Monday, August 29, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #147 – The Devil's Backbone (2001, dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Casares: What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

Before Guillermo del Toro would become a household name working on such franchises as Blade, Hellboy, The Hobbit and had the opportunity to craft such films as Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak he wrote and directed a smaller but equally affecting ghost story titled The Devil’s Backbone. While this film is certainly less flashy than any of the aforementioned films (not to mention the insane blockbuster, Pacific Rim) del Toro’s flair for fantastic realism and incredible ability to create gorgeously engulfing worlds are still extremely strong on this compelling early passion project.

The story begins with an enigmatic scene splicing between the death of a young boy and scenes of bombs being dropped. After a gorgeous title sequence the narrative begins with the main character, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) being dropped off at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere. It seems that his father has been killed (though he is unaware of this fact) in the Spanish Civil War and his tutor is dropping him off in order to fight for the Republican cause. As Carlos is exploring his surroundings he becomes fascinated with a large bomb in the middle of the courtyard that had fallen and not exploded on the night of the opening sequence. Thus begins Carlos' exposure to the eerie aspects of his new home. Almost immediately after he settles in he finds himself being followed by “the one who wheezes,” a ghost child haunting the orphanage. While Carlos deals with the trials and tribulations of his new living situation, bullies, lovingly stern teachers, and a monster of a groundskeeper, the secrets and mysteries of the orphanage, both supernatural and human in nature, begin to unfold.

One of del Toro’s strengths that shines through in this film is his ability create a realistic yet beautiful setting in which the supernatural seems almost normal. The fact that this is a ghost story is almost secondary to the drama and narrative of Carlos and the boys/adults who inhabit the orphanage. While the setting is beautifully shot and carefully constructed in a cinematic way, the fantastic elements seem to fit seamlessly into the more historical and real world of rural Spain circa 1939.

Another area where this film shines is the way in which del Toro tells the story from the perspective of Carlos and the other children. Similarly to Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) del Toro is able to beautifully and honestly capture what it is like to be young during a specific time and place. For Malle the backdrop was WWII, for Ramsay it was the Glasgow Dustmen strike, and for del Toro it’s the Spanish Civil War. All three films beautifully show the ways that children naïvely yet poignantly deal with intense circumstances. Another thing that all of these films have in common is the fact that the children who portray the leads are all perfectly cast and play the characters in a way that feel raw, emotional, yet subtle. Specifically Fernando Tielve, who plays Carlos, and Inigo Garces, who plays the complicated bully Jaime, do an amazing job of bringing their character to relatable and believable life.

On top of the fact that the film is a beautifully crafted piece about children in extreme circumstances, it is an extremely creepy and thrilling ghost story and mystery. A certain eeriness stalks the viewer through the entire film, keeping you on the edge of your seat, always wondering what hides in the shadows. In the opening sequence of the film we see Jaime, distraught, as a young boy has been killed. The details of this scene and the mystery of the ghost boy slowly come to light as the film plays on, and all of the answers come to light in an unexpected and intense crescendo.

Simply put, I would love to turn you onto this film because it is not only one of the most fantastic and enigmatic ghost stories of our time, but it is also a poignant portrayal of youth in time of strife. When a film comes around that transcends genre in order to be not only a good horror film or a good drama or a great historical fiction, that is the hallmark of a brilliant film. That is what del Toro's The Devil's Backbone is, a brilliant film. Check it out, you will not regret it!

-  Edward Hill

Monday, August 22, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #161 - Sonny Sharrock - Ask The Ages

