Monday, October 31, 2011

DVD Reviews: Unexplained Explained and Haunted Changi

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

The reason for these two films to be reviewed in this blog together is that they both purport to be about the making of a documentary regarding ghosts.

Unexplained Explained: Ghostly Paranormal Actvity
Directed by Nick Padley and Nigel Albermaniche
World Wide Multi Media, 2011
75 minutes, USD $19.95

Presented as a British television shot-on-video documentary, producer Paul Wookey (of the Brit program[me] Quizworld) teems up with professional psychic Diane Howe (who has appeared on some shows like Psychic Interactive. She’s there as the ghost “attractor,” as you well, like the main characters from Medium or Ghost Whisperer.

They set off into the bucolic U.K. countryside to the town of Pendle, in Yorkshire Dales. There they reach their destination, an old pub called The Anchor, which is supposedly haunted by multiple spirits.

I’m not sure if the owners of the pub are looking to this as a serious documentary about the spirit world or as a chance to get some free publicity (or both), but they appear to be in earnest as the camera follows everyone as they walk through the darker places in the place, such as a cellar that’s partially filled with water, or another room filled with tipped-over casks of booze (that seem to be quite old). “Oh, I have an odd feeling about this room!” someone says once in a while. As with most psychic readings, which drives me crazy (this includes you, Sylvia Brown – who is not on this DVD), there is no way to prove what they are saying, and no indication of research to verify readings. When she (or any psychic) describes a spirit, it could be an albino dwarf with three heads, but there is no way to substantiate it. I’m not saying people do not have the gift, but I’d like to see some confirmation before I go “wow! S/he nailed it!”

A centerpiece of the DVD is a sort of Ouija board set-up with a group sitting around an upside down glass which they all touch with a finger, and the glass goes round and round and round. I’d have been more impressed if the glass shattered (but not to the point where anyone is hurt, of course) or moved on its own, rather than just when touched. Too easily faked.

Usually, by this time I’d be getting the willies (yes, I have a touch of phasmaaphobia in real life, since I have had at least one pretty-sure experience), but not even a hair on the scruff of me neck raised. The pace is glacial, and the events are minimal. The camera is always in tight so you can’t see much of the surroundings, which also raises suspicions to me of being contrived through ocular claustrophobia, but that doesn’t ring true either.

Truthfully, part of the issue for me is everyone has somewhat thick accents (especially Howe, who mumbles often), and there is a throbbing dissonant musical tone that is played over the readings, making it even harder to understand what Howe is saying about whatever it is she is “reading” of the psychic world. A choice of turning on captions would have been a nice addition.

The revelations about one or more of the spirits during the séance is creepy to say the least, and at the end of the program, there are written updates title cards that don’t really say anything substantial (asking around if someone knows something about the events that allegedly happened between a 50 year period over a hundred years before. Good luck with that. One of the cards even goes to state, “Opinions are divided regarding the plausibility of their findings.” Well, if even the show can’t stand by their own work, why should the viewer?

Usually, I like stuff like this, but this particular exercise left me kinda cold, and not the fun, unexplained-icy-spot-in-the-corner kind. Lastly, note that this is a DVR, with no extras whatsoever. In all, I found it a bit disappointing. The DVD box images are scarier than this film, quite honestly.

Haunted Changi
Directed by Tony Kern
Mythopolis Pictures / Seminal Films, 2010
81 minutes, USD $14.95
The premise of this film is clearly stated on the box: In January 2010, a group of filmmakers began exploring old Changi Hospital in Singapore…with terrifying and tragic results. The film contains the crew’s original footage.

Apparently, The Blair Witch Project did more than scare most people, it created a whole new industry of the “found footage” films industry, spurring the likes of Cloverfield and [Rec] (though, to be fair, this style did exist before, with films like the classic 1980 Cannibal Holocaust).

So, supposedly, This group of four (well, actually five, but one of the women is not listed in any credits) decides to go check out Old Changi (pronounced Chang-ee) Hospital, a real place that is now abandoned and graffiti-riddled, but after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, was locally known as a location for numerous Japanese beheadings (hence the DVD cover image) of prisoners and intellectuals that was said to be in the five figures. This led OCH being rumored to be highly haunted.

We watch as they prepare to set out to the hospital on an official permission of two days (one daylight, one evening), though they apparently are there more often than that. We watch early on as they prepare the credits to their “film,” which sets up the expository story about the Japanese invasion at the beginning of Dubya-Dubya Deuce, using film footage from an early U.S. television documentary. We also see what is probably real person-on-the-street footage of people discussing their own opinions and experiences dealing with hauntings at Old Changi. Nice mix-up of real and…maybe…

The film is obviously filmed in Singapore, but is mostly filmed in English, with some occasional Chinese thrown in; however, thanks to the heavy accents and colloquialisms, as you can hear in the trailer below, I found it easier with the captions turned on.

I will admit that this is one creepy film for the most part. I kept expecting, as one might, that at any second something was going to jump out into the camera range, like those ferstunkiner videos that get RE’d and FWD’d around on emails where they show some peaceful, idyllic scene, and at the end, something jumps out and screams (gets me every time, dammit!). But, of course, the real joy is of anticipation, much like never actually seeing the Blair Witch. There is an occasional glimpse of something that if you turn away for a second you can miss. I know I slo-mo’d the rewind more than once to make sure I saw that I thought I saw. That’s a good sign.

Yeah, as you’re walking along the real hallways of OCH seeing only what the camera is seeing in “real time” (and the occasional look back in an editing bay), this film is very effective in the creepy mode. I know I was squirming more than once thinking, “Okay, when are they gonna go boo?!?!” The two-thirds are especially creepy in that way, though a run through the sub-basement corridors of the hospital in the dark toward the end was claustrophobic at best, expectant at its worst (meaning most scary). Yes, there are a couple of really good shocks and a creepy playback that are especially effective. The viewer definitely wants to be paying attention, despite the use of more anticipation than actual scare. Plus, the use of night-vision green is very effectively used here.

Amusingly, on the IMDB, there are two versions listed of the same film, the first as a fiction, and the second as a documentary with the names of the cast changed ever-so-slightly from their real ones to their characters..

There are five people who are the focus of the film, though one woman is not mentioned in either listing. Curious. Perhaps she’s the real ghost? Anyway, the film is listed on one as being directed by Andrew Lau (played by Andrew Lua; see how that works?). He’s the hardest to understand among the filmmakers, and has the most dialog. Go figure. The sound guy is Farid Azlam (Faridino Assalam), who is seen more in the first half. The photographer is Audi Khalis (Audi Khalid), and the producer (and most convincing actor) is Sheena Chung (Sheena Chan). It feels like much of the dialog is spontaneous which either means it’s better acted than I realize, or they are good at improv.

There are a couple of tweaking points that make me ponder… First and foremost, although they don’t show much of the supernatural world, it still felt like a bit much. I won’t go into detail and ruin it, but note that this question may be a spoiler, so skip ahead: why is one of the ghosts a Japanese soldier. I thought the whole point was that the Japanese killed locals, Chinese, and British (who were defending the island), so shouldn’t the ghosts be primarily them?

