TV Review: DC Cupcakes: County Fair

The auction (Courtesy of TLC)

Article first published as TV Review: DC Cupcakes: County Fair on Blogcritics.

Critical ethics requires that I declare my bias before proceeding. I am a Washington native who has walked by the block-long lines at Georgetown Cupcakes and on more than one occasion directed would-be patrons to superior cupcake shops in walking distance (read: any other bakery in Georgetown).

Baked and Wired has been making pastries on Thomas Jefferson street since 2001. Their dense, generous cupcakes are my favorite in town, and if that much cakey goodness is too much for you, have a hand pie instead. Baked and Wired is just a five minute walk from the belles of the cupcake ball.

Sprinkles, which claims to have been the originator of the modern cupcake craze, opened their Georgetown store a stone’s throw from Baked and Wired a few years ago. They’re a solid second in the neighborhood cupcake wars. The most popular are my least favorite.

Which leaves us with Georgetown Cupcakes, who make tiny, cloying baubles whose popularity confounds me. I’ve always wondered what it is about their TLC reality show that draws so many people to their doors. I just watched DC Cupcakes for the first time, and I am still at a loss.

Sisters Sophie and Katherine quit high-paying jobs in finance and fashion to chase their dream of making cupcakes. It sounds like a good old fashioned American success story, but this is no rags-to-riches tale. TLC presents Georgetown Cupcakes as a small business done good, but forgive me if I’m not that compelled to follow entrepreneurs who can afford to rent space in Washington’s tony Georgetown district. This is not a classic American dream but the dream of Americans with the luxury to leave a cushy job to capitalize on a trend.

It would be one thing if the sisters were appealing, but as far as reality show likability factor is concerned, Sophie and Katherine, with a vapid factor off the charts, barely out perform Honey Boo Boo and family in personality.

Sure, conceptually it sounds like a no-brainer, in a good way. Imagine businesswoman sisters competing in a hay-bale throwing contest at a county fair. It could be the kind of fish out of water story that fuels a hundred sitcom episodes. But to paraphrase Sophie, “OMG!” it’s just painfully annoying.

This year DC Cupcakes have a special Valentine’s program on TLC: County Fair. There are two threads of Americana which lure in the sisters’ cupcake craft: the sisters are charged with creating a giant pig out of one thousand cupcakes for the Loudon County Fair; and with developing a historically inspired cupcake for an event in Colonial Williamsburg.

Spending an hour in either venue would make for a passable hour of fluffy semi-documentary television. Unfortunately, the presence of the sisters’ grating personality and questionable culinary design ideas (Daisy Duke jean shorts on a cupcake pig) ruins it. Their emphasis on fondant is a bad sign of a focus on looks over taste. Which is why theirs are the worst cupcake in Georgetown. Is the nation so starved for celebrity and sugar that they wait in Communist-length cupcake lines to pay homage to such scions of vanity? If only Werner Herzog would train his eye on Georgetown Cupcakes and frame the sisters’ fondant-frosted business as a losing battle against nature and true Americana.

Premieres Thursday, February 14 at 7 PM (ET/PT) on TLC


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Photobook review: Photo Journalism (Getty Images), edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson

Article first published as Book Review: Photo Journalism (Getty Images), Edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson on Blogcritics.

This week’s big news story for pop culture aficionados was the appearance of a newly verified photo of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. The image is only the third verified photo of this elusive figure, who as the story goes sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the talent that made him a musical icon. If anybody’s name should lead that headline it should be Johnson’s. But at least one photo industry report led not with the image’s subject, but with a name that has become, for better or worse, synonymous with images – and image licensing: Getty.

Verification controversy aside, Getty Images is one of the main providers of digital images. Not any specific kind of images, but simply images, and the breadth that such generality suggests is daunting. It means pictures from the latest Hollywood product to stock images as mundane as an artfully prepared double bacon cheeseburger, but also editorial images which over the years have defined the news.

