Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review: 'Moby Dick' Blu-ray

Attempting to faithfully adapt the greatest American novel is a mission as foolhardy as chasing a white whale. Yet, underneath Moby Dick’s blubbery layers of nightmarish metaphors, whaling history, scrimshaw lessons, and weird cetology is a good, old-fashioned adventure story fit for Hollywood. In 1956, director John Huston and co-screenwriter Ray Bradbury brought that story to life with iconic performances from Gregory Peck as self-destructively obsessed Captain Ahab, Leo Genn as his moral adversary Starbuck, kind-faced Richard Basehart as our narrator/surrogate Ishmael, Friedrich von Ledebur as Ishmael’s best pal Queequeg, Orson Wells in a memorable cameo as a preacher, and Tony the Whale aaaaaaas Moby Dick!

John Huston still manages to make Moby Dick more than the average widescreen actioner with strange sepia coloring that removes the picture from its pastel decade, somber gravitas and buckets of death imagery, and even a touch of mysticism (the appearance of St. Elmo’s fire that injects a brief shock of fluorescent green into the film’s clay-grey palette). On the flip side there’s a somewhat lazy tendency in Huston and Bradbury’s script to spoon-feed themes and even information to the viewer. When Stubb captions the first appearance of peg-legged Peck by muttering “Ahab,” anyone who finished seventh grade lit will yell “Duh!” at the screen. But don’t let that put you off, because Moby Dick remains an exciting and artful interpretation of the most exciting passages in Herman Melville’s epic.

Twilight Time’s much anticipated blu-ray presentation of Moby Dick had its work cut out for it since the film’s distinctive look is so tied up with the so-called “gray negative,” which preserved that near-monochrome aesthetic most authentically. For this release, that drained coloring had to be painstakingly recreated, a process explained in a six-minute featurette included with this release. Otherwise, the image is blemish-free, naturally grained, and well detailed for a film designed to look like a drizzly afternoon. Other extras include an audio commentary with Twilight Time’s resident historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman and film editor Paul Seydor, and they have a rollicking discussion about the film’s themes and making and their own memories of seeing it, and a few promo materials galleries. The blu-ray is available here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review: 'Pretty Poison' Blu-ray

Tony Perkins is a creepy dude with mental issues who spies on and obsesses about a beautiful blonde, but it’s not the movie you’re thinking of. Eight years after Psycho, Perkins flirted with being typecast and Tuesday Weld in Pretty Poison. Perkins is Dennis Pitt, a young arsonist recovering from delusions and recently discharged from an institution, who sets his sites on Weld’s high-school drum majorette Sue Ann Stepenek. Dennis seduces Sue Ann by pretending to be a secret agent, spying on her mother’s hated boyfriend, and giving her acid.

With his free love, free drugs, and environmentalism (he schemes to expose toxic dumping at the chemical company where he works), Dennis is a sort of countercultural stand in— a more unhinged Benjamin Braddock. However, it’s hard to place where we viewers are supposed to stand on Dennis. Are we supposed to find his whacky spy fantasies charming? It’s tough to watch an older man ply a high-school girl with drugs and fantasies and find it anything less than distasteful, but Pretty Poison performs a clever turn of the tables when Dennis’s lies lead Sue Ann to perform an unexpected act that puts her in the driver’s seat and reveals some serious twists in her own psyche.

Pretty Poison is a noir at heart with Perkins ultimately playing the dupe and Weld playing the femme fatale, but it is subtle humor that fuels the picture—no surprise considering that one of the era’s funniest writers, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., of TV’s Batman, adapted Stephen Gellar’s novel She Let Him Continue for the screen. Production values are strictly small-screen and Noel Black’s direction is often a bit flat, though it does take off whenever something starts blowing up on screen to underscore Dennis’s horniness or mental unspooling, and Semple’s smart script and the effortlessly magnetic presences of Perkins and Weld make Pretty Poison an effective minor cult classic.

Pretty Poison comes to blu-ray from Twilight Time, and the picture is heavy with grain and a touch soft but totally clean. Extras include a text-only scene that appeared in the script but not in the film and a three-minute commentary from Black about the scene. It is available to purchase from Twilight Time here.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Psychobabble's 10 Best Retro-Pop Culture Books of 2016

As 2016 comes to a long, long, long overdue finale, let’s try to forget about everything great we lost this year—David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, democracy—and focus on the fun and superficial things that make Psychobabble our retro pop-culture oasis in a world gone mad.

