Monday, August 31, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #122 - I Love You to Death (1990, dir. Lawrence Kasdan)

At the age of twelve, I watched reports on the making of I Love You to Death after dinner on Entertainment Tonight as the hosts discussed the controversies surrounding its production. Watching the movie now, it is hard to believe that it could have been the source of any controversies, but that disconnection proves helpful in noting some of the changes in media, entertainment, and perception that have occurred since 1990. Twenty-five years later, I Love You to Death remains an unmistakable product of its time. A highly successful director of the 1980’s, Lawrence Kasdan, guides a diverse and talented cast, including two Oscar winners and two Oscar nominees, through an energetic, dark comedy based on an actual criminal case, wherein a wife tried to kill her husband several times. From its director to its remarkable ensemble cast and the way it handles its subject matter, this movie could not have happened at any other point in recent history.

I Love You to Death follows a string of successes throughout the 1980’s that began with Kasdan penning the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Following these collaborations, Kasdan went on to write and direct some of the biggest critical hits of the decade including Body Heat, The Big Chill, and The Accidental Tourist. A year after this movie in 1991, Kasdan’s Grand Canyon attempted to address and remedy the hangover brought about by the over-indulgences of the 1980’s, but I Love You to Death’s perverse and frenetic atmosphere feels like the last round of drinks shared at end of the party the night before.

As the party guests, this group of actors remains one of my favorite ensemble casts in any movie. Kevin Kline, at the height of his powers, operates in a broadly comic range that he has rarely reached with such zeal or success before or since. Released in the final year of Tracy Ullman’s acclaimed U.S. comedy/variety series, this movie allows Ullman to deliver one of her most natural and nuanced performances. As the emotional heart of the film, River Phoenix’s charisma and generosity as a performer combine to bring out the best from his fellow actors and allow him shine without being the center of attention. As Yugoslavian mechanic grandmother Mama Nadja, Joan Plowright builds a warm and curiously engaging character out of a role that could have been just a plot device or a punchline.

Recently, I realized that William Hurt’s character is a spiritual cousin to Jeff Bridges’ The Dude in The Big Lebowski. As leading men in the 1980’s, both Hurt and Bridges played serious yuppie types, so watching them play bedraggled, middle-aged hippies at the fringes of society creates a jolt of unpredictability that, in this case, creates some of the movie’s most satisfying comedy. For Keanu Reeves’ detractors, the role of a quiet, drug-addled weirdo is right up there with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the list of roles he was born to play. For his defenders, Reeves gives a layered comic performance on par with his later work in films like 2009’s Thumbsucker.

Kasdan and writer John Kostmayer take significant liberties with the actual criminal case to create a propulsive comedic tone that flirts with the darker elements involved, but ultimately keeps the overall mood light and amusing. Within just a few years, cases very similar to the one on which this movie is based became the source of intense media attention. The level of societal and media obsession with cases like John and Lorena Bobbitt, Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, and, eventually, the O.J. Simpson murder trial created a new kind of entertainment that paved the way for both the ubiquity of the 24 hour news cycle and the dominance of “reality” TV. None of those cases became the source of a movie like I Love You to Death because in a way, they all unraveled in real time as a new kind of mixed-media live theater. Kasdan and Kostmayer thread a timely satire of the violence, tabloid culture, and desire for fame present in modern American life throughout their movie as a possible warning for what was to come. Despite what came after, I Love You to Death survives as a unique and memorable comedy that also offers a snapshot of early stages of the interplay between the news media and mainstream entertainment.

             - John Parsell

Monday, August 24, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #136 - Erykah Badu - Mama’s Gun

Only when compared to the massive success of a triple platinum debut album could a platinum sophomore effort appear to be a disappointment, but such is the case for Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. Coupled with how this album established a trend of Badu’s declining commercial success with each subsequent album, the notion of Mama’s Gun as a failure draws out both the problematic nature of the Neo Soul sub-genre as well as the challenges Badu has surmounted in achieving a fruitful and remarkable career as an artist. Baduizm remains an assertive, powerful introduction to a unique artist that bristles with energy and creative branding, but Mama’s Gun survives as Badu’s lasting statement of purpose, serves as template for her following albums, and demonstrates the lasting influence of the creative collective that spawned it.

