El Bicho's Hive

A Collection of Reviews Covering the Worlds of Art and Entertainment alongside other Snobbish Ramblings.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Whoever came up with the made-to-order DVD service at WarnerArchive.com is a genius. All studios have quite a number of titles in the vaults that for one reason or another the decision-makers don't think warrant the financial investment required for a mass-market home-video release. In the past, these titles used to sit and collect dust, but now the technology is both available and affordable for the studios to create DVDs upon a consumer's request and have opened up new revenue streams.

Pretty Maids All in a Row is now available to order, and I understand why no one had faith in it: it's a terrible movie. Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry produced and adapted Francis Pollini's novel for this combination sex comedy/crime story, which is director Roger Vadim's first American movie. Neither aspect is well executed and the movie is just an excuse to showcase very attractive women. It likely had an appeal to young boys and shy men at the time who couldn't see naked women on their own, but now seems rather quaint.

Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson) is a sexually obsessed, high school virgin. He leaves his classroom because the presence of his sexy substitute teacher Miss Betty Smith (Angie Dickinson) gives him an erection. He goes to the bathroom to relax and finds a dead female student with a note pinned to her in the stall next to him. Captain Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas) arrives on scene to lead the investigation.

Michael McDrew (Rock Hudson) is the football coach, school psychologist, and co-principal. His nickname is Tiger and he sleeps with a number of the female students. Apparently that sort of thing was all right in 1971. And he's not the only one. Tiger schemes to get Miss Smith to sleep with Ponce and because she wants to sleep with Tiger she goes along with it. Apparently I went to high school in the wrong decade.

After the second dead body, it's obvious who the killer is to the audience. When two more bodies show up, it adds to the unbelievably of the story's conclusion because not only does the killer escape but is assisted.

The end of the movie is even odder because after bedding Miss Smith, who appears destined to hook up with another student, Ponce has become a stud. He is seen making plans to have sex with three different women after school. Of course, they are at different times otherwise it may appear ridiculous.

Pretty Maids All in a Row is a male fantasy filled with beautiful women who are eager and willing to have sex. It plays out like a softcore porno with all the sex cut out and doesn't have much to laugh at, neither intentionally nor unintentionally. The print is damaged and contains some of the worst ADR I have ever heard. The one positive the film has to offer is how nice it is see women not altered through plastic surgery.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hank Williams – The Complete Mother's Best Recordings... Plus!

I am not the first and won't be the last to sing the praises of the legendary Hank Williams. He displayed such talent as a singer-songwriter his influence surpassed the country western genre. In 1937 at the age of 14 he was given his own radio show on WSFA in Montgomery, Alabama, and put together a band known as The Drifting Cowboys. Hank expanded into recording religious music under the name Luke the Drifter. He had 11 #1 hits, such as "Cold, Cold Heart", "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)", and "Your Cheatin' Heart"; quite a few more in the Top Ten, and has been covered by many different artists over the years, from Tony Bennett to Beck.

Hank's personal life wasn't as successful. He had problems with alcohol and drugs, resulting in his dismissal from WSFA in 1942 and the Grand Old Opry in 1952. Hs first marriage to Audrey Sheppard ended in divorce. He died on New Year's Day 1953 en route to a concert in Canton, OH at the age of 29.

Two years earlier he found himself a busy man and doing well. He played over 100 concert dates; earned five Top Ten Country hits, including two #1s, and starred on a 15-minute morning radio broadcast sponsored by Mother's Best Flour for Nashville's WSM that aired at 7:15 am throughout the year. The shows were recorded to 16" acetate discs and were almost thrown away if it hadn’t been for photographer Les Leverett, who is owed a debt of gratitude. After a court battle, the recordings were deemed to be the property of the Williams estate.

In conjunction with Time Life, the shows are being released in a limited edition deluxe set currently available only online or by phone. Fans will be thrilled to learn that the Mother's Best collection increases "the number of known Hank Williams recordings by fifty percent," according to the website.

The packaging is stunning. It is shaped like an old-time radio and the back has a picture of what the electronics inside would look like. There's a knob on the front that plays a recording from WSM. Inside the packaging are 16 discs: 15 CDs and one DVD. There are "72 complete 15-minute shows, featuring 143 performances by Hank Williams." A number of songs are repeated over the course of the year. Some he never recorded commercially and others he never recorded elsewhere. The website identifies them for the curious.

