October 28, 2015
Told from the perspective of a child, Room speaks to the strength of children faced with trauma so profound, more experienced adults might crack under its pressure. The sixth full-length from director Lenny Abrahamson is a film full of hope packaged in a grim plot based on the book by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the script. We meet Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson), as she treats him to his fifth birthday. But there are many odd things in the lead-up to the celebration. She only has a toaster oven in a tiny room to bake the cake. There are no friends or family coming over, and, most devastating to Jack, there are no candles for the cake. He throws a tantrum and refuses to partake of the cake knowing how incomplete it is. Ma suggests that possibly next year there will be candles. That’s wholly up to what groceries are brought to them by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).
It turns out Jack and his mother live in an 11 by 11 foot space, and they can’t get out, sealed in by a coded lock on the only door. It’s a space that Jack and Ma don’t call home but “room.” Though the scene is presented as blissful up to the tantrum, with big orchestral music, and Jack running around the room saying good morning to the sink and furniture, the film makes no pretense to maintain this artificial pleasantry. That’s only to be found in the inner world of Jack, who has acclimated to growing up in this room all his life because it’s all he knows. Seven years earlier, his Ma was kidnapped and imprisoned in this room by a sexual predator: Nick. You get the picture.
The film unfolds smartly, and is far less meandering than Abrahamson’s previous film, Frank. The child’s questions drive the film’s drama, and Jack has a lot of questions. His developing awareness serves as rather keen exposition, revealing the details of how he and his mother get on but also how they quietly suffer at the hands of Nick. But they are not just victims. They are a loving, single-parent household whose home happens to be a small space. Even with no one else to talk to, Ma finds a way to socialize her son and — most importantly — teach him empathy. Even if they aren’t alive, he expresses appreciation to inanimate objects in room. In one scene, he thanks the toilet “for making poo disappear.”
It’s all well and good that he learns to be polite, but these are objects. They can never respond. The loss of interaction with another living, breathing, thinking person besides his protective mother and hiding from the man who kidnapped her makes it hard when he is out. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the two are rescued. Even though the commercials and trailer reveal that they make it out, the escape is still a harrowing moment. Sounds and simple visuals, like power lines whizzing overhead from Jack’s POV capture his distress and over stimulation by an outside world he never knew existed until he makes it outside room via a frightening scheme devised by Ma.
But Jack will bounce back. The film is about suffering but also about people adjusting and growing accustomed to extreme circumstances. A child is especially interesting to watch cope. As a doctor tells his mother, “The best thing you could have done is get him out while he was still plastic.” The boy whispers to his mother, “I’m not made of plastic.” The defiance is charming in its naiveté. After all, the film’s concern is about empowering the child with his immaturity, and the filmmakers stay focused on Jack’s perspective, to the film’s benefit. The cinematography works great on the level of Jack. Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen capture the boy’s perspective maintaining the camera low and tight on the boy. A shallow focus that blurs out background captures Jack intimately, bringing the audience in to relate on his level. Stephen Rennicks’ heavy orchestral score stands in contrast to the little space and the intimate drama. What adults might consider banal, like existing in the moment when sun seeps through a skylight, are big moments for a child, and the music rightly reflects that.
Larson brings great humanity to her performance, working off the boy’s plasticity as a hardened and traumatized woman who suffered through her teenage years as a captive. She responds to Jack’s pain but also his growth as a woman who finds it more difficult to let go of her trauma even as Jack grows nostalgic for their alone time together. Tremblay is also great, and there’s talk of making him the youngest person to ever receive an Oscar nomination. It’s a cute milestone, but I’m not on board because, as I explained in the paragraph above, there is a lot of cinematic direction that focuses on the child, inducing the viewer’s empathy and also creating the performance. He’s still a child acting as a child should, and credit is also due to the writer, director and even the editor for creating a performance specific to a drama that a child could not possibly understand without suffering some psychological trauma. That’s how child acting works.
And you have to hand it to Donoghue, who brings her prowess with words to the big screen brilliantly, from the honest words out of the mouth of a child, to the complicated feelings that come after trauma. Ma breaks down at one point in front of Jack, during their time adjusting to the real world, and confesses to her little boy, “I’m not a good enough ma.” The boy responds, “But you’re Ma.” It’s a simple exchange, and it’s one of several moments that will draw the tears from the audience (no wonder it won the People’s Choice award in Toronto).
The film has charm while still exploring disturbingly dark subject matter. The love between Ma and Jack is strong, and the film leaves no gaps to ever question that. When Jack meets his grandfather, Robert (William H. Macy), who can’t seem to bear touching the boy due to his lineage. There’s no question who the viewer will side with when Ma blows up at her dad when he can’t look the boy in the eye at dinner. But it works as this young mother adjusts to a lost childhood with her parents.
