Monday, April 25, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #139 - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, dir. Tobe Hooper)

In 1974, director Tobe Hooper released The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a nightmarish and intense horror film about a family of murderous cannibals that, with a budget of less than $100,000, raked in over $30 million in the U.S. alone and now stands high on almost any list of the all-time great horror films. Despite the film’s reputation (and title) its on-screen violence is actually quite mild – the makers had hoped to secure a PG rating – with the very effective result of leaving the more brutal aspects of the film’s violence to the viewer’s imagination. Hooper has long insisted that the film is a dark comedy, but because of the harrowing intensity that ended up earning it an R rating it can be hard for some viewers to laugh – except maybe as a release of tension. The success of the film lead Hooper and his co-screenwriter to start thinking up a sequel, but it kept getting back-burnered, shelved, and otherwise delayed until Hooper scrapped his initial sequel idea, connected with the producers of the notorious Cannon Films, and brought on a new screenwriter to create The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

For some reason, this film is decidedly less well-liked by most than the original. Not me though. Situated right in the middle of the 80s as the slasher (and sequel) era was giving way to some great horror-comedy (Re-Animator, Evil Dead 2, Return of the Living Dead, etc.) and featuring a promotional poster that mocked the then-hot film The Breakfast Club and bore the tagline “After a decade of silence… the buzzz is back,” the sequel seemed poised to be a worthy box office draw honoring the original classic. Add to this that it also utilized the talents of screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (star of the 60s underground hit David Holman’s Diary, writer/director of the Dennis Hopper semi-documentary The American Dreamer, and writer of 1984’s Paris, Texas) and brought original director Tobe Hooper back into the fold along with actor Jim Siedow (reprising his role of The Cook from the original film). Carson took the comedic subtext of Hooper’s earlier film into something that openly satirized things that Hooper had been implicitly referring to – the Vietnam War (and now, its aftermath), The Cook ranting about how hard the competition is in capitalism for a working class chef, and so forth. Both are subtext in the 1974 film but very much on the surface here. And where the performances of the original strove for documentary-like realism, here the murderous family (plus Dennis Hopper as the avenging angel Lefty) are portrayed as over-the-top, seemingly designed solely to bring chuckles – or at least incredulity – throughout. And then there’s the blood – lots of it. This being the 80s, Hooper enlisted special effects master Tom Savini to provide the requisite amount of gore for the film (in addition to subtler work, like the aged face of the 137 year-old Grandpa), distributed in an equally over-the-top show to match the unhinged performances on tap.

And yet – even with its decidedly unrealistic tones, even with its over-the-top gore, even with its satirical flair, the film manages to be nearly as unnerving as the original. And that’s mainly due to our central character, the radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams in a mostly thankless role). She’s a late-night DJ who unwittingly overhears a murder by the family and is subsequently stalked by them. Her down-to-earth performance grounds the film from flying off into becoming the “geek show” that Roger Ebert (who hated it) saw in it. When she’s in danger, we’re scared. When a couple of the family members visit her at the radio station, it’s terrifyingly creepy. As the film progresses and she tracks the family to their underground lair it becomes something of an amped up remake of the first film’s climactic scenes (and a flash forward to Rob Zombie’s far less effective homage, House of 1000 Corpses), in which she’s imprisoned, tormented, and tries to escape while pursued by the chainsaw wielding killer Leatherface and his deranged brother. It’s easy to laugh it off if you want, but if you let it the film gets under your skin and becomes nearly as effective as the blunt nightmare of the original film.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was plagued with issues during its creation – money to make the film ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of producers Golan and Globus of Cannon Films (a low-budget studio that’s the subject of the entertaining documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films). Hooper delivered a film he figured was in line with the violence quotient of the day but was slapped with an X by the ratings board, choosing to release the film unrated which lead to its distribution being severely hampered in the process. So in the same year that the utterly mediocre Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI managed to draw nearly 20 million out of the pockets of filmgoers, this one – with intelligent (if not exactly artistic) ambitions – barely scraped out enough to make its budget back and make a few extra bucks. Dennis Hopper – right then in the middle of a run of films that included an Academy Award nomination for Hoosiers and other honors for his role in Blue Velvet – is alleged to have said that this was the worst film he’d ever been in. By contrast, Bill Moseley, who had the role of Leatherface’s brother Chop-Top, has named the role as his favorite of his own. I’m definitely in Moseley’s camp – not only does he turn in a truly effective performance, the film as a whole finds the perfect pitch of dark humor and nightmarish terror and stands as one of the highlights of 1980s horror/comedies.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 18, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #152 - Hubert Laws – Crying Song

