Tuesday, August 29, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #173 - Still Walking (2008, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

Sometimes family issues don’t get resolved. Instead they get buried, simmering under the surface, peaking out at inopportune moments, and then submerging again until the next time the simmer works up to a boil. So goes the plot of Hirokazu Koreeda’s masterpiece Still Walking, which traces a day (and a little) at an annual family memorial.
As the film begins the Yokoyama family is gathering at the home of the parents (father Kyohei and mother Toshiko) in a seaside town south of Tokyo. Their son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and daughter Chinami (You) bring their families for the annual event, whose purpose slowly becomes clear – the family meets once a year to honor their eldest son Junpei, who drowned trying to save a child. In the early scenes, everything is lightness and camaraderie as the family makes food together, chats, and catches up, though there’s a notably curt “Oh, you’re here” from the father as Ryota and his wife and stepson arrive. Slowly, as the meaning of the event is known, the family relationships begin to become clear – Chinami and her husband hope to move into the family home, but this means the clearing out Junpei’s belongings, and the parents aren’t quite ready for that. Kyohei (played with stern demeanor 
by Yoshio Harada) hoped to leave his medical practice in the care of Junpei, and when Ryota chose to leave the pursuit to become an art restorer, Kyohei’s dreams of passing on his legacy died with them. Meanwhile the slightly comical Toshiko (played beautifully by Koreeda regular Kirin Kiki), lets out her vulnerable and wounded sides as the film progresses, letting the buried pains of several events of her past to the surface through her normally cheerful outlook.

As the early conversations keep turning to the absent Junpei, the film digs in deeper. Rather than becoming a mournful or melodramatic tract about a dead son taken too soon, it works into broader territories that all families face – jealousies and resentments, disappointments long held, strains between siblings and between the younger and older generations, and so forth. After setting up an ensemble cast, Koreeda continually pairs and groups off his characters to have conversations that deepen our understanding of their relationships. And rather than resolving everything in a dramatic wrap-up, the film does the out of the ordinary and leaves issues unresolved – Kyohei’s disappointment with Ryota’s life choices may be slightly mitigated and changed by their final scene together, but they’re not settled, moved past, or put aside.
Koreeda, as is usual for him, has exceptional insight in his writing, with the characters all so realistic, so well inhabited by the actors, that we could believe we’re watching a documentary about a family rather than a narrative film. He’s also got a brilliant touch with young actors, and though they’re not put front and center here as they are in his films like I Wish or Nobody Knows, the roles given to children here (particularly Shohei Tanaka as Ryota’s stepson Atsushi, who is given an especially poignant scene) are superb. And his camera technique and editing style are unobtrusive – allowing the actors and dialogue to unfold in a natural rhythm in front of the camera without drawing attention to themselves despite his gift for composition. He’s a humanist
filmmaker of the highest level, on par with Ozu (to whom he’s frequently compared for his films of families in generational conflict), though he’s got an additional measure of adding familial trauma and its aftermath into the mix. He’s directed eleven narrative films (and a number of documentaries as well); of the nine that I’ve seen, I’d call six of them great or better, and the rest good to very good. You can’t go wrong with Koreeda, but Still Walking might be the easiest starting point to see his powers on full display.

-          Patrick Brown

Monday, August 21, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #186 - M.I.A. - Kala

Released exactly ten years and seven days ago was M.I.A.’s sophomore album Kala. Her first album, Arular (named after her father), was a spare, beat-heavy mixture of rap, electronic music, international sounds, rock attitude, punk-ish abrasiveness and politics, and more. Kala (named after her mother), expands in every direction, fleshing out everything implicated on the first album and trading in Arulars spareness for a densely layered sound that still has me discovering sounds and words in the mix after a decade of regular listening. Maybe you’ve never heard this one, or maybe you have and set it by the wayside, in which case it’s a good time to pay the album another visit. Or maybe it only fleetingly entered your consciousness when the single “Paper Planes” (which was included on the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire) worked its way up the Billboard charts to #4 over a year after the album was released.

Paper Planes,” built on a Clash sample, only scratches the surface of the record, though its stories of hustlers, drug dealers, and forgers cut right to the heart of the world M.I.A. is telling us about throughout most of the record. But “Paper Planes” turns up at track 11; we go through a lot of worlds before arriving there. The record kicks off with “Bamboo Banga” which takes off from Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner,” lays a Bollywood sample over it, and declares her “a world runner,” which she’ll spend the rest of the record proving, starting immediately with the percussive firestorm of the next two tracks. “Bird Flu” and “Boyz” both pile on layers and layers of sounds - percussion, electronic beats, snatches of keyboard melodies, quick samples from Bollywood and elsewhere, deep bass depth charges - and up on top M.I.A. herself, putting a unique spin on the “coming up from the underground” stories of so much hip-hop and taking the same boyz who’d spin such tales to task in the next song with lines like “How many no money boys are rowdy? How many start a war?” Even the next song, “Jimmy” a Bollywood cover from a 1982 film called Disco Dancer is a seemingly a flippant disco tune, but M.I.A. and producer/co-writer Switch have rewritten a longing love song so it kicks off with the unsettling lines “When you go Rwanda, Congo / Take me on your genocide tour” leading the listener to think that perhaps the song’s protagonist is in love with a terrorist, or mercenary for hire. It’d certainly fit with the snapshots of “Third World” poverty and violence that M.I.A. provides in her lyrics throughout both of her first albums.

