Monday, February 27, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #160 – Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999, dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Ghost Dog, Jim Jarmusch’s beguiling 1999 mash-up of genres and styles might just be the best movie in an exceptionally eclectic and historically relevant career. Jarmusch has made many films that walk the line between filmic tribute and cutting-edge cultural critique, and Ghost Dog does so with style and energy. In one of his greatest roles, Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, an urban assassin, who, in a lifelong debt to an old-school Mafioso, carries out gangland hits using the philosophy and techniques of the Japanese samurai as portrayed in the classic Japanese text Hagakure. By night he murders gangsters, but by day he is an eccentric, yet integral part of his community. It is precisely this humanizing conflict that makes this film rise high above its inherent stylistic limitations and enter the class of groundbreaking modern film.

Ghost Dog succeeds on many levels, but they are all thanks to Jim Jarmusch and Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is a complex mountain of a character, whose lethal understanding of murder is matched by his authentically tender relationships with others in his neighborhood (in an unnamed, gritty, East-Coast city). He carries on a telepathically satisfying friendship with the local ice cream salesman in spite of the fact that they don’t speak the same language, bonds with a young girl through books, earns the respect of the local gang-bangers and, most interestingly, he cares for a flock of pigeons, using them for communication while showing them a humanity he denies his victims. In a performance of very few words Whitaker conveys a colorful palette of emotions through his expressive eyes, world-weary bearing and delicately menacing physical enormity. The true samurai, he glides through the city invisible to his enemies, but surprisingly approachable to the folks in the ‘hood.

For his part writer/director Jim Jarmusch has created a modern classic. While occasionally veering into the Tarantino school of style-over-substance-hyper-violence, he keeps an eye to the moral center and fills the motivations of the central character with such convincing ambiguity that the reprehensible moral choices he makes seem somehow understandable. Through his terse dialogue and the creation of an atmospheric world for Ghost Dog to inhabit, the characters and events feel like real life (or maybe dream life). That world is the other uncredited star of this film. Ghost Dog pulses with the sights and sounds of the city. There are dark urban realities juxtaposed with beautiful, ponderous shots of the moon or birds in flight. And then there is the music. Jarmusch masterfully weaves together deep soul and reggae cuts with the brilliant beats and insistent rhymes of the original music created by The RZA (who makes an effective cameo himself toward the end of the movie). Like many of Jarmusch’s best movies, the soundtrack almost becomes a character in itself.

The central conflict of the film comes from the fact that in the execution of one of Whitaker’s scheduled hits something goes wrong, and suddenly the hunter becomes the hunted. The mob now has a hit out on Ghost Dog and thus, as they say on the street, “it’s on!” Lots of blood gets spilled in a very short period of time in the last quarter of this movie, and yet an equal or even greater care is given over to showing Ghost Dog as a man of honor and thought. He lays the seeds in his neighborhood for those he cares about to sprout new growth.

Like all movies which busy themselves with the feelings of the killers, rather than those of the victims (which is virtually ALL modern movies), I question the believability of some of the characters, or why I should give a rat’s ass about them, but the overall effect of Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is like that of an epic poem. Forest Whitaker is a modern Odysseus trying to make it home through a world filled with evil to a place of moral serenity. He gets there, but if he’s better off for it is for you to decide.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, February 20, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #173 - Rufus Wainwright – Want One

After Leonard Cohen died in November, I re-watched the documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. This 2005 film combines performances from two tribute concerts and interviews with artists participating in the events as well as with Leonard Cohen himself. Rufus Wainwright stands out performing alongside his sister, Martha Wainwright, and his mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, among artists including Beth Orton, Nick Cave, and Jarvis Cocker. Rufus Wainwright contributes compelling, singular takes on the Cohen classics “Everybody Knows,” “Hallelujah,” and “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” on stage while sharing charming stories of his personal relationship with one of his idols in interviews. Watching the film again, I reflected on Rufus Wainwright’s deep, passionate, and personal connection to the craft of songwriting. Wainwright’s third album, Want One, released just two years prior to this film, captures him at his creative peak and delivers his defining artistic statement.

