Monday, December 30, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #96 - The Wild Tchoupitoulas - The Wild Tchoupitoulas

Sometime in the mid-70’s I was watching TV with my father when we stumbled across a documentary on PBS about a strange and little known (outside of New Orleans) tradition of dressing up like Indians and parading during Mardi Gras. We watched with fascination and learned about the practice of sewing elaborate suits of feathers and beads, parading with your tribe or gang and, most importantly, about the incredible music that went with the practice. The best I can figure out was that the show was part of a series called American Patchwork and the particular episode might have been called “Feets Don’t Fail Me Now - Mardi Gras Indians.” My eyes were opened. This was the most exotic sound I had ever heard come out of an American mouth. When they showed the Indians, who I later found out were The Wild Tchoupitoulas in full regalia, dancing and playing “Meet De Boys On The Battlefront” with its memorable line “The Wild Tchoupitoulas gonna stomp some romp” I just about flipped. Here was something that was uniquely American but was completely foreign to me. They might as well have been performing a Chinese opera in Finnish for all I could tell. It was completely new and completely wonderful to me. The next day I went to good old King Bee Records on Evans and when I asked for something with New Orleans Indians on it, he seemed to know what I was talking about and pointed me toward The Wild Tchoupitoulas’ one and only album.

Released in 1976, The Wild Tchoupitoulas is a collaboration of the Indian gang (Big Chief Jolly, Spy Boy, Flag Boy, Trail Chief and Second Chief) accompanied by Big Chief Jolly’s nephews, some of whom happened to be members of The Meters. The rest of them, after this experience, formed The Neville Brothers and became legends in their own right. If there is a Rosetta Stone that connects all New Orleans tradition with the modern world of recording The Wild Tchoupitoulas is it. It is as exciting to listen to this album in 2013 as it was in 1976. It remains absolutely unlike anything else.

The music contained on The Wild Tchoupitoulas is equal parts rock and funk, but the lyrics have more in common with the nursery rhyme tradition or even “the dozens,” the African-American boasting game that ultimately led to Hip-Hop. The Indians sing about their practices leading up to Mardi Gras, but the majority of the songs are modified chants which allow the gang to boast and taunt the other gangs while parading during Mardi Gras. It is an amazing and beautiful thing to see. It embodies some very important American values: pride, craftsmanship and fun. The men who participate in the gang are normal, family men the rest of the year, but during this period they become benevolent warrior kings preparing for a ritualistic battle. Of course, the spoils of this war are all for fun. It’s really about a strong sense of community and pride of place. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is an incredibly colorful and tuneful version of the Rotary Club or The Shriners. There are mysterious, portentous, historic, quasi-religious references and secrets, but ultimately it’s a bunch of guys dressing up and playing in the streets. As expected, the New Orleans version has the best music.

The Songs are all winners, and many have become standards of the American festivity tradition. “Brother John (Iko Iko),” “Hey Pock A-Way,” “Indian Red” and “Hey Mama (Indians Comin’)” will probably be familiar to you, as they have been covered by countless bands and have entered into the American Songbook as surely as “Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” or “Johnny B. Goode” have. The less known songs like “Meet De Boys” and “Big Chief Got A Golden Crown” are just as infectious and still maintain their air of the exotic. They are filled with terms and situations that while not familiar sound like such a good time. The Neville Brothers/Meters band shine through on every track and are as much the story here as the Indians, providing both lead and backing vocals and playing with economy and soul. But it is ultimately the discovery of a cultural tradition so different and so appealing that draws me back to this funky wonder.
            -Paul Epstein

Monday, December 23, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #80 - Fort Apache (1948, dir. John Ford)

“I can’t see him. All I can see is the flags.” – Mrs. Emily Collingwood
       John Ford is without a doubt, one of the most well-respected American film directors of all time. Most would agree with such lofty praise; but I often find myself in discussions with fellow film lovers, having to defend Mr. Ford against allegations of casual racism, xenophobia, damaging classicism and a general worship of Manifest Destiny. With a number of his films, it is quite a feat to put down all of the charges. Luckily Ford made many a film to give us ammunition; films with much to say about all the aforementioned topics, what they mean and how to approach them whilst still making a rip-roaring Western very often set in Monument Valley.
         Possibly Ford’s most subversive extravaganza, Fort Apache, begins with one of my favorite bait and switch tricks in cinema history. The opening credits give us a triumphant horn-driven score any time our heroes (U.S. Cavalry) are on screen, and then quickly segues into an odd, vaguely “native” sounding battle march any time the Native Americans show up. Ford is being exceptionally misleading here, for what’s to come is perhaps his least simple representation of the white man as hero and the red man as villain.
            Many directors (occasionally including Ford) working in the Western genre were guilty of painting the world in blacks and whites. Fort Apache for the most part offers up a world of gray, where the Lt. Col. Thursday, played oh so complicated-ly by Henry Fonda, is anything but a simple good guy. Playing against Fonda’s usual nice guy character, Ford gives us a messy, confused individual whose penchant for never changing causes potentially avoidable problems many times. John Wayne (in one of his few inarguably fantastic performances) is great here, playing the knowledgeable but lower ranking soldier who knows better, but cannot get through Fonda’s thick skull.
            Ford, through Wayne’s character, puts us on the side of the Natives. We meet the completely useless man who sells cheap goods and booze on the reservations to keep the Natives under his control. When we meet the Native American chief Cochise, he is shown as regal, respectable, absolutely right and full of pride (mind you, not to the damning extent of Lt. Thursday).
            Perhaps I’m not making this film sound all that appealing, given that there’s a complex relationship here that’s often dumbed down in Westerns to make them easier to digest. But I promise, if you enjoy Westerns in any way, shape or form, you will absolutely love Fort Apache. Although Ford certainly has subversion on the mind this time around, he never skimps on the classical ideals that make the Western genre worth enjoying in the first place.

