Tuesday, July 26, 2016

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 300

The Date: July 26

The Movie: Do the Right Thing (1989)

What Is It?: On the hottest day of the year, racial tensions in Bed-Stuy boil through the thermostat. Spike Lee bravely refuses to offer pat answers to serious questions about the right thing to do in the face of gross injustice and he never flinches from showing the ugly face behind the mask of “racial tolerance.” He’s also great as our hero Mookie, but the most uncomfortably convincing performance comes from Danny Aiello, who apparently is more like his character than you might want to believe.

Why Today?: According to the New York Times, this was the hottest day of 1989 to date.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Review: 3 Vinyl Reissues from R.E.M.

R.E.M. made some of the very best albums of the eighties, but they were also a fabulous singles band in a decade when gimmicky one-hit wonders often dominated radio and MTV. The totally organic jangle of “Talk About the Passion”, “Fall on Me”, “Driver 8”, and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” provided a nice contrast (some may say “antidote”) to all of the new romantics, hair bands, and MOR popsters. R.E.M. didn’t just make the most of their short-players to put forth their top-shelf material; they also took advantage of the B-sides to slip out their quirkiest ideas. On the flipside of the brooding “So. Central Rain” you’d find a shambling version of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”. Behind the topical “Fall on Me” is the jazzy noodling of “Rotary Ten”. Under the cape of “Superman” is the surf-movie rush “White Tornado”. On the other side of “Can’t Get There from Here” is the wacko heavy metal pastiche “Burning Hell”. These B’s weren’t all goofs either. The original flips “Ages of You” and “Burning Down” are even more top-shelf than the A-side they support (“Wendell Gee”). The version of “Crazy” that supports “Driver 8” is even better than Pylon’s original, and dare I say, R.E.M.’s breathless, totally sincere, totally killer, totally unexpected cover of “Toys in the Attic” slays Aerosmith’s original. I dared.

A new trio of vinyl reissues showcases all sides of eighties-R.E.M. nicely. Representing their 45 A-sides is the marvelous 1988 compilation Eponymous, a must-have even if you already own all of the albums because of its superior versions of “Radio Free Europe” and “Gardening at Night” and the really good “Romance”, a song much more enduring than the movie for which it was recorded (has anyone actually seen Made in Heaven?). The B-sides are collected on Dead Letter Office, which may not be the most essential R.E.M. album but does contain a lot of essential tracks as described above. Finally, R.E.M.’s long-playing prowess is present on the classic Life’s Rich Pageant, which does double-duty by filling out the R.E.M.-on-45 story with the inclusion of the band’s elating cover of The Clique’s “Superman”, an A-side that was not included on Eponymous for some reason.

The vinyl is standard thickness, which means it isn’t top-of-the-line quality but authentic to the way I.R.S. Records originally issued R.E.M.’s albums (for whatever that’s worth). A bonus of Chronic Town would have been a great supplement to Dead Letter Office since R.E.M.’s debut E.P. is appended to the CD release of Dead Letter Office and quite possibly the best thing they ever did. Lack of mastering details suggests that digital masters were used for these reissues, but they still sound excellent when compared with the original I.R.S. release of Document (the only R.E.M. record I had on hand for comparison purposes). Compared to their original CD equivalents, Life’s Rich Pageant is less muddy and Eponymous and Dead Letter Office are both considerably warmer (the bass solo at the end of Finest Work Songis shockingly present), so there are sonic improvements from CD to vinyl all around.

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 299

The Date: July 25

The Movie: Parents (1989)

What Is It?: A brilliant fusion of period piece (take note of the family’s last name, Laemmle, and recall the return of Universal’s classic monster movies to late-night T.V. in the fifties), surrealism, and live-action comic book. Parents also motors on a frightening concept: the creeping realization that one's parents are actually monsters. Bob Balaban uses this concept as a metaphor for the sexual secrets parents withhold from their kids and the culture of gluttonous consumerism and consumption born in the fifties.

