Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Return of Society's End?

Blues guitar whiz Josh Foster and I formed the guitar/keyboard combo Society's End waaaaaaay back in 1994 and produced Toast Kit, the experimental album that unleashed the wonders of Pastor Edwards and The Ballad Of Lobster Boy upon the world. Now, eleven years later, the possibility of a second Society's End album has finally arisen. No guarantees, but a new album looks more likely to happen than not at this point.. and if it does happen, I promise the results will turn your frown sideways. Stay tuned.

Toast Kit CDs are available, incidentally. Contact me at for more info.

Why, yes! That is a picture of Felix Adler on our album cover! How ever did you guess?

Society's End, 1994. Aaron Neathery (left) and Josh Foster (right) Don't make us angry.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Dollar DVDs: Reviewsapoppin!

It has been dollar DVD mania around here ever since my local Kroger's began carrying both the EastWest and (weird, but not in a good way) MMM titles. Kroger's put up a full display and, with the exception of the cartoons, the EastWest titles were picked clean in less than a week. Between Kroger's and Dollar Tree, I now have two chains within walking distance of my house who carry God's Own Gift to Obscure Media Junkie Cheapskates. The EastWest PD titles are particularly nifty as they're being culled from sources that haven't been tapped by other dollar DVD manufacturers, namely TV movies, Italian imports, and cheapjack horror films from the 70s and 80s. Better yet, EastWest gives you two movies per DVD (both crammed on one side so the encoding leaves you with a somewhat rough but decent picture), a deal being matched by the more conventional Treasure Box and their double-sided "Family Value Collection" DVDs. Treasure Box, having saturated the market with copies of Africa Screams and Road to Bali, is finally starting to dig up some pretty rare and fascinating PD titles of their own. Here are some of my favorite finds from the past few weeks.

The Bat (1959) (Treasure Box) - 1/2 of a double feature with the ubiquitous PD classic House On Haunted Hill, I had assumed this was the just as ubiquitous 1926 Roland West silent.. but it AIN'T! It's a 1959 remake..or, rather, another film version of the Avery Hopwood play, starring Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, and DARLA HOOD from the Hal Roach Our Gang shorts!! Moorehead and Price's performances are better than this bizarrely atavistic little film deserve. Never has the Old Dark House horror/mystery format seemed more stilted than when filmed with slick late-50s production techniques and performed by actors less inclined towards stylized theatrics. Special mention goes to the cool jazzy theme song which would have been more at home in one of the German Dr. Mabuse thrillers from the 60s, or maybe one of the Eddie Constantine Lemmy Caution movies.

City of the Walking Dead (aka Incubo sulla città contaminata, aka Nightmare City) (1980) (EastWest) - Italian Romero rip-off with a few genuine scares in spite of some decidedly unconvincing zombie makeup jobs. An irradiated airplane lands without clearance at an airport in Italy and the crew, now blood-sucking zombies, escape the plane and spread a zombie plague throughout the city. There's a hilarious scene of zombies running around in a field while a friendly stray dog playfully dashes around between their legs. The "twist ending" is lame beyond words.

Carnage (1986) (EastWest) - A very late Andy Milligan film made to cash in on the success of Poltergeist. A couple of newlyweds buys a house haunted by the previous owners, a couple of newlyweds who committed suicide. All sorts of silly, not-terribly spooky goings-on ensue, including several gory and highly unrealistic deaths, but it takes forever for the dimbulb newlyweds to catch on to the fact that they're may actually be something not quite right with the house. A priest getting a cleaver in the head finally convinces them to clear out, but (gasp) it's too late! You can pretty much guess the ending.

