MOVIE REVIEW: HOUSE OF GUCCI

With its wall to wall cast of Oscar nominees (including four winners), eye popping promotional materials and an enticingly lurid true story behind it, Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci has been one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2021.

The film stars Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani, a secretary at her father’s trucking company in Italy in the late 1970s’. A chance meeting with Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) at a mutual friend’s party leads to a budding romance that introduces her to a world of glamour, wealth and intrigue she never could imagine. Maurizio is reluctant to get by solely on his famous last name,  is studying to become a lawyer; furthermore, his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons, rocking the hell out of a Clark Gable mustache) does not approve of Patrizia’s comparatively meager upbringing and decides to cut both off from the vast Gucci fortune.

Maurizio and Patrizia get married and settle down into a quiet, comfortable life free from the pressures of being part of the Gucci empire; this changes when Maurizio’s uncle, Aldo (Al Pacino) invites them to his birthday party in an effort to groom him as his eventual successor; Aldo’s own son, Paolo (Jared Leto), is seen as an “idiot” incapable of running the business properly, someone lacking in both fashion and common sense. This is the first sign of tension between Maurizio and Patrizia and the rest of the family.

Upon returning to his family business, Maurizio takes Patrizia to New York where both are seduced by the family’s growing wealth and power, and as a result become disgusted with Aldo’s seeming complacency in growing and modernizing the brand. This leads to a series of betrayals that change the dynamic of both the business and the family, and ultimately leads to dire (and deadly) consequences for Maurizio and Patrizia’s marriage.

Like the clothing brand itself, House of Gucci is sleek, stylish, flamboyant and full of intrigue. Scott and the cast clearly understood the assignment at hand; a story built around such eccentric situations and characters is bound to have moments of camp, but make no mistake: House of Gucci is a seriously well made film that makes the most of its pedigree.

This is largely due to the acting, particularly Gaga’s performance; as Reggiani, she is dynamic, enchanting, intimidating and powerful. Her transition from harmless secretary living out the ultimate Cinderella story to a shrewd, malicious femme fatale is wholly believable and worthy of whatever major awards may come her way. She simply commands the screen in a way that wholly betrays the notion that this is only her second major leading role in a motion picture.

Driver, questionable accent aside, is similarly affecting in his role as the ill fated Maurizio, having a palpable chemistry with his leading lady that crackles with energy. Pacino and Irons, two venerable elder titans, make the most of their comparatively meager supporting roles. Only Leto truly whiffs, as his take on dimwitted black sheep Paolo feels more like a Super Mario audition than a serious, nuanced take on an actual person; everything from his accent to his makeup to his clothes feels hammy and forced. (Salma Hayek is unfortunately wasted in her role as Reggiani’s psychic friend and eventual coconspirator, Pina Auriemma).

Visually, the film is stunning; Scott has not lost his place as one of cinema’s most unique auteurs. His shots of the film’s various exotic locales in Italy are sublime, and his ability to film in a way that makes you feel like you were in on the action, feeling the emotions and tensions of the characters as he did in Alien and Blade Runner, has not dissipated.

House of Gucci is enthralling, evocative, over the top and ruthlessly entertaining; it moves along at a great place thanks to its great acting and intriguing, if slightly convoluted storyline. People will no doubt quibble over its accuracy, not least of all the Gucci family themselves; regardless, the film succeeds just as a pure piece of escapism and artistry, no doubt aided by its more than worthy pedigree.

REVIEW: VOYAGE – ABBA

ABBA: Voyage Album Review | Pitchfork
Voyage is ABBA’s first album in 40 years.

Barring The Beatles when all were living, there has been go greater holdout on the ‘bands reuniting’ front than Swedish pop juggernauts ABBA…

…that is until now.

The quartet of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad have reunited 40 years after their last album, and in the wake of an ongoing renaissance of their music largely spurred by the smash musical Mamma Mia and its film adaptations.

ABBA broke up when its respective marriages (Agnetha to Bjorn, Ani-Frid to Benny) ended in rapid succession, as good as any reason to breakup a band. At the time of their breakup, ABBA was a worldwide phenomenon with over twenty hit singles to their name, including ubiquitous classics such as “Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen,” and “Take a Chance on Me.” While they were never critics’ darlings (some have called them the ultimate ‘guilty pleasure’ band), their fanbase was rabid and devoted, and heartbroken by the news.

