Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review: 'Super Weird Heroes'

One of my favorite books of last year was Jon Morris’s The League of Regrettable Superheroes, a hilarious, outrageous encyclopedia of confoundingly forgotten crime stoppers such as Kangaroo Man (his sidekick is a real, live kangaroo who can ride a motorcycle and sky dive), Funnyman (a clown), and Rainbow Boy (a high school kid who shoots rainbows out of his armpit).

I’m betting that comics historian Craig Yoe was also a fan, because his recent compilation Super Weird Heroes is a natural extension of The League of Regrettable Superheroes, supporting Morris’s uproarious profiles with the very panels that featured several of the daffy heroes covered in League. However, Yoe doesn’t just give us the chance to actually see the likes of Kangaroo Man, Funnyman, and Rainbow Boy in action, but he also pulls back the capes on several characters who flew over Morris’s radar. Biff! Here comes Catman and the Kitten, an uncle/niece crime-fighting team led by a fellow who’d been raised by tigers. Bang! Step aside for Captain Hadacol, a caped shill for a miracle muscle builder with a very special secret ingredient: booze! Pow! Here comes Bulletman and Bulletgirl, a dynamic duo who need no guns because they are the bullets!

A lot of these stories are funnier to read about in The League of Regrettable Superheroes than actually witness in the creaky plots of Super Weird Heroes, which generally suffer from bad writing and worse artwork (a nine-year old with a box of Crayolas could probably come up with something more professional looking than The Fire-Man), but Yoe is pretty up front about all that in his excellent introduction and character profiles generously supplied before each story. Anyone expecting Batman or Superman caliber stories should probably just read Batman or Superman. That’s not what Super Weird Heroes is about. Super Weird Heroes is about a semi-naked “Spider Man” who looks like hes wearing a walrus mask and rides on the back of a giant tarantula (The Spider Widow), a guy who sics his army of teeny tiny gnomes on enemies (Mr. E), a mad scientist who wants to put human brains in giant gorillas (Fantoma), a shirtless, Muslim teetotaler who punches Nazis while wearing a fez (Kismet Man of Fate), a duo of do-gooders who fight Nazi trees (Jeep and Peep), and a giant, disembodied hand that slugs and apprehends criminals (The Hand). And a few of these goofballs-- such as Hydroman, who can turn himself into a glass of water-- are even legitimately super heroes. Splash!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: 'Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds: The British Psychedelic Sounds of 1967'

The psychedelic scene of the sixties has been well covered over innumerable compilations. Most deal in fairly broad strokes, perhaps covering a particular region (usually the UK or U.S.) or strain (maybe the garage rock of Nuggets or twee pop of Ripples Vol. III) in the general zone of 1966 through 1969. As its title blares, Cherry Red’s Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds: The British Psychedelic Sounds of 1967 gets more specific.

Review: Cream's 'Fresh Cream' Super-Deluxe Edition

After picking up a musty old copy of Heavy Cream for a buck at my local record store recently, I had an unpleasant revelation while listening to “I Feel Free” through headphones for the first time in a long time: the stereo mix is absolutely awful. The rhythm guitars, bass, and drums are all shoved off to the right-hand channel, vocals are centered, and tambourine is the sole occupant of the left channel for much of the track. Suddenly, one of my favorite pieces of psychedelic pop was reduced to a limp noodle. Tears were shed. Dreams were dashed. Heavy Cream curdled.
The timing of UMe’s Super Deluxe Edition of Fresh Cream couldn’t have been better for me, because the quadruple-disc set’s anchor is Cream’s debut in its mono mix long unavailable in the States. No album was as mighty as Fresh Cream in 1966, and the wonky separation of its stereo incarnation did a complete disservice to that considerable distinction. Great tracks such as “I Feel Free” (from the U.S. version), “Spoonful” (from the UK version), “I’m So Glad”, “Cat’s Squirrel”, “Sweet Wine”, “N.S.U.”, and “Sleepy Time Time” are restored to their original power, Baker, Bruce, and Clapton booming as a unified unit as they were always meant to. The set includes the album’s stereo mix, but there’s really no reason to ever bother with that again.

