Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fizzies (drink)

Wikipedia Entry

Fizzies In general, soft drinks are developed by soft drink companies.  Fizzies was a soft drink developed by a drug company. 

Fizzies were developed by Lem Billings, a chemist.  He probably got his inspiration from Alka-Seltzer, which came in a tablet the effervesced when dropped in water*  Billings developed a tablet that did the same thing -- but turned into a fruit-flavored carbonated soft drink.  The product was introduced by the Emerson Drug Company and eventually bought and marketed nationally by Warner Lambert.

Fizzies came in six main flavors:  orange, cherry, grape, lemon-lime, strawberry, and root beer.**  Each package contained eight tablets.  You'd just drop them into a glass of water and you'd have an instant soft drink.

At least, that was how they were supposed to work.  The problem was that the tablet was not big enough to flavor a full glass of water***.  So, as a kid, you'd drop a tablet into the water and watch it fizz and color the water, but it tasted only vaguely of fruit and the carbonation lasted about 30 seconds after the tablet dissolved.  Sometimes you'd drop in two tablets in the hope of actually getting some flavor out of it; that rarely worked.  Occasionally, on a dare, a kid would put a tablet in his mouth to see what happened.  I never did, but I suspect the result would have been similar to Zotz -- only 20-fold.

Part of it was probably due to one of the things the bragged about in their ads:  Fizzies had no sugar.  Instead, it used saccharine and cyclamates to flavor it.  I would say the chemical taste was a turn off, but I really don't recall much taste at all.

Here is a look at a Fizzies ad, though the one I remember was an on-air plug by Shari Lewis who talked about a boy who had some Fizzies in his bathing suit.  When he went swimming, it was the day Lake Michigan became superior.  The pun was about as good as the drink.

Fizzies died out in the 70s as kids finally caught on, and were probably killed when cyclamates were banned.  It seems to be available online, its sales fueled by nostalgia and selective memory.  Still, there is something great about the concept of soda-in-a-pill, even if it never matched its expectations.

*The chemicals in Alka-Seltzer that cause the fizz are just baking soda and citric acid; the actual medicine has nothing to do with the carbonation.

**Cola was occasionally added as a flavor.

***At least, not the size shown on the commercials.  Compare the size of the glass where the tablet is dropped (along with the fact that some of the bubbles are animated to make it seem more effervescent) with that the clown drinks from.  Back then, of course, it was considered fair play to do anything in a commercial to make the product look better.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Flying Lizards (Music)

The Flying Lizards (1979-1984)
David Cunningham, Deborah Evans
Wikipedia Entry

Back in the late 70s, there were two main new visions for new music. One -- punk rock -- was a revolt against sophistication in music, trying to put rock back to its primal roots.  The other -- New Wave -- was far vaguer in its definition, but leaned toward more sophisticated and artistics versions of songs.  And on the fringes of both were groups like The Flying Lizards.

David Cunningham was a record producer with an interest in the avant garde.  He started fooling around with doing covers of classic rock songs with very minimalist instrumentation, and a weird vocal -- more talk than song -- by Deborah Evans.  Their first attempt, Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" seemed to have nothing but a drum track and various electronic sound effects.  The song didn't do much, but their next attempt, Barrett Strong's "Money" hit pay dirt.

The song was a minor hit.  The bizarre minimalism* coupled with the monotone vocals, made a song that you either turned off immediately, or which grabbed your attention.  The song got to be #5 in the UK, and came close to making the top 40 in the US, but was a mainstay on the progressive rock stations of the era.

The group was signed to do the two singles, but naturally an album was produced.  It just barely charted.  The Flying Lizards name continued, with Cunningham's avant garde music, but even though critically acclaimed, it did poorly commercially.  Cunningham went back to production and folded the project.

While slightly more successful and somewhat less weird than the Anemic Boyfriend, the Flying Lizards was one of the odder delights of the New Wave era.
*Even down to the production costs:  Cunningham claimed the recording only cost £20 to record, a ridiculously small sum.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Diver Dan (TV)

Created by J. Anthony Ferlaine
Frank Freda, Suzanne Turne, Allen Swift
Wikipedia Entry

Children's TV in the 50s and 60s was weird, partly because it was made on the cheap.  Cartoons were considered too expensive,* so quite a lot of shows used puppets or other odd techniques.**  And one that always seemed very odd to my eight-year-old eyes as Diver Dan.

Diver Dan was much like Roger Ramjeta short cartoon marketed to children's shows around the country.  But Diver Dan wasn't a cartoon; it was live action with a combination of puppets and people.

The show was about talking fish.  Diver Dan (Frank Freda) discovered them while exploring and helped out with their adventures.  In addition to Dan, there was Minerva the Mermaid (Suzanne Turner), who the various fish -- Finley Haddock, Doc Sturgeon, Georgie Porgie and many others (most voiced by Allen Swift) -- would turn to for advice against the nefarious schemes of Baron Barracuda and his henchman, Trigger. 

The plots were all very simple, and the Baron was about a threatening as a ladybug.  One interested effect was that the show was shot through an aquarium, so you would see various live fish swimming into the picture as well as the aquarium bubbles.  Dan wore an old-fashioned (even for its time) diving helmet, which obscured his face.***

I noticed one thing right off when I watched the show:  for a title character Diver Dan got very little screen time.  The show concentrated mostly on the fish and the Baron.  And the marionettes didn't look all that impressive.  It was tough to keep them from wobbling, even though the only part of them that moved was their mouths.

