Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sgt. Pepper's Tarnished Cornet

Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe,” a story of love and rebellion in the turbulent 1960s, utilizes characters, situations, words and music from the songs of the Beatles. You can forgive fans of the Fab Four if they’re skeptical; the last time someone attempted something similar, things got ugly.

Following 1968‘s “Yellow Submarine” animated film (with which the Beatles had very little involvement) and the bizarre “All This and World War II” (a 1976 documentary juxtaposing vintage newsreel footage with covers of Beatles songs), came an attempt at a big budget musical fantasy based on what many considered the Beatles’ greatest album: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Partially based on a 1974 stage musical, the 1978 movie (which also included songs from “Abbey Road” and “Revolver”) was produced by Robert Stigwood, who had prior rock movie successes with “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973), the Who’s “Tommy” (1975), “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and the then-current smash, “Grease.” People trusted Stigwood’s instincts. Maybe the idea of putting ‘70s chart-toppers Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees in front of the camera to bring the Beatles songs to life wasn’t so horrible. What ended up onscreen proved otherwise.

During World War I, the town of Heartland USA sends Sgt Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club (marching) Band into the European theater in order to bring inspiration to the fighting forces, helping to win the war. Upon his death in 1958, Pepper leaves the custody of his magical instruments (which guarantee the ongoing happiness of mankind) in the care of Heartland’s mayor, Mr. Kite (George Burns, wearing the first of the film’s many bad toupees).

Thirty years later, Pepper’s grandson, Billy Shears (Frampton) starts a new Lonely Hearts Club Band with his pals, Mark, Dave and Bob Henderson (The Bee Gees). Almost instantly, the band gets an offer from Big Deal Records’ head honcho B.D. Hoffler (“Halloween”’s Donald Pleasance in another bad wig). So off they jet to Hollywood, separating Billy for the first time from his true love, Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina in her first and last performance).

As soon as the band hits L.A., the debauchery of the music biz is in evidence: the booze, the drugs, the sex, the payola, the convertible limousines. After signing with B.D., the band quickly records and releases a record that becomes an overnight smash, putting them on a sellout tour and the cover of Time Magazine.

Meanwhile, Heartland has fallen prey to the mean Mr. Mustard (British character actor Frankie Howerd, in bad rug #3), an agent of the FVB (Future Villain Band), who instructs him to steal the original Sgt. Pepper’s magical instruments and distribute them to various evil accomplices. Without the instruments’ guarding force, Heartland falls into an iniquitous spiral not seen since Bedford Falls became Pottersville. Casinos, liquor stores and (horrors!) video arcades pop up on the streets, which are now frequented by hookers, pimps and punk rockers!

Desperate to save the town, the wide-eyed (literally) Strawberry boards a bus for Hollywood, only to find the salacious Lucy and the Diamonds trying to taint the purity of Billy and the LHCB. But when she explains about what’s happened to Heartland, they all go in search of the stolen instruments.

Their first stop is the lair of Dr. Maxwell, played by a wild-n-crazy Steve Martin (in his big screen debut). Maxwell, who uses his magical silver hammer to turn old people into young automatons in servitude to FVB, loses possession of Sgt. Pepper’s heart-shaped cornet in a tepid battle with our satin-clad heroes. After finding the drum left in Mustard’s van, the band retrieves the tuba from FVB’s brainwasher, Father Sun, played by an obviously bored Alice Cooper.

Finally, the LHCB attacks and somehow manages to defeat the corruptive FVB, played by the Bee Gees’ antithesis, Aerosmith. However, Strawberry is killed in the melee. After a funeral befitting Snow White (including glass coffin), a suicidal Billy leaps off the Fields home roof. But wait! A weather vane magically transforms into the reincarnated Sgt. Pepper (now mysteriously black in the form of Billy Preston) who shoots lasers from his fingers that in turn save Billy, transform the villains into Catholic clergy, return the town to its former wholesome self and resurrect the dead Strawberry! Talk about dues ex machina!

