Monday, September 18, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #188 - My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves

Every time I hear “Mahgeetah,” the first song on My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, I see rays of golden afternoon sunlight flooding into the long windows of an old brick gymnasium from my childhood. Presented with such a remarkable and gorgeous soundscape, my mind creates a likely setting from which this music could come to life. Something in the alchemy of that song evokes a very powerful sensory experience that I don’t feel all that often. Upon its release in the fall of 2003, I wasn’t looking for this album, but it found me and it hasn’t left my side for too long since. It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket’s third full-length release, captures a young, hungry band making a play for the big time, offers a revealing document of five years of hard work on tour, and endures as one of the strongest, most satisfying rock albums of the last twenty years.

It Still Moves hums with an inclusive intimacy that makes the listeners feel like they are along for the ride, bearing witness to the band’s triumphs and failures while appreciating all of the inside jokes and observations generated along the way. As I’ve already mentioned, “Mahgeetah” opens the album and promptly introduces a distinctive, bracing tone that carries all the way through. The band built a custom studio and recorded lead singer Jim James’ performances in a converted grain silo. The effect lends James’ already dynamic voice an otherworldly power and gives “Mahgeetah” an irresistible grandeur. Up next, “Dance Floors” breaks into an easy, natural mix of country-rock and Muscle Shoals-style R&B before igniting into a blistering showcase for the band’s visiting horn section, Willie Mitchell’s Fabulous Memphis Horns. “Golden” continues the streak of strong openers by slowing down the pace and highlighting the subtler elements of the band’s sound. The lyrical sentiment echoes the kind of touring musician’s ennui explored in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi,” but James’ songwriting and delivery elevate the song above a travelogue of soul searching remorse. All twelve songs on It Still Moves prove My Morning Jacket’s strength as an inventive, tight ensemble breathing new life into the forms of classic rock established in the early seventies, but few songs demonstrate the band’s skill for potent and expressive guitar playing as capably as “Run Through.” The final song, “One in the Same,” feels like a moment shared among close friends gathered around a fire in the wee hours of the morning after a memorable party. James’ plaintive voice, accompanied only by a heavily strummed acoustic guitar, guides us somewhere between elegy and reckoning and closes out the album on a note of weary warmth that lets us in on one last joke before bidding us farewell.  

Last year, My Morning Jacket released a deluxe edition of It Still Moves featuring a remastered version of the album and a bonus disc of demos and outtakes. I tend to be fairly neutral when it comes to remastered reissues of albums I already love because the quality of the processes and results can vary so greatly, but I’m quite impressed with the enhanced edition of this album. In general, the entire album sounds much sharper and the individual instruments are far more distinct, but I really appreciate how much better I can hear the horn parts on “Dance Floors” and “Easy Morning Rebel.” Although I’m familiar with a few other albums by My Morning Jacket, none of them have had anywhere near the same impact on me as this one. With It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket distilled the essence of their many influences, summoned their considerable aspirations and ambitions, and created a collection of songs that belongs right beside their musical heroes’ best albums.

-         John Parsell

Monday, September 11, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #174 - Big Trouble In Little China (1986, dir. John Carpenter)

“Like Ol’ Jack always says… What the hell.”

If you are looking for a deep art flick then this is probably the point at which you can stop reading this review. However, while John Carpenter’s 1986 Sci-fi Action thriller is certainly no art film it is one of the most enjoyable films of its niche genre. Starting from a western film style storyline, this film is a mish-mash of genre and style, and then ends up perfectly coalescing into an incredibly fun film. It has an intriguing plot, some killer star power, a stylish look, an amazing score by Carpenter himself (which if you know anything about horror film scores you know this is definitely a plus), and it has just enough of the cheese factor to make it completely enjoyable.