In the ensuing years, ABBA’s popularity and success has only grown; 1992’s ABBA Gold compilation become their best selling release some 10 years after they split. In 1999, British playwright Catherine Johnson partnered with Ulvaeus and Andersson for Mamma Mia!, a musical consisting entirely of ABBA classics as the soundtrack to a convoluted but charming romantic comedy plot. The play was a raging success throughout the world, and firmly reignited the ABBA renaissance with no end in the sight; the success of Mamma Mia spawned not one, but two film adaptations that were met with similar plaudits.

Despite their enduring appeal, a reunion of the band seemed about as likely as a JFK Jr. sighting in Dallas this year; they have turned down as much as one billion dollars to reunite in any capacity. However, an informal private reunion in 2016 led to something of a 180 of their previous attitudes, and the band recorded two songs for charity in 2018. They also took part in the creation of a digital avatar project, which was set to tour shortly before the pandemic of 2020.

ABBA turned out to also be working on a new full album, which has now come into fruition in the form of Voyage; after 40 years away, there was some trepidation from fans as to whether the band could live up to the hype of such an event. Would a new ABBA album be worth it after all this time.

Well, happily, the answer is yes; for the most part, Voyage is deeply enjoyable and charming, just like the best ABBA hits; the dizzying power pop melodies and super crisp production that defined their biggest songs are fully present and sound just as fresh today as they did in 1977. The voices of both female lead singers have held up incredibly well, with nary a difference in tone or power compared to their heyday.

The album as a whole is rather top heavy, its best tracks coming within the first half; this includes the singles “I Still Have Faith in You,” “Don’t Shut Me Down,” and “Just a Notion.”  These songs have all the grand hallmarks of classic ABBA, with irresistible hooks and dizzying harmonies. “Just a Notion” especially feels reminiscent of the band’s earliest hits, with a rolling piano providing Fältskog and Lyngstad the perfect vehicle for their signature vocal blending to hit its sweet spot. “When You Danced with Me” also adds to a very strong first half, recalling the lilting classic “Our Last Summer.” “Little Things” is the one weaker song here, although its message is charming.

The second half of the album is more forgettable, as the band tries a bit too hard to incorporate a more modern sound that falls flat, particularly on the cringe-y “Keep an Eye on Dan,” as well as the sappy and cloying “I Can Be that Woman.” That said, the whimsical “Bumblebee” and the chugging power pop of “No Doubt About It” are solid enough to keep the record afloat, and the closing “Ode to Freedom” is quite haunting and fitting coda should this be the last thing ABBA ever record.

Even if it’s for one album, it feels oddly comforting to have ABBA back; in a world constantly shrouded in uncertainty and darkness, ABBA’s aggressively shiny, shimmering sonic milieu provides a most welcome aural respite. Voyage isn’t a classic, but it’s a solidly enjoyable effort, and makes a strong case for ABBA’s enduring appeal.

REMEMBERING CHARLIE WATTS, THE ULTIMATE ANTI-ROCK STAR

Sophistication is not a word normally associated with rock stars, and certainly not the immortal decadence associated with the Rolling Stones. And yet, with the passing of Charlie Watts this past Tuesday, the word has popped up multiple times to describe his playing as well as his quiet, anti-rock star demeanor.

Charlie was the eye of the crossfire hurricane that is the Rolling Stones sound, his steady backbeat providing calm in the midst of Keith Richards’ wild guitar riffs and Mick Jagger’s sneering, seedy vocals. A jazz musician at heart who initially eschewed the blues influences of his bandmates, Charlie gave the Stones sound a big band swing that defined the seductive grooves of classics like “Honky Tonk Women” and “Beast of Burden.” Richards’ deathless “Satisfaction” intro would not sound nearly as muscular with Charlie’s insistent ‘four on the floor’ backbeat hammering away underneath it, punctuating the aggression at the heart of the song. 

In the band’s live shows, Charlie was the secret weapon: whenever Keith Richards got lost in a solo or Jagger mistimed a vocal cue, you could always count on Watts to right the ship and get the band back on track. Richards would play through him, using him as the guide post to set up the tempos and grooves of songs to get the right feeling going on any given night. On the band’s live epic, “Midnight Rambler,” the entire band would have their eyes locked on him the whole time as he effortlessly navigated them through the song’s many dynamics and tempo shifts. Watts played with the Stones until he was 78 years old, and his final tour in 2019 had him sounding as brisk, sharp and punchy as ever, and still swinging.

