Monday, September 29, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #100 - European Vacation (1985, dir. Amy Heckerling)

I don’t care if European Vacation is the second worst rated of the National Lampoon Vacation series, it’s my favorite. I’m not saying it’s the best—by all objective measures, the first installment is. That epic of the Griswolds’ journey to Wally World has a delicious mix of silly stupidity and outright darkness, like when the family forgets to untie their dog from the bumper before heading down the highway and the mutt goes bouncing along in tow, or when their grant aunt sits dead in the back seat while Clark Griswold, the dad, played by Chevy Chase, drives for hundreds of miles before anyone notices. When they finally do figure it out, they wrap her in a tent tarp and tie her to the top of the station wagon. Great stuff! But the sequel, the Griswolds’ romp through the Old Country, has stuck with me longer, coming as it did in the height of the Reagan years and when my critical sense of the United States was really beginning to take shape. I first saw it in a crowded dorm room freshman year and at some point one of the more patriotic people in the room said in disgust, “This is just propaganda.” Without missing a beat, my good friend Chuck replied, “Yeah, but it’s good propaganda.” It’s been a guilty favorite of mine ever since.

The movie begins with our heroes dressed up like pigs, going head-to-head with a family of geniuses in a TV game show. By a stroke of truly dumb luck, they win the grand prize: an all-expenses-paid tour of Europe. And for the next hour and half they bumble across England, Germany, France and Italy, proving every stereotype about ugly Americans and inventing a few more along the way. Not even Stonehenge survives. In England, they keep crashing into poor innocent Brits, accidents so bad that the poor victims hobble off with broken bones and bleeding flesh wounds, smiling and apologizing for getting in the Americans’ way. At a restaurant in France, Clark shouts out for a waiter, pronouncing garçon as “garkony,” and the waiter, in his politest French, compliments Mama Griswold’s tits, Daughter Griswold’s ass and says, “I’ll serve you toilet water. You won’t know the difference.”

The family is as disfunctional as ever – Clark lets an X-rated video of his wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) fall in the hands of Italian pornographers, and their kids, Audrey (Dana Hill) and Rusty (Jason Lively), are all caught up in hormones: Audrey pining constantly for her boyfriend back home; Rusty hitting the prostitute scene in Paris. (As an aside, Lively’s Rusty looks to me just like a young Thurston Moore, and I like to imagine it actually is the Sonic Youth guitar god in a pre-rock-star roll.)

Don’t get me wrong: this is a silly, goofy film. But it’s got enough deep jabs to make it a solid spoof of our beloved U.S. of A. (driven home, I might add, by the ultra-patriotic images that accompany the closing credits). And in this way it still holds up. Watching it again in post-George W. Bush America, I was amazed at its prescience. The gags of apologizing, battered Brits and sneering Franks seems in retrospect a perfect metaphor for our alliances and non-alliances going into the Iraq War.

            - Joe Miller

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #113 - The Congos - Heart Of The Congos

Like many genres of music, Reggae has become a shadow of what it once was. What happens in modern music is; things get absorbed into the larger global community, and the regional, ethnic and artistic beauty gets squeezed out of styles of music as the form becomes what everyone can universally recognize as “pop.” Once upon a time though, Reggae was a force of musical, social and spiritual strength for many and it was also a totally unique style and culture. It reached its popular and artistic zenith in the late 60’s through the late 70’s and some of the greatest recordings of the era came from producer Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio. Perry, an eccentric genius with extremely singular views on sound (think Phil Spector in a cloud of ganja smoke), created albums that are sonically dense and powerful. His ability to manage layers of drum sounds that dance around a mind-crushing, rock-steady bass line is unmistakable. Perry helped guide the careers and helped sculpt the sound of many important figures in Reggae - no more so than Bob Marley - but I believe he found his ultimate foil and created his supreme masterpiece when The Congos entered Black Ark in 1976 to create what might be the greatest of all Reggae albums. Yes, I know that is quite a claim. But Heart Of The Congos has simply got it all and unfolds with such a singular aural palette that it remains without peer.

