Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nightmare Alley

I've always been drawn to stories about the underbelly, the deep-seated rot and corruption that exists beneath cultured and civilized surfaces. It's why I love horror movies and film noir; they thrive on these kind of tales, the dark truth buried in the shadows.

Take carnivals. A carnival is supposed to be a fun, wonderful place filled with thrilling rides, exciting acts, and all-around entertainment, but plenty of them are scummy, dirty, ramshackle operations, and carnies operate in their own little world. It's a different lifestyle that non-carnies can't relate to. Behind the scenes, it's about the money, and who knows what other secrets are lurking beneath the happy facade shown to the outside world.

Nightmare Alley (1947) gazes at the underbelly of show business. It tells the story of a small-time hustler, Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) who begins the movie as a worker at a travelling carnival and rises to fame and fortune as a mentalist doing cold readings before falling spectacularly, undone by his greed, wandering eye, and arrogance. It's a morality play crossed with a tragedy.

"The spook racket," Stan declares, "I was made it." In many ways, he's a perfect showman: handsome, dapper, well spoke, quick on his feet, and never at a loss for words. He's a con artist; he looks at the paying public not as customers but as marks and rubes to take advantage of. Everywhere he goes, he looks for angles to exploit and plays off people's emotions, not just the woman whose dead daughter he says he communicates with but also the people who help and love him.

The movie takes us behind the curtain of show business, shows us the inner workings. We see the hidden compartments and the sleight of hands that make the magic acts appear genuine, and so does Stan. He learns from Zeena (Joan Blondell), the fortune teller, about the code she and her husband Pete (Ian Keith) used when they were at the top to make it seem she could read minds and see the future. Certain words and enunciations tip her off. Now, Pete's a drunk, but Zeena keeps the code as their "nest egg."

There's also Molly (Coleen Gray). Stan flirts with her and she reciprocates, even though she lives with Bruno the strongman (Mike Mazurki).

Carnivals are considered lowbrow, seedy attractions, but Nightmare Alley shows there's not much difference between fleecing rubes in small towns and conning the high society types in Chicago clubs. Once he learns Zeena's code, Stan moves up in the world, going from outdoor shows on cramped, rundown stages to wearing formal wear as the "Great Stanton," entertaining the rich and prominent. He goes from raking in a few bucks at a time to extracting thousands from those he convinces of his "gift."

Visually, Nightmare Alley has the expected hallmarks of film noir: the black-and-white photography, the extensive use of shadows, the harsh lighting, and distorted closeups. Instead of one femme fatale, we get three to varying degrees: Zeena, who introduces Stan to the con of mentalism; Molly, who goes along with his schemes; and Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychoanalyst who records sessions with her patients, which gives her and Stan an interesting if repugnant business idea. While Zeena and Molly might not be all bad, all three play a part in leading Stan to his downfall. The difference is while he deceives the carnival women, it's Lilith who tricks him.

Performances are all good, especially by Power. Over the course of the film, he goes from a handsome, young hustler to a smooth, polished high-society entertainer to a broken shell of a man. At the beginning of the film, upon seeing the Geek bite the heads off chickens, Stan wonders what drives a man to be that desperate. By the end, he learns the answer.

"How can a guy sink so low?"
"He reached too high."

The film leads to an incredibly dark, almost perfect ending before a disappointing last-second change of heart suggests there might be some hope for Stan. It's a false note in an otherwise fine example of the genre. There's no hope in film noir. Only despair and damnation.

The Final Cut

And so Roger Waters' tenure with the band he helped found ends not with a bang, but a lament.

Following the massive, surreal, psychedelic head trip that was The Wall, Pink Floyd followed with The Final Cut, another concept album that's about as far removed from The Wall or even the traditional Pink Floyd sound as they could get. Where The Wall was big, bold, and theatrical chronicling a rock star losing his sanity, The Final Cut is somber, contemplative, and even quiet. There's some anger here, but it's a subdued, shocked anger, coming from a place of genuine pain instead of lashing out.

"Tell me true, tell my why
Jesus was crucified.
It is for this that Daddy died?"

Like The Wall, The Final Cut was the brainchild of Roger Waters, and like he did with the former, he works his personal life into this album's story. Like his fictional counterpart in The Wall, Waters lost his father during World War II, and that loss hangs a melancholy over The Final Cut. Waters reportedly saw the then-recent Falklands War as a betrayal of what his father and others fought and died for, and The Final Cut is his response.

