Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: 'To Sir, with Love' Blu-ray

To Sir, with Love is one of those movies that are impossible to separate from the period in which it was made. That period is Sixties London, and the film’s most enjoyable elements are knotted up with that swinging setting. You’ve got period pop-star Lulu serenading period movie-star Sidney Poitier with the lovely/corny title song, one of the period’s biggest smash hits. There are a bunch of teenagers fruging to The Mindbenders’ generic R&B and serious discussions about how revolutionary long hair and The Beatles are. There isn’t a ton going on under such surface elements. The “compassionate teacher swoops in and tries to save the souls of delinquent classroom” trope wasn’t new in ’67— in fact, this film’s teacher, Sidney Poitier, played a delinquent in another such movie, Blackboard Jungle, twelve years earlier—and the fact that this particular film features a Guyanese teacher presiding over a classroom of mostly white English kids is not explored in any meaningful way. We don’t get to know that much about Poitier’s Mark “Sir” Thackeray, or his three prominent students: Pamela (Judy Geeson), a minor-league upstart with a heart of gold, Denham (Christian Roberts), the requisite leather-jacketed rebel without a wit, and Babs (Lulu), the sassy one. You’d never know that these cardboard cut outs were based on real people (the kids even wear the same outfits every day like cartoon characters).

The plot is not really developed beyond the aforementioned trope, and To Sir, with Love mostly functions as a string of vignettes, the best of which break out of Sir’s classroom. The museum outing sequence, a montage of still pictures set to the title song, is quaint and delightful, a sort of super-restrained flipside to the abandoned “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A Hard Day’s Night. The climactic school dance is great fun, as Poitier drops his cool to dance with Geeson. Lulu performs the song again as all the kids stare at their emotionally overcome teacher in a genuinely poignant moment. 

Poitier is celebrated for his “dignity,” a dull designation that doesn’t do justice to his abilities. Screenwriter (and director and producer) James Clavell translated the real Sir, E.R. Braithewaite, into a movie character in sketchy strokes. Poitier breathes life into Clavell’s creation with flashes of bemusement (I love his reaction to an old woman who says she wants Sir Thackeray “in her Christmas stocking” on a bus), joy (ditto how he dances around when he gets a new job offer) and scary anger. Sir has come to symbolize the perfect teacher in the same way Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey has come to symbolize the all-American husband and dad, but both characters are much darker than such malformed distinctions imply. Sir rightfully freaks out when his female students burn a mysterious object in his classroom (those who read Braithewaite’s book will know it’s a used maxi pad; the rest of us have to figure it out for ourselves), but it’s really ugly when he calls them “sluts.” A lot of his teaching methods—such as having his students read random phrases from their textbooks or giving them salad recipes—are pretty strange too.

For the most part, the bad kids really aren’t that bad, which makes the whole affair a pretty low-stakes one. The worst thing they do is saw a leg off Sir’s desk. A more typical transgression is when Denham gets caught playing with a rubber chew toy in class. Call the cops!

It’s considerable flaws aside, To Sir, with Love is generally a sweet and enjoyable period piece, and Twilight Time’s new blu-ray does right by the film in every way. The well-grained picture adds a layer of grittiness the sweet kids in Sir’s class can’t always deliver and colors are good. Unlike a lot of Twilight Time discs, there is an abundance of special features. The best is a 23-minute talk with E.R. Braithewaite, who discusses the issues of race the film doesn’t wade into very deeply, including his relationship with a white teacher (played by Suzy Kendall in the film) her small-minded father brought to a sad conclusion. Braithewaite also gets a commentary track he shares with Salome Thomas El, an author and contemporary African-American principal, who discusses how the film reflects the actual classroom experience (El also gets his own 11-minute on screen featurette). Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman host an alternate commentary track with Judy Geeson, who discusses the film’s making (strangely, those costumes the cast wear over and over are their own clothes) and impact. Featurettes featuring Lulu and Michael Des Barres discussing the hit title song (which producer Mickie Most repressed from being an A-side in the UK!) and the film’s making, agent Marty Baum discussing client Sidney Poitier’s work in it, and an isolated score track round out this thoughtfully produced blu-ray. Get it on Screen here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: 'Lenny' Blu-ray

The subjects of celebrity biopics are almost never as important as the people who make them. Too many celebrities live lives that hit the same beats. This is even true of Lenny Bruce, the infamous and groundbreaking comic who became a martyr in the war against censorship with routines notable for their truthfulness about sex, media, and self-expression, not their alleged dirtiness. Bruce’s career began inauspiciously; he hooked up with a tolerant woman, achieved stardom by pushing boundaries, succumbed to various vices, broke down, and died young. It’s a tale often told. How Bob Fosse told it is rare.

