Monday, February 23, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #123 - Meat Puppets – Up On The Sun

Meat Puppets first burst out of the Arizona desert in the early 80s as one of the key bands on legendary punk label SST.  But while they started out loud and fast, they were never really punk.  Growing up outside of any scene that would constrain them, they were free to indulge in whatever influence sparked their fancy.  Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood, along with drummer Derrick Bostrom, brewed up a psychedelic stew of punk, country, and classic rock that found an audience among the freaks and weirdos of the emerging alternative nation.  Many of them formed bands of their own.  Some of them became huge, most prominently Kurt Cobain who turned over a whole segment of Nirvana's Unplugged appearance to a sit-in with Curt and Cris.  All the songs they played on Unplugged came from the Pups' legendary second album Meat Puppets II.  As great as that album is, its follow-up, 1985's Up On the Sun, is even better.  This is where the Meat Puppets truly come into their own, creating intricate compositions with the talent to back them up, yet still retaining a garage band feel.

The title song is a beautiful laid-back jam, meandering in the best way possible.  It might seem strange to kick off an album with its most mellow tune, especially for a band still considered punk at the time, but "Up On the Sun" perfectly sets the tone for everything to come.  They follow with the instrumental "Maiden's Milk" and the song's intro showcases the band's talent for tricky compositions with Cris' hyperactive basswork leading the way.  The song relaxes into a pleasant groove, complete with whistling, and some nice guitar leads from Curt.  The band's complex side also comes through later in the album on "Enchanted Pork Fist," which jumps from light-speed prog-fusion to an infectious arena rock chorus and back again, all within two and half minutes.  The band also knows how to get funky with Cris and Derrick forming a super tight rhythm section on "Away" and "Bucket Head."  If there's any song that deserves all-time classic status, it's the country-flavored "Swimming Ground."  A relaxed reminiscence of summer days of yore, one can easily picture this tune covered by a clever bluegrass ensemble or jam band, though it's hard to picture anyone besting the original.  The album closes with a pair of reflective songs, the pastoral "Two Rivers" and the metaphysical "Creator."

Meat Puppets continued to make great music for SST throughout the 80s, and moved up to a major label at the dawn of the 90s.  Their music may have gotten more mainstream but always retained a uniquely skewed point of view.  The Unplugged appearance, as well as the alternative music explosion, exposed them to a wide audience for the first time and they even scored a couple of hits.  But substance abuse and personal issues caused the band to fall apart by decade's end.  And then, in the late 2000s, came a miraculous return.  They've made several great records recently and tour constantly.  The material from Up On the Sun is still part of their repertoire, in fact they played a fantastic 10 minute version of the title track at the Bluebird a few years back.  Whether you're an old fan or new, a Meat Puppets show is always a good time.  And Up On the Sun is a great album to either check out for the first time or revisit after a long absence.  It's one of those that just never gets old.

            - Adam Reshotko

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #110 - Jules and Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut)

