Thursday, April 30, 2009

This Week in DVD

The Hit: Criterion + Talented Cast and Behind-the-Lens Personnel + Crime Theme = Pretentious, overpraised art pic. Wait, no, what am I saying? I mean that all that equals a sure-fire quality DVD package. Jeez, I don't know what got me there.

Johnny Got His Gun: Maybe THIS got me. I have wanted to see this anti-war movie ever since Metallica used clips for its epic "One" video. I'll bet many others have, too, but this has been all but out of circulation for years, and all we ever hear about it is, yeah, it's the one from the Metallica video, it's kind of spooky, and Dalton Trumbo wrote it. Now we get to see it and freak out together. I mean all of us. Any volunteers to host? I'll bring the sesame sticks.

Bride Wars: Anne Hathaway might have made many forget about her acclaimed performance in "Rachel Got Married" had anyone seen this goofy wedding-angst comedy. And Kate Hudson might have...She might have...Uh, what was that good movie she was in a while back? Where she was, like, a groupie or something? And that kid was palling around with Billy Crudup while all those songs played?

JCVD: This is a piece of film history, folks: Since I am getting this from Netflix, this is, yes, the first Jean Claude Van Damme movie I have ever paid money to see! I am looking forward to this piece of meta VanDammery, too.

Frost/Nixon: Complete Interviews: Uh, it's cool that the complete interviews are out now, but I kind of feel like a tool for bothering to rent the Watergate segments when they came out a few weeks ago. I want to see it all! I'm hoping David Frost asked the former prez about the single most disgraceful act he ever performed in office--declaring Texas the national champion for 1969 when Penn State was 11-0.

Nothing but the Truth: Rod Lurie's tale, loosely inspired by the Judith Miller/Valerie Plame saga, proves that audiences won't turn out to see adult political thrillers...when the studios refuse to release them in theaters.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cary Grant: Best Cartoon Voice Ever?

With apologies to industry legends like Mel Blanc and Daws Butler, I am beginning to think the best cartoon voice of all time belongs to Cary Grant. I believe this despite Grant, to my knowledge, never having done a voice for a cartoon.

It's why Cary Granite is one of the best-loved supporting characters in the history of "The Flintstones," it's why Fancy was never blown off the screen by Choo-Choo and Benny the Ball in "Top Cat," and it's why I sat transfixed watching old "Dick Tracy" cartoons with my father around Christmastime.

"Dick Tracy" is a fun show but not what I'd call a classic. But each time a certain character came on the screen, a police officer/dog who led "The Retouchables" in an ongoing fight against crime, I couldn't look away. He fascinated me, and it was at least 97.32% because of his ersatz Cary Grant accent. Sure, on some intellectual level, I realized that I was watching a series of drawings and that the voice was not actually coming from that dog. But on my unintellectual level, I was like, "Whoa, that is one debonair dog!"

I put on a disc of Harveytoons a while back, and suddenly in the middle of one, a character named The Cat appeared, a feline that happened to talk like Grant. The voice didn't fool me, nor did it likely fool anyone else then or since, into thinking it actually WAS Cary Grant, but that mattered not. Just the act of "doing Cary Grant" gave The Cat credibility. It made the cartoon more compelling right away.

Oh, how I wish the great man himself had actually voiced some cartoons. It might be too much to expect a full-fledged series like "The New Adventures of Cary Grant" on 1970s Saturday morning TV, but he could have done some guest work on "Wait Till Your Father gets Home," for example. Or put him on "The Jetsons," saying--you guessed it--"Judy, Judy, Judy" to the awestruck Jetson teenager.

We missed out on a lot, but we still have the enduring legacy of the Cary Grant voice in cartoons, even if it was never done by Cary Grant.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cultureshark Remembers Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur, who died this weekend of cancer at 86, was one of the funniest women ever on television. I want to say that right away because I think somewhere along the way, her talent as a comedienne was overshadowed by her reputation as a tough broad. The tall, imposing appearance and the deep voice helped give her a certain aura, for sure, and then there were those characters she played: There aren't many actresses who could have softened their images by playing Dorothy Zbornak on "The Golden Girls," but that was Bea. One of her catchphrases on that show was telling Betty White, "Shut up, Rose," but even then, you see it now and you're like, "Wow, she's a lot mellower than she was on 'Maude.'"

