Thursday, July 18, 2019

Criterion to Conjure 'Häxan' Blu-Ray This October

In 1922, Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen made a creepy chimera that was part documentary, part phantasmagoric horror movie, and all fabulous. Just in time for this Halloween, the Criterion Collection will be upgrading Christensen's Häxan with a 2K digital restoration for Blu-ray and DVD on October 15. 

The discs will include the following extras:

  • On the Blu-ray: New 2K digital restoration
  • On the DVD: Digital transfer
  • Music from the original Danish premiere, arranged by film-music specialist Gillian Anderson and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra in 2001, presented in 5.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray and in Dolby Digital 5.0 on the DVD
  • Audio commentary from 2001 featuring film scholar Casper Tybjerg
  • Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968), the seventy-six-minute version of Häxan, narrated by author William S. Burroughs, with a soundtrack featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty
  • Director Benjamin Christensen’s introduction to the 1941 rerelease
  • Short selection of outtakes
  • Bibliothèque Diabolique: a photographic exploration of Christensen’s historical sources
  • New English translation of intertitles
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, remarks on the score by Anderson, and (Blu-ray only) an essay by scholar Chloé Germaine Buckley

Friday, July 12, 2019

Review: 'Do the Right Thing' Blu-ray

It is absurd that as recently as the eighties there was no prominent African-American voice in Hollywood. Just months before that decade ended, Spike Lee finally snatched the megaphone with the film that made him a household name, and it did so without playing nice with the establishment. Lee presented a particularly sweltering day in Bed-Stuy where tempers rise with the mercury and ultimately boil over into murder and a racially charged clash at an Italian-owned pizzeria in a largely black community.

Lee casts himself as Mookie, an employee of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and the film’s focal point. Lee does a good job in front of the camera, though it is the rest of the outstanding cast (Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Joie Lee, Richard Edson, Bill Nunn, Frankie Faisson, Robin Harris, Danny Aiello, and the especially electrifying Giancarlo Esposito) that really zaps it to life. Do the Right Thing still belongs to Lee, who not only turns in a provocative script, but also films it with unbridled imagination and energy, his camera zooming and tilting like an untethered falcon, his subjects staring down that camera to confront the audience directly, to muse about hate and love.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Farewell, 'MAD'

When Bill Gaines made the ill-fated decision to act as the voice of the horror comics industry in a face-off against the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954, it seemed his career in publishing might be over. Although the bad press from the hearings ultimately put a hatchet through gruesome titles such as Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear, Gaines kept EC Comics going with a humor magazine he initially had little faith or interest in. Little did he and co-founder Harvey Kurtzman know that MAD would continue thrilling readers for another 65 years. 

MAD provided many kids with their first taste of political and cultural satire and taught a lot of us that the system was a mess, adults didn't necessarily know best, a lot of the things we were being told to buy were actually a big pile of yecch, and the best way to deal with it all was with a sharp sense of humor and a heavy dollop of critical thinking. It was also really silly fun. 

Even as publishing has been doing the slow-death reel for the past ten years or so, MAD has remained relatively relevant... and has had an embarrassment of riches in the material department lately thanks to the unusual gang of idiots currently occupying the White House. MAD even made news with a poignant and powerful piece about school shootings by writer Matt Cohen and artist Marc Palm published just last fall. 

Now, after a world-changing 67-year run, MAD is folding. Its next two issues will be its last bi-monthly to feature new material (apparently, there will still be some retrospective anthologies and year-end specials that will include new material). So long, thanks, and blecchMAD

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Review: 'Jon Savage’s 1965-1968: The High Sixties on 45'

In 2016, Rolling Stone writer Jon Savage began curating double-CD compilations for Ace Records in the UK. Each set was a sort of fantasy mid-sixties pirate radio playlist. His 1965 set mainly featured A-list rock and soul artists such as The Kinks (“See My Friends”), The Who (“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”), and The Supremes (“My World Is Empty Without You”), but there was also a sprinkling of more obscure luminaries such as Thee Midniters (“Land of 1,000 Dances Pt. 1”), The Spades (“We Sell Soul”), and Alvin Cash & the Crawlers (“Twine Time”). Each comp devoted to 1966 through 1968 followed a similar format.

