Thursday, January 31, 2008

5Q Movie Review: The Savages

Q: So, hey, I saw the trailer and the poster for this movie, and it looks like it must be a real riot--a really funny dark comedy, huh?
A: Well, it's dark, and it's darkly funny at times, but don't expect too much from the comedy department. That preview that shows Phillip Seymour Hoffman getting nailed with a ball is deceptive, as is that Daniel Clowes-illustrated poster. This isn't some slapstick comedy, nor is it Ghost World. It's a lot more serious than I expected--a thoughtful exploration of human relationships with some comic elements. The alienation found in Clowes' comics, however, is certainly found here.

Q: Uh-oh, does that mean this is all depressing? It's about two siblings trying to care for their aging father, right?
A: The film takes a sober enough look at the issues associated with dealing for elderly parents to make you think. It is not at all what I'd call depressing, though my friend and I sure found watching it awkward given the preponderance of senior citizens surrounding us in the theater.

The Savages shows a lot of the steps that you have to take when planning long-term care for the elderly--steps that many movies skip over. It's not like a how-to or anything, but that the film does this while entertaining gives it a fairly unique point of view. There's a lot more going on, though.

Q: OK, I'll bite. What else is going on?
A: For one thing, the father was never a Dad of the Year candidate, and it's clear that the strained relationship doesn't magically heal when it's time for the offspring to take charge after his longtime female companion dies (and HER offspring kick him out of her place). There aren't sudden revelations and contrived bonding activities. It's messy and awkward--not sitcom awkward like we see so much on TV these days, but painful kind of awkward.

Also, I found myself focusing more on the relationship the brother and sister share with each other. As a brother of two wonderful sisters, it was tough for me to watch these two troubled siblings share such an uncomfortable presence together. They are individuals who could clearly help each other, but past baggage is a tough obstacle that keeps preventing that.

Q: And how are Hoffman and Laura Linney as the brother and sister?
A: I wouldn't call "The Savages" a great movie, but it is extremely well acted. Linney, one of my favorite actresses working today, deserves her Oscar nod for making the character so real. And there may come a day when Phillip Seymour Hoffman's mannerisms and Actorly acting start to irritate me, but I hope it never comes, and I think I'll be a far lesser person if it does.

Credit also goes to writer/director Tamara Jenkins, of course, for creating 3-dimensional, identifiable characters.

Q: Linney's Academy Award nomination aside, I haven't heard much about this. Why is it so far under the radar?
A: Hey, it's an indie movie, and by that I mean it's a true indie. It looks like an indie, it lacks sensational subject matter, it deals with emotions and feelings, and it is often ambiguous. It reminds me of the 1990s, when these types of movies seemingly came out all the time. They weren't all classics, but they were often compelling, mature works that made you think a little bit. Hopefully the nominations (Jenkins also received recognition for the screenplay) raise this one's profile.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

This Week in DVD

The King of Kong: The release that excites me most this week is the documentary about dueling Donkey Kong champions. It sounds both ridiculous and cool, but I read so many good things about this movie I figured I'd shell out the quarters to actually see this on the big screen, even though it didn't seem to require a theatrical viewing. Then, of course, it came nowhere near a big screen in my vicinity. I'll be watching it soon, though, and I hope it's as cool as I hear. The events depicted can't be any more ridiculous than those in another 2007 doc I saw recently: No End in Sight.

Groundhog Day Special Edition: This tale of a man who relives the same events over and over must be the all-time favorite movie among executives at certain studios who decide what DVDs to produce.

Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 6: I'd love to vouch for this one and say it's a rebound from the slightly less satisfying Season 5, but I'm a bum and haven't watched the compilation my friend made me yet.

JAG Season 5: I have to admit, I judge this show on how hot Catherine Bell looks on the box cover of each season set, and while she looks good on this one, well, she shares the front with 4 other scrubs (one of whom, admittedly, is the star of the series). Therefore, this is a bit of a comedown from Season 4.

The Invasion: File this one on the "Whoa, that actually was in theaters already?" shelf. Poor Nicole Kidman is getting a rep as box office poison. If she wants to maintain her star status, she'd better make a sequel to…a sequel to…a sequel to…she had to have been in a blockbuster I'm forgetting, right? Does Happy Feet count? Batman Forever?

The Comebacks: I'm under no delusions here. I KNOW this is stupid. Question is, is this Funny Ha Ha Stupid, or is it Stupid Stupid? Sports movies seem to make a good parody target. This effort might be way off the mark, though. Tell you what, if someone can guarantee me that Carl Weathers gets direct royalties from DDV rentals, I'm in.

