Saturday, February 28, 2009

Brooks on Books: The Complete Dick Tracy Volume 1 1931-1933

I spotlighted this book in "Panel Discussion" posts the past few weeks, but I want to give it another rave here. If your exposure to "Dick Tracy" is limited to only the more recent strips, the cartoons, the old movies, oer God forbid the Warren Beatty flick, then you really haven't seen the primo "Dick Tracy." (Notice I resisted the urge to say, "You don't know Dick." Until now.)

IDW's awesome reprint collection publishes Chester Gould's strip's whole run from the beginning, dailies and Sundays, all in black and white (in this first book, early non-continuity Sunday pages are presented in color in the back) and with good reproduction quality. The presentation is fine (though the overall design apes that of the Fantagraphics "Peanuts" volumes), but the content is superb. I'm still surprised how much I love this collection, and I really need to get the subsequent volumes.

I keep hearing that "Tracy" doesn't really hit its prime until well after these early years, as Gould hits his own stride and rolls out the colorful over-the-top villains for which the strip is now known. But these early years make excellent reading in their own right. You get violent criminals, brave cops, a little romance, and a fascinating look at early-1930s culture. The slang, the fashions, and the morality of the times--assuming the comic strip does a halfway decent job of suggesting "reality"--are all on display. It's also fun to see early police techniques. Tracy does a little primitive forensic action at times. He's a sharp guy, I tells you.

The stories are exciting, with a good variety of crimes and criminals. He's not as outlandish as Pruneface, but a rogue like Stooge Viller makes an impression in his own right. Gould's storytelling is effective even this early in his career. I like how he finds different ways to introduce exposition to get new readers up to speed, especially in the Sunday pages, without bogging down the whole enterprise for everyone else. This helps make this collection readable straight through in chunks even though the original material was, of course, presented as several panels' worth of story per day.

Bottom line: This is a great job by IDW of collecting a great comic strip. If "Dick Tracy" gets better than this, I really look forward to future volumes.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Panel Discussions: The Aura of the Flash

That second panel there shows you how much _I_ know. I always thought what impressed criminals about The Flash was that he could run really, really fast.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Wonderful World of TCM: Crime of Passion (1954)

WARNING: I'll be discussing the "spoiling" of this movie by my programming guide, and in doing so, I will myself be spoiling it thoroughly.

Crime of Passion is a decent if unspectacular noir. This 1957 Gerd-Oswald-directed film is about...Well, why don't I share the summary in the FIOS listings:

A woman stoops to murder in order to advance her husband's career with the police.

Well, yeah, that happens...more than 2/3 of the way into the movie! Talk about giving it away!

OK, I will grant that the movie is called "Crime of Passion," not "Manipulations and Schemes of Passion," which is what the story features up to that point. And granted, the woman in question is clearly an ambitious, tough cookie from the get-go, maybe one even capable of extremes. And granted, said woman is played by Barbara Stanwyck, which is kind of an indicator in itself.

But still. This plot description takes the key moment of "Crime of Passion" and presents it before you even get a chance to process all those clues and figure out the inevitable sequence of events. It's kind of a big deal because the movie doesn't really pick up until that murder is committed.

Maybe this is how the original marketing went: Let people know what's gonna happen and bring 'em in that way. "Ladies and gentlemen, we ask that you please reveal the last 20 minutes of 'Crime of Passion' to your friends.'"

There are some other interesting aspects of the flick the relatively frank depiction of sexuality being one. When Stanwyck and new hubby cop Sterling Hayden get married, there's a nice moment where she tells him she won't need many clothes on their honeymoon. Then, as Babs carries out her plan to get Sterling elevated in the department, she sleeps with a big-shot inspector played by Raymond Burr. I don't know about you, but the thought of a Stanwyck-Burr boudoir pairing kind of staggers me.

But overall, the movie just isn't that compelling until that murder, as Babs offs Burr. Stanwyck's character isn't her most memorable, and Hayden's is frustratingly mild. Business does pick up then, but I still think it presents a squandered opportunity. The event should happen way earlier in the film and give us more time to observe the dramatic tension as Hayden investigates Stanwyck's crime. Will he find out? What will he do?

There's some potential here, but in reality it unfolds quickly, with the drama between the two leads replaced by Hayden going all "CSI" and using, you know, forensics and stuff to discover the truth.

As I watched "Crime of Passion," I thought it played out in predictable fashion, but how can I be sure? After all, I read it all before I even recorded it, thanks to the ever-helpful FIOS on-screen programming guide.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Budget DVD Theater: Make Room for Daddy

Here's the deal: I have a ton of cheapo DVDs and cheapo DVD collections--some of them a buck apiece, others in value sets--and I tend to let them sit around and pile up. Incidentally, what happened to dollar DVDs? I STILL go to the $1 Spot each time I hit Target, hoping to find a new selection of shoddy TV collections. I refuse to believe that every public domain episode of television programming has already been issued on a dozen different dollar discs.

Well, I will no longer neglect these cheapo--er, let's call them BUDGET discs. I'll take one out and write about it every now and then, so that way I reduce the pile AND get to write off the DVDs on my taxes.

(I'm not really gonna write off dollar DVDs on my taxes, of course, but, come on, indulge me and let me act like a real writer just this once).

Kicking off our prestigious new series is Danny Thomas in "Make Room for Daddy." Tonight's episode, "The Children's Governess," is likely a familiar one. There are apparently a handful of episodes of this 1950s sitcom in public domain, and they all show up over and over on various releases. Tonight's selection comes on a cardboard-sleeved collection of 3 episodes.

This episode offers a simple story in which the show's original wife/mom, Jean Hagen, wants her kids to be more proper, or PRAH-pah, so she hires a governess to watch them while she and Danny are out of town. The uptight guv, with all her rules and regulations and manners, drives the kids crazy, and she also conflicts with easygoing Grandma. Oh, I didn't mention Grandma? She just drops in when she finds out the parents were heading out of town, assuming she'll be doing her usual babysitting duties.

The plot isn't innovative, probably not even by 1955 standards, but it produces a solid half-hour of comedy. The high point is when the kids decide to be hyperpolite and PRAH-pah (to expose how ridiculous the governess is), and during breakfast, Rusty comes down and calls Danny FADER.

This simple yet ridiculous utterance infuriates Danny until he declares he wants no more "high-ta-flootin'" talk. Rusty responds by standing up and saying, "My most humble apologies," with a formal bow, which produces a 5-star spit take as Thomas lets go of his coffee/tea/mystery breakfast liquid with abandon. It's a hilarious moment, and you can even see Hagen smiling--not entirely out of character, but I like to believe she's really on the verge of losing it. It's obvious that Rusty Hamer is cracking up. The scene fades out on this high note.

Legend* has it that Thomas' spit take was so prodigious, it reached director Sheldon Leonard 20 feet away. After the scene, a glowering Leonard approached Thomas, raised a clenched fist, and threatened, "Why I oughta..." As the cast, crew, and studio audience held its collective breaths, Thomas just stared for what seemed like hours, until Leonard finally finished his sentence:

"...have you do that EVERY episode, Danny! That was SPECTACULAR!"

As the tension evaporated, a stagehand rushed in with a towel as Thomas and Leonard embraced. The Danny Thomas Spit Take became a staple.

Really, though, it isn't the volume of the launch that makes the spitting so impressive; it's the conviction. No one could accuse Thomas of not feeling this one. Hearing "FADER," then seeing that bow, has so rattled this father that he truly can't hold his water, so to speak.

Throw in the original Pall Mall cigarette commercials (it's eerie but fascinating to see them integrated into a family sitcom) included on the DVD, and this disc is already worth my dollar and then some.

