Wednesday, November 26, 2014
As you may have been able to tell from the bevy of Batman-centric reviews I've been posting here on Psychobabble this month, the Caped Crusader's 75th Anniversary has infected DC, WB, and other holders of Batman properties with a serious case of Batman fever lately. The crown jewel of all these wonderful toys is the release of William Dozier's brilliant live-action series on home video for the very first time. Why Batman: The Complete Television Series is only zapping into shops now is a complicated conundrum worthy of The Riddler, and it's been detailed elsewhere. So let's just skip ahead to how Warner Brothers did with this landmark blu-ray box.
Full disclosure, I have not watched every single one of the 120 episodes it contains. Doing so would mean this review wouldn't get posted until sometime in mid-2015. Based on the ones I've watched so far, the series looks better than it ever did and certainly better than its makers ever intended. You can count the bristles of Cesar Romero's mustache under all that Joker make up. Actually, everyone looks pretty heavily done up here with fake tans that probably registered as a healthy skin tone on crappy 1966 TVs. But obvious facade is a big part of "Batman's" humor, so it all works toward the show's grand joke. The primary-color palette pops like a bat-punch to the bat-face. Batman and Robin's capes look so silkily tactile you'd swear you could reach through the screen and snatch them off the dynamic duo.
One down note is that there is the occasional missing element, the most glaring of which are the absence of the tag at the end of the "Marsha's Scheme of Diamonds" episode and a brief shot of John Astin in "A Riddling Controversy". Most of the lost bits are bumpers announcing next week's villains that will probably only be lamented by the most hardcore batfans.
We do get a nice array of extras, including a half-hour doc on Adam West that plays like a mini-"E! True Hollywood Story" ("Hanging with Batman"), a piece about tie-in merchandise with lots of toys and costumes to drool over ("Holy Memorabilia Batman"), a doc on the show's comic-book look and attitude ("Batmania Born"), odd sporadic video commentaries by West cut into the first two episodes of the series, a collection of dopey soundbites from cast and crew members of current TV shows ("Na Na Na Batman"), and a semi-celebrity fan roundtable discussion mediated by Kevin Smith. Funny, relaxed, and informative, that roundtable was my favorite of the lot. "Batmania Born" is the smartest retrospective of the bunch, though I wish the filmmaker hadn't invited that idiot Michael Uslan, who cited the Civil Rights movement as an example of the sixties "going wrong" in the "Batman: A Dynamic Legacy" featurette on the Batman: The Movie blu-ray and repeats his bullshit here.
Most of these extras are notable for the participation of Adam West and the absence of his co-stars aside from appearances by Burt Ward and Julie Newmar in "Batmania Born" and very briefly in "Na Na Na Batman". "Hanging with Batman" and "Holy Memorabilia Batman" are marred by a tone too earnest for tributes to a ridiculously fun series. You might want to hit the stop button before a collector starts singing a sappy piano ballad about his toys at the end of "Holy Memorabilia Batman". Unaffected by such matters are a sampling of vintage tidbits that include screen tests and a seven-minute pilot for a "Batgirl" series that didn't happen. Inclusion of the 1974 PSA about the federal equal pay law starring Yvonne Craig and Burt Ward (and an imposter Batman) would have been a really cool addition too. It's not here, but you can always just watch the bad quality version on YouTube.
Finally, we must make mention of the boffo limited edition packaging, which is more notable for a very cool, magnetically sealed box complete with Neal Hefti-theme-song playing button than any of the trinkets inside. The grooviest of these is probably the Hot Wheels Batmobile, but we also get a neat repro set of Topps' 1966 "Batman" trading cards. A wafer-thin hardcover book of color photos is less impressive, but when all is said and done, "Batman: The Complete Television Series" blu-ray is not one of the best home video releases of 2014 for the extras and swag. It's the gorgeously restored presentation of one of the best series of the sixties that makes this a must own. You might want to wait for the inevitably cheaper (though currently way overpriced, for some reason), standard packaging release to arrive before spending your bat dollars though.
Get 'Batman: The Complete Television Series' in a variety of forms here:
Sunday, November 23, 2014
The Jam never really sounded as much like The Who as journalists wanted you to believe, but The Who had been a key influence on the band ever since Paul Weller fell in love with My Generation. Aside from the occasional musical flourish—a storm of drums, a pick scrape down guitar strings, flicker of pick up— Weller derived much attitude and image from the early Who. For 1979’s Setting Sons, he picked up on another important Who calling card. It was to be a concept album with a story about three childhood friends whose wartime experiences divide them as adults. As so often happened to The Who, the realities of the record making business meant The Jam had to abandon their ambitions to rush new product into stores. So like The Who Sell Out or Lifehouse/Who’s Next, Setting Sons is really half a concept album. Also like those albums, it’s great.