But leave that and her status in recent years as a "go-to gal" for comics looking to get a cheap laugh at someone's lack of femininity and/or attractiveness (I believe it was Jeffrey Ross who coined the joke, "I wouldn't engage in marital relations with you even were I to use the male appendage of Bea Arthur," although he said it in much cruder and funnier language) aside. Bea Arthur was funny, funny, funny. I don't know that she gets enough credit for that. I know comedy is a matter of personal taste, but I'd sure rather watch something with Bea Arthur--even the "Star Wars Holiday Special"--than the average, say, Lucille Ball show.

Bea Arthur could crack me up with not just a sarcastic putdown (I love how those two words ever go together--how come we never hear about a "sincere putdown?"), but with a mere facial expression. Some of the best moments on "Maude" and "The Golden Girls" are simple reaction shots that just frame Arthur and linger on her for a few seconds. The woman was brilliant.

One of the characteristics of a great comedian is the ability to make you laugh even when you know the line (or the take) is coming, or maybe especially when you know it's coming. Much of what I remember Bea Arthur for is like that--material that doesn't surprise me in and of itself but becomes hilarious due to her timing.

Bea Arthur, one of the greats, is already missed. R.I.P.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Notes from a Borders

Every now and then, I like to visit the local bookstore to see what's new and what's shaking. Since I don't really have a local bookstore, I usually just head to the nearest Borders.

*There are still plenty of books about Lincoln and Obama all over the place. If you like the history section, you'd better like Lincoln. If you like just walking into the store and looking at the new and notable releases, you'd better like Lincoln. And the current prez is still soaking up the retail space, with his mug adorning books, commemorative inauguration mags and papers, and so on. There are dozens of other presidents, too, you know. I saw a softcover edition of a recent Polk bio. How about some more love for James K. Polk?

*I'm not as big a follower of tennis as I used to be, nor am I much of a player (I get out on the courts, oh, about never). Yet I'm intrigued by two new releases and glad to see tennis get some prime shelf placement right in the front of the store.

It took me a long time to warm up to Monica Seles, and though she's using her eating disorder as the hook for her memoirs, I'd like to read about her overall career. But though I get that a "grip" is a vital part of any tennis pro's game, couldn't someone have offered her a less-mockable title than "Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self"? Or is my inner Beavis going overboard here?

*The other interesting tennis book just released is "A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, A World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played." Now, there is a lot of hyperbole in that title, yes, but the match in question is a Davis Cup tussle between legendary Don Budge and...uh, a German player. All I know about him is that he was in trouble with the Nazis, and he was apparently Extraordinary. When the Nazis are involved against the Americans, I think we can all agree the word Greatest is in play. It looks like a fascinating story about a sporting event that is seldom discussed today. If author Marshall Jon Fisher can deliver on the implication of his title and tie the world atmosphere into the tennis, it ought to be a great read.

*Speaking of dominating the shelves: "Twilight." Still. I guess it's good for business, but I can't remember the last time I entered a Borders without nearly stumbling into one of those books (or related products).

*This location, at least is having a big 50% CD and DVD sale, but it looks to be older stuff that is already priced to high. I wonder if they're phasing out those products. I don't like buying music there, but I enjoy listening to it every now and then.

*A look at the sports section reveals a pleasant surprise--the DK WWE Encyclopedia is an impressive-looking book, loaded with pics and info in an attractive package. I won't pay 50 bucks for it, but if it hits the bargain tables, yeah, I'd snap that up. I leafed through it at random, with my only deliberate move a turn to the entry on notorious murderer Chris Benoit. His presence is a shock given the WWE's attempt to erase him from its history.

*I'm disappointed, however, at the lack of new baseball books. This is the time of year, Borders. Step it up! I notice what appears to be a new Yogi Berra book on the bottom shelf. Unfortunately for this poor author, several shelves above, in a prime display spot closer to eye level, is Allan Barra's well-publicized and pushed (at least in the sports world) Yogi bio. This kind of thing happens, of course, in many media, but how would you like to work your tail off on a definitive book about someone only to be overshadowed by a similar effort at about the same time?

