DVD Review ‘MST3K Volume XXXI’: Tasty Turkeys

November 19, 2014


Fitting for Thanksgiving — and I do give thanks — Shout! Factory on Tuesday releases Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Turkey Day Collection, with four more episodes new to DVD: Jungle Goddess, The Painted Hills, The Screaming Skull and Squirm.

And after you’ve gorged on those, there’s always dessert: a steaming hot helping of extra features from the reliable Ballyhoo, starting with exclusive intros of each episode by Joel Hodgson and the ‘bots, running around two minutes.

You may tend to watch these sets in any old order, but I’d start with first-in-the-collectible-tin Jungle Goddess, since its extras open with Inside the Turkey Day Marathon, an 11-minute look at its origins and traditions, starting in ’91 on Comedy Central.

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Yusuf ‘Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’ Review: Peace Trained

October 26, 2014


The prince of music formerly known as the artist Cat Stevens is back. Yusuf’s Tell ‘Em I’m Gone arrives Tuesday with 10 tracks — half originals, half covers — as his first album in five years, with the former pop superstar/now roots musician further exploring themes of personal depth and spiritual quests — but not without winks of wry self-awareness.

And what could be more of a playful wink than covering innocent children’s chestnut You Are My Sunshine, a 1930s hillbilly song somehow fittingly enmeshed in this amalgam of folk, blues and American R&B — the sounds that spurred Cat Stevens to launch his pop career in the late ’60s. (The Tremeloes’ rousing turn for his Here Comes My Baby is still one of my favorite hits of that era.)

Those who only remember Yusuf’s work then may be put off by Yusuf, 66, now. His voice is older, huskier, as it should be, and he no longer caters to pop songwriting forms, though one original, I Was Raised in Babylon, would be radio-ready if radio dared to play it.

But largely this music finds Yusuf playing his own muse, reflecting on his life’s quest for spiritual peace while tapping his musical inspirations — even down to the melancholy innocence of You Are My Sunshine.

Enshrined earlier this year into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Yusuf emotionally is still the man whose Peace Train was a rousing 1971 anthem, and whose Foreigner Suite is the most ambitious, adventurous and moving epic music I’ve ever heard. But now he’s musically closer to the man who planted his roots in the rhythm and blues of ’60s London clubs.

Yet this album isn’t a “those were the days” reflection so much as a raw but potent tapping of those roots for today’s troubled times, with cutting lyrics such as “They used to call us civilized, those days are gone” in I Was Raised in Babylon crystalizing the gap between first and third worlds.

Still, the tender tunesmith also remains, as on a piano treatment of Edgar Winter’s Dying to Live — and on the sweet message of You Are My Sunshine. A lover of humanity, not just his fans, Yusuf almost could be singing about us.

– Bruce Westbrook

DVD Review ‘MST3K Volume 30′: Straight Talk

July 24, 2014

mst30I know: MST3K box set reviews tend to drone. There’s often little room for ‘tude while assessing new content, which leads to “This set’s special features include blah blah blah.”

So let’s launch this look at Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume 30, due Tuesday, with some straight talk.

First, the extras aren’t as generous as on many other releases from Shout! Factory. But how can I complain? In the Rhino days we got zero extras, while Shout has done a splendid job of beefing up its DVDs with special features — while admirably continuing releases at a regular rate. Just because not all sets are created equally doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate this one. I’m just saying: The extras this time are sparse.

But not for the Outlaw (of Gor) disc, whose three featurettes total about 26 minutes, all from the reliable folks at Ballyhoo.

That’s where more straight talk is needed. In terms of forthright analyses, the featurette called “Writer of Gor: The Novels of John Norman” is about as bad as they come.

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Book Review: Stephen King’s ‘Mr. Mercedes’: Fill ‘Er Up

June 1, 2014

merc coverWith mass killings by estranged loners becoming scarily commonplace, Stephen King’s new novel, Mr. Mercedes (Scribner, 436 pages, $30, June 3), is as timely as an unearthed clue without a moment to spare. It’s also his most straightforward crime thriller ever — Joyland on steroids — with no supernatural elements but rather a compelling, page-turning case to solve.

That cold case gets a renewed attack by shrewd retired cop Hodges, who never caught “Mr. Mercedes,” the killer who slammed a stolen car into a parking-lot crowd of job-seekers. The killer’s identity is quickly revealed — this is as much his story as Hodges’ — and cat-and-mouse intrigue follows when he tauntingly contacts the ex-cop to goad him into suicidal despair.

What follows has violent moments, including flashbacks, but King seems to respect that this novel isn’t exclusively for horror devotees. Mr. Mercedes is more gripping than gruesome, building tension and excitement instead of resorting to grisly eruptions.

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Book Review Lea Michele’s ‘Brunette Ambition’: Lovable Lea

May 20, 2014


OK, so 27  is a young age to write your memoirs. But Lea Michele’s Brunette Ambition (Crown Archetype, $21) isn’t meant to be an autobiography. Rather, it’s designed as a how-to book for fans of the actress and singer, couched with personal insights about the life which brought this wisdom.

