Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: 'Michael Jackson: The Making of “Thriller”: 4 Days/1983'


Calling The Beatles pop’s all-time greatest band, Jimi Hendrix its all-time greatest guitarist, or “Thriller” its all-time greatest video isn’t terribly original. There’s still a reason such opinions are so persistent and pervasive: they’re true. “Thriller” may not be the greatest song—it’s not even the greatest song on Thriller—but a great video is equal parts striking music, visuals, and performance. “Thriller” married a singer/performer at his peak powers with visual artists John Landis and Rick Baker who’d just made the best horror film of the eighties, An American Werewolf in London. “Thriller” was a sheer “lightning in a bottle” moment.

We can’t get a super accurate representation of Michael Jackson’s gifts in Douglas Kirland’s new book Michael Jackson: The Making of “Thriller”: 4 Days/1983 since a book can’t move (though the moving-MJ hologram on the front cover is as close as it gets). The incredible visuals of Landis, and particularly, Baker are on full display though. The centerpiece of the book pores over the painstaking processes of Baker’s application of the iconic cat-man and zombie makeups. Yet it’s the small moments that really thrill: the nostalgia-defining shot of the eighties’ biggest star playing a Donkey Kong arcade game, Landis drinking a Tab and showing his star how to be a scary monster, and some shots of Jackson in cat makeup without his contact lenses that provide a peek at the man behind the monster. Most arresting of all is a sequence devoted to the removal of the zombie makeup. It looks really, really painful. Then in the final shot of the sequence, Jackson looks like he has simply shaken off the pain. His is the face of a true pro.

The introduction by journalist Nancy Griffin, who wrote a far more extensive and revealing piece on the video-shoot for Vanity Fair in 2010, and her interview with on-set photographer Kirkland are nice, but a video with such a complex production and far-reaching history could have used more text. However, Griffin and Kirkland are determined to keep the focus on the photos and can’t be blamed for allowing such unforgettable images to howl for themselves.

Get Michael Jackson: The Making of “Thriller”: 4 Days/1983 on Amazon.com here:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: 'The Beatles in Mono' Vinyl Box


The world is watching when there’s a new Beatles release, and the most hardcore fans want to make sure that it has been treated with all due respect. Most folks probably didn’t notice when Capitol released The U.S. Albums as a hodgepodge of the mixes that actually appeared on those records and ones pulled from the UK Parlophone records, but serious Beatlemaniacs did and reacted with quite a bit of displeasure. Since it is universally accepted that the Parlophone mixes are the definitive ones, the fanboy outcry over The U.S. Albums had nothing to do with listening pleasure and everything to do with historical accuracy.

Just eight months later, Capitol is dropping another major archival box set, The Beatles in Mono, and this time the label has made sure to cross every historical T. Engineers Sean Magee and Steve Berkowitz have gone to shocking extremes to ensure utter authenticity of all 14 vinyl LPs in this collection. They’ve gone back to The Beatles’ famed Abbey Road stomping grounds to work exclusively with quarter-inch master tapes, referring to the original mastering notes, shunning all things digital. No quality upgrades sacrifice authenticity. I’m not sure what the weight of the original Parlophone records was, but if it wasn’t the 180-grams of these new releases, I doubt anyone but the most dementedly dogmatic will complain.

That quality extends to the beautiful packaging, which includes a heavy flip-top box and a 108-page hardbound book busting with photos and notes that may not offer revelations to those who’ve done their Fab Four homework, but at least do not rehash the notes that adorned Capitol’s 2009 CDs. The epilogue addressing the challenges of returning The Beatles to vinyl is fascinating. Each record also includes a leaflet with up-to-date copyright information since the effort to maintain authenticity means that some of the info on the covers is no longer accurate.

Those covers are generally true to the original releases. I was quite taken back by the oddness of Parlophone’s glossy front covers that wrap around flat back covers. Magical Mystery Tour refines Capitol’s flatter finish with a matte cover.

