By now everybody knows about the award-winning Argo and the blossoming talent of Ben Affleck as a director, but with this film, it really is time to give Affleck his due. This is his third movie behind the camera, and each one has been terrific. Gone Baby Gone and The Town, both set in Boston, were taut, intense thrillers, and Argo follows that same mold. I had no idea the premise of this film other than it centered around the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1979-1980. What Affleck brings to the screen is the little-known story of six Americans who escaped the storming of their embassy to seek refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. In a race against time before the Iranians find out about the missing six Americans, Affleck tells the story of Tony Mendez (who he plays in the movie), the CIA operative who formulated a plan to smuggle the six Americans out of the country. Mendez used the premise that the Americans are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran to shoot the non-existent movie Argo, which was an actual screenplay sitting on the desk of a Hollywood executive, played by the excellent Alan Arkin (and John Goodman is an absolute delight as a Hollywood make-up artist). Some of the scenes will keep you on the edge of your seat, such as the storming of the embassy, the “film crew’s” tour through the marketplace, and the climactic final scene. And in the closing credits, there are juxtapositions of shots from the film and actual pictures of Iran during the crisis, which are nearly identical – an awesome touch by Affleck that shows the historical accuracy of the film.
I do not know why Affleck has never really been embraced – maybe it is some of the characters he has played (the obnoxious O’Bannion from Dazed and Confused and suit-wearing, meatball Hamilton from Mallrats come to mind) or some of the bombs he has dropped on us (hello Gigli), but this guy is clearly a sublime talent behind the camera, and his arrow is only pointing up. I really cannot wait to see what he does next.
Trailers for Argo and the criminally underrated The Town are below.
I’ve seen some great bands on back-to-back Fridays in Chicago. First, Dropkick Murphy’s at the Aragon Ballroom on February 22. This was my seventh or eighth time seeing the American-Celtic punk bank from Boston (technically Quincy) and they never seem to disappoint. The band is best known for their “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” track from the movie The Departed, but these guys are no one-hit wonders. The best way to describe their shows is a crazy night at the pub, with audience singalongs, bagpipers, Irish dancers, and just pure unadulterated joy in the revelry and camaraderie of a Dropkick show. Although their shows are never the same because of their vast catalog, they do follow a familiar pattern each time. Before the band takes the stage, the audience starts chanting for them: “Let’s go Murphy’s!” over and over again. The lights go down, the bagpipers or a beautiful Irish woman’s voice starts (or sometimes a combination of both), and then the band takes the stage. They deliver an energy-packed set each time, inevitably ending in audience members joining the band onstage for the final songs of the night. Every show of theirs is a blast and even if you do not like this genre of music, I would encourage anyone to attend at least one show and they could end up hooking you for life.
The following Friday, March 1, I saw The Gaslight Anthem at the Riviera Theatre, a band I’ve been desperately wanting to see since they released The ’59 Sound in 2008. The New Jersey band’s music and lyrics clearly have a Springsteen-esque influence (not surprising considering they share the same home state), with the Boss joining them several times on tour to collaborate on the song, “The ’59 Sound.” The band injects a substantial dose of punk in their music, with other influences including The Misfits, The Ramones, The Clash, The Replacements, and Pearl Jam. The band have since released American Slang in 2010 and Handwritten in 2012, and they seem to be getting better with age. They definitely blew away my already-high expectations at the Riviera show, with their songs sticking in your head for days. One of the best shows I’ve seen in a while and I cannot wait to see them when they come around again.
I just watched End of Watch, directed by David Ayer, who wrote movies such as U-571, The Fast and the Furious, and Training Day. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as LAPD officers working in South Central Los Angeles, the movie is a gritty crime drama that avoids most of the typical cliches inherent to the genre. The camaraderie and banter between Gyllenhaal and Pena throughout the movie feels genuine and heartfelt, and you almost instantly connect with the characters. They both give outstanding performances, and the handheld cameras contribute to the intense action scenes and building of tension throughout the film. Ayer does an excellent job of balancing the ultra-violent scenes with the touching, brolove between Gyllenhaal and Pena. While there was a slight over-glamorization of the role of a big-city cop, the movie is a thrill ride from the beginning, and the climactic scenes provide a white-knuckle, pulse-pounding finish.
