Sunday, September 30, 2007

5 Question Movie Review: 3:10 to Yuma

Q: Is it better or worse than the original?
A: Sacrilege Alert: I think this Yuma actually surpasses the well-regarded 1957 version. It's darker and edgier--which doesn't always equal "better," but in this case takes advantage of the more permissive modern standards to create a more affecting experience. This nastier, more brutal film is also deeper and more credible.

Q: What kind of new spin does James Mangold put on this version?
He makes a more brutal, scarier film, for one thing, with outlaw Ben Wade far more threatening--and graphically so. Stylistically, he chooses to rely on frequent extreme close-ups to ratchet up the tension. I don't think it always works, but it does provide distinction. Also, while the 1957 adaptation of this Elmore Leonard story featured a lot of clock-watching and a lot of sitting around (though not uninteresting sitting around), the remake eschews some of that but builds more suspense in other areas. For example, rancher Dan Evans' teenage son plays a much larger role, which adds to the stake. But more effectively, Mangold amplifies the moral questions of the story. The director does a superb job of pacing the film while stripping away Evans' reasons to do his job--making it increasingly a matter of doing the right thing.

Q: Well, how do Crowe and Bale stack up against Glenn Ford and Van Heflin?
Heflin may be one of the more underrated performers from the golden days of Hollywood, and he excelled in 1957 at playing the beaten-down, struggling rancher Dan Evans. But Bale makes the character his own and matches Heflin. In the role of the outlaw Ben Wade, Crowe far surpasses Ford. The tricky blend of charismatic charm and shocking brutality just comes more naturally to Crowe in this setting--and I don't mean that as a knock on Ford, but praise for Crowe, who stands out once again as a man's man in an era littered with failed pretty-boy "leading men." The chemistry between Crowe and Bale is excellent--a crucial factor in a story that puts them as adversaries and partners at various points.

Q: Why don't we see more Westerns on the big screen?
A: Good question. They can't all be as good as Yuma, but I'd like to see more people try. Sorry to pick on another genre, fans, but I'd rather see more Westerns than cheapo slasher flicks. But the cheapo slasher flicks are often quite cost-effective, and I guess studios fear that oaters skew too old to get the young'uns into the theaters and buying the DVDs.

Q: So you really liked this one. Should we just junk the original?
A: No, the 1957 version still stands as a solid Western drama. Lest you think I'm saying the remake is perfect, let me point out one misstep: There is a cameo by a prominent actor at a key point, and that actor is about the last one I expected to see. I was surprised to see him, and I won't give it away, but if you look far down the IMDB listing, you'll find him. He wasn't bad, exactly, but his presence was a brief but unfortunate distraction in a movie that was otherwise stuffed with perfectly cast actors who absorbed their period characters and left vivid impressions. In particular, Ben Foster is amazing as Wade's sadistic second-in-command.

Let me also address the ending, which has brought this movie heat in some circles. Parts of the finale defy credibility. However, this was true of the original, too. In each version, there comes a moment of truth when a big decision is made, and I have a hard time buying it in each. But I think in the 1957 edition, the ending was so out of character it robbed the film of much of its emotional impact. This time out, the ending justifies the time given to the moral questions raised in the preceding two hours or so.

This Week in DVD

Thoughts on some of this past Tuesday's notable DVD releases:

KNOCKED UP: Judd Apatow is now widely considered the reigning Comedy God of the Multiplex, and while that may not be a great thing, it has at least taken the title away from the inconsistent Will Ferrell. I didn't get around to seeing it this summer, but it's on tap for me as a rental. You get some laughs, some raunch, and maybe best of all, you get Emmy-award-winning Katherine Heigl without having to sit through those whiny hospital friends she hangs out with on Thursdays.

BUG: William Friedkin directs this psychological disturber about two people who begin to feel increasingly claustrophobic, with no hope or chance for escape from the demons plaguing them. Kind of like how I felt while listening to Friedkin's commentary on the DVD of "The Narrow Margin."

NEXT: As on the MTV show of the same name, the public voted almost instantaneously to evict this sci-fi nonstarter from theaters. It'll probably be long forgotten on video, too, by the time Nicolas Cage's National Treasure 2 comes out. Next!

MICKEY ROONEY AND JUDY GARLAND COLLECTION: Sure, you may prefer Andy Hardy Mick or Codger Mick or, if you've seen "Bill," Retarded Mick. I'm more a fan of those Micks than the pure "Let's put on a show" Mick of these musical collaborations with Judy. But, damn it, it's still the Mickster, and you have to respect the Mickster.

UNTOUCHABLES SEASON 1 PART 2 AND STREETS OF SAN FRAN SEASON 1 PART 2: Paramount is at least getting these shows out there, but with their ripoff split season policy, fans should be able to get the complete series of each by, what, 2011? Don't fans of any show get a complete series release?

WHAT ABOUT BRIAN: THE COMPLETE SERIES: No, this isn't what I mean! The complete series of this is on shelves everywhere, while one of the greatest sitcoms ever, Sgt. Bilko, got one set of a few dozen episodes. There is truly no justice in the DVD world.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Brooks on Books: A Baseball Doubleheader

Yes, I do read stuff other than baseball books, and you'll discover that soon enough, but today I want to share some thoughts on a few diamond-centric tones I recently enjoyed. After all, we have to remember that, yes, football's back, but baseball ain't over yet, bucko.

Is This a Great Game or What? By Tim Kurkjian:

I expected a memoir by this current ESPN "Baseball Tonight" talking head and longtime journalist. Actually, though, there was very little of his childhood or private life, a little bit more in the way of personal anecdotes, and mostly a breezy but entertaining mix of trivia and funny stories. The common thread throughout is how great baseball is and why it is so much better than any other sport, and his stories and info back that claim well.

I sped right through this one and enjoyed it the whole way. His admittedly dorky persona only made it funnier to read him use the f-word--even if it was only quoting another player--and mentioning how ex-manager and ex-"Baseball Tonight" analyst Bobby Valentine used to fart on the set. I would have liked a little more detail on "Baseball Tonight" behind the scenes as it's one of my favorite shows, but what he has here is pretty good. I mean, hey--farting!

