SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND 50th-Anniversary Edition (2017) – The Beatles with subtext

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I was six years old when The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was first released. My sister, who is 10 years older than me, was the ultimate Beatlemaniac up to that point, snapping up all of their records and screaming every time The Fab Four showed up on TV.

I listened to all of my sister’s Beatles albums and so became a Beatlemaniac by proxy. That’s quite ironic in that (a) I have no recollection of the first time I listened to Sgt. Pepper, and (b) that album was the beginning of the end of my sister’s Beatlemania. The Fabs had just gotten too psychedelic and far-out for her.

Having since bought and re-bought all of The Beatles’ albums — either because my original copies wore out, or they were issued on newer formats such as compact disc — I resisted buying the 50th-anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper for as long as I could, finally succumbing to the rave reviews this updated version has received. Still, I figured there was no way that an album I’d been listening to for 50 years (!) could ever surprise me again.

But having earwormed the album into my head for the past two days, I think I feel the same way that awed Beatles fans did when they first heard the album in the summer of 1967. It sounds fresher and more relevant than ever.

Surely, part of this is due to the breathtaking re-mixing done to the album by Giles Martin, son of Sir George Martin, the original producer of Pepper and nearly all of The Beatles’ other group albums. Like an aural archeologist, Martin fils has dug around in each of the album’s compositions and found sounds that you either never heard before or that sounded muddily buried in the background. More than ever, the album sounds like the ersatz bandstand concert that The Fabs always intended it to resemble.

But the real revelation is in the special edition’s bonus disc, “The Sgt. Pepper Sessions.” First, it includes beautifully rendered stereo versions of the Beatles hits “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It’s now Beatles legend that these two magnificent songs were intended to be placed on the original album, but EMI was so anxious for a long-awaited 45 RPM single that John and Paul made the sacrifice with these two masterworks.

But best of all is the second disc’s alternate takes on all of the album’s songs, most of which could easily stand on their own. In particular, the instrumentals on “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Penny Lane,” and “A Day in the Life” are lush and joyous. If the original album is solid as ever, these alternate versions are like beautiful flowers wriggling up through cracks in the concrete. (Proof of The Beatles’ inventiveness? Their outtakes alone sound better than a lot of rock groups’ final products.)

(Also of note is the second disc’s unveiling of “A Day in the Life’s” original ending. The song was to have ended with the Fabs endlessly humming the same note. On the original album, the hum was replaced by the now-famous, apocalyptic piano-note slam, but the hum has been resurrected here. The Beatles obviously made the right choice, but in retrospect, the hum doesn’t sound so bad either.)

Having listened to Sgt. Pepper for decades (and yet long after its heyday), I found myself just as judgmental about the original album as anyone. It didn’t seem as perfect as, say, Revolver, and it had at least a couple of tracks that were just too flower-powery for me. (Sorry, George and “Within You Without You.”)

Now, having heard the album in every ounce of its intended glory, I feel as love-stoned as any hippie from ‘67. If I don’t end out this week wearing tie-dyed shirts and flowers in my hair, it’ll be a miracle.

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HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I (1981) – Mel Brooks as the 20-million-year-old man

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

This movie did middling box-office (as did all Mel Brooks movies from this point on), but for my money, it’s one of Brooks’ funniest. Having cemented his comedic reputation early on with the 2000-Year-Old Man, it seems inevitable that Brooks would eventually take on the spectrum (or sphincter, as he might put it) of world history. And in the age of the Farrelly Brothers, Brooks ideas about bad taste seem almost quaint.

It begins with a lot of black-out gags (the first such gag amounting to, Ape Man = Onan) and takes off from there. The first sustained sequence, The Roman Empire, probably goes on a bit too long, and it “introduced” a buxom actress named Mary-Margaret Humes who, justifiably, went right back to obscurity shortly after the film’s release. But there are also many enjoyable moments: Gregory Hines’s mellow film debut, Madeline Kahn’s ecstatic song tribute to her well-endowed male slaves, and most of all, the Last Supper sequence at the end — completely messed up time-wise (it puts Jesus and Leonardo da Vinci in the same shot), but all the more hilarious because of it. (John Hurt plays Jesus, and as in Brooks’ Spaceballs [1987], his straight-faced seriousness just makes the insanity around him that much funnier.)

The next sequence (embedded below) is one of Brooks’s best: The Spanish Inquisition as a Marx Brothers-style musical number, with Mel Brooks as a socko Torquemada, beating out a rhythm on his victims’ shackled knees. This sequence alone justifies Brooks’ existence as a comedy director.

The sequence depicting The French Revolution has two main objectives in mind: show off as much of (1) British comedienne Pamela Stephenson’s bust and (2) Brooks’s wee-wee humor as humanly possible. Nevertheless, it has its moments, with Cloris Leachman as Madame Defarge, and Brooks as a randy king.

