Reviews

Too Wide a Margin in 'Margin Call'

The ambitious Margin Call is held back only by its cloying contrivances.


Margin Call

Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgely, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci
Length: 107 minutes
Studio: Before the Door Pictures, Benaroya Pictures, Washington Square Films, Margin Call, Sakonnet Capital Partners
Year: 2011
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating: R for language
Release date: 2011-12-20

Audiences are avoiding all real world issues at the movie theaters these days. Be it because they need a distraction from their unusually rocky day-to-day lives, or merely a lack of important and entertaining fare at the theaters, nothing seems to be catching hold. Whether it’s covering Wall Street, 9/11, war, or all three, films of such serious topics aren't making money here in the States.

Stars aren’t helping, either. Michael Douglas and Shia Lebeouf couldn’t save Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps from an underwhelming $52 million domestic tally. The almighty Tom Hanks and box office queen Sandra Bullock haven’t been able to overcome the early admonishment of the 9/11 drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- it’s made only $351,000 after nine days in limited release. Even The Hurt Locker managed just more than $17 million, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture two years ago.

I don’t know how these films manage to keep finding financing, but here we are again with another darkly topical movie, another all star cast, and another box office bomb. Margin Call is a slickly told semi-fictional story of an investment bank’s demise on the night before Wall Street’s collapse. Told from the various perspectives of its employees, first time feature writer and director J.C. Chandor uses these varyingly influential power players to depict different levels of panic.

We start at the bottom with Peter (Zachary Quinto, also a producer on the film) and Seth (Penn Badgely) as they watch their coworkers get laid off. Most prominently for them is the dismissal of their boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the head of risk management and Peter’s mentor. Just before he leaves the building, Eric hands Peter a flash drive with a project he didn’t have time to finish. “Be careful,” he ominously states as the elevator doors slide shut.

Why did Eric have to say anything? Peter, who was already depicted as extremely loyal and trusting to his boss, would have worked on the project no matter what. Margin Call is packed with minor obtuse moments like these that ruin what could have been subtlely powerful references. Three men stand at the top of the company’s skyscraper. One looks towards the bottom and quips, “It’s a long way down.” Kevin Spacey’s character, department head Sam Rogers, reacts by talking about his sick dog when he’s first told the bank may be at risk. The dog’s health worsens with the company’s downfall.

In the film’s most captivating and cloying scene, Eric Dale mourns the loss of useful business practices by rattling off incalculable statistics about a bridge he helped build many years prior. Yes, Dale’s expertise and intelligence are made clear by his impossibly fast mental math. Yes, the story is relevant and one we believe Dale would tell at the time he does. Yet it still comes off as preachy. I don’t think you could find any average citizens who would come out in support of big banks these days, but Chandor seems enamored with the lack of morals found in the institutions’ leaders. I doubt anyone is as shocked as Chandor by greedy people doing anything to make a buck.

That said, Margin Call largely overcomes its first-time writer’s flaws through quick, efficient pacing, striking visuals, and fine performances from its tremendous cast. The film is flat out entertaining, and I say that as someone who knows next to nothing about Wall Street. Chandor manages to boil down the story to something everyone can understand. Even if it’s too dumbed-down for some, there’s still plenty to latch onto and enjoy (an odd adjective to use here, I know).

The acting MVP has to go to Tucci. Even in a limited role, he finds a way to become the most captivating person in every single scene. And that’s with Jeremy Irons chewing up a lot of scenery and Kevin Spacey getting the meat of the moral outrage. Paul Bettany continues to make us question how he never made it to the A-list, while the younger crowd shows considerable promise for their own ability to move up the Hollywood ladder.

Considering Margin Call only scraped up $5 million from its theatrical run, the DVD carries a considerable amount of special features. Chandor shows up for a feature commentary track, while the rest of the cast pops in throughout a behind-the-scenes doc, a gag reel, and two deleted scenes. The nixed takes were cut for good reason -- the first is excessive and the second repetitive. The doc is pretty much standard fare, but I always appreciate when all the actors in an ensemble like this one come forward for interviews.

Two juicy bits come to light in "Revolving Door: Making Margin Call". It turns out J.C. Chandor’s father worked as a trader for Merrill Lynch, making the director’s debut a much more personal undertaking than I would have guessed. We also learn how this surefire flop gained financing: Zachary Quinto used his Heroes and Star Trek money to back it. I admire the confidence, but hope he's still got some left.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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