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Monthly Archives: May 2009

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Federal Man to the Rescue!

“I’ve Got Wings!” comic

The University of Nebraska has a swell archive of vintage comic books published by the U.S. Government. The files are in easily downloaded pdf format, so you can look at them nice and big. How about I’ve Got Wings! (excerpt above), or Earthquake Preparedness for Children with Yogi Bear? Perhaps those who are feeling really adventuresome could try the unheralded 1978 opus Preventive Maintenance of Lead-Acid Batteries.

Weekly Mishmash: May 3-9

Blonde Ice (1948) and High Wall (1947). Two strictly average noirs that operated on vastly different budgets. High Wall was an MGM production with a distinctly paranoid, “Warner Brothers” feel about a war veteran (Robert Taylor) accused of murdering his wife. Committed to a psychiatric hospital, Taylor comes under the observation of a sympathetic female doctor (Audrey Totter) who helps him unscramble his memories and prove his innocence. Unusual film with an interesting premise. MGM usually cast Robert Taylor in roles that were beyond his abilities, and this was no exception. He’s decent, but bland. Christopher mentioned how this part would have been much better played by Montgomery Clift; an edgy actor like him would have elevated this film beyond the routine. I loved Audrey Totter, however, in a role that went beyond her usual femme fatale image (Ms. Totter is in her 90s and still with us, by the way).

High Wall (1947)

Contrastingly, this week we also saw the grubby looking, independently produced ‘B’ Blonde Ice. This melodrama with noir elements went out of circulation for several decades before getting re-released on a fancy (by VCI Home Entertainment standards) DVD. This film is about a San Francisco society columnist who marries and kills man after man, but don’t get your hopes up. Mostly it consists of scenes with wooden actors standing around talking to each other. The one thing I’d recommend here is actress Leslie Stevens, enjoyably uninhibited in the title role. I could tell that Stevens saw the uniqueness in the part and played it to the hilt. Up against High Wall, we actually enjoyed this one a bit more.
Heavy Traffic (1973). Ugly, strange and totally watchable Ralph Bakshi film combines animation with still and live action footage into a trippy stew, like an underground comic come to life. This one hangs a thin story about a New York City cartoonist and his jivey gal pal on a cacophony of racist and sexist imagery. The portrayal of a ghetto teeming with non-stop violence and crude sex was severely off-putting at first, but eventually I got into it. The animation is crude and not particularly well-done, but at least the film aimed for something different and in that respect it succeeded.
ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway (2007). Showtime taping. Not being much of a theater geek, I didn’t expect much of this comprehensive look at four different musicals premiering in the 2003-04 Broadway season. Surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the best documentaries I’ve seen recently. Here’s a sign of how good this was — even though I knew the ending, I was still swept up in it. Helping immeasurably is the fact that the filmmakers started this project during an excellent season. Wicked, Avenue Q, Caroline, Or Change and Taboo are followed from modest workshops though grueling rehearsals, openings, critical and audience receptions and the final blowout at the Tony awards. All four shows get a probing, insightful treatment. The filmmakers are unsparing in showing that the Boy George/Rosie O’Donnell project Taboo had a troubled journey to opening night, but everyone involved comes across sympathetically. The civil rights-themed Caroline, Or Change is presented as more of a hard sell. Although the show seems like the very definition of “critic’s darling,” from the clips here it looks like a heavy-handed, tuneless bore. I also liked the contrast between the ultra-smug critics dishing in trendy restaurants with the hard working gyspies demonstrating that it takes real sweat to put on a show. The main thrust of the film, however, lies between the scrappy but likable outsider Avenue Q and the audience-pleasing, overproduced Wicked (which, honestly, looks horrid to me). Both shows wound up being huge hits, of course, but they each embody the fact that Broadway is a constant battlefield between commerce and art.
Small Town Gay Bar (2006). Nicely subtle doc about gays and lesbians finding community in the conservative backwoods of Mississippi. Even though the film ambles and loses focus occasionally, I enjoyed it. The only section I didn’t like came when the filmmakers interviewed that hateful blowhard, Fred Phelps. Why, I don’t know. They could have included a less extreme religious figure and still gotten their point across. Aside from that, pretty good.

The Discovery Channel

I like the lively opening sequence of the ABC Sunday morning kiddie show Discovery ’68 (spotted on Grainedit’s Twitter feed). Very fun. This show ran for several years with the year appended to the title, a la Match Game.

In a similar vein, get an eyeful of the ABC logo’s quasi-psychedelic permutations from their Fall 1971 promo. ABC was considered the little guy of the three networks back then, with a lineup of sugary sitcoms like The Brady Bunch. It’s interesting to see how they decided to market themselves with the sweeping landscape views and mellow, Free Design-like music.

Puzzle Me This

Recommended reading: J.J. Abrams on the Magic of Mystery, the cover story from the May issue of Wired. Actually, this entire Wired issue, guest edited by Abrams and designed with flair by House Industries, truly is the bee’s knees. The theme is puzzles and puzzling, calling to mind those great old Games magazines I remember poring through in the ’80s. One of the them is a true mindbender — how many TV network logos can you identify?

