Monday, January 15, 2018

Review: 'Superman: The Atom Age Sundays-1956 to 1959'


Superman has gone through all sorts of variations in his 80 years, including— stupidly enough—dark, broody Superman. Like most of the comic book heroes who followed him, Superman was always best when he was at his most whimsical. Delightfully, IDW’s new collection Superman: The Atom Age Sundays-1956 to 1959 catches him at one such point. Without the depressing, often racist baggage of the war years, Superman is free to use the sun as his personal Turkish bath after gaining some extra pounds, match wits with an alien race of talking mushrooms, and testify at the trial of a giant chimp that shoots kryptonite beams from its eyeballs. Even his origin story is told after a wacky visit by G-Men from the future who insist that the "S" on Supermans chest is for "Shark." Hooray for Superman and the goofy scripting of writers such as Batman-creator Bill Finger!

Another pleasure of The Atom Age Sundays is how fluidly these one-a-week chapters coalesce into complete stories. With the exception of one of the three Lois Lane-centric stories that end the book, there is a minimum of annoying exposition intended to remind the reader of what happened the previous weekend. Since these are Sundays only, every comic is in full color. Consequently, this volume reads more like a collection of comic book stories than newspaper ones, and interestingly enough, the book’s introduction notes that the comic book and newspaper stories were mirroring each other at this point in Superman history (though writers Mark Waid and John Wells can’t reach a definitive conclusion about which medium was the chicken and which one was the egg). As usual, the packaging is beautiful with comic book-style textured paper, ribbon bookmark, and colorful hardcover. All of this makes for one of the very best volumes in IDW’s ongoing series of Superman newspaper comics.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Review: 'Opera' Blu-ray


Evaluating a Dario Argento movies requires its own rule book since his methods are so unlike anyone else’s. In a movie such as Opera, he may liberally borrow from horrors past ranging from The Birds to Halloween to A Clockwork Orange to (of course) Phantom of the Opera, but his films are always entirely his own no matter how referential or how successful they are. Opera is no Suspiria or Deep Red, but it is still one of Argento’s more successful pictures despite its absence of logic and ridiculous musical choices. While the latter undermines Argento’s purposes as he renders his most shocking scenes comical by scoring them with awful heavy metal tunes, the former just adds to the dreamy unreality that is one of his more appealing signatures.

Opera finds the soprano starring in a production of Verdi’s Macbeth being stalked by a masked killer. Instead of targeting the life of the singer (Christina Marscillach), he merely forces her to watch while he slays other folks in her theatrical inner circle. He ensures her peepers remain open by Scotch-taping rows of needles under her eyelids. If you’re like me and have a thing about your eyes, these scenes are almost impossible to watch (oh, the irony!).

Like any Argento picture, Opera is not a matter of plot. It is the sum total of Argento’s audacious flights of fancy and weirdly poetic extreme violence. We get plenty of this stuff with a disorienting opening filmed in the first-person pov, a gory raven raid on an opera audience, and of course, that vicious gimmick with the needles. An extended scene that finds the heroine trapped with the killer in her own apartment and escaping through an air duct with a little girl out of a Lewis Carroll story could be the most masterfully suspenseful set piece in a career littered with them.

Scorpion Releasing brings Opera to blu-ray with a meticulous 2K scan. I know, I know—4K is the ideal way to go, but this is still a very attractive presentation with barely a speck of dust and organic, lively textures. This is particularly important since the film is so textural whether lingering on red velvet, the gnarly twine of a thick rope, or the pearl-like ring around a raven’s eye. There are also two bonus interviews—a previously issued 21-minute talk with Argento and a brand new one with actor William McNamara. McNamara has a relatively small role in the feature, but his interview is still nicely illuminating as he explains the circumstances that led to the audacious pov of the opening scene and his reaction to having his voice dubbed by a British actor.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: 'Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration'


With the release of Ed Wood in 1994, “Karloff! That Limey cocksucker!” quite nearly replaced “I never drink…wine” and “The children of the night…what music they make” as the go-to phrase when doing a bad Bela Lugosi impression. Tim Burton’s movie hipped the larger film-going public to some of the real-life seething that went on during the filming of such Lugosi/Boris Karloff collaborations as The Black Cat and The Body Snatcher. However, Burton’s superb yet cartoonish film provided little of the complexity behind this classic Hollywood “rivalry.” For that, one would have to take a trip to the local Waldenbooks and pick up a copy of Gregory Mank’s Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration.

