Monday, June 19, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #168 - An Autumn Afternoon (1962, dir. Yasujirō Ozu)

A film by Yasujirō Ozu is not like a film by any other filmmaker. He has one of the most unique and easily identifiable stylistic signatures of any international director, noted for his unmoving camera, low angle shots simulating the view from a Japanese tatami mat, actors facing directly into the camera in dialogue, ellipses of plot leaving out seemingly important details, and visually intricate compositions. He’s been referred to as “the most Japanese director” of all, but in his specificity the universal can be found. He worked subtle variations on a handful of themes that interested him for his entire career (and in that is not unlike any major director spinning variations on their ideas in film after film): familial conflicts (usually between generations), the institution of arranged marriages, encroaching Westernization of Japan in his post-war films, financial woes of the middle class families that populate most of his films, and more. His films usually have many comic moments, but there’s almost always an undercurrent of melancholy to them as well.

Everything said above could apply to a few dozen of Ozu’s films, but they all apply in full force for what proved to be the final film of his life, An Autumn Afternoon. It’s a seemingly simple story of a widower, Shūhei Hirayama (played by Ozu regular Chishū Ryū), who lives with his son Kazuo and daughter Michiko, with his older son moved out and married, frequently squabbling with his wife about borrowing money to try to lend him the appearance of prosperity at work. Hirayama is chided repeatedly by his friends about arranging a marriage for his daughter before she becomes a spinster. Neither Hirayama nor his daughter have given much thought to the matter, perfectly content to live as they have been doing, but once he and his drinking buddies run into an old teacher of theirs, Sakuma (nicknamed “The Gourd”), and arrange an evening’s tribute to him, he begins to think more about it. There are many comic scenes of Hirayama and his friends drinking; old men reminiscing about war, women, school, old friends and so forth, but things begin to be tinged with a sadder tone when their tribute to The Gourd ends with the teacher too drunk and needing to be taken home where they see what’s become of his life.

The Gourd’s daughter has remained unmarried in circumstances very similar to what Hirayama has experienced, he’s now running a low-rent noodle shop, and his daughter complains that “he’s always doing this” when they bring him home drunk. Over the course of several episodes in the film, The Gourd blames his own selfishness for ruining her chances at a successful marriage, having kept her close to home because he doesn’t want to suffer the loss of another family member. The Gourd’s plight resonates with Hirayama, and he resolves to start pushing Michiko toward marriage. And though Hirayama is the central focus of the film, Michiko’s resistance to an arranged marriage and her own ideas about how her life should be lived of course come into play.

As is typical in his films, Ozu and his longtime screenwriting partner Kôgo Noda come to the conflict with a perfectly tuned ear for dialogue and an empathy and understanding for both sides – not only will the father be left lonely if his vibrant and loving daughter should move out of the house, but in arranging her marriage he’s also potentially taking away her happiness should he not choose a good partner for her, and if she remains unmarried, she runs the risk of becoming an embittered spinster. He wants to do what’s right for her even under increasing societal pressure and his concerns of ending up a sad, lonely drunk like The Gourd, spouting lines like “In the end we spend our lives alone.” It’s a similar scenario to Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece Late Spring, in which Ryu was again the widowed father living with his daughter (played by the exquisite and ebullient Setsuko Hara), but here the focus falls more on the father’s plight than on the daughter’s. Where Late Spring hinged on a single moment when Hara’s famous smile fell as she acquiesced to her father’s requests, this one hinges on Hirayama’s trip to take his teacher home, seeing a potential future where both father and daughter have ended up sad and lonely.

The film is not just a continuation of Ozu’s ideas, but another collaboration with many of his longtime partners – writer Kôgo Noda is credited alongside Ozu on his very first film, from 1927, while Chishū Ryū and cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta are both featured on his second film from the next year. With a regular cast and crew familiar with his working methods and style, it’s no wonder that the film is one of his subtlest and most beautiful triumphs. Atsuta’s cinematography, his fourth of Ozu’s six films in color, is spectacular, with both director and cinematographer having found a way to perfectly integrate color into the stunning framing and composition that Ozu is best known for. He’s one of the most masterful artists in cinema history, and any frame of one of his films is rich with details you can get lost in, with An Autumn Afternoon one of his very best creations, both in the plotted segments and the famous “pillow shots” of random areas and items (laundry hanging out to dry, factory smokestacks, and trains passing are some faves of his) that break up the narrative sections. It’s also a great entry point into one of the most stellar careers in cinema.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, June 12, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #181 - The Afghan Whigs – Congregation (Sub Pop, 1992)

The 1990’s were kind of a magical time for me, in retrospect. I started junior high, high school and college in the 90s. I had my first steady girlfriend, lost my virginity and had my first pregnancy scare, all in the 90s. I started smoking. I started drinking. I started experimenting with drugs. It was a time for new and exciting journeys for me, from one extreme to the other. I literally started the decade not even a teenager yet and turned 21 in 1999, the final year of the 90s. No other decade in the near-40 years that I’ve been alive has had as much of a hand in shaping the person I am today. Interests, people, jobs and events came and went, and the music that I discovered throughout was the most constant and important part of this progression.