There are some inspired extras here. First, there is the full 20 minute or so documentary about the fall of Singapore from which the clips at the beginning of the film are taken. There is also a BlogSpot page for the “crew” which is hard to read (it’s also available on the film’s website), and three chapters of a book by one of the crew (not well written).

Anyway, this is a pretty effective film and can get real creepy at times. Don’t watch it before bedtime.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book Review: Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll: Conversations with unjustly obscure rock’n’soul eccentrics Boys
Edited by Jake Austen
Forward by Steve Albini
Refiguring American Music series, edited by Ronald Radano and Josh Kun
Duke University Press (Durham / London), 2011
292 pages; USD $24.95 Softcover (cloth cover also available)
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4849-8
Images from the Internet

The sub-sub title of this book is “The best of Roctober.” Rather than having any connection to German beer drinkers, this is a collection of some articles / interviews that were published in Jake Austen’s Chicago-based fanzine by that same name.

Thing about Roctober is while its main focus is on rock’n’roll, Austen refuses to have a border, and covers jazz, rockabilly, blues, R&B, country, and outsider music. And in Kicks fashion, the ‘zine is thick, with articles unpurged for length. Admittedly, I could not say the same for my own fanzine back in its print form (’77-’88). Oh, yeah, Roctober still comes out in hard copy form, while so many others of us have gone the digi route.

Let me come out right now and say that other than name factor, the forward by the usually articulate if occasionally cryptic musician / producer / legend Steve Albini is uninteresting and thankfully short, possibly the only low point in the book. However, Austen’s lengthier introduction is one of the better ones I’ve read in a while, accurately placing the artists covered in their cultural perspective, and giving keen insights to the writers conscious and subconscious intents, as well.

There are 10 somewhat lengthy pieces on artists that have arguably accomplished more and achieved a higher level of fame than the subjects of Richie Unterberger’s Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll, only to have come soooo close to breaking, but missed the ring. I know about more than half the artists in the book, but after reading it, I realize I really do need to know them all.

Probably the most obscure name in here (well, to me, anyway) is Armenian-American singer Guy Chookoorian, who has his own obvious market worldwide. Everyone else is of the bubbling under category. For example, Billy Lee Riley is one of the only Sun recording artists of the just-post-Elvis period that never had the exposure of the rest of the male-heavy category, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, etc., despite his blazing version of “Red Hot” (which had Jerry Lee on py-anna, and has been covered by many, from Robert Gordon to Ronnie & the Jitters), and the song from which this book gets its title.

Oscar Brown Jr., who opens the book, is well known in the jazz and poetry slam circles since the 50s, and considering his political takes he must certainly have a thick FBI file as well. His material is interesting, seditious, and he is certainly well spoken.

On the other end of the erudite scale is country star David Allen Coe (who was a clue in the daily newspaper crossword puzzle while I was reading his section, I kid you not!) and R&B belter Sugar Pie DeSanto, two extremely talented singers who have walk a profane-filled road. Coe’s material includes everything from blues to racist and country porn (e.g., “I made Linda Lovelace gag”; where’s Chinga Chavin when ya need him?) as he rode violence and a bottle (etc.) to prison and back, though he also wrote country classics as well, including “Take This Job and Shove It.” Both are still touring (but not together)

The two who have probably reached the highest plane are very early R&B --> rock’n’roll group the Treniers, led by a pair of identical twins, who claim to have been the first artists ever to play rock and roll on television during the Colgate Comedy Hour with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 1954. The other is Sam the Sham (Samudio), who released what I consider one of the best rock’n’roll dance records ever, “Wooly Bully.” Despite having a number of hits, Samudio sank into obscurity after being forced to perform a series of silly albeit enjoyable songs (“El Toro De Goro,” “Ring Dang Doo,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” etc.) rather than the Tex-Mex fire that he was so good at playing. In the Sam the Sham section, one aspect I would have liked to have known about is the period after he found religion (touched on at the end of the interview) where I once heard he used to take supplies to the oil rigs outside his home of New Orleans, and preach the gospel to the workers; I have no idea if this is true, and I would have liked to have heard about it… quibble, quibble, quibble.

Two New York area bands are covered that I were sort of part of my milieu. Well, as I practically lived in used record stores during the mid-1970s to late-1980s, seeing the Good Rats’ albums was a constant. From Long Island, the Italian brothers who fronted the band were nearly omnipresent. And yet, as they were a bar band and for some reason never played on the many, many, many nights I spent out in clubs, I had not seen them play. Occasionally I heard their songs here and there, but despite them being just about everywhere, they were more peripheral to me. Their material was certainly fun, but my focus was elsewhere. It is good to read the interview with lead singer Peppi Marchello.

Speaking of Italian brothers from Long Island, one of the bands included is the Fast, one of my favorite bands from the mid-‘70s, comprising of siblings Miki, Paul and Armand Zone. Actually, the first time I saw them play was ’74 in Prospect Park, before Paul fronted the band. Their insane electro-pop, with Armand’s soprano voice mixing with Paul’s was thrilling, as was Miki’s guitar playing. Austen accurately describes Miki’s wild use of pencils to turn his guitar into a percussion instrument, and yes, I’ve seen the giant pencil in action. The Fast lost me a bit after Armand left and they became more metal-influenced. However, I was still enough of a fan to interview them in their van off the service road of the entranceway to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and publish it in FFanzeen. [A big thanks to Austen for not only quoting that interview, but naming our humble ‘zine (p. 91).]

Saving the most fascinating for last, Jonathan Poletti does an absolutely intriguing piece on Zolar X’s lead singer, Zory Zenith. And yet, it’s as much a journey for Poletti as it becomes to the reader. The piece almost comes across like a gothic novel, with unforeseen twists and turns that makes this a solid piece of journalism.

Because of the lengths of some of the pieces, a bigger picture can be presented as more details are not only presented by the writer, but by the artists themselves, showing ample reasons why, in some cases, they never quite reached the fame they deserved thanks to their own failings, be it substance abuse, ego, delusion, violence, or pride, among others. This is especially true in the two longer pieces, focusing on Billy Lee Reilly and Zolar X.

There are plenty of photos (and artwork by King Merinuk) scattered throughout, and the book ends with an appendix of where to find material on the artists titled “Suggested Listening, Viewing, Surfing,” and a brief bio of the writers.

To give you a solid example to express my enjoyment level of this book, I read the nearly 300 pages in three days. Couldn’t put it down (and in this case being unemployed gave me the time, but I digress…).

I am hoping this is actually the first part in a series of “Best ofs…”, and perhaps next time we can read more about the Black Lone Ranger?

Bonus videos:
Oscar Brown Jr.

David Allen Coe

Guy Chookoorian

The Fast

Sugar Pie DeSanto

Billy Lee Riley

The Treniers

Sam the Sham

The Good Rats

Zolar X

Extra bonus videos

Monday, October 24, 2011

DVD Review: British Royal Weddings of the 20th Century

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

British Royal Weddings of the 20th Century
British Pathé / Cherry Red Films
184 minutes, USD $19.95

Why, you may ask, as an American, did I ask to review a three-hour long DVD collection of British royal weddings over the past century? For one reason: my mother-in-law [M-I-L].

