Monday, February 26, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #186 - Brick (2005, dir. Rian Johnson)

For a couple of years I lived in a small town in southern Vermont within walking distance of the Latchis Theater, an art deco movie house built in 1938. The Latchis remains one of the coolest, most inviting, and remarkable theaters where I’ve regularly watched movies. During that time I saw a lot of movies at the Latchis, but an offbeat mystery from a first-time director left one of the strongest impressions on me. Despite my best efforts to enter any movie theater knowing as little as possible beforehand, I must have known on some level that Brick would combine the genres and styles of film noir and high school movies, but that knowledge did not prepare me for what I was about to experience. Rian Johnson’s directorial debut isn’t merely an exercise in style and form; through merging film noir with the tropes of teen movies established in the 1980s, Brick prevails as something far more substantial, engrossing, and memorable than the sum of its parts.

As writer and director Rian Johnson pitches the language and look of Brick squarely between hardboiled crime dramas of the 1940s and sunny, southern California teen movies of the late twentieth century. The characters speak in a clipped, idiosyncratic lingo that may seem anachronistic, but mimics the impenetrable local slang of a high school’s in-crowd and adds to the movie’s snappy pacing. Johnson grew up in San Clemente, California and filmed Brick at locations throughout the area including the high school he attended. Johnson seeks out the forgettable, in-between spaces that tend to attract groups of bored teenagers and frames his story within the sidelines of this sprawling, shabby ocean-side town. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt made Brick, he was nearing the point in his twenties (and in his career) when he was about to age out of teen roles but playing the protagonist Brendan allowed him to demonstrate that he was fully capable of tackling challenging, dynamic, and emotionally complex roles. As Brendan, Gordon-Levitt renders himself almost unrecognizable through a physical bearing marked by a clenched jaw, tousled hair, hunched shoulders, and relentless forward motion. Gordon-Levitt beautifully inhabits the pent-up posture of the high school misfit with a chip on his shoulder and a list of grievances that remain a mystery to all but himself. By setting a murder mystery within the realm of the frenetic solipsism of youth, Johnson somehow manages to amplify the sense that his characters are facing matters of life and death. As heavy as things get (and they do get pretty heavy), Johnson inserts playfully sly humor into the proceedings like a delightfully satisfying confrontation between Brendan and an assistant vice principal played by Richard Roundtree.

Over a decade after Brick’s release, it persists as the kind of movie that can be summed up in just a few words, but lingers powerfully in the minds of many who have seen it. Rian Johnson spent several years working on his debut and you can tell that he was staking his forthcoming career on both this novel concept as well as his distinctive, efficient skills as a filmmaker. Johnson’s sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, differs greatly from Brick in nearly every observable way. In contrast to Brick’s taut stylistic minimalism and succinct narrative, Johnson embraces a busy and bright extravagance to tell the rambling, globe-trotting tale of The Brothers Bloom. In 2012 Johnson teamed up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt again and aligned his ambitions more directly with some of the most successful elements of Brick for the existential time-travel crime thriller Looper. A couple of months ago, I went to the theater to watch Johnson’s fourth film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and despite the forty years of franchise history, I picked up on the kinds of themes and artistic choices that make Brick such a breathtaking experience. 

 -         John Parsell

Monday, February 19, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #199 - James Booker - Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah

It’s 1982. Let’s say you’re visiting New Orleans and you want to get out of the touristy French Quarter, past the scammers telling you they know where you got your shoes and into some less dressed up version of the city. Maybe you find yourself heading a little bit west to the Uptown neighborhood of Carrollton and you drop into the legendary Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street. Maybe you weren’t even planning to do it, but the sounds of a piano spilling out into the street and a wild, high, bluesy voice drew you in. And there, inside the small and loosely crowded bar, a vocally enthusiastic crowd is swinging, clapping, and snapping to the loopy rhythms of a skinny man with an eye patch seated at the piano. That man, you find out, is James Booker, and he’s been the house pianist here from the mid-70s until today.

Asking around a bit you find out that he is, to be kind, a bit of an eccentric with a widely-acknowledged drug problem. Sometimes he’ll stop mid-song and stare forward at something nobody else can see, sometimes he won’t touch the piano but will sit there talking into the mic (much to the consternation of the crowd who are there to hear him play), sometimes he doesn’t show up at all. But tonight he’s there showing off his prodigious, classically-schooled chops and it’s a hot set, bouncing from classics like “Junco Partner” (which he absolutely owns and could’ve written about himself) and “St. James Infirmary” to Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona to Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” in the blink of an eye. And those are just the songs he plays in their entirety; there are also the medleys.

