Monday, July 31, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #171 - Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)

When Zodiac came out in the spring of 2007, I had grown very fatigued with the trends of the time for forensic procedurals and entertainment based around true crime. I avoided a lot of crime-based movies and TV shows during this time because I felt that the fascination for increasingly graphic representations of grisly homicides had lured mainstream entertainment down a dark alley with no way out. With Zodiac, David Fincher broke new ground in a heavily exploited genre by commanding an incredible ensemble cast anchored by three career-standout performances, embracing an unorthodox structure that beautifully fits the narrative, and creating an unforgettable statement on the interplay of crime, journalism, and entertainment that has come to dominate U.S. American culture in the last fifty years.

David Fincher prefaces Zodiac with the uncommon, yet highly accurate statement, “what follows is based on actual case files,” before dropping the audience into the middle of an engrossing, stylish depiction of the night of the first Zodiac murder on July 4, 1969. The next scene unfolds four weeks later when the first coded letter from the Zodiac Killer arrives at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle and attracts the attention of crime reporter Paul Avery and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith. A few weeks later Detective David Toschi and his partner drive to the scene of the next murder as the mystery, terror, and spectacle of the Zodiac case pull the Bay Area’s police departments, newspapers, and general populace into a legendary and unprecedented state of alert. Just a year before Robert Downey Jr.’s career skyrocketed into resurgence with Iron Man, he injects bravado and a charismatic zeal into his portrayal of Paul Avery, but also layers his performance with a self-destructive pathos that deepens as the film progresses. In the role of Robert Graysmith, Jake Gyllenhaal plays upon his boyish good looks, but also conveys a dogged sense of innocence and curiosity in his representation of the former Boy Scout and one-time cartoonist whose tireless obsession with this case resulted in the best-selling book on which this film is based. Mark Ruffalo adds a slight lilt to his voice and a disarming, gentle demeanor to his depiction of homicide detective David Toschi, who served as the model for Steve McQueen’s character in the 1968 film Bullitt. Through warmth, compassion, and a constant craving for animal crackers, Ruffalo’s rendering of Toschi confounds many of the clichés of seasoned homicide detectives that populate Hollywood movies. Brian Cox contributes a delightful cameo as celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli and delivers one of the film’s most surreal moments as Belli discusses his recent guest performance on Star Trek with a local news anchor before a televised conversation with the Zodiac Killer. As Robert Graysmith’s wife Melanie, Chloë Sevigny builds a knowing determination and empathy into her portrait of a woman whose marriage and family slowly fall to pieces as her husband follows the cryptic and labyrinthine path left by the Zodiac Killer.

By sticking to eye witness accounts of the Zodiac Killer’s crimes, David Fincher builds a true crime story that subverts many of the genre’s conventions by digging into the minute details of the case’s logistical and legal challenges, jurisdictional conflicts, media sensationalism, false leads, and copycat trends. In addition to these unusual narrative elements, Zodiac plays further against genre by focusing more directly on the people pursuing the killer than the killer himself. Fincher tops off an already excellent film by embracing pop culture connections like the case’s tricky relationship with Dirty Harry, while simultaneously paying homage to modern classics from the era as divergent and distinctive as The Conversation, Jaws, and All the President’s Men.

-          John Parsell

Monday, July 24, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #184 - Grizzly Bear – Yellow House

In the fall of 2006, I struggled through the last year of my twenties trying to balance the demands of graduate school and the collapse of a five-year-long relationship in a small town in Vermont. Despite the exquisite autumn foliage, quaint locales, and charming New England characters surrounding me, I found myself at a low point with few breaks from the pressure, frustration, and loneliness I felt. Throughout my life, music has provided an outlet from my troubles and a path toward healing. Around this time, TV on the Radio released their second album, Return to Cookie Mountain, and offered the gift of an intense, gorgeous, and complicated album that soon became a personal favorite. Speaking of gifts, a few weeks later a friend bought me a ticket to see TV on the Radio in Boston. Preparing for the show, I noted the name of the opening band, Grizzly Bear, and wondered what they would sound like.  