Abruptly, the film ends with a huge singalong of the title theme, as the cast is joined by a bizarre menagerie of ‘70s stars (some super, some not), including Robert Palmer, Jose Feliciano, Helen Reddy, Heart, Hank Williams Jr., Peter Allen and, uh, Sha Na Na?! Additionally (adding to the bad wig count), we have Carol Channing, Wolfman Jack, Tina Turner, Frankie Valli, Connie Stevens, and, again uh, Dame Edna!? It’s a perfectly strange cap to a perfectly strange film.

For one thing, aside from George Burns’ narration, there’s no dialogue at all in the movie other than sung lyrics. While this was partially done to avoid having the leads’ very British accents come out of the mouths of very American characters, the fact that the inexperienced “actors” were left stranded in the land of broad pantomime doesn’t help the film. On top of that, some of the more abstract lyrics (“He wear no shoeshine, he got toe jam football!”) don’t quite work in a film that’s using them as the literal screenplay.

So what’s left is the music, and with precious few exceptions, that’s a miss as well. Frampton’s presence and voice are both too slight to embody the weight of Lennon and McCartney and the Bee Gees’ lovely harmonizing has no place to go. Earth Wind and Fire pull of an entertaining, if funk-lite version of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” but Alice Cooper’s mere recitation of “Because” is as embarrassing as George Burns’ soft-shoe take on “Fixing a Hole.” Doing a down-n-dirty version of “Come Together,” Aerosmith is the only performer to emerge from the film with reputation unscathed, probably because they got to play the bad guys in this train wreck!

Frequent Beatles guest player Billy Preston’s “Get Back” sounds great (and he’s got moves that rival James Brown’s), but his involvement in this project feels almost like a betrayal. But not as much as the soundtrack’s producer and arranger, actual Beatles producer George Martin!

Ultimately, the movie feels like a ‘70s TV variety show ala “Donny and Marie,” comprised of awkward skits featuring non-acting musicians cut together with splashy musical numbers. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a critical and box office dud, and spelled the beginning of the decline of the once mighty Robert Stigwood Organization (whose next musical film, a 1980 new wave movie called “Times Square” failed as well).

Over the years, the film has slowly built a minor cult of the “so bad it’s good” variety. The lack of dialogue makes shout-along viewings difficult, but there are still plenty of jaw-dropping elements (Billy’s white overalls! Completely off lip-synching! Female robot massage!) that make this a great DVD to toss in at a party.

The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album remains a controversial touchstone. While many (including Rolling Stone Magazine) cite it as the greatest rock album of all time, there is a school of thought that its ambitious structure and inventive recording methods took rock into the more serious realm of Art, making it more pretentious and less vital (The New York Times compared the record to a spoiled child).

Certainly no one ever has or will argue that the movie version is anything close to “art,” but you can’t totally hate a movie that answers the question, “What would Ed Wood have done if he lived in the disco era?”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jack Black Squealing Like a Pig and No Mr. Yunioshi (Green Light These 5 Remakes!)

Within the past month or so, news has come from Hollywood that remakes are in the works for two iconic science fiction films: John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian thriller, “Escape From New York” and 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” in which an interplanetary messenger warns Earth to change its warlike ways before it’s too late.

It’s undeniable that Hollywood’s propensity for raiding its own past is increasing, and while the knee-jerk response is to cry unoriginality, the fact is some movies do warrant another go. Better effects technology, a more sophisticated audience and less censorship are just a few reasons that filmmakers might want to take an old movie and spruce it up. Sometimes it’s a good idea (see Rewind: Top 10 good remakes), and sometimes it’s not (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” anyone?).

But since the practice is not going to end, we thought we’d offer some suggestions of movies that are ripe for a remake. We just want executive producer credit.