Class Reunion Massacre (1978) (EastWest) - Holy cow! All through this, I kept saying "There's no way in hell the filmmakers would have given this a title as limp and prosaic as Class Reunion Massacre." And I was right! The real title is The Redeemer: Son of Satan! and it goes a little way towards expressing the high-minded lunacy of this slasher/art film. A pre-teen boy comes strolling out of the middle of a lake, hops on a waiting bus, and heads to a nearby church where he joins a group a choirboys getting ready for a service. The preacher's blood-and-thunder sermon demonizes "social undesireables" like gays, gluttons, and women who enjoy sex. We then join up with a small group of thirty-somethings who have all been invited to a high school reunion. Of course, they're all the "types" mentioned in the sermon. There's the promiscuous girl, the gluttonous football player, the gay actor, the lesbian, the lawyer, etc.. But the joke is on them! There is no class reunion and they're all locked inside the school with a crazed psycho-killer with supernatural powers! In one unsettling sequence, the killer, dressed as a clown and joined by some kind of marionette, uses the school's gymnasium to deliver a rambling, incoherent speech about sins and redemption. The Redeemer was a very earnest attempt on the part of some first-time filmmakers to make an exploitation feature with some kind of depth. Loads of symbolism to be found here. Well worth a watch or two.

Gangster Story (1960) (Treasure Box) - Walter Matthau directs himself and his wife Carol Grace (Truman Capote's model for Holly Golightly) in this clunky but not meritless late noir. Gangster Matthau pulls off one of the least likely bank heists on record and then falls in love with librarian Grace. Believe it or not, things don't work out well for them. A spiritual cousin to The Beatniks (also 1960), Paul Frees' sole directorial effort.

The New Adventures of Heidi (1978) (Treasure Box) - Mostly awful TV musical, saved by the presence of Burl Ives as Heidi's grandfather. The real problem here lies not with the quality of the performances or even the story, but with the HORRIBLE songs, and there are a LOT of them.. more than in your average musical, it seems. When Ives begins to go blind, and is then assumed dead after vanishing in the woods, Heidi gets a job as Best Friend to a Poor Little Rich Girl. Grandfather finally returns and the Poor Little Rich Girl's family pays for the surgery that restores his eyesight.

King Solomon's Treasure (1977) (Treasure Box) - H. Rider Haggard gets the Harry Allan Towers treatment. Towers was also responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies, to which this film is superior in just about every way. Shot on location in Africa, King Solomon's Treasure boasts some beautiful scenery, some enjoyably laughable dinosaurs and giant crabs, and an all-star cast including Britt Ekland, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Patrick Macnee and David McCallum. The movie on the flip side is King Solomon's Mine, a beautiful British production from 1937 starring Cedrick Hardwick and the remarkable Paul Robeson. who among other achievements, was the first African-American ever to play Othello with a white cast.

The Magic Sword (1962) (Treasure Box) - Probably Bert I. Gordon's best film, a kind of low-rent version of the Harryhausen-Schneer Dynamation movies with a lot of wit and some surprising gore. Knight Gary Lockwood and six national stereotypes go on a quest to rescue princess Anne Helm from the clutches of a warlock played by the surprisingly lively (for the 60s) Basil Rathbone. Estelle Winwood is Lockwood's foster witch and Rathbone's comic rival. Watch for Maila "Vampira" Nurmi as The Hag! The Magic Sword is one of seemingly dozens of movies from which footage was stolen for Dünyayi kurtaran adam (1982), known on this side of the Atlantic as The Turkish Star Wars.

King Arthur, The Young Warlord (1972) (Treasure Box) - On the flip side of The Magic Sword is this peculiar little UK film, actually a few episodes of Arthur of the Britons (1972-73) strung together into a feature. It's actually a good attempt at creating a hypothetical foundation for the Arthur mythos. Oliver Tobias stars as a dark age Celtic warlord who attempts to join the British tribes together under his rule in order to maintain peace. A young Brian Blessed appears as Mark of Cornwall and takes huge bites out of boulders and trees. The primary flaw of the movie/series is that every character is more likeable than Arthur.

Torture Chamber (1967) (EastWest) - This stylish German horror film, Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel, was presumably never released as The Pit and the Pendulum in the US so audiences wouldn't confuse it with the 1961 Roger Corman movie. Instead, it was released as The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, Castle of the Walking Dead, The Blood Demon, The Snake Pit, The Snake Pit and the Pendulum, and The Torture Room. Under any name, I prefer this film to Corman's film. Christopher Lee stars as Count Regula, a sadist who is drawn and quartered for torturing virgins to death in his private dungeon and who later returns from the dead to claim his final victim in order to attain immortality. Lots of visual references to 16th century painter Hieronymus Bosch, especially in one amazing scene featuring trees studded with human body parts. Packaged as a double feature with The Satanic Rites of Dracula, Hammer's last Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Dracula movie.

