Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: 'Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks'

ECW's new Pop Classics series is another in the vogue-ish vein of ultra-mini pop culture lines like Continuum's 33 1/3 books, Wallflower Press' Cultographies, and Auteur's Devil's Advocates. Unlike those lines that specifically hone in on albums, cult movies, and horror movies, respectively, Pop Classics is broader in its focus, its first titles covering comics (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles),  cult feature films (Showgirls), and cult TV. The first title devoted to the latter is Andy Burns's Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks. The timing for this book may seem perfect since there's so much resumed interest in David Lynch and Mark Frost's groundbreaking series amidst a recent high-profile blu-ray release, and more improbably, the announcement that season three is in the works, but it's actually slightly unfortunate since that resumed interest means a new flood of very in-depth writing about the series, best exemplified by Brad Dukes's superb Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks

In contrast, Burns's book is a pretty basic, 100-page introduction to the series that probably won't teach hardcore "Peaks" fans much they don't already know. He covers the basic genesis of the series and how it broke conventions of Network TV storytelling and how its aftershocks can be felt in series from "Northern Exposure" and "Picket Fences" through "Psych" and "Hannibal". There are some interesting tidbits that come through in the interviews Burns conducted with alumni such as actor Dana Ashbrook (who gives some fascinating background on Bobby Briggs's poignant conversation with father Major Briggs in the season two premier), actress Kimmy Robertson (who provides some extra details about what went wrong with the Uli Edel-directed episode), and Secret Diary of Laura Palmer-scribe Jennifer Lynch (who offers a very interesting interpretation of BOB's possession of Leland Palmer). Burns also deserves credit for reserving several of his scant pages to exploring how the series dealt with incest. Overall, though, Wrapped in Plastic is really a primer for brand new fans. Fortunately, with the release of that blu-ray and the announcement of season three, there should be plenty of those.

Get Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks on here:

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' Blu-ray

Woody Allen’s bad personal choices had at least one major artistic ramification: he could no longer collaborate with Mia Farrow. The Purple Rose of Cairo might have been filed with his relatively minor films if not for her (though, to be fair, her presence didn’t rescue Broadway Danny Rose or Alice from that file). Her performance as Cecilia, a Depression-era victim of domestic abuse who finds solace escaping into movies—or specifically, one particular movie called The Purple Rose of Cairo—elevates the film of the same name to one of Allen’s very best.

The magical conceit is that the movie ends up escaping into Cecilia’s world when minor character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) takes notice of the woman who keeps coming to see his movie and decides to step off the screen to be with her. The brilliance of the conceit is that there is no question about whether or not this is Cecilia’s fantasy; it is not and we see the hilarious ways the film’s other characters (who, we are told, are not human), producers, and audiences deal with Baxter’s strange leap. Meanwhile, the character expects the real world to function as smoothly as the movies. He’s baffled when he tries to escape from a restaurant where he tried to pay for dinner with phony movie money by getting behind the wheel of a random car that does not automatically start up as soon as he presses the gas.

This is basically Woody Allen’s take on the popular eighties trope of an alien falling in love with a normal person (see Starman, Splash, E.T., etc.), and it plays out with the director’s signature pathos, humor, and honesty—he may love those old Hollywood movies as much as Cecilia does, but like her he ultimately refuses to accept escapism as a viable way to live. Yet it is Farrow who truly sells the conceit with Cecilia’s wide-eyed openness, infectious love of the movies, and underlying sadness. Annie Hall may be Allen’s best movie, and Bananas may be his funniest, but The Purple Rose of Cairo is my favorite. It comes to blu-ray from Twilight Time, though the film’s soft, sepia aesthetic is not the greatest for showcasing the wonders of hi-def. Still, the disc looks true to the film and is only occasionally invaded by a white speck or two. As usual for Twilight Time, there is an isolated music score track, and as usual for a Woody Allen home video, there are no other extras.

Get The Purple Rose of Cairo blu-ray on Screen here.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: 'The Bride Wore Black' Blu-ray

Francois Truffaut was one of cinema’s key filmmakers and one of its key students and critics. He had already showed off that first hat with The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and Fahrenheit 451 and the second and third ones with his work for Cahiers du Cinema, in which he posited the auteur theory, by the time he made The Bride Wore Black in 1967. Here Truffaut’s art and his obsession with the art of another—namely Alfred Hitchcock—gel in a film that begins as winking homage before developing into something more personal.

When The Bride Wore Black (based on a novel by William Irish, who also wrote “It Had to Be Murder”, which Hitch adapted into Rear Window) begins by showing generally mundane images set to Bernard Herrmann’s overwhelming and overwhelmingly recognizable score, it’s as if Truffaut is trying to shove a signifier of Hitchcock’s most melodramatic scenes into scenes nearly devoid of melodrama despite the fact that the woman on screen tries to kill herself at one point.

That woman is Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau), who soon sets about her own obsessive mission by insinuating herself into the lives of various men and killing them. Her motive remains a mystery for a quarter of the film, but since the title of the movie is The Bride Wore Black, I don’t feel like I’m spoiling too much by saying she’s on a mission of revenge against the creeps she blames for her groom’s death.

While Truffaut seems to drop clues about his movies’ apparent main influence (we see such locations of iconic Hitchcock scenes as a schoolyard, a speeding train, and a concert hall), Julie differs from the mass of Hitch’s charming main characters because she is a husk (it is telling that she shares a surname with the similarly emotion-drained title character of Shoot the Piano Player). She carries on with her grim mission devoid of emotion, something that could not be said of even sketchy characters like Norman Bates and Marnie Edgar. This means The Bride Wore Black is not as fun to watch as your average Hitchcock movie, but maybe revenge, murder, and soul-destroying grief are not supposed to be fun (or maybe they are—just see how Quentin Tarantino reshaped this movie’s premise into Kill Bill). It is, however, a suspense film worthy of the master when obstacles such as an unexpected visit from a redheaded model, a sweet little boy, and even the possibility that she may have found a new love fall into Julie’s vengeful path. These are the film’s most powerful moments.