François Truffaut pulls out all the cinematic stops in his 1962 masterpiece, Jules and Jim: voice over, dolly shots, aerials, pans, wipes, masking, freeze frames, photographic stills, newsreel footage. It’s like an overflowing portfolio of the possibilities of film. And it’s a great story: two good friends, Jules and Jim, a German and Frenchman, live the bohemian life in Paris before World War I, drinking wine in cafes, talking about art, looking for love. A friend gives them a slide show of ancient statues and they’re both taken by a marble portrait of a woman with a mysterious smile. A few days later, they meet a woman named Catherine who looks just like the sculpture, and so begins a 25-year saga in which both men are in love and obsessed with her, and their triangular relationship shifts dramatically over the years. It’s storytelling at its most sophisticated, with an almost musical quality, more like a symphony than a movie. At times, years go by in a breathless whir, as the narrator spins the yarn of the increasing complexity of the trio’s love. Other times the pace suddenly slows, often to a complete stop, with a freeze frame of the lovely Catherine, her blond hair backlit by the sun. Or it’ll linger on a seemingly mundane scene, maybe Catherine and Jim packing a suitcase, or the three of them drinking wine in a meadow, or riding their bikes on a tree-lined lane. It’s all so beautiful, and all of it together—the fast parts, the slow parts, the panacea of motion picture technique—gives the film a fullness that’s rare in movies.
The film won the Grand Prix (predecessor to the Palme d’Or) at Cannes, and is often included on lists of the best movies of all times. It’s inspired generations of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, who specifically hailed it as a precursor of the riveting pace of Goodfellas. In a gushing review, Roger Ebert wrote, “Jules and Jim was perhaps the most influential and arguably the best of (the French New Wave’s) first astonishing films that broke with the past. There is joy in the filmmaking that feels fresh today and felt audacious at the time.” Indeed, it still feels like cutting-edge art, despite being more than 50 years old and in black and white. And not just stylistically. Even though the story is set in the early 20th Century, and the film came out a few years before the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, the tragic romance feels contemporary, and infidelity abounds. Catherine is as liberated and self-assured as any character who might grace the screen today, in many ways even more so. And that’s what makes this film a true classic, its timelessness. In another fifty years, Jules and Jim will no doubt be as poignant as it was when it came out, and as it is now.

- Joe Miller

Monday, February 9, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #122 - Lennie Tristano – Lennie Tristano

Lennie Tristano is a jazz pianist whose small body of recorded work does not do justice to his influence on the music, which is audible in the works of such piano legends as Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett (each of whom have gone on to become major influences on other musicians in their own right) and those who worked directly with him, like saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Tristano, blind by age 10, began studying music at a young age and somewhere in the late 1940’s became influenced in his playing by the bebop revolution, especially the music of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. But his own approach was different – while he liked the rapidity and complexity of bebop, he was attracted to the structural and rhythmic elements more than the emotive, “bluesy” elements. This has, unfortunately, lead many to dismiss his music and cold or cerebral, when nothing could be further from the truth. In Tristano’s own words: “I can never think and play at the same time. It’s emotionally impossible.”
            So even though in his conception of the music he instructed his horn players (especially Konitz and Marsh) to use an uninflected and neutral tone to better concentrate on the structure and form of their solos, the guiding principle is still expression via improvisation, one of the core ideas of jazz. So when people accuse him of “cheating” or violating some principle of jazz for using techniques that eventually became commonplace in jazz (such as overdubbing and tape manipulation), in addition to the crime of using intellectual means to focus his music, I would reply that one need listen to only one minute of this record’s “Requiem,” a piano solo tribute to the recently deceased Charlie Parker, to understand that this music is intensely emotional, and of course improvisational – in short, that it’s most assuredly jazz.
Though there are earlier studio recordings dating to the mid-40’s, this 1956 album marks what will probably stand as Tristano’s major recorded statement, a record that divides neatly into two halves – one set of studio cuts that outline his approach (and his then-controversial studio techniques) clearly and one group of ballad standards recorded live that show his ideas in practice in a more conventional jazz setting. Fans of the studio cuts often dismiss the live material as lighter weight, and indeed it’s definitely more traditionally beautiful and less challenging, with Lee Konitz and Tristano trading solos over the relatively anonymous rhythm support of Gene Ramey and Art Taylor. But the studio works that define the album (and lead it off) help show how to understand the second part more deeply.
The first track is “Line Up” in which bassist Peter Ind and drummer Jeff Morton tick off a steady (and studio-manipulated) rhythm over which Tristano solos continuously, offering up no set theme and just letting one idea flow from the previous one until the song eventually fades out. Next is “Requiem,” which after its classical-styled intro drops into a bluesy tribute, but is full of constantly changing rhythmic attacks from Tristano’s improvisations, marrying his logical approach to an undeniably emotional content. It’s gorgeous, warm, touching, perfect, and it too, fades out. Next up is another piano piece (plus somebody shaking a maraca to tick off time), “Turkish Mambo,” (neither Turkish in origin, nor a mambo, but a great title regardless!), in which he lays one piano rhythm down, lays another track of piano over it in counterpoint, and then adds a third overdub in which he solos on the complex, shifting rhythms that he’s set up with the other tracks. And again, a fade.
Why the fades, you may wonder? Well, my theory is this – he’s set up a structural approach (most clearly in “Turkish Mambo”) in which he could keep improvising forward forever on the rhythmic lines he’s made. In my mind it’s analogous to a comment King Sunny Ade once made about his approach to his own music: “the rhythm is basically simple and, once you hook it up, it flows endlessly.” Tristano’s rhythms are sometimes trickier and his varied approach to them keeps it feeling like a moving beast, but the idea is the same – set up a solid rhythmic base and then go as long as you need over it. The last studio cut, “East Thirty Second” brings Ind and Morton back in for a number very similar in sound to “Line Up” with Tristano soloing over their foundation. And of course, it fades out. Then come the ballads, which all sport the traditional theme-and-solos approach, have endings rather than intimations of infinity, and all hit a slower tempo than most of what’s preceded them. But after hearing the studio work a few times, it’s obvious that in these Konitz and Tristano could’ve kept rolling out their ideas for as long as the audience would be there to listen if they’d chosen to. The approach remains the same even if the feel of the second half is very different.
And of course there are those who find the first half, with its “cheating” approach to jazz hard to take, but who generally find the lovely second half quite endearing and simply gorgeous – not at all the cerebral coldness that Tristano is accused of. Me, I love both parts, especially given the paucity of recordings of Tristano on the market. It’s a great album and the diversity of it only makes it stronger in my ears.