Originally published in 1990, the over 350-page book attempted a more nuanced view of a relationship that couldn’t simply be boiled down to a venerated horror star and a jealous, drug-addled also-ran. Swelling with an additional 250-or-so pages in 2009, the now Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration went into even greater depth with additional information and interviews. By Mank’s analysis, Lugosi and Karloff may have enjoyed a rather friendly working relationship while making Son of Frankenstein, and the alleged hatred Lugosi felt for Karloff may have really been directed at a Hollywood system that constantly ground the vampire under its merciless stake.

Karloff is not completely without blame in this mostly one-sided clash of titans. While he never had an explicitly nasty thing to say about Lugosi, his patronizing insistence on referring to his co-star as “poor Bela” in private and public could not have endeared himself to the actor who could be quite proud despite demeaning himself in Poverty Row and Ed Wood pictures.

Mank’s valiant attempt to uncover how Lugosi and Karloff really felt about each other was doomed to go without a definitive answer, but that barely matters when the rest of the story is so fascinating and well told. Mank goes deep into the movies they made together with nearly scene-by-scene analyses without neglecting the most important pictures they made without the other. So we get very satisfying histories of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and other key films, as well as quite a bit of information about other key players in those films such as James Whale and Colin Clive.

Last updated nearly a decade ago, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration is now enjoying a new printing though not another updating. That’s generally fine since there probably haven’t been many new revelations about the Karloff/Lugosi rivalry in recent years since so many of their other collaborators have died. Mank’s incessant leching over Lugosi and Karloff’s female co-stars is more than a little dated and brings nothing but discomfort to the storytelling, but if you can get past that, you will find that Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration remains one of the great studies of classic horror films.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review: Reissue of The Rising Storm's 'Calm Before...'


The artists that make the most concerted effort to be futuristic often end up with the product that most fails to stand the test of time. A couple of days ago, I reviewed Sundazed’s reissue of the debut album by Ultimate Spinach and noted that its psychedelic progressivism sounds pretty dated today.

Now compare that to Calm Before…, the debut of fellow “Bosstown” band The Rising Storm. The disc commits such unhip-in-67 crimes as loading up on the soul and blues covers that no longer cut the mustard in the year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yet the way that this group of high school kids effortlessly transform warhorses like “In the Midnight Hour” and “Big Boss Man” into their own creations is more legitimately progressive than anything on Ultimate Spinach. The Rising Storm can’t help but make atmospheric music. This is no doubt partially due to the guys’ unique approach to music making, but their lo-fi production values deserve some credit too. There’s a definite Velvet Underground vibe to this stuff, and a version of Love’s “Message to Pretty” would fit seamlessly onto the Velvet’s eponymous third album. However, the group surely makes its most halting music when handling its own compositions whether they are rocking through “She Loved Me” or painting in lysergic watercolors on “Frozen Laughter” or “The Rain Falls Down”. Calm Before…is one of those forgotten albums that really lives up to the myth building.

It also makes good on the descriptor “rare.” The Rising Storm only printed up 500 copies of their self-released album, selling half and either giving away or keeping the rest. So Sundazed’s vinyl reissue is particularly necessary. The packaging is very nice too with liner notes in the gatefold, a bonus 11” x 17” tour poster, and yellow vinyl.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Review: 'Ultimate Spinach" Mono Vinyl Edition


