One for Friday: Sicilian Vespers, “I Want to Talk to a Squirrel”

Everyone deserves to have an album like Sicilian Vespers’ self-titled debut in Heavy Rotation when they first join a college radio station. It should be wild and challenging. It should be tuneful but relentlessly weird. It helps if the lead vocals are best described as an acquired taste, especially if even that heavily compromised compliment is itself charitable. It should be, in short, something that could only be heard (and valued and respected) on college radio. For me, that record was the self-titled debut from Sicilian Vespers.

The creation of David and Francis Rifugiato, brothers who were indeed born in Sicily, Sicilian Vespers is abrasive, punky, and amusing in an off-kilter way. This is an album with song titles like “Teenage Abuse,” “Floozie of the Neighborhood,” and “She’s a Meatball,” each of them sounding even more bizarre than the average seasoned music fan would likely predict. They are kindred spirits of the Dead Milkmen, and yet make that bratty group sound as smooth as Depeche Mode in comparison. As evidence, I offer up the plaintive yearning of “I Want to Talk to a Squirrel.” In its romping, caustic commitment, it is a true thing of beauty.

I’ve often admitted that my college radio station was a little less adventurous than most, but it’s worth noting that Sicilian Vespers managed to make it to the top of one of our weekly charts. As station lore had it, that particular list, reported dutifully to CMJ, coincided with the one week that Sicilian Vespers blipped onto the trade publication’s Top 200 chart. The Music Director at the time was convinced, probably correctly, that our placement of the album at number one helped mightily in getting the release it’s minor, fleeting national chart recognition. I surely played it that week. I’m glad I did my part.

I’m also proud to say a vinyl copy of Sicilian Vespers has a honored place in my collection, directly thanks to my work at the station. Fairly early in my tenure, I won the highly coveted and somewhat arbitrarily awarded honor Staffer of the Week. The prize was a crack at the contents of the station’s requisite metal cabinet stuffed full of the giveaway copies of new music. I was allowed to claim one album, whatever I wanted. I bypassed bigger and better releases to claim Sicilian Vespers, largely on the correct assumption that this was a record I would never actually see in a store. My only way of securing a copy was to pluck it from that cabinet. I’m sure it drive my Thomson Hall roommate nuts whenever I played it one his stereo as he had very different musical taste. Of course, that unkind battering of others’ eardrums was part of the point of having a record like Sicilian Vespers, too.

Listen or download –> Sicilian Vespers, “I Want to Talk to a Squirrel”

(Disclaimer: I usually commit to using this spot to feature music that is out of print or only available in a manner that is unlikely to provide due compensation to the artist. That’s not really the case in this instance, as the album is just waiting for you to spend a mere five bucks — a steal! — to download it in its entirety from a very artist-friendly website. So I am sharing this here not because it is otherwise unavailable, but instead as an active, urgent encouragement to run-don’t-walk to the spot on the web where you too can get every last wondrous note of this album while providing monetary support to the band. I also offer my usual pledge that I will gladly and promptly remove this track my little corner of the interweb if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twelve

#12 — Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
Apparently, the official translation of the original Japanese title of Akira Kurosawa’s revisioning of Macbeth is Spider Web Castle. This isn’t purely metaphor, since the game of thrones being played in the film centers on a castle in an area termed Spider’s Web forest. Along with the worldwide English language title, Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s take on one of William Shakespeare’s paragon works is blessed with an embarrassment of cool monikers. Of course, since this is one of the true masters of cinema grappling with one of the greatest dramas in history, the title card represents the least of the film’s accomplishments.

Among the many other superlatives that can be affixed to Kurosawa, he was one cinema’s foremost interpreters of Shakespeare, at least on a par with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. That’s largely because he was indeed an interpreter, scraping away at the core humanity of the plays he took on, finding the universal truth that could be transposed from the deep history of the United Kingdom to his own homeland. In the case of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa in on the especially familiar ground of feudal Japan. The Scottish soldiers are now Samurai, and Kurosawa mainstay Toshiro Mifune is the brave warrior who is spurred to a devastating lust of power by a mystical prediction and the urging of an ambitious wife (Isuzu Yamada). In Kurosawa’s hands (he also wrote the screenplay with three credited collaborators), the already vast, powerful play soars to even more grandiose heights. Forging legends is seemingly second nature to Kurosawa, the muscular force of his storytelling combining with eerie, spectral imagery to to make it feel like the storied past manifested as a fever dream.