            - Patrick Brown

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #109 - Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, dir. John Sturges)

Director John Sturges is noted for a 30-year career of slam-bang action films, usually starring tough (or at least manly) guys in the lead role – he worked with John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Clint Eastwood among others – acting out macho fantasies – Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Great Escape, and The Magnificent Seven are three of his best-known films. It’s not all he did – he’s got a couple straight dramas, an anomalous comedy, and a couple later sci-fi films to his credit – but it’s the reputation he holds today, and deservedly so since it’s his specialty.
Bad Day at Black Rock falls about ten years into his career, which at the time consisted largely of action-oriented westerns and crime films knocked out fast and cheap, and it’s the film that made enough money for MGM that it put him on the map and gave him the ability to establish an independent production company in 1959. But even so, Bad Day at Black Rock started no different from any number of B-movie cheapies he’d made before it – he shot it in three weeks from material that could have made for a dubious film (the producer almost canned the film, believing it to be “subversive”). And if the action isn’t exactly “slam-bang” the tension is methodically ratcheted up like very few of his films managed. And I doubt that anybody thinks of Black Rock’s star Spencer Tracy when the word “macho” comes up in relation to actors. But for my money, this is the finest film by Sturges that I’ve seen (he’s got over 40 to his credit), and certainly his subtlest. Allegedly the film’s writers, not sure they would be able to land Tracy in the role, rewrote is as a one-armed man with the idea that no actor can resist playing a character with a physical impairment. Tracy would go on to get an Oscar nomination for his performance here, his first since his heyday.
Bad Day at Black Rock is the story of war veteran John Macreedy (Tracy) going to the small town of Black Rock (which consists of no more than a dozen buildings) to visit an army buddy’s father, the Japanese-American Komoko, to give him important news but nobody in the small town seems especially ready to help him find Komoko. In fact, they range from coolly silent to downright hostile to see him there snooping around town, an outsider who should just mind his own business and move along. As the train rolls into town the townspeople all look up at the unusual occurrence of a stranger coming to town, with one of them even commenting aloud “first time the Streamliner’s stopped here in four years.”
What happens from there is a master class in slowly simmering tension, as Macreedy keeps asking around about Komoko’s whereabouts without giving up his intentions while the townspeople get increasingly frustrated with his unflappable calm and nervous about him and his unexpected and unwanted visit. He shortly meets Reno Smith (played by the great Robert Ryan), who seems smarter and more level headed than most of the others in town – that is until Macreedy starts asking too many questions. Forty minutes in to the film, Smith and Macreedy have a confrontation that’s all understated feinting around each other until Smith starts to show his hand about his xenophobic anti-Japanese attitude. Macreedy then mentions that maybe the fallow land at Komoko’s place could be used for a graveyard, shoots Ryan a significant look, and shows his hand that he knows that the place may have someone buried there – perhaps not human, but perhaps human. And from there on it’s open – yet still understated and tense – warfare between Macreedy and his few allies against the rest of the town, hiding their shame, guilt, and complicity in whatever may have happened by lashing out at Macreedy, who proves perfectly able to handle himself, as in the scene where Coley Trimble (a bullishly belligerent Ernest Borgnine) tries to cold cock him in a diner and Macreedy neatly disposes of him.
Bad Day at Black Rock is a perfect example of how classic Hollywood used to work when things were right – take a major star (Tracy was a few years past his main box office draw, but still well known) surrounded by an able cast (that also includes the great Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, and Dean Jagger), take a solid script and add a few twists, and put a knowledgeable director at the helm to streamline things. The result – a wickedly efficient dramatic thriller. 

