Monday, September 25, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #175 - Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964, dir. Byron Haskin)

I’ve been home sick for a few days and it has given me a great opportunity to get caught up on a bunch of movies, new and old. Yesterday I watched modern master Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant which was ultra-modern, hyper-scary, mega-suspenseful. It was masterful science fiction/horror of the highest order, bringing together all the technological and storytelling finesse that can make these genres so appealing when done well. The achievements were clearly of this time: in other words, there is no way this movie - with its hellish visions literally made flesh -could have been made in a different era. It got me thinking about those different eras and the shifting sands of audience expectation and context that makes our appreciation of such movies possible.
Robinson Crusoe On Mars was made in 1964, a full year before the first images from Mariner 4 started to show the world what the Red Planet actually looked like. Thus any verisimilitude or failure can be placed on the makers of the film and not on contemporary scientific understanding. Even under this difficult stricture, this movie holds up well. The film is based faithfully on Daniel Defoe’s 18th century adventure classic which tells the tale of a man shipwrecked on an island and forced, with the help of a native companion named Friday, to find food, water, shelter and ultimately meaning in a lonely and confusing life. The “On Mars” version obviously updates the story to put the wayward traveler (square-jawed Paul Mantee) out in space and stranded on Mars instead of an island in the South Pacific. The movie opens as Mantee, his co-pilot (a young and completely un-smarmy Adam West) and a woolly monkey named Mona are passing Mars on an observation mission when an errant meteor forces them off course and into Mars’ gravitational pull. Crash landing, Mantee, named Captain Kit Draper, quickly realizes his only human companionship has perished and he is now stuck on a faraway planet with nothing but a space-suit wearing Monkey for companionship. Much like Defoe’s Crusoe, Draper must begin the slow, lonely process of finding, shelter, food, water, and in this alien environment, oxygen. Through a series of alternately plausible and laughable eventualities he does manage to secure all these needs for himself. It’s worth reminding at this point that within the parameters of our contemporary understanding of the facts, his discoveries all seemed pretty plausible. In fact, in general this movie does a remarkable job of creating possibilities out of scant information. With hindsight, more than a few of the solutions Draper comes up with are remarkably prescient.
A little more than halfway through the movie we are introduced to Friday, who in this version is an alien slave forced to mine on Mars by another, dominant alien culture. Director Byron Haskin had previously directed The War Of The Worlds in 1953 and the dominant species’ vessels are remarkably similar to those in his other film, but this fact does not distract from the eeriness of their ominous presence. Friday has escaped from his slave labor but can still be tracked through wristbands he is forced to wear, thus outrunning the hostile spaceships and their deadly laser blasts becomes Draper, Friday and Mona’s reason to start traveling across Mars to the polar ice caps. They make it, they free Friday and they eventually get rescued. For its time it is as realistic as Matt Damon’s The Martian and twice as fun.

The real reason I mentioned being home sick is that the first time I saw this movie (as a TV rerun in the early 1970’s) I was in the exact same situation. I was in elementary school, home with a fever and given the luxury of our black and white Zenith being wheeled into my bedroom so I could recuperate under the healing powers of the boob tube (as my father angrily called it). I recall drifting in and out of this magical movie, with clear memories of the Martian environment, the scary alien ships, the sense of loneliness and fear, and that monkey! Yes, for me, Mona The Monkey (actually an animal named Barney with fur covered underwear to stop gender confusion) stands out in memory in the most adorable little monkey-sized space suit. I never forgot it, and when I returned to the movie as an adult, it was even more memorable than I thought. The monkey in the space suit remains my favorite detail of the movie, but with fresh eyes I was blown away by the beauty and forward-thinking vision of the sets, the colorfully tinted and ever changing skies (couldn’t see any of that on the old Zenith), the fascinating views into old technology trying to look modern - dig the early computers and especially the amazing primitive video camera, which ultimately provides one of the most magical sequences in the movie. There are plot holes and anachronisms that might make you guffaw, but if you tend toward this type of entertainment and can appreciate historical perspective as the inevitability that it is, Robinson Crusoe On Mars is an entirely satisfying and sweetly nostalgic trip to another place and time.

