Margin Call (Film Review)

Margin Call (Film Review)

I’ll admit that I don’t really understand the business world. To me, it is so complex, and terms are thrown around that I have no idea what they mean. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love me a good movie about Wall Street people doing sketchy things. There has been a solid history of movies about financial fraud or insider trading, that I decided to give Margin Call a shot.

The story is based around a problem discovered by one of the risk analysts of a large firm, just prior to the collapse of the markets in 2008. Margin Call is sort of the last hurrah for this company before everything goes bad, and the rest of the markets follow suit, causing one of the largest financial crises in American history. Now, to describe the issue that was discovered, I revert to the wonders of wikipedia: “That night, Sullivan finishes Dale’s project and discovers that current volatility in the firm’s portfolio of mortgage backed securities will soon exceed the historical volatility levels of the positions. Because of excessive leverage, if the firm’s assets decrease by 25% in value, the firm will suffer a loss greater than its market capitalization. He also discovers that, given the normal length of time that the firm holds such securities, this loss must occur.”

marginSo, what I got out of all that was that things were going to be bad, as they were selling things that weren’t really worth that much anyway.

Margin Call could have taken some time to more deeply explain the problem here, for those of us who are not financial experts. Regardless, even without completely understanding what the central problem was, this was still an enjoyable film. There is an all-star cast here, and the movie was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Based on the strong writing, and the superb acting, seemingly unimportant things become highly suspenseful, and it is exciting to watch and see what the firm is going to do in order to either solve all of their problems, or cut the line and hope for some damage control afterwards. Careers are ended, scapegoats are made, and problems are solved, all with an eye on still being able to make some money once everything settles down.

It is an interesting look at what could have been going on behind the scenes when everything went bad on Wall Street in 2008, seeing how quickly massive, life-altering choices were being made, in order to minimize the damage. Of course, there are ethical issues, whereas the people buying the parts of the company as they attempted to liquidate everything in one day after discovering the glitch, were essentially buying something that was worthless. It is not surprising to see how little value is placed on the end users of these large deals.

Even by the end of the film, I didn’t really understand everything that had happened. Margin Call is definitely for someone who is smarter than me. There was no spoonfeeding of the way things work as there was in other comparable films, such as Wall Street. 

But that didn’t change things from being quite entertaining. Again, with a cast that includes heavyweights like Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Zachary Quinto, it is hard to go wrong.

I randomly gave this one a shot on Netflix, and was not disappointed. A very strong, well written, and well acted look at those last moments on Wall Street, when people started to realize that things were going to go south in a big hurry, and the way that they reacted to it.

Worth a watch.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Book Review)

The Wolf of Wall Street (Book Review)

Having recently written a long overdue review of the film version of The Wolf of Wall Street, a great Scorcese/DiCaprio film (my review is here https://gatsbyfuneral.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/the-wolf-of-wall-street-film-review/), I can now write about the original material for the film, as I have just completed the reading of Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same title.

Not often is a film better than the novel, but this just might be one of those cases.

While Belfort has an incredible tale to tell, he is not a writer, and there are times in the novel where this shows. There is too much repetition (ok, Jordan, we get it, the Duchess is very attractive), and sometimes the figurative language is forced, but it does not really take away from the story. As with the film, it is the story of a rise and fall of the man they called the Wolf, who took Wall Street for millions, illegally, and then eventually had to pay the price. His story is one of greed and debauchery, about having it all and then wanting more.

wolfBelfort is a very smart man, and in the novel, we see a little bit more into how clever he was in manipulating the stock market to make himself millions of dollars. We are able to read more detail about the anarchy and decadence of his firm and his loyal Strattonites. This may seem like a surprise, because there was no shortage of drugs and sex in the movie, but trust me, there is even more in the book.

It is sometimes hard to tell is Belfort is bragging about the things he has done, or if he is a man who has paid the price and has really learned a lesson. It is tough to tell which person he is: the caring rich guy who was willing to help out anyone who needed it, or the pretentious millionaire who looked down at those who weren’t as obsessed with money as he was.

Is Jordan the hero, or the villain of his own story?

The advantages of the book are that we get to know the characters with some more depth than we do in the film. In the movie version, they are caricatures of people who exist in real life, yet we don’t really get to know who they really are. We also get a lot more insight into Jordan himself, as he is able to describe his thought process in a way that the narration in the film was unable to do. And we get to see a little bit more of the genius that this man possessed, something I argued against in the film version.

A downside to the book is that sometimes it seems we are simply reading a list of conquests that one man has. Yes, he sleeps with many women. Yes, they are beautiful. Sure, they are primarily prostitutes, but it still counts, right? Sure, he did a lot of drugs and got away with some pretty strange and heinous things (the plane to Switzerland incident being one of them- imagine that kind of behavior on a flight now!). Even delving deeper into the person that Belfort is, by the end of the book, as with the movie, we are forced to ask ourselves if we actually like this character.

He is charming, and has a silver tongue, and it would be difficult to resist these things. But does he do the things he does because of his addiction problems, or because he knows that he is rich enough to get away with them? Perhaps a little bit of both. His second wife, Nadine, the Duchess, is no angel, but the way that he treats her is laughable. He knows the choices he makes will get him into trouble, and that it will send her into a rage, yet he does it anyways, because he knows that she will not leave him, and that after a few days of anger, she will calm down and things will be fine again. These are the actions of a bad person. Sure, the incidents he lives through are humorous, but dangerous. Not only to himself, but to others as well. Should he be celebrated or hated?