The plot surrounds Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) as they attempt to rescue Chi’s green-eyed fiancé, Miao Yin, from an evil sorcerer, David Lo Pan (James Hong), who had been cursed to live disembodied until he marries a woman with green eyes. With the help of lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and bus driving apprentice sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong) they battle through an array of obstacles in order to try and defeat Pan and rescue Yin, who was kidnapped upon her arrival in San Francisco from China. The film’s narrative is punctuated by battles with ninjas, monsters, gangsters, and an assortment of other nuisances. While it seems like a rather straightforward plot, it’s actually much more complex than I’m making it seem. While it is a pretty simple action film, the way that they splice different supernatural folklore-ish aspects (both rooted in ancient legend and some created for the film itself) creates an amazing narrative backdrop over which the story plays out. One of the most interesting examples of this interweaving/marrying of invented and existing myths is the unnerving concept of the underworld, which is a confusing, topsy-turvy descent into a crazed dimension with all sorts of fascinating elements in story for the characters. All of these Sci-fi and folklore aspects are then driven by the genre conventions of a traditional Western, creating an all-new type of film.

In addition to the complex and killer storyline, the film really plays with a lot of the different genre and gender conventions. Jack is kind of (well - totally) a blowhard, bubbling with massive machismo that doesn’t really do him any favors. He tends to fumble into action late and often slips up when he needs to shine (while this does sometimes work in his favor). So while he is a very traditional western “hero,” he’s much more flawed and human than the John Wayne characters that he was obviously modeled after. Additionally the supporting characters, while they are fairly conventional, also find ways to spin those conventions, and at times turn them on their head.

While there certainly are interesting and compelling aspects of the film, and as someone who tends to overthink even the simplest of entertainment I generally focus on those when writing these reviews, in the end this is simply just an amazingly fun and adventurous ride to take with Carpenter and the cast! I originally watched this film as a part of a film group that I was a member of and ended up falling in love with it, which has happened with a good number of other Carpenter flicks (Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978) being my personal favs). I would say that if you are looking to dig into an interesting thrill ride of an action film and you also enjoy a healthy helping of humor with your action, this is a perfect film for you, and you simply must pick up the especially awesome re-mastered blu-ray release of one of the best films of the genre (all of the genres that it embodies)!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, September 4, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #187 - Snooks Eaglin - New Orleans Street Singer

In the 1980’s, when I started in the music business, the state of the Blues was somewhat woeful. There were a lot of frustrated white rock dudes playing amped up boogie and calling it Blues. One guy that did penetrate however, was Snooks Eaglin and his series of good-time albums on labels like Black Top. In the ocean of mediocrity, here was an island of authenticity and originality. Shortly thereafter former Twist & Shout employee (and renowned New Orleans music authority) Pietro Fassoli laid a cassette tape on me of Snooks’ earlier music and I happily discovered one of the truly unique musicians of the 20th century.

Blind from the age of 1, Snooks Eaglin was performing by the time he was 11. Despite the nature of New Orleans Street Singer (solo acoustic) he was known as an electric guitar player of rare feeling and a vocalist possessed of an earthy yet totally expressive instrument. He had a long history of playing with New Orleans R&B bands (like The Flamingos with Allen Toussaint) and later of fronting his own band until his death in 1989. However this record is entirely different and incredibly special. Originally released in 1959, New Orleans Street Singer was an attempt to make Eaglin fit into the current folk boom sweeping college campuses and coffee houses nationwide. In reality, playing solo acoustic guitar was something Eaglin did more for recreation than as his primary source of income. All that aside, taken on its own musical merits, this album is as powerful a statement of American music as I can imagine.

The fascination with Eaglin is multi-faceted. First, he is a startling guitar player. He could accompany himself on literally thousands of songs of every genre and apply his own energetic stamp on each one. He played what has been termed a New Orleans Flamenco style which involved wild, frenzied guitar licks to embellish lyrics and then when he really took a solo, his attack was somewhere between Charlie Patton and Django Reinhart. I know, it seems unlikely, but Snooks is truly one of the guitar originators in the modern age. Like Lonnie Johnson or Professor Longhair or Joseph Spence, he invented his own style of playing. Listen to “Careless Love” to hear him in full flight. Or “High Society” to check out some more sophisticated playing. His strumming is always forceful and his solos on virtually every song are memorable. If you are trying to become a better-than-average guitar player, you could do worse than studying Snooks Eaglin. Secondly, Snooks was a marvelously expressive singer, whose regionally thick speech patterns and laconic approach to putting songs across was unforgettable. The authority he brings to songs like “One Room Country Shack,” “Drifting Blues,” “Mean Old World,” or “Every Day I Have The Blues,” rivals any of the pre-war Blues masters, and yet he is equally effective on more modern fare like “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” “Mean Old Frisco” or “Mama Don’t You Tear My Clothes.” Which brings us to the third and main point about Snooks; the guy could play any type of song in any style and OWN IT. Plenty of musicians learn lots of covers and can play in many styles, but Snooks Eaglin was a true originator. Every song he played, he made his own, and upon hearing it, one can immediately identify who it is. He’s as recognizable as Willie Nelson or Bing Crosby or Robert Johnson.