I wish I could discuss every band that I discovered in the 90s that eventually became a favorite, but that would make for a much longer piece. However, I do want to talk about one band in particular that influenced me in more ways than I can count. The Afghan Whigs’ 1993 major label debut, Gentlemen, was, besides being my entry point to their music, critical in both my creative and personal life. Simultaneously sexy and misanthropic, the Whigs’ melding of indie rock with R&B and other African-American influences set them apart from most of their contemporaries. The band have remained critical darlings over the years and Gentlemen was the landmark that brought them this notoriety. That said, this article is NOT about Gentlemen.

By the time Gentlemen was released, the Whigs already had three records under their belt. Upon finding this out, I had to investigate. “What kind of sordid past could such a band have had to develop into this amalgam of dark rock & roll and sultry soul?” I thought. The first two albums, while certainly showing signs of future brilliance, were not much more than bratty college rock - think The Replacements minus balls. Their third album (and second for Sub Pop Records), Congregation, is the point when the band began its transformation. Congregation still possesses some of the noisy grit of the early records but adds layers of influences from the band’s members. Chief songwriter Greg Dulli’s affinity for R&B and blues is perhaps most prominent, but also evident is lead guitarist Rick McCollum’s interest in free jazz and world music.

Dulli’s lyrics tend to be unsettling, as he touches on addiction, guilt, intimacy and sexual deviancy interchangeably, sometimes within the same song. He sings of being both predator (as in the record’s first single “Conjure Me,” or the boozy, after-hours-style ballad “Tonight”) and prey (as in the desperate “I’m Her Slave”). Congregation also seems to have a darkly religious theme running throughout the album. “I am your creator, come with me my congregation,” Dulli sings on the title track, delivered from the point of view of a hostile deity (“get up, I’ll smack you back down”). Further tying into this theme is the cover version of “The Temple” from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, of which Dulli was an avid fan. Dulli’s lyrics and voice are perfectly juxtaposed with the rock/soul hybrid of the band. McCollum’s leads are dissonant and jagged in the vein of early Fugazi, but he adds a kind of funk swagger to his playing that recalls the Bar-Kays or Curtis Mayfield’s finest moments. Adding to this atmosphere is the tribal-style drumming of Steve Earle (not that Steve Earle - the Whigs’ regular drummer), who would influence a teenaged me in my own creative pursuits. The band’s influences really come together on the hidden track “Miles Iz Dead,” a last-minute tribute song added to the album when news of Miles Davis’ passing reached Dulli while in the studio.

Congregation was largely recorded in 1991, a time when the Whigs’ label, Sub Pop, was struggling financially. If it weren’t for a certain trio from Aberdeen, Washington releasing their breakthrough album Nevermind and effectively saving the label from bankruptcy, Congregation may never have become a thing. Perhaps this is just me, but the “album-that-almost-wasn’t” aspect of this record adds to the mystique of the Afghan Whigs as well.

I know that many who are familiar with the band are mostly familiar with Gentlemen, or the other latter day major label albums that brought the band to the mainstream. And that is okay, because those records are killer. But this is the record that kick-started that journey for the band. Even Dulli himself says about Congregation that it’s “the record where we came into our own.” It’s the perfect bridge between the raw aggression of their early material and the sexy soulfulness of their later career. Honestly, I could go on and on about the album, and the Afghan Whigs in general. They coaxed me into manhood in a way that no other band did. To have them be one of the most important bands to me during my formative years gives this stepping stone album an extremely special place in my heart. So, no amount of adjective-slinging will capture that magic that is Congregation. In other words, don’t take my word for it. Listen to the record.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, June 5, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #167 - Three Fugitives (1989, dir. Francis Veber)

One of my dad’s favorite movies when I was growing up was 48 Hrs. He loved it and I would often hear him quote lines from it to his buddies. Since I thought my dad was the funniest dude in the world in those days, I became obsessed with seeing the movie. Due to its “R” rating, however, neither of my parents would let me watch it. Except for my memorizing of the film synopsis on the back of the VHS box and occasionally sneaking downstairs late at night while my parents were watching the film to see 30- to 40-second clips here and there, I never got familiar with 48 Hrs. until much later in life. But I was obsessed with it, and I would quote those same lines that my dad would quote to my own friends at school. For all intents and purposes, it was “my favorite movie” and I had never even seen it. What made the film so appealing to me was not only the presence of Eddie Murphy (although I was already a giant fan of his stand-up comedy records, unbeknownst to my parents), but the other leading man: Nick Nolte. I loved his roguish good looks and his gruff cigarette smoker’s voice. I loved his large and looming stature. I loved that he would use verbal and physical jabs at his film counterpart when he became frustrated with him (which was often) like some kind of modern-day Moe Howard. Nick Nolte became my first favorite actor and I wanted to see everything he’d ever done.

