Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review: 'Super Weird Heroes'

One of my favorite books of last year was Jon Morris’s The League of Regrettable Superheroes, a hilarious, outrageous encyclopedia of confoundingly forgotten crime stoppers such as Kangaroo Man (his sidekick is a real, live kangaroo who can ride a motorcycle and sky dive), Funnyman (a clown), and Rainbow Boy (a high school kid who shoots rainbows out of his armpit).

I’m betting that comics historian Craig Yoe was also a fan, because his recent compilation Super Weird Heroes is a natural extension of The League of Regrettable Superheroes, supporting Morris’s uproarious profiles with the very panels that featured several of the daffy heroes covered in League. However, Yoe doesn’t just give us the chance to actually see the likes of Kangaroo Man, Funnyman, and Rainbow Boy in action, but he also pulls back the capes on several characters who flew over Morris’s radar. Biff! Here comes Catman and the Kitten, an uncle/niece crime-fighting team led by a fellow who’d been raised by tigers. Bang! Step aside for Captain Hadacol, a caped shill for a miracle muscle builder with a very special secret ingredient: booze! Pow! Here comes Bulletman and Bulletgirl, a dynamic duo who need no guns because they are the bullets!

A lot of these stories are funnier to read about in The League of Regrettable Superheroes than actually witness in the creaky plots of Super Weird Heroes, which generally suffer from bad writing and worse artwork (a nine-year old with a box of Crayolas could probably come up with something more professional looking than The Fire-Man), but Yoe is pretty up front about all that in his excellent introduction and character profiles generously supplied before each story. Anyone expecting Batman or Superman caliber stories should probably just read Batman or Superman. That’s not what Super Weird Heroes is about. Super Weird Heroes is about a semi-naked “Spider Man” who looks like hes wearing a walrus mask and rides on the back of a giant tarantula (The Spider Widow), a guy who sics his army of teeny tiny gnomes on enemies (Mr. E), a mad scientist who wants to put human brains in giant gorillas (Fantoma), a shirtless, Muslim teetotaler who punches Nazis while wearing a fez (Kismet Man of Fate), a duo of do-gooders who fight Nazi trees (Jeep and Peep), and a giant, disembodied hand that slugs and apprehends criminals (The Hand). And a few of these goofballs-- such as Hydroman, who can turn himself into a glass of water-- are even legitimately super heroes. Splash!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: 'Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds: The British Psychedelic Sounds of 1967'

The psychedelic scene of the sixties has been well covered over innumerable compilations. Most deal in fairly broad strokes, perhaps covering a particular region (usually the UK or U.S.) or strain (maybe the garage rock of Nuggets or twee pop of Ripples Vol. III) in the general zone of 1966 through 1969. As its title blares, Cherry Red’s Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds: The British Psychedelic Sounds of 1967 gets more specific.

Stylistically, the set’s eighty tracks are still pretty eclectic with childlike whimsy (The Alan Bown!’s scrumptious “Toyland” and The Picadilly Line’s “Emily Small) sharing space with bubblegum (The Marmalade’s “Laughing Man” and The Honeybus’ “Delighted to See You”), swirling sophistication (Procol Harum’s “Kaleidoscope”), metallic heaviness (The Attack’s “Magic in the Air”), pure raga (Big Jim Sullivan’s “Flower Power), avant garde weirdness (The Pretty Things’ “Deflecting Grey” and The Crocheted Doughnut Ring’s “Nice”), swaggering garage (Mickey Finn’s “Time to Start Loving You” and The Outer Limits’ “Help Me Please”), and bonzo silliness (The Riot Squad’s “Toy Soldier” and The Uglys’ “And the Squire Blew His Horn”). Even with—or especially with—that variety, Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds builds a real sense of time and place, and it is quite certainly the most fragrant, exotic, fantastical, straight-up fantastic time and place in pop history. Obviously, a lot of the artists who made 1967 UK so magical are not represented, but if you don’t already own Sgt. Pepper’s, Satanic Majesties, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and Sell Out, you’re a real odd duck for starting with Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds. So kudos to you, I guess.

