Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Review: 'The Man Who Laughs' and 'The Last Warning' Blu-rays

In 1927, German director and art director Paul Leni moved to Hollywood where he began making pictures for Universal starting with the comedic old dark house prototype The Cat and the Canary. With that film, Leni proved his merits many times over by taking a plot as hoary as Cane and Abel and zapping it to life with some of the most inventive and audacious film tricks ever slapped across the screen. The picture was a hit and signaled the beginning of a fruitful relationship between Universal and the German expatriate.

Sadly, Leni’s unexpected demise in 1929 meant that relationship would not be as fruitful as expected, but he did manage to make three more films for Universal before succumbing to sepsis. The first of those, a Charlie Chan picture called The Chinese Parrot, is lost, but The Man Who Laughs and The Last Warning are very available and now making their Blu-ray debuts thanks to Flicker Alley.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: 'The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus' Limited Deluxe Edition

1968 was a transitional year in which psychedelia gave way to the British Blues Boom, pop stars metamorphosed into rock stars, the sharp style of Swinging London frumped into patchwork hippie fashions, and the vitality and optimism of the sixties began slumping toward the seventies’ rude awakening. There is no better visual document of this brief yet pungent turning point than The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus. To celebrate the release of Beggars Banquet, which critics love to paint as a big comeback album following a “misguided” foray into psychedelia, The Rolling Stones put together a rag-tag big-top show for the small screen featuring buddies such as Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Jethro Tull, and The Who, as well as a couple of circus acts.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Review: 'The Women of David Lynch: A Collection of Essays'

Like almost all artists worth discussing, David Lynch is highly controversial. Some viewers praise his ability to place you in an unsettling, beautiful, transcendent, and completely realized world. Others dismiss him as a purveyor of weird for the sake of weird. He has also split viewers in terms of his treatment of women. Some feel that the way he portrays women is complex and ultimately empathetic. Many others have dismissed him as a misogynist who gets off on forcing his female characters to suffer.

This particular issue has continually resurfaced since the release of Blue Velvet 33 years ago and on through the debut of the long-awaited third season of Twin Peaks just a couple of years ago. The argument regarding Lynch’s treatment of women is so pervasive that Scott Ryan decided to devote an entire issue of his Twin Peaks ’zine The Blue Rose to the women of David Lynch. Ultimately, he has devoted an entire book to that subject. Since Ryan is a man, he is not the most qualified writer to dive into this sensitive topic, and he very wisely keeps a low profile in The Women of David Lynch. Instead he cedes control to thirteen women to explore such topics as Dorothy Valens’s role in Blue Velvet, the roles of non-white women in Twin Peaks, and the roles of all of the female characters in The Elephant Man. There are also interviews with Mädchen Amick of Twin Peaks and Charlotte Stewart of Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, which provide firsthand accounts of what it’s like to be a woman in Lynch’s world.

Most of the authors who contribute to The Women of David Lynch lean toward a more positive assessment of his treatment of women. They believe that he is generally intent on presenting a realistic idea of what it is like to be a women struggling through a patriarchal society. Understandably, the writers who tackle his treatment of non-white female characters are less forgiving, particularly Melanie McFarland, who is the only writer who is very emphatically not a fan of Lynch’s work. However, even she admits that it’s all a matter of interpretation as she cites other women writers who continue to admire Lynch’s work. Lynch is certainly an artist who demands active interpretation from those who take in his often confounding and troubling work.

As much as I love that work, I am one of those fans who is often troubled by the ideas behind his dreamy/disturbing imagery, and I found it very enlightening that many of the women of The Women of David Lynch found some of Lynch’s more controversial characters, such as Dorothy Valens and Mary X of Eraserhead, worthy of empathy and praise. I guess it does come down to interpretation, though just as a guy like Scott Ryan is not the ideal assessor of Lynch’s treatment of women, a guy like me is not the best assessor of the conclusions of the women who contribute to The Women of David Lynch. I can say that several of these writers confirmed some of my negative assessments, but some challenged them for the better, helping me to gain a more thorough appreciation for work I already loved with definite political reservations. While a couple of the more experimental essays didn’t work for me at all (one is written in the parlance of a Facebook post complete with excessive all caps and “LOLs”; another briefly reviews each of Lynch’s features from the pov of a misogynistic murderer on acid), most of these essays are accessible and enlightening, though I’m sure this particular issue will continue to be debated as long as people continue to study the work and women of David Lynch.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: 'Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film'

From his decision to adapt the scandalous Lolita to the world-annihilating cynicism of Dr. Strangelove to the unflinching anti-storytelling of 2001 to the horrific physical and psychological violence of A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick made a career of shocking viewers. He seemed to save up his most unrelenting succession of shocks for what turned out to be his final film. Kubrick’s decision to film a lengthy orgy extreme enough for U.S. censors to demand its actions be obscured with digital censors was shocking. The fact that the film required an excruciating 18 months to shoot was shocking. The way the long, long, long awaited film from the man many rated as cinema’s greatest living artist baffled, repelled, and bored many viewers was shocking. Kubrick’s sudden death shortly after completing the first cut of Eyes Wide Shut was the biggest shock of all.

Even if you are among those viewers who loathe Eyes Wide Shut, the shocking nature of its making may still compel you to read Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film. Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams uncover new shocks that enrich the story of an already labyrinthian film. Although I knew that the film gestated in Kubrick’s mind for a long time, I was surprised that it did so for as many as 40 years. Kolker and Abrams imply that Kubrick’s obsession with bringing Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle to the screen may have infused much of his earlier work, including Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining (Kubrick annotated his copy of Stephen King’s novel with ideas for scenes that seem straight out of Schnitzler’s), and unproduced projects such as Burning Secret and Laughter in the Dark. Though there is a lot of humor in the finished product (particularly in its oft-misunderstood orgy sequence), I was also surprised by the wealth of evidence that Kubrick seriously considered adapting Traumnovelle as a comedy, and that he’d considered casting Woody Allen and Steve Martin in the lead role and communicated with Terry Southern about writing it.

