive and construction it still manages to maintain a high level of tension even if we are aware how it will pan out from the very beginning.
The film gets underway with multiple lay offs in the risk department of a trading firm and following the departure of the department head Eric Dale- Tucci- who has realised something is amiss in the company’s figures he hands his junior team member Peter Sullivan-Quinto-,a former rocket scientist, a disc with his recent unfinished findings. Sullivan wastes no time in finding what Dale had been missing and realises the company is on the brink of financial ruin. The only way to prevent this is by selling off all the assets they have in their possession even though they are worth absolutely nothing. A moral dilemma then ensues as this means they are ruining other businesses in the process alongside their own firm’s reputation as no-one will ever trust them again. The dilemma is short-lived however as self preservation rises to the fore and deals and compromises are waged in a misguided attempt at solidarity. A sacrificial lamb in the form of Sharon Robertson-Demi Moore- head of the risk department, who had warned company heads of the dangers ahead a year previously, is offered in a vain attempt to keep the wolves at bay when looking for someone to blame. It is symbolic that the character sacrificed is female as the big guns all seem to occupy some form of archaic gentlemen’s club with bright young spark Sullivan gaining not just a promotion but a shortcut to its exclusive membership thanks to his discoveries. It is also worth observing that she is the only character referred to throughout by the derogatory term ‘c***’ even though it could be applied to many other characters more deserving of the title, Therefore the gender divide in big business still obviously exists though some may argue that her character managed to turn up to a hastily called late night meeting in five inch f*** me heels so perhaps she got what she wanted as she was well and truly f***ed by her male contemporaries. Meanwhile all traders are out to save their own skins by selling off the worthless stocks ruining businesses and lives whilst themselves receiving seven figure bonuses as a reward for doing so. The end result is the financial crisis which has impacted globally over the last three years and shows no signs of abating.
Margin Call is an impressive film with a high powered cast which ensures a good looking board room. It does fall short on innovation and suspense however as we are aware of the outcome even before the film begins. Chandor does capture some of the nastiness and lack of integrity which lay at the core of this situation and tries to lay out a different perspective in a scene when Emerson claims the traders have been doing us a favour all these years by providing us with a fantasy lifestyle. It fails to convince as even at the films conclusion those who lead us to the brink and then some are still being financially rewarded for their mistakes-think Fred Godwin of RBS- whilst those they have ruined and put out of work are still struggling. What the film does do cleverly by having such a recognisable cast is instil some sense of familiarity- where previously anonymity reigned supreme-regarding those who placed us in our current financial plight, Proving yet again by Hollywood standards if you are going to blame anyone then they might as well be good looking.
Director Steve Mc Queen’s second film –the first was Hunger the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands tragic and harrowing tale- and like its predecessor is raised to a higher level by a tightly controlled, coiled and passionate performance by its star Michael Fassbender. Portraying the ravaged and debauched lifestyle of the film’s protagonist the successful and attractive thirty something Brandon Sullivan, who also has an addiction to frequent explicit and anonymous sexual encounters, Fassbender turns in an amazing performance which dominates the screen whilst requiring a lot of full frontal nudity proving that he indeed does have a very large part in the films success. The film itself although beautifully shot capturing both the gloss and depravity of Brandon’s lifestyle is unsettling and McQueen’s directorial skills are brave in that he concentrates on a long take when less confident directors would have yelled ‘cut’. Instead he allows his camera to elongate its unflinching gaze allowing not only the actors expressions to articulate the machinations of their minds but also allowing the audience to absorb and involve themselves in the uneasy tension of the drama. It is an unsettling experience which whilst not obviously enjoyable certainly resonates on so many levels with not only the ravages of addiction brought to the fore but the sheer monotony and time consumed featuring to highlight what a numbing experience it becomes.