We live in a conflicted age of image making. On the one hand, more images than ever are experienced in bits and bytes, on a computer screen or a smartphone. On the other, we live in a golden age of the photo book, where more and more excellent monographs are presented in ways that further not only the art of photography but the art of the book. Into this environment walks a massive 800-page tome. 

Photo Journalism (Getty Images), edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson for h.f. ullman , is arranged chronologically and by themes like Revolutions, Entertainment, the Third Reich and the Role of Women. From the arrival of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, to the appalling images that came out of Abu Ghraib; from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse, Getty has it. This doorstopper of a photo book samples nearly two centuries of newsmakers as featured in the vast coffers of Getty Images. 

The book has the kind of structure useful in a reference book. But even though I am a voracious consumer of images and photo books, Photo Journalism feels dry and somehow unsurprising. The publishers tried to squeeze too many images into crowded layouts. Given the format, which isn’t as massive, as, say, Taschen’s excellent London: Portrait of a City, it would have been better to use fewer images in layouts that allowed those images to dominate a page spread. The book seems tailored to an internet attention-span, but is too unwieldy to comfortably explore the way one can effortlessly browse a web site.

I wish there had been some way to tackle the collection with more serendipity -an app that pulls up a random image for the viewer would be a way to be continually surprised by the breadth of this collection. The determined photography lover will certainly find arresting images in Photo Journalism, but more than likely the clunky format will send them looking for a better presentation of the image — online.

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Photobook Review: Wolfgang Tillmans. Neue Welt

Courtesy of Taschen

Courtesy of Taschen

Article first published as Book Review: Neue Welt by Wolfgang Tillmans on Blogcritics.

A picture is worth a thousand words,  so the old saying goes, but words can say something too. The title of Wolfgang Tillmans’ new monograph, his fourth book for Taschen, doesn’t say enough. Neither do the pictures.

Wolfgang Tillmans. Neue Welt  (New Work) is a seemingly generic title. A long interview with Tillmans by Beatrix Ruf coaxes meaning from these brief syllables, finding resonance with a 1928 monograph by Albert Renger-Patzsch, The World is Beautiful. Tillmans expounds at length about digital versus analog photography and simply regards the digital camera as a different tool, the higher resolution a reflection of the higher resolution of a highly stimulated world. But his summation of this phase in his career could be said by any other photographer: he’s “trying out what the camera can do for me, what I can do for it.”

The images selected for Neue Welt reflect a wide subject range but little depth. Portraits from exotic lands, Family of Man-style images of humanity, are juxtaposed with cold details of cars, sinister banality a la John Gossage, and intermittent abstractions. Color blocks and starlit night skies seem to set up a concept that this New Work encompasses everything. What does it all add up to? The scope of Tillman’s work is ordinary but brings all these images no matter the subject into the same continuum, as if he is channeling all the different schools of the history of photography.

It’s an admirable concept but also unfocused. Neue Welt suggests new eyes, the eyes of a human being trying to take in all manner of stimulus and creating order and sense and meaning out of it. But while I am a fan of the banal school of photography placing these images in context with human faces does not elevate the banality so much as bring down the humanity to a banal level – it’s just another image, whether it’s in Tasmania or London.

Tillmans has recently presented his images in galleries as unframed prints hung flat from gallery walls. Perhaps this is a commentary on the way art consumers expect to have art framed and contextualized, but it’s also comes off as lazy. Tillmans is clearly a hard working, globe trotting image maker, and that his New Work seems lazy could be a reflection on his aesthetic or on the over stimulated world that he embraces and critiques.