The Final Cut is less of a music album and more of a political and personal statement with lyrical verses and backing music for atmospheric and emotional effect. It's not a rock piece you put on in the background and bob your head to. There are no catchy choruses, pop-like riffs, memorable anthems, or soothing melodies. It requires careful attention from the listener.

Throughout the album, Waters takes shots at Margaret Thatcher, whom he refers to as Maggie. In the opening track, "The Post War Dream," looking upon the state of the world, Waters implores, "Maggie, what have we done?" On the satirical "Get Your Filthy Hands of My Desert," he notes how Maggie decided "over lunch one day" to take back the Falklands. The use of the word "desert" in the title should indicate what Waters thought of that territory. On the following song, "The Fletcher Memorial Home," Waters decries the leaders he sees as "overgrown infants" and and says they should be locked away.

"They'll be good girls and boys
in the Fletcher Memorial Home for Colonial
Wasters of Life and Limb."

The album gets personal and revisits some characters. Remember the teacher from The Wall, the one "who would hurt the children any way (he) could" but who is thrashed within an inch of his life every night by his fat, psychotic wife? Well, he's back on The Final Cut. He is returning from the war a hero, but in "The Hero's Return," we discover he's haunted by the death of his comrades. In "Paranoid Eyes," he can't relate to his wife or the people around him as he descends into drinking.

"You believed in their stories of fame, fortune, and glory.
Now you're lost in a haze of alcohol, soft middle age.
The pie in the sky turned out to be miles too high
and you hide, hide, hide
behind brown and mild eyes."

Other songs manage to be sad and peculiar. "The Gunner's Dream" tells about an airplane gunner falling through the sky to his death. As he plunges, he dreams of a future world without war. The imagery invoked is both quiet, tender, and horrific.

The Final Cut feels the least like a Pink Floyd album. There's the expected multi-instrumentation, including some jazz saxophone and backing orchestra, and the use of sound effects, but the music employs a lot of soft piano and minimalist drums and only occasional guitar solos from David Gilmour to remind us what band this is. Waters does almost all of the singing, using an echoing, almost whispered voice.

It's not an album to enjoy, but Waters' grief, anger, and feeling of betrayal are palpable. Maybe it's indulgent on Waters' part, maybe this is only for hardcore fans, but I keep returning to it and thinking about it. It lingers.

Standout Songs
"When the Tigers Broke Free" - The loss of Waters' father is felt strongest here.
"The Hero's Return" - This feels most like a traditional Pink Floyd song.
"The Final Cut" - Want to know what happened to Pink from The Wall? This offers some clues. Gilmour's solo provides some much needed release.

Favorite Moment
The closing lyrics of "When the Tigers Broke Free." They're just so sad and filled with pain.

Album Cover
Colors that seem to be military ribbons and patches across a black background. Maybe. It's vague and abstract, and it doesn't really pop. I look at it and have to wonder what it is.

Track Listing
1) The Post War Dream
2) Your Possible Pasts
3) One of the Few
4) When the Tigers Broke Free
5) The Hero's Return
6) The Gunner's Dream
7) Paranoid Eyes
8) Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert
9) The Fletcher Memorial Home
10) Southhampton Dock
11) The Final Cut
12) Not Now John
13) Two Suns in the Sunset.

Personnel
Roger Waters - Vocals, Bass, Synthesizers
David Gilmour - Guitar
Nick Mason - Drums
Assorted other guest musicians but no Richard Wright

Monday, May 15, 2017

Raw Power

Few titles describe an album better.

Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges is an angry, aggressive album; it pulverizes the listener with a sonic assault. Unlike the psychedelic garage rock of the previous Stooges' albums, Raw Powers is a proto-punk thrasher, more distorted, intense, and primal. The music doesn't play; it attacks.

"Dance to the beat of the living dead.
Lose sleep, baby, and stay away from bed.
Raw Power is sure to come a-runnin' for you."