The son of folk music stars Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright drew from his parents’ talents but set off in a direction beyond the boundaries of folk music. Wainwright’s performances in Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man yield a representative impression of his abilities by ranging from knowing and playful to soaring and anthemic to heartfelt and wistful. The fourteen songs on Want One cover very similar territory, but allow Wainwright to delve into the fearless, stylistic voraciousness that has come to define him as an artist. “Oh What a World” opens the album with a distant, hummed melody before blossoming into a sprawling rumination on modern life that quotes Ravel’s Boléro as it climaxes. Up next, “I Don’t Know What It Is” settles into a more restrained mode of pop maximalism while Wainwright considers the necessity of exploring the unknown. Supported by minimalist orchestral accompaniment on “Vibrate,” Wainwright delights in pitching modern anachronisms like “my phone’s on vibrate for you” and “I tried to dance to Britney Spears” against the staid, classical backdrop. The next song, “14th Street,” launches into a full-throated ballad that begs the question, “But why’d you have to break all my heart / Couldn’t you have saved a little bit of it?” This show stopper supplies Want One’s centerpiece while functioning as a family reunion with Martha Wainwright singing backing vocals on the charging chorus and Kate McGarrigle contributing the song’s plaintive banjo outro. “11:11,” begins with a hushed mandolin figure and unfolds into a bracing tempo as Wainwright takes stock of the world he finds upon waking up late one morning; it endures as the album’s catchiest, most appealing moment. “Dinner at Eight” closes out the album on an emotionally resonant note as Wainwright grapples with the aching, confounding conflict at the core of a doomed love while his tender piano playing expands into ornate swells of strings.

A year after Want One, Wainwright followed up with another release from the same sessions, Want Two, and although it contained the wonderfully overblown nine-minute romp, “Old Whore’s Diet,” it lacked the cohesion, quality, and vision of its predecessor. Over the last several years, Wainwright’s adventurousness has taken him in a number of directions including a song-for-song tribute to Judy Garland’s 1961 album, Judy at Carnegie Hall, and last year’s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets. With Want One, Wainwright composed a lasting testament to his extraordinary, idiosyncratic love of songwriting and performance and earned himself a place alongside his teachers and heroes.

-John Parsell

Monday, February 13, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #159 – Battle Royale (2000, dir. Kinji Fukasaku)

Teacher Kitano: Life is a game. So fight for survival and see if you're worth it.

First and foremost, as with my Videodrome review I must state that this film is not safe for the children or work. Now with that out of the way, have you ever wondered what Hunger Games would be like if it were actually an extreme/violent Japanese film? Well, if you have wondered that, or if now that I have put such a thought into your mind you’re intrigued, this is most definitely a flick for you! Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 adaptation of Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale is a multi-layered masterpiece of modern Japanese cinema. Through the combination of a multifaceted plot, a multitude of relatable/human characters, beautifully choreographed violence, and a dash of black humor, Takami and Fukasaku have created a classic!

At the heart of it Battle Royale is an intense psychological thriller that follows 42 middle school students pitted against each other by the government and forced to fight to the death. In Takami/Fukasaku’s future, Japan has fallen upon hard times and with an immense amount of their population unemployed the government passed legislation that created the “BR” or “Battle Royale” initiative. Through this program, one graduating middle school class is taken to an island and forced to kill their classmates, with one strict rule... only one could survive.

Under the guise of one last class trip the students are knocked out and wake up in a strange place with metal collars on their necks. As they begin to come to they are joined by their incredibly sadistic, vindictive, and crazily sarcastic former teacher, Kitano-sensei (played by Takeshi Kitano). Kitano-sensei proceeds to explain the facts of the situation and warn that if any of them were to step out of line, or if more than one person was left after the three days, their metal collar would explode, instantly killing them. This fact is then quickly demonstrated on a kid that had wronged the twisted teacher years prior. As the students’ terrifying introduction to their predicament comes to a close they are introduced to two mean looking “transfer” students who’ve been chosen to make the game more interesting, given a random weapon (some as useful as a gun or GPS tracker, some as useless as a pan lid), and sent out on their own to fight to survive.

One of the aspects of Battle Royale that makes it such a remarkable film is the fact that you quickly find yourself invested in the stories of all of the students even though you spend relatively little time with them. Each student has their own back story, told through flashback, which leads us to fully empathize with them. Additionally, throughout the film we receive little pieces of the class's collective story providing us with a better understanding of their group dynamic. In the end you really feel as if you’ve shared in their experiences, which makes the violent and casualty-filled journey just that much more impactful. While you empathize with all of the characters in one way or another, the innocent love story of Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) aided by the previous survivor Shôgo Kawada (Tarô Yamamoto) (one of the mean looking transfer students) provides the incredibly affecting main story arc.

The truth of the matter is that, while the plot stems from a rather simple concept, the narrative itself is incredibly complex, and while I attempt to write a brief synopsis I find myself constantly saying, "Oh don't forget that part," and "Oh man, that is one of the best parts!" There is just so much packed into this two-hour flick that you just have to watch it to fully understand. On top of the fact that this is a glorious and expansive narrative, the action, gore, and tension are all incredible! After the kids are released into the wild every turn that they take could lead to a fatal battle, and as the viewer you feel that sensation. However, even though the plot and mood of the film is rather severe, the way that it is written and acted adds a certain natural black comedy to the tragedy that surprisingly enough doesn't seem forced.

In summation, if you like complex, brutal thrillers and have always wanted to see a more realistic and less stylized version of Hunger Games I would recommend that you check out this extraordinary film! Not only is it incredibly engaging, with some intense battle sequences, but it is beautiful, touching, and at parts comical... just like real life. So, if you would allow me, I would love to turn you on to this film because, well, it's just a killer flick!