Daddy Day Camp: I knew it. I just knew it. See, I was laughing uproariously at the brilliant modern-day comedy classic Daddy Day Care--you know, just like the rest of America--but one nagging thought kept tempering my enthusiasm: "They're only setting this up for a sequel." Hopefully they did the right thing storywise this time and killed off the Cuba Gooding character at the end.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rhetorical Pop Quiz

Q: What's the most exciting TV return coming up this week?

1) "Lost" this Thursday on ABC

2) "Flavor of Love 3" on VH-1

3) "America's Ballroom Challenge" on PBS

4) Delta Burke returns to TV in Hallmark's "Bridal Fever"

Monday, January 28, 2008

Why I Don't Need to See The Bucket List

Every Wednesday, my local indie movie theater of choice hosts Senior Day, where all tickets all day long are sharply discounted for our older members of society.

On the weekend of its release, "The Bucket List" was the number one box office earner in America. It continues to draw moviegoers and appears to be a bona-fide hit.

Ergo, there must have somehow been a whole weekend or two worth of Wednesdays all over the country.

Really, America, I was going to say "shame on you" for making that the number one movie last weekend, but why should I blame all of you? I blame the seniors. I mean, why in the world would anyway under the age of 60 pay anything approaching full price to see it?

It doesn't take a film scholar to see what's wrong with this one. In fact, it doesn't even take a viewing of the actual film. Just by watching this trailer for "The Bucket List," I can tell you some of the things that are wrong with it:

*"A Film by Rob Reiner."
--Game, set, match, but I can't do all that setup with only this as the payoff, so I'll keep going.

*Spoiler Alert:
--The preview makes all too clear the Ultimate Fate of one of the major characters. I guess it wouldn't be a huge surprise, given the title of the movie and the premise, but still, talk about taking away incentive to pay for the product.

*Faux Self-effacement:
--That premise is introduced as Morgan Freeman explains to Jack Nicholson that umpteen years ago, his professor gave an assignment to make a list of things they wanted to do before they..."Kick the bucket," Jack finishes. "Cutesy."
How many times do filmmakers need to be told? Acknowledging the basic lameness of your concept in the work itself does not make the concept any more acceptable. Come on, Meathead, you should know better.

*All-too-familiar rock songs to manipulate our mood:
--In this case, Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright" blares while our heroes jump out of a plane. YEAH! We feel alive! Because Nicholson booming, "THIS is living!" isn't enough.

*Might I add that here we also see Freeman "comically" yelling "I hate your guts" in sitcom fashion.
--Oh, will these two terminally ill patients make it through their list without killing each other? Hijinks ensue!

*Cheesy fake locales:
--Ladies and gents, Reiner gives you the pyramids and the Taj Mahal...or does he? No, I don't think he does.

*Sappy tone shift:
--Note the music change at 1:40, as we are told this is not just a laugh riot, but a Serious Movie. Oh, Rob, how did you miss the Oscar eligibility deadline?

*"Jack being Jack":
The clip begins with Jack quirkily sniffing a hot beverage. This is a signifier that movie audiences need not worry--Jack's not gonna try that becoming the character stuff. No, in this one, he's gonna be Jack. And if you still don't believe it. check out the classic Jackle (a Jack Nicholson cackle) at 1:59.

*Embrace of a little girl:
--You just know this indicates rampant sentimentality. Old people being cute, young people being cute...If only Reiner had worked a puppy into this trailer.

*The last shot:
--At the end, Sean Hayes tells Jack, "I'm proud of you," to which Jack responds, "Nobody cares what you think," complete with a condescending pat on the shoulder. To me, this is clearly intended as an audience "Whoo-hoo!" moment, you know, with the stuffy Hayes getting a comeuppance from our good, old buddy Jack. Problem is, based on what we see in the clip, Hayes is just doing his job, while Jack is kind of a jerk. So why does Hayes need a comeuppance (I mean, other than for being so over the top on Will & Grace all those years)? It just looks the main character is a jerk. What a way to close out your feel-good trailer.

All this makes me want to avoid "The Bucket List" at any cost, but especially the cost of a full-price movie ticket. I didn't even mention You Know Who saying, "The wheels of the bus go round and round."

If you saw the same stuff I did and still saw or are planning to see "The Bucket List," I hope your experience turns out better than I fear it will. I also hope you make the early-bird special at the buffet.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cultureshark Remembers Allan Melvin

I'm not trying to turn this into a contest, but of all the recent celebrity deaths, the one that saddened me the most was the passing of Allan Melvin a few weeks ago. Sure, he was 84 and had a great run, but, darn it, he was a great character actor and a warm, friendly presence on my TV set both in my formative and formed years.