All nuggets of schwag are included too, which means Sgt. Pepper’s novelty cut-outs, the full-color booklet stapled into Magical Mystery Tour, and the poster and portraits tucked in the pockets of “The White Album”. Pepper has its psychedelic pink inner sleeve, although you’ll probably want to keep the LP in the more protective sleeve also included since the pink one is kind of snug and could scuff the vinyl (in fact, several of the covers are kind of snug too, possibly because they were cut according to original dimensions that do not take the extra thickness of the 180-gram vinyl and padded inner sleeves into account). The earlier covers, however, do not house the original generic Parlophone inner sleeve imploring you to "Take good care of your microgroove records...", which is really the only significant break from authenticity.


All LPs are stored in resealable plastic bags (which I ended up replacing with heftier non-resealable bags because I was uncomfortable passing the covers over adhesive) except Mono Masters, which is too thick to fit in a bag, so it’s shrink-wrapped (as is the book). This album is also notable for how it differs from its stereo equivalent. Anyone familiar with the CD version of this set knows that the three Past Masters tracks never mixed in mono—“The Ballad of John and Yoko”, “Old Brown Shoe”, and “Let It Be”—were replaced with mono mixes of the four Beatles songs unique to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. The vinyl Mono Masters also differs from the vinyl Past Masters because it expands the double-LP to a triple. It better unites what was originally released as two separate CDs back in the eighties by featuring tracks from both Past Masters Volume One and Past Masters Volume Two on Side Three. Side Five is devoted to the four Yellow Submarine songs, though I thought it might have been cooler to include “Across the Universe” on that side too to recreate the original line up of The Beatles’ concept for a Yellow Submarine EP that was never released.


A release like this always sparks debates on what’s better: stereo or mono. Since the CD release of this set in 2009, critics seem to have been expressing their preference for mono. It’s the way The Beatles, themselves, intended their music to be heard in the days when stereo was still regarded as an audiophile novelty. As I’ve said here on Psychobabble before, I grew up in the stereo age and my ears are kind of trained to prefer it. I’ve been listening to The Beatles in stereo for as long as I’ve been listening to The Beatles. That being said, I’m pretty sure I’d have a mono preference for a lot of these albums if that had been how I’d come to know them. Even after being weaned on stereo I maintain a mono preference for the pre-Revolver albums because they are largely live, raw, raucous Rock & Roll performances that require the power and cohesiveness of mono. As The Beatles became more experimental in the studio, I think stereo better showed off the nooks and nuances of their recordings. I won’t deny that a number of songs were very poorly separated in stereo, particularly on Revolver, which wasted way too much right channel real estate on Ringo’s tambourine. “Taxman” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are just so much brawnier in mono, though the latter song suffers in that mix because its tape loops were faded in and out too hastily. No matter the differences I still enjoy hearing all these later records in mono, because for someone so used to the stereo mixes like me, they provide opportunities to hear overly familiar music in a totally fresh way. For someone who already has a firm mono preference, these LPs are heaven.

Get The Beatles in Mono on Amazon.com here:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Complete "Basement Tapes" to Be Next in Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series

So you thought Dylan's acclaimed "Bootleg Series" had finally reached the bottom of the barrel with last year's focus on his less-than-adored Self-Portrait album. Think again, because this November 11, Sony/Legacy will put out a massive, 138-track heap of tracks from Bob and The Band's legendary sessions from Big Pink called The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11. As the series' title indicates, these tracks have long been available on bootleg, and were even a good portion of Sid Griffin's superb book on the home-brewed sessions. So its awesome that these humor-rich recordings will finally see official release in a number of formats. The most comprehensive will be a six-CD box set, but there will also be a pickier double-disc set and a triple-LP vinyl edition. They're all available to pre-order now here:

Here are full track-listings for each edition:

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: 'Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks'


Shows as cinematic, daring, and genuinely artistic as “Twin Peaks” come along rarely even in television’s new “golden age” (and with shows like “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men”, and “Game of Thrones”, I truly do believe TV is enjoying a renaissance). Back in 1990, there simply wasn’t anything else to compare to it even with a crop of excellent series like “China Beach” and “Northern Exposure”, so it’s understandable that all these decades later its cast and crew are still so eager to speak of “Twin Peaks” in DVD and blu-ray bonus documentaries and onstage in last year’s series of panel discussions at the University of Southern California. Big stars like Piper Laurie and David Duchovny will still make time to chat about a 25-year old series that lasted a mere season and a half.

