Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Concert Review: OK Go at the Aztec Theatre, San Antonio, TX, April 20, 2015

A whole lot of confetti was flying around San Antonio Monday night. Even as it was being flung at the Riverwalk for the annual Fiesta Week boat parade, the band OK Go was blasting tons of it inside the nearby Aztec Theatre on Commerce Street.

Perhaps most famous for its complex and colorful YouTube videos, OK Go has built a solid reputation as a multiplatform band whose concerts are equal parts musicianship and performance art, and Monday’s show was no exception. Filled to bursting with awesome sights and sounds, it was a great way to bring arena-style rock to a theater-sized space.

The band began its set standing behind a semitransparent scrim upon which the members’ distorted faces, mimicking the cover of its latest release, Hungry Ghosts, were projected. It was an effect that set the tone for the show to follow, mixing technology and live performance in a literally in-your-face manner. Seven songs from that album were performed, along with six from its 2010 effort, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, and three each from its freshman and sophomore efforts OK Go and Oh No. And just to demonstrate its hard-rocking chops, the quartet kicked out a quite respectable cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”

Despite the stylistic evolutions the band has experienced over the years, from power pop to more serious-minded music, the set nevertheless flowed organically, augmented by some wicked stagecraft.

Interactivity was the overriding theme of the show, as frontman Damian Kulash conducted a couple of audience Q&As; he also used his iPhone to transform its clapping, stomping, and high-hat impersonations (you had to be there) into a percussion track. The singer even jumped into the crowd himself to render a lovely acoustic performance of “Last Leaf.”

Kulash’s vocals sounded terrific (you must hear his Robert Plant) as did the entire band, including bassist Tim Nordwind, drummer Dan Konopka, and keyboardist Andy Ross.

The visual spectacle was nonstop and mesmerizing—sometimes both the rear screen and the scrim would be alive with flashing shapes and colors to intensify the more psychedelic portions of the evening.

For the encore, the band reappeared dressed in identical white jumpsuits to bring the “A Million Ways” video to life as Nordwind lip-synched his original vocals. The neat trick was that when the suits were illuminated by blacklight, they became distinctively and brightly colored.

Closing with the inevitable “Here It Goes Again,” Kulash invited audience members up onto the stage to dance as even more confetti was fired into the air. I don’t know what was happening on the Riverwalk at that moment, but inside the Aztec, it was a joyous celebration indeed.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Great Performance: Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman

Before donning the cape to play Batman, before dropping 60 pounds to play the emaciated Machinist, Christian Bale buffed up to play one of his most memorable characters — arguably one of the most nastily iconic in film history — Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron's American Psycho (2000).

Bret Easton Ellis's original 1991 book was greeted with derision by critics, women's groups and even other authors, so when a film adaptation was announced, it seemed unlikely that it could ever become a reality. Production stalled as directors and stars popped in and out of the picture. David Cronenberg, Oliver Stone, Ewan McGregor and Leonardo DiCaprio were all in the running at one point, and Johnny Depp expressed interest, but nothing ever came of it.

Producer Edward Pressman, who shepherded the project for years, said that Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) was the only director who conveyed a clear solution to bring the ultraviolent novel to the screen. Indeed, Harron's (and co-writer Guinevere Turner) idea of making the story the blackest of black comedies was not only inspired but assured the film's cult status for years to come. As a matter of fact, my inspiration for writing this piece was re-watching the film on Netflix last night and reading a humorous review just this week of the Apple Watch by none other than Patrick Bateman.

Rewatching Bale's performance, as he obsessively describes his morning ritual or waxes rhapsodic over cloying '80s music, is hysterical. It's also brilliantly controlled. And that's why he's the solo shoutout in this special "Great Performances" post.

In the first of his many body transformations for a role, Bale worked out with a trainer three hours a day, six days a week, in order to achieve the perfect shape that he fearlessly displays here, naked and blood-splattered.

As for the inspiration behind his character, Harron said that it was none other than Tom Cruise, whose "intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes" was just the look that Bale wanted to bring.

The film is set during the very height of the vacuous Reagan '80s, when the young stockbrokers were riding (and getting) high, treating women like cattle and comparing business cards as if they were indications of penis size. Bateman's acquaintances and colleagues don't notice his cold-bloodedness because they're just as as shallow as he is. Being seen in the right restaurants and clubs with the right clothes and the right girls are all that matters to this crowd.

The women in this film are all portrayed as victims, but Harron and Turner give them recognizably human aspects and problems intentionally lacking in the guys. Reese Witherspoon, as Bateman's fiance, so anxious to have a perfect marriage, is blind to just how awful her betrothed is. The woman he's having an affair with (Samantha Mathis) is likewise too drug-addled to notice. And his pathetic assistant (Chloe Sevigny) is so insecure that she positively glows when he pays her the smallest of compliments.