There's nothing fancy or refined about what the Stooges do here. The playing is basic, the composition is simple, the production is raw, and even the slower numbers "Gimme Danger" and "I Need Somebody" erupt with fury. The album is loud, crude, and full-throttled, filled with the kind of music you play when you want to blow out your speakers. Iggy Pop sings as if he's murdering someone or trying to fight the world. He explodes out of the gate with "Search and Destroy."

"I'm a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.
I'm the runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb.
I am the world's forgotten boy,
The one who searches and destroy."

The Ashton brothers return, and while Scott remains on drums, Ron takes up the bass, leaving guitar duties to the debuting James Williamson, who co-wrote the music with Iggy. Williamson plays the ax faster and with (slightly) more melody than Ron Ashton did on the previous Stooges' albums, and as a result, the guitar is more pronounced, the buzz thicker and heavier. "I Need Somebody" is a dark blues number, and the album closer "Death Trip" plays like the kind of piece one hears on a one-way descent into Hell.

"A sick boy, sick boy, goin' round, baby lose its grip.
Baby, wanna take you out with me, come along on my death trip,
My death trip."

So many acts try to project a bad boy image, but Iggy and company sound like they legitimately are dangerous, like they are going to self-destruct at any minute and take the listener with them. "Raw Power" works because it comes off as kind of slapdash, desperate, and disparate. It's a different kind of energy, one we wouldn't get if the Stooges were more refined musicians who got along with each other. They're genuine rebels, and they spit in the face of everyone and everything.

Interestingly, David Bowie of all people mixed the album for its initial release. This proto-punk grunginess is about as far removed from Bowie's glam and pop style as just about anything, but he manages to sprinkle in some touches, such as the backing piano on "Gimme Danger." Overall, he gives the album a dynamic mix that give the songs bite.

Standout Songs
"Search and Destroy" - This song plays when Bill Murray fights off pirates in Life Aquatic. If that doesn't pump you up, I don't know what will.
"Gimme Danger" - A slower, moodier piece, it just oozes with intense cool.
"Penetration" - Never has sex sounded so intense and angry.

Favorite Moment
Williamson plays a variation of the main riff in the middle of "Search and Destroy." The song sounds out of control, and this moment reasserts its power.

Album Cover
Iggy clutches a mic stand on a black stage, shirtless and emaciated. This is not someone you mess with.

Track Order
1) Search and Destroy
2) Gimme Danger
3) Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell
4) Penetration
5) Raw Power
6) I Need Somebody
7) Shake Appeal
8) Death Trip

Personnel
Iggy Pop - Vocals
James Williamson - Guitar
Ron Ashton - Bass
Scott Ashton - Drums

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Black Sabbath

Witness the birth of heavy metal.

From the opening toll of a distant bell as a ominous thunder rolls in, Black Sabbath, the eponymous debut album of the genre's most important and influential band, draws us with a dark, foreboding dread. The haunting tritone of Tony Iommi's guitar, the rumbling blare of Geezer Butler's bass, and the heartbeat tolling of Bill Ward's massive drums rise from the darkness, paving the way for the haunting wail of Ozzy Osbourne on the opening title track.

"What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me.
Turn round quick and start to run.
Find out I'm the chosen one.
Oh no."

At a time when popular music celebrated peace and love, the quartet from Birmingham, England offered a counterpoint of gloom and doom. Their songs were not about peace or love but the occult, the Devil, the end of the world, losing your soul, and the dark side of humanity. It is a dark, bleak album.

Black Sabbath began as a blues act, and their first album is very much in the tradition of the blues sound. Songs such as "The Wizard" and "N.I.B." have a swinging rhythm while later tracks "Warning" and "Wicked World" sound like extended jam sessions. The difference between is the, well, wicked tone. Iommi and Butler heavily distort their instruments, creating the distinctive, powerful crunch that would serve as a crucial building block in heavy metal.

"Now I have you with me, under my power.
Our love grows stronger now with every hour.
Look into my eyes, you'll see who I am.
My name is Lucifer, please take my hand."

In the decades since, heavy metal would get faster (especially as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and American Thrash started taking influence from the punk movement), but Black Sabbath here in no rush to impress. The sludge-like tempo feels appropriate, a gradual building atmosphere of fear and evil taking over. You can't stop it, and you can't misdirect it; it's all encompassing, and it's taking over. It's a very assured, confident sound, and in it's own way, it's exquisite.

