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By Michael Calleri

At a Wall Street financial company dedicated to making money, someone realizes that something ominous is happening. It's 2008 and the clock is ticking. The problem is that hardly anyone notices the clock. A veteran supervisor in the firm's risk-management department was paying attention, but through a bit of coincidence, he's downsized. On his way out the door, he hands off a computer flash drive to a young stock analyst. As the analyst studies the contents, he realizes that projected losses are rapidly overtaking his company's entire net worth.

Part psychological thriller, part monetary horror movie, the exciting new drama "Margin Call" is to the collapse of the mortgage market as "The China Syndrome" was to the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. It gives us insights into the fracturing of an insular, rigidly structured world. "Margin Call" captures the hearts and minds of Wall Street employees as everything around them falls apart. There's no question that the movie begs comparison to other pictures about high-stakes finance, especially "Wall Street." Comparisons are fair, and the truth of the matter is that "Margin Call" is an exceptional film. It's serious and entertaining and always keeps you interested.

The fired guy with the flash drive is Eric (Stanley Tucci). The young turk is Peter (an exceptional Zachary Quinto, who is also credited as one of the movie's six producers). Confused at first, and unsure of what he's going to find, Peter discovers that "risk-management" has another, more ominous meaning. Not only is his firm at risk, but possibly all mortgage portfolios held by companies on what's generically known as Wall Street are in danger of unraveling. This subject matter may seem dry, but the movie is anything but. What's facing world financial markets is the end of their liquidity. The fat cats will soon be running for cover. Let the finger-pointing begin. The higher up you go in Peter's company, the bosses become smarmier and smarmier, their pores oozing the worst kind of managerial duplicity.

From the moment Peter understands the future, the superbly constructed "Margin Call" never lets up. What's especially exciting is the fact that this is the feature film debut of writer-director J.C. Chandor. He isn't afraid to take his movie into some truly dark corners. He also has a genuine grasp of the ins and outs of Wall Street, including a powerful understanding of the language of the street. There's a delicious moment when some of the older financial people have to ask the younger workers to explain themselves in plain English. Chandor has also gotten wonderful performances from his crackerjack cast. In addition to Tucci and Quinto, you'll delight in watching Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Penn Badgley, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Peter Y. Kim and Grace Gummer. There's not a false note from the cast.

"Margin Call" takes place in the offices and corridors of a financial firm facing the apocalypse. There are shocked underlings and oily ringleaders desperate to save their company and themselves. A question is asked about the possibility of quickly selling off bad debt before everyone in the country realizes what's about to happen. The question goes to the mercenary nature of some of the Wall Street thieves. These claws of corruption are part of one of the best movies you will see this year.

In the 1960s, wild man journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote a novel titled "The Rum Diary" and put it in a desk drawer, where it sat for years. Actor Johnny Depp convinced Thompson to publish it in 1998, during the period when Depp was making his entertaining film version of Thompson's "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.

"The Rum Diary" was made almost three years ago but has sat in distribution hell. No one wanted to risk releasing it. A small distributor has taken the chance, and for a short while, the film seems as if it might be worthwhile.

Depp plays a character certainly based on Thompson, and he delivers a nice comic tone. The setting is San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1960, and the production team has beautifully recreated the era. In fact, this mellow, sun-drenched San Juan looks positively magical. Writer-director Bruce Robinson has written some very funny dialogue that shows up early. You sense Thompson's presence in the words being spoken. It's enjoyable and refreshing. Thompson wasn't called "gonzo" for nothing. Robinson is most famous for his movie "Withnail And I" from 1987. He hasn't had a directing credit in 19 years, the last was the so-so "Jennifer 8" from 1992.

"The Rum Diary," which also stars Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli and Amber Heard, moseys along at a leisurely pace until it loses traction. What begins as a tale of a fresh-faced, twenty-something writer looking for work at a newspaper in San Juan slowly becomes a movie about too many other things.

Depp plays a fellow named Kemp, but truth be told he looks too old for the role. At first, Kemp falls into a zany friendship with two drunken fools. One guy is a washed-up young reporter and the other guy is a photographer with a million stories to tell. Unfortunately, the film drifts into side stories about corruption, land development and unethical business practices. There's a love story that suddenly becomes unimportant, as well as a call for living one's life according to hallowed journalistic principles. These threads fall by the wayside.

Too often, the movie you've been enjoying becomes a different movie, and this happens more than once. The picture runs 120 minutes, and you get the sense it was cut from something longer, some ambling lark about living the good life in Puerto Rico, having a full-time job be damned. Rum drinkers tell terrific stories. Weirdly, even with the changes in story lines, Kemp and his pals always seem to return to this question: What makes an American an American? They do this with stentorian platitudes.

Drunks philosophizing can be a lot of fun. Or not, depending on your appreciation of the power of alcohol. The entertainment value is there. I never felt badly for the characters, I merely got tired of the repetition.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 1, 2011