Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
      ( 2/07/2007 03:49:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"TERRY'S NOT A BIT LIKE YOU!" – For this week's mid-week music vid, let's hit the Wayback Machine to the glory days of Stiff Records – with Kirsty Maccoll's "Terry":

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007
      ( 2/06/2007 11:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"LAY DOWN MY VISIONARY EYES" – To those of us who've been waiting for folk-pop savant Lindsey Buckingham to release his own solo Smile, a beautifully willful blend of doleful harmonies and clever pop hooks from start to finish – the elpee that Go Insane once teasingly promised he'd eventually produce – well, it looks like we're gonna be holding on a little longer. Under the Skin (Reprise), Buckingham’s first solo outing in ten years (with a side stop in between for that Fleetwood Mac reunion) is another good-but-not-astounding solo outing that takes at least one track to hold you, keeps your attention most of the way, then starts to peter out near the end. If it's not the dense pop masterwork we all hope for, well, at least it continues to hold out the promise.

In terms of its overall sound, the disc is aggressively spare. The Lindsey B. who brought in the USC Trojan Marching Band to play "Tusk" is nowhere to be heard. Much of Skin is entirely self-played (though two of his mates from Mac show up for a coupla tracks): Lindsey with his ever-busy acoustic guitar plus plenty of his echoey multi-tracked vocals. The prime tone is one of druggy late-night contemplation, which suits a cover like the Rolling Stones' "I Am Waiting" (from '66) perfectly. To my ears, the closer we get to Mac (e.g., "Down on Rodeo," a countrified lament that could read like a eulogy for his old band), the more dynamic the album sounds.

Still, some of Buckingham's more subdued tracks can be sweetly addictive. "Show You How" recalls the folkie vibe of "Catch the Wind" Donovan with its intro, then builds to a slightly off-kilter harmony chorus; title track "Under the Skin" uses a Latin rhythm to sleepily sexy effect; while "Cast Away Dreams" is just a plain lovely wistful pop tune. "It Was You" even contains a sneaky sonic allusion to John Lennon's primal scream Plastic Ono Band disc – perhaps the greatest of the stripped down rock exercises.

Once our man starts meandering, though – as in the thoroughly unmemorable "Shut Us Down" – all you can hear is hyper-busy fingering in the pursuit of some whispery secret we're never told. By the time you arrive at the equally aimless finish, "Flying Down Juniper," the overriding impression is of an artist lost in his production sound – one whose introspective impulses have overpowered his pop smarts, bound 'em with electrical tape and shoved 'em into a basement cabinet.

To be sure, the results of all this home-studio knob twiddling are not unpleasant. (I played this album driving my wife home from hospital surgery last week, and it made for perfect background noise.) But in the end, the full Skin still comes off more solipsistic than audience-friendly. Like the hero of that Stones song, we hopeful fans are still kept waiting . . .
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Monday, February 05, 2007
      ( 2/05/2007 06:28:00 PM ) Bill S.  

CHOW HOUND – "You must really really really really really like your gravy!" – Butch, the Kroger cashier upon noting that I've ventured out in four degree weather to buy a jar of Heinz Savory Beef Gravy. Hey, it's not a hot beef sandwich without gravy!
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      ( 2/05/2007 01:15:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"PATSIES. THE WORLD'S FULL OF 'EM!" – Gotta admit that the thought of Buena Vista being the source of DVD reissues from the long and checkered career of director/producer Roger Corman has me more than a little flummoxed – even if the packagers attempt to justify it by labeling him the "Reigning King of Independent Film" (as opposed to "Mister Low-Budget"). Yeah, I know that BV is so much more than Disney these days, but seeing an ad for the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean flick alongside a collage of Cormania that includes such gems as Death Race 2000 (budgetary excess versus brilliance on a tight purse) remains decidedly strange. Still, if it results in the rescue of a picture like The Cry Baby Killer from the blurry netherworld of the Dollar Tree cheapie DVD shelves, I can't help but applaud BV's acquisition of a good part of the Corman Library.

