Golden Year: SECONDS (John Frankenheimer, 10/5/1966)

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In the hands of lesser craftsmen, Seconds might have made for a chillingly effective episode of The Twilight Zone padded out to feature length. But the perfect storm of creative talent – director John Frankenheimer, cinematographer James Wong Howe, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and editor David Newhouse, not to mention a uniformly stellar cast – came together to enrich and deepen the material into a hauntingly affective work of art. Seconds signals its off-kilter approach straightaway with a memorable title sequence designed by Saul Bass that superimposes the credits over distorted funhouse-mirror images of a bandage-swathed head. In a striking image that eerily anticipates Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, the director’s credit seems to emerge from the anonymous figure’s wide-open wailing mouth.

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The first act cunningly crafts its predominant mood of discontent through visual means: off-center compositions and distorting fisheye lenses keep the viewer off-balance. After an unnerving encounter during rush hour at Grand Central Station, middle-aged banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) receives a phone call from a friend he thought dead, persuading him to keep a mysterious assignation with a shadowy (and nameless) Company, where bushy-browed Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey) offers him the titular second shot at happiness. By this point, Seconds has given sufficient reason for his acceptance, illustrating the void in Hamilton’s life in one wrenching scene with wife Emily (Frances Reid) that moves inexorably from routine interaction to one last desperate attempt at tenderness before finally settling on cool indifference.

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Of course, the price to be paid for such a radical transformation is rather steep, but then there’s a death to fake, an extensive regimen of plastic surgery and physical rehabilitation to undergo, and an entire new existence to fabricate out of whole cloth. Though it should be said that Hamilton’s decision isn’t entirely voluntary: The Company slips him a mickey, then stages and films a surreal rape sequence whose topography owes a debt to Alice in Wonderland. And then there’s the Old Man (Will Geer), a perverse blend of homey wisdom and smirking contempt, whose ruthless interrogation of Hamilton reduces the experiences of a lifetime to scorched and fallow earth.

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Frankenheimer, who has always evinced an interest in the concrete mechanics that govern a situation, takes great delight in tracing out the details of Hamilton’s metamorphosis. The most memorable moments in the sequence involve discomforting footage of a real rhinoplasty and the jovial presence of Khigh Dhiegh (the Chinese brainwasher in Frankenheimer’s equally unsettling The Manchurian Candidate) as a kind of glorified guidance counselor. The man who emerges on the other end is professional painter Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson). The Company sets Wilson up with a Malibu beach pad and personal assistant, John (Wesley Addy). They also arrange for him to meet Nora Marcus (Salome Jens). When Nora soon tells Tony that she walked out on her marriage and children, we begin to wonder whether she, too, works for the Company. Fears are momentarily allayed during an excursion to a riotous bacchanal – a scene that was heavily edited for the film’s domestic release owing to its copious nudity – only to resurface in Tony’s drunken binge at a cocktail party he’s thrown. To his horror, he learns to what extent his new life has been stage managed by the Company.

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Seconds moves into its increasingly melancholy and ultimately tragic final act as Tony tries in vain to “go back” and discover where his life went wrong in the first place. But, as anyone who’s read Thomas Wolfe knows, you can’t go home again. Although there are still Kafkaesque hells to inhabit in the film’s awfully poetic anticlimax, Seconds’ true epicenter remains Tony’s long conversation with Emily Hamilton about her recently deceased husband, whom she remembers more for his ever-lengthening silences than anything else. Few American films of the period – or any other, for that matter – have so evocatively illuminated the discontent and insufficiency that sap the foundations of misspent lives.

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Generically, Seconds was advertised as another paranoid thriller from the director of The Manchurian Candidate (to which the film is too often compared unfavorably). More than that, though, it’s one of those freewheeling “rough beasts” of the mid-‘60s – Arthur Penn’s Mickey One is another – that assimilates the formal experimentation of various European New Waves, especially the exploration of existential discontent that epitomizes the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. Seconds harnesses those innovative techniques to some distinctly American social satire, with the suburban social elite getting it in the neck. But the film towers head and shoulders above other works in its elegiac sense of desolation and loss. Ultimately, the film stands as a cautionary rebuke to the national myth of self-renewal, the simplicity of starting over. Where our consumer culture extols the virtues of an existential extreme makeover, Seconds draws a line in the sand with Sartre’s maxim: “You are nothing more than the sum of your actions.”

