SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1978) – Someone needs to fix the hole

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With Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a splendid time is guaranteed for all…lovers of bad movies, that is. This movie was conceived at a time when wishful thinking about a Beatles reunion was at its peak, and when producer Robert Stigwood and stars The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton could seemingly do no wrong. So Stigwood snapped up the rights to classic Beatles tunes and, with the simple thinking that 3 + 1 = 4, he put Frampton and The Brothers Gibb together to make a quartet. The only problem was, that quartet wasn’t The Beatles.

The plot bears a vague similarity to the great Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine (and please, the resemblance ends there), by way of Sgt. Pepper’s band rescuing Frampton’s girlfriend (named Strawberry Fields in the movie…you know, “Strawberry Fields Forever”?) from some evildoers, particularly a ferocious band played by Aerosmith. But considering that Aerosmith does one of the few decent Beatles cover versions in the movie (“Come Together”), one would wish for Strawberry to come to her senses and become a groupie for the evil band.

But then, this wafer-thin plot is really only an excuse to gather an all-star cast (including Steve Martin, poor guy, in his feature-film debut) and make them warble half-baked versions of Beatles hits. The nadir is probably George Burns doing “Fixing a Hole” (in his throat, from the sound of it).

I suppose you can’t blame Stigwood, the Gibbs, et al. for trying to cash in on a craze. One person you can blame, though, is veteran Beatles producer George Martin, who inexplicably got involved in this mess as its music producer. At the time, Martin supposedly bragged that the soundtrack album shipped more units than the Beatles’ 1967 original album. But when the movie laid a giant egg in theaters across the country, most of those huge shipments were either sent back or were laid to rest in the $1.98 bargain bin. Since then, Martin, whose has appeared in many Beatles tributes (such as the Beatles Anthology video set), has been noticeably reticent about his contribution to this stinker.

As one critic put it at the time, if you listen to the soundtrack album backwards, you can hear Paul McCartney saying, “I wish I was dead! I wish I was dead!”

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) – Quentin Tarantino’s answer to GONE WITH THE WIND

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I’ve never been a huge fan of Westerns – traditional, spaghetti, or otherwise. So I have no yoke to bear when I say that Django Unchained is the best Western I’ve ever seen.

The title character is a pre-Civil War slave (Jamie Foxx) freed by a conniving bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), so that Schultz can hunt down three outlaws only Django can identify. In the midst of this task, Schultz discovers that Django is married to Broomhilda (Kerri Washington), a slave trapped on an infamously brutal plantation named Candieland. Schultz then sets about freeing Broomhilda and reuniting her with Django.

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s calling card is his lack of political correctness, and that’s on full display here. Tarantino merges two way-out-there genres, the spaghetti Western and the blaxploitation flick, to depict ignorant white slave-owners getting what’s coming to them.

Violence-wise, the movie is bathed in blood. The movie also pulls no punches language-wise, dotting its dialogue with the infamous N-word as much as possible. Because of this, many feel that Django‘s treats its raw subject matter – brutal slavery in the South – too lightly and gratuitously.

I don’t agree. Django Unchained is no Blazing Saddles. Look at the character of Stephen, a Candieland slave who is all Uncle Tom on the surface but is actually the brains behind the plantation. Samuel L. Jackson goes all-out to show Stephen as a slave who has triumphed over his Deep South origins and isn’t about to let anyone, white or black, upset the status quo.

I think Tarantino is getting at something here. By showing the ignorance and evil of all who willingly let slavery continue, Django is giving us the flip side of ultra-reverent Southern epics such as Gone with the Wind — and about time, too. Django Unchained is surely not historically accurate, but when it shows moronic slave-owners getting their just desserts, it’s deliciously satisfying.

Happy birthday, Albert Brooks

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Today is the 65th birthday of Albert Brooks — in my humble opinion, one of the funniest men to ever grace the planet.