Neo Soul unfairly silos some of the best music of the last twenty years, arbitrarily differentiates it from the music that inspired it, and diverts from the flow of mainstream R&B/Soul music that was occurring around it simultaneously. At its worst, Neo Soul cursed the music it labeled with unflattering comparisons to both the artistic high points of the golden eras of 1960’s and 70’s Soul as well as the commercial successes of mainstream R&B/Soul of the day. Where the label of Neo Soul constricts with contradiction and sags with ambiguity, the title of a collective of musicians responsible for creating some of the greatest albums of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Soulquarians, proves useful in drawing the connections among these seemingly distinct works. The Soulquarians included, in addition to Badu, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, D’Angelo, Common, J Dilla, Pino Palladino, Mos Def, and others. From 1999 to 2002, the Soulquarians produced Mama’s Gun, The Roots’ Things Fall Apart and Phrenology, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Electric Circus, and D’Angelo’s Voodoo.

Mama’s Gun and Voodoo can be viewed and as siblings of spirit and style. As products of the Soulquarians, both albums feature many of the same players and represent the collective’s creative power at its peak. Pushing past 70 minutes and right up to the limit of the standard running time for compact discs, Mama’s Gun bears the sprawling, kitchen-sink inclusivity of a classic double album. Opening with a collage of overlapping, hushed excerpts from anxiety-driven inner monologues, “Penitentiary Philosophy” launches a confident, exuberant groove that sets the album’s tone for socially conscious, wide-ranging Soul from what could be the doubts of distraction and writer’s block that confront an artist working on a follow-up to a phenomenally successful debut. “Penitentiary Philosophy” sets the precedent for the kind of funky, organic jams that Badu explores more fully on 2010’s New Amerykah: Part Two (Return of the Ankh).

Although Badu quickly distinguishes Mama’s Gun from its predecessor through providing a more diverse range of styles, wider scope of themes, and a lessened focus on her own iconography, she calls back to Baduizm on the fourth track, “...& On.” By including a direct reference to Baduizm’s breakout single “On & On” as well as the use of singing “Badu” as a kind of tone-setting motif, a signature detail of her debut, Badu provides continuity with her introduction, but places these pieces in a warmer, less self-conspicuous setting. Right in the middle of the album comes “Kiss Me on My Neck,” a dense, simmering workout that balances the seductive with the commanding for its entire running time of five and half minutes. Badu divides the song into two lyrical modes that guide stark shifts in the music’s structure. Alternating between a gently sung, straight-forward request for intimacy and an almost chant-like set of directions for the terms of this intimacy, Badu addresses the complexities of desire within a musical context that contains more mystery, beauty, and appeal than most “sexy” pop songs and rewards repeated listening, as well. “Kiss Me on My Neck” hints at the darkly experimental and thematically nuanced songs that form the heart of 2007’s New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War).

Exploration of Badu’s music should begin with Mama’s Gun, not end there. Sadly, like many of her peers in Neo Soul as well as her fellow members of the Soulquarians, Badu’s music has not received the attention and acclaim it deserves. Also, like her fellow Soulquarians, Badu has aimed her music not for the charts and radio broadcasts of the moment, but for the sound systems and listeners of the years to come. Badu’s mercurial, playful, and dominant personality anchors Mama’s Gun and what she accomplishes on this album has enabled her to progress as an artist like few of her peers of this era or genre. Mama’s Gun is equally deserving of a first listen as it is of a reappraisal.
            - John Parsell  

Monday, August 17, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #121 - Time After Time (1979, dir. Nicholas Meyer)