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[This article first appeared in issue #177 of Video Watchdog.]

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Video Watchdog #182

182cover.pmdVideo Watchdog 182, shipping to subscribers mid-February and available in bookstores early March, contains several Blu-ray reviews from me, including George Barry’s mindblowing Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.

Click here for more info – and a full-color, 18-page sneak preview.

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Golden Year: OUR MAN FLINT (Daniel Mann, 1/16/1966)

our man flint poster

Our Man Flint came out at the height of the pop cultural “spy craze” that followed in the wake of the Bond films’ phenomenal popularity. By 1966, an apparently endless proliferation of globetrotting and gadget-mongering secret agents seemed to dominate American feature films and television programming alike. This trend can be explained by the convergence of factors impacting the national psyche: ever-present anxieties about the then-brimming Cold War warming up, an unabashed embrace of technological fetishism that came to be called the Space Race, as well as the (relatively) uninhibited lifestyle popularly espoused by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. Our Man Flint is also the film that cemented James Coburn’s status as a star. With his lanky frame, thatch of gray hair, and toothy grin, Coburn may not have had the conventional good looks of your average leading man, but he exuded an aura that mixed self-assurance and insubordination. This turned him, along with the likes of Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, into an embodiment of ’60s anti-establishment cool, a poster boy for what Bonnie and Clyde scribes Robert Benton and David Newman referred to, in their now-famous 1964 Esquire piece, as “the New Sentimentality.”

our man flint lair

Along the spectrum of responses to the Bond films, Our Man Flint is pitched somewhere between dutiful homage and over-the-top parody, with its tongue planted too firmly in cheek to be mistaken for just another carbon copy. At the same time, neither is it the all-out deconstructionist assault that 1967’s Casino Royale aspired to be—at least in theory. Our Man Flint has an investment in character that sets it apart. Producer Saul David and star Coburn saw it as an opportunity to put across their version of a philosophy that idealizes the rugged individualism of the frontier type, even a sort of Ayn Rand-inflected Objectivist Übermensch. Either way, Derek Flint (Coburn) is no organization man. Faced with immanent environmental catastrophe at the hands of a shadowy secret society, representatives of Z.O.W.I.E. (the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage, natch) are forced to beseech the reluctant Flint for assistance. Even the personal intercession of agency head Lloyd Cramden (Lee J. Cobb), with whom Flint has considerable history, is fruitless, until an attempt on Flint’s life convinces him, more out of self-preservation than altruism or patriotism, to lend a hand.

our man flint kick

An expert in nearly everything, Flint flatly rejects the espionage equipment Cramden offers to outfit him with: a standard-issue Walther PPK and suitcase laden with gadgets. Flint dismisses them as crude, holding up instead a gold-plated lighter. “This has 82 uses,” he deadpans. “Eighty three, if you wish to light a cigar.” Elsewhere, Flint exhibits his prowess in myriad disciplines: boxing, fencing, the proper discernment of a bouillabaisse recipe, even surgery. After Flint confesses to having paid a visit to the Moscow Ballet, Cramden incredulously asks, “You went all the way to Moscow to watch a ballet?” Flint shoots back: “No, to dance.” The film’s funniest sight gag shows him laying stiff as a board between two chairs, having suspended his heartbeat in quasi-yogic meditation.

our man flint chair

As resolute as Our Man Flint can be in its unapologetic individualism, it often swerves rather recklessly into chauvinism. And it’s never quite clear whether the film accepts its rampant sexism as par for the course, or wants to poke fun at it as an element intrinsic to the genre’s lexicon. Certainly, Flint’s conversion of villainess Gila (Gila Golan) to his enthralled amour with a single kiss is evident mockery of a Bond-film staple. And Flint’s motivation for tracking down the Galaxy group to their island redoubt has more than anything to do with rescuing his quartet of leggy “playmates” from their clutches. That they’re being brainwashed and conditioned as “Pleasure Units” amounts to a solidly amusing critique. But, of course, they are freed from abuse in Galaxy’s pleasure dome—amusingly rendered as an erotic sampler combining Roman orgy, swinging ’60s go-go club, and 1950s drive-in—only to return to sensual service in Flint’s phalanx.

our man flint happy ending

[This article first appeared in Slant Magazine.]

