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.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Review: 'The Science of Star Wars'

Most people bristle at the idea of classifying Star Wars as science fiction, feeling it more comfortably slips into the space fantasy or space opera slots. That may be fair, but Star Wars does deal in science with its strange planets, species, and space-travel physics. In their new book The Science of Star Wars, serious science writers Mark Brake and Jon Chase take all of this zany stuff seriously in an attempt to calculate approximately how long ago and far away the films took place, consider the galactic economic depression that would result from the destruction of both Death Stars, and determine why Wookiees are so hairy.

Brake and Chase may take these questions seriously enough to provide thoughtfully considered answers rooted in real physics, chemistry, biology, and evolutionary science, but they fortunately never forget that Star Wars should never be anything more or less than fun, so they maintain a lighthearted tone and a good sense of humor about it all. Nevertheless, a lot of the science leading to their conclusions made my eyes glaze over. Because I do not have a strong enough science background to debate the accuracy or legitimacy of the writers’ conclusions, I basically had to put myself in their hands and assume their conclusions regarding the logistics of building a Death Star were straight. Considering that they determined it would take 800,000 years to produce enough steel to build one, I can’t even test their theories in any practical way. So much for that Death Star I was hoping to tuck under the tree this Christmas.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Review: 'Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte' Blu-ray

Bette Davis was the most electrifying actress of the twentieth century, but Hollywood cares little for such things. When she was “too old” to be bankable anymore, she had to take some odd roles to keep working. However, the first of these second-wave pictures was actually fairly prestigious. Davis really wanted to work with director Robert Aldrich, and their collaboration in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? became a smash hit, a massive pop culture touchstone, and quite nearly the film that earned Davis her third Oscar (alas, she lost out to “Miracle Worker” Anne Bancroft).

Follow ups to these kinds of successes are inevitable today, but less so in the early sixties. Nevertheless, Aldrich, Davis, and Baby Jane co-star Joan Crawford schemed to work together on a similar project ultimately titled Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The actresses would play different characters but resume their Gothic histrionics and onscreen rivalry. The off-screen ones continued too, and unable to deal with star and co-producer Davis’s nastiness any longer, Crawford “fell ill,” causing her to bail long after production had started. In stepped Davis’s good buddy Olivia de Havilland to fill Crawford’s clogs.

It’s probably unfair to compare two films that aren’t even really sequels, but it’s pretty impossible not to weigh Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte against What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and not find the follow up to be a touch lacking. De Havilland simply does not have Crawford’s gravity, and though she does manage to generate some sparks facing off against Davis, they don’t quite ignite as they did in the earlier picture. The Gaslight-meets-William Castle-meets Scooby Doo story is much more conventional than the pioneering child-star-gone-bad plot of Baby Jane. Davis is Charlotte Hollis, whose beau (a very fleeting Bruce Dern) had been butchered with a kitchen cleaver 36 years earlier. Now she’s a middle-aged woman still haunted by the murder most folks assume she committed. When the Louisiana Highway Commission informs her of plans to build a bridge through her beloved antebellum mansion, Charlotte calls on the assistance of her cousin Miriam (de Havilland), who turns out to have designs on the mansion, herself.

While its story is very different, Hush…Hush does share Baby Jane’s one significant flaw: it’s about 30 minutes too long. And without any of the truly memorable set pieces of the earlier film (no rat supper this time, though there are a few memorable reappearances of Dern’s severed head and some eerie late-night haunting scenes, one of which involves a fairly freaky hallucination), it is a long and pretty talky two hours and thirteen minutes.

But maybe we should let the comparisons die there, because taken on its own, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte has a lot of wonderful things going for it too, the most obvious being Davis, who gets to go cuckoo as only she could in the starring role. She also gets to play vulnerable, terrified, defiantly dignified, and even romantic with equal mastery. And though de Havilland has no chance to steal this show, Agnes Moorehead very nearly does as Charlotte’s slovenly, slurring housekeeper who expresses explicit and delicious disdain for every snooty fool who passes through the lush Hollis mansion.

Hush…Hush is also a marvelous looking picture, with shadowy, Southern gothic cinematography from Joseph Biroc, whose diverse c.v. includes It’s a Wonderful Life, 13 Ghosts, and Blazing Saddles. That cinematography looks stunning on Twilight Time’s flawless new blu-ray of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Utterly organic, beautifully high-contrast, and devoid of a single blemish, this is a sumptuous presentation. The disc also compiles all extras from the film’s previous two DVD incarnations: the commentary with film historian Glenn Erickson from the 2005 edition and the twenty-minute making-of doc and twelve-minute interview with Dern from the 2008 one. Twilight Time adds two choice new features: a commentary between historians Steve Peros and David Del Valle (so charming in his recent commentary for TT’s edition of Theatre of Blood) and a vintage four-minute promo/making-of short with overwrought narration from co-star Joseph Cotten. Get it here.