Begin with the vocals. In the tradition of The Mighty Diamonds, Culture or The Heptones, The Congos are a vocal group (Cedric Myton and Roy ‘Ashanti’ Johnson) with a distinct edge. Cedric Myton has the most glorious, hypnotic, mesmerizing falsetto voice this side of Aaron Neville. His voice soars above the music staying a true representation of the simple yet profound Rasta lyrics. His vocal blend with Johnson seems so effortless and has such a soothing effect it actually works as an advertisement for Rasta beliefs. Listening to songs like “Solid Foundation” or the indescribable Lee Perry tour-de-force “Ark Of The Covenant” makes one yearn for the moral clarity and “ital” lifestyle hinted at. Perhaps the most defining quality about the album is Lee Perry’s groundbreaking production style. Piling tracks upon each other to create a “wall of sound” effect, he takes great care to keep the vocals perfectly floating above the mix; pure and clean, everything in the production reinforces the beauty of the voices and the lyrics. How rare - an album in harmony with itself. Perry also brought a who’s who of Reggae greats to back the singers: from guitar genius Ernest Ranglin to vocalists Earl Morgan, The Meditations and Gregory Isaacs to Sly Dunbar on bass, it is a Reggae all-star team from the golden era.

The overall effect is spellbinding from start to finish. It took over a year to create this album, originally released in 1977, and the craft shows in every cut. Perry’s methods occasionally caused hiss, echo and reverb to become their own force, but like Exile On Main Street, Blonde on Blonde or Sgt. Pepper’s the mix is in some ways the star of the show. Through the blending of The Congos’ raw vocal talent and lyrical purity with Perry’s mad genius and a once-in-a-lifetime conglomeration of players, Heart Of The Congos creates one of the essential albums to own, Reggae or otherwise. Many of the songs are definitive representations of what Reggae should be. “La la bam-bam” is a joyous exercise in melodic and lyric simplicity, “At The Feast” draws back the curtain to the Rasta lifestyle and states with clarity and poetry the mindset promised. The album builds its own momentum, each track acting as supplication for the ears, a bass-heavy balm for the modern world, because like most great music, these songs seem to tap into a primal state of mankind’s evolution. It is the soundtrack to an evolutionary step forward, or backward, or upward.

In a few short years, The Congos would split up, Marley would die, Tosh would be executed, and in many ways the momentum started to seep out of the music like a wisp of smoke from the chalice. There are many great Reggae albums from the classic era, but very few have the magical ambience and superlative musical qualities that pour forth from every second of Heart Of The Congos.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, September 15, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #99 - Night Moves (1975, dir. Arthur Penn)