Ball Four by Jim Bouton:
It was a reread for me of this classic diary account of veteran pitcher Bouton's 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots (later the Milwaukee Brewers) and the Astros (after a midseason trade). This book was extremely controversial both inside baseball (simply for breaking "the code of the locker room" and revealing so many conversations and antics of players in "their" domain) and outside baseball (for exposing things like rampant amphetamine use, rampant looking up the skirts of women in the stands, and other not-so-wholesome National Pastimes in which players indulge).

A writer helped Bouton edit down his diaries and--presumably--polish the diaries. Many of the entries seem a little too sharp, with a little too much perspective, to be spontaneous. But maybe I am being biased against jocks. Still, I find the book essentially genuine and extremely entertaining. Bouton's candid insights illuminate all sorts of aspects of baseball and the life of a professional athlete, from topics like what pitchers think about on the mound to the logistical problems that face a traded athlete when he has a wife and kids to worry about.

But maybe the most striking aspect of the book is how it exposes the essentially conservative nature of the sport. I don't mean politically--although there is that in, for example, the way Bouton's teammates who wear their hair below their necks are eyed with suspicion--but just the fundamentally resistant-to-change, old-school nature of the institutions of the game. There is such a group-think mentality that comes through in this book that it's quickly apparent why Bouton would be scorned for writing a book. Hell, players, especially in 1969, but by no means limited to those days of yore, are scorned for READING a book. This is interesting not just from a sports standpoint, but from a sociological standpoint, as you see how someone like Bouton (a man with leftist politics, an intellectual curiosity about the world, and a willingness to challenge established norms) tries to fit into a culture that encourages conformity for both professional and social reasons. Again, it's not just political. Even something apparently as simple as getting permission to throw more during games to get practice is a big deal as Bouton has to jump through hoops to do anything that goes outside his coaches' standard operating procedures.

Also recommended if you can find it: Bouton's 1971 follow-up, again edited by Leonard Shecter, "I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally," in which he discusses his entry into broadcasting as well as reaction to "Ball Four." This book is much shorter and doesn't have the same impact, but it's almost as entertaining and a must-read for fans.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fall TV 2007: Cultureshark's Endorsements

As the new Fall Network Television season really gets going the next several weeks, it's time to reveal the returning shows I am endorsing. Mind you, I have not seen THIS season's episodes, but I base my recommendations on past seasons and a confidence that things won't dive south this year.

How I Met Your Mother (Mondays, CBS):
Consistently funny and quotable, and even though the lead character often annoys (even when he's not being voiced in the future by Bob Saget), the rest are stellar, and Neil Patrick Harris' Barney is one of the best characters on network TV right now. The scripts often go up to the edge of cloying but stop short, and there is always a danger of this show becoming too self-aware for its own good. But why worry about that? The networks spent years and tons of bucks trying to clone Friends. This isn't a clone, but it is the logical successor. For the first two seasons, it was cool that this was sort of under the radar but still delivering the funny; now it's time for everyone to get on board, appreciate this sucker, and get those ratings up so we get more.

Heroes (NBC):
This one took some heat for its "disappointing" season one finale, yet throughout its entire freshman season, Heroes reminded certain other serialized dramas with fantasy elements that it IS possible to resolve storylines and keep the saga moving forward while stoking anticipation for future events. Sure, Heroes has its ridiculous moments, and some plots and characters work better than others, but it's something that not enough shows remember to be: fun. While this is the kind of program seemingly ripe for a fall, again, I won't worry about what COULD happen; I'll endorse this one based on the quality of last season.

Everybody Hates Chris (Mondays, The CW):
I believe this solid family sitcom is hurt by two things: Though it's exec-produced by Chris Rock, it's not Chris Rock's standup, and it's not on a real network. This show manages to have a certain charm without resorting to Very Special status every week (though it's not above loading up on Guest Stars). Chris' family is TV-wacky, of course, but it feels like a real enough unit, and Young Chris is one of the most appealing underdogs around. Anyone bemoaning the death of the traditional sitcom should check this one out, as apart from Rock's narration, it feels old-school, even including the surrealism the writers throw in at times.

Friday Night Lights (Fridays, NBC):
The media is trying one of its semi-regular Campaigns of Shame to get you to watch this. The fact that it's on Fridays may mean it's too late, but hopefully the DVD release of the astounding season one (and the accompanying laudatory reviews) did some good in getting the public to sample this one. It was the most addictive show on network TV last year, delivering week in and week out with its blend of soap opera, sports, and teen drama. I may have alienated half of you with those labels in that sentence. I'll shut up now. Just try the show.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

5 Question Movie Review: The Bourne Ultimatum

Q: Is the production of a third one of these justified by Ultimatum?
A: Well, "Ultimatum" is a solid movie, and it should please fans of the first two--especially fans of number two, since "Supremacy" director Paul Greengrass returns. Did we NEED this to be a trilogy? Not really. This effort is more of the same: more shaky camera, more chases, more scenes of people walking dramatically in crowded public places. No new ground is broken. But what we get here is a well-made action movie that pretty much delivers what it intends. It doesn't stay with you for long, but those two hours are a fun ride.

Q: So this is shot like "Supremacy" was? Hey, why is it when Paul Greengrass shoots a movie like this--handheld, jittery, disorienting, rapid-paced--it's fine filmmaking, but if someone else does it, it's "incoherent" or "MTV editing"?
A: Uh...hmm. Uh, because I said so?
Your point is well taken. The style can be irritating when used by lesser directors who don't take time to establish story parameters or who use the rapid visuals to disguise uninspired choreography or bad staging. Greengrass himself might overuse these techniques, but he really is a talented helmer who generally knows what he's doing.

Q: Who would win a fight: Stone Cold Matt Damon (Bourne Trilogy), Puppet Warrior Matt Damon (Team America), or Boy Genius Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting)?
A: We've seen Puppet Warrior Matt Damon get his wooden ass splintered, so rule him out. Boy Genius Matt Damon is clever, but he doesn't have the physical tools to win this battle without an assist from Big Buddy Ben Affleck. So the clear winner is Stone Cold--hey, wait a minute. TRICK QUESTION ALERT! The winner is Rannulph Jannuh Matt Damon, who would vanquish any foe with the help of Bagger Vance.
Matt Damon does get to kick some A in this film, though, and if you're looking for some intense close-in fight scenes, get ready to enjoy yourself.