I guess this is the main point of the book. When we can seemingly do whatever we want, who wouldn’t go ahead and go for it?

The Wolf of Wall Street is a pretty entertaining read, for all of its faults. It is not the best written book out there, but it is full of enough incidents that it makes for a pretty decent narrative. I don’t know that I would recommend it over the film version, since that was so good, but if you are looking for something to read over the summer, and have seen the movie, but wanted to know more, then go ahead and give this one a read.

The Wolf Of Wall Street (Film Review)

The Wolf Of Wall Street (Film Review)

With going to the theater a more rare thing for me, it often takes me a long time to see films that people have been raving about for months. And I am okay with that. I can wait to hear all the reviews about a movie, wait for the awards season to come and go, hear about who was robbed and who earned their statues, etc. And then I can finally sit back, and enjoy a film based on what I want to think of it, without any of the hype getting in the way. Waiting to see big movies has made me a lot more objective.

wolf-of-wall-street1The Wolf of Wall Street is typically the type of movie I would have rushed out to see back in the day. I love all films directed by Martin Scorcese, and I particularly enjoy those in which he has worked with Leonardo DiCaprio, who I believe has become the best actor of this generation, or perhaps tied with Daniel Day Lewis. The movies that these two have made together have all been excellent, and there isn’t a single one that I didn’t enjoy.

In this film, I believe DiCaprio may have given his best performance to date. At least, in the first half of the three-hour movie he does. After the climactic events of the film, he regresses a little to the DiCaprio that we are more used to seeing, and he seems far more hinged and held back than the crazed, greedy, maniac he is in the first half.

The plot of the story is typical for a Scorcese film, and really isn’t that different from Goodfellas, set in a different locale. Man starts from nothing, rises up to be the best, and then the inevitable downfall. There is nothing new here when it comes to the story, but as with all Scorcese films, the best part is how he brings it all out.

For Wolf, he does it through the debauchery of the lead characters’ (Jordan Belfort) life. He loves drugs, and women, and money. He goes on major Qualuude benders, snorts tons of cocaine (from some pretty interesting locations, as well), drinks like a fish, and goes through hookers like candy. Jordan is an insatiable person, in all aspects of his life. He became a self-made, millionaire trader on Wall Street, and lived life in the finest lap of luxury. Before it all blows up in his face, as these things tend to do. But prior to his fall, he gets everything a human could want. The crazy mansion, an armada of impressive sports cars, the gorgeous wife (played impressively by Margot Robbie, who has an awesome Long Island accent, and a beauty that steals several scenes).

Margot-Robbie-Leonardo-Di-CaprioThe rest of the supporting cast in this film is strong as well. Even though I really don’t like Jonah Hill, he was pretty good in his role. The same goes for Matthew McConaughey, who doesn’t get much screen time, but creates a likable character pretty quickly.

I really enjoyed this movie. Even though it is very long, it is definitely entertaining. We like watching Belfort to terrible things to himself and to those around him, because a part of the film is about how he really is a good person, and helpful to those around him. There is a world-record amount of swearing in the film (because apparently people have counted the number of f-bombs in here, and all other movies), tons of drugs, and tons of nudity. A little something for everybody.

My biggest complaint about the transition of this book in to a film (I am currently reading the novel written by Belfort that served as the source material for the movie, I will write a review of the book when I complete it) is that there isn’t much explained about how Jordan managed to make all of his money and this leaves us not really understanding his true genius. Whenever the screen version of Belfort begins to explain how he is messing with the system in order to make millions, he cuts himself off, telling the audience that we either don’t really care about the details, or that we wouldn’t understand it. I believe this took  a lot away from him, because while we know he is clever, we don’t know how clever. Was a lot of his money a fluke? How good was he? For those of us who don’t really understand Wall Street, but want to know more, this movie missed an opportunity to detail a little bit more about the ins and outs of the business. Think of how Oliver Stone’s Wall Street educated us in the sneakiness of insider trading. I wanted some more of that. I didn’t want to be treated as a simple audience member who wouldn’t understand everything. Sure. perhaps I wouldn’t understand it all, but I wanted to at least be given the chance (this rings true in the novel, as Belfort brushes over a lot of the details on how his money was made, although he describes intensely how he went about moving it to the Swiss accounts). Maybe more explanation would have meant an even longer running time, but I would have sacrificed another twenty minutes to find out how the man called the Wolf became the man called the Wolf.

This is not Scorcese’s best movie. I think the story was too simple for it to be that. It misses out on some of the layers that his other work has provided us with, in films such as The Departed. The story is simple, and perhaps it leaves us wanting more. Because we know what is going to happen, perhaps he could have provided us with more insight into the characters. For example, there is a scene described in the novel where Belfort confesses all of his problems to Aunt Emma (or Patricia in the novel). This gives us insight in to him, and their relationship, and the reasons he does so much of what he does. In the film version, all we get is him wondering if she is hitting on him, and him confessing that he is a drug and sex addict. There could have been more here, so that we would care about Belfort in the way we cared about Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, or Robert DeNiro in Casino. For a movie that was this long, there could have been more about this man that we were watching, and loving, on screen. And we all know that DiCaprio has the chops to create a layered character that we can love, or even love to hate.

I truly enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street. I probably believe that DiCaprio should have finally got his Oscar for this film. God knows he should have had three or four by now, but that is neither here nor there.

If you are on the fence about watching this movie, see it. It lives up to the hype that was created around it, and it will eventually be considered a quintessential part of the Scorcese/DiCaprio collection.