The 1970’s and the New Hollywood movement produced a lot of fascinating work rooted in the turmoil of the times. The changing milieu of mainstream cinema allowed for films that reflected the distrust, paranoia and cynicism – and also the good humor and thumbing noses at authority – of the younger generation(s) of the time. It was director Arthur Penn’s own Bonnie and Clyde (1967) that is often cited as being a landmark film that ushered in the movement. Hated by the old school film critics and the studio heads that financed it (including, but not limited to, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, who released the film), it was shuffled on to B-movie billings and drive-ins at first, but it spoke loud and clear to a younger generation with its edgy editing style influenced by international art cinema, its ambiguous morality, and its far less chaste take on sexuality than recent blockbusters like The Sound of Music and it eventually earned millions for the studio and became a hit. After the film opened the doors for more financial successes like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and MASH, Penn went on to make the counter-culture classics Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man before taking a break for several years.
He returned to feature filmmaking with this film, released in 1975 and considered a failure on its first release. Where Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man had been fairly major hits and Alice’s Restaurant had been a small-scale success, and even in a year where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon were hits, Jaws reclaimed for Hollywood the blockbuster style of filmmaking they were used to and set the path for filmmaking that persists to this day. There was very little room then for a small downer of a film like Night Moves that did not go for a major statement (as did Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day) but instead mined a darkly resigned personal drama, even if it hearkens back to another era and genre of Hollywood films – the films noir of the 1940’s. Where film noir mined the repressed sexuality of the day with grim crime films and sparkling dialogue, the more open 1970’s allowed for an up front examination of many of the same topics – here again sexuality and debauchery are linked to the failures of our lead man, the no-bullshit-taking Harry Moseby (played brilliantly by Gene Hackman), a former football player turned low-rent private eye specializing in divorce work. He’s having marital problems of his own and is hardly happy with his work as he’s belittled by his wife and others for having retreated from his former glory and not doing something more reputable. It’s a very human version of the P.I. story, not the distanced cool associated with a Bogart-styled character. But Harry’s got integrity, something decidedly lacking in everyone else around him, from his friend who buys Central American antiques on the cheap to turn a huge profit, to his cheating spouse, to the washed-up former actress who hires him to find her missing daughter but is more concerned with looking glamorous and laying Hackman than locating her missing daughter. And in true noir fashion as his investigation shifts from L.A. to Florida to find the missing girl, he uncovers a far bigger mystery, and as he gets closer to the truth all his leads start disappearing or turning up dead.
The film kicks off gloomy with his bad relationship before he’s ever even found the girl Delly (short for Delilah) or the first of several bodies that turn up, or even really begun his investigation. She’s played by a young Melanie Griffith, a wild kid in trouble (a year before Jodie Foster’s similarly street-wise and daring turn in Taxi Driver). Between his rocky relationship and the way the film’s shot – all dark tones when it’s night (as it often is in the film) and muted brightness in the daytime (even on the sunny shores of Florida) – and edited, much in the same unusual, off-kilter manner as Bonnie and Clyde, it sets an unsettling vibe from the get-go. And then there’s dialogue like this, as Harry watches a football game on TV at home, in the dark:

Ellen: “Who’s winning?”
Harry: “Nobody, one side’s just losing slower than the other.”

Or once he’s found Delly and is still trying to piece together the parts that don’t add up, there’s her simple, to the point statement: “I think people are shitty. But you’re OK.”
            Like many classic noir films (The Big Sleep comes to mind), the plot is dense and convoluted – there are so many connections, double crosses, and loaded dialogue that means more only later once you see the bigger picture that it requires multiple viewings to sort it all out. And the worldview is sour for sure – also in line with the grimness of much film noir. It’s easy to see how in the summer of Jaws, where the big bad guy is defeated in explosive, exciting fashion, that this film – gloomy, insecure, inconclusive – wouldn’t have been a hit, or even a moderate success. And the other films produced out of the counter-culture of the day provided exhilarating revolutions, even if they failed. This one shows the vice grip of corruption and debased behavior on its characters and doesn’t let fly with glib statements to reassure anybody. But it’s a classic, a worthy heir to masterpiece of The Big Sleep from the writing to the stellar performances across the board, to the superb filmmaking that updates and touches back to the classic noirs without overtly mimicking them. It’s a gem in Arthur Penn’s catalog, rivaled (for me) only by Bonnie and Clyde. And some days this one feels truer than even that film.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, September 8, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #113 - Wilco - Being There

Wilco are rightfully acknowledged as one of the best and most important American rock bands currently making music.  This consensus seemed to develop around the time of their landmark 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the publicity surrounding its release (or lack thereof).  That story has been recounted many times (see the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart if you're unfamiliar) and YHF is a great album.  But for my money, Wilco's true masterpiece came a little earlier in their career with the 1996 double album Being There.  Wilco came to be after the breakup of pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo.  Jeff Tweedy led the new group and their debut A.M. was a pleasant slice of soulful country rock.  Tweedy and co. seemed well on their way to becoming a latter day Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with a little Gram Parsons thrown in.  But they had other, grander plans.  This became evident with the release of Being There, a major statement album that kept a good deal of the alt-country sound while expanding in a wide variety of directions.