In many circles, the news of Melvin's death prompted someone to rush to assert that they DIDN'T remember him as Sam the Butcher from "The Brady Bunch." Hey, I like burnishing my old-guy credentials as much as the next (actually old) old guy, but I have to admit I grew up on a steady diet of Melvin's Sam the Butcher. I also appreciated his Magilla Gorilla and was aware of him on "Archie Bunker's Place," but it wasn't till later I discovered him as Corporal Henshaw on "Sgt. Bilko" and as a recurring visitor to "The Dick Van Dyke Show." After all, I was approximately -20 and -14, respectively, when those classic sitcoms debuted.

Melvin was great on both of those, and as I've grown older, I've realized those are two of the best shows of all time, while "The Brady Bunch" is--well, let's just say that I still enjoy the show, but for different reasons. Still, there's nothing wrong with Sam the Butcher. The only problem is, this great character's image has been corrupted by years of cheap reflex jokes about Sam giving Alice his meat. You'll notice I avoided this pun when I used the word "diet" in the previous paragraph. I think it's time to quit making the snide Sam the Butcher comments.

Look at the facts. As much as people love to put a postmodern spin on the relationship and turn Sam and Alice into some kind of extramarital sexfest--an even bluer-collar Howard and Marion Cunningham, if you will--there just wasn't much going on there. Alice seemingly spent every other episode complaining that Sam WASN'T romantically inclined toward her. The man brought flowers and candy now and again, and Alice was on his short list when he needed a companion for the Meatcutter's Ball, but this was a man more interested in his craft--and in his bowling team--than in some kind of middle-aged hanky panky.

And, folks, there's nothing wrong with that. Sam was a great guy. He was old but not too old, wise but not a know-it-all, and he was the kind of accessible grownup that would make a great pal for a kid who needed one. He certainly was willing to assist those Brady kids when they needed help. If he was a little careless about safety precautions for the door to his frozen meat locker, well, hey, nobody's perfect.

The point is, sometimes a butcher is just a butcher. Keep the Greg-Marcia or Greg-Carol subtext going, but let's hide the "hide the salami" jokes for a while, OK? Leave me with my innocent memories of a classic TV supporting character--one who showed up just often enough to be linked with the show but not enough to upstage the regulars. Sam the Butcher was pleasant and likable all the way, a guy who would never put his thumb on the scale (though he might have a corny joke about doing so), and I'd like to think part of that is a natural goodness in Allan Melvin.

Paramount released a fantastic "Best of" DVD set of "Bilko" episodes a few years back. Corporal Henshaw wasn't given the sharp lines and wacky situations like Phil Silvers and, say, Doberman, were, but as one of Bilko's go-to sidekicks, the character was a crucial anchor. It was great to see Melvin participate in that DVD set. He provided an audio commentary and episode-specific introductions, and though he didn't provide a wealth of detail, his enthusiasm for that time in his life was infectious. As he recalled that time in his life--50 years ago and in the earlier days of an accomplished career--Allen Melvin sounded genuine and genuinely likable. It's sad to lose someone like that under any circumstances, but his legacy lives on in hours and hours of memorable television.

This Week in DVD

I moaned and griped last week about the sorry slate of new DVDs, but this time I'm in a good mood. Thank goodness for television on DVD. This week we have the third season of one of my favorite shows of all time, The Odd Couple. One of the show's best-loved episodes, the one where they appear on Password, is on this set, as are appearances by Howard Cosell and Monty Hall.

Unfortunately, that ever-present scourge of the classic TV fan, music licensing, affects this season even more than it did previous ones. Loyal O.C. fans (I say it's time to take those initials back from Adam Brody and Mischa Barton) have compiled a list of episodes and scenes that are tarnished because Paramount wasn't able or (more likely) didn't bother to clear a song. In this case, we can still be thankful that most of the episodes are intact. However, a lot of still-to-be-released episodes rely heavily on music (can you say Paul Williams?), and fans are quite nervous about how they'll be edited.

But at least 3 seasons are out, the fourth has been announced, and we can presumably expect all 5 to be available eventually. The music issue bites, and I wonder what happened to the extras we got in the first season box, but this classic is on DVD and mostly intact.

A real treat this week is the sixth season of Make Room for Daddy. You see, the fifth season was released in butchered syndication prints, but S'more took over the show, put some effort into producing a worthy package with extras, and if this one sells, more could be on the way (we don't have time to get into why the DVDs started with series 5). It's heartening to see there are some companies out there really working to get older shows out there.

I am not nearly as familiar with Hawaii Five-O or Banacek, but the third and second seasons, respectively, of those series also hit shelves (at least virtual shelves at online retailers, as chain stores don't bother with old shows much anymore). And a pleasant surprise for Abe Vigoda fans: Sony releases the second season of the long-thought-abandoned "Barney Miller." For some reason, that show's profile fell off the face of the earth in recent years, but it has a dedicate fanbase--even those who don't worship Abe Vigoda--which should snap this set up so that more arrives soon.