She is of Norwegian descent (with a mix of German), but has been a loyal Canadian her whole life, and her favorite famous person in the world is the Queen Mother (she has often stated that her lone regret in this area was that she never had the opportunity to give the QM a hug). Her house proudly displays a ceramic plate with the image of the QM as a 7-year-old. Other plates include Queen Elizabeth and a wedding image of Charles and Diana (whom she also adores). She is now thinking about getting one of William and Katherine’s nuptials.

So, I figured, what a nice bonding moment it would be to sit down with her and watch the DVD together. Despite its length, it turned out to be a good idea. I actually received it the week before the most recent royal wedding, but finally got to sit down with M-I-L in late October. We spent the afternoon watching history of a century go by.

This collection is a compilation of thirteen films and, later, television newsreels and specials focused on the weddings (and occasional engagements) of the British royalty (i.e., the Windsor family), all put out by the British Pathé company through the years. After a brief foreword of short clips from many of the films to come, a narrator gives a pomp and circumstantial lofty introduction, as Sir Edgar Elgar’s appropriate “Pomp and Circumstance” plays in the background (sans graduation).

Of course, the first few weddings are silent, with music played over them, starting with two from 1922: Princess Mary to Henry Charles George, Viscount Lascelles, and Lord Louis Mountbatten to Miss Edwina Ashley. Yes, part of the fun of this collection is the sheer weight of some of the names and titles, displayed at the beginning of each segment in a title card that includes the full names/titles, year of wedding, and place of the nuptial (usually Westminster Abbey), which is quite helpful. What is also nice for those history buffs, the date of release of the pieces are each identified by caption, even when there is more than one segment per chapter (some have engagement, wedding, leaving for honeymoon, etc.), which were released at different times.

It takes a number of nuptials before we actually see films of the wedding proper, as the early ones show the people entering the Abbey before the ceremony, and then leaving after. It isn’t until Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip Mountbatten that we actually see the inside of the chapel and the wedding itself. Unfortunately, they don’t include sound for this particular one, as I wondered if they made Elizabeth to say “honor and obey,” which is ickily included in all the other ceremonies going forward. As Queen, does Elizabeth have to “obey” her consort? Okay, enough musing…

The biggest problem I had with all of this is, well, I’m a Yank and so I didn’t grow up with royal family being in the news constantly. Frankly, there were so many of whom I never even heard of. Sure, Prince Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (who would later be known as the Queen Mother mentioned above, whose 1923 wedding is included here), Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret are people with whom I am familiar, but there are many not so much, such as Princess Alexandra or Prince Henry. For some, even my royalty-loving M-I-L was not sure. I would have liked to have a family tree included in the package.

On the other hand, if one has the time and sits through the entire package, as we did, it is enjoyable to watch Princess Elizabeth go from a very young girl and grow into the matriarch. Similarly with Prince Charles, who starts out as a young and rambunctious boy.

The pièce de résistance is the final two weddings of the main section, namely Charles and Di (1981) and Andrew and Fergie (1986). As one follows the other, it is striking how different their personalities are…er…were. Diana is demure and seemingly bemused, if not overwhelmed, where Sarah is boisterous and certainly not a wallflower. And through both, I have to admit, I kept looking through the crowd wondering if I could catch a glimpse of Camilla…

For me, the most interesting aspect about the collection is not what is different, but the same through the entire number of years. For example, the identical 1902 open top horse-drawn coach is used to bring the groom to the chapel whenever the ceremony is held in London (as most are), and similarly the full coach that brings the brides (“The bluest skies you’ve ever seen in…”), and the again open one as they ride off to their party or honeymoon. Another consistency is the shot of the couple on the balcony, waving to the crowds. It was curious to observe that even at her 1947 wedding Elizabeth had that wrist-turning non-wave down pat. And, of course, there are the humungous masses of onlookers and well-wishers outside Buckingham Palace surging to see a glimpse of the new royal couple.

The bonus features are, well, more weddings, and a couple of alternative reports of ones already shown. Some of the most obscure names for me are in here, such as George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood (1949). What I find surprising is the inclusion of Prince Edward to Sophie Rhys-Jones (1999) placed here rather than in the main section. But quibble, quibble, quibble.

This is certainly a comprehensive look at the pageantry that surrounds a royal wedding, and how celebrity attraction by the multitude is hardly a new issue.

But the biggest royal fan in the room while we were watching this was my M-I-L, who was a bit exhausted from the whole experience, but nonetheless happy, having enjoyed seeing the Queen Mother go from young woman at her wedding through old age, and following the royal family as they shared their happiest days, no matter what the later outcomes would bring.

Weddings included
Princess Mary weds Henry Charles George, Viscount Lascelles (1922)
Lord Louis Mountbatten weds Miss Edwina Ashley (1922)
Prince Albert, Duke of York weds Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1923)
Prince George, Duke of Kent weds Princess Marina of Greece (1934)
Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester weds Lady Alice Scott (1935)
Princess Elizabeth weds Philip Mountbatten, Due of Edinburgh (1947)
Princess Margaret weds Anthony Armstrong-Jones (1960)
Prince Edward, Duke of Kent weds Miss Katherine Worsley (1961)
Princess Alexandra weds Mr. Angus Ogilvy (1963)
Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester weds Miss Birgitte van Deurs (1972)
Princess Anne weds Lieutenant Mark Phillips (1973)
Prince Charles weds Lady Diana Spencer (1981)
Prince Andrew weds Miss Sarah Ferguson (1986)
Princess Patricia weds Commander Alexander Ramsay (1919)
George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood weds Miss Marion Stein (1949)
Lady Pamela Mountbatten weds Mr. David Hicks (1960)
Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones (alternative report)
Prince Edward weds Miss Sophie Rhys-Jones (1999)
Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten (alternative report)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

DVD Reviews: Renfield: The Un-dead and My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire!

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet
I put these two reviews together because, well, they’re both independent films about vampires! Duh!

Renfield: The Un-dead
Directed by  Bob Willems       
Distributed R-Squared Films, 2010
120 minutes, USD $19.95

There have been two really great Renfields in cinema history that led up to this film: Dwight Frye in the original Tod Browning’s Dracula (1930; starring Lugosi), and musician Tom Waits in Francis Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). In both (and the original novel), he was, indeed, quite mad. Over the years, it seems, the cinematic character has been interchanged with Jonathan Harker, who originally went overseas to see the infamous count in Transylvania about a land sale in England.

This new telling and updating takes place in the mythical American city of Bayou City (though many shots are of the Ginni and Richard Mithoff Trauma Center, which is in Houston), as we find the police looking for a supposed serial killer by the name of “the Butcher,” who apparently likes to remove heads. Of course, I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that it’s our pal Renfield, who is chopping the heads off the victims of fellow vampires Mina Harker (Roxy Cook Hixon), and her long hair and mustachioed hipster son Quincy (Tyler Tackett, who also was the film’s creature effects assistant), to keep the prey from becoming vamps themselves. To give you an idea of the Quincy character, when a soon-to-be target asks him how he moved so fast, his response is the humorous, “I’m a vampire, dumbass!”