In 1989, when I was eleven years old, a little film called Three Fugitives was released in theaters. Directed by Francis Veber, it pairs Nolte with Martin Short. The film is a remake of the French film Les Fugitifs, also directed by Veber. As a comedy fan, I was excited by the fact that Mr. Ed Grimley himself was starring in a new film with my favorite actor. I was even more excited by the film’s “PG-13” rating. I bothered my parents for weeks to take me to the movie, but alas it came and went in theaters and I never got to go. And back then, it seemed to take ten years between theatrical release and home video release. When I finally saw the film, it was worth the wait. I instantly loved it and has become a go-to movie for me ever since.

Nolte plays Daniel Lucas, an ex-con who was just released from prison after serving five years of a ten-year sentence for armed robbery. On the day he is released, Lucas goes to the nearest bank with his prison payroll check to open a savings account. While inside, an armed man (Short) comes in and holds the place up. The robber is inept and clumsy and barely bungles through the robbery. When the police are notified, the robber decides to take a hostage and picks Lucas. Due to Lucas’ past, the police assume that he and the robber are working together. After eluding the police and accidentally shooting Lucas in the leg, the robber identifies himself as Ned Perry, an unemployed widower who robbed the bank to provide for his six-year-old daughter, Meg, who has been mute since the death of her mother. After Ned enlists the help of his senile veterinarian friend to tend to Lucas’ wound, Lucas, Ned and Meg all go on the lam, much to Lucas’ chagrin. The trio end up forming an unlikely family-type bond in the process.

The film seems to be widely disliked by viewers and critics. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is so embarrassingly low that I don’t even want to say what it is here. User comments tend to range from “unfunny, dated” to “irredeemably uneven.” While I do think that those words are a trifle harsh, I’m not going to argue and tell you that it’s a groundbreaking piece of cinema or anything like that. It just isn’t. However, I can say that it’s a warm story with a hilarious cast that works very well together. The scenes between Nolte and the little girl are particularly touching. When the two get separated from Ned, it is up to the reluctant Lucas to watch over Meg as they track her father down. Meg becomes so fond of her temporary guardian that when they do find her father and Lucas decides to part ways with them, Meg breaks her years-long silent spell and utters the words, “don’t go.” The scene is so heart-wrenching that I get close to tearing up every time I see it. Even Lucas and Ned’s relationship starts out violent and angry and forms into a close friendship (still with some occasional violence). It reminds me very much of Nolte’s prior on-screen dynamic with Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs.

Call it nostalgia or sentimentality, but my cockles still get all warm watching this movie. When I was re-watching it recently for this article, I felt like eleven-year old Jon again. I laughed at the same dumb jokes and slapstick moments from the film’s leading men. I got excited at the more action-oriented scenes. Most of all, I was reminded what it was like to be a kid obsessed with a movie star. I don’t expect this reaction from most viewers; the film hasn’t aged super well, after all. But I do think that if you grew up in the ‘80s and are a fan of buddy-style crime comedies, Three Fugitives might just be right up your alley.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, May 29, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #180 - Nas – Illmatic

Over the years as I have worked on and off at independent record stores, I’ve tried my best to learn more about music from my co-workers. In 2004, my assistant manager, Eric, doubled as the store’s hip-hop guru in addition to working as a producer on the side. After working together for a few months, I began a conversation with him about getting back into hip-hop after falling out of touch for a while. Eric’s guidance was key in helping me navigate the work of OutKast, Common, Aesop Rock, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, and Immortal Technique, just to name a few. After we had been talking about hip-hop for a while, I asked him if there were any other albums I should check out and he stated that Illmatic by Nas was his favorite hip-hop album of all time.