The trip to Boston allowed me a much needed interlude from Vermont and once I entered the venue I felt energized by the evening’s potential. Shortly after I arrived four young men took to the stage, announced themselves as Grizzly Bear and conjured an intricate, haunting, and mesmerizing collection of songs. All four band members contributed to the lush vocal harmonies woven into the songs and they cycled through a range instruments including clarinet, autoharp, banjo, and xylophone. At the end of their set, the band announced that they would be selling copies of their brand new sophomore album, Yellow House, at the merch table. TV on the Radio came on soon after and put on a brilliant performance that far surpassed my expectations. That night stands as one of the best combinations of opening act and headliner I’ve ever witnessed. After the show, I took Grizzly Bear up on their suggestion and bought a copy of Yellow House. The whole band worked the table and their enthusiasm for their new album was infectious. Return to Cookie Mountain had given me a vibrant, cathartic push through a tough fall, but Yellow House invited me to explore the elusive and delicate possibilities of the near future as I prepared for winter in Vermont. Each of the ten songs on Yellow House possesses a distinct identity, but I think of the album as a whole. The opening song “Easier” slowly builds through an evolution of disparate elements for over a full minute before coalescing into a spritely paced, densely layered introduction to the band’s unusual and compelling songcraft. Although the album begins with an airy feeling and light instrumentation, the closing song, “Colorado,” stirs low, heavy piano notes and pulsing percussion into a heavy, meditative storm as the phrase, “Colorado, what now?” repeats like an invocation until the song slowly reduces to the hushed, persistent beat of a drum.

In 2007, I saw Grizzly Bear tour in support of Yellow House two more times and each time I felt like I learned more about the songs and how they worked so well together. Two years later upon the release of their breakout third album, Veckatimest, the band played in a much larger venue and it was thrilling to see them thriving and enjoying the success of their hard work. In just a few weeks, Grizzly Bear will release their fifth studio album, Painted Ruins, and I’m eager to hear how the band has evolved in the five years since their last album, Shields. After I first became acquainted with Yellow House in New England, I lived in Oregon and back in my hometown in South Carolina before moving to Colorado a few years ago. Nearly eleven years later, I still feel like Yellow House has new things to tell me and I must admit that more and more I find myself wondering, “Colorado, what now?”  

-          John Parsell

Monday, July 17, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #170 - Five Easy Pieces (1970, dir. Bob Rafelson)

Why does this movie have a reflective hold on my mind and soul? It is flawed and dated, and yet, the underlying theme of a confused man’s search for meaning in modern America holds truer than almost any other movie of the era. Released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces is THE movie that sums up the confusing malaise that settled upon the survivors of the 60’s as the far bleaker 1970’s rose on the horizon like the glow of an errant atomic blast. The secret to the movie, however is not the hefty cultural baggage it carries with it, but the career defining performance by Jack Nicholson and, to a lesser degree, Karen Black. Nicholson’s Bobby Eroica Dupea is a Russian nesting doll of psychological complexity, whose tormented path through life slowly reveals itself as the confused details of his past and the uncertain direction of his future come colliding in on him during an unwelcome family reckoning.

The movie opens on a Bobby Dupea who is easily recognizable to most of us: a working stiff with a dead-end job, a loveless relationship and a nonexistent piece of the American dream. He works in the oil fields with his buddy Elton, drinks beer at night and barely tolerates his attractive but dim girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto, a waitress with hopes of being a country singer ala Tammy Wynette (whose songs effectively provide much of the movie’s soundtrack.) Bobby’s life seems to be going nowhere, and when he quits his job we feel like this is just another step on his way down to utter failure. This first part of the movie is shot with a simple beauty that betrays none of the complexity of character that will follow.