Fosse, off course, made his name in musical theater as an actor, dancer and choreographer, and his cinematic work followed suit when he directed and choreographed the musicals Sweet Charity and Cabaret. A biopic about a comedian may seem an odd choice for Fosse’s third directorial effort. It all makes sense when you see it. Lenny is a musical without a single musical number. Everything from the editing to the actors’ movements appears expertly choreographed, the rhythms flowing from one potentially jarring time jump to the next with the abandon and perfection of a John Coltrane riff.

The director does not deserve all the credit. Dustin Hoffman as Bruce and Valerie Perrine as his wife give landmark performances: Hoffman’s final contempt-of-court monologue is one of the truest things on film, and Perrine’s interview sequences don’t betray a splinter of artifice. But one thing I really dig about Lenny—and which really, really sets it apart from the mass of biopics—is how interested the director is in everyone on screen. I mean everyone. Even the briefly glimpsed audience members seem to have inner lives as they react to Bruce’s routines with laughter, gaping mouths, rolling eyes, blank expressions, or even a complicit and touchingly romantic stolen kiss. As stylized as Fosse’s rhythms and chronology are, his people are utterly real whether they’re participating in an abstract ménage à trois totally fabricated by the director or pseudo-documentary interviews.

Fosse shot Lenny on high-contrast black and white stock, although the smoky, gauzy lighting of nightclubs, crummy apartments, drug dens, and jails defuses its crispness. Twilight Time’s new blu-ray doesn’t sharpen the film, but it is a clean presentation with healthy grain. Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman provide a new commentary track in which they gab about the significant differences between the film and the play on which it was based (both written by Julian Barry), Bruce and Fosse’s careers and legacy, and how Fosse dragged such an extraordinary performance out of Perrine. It’s a lively commentary, but some actual footage of Bruce would have been a cool bonus too. The disc also includes the customary isolated score track and is limited to 3,000 units.

Get Lenny on Screen here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: 'St. Valentine’s Day Massacre' Blu-ray

An insulting amount of the commentary on the honorary Oscar Roger Corman received in 2009 focused on how he launched the careers of directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, and others of their ilk and basically dismissed the man’s own directorial work. Despite that naked gold guy on his mantel, Roger Corman is still considered a B-movie hack by a lot of critics, which is total bollocks. Even when working on super low-budget, abridged-schedule stuff like Little Shop of Horrors he made original and fun work. When he was more artistically invested in his projects, he could make truly audacious, genuinely inventive pictures, such as The Masque of the Red Death and his rarely seen masterpiece The Intruder, a film that dealt with racism in such a head-on way for its time that Corman would have deserved that Oscar even if it he’d never done anything else.

When the independent-minded Corman got the odd opportunity to make St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for a major studio in 1967, he got to work with a bigger budget, schedule, and cast than ever before. Though all the frivolous spending that went down at Twentieth Century Fox repelled him, Corman still made the most of the opportunity. He directed big stars Jason Robards (as Al Capone), George Segal (Peter Gusenberg), and Ralph Meeker (Bugs Moran); shot on sets originally used for such huge productions as The Sound of Music and Hello, Dolly; and commanded a camera that swoops around those sets like a bird of prey. Before shooting the climactic scene, he had his actors study photographs of the actual gangland massacre to mimic the positions of the actual corpses. That’s a pretty keen attention to detail for a “B-movie hack” (incidentally, I recently read a great interview with Corman in which he takes issue with that designation for purely semantic reasons; a B-movie, he reminds us, is not any old trashy flick but a lower-budget supporting feature specific to the 1930s and ’40s).

Although Cormans visuals are top notch in St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the film is not without its issues. There is no attempt to empathize with the assortment of hoods, as there was in the same year’s Bonnie and Clyde, so its difficult to care about what happens to these creeps. Beloved voice-over artist Paul Frees’s narration distances the viewer further, introducing each of the film’s many, many characters by stating the time and date of his death. This makes everyone’s actions seem mechanical, a bunch of rats scurrying through a simplistic maze on the way to their inevitable dooms. This could have been done with effective grimness, but Robards and Segal give such over-the-top performances that its hard to feel the gravity of what they do or what is done to them (and keep an eye and ear out for Jack Nicholson, who delivers his one and only line in a silly voice). The closest the film comes to a sympathetic character is Bruce Dern’s mechanic, a loving dad who gets off-handedly swept up in the violence, but only has about three minutes of screen time.