Initially released in 1958, Cry Baby Killer is best-known as Jack Nicholson's debut film. In it, he plays Jimmy Wallace (you know at heart this is a good kid 'cuz his name is Jimmy), who we first see getting beaten up in a dark alley by a bunch of young punks. Leader of said punks is an oldish looking youth named Manny Cole (durable low-budget actor Brett Halsey) who has recently stolen Jimmy's girl Carole (Carolyn Mitchell). "When the Mannys of the world take over," one of Cole's young henchpunks states, "the Jimmy Wallaces get lost." Except Jimmy is too stubborn to know he's supposed to get lost. Bringing along his useless football player buddy, he follows Manny and his crew to Klix Drive-In, a seedy hang-out for would-be juvenile delinquents. "Hate to see clean-looking kids go into that place," uniformed copper Glen Gannon (John Shay) notes, in between half-assedly flirting with seen-it-all waitress Julie (Lynn Cartwright), and we quickly learn why.

Inside the dump, smarmy Manny attempts to spike the spellbound Carole's soda pop, so he can get her home and take advantage of her young nubile self. But before Carole's virtue is forever compromised, Jimmy shows to challenge Manny to a man-to-man fight. They Take It Outside to a place away from the copper Gannon’s eyes, and a scuffle ensues wherein Jimmy grabs a gun from one of Manny's toadies. Both Manny and the toady get shot; Officer Glen arrives on the scene; and poor panicking Jimmy grabs a mother and her baby into a convenient storeroom where he holds them – plus a Negro cook named Sam (Smoki Whitfield) – hostage.

All of this takes place in the flick's first fifteen minutes. The rest of the 61-minute b-&-w feature is devoted to a stand-off 'tween Jimmy and the police with periodic padding dialog by most of the grown-ups about the Trouble with Kids Today. (Scriptwriter/character actor Leo Gordon gets off the best line as a member of the bystanding mob: "Teenagers," he sneers. "Never had 'em when I was a kid!") Jimmy's parents arrive so that Mom can call blond Carole a cheap hussy; good-guy cop Glen continues to flirt with waitress Julie; and hard-nosed police lieutenant Porter (Harry Lauter) weighs the advantages of using tear gas on a room where one of the hostages is an infant. In the background, teevee cameras for station KQQQ and a hot-dog vendor show up to take part in the action – like some low-budget version of Billy Wilder's The Big Carnival.

Young Nicholson's a pleasure to watch in his storeroom-bound scenes: growing more jittery as the night progresses, bouncing off of his frightened captives. "I don't know what to do," he moans at one point, and you can hear the sound of a thousand Method Acting workshops in that single exclamation. If at times, there's a brace more braininess behind those eyes than his character is allowed to actually demonstrate, well, that's partly screen inexperience and partly because we know just how smart Nicholson'll ultimately prove to be. He proves much more comfortable in this flick than he'll be in later Corman period horrorflix The Raven or The Terror.

The movie's stand-off ends anti-climactically – despite a ten-minute countdown sequence where director Jus Addis regularly gives us shots of Lt. Porter's Bulova – with blond Carole delivering a bullhorn speech ("Maybe it's all my fault," she sez, or, "maybe it's everybody’s fault!") meant to tie things up and lure Jimmy out of that storeroom. Once the credits roll, however, we realize that its title is a cheat: nobody was killed. Manny and Al have been taken to the hospital, never to be heard from again, while Jimmy's three hostages all make it out okay: mother and child back in the loving arms of their worried husband, Sam to be inexplicably glared at by Lt. Porter. According to Ed Naha's The Films of Roger Corman, Gordon's full original script was "de-written" by one of Corman's assistants, so perhaps the first draft painted Nicholson's Jimmy as a teary-eyed killer for real. Would've been more interesting if it had.

Whatever an intentional or haphazard fraud, the title still inspires a nifty period theme song: a bongo-heavy faux roll-'n'-roll lament by Dick Kallman ("Sweat was pouring from off his brow/Wasn't any hope for him no-how!"), perhaps best known for later playing record executive Little Louie Groovy on the Batman series.