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, January 26, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #121 - The Dream Syndicate – The Medicine Show

Looking for a rock and roll hero who has had a career for decades, never “sold out,” never made a shitty record, never been, er… spoiled by great success (read: never got really famous)? Look no further than Steve Wynn. He is still out there (sometimes with a reunited Dream Syndicate) playing his brand of heroic music, equally in thrall to the late 60’s and late 70’s underground (think Velvet Underground meets Standells meets Television with lots of guitar based jamming in the live show and you start to get the picture.) Lyrically, Dream Syndicate were in the beatnik/Patti Smith tradition of literary, thoughtful anthems. The Medicine Show was their second album and first for a major label, so expectation in the 1984 underground was very high for this album. With big-time producer Sandy Pearlman (The Clash, Blue Oyster Cult) on board, it seemed like these brainy L.A. Paisley Underground heroes might break through to the mainstream and change the face of modern pop (pretty bad at that time) for the better. As it turned out, history frowned on the whole Paisley Underground movement (it would have gone gangbusters now) and almost all of the great bands from that era (Opal, Rain Parade, The Long Ryders etc.) are no more than a footnote. However, at that particular moment in time I remember being blown away by this thoughtful, intense album.

The heart of all Dream Syndicate music lies in the juxtaposition of their lyrical ambition, with their fearless guitar workouts. Somewhere between Neil Young’s ferocity and Tom Verlaine’s stinging precision, lead guitarist Karl Precoda laid it down for the ages on this album. Snaking in and out of Wynn’s snarling vocals on songs like “Bullet With My Name On It” or the title track, his guitar coils in waiting for the opportunity to strike with lethal force, biting with venomous lethality. One of the unsung guitar heroes of the modern era, Precoda is as distinctive as he is reminiscent of the greats. On the song “Medicine Show,” and the incomparable “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” Wynn’s brains and Precoda’s brawn provide the exact raw elements needed to combine and produce a musical explosion. The first time I heard “Coltrane” I could not believe a rock band had the ballsy effrontery to name a song after one of the great musical geniuses of the era and then just OWN it as powerfully as The Dream Syndicate did. After Wynn sets the stage with his hipster verses about 20th century musical ennui, he and Precoda tear into an absolutely, joyously dangerous cat and mouse game with verses and guitar breaks, building in intensity to a psychedelic punk frenzy that’ll grow some hair on your chest. Live, the band would take this song to sometimes-ridiculous lengths, but the album version is just right.