A bit cold and nihilistic, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is still a beautiful looking picture, and Twilight Time’s new blu-ray presents it splendidly. Colors are gloriously vivid (there are a couple of sequences that are a bit pink but its likely this was an aesthetic decision in line with Corman’s use of colors in Red Death), and I noticed no significant blemishes. Extras are slight but neat. There’s a new three-and-a-half-minute interview with Corman created specifically for this release and five minutes of vintage Fox Movietone newsreel footage about the arrest and prosecution of Capone. The picture quality of some of these clips is really strong. As always, there are also Julie Kirgo’s illuminating liner notes and an isolated score track. Get it on Screen here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: 'Love and Death' Blu-ray

Woody Allen never stopped making “funny” movies, as some of his earliest fans complain. He just stopped making a certain kind of funny movie: wild, silly spoofs that might cross into Zucker Brothers territory if they were more slap happy with the visual puns and less intellectual and neurotic. 1975’s Love and Death brought an end to Allen’s goofy spoofs while finding the heretofore-undiscovered hilarity in Tolstoy, Bergman, and Eisenstein. Unlike those cats, Allen is willing to exploit the clownishness of falling in love with a woman who’d sooner marry your brother (or at least settle for a herring monger), going to war despite your pacifism only to get shot out of a cannon and decorated with medals for heroism, and dying (that is not a spoiler. This movie is called Love and Death).

Aside from the constant stream of jokes ridiculous (Woody’s inability to control the sword sheathed in his belt… the literal one) and very ridiculous (sex involving oven mitts, and possibly, a herring), Love and Death is great because the guy who wrote, directed, and starred in it was so generous with the humor. Almost everyone is very, very funny in this movie, which is not always the case for early Allen movies, and no one is funnier than Diane Keaton, who shuffles between melodramatic mannerisms (“Wheat!”) and scatter-brained naturalness with such ease that she seems like she’s improvising every line. Of course, no one improvises when they’re working from a Woody Allen script, and this is one of his most purely funny. His next one, Annie Hall, is really funny too, but with its pronounced melancholy and lack of crazed silliness, it marks a new, mature phase in his career. A lot of great art came out of that period, but you couldn’t always count on the kind of fun he whips out effortlessly in Love and Death.

Like all Woody Allen movies from this period, Love and Death looks soft, a bit grainy, and drab, though with its ornate interiors and pastoral exteriors, and Ghislain Cloquet’s refined cinematography, it is prettier to look at than most of his pictures. As always, Twilight Time’s new blu-ray maintains Allen’s aesthetic and merely suffers a scattering of white specks that will only irk the nit-pickiest videophiles. This disc includes TT’s standard isolated music track (so you can dig all that Prokofiev without getting distracted by the jokes) and a booklet essay by house historian Julie Kirgo. Get it on Screen here.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Review: New Vinyl Edition of Rush's 'Caress of Steel'

Neil Peart was well integrated into Rush when they made their third album, and his obsessions with fantasy and long-form storytelling that brought us “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” would clearly be integral to the band’s destiny. Unfortunately, he still hadn’t learned the best way to channel those obsessions. Two cumbersome epics occupy the bulk of Caress of Steel, only leaving room for a scant three concise songs. These include “I Think I’m Going Bald”, a generic blues-metal riff that at least shows Peart continuing to tackle unlikely topics (what other heavy rock band would lament aging so early in their career?), “Bastille Day”, a stronger opener than “Anthem” was on Fly by Night though still somewhat unformed, and the nostalgic “Lakeside Park”, another terrific piece of pop in the tradition of the previous album’s title track and by far the best thing on Caress.

The album’s main problem is that, at this point, Peart’s desire to tell a story was a lot stronger than his willingness to tell one. Both “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth” waste a lot of grooves describing journeys on which very little happens. There are musical moments worth hearing, such as Alex Lifeson’s ominous arpeggios and backward guitar shrieks that begin “The Necromancer” and Geddy Lee’s catchy “Bacchus Plateau” section from “Lamneth”, but most of this rambling fluff would never have gotten through quality control if it hadn’t been thumb-tacked to a larger concept. Peart must have realized this himself because he really buckled down when penning his next epic, making sure to compose a purposeful plot with a clear arc and a more assured tie to the baser joys of Rock & Roll than any of the fantasies on Caress of Steel. But that’s a story for the next album…

As it did with Fly by Night, UMe is presenting Caress of Steel with warm and profoundly deep sound via Direct Metal Mastering on 200g vinyl with bonus download code. Get this new edition on here:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1975

The seventies really hit its doldrums at the midpoint. Many of the decade’s best artists either sat out 1975 (such as the Stones, who were officially past their due date anyway) or produced mediocre work. David Bowie created a great title track and little else for Young Americans. Pink Floyd was never as boring as their critics charged they were…at least until putting out the overrated Wish You Were Here. “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” would have seemed endless even if it hadn’t appeared on the album twice. Some of the year’s most popular discs—Fleetwood Mac and Dreamboat Annie, for instance— contained a few good buoys floating in a sea of filler. A lot of the year’s best albums were merely good, though there were a few genuinely fabulous ones tucked in there too. So without further shoulder shrugging, here’s the good and the great, a teeth-pulling effort I’m forced to call Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1975… or Come on, Ramones, Quit Dragging Your Converse All-Stars and Save Us Already!