Brooks has been dubbed in many ways — “the comedian’s comedian,” “the West Coast Woody Allen” — all of which are another way of saying that usually, Brooks is too smart for the room. It’s the reason why much of his work is brilliantly funny, and also probably the reason he doesn’t get bigger box-office for his movies.

In his early days as a comedian, Brooks was part of the “ironic” comedians of the 1970’s (think Steve Martin or Andy Kaufman) who deconstructed stand-up comedy. (On one of countless appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” he did an entire bit about how frustrated he was that he’d run out of comedy material.)

When he started making movies — first as a contributor to the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” then in actual feature films — Brooks adopted a persona in which he was so intent on being hip and “doing the right thing” that he never realized how self-absorbed and obnoxious he was.

This culminated in what I feel is his finest movie achievement: Lost in America (1985), in which a frustrated ad man (Brooks) decides to take his wife, chuck all of their middle-classness, and get out into nature and “touch Indians” — all while touring the country in a 40-foot Winnebago.

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(I’d go into more detail about this delicious, daintily black comedy, except that I’ve already devoted a website to it. If you want to find out more about this movie, please go to lostinamerica.moviefever.com)

Brooks has also done a fine job in playing other people’s characters, having twice been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for his work in the movies Broadcast News (1987) and Drive (2011).

To brighten your day, I leave you with one of my all-time favorite Brooks bits, in which he does a ventriloquist act with a Speak & Spell toy.

Buster Keaton’s THE BLACKSMITH (1922) – What a (village chest)nut!

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

Buster Keaton said he always began planning his comedies with an opening and an ending, because the middle would take care of itself. The Blacksmith is a funny beginning and a superb ending in search of a substantial middle.

The movie begins as a parody of Longfellow’s famous poem “The Village Blacksmith,” probably more familiar these days to Looney Tunes cartoon buffs than it is to middle-schoolers. (Daffy Duck robotically starts to recite it near the end of Duck Amuck [1953].) Buster, it seems, is the poem’s anti-hero version. (The first shot is of “village smithy” Buster standing under an L.A. palm tree, not the “spreading chestnut” of the poem.)

After a couple more verses, the movie quickly loses in interest in satire and, like Tex Avery’s later Warner Bros. cartoon The Village Smithy (1936 – see what I mean?), is more interested in using the source as a springboard for gags, which here range from great to terrible. The good stuff shows Buster being both a “horse whisperer” and a shoe salesman to a horse in need of new shoes. (Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Buster can pretty well transform himself into whatever the current situation dictates he needs to be. If a horse needs shoeing, Buster goes out of his way to meet the horse’s hoof size and comfort level. Thom McAn never had a better spokesperson.)

The movie’s nadir is Buster trying to do his work while he’s obliviously and systematically destroying a brand-new Rolls-Royce that has been brought in for minor repair work. Keaton biographer Marion Meade posits that this is probably the same car given to Keaton by his much-despised in-laws, which would explain his joy in destroying it. But this joy doesn’t extend to the movie’s audience – especially those in 1922, who probably gasped at seeing such a luxurious car being torn apart.

Beyond that, the gags are hit-and-miss, the best one being where it looks as though Buster is about to get run over by an oncoming train, only to have (through trick photography) the train stop within just a few inches of him. (Joel and Ethan Coen pulled an extremely similar fast one 65 years later, involving a baby and a car, in Raising Arizona [1987].)

And the final gag is a beaut, with Buster pulling down a shade with “The End” written on it, after having shown us that he won the heart of one of his customers who he married on a whim. The problem is that this final scene comes out of nowhere. One minute the woman is snubbing him; just a few minutes later, without even a scene of courtship, she’s running off to elope with him. Could this have reflected Keaton’s mirror-image fantasy of his unhappy marriage to his then-wife Natalie Talmadge?

Granted, maybe one shouldn’t read too much into the final marriage scene and the obliterated Rolls-Royce – but one is tempted to do so only because there’s not much else to reflect upon here. Happily, Keaton’s style would soon evolve exponentially over the gags-for-gags’-sake stuff reflected in The Blacksmith.