Most of the shows have a similar rundown. Hank sings a song, the band or another singer gets a song, and then Hank closes with a religious song. In between he serves as a spokesman for Mother's Best products. Cousin Louie Buck, who assists with the introductions of the "lovesick blues boy" and the product promotion, hosted the program. Hank is backed by The Drifting Cowboys who at this stage are Don Helms, Sammy Pruett, Jerry Rivers and Cedric Rainwater. Hank and the musicians are in fine form throughout and it's easy to understand why he was so popular. He has a great voice and is able to evoke the emotions of the song's stories. The fellas are entertaining when bantering back and forth. Audrey sings on several programs at the onset but stops appearing. She's not a very good singer so she isn't missed, and their fraying relationship is likely a contributing factor for her absence.

The shows at the beginning of the set are identified by the specific dates they aired through January and February. Then the cataloging isn’t as accurate with notations like "probably February" and "early March" moving on to the less specific "probably Spring."

Disc 15 is slightly different. With the same basic premise, Hank records an audition in Spring 1952 in the hopes of getting sponsored by Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. "Stars in Her Eyes" is a Venereal Disease Public Service Announcement where Hank serves as a balladeer as the story plays out. Lena starts dating her boss Joe and within a week they stay the night together. After being married a month, he has to go away for three months for work, which causes her great stress. She takes his picture off the mantle, and then Joe's pal from high school, Leo comes around. After a month, he brings over some alcohol and gets her drunk. She ends up catching syphilis and has to tell her husband. It is bizarre.

The DVD is entitled "Hank Williams: The Untold Stories," a 41-minute interview with Hank's daughter; former band member Helms and supporting act Big Bill Lister, both of whom have since passed away, and WSM engineer Glenn Snoddy. They share stories and heap praise onto Hank. Also included in the set is an informative 108-page book that contains annotated liner notes detailing each program and a double-sided poster with Hank on one side and his 1951-tour schedule on the other.

The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings….Plus! is a fantastic and important piece of history that allows listeners a glimpse of the past. The shows are very enjoyable, but because of their repetitive nature, particularly in regards to the commercials, I prefer listening to them one episode at a time like they originally aired rather than an entire disc at a time.

Jake Brown of Glorious Noise opens the set:

Article first published as Music Review: Hank Williams - The Complete Mother's Best Recordings... Plus! on Blogcritics.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

CHARADE - The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

While the bloated excess of Cleopatra (1963) bankrupted 20th Century Fox and helped bring an end to the Classic Hollywood era, that same year saw the release of a delightful comic thriller that demonstrated the magic studios can deliver when they get it right.

Charade creates great suspense from the start as the opening scene features a body thrown from a train. We cut to a French chalet where we meet Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), an unhappy woman who talks about getting a divorce from husband Charles. She briefly crosses paths with Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant, and considering his top billing, we know we're going to see him again.

Regina returns to Paris and finds an empty house. She learns from the police Charles has been murdered, and later CIA administrator Barthlomew (Walter Matthau) informs her Charles was part of a group that stole $250k from the U.S. government during the war and he is dead because he double-crossed his former cohorts, comprised of James Coburn and George Kennedy, who now want their cut and come after her for it. Peter comes to her aid but has ulterior motives. Regina really finds herself in a jam. She doesn't know who to trust and doesn't know where the treasure. Once dead bodies start turning up, the stakes get even higher.

Producer/director Stanley Donen guides the film with a sure and steady hand, balancing the comedy, drama, action, and romance together. That latter does test the limits of believability as Grant looks the entire 25-year age gap between he and Hepburn, but his character acknowledges it and the engaging dialogue between the two characters keeps them interesting to watch. The story by Marc Behm and Peter Stone is very smart and keeps the viewer in the dark almost as much as Regina. There is no false note in the plot as all the story's twists and turns are believable. Amazingly, this film fell into public domain because Universal forgot to notice the copyright in the credits as was required by law at the time.

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of the film may make you want to buy a copy, although the a/v specs don't make the best use of the high-def format. While the work to the restore the film likely makes this release better than the rest, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4, displayed at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio encoded transfer, is uneven. Some scenes have a distracting amount of grain. The bold colors of the opening title sequence but it sets a high bar that isn't always attainable throughout the rest of the film. The brightness is too high in some sequences and blacks are inconsistent. The mono audio channel delivers a decent experience but the ADR sounds flat when cut with production audio and there's not enough oomph during the action scenes.