Probably the biggest statement Tweedy and the band made with the album was releasing it as a double CD.  Its 19 songs clock in at about 76 minutes, which could easily fit on one disc.  But then it would be just another overstuffed CD in an era full of them.  Two discs puts it in the same category as landmarks like Blonde On Blonde and Exile on Main St. and it's no coincidence that Being There plays like a stylistic hybrid of the two.  The first disc kicks off with a blast of noise like nothing the band had produced before and settles into the powerful anthem "Misunderstood."  Everything about this epic tune announces that Wilco is going in an entirely different direction.  Tweedy even co-opts a lyric from late, great Cleveland punk poet Peter Laughner.  Yet, as if to reassure fans that they still have one foot in the alt-country wilderness, they follow with the twangy acoustic number "Far, Far Away."  Next up is "Monday" which hits with a hard blast of rock & soul horns that you'd swear were recorded by Bobby Keys in the basement of Keith Richards' chateau.  "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" is a super catchy rocker that became a little hit.  A different version of the song shows up on disc 2 with a Beach Boys-inspired arrangement.  The band pulls off a superb transition as the closing piano chords of the melancholy "Red-Eyed & Blue" are repeated as the guitar intro to upbeat rocker "I Got You (At the End of the Century)."  Disc 1 concludes with the bittersweet yet infectious "Say You Miss Me."

It's tempting to say disc 2 kicks off the same way as disc 1, but while "Sunken Treasure" bears some resemblance to "Misunderstood," it's a masterpiece all its own.  It's got an uneasy sway, like a boat lost at sea, backing one of Tweedy's best sets of lyrics.  I particularly like the part in the second verse where the backing vocals sing the lines just ahead of Tweedy's lead.  Disc two generally has a quieter, sadder tone than the first disc with tunes like "Someone Else's Song" and "Why Would You Want To Live."  But there's a break midway through for the laid-back soul of "Kingpin."  After the quiet beauty of "The Lonely 1," a tribute to the beautiful sadness behind every great artist, the disc and album concludes with the raucous "Dreamer in My Dreams."  It's a great studio jam that always seems on the verge of totally falling apart but manages to hold it together just long enough.  It's the perfect conclusion to an album filled with equal parts joy and sorrow.

Wilco's road after Being There would get a bit rocky.  Multiple lineup changes came through the years with Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt being the only consistent members and the only members of the Being There lineup still in the band.  The break with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett was particularly rough.  But they persevered to take their place as one of the definitive bands of our time.  Many great albums have come since and the road to greatness starts with Being There.

            - Adam Reshotko

Monday, September 1, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #98 - To Sir, With Love. (1967, dir. James Clavell)

I saw To Sir, With Love the year it came out in 1967. I was almost 10 and it had a profound effect on me. In fact it altered the course of my life. After I walked out of the movie I remember telling my brother “I’m going to be a teacher.” I did. I taught for about 10 years in public high school, and from the day I saw the film until the day I went into the music business, my entire mindset was that of “Sir.” I wanted to make a difference, and it was the influence of a film that caused this desire within me. How many movies can one say that about?

It is almost impossible to discuss To Sir, With Love without talking about the illusion and the reality of the 1960’s. The illusion was the myth of youth, the power of idealism, and the belief that the future was wide open. The reality of the 1960’s was that the decade essentially served as the adolescence of the American 20th century. If adolescence is the period where a young person finds their sense of morality and builds the foundation of the person they will become, often through a series of innocent idealistic and possibly foolish experiences, then that fateful decade was this country’s teenage years. Benjamin Button-like, we were adults in the 1940’s and then after World War II the soldiers came home, had historic numbers of babies and those babies collectively threw our country into a prolonged period of childish and exhilarating social experimentation that we are still reeling from.