Liberally illustrated and an easy read, Brunette Ambition offers lengthy looks at Michele’s approach to food, fashion, fitness and beauty, and how her health-centered, professional approach has empowered her rise from Broadway performer at age 8 to TV star, recording artist and now author at 27.

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Glee Review-Recap Season 5 Episode 20 ‘The Untitled Rachel Berry Project’: Shaking My Head

May 14, 2014


Since I always try to see silver linings, here’s one: Perhaps this week’s Glee will make the long wait till Season 6 more bearable — because as much as I love the show, its Season 5 finale did not leave me craving more. Instead, it had me shaking my head over one of the worst episodes ever.

That’s coming from a guy who recognizes Glee for what it is: a musical fantasy, meaning I cut the show slack when it comes to logic and consistency, because for me it’s largely about the songs, and they’re so damn good. But while Episode 20, The Untitled Rachel Berry Project, had some strong songs, it had to be the worst-written Glee episode in many a moon. I mean, there are limits.

To a degree I’ll still cut Glee some slack, given that it’s had to make such major adjustments for two seasons, first by graduating most of its major characters at the end of Season 3 and then having to straddle two principal locations, in Ohio and New York. Then Cory Monteith died, which meant Finn died, which meant a central romance and the end-game envisioned for Glee’s final episode was out the window.

So Glee had to adjust — and it did so, turning New York into the place where the show — and its young-adult characters — belonged, and finally fixing its focus there this spring, after allowing one school year at McKinley to drag on for a season and a half.

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Book Review: ‘The Dylanologists’

May 11, 2014



With The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob (Simon & Schuster, $25, due May 13), author David Kinney pays tribute to the influential singer-songwriter’s most obsessive fans — the kind who don’t just memorize ever lyric, but buy every piece of Dylan’s life they can acquire.

“Once you own Bob Dylan’s highchair, it becomes easy to rationalize any other purchase,” Kinney writes.

Oh, does it? Actually, once you buy and own Dylan’s highchair, no rationalization is left to you. Rather, you’ve branded yourself as no better than the most obsessive fans of Star Wars, Star Trek, Elvis, James Dean, the Beatles, Harry Potter, Spider-Man or any other real or imagined figures who are — at least to fans — larger than life.

This is a tribute to Dylan and his awesome influence? I think not. Dylan would probably be embarrassed to read this book — not just for himself, but for those who, as Bill Shatner famously said, need to get a life.

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Glee Review-Recap Season 5 Episode 19 ‘Old Dog, New Tricks’: Good boy!

May 7, 2014


I’ll give first-time Glee screenwriter Chris Colfer this: His Old Dog, New Tricks was one of the show’s sweetest episodes ever. From lost dogs to forgotten oldsters, it had heart.

But it was also a mixed bag.

The glitches lay in reconciling the avarice and inattention of Kurt’s too-busy friends — notably Rachel and Santana — with the feel-good yarn about reconnecting with lost loved ones, cherishing the aged and protecting helpless animals.

Clearly, Rachel’s face-saving animal-rights charity, Broadway Bitches (love that name!), was all about her, and merely exploited pitiful pooches, as partly driven by Santana’s manipulative free-lance publicity job for the cause. But in the happy end we were somehow expected to see its value anyway, while overlooking the hollowness, and I couldn’t.

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Glee Review-Recap Season 5 Episode 18 ‘The Back Up Plan’: Now what?

April 30, 2014



Just as Glee suddenly turned Santana from ice queen to Rachel’s devoted gal pal in Episode 18, The Back Up Plan, we heard Naya Rivera was fired by Glee for insubordination involving diva fits with Lea Michele (though now it’s said she’ll be back in Season 6).

What a mess — like this episode. But we do know this: Rivera will be on next week’s show, but she won’t be in May 13′s Season 5 finale, which was still shooting this week, perhaps to cover for scenes in which her character was cut during the uproar.

Yes, the show must go on — or all over the place — or something. And Glee will go on –perhaps with a scene shift to Hollywood next year, if this episode was any indication.

Meanwhile, we’re faced with one of the worst written Glee hours ever, from Santana’s unexplained change of heart to the relentless, one-note, clumsy brutality of each show biz pro in the yarn, from Funny Girl’s producer to Rachel’s new talent agent to Fox TV executives to Shirley MacLaine’s art-pushing socialite.

With friends — or industry types — like these, who needs a career trying to live out your show biz dreams? It all seems more like a nightmare.

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Glee Review-Recap Season 5 Episode 17 ‘Opening Night’: One Dream Comes True

April 23, 2014


“Apparently some dreams do come true.”

– Rachel Berry/Lea Michele, Glee, April 22, 2014

I place this statement in formalized quotes since it so clearly encapsulates what Glee, at this stage, is all about. All dreams can’t come true — but damn it, some can.

Not that Episode 17, Opening Night, had the closure and finality of the “endgame” once envisioned for the show. Before Cory Monteith died last summer, Glee’s most notable destined resolution was the romantic union of “Finchel” — Finn Hudson and Rachel Berry — just as Finn’s Monteith and Rachel’s Lea Michele also seemed entwined.

But life changed, and Glee changed, with the death of Monteith, which again showed how much the fictional characters on this show often mirror the actors’ own lives — or is it vice versa?

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