Thursday, March 28, 2019

Review: 'Space Thing Original Soundtrack Album'

A husband who prefers reading sci-fi pulp mags to having sex with his eager wife escapes into a fantasy in which he is an intergalactic castaway in the year 2069. He boards the USS Erection so he can peep on or participate in the erotic frolics of the starship’s crew. Doesn’t sound familiar? That’s because David Friedman’s z-grade softcore porno Space Thing is such a piece of forgettable garbage that it hasn’t even earned an imdb page. It has, however, earned a new soundtrack album on silver vinyl from Modern Harmonic. Is the music better than the movie? Well, if you dig poorly recorded, generic go-go jazz with lots of palm-muted guitar and Hammond organ riffs—occasionally overlaid with the film’s terrible dialogue and half-hearted panting—then I guess the answer is “yes.” By any yardstick, listening to William Castleman’s score (recycled from not Friedman’s She Freak) is less excruciatingly boring than watching Space Thing, which is included on DVD courtesy of Something Weird Video as a bonus booby prize.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Review: 'The Beatles through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album'

Right behind its status as the most sprawling and eclectic of The Beatles’ albums, “The White Album” is best known as The Beatles’ most fragmented record. It is known as the album on which the Fab Four essentially became four fab individuals masterminding their own sessions while either using the other three guys as backing musicians or approaching each track as a veritable solo endeavor.

Ironically, The Beatles through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album is one of the most cohesive multiple-author essay collections I’ve ever read. In fact, most of its thirteen essays read more like chapters in a single-author work. Each of those section shares the same seriousness, competence, impersonal tone, clarity, and tendency to quote large chunks of other authors’ works. This lends the book a straight readability that the usual inconsistent multiple-author collection does not offer. More than one author even shares the same quirks, such as the inclination to compare “The White Album” to Joyce’s Ulysses and the mistaken belief that “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” immediately follows “I Will”.

The stylistic consistency of The Beatles through a Glass Onion would be little more than mildly interesting if the authors didn’t unite to provide an illuminating portrait of an album that has already been very widely discussed. Yet they accomplish this by keenly examining all of the album’s key components—its writing, its recording, its cast of characters, its politics, its unique contributions by the four individual Beatles, etc.

Towards the end of the book there are quirkier chapters on the album’s influence that begin to buck the uniformity of all the preceded it. These includes discussions of Tori Amos and U2’s covers of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (one of the more academic chapters) and Danger Mouse’s mash up of “The White Album’s” and Jay Z’s The Black Album (a slightly more lyrical chapter than the others). Because they are about less essential topics, the mild stylistic variations are fitting rather than jarring and help widen the perspective of an album with a particularly sprawling world view.  

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Review: 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' Blu-ray

American teenagers as a culture force came into their own in the 1950s, and as always, the white/middle-aged forces in control were instantly threatened, trying to demonize kids with the over-stated “juvenile delinquency” scare of that decade. However, the combined power of Elvis Presley, James Dean, and the Crypt Keeper could not equal what happened to teens in 1964. They screamed like they were being murdered. They peed their pants. They threw themselves in front of and out of moving vehicles. They lost complete and total control. This crazed behavior was a consequence of three of the things the older generation most feared: sex, Rock & Roll, and foreigners. Those foreigners in question were four youngsters from Liverpool, England, and though The Beatles projected a seemingly wholesome image, teenagers correctly interpreted the licentious messages of Rock & Roll like “Please Please Me”, “Twist and Shout”, and even “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Consequently, they went cuckoo.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Review: 'Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew up the Big Screen'

Defining any year as the “best ever” for movies can’t come off as anything but hyperbolic, and you’d be right to be wary of a book called Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew up the Big Screen when there’s a picture of Jar Jar Binks on its cover. Yet hyperbole or even making a case for all-time-greatness status is not the point of Brian Raftery’s new book. Best. Movie. Year. a zippy history of a year in which films may not have always been great but very often blasted off into bold new directions. As awful as The Phantom Menace was, you cannot argue that it wasn’t a prescient indicator of the kinds of movies that currently dominate cinemas. Several that year were equally prophetic, as The Matrix predicted the Internet’s mass-mesmerism, Election put its finger on how much of a sloppy mess the political process was about to become, Run Lola Run solidified the influence video games continue to wield over cinema, and The Blair Witch Project introduced the inescapable found-footage genre.

However, the main thrust of Best. Movie. Year. Ever. is that 1999 was more of an era-finale than a new-age milestone as the stunning audacity of films such as Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, and Being John Malkovich failed to really take root on the big screen and television was poised to finally surpass film as the more daring visual medium. So there is a slight elegiac tone to Best. Movie. Year. Ever. Of the 30 movies Raftery covers, I saw 22 of them within a year or so of their releases. I can’t imagine myself doing that again in this era of nonstop comic book movies and pointless remakes.