Like no other movie, To Sir, With Love captures the giddy idealism and the cultural feel of the times while proving itself to be painfully difficult to rectify with the way things actually turned out. Sidney Poitier, impossibly handsome, impossibly cultured, everything a young liberal audience wants to believe in, is young teacher Mark Thackery, just given the unenviable job of teaching a bunch of low-class high school seniors in a tough North London neighborhood. In one minute of this black man being in front of a white classroom all issues of class, race, youth and revolt are on the table. Poitier simultaneously represents the new idealism and the old guard. The kids see him as a square adult, the other teachers see him as a young upstart, and he finds himself at the crossroads of his own belief system and his need to make a living. Throughout the movie we are made aware that Mr. Thackery is also seeking a career in engineering, and that the lure of the paycheck may overtake his sense of societal obligation. The main thrust of the movie however, is the struggle Poitier faces with the students. This was an era when bad kids wore their hair long and played juvenile pranks. It is an eye-opening comparison to Sandy Hook or Columbine. Our schools are a much more lethal place than they used to be.
The real pleasure in To Sir, With Love comes from the nostalgia it evokes. This nostalgia is not the depiction of an era for the sake of fooling the audience, it is the actual item we are seeing. The young actors depicting the schoolkids, particularly Judy Geeson and Lulu, are actually young people in the 1960’s, looking and acting the way young people did. The dress, styles and depiction of a mid-60’s London are spot-on. The movie also contains what has to be one of the first rock videos as the title song (sung by Lulu) is set to a montage of still images of the kids on a field trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum. All this cultural window dressing frames the action of the story nicely as Poitier slowly wins the students over by treating them as adults instead of children and his character slowly comes to the realization that his path lies in service to others. It is beautifully calculated to make the impressionable young mind swoon with the possibilities of doing the right thing with his/her life. It certainly had that effect on me.

Ultimately, this is what the 1960’s were about for so many people. It was the naïve, mistaken impression that changing the world was a simple a matter as wanting to do so. It ignored all the bothersome adult realities that come with a more mature understanding of the ways of the world. I hate to recognize this fact and ultimately hate that I’ve had to toe the line, but a two-hour trip to a more idealistic me is always available in To Sir, With Love. It takes me to a place when art had the ability to make me strive to do more with my life. At the end of the film, as the kids acknowledge Mr. Thackery and Mr. Thackery comes to peace with his future, it is impossible to not be struck by an uncomfortable twinge. One chuckles at Thackery’s optimism for a better future, then one looks in the mirror and feels ashamed.

- Paul Epstein

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #112 - Terry Riley - A Rainbow in Curved Air

My friend (and former co-worker) Ben and I were recently discussing similarities across several different types of music that he likes to call “Trance Music.” His boundaries on the music – long, repetitive pieces with minimal chord or tempo changes – encompasses a lot of music that happens to be my favorite music in the world: extended pieces of African music like those of Fela Kuti or the longer soukous workouts of Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau; Miles Davis’ extended 1970’s electric music; James Brown’s stretched out funk; the artier side of the Velvet Underground in pieces like “Sister Ray” and “European Son”; minimal techno and house music or much of the disco that preceded it; Kraftwerk styled electronics; Fripp & Eno ambient drones. All of these (and much more) seem to fall under a certain idea of repeating and slowly evolving patterns, but the daddy of all these styles has to be the minimalism that grew out of experimental American classical music of the late 60’s, a style for which composer/performer Terry Riley is often tagged as one of the founders (along with the great LaMonte Young).
            But Riley, whose music stands in contrast to some of the more austere works by folks like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, was interested in Indian classical music and also with jazz, all of which (and more) was channeled into his early works. Here he’s tapped into the burgeoning psychedelic music scene as well, playing two pieces that took up one side each of the original LP; one a bubbling fantasia for keyboards and percussion, the other a shorter example of what he was playing at his all night live concerts of the late 60’s, featuring him playing soprano sax and keyboards with echoing delay effects that tapped into the “turned on” audiences very nicely. The keyboard and saxophone improvisations reflect his interest in jazz while drones and percussive devices throughout reflect the Indian music he was about to study in depth shortly after this album.
            On the title cut, we kick off quickly into speedy, overdubbed keyboards that provide a constant rhythmic drive and pulse while Riley delivers some blindingly fast runs over the top of the drones that underpin it. And just when it seems like you’re gonna get the hang of what he’ll do for the whole piece, a percussive interlude around the 6:40 mark introduces elements (tambourine and the African dumbec) that change up the flavor and expand the piece into new territory. It mellows for a bit, but has again picked up the pace after the 11-minute mark as the dumbec enters the picture in second half and begins to be the dominant voice in the work. On the second cut, “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” the sound slowly emerges like some giant beast rising out of the sea. And at first it seems like it’s just a drone, though there seem to be a thousand small pieces making up the total sound. Like the first piece it takes a little bit to let us know what it’s doing, then about five minutes in the music switches gears to let us know it’s got more tricks up its sleeve as it reveals that drone as the infinite echo of who knows how many saxophones laid on top of each other. Those thousands of pieces are actually sax lines that have been played and echoed with a decay, then over the echoed playback Riley has improvised a new line in harmony or counterpoint with the first, which is then also echoed and played against for the next line. And once the music has shown its structure, it shifts again when the keyboard drone takes a front seat over the soprano sax, and Riley begins to play back and forth between the two instruments for the remainder of the piece.
            All in all, it’s a heady mix of things – different styles at play, simple-seeming structural elements creating a complex whole – but even if you’re not picking it apart by structure (as I have had years and dozens or maybe hundreds of listens to do), it’s a great album that sounds like nothing else in the world (even Riley’s other famed works like the earlier In C sound more in the classical Minimalist mode than this, though the later Shri Camel mines some similar territories). And the influence of Riley and this album is felt all over to this day: The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is named in tribute to him (and Meher Baba) and its famous keyboard intro approximates Riley’s style; Riley and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale made a 1971 album together; in the 1970’s he met and began working with David Harrington, founder and leader of the Kronos Quartet, and has made more than a dozen works in conjunction with them since; and this album’s title track was even featured in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV. But when it boils down to it, even more than its influence or its specific artistic value, this is simply a great album to immerse yourself and get lost in. As Ben would say, it’s great Trance Music.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, August 18, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #97 - Adaptation. (2002, dir. Spike Jonze)

