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Review: Phish mounts a human-scale spectacle at Las Vegas Sphere

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Review: Phish mounts a human-scale spectacle at Las Vegas Sphere

The massive LED video screen that forms the interior surface of Sphere can be used to transport audiences to the tops of mountains, to outer space, to beneath the feet of an elephant standing as tall as a 20-story building.

On Friday night, Phish turned the place into a car wash.

Playing the second date in a sold-out four-night stand at this state-of-the-art venue just off the Las Vegas Strip, the veteran jam band from Vermont took full advantage of the technological capabilities that cost the building’s mastermind, Madison Square Garden Entertainment Chief Executive James Dolan, five years and more than $2 billion to bring to life last fall.

At one point in the nearly four-hour gig, the 160,000-square-foot screen — said to be the highest-resolution in the world — became a starry night sky so crisply rendered that you could almost believe the roof had retracted; at another point, Sphere transformed into an underwater kelp forest with sunlight streaming down from the top of the dome. The venue’s sound system was just as impressive, with a finely detailed mix and seatback haptics that allowed you literally to feel the oomph of bassist Mike Gordon’s low notes.

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Phish’s show Friday was the second date in a sold-out four-night stand at Sphere.

(Alive Coverage)

Yet Phish’s production — the second by a band to play Sphere after U2’s opening engagement — wasn’t about excess or grandiosity; it was homey, friendly, deeply quirky. After the car-wash bit, which replicated the experience of crawling through one, a gigantic dog appeared and proceeded to lick what looked like the other side of the screen in slow motion as the band performed its song “You Enjoy Myself.”

The approach certainly differed from that of U2, whose 40-date residency launched in September and ended last month. Built around the Irish group’s 1991 album “Achtung Baby,” U2’s show riffed on big ideas about celebrity and media and the intersection of politics and capitalism; it used Sphere’s eye-popping tech to uphold the band’s distinct brand of rock-star heroism, reasserting U2’s place in a cultural lineage stretching from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley to the Beatles to Prince.

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For Phish, perhaps music’s biggest cult band, Sphere wasn’t a means of self-glorification but of community-building: One thing you thought about over the course of the band’s two sets and an encore was how tiny the players looked onstage — the same size, in other words, as any of the 18,000 or so people in the crowd. Even when the screen would show a close-up of one of the players — Gordon, singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman — the image would be warped almost beyond recognition.

Jam bands, of course, have a long history of elaborate visual presentations. Ahead of Phish’s run in Vegas, fans of the band wondered online whether its lighting designer, Chris Kuroda, would have the space to do his thing properly amid Sphere’s digital overload. (The answer was kind of.) So it makes sense that Sphere might become a destination for other acts in the tradition; indeed, next up at the venue is Dead & Company, which will begin a 24-show stint in May after saying that its 2023 tour would be its last.

Phish surrounded by visuals at Sphere in Vegas.

Phish performs.

(Rene Huemer / MSG Entertainment)

With no fear of being overshadowed by the room, Phish leaned into Sphere’s immersive potential with an assortment of water-themed visuals: hundreds of swimmers floating in doughnut-shaped inflatables atop the waves of a rippling sea; marine life darting through the columns of a vast sunken monument; a psychedelic waterfall pouring over a cliff that seemed almost untouchably far away from wherever you were sitting in the steeply raked amphitheater. As part of a production team parked behind dozens of glowing monitors in the middle of the room, Abigail Rosen Holmes, Phish’s creative director, manipulated these images in real time, responding — sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically — to the twists and turns of the band’s improvisations.

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In a funny twist, Phish’s lack of anxiety about being upstaged by what was happening on Sphere’s wraparound screen — the members themselves seem well aware that they’ve never been much to look at — meant that Friday’s show actually felt like it was about music, which was clearly the point for a band that famously never repeats a set list.

“Bathtub Gin” was jaunty and playful, with McConnell threading a bit of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” into the song’s fabric; “Lonely Trip” was a lilting ballad with one of the evening’s few convincing vocal turns from Anastasio. “Split Open and Melt,” which came just before the evening’s intermission, was the highlight of the concert: a demented boogie-rock freak-out that landed somewhere between early Sonic Youth and electric-era Miles Davis.