“Undemanding viewers can simply enjoy it for its depiction of a Wild West where the cavalry fought the Indians, supposedly to the glory of the United States. Those who take the time to really peer beneath the surface will find a completely different film, one which exposes and even undermines the mythology of the hero and which questions the whole notion that history is written by the victors.” - Jeffrey Kauffman

            - Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #95 - Linton Kwesi Johnson - Forces of Victory

            Linton Kwesi Johnson is one of the unsung greats of reggae. Maybe he’s not as well known these days because he veers further afield from the dominant reggae ideas than many performers of his era. While others responded to the positive vibes, ganja, and Jah that run through reggae, Johnson was moved by its political messages and saw untapped potential the
re for more great music.
Johnson was born in Jamaica and moved with his family to England in 1963 when he was 11. After earning a degree in sociology, he began performing his poetry publicly, backed by musicians playing the reggae that he grew up with and loved. He is generally considered the founder of dub poetry, a style of reggae in which prepared poetry – as opposed to the more improvised toasting style of reggae vocals - is recited over dub music. Once he connected with performer/bandleader/producer Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell all the pieces were set in place and Johnson debuted with his 1978 album Dread Beat an’ Blood (credited to Poet and the Roots). With lyrics written in Jamaican patois, one of Johnson’s most brilliant features is his ability to condense intellectual and social analysis to the slang of the music he loves and of his people.
But lyrics are not his only strength – in fact, for someone who puts so much care into the words he has a remarkable gift for music and melody, anchoring songs with hooks that are married to the lyrics to drive home his messages. He kicks the album off with “Want Fi Goh Rave,” a song about young people barely scraping by to survive – by begging, stealing, violence – but not giving up hope. And once the song’s hard message has made its point the music takes over halfway through, as is common with Johnson because he takes it as seriously as his words, and the band is co-equal to his work, not merely there to support or back his words, brilliant though they are. The music here is more dialed in than the great debut, and he’d get even better as well, with 1984’s Making History.
Though every track makes itself felt, the album is marked with three of the best tunes Johnson ever wrote. First up is “Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)” in which Sonny is writing to his mother from jail after getting into a fight with police who harassed he and his brother on suspicion (“sus” – shades of New York’s current “stop and frisk” situation) of vagrancy. The lyrics in the chorus of the great “Reality Poem” explain pretty clearly why Jah isn’t mentioned in Johnson’s catalog: “This is the age of science and technology / This is the age of decision / So let's let go of religion / So let's let go of mythology.” And in my favorite track, “Fite Dem Back,” Johnson calls out racist terrorizers for what they are – fascists – and includes my favorite lines he ever wrote as his program for a counter attack to drive them back: “Smash dere brains in / cos dey ain’t got nuffin in em.”
And like all great political artists, Johnson’s work is both time-specific, speaking to the particulars of his situation and those of people around him, and universal, placing these issues in a broader analysis and social framework – the Anti-Sus Poem speaks to the exact situation in NYC 34 years later. Forces of Victory is propulsive, smart, catchy, and politically charged – it’s everything I like in music in one package, like so much of LKJ’s best. Seek out whatever you can find – it’ll be worth it.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, December 9, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #79 - Angel Heart (1987, dir. Alan Parker)

In many ways Angel Heart is two different movies. On the one hand it is homage to the 1940’s noir detective genre. In this one Mickey Rourke, at the top of his game, plays the “Sam Spade” role to great effect. On the other hand, it is a supernatural thriller that brings occult, voodoo and the devil himself (in the very coiffed person of Robert De Niro) into play. Angel Heart skirts these two worlds, satisfying the needs of both.

The year is 1955, and World War II is more than just a memory. It still is the event that that splits the century. Things happened before, during or after the war, and Rourke’s Harry Angel is haunted by his time there. We don’t know what happened, but something happened to Angel right as he returned from the war. Now he is back in New York running his low-rent detective agency fairly unsuccessfully when he is visited by a strange lawyer who represents an even stranger man (De Niro) named Louis Cyphre (Lucifer - get it?) who has a special job for Angel that will take him from the streets of Harlem to the swamps and back alleys of New Orleans searching for a singer named Johnny Favourite, who “owes” Mr. Cyphre something and now can’t be found. Harry Angel is given money and the task of finding out what happened to the wayward singer.
The movie moves forward with Angel searching for clues while the world around him gets stranger and stranger. As the facts unfold, it is clear Mr. Favourite’s story was not typical. He returned from the war a shell of a man and was placed in an institution. Removed from the institution by a doctor for mysterious reasons, the trail leads to New Orleans where it runs into a supernatural brick wall. Angel becomes embroiled in a subculture of voodoo and arcane religious practices involving ritual and ultimately sacrifice. He also comes into contact with Lisa Bonet in her first post-Cosby role. Bonet’s character is pivotal and memorable as the stunning 19 year old essentially never appears fully clothed. She is unbelievably sexy and at the same time frightening. She appears like a wild animal: untamed, erotic and dangerous.

Like everyone Harry Angel comes in contact with, Bonet’s character (Epiphany Proudfoot) ends up horribly and undeniably dead. It seems as though this job is more than just a search for a missing person, it is Harry Angel’s personal trip to hell. The twists, turns and shocks come fast and furious in the last part of the movie, and to give any of it away would ruin the fun, but rest assured, the getting there is the real fun of Angel Heart. Director Alan Parker has created a feast for the senses. The movie looks and feels unlike anything I have ever seen. Without explicitly showing details, Parker creates a mysterious sense of dread that is hard to describe. The city of New Orleans becomes a character itself, wet, steaming and fertile with danger. The few scenes with De Niro are unforgettable as he exudes a quiet, powerful evil that is very unlike any role he has played. He memorably uses his long fingernails to peel a hardboiled egg and then eats it with such an air of menace, that one must applaud the director’s sense of restraint and pacing. Throughout the movie, Parker takes commonplace items - fans, elevators, chickens, phones etc. - and imbues them with an indefinable quality of the macabre: the audience looking over its shoulder, stomach in knots and unsure of anything it is seeing. Ultimately, this is the great accomplishment of Angel Heart: to rip away the veil that separates the natural world from the unexplained leaving its characters shivering in the glare of confusion and doubt along with the audience.
            - Paul Epstein

Monday, December 2, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #94 - Fairport Convention - Liege & Lief

As the owner of a record store I spend a lot of time thinking about genres of music. What is this? Where should we file it? Why? What style, country, audience, etc? On one level it is essential to being able to navigate the store and it can be an indispensable tool to help people discover music they enjoy. On another level, it seems like it is a distraction to an unfettered appreciation of music. Fairport Convention’s 1969 album certainly backs this last thought up. It is an album of unparalleled beauty and accomplishment, played by rock musicians in a British folk idiom, yet these different variables ultimately defy genre and leave Liege & Lief an unclassifiable masterpiece.

