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Monthly Archives: July 2011

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Flick Clique: July 3-9

Go West, Young Man (1936) and My Little Chickadee (1940). A double dose of Mae West at Chez Scrubbles this week, courtesy of the DVD set of West flicks that I picked up at Big Lots for a fiver. It’s interesting (and kind of deflating) to see her in these two later efforts that mold the iconic, sashaying West image into a safer, Production Code-friendly image. Go West, Young Man is a agreeable trifle with West as a movie star who takes a secret trip to meet her politician beau, Lyle Talbot. Her scheming press agent Warren William sabotages the ride, however, when a stalled limo prompts the lady to stay in a small town boarding house with an oddball assortment of locals. Those locals include Alice Brady as the landlady, Elizabeth Patterson (I Love Lucy‘s Mrs. Trumbull) as a busybody, Margaret Perry as a flighty fan, and Randolph Scott as the hunky farmer who catches Mae’s eye. Cute, but rather pointless and possessing a story that, like Mae’s limo, stays firmly in one spot. Western romp My Little Chickadee hold more promise due to the teaming of Mae with her equally cartoonish co-star W. C. Fields. West plays a dishonorable lady in the old West who, fleeing her disapproving home town, agrees to a shotgun wedding to shyster Fields. The two arrive in a town terrorized by a masked bandit (who also happens to be Mae’s secret lover), wherein Fields is promptly made a stooge sheriff. This film was made at Universal after Mae’s long run at Paramount. It’s smoothly directed, colorfully cast and nicely photographed, but strangely inert and not very funny. The script was a collaboration between the two stars, although something tells me that Mae wrote the bulk and Fields improvised his own stuff as the filming went along. I was also struck by how old and haggard Mae appears here. She also looked kinda old in Go West; not surprising since she was pushing forty by the time she first appeared onscreen, in Night After Night (1932). Even in these halfhearted flicks, though, I can sense the lusty joie de vivre that made her a star.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010). Enjoyable CGI adventure, not quite up to Pixar standards. I’d say this is a cute, Bug’s Life-level film. I was impressed by the textures and the scale of the island it takes place on, along with the designs of the dragons themselves (which range from cute and puppy sized to imposing, dinosaur-like behemoths). Not so thrilling are the rote characters and the been there, done that theme of a wimpy boy trying to appease his widowed, he-man father (yawn). I will also note with rueful cynicism that this is a 3-D movie which involves lots of objects flying at the viewer, something that doesn’t translate too well to the living room.
Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). I have fond memories of catching this on pay cable TV long, long ago, when the sight of bare boobies onscreen gave me a little thrill. The patchwork parody Kentucky Fried Movie is notable for being the first screen effort of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and David Abrahams — the trio who went on to wacky heights with the Airplane! movies, Police Squad, Top Secret and so on. This is a scattershot array of TV/movie parodies, some of which (the “Appeal for the Dead” commercial with a stone-faced Henry Gibson, for example) still have a surprising bite. The chop socky Enter the Dragon ripoff “A Fistful of Yen” is a highlight, brimming with absurd sight gags and weird, clumsy performers. Another favorite segment was the parody of 1950s courtroom dramas, which includes a campy What’s My Line? gag (something I missed when I was 11). Rather crass and awfully dated, but fun all the same. This was another Big Lots cheap-o DVD find, by the way — hooray for Big Lots!
Queens (2005). Gay-themed Spanish comedy promises to be a colorful romp, winds up being merely colorful. This film stars many of the middle aged, sexy ladies from Pedro Almodovar’s films playing the middle aged, sexy mothers of six gay men who are preparing for Spain’s first legal same-sex marriage ceremony. Complications ensue when one mom (Mercedes Sampietro) is drafted to be the ceremony’s judge despite her ambivalent feelings towards her son and gayness in general. Another mom (Carmen Maura) is a high end hotel manager dealing with the labor grumblings of her staff, all the while having personality conflicts with the earthy ma (Betiana Blum) of her son’s lover. A fourth mom (Verónica Forqué, who resembles Mary McDonnell) is a nymphomaniac, while the fifth mother (Marisa Paredes of How I Met My Mother) is a famous actress with a lust for her gardener, who is also the dad of her son’s lover. It’s appealingly cast and directed with a light touch, but the sitcom-like script is too pat, and reliant on the unbelievable coincidence gambit way too often to be credible. This is to Almodovar’s stuff what Velveeta is to fine brie — skip!
Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008) and Legendary Sin Cities (2005). A couple of documentaries, coincidentally viewable on Netflix Instant. Valentino: The Last Emperor tracks legendary Italian fashion designer Valentino (Garavani) as he readies his 2006 couture collection amidst rumors that he will step down at the company that bears his name. We see him fussing over gowns, chatting up seamstresses, attending meetings, shepherding his pug dogs onto private planes, and discussing matters both huge and trivial with his business/life partner Giancarlo Giammetti. The film ends on a bittersweet note with Valentino stepping down as a lavish retrospective celebrating his 45-year career is mounted. Good doc, filled with eye-popping fashions. The September Issue is a more thorough peek into the fashion industry, however. Valentino is something of a petulant diva throughout; ironically, his partner Giammetti strikes me as the more interesting and articulate half of this influential pair. Legendary Sin Cities is an absorbing made-for-Canadian-TV doc that tells the story of three daring, sexually sophisticated cities of the 1920s — Paris, Berlin and Shanghai — giving an hour to each metropolis. Eye-opening stuff, and not just for the scratchy footage of topless women strutting their stuff. All the progress these places made (acceptance of homosexuality, kink, free love, etc.) came at the expense of rampant criminal activity, corruption, and horrible living conditions. I didn’t know that life in Weimar-era Germany was so economically dire that entire families took to prostitution, did you?

