Monday, March 31, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #87 - Tetro (2009, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

"You can't look at the light. Don't look at the light"

As I stare into the black light of my computer screen after watching Coppola’s Tetro I again find myself at a loss for words (I seem to choose films for these write ups that leave me speechless). However once again I’ve chosen a film that floods my mind with a barrage of reasons to turn you on to this recent masterwork from a proven master of cinema. While the film is story of the dysfunction and rivalry that resides at the core of family, the film unfolds like the petals of a blooming flower. With each moment and each line of dialogue Coppola is strategically dropping puzzle pieces that work together to scoot your rear to the edge of its seat.
The film begins with a series of artfully blurred lights, the starkly contrasted black and white photography brilliantly immersing the viewer in the world in which we are about to spend the next two hours. Out of the sound of moth wings beating toward and against an electric flame we meet our first character, Bennie. The story then proceeds as we follow Bennie arriving at his brother, Tetro’s (Vincent Gallo), house in Buenos Aries. After a brief time with Tetro’s wife Miranda (Maribel Verdú) and a cold closed door from his brother, Bennie lays on the couch and pulls out a well worn letter from his brother Angelo (Tetro’s name from another life) and the scene fades as he falls into a tearful sleep. With a door slam in the morning Gallo brings Tetro to life with cold nonchalance and a volley of brotherly wit and sarcasm as the journey of familial discovery begins. To attempt to boil the plot down for you would be a tad asinine; instead I feel I can only allude to the virtuosity of this film’s Shakespearian plot.
Aside from the maze of story luminously woven together to create a nearly perfect tale the film is graced with fantastic acting that truly brings the narrative to life. Vincent Gallo brings his abrasively subtle style to yet another stunningly complex character (see also my review of Buffalo 66 which he wrote, directed and stared in). Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich kills it as the young naïve brother looking to find himself and the meaning behind his family’s turmoil. His playful demeanor and puppy-like exuberance develops throughout the film coming to a powerful and formative fruition in the end. The magnificent Maribel Verdú provides amazing support as the two immensely different brothers hurl through this tale of self-discovery. The entire cast is exceptional, however these three remain the rock upon which this film is firmly and captivatingly anchored.
Turning to the all-important and incandescent visuals, working with the relatively young cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who also shot Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007) and Twixt (2011)) Coppola transports the viewer into a poetic black and white film noir fantasy. While the film is ambiguously set in modern times, there is no mistaking the beautiful light, shadow and reflective play that is most definitely an homage to the stark films of the fifties. There are a few flashbacks and surrealistic ballet sequences, which are all letterboxed and shot in rich nostalgic Technicolor. These scenes littering the aesthetic of vivid black and white photography serves to strengthen the entire look of the film.
Now to tear through all of the big words (which I felt necessary when talking about such a nuanced and meticulous film), this is truly one of the most beautiful and intriguing stories about family I’ve seen in a long while. The acting is spectacular, the story is complex and consistently compelling, and the images are simply stunning. I don’t know how else to put it – this film is flat out rad in every important category in which I can assess it. Why should you buy it? You really need to have this movie in your possession, you need to watch it, re-watch it with others, put it away and re-discover it later (as I just did this evening), I’ve tried hard to convince you without giving away any of the twists and turns of the narrative and now I believe that it’s time for you to turn down the lights pop in the DVD and see for yourself. If you need any further convincing feel free to find me here at Twist or head over to the Sie Film Center and ask Will (who occasionally writes for this movie blog) as he and I were both drooling over the prospect of writing about this film.
            - Edward Hill

Monday, March 24, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #102 - Cornershop - When I Was Born For the Seventh Time

Cornershop are a band that have always seemed a little out of place, as much by design as anything else.  The brainchild of leader Tjinder Singh, Cornershop combined pop and rock, funk and hip-hop and a whole bunch of other sounds and styles with an undercurrent of traditional Indian music that occasionally makes its way to the top.  Seemingly as an answer to the massive Britpop scene, Singh sought to add his own ethnic heritage to the mix and came up with a sound that transcends any particular trend or time period.  After the independently released debut Hold On It Hurts and major label debut Woman's Got To Have It, Singh and company put it all together for third album When I Was Born For the Seventh Time and the result was one of the best albums of the late 90s.