There is not much footage of Sonny Sharrock, but what exists is revealing. If you go to Youtube and watch Sonny “Live at The Knitting Factory from 1988” you get a pretty good idea what this amazing talent was like. He appears on stage, a middle-aged, slightly portly, jovial African-American gentleman cradling an electric guitar. His accompanists begin a throbbing, jazzy beat and Sonny smiles and closes his eyes. He isn’t particularly worried about playing a song, or structuring a solo. He is a bird standing on a branch, waiting for the right triangulation of bait, breeze and inspiration to lift him into flight. It happens and, eyes still closed, smile switching to a grimace of concentration, he takes off. Sonny Sharrock’s solos are not technical marvels, but rather highly emotional excursions into his psyche. He claimed that he never really wanted to play guitar, rather that he was a frustrated horn player chasing the elusive sound of his hero John Coltrane. This schism is evident in his playing as he voices solos that are fat and chordal in tone, but leap into wild single-note improvisational runs, much as Coltrane did, especially in his final period. Sonny had a long history of learning his style, starting in the 1960’s appearing on Pharoah Sanders Tauhid, and (legendarily) some uncredited playing on Miles Davis’ guitar feast Tribute To Jack Johnson, then joining Herbie Mann’s groundbreaking band for the latter’s strongest run of albums. He toiled in the jazz underground in the 70’s releasing several amazing, avant-garde records, but seemingly disappeared until bassist Bill Laswell tracked him down and mentored him out of obscurity and into the spotlight where his reputation as one of the most thrilling and unique voices in jazz increased until his untimely death from heart failure in 1994.

Sharrock’s sound and catalog are not easy to get your arms around. His early work on the Herbie Mann albums is hard to spot because of the nature of his solos. One has to train their ear to listen for him, because his early work tends to blend (self-consciously one would imagine) into the overall framework of the songs. By the time of his difficult to obtain 70’s solo work, he is fully immersed in avant-garde stylings and though those albums contain some of his best playing, sometimes the music was too extreme for many listeners. Once he came back in the 80’s he branched out in many directions (and on many labels) including some heavy metal style playing with the band Machine Gun. Like other enticing figures skirting the edges along jazz, rock, avant-garde, and free-form, Sonny Sharrock is like a rare orchid: sightings are seldom, but unforgettable.

This difficulty in stylistically pinning him down is what makes 1991’s Ask The Ages the essential way “in” to Sonny Sharrock. It is a beautiful, hypnotic, intense album that fulfills the promise of a guitar player who plays his guitar like Coltrane played his sax. Produced by Bill Laswell and Sonny himself, Ask The Ages reunites Sharrock with Pharoah Sanders and throws jazz greats Elvin Jones (another Coltrane alumnus) on drums and Charnett Moffett on bass into the mix. The results are completely thrilling as Sanders and Sharrock take turns soloing in a variety of sympathetic styles. Each of the 6 songs is a universe of complex rhythm and spectacular soloing to discover. Sanders fills the role of Coltrane well on some numbers like “Who Does She Hope To Be” but each song finds its center within Sonny Sharrock’s completely un-copyable style of guitar playing. Take the final number “Once Upon A Time” where he plays beautifully melodic single lines over his own crunchy power-chording. It is a thrilling exercise in musical freedom. It feels set loose from the bonds of genre, geography or financial concern as the musicians bravely explore the outside of modern music. This is something the label Axiom specialized in, and we can thank Bill Laswell for creating a place for Sonny Sharrock and many other groundbreaking musicians. Although it lasted less than a decade in its original incarnation, Axiom was one of the great labels of the modern era, and virtually everything they released is worth hearing.

It’s really hard to compare Sonny Sharrock to any other musician because of his utterly singular take on soloing, and his lack of adherence to any “school” of jazz thought. He brings to his music the same thrilling individuality and untrained freshness that Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker or even Keith Moon brought. The excitement of finding an artist so in love with their instrument and the idea of making music that even their lack of training will not stop them is one of the fundamental reasons I listen to music. It is the promise of human individuality and meaning given flesh.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, August 15, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #146 – Mo’ Better Blues (1990, dir. Spike Lee)

How do you follow up a film like Do the Right Thing? A film that Variety, the New York Times, the American Film Institute, and the National Society of Film Critics – to name only four such publications or organizations – call one of the greatest films ever made? And even if that’s hyperbole to you, it appeared on most serious critics’ top 10s for 1989 and was called one of the best films of the 80s by both Siskel and Ebert, among others. So how does one follow that? Well, if you’re Spike Lee, you scale back a little to tell the story of a jazz trumpeter.