As a crazed Peaks Freak, I make time to watch every one of these recollections I can find, so as excited as I was to read Brad Dukes’s new book, Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, I was skeptical I’d learn much. I was totally wrong to be skeptical. Reflections is the best book I’ve picked up all year. Dukes scores by digging into the aspects of the show that have not been discussed to death already. Yes, he covers the oft-told origin of the series that began life as “Northwest Passage” and the origin of Killer BOB, the media frenzy that met the show and the early demise that followed the forced resolution of the core “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” mystery, and everything else obligatory. But Reflections really shines when getting into less-traveled zones and giving them surprisingly serious attention. Full sections are devoted to Duchovny’s Agent Bryson (though Dukes did not interview that particular actor), Josie Packard ending up in the pull knob, Diane Keaton and Uli Edel’s turns as director, and most welcome of all, the sweetness of Frank Silva, the set decorator who ended up playing television’s most heinous creature. Mysteries are solved. We finally get some specific details about Stanley Kubrick’s mythic screening of Eraserhead, and Kubrick was not the only legendary director in attendance. Kimmy Robertson reveals her very personal role in getting Duchovny cast. We learn why Windom Earle appears in demonic makeup in the penultimate episode. We get some juicy tidbits about the much-loathed James and Evelyn Marsh mini-noir that will make me look differently at a subplot I sometimes skip through. And though no one holds back their personal opinions (Sherilyn Fenn is as forthcoming as ever about how she thinks Lara Flynn Boyle screwed up the series), you really get a sense that the cast and crew loved working together and loved “Twin Peaks” as a job and a show. If they didn’t, Dukes probably would not have been able to gather nearly 100 of its former denizens (including long-time holdout Michael Ontkean!) to reflect on it two and a half decades down the road.

Get Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks on Amazon.com here:





Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: 'The Buddy Holly Story' Blu-Ray


As the first of its genre, The Buddy Holly Story was bound to lay out some fundamental Rock bio-pic clichés: the rags-to-riches arc, the landmark recording sessions and gigs, the intra-band politics, the “print the legend” approach to its subject’s life. It also knocked those pins down by having the actors not only perform their own music but having them do it live, on camera. Steve Rash’s movie actually works best as a true-blue concert film. Gary Busey may be way too old to play Holly (at 33, he was a full eleven years older than the singer at the time of his death), he may be too stocky even after having lost 32 pounds for the role, and his guitar playing may have been the only musical element to require overdubbing (by Jerry Zaremba, who plays Eddie Cochran in the movie), but he brings so much wild energy to his musical performances that the movie really comes alive during them. Rash clearly realizes this as he lets so many songs play out in full. The version of “Rock Around with Ollie Vee” that Busey, Charles Martin Smith, and Don Stroud play at a roller rink can stand alongside a lot of the most electrifying live Rock & Roll performances on film; it’s right up there with anything in The Last Waltz or Gimme Shelter (probably not The Kids Are Alright though).

The Buddy Holly Story doesnt work as well as a biography, lacking drama and glaringly cutting Holly’s manager and producer Norman Petty out of the picture. Petty is not well-loved, because like a lot of guys in his position, he completely ripped off his artist by taking co-writing credit for songs he had nothing to do with and literally stealing royalty dollars. Rumor has it that Petty’s absence had to do with the influence of Holly’s widow, Maria. I understand why she’d still be bitter over Petty’s dirty dealings, but his absence also costs the film a villain that might have heightened the drama a lot. Instead, The Buddy Holly Story is often concerned with race relations, though refreshingly, it is Buddy's whiteness that causes problems in a Rock & Roll world regarded as an African-American domain (the potential problem his whiteness might cause in his romance with a Puerto Rican woman is a mere hiccup though). By turning the focus toward the intimately human instead of the epic, The Buddy Holly Story fells another bio-pic cliché. Even his death is not sensationalized.

