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Legal download: Stock traders on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week, we treasure some volatile films about stock traders.

THIS WEEK’S THEME: Stock Traders

The Wikipedia page for “stock trader” provides a nice visual representation of the profession’s range: a picture of Warren Buffet sits directly above a picture of Bernie Madoff. In the movies, you’ll rarely see such a contrast; cinematic stock traders are almost always in the mold of the latter: amoral, avaricious, and awful (and prone to alliteration, apparently). If you’re of the mind that the Wall Street is entirely corrupt, that the stock market has basically destroyed all that is good about America, you’ll find plenty in the following five films to entertain you, but not a whole lot that’s going to change your mind.

On SundanceNow
MY PIECE OF THE PIE (2011)
Directed by Cédric Klapisch
$4.99 to rent or stream; $19.99 to purchase

To the trader, the stock market is a game. And to win, you sometimes need to make losers of the rest of us. That’s why Steve (Gilles Lellouche, the fine French actor last scene in the breathless thriller POINT BLANK) thinks nothing of manipulating a company’s stock until they’re forced to close a factory. Later, though, one of the factory’s former employees (Karin Viard) becomes Steve’s maid, and then caretaker for his child, after a son from a previous relationship shows up on his doorstep. As we’ll see momentarily, stock trader characters in films typically believe the ends justify the means, and often argue that avarice is its own reward. But just because self-interest pays well doesn’t mean it’s without consequences. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the film: “You can forgive someone for wanting their piece of the pie. But what if they want your piece, too?”

On Amazon Instant Video
WALL STREET (1987)
Directed by Oliver Stone
$2.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase

You know the line; it’s one of the most famous in the history of movies. Michael Douglas’ corporate raider Gordon Gekko defining his worldview and providing a tagline for the entire era of Reaganomics: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” WALL STREET was supposed to be a cautionary tale about the corruption of the 1980s, but Douglas’ Gekko was such a seductive figure that in the eyes of many in the audience his antagonist took on the qualities of an anti-hero (or, for some on the real Wall Street, an aspirational icon). A pre-winning Charlie Sheen plays Douglas’ protege and later his nemesis, an opportunistic young broker named Bud Fox who worms his way into Gekko’s inner circle, attempts to glom off his success, and learns the hard way about the man’s true values. Sure, greed is good. So long as you’re the one who’s greedy. The film was co-written and directed by Oliver Stone, who recently tried to revive the franchise with 2010′s WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS. So I guess he knew what he was talking about when he wrote the whole “Greed is good” thing.

On iTunes
MARGIN CALL (2011)
Directed by J.C. Chandor
$14.99 to purchase; $19.99 to purchase in HD.

It’s morning at an investment bank and it’s time for a round of layoffs. On his way out the door, a fired risk management analysts (Stanley Tucci) hands a USB drive to another employee (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to be careful. Quinto examines the files on the drive and discovers what Tucci had found: the firm is days, perhaps even hours, away from collapse. This Oscar nominated and Spirit Award winning drama (for Best Ensemble and Best First Feature for writer/director J.C. Chandor) is sort of like the post-apocalyptic WALL STREET. The layoffs that start the movie are the Rapture; what follows finds those fortunate enough to survive it bearing the unfortunate burden of facing Armageddon (that would make, Jeremy Irons, as the bank’s CEO, the Antichrist). MARGIN CALL reveals the sad and disturbing inside story behind the 2008 economic collapse; at times the film is so good it becomes something of a religious experience. The fantastic cast that won that Best Ensemble Spirit Award also includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Aasif Mandvi, and Demi Moore.

On Google Play
ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (2005)
Directed by Alex Gibney
$2.99 to rent

The film that launched director Alex Gibney to the forefront of the documentary world was this lucid and infuriating “story of synergistic corruption” exposing the shamefully corrupt practices that led to the rise and ultimate fall of the commodities corporation Enron. The corporation’s executives are seen throughout Gibney’s film taking the fifth and playing dumb in front of Congressional committees, but Gibney’s extensive interviews with former Enron employees, politicians, and journalists tell a much different story. The so-called “smartest guys in the room” were all awaiting trial when ENRON was first released, so it’s a bit out of date now — one major player in the scandal has already served jail time and been released, another passed away just before sentencing — but the film remains an engagingly comprehensive portrait of the most corrupt company in American history. At least let’s hope it’s the most corrupt — we’re all in big trouble if someone tries to top them.

On YouTube
TRADING PLACES (1983)
Directed by John Landis
$2.99 to stream

An embarrassing admission: I’ve probably seen TRADING PLACES a dozen times; as a kid, as a teenager, as a college student, as a married man with my wife and in-laws. I love this movie. And just now, prepping this column, I just got the double entendre in the title: Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy’s characters literally trade places, but Aykroyd’s character is an executive at a commodities company; the climax of the film takes place on the floor of the a stock exchange, another literal trading place. So, yeah, I’m not too bright — but even I can recognize the greatness of this magical John Landis comedy. Aykoyd and Murphy are pawns in the game between a couple of old brokerage owners. In order to settle an argument about nature versus nurture, they decide to frame their managing director (Aykroyd) for robbery and drug use, and give a hobo (Murphy) his job. Aykoyd must learn how to survive without his high society connections; Murphy discovers the charm and pitfalls of the pampered life. Along the way Jamie Lee Curtis takes Aykroyd under her wing; she plays a prostitute and has a nude scene which — embarrassing admission #2 — I’ve probably seen six hundred times.