The Fresh Cream Super Deluxe Edition also includes stereo and mono mixes of the underrated contemporary tracks “Wrapping Paper” and “The Coffee Song” (a new and particularly miserable stereo mix has everything but the sporadic lead guitar outbursts hard-panned to the right). Elsewhere on the mono first disc and stereo second one are alternate masters and mixes, though none of them are particularly revelatory.

The most radical alternates are bunched on the third disc, which includes substantially different early versions of “The Coffee Song”, “Sweet Wine”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, “Toad”, and “I Feel Fine” (with a hilariously dinky vocal arrangement and dummy lyrics). There are a couple of so-so outtakes— “You Make Me Feel”, previously released on the Those Were the Days box set, and an awkwardly stop-starting vocal-deprived blues called “Beauty Queen”—and a big clutch of worthwhile BBC recordings that were mostly released thirteen years ago on the BBC Sessions CD (versions of “Steppin’Out” and “Sleepy Time Time” are exclusive to this new set). I couldn’t assess the Blu-Ray Audio version of the original mono album because this fourth disc was not included in the review package I received (neither was the 64-page hardback book notated by David Fricke). As is often the case with Super Deluxe Editions, there’s redundancy and bloat, but that mono mix of Fresh Cream remains a powerful selling point in more ways than one. Don’t expect to find it for a buck at your local record store, though.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Farewell, Carrie Fisher

Like most kids born in the seventies, I lived a Star Wars childhood, and that means Carrie Fisher has been a part of my life for most of my life, mostly in the form of an outer space comic book heroine reciting improbable dialogue while wearing an even more improbable hairstyle. As the real woman reminded us so many times, and as recently as her wonderful new memoir The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher was much more than the sum of the Topps trading cards, Dixie cups, T-shirts, and plastic, 3-inch figures bearing her likeness that surrounded so many of us during our formative years. She was a great and honest wit, an excellent writer, a fearless and vocal representative of and advocate for people with mental illness and addiction issues, a pioneering feminist role-model in the entertainment industry, and certainly more than all that to the people fortunate enough to have known her as more than a public figure. Between her new book and return to the screen in the new line of 'Star Wars' movies, Carrie Fisher had been especially vital in the current culture, which makes her death all the more unexpected and stinging. She spent so much of her life giving so much of herself to fans she owed absolutely nothing, so it's appropriate that she continued doing that until her final days. Of all the great celebrity artists we lost throughout this malignant year that just won't fucking end, Carrie Fisher is the only one who makes me feel like I lost a member of my family. I'm certain I'm not the only seventies kid who feels that way.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review: 'The 3 Worlds of Gulliver' Blu-ray

Like every movie for which Ray Harryhausen conjured the special effects, director Jack Sher’s 1960 adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels is primarily remembered as “a Ray Harryhausen film.” Yet The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is not your typical Harryhausen film. The master was known for loading astonishing though—let’s be honest here—fairly mindless swashbucklers such as Jason and the Argonauts, the Sinbad movies, and Clash of the Titans with menageries of stop-motion monsters. Jonathan Swift’s source material was pretty light in the creature department, so the mass of Harryhausen’s effects are matte shots showing Kerwin Matthews either towering over the Lilliputians or scurrying beneath the Brobdingnagians. Brief skirmishes with a giant crocodile and squirrel scratch the stop-motion itch, but this is hardly the effects orgy that the master’s best-loved films are.

That’s not a huge problem because The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is also atypical in the Harryhausen canon because it works as a perfectly clever and entertaining film beyond its effects set pieces. Swift’s blunt political satire may have blunted further in the transition from page to screen, but it is still very present, very witty (Arthur Ross, scribe of Creature from the Black Lagoon, co-wrote the terrific script with Sher), and clear enough for even its child audience to grasp. Charming whimsy plays a starring role too as the somewhat bland yet still likable Matthews encounters a cartoony crowd of jackass politicians and eye-rolling royalty who remain oddly lovable despite being completely arbitrary, utterly blinkered, and fairly despicable. If only real-world politics were this much fun... or at least this unhorrific.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray edition of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver does a fab job of presenting the picture’s splashy colors and velvety textures. Even the matte shots hold up rather well under the unforgiving hi-def conditions, though the disc naturally looks best during its effects-free frames. It’s all very organic and clean too, and viewers have the options to watch it in its theatrical 1.66:1 or subsequently altered 1.78:1 aspect ratios.