As for movies on DVD, well, why spoil my good mood by whining about Saw IV or Sydney White or The Game Plan? I don't think I'll like them very much, but they each have their fans, and maybe THEY don't go for THE ODD COUPLE. So I'll just think of the good stuff that came out this past week and not worry about anything else.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

First Impulse: 2008 Oscar Nominations

*First thought: I have some homework to do, including seeing "Atonement" and "There Will Be Blood." And maybe "Transformers," too (hey, it did get 3 nods).

*I don't want to bust on "Michael Clayton," a film I admire, but if there could only be one "smart" thriller in the Best Picture race, I would have liked to have seen "Breach" in there. "Breach" is an underrated, superlative movie that came out last winter and was soon forgotten.

*I wonder if it's possible that nominators figured, "Well, we might not even have a ceremony this year, so we don't feel obligated to pick Angelina for A Mighty Heart just to get her to the show."

*I don't have a lot of strong favorites this year, but several I do have a rooting interest in are: Once for Best Original Song and Ratatouille for Best Animated Feature. I would love to see Amy Ryan win for "Gone Baby Gone." After all, she's a vet of "The Wire," and it's nice to see the movie get some pub.

*It really says something about Phillip Seymour Hoffman's year when he is nominated for Gust in "Charlie Wilson's War," an entertaining turn that may well be his least impressive performance of 2007.

*Speaking of that, my biggest "outrage" would be the total lack of recognition for Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

*So far, I don't see too many films that make me think, "THAT doesn't belong anywhere near this list." I don't think Juno is worthy of all the hype, but it's a solid movie and a hell of a lot better than "Little Miss Sunshine."

*Is Cate Blanchett going to be a pretty-much-automatic pick every year from now on?

*I didn't see "In the Valley of Elah," (save the first 3 minutes I saw when a projectionist screwed up and started it at the wrong time) which scooted out of my area in a few weeks, but I can't believe Tommy Lee Jones was any better in that than he was in "No Country for Old Men."

*Congratulations, "Norbit," for your nomination (for Makeup).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

5 Question Movie Review: Charlie Wilson's War

Q: Is this as entertaining and informative as the best-selling nonfiction book from which it's adapted?
A: Well, I haven't read the book yet, but after seeing the adaptation, I really want to. That sounds like a positive, but unfortunately, in this case I think there is something missing in the film. Watching it, I felt I was getting a good chunk of an amazing story but not quite all of it. "Charlie Wilson's War" is an entertaining piece of entertainment, but it's a little slight. I walked out of there thinking there had to be more. But at least I was intrigued enough to seek it out.

Q: So who IS Charlie Wilson, anyway, and what is his War?
A: Wilson was an influential congressman from Texas who led a crusade to funnel appropriations dollars to the the Afghan resistance after the Soviets invaded there. The guy was apparently a fascinating character, and a good deal of that comes across on screen. Tom Hanks is typically great in this role, providing enough natural charm to make the guy likable even with his boozing and carousing. I would have liked to have seen more insight into what made Wilson such a virulent anti-Commie, but while there are a few quiet, reflective scenes that spotlight Hanks, through most of the film he's breezing through, getting things done and playing angles. It's fun to watch, but, again, the screenplay is missing something. It's a shame because the combination of this outstanding real-life character with one of our best movie stars could have created something special.

Q: About that screenplay: Aaron Sorkin wrote it. So does this mean there are tons of florid political speeches delivered by people walking down hallways?
A: Sure, there's some of that, but it's not like you'll confuse it with "The West Wing." Sorkin and director Mike Nichols actually do a fine job of distilling a lot of info into visually interesting scenes. If you have people stripping or drinking in the background, go figure--the exposition goes down a lot easier. There are a lot of facts and figures here, but the film doesn't get weighed down with them.

As for the political point of view, well, I admired the movie for much of its length because I thought either side of the spectrum could watch it and have some of its own views confirmed. It's impossible not to think of what eventually happened in Afghanistan, with the resistance somewhat morphing into the Taliban that would eventually come back against us. That subtext is certainly there. But it's not till one heavy-handed scene near the end that "Charlie Wilson's War" makes a big Statement about our supposed foolishness. It's out of place, a leaden, obvious note in an otherwise clever screenplay.

Q: Well, sure, there's politics and war and foreign relations, but what about the big romance between Hanks and Julia Roberts? What's it like seeing those two together?
A: There IS no "big romance" there. In the story, Roberts' character comes off as an important but relatively minor presence. She needed to be either a bit bigger a character or a lesser one; as it is, she's kind of distracting. It's like they specifically boosted the role just because they had a Big Star to play it. So while there is a relationship there, and while much of the marketing emphasized Hanks and Roberts together, don't go see this expecting a romantic comedy.