At the center of my appreciation of Fairport Convention are the twin charms of Sandy Denny’s powerful voice and Richard Thompson’s thoughtful guitar playing. While Richard Thompson has continued to grow in virtuosity and reputation for over four decades, Denny released only a few enticing solo albums before her untimely death in 1978, and her three original albums with Fairport Convention represent her greatest work, culminating in Liege & Lief when her voice soared with control, confidence and beauty. Dominated by traditional British folk tunes with a handful of their own compositions, this album occupies a magical territory where the traditional lyrical substance of songs like “Matty Groves” or “Tam Lin” merges with the rock sensibilities of the players to come unglued from the moorings of time and culture and drift freely in a sea of genre-free musical greatness. “Tam Lin” illustrates what is great about the entire album as the band take an ancient Scottish ballad and turns it into a 7-minute powerhouse of instrumental and vocal brilliance. Denny’s voice is perfectly suited to the lyrics of fairie queens and virgin princesses, soaring and dipping with complete grace and control. Thompson wrenches more and more intense lead lines out of his electric guitar, all the while driving duet counterpoint to Dave Swarbrick’s high-energy violin playing. It is a breathtaking recording that stands up with any version of a song that has been recorded literally hundreds of times over the years.

In its own way, each song on Liege & Lief is a perfect representation of what went right for this band on their fourth album. The material, whether traditional like the high energy medley of fiddle tunes that follows “Tam Lin” or Denny’s upbeat album opener “Come All Ye” which sets the stage for the multi-genre feast to come, flows with such natural grace and comfort that if you didn’t have the credits in your hands you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the traditional material from the contemporary: it all has the authority and natural grace of  “standards.” Liege & Lief, because it succeeds so effortlessly on each level, is a classic album and takes its place in history because it so deftly and artistically avoids genre pitfalls. It is simply great music.
- Paul Epstein

Monday, November 25, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #78 - Buffalo ’66 (1998, dir. Vincent Gallo)

“Just look like we are a married couple, *spanning time*!”

Vincent Gallo’s debut feature length film is a beautiful yet twisted love story. Simple and to the point, this film pulls no punches. The viewer is provided with a bird’s eye view of a blue-collar man dealing with life after being released from prison. Through the course of one day we follow an anxious, easily detestable, nervous wreck as he evolves and his true colors shine. Gallo’s film is deceptively simple and one of the most poignant love stories of modern independent cinema.
From the moment the film opens on Billy Brown, played by Gallo himself, exiting prison, a stark ambiance is set. The film is draped in greys and a haze permeates the scenery. The compositions and scenes are well thought out and remarkably executed by cinematographer Lance Accord. We’re immediately thrown into the meat of the story when jolted by an onslaught of jarring flashbacks from prison. Billy has a need to urinate, being turned away by a variety of different restrooms he ends up in a dance studio where the camera pans through the tap students, landing on Layla (Christina Ricci). From this point the chain of absurd events begins: Billy kidnaps Layla, forces her to drive him around, pretend to be his wife, and Billy starts his hunt for Scott Woods, the field goal kicker that ruined his life.
It is almost impossible to do the story line justice in such a short piece; the film follows the basic structure of a classic love story where the guy meets girl through random happenstance and while they don’t immediately fall together they develop feelings for each other. But there is another side to the story. Jean-Luc Godard once said, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl” – we’ve established the girl part of this equation, but we do also have the gun. Through a flashback we learn that Billy’s stint in prison was payment to a bookie for a bet he lost when the Buffalo Bills kicker (Scott Woods) missed a field goal. Billy believes that Woods missed the kick on purpose and has decided that he must kill Woods for ruining his life and then kill himself in order to not go back to prison. While Billy reluctantly falls for the quirky Layla there still burns a fiery desire for revenge. This all culminates in the most colorful, shocking and beautiful action sequence and a somewhat unexpected ending to this tale.
But, with all of that said the question still remains, what makes Buffalo ’66 such an amazing film? The brilliance of this film lies in the passion, the subtleties, and the idiosyncratic humor that embody the film and its players. Billy is not a loveable character; he’s brash, hot tempered, awkward and anxious, but as the film plays we grow to understand what made him who he is and his walls start to dismantle, exposing him as a vulnerable person. Billy’s transformation is brought on by the quixotic, beautiful and captivating Layla.  The key to this film is the two well-written main characters and brilliant performances of the actors who play them. Gallo plays Billy with an extreme passion, yet is amazing at subtly letting vulnerability shine through. This is coupled with Ricci’s ability to convey so much through facial expression and mannerisms having while very few short lines.
In addition to the performances of Gallo and Ricci (as well as the supporting cast including Ben Gazzara, Anjelica Huston, and Mickey Rourke to name a few), the delicate black humor and scattered forays into strange surreal sequences make this film truly something special. So why would I like to turn you on to this film? Because it is one of the most tantalizing, hilarious and touching stories that will capture your complete attention. It is a story surrounding characters that we are inclined to dislike and yet can’t help but love. So give this film a chance and “span” some time with Billy and Layla.
- Edward Hill

Monday, November 18, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #93 - Stan Getz – Captain Marvel