However, in the film’s only real flagrant misstep in melodrama, a reporter sits down with Ma to hurl loaded questions in a patronizing demeanor that would be far from ethical or even believable on TV (even Nancy Grace is protective of victims). Here Room falls off the deep end to present a cartoonish, flat character designed as plot device to reach an artificial climax for a story that is actually quite complex. There are still many years to cover as far as looming trauma and drama. It’s still a only a piece of a film and a forgivable dramatic miscalculation in what is otherwise a charming indie film sure to be remembered come awards season.
Room runs 118 minutes and is rated R (it has references to violence and harsh language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 30, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It then expands to other theaters on Nov. 6, including the independent art house O Cinema Wynwood. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. A24 provided all images to illustrate this post and invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
October 21, 2015
What would fourth wave feminism sound like if it were put to music? The answer came to me earlier this month when I heard Childbirth’s punk album Women’s Rights. The album, packed with short, punchy and often funny songs is a current take on the lackluster experience of constructed expectations on women in the digital age. From “being nice” to online dating, to confusion over sexuality and going against societal expectations, Childbirth takes on the paradoxes of femininity through punk music, and they do so in 13 tracks that span 28 minutes.
The album bursts forth on crunchy guitars and pounding drums with the loud declaration: “Child Biiiirth, child Biiiirth, child Biiiirth, child Biiiirth/Women’s Rights! Women’s Rights! Women’s Rights!” That’s the first 39 seconds and then it jumps to my personal favorite track “Nasty Grrrls,” which defies the idea of femininity through inhabiting the undesirable and owning it as a declaration of independence. The detached at times and energetic voices chirp, “We’re nasty girls/We don’t wash our hands/We wipe our nose on our sleeves/We don’t take baths.” The back and forth is followed by “Tech Bro,” a swinging, grungy track dedicated to the know-it-all gadget-loving guy, who even feels the need to explain feminism to a date. “I’ll let you explain feminism to me/Tech bro, tech bro, if I can use your HD TV.” The sarcastic tone in each track adds a layer of commentary of the lived experience of women in the modern digital age from a millennial perspective.
Childbirth is composed of band members Julia Shapiro, Bree McKenna and Stacy Peck, a sort of side-project for all three band members, who are based out of Seattle. Shapiro is also a vocalist in Chastity Belt, McKenna is also a bass player in Tacocat and Peck is one-half of Pony Time. Although Childbirth’s delivery does not fit a “traditional” type of feminism, one where advocacy is the goal, the outcome is effectively a thought-provoking consideration about the still laggard place for women and how in some ways technology has exacerbated the already poignant structural gaps.
In Childbirth, the personal is political, and apparently, also musical. The back and forth between Shapiro and McKenna feels organic and delivered with a deadpan wit. The droll lyrics of “Siri, Open Tinder” lists the endless array of non-offerings in the dating scene, another tech bro, a dick pic, shirtless, gym rat are all rejected with a “swipe left” retort by McKenna. On another level, “Since When Are You Gay?” pokes fun at the assumptions behind sexuality. “Don’t you know you’re pretty enough to have a boyfriend?” sings Shapiro, a jab at the construction of gay as “the other” or a choice for those who aren’t good enough. Finally, Shapiro ends with a more honest conclusion, “Well, everyone is gay, anyway.” Indeed sexuality is not bound by physical attractiveness, even if a metrosexual type tells you so.
The album closes on a high note with a couple of fun tracks like “Baby Bump” and “You’re Not My real Dad,” which showcase that you can be critical and funny at the same time. If you don’t have a sense of humor, this album might be a challenge, as most lines are delivered with a sneering swagger, in true punk fashion. Chances are that if you ever contended with subjective judgment – either online or in person — for being a woman who dared not to conform, you will find a track in here to enjoy.
The album is out now, released by Suicide Squeeze Records. You can hear some of the tracks on their soundcloud. Here’s one:
October 16, 2015
To the more cynical viewer, the fact that Victoria was shot in one continuous take may seem like a gimmick, but the truth is, the film holds many precious, real moments that would have never existed had director Sebastian Schipper decided not to shoot his movie the way he did. This isn’t a “one-take” film like Birdman (‘Birdman’ lampoons Hollywood with humorous, hyper-real, hero-hating satire). There were no tricky edits to transition into complicated effects shots. This is a daring film that balances a genuinely intimate story with tricky set pieces looming ahead of the drama. It follows a group of young men in Berlin who flirt with a Spanish visitor, our titular heroine, dragging her into a harrowing bank robbery and its aftermath. And it’s all shot in one genuine continuous take. Yes, it can’t be emphasized enough because there is magic in it.