Q: So it sounds like I should just skip this one, huh?
A: No, no, no. I am making a lot of negative comments, but though I was disappointed with the film, it is still fine entertainment that moves quickly and provides a lot of laughs. It has Philip Seymour Hoffman giving another compelling performance, providing fine comic support without overwhelming the "big stars." Near the end, when Wilson has apparently accomplished what he wants, the film becomes a bit of a blur of the facts and figures that had mostly been artfully integrated before, and it seems to run out of things to do. But it's a fun ride while it lasts. It doesn't satisfy completely, but it's a nice appetizer if you want to go to the book and get the whole story.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

This, I Believe

This, I Believe:

When a man has the radio on in his car and he endures some kind of interminable extended version of "Suzie Q," a song that he has heard hundreds of times and still hasn't learned to love...

When he refuses to change stations, figuring that the song will be over any second now and maybe something cool will be on next...

When this happens, a man deserves to be rewarded with something greater than Supertramp.

This, I believe.

Take Me FROM TV Land

Yes, I more or less gave up on TV Land months ago, but I can't help but call them out every now and then for continuing to plunge into unwatchability.

Case in point: TV Land's primetime schedule this week. This could well be a new low for a channel that hits new lows several times a year.

Monday through Friday: Each night at 8pm, it's more of that "Movie Land" gimmick, in which the network originally dedicated to classic television shows a different overplayed recent theatrical movie--in butchered, non-letterboxed form, of course.

Saturday and Sunday: At 9pm each night this coming weekend, the channel turns over its lineup to its newest acquisition. That's right, folks, TV Land proudly presents two marathons of "Just Shoot Me."

There is one good thing about TV Land's irrelevance: It gives those of us lucky enough to have access to American Life TV more time to watch the decent shows that they run.

Friday, January 18, 2008

This Week in DVD

Yes, it's the triumphant return of This Week in DVD, and what a week I picked!

I mean, just look at all the exciting new releases this week. Why, there's yet another version of An Affair to Remember, yet another version of In the Heat the Night, yet another version of "When Harry Met Sally," an overpriced quickie release of an extended Family Guy episode, a movie directed by Vin Diesel...

OK, so I picked a weak week. When the highest-profile recent theatrical is Good Luck Chuck, you know it's weak. Thankfully, audiences rejected that one at the multiplexes. I have a Shark Bites item up now with a snide Ryan Reynolds reference. Well, Dane Cook makes Ryan Reynolds look like Cary Grant. Yet Hollywood thinks that because a bunch of MySpacers buy tickets to see Cook mangle other people's jokes on stage, they need to "leverage that popularity." Fortunately for Jessica Alba, most people probably already forgot this movie even existed.

Here's another comedy gem for your shopping cart this week: Mr. Woodcock. Remember when Billy Bob Thornton was cool? He still turns in a good one every now and then, but the man's batting average must be Mendozaesque at this point simply because he is in a new bomb every other month.

Yep, it's a good time to catch up on older releases, or maybe even give your wallet a break Next week, there's a lot of old-school TV coming out, and maybe I won't be so long as I don't talk about The Simple Life set.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

First Impulse: The Golden Globes

*I'm sure many were disappointed by the cancellation of the big ol' ceremony thing, but I actually thought the Oscars might benefit from a break like this. Have the red carpet thing for an hour or two so everyone gets to see the fashions and the stars, then just have people announce the winners at breakneck speed.

*Only don't let those people be Nancy O'Dell and Billy Bush. Oh, how I sometimes rue the day the NBC empire created "Access Hollywood." O'Dell was OK and made a few interesting comments, but Bush added nothing apart from his distracting habit of referring to tv shows as movies.

*My reaction to Atonement's win was pretty much the same as when I heard it was nominated: "Aw, do I have to go see this now?" It may well be a terrific film, but it just seems like a chore. There, I said it.

*Similarly, I'd normally love to see 'There Will Be Blood," and the viewing doesn't seem daunting, but finding the time does. From what I understand, this one is, what, 8 hours long? Kind of hard to squeeze that one in between trips to Target and the grocery store.

*I loved how NBC hyped up an Ellen Page vs. Nikki Blonsky battle for Best Supporting Actress (Comedy/Musical), the one "storyline" they really pursued…only to announce the winner was Marion Cotillard!

*My most pleasant surprise was seeing Extras beat out the dreaded Entourage, though Jeremy Piven did get a win for that overrated hype magnet.

*David Duchovny? The TV categories were full of head scratchers. Maybe Duchovny delivered a nuanced portrayal of a complex character over the course of the season; all I know is I bailed after the first episode, unable to tolerate either him or the show.

