Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Psychobabble Presents...366 Days at the Drive-In!

October 1 is always a big day here on Psychobabble. It commemorates the beginning of the month-long Halloween Season celebration and this site’s anniversary. Tomorrow kicks off my eighth year of Psychobabbling. It will also mark the start of an all-new feature called 366 Days at the Drive-In. This will be Psychobabble’s very first daily feature: from October 1, 2015, through September 30, 2016, I’ll post a new movie recommendation every day (it’s 366 days since 2016 is a leap year).

I’ll be tailoring each film to the particular date I recommend it, and each movie is 100% Psychobabble approved. That means the very best in cult, sci-fi, fantasy, goofy comedy, animation, Rock & Roll, and horror. Since October is Halloween season, we’ll commence with 31 straight days of horror! Check in tomorrow for Day 1.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Farewell, Catherine Coulson

Coulson and Lynch on 
the set of Eraserhead.
Very sad news today: Catherine Coulson, the actress and camera person who became an icon for imparting enigmatic warnings while holding a baby-sized log on "Twin Peaks", has died of cancer at the age of 71. Coulson was one of the eaerliest denizens in Lynchland, helping filmmaker David Lynch make his brilliant debut Eraserhead (her official credit is "assistant camera," though she did a lot more than that, including taking part in some S&M shenanigans in a lost deleted scene). She then appeared in Lynch's short film "The Amputee", an absurdly comedic experiment with film stocks that found her writing a mundane letter while Nurse Lynch cleans her oozing leg stumps. 

However, Coulson would make her biggest impression on screen as Margaret Lanterman, better known as The Log Lady, on Lynch and Mark Frost's series "Twin Peaks". When the show became a phenomenon in 1990, the image of Coulson in her wool sweater holding her log of wisdom was nearly as pervasive in pop culture as that of Sheryl Lee's blue, plastic-wrapped face as Laura Palmer. When Lynch and Frost announced that they would be returning to "Twin Peaks" with a long-awaited third season this year, most fans probably assumed that Catherine Coulson would be lifting the log again. Sadly, that won't be the case. Today I'm sure her friends in the cast and crew have other things on their mind than the future of "Twin Peaks" anyway.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review: Remastered Edition of First Three Incredible String Band Albums

The Incredible String Band went through a very definite evolution over the course of their first three albums. Their eponymous debut (1966) finds a stripped down traditional folk combo occasionally embellished with such accoutrements as violin, mandolin, banjo, or whistle, but mostly staying happy with Mike Heron and Robin Williamson’s acoustic guitars and elfin voices. The droning opener “Maybe Someday” is the only hint of the more international direction the Scots would take on their second album. On The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967), ISB employed sitar, finger cymbals, tamboura, gimbri—as well as drums and bass—to enliven another set of concise and tuneful tunes, and the album stands as the most accessible balance of Heron and Williamson’s songwriting and zeal for non-Western instrumentation—the perfect portal into the ISB’s enchanted world. However, it is their third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968), that is most often championed as the group’s masterpiece because of its ambition and originality. Epics such as the multi-sectioned “A Very Cellular Song” and the raga “Three Is a Green Crown” now play amongst the compact pieces, yet all follow a mercurial path that may alienate those hoping for more of the good-old knee stompers of ISB LPs past. Hangman’s is a grower that may never actually grow on you, though it certainly isn’t as much of an alienating “masterpiece” as, say, Trout Mask Replica, and songs such as “Koeeaddi There” and “Witch’s Hat” are as magical as ever. “The Minotaur’s Song” really mixes things up with its community light opera company feel. More importantly, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter really opened up the ISB format, allowing the guys to make the ultimate use of their ambitions on the double LP Wee Tam/Big Huge released later in the year.