The album comes to a close with a reminder of Wynn’s superb songwriting on the Springsteen-like “Merritville.”  Pearlman’s intelligent production lends the band the gleam and restraint they needed to smooth their raw edges, yet he keeps their spiky, punk vitality completely intact. Precoda rips into a meaty, noisy solo between Wynn’s honest verses on American life. Springsteen, Michael Jackson and Prince all topped the charts in 1984, and when one listens to The Medicine Show in that context, it is both a wonder that it wasn’t a hit, and a reminder that in any given year, much of the cultural and intellectual vitality of our society is well hidden from the public eye.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, January 19, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #108 - Wait Until Dark (1967, dir. Terence Young)

What makes a movie scary is a very subjective thing. For instance, when I first saw The Exorcist, the scene that scared me the most (and the whole thing scared me profoundly) involved a character walking into a kitchen and the lights in the room were blinking inexplicably. For some reason I found the unnaturally blinking lights more terrifying than the adolescent Linda Blair spewing pea soup on the priest. In most cases I find more explicit, violence-based frights - blood-soaked exercises in graphic shock - to be less effective than being slowly seduced into fear through a series of incongruities or subtle shifts in mood. The factor that made the original Alien so scary, and all the sequels so NOT scary, was the simple technique of building suspense by not showing the audience the monster until the last possible moment. Each encounter uncovered another small glimpse into the horror to come because the imagination is so much scarier than any reality could ever be. In many ways Wait Until Dark uses this exact technique to brilliant effect, by slowly uncovering the depths of evil the antagonist of the film (Alan Arkin) is capable of while simultaneously building our appreciation of the protagonist (an almost irresistible Audrey Hepburn) as a woman of almost genius ingenuity.

The plot of Wait Until Dark is labyrinthine and almost irrelevant. It also unfolds in such a way that giving any but the most rudimentary details could spoil the movie. Suffice to say that Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman who finds herself in the possession of a doll that is stuffed with heroin and Alan Arkin is a criminal who wants - and is going to get - that doll. He employs the help of two hapless low level crooks (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston: both great) to enact an elaborate subterfuge to get into the blind woman’s confidence and thus retrieve the heroin. Arkin offers up what has to be one of the most menacing performances in film history, morphing from a slimy hipster to mad-dog killer in the blink of an eye. His transformation is so sudden and violent that he becomes the stuff of nightmares. Hepburn, on the other hand, is gorgeous and innocent, yet totally believable as a woman driven to the edges of her own sanity; forced to test the limits of her own strength and courage in the face of unthinkable terror. The movie develops in a way that slowly builds tension as we gradually understand how much danger Hepburn is in, how utterly despicable Arkin is, and how he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Not only is Hepburn’s life in danger, but her virtue as well.

Everything boils down to the last fifteen gripping minutes, as Hepburn fights for her life in a white-knuckle ride that takes us inside the mind and emotions of a blind person struggling to level the playing field in a world of darkness. This ultimately is the hook, if you will, that makes Wait Until Dark an unforgettable classic. The shift in perspective is remarkably effective as the darkness starts (as the veil it is to all sighted people) and actually becomes illumination as the situation changes. Filmed in a composed, Hitchcock-esque style, with a masterful, hair-raising score by Henry Mancini, this is a classy, old school thriller that terrifies the audience as much by what it sees as by what is left hidden.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, January 12, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #120 - Mott the Hoople – Mott

So the legend goes, Mott the Hoople were about to break up after four albums and not much to show for them. Then, famous fan David Bowie gave them one of his very best songs, "All the Young Dudes," and they suddenly achieved the success that had previously eluded them. They followed up All the Young Dudes (the album) with one simply titled Mott. Unlike the previous album, this new one contained all original material and established Ian Hunter as one of rock's greatest songwriters. It's also one of the all-time great albums about Rock & Roll. Hunter contrasts the joy and excitement of listening to and playing music with the weariness of life on the road. Rock & Roll may be a losing game, but if you get your kicks from guitar licks it's all worth it.

"All the Way From Memphis" is as great an opener as an album could have - great lyrics, awesome piano and guitar interplay, and guest sax from Roxy Music's Andy Mackay.  "Whizz Kid" is another super catchy rocker. "Honaloochie Boogie" may be the album's shortest track but it's also the most joyous, one of the hidden gems of the Mott catalog. The band flexes their old school rock muscle on "Violence" and "Driving Sister." Though their association with Bowie brought them over to the growing glam rock scene, they remained rough and tumble street rockers at heart. "I'm a Cadillac/El Camino Dolo Roso" is the obligatory showcase for guitarist Mick Ralphs, who would soon leave the band, and the glam scene, for the straight up rock of Bad Company.