And so it goes throughout the rest of the album - in the spectacular “Hussel” over a great rhythm and buzzy keybs M.I.A. asks why so many people are addicted to the hustle of trying to scrounge money, though noting that it's often to send money home to support their families (with intimations that it many come from illicit ventures). She then gives 18-year old rapper Afrikan Boy space to recount his “hussel” selling merch on the side of the road and avoiding police to not get deported; “Mango Pickle Down River” remixes a community youth project of indigenous Australian youth; “20 Dollar” interpolates the Pixies into a tune that explores how war impacts on the civilian populace; and before long, we’re back at “Paper Planes,” bringing her tales of international strife and strength full circle before closing out with a Timbaland-produced tune that sounds like the most mainstream thing on the record until you zero in on lines like “Gold and diamond, gems and jade/Ride up on our tanks – invade!/Blow up things to save our name.”

Three years after its release, the album crept up to a gold sales award, but each subsequent album was met with indifference by fans (though I’ve liked every one of them). And maybe that’s because Kala remains her high-water mark, the peak she’ll continue working to meet.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, August 14, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #172 - Putney Swope (1969, dir. Robert Downey Sr.)

Years ago, I was working as a bartender at a music venue in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. One of my regular barflies, Paul, and I ended up striking up an acquaintance over time due to our similar tastes. When the bar was slow, we would sit for hours getting shitfaced and discussing music, books, films and many other things. During one of these conversations, it was discovered that I had never seen Robert Downey Sr.’s breakthrough film Putney Swope. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it. I mean, I had heard of it. I knew that some of my heroes, Louis C.K. and the Coen Brothers, had cited the film as hugely influential. But I had never gotten around to seeing it or even really hearing much about it. Paul made it his mission to make sure I saw this movie. He brought me a flash drive containing a bad transfer of the film and I watched it the same night. And then I watched it again. Since then, the film has become one of my all-time favorites and I can’t believe it took me until well into my thirties to see it.

The film centers on a New York advertising agency whose chairman unexpectedly drops dead in the middle of a board meeting. While his body lay lifeless on the table, the remaining board members take a vote on who should become the new chairman. Each board member, prohibited from voting for themselves, accidentally (and by an overwhelming majority) vote in the sole black man on the board, Putney Swope. Swope immediately fires nearly the entire staff (save for one “token” white man) and hires an idealistic and politically militant all-black staff, renaming the agency Truth & Soul, Inc. Swope and his staff’s new business approach is actual TRUTH in advertising, their new motto “rockin’ the boat’s a drag, you gotta SINK the boat.” They only accept cash as payment and they refuse to take on clients who sell alcohol, tobacco or war-related toys. Almost immediately, their approach becomes so popular that companies start paying a million dollars per campaign just to become clients. The agency becomes such a success that they catch the attention of the diminutive President Mimeo and his administration. Eventually, the entire agency falls to corruption, including Swope himself.

And beyond the plot, which doesn’t necessarily sound that outrageous in and of itself, it’s hard to specify exactly the best way to describe Putney Swope. It is equal parts farce, satire, exploitation, black comedy (no pun intended) and cult masterpiece. It’s predominantly filmed in black and white, with the occasional colorized fake commercial for pimple cream, breakfast cereal and other products from the Truth & Soul client roster. The commercials are hysterical and came nearly a full decade before sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and SCTV set the standard for commercial parodies.

The titular character, Putney Swope, is played flawlessly by Arnold Johnson, who would go on to play many bit parts in sitcoms like The Jeffersons, Roc and Sanford and Son. The most surreal thing about his performance, however, is that the voice provided for Swope was not that of Johnson’s, but of Downey’s himself. This led to some speculation that Downey was a racist or somehow unfair toward Johnson on the set. Quite to the contrary, Johnson, evidently, had difficulty remembering and delivering his lines. Out of desperation (and rightly not wanting to re-cast the role) Downey voiced in the lines later. Watching the film, this fact could not be more obvious and glaring but it actually adds another layer of quirkiness to the already eccentric nature of the film. Antonio Fargas (future Car Wash and Starsky & Hutch star) plays The Arab, a sort of second-in-command at Truth & Soul, who butts heads with Swope for nearly the entire film. This dynamic helps to somewhat keep Swope’s new position from going to his head (or at least slow it down). The president and first lady are played by dwarf actors, who engage in a threesome with a photographer who intermittently shows up to show his credentials. An awkward courier (who just happens to be a dead ringer for Mark David Chapman) keeps showing up at the agency, only to constantly be cast off to the “freight elevator” by Swope and his associates. Swope starts dressing like Fidel Castro at some point for no rhyme or reason... there really is a lot going on in the 85-minute runtime of the film and not a whole lot of it makes sense. Still, one can’t help but be drawn in by the film, either by its sheer ridiculousness or by its hipper-than-thou vibe.