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Golden Year: A Yearlong Film Project

balthazar

Every year brings a bumper crop of exceptional cinema, especially over that “long decade” that demarcates my own favorite period in film (as in so many other things), c. 1965-1980. Still, 1966 proved to be something of an annus mirabilis: Art house audiences were dazzled by formalist masterworks including  JLG’s Masculine-Feminine, Antonioni’s Blowup, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, and Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.

1966 also saw the emergence of the short-lived but epochal Czech New Wave with the five-part anthology film Pearls from the Deep, as well as works from contributors Very Chytilova (Daisies) and Jiri Nemec (A Report on the Party and the Guests).

Japanese directors like Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Face of Another), Shohei Imamura (The Pornographers), and studio maverick Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter) were pushing the boundaries of their national cinema up to (and sometimes beyond) its breaking point.

There was a steady supply of superlative genre filmmaking on hand at your local drive-in or grindhouse: a spate of spooky Hammer Films (Plague of the Zombies, The Witches, Dracula: Prince of Darkness), a fistful of fantastic Spaghetti Westerns (Django, A Bullet for the General, a little number called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), some groovy gems from AIP (The Wild Angels, Queen of Blood), and one of Mario Bava’s finest films Kill, Baby, Kill!

And that’s just scratching the surface.

All this year, in order to celebrate the golden anniversary of these and other films, I will be trying to time my panegyric posts to coincide with their original release dates as often as possible.

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Starman: Bowie on Film

man who fell to earth 2

“Turn and face the strange.”

More than any other single lyric he penned, this line contains for me the essence of David Bowie’s life philosophy. Stand your ground and confront those things that make us strangers to ourselves, aliens in our own skins. Embrace the pain and pleasure of change. Bowie, more than any other artist I can think of, embodied Nietzsche’s idea: “One must give value to their existence by behaving as if one’s very existence were a work of art.” Given the release of his final album, Blackstar, and passing two days later, it’s easy to see that the contours of Bowie’s art exactly coincided with those of his own life.

One of the consequences of Bowie’s ceaseless confrontation with otherness was the adoption of protean, chameleon-like personae. Along with this came a desire to always be something or somewhere else.

Bowie’s choice of film roles only reinforces such a notion: Whether it was playing a work of art incarnate, an honest-to-goodness extraterrestrial, several varieties of unhinged genius, or any of the endlessly complex and nuanced instances of Bowie “playing” himself, the constantly inconstant leitmotif that ran throughout David Bowie’s career involved resolutely ringing those “Changes.”

image

Bowie’s first appearance on celluloid, several years before he made it big in the UK with his “Space Oddity” single, was in a short film called The Image (shot in 1967 but only screened in 1969) for writer/director Michael Armstrong (Mark of the Devil). Running just shy of 15 minutes, the film depicts the mental deterioration of an Artist (Michael Byrne, Vampyres) who imagines (or is that hallucinates?) that the subject of his painting, the Boy (Bowie), has it in for him, hovering outside his window, lurking just beyond the threshold of his door, with the intent (or so the content of the painting seems to suggest) of enveloping the artist in his ghastly embrace.

In an effort to avoid a possibly diabolical fate, the artist bludgeons, strangles and finally stabs the boy, only to have him return to bedevil him time and again. The Image is a visually striking film with its high contrast monochrome cinematography and non-sync sound effects (unrelenting rain, harsh rasps and gasps for breath). What it all means, however, is entirely up for grabs. Annotations on the script describe the story as “a study of the illusionary reality world within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity.” So feel free to draw your own conclusions here…

man who fell to earth 3

After the worldwide sensation that was Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour, with its dissonant lashing together of Kabuki theater and sci-fi set and costume design, it seemed only natural that Nicolas Roeg would cast Bowie as alien visitor Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). At bottom a melancholic parable about the (non)assimilation of immigrants to the “corporate” mainstream of American culture, the film finds Newton slipping slowly into a benumbed existence palliated by the amnesiac lull of booze and TV. Walter Tevis, scribe of The Hustler, wrote the novel the film is based on as a crypto-autobiographical bildungsroman, and its applicability to our current social order remains undiminished. Indelibly heartrending is Newton’s final line: “We’d have probably done the same to you, if you’d come ’round our place.”