It is precisely the combination of these elements that makes New Orleans Street Singer such a total winner. When an artist can startle you with his musicianship, break your heart with his voice and keep you enthralled with his dynamic and eclectic choice of material: that is indeed an artist worth exploring.

-         Paul Epstein

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #173 - Still Walking (2008, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

Sometimes family issues don’t get resolved. Instead they get buried, simmering under the surface, peaking out at inopportune moments, and then submerging again until the next time the simmer works up to a boil. So goes the plot of Hirokazu Koreeda’s masterpiece Still Walking, which traces a day (and a little) at an annual family memorial.
As the film begins the Yokoyama family is gathering at the home of the parents (father Kyohei and mother Toshiko) in a seaside town south of Tokyo. Their son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and daughter Chinami (You) bring their families for the annual event, whose purpose slowly becomes clear – the family meets once a year to honor their eldest son Junpei, who drowned trying to save a child. In the early scenes, everything is lightness and camaraderie as the family makes food together, chats, and catches up, though there’s a notably curt “Oh, you’re here” from the father as Ryota and his wife and stepson arrive. Slowly, as the meaning of the event is known, the family relationships begin to become clear – Chinami and her husband hope to move into the family home, but this means the clearing out Junpei’s belongings, and the parents aren’t quite ready for that. Kyohei (played with stern demeanor 
by Yoshio Harada) hoped to leave his medical practice in the care of Junpei, and when Ryota chose to leave the pursuit to become an art restorer, Kyohei’s dreams of passing on his legacy died with them. Meanwhile the slightly comical Toshiko (played beautifully by Koreeda regular Kirin Kiki), lets out her vulnerable and wounded sides as the film progresses, letting the buried pains of several events of her past to the surface through her normally cheerful outlook.

As the early conversations keep turning to the absent Junpei, the film digs in deeper. Rather than becoming a mournful or melodramatic tract about a dead son taken too soon, it works into broader territories that all families face – jealousies and resentments, disappointments long held, strains between siblings and between the younger and older generations, and so forth. After setting up an ensemble cast, Koreeda continually pairs and groups off his characters to have conversations that deepen our understanding of their relationships. And rather than resolving everything in a dramatic wrap-up, the film does the out of the ordinary and leaves issues unresolved – Kyohei’s disappointment with Ryota’s life choices may be slightly mitigated and changed by their final scene together, but they’re not settled, moved past, or put aside.
Koreeda, as is usual for him, has exceptional insight in his writing, with the characters all so realistic, so well inhabited by the actors, that we could believe we’re watching a documentary about a family rather than a narrative film. He’s also got a brilliant touch with young actors, and though they’re not put front and center here as they are in his films like I Wish or Nobody Knows, the roles given to children here (particularly Shohei Tanaka as Ryota’s stepson Atsushi, who is given an especially poignant scene) are superb. And his camera technique and editing style are unobtrusive – allowing the actors and dialogue to unfold in a natural rhythm in front of the camera without drawing attention to themselves despite his gift for composition. He’s a humanist
filmmaker of the highest level, on par with Ozu (to whom he’s frequently compared for his films of families in generational conflict), though he’s got an additional measure of adding familial trauma and its aftermath into the mix. He’s directed eleven narrative films (and a number of documentaries as well); of the nine that I’ve seen, I’d call six of them great or better, and the rest good to very good. You can’t go wrong with Koreeda, but Still Walking might be the easiest starting point to see his powers on full display.

-          Patrick Brown

Monday, August 21, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #186 - M.I.A. - Kala

Released exactly ten years and seven days ago was M.I.A.’s sophomore album Kala. Her first album, Arular (named after her father), was a spare, beat-heavy mixture of rap, electronic music, international sounds, rock attitude, punk-ish abrasiveness and politics, and more. Kala (named after her mother), expands in every direction, fleshing out everything implicated on the first album and trading in Arulars spareness for a densely layered sound that still has me discovering sounds and words in the mix after a decade of regular listening. Maybe you’ve never heard this one, or maybe you have and set it by the wayside, in which case it’s a good time to pay the album another visit. Or maybe it only fleetingly entered your consciousness when the single “Paper Planes” (which was included on the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire) worked its way up the Billboard charts to #4 over a year after the album was released.