It’s funny that Schipper, who co-wrote the script with Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Eike Frederik Schulz, played a small role in Tom Tykwer’s breakout 1998 movie Run Lola Run (he played Mike) because this film feels antithetical to the vigorously constructed Tykwer movie. While Run Lola Run depends so much on edits that it defied rules of space and time, Victoria is enslaved to chronology due to the fact the film has not a single splice cut in the action. Yet both films share a kinetic energy that grips the viewer in similar ways.
The obvious energy of Victoria comes from the film’s vibrant characters. We meet them under the strobe lights of a nightclub (epileptics should be warned). Victoria (Laia Costa) is on her way home from an uneventful night of drinking and dancing at a Berlin nightclub, when a sweet-talking Sonne (Frederick Lau) persuades her to join him and his “brothers” Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuss (Max Mauff) to extend the night a bit longer.
The push and pull in Sonne and Victoria’s flirtation creates an invisible line of power that’s wonderful to watch. Lau brings genuine charm to his role and Costa, who looks like a young Björk, is enchanting as a woman who can hold her own with these playfully rough dudes who sometimes allow a glitter of menace to shine through their rakish demeanor. The film takes its time with the mundane getting-to-know-you phase without any tricks in time lapse for sentimentality. There are a few scenes where the dialogue drops and dreamy music takes over the soundtrack. If it was meant to cover up flubs in the dialogue, you will never notice by the way the characters continue to wordlessly gel.
There’s a more subtle way Victoria exudes its verve. It has several wondrous moments that indelibly make these characters human, and credit is due to the film’s so-called gimmick. The single take works for this film because it captures both the mundane and the spontaneous with a sort of reverent naturalism, and you have to hand it to the actors for both keeping their composure and embracing these serendipitous moments. They barrel through small mistakes without flinching, including a dropped cigarette and a sticky door. But the real intense moments where this works best is when the action begins. After a lengthy chase sequence involving gunfire, when Victoria finally has a chance to catch her breath and tries to speak it sounds as real and as visceral as you might imagine it would feel for someone who has just had her life in peril several times over.
The camera work can feel dizzying, and there are a couple of instances where you might be left to wonder whether that red point of light in a window during the chase scene is a laser sight that is intentionally part of the drama but is really just a flub. Overall, though, Victoria features transcendent moments that overshadow any notion that this is a film driven by a mere gimmick. It’s not often that a movie can touch the human side of performance while being as grounded within the constraints of the medium, and Victoria is a thrilling, sometimes moving example of ownership of the cinematic experience.
Victoria runs 138 minutes, is in English and in German with English subtitles and is not rated (it has cursing and violence). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 16, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema who hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. Adopt Films provided all images to illustrate this post.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi subtly shines harsh light on cinematic oppression of one of Iran’s great directors — a film review
October 9, 2015
There are many problems with an autocratic regime. Rights are hindered and double standards flourish aplenty. People are jailed without fair trial. There’s torture. Education is never fairly distributed, and when it is, instructors often only instill young students with a warped sense of culture and history for the sake of propaganda favoring those in power. You would think this kind of government could only create cynics, victims or blind followers, and that there’s little room for sympathetic humanity to flourish. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi knows this all too well, and he seeks to correct some of it with his choice of personal expression: a camera mounted on a taxi cab’s dashboard in Tehran. All the while, he offers a sly, accessible wink to the audience watching the resulting “film” at the cinema. It’s a trip you won’t soon forget.
With Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, the director and Independent Ethos favorite returns with another “non-film” to show us his country’s human side while defying a government order forbidding him to make movies. He was jailed, tortured and placed under house arrest after he allegedly showed support to the Green Movement by shooting secret meetings back in 2009. Of all he endured, worst of all was being banned from making movies for 20 years.
It didn’t stop him from shooting a movie capturing his life under house arrest using mostly his iPhone’s camera (This Is Not a Film highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest). He shipped the resulting film to the Cannes Film Festival in a flash drive hidden inside a cake. His next film treaded more lightly with a story both rich in metaphor that he subverted with scenes of day-to-day life (Closed Curtain continues Iranian filmmaker’s abstract expression in art despite ban). His latest “film” stands as his most approachable since his ban. In it, the director tries to hide under a cabbie hat and drives around in a taxi not-so-discreetly filming his “fares.” With the passengers who come and go, the film becomes a series of vignettes ranging from comic to tragic. Most of all, Panahi keeps it light and always interesting, from the first frame to the last. The film opens on a street scene. The camera lingers long enough to take in daily life, women in hijabs and plainly dressed men crisscross the intersection as motorcycles zip around them. It’s a kinetic if static opening shot. There isn’t much range for Panahi’s camera, but it’s occasionally rotated on passengers and the director, creating deep two-shots that never feel dull. Panahi never hides his camera, and the first person he focuses it on is because the person has noticed it. The man who has jumped into his passenger seat asks, “What is that?” Panahi turns it on him, and the passenger looks straight at the audience and asks, “An anti-theft device?” Panahi replies “Sort of.”