The first several tracks - the title song, "The Wizard," "Behind the Wall of Sleep," and "N.I.B." - are as perfect as heavy metal can be. The subsequent songs aren't as strong. They're still solid and well played, but they aren't the masterpieces the first four are and feel a bit directionless, depriving the album of an epic climax worthy of the opening songs. Still, the album remains the most important release in heavy metal and any fan of the genre must hear it.

"Now from darkness there springs light
Wall of Sleep is cool and bright
Wall of Sleep is lying broken
Sun shines in you have awoken"

Standout Songs
"Black Sabbath" - The first song in the history of heavy metal initiates us to a world of doom and gloom.
"The Wizard" - Ozzy plays the harmonica and is still heavy as hell.
"N.I.B." - This remains one of the band's darkest and catchiest songs.

Favorite Moment
Geezer Butler has a killer bass solo leading into "N.I.B." called "Basically."

Album Cover
A strange woman in black stands outside a watermill. Gothic, oddly medieval, and creepy as hell.

Track Order
1) Black Sabbath
2) The Wizard
3) Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Basically/N.I.B.
4) Wicked World
5) A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning

Personnel
Ozzy Osboune - Vocals
Tony Iommi - Guitar
Geezer Butler - Bass
Bill Ward - Drums

Monday, May 1, 2017

Free Fire

I think we've all heard the joke about action movies in which the bad guys shooting countless rounds and can't hit the hero while all the good guy has to do is point and shoot and another villain falls over dead. Considering every character in Free Fire (2017) is pretty much a heel, we shouldn't be surprised they're all terrible shots.

Executive produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Ben Wheatley, Free Fire concerns itself with an arms deal gone wrong. In 1970s Boston, a couple of IRA operatives, Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy), along with Frank's brother Stevo (Sam Riley), and Stevo's friend Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), go to a warehouse to buy guns. Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is the seller while the brokers are Ord (Arnie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Things go sour because both sides have brought along people who can't control their emotions.

Shots are fired, people are wounded, and the rest of the movie becomes a violent game of cat and mouse (as well as verbal sparring). Most movies of this type, like Reservoir Dogs, usually build to the big shootout at the end where most if not all the characters are killed.

In Free Fire, the big shootout occurs early on, everyone is hit, but instead of the movie being over, it's just getting warmed up. The characters, bleeding profusely from wounds in their arms and legs, crawl and drag themselves across this dirty, nasty, grimy floor (one character accidentally stabs himself in the palm with a hypodermic needle). All the while, they continue to shoot at each other intermittently and try to negotiate some kind of resolution.

If nothing else, Wheatley deserves credit for a unique spin on a well-worn genre. In a sense, he's applying strict logic to a hard-boiled situation. People get shot, and it hurts. Like, really hurts, enough to severely inconvenience them. Bullets in your arm make it hard to aim and bullets in your leg make it hard to run, and the guy who just shot you is a total asshole about it. This is the kind of movie that has you giggling one minute, wincing the next, and laughing again even as the violence ramps up to almost ridiculous levels.

That's pretty much the plot of the movie. Once the guns start firing and characters start double-crossing each other, it remains in the warehouse for the remainder of its running length. No new ground is tread, either in the movie itself or in its presentation, but it certainly is never boring, and a great cast enlivens the well-worn material.

Sharlto Copley continues to prove he's one of Hollywood's most interesting actors working today with another great performance. In a movie full of bad guys, Vernon is the true out-and-out villain, and Copley gives him appropriate quirkiness (he was misdiagnosed as a child genius and still pretty pissed about it) with mad dog ferocity. After getting shot, he wraps his wounds in soggy cardboard because, as he explains, the bigger risk is infection than the bullet itself.

Murphy, the closest thing to a normal, level-headed good guy, grounds the proceedings, keeping them from getting too outlandish. Larson, the only female cast member, hangs tough with the boys, but the biggest surprise is Hammer. I've never been impressed with him one way or the other before, but Ord is probably my favorite character. As the arms deal broker, he has no allegiance to either side and continues to treat the situation like a normal business deal with himself amused more than anything. He never yells or gets angry. During the fighting, he takes cover to roll a joint.

Wheatley keeps things moving and shoots the action with an immediate, visceral touch, although there were times I lost track spatially of who was where in relation to everyone else.