Rapid Response: The Passenger

Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider go existential in this introspective 1975 drama from Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni.

The Passenger PosterOn paper, “The Passenger” sounds like a thriller. But it’s an introspective examination of the self, an existential road trip movie with a spy element and a hint of danger. This is the way Michelangelo Antonioni does cloak and dagger espionage.

Jack Nicholson stars in the film and gives a stirring performance released the same year as his first Oscar-winning work as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Nicholson plays David Locke, a journalist in Africa so fed up with his assignment that he throws up his hands and declares he doesn’t care anymore. His car gets stuck in the sand, he’s literally spinning his wheels, and as he agonizes in defeat, Antonioni’s camera pans to reveal the enormity of the desert.

Back in his hotel, he finds his one English speaking companion, David Robertson, dead in his room. Jack reacts to it with the same irritated scowl as not having soap for the shower. Locke convinces the hotel clerks that he’s the one who’s dead, while he assumes the identity of Robertson, leaving his wife and his job behind. The only challenge is that Robertson is an illegal arms dealer in Africa. Continue reading “Rapid Response: The Passenger”

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The push and pull between new directions and tones and nostalgic fan service make for a frustrating “Star Wars” spinoff.

Rogue One PosterThe paradox of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is that it’s somehow tonally and thematically separate from the original “Star Wars” films but pays even more homage to the original trilogy than even “The Force Awakens,” amazing, since that movie is essentially a remake of “A New Hope.”

Its hero is not a wistful young farm boy but a cynical girl named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who has been in exile and shuttled around Galactic Empire prisons and work sites for years. The film’s first scene recalls the cruiser soaring overhead at the beginning of “A New Hope,” but “Rogue One” forgoes even the iconic opening crawl.

There are moments at which the film even diverts from George Lucas’s ideologies of good and evil and of the power of faith and religion. One of the film’s standouts is Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), an acrobatic yet blind protector who is not a Jedi but senses the Force in the world. When he chants relentlessly “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me,” it’s a noble yet bleak mantra as he marches into certain death and the unknown of the open battlefield. Continue reading “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

‘I Am Sitting In a Room’ – Alvin Lucier

Editor’s Note: The following piece was a reaction piece written for a class immediately following listening to an experimental musical composition by Alvin Lucier entitled “I Am Sitting in a Room”. It is not intended as a historical account of its making nor a specific review, but a diary of thoughts. 

Alvin Lucier makes clear that he is sitting in a room. But it is different from the one you are in now. Over endless minutes as his words morph and devolve into sheer pulses, they become a cloaking of sound, a dim fog that seems to hang over just about any room you happen to be in.

Lucier also has a stutter, and in his monologue we immediately become attuned to it and his desire to make it vanish. By the end of “I Am Sitting in a Room,” everything has been equalized, evened out by nature and no more irregular than anything else.

And yet Lucier’s phrasing of “destroyed” seems harsh. It is the one word that appears to sustain longer than anything else, but “evaporating” feels far more apt. This is a spoken word piece that over time does become virtually musical, a heat map of burning colors that resonate in your mind.

We lose track of the number of times his monologue repeats, the words and the tones all seeping together. It is entirely abstract and does not sound remotely natural, and in a remarkable irony everything we hear is natural. It is not “enjoyable” so much as it is a fascinating experiment. But not unlike John Cage’s “4:33,” we become hyper aware of the spaces and empty silence between words and sounds. “I Am Sitting in a Room” transforms into faint alien synths, lingering, spiritual, ethereal and eerily soothing.

Lucier does put us through an act of enduring, tolerating and awaiting for the piece to fade into nothingness or to be jolted to an end with a deafening click of a tape recorder. As these words continue to flicker for life, the sounds clinging and emanating far longer than seems necessary, the mind begins to wander. How might this piece play differently in another room, or how might the room you’re in influence the experience of being enveloped by it?

And can we still visualize Lucier sitting there in that room, different from our own? Lucier shows that there is no room, and given long enough, everything fades until wisps are all that remain.