We begin with my picks for the year’s best books, which include memoirs from groovy celebrity geniuses and a dude who worked with one, a semi-serious study of a guy who punches clowns while wearing tights, and the one-millionth book about The Beatles. Happy reading!
 (Items link to the original reviews)

10. Stanley Kubrick and Me by Emilio D’Alessandro
In short: “…D’Alessandro tells his stories without an ounce of pretension, and the charming, regular-guy simplicity of the storytelling further emphasizes the main thrust of Stanley Kubrick and Me: Kubrick was extraordinary in multitudinous ways, but when it comes down to it, he was still pretty down-to-earth and a real, flesh-and-blood human being.”

9. Star Wars Year by Year: A Visual History (Updated and Expanded Edition)
In short: “…even dry writing cannot tamp down the fun of this visual history.”
In short: “Hoskyns keeps his authorial distance for the most part, though he cannot hide his own enchantment with the storied burg, rendering its striking sights, sounds, and smells in three vivid dimensions…”

In short: “…the horrifying nature of these crimes…and the beauty of the songs they inspired delivers an emotional wallop ...”

6. I Am Brian Wilson by Brian Wilson and Ben Greenman
In short:Love, music, and an immensely sincere man’s true voice are what you should expect and what I Am Brian Wilson delivers.

In short: “…Frost really captures the creepy unease of his and Lynch’s series. The final pages dragged chills up my neck.”

In short:Comic Book Fever… is for kids like me.”

3. The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
In short: “…uncomfortable, daring, imaginative, and unexpectedly moving…”

2. The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon
In short: “…Weldon shows with good humor, there have been many Batmen… and all have done their part in creating a world in which children from eight to eighty can debate whether Adam West or Christian Bale is the “true” Batman … or any of the other silly things that make life a little more fun.”
In short: “All of this amounts to one of the most human portraits of The Beatles I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the best.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: 'The Princess Diarist'

Carrie Fisher had written six books, two of which are memoirs, but she had yet to fully address the cinnamon-bun-haired, unusually petite elephant in the room. Even in her previous book, Wishful Drinking, which came packaged in a teasing jacket depicting a soused Alderaanian princess passed out on a bar, Fisher’s most famous role only starred on a few pages.

With Star Wars so vengefully back in the pop culture consciousness, and Carrie Fisher, herself, finally back in Star Wars, the writer/actress could not ignore Leia any longer. So everyone who owns a tiny, plastic reproduction of Carrie Fisher will surely rejoice in the idea of 250 pages of undiluted Star Wars memories in her seventh book, The Princess Diarist.

Those expecting nothing but jolly behind-the-scenes anecdotes don’t know Carrie Fisher that well and should adjust their expectations, because The Princess Diarist is much more interesting and challenging than that. The story begins in somewhat familiar territory, as Fisher recounts her audition with George Lucas and Brian DePalma, who was simultaneously casting for Carrie. Despite Fisher’s disclaimer that this is an oft-told story—and I have certainly heard her speak about her Star Wars audition many times—the details here were totally new to me as she recounted her awkward dialogue with DePalma in greater depth than I’d ever heard before.

However, as soon as Carrie Fisher meets Harrison Ford, The Princess Diarist takes an unexpected dive down the rabbit hole. Half of the book is consumed with a painful affair with Fisher’s co-star, and it is relayed with all the self-doubt, anger, and drama of a twenty-year-old girl involved with a gorgeous, moody, married, experienced man fifteen years her senior. This will not be the source of romantic Leia and Han fantasies for fans. This is a deeply sad story as we become aware of just how obsessed with Ford she was, and forty years later, she seems to still feel those feelings acutely.

In the middle of this episode, Fisher justifies her book’s title with a chapter consisting of diary entries she wrote while in the midst of the affair. To mix our sci-fi metaphors, this section is like the Star Wars memoir’s 2001-stargate sequence. All logic and linearity go out the pod-bay doors as Fisher bounces between self-castigation, poetic flights of fancy (some of which read like pop song lyrics), and confused thoughts that could only come from an inexperienced yet highly literate person who is dealing with deeper psychological issues than mere unrequited love. It can be cringe inducing, and even baffling (one entry imagines some sort of dream collaboration between Led Zeppelin and corny Ray Conniff), but there is an undeniable bravery in Fisher’s decision to include these pages and a genuine emotional power behind them. Few fans would probably expect to feel anything other than goofy joy when reading a Star Wars memoir. Fisher will make them feel a lot more than that.