When I was teaching at Smoky Hill High School, my favorite class of the day was Science Fiction. It was all juniors and seniors, it was a subject I was personally thrilled with and it gave me the opportunity to push the envelope on subject matter a little bit. We read a lot of cool stuff and saw even cooler movies. The curriculum included Altered States, Alien and Blade Runner among others. For a lot of these suburban kids it was the first time they had pondered ideas like the endlessness of time and space, mortality and the ethics of artificial life. I think it’s safe to say minds were blown. One of the movies that had the biggest impact on the kids however was a sweet, small love story that uses the life of author H.G. Wells and his social and scientific theories as a backdrop. Time After Time stars Malcolm McDowell as the great author H.G. Wells, a social engineer whose beliefs in scientific innovation, women’s liberation and utopian idealism informed his journalism and fiction. Works like War Of The Worlds, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine informed the thematic underpinnings of all Science Fiction to come. Time After Time cleverly weaves the historic facts of Wells’ life along with his own fictional ideas and a modern, romantic twist to create an irresistible, romantic journey through time.

In this version of Wells’ life, he has actually built a time machine himself, yet he doesn’t have the nerve to try it out. His hand is forced when, during a dinner party, his friend, Dr. John Leslie Stevenson, steals it and escapes into the future. It turns out that Dr. Stevenson is, in actuality, Jack The Ripper, and H.G. Wells, a utopian dreamer, has inadvertently unleashed a madman on the future. His hand forced, Wells follows The Ripper into the future to prevent the killer from ruining utopia. Landing in 1979 San Francisco (where the Time Machine is part of a museum display on Wells) the first third of the movie shows the befuddled Wells trying to rectify his utopian hopes about the future with the less than enlightened realities of 1979 America. He is shocked by the callous violence, rampant consumerism and breakneck pace of the modern world. As his hopes for the brave new world fade he is gripped by his need to stop The Ripper from carrying out his murders, which have already started, anew. Using classic detective work he finds The Ripper and at the same time meets a banker (Mary Steenburgen) with whom he begins an affair, while unwittingly setting her up as bait for Dr. Stevenson’s murderous plans. The die is cast and Wells now realizes he personally is responsible for unleashing a terrible danger on all of eternity and at the same time he has imperiled the woman he loves.

Time After Time succeeds on almost every level at providing timeless entertainment. With expert pacing, the movie hurtles to a final confrontation between Wells and Stevenson (played with a perfect mix of intelligence and menace by the great David Warner). McDowell is a fantastic combination of befuddled professor and genius inventor, equal parts world saver and little boy lost as he stumbles his way through the modern world trying to save the past and future. The movie teeters nicely between science fiction themes and romantic overtones. McDowell and Steenburgen were in the middle of a real-life love affair during the making of this movie and the sparks between them feel extremely real. Wells’ growing desperation to find The Ripper, save Steenburgen, and right the balance of history is palpable and thrilling. The students in my Science Fiction class couldn’t wait to see what happened and loved the discussions we would have about the elasticity of time and the consequences of messing with the fabric of history. Without tons of special effects, without any explicit violence or sex and with a deep
quiver of historical and social ideas,
- Paul Epstein

Monday, August 10, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #135 - The Fall - This Nation’s Saving Grace

If you’re not familiar with The Fall – and that’s perfectly understandable, given that they have had a grand total of zero albums or singles that have charted on Billboard’s American pop charts in their 38 years and 31 studio albums of existence – their best-regarded album, 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace might be the right place to start. But one might also consider before starting it that no fewer than two of my co-workers have expressed disdain for the band, one saying that all the songs sound the same, the other calling them the very “definition of abrasive.” And please note that they’re really not wrong – it’s one of the things the band’s fans like about them. British tastemaker DJ John Peel called them his favorite band of all time and noted: “They are always different; they are always the same.” Also please consider that the band’s career-defining 2004 “hits” collection is entitled 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong (parodying the famous Elvis Presley compilation and dividing his fan base by a factor of a thousand) and it should be clear going in that this group is a very specialized taste.

But those 50,000 fans – and I’m definitely one of them alongside Peel – are a dedicated lot and have chosen this album by consensus as the band’s defining album, a great balance of their art punk impulses with a more accessible edge even if some may slightly prefer the punkier and more abrasive earlier material, or the band’s recent albums since that compilation was released, the last few of which are as solid as anything they’ve released over the decades. This one finds them in a middle period in which their always-experimental ideas are tempered with a more prominent pop element. Most fans call this period “The Brix Years” after guitarist/songwriter Brix Smith, who married the band’s leader Mark E. Smith in 1983, joining the band through several albums in the 80’s until the pair divorced in 1989.