John Boorman’s 1972 culture-clash drama was a chilling look at how it’s possible for humans to treat one another like animals. Burt Reynolds was never better than here, playing Lewis Medlock, the alpha-male leader of a southern canoe trip that goes horribly awry when a run-in with some aggressive hillbillies leads to death. Ned Beatty is especially effective as Bobby, the “squeal like a pig” rape victim. But “Deliverance” is not so revered that it can’t be revisited, especially given today’s heated Red State / Blue State environment. We’d love to see Vince Vaughn or perhaps Johnny Knoxville in the Reynolds role, taking his devil may care testosteroney persona to an entirely new place, playing opposite Jack Black or Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Beatty role, a timid man pushed to the brink by a humiliation he never dreamed. May we suggest Paul Haggis (“Crash”) in the director’s chair? Or maybe the Coen Brothers could bring something crazy to the table?

This 1955 Cary Grant – Grace Kelly jewel heist whodunit / romance is widely considered one of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser efforts, a glitzy, superficial piffle. We still love it, but its place in the pantheon makes it less sacrosanct than, say “Psycho.” The tale of John “the Cat” Robie, a former jewel thief living on the French Riviera who has to clear his name after a rash of robberies puts him under suspicion has many timeless elements, not the least being the cat and mouse romance between Robie and Francie, the younger, spoiled, thrill-seeking American heiress. The obvious recasting would put George Clooney as Robie and Scarlett Johansson or Kate Winslet as Francie (with Kathy Bates as her smartass mother, John Cleese as the uptight insurance agent who reluctantly works with Robie to find the true thief and Ludivine Sagnier as the seductive daughter of a former cohort of Robie’s). But we could also see the story with a super-suave Denzel Washington in the lead opposite BeyoncĂ© Knowles, supported by Pam Grier as the Mom! Put Clooney collaborator Steven Soderbergh behind the camera and watch the fireworks fly!

Francis Ford Coppola’s often overlooked 1974 gem stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a lonely, paranoid, but brilliant surveillance expert who’s hired by an executive at a large corporation to eavesdrop on two employees as they take a lunchtime stroll. The reason and ramifications are ostensibly meaningless to Harry, merely a professional doing his job. But Harry has a troubled conscience that begins to weigh on him in ways that bring a shattering climax.

“The Conversation” is a near-perfect film, and the only reason it’s suitable for a remake is the incredible advances in technology over the past three decades. Contemporary audio spyware would force the filmmakes to come up with a real challenge for Caul (we think Bill Murray would shine, or the role could similarly boost the career of fellow SNL vet Dan Aykroyd) as well as dramatically jacking up the character’s paranoid, hermetically sealed lifestyle. While the original film tapped (sorry) into a post-Watergate paranoia, a new version could certainly tackle the ever-expanding threats to our civil rights and personal privacy. Not to give him MORE work, but this sounds like a directing job for George Clooney.

In the creepy, stylish 1971 horror flick, Vincent Prices plays the titular doctor, a famous organist / theologian (!!) who becomes horribly disfigured in a car crash that critically injures his wife as well. When the surgical team fails to save Mrs. Phibes, the doc goes mad and sets out to get revenge on them, utilizing the Ten Plagues of Egypt (rats, frogs, locusts, boils, et al) as his murderous inspirations. Given the current spate of torture-horror films ala “Saw,” Dr. Phibes’ thematically gruesome methods are more timely than ever. Give the film to “Hostel”’s Eli Roth or David Fincher (“Se7en”), stick an over-the-top Nicolas Cage or Patrick Stewart in the horrific makeup and watch the birth of a new horror franchise.

Oh, we can hear some of you crying foul. Yes, Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in the 1961 Blake Edwards original is one of the most iconic performances in film history. Yes, the movie is beloved and acclaimed and bla bla bla. It’s also honestly not that great, and it bears very little resemblance to Truman Capote’s 1958 book, a far more complex and melancholy tale for which Hollywood just wasn’t ready. Sure, movies and books are different media and shouldn’t be compared with each other, but in this case we’ll make an exception. Why not take a stab at a more faithful adaptation with a less gazelle-like Holly (how about Elisha Cuthbert or Lauren Ambrose?), a less-straight Fred (played by Topher Grace? Owen Wilson?), no happy ending and most of all, no Mr. Yunioshi? Hey, Sofia Coppola! Whattya think? Good follow-up to “Marie Antoinette?”