It’s a rich moment and sets the tone for the rest of this sly and entertaining movie. This passenger soon gets into an argument about sharia law with a lady who has taken the back seat (apparently, taxi drivers carry more than one fare in their cabs). The argument ends with a punch line as the man gets off. Meanwhile, a third passenger, a pudgy dwarf of a man, has joined the ride. When the woman gets out, this third man looks at Panahi and smiles. “Mr. Panahi, I recognize you.” Both smile at each other, as this man, who introduces himself as Omir, calls him out for having staged a scene in the taxi while making a movie. “That last line was from your film Crimson Gold,” says Omir.
With this scene, Panahi subverts his own filmmaking, at first giving you a kind of heavy-handed scene but then nullifying it. “This is not a film,” he seems to say. But then the movie becomes this whirlwind trip that will enlighten viewers about Iran’s film world while paying tribute to those who love cinema and have a sense of humor about filmmaking and its consumption. Omir turns out to be breaking film law in his own way, selling bootleg DVDs. When he directs Panahi to the house of a client to deliver Hollywood action movies and Season Five of “The Walking Dead,” the client recognizes Panahi, too. “Don’t worry, he’s one of us,” says the bootlegger. The client soon changes his order for “arty” movies, asking Panahi for recommendations, who responds, “I think all movies are worth watching, depending on your taste.”
There’s a comic sense to this movie but also much wisdom. The highlight has to be when Panahi picks up his niece, Hana, who aspires to be a director and recites the rules of making “distributable” movies in Iran based on what her teacher told her. She tries to make her uncle a part of her film, but he can’t help but make comments that, as she points out, will make her film “undistributable.” At one point, he leaves her alone in the cab while he takes a bathroom break. Just trying to shoot some action outside her window, Hana will have her own confrontation with how difficult it is to make a movie that will satisfy government censors. It’s a moment that is both humorous and bittersweet and points to the hypocrisy of a regime that can never suppress human nature.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is one more masterpiece in what is now a trilogy of non-movies for Panahi. He celebrates filmmaking while railing against the forces that repress him. Featuring genial and natural performances by the entire “cast” (the film has no credits), Panahi constructs an emphatic protest with a smile and a wink that will charm and enthrall viewers throughout. When a woman bearing roses takes the passenger seat, she looks at the camera and gives the audience a rose. It’s gleeful and heart-rending. She too knows Panahi and sympathizes with the bind that he is in, telling him when she leaves, “You better remove my words from your movie. You’ll be accused of sordid realism.”
While Western movie culture so often recognizes escapism over realism, it’s refreshing to find a film like Panahi’s. He never loses sight of the value of entertainment while making his incredibly important statement. Sometimes poignant, other times hilarious, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is always brilliantly contemplative. It will remind viewers of many facets of cinema that we so often take for granted, including the viewer’s complicit imagination. The art has value because we bring value to it, and if there’s one filmmaker who deserves our love, it’s Panahi because he gives it back so richly.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi runs 82 minutes, is in Persian with English subtitles and is not rated (it has references to violence). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 9, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. On Oct. 16, the film expands to Broward County at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. Kino Lorber provided all images to illustrate this post and an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.
October 6, 2015
Too many of director Denis Villeneuve’s films have had issues with communicating ambiguous ideas that stumble over key moments of heavy-handed contrivance or missteps in plot development, ultimately undermining his storytelling with disappointing cognitive dissonance. In Incendies (2010) he leans on deus ex machina for a twist to find resolution for a family torn apart by war that ultimately rings less like profundity and more like coincidence. With Enemy (2013), he sapped the creepy power of José Saramago’s book The Double by tacking on a hollow joke ending. In his latest, Sicario, a film about the lawlessness of the border between Mexico and the U.S., Villeneuve deflates a nihilistic outlook with a poorly resolved subplot of revenge that ends up glorifying the notion of lawlessness and does little to offer any enlightenment to a very real war at the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
All these films are exceptionally shot, have interesting characters brought to life with strong performances, but they all suffer from fatal flaws in storytelling that weaken them to places of mediocre film-making as a whole. Sicario has received high ratings among mainstream critics (see its score on Metacritic). We won’t argue that this movie is not exquisitely shot with rich mise-en-scène that enhances the film’s eerie, unsettling mood and even slyly connects characters across the border. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is key for the film’s seductive look. It opens with an arresting sweeping shot of an Arizona suburb as a militarized FBI and police force converge on a house from the edges of the screen. From close-ups to wide shots, Sicario never feels uninteresting to look at. For added tension, Jóhann Jóhannsson provides an appropriately percussive soundtrack, geared to ramp up heart rates.