The Alpha Incident (1978) and The Capture of Bigfoot (1979) (EastWest) - Bill Rebane, known primarily for The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) and the excruciating non-film Monster-a Go Go (1965) also made a few other drive-in quickies in the 1970s and 80s and EastWest has been kind enough to release two of them on one DVD. The Alpha Incident is the better of the two. Inspired (if that's the word) by The Andromeda Strain, a virus from Mars is set loose in a rail station. The five people who may or may not have contracted it are trapped inside when the station is quarantined by the government. Worse, those who contract it can't fall asleep because, if they do, their heads become special effects and ooze and splatter tempra paint all over the place. Ralph Meeker, the best actor ever to play Mike Hammer (in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)) and who gives one of the best performances in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957), appears here in a colorless role with virtually no lines despite the fact that his name is above the title. The ending was "inspired" by the ending of The Night of the Living Dead. The Capture of Bigfoot isn't as good but some impressive scene-chewing from Richard Kennedy keeps it interesting.

Chariots of the Gods (1970) (EastWest) - Who needs empiricism when it's more fun to believe that the ancient Mayans were zipping around in rocketships? Erich Von Daniken's "ancient astronaut" theories are a load of horse pucks but this documentary based on his book provides some excellent views of some very interesting archeological sites and ancient monuments. Also includes some wistful footage of the National Museum of Iraq before it became the Baghdad Grab N' Go (does anyone know whether the famous Baghdad Battery has gone missing or not?). Would you believe this was nominated for an Oscar?

Mooch (aka Mooch Goes to Hollywood) (1971) (Treasure Box) - This week's hands-down WTF prizewinner is this berserk little heap of Hollywood self-reference written and produced by Jim Backus and starring Higgins the Dog (aka Benji), masquerading here (poorly in some shots) as a female. Mooch arrives in Hollywood on a boxcar complete with her belongings in a little handkerchief tied to the end of a little stick and quickly hits the streets, ready to use her canine wiles to shmooze her way onto the silver screen. And how can she go wrong with the omniscient voice of Zsa Zsa Gabor ringing in her little noggin, giving her advice and steering her from the evil lure of the porn industry? Indeed, in one "fantasy" sequence, we are treated to the sight of Mooch prancing around in a little sparkly g-string, something Senator Santorum has warned us about (later, we even get to see Mooch dressed up as a Playboy Bunny, something else Sen. Santorum would not approve of). In her travels around the city, Mooch meets Vincent Price (who drives a Jeep and flashes the peace sign), James Darren, Jill St. John, and Jim Backus himself. Jim Backus, in the movie's most unabashedly unhinged moment, is shown cavorting on the beach dressed as Mr. Magoo, complete with a putty nose! We even get to see Jim recording the soundtrack for a cartoon. At the end, Mooch ends up at one of Jim's garden parties and we get brief glances of Darren McGavin, Marty Allen, Cesar Romero, and an ailing Edward G. Robinson! Mickey Rooney appears briefly lurking outside a porno theater. MUST BE SEEN TO BE BELIEVED!

Friday, June 24, 2005

"Curses! If it weren't for you meddling hippies..."

If ever there were any doubts that the Bush Administration had completely jumped the shark, let them be dispelled by Karl "Puppetmaster" Rove's lunatic remarks made at a fund-raiser Wednesday in Manhattan.

Karl Rove came to the heart of Manhattan last night to rhapsodize about the decline of liberalism in politics, saying Democrats responded weakly to Sept. 11 and had placed American troops in greater danger by criticizing their actions.

"Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," Mr. Rove, the senior political adviser to President Bush, said at a fund-raiser in Midtown for the Conservative Party of New York State.