Putney Swope’s legacy lives on in its vast cult following and through the work of other filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, directly referenced the film three times in his own cult classic film Boogie Nights) yet it remains a highly underappreciated gem. If you haven’t already seen it, now is your chance to do like I did and right this wrong now. And by the way, thank you Paul for being such a chatty drinking buddy.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, August 7, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #185 - The 24-Carat Black – Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth (Stax/Enterprise, 1973)

One thing that came with the territory of having been an avid record collector all my life was the benefit of an education in history through music. Buying and absorbing as much music as possible, from Beethoven to Cannibal Corpse, for over two decades now has given me insight into things like politics, race relations, pop culture and many other facets of history in a way that years of sitting in a classroom never could. By simply hearing, say, Bruce Springsteen or Marvin Gaye sing their own words regarding American socioeconomic or political discourse, I got more of a sense of how historical events may have affected the average American at the time. Such was the case with the phenomenal Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, the sole record by obscure Stax Records alumni group the 24-Carat Black.

I first came upon this record in my early to mid-20s at a record store I working at, CDs-4-Change. I started working there long before the current vinyl boom, and CDs were still dominating physical media sales. So, as the name of the store suggests, our inventory was mostly CDs and not a whole lot of vinyl. But people would often come in and sell us theirs or their parents’ record collections that they had sitting around. And since nobody really expected much for vintage vinyl at the time, we bought everything that came through the door, usually for a steal. I miss these days a lot because this was the time when I could inexpensively pad my collection with great stuff. On once such occasion, I came across Ghetto in a box with, if I’m remembering correctly, nothing particularly special: Peggy Lee, Carpenters, Gene Pitney, the 5th Dimension, the occasional Elvis comp and maybe a Kansas record or two… not much to get excited about. But then there was this. Before I’d even heard a single note, I was immediately struck by it. The cover art, the album title… all of it. Even the group’s name, “24-Carat Black,” sounded important.

In the early 1970s, conservatory-trained violinist and former Motown strings arranger Dale Warren was hired by Stax to orchestrate Isaac Hayes’ early records, including the highly revered Hot Buttered Soul. Around this time, he befriended the unknown Cincinnati, Ohio group The Ditalians. Warren took the young group under his wing and proceeded to work in the studio with them where they recorded over thirty tracks. Culled from these sessions are the tracks that would eventually become the first and only official 24-Carat Black album, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. Of the rest of the sessions, only a handful survived and were finally released in 2009 by the Numero label as an unofficial second album. But back to the album at hand.

Ghetto is a concept album about the struggle of inner city life in 1970s America. Kicking off with “In the Ghetto,” a largely spoken piano ballad that pleads with “our so-called leaders” to let the poor’s voice be heard, the tone is set for what is to come. “Poverty’s Paradise” is a 12-minute-plus epic that tries to make sense of a world in which a seemingly endless expanse of people goes to bed hungry. The female lead, Princess Hearn, delivers her vocals with such forlorn intensity, focusing so much more on the words than the performance, that at one point you can her voice crack. This part always gives me chills. These longer, more conscientious opuses like the aforementioned “Poverty’s Paradise” or the 10-minute “Mother’s Day” are where the 14-piece group really shine, dramatizing the ideological and psychological turmoil that was life in the ghetto. Misfortune’s Wealth is not all bleak and hopeless though. In between songs of destitution and social tumult are some of the funkiest instrumentals ever committed to wax. These tracks serve to provide a light-hearted optimism to the otherwise bleak outlook of the record, much like a Norman Lear TV show.

Though it initially sold poorly, Ghetto has become something of a sought-after item among record collectors over the years. Many of the tracks here may be somewhat familiar to you already, having been extensively sampled by modern hip hop giants like Dr. Dre, Eric B. and Jay-Z to name a few.

When I first decided to write about this album, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to say about it. And as I spent more time with the album over these past few weeks in preparation for this article, I realized I had no idea what I wanted to say. I just knew that I loved it and I wanted other people to love it. It didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write this that, having unearthed this record way back when, I got yet another history lesson from my record collection. Ghetto is essentially a timepiece, directly representing the parallels of racial and economic inequality of its time and ever since.

-         Jonathan Eagle