just a gigolo

Just a Gigolo (David Hemmings, 1979) paired Bowie (as Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski) with Marlene Dietrich, fresh out of retirement for the gig. Though the two share scenes, they were never on the set together or, indeed, even on the same set. (Dietrich was in Paris, Bowie on location in Berlin.) The resultant mishmash, meant to cash in on the success of Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” in a Cabaret kind of way, was once amusingly dismissed by its star thus: “It was my 32 Elvis movies rolled into one.”

christiane f.

Uli Edel’s controversial teens-on-drugs film Christiane F. (1981) features Bowie in concert at a fictive Berlin club called Sound, an event that provides much character motivation for the titular Fraulein (Natja Brunkhorst), even though his scenes were filmed in New York. The soundtrack is packed with “Berlin Trilogy” nuggets, including the epic bilingual “‘Heroes’/Helden” otherwise to be found on Rare.

merry christmas, mr. lawrence

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983) plays up the androgynous, homoerotic appeal of Bowie’s (screen) persona, even while allowing his Maj. Jack Celliers to play the “Rebel Rebel” in a WWII Japanese POW camp. Oshima’s film unravels like a fever dream, tensely drenched in sweat and mordant irony, with its Anglophone title, spoken in a gesture of well-meant detente by “Beat” Takeshi, providing one final, bitter punchline.

hunger

Slickly directed by commercial maven Tony Scott, The Hunger (1983) teams Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as an ageless vampire couple for a flash exercise in briskly edited, cotton-candy-hollow style. Bowie looks suitably fantastic; until, that is, he ripens prematurely into Gary Oldman’s geriatric Count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This prompts Deneuve to toss him aside for luscious post-Pretty Baby Susan Sarandon (understandably). Viewers are, at least, treated to Bauhaus performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” under the opening credits.

into the night

Laden with cinematic in-jokes and musician-oriented stunt casting, John Landis’ Into the Night (1985) is also a moody, broody kissing cousin to Scorsese’s After Hours (also 1985). What’s more, it features a strong, if abbreviated, turn from Bowie as Brit hitman Colin Morris. In his first scene, Bowie crams his gat down Jeff Goldblum’s gullet and, later, gets into a bloody shiv scrap with Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins himself. With his wisp-thin mustache and straight-razor smile, Bowie exudes menace and swarm in equal measures in his one dialogue-heavy scene with Goldblum. Oddly enough, Bowie’s disarming threat-with-a-grin seems to eerily presage future collaborator Ricky Gervais’ passive-aggressive monstrosities (see below).

labyrinth

Bowie deposits some spiky-haired sexual sophistication smack in the center of Jim Henson’s otherwise utterly innocuous people-and-puppets fable Labyrinth (1986). But his intermittent appearances are continually undercut by the film’s slapdash, slapstick tone and reliance on unearned whimsy. The one scene that halfway works — a masquerade ball that slyly hints at a sexual maturity for 15-year-old heroine Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) that the rest of film bends over backwards to discount — is oddly reminiscent of Neil Jordan’s far more explicit (and troubling) The Company of Wolves (1984). Bowie also contributed five songs to Trevor Jones’ synth-saturated soundtrack, but none of them will stick in your psyche like, say, his title track for Paul Schrader’s Cat People remake.

absolute beginners

For Julian Temple’s stylish late-’50s period piece Absolute Beginners (1986), Bowie personifies oleaginous adman Vendice Partners, with his Fuller brush hair and Nixonian salute. Bowie made his contribution to the soundtrack conditional on his appearance in the film, which at the time was the source of much adverse criticism.