Citing calls by progressive groups to respond carefully to the attacks, Mr. Rove said to the applause of several hundred audience members, "I don't know about you, but moderation and restraint is not what I felt when I watched the twin towers crumble to the ground, a side of the Pentagon destroyed, and almost 3,000 of our fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble."

Mr. Rove also said American armed forces overseas were in more jeopardy as a result of remarks last week by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who compared American mistreatment of detainees to the acts of "Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime - Pol Pot or others."

"Has there ever been a more revealing moment this year?" Mr. Rove asked. "Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals."

In short: liberals are traitors! They're undermining our precious War on Terror! If we lose, you know who to blame! The same folk who made sure we'd lose Vietnam! Dirty peacenik hippies!!

Bush and his 1/2 watt brain trust dropped the ball on a war they made up from thin air (if you can't win your own manufactured war, what the hell good are you??). And now that they're realizing that they've planted this country in an unimaginably costly lose/lose situation, they're trying to foist off the responsibility for their quagmire onto the very people who warned them against it in the first place! These filthy bastards know what's coming around that corner and, thanks to their arrogant, ham-fisted bungling, it's not victory and a glorious democratized mideast and oodles of cheap oil. It's defeat; ignominious, expensive, humiliating defeat. The kind of defeat that will hang around the neck of their party (and this country) like the rotting albatross it is unless they can save face by convincing the American people that the disaster wasn't their fault. With their approval ratings plummeting all across the board, these acts of PR desperation should come as no surprise and I can safely assume that their rancor is only going to get worse the closer to defeat they come.

In re: to Rove's comments, I can't say that his endorsement of hysterical and unfocused revenge as a valid diplomatic stance is unexpected, but I really have to wonder what the hell is supposed to be wrong about understanding your enemy. Even if you didn't want to get at the root of terrorism by figuring out why people would feel the need to strap explosives to their bodies or fly planes into buildings, wouldn't it make tactical sense to understand your enemy? Or has Bush's cabal swallowed their own propaganda and truly believe that they're dealing with scatterbrained, suicidal "crazies" who just need a good killin', hence their unconcern about creating scores of new potential terrorists in the mideast via torture, humiliation, and, who knew.. unfocused revenge? It's a vicious cycle and the neocons are more than happy to fuel it because they're making out like bandits (which, of course, was the point behind creating a phoney war in the first place). So pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Your enemies are just loopy foreign bad guys who hate your freedom.

Naturally, the White House and so-called liberal media are dutifully ignoring Rove's "motives of liberals" comment, the lynchpin of his tirade. As Atrios says, "For the record, my motives aren't to get more troops killed. If those were my motives I'd ship them off to a war on false pretenses without sufficient equipment to keep them safe." The bottom line is this; to this Administration, half of this country, probably more, is the enemy, and that includes Democrats in the armed forces. The party that has happily sucked face with Saddam Hussein, continues to do so with the Saudis, and is getting our troops and Iraqi civilians killed by the thousands for their greed, has nothing but disdain for anyone who would ever second guess what they're doing (more than half of the country at the moment according to Zogby and the American Research Group). They're tyrants and every day they hold power is a blot on this country's honor and reputation.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Russell T. Davies managed to, at least temporarily, shine the spotlight away from his weaknesses as a writer long enough to pull off a genuinely gripping two-part season finale for Doctor Who. The storyline for Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways is every bit as anaemic as anything else he has written for the series, but the action, characterization, and many of the individual ideas are so well handled that the lack of a truly compelling plot seems trifling. In particular, Davies' clever reinvention of the xenophobic Daleks as self-hating, religious fundamentalist xenophobes was easily his most inspired stab at satire/social commentary this season. And while there's much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair from some die-hard Whovians over the Doctor's steadfast and "uncharacteristically cowardly" refusal to play the role of killer when his hand is forced, I felt that this was probably one of the most solidly Doctor-ish moments of the new series, and a fine underlining of the show's pacifist roots. Unfortunately, Davies rather spoils the mood by once again having a companion or secondary character, in this instance Rose, pull the Doctor's fat from the fire, effectively reducing the Doctor's role in the story and freeing him (and Russell T. Davies) from the somewhat sticky cause and effect of the decisions he makes. One of RTD's strengths as a Dr. Who writer has been a firm understanding of some of the more ritualistic elements of this particular universe and he has therefore been able to deftly toy with, and subvert, audience expectations. Here, for instance, just to keep audiences off-kilter, he introduced Lynda, an obvious tailor-made replacement for current companion Rose Tyler, only to make her one more of the finale's slew of Dalek casualties. But Davies' tendency to get too cute with his brand of expectation shuffling has also led to a general weakening of the Doctor's central role. By repeatedly overemphasizing the Doctor's fallibility in order to keep audiences guessing, RTD has made the Doctor's ability to survive deadly situations seem more a matter of blind luck rather than guile. This may have much to do with Davies' apparent intention to transform the historically monolithic show into a Buffy-like ensemble piece, but, design or not, it's a mistake and one that I hope doesn't continue to develop.

