Friday, July 31, 2015

Review: 'Psycho Beach Party' Blu-ray

In the seventies, movies like Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show revolutionized cult comedy by scandalizing Z-grade genre pictures. In essence, they were parodies of parodies, but they felt fresh because they piled up offenses that the movies they lampooned never dreamed of committing. A decade later, writer/actor/drag queen Charles Busch staged a play called Psycho Beach Party that he and director Robert Lee King adapted into a movie in 2000. Coming some twenty-five years after Pink Flamingos and Rocky Horror, the movies that established its brand of self-conscious camp, Psycho Beach Party ends up feeling like a parody of a parody of a parody. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though this slasher/surfer movie take-off about a schizophrenic surfer girl is a definite mixed bag of stuff. Interior scenes are nicely stylized with comic-book color and lighting, while exterior scenes rely way too much on natural light, the actors’ faces often slashed up with shadows. Since the script isn’t really that funny—at least for the first hour of the picture—a lot depends on the cast. The ability to rise to high camp isn’t in every actor’s bag-of-tricks. Some of the cast, such as Nicholas Brendon as the beach hunk and Thomas Gibson as the surfer king, don’t quite sell it. Others nail it: Lauren Ambrose as the personality-shifting surfer, Beth Broderick as her prim mom (who ends up really heisting the show), Amy Adams as the sex kitten, Kimberly Barnes as a sci-fi movie star, and Busch as the cop captain investigating the murders of people with disabilities.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: 'Small Faces' and 'From the Beginning' Reissues

Universal Music last remastered and reissued Small Faces’ first two albums in 2012 as double-disc deluxe editions in conjunction with Sanctuary Records. Remastered from second-generation tapes, the discs sounded really good and you can read my original review here to also get my assessment of the music (spoiler alert: it’s great). Shortly after the release of these discs, UMe and Sanctuary parted ways, which may account for why UMe is currently mounting a whole new SF reissue campaign, although those old deluxe editions are still in print. The gem of this latest campaign will apparently be The Decca Years, a five-disc CD box coming next month that was “remastered from the original analogue sources,” according to the official copy. However, the campaign began late last month with 180 gram vinyl reissues of Small Faces and From the Beginning. I received CD review copies to examine, and after A/B-ing them against the 2012 deluxe editions, I can’t really discern any significant mastering differences. So I guess the big draw of these initial reissues is that they’re on vinyl. As I said, the mastering sounds really good, but I’d hesitate to purchase these new discs if you already own the bonus track-laden 2012 deluxes and youre primarily looking for a significant mastering upgrade. Presumably, these review discs contain the same masters that will be included on The Decca Years. I’m going to try to get my hands on a review copy of that box set to confirm whether or not it features any significant sound upgrade from the 2012 editions. Stay tuned…

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review: Reissues of Procol Harum's 'A Salty Dog' and 'Home'

After their debut black mass and the more colorfully proggy Shine on Brightly, Procol Harum once again shifted sails for an album that was both more stripped down and more elaborately adorned than their first two. With its simple folk and blues songs and more ambitious orchestral mini-epics, A Salty Dog was Procol operating at full maturity. The democratization of vocal duties further set it apart from the two records before it.  Needless to say, Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower couldn’t beat Gary Brooker’s magnificent voice, but they both add variety to the proceedings (Fisher’s reedy though earnest voice is particularly pleasing), and Brooker gets what may be his most stunning vocal spotlights with the title track and “All This and More”. A Salty Dog is a masterful album, both Procol’s finest, and as far as I’m concerned, the finest by any artist in a year that included Led Zeppelin, Let It Bleed, Abbey Road, Tommy, and The Band.

Then Fisher departed and the band changed more significantly than ever. Without Fisher’s signature organ parts, Trower stepped in to fill the gap, and the band made its most guitar-heavy record with Home. Keith Reid’s death-obsessed lyrics are pretty heavy too, often crossing into outright horror. Brooker didn’t allow the lyrics’ thematic consistency to beat his music into a sort of Gothic monotony. He danced all over the place with Hammer horror doom and gloom (“The Dead Man’s Dream”), rollicking pop (making the ridiculously violent “Still There’ll Be More” all the more ridiculous), folk balladry (“Nothing That I Didn’t Know”), pub sing-along (“Your Own Choice”), and outright prog (“Whaling Stories”). With Trower, he co-wrote “Whiskey Train”, the hardest rocking thing in Procol’s valise. Without Fisher’s voice and organ flourishes to add extra color, or the sweeping orchestrations of A Salty Dog, Home isn’t as grand as the previous record, but it is another excellent record and the capper for the band’s most satisfying period.