The Jam’s first two albums were pretty punk. Their third, All Mod Cons, went in more of a polished pop direction. Setting Sons incorporated the best elements of both phases with some of the hardest hitting and loveliest music of their career. In the former camp is “Eton Rifles”, a classic statement of righteous outrage against privileged military cadets, and the incendiary “Private Hell”. In the latter is the ultra-mini mini-opera “Little Boy Soldiers”, the stripped-down Motown vibe “Girl on a Phone”, and the exquisite orchestrated re-recording of Bruce Foxton’s “Smithers-Jones”.
The only track to miss the boat is a cover of “Heat Wave”, though this is interesting because it reveals The Who’s influence on two levels: it’s clearly patterned on their version and not The Vandellas’ original, and it serves the exact same filler purpose on Setting Sons as it did on The Who’s own semi-conceptual second album, A Quick One. Like The Who’s version, The Jam’s is not bad; it’s just out of place amongst such an exceptional selection of original songs.
UMe’s new deluxe edition of Setting Sons continues the story with the non-LP singles “Strange Town” b/w “Butterfly Collector”, “When You’re Young” b/w “Smithers-Jones (in its rocking original state), and “Going Underground” b/w “Dreams of Children”, as well as “Eton Rifles” in its edited 45 form b/w “See-Saw”. These sides constitute some of the greatest singles of the turn of the decade.
Disc Two celebrates the intense live act The Jam were with a BBC concert caught at London’s Rainbow Theatre on December 4, 1979. Previously released as a limited edition bonus track on 2002’s The Jam at the BBC, this show mostly showcases Setting Sons and All Mod Cons. There are only a couple early classics, “The Modern World” (complete with BBC-censored “fuck”) and “Away from the Numbers”. The Jam may have developed beyond the punk rawness of those numbers on vinyl at this point, but they still kept it alight on stage.
Setting Sons is also available as a four-disc Super Deluxe edition with an extra CD of alternative takes, demos, and Peel sessions and a DVD of television appearances and music videos. A previously unreleased show at the Brighton Centre takes the place of the Rainbow one.
Get Setting Sons as a Deluxe or Super Deluxe edition on Amazon.com here:
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Paul Weller’s discovery of My Generation was a decisive event for a lot of late-seventies British kids. It was what sparked his obsession with long-dead Mod culture and inspired him to bring its style and sounds back from the dead with his own band, The Jam. That great group that fused the mid-sixties sounds of The Who and Small Faces with the contemporary speed and aggression of punk inspired a whole lot of other kids to kick their own bands into gear. By 1979, the U.K. scene was flooded with bands that fobbed off punk’s tattered fashions and nihilistic attitude for sharp clobber and messages of youthful unity.
A modern Mod movement was at hand and it never would really die again, though its most fruitful years were 1979 and 1980. Cherry Red’s new four-disc box set Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989 culls half its tracks from those two Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod years, when bands across England sang of joining together with their fellow alright kids on Bank Holiday, slashed out Townshend-esque chords, and slammed out Moony drum fills at purple hearts-fueled speeds. Pulling the best elements of punk and power-pop together, bands like The Chords, New Hearts, The Reaction, The Circles, The Lambrettas, and Dead Beats made some of the most adrenaline-pumping records of their generation. They make Millions Like Us an exhilarating listen, especially for a Yank such as myself since very few of these groups had any impact at all on my side of the pond (really, I was only already familiar with The Nips, The Aardvarks, Nine Below Zero, and Red Beans and Rice). So this set is a truly spectacular entry into a must-visit world for fans of The Who, Small Faces, Elvis Costello, and The Jam (who are not represented aside from the slew of groups that sound exactly like them).
Millions Like Us only loses a bit of steam for a stretch in 1985 when groups started making the kind of glossy, very-eighties plastic soul that would be on display in Julien Temple’s adaptation of Absolute Beginners the following year. But we’re talking about a tiny patch of five tracks out of 100, right in between The Combine’s “Dreams Come True” and 5:30!’s “Catcher in the Rye”. Those two numbers are as raw and vital as the mass of Millions Like Us, one of the best various artists box sets I’ve ever heard.
Get Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989 on Amazon.com here:
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
The current generation may associate nuclear fear with the fifties and early sixties, but it was something we very much continued to live with in the eighties. I remember drills in which I was led out of class to squat down in the hallway with my knees against my chest, because somehow, this would protect a bunch of elementary school kids from a nuclear blast.