There are two official season sets of this show: Questar's inferior, edited season 5, and S'Mores reportedly excellent (but reportedly non-selling) season 6. Each time I see an episode of "Make Room," I want to see more. Simply put, this is a funny show that is underappreciated today because of its lack of exposure. Daughter Marlo is still around, but I don't see a lot of Danny Thomas hype out there, and though I think this was a Nick at Nite staple in the eighties, good luck finding the show on TV today. I remember seeing it in reruns when I was a wee lad, but seeing it now is like finding a lost gem. The show is not just good because it's old or nostalgic; it's good because it's funny.

And because it has great spit takes.

*"Legend" is another word for "I made it up"

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Maybe my final live blogging post of the day

In retrospect, yeah, lots of folks live-blogged the Academy Awards, and, yeah, I might have had a unique idea in waiting till today to do it, but go figure: There just isn't as much to cover two days after a big awards show.


Anyone want to know what I had for lunch today?

More live blogging...

Well, there hasn't been any big Oscar stuff going on outside MY window.

Hey, while we're waiting for something, let me say I thought the show was pretty good. I wasn't into the movies this year, so I felt a certain distance from everything, but Jackman was a fine host and the presentation was solid.

There were a few things that bothered me, but nothing that outraged me. Overall, a fine effort with some new ideas. The show is still too long, but it always will be. My advice: Either DVR it or multitask while it's on live.

But that's old news, the day OF the Oscars. I'm covering the Tuesday AFTER the Academy Awards today. Just think, you can keep it right here throughout the day for commentary on all the happenings.

You know, I really didn't think this through.

More live blogging the day after the day after the Oscars

So...not much happening right now, at least not that I can tell.

Of course, I AM thousands of miles away from L.A.

Hey, I'll bet some of the big winners from Sunday night are getting up right about now. After all that partying they did, I'd think--wait, this is Tuesday, not Monday. Actually, a lot of them probably got a good night's sleep.

More to come! Keep checking in. I'll be live-blogging this exciting day all, uh, day.

Live Blogging the day after the day after the Oscars

Yeah, I COULD have live-blogged the actual Academy Awards, but I suspected a lot of people were. I wanted to do something different.

Then I was gonna live-blog the day AFTER the Academy Awards, but, uh, I was busy with work and an appointment.

So now today I am in the unique position of live-blogging the day AFTER the day after the Academy Awards. Sure, the show MIGHT be over, but what if it isn't? I'll be right here all day commenting on...

Well, like, if they give out any extra awards, I'll be here.

Just think of all the traditional Tuesday-after-the-Oscars hype and how traditional media is always sleeping on it. Don't worry. I got you covered!

So keep it right here for periodic updates!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Journey Into DVD: Step Brothers (2008)

Are you "over" Will Ferrell? I thought I was, too, but he was funny in the uneven "Semi-Pro," and he's hilarious in "Step Brothers," his latest collaboration with co-writer/director Adam McKay. These two brought us the awesome "Anchorman" and the not-as-awesome-but-funny "Talladega Nights." More importantly, they're rejoined by the great John C. Reilly, who disappointed me in "Walk Hard," but here proves again that he's a comic genius. I mean, GENIUS. His opening lines, when he whines about his dad not leaving him enough money for dinner later, are hilarious and pull me in immediately.

I could quote dialogue all post long, but you have to see the way it's delivered to appreciate it. As a director, McKay doesn't seem to do all that much but give the guys (and an excellent supporting cast led by Richard Jenkins) room to be funny. You may have heard this film is a one-joke deal: 40-year-old guys who still act like adolescents become stepbrothers and have to live together. Yeah, that's pretty much it. But the joke is a riot.

There isn't a whole lot of story here, and at times it goes to weird, dark places, but somehow it all works. We know there will be tension when Ferrell and Reilly move in, and we expect them to reconcile, but THAT happens sooner than we think, and THEN things turn again, and they turn to the point where one character basically tries to kill another one. These turns are ridiculously sudden sometimes, but the performances and the great dialogue sustain the whole enterprise. if a lot of it is improvised, it doesn't buckle under the strain of sloppiness or indulgence like some smiliar comedies. In a world in which Judd Apatow movies are wildly overpraised, this is one of the underrated gems of 2008, believe me. I will say, though, if you didn't like the other Adam McKay flicks, this probably isn't for you.

The DVD is worth a purchase not just because the movie is the kind that lends itself to repeat viewings, but also because it provides a heck of a lot of added value with its bonuses. The key extra is the audio commentary, which may be the single funniest I have ever heard. I don't want to give away details, but I'll just say it's a musical commentary. The director and the two stars sing their commentary, seemingly improvising it the whole way. and while they don't do it the ENTIRE length of the movie, they sure do it a lot. This might sound like another one-joke concept that would get old, but I think the high point comes a full half-hour into it when the commentary goes into a musical digression about...well, the drum kit scene is how I'll describe it. The track threatens to slow down when NBA star Baron Davis shows up as a participant for no apparent reason, but Davis is game enough to participate in the musical aspect of it.

There are deleted scenes and other goodies, but I recommend you to check out the Line-O-Rama feature, which looks like a collection of alternate line readings but offers some cool deleted material. If you've seen "Step Brothers," you might remember the children of Ferrell's biological Derek. In this feature, you see a lot of their hilarious lines. In particular, the little girl gives some outstanding readings of some cutting wise-ass remarks. Seeing this makes me wish she were a larger presence in the actual movie. Elizabeth Yozamp--remember that name.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On the Radio: Kings of Leon "Sex on Fire"

This single from kick-ass rockers Kings of Leon is a great one. It features all the elements that make the band so much fun: The off-kilter but compelling vocals, the captivating modern blend of alternative/Southern rock styles, and the passionate sense of urgency that makes the tune just sound like it means something.

Sparse as it is, that's about all I have to say about the song itself. What concerns me is that I have heard this song about a dozen times on one particular radio station lately. Now, I'm happy that DC101 has it in rotation. Kings of Leon is huge in England and other countries but not nearly where it deserves to be here, so any kind of exposure they get is appreciated. But those dozen or so times I heard the song lately occurred in the span of a dozen or so times tuning in the station.

In other words, according to my unscientific survey, "Sex on Fire" is on all the damn time on DC101. I turn the station when I hear it now because I don't want to get sick of this great song.

Mind you, I'm not talking about leaving the station on all day and hearing the song in rotation a few times a day. I'm talking about flipping the dial now and then to see what's on and encountering this song every day that I listen to the radio. It's not even exclusively at the same time. Usually I listen to the radio on my way to work, but one time I was getting my daughter from day care a few hours after my normal radio zone, and I heard it AGAIN.

It's just so tough to listen to commercial radio these days, and DC101 in particular is aggravating. Most songs on the playlist at a given time are ones that were alternative-ish but mainstream hits when I was in college. I don't even like all of them. Then when it adds a new tune, the station plays it to death.

It's a good song, though. If you haven't heard it yet, just go to DC101 and wait about 10 minutes.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Brooks on Books: The Numbers Game

Not to be confused with the excellent book of the same title about baseball statistics by Alan Schwarz, this "Numbers Game" is a brief but illuminating hardcover by two Brits who have spent a lot of time exposing the misuse and ignorance of numbers and statistics in over there, especially in the media and the public sector.This edition, just published recently, takes the original U.K. bestseller and updates it a bit, with some modifications for us Yanks.

I enjoyed this book, but let me analyze one number myself: The $22.00 cover price is too high for a smallish 200-pager, even a hardback. Wait for the paperback or be a cheapskate and borrow it from the library like, uh, some people.

The idea of a text that delves into math and stats might sound either dreary or intimidating to many readers. Fortunately, authors Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot make the material accessible with plain but not condescending language and pertinent real examples to illustrate their points. One thing that is a little odd about their approach: Many examples come from British data and situations, and though the writers provide comparisons to U.S. equivalents when they can, it is a bit disorienting sometimes. Reading this at times made me feel like I kind of understood that whole argument about the SAT being "culturally biased." I have to admit that trying to get a handle on the British health system or money system or whatever took an extra few seconds.