Three things to talk about here; the phenomenon of jazz/rock, the specific jazz subgenre “flute-jazz” and the label CTI. In the late 60’s and early 70’s the movers and shakers in jazz were trying to keep their format relevant to the exploding rock audience which was accounting for stratospheric sales figures and the deification of the stars. The rock audience was not having bebop, they were demanding jazz be played with electric instruments and concern itself with topical subject matter. The obvious answer was “jazz/rock,” a subgenre that rearranged popular music for jazz instruments and, in turn, resulted in some jazz records selling the kind of numbers expected from rock releases. Miles Davis is perhaps the most successful merger of these two genres, actually creating an entirely new music free of the time constraints of rock and the staid instrumentation and conventions of jazz, offering an exciting electric amalgam of the two. Hubert Laws did not do what Miles did, but he did make a few really great jazz/rock albums of which Crying Song is the most far-reaching. Consisting of five rock covers and two jazz originals, Laws leads his crack band (with Bob James, George Benson, Grady Tate and Ron Carter among others) on beautiful flute-led excursions into the near cosmos. “Flute-jazz” is a very specific and groovy type of music. The flute has both an exciting and calming quality that can only be described as beatific. Each instrument has a different effect on the listener, but there is none with the exact mood enhancing qualities of the flute. In the hands of a master like Hubert Laws, it conveys a greater spectrum of emotion than almost any other instrument. Crying Song covers the emotional gamut.

The high points of the album are the rock covers – specifically two Pink Floyd songs, “Crying Song” and “Cymbaline,” a Monkees song, “Listen To The Band,” a Traffic song, “Feelin’ Alright,” and The Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.” Laws remains true to the basic structures of these songs but adds horns and strings to lay down a bed for jazz soloing on the melodies. It works beautifully and is virtually irresistible for rock fans who like jazz. Hearing Pink Floyd’s aching “Cymbaline” without the cosmic lyrics fundamentally changes the song, but it does not diminish its beauty in any way. Laws plays the central theme with the correct tone and precision to please Floyd fanatics, but he swings in a way jazz aficionados will appreciate. Alternately, on “Crying Song” from Pink Floyd’s More soundtrack, he lets the band run wild in a pretty free-form excursion to the outside.

The label that released this lovely record was called CTI, standing for Creed Taylor International. Producer Creed Taylor started his label in 1967 as a partnership with A&M Records, but in 1970 broke off on his own and Crying Song was the first album he released on his new imprint. CTI Records built a reputation as a label with a specific sound and look. Many people credit (or blame) Creed Taylor and his chief arranger Don Sebesky for inventing and perfecting what became known as smooth jazz, however in 1970 when Crying Song was released it was just cool, mellow flute/jazz with songs that a rock audience liked and performances a jazz audience could respect. This should have been and was a very winning formula. CTI forged a reputation for stunningly recorded albums by first rate players that struck a chord equally with rock and jazz audiences. The covers were often graced with memorable images by photographer Pete Turner. Even though I prefer the overall output of labels like Blue Note or Prestige, CTI has a very special place in my heart and my collection. In fact it is the only label-group that I have segregated from its genre. At the end of my jazz section of vinyl I have a CTI section because it is so special and unique. Albums released on CTI have such a specific set of aesthetic principles at work that they belong in their own category. When I am in the mood for a certain kind of laid-back sophistication only CTI will do, and Hubert Laws’ Crying Song is top of the heap.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, April 11, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #138 - The Conversation (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

In the early 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola worked at such a prolific rate that he not only released The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II within a span of two and a half years, but also wrote and directed The Conversation in between them. Of the four films Coppola directed in the 1970s, The Conversation somehow falls in the shadows of the first two entries in The Godfather series as well as his sprawling Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now. This unfortunate circumstance results in a lack of awareness and appreciation of one of Coppola’s strongest works. Over forty years after its release, The Conversation endures as a minimalist masterpiece of the suspense genre, contains an unforgettable performance from Gene Hackman, and imparts a lasting meditation of the consequences of surveillance culture.