Though I premised this review largely on the notion that Kurosawa is fully prepared to carry the text of Shakespeare wherever his own muse may lead, Throne of Blood is fully recognizable as the Bard’s work. Even so, the film’s authorship can only be assigned to one man. Kurosawa’s incredible skill as a filmmaker comes through consistently, maybe most notably in his nearly unparalleled ability to make high emotion that borders on histrionics feel weirdly intimate and real. Mifune rages at the screen, and yet the film manages to reinforce one of the piercing paradoxes of the play, that the lead character’s oversized ambition is mostly indicative of the smallness of the man, a crumpled interior that makes him susceptible to the whims and passions of others. Within the vastness and boldness, Kurosawa creates nuance. Along with the name noted above, the film had yet another title in Finland, used upon a reissue release. It is Kurosawan Macbeth. That’s perfect, too. It might even be the most telling, exciting title of all.

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Great Moments in Literature

“I had solved nothing, but I felt clever in making progress. And feeling clever, I’ve always thought, is just a sigh away from being cheerful.”
–Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth, 2012

–Stan Lee, FANTASTIC FOUR, Vol. 1, No. 46, “Those Who Would Destroy Us!” 1966

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Bad Movie Night — Battleship/John Carter

As I noted recently, it’s been a long time since our household made the proper commitment to a good ol’ fashioned Bad Movie Night. Our tradition is long and honored: a double feature, preferably with some sort of link and heavy encouragement to merciless mock all that plays out on the screen. When we settled down for the night atypically early, we took our shared commitment to whittling down the material on our overstuffed DVR as impetus to dive into some of the material we’d collected specifically because we thought it might suit our more malicious, misanthropic, and misogynistic cinematic habits. Beer at the ready, we dove in.

And what better place to start than with Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012), one of the more notable bombs of the past few years. Part of the increasingly absurd notion that every recognizable brand should be fodder for big screen mayhem, this sci-fi actioner supposedly takes its inspiration from the classic board game. Yes, there are battleships in it, and some of the explosive weapons hurtling through the air vaguely resemble the pegs that were shoved into either plastic sea vessels of embedded cubes of blue, but it mostly seems like a generic riff on Transformers shoved into a different package from the next aisle over in the toy section.

I’m tempted to argue that the plot makes no sense, but it’s actually too simplistic to be confusing in the slightest. There are navy guys, including the obligatory rebellious rule-breaker (Taylor Kitsch), out on maneuvers. Then aliens attack as big robot monsters from the sky. And that’s about it. Yeah, there are subplots, including the rebel’s hope to marry the hot daughter (Brooklyn Decker) of the gravel-voiced and boulder-brained Commander of the U.S. Fleet (Liam Neeson, further away than ever from his Oscar-contending days) and, well, I’m sure there’s another subplot in there somewhere. Maybe not, though, given that most of what comes out of the mouths of other characters is so inconsequential that one website volunteered for the task of cataloguing every line of dialogue uttered by Rihanna as a crew member. Only five of the sixty-eight lines contains more than a total of ten words.

The original plan called for making it a Hasbro night, since G.I. Joe: Retaliation is just sitting out there. Instead, we realized we had the opportunity to experience the totality of Kitsch’s very bad year of attempted blockbuster stardom (he also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages in 2012, which also doesn’t look good, but ultimately belongs in a very different category). So we opted for John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012), maybe the year’s most notorious attempt to launch a franchise and a potent argument against giving skilled Pixar filmmakers the keys to live-action vehicles.

The notion of adapting the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s planetary-displaced warrior had been kicking around for a while. It was reportedly Stanton’s passion for the product that finally brought it to expensive fruition, with Kitsch burdened with the title role. Stanton certainly directs the film like a true believer. Indeed his zealotry is so complete that it is evidently beyond his ken that anyone might find the material completely ridiculous. It doesn’t help that his collaborators in the art and costume departments deliver work that recalls the campy nonsense of 1980’s Flash Gordon. The goofiness packed into the frame accentuates the worst elements of the script, including the dopey framing sequence conceit that Burroughs himself is learning about all this from a journal left to him by his late Uncle John. The most problematic aspect of the storytelling, though, is that its dreadfully boring. Even on a Bad Movie Night — maybe especially on a Bad Movie Night — that remains the worst sin a film and a filmmaker can commit.