Nevertheless, Best. Movie. Year. Ever. is a complete blast, full of highly entertaining tales of filmmaking with ample support from many of the people who helped make them. It’s also something of a history lesson as Raftery often places the films in a current events context, indicating how, say, American Beauty reflected the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, Office Space was a reaction to a soul-deadening shift in office culture, Boys Don’t Cry synched up with the murder of Matthew Shepard, and quite a few of the year’s pictures did the same with the Columbine massacre.

My only complaint is the amount of attention Raftery shines on certain films. I felt as though he buzzed through movies such as The Virgin Suicides, The Mummy, and The Limey too quickly to really provide a sense of their significances or adequate histories of their creations, while he lingered way too long on the tiresome Fight Club. However, the storytelling is never dull, and the film selection is pretty thorough (the only ones I would have tossed in are The Straight Story and Audition). In 2019 we aren’t likely to get a selection of films as interesting as the ones that boogied through cinemas twenty years ago. I doubt we’ll get another book about cinema history as riveting as Best. Movie. Year. Ever. this year either.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: '“Twice the Thrills! Twice the Chills!” Horror and Science Fiction Double Features, 1955-1974'

Cinema had to scramble when a new invasive species called television sprouted up in the 1950s. Big budget production companies dealt with the new threat by making the kinds of big, boisterous, Technicolor epics television could never match. Small budget companies countered with cagey gimmicks, such as 3D, Aroma-rama, and Emergo. More practical, slightly less desperate, and certainly more enduring was the practice of renting two films for the price of one to theaters. Thus, the double feature was officially born. Movie goers could buy one ticket to take in a pair of AIPs like A Bucket of Blood and The Giant Leeches, a pair of Hammers like Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Plague of the Zombies, a European art-horror like Les Yeux Sans Visage matched with a schlocker like The Manster, or an odd couple like Rosemary’s Baby and The Odd Couple.

Bryan Senn’s new book “Twice the Thrills! Twice the Chills!” Horror and Science Fiction Double Features, 1955-1974 pays tribute to the double-decade year period when creepy, kooky double features ruled matinees. This thick volume is not quite a film guide—the entries on each double-bill are way too long and way too loaded with production information. It’s not quite a history—only a 12-page introduction and brief paragraphs prefacing each entry deal with double bills directly. Whatever it is, it’s a ball. Senn does what a topic such as this deserves. His synopses, historical details, and choices of anecdotes are consistently entertaining and a sufficiently sarcastic, reflecting the fun of scarfing down a bucket of popcorn while devouring delightful crap like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and sneaking out of the theater before having to suffer through Invasion of the Star Creatures. His cheeky critiques are spot on, and when he and I disagree, he makes totally fair arguments for his points of view. Sometimes his jokey comments are sheer corn, but that suits the atmosphere of B-grade merriment too. The package is nicely illustrated with B&W images of lobby cards, posters, and press-book pages. Maybe it’s no longer easy to hunt down an actual double feature in your local theater, but “Twice the Thrills! Twice the Chills!” is such a blast that it will likely inspire you to host one in your own home.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Review: 'The Nosferatu Story: The Seminal Horror Film, Its Predecessors, and Its Enduring Legacy'

Nosferatu may be the first horror feature that really feels like one. Based on one of horror’s top-three essential texts, featuring an iconic portrayal of one of the top-three essential monsters, and brought to life with dank, Gothic atmosphere, F.W. Murnau’s Dracula adaptation is historically significant and still very scary after nearly a century. The film’s making is also well worth deep discussion and very deserving of a book with a title like The Nosferatu Story: The Seminal Horror Film, Its Predecessors, and Its Enduring Legacy.

Unfortunately, that title ended up on book that is disjointed and flimsy. The Nosferatu Story feels like excerpts from essays about early German cinema sutured together in a way more reminiscent of Mary Shelley than Bram Stoker. Author Rolf Giesen fails to tie together his various discussions in a way that tells a satisfying, linear story. He dwells on odd things and skims over essentials. There are thirty pages of discussion of films such as The Golem and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari before Giesen gets to Nosferatu. Then there are another thirty pages of pointless plot description, which is a major issue in a book that is only 210 pages long (and 75 of those pages are devoted to filmographies and appendices). Perhaps the most well known detail of the Nosferatu story is Stoker’s widow Florence’s accusations of copyright violations against the film and the subsequent court decision that demanded every copy of Murnau’s film be destroyed. Instead of unearthing interesting new details about this key part of his story, Giesen darts through it in three brief paragraphs. He does, however, set aside an entire paragraph of his slim book to relay every person director Tony Watt thanks in the credits of some movie called Nosferatu vs. Father Pipecock & Sister Funk.