Coppola wastes no time by opening The Conversation in the middle of the film’s central focus: a discussion between a young woman and man walking around a public square in the middle of the day in downtown San Francisco. While these two talk Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, and his associates work clandestinely to record the discussion despite technical challenges presented by the outdoor setting and the speakers’ shifting locations. After Caul and his colleagues have finished taping he returns to his loft workspace to get down to the business of merging the various tapes of the incomplete recording to yield a master document of the conversation. While filling in the gaps of the conversation and deciphering the recording Caul quiets his assistant’s growing curiosity over the conversation’s content by declaring, “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.” As Caul begins to realize that this recording may carry significant danger if it falls into the wrong hands, his adherence to this discipline fades. Together Coppola and Hackman create Harry Caul who, unlike the protagonists of kindred films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, is not a young, attractive, innocent bystander. Caul looks all too much like a man who has devoted himself single-mindedly to the task of listening to others while trying desperately not to be noticed while he does it. Coppola and Hackman imbue a sense of irony and humor into the character of Caul and the impotence of his attempts to control what happens around him. In spite of Caul’s cold professionalism and preposterous personal life he serves as a very human and sympathetic character as the mystery of the recording consumes him. Hackman provides the film’s complex main character but he’s not alone because The Conversation also features an excellent supporting cast including John Cazale, Terri Garr, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Allen Garfield, and Robert Duvall, who supplies a particularly chilling cameo as the Director.

The Conversation debuted just months before Richard Nixon resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal and bears some influence from those events, but the film’s powerful depiction of the perils of surveillance, not only for a society but also for an individual’s humanity, still functions as a timely warning today. Through Harry Caul the audience witnesses the true cost of this kind of surveillance, a cost which resonates deeply with both Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance programs in 2013 as well as the FBI’s recent legal tangle with Apple over gaining access to the content of an iPhone. With The Conversation, Coppola spins fiction from the front page and creates a beautiful, absorbing, and cautionary tale that speaks volumes about where unchecked curiosity inevitably takes us.

-         John Parsell

Monday, April 4, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #151 - The Roots - The Tipping Point

Since drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter formed The Roots nearly thirty years ago while attending Philadelphia’s Creative and Performing Arts high school, the complicated, symbiotic, and fruitful relationship between these artists has defined the group’s rise from underground phenomenon to household name with their current gig as house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The tension between the balance of critical and commercial success flows from the DNA of The Roots and has resulted in the creation of some of the best hip-hop albums of the last twenty years. The Tipping Point, their sixth studio album, demonstrates this tension more fully than any other album in the group’s catalog, reveals a compelling stage of the group’s evolution, and reflects major upheavals in the music industry circa 2004.

Following the back-to-back break-out successes of The Roots’ fourth and fifth studio albums (1999’s Things Fall Apart and 2002’s Phrenology), the group was well poised to build on this momentum when they released The Tipping Point in the summer of 2004. Forces both internal and external to the group during the album’s gestation supplied ample challenges to maintaining this momentum. Within the group, Questlove represents the aspiration to engage critics and fellow musicians while Black Thought symbolizes the desire toward moving and satisfying a popular audience. After the scattered, almost indulgent sprawl of Phrenology under Questlove’s guidance, The Roots chose to let the pendulum swing into Black Thought’s domain with The Tipping Point. At the same time, economic conditions and unprecedented uncertainties within the music industry caused the collapse of MCA, home to The Roots for their last two albums. The Roots landed at Interscope, helmed by industry veteran (and current Beats impresario) Jimmy Iovine, and quickly felt a new sense of obligation to deliver radio hits. To a degree, Interscope’s pressure to push The Roots into more commercial territory resulted in an album that upon its release satisfied neither mainstream hip-hop fans nor long-time fans of the group, but for very different reasons. The Roots’ relationship with Interscope began and ended with The Tipping Point and resulted in the group’s subsequent move to their home since 2006, Def Jam Recordings, under the leadership of none other than Jay-Z. Despite the conflicting forces present during its development, The Tipping Point contains some of The Roots’ best studio work, especially the great one-two punch showcase for Black Thought’s verbal prowess, “Web” and “Boom!” Also, two of the album’s most enjoyable moments are unlisted, hidden tracks that play after the final song, including a loose, energetic crew jam “In Love with the Mic” featuring comedian Dave Chappelle and a cover of “Din Da Da” by German electronic producer George Kranz.

In Questlove’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, while describing the choice to name this album after Malcolm Gladwell’s book, he admits, “With most of the records, we wanted the titles to work on three levels: as a reflection of our own career, as a reflection of the hip-hop scene, and as a reflection of the world at large.” Questlove and company may not have realized twelve years ago that this title would take on additional layers of meaning over time. In truth, The Tipping Point is not as strong as the albums that directly precede or follow it, but it remains one of The Roots’ most important albums because it supplies a fulcrum within their catalog by establishing a higher level of production, creating a stylistic template for their following albums, and hinting at the social/political statements to come on their next three albums, Game Theory (2006), Rising Down (2008), and How I Got Over (2010). These albums form a trilogy documenting the nation’s journey from the lowest moments of George W. Bush’s second term to the promise of hope signaled by Barack Obama’s first term and achieve a career high point for the group, which may not have been possible had The Roots not learned the lessons they did while crafting The Tipping Point.

-         John Parsell