Stan Getz – best known as America’s tenor sax master of the Bossa Nova – here creates a different kind of Latin fusion that’s light on the fusion and heavy on the beauty. But those who come to him familiar only with the Getz/Gilberto albums might be in for a bit of a shock in hearing the less laid back approach he uses here. It’s something he’d done before in his pre-Bossa, “cool jazz” work for the Savoy and Verve labels that flirted with bebop, but is nowhere to be found on the creamy tones employed when he’s creating a Brazilian/jazz hybrid alongside his partners João Gilberto or Charlie Byrd. But even while he’s taking a more overt rhythmic approach there is no loss of the lovely lines he develops – that’s simply pure Getz, him doing what he’s best at.
Aiding and abetting him here are three Miles Davis alumni – miraculous drummer Tony Williams, Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, and keyboardist Chick Corea, whose Fender Rhodes electric piano and whose compositions (spiced with what Corea called “My Spanish Heart” on one of his own albums) set the real flavor of the album – and rounding out the group is bassist Stanley Clarke, only 20 at the time of the recording. With these former Miles sidemen, it would be understandable to fear some of the notoriously brilliant fusion experiments that the great trumpeter was creating at the time, but Getz and Corea here have something less forbidding in mind, with uptempo Latin grooves dominating the album and the only audible touch of what would become known as “fusion” in Corea’s deferential Rhodes keyboards – even Stanley Clarke, soon to become one of the masters of the electric bass, is here all acoustic. But a fusion it is regardless – fusing a post-bop structure with Corea’s affinity for Latin rhythms, augmented by Tony Williams’ impeccable drumming and Airto’s sometimes complementary, sometimes otherworldly percussion accents.
And what about Getz himself? As noted, even with a more urgent rhythmic delivery spurred by his band here, he still keeps melody at the forefront and delivers the long, lyrical lines that are his hallmark throughout. And when he’s given a pair of ballads in the second half – Corea’s “Times Lie” (which kicks off as a ballad and then starts chugging once Getz lays out before returning to its mellower beginnings) and Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Lush Life” – those who know Getz from his Bossa Nova stylings will find a very familiar vibe to this record. And as a bonus, the CD includes a track recorded at the sessions that didn’t make the original album – Corea’s duet with Getz on the absolutely gorgeous “Crystal Silence” which includes a few mild interjections from Airto, but mostly finds the two players talking back and forth at the height of their powers. There are those who prefer Getz’s earlier, similarly styled collaboration with Corea, Sweet Rain, but for me the presence of Tony Williams here trumps it, makes this a more exciting collaboration overall, and Corea’s “La Fiesta” that opens this album is a show-stopper that the fine earlier album can’t touch. But they’re both pretty great – check ‘em both out.
- Patrick Brown

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #77 - Persuasion (1995, dir. Roger Michell)

The best thing about the 1995 version of Persuasion is the ending, the last two shots. Together they last barely a second, but they form a perfect and stunningly beautiful climax to a classic Jane Austen story, a romance full of subtle and delicious tension.
            It’s the story of Anne Elliot, a woman in her late twenties, from a wealthy family, unmarried, sad and bored. Eight years earlier, she had accepted the proposal of a dashing and smart young sailor named Frederick Wentworth, but he was poor and without good family connections, and her snobbish father and sister convinced her to change her mind. The movie begins at a point just before Wentworth returns from the Napoleonic Wars, a captain now, fabulously wealthy, and just as handsome as ever. It’s clear that he’s looking for a bride, the courtly way he dotes on all the women. It’s clear, too, that Anne is out of the running, the way he won’t even look at her. On a group outing he helps a younger lady across a rugged stretch of rocks but doesn’t stay to help Anne who’s following close behind. But then, late in the film, in a tense and possibly tragic moment, he’s there behind her as she climbs into carriage, and he helps her up, gently holds her at the curve above her waist, and though he still won’t look her in the eye, we know.
            What makes this romance a classic is the sea. We see it from the film’s beginning, when Anne’s father speaks loathingly of navy men, to the pivotal moment when everyone gathers for a feast in candlelight, Wentworth the guest of honor, and he declares that he’ll never have a woman on his ship because it’s impossible to make a ship suitable for one. All the women at the table gasp and laugh, but his sister, who is married to a retired naval admiral - she’s crossed the Atlantic four times, she’s been to the West Indies - she says, “None of us want to be in calm waters all our life.” In that moment we see in Anne’s eyes a great longing, not overstated, and we see it again later on when her family accompanies Wentworth to the coast for a holiday. They all stroll together along the shore and there’s Anne looking out across the waves at the ships. Amanda Root plays Anne brilliantly, reserved and restrained yet plainly full of passion and desire. She carries so much of the story with her eyes.
            Persuasion was the last novel Austen completed, and the story is one of her most nuanced and sophisticated, and this film version (there are three that I’m aware of) best captures the subtle friction between its characters, and its theme, delivered by the symbol of the sea, of seizing life and going as far with it as possible.
               - Joe Miller

Monday, November 4, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #92 - The Feelies - The Good Earth

In 1986 when The Good Earth came out, the smoldering wreckage of disco, new wave and punk lay on the sonic shoreline like so much tsunami debris, waiting for any band to make a move. Grunge was starting to gain traction on the west coast, and back east there were a few bands starting to shake off the historical dust of the last decade and seeking a new (or old) sound that made sense for the approaching 90’s. In Haledon, New Jersey The Feelies had been quietly playing their brand of layered, guitar-based psychedelic folk for almost a decade. They had made one previous album, Crazy Rhythms, which was a favorite of critics and other bands, but had won them few fans out of Jersey and even fewer sales. The truth is, there is no happy ending to this story. They never got the recognition or the sales they deserved, never had a hit, never got rich, but over the last 40 or so years they have sporadically released five albums, toured occasionally and remained one of the real high spots of the end of the last century in my opinion.

The basic Feelies approach is a folky song structure with dreamy, yearning lyrics that almost invariably becomes a trance-inducing raga as drummers Stan Demeski and Dave Weckerman set up a precision tribal assault while guitarists Glen Mercer and Bill Million lay on piles of Byrdsian, Velvetish, Neilworthy textures and leads, weaving in and out of each other’s lines like a basket of snakes. The Good Earth is ultimately a guitar album. Although there are virtually no extended guitar solos, the Feelies sound is defined by the walls of strummed acoustic guitars against mountains of electric chords, all the while mercury leads slide along the bottom, buzzing and giving melodic depth to each song. One never feels like they are listening to a wank-fest - nobody ever takes center stage with The Feelies; they define the ensemble concept in rock. It made perfect sense that the first time I saw them they were opening for Lou Reed. Lou had certainly developed a signature voice and sound, but his groundbreaking work with The Velvet Underground also explored the concept of a small group of players creating a droning cosmic wail by playing simple, parts that, together, work like a musical jigsaw puzzle. Listen to “The High Road” to get the idea. An unfailing rhythm sets up a memorable melody with the perfect use of drums and tambourine to drive the song, counterpointed by a simple but haunting bass line, while the guitars roil and shine to meet the lyric: “Gonna rise and carry us home tonight.” It is sublime, and it is the kind of song every band wishes they could write. The Feelies toss them off like rolling off a log.