The titular character here is played with constant energy by the short-but-muscular Phil Nichols, who also wrote the story, the screenplay (with adaptions from the original novel, the ’29 film, and F.W. Murnau's (1922), though there is a shadow nod to Coppola’s, as well), co-produced, and co-designed the special effects and make-up (he is apparently a maven in this field, and was trained by the Dick Smith). He plays Renfield as a loon, with a constant laugh that sounds a bit like Cesar Romero’s Joker from the television Batman (1966), looking like a biker with his bald head and goatee beard. His veneer shifts often from just a bit of a pancake look, to complete white face, to having full vampire-on (again, with nods to Murnau and Coppola). The make-up design for him and Dracula (also well played by John Stevens, with a Malcovitch vibe; this is his only listing in IMDB!) are fun, with big pointy front teeth (again, Murnau). For Mina and Quincy, though, the only make-up seems to be huge, oversized teeth that don’t work as well. Most of the other appliance effects, especially, are fun, though occasionally overdone (i.e., the bug headed ex-cop, the final battle between Renfield and Drac). The visual special effects are WTF, though, and I say this amusedly. Obviously occasionally filmed in front of a blue screen, there is heavy use of computer graphics (rather than CGI), like a cartoon or video game from 10 years ago. Once in a while, it may blank out behind someone, and you can definitely see the wires in one shot as a vampire hovers. While this cartoony effect may be seen as a detriment, I actually enjoyed that part of it! Like the rest of the film, it was a hoot (or as Renfield may say, “hoo-haa-hee-haa-hoo”).Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

Getting back to the story, Renfield is in possession of Dracula’s skull, which Mina and Quincy want to find to resurrect the villain through a blood ritual. Along with a well-done origin story for Renfield, we get to see some fierce battles between the forces of, well, evil and more evil. Drawn into this action are forensic doctor Bonnie Johnson (Keli Wolfe), and her ex-husband, Cranston (British actor Paul Damon), who is the head detective on the “Butcher” case. Wolfe delivers one of my fave lines in the piece: as Renfield is about to walk out of the autopsy room, after creating havoc, he says to Bonnie, “I’ll see you soon,” to which she whines, “Oh, God, I hope not!” (See the trailer, below.)

As a life-long fan of the horror genre, I noted many tips of the hat to previous Dracula incarnations, especially Browning and Murnau, both of whom are thanked during the end credits. Here are some examples:
  • The sea captain (I am assuming of the Hesperus) who is killed during the crossing that brings Mina and Quincy to the States is named Max Schreck, after the actor who played the Nosferatu character in Murnau
  • Of course, at some point, Renfield rises up straight as a plank, as Drac did in Murnau, and then was repeated in a similar honor in Coppola’s retelling.
  • When Bonnie is taken to Renfield’s lair, which is a cemetery tomb, he repeats the famous Lugosi line, “I bid you welcome. Enter at your own free will.”
  • In a flashback scene, Dracula comments to Renfield about howling wolves being “the children of the night,” and of their music.
  • In one of my favorite and possibly most subtle homages, when we first meet Dracula in the flashback, he enters the room exactly like Schreck did in Murnau.
  • There is also the shadow of Nosferatu clutching Mina’s heart, as well as his grabbing her breast as he sucks her blood (yes, the 1922 version has that).
There are a few other clichés here and there, like Renfield telling Bonnie, “Come with me if you want to live!” though its delivery is projected so that the viewer is not to take it as anything but recognition.

At a cost of an estimated $170 grand, I’m sure most of it went to effects and perhaps a bit to pay for some of the large ensemble. This is cheesy entertainment, but it is so obviously not expected to be anything but. One aspect I like about independent films, especially in the horror genre, is that it is so obvious that they are out to have some fun, as well as having a final project. Well, Willems and Nichols succeeded here. Despite the blood, gore, and gratuitous female nudity, this is certainly above, say, the Troma level, but not rocket science either. Just a fun blast. In fact, this film was the Remi winner at the 2001 World-Fest Houston International Film Festival, and an official section at the 2010 Bram Stoker International Film Festival.

The extras as a bit skimpy, being the films trailer and a few from R-Squared. But, there is a title card at the end of the film proper indicating that there will be a sequel (which would probably explain the flashed scene of Mina Harker full-on kissing Lucy Westerna). Something to definitely look forward to in the future.

See trailer below

My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire
Produced and directed by David Matheny           
Level 33 Entertainment, 2009 / 2011
85 minutes, USD $16.95

I don’t believe it would be any stretch of the imagination to state that this has a really bad film title, right up there with So I Married An Ax Murder and Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies.

Part of the reason for it being so is that it sounds more like a 'tween Afternoon Television Special than the slacker high school black comedy that it is (such as The Faculty). Borrowing heavily from the likes of Fright Night, My Stepmother is an Alien (hey, another great disaster of a film name), and the “Head of the Class” episode of long-gone television anthology series Amazing Stories, the premise is that small-town anti-hero and rebel high school student Rusty resents his new step-dad, Richard, for recently marrying his mom. While she’s away on a business trip, a surfer-type mailman friend of Rusty’s disappears and then reappears later fanged and in thrall to Richard (after the title, I don’t think I’m giving away much on who is the vampire here), and yet retaining his duuude-ness (aka, the comic relief, well played by Casey Myers). Rusty and friends set out to stop Richard from finding a key that will open the door to an army of hungry (and drippy/slimy) vampires. And, of course, it’s Halloween.

Rusty (played by the diminutive Lachen Anajjar, who looks like a cross between a much-younger David Schwimmer and Jason Schwartzman), does well as the go-to-guy who the school’s administration hates (except for one of the school counselors, who happens to be duuude’s bro, bro). He’s kind of too cool (you can tell because he often wears his hoodie up) for his own good or even credibility to the story, but that’s just one of many “suspensions of disbelief” that run through this film. I’ll get to a couple of them here and there, but will try not to give away too much. Being more of a buddy film than anything else, we meet Rusty’s best pal (Brandon Martin), and a kind-of doofusy guy (M.A. Alford) who wants to hang out with the cool kids, and the girl the latter likes (Anita Cordell). Oh, other than the mom (Kate Forristall), she’s just about the only female in the film with any screen time, and she’s in it for like five minutes at the beginning and end. Naw, it’s just the three school buds, the “mentor” janitor, the duuude and his bro (called “Mr. B” by the “cool” guys), and of course the titular vamp.

For an indie film, there are actually some high quality effects throughout, including some CGI zombies, exploding heads, and impalings. Lots of appliance and make-up effects as well, especially with the risen vampires, and oh, those fangs. Most of the teeth look pretty good (especially the duuude’s), but Richard’s are way too big for his face to the point (pun intended) that the Robert Kennedy-look-alike Larry Peterson – who is also the best actor of the bunch – can’t even close his mouth. It’s kind of obvious they had to overdub his voice during these scenes because there is no way he could have said his lines with that monstrosity in his maw. But since he’s the big cheese, the head honcho, the grand high exalted mystic leader, his teeth obviously had to be the biggest.