Since its release in 1994, Illmatic has won a fair amount of praise and credit, but somehow it just doesn’t seem like enough. A lot of other hip-hop albums from the mid-nineties tend to top lists for the decade’s best music, but none of those albums possess the integrity, cohesion, and flawless appeal of Illmatic. Following Eric’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of the album’s tenth anniversary edition and began exploring Nas’ astonishing, yet nuanced debut. “The Genesis” sets the stage for Nas’ storytelling on Illmatic by melding a clip of dialogue from the 1983 movie Wild Style with a conversation among Nas and his peers about life, music, and credibility. Aside from this slice of life introduction, the album flows seamlessly for forty minutes without any interruptions common to hip-hop albums of the era like skits and gags. Over the nine remaining tracks, Nas teams up with a group of producers including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip to deliver a singular approach to hip-hop that has aged far more gracefully than much of what was on the radio in 1994. The second track, “N.Y. State of Mind,” begins the album in earnest with a nearly breathless account of the world Nas sees around him. Nas pulls this point of view narrative into sharp focus with the kind of unforgettable wordplay that sets him apart from his peers. The line “I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin,” blends imagery with psychology in a way that feels so intuitive, yet profoundly unique. Later on in the song, Nas establishes the theme of survival against all odds with the lyrics “I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death” and “Life is parallel to hell, but I must maintain and be prosperous.” Illmatic ends on an incredibly high note with “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” as Large Professor deconstructs Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and assembles new musical and rhythmic potential out of samples of various elements of the original song. Against this backdrop, Nas’ voice resonates with the confidence and knowledge that he’s delivering the valedictory statement of his masterpiece.

Through the course of ten more albums over the last twenty plus years, Nas hasn’t been able to top Illmatic, but that doesn’t diminish the power of his debut or the quality of his career. Nas has persevered on the course he set with Illmatic and, in doing so, has carved out a distinctive niche for himself in hip-hop. Perhaps Illmatic’s greatest strength draws from how well it has aged. A surprising number of highly rated hip-hop albums of this era now sound clumsy, ugly, and outdated. Illmatic has been compared many times to another debut from a gifted East Coast rapper from the same year, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. Both men were in their early twenties when they released these albums, which cover nearly identical subject material and even share notable visual elements on their albums covers. I’ve listened to both albums repeatedly in the last several years, but just as I grow tired of the nihilism, brutality, and fatalism of Ready to Die, I find myself pulling closer to the resilience, humor, and imagination of Illmatic.

-         John Parsell

Monday, May 22, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #166 - Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005, dir. Jon Favreau)

As a kid, I was drawn to science fiction like a moth to a flame. Star Wars premiered the same month I was born and my favorite after school entertainment in the 1980s consisted of reruns of the original Star Trek. In elementary and middle school, I scoured the shelves of my local video rental shops for science fiction movies I hadn’t seen yet. At the age of ten, I remember feeling caught between sci-fi kids’ movies like Flight of the Navigator, which left me feeling bored and unsatisfied, and classics of the genre like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I knew I was way too young to appreciate or understand fully. A few years ago, I came across Zathura: A Space Adventure and suddenly felt like I had stumbled upon a secret portal to my childhood.

Opening on a sunny summer day, Zathura sets a brisk pace and introduces us to Walter and Danny, two brothers competing for their father’s attention and fighting against the ultimate scourge of childhood: boredom. Soon, the boys learn that they will have to spend the afternoon together and younger brother Danny discovers an antiquated board game titled, Zathura: A Space Adventure. Walter reluctantly joins Danny in playing the game and almost immediately the brothers find themselves navigating a realm in which the game’s dilemmas like meteor showers, defective robots, and alien attacks feel all too real. If the plot sounds more than a little bit familiar, it’s helpful to know that the author of the source material, Chris Van Allsburg, also wrote Jumanji. This adaptation of Van Allsburg’s work blasts off into an imaginative realm of palpable risk and excitement where the 1995 movie version of Jumanji gets mired down in a swamp of muddled computer graphics and flat performances. Director Jon Favreau brings Zathura sparking to life through a reliance on practical special effects, a focus on ensemble acting with a young, gifted cast, and a script crackling with snappy dialogue. Favreau began his Hollywood career as an actor in the 1990s with a breakout role in the indie hit, Swingers, but has since switched trades and established himself as a dependable director of distinctive, successful mainstream films like Elf, Iron Man, and the recent live action version of The Jungle Book. Just as Zathura the board game offers the boys experiences with which video games and TV cannot possibly compete, this movie provides visceral thrills that far outperform the scores of contemporary family movies that lean too heavily on weak narratives and computer generated effects. Favreau taps into the heart of Van Allsburg’s book, expands the scope of the original story, and delivers one of the most satisfying family-friendly sci-fi movies of this century.  

As a book, Zathura covers just thirty pages, but Favreau targets the key elements of why it has become a modern classic of children’s literature and embellishes this adaptation with style and substance. Favreau pulls off the tricky feat of taking a well-loved kids’ book and fashioning it into a funny, boisterous movie that packs an emotional punch and succeeds on its own. In 2009, Spike Jonze attempted something similar with his take on Maurice Sendak’s almost universally adored book, Where the Wild Things Are, but ended up making a movie that bewildered audiences and bore very little resemblance to the enchanting power of the original. Zathura was Favreau’s third project as a director, but with it he established the kinetic, vibrant, and irreverent elements that would come to define his work. By infusing Iron Man and Iron Man 2 with his stylistic trademarks, Favreau set the tone for the sprawling multi-media franchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of people missed Zathura when it hit theaters in 2005, but now is as a good a time as any to take your chances and see where this adventure will take you.