Q: I gots to know, is there an underappreciated veteran actor in the cast to serve as the main CIA foil for Jason Bourne?
A: I got two words for you, pal: DAVID STRAITHAIRN. And if that name doesn't thrill you, well, you're not John Sayles.
Every Bourne flick needs that type of character, and Straithairn's Noah fits the bill here. But you also get good work from reliable returning vets like Joan Allen and Julia Stiles. Scott Glenn and Albert Finney are fine support in smaller roles. So Stone Cold Matt Damon doesn't have to carry the show entirely on his own.

Q: By now, we surely know everything about Jason Bourne...right?
A: Er, no. There is closure in a sense, but there are also tantalizing hints of other pieces of information that could be fleshed out in--you guessed it--a fourth movie. That seems inevitable given the box office success of this one, but creatively, they should go in a different direction. Bring back Jason Bourne, but give him something else to do besides cat and mouse with his former employer.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

This Week in DVD

Time to check out some of the notable discs that streeted this week:

Grindhouse Presents Death Proof: Remember how great that idea was a few months ago, recreating the original grindhouse experience by seeing a double feature? And remember what a deal it was when you got to see two movies for the price of one? Uh, it's payback time, as now each movie will cost twice as much as the price of a ticket, the two features aren't even coming out the same week, and you'll surely be asked to cough up again for a combo edition with extras not on the individual releases. Doesn't sound so much fun anymore, does it?

We Are Marshall: This is the kind of feel-good flick that makes you feel bad for criticizing it. Hey, I didn't see it, so I'm not gonna rip it, but it certainly wasn't a blockbuster success. On video, the story will still be sentimental, Marshall will still be Marshall, and McConaughey will still be McConaughey.

Superman: Doomsday: These DC animated efforts are always more inspired and entertaining than the Marvel efforts, so I'm looking forward to this adaptation of a famous Supes comic book saga. Something really bad happens to the Man of Steel here--not as bad as Bryan Singer getting his hands on him, but still really bad.

Lucky You: Curtis Hanson's long-delayed poker movie went bust faster than I did last time I played Hold 'Em, and I'm no Phil Gordon.

The Condemned: WWE tries to make Steve Austin a movie star with this reworking of The Running Man. Not a terrible idea, but not one that generated a lot of heat for Stone Cold's Hollywood career. Maybe that Clifford Odets adaptation he's long dreamed of doing will do the trick.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Cultureshark Remembers Brett Somers

Brett Somers, who died at 83 this past weekend, always seemed like a "broad" to me. That word is a relic of a different time, perhaps, but she always seemed like the type that would relish that label--as long as she got to fire back a label or two at you.

Regards, of course, to her family, and regrets for their loss. But I am talking not about Brett Somers the human being--of whom I very know little--but of Brett Somers the TV personality.

Not that I know much more about the persona. I knew Somers mainly as Jack Klugman's real-life spouse and Blanche, Oscar's ex, on "The Odd Couple," until I got Game Show Network (back before it became too hip for anything except letters in its title) and relived many of the Match Game reruns I had passively absorbed as a kid. This Brett Somers was something else.

In fact, this Brett Somers was...kind of scary, really. She was the eccentric old lady who hung out with your grandmother (or maybe your oldest aunt), and while you didn't really see why they hung out, you somehow accepted it. Only, when she came over, you didn't quite know how to act around her. She was a little too loud and dressed a little too different. The cigarette smoke in the clothes and that hint of "the hard stuff" on the breath would be a bit of a barrier and only one of many indications that while she was friendly enough, she was undeniably an Adult and somewhat hard to fathom unless you were as old as she was.

Was Brett Somers ever younger than 40? Biologically speaking, she must have been, but seeing her in the 70s, it's hard to believe. She was sophisticated, but in an earthy way, and I don't mean there was anything particularly sexual or nonsexual about it. She was just who she was, and that was a little disturbing sometimes. Look at the way she harassed Charles Nelson Reilly, or the other panelists, or the contestants, or even the audience. She gave it back to the audience when they booed her, but she didn't seem to take it personally. Hey, she wasn't shy about piling it on when it was her turn.

If that reads like I'm knocking her, don't mistake me. She was never the funniest panelist on The Match Game, and I can't remember any particularly good zingers of hers, but she did give us a lot of head-scratchers. Her character fit perfectly the essential weirdness that defined The Match Game. That show was all about bizarre personalities, all the way up to and including the host, and it had an atmosphere that must have felt askew even then but appears otherworldly today. Who better to provide an edge--an awkward edge--than that odd lady who seems a little too something for the room?

That's what I'll remember about Brett Somers--the endless supply of "What the hell just happened?" moments she either instigated or assisted. For that reason, it's impossible to imagine the most "What the hell?" game show of all time, The Match Game, without her unique presence.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Breaking News: Kid Nation Signs Nonagression Pact with Minor Republic

On the eve of the premiere of its CBS reality series, the leaders of Kid Nation proudly announced they had signed a Mutual Nonagression pact with Minor Republic. The pact is effective immediately, and the new-found cooperation between the two countries increases speculation that the two formerly feuding entities will form a coalition to take on The Kingdom of Juvenalia.

In recent months, war between the two sovereign countries had seemed increasingly likely as disputes of lemonade stand rights and Pokemon trade escalated into alarming rhetoric. Kid Nation had reportedly increased slingshot production tenfold this summer as it built its defenses. For its part, in August Minor Republic staged belligerent maneuvers on its dirtbikes near its shared border with Kid Nation.

It is believed that increased cooperation could lead to a full-fledged treaty, as well as even some type of joint military action against the controversial Kingdom of Juvenalia, which has seen a brutal bully regime take over after a series of coups, noogies, and wedgies. The per-capita lunch money of Juvenalia is now one of the lowest in the known youth world.

