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.
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