Director David Matheny seems to be confused a bit when it comes to whether or not this is a horror (albeit comedic) flick or one geared towards 14 year olds. The risen vampires apparently are way too easily dealt with (despite the occasional flight, they move more like the vampire examples of the Romero zombies, or Chaney Jr.’s mummy), and the only ones who really seem hard to get rid of are Richard and the duuude. And while there is the spurt of blood here and there, present is also a Nickelodeon green goo level that is overused. Also, not only are the kids the heroes (okay, they look more like college age), but there is no cursing or even the hint of sex anywhere to be seen.

Extras include the film’s trailer (and others by the film company), a gag reel that is “meh,” and a full-length commentary by the composer of the music for the film, which is totally skipable (other than the first five minutes when even he mocks the title: “With that name, It’s either going to be really good, or really bad, but either way I wanted to be involved”.

And yet…

For what this movie is (and titled), it was definitely a fun ride; it has even won some awards, such as Best Feature at the Black Swamp International Film Festival, the Killington Film Festival, and the Little Apple Film Festival. I whole-heartedly suggest that if you do see it, watch it as a group. This is just the kind of film that it’s fun to talk to the screen, so have some fun with the buds. Or the duuudes.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Concert Review: Johnny Winter, October 19, 2011, at Louis', in Saskatoon

Text and live photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Poster from the Internet

Despite being the pub on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, Louis' (pronounced Louie’s) is quite sizable, holding well over 200, and has had a long series of distinguished guests perform there. On October 19, 2011, it was Johnny Winter and his band.

Now, I hate to be late for the opening act, because I’ve seen some amazing shows in my life. Due to an employment situation, however, I couldn’t get there until after Vancouver native David Gogo had already begun. Another solid Blues act, the 20 minutes or so that I did manage to catch were some amazing Delta smolders and shouters, some played on a beautiful 1930 resonator guitar, the other an acoustic from 1915, if I remembered the dates correctly. The five songs I heard were crisp, to say the least, and the banter between songs consisted of the history of the resonator (and its function, of course), along with some corny material (something like, “Don’t be a name dropper, Al Pacino once told me…”) and a pointer towards the merch table. For his conclusion, he covered Winter’s “Dallas.” It seemed appropriate that night. As for his Blues playing, it was sublime.

Yes, Winter’s life tale is long told and easy to find: Texas bred with brother Edgar, grew up with Blues as a force, found rock’n’roll and became a rock guitar god with the likes of British “brothers” Clapton and Page, fell into addiction during the hedonistic late ‘60s, came out the other side in the ‘70s to reclaim the Blues as his own.

Here it is in the third decade after recovery, and Johnny Winter is still going musically strong. With a new album under his belt, the all-covers Roots (, he is assisted by the likes of Jimmy Vivino, Vince Gill, Susan Tedeschi, and, of course, Edgar. It was on the basis of promoting this CD that he started this tour last year, as it wings its way through its Canadian arm.

Johnny Winter’s band came out on stage first: Paul Nelson (guitar), Scott Spray (bass) and Vito Liuzzi (drums), all with terrific Blues rock heritage, including having all been the back-up band for Eric Sardinas. They could be a great power trio on their own, but why do that when you can open for one of the great living Blues men of the modern age?

With a huge Johnny Winter banner on the wall behind Liuzzi, front and center was a plain wooden seat and a mic before it, with a box on the side holding a water bottle. As the band was blowing a jam hard, the MC helped Winter onto the stage, leading him to the chair. He looked frail and bent, beyond his 67 years, but when he sat with his black headless Lazer guitar on his lap, his fingers just about flew.

Now, while I’m a fan of the Blues, I’m hardly an expert, so please excuse any errors, or better, let me know and I’ll correct it.

The first of his more than dozen numbers was Freddie King’s “Hideaway.” Johnny’s voice was in decent shape considering the breadth of the tour, with his signature growl having a bit of gravel. His eyes faced straight ahead, with little variance, due to vision issues (this was obvious by the way he reached for his bottle of water). With little fanfare by way of between-song banter, unlike Gogo’s enjoyable glibbery, Johnny started the next song as he did with many others, “This is ‘Sugar Coated Love’ [by Jay Miller].”

I was informed before I went in that photos were permitted only during the first three songs, and especially no flash. But this is the electronic age, where people sell their souls not to play excellent guitar at a mysterious intersection at midnight, but for ubiquitous cheap pocket and cell phone cameras. A large crowd was in front, all snapping – well, clicking – away, flash on. But not wanting to be the Ugly American and keep my word, somewhat, I did take photos – and honestly during more than for the three songs – but I only took two with flash. But my lesson was learned, as thanks to Johnny’s pale skin juxtaposed by his standard black clothing (and customary hat), the contrast made the closer picture of him unusable. I kept the one of the whole band, but for the others, stayed with the non-flash shots, which worked better in black and white.

As has been true since at least his 1979 appearance on the German television program Rockpalast (available at, Johnny mixes in some rock and roll with the Blues, though far less than he did in the 1960s. This was represented by an blazing cover of Chuck “the true king of rock and roll” Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (he does “Maybellene” on the CD) and Bobby and Shirley Woman’s “It’s All Over Now” (I’m sure most people there that night, myself included, consider it a Rolling Stones’ song). However, Jagger and Richard’s were represented by “Gimme Shelter,” though for many years, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” had been a JW show regular.

The first song off this set from his new CD is “Got My Mojo Workin’,” by Preston Foster. One aspect to notice was just how many different styles of Blues was played during the show, from Chicago, Texas, Delta, and so on. There were slow burners like Ray Charles’s “Black Jack” to rave ups such as Larry Williams’s “Boney Maronie.” Isn’t it amazing how much diversity can evolve from the simple Blues progression of I-IV-V?

Along with all the covers, Johnny showcased his own material with “She Likes to Boogie Real Slow” and “Lone Wolf,” two classics that easily fit into the Blues cannon and surely will continue to be covered by other artists, keeping the oral Blues tradition alive.

The only break in singing (other than extended solos) for Winter was when drummer Vito Liuzzi admirably took over on Freddie King’s “Tore Down” in the middle of the set. The rest of the band definitely had their time to shine, though, with their own fiery lead licks here and there, along with Johnny’s two introductions of his back-up.

For the last song in the set, “It’s All Over Now,” Johnny left the chair and stood for the entire number, which was quite the showstopper. After it ended, the band left the stage to ringing applause and standing Os. This went on for a few minutes, when my friend asked, “think he’ll do an encore?” “Oh, yeah,” I responded, pointing out the roadie readjusting the chair and mic. Sure enough, the band returned, and this time Johnny was clutching his infamous 1964 Gibson Firebird V, which, like him, looked the wear of the years but sounded solid.

For the encore, they started with Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom,” the second song off the Roots CD. This was followed by a beautifully handling of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” By this time, Winter’s voice was becoming increasingly raspy, and everyone knew it was time for the master to leave the stage for the night. Sure enough, as they exited the stage once again, the lights came on and the PA music started. Everyone started milling out, satiated for the night.

Post show note: At the end of the 90-minute-plus show, as Johnny was getting ready to be led off, a drunken fan who had stood in front the whole performance reached out to shake Johnny’s hand, as he had done with David Gogo, but Johnny moved like the guy wasn’t even there, as he left the stage with some assistance. I ran into the besotted fellow in the bathroom after, as he weaved by the urinal. Ignoring the “don’t talk in the bathroom” protocol (hell, I’m from NYFC), I said, “You know, he didn’t shake your hand because he couldn’t see it. Hope you didn’t take that personal.” Zipping up, he slurred, “Nah, man, it’s totally cool. Johnny’s the man.”