But I may be making the book sound like homework again. It's quite entertaining. Each chapter examines a different aspect of how numbers are misused and/or manipulated: Sampling, Percentages, Comparisons, Chance, and more. They talk about concepts like regression to the mean, or the tendency of really high statistical phenomena to come down to match the average. A lot of this stuff will be familiar to anyone interested in baseball statistical analysis or even anyone who didn't sleep through, say, Statistics 200 in college (Now, THAT might be a small number).

To give just one example, Blastland and Dilnot show how the press will report the risk of cancer, say, going up by X % if you eat bacon, and the reporting makes it look like an epidemic, but the numbers actually indicate 5 out of 100 men get colon cancer and if all of them ate a few pieces of bacon a day, the number would go 6 out of 100. The risk of adding bacon to our diet is small (though, as is stated, doctors advise just staying away from bacon, and the authors aren't arguing that point), but the newspaper might say that it adds 20% chance of getting cancer. Without the larger context, percentages and other numbers are meaningless, and they can be (and are) manipulated to create dramatic "news."

It's tempting to throw your hands up and say, "What's the point?" and ignore stats and data altogether, but the author pointedly urge us NOT to do that. They emphasize the need to look for that larger context, to ask questions and analyze the numbers instead of just accepting the way they are often presented. They never trash numbers themselves, but rather the misuse of them, and their recommendation is not to ignore, but to look more closely.

"The Numbers Game" is a little slim for 22 bucks, but it's a useful effort for those interested in getting a basic handle on practical interpretation of numbers. Any of us who follow the news (hopefully a lot of us) can get a lot out of it.

Panel Discussion: Dick Tracy #3

WARNING: This post will reveal one of the final panels of a long storyline near the end of Volume 1 of IDW's "Dick Tracy" reprint series.

WARNING #2: The panel depicted below may startle, unsettle, or otherwise discombobulate unsuspecting readers accustomed to the funnies of today.

With those warnings out of the way, let me present the conclusion to the trilogy of Dick Tracy Panel Discussions (the others are here and here).

Here we saw counterfeiter, framer, and all-around scoundrel Stooge Viller trying to off himself before the coppers haul him to the pokey. I'm no comic strip historian, and for all I know in 1932, it was common to see Andy Gump try to jump off a bridge, or for Jiggs to try to hang himself from a chandelier, but I'd wager that even in the rough-and-tumble world of Depression-era funnies, actual "on-camera" suicide attempts were rare and carried some shock value.

Can you imagine seeing this in the paper today? Well, maybe in "The Lockhorns," but otherwise, even the few so-called adventure strips still around don't have this kind of excitement, do they?

In this particular case, Stooge might not even be facing capital charges, but he still tries to off himself. He has spent weeks framing Dick Tracy for passing counterfeit bills and getting him in dutch with local merchants and his own chief, and that's what Tracy says he's gonna jail him for. Oh, of course, Stooge also shot Tess Trueheart and tried to shove Tracy in front of a moving passenger train, but he hasn't been charged with those offenses yet.

Come to think of it, this happens several times in this book: Criminals race to kill themselves before they can be taken in. This begs the question: Just what the heck goes on after Tracy hands these thugs over? What kind of treatment do they get that makes death the better option?

I guess Dick Tracy is running a Good Cop/Bad Cop system, taking on the noble defender of justice role and finding it easy to be calm about turning over the perps he apprehends. He finds it easy to do so because he knows they'll get pummeled with a bag of doorknobs before they even get an attorney.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

This Week in DVD

Changeling: For a movie directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie, this sure seemed to come and go without much fuss. So the sober period piece died a quiet death, while the movie Eastwood starred in as a grumpy old racist ("Gran Torino") was a big hit. There's a lesson in here somewhere. Maybe the lesson is that "Changeling" bites.

Body of Lies: Is this a Ridley Scott political thriller or a biopic of Pamela Anderson? HEY-YOOOO!

See, she had a lot of surgery, and--ah, never mind. It would be funnier if you could see me say it with my hands in my pockets and rocking back slightly on my heels.

Anyway, this one flopped despite Leo and Russell and gave more fodder to those who say audiences don't want to see "serious" movies with political overtones, especially those that deal with the Middle East.

Beverly Hillbillies Season 3 and Murder She Wrote Season 9: I don't watch either of those, but so what? Paramount seems finally committed to issuing one of its most popular classic sitcoms, and as for "Murder," well, I'm impressed anytime a company gets around to issuing a ninth season of anything. After my rant yesterday, I want to present some good TV on DVD news.

Flash of Genius: Greg Kinnear plays the guy who invented intermittent windshield wipers, then saw Ford rip him off. Yeah, that's pretty much it. Believe it or not, this didn't premiere on TNT, but in real, live thee-ay-ters.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Every silver lining has a dark cloud: MPI and Paramount DVD news

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear analyzes two recent TV-on-DVD announcements from MPI. One was rumored for a while: a release of "Here's Lucy." News of a set for "The Mothers-in-Law" is a real surprise, though. I've always been curious about that show, so I look forward to checking it out.

It's nice to see MPI staying in the game as far as classic TV releases, particularly so when it's a lesser-known series. And while I've never been a big Lucille Ball fan, much less a fan of her shows without Desi and Bill Frawley, she's arguably the biggest icon in the medium's history, and I think all of her work should be on DVD.

And I don't like to be one of those people that pooh-poohs the release announcement of a certain show by complaining about the omission of something else. I know that just because a company proceeds with one project isn't proof that it's abandoning or neglecting another.

Furthermore, I don't wish to rain on the parade of any Lucy fans who are justifiably excited about this news.

(If by now you sense the looming presence of an Aretha-Franklin-size big BUT, you're right on track.)

BUT I can't help but feel disappointed. I've been waiting for a different kind of announcement from MPI: Verification that they're gonna redo the "Honeymooners Lost Episodes." Yes, most of them are out on disc now, but they're in clunky, artless box sets, and more importantly, there are errors and omissions in those early MPI sets that should be corrected in a future reboot. I think it was a few years ago when I first saw chatter MPI might do this. Perhaps the plan is to wait till "The Color Honeymooners" are finished, but though I'm glad to see that project continue, there is a lot more Jackie Gleason I'd rather see.

These two announcements in and of themselves certainly don't preclude any future news about the 'Mooners, but I wonder if resources are being shifted there at the expense of any Gleason stuff. I know, I know, that's kind of a selfish attitude, but, hey, given all the talk of cutbacks and limited shelf space and all the other excuses that could slow the classic TV on DVD schedule, I do worry. Similarly, folks who enjoy the older shows Shout Factory is delivering have reason to be nervous that the relatively small label is bringing out a slew of more recent titles like "Mr. Belvedere" and "Designing Women."

In other dark cloud news, TV Shows on DVD also announced yesterday that Paramount is offering replacement discs via mail for it's notorious "The Fugitive" Season 2 Volume 1 set. The original release, of course, featured the replacement score that irritated many fans of the well as people who just don't like seeing classic TV shows butchered.

This is an extraordinary step, and it appears that Paramount is doing the right thing. Gord Lacey of TV Shows on DVD says "much of the original music" is restored but implies the score is intact and the replacements are more like the incidental ones that occur in other Paramount sets, like songs on jukeboxes in the background. The process for getting the replacement DVDs appears to be pretty easy. Supposedly, Season 2 Volume 2 will have the original scoring intact.

But why should we do cartwheels just yet? I went to Home Theater Forum yesterday to look at some reaction to the news, and when one poster dared to express a reservation, Lacey responded with a snide post that indicated how thankful we should be Paramount is doing this.