last temptation of christ

Cropped and toga-clad, Bowie turns up late into Martin Scorsese’s fundamentalist-frazzling The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as the Roman proconsul Pontius Pilate. Given less than five minutes of screen time, Bowie seems to have been cast expressly to articulate Pilate’s counter-“Changes” credo: “Killing or loving, it’s all the same. It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things, we don’t want them changed.”

twin peaks; fire walk with me

As you might expect, David Lynch zeroes in on the facet of Bowie’s persona we might call the Displaced Person (especially since, in Lynch’s world, the epithet “the Man from Another Place” is already taken) for his brief appearance as “long lost” FBI agent Phillip Jeffries in Lynch’s prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Assaying a reasonably convincing Southern drawl, Bowie intones the Lynchian truism “We live inside a dream!” and then vanishes again.

(Pictured) David Bowie

(Pictured) David Bowie

In yet another glorified cameo, Christopher Nolan at least allows Bowie a truly spectacular entrance in The Prestige (2006), as his Nikola Tesla crosses the frame through lividly furcated flashes of electrical discharge. And Bowie does a perfectly respectable job of impersonation here, his scalloped black hair and mustache scrupulously photo-realistic; also, he doesn’t lay Tesla’s Serbian accent on with a trowel.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with one hilarious last instance of Bowie being Bowie: to wit, the “David Bowie” episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s scabrous Brit-com Extras (2006). Please to enjoy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jv6mEv_rDdE

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Through a Glass Sparkly: Robert Stigwood and SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (Michael Schultz, 1978)

the boys in the band

The recent passing of music impresario-turned-film producer Robert Stigwood motivated me to cast a cold eye back over his cinematic legacy. I would argue the movies the man has bequeathed us can best be summed up — to borrow the title from a movie that, musically or otherwise, Stigwood had absolutely nothing to do with —  by invoking Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good: a series of known commodities, whether Broadway musicals or best-selling rock opera LPs, that Stigwood commissioned for quick committal to celluloid, including Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Tommy (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). These properties prospered, one supposes, in direct proportion to Stigwood’s non-involvement in their making.

The Bad: the still-suppressed Moment by Moment (1978), with Lily Tomlin’s bored hausfrau romanced by an aimless drifter called Strip (Stigwood touchstone John Travolta), as well as a couple of ill-advised sequels, Grease 2 (Greasier) and Staying Alive (a baldly defiant statement of intent from House Stigwood).

The Ugly: Stigwood fired writer/director Allen Moyle from his punk scene-defining Times Square (1980), trimming scenes with “controversial” lesbian content, then shamelessly cramming in more non-punk music, in order to generate a more “commercially viable” double album soundtrack.

And then there’s what, by any yardstick, must be recognized as the absolute apotheosis of Stigwoodian awfulness: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

title card

This glitzy, muddle-headed behemoth does for the Lennon-McCartney songbook what Charlie Manson did for the White Album.

Initially, this project no doubt looked profitable on paper: In the midst of Zeitgeist-assuaging calls for the Beatles’ reformation, simply take another successful Broadway property, in this case the 1974 Robert Stigwood Organization production Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road. (Don’t forget to factor in Stigwood’s steely determination to do something bigger and brasher with those damnably catchy, generation-defining tunes.) Then, for garnish, ladle on the commercial appeal of the Bee Gees (whom Stigwood managed) and Peter Frampton, the flaxen-haired moppet who had famously “come alive” two summers before with more than a little help from his talkbox.

Finally, sit back and watch as the perfect storm of “creative” decision-making closes in, fueled by truckloads of cocaine and an overweening disregard for incidentals like narrative and, say, good taste. Still, it has to be admitted that Sgt. Pepper’s plays like the perfect encapsulation of an era, with its gonzo commitment to excess and spectacle at any cost. Witness the rising tsunami of similar productions: Sidney Lumet’s  The Wiz (1978), the Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music (1980), Gene Kelly on roller-skates in Xanadu (1980), and Menahem Golan’s mindbending sf/biblical allegory The Apple (1980).