That being said, you do get such major artists as the aforementioned Procol and Pretties, The Kinks (by way of “solo” Dave Davies), The Move, The Moody Blues, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Searchers, and The Spencer Davis Group (alas post-Steve Winwood). For those who are already well versed in the existing psychedelic comps, you will hear quite a few familiar songs, but it’s still exhilarating to hear assorted tracks from Rhino’s Nuggets, Castle’s Real Life Permanent Dreams, See for Miles’ The Great British Psychedelic Trip, and other essential compilations in their most specific context with more obscure wonders by The Scots of St. James, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, Paul and Barry Ryan, and The Fresh Windows. This combination of superstars, familiar oddities, and totally unfamiliar obscurities makes Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds a consistently super listen, which is ultimately what every multi-disc various artists compilation should be and so few are.

Review: Cream's 'Fresh Cream' Super-Deluxe Edition

After picking up a musty old copy of Heavy Cream for a buck at my local record store recently, I had an unpleasant revelation while listening to “I Feel Free” through headphones for the first time in a long time: the stereo mix is absolutely awful. The rhythm guitars, bass, and drums are all shoved off to the right-hand channel, vocals are centered, and tambourine is the sole occupant of the left channel for much of the track. Suddenly, one of my favorite pieces of psychedelic pop was reduced to a limp noodle. Tears were shed. Dreams were dashed. Heavy Cream curdled.
The timing of UMe’s Super Deluxe Edition of Fresh Cream couldn’t have been better for me, because the quadruple-disc set’s anchor is Cream’s debut in its mono mix long unavailable in the States. No album was as mighty as Fresh Cream in 1966, and the wonky separation of its stereo incarnation did a complete disservice to that considerable distinction. Great tracks such as “I Feel Free” (from the U.S. version), “Spoonful” (from the UK version), “I’m So Glad”, “Cat’s Squirrel”, “Sweet Wine”, “N.S.U.”, and “Sleepy Time Time” are restored to their original power, Baker, Bruce, and Clapton booming as a unified unit as they were always meant to. The set includes the album’s stereo mix, but there’s really no reason to ever bother with that again.

The Fresh Cream Super Deluxe Edition also includes stereo and mono mixes of the underrated contemporary tracks “Wrapping Paper” and “The Coffee Song” (a new and particularly miserable stereo mix has everything but the sporadic lead guitar outbursts hard-panned to the right). Elsewhere on the mono first disc and stereo second one are alternate masters and mixes, though none of them are particularly revelatory.

The most radical alternates are bunched on the third disc, which includes substantially different early versions of “The Coffee Song”, “Sweet Wine”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, “Toad”, and “I Feel Fine” (with a hilariously dinky vocal arrangement and dummy lyrics). There are a couple of so-so outtakes— “You Make Me Feel”, previously released on the Those Were the Days box set, and an awkwardly stop-starting vocal-deprived blues called “Beauty Queen”—and a big clutch of worthwhile BBC recordings that were mostly released thirteen years ago on the BBC Sessions CD (versions of “Steppin’Out” and “Sleepy Time Time” are exclusive to this new set). I couldn’t assess the Blu-Ray Audio version of the original mono album because this fourth disc was not included in the review package I received (neither was the 64-page hardback book notated by David Fricke). As is often the case with Super Deluxe Editions, there’s redundancy and bloat, but that mono mix of Fresh Cream remains a powerful selling point in more ways than one. Don’t expect to find it for a buck at your local record store, though.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Farewell, Carrie Fisher

Like most kids born in the seventies, I lived a Star Wars childhood, and that means Carrie Fisher has been a part of my life for most of my life, mostly in the form of an outer space comic book heroine reciting improbable dialogue while wearing an even more improbable hairstyle. As the real woman reminded us so many times, and as recently as her wonderful new memoir The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher was much more than the sum of the Topps trading cards, Dixie cups, T-shirts, and plastic, 3-inch figures bearing her likeness that surrounded so many of us during our formative years. She was a great and honest wit, an excellent writer, a fearless and vocal representative of and advocate for people with mental illness and addiction issues, a pioneering feminist role-model in the entertainment industry, and certainly more than all that to the people fortunate enough to have known her as more than a public figure. Between her new book and return to the screen in the new line of 'Star Wars' movies, Carrie Fisher had been especially vital in the current culture, which makes her death all the more unexpected and stinging. She spent so much of her life giving so much of herself to fans she owed absolutely nothing, so it's appropriate that she continued doing that until her final days. Of all the great celebrity artists we lost throughout this malignant year that just won't fucking end, Carrie Fisher is the only one who makes me feel like I lost a member of my family. I'm certain I'm not the only seventies kid who feels that way.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review: 'The 3 Worlds of Gulliver' Blu-ray