- Edward Hill

Monday, February 6, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #172 - Procol Harum - Grand Hotel

When I was in junior high, there was a kid named John Kelly who I really bonded with over music. We would talk about our favorite bands and songs and album covers. One day he showed me his writings about music. He would describe in florid, accurate, detail songs that he’d heard with his ears or in his head. For instance, he would describe the musical introduction to a song like: “a ripple of horns burst forth and give way to a lead guitar that sounds like Leslie West on ‘Nantucket Sleighride.’” So, he was using the non-technical language at his disposal to describe the magic he heard with his ears. He also would do the same thing with songs he made up himself. I thought this was incredibly cool and creative and started doing it myself. I thought I might be remembering the guy and the whole thing wrong, so I broke out my Merrill Jr. High Yearbooks from the early 70’s and there was his picture, just like I remembered him. He had signed it “See Ya Kid-J.K.” I wonder what happened to him? Anyway, we started going over to each other’s houses after school and listening to records. We turned each other on to tons of records that are still among my favorites. The one that stands out the most for me though is Procol Harum’s majestic Grand Hotel.

I had their greatest hits LP, knew their big songs, and always really liked how different they sounded from pretty much every other rock band I had listened to. They had biting, intelligent lyrics, great guitar solos, a huge keyboard sound and a lead singer who sent chills up your spine the minute he opened his mouth. John Kelly showed me his written description of Grand Hotel at school, and at his house one day I asked him to play the one where he described a female, classical singer duetting with the regular vocalist. He put on the song “Fires (Which Burn Brightly)” and my jaw immediately hit the floor. There, after a brief piano intro, came a heavenly voice I was totally familiar with. It was Christiane Legrand of the Swingle Singers, a sophisticated jazz vocal group who became very popular in the era for rearranging classical masterpieces as poppy, scat confections. My dad, a total classical snob, loved them and played them around the house all the time. In the 5:09 minutes it took for this song to run out, my mind was completely changed about a lot of things. Two seemingly incongruous things in my 13-year old life - my taste (rock music) and my dad’s taste (classical music - albeit a light form of it here) - came crashing together in a beautiful moment of happy revelation. I said to John, “Let me borrow this record so I can play it for my dad.” We used to lend each other records back then and he gladly handed it over. As I recall, my father was nonplussed by this (and all) rock music. While I didn’t exactly have the meeting of the minds I was hoping for with him, it had an enormous, lasting effect on me. It was the first time I started to see that musicians of wildly different disciplines could meet in the song and make perfect sense. This was one of the major locks to be opened for me: that real musicians dug each other simply based on the fact that they both spoke the same artistic language. I started listening to Grand Hotel obsessively. I was greatly rewarded.

“Fires (Which Burn Brightly)” remains a high water mark for me. Christiane Legrand’s vocal at the end soars like few things in rock and it still makes me totally weak in the knees to hear it. But the rest of this album is equally wonderful. It might be the album where you can best hear the mesh of Procol Harum’s sound: the elegant grand piano and Hammond organ playing at the same time, B.J. Wilson’s fantastic, understated drumming, Brooker’s soulful growl and grand orchestrations (including strings, choirs, and the aforementioned Legrand), and most importantly on this album, the mysteriously intelligent words lyricist Keith Reid offered up for Procol’s sixth album. Covering economic disparity, alcohol, drugs, T.V. addiction, immoral officials, love, work, venereal disease and everything else relevant in 1973, Reid does it gently and with a Baroque sense of humor that is equal parts Lord Byron and Bob Dylan. He is truly one of the most underappreciated lyricists in rock.

Every single cut on this album is a monster, with special attention going to the first two songs. The title song “Grand Hotel” is indeed grand with a classic Procol Harum opening of piano and Hammond organ which soon gives way to a huge production, including a sweeping orchestra and choir mixing with the band as Brooker describes an opulent stay at the fanciest hotel in the world. The music feels like the greatest ballroom entry of all time. The second song, “Toujours L’Amour,” returns the band to familiar Procol territory as a propulsive drum kicks the guitar-driven song forward. By the time Mick Grabham wrenches his second great solo out of his guitar the song has reached a delirious frenzy.

Each song builds upon the last leaving this as possibly Procol Harum’s best overall album. I miss Robin Trower’s guitar and Matthew Fisher’s memorable organ playing, but their replacements perform admirably, and they really sound like the same band they were in the beginning, but with much better production. Grand Hotel was an enormously influential album in my musical development, and every single time I hear it I am further impressed with its excellence. It surprises me that I liked it as a junior high school kid. Often when I revisit many albums I loved as a kid, I am embarrassed by what I hear. It wasn’t until high school that I actually started developing an ear. I really have to thank John Kelly. That kid had a good ear early on.

-         Paul Epstein