There is something remarkably comforting to me about The Good Earth. When I have just about had enough of this or that kind of autotuned, fake-beat, sampled, bullshit noise, and I want to hear some “beautiful hippie music” I reach for this album as a balm. The Feelies wrote great songs, and played them in a way that I can relate to. There are absolutely no gimmicks, or nods toward current fashion. It’s pretty simple, don’t assault the listener, give them something of lasting value.
- Paul Epstein

Monday, October 28, 2013

Move Me Brightly – A Documentary Concert Film Celebrating Jerry Garcia's 70th Birthday

In general I have avoided too much Jerry-ana. I loved Jerry's singing and playing, and found him an endlessly compelling thinker and talker, but I have a problem with the cult of personality that has grown up around him. Many are incapable of seeing the feet of clay on their heroes. Either way, his body of work stands as its own judgment. Move Me Brightly is a heartfelt and musically rewarding tribute to that body of work, and to a lesser extent a nod to the personality as well.

Led by Garcia's loyal sidekick, Bob Weir, Move Me Brightly finds a revolving cast of Garcia contemporaries paired with a tasteful group of younger players immersing themselves in some of Garcia's best songs. Weir, Donna-Jean Godchaux, Phil Lesh and Mike Gordon are joined by Jonathan Wilson, Cass Mccombs, Harper Simon (Paul's son) and members of The Hold Steady, Vampire Weekend, Ryan Adams and The Cardinals, Black Crowes, Yellowbirds and others for a hypnotizing couple of hours of truly great music.

Weir comports himself with dignity and generosity as he lets each guest shine on vocals or their respective instrument. Many times he guides the assembled into an ensemble wall-of-sound utilizing up to five guitarists on stage at the same time. Because of the careful rehearsal that went into this event, along with the beautiful sound achieved, there is almost no stepping on other people's solo, and each instrument is beautifully clear and adding to the whole. And the whole is an emotionally and musically satisfying event. There are many highlights, including Jonathan Wilson's haunting version of “Mission In The Rain,” and Neil Casal's overwhelmingly emotional reading of “Ship Of Fools.” Weir tackles “The Days Between” and “Shakedown Street” with just the right blend of ownership and borrowing, a balance he has increasingly struck with authority.
I kept waiting to be let down, but I never was. The playing was phenomenal throughout, and the taped interviews with four of Jerry's daughters, ex-wife and brother are illuminating as well as humanizing. Other musicians like David Hidalgo, Carlos Santana, both Dead drummers, Perry Farrell, Dave Schools and Mike Campbell all spill their love for Jerry without getting sappy, and the overall feeling one is left with is profound dignity. It is hard to imagine that a movie without an actual appearance by Jerry Garcia could say so much about his music and legacy, but Move Me Brightly does just that. Not to be missed!
- Paul Epstein

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #76 - Re-Animator (1985, dir. Stuart Gordon)

In the opening scene of this film, set at a hospital in the University of Zurich, two policemen are lead by employees of the hospital to investigate the source of crashing sounds and unearthly screams emanating from Dr. Gruber's locked office. The police break in to find Dr. Gruber seizing on the floor, with Herbert West (played with terrific zeal by Jeffrey Combs) hovering over him with an empty syringe. West is pulled off by the police, shouting that he needs to record the data of Gruber's vital signs and that a vital experiment has been interrupted. Gruber screams, squeezes his head until his eyeballs burst and then collapses on the floor, dead. One of the employees accuses West of killing him, to which he calmly responds "No I did not. I gave him life." Herbert West is a little cracked. Maybe more than a little. But with his calmly clinical attitude he’s also the man you want in your corner when the shit hits the fan, as it most assuredly does later in the film.
Re-Animator is an over the top horror film with tongue planted firmly in cheek, based on a series of stories by H.P. Lovecraft but just as equally indebted to the Grand Guignol theater in its depiction of graphic horrors with very little in the way of any moralizing. Providing the film’s moral center is the couple Dan and Meg – Dan (Bruce Abbott) is a promising medical student at Miskatonic University (an invention of Lovecraft’s), an ivy-league college in New England, and Meg (Barbara Crampton) is the daughter of the dean of the school. This is our normal couple about to enter into the maelstrom and madness unleashed by Herbert West. After the tragic demise of Dr. Gruber, West relocates to Miskatonic, bringing his re-animating solution that can give new life to dead tissue – a scientific research gone awry as he pursues results further and further afield (at one point he’s hovering over a recently deceased corpse yelling at Dan’s qualms about reviving the corpse with a curt "Every moment that we spend talking about it costs us results!"). Rounding out the central characters are Meg’s father, an old-fashioned, out-of-touch fuddy-duddy, and Dr. Hill, the school’s star brain surgeon and “grant machine,” played as a perfectly arrogant, slavering creep by David Gale. Conflicts between Herbert West and Dr. Hill are set up from the get-go as West accuses Hill of stealing Dr. Gruber’s ideas, and Meg has an understandable and immediate dislike of West’s cold and creepy demeanor when he asks to move in with Dan and set up a crude laboratory in the basement of his house.
As West demonstrates the effectiveness of his re-animating serum to Dan, things quickly begin to slide downward for everyone involved and before long we get to witness a re-animated head, several severed limbs, mind control via laser brain surgery, and many other ghastly horrors, all delivered in a spirit of gleeful excess by director Gordon (a founder of the noted Organic Theater Company) and his cast, who do the film a great service by playing it completely straight. It’s to their credit that despite the film’s panoply of grotesque (and funny) horrors they also make sure that its characters read as true – too often horror films populate their casts with clichés just waiting to be bumped off so it’s always nice when one spends the time to make us believe the people we’re watching, even if we know that they’re actually going to play second fiddle to a shambling headless corpse at some point.
Along with other horror films of its time like Evil Dead 2 and Dead Alive, Re-Animator marries comedy to the horrific proceedings in a perfect mixture and would certainly be a lesser film if it merely went for scares. And though they pay homage to Lovecraft’s spirit, they take his ideas pretty far out in a way the author himself never did in his preference for horrors insinuated and alluded to rather than displayed. And that’s where it comes back to the Grand Guignol’s displays of excess and gore. And despite being very much of its time in the spirit of what other horror films were doing, there’s just something about its rootedness of Gordon’s work with his actors and his experience on stage that makes even the most outrageous effects and scenes of the film seem like they’re as natural as the characters they’ve made. It’s a spectacularly entertaining film, certainly not for everyone, but if you’ve read this far, it’s most likely a film for you.
- Patrick Brown

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #91 - Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band - Doc at the Radar Station

Maybe you know the good Captain’s music, maybe not. There probably ought to be two separate reviews for those who do and those who don’t, because your approach to this album will be different based on whether you know what you’re getting into or not. Those in the know can skip ahead a bit; those who don’t have any Beefheart in their heads yet should read on.