Like every movie for which Ray Harryhausen conjured the special effects, director Jack Sher’s 1960 adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels is primarily remembered as “a Ray Harryhausen film.” Yet The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is not your typical Harryhausen film. The master was known for loading astonishing though—let’s be honest here—fairly mindless swashbucklers such as Jason and the Argonauts, the Sinbad movies, and Clash of the Titans with menageries of stop-motion monsters. Jonathan Swift’s source material was pretty light in the creature department, so the mass of Harryhausen’s effects are matte shots showing Kerwin Matthews either towering over the Lilliputians or scurrying beneath the Brobdingnagians. Brief skirmishes with a giant crocodile and squirrel scratch the stop-motion itch, but this is hardly the effects orgy that the master’s best-loved films are.

That’s not a huge problem because The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is also atypical in the Harryhausen canon because it works as a perfectly clever and entertaining film beyond its effects set pieces. Swift’s blunt political satire may have blunted further in the transition from page to screen, but it is still very present, very witty (Arthur Ross, scribe of Creature from the Black Lagoon, co-wrote the terrific script with Sher), and clear enough for even its child audience to grasp. Charming whimsy plays a starring role too as the somewhat bland yet still likable Matthews encounters a cartoony crowd of jackass politicians and eye-rolling royalty who remain oddly lovable despite being completely arbitrary, utterly blinkered, and fairly despicable. If only real-world politics were this much fun... or at least this unhorrific.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray edition of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver does a fab job of presenting the picture’s splashy colors and velvety textures. Even the matte shots hold up rather well under the unforgiving hi-def conditions, though the disc naturally looks best during its effects-free frames. It’s all very organic and clean too, and viewers have the options to watch it in its theatrical 1.66:1 or subsequently altered 1.78:1 aspect ratios.

Extras are pretty nice but somewhat redundant. The hour-long “Harryhausen Chronicles” TV doc is already available on Sony’s Jason and the Argonauts blu-ray and Twilight Time already included the short “This is Dynamation!” on its (albeit out-of-print) edition of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. The seven-minute “Making of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver” has been ported over from the film’s DVD edition. An audio commentary with film historians Randall Cook, C. Courtney Joyner, and Steven C. Smith is exclusive to this release though. It’s available from Twilight Time’s official site here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Psychobabble’s 50 Favorite Holiday Season Songs

Oh, I’m quite sure you’ve been bombarded with various versions of “Jingle Bells”, “Jingle Bell Rock”, and “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” since well before Halloween. Don’t let that put you off holiday season songs, though. The ones you probably haven’t been hearing a dozen times a day will turn around the “Bah Humbug” attitude that fucking “Christmas Shoes” song induces. Clean that sleet out of your stocking to make room for these 50 festive and freaky holiday season favorites delivered down your chimney with Psychobabble’s Christmas seal of approval!

50. “Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade

With its glitzy lights, gaudy decorations, and multi-layered garb, Christmas is the glammest holiday. Wolverhampton glammers Slade recognized this and cut one of the all-time seasonal classics with an anthem made for stomping through slush in platform boots.

49. “Christmas Everyday” by The Miracles

If you’re more inclined to go for a slow, romantic stroll in fresh, clean snow, “Christmas Everyday” will be more your speed. Smokey’s love is such a perennial gift that she could turn any day into December 25. That would be a welcome prospect if every holiday song sounded like this one.

48. “Christmas Is My Time of Year” by The Christmas Spirit (AKA: The Turtles)

Monday, December 19, 2016

10 Best Retro Music Releases of 2016

Overdue mono boxes from two true giants of the British Invasion, a collection of early recordings that shed a different light on The Bangles, and fab collections of British artists of the eighties are just part of what made 2016 a mint year for retro music releases.