But let’s not get ahead of Heron and Williamson, because only the first three albums are collected in a newly remastered double-disc set on BGO Records (which actually gave the same treatment to Wee Tam/Big Huge last month). The remastering is fine, natural, and not too loud, as some older BGO remasterings were. Cramming three albums onto two CDs means that one has to get split, but The 5000 Spirits is conscientiously divided between its original Side A and Side B, so it’s not too jarring. There is also a fat booklet with all of the original liner notes (including Heron’s track-by-track notes for the first album) and a new essay by John O’Regan. A nice package could only have been improved with full-color, full-size (well, CD booklet-size) reproductions of the three album’s original artwork… you’ll have to break out your magnifying glass to take in The Fool’s marvelously dated art on the cover of The 5000 Spirits!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: 'The Honeymoon Killers' Blu-ray

In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde changed the face of American cinema by presenting a pair of criminals as sympathetic heroes and not sparing the graphic bloodshed in the romantic antiheroes’ lurid death scene. Two years later, writer Leonard Kastle visited similar themes in his also based-on-a-true-story Honeymoon Killers, but something was drastically different at work here. Instead of a pair of cute law-breakers who remain lovable even after they start killing people during their heists, Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) and Martha (Shirley Stoler) are pretty despicable from the start. He’s a sloppy con man who marries women to bilk them. She’s a lonely heart he attempts to take for a ride but ends up partnering with when he realizes she’s just as much of a sociopath as he is. Ray’s dishonesty and Martha’s jealousy is a volatile combo, and their cons turn violent. However, the big question—and one that never needs to be asked about Bonnie and Clyde—is: do they really love each other? Well, Martha is clearly smitten with smarmy yet sexy Ray, but what is he getting from her? She tends to botch his cons. He does not respect her enough to honor his promise not to have sex with his marks. Their relationship remains ambiguous until the end when Martha makes good on a self-spiting promise she makes earlier in the picture.

As loathsome as the couple is (before she has committed a single crime, Martha makes a hideous anti-Semitic slur to let the audience know exactly where she stands as a human), they are still sympathetic. This is key, since the film would be unwatchable if this were not the case. Ray and Martha are terrible for each other, but we do want them to find happiness in their suburban home (they don’t) and we want Ray to quit messing around (he doesn’t). The women the couple target elicit similarly ambiguous feelings. They are played as fools for their religiousness or patriotism, yet their fates are unfailingly sad. In this way, The Honeymoon Killers pulls off a much greater feat than Bonnie and Clyde: instead of making us sympathize with a couple of charming pretty faces, it makes us care about a cast of people who do not have any admirable qualities simply because they’re people. In its warped way, The Honeymoon Killers is a deeply humanistic film.

It’s also a lot of fun (again in its own warped way). Even as each caper turns grim and tragic—increasingly so as the film progresses—almost every character enters the frame as a high-camp archetype that could have stepped out of a John Waters movie. There’s a lot of humor in The Honeymoon Killers, particularly in Marilyn Chris’s portrayal of a Southern belle who meets an ugly fate. The riveting performances from Lo Bianco and Stoler elevate the film way above its lowly budget, as does Oliver Wood’s cinematography.

Criterion’s new blu-ray of The Honeymoon Killers showcases that cinematography beautifully, though inconsistencies in the original film are still apparent. At their best, the elements are either strikingly high-contrast, deep-focus examples of B&W photography or dreamily over-lit and soft. Some elements are rougher, overly grainy, a bit blurry, and Criterion’s restoration does not erase those issues or deepen a soundtrack that was always kind of lo-fi and tinny (especially when Mahler’s music plays, though the fact that these dramatic pieces sound as though they’re crackling from a cheap phonograph actually compliments the camp atmosphere nicely). However, these issues are minor and the film looks fabulous overall.

