Friday, October 21, 2011

Margin Call Review

My movie review of Margin Call for Brightest Young Things.

Margin Call is essentially the fiction counterpart to the scathing documentary condemnation of Wall Street hubris, Inside Job. Err, except that it is actually based on all too chillingly real story—48 hours in the life of a investment firm during the 2008 meltdown. In that sense, the tension is psychological but no less thrilling, and unlike Wall Street and Boiler Room, it does away with the aggrandization of the macho-centric “old boy network” and slicked-back-hair-swagger of the financial world. J.C. Chandor’s debut, featuring a star cast including Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, and Jeremy Irons, attempts to humanize what are essentially two-dimensional caricatures in the public consciousness—the Wall Street “fat cats” and their trader underling whiz kids. It’s a film that raises more questions than it answers, as it should be—it’s a trenchant commentary on the nebulousness of the word accountability and morality or right or wrong in the paper world of money--literally.

Zachary Quinto plays a young risk management wonk, with a Ph.D. in rocket science no less, who, after some late-night number crunching, “discovers” that the firm is leveraged beyond historical limits and that at current market volatility levels, it is looking to incur losses greater than its value. The big guns are called in, including the CEO [played with appropriate Euro-trash bluster by Jeremy Irons] who literally helicopters in to weigh in with the decision on how to offload the toxic assets pronto. Kevin Spacey turns in a spectacular performance as a world-weary trading floor boss on who falls the burden of doing the dirty job of selling worthless instruments. His character in particular is extremely interesting and nuanced—he resists management’s “sell something worth nothing” plan not from a moral high ground but from the perspective of a veteran salesman—“We are not in the business of selling. We are in the business of buying and selling. And we only sell stuff that we know people will come back for. No one will trust us again.” In his amoral, strange, yet stoically samurai-esque way, he has loyalty to the firm—not its CEOs and not the market. He is also not oblivious to the cut-throat nature of their business—after a particularly brutal lay-off of 80% of his traders, he advises the ones left behind that their co-workers are “not to be thought of again.” His exchange with Quinto’s character on whether selling the assets is “the right thing to do” really encapsulates the message of the whole film--“For whom?” “I am not sure.” “Neither am I.”

Margin Call deserves credit for shining a light on a really broad scope of the Wall Street milieu. For example, the firing of Sarah Robertson, Demi Moore’s risk management character, while her male counterpart stayed on hinted at the chauvinistic nature of the business. The dialogue between the junior staff about their being glorified computer junkies and about this being a game of “one guy wins, one guy loses,” as well as the “f*** normal people” nihilistic ethos of the business was nicely and subtly portrayed. The CEO’s assertion that it “wasn’t brains that got [him] here” were a cheeky comment on the current discourse on the Wall Street fat cats. The hookers-and-blow excess also added a realistic touch to the picture.

Considering that we are still in the midst of the economic quagmire that Margin Call alludes to, the film nicely manages to avoid running into the “too soon” category. No Ph.D. in Economics required, it aptly presents the situation for what it is—with no easy answers, while steering clear of the blatant and vapid money-worship of older financial thrillers like Wall Street. The characters are fallible and complex—some are American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman-esque, some, like Kevin Spacey’s character, are downright likable. In other words, it takes the fairly dehumanized version of the investment banker bad guy and at least attempts to explore him, even though humanization, redemption, or understanding is not exactly easy to come by either.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fashion: District

My review of fashion: district for Brightest Young Things:

Saturday’s fashion: District was a vibrant testament to the creativity, vitality, and relevance of DC’s fashion scene. Much akin to the much-maligned, non-existent DC hip hop scene, many would not exactly conflate DC and a fashion hub. ReadySetDC have single-handedly put DC fashion on the map, showcasing designers that are not only visionaries but who put out high-caliber, professional work well-deserving of the couture label. Plainly-put, it is not every day that you find yourself feeling like you are in Pret-A-Porter or The September Issue in the middle of DC and ReadySetDC are the ones who made it happen with such panache and flair.

Ginger Root Design were a true breath of fresh air with vintage-inspired, smart and original designs. Perfecting the art of upcycling [making something new out of something already in existence], the style was equally parts London-esque, tweed-and-zipper chique and something that Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary would wear. Zooey Deschanel/Manic Pixie Girl would definitely rock Ginger Root! Their designs were funky yet not groan-inducingly, self-referentially hipsterish. The colors were bold yet the patterns were not busy and relied more on a blocks rather than smashing of patterns approach. As the only designer to use “normal-sized” models, it was apparent that while Ginger Root make high-end fashion, their clothes were designed with a more pragmatic brush stroke and with at least some concern for practicality. Their menswear collection was particularly enthralling with two of the more memorable outfits being a tweed jacket with a zipper slicing a diagonal across the front and three leather straps as a closure and gingham shirt under a vest with a three-layered tie composed of overlapping triangles. The vest had a horizontal band of gray silk on the back, making for an extremely interesting layered visual effect.

Espion presented a really unique line of high-end evening couture. Some of the dresses were a really innovative mash-up of dominatrix meets Greek-goddess evening gown elegance. If you can imagine Athena channeling Madonna during the Blonde Ambition tour, you would get a pretty accurate idea. Other dresses were extremely regal—white and made of a stretchy material for a very sophisticated look.