Since Esoteric Records has not announced remasters of Broken Barricades or Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra as of this writing, A Salty Dog and Home may also be the cappers of the label’s current remaster series. That would be a shame, since all of these discs re-mastered from the original tapes sound fabulous. As I wrote in my review of the first two remasters, Salvo was the last label to reissue Procol’s catalogue, and its versions of the first two albums both contained tracks running at the wrong speeds. That label’s issues of Salty Dog and Home suffered no such issues, but Esoteric’s still sound markedly superior to Salvo’s relatively thin and bright masters. This is never clearer than on Esoteric’s remaster of A Salty Dog, which really allows its roomy acoustics and eclectic instrumentation to live and breathe. The improvement in the resonance and depth of B.J. Wilson’s drums is striking on both discs.

Once again, I received single-disc versions of Esoteric’s reissues to review, each containing just one bonus track. There’s the mighty B-side “Long Gone Geek” on A Salty Dog and the radio edit of “Whiskey Train” on Home. Both CDs are available in two-disc editions with about a dozen bonus tracks each: mostly BBC sessions and live cuts on Salty Dog and backing tracks and alternate takes on Home. Obviously, I can’t comment on those, but I’m still confident that Esoteric’s Procol Harum reissues will rank among this year’s best reissues for sound alone.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: 'Under the Ivy: The Life & Music of Kate Bush [New Edition]'

Kate Bush seems to reveal so much of herself in her songs despite being more of a storyteller than a self-dissecting singer-songwriter. So much of her own intense connections to family, sex, love, and nature bleed through her tales of soldiers, ship-wreck survivors, ghosts, monsters, talking houses, and amorous computers. In reality, Kate Bush is an extremely private person, but the personal air of her music breeds a great deal of curiosity, empathy, and speculation in critics and fans alike.

Biographer Graeme Thomson is clearly a fan, though his work also requires him to be a critic. That work puts him in the tricky position of balancing his gasping admiration with professional distance, to respect the artist for whom he has so much respect while also telling her story with honesty and thoroughness. He did an exceptional job of traversing that tightrope with Under the Ivy: The Life & Music of Kate Bush, which examines her life, music, work methods, and frustrating relationship with the media. Thomson waves away the rumors incessantly fluttering about her like moths. Ill-informed and disgruntled journos love to paint Bush as a pretentious thrush, a pampered rich girl, an airhead speaking in constant “Wows” and “Amazings!”, a recluse, or all false impressions bundled together. The author calls out the less spectacular moments of her career (such as The Red Shoes) with all due frankness and as much tact as he can muster. He also gets deep into fascinating little side roads of Bush’s career, such as her collaboration with Donald Sutherland on the “Cloudbusting” video.

Thomson originally published Under the Ivy in 2010 when Kate Bush’s career may have seemed like it had wound down. She hadn’t released an album in five years at that point. A year after the book’s publication, Bush revisited some old material on Director’s Cut and released an album of new material, 50 Words for Snow. Since then she has done the unimaginable by staging concerts for the first time in 35 years with her triumphant “Before the Dawn” series at the Hammersmith Apollo. Thomson rightfully sensed this would be a good time to revisit and revise his landmark biography, and the updated edition subjects Bush’s post-2010 work to the same scrutiny, praise, and criticism that her first four decades received in the first edition—his intense look at “Before the Dawn” gave me a serious yen for a DVD release of the show.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Criterion's 'Mulholland Dr.' Blu-ray Has Finally Been Announced for October!