Most of the extras have been ported over from Criterion’s 2003 DVD—an interview with late director Leonard Kastle, who suggests that he intended to make the anti-Bonnie & Clyde; Scott Christianson fascinating illustrated essay on the real Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck that fills in their disturbing back stories absent from the feature film—but there’s also a new half-hour featurette featuring interviews with Lo Bianco, Chris, and editor Stanley Warnow. It’s a fascinating piece in which Chris discusses how she lost the role of Martha and helped Lo Bianco and Stoler get involved in the project. Lo Bianco and Warnow explain how Martine Scorsese began directing the film only to get fired for using too much film on such a low-budget project and was ultimately replaced by writer Kastle who’d never made a film before and never made another one again. As such, The Honeymoon Killers stands as one of the great one-offs in the tradition of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: Elvis Costello's 'Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album'

Creating a soundtrack for a book is a pretty new concept, but its level of interactivity is downright old-fashioned, reminiscent of the days when you had to get off your ass to flip a record (I know, I know, those days are making a comeback of sorts) instead of just allowing Spotify to run on and on. Elvis Costello has always been an artist who demands full attention, so it’s appropriate that his highly anticipated, upcoming autobiography coincides with the release of Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album, a two disc, 38-track selection of songs personally picked by our budding writer to be played while reading choice passages of his book.

The fun game to play when hearing these songs without the book is figuring out where they fit into his story. The live, piano-and-voice version of “Accidents Will Happen” that opens the set must soundtrack Elvis’s witty, self-deprecating introductory statement. “Riot Act” might play over his account of his infamous drunken slur against Ray Charles. How about “I Want You” synching up with his romance with Cait O’Riordan or “Suit of Lights” underlining some significant moment with his dad or a Buddy Holly-esque demo of “Veronica” marking the moment he lost his grandma to Alzheimer’s… or maybe his momentous collaboration with Paul McCartney? 

Knowing the purpose of this compilation really underlines how often Elvis Costello has used his music to tell his own story, even as songs like “Shipbuilding” are more like editorials on current events. However, there are few of those kinds of things on here, and considering that “Ascension Day” sits dead center in the running, I’m guessing it is not intended to coincide with Hurricane Katrina. I’m also guessing that the early demo “I Can’t Turn It Off” is tacked to the end of the music for no other reason than to give fans something we’ve never heard before. Pretty good song, though. However, the previously unreleased collaboration with Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash is the kind of adult contemporary dullness that Elvis has generally avoided at this late stage in his career.

Simply taken as a compilation of classic Costello, Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album is very cool, offering several “hits” (though not always in their most familiar versions) to draw in the novices  and a slew of deep cuts ripe for discovery outside the contexts and confines of their original LPs. Lesser tracks such as “I’m in the Mood Again” and “My Three Songs” take on deeper resonance and stand out better in this context too.

What really ties this CD to the book is “Sketches from Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink”, a snippet of the man reading bits about McCartney, Lou Adler, and playing the Royal Albert Hall from his book. These readings will likely drive a lot of people to buy the audio book. Elviss reading voice is as expressive and masterfully calculated as his singing one!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Review: 'Essential Horror Movies: Matinee Monsters to Cult Classics'

Narrowing a century of horror cinema down to 72 essential films is a goal doomed to fail. Genre fans tend to be bloody-minded in more ways than one. We are a tough breed to please, and Michael Mallory really stuck his hand into the monster’s mouth with his new book Essential Horror Movies: Matinee Monsters to Cult Classics. I can’t say that his selections totally defeated my own bloody mindedness, but I can say that most of them fit the bill. While I’d never argue that movies such as The Last House on the Left, Friday the 13th, or Saw are good, I will admit that they are essential by representing major facets and turning points in horror history. Some of his choices are more confounding. Since this book covers so few films, I can’t understand how some of these made the cut (Polanksi’s beautifully shot but dull and embarrassingly unfunny horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers; a film called Waxworks that I have not seen but does not really seem to qualify as horror based on Mallory’s write-up; The Beast with Five Fingers) while others— such as The Black Cat, The Innocents, and Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (a shockingly ahead-of-its-time film that Mallory criticizes for being more dated and less grim than the silent version starring John Barrymore!) weren’t even in the running. Mallory’s extended “Fifty Additional Horror Films Worth Seeing” list doesn’t even sweep up the debris and contains a number of notorious stinkers (Roger Corman’s The Terror, Son of Dracula, Count Yorga).