"Sleep on the Left Side" opens the album with a laid back funky groove and poppy melody.  Things really pickup with the undeniably catchy "Brimful of Asha," an infectious pop song with sitar strumming courtesy of Ben Ayres, the only other constant in the band besides Singh.  A remix by Fatboy Slim got some attention a few years later but even that can't beat the charm and bounce of the original.  The album contains several instrumentals that provide short blasts of hip-hop inspired funk.  These aren't just filler though.  They help tie together the various strands of the album and the best, like "Candy Man" and "Butter the Soul," stand out on their own.  The album hits its peak with "We're in Yr Corner," as a hypnotic beat backs Ayres’ sitar and Singh sings in Punjabi.

The band scores a major coup in getting legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg to contribute a spoken word piece "When the Light Appears Boy."  It was one of the final recordings Ginsberg made before his death and works well with the worldly feel of the album.  Another infectious pop moment comes with "Good Shit" (retitled "Good Ship" for radio play).  The song features a great example of the clever word play Singh often employs, as well as being a great feel-good jam. Cornershop takes what may actually be its most surprising turn with the country flavored "Good to Be on the Road Back Home."  Singh duets with Paula Frazer and comes up with another great set of lyrics married to a catchy tune.  It doesn't seem at all out of place, fitting in nicely with the album's eclectic vibe.  The album concludes with a little wink, a faithful cover of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" sung in Punjabi.  It's a clever way to end an album that takes listeners on a journey through the sounds and interests of its creators.  Cornershop and Singh have been up and down in the years since When I Was Born For the Seventh Time, but the album remains one of the finest of its era.  It may not have been a big hit, but it certainly deserves to be discovered and appreciated.
            - Adam Reshotko

Friday, March 14, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #86 - The Three Amigos! (1986, dir. John Landis)

The Three Amigos! Is like comfort food to me. I first saw it when it first came out, when I was in high school, when I was going through a particularly tough stretch, and I went back to see it two more times. Since then it’s been one of the most reliable go-tos on my DVD shelf during times of frustration, anger, whatever. For me, it’s the simple, uplifting, melodramatic plot, the endearing dumbness of the three main characters, played by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase, and the music. It’s a quality comedy from the mid-80s, a feel-good time.
            So what sets it apart from other such films? Historical significance, at least to fans of Randy Newman. The Three Amigos! Is the only screenplay Newman ever wrote (co-wrote, actually, with Martin and SNL creator Lorne Michaels), so the humor carries some of the biting wit of his his funnier songs, those sung in the voices of hapless, lowlife characters, who do and say things that are at once absurd and brilliant. The best examples in this film come from the bad guys – a hideously surly bandito named El Guapo (trans: The Handsome) and his yes-man sidekick, Jefe (Boss). At one point El Guapo asks Jefe, “Would you say that I have a plethora?” Jefe immediately and wholeheartedly agrees, “Yes, El Guapo, I believe that you have a plethora”. Of course, Jefe doesn’t know what plethora means. (Neither did I at the time.) In another scene at El Guapo’s birthday party, in the middle of the scorching northern Mexico desert, Jefe and his crew give their boss a sweater of the hideous late-80s variety, and El Guapo is most pleased. It’s silly, yes, but weird in a kind of smart way.
Newman also wrote three songs for the film, "The Ballad of the Three Amigos", "My Little Buttercup", and "Blue Shadows,” all of which are great songs that suit the story and characters well. The first provides one of the best gags in the film, an improbably long, sustained note sung by the three main characters as they ride their horses across the horizon. During “Blue Shadows,” adorable creatures come out of desert darkness to sing along. And Newman even plays a role, the voice of a singing bush the Amigos find in an arroyo. The idea is taken from the Bible, of course, but the songs the bush sings are old 19th Century ditties, and it’s voice is nasally and hilarious.
            This film was the first I knew of Newman doing film work. His songs had appeared in earlier films, but almost all of those were ones he’d already recorded on an album. So this marks one of his first significant forays into Hollywood, for better or worse, the beginning of a shift in his career, coming between Trouble in Paradise and Land of Dreams, the last record he would release for another seven years, and arguably one of his darkest and most personal. He’s said to have been going through a divorce at the time, and his mother died, so I like to think this project became like comfort food for him, too and in this way maybe I share something in common with one of the great singer songwriters. 

