Archive for June, 2012

Flickr Friday: Blown Covers

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Blown Covers is a friendly competition put on each week by The New Yorker‘s Art Editor, Françoise Mouly, to create fake magazine covers based on a theme. From the high quality entries they receive each week, Mouly and her daughter, Nadja Spiegelman, have their work cut out for them with their judging duties. I’ve observed the winners for a few months now, but it’s only in the last two weeks that I decided to step up and contribute stuff to the contest. Below are my entries for the Food and Fashion-themed contests. Although neither made the selection for runners-up or winners, I had fun doing them and look forward to stretching my creative muscles attempting more. Trying to think up something both artistic and clever is tough, however (how did Peter Arno do it?).

By the way, although the contest stipulates that entries should be in sketch forms, so many winners end up looking like final artwork. It make me wonder where these people get the time for it, and very humbled that there are so many talented artists out there.

“I Ate Him.”

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Today’s video is something that I uploaded to my own YouTube channel, the result of downloading and watching about 200 old commercials for Alpha-Bits cereal from the ’60s and ’70s. Alpha-Bits was and still is my favorite cereal. You might think watching a bunch of old ads would be boring, but au contrere mon frere — seeing how Post changed its approach to selling this simple food over a short time was an eye-opener. From ’60s straightforward to animated through psychedelic and health-nut ’70s, the shilling ran the gamut in uneven but entertaining fashion. It gives one the distinct feeling that Post’s ad agency during those years had a revolving door of executives.

Starting around 1969, Post started including extras with each cereal box. This started with bubblegum rock records actually printed on the box back, then moved towards assorted small toys mid-decade. This particular commercial was picked because it has one of my favorites, a plastic mini-terrarium. After emptying the included seed packet onto a tiny sponge, with regular watering a plant would grow (“in about 8 days!”). Groovy.

Post’s website says that they are still making Alpha-Bits, although it’s been years since I’ve seen a box. It was good, not horribly sweet like many other products currently clogging the supermarket cereal aisle.

Flick Clique: June 17-23

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

The Artist (2011). A film that we strangely avoided in the theaters; was fortunate enough to review it on disc for DVD Talk (I just filed it today, actually). I was expecting it to be a little cute and self-aware, which it is to some extent, but the sheer sincerity and craftsmanship on display is what ultimately won me over. Loved Jean Dejardin and Beatrice Bejo, and that little dog is quite a talent. My full review!
Brute Force (1947).This was actually quite a surprise – a gritty, unsparing noir prison drama with a great cast and an exciting story that’s kinda like the male counterpart to one of my personal faves, Caged (1950). A sullen Burt Lancaster stars as Joe Collins, a prisoner who, along with his cell-mates, plans not only to escape but to exact revenge on the sadistic assistant warden played by Hume Cronyn. This has an interesting structure with Lancaster and most of the other guys in his cell having flashbacks to what they did to get there. Lancaster was involved with the mob, another (John Hoyt) was done in by a double-crossing femme fatale, a third (Whit Bissell) embezzled $3,000 from his employers, etc. This is all done as a lead-in for Lancaster’s eventual break-out, which is nicely staged. An unexpectedly hard-edged film in which all of the participants (except a few of the women in the flashbacks) are reprehensible, weak-willed, or annoying (the calypso singer from I Walked With A Zombie, appearing here as a fellow inmate). That might make the film hard to get through, but I found it absorbing all the way. My favorite characters were Lancaster’s and Cronyn’s, but I also enjoyed Jeff Corey (who has one of the most expressive faces in all of cinemadom) as Lancaster’s ultimately disloyal cell-mate and Sam Levene (who was in the original cast of Guys and Dolls) as the salt-of-the-earth dude of the group. Fantastic film!
Circus of Horrors (1960). One of two vintage horror flicks that we checked out on Netflix streaming (now that the TV season is over, we’ve had lots more time for movies). Circus of Horrors is a wild colorfully photographed British yarn that plays something like Joan Crawford’s Berserk with better plotting and more beautiful gals. It concerns Anton Diffring as a twisted plastic surgeon who, coming across a disfigured little girl in post-WWII France, decides to help her family out by a) repairing her face, and b) buying up her family’s struggling traveling circus. As a circus proprietor, he takes it upon himself to beef up the circus by recruiting prostitutes and other undesirables, repairing their faces, training them on various circus activities, and making them stars of the ring – whew! Of course, since they eventually see opportunities to escape the circus life, Diffring devises different “accidents” to prevent them from escaping. Pure hokum, but the widescreen color photography is nice and there are several grisly/campy death scenes to recommend it. This film is also apparently known to be very influential on a generation of young boys’ libidos, with its cast-full of stacked, overly made-up ladies. This also contains the popular (in the U.K.) pop song “Look For A Star”, an early Tony Hatch composition which gets played ad nauseum throughout the movie.
Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965). The other ’60s Brit horror “masterpiece” we saw on Netflix is an anthology which revolves around a group of men who share a train compartment with a shady stranger (Peter Cushing). Tarot deck in hand, the man proceeds to tell each guy his sorry fate for the near-future, which involve a vampire, a werewolf, a voodoo cult and a killer creeping vine. More cheesy than scary, with some segments more successful than others. My favorite one had Christopher Lee as a snobby art critic who is undone by the disembodied hand of an artist that he dared to piss off. Wasn’t this one fodder for a Simpsons “Treehouse Of Terror” episode? Unlike Circus Of Horrors above, the streaming version of this one was merely okay with the widescreen film cut off into 4×3 proportions and a muddy picture.
Plan B (2009). Bland, modestly budgeted Argentinian gay flick about a guy who decides to take revenge on his ex-girlfriend by becoming friendly with her current boyfriend (who doesn’t know he’s the ex). He ends up falling for the guy, however, which is where this snail-paced film’s title comes from. Decent performances from the leads, with a nice, casual feel which verges on the snoozy at times. The story goes in strange, unexplained directions sometimes, however. Although this got some good reviews on Netflix, it’s not one of the better same-sex dramas I’ve seen.