For its encore, Phish played the plaintive “Wading in the Velvet Sea” as photos stretching back to the band’s beginnings in the mid-1980s flickered across Sphere’s screen, and for a moment the musicians seemed to be indulging in the kind of rock-god mythologizing the rest of the show resisted. Then you realized that most of the pictures depicted these guys in various humble backstage scenarios: just four lifers getting ready to go to work for their people.

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Movie Reviews

Chhaya Kadam: Earlier my name wouldn’t even be written in film reviews, now I have a Grand Prix winning film at Cannes

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Chhaya Kadam: Earlier my name wouldn’t even be written in film reviews, now I have a Grand Prix winning film at Cannes

This is clearly the year of Chhaya Kadam! After a great run with the actor’s earlier releases, Laapataa Ladies and Madgaon Express, her film All That We Imagine As Light became the first Indian film to win the Grand Prix at the recently concluded 77th Cannes Film Festival. One of her other films, Sister Midnight, was also screened at Directors Fortnight. Talking to us after the Grand Prix ceremony, Kadam exclaims, “It was the first Indian film to be screened at the main competition in 30 years, and we directly won an award! We had a story rooted in our motherland about women like us. For a subject like that to get selected here… I have no words.”

Actor Chhaya Kadam

Acknowledging her great run this year, she says, “People in Cannes also recognised me as Manju Mai (from Laapataa Ladies); they would say, ‘hey Manju Mai, Chhaya Kadam’.”

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Kadam’s tryst with acting began in 2006, then she went on to star in Marathi films such as Fandry (2013), Sairat (2016) and Nude (2018). “Earlier, my struggle was to get work; now it is for good work,” she shares, adding that it doesn’t end there. While she’s enjoying the fame now, there was a time when the actor’s work wasn’t recognised. “Earlier, film reviews would miss out on mentioning my name, even if my character was important. Bura toh bahut lagta tha. But then I thought I should work so hard that people are compelled to mention my name in their reviews,” she ends with a chuckle.

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How do you play a 400-year-old sin eater? Terrifyingly if you're 'Fargo's' Sam Spruell

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How do you play a 400-year-old sin eater? Terrifyingly if you're 'Fargo's' Sam Spruell

Debt is a theme running through Season 5 of “Fargo,” and there was no more terrifying bill collector in Noah Hawley’s latest seriocomic venture into the dark whiteout of the Upper Midwest than Ole Munch. Nor so poignant a creature, either, as portrayed by English actor Sam Spruell. Both the failed hired kidnapper and unlikely rescuer of Juno Temple’s protagonist Dot, the centuries-old sin eater pursues his own peculiar morality, burning malefactors’ eyeballs and demanding pancakes along the way.

Speaking via Zoom from the Hackney, London, home he shares with costume designer Natalie Ward and their 14-year-old son, Spruell looks tan (spray-on, he notes, for his role in the upcoming season of the British heist series “The Gold”) and sounds articulate, a far cry from his ruddy, cryptic “Fargo” apparition. Spruell mostly plays villains; a racist cop in “Small Axe: Mangrove” and “Doctor Who’s” Swarm are recent examples. But as Ole Munch’s season-capping moment demonstrates, Spruell finds the transcendent in the terrifying.

How much of Ole Munch was on the page and what was your creation?

Lots of it was in the script. Noah Hawley was quite clear when I met him who the character was. He started off by saying Ole was 400 or 500 years old, began in Europe, maybe has been in America for 200 to 300 years. He hasn’t spoken for a century. He has an eye-for-an-eye, Old Testament kind of code that he can’t relinquish. If he feels like the scales aren’t balanced between action and recompense … Noah described it as like an itch inside of his skull that he needs to scratch.

That was quite helpful. But what really unlocked the part for me was the sin-eating. Because he was poor and desperate, he was almost forced to eat the sins of the rich. People unable to break their cycle of poverty and crime because they’re not looked after by the rest of society, that was a very strong notion that I could build a character around.