Captain Beefheart’s music has a reputation – completely earned, of course – of being weird and difficult. This is, in part, due to the reputation of the titanic 1969 double album Trout Mask Replica, an album I have a hard time listening to all the way through without getting a headache (even though I enjoy it in smaller doses) and one that is often the album people come to first to hear his music – sometimes never to return. It placed #60 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list and is a regular feature of other such lists. Encouraged by his producer and friend Frank Zappa to indulge his wildest musical and poetic impulses, Beefheart and his crack band essayed a bizarre combination of guttural Delta Blues, experimentally primitive rock, surrealist poetry and psychedelia that certainly sounded like nothing else that existed at the time, and still sounds like nothing else except the Captain’s own music. He’d make a slightly more user-friendly version on his next album and continued to make more accessible work over the next few years. But by the later part of the 70’s he was again on track with an album that hit a good middle ground between his compromises and his artistic impulses (1978’s terrific Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)) and that leads us right to this 1980 album. Realizing that his watered-down versions of Beefheart weren’t making him any more money than the undiluted Beefheart, he stripped his music of the pop trappings (psychedelia had long since fallen by the wayside) and left only this corraded version of his music, winnowed down to its weird and exciting core of blues-influenced art-rock.
Where Trout Mask and its immediate follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby flaunted their jagged and shifting rhythms and colored their ensembles with fruity instrumentation, spoken word interjections and sound effects, by the time of Doc, Beefheart et al had streamlined their music to an efficient machine and Beefheart’s own production managed to make even the most challenging rhythms and strangest poetry and vocal inflections here sound like they flowed naturally. Take "Sheriff of Hong Kong" here: it never settles into a groove that lasts more than a few bars, the Captain screams and growls his head off, uses weird words and dissonance at will, and yet set alongside some of his challenging earlier works it sounds positively rocking, as opposed to some aural art piece to be appreciated by connoisseurs and hipster cognoscenti and closet surrealists only. And though there are frequent and unexpected Mellotron intrusions throughout the album, the art quotient here seems subservient to the rock values, which makes it a fine entry point into the Captain’s catalog for the uninitiated. Even though it doesn’t sacrifice its basic weirdness and angularity, somehow the jaggedness grooves here where it's at cross purposes on Trout Mask, highlighting the alienating strangeness of it all. And it doesn’t hurt that it kicks off with four killers in a row – “Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart” are simply two of the Captain’s finest songs, period, while “A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” gives a lovely breather for keyboard and guitar and “Run Paint Run Run” again finds the band in a rocking groove that you could even dance to, if so inclined. They run through two artier numbers and the first side is done. Second side kicks off with another killer in “Dirty Blue Gene” with its rocketing guitar riffs and double-tracked screams and then moves into the oddly optimistic “Best Batch Yet.” Next up is the uber-paranoid “Telephone” and another gorgeous interlude with Gary Lucas’ solo guitar piece “Flavor Bud Living” before the six-plus minutes of “Sheriff of Hong Kong” move us up to the finale – the utterly bizarre and profane “Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee.” And that’s it – a cool 38 minutes and change, not the nearly 80 headache-inducing minutes of Trout Mask Replica. And though the band’s back cover/insert photo looks like they’re daring you to give the album a try, none of them smiling, it’s actually quite absorbing and accessible – well, within the Captain’s weird world, anyway.
Maybe there will be another album in his catalog that speaks to you more – Trout Mask’s uncompromised weirdness certainly has many admirers and even I tend to lean toward the friendlier Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) or Clear Spot when I want to play something that other people can enjoy more readily, but Doc at the Radar Station is, for me, the perfect mix of the Captain’s best artistic impulses and his ability to allow others a view of his weird world that won’t scare them completely off.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #75 - A Fish Called Wanda (1988, dir. Charles Crichton, John Cleese)

"Don't Call Me Stupid!"

As the credits for A Fish Called Wanda begin and we realize that John Cleese and Charles Crichton co-wrote and directed what we are about to see, what follows should be a guaranteed comedic masterpiece. A glorious melding of minds that gave us Monty Python and what is probably the masterpiece from the Ealing Studios, The Lavender Hill Mob. With these two geniuses at the helm, what could go wrong? The answer of course (and in the most British manner) is everything!
The story fools us right away, posing as a typical heist film. We quickly meet all the characters as they prepare to steal a large stash of jewels. The actual heist lasts a few minutes at most, as it quickly becomes apparent that the film is far more interested in the absurd idiosyncrasies of its irresistibly naughty characters as they constantly try to rip off and one up each other.
I will reveal very little plot, because this perfectly oiled machine offers up rapid paced hilarity that will keep you giggling and guffawing throughout its breezy runtime. Pay close attention to the smaller side characters throughout the film as they deliver some of the best lines.
A Fish Called Wanda is the ultimate refresher for those tired of typical American comedy. It’s no surprise coming from John Cleese that the characters, on paper, would read as simple stereotypes. But, in the hands of these gifted actors, they become living, breathing train wrecks that we simply cannot take our eyes off. Cleese himself plays the pompous, uppity barrister who is simply hopeless if a pretty girl with cleavage bats her eyes. Said girl is played pitch perfectly by Jamie Lee Curtis (in what I would argue is her finest role). She plays Wanda, the gorgeous American girl duping Englishmen left and right and doing whatever she pleases, all with a beautiful smile and a healthy dose of glee.  Michael Palin plays the fish obsessed (he gets to deliver the titular line), stuttering man who is terrified of the foolhardy American man's sexual advances (Kevin Kline giving his career best). Kline's character is my personal favorite, a wonderful over-exaggeration of the insecure American man. When he needs to "think" he fires a gun, when he needs to relax he stares at himself in the mirror as he plays with delightfully phallic swords (an hysterical pre cursor to the opening of American Psycho, which offers up skewering satire about half as well) and an absolute obsession with not being called stupid under any circumstances.
A Fish Called Wanda is break-neck paced comedy unlike any I've seen before or since. Unlike the typical comedy we see nowadays (formulaic crap like The Hangover or Date Night), nearly every moment is jam packed with substance, subtext, creativity, ingenuity, expert comedic timing, Buster Keaton-esque slapstick and vicious, biting satire. This film fears no one and gives us some delectably disgusting humans to cozy up to. Certainly an influence (whether conscious or not) on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and any comedy that attempts fast paced, witty dialogue. If you like your comedy a little amoral and a good amount dark, look no further than this 1988 masterpiece. 
            - Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center