Yet her love for her fans is very clear even as she pulls no punches about her intense unease about signing photos of herself in a metal bikini at conventions for cash or being an onanistic fantasy object for fifty-year old men. She provides extended dialogues with fans to illustrate how odd they can be but also how deeply the star and the fans’ mutual feelings remain. It is uncomfortable, daring, imaginative, and unexpectedly moving, much like the rest of The Princess Diarist.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: 'Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years' Blu-ray

When it was announced last year, Ron Howard’s documentary about The Beatles’ first years of global success seemed like the last thing the world needed. This is a story that has been told and told and told on the page and on the screen. Didn’t the 10-hour Beatles Anthology negate the need for any new documentaries on the topic of Fabness for all days to come?

Taking Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years on its own merits probably won’t alter that initial assumption much. Despite its near improbable subtitle The Band You Know. The Story You Don’t. there is basically nothing in this movie that will be new to even the most casual fan. There isn’t even much story here. Howard assembles his film in chaotic fashion, with the band (Paul and Ringo in recent footage; John and George in vintage, obviously), their coworkers (George Martin, Neil Aspinall, journalist and biographer Larry Kane), and fans (Whoopie Goldberg, Elvis Costello, Sigourney Weaver) providing scattershot impressions of the usual subtopics: America, Beatlemaniacs, Brian Epstein, filmmaking, friendship, songwriting, recording, Shea Stadium, “bigger than Jesus,” etc. The footage is often familiar too, though one clip of a huge crowd of Liverpudlian football fans, who look like they could take a kick to the teeth as well as they could dish one out, all singing “She Loves You” was new to me and utterly delightful.

The information is so basic that I can only assume that Howard intended his film to be a primer for potential new fans, though I really wonder how much this material will move fans of contemporary pop. I hope it will move them, because the one major merit of Howard’s film is it gives a very clear sense of the hope and joy The Beatles brought to the world in their time. And if there is one thing our world can really use right now is hope and joy. Also of contemporary value is the extended focus on The Beatles’ rejection of segregation at their shows, their refusal to treat fans of any color or culture differently than anyone else. That kind of understanding, that clear idea of what is fundamentally right and what is fundamentally wrong is something else the world really, really needs right now.

Apple/UMe’s new blu-ray of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years arrives with a bonus disc with another feature film’s worth of supplements. There are clips of performances of five songs. Featurettes expand on the feature’s discussions of the Lennon/McCartney partnership, the way The Beatles revolutionized music and culture, Shea Stadium, A Hard Day’s Night, and their visits to Australia and Japan won’t enlighten long-term fans much more than the proper film will, though there are some interesting sideroads, such as Peter Asher’s discussion of his Peter and Gordon getting in on the Lennon/McCartney goldmine, Tony Bennett’s son’s recollections of seeing The Beatles at Shea, and Ronnie Spector’s memories of meeting the guys she classified as "four foxes" and going shopping with them on Carnaby Street.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review: 'Human League: A Very British Synthesizer Group'

Human League are best known for “Don’t You Want Me”, a great piece of psychotic eighties synth pop far more threatening and insidious than “Every Breath You Take”. Listening to it in context on the new compilation, Human League: A Very British Synthesizer Group, its interesting to note how that hit tent-polled the band’s career. At the beginning of the double-disc collection, Human League is decidedly unpoppy, experimenting with pure Gothic dourness on the foreboding debut “Being Boiled” and spiraling off into pure electronic textures on “The Dignity of Labour (Part 3)”. This is daring stuff, and certainly not the makings of a group destined for Atlantic-spanning number one hits. Yet the group gradually gets more traditional, through the melodic “Empire State Human” and a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” before landing on the crossover sound with the dance-floor natural “The Sound of the Crowd” and all the other tracks from their breakthrough LP, Dare, which includes such sparkling fusions of frosty synths and singing and sing-long pop on “Love Action”, “Open Your Heart”, and of course, “Don’t You Want Me”.