Paper Planes,” built on a Clash sample, only scratches the surface of the record, though its stories of hustlers, drug dealers, and forgers cut right to the heart of the world M.I.A. is telling us about throughout most of the record. But “Paper Planes” turns up at track 11; we go through a lot of worlds before arriving there. The record kicks off with “Bamboo Banga” which takes off from Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner,” lays a Bollywood sample over it, and declares her “a world runner,” which she’ll spend the rest of the record proving, starting immediately with the percussive firestorm of the next two tracks. “Bird Flu” and “Boyz” both pile on layers and layers of sounds - percussion, electronic beats, snatches of keyboard melodies, quick samples from Bollywood and elsewhere, deep bass depth charges - and up on top M.I.A. herself, putting a unique spin on the “coming up from the underground” stories of so much hip-hop and taking the same boyz who’d spin such tales to task in the next song with lines like “How many no money boys are rowdy? How many start a war?” Even the next song, “Jimmy” a Bollywood cover from a 1982 film called Disco Dancer is a seemingly a flippant disco tune, but M.I.A. and producer/co-writer Switch have rewritten a longing love song so it kicks off with the unsettling lines “When you go Rwanda, Congo / Take me on your genocide tour” leading the listener to think that perhaps the song’s protagonist is in love with a terrorist, or mercenary for hire. It’d certainly fit with the snapshots of “Third World” poverty and violence that M.I.A. provides in her lyrics throughout both of her first albums.

And so it goes throughout the rest of the album - in the spectacular “Hussel” over a great rhythm and buzzy keybs M.I.A. asks why so many people are addicted to the hustle of trying to scrounge money, though noting that it's often to send money home to support their families (with intimations that it many come from illicit ventures). She then gives 18-year old rapper Afrikan Boy space to recount his “hussel” selling merch on the side of the road and avoiding police to not get deported; “Mango Pickle Down River” remixes a community youth project of indigenous Australian youth; “20 Dollar” interpolates the Pixies into a tune that explores how war impacts on the civilian populace; and before long, we’re back at “Paper Planes,” bringing her tales of international strife and strength full circle before closing out with a Timbaland-produced tune that sounds like the most mainstream thing on the record until you zero in on lines like “Gold and diamond, gems and jade/Ride up on our tanks – invade!/Blow up things to save our name.”

Three years after its release, the album crept up to a gold sales award, but each subsequent album was met with indifference by fans (though I’ve liked every one of them). And maybe that’s because Kala remains her high-water mark, the peak she’ll continue working to meet.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, August 14, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #172 - Putney Swope (1969, dir. Robert Downey Sr.)

Years ago, I was working as a bartender at a music venue in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. One of my regular barflies, Paul, and I ended up striking up an acquaintance over time due to our similar tastes. When the bar was slow, we would sit for hours getting shitfaced and discussing music, books, films and many other things. During one of these conversations, it was discovered that I had never seen Robert Downey Sr.’s breakthrough film Putney Swope. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it. I mean, I had heard of it. I knew that some of my heroes, Louis C.K. and the Coen Brothers, had cited the film as hugely influential. But I had never gotten around to seeing it or even really hearing much about it. Paul made it his mission to make sure I saw this movie. He brought me a flash drive containing a bad transfer of the film and I watched it the same night. And then I watched it again. Since then, the film has become one of my all-time favorites and I can’t believe it took me until well into my thirties to see it.

The film centers on a New York advertising agency whose chairman unexpectedly drops dead in the middle of a board meeting. While his body lay lifeless on the table, the remaining board members take a vote on who should become the new chairman. Each board member, prohibited from voting for themselves, accidentally (and by an overwhelming majority) vote in the sole black man on the board, Putney Swope. Swope immediately fires nearly the entire staff (save for one “token” white man) and hires an idealistic and politically militant all-black staff, renaming the agency Truth & Soul, Inc. Swope and his staff’s new business approach is actual TRUTH in advertising, their new motto “rockin’ the boat’s a drag, you gotta SINK the boat.” They only accept cash as payment and they refuse to take on clients who sell alcohol, tobacco or war-related toys. Almost immediately, their approach becomes so popular that companies start paying a million dollars per campaign just to become clients. The agency becomes such a success that they catch the attention of the diminutive President Mimeo and his administration. Eventually, the entire agency falls to corruption, including Swope himself.