The term “Bosstown Sound” was DJ Dick Summer’s valiant yet failed attempt to promote Boston as the next San Francisco in the late sixties. At the forefront of the movement was Ultimate Spinach, a psychedelic conglomerate led by an acid muncher named Ian Bruce-Douglas and supported by a bunch of squares. Though the group is only known by the most hardcore psych acolytes today, and they never even tried to score a hit single, Ultimate Spinach’s eponymous debut album did surprisingly well, even climbing to #34 in the LP charts, and is remembered fondly by a dedicated few.
Hearing Ultimate Spinach today, it is definitely dated, but if you’re going to be dated to a particular date, 1968 is pretty great date to be dated to. Much of Ultimate Spinach is charming in the way that may provoke a kitschy chuckle but it is capable of sincerely earning a gasp or two as well. The druggy imagery and ham-fisted social commentary is pretty hard to take seriously, but things like the chugging “Ego Trip” and the bopping, harpsichord jangling “Plastic Raincoat/Hung Up Minds” are still effectively evocative of a grand era.
Bruce-Douglas has major issues with his first album because of its “mid-rangey, bubblegum” production, and he is not wrong that the Ultimate Spinach lacks Popeyes punch. However, it is the more bubblegum moments that hold up best. When the aim is progressiveness, things get tedious. The album’s most legendary track, the eight-minute-plus “Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess”, is a totally listless jam, though Barbara Jean Hudson’s vocals, which recall Dorothy Moskowitz’s ultra-cool work with The United States of America, are preferable to Bruce-Douglas’s less polished voice. His subpar pipes are specifically responsible for torpedoing the otherwise intense “Your Head is Reeling”. Yet, there are times when everything comes together beautifully, as they do on the final track, and “Pamela” has the most exquisite keyboard breaks this side of “She’s a Rainbow”.
Sundazed’s new vinyl edition of Ultimate Spinach doesn’t do much to add much-needed bottom to the production, but it at least makes a serious effort with a mono presentation. The leafy green marbled vinyl is a neat gimmick too.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Huge Procol Harum Box Coming in March

As far as I'm concerned, Procol Harum is the second best British band of the sixties (the first, of course, is a 17-piece combo called The Beatlestoneskinkswho). On March 23, the goth/soul pioneers will be the subject of a huge 8-disc, audio/video box set courtesy of Esoteric Recordings. Still There'll Be More: An Anthology 1967-2017 will cherry pick a few cuts from each of their studio albums and select single sides on the first three discs, present concerts from 1973 and 1976 on the next two, and complete the portrait with three DVDs of television appearances from 1967 to 1977. Additional goodies include a 68-page hardback book and a repro concert poster.

Here's the complete track listing:

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Psychobabble’s 100 Favorite Songs of the 1990s!


Wow. A list of Psychobabble’s 100 Favorite Songs of the 1990s. That’s so cool. It’s totally not like everyone else in the entire universe hasn’t already listed their 100 favorite songs of the nineties. Like anyone cares. Whatever. Lists are wack, but I don’t know… music is pretty cool. I mean, not when they’re like “Oooh, look at me! I’m a big rock star! My hair is so big and I screw so many groupies!” That is so eighties. But when they…I don’t know… kind of don’t care so much, I guess I’m kinda like, “That’s pretty cool. I don’t care so much either.” It’s like sometimes I think Kurt Cobain is singing about my life, you know? I don’t know what the fuck Bob Pollard is singing about half the time, but Guided by Voices rock so hard because Bob is like a forty-year-old schoolteacher or something, so it’s so ironic that he’s a rock star. And then there’s all the “Women in Rock” (I put that in quotes to show what I really think of the mainstream media’s “labels”) like Liz Phair, Tanya Donelly, Mary Timony, Juliana Hatfield, PJ Harvey, and like, all the others. They are sincerely hella cool. Sincerely! I’m not even being ironic about how totally dope they are. Don’t think I’m not being ironic? Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind. Then here’s your mom’s 100 favorite songs of the nineties.

100. “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” by Guided by Voices

So we get started the way every party must get started…with a chant of “GBV! GBV! GBV!” Then Bob Pollard is all like, “Rock and Roll!” Then he’s like “This song does not rock,” which is so cool, because sincerely admitting that you rock is so lame! But the real irony is that “Over the Neptune” really does rock! It rocks like Cheap Trick (and not lame Cheap Trick, like “The Flame”). Then “Over the Neptune” morphs into “Mesh Gear Fox” like that cop in T2 morphs into water or whatever, and guess what…it stops rocking but it remains awesome as Guided by Voices get all psychedelic. It sounds like your dad’s best records… and Uncle Bob is like your dad’s only cool friend.