All told, Cry Baby Killer remains pretty lightweight, even by 50's drive-in standards. But the movie goes by so quickly, you don't really mind. Buena Vista's DVD is being packaged as a "Back-to-Back Jack Edition," featuring a colorized version of 1960's Little Shop of Horrors as a bonus feature. This, too, is a bit of a con, of course, since Nicholson's part in that notorious quickie horror comedy is the short-but-memorable role as a masochistic dental patient (who'd later be assayed by Bill Murray in Frank Oz's movie musical version). Though more than one movie buff has decried the use of colorization on this feature, in a way this bankrupt technique adds to the general tattiness of a film that legendarily was shot by Corman in two days.

At least Shop was actually directed by Corman, instead of Addis, who's mainly known for his workmanship in series television (did a few Twilight Zones and Alfred Hitchcocks). While I know that Corman brought a lotta great directors into the biz – along with young-&-cheap thespians like Nicholson – what I'd really like to see on remastered DVD are more of his own early directorial efforts. Many of Corman's best directing jobs have already been released on DVD, of course (often as part of MGM's "Midnite Movies" series), but the man was so prolific that you just know there are some unreleased low-budget gems out there waiting to be polished up and repackaged. How about a good copy of The Terror? You wouldn't even need to colorize it!

(Many thanx to The Corman Cult for providing a copy of this disc.)
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Sunday, February 04, 2007
      ( 2/04/2007 10:33:00 PM ) Bill S.  

MY ONLY SUPER BOWL RELATED POST (WITH A CAMEO APPEARANCE BY ALANIS MORISSETTE AS GOD) – A dollop of network teevee Irony: CBS following a Super Bowl Post-Game Show (wherein Tony Dungy heartily thanks God Almighty for his team's victory) with an episode of Criminal Minds (where tonight's serial killer is a religious whack job with MPD who's fixated on the Book of Revelation). Works for me . . .
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      ( 2/04/2007 09:33:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC – Dusty voices his pleasure over the fact that Mom has returned from the hospital (Kyan standing by in agreement):

THE USUAL NOTE: For more companion animals, check out Modulator's "Friday Ark." And if you wanna see some more dogg blogging (and who doesn't?), there's the weekly "Carnival of the Dogs" at Mickey's Musings.
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Saturday, February 03, 2007
      ( 2/03/2007 03:26:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY-MINUTE MANGA – (Today's Episode: In which we learn that "Many people love books, but very few are loved by books!")

The heroine of R.O.D. (Read or Die) looks more like a character who needs rescuing than a super-powered agent for a Special Operations Division. Tall and slender, with ultra-large eyeglasses that she never removes and a school marm's fashion sense, Yomiko Readman is a Paper Master for the Library of England. In the world of R.O.D. (first established in book and direct-to-video animé, if I've got my chronology correct), book-larnin' is a high-priced commodity and librarians are figures of power. Yeah, this is science-fantasy, alright.

Yomiko's powers derive through supernatural force of will from her close connection to books. As one super-powered antagonist puts it, "Our abilities have grown out of our intense attachment to what we love" – and, as innocent as she appears, it's also made her more than a little monstrous. Though we're not given any specifics, it's asserted (by an admittedly unreliable character) that she's responsible for the death of a previous Paper Master, a lover/mentor named Donnie Nakajima. As the 19th Paper Master, Yomiko can manipulate sheets of pulp or volumes of printed material – making them hard enough to repel bullets or support human bodies (in one scene, she turns a stack of Shonen Jump mags into a bridge), using single sheets to create paper airplanes that can serve as sharply pointed weapons. Is there a single weedy kid reader out there in the world who doesn’t wish they had this power?