*Overall, it was a pretty cheap-looking spectacle, but at least NBC milked something out of the Globes this year.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Cultureshark Remembers Dan Fogelberg

OK, the man passed away several weeks ago, but come on, is it ever too late to mourn the passing of a notable singer/songwriter?

Truth be told, I never had much of a personal connection with the late Dan Fogelberg's music. Sure, I was familiar with some of his tunes. I laughed at a few, I may have even hummed a few on occasion. But really, my strongest early memory of the man is seeing his name as a punchline whenever the joke called for a Sensitive Musician. I'm not sure of this, but I believe Berke Breathed had Opus refer to him as "Dan Fogelburp" at least a dozen times in "Bloom County." Hey, it made a big impression on a 9- or 10-year-old.

Having resisted the temptation to play "Longer Than" at my wedding, I don't have many stories about Dan's music. But I do have one oddball, random memory. Picture it: First grade, end of the day. While us young'uns waited for our buses to be announced over the loudspeaker, our teacher, Mr. O'Neill, would throw soft puffy balls to us to kill the time. Often he;d hum or softly sing a tune while he--

(Hey, minds OUT of that gutter, folks. That's not a euphemism. Mr. O was a fine, upstanding man, and I am saying he literally tossed white, puffy balls--well, anyway, it wasn't a euphemism. It was CATCH, all right?)

Anyway, one day, my bus was really, really late. Since I was the only one who rode that bus, it was really, really odd. After a while, I was the only one playing catch with Mr. O.

(It really sucks to be in this day and age, where I feel I even have to add the disclaimer about this not being some kind of twisted situation).

As I was saying, it was just the two of us, and for some reason, perhaps even because I requested it, Mr. O'Neill was singing "Run for the Roses" by Sensitive Dan. A Sensitive Man (you know a first-grade teacher is Sensitive--it's pretty much a certification requirement) singing a Sensitive Tune to ease a little boy's mind as he waits for his ride home. He even had a beard like Dan Fogelburp. How touching is that?

(For the last time, stop trying to turn this into something it's not. Really. I mean emotionally "touching," not physically literally touching.

That is my strongest memory of Dan Fogelburp. Come to think, it may be my strongest memory of first grade, too. I wish I had more vivid memories of that time, but those days became blurry a long time ago. So today Cultureshark remembers not only a Sensitive Musician, but lost childhood as well.

(And by "lost childhood," I don't mean--aw, hell with it. Go listen to a Dan Fogelburp album or two if you're still finding double meanings in this story.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Brooks on Books: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

Here's the deal: I really liked this book, and I feel compelled to recommend it and tell you a little about it. Michael Chabon has skillfully blended disparate elements such as romance, alternate history, and Jewish culture into a detective novel. I think that's a fine achievement, but even then I'm underselling it, because Chabon writes so well, his book is more universal in appeal and reach than even that broad description indicates.

OK, I told you I liked it. I'll even tell you at first getting into it was difficult, partly because of the unconventional setting. It's an Alaska in which Jews were resettled in World War II. It's an alternate world in which Israel collapsed in 1948. This is an intriguing premise, but it takes a while to wrap your mind around the re-imagined history. Chabon doesn't just spoon-feed this to readers, but he embeds it in the story--as he should. It's ultimately rewarding, but I must confess that it took me a bit to really get into this locale.

Another factor that delayed my embrace of the book was that many of the names, such as Melekh Gaystik,threw me a bit. It reminded me of when I dove into "Crime and Punishment" and all the long consonant-filled Russian names piled up and almost blended together. However, I settled in to Chabon's novel soon enough, and the mystery absorbed me along with the colorful details he included to establish an intriguing and accessible alternate reality.

When Chabon introduces the boundary maven and describes his work in Chapter 13 (almost a quarter of the way in), I'm hooked. Professor Zimbalist and the way he uses strings--often literally--to help observant Jews get around the restrictions of the Sabbath provide one of the book's most fascinating conceits. I apologize if the concept isn't new and I'm an idiot for not knowing it, but at any rate Chabon uses it with great skill. It's one of those things that make you go , "Huh!" because it's flat-out interesting in its own right, but it also fits in perfectly with the themes of the novel.

Later, there is a shootout of sorts in the snow. There are chase scenes and interrogations and other conventions of detective fiction, all enlivened by the unique environment. Chabon's prose is sharp enough to make everything stand out regardless, but the premise and setting make all the elements of the story fresh.

At this point, though, I'm already running out of things to say about the novel (I won't flatter by myself by writing "intelligent things to say"). The "problem" is, my old chum Mike and his friend James gave the world an insightful, compelling discussion of "Yiddish Policeman's Union" months ago. So in short, read this book. If you want a little more, I recommend you click here and see what a couple of readers who are writers say about it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Should You Watch: Cashmere Mafia

Let's make this one easy: No. No, you should not watch "Cashmere Mafia."