For all the effort behind the scenes to amp up the tension, Sicario‘s biggest strength lies in the film’s wide-eyed heart, actress Emily Blunt. She brings much sympathy to Kate Macer, a young but strong-willed FBI field operative with an idealistic, black and white mindset due for a reality check. After a startling discovery in that Arizona house punctuated by a booby trap that ends in the death of two officers, she is about to get her world upended. A cavalier big shot in flip-flops from D.C. (Josh Brolin) named Matt Graves recruits her for a cross-border operation that’s far from by-the-book. She’s off down the rabbit hole toward disillusioning enlightenment. Blunt does a lot with what is otherwise a one-dimensional character until she ends up a damsel in distress who can’t save herself in what is supposed to be some kind of profound revelation on a very complicated situation. Too many other characters feel archetypal and rote, including a family-man Juarez cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández) who is but a cog in a corrupt machine and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a prosecutor from Colombia hired by the U.S. government as a very hands-on adviser.
The research by actor/writer Taylor Sheridan never goes deeper than the headlines: kidnappings that end in tragedy, dismembered bodies hung over an overpass, the police cooperating with the cartels to move drugs. Even the idea that the CIA is cooperating with Mexican police is old, albeit murky, news. It has been called Plan Mérida in Mexico. There’s an American-authored Wiki page about it calling it Mérida Initiative. By itself, the themes of the film fail to deliver a unique perspective and leave the theme broadly focused on shocking headlines presented as spectacle rather than exploring the deeper complexity of the issue of corruption and drug trafficking. It’s perfect stuff for Hollywood entertainment. No wonder a sequel was announced before the film opened in wide release, and of course it will focus on the film’s most romantic character: Alejandro, because Kate is proven ineffectual at film’s end.
Sicario has taken a page from the action thriller Zero Dark Thirty (Film review: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ brings obsession with elusive truth to vivid light), and we’re not talking about mutual scenes shot with night vision goggles. Although Sicario focuses on the War on Drugs rather than the War on Terror, both make the case that there are intangible forces that complicate issues to a degree that present no viable solutions through the “legal” or “good” route. At the heart of moral dilemmas in these films there happens to be a female character questioning the logic and mechanics of the process. However, as opposed to Zero Dark Thirty, the approach in Sicario leaves this female character under-developed. Kate makes us care about procedure but only slightly, as she quickly seems to loose any power in the shadows of men like Graves and Alejandro, and when she does try to exert her power she only finds herself in trouble. Her character drives the point home about the dangers of the drug war, but she’s never in enough danger to genuinely unnerve the audience. In typical Hollywood fashion she survives the mission with her life. It leaves the audience with a level of comfort that diffuses the film’s attempt at presenting a deep moral dilemma. To see how to handle such a character the right way see William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., a film that probably wounldn’t pass today’s test audiences because it’s too disturbing to see a good guy killed half-way through the action. Sicario‘s filmmakers wouldn’t dare sacrifice the film’s thrills for a grim outlook that does genuine justice to the horrors of what happens to people who try to follow law and order in this drug war.
The movie reminds you of so many others before it and fails to capture a singular point of view to add a real sense of distinction. Films such as Miss Bala (2011) or Heli (‘Heli’ depicts human costs of drug-related violence with raw horror) were brilliant at focusing on particular characters and bringing to light the hidden dangers of the War on Drugs and their impact on everyday people. The complexity is there, and the end result does not mean filmmakers should completely throw their hands up when it comes to handling the multi-layered complexity of transnational illegal trade. Sicario becomes nothing more than a series of elaborate vignettes informed by headlines with a revenge tale tacked on to give the audience a sense of cathartic closure that makes it just a little bit easier to walk out of the theater.
Many defenders will not dare prepare you for the climax of Sicario, in fear of spoiling the movie. However, it is here where the film drops off the deep end with a slick if stupefying rogue mission by Alejandro, decked out in black fatigues and armed with a gun and silencer, to avenge his family. It turns the movie into just another Death Wish iteration in stylish packaging. Before he heads off on his personal vendetta to kill Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo), the drug lord he holds responsible for the death of his loved ones, it is conveniently revealed that Alejandro’s wife had her head chopped off and his daughter was thrown into a vat of acid on the orders of this man. It’s meant to illicit sympathy for Alejandro, who is also revealed to have ties to the Medellín Cartel, so this act is also business. Not to mention, it also serves U.S. interests.