Susan Orlean: “There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”

            The film I have chosen to turn you onto in this, my latest installment, is Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s loose adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, entitled Adaptation. To properly introduce such a sprawling, inventive, and enigmatic movie, I will attempt a brief explanation of the structure. I won’t go too far into the details as unpacking the configuration of the script as you watch is a large part of the enjoyment of the movie, but the fact of the matter is that this movie, which is in essence an adaptation of a book about flowers, blooms into a film about the creative process of adaptation in general.
We are shown multiple layers of characters in a variety of different story lines. We have Charlie Kaufman, the actual person, adapting the book, his twin brother and all of the people in his circle (his agent, publicist, girl friend etc.), and we watch as he struggles with such a complex and original adaptation. Then we also follow Susan Orlean, John Laroche, and all of the other satellite characters involved in the book he is adapting. The fun of the film is the fact that as the plot develops the worlds of the two begin to merge and levels of fiction seep into the story to the point where it is the viewer’s task to either give into the developing story or try to decide where the lines of fact and fiction are blended.
One of the reasons I fell completely head over heels for this film is the brilliant way in which Kaufman (the writer not the character… or wait both I guess) has woven these two story arcs based in reality, where almost no immense action happens into one overblown and immense film experience. Early in the film the character of Charlie Kaufman is speaking to his publisher about the adaptation and the possibility of a love interest: “Okay. But, I'm saying, it's like, I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know... or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know. I mean... The book isn't like that, and life isn't like that. You know, it just isn't. And... I feel very strongly about this.” The battle of creating a story that is true to this statement is in essence the main focus of the film. However there is a very surprising and climactic ending lurking in the wings (but I won’t go too far into that…).
While the plot, characters, and dark comedic wit are the main focus and what truly makes this film one that I can enjoy over and over, there are certainly other reasons I can pull in an attempt to turn you on to Adaptation. if you aren’t hooked already. Charlie Kaufman (who also wrote Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York (2008)) wrote the film and his work is always infused with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Spike Jonze (known also for directing Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Her (2013) and countless amazing music videos) then took the script and directed it into the amazing amalgamation it is. On top of these two creative masterminds the always-stunning Lance Accord then shot it – you may remember my ruminating on the magic of his eye in my essays about Marie Antoinette (2006) and Buffalo ’66 (1998). So the people behind the lens are incredibly well chosen. Then on top of this the acting is fantastic. Nicolas Cage luminously pays both of the Kaufman brothers (I know: Nicolas Cage! I’m as surprised as you!), Meryl Streep is fantastic (as usual) as New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, and Chris Cooper perfectly embodies the perplexing character of John Laroche. So those working in front of the lens are equally adept.
In a brief review and conclusion as to why you should buy and watch (re-watch) this film: the plot is imaginative and inventive, the direction and cinematography are spot on, the acting raises the bar of the story, and just to reiterate I cannot stress the fun and excitement of the story development. Watching this movie again in prep for this essay I was again immediately enveloped in the worlds of the story and couldn’t pull myself away from the screen. So give it a shot and if you hate it you can come in and find me to tell me why – but that’s not going to happen. You’ll love it.
- Edward Hill