And beyond the plot, which doesn’t necessarily sound that outrageous in and of itself, it’s hard to specify exactly the best way to describe Putney Swope. It is equal parts farce, satire, exploitation, black comedy (no pun intended) and cult masterpiece. It’s predominantly filmed in black and white, with the occasional colorized fake commercial for pimple cream, breakfast cereal and other products from the Truth & Soul client roster. The commercials are hysterical and came nearly a full decade before sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and SCTV set the standard for commercial parodies.

The titular character, Putney Swope, is played flawlessly by Arnold Johnson, who would go on to play many bit parts in sitcoms like The Jeffersons, Roc and Sanford and Son. The most surreal thing about his performance, however, is that the voice provided for Swope was not that of Johnson’s, but of Downey’s himself. This led to some speculation that Downey was a racist or somehow unfair toward Johnson on the set. Quite to the contrary, Johnson, evidently, had difficulty remembering and delivering his lines. Out of desperation (and rightly not wanting to re-cast the role) Downey voiced in the lines later. Watching the film, this fact could not be more obvious and glaring but it actually adds another layer of quirkiness to the already eccentric nature of the film. Antonio Fargas (future Car Wash and Starsky & Hutch star) plays The Arab, a sort of second-in-command at Truth & Soul, who butts heads with Swope for nearly the entire film. This dynamic helps to somewhat keep Swope’s new position from going to his head (or at least slow it down). The president and first lady are played by dwarf actors, who engage in a threesome with a photographer who intermittently shows up to show his credentials. An awkward courier (who just happens to be a dead ringer for Mark David Chapman) keeps showing up at the agency, only to constantly be cast off to the “freight elevator” by Swope and his associates. Swope starts dressing like Fidel Castro at some point for no rhyme or reason... there really is a lot going on in the 85-minute runtime of the film and not a whole lot of it makes sense. Still, one can’t help but be drawn in by the film, either by its sheer ridiculousness or by its hipper-than-thou vibe.

Putney Swope’s legacy lives on in its vast cult following and through the work of other filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, directly referenced the film three times in his own cult classic film Boogie Nights) yet it remains a highly underappreciated gem. If you haven’t already seen it, now is your chance to do like I did and right this wrong now. And by the way, thank you Paul for being such a chatty drinking buddy.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, August 7, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #185 - The 24-Carat Black – Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth (Stax/Enterprise, 1973)

One thing that came with the territory of having been an avid record collector all my life was the benefit of an education in history through music. Buying and absorbing as much music as possible, from Beethoven to Cannibal Corpse, for over two decades now has given me insight into things like politics, race relations, pop culture and many other facets of history in a way that years of sitting in a classroom never could. By simply hearing, say, Bruce Springsteen or Marvin Gaye sing their own words regarding American socioeconomic or political discourse, I got more of a sense of how historical events may have affected the average American at the time. Such was the case with the phenomenal Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, the sole record by obscure Stax Records alumni group the 24-Carat Black.

I first came upon this record in my early to mid-20s at a record store I working at, CDs-4-Change. I started working there long before the current vinyl boom, and CDs were still dominating physical media sales. So, as the name of the store suggests, our inventory was mostly CDs and not a whole lot of vinyl. But people would often come in and sell us theirs or their parents’ record collections that they had sitting around. And since nobody really expected much for vintage vinyl at the time, we bought everything that came through the door, usually for a steal. I miss these days a lot because this was the time when I could inexpensively pad my collection with great stuff. On once such occasion, I came across Ghetto in a box with, if I’m remembering correctly, nothing particularly special: Peggy Lee, Carpenters, Gene Pitney, the 5th Dimension, the occasional Elvis comp and maybe a Kansas record or two… not much to get excited about. But then there was this. Before I’d even heard a single note, I was immediately struck by it. The cover art, the album title… all of it. Even the group’s name, “24-Carat Black,” sounded important.