Book Review: The 3D Type Book

Recently I got another swell, visually resplendent book from the folks at Laurence King Publishing. The 3D Type Book is pretty much what the title says: an exploration of creative typography off the printed page and executed in our own, living world. For this project, London-based designers Agathe Jacquillat and Tomi Vollauschek assembled more than 300 alphabets rendered in neon lights, cut paper, clothing, sticks, stones, garbage, grated cheese and the human body (the alphabet made of skin squashed with clothespins is guaranteed to make you squirm). Most of the examples are pictured in simple, A to Z fashion — whatever is lost in legibility is gained in the sheer ingenuity on display.

Although many pieces in The 3D Type Book are the handiwork of designers working in the commercial arena, several examples push the boundaries into fine art suitable for a museum display. One of my favorite examples is the CMYK Alphabet from London-based Evelin Kasikov. Kasilov’s ethereal letterforms, rotated on top of themselves and beautifully rendered in embroidery, nicely bridge the gab between computer technology and the D.I.Y. aesthetic espoused by Etsy and other crafty communities. Cool as it is, it’s just one sample of many that inspire an “oh, wow” reaction. On the whole, the book is very Euro-centric (a minor complaint) but also a great record of creativity being found in the oddest, most unusual places.

Addendum: Vollauschek has alerted me to, the book’s official site, where the complete contents can be previewed.

The 3D Type Book is published by Laurence King. Buy at here.

Commercials That Pop

This 1977 commercial for Bubble Yum bubblegum brought out an “oh, yeah, I almost forgot that” reaction. Bubble Yum was the hottest thing going on the playground back then — it had a different, softer texture and the pieces were huge. I can even remember it being banned in my elementary school. Having an obnoxious puppet in the ad didn’t hurt it’s kiddie appeal, either:

Less foggy is the memory of this slightly later ad for Bubbilicious bubble gum with trippy animated kids floating through outer space. It makes my mouth water for “wild strawberry, bold banana, juicy orange, and now way out watermelon.”