Let's keep some perspective, though. The discs aren't available at retail, meaning someone who wants the set in its "correct" form has to go buy a crappy set and THEN go through the mail process. The sets are still expensive and in ridiculous split-season format, and I won't be surprised if "the cost of clearing this music" makes future sets MORE expensive. Furthermore, as far as I know, Paramount is still hacking up "My Three Sons."

So, yeah, I'm glad Paramount seems to be fixing a problem here, but I reserve the right to wait and see. This company lost the benefit of the doubt with the way it handled the issue in the first place. I haven't been back to the Home Theater Forum today--I suspect by now the thread could be 10 pages long--so maybe some of these issues have been addressed. But I'm not as ready as Mr. Lacey to embrace Paramount despite this pleasant surprise.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

True Confessions: He's a Rebel

I feel like a real rebel today, folks. Want to know why?

Well, I'll tell you, but keep your voices down, will you? And don't repeat a word of this, mind you.

I rented a copy of Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" and watched it.

Yep, I sure did. I did this even though, since it's a Weinstein Company disc and that company has some kind of deal with Blockbuster, there is a big imposing message before the movie proclaiming...


It wasn't sold to me, and I didn't buy it. But I watched it, anyway! And I was able to watch it because I rented it!

Don't worry. I've taken precautions to make a quick escape in the event of an assault by the Feds on the sprawling Cultureshark Compound. I'll continue to post this week even though I may have to hole up in my underground communications center for a while.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Half-Assed Gourmet: Another Saturday night and I ain't got no dinner...

OK, so maybe my wife and I were asking for a hassle by attempting to go out for dinner on a Valentine's Day that fell on a Saturday. But we gave it a shot, anyway. It all turned out well, but not before a little misadventure at Bonefish Grill.

We had a relative drop by, which kept us from leaving as early as we planned, but we figured we'd call ahead and do some recon. So at about 4:00, my wife called Sweetwater Tavern and were told the wait was two hours plus. Thus endeth our plan to go there.

Then she called the hastily-chosen backup choice, Bonefish, which doesn't get crowded so early, and asked, "Could you tell us what the wait is?"

The answer: "About an hour."

My wife, rather surprised, said, "An hour? Really?"

And then the woman at Bonefish says, "Oh, you mean right now? There's no wait."


Mind you, Mrs. Shark hadn't asked, "What's the median wait at your establishment?" Nor did she say, "I'd like to know what the wait will be like when we get there at about 5:00 or 6:00." She asked what the wait was. She thought the "now" part was kind of implied.

So our family member stopped by a few minutes later, and we thought he was gonna go to dinner with us, but he declined. So we called the restaurant again at about 4:30 and asked what the wait was. "20-25 minutes," we were told. Well, that was a big step up from nothing, but still tolerable. So we bundled up the little one, got ourselves together, and made the 5-minute drive.

The parking lot was packed, so I popped in to ask, you guessed it, what the wait was. The hostess (I don't know if she was the one on the phone) asked, "Do you have reservations?" When I responded with a quick no, I heard, "Well, then it's gonna be at least two hours."


A lot had changed since we last called...10 minutes earlier, to say nothing of the first call less than an hour before, when there was no wait, nor any indication that there would BE a two-hour wait later. But after thinking it over, I realized the misunderstanding was probably all ours. After all, when we called the second time and were told the wait was 20-25 minutes, the woman clearly didn't mean that was the wait NOW; she meant that was the wait at 7:00 the night before. DUH!
(The Brooks family soldiered on, only to find Carraba's had "at least" a two-hour wait." So then we went to Austin Grill, or what I call "Fallback Grill" because it's overpriced for what it is but is the only restaurant nearby that doesn't have an insane wait on a weekend evening. We had a nice dinner and a good time, and so the story ended happily. My sense of time, however, was crippled.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

On the Radio: Genesis--but only certain Genesis

I like to check in with Baltimore's 102.7 JACK-FM every now and then because it purports to play "everything." That's not so, of course, but it does offer a lot of variety and a lot of pop songs I don't hear anywhere else.

This past week, though, the variety hasn't been as varied. For some reason, I am hearing a LOT of Genesis on there lately. The strange thing is, it's only Genesis from a certain time frame. I'm talking post-Peter-Gabriel but pre-Invisible-Touch here. I heard 3 or 4 different songs from this era last week.

How did this happen? Did some new program director come in and say, "Hey, you know what we need more of on here? GENESIS"?

Then perhaps someone responded, "Oh, yeah, we can put 'Throwing It All Away' back in the rotation, maybe 'No Son of Mine'..."

Only she was met with a curt dismissal by the P.D.: "No way, we're not playing that crap. That was their sellout period."

"Oh, so you want some of the old Peter Gabriel stuff, or maybe Steve Hackett? I don't know they had a lot of radio hits, but we can do 'Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' or--"

"NO! Damn it, none of that stuff. As far as this station is concerned, the genesis of Genesis was ABACAB! And don't try slipping in any 'Invisible Touch' stuff, because I know that album beginning to end. We don't need to play that anymore!"

Because, see, that's the weird thing: I didn't even hear the two arguably most enduring hits from that post-Gabriel, post-Hackett, pre-beer commercials era: "Misunderstanding" and "Turn It On Again." Those are on the "Duke," album which was the predecessor of "Abacab," so this window is even narrower when you really think about it.

Then again, it's quite possible I'm the only one thinking about it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Exclusive shows on Direct TV

After a few weeks of experiencing Direct TV while vacationing at my folks' place, I am more convinced than ever that I'm happy with regular old FIOS. It seems to me that if you don't want the NFL Sunday Ticket package--and I don't simply because it costs wayyyy too much--there's not a lot out I don't already get.

Actually, let me correct that: I think there are a whole lot of channels on satellite that I don't get now. Unfortunately, they're all shopping channels, and they're so prevalent in the lineup that it's tough to avoid them.

I am somewhat intrigued, though, by Direct TV's foray into original programming with its "The 101" channel, which can be found on channel 422. HA! No, it's on 101, of course, and while offerings like "Friday Night Lights," the current season of which debuted here before its run on NBC, get all the press, there are 101 exclusives on there that, though not gamechangers that are gonna make anyone switch TV providers, are entertaining time fillers.

"Rock and a Hard Place" is a music and pop culture trivia game show pitting "some of the hottest performers of the past," as per the channel's website, against each other. I saw the Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam vs. Da Brat episode, but now that I look at that list of episodes, I'm really bummed about missing Everclear vs. Starship.

The premise is simple, but there are some amusing twists to the questions and challenges. One round in the episode I saw featured contestants playing pop songs on a kazoo for their bandmates to identify. Meat Loaf is a surprisingly adept host, keeping up with the show's extremely fast pace and providing an engaging personality and some humor here and there.

Another 101 original is "Supreme Court of Comedy," in which two comedians argue a small-claims type case before "the honorable" Judge Dom Irrera. It is reminiscent of Lewis Black's "Root of All Evil" on Comedy Central, except much, much funnier. The gimmick of deciding simple disputes with comedians as representation works better than having the funnymen debate more abstract concepts like whether Paris Hilton is more evil than Donald Trump.

I saw Tom Arnold square off in court against Paul Mooney, and though each guy went to predictable places for his jokes, it was a lot more entertaining than I expected. Irrera is effective working the judge persona and gets off some good lines himself. It looks like the show is heavily edited to get down to a half-hour, and of course that has the effect of making all involved look sharper.

According to this, other episodes present courtroom match-ups such as Victoria Jackson vs. Rich Hall--Rich Hall!--and half the shows seem to have Arnold and/or Mooney. The lineup could maybe use a bit more starpower or at least diversity, but this cheapo half-hour is pretty funny, and if it were on Comedy Central, I'd give it at least a few more episodes.