10. Venus and Mars by Wings

The critics started getting kinder to Paul McCartney when he released Band on the Run, a collection of well-crafted, well-produced, well-played songs. Although that record was credited to Paul McCartney and Wings, it was his most solitary album since his one-man-band debut. Credited just to Wings, his follow up was his most collaborative to date and the first convincing evidence that Wings was more than a reaction against Paul’s control-freak reputation. His relinquishing of some control actually means Venus and Mars isn’t as strong as Band on the Run. The only song the band’s acknowledged leader didn’t write was Jimmy McCulloch’s so-so bluesy rocker, “Medicine Jar”. Paul handed his own “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” to Denny Laine, leaving that dedicated sideman to sing its idiotic lyrics. More conscientiously he handled the album’s worst offense, the saccharine and patronizing “Treat Her Gently”, himself. Much of the rest of the album rates among Wings’ best. The title track is a mysterious and tuneful prelude to the arena-quaking “Rock Show”. “Love in Song” is alluringly eerie. “You Gave Me the Answer” is a pleasing revival of Paul’s fascination with quaint pre-Rock & Roll pop. The comic booking “Magneto and Titanium Man” is silly fun. “Listen to What the Man Said” is a catchy single with bubbly sax work from legit jazzman Tom Scott, and the soulful “Call Me Back Again” is one of the finest artifacts of the Wings years.

9. Slow Dazzle by John Cale

Between his twin pop masterpieces Paris 1919 / Fear and Helen of Troy, a calculated emotional-meltdown record (he appears in a straight jacket on the cover…subtle) John Cale made Slow Dazzle, which bridges those two phases. On the one hand, you have polished pop such as “Taking It All Away”, “Ski Patrol”, and “I’m Not the Loving Kind”; on the other you have the sheer insanity of the gory, scatological “Guts”, a mannered “I’m co-raaaazy!” cover of “Heartbreak Hotel”, and “The Jeweler”, a spoken word nightmare about vagina eyes. Somewhere in the middle is “Mr. Wilson” a plea to Brian that freaked out King Beach Boy despite being a rather majestic piece of art, and “Darling I Need You”, a bubblegum stroll about a girlfriend who runs off to join the Snake Handlers. Inconsistency is an issue with Slow Dazzle, which has as much trouble keeping its quality straight as its sanity, but when the record is at its best (“Mr. Wilson”, “Guts”, “Taking It All Away”,  “I’m Not the Loving Kind”), it’s further proof that Cale had the most enduring talent of any ex-Velvet.

8. Toys in the Attic by Aerosmith

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: 'Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise '

In early 1981, Reagan appointed a new FCC commissioner named Mark S. Fowler who fell in line with the president’s “deregulate everything” philosophy. Consequently, kids’ TV shows could now hawk toys with impunity, though cartoon producers didn’t get around to taking advantage of the new regime for a couple of years. However, they didn’t drag their oversized feet when it came to turning illustrated characters into toys. In fact, that kind of thing had been going on decades before TV existed, way back since the Yellow Kid became a phenomenon in the late 19th century. Comic and cartoon characters found lives outside newspapers, funny books, and television for decades as stuffed animals, bubble bath bottles, and PEZ dispensers, as well as featured faces on lunchboxes, record sleeves, pajamas, Halloween costumes, Christmas ornaments, Valentine’s Day cards, Little Golden Books, View-Master reels, cars, motel signs,  food packaging, and even envelopes of vegetable seeds.

Colorful images of the sundry merchandise manufactured between the Yellow Kid and Fowler eras is the main draw of Tim Hollis’s new book Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise, but there are plenty of tidbits that make the text equally fun. Whether he’s hipping us to the paranoid economic reasons behind Disney’s reintroduction of Mickey Mouse’s Depression-era look in the seventies, relaying the mutual hatred of rival lunchbox companies, or simply mocking the often horrid representations of such characters on the merchandise in his vast personal collection, Hollis is an entertaining tour guide… and quite the cartoon character, himself. In his introduction he explains how he created a museum containing recreations of the rooms in his childhood home. And I thought I was a nostalgia freak.

Get Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise on here:
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