Normally, you’d think, a medley is a showcase meant to edit down familiar hits the artist is tired of playing to satisfy their regular fans. Not so, here - they’re the highlights, with Booker’s broad tastes (and humor, definitely his sense of humor) in full effect as he makes associations that lead him through a nearly 10-minute grouping that hits two Larry Williams tunes, a Stax staple followed by a Motown staple, and then ends on his own “Classified.” The title? - “Medley: Slow Down/Bony Maronie/Knock On Wood/I Heard It Through The Grapevine/Classified.” And it’s a glorious demonstration of his dazzling timing, his vocals that veer from resolutely soulful to a wild yodel, his ornately filigreed piano style, and once again, his timing, with its deep-in-the-pocket funk even when it’s lurching or careening forward at a rocketing tempo. And that crowd, oh, the crowd – they’re with him for every beat, eating right out of the palm of his hand. It’s a masterful way to kick off the album and it rolls right into the seven and a half equally rollicking minutes of “Tico Tico” mixed with Booker’s own terrific “Papa Was A Rascal.” And then it just keeps going for 72 minutes total.

And now it’s 2018. This CD, with every aforementioned performance (and more), was released 25 years ago, collected from over 60 hours of performances recorded on the Maple Leaf’s house system between 1977 and 1982, the year before Booker passed away at only 43. Somewhere in there while playing at the club Booker met Harry Connick Sr. and took a very young Harry Connick Jr. under his wing as a student and protégé, teaching him piano technique, sometimes inviting him up to play alongside him on the piano bench. Dr. John was once heard to describe him as "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." And though his recording career was sporadic - a few studio sessions and some live (mostly) European dates interrupted by stretches in jail - Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah (and its nearly-as-good all-instrumental companion piece Spiders on the Keys) showcase Booker’s genius in a succession of high points without the inconsistencies that nearly everyone who talks fondly about Booker notes as a result of his problems with drugs and alcohol. It’s how you can imagine he would be on a good night, and you can easily put yourself right into the Maple Leaf on a warm night in 1982, listening to him masterfully work the keyboard with his over-the-top flourishes skirting right on the edge of absurdity, but somehow keeping it all right in the pocket. It’s a beautiful thing and a great tribute to this troubled genius.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, February 12, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #185 - My Dog Skip (2000, dir. Jay Russell)

The qualities of a great family movie are very different than those required to make a film primarily for adults. Many of the conventions associated with “serious” movies simply don’t apply to a movie meant to appeal equally to children and their parents. Needless to say most films land wide of the mark. My Dog Skip is a movie that speaks clearly in the syntactical language of children, but it lands a mighty emotional wallop to any adult with a beating heart. The thing that My Dog Skip gets so beautifully right is that the sad details of our childhoods can be made right for the rest of our lives by the presence of one true friend. Of course, as many of us know, there is no friend like a dog.

Based on the memoir of acclaimed author Willie Morris, young actor Frankie Muniz (at the same moment he was breaking out as Malcolm In The Middle - 2000) is perfectly cast as Willie, a scrawny, shy, only child in WWII-era Yazoo, Mississippi. His Father (Kevin Bacon) lost his leg in the Spanish-American War and young Willie finds himself without a strong mentor. His next-door neighbor Dink (Luke Wilson) is the local sports hero, whom Willie idolizes, but he too is made unavailable to Willie when drafted. Willie’s insightful Mother (Diane Lane) overrides his Father’s objections and gives Willie a Jack Russell puppy for his ninth birthday. From the moment the dog enters the scene things start looking up for Willie. Problems don’t go away, but having a companion offering unconditional love makes anyone’s load easier to bear. In addition, Willie starts to see that his dog, Skip, helps him navigate many socially and emotionally difficult situations. In one fashion or another, Skip helps Willie deal with bullying, meeting girls, understanding racism, finding empathy for his own and other peoples’ frailties, and even breaking up a gang of bootleggers. The details are dealt with superficially and only somewhat believably, but it is entirely beside the point. Because, as these things happen, the bond between Willie and Skip becomes more and more believable. Towards the end of the movie, Willie loses his temper and hits Skip in front of the whole town and Skip runs away. This pivotal moment forces Willie to recognize exactly what he has in Skip. He muses, “I was an only child and Skip was an only dog.” Any person who has experienced loneliness, or a fractured parental relationship, or confusion about his social station, or the love and then loss of a best friend can relate to Willie’s agony as he frantically rides his bike around town looking for his lost dog. He finds him, but while helping bust up the bootlegging operation, Skip is badly injured. Get the hankies out folks. The movie’s tone becomes more serious at this point. Skip survives and Willie fully realizes what he has, yet a sweet melancholy creeps in as Willie (and the audience) begin to recognize the inevitable. Willie will grow up and go away to college, and Skip will stay behind and eventually disappear.