Concert Review: Mikal Cronin at The Prairie Center for the Arts 2/21/15

Editor’s Note: The following review was an assignment for a class in which we were tasked to review something ephemeral, something that was unusual and could not be checked by anyone in the class. This is a concert review of Mikal Cronin’s performance at The Prairie Center for the Arts in Schaumburg, IL on 2/21/15. 

Schaumburg, Illinois is a Northwestern suburb of Chicago. It’s home to Woodfield Mall, the 11th largest shopping mall in America. And my grandmother lives there. So there’s that.

But Chicago it’s not, and it’s not exactly awash with culture. Yet performing in Schaumburg is Mikal Cronin, an indie garage rocker with a penchant for fuzzy guitar pop and orchestral swells, not from the Midwest but from Laguna Beach, CA. Currently he’s been known to play major festivals, but prior to this show his live act had typically reserved for dingy clubs with names like Subterranean.

But dangling at the start of Cronin’s 2015 touring schedule was a date at the end of February, several months removed from any other shows on his calendar, not to mention the upcoming release of his third album MCIII. On this night, Cronin would playing at a place called The Prairie Center for the Arts? In Schaumburg? Something was up.

When you drive up to The Prairie Center for the Arts (free parking!), the building looks like a suburban middle school. It has a boxy brick façade, large ornamental lettering on its front wall and a pretty little garden complete with a retention pond, trees and a grassy walking area lined with stone. Inside is a long hallway that empties out into a miniature art gallery. A bar has been set up near the door, and people who certainly don’t look dressed for a rock concert mull about sipping wine or cocktails.

Things get weirder. At the entrance to the theater itself are two charming old ladies in their 60s or 70s who hand you a program (a program! At a garage rock show!) and offer to show you to your seats. It contains a bio of Cronin that confirms, yes, you are in the right place and that the performer you are about to see is in fact an indie rock star who plays fuzzy, melodic guitar pop and not some other local artist who also happens to spell their first name “M-i-k-a-l.” Other upcoming acts at the Prairie Center include The Reduced Shakespeare Company and the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.

The stadium-seating auditorium can’t hold more than a couple hundred people, but tonight’s audience can’t be more than just a few dozen. Naturally, everyone is seated. This is a rock and roll show after all.

With no opener, Cronin comes out alone in a bluish-purple tie-dye shirt carrying a 12-string acoustic guitar. Normally his hair hangs below the small of his back obscuring his eyes, but today it’s cut short to the point that he’s almost unrecognizable. This is still unusual, but once he starts playing, things finally seem to have settled down into something beautiful.

Cronin played several acoustic versions of tracks like “Peace of Mind” and “Don’t Let Me Go,” (which he rarely performs live) a cover of Big Star’s “Ballad of El Goodo” (which he informs is the first time he’d ever played in concert), as well as a new song from his yet to be released album, “I”ve Been Loved.” Separated from the albums orchestral swells, Cronin’s voice is additionally frail, vulnerable and affecting. His intricate guitar strumming on his 12-string is rich and soulful, and to close out the song he even whistles the melody in a way that’s far more lovely and intimate.

Because he can’t hide behind his hair, and perhaps because everyone in the audience is sitting instead of moshing, Cronin seems sheepish and a little nervous on stage, and you can feel that nervous excitement in the crowd. This was already a show that we would’ve never expected, and now he’s delivered with this unique set. There’s even an intermission, after which Cronin will return with a full band.

Cronin explains this is one of the first times the band has played together live, and likely the first time they’ve performed several of these songs. And it shows. While the band is loud, and Charlie Moothart on guitar still shreds, their act feels unpolished and not fully together.

It doesn’t seem to matter though that this may just be a practice gig. Everything surrounding the occasion seemed special and unpredictable. In demand of an encore, Cronin and company come back and play the only other song they know, a cover of Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” a scratchy two-chord, piss-easy song that absolutely rocks. What could be better?