As far as extras go, there's a commentary track recorded in 1999 by Donen and Stone and the film's trailer. It's a pleasant track as these two old pro discuss the film, but it deserves a little more attention bestowed on it. The essay by film historian Bruce Eder isn't enough.

Charade is an enjoyable film that is well worth seeing. However, it may be better as a rental until the price drops or the release gets an upgrade.

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The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex by Kristen Schaal and Rich Blomquist

Written by real-life couple actress/comedienne Kristen Schaal and staff writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Rich Blomquist, The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex is a hysterical look at the different aspects of sex for straights, gays, and even animals. Lucky for those who like naughty bits "the most erotic and titillating parts of this guide are printed in red." The book also comes with a warning not to "insert the book into ANY orifice for sexual gratification," which is smart in our overly litigious society.

The authors are assisted by Michael Kupperman and Lisa Hanawalt who provide illustrations that keep the book from being read at the vast majority of jobs or by gentlemen in mixed company. Although if you are looking to get fired, leave the book open on your desk to the "Where's Waldo" spoof "Wildo's Retreat," a two-page spread that suggests what Hieronymus Bosch's work on a Tijuana bible would have looked like.

The past, present, and future of sex are covered. The first female orgasm on record comes from an 1897 diary entry by Flora Stanley after an accidental encounter with a prototype for her husband's steam engine invention. The future portends wonderful things. Forget Woody Allen's orgasmatron, the science of teledildonics reveals many advances. The next step in the evolution of shared remote sexual experiences will be robotexting where robots will be sent to perform the acts that can't take place in person. On the other hand, the glory wormhole has more frightening possibilities than the terrestrial version. Not knowing what lifeform may be on the other side of the universe willing to give an unknown user a blow job is scary enough to imagine, but when the authors discuss the theories of time travel, using a glory wormhole could change the history of the Earth or at least of your dating life.

The gay chapter gives some examples of slash fiction, a genre that finds TV series characters reimagined as hypersexual homosexuals. I first became aware of this phenomenon at a Star Trek convention where illustrated stories revealed Kirk and Spock melding more than minds. Of course, the humorists pick the shows from which a reader would least like to see characters having sex: Alf, The Golden Girls, and Knight Rider. You'll never think of KITT the same way again.

The book offers amusing factoids sprinkled throughout, although "fact" isn't the f-word that they use. There are also helpful hints that inform what household items can be used as dildos. Dil-dos are bowling pins and cell phones on vibrate while dil-don'ts are light bulbs and cacti. While the "don'ts" seem obvious, I am sure one medical professional probably has a cringe-inducing anecdote to the contrary about one curious individual.

The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex should be called The Funny Book of Sexy Sex except for the part about impotence because there's nothing funny about that even if it does happen to everyone...or so I hear. Like sex, the book is enjoyable read alone or in groups, although if you can get a group to have sex, you might as well wait and read it alone.

Article first published as Book Review: The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex by Kristen Schaal and Rich Blomquist on Blogcritics.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bored to Death - The Complete First Season (Blu-ray)

HBO's Bored to Death is a half-hour comedy series created by writer Jonathan Ames about writer Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman). In the extras the real Ames states his life informs the series but it is not autobiographical. In the series premiere the fictional Ames decides to become a private investigator like Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe after being dumped by his girlfriend Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby) because the 30-year-old Brooklynite wouldn't quit smoking pot or drinking alcohol, though to be fair he was down to white wine.

The eight episodes of the first season revolve around Ames' unlicensed detective work as he helps others with their lives, which keeps him distracted from having to deal with his own issues, such as accepting why his girlfriend left and trying to complete a second novel. The series' humor is amusing, though frequently dry. The characters are frequently the cause of their own problems, making them familiar to anyone who has seen a few low-budget indie films out of New York.

Schwartzman is a perfect fit as Jonathan, floating between hollow confidence and a malaise brought on by having to be a grown-up; however, although the focal point, Jonathan is the least interesting character of the series. More entertaining are his friend Ray (Zach Galifianakis) and his boss George (Ted Danson). Ray is a comic book writer who is sexually frustrated by his girlfriend Leah (Heather Burns), the mother of two children. Ray is also frustrated because she is constantly on him to improve physically and emotionally. George is the editor of "Edition" and his id is stuck in overdrive as he constantly on the lookout for something fun to do. The series is better whenever either one of them are paired with Jonathan.