In Volume One of the four-book Viz manga series (written by series creator Hideyuki Kurata & drawn by Shutaro Yamada), our heroine – after a single chapter quickie introducing her and the manikin-faced secret agent Joker who is her intermediary with the Special Ops Division – primarily spends her time rescuing a teen-aged writer from an obsessed fan. Christening her "Paul S" (after the protagonist of Stephen King's Misery), the wealthy psycho kidnaps writer Nenene Sumiregawa where he plans to bed her on a mattress made up of her books. It's all part of his crazed plan to inspire the girl to produce a "masterwork of unparalleled popularity to make the masses see . . ." No, it doesn't make a lick of sense, but the guy's nuts, right?

Abetting our maniac kidnapper is a second super-talented type named Fire Inc., who's your typical hyper-sexualized villainess: wears a breast-hugging top with much cleavage, actively flirts with our heroine and regularly speaks in sexual metaphors. ("We'll both reach our climax at the same time!" she shouts in the heat – double-meaning intended – of battle.) There's a good measure of girl/girl sexual teasing slathered onto this book, much of it centered around the "homely"-faced Yomiko, though we're pretty sure the most intensive tactilely sensual feelings that our heroine has experienced have centered around dust covers and leather book bindings.

Per her moniker, Fire Inc. controls flames using giant matches and is, of course, paper's "worst enemy," though we don't have any doubt that Yomiko will survive her "deflowering by fire." (Okay, that one was a bit campy, Inc.!) If their "climactic" battle frequently substitutes movement, impact lines and dynamic poses for clarity . . . well, that's not much different from too many American superhero books, innit? All I know is that our heroine defeats the henchwoman by intensely believing in the power of pulp to overcome flames and by flipping a sheet of paper at her. I'm still puzzled by her ability to make a convincing paper decoy of herself. Do her powers extend to making printed ink shift around, too?

Though Nenene's rescue isn't a Special Ops assignment, Yomiko's contact Joker also shows up to provide assistance. In his most memorable moment in the first volume, the library agent interrogates two henchmen in a manner that'd do Jack Bauer proud: he pulls out a tape of a forbidden book so dread-filled that to hear it drives the listener to madness. Sitting in the interrogation room with earplugs for protection, Joker starts the tape and has the two uncooperative villains whimpering in fear and pain within seconds.

There are repeated references in R.O.D. to deadly or just plain obscene banned texts (in the first chapter, a copy of The Black Book of Fairy Tales, a collection of erotic and grotesque stories penned for the exclusive enjoyment of the aristocracy, is retrieved from its thief by our heroine) – which leads one to suspect that the Library of England is not the most liberal of organizations. While I've tried to avoid reading too much advanced info about this series, my sense is that Yomiko is at some point going to bump against the powers-that-be. Whether that happens in the manga series or another media remains to be seen.

On its own, the manga R.O.D. can't help feeling more than a little incomplete, though. There are moments in the book where you can see author Kurata relying on reader knowledge of his heroine's prior appearances (I suspect, for instance, the references made to her doomed relationship with the previous Paper Master don't come off as awkwardly to followers of the series) and indulging a short-hand that I suspect does full justice to his own creations. At times, I found myself thinking of Dell Comics' comic book adaptations in the 60's of teevee spy series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – works that gave a hint of what their sources were about without fully capturing their (relative) complexity. The results ain't boring; I can see myself reading the remaining three volumes of this thankfully limited manga series, if only to see what other bibliographic adventures Kurata concocts. But I'm still guessing paper manga just isn't Yomiko's best medium . . .
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Friday, February 02, 2007
      ( 2/02/2007 03:47:00 PM ) Bill S.  