In the early 1970s, conservatory-trained violinist and former Motown strings arranger Dale Warren was hired by Stax to orchestrate Isaac Hayes’ early records, including the highly revered Hot Buttered Soul. Around this time, he befriended the unknown Cincinnati, Ohio group The Ditalians. Warren took the young group under his wing and proceeded to work in the studio with them where they recorded over thirty tracks. Culled from these sessions are the tracks that would eventually become the first and only official 24-Carat Black album, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. Of the rest of the sessions, only a handful survived and were finally released in 2009 by the Numero label as an unofficial second album. But back to the album at hand.

Ghetto is a concept album about the struggle of inner city life in 1970s America. Kicking off with “In the Ghetto,” a largely spoken piano ballad that pleads with “our so-called leaders” to let the poor’s voice be heard, the tone is set for what is to come. “Poverty’s Paradise” is a 12-minute-plus epic that tries to make sense of a world in which a seemingly endless expanse of people goes to bed hungry. The female lead, Princess Hearn, delivers her vocals with such forlorn intensity, focusing so much more on the words than the performance, that at one point you can her voice crack. This part always gives me chills. These longer, more conscientious opuses like the aforementioned “Poverty’s Paradise” or the 10-minute “Mother’s Day” are where the 14-piece group really shine, dramatizing the ideological and psychological turmoil that was life in the ghetto. Misfortune’s Wealth is not all bleak and hopeless though. In between songs of destitution and social tumult are some of the funkiest instrumentals ever committed to wax. These tracks serve to provide a light-hearted optimism to the otherwise bleak outlook of the record, much like a Norman Lear TV show.

Though it initially sold poorly, Ghetto has become something of a sought-after item among record collectors over the years. Many of the tracks here may be somewhat familiar to you already, having been extensively sampled by modern hip hop giants like Dr. Dre, Eric B. and Jay-Z to name a few.

When I first decided to write about this album, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to say about it. And as I spent more time with the album over these past few weeks in preparation for this article, I realized I had no idea what I wanted to say. I just knew that I loved it and I wanted other people to love it. It didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write this that, having unearthed this record way back when, I got yet another history lesson from my record collection. Ghetto is essentially a timepiece, directly representing the parallels of racial and economic inequality of its time and ever since.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, July 31, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #171 - Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)

When Zodiac came out in the spring of 2007, I had grown very fatigued with the trends of the time for forensic procedurals and entertainment based around true crime. I avoided a lot of crime-based movies and TV shows during this time because I felt that the fascination for increasingly graphic representations of grisly homicides had lured mainstream entertainment down a dark alley with no way out. With Zodiac, David Fincher broke new ground in a heavily exploited genre by commanding an incredible ensemble cast anchored by three career-standout performances, embracing an unorthodox structure that beautifully fits the narrative, and creating an unforgettable statement on the interplay of crime, journalism, and entertainment that has come to dominate U.S. American culture in the last fifty years.

David Fincher prefaces Zodiac with the uncommon, yet highly accurate statement, “what follows is based on actual case files,” before dropping the audience into the middle of an engrossing, stylish depiction of the night of the first Zodiac murder on July 4, 1969. The next scene unfolds four weeks later when the first coded letter from the Zodiac Killer arrives at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle and attracts the attention of crime reporter Paul Avery and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith. A few weeks later Detective David Toschi and his partner drive to the scene of the next murder as the mystery, terror, and spectacle of the Zodiac case pull the Bay Area’s police departments, newspapers, and general populace into a legendary and unprecedented state of alert. Just a year before Robert Downey Jr.’s career skyrocketed into resurgence with Iron Man, he injects bravado and a charismatic zeal into his portrayal of Paul Avery, but also layers his performance with a self-destructive pathos that deepens as the film progresses. In the role of Robert Graysmith, Jake Gyllenhaal plays upon his boyish good looks, but also conveys a dogged sense of innocence and curiosity in his representation of the former Boy Scout and one-time cartoonist whose tireless obsession with this case resulted in the best-selling book on which this film is based. Mark Ruffalo adds a slight lilt to his voice and a disarming, gentle demeanor to his depiction of homicide detective David Toschi, who served as the model for Steve McQueen’s character in the 1968 film Bullitt. Through warmth, compassion, and a constant craving for animal crackers, Ruffalo’s rendering of Toschi confounds many of the clichés of seasoned homicide detectives that populate Hollywood movies. Brian Cox contributes a delightful cameo as celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli and delivers one of the film’s most surreal moments as Belli discusses his recent guest performance on Star Trek with a local news anchor before a televised conversation with the Zodiac Killer. As Robert Graysmith’s wife Melanie, Chloë Sevigny builds a knowing determination and empathy into her portrait of a woman whose marriage and family slowly fall to pieces as her husband follows the cryptic and labyrinthine path left by the Zodiac Killer.