Flick Clique: June 26 – July 2

Burnt Offerings (1976). Next time somebody asks me “What’s the worst Bette Davis movie you’ve ever seen?,” I will answer confidently with this sad, sorry haunted house flick. Davis actually has a supporting role in this, as the crotchety aunt of Oliver Reed. It’s Reed and his flighty wife Karen Black who agree to take care of a remote, crumbling mansion for a summer along with his auntie (Davis) and the couple’s shrill son (Lee Montgomery). Didn’t they notice something was up with the home’s creepy sibling caretakers, played by Burgess Mereditch and Eileen Heckart? Or that they’d have trouble with the unseen old lady who lives in the attic? Yet another film that breezes by on the stupidity of its leading characters. The home has a lot to offer, including a pantry well-stocked with Ding Dongs, but things turn weird when unexplained forces seem to drive Reed and Black into a demented state. Karen Black and Oliver Reed are supposed to be the embodiment of normal, well-adjusted parents, but the actors themselves are somewhat strange anyhow — which makes their casting doubly baffling. Poor Bette Davis has little to do but look increasingly wretched as she realizes the ever-possessed Black is keeping her hostage. I actually remember seeing the ending of this film somewhere else, a hysterical bit in which (spoiler ahead!!) Reed becomes a blood-soaked hood ornament and Montgomery is flattened by a revenge-minded chimney.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). After seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s tense 1956 edition of The Man Who Knew Too Much way back in September 2009, I decided to put the 1934 original on my rental queue to refresh my memory. Although the ’34 version is an okay addition to Hitch’s early British period, the film has enough flaws to make me understand why he’d want to revisit/improve the story. First off, the film covers too much territory in 75 minutes to adequately tell this tale of intrigue and espionage and how it affects a normal British family on holiday. The editing is choppy, and performances range from very good (Peter Lorre, Nova Pilbeam as the daughter) to so-so. The concert hall scene is an exciting set piece in both films, with Hitchcock stylishly conveying an escalating tension through the fretful expressions on his leading ladies’ faces (Edna Best in ’34, Doris Day in ’56). Personally, I prefer the remake over this oft times half-baked, rushed production.
Patrik, Age 1.5 (2008). Feel-good Swedish comedy about an ordinary gay couple who make ripples when they move into a traditional suburb. Göran and Sven desperately want to adopt a child and are overjoyed when they receive notice that they will care for one “Patrik, age 1.5.” When the child arrives, however, he turns out to be a troubled and homophobic 15 year-old who nonetheless finds a way to ingratiate himself within both the family and the surrounding neighborhood. Such a sweet film, driven by the natural performance of actor Gustaf SkarsgÃ¥rd as Göran. I’ve never seen SkarsgÃ¥rd in anything else, but his totally unaffected, level-headed and non-stereotypical portrayal really grounded the film. I also liked Torkel Petersson as his lover, Sven, and Thomas Eriksson does a good job as Patrik despite his character’s abrupt change in attitude. The only debit I could think of is the neighborhood’s surrreal, Edward Scissorhands-like production design.
The Ruins (2008). A recent horror film in which a group of pretty college students journey to an ancient Mayan ruin so remote and forbidding that it has even the locals spooked. Fairly decent scare flick with good special effects and the kind of goofy, out-there hook (it’s the plants — ooh!) that has served many a campfest well. The best moments are in the trailer, of course. The film suffers from the old “idiot characters doing idiotic things” syndrome (see Burnt Offerings, above), however.
The Sign of the Cross (1932). Cecil B. DeMille’s pre-Code recounting of early Christians’ persecution under the crumbling Roman empire follows The King of Kings (1929) in his stoic, somewhat campy line of religious epics. The history is suspect, as usual, with the lion’s share of the story devoted to a blossoming romance between Roman prefect Fredric March and an ethereal Christian woman played by Elissa Landi. The strange thing about DeMille’s movies is that, despite being about morally upright causes like Christianity, he seems to revel in the scenes that depict the hedonistic, anti-Christian life. In fact, this film has the odd distinction of making the Christians look downright boring! March seems to be having a ball as the happy-go-lucky Marcus Superbus (what a name!); his enthusiasm is matched by Claudette Colbert as a slinky Roman empress who schemes to restrain March from Landi’s pious influences. Colbert’s moment in which she takes a luxe bath in donkey’s milk is an unforgettable pre-Code moment, one of several audacious scenes that makes one wonder just how Christian DeMille really was. I also loved the campy, over the top gladiator battles, one of which pits Amazon-sized women against pygmy men. Stuff like that almost makes up for the many dreary scenes with Landi and her dour, Jesus worshiping comrades. Historically accurate? No. Hella fun? Yes!
Waikiki Wedding (1937). When you think of the most popular film in any given year, would a pleasant musical like the Bing Crosby/Martha Raye romp Waikiki Wedding come to mind? I wouldn’t think so, but this breezy bit of tropical escapism was indeed the highest grossing flick of 1937. I can see why, however. Bing Crosby is quite charismatic here (guess the smugness didn’t settle in until the ’40s), but the truly amazing thing is how Paramount was able to simulate a stunningly photographed, lush Hawaii populated with dozens of native extras on a Hollywood soundstage. The story is a big bowl of overly sweetened pineapple whip, with bland Shirley Ross as a beauty contest winner who is assigned to write a glowing account of her trip for the newspaper back home. Only the lady is having a miserable time — she and wacky, man-hungry pal Raye are ready to ship back home until charming Crosby is employed to change her impression of the islands and make her stay. There’s a subplot about a valuable, mystical pearl in there, too, but all that exposition takes a back seat to the evocative songs and atmosphere. The opening number in particular is a knockout. Something of a trifle, but amusing all the same. I’m glad I picked this DVD up at Big Lots, as part of a five-film Crosby Screen Legend set.