Fans of the Criterion Collection tend to look forward to the company's mid-month new-release announcements with crazed anticipation, and perhaps no long-rumored Criterion release has been more crazily anticipated than David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. Well, today Criterion announced its October 2015 roster, and I'm thrilled to announce that the release of Lynch's magnificent mind-bender is finally official. On October 27, we'll get a 4K digital transfer of Mulholland Dr. with vintage and brand new bonus interviews with David Lynch, stars Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, soundtrack composer Angelo Badalamenti, and casting director Johanna Ray. Some of the bonus features details are a tad sketchy at this moment (Criterion's site simply says "More!"), but I'm sure many fans are hoping that the unaired "Mulholland Dr." TV pilot might be included. In any event, this is one of the most important Blu-ray releases of 2015. It will be a tough one to top, though Criterion also has some other great titles--including Japanese horror portmanteau Kwaidan and David Cronenberg's The Brood--in store for October.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Johnny Marr Loves The Who

Mojo Magazine recently posted its Top 50 Who songs--a jumble of choices daring ("Dogs" is on there), dopey (so is their cover of "Heat Wave, which at #30, ranks above such masterpieces as "Amazing Journey","Rael", "Naked Eye", "Happy Jack", and "A Quick One While He's Away"!), and dull (the top ten reads like the track listing of a budget Greatest Hits compilation). However, one really worthwhile thing came of this feature: Johnny Marr wrote the introduction to the print article and Mojo's online site features an interview with the former Smith in which the greatest guitarist to debut in the eighties totally swoons over the greatest guitarist to debut in the sixties. It's quite charming and you can read it here.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: 'Black Sunday (Devil’s Advocates)'

There may not be a ton of revelations in the Black Sunday installment of the Devil’s Advocates series, but author Martyn Conterio gets it right by making the most of the horror cinema study series’ limited page count and by not taking it all too seriously. He understands that Mario Bava’s gruesome Gothic horror is a bit of stylish, semi-incomprehensible fun above all else. Conterio handles Bava’s dark materials with a light touch, so his study never flops into turgid academia.

Conterio covers a lot of graveyard ground in 89 pages, digging into a bit of creation story, a bit of analysis, a bit of legacy, and a bit of biography—Bava and iconic star Barbara Steele rightfully receiving most of this attention. He theorizes about the design of the mask nailed to her face in the ghastly opening sequence and the misogynistic implications of this scene as viewers are invited to revel in Steele’s beauty and the eradication of that beauty. He discusses the plot’s nominal origins in Nikolai Gogol’s story “Viy”, and other possible inspirations, such as Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” and Tolstoy’s “The Family of the Vourdalak”. He pores over the BBFC’s efforts to censor the film, and most important of all, tackles the most obvious question Black Sunday poses: what the hell is Princess Asa Vajda—a vampire or a witch? Most radically, Conterio suggests a preference for the Americanized AIP cut of an Italian film originally released as La maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan)…well, at least he prefers the title.

The only glaring issue is Conterio’s failure to draw Ershov and Kropachyov’s more faithful adaptation of “Viy” into the discussion in any significant way (their excellent 1967 film Viy barely gets a passing mention toward the end of the book). Some may also believe that Conterio’s explanation of the film’s “massive” legacy overreaches a bit, particularly when the writer implies a scene in the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series intends to pay homage to the film, and more absurdly, when he suggests that some of the most awful aspects of Francis Ford Coppola’s awful Dracula are intentionally awful attempts to pay homage to Black Sunday. Yeah, right. But we can allow the writer his smattering of indulgences since he has otherwise written such an enjoyable study of such an enjoyable flick. Thanks, Martyn!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: 'Heaven Adores You: A Documentary About the Life & Music of Elliott Smith'

Heaven Adores You is the title of Nickolas Rossi’s recent documentary about the late singer Elliott Smith, but a more appropriate title might have been pulled from the refrain of Smith’s finest song: “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” Smith was an enigmatic figure who weaved themes of despair and abuse into golden tapestries of dusky acoustic ballads and sumptuous Beatle-esque pop. The horrific way he exited this world—he was twice stabbed in the chest either by himself or an unidentified murderer—slapped a genuine mystery across his innate mysteriousness.

There is a fascinating story to be told here, but Elliott Smith was a private person who didn’t particularly want anyone to know his story. This is clear from the interview snatches Rossi includes in his film. Smith backed away from personal questions. That was certainly his right to do. The problem is that Heaven Adores You backs away from them too. An early significant moment in his life was his move from Texas to Portland. His half sister, Ashley, says he left home because he didn’t get along with her dad. I was expecting this to lead into the first peel of the onion. Instead, the film is content to let that vague comment stand. We basically hear nothing else about that stepfather—a topic in songs such as “Waltz 2 (XO)”  (“I’m never gonna know you now…) and “Southern Belle”—until late in the film when Ashley says her dad sent Elliott a letter of apology late in life (according to Wikipedia, the stepfather had a variety of physical abuses to apologize for). A similar tease about the girlfriend who inspired some of his defining songs, including the pulse-stopping “Say Yes”, is also left dangling.

