Monday, January 28, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #210 - D.C. Cab (1983, dir. Joel Schumacher)

Whenever I talk about how D.C. Cab is one of my favorite films to anyone familiar with it, the most common response that I get is, “and you said you DON’T smoke weed, right?” This makes sense, considering the film is essentially a series of sight gags meandering around plot points and subplot points that make very little sense together. This is not a hindrance. The film is perfect for those with the shortest of attention spans.
D.C. Cab is Joel Schumacher’s second theatrical film, and everything about it screams “low budget,” down to the editing and the film stock. Even the DVD release is bare bones. It has no subtitles, no other languages but English and lacks even a menu for chapter selection. Prior to D.C. Cab’s release, Mr. Schumacher released The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) and would follow it up with the one-two punch of box office favorites St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987), so it’s not like Mr. Schumacher didn’t already have his footing as a filmmaker. No, he made D.C. Cab awful-looking on purpose. Since the plot revolves around a ramshackle taxicab company in Washington D.C., I think the low budget, almost “new-hire-training video” quality was completely intentional. Especially when you consider the cast, on which Schumacher absolutely did not skimp. The cast is made up of a combination of ‘80s pop culture giants (Mr. T, the Barbarian Brothers), up-and-coming stand-up comedians (Bill Maher, Paul Rodriguez) former sitcom stars (Max Gail, Whitman Mayo) and Gary Busey. It even features a small but significant cameo from R&B singer Irene Cara as herself.
Albert (Adam Baldwin) is a wide-eyed twentysomething with big dreams to become a cab driver. Obviously every young person dreams of one day driving a cab when they get older, so no issue there really. When his father dies Albert decides to move to Washington, D.C. and track down his dad’s best friend Harold (Max Gail), who owns the D.C. Cab Company. Albert goes through a series of ride-alongs with the eccentric staff of the cab company, including Cleveland Rastafarian Bongo (Otis Day), womanizing racist Elvis fan Dell (Busey), fast-talking Tyrone (Charlie Barnett), and tough but sensitive Samson (Mr. T) to name a few. Many of the ride-alongs happen in almost rapid-fire succession, creating a sort of sketch or vignette effect for the first half of the film. The fledgling company eventually comes into some money when a valuable violin is recovered from one of the cabs and the staff are granted the reward. Even though most of the staff make it clear that they hate driving cabs and would rather take the money and run, Harold, with the help of an inspiring pep-talk from Albert, convinces the staff to invest their share back into the company. This leads to the drivers renewing their licenses (including special permits for airport drop-offs) and new paint jobs on both the cab stand and the cars, but that’s about it. Somehow, this boosts morale so much that the drivers start loving their jobs and their new co-worker. Albert is then implicated in a kidnapping (because of course) and it is left up to the drivers to bail him out and save the day.
And, again, besides the multiple random subplots that pop up throughout the course of the film, that is pretty much it for story. The reason that D.C. Cab is able to keep your attention is because it never stops moving. It continuously hits you over the head with so many jokes, gags and slapstick moments that by the time you realize what you just watched made little sense, the credits are rolling. And speaking of the credits, because the drivers save the day in the end (and that’s not really a spoiler), the credits roll over a funny and charming parade sequence that the city decided to hold in their honor. Each and every cabbie slowly drives through the parade, dancing and carrying on atop one of the cabs. It’s hard not to smile during this, despite it being almost aggressively corny.
I defy any comedy fan, particularly those who came of age in the 1980s to not instantly fall in love with Schumacher’s D.C. Cab. I personally can’t help but grow nostalgic when I watch this film. To this day, it’s perhaps my favorite comedy of the 80s, rivaled only by Fletch. But that’s a film for another entry. And, yes, since we are after all in Colorado, I will give it my “excellent pick to watch while high” endorsement.
Jonathan Eagle

Monday, January 21, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #223 - Mastodon - Blood Mountain