I just finished reading American Desperado, a biography on the life of Jon Roberts, Mafia soldier and cocaine cowboy. The book was written by Roberts in tandem with Evan Wright, an award-winning journalist and author of the excellent Generation Kill. The story starts with Roberts born into the Mafia and at the tender age of seven, witnessing his first murder, carried out by his father. Before seeing his father deported to Italy, Roberts learned the one crucial lesson that would serve as a guiding force throughout his life: the evil path is the better path because evil is stronger than good. This philosophy would take root in Roberts as he navigated a rocky, unstable childhood and later became a hunter-killer during the Vietnam War. After he returned home, he “officially” became a member of the Mafia and went on to become one of the leading nightclub impresarios in New York City at the age of 22. When he got into some hot water because of an affair with another mafioso’s wife, he fled to Miami, where in only a few years he would become one of the top smugglers and American representatives for the Medellin Cartel of Columbia, a ruthless organization that included Pablo Escobar and was run by the Ochoa family. The U.S. government eventually took notice of Roberts and enlisted him to smuggle arms to the freedom fighters in Nicaragua. Later, Roberts would become a central figure in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys.
The stories Roberts shares in the book range from hilarious to the macabre to the undeniably brutal. He is surrounded by a cadre of beautiful women and celebrities (Jimi Hendrix, O.J. Simpson, Richard Pryor, James Caan-Roberts was not particularly fond of the former’s portrayal of Sonny in The Godfather, as he makes clear), but after it all comes crashing down (as it typically does in these types of stories), Roberts comes to a stark realization: he is utterly alone on this earth because he cares for no one. Is this ultimately a redemptive story? Not really, although Roberts does find love for a son he later fathers. Roberts is acutely self-aware of his evil ways and fully expects that when he leaves this earth, his partner for eternity will be the Devil himself, and he is perfectly accepting of that. But now he enjoys and basks in the love of his son and his wife. Told in a straight-forward (“street”) and blunt manner, it is a fascinating tale of a modern-day American outlaw, an outlaw who to his dying days will profess that his religion is evil, the easier and simpler path to take.
I have been catching up on my movies lately, and there are two I have to mention, not necessarily because they are spectacular films, but more for their pure entertainment value. First, Oliver Stone’s Savages, starring Benecio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, and Blake Lively, and based on the book of the same name by Don Winslow. The two protagonists, Aaron Johnson (playing the brainy and cool Ben) and Taylor Kitsch (playing the ex-Navy Seal and volatile Chon), run a successful marijuana-growing operation in Laguna Beach. They both are in love with and “share” Ophelia (Shakespeare anyone?), played by Lively. Notwithstanding the inherently complex issues such a relationship would pose in reality (Do they rotate every other day? And who gets her on Sunday?), life is idyllic in their world, with little to no violence as a result of their “operation.” That is until the Mexican Cartel enters and demands that the trio partner with them in their business. After Ben and Chon refuse, that is when all hell breaks loose, with kidnappings, rape, blood, and more blood. Some of the scenes are Tarantino-esque in their brutality and (what else?) savageness. As a number of critics noted, it’s a hot mess, but it does what movies are supposed to do: entertain.
The second movie I have to comment on is Rian Johnson’s science fiction film Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. The story takes place in the year 2044, where Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, an assassin or “looper.” Thirty years from this time, in 2074, time travel has been invented, but it has been outlawed and is only used by criminal organizations. When these organizations want someone killed, they send the target back thirty years in the past (2044) to be assassinated by a looper, who are paid with silver bars strapped to their targets. When a looper is “retired,” his future older self is sent back as a routine target, but this time with gold bars attached as payment, and this is referred to as “closing the loop.” As Joe states, the number one rule of a looper is to not let your target escape, which is exactly what happens when Joe encounters his future self (Willis). Throw in people with telekinetic powers, young Joe’s drug addiction, and old Joe’s hunt for a mysterious figure named “The Rainmaker,” and you have one hell of a mind-bending movie. I thought the film was extremely creative and original, and it may require a few viewings to fully grasp the entire storyline. I will say that there seemed to be something holding this movie back from being truly excellent though – maybe it was the slow-down scenes that dragged a bit and seemed somewhat morally preachy to me, or maybe it was the plot with so many moving parts – but regardless, it is still very much a film worth seeing.