The parallels between Watts’ playing and his personality have often been discussed; in both he was unassuming, never wont to take center stage, but always just an emphatic enough presence to make him indispensable to the Stones’ legacy. In interviews and promotional video, Charlie had a dryly comedic role, often rolling his eyes in mock embarrassment at Jagger’s endless preening and prancing. He always seemed genuinely bemused that he was apart of the biggest rock and roll band on the planet, and it was always charming and endearing how humbly he approached fame. 

Not that he didn’t indulge: Watts collected Arabian horses and vintage sports car, the latter his most jarring excess considering he never drove. He was perhaps second to David Bowie as rock’s most immaculate sartorial figure, decked to the nines in gorgeous Saville Row tailored suits and colorful shirts. He also briefly took over for Richards as the band’s resident heroine addict in the mid-1980s’, a period that gave birth to one of the most famous backstage Stone moments: an enraged Jagger called Watts down for a rehearsal and angrily referred to him as my drummer. Watts, who by own his admission was drunk, heartily decked the likely unsuspecting frontman and told him “you’re my fucking singer.” Watts wasn’t wrong; without him, Jagger would not have a beat or shuffle for him to unleash his spastic yet effective running and vamping upon the world for the last six decades.

Watts quit heroine cold turkey when he realized the effect it was having on his marriage to his wife Shirley, who he stayed with for 57 years. When Bill Wyman was bragging about having sex  with 2,000 women in 1965 alone and Jagger was having teenyboppers throw themselves at him 24/7, Watts had a steadfast, happy family life until the day he died. In music and life, Watts has been described as a rock: reliable, still, seemingly indistinct, but if you were to remove it from the landscape, it would seem less vibrant and unique.

Without Charlie in the band’s aural landscape, the Rolling Stones lose their swing and punch. They had a replacement inked for Charlie before he passed, as he had pulled out of their upcoming U.S. tour three weeks before his death under more pretenses (temporary illness, ‘returning for the 60th anniversary next year’); it’s Steve Jordan, Richards’ drummer from his side project the X-Pensive Winos. Jordan is an excellent drummer, and it’s crucial that they brought in someone who has chemistry with Keith Richards, who once said ‘no Charlie, no Stones’ when Watts battled cancer in 2004. Jordan, however, will not be Charlie. The history won’t be there,  nor the natural chemistry that developed out of nearly 60 years of playing together. It’s going to be exciting to see the Stones face a true challenge again, as opposed to coasting on the spectacle and hype of their longevity. It may be good, great even, but it won’t be as good as having Charles Robert Watts there.

REVIEW: FOLKLORE – TAYLOR SWIFT

Review: Taylor Swift 'Folklore' might be the best album of her ...

Bob Dylan went electric, The Beatles discovered psychedelia, and now Taylor Swift seems to be transitioning into indie rock goddess….ok, these are all ludicrous comparisons and exaggerations, but the pop icon’s sudden shift into uncharted territory could well be the start of a new, exciting chapter in her already 15 year career.

In actuality, Swift’s career has always been about gradual growth and change, as she transitioned from country sensation to mainstream pop goddess, all the while keeping the core tenets of her artistry intact; her introspective, often biting and clever takes on her personal relationships along with more nuanced statements on her autonomy and independence. 

The indie folk genre that has been pioneered by Bon Iver, The National and numerous other acts over the last 20 years is in reality a perfect nesting ground for Swift’s brand of soul probing story-songs, and thanks to genre mainstays Jack Antanoff producing and The National’s Adam Dressen co-writing 11 of the album’s 16 songs, she sounds completely comfortable and authentic in these previously uncharted waters.

Those looking for the next “Shake It Off” or “You Need to Calm Down” can stick with the mega-selling albums they came from; the slick beats and catchy hooks are replaced with stripped down arrangements, crisp piano and guitar, the occasional dreary organ, and Swift’s sultry, often ethereal vocals. Her voice barely rises above a whisper on many tracks, giving them an intimate, haunting presence that recalls Lana Del Rey and even Joni Mitchell.

