Margin Call

Margin Call is a remarkable movie.  The premise is straightforward:  24 hours in the life of a Lehman Brothers-esque finance firm at the start of the 2008 financial crisis.  Since we all know how that turned out, the audience can sit back and just watch the wonderful acting, the smart, tight writing, and atmospheric dread hanging over every shot.

Margin Call [Blu-ray]

Let’s start with the actors. Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) plays a young financial analyst who discovers that something’s very wrong with the firm’s books. I’ve liked his acting ever since I saw him as the scarily malevolent Sylar in the TV series Heroes (before it jumped the shark). Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects and so many others) is his world-weary boss. Simon Baker (The Mentalist) plays Kevin Spacey’s boss. Demi Moore (A Few Good Men) and Jeremy Irons (Die Hard: With a Vengeance) round out the star-studded cast. Even Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show), and Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) make appearances in the film.

Star Trek (Single-Disc Edition)
Heroes - Season One
The Usual Suspects [Blu-ray]
The Mentalist: The Complete First Season
A Few Good Men (Special Edition)
Die Hard With a Vengeance [Blu-ray]
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart 10/20/08
Battlestar Galactica: The Complete 2004 Series [Blu-ray]

All this acting talent is not wasted. The opening scene of mass layoffs at the firm recall the impersonal corporate coldness of George Clooney’s Up in the Air. As the scope of the coming financial disaster is revealed, the situation is “escalated” to ever-higher layers of superiors who are as willfully ignorant of the details of how their own firm runs as they are obscenely rich and profligate in their use of power.

I loved how the director assumes the audience is smart. Financial jargon is largely unexplained, combined with clever use of “plain-English” exposition where the underlings have to explain to the bosses how much trouble they’re in. Even the movie’s title is never mentioned in the movie – if you know what a margin call is, you know it’s bad, and it doesn’t bode well for the firm. Another touch I really liked was the use of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude during a key point in the film. The prelude (Prélude in D-flat Major, Op. 28, No. 15) is all about rain – a sweet, light sprinkle in the beginning; stormy and turbulent in the middle; the rain washes away in the end. The passage used was, of course, the middle passage to presage the coming storm. A perfect touch.

Easily one of my favorite films of the year.

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Situation Normal: All Made Up

I got onto the subway train with my face and hands smudged, looking like I rolled around in the dirt all day. Of course, this being NYC, no one gave me a second look. Maybe they thought I still haven’t recovered from Halloween. More likely though, they didn’t think about it at all – once they decided that I didn’t look or smell like a homeless person. It takes a lot to make a New Yorker give up their hard-won seat on the subway.

It was actually makeup from Hollywood’s version of Occupy Wall Street – shooting on the set of The Dark Knight Rises – the latest Batman movie from director Chris Nolan, starring Christian Bale (Batman), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Anne Hathaway (Catwoman), Tom Hardy (Bane), and others.

Here’s a taste of one of the mass fight scenes, filmed by someone who lives above Wall Street, where we were shooting. I was one of over 1000 extras, which apparently breaks the record for the number of paid extras used for shooting a movie in NYC.

Showbiz is often surreal. One moment you’re running down Wall Street, screaming your head off with a thousand other people in full costume. Next thing you know, you’re stepping beyond the barricades surrounding the set, back to the “real world” of paying taxes, hanging out with friends, and having fun the normal way, like going to the movies… oh wait. Is the real world actually that different?

Wardrobe? Business clothes – check.
Hair & makeup? You have to look the right way every day – check.
Script? “To be or not to be, that is the question” vs. “let’s get on the same page about the synergies from pooling these value-added services with your portfolio” – check.
Credit? You get a title to play a role on the company org chart – check.
Resume? Listing your professional training, experience and skills – check!

Of course – there are differences, if you want to nitpick. Perhaps showbiz is a little more upfront about the fact that you’re putting on a show. And the same applies in reverse – show business is just that – a business. However, that doesn’t take away the creativity – just as there are showbiz people who are great on the business side, there are designers and engineers and managers in the corporate world who are just as creative as anybody in showbiz. Just specific skills applied in different contexts. And I will always admire and respect professional behavior and spectacular work, wherever I encounter it.

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“Cargo” – Theatrical Release and Premiere

Movie poster for Cargo

Cargo, a feature film about human trafficking, was released into limited theatrical release on Friday, October 21, 2011 at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

Cargo is the latest feature film produced by Persona Films – a production company which I’ve had the pleasure of working with on a few of their commercials. For Cargo, they asked me to work background on their last night of shooting, as a paramedic.

That was two years ago. Since then, they finished editing the film, and started showing it at various film festivals, most recently winning the Grand Jury Award at the New Hampshire Film Festival. Wanting to “release Cargo in a theater in New York City in order to spread awareness of the issue of sex trade in our society”, Persona Films launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising over $25,000 in a month. In the process, they made Kickstarter history: the one millionth backer was someone who had pledged to support Cargo! And the latest good news is that UNICEF has announced that the organization will provide its support for the film. Hopefully that means that Cargo will be seen in many more places in the US and abroad.

At the premiere and after party, I was thrilled to celebrate with my friends from Persona Films: Yan Vizinberg (director), Abigail Honor (editor), and Chris Cooper (producer). I also caught up with writer Lee Peterkin, who actually was the Knight in the CMS Forex “Arena” we shot together (I was the Ninja who whacked him upside the head with nunchuks).

Earlier this year, I had the inkling of a dream: to one day be sitting in a movie theater, and see my name in the credits – as an actor, stuntman, whatever. At the time, I had no idea exactly how that was suppose to happen – since nothing in the movie business is guaranteed. In a way, it seemed like an impossible dream (or at least, highly improbable). And now, a few short months later, I am sitting in a packed theater at the movie premiere of Cargo, watching my name scroll across the screen. The universe already had everything in place… I just didn’t know it yet. I’ll have to remember this the next time I have doubts about anything.

Cargo official site
Cargo Facebook page
Persona Films

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Stunt Movies – Jackie Chan: My Stunts and Hooper

Aaron from stunt class recommended that I see a couple of movies about stunts: Jackie Chan: My Stunts and Hooper. I did – and I have to say, great recommendations!

Jackie Chan: My Stunts is a behind-the-scenes look at Jackie Chan’s stunts. Jackie Chan directed and produced it himself, and takes us through the process and preparation for his stunt-driven movies. His stunt team (like Jackie himself) is amazing – they’re dedicated, skilled, extremely well-trained, and willing to put their bodies on the line extreme stunts. Jackie explains some of his famous stunts from his movies from the 1980s through the late 1990s (this DVD was released in 2001) – including from Police Story, Rush Hour, and Who Am I?. It’s inspiring, amazing, and scary all at once.

Hooper is a film by Burt Reynolds as a homage to stuntmen. I didn’t know that Burt himself started out int eh movies as a stuntman! It’s basically a whole movie about stuntman hanging out on sets, having fun, and doing crazy stunts. As campy as it sometimes is, this movie is really heartwarming in the best sense of the word. Required viewing for any stuntman (wanna-be or otherwise).

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