Across town, Selena Gomez was playing to a huge, sold out audience in an arena. But I was happy to have been in an intimate show with Winter because, yes, Johnny’s the man.

Set List:
1. Intro Jam
2. Hideaway (Freddie King)
3. Sugar Coated Love (Jay Miller)
4. She Likes To Boogie Real Low (Johnny Winter)
5. Good Morning Little Schoolgirl (Sonny Boy Williamson)
6. Got My Mojo Workin’ (Preston Foster)
7. Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry)
8. Black Jack (Ray Charles)
9. Tore Down (Freddie King)
10. Lone Wolf (Johnny Winter)
11. Don't Take Advantage of Me (Lee Baker Jr.)
12. Gimme Shelter (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards)
13. Boney Maronie (Larry Williams)
14. It’s All Over Now (Bobby and Shirley Womack)
15. Dust My Broom (Robert Johnson)
16. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)

Dedicated to JW, John Lappen, and Helen Francos on her 85 birthday (RIP)

Bonus Video: (same group as this tour)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Two Comedy CDs: Andrew Norelli and Keith Lowell Jensen

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Andrew Norelli
Cut Above Stupid

Uproar Entertainment, 2011

Andrew Norelli, I would like to point out at the top of this review, was the winner of the 2010 World Series of Comedy, in Las Vegas.

I get the feeling that the title of this release does not seem as much self-depreciative as the way he views the world. But it’s this observational direction that makes him so humorous.

His formula is based on a simple set of principles: the topic, the person saying it, and the verbalized thought bubble of what he would like to say, or thinking. From that simple method, he brings to light the ridiculousness of the world around us, sometimes with a “are you kidding me?” feel, and other times as a smart ass.

For example, he discusses Lady Gaga, not for her music as much the shock value of her fashion in the cutlure, or more acturately the question of why it is such as big deal. He points out that she’s a pop star, so of course she does this, it’s expected in the field; now if she dressed like that as a real estate agent, that would be something else.

At another point he talks about a friend who is covered in tattoos, who claims it’s addicting. Norelli points out that considering some of the other vices in his life, it’s obvious that self-control is issue rather than dependence.

One of my favorite comments is when he asked the nerds to please stop updating the technology because he keeps falling behind. The way puts it is make makes it a gem, of course.

Of course, there is more about gays and grass, how banning marriage is not going to stop homosexuality and how people use medical reasons as an excuse to get the weed.

I am trying to not step on his material because there is so much of it that is quoteable that it would be an easy thing to do. Okay, I’m going to relate one of his punchlines, so if you wish, skip the rest of his paragraph, and my apologies to Andrew, but I liked this direction that much: in the final bit he wonders how Afgahnistan can be the number one producer of heroin and not have one decent band. He goes on further giving a band name example that really made me laugh.

Andrew Norvelli’s pieces are mostly pretty quick and the topics change often, so if he talks about something that doesn’t touch your life, just give it a minute. He’ll get there.

Keith Lowell Jensen
Cats Made of Rabbits

Apprehensive Films, 2011

I was a bit nervous at the start of this hour-plus comedy record by “irreverent” comedian Keith Lowell Jensen (KJL), who goes by the title of “The Atheist Comedian.” His introduction by pointing out that his show opener, Chazz Hawkins, is black (despite the nice nod in the liner notes), seemed a bit, well, unoriginal, as was the following bit about old people and forwarded emails.

Then, not long into his routines, he starts commenting on his wife’s pregnancy, and I started smiling with what he was saying. Sure, there was the standard I-don’t-know-why-I’m-saying-‘I’m’-pregnant, yet he brings us into the delivery room in a way that kept bringing me back.

However, it’s the bit after that, “Into the Woods,” where he truly had me. The story of how his 11 year old nephew and 10 friends takes him out into the woods (of a gated community, he points out) to show off some BMX trix, and what results from it, stays funny throughout. While I’ve never BMX’d in my life, the events in the story touched moments in my own life and had me laughing.

From there, he never lets up. He discusses dreams of trees with vaginas, and working for pro-marijuana and gay causes, though he is a non-smoker and straight. The way he describes his own homophobia is hysterical, i.e., afraid of gays as opposed to being hateful (KJL points out that gay-bashers aren’t homophobic, they’re “assholes”).

His strongest focus, and one of the things he is noted for (other than being profane) is saved for a large section that covers multiple tracks, and that is knocking the self-righteous religious, and their lack of belief in science, or in this case evolution (“they believe that Jesus rode a dinosaur”). And what is the focus of his rant to prove evolution? The track title “Crazy Dick Party” says it all. And his wife’s feminist approach had me LOL-ing. Yes, I went there.

Somehow, this leads to the topic of the positiveness of East Indian call centers, and by the time he reaches the title cut, he’s still going strong. When he comments about what to do if aliens show up, I had to sit and laugh; I didn’t see it coming.

Most of the style is observational of his life, but easily reflects to the listeners; well, most of them. If you’re upset by talks of atheism, the blindness of religion, or are turned off by vulgarity, you may want to think twice. But as for myself, obviously, my fears were unwarranted, and I received my laugh-share.

This show is also available in DVD form (see clip below).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lighthouse to Quadrophenia, by Richie Unterberger

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lighthouse to Quadrophenia
By Richie Unterberger
Jawbone Books (London), 2011
302 pages; USD $19.95
ISBN: 9-781906-002350

A reader should never skim through a Richie Unterberger book; rather, as with a fine wine, one must savor it, much like the music he is discussing / describing / dissecting. Published relatively on the heels of his last book, White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day (reviewed on this blog), there is consistently a high level of research, detail, and the joy of the topic comes through in all his work.

His latest focus is on the 1970-‘74 period of classic rockers, The Who. The title of the volume, however, is a bit of a misnomer on more than one level. For example, as Townshend was writing Lifehouse, the band was caught up in the frenzy of the post-Tommy release, so the early part of the book is thick with that as well; bookending this at the conclusion is, of course, the Tommy film that the band work on and for which Townshend also wrote additional music. Also, this book is much more focused on Townshend, as he is the brainpan of The Who, writing most of the music and material, which is especially true in the case of both Lifehouse and Quadrophenia. In fact, the rest of The Who barely even show up in the story as individuals until a third of the way in, other than cursorily.

Do I sound like I’m being critical, because that is not the way I feel. After all, this book concerns the writing of the material for Lifehouse, which is sort of Townshend’s equivalent of Brian Wilson’s Smile, another (until recently) great mystery in the great rock’n’roll pantheon that went down in flames because it was just too esoteric – read as “ahead of its time” – to come to fruition. While we have traces and bits of Lifehouse that have emerged over the years on albums like The Who’s Odds and Sods (especially the expanded CD version), bootlegs, and some other random collections. However, as Richie painstakingly points out, some of it was collected in a non-narrative form and then expanded with non-related songs that became one of rock’s great classics, Who’s Next.