*I'm again disappointed by the ongoing shrinkage of the Movie/TV section. People are still making books about these subjects. I love visiting this section in any bookstore, but it seems many places don't want to give it much space. I don't know if this particular Borders is deliberate in this effort or if it's just part of what appears to be an overall reduction in the total book inventory.

*Someone hands out free samples of a delicious strawberry-flavored drink, and I'm tempted, but it just seems the wrong time of day to spend 4 bucks on a drink that'll I down in about 30 seconds. But I like the freebie! It would be funny if employees walked around with a tray of books and offered to read you a sample of some new novel or something.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

On the Radio: All Summer Long Redux

The other day I was in between CDs and flipping around the radio to and from work. In that short span of driving time, I heard Kid Rock's "All Summer Long" not once, not twice, but 3 different times. I'm not going to go into what I feel about the song again, but come on, 3 times in one day?

As if that stat weren't bad enough, the song played on 3 different stations. One is more or less a straight rock station, another an adult contemporary, and the third a pop-rock/top 40 without all but the poppiest hip hop kind of deal. 3 times on 3 different stations in one day!

Hearing this song once is an irritant, hearing it twice is a nuisance, and hearing it thrice is a harbinger of doom. See, it's not even May yet, and already this "summer anthem" is playing again.

Come to think, though, maybe it never really left. Is it possible that Kid Rock's big hit, the unofficial song of the summer of 2008, lingered around long enough to become the song of the summer of 2009?
I want to believe that America is capable of better, but I worry. Yes, it's April, but it's supposed to get up to 90 degrees around here today, and I'm afraid "All Summer Long" already has an important beachhead on the radio. There's always a chance some dumb rap song will come along and take over this summer, but I'm looking to the rock world to unseat the Kid. I'm looking at you, U2! Your album may have peaked, but there has to be a big summer single on there somewhere!
Don't leave us with Kid Rock all summer long.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Brooks on Books: Best American Comics 2008

A while back, I gave lukewarm praise to the 20o7 edition of this anthology series. Well, I'm just gonna take a few words here and tell you the 2008 book edited by Lynda Barry is much, much better. I checked it out from the library, once again resorting to my cheapskate ways, but I feel this is actually worth the money as a purchase.

There are just more strong pieces this time out, more material that really moves me in some way. Maybe Barry had better stuff to pick from than did previous editor Chris Ware. For one thing, she had a selection by Chris Ware--an amazing series of Thanksgiving covers he did for "The New Yorker." But there's also a series of one-pagers Seth did for "The New York Times," in addition to a host of interesting stories and excerpts from lesser-known (at least to me) creators.

In fact, the opening piece in here, "Burden" by Graham Annable, is a staggering work that grabs you right from the get-go. Its simple appearance and brevity belie its surprising emotional depth. The rest of the book lives up to this great start. Some of my favorites here include "Seven Sacks" by Eleanor Davis, the excerpt from Rick Geary's "The Saga of the Bloody Benders," and the assortment of Derf's "The City" strips, but I enjoyed a lot in this collection. It's an outstanding addition to the "Best American Comics" series.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

5Q Movie Review: Lakeview Terrace

Q: So what made you decide to see this?
A: I saw the preview playing on the On Demand channel and laughed my butt off. I had almost forgotten about "Lakeview Terrace." Though it didn't look worth the 5 bucks or whatever On Demand movies cost, Samuel L. Jackson as a bad-ass LAPD officer (what, he's gonna be a milquetoast?) menacing a young couple that moves in a next door looked well worth a free Redbox rental. It was.

Q: So this is a comedy?
A: Uh, no, not exactly, except in the sense that any movie that features Samuel L. Jackson intimidating unsuspecting people by glowering, growling, and being an all-around a-hole is a laugh riot. If today, in 2009 you still find Jackson awesome, you'll enjoy this movie. If you don't find Jackson awesome, maybe you need to go back to 2008 and try a little harder.

Q: If it's not a comedy, is it a good drama?
A: That's a big Y-E-S. You might expect director Neil LaBute to put some new kind of arty spin on this, but instead he "just" leads us through a simple yet effective thriller. It's a thriller that actually thrills even when you can see what's coming. "Lakeview Terrace" is pretty much exactly what you expect it to be, and in this case I mean that as a compliment. There is something to be said for quality filmmaking and interesting performances. I don't think I really just said it, but there is something to be said.

