Monday, March 19, 2018

Review: 'The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain: The Blockbuster Impact and the Galaxy of Merchandise 1977-1983'

Star Wars is celebrated and castigated as the movie that totally changed Hollywood. However, aside from its American director, producer, composer, and three young leads, it was largely a British-made production. That fact was not lost in the UK, where the film made its own unique impact.

Craig Stevens’s The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain: The Blockbuster Impact and the Galaxy of Merchandise 1977-1983 takes a very deep look at how the original trilogy rocked British kids. Stevens provides a chronological history of the trilogy’s release in the UK, the reactions of the British press, special appearances by original cast members and the hired hands who made a few quid by dressing up in Vader gear, Palitoy’s spin on the Kenner toys, the UK version of Marvel’s comics, and pretty much anything else you might think of that would fit under his book’s lengthy banner. Fan recollections are generously sprinkled throughout to bring home these details with personal stories you don’t have to be British to grock. In fact, a good deal of this book—particularly the lengthy synopses and assessments of Marvels’ stories that take up a good deal of this book—are not particular to the UK at all.

Yet, the British did have a somewhat different Star Wars experience than we Americans did with the painfully delayed release of the original film, the somewhat different toys they received, and the television specials that only aired across the pond. So there is, indeed, a unique story here, and it is one that will delight fans regardless of what flag they wave because The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain really conveys the nostalgic sensation that Stevens was surely intent on transmitting. This is particularly palpable when fans recall their own Star Wars experiences in theaters, toy stores, and playgrounds. By including such material, which would become tiresome quickly on its own, Stevens achieves a perfect balance between the historical and the personal, which makes The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain both informative and tremendous fun.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: Jimi Hendrix's 'Both Sides of the Sky'

Jimi Hendrix hadn’t been dead for six months before the archive raids began with The Cry of Love. Over the next near-five decades, compilations of unreleased Hendrix tracks would be downright notorious in their abundance. That’s not to say there wasn’t gold worth mining, and the best of this stuff is condensed on 1997’s First Rays of the New Rising Son.

After about a dozen major outtakes comps in total since Hendrix passed, a new one titled Both Sides of the Sky appears this year. As is to be expected at this point, you should not prepare yourself for the discovery of anything on the level of “Ezy Rider”, “Dolly Dagger”, “Freedom”, “Drifting”, or “Stepping Stone”, though there is an urgent version of the latter on this new double-LP. And performance, rather than songwriting, is certainly the focus of Both Sides of the Sky. Band of Gypsys are behind the most impressive ones, with fierce versions of Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” and Hendrix’s own “Lover Man”. “Hear My Train A Comin’” is the sole track with the Experience (though Mitch Mitchell does drum on three others) and it is probably the set’s best showcase for Hendrix’s sci-fi, six-string showmanship.

A few tracks are curious for their lack of that showmanship. A couple with Stephen Stills on vocals—Stills’s own minor-league “$20 Fine” and the future smash “Woodstock”— are historically notable, but Hendrix never asserts himself on the former and only contributes some gnarly bass to the latter. What these are doing on a Jimi Hendrix record is anyone’s guess. He dominates the instrumental blues jam “Jungle”, but only on rhythm guitar.

A few oddities are more than worth hearing, such as the sensual “Power of Soul”, the menacing powerhouse “Send My Love to Linda”, and “Cherokee Mist”, a groovy instrumental that provides the ultra-rare opportunity to hear the master on electric sitar. For the majority who don’t already have it in their collection, the previously issued version of Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do” featuring Johnny Winter is top shelf.

While few will rate Both Sides of the Sky among Hendrix’s most essential releases, the packaging is unquestionably nice. For the most part, the sound is excellent (some tracks, such as “Cherokee Mist”, are more on the noisy side), the 180 gram vinyl is stored in anti-static sleeves (why don’t more contemporary vinyl releases utilize these things?!?), and the gatefold contains an LP-size booklet with extensive track-by-track notes and a slew of terrific photos.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: 'A Trip to the Moon' Blu-ray

What to do with this new medium called cinema? Use it for anatomical studies? To record vaudevillian pratfalls? To document history? “No,” declared Georges Méliès. Cinema would be best used to conjure dreams.

There are few films dreamier than A Trip to the Moon, the culmination of Méliès’s celluloid magic tricks and one of the mere 200 of his 500 works that still survives. A surprise survivor is the original hand-painted color edition of his most famous film, which had to undergo a painstaking restoration process that would have driven even the most driven cinephiles mad. That process and the tangled history leading up to it is the subject of The Extraordinary Voyage, a wonderful documentary by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange that accompanies presentations of both the color and black and white versions of A Trip to the Moon on Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray/DVD combination pack.

Like Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz, A Trip to the Moon remains one of those keystones of cinema history that remains an absolute pleasure to watch. Yes, it is a handy marker for the birth of fantasy film-making, trippy special effects, and space-age imaginings (though it is not the first Méliès film to trade in all those things), but it holds up perfectly as a perfect film. The blatant artificiality of its sets and effects are key to its imagination-unlocking spell.