These shows aren't strong enough on their own to make me even consider switching to satellite, but they are better than a lot of other costlier, more hyped productions on high-profile cable channels. It will be interesting to see if Direct TV makes any kind of waves with this kind of strategy. A few great shows here and there could turn some heads, but I don't know what kind of series would be enough to lure new customers. After all, it's a lot easier to tack on whatever bucks a month to your cable bill for HBO so you can get "The Sopranos" than it is to change your entire method of receiving TV signals.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I'm sick of horror movies on Friday the 13th

Today marks the return of the "Friday the 13th" franchise, one that apparently continues only to provide marketable product for a film studio to release on actual Fridays 13. And of course, we usually get a romantic comedy or female-centric movie to commemorate a Valentine's Day weekend, as well, but at least that's an actual holiday.

I don't mind movies being released to coincide with holidays, or even made for that reason, but coordinating their production to fit a date is a little much. Each Friday 13, if there isn't a Jason movie, there's some kind of horror movie to try to capitalize on the supposed OOH, SCARY nature of that "unlucky occasion."

This strategy has run its course. I want to see some variety. For example, we usually get big blockbusters for the Fourth of July, and maybe every now and then something that actually tries to be patriotic, like, well, "The Patriot," but I don't count movies like "Independence Day."

No, I want to see actual July 4 movies on or around July 4. Why should HBO be the only place to see the Founding Fathers? I say every Independence Day, give me something with guys in cool wigs bitching about the Brits. I suppose some kind of rah-rah jingoistic war movie will do, but I want the tradition to focus on the Revolutionary War era.

If we can get more horror movies just because the 13th happens to fall on a Friday, why can't we get, say, a Gouverneur Morris biopic for the Fourth?

This Week in DVD

W: What better way than to face the challenges that meet our country today and in the near future than to watch two hours fictionalizing the life of the man that just got voted out? Seriously, I kind of want to see this Oliver Stone biopic, but...the words "too soon" come to mind. Then an image of Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney comes to mind, and I reconsider.

Nights in Rodanthe: I liked Richard Gere and Diane Lane in "Unfaithful," but didn't know that pairing and "The Cotton Club" were enough to make them a modern-day Tracy and Hepburn. Yet when this one was released last year, we were told, "Gere and Lane are back," like we had all been salivating for another chance to see them play kissyface. But, hey, Valentine's Day is coming up, so if you are excited about this, good for ya. I'm going to expose my ignorance and say I had no idea where Rodanthe was (Hint: It's not the birthplace of Rodan).

Miracle at St. Anna: I'm intrigued by this WWII flick about an all-black Army division, and I'm not just saying that because it's a Spike Lee joint and anything negative I say might therefore be misconstrued as racist. But then there's this note on the screen in the commercial for the DVD: "Bonus Features on Blu-Ray Only."

You know, just like charging more for "standard-def" DVDs isn't going to make me more eager to go Blu-Ray, neither is saving extra content for the BD version. These tactics only make me LESS eager to buy the regular discs!

Frozen River: Star Melissa Leo's nomination makes this movie this year's Unheralded Indie of the Academy Awards. Of course, that usually means the movie's depressing as hell.

Soul Men: Bernie Mac's sudden death cast an unfortunate pall over the release, but then again, maybe it will give people an extra reason to seek out this tepidly-reviewed but interesting-sounding movie starring Mac and Jack (Samuel L. Jackson) as musicians. I can't say whether or not this was a hidden gem overshadowed by the tragedy, but I can say that it really sucks that Mac is gone.

What Makes Sammy Run: This looks like a real treat. Koch, the company behind the recent Studio One Anthology, mines the Golden Age of Television again with this acclaimed adaptation of Budd Schulberg's searing Hollywood novel. I haven't seen this or read the book, but I know the name Sammy Glick. And, hey, I know it's "searing." Isn't that enough? Koch includes some bonus material, including a commentary, in what looks like a classy vintage TV presentation.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy birthday, Mr. President...

Happy Birthday to Abraham Lincoln, who is definitely in my top couple dozen or favorite presidents and rebounded from assassination to star in such movies as "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."

If only one could walk into a bookstore and, perhaps desirous of learning more about the man, find something to read about him. If only...

Seriously, I was in a Borders today and there were almost as many Lincoln volumes as there were employees running around trying to look busy. I think the approximate breakdown of books in that entire store went like this. Now, I was only there for a half-hour and didn't do a thorough count, so take the numbers with a grain of corn--good, hearty corn such as that which Lincoln himself might have grown.

27%--Books about A. Lincoln
18%--Books of or about the 'Twilight" franchise
16%--Books by, about, or that "inspired" President Obama
13%--Children's books
26%--Everything else.

And just think, some of those children's books are probably about Honest Abe, too.

I have a few Lincoln books at home myself, and even a few unread ones I've been meaning to get to, but, gosh, the amount of material out there is staggering. Yet--and I've bemoaned this before--not one single Wallace Beery bio out there on the shelves. Are we really celebrating Abraham Lincoln's legacy in the right way?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Panel Discussion: Dick Tracy Part 2

"My, oh, my, forget Tess Trueheart," you must be asking, "Who is THIS lovely lady? This handsome woman is none other than Lu, mastermind of a counterfeiting ring. How could such a doll get caught up in high crimes? How did she go from "Collier's" to wanted posters, from runways to police lineups, from billboards to APBs? How will a delicate flower like this survive in the hothouse of a women's prison?

Before we leave, let's take another look at the police chief's share of the witty repartee. Not only does he throw out an effective variant of the classic "wouldn't trust you as far as," line, but he spices it up with a reference to his lumbago. Cutting and to the point, yet self-deprecating--THAT'S how you banter with a criminal.

Not that I really believe poor Lu is a criminal. I guess I'm just taken in by her feminine wiles, but despite several weeks' worth of strips providing evidence to the contrary, I find myself believing that she really is just a victim of circumstance. Dick Tracy can make mistakes, too, you know!

This is yet another fine panel from Volume 1 of IDW's reprint series. I posted part 1 on Friday. Stay tuned, fans, because next week, part 3 of the Dick Tracy Panel Discussions features one of the most shocking comic strip scenes ever as we get back to good old-fashioned mayhem.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thinking of Linking

Some interesting things I've seen lately:

*If you're interested in the new Bruce Springsteen joint, you can read about 40 words on it in "Entertaimment Weekly" or you can check out my amigo Mike's analysis here.

*Ken Jennings, who isn't my amigo but seems like a decent chap, has an amusing take on "Lost's" time travel theme this season.

*I found this through Baseball Musings: An awesome exploration of the pursuit of Babe Ruth's career home run record in 1973 by...Snoopy!

*I feel comfortable declaring this the Best Marvel Comic of 2009 already, even though it won't be here till summer: Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting examining the history of the Marvel Universe.

*Roger Ebert goes existential in his blog.

Good-bye, Varsity TV. I hardly knew ye.

I got a message on my FIOS TV menu last a few weeks ago that Varsity TV is gone. I'd like to give it a proper tribute, talk about how it will be missed, etc., but really I can't believe it's been around this long.

In the two years or so I've seen it--well, "seen" indicates watching, so maybe "had" it is more accurate--I think this channel aired 3 programs. I remember something called "John Something Private Eye," then there was something called "Prague Diaries," then there was some kind of show about extreme sports. And Varsity TV ran these over and over and over again. At least this is what I gleaned from the program listings. I think each time I flipped it to this channel, some black and white low-budget show was on. Maybe it was the private eye thing.

I think a cable network targeting college students and even with-it high-schoolers is a great idea, but I'm not sure what Varsity TV was doing. It claimed to be about teens and by teens and for teens, but I never saw any of that Channels like that are the ones that make people think there really are too many out there.