Each one of folklore’s 16 tracks ranges from very good to absolutely excellent, with some of the best songs in her career in the second half of the album; it’s tough to narrow it down to a few highlights, but the dreamy “mirrorball,” the poignant and haunting “this is me trying,” the mournful “illicit affairs” and the closing “hoax” stand among Swift’s very best material ever. Other standouts include the bouncy, wistful “the last great american dynasty” and “my tears ricochet,” the latter maybe Swift’s darkest song to date and largely interpreted as a veiled kiss-off to her former record label, Big Machine.

In a year that has seen incredible new music by everyone from Bob Dylan to Phish to Dua Lipa to Fiona Apple to Lady Gaga, folklore holds its own as a bold and powerful artistic statement with the quality to match its ambitions. With this record, Swift’s next move just became that much more exciting and unpredictable.

GRADE: A

REVIEW: “SIGMA OASIS” – PHISH

Sigma Oasis_Phish

With the immediate fate of concerts, festivals and other music related gatherings in limbo, America’s second favorite jam band and favorite live band, Phish, have bestowed something of a consellation present in the form of its latest album, Sigma Oasis.

Sigma Oasis marks a milestone of sorts for the band, as it’s the first studio album to successfully conjure the alchemy that results in their most legendary and transformative jams live jamming; the lengthy excursions in “Everything’s Right,” “Steam,” and the haunting closer “Thread” are as good as any the band has laid down onstage, filled with dynamic twists and turns and endless exploration, as well as their typically fantastic musicianship. 

Lyrically and musically, Phish are more mature and thoughtful as ever; on songs like the whimsical title tracks, the haunting “Leaves,” and the truly sublime “Shade,” Anastastio displays a depth and maturity to his lyricism that has only been shown in flashes previously (most notably on his solo record, Ghosts of the Forest), while the vocal melodies and harmonies on “Mercury” rank among the most clever in Phish’s catalog. His playing continues to be as sharp, fluid and creative as ever, with his solo on “Leaves” standing out in particular for its emotional colouring that recalls the depth his forefather Jerry Garcia would inject into his most soulful “Stella Blue” outros.

The rest of the band sounds terrific too, with some of their most delicate and nuanced playing to date; Page McConnell really struck me as the album’s other MVP, especially on “Everything’s Right,” where his intricate and thoughtful keyboard work is the motivating force towards leading the song into deeper waters. The rhythm section of John Fishman and Mike Gordon are air tight throughout, giving each song the proper foundation and standing out especially on the heady funk breakdowns in “Steam” and “Thread.”

Sigma Oasis is a true gift of an album, not just for Phish’s rabid fanbase but for 2020 as a whole; its a true ‘feel good’ record that, coupled with Phish’s generally relaxed and sunny musical disposition, allows you to drift away from the chaos of the current climate, if only for an hour and six minutes.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: “FUTURE NOSTALGIA” – DUA LIPA

Dua Lipa’s latest release, the cleverly titled Future Nostalgia, came on a wave of hype, as the Grammy winning English pop sensation has been responsible for some of the most irresistible and inescapable hits of the last three years. Predictably, Future Nostalgia not only lives up to its hype, but actually exceeds it.

On Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa asserts her bold, assertive and unapologetic femininity in a way in a series of tough, punchy dance floor anthems bristling with clever, often biting and hilarious lyrics and complemented by dazzling production values. From the opening infectious title track, Lipa immediately establishes herself as a dominant force to be reckoned, as well as clarifies the intent behind the album’s contradictory title:

You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game

Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way

I know you like this beat ’cause Jeff been doing the damn thing

You wanna turn it up loud, future nostalgia is the name.” *

If her goal was to create an album of songs that are indisputably rotted in modern times while incorporating iconic sounds and production values of the 1970s’, ’80s, and beyond, she achieves it, especially on tracks such as the dreamy “Levitating” and the lush “Love Again,” both of which sail on a caressing wave of 70s’ R&B tapestries, with the latter also incorporating the more pointed New Jack Swing beats of the early 1990s’.  