Why Today?: Today is Parent’s Day.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 298

The Date: July 24

The Movie: Batman (1966)

What Is It?: Forget your mumbly, grumbly, brooding, twenty-first century Dark Knights. The real Batman would prefer that you drink your milk, help old ladies cross the street, and pack plenty of shark repellent spray whenever you go swimming. The feature-length spin off of Bill Dozier’s pop-art spoof TV series is like a glorious four-part episode with four times the usual villainy. Joker! Penguin! Riddler! Catwoman! Too bad Julie Newmar couldn’t make the party, since she’s the most purrfect Catwoman and Bat-villain, but Lee Meriwether does do a smashing job in the cat suit.

Why Today?: D.C. Comics declared today Batman Day.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 297

The Date: July 23

The Movie: The Mummy (1959)

What Is It?: This is not one of Jimmy Sangster’s cleverest scripts, but Christopher Lee gets to upstage costar Peter Cushing for the first time. Spending much of the movie wrapped in dirty bandages, his face caked in Egyptian mud, Lee is still more sympathetic as lovelorn Kharis than he was in his earlier monster roles. He also gets some quality face time and dialogue during a lavish, 13-minute sequence reimagining the mummification scene from the original Mummy, though without reaching similar heights of claustrophobia-inducing terror and all of the brown-face makeup the white actors play while impersonating Egyptians is pretty off-putting. The greatest triumph of The Mummy is that of director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, and their brilliant art department. The team’s use of colored lights, painted backdrops, spectacular costumes and props, and sets cluttered with detail make the whole picture look like a canvass thick with rich oils.

Why Today?: On this day in 1952, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 begins.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Review: 'The Turtles: All the Singles'

The Turtles’ albums were good enough that it’s more than a little dismissive to stripe them as nothing but a singles band, but the band really did have a unique life on 45. It was not just a medium for them to rack up hits with the likes of “Happy Together”, “You Baby”, “She’d Rather Be With Me”, “Elenore”, and “You Showed Me”. It also allowed them to totally unfurl their freak flags as they took advantage of the B-sides to get really weird with things like the jungle movie tone poem “Umbassa the Dragon”, the asininely crooned “Rugs of Woods and Flowers”, and “Can’t You Hear the Cows?” Some of their less bizarre flips—“Chicken Little Was Right”, “Almost There”, “Come Over”—were every bit as good as the hits.

Since a lot of these songs did not appear on the LPs, a collection like The Turtles: All the Singles is necessary. Remember that some of The Turtles’ very best A-sides, such as the seething and jangling “Outside Chance”, the eerie and seductive “She’s My Girl”, and the unbelievably lovely “Lady-O”, weren’t on LPs. Sure, these songs appear on any “Greatest Hits” package worth its salt, but such collections won’t contain those bizarre flip-sides or such delectable oddities as the holiday single “Christmas Is My Time of Year” (covered by the reunited Monkees in 1976), the posthumous single “Why Would You Ever Think That I Would Marry Margaret?”, or a wealth of Turtle Soup tracks in mono. Plus, the liner notes with ample comments from the band are fab.

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 296

The Date: July 22

The Movie: The Old Dark House (1932)

What Is It?: Possibly the first horror/comedy to play to a more sophisticated audience than sillier old dark house pictures such as The Cat and the Canary and The Bat Whispers. American Lilian Bond is particularly hilarious as Charles Laughton’s hot footed, flapper gal pal Gladys. James Whale’s The Old Dark House is not merely good for a laugh; in one absolutely chilling sequence, Eva Moore’s haggard face is reflected in various surfaces, growing more and more distorted as she rants at negligee-clad Gloria Stuart. The reveal of Moore and Ernest Thesiger’s insane 102-year old brother, played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon, is just as unsettling.

Why Today?: On this day in 1889, James Whale is born.
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