Denzel Washington stars as trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, the cool leader of a popular quintet that packs the house every night they play. His childhood friend Giant (played by Spike Lee) manages the group but is chronically unable to get more money for them (or to pay his gambling debts). Other members of the group – notably Wesley Snipes as Shadow Henderson as his sax-playing friend/rival – are fed up with Giant’s management, with being underpaid, and with Bleek’s complacent unwillingness to fire his friend and hire someone who’ll get them better work. Bleek’s so focused on making his music that he’s unwilling to commit to the mundane work of getting a new manager to get them out of a bad contract. He’s also unwilling to commit to either of the women he’s dating (played by Cynda Williams and Joie Lee). And the drama of the film – as pointed and focused as any Lee’s ever directed – starts to spiral out of these conflicts. There are fights and ego battles within the band, Bleek’s juggling of two women begins to take a toll, and Giant’s gambling debts start to endanger his health.

There are two remarkable scenes in the film that stand out: when things come to a head between Bleek and his women, Indigo and Clarke. Without giving too much away, the scene is cut between Bleek talking to Indigo and talking to Clarke, and at the center of it, the sometimes callous underpinnings of his devotion to his music comes to the fore. In another scene, Lee and editor Samuel D. Pollard again cut between two events – Bleek on stage and playing with intense verve and fire alternates with Giant’s confrontation with his bookie’s collection men outside in the alley. Both of them are as powerful, well-conceived, and brilliantly executed as anything Lee has ever shot. Additionally, the performances are superb from the entire ensemble, but special nods must go to Washington and Snipes for bringing to life both the tensions and friendships in the band, and to Cynda Williams and Joie Lee for creating two fully fleshed out, believable women as the objects of Bleek’s desire. And it should be noted that even though the film itself is really a drama about an artist wrapping himself up so deeply in his work that he can’t give the relationships in his life the attention they deserve, it’s still a jazz lover’s dream, filled with classics from Mingus, Miles, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Cannonball Adderley and more. And that’s not even to mention the terrific original performances throughout by the Branford Marsalis group featuring Terence Blanchard on trumpet (performing as Bleek’s group).

Though Spike Lee has been unafraid of controversy throughout his career, it felt like after Do the Right Thing he might have taken a break from it with Mo’ Better Blues. It’s a perfectly sound artistic choice and he made the most of it with this excellent drama (and also returned right back to it with Jungle Fever immediately afterward).

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, August 8, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #160 - Superchunk – Come Pick Me Up

While I was in high school in the early-mid 1990s, my taste in popular music exploded as Nirvana’s unprecedented success ushered in a surge of “alternative music.” I grew up in the southeast and Superchunk, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, quickly became one of my favorite bands by embodying the DIY ideals of non-mainstream music like no one else in the region. In addition to Superchunk’s accomplishments as one of the best indie rock bands of its time, lead singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance also founded Merge Records in 1989. Although many predicted that Superchunk would become “the next big thing,” the band never became the next Nirvana. In 1999, years after Superchunk’s alleged shot at the big time had passed, the band teamed up with producer Jim O’Rourke to create Come Pick Me Up, an album that crowns their decade-long run of great records, finds the band eager to experiment, and finally allows them to have fun like nobody's watching.

After Superchunk established a singular take on punk-inflected indie rock with their first five albums, they began branching out with 1997’s Indoor Living. While the album certainly has some great songs, Indoor Living ultimately carries the burden of intentional and abrupt changes to a reliable formula. With the opening moments of Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk announces to listeners that they have come back for this album rejuvenated, inspired, and ready to test themselves. The first song, “So Convinced,” greets us with the delightful cacophony of a distinctive drum beat processed through distortion and effects. The song quickly breaks into an upbeat stride that builds on the band’s strengths while pushing into new territory in terms of composition, songwriting, and instrumentation. Arriving halfway through the album, “Pink Clouds” provides Come Pick Me Up with a centerpiece and showcases Superchunk’s joyfully creative explorations with producer O’Rourke. At this point the band had established a knack for ending many of their songs with dueling guitar solos from McCaughan and guitarist Jim Wilbur. On “Pink Clouds,” O’Rourke elevates this signature element of Superchunk’s sound by replacing the guitars with a saxophone and trombone and allowing the intertwining horn solos to peel off into a cathartic fervor that closes out the song on a surprising, triumphant note. A few songs later, “Tiny Bombs” demonstrates the band’s comfort with stylistic flourishes as it grows from a familiar little guitar figure into sprawling, confident march replete with sunny harmony vocals and handclaps.