This seems like an idiotic thing to do. It was. But governments have always tried to soften the realities of the idiocy of nuclear warfare. In Jimmy Murakami’s 1986 animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel, When the Wind Blows, a conservative, middle-aged, British couple refer to a government-issued pamphlet to prepare for imminent nuclear annihilation. Discussing their doom as if nothing more than a big snowstorm is on the way, Jim and Hilda paint their windows to insulate themselves from radiation, take inventory of canned goods, do the laundry, hide behind wooden doors and inside paper bags. It’s subtly played for laughs, but is it any more ridiculous than cowering from fallout in a school hallway?
Ridiculously, the couple’s efforts help them survive the blast. They’re not out of the woods yet, and the aftermath of the detonation sees When the Wind Blows gradually turn from droll satire to disturbing and depressing.
Murakami animated the most pungent nuclear-age satire since Dr. Strangelove in appropriately bizarre fashion. He combines childlike drawings (Jim and Hilda look like refugees from Nickelodeon’s “Doug”), sculpted live action backdrops, and stop-motion elements in the same frame. I have never seen another film that looks like When the Wind Blows. Murakami also employs flairs of other styles, such as the violently sketched sepia animations that accompany the bomb’s impact, snatches of actual WWII news footage, and the fantastical pastel passages that imagine a happier outcome for James and Hilda in fairyland. Voicing our cast of two, John Mills and Peggy Aschcroft employ a totally unaffected delivery that lends arresting realism to all of the grim strangeness.
Twilight Time’s new blu-ray edition of When the Wind Blows looks terrific and comes with a nice selection of extras. The jewel of these is the feature-length Arts Council documentary Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien from 2010. Murakami’s experience in a Californian concentration camp during WWII haunt this intimate portrait of and narrated by the artist. His focus on the horrid disruptions of war and the ways family helps one endure relates to the feature presentation directly. An excellent 24-minute doc specifically about that feature, The Wind and the Bomb, tracks When the Wind Blows from page to screen featuring interviews with Murakami, Briggs, and the animators. Their responses to “What would you do in the event of an actual nuclear attack?” is disarming and disturbing. The unrestored footage of the film in this documentary really made me appreciate how good Twilight Time’s blu-ray looks. There’s also a 13-minute interview with the eccentric Briggs. He based Jim and Hilda on his parents, and this interview reveals how deep his fixation on them goes. The isolated music track showcases David Bowie’s memorable theme song and Roger Waters’s soundtrack, which is as schizo as Murakami’s animation: doomy and synthesized during the horrifying scenes of approaching planes and imploding buildings; beautiful and acoustic during the fanciful interludes. A feature commentary from editor Joe Fordham and film historian Nick Redman round out an impressive lot of supplements to an extraordinary film.
Get the Twilight Time edition of When the Wind Blows at Screen Archives.com here.
Craig Yoe’s Haunted Horror gathers choice stories from less-remembered fifties horror comics like Voodoo, Worlds of Fear, and Adventures into Darkness. IDW’s hardcover anthology of the series’ first three issues, Haunted Horror: Banned Comics from the 1950s, made a pretty strong case for these comics with their weird stories and weirder artwork. The next few issues gathered in a new volume called Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About isn’t quite as out-there, with stories leaning more heavily on clichés and oddly enough, sports, a topic that doesn’t mix well with horror’s dank atmosphere, and the misogyny of the bowling tale “Night Owl” is more repugnant than its predictable conclusion.
There’s still a good deal to enjoy in this latest volume, particularly in the run of stories that follow those blah sports ones. “Valley of Horror” gets things back on track with a motorist suffering from mistaken identity issues, Jack Cole’s classically morbid artwork, and a welcome dose of humor and imagination. “Dragon Egg” is like a collaboration between Ray Harryhausan and the Crypt Keeper. “Ghoul’s Bride”, with its Lon Chaney-inspired creature, and the vampiric “The Night of Friday the 13th” sport the book’s most striking art. “The Thing from Beyond” has its grossest. “The Improved Kiss” is a truly gruesome mingling of historical and supernatural horrors. The first half of the book has a couple of good pieces too in “Goodbye… World!”, a cuckoo tale of locust-sympathizing space harpies, and “The Devil Puppet”, which features what may be the most evil evil puppet in a long history of evil puppet stories.
Though these non-mother-approved tales are a milder bunch than last year’s banned ones, there’s still plenty to drool over, and as always, IDW packages these tasteless tales in lovingly tasteful fashion.