Friday, October 11, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #90 - Rick Wakeman - The Six Wives of Henry The VIII

In the world of music appreciation there is the silly, pointless and irresistible game of: “who is best?” If you are a lover of an instrument you are drawn to those who have given themselves over to its mastery. Right?  Ahem, I, of course, am above such petty squabbling. I understand that different players excel and innovate in different areas of musical accomplishment whether it be composition, precision, speed, improvisation, accuracy or any one of the dozens of other variables that qualify as greatness, but secretly, we all, even I, have “our guy.” For rock music, and especially the sub-genre known as progressive rock, I must admit, I have no other guy: Rick Wakeman is it! No other player comes close or is even in the same arena for my money. I have to go to jazz or classical to find any other player with Wakeman’s chops and intellect. When he is great, he is magnificent. When he is not, he is um, er, kind of an embarrassment. Like all my favorite guys, I can think of major parts of the careers of Coltrane, Miles, Dylan, Zappa, Lennon, Hemingway, Kerouac, Crumb, etc., etc. that are just plain bad. That is part of reaching for the stars: sometimes you bump into the moon. Rick Wakeman has had plenty of absurd moments in his long career, but when he finds the right context, he is sublime. He found the right context on the first three or four Yes albums he appeared on (Close To The Edge, Fragile, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Going For The One) but perhaps showed his greatness as a player most efficiently on his 1973 solo debut The Six Wives Of Henry The VIII.

It came as a shock to many Yes fans upon its release, being an entirely instrumental album. A highbrow, Anglophile, concept album about the unfortunate women who married the bloody Tudor, the music on this album is a heady mix of rock, jazz, classical and funk loaded with guest musicians from Yes, The Strawbs and other corners of England’s musical geography. But the star is Wakeman’s unbelievable manual dexterity and battery of keyboards (at least 15 are specified in the liner notes). Each piece is driven not only by Wakeman’s proficiency and expertise on this fortress of instruments but, more importantly, by his genuinely wonderful sense of melody and composition.

A classically trained musician, Rick Wakeman proved with the Strawbs, Yes and on countless other historic sessions that he had the greatest understanding of the entire history of keyboard music of any musician of his generation, and he takes it a step further on Six Wives. His regal pipe organ playing on “Jane Seymour” or his jazzy piano on “Anne Of Cleves” or “Anne Boleyn, and his crazed synth, moog and mellotron work on “Catherine Of Aragon” and “Catherine Howard” provide satisfaction for fans of his work with Yes as well as those who yearn for something even more focused and accomplished. Much of the music on the album will be familiar to fans of Yes because Wakeman incorporated many of the most memorable bits into his solo segments of their live shows over the years, but the album taken as a whole is an entirely rewarding and unique musical experience. By the time you get to the final wife, “Catherine Parr,” Wakeman has pulled out all the stops creating a memorable, stomping beauty of a theme that he drives home with soaring synth lines, organ fills, church bells and a Copland-esque finale that will have you cheering in the aisles. At his best here, Wakeman combines virtuosity, taste and an irresistible, wink-wink attitude toward genre rules that can only be born from true mastery. He is the best and this is his best album.

            - Paul Epstein

Monday, September 30, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #74 - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007, dir. Julian Schnabel)

“I’ve decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed. My imagination and my memory. They’re the only two ways I can escape from my diving bell.”

            Imagine being completely paralyzed aside from one eye, yet you’re completely aware, your brain fully functional. Follow this imaginary tangent and imagine that a form of communication has been developed for you using the alphabet and specifically placed blinks in order to demarcate one letter at a time.  This is the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby.  He was able to communicate, one blink at a time, in order to write his memoir, the very work upon which this film is based.
After re-watching Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in preparation for this piece I found myself at a loss for words. Upon reflection I remembered feeling the exact same way after my first viewing; it’s hard to imagine that such a seemly direct story could hold such power. In this film, as well as the memoir of the same name it’s based on, we get the chance to live Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life for a spell. While the subject matter does surround a man who has gone through a massive stroke and suffers from locked-in syndrome, the film is not an entirely melancholic affair. Schnabel’s glorious visual realization of the memoir is truly an imaginative journey into an intriguing life filled with moments of wonder, frustration, melancholy (of course), tenderness, and a lively amount of sarcastic wit. With the use of cinematic technique and imaginative style the film sweeps the viewer through life in Bauby’s “diving bell.”
            The reason it’s difficult to find the words to describe this film is its visual nature; words just can’t describe the sway of its images. Much of the power of this film lies in the ways that Schnabel has chosen to convey this extraordinary memoir and the gorgeous images shot by Janusz Kaminski. For the majority of the film the camera lens truly becomes Bauby’s eye, it’s blurry when he first wakes up, images distort when his eye is strained, and everything in frame is immersed in water when he tears up. We even watch from his perspective, as one of his eyes is sewn shut to prevent ocular sepsis. In conjunction with this technique we are also provided his inner monologue as well as a front row seat, and/or his perspective shots, during a variety of flashbacks and imaginary dream sequences. Sometimes we even get a metaphorical look at how Bauby feels, stranded on a dead end pier in the middle of the water or screaming inside a lifeless diving suit. All of this comes together to truly place the viewer in his mind, not as merely a voyeur alongside the author.
            In addition to the way the story was told, the acting throughout the film is subtle and spot on. Mathieu Amalric is perfect both as the locked-in Bauby and the lively figure in memory. The entire supporting cast was spot on; Max Von Sydow even graced the screen as Jean-Dominique’s beloved, yet somewhat senile father. With every actor and actress the key seemed to be subtlety, even when the action expressed was exuberant, the true meaning is found between the lines. The fragile nature of life seemed to be a vine throughout the film.
            The bottom line is that this immersive film vividly brings to life an extremely interesting story. The subject matter could very easily have turned fodder for a cheap tear-jerker in the hands of a less capable director, but Schnabel, who’s helmed two other artist’s biopics, Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000), brings the film to life. In place of scenes specifically placed to pull at heartstrings we get a more realistic set of acts strung together to give us both a look into Bauby’s life and his experience with locked-in syndrome. It could easily be an all too sentimental film, however the film created is beautiful, whimsical and reflective.
            - Edward Hill