Monday, August 11, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #111 - The Byrds - Ballad of Easy Rider

The Byrds are a legendary band that always seemed to be falling apart. After their initial success, Gene Clark first left to seek his fortune elsewhere, followed soon by David Crosby. The Gram Parsons whirlwind swept in then swept out, taking Chris Hillman with him. By the late 60s, Roger McGuinn was the only original member left, but he had put together a solid lineup with ace guitarist Clarence White and the crack rhythm section of Skip Batten and Gene (no relation to Gram) Parsons. This outfit wasn't out to change the world, they just wanted to make good music. Ballad of Easy Rider carries a laid back, country-folk vibe that would soon come to dominate pop music. But the tunes on this album are as good as any in the band's formidable catalog and the playing is always clear and sharp, never lazy.
Like most Byrds albums, writing contributions come from several band members mixed with a selection of covers and traditional songs. The title song, however, comes from McGuinn himself and is the album's best known song. The theme from the iconic movie, and supposedly co-written by an uncredited Bob Dylan, the song is both simple and infectious. "Fido" is a slice of country funk penned by former band member John York.  With a nice little percussion breakdown in the middle, it's a cool jam session condensed down to a neat 2:40. The band tackles a pair of traditional folk tunes with "Oil in My Lamp," a catchy sing-a-long, and the sea chantey "Jack Tarr the Sailor." They also turn in a nice pair of country covers with "Tulsa County" and a beautiful rendition of Vern Gosdin's "There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To)."
The oddest track on the album just might be "Jesus Is Just Alright."  The band takes a short, little gospel song and gives it a trippy, psychedelic backing, the only real bit of psychedelia on the album. The Doobie Brothers would score a hit with their version a few years later, but the Byrds' take is the one to hear. Every incarnation of the Byrds has turned to Bob Dylan's songbook for inspiration and this album is no different. This fantastic version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" ranks as one of their best Dylan covers. They also take on Dylan's hero Woody Guthrie with a moving take on "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." McGuinn's mournful vocal is one of his most powerful performances. Gene Parsons proves his songwriting chops as well with the catchy, relaxed vibe of "Gunga Din." The album concludes with a short tribute the Apollo astronauts "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins." While lacking the hits of their early career, Ballad of Easy Rider is a strong entry in The Byrds' catalog. It's an overlooked classic well worth checking out.
            - Adam Reshotko

Monday, August 4, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #96 - Clay Pigeons (1998, dir. David Dobkin)

“Could you not poke the body with a stick, please?”
Clay Pigeons

            The intent of this article isn’t to convince you that you’ve somehow missed the greatest overlooked film of all time. Rather, I simply hope to bring a couple more humans to the fold of Clay Pigeons. A film unfairly and largely ignored, surely because of the amount of “big indie films” that came out the same year (1998) – Rushmore and The Big Lebowski being the two taking the most publicity.
            Clay Pigeons is a little gem that packs more punch, unpredictability and macabre humor into its brisk running time then near anything else from the late 90s in North America. This of course, excludes Fargo, the film most often compared to David Dobkin’s only actual good film to this day (although moments of Old School are quite humorous). Simply calling Clay Pigeons a Fargo rip-off is a gross disservice to both films, as they are different creatures altogether.
Clay Pigeons offers up a young (but routinely excellent) Joaquin Phoenix, a reliably hilarious Janeane Garofalo (rumored to have taken the role solely because she felt the violence against women in the film needed a strong female character to play against), an atypically unpredictable, sultry, slyly comical and genuinely funny Vince Vaughn and a score from John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law.
            The film begins with a seemingly innocuous afternoon of beer consumption and subsequent destruction of said beer bottles with handguns. What unfolds in those opening five minutes sets us down an increasingly bizarre path of accidents and cover ups leading to mountains more of both.  Phoenix’ main character is refreshing because he very much functions in the grey. He is certainly not a good man, but he’s also not necessarily a horrible human - perhaps a product of his environment more than himself, although one shouldn’t be quick to label him as intelligent.
            Clay Pigeons plays best for those looking for a nasty little film that has plenty of twists and turns, vicious black humor and slightly juvenile characterizations on the periphery. Moment to moment, things change so quickly (sometimes drastically) that one must simply give in to the ride they have boarded. Simply delight in the decadence and melodramatic musings offered up by the uber-entertaining, tough-as-nails/sweet-as-pie, overlooked little gem that is this film.
            - Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center

Thursday, July 31, 2014

2014 UMS Wrap-ups

Whew! Another one passes. The UMS continues to grow - and suffer growing pains along the way - but it remains Denver's finest, most diverse and most interesting music festival. I've talked with a number of people who attended in the week since the festival kicked off and to a person, we've had a hard time pointing to our specific highlights of the festival - not because of a lack of talent or good music though. My suspicion is that this is because it's not about going to see "that one big band" headlining as it is at so many other festivals. You can go see those headline acts at Fillmore, Ogden, Gothic, Bluebird, 1st Bank - whatever space they're big enough to fill (and most of these headliners are Bluebird-Gothic sized acts). It's about rolling around Broadway for 4 days and being immersed in a sea of music, like-minded music fans, and perhaps a drink or two (or three, depending on whether or not you hit up Trve Brewery). It's about catching that backyard party, that sweaty one-of-a-kind moment in the club, that late-night after party, that main stage act who's not coming back for a couple years or it's their first time in the city. It's about Residual Kid's leader on his back on the floor in the middle of the crowd at 3 Kings with his guitar feeding back as they close their set; it's about Itchy-O's set (that I missed!) for the competing Mile High Parley Festival; it's about all the bands you heard about but missed and will have to catch next year; it's about People Under the Stairs being so good on the main stage that I had to opt to miss 3 other bands playing the same time; it's about being sad that I cut out of Genders' great set at the Hi-Dive but then being happy that I walked into to Somerset Catalog playing a National song in heartfelt tribute to couple dear friends moving away (good luck Mary and Robert!). And so on. There's no way to quantify it or definitively explain it - you just have to go down a few nights and experience it. When I lived near 3rd and Broadway, I used to hate the festival. This was the weekend all "my" bars got taken over, that no bike parking was available ANYWHERE nearby except in my house, that the usual Broadway drunken weekend revelry got extended an extra two days and two hours on all days. But once I went it was all different and all that was dispelled. Trust me on this - whatever the politics happening, whatever your take on the validity of "underground" in the name, this festival is something special we have here in Denver and its success is what's created the space for it to spill over into a respectable competing festival occurring simultaneously on the same stretch of Broadway and a batch of unofficial side events in local backyards. Comparing it to South By Southwest is off base - this is far less whored out to major labels pimping their already-established big acts, far more focused on local music and the incredible diversity of Colorado's music scene. With respect to my pals in Austin, this is better than SXSW, even if I'm not gonna see Springsteen jamming here any time soon. Here are some pics of what I saw and dug.
- Patrick Brown
Somerset Catalog @ Irish Rover

The Blue Rider @ 3 Kings

Residual Kid @ 3 Kings

People Under the Stairs on the Main Stage

Impromptu side event

Another side event

Total Ghost @ The Safari Room

Miss America at one of the many unofficial back yard parties

Blonde Redhead on the main stage