Laurel & Hardy’s THEM THAR HILLS (1934) – Strong brew

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

From funny to silly to violent, Them Thar Hills runs the Laurel & Hardy gamut. It begins with Ollie suffering from gout and Ollie’s doctor (Billy Gilbert) making lofty philosophical pronouncements that of course go over Stan’s head. The doctor finally recommends that Ollie go to the mountains and drink plenty of fresh water.

After some slapstick where Stan tries to transport Ollie down to their car, a purely expository scene shows some moonshiners being hauled away by federal agents after having to dump their illegal brew in the local well, where Stan and Ollie arrive shortly afterward.

Then comes a hilarious scene with Stan and Ollie setting up shop in a trailer at the mountains. Ollie announces that dinner will be a plate of beans and a pot of hot coffee. Stan, ever Ollie’s cheerleader, replies, “Swell! You sure know how to plan a meal!” While preparing dinner, Ollie begins humming “The Old Spinning Wheel” to himself. When Stan can’t resist adding an occasional “Pom-pom” note to the song, it grows into an ever-escalating game of one-upsmanship, until Ollie finally clonks Stan on the head with a pot and declares, “I’m singing this song!”

Then we are shown an unhappy tourist couple (Mae Busch and Charlie Hall) who are forced to walk after having run out of gas in their car. They come across Stan and Ollie’s trailer and retrieve some gas from them. While Charlie walks back to the car, Mae partakes of more and more of the “water” (which, know-it-all Ollie informs everyone, tastes so great because of “the iron in it”). They all sing a few thousand choruses of “The Old Spinning Wheel” before Charlie returns and demands to know why the boys got his wife so snockered.

The argument evolves into a tit-for-tat sequence, with Stan and Ollie running roughly ahead until Charlie dumps some nearby kerosene onto Ollie and sets him ablaze. (Like such delicate issues as death and suicide, such incidents were treated as black-comedy oddities in L&H comedies but probably wouldn’t pass muster in these more sensitive times.) Stan suggests that Ollie jump into the well so that the water will put out the fire. Ollie thanks him, jumps into the well, and is blown sky-high before he, and this painfully climactic movie, are brought back to earth.

What was probably the weakest part of the movie — the tit-for-tat sequence — served as the inspiration for Laurel & Hardy’s only sequel, inevitably titled Tit for Tat. That’s a sad fact, but I guess that’s the irony in it.

TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE (2005) – A corpse is a corpse, of course, of course

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It’s a (typical) paradox in Gothic director Tim Burton’s career that it took a meticulously timed stop-motion animation film to loosen him up. But after many years in which it seemed that Burton got lost in the woods of his own lugubrious style, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride returned him to the black-comedy riches of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

In fact, the many fans of Nightmare will find Corpse Bride a not-so-distant cousin. The story concerns Victor and Victoria (voiced by Johnny Depp and Emily Watson), their names an ominous reflection of the Victorian era in which they were raised. They’re to be married almost before they even meet each other; the couple’s parents arranged the marriage on their own as a convenient (for them) union of money and status.

A befuddled Victor is out in the woods, reciting his wedding vows, when a decedent from Down Below (Helena Bonham Carter) happily takes Victor at his word. Now Victor, who previously couldn’t get one woman to pay him attention, now has two vying for his affections; it just happens that one of them is inconveniently dead.

Once the movie visits the Corpse Bride’s, er, alternate society, it really goes to town and never looks back. It’s obvious where Burton’s allegiances lay; it’s actually the afterlife that’s richly colored and layered, while the “live” world labors in an almost completely black-and-white atmosphere, as though they’re practicing to be dead. And haven’t we all met a few people like that?

The movie is a finely tuned clockwork of non-stop invention, never letting the audience know where it’s going and asking us to just enjoy the ride. Danny Elfman, Burton’s long-time musical collaborator, provides a calliope of sounds and styles that only add flavor to this very exotic mix, as does the rich cast of voices (including veterans such as Albert Finney and Christopher Lee).