Given Sgt. Pepper’s Heartland, USA setting, it was clear from the start that the Brit-accented Brothers Gibb and Frampton ought not to be allowed dialogue. Introduce then, for clarity’s sake, one Mr. Kite (George Burns) as Heartland mayor and not-so-humble narrator, but maybe don’t let him croak his way through “Fixing a Hole.”

mr kite

After a painfully protracted prologue concerning the original Sgt. Pepper and his wartime atrocities (of a musical variety, natch) — for which he was summarily enshrined on top of the Heartland City Hall-cum-Pepper Museum as a solid-gold weather vane (more, alas, about this later) — we arrive at Sgt. Pepper: The Next Generation, in the form of one William “Billy” Shears (Frampton).

original LHCB

Billy and his nubile sweetheart Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina) — henceforth affectionately dubbed Strawb — put the youthful heart in Heartland, a “1950s in amber” facade fabricated entirely on the MGM backlot, and otherwise populated exclusively by third-round draft choices for the “Kick the Can” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

billy & strawb

True to its candidly Candide-riffing source material, this middle-American “best of all possible worlds” soon seems too bucolic a burg for Billy and the LHCB, and so, travel being the thing, they set out for the smog-soaked seductions of LA.

Home to media mogul B.D. Brockhurst (a terrifyingly hirsute, gold-grilled Donald Pleasence) and his musical empire, LA seems ideally suited to stand in for a late-’70s, disco-bedazzled Babylon.

BD brockhurst

As Sgt. Pepper’s progresses, it becomes clear that its positively diabolical portrait of B.D. can be put down to either an unabashedly autobiographical admission on the part of Stigwood (per Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz), or else it’s a slyly satirical jab at the mogul that somehow, under the guise of fidelity to the arc of the stage play, managed to slip past RSO censors.

This is a film, after all, that mocks its production company’s pretentious logo by cheekily swapping out RSO’s bovine mascot (=mindless grazing on cultural capital) for a ruddy porker that represents pig-headed piggishness of every variety. And let’s not forget the zippy montage that seems to be taking satiric potshots at the rubber-stamped mass production of the LHCB’s heartfelt “art,” but actually depicts the pressing of the film’s own soundtrack album, which would hit shelves a mere two days after its premiere.

BD records

Because something or other has to happen between the musical numbers, the LHCB soon find themselves caught up in a caper involving missing instruments, a nefarious criminal mastermind known only as FVB, and a goon called Mr. Mustard (veteran funnyman Frankie Howerd, here reduced to sub-Benny Hill, sped-up slapstick).

Mean old Mustard, incidentally, tools around in a CV driven by his henchman, the Brute (Carel Struycken, the Giant in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), accompanied by a couple of twirly-wigged fembots who occasionally break out into song (voiced, as it happens, by the Bee Gees themselves, who must’ve swiped Frampton’s pet talkbox for the task).

mean mr. mustard

A plot this pointlessly picaresque might suffice for a Saturday morning episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? But when you plunk down in the neighborhood of $18 million for a film, you might want to invest a modicum of that windfall in something resembling a script. (An admonition equally applicable to today’s bloated blockbusters of the MCU variety, only multiplied several hundredfold…)

Skulking around the periphery of this badly balanced boondoggle, Billy’s brother Dougie (Paul Nicholas, Cousin Kevin in the infinitely superior Tommy) inexplicably takes up with sultry Lucy long enough to duet on “You Never Give Me Your Money,” while frolicking among bags of (what else?) the do-re-mi.

This slapdash “Case of the Missing Instruments” lazily excuses the introduction of several “guest villains”: Steve Martin rehearses his zany dentist routine for Little Shop of Horrors as Dr. Maxwell Edison. Alice Cooper’s Mr. Sun, looking for all the world like a mesmeric Frank Zappa, brainwashes a roomful of future consumers with the mantra “We hate Love/We Hate Joy/We Love Money” (possibly another Stigwoodism?) while putting a suitably psychedelic spin on “Because.”

mr sun

Finally, in the big reveal, the Future Villain Band (FVB, get it?) turns out to be none other than Aerosmith. (They look totally zonked, incidentally, and Joe Perry can’t even manage to lip-sync in sync.) Then, with all the ironic subtlety of a nine-pound hammer, a brawl breaks out in the midst of “Come Together,” leaving poor Strawb dead, even while putting paid to the futurity of this particular band of villains.