-          Paul Epstein

Monday, September 18, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #188 - My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves

Every time I hear “Mahgeetah,” the first song on My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, I see rays of golden afternoon sunlight flooding into the long windows of an old brick gymnasium from my childhood. Presented with such a remarkable and gorgeous soundscape, my mind creates a likely setting from which this music could come to life. Something in the alchemy of that song evokes a very powerful sensory experience that I don’t feel all that often. Upon its release in the fall of 2003, I wasn’t looking for this album, but it found me and it hasn’t left my side for too long since. It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket’s third full-length release, captures a young, hungry band making a play for the big time, offers a revealing document of five years of hard work on tour, and endures as one of the strongest, most satisfying rock albums of the last twenty years.

It Still Moves hums with an inclusive intimacy that makes the listeners feel like they are along for the ride, bearing witness to the band’s triumphs and failures while appreciating all of the inside jokes and observations generated along the way. As I’ve already mentioned, “Mahgeetah” opens the album and promptly introduces a distinctive, bracing tone that carries all the way through. The band built a custom studio and recorded lead singer Jim James’ performances in a converted grain silo. The effect lends James’ already dynamic voice an otherworldly power and gives “Mahgeetah” an irresistible grandeur. Up next, “Dance Floors” breaks into an easy, natural mix of country-rock and Muscle Shoals-style R&B before igniting into a blistering showcase for the band’s visiting horn section, Willie Mitchell’s Fabulous Memphis Horns. “Golden” continues the streak of strong openers by slowing down the pace and highlighting the subtler elements of the band’s sound. The lyrical sentiment echoes the kind of touring musician’s ennui explored in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi,” but James’ songwriting and delivery elevate the song above a travelogue of soul searching remorse. All twelve songs on It Still Moves prove My Morning Jacket’s strength as an inventive, tight ensemble breathing new life into the forms of classic rock established in the early seventies, but few songs demonstrate the band’s skill for potent and expressive guitar playing as capably as “Run Through.” The final song, “One in the Same,” feels like a moment shared among close friends gathered around a fire in the wee hours of the morning after a memorable party. James’ plaintive voice, accompanied only by a heavily strummed acoustic guitar, guides us somewhere between elegy and reckoning and closes out the album on a note of weary warmth that lets us in on one last joke before bidding us farewell.  

Last year, My Morning Jacket released a deluxe edition of It Still Moves featuring a remastered version of the album and a bonus disc of demos and outtakes. I tend to be fairly neutral when it comes to remastered reissues of albums I already love because the quality of the processes and results can vary so greatly, but I’m quite impressed with the enhanced edition of this album. In general, the entire album sounds much sharper and the individual instruments are far more distinct, but I really appreciate how much better I can hear the horn parts on “Dance Floors” and “Easy Morning Rebel.” Although I’m familiar with a few other albums by My Morning Jacket, none of them have had anywhere near the same impact on me as this one. With It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket distilled the essence of their many influences, summoned their considerable aspirations and ambitions, and created a collection of songs that belongs right beside their musical heroes’ best albums.

-         John Parsell

Monday, September 11, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #174 - Big Trouble In Little China (1986, dir. John Carpenter)

“Like Ol’ Jack always says… What the hell.”

If you are looking for a deep art flick then this is probably the point at which you can stop reading this review. However, while John Carpenter’s 1986 Sci-fi Action thriller is certainly no art film it is one of the most enjoyable films of its niche genre. Starting from a western film style storyline, this film is a mish-mash of genre and style, and then ends up perfectly coalescing into an incredibly fun film. It has an intriguing plot, some killer star power, a stylish look, an amazing score by Carpenter himself (which if you know anything about horror film scores you know this is definitely a plus), and it has just enough of the cheese factor to make it completely enjoyable.

The plot surrounds Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) as they attempt to rescue Chi’s green-eyed fiancé, Miao Yin, from an evil sorcerer, David Lo Pan (James Hong), who had been cursed to live disembodied until he marries a woman with green eyes. With the help of lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and bus driving apprentice sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong) they battle through an array of obstacles in order to try and defeat Pan and rescue Yin, who was kidnapped upon her arrival in San Francisco from China. The film’s narrative is punctuated by battles with ninjas, monsters, gangsters, and an assortment of other nuisances. While it seems like a rather straightforward plot, it’s actually much more complex than I’m making it seem. While it is a pretty simple action film, the way that they splice different supernatural folklore-ish aspects (both rooted in ancient legend and some created for the film itself) creates an amazing narrative backdrop over which the story plays out. One of the most interesting examples of this interweaving/marrying of invented and existing myths is the unnerving concept of the underworld, which is a confusing, topsy-turvy descent into a crazed dimension with all sorts of fascinating elements in story for the characters. All of these Sci-fi and folklore aspects are then driven by the genre conventions of a traditional Western, creating an all-new type of film.

