“Requiem For A Dream,” a night of Wisconsin hip-hop, and more events of note in Madison this week.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 2
Darren Aronofsky’s filmography is consistently controversial and consistently hailed as disturbing. It’s a quality that some directors have to work their entire careers to get just right. More often than not, they miss the mark, leaving behind a string of films that are less jarring than they are just a little bit hokey. But Aronofsky has been hitting the sweet spot every time since his very first films, including his sophomore feature Requiem For A Dream, released in 2000 and screening here as part of the Madison Public Library’s monthly Cinesthesia series.
In this adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s novel, Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), his friends, and his mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) discover that dealing and using substances can help them realize their dreams of fame, fortune, and better lives. It isn’t long before they find themselves ricocheting between desire and addiction. As the characters begin oscillating between previously unknown highs and lows, the film gears up to a fever pitch, gracefully splattering shots across the screen at breakneck speed until everything, inevitably, crashes and plummets. To say it’s a difficult film to watch would be, of course, putting it mildly. But it’s worth a watch for those up for the challenge and those who want to remember what it was like to see Jared Leto as an actor greater than the sum of his infamous off-screen antics. —Sannidhi Shukla
Daughters Of St. Crispin, Lung, Conan Neutron And The Secret Friends. Mickey’s Tavern, 10 p.m. (free)
Cincinnati duo Lung, stopping in Madison for a show this Thursday at Mickey’s, plays rock that darts between graceful melody and righteous fury. All the while, cellist/vocalist Kate Wakefield and drummer Daisy Caplan smartly mine the three elements at hand, making the 2018 album All The King’s Horses sound as full and dynamic as it does lean and unencumbered. Wakefield’s electric cello gives the listener a balance of gravelly distortion and the tactile warmth of bows and fingers digging into the strings. On “Spider,” she uses the higher end of the cello’s range to build up suspense, before jabbing into muscular chords that use the instrument’s unbeatable handsome low end. Caplan also accomplishes a great deal on the drums without ever over-playing, whether a given moment calls for a frantic punk-rock sprint (“Brock”) or a whole variety of fractured, galloping rhythms (“Horsebath”). Wakefield’s voice pulls just as much weight, providing songs like “Gun” with a relatively calm center at times, and turning lines like “if you can breathe, you’re doing it wrong” into unnervingly agreeable refrains.
All The King’s Horses builds on the promise of Lung’s 2017 debut album, Bottom Of The Barrel, while placing a more overt emphasis on social and political themes. “Brock” uses very few words to etch an acidic portrait of the case of Brock Turner, a Stanford University student athlete who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman and got away with a slap on the wrist: “Your Honor please, I am doing the best I can,” Wakefield sings, pushing her voice to a grisly border between sarcasm and outrage. The album’s title track expands on that exploration of power and privilege: “All the king’s liars / And all the king’s men / They are pissing on playgrounds / They got from their fathers / Guess I should’ve known better,” goes one chorus, set to a demented waltz. Even a cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” with its lyrics modified to refer to Donald Trump, basically works amid Lung’s portrait of a depraved and violent society.
Lung also recently finished mixing its third album, so hopefully this show will be a chance to preview some new songs from this mighty but compact outfit. Milwaukee’s Conan Neutron & The Secret Friends plays burly hard rock with an unabashed love of bright hooks. Madison duo Daughters Of St. Crispin play eerie post-hardcore with a drum machine. The project’s 2019 debut EP earned some notice in Tone Madison‘s year-end music coverage, with contributor John McCracken calling it “a menacing, foreboding machine slowly clinking and crawling towards its victims.” —Scott Gordon
FRIDAY, JANUARY 3
Lucien Parker, Mic Kellogg, Bravo, Genesis Renji, Outside Voices, Eli B, Supa Friends, Rob Dz. Majestic, 8 p.m
The Majestic has a tradition of offsetting the January touring-music doldrums with a series of local-music showcases dubbed “Wisconsin [insert genre here]” fest. This year the idea expands to the High Noon, now that the same company owns both venues, with nine shows that include bills dedicated to jazz, funk, bluegrass, and metal. The hip-hop installment of the series is usually a standout, both because of the quality of the artists themselves and because the genre deserves a much bigger platform than Madison venues and promoters have ever granted it. This year’s eight-artist lineup includes longtime MC and spoken-word artist Rob Dz returning to host the show, though hopefully he’ll share some of the original tracks he’s been gradually working on over the past few years.
Headlining is Minneapolis native Lucien Parker, who spent a few years in Madison before moving to Milwaukee. A multi-instrumentalist with vocal talents that span from gritty baritone rapping to silky melodies, Parker has already covered an impressive variety of sonic and thematic territory. In just the past four years, he’s released a series of seven EPs, plus a scattering of singles and a longer release, 2018’s Mephoria. The singles Parker released in 2019, including “Wealth And Good Company” and “Hooked,” highlight the range he’s developed as a singer, and offer moments of reflection amid what’s clearly been a gauntlet of musical productivity and personal change. The lyrics and spacious but not quite gloomy production of “Wealth And Good Company” evoke those moments where a person slows down to take in the bigger picture: “Not many people can say that they self-made / I done held this pain too long, there’s gonna be hell to pay.”