future villain band fray

Now the real weepy and tragic like part of the story sets in. Heartland must come together over the passing of its native daughter, as well as the corrupting influence of Mustard’s various real estate ventures, which spread across the face of that one town-square set like some malignant fungus. The solution being a benefit (concert) for Mr. Kite, of course.

funeral procession

The script has painted itself into one lachrymose corner, complete with mopey montage of Frampton scuffling through the tall grass, his locks wafting aloft like a half-blown dandelion. Barry Gibb, swathed in darkness, emotes the (doubtless self-critical) line: “I saw the film today, oh boy…”

But surely Stigwood and his minions wouldn’t put audiences through such an emotional wringer, only to usher them back out into the harsh light of economic recession and existential anomie? Surely some revelation must be at hand that will tie up all these hopelessly loose strings and thus neatly be-ribbon this spangled, oversized package…?

Well, yes. Don’t forget about that solid-gold weather vane I mentioned a while back. You see, it springs to life, in the person of one Billy Preston, to console the populace with a jazzed-out rendition of “Get Back” and lightning zap every wrong to rights. Preston, after all, had played piano on the original single, so he must bring a modicum of authenticity to the proceedings, right…?

zapped

Sgt. Pepper’s concludes, then, with a sloppy sop of a resolution supplied by what you’d have to call a “diva ex machina.”

Generously setting aside the patent lunacy of Sgt. Pepper’s story, the real issue with this particular atrocity exhibition abides in the authenticity of its performances. And, since the film’s 100% performance-based, that’s sort of a problem. The Bee Gees are hamstrung at every turn, reduced by Stigwoodian fiat to little more than a bland Beatles cover band; only Barry’s contribution to “Nowhere Man” and his slice of “A Day in the Life” leave him sounding like himself.

Earth, Wind & Fire and Aerosmith were free to put their own spin on the material, EWF scoring a #9 hit with “Got to Get You Into My Life.” The less said about Frampton’s neutered warble (just listen to his melismatic mangling of “The Long and Winding Road”), the better.

earth wind & fire

As though the Billy Preston final solution weren’t enough of an upbeat send-off, what follows for the film’s coda puts the coke-fueled capstone on this archly asinine production. Stigwood invited every available celebrity he and his factotums could lay their hands on to the MGM backlot to reprise both the Sgt. Pepper’s theme song and original album cover in one fell swoop.

According to IMDb: “Formal invitations were engraved and sent to virtually everyone in the entertainment industry; the many who RSVP’d were treated to first-class transportation to Los Angeles, limos, luxurious hotels, champagne, a lavishly catered dinner and private tents for each of the stars in the studio’s garden room.”

The mind boggles at such profligacy. But then again, it seems entirely in keeping with Stigwood & Co.’s approach to the material: Bigger is better. Significantly, the one song on the Sgt. Pepper’s album that wasn’t yoked to this anodyne project is “Within You Without You.” That’s likely because George Harrison’s low-key, introspective lyrics advising listeners “to see you’re really only very small” couldn’t be more antipodal to the blitzkrieg of bad taste offered up by Stigwood’s counter-counterculture Sgt. Pepper’s.

the end

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Best Films of 2015 (In Alphabetical Order)

anomolisa

These are the best new release (or VOD) titles, out of the 456 films and TV series that I watched over the last year.

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015)

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2015)

Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville, 2015)

Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

The Black Panthers (Stanley Nelson, 2015)

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015)

Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)

Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World (Belinda Sallin, 2014)

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (Douglas Tirola, 2015)

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (Mark Hartley, 2014)

Entertainment (Rick Alverson, 2015)

Experimenter (Michael Almereyda, 2015)

Hard to Be a God (Alexei German, 2013)

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014)

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen, 2015)

Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015)

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)

Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (David Gregory, 2014)

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 2014)

The Nightmare (Rodney Ascher, 2015)

The Otherworld (Richard Stanley, 2013)

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2015)

Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (Alex Gibney, 2015)

Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, 2014)

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