Two years after Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk’s eighth album, Here’s To Shutting Up, happened to come out one week after the September 11th attacks. Both that album and the subsequent tour got lost in the aftermath of the tragedy. After that, Superchunk went on an extended, indefinite hiatus that felt, for long-time fans, like a quiet and unassuming end to a dynamic and energetic band. During this time, Merge Records blossomed into maturity under the guidance of McCaughan and Ballance as bands like Spoon and Arcade Fire reached new heights of critical and popular success. In 2010, Superchunk surprised a lot of people when they released Majesty Shredding, their first album in nearly a decade. Three years later, Superchunk followed up with their tenth album, I Hate Music. Both of these albums serve as reminders of Superchunk’s vitality and relevance while contributing notably to their catalog. Superchunk has been writing the book on independent music for over 25 years and Come Pick Me Up may well contain its most curious and captivating chapter.

-         John Parsell

Monday, August 1, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #145 – The Good Shepherd (2006, dir. Robert DeNiro)

 Many people know that Robert De Niro has earned the reputation as one of the greatest actors of his generation, but fewer realize that he has also directed two films, both worth watching. De Niro’s 1993 directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, tells the story of a father competing with a local gangster for his son’s loyalty and fits easily into De Niro’s career, which includes many nuanced depictions of criminals. De Niro’s sophomore effort in 2006, however, does not line up as neatly with his body of work. The Good Shepherd provides a history of the Central Intelligence Agency and a reflection on how the CIA’s operations have often run against democratic principles and this nation’s core values. With The Good Shepherd, De Niro demonstrates what he has learned from the great filmmakers who have directed him, supplies Matt Damon with a pivotal and challenging lead role, and incorporates a fantastic ensemble of actors to shed light on this country’s most powerful and mysterious institution. 

De Niro structures this intricate saga by intercutting a day-by-day account of the week in 1961 that followed the C.I.A.’s greatest failure, The Bay of Pigs Invasion, with flashbacks to crucial moments in the life of Edward Wilson, the agency’s founding director of counterintelligence. On balance, The Good Shepherd feels more reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s work than that of Martin Scorsese with its decade-spanning scope, patient character building, and evocative art direction. Elements of The Godfather and The Conversation float through the film, but its portrayal of Edward Wilson and his primary Soviet adversary (code named Ulysses) recalls Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s relationship in Michael Mann’s Heat. Despite these influences, De Niro maintains a singular verve and a trenchant sense of humor throughout the nearly three hour running time. As Edward Wilson, Damon broadens his range significantly by investing a complicated, highly internalized, and subtle power in his performance as a man who has learned the grievous consequences of knowing too much and losing the trust of the intelligence community. While Wilson works ceaselessly to solve the puzzle of the agency’s defeat in Cuba, he negotiates a series of antagonistic relationships that define his life’s work. Lee Pace delivers an easy, well-mannered malice as Wilson’s Yale classmate and agency rival. Oleg Stefan conveys a worldly, respectful, and ominous presence as Wilson’s formidable opponent, Ulysses. A delightfully worn-in Alec Baldwin imparts a crass humanity as Wilson’s contact in the FBI. Michael Gambon, William Hurt, John Turturro, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci, and Martina Gedeck round out the cast of Wilson’s professional associations. Angelina Jolie, Eddie Redmayne, Tammy Blanchard, and Timothy Hutton contribute notable dimension to the film as Wilson’s family and loved ones. De Niro tops off this ensemble by casting himself as the general who oversees the CIA’s creation while confessing to Wilson, “I see this as America’s eyes and ears; I don’t want it to become its heart and soul.”

Throughout The Good Shepherd runs an indictment of the prejudices of the English and U.S. American elite that shaped the global politics of the 20th century. De Niro levels an especially blunt critique against the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Ivy League educated U.S. American aristocracy who attempted to shape the world in their image. The film’s release coincided aptly with the final stretch of the second presidential term of Yale alumnus George W. Bush, during which his administration plummeted in popularity amid rampant reports of CIA overreach and the widespread implementation of torture in the War on Terror.

-         John Parsell