Specific artists are also recalled, either consciously or consciously; the fantric, pulsating beat of “Physical” recalls the similarly suggestive pacing of ABBA’s edgy “Lay All Your On Me” and Madonna’s early classic “Burning Up,” among others. The appropriately hypnotic “Hallucinate” pays homage to The Fame era Gaga without sounding derivative, while the album’s best song, the irresistbly raunchy “Good in Bed” combines the brassiness of TLC, the lyrical bite of Lily Allen (as pointed out by other critics) and the raw, upfront sexual bravado of Lizzo, as well as echoing Prince’s similarly graphic and spiritually gratifying portrayal of sex during the days of Dirty Mind.

The album’s closer, “Boys Will Be Boys,” is a blunt condemnation against toxic masculinity as well as the idea that it’s on women to protect themselves rather than on men to behave appropriately; it’s not the first song tackle these subjects, but the song’s lyrics are laced with a formidable combo of defiance, resignation, and even humor. Its serious pedigree may seem jarring, but in reality it’s a culmination of all the non-apologetic femininity Lipa presents throughout the album, and establishes her as an artist capable of serious depth and thought and offers a great conclusion.

With its smartly constructed songs, soaring and diverse production values, and Lipa’s charismatic vocals and personality, it’s going to be very tough to top Future Nostalgia as one of, if not the, best albums of 2020. Be on the lookout come Grammys time, whenever that will be.

* Lyrics credited to

 

 

MOVIE REVIEW: EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE

DIRECTOR: Vince Gilligan

CAST: Aaron Paul, Robert Forster, Jesse Plemmons, Matt Jones, Charles Baker, Scott MacArthur, Scott Shepherd

Breaking Bad, the legendary series about a chemistry teacher turned empirically successful, unforgiving ruthless meth kingpin, is a show whose impact is still felt today. Vince Gilligan’s ballsy series set a new vanguard for episodic storytelling across several mediums, leading way to some of the great drama series of today that employ similarly daring character choices, plot lines, and atmospheres.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, coming four years after the show’s breathtaking finale, was designed by Gilligan and star Aaron Paul, who played the conflicted partner of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, Jesse Pinkman. Pinkman’s arc ended on a cliffhanger, one that many fans wanted to see completed. After various hints and teases from both on social media, El Camino hit Netflix and select theaters on October 11.

El Camino picks up right where the series finale of Breaking Bad left off, with Pinkman speeding away from the compound from which he was held captive, bruised, bloodied but free. Of course, Jesse is not really ‘free’: the police are hunting him down, his exploits with Heisenberg plastered all over the evening news, and there’s a very good chance those associated with his now deceased captors are looking to finish the job on him. Pinkman winds up turning to the only people he can trust (that are still alive): Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt L. Jones), both of whom assist in helping Pinkman clean up and avoid capture. With his incriminating car off his hands, Pinkman sets out to retrieve the cash owed to him by his former partners turned captors, breaking into Todd’s (Jesse Plemmons) apartment to retrieve over a million dollars’ cash. Unfortunately, Jesse is not the only one looking for the money, as several other associates from his past make it much harder for Jesse to start over, most notably vacuum salesman Ed Galbraith (the late Robert Forster in his final onscreen performance), the ‘cleaner’ who helped Walter White form a new identity and escape from his (for awhile, anyway). This leads to a somewhat predictable but totally satisfying ending to Pinkman’s arc, and it’s hard to imagine any fans of the show will be disappointed by it.

El Camino does not have the constant high velocity twists and turns of Breaking Bad‘s more intense episodes; as a film as opposed to a tv show, it’s much more reserved and dynamic, which makes the more explosive moments all the more effective once they hit. The inter-cutting of Jesse’s present day dilemma with flashbacks to how he got to where he is now help immensely is tightly incorporated into the flow of the film and compliments the main story perfectly. It also leads to some great cameos, including one from Plemmons where his sociopathic killer character is almost humanized as he takes Jesse out for the day to give him a break from his constant torture sessions. I won’t spoil the rest (some you can see coming from miles away), but each one was a character it really felt good to see again and remind you just how brilliantly acted the series was as a whole.