Oh, I was planning to log on here and make a series of snide comments about why people would watch this new ABC show. Of course I would refer to the fact that we don't need a "Sex and the City" revival. I naturally would point out NBC has its own "Sex and the City" ripoff, "Lipstick Jungle," coming in several weeks and that this is surely overkill.

But why bother? I didn't plan to watch the pilot, but it was on after "Desperate Housewives." About 5 minutes into the show, I was checking out a magazine.

But I'm not the target audience for this show, as I'm a straight guy who can't make it through a half-hour of "Sex and the City," let alone an hour of a wanna-be.

HOWEVER, my wife is a woman and has enjoyed the exploits of "Carrie and Co." in the past. So when she declared a mere 7 minutes into the show, "This is stupid," I took note. I decided right there not to bother making a sarcastic list of reasons to watch "Cashmere Mafia." It's stupid. Don't bother.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

If Cultureshark Were TCM's Guest Programmer--Part 2

Click here for a general explanation and here for my first personal dream Guest Programmer lineup.

This time, I decided to spotlight some lesser-known or lesser-screened movies. After all, I get more excited as a viewer when a Guest programmer chooses something that isn't already on all the time. Here is my schedule:

6:00 am: The Gorilla (1939, Ritz Brothers, Bela Lugosi)
--Bleary-eyed and groggy might be the best way to "enjoy" the Ritz Brothers, a comedy team whose ineptness makes them more offbeat performers than even Lugosi. Everyone should see the Ritz Brothers at least once, and if you can't track down their short film "Hotel Anchovy," this is a good start.

7:30 AM The Invisible Boy (1947, Robby the Robot)
--A sci-fi movie full of bizarre charm and wonder. A great morning pick for those fabled "children of all ages."

9:00 AM The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939, Lew Aryes, Lionel Barrymore)
--MGM's Dr. Kildare series gives you a bunch of movies packed with humor, melodrama, even a little action. The recurring characters, played by stalwarts like Nat Pendelton, add flavor, and each installment is a lot of fun. I highlight this one because of the entertaining subplot of Kildare and others trying to trick the crusty but big-hearted Dr. Gillespie (the brilliant Lionel Barrymore), but any of these movies draw you in with their easy charm and casual, yet still vital, appeal.

10:30 AM The Big Noise (1936, Guy Kibbee)
--To me this is the epitome of the kind of buried treasure you find on TCM. I have no idea why I taped this some years back. I knew nothing about it and barely knew Guy Kibbee at the time. It just seems so random looking back. Heck, the movie itself seems random. A guy retires, gets bored, and opens up a dry cleaning business, but then is besieged by gangsters trying to get in on his racket. It goes from one place to another, packing in quite a bit in about an hour. A movie like this would never be released theatrically today, let alone developed for TV.

11:30 Hell Divers (1931, Wallace Beery, Clark Gable)

--I had the opportunity to see this one in a professional capacity a few years back, and thus the Legend of Wallace Beery sprung forth. This one shows how old movies can be flat-out fun. It's loaded with brawling, airplane flying, and derring-do. I think it's a riot, but I don't mean that in a mocking sense; it's just hilarious to laugh with (and sometimes at) in a good-natured way. And the big lug Wally Beery is the kind of larger-than-life character that makes anything he's in a treat.

1:30 PM Angels in the Outfield (1951 Paul Douglas, Janet Leigh)
--As a big fan of the game, I'm compelled to throw in a baseball movie. This isn't the best one, but it has sentimental value for me because I remember seeing it on WWOR as a kid and, more importantly, it features the Pittsburgh Pirates. Plus my team gets divine intervention! Much like a midweek day baseball game, this film would be a good afternoon treat.

3:30pm Hail the Conquering Hero (1944 Preston Sturges joint w/ Eddie Bracken and Bill Demarest)

--Simply one of the best yet most underrated comedies of Classic Hollywood. When Sturges gets his due today, which is not often enough, it's generally with regards to the sophisticated The Lady Eve or the "risque" Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Time to show this one some love.

Now let's bring on the darkness as the sun goes down:

5:30pm Cry Danger (1951, Dick Powell)

--A great film noir with some of the best dialogue around. Noir is associated with nighttime, but this has a lot of daytime scenes and is a good early-evening pick. Don't worry, though, it still packs a punch.

7:00pm Pitfall (1948, Dick Powell and Lisabeth Scott)

--This look at a middle-class "average" man who spirals into trouble got me into film noir. Someone needs to rescue this from obscurity and get it to DVD...or at least TCM. I rented a Republic Pictures VHS several years ago and sometimes regret having returned it.