The things that work in My Dog Skip work so spectacularly well that it falls into the classic category to me. The story is told in a warm voiceover supplied by Harry Connick Jr. which, when combined with the nostalgic view of a lost small town America, swelling music, and honeyed lighting, reminds one of the most heartrending aspects of To Kill A Mockingbird. Casting is fantastic. Skip himself is the perfect screen match of sentience and doggishness, irresistibly guileless and conniving. Some of his human counterparts do alright as well. Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane can add their fine and nuanced performances here to resumes already filled with memorable characters, and Frankie Muniz gives a remarkably sophisticated and complex performance of a little boy - clearly a testament to his and the director Jay Russell’s talents. As the movie winds toward its inevitably poignant conclusion, there is an overwhelming sense of loss in the viewer. Like any successful art, good movies make us yearn for the past or aspire toward the future. My Dog Skip is the former. It will make you pine for your childhood, miss the loving dog that was your best friend, and ultimately, an America that was better, or at least kinder, than the one we have now.

-          Paul Epstein

Monday, February 5, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #198 - The Jesus Lizard – Liar (1992)

In the summer of 1993, I finally mustered up the courage to ask this girl I had been crushing on for a long time out on a date. To my surprise and discomfort, she actually agreed to it. The day of the date, I was so nervous and uneasy I didn’t know what to do. As a fourteen-year-old, I hadn’t exactly been the Casanova that I clearly am now, and I had convinced myself that asking was the hard part. But now I actually had to go on the date and be engaging. I was terrified. Usually, I could put on some music to put myself at ease, but for some reason, nothing in my collection was doing the trick. I decided to head down to the coffee shop where I was supposed to meet her. I was early but there was a record store downstairs in the basement of the building, so I figured I’d kill some time beforehand with my favorite pastime, record shopping. (Coincidental side note: This is the same building in which I would eventually open my own record store twenty years later and two floors up.) Anyway, the impending date was still giving me butterflies and I was kind of angry at my music collection for not pulling through for me. So, I decided I was going to buy something new. I picked up a Flaming Lips album I had read about in Alternative Press and a cassette copy of Liar, the newest release by a band I wasn’t familiar with, The Jesus Lizard. I went outside to smoke and put the tape into my Walkman.

I can’t really explain what happened next. One thing is for sure, though. My life was changed indefinitely in that moment. Liar, though it may not be my favorite Jesus Lizard album, will forever be the most important one to me as it was my entry point into their world. You see, musically-speaking, I was a bit torn in the early 1990s. Having grown up to that point as a die-hard metal kid, the newer “grunge” bands (as the radio and MTV were calling them) were killing my beloved’s reign. On the other hand, there was something about the Nirvanas and the Alice in Chainses of the world that I truly could not deny. Still… it seemed like something was missing. I was at a musical crossroads. When I hit play on that Walkman, suddenly I had it figured out. And I do mean suddenly, because right out of the gate, Liar takes off at breakneck speed with “Boilermaker,” perhaps one of the heaviest songs ever written. This segues into “Gladiator” and “The Art of Self-Defense” for a violent one-two-three punch. Side A ends with one of the highlights of the album, the phenomenal “Puss,” which would also later appear on a split 7” with Nirvana.

This was exactly what I was looking for. It was heavy, but it wasn’t metal. It was angular and strange, the guitar tone was bizarre and machine-like, the rhythm section was more precise than anything I’d ever listened to. And then there was Yow. The frontman to end all frontmen. Hoo boy… I don’t even know where to begin describing him. David Yow’s vocal delivery is not so much sung as it is retched at you, hollering with a kind of terrifying urgency about such topics as mental depravity and chemical dependency (yes, there are actual lyrics in there). Yow sounds like a man in trouble. Guitarist Duane Denison’s leads have a personality all their own on this album, ranging from the jackhammer speed of “Rope” to the slow, Slint-like crawl of the album’s closer “Zachariah.”

I just spent two paragraphs describing Liar to you and I still feel as though I haven’t done it (or the band, for that matter) enough justice. The truth is, I’ve never known how to describe The Jesus Lizard. They’re noise-rock, sure, but that label wasn’t even really around when I first discovered this album. In a way, they kind of represented a middle ground between the metal I adored so much as a kid and the “grunge” that inevitably usurped the limelight from them.

In case you’re wondering, the date went really well. I was charming and funny, and I even got to make out with her a little at the end. Had I not bought Liar immediately beforehand, who knows? I may have still been stressed out about the date, pacing back and forth in my room trying to mellow out to my Tool records or something. But any reason that I had for being nervous was out the window the second I heard that first note of “Boilermaker.” I bet I listened to the album three times in a row that day. The Jesus Lizard are one of my all-time favorite bands still, 25 years later, and I feel very fortunate that every time I listen to them I get to recount this story.

-         Jonathan Eagle