The only man who displays any emotion is closeted Luis Carruthers (Silicon Valley's Matt Ross), who harbors a secret crush for Bateman and thinks he's finally getting his wish fulfilled when the killer sneaks up behind him in the bathroom, hands encased in leather gloves, ready to strangle. It's an uncomfortable scene as Carruthers turns around, thinks Bateman's coming onto him and kisses the gloves, telling him how long he's waited for this.

Andrjez Sekula's photography of Gideon Ponte's antiseptic production design is spot-on, especially in Bateman's perfect condo, where he's laid down newspapers in preparation for chopping up loathed associate Paul Allen (Jared Leto).

The three-way sex scene with two prostitutes (Cara Seymour and Turner) is at first hilarious as Bateman stares at himself in the mirror and flexes as he thrusts away. Then it turns to horror when one of them screams and the sheets become drenched in blood. Then, of course, there's the famous running-down-the-hallway naked with chainsaw sequence, and Bale's unbridled glee as Bateman stalks and kills his prey is priceless. And in a club, he tells a girl, "I'm in murders and executions," to which she blithely responds, "I don't know anything about mergers and acquisitions."

For a film wedged so firmly in a specific era and place, it's a tribute to the creators that it's standing the test of time. It's got its own Tumblr, of course, and just this week there were posts entitled "XX Things You Didn't Know About American Psycho" appearing online. Pretty good considering it was declared doomed from the start and Bale was even warned by his friends that taking the role was career suicide.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to return some videotapes.

Monday, March 30, 2015

It Followzzzzzz....

Critics are tripping over themselves to praise and read a great deal of significance into It Follows, a modestly-budgeted thriller that attempts to mix a retro vibe with postmodern horror and comes up empty-handed.
Infuriatingly sluggish and elliptical, It Follows certainly could’ve been a clever homage but nothing much happens and it doesn’t make much sense. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell seems to want to evoke memories of the ’70s and ’80s thrillers (especially Halloween) with widescreen cinematography and a nonstop synth score, but he skimps on the suspense and gory payoffs.
Not worth following.

The film opens promisingly enough with a distraught girl staggering out of her house in a state of confusion and driving out to Lake Michigan. Sobbing on the dark beach, she calls her father one last time to tell him that she loves him, and then there’s a shock cut to her horribly maimed corpse lying in the sand as the sun rises. It’s reminiscent of the discovery of the corpse at the beginning of Spielberg’s Jaws…and that’s really about all there is to it.
Next, we’re introduced to Jay (Maika Monroe, also in The Guest, another problematic retro-thriller), a normal, sexually curious high schooler who can’t wait to bag her new boyfriend (Jake Weary). Once she does, however, he chloroforms her, ties her up, and tells her that he’s transferred some sort of killer curse to her.
As she writhes in terror, he gives her the whole rulebook  — she must pass the curse on to someone else as soon as possible or a creature — that only she’ll be able to see — will kill her, go back to get him, and continue down the line to collect its earliest victims. Plus, it has the ability to look like anybody. Then he drives her, barely conscious, back to her house and dumps her in the street.
Mitchell takes the “sex equals death” theme that drove the Halloween and Friday the 13th films to its literal extreme, but it’s a tedious and ultimately empty journey. It’s attractively photographed by Mike Gioulakis and has some interesting visuals, but unless you’ve always feared being trapped in an indoor swimming pool while some undead creature is hurling kitchen appliances at your head, it doesn’t add up to much.
Anyhow, we’re dragged along for an endless ride as Jay, her sister (Lili Sepe) and friends (Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi and Daniel Zovatto) try to outrun whatever sinister shapeshifter is following her as Rich Vreeland’s Carpenter-inspired score cranks on endlessly.
The director’s retro fetish extends to vintage cars and old-school tube televisions everywhere, constantly broadcasting 1950s sci-fi flicks (as in the original Halloween). What at first seems clever becomes a risible conceit, to the point where we see VHS tapes sitting on a table next to the actors. All I could think was “They must be way overdue.”
As for the creatures, they shamble along in a Carnival of Souls/Let’s Scare Jessica to Death manner, and for some reason, a few of them are naked, as if that’s supposed to make them more horrific. Probably the creepiest aspect of the whole production is when the kids travel into Detroit itself. It looks like a war zone, with its boarded-up houses and silent streets. And when they go into one of the gutted homes to discover strung-up cans and bottles hanging from all the windows, serving as makeshift burglar alarms, it’s reminiscent of all the bones and feathers hanging in — you guessed it — The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
 It Follows is one of those films you get about halfway through and realize, with a sinking feeling — “This is all there is to it, isn’t it?” Sadly, it is.


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