Comparing the pre-Brix years with this album finds the earlier material rawer and harsher, but the approach is the same – the band finds a groove, sometimes rocking, sometimes more jagged, often with a prominent bass line up top, and vamps while Mark E. rants and harangues over the top, and sometimes there are decorations of melody or sound effects (but don’t count on it). Some call his lyrical approach poetry but in reading the lyrics on their own, it’s clear that Smith is less interested in the wordplay of poetry than discrete stream of consciousness ideas, instead evoking an idea without ever really pinning down much in the way of concrete details, dancing around a subject rather than nailing it down. Oh – and repeating. The friend here who said their songs “all sound the same” (like that’s a bad thing!) failed to note that their typical approach includes five or ten or a dozen or a hundred repetitions of an idea, either a musical phrase/riff or a lyrical slogan. The band pounds a riff into your head while Mark E. does the same with a vocal – the song “What You Need” here repeats that phrase forty times in 4:49 and interjects the things you might need around it, including “an oven mitt,” “a bit of Iggy Stooge,” and “slippery shoes for your horrible feet.” In fact, the very first song that kicks off 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong is entitled “Repetition” – talk about truth in advertising!

Elsewhere on the record we have the equally well-titled “Bombast” in which Mark E. states to “those who dare mix real life with politics” that they shall “feel the wrath of my bombast” over the harsh, paired guitars and pounding bass and drums making the very sound he claims. The first half of the record builds towards the great tunes that close out the LP’s first side – “Spoilt Victorian Child,” a rant directed at the person indicated in the title that’s also the catchiest (and punkiest)(and funniest) thing here, and the keyboard-heavy and Brix-hooked “L.A.” in which Mark E. intones the letters of the title for most of the song over a dancy riff before Brix comes in with the mocking, spaced-out sounding phrase “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” The album’s flip side kicks off with one of the all-time great blasts that the band ever generated in “Gut of the Quantifier” which pounds out a relentless and driving rhythm and then repeatedly works in great dynamic builds up to explosive climaxes as the rest of the band kicks back in. It moves through “Paint Work,” which is the strangest thing here – a mellow groove repeatedly disrupted by some kind of flute-like keyboard sounds that feel more like mellotron than actual woodwinds. The story that Mark E. Smith accidentally recorded over portions of the song at home sounds about right. And then the regular part of the album moves toward a close with “I Am Damo Suzuki,” an homage to the German art-rock band Can and their one-time lead singer Suzuki. It’s built out of several pieces of different Can songs – most notably the rhythms from Tago Mago’s “Oh Yeah” – and has Mark E. delivering lines imagining himself as the Japanese singer cut loose in acid-drenched Germany in the 70’s making sense of the music and the culture. It closes out with “To NK Roachment: Yarbles,” a musical bookend to the opening track “Mansion” which adds a lyrics partially copped from Lou Reed to that instrumental intro.

But that’s not all – on CD the band has added in single cuts and stray tracks contemporary to the recording of the album that flesh out (and is several cases, improve) the sound of the record proper. True to the Fall’s non-conformist attitudes, two are inserted in the middle of the record, three at the end. “Vixen” and “Petty (Thief) Lout” don’t make a huge impact, but “Couldn’t Get Ahead” and the Gene Vincent cover “Rollin’ Dany” are both superb and the single A-side that closes the CD, “Cruiser’s Creek” just may be the most accessible and catchy thing on the entire disc – it’s one of their all-time best and most-loved songs.