Here's an example:

The stories were all about the Baron trying to do something mildly nasty, and being thwarted by the other fish, with the advice of Dan and Minerva. His most notable characteristic was an exchange between him and Trigger:

Trigger:  What should we do, boss?
Baron: Call me Baron, stupid.
Trigger: OK, Baron Stupid.

This was repeated every episode, with some variation.  It was probably a big hit with the target audience.

Like many of these shows, the history is sketchy.  It was certainly shown in the New York area, and in outlets around the country in the early 60s and, as stations went from home-grown kid's shows to network versions, the market dried up.**** Diver Dan was quickly forgotten, except in the memories of its fans.

*Until Jay Ward showed the way.

**Like the exceedingly bizarre Synchro-vox animation used in Clutch Cargo and Space Angel.

***In the early episodes, you could see his face pretty well, but as time went on, it looked more and more like a faceless helmet.  Dan also got less screen time.

****Of course, the episodes were rerun constantly, since kids weren't bothered by it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Anderson Tapes

image (1971)
Directed by
Sidney Lumet
Screenplay by Frank Pierson from a novel by Lawrence Saunders
Starring Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Christopher Walken, Ralph Meeker, Alan King.
IMDB Entry

In Memory of Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet is known as a top director of message films starting in the 1950s.  Coming out of TV, he made his mark with 12 Angry Men and went on to direct things like The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, Serpico, Prince of the City, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, and other films with strong social messages, often set in New York City.  Though the films are rightly praised, I tend to find that his message came off as heavy-handed, often sacrificing the plots and characters to it.*

One exception to this was The Anderson Tapes, a case where he managed to keep the message out of the spotlight, so that it had far more power than when the audience is constantly reminded of it.

The Anderson Tapes is a caper film.  Duke Anderson (Sean Connery) is released from prison and plans one big job:  the robbery of an entire apartment building in one day.  He gathers a gang, but needs financing, which comes in the form of Mafia kingpin Pat Angelo (Alan King), who wants Anderson to take care of a little problem he's been having.

But there's one thing Anderson doesn't know:  all the planning for the crime, from start to finish, is overheard as various people eavesdrop on various people. 

The trick, like any caper film, is building suspense, and this is suspense in the pure Hitchcock definition.**  By all rights, the plan should have been nipped in the bud.  The question is who will realize what's going on?

Connery at the time was a top movie star, and clearly welcomed the chance for a meaty role that had nothing to do with James Bond.  And the cast list practically guaranteed great performances.***  And Lumet's point was never made more deftly:  the growth in surveillance that had already become a concern in 1970s.****

The film was made cheaply and was well regarded, but not up to the level of Lumet's other films and Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon overshadowed it.  But I think that The Anderson Tapes is one of his most successful films.

* I agree, for instance, with the critic who reviewed The Verdict and said the one thing most obvious to him was how terrible a lawyer Paul Newman's character was (even after he gave up drinking and became the hero).

**Hitchcock defined suspense as when the audience know the hero is in danger, but the hero does not.

*** Minor roles went to Margaret "Wicked Witch of the West" Hamilton (her last film role) and Garret Morris (before SNL).

****In many ways, it was a precursor to The Conversation, one of Francis Ford Coppola's best.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown (1997)
Written and directed by
Quentin Tarantino
From the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard
Starring Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Michael Bowen.
IMDB Entry

Quentin Tarantino burst on the movie scene with Reservoir Dogs and quickly laid claim to being one of the top film directors of his time.  It was one of the greatest writer-director debuts* in history and when he was given a Hollywood budget, the result was Pulp Fiction, a great film on all levels.  His over-the-top violence and ear for dialog, as well as his way of getting great performances, showed him as a major talent.  Since then, the Kill Bill movies were masterpieces, and Inglourious Basterds was a fascinating piece of of a combination of war film and alternative history.

But Jackie Brown, which followed Pulp Fiction, tends to be overlooked.  It is the least typical of his films -- slower paced, with far less graphic violence than anything else -- but it is as good as any of his others.

Jackie (Pam Grier) is a stewardess for a low-budget Mexican airline who makes ends meet by smuggling drugs for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson).  Jackie gets caught by agents Ray Nicholette (Michael Keaton) and Mark Dugas (Michael Bowen) and send her to jail.  Robbie arranges her bail from bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and the tale of double cross and twisty plotting begins.  Also involved are Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda), a bubble-brained "surfer girl," and the slightly psychotic Louis Gara (Robert DiNiro), Robbie's old cell mate.

The  movie's clever plot plays out with all sorts of surprises, but the center is the relationship between Jackie and Max.  They are two of a kind -- both world weary and beaten down, but, perhaps, still someone romantic underneath.  It's one things that Tarantino doesn't usually deal with:  tenderness.

Pam Grier is perfect as Jackie -- strong, willful, and clever.  She had previously made her mark in Blaxploitation films of the 70s** and she was on no one's list of great film actresses prior to this.  It was a revelation to see her here. And Forster was never able to click as a movie or TV star, despite some decent roles; this is also his best.

The rest of the cast is as good as you can expect them to be.***

The film was clearly a success, but, for some reason, the movie is often forgotten when Tarantino's name comes up.  Maybe it's because it's a more narrow genre than his other films, or that there's less violence, or that it has a deliberately leisurely pace.  But it's one more milestone in a great director's career.

*I'd include it with Citizen Kane, The Great McGinty, The Maltese Falcon, and Clerks. While it's not up to the greatness of Kane, it, like the others, indicated as gigantic talent had arrived on the scene fully formed.

**The movie has many homages to both her work and the genre.

***Micheal Keaton liked the character of Ray Nicholette so much that he portrayed him again in the unrelated Out of Sight, also from a novel by Leonard.