Dealing humorously with death requires a very fine skill; go too far over the top, as did Burton’s recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the discomfort starts to gnaw at you. Here, as in most of his best work, Burton finds just the right macabre tone, like respectful trick-or-treaters at Halloween. It’s a very liberating tonic that casts most of this year’s animated features into the shadows.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is rated PG for comic-book-style peril and macabre humor.

TWILIGHT (1998) – Paul Newman, James Garner, and other veterans at their finest

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Among the many virtues of the movie thriller Twilight:

(1) A successful modern-day film noir, full of world-weary gumshoes, the privileged rich, and lots of corpses. Newman plays Harry Roth, a retired detective who works as a live-in handyman for Hollywood stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon). Jack asks Harry to deliver a “package” (read: blackmail payment) for him, and once Harry gets involved, he can’t help nosing around. This sounds uninspiring at first, but it’s thought-out well enough to include labyrinthine plot twists, memorable supporting characters (James Garner is terrific as a retired-cop friend of Harry’s), and some crackling dialogue.

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(2) An intelligent, witty story, written by adults, for adults. Co-writers Robert Benton and Richard Russo, director Benton, and star Newman pulled off a similar miracle a few years before with Nobody’s Fool, and they’ve done it again. The movie’s tone is confident enough to have a funny conversation just before a shooting begins. Any movie that can mix moods that well is a winner.

(3) A movie that feels “lived in,” allowing its viewers time to soak up its atmosphere. Even though Twilight is all of 94 minutes long, its leisurely pace put off a few critics who have been trained in MTV-style viewing. When a movie’s elements work this well, you don’t have to rush them.

(4) A sterling cast. Newman, Hackman, Sarandon, Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, and “Breaking Bad’s” Giancarlo Esposito are superlative. My only regret about the movie is that one of my favorite character actors, M. Emmett Walsh, makes a great entrance and then gets shot before he utters a word.

(5) Paul Newman. As in Nobody’s Fool, Newman’s face is a movie in itself. And let’s face it–any movie that undresses Susan Sarandon and still leaves you more in awe of Newman’s 73-year-old form…

 

 

Laurel & Hardy’s TWO TARS (1928) – Two tars and a car-lot of targets

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

Even more so than their short Big BusinessTwo Tars demonstrates how Laurel & Hardy used the “reciprocal destruction” device in a way that “makes sense,” where other comics used it just for cheap laughs.

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It all comes about when Stan and Ollie, as sailors on shore leave who have picked up two good-time girls, get stuck in a long and frustrating traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. If ever there was a comic device aimed at venting frustration, this one is tops. The various drivers (one, with a prim moustache, is Edgar Kennedy; the guy with dark glasses is an L&H prop man who engineered the sight-gag cars) have plenty of reason to be burned up before Stan and Ollie ever get there.

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Of course, for Laurel & Hardy, a line of cars with frustrated drivers is like ducks in a shooting gallery. Let’s see, we’ll tear the headlights off of this one; we’ll knock the guy’s belongings off of that one; and heck, we’ll take the wheels out of this one altogether. And don’t forget that guy with the tomatoes!

The penultimate shot of molested cars chasing after Stan and Ollie at a policeman’s behest is even funnier than the final shot. It’s like watching Laurel & Hardy get personally escorted into the ninth ring of hell.

THE IMMIGRANT (1917) – Charlie Chaplin at his best

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

One of the many things that bothered me about James Cameron’s overblown romantic epic Titanic (1997) was the way it patted itself on the back for its blatant commentary on America’s class system. Cameron seemed to have forgotten that there was a two-reeler comedy that did the same thing eight decades previous – Chaplin’s The Immigrant – and did it probably for what it cost to light one of Titanic’s chandeliers.

Indeed, it’s kind of surprising that Chaplin stirred criticism where he thought to mix comedy and drama in The Kid four years later, seeing as he’d already done it so skillfully in The Immigrant. This is the perfect Chaplin combination platter: comedy, drama, pathos, symbolism, and yes, a smidgeon of social commentary – all delivered as smoothly and charmingly as you could hope for.