Unterberger meticulously and loving follows the trail of period interviews, articles, and other obscure sources of information, making this book as much a detective story as a history. He takes the facts and synthesizes them, pointing out errors and contradictions in the historical documents (e.g., dates, locations). This adds to the fascination of making it even more interesting, if that’s possible. Richie never gets caught in that too familiar assumptive biographical web of “so-and-so felt at that moment…” Rather, he states his own opinions, sometimes being critical, others a bit gushing, but never pandering. For example, in describing Quadrophenia, he states on pages 211-212:

Townshend may have been very much the auteur of Quadrophenia - in fact it was the only Who album which he wrote all the material – but the tracks did leave a lot of room for the rhythm section to shine as instrumentalists. Entwistle in particular played not only some of the best bass of his career, but some of the best electric bass by anyone, his nimble and pungent runs combining grace and throbbing power. The songs, and perhaps the production, lent themselves far more to Moon’s unpredictable torrent than had Who’s Next, especially on the more up-tempo numbers, such as “Bell Boy” and “I’ve Had Enough.”

I’d like to interject a bit of my own opinion here about The Who: though technically Entwistle (d. 2002) and Moon (d. 1978) were the rhythm section of the band, calling them that is actually an injustice. There was no back-up in The Who, which is why they were one of the great rock bands. Daltry was lead vocals, Townshend played lead guitar, Entwistle played lead bass, and Moon played lead drums, all at the same time.

Okay, now back to the book…

Won’t Get Fooled Again starts of as a love story, of sorts, with Pete Townshend’s growing affection and obsession with synthesizers, which would inform much of his work in the coming years. While Pete would become an expert of the technology at the time, it would also lead to conflicts within the group, including one noted physical confrontation. The rest of the band, as noted, are represented more as Lifehouse fades, and Who’s Next and Quadrophenia became more of a reality. Another presence thickly in the book, nearly as much as the rest of the band, is spiritual leader Mehr Baba (d. 1969), of whom Townshend was an avid follower.

Between the famous (and infamous) musical output (and attempts) on record, Unterberger also discusses and analyzes their tours (such as the night Moon famously passed out in mid-song), television appearances, studio work, management issues, films, and the like. It is more of all that had occurred during the span of those four years than just those two or three projects. There are many quotes from interviews that Richie has included, both historical and those that he’s conducted himself recently, with many of the band’s associates, but sadly none by the two remaining Who members.

It always takes me a long time to get through one of Unterberger’s books because there is just so much juicy material to absorb, lots of information, and journalistic investigation, that I need to stop occasionally just to take it all in. This is a high compliment. Calling this merely a Who “history” is certainly a disservice, and I look forward, as always, to his next exploration and investigation.

Bonus videos:

Extra bonus video:

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Review: Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Image from the Internet

Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail
By Paul Grushkin
Forward by Bill Walton
Voyageur Press (Minneapolis), 2011
232 pages; USD $29.95 / CAN $33.00
ISBN: 978-0-7603-3854-4

I’m tellin’ ya, they’re freakin’ everywhere, maaaan, in every corner of our culture from high to low, infiltrating the very fabric of society. Just a couple of years ago, my religious, worldwide-advertising-products-company-owning, living-in-a-gated-community-that’s-on-a-golf-course cousin confessed to me that he is a Dead Head. But the thing is, ya see, you don’t need to be a Dead Head to enjoy this book.

There are a number of ways to approach this volume. The first is it being about the Grateful Dead. There is a lot of information about the band in the text, though most of it I’m assuming a real Dead Head (DH) probably knows, such as how the band picked the name, or which songs were the most played live (including the number of times) by the band. But then the author throws in his own recollections of living down the street from the band’s space (owned by Jay and the Americans) in Englewood, NJ, during the failed taping of their second LP in New York.

Speaking of the author, Grushkin is no stranger to the Dead world, especially its fans, having previously written (or co-wrote) Grateful Dead: The Official Book of the Dead Heads (1983), along with a number of other books about commercial rock art and merchandising, such as the classic The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk (1987). However, being a stalwart in the rock merchandising biz (as well as once having worked for Bill Graham), most of his previous work has to do with the literal objects side of music, such as tee-shirt designs and paraphernalia. Here, however, Grushkin digs for something different.

Which brings us to a second way to approach this new release: the main focus here is on art. When the band took back their ticket sales from those who would sell large chunks of seats to scalpers (the story is related in the book about how someone was first on line after waiting for hours, and ended up in row 50, a story we all know well), fans realized that they could attract the attention of the Dead’s mail order ticket office - who would receive hundreds of requests per seat – by artistically designing the request envelope. Over the years, over 10,000 of them have been saved in an archive at the University of California – Santa Cruz, from which the more than 500 images in this book are culled.

While there are reproductions of some shots of art produced by the band, et al., such as album covers or influences for the personalized envelopes, the majority of the book is focused on the actual fan-designed talent. Sometimes it is the full envelope (either front or back), or little parts that are enlarged, they are replicated in vibrant color on thick stock paper, giving a beautiful rendition. The ability of the requesters varies, but there are so many shockingly beautiful drawings, sketches and even painted ones that your eye will wander over them again and again.

The chapters are mostly broken up into themes, such as “Skulls & Skeletons,” “Bears & Terrapins,” “Dead Head Transportation,” “Shrooms, Tie Dye & Flying Eyeballs,” and “The Band Members.” Yes, the skull and lightning bolt (referred to as the “Stealie”) logo that everyone recognizes from a mile away is represented, as well. Each chapter also includes a relatively lengthy introduction by Grushkin, filled with trivia, and just why any of the particular themes have relevance.

For a third choice of ways to look at this book, I must use myself as an example: as a non-DH, I pick the option of “all of the above,” because I still found the whole book damn fascinating, for the information of a band I didn’t follow, and especially for the amazing (and volumous) art renditions that fill this hardback.

There is no denying that the Grateful Dead fans are among the most loyal and fanatical in the world, comparable with those who love Elvis, the Beatles, and yes, the Monkees, whose affection goes beyond the course of their idols career.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

DVD Review: Malevolent Creation: Death from Down Under

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Malevolent Creation: Death from Down Under
Live at the Gaelic Theatre, Sidney, Australia, March 17, 2009
Produced by Doug Dalton / Hardline Media
Arctic Music Group, 2011
60 minutes, USD $15.95 (no longer in service?)

Malevolent Creation – a great name, by the way – is old school death metal. The band, in various formations, have been around for over 20 years, starting its – er – creation in Buffalo, NY, and then gaining fame after hailing it down to Florida, apparently a death metal hub, for some reason.

Three of the present members have been connected to the band, on and off, for most of the time it has been in existence, and the other two are relatively new at a couple of years or so. Note that this is the info about the band when this DVD was shot in Australia, March 17, 2009.

There is something humorous about death metal to me, in a similar way as the hardcore punk subgenre screamo. And just what is death metal? Well, this generalization definition is not meant as disrespect: it seems to be a variation of heavy metal played slow and grinding, with musicians baring long head and facial hair (usually combed out, like a clean motorcycle gang, though sometimes held with a rubber band… sounds just a bit like Lou Albano, now that I think of it) which is often swung around in rhythm with the music, if not in group harmony), jean and leather clothing (including wrist bands), lots of tatts, far apart leg stance, and most importantly, that growling voice. Songs are usually about the macabre, but in much less romantic terms than Goth, even though topics occasionally overlap.