Furthermore, both Kid Nation and Minor Republic have yet to establish full diplomatic ties with grownup countries, and they are said to be working on a united front to present the adult world.

More updates as events warrant.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

This...this cannot be

The Phillies are on a win streak, and the Yankees have momentum coming off taking a dramatic 2 of 3 from the Red Sox at Fenway. Now, both teams are still several games behind their respective division leaders, and time is running out on them, BUT...

There's also the matter of the Wild Card, see, and both these two reprehensible ball clubs are still very much alive for that spot. In fact, the Yankees have the AL spot well in hand right now.

I had written off Philadelphia and New York, my most two hated teams in Major League Baseball, several months ago and proceeded to relax and enjoy the season without fear of their vile presence infiltrating the postseason. Now it appears there is a solid chance BOTH squads could sully the playoffs. This is just too cruel a prospect after that tranquility I enjoyed earlier this summer.

Let's hope the Phillies do their standard choke job and fall all the way out of the race, while the Yankees at least settle for a Wild Card and maybe have to face a red-hot team in the first round. The thought of the Phillies and Yankees dominating the playoffs--or even appearing in them--makes me want to switch gears to football.

Educators, Teach Thyself

The other day, I noticed this line on the "welcome" sign outside the local elementary school:


OK, maybe they just ran out of apostrophes and they actually do realize it should be IT'S going to be a great year. But if that's the case, why put up the contraction at all? Is it really so "uncool" to just spell out IT IS GOING TO BE A GREAT YEAR? Did someone see that how it looked and find it lame?

Or did they just not notice?

And which would be worse?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Cultureshark's Emmy Ballot

Here is who I would vote for, not who I think will win, in this year's Emmys. I'll try to make this quick because the Emmy nominators and I watch quite different shows. Oh, and let me get this out of the way: Yes, The Wire was the best show on TV last year, and its fourth season was in fact one of the best seasons of TV ever. So all that bitching and moaning you're reading as critics discuss its omission is justified. You can just assume that if I had the option, I'd vote for The Wire in just about all these categories--including comedy, because it was maybe the funniest show on TV, too.

BEST DRAMA: Forget The Wire for a moment. Friday Night Lights was superior to any of these shows. As for the Chosen Ones, The Sopranos had a comeback season for me, but a lot of it was a retread of earlier ground the show had covered, and it didn't really make its short season seem special apart from being the Final. Episodes. Ever. I vote for Heroes. NBC's freshman sensation had a solid year and felt fresh, and it deserves credit for sustaining momentum over a couple of dozen episodes while reminding the creative team of Lost it's possible to move stories along in a satisfying manner while still hinting at larger stories. Years from now, Heroes may not hold up so well, and it could well flame out as early as this season, but so what? Entertainment Weekly can look back and mock me for picking this one Best Drama.

BEST COMEDY: These are the funniest shows on TV? Let's go back to the Best Drama category, where Boston legal's nomination is more rib-tickling than anything to be seen here. If Extras, with its HBO run, could get a nom for Ricky Gervais, it should have received one here. These shows just don't do it for me. I would vote for Ugly Betty, which isn't my cup of tea but at least seems to do what it aims for. Plus that lets me irritate Chuck Lorre by snubbing Two and a Half Man, and I can't reward the Media Elite Darlings trio of Entourage, The Office, and 30 Rock--all flawed shows the media thinks we should all care about.

BEST ACTOR, DRAMA: No problems with Hugh Laurie and Denis Leary, and Keifer Sutherland is always great in the Jack Bauer Power Hour. But this year, the JBPH often had too little JB for my taste, and it was a wayyyy down year for the show. I pick James Gandolfini, who throughout The Sopranos' run was consistently memerizing even when the series wasn't.

BEST ACTRESS, DRAMA: Edie Falco's character was as annoying as ever, but I don't think it's because of her performance. When in doubt, vote for The Sopranos. It sounds lazy, but I didn't care for Minnie Driver in The Riches, and I don't really watch the other shows.

BEST ACTOR, COMEDY: Ricky Gervais on Extras makes me laugh many times, enough that even in 6 episodes, he provides plenty of aggregate comedy value. Easy pick here.

BEST ACTRESS, COMEDY: Oh, how about Felicity Huffman, who had enough good moments to make up for the stupid things her character did this year.

AND THE REST: The only other category that interests me is Supporting Actor, Comedy Series, where Neil Patrick Harris would be the most deserving winner of the night if he takes the prize. His Barney on How I Met Your Mother is maybe the funniest character on TV week in and week out, and I'd really like to see the performance rewarded.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Happy Days Are Here Again

What a great football weekend it was. Here is my list of Great Things that happened Saturday-Monday, ranked in order of awesomeness:

1) Penn State wins
2) Steelers win
3) Eagles lose
4) Washington Redskins win
5) Michigan loses again
6) Ravens lose
7) Notre Dame loses again (arguably, this could be higher since Penn State beat them, but I'm trying to isolate things here)

I had very little to get bent out of shape about this weekend. The Cowboys won, but that wasn't a big deal. Next weekend looks to give me some more happiness, as PSU and the Steelers have what should be solid wins, the Redskins have a chance to beat the Eagles, and Notre Dame and Michigan play each other, meaning one formerly great program will fall to 0-3.

Bring on the pizza and wings, and let's enjoy it. I'll be attending the PSU game in person, so I may have to save my pizza and wings for NFL Sunday. But, by gum, I'm gonna have pizza and/or wings this weekend, and I'm gonna enjoy some more football happiness.

Monday, September 10, 2007

5 Question Movie Review: Hairspray

Q: Is it possible to get past the sight of John Travolta in heavy drag?

A: Sure it is. There is a lot more to Hairspray than Travolta as Edna Turnblad. But he won't leave your memory easily, either. Sure, it's a stunt, but give Travolta credit. He really puts his all into creating a character, not a walking gag. Plus he goes all the way on the Baltimore accent. Boy, does he go all the way. Others in the cast are charming, including Nikki Blonsky in the lead and Michelle Pfeiffer, who has fun with her villainous character without turning her into Cruella DeVil or Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada. It's a charismatic peformance that serves the story and provides fine support for the young leads without upstaging them.