Extras are pretty nice but somewhat redundant. The hour-long “Harryhausen Chronicles” TV doc is already available on Sony’s Jason and the Argonauts blu-ray and Twilight Time already included the short “This is Dynamation!” on its (albeit out-of-print) edition of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. The seven-minute “Making of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver” has been ported over from the film’s DVD edition. An audio commentary with film historians Randall Cook, C. Courtney Joyner, and Steven C. Smith is exclusive to this release though. It’s available from Twilight Time’s official site here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Psychobabble’s 50 Favorite Holiday Season Songs

Oh, I’m quite sure you’ve been bombarded with various versions of “Jingle Bells”, “Jingle Bell Rock”, and “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” since well before Halloween. Don’t let that put you off holiday season songs, though. The ones you probably haven’t been hearing a dozen times a day will turn around the “Bah Humbug” attitude that fucking “Christmas Shoes” song induces. Clean that sleet out of your stocking to make room for these 50 festive and freaky holiday season favorites delivered down your chimney with Psychobabble’s Christmas seal of approval!

50. “Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade

With its glitzy lights, gaudy decorations, and multi-layered garb, Christmas is the glammest holiday. Wolverhampton glammers Slade recognized this and cut one of the all-time seasonal classics with an anthem made for stomping through slush in platform boots.

49. “Christmas Everyday” by The Miracles

If you’re more inclined to go for a slow, romantic stroll in fresh, clean snow, “Christmas Everyday” will be more your speed. Smokey’s love is such a perennial gift that she could turn any day into December 25. That would be a welcome prospect if every holiday song sounded like this one.

48. “Christmas Is My Time of Year” by The Christmas Spirit (AKA: The Turtles)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review: 'The Return of the Zombies'

Zombies have become so standardized that fans debate the validity of such minor variations as fast-moving zombies endlessly and tiresomely. But before George Romero shaped the modern conception of zombies once and for all in 1968, the only zombie rules were that there aren’t any zombie rules. Most often zombies were mesmerized slaves toiling away on some Haitian sugar plantation. They might also be vengeful “things from the grave,” as witnessed in pretty much every issue of E.C.’s horror comics, or swarms of Romero-anticipating rotting corpses. As revealed in Craig Yoe and IDW’s new anthology of rare zombie comics from the fifties, the zombie ranks might also include a guy who gradually turns into the undead as if he is infected with some strange, fatal disease or the tools of some yokel who can raise the dead with his trumpet.  

As is usually the case with Yoe’s anthologies of stories from such second-tier horror comics as Horrific, Web of Evil, and Strange Suspense Stories, wackiness is what makes these oddities worthy preserving. The Crypt Keeper’s tales tended to follow a sort of storytelling rulebook no matter how grotesque or illogical they were. The most delightful tales in Yoe’s new volume The Return of the Zombies, such as “Hating Corpse” and  “Death by Inches”, follow the logic of someone who woke up at 4 AM with a head full of groggy nightmares. More conventional tales still manage to sidestep convention, such as “The Dead Remember”, which courts serious bad taste with its zombies as vengeful holocaust victims.

Not everything collected in The Return of the Zombies is particularly memorable, but IDW has still assembled a typically attractive package with its center spread of grotty, zombified comics covers and its textural pages and authentically inked artwork. The bite taken from the bottom corner of the front cover is a bit of groovy yet unnecessary extra evidence that IDW is one publisher that takes its goofy second-tier horror comics very seriously. You have to love them for that.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review: 'Moby Dick' Blu-ray

Attempting to faithfully adapt the greatest American novel is a mission as foolhardy as chasing a white whale. Yet, underneath Moby Dick’s blubbery layers of nightmarish metaphors, whaling history, scrimshaw lessons, and weird cetology is a good, old-fashioned adventure story fit for Hollywood. In 1956, director John Huston and co-screenwriter Ray Bradbury brought that story to life with iconic performances from Gregory Peck as self-destructively obsessed Captain Ahab, Leo Genn as his moral adversary Starbuck, kind-faced Richard Basehart as our narrator/surrogate Ishmael, Friedrich von Ledebur as Ishmael’s best pal Queequeg, Orson Wells in a memorable cameo as a preacher, and Tony the Whale aaaaaaas Moby Dick!