There are interesting chunks of The Nosferatu Story: The Seminal Horror Film, Its Predecessors, and Its Enduring Legacy —particularly a brief but fascinating biography of star Max Schreck, who applied his own makeup for his portrayal of the rat-like Count Orlock and enjoyed a rich stage career, and everything pertaining to the film's occultist producer, Albin Grau— but the overall telling of that story is much too unfocused to earn its enticing title.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Farewell, Hal Blaine

A session musician becoming a household name is almost unheard of, but the name "Hal Blaine" is probably as close as it comes. This is the guy who thumped out what may be the most iconic beat of all: the two bass hits/one snare snap that launched "Be My Baby". That startling moment is just one of many, many startling ones. The list of songs Blaine helped bring to life is absolutely staggering. He was responsible for scattering majestic fills all over Simon & Garfunkel's "America". He brought orchestral grandeur to Pet Sounds and SMiLE. He funked up The Monkees' "Mary Mary". He pummeled out those rolls that make Neal Hefti's "Batman Theme" go POW! That's him on Elvis's "Bossa Nova Baby", The Association's "Along Comes Mary", The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations", Paul Revere and the Raiders' "Hungry", Love's "Andmoreagain", The Mamas and Papas' "Go Where You Wanna Go", The Crystals "Da Doo Ron Ron", The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man", The Vogue's "You're the One"... the theme from Three's Company! Phil Spector and Brian Wilson would have been nowhere without Hal Blaine. By his own estimation, he played on some 6,000 tracks.

Blaine was also a big personality, as evidenced in the numerous documentaries to which he contributed his memories, such as The Wrecking Crew! and Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE. Sadly, the world just lost that beat and that personality because Hal Blaine died at the age of 90 yesterday. You can't say the guy didn't live a full life though.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Review: 'American International Pictures: A Comprehensive Filmography'

In the sixties, James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures was best known for pumping out a series of dopey beach party flicks, Roger Corman’s elegant Poe adaptations, and a gonzo slew of fab B-grade genre pictures. However, AIP was even more eclectic than that, distributing prestige foreign films such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and La Dolce Vita and films by Robert Altman and Orson Welles and trafficking in Mondo-style documentaries and borderline porno. In all, AIP and its subsidiaries had their talons in over 800 movies. With his new book American International Pictures: A Comprehensive Filmography, Rob Craig attempts to catalog them all. This would be quite the project if Craig had merely tracked down all the titles and listed them, but he goes way farther than that with encyclopedia-like entries for each film, some of which fill entire pages. He covers interesting production details, describes plots, and offers personal critiques and a good deal of sub-textual analysis.

This is where American International Pictures: A Comprehensive Filmography serves its most useful purpose, since the book mainly functions as a film guide. I can usually get a pretty good handle on how much a film-guide writer and I see eye-to-eye and how likely I will be to dig that writer’s recommendations. However, Rob Craig is a tough call. He’s generally politically astute, writes well, and loves many oddball movies deserving of love, but he’s too hell bent on iconoclasm, which is something he signals in an introduction that explicitly challenges notions that some films are or aren’t objectively good. That’s fine, but I can’t get on board with some of Craig’s kookier ideas. I agree with him that Peter Sasdy’s The Devil within Her is a lot of fun, but Craig’s conclusion that it is better than Rosemary’s Baby—a deliberately hilarious film he categorizes as “humorless”—is crazy (Polanskis still a horrible person though). He thinks Starcrash is better than Star Wars (another movie he dismisses as “humorless) and can’t stand beloved character actor Dick Miller, yet he finds much to admire in crap such as the tedious Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, the vile Cry of the Banshee, the inept and vile The Last House on the Left, and the shrill, painfully unfunny Comedy of Terrors, which he believes has “hilarious” dialogue. Who is this guy?

And wait ’til you read his entries on The T.A.M.I. Show and The Big TNT Show! He is merciless in his castigation of some of the sixties’ greatest acts, dismissing The Beach Boys as a “pathetic” boy band, deeming The Lovin’ Spoonful “bizarre,” trashing The Rolling Stones and The Byrds, and having little patience for James Brown, whose performance once inspired an entire movie theater audience to leap up in the aisles and dance (I was there). His chastising of the film’s use of some chaste go-go dancers as “perverted” is way more bizarre than anything the Spoonful ever did. Yet, I agreed with Craig in enough instances that I still managed to compile a list of films I’d like to check out on his recommendation. He certainly does a good job of making the movies he likes sound intriguing. Whether or not I enjoy them may be another matter.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Review: 'The Golden Age of Science Fiction'

Science Fiction had existed at least since the nineteenth century when fantasists such as Mary Shelley and Jules Verne imagined a technologically advanced, sometimes horrific future. However, the genre positively exploded during the 1950s as the world became fixated on atomic energy, UFOs, and the very real possibility of conquering space. Suddenly cinemas were overrun with little green men; pulp novels and comic books dripped with lurid images of hulking robots carrying away scantly clad damsels; the new medium of TV offered small, blurry tales of tomorrow; and at least in England, soon-to-be-extinct radio dramas hung on by spinning similar sci-fi stories.