The series has drawn an impressive collection of talent to guest star. The roster includes Kristen Wiig and Parker Posey as Jonathan's clients; Bebe Nuerwirth as his book agent; John Hodgman as a writing rival; Oliver Platt as a publishing rival of George's who is also married to Priscilla (Laila Robins), George's most orgasmic ex; and Patton Oswalt as a spy-equipment-store owner where Jonathan shops.

The video is presented with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode displayed at 1.78:1 that is impressive. Colors are strong and the blacks are rich; the latter helping to evoke film noir from the shadows and delineation on display. There's very good detail such as the clearly seen textures of Jonathan yellow-brown corduroy jacket. There are some scenes with grain issues; light colors of blue and red frame the grain, appearing like the image was blown up from 16mm to 35mm. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 isn't fully used for this front-heavy mix that mainly delivers dialogue. The ambiance is so inconsequential it's not clear why anyone bothered. A little more tweaking could have brought the scenes and the city to life.

There are bonus features on both discs and they come in HD. Disc 1 includes commentaries on episode 1 and 3 with Schwartzman, Ames, and the each episode's director. There are also deleted scenes from episodes 3 and 4 (4 min). On Disc 2 there are commentaries on episodes 6 and 8 with Schwartzman and Ames joined by director Adam Bernstein and Ted Damson respectively. There are two deleted scenes from episode 8 (3 min). "Jonathan Ames' Brooklyn" (13 min) finds the writer joined by Schwartzman as they visit the locations where the series shot. "The Making of Bored to Death (20 min) is a typical look behind the scenes of the HBO series.

Bored to Death is not your usual sitcom so those interested in a slightly different comedy should give it a chance though there won't be much lost by sampling it on DVD.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Bored to Death - The Complete First Season on Blogcritics.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Breathless (1960) - The Criterion Collection

Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless helped launch the French New Wave movement, which challenged norms of the medium. Godard's directorial choices appear intended to increase the realism by paradoxically never letting you forget you are watching a movie. Even half a century later, the results remain fascinating though history has inevitably dulled its full impact. How amazing it must have been able to witness its groundbreaking debut in 1960 from a first-time feature filmmaker as it challenged all comers.

Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a young criminal. As the film opens, he steals a car and murders a cop. He returns to Paris where he reconnects with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American student. He claims to be in love with her and wants them to run off to Italy. To do this, he is trying to collect on debts. Patricia is seems unsure of their feelings for each other. They have some chemistry but fit together oddly. Her parents want her to enroll at The Sorbonne if she expects them to send more money. She sells the New York Herald Tribune and is working towards becoming a journalist.

Over a few days, we see them together and apart. They spend time in her apartment as he relentlessly badgers her into making love. They go out on dates. Alone, Patricia moves her life forward through work. We see her attend a press conference for author Parvulesco (Jean-Paul Melville). He flounders about almost aimlessly. When they reunite, it's because he is insecure, exhibited through his jealously and neediness, and she has nothing else better to do. The tables are turned in contrast to how we see Michel with another woman earlier in the film.

As the police search for Michel, they eventually talk with Patricia. They inform her of his crimes but she dismisses knowing him well and offers little assistance. But how will this revelation impact their relationship? Will it bring them together or push them apart?

Breathless is many things. It's a crime story, it's a romance, and it's also a movie about movies as Jonathan Rosenbaum details in his video essay "Breathless as Criticism" (11 min) included as an extra. Homages are littered throughout the film. Michel idolizes Bogart as we see as he takes in a movie poster and mimics a mannerism. He uses an alias that is the name of a character Belmondo played in Claude Chabrol's Leda. The main character from Melville's Bob le flambeur is referred to as being in jail, suggesting the films take place in the same world.

IMDb's trivia section for the film revealed to me Godard has a cameo as a man on the street that sees Michel from his picture in the newspaper and tells police. In essence, we see the director forcing the plot and characters in a direction. Such heavy-handedness is usually a detriment, and while it could have been unintentional, it comes off as an extremely clever bit that plays with the medium.

The film is most notable for its off-kilter editing style called "jump cuts". Rather than cut out the boring scenes, he cut out boring bits within scenes. Shots didn't match up as they normally do; yet the scenes still work because there seems to be a purpose why a scene plays out the way it does, causing the missing parts not to be missed.