8:30 PM Dark Passage (1947, Bogart and Bacall)

--How can a movie with those two stars be underappreciated? Well, the plot has some fantastic elements, and Bogart spends much of the movie with his face bandaged. But this is an innovative noir with plenty of surprises and entertaining little detours and sidebars. Sure, it's ultimately a big studio production packed with stars, but it still has that offbeat charm seen in the best cheapo B-movie noirs.

10:30 PM The Big Combo (1955, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy)

--There are at least 3 standout shots/sequences that still shock today. Noir buffs know that anything directed by Anthony Mann and shot by John Alton is a must-see, but all old movie fans should get that message.

Midnight Woman on the Run (1950, Ann Sheridan)
-- One of the most exciting movies you'll get for only 5 bucks (or less) on a budget DVD. It's widely available, but not widely known, but it should be. The climactic chase sequence alone is a keeper,

1:30 AM Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947, Larry Tierney)

--An amazing low-budget thriller that mesmerizes from start to finish. Tierney is, not surprisingly, an incredible bad-ass presence, and this short but snappy flick is loaded with tawdry menace. If you love "Detour," you may love discovering this one late at night on my Guest Programmer lineup.

2:45 AM Too Late for Tears (1949, Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea, and, somewhat hilariously, Don "Mr. B from Hazel" Defore)

--A wild ride with a classic femme fatale. The lousy print quality, jump cuts, and missing footage tend to add a certain air of intrigue to this gritty noir, but I'd love to see a restored version just the same.

4:30 AM The Day the World Ended (1955, A Roger Corman joint)

--I remember very little about this one except that one late night, my father and I stayed up to watch this one and had a great time mocking it--in a loving fashion, of course. I'd love to see this one again, but it could never be as good as that first experience, a great time that helped implant my affection for old movies.

Holiday Sports (Not So) Spectacular

*Those high-profile bowl game blowouts last night illustrate the absurdity of college football's BCS system. The season premiere of "According to Jim" just should NOT be more compelling television than the Sugar Bowl. And the rest of the bowl lineup is uninspiring.

College football fans love to tout their sport as being the best because "every game matters" in the regular season. But how significant is that when no game matters in the postseason?

*The outdoor hockey game played in Buffalo was an eye-catching spectacle on TV. Every NHL event should take place in freezing outdoor conditions, preferably with gusty winds and falling snow as a backdrop. I rarely watch more than a minute or two of the sport on the tube (though it can be a fun experience at the arena), but yesterday I often stuck around for a few minutes at a time to watch the Penguins and the Sabres battle in the great outdoors.

However, the finish of the game reminded me why I can't take the NHL seriously. It ended in one of those postgame shootouts that the league adopted a few years ago because casual fans supposedly hated ties. Well, we do hate ties in sporting events, but settling them with an abbreviated version of the game (and that's putting it generously) isn't the solution. Penalty kick shootouts in soccer may be thrilling, but come on, that's no way to decide a big game. Similarly, these "OT wins," even if they don't get as much weight as a "regular" win, are ludicrous.

NHL games should go to sudden death overtime at the end of regulation, and the game should continue until someone scores a goal. If the players are the warriors that hockey fanatics always tell us they are, they can handle it. Shorten the season and lighten the travel if you must, but make it so that there must be a winner in every game, and then maybe I can respect the sport.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

First Impulse: Dick Clark Returns

We watched Dick Clark's Rockin' Eve again--of course--and while it's a treat to see ol' Dick each year, it's a shame he remains incognito the rest of the year. Perhaps it's time to accept the fact that Dick is never going to get full use of his speech. However, he's fine in his new limited role, and the sight of him still reassures us.

After the ball dropped, he even engaged in some witty banter with Ryan Seacrest and, to my delight, pulled out of the holster his quintessential Quasi-Fake Laugh. When I saw that exchange, with Dick jokingly telling Ryan he wanted to see him suffer outdoors in the cod, it really felt like DC was back. This was the first year since the stroke that these two had the chance to show real--even if fleeting--chemistry, and the hint of mentor-student in there was touching. Even if it's all phony and December 31 is the only day of the year Ryan talks to Dick, well, it's still nice to see them together on TV. Maybe this arrangement is gonna become a tradition in its own right.

The problem with the telecast is the reliance on teen-friendly acts to carry the musical load. Hannah Montana and Friends were bad enough, but the rest of the roster was equally uninspiring. Plain White T's, Akon, Fergie--at the risk of seeming like an old-timer, these acts mean nothing to me. At least Carrie Underwood is a major mainstream star. But overall the music stunk. At least we have Auld Lang Syne to fall back on. That old chestnut still hasn't been played as often as "Hey There, Delilah."