Hugh & Crye delivered a very trendy men’s business wear line—it was solid and respectable and more than a little style. Artaya relied heavily on black, red, and white blocky ensembles with a nod to interesting textures.

SaintCHIC’s style was street-savvy yet high-fashion. For example, a lot of the skirts and pants relied on a “mummy” technique—they were comprised of overlapping-“bandages”/swaths of fabric. Definitely very unique and clever, and maybe a bit inspired by elements in industrial-scene wear which has been using straps on men-skirts for a good while now. The tops show-cased really layered framing necklines with a vaguely graffiti-esque feel that was equally parts hip-hop-dancer-sassy and classy.

Sika’s designs screamed creativity. Some of the fabrics had traditional African prints; some were very Asian. There were daringly plunging necklines and wee little bottom pieces, with bold colors such as orange and batik-like prints. Anthropologie would have been jealous!

Durkl’s line this season was downright underwhelming, at worst, and incredibly confusing, at best, especially considering how well-established and popular their line is. I think I was not alone in my luke-warm response to the fall collection, but maybe like the Post, I just don’t get it. At times, it seemed like they were channeling men’s wear circa Gap 1980, at other times, it seemed like their colors were literally popsicle- inspired [think patterns ala those fourth of July garish blue and red ones].

Derringer Friday deserve credit for figuring out how to make men’s ties swagger-worthy [common, it’s not an easy job]. Having female models strut around only in men’s shirts and thigh-high boots to “Ain’t Nuthin’ But A G Thing” will do that. Their end-of-the-show drinking-a-beer signature gimmick was also interesting, if a little befuddling. Oh, yeah—the ties were great too.

Fashion: District was a perfect mix of flair, swagger, style, finesse, and hard work and definitely an all-around rollicking good time.

Ladytron Concert Review

My review of the Ladytron show on October 11, 2011 at the 9:30 Club for Brightest Young Things:

Liverpool-based Ladytron’s electrifying show at the 9:30 Club was exactly what one would expect from a band that literally started the electroclash movement and heavily influenced an entire generation of bands like Empire Of The Sun, Holy Ghost, Royksopp, Yelle, and Client, to name a few…and practically the entirely neo-electro movement, in truth. It would not be an exaggeration to put Ladytron’s legacy near New Order’s—you know you have longevity in the flash-in-pan electro scene when you can release a greatest hits album of ten years, like Ladytron has. While some of their contemporaries like Miss Kittin and Felix Da Housecat and the electroclash movement as a whole lost its luster in the pop-music zeitgeist, Ladytron continued their reign by consistently putting out excellent albums. A decade-long career and five stellar album releases later, Ladytron proved equally relevant and original [stodgy “forefather” label be damned] as when they first introduced their synth-driven electropop sound.
Since the days of Kraftwerk, it is no big secret that it’s pretty hard to make knob-twiddling and keyboard-button-pushing sexy or particularly thrilling live—it’s the nature of the beast when it comes to electronica. Ladytron’s live show, however, was a really interesting mix of light and well…magic. The band and a well-executed light show were the only components yet they proved more than ample. Lead vocalist Helen Marnie was channeling some sort of a Princess Leia-meet choirgirl-meet nun white get-up, while Mira Aroyo resembled a beautiful porcelain doll. The combined effect was something best described as “demure/pneumatic babydoll chique.” They weren’t going for “sexy” but it was mannequin hot nevertheless—thrilling you with chillness?
The band opened with “Ghosts,” “International Dateline” [whose refrain, “International dateline; let’s end it here” was particularly modern and apropos in its sentiment] and with a new song called “Mirage” off their September-released album, Gravity The Seducer. Helen Marnie was doing the majority of the vocals, in a Jane Birkin-esque lilt, which isn’t always the case on their albums where the two vocalist share in their efforts. It wasn’t until “True Mathematics” that Mira Aroyo stepped away from her very concerted synth-operating duties to deliver an adorably-cute Bulgarian nursery-rhyme vocal on the song. As a fellow countrywoman, there is no doubt that Mira is, by FAR, the coolest and greatest Bulgarian export, period—and no, don’t groan about how there are no other Bulgarian exports! It is especially endearing that so many of the Bulgarian lyrics she sings are all either snippets from old folk rhymes or are very haiku-esque and sparse, yet she delivers them in this brilliant stern-detached-school-marm-way that works so perfectly. No wonder the Bulgarian contingent in the audience last night chanted, “Mira, ti si super!” [Mira, you are the best!].
The energy continued to build with Ladytron’s performance of their hits—“Runaway,” “Ace Of Hz” [both off their more recent releases], “Discotraxx,” and “Seventeen.” The song’s “They only want you when you are 17, when you are 21, you are no fun,” was a cheeky commentary on the length of the pop culture attention span nowadays. They also performed “White Elephant” off the new album and “Little Black Angel” from their greatest hits album. The show ended with a raucous performance of “Destroy Everything You Touch” that was especially apropos—sonic destruction of awesomeness abounded.
The show was a testament to what has kept Ladytron going through an entire decade with such sustained success—their music might be machine-made but it has always remained organic and melodic despite its method of creation. While knob-twiddling and button-pushing has become the norm, they’ve always kept their hand on the human pulse.