The Buddy Holly Story is now available for the first time on blu-ray from Twilight Time. The picture generally looks good with a natural grain and very few blemishes, though some shots are a touch blurry. On the audio bonus side, there’s a feature commentary from Rash and Busey ported over from the 2003 Region 2 DVD and Twilight Time’s standard isolated score track, which has never been more welcome than it is on this movie so heavy with terrific music.
Get The Buddy Holly Story blu-ray at screenarchives.com here.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review: 'The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad/Fun and Fancy Free' Blu-Ray


Despite its reputation for taking disturbing stories like “The Little Mermaid” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and cutesifying them for toddler consumers, Disney has produced some of the scariest sequences in children’s cinema. Millions of kids remember the wicked queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the demon from Fantasia, or Dumbo’s nightmare hallucination giving them their first serious scare at the movies.

Such moments have always been my favorites in Disney films, which is why my favorite of all the studio’s cartoons is the relatively underrated The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Disney’s short adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” brings that story’s climactic chase between a cowardly schoolteacher and a headless horseman to life with punishing intensity. The horseman’s first appearance on screen with a blaze of crazed cackling, stinging music, and a zoom that forces the viewer into his saddle is as scary a shot as you’ll see in any film for young or old viewers. The subtle, windy, Halloween night atmosphere that precedes it builds to that horror magically.

Most viewers come away from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad remembering the chase scene above all else. The film has a lot more going for it than that, particularly some surprisingly memorable songs sung by Bing Crosby (“The Headless Horseman” song is a Halloween carol that should have been), and even more surprising considering Disney’s overstated reputation for diluting the classics, an incredible degree of faithfulness to the original story. Crosby’s narration even reuses a good deal of Irving’s text. And let’s not short change the other terrific animated short that comprises The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Based on Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Mr. Toad’s wild adventure enjoys the same painterly animation and extra-relish narration (Basil Rathbone, to compliment a very British fairy tale) as “Ichabod”. The segment’s Christmas setting makes the package great to split up and savor on our two most popular national holidays.

A less beloved package film is 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free. An adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s “Little Bear Bongo”, in which a circus bear escapes to the wild where he falls in love, is less eventful and artfully illustrated than the usual Disney cartoon. But that’s why your remote control has a “next” button. The following cartoon short, “Mickey and the Beanstalk”, is a big improvement with more atmospheric animation and some of the old Disney spookiness back in the mix (in one delightfully demented passage, Donald Duck tries to axe-murder a cow!). The cross-talking narration by too-precious child actress Luana Patten, puppeteer Edger Bergen, and his wooden charges is kind of annoying, though, as are the spell-breaking live-action interludes in which they appear.

Disney’s new blu-ray edition of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is available solo and as a package with Fun and Fancy Free. Ichabod is a startling upgrade from the previous DVD edition, which suffered from washed-out color and an almost constant invasion of white specks. The blu-ray intensifies color, wipes out the vast majority of those specks, and maintains a healthy grain. The animated segments of Fun and Fancy free are less textural but still perfectly presentable. The live-action bit, however, suffers from so much heavy-handed noise reduction it almost looks animated too.

The one big gap on the new edition is the lack of “Lonesome Ghosts”. This 1937 short in which Mickey, Donald, and Goofy play amateur ghostbusters against a quartet of spooks was the highlight bonus feature of the 2000 Ichabod and Toad DVD. It’s a shame “Lonesome Ghosts” could not have received a similar hi-def buffing for the new blu-ray (a few other minor extras aimed at very young viewers didn’t make the transition either). In its place is an admittedly substantial bonus feature film with material based in part on another Kenneth Grahame story. The Reluctant Dragon is generally more concerned with showing off Disney’s new Burbank studio than spinning cartoon yarns, but the live action backstage tour hops with cornball nostalgic fun (and looks a lot better in hi-def than Fun and Fancy Free). Because it shares DNA with “Mr. Toad”—and because the two films were released as a Grahame-centric package in 1955—The Reluctant Dragon is a most appropriate bonus feature for this blu-ray. I just wish Disney could have made room for the mere eight-minutes of “Lonesome Ghosts” too. Nevertheless, the new edition of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is well worth checking out for its vastly superior picture quality.