On a worldwide tour with focus on East Asia and the South Pacific, they decided to document a show at the Gaelic Theatre, in Sydney, Australia’s most populated city. With a capacity of 800, the theatre is small enough to give the DVD audience the feeling of intimacy of a small club, but it has enough room for the four cameras to catch everything. It’s all edited together into nice rhythm.

I’ve read some reviews that complain about how “amateurish” the video comes across. Look, I don’t have a problem with it here. Death metal shows, I’ve learned, are often filmed in the dark, or with minimal lighting, so the fact that you can see the band at all apparently is a plus, don’t you think? The group doesn’t as much rush about the stage, but rather plays king of the hill and domineer it with sheer force of sound, which is sharp, even if one who is uninitiated in the genre can make out barely a word. Still, getting a chance to see and hear an entire set is definitely a bonus, especially when dealing with a band that has a rep as strong as this one.

From what I understand, this gig relies heavily on material from the early parts of the band’s career, which is probably a big asset to those who have been following the group for a while but never had the chance to hear them play their stuff on stage from way back. From the slow grinding opening cut of “Memorial Arrangements” through the various slogging speeds of other numbers, which also gnash, by the way, the heavy gears of their sound crunch together into a volume of pounding rhythms.

There are four extras in the special features area. One is “On the Road,” which is b-roll clips of the band on stage, the road ahead from the transport (van?) window, back stage, and deplaning. Nothing really special for its approximately 3:15. “Bootlegged in Melbourne” is one song by the band onstage compiled from a series of cameras taken by fans in the audience. The images are shaky, but it is well edited, and interesting to watch, lasting 8:30. Of course, there is the still photo montage of the band, again in concert, for 1:30. The most interesting addition, though, is a relaxed full-band interview (backstage?), which they respectfully don’t try to overtalk each other, give other members space to make their point - even if occasionally silly (mucho beer bottles are present and assumed by me as near empty as they don’t drink much in front of the camera). The questions are presented as silent caption cards in between answers, covering numerous topics such as their then-new album, where the tour has taken the band, and the legal problems they had in Indonesia and whether they feared for their safety. For me, this 9:30 segment is the keeper of the extras.

Track List
Memorial Arrangements
Premature Burial
Coronation of Our Domain
Blood Brothers
Eve of Apocalypse
Manic Demise
Infernal Desire
Living in Fear
Fine Art of Murder
Deliver my Enemy
The Will to Kill
Malevolent Creation
Bonus tracks
Multiple Stab Wounds
Homicidal Rant


“Manic Demise,” from this DVD:

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Two Comedy CDs: Jonathan Winters and Sean Kent

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Jonathan Winters
Final Approach

Uproar Entertainment, 2011

During the 1960s and into the ‘70s, Jonathan Winters was not just a comedian / actor, he was a force of nature. His improvisational skill is legendary, and has a legion of fans that include his acolyte, Robin Williams (who helped re-kickboost Winters’ career with a role in Mork & Mindy). I remember watching him on music and comedy shows as a kid, and just howling. Now at 85, his newest collection (perhaps last by it’s name) is “totally improvised.” In 2000 Year Old Man fashion, Bob Shaw takes on the interviewer role, though he is certainly no Carl Reiner; however, this was recorded in a studio, rather than taped at a party, so there is no audience.

When I saw the package, I said to myself, “Wow!” and immediately put it on, something I rarely do. But hell, this is Jonathan Winters, after all. There are a dozen cuts here, and in each Winters gets to do a different accent and personality, including a “100 Year Old Man,” an “English Poet,” the “Pope’s Haberdasher,” and a “Leading Terrorist” (yes, each track is named after the character). Thing is, I don’t know if I cracked a smile more than a couple of times, never actually laughing. In fact, this made me a bit depressed, honestly.

On the CD case is a quote from Winters: “I would like to dedicate this CD to people that have an unusual sense of humor.” I’d like to include myself in that category, but it’s kind of an abstract notion. I mean, would one call Russell Brand and Dane Cook “unusual”? I find them nearly entirely mundane. Winters, on the other hand, normally has a brilliant mind, but he doesn’t seem to be reaching it here. Perhaps what they should have done is have him do the routines four or five times, then pick and choose and edit together. The way it comes across now, Jonathan and Shaw sometimes trip over each other, and Winters fumbles a few times because of it.

Saddest of all, though, is his reprisal of Maude Frickett, his classic old lady with a lusty demeanor (her catch phrase was about feeling things – i.e., horny – “Aaaaaall over mah body”). Here, Winters bring her into Tex Antoine (yes, the weatherman…look it up) territory, which is inexcusable, even at his age. Y’know what I want? I want a redo; I want Winters to make another CD, with a better questioner on the level of a Johnny Carson or, dare I say it again, Carl Reiner, who can coax some of the brilliance that I bet still lay in the mind of Jonathan Winters. Your fans, me included, deserve and are wanting for that.

Sean Kent
Waiting for the Rapture

Uproar Entertainment, 2010

For a while there, comedians like Dane Cook nearly ruined stand-up, using anger, yelling, and sarcasm, and just not being funny. Fortunately, comedians like Sean Kent have adapted it, and are employing it with much more success.

Using profanity, yelling, and often explicit depictions, Kent looks at the negative sides of our culture, thereby making the point of how ridiculous much of it is. For example, he talks about how much people who jumped on the rescue Haiti bandwagon are hypocrites, because Haiti has actually been suffering for 400 years, with the earthquake just making it thismuch worse. This leads into a humorously sharp rant about Anderson Cooper being a ratings-seeking “pain whore.”

While much (but not all) of his talk about sex (e.g., kwefs, BJs and shaved bits) is a bit of his own pandering for shock value, most of the rest of his material is pointed when discussing technology, the Right’s reaction to the Left’s politics, and the Walmart mentality.

When Kent nails it, as he often does, his material has a sting, such as pointing out the ignorance of “teabaggers” (i.e., the Tea Party) that don’t want the government to touch Medicare when Medicare is a governmental agency.

The fact that he’s playing to a Seattle audience, in a city that’s a haven for liberalism, does not make the pro-left material seem forced, but rather that he’s in his element. He drolly comments that Seattle is an anomaly, referring to the rest of the state as not eastern Washington but rather western Arkansas. He does, however, chastise an audience member for answering a rhetorical question with an answer that was as funny as his own. Perhaps Kent could take a lesson from Eddie Murphy’s Delirious where an audience member shouts out a funny line, and he drops the microphone, laughs hard, and then applauds the commenter.

I especially enjoyed Kent’s talking about the difference between Google and the library, and his details about the Dewey Decimal Sys(sssshhhhh). Another line that had me laughing is when he discusses the only way people hear about libraries now is when they “ironically” read about it. Actually, often when he mentions things that are more than 10 years old (the Walkman, the Final Solution), he suggests the audience “Google it.”

Speaking of modern technology, he does a rant about texting that alone is worth to journey to this CD. Though the sex-related material seems kind of meh, not really having any point other than titillation, the rest is good (not) clean fun.