-         John Parsell

Monday, May 15, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #179 - Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen - Lost In The Ozone

After the multi-colored explosion of counter-culture and youth exaltation that took place in mid to late 1960’s America, there was a desire for something maybe a little less experimental, maybe a little less world-changing and maybe a little more…fun. In the world of popular music there was a small but meaningful group of bands who were (re)discovering the joy and heritage of American roots music. Groups like Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, N.R.B.Q., Asleep at the Wheel and The New Riders of the Purple Sage were discovering the past and finding that it was a blast to play this kind of music. Audiences were equally desperate for something that required less thinking and more dancing. In thrall of classic outfits like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five, Tex Ritter, and The Johnny Otis Revue, these bands were finding that they were not the first musicians to jump in a bus and travel across the land bringing high times to the people. One of the most legendary and hard partying of these bands was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Starting in Michigan and landing in the Bay Area, they released their first album Lost In The Ozone in 1971. Like the aforementioned American big bands and revues, The Airmen brought a joyous repertoire of originals and classic Americana to the stage and gave the hippies a much-needed emotional break.

There is nothing fancy, tricky, artsy or fartsy about The Airmen’s music. It is basically revved-up country and western with a bit of R&B thrown in. The Commander himself (George Frayne IV) was a trained painter and sculptor whose love of boogie-woogie piano led him to leave the academic path (he has doubled a college professor) and hit the road with a crack eight-piece big band to give the people what they want. And boy could they deliver! The album kicks off with a clear statement of purpose, “Back To Tennessee,” “Wine Do Yer Stuff” and “Seeds And Stems (Again)” tell us with no uncertainty that these boys want to get back to the country and start the Par-Tay! And that is exactly what they do. They do not let up. The hallmarks of this great band were the Commander’s pumping boogie-woogie, Billy C. Farlow’s authentic vocal stylings, Bill Kirchin’s world-class guitar picking and the addition of non-traditional rock instruments like pedal-steel guitar, fiddle and the occasional horns. The original material makes the dichotomy of country/hippie life clear, and then the raucous cover versions that round out the album bridge that gulf in fine form.

About halfway through, starting with title cut “Lost In The Ozone,” the album kicks into high gear. Any young person who had made it through the late 60’s and into the politically charged atmosphere of the early 70’s could relate to the feelings suggested by this song’s title and sentiment. “Midnight Shift” and “20 Flight Rock” offer a clear reference back to early rock and roll, but the Charlie Ryan classic “Hot Rod Lincoln” provided The Airmen with their biggest and longest lasting hit and neatly crystallizes their aesthetic. It rocks in a way the fan of rock and roll can appreciate, but it is an absolute retro blast. Originally a hit in 1951, it reflects the moment in our history when popular American music was turning from regionalism to the monolith known as rock and roll. Within a few years, everything would change for good.

The album ends with an uproarious live version of “Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar,” one of the greatest songs about the joy of making and listening to music. A big band hit going back to 1941, it was a wonderful reminder to contemporary audiences of the fundamental importance music can play in lifting our spirits from the mundane or cruel realities of day to day life. With Vietnam about to crest and Watergate on the near horizon that wasn’t the worst thing.

“When He Jams It’s A Ball, He’s The Daddy Of Them All!
The Rhythm He Play Puts Those Cats In A Trance, Nobody There Bothers To Dance.
When They Jam With A Bass And Guitar, They Holler: Oh Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar!”

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, May 8, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #165 - Nosferatu and Nosferatu The Vampyre

Two movies, 55 years apart, and yet they are the bookends of the cinema vampire phenomenon. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Symphony Of Horror” set the template for the entire style. Herzog’s 1979 homage to the original effectively closes the book on the genre. There have been and will be more vampire movies after Murnau’s and Herzog’s, however, none will make our Transylvanian friend a more humanely drawn or eerily depicted monster than those portrayed in these landmark films.