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The year in movies: 2012

Once Upon a time in Anatolia

Once Upon a time in Anatolia

I wrote full reviews of 70 current release films this year. Read my top ten list for DCist.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
The Amazing Spider-man
The Avengers
The Bay
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Bigfoot County (Blogcritics)
Cabin in the Woods
The Campaign
Casa de mi Padre
Cloud Atlas
The Dark Knight Rises
Dark Shadows
The Dictator
Django Unchained
Don’t stop believin’: Everyman’s Journey
Hope springs
Hunger Games
The Hunter
The Imposter
I Wish
Jack Reacher
The Kid with a Bike
Killing them Softly
Klown (for Blogcritics)
The Lady
Little white lies
The Long Day Closes
The Master
Mirror Mirror
Monsieur Lazhar
Moonrise Kingdom
Norwegian Wood
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Oslo, August 31
Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding
The Perks of Being a wallflower
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
The Queen of Versailles
The Raid: Redemption
Rust and Bone
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Searching for Sugar Man
Seeking a friend for the end of the world
Sleepwalk with me
Step up revolution
Take this waltz
That’s My Boy
This is Not a Film
To Rome with Love
Total recall
The Turin Horse
Turn Me on, Dammit! and Snow White and the Huntsman
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2
Two days in New York
We Need to Talk about Kevin
Whores’ Glory
The Words

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DVD Review: When Horror came to Shochiku (The Criterion Collection)

The X From Outer Space

The X From Outer Space

Article first published as DVD Review: When Horror Came to Shochiku – The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

The 1954 Godzilla (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]  ushered in a new age of monster movies, and not just for Japan. But its success, both commercially and artistically, was in part tempered by history, coming less than a decade after Hiroshima. The specter of nuclear annihilation gives Gojira its air of stark hopelessness, in an efficiently horrific package that is enshrined in cinema history. Godzilla’s children are perhaps less lucky, as a recent entry in the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series indicates. Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku (The X from Outer Space; Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell; The Living Skeleton; Genocide) (Criterion Collection) looks at a quartet of films produced by a studio that moved from melodrama to monsters, with decidedly mixed results.

The X From Outer Space begins promisingly enough with a swinging soundtrack, and charming shots of astronauts bouncing in zero gravity. But the monster, affectionately known as giant poultry, screams in an unfocussed rage. I realize it sounds silly to criticize a Japanese monster for not having enough motivation, but motivation, suggested and implied, was part of what made Godzilla so frightening. X simply hatches and screams, avoiding the thanksgiving dinner table.

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell, fares better, but like X it feels longer than its short 84 minute running time, despite the strange vision of what has been called the vaginal wounds that the monster inflicted upon its victims.

The Living Skeleton

The Living Skeleton

The best of the set veers from radiated super-creatures to a tale of straightforward supernatural revenge. The Living Skeleton follows the horrific slaughter of passengers and crew on The Dragon King, a freighter ship that comes back to haunt the murderous pirates that sent it to the bowels of the sea. It’s the only black and white film in the set, and the monochrome cinematography gives it a more elegant look, but however elegant the photography, there’s no way of shooting the flying bat motif that wouldn’t look delightfully cheesy.

The B-movie stock company that populates these films gives one the sense that there are characters doomed to wander different visions of the apocalypse. A victim of Goke becomes a doctor in Genocide, which also brings back a blonde astronaut from the same film to become a mad scientist in a bikini. This film takes the most direct look at Hiroshima, pitting the insect world in battle with humanity as a revenge for the specter of nuclear annihilation. As a picture of a post-nuclear society, When Horror Came to Shochiku is perhaps more interesting as a whole than in its parts. The individual titles have moments of B-movie bliss and/or historical interest, but only The Living Skeleton really satisfies as a movie.

As with other Criterion Eclipse sets, the DVDs do not include extra features or commentary, but the transfers are uniformly excellent.

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DVD Review: Bigfoot County

Oct-NFMLA-BigfootCounty-001Article first published as DVD Review: Bigfoot County on Blogcritics.

Since the Paterson-Gimlin footage of an apparently B-cupped Bigfoot in 1967, the cryptozoological creature has starred in a shelf-full of B-movies, some of them entertaining, very few of them worth a second look. My very first article for Blogcritics covered a quartet of Sasquatchian features, which offered a smattering of the kind of hairy charms that redeem bad movies, most prominent being “You’re just a sensuous tiger,” the incongruously funky number in the middle of The Capture Of Bigfoot. The song’s keening guitar riff and pulsating beat conveyed the speed and power of everybody’s favorite humanoid monster as well as the swaying heat of a late 1970s cabin party. The beast also inspired a briefly-lived Saturday morning television show in Bigfoot and Wildboy, a lesser product in the C.V. of Sid and Marty Kroft which nevertheless had an appealing minimalist aesthetic.