After a thrilling hunt out of a perfectly played level of a first-person shooter video game, which includes the rather indifferent killing of Silvio, Alejandro shoots is way to the dinner table of this drug lord. Holding Fausto, his wife and two young sons at gunpoint, Alejandro relishes his moment of meting his idea of justice. Before he dies, Fausto tells Alejandro — and in effect the audience — that he is no better a man for his actions because it was the Medellín Cartel who made Fausto, and the cycle will just continue (you know, to point out the obvious nihilism). Alejandro and then Fausto tells his kids to keep eating their dinner. They take little nibbles of the chicken at the ends of their forks, quaking with fear. Alejandro shoots the kids and wife. The kill shots happen off-screen, making the killings more palatable for the audience before Alejandro finally shoots a slack-jawed Fausto.
Thus ends Sicario‘s climax, a rather romantic depiction of bad-ass killing sanitized by its own restraint, sending a rather mixed signal to the audience of hypocritical righteousness with a little gloss of amorality courtesy of the film’s writer. Alejandro is presented as a victim who deserves some justice just shortly before his act, and then the film flinches in the neat deaths of the wife and children with cutaways from horror and a brief, restrained shot of aftermath (see A History of Violence for how to imbue acts of violence with the ugliness necessary to implicate the audience rather than satiate their catharsis). It’s all too slick, patronizing and rather tasteless.
It’s such a tonal shift that it deflates any semblance of the danger in chaos that Villeneuve and Sheridan worked so hard to establish earlier in the film. The film also flourishes during the early scenes where the characters are shrouded in mystery as far as their connections and motivations. Unfortunately, when it comes to their reveal, they are nothing but archetypes serving another Hollywood movie that glorifies violence as a means to an end. What’s worse, due to this penultimate scene, the driving force of the film is removed from the overall bigger theme of drug trafficking. It becomes personal and vicarious, a glossy stunt imposing cheap thrills on the audience. It creates a haze of resolution where there should be none. By the time Kate has a chance to do something about holding on to her ideals, it no longer matters. Sicario is not a statement film without a statement. It’s a film that compromises its statement for high-gloss tension that ultimately celebrates revenge in its cinematic choices and therefore stumbles in trying to be so much more than it can ever try to be.
Sicario runs 121 minutes, is in English and Spanish with English subtitles and is rated R (for somewhat gruesome violent and curse words). It opened in wide release last Friday. Lionsgate provided all images used in this review and invited us to a preview screening a week before its release for the purpose of this review.
October 1, 2015
There is no room for cynicism at a Kraftwerk performance. The quartet from Düsseldorf may not play “live,” but they sure put on a hell of a show. The other night they played back-to-back shows featuring a comprehensive set list of their hits at the Gusman Center’s Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami. What’s made this tour like no other in Kraftwerk’s history is that the images projected on the screen behind them are in 3D.
It may have been the trick necessary to finally put the audience’s focus on the music. The shadow of music history sometimes clouds how purely interesting the music of Kraftwerk is. A lot has been made of their contribution to electronic dance music, sampled by everyone from New Order to modern hip-hop artists. But why Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, the art school duo who started Kraftwerk, became so influential is hardly ever really picked apart by the mainstream media (see something like this for that). To be reductive: It’s in the incessant minimalism that much of their early improvisation veered off into that made their music interesting. It later became a formula for them to perfect, dropping such practical instruments like flute and electric guitars for homemade drum machines.
When the group kicked off the night with “Numbers,” two dudes tried to stay up after the standing ovation in the center part of the orchestra seating. People yelled at them to sit down. “We’re gonna dance, man!” The cold, spare, slowed down take on the Computer Love (1981) track defied such a silly idea, and before the cut took off, the two guys had given up. This was a sit down show where the 3D visuals demanded being soaked in. Everyone wanted a clear view of the visuals, and Kraftwerk immediately delivered. Behind the four gentleman in their signature black grid onesies and their nondescript keyboard/synth/computer podiums, a wall of green undulating numbers waved like a techno sail powering a musical journey that would be like no other.
When representing objects, the digital graphics often looked like something composed on a Comodore 64, an 8-bit computer from the early 1980s, and early on, the images maybe too often focused on literal transcription of the minimalist lyrics sung by Hütter, the only original member of the group that was on stage that night. But that’s also part of Kraftwerk’s shtick: they compose music that also reveals the rough edges of technology. The more primordial, the more revealing. At the same time, it highlights the humanity of their music, from dreams of outer space (“Spacelab”) to the joys of driving toward the horizon (“Autobahn”) to the desire of a simplified human connection (“Computer Love”).
To Hütter’s left was Fritz Hilpert then Henning Schmitz and finally Falk Grieffenhagen, who is largely known as the one responsible for synching the 3D images with the music (see this article). You didn’t really think all four are playing keyboards? (take a look at their setup for a peek behind the curtain). Enough cannot be said about Grieffenhagen’s musical contribution, his shifting of images to the music often garnered the loudest, most ecstatic cheers from the audience. What he does is musical. This is a production, a light show with music digitized from the analog tapes that are manipulated on stage with Hütter, who co-wrote most of these songs, doing most of the musical lifting, playing melodies on a keyboard and often singing through the filter of a vocoder that makes his voice sound robotic to meld with the mechanical music. Kraftwerk have no pretense when it comes to what they do. Even the spaceship dashboard of “Spacelab” has a cheap graphic of a reel to reel. The analog is digital. That’s Kraftwerk.
