With a cast as strong as that of 'Margin Call,' you'd expect this ensemble drama to be a huge film, but it came and went from theaters quietly. Starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci, it tells the story of a large financial firm on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis. 'Margin Call' premiered in January at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, opened with a limited platform release in October, and is already available on Blu-ray. After seeing the film, I argue that it deserves more attention that it received.
'Margin Call' isn't exactly based on a true story, but it's a collective set of true stories that occurred prior to the financial crises fictionalized into one crisis-explaining narrative. The purpose of the film is not to point a finger at any one company or leader responsible, but to show both sides of the story in an unbiased manner. It causes you to shift your opinion back and forth the deeper you get into the film. At times you hate the corporate leaders shown here, but at other times you actually feel bad for them because you understand both sides of the debacle.
The film opens with an unnamed firm laying-off 80 percent of their staff. In a scene that resembles an extremely controlled firing from 'Up in the Air,' we see supervisor Stanley Tucci fired. While being escorted out of the office, he tries letting his boss know of an important project he was close to finishing, but is ignored and "let go." While waiting for an elevator, he passes a USB flash drive off to one his faithful employees (Zachary Quinto) and says, "Be careful."
After the closing bell rings, Quinto opens the drive and finds a puzzling compilation of incomplete information. Curious about what it means, he stays late, fills in the gaps, and solves the puzzle. Based on the recent history of the market, the trends and the current lows, this equation reveals that the entire U.S. economy is on the brink of collapse. Scared by the evidence at hand, he calls in his supervisor (Paul Bettany) and a chain reaction of phone calls up the ladder ensues until anyone and everyone with power is called in for over-night meetings. The high-ups know that it won't be long before a competing firm analyzes the numbers in a similar equation and comes up with the same answer, so they're faced with an ethical and moral dilemma.
To keep the business afloat, they must sell-off all of their assets immediately because when another firm figures out what's going on, they will sell first and cause our central characters' business to be worthless, but selling off their own assets immediately to cover their losses could cause the economy to collapse and torpedo the company's reputation in the process, taking years for both to get back up on their feet. Even if they keep their integrity and don't react, while this notion would seemingly save the system, it's inevitable that another firm would sell-sell-sell, in which case it would be a worthless self-sacrifice. 'Margin Call' makes you step back and wonder, if this firm was your business, what you would do? Save your own skin and sell it all, or keep plugging along until your competitors started liquidating everything, causing you to lose everything but keep your integrity? It's a wild dichotomy that I believe few Americans truly consider when thinking of this mess we've been in for a few years now.
'Margin Call' isn't trying to make you feel bad for those poor millionaire executives, but it's trying to show you why they made those bad decisions. There's no question they were making some of the biggest greed-driven mistakes in history – we especially see that via Kevin Spacey's character – but 'Margin Call' explains just what might have happened one dark day that started the ball rolling in the wrong direction. Just as 'The Ides of March' gives an eye-opening look at the common corruption found within the political system (especially for those who aren't as connected to the pulse of politics as some), 'Margin Call' examines the risky investment banking that caused the economic collapse in 2008.
'Margin Call' isn't an awards-worthy title like the studio was making it out to be, but it's still pretty good. For being nothing more that a dialog-driven drama, it's quite intense and enthralling. The performances are fantastic and the perspectives shown create true empathy for the tragic scenario at hand. It was a lose-lose situation. If you don't mind slow-burning dramas, check out 'Margin Call.' While you already know the ending going in, it's the fresh ride there that makes it worthwhile.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate has placed 'Margin Call' on a BD-25 in a standard single-disc eco-friendly blue keepcase. Everything about the disc's playability is annoying. Upon inserting the disc, nine skippable vanity reels, trailers and ads run before taking you to the menu. You cannot hit the "menu" buttons to skip past them either. The main menu itself is also annoying. The background music set to moving images from the film isn't bad, but the loud button sounds are. You can change the settings in the set-up menu, but it not only stops the button sounds but the background music as well. Upon selecting the "play movie" button, a super-loud 1080i Image Entertainment vanity reels deafens you and the movie begins with subtitles automatically engaged. If you don't know this going in, since the disc has already pre-set the subtitles toggle to "on," you must manually shut them off yourself after the movie begins.