We know we lost some of you with that last one, but that’s fine. Every film has both detractors and defenders. We think it’s ridiculous to bother with a re-remake of “The Fly,” as David Cronenberg’s 1986 update was as good as that can get. Of all the remakes in the works right now, the one that makes the most sense to us is “Westworld.” The 1973 original is a great idea not fully realized. The notion of things going horribly wrong at a futuristic amusement park where guests interact with humanoid robots in different historical settings is a doozy of a concept. But, despite the casting coup of Yul Brynner as a killer Gunslinger ‘droid, the movie is slow-paced and remarkably lacking in excitement. Our fingers are crossed for the new version, but if it doesn’t work out, no problem. There’s a lot more where that came from.

The ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, WESTWORLD and THE FLY remakes have yet to happen, while THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL was pretty weak, despite the presence of Jennifer Connelly. Oh, and I got some serious knee-jerk shite for that last suggestion on the internets, mostly from people who didn't actually bother to READ what I wrote.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Announcing: Collector's Edition: Confessions of a Pop Culture Obsessive-Compulsive

This is the big project that's been taking up most of my time this year (and will continue to do so for the bulk of 2011). But I thought it was time to let the cat outta the mylar (if you get that reference, you will see yourself in this book).

COLLECTOR’S EDITION: Confessions of a Pop Culture Obsessive-Compulsive by Karl Heitmueller Jr. is an examination of the changing nature of popular culture from the early 1970s to today in the form of a memoir. Mixing history, humor and criticism with sometimes embarrassingly personal anecdotes, Heitmueller paints a picture of a life that, at the age of 46, continues to revolve around pop trappings that are usually abandoned upon adulthood. But it’s also about how the evolution of technology has radically altered the consumption of culture, making it easier to acquire and perhaps less meaningful in the process.

COLLECTOR’S EDITION is divided into chapters that deal with the numerous aspects of Karl’s obsessions: comic books, music (both collecting and compiling), Christmas, action figures, recording TV shows, books, self-publishing, archiving and a three-decades-running compendium called, “The Motion Picture Log.” There are also chapters on how sports just doesn’t fit into the equation and why Star Wars lost its luster for the author (while Superman perhaps means more than ever).

Peppered with illuminating sidebars, anecdotal comic strips and illustrations, COLLECTOR’S EDITION tries to explain the collector’s mentality, and posits that loving STUFF may not be such a bad thing after all. Readers who share the malady of nostalgia will find much to which they can relate, while those who’ve never felt the urge to scour eBay for a long-lost relic of their childhood will hopefully gain insight to the mindset of an oft-ridiculed demographic.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Baddest Badmen from the Cinematic Wild West

In James Mangold’s new remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” Russell Crowe takes the reins of captured badman Ben Wade from Glenn Ford, who played the part in the 1957 original. Crowe certainly brings some bad boy baggage to the big screen from his real life antics, but how will he measure up in the pantheon of Western Badmen of the Movies? Let’s round ‘em up!

Gene Hackman as Bill Daggett in “Unforgiven” (1992)
In Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning revisionist western, Gene Hackman plays a corrupt small town sheriff so evil he makes Lex Luthor look like Jimmy Olsen. The law is a malleable concept for Daggett, who thinks nothing of killing anyone who challenges his authority, and then maybe putting their corpse on display just to remind the folks who’s in charge. Hackman is the pitch black hole in the center of a movie full of moral ambiguity and challenged notions of good and evil.

Henry Fonda as Frank in “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968)
Another Leone oater, this western the public for a loop by casting perennial good guy Henry Fonda as the blue-eyed villain against the brusque and frightening Charles Bronson as the hero. Fonda was reluctant to play against type but was wooed by Leone as well as the next actor on our list, who advised Fonda that playing evil was a ton of fun. The juxtaposition works; Fonda is a chilling villain.