Paul is absolutely mesmerizing as he revisits his signature character, adding new nuances and depth to the character; there are long stretches of the film where he barely utters a complete sentence, acting totally with his eyes and body language, that totally capture the anger and regret over Jesse’s past actions, as well as his ambitions to start over. It’s as good an acting performance as I’ve ever seen, and hopefully the upcoming awards season will recognize it a such. The rest of the cast compliments him nicely, especially Forster, who as Jesse’s most tormenting antagonist here despite posing no physical threat, gets to put one last notch on his belt of fine, fine performances throughout his career. You ride a roller coaster with his character, hating for him on being so stern in his one requirement to help Jesse, and yet respecting how he holds his own against Jesse’s still smug, arrogant attitude. Their scenes together are among the very best part of the movie for me, just two great actors matching each other’s passion, intensity, and craftsmanship.

If you have yet to watch Breaking Bad, you will find El Camino slow, laborious, and predictable. If you watched it and loved it, you will be smiling ear to ear at its conclusion. Vince Gilligan did 100 % right by his fans, giving them the perfect post script to this groundbreaking series.

MOVIE REVIEW: JOKER

DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips

RATING: R

CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Zazie Beetz

Genre: Drama / Thriller

The media hype as well as scrutiny leading up to the release of Todd Phillips’ Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the legendary Batman villian, was as unavoidable as it was controversial. Marketed as a Joker origin story, one in which the character is a well meaning but mentally ill man who is tired of getting beaten down by those better off than them and as a result completely snaps, many felt it echoed too closely the mindframe of mass shooters and incels who take their own personal insecurities and resentments out on the public. Its supporters, on the other hand, felt it would open a door to a new conversation about mental illness, how to recognize signs of suffering and empathize with those afflicted, and help us realize the warning signs of a potentially homicidal break before it’s too late.

With such a burden on its back, Joker couldn’t afford to be a failure, and it certainly isn’t; in fact, Joker fully accomplishes what it sets out to do, to the point where you can almost consider it a masterpiece. It’s not an easy watch: it’s bleak and disturbing. You will sweat and your knuckles will turn white while you’re watching it. Depending on who you are, it will frighten you how much you relate to the main character’s sense of hopelessness and rejection from an unforgiving society. I personally don’t know if I can ever sit through it again.

Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a lonely, disturbed man who lives in abject poverty while taking care of his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur has a mental illness that causes him to laugh hysterically and uncontrollably even in the most inappropriate moments, which is why the only work he is able to find is a professional clown. Despite his belief that his purpose is to “bring laughter and joy to the world” and aspirations to become a successful standup comedian, Arthur makes everyone around him, from his social worker to the other professional clowns he works with, deeply uncomfortable with his constant laughing, nihilistic outlook, and generally unsettling demeanor. Eventually, one of his co-workers devises a plan to get him fired, which works and sends Arthur on the course that eventually turns him into the beloved (feared?) Clown Prince of Crime.

Joker is relentlessly unnerving, constantly challenging the limits of your empathy as the titular character descends further and further into psychotic madness. As a person whose had his own struggles with mental illness, it absolutely terrified me how much I related to the character early on; only when he actually started killing his antagonists did I thank God for a stable, supportive family, a good job, and impulse control.

The film muddies the waters further by making his victims increasingly despicable in their own right: three ‘well to do’ preppies who antagonize both Arthur and a young woman on the train, a seemingly well meaning co-worker who gives Arthur a gun under the guise of protecting himself but then gets him fired for possessing it, and a smug, faux-genial late night talk show host (Robert De Niro, hamming it up in one of his best roles in recent years) who belittles Arthur’s attempts at standup on the show without his consent, then pays the price when he invites Fleck on. Even Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who’s not a victim of Fleck’s crimes, is portrayed as far less heroic and sympathetic than he is in other iterations. The movie ultimately winds up with no character as a moral center; while this is certainly off putting too many, it fits seamlessly with the film’s narrative and provides a perfect contrast to the entertaining but predictable formulas of your average superhero movies. 

People have said that the movie has no real goal, but I left with the impression that Phillips wanted us to make our decision on what to take away from the film; if you came away thinking that he wanted to make a pointed statement about the socio-political climate and wealth disparity in today’s America, an unflinching condemnation on our treatment and often rejection of the homeless, mentally ill and other groups seen as undesirable, or just a violent origin story for a beloved villain, it’s futile and perhaps impossible to say you’re wrong.