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Sam Spruell plays killer Ole Munch in “Fargo.”

(Michelle Faye/FX Networks)

Ole exudes intimidation. You seem friendly, though.

I suppose some people have access to the ability to play lovers or turn on tears very quickly. My kind of capacity as an actor is darkness — and I’m not a very dark person! I’m reasonably happy, I’ve got a family who have stuck with me, but I can access darkness and intimidation. You never really play it, though; you’re playing someone who’s damaged through the whole series of events in their lives. You think about that, maybe, rather than playing a villain. Or scowling; I worked with Ridley Scott early in my career, who told me, “Just do a little less with your face.” He gave me that note when I was playing a really scary guy in “The Counselor,” and obviously it stuck.

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So many memorable, specific aspects to Ole, like his third (or is it fourth?) person syntax and sibilant voice.

Noah saying that he hadn’t spoken for 100 years was enormously useful. Your ability to form sentences in, maybe, your third language … it doesn’t flow. It’s not fluent, it’s broken, the sounds are malformed, if you like. Once you throw in that he’s got a Norwegian name, you throw in some Scandinavian sounds, so with the voice coach I built it out that way as well.

And he wears a skirt.

It’s so funny. Noah and Carol Case, the costume designer, wanted to make him timeless, but also somebody who was not moved by convention. I was coming to the same conclusion, and weirdly I sent her an email saying, “Maybe he should wear a dress?” Kind of as a joke, kind of a tryout, but Noah had said the same thing to Carol or the other way around. She started sending pictures of kilts, and I felt this was exactly right. It’s got a weird historical thing going on.

A tight black-and-white portrait of British actor Sam Spruell.

“The great thing about ‘Fargo’ is it creates characters with a real interior but who have these physical and eccentric attributes that you can really go for,” actor Sam Spruell says.

(Oliver Mayhall / For The Times)

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There’s so much that’s bizarre about Ole, yet at the very end he’s beaming.

The great thing about “Fargo” is it creates characters with a real interior but who have these physical and eccentric attributes that you can really go for. That’s the joy of it, being allowed to go for something that you’re trying to make naturalistic but is completely unnaturalistic as well. It’s a fine line, but if you feel like you’re onto something and you’re able to achieve it in a scene, there is nothing better as an actor than playing that size a character.

That all comes out in the remarkable final sequence, where only Dot knows that Ole’s come to threaten her cluelessly welcoming family, but ultimately makes him smile — perhaps for the first time — with a Bisquick biscuit.

He’s arrived at her home because of, again, that itch inside of his skull. He set her free from her imprisonment on the ranch, but there was no quid pro quo and he’s troubled by that, so he returns to gather the debt. The understanding that she’s not gonna pay it and that he’s actually got to forget about it runs through that whole scene. But the kindness element is so interesting. In preparation, I had all these boards written in my Calgary apartment: He’s never been touched, he’s never been shown any kindness, never been shown any affection or love. That scene, suddenly, he’s just wrapped up in a family’s love — ever so incrementally, so delicately, that he doesn’t even know it’s happening to him.

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That final act, where she gives him something made with love and he accepts it, is I guess the first step to him having a chance in life.

Is Bisquick a thing in Britain?

It’s not. Bisquick were in touch with my manager in the States because they wanted to gift me a box or something. It was very funny. We haven’t followed up on it yet, but maybe I should get it delivered to my home and have a proper taste of it with my kid.

Speaking of family, how has your mother, Linda Broughton, influenced your craft and career?

She is still an actor; she’s 77. She’s mainly had a life of theater, mine’s been predominantly film and telly, and it’s been a really good conversation between the two of us. We have different approaches but we’re both kind of after the truth. I did an audition tape for the part of Ole Munch, and it was my mum I’m reading the lines with. I feel incredibly lucky to have had her counsel. Hopefully I give her something in return when we talk about how to be better actors.