Whilst he is never obviously happy- Fassbender articulates with a detached look in his eyes which barely conceal his inner pain and internal turmoil- Brandon’s life is thrown even further into disarray with the arrival of his obviously emotionally disturbed younger sister Sissy in an equally strong performance by Carey Mulligan. Launching herself into Brandon’s stratosphere like a whirlwind she moves into his apartment then sleeps with his boss at a rate which even makes her brother wince and register discomfort. She gives a slow languorous and emotionally heartfelt rendition of New York, New York which has none of the joie de vivre and upbeat enthusiasm usually associated with that song instead tingeing it with a deep rooted melancholy. McQueen shoots this scene in one take focussing intently on Mulligan’s features which seem to contort with grief whilst simultaneously revealing her fractured inner psyche. It is a scene which reduces Brandon to tears though we are never sure why.
Further problems arise when Brandon attempts some normality in his relationships by going out on a date with Marianne a beautiful girl from his office. The awkwardness of the date combined with Brandon’s inability to express emotion or even have sexual relations with someone he is emotionally attracted to ensure that the relationship is essentially a non starter. Following this he embarks on even darker episodes in the inferno of the demi-monde and as his life appears to unravel more and more he simply confronts these issues by becoming even more debauched. There does not seem to be any resolution for either Brandon or Sissy and the root of their unhappiness is never revealed as is the fact whether they are ever likely to find any resolve to their obvious problems.
Shame is a deeply unsettling film that is no walk in the park followed by a skip around the flowers and its intensity is at times claustrophobic but it never fails to be compelling. This is due to extremely strong performances by Fassbender and Mulligan which McQueen’s brave and inventive direction only further highlights to great advantage. It is a film which will stay with you long after the unresolved ending and its impact will resonate even if you are not sure how or even why.
Directed by Michel Hanaviscious this French film pays homage to the silent era of nineteen twenties and thirties film making and its role in the creation of an early form of celebrity culture. Lovingly crafted by Hanaviscius the films charms are enhanced by the casting of Jean Dujardin as George Valentin- a handsome Rudolph Valentino/Clark Gable type- the silent film star at the pinnacle of his success and Berenice Bujo as Peppy Miller as the emerging star of the talkies being ushered in as silent film is now considered passé by the Hollywood industry bigwigs. In contrast to many other films released over the Holiday period-mainly sequels or remakes- The Artist relies on neither computer generated visuals, big bangs, elaborate stunts or the sacrifice of plot over cheap but very expensive aesthetics to make its impact. Instead the lack of dialogue is almost refreshing-dialogue and sound do appear at incongruous moments unexpectedly and as an effective tool- allowing the soundtrack by Ludovic Bource and the facial expressions of the cast to articulate most of the plot development. The black and white cinematography is also extremely effective in lending the film an air of authenticity and for those purists who claim they don’t make films like they used to here is evidence to the contrary.
The action revolves around the accidental meeting of Valentin and Miller after the premiere of George’s latest successful film and expelled from the crowd of well wishers in front of the cinema Peppy is catapulted into the limelight after her photo appears on the front of the following day’s papers with the press enquiring after the mystery girl’s identity. Valentin is also fascinated by this exquisite creature and on encountering her at the film studio where she is auditioning as an extra a mutual fascination becomes something more. However as her career takes an upward trajectory his is starting to flounder as the arrival of sound heralds the death knell for the stars of the former silent era. The Wall Street crash of 1929 does little to improve his fortunes and Valentin finds himself bankrupt and at his lowest ebb. Peppy however the latest sensation-her newfound fame even elicits from her an oblique reference to Garbo’s plea for solitude in the phrase ‘I want to be alone’- but despite this her respect, admiration and love for Valentin remain intact.
The Artist is that unusual genre of film in that it is hard not to like. Many may argue that it is style over substance but, in fact, its style is its substance and the whole thing simply exquisitely executed. From the great swells of the soundtrack to the ravishing beauty of its stars-look out for Malcolm Mc Dowell and George Goodman in supporting roles- everything draws to a nostalgic feel that is hard to resist and is indeed pointless trying to. In essence, the film is refreshing in its objectives of simply setting out to entertain in a market saturated with overkill and complicated plot lines bringing everything back to merely pleasing the audience whilst providing them with a glamorous piece of high quality escapism which we all need once in a while. Don’t we?