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Beautiful girl, lovely dress, where she is now I can only guess

As I started gathering some digital resources to provide supporting research in writing about the new film Gone Girl, I was briefly taken aback when reminded that Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name came out just two years ago, arriving in June of 2012. Something about the book makes it feel like it’s been out there for much longer, maybe forever. It could be the way it touches on primal fears and animosities, doing so with a scathing directness and a brilliantly bleak sense of humor. Or it could simply be attributed to the uncommonly fast turnaround from page to screen, making the jump at a clip largely unseen since John Grisham’s novels were practically being published with film production call sheets as appendices. There was barely time to move a bookmark from front to back before the scuttlebutt about the film was in full lather, interest only compounded by Flynn’s very direct involvement in the production. She’s the only credited writer on the adapted screenplay, which made rumors of changes — even highly significant changes — all the more intriguing.

Despite hints otherwise, the finished film is highly faithful to Flynn’s original work. Yet, what’s fascinating in that respect is the skillful, sometimes merciless adaptation Flynn has rendered. A former writer for Entertainment Weekly who spent her fair share of time covering film, Flynn noted that her experience allowed her to approach the task of adaptation without a sense of preciousness about her plot and words. She recognized that prose and film are two entirely different beasts, and her new task was reshaping her story to the needs of cinema. She’s succeeded beautifully. Gone Girl has the same headlong, devilishly unpredictable storytelling of Flynn’s novel. If she necessarily transferred a couple of the slightly questionable plot turns, Flynn also shrewdly knew what to cut. Even stretching out to director David Fincher’s preferred lengthiness (he hasn’t made a film that runs less that two hours since 2002’s Panic Room), the film never feels long because the story has been shaved down to its essentials.

And the essentials of Gone Girl are consistently compelling. A woman named Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing from her suburban Missouri home, on her wedding anniversary, no less. Her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), seems the likeliest suspect, especially as different details emerge about oddities at the crime scene and strain within the marriage, largely, so it seems, due to Nick’s various transgressions. In the novel, Flynn deftly withholds information without resorting to trickery, making the truth unclear for a remarkable length of time. If the film can’t quite replicate that uncertainty, it has its own intriguing tension to it, building meticulously rendered thrills in the discovery process, which is happening on multiple levels — with the police, with Nick, with everyone else that slips into the orbit of the mystery.

Those discoveries are met time and again by an absolutely perfect cast. Rosamund Pike is the most stellar, playing a deeply complicated role with subtlety and restrained invention, but there a great turns throughout: Tyler Perry as an assured, coolly gregarious attorney, Kim Dickens as a detective investigating the disappearance, Carrie Coon as Nick’s sister (arguably the only character who can be said to be consistently sympathetic), and even Sela Ward, making the most of a handful of minutes as a television interviewer. The little miracles even extend to Affleck, that most opaque of actors, who is ideally suited for the role and handles it with the right balance of anxiety and agitation. He can’t quite find his way to the nuance needed for some of the later scenes, but there’s a high degree of difficulty to those most critical moments. It’s hardly a huge failing that Affleck clips his toe on the top of the final hurdle.

The movie has already launched a thousand think pieces, with another thousand sure to come. This fevered attempt to parse the deeper meanings and subtexts of the story only makes me that much more grateful that Fincher is at the helm. I don’t agree with or celebrate every choice he makes as a filmmaker, but at least he makes choices with some meaning behind them. It would have been so easy to hand this hot property over to a safe Hollywood hack like Brett Ratner or Ridley Scott and just watch the box office tote board spin to ever higher numbers. But Gone Girl is more richer work than that, one that deserves proper attention given to its deeper, darker themes. For example, those who challenge the whole work as problematically playing to the misogynistic suspicion that most women who are reporting some sort of abuse are doing so out of calculation and retribution aren’t entirely wrong, but in ignoring the inherent judgments rendered against nearly every character in the story, they’re not precisely right either.