Both the color and B&W versions display a considerable amount of wear and tear, but considering everything this film has been through, its images of a moon-blinding rocket, bizarre creations frolicking among the craters, and undersea wonderlands still looks crisp and powerful. You should look so good when you’re 116-years old.

In addition to the color options, each version of A Trip to the Moon can also be enjoyed with an assortment of audio options. Both the color and B&W versions feature their own unique music choices in the form of full scores and solo piano pieces, as well as narration composed by Georges Méliès. Additionally, the B&W one offers contemporary actors providing character voices.

The two synthesizer scores that accompany the color version feel too modern for the material and too dated for the 21st century, leaving the more suitably whimsical piano accompaniment the preferable option. Méliès’s narration sounds suspiciously like a shooting script though. The orchestral score on the black and white version is by far the best music on the disc. The actors’ voice track is amusing, but might be a touch too Mystery Science Theater 3000 for some viewers.

Two lunar-centric shorts, “The Eclipse” (9 minutes) and “The Astronomer’s Dream” (3 minutes), complete the package with additional examples of Méliès’s camera-pausing magic tricks and utterly delightful two-dimensional props. The monstrous moon in “The Astronomer’s Dream” is easily as unforgettable as the iconic one in the main feature.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: Procol Harum's 'Still There'll Be More: An Anthology 1967-2017'

When it was released in 1992, the Jefferson Airplane Loves You box set included a little card with the write-in question to the effect of “What other band deserves a box set?” I wrote in “Procol Harum” and mailed it off to RCA/BMG Records even though Procol Harum was on A&M. But that’s just how hungry I was for a box set of Britain’s greatest soul/goth/prog combo. A few years later, A&M did, indeed, deliver a Procol Harum set, but it was essentially a repackaging of their first four albums with an extra disc of singles, a couple of outtakes and a few alternate takes. That ultimate Procol Harum-box set itch wasn’t quite scratched yet.

In recent years, the popularity of deluxe editions of individual albums has largely displaced the career-spanning box set, and Procol Harum has certainly gotten its due in that realm with Esoteric Recording’s expanded versions of the group’s first four albums, which seemingly have swept up every unreleased track and alternate mix from the group’s most fruitful years. So I’m not sure if I believe an old-fashioned career-spanning box set is as necessary as I did in 1992, but it’s still nice that one is finally arriving.

Even nicer is that it is probably very different from the kind of set that would have been released 26 years ago when they tended to consist of three or four audio discs. Still There'll Be More: An Anthology 1967-2017 is much more massive than that, and it sets its sites beyond mere audio. The first three discs are fairly typical, picking a few singles and a few songs from each of the band’s thirteen albums right up to last year’s Novum. I’m sure that diehards who’d buy an eight-disc box will likely already have these thirteen albums, so Discs One through Three are mostly valuable for sparking the kind of debate that compilations spark, so prepare to exclaim things like, “Where’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence’? Is ‘Barnyard Story’ really one of the four best cuts on Home? Why only three tracks from Shine on Brightly but four from the inferior Procol’s Ninth? Are all those bland post-Procol’s Ninth tracks really necessary (though the two cuts from Novum are pretty good)?” Etcetera, etcetera.
 More important are the superb live sets on Discs Four and Five, which capture the band’s two sides beautifully. Disc Four portrays Procol at their grandest. It is essentially an expansion of their great 1972 live album, once again capturing the band with an orchestra, though this time it’s the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Roger Wagner Chorale instead of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. It’s a great recording with such recent songs such as “Grand Hotel” and “Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)” as well as older numbers like “A Christmas Camel” and “Simple Sister” that weren’t part of the Edmonton set. The band’s more stripped down, soulful side is caught on a set at Bournemouth’s Winter Gardens in 1976.

Discs Five through Seven provide the coolest segment of Still There'll Be More as they collect television performances ranging from a BBC TV lip sync of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in late 1967 (starring a shockingly youthful, pre-mustache Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher resplendent in Goth monk cloak) to a Sight & Sound in Concert appearance from 1977. In between is a wealth of other performances mostly recorded for German TV. Though eleven tracks from Germany’s Beat Club Workshop were already released on DVD as Procol Harum Live in 2005, the footage did not look as clear as it does here, perhaps because this new version eliminates the distracting and ugly chroma key nonsense, leaving a neutral blue backdrop. The performance also starts earlier than the 2005 DVD, allowing a glimpse of the bands warm up on The Beatles Something, and ends later with half of In Held Twas in I”. 

The old DVD also included two bonus cuts (Drunk Again” and Grand Hotel”) from Procol’s 1973 appearance on Musikladen, and Disc Seven of the new box set builds on them with seven additional choice performances of songs mostly culled from  Grand Hotel, as well as the box’s only video performances of the essential epic Whaling Stories”, the stormy Kaleidoscope, and the underrated Too Much Between Us(though the decision to add lumbering drums to this most ethereal song was a rare lapse in taste from the usually irreproachable B.J. Wilson).  Considering that Procol Harum was a group that let their highly visual music take center stage while they basically stood stock still to play their instruments, all of this footage is surprisingly great fun and very valuable indeed. An interlude in the Musikladen performance in which Gary Brooker accuses one of his band mates of farting is unquestionably worth the cost of the entire box set.  