Breathless continues The Criterion Collection's high standard for Blu-ray releases. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard approved the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode which was made from a 35mm master positive and is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The many shades across the gray scale come through well. Whites are strong; however, blacks can be inconsistent. I tend to believe any flaws are more likely issues with the source, which looks clean. There are fine details evident throughout and no major digital artifacts. The French mono track presents the dialogue clearly and it balances well with Martial Solal's jazzy musical score. I had no trouble seeing the subtitles regardless of the image and color they were superimposed over.

The extras are all in presented in 1080i. Quite a number of interviews are available. The archival set (27 min) features two with Godard in 1960 and 1964. What's most interesting is he seems put off by the film's success. We get Belmondo in 1961 and Seberg in 1960, which takes an uncomfortable turn as the French female reporter gets too personal. Both talk more about themselves and acting. Melville in 1963 talks about French film industry. In 2007 Coutard and assistant director Pierre Rissient (22 min) talked about the making of the film. "Pennebaker on Breathless" (11 min) finds the famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker exploring Godard's statement that Breathless is "a documentary about Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg," which I don't completely agree with.

The set is rounded out by interesting material. Mark Rappaport presents a video biography about "Jean Seberg" (19 min). Chambre 12, Hotel De Suede is an 80-min French documentary from 1993 about the film. It's shot in black and white and shows the host going to the locations and meeting with the cast and crew. A Godard short from 1959 "Charlotte et son Jules" (13 min) stars Belmondo and explores a couple's break-up. The disc is accompanied by a booklet containing articles written by and interviews with Godard as well as fellow New Wave director Francois Truffaut's treatment and Godard's scenario that expanded on Truffaut's work.

Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless is a wondrous film that may make you reevaluate what you know about movies, and The Criterion Collection presentation of it on Blu-ray offers a film class worth of extras for those who want to learn more about it.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Breathless (1960) - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection

This four-disc set is a marvelous archive that honors the late comedian Bill Hicks who died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer at the much too early age of 32. Much of his comedy was rooted in his anger in reaction to the state of American culture and can be traced back to comics like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. He challenged audiences with his strong Left-libertarianism views and his vulgar language, causing Hicks to describe himself as "Chomsky with dick jokes." He claimed to enjoy pornography and drugs, hate advertisers and Conservatives, and didn't find your kids special. Most importantly, he was as funny as he was outrageous.

The two CDs present previously released material from all seven of Hicks' comedy albums. For hardcore Hicks collectors, there are also 11 tracks from a San Ramon, CA show though no date of the performance is given. The pieces are edited together out chronological order and while the flow and pacing work, I would have preferred to hear his work as it emerged over time. Some of the material is dated as Hicks rails against the movie Basic Instinct and the first President Bush though the jokes are still humorous for those who lived through the early '90s. Other material appears to be timeless as he deals with abortion, gays in the military, and Tonight Show host Jay Leno being a sellout.

The two DVDs contain material from his personal archives, most of which has never been released before. "Early Years 1981-'86" presents video from four appearances. The video is so bad on the Houston '81 date Hicks appears ghostlike as the backgrounds can be seen through him. There's a poolside interview with Hicks in 1988 discussing the Outlaw Comics, a group of Houston comedians that included Sam Kinison. Hicks plays the guitar and sings some of their story. "Austin Bootleg Series" is a collection of four club dates recorded by his brother Steve: November 1991, December 1992, and June and October 1993. While the video hasn't been released on DVD before, some of the material can be heard on the CDs Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor.

The material that has been seen before probably hasn't seen by many people. "Early Years - TV Interview" is a two-minute Houston television news piece. "Outlaw Comics" is a performance from 1985 in Houston. The biggest offering is "Ninja Bachelor Party", a 30-minute video Hicks created with Kevin Booth (who provides an introduction) and David Johndrow. After ten years working on it, they released the video to an Austin theater in 1991. Hicks plays a Ninja master who trains a young man so he can fight Dr. Death, also played by Hicks. The dialogue is dubbed in later. From the quality, it's something you'd expect to see on cable access. Certainly a rare treat for any Hicks fan and there are some laughs over how silly the whole thing is, but "Essential Hicks"? That's debatable and I would lean towards "no".

The last element of the collection is Lo-Fi Troubadour, an album of original songs sung and performed on acoustic guitar by Hicks. It is available as downloadable MP3s. Rather than funny songs, it is a serious endeavor as Hicks and demonstrates he had potential if had had the opportunity.

Even for fans that already have Bill Hicks' comedy albums, the rare video, coming in at over five hours, and the newly released audio definitely makes this an Essential Collection to your comedy library.

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