IF NUTHIN' ELSE – This week's ATHF hullabaloo shows why it's oh-so-important to have a good grasp on moderne pop culture:

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      ( 2/02/2007 12:02:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"MY WORLD'S STRANGE INDEED!" – That José Mojica Marins' Awakening of the Beast (1969) was banned in its country of origin for almost two decades is almost enough to get one favorably reconsidering oppressive military juntas. An incoherent mélange of calculatedly appalling acts, Awakening is presented as an entry in the Brazilian actor/filmmaker's Coffin Joe series – though Marins' CJ persona proves more metaphor than active character. A popular figure in horror movies, radio and black-&-white horror comics (during the movie's opening credits, some comics pages are used as back – they look very Warren-esque), Coffin Joe is a menacing figure with ultra-long curly fingernails and a top hat. Awakening opens with a black-&-white shot of Joe blasting out of his coffin to the strains of "Ave Maria," then delivering a portentous speech into the camera. But following that intro, CJ disappears for two-thirds of the film. Instead, we're treated to a series of vignettes devoted to a variety of sordid activities – most of which revolve around drug use.

The movie proper, which recently aired on the Independent Film Channel's Friday night "Grindhouse" series, begins with a sequence that pretty much lets us know what to expect. In it, a young blond shoots up – an act shown in protracted detail as she injects the needle into her foot – then strips before a room of leering scuzballs while a perky Brazilian pop tune tells us, "We're all gonna die/Die at first light." Once our shapely junkie is fully undraped, she directs the room's attention to a wrapped package. Her audience eagerly tears it open to reveal a chamber pot. The sequence concludes with a pot-level shot of the woman squatting down, preparing to deliver the inevitable. "Oh boy," we think, "we're in for some real entertainment tonight!"

Turns out the vignette – and a host of others – are being delivered by Marins himself as part of a teevee show entitled "People's Court of Truth," where the director has been asked to appear to defend his popular entertainments. "You recount the exploits of degenerates as though they were poetry for some romance," one of his television interrogators states, though the viewer might be forgiven if they don't see much visual poetry in the proceedings. In a second sequence, a young schoolgirl is lured to a party held by a group of bearded young bohemians; they get her stoned on reefer, then proceed to fondle her as she dances on a table and they whistle the "Bridge on the River Kwai" theme. "My world is multi-colored because I make it so," she declares, but since this part of the flick's in black-&-white, we have to take her word for it. (Later, the flick turns into beautiful Technicolor.) The party turns sour, though, when a robed prophet sudden appears in the apartment and fatally, sexually assaults her with his walking staff: "an orgy of addiction that took the life of a young girl."

After several more of these little moral tales, we finally arrive at Awakening's "story." In it, a psychologist enlists four volunteers to take what they believe is LSD and spend their trip focusing on a poster of Coffin Joe. The clean-cut looking drugees – two men and two women – each have an extended hallucination with CJ as their guide, and the movie transforms into bright color to give us the full glory of these trips. Marins cuts between these mind voyages – which are staged like more surreal versions of the Jaycees' Haunted House. In one, f'rinstance, a character walks across a bridge of naked men; in another, the older male watches a troupe of naked babes dog pile on top of each other into a fleshy pyramid to be languidly whipped; in a third, our tripper is menaced by a mysterious creature that looks like a chicken with a face painted on its plucked butt. Through it all, Coffin Joe stands on the sidelines, appearing and disappearing, looking all knowing and sinister but otherwise not doing very much.

Pretty nonsensical, though from what I can gather, this isn't necessarily a typical Coffin Joe flick, which tend toward more traditional horror subject matter. Instead, it's Marins' attempt at a combination social statement/artistic manifesto, a defense of his assertively primitive brand of exploitation cinema that apparently fell on deaf ears when it came up against governmental forces of anti-expression. Thirty years later, much of Marins' confused nattering looks more goofy than shocking, though the sixties era music remains fun. (We even get an extended discothèque sequence with a lotta shots of wriggling rumps.) As an examination of the sinister world of drug abuse, though, the movie doesn't hold together – especially when it's revealed in the "surprise" ending that the LSD our foursome thought they were taking was actually distilled water so all that hallucinatory craziness wasn't drug-induced at all, just a reflection of their true inner selves. Pretty freaky . . .
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Thursday, February 01, 2007
      ( 2/01/2007 06:48:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"IF I HOLD MY NOSE . . . WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW?" – Here's a fun promo, put up on YouTube by the folks at New Line – John Waters reads the liner notes to his new CD collection, A Date With:

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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