John Huston still manages to make Moby Dick more than the average widescreen actioner with strange sepia coloring that removes the picture from its pastel decade, somber gravitas and buckets of death imagery, and even a touch of mysticism (the appearance of St. Elmo’s fire that injects a brief shock of fluorescent green into the film’s clay-grey palette). On the flip side there’s a somewhat lazy tendency in Huston and Bradbury’s script to spoon-feed themes and even information to the viewer. When Stubb captions the first appearance of peg-legged Peck by muttering “Ahab,” anyone who finished seventh grade lit will yell “Duh!” at the screen. But don’t let that put you off, because Moby Dick remains an exciting and artful interpretation of the most exciting passages in Herman Melville’s epic.

Twilight Time’s much anticipated blu-ray presentation of Moby Dick had its work cut out for it since the film’s distinctive look is so tied up with the so-called “gray negative,” which preserved that near-monochrome aesthetic most authentically. For this release, that drained coloring had to be painstakingly recreated, a process explained in a six-minute featurette included with this release. Otherwise, the image is blemish-free, naturally grained, and well detailed for a film designed to look like a drizzly afternoon. Other extras include an audio commentary with Twilight Time’s resident historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman and film editor Paul Seydor, and they have a rollicking discussion about the film’s themes and making and their own memories of seeing it, and a few promo materials galleries. The blu-ray is available here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review: 'Pretty Poison' Blu-ray

Tony Perkins is a creepy dude with mental issues who spies on and obsesses about a beautiful blonde, but it’s not the movie you’re thinking of. Eight years after Psycho, Perkins flirted with being typecast and Tuesday Weld in Pretty Poison. Perkins is Dennis Pitt, a young arsonist recovering from delusions and recently discharged from an institution, who sets his sites on Weld’s high-school drum majorette Sue Ann Stepenek. Dennis seduces Sue Ann by pretending to be a secret agent, spying on her mother’s hated boyfriend, and giving her acid.

With his free love, free drugs, and environmentalism (he schemes to expose toxic dumping at the chemical company where he works), Dennis is a sort of countercultural stand in— a more unhinged Benjamin Braddock. However, it’s hard to place where we viewers are supposed to stand on Dennis. Are we supposed to find his whacky spy fantasies charming? It’s tough to watch an older man ply a high-school girl with drugs and fantasies and find it anything less than distasteful, but Pretty Poison performs a clever turn of the tables when Dennis’s lies lead Sue Ann to perform an unexpected act that puts her in the driver’s seat and reveals some serious twists in her own psyche.

Pretty Poison is a noir at heart with Perkins ultimately playing the dupe and Weld playing the femme fatale, but it is subtle humor that fuels the picture—no surprise considering that one of the era’s funniest writers, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., of TV’s Batman, adapted Stephen Gellar’s novel She Let Him Continue for the screen. Production values are strictly small-screen and Noel Black’s direction is often a bit flat, though it does take off whenever something starts blowing up on screen to underscore Dennis’s horniness or mental unspooling, and Semple’s smart script and the effortlessly magnetic presences of Perkins and Weld make Pretty Poison an effective minor cult classic.

Pretty Poison comes to blu-ray from Twilight Time, and the picture is heavy with grain and a touch soft but totally clean. Extras include a text-only scene that appeared in the script but not in the film and a three-minute commentary from Black about the scene. It is available to purchase from Twilight Time here.

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: '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.

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.

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.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Psychobabble’s 10 Tips for the Perfect Retro-Halloween

In a confusing, modern world in which everyone wanders around aimlessly in their virtual reality helmets while playing Pokemon pogs on their telephones and listening to auto-tuned teenagers sing about their vaginas, Psychobabble offers Halloween as an oasis of retro sensibilities. Not politically retro. That would be gross. I just mean Halloweenally retro. Take off the helmet. Put down the phone. Turn off that singer who is still a teenager and consider listening to one who was a teenager fifty years ago (may I suggest The Crystals’ and their “Frankenstein Twist”?). It’s time to buckle down and allow the waves of nostalgia in.