By sticking to eye witness accounts of the Zodiac Killer’s crimes, David Fincher builds a true crime story that subverts many of the genre’s conventions by digging into the minute details of the case’s logistical and legal challenges, jurisdictional conflicts, media sensationalism, false leads, and copycat trends. In addition to these unusual narrative elements, Zodiac plays further against genre by focusing more directly on the people pursuing the killer than the killer himself. Fincher tops off an already excellent film by embracing pop culture connections like the case’s tricky relationship with Dirty Harry, while simultaneously paying homage to modern classics from the era as divergent and distinctive as The Conversation, Jaws, and All the President’s Men.

-          John Parsell

Monday, July 24, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #184 - Grizzly Bear – Yellow House

In the fall of 2006, I struggled through the last year of my twenties trying to balance the demands of graduate school and the collapse of a five-year-long relationship in a small town in Vermont. Despite the exquisite autumn foliage, quaint locales, and charming New England characters surrounding me, I found myself at a low point with few breaks from the pressure, frustration, and loneliness I felt. Throughout my life, music has provided an outlet from my troubles and a path toward healing. Around this time, TV on the Radio released their second album, Return to Cookie Mountain, and offered the gift of an intense, gorgeous, and complicated album that soon became a personal favorite. Speaking of gifts, a few weeks later a friend bought me a ticket to see TV on the Radio in Boston. Preparing for the show, I noted the name of the opening band, Grizzly Bear, and wondered what they would sound like.  

The trip to Boston allowed me a much needed interlude from Vermont and once I entered the venue I felt energized by the evening’s potential. Shortly after I arrived four young men took to the stage, announced themselves as Grizzly Bear and conjured an intricate, haunting, and mesmerizing collection of songs. All four band members contributed to the lush vocal harmonies woven into the songs and they cycled through a range instruments including clarinet, autoharp, banjo, and xylophone. At the end of their set, the band announced that they would be selling copies of their brand new sophomore album, Yellow House, at the merch table. TV on the Radio came on soon after and put on a brilliant performance that far surpassed my expectations. That night stands as one of the best combinations of opening act and headliner I’ve ever witnessed. After the show, I took Grizzly Bear up on their suggestion and bought a copy of Yellow House. The whole band worked the table and their enthusiasm for their new album was infectious. Return to Cookie Mountain had given me a vibrant, cathartic push through a tough fall, but Yellow House invited me to explore the elusive and delicate possibilities of the near future as I prepared for winter in Vermont. Each of the ten songs on Yellow House possesses a distinct identity, but I think of the album as a whole. The opening song “Easier” slowly builds through an evolution of disparate elements for over a full minute before coalescing into a spritely paced, densely layered introduction to the band’s unusual and compelling songcraft. Although the album begins with an airy feeling and light instrumentation, the closing song, “Colorado,” stirs low, heavy piano notes and pulsing percussion into a heavy, meditative storm as the phrase, “Colorado, what now?” repeats like an invocation until the song slowly reduces to the hushed, persistent beat of a drum.

In 2007, I saw Grizzly Bear tour in support of Yellow House two more times and each time I felt like I learned more about the songs and how they worked so well together. Two years later upon the release of their breakout third album, Veckatimest, the band played in a much larger venue and it was thrilling to see them thriving and enjoying the success of their hard work. In just a few weeks, Grizzly Bear will release their fifth studio album, Painted Ruins, and I’m eager to hear how the band has evolved in the five years since their last album, Shields. After I first became acquainted with Yellow House in New England, I lived in Oregon and back in my hometown in South Carolina before moving to Colorado a few years ago. Nearly eleven years later, I still feel like Yellow House has new things to tell me and I must admit that more and more I find myself wondering, “Colorado, what now?”  