An hour into the film, interviewees begin discussing Smith’s drug problems. A minute of screen time later, they’ve already had an intervention. Then they’re back to discussing the basic details of Smith’s career, which is what they spend the majority of Heaven Adores You doing. We get the major beats of his projects, his geographical moves, and his Oscar nomination (even this kind of gets glossed over—no one even mentions that he didn’t win). We do learn that he neither expected nor wanted rock stardom. That’s no shocker. For me, the biggest revelation was that he was the kind of guy who thought nothing of dropping $40 into a bar jukebox. That’s pretty cool.

Elliott Smith’s death receives no more screen time than a few friends reactions at the start of the film and a couple title cards explaining the circumstances toward the end. Those cards don’t go any deeper into the details than I did in the beginning of this review. Then we’re back to talking heads discussing his legacy and how he was actually a much happier person than most fans believe. I hope that’s true, but it just doesn’t feel like the right thing to suggest immediately after revealing his awful final circumstances. 

I’m not saying that Nickolas Rossi should have gotten his hands dirty, that any of us fans deserve to know all the darkest parts of Elliott’s Smith’s life and death. I am all for respecting his desire for privacy. Heaven Adores You has a lot of really terrific rare footage, such as him performing the haunting “Everything Means Nothing to Me” with Jon Brion for Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera and a raw rock trio performance of “Waltz #2”. Had it just been two hours of that kind of footage, the film would have been really worthwhile. However, by attempting to paint a clearly troubled life as not so bad, by turning such an unconventional career into a series of fairly conventional rock doc beats, Heaven Adores You ends up being kind of disrespectful.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review: 'The Blair Witch Project (Devil’s Advocates)'

As much as I love film, I often don’t care very much about how films are made. In certain cases, I actively don’t want to know for fear their illusions will crumble (there are things I’ve learned about 2001: A Space Odyssey I wished I hadn’t). As it is in so many circumstances, The Blair Witch Project is an exception. It casts a spell of realism no making-of account can break, and there is nearly as much creepy atmosphere in the behind-the-scenes machinations as there is on the screen. Heather, Mike, and Josh weren’t just playing the roles of scared, hungry, weary, irritable souls adrift in the woods; they really lived those roles over the course of the film’s seven-day shoot. I also believe that analysis is particularly necessary when dealing with Blair Witch because so many viewers don’t get why it wields such power over other viewers. Such analysis is pretty unnecessary when it comes to a film like The Exorcist. There’s a terrifying-looking little girl doing terrifying and unspeakable things under the sway of Satan. There is nothing remotely so explicit in Blair Witch. For the film’s numerous detractors, there’s nothing in it at all. We never see a witch. We never see anyone do anything more horrible than bickering or confessing to kicking a map into a creek. A film of such ambiguity is destined to leave a lot of people cold, and even though they probably won’t do a turnaround after reading an explanation of why other people think it’s scary, they might still want to understand why.

This is all to explain why The Blair Witch Project is such a necessary installment of the Devil’s Advocates horror film studies series. Author Peter Turner does justice to the film by covering as many of the necessary points as he can in the slim page count the strictures of this mini-book series allowed him. He traces the origins of its unique storytelling device further back than the usual Cannibal Holocaust starting point, going back to epistolary Gothic novels, Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, and the first-person pov noir Lady in the Lake. Then he spends the majority of his pages on the making of and analysis. For fans of the film, the latter will be fairly self-evident: Blair Witch draws its powers from the fear of the unknown and the empathy its first-person camera perspectives create. More intriguingly, Turner also gets into how the film contrasts the more typical misogyny of slasher films yet is still guilty of that crime in other ways and how the cameras’ constant presence both increases and decreases the illusion of reality.