Fincher makes his own choices that further challenge easy conclusions about that Gone Girl is ultimately trying to say, the most prominent in the staging of the famous “Cool Girl” monologue. Needing something visual to go with the words, Fincher puts a truncated version of the monologue over point of view shots of women in passing vehicles who presumably fit the angry description. This shifts the judgment in interesting ways, but not necessarily in the way that’s most readily apparent. There’s been some consternation about the choice, saying the blame shifts from oppressive social constructions to the women themselves (which already offers a slightly more generous reading of the original passage). That ignores, however, that the women in the nearby cars aren’t accompanied by men, so there’s no reason to believe they’re performing. Maybe they are indeed being themselves, as most do when in the supposedly protected, private space of a moving car (in truth, everyone can see the full-throated singing along to a Kelly Clarkson song). This then makes the monologue untrue and maybe just another manifestation of the unhinged disdain that defines the character delivering it.

I have no idea as to whether or not my little “think paragraph” there accurately describes Fincher’s intent in the scene. In a way, I don’t care. That there’s material within the film to explore, to hold up to the light from as many different angles as possible, is cause enough to celebrate Gone Girl. Fincher, Flynn, and everyone involved could have settled for a humble potboiler. Instead, they took a stab at complex, ambiguous art. Maybe that’s why it strikes me as timeless.

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College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 13

13. Michelle Shocked, Short Sharp Shocked

I’m going to flip the script for this week’s entry. Usually, I track through where I was at in my musical growth when I first encountered the record featured, talk about the actual merits of the music, and then finish with a brief consideration of where the artist has gone in the twenty-five (plus!) years since. With Michelle Shocked, however, I feel compelled to begin with the unexpected anti-gay marriage rant from last year that earned her more prominent placement in the music press than she’s had in years. I would have quickly named Shocked as one of my favorite performers through the first half of the nineteen-nineties, but I largely lost track of her somewhere around the time she wrenched herself free of the label contract that inspired her to name a self-released album Artists Make Lousy Slaves. By the time I got to hear her output again a few years later, it sounded drab enough to me that I didn’t give it much additional thought. I certainly didn’t know she’d become a born again Christian, openly referring to herself as “the world’s greatest homophobe” when asked about the lesbian fan base that was instrumental in her early success. So the bigotry she espoused was entirely unexpected to me, especially since it was so completely at odds with the image I had of her from the time when I was an avid listener. She was a lefty protest singer when I left her. Now she was practically auditioning for a spot on a Fox News panel (well, except for getting arrested at Occupy L.A. protests).

As I noted, my disinterest in her more recent music is entirely on its merits (albeit merits gauged in the equivalent of glancing blows) and not predicated on a personal aversion to her bigotry, though that reaction is firmly in place. I’ve long said that if I got rid of every album in my collection that was created by everyone who I was pretty sure could be reasonably termed as an asshole in real life, I wouldn’t have much much music left to listen to. Still, I take a certain satisfaction in the fact that it’s now been a long, long time since I’ve supported Shocked in any way, while simultaneously feeling a little tingle of what can best be called regret whenever one of her old songs shuffles up. All that typed, Short Sharp Shocked is a terrific album.

Released by Mercury Records in the fall of 1988, Short Sharp Shocked was Shocked’s second album, and it was a clear statement of purpose. Her debut release, The Texas Campfire Tapes, is exactly what title implies. The album is what the lo-fi kids dream about: it’s nothing more than Shocked sitting out in the open air, playing her guitar and singing her songs. There are crickets in the background. The starkness of unadorned music presented her as a songwriter, first and foremost. She was a nimble musician and possessed an evocative voice, but the selling point was her ability to craft compelling songs that told stories both simple and profound. That established, Short Sharp Shocked seemed positioned to prove how much more she could do. The opening track, “When I Grow Up,” is layered with different studio adornments, as if to jar any listener expecting more of the same. It’s hardly a New Order song or anything like that, but it is loaded with strange, bendy noises that alter the dynamics of the song, heightening the sense of oddity as Shocked announces in the lyrics that she plans to have well over a hundred babies, adding, “We’ll raise ‘em on tiger’s milk and green bananas/ Mangoes and coconuts and watermelons/ We’re gonna give ‘em that watermelon when they starts yellin’.”