Of course, this is the kind of reaction we serious horror freaks are supposed to have, and I’m sure there were more than a few outraged reactions to my own 150 Essential Horror Movies series from a few years back. I tried to make my list worth reading by writing what I hoped were insightful readings of the films and their places in horror history. This is also what Mallory did to make his cases, and although photos receive pride of place in his coffee table book (and those images do make this a very appealingly grotesque volume), his text is the real essential elements because of its insights and its trivia, although I’d keep a wide birth when reading his spoiler-sprinkled summaries of films you’ve never seen. I was actually surprised that I’d never seen a handful of these (Waxworks, Mill of the Stone Woman, Mark of the Wolfman), so his book even fulfilled the purpose that all books and lists of this sort should: convincing recommendations.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Review: 'Vintage Toys'

In the wake of the first Star Wars movie and its merchandising empire, toys became massive business in the eighties, and there have been some spectacular books on that period of playthings (Totally Tubular 80s Toys; Just Can’t Get Enough: Toys, Games, and Other Stuff from the 80s That Rocked; The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures). Of course neither George Lucas nor Kenner was the first to tap the toddler market, and timeless toys have existed since the beginning of recorded history. Wooden dolls have been unearthed in ancient Egyptian tombs. The children of 2,000 B.C. made the most of their limited life spans by skipping rope. Those in the late seventeenth century learned their letters with wooden alphabet blocks very similar to the ones kids still stack today.

Alessandra Sardo’s new book Vintage Toys acknowledges the essential post-Star Wars classics my generation adored, but sets her sights back a lot farther than that. Smartly, the book eases us in with familiar faces like the Furby, the Tickle Me Elmo, Super Mario, and C-3PO, moving backwards in time through the most iconic classic toys found all around the world. There is a Japanese robot that billows smoke from a deadly mechanism that zaps sparks into oily cotton, an intricate Indian Snakes & Ladders board, an exquisite Scottish kaleidoscope, and a masterfully constructed German doll house. Sardo’s text (printed in English and German) is spare but witty and informative. I had no idea the Pez dispenser started life as a tool for helping smokers kick the habit or that the jigsaw puzzle was originally an aid for teaching geography. I was taken aback to see that Belgian kids had been playing with those eighties icons, the Smurfs, since the late fifties! I was also smacked by waves of nostalgia whenever I crossed an item I’d completely forgotten I’d played with as a kid, such as the ultra-tedious water ring-toss game or Super Elastic Bubble Plastic, which involved blowing toxic gunk through a straw.

The images that are the main point of this coffee table book are wonderful and get more so the further we go back in time. The marvelous graphics on a sixties-era Twister box. A photo of a little crew-cut fifties stereotype hopping on his pogo stick. Tin toys, pop-up books, and backgammon boards crafted by true artists. I only wish there were captions to provide some information on the specific items used to illustrate the various toys and games (anyone out there have any details on that bizarre ring-toss game that looks like an old woman with a penis nose?). There are a few glaring omissions in Vintage Toys. I can’t believe space was not made for Cabbage Patch Kids or the jack-in-the-box or plastic army men or Lincoln Logs. But given the rich history of its topic, it’s surprising how satisfyingly Vintage Toys covers the major players in 170 essential items… and in case those items give you the urge to get down on the carpet and start making like a kid again, this slip-cased edition conscientiously includes a bonus game of Nine Men’s Morris playable on the book’s back cover.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ultimate Blu-ray Edition of "The Monkees" Coming in 2016!