Review: 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller' Blu-ray

Robert Altman played around with genres such as the war movie (MASH), horror (Images), musical (Popeye), noir (The Long Goodbye), and even avant garde (3 Women), but he always seemed to be working in the singular genre of “The Robert Altman Film.” Because it was more intent on human relationships than gun-fighting, because of its lack of bombast and derring-do, because of its signature Altman-esque touches such as twitchy performances and unintelligible dialogue, his western McCabe & Mrs. Miller also seems like another genre-violator and has often been labeled an “anti-western.”

However, as is the case with Altman’s other genre pictures, there is fidelity to the given genre in terms of storytelling, mood, and visuals. There is the heroism and violence and antique feel of the classical western in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but all of that is balanced with its bigger-fish-to-fry ideas about  the formation of the American North-West as we now know it.

At the center of the new settlement of Presbyterian Church, Washington, are the title characters: new brothel owner and longtime loser John McCabe (an incessantly mumbling Warren Beatty) and its self-possessed yet opium-addicted madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie). The brothel provides a center for Presbyterian Church more stable than its proprietors, and though it serves as the cornerstone of a newborn American community, there is an atmosphere of elegy that hangs over the entire film like a shroud. Perhaps that’s because something crucial and natural in America did die when white people citified it.

The look of the film contributes much to that shrouded atmosphere. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is deliberately hazy, soft, grainy, and dark. As such, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not the ideal high-definition showcase, though comparisons with the 2002 DVD reveal how much Criterion’s new 4k restoration of the film has brought back its color and clarity.

Criterion fleshes out the film with hours of supplements, the centerpiece of which is a near-hour-long documentary about the film’s casting, creation, characterizations, and cinematography, as well as the environmental and personality difficulties involved in making it (though clashes between the director and Beatty are downplayed). One can’t help but wish that Beatty and Christie had been involved in Way out on a Limb, but it’s still a solid piece, and it’s always nice when Criterion goes to such trouble to produce a substantial new supplement for one of its releases.

The rest of the stuff will keep McCabe-heads busy for hours: a casual conversation between two film historians on the film’s western status and place in the New Hollywood movement, a 1999 conversation with production designer Leon Ericksen, a splice of interviews with Zsigmond, a photo gallery, Pauline Kael’s special 1971 trip to The Dick Cavett Show to rave about the film, and a commentary with Altman and producer David Foster ported over from the old DVD. Originally scheduled for last August, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the rare Criterion release to be delayed, but its cult will likely feel the wait was worth it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review: 'Batman Dailies and Sundays: 1969-1972!'

Nearly two years have passed since the last volume in IDW’s anthologies of Batman newspaper comics was published. The final volume is finally here, and it ends the series with a cuckoo shuffle of bangs and whimpers. On the whimper side is a couple of rather mundane storylines that trapped writers Whitney Ellsworth and E. Nelson Bridwell and artist Al Plastino in Humdrumsville for a year or so of the period that Batman Dailies and Sundays: 1969-1972! covers. These tales involve Bruce Wayne’s would-be suitor plotting revenge against the multimillionaire after he thwarts her marriage proposal (good intrigue but dull villains) and a typically boneheaded depiction of hippie revolutionaries as nasty, dirty monsters with no greater goals than killing cops and inciting campus riots.

As if to make up for that lost year, Bridwell and Plastino then course correct their comic with a delirious rogues rally storyline that manages to gather Riddler, Joker, Penguin, Cat Woman, Mad-Hatter, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Killer Moth, Poison Ivy, Two Face, and Scarecrow for a clever literature-inspired crime spree. On the outskirts of this tale is new villain Man Bat, who proves to be a conflicted and welcome new resident in Gotham City. This anthology’s designers knew exactly what the most crowd-pleasing storyline in 1969-1972, and have designed a gorgeous wraparound cover showcasing these sundry menaces that you’ll want to rip off the binding and frame.

Less gorgeous are the comics that follow the multi-villain storyline, as Plastino exited the fold and the Ledger Syndicate replaced him with an uncredited art team whose work rapidly devolved into doodles. While these comics aren’t a great joy to read (Bridwell was soon ditched for some anonymous hacks, too), they’ do set up an uproarious closing statement from the strip’s editors about how the dramatic quality decline has caused the Ledger to just ditch Batman altogether and replace it with a Sesame Street strip. Things actually get worse from there as the comic continues in a Singapore paper with Batman and Robin basically playing back up to a dopey new hardhat-wearing hero called Galexo. It’s a pitiable ending to a comic that generally had more highs than lows, but you can’t blame IDW for that, and the publisher has once again done a superb job presenting these strips in another ravishingly designed package.
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