The plot of both these films should be familiar to all fans of the genre. A mysterious count (Orlok in Murnau’s, Dracula in Herzog’s) contacts a real estate firm to find him a castle. A hapless agent (Hutter and Harker respectively) is sent to the Count’s castle in Transylvania to consummate a deal, and both find themselves immediately drawn into the nightmarish world of a being who must consume the blood of other humans in order to live - a vampire. Murnau’s film almost defies description. Because it is silent and utilizes arcane film equipment and technology, it inherently has a dreamy quality. Count Orlok, as portrayed by the great German actor Max Schreck is more animal than human. His rat-like teeth, ears, long fingernails and hairless head make him as much bat as man. When Hutter arrives at Orlok’s castle, there is no pretense of normalcy, as the count lunges for human blood and wonders aloud at how beautiful Hutter’s fiancé is (especially her neck). Schreck’s appearance is the stuff of nightmares, and has remained so throughout the years. Even more than Bela Lugosi’s worldly seducer, Schreck’s appearance is what comes to mind when I think of vampires. Orlock makes his way to his new home and goes about seducing Hutter’s wife. After bringing death and madness to her town, Hutter’s wife tricks Orlock into staying with her until sunrise, thus causing him to vaporize with the first rays of the morning sun. Max Schreck’s make-up and movements remain one of the landmark performances in film. He is terrifying and mysterious, and truly the stuff of nightmares.

Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu The Vampyre,  puts much more explanation and psychological depth into his depiction of the vampire (played by the incomparable Klaus Kinski), and yet, it almost feels like an extension of the original, as opposed to a rewriting. Herzog invests more humanity into his protagonists, real-estate agent Jonathan Harker and his stunning wife Lucy (depicted with intense beauty by Isabelle Adjani). They are genuinely in love, and we share their sadness at being apart. Jonathan is delayed for weeks at Dracula’s castle, and when he finally does return he is devoid of all memory and personality. Dracula has stolen his soul and now has come to his home town to steal his wife and leave all he encounters in ruins.

Throughout Herzog’s film, there is a dread sense of natural disorder. With Dracula comes the plague and swarms of rats. Harker’s town of Wismar, Germany becomes a nightmarish hell of burning corpses, the few remaining townsfolk descending into madness. Rats are everywhere as the town falls prey to Dracula’s spell. Again, it is Harker’s wife, Lucy who determines that only she can stop Dracula – at the cost of her own life – by seducing him past the crack of dawn. Kinski’s depiction of Dracula differs from Shrek’s only in terms of technology. Because Herzog’s film is shot in sumptuous color, with languorous shots of natural beauty and horror, it feels as though we have a much more personal relationship with the vampire. His pitiful pleas of eternal loneliness seem almost sympathetic. Kinski is literally nauseating as the pale, groaning, insectoid loser. He seems more like a sniveling pest than a world-dominating immortal. Perhaps this is the greatest achievement of Herzog’s film; he lends some humanity to one of the world’s great monsters.

There’s no fully understanding the Vampire genre without these two movies. They depict the monster as an aberration of the natural order as opposed to a dapper Count using his powers for seduction. While the earlier cuts a more mysterious figure, the latter is believable as an example of nature gone awry.

-          Paul Epstein

Monday, May 1, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #178 - Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It

Typically for I’d Love to Turn You On we wait until an album is ten years old before it becomes eligible for the column - it has to be something largely passed over in its initial release to qualify, and with time we’re better able to assess whether it holds water in the long run, rather just having an impressive initial impact that fades quickly. But this album turns nine in 2017 and I can’t wait until 2018 for it to officially be eligible.

Raphael Saadiq was a member of and the primary songwriter for the late 80s/early 90s neo-soul outfit Tony! Toni! Toné!, who scored a number of hits with their modern/retro soul before he left the group to pursue his own vision. His solo records in the wake of the group followed a similar pattern - classic soul influence with modern production styles and genre excursions to stay afloat in the current music field. However, in preparing this record he went decidedly old school. This unabashed throwback shows not just in the songwriting style - songs are kept as short and punchy as prime Motown - but even down to mike placement, recording equipment, and engineering approach (he studied records and session information of both Motown and The Beatles to help approximate the feel of the classic recordings). And Saadiq created the songs in the same one-man-band fashion that Stevie Wonder did – recording layers by playing the instruments (a typical song’s credits reads “Raphael Saadiq - vocals, guitar, bass, drums”), then embellishing the results with session players (strings, horns, percussion, occasional other instruments) and a high-profile guest here and there (Joss Stone, Jay-Z, and Wonder himself).