The idea of a secret show isn’t unique. Rock stars from Trent Reznor to Jack White to countless more have managed shows far more sensational, unusual and ephemeral than this one, and they’ve done so with sets that to the small crowd in attendance are just as distinctive and unique compared to anyone who might see them in a stadium. But many of those gigs are spur of the moment surprises designed for super fans that happen to be in the right place at the right time and can follow all the breadcrumbs necessary to attend. Jack White will transform an abandoned basement in London into a makeshift medical facility as a way to surprise his fans, but not a performing arts space in the suburbs of Chicago.

Mikal Cronin’s Prairie Center for the Arts set was like a secret show hidden in plain sight. To this day I can’t figure out why he chose to play it or why he did so in Schaumburg. No one who didn’t already live in the ‘burbs bothered to drive all the way from the city, but those who did saw something different.

As a thank you, Cronin offered everyone who came a rough, unreleased, 7-song EP of tracks downloadable from an exclusive SoundCloud link simply titled, “Mikal Cronin Loves Schaumburg, IL.” Such a show was an artifact in itself, but what does it say that now I had a collection of music that maybe only the 50 people in this audience would ever hear? Maybe it just felt nice because the elderly ushers gave us a card with the download link as we walked out.

Rapid Response: Planet of the Apes (1968)

PlanetoftheApesPosterWatching “Planet of the Apes” today is like trying to sway a climate change denier or a Creationist: it’s not going anywhere and after a while it gets pretty tiring.

Franklin J. Schaffner’s film came out in a period of civil and racial unrest in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was even shot and killed the next day after receiving its wide release. It speaks directly to racial fears and the hatefulness that leads to ignorance and abuse. By flipping the script of racial politics into one of man vs. ape, it packs big ideas into a flashy, fun genre film of the Old Hollywood tradition. Except just before its famous ending it almost asserts the superiority of man, with Charlton Heston standing as its virile leader. The cynical ending in front of the Statue of Liberty proves that man is ultimately no better than beasts, responsible for their own demise through their vices of lust and greed that the ape culture has rejected. But there’s a degree to which the damage has already been done, suggesting that the future of a different breed being superior to the white males is a scary one.

“Planet of the Apes” perhaps isn’t as explicit about race or animal rights as it could be, opting more broadly to be about human nature. But whereas the newer sequels “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” have tied the series more to environmental concerns than racial ones, sitting through the original can be awfully frustrating when dealing with characters so obviously stubborn and hateful.

The scene that comes to mind places Heston’s astronaut George Taylor at the center of a trail. He and his friendly ape protectors Cornelius and Zira are accused of heresy against ape law and religion. The judges, including the protector of the faith Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), immediately write off and overlook anything Taylor does as a hoax. He can talk, he can understand ape language (conveniently, English, even over 2000 years in the future), he can write, but you know no matter what he does they’re not going to budge, so why bother? The film’s more interesting moments happen before the men come across any apes, with Heston smugly challenging his travel companion’s existential views on trying to achieve fame and immortality. Now over 2000 years old, Heston says, “You got what you wanted. How does it taste,” before cackling maniacally as he plants an American flag, a symbol that has long lost its meaning.

Surely such discussion was highly thought provoking back in 1968. Or maybe not. Cliche idioms like “Man see, man do,” or “to apes, all men look alike,” were as cheesy then as now, if not more so. But today the subject has grown tired and has evolved beyond such obvious racial distinctions. I can still turn on cable news today and find people just as resistant to change, but “Planet of the Apes’s” antiquated views beg for something more sophisticated in today’s political climate.

Of course, “Planet of the Apes” has aged really poorly when you consider it came out the same year as “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It would be really hard to argue that the makeup effects still look “good,” but they’re certainly not distracting. More distracting is Heston; he has remarkable charisma and screen presence but was one of the hammiest actors of his generation. Here he’s embracing his more primal nature in his performance, practically beating his chest and howling as he’s being sprayed by a hose or chasing through the streets. But even when his character is supposed to be sincere, holding up a man’s old glasses, false teeth and heart valve, Heston still feels cocky and diminutive to the weakness of humans other than him.

Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star in Todd Haynes’s first film in 7 years.

CarolPosterRooney Mara as Therese Belivet in Todd Haynes’s “Carol” has perky, rosy makeup, frayed bangs beneath a plain black hair band, cute plaid outfits and a checkered fall hat. She looks like one of the toy dolls in the department store where she works. Enter Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, who wears a movie star aura with a giant coat of golden fur, a stylish red French cap and later in the car an elegant green shawl to keep her looking perfect.

In fact, both characters are particularly magnetic, and the attraction they form in “Carol” is mutual. “Carol” is a coming-of-age story for the young Therese, but it’s a movie about two people entering into separate worlds and learning to feel at home. Haynes’s film is lush, poetic, and ravishing, a stellar romance in which the unsaid words and thoughts seep into the movie’s background and color everything.

After all, “Carol” is all about backgrounds. Haynes admires the patterned sewer grates in his opening crane shot and the beads of rain on a taxicab that give the whole film an elegiac tone. There are soothing green backdrops viewed through windows and individual stills that have painterly beauty.

Haynes adorns these details with care because the many words and themes of Carol and Therere’s courtship go unsaid. Set in 1952, when being gay was considered a psychological illness, Haynes avoids the thorny jargon and the explicitness of their affair. Carol and Therese are desperate to feel close to each other, and Carol begs Therese to “Ask me, please!” They want to speak their emotions and not have them be taboo.

Unlike the racial tension of Haynes’s other ‘50s period piece “Far From Heaven”, “Carol” is not a social issue film. It’s a deeply personal love story; Carol’s desires are tearing her apart from her husband (Kyle Chandler) and her young daughter, and Therese’s uncertainty about her sexuality complicates her relationship with a potential fiancée (Jake Lacy).

Mara and Blanchett have impeccable chemistry. When they first have lunch together, Therese again echoes her innocence, with Mara ever so slightly propping herself up in her seat as though she’s never had a cigarette before. It’s a wonderful little touch, and she as an actress maintains the film’s mystique by never appearing too indecisive or too waifish. Mara’s an accomplished actress, but here she channels a young Audrey Hepburn’s natural graces.

Blanchett meanwhile channels just about all the rest of Old Hollywood, and slowly she reveals herself to be a flustered, hurt woman without ever losing her poise or leaving her bubble. It’s not unlike the work she did that won her an Oscar in “Blue Jasmine”, but here she’s likeable and ultimately as vulnerable as her innocent young lover.

Phyllis Nagy’s debut script from a novel by Patricia Highsmith (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”) is poetic, profound and beautiful. The cinematography by longtime Haynes collaborator Edward Lachman is dreamy. And the aforementioned costumes by three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell are impeccable.

But above all the technical brilliance, heed a piece of advice given to Therese: “I have a friend who told me I should be more interested in humans.” “Carol” delves deep into the world of these two human beings and finds a home.

4 stars

Spectre

Spectre, the fourth Bond film in the Daniel Craig era fails to live up to its predecessor.

SpectrePosterDo we need James Bond in 2015? After 2013’s incredible “Skyfall”, the answer was absolutely yes. It was first off unheard of that an action movie, as shot by Roger Deakins, could look that good. But Bond also felt like a human relief in a world of superheroes, wizards and teenagers fighting in dystopian universes. Give me a hard drinking and vengeful Bond with a tortured past, casual misogyny and all, and let him take on a contemporary computer hacker and show why there’s still a place for an analog assassin.

With Sam Mendes back at the helm and Daniel Craig giving 007 another go, “Spectre” seemed to be right in line with “Skyfall”. Bond’s here to stay… or that was until another movie this summer, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, had more memorable fun with the same concept of an outdated agent in a surveillance state of drones and technology. Continue reading “Spectre”

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

There was no need for “Mockingjay” to be broke into two sequels, but why does this hardly resemble a Hunger Games movie at all?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1” started the unfortunate trend of major film franchises splitting tentpole books into two separate films. Though it may be a cash grab, that seventh Harry Potter film is actually one of the most distinct in the series. Six movies of being tied down to Hogwarts and Quidditch, the seventh film took the main characters out of a familiar world, threw them in the forest against insurmountable odds and allowed them to act. They grew up into adults and the whole franchise matured overnight. It’s the most unusual Potter film, yet also David Yates’s best.