Get The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad/Fun and Fancy Free on Amazon.com here:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: “Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery” Blu-Ray: Part 4

In my first installment of this review series on "The Entire Mystery", I insisted there was no way I'd be watching and reviewing the series or Fire Walk with Me until achieving just the right seasonal atmosphere to watch "Twin Peaks" this autumn. Fate intervened when my Orei blu-ray machine started having issues with this box set's information-heavy discs. Since I finally figured out how to get them to play (basically, whenever a disc fails to load, I simply leave it in the machine, power-off, power-on, and it loads up well), I decided to stop being cute and soldier on with the film and the series. I won't pretend I've watched the entire mystery yet, but I think I've seen enough to write the final installment of this review series.
Since any regular Psychobabble reader knows where I stand on "Twin Peaks" the show and "Twin Peaks" the movie (I love them), we'll be focusing on how these main features of "The Entire Mystery" measure up quality wise. If I had to sum it up in a couple of words, I'd choose "holy" and "shit" (taken together, of course. Separately, these two words offer contradictory meanings). Fire Walk with Me had never been treated properly on DVD before, and its golden daytime exteriors, black velvet nighttime exteriors, and lipstick red interiors looked dull on that twelve-year old disc. The colors punch out of the screen on this new HD upgrade, with equally powerful and multi-dimensional sound to match. Seriously, I had to reset my stereo receiver to stop the bass from rattling the room (this is especially true of the Canadian barroom scene, in which levels have been restored to those of the theatrical presentation in which the dialogue was nearly inaudible over the music). And in keeping with David Lynch-related disc's reputation for correct calibration (his Eraserhead DVD can't even be watched without passing through a grayscale/calibration test screen first), the audio of all my movie and music discs enjoyed a real improvement. Thanks, Dave!

That sound and picture improvement most definitely extends to the TV series. I hate to admit it, but I've never really liked the way Lynch's shot-on-location pilot looked. I found its over-emphasized blacks drab compared to the brighter, more vivid episodes shot on a sound stage. For the first time, I can say I love the way the pilot looks. The darkness looks less like poor-quality, more deliberately crafted now. The pilot is a revelation; a painting thick with oils that moves and breathes. I initially found the rest of the series less revelatory until I came to the first episode of season two. There is a bit of SD footage in this one (that epic pan across the Sheriff's donut-bedecked conference table; the Giant's supernatural imparting of information Cooper forgot) since all of the original elements apparently could not be found. It's a drag when SD footage invades an otherwise pristine picture, but the fact that it looks so completely horrid really brings the video improvement into focus. I used to think "The Gold Box" DVDs looked really good and even questioned whether or not I needed "Twin Peaks" on blu-ray. I totally did.

I also noticed an interesting tidbit in the second episode of season two: unless my memory is totally faulty (and I've watched this series enough times that I really doubt it is), there had always been a continuity error in the scene in which Shelly and Bobby chat about pulling an insurance scam while sitting in his dad's car in the second episode of season two. From one angle, Shelly's arm dangles over Bobby's shoulder. In another, it does not. However, on "The Entire Mystery", there is complete continuity: there's Shelly's arm over Bobby's shoulder in every shot. Is the picture so clear that we can finally see Shelly's formerly blurred arm? Were alternate shots that maintain continuity located and cut into this episode? Is it a CG arm? I guess it wouldn't be "Twin Peaks" if every mystery in "The Entire Mystery" was solved...

Get it here on Amazon.com:


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