The final short sequence, a trailer for Brooks’s non-existent History Part II, is worth the bother just for one of those moments that makes me laugh for no discernible reason: a scene from “Hitler on Ice,” showing Brooks’s favorite nasty German as an Ice Capader. This ersatz trailer is enough to make me wish Brooks had really made a sequel. I doubt it would have turned out any worse than Spaceballs.

Albert Brooks’ LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD (2005) – A little smart bomb of a comedy

 

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Albert Brooks does comedy that’s so on-target, it doesn’t feel like comedy. In an age where comedians practically beat you over the head with their gags, Brooks’ style is like those old MAD Magazine cartoons that were in the margins of the pages. The funny stuff is in the peripheries.

Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World never made it to any theaters in Jacksonville, FL. (where I live). I’m tempted to say that’s a shame, but it probably wouldn’t have helped Brooks’ cause for it to be released here. (The movie grossed less than $1 million.) But now the movie is available for home viewing, where Brooks fans can appreciate its quiet pleasures.

Brooks plays a fictionalized version of himself, summoned to Washington on a mission. A commission headed by actor-turned-senator Fred Dalton Thompson (also playing himself) wants to try a more thoughtful resolution to the Mid-East conflict. They figure that if Brooks can spend a month in India and Pakistan and learn what makes Muslims laugh, America can make inroads there. Washington would have been far better off sending Adam Sandler.

Brooks thinks the answer is for him to do his old stand-up routine — which, if you know anything about Brooks, made fun of stale comedy cliches. Trouble is, if you don’t know the cliches to start with, it’s pretty hard to enjoy a spoof of them. Thus, we get several shots of Indians waiting to be entertained and instead sitting on their hands.

The movie is not laugh-a-minute, but it does have some hilarious moments and images, most of them centered around how Brooks is too self-absorbed to do Washington much good. He pontificates to a co-worker about comedy while bypassing India’s prominent Taj Mahal. He’s so desperate for laughs that he crosses a border illegally to do stand-up for some hooded Pakistanis sitting around a campfire.

To tell any more of the plot would spoil some of the movie’s best gags. There’s also a lot of “inside” stuff about Brooks’ own movies (he did the father fish’s voice in Finding Nemo) that will sail right past non-Brooks fans. But I don’t think Brooks cares. He arranges his gags like shiny gems on a counter and lets you pick out the good ones.

I loved this movie, but I admit that I smiled at it more often than I outright laughed. But considering the present state of American film comedy, I’m willing to settle for smiles these days.

The Marx Brothers in A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) – Long live Dr. Hackenbush!

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The following is my entry in the Medicine in the Movies Blogathon, being hosted May 26-28, 2017 at the blog Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ tributes to medicos in the movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

A Day at the Races is a bit of a comedown after The Marx Bros. smash hit A Night at the Opera, but then most things are.

Happily, the sense of worsening decay that marred the Marx Brothers’ final M-G-M films is not wholly present here, but there are some bad omens. The movie has two monstrosities that, if they’d been removed, would have lessened Races‘ load considerably.

One is the Water Carnival, an outrageously lavish production number that looks as though Broadway would be too small to hold it. The second, even more horrifying scene is when Harpo trundles through a black community containing every African-American stereotype known to man, and all of the blacks seize upon Harpo as “Gabriel.” This is only worsened when all three Marxes don blackface (!) as a supposed tribute to their black comrades. (Even when the Gabriel bit was reprised in At the Circus, it at least wasn’t the jaw-dropper it is here.)

That’s a great pity, because the comedy here is as great as anything the Marxes ever delivered. The premise is that sanitarium owner Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan) has 30 days to fend off the advances of Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille), who wants to foreclose on the sanitarium and turn it into a casino to complement his nearby race track. Judy’s fortune hinges on the huge fortune of Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who (shades of Duck Soup) will help Judy only if she will install her quack doctor, Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho), as the sanitarium head.

Races might well be Groucho Marx’s finest hour with the Marx Brothers. Chico and Harpo are hardly lacking for laughs (the charade scene and their interruption of Groucho’s hot date are both superb), but Groucho is the star attraction here — wheeling, dealing, dancing (see below), and basically proving himself to be as much of a phony as the villains believe him to be. He never operated at such full steam again in a movie, with or without his brothers.

Actually, producer Irving Thalberg’s choice of a sanitarium as a setting seems a bit bizarre, or at least dated. People can still relate to operatic pretensions being smashed, but let’s face it, do we really care whether or not the sanitarium gets saved? But as a clothesline on which to hang some great scenes and gags, it serves its purpose — whatever that is.