-          John Parsell

Monday, July 17, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #170 - Five Easy Pieces (1970, dir. Bob Rafelson)

Why does this movie have a reflective hold on my mind and soul? It is flawed and dated, and yet, the underlying theme of a confused man’s search for meaning in modern America holds truer than almost any other movie of the era. Released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces is THE movie that sums up the confusing malaise that settled upon the survivors of the 60’s as the far bleaker 1970’s rose on the horizon like the glow of an errant atomic blast. The secret to the movie, however is not the hefty cultural baggage it carries with it, but the career defining performance by Jack Nicholson and, to a lesser degree, Karen Black. Nicholson’s Bobby Eroica Dupea is a Russian nesting doll of psychological complexity, whose tormented path through life slowly reveals itself as the confused details of his past and the uncertain direction of his future come colliding in on him during an unwelcome family reckoning.

The movie opens on a Bobby Dupea who is easily recognizable to most of us: a working stiff with a dead-end job, a loveless relationship and a nonexistent piece of the American dream. He works in the oil fields with his buddy Elton, drinks beer at night and barely tolerates his attractive but dim girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto, a waitress with hopes of being a country singer ala Tammy Wynette (whose songs effectively provide much of the movie’s soundtrack.) Bobby’s life seems to be going nowhere, and when he quits his job we feel like this is just another step on his way down to utter failure. This first part of the movie is shot with a simple beauty that betrays none of the complexity of character that will follow.

We next see Bobby incongruously dressed in a suit and wandering into a recording studio in Hollywood. He is here to see his sister, Partita, an eccentric classical pianist (modeled on Glen Gould) whose presence immediately starts filling in gaps of our understanding of who this man really is. She tells him their father is ill and Bobby should visit. We come to understand that Bobby is from a family of musical prodigies, and that his relationship is fractured and removed from the reality he once lived. Bobby’s journey home to his family compound on a private island signals a change in tone and temperament for Five Easy Pieces as it changes from a study of characters to a character study. Once Bobby is back among the wealth, education, privilege and expectations of his family, his lifestyle choices, as depicted in the first half of the movie, become understandable. The Dupea family, including the mute, stroke-damaged patriarch represent everything the 60’s rebelled against: pompous, over-bred, classist creeps, impotent in their achievement, yet certain they are above it all. Bobby sets his sights on his brother’s girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach) and seduces her in an uncomfortable clash of cultures that signals a final break within the family. In the pivotal scene of the movie, Bobby pours his heart out to his unspeaking father. He breaks down and shares his feelings of worthlessness and regret. It is the single greatest moment of Jack Nicholson’s career and one of the most affecting scenes in all of American cinema. It is hard to imagine a person in post-euphoric America who would not be affected by this moment. This masterful scene illustrates the moment in every young person’s life when artifice and swagger turn to actual emotion.

As the movie comes to its conclusion, Bobby introduces Rayette to his family, including Catherine, and the difference between the two women is as stark as the two lives they live.  It is Bobby’s discontent that cuts through both of them with stinging realism - both sides are broadly drawn to the point of being caricatures, with Bobby being the believable “everyman.” Bobby’s experience implies that there was no answer to American life - the tradition of European-style intellectualism was ultimately as hollow as working in the oil fields to Bobby. The schism between 60’s and 70’s intellectuals and the common man was gulfed with expectation and disappointment.

Five Easy Pieces is much more than its plot indicates. In a way it is a turning point for American cinema and national self-reflection. The reality is that American life is simultaneously a rich and beautiful panoply as well as being totally dead at its core. It is Bobby’s internal struggle that has the most relevance to me. The scenes that have the most cultural resonance are disposable (the famous luncheonette scene); rather the heart of the movie rests in Nicholson’s quiet and understated portrayal of a man with depth, and his rejection of that depth for what he considers a “real” existence. It ultimately points to the hollowness of ALL American life. The film ends with Bobby once again running out on his responsibilities and leaving it all behind in an existential turning away from all expectation in modern society - free to be a drifter - yet shackled to his own sense of failure and meaninglessness. With nearly fifty years of American experience since this film was made, its enigmatic message feels more relevant than ever.

-         Paul Epstein