I feel like I got introduced to Mastodon in completely the wrong way - I read about them before ever listening to them. Their drummer, Brann Dailer, wants to play drums like Randy Rhodes played guitar, to the extent of having a polka dot drum kit to match Randy’s famous guitar. Loving the intent behind his playing, I picked up their most recent album at the time, Blood Mountain​, without even knowing what they sounded like. I was 14, a freshman in high school, and from the massive drum fill that pummels you in the first few seconds, I became a part of their cult. If you aren't familiar with the band, immediately prior to this album Mastodon had released ​Leviathan, a concept album chronicling the story of Moby Dick in a way no other band or storyteller has. They gave the book a soundtrack and mood that nobody knew it needed. It allowed you to internalize the mentality of these characters in unheard of ways, and for some like myself, introduced me to Moby Dick as more than a reference I would see on TV or in movies. With ​Blood Mountain Mastodon took their newfound success and came out with an album that was even darker, heavier, and more progressive than ​Leviathan​. Above all else this album accomplished the ultimate goal - getting this kid to have a deep love of heavy metal ever since.
When this album starts it grabs you by the hair and drags you into a snowy cave to begin the experience that is Blood Mountain. The Joseph Campbell-inspired story is that of an unnamed character in search of the Crystal Skull to put atop the Blood Mountain - which he will later find out has dire consequences. On his journey he has to fight vicious monsters and overcome obstacles that could most definitely take his life. As our hero ascends the mountain, he comes across a Sasquatch that can see into the future and a colony of half-tree people, the Birchmen.
All of this seems utterly mad until you listen to the music that is behind it. The drum performance by Brann Dailer sounds like the footsteps of our hero as he is running for his life. Bill Kelliher’s guitar playing gives life to the mountain that is trying to protect itself. Troy Sanders' bass and Brent Hinds' guitar provide meaning and vivid images of what our hero is facing, while both of them on vocals (along with an array of guests) give the illusion of hearing voices and hallucinations. As a kid I wasn’t searching for all of that, I was just into it for the music. It wasn’t like anything I had heard before. The only metal music I knew at the time was Iron Maiden and some Metallica, but this album had very clear nods to some other favorites of mine like Yes and King Crimson, references that I heard but wasn’t able to really place. It was the first time I was able to hear the influence of prog bands in heavy music and it didn’t seem forced, it was just a part of their musical language.
By the time the album is in the final stretch with songs like "The Mortal Soil," our hero gets warned of the dangerous territory and his fate as he is approaching the peak, but that won’t stop him. "Siberian Divide" is where this album metaphorically peaks, our hero almost reaching the top, but failing as he starves to death underneath an avalanche. "Pendulous Skin" takes us out of the physical body of our hero as he ascends into the afterlife, which is what was meant to happen all along. No man is ready to conquer the Blood Mountain. After this album ends, and you look back on the trials and tribulations of our unnamed hero, it feels like the kind of folk tale that you can project your own meaning onto. Whatever your Blood Mountain is, even if you don’t succeed in making it to the peak, there is still a lot that went into the journey. All that you learned about yourself on this journey wasn’t necessary for getting to the peak of Blood Mountain, but they are things you now have for your journey into your next life which you are now ready to conquer.
-         Max Kaufman

Monday, January 14, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #209 - In A Lonely Place (1950, dir. Nicholas Ray)