As great as the rockin' tunes are, the album's true heart and soul lies in the slower numbers. "Hymn for the Dudes" is a tribute to the fans, reminding them "You are not alone." The centerpiece is, of course, "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople." Here is where everything comes together, Hunter with his heart on his sleeve, confessing he feels he let his fans down yet still soldiering on to the next gig because that's all he knows how to do and wouldn't want it any other way. He also memorably name checks the rest of the band; "Buffin lost his childlike dreams and Mick lost his guitar/And Verden grew a line or two and Overend's just a rock & roll star." The album closes with the heartbreaking "I Wish I Was Your Mother," another of Hunter's classic tunes. The current CD edition adds a handful of bonus tracks including the B-side "Rose" which is as good as anything on the album itself.

Mott only had one more album in them after Mott, appropriately called The Hoople.  Ian Hunter went on to a moderately successful solo career and served as an inspiration to all sorts of rockers, punks, power poppers, metalheads and more.  The pinnacle of his career and that of his band continues to be Mott.  If you love rock & roll, you'll love this album.

            - Adam Reshotko

Friday, January 9, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #107 - Melancholia (2011, dir. Lars von Trier)

Claire: “What's going on Justine?”
Justine: “I'm trudging through this gray woolly yarn, it’s clinging to my legs, it's really heavy to drag along.”

            Melancholia, the second film in director Lars Von Trier’s ‘Trilogy of Depression’ (which also includes 2009’s Antichrist and 2013’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & Vol. 2), delves deeply into the human psyche and the resulting film is gorgeous, beguiling, and enigmatic. While it certainly isn’t quite as abrasive as its predecessor Antichrist, which also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, it certainly pulls no punches when it comes to its presentation of the human condition. What this film lacks in the blunt shock and awe that Von Trier has been infamous for it makes up for in pure, raw, unadulterated, and often awkward, emotion. Personally I hadn’t watched this film since seeing it in theaters three years ago but as I sat back to re-view it for this edition of I’d Love To Turn You On I found myself remembering the slow, epic roller coaster I was about to re-live.
            In true Von Trier fashion we are thrown immediately into the action in a magnificent yet puzzling slow motion sequence that alludes to the events to come. After a large cryptic planet crashes into the earth the events truly begin. The film is broken up into two parts: part one if focused upon Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, and part two is centers around Justine’s sister Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourg. The two parts are very different at first glance and yet upon further examination they seem to be connected by the thread of dealing with depression (as should seem obvious as it is part of Von Trier’s ‘Trilogy of Depression’). In the first part of the film Justine is getting married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) and the two attend a grand party thrown by Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). While all seems fine at first, Justine’s smile slowly fades as she tires of the whole charade. She then begins a destructive downward spiral into a depressed state as she sheds layer after layer of false airs. I won’t go too far into the details for fear of spoiling the entire first part. However the second part of the film focuses upon Claire’s descent into depression brought on by both her sister’s emotional state and an immense fear of the approaching planet Melancholia, which is slated to pass right by the earth. Both sisters fell into a melancholic depression but in very different ways providing the film with two distinctive yet connected parts that culminate in a magnificent climax.

“The Red Star’s missing from Scorpio and Taurus is no longer there.”