The most common problem with mini-books like this is the author either has trouble filling the pages discussing such a limited topic or fails to cover that topic when so few pages are at his/her disposal. I could have read another 200 pages on how The Blair Witch Project was made, and I think there is a great book on that subject still waiting to be written, but Turner still manages to make excellent use of his 83, allotting enough space for the film’s unique origins, creation, meaning, marketing, and legacy to satisfy.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Review: 'The Curse of Frankenstein (Devil’s Advocates)'

Marcus K. Harmes lodges a fair complaint early in his book on The Curse of Frankenstein for the Devil’s Advocates horror cinema studies series: Terence Fisher’s film is usually discussed in terms of being a first—first Gothic Hammer horror, first pairing of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee—rather than being “a creative output in its own right.” From there Harmes attempts to prove that valid point by putting the film into context as an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, finding its place in the tradition of British horror films, exploring its roots as a horror comedy, and comparing it to Gainsborough Pictures’ costume dramas.

The problem is that Harmes fails to connect his dots in a way that warrants all the discussion. While constantly referring to The Curse of Frankenstein as an adaptation of Shelley’s Frankenstein, Harmes spends 15 pages of his 88-page book explaining how it really isn’t a true adaptation at all. Has anyone ever suggested it was? Personally, I’ve always viewed Fisher’s film as an installment in a long line of works that merely use the novel as a nugget of inspiration, like Peggy Webling’s similarly unfaithful stage play or J. Searle Dawley and James Whale’s movies.

Instead of finding Curse of Frankenstein’s place in the line of British horror films, Harmes concludes that there really wasn’t one prior to Curse’s 1957 release. Here, the writer fails to connect a saucer-sized dot when he concludes that Hammer’s own Quatermass Xperiment is hardly the precedent many critics suggest it is because it isn’t Gothic and differs in “tone, style, [and] sources.” Harmes doesn’t even mention the fact that Quatermass features Richard Wordworth as a creature seemingly directly inspired by Karloff’s portrayal of the Frankenstein monster, or that Wordworth’s encounter with a young Jane Asher in Quatermass is a direct reference to one of the most famous scenes in Whale’s Frankenstein. I’d call that precedent.

The book’s biggest surprise for me is the revelation that Curse of Frankenstein was originally intended to be a horror-comedy along the lines of Abbott & Costello’s monster meetings, but once again, this leads nowhere since Fisher’s film most certainly is not a comedy. Harmes never reveals anything about what the Hammer execs had in mind for their funny Frankenstein flick. Another dead end.

Harmes’s only avenue of inquiry that leads somewhere is his comparison between Fisher’s film and the Gothic bodice rippers of Gainsborough Pictures, which employed Fisher before he found work with Hammer. But this only constitutes nine pages of the book.

I suppose Harmes’s point is that Curse of Frankenstein was an original work without much literary or cinematic precedence. My questions are: has anyone ever suggested otherwise and does an 88-page explanation of what a film isn’t adequately convey why it’s special?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Review: 'Monster Mash: The Creepy Kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972'

Writers such as David Skal have dealt with the zany monster revival of the fifties and sixties before, but as far as I know, Monster Mash: The Creepy Kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972 is the first book devoted to that topic alone. Mark Voger makes up for lost time by cramming as many monsters, Munsters, Addamses, Dark Shadows, issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and Creepy, Borises Karloff and Pickett, horrific toys, models, and hot rods into a slim 190 pages as he can stuff. Unlike scholarly Skal, Voger captures the gee-whiz enthusiasm of a true Monster Kid with goofy prose and a scattered structure that screams, “Oh wait…here’s another boss thing that happened during the monster craze!”

The focus of Monster Mash is its copious interviews and photos. During his career as a journalist and pro-horror geek, Voger has interviewed such genre major players as writer/editor Forrest J. Ackerman, publisher James Warren, singer Bobby “Boris” Pickett, artists Basil Gogos and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and actors John Astin, Lisa Loring, Al Lewis, Butch Patrick, Pat Priest, and Kathryn Leigh Scott. Those fun (it’s heartwarming to discover how much the “Addams Family” cast adored each other), sometimes frothy interviews constitute a good portion of this book’s text. However, they cannot compete with all the ghoulishly, gleefully, garish full-color photos of monster memorabilia. Don Post masks and Famous Monsters covers and comics panels and Aurora models and “Munsters” lunchboxes and Wolf Man dolls and Gill Man Soakies. Looking at Monster Mash is like having a giant nostalgia bug lay lovely eggs in your eye sockets. 
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