In addition to the complex and killer storyline, the film really plays with a lot of the different genre and gender conventions. Jack is kind of (well - totally) a blowhard, bubbling with massive machismo that doesn’t really do him any favors. He tends to fumble into action late and often slips up when he needs to shine (while this does sometimes work in his favor). So while he is a very traditional western “hero,” he’s much more flawed and human than the John Wayne characters that he was obviously modeled after. Additionally the supporting characters, while they are fairly conventional, also find ways to spin those conventions, and at times turn them on their head.

While there certainly are interesting and compelling aspects of the film, and as someone who tends to overthink even the simplest of entertainment I generally focus on those when writing these reviews, in the end this is simply just an amazingly fun and adventurous ride to take with Carpenter and the cast! I originally watched this film as a part of a film group that I was a member of and ended up falling in love with it, which has happened with a good number of other Carpenter flicks (Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978) being my personal favs). I would say that if you are looking to dig into an interesting thrill ride of an action film and you also enjoy a healthy helping of humor with your action, this is a perfect film for you, and you simply must pick up the especially awesome re-mastered blu-ray release of one of the best films of the genre (all of the genres that it embodies)!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, September 4, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #187 - Snooks Eaglin - New Orleans Street Singer

In the 1980’s, when I started in the music business, the state of the Blues was somewhat woeful. There were a lot of frustrated white rock dudes playing amped up boogie and calling it Blues. One guy that did penetrate however, was Snooks Eaglin and his series of good-time albums on labels like Black Top. In the ocean of mediocrity, here was an island of authenticity and originality. Shortly thereafter former Twist & Shout employee (and renowned New Orleans music authority) Pietro Fassoli laid a cassette tape on me of Snooks’ earlier music and I happily discovered one of the truly unique musicians of the 20th century.

Blind from the age of 1, Snooks Eaglin was performing by the time he was 11. Despite the nature of New Orleans Street Singer (solo acoustic) he was known as an electric guitar player of rare feeling and a vocalist possessed of an earthy yet totally expressive instrument. He had a long history of playing with New Orleans R&B bands (like The Flamingos with Allen Toussaint) and later of fronting his own band until his death in 1989. However this record is entirely different and incredibly special. Originally released in 1959, New Orleans Street Singer was an attempt to make Eaglin fit into the current folk boom sweeping college campuses and coffee houses nationwide. In reality, playing solo acoustic guitar was something Eaglin did more for recreation than as his primary source of income. All that aside, taken on its own musical merits, this album is as powerful a statement of American music as I can imagine.

The fascination with Eaglin is multi-faceted. First, he is a startling guitar player. He could accompany himself on literally thousands of songs of every genre and apply his own energetic stamp on each one. He played what has been termed a New Orleans Flamenco style which involved wild, frenzied guitar licks to embellish lyrics and then when he really took a solo, his attack was somewhere between Charlie Patton and Django Reinhart. I know, it seems unlikely, but Snooks is truly one of the guitar originators in the modern age. Like Lonnie Johnson or Professor Longhair or Joseph Spence, he invented his own style of playing. Listen to “Careless Love” to hear him in full flight. Or “High Society” to check out some more sophisticated playing. His strumming is always forceful and his solos on virtually every song are memorable. If you are trying to become a better-than-average guitar player, you could do worse than studying Snooks Eaglin. Secondly, Snooks was a marvelously expressive singer, whose regionally thick speech patterns and laconic approach to putting songs across was unforgettable. The authority he brings to songs like “One Room Country Shack,” “Drifting Blues,” “Mean Old World,” or “Every Day I Have The Blues,” rivals any of the pre-war Blues masters, and yet he is equally effective on more modern fare like “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” “Mean Old Frisco” or “Mama Don’t You Tear My Clothes.” Which brings us to the third and main point about Snooks; the guy could play any type of song in any style and OWN IT. Plenty of musicians learn lots of covers and can play in many styles, but Snooks Eaglin was a true originator. Every song he played, he made his own, and upon hearing it, one can immediately identify who it is. He’s as recognizable as Willie Nelson or Bing Crosby or Robert Johnson.

It is precisely the combination of these elements that makes New Orleans Street Singer such a total winner. When an artist can startle you with his musicianship, break your heart with his voice and keep you enthralled with his dynamic and eclectic choice of material: that is indeed an artist worth exploring.

-         Paul Epstein