One of my biggest wishes on the 2015 wish list I posted shortly before the beginning of this year was the release of "The Monkees" on blu-ray. While that deadline won't be met, my wish is still coming to pass, and it's probably appropriate that it's happening in 2016 to coincide with the series' fiftieth anniversary. On January 29, 2016, Rhino will release both seasons of "The Monkees" on a ten-disc blu-ray box set that will include the group's surreal feature film Head and an all-new HD remaster of the TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. The series and TV special are both being remastered from the original negatives (Head is presumably the same version Criterion released as part of the BBS Box Set in 2010). 

Other bonuses include commentaries and Kellogg's commercials, presumably the ones already avalable on the DVD edition, as well as never-before-seen outtakes from Head. No word yet on whether or not the set will include alternate music tracks for the summer-of-'67 and 1969 reruns that included replacement songs, but I think we can all agree that the folks at Rhino would be cuckoo not to include those.

"The Monkees Complete TV Series Blu-ray" is now available to pre-order as an addmittedly pricey limited edition set of 10,000 units that will include fancy packaging and a bonus 7" featuring unreleased TV mixes of two unspecified songs. Hopefully, a more affordable version of the set will be available soon after January 29. That might have to be a wish for my 2016 wish list.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: 'I Lost It at the Video Store: A filmmaker’s Oral History of a Vanishing Era'

Everything about film seems to be shrinking these days. I’m not just talking about the minuscule screens on tiny gadgets that people use as substitutes for theaters. I’m also referring to the way people get those films. They visit itunes, click a few pictures, and a minute later they’re streaming the latest Marvel comics movie or whatever. Seeing a movie was not always so instantaneous. If you missed it during its theatrical run, you had to wait as much as a year for it to come out on video. Then you had to leave your home to visit the local mildew-stinking video store to find out if it was available yet. Maybe the movie was out on video, but it wasn’t necessarily available because some other joker had already rented it. So you had to wait until demand died down to the point you could pay your two bucks, get it home, and shove it in the VCR.

This probably all sounds like a pain in the ass to those who did not grow up in the video store age, and it probably was, but it was all we had (well, maybe not all we had…there were also premium cable and pay-per-view channels). It was also something to do on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. Sometimes it was more about the activity than the movie: get a few friends together and spend an hour pacing up and down the rows of garish yet empty video boxes until you just give up and grab whatever is closest at hand. I wonder how many hours I wasted doing that between 1984 and 2004. It was such a big part of my life that there’s no wonder why it makes me nostalgic.

I’m not the only one. Former editor of Premiere magazine, Tom Roston is another guy who misses those mildewy days, and he pays tribute to them by gathering a couple dozen filmmakers to gab about the video store era in his new book I Lost It at the Video Store: A filmmaker’s Oral History of a Vanishing Era. I’m glad Roston went the oral history route, because the tone of his introduction is too academic to capture the sleazy joys of visiting video stores. Fortunately, former video store employees Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith lead Roston’s roster of commentators, and they keep the discussion funny and fanatical even though the book is largely about the business side of video. We learn how the stores came to be and how they bred a new generation of filmmakers. There is an entire chapter on Reservoir Dogs and how it could have easily become a direct-to-video release. There is less about the vanished communal experience of video browsing, which was such a huge part of the era. But maybe that’s not the best way to make use of film professionals, at least not when there are only 150 pages of large text to get their recollections down. However, we do get some fascinating tidbits distinct to the era, like Smith’s adventures in the porn closet of his store or how Morgan Spurlock would watch the guy’s head exploding in Scanners or the werewolf’s snout growing in An American Werewolf in London frame-by-frame. My friends and I did the same thing with those “subliminal” images of a demon’s face in The Exorcist. Do people still do that type of thing on their iPhones or was it particular to that bygone age of crappy pan-and-scan VHS tapes? Either way it made me nostalgic, and I Lost It at the Video Store is nothing if not nostalgic and elegiac. 
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