We next see Bobby incongruously dressed in a suit and wandering into a recording studio in Hollywood. He is here to see his sister, Partita, an eccentric classical pianist (modeled on Glen Gould) whose presence immediately starts filling in gaps of our understanding of who this man really is. She tells him their father is ill and Bobby should visit. We come to understand that Bobby is from a family of musical prodigies, and that his relationship is fractured and removed from the reality he once lived. Bobby’s journey home to his family compound on a private island signals a change in tone and temperament for Five Easy Pieces as it changes from a study of characters to a character study. Once Bobby is back among the wealth, education, privilege and expectations of his family, his lifestyle choices, as depicted in the first half of the movie, become understandable. The Dupea family, including the mute, stroke-damaged patriarch represent everything the 60’s rebelled against: pompous, over-bred, classist creeps, impotent in their achievement, yet certain they are above it all. Bobby sets his sights on his brother’s girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach) and seduces her in an uncomfortable clash of cultures that signals a final break within the family. In the pivotal scene of the movie, Bobby pours his heart out to his unspeaking father. He breaks down and shares his feelings of worthlessness and regret. It is the single greatest moment of Jack Nicholson’s career and one of the most affecting scenes in all of American cinema. It is hard to imagine a person in post-euphoric America who would not be affected by this moment. This masterful scene illustrates the moment in every young person’s life when artifice and swagger turn to actual emotion.

As the movie comes to its conclusion, Bobby introduces Rayette to his family, including Catherine, and the difference between the two women is as stark as the two lives they live.  It is Bobby’s discontent that cuts through both of them with stinging realism - both sides are broadly drawn to the point of being caricatures, with Bobby being the believable “everyman.” Bobby’s experience implies that there was no answer to American life - the tradition of European-style intellectualism was ultimately as hollow as working in the oil fields to Bobby. The schism between 60’s and 70’s intellectuals and the common man was gulfed with expectation and disappointment.

Five Easy Pieces is much more than its plot indicates. In a way it is a turning point for American cinema and national self-reflection. The reality is that American life is simultaneously a rich and beautiful panoply as well as being totally dead at its core. It is Bobby’s internal struggle that has the most relevance to me. The scenes that have the most cultural resonance are disposable (the famous luncheonette scene); rather the heart of the movie rests in Nicholson’s quiet and understated portrayal of a man with depth, and his rejection of that depth for what he considers a “real” existence. It ultimately points to the hollowness of ALL American life. The film ends with Bobby once again running out on his responsibilities and leaving it all behind in an existential turning away from all expectation in modern society - free to be a drifter - yet shackled to his own sense of failure and meaninglessness. With nearly fifty years of American experience since this film was made, its enigmatic message feels more relevant than ever.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, July 10, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #183 - Leon Russell - Leon Live

When Leon Russell recorded this massive 3 LP (or 2 CD) set in 1972, it seemed like he was riding a never-cresting wave of popularity and hipness. He was way more than a triple threat: he was a singer, songwriter, performer, arranger, producer and, as many saw in Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen, he was a guru of sorts - “the master of space and time.” His field of vision took in everything that rock was all about: raging R&B, swinging country and the life-changing properties of gospel. That’s right, much of Leon’s shtick came straight from the fire and brimstone preachers he experienced as a young person. The results were explosive. For a short few years, Leon ruled concert stages like few others. His bands were filled with serious rock and gospel session players who helped craft the contemporary sound as it existed at the time. But he brought something else to the stage as well. He was truly a proselytizer for the powers of rock and roll.

The album can be broken into three categories of performance; first a primer of great original songs by one of the best. Leon classics “Shoot Out on the Plantation,” “Dixie Lullabye,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “Prince of Peace,” “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “Out in the Woods” and “Delta Lady” are all delivered with screaming rock and roll authority. His ten-piece band (including four-piece gospel combo Black Grass) burns down the barn from the first cut - an amazing medley of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” / The Coasters’ “Idol With The Golden Head” / the gospel classic “I Serve A Living Savior” / and Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn” - through to the final song, a revival tent workout of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” This mind-melting meld of songs is the second category of performance found on the album. For reasons understood only to him, Leon Russell was able to take disparate songs and recast them through his own kaleidoscopic musical world view into new parts of a different whole. Most notoriously he did this with The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and The Coasters’ “Young Blood” at George Harrison’s The Concert For Bangladesh in 1970. The duo of songs brought the house down and on Leon Live he repeats the feat with an even crazier 16-minute version that drives the audience bananas. On this medley, Russell employs the third type of performance while delivering the second. That third type is true gospel. Antithetical as it may seem to the party-time spirit of rock and roll, gospel is actually at the root of almost all American song, and Leon Russell embraced that concept wholeheartedly on this album. He hands the stage over to Black Grass a number of times and lets them bring the spirit while he undoubtedly rested his pipes for the next showstopper. But when he does sing, his vocal delivery is clearly influenced by the cadence and exclamatory emphasis of the clergy and it is thrilling in a way that few rockers have ever attempted.