Across the album, Shocked balances folk-punk sensibilities with an earthier brand of studio polish, the latter provided by producer Pete Anderson, a longtime collaborator of Dwight Yoakam. Lead single “Anchorage” even alludes to this, as the reported correspondence with her friend who’s relocated to “the largest state in the Union” asks her “What’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker” and notes that her husband, Leroy, urges her to “keep on rocking, girl.” He also wants a picture. While Shocked made a case for herself as a pointed, politically-minded folk singer, she clearly didn’t want to be pigeonholed either. Thought that would become even more clear on subsequent releases, Short Sharp Shocked is already filled with songs that convincingly make the case that Shocked can zip across different styles: the bluesy grind of “If Love Was a Train,” the punk blast of hidden track “Fogtown,” the protest song repackaged as oblong jazz rumination with “Graffiti Limbo.”

That diversity of sound combined with the strength of her point of view had me convinced that Shocked was one of those artists who was in it for the long haul. This wasn’t just an interesting voice, I though. It was an important voice. I stuck with that conviction for a while, thought Shocked kept doing little things to convince me otherwise, including the one live performance I saw, circa 1996, when she alternated between daffily charming and borderline basket case. Still, I never foresaw how far off the rails she’d someday go, so far that it’s inconceivable she can find her way back to the sturdy, steel pathway ever again.

An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln

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From the Archive: Carlito’s Way

I’m overjoyed that I’m presenting a review in which I use the word “downright” twice. As the Gone Girl think pieces begin to pile up, let’s revisit the last decent work of a director who has genuine threads of misogyny running through his work, shall we? This was written for the Reel Thing Reports that ran a couple times a day on WWSP-90FM after my graduation necessitated retiring the weekly program of the same (or same-ish, to be accurate) name.

Almost all of director Brian De Palma’s films include at least one passage that is put together with such impressive images and live wire storytelling skill that you’d swear he agreed to the entire picture just to take a crack at that one section. In a great film like “The Untouchables,” it’s the Odessa Steps tribute final shootout. And even a bad film like “Bonfire of the Vanities” boasts the dizzying opening tracking shot that follows Bruce Willis through the maze-like interior of a hotel basement. In De Palma’s new film, entitled “Carlito’s Way,” the moment comes near the end and finds Al Pacino being chased through the subway and engaging in a gun battle on the escalators of Grand Central Station. The scene recalls “The Untouchables” and reinvents it for thr grittier, nastier ’90s. The poetry has been intentionally drained out of it, and it now plays out with a new rage and intensity, hitting with the impact of a lightning strike.

In the film, Pacino plays Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican gangster who is sprung early from a thirty-year prison sentence because of illegal wiretaps used in his conviction. He wants to go straight, dreaming of retiring to the Bahamas to run a car rental business. But every time he wants out, they pull him back in. Though he gets a respectable job running a trendy nightclub, his past keeps intruding into his life, both in the form of old friends and a troubling reputation. The biggest challenge to his attempts to change comes from the seedy lawyer who got him out of prison and requests a favor that Pacino feels honor bound to do for him.

The screenplay isn’t exactly bursting with originality and feels like particularly old ground for Pacino. The screenplay by David Koepp, adapted from a pair of Edwin Torres novels, moves through the motions so predictably that De Palma can start the film by showing us the ending without doing a whole lot of damage. We would have seen it coming anyway. The weak screenplay is overcome, however, by the trio of De Palma, Pacino, and Penn. After a series of misfires, De Palma is back in fine, corrosively exciting form. As the camera swings around Pacino’s disco, taking in the gaudy neon or the editing is fast and furious during a tense poolroom scene, you can feel De Palma bristling with creative energy. De Palma makes this world so darkly appalling that looking away is impossible.

Pacino is given surprisingly little to do as the film takes advantage of his character’s allegiances with ever trying to understand them, but he is nonetheless a riveting, explosive screen presence. When the anger of his past life rushes into the character, Pacino makes the moment downright chilling. And Sean Penn takes the character of the lawyer and finds the oily soul of a man who has spent his professional life intimidated by his gangster clients and is now reveling in the cocaine-inspired confidence that allows him to lash back at them. None of that forgives the fact that Penelope Ann Miller’s character, a dancer who serves as Pacino’s love interest, is horribly underwritten. And those who continually charge De Palma with misogynistic attitudes in his films will find plenty to rail against here, much of it hard to defend.

“Carlito’s Way” stands as little more than a shaky star vehicle meant to give Al Pacino the chance to show off his ferocious talent. Luckily, on those terms, it’s genuinely entertaining and, at times, downright thrilling. (3 stars, out of 4)

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October 2014
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