Apparently FIOS agrees with that sentiment because as of today, it has replaced Varsity TV in the lineup with...nothing.

Monday, February 9, 2009

F(UN)-Facts about The Merry Widow (1934)

I just watched the 1934 version of "The Merry Widow" the other day and decided to compile some neato f(un)-facts about it. Did you know...

*The operetta on which this was based was titled "The Rather Sprightly and Dare We Say Quite Gay In Spirit Woman Who, Having Lost Her Husband, Encountered Love." Director Ernst Lubitsch said, "Hey, let's call it 'The Merry Widow.'" That's the Lubitsch Touch!

*Star Maurice Chevalier took 3 weeks of voice lessons to lose his thick New York accent for this film.

*Co-star Jeanette MacDonald's singing voice was dubbed by a young Andy Williams.

*The opening musical number "Girls! Girls! Girls!," in which soldiers march and sing about how the only reason they wage war is for Girls! later inspired the Motley Crue hit single of the same name.

*If you look closely at the scene in which Chevalier's character reintroduces himself to the ladies of Parisian society, you can see Cloris Leachman dancing in the background.

*This story, set in the kingdom of Marshovia, is based on a real incident. Only the real incident precipitated World War I, while the movie takes some dramatic license and ignores that consequence.

*In an ironic turn of events, the producers, lured by tax breaks, filmed "The Merry Widow" not in Marshovia, but in neighboring Freedonia.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Brooks on Books: Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins

Let's say good-bye to football season with a look at this 1977 novel. Now, I've read a lot of books and a fair number of novels in my lifetime. I don't know offhand how many sports novels I've read, though, so I may not have the best credentials, but I'll say this: Dan Jenkins' football novel "Semi-Tough" must be one of the best and funniest sports novels ever written. It has to be.

The conceit is that we are reading the transcribed dictations of star Giants running back Billy Clyde Puckett, mostly dictated during the weekend leading up to the Super Bowl against the "dog-ass" Jets, as Billy Clyde refers to them about a thousand times. It sounds simple, and it is, as we get a breezy read written in Puckett's "down-home" but razor-sharp voice. However, within this gimmick, we also get a whole lot of material for an alleged several days of audio recordings.

On one level, the book is a diary of a fictional pro football player, a work that takes us into the locker room and beyond to give a riotous and insightful look at the sport behind the scenes. We also become well acquainted with the other two points of the trio of lifelong friends that form the book's core: wide receiver Marvin "Shake" Tiller and his girlfriend Barbara Jean.

But through Puckett's narration, Jenkins also examines racism, friendship, love, materialism, popular culture, big business, and a host of other topics. The deceptively casual style of the book often belies its depth. Don't underestimate the narrator's intelligence just because of his Southern dialect and name. The character is a canny commentator with a fine eye for detail and a great wit. Yet he's credible throughout as a professional football player. You never get the feeling Jenkins is forcing his own authorial voice at the expense of his characters.

One might also underestimate "Semi-Tough" because of its no-holds-barred profanity, sex, and other adult themes. Of course, one might also embrace the book BECAUSE OF those things. Either way, this is an adult book all the way. It's often juvenile--one character's defining characteristic is his unparalleled ability to summon awe-inspiring flatulence at will--but never too much so. There's stupid crude and funny crude, and this novel is the latter, though for many, it may skirt the line.

Just as it still seems raunchy nearly 40 years later, it's also still relevant. Jenkins, a former sportswriter, gets a lot of football in here, describing some of the subtleties of the game on the field and poking fun at the corporate nature of it off the field. Even then, Jenkins saw the NFL as overcommercialized, and his comedic expression of that holds up well today. His exploration of race, particularly race relations in the locker room, may shock more today, actually. I get the sense that Jenkins is of the "let's just put all our cards on the table and not be afraid to offend anybody" school of fighting racism, and he sure gets them on the table right from the get-go.

Ultimately, it all comes back to the laughs. This is a hilarious novel, and even when it gets a tad more philosophical at the end, it never fails to entertain. "Semi-Tough" is a fast read but an engrossing and rewarding one. Anyone going through pro football withdrawal after the Super Bowl can do themselves a big favor by picking it up.

Cultureshark Remembers James Whitmore

I think the best way to pay tribute to veteran performer James Whitmore, who passed away the other day, is to share this video with you. I'm not a huge scanner of YouTube, but this is one of the funniest things I've ever seen there. Without further ado, courtesy of the, a "lesson" on how to steal a scene, delivered by Mr. Whitmore in "Them!":

(Sorry, but I don't think this is embeddable)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

5Q Movie Review: The Dark Knight

Q: Hey, what took you so long to see this?
A: Uh, well--hey, come on! I wanted to, but life got in the way. Give me a break, OK? A fairer question might be what took me so long to write about this, since I saw it over the holidays at my parents' house. But let's not ask that question.

Q: So does "The Dark Knight" live up to the hype?
A: This is going to sound like a cop-out, but I don't really know. I think I need another viewing to digest it and really think about it. One of the amazing things about the film is the ideas that are thrown out there. On one hand, it's surprising, almost exhilarating, to see a superhero movie be so much ABOUT something--several things, actually.

On the other hand, by straining to cover so much intellectual ground, I think the film loses some visceral ground. The movie brings some exciting sequences, but when it was all over, I still felt that "The Dark Knight" didn't deliver on the action as much as I would have liked. I also had a sense that, after all the speeches, I was being lectured at for a while--not advocacy-wise, but just generally lectured at, like I was watching a debate.

In short, I feel I need to see it again to really evaluate it, but for now I think it was a really good movie but just short of my expectations given the hype and the incredible box office and reviews.

Q: Well, does Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker live up to the hype?
A: Absolutely, it does. Ledger's performance will endure as a chilling portrait of unhinged evil. It's one of the best movie villains ever, partly because of the acting and partly because the film doesn't give him a backstory or motivations, and we never see him as a "normal being." Contrast this with, say, the bad guys in the "Spider-Man" movies, and you see how this character is so much more effective. Of course, "Dark Knight" is also more grim (it's amazing that a movie this relentlessly bleak could make so much money) than those flicks. Ledger's Joker is an essential piece of this dark movie, a genuinely disturbing presence.

Q: Is "The Dark Knight" better than "Batman Begins"? And will you be pumped for the third one?
A: In some ways, this sequel betters its predecessor. The fight scenes that are there are shot better, for one thing. and there aren't as many cutesy jokes cluttering up the dialogue. Ledger's Joker brings a whole new dimension to the proceedings, and as a secondary character, Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent brings more depth than did Scarecrow.

But where does the franchise go from here? I can't help but think the story would have played out a lot differently were it known Ledger would not be available. It looks like a lot of potential was used up in this second installment. Not that Ledger's death is in any way a positive, but perhaps the closing of several avenues (not just Ledger, but other characters and ideas) will force the series to reinvent itself with another fresh take. As long as Christopher Nolan is in charge, I have no reason to think the next movie won't be as ambitious as the first two and I definitely want to see how it turns out.

Q: What's the deal with all the so-called political ideology? How does this comic book movie work as a metaphor for the dark times of the Bush Administration?
A: I know a lot of people said that at the time, but seeing it at the end of 2008 and trying to find some political content, I couldn't discern such a blatant theme. The themes I think are more philosophical, sociological, and psychological than political. I'm willing to listen to anyone who believes otherwise, but I think for every "anti-Bush" or "pro-Bush" aspect, one could come up with a counterargument.

For the record, I don't quite understand all of Batman's actions at the end, but I agree with most of what he did in the movie, and the citizens of Gotham were nuts for turning on him--one of the plot elements I find hard to take.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Panel Discussion: Dick Tracy Part 1

I was slowly working my way through Volume 1 of the excellent IDW "Dick Tracy" reprint series, trying to prolong the experience as much as possible, until somewhere along the way the book went from really good to great. Now I'm finding it difficult to slow down.