To put all of these ace CDs onto vinyl would have required about twelve vinyl discs. Instead, Savage and Ace have opted to boil 192 tracks down to a sampling of 32 for a single, double-LP set. Although some of the big, big artists remain—Donovan with “Hey Gyp”, The Association with “Along Comes Mary”, James Brown with “Tell Me That You Love Me”, Gladys Knight and the Pips with “Take Me in Your Arms and Love Me”, Buffalo Springfield with “Mr. Soul”—Jon Savage’s 1965-1968: The High Sixties on 45 mostly spotlights the artists whose sides are less easy to find on vinyl. So while tracks by The Kinks (“Wonderboy”) and Aretha Franklin (“I Say a Little Prayer”) keep listeners oriented with familiar sounds, we can mostly concentrate on making some new discoveries, such as The Anglos’ infectious soul raver “Incense”, Norma Tanega’s quirky folk popper “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog”, Ray Sharpe and the King Curtis Orchestra’s dance hall anthem “Help Me (Get the Feeling) Pt. 1”, Freaks of Nature’s garage burner “People! Let’s Freak Out”, and Kak’s psychedelic shaker “Rain”. There are also some relatively obscure numbers by well-known artists, such as The Chiffon’s “Nobody Knows What's Going On (In My Mind but Me)”, The Everly Brothers’ “Lord of the Manor”, and Sly and the Family Stone’s (as “The French Fries”) “Danse a La Musique” (aka: “Dance to the Music” in French).

Yes, some obscurities remain in CD limbo (alas, there wasn’t room for The Birds’ “Leaving Here”, The Blue Things’ “One Hour Cleaners”, Blossom Toes’ “Look at Me I’m You”, Tintern Abbey’s “Vacuum Cleaner”, or Dave Davies’ “Lincoln County”), but if this groovy distillation sells well enough, maybe Ace will some day pull the trigger on that twelve-LP box set we’re really craving.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Review: 'What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time'

Reading Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why: The Beatles Album by Album, Song by Song, The Sixties and After at the unripe age of 15 quite literally changed my life. It didn’t just teach me that pop songs were worthy of deep analysis and the valuable lesson that even The Beatles’ mighty body of work is not critic-proof. It also set me on the path that led me to indulge in the analytical jibber-jabber I’ve been spouting here on Psychobabble for the past eleven years, as well as in my book The Who FAQ. So I was excited to see that Riley was involved in a new Beatles book.

However, I’m not really the audience for Riley and Walter Everett’s What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time. In fact, Riley this book is directed at a very specific audience: college students. What Goes On is structured as a chronological Beatles primer, providing a basic look at their musical innovations and cultural influence complete with text-book style study questions (my fave: “How does Lennon’s quip at the Royal Command Performance illustrate the generation gap?” …oh, what would 23-year old Lennon have thought if he’d known his offhand wise assery would one day be studied in university classrooms?!?). More thorough analyses of select songs are very similar to the ones in Tell Me Why.

One aspect of What Goes On that could not have existed in Riley’s 1988 publication are the Internet videos referenced throughout the book that further illustrate the various subtopics, often with musical examples by a young drummer or Everett on bass or guitar (or in one screen-in-screen instance, both). Videos cover such specifically Beatle-focused topics as how Ringo’s drumming style differed from the prevailing styles that preceded him to such general musical theory concepts as an explanation of syncopation. I had a bit of trouble accessing them by typing the provided URL’s into my browser but had no trouble using the direct links provided Oxford University Press’ web site.

Now a middle-aged fart, I’m versed in music theory and Beatledom well enough to not need a book like What Goes On, but I do feel heartened by the idea of a new generation of young people discovering their music and the pleasures of delving deep into it in the kind of class that might employ this book as its main text. Happy studying, kids.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Blu-Ray Edition of 'Dead of Night' Coming Soon...

Dead of Night was the first major horror anthology film and it's still one of the best. It's wrap-around segment alone will give you nightmares for weeks, so it's a big deal that the picture is finally getting the hi-def treatment. 

On July 9, Kino Lorber will release an uncut, 4K restoration of Dead of Night with a commentary from historian Tim Lucas, and a feature length documentary called Remembering Dead of Night. Be sure to get an extra copy for your dummy.
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