This brings us to Lionsgate Entertainment’s Bigfoot County, which opens with the iconic Paterson-Gimlin footage and devolves steadily from there. Lionsgate is a name associated with big-budget entertainment like The Hunger Games and the Twilight franchise, and while those may not be the pinnacle of cinematic art, they’re at the very least adequate. The same cannot be said of Bigfoot County .

The directorial debut of actor Stephon Stewart, whose resume as an actor includes bit parts on soap operas and a few independent shorts, follows in the contemporary tradition of the found footage horror film. As the story goes, a documentary filmmaker (Stewart) takes his crew to California’s Siskiyou County, home to the largest number of Bigfoot sightings in the world. Vapid dialogue and annoying characters whose death you quickly long for aside, this is a promising concept. As an aficionado of Bigfootiana, I was happy to catch a glimpse of the minor tourist trade that has grown around these supposed sightings.

There is one decent performance among the talking heads interviewed for this pseudo documentary: character actor Sam Ayers as the bible-thumping Travis deserves better B-movies than this.  Most of the movie is amateurish even beyond the conventions of found footage horror.  The cast and crew’s wanderings through the California woods contain nods to the Blair Witch Project and Deliverance but fail to make us interested in the hunt, much less in the hunters. When the creature finally appears with its glowing red-eyes, it recalls a superior boring Bigfoot movie, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall his Past Lives. I wasn’t caught up in that Bigfoot movies slow reverie either, but I’d rather see it again than spend another second in Bigfoot County.

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DVD Review: Hanna-Barbera Christmas Classics Collection

A Christmas Story (1971)

A Christmas Story (1971)

Article first published as DVD Review: Hanna-Barbera Christmas Classics Collection on Blogcritics.

Christmas specials can be a cash cow for the television producer, the right ingredients having the potential to generate year after year of ad revenue with no need to generate new material. But the list of canonical holiday entertainment made for television is not deep: after  A Charlie Brown Christmas and the better Rankin Bass programs, and countless iterations of Dickens, what do you have left? Do you ever wonder what happened to the forgotten Christmas special of yesteryear? Warner Archive digs deep into studio coffers to unearth lesser-known gems, but in the case of the Hanna-Barbera Christmas Classics Collection , there may be good reason these have not become holiday perennials.

The set consists of three programs spanning from 1971 to 1993, each of them justifiably relegated to the dark shadows of Christmas past.  The 1971 A Christmas Story bears no relation to Bob Clark’s 1983 classic. It’s a not so amazing animal adventure where hound dog Goober (voiced by ventriloquist Paul Winchell) and mouse Gumdrop (Daws Butler) try to deliver a boy’s letter to Santa to the North Pole. Facing dreary weather conditions and feline adversity, the beastly task is left unfulfilled but somehow Christmas is saved, with no discernible message to the kids and a couple of forgettable original songs added to the soundtrack.

I felt kind of sorry for A Christmas Story,  a veritable Charlie Brown Christmas tree of holiday specials, unloved and hidden in studio vaults for four decades, and old-fashioned product hopelessly out of touch with ceontemporary standards of good writing and strong production values. But no amount of tinsel and ornaments could gussy it up into a beloved story, and I felt no such sympathy for the remaining specials on the collection.

The Town Santa Forgot (1993), narrated by Dick Van Dyke, has a good message for the kids: don’t be greedy. But the unpleasant story it tells of a boy who writes Santa a wish list half a mile long is tedious and lacking in joy, its redemption completely unfelt.

Lastly, Casper’s First Christmas (1979) is an all-star endeavor, bringing together the ghost of a dead boy with a cast of Hanna Barbera’s marquee stars of the day: Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, Quick-Draw McGraw, Snagglepuss, and other second tier characters. They share a musical number together. It’s not pretty.

‘Tis the season for giving. In the spirit of the true meaning of this holiday, please do not consider giving these to someone you love, and avoid the near occasion of the Hallmark Channel.

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