Part of what makes the old "Dick Tracy" so great is the violence, or sometimes the threat of it. Check out this panel from October 31, 1932:

Pretty hardcore for 1932, huh? No--it's hardcore for today. I just don't see this kind of material in the funnies today. Granted, the "adventure strip" is increasingly rare, and I could hardly expect to see Alexander Bumstead threatened with disfigurement from a hot iron, but still...

A while back, I discussed this book with one of my local comic book shop guys and we mentioned how violent the strips were. "Someone's always getting shot," I said. He responded, "Yeah, but they don't just get shot, they, like, get shot in the gut and bleed out."

And, ladies and gentlemen, I actually giggled at that--not a Pillsbury Doughboy full-on giggle, but a giggle nonetheless. But he was right.

In the next "Panel Discussion," we'll take a break from this danger and violence to explore the glamour of "Dick Tracy"--ooh, la, la! Then, in part 3, it's back to the dark side with one of the most shocking comic strip panels ever! Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

This Week in DVD

First, the "Can't possibly be as good as the box covers indicate" DVDs of the week:

Now on with the show:

*Zack and Miri: In some places, they're just Zack and Miri. In others, they "Make a Porno." I'm not feeling particularly edgy today, so we'll go with the conservative version of the title of Kevin Smith's latest. This one is at Cultureshark Tower just waiting a screening.

*Mystery Science Theater 3000: Another box set of 4 new-to-DVD episodes. I came late to the party on this series, so all I can say is I love seeing these.

*Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist: Billed as an intelligent teen comedy, but then again, if Michael Cera starred in a shot-for-shot remake of "Porky's," it would be billed as an intelligent teen comedy.

*Martini Movies: Sony gives us another batch of 5 seemingly disparate films: "Vibes," "Our Man in Havana," "Gumshoe," "Getting Straight," and "Five." What could these possibly have in common? Duh! They're all on DVD, silly.

*Natalie Wood Collection: There are a lot of her movies I haven't seen, but I feel I should mention this, anyway, What a gorgeous woman she was.

*Oliver and Company 20th Anniversary Edition: You know, I'm celebrating the 19th anniversary of having forgotten this Disney animated feature ever existed.

*Becker and Dave's World Seasons 2: Part of Paramount's unofficial "Forgotten Sitcoms of the 90s" line. I'll tell you what, though, for a forgotten show, "Becker" sure is on TV a hell of a lot. Nothing against it, but in what kind of world can this be on a dozen times a day and "Cheers" not at all? Have I gone mad?

*Night Court Season 2: There are now as many seasons of "Dave's World" on DVD as there are of "Night Court." Apparently, season 1 of "Night Court" didn't set the charts ablaze, so fans now get a second chance. And if you make sure you buy THIS set...there's still a snowball's chance of getting the rest of the series.

And I'm outta here...hey, did I mention Steve Guttenberg plays Jessica Simpson's agent in "Private Valentine?"

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Our Favorite TV Personalities

According to a recent Harris Poll, Jay Leno is America's favorite TV personality. You can read all about it right here.

Now, my first impulse when I read this last week was, "Oh, my God! Something happened to Maury Povich?" But after I read the article, I soon realized that, no, he was obviously just excluded due to some inexplicable oversight.

Then I thought, "Jay Leno? Really?" I saw this article linked at TV Tattle, and in their summary, they referred to the poll as the "well-respected Harris Poll," as if they knew people were gonna call B.S. on Leno "winning" such a survey. Well, turns out it's not a poll targeting only guys named Harris, it's a real poll with science and methodology and stuff, so I guess we have to acknowledge Jay's popularity.

I have no problem with that, but what I call the Entertainment Elite might still refuse to believe that people actually find Leno such a likable, appealing performer. Much of the EE still likes to pretend Leno's success is some kind of anomaly or just a tribute to the sheer numbers of "the sticks." I'll get to what might comprise an EE-approved list in a minute, but first let me go through the rest of the "real" list after Jay:

2) Hugh Laurie: America loves a cranky TV doctor who treats us like vermin? I guess it's OK because everyone knows he's British and therefore much more polite and gracious in real life.

3) Ellen DeGeneres: I still don't see how anyone who watches her dance--i.e. anyone who sees 5 minutes of any given episode of her talk show--could like her enough to make her number 3. But I'm not a Harris, so what do I know?

4) Oprah Winfrey: I thought she'd be higher, actually. Are people holding her weight gain against her? Her frequent bamboozlements by dishonest authors? Her refusal to make Steadman an honest man?

5) David Letterman: I'm actually surprised he's THIS high. The Entertainment Elite would like to pretend he's been whipping Jay all these years.

6) Jon Stewart: Hmm, maybe this list isn't so different from the EE's take after all.

7) Charlie Sheen: His placement this high proves that America still believes that everybody deserves a fifth chance.

8) Steve Carell: I was gonna say America must not be holding "Evan Almighty" against him, but then, who saw "Evan Almighty?" And if so, who remembers?

9) Stephen Colbert: See #6.

10) Mark Harmon: Yes, Virginia, there is a top-rated show called "NCIS." I have to admit part of me is still unwilling to accept that phenomenon. Maybe people just still love "St. Elsewhere."

The Entertainment Elite, that all-powerful group that controls the entertainment news media, the countless stream of pop culture awards, and the entire entertaino-industrial complex, would grant some of these celebrities their likability, but they would 86 many others. Mark Harmon? He's on that show that all the rubes like. Charlie Sheen? Nah, nobody that "matters" watches "Two and a Half Men."

Here's how I think an EE-approved list would look:

1) Tina Fey
2) Oprah
3) Jon Stewart
4) Alec Baldwin
5) Simon Cowell
6) Stephen Colbert
7) David Letterman
8) The cast of "Gossip Girl"
9) Justin Timberlake (He's on TV an awful lot for someone without a "regular" role, and look how the media goes gaga over him)
10) Keifer Sutherland

And if you don't like any of these 10, then they'll force them down your throats, and if you persist in denying their essential likability, then there's something wrong with you.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Let's all laugh at Richard Dreyfuss

I know there have been key events recently that inspired hope in Americans--the Inauguration, the Steelers winning the Super Bowl--but these are still trying times. In such difficult times, I think the country can benefit from doing what I like to do when I'm feeling down or stressed: Mock Richard Dreyfuss.

It just so happens that DVD Talk reviewer Paul Mavis has given us some excellent laughing material in one brief but glorious paragraph in his review of "Rona Barrett's Hollywood," a compilation of celebrity interviews she conducted for TV in the 1970s. I can't possibly do this justice by summarizing, so instead I quote:

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Aggressively egomaniacal Richard Dreyfuss, here interviewed in 1981, pontificates about sex and bachelorhood as only former cocaine-addict Dreyfuss could. Dreyfuss' pseudo-intellectual rap, fully aided by a rapt Barrett, is nauseatingly intense. Dreyfuss loves to hear himself talk, and here he insists that no other man but himself knows what truly meaningful sex is like, and that he's better than every other guy, because everyone he grew up with was conditioned to mindlessly score with as many girls as possible, while he alone wants a "real" encounter with a woman (this from a guy married three times). The best (and worst) moment has to be when Dreyfuss lets his elitist side show when he proclaims that although his parents' income was middle-class, they fortunately didn't possess "middle-class intellects." Jesus, what a tool.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Paul Mavis! I'm always up for a good mocking of Richard Dreyfuss, and this is probably the single funniest thing I've read in an online DVD review since...well, maybe ever.

The rest of the review is entertaining as well, though not on that level. But that's not a knock on Mavis, but an indication of how supremely idiotic Dreyfuss must be on this disc.

So, America, sit back, grab a cold one, and let's all laugh at Richard Drefyuss. We deserve it.