Q: How does "Hairspray" sound?

A: If you are asking about the quality of the songs in this musical, it sounds great. The tunes are catchy, bouyant, and do a fine job of advancing the story. If you mean the actual soundtrack on the film itself--well, I suspect there was a problem at my theater, but the sound was slightly off when I saw it, and there was a constant gargly effect (apologies if I'm being too technical, readers) that was often distracting. Is it any wonder so many people--myself included--are finding more reasons to stay home and skip the moviegoing experience?

Q: So there is a story here? It's not just a bunch of songs?

A: Well, there is a story here centered around Tracy Turnblad's effort to integrate a 60s teen dance show, but really it's mainly an excuse for a bunch of songs.

But the story there is works just fine, and the messages (segregation and conformity are bad) get through loud and clear without becoming annoying. I don't mean to damn Hairspray with faint praise when I say the story is simple. That's true of many of the classic musicals. That's fine as long as the songs are good and the themes resonate. This one has something to say, and it makes you feel good. By my standards, that's a success.

Q: Is this a true musical, then, or one of those gimmick ones like Chicago?

A: There's no dream sequence structure that "allows" the characters to sing. Here, they just sing and dance, even outside of that teen dance show that provides an "excuse" for some of the musical numbers. What's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. Director Adam Shankman stages most of the musical numbers clearly, too, and gives us enough time to appreciate the choreography if we so desire. He doesn't rely on blazing cuts and tight shots to distract us from the fact that GOODLORDPEOPLEAREDANCING. There's some old-fashioned musical moviemaking here, though still with some modern editing sensibilities. So, yes, it's a true musical.

Q: Is it OK to tap your foot and sing a little after seeing this?

A: You may want to, but I warn you: you will be made fun of. Perhaps you won't be openly mocked, but someone will do so, even if it's under his breath to his wife sitting beside him as you boogie up the aisle--ahem. I'm just guessing. Hey, it's a crowd pleaser of a movie with songs that are era- and thematically-appropriate and still catchy, unlike, oh, I don't want to pick on anything, "DREAMGIRLS." You may want to dance after seeing "Hairspray." But you may look rather silly. Really, though, the movie tells us not to worry about things like that. So go right ahead!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Fall Movie Preview Week: November

With November, I close out Fall Movie Preview Week. What about December, you say? Yes, I did promise to give my first impulse reactions to the new movies coming out in that month, but since then I decided, heck with "Entertainment Weekly" and heck with the calendar. Fall isn't December, and December isn't fall. So we'll save that month for later, and we'll call it Holiday Movie Preview. Ooh! Exciting, no?

Anyway, here are some of November's notable scheduled releases, with my desire to see them on a green-light, yellow-light, and red-light basis:

November 2: The Kite Runner (Yellow)
--Ah, we're off to a bad start here. See, I haven't read the book, and I don't think Afghanistan in the 1970s sounds like a great place to visit, even if only on screen. Neither does the Afghanistan of today, actually. Yep, call me a xenophobic, ignorant lout, but I don't want to see this, and I do feel guilty about it, but hey, that's my first impulse. This is directed by Marc Forster, and the book has a pedigree, so we may hear some Oscar talk about this one. So I'm calling this a yellow-lighter. But if I wasn't afraid of seeming like a total rube, I'd be honest and bring out the red light.

2: American Gangster (Green)
--I like but don't love Ridley Scott's movies, but Denzel and Russel Crowe teaming up with the director for a kick-ass crime flick sounds pretty good. And once more I feel guilty about dissing "The Kite Runner." What can I say? Harlem in the 1970s does sound like a great place to visit, though parts of it were probably not much sunnier than Afghanistan. USA! USA! USA!

2: Bee Movie (Green)
--I saw two totally different trailers for this one in the span of a week last month, and each one was hilarious. Just the idea of Jerry Seinfeld voicing a cartoon character is pretty funny, and when you make that character one given to wide-eyed wonder at discovering a larger world--well, that's great.

9: Lions for Lambs (Yellow)
--As I understand it, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Robert Redford tell us how crummy the war in Iraq is. Does that sound entertaining to you?
OK, perhaps I simplify the premise a tad. But I will say this: When this one draws near, you'll see the word "wattage" used often in referring to the 3 stars. But the wattage on that cast is dimming a bit, isn't it? They have to do a bit more than just show up to make me want to see this movie.

9: Fred Claus (Yellow)
--The only reason I might want to see this is Paul Giamatti as Santa Claus. Otherwise, it looks like a lot of straining-to-be-funny-and-hip stuff from people who haven't made a lot of really funny movies. Vince Vaughn in Swingers was fresh and appealing. Vince Vaughn in 2007 is but this far from making it to the Too Irritating to Watch list.

9: No Country for Old Men (Green)
--The Coen Brothers may be slightly overrated (OK, I'll just say it: They are), but they make interesting movies. This Cormac McCarthy adaptation is apparently a return to dark "Miller's Crossing" territory, and I say, bring it on.

9: Southland Tales (Yellow)
--Hey, says Richard Kelly's long-awaited Donnie Darko follow-up is coming out 11/9, so I'm listing it. There has been some bad advance word, and you can't help but figure it's a mess. I am a little curious, but as far as waiting for this one goes, I'm still trying to figure out "Darko," but not really trying too hard, if you catch my drift.

16: Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (Yellow)
--Impressions from the trailer: Enchantment. Whimsy. Fun for the whole family. Or cloying, irritating crap. Dustin Hoffman in eccentric mode. Some effeminate-looking lad who resembles Natalie Portman in the audience surrogate role. A bunch of cool toys coming to life. Who knows if this one will work? I'm gonna wait and see.

16: Beowulf (Yellow)
--We can talk about the literary origins. We can talk about Animated Ray Winstone kicking ass. Oh, we can talk about Robert Zemeckis fascinating animation, presumably improved from his 2004 "The Polar Express."
Yes, let's talk about those things. Anything to avoid admitting we just want to see naked animated Angelina Jolie.