While Joker is tightly written and beautifully filmed, the reason for its success is Phoenix. It’s no secret that Phoenix is an actor of the finest vintage, but he outdoes himself here. He plays Arthur in such a dynamic, nuanced way that the aforementioned sympathy you have for him early on is totally valid. His performance acts as a road map for the viewers’ feelings of the character, from the way his signature laugh becomes more abrasive and obnoxious to the subtle changes in facial expressions and general mannerisms that paint as vivid a picture of insanity as any. Arthur Fleck, for me, comfortably takes his spot alongside Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, John Doe from Se7en and any other legendary cinematic antagonist you could think of.

Visually, the film is stunning; Phillips creates by far the eeriest live action imagining of Gotham City to date. Whereas Tim Burton’s had a gothic beauty to it that felt appropriate only because it was Tim Burton, and Nolan’s felt like a normal city getting being terrorizes, Phillips’ is a grey, desolate hellscape with no relief to be found at any corner.

Simply put, Joker is a brilliant movie. I feel comfortable using the word ‘masterpiece,’ even. While I’ve ‘enjoyed’ other films that came out this year more, they did not leave the mark on me that Joker did. I can’t recommend it for everyone, but if you enjoy being challenged by a film, Joker is a winner in every way.

GRADE: A

REVIEW: THE ROLLING STONES, METLIFE STADIUM, EAST RUTHERFORD NJ. 8/5/2019

IMG_0301“This could be the last time,

This could be the last time,

May be the last time, I don’t know.”

The Rolling Stones did not play that 1964 hit at their show last night at MetLife Stadium, yet it was the one running through my head as I decided to purchase tickets as well when I arrived at the venue.

I’ve been a Stones fan since the riff of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” seared its way into my brain when I was about five or so. I’ve seen them twice before, once in 2003 at Madison Square Garden and again in 2005 at Giants Stadium (aka the old MetLife). I still consider them the best pure hard rock band of all time. And yet, I entered the stadium with a feeling of trepidation.

Many an unfunny joke has been made about the band’s increasingly advanced years, along with the prognostication that every tour since 1997 could be their last. Having heard some recordings of shows within the last year or so, I thought age had finally caught up with the band: the tempos dragged, Jagger sounded labored, and Keith wasn’t churning out riffs with the same verve and power he’s renowned for. For the first time in their life, the Stones really sounded like what they are: very old men playing rock and roll.

As the opening riff to “Jumping Jack Flash” jolted the stadium crowd onto their feet, any misgivings I may have had were erased. The band attacked the song, with Keith firing off power riffs, Charlie pounding the drums while keeping perfect time and tempo, and Mick strutted and prowled with the confidence and energy he’s always had.

From end to end, the band sounded virile, tough, and engaged on every song. There was no sluggishness, no dull moments, no sense of them going through the motions. They left all they could on that stage. Mick had the crowd in the palm of his hand as he led them through the singalong chorus of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and his banter was equal funny, witty, cheesy and sincere, acknowledging it was the 90th time they’ve played Jersey and how they love playing the Northeast more than anywhere else in America.

The set list speaks for itself: to name a few, “Tumbling Dice,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Miss You,” “Start Me Up,” “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” are some of the most important songs in all of rock and roll, and hearing them in person always feels like you’re experiencing a little bit of history. “Sympathy” and “Gimme Shelter” both felt especially potent in the wake of the current political atmosphere, and they played each with intimidating purpose.

While the set was heavy on the hits, the band was more than accommodating for hardcore fans craving deep cuts. Early on, they busted out their hit cover of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” for the first time since 1990; in theory it’s not a song I love, but between the novelty of it being not done for so long and that they nailed it so well, it was one of the highlights of the evening. They followed it up with the sinister Let It Bleed track “Monkey Man,” the result of a four song online fan vote that beat out “Rocks Off,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” and “She’s So Cold.” An acoustic set done at the foot of the stage brought forth the raunchy title track from “Let It Bleed” as well as the darkly humorous Sticky Fingers gem “Dead Flowers.” After the band introductions, Keith took vocal duties for two songs, contrasting the gentle, ‘rocking chair’ swing of “You Got the Silver” with the raw grit of “Before They Make Me Run.” 