In 1950, Humphrey Bogart was one of the top-grossing film stars in the country and had just established his own Santana Productions film company to create interesting work outside the rigid Hollywood studio system (though still relying on studios for distribution) after being known the industry as a somewhat willful star to work with. At the same time, director Nicholas Ray had made three moderately successful films (one of them via Santana Productions) and his star was rising; his biggest success, Rebel Without A Cause, still lay years ahead of him. Ray was in a tempestuous marriage with actress Gloria Grahame, also an up-and-comer with several supporting roles to her credit, but her only starring role to date had come a couple years earlier in the film noir Crossfire. These three strong artistic personalities found themselves together to create the best film Santana Productions made - and also one of the best works any of the three produced in their careers - the noir-ish drama In A Lonely Place, adapted from the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same name.
            Bogart stars in one of his all-time best performances as Dixon Steele, a screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit since “before the War,” whose violent temper we see erupt three separate times in only the first six minutes of the film, and whose penchant for drinking doesn’t help matters. Gloria Grahame plays Laurel Gray, a neighbor in the same apartment complex who’s seen Steele (usually called “Dix” in the film) around and when he’s accused of murdering a young woman who left his apartment after going there to help him work on a script - a story the police hardly believe - she provides his alibi, though official suspicion is still aimed squarely at him. As Laurel and Dix get to know each other, romance blossoms and his writer’s block begins to lift, but as Laurel learns more about his explosive temperament, she (and the audience) begins to wonder if she did the right thing in helping him - and if perhaps her own life might be in danger. Nicholas Ray, who advocated for his wife to play the role after both Lauren Bacall and Ginger Rogers proved unavailable, has an unerring eye and ear for the tone of the film, which starts out like a whodunit and then quickly loses interest in the murder mystery as the principles fall for each other and the film instead drifts into the turbulent waters of their relationship (though the murder always lurks in the background). There’s never been a more threatening ‘love scene’ than when Dix is making breakfast for the increasingly suspicious Laurel, with the dialogue standard romantic fare but the body language and the absolutely perfect tone of Grahame’s delivery reading as pure terror.
In fact, it’s hardly a noir at all, even though it’s tagged as such on most film sites, and even though a murder sets things in motion. Nowhere are the shadowy, high-contrast cityscapes of noir, the standard femme fatale (instead we may have noir’s first homme fatale), the greed and cynicism driving most of the great noirs - instead we have an examination of a delicate, fragile relationship, one that’s constantly under threat of being blown apart by Dix’s behavior. This examination of the relationship of outsiders, and especially of masculine stereotypes, is common to Ray’s films - think of James Dean in Rebel, fighting against the school gang leader for honor and disappointed in his father’s inability to stand up to his mother, think of James Mason in Bigger Than Life, undermining the role of paternal protector to his family as his addiction spirals out of control, think of Johnny Guitar and its inversion of gender roles wherein women play the respective heads of a town in roles usually doled out to male actors and Sterling Hayden’s titular character is just an ex-flame and hired gun to Joan Crawford. And right in this line we have In A Lonely Place and Dix Steele, supposedly a successful artist in Hollywood, but also a heavy drinker, and a brawler when provoked - and he gets provoked at the drop of a hat. His masculine ego simply can’t take it when he feels attacked, rightly or wrongly, and as the film progresses and he gets closer to Laurel Gray, he gets more paranoid and jealous, rather than more intimate and trusting. It’s an unsettling examination of toxic masculinity decades before that phrase was even coined.
As it was in the script, so it was in life. Actress and writer Louise Brooks wrote in Sight & Sound magazine about Bogart’s performance that “In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the character's pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart.” And the relationship of Dix and Laurel gets closer and closer in the first half of the film, then slowly falls apart for the second half, mirroring that of Ray (who was also a heavy drinker) and Grahame, who separated during the filming and who divorced two years later. Ray, after filming the original script’s ending, decided it didn’t ring true and created an improvised new ending with Grahame, Bogart, and co-star Art Smith. The ending, which I won’t spoil for you, replaced the noir-styled downer finale of the novel with a more devastating and unexpected one that gives the film its lasting sting and resonance.
            Time hasn’t been as kind to Ray’s work as when he was revered by French critics of the 50s and 60s, but In A Lonely Place has endured, his only film to place on the most recent once-a-decade international critics’ poll in Sight and Sound magazine. He’s got a lot of great work but this film, with its personal resonance for the three key artists involved in its making, cuts the deepest of any of his films.
-          Patrick Brown

Monday, January 7, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #222 - Tune-Yards - Bird-Brains