Speaking of “Spacelab,” that was a genuine highlight of the show. On several occasions the spacelab came hurtling through the giant screen and many members of the audience could not help from reaching out to see if they could touch it. In a wry bit of pandering there was also a map on-screen during “Spacelab,” highlighting Miami with a marker, and another image closing the song showing the outside of the venue with a digital UFO touching down outside.
Kraftwerk indeed wanted to take the audience on a virtual journey, and the simple graphics and the cheap paper 3D glasses did the trick. During “Autobahn,” the quartet looked like a group of dashboard ornaments cruising the digitized version of the 1974 album art. They also did the complete 20-plus minute track, which prompted several moments of applause from members of the audience who thought the song had finished already. But it was never a dull track, even without Schneider’s original flute bits. There were cuts to an old time in-dash radio that emitted floating musical notes that got cheers, and the teases of the motorik rhythms that came and went were ebullient.
This was a show to get lost in the ethos of what is Kraftwerk. They don’t need new music (they haven’t released an album since 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks). They have perfected what they are, keeping a staid catalog alive with this reinvented vision (no wonder Hütter wants to see the group’s catalog reissued on blu-ray with 3D functionality). Even if they couldn’t dance, the audience released themselves to the vision of Kraftwerk, and it was even easy for this cynic who prefers the organic surprises of real instruments.
The tour continues thus:
October 2 Electric Factory, Philadelphia, PA
October 3 Wang Theatre, Boston, MA
October 5 Masonic Temple Theatre, Detroit, MI
October 7 Northrop, Minneapolis, MN
October 9 Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, Kansas City, MO
Kraftwerk then head to Europe in November. To see all those dates, visit this link: kraftwerk.com/concerts. You can also purchase tickets for the remaining U.S. dates and Europe via that same link.
The Goldenvoice invited Independent Ethos to the 8 p.m. concert for the purpose of this review. They also provided the images used to illustrate this post. All photos are copyright Peter Boettcher for Kraftwerk except the glasses and ticket; that’s the writer’s.
September 25, 2015
It has been 20 years since I first reviewed David Bowie’s 1. Outside, which first saw official release on Sept. 25, 1995 in the U.K. (I believe it came out the following day in the U.S.). I was pretty critical about the album upon its release, and I have since grown to appreciate it more. It’s still not a perfect album, but what was hard for me to swallow was the ornate quality of much of the music, compared to his previous, lesser known album the soundtrack for The BBC television mini-series The Buddha of Suburbia. Released in late 1993 and only the U.K., mostly hardcore Bowie fans heard this album, which neatly bridges Black Tie White Noise, which came out earlier that same year, and 1. Outside.
Buddha was a rapidly produced album (Bowie has said it took him six days to write and record) with the only musicians besides Bowie being multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay, pianist Mike Garson and, on one song each, Lenny Kravitz and a little known-UK group called 3D Echo. It recalled such high points as 1974’s Diamond Dogs, which saw Bowie playing most of the instruments, and 1976’s Station To Station, another quickly produced album. It also had instrumental pieces that sounded like the work he did with Brian Eno in Berlin for 1977’s Low and “Heroes.” The few songs on the album were quirky yet catchy, not unlike the songs off Low. Bowie actually reworked one of the Buddha songs, “Strangers When We Meet,” for 1. Outside, and it’s still a high point of the album.
The thing about Buddha that stands out from its bookends is how forward moving it feels without the self-consciousness of the other records. The influences of New Jack Swing in the Black Tie and industrial music for 1. Outside, not to mention this reach to bring back Eno for 1. Outside feel ham-fisted by comparison. To top it off, 1. Outside was driven by an ultra-high concept. It was supposed to be the first album of a trilogy that Bowie never completed (hence the “1.”). It also was meant as a testament to the turn of the millennium that looked back to the turn of the 20th century. When I wrote the review for 1. Outside, I happened to have been working on an independent study in college focused on late 1910s Italian Futurism, and some references in the album made an allusion to the art movement, which seemed perfect to kick off my review.
All these years later, I think it’s a better album than I originally gave it credit for. Many of the songs are counter-intuitively constructed, defying pop music conventions. They needed many repeat listens to grow accustomed to. In those days, music critics were more often than not given cassettes to review albums. I still have my copy. It was not easy to go back and forth and give particular tracks or moments closer listens with a tape, as opposed to the mp3s we get now.