As well-documented elsewhere, A Day at the Races was the Marxes’ last hurrah before settling into ’40s formula. So enjoy it — water carnival and all.

(Less than six degrees of Marx separation: Nearly 50 years after A Day at the Races, Maureen O’Sullivan played a supporting role in Woody Allen’s glorious Hannah and Her Sisters [1986], where Woody’s climactic scene shows him watching Duck Soup as an affirmation of the good things in life.)

THIRTEEN (2003) – An unlucky number, indeed

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Thirteen opens with a girl facing the camera, begging some unseen friend to wallop her. By movie’s end, you’ll be more than happy to grant her wish.

Every post-baby-boomer generation thinks they’ve cornered the market on teen-age angst. Much has been made of Thirteen‘s screenplay having been written by a teenager (Nikki Reed, who also smugly co-stars). But before she wrote her script, Reed would have been well-advised to watch River’s Edge (1986), which covered the same cliched territory.

Evan Rachel Wood stars as Tracy, a middle-schooler who abandons all self-worth to hang out with a cheap popular girl (Reed) and then can’t figure out why she gets into so much trouble.

Melanie, Tracy’s clueless mom, is played by Holly Hunter — who exec-produced the movie, and what a vanity production! Hunter deglamorizes herself right down to her varicose veins, all the better to play the sacrificial mother. (She also has a room-trashing scene worthy of Citizen Kane.) Melanie styles hair for a semi-living, but after a few dozen close-ups of Hunter’s dirty fingernails, you forget the movie’s dark subtext and instead think, “Eew! Cooties!”

We’re meant to cluck at the inevitability of Tracy’s downfall, but all I could think was that this family needs some sane advice. Based on the movie’s evidence (and glaring plot holes), the doctor is in.

Tracy, if you abandon your old friends to join the “in” crowd, don’t be surprised when the old friends forget to tell you that your science project is due. Don’t get mad about your mom’s here-and-gone boyfriend when your new best friend abandons you every chance she gets. And are you really going to wear that to the mall??

Melanie, earnest mothers do not begin by letting their kid’s slutty new friend address them as “Mom.” Get more involved in your daughter’s life than just telling her that the poem she wrote is “heavy.” And for heaven’s sake, wash your hands after every styling!

There’s a famous series of British documentaries that visits the same group of once-young kids every seven years. It would have been interesting to see Nikki Reed’s screenplay for Twenty-Six, the sequel in which she realizes what a pretentious teenager she was.

Less than a month to our 3rd Annual “SEX! (now that I have your attention) Blogathon”

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Do you have a favorite movie that subtly suggests sex rather than blatantly showing it? If so, tell us all about it in our annual summer blogathon! Click here for the rules.

So…what??

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A great comedy scene, ruined by a a couple of so-and-so’s.

In 1960, humorist James Thurber wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled “The Spreading ‘You Know'”, in which he decried the use of that phrase by people who couldn’t bear to leave short gaps of silence in their conversations. Thurber’s essay was all too prophetic. More than 50 years later, those dreaded two words have overrun people’s monologues to the point that we hardly notice it anymore.

And now, hot on the trail of The Spreading ‘You Know’ is The Slithering ‘So.’

I didn’t notice this social malady until I went to work at a new job four years ago. I worked with a guy who seemed intent on mangling the sound of the English language with every sentence he spoke. It wasn’t enough that he ended every sentence, no matter how declarative it was, with an upsweep that made it sound like a question. (“I’m meeting my girlfriend for lunch to-day?“) When you’d ask him an actual question, invariably he would begin his answer with “So.” (“Why has Sandy been out all week?” – “So he told me he had to visit his sick aunt in Atlanta.”)

This co-worker eventually left for another job, and I thought that would be the end of it. Then shortly afterwards, we got a new supervisor who spoke exactly the same way. As you can imagine, this made every staff meeting quite the exercise in tolerance.

I actually did not realize that the word “so” was, er, so multi-functional until I consulted an online dictionary. Depending on context, “so” can serve as an adverb, conjunction, pronoun, adjective, or interjection. However, in the cases to which I’m referring, my primary gripe is with the abuse of “so” as a conjunction and an interjection.

When “so” is used as a conjunction, it connects two clauses to form a single sentence — basically, connecting two related thoughts.

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“So” is also used as an interjection to express surprise or to draw attention to something.

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In the instances where “so” is abused, it is used either as a semi-conjunction — providing the final thought without its preface — or as an interjection in which the speaker is so self-important that he thinks everything he says is worthy of extra emphasis. Either use is enough to drive the casual conversationalist up the wall.

So do you get what I’m saying? So please think about the use of those precious two letters when you are trying not to alienate people with your everyday conversation. So the life you save could be your own.