Chaplin plays the title role, a foreigner sailing for America on a rickety ship. Our first view of Charlie is his backside, as he hangs over the edge of the deck, seeming to relieve himself of nausea – only to turn around all smiles, showing off his prize catch of a fresh fish. (Contrast this with Chaplin’s later, far less imaginative A Day’s Pleasure, where he really does try to milk seasickness for ever-diminishing comedy.)

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Eventually, Charlie meets up with a female immigrant (Edna Purviance) and her widowed mother. He befriends them and eventually gives them some money he won from gambling on the ship. Then comes the movie’s most famous shot. A title tells us the ship has reached “the Land of Liberty,” followed by a long shot of the Statue of Liberty, followed by Charlie and his shipmates being roped off like cattle before they can be let off the ship. (At least Charlie gets off a good kick to the guy doing the roping.)

The movie’s second half shows Charlie finding a coin on the street and using it to dine at a cheap restaurant. There, he reunites with Edna. In a perfect economy of action, Charlie (and we) see Edna alone and in black and immediately deduce that her sickly mother has passed on. Charlie expresses his sorrow and then tries to make the best of things, offering to buy dinner for Edna.

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Then Charlie and Edna see a customer get batted about by the restaurant’s burly waiter (Eric Campbell) because he lacked a dime on his dinner bill. We’ve already seen the waiter get assertive with Charlie because he couldn’t take a hint to remove his hat in the restaurant. (Eric and Charlie’s hat routine will strike a chord with any Laurel & Hardy buff. In fact, much of this second half’s premise seems to have been bodily lifted for later use in the L&H short Below Zero [1930].)

Trying to assure himself, Charlie reaches into his pocket…and reaches…and reaches…and realizes the coin has fallen out. Chaplin manages to milk a good deal of business out of Charlie trying to avoid the waiter’s suspicious glare and to figure out how he will pay the bill.

As luck would have it, a nearby customer (Chaplin veteran Henry Bergman) is an artist who finds Edna and Charlie worthy subjects for his next painting. He confirms a deal with them and gives Charlie a couple of dollars in advance. In what is easily one of Chaplin’s most satisfying endings (emotionally and story-wise), Charlie drags coy Edna into the office of a local justice of the peace, to use the money to buy a marriage license for them.

The Immigrant is even more astonishing once you view the first segment of the astounding documentary Unknown Chaplin, which details the origins of many of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies. The Immigrant began as Chaplin’s vague idea of a comedy of manners, but it wandered aimlessly until Chaplin connected the dots and included the immigration concept. I wonder if Titanic began that modestly.

OUT OF THE INKWELL (2005 book) – Happy birthday, Max Fleischer

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Today is the birthday of Max Fleischer (1883-1972), the producer behind the first series of excellent Popeye cartoons, as well as Betty Boop, the first Superman animated series, and countless other animated highlights.

In honor of Mr. Fleischer, I’d like to post my review of a wonderful biography of him, written by no less a personage than his son.

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Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution goes a long way towards filling the gap where the dearth of biographies concerning the Fleischer Brothers’ work is concerned. Richard Fleischer, an accomplished film director in his own right (Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green) gives a very detailed but breezy history of the Fleischer Bros.’ film work and their unfortunate break-up after decades of working together on ground-breaking theatrical cartoons.

The sweet bonus of this particular biography is that Richard is Max’s son. And, far from being a Mommie Dearest-type book with an axe to grind against a famous parent, Richard happily recounts how his father’s fame brought many perks and much happiness to his life. Besides his father’s film work, Richard relates many enjoyable anecdotes about life in the Fleischer household, and how his parents’ earthy sense of humor was reflected in his father’s remarkable cartoons.

This is the all-too-rare film biography that is just as enjoyable and fun as its subject matter. Fleischer and animation buffs, as well as casual cartoon viewers, should savor this book.

On a scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I rate this book: CanCanCanCan