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #89 - Marisa Monte – Rose and Charcoal

Back in 1994 when this was released, I was just stumbling into learning about Brazilian music and came to this album via its New York pedigree – my hero Arto Lindsay produced the record, she covers the Velvet Underground, Laurie Anderson has a guest spot, Philip Glass does an arrangement and so forth – but it’s Marisa Monte’s talents that held me to the record, not any of her pals. I was won over by Monte's gorgeous, lilting voice, by the sheer beauty of the tunes, and by the variety on display.
Turns out that not only was this record a precursor for the group Tribalistas she later formed with two of her cohorts here – Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes – but it also has proven over the nearly 20 years since its release to stand strong not just as her finest hour (well, 50 minutes anyway) but as also one of the finest records out of the MPB movement that she’s a part of. MPB is short for Música Popular Brasileira, an all-embracing style of Brazilian pop music that arose in the post-Bossa Nova era and showed love for all styles of Brazilian music. Monte here takes on Bossa Nova, a funky Jorge Ben classic (“Balança pema”), an introspective Velvets classic (“Pale Blue Eyes”), some moody saudade from Paulinho da Viola (“Dança da solidão”), and a 1950’s samba, never stepping wrong at any point. But even more than showing her effortless grasp of Brazil’s musical breadth and history, it’s a showcase for the new tunes (mostly written by her and her Tribalistas pals) which are of a piece with the time-tested ones she covers and which show her and her associates’ mastery of pop music.
Kicking off with Carlinhos Brown’s “Maria de Verdade” the album sets itself quickly into a lovely summery groove before taking you on a tour of Brazil’s many styles and moods of music. And in fact, even above Lou Reed and Jorge Ben and Paulinho da Viola, Brown takes tops honors on the record, though not with the uplifting groove of the lead cut; it’s his spectacularly lovely tune “Segue O Seco” that’s the killer of the entire album. It’s a mid-tempo groover with a wistful tone, bordering on melancholy without surrendering its hope fully to that feeling – it’s simply too gorgeous to step down to that. After the strong opening songs, the record starts to jump around stylistically before settling on a more uptempo ending kicked off by Jorge Ben’s cut, then leading into the mellower Laurie Anderson guest spot and then closing out with the celebratory samba “Esta Melodia” – well, it’s celebratory until you tune into the lyrics, which are loaded with heartbreak but set over such an irresistible melodic line and surging rhythm that you can’t help getting swept up in the fun of it.
Bouncing from style to style, mood to mood, Marisa Monte’s talent is nowhere in her catalog more evident than here, on her best album. And in spite of the cream of Brazil’s modern MPB movement at her side, in spite of the great songwriters she honors (and works with), in spite of the guests she’s pulled in to help out (and did I also mention Gilberto Gil and Bernie Worrell’s spots on the album?), it’s her authority as singer, bandleader, and musician that holds the whole thing together. It’s a brilliant record, and despite everyone else I talk about here, it’s Marisa’s album - her masterpiece, in fact.
- Patrick Brown

Monday, September 16, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #73 - Dark City (1998, dir. Alex Proyas)

What makes a human human? What is the soul? Are we just a collection of memories and a conglomeration of our past experiences? Or is there something else? Some spark of individualism or wisp of consciousness that makes us more than just a sack of blood, guts and impulses? This is the central question behind the visionary and disquieting film Dark City. This is not the only big question tackled by this stylish, bold film. Writer, director Alex Proyas wears his influences (German Expressionism, 1940’s film-noir and the classic era of Sci-Fi and Horror) on his sleeve and with the bold, almost over-the-top themes of self-determination and individualism he has created a film that sits comfortably next to the classics it pays homage to while pushing the genre forward.

The film begins with protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) waking up naked and disoriented in an unfamiliar, dingy hotel room. Things get immediately worse as he discovers a dead and mutilated woman in the room with him, and soon finds himself being pursued by police (in the person of an icy cold William Hurt) and even more ominously, a group of pale, trench-coated “aliens” known only as The Strangers. The film propels forward at a breakneck speed in a dizzying series of ominous revelations. Giving away any points of the plot would destroy the momentum the film so beautifully builds, but rest assured that, in spite of an initial sense of confusion in the viewer, all is revealed by the time it reaches its satisfying conclusion. An ambitious plot with heady themes and an intellectually honest attempt to address “the big questions” puts Dark City ahead of the pack to start, but the most exhilarating aspect is the endlessly changing and fascinating visual style it achieves.

The un-named, yet familiar city inhabited by John Murdoch is an ever-changing conglomeration of facades cast in a pallid nighttime glow. Like Metropolis, Blade Runner or Brazil before it or The Matrix and Inception after, an environment free of specific time and place references yet all too familiar exists, making us simultaneously comforted and disoriented. It is that dream-like quality of “seems like I’ve been here before” similar to deja-vu experiences that make Dark City unforgettable. Rarely has a film gotten the look so right. As though stepping into an M.C.Escher painting, stairways exist and we have an intuitive sense of how they work, but in this dream the laws of gravity, time and space have been recalibrated so that the familiar is changed, our past experiences prove to be a broken compass pointing somewhere unknown. Landmarks and institutions that should provide clues to what is happening just reinforce the sense of being lost.

I realize all of this description gives you no idea what the movie is really about. Simply put, it is science fiction of the polemic, revelatory school, like a big budget, grown up version of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. There are special effects, themes lifted from mythology, beings from other planets, revocation of the laws of physics and ultimately a cosmic battle for the very soul of man. It is a hugely ambitious film that succeeds on many levels. At points during the finale it might veer a little too much into the hands of the special effects wizards, although in its favor is the fact that being filmed in 1998 almost none of the big action is CGI; however the conclusion is satisfying by a fairly rigorous intellectual standard. The idea that mankind is a rare and wonderful animal whose very existence would drive other species to jealously covet what we alone have: our humanity is a theme that can be endlessly and creatively explored. Alex Proyas’ Dark City is an essential entry into the canon.
- Paul Epstein