            Thus ends the quick synopsis of an incredibly subtle film and for me the key to this film, as with many great films, lies in the subtleties. First and foremost, even more so than many other films that strive to achieve the same goal, Melancholia creates an alternate universe that still feels eerily familiar. At its core this film is science fiction, since it centers on a strange scientific event (the passing of a mysterious planet), yet it convincingly feels like the present. What is more important in this film is that the approaching planet is an impetus for the events to follow. The key to success for this aspect of Melancholia is that time, both in the sense of date and duration, has little or no importance as the events are merely strung together. Melancholia is in essence a science fiction film masked as a serious drama, or a serious drama with the backdrop of a strange alternate science fiction world.
            Along this vein of subtlety, the most important aspect of a film so focused upon the inner workings of human depression is of course the actors’ portrayal of their characters. While Charlotte Gainsbourg (who is always stunning) and the supporting cast were truly amazing, the real stand out of the film is Kirsten Dunst. Von Trier is known to do anything and everything to get the performance that he needs from his leads; he drug Justine through the depths and Dunst flawlessly rose to the occasion. Justine flew through the gamut of emotions and Dunst brought life to the character and made it seem effortless. Moving through so many emotional states in such a short period of a time in a film could very easily end up forced and ineffective but through the direction of Von Trier, Dunst succeeded brilliantly in her portrayal. With Gainsbourg and Dunst impeccably depicting their respective characters’ distinctive mental fragilities this simple film comes alive.
            If you have read any of my other attempts to ‘turn you on’ to film, you might have noticed that I have a particular affinity for aesthetics and I love a good cinematographer and Manuel Alberto Claro most certainly stepped up on this film. The visual aesthetic of the film is simply stunning! In addition to this, the use of special effects is also subtle, understated and perfectly integrated in a way that added to the world created rather than distracting from the story. Overall this is a beautiful yet somewhat understated film. In addition to this the soundtracks relies heavily upon excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to heighten the drama and grandiose nature of the story at hand.
            So to quickly sum up why you should take a 12-dollar chance on this DVD for your movie night, that is if you aren’t already drawn to the works of Lars Von Trier, this is a really beautiful and subtle journey into melancholic depression. But if you aren’t really into the whole serious drama thing, don’t forget that there is the odd sci-fi aspect to the film… there IS a planet headed for earth… WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN!?!? So, this film has it all: tension, drama, intrigue, and a touch of action. Take a chance and enjoy this experience artfully crafted for you by Lars Von Trier.

            - Edward Hill

Monday, December 29, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #119 - Marc Ribot – Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos

In 1997, Ry Cooder released Buena Vista Social Club, featuring forgotten Cuban musicians being given a platform to get heard in the States and creating an album that masqueraded as a reunion of a multi-generational group that never really existed except as a fantasy music lineup. And it did gangbusters here – both in the U.S. and right here at Twist – which probably helped open the doors for this 1998 album, in which avant-leaning NYC guitarist Marc Ribot formed a (real) group he dubbed Los Cubanos Postizos (The Prosthetic Cubans) to pay homage to Arsenio Rodríguez, a hugely influential Cuban musician in his own right.
Rodríguez was born in Cuba, lost his sight at any early age, and learned to play the tres cubano (a 6-stringed relative of the guitar), working in several bands before forming his own group in the 1940’s and laying the foundations for modern salsa (and, he claimed, the mambo as well) with his rhythmic acuity and songwriting skills. After emigrating to the U.S., he worked in New York until moving to L.A. and passing away in 1970, a largely forgotten figure. But Ribot was familiar with his work and here assembled a group of tunes either written or popularized by Rodríguez (plus one original and another classic Cuban tune) and scaled them down to fit his Prosthetics – a quartet of his guitar, bass, drums and percussion, augmented often by organ, less often by vocals, and once by a goofy baritone sax that suits the album’s playful vibe.
And that’s a key difference between the similar projects enacted by Ry Cooder and Marc Ribot – while both honor the traditions of Cuban music, Cooder’s approach is more folksy, more hands-off, allowing the musicians to play their own tunes their own way and then adding his own guitar (and less impressively, his son’s percussion) into the mix. Ribot, on the other hand, decided to have some fun with the music, to filter Arsenio Rodríguez’s tunes through his own post-modern, NYC filters to create something at once respectful and modern – postizo also translates from Spanish as “fake.” And it’s a gas to listen to in a way that the more stately BVSC record isn’t. Maybe you’ve heard Ribot’s own records, maybe you haven’t Maybe you know him from his stints with Tom Waits or Elvis Costello, or maybe the name is completely new to you. Doesn’t matter, ‘cause if you dig guitar, you’ll be a fan after about 30 seconds of this album.
The record kicks off with the lovely “Aurora en Pekín” (one of the non- Rodríguez songs, written by the early 20th century Cuban musician Alfredo Boloña). Given that aurora means “dawn” it’s a perfect opener, rising quietly and beautifully, but hardly giving any warning of what’s to come as the day heats up. By the third song, “Como Se Goza en el Barrio,” things are in high gear and it’s clear what kind of Cuban music Ribot’s got in mind – traditional yet modern, danceable and funky yet slightly bent; in a word – postizo, but not in a bad way, even if in a way that Cooder would never condone. This is followed by the only Ribot original of the set, “Postizo,” which further drives the point home. And though most of the album is instrumental, there are a few vocals – “La Vida Es un Sueño” (“Life Is A Dream,” a song Rodríguez wrote after he learned he’d never see again) is delivered in a disaffectedly humorous monotone and deliberately unaccented Spanish while he occasionally translates the Spanish of “No Me Llores Más” to an equally droll English language song. Elsewhere titles are sung or joyfully shouted from the background (“Postizo!”), but most of the record remains the core group – bass, drums, and percussion – with Ribot’s guitar doing most of the talking, sending out melodic lines or ripping leads as dictated by the songs.
The Cubanos Postizos released a second album that’s also well worth your time (2000’s Muy Divertido!), but it’s been in and out of print for a while. It has less surefire tunes – though Arsenio Rodríguez’s “El Divorcio” is a killer, as is Marc Ribot’s “Baile Baile Baile” – but more rocking lead guitar to compensate. Maybe it’s fake and the ethnomusicologists out there would find it too ersatz to take seriously. But as something of a fake ethnomusicologist myself, and one who revels in syntheses of music from all over the globe, I find it completely entertaining. Give it a listen and you probably will too.