John Wade pays tribute to the decade’s various imaginative fictions in his breezy new book The Golden Age of Science Fiction. In five chapters each devoted to radio, television, film, books, and periodicals, respectively, Wade gives a run down of the major fictions of the era. Because he is English, he offers a perspective that often strays from the most commonly discussed fictions of the fifties. Wade shines when discussing such British artifacts as Nigel “Quatermass” Kneale’s TV work (particularly since he bolsters the discussion with tidbits from his own interviews with Kneale), Dan Dare—a sort of British Buck Rogers, and British radio series such as Journey into Space. His chapters on film and long fiction are less riveting because they focus on such well-covered topics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke and depend too much on long synopses of films and books that are more interesting to actually watch and read. Yet the author offers enough critique to give these chapters some sense of purpose.

I also liked Wade’s personal point of view, which lends a nostalgic air to this study of a particularly nostalgia-stimulating topic. Wade shares autobiographical stories of discovering science fiction as a fifties kid and the complex process of sneaking into X movies (settle down…an X rating implied something very different in the UK). Best of all is the abundance of high quality, full-color photos of pulp mag and comics covers, film posters, spectacular sculptures of the Mekon from the Dan Dare stories, Robbie the Robot, and other items that will transport you back to the fifties’ deliciously distinct vision of things to come.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Review: The Zombies' 'In the Beginning'

The Zombies released two of the best hit singles of the British Invasion and one of the best LPs of all time, but their career on wax was weirdly sporadic. After putting out those two smashes—“She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”—in 1964, and their eponymous debut album the following year, The Zombies did not manage to make another substantial hit single or album until 1968 when they finally put out Odessey and Oracle (recorded in 1967). The 45 it yielded—“Time of the Season”—didn’t even get any radio action until 1969. Yet the band did record a fair share of material in between those epochal bookends. 

Friday, March 1, 2019

Review: 'EC Comics: Race, Shock & Social Protest'

In the 1950s, truthful depictions of bigotry in the U.S. were almost completely absent in pop culture. Shockingly, one of the few places where indictments of racism, anti-semitism, and other forms of prejudice could be found (if only sporadically) was in the controversial Shock Suspenstories of EC comics, which were so often denigrated as harmful to youth and generally disgusting. There were tales of racist harassment and mob violence with very explicitly stated morals. In “The Whipping” from ShockSuspenstories, a racist accidentally beats his own daughter to death think that he is actually attacking her Hispanic boyfriend. In “Hate!”, a drooling anti-semite impels a Jewish couple to kill themselves before discovering that his own biological parents were Jewish. In “Judgment Day!” from Weird Fantasy, a valiant astronaut who turns out to be African American instills hope in robots existing in a segregated society. These stories were told with the same unflinching audacity and ironic denouements of EC’s more celebrated crypt tales of oozing corpses and gore-devouring creeps.

Qiana Whitted’s EC Comics: Race, Shock & Social Protest is the first book-length study of how EC comics dealt with race. Whitted analyzes the characters, the artist’s depictions of those characters, and such recurring themes as how the villains of these pieces tend to receive their comeuppances via a crippling sense of shame rather than EC’s usual ironic dismemberings. She often refers to the letters sections in these books to assess the effectiveness of the preaching in EC’s so-called “preachies.” The crass bluntness of the readers who did not appreciate these anti-racism messages is more shocking than any act of violence in the stories.

Whitted is generally and rightly complimentary of EC’s bravery in its depictions of race issues at a time when such things were not discussed in popular entertainments, though she also rightfully criticizes the comics’ tendency to reduce its black characters to victims with neither personalities nor voices— vehicles for delivering a message of intolerance and altering the lives of the white bigots who are usually the real main characters of the preachies.

Whitted also points out that EC could be guilty of the same kinds of broad racial stereotypes common to the fifties when spinning yarns of voodoo and zombies, but the overall tone of EC Comics: Race, Shock & Social Protest is reasonably celebratory. It is also highly readable and attractively put together, illustrating Whitted’s points with numerous full-color panels from EC comics. While it may find its most natural home in the classroom, EC Comics: Race, Shock & Social Protest is a book that everyone interested in comics history should check out.

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