99. “I Wanted to Tell You” by Matthew Sweet

Monday, January 1, 2018

Review: 'The Breakfast Club' Criterion Blu-ray


John Hughes only made six movies about high schoolers, but the fact that he is synonymous with teenage travails isn’t necessarily because Curly Sue wasn’t a great piece of cinematic art. It also isn’t because he was the only one talking to teens in the eighties. Filmmakers such as Amy Heckerling, Savage Steve Holland, and Tim Hunter were too, and probably with more audacity, but there is some intangible magic about a John Hughes picture. It could be his decision to use the Brat Pack as his personal casting pool. There certainly is something special about witnessing Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall sharing the screen. It might be the fact that Hughes never shied from the kind of raw, maudlin emotions that we teenagers loved to wrap ourselves in or the toilet humor we thought was funny. Or maybe it’s that his films were so hopeful, and hope is what we really need when twirling down the angst whirlpool. Sometimes we also need a big, horse-killing dose of eighties, and watching a Hughes movie is like playing nine hours of Pac-Man while blasting Duran Duran and eating a vat of Nerds.

Whatever it is, Hughes movies scratch an itch that Fast Times at Ridgemont High and River’s Edge can’t quite reach, and no Hughes movie scratches it like The Breakfast Club. It has it all: the cast, the quotable lines (“No, dad, what about you?!?”), the puerile humor without the gratuity or racism of Sixteen Candles, the melodrama, the Simple Minds, and Hughes’s oddball perspective of teenagers that is both cluelessly unreal, and yet, aspirational. I certainly never attended a detention group therapy session with a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal, but I and a zillion other eighties teens sure wanted to after seeing The Breakfast Club. Which is crazy, since Saturday detention would clearly suck and spending nine hours with the kids most likely to tape your butt cheeks together would too. But Hughes made it seem appealing, probably because he made the mutual understanding these five kids reach seem possible.

The Breakfast Club may not fit in with the Criterion Collection’s usual crop of cult classics and art-house achievements, but there’s no question that it is an important movie. What picture better defines its generation? That’s right, my Neo-Maxi-Zoom-Dweebie…none of them. So Criterion showers all the respect on The Breakfast Club that it would give to a Bergman film. The 4K polishing is gorgeous. Extras are abundant. The most attractive will probably be nearly 52 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. Some of these will be tough for all but the most hardcore cultists to distinguish from scenes in the final edit, but other bits certainly stand out. We get Claire and Brian acting out Bender-style daddy-issue psychodramas. We get Bender calling Brian “smegma toast.” We get Carl the Janitor’s complete explanation for how he came to pursue the custodial arts, as well as his really mean predictions for each of the Breakfast Clubbers’ futures. We get Bender’s bizarre Ricky Ricardo impersonation and several scenes that help build the argument that Ally Sheedy was the movie’s MVP (sadly, we also get more of the tragic scene in which Claire gives the formerly cool Allison a jock-bait makeover. Boo!).

A clutch of cast/crew interviews includes a new 18-minute recollection starring Sheedy and Molly Ringwald, who discusses the cast’s atypical role in finalizing the script and gives some theories on what might have gone down on Monday, February 17, 1985. Period, on-set interviews with Sheedy and Judd Nelson reveal a couple of rather thoughtful young stars, while Paul Gleason’s on-set interview reveals that unlike the character he plays in the movie, he was a nice, goofy guy and not a total dick.

The less substantial supplements are so plentiful that they’ll still keep you busy for hours. A 23-minute “electronic press kit” to promote the original film includes interviews with the principal cast. Nelson reads bits of Hughes’s production notes for twelve minutes. Two segments from the Today show totaling ten minutes find Jane Pauley picking the brains of Ringwald and Nelson and Sheedy, Hall, and Emilio Estevez. There’s also an hour of audio interviews with Hughes and a 15-minute one with Ringwald.  Rounding out Criterion’s exclusive extras are the excellent Sincerely Yours documentary and Nelson and Hall’s commentary track from Universal’s 2008 “Flashback Edition” DVD.
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