Yosemite Sam in “Hare Trigger” (1945)
Laugh if you will at the pint-sized desperado (voiced by the brilliant Mel Blanc) who needs a rope ladder to get onto his horse... this rootin-tootin’, meanest, toughest, rip-roarin’-est hombre that ever packed a six-shooter has one thing going for him that only one other badman on our list can claim: Resiliency. No matter how many times the Bugs Bunny foil blows up, falls down a mine shaft, gets hit by a train or shot by a hail of bullets, Sam always bounces back. Which reminds us of…

Yul Brynner as Robot Gunslinger from “Westworld” (1973)
In the near future, wealthy thrill seekers will enjoy the amenities of Delos, the ultimate interactive amusement park, featuring historical settings in which visitors can mingle (and we mean MINGLE) with lifelike robots. In the Westworld wing of Delos, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) has already won a few shoot-outs with a particularly nasty robot gunslinger when a glitch in the system causes the robots to ignore their programming against harming human beings. Oops. As the cold, stoic killer, Brynner builds on previous memorable turns in movies like 1964’s “Invitation to a Gunfighter.”

Gian Maria VolontĂ© as El Indio in “For a Few Dollars More” (1965)
Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name teams up with Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) to earn the bounty on the head of El Indio, the most feared badman in the west! Seems that El Indio, in addition to being a thief and a rapist, is addicted to marijuana, which send him into crazed, drug-induced madness! Sergio Leone’s second film in the “Dollars” trilogy finds Van Cleef gearing up to play an entirely different role in the next film…

Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966)
Van Cleef plays the middle adjective in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western (the final in his “Dollars” trilogy), the tale of three gunslingers out to find a fortune in buried gold. Angel Eyes is a blackhearted mercenary, a hitman with an itchy trigger finger, a snake’s stare and a grudge against everyone, especially his rivals for the hidden loot, whom he faces down in the film’s legendary three-way climactic showdown.

Ian MacDonald as Frank Miller in “High Noon” (1952)
In director Fred Zinnemann’s classic parable about McCarthyism, the villainous Frank Miller (no, not that one), fresh out of jail, is coming to seek revenge on the man who sent him away. But all the newly-retired Marshall Will Kane (an iconic Gary Cooper) wants is to live a peaceful life with his new Quaker bride (Grace Kelly). Since nobody else in town has the guts to stand up to the sociopathic killer, it’s up to Will (and a few good women) to save the town. Ian MacDonald doesn’t have the malevolent veneer of most classic western badmen, but in a way that underscores the cowardice of the townsfolk.

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962)
Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard: attorney, Senator, legend. He’s the man who shot Liberty Valance, a ruthless badman who especially enjoyed causing scenes in restaurants. Only problem is, the legend isn’t true; Stoddard’s friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) was the gunslinger who actually fired the fatal shot from a hiding place. Still, legends die hard, especially when they involve George Bailey killing one of Hollywood’s most memorable tough guys!

Eli Wallach as Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven” (1960)
Okay, so it’s set in Mexico, but John Sturges’ American remake of “The Seven Samurai” still ranks as one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Eli Wallach is mesmerizing as the lead bandit Calvera, a man so black of heart that even as he lies dying, he cannot grasp the motivations of a selfless man. Still, it, it takes some major cojones to take on Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn!

Justus D. Barnes in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903)
Justus is on this list because, despite “The Great Train Robbery” being a mere 12 minutes long, no western bad guy ever terrified an audience more. In a dramatic shot (that the distributor said could be placed at the beginning or end of the movie), Barnes’ unnamed bandit takes his pistol and fires it straight at the audience. Some, shall we say, less savvy filmgoers of the early 20th century reacted in sheer terror as if they were actually going to be shot. Good thing they didn’t live long enough to see Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch!”

Only time will tell where the new “3:10 to Yuma” will make it onto the badman list… but the odds are gonna be pretty good if Russell Crowe can toss a late 19th century telephone at Christian Bale… those things were HEAVY!