16: Margot at the Wedding (Green)
--Sometimes the cast doesn't make the movie at all. This one features Nicole Kidman, Jack Black, John Turturro, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and nothing against any of them, but I have never bought a ticket specifically to see a single one. Ah, but this is the new Noah Baumbach joint, and I loved "The Squid and the Whale" enough to want to check out his latest. Years ago, "Kicking and Screaming" was pretty damn good, too. Hopefully this actually does come out in my area around the 16th and doesn't trickle my way after the holidays.

21: Enchanted (Red)
--Cute idea--cartoon princess comes to life in the modern-day "real world," but do I really need women swooning over Patrick Dempsey in another medium? I didn't get the whole Dempsey thing when he started out in movies, and now that he's a big TV star, I wish he'd stay on the small screen. I'm a guy, and I'm just not wired to anticipate any princess movie that doesn't star Anne Hathaway.

30: Cassandra's Dream (Green)
--It's Woody Allen, and I always find myself paying to see his movies. That's just the way it is, and I doubt it'll change this year.

Friday, September 7, 2007

F(UN)-Facts about Hairspray

Everybody is in love with "fun facts" these days. Well, anyone can give you actual information, but I find the really fun facts are un-facts.*

--The original plan for this new version was to cast the key roles with stars of another famous Baltimore-set work: The Wire. In that version, McNulty would have been Linc, Stringer Bell would have been Edna Turnblad, and Snoop would have been Little Ida.

--In order to perfect his Baltimore accent, John Travolta watched over 50 hours of local Boston television such as news, ads, and even public access programs. When asked how watching Boston TV would help him play a native of Baltimore, Travolta reportedly said it wouldn't, but he just liked listening to the Boston accents better.

--It's estimated the actual hairspray used in the movie took 3.6 years off the life of the planet.

--A Gallup poll indicates 3 of 5 men are afraid seeing "Hairspray" will "turn them gay."

--3 X Original Ricki Lake (who starred in the original) + 2 X Nikki Blonsky (who takes over in this version) - John Travolta in fat suit = 1.5 pre-surgery Star Jones.

--Co-star Michelle Pfeiffer took a 5-year hiatus from live action movies after "White Oleander." She spent that time in an unsuccessful bid to become a UFC champion.

--The original songs in "Hairspray" can all be sung to the tune of the theme song from "F Troop."

--At the Baltimore premiere of the film, a man strongly resembling Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis shot someone.

--Original helmer John Waters is in talks to do a big-screen adaptation of the popular "Kidz Bop" CD franchise.

*That is, I made them up, and they're not really facts.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Happy Birthday, Charlie

Allow me a moment to say a big Happy Birthday to the bestest pal a guy could have, our cat Charlie, who turns 4 today. At least, that's the date my wife and I determined was his birthday, and dadgum it, we're sticking to it.

For many years, I thought I wasn't " a cat person," but then some positive catsitting experiences, and later my roommate's cool cats, turned me around. When we adopted Charlie, it was official. I was a cat person, or at least I was all in favor of MY cat.

Growing up, though we were exclusively a dog family, I always rooted for cats in one sector of life that really matters: cartoons. Top Cat was and is one of my all-time favorite characters. Tom against Jerry was a no-brainer. I always wanted Sylvester to get his hands on that faux-innocent Tweety. So I had no inherent dislike for the feline persuasion. It just took me a while to realize they could be as likable in real life as they were on TV.

Charlie doesn't always act like a cartoon cat--perhaps a good thing--but he plays fetch with me, hangs out with me, and is a loyal friend--well, as loyal as a cat can be. All you cat haters who claim cats don't like humans, well, I'm sorry you haven't had a good experience, but don't be hatin' on my buddy.

Happy fourth, Charlie, and I hope you enjoyed the salmon.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Fall Movies: October

Scroll down to Sunday's post for a full explanation, but these are some notable October movie releases. A green light means I want to see it, a yellow means I'm undecided, and a red means uh-uh.

October 5: The Heartbreak Kid (YELLOW)
Pretty much any Ben Stiller comedy should be firmly in the "caution" category, at the very least. The Farrellys have slid into the "stop" sign territory now. "There's Something About Mary" seems so very long ago. Now the Farrelly brothers are trying to get a boost from Stiller's cachet. Will this retooling of an old Charles Grodin comedy turn out to be special? How can any Charles Grodin comedy, retooled or otherwise, turn out special?

5: Grace is Gone (YELLOW)
Used to be I'd go see just about anything with John Cusack in it, but sometime in the past year or so, he's been in a lot of stuff that I just haven't seen. I mean, I'm at the store the other day, and I see he did a hitman movie with Morgan Freeman. When did that happen? Anyway, this one sounds like a downer, with Cusack a widowed dad who struggles to tell his kids their Mom was killed in Iraq. Something a big different, perhaps, for Cusack, and I'd like to see him pull it off and show a little something else.
Well, even if it doesn't work, maybe he'll have Cubs games to look forward to in October.

5: Michael Clayton (GREEN)
What's remarkable about the career of George Clooney isn't that he says he wants to make savvy character-driven films that have something to say. What's remarkable is that when he makes one, I believe he'll pull it off. He didn't direct this legal thriller, but he is a driving creative force, and I am ready to check this out, especially now that I know this ISN'T a biopic of the Tampa Bay Bucs wide receiver. Eriq LaSalle's Joey Galloway project is still in development, though.

12: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (YELLOW)
I know we're supposed to want to see this follow-up to Cate Blanchett's original turn as Lizzie, know, I wasn't a big fan of the original, even if it did get a crownload of award nominations. I just don't have a burning desire to see the character revisited, but if everyone starts throwing out award talk again--and let's face it, Cate Blanchett playing royalty seems to be a lock already--I'll probably feel obligated to buy a ticket.

12: Sleuth (YELLOW)
You just don't go remaking Larry Olivier and Mikey Caine movies! You hear me? Who do these people think they are?
Oh, well, actually, one of them is Michael Caine? Oh. Carry on, then! Caine is in the Olivier part this time, and Jude Law steps into the Michael Caine role, and I don't mean the role of starring in dozens of crappy movies to get paychecks. Although, come to think of it, Jude was quite prolific there for a few years, and not every one of those flicks was a smash...Hmm...