- Patrick Brown

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #106 - The Wiz (or - Lighten up and let yourself be charmed) (1978 dir. Sidney Lumet)

The year is 1978. American cinema is immersed in Blaxploitation, hard-boiled crime dramas and an un-satiated, seemingly endless lust for sex on screen. A wildly popular, all African-American cast Broadway extravaganza called The Wiz has begun to finish its long standing (since 1975) run. Enter Sidney Lumet; hot off the successes Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express and Equus. The goal? A no-no of a remake of the indelible 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. What’s that, you say? Why touch an allegedly perfect film? Well, I say why not?

Is The Wiz even half as charming, polished, accessible and heart-warming as the original? Absolutely not, and it's proud of it. Lumet (although he was hired simply because the original director quit after being forced to cast Diana Ross in a role undoubtedly too young for her) was determined to ignore the 1939 opus and head in his own direction. The result is an absolute mess. But, it's a hot mess – a mess that this writer cannot look away from. A mess that, whether intentional or not, stumbles into near-transcendent moments of pitch black humor, far too much self awareness, undeniable beauty and atypical, but succinct songs that will stick with you should you head back for another viewing.

The cast is unbelievable. Michael Jackson steals every bit of the show with his youthfully exuberant portrayal of the Scarecrow. Ted Ross brings a dark undercurrent to his initially surface-level portrayal of the Lion. Nipsy Russell phones things in a bit, but ends up endowing the Tin Man with the bit of humanity we need to feel the tug of the heart strings in the overly preachy final moments. Richard Pryor isn't given enough time as Oz, but makes damn sure you won't forget the time he has. And last, and certainly least, Diana Ross nearly derails the whole affair, pretending to be a youngster full of hopes and dreams; which only comes out as a constant attempt to be on the verge of tears. Quincy Jones adapts many songs from the Broadway original to fit with Lumet's dark, borderline surreal portrayal of Harlem and eventually the Land of Oz.

Even if you only watch this film as a curiosity, I can near promise that you will be surprised and delighted by at least one aspect. Again, we are dealing with a hot mess. But, this hot mess has a lot of heart, a lot of passion, and who can resist Michael Jackson giving his all in any circumstance (accusations of whatever not withstanding)?

                                                                               - Will Morris