Wired TV Network Logo Puzzle

I got 16 of 25 logos correct. Some of these look completely foreign, cropped and rotated beyond recognition.

Weekly Mishmash II: April 26-May 2

That Midnight Kiss (1948). Colorful hokum starring Mario Lanza (his debut), Kathryn Grayson, and pianist José Iturbi playing a pianist named José Iturbi. Everyone in the film behaves as if José is the hottest thing around since ration-free meat, so I suppose the guy was famous back then. A present day operetta, this film adheres so strictly to MGM musical formulae that it felt as if I’d already seen it on my maiden viewing. Although the curvy Grayson was utter cuteness in a variety of swell Helen Rose getups, mostly I watched it for beefy Mario Lanza. Even while wearing obvious lipstick, he was one of the sexiest men in old moviedom.
The TV Set (2006). Showtime taping. A scattershot but funny satire on the TV industry that called to mind Lisa Kudrow’s underrated HBO series The Comeback. This one follows the pet project of screenwriter David Duchovny as he pitches an autobiographical drama to a crass, UPN-like network. The show is picked up, and mercilessly picked apart by a cadre of network suits headed by Sigourney Weaver as a power suited Gorgon who says things like “Originality scares me.” The film is somewhat half-baked at times, and I wish it could have followed the show past the affiliates’ preview to its airing and critical reception. For something so brief (90 minutes), it also had too many extraneous scenes following the supporting characters’ private lives (gorgeous as he is, I didn’t really need to know about the tortured home life of Ioan Gruffudd’s exec). For all its faults, though, I enjoyed it as a “scary if it wasn’t so true” tonic.
Up Close & Personal (1996). Showtime taping. I decided to put this on the TiFaux after briefly catching a few scenes with Stockard Channing as a steely anchorwoman. As it turned out, Channing’s scenes are the best part of this otherwise dumb romance with a TV news backdrop. Michelle Pfeiffer is okay in the lead, playing a woman who elevates through the ranks with a new hairdo for each rung of success. Robert Redford was too old, however, and the Star Is Born storyline was too hackneyed to be believable. This film started production as a serious biopic on Jessica Savitch (which I would totally watch); what happened?
XTC — Nonsuch. Christopher bought this for me at the used CD store. I remember being annoyed at XTC’s song “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” when it got a lot of alternative airplay back in ’92. Fortunately, it’s held up better than memory. The rest of the album is made up of ingenious retro-’60s melodies from Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding (whose songs are, sorry to say, not quite as quirky or enjoyable as Partridge’s). This is the kind of album I can appreciate more now, at the age of 40, than back then.

Weekly Mishmash I: April 26-May 2

Note: due to having a lot of free time this past week, Weekly Mishmash will be split in two this time. Part II will arrive tomorrow.
Beautiful Ohio (2006). With certain movies, you have to ask yourself whether you want to invest the next 90-120 minutes in the characters onscreen. As this dreary indie unspooled, the answer for me was a decisive “no.” In this case, however, I stuck it out to the end because it was Christopher’s viewing choice and I couldn’t do something more constructive — like watching paint dry. This ’70s period piece revolves around a family of narcissists. The mom’s a perfectionist and a shrew, the dad is prone to incoherent rambling, one son is a flake and the other is a flake and a math genius. Oh, and there’s a hot chick secretly sleeping in the family basement. This was Chad Lowe’s first film as director. Although he wrangles a few decent performances from the cast, he really should pick scripts that haven’t already been done a million times before.
Escort Girl (1940). This biskly paced ‘B’ was an interesting find off Turner Classic Movie’s TCM Underground schedule, and not nearly as bad as it looks. The film follows the exploits of an escort service run by a gin-soaked, middle-aged broad (silent star Betty Compson). Compson is petrified that her visiting daughter will find out her tawdry means of living. Further complicating things, the daughter’s fiancée is a federal agent investigating escort services. D’Oh! TCM’s print was so full of skips that watching it was a genuinely odd experience. This sequence with a disrobing hoochie coochie dancer must have been hot stuff for 1940:

The King of Kings (1927). Cecil B. DeMille’s epic telling of the Christ story got the deluxe Criterion treatment a few years back. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, you have to admit that this is top-notch filmmaking for 1927 with gorgeous photography (including two segments shot in two-strip Technicolor) and dazzling special effects. The nice multiple exposure work utilized in the moving scene where Mary Magdalene gets spiritually cleansed in Jesus’ presence, for example, furthers its power all the more. Even bathed in a constant ethereal glow, H.B Warner is obviously too old to play Jesus. The 2-1/2 hour roadshow edition we saw succumbed to ponderousness all too often. Still, it was a grandly entertaining example of silent cinema at its most ostentatious.
Kororinpa: Marble Saga (Wii). This week, while I was sick as a dog (doing much better now, thank you), I spent a lot of recuperation time with this addictive game. This one is similar to its predecessor, Kororinpa: Marble Mania, in that the aim is to simply guide a ball through a series of increasingly difficult obstacle courses. Where Marble Mania was so simple I could solve it in a week, however, Marble Saga ups the ante with several more puzzles in many more creatively themed lands. Right now I’m getting to the “Hard” levels, which is frustrating. I miss my guard rails!