- Joe Miller

Monday, March 10, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #101 - Franco & Rochereau - Omona Wapi

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire (and before that, the Belgian Congo), a style of music known as soukous originated. It’s a popular dance style that emerged from African rumba and infected and influenced music all over West Africa from the 1960’s up through the 80’s (and beyond) with its sung intros and lengthy, danceable guitar segments which could stretch upwards of a half hour in live shows. The two undisputed giants of the music are Franco and Rochereau. Franco is the leader of the group T.P. OK Jazz, known as the “Sorcerer of the Guitar” for his seemingly effortless, fluid, hypnotic guitar lines, while Tabu Ley Rochereau is the leader of Afrisa International, the great rival band to OK Jazz, and Rochereau’s high, sweet singing is the expression of one of the most renowned and distinctive voices in all of 20th century African music. Their career trajectories are both detailed on a series of superb 2-disc collections released by Sterns Music – Franco’s on Francophonic Vols. 1 & 2, and Tabu Ley Rochereau’s on The Voice of Lightness (only the second volume is currently in print). But this intersection of both of their careers is one of the high points of either one.
This collaborative effort makes the most of what they both do, merging Franco’s rougher, rawer style with Tabu Ley’s slicker, more plainly lovely version into something unique in both their catalogs. To this end, they’re helped considerably by guitarist Michelino, who defected from Afrisa International to OK Jazz in the late 70’s but plays with both of his bosses here, and Matalanza whose terrific saxophone is given some leads, but is heard mostly as part of a great horn section.
            The record kicks off with killer groove, “Lisanga Ya Ba Nganga” a highlight in the extensive body of work of either of the artists. It finds both of them doing what they do best, with lyrics that call out nods Franco and Rochereau, but also to Michelino who interlocks with Franco here to create a shimmering dance groove that’s irresistible, while Rochereau’s sweet voice mixes with Franco’s rougher, lower one up top. The next track, “Ngungi” features less guitar, and provides more of a vocal showcase, an interesting turn for Franco who, while no slouch in the vocal department, is best known for his guitar and who often hired the best singers around to take the vocal spot while he concentrated on the rest of the music. Rochereau is of course resplendent again in the vocal department. Third cut is the title song and it’s another uptempo slayer to get you on your feet. Franco again earns his title as Sorcerer and Michelino is again called out in song to weave intricate patterns against the Sorcerer’s work. It’s also the only cut on the album clocking in at under 8 minutes, tagged at a mere 7:58. The record closes with “Kabassele in Memoriam” a heartfelt tribute to Rochereau’s former bandleader and the spiritual father of all rumba/soukous, Joseph Kabassele, who died shortly before the recording of this album. He is known more widely by his recording name Le Grand Kallé and has been called the "Father of Congolese Music” for his innovations, his patronage of the country’s music, and his broad influence, and the song is a gorgeous farewell and a spiritual passing of the torch from his works to those of successive generations. He himself is the tributee of yet another great two-disc collection recently released by Sterns: His Life, His Music.
            Franco himself would be dead of AIDS within six years of the making this album while Rochereau went into exile in 1988 in France (and later California), only returning to Zaire after the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed in 1997. But though he kept recording, his career never again reached the heights of popularity or artistic integrity that he enjoyed from the 60’s through his exile. This album stands as a monument to the amazing and enduring powers of both musicians, and hopefully as a starting point to exploring the works of both of them (and their godfather, Le Grand Kallé as well).
            - Patrick Brown

Monday, March 3, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #85 - Caché (2005, dir. Michael Haneke)