But all the recording technique and study in the world would mean nothing if Saadiq had not written great songs – and he has, twelve of them in fact. This is his finest album, solo or with his former group, and he honors the musicians he studied by producing an album that can hold its own against the classics. It kicks off right with one of the album’s best and catchiest cuts, “Sure Hope You Mean It,” a gorgeous uptempo number which leads right into “100 Yard Dash,” another fast, catchy one that continues the first song’s love longings with a stronger beat pushing it along. He shifts gears slightly for “Keep Marchin’” which from the title sounds like it could be an homage to the Civil Rights Era music that he’s drawing on, but paints a broader stroke lyrically as a song of uplift in the face of adversity, like the regular album’s superb closer “Sometimes.” The time warp we’ve experienced thus far in feeling like we could be listening to an album straight out of 1965 shifts slightly with “Big Easy.” Not in sound – Saadiq is still deep in his Holland-Dozier-Holland craft – but in the lyrics, which tell of a love lost in New Orleans, his baby not coming back. Even that could’ve been from the past, but the setting isn’t just New Orleans, it’s New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, and the song is a heartbreaker because his baby may not be coming back for the most devastating of reasons. And so it proceeds: “Just One Kiss,” “Love That Girl,” “Let’s Take A Walk,” “Never Give You Up” – all as melodic, direct and forthright as the classic love songs they evoke. “Calling” is the first time he plays his hand a little differently, with Rocio Mendoza’s Spanish-language verses uncommon for the era that most of the record evokes but just right for 2008. And a couple other times small touches take us out of the vibe – the sitar on the great “Oh Girl” puts us up toward 1973 or so, and Jay-Z’s cameo on the bonus remix of the same song couldn’t have come at any time other than the 2000s. And then there’s “Staying in Love,” which he claims is about music and staying true to your own artistic vision, but certainly could be grouped with the above love songs for most of us.

But mainly, Saadiq decided to cast a spell to transport us backward and it works beautifully, beginning to end. It works because he wrote terrific songs; it works because he did his homework to make them sound superb – as crisp, clear, and catchy as their predecessors; and it works because he’s musician enough to pull off the one-man-band trick that R&B geniuses from Stevie Wonder to Prince mastered before him. He followed this masterstroke three years later with the excellent Stone Rollin’ (which takes us from 1965 to somewhere more like 1971) but he hasn’t released a solo album since, preferring to focus his talents on soundtrack work (Luke Cage and the TV series Empire among others) and songwriting and production work for others (recently on Solange Knowles’ widely acclaimed A Seat At the Table). For now though, we’ve got this album and it’s tided me over just fine for just about nine years already.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 24, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #164 - Sweetie (1989, dir. Jane Campion)

Kay: “What if it does die?”
Louis: “What?”
Kay: “The tree.”
Louis: “Well, we’ll get another one.”
Kay: “Yeah, but this is our tree.”
Louis: “Look, it’s not gonna die. The roots grow really strong. They can split concrete.”

Years before Jane Campion would make a name for herself with such films as Bright Star (2009), In The Cut (2003), and probably most famously the Oscar winning The Piano (1993), she wrote and directed this brilliant psychological drama that stunningly explores the inner workings of a small, yet utterly complex family. Sweetie was Campion’s debut feature length film and with it she immediately proved her worth as a writer (the film was co-written by her and Gerard Lee) and director, and revealed her unique narrative and aesthetic vision. I was exposed to this film during a class on female directors during my first undergrad, and was immediately drawn to this odd, visually stunning tale, flush with metaphor and depth.

At the heart of it, this film is about a subtly neurotic and superstitious woman, Kay (Karen Colston), who’s attempting to forge her way as an independent adult. She has very few friends and everyone around her seems to think her quite eccentric. After a reading from her psychic she finds herself in the awkward situation of having to steal a co-worker’s fiancé, Louis (Tom Lycos), as she believes that they were destined to be together. From this moment we fast-forward with the couple, seeing only a few important moments in the development of their relationship until the moment that Lou planted a tree for Kay in their back yard. Believing that the tree could prove some sort of omen for their relationship she rejects it, snaps, and uproots the tree, hiding it underneath the bed in the spare room before anything bad can happen. Although she then moves into the spare bedroom to guard the decaying sapling, everything seems reasonably fine; however their relationship issues are increasingly bubbling underneath the surface. Though the tensions in their relationship seems to be stuck at a simmer, it begins to boil over with the arrival of Kay’s unhinged punk rock sister, Dawn, AKA ‘Sweetie’ (Geneviève Lemon), and her drug addled ‘manager’ Bob.

From this point Sweetie, as well as the rest of Kay’s family, begins to unravel the stability of Kay’s life and her relationship with Louis. The trials and tribulations of the family, Louis, and Bob, beautifully mirror real life’s propensity to be filled with comedy, drama, pain, and revelation. The dysfunction inherent in all of the relationships comes to light but in a remarkable fashion. While many of the issues addressed or hinted at have often been used as fodder for film and literary plots, the way that Campion addresses them skirts cliché and demonstrates a level of finesse and skill not often seen in a debut feature. The talent that shines through in Sweetie most definitely portends Campion's gifts that she would expound upon in her later works.