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Ezra (2024) – Movie Review

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Ezra (2024) – Movie Review

Ezra, 2024.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn.
Starring Bobby Cannavale, William A. Fitzgerald, Robert De Niro, Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg, Rainn Wilson, Tony Goldwyn, Jackson Frazer, Greer Barnes, Tess Goldwyn, Ella Ayberk, Lois Robbins, Alex Plank, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Matilda Lawler, Joe Pacheco, Amy Sheehan, Barzin Akhavan, Donna Vivino, Jacqueline Nwabueze, John Donovan Wilson, Joshua Hinck, Sophie Mulligan, Thomas Duverné, Guillermo Rodriguez, and Jimmy Kimmel.

SYNOPSIS:

Comedian Max co-parents autistic son Ezra with ex-wife Jenna. Faced with crucial decisions about Ezra’s future, Max and Ezra go on a life-changing cross-country road trip.

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Undeniably made with good intentions, Ezra wants to tell a story about a young autistic boy and his father struggling to accept that uniqueness (lamenting that his son will never be “normal”) due to some personal baggage related to his rocky upbringing. Ezra is also a film that consistently gets sidetracked or finds itself telling that story in a broad, mawkish manner with outlandish plot beats that continuously sink the few elements that work. That’s also surprising considering screenwriter Tony Spiridakis (who had been working on the script for roughly 15 years) is basing that father-son relationship on his experience raising an autistic child. Why turn such personal material into… this?

A film about the challenges of parenting an autistic child and ensuring that everything from school to public behavior is going well has enough realistic, stressful drama to be relatable to anyone who has ever been in a similar situation. The dynamic that parents Max (Bobby Cannavale) and Jenna (Rose Byrne) are divorced (the actors are married with children in real life) adds another layer of domestic intrigue.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn, the film seems to have no awareness of when to stop manufacturing more drama or when it begins to feel like piling on for the sake of telling a story that quickly begins to feel false. It becomes less of an earnest look at autistic childhood and more of a far-fetched road trip flick where the logic for certain characters is nonexistent, and the narrative rapidly transitions to do something that could only exist in the movies, something that is counterproductive to why this film was made.

This is frustrating since there are touching flourishes whenever Max interacts with the titular Ezra (William A. Fitzgerald, a delight to watch and autistic). Despite getting expelled from school, Ezra is a kind soul with various stimulation triggers (such as hugs or sensitivity to eating with forks), who often speaks in famous quotes and takes everything literally to such a degree that when he overhears Jenna’s new partner jokingly talking about murdering Max, he frantically runs out of the house to warn his loving father. This leads to Ezra making the choice to run into the middle of the street while scared and avoiding a barking dog on the sidewalk, nearly getting hit by a car, with doctors under the impression that it was a suicide attempt, dealing with the incident by forcing the parents to put the boy into a special needs school and take antipsychotic medication.

That’s only the beginning of this exaggerated story, which then sees Max kidnapping his son from Jenna, believing that she has lost hope in fighting for his rights and is too comfortable listening to professional advice. He doesn’t like that the medication zombifies his son (understandably so) and appears to believe that allowing the boy to go to a special needs school means he is accepting that there is something wrong. Many of his hangups with accepting his son’s autism come from a tumultuous relationship with his father, Stan (Robert De Niro), a former chef who gave up his dreams to provide for Max after his mother left. This grandfather also has trouble acknowledging his grandson’s autism, uncomfortable uttering the term. Both of these men, in a sense, are hiding and running from reality.

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Perhaps a more skilled filmmaking team could make something out of that, but Ezra also has to contend with baffling subplots such as Max’s aspiring standup comedian career and his relative closeness to securing a spot performing for Jimmy Kimmel. There is also a road trip aspect that sees Max heading West with Ezra, coming across several old friends for the sake of convenience. In one sequence, the film makes the case that there will be kids (even girls) who accept Ezra and those who will bully him, doing so in a confused way, unsure if it wants to sanitize itself. It’s also accompanied by sappy music.

At a certain point, Ezra is officially reported as kidnapped with warnings and notices throughout the 24-hour news cycle. Max is aware of this, yet confoundingly still thinks showing up to audition for Jimmy Kimmel will end well. The occasional tender moments between father and son are continuously undercut by this stupidity and overblown narrative decisions. At least it follows suit, ending in a fittingly melodramatic cringe.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=embed/playlist

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