 2009 was an interesting year for music. There were no real game-changers in 2009, but there was at least one album that presaged a dominant mode of music-making in the 2010’s: Tune-Yards’ Bird-Brains. The debut record from Merrill Garbus’ discordant pop outfit is an outstanding record, not only for how it set the stage for Tune-Yards’ continued growth, but also for how it weaves the mid-00’s indie rock sensibilities with the out-there, lo-fi, rhythmic production styles that rose to even greater prominence in the recent teens. Add in some seriously engaging political rhetoric, and it’s easy to see that Bird-Brains is well worth your time.
            Recorded entirely on a handheld voice recorder (and then released initially on recycled cassette tapes), Bird-Brains has a distinctly tinny feeling. Garbus’s music offers steady, thumping rhythms that put the listener into a sort of tranced, zoned state and while the instrumentation is danceable, the lyrics are anything but; throughout the album, Garbus sings of gendered injustices, motherhood, and problems of self-image. “Hatari,” the album’s lead single, is dangerous in how much it makes you want to groove while ignoring the injustices being sung about. The lyrics and instrumentation hit that perfect sweet spot between frictional and lovely, making it easy to understand Bird-Brains as an album of contradictions and double-standards; it’s a deceptively complicated album filled with elements both harsh and tender that force the listener to listen without passivity.
Consider, for example, the interminably groovy mid-album cut “Jumping Jack.” The bass is crunchy, the xylophone seems to be hitting the upper register limits of the recorder, and the simple drum-fill takes on a Madlib-esque vocal quality. Like other great Tune-Yards songs, the lyrics rework a nursery rhyme (“Jack and Jill” here) into a modern feminist anthem that provides ample catharsis in a world overwhelmed by patriarchal standards: “Driving past in his fast car / Jill says man you are bizarre / Trying to tell me what to do / Watch out cause I’ll knock you out,” Garbus sings simply and softly, weaponizing her traditionally feminine musical impulses over the more traditionally masculine instrumentation. Garbus forces us to recognize how she’s using these musical impulses, and how the gendered presuppositions of them is ultimately a negative aspect that the music industry stands to grow from.
            There are moments like this feminist catharsis on nearly every song on Bird-Brains, and the album is better for it. “Fiya,” the album’s most well-known track, offers a nuanced, understated perspective on feminine image issues that is equal parts bitter sadness and incredible rage. Likewise, “News” attempts to critique the inherent gendered power dynamic with the act of getting pregnant; “I can get real pregnant from men and birds / Who sing much prettier than you,” Garbus conveys, undermining the masculine figure’s potential. Garbus’s lyrics are never quite heavy-handed, but neither are they understated – just like all of the gonzo rhythmic palettes throughout the album.
Yet, Bird-Brains is not entirely angry; there is a certain sweetness that pervades even the record’s harshest moments, one that, for all the rage and dissatisfaction, still envisions a better world. That stage is set by the album’s opening track, “For You,” which has Garbus sing an empathetic four bars over a tender acoustic guitar to a young girl. After she’s done singing, we hear that young girl enthusiastically playing with blueberries; there’s discovery here, an innocence yet untarnished by the overwhelmingly negative world so prominent on the rest of the album. It should come as no surprise that that young girl never comes back on Bird-Brains. Garbus could only protect her from the realities of our world for so long, but the album she made for her – whoever she is – offers a steady, helpful, groovy guide to this overwhelmingly shitty world.
So do the rest of the works in Tune-Yards’ discography. W H O K I L L, 2011’s follow-up, is a defining record of the 21st century, expanding in interesting ways on the groundwork set by Bird-Brains. Most recently, Garbus scored one of the most emphatically political films of 2018, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which viciously, hysterically points out the myriad of flaws in our capitalist society. Likewise, Tune-Yards’ most recent record, I can feel you creep into my private life, finds Garbus confronting the ways that she could be a better political citizen, all the while combining the powerful rhetoric with rhythmic, exuberant, groovy instrumentation. With Tune-Yards, being angry takes on a certain fun quality.
-          Harry Todd