The biggest highlight for me was when Mick returned to the stage to a rousing “Miss You,” followed by the two best songs of the evening: a powerful “Midnight Rambler” featured an incendiary extended jam with Ronnie and Keith trading riffs as smoothly as passing someone the salt, and Mick delivered his best vocal of the night, really leaning into the menacing titular character to a point that was almost scary. They followed it up with the song I most wanted to hear, a thunderous “Paint It Black” with Charlie at the helm, driving its signature Moroccan beat with brute force. The song’s bleak, nihilistic outlook has even more pathos today than it did 53 years ago, as the world has indeed grown darker and more chaotic, and Mick seemed to draw on that as he delivered another robust, passionate vocal.

Outside of the music, the band’s stage set up was a stunning spectacle of sight and sound. The sound system was phenomenal, with a punchy and dynamic sound that allowed for every instrument to be heard perfectly and every word Mick sang ring clear as bell. Each song had specific lighting and accompanying visuals, where it almost felt like each song was literally unfolding before your eyes. Finally, there was a pyrotechnic display at the end of “Satisfaction” that could only be appreciated (or perhaps even pulled off) in the vast, roofless stadium.

The Stones have a stellar group of supporting musicians led by longtime sidemen Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Bernard Fowler on percussion, and the great Darryl Jones on bass; Leavell’s coda to “Honky Tonk Women” and Jones’ solo during “Miss You” in particular were two of the evening’s biggest highlights instrumentally. Backing vocalist Sasha Allen was a charismatic and sexy presence throughout, letting Mick bump and grind on her during “Miss You” and absolutely nailing the iconic bridge of “Gimme Shelter.”

All in all, I feel confident in saying this: The Rolling Stones played a perfect show last night, bolstered by a wild crowd who stood up and sang along all night. They continue to defy expectations brought on by age and the abuses each of their bodies have taken over the years. They are still the best at what they do, and what they do is fucking incredible.

Setlist

Jumping Jack Flash

You Got Me Rocking

Tumbling Dice

Harlem Shuffle *

Monkey Man **

You Can’t Always Get You Want

— acoustic set —

Let It Bleed

Dead Flowers

Sympathy for the Devil

Honky Tonk Women

You Got the Silver +

Before They Make Me Run +

Miss You

Midnight Rambler

Paint It Black

Start Me Up

Brown Sugar

Encore:

Gimme Shelter

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

* first since 8/25/90

** online choice

+ Keith Richards on lead vocals, Mick offstage

The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger – lead vocals, guitar, harmonica, percussion

Keith Richards – guitars, backing vocals

Ronnie Wood – guitars, backing vocals

Charlie Watts – drums, percussion

Additional musicians

Darryl Jones – bass

Chuck Leavell – keyboards, backing vocals

Sasha Allen – backing vocals

Karl Denson – saxophone

Tim Ries – saxophone, keyboards

Matt Clifford – keyboards, percussion, French horn, show introduction voice

Bernard Fowler – backing vocals, percussion

 

“MY FUNNY VALENTINE” IS THE “BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE” OF VALENTINE’S DAY SONGS.

For the last several Christmases a debate is had as to whether the evergreen “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a relic of a bygone era in which plying women with alcohol in exchange for a romantic physical encounter was totally acceptable. With what we know about rape culture and the advent of the #metoo movement, it’s become a sore point with many culture historians; some say it is indeed an encouragement of such behaviour, others think it was quite progressive for its time as the woman manages to come to her own conclusion and exercised her own autonomy in the end. Others say it’s just a song.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, I have taken it upon myself to tear down another standard associated with the holidays, Rogers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.”

Originally in the classic Babes in Arms, “My Funny Valentine” has been described in the past for being progressive in that the male lead assures his love that despite not fitting conventional beauty standards:

“My funny valentine…
Sweet, comic valentine…
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable, unphotographable
yet you’re my favorite work of art
Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak,
are you smart?”

While this may read nicely at first glance, let’s reconsider the context: this is the male basically telling his lover that she’s chubby and stupid in a coy but obvious way. The next verse compounds this:

“But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine
Stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day.”

There are several things wrong with this passage. It reads as not only condescending, but possessive and controlling. His affection totally hinges on whether she chooses to change anything about herself. Whereas “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a playful back-and-forth by an ultimately consenting couple, “My Funny Valentine” is an entirely one sided account of a relationship.

Look, I’m all for destroying conventional beauty standards and women embracing who they are, but “My Funny Valentine” doesn’t do that, try as it might. It serves, instead, as a monument to the toxic, controlling side that permeated male culture in the 1930s and 1940s. Be gone, vile song.