The plot of this film is so simple that it can be boiled down to one sentence on IMDB: “A married couple is terrorized by a series of surveillance videotapes left on their front porch.” But what the film does is hardly covered by that synopsis, because it takes off in so many unexpected ways from conventional suspense films that it turns into something totally different by the end of the film, and it can be a frustrating experience for many – but I love it.
First off, let me note that prior to seeing this in the theater, I had seen only one Michael Haneke film, the original Austrian version of Funny Games, and I hated it - HATED it. It made me angry in a way that very few films have. I suppose that means that it worked on some level, but it made me make sure that I didn’t watch any more of this director’s films – for a while anyway. But then in 2005, this one made the rounds of the art theaters and a friend invited me to it. “Oh no, that’s by the guy who made Funny Games, right? No way!” I said. “Trust me, I think you’ll like it.” She said. And she was right (thanks Yvette!). But I also saw some affinities with the earlier film that made me know it was by the same guy – a cold, almost clinical tone watching the gorgeously photographed proceedings, abrupt violence coming up unexpectedly, another theme of a family falling apart, and an ambiguous ending that hardly resolves anything, it just stops. And when I saw it, and reading about it since, I find that a lot of people don’t like it like I do. The comment from a woman in front of me in the theater then sticks with me “Did I miss something?” – and the answer is probably no, it’s just that the film didn’t do what most people expect it to do.
Daniel Auteuil is a well-liked and popular entertainer in France, having won a couple Cesars (their equivalent to the Oscars) and starred in several major French films. All the better to have him play the popular TV personality Georges Laurent, who, with his wife Anne (played brilliantly by the great Juliette Binoche), tries in vain to figure out who is sending the anonymous tapes, crude drawings, and postcards that at first seem vaguely menacing but begin to imply violence, possibly toward their son Pierre (Daniel Duval) – or possibly not. After a while the tapes and drawings begin to suggest things about Georges’ past so that he starts to suspect that he knows who has sent them – a man named Majid whose immigrant parents worked on his family’s farm. And that’s where we must diverge from discussion of the plot.
And it’s not because I would give anything away necessarily – as noted, Haneke has something else in mind with this film. He hasn’t wrapped up a mystery in a neat little bow that careful observers will solve by weeding through red herrings and catching hidden clues (the title, incidentally, translates as “Hidden” and it’s as apt a title as any I could imagine, echoing out to many levels of the film, which leaves much hidden). The film is more about playing with viewer’s expectations about what a thriller should be. In that it’s like Hitchcock, who knew exactly what effect he wanted to have on audiences in his films by what he chose to show and not show with tightly controlled camera work and framing. But Haneke doesn’t lead you by the nose in the same way, he drops you into a scenario and gives enough clues to make it menacing and then lets you sit there and experience the tension, knowing there’s a lurking menace out there but never making it plain. Eyes scan the many long shot frames for clues and come up empty because the tension is built around what you’ve seen in a thousand other suspense/mystery films and what “should” happen, not what the film is doing – but there are no “jump scares” to be had here, just a continual increase of pressure. It’s slowly digging deeper and deeper into Georges’ past, uncovering things he’d rather keep hidden, and by extension – perhaps, if I’m not stretching things too far – things France might rather keep hidden in its past treatment of its Algerian immigrant population.
The film implies much and asks a lot of questions without giving any easy answers. There are implications of subtle racism in the lead character early on that may or may not be relevant. There are plot points that could be taken one way or another – like Kurosawa’s Rashomon this is an exploration of several truths, each contradicting the other and making none of them ultimately feasible. Roger Ebert, in his review, mentions a “smoking gun” at one point in the film that he feels solves the riddle, but I beg to differ. The film instead puts viewers out of their comfort zones, out of their expectations, and into a shaky territory where terrible things happen in beautiful settings and cinematography, where motivations aren’t clear and there are no easy answers. Sometimes, he pushes people too far – Funny Games pushed my buttons hard when I saw in 1998 and the 2007 U.S. remake he did didn’t fare any better with me, though at least I knew what to expect. But generally speaking Haneke is asking the right kinds of questions and pushing things in the right direction. And Caché proved to only be the first evidence I saw of how good he could be – the other non-Funny Games films I’ve seen have been great as well, and more recently he’s won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his two most recent films: The White Ribbon and the unironically-titled Amour. But with Caché, you’ll know if he’s for you or not. And I understand if he’s not for you – after all, that’s how I started off with him.
- Patrick Brown