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Featured DVD / Blu-ray Review: Margin Call

December 18th, 2011

Margin Call - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Margin Call opened in limited release in late October in way more theaters than most limited releases debut in, but despite this, it still managed a $10,000 per theater average. It did well enough to expand somewhat, and this past week it cracked $5 million in total. It is now coming out on the home market, but will it continue this success?

The Movie

Margin Call takes place at a century old investment bank. The bank has recently hit a rough patch and much of the trading floor is being fired in one day. Among those let go is Eric Dale, who runs risk assessment. It turns out it was a really, really bad time to fire him. He was working on a something big, but he couldn't quite get the numbers right. As he's being escorted out of the building, he gives Peter Sullivan, one if the people who used to work for him, the file adding, "Be careful."

When the rest of the floor gets off work and decides to celebrate the fact that they weren't fired, Peter Sullivan gets to work on the file Eric gave him, and it's not good. It's so bad that he calls his co-worker, Seth, and tells him to come back to the office and to bring their old boss's boss, Will Emerson, with him. Eric was looking at the historical norms when it came to market volatility, which is what this film, and indeed every firm, uses to trade with. They take what has been the historical average for volatility and add 10% to 15% for a margin of error. Problems arise when the markets behave in a way that lands outside of this margin of error. This is what was troubling Eric, and when Peter looked at the numbers, he realizes the markets have been outside of this range more days than not for the past two weeks. They've been lucky so far, but because of how leveraged the company is, one bad day could result in losses greater than the combined worth of the company. One bad day could result in a company that has been around for 107 years to cease to exist.

This is enough for Will Emerson to call his boss, Sam Rogers, who calls his boss, Jared Cohen, who brings in more upper management, Sarah Robertson and Ramesh Shah. After arguments over who is the blame (Sam Rogers had warned them these deals were too risky) they call in their boss, John Tuld. The further up the chain of command they go, the less the person knows about the day-to-day trading that happens. But while John Tuld might not know the first thing about the complicated math, he knows how to save the company, by pushing all of the toxic assets off the books as quickly as possible. When asked, Sam Rogers figures they'll have till noon of that day to do so before people wise up and the Feds get involved.

I'm a bit of a numbers nerd. I love to follow just about anything with stats that can be tracked, including sports, politics, etc. I got into this job because I liked to follow box office numbers, even though I had no connection to the industry, outside of a large DVD collection. I didn't learn much from watching this film, because the collapse of the financial industry is something I've been paying attention to for a while now. I was very interested in seeing this Margin Call, because I wanted to see how well they told the story, because it is important that more people know. It is an infuriating movie to watch, not because it is a poorly made movie, quite the opposite. It is an extremely effective movie about a topic that is incredibly important, but one that is rarely talked about in a meaningful way on the cable news networks. It's an important story and the ensemble cast make the most out of the meaty roles they are given. It's no surprise this film won the Robert Altman Award at this year's Independent Spirit Awards.

There is also an important lesson you can get from the movie. You know how bankers and their bought politicians have been saying for the past couple years that they need to pay out record bonuses or the talented people will leave the company? It's a load of crap. If aliens came down tomorrow and abducted every investment banker who earned more than $1 million, the world would be better off as a result. You need small banks to ensure liquidity so that people and businesses can get loans. When Person A gets a loan from Banker B, that helps the economy. But at the moment, larger banks can make a whole lot more money in the short term by taking risky bets on loans they have no connection to. Person A gets a loan from Banker B, meanwhile, Investor C bets Investor D a ton of money that Person A won't be able to pay back that loan. These bets don't help the economy at all; in fact, they hurt the economy because banks are not making the initial loans, because the risky bets make more money. With banks leveraged 30 to 1, it only takes a very small loss to result to a total wipe out. Plus, if a bank makes enough bad bets, the government has to bail them out, or the depositors will be the ones who suffer.

There was a small amount of reform in the financial industry, but not nearly enough to prevent another collapse. And as long as banks can spend millions on lobbying, that will never change. There are a couple movements afoot to get money out of politics, is one, but amending the constitution is a long journey. Good luck to them.

The Extras

The extras on the DVD are good, especially for a limited release. The writer / director, J.C. Chandor, sits down with one of the producers, Neal Dodson, for an informative audio commentary track. There is also a six-minute making of featurette. There are also a couple deleted scenes, with optional audio commentary, and some outtakes. It's not a lot, but better than most limited releases.

Sadly I do not have the Blu-ray to compare. However, it costs 50% more than the DVD, which is a lot for this type of release.

The Verdict

Margin Call is a must have. It uses an extremely important subject as its base, builds a compelling story around this core, and hands the script to an ensemble cast who in turn give an award-worthy performance. It is worth owning, but unfortunately, the DVD is the better deal over the Blu-ray.

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