Nonetheless, the finale was yet another of the first season's triumphs, due primarily to the strength of conviction on the part of the cast and crew. Nowhere was this more evident than in the climactic regeneration scene, a wonderful set piece for stars Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston that gave each a chance to shine (literally, in Eccleston's case). Eccleston naturally ran with it, giving us a final glimpse of the kind of hopeful sadness that defined his Doctor. And it's something of a tribute to David Tennant's performance skills that in his mere twenty some odd seconds of screentime as Doctor number ten, he's already firmly outlined his character, a feat that had only once before been achieved by Colin Baker.

And, hell, even BBC chairman Michael Grade, the man who axed the series back in the 80s for being "rubbish" is now a fan, calling it "a classy, popular triumph for people of all ages and all backgrounds." I can agree with that. Here's to another twenty-seven seasons..

Friday, June 17, 2005

".. a face resembling the back of a Glasgow tramcar.."

More zaniness from the pages of the venerable UK comic weekly Film Fun (12/10/38). Laurel and Hardy appeared on the front and back covers of Film Fun from 1934 until Babe Hardy's death in 1957. The spot was eventually taken by Abbott and Costello and, later, Martin and Lewis. (click on the thumbnails)

Also much looking forward to Saturday's season finale of Doctor Who. Thirteen episodes in and we're getting Dalek invasion fleets and a regeneration! The BBC has quite reasonably renewed the series through 2007 (plus two Christmas specials!).

Thursday, June 09, 2005

New Who Review (is coming right at you)

(fangeek mode on)

Doctor Who is back and it's both better and worse than I'd expected.

First, the better. The new Doctor Who (technically season one, but actually season twenty-seven of TV's longest-running science fiction serial) can be considered successful just about every count. Some of the season one stories are easily among the best ever written for Doctor Who and two, Dalek and Father's Day, are dramatic television at its finest. There have been very few weak performances and a surplus of terrific ones. Christopher Eccleston's performance as an endearing if emotionally-damaged Doctor is nothing short of a triumph and it's a huge shame that he'll be leaving the series at the end of the season (although expectations are very high for Doctor #10, David Tennant). Billie Piper's portrayal of Rose Tyler has salvaged a rather weak character and made her one of the series' strongest companions. Visually, the new series is remarkable. The art directors have eschewed the budget-driven gaudiness of the 1997 Fox TV movie in favor of a no less glossy but more subdued, almost gothic look. The beautiful new Tardis interior appears to have been inspired in part by H. R. Geiger's Alien designs, the Tardis from the Fox movie (the best thing about that turkey, aside from Sylvester McCoy), and, interestingly enough, from the ramshackle, jerry-rigged Tardis from the two 1960s Peter Cushing movies. The new, partially-orchestral version of Ron Grainer's opening theme is extremely cool, and, best of all, the new Dalek design is pretty much the old Dalek design with a few well-thought out frills thrown in.

And worse? Russell T. Davies is writing the bulk of the series.