While I noticed at least one exaggeration (Kolker and Abrams called the Eyes Wide Shut shoot history’s longest, but the 12-year shoot of Boyhood and the 5-year shoot of Eraserhead easily beat its 18 months), the book is well researched (materials include Kubrick’s personal faxes and notes he made on scripts and in books) and doesn’t oversell its conclusions. I’m not sure if it will spur Eyes Wide Shut haters to reevaluate the film, but Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film will give them some fresh insight into the seemingly impenetrable mind of Stanley Kubrick.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Farewell, Peggy Lipton

In a town of cuckoos, criminals, murderers, and demons, Norma Jennings was the token normal person in Twin Peaks. Peggy Lipton played the owner of the R.R. Diner with both a soothing sense of calm amidst the chaos and a sort of quiet toughness when confronted with bozos like lunkhead husband Hank Jennings and crass capitalist Walter Lawford. 

Of course, Lipton's career started well before the 1990 debut of Twin Peaks. Perhaps her biggest claim to fame was her role as counterculture cop Julie Barnes on Mod Squad, but she'd also appeared in a multitude of other series such as Bewitched, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Virginian. She had a side career as a singer, as well, releasing versions of Laura Nyro's "Stoney End" and "Lu" and Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven". 

Peggy Lipton was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, but following treatment, she resumed acting on series such as Rules of Engagement, Crash, and Psych, and even resumed the role that most endears her to Psychobabble when she returned to Twin Peaks as Norma Jennings in 2017. Sadly, Peggy Lipton died from cancer yesterday. She was 72.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review: 'Superman: The Golden Age Dailies: 1947-1949'

When we last left Superman: The Golden Age Dailies a year ago, our hero had wrapped up any war-time business to contend with arch nemesis Lex Luthor and get goofy with the likes of Mr. Mxyztplk and a pair of invisible imps called the Ogies. As IDW's series continues with more golden age adventures ranging from 1947 to 1949, Supes is no longer grappling with his most famous foes, though the whimsical post-war tone basically continues. 

Aside from a reappearance of the Ogies (who materialize in corporeal form as twin pin ups), the bad guys are more mundane with a preponderance of machine-gun toting gangsters. Consequently, there's a bit more violence this time, and things get particularly grim when a plot to off Lois Lane involves electrocuting a cat. Hiss! 

However, wackiness still abounds, and Superman: The Golden Age Dailies: 1947-1949 is at its most fun when Superman is digging a bizarre underground maze to protect a youth serum or constructing a giant sea monster to foil a scheme that involves a yegg who must marry Lois Lane to save his own life. Most hilarious of all is a story in which Superman makes a series of uncharacteristically vain and idiotic decisions that end up with him agreeing to wrestle Clark Kent in order to protect his secret identity. In another bonkers tale, Superman is sent to jail and forced to perform hard labor...for the crime of speeding. Then there's the storyline titled "Superman: Male Escort". I kid you not. 

While the sexism of some of these stories has aged badly (in one infuriating strip, he spanks a woman, which of course, she thinks is charmingly masculine), the lunacy of them is just what we need in an age of overly serious superheroes and their overly serious fans.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Farewell, Peter Mayhew

One of the weirdest bits in George Lucas's weird space opera was the presence of a giant dog who could fly a space ship. When casting the role, Lucas's main criteria was that the actor be tall. He got what he wanted when he met 7 foot, 3 inch Peter Mayhew.

Mayhew was an orderly with no acting credits prior to 1977, the year he appeared in both Star Wars as Chewbacca and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger as The Minotaur--a sort of human special effect in contrast to Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion miniatures.

Although his limited acting career was spent behind masks, Mayhew was more than a mere special effect, projecting his humanity beyond his wooly wookiee suit with distinctive body language. His work certainly went a long way in ensuring that Chewbacca would be a favorite character, especially among children (he certainly was my favorite when I was a Star Wars-addicted tot). Peter Mayhew was never going to win an Oscar, but he was well loved. He died this past Tuesday at the age of 74 after many years of health problems.

Review: 'Peeled' by The 40 Watt Banana

In the late sixties and early seventies, New Zealand's The 40 Watt Banana made music that is at once fairly experimental and the kind of thing you'd hear on the soundtrack of a Roger Corman acid flick. With a name that sounds like something Kevin Arnold of The Wonder Years considered calling his garage band before settling on "The Electric Shoes," The 40 Watt Banana are very, very much of their era. Kevin Clark and Dave Parsons are the core of the group, and the former's trumpet and latter's sitar are the dominant instruments. Imagine Hugh Masekela crashing an Incredible String Band jam session, and you'll start to get the picture.

To be clear, all of these elements are pluses. Late sixties psych, groovy jazz, sitars, and goofy, psychedelic band names are all awesome. Though Clark and Parsons aren't quite virtuosos, they do brew up a heady sound, and much of what they brewed is on Pharaway Sounds' new vinyl comp Peeled. The liner notes include a caveat regarding the sound quality: only the single "Nirvana" (a relatively pop-ish track that has appeared on a few compilations and is the one number with vocals) was culled from an original master tape. However, the warning is unnecessary since audio quality is always far from dire, and the lower-fi sound of some of this material just adds to the mesmerizing atmosphere that is the main appeal of The 40 Watt Banana.
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