The previous “Hunger Games” movie “Catching Fire” was the blockbuster everyone needed after Potter. It was dark, inventive and upped the stakes on the previous film, not an easy task when you consider the first film was about teenagers murdering each other for sport and survival. But it also ended in such a way that “Mockingjay – Part 1” could hardly repeat the successes of the second. Katniss had been thrown into the rebellion, separated from her love and Hunger Games partner Peeta and asked to serve as a symbol she never wanted to be.

“Mockingjay” was poised to rewrite the franchise, but Francis Lawrence’s opportunity to make “Part 1” into something more than a cash grab has been squandered. It’s the most unusual “Hunger Games” yet, but hardly for the better. The fantasy, the color, the intrigue and the creativity has all been sapped from this sequel to make a frustrating half of a movie, one that’s talky, filled with exposition and set pieces that hardly resemble what made either of the first two films memorable. Continue reading “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn and David Fincher have made the perfect adaptation.

One of the key moments at the onset of Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl”, and one of the key images in David Fincher’s film adaptation, is Nick Dunne’s “killer smile”.

Flynn’s description has a wry double meaning obvious to anyone. He’s flashed this plucky grin at a press conference for his missing wife, and it hardly bodes well for his appearance to the media, public or police.

In Fincher’s film, Ben Affleck splashes on the movie star charisma for that crucial second, just enough time to send our heads spinning.

Both Fincher and Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, are receptive to the miniscule gestures that can shape perception. They recognize how timing and spin in the contemporary media can shift the tides in an instant. They understand that people are often only as bad as we perceive them. “Gone Girl” is all about these perceptions, and while one of the strengths of Flynn’s masterpiece novel rested in its structure of alternating POVs from Nick to his wife Amy, Fincher’s brilliance is in his ability to balance them both.

Watching “Gone Girl” is like gnawing at a nagging itch, with each detail of Nick and Amy Dunne’s unraveling marriage and her impending disappearance continuing to burrow into your skin and jab at your sides. Fincher is remarkably attentive to the expressions, emotions and tones of voice that in sensitive situations like this can make us conflicted, uncertain and on edge. His film is as aware of the ways we project ourselves in the modern age as “The Social Network” did before, but “Gone Girl” also combines the meticulous mystery of “Zodiac” and the feminist charge of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. Continue reading “Gone Girl”

St. Vincent at the Riviera Theater, Chicago: Concert Review

St. Vincent is an alien from another world, and Annie Clark’s live show is direct proof.

St. Vincent is an alien from another world.

This much might be obvious to anyone who has digested the sonic mayhem of her albums, with guitars distorted beyond recognition, baritone saxes providing a funky bite and a Theremin being tortured in place of a solo.

And yet Annie Clark’s meticulously choreographed stage show for her self titled tour suggest that this alien has a scarily deep insight into our heads and a palpable tension as she readies an attack.

“Hello ladies and gentleman, and hello others,” Clark addresses the audience. “We’re not so different, you and I.” In between songs she’ll slyly suggest the questionable behavior and thoughts we all share while leaning heavily on her own creepy confessional. She’ll admit to fantasizing about seeing people naked on the L, about looking at her hands and believing there to be a mix-up, or telling a lie and fearing the universe might be punishing her.

Such is the way an alien might communicate, but Clark utilized the remainder of her near two hour set at the Riv Saturday night seducing, entrancing and terrorizing through her exotic dancing and strobe lighting used “extensively.”

Clark’s outfit makes her look like she came from the same planet Lady Gaga calls home. She wears an extremely short black frock with red plumage bursting from her chest, beset by silvery hair strewn in all directions and glowing, turquoise eye shadow made to clash. Continue reading “St. Vincent at the Riviera Theater, Chicago: Concert Review”