Get Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About on Amazon.com here:
Monday, November 17, 2014
The things we expect from an Elvis movie—mindless joviality, pretty actresses, mediocre songs—arrive early in Flaming Star. Then just ten minutes in, shocking acts of violence transform it from an Elvis movie into a movie starring Elvis Presley. The title does not refer to a celebrity pop singer; it refers to “the flaming star of death,” and this western is nothing if not elegiac and serious as a stopped heart.
A hint that this might not be your typical romp with the King of Rock & Roll is dropped in the opening credits when the words “Directed by Don Siegel” flash on the screen. Siegel is renowned for dead-dark stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers, and Dirty Harry. He doesn’t let any light shine in no matter who’s starring in his movie, and though Elvis is really part of an ensemble cast in Flaming Star, there’s no question who its star is. As the half-Native American son of a multiracial frontier family, Elvis is clearly the stand out player. He took his work on the film so seriously that he insisted the other unnecessary musical numbers Siegel shot be cut from it.
Elvis is Pacer. He and his family are caught in the middle of a war between white invaders and the Kiowa tribe. Depicted as craven, hot-blooded racists and rapists, the whites want Elvis’s all-white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest) to fight alongside them. Led by Chief Buffalo Horn (Mexican actor Rodolfo Acosta) and driven by honor and the understanding that the whites intend to wipe them off their own land, the Kiowa believe Pacer should stand with them. The brothers vow loyalty to their family alone until another act of violence impels Pacer to take a side.
Not only is Flaming Star unusually serious, violent, and light on music for a movie with Elvis Presley, it is uncommonly thoughtful too. The filmmakers clearly side with the Kiowa (and rightfully so) yet they are completely honest about the violence and tragic mistakes either side of any war perpetrates. That honesty extends to the way Siegel shot his film. He curbs the stylized strokes he brought to Body Snatchers and The Killers for a more straight-forward, more realistic approach in Flaming Star. Siegel works with pale daylight exteriors, dim blue nighttime ones, and shadowy interiors, making Flaming Star a sort of color noir without the weird angles.
Twilight Time’s new blu-ray of Flaming Star respects its muted aesthetic with fine clarity, depth, and grain. Film Historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman provide an audio commentary in which they discuss Elvis’s movies without pulling punches and relate how the relative commercial failure of Flaming Star ultimately did them a disservice. Interesting to my fellow horror fans is an extended discussion of how Barbara Steele was originally cast for a minor role that ended up going to Barbara Eden (who is quite good). The disc also includes original trailers and an isolated score track.
Get the Twilight Time edition of Flaming Star at Screen Archives.com here.
Like Please Please Me, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Nevermind (which wouldn’t exist without it), Doolittle is an album that launched a thousand bands. It still sounds as disturbing, catchy, crazy, and uniformly perfect as it did 25 years ago—much less a product of its time than those other albums in its influential league. There is nothing indicative of the antiseptic sounds of ’89 in Gil Norton’s raw, organic production, though its original CD release was still in need of a sonic upgrade. Doolittle apparently got that when it and the rest of The Pixies’ catalogue was remastered in 2003. I don’t have that version, so I can’t confirm whether or not 4AD’s new triple-disc deluxe edition is an all-new master or a recycle of the 2003 one (and since nothing in the press material indicates a remaster, I think it might be safe to assume the latter). However, this is still a pretty must-own repurchase of an album that should have already been in your collection for twenty-something years.
Like all really necessary deluxe-edition excesses, Doolittle 25 offers ways to hear some familiar music in fresh and enlightening ways. While the original album occupies disc one, its demos on disc three strip away Norton’s barely-there sheen for an even rawer, even wilder Doolittle; not necessary a better version of an LP I already called perfect (and it can’t be said enough: Doolittle is perfect. It’s perfect), but a good idea of how it would sound on stage. Genuine live recordings can be heard on disc two in the form of a snatch of John Peel sessions that reinterpret some of the material faster, nastier. That second disc also includes all related B-sides, (many also in Peel performances) which are the best original B-sides of The Pixies’ career: “Manta Ray”, “Weird at My School”, “Wave of Mutilation UK Surf”, “Into the White”, and “Dancing the Manta Ray” (though I should note that “Bailey’s Walk” is probably their worst B-side). That these tracks are significantly meatier here than they were on 2001’s anemic sounding Complete B-sides CD leaves no wonder that at least they were remastered for Doolittle 25.
Get Doolittle 25 on Amazon.com here: