Friday, September 25, 2015

And now here's the building from 'Blade Runner' in a damned Twix commercial

The unmistakable Bradbury Building in a commercial for Twix.

This has been a weird week for me and candy commercials with ties to cult cinema. On Wednesday, I told you about a York Peppermint Pattie ad obviously modeled on Requiem for a Dream, and now I'm writing about a Twix ad filmed at one of the most prominent locations from Blade Runner. What can I say? The internet keeps making me sit through pop-up ads for candy, and this is the result. 

Specifically, a 2014 spot for Twix called "Factory Tour" was filmed at the historic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. If you've seen Los Angeles Plays Itself, you already know all about this place, but even if you haven't, you've likely seen it in a movie or TV show. Completed in 1893 and designed by Sumner Hunt and George Wyman, the Bradbury is the oldest architectural landmark in L.A. It has been a popular filming location for decades due to its distinctive look: plenty of oak, wrought-iron railings, geometric staircases, and a giant skylight. 

Though Ridley Scott used the hell out of it in Blade Runner, the Bradbury has stood in for any number of buildings in TV and film over the decades, giving off a vibe which is simultaneously elegant and seedy. And that's just how it looks in the otherwise-lighthearted Twix commercial, where it's supposed to be a candy factory. Note how the oppressive and foreboding atmosphere of the building completely dominates the 30-second commercial. The actors seem to know that they're in the belly of a pitiless and insatiable beast. Doesn't that just make you want to run out and buy some Twix bars?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A few kind words about Doctor Dinamite, the mad YouTuber

The funny, interesting, and awesome logo for Doctor Dinamite.

The Doctor's online avatar.
There are many, many, many countdown-style videos on YouTube, but there is only one Doctor Dinamite. As you probably already know, the popular site is positively strewn with documentary-style "infotainment" videos that bombard viewers with obscure (sometimes bogus) trivia, crazy (occasionally dubious-looking) clips, and bizarre (often Photoshopped) images, all of it linked together with quippy commentary and eye-assaulting graphics. If grotesque, unsavory trivia is your thing, especially when combined with snarky narration, YouTube has you covered. Thoroughly. Sometimes, it feels like half of YouTube is devoted to one, big, never-ending episode of Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

So how do you stand out from the crowd? In Doctor Dinamite's case, the answer is: be even crazier than the stuff you're counting down. I don't quite know how to explain the Doctor to you, mainly because I know next to nothing about him. He has a sketchy, near-useless blog and a sketchy, near-useless Twitter account, both of which seemingly exist only to publicize his YouTube videos. When it comes to Doctor Dinamite, the videos are all that really matter. I know nothing of the man behind them or why he does what he does. His official YouTube description only says: "Let's bring a bit of originality in the world of countdowns, where information is copied all over and over again."

So what will you find on the Doctor's channel? Just as his own description implies, it's the same stuff you'll find on most of the other countdown videos and at content-aggregating sites across the web: Photoshop fails, tacky tattoos, dubious parenting choices, photos taken at just the right moment, etc., etc. Typical Internet clickbait. It's the Doctor's personality that makes these videos stand out. I'm not sure what nationality this YouTuber is, perhaps Russian, but his accent is fairly heavy and his approach to the English language is, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic.

His caffeine intake must be substantial, too, because he's an incurable motormouth who seems to have rage issues. His videos often seem like a cross between a used car dealer's desperate sales pitch and a psychotic rant by a street corner weirdo. Watching a Doctor Dinamite video -- or, better yet, watching five or six of them in a row -- is like tuning into a weird Twilight Zone version of the Home Shopping Network at three o'clock in the morning.

I don't have any particular recommendations as to where one should "start" with Doctor Dinamite's videos. They're all pretty much the same. I'll semi-arbitrarily pick "20 photos that will make you mad" as it contains the classic Doctor Dinamite quote: "I hate Harry Potter! But now I hate him even more!" His anger at this moment seems genuine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

'The Critic' (1963): Symbolic of junk!

"Could this be the sex life of two things?"

By 1963, Mel Brooks was 37 years old and already a fairly well-known comedian and writer, even if he hadn't yet done any of the things with which we truly associate him today. Get Smart, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein were all in his future then. But he'd written for a couple of crucial early TV sketch programs at that point in his life, namely Your Show of Shows and Sid Caesar's follow-up show, Caesar's Hour. Also, perhaps more importantly, Brooks had recorded three popular, well-regarded comedy albums with fellow Your Show veteran Carl Reiner. These LPs, mostly centered around the duo's much-imitated "2000 Year Old Man" routine, in which Reiner would play an earnest interviewer and Brooks would play an impossibly old European Jewish man who had seemingly witnessed all of human history first-hand and, frankly, seemed pretty blase about the whole experience.

An ad for The Critic.
Also by 1963, Connecticut-born filmmaker Ernest "Ernie" Pintoff was 31 years old and already making a name for himself with his then-ultra-modern cartoons, like Flebus (1957), The Violinist (1959), and The Interview (1960), which combined "hip" humor with jazzy, almost abstract minimalist artwork. The Violinist, in fact, had garnered Pintoff a BAFTA award and an Oscar nomination. Not too shabby. Clearly, like Brooks, Ernie Pintoff had established himself as a showbiz up-and-comer. As fate would have it, Pintoff finally won his Oscar when he collaborated with -- you guessed it -- Mel Brooks on 1963's The Critic. Half a century later, Brooks reminisced about The Critic when he was interviewed for the  PBS documentary Mel Brooks: Make A Noise. These were his thoughts on the origins of the short film:
"There was a brilliant guy, a cartoonist and sweet as sugar. His name was Ernest Pintoff, and he said, there was a guy called Norman McLaren who used to do films, beautiful films that were truly avant garde. I'm talking about late '40s, early '50s. So when Pintoff said to me, 'Look, I've got a good idea. You watch one of these films and just mumble to yourself.' I said, 'That's good.' I'll be this old Jew trying to make sense out of what I'm seeing. There's no better philosophical sound than a Jewish accent. If somebody's going to wax philosophically, he'd better have a Jewish accent, or he's going to sound like a dope. A Jew never sounds like a dope. Anyway, we made this little short and submitted it, and it won an Academy Award."
And deservedly so, since The Critic is a total delight, even today. There's not much to it, really, just some sprightly harpsichord music, various dots, blobs, and squiggles, and the cranky Semitic commentary of Mel Brooks' character, a 71-year-old Russian-American named Murray, who pays decent money to see a foreign film and feels ripped off when he is presented with meaningless modern art instead. Simple as it is, The Critic is an obvious predecessor to TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000, and writer-performer Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo from seasons 2 through 10) has acknowledged it as an influence. I wonder, too, if Woody Allen caught this film before making What's Up, Tiger Lily? in 1966.

Within a few years, Mel Brooks would be writing directing and occasionally starring in full-length films of his own. Ernie Pintoff spent most of his career directing perfectly-ordinary, yet successful network television shows, including Kojak, Dallas, and The Dukes of Hazzard. He passed away in 2002. In any event, here is the film itself. Please do enjoy. "It must be some symbolism. I think it's symbolic of junk!"

Here's a York Peppermint Pattie commercial inspired by 'Requiem for a Dream' (really!)

Quick! Is this shot from a candy commercial, a harrowing depiction of drug use, or both?

File this under "too bizarre to be real, yet too random to be made-up." York Peppermint Pattie, a product of the candy kingpins at Hershey, has an ad called "Environmental Connection" which seems uncomfortably close to the famous, much-parodied "getting high" montage from Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky's bleak 2000 film about drug addiction. Judge for yourself, though. Don't let me unduly influence you.

Here's the ad:

And here's the corresponding scene from Requiem for a Dream:

It's not just me, right? This is totally intentional, right? The quick cuts, the gasping for breath, the close up of a dilating pupil. It's all taken directly from Requiem for a Dream. The message isn't really even all that subtle: "Look, fatty, we know that chocolate is your heroin. Don't try to pretend that you have free will. You're our junkie slave, and you know it! Now have another York Peppermint Goddamned Pattie!"


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Some thoughts on the Pope's visit to America

Sadly, THIS is my idea of a compelling theology.

The Pope is visiting America right now, and all the TV channels are covering it, which means that when I make my daily phone call to my dad, I have to talk about it for a few minutes. The truth is that I haven't been a practicing Catholic in over a decade, and I haven't been a believer... ever. I went along with it for the first few decades (!) of my life to humor my parents, but I'm done now. Way done. You know what they say: "You can take the boy out of the church... and, all things considered, you probably should. Quickly." No, seriously, this current Pope seems like a nice guy, way nicer than the last couple of Popes, especially that one who looked like the Emperor from Star Wars. But, to me, he's still just a guy in a pointy hat. Hopefully, he can use his (unearned) position of (imaginary) power to do good in the world and inspire others to do good in the world. That's the best you can hope for with something as silly as the Papacy. Non-Catholics often think of the faith as a weird, bizarre cult with all kinds of spooky rituals, but the truth is that growing up Catholic was extremely boring. John Waters has written with as much humor and honesty as anyone about the "Catholic kid" experience. He can remember sitting through mass and fantasizing about the roof of the church caving in. That still makes me laugh, because I had very similar thoughts as a kid. Our church, in fact,had these big ceiling fans hovering over the congregation, and I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if one came plummeting to the floor. That's how boring Catholic church really is.

Monday, September 21, 2015

About the time John Simon appeared on 'Saturday Night Live'

Simon says: Infamous critic John Simon lampoons his own image on Saturday Night Live.

The mostly doomed cast of SNL's 1985 season.
The 1985-86 season of Saturday Night Live marked producer Lorne Michaels' somewhat uneasy return to the long-running program after a half-decade hiatus. Michaels' own skit-com, The New Show, had bombed badly in the interim, so he agreed to return to his old job upon the departure of showrunner Dick Ebersol at the end of SNL's tenth season. Although he'd eventually turn things around in a big way, Michaels' second reign at SNL was anything but an immediate triumph.

For reasons known only to him, the returning producer loaded the cast with actors from John Hughes movies, including Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, and Randy Quaid, none of whom were known for sketch comedy. (Remember that Quaid and Hall had worked together in the Hughes-scripted Vacation, while Hall and Downey had crossed paths in Hughes' Weird Science.)

During that tumultuous, critically-panned season, considered by some to be among SNL's worst, the show was once again in critical danger of cancellation due to flagging ratings and general lack of audience enthusiasm. Most of the newly-signed cast members were dutifully fired at the end of the year, but the ones who survived -- including Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz -- would soon become part of perhaps the strongest ensemble in SNL history, buoyed by the addition of Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and Dana Carvey the very next year.

SNL was on the verge of a Reagan-era renaissance, but that was hardly apparent during the blighted '85-'86 season. Back then, it looked the show had finally had it after 11 years on the air.

But even during those dark times, there were occasional bright spots. Case in point: a mock trailer for a film called Critic, starring Jon Lovitz as an incorruptible movie critic for a fictional newspaper called The New York Trumpeter. Yes, Lovitz portrays a New York film reviewer in the sketch, but there is otherwise no thematic connection to his familiar role as portly, disheveled loser Jay Sherman in the similarly-named animated series, The Critic, which aired nearly a decade later on ABC. No, in the SNL sketch, Lovitz portrays Victor LaSalle, an absolutely incorruptible critic whose steely, humorless demeanor shows just how seriously he takes his job.

While The Critic was a comedy about a likable bumbler, Critic (there's no "the" in its tersely-worded title) is presented as a tense, nail-biting drama in the tradition of Network and All the Presidents' Men. There's even a touch of Citizen Kane in there, too, as the noble LaSalle bravely pans a movie financed by the same corporation who publishes his newspaper... and promptly loses his job over it!

The most unusual feature of Critic is a cameo by infamous, Yugoslavian-born theater and film reviewer John Simon, who at the time was one of the most hated men in his profession for his scathing, often cruel critiques, many of which contained vicious personal attacks on actors, writers, and directors. Here, in the upside-down world of sketch comedy, Simon is a simpering, insecure wannabe who got into film criticism because he didn't have enough talent to make it in show business. Lovitz's character, the pompous, pipe-smoking LaSalle, looks upon him with utter contempt.

Critic is a high-concept sketch, and the audience doesn't quite seem to get it. They clearly don't know who the hell John Simon is, as his appearance generates no reaction whatsoever. The only big laugh in the sketch is a cheap fat joke at the expense of Roger Ebert, which to me is the only low point in the proceedings. While writing about his heavy Eastern European accent, Simon dished a little about his SNL appearance in a blog post from 2011:
"Certainly I sounded foreign enough to Lorne Michaels when I appeared on Saturday Night Live. It was a skit about a good critic played by Jon Lovitz, and a dishonest critic played by me. Chatting backstage, Lorne asked whose army I was referring to when I spoke of my military service. “Ours, of course,” I replied, feeling at that moment very patriotic. “How else do you think we could have won the war?”
Modest as always, John.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

I'm starting to develop a bit of Trump anxiety

My scarily-accurate representation of Donald Trump. The mouth should be bigger, though.

What if it happens? What if Donald Trump actually manages to brag and boast and bluster and blunder his way into the Oval Office in 2016? I think it could happen. I mean, under normal circumstances, blatantly insane "outsider" political candidates like this are brought down by their own scandals, public gaffes, and embarrassing statements. But what scandal could possibly derail the Donald's already scandal-besmirched life by this point? What hasn't he already done? And public gaffes and embarrassing statements are what he's all about. He feeds on them. The things which weaken other candidates actually make him stronger. He's like a Bizarro Superman who thrives on green Kryptonite. When I said recently that Trump could be the first person ironically elected to the presidency, I was only half-joking. I honestly think there are people who will vote for him just to see what would happen if he were elected. As if this great nation of ours were some kind of backyard science experiment!

Perhaps some humor will alleviate my Trump anxiety. In that spirit, I give you a video by a very talented editor named Dominic Nero. It is tastefully titled "Trump Dumps." If you have a strong stomach, enjoy.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Six GIFs that show why Beverly Sutphin is my role model (and should be yours, too)

"You know how I hate the brown word."

In these troubling and uncertain times, it is more important than ever to have role models, people whom we can admire and whose behavior we can try to emulate. Towards that end, I have selected as my personal pop culture mentor Mrs. Beverly Sutphin, the homicidal hausfrau portrayed so memorably by Kathleen Turner in John Waters' 1994 dark comedy Serial Mom. This is a woman with numerous positive qualities and useful skills, both domestic and interpersonal, and I think she sets a fine example for the rest of us to follow. But rather than just tell you why I think Beverly Sutphin is so great, I thought I'd actually show you a few examples of the lady herself in action. Please do read on and discover why this fictional character is, in modern Internet parlance, my spirit animal.

1. She has a colorful, diverse vocabulary.


2. She isn't intimidated by celebrities.

3. She's not afraid to express herself.


4. Her dental hygiene? Above reproach.


5. She respects tradition.


6. She knows the value of a friendly wave.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Today's 'B.C.' comic, corrected by me

You're welcome, B.C. Your gratitude is thanks enough. No need for compensation.

Today's installment of the long-running, caveman-themed comic strip B.C., a newspaper perennial whose creator Johnny Hart has been dead since 2007, was unacceptable to me, so I had to change the punchline. And just for good measure, here's an older B.C. remix I did years ago. I can't remember if I'd ever used this on the blog. I have now, though.

This one's on the house as well.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The only good video on the Internet

Don E. Russell, aka "DR Live," giving his Flower Power pitch.

Scientists now estimate that there are well over two dozen videos available for instantaneous viewing on the Internet. With that kind of volume, there are bound to be the occasional duds. I am happy to report, however, that I have discovered a clip that is well worth three and a half minutes of anyone's time. It is entitled "Flower Power," and it is a movie pitch by a Phoenix, Arizona resident named Don E. Russell, who also goes by the nickname "DR Live."

Information about the video is exceedingly difficult to come by, but judging from some of the then-topical references it contains, I'd say it dates back to the early 1990s. The Found Footage Fest, which posted the video to its website back in 2012, refers to it as "an oldie-but-goodie from the tape-trading days," suggesting that it first circulated as a VHS cassette that was then duplicated and re-duplicated by connoisseurs of oddball entertainment. The FFF clip is obviously just a condensed "highlight reel" of a much longer presentation, but I have been unable to find the full-length pitch.

Still, what's there is absolutely mesmeric and definitely leaves me wanting more. Mr. Russell, a middle-aged ex-hippie who seems like a first cousin to Jeff Bridges' "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski, has an idea for a "magical musical masterpiece" called Flower Power and wants to get some investors for his ambitious cinematic rock flick. He clearly put some time and effort into this presentation, and the concept art he shows us is fairly impressive. But it's Russell's salesmanship and enthusiasm that truly put this over the top.

You know what? As crazy as this may sound, I actually think Flower Power could work... as a comedy. This is not a total betrayal of Russell's original intentions, though, as his script obviously contains some intentionally comedic elements of its own, such as the sequence in "Satan's Bar and Grill" and the Bill and Hillary cameos. I'd cast Will Ferrell as David, John C. Reilly as Kalvin, Danny McBride as Lightning, Aubrey Plaza as the Bitch Demon, Jack Black as the Jealous Demon, and Bruno Ganz (reprising his role from Downfall) as Hitler.

Clearly, a big chunk of the film's budget would go towards music rights, since Russell's proposed scenario uses such definitely-not-public-domain tracks as "Smoke on the Water," "Popcorn," "We Are the Champions," and "Bad to the Bone." Maybe the cost could be offset by including, as Russell suggests, a full-length Pepsi ad from the early 1970s. Like this one, for instance:

As I said earlier, information about Don E. Russell and Flower Power is scarce, and I haven't yet located the full-length version of the movie pitch. What I can say, though, is that does list a Don E. Russell as living in Phoenix, AZ, and it's at the same address included in the video: 15421 N. 30th Ave. The phone number, which the website specifies is a land line, is the same, too.

And guess what else? Just on a lark, I decided to Google the phrase "Kalvin's Kool Klothes," and I discovered a listing for a defunct clothing manufacturer with that very same name. A site devoted to Arizona Companies lists it as "an inactive business incorporated in PHOENIX, Arizona, USA on January 17, 1990." And the business' address? Yep, it's 15421 N. 30th Ave. So in addition to trying to get this movie made, Russell was apparently running a clothing business out of his house. He seems like an interesting guy. 

Don E. Russell, if you're reading this, get in touch. Please.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Just in time for whatever International Literacy Day is

Behold, the disappointments of the English language. Sorry, Bart.

Today, Twitter tells me, is International Literacy Day. Yeah, I've never heard of it either. Apparently, it's an annual observance the United Nations thought up back in 1965, which makes this the fiftieth or "golden" anniversary of the hitherto-unknown event. Anyway, in observance of International Literacy Day, here is a little literary vignette from a 2000 episode of The Simpsons entitled "Insane Clown Poppy." They were only in their 12th season back then, if you can imagine that. Not even at the halfway point. The episode in question is mainly about Krusty and his long-lost daughter (cutely voiced by Drew Barrymore), but in typical Simpsons fashion, "Insane Clown Poppy" takes a while to get to the main story and instead starts with material which is almost totally unrelated to the A-plot. In this case, it's a visit to a book festival, where Bart's attempt to vandalize a sign is thwarted by the vagaries of the English language. His loss, our gain. I barely remember the rest of the episode, but this one little joke has stuck with me for 15 years.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Labor Day telethon and the death of show business

Dino, Frankie, and Jerry in 1976: This is what real show business looks like, folks.

Goodbye, old friend!
It is my considered opinion that show business -- real, greasy, old-school, Hollywood Babylon-type show business -- died sometime during the 1970s. What killed it off? Oh, a bunch of things. On the music scene, emerging genres like punk rock, disco, new wave, heavy metal, and even rap (remember that "Rapper's Delight" came out in 1979) all took turns making jazz, swing, and crooning look positively obsolete. In movies, nerds like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas rose up with whiz-bang, special-effects-driven sci-fi epics which relied less on old-fashioned star power to sell tickets. In comedy, newcomers like Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman brought ironic detachment to the game, while George Carlin and Richard Pryor tested the boundaries of what could be said on stage in public. On TV, family sitcoms, once a bastion of wholesomeness, got grungier and more controversial (thanks to Norman Lear), while traditional variety shows were gradually phased out in favor of the sharper, often nastier National Lampoon-inspired humor of Saturday Night Live.

The last bastions of what I call "real show business," at least on television, were The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast and Jerry Lewis' annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Of course, Dino and Jerry had been a boffo socko comedy team, stars of stage and screen, in the 1950s before their acrimonious, greed-and-ego-fueled breakup in 1956, right in the middle of the Eisenhower years. Though they went their separate ways, Martin and Lewis stayed true to their established images for decades. Neither strayed far from the Las Vegas school of pseudo-hipness, right down to the tuxedos, the martinis, and the thoroughly Brylcreemed hair. The British Invasion and the subsequent counterculture of the 1960s didn't seem to affect them in the least. They were who they were, for better or worse.

Dean roasted his showbiz pals until 1984, then kicked the bucket in 1995. Jerry's still around, but for how much longer? This is the first Labor Day in my lifetime without a telethon. The MDA finally had enough of his politically-anti-correct rants and gave him the boot in 2010. The telethon limped on without him for a few years -- helmed, I think, by Ryan Seacrest or Carson Daly or some other lobotomized eunuch nonentity -- but was finally put out of its misery. Of course, one could say that the MDA telethon was a tasteless, exploitative spectacle which did more harm than good for people with muscular dystrophy. Indeed, many with MD hated the show. But I'll always retain some fond memories of this truly odd TV ritual, if only for infamous moments like the time in '76 when Frank Sinatra orchestrated a surprise reunion between Martin and Lewis, live on the air. As one TV critic put it: "Dean looked drunk, and Jerry looked like he was ready to kill."