'Margin Call' is presented with a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encode in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Once the opening credits start rolling, if the gray supposed-to-be-black background makes you worried for the contrast and black levels of the entire film, know that this is a constant issue and that it takes a lot of high-def quality out of the entire movie experience.
The contrast is blown out, blacks are gray and whites are overwhelmingly bright. Neither allow for detail to shine through. Gray shadows chew up detail also. Unless you're shown close-ups on faces or other non-black or white objects, the picture quality is both detail and textureless. Whenever we do get the occasional close-ups, the amount of detail is strong. You'll notice freckles and other imperfections on Paul Bettany's face that you never knew were there. You'll see a small scar on Demi Moore's left cheek that you didn't know existed. Strands of hair and stubble that lie between the darkly lit sides and the brightly lit sides of one's head are exquisite during these tight shots. It's a shame that those scenes are few and far between.
The film carries an overall hazy feel due to brightened contrast. The few times that colors pop in this film (which has a mostly black, white and gray palette), they're dismal and powerless. Where they should catch the eye and add vibrancy, they are so muted that they add nothing.
Artifacts, edge enhancement, DNR, and noise are not an issue, but banding and aliasing show up several times. Fades are used to show passages of time during this 27-hour experience. Any time there's a fade-in or -out, banding is present. Aliasing is an issue whenever we see tight lines of patterns in suit coats, escalator steps etc.
'Margin Call' offers only one listening option, English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio – but it's not as well utilized as it should and could be. The music is strongly mixed, the vocals are inconsistent and the effects don't take advantage of the many opportunities to show off the lossless format.
Music is executed in a very creative manner that completely works. At times, it tinkers around throughout all channels with different instruments popping up here and there. Other times, during scenes of building dialog, it will gently play in the rear speakers so quietly that you almost don't notice it, but as the dialog gets stronger in those scenes, so does the music, rising in the rear channels and building into the surround and forward channels. This effect sounds fantastic, truly adding to the intensity and tone of the film.
There's never an issue with the vocal track being heard, but there are several scenes where the dialog comes across as slightly distorted – almost as if the boom mic was too far from away from the actor during the shoot and the vocal track had to be cranked up during the mastering process to make it match the volume of the scene. This distortion problem isn't constant, nor is it frequent, but it's present.
There is only one specific moment where the imaging is noticeably well-used. It's effective, but this same scene also demonstrates the audio quality's lack of meeting potential. Just as the "high-ups" are being informed of the impending doom, our young worker bees head up to the rooftop for some air. While up there, you don't hear any ambient sounds. No wind. Nothing. But then the president of the company shows up in his helicopter and the loud sound of whizzing blades cuts through the space out of nowhere and travels across the room. We never see the chopper on-screen, but you know exactly where it is and where it's going because of strong imaging. Other than this one scene, we never get much more imaging. Doors swing and slam and no matter where they are - inside or outside the frame - we always hear them from the front. Plenty of opportunities are presented for great imaging, but they are very rarely taken advantage of.
While not worthy of any Top 10 of 2011 lists, this dialog-laden film is far more intense and entertaining than it sounds. It's not by chance that this first-time feature film writer/director locked-in this strong cast. During the short making-of special feature, cast members explain that it was the tight and intelligent script that made this passion project worth doing. The movie itself is really good, but the presentation is disappointing. Contrast levels are blown out on the white side, creating a mostly detail-less and hazy picture quality that is void of blacks. The audio features a great use of music, but lack in effects and has a couple minor distortion issues with vocals. Had it not been for these video and audio problems, 'Margin Call' would be recommended, but as-is it's just a rental.