(Once again, each entry links to the original review)

In short: “The fact that the mass of tracks on Another Splash of Colour do not merely copy psychedelia’s original wave but update it for their own age gives them a personality of their very own and makes them sound strangely contemporary today.”

In short: “…it’s fab that bin dives can still turn up enough killer obscure records to basically fill three discs such as these.”

In short: “Driving tracks in the Loud, Fast, and Out of Control bag grounds the collection... But it’s the ones that really go off the rails that make 61 Classics earn its keep.”

In short: “…Pet Sounds is an album that needs no introduction, so you probably already know everything there is to know about it. It’s beautiful, and it sounds beautiful on this 50th Anniversary set.”

In short: “…the styles are as diverse as can be…but almost all of it sounds like it belongs on the same two discs because the synths, uniformly thick accents, and sparse arrangements brew the various tunes in the distinctively flavorful waters of early-eighties British indie pop.

In short: “Despite the disparate material, The Move never played favorites, smashing out each number with the same brutality and professionalism.”

In short: “…this compilation of pre-fame Bangles (and Bangs, their original name) reveals the great band Susannah Hoffs and Vicki and Debbie Peterson were…”

In short: “…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.”

2. All the Singles by The Turtles
In short: “…these songs appear on any ‘Greatest Hits’ package worth its salt, but such collections won’t contain those bizarre flip-sides or such delectable oddities as the holiday single ‘Christmas Is My Time of Year’ …, the posthumous single ‘Why Would You Ever Think That I Would Marry Margaret?’, or a wealth of Turtle Soup tracks in mono. Plus, the liner notes with ample comments from the band are fab.”

In short: “…these sounds will make you run like a cat in a thunderstorm, howl at yer ma in the drivin’ rain, and achieve complete satisfaction. ”

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review: 'The Return of the Zombies'

Zombies have become so standardized that fans debate the validity of such minor variations as fast-moving zombies endlessly and tiresomely. But before George Romero shaped the modern conception of zombies once and for all in 1968, the only zombie rules were that there aren’t any zombie rules. Most often zombies were mesmerized slaves toiling away on some Haitian sugar plantation. They might also be vengeful “things from the grave,” as witnessed in pretty much every issue of E.C.’s horror comics, or swarms of Romero-anticipating rotting corpses. As revealed in Craig Yoe and IDW’s new anthology of rare zombie comics from the fifties, the zombie ranks might also include a guy who gradually turns into the undead as if he is infected with some strange, fatal disease or the tools of some yokel who can raise the dead with his trumpet.  

As is usually the case with Yoe’s anthologies of stories from such second-tier horror comics as Horrific, Web of Evil, and Strange Suspense Stories, wackiness is what makes these oddities worthy preserving. The Crypt Keeper’s tales tended to follow a sort of storytelling rulebook no matter how grotesque or illogical they were. The most delightful tales in Yoe’s new volume The Return of the Zombies, such as “Hating Corpse” and  “Death by Inches”, follow the logic of someone who woke up at 4 AM with a head full of groggy nightmares. More conventional tales still manage to sidestep convention, such as “The Dead Remember”, which courts serious bad taste with its zombies as vengeful holocaust victims.

Not everything collected in The Return of the Zombies is particularly memorable, but IDW has still assembled a typically attractive package with its center spread of grotty, zombified comics covers and its textural pages and authentically inked artwork. The bite taken from the bottom corner of the front cover is a bit of groovy yet unnecessary extra evidence that IDW is one publisher that takes its goofy second-tier horror comics very seriously. You have to love them for that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review: Rush's '2112' 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition

Ever since Neil Peart replaced John Rutsey behind the kit and Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson at the lyric-writing desk, Rush started embracing bigger musical and lyrical ideas then “Hey, baby, it’s a quarter to eight, I feel I’m in the mood.” That kind of approach needs time to develop, and attempts to get ambitious on Fly by Night and Caress of Steel were seriously lacking in melodiousness and clarity of ideas, leaving brief songs such as “Fly by Night”, “Beneath, Between, Behind”, and “Lakeside Park” to represent the band much more favorably.