After this point, the edge starts getting worn off for good. There are fine singles to come by way of “Mirror Man”, “The Lebanon”, and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”, but by the time Human League gets to their next massive hit, “Human”, there is more than a whiff of sell-out. “Human” has its cheesy nostalgic appeal, but you definitely might find yourself reaching for the “next” button on your CD player a lot more often while listening to Disc 2. Who would have thought that the band that terrified pseudo synth vampires with “Being Boiled” in 1979 could be soothing dental patients a mere seven years later?  Still, the first disc of A Very British Synthesizer Group is more than deserving of regular rotation.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Review: The Who 'My Generation' Super Deluxe Edition

The nineties saw a well-intentioned but essentially misguided attempt to snazz-up The Who’s back catalogue with radical remixes that regularly sacrificed key instruments or even replaced them with alternate or newly recorded parts. Jon Astley told me he remixed these classics just to give the fans something a bit different and interesting, which is fine, but the novelty of such things wears off quickly, and the definitive original mixes were allowed to go out of print for years. Many of them are still out of print in the U.S. and UK.

That reissue campaign that began over twenty years ago basically wrapped up in 2002 with the very first stereo mix of The Who’s raging debut, My Generation. As was the case with the other remixes, the novelty was ample, but it wore off real quickly as we lamented the loss of ferocious guitar tracks in “My Generation” and “A Legal Matter” and came to the realization that this noise-fest demanded the unified power of mono to knock our knee caps off the way it was meant to.

The original mono mix soon became available in Japan, a big audiophile market, but it has taken fourteen years for My Generation to return to its proper mono origins on physical media in the west. It arrives in another in The Who’s series of big Super Deluxe box sets that also saw reissues of Live at Leeds, Tommy, and Quadrophenia (of which, only Tommy was included in its original mix).

The latest remaster is very comparable to the Astley’s excellent one released in Japan in 2008, so if you’ve never heard My Generation as it must be heard, this Super Deluxe is a fine place to start.

A recent stereo remix put out on iTunes a couple of years ago is distinctly wider than the 2002 stereo remix, which tended to center everything except for one guitar track shoved off to the left channel. That means it takes advantage of stereo better, but is even less powerful than the 2002 version. One very interesting development of these 2014 mixes is the reinsertion of those missing parts from “My Generation” and “A Legal Matter” with newly recorded guitar from Townshend, who used vintage, authentic equipment. They don’t sound exactly the same as the ’65 originals, but they do sound a hell of a lot better than those hollow 2002 versions. There are also some neat new vocal touches on “My Generation”.

The rest of the set is filled out with lots of alternate versions, alternate mixes, singles and period outtakes such as “Lubie (Come Back Home)”, “Instant Party Mixture”, and the definitive Who version of “Heat Wave”. Some of these are superior to the 2002 mixes too, as Entwistle’s French horn returns to the stereo “Circles” and the tambourine clatters once again on the stereo “I Can’t Explain”. 

However, the real gem of these extras is Disc Five, which gathers together eleven Townshend demos from his initial writing days. One of these had been released on Townshend’s Scoop comp and a few have made the bootleg circuit, but they never sounded this good (and it's interesting to note how central a role “Mary Ann with the Shaky Hand”-style Latin percussion plays on these recordings). A demo of “Sunrise”, which would not get the official Who treatment until 1967, has more of a languid Antonio Carlos Jobim feel than the flushed version that ended up on The Who Sell Out.

The big surprise is several previously unheard Townshend songs that make their debut here. There’s a bluesy rocker called “The Girls I Could’ve Had”, which may spark conspiracy theories that Elvis Costello somehow got his hands on this rarity before he wrote “Tokyo Storm Warning”. There are also a couple of tracks that were probably among those that made Roger Daltrey conclude that Townshend’s early songs were too sweet for him: the Quick One-like “As Children We Grew” and the unusually romantic “My Own Love”.

The big question whenever one of these massive boxes comes out is: “Is it worth it?” There is certainly a degree of excess here. The music on these five discs could have fit on three. The set comes with an 80-page book, replica posters, flyers, and cards, none of which were included in the review package I received, so I can’t comment on them. The bottom line is if you dig fancy packaging, a fine remaster of the mono album, a better crop of alternate mixes and version than were included on the 2002 edition, and some terrific demos— and you’ve got the money to burn— you’ll likely be happy.
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