(By the way, despite Mavis practically begging us not to buy or even rent this Rona Barrett DVD, and despite the ample evidence he provides as to how it doesn't even succeed as kitsch, I still kind of want to rent it. Maybe America should have a laugh at my expense.)

Entertainment returns to FamilyNet TV

Well, not that "inspirational" programming can't be entertaining, but...ah, let's just say that this small inspirational channel has apparently altered its programming focus somewhat, devoting a big chunk of its schedule now to entertainment programs (albeit ones with family appeal) instead of the religious-based fare that had been (and still is if you consider the whole schedule) its staple.

When I first got this channel a few years ago, it was running oldies like "My Little Margie," "Life with Elizabeth," and "I Married Joan," but not that often, and mostly in low-profile timeslots. At some point last year or so, it phased most of those out, and I tuned out of FamilyNet. The addition of "I Spy" didn't do much for me, and for a while that and "The Loretta Young Show" pretty much filled the "secular" spots in the lineup.

Now, however, as part of what it calls "Families on FamilyNet," you can see "Happy Days," "Family Ties," and "Early Edition," (I don't know if I get that last one, but I think it's relatively wholesome, so it's Family enough), all in prime time. Best of all, though, is what kicks off this new lineup at 6:00 PM, then is repeated at 2:00 AM for the night owls: A double shot of "My Three Sons," the color Uncle Charley years.

I'm not terribly interested in the other shows right now, though I think it's nice to have "Ties" on somewhere, at least, and I might check out the occasional "Happy Days" rerun, but I'm glad the "Sons" are back on TV. I don't know if FamilyNet looks at ratings the same way other networks do, but if this philosophy works out for them, maybe we'll see more "selling out" and maybe some more adventurous (read: older) family-oriented sitcoms like "Donna Reed" or "Father Knows Best."

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Wonderful World of TCM: You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)

OK, this aired many moons ago on TCM, but the fact that I just got around to it last week is no indication of the quality of this cool Warner Brothers crime flick. This 1939 feature is one of the many crime/gangster movies Humphrey Bogart did before he "blew up," to use the parlance of today (or of 2004, at least). I don't think Turner Classic shows it often, but it's an entertaining if sometimes hokey movie, one certainly worthy of a DVD release in the near future.

As the title indicates, the movie intends to teach us a lesson by dramatizing a conflict between good and evil. Ultimately, however, the real conflict is between Bogart's natural charisma and the effort of the filmmakers to turn him into a creep. Guess which wins?

Bogey is a thug who's sort of mentoring Dead End Kid Billy Halop. In this movie, Halop is just plain old Johnny Stone, a basically decent kid who idolizes Bogart to the dismay of his sister Madge (Gale Page) and her cop boyfriend Fred (Harvey Stephens). Bogey and Billy have some neato adventures, like sticking up a gas station, until a botched pawn shop robbery leads to a murder and we soon find ourselves in a prison movie.

See, the murder weapon Bogart uses happens to be a gun Billy swiped from Fred. The authorities not only pinch the two for the gas stickup, but somehow manage to send poor Fred to the big house for the pawn shop murder. Despite everyone (except maybe Fred) taking a somewhat nonchalant attitude and believing that the case will never hold up on appeals, Madge's beau is sent to the chair. He's certain to fry for a crime he didn't commit...unless SOMEONE can set the record straight. Someone who might have some kind of information that could maybe implicate someone else...hmm...

At an hour and 20 minutes, the film is never tiresome, but at a certain point you just root for the kid to go ahead and do what you expect him to do. The morality play aspect isn't the reason to watch, though; that would be the tough-guy patter of our man Humphrey, who is a lot of fun and brings real star power here. I find Halop's anguish hilariously overwrought at times, and Page and Stephens don't have much to give us, but Bogart is always a treat with his alternately reassuring and intimidating remarks to his young protege.

The supporting cast features great work from Henry Travers as the requisite kindly old longtime inmate--his name, "Pop," tells you all you need to know about him--and Harold Huber as a stuff-stirring con who walks around the entire movie with a big wise-ass smirk on his face. He tries to to get a big escape going, and the whole time I'm imagining how big that smirk will be if he DOES get away. It might require early Cinemascope.

Back to Bogey, though. I don't know who is to "blame," exactly--director Lewis Seiler, the credited screenwriters, the men who wrote the original play, or simply the general prevailing code at Warners in 1939--but the already-growing Humphrey Bogart persona, one which makes his generic hood character compelling, shares screen time with some vile actions. "You Can't Get Away With Murder" makes every effort to undermine Bogart's cool by showing him as cowardly, disloyal, selfish...and, oh, yeah, murderous and without regard for human life. Beyond his criminal activities, though, the ones that we're sort of supposed to resent, he's a real heel to Johnny, and THAT'S what's supposed to turn us against him.

Does it work? Nah. Maybe in 1939, audiences rooted for Bogey to get some kind of comeuppance. As I watch it in 2009, though, the attempts to deglamorize him seem forced, even desperate. The movie would still be entertaining without H.B., but not as worthy of a second viewing. It's that tough-guy delivery, the menacing glances, and the cocky swagger--even before Bogart became a superstar--that make his character cool in spite of the story's best efforts to prove otherwise. It's also what makes "You Can't Get Away With Murder" essential viewing for Bogart fans and a safe pick for fans of crime and gangster pics of the era--and aren't we all?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

And they can KEEP their crummy paperbacks!

One of the finest magazines this nation has ever produced, "Mad," is going quarterly, as Mark Evanier discussed earlier this week. This is one of those magazines that should be around in some form forever, just like "Life," "The Saturday Evening Post," and "Spicy Adventure Stories."

Conversation I had with myself after reading the news:

ME: Hey, "Mad" is only gonna be a quarterly now. What a shame. It should be on the stands every month.
MYSELF: I know. I grew up reading it. If that magazine can't make it, which one can?
ME: I grew up reading it, too, you know. But it's tough for print mags these days. Hey, when was the last time YOU bought a new issue?
MYSELF:, it's been a while.
ME: Yeah, a long while. And it had been even longer before you bought THAT issue!
MYSELF: Hey, I could say the same of you, pal.
I: Hey, neither of you supported "Mad" in years, so neither of you should be complaining about this.
ME AND MYSELF: Ah, shaddap!

I guess I kind of took "Mad Magazine" for granted for a long time, even though whenever I saw a copy in recent years, I was pleasantly surprised to find it still funny. We should all have a chance to pick up a new issue when we want one, though I must admit that maybe nothing compares to the joy of being a young'un discovering the irreverent brand of humor from the Usual Gang of Idiots.

With this great publication on the decline, where are kids today getting their wit from? The Internet? BAH! Kids can't take the Internet into their classrooms, can they?

They can? Who the heck gave kids all these computers, anyway?

Getting back to the original point, I may not have bought it much lately, but I'd sure hate to see "Mad" go. It was bad enough to see the end of those cheap paperback collections they sold through bookstores and gave away as subscription premiums. Don't let the crummy magazine go away, too!

Super Bowl Storylines I'll Be Following

THE SPREAD: Will the buffet at my mother-in-law's party include chicken wings?

HEALTH ISSUES: Will my stomach hold up to a full assortment of spicy, fattening, and otherwise not-so-good-for-me grub?

EXPERIENCE: How will our baby daughter respond to her first Super Bowl party? Can she withstand the crowd, the bright lights, the atmosphere?

ENDURANCE: And will she be cranky when we wake her up sometime around halftime to make the short drive back home?

CROWD NOISE: Will the other guests drown out Al Michaels and John Madden? Not that I'd be that upset if they did.

HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: Will we get priority in getting the best seats in front of the TV? How will having an infant factor into that?

And, oh, yeah, will the Steelers win? Because I sure hope they do.