I personally think that when Peart’s ambitions coalesced on 2112 the short songs were still the album’s highlights: “Lessons” is Rush at their most tuneful and “A Passage to Bangkok” and “Twilight Zone” are Rush at their most tuneful and their funniest. Still there’s no denying that Peart, Lee, and Lifeson had developed considerably since shapeless, shaggy-dog filler like “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”. The title piece of Rush’s fourth album isn’t their most melodic, but there is an actual story this time to justify the extended run-time: in a totalitarian future-society that has banned music, a guy finds a guitar, tunes it in record time, and leads a rebellion against the music-hating regime. It’s a simplistic concept that would have displayed serious stretch-marks had it been pulled to Tommy length, but it gets the job done on a single side of vinyl and gave the band a centerpiece for their stage act in the same way The Who’s rock opera gave them one. Plus there are some very pretty bits amidst the bombast.

So 2112 is a good fit for the bombastic Super Deluxe treatment, though much of what is on UMe’s new triple-disc package is more Lamnethian filler than Syrinxian essentials. I’d imagine most Rush fans would expect actual Rush recordings when plopping down the big bucks for 2112: 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition, but much of the bonus material is cover versions by the likes of Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains, and frankly, a bunch of guys I had to look up on Wikipedia to find out who they are. The covers are perfectly fine—the singer from Billy Talent does a nice restrained Geddy Lee impression, and yes, the band is considerate enough to include the bong hit in their cover of “A Passage to Bangkok”—but the bottom line is that half of one disc of this Rush box set is not by Rush. And that disc is only 45-minutes long to begin with.

The other half of disc two contains gnarly live versions of the title suite and “Something for Nothing” from 1976 and a live version of “The Twilight Zone” from 1977 that would have been bootleg quality in 1977. The audio deficiencies are especially pronounced when played alongside the rest of this set, which sounds very present and powerful.

Live Rush is much better represented on the bonus DVD that captures them at Westchester’s Capitol Theatre in 1976. Neither the audio nor the blobby, B&W video are ideal, but it is considerably better quality than the live stuff on disc two and it’s very cool to see these young geeks rock out under their hair curtains. Rush’s raw interpretations of much of the best material on their first few albums and Geddy’s rather enthusiastic growling and whoa-yeah-ing constitute as convincing a counterargument to the “prog is soulless” line as you’ll find. A bonus interview with Lifeson and producer Terry Brown is also a good argument against prog’s humorlessness.  

Monday, December 12, 2016

Psychobabble's 10 Best Retro Blu-rays of 2016

Several classic horror movies and a horrific comedy classic, and loving tributes to punk and pop’s most-underrated pioneers, made 2016 a very cool year for retro Blu-ray releases. These are my ten favorite blu-rays to see release this year. 

(Once again, each entry links to the original review)

In short:The Big Heat is extraordinary for the meaty, stereotype-smashing roles it allows its women, and (Gloria) Grahame is unforgettable in this film.”

9. Elvis Costello: Detour Live at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

In short: “As a new concert film expertly directed by Joss Crowley…reveals, Costello and his crew put a lot of thought into the presentation of ‘Detour’.”

In short:Bride of Re-Animator may be a slab of cheap-o exploitation, but it’s a great-looking one, and Arrow presents it with rich color and organic fidelity…”

In short: “Criterion’s new blu-ray edition of The Graduate allows many opportunities to be surprised all over again too.”

In short: “…as much as I love Price and the film’s satirical premise, I always found Theatre to be off-putting and inaccessible because of its ugly presentation on VHS and DVD. As I was hoping it would, Twilight Time’s new blu-ray has really turned around my feelings about the film.”

In short: “At its most fundamental, it is a 78-minute Twilight Zone episode complete with that series’ disquieting atmosphere, low-budget makeup and twist ending... It also works on the delicious level of so many early-sixties schlock shockers with its jazzy dialogue and stilted, amateur-hour acting.”

In short: “…an excellent presentation of one of the key films in horror’s maturation.”

In short: “…historically significant story, incredible music, outrageous humor (Cap’n’s tale about an exceptionally resilient turd will stimulate your laugh reflexes and your gag reflexes), and real emotion…”

In short: “The only things that are missing are chewing gum, lipsticks, and prophylactics. Shoot, a fella’ could still have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with this blu-ray.”

In short: “…The Monkees Complete Series has its flaws, but once you get past them, you have a gorgeously restored version of one of the very best TV shows of the sixties.”

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.
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