Aside from the fascinating off-kilter story of this peculiar familial system, and the splendid way that Campion deals with such issues, let me enumerate a few other reasons that I feel compelled to turn you on to this fantastic film. First and foremost, the way that the film was shot is brilliant! The use of out of the ordinary framing and composition for scenes is incredibly engaging and it would often seem that there is something that can be read underneath the surface of every scene. Secondly, and something that goes hand in hand with the aesthetics of the film, Campion imbued this film with an incredible amount of metaphorical layers. There is a certain almost indescribable depth to the film that forces me to question everything and read into all of the subtle context in order to gain a more complete understanding of the somewhat simple story. Third, and finally, the acting is glorious. Geneviève Lemon and Karen Colston in particular effortlessly embody their roles as utterly opposing sibling personalities. The one reserved (Kay) and the other an unapologetic train wreck (Sweetie), they seem to have been made for these roles and their interaction with each other truly makes you believe that they have been embroiled in this strange sibling rivalry all their lives.

It is for all of the aforementioned reasons and more that I implore you to check out this fantastic film, I promise that you won't regret it. Plus, the Criterion Collection's beautiful release of Sweetie happens to come with some amazing extras, such as Campion's early short films and much more, that will further give you a glimpse into the creative process of an amazing writer/director.

- Edward Hill

Monday, April 17, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #177 - Megadeth – Rust in Peace (Capitol, 1990)

These days, if one talks about Megadeth, it’s more likely to be a conversation about what a pompous prick frontman Dave Mustaine publicly continues to be than about the actual music. However, once upon a time, Megadeth released the heaviest, most technically sound thrash metal record of the 1990s (and possibly of all time). I am here to tell you fine Spork readers why, regardless of your position on metal, you need this record in your life.

First of all, a short history lesson for those novices among us. Dave Mustaine was an original member of Metallica. Since all four of my grandparents had heard of Metallica and used them as an entry point for trying to relate to me when I was a pre-teen, I’m going to assume I don’t need to explain who they are. Mustaine was thrown out of Metallica for being too drunk and terrible all the time, itself an impressive feat considering Metallica had been given the nickname ‘Alcoholica’ by friends and press. Defeated but undeterred, Mustaine formed Megadeth with bass player and friend David Ellefson.

Mustaine and Ellefson spent much of the mid-to-late ‘80s trying to match Metallica’s success, Metallica always remaining three steps ahead. Perhaps it was the rampant drug abuse or the semi-frequent personnel changes that kept them from receiving the level of acclaim that Mustaine’s former band was receiving. Finally in 1990, just as thrash metal was beginning to fade into obscurity, Megadeth released their fourth album Rust in Peace, and in doing so took thrash to a whole new level.

Rust in Peace wasn’t just about heaviness and speed. It had those things in spades, but what set Rust in Peace apart from many of the other thrash records of the day was its melodicism and its technical efficiency. Mustaine stepped up the creativity that we all knew he had (if the riffs he wrote on Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All are any indication), got clean and sober (relatively speaking) and wrote some of the most personal songs of his career, dealing with such topics as war, alien conspiracies and his own chemical addiction. The songs themselves tended to be longer with frequent and abrupt time changes. Newly added lead guitarist Marty Friedman, himself an accomplished virtuoso, helped up the intensity and progressive nature of the songs. The record is so filled with guitar solos that it can sometimes feel like a call-and-response wank-fest between Mustaine and Friedman. However, structurally the solos fit well within the epic proportions of the compositions.

Another reason this record is so mind-blowingly incredible is the addition of drummer Nick Menza. Menza was the drum tech for former drummer Chuck Behler and ended up taking over his job when Behler was fired. A former session drummer, Menza had experience in not only metal but gospel and funk as well. These influences all shine through on Rust in Peace, as his style is both angular and jazzy in addition to being lightning fast. Hiring Friedman and Menza was the smartest decision Mustaine ever made or would ever make again. This lineup would be known as the “classic lineup” and would remain together for three more records, the longest any incarnation of Megadeth has ever stayed together.

I had already been playing drums myself for a year or two when Rust in Peace was released. I was a Megadeth fan, but I wouldn’t say I was crazy about them at the time. One day, I was watching a VHS tape of MTV’s The Headbangers’ Ball that I recorded off the TV the night before. When the video for the single “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” came on, it instantly changed my life. I went out and bought the album that day, and it’s remained one of my favorite albums not just in metal, but overall. Menza’s playing in particular changed both the way I listen to and the way I play music. I maintain that you need not be a metal fan to regard Rust in Peace as an instant classic or at the very least a genre milestone. Its release spawned many tech-metal bands coming out of the woodwork and its influence can even be heard in many recorded works from seasoned veterans such as Slayer and Carcass.

Shortly after Rust in Peace came out metal in general suffered a lapse in popularity with the rise of grunge and “Buzz Bin” bands. Many bands faded away, while others (*cough* Metallica *cough*) would embarrassingly try to embrace the change in the mainstream landscape and release their own version of it. Megadeth even had their share of flops and mishaps in later years. But Rust in Peace will always stand as a true masterpiece and, above all, the point in history when Megadeth finally outdid their biggest rivals.

-         Jonathan Eagle