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:


...And for No Other Reason Than It's Awesome, Here's Vincent Price Murdering Alfred Hitchcock...


Monday, August 11, 2014

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1974


The first four years of the seventies were all fine years for Rock & Roll. Perhaps they lacked some of the color and imagination of the sixties’ key span from 1966 through 1968, but with groundbreaking records like All Things Must Pass, Who’s Next, Exile on Main Street, Bryter Layter, Talking Book, Ziggy Stardust, Quadrophenia, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, there were still a lot of exciting new things coming from rock’s old guard.

Then came 1974. Precisely one decade after the British Invasion broke, its original invaders, who’d been carrying the seventies so far, all seemed to flag in unison. We can excuse those who didn’t put out any new product that year (McCartney, The Who). Those who did were not offering up their best work. The Rolling Stones released a new album on which they seemed exasperated with having to put forth the idea that Rock & Roll still means something. That it was still one of the year’s best, if only by default, speaks to the quality dip plaguing 1974.

Yet that quality dip is important because it gives the music history books a handy leaping off point for the necessity of the punk movement that would flush out the old guard in a couple of years (so does the preponderance of soft pap polluting the airwaves: Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell”, Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were”, Terry Jacks’s “Seasons in the Sun”, John Denvers’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, Ray Stevens’s “The Streak”, Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You”… for the love of all things good, please bring on The Ramones!). And look, there was good music in ’74, if not an excess of great music. Here are ten of the year’s keepers.

10. I’ve Got My Own Album to Do by Ron Wood

On the cusp of the collapse of The Faces and his recruitment into The Rolling Stones, Ron Wood went into the studio with a few buddies and a few bottles and cut a characteristically sloppy solo record. Surprisingly, I’ve Got My Own Album to Do wound up being more than a bundle of drunken jams. “Am I Grooving You” may be a dumb lyric slapped onto a lazy guitar lick and “Crotch Music” may marry a dumb title with dated jazz-rock fusion, but there are a surprising number of quality songs on this record. Wood duets with future führer Mick Jagger on “I Can Feel the Fire”, getting the record off to a rousing start (although it would turn into an even fierier item during live performances with The Faces), but the ballads may provide the most memorable moments of I’ve Got My Own Album to Do. “Far East Man”, co-written with George Harrison, is gorgeously reeling, and “Mystifies Me”, on which Wood goes pipe to ravaged pipe with Rod Stewart, is a lovely, ragged, countrified love song. Stewart also steps in to give a little boost to the Chuck Berry-esque rocker “Take a Look at the Guy” and mask Wood’s drunkenly tuneless delivery of “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody”, but this remains Wood’s show all the way through.

9. Walls and Bridges by John Lennon

One might have expected John Lennon to crawl out of his infamous “Lost Weekend” period when he was separated from Yoko Ono and subsisting on a steady diet of drugs, booze, and partying with a record of harrowing self-exorcisms like John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Instead, he came up with his most commercially viable LP since Imagine three years earlier. “Bless You” and “#9 Dream” are two of the sweetest examples of John Lennon the cosmic romantic. His pain is apparent on intense songs such as “Going Down on Love”, “Scared”, “Steel and Glass”, and “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)”, but his own production is so polished and rich that even a track that snarls “I’ll scratch your back and you knife mine” sounds ripe for the hit parade. Indeed, Lennon did invade that often-elusive parade with (believe it or not) his very first number-one hit single, though the conspicuous presence of super-star Elton John didn’t hurt the ascension of the invigorating “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”. That would be his last number one and Walls and Bridges would be his last LP of original material until the tragedy-sullied Double Fantasy six years later.

8. It’s Only Rock ’n Roll by The Rolling Stones
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