Madison resident Eli Blakely, also known simply as Eli B, is another highlight in this lineup. His debut album, Pitch23, landed on Tone Madison’s top 20 Madison records of 2019 list, thanks to the sharply honed skill Blakely displays as he shifts through a variety of gruff cadences. From the upbeat “Good At Home” to the gorgeously woozy “Move” (featuring a hook from fellow Madisonian Ra’Shaun), Blakely attacks his rhymes with the kind of flexibility and hunger that make an up-and-coming rapper worth rooting for. It’s too bad that this show overlaps with the Wisconsin Fest series’ stacked punk show at the High Noon, and it does look like an incredibly male-dominated lineup. But it promises to span a slew of styles and approaches, with sets from fellow Wisconsin artists Mic Kellogg, Bravo, Genesis Renji, Outside Voices, and Supa Friends.
Uncut Gems. Screening in wide release at multiple venues, check local showtimes.
Uncut Gems, the dazzling, multifaceted existential crime thriller from Josh and Benny Safdie, finds the filmmaking brothers at the top of their game, following Heaven Knows What (2014), a devastating portrait of heroin addiction, and their propulsive neo-noir Good Time (2017). A movie 10 years in the making that was inspired by their father’s stories of working in Manhattan’s Diamond District, Uncut Gems takes us on a gritty, frenetic journey from the Welo opal mines in northern Ethiopia to the sordid underbelly of New York City and beyond. Offering an exceptionally brilliant and revelatory performance, Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a fast-talking Jewish jeweler and compulsive gambler who teeters on the edge of the abyss as he makes one terrible decision after another.
In the role of Ratner, Sandler has truly outdone himself. Previously, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s avant-garde romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Sandler portrayed a lonely, beleaguered and socially inept novelty-toilet-plunger salesman who was prone to sporadic, violent outbursts of rage. Anderson’s film cleverly subverted the schlock actor’s typical on-screen persona and showed Sandler in a new light, while allowing him to reveal unexpected depths and tones as an artist. (As a testament to his performance as Ratner, Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably one of the greatest actors of all time, personally phoned Sandler to congratulate him.)
Always on the go, Howard spends his time selling bling to rappers and star athletes out of his ramshackle jewelry shop, neglecting his wife (Idina Menzel) and family to have an affair with his much younger employee (Julia Fox), attending his daughter’s bizarre school play, dodging hired thugs who follow him everywhere, and attempting to pay off his enormous debts to exasperated racketeers by placing increasingly risky bets. His latest scheme involves procuring a precious black opal surreptitiously extracted from a cave in Ethiopia and smuggled into the United States, which he plans to auction at an inflated price. However, things become complicated when he shows it to Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who, entranced by the rock, asks to borrow it as a good-luck charm for his upcoming game. Howard reluctantly agrees and secures Garnett’s championship ring as collateral, then swiftly pawns it to bet big on the game.
Set in the spring of 2012 and unfolding over the course of a week, Uncut Gems plunges the viewer into the maelstrom of manic desperation and reckless extravagance that is Howard’s life. As his house of cards inevitably begins to collapse, he actually becomes more confident in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win. Accelerated by the ecstasy of self-destruction, Howard seems to thrive on the glittering instability of this decadent, materialistic world, while becoming increasingly dissociated from reality. With its constant camera movement, overlapping dialogue, and kinetic, rhythmic editing, Uncut Gems induces a sense of disorientation as it delivers a rapid succession of gripping, supercharged scenes, jumping from tragic drama to absurd comedy and terrifying suspense. The seamless action interweaves real-world sporting events and real-life characters (including Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known by his stage name The Weeknd) with glimpses into the high-pressure gemstone business, the social codes and religious rituals of urban Jewish New Yorkers, and the violent ups and downs of a spiraling gambling addiction.
Veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot the film in glorious 35mm, says in an interview with Deadline that the look of the high-contrast film was inspired by postmodernist architecture, the work of Robert Altman (especially The Long Goodbye) and the gaudy taste of the young and wealthy in 1980s New York. The atmospheric score by composer Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), a warped blend of retro-futuristic electronic music and glistening operatic kitsch, often does not align emotionally with the events on screen, thus accentuating the strange magic of the Safdie brothers’ film. Amidst the nerve-jangling barrage of movement and noise, a mystical streak runs through Uncut Gems. In the hypnotic opening sequence, the camera dives directly into the beauty of the black opal, as though it were a portal to another dimension à la the Star Gate of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The shot suddenly transforms into the interior of Howard’s colon as he endures a colonoscopy, visualizing his deep desire to possess otherworldly power.
At once a vibrant character study, an exhilarating roller-coaster ride, a clear-eyed appraisal of the harsh realities and irreconcilable contradictions of late stage capitalism, and a visionary, one-of-a-kind cinematic achievement, Uncut Gems creates an immersive environment that feels less like a movie than a virtual reality simulation of Howard’s experiences. While he may be a contemptible character indeed, the Safdie brothers find something poignantly human in the vain hopes and grandiose ambitions of their flawed, indefatigable antihero, leaving us no choice but to root for him. With its full-throttle visual style, rich, lifelike textures and exquisite sensory detail, Uncut Gems creates a sense of pure elation. —Jason Fuhrman
1/6: CANCELED: Sinai Vessel, Advance Base, Lameena. Communication, 7 p.m.