I’ve been wanting to see The Bride Wore Black ever since I saw Kill Bill ten years ago. It’s finally available on blu-ray via Twilight Time, and in a beautiful transfer with strong blacks, strong color (though this is not a strikingly colorful movie), and strong grain. Supplementing the film (presented in both subtitled and English dubbed versions—the dubbed one contains different musical cues) is a commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman and Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith. Smith’s presence puts a lot of the focus on the score, and he discusses the clashes between Hermann and Truffaut over the director’s choices in this film—as well as Herrmann’s clashed with Hitchcock. Kirgo tries to pull the focus away from Hitchcock, whose influence she does not see as strongly in the film as a lot of other commentators do, and discusses the more meaningful role gender dynamics play in the film. There is also a supplementary CD featuring a 79-minute interview with Bernard Herrmann that spotlights the composer’s short temper. The blu-ray disc’s isolated score track spotlights his art.

Get The Bride Wore Black on here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Watch the Teaser Trailer for the Pretty Things Box Set 'Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky' Here on Psychobabble

The Pretty Things' career spanning box set Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky is coming on February 23rd. Pre-order here and watch the teaser trailer below:

Review: 'Tom Sutton's Creepy Things'

Perhaps you know him as Sean Todd, or more fittingly, Dementia or Grisly, but no matter what name he drew under, Tom Sutton was at the forefront of seventies horror comics largely because of his black and white work on Vampirella. Yoe Books/IDW’s new anthology, Tom Sutton’s Creepy Things, mostly focuses on his color work for titles such as Ghostly Haunts, Haunted, Ghost Manor, Midnight Tales, Haunted Love, and yes, Creepy Things (oddly the source of only one story in this collection). As it turns out, Sutton’s work was just as effectively goopy and kooky in color as it was in black and white. His style, which takes Graham Ingels’s signature ooze to nearly abstract levels, always works best when he was rendering ghouls, corpses, and creeps. His humans, particularly the ones he intended to look attractive, are often awkwardly drawn, sometimes distorted. This might not necessarily be a flaw though, as it leaves even his most “normal” panels looking unsettlingly abnormal. And Sutton had little patience for normality. Although he didn’t write everything in Tom Sutton’s Creepy Things, each of its stories reflects his innate weirdness. The book collects a nutso tale about a murderous teddy bear, one written from the grave’s point of view (and featuring some of the finest art in this book), one about the ghost of a hypocritical temperance advocate who finds himself a new drinking buddy, a nonsensical monster rally intent on cramming in references to every classic movie and literary monster you can think of, and a twisted twist on Richard Matheson’s “Twilight Zone” episode, “A World of His Own”. The book gets even weirder when Sutton works outside of the horror genre on the sci-fi fantasy “Lost in Transit”, the prehistoric sci-fi sci-fi fantasy “Goo”, the time-hopping sword-and-sandal fantasy “Journey to Lost Orlaak”, the hilarious fairy tale “The Tower Maiden”, and the adventure yarn “The Kukulkaton”, starring a sleazy, racist proto-Indiana Jones. In the final tale, “Through a Glass Darkly”, Sutton’s psychedelic B&W art and metaphysical, Lovecraftian storytelling are nothing short of sublime. All of this makes for one of Yoe/IDW’s very best anthologies yet.

Get Tom Sutton’s Creepy Things on here:

Friday, January 16, 2015

Review: 'Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers!'

In 1940, Theodore Sturgeon published an atmospheric, highly unsettling story about a murderous mass of swamp vegetation called “It” in Unknown magazine. Sturgeon’s career would continue to blossom, adding such achievements as the script for the classic “Star Trek” episode “Amok Time” and inspiring Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout to his résumé. The swamp creature would go on to have an even more flourishing life. Shortly after the publication of “It”, The Heap oozed across patriotic Airboy comics. In the sixties, seventies, and eighties, muck monsters like the Lurker in the Swamp, Bog Beast, Marvin the Dead-Thing, Man-Thing, a revived Heap, and especially, Swamp Thing were sprouting up in every comic brand worth its salt.

Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers!, the sixth installment of The Comic Book Creator series, doesn’t get too deeply into why swamp monsters caught on the way they did (I think it has to do with both our fear of primordial swamp environments and the way such isolated places serve as pathways to exploring our own feelings of isolation), but it doesn’t skimp on anything else about these unique creatures. This text-thick, completely illustrated edition features a detailed and critical timeline of muck monsters in the comics, full-color pin-ups, the full text of Sturgeons “It”, biographies of the half-dozen-or-so major muckers, and a series of very in-depth interviews with monster makers such as Len Wein, Alan Moore, and Bernie Wrightson (Swamp Thing), Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik (The Man-Thing). Rather than being mere page-filler, these interviews are consistently fascinating, whether Wein offers his brief but thought-provoking take on the appeal of swamp monsters, Wrightson gets into his Monster Kid childhood, or Moore waxes philosophical about his Swamp Thing contributions and handles some no-punches-pulled questions graciously (although it is off topic, I was hoping hed discuss The Killing Joke a bit too, but he doesnt). While Swampmen doesn’t hesitate to take its bizarre topic seriously, there is almost always a sense of fun purveying this colorful, informative, artful, and intelligent volume.

Get Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers! on here:

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