So if you’re new to the band, try this out. But understand that those hardcore 50K fans could point you to probably a dozen other albums and a hundred other songs you should check out. Note also that fully 8 of these 16 tracks have placed in the top ten items of a poll I’ve run for several years now on (there are a lot of ties there of course), and that “Gut of the Quantifier” is inexplicably not one of them. Note that Pitchfork listed This Nation's Saving Grace as 13th best album of the 1980s in a 2002 article (two other Fall albums also placed lower in the charts, one Brix-era, one earlier). And note also that if you happen to become their 50,001st fan, you’re likely hooked for life and on the track of buying dozens of albums and for that I apologize and also welcome you to the cult. Of course if you’re one of those 50,000 fans, you already know this.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, August 3, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #120 - The Triplets of Belleville (2003, dir. Sylvain Chomet)

For this installment of “I’d Love to Turn You On” I have the pleasure of reviewing Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 animated masterpiece The Triplets of Belleville. At first glance this is a very simple story told in a very innovative and eccentric way. However when you dig a little further into this simple and brief tale of mystery, intrigue and love you’ll find that it is quite a rich and very well told tale. Additionally it has some of the best and most interesting animation I have ever had the pleasure of watching and a soundtrack that is as stunning as it is odd. Simply put this is a film that has very few lines of dialogue yet tells a very strange and convoluted but beautiful story.

The first thing that strikes me when watching this movie is just how amazing the art and animation is! In a world that was already evolving into the computer animated, Pixar-obsessed world of today, it is truly a treat to find such a painstakingly and carefully hand animated film. Each character is designed in a unique and particular way, and then given a very specific nuanced movement and personality. Through this animation process the characters come alive in a very special and often forgotten way. It brings to mind the old animated classic cartoons but in a bizarre and extraordinary way that differentiates it from the more crude cartoons of old. While I have now spent a few sentences attempting to the striking animation justice, I am finding myself at a loss. I don’t believe that words are enough to fully describe the magnificence embodied in the aesthetics of this film. The settings, the scenery, the characters and the detail involved in all of these things are simply something that you MUST see and experience in order to fully understand.

The second thing that strikes me when writing this piece is just how bizarre and intriguing the storyline is. Simply put a Grandma is attempting to raise her grandson. She tries her best to find things that will interest him and turn his life around so that he can live a happy and fulfilling life. After a few failed attempts she stumbles upon his journal and discovers that he has a bit of an obsession with bicycles. Ecstatic that she has possibly found the thing that will provide her grandson with lifelong happiness she buys him a bike, and he is elated. Flash forward a decade or so later and the little boy has grown into ‘the Champion’ and is training for the Tour de France with the help of his loving grandma, Madame Souza, and their loyal dog Bruno. However during the race two mysterious rectangle-shaped-sunglass and moustache-clad henchmen kidnap the Champ during the race. Discovering that something is amiss, Madame Souza and Bruno find and follow the rectangular thugs across an ocean to “Belleville” (a sort of American amalgamation). It is here that Souza and Bruno take up with the musical Triplets in order to continue their search for the Champ. Why did the mysterious brutes kidnap the champ? Will Madame Souza and Bruno ever find him? Where do the musical Triplets come into play? All of these questions and more are delightfully answered in this short but constantly entertaining and engaging plot.

The third thing that I find to be particularly amazing is the fact that the film and its rather complex plot are told through very sparing use of dialogue. Instead the film relies very heavily on subtle expressions from the characters and a well-orchestrated and emotive soundtrack, put together by Benoît Charest (alongside Chomet). While this might initially seem to limit the film in its ability to convey a story successfully I assure you that the movie not only develops and tells a beautiful and complex tale but it does so in a way that is amusing and heart wrenching. This is a glorious example of a movie that will make you laugh and cry, humorous and at the same time quite touching. Chomet is even able to execute some sly commentary through the character designs (which is best experienced and not described) and the use of animal personification in the characters and different types of people - the racers are given horse characteristics for example, and the mechanic for the bad guys is given the characteristics of a rodent. All of this just adds to the immense charm of the film.

While I could go on for hours about how amazing this movie is, I suppose that I should get down to brass tacks: why should you take a chance on this film? Because it is a perfect representation of an almost forgotten art (hand animation), because it has an always intriguing and entertaining story line, because it has a fantastic soundtrack, and because it is brilliantly told even with almost non-existent dialogue. This is truly an anomaly of a film and I implore you to take 80 minutes and experience it for yourself. Nothing I can say in words will completely do this idiosyncratic classic complete justice. You simply must see for yourself!

- Edward Hill