12: We Own the Night (YELLOW)
The director of "The Yards" promises some more GRITTINESS with this crime drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. Let me tell you, if those two own the night, I'm investing in the DAY, you know what I mean? Good, because I don't.

19: 30 Days of Night (YELLOW)
I'm not so big on horror flicks, but this one, based on the popular comic book, could be interesting. Could be. Vampires all over the place, mayhem, and whatnot. I certainly won't dismiss this one out of hand.

19: Gone Baby Gone (GREEN)
Come on, you KNOW "Directed by Ben Affleck" means GOLD.
Seriously, though, it became cool to rag on Affleck at some point--OK, pretty much as soon as he started acting--but you know what? As bad as his acting choices have been, the guy says the right things in interviews and seems to "get it." He's trying to maintain a family now, and I kinda want him to do well with this Dennis Lehane adaptation. He may well have it in him, though his casting bro Casey in a lead role makes me a little nervous.

First Clooney, then Affleck--why is it I want to make every heartthrob actor into a filmmaking genius? EARN this, Affleck. EARN this.

26: Saw IV (RED)
No worries about filmmaking genius here. I skipped the first 3. Why start now?

Rhetorical Pop Quiz: Blender Magazine

Why in the world is Andy Samberg on the cover of this month's issue of "Blender," ostensibly a music magazine?

A) There are only so many topless music starlets to spotlight, and half of them already appeared recently on Rolling Stone.

B) Cover subjects are chosen months ahead, and someone clearly thought Samberg's movie "Hot Rod" WOULDN'T bomb.

C) Andy Samberg is enough of a musician. He performed with Justin Timberlake! Come on! Besides, he was #1 on Blender's Hot 100 list and earned the cover that way.

I don't know what the answer is, folks, but I do know that this magazine compounded the error of putting that guy's goofy mug on its cover by running inside the pages one of the least sexy pictures ever of Scarlett Johansson. A nice chance at a make-good of sorts ruined.

Blender had better get its act together next month. A cover of a musician, or at least a comedian worth hyping, would be a good start.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Fall Movies: September

(Check my previous post for the full setup, but green light means I want to see, yellow light means I'm not sure, red light means no way, Jose)

September 7: 3:10 to Yuma (GREEN)

This is a remake of a fine western, but while the Glenn Ford-Van Heflin original holds up well with its slow-building tension, its ending was weak, and it's not untouchable. In other words, let's not bitch about Hollywood being out of ideas, etc. It is out of ideas, but let's not bitch about it. Instead, be thankful someone decided it was OK to make aWestern. I plan to support the concept, and hopefully Russell Crowe and Christian Bale reward my effort.

7: The Brothers Solomon (RED)

We all loved Will Arnett on Arrested Development, but not enough to pay just to see him in a film. And Will Forte doesn't pry those greenbacks from me, either.

7: Hatchet (RED)

Uh, no.

7: Shoot 'Em Up: (YELLOW)

Action comedy about Clive Owen guarding a baby from Paul Giamatti's bad-ass criminal. WHA? Is this a wacky romp or a real action movie? Or both? Call ME wacky, but I'm intrigued.

14: In the Valley of Elah (YELLOW)

Paul Haggis is back, and he sounds preachy again. I'll wait for the reviews.

14: Eastern Promises (YELLOW)

Cronenberg and Viggo reunite for another crime-filled funfest. I'm leaning green on this one.

14: The Brave One (YELLOW)

Speaking of talented veteran filmmakers, here's the latest Neil Jordan movie. Jodie Foster is playing another Strong Woman, but this time she's got a gun, and she's out for revenge. OK, that happened in a few other of her recent movies, but this time I think she's going all vigilante. That sounds kind of cool.

14: Across the Universe (GREEN)

I live, I breathe; therefore I love the Beatles. But this musical project, notwithstanding director Julie Taymor's proven talent, has mess written all over it. The cast is singing the songs, too, not the lads themselves, and this movie has an air of trouble. I don't think I can resist, though, and it's not because I think I saw Salma Hayek dancing in a nurse costume in the trailer.

21: Resident Evil: Extinction (RED)

Uh, no.

21: The Jane Austen Book Club (RED)

Uh, no.

21: Into the Wild: (YELLOW)

With Sean Penn directing this adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1996 bestseller, we know we're in for a real laugh riot. Like many Americans, I bought that book. Like I don't know how many Americans, I never got around to reading it.

21: Untitled Jesse James Project: (YELLOW)

Actually, this does have a title, but it's too long and typing it annoys me. Hey, it's another Western, though! This Brad Pitt starrer looks at the man that shot Jesse James. Could be worth a look.

28: The Game Plan (RED)

I loved the Rock in the WWE. Too bad he keeps making crap movies instead of the breakout blockbuster everyone thought was in him. Watch this one--where he plays a pro footballer who discovers he has a 7-year-old daughter--be a smash.

28: The Kingdom (YELLOW)

I keep seeing this described as "CSI: Saudi Arabia," like that's supposed to excite me. I just can't get into this one. Check out this bolded quote in Entertainment Weekly from director Peter Berg about his movie's politics: It's kind of like tricking a kid to do his homework. You've got to make it fun." Way to sell the movie, dude. If Jamie Foxx is the "fun" part, there had better be some damn enlightening stuff in the homework part.

Welcome to Fall Movie Week

Welcome to Fall Movie Week, during which I give my first impulse reaction to some of the more notable movies appearing this September, October, November, and December (yeah, December doesn't really feel like autumn to me, either, but it technically is, and anyway, Entertainment Weekly included the month in ITS preview).

Using a basic system, I'll let you know what I want to see, what I don't want to see, and what I'm still "eh" on. (Green) for green light=yep, definitely want to see. (Yellow) means I might wait for reviews, or maybe I'll see if it someone I know asks. Or I could wait for DVD. It could go either way. (Red) means uh-uh, no way am I going to pay upwards of 10 George Washingtons to see that in a theater.

Now, things could change as time passes and I learn more, see new trailers, etc., but these are my first impulses. I'll cover one month a day, and my selection of movies won't be comprehensive, but I'll try to include the biggies.