(hypercritical fangeek mode on)

It's no small irony that the man responsible for getting Doctor Who back on the air is also the new series' weakest link. Russell T. Davies, the creator of the original UK Queer As Folk, tends to value Grade Z emotional drama and weak parody over science fiction or action or even adequate storytelling. A great deal of Davies' character work is engaging and well-considered (Eccleston's Doctor is one of the best-realized TV characters of the last five years, although I'm not sure how much of that is Davies' doing) but is largely rendered ineffective in his own scripts by remarkably lazy plotting. Davies also lets his worship of Joss Whedon leak through his writing like a particularly unfortunate stain, most evident in the weakest episode of season one, the essentially plotless Boom Town, and its wisecracking, alien-hunting "Team Tardis" ("Worst... episode... ever.."). Davies' shortcomings as a writer are even more obvious when held against every season one episode he didn't write. Mark Gatiss's The Unquiet Dead, Rob Shearman's Dalek, Steven Moffat's The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and especially Paul Cornell's Father's Day, are among the best Dr. Who stories ever produced for the small screen and, not coincidentally, each was written by a veteran of either the novels or the Big Finish audio stories (or both), people who have honed their skills as writers for this very special franchise. Russell T. Davies, who has made no secret of his indifference to science fiction, is one of the only people involved with the new series who insist on it as some kind of "re-imagining". While the other writers draw from, and expand on, the strengths the original series, Davies is insistent upon rebuilding the show from the ground up as a soapish sci-fi spoof, full of fart jokes and sledgehammer satirical references to current politics. He points to the series' ratings as proof of the success of his formula, but I believe the ratings were bound to be good, soap opera dramatics or no. People have been waiting for Doctor Who's return to TV for years and the only way you can screw up a sure thing like this is to drive viewers away. I have no doubt that the new series will continue to thrive in the coming years even with Davies at the helm, but I can't help but think about how much stronger it could be without the obligatory love triangles and hamfisted satire Davies' apparently feels are necessary to keep an audience's attention rather than solid storytelling.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Screen Gems Redux

After a long sleep, The Columbia Crow's Nest, the web's premier information source about Columbia's animation unit(s), has been updated with dozens of screen grabs and other fun stuff. The highlight is this month's online cartoon, Tree For Two (1943), starring Screen Gems' most popular characters, the Fox and the Crow. As I've said before, Screen Gems' 40s cartoons hold their own against Warners, Lantz, and MGM (and, needless to say, Famous and Terrytoons), and this short is no exception. Great personality animation, especially on the Fox, and some beautiful staging on display here. Also worth pointing out is the fact that, unlike most cartoon studios of the 40s, Screen Gems put a premium on witty dialogue. This is particularly important here as the Fox and Crow were one of the very few cartoon comedy teams of the 1940s whose character interplay was analogous to that of flesh-and-blood vaudeville teams, and dialogue was therefore vital to the characters' effectiveness. The only real flaw here is Screen Gems' typically loose pacing. Tree For Two doesn't really build to much of a payoff in the way that, say, the Warners cartoons usually did, and most of the gags, as good as they are, tend to seem disconnected. Naturally, the Screen Gems cartoons produced under former Warner director Frank Tashlin, such as Wolf Chases Pigs (1942), have much tighter construction.

Another major bonus (bonusses? boni?) are the screen grabs for Lil' Anjil (1936), the studio's one-time-only attempt at producing a genuine George Herriman-style Krazy Kat cartoon. I recall that Leonard Maltin dumps on this decidedly historic cartoon in Of Mice and Magic, but I have a silent, truncated home movie print of Lil' Anjil and can say that, visually, at least, the Mintz/Screen Gems artists pretty much hit the mark. In particular, Krazy's ecstatic dance after getting beaned by one of Ignatz's bricks is letter-perfect Herriman.

The wealth of material at The Columbia Crow's Nest is a reminder of what a huge chunk of American animation history is currently AWOL. Even Van Beuren, previous holder of the title of America's Most Obscure Golden Age Animation Studio, gets more exposure because their cartoons, being in the Public Domain, are readily available on dollar DVDs. It's an indictment of the stifling effect of market forces (especially in regard to cultural evolution) that Sony steadfastly refuses to release the hundreds of Mintz and Screen Gems cartoons they hold, despite their quality and importance, because of a perceived lack of marketability. It's our loss.