It is indeed the unbelievable string of show-stopping moments that distinguishes Leon Live from many other live albums of the era. With an almost religious fervor (ah, there’s that gospel thing again) Leon and his killer band rock the house with peak moment after peak moment. Every song seems like an appropriate place to end the show because the band just gives it all they have every single time. By the time the show winds into a medley of two anthemic originals about self-determination - “Of Thee I Sing/Yes I Am” - the listener would be forgiven for wondering if what they were hearing was actually recorded at just one concert or not. It was. Night after night Leon and his band delivered this endless extravaganza in world-class fashion and changed hearts and minds along the way.

Rock music used to be more than a convenient soundtrack to corporate marketing efforts! It used to be a tent on the outskirts of town, where kids could meet and observe ancient and spirit-altering rituals taking place in front of their eyes, but out of sight of their parents. I used to leave concerts with a fire in my belly to change the world; now the fire is dealt with by antacids.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, July 3, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #169 - Notting Hill (1999, dir. Roger Mitchell, writer Richard Curtis)

William: “It's as if I've taken love heroin, and now I can't ever have it again.”

Recently I found myself watching a much-overlooked 2013 film called About Time, which was written and directed by Richard Curtis. Curtis famously wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Love Actually (2003, which he also directed), Pirate Radio (2009), as well as Notting Hill. After finishing About Time, which ended up being one of the better flicks that I’ve seen recently, I felt the overwhelming urge to return to some of Curtis’ earlier work, which of course began with my return to a favorite romantic comedy of mine, Notting Hill. While on the surface Curtis’ film from the late nineties starring rom-com staples Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant seems as if it would be just another throwaway popcorn film from an era littered with such entertainment, Curtis successfully elevates the genre through fantastic dialog, performances, and the twists and turns of an almost Shakespearean narrative.

The story follows the relationship between William Thacker (Grant), the owner of a Travel Bookstore (not a Traveling book store, a Bookstore that only sells travel books), and Anna Scott (Roberts), the movie star who William randomly spills juice upon. After an initial fumbled first encounter and a few quick-witted flirtations, Scott decides to explore the potential of being with a mostly normal guy. Asking if he would like to go on a date, Scott ends up accompanying William to his sister’s birthday party, which is only awkward for a brief moment before everyone just accepts her for who she is and the two have an amazing first date. Upon returning to Scott’s hotel, they find her famous movie star boyfriend waiting for them to foil their date. This is merely the beginning of the rollercoaster of a Shakespearean comedy. Time passes and the two continue to bump into each other, both by happenstance and design, and share a number of moments, always having those moments dashed by reality. While both of them try to move past their mutual attraction, they seem to be drawn to each other in an odd way, but will they ever truly find each other?

While the plot is reasonably simple, the charm of this film, as with most all of Richard Curtis’ films, is in the dialog and the way that he is able to create an immersive world, brilliantly transporting the audience through a narrative that stunningly reflects the complexity of life. Every aspect of Notting Hill has been perfectly crafted in order to create this narrative, and while the direction and cinematography tends toward a more basic and restrained style, that only allows the dialog, narrative flow, and the performances from Grant, Roberts, and the entire supporting cast to shine through, producing a film that begs for repeated viewings. I saw the film shortly after it was released in 1999, and have since found myself drawn back to Notting Hill, usually annually.

In the end, the real reason that I wish to turn you onto this movie is the fact that it a perfectly successful romantic comedy, which in my experience (yeah, I’ve watched hundreds of bad rom-coms) is rare and should be celebrated! The performances are charming, the dialog is witty and engaging, and the story is enchanting. Oh, and I’ve gotten this far into this review and forgotten to say that it is hilarious! So, if you’re looking to sit back, relax, and enjoy a killer love story that will have you uncontrollably smiling ear-to-ear throughout, then this is the perfect movie for you to take home today!

-         Edward Hill