Ready? Cool. We'll start later with a look at what's coming out this month.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

DVD of the Week: The Odd Couple Season Two (and an editorial comment or 3)

The Odd Couple, one of my favorite shows of all time, is an easy pick for DVD of the week and the week before it. This Paramount sitcom is funny, it holds up today, and it hasn't been rerun to death in recent years (or at all lately on a national basis). All 5 seasons should be out, and we're now at least 40% there.

Jack Klugman and Tony Randall were one of the all-time great comedy teams, and it's a wonderful show. Many fans, and even Klugman and Randall, have maintained the show really took off after that first season. Towards the end of that debut run, the stars convinced ABC to let them switch to a "filmed before a live audience" format, and the energy, performances, and look of the show all changed for the better. Though that first season was quite good, a lot of people are more anticipating the next 4.

I won't spend this whole post praising "The Odd Couple," but this set contains memorable episodes like the one where Felix sings the "Oscar, Oscar, Oscar" calypso song and the one where they go to the fat farm. It really is great to get these on video.

BUT. There's almost always a BUT with fans of classic TV on DVD. Will the show be chopped up? Will the music be replaced? Will these be careless transfers from worn syndication prints or has there been a restoration effort? No studio is reliable on these fronts, and we can't be confident about any single release until copies of the actual discs reach the hands of reviewers. Even then, a high-profile outlet like Entertainment Weekly usually can't be bothered to answer those questions.

When classic movies come out on DVD, people expect unedited versions, but for some reason, people accept much less when it comes to TV episodes. If we want hacked-up episodes, we can turn to TV Land. DVD should be the home of uncut programs, but that's not always the case.

Paramount has started putting a standard disclaimer on seemingly all its TV releases telling us that the show may have been screwed with--not in those words, but that's the general idea. So with the release of this and The Fugitive several weeks ago, loyal fans have held their breath wondering what could have been changed. At least music replacements can be minor, but what if someone screwed up and threw a syndie episode in with several minutes of the original gone?

It's a shame that fans can't pre-order their favorite show with full confidence, especially since old shows are often MIA at brick and mortars. I was pleasantly surprised to see a photo of The Odd Couple in last week's Circuit City ad, but there was no sign of this release in the Best Buy or Target circulars. The studios will point out old shows sell far lower units than newer ones, but time after time, I read about or experience people being shocked to find an old show is on video. After all, they have never seen it in a store.

Classic TV deserves better. On the bright side, Paramount got this set out, and by all accounts, the picture quality is great, and while some music is different, the episodes are otherwise intact. I lurked on a message board for fans of the show and enjoyed reading numerous posts of die-hards who were discovering scenes that haven't been aired for years (if at all) in syndication. This is what DVD is for--rescuing the good stuff from the butchers who slice it to add commercial time.

BUT I have another BUT. While the first season set was attractively packaged and enhanced with cool extras, this second season edition comes in a simple plastic case with zero bonuses. Paramount went cheap on this one, and perhaps we should be thankful to get the mostly uncut shows, but I could have sworn I read DVD producer Paul Brownstein was working on more extras than the ones we've already seen. What happened to them? Will we see them at all? Does it depend on the sales?

We just don't know. In fact, we don't even know at this point if there will be any more seasons. The uncertainty is one of the reasons why being a collector of classic TV is so difficult.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

This Week (and Last Week) in DVD

The last few weeks have been such dull ones for new DVD releases that I didn't even want to write about them. The one notable exception is the DVD of the week (OK, the last two weeks), which I'll talk about later. Other than that, it's an uninspiring batch.

However, when I saw the cover of the Bruce Willis-Halle Berry thriller "Perfect Stranger," something hit me: the theme song from 1980s sitcom "Perfect Strangers." I don't remember even liking that show, but I saw my share of episodes, and that song popped in my brain right as I was wondering if this was an erotic thriller or just a creepy thriller with one gratuitous shot of Halle Berry in her unmentionables.

The juxtaposition was disturbing, as I imagined Bronson Pinchot getting it on with Halle Berry. Before I could say "Don't be ridiculous," in a wacky accent, the situation was there. I couldn't look at this movie the same way again. Or at all, really.

As disconcerting as that scenario was, it made me think perhaps other recent DVDs would be made more interesting, if not better, by inserting Balki and Cousin Larry in them. Let's find out if that's the case as we look at some notable DVDs of the last two weeks:

The Ex: Why is Zach Braff in every third movie that comes out now? We get it: Zach Braff is young, a bit on the slacker-ish side, and is faced with decisions about his future. YAWN! Shouldn't these kinds of roles have gone to a young Mark Linn-Baker 25 years ago? He could have ruled the 1980s, and maybe his "eclectic" soundtrack selections would have made some band like The JoBoxers huge.

Blades of Glory: This Will Ferrell-Jon Heder ice skating farce didn't do it for me. But what if Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker in their primes lent their talents to this promising concept? Comedy Gold, Silver, and Bronze.

Friday Night Lights Season 1 and Heroes Season 1: OK, these are DVDs worthy of attention--about the only two shows worth watching on NBC last year. But I can't get too excited about them. I just saw every episode, for cry-yi-yi, and I don't need to own them yet. But if Balki showed up as a superpowered Meiposian on an episode of Heroes and provided a commentary, well, that's another story. And shouldn't there be an episode of FNL in which Cousin Larry shows up as a rival coach? Yes, there should.

Desperate Housewives Season 3 Dirty Laundry Edition: Yes, "Dirty Laundry Edition" is a (don't be) ridiculous title, but it will sell better than "Better than that weird second season, but we're never gonna reach that peak of the first season Edition." Hey, who better play that rumored gay couple on Wisteria Lane this season than everybody's favorite Perfect Strangers?

Georgia Rule: I can't help but think Lindsay Lohan's life would be a lot smoother right now if she had only had the calming presence of a Bronson Pinchot on set when she made this movie.

Delta Farce: Hey, Larry the Cable Guy, can't you find room in your silly movie for Cousin Larry or Balki? Give something BACK, dude!

Turns out that this weak crop of DVDs IS more interesting with the Perfect Strangers connection. Go figure. Oh, by the way, "Perfect Strangers" is not on DVD.