Disc Eight’s Sight & Sound in Concert spotlight on the dodgy Something Magic is less valuable. This disc does provide the box’s only completely live video performances of Nothing but the Truth and A Whiter Shade of Pale”, though we sadly get less than two minutes of the latter as it plays out over the closing credits. It’s also too bad there wasn’t any available live footage from the classic Fisher/Robin Trower era, but only the saltiest dog would waste an excess of time complaining about the footage that is included on this long, long awaited box set...after all, DVDs didn’t even exist back in 1992!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Specs on the Upcoming 'Wild at Heart' Blu-ray

Back in January, Psychobabble announced Shout Factory's plans to reissue David Lynch's nutso 1990 road comedy Wild at Heart on Blu-ray. Now we have specs on the features. Those who drool for the original uncut version that was a bit too much for audiences will be disappointed even though it is highly unlikely that the excised footage still exists, but there's good news in the form of the deleted and extended scenes previously only available on the David Lynch Lime Green Box Set currently going for $250 on Amazon.

Here are the complete specs courtesy of Shout (and if you order from that site, you also get an 18" x 24" poster):

Bonus Features

  • NEW Interview With Novelist Barry Gifford
  • Extended And Deleted Scenes (76 Minutes)
  • Love, Death, Elvis And Oz: The Making Of Wild At Heart
  • Dell's Lunch Counter: Extended Interviews
  • Specific Spontaneity: Focus On David Lynch
  • Lynch On The DVD Process
  • Original 1990 Making Of EPK
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • TV Spots
  • Image Gallery

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

'The Curse of the Cat People' Coming to Blu-Ray

When the Criterion Collection brought Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton's ambiguous horror classic Cat People to Blu-ray, I expressed some concern that its very different but equally splendid sequel The Curse of the Cat People would not receive similar treatment on its own. Stupid me! Because on June 12, Scream Factory will be releasing Robert Wise's touching fantasy about a little girl and her Cat Person ghost buddy on Blu-ray. Extras are still in the planning stage and have yet to be announced,but even if this disc included nothing but the contents of a litter box, it would still be worth a gander for a high-definition presentation of a wonderful and underrated film.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Review: 'Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics Volume 2'

Russ Manning had been illustrating the Star Wars comic strip since it started running in newspapers in 1979, but terminal health issues forced him out of the job in mid-1980. After a seven-month period in which Alfredo Alcala took over, the project officially fell onto Al Williamson’s drafting table. With all due respect to Manning, who’d done a more than capable job, Williamson was the best person for the job. While Manning’s artwork was less cartoony than the work illustrators such as Howard Chaykin and Carmine Infantino had been doing in Marvel’s comic books, Manning didn’t make much effort to really capture the likenesses of the likes of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford or the costumes of Darth Vader and Chewbacca. When Williamson delivered an adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back for Marvel, comic book readers received the closest experience to watching the movie at home in the days before its VHS release. With an illustrious background that included work on E.C.’s sci-fi titles and Flash Gordon, Williamson was not surprisingly George Lucas’s first choice for the job even before Manning got it.

The first half of the Al Williamson era is collected in IDW’s new deluxe hardcover collection Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics Volume 2. This is where things really get good as Archie Goodwin also steps in as full-time writer starting with an adaptation of Brian Daley’s novel Han Solo at Star’s End. After that somewhat dry start, Goodwin was no longer fettered by inferior source material and could let his imagination go a little wilder. Most fans will be happy he did not go as wild as the writers of the Marvel comics, who often had a tendency toward camp. Goodwin did as fab a job of recreating the characters’ voices as Williamson did with recreating their mugs, and in keeping with the deepening of the story that began with The Empire Strikes Back, Goodwin also composed much more engaging ongoing plots than Manning and the other preceding writers had.

The key is that Goodwin tended to tie his tales directly to the cinematic source material, and though he wrote his stories in the space between Han Solo’s freezing in The Empire Strikes Back and his thawing in Return of the Jedi, they are set between the first two films so we’re never deprived of time with the series’ most charming scoundrel. Goodwin’s first original story depicts that run in with a bounty hunter on Ord Mantell Solo mentions in Empire. In the next one, Darth Vader’s obsession with finding Luke Skywalker begins when Luke stumbles into a trap while trying to interfere with the construction of Vader’s Super Star Destroyer. Another shows the Rebels dealing with the aftermath of the Death Star battle at their base on Yavin. Even when Goodwin strays further from the films, he figures out ways to evoke the specifics of Lucas’s world, as when Luke encounters a planet of dragon-riding slavers who also happen to wear recycled stormtrooper armor.

As a bonus, there are eight pages from Williamson’s proposal for an adaptation of Star Wars. His incredible verisimilitude and fine details make me wish he’d gotten the job to illustrate Marvel’s adaptation of the film instead of the vastly inferior Chaykin. Oh well, at least we have a whole volume of Williamson’s newspaper strips, which are likely the best illustrated of all Star Wars comics... and the fact that there’s still another volume on the way is another reason to rejoice.
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