The other night I watched The Bay, Barry Levinson’s (The Natural, Young Sherlock Holmes, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, Sleepers, Sphere) found-footage horror film set in a quaint seaside Maryland town. With elements ripped from today’s headlines, including millions of dead fish washed ashore and blackbirds inexplicably falling from the sky, the story centers on a deadly plague that sweeps through the town on July 4th, 2009, turning people into hosts for a lethal, mutant parasite. Hundreds of people are infected and similar to another movie I wrote about a few months ago, Contagion, the situation that leads to the outbreak is far too easy to envision. In this story, authorities believe they have buried the truth about what happened in the town, but an intrepid reporter emerges three years later and exposes the cover-up. The film is told using the reporter’s footage, smartphones, 911 calls, and web cams. This multimedia approach contributes to the building of tension and sense of doom throughout the film, and Mr. Levinson does an excellent job slipping in an environmental message without being preachy. Similar to Jaws, this film will make you think twice before going in the water.
I just saw the band Bloc Party last weekend at the Riviera in Chicago, and they were stellar. They strutted on stage and played with a swagger either I had not seen or did not notice when I saw them a few years ago at Congress Theatre. They played with a determination and fierceness that was captivating, and enhanced even further by their light show. The band mixed tracks from their newest album, Four (appropriately named given that it is the band’s fourth studio album), with some of their classic hits such as “This Modern Love,” “Hunting for Witches,” “Banquet,” and the closing “Helicopter.” For anyone not familiar with the British band, start with their debut album, Silent Alarm, released in 2005 and certified platinum the following year. It is one of my favorite albums of all time and announced the band’s arrival on the music scene. Between 2009-2012, the band was on hiatus after the release of their third album, Intimacy, but they have come roaring back with some unfinished business, and I, for one, am glad they’ve returned.
The other night I watched The Cabin in the Woods, probably one of the most non-conventional horror films you will ever see. Seeking to turn the horror genre on its formulaic head, producer Joss Whedon (wrote and directed The Avengers and creator of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and director Drew Goddard (written episodes for Buffy, Alias, and Lost, and wrote the movie Cloverfield) do just that. You know this is not going to follow the same old script several minutes in when the movie opens with this grand, sweeping, foreboding music juxtaposed against a number of haunting pictures/images, and then suddenly, the music abruptly cuts out, replaced by two office drones standing at the coffee machine. The two workers, played by veteran actors Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, lead an “operation,” one of several occurring around the world, where they manipulate and control the environment surrounding a secluded cabin in the woods where five college students are vacationing. Using mood-altering drugs that reduces the group’s intelligence and compels each of them to follow a script that could lead to their doom, we learn that this is a kind of blood ritual done to appease the Ancient Ones. Also starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Sigourney Weaver (Ripley!), this movie has it all: a clever and unique script, abundant parodies of the horror genre, gallows humor, heart-dropping scares, and a plot that focuses on gods and monsters, human or . . otherwise.
Last weekend I took my son to my buddy Jason Matsumoto’s Japanese-American drumming ensemble, Ho Etsu Taiko, as they celebrated their 15th anniversary. The group was founded in 1997 at Chicago’s Midwest Buddhist Temple, and under the guidance of Jason’s parents, Ho Etsu Taiko blossomed from a youth group to an adult performing ensemble. The group brings a passionate energy to its live shows, mixing traditional Japanese musical styles while dipping into a vast range of contemporary music, developing a unique Chicago sound with global roots. Played at an intimate venue, my son and I were blown away by their skill and talent on display.
Last month I made one of my frequent pilgrimages to Alpine Valley in Wisconsin to once again see my boys Phish, and as usual, they did not disappoint. For those who have never been, I recommend checking out one of the best jam bands (and in my opinion bands) of all time. With their vast catalog of songs (primarily originals, but also some stellar covers – they played Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” the second night), inspired improvisation, dazzling lights, and penchant for never playing the same set twice, a Phish show truly is a transcendent experience. This was over my 40th time seeing them (I’ve lost count), and even after two hiatuses and around twenty-five years of touring, the boys are as dialed in as ever on account of a less grueling tour schedule and more time between shows. All four band members (Page McConnell, Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, and Mike Gordon) are amazing musicians and when they are all locked in to each other and the groove, it is absolutely mesmerizing. And there is no better outdoor venue than Alpine Valley, with its breathtaking views from the top of the monster hill and excellent acoustics, I cherish and appreciate every journey to this sacred shrine. Below are two of my favorite Phish tunes that they played during the weekend, “Harry Hood” (an Alpine staple they played the first night) and “Maze” (which they shredded on the second night).