One Less Bell to Answer

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Dept. Of Something I Never Noticed Before: AT&T has uploaded a bunch of older promo videos to their own YouTube channel. One such piece is this faux news segment chronicling the opening of Disney’s EPCOT Center in 1982. Being a corporate piece, it focuses mainly on the Bell-sponsored Spaceship Earth and CommuniCore attractions. The AT&T suits were apparently happy enough with the project, but the tourists look a bit disappointed by the educational slant on display there. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I prefer the early, clunky, educational EPCOT over the current, touristy edition.

Later on tonight, we’re going to check out Saul Bass’ 1969 film heralding his redesign of the Bell logo. In our house, that is considered entertainment!

Flick Clique: June 10-16

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Chronicle (2012). In this faux-documentary sci-fi, three teen boys stumble upon a mysterious crater in the forest containing a crystal-like structure which glows into a white-hot glare and knocks them unconscious. Over the next few weeks, they gradually find that they have telekinetic powers and can move not only other objects but themselves (maybe it should have been called Dude, I Can Fly!). This actually had a lot of promise in the beginning, but it’s undone by the characters being total doofus morons. They acquire extraordinary powers, yet they aren’t too freaked about it affecting their health or psychological well-being. Instead, they go out and film themselves doing Jackass-style stunts. Also, the sensitive kid with the dying mom and abusive dad (or stepdad?) was handled in a predictable, cliché-driven manner. They seemed too blasé about doing their powers out in the open where everyone could see them – or are American teenagers really that stupid? A few decent special effects in the end, but overall not that special.
If I Had My Way (1940). Pleasant but none-too-memorable Bing Crosby musical was the last thing from my Screen Legends DVD set that I haven’t seen. This one was made with Crosby on loan-out to Universal to co-star with that studio’s mini-Deanna Durbin, a pint-sized warbler named Gloria Jean. Crosby plays a construction worker who, along with co-worker El Bendel, decides to take care of Jean when her father dies in an accident. They go to New York to find the girl’s uncle (Allyn Joslyn), but when the man refuses to take care of her (he’s a snob who has something against entertainers) they go to the girl’s ex-vaudevillian great-uncle (Charles Winninger). Needing to give the girl a solid foundation to live on, Crosby and Bendel then decide to renovate an old restaurant into a Gay ’90s-themed eatery so that Winninger and his old showbiz pals will have a place to entertain. So sweet that you have to brush your teeth after reading this, eh? Luckily Glora Jean isn’t quite the diabetes-inducing little moppet that she appears to be on paper, or else this film would be tough sledding. She’s actually quite pert and cute, while Bing does his usual smoothness delivering a bunch of perky songs. I remember being utterly puzzled by Swedish comic El Bendel in Just Imagine (1930), but he’s much more tolerable here (but you’re still wondering, why was he of all people famous?). The climax of this film reportedly contains a lot of cameos from famous vaudeville stars of yore. I suppose one could do better on the corny, nostalgic musical front – this one was just fine, nothing more. The DVD set it comes in is an excellent deal, five vintage Bing musicals currently priced at $7.72 on Amazon.com.
These Amazing Shadows (2011) and Something’s Gonna Live (2010). Two film-related documentaries we saw this week. Currently on Netflix streaming, Those Amazing Shadows details the efforts of the National Film Registry and their ongoing campaign to preserve America’s film heritage by inducting a diverse group of films into their collection every year. At times this film was a pompous puff-piece, coming across as something that might be seen at a stock holders’ meeting. Luckily the boastful aspects make up a minority of the film, since much of it goes into the actual effort of preserving fragile films (fascinating stuff) and the films themselves, the greatness of which are expounded upon by people both puzzling (Zooey Deschanel?) and smart (John Waters!). Sure, they talk about Citizen Kane and the other undisputed classics, but I really dug when the film delved into the shorts, art films, home movies, promotional and other ephemeral films that the N.F.R. periodically accepts. For those of us who dig The House in the Middle (1954) as much as To Kill A Mockingbird, those portions are pure gold. Something’s Gonna Live, by contrast, is a more subdued, contemplative effort. I’m reviewing this for DVD Talk, so a much more detailed writeup is coming soon. This film centers on the esteemed production designer Robert Boyle as, approaching the century mark in age, he looks back on his life and career. It could have been a great doc, but the actual film feels poky-paced and poorly put together. In the end, I was disappointed and more than a little bummed out.
Prometheus (2012). Our little outing to a real cinema, last Wednesday, was to see this modest obscurity which Christopher was all a-twitter over. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) was a solid slab of ’80s sci-fi action. I’m just not as enamored of the franchise as Hollywood apparently is (matter of fact, as soon as something is referred to as a “franchise,” my interest drops precipitously). Having said that, I thought the first 40 minutes or so of this film set up the premise effectively with an attractive cast, an intriguing story and great CGI effects. Once they travel to the alien planet and discover the sinister yet mysterious alien-hatching compound, however, it tailspins into one “dumb people doing dumb things” scene after another. There are a few effective moments, but for the most part it came across like a bloated, illogical mess that never came together. I enjoyed the performances of Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba, Charlize Theron was too one-note and I really don’t understand the appeal of Michael Fassbinder. Liked the supporting characters a lot, too. There is one awe-inspiring moment when Fassbinder’s robot character ventures into the alien control panel and hacks his way into a massive map of the various constellations these creatures planned to conquer (it reminded me of the Avatar scene set in the nighttime jungle, with the glowing creatures wafting around Sam Rockwell’s avatar). Perhaps the inevitable “director’s cut” release will unveil a more focused, entertaining effort, perhaps not.

A Peek Into 1940

Saturday, June 16th, 2012


Jeepers! Have you visited the fascinating 1940 U.S. Census website yet? The government customarily makes the census information public after a 72-year waiting period, which is why we’re seeing the 1940 one now. I believe this particular one is the first instance where all of the records have been placed online for easy perusal.

I went there to check out what they had on our house, a brick bungalow here in downtown Phoenix originally built in 1927. When I first moved here in 1996, I was informed that it had been a rental for about ten years, and for the previous 50 years before that it had been occupied by the same woman who once worked at the elementary school located half a block away. A few years later, Christopher and I used vintage phone books (back then, phone books included listings by both name and address) at the library to check up on the various occupants of the house over the years, finding out that the home wasn’t built in 1932 as the realtor informed us. This 1940 census adds a few other intriguing details about the house. As we already knew, the house was occupied by the school teacher, a woman named Kathryn. What surprised us was that Kathryn is listed as living here with her parents, Emil and Minnie – AND another woman named Bernice, who is listed as a housekeeper (whether she tended to the folks in our house or someone else’s is unknown). That’s a lot of people living in a dwelling that was then less than 1,000 square feet big! Another mystery is that Kathryn, who was 35 at the time, is listed as having no job. Bernice was the only employed person in the house, having made a grand total of $40 in 1939.

Another interesting thing we uncovered in this census is that the house next door to us, which we’ve always referred to as the “lesbian house” for its long string of same-sex couple occupants, was occupied by two women in 1940. One is listed as the head of the household, while the other is listed as the “Partner.”