These songs are complex and the album is one of Bowie’s most conceptual works in a long time. These tracks were also created organically during jam sessions among the musicians. There was also much hype about Bowie’s reunion with Eno, who worked with Bowie and the band in the studio, even co-writing some of the songs, like he did on those important albums Bowie released in the late ’70s. Just a few years prior to 1. Outside‘s release those albums had been reissued by Rykodisc, and the hype, as always, was that Bowie collaborated with Eno on them. Eno’s name was as big as Bowie’s on the promo material (note the cover art of the promo-only CD sampler for their reissue above).
There are many factors that cloud our perceptions as critics. We try to absorb the art in a personal vacuum, but history, personal experience, maturity and more often slip through the filter. The fact is, I was still a college undergrad when I wrote the review below, and I feel I short-changed some credit to the genius of Bowie at the time. Though much older than when he broke barriers in the ’70s, from Ziggy Stardust to the Eno trilogy, he continued to plow new creative ground in the 1990s, and it was a challenge to absorb such an experimental and progressive album as 1. Outside after Black Tie White Noise and Buddha of Suburbia, not to mention the end of the straight-forward rock ‘n’ roll side project Tin Machine.
Below you will find my original thoughts on the album. With hindsight, I would raise the rating by a whole additional star, as I have grown to appreciate the album much more since its release.
DAVID BOWIE – OUTSIDE
Virgin: * * * (out of 5)
by HANS MORGENSTERN
Filippo Marinetti wrote the first Futurist manifesto in 1909, telling us to never look back. He preached the importance of war as a cleanser and called for the destruction of all libraries and museums. Through this campaign the futurists would allow for the creation of art in its purest form, uninhibited and uninspired by the past, an immaculate representation of the current spirit of the times.
Outside, David Bowie’s first concept album since 1974’s Diamond Dogs, explores art gone to the extreme in the not-so-distant future. It’s December 31, 1999, and self-mutilating performance art, like Chris Burden’s nude crucifixion on the top of a Volkswagen van, has become passe. In a twisted move to take shocking performance art to another level, someone has decided to dismember a 14-year-old girl and “creatively” put her body parts back together, leaving “the work” at The Museum of Modern Parts.
Outside‘s story is hard to decipher as it is the first part in a trilogy that will make up the complete diaries of Nathan Adler by 1999. All the listener really gets is the murder of Baby Grace Blue under investigation by the art-crime detective/professor Nathan Adler and a list of suspects that could include a “tyrannical” futurist suffering a mid-life crisis and the man who fell back to earth, Major Tom.
As far as the musical pacing goes, the album takes awhile to get to any outstanding tracks. The first real interesting song, both lyrically and musically, is the sixth track, “Hallo Spaceboy,” sprinkled with subtle references to Major Tom, Bowie’s subject in 1969’s “Space Oddity” and 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes.” The music, co-written by Brian Eno, deftly connotes a rocket tearing through the Earth’s atmosphere as if Major Tom might actually be plunging back to Earth. The stomping booms of Sterling Campbell’s drum kit seem to echo off electronic walls of murmuring voices from ground control as Reeves Gabrels’ angular guitar riffing melts into saxophone-like honks.
Throughout Outside the production by Bowie and Eno has a futuristic metallic shine. The opening track, “Leon Takes Us Outside,” starts with a bunch of murmurs lost in an ambient wash of noise and then bursts into “Outside,” a cut that features each instrument gleaming with its own sound. The scarcity of reverb makes each string on Bowie’s acoustic guitar ring with its own separate note.
Besides slick production, Bowie and Eno, muffle the instruments on some tracks to get a dirty, industrial sound that seems influenced by Nine Inch Nail’s Downward Spiral. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” buzzes with NIN influences, but with Bowie’s voice mixed so high above the murmuring instruments, the song makes for a weak industrial experience.
The music is at its best when its subtle and angular, coming at you with strange constructions that make for surprising listens. It makes perfect sense that Gabrels and pianist Mike Garson slip into a ska-like jam toward the end of the pounding “Hallo Spaceboy.”
Bowie and Eno worked together in the late ’70s, one of Bowie’s most prolific periods spawning the albums Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. They threw a lot of pop conventions out the window and created an avant-garde pop styling. They use this styling in Outside to reflect Bowie’s theme of art struggling to be creative. Bowie echoes the feelings toward 1920’s modernism, the parent of futurism, in lines like “There is no hell” and “We’re swimming in a sea of sham” in “The Motel.”
With Outside, Bowie sometimes falls through the trap doors of creating something new for the sake of creating something new, leaving the listener wondering if this album isn’t all a sham. One has to sit through about half an album’s worth of failed attempts at creativity that sound either like rip-offs or dull failures to get to anything ground-breaking. Overall, songs like “We Prick You” and “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” are worth the tedium.