There are few things more old-fashioned than the notion that the vale between the natural world and the spirit world will lift up and a host of ghosts will sneak under it and start partying on our turf every October 31st.. That’s some silly shit. So it would be highly inappropriate to celebrate such an old-fashioned holiday in a new-fashioned way. Here are Psychobabble’s ten tips for recreating the perfect retro Halloween experience.

1. Hang Beistly decorations.

Halloween is not an icy pool. You don’t just leap into it on October 31st and leap right back out again. It is a warm bath. You sink into it slowly and lounge, preferably for an entire month. Part of that involves decorating your home. Many people spend all of their energy hanging ghouls and skeletons all over the outside of their homes, which is all fine and good for showing your neighbors how festive you are, but you should never neglect the inside either, since you probably spend more time indoors than out on the lawn. Whether you’re decorating inside or out, you cannot have a truly retro Halloween without some Beistle decorations. You know them. They’re those grinning cats and jack-o-lanterns, wrinkly witches, and dancing skeletons rendered in shades of orange, black, yellow, and green on die-cut cardboard. These designs have been in use since the Beistle Company began in 1900 and were particularly ubiquitous in the seventies and early eighties. Few visuals will instantly conjure those old-timey Halloween feelings than Beistle decorations, though you are also welcome to hang up some of those toxic melted plastic popcorn decorations depicting ghosts, witches, and cats. They’re retro too. Expensive animatronic serial killers and giant inflatable Adam Sandler vampires from Hotel Transylvania are not.

2. Send mail using actual paper and actual mail boxes.

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 31

Series: The Simpsons

Episode: “Treehouse of Horror IV”, in which the annual Halloween episode of The Simpsons hits its peak with a scarifying trio of terror tales presented by Bart à la Rod Serling on Night Gallery. First up is a spin on The Devil and Daniel Webster in which corpulent Homer Simpson barters his soul for one doughnut and Satan assumes the form of pious neighborino Ned Flanders. Next is the traditional Twilight Zone parody in which Bart plays a junior Bill Shatner who discovers a gremlin saboteur messing with his school bus. Finally, there’s the lavish “Bart Simpson’s Dracula”, in which Count Mr. Burns keeps an undead army of the undead at the bottom of his Super Happy Fun Slide and neither Francis Ford Coppola nor Stephen King make it out alive. Back when The Simpsons was still funny, nobody did Halloween episodes like they did, and no Halloween is complete without watching one. Happy viewing and happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 30

Series: Freaks and Geeks

Episode: “Tricks and Treats”, in which hapless nerds Sam, Neil, and Bill make the ill-advised decision to go trick or treating one last time…even though they’re in freaking high school. One might even suggest they deserve to get their candy stolen by local bully Alan and egged by Sam’s sister Lindsay and her burnout friends if our geeks weren’t so sweet and relatable. Every episode of Freaks and Geeks does a beautiful job of capturing the awkwardness of transitioning out of adolescence, but this one also does a great job of capturing the indescribable magic of Halloween Day. And remember: Bill is not a little girl. He’s a bionic woman.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 29

Series: Amazing Stories

Episode: “Go to the Head of the Class”, in which the half-hour fantasy series makes a little extra head room for an hour-long episode in which Christopher Lloyd plays a sadistic teacher who ends up as the headless victim of a satanic spell cast by students Scott Coffey and Mary Stuart Masterson. Unfortunately, losing his head is not enough to put Teach out of commission, and he returns to put the kids into detention for the insubordination. Rich in Halloweeny atmosphere and a gloriously ham-bone performance from Lloyd, Amazing Stories didn’t get more amazing than “Go to the Head of the Class”. “Mr. Braaaaand!”

Friday, October 28, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 28

Series: The Munsters

Episode: “Munster Masquerade”, in which the ultimate Halloween clan attends a masquerade party and all of the party-goers believe The Munsters’ ghoulish visages are part of their costumes. The series’ very first outing is quintessential Munsters, with a bunch of boring straights getting freaked out by the family’s delightful uniqueness and more comedic misunderstandings than a month of Three’s Companies. Am I a weirdo for wishing I could live in that Munster mansion? It’s luxuriously huge, full of ravens and dragons, and it’s always autumn outside, with gusts sweeping dead leaves into the place every time someone opens the front door. Sigh. Too dreamy.
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