Q: Is there a racial component?
A: The couple Jackson intimidates is a mixed one played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, and the racial undertones bubble for quite a while. Well, if they're bubbling, I guess they're all the way up on the surface, but you get my clumsy point. Late in the film, we get a big scene in which Jackson's troubled cop explains what his beef is with the world. This unnecessary bit of detail takes some of the mystique away from the character in giving him "reasons" to do what he does.

Q: Hey, cops don't really act like this--menacing civilians, abusing suspects, and banding together against outsiders just because--do they?
A: Well, it IS the LAPD. What, you missed the nineties? In all fairness, although big-city cops have challenging jobs, they will leave you be if you don't do anything to provoke them. You know, something like move next door to them, be an interracial couple, object to having a giant floodlight illuminate your house late at night, etc.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This Week in DVD

Rhoda Season 1: Finally, this long-awaited series comes to DVD, and it's filled with chopped-up syndication episodes and crummy-looking prints! Now, you may not be a fan of this show, but all of us who collect TV on DVD lose when a company takes a significant television program and turns it into, as DVD Talk reviewer Stuart Galbraith puts it, "a major disappointment and an early contender for Worst DVD of 2009." As Bono once sang, "So tonight, thank God it's them instead of you."

Many argue who to blame, whether the culprit be Fox (who provided the materials) or Shout (who licensed the show). Put the blame on Mame for all I care. Blame Bono. Sean Hannity is probably trying to get a "grassroots campaign" started to blame Obama. It doesn't matter. It's clear this release is a travesty.

Frost/Nixon: A fictionalized telling of the famous Frost/Nixon interviews. But since Sadie Frost stubbornly refused to discuss Jude Law, and Trot Nixon wouldn't comment on steroid use on the 2004 Red Sox, I really don't see how Ron Howard gets any drama out of this.

The Wrestler: Mickey Rourke begins a late career renaissance with his Oscar-nominated performance, and Marisa Tomei continues her late career renaissance of getting naked in everything.

A lot of people say Rourke has huge grapefruits for delivering such a raw, emotional turn. I say he has huge grapefruits for daring to make a movie with the same title as a 1974 Ed Asner classic. You just don't screw with Ed Asner in Hollywood. Rourke may be flying high now, but he'll pay his bill eventually, trust me.

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp Season One: I've only seen a few episodes of this as part of a TV Land special event a few years ago, but I was impressed, and I have heard enough good things about the series to be glad this is getting proper season releases--and not in "Rhoda"ized form. There are so many quality TV Westerns out there now that fans of that genre have to be happy...unless, of course, they happen to be fans of those obscure shows that are absent or stalled on DVD--you know, rarities like "Bonanza," "Rawhide," "Gunsmoke," "Maverick"...

Into the Blue 2: Supergirl from "Smallville" looks great on the cover, but you don't need me to tell you that. Also, the movie itself looks terrible, and you don't need me to tell you that.

Hawaii Five-O Season 6: As is customary at "This Week in DVD" when a season of this show comes out on video, I now take leave of you so that we may all hum the theme song and get down.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Casting is everything: WW and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

If I told you I just saw a movie with a great cast that turned out to be just OK, you might not rush out to get a copy.

But what if I went into a little more detail? More to the point, how about if I said the movie was about a robber/con man type who hooks up with a small-time country-western band and promises to get them into the Grand Ole Opry? And that the con man is BURT REYNOLDS in full-on, "I own this decade" 1970s Burt mode, complete with cocky swagger and, yes, gum chewing?

And what if I went on to tell you that the movie features, as one of the musicians, vital Burt Pack member Jerry Reed, providing typically fine support for his Burtness?

All right, and what if I mentioned that another classic Burt Pack member, Ned Beatty, shows up as a slick singer/songwriter and all-around Nashville big shot?

OK, and then maybe I'd tell you that James Hampton of "F-Troop," "The Longest Yard," and more than enough other credits to earn him enduring "Hey, it's HIM again" character actor status, has a significant role. I might be stretching it a bit at that point, but...

How about then if I told you that the company that owns the gas stations Burt is so fond of sticking up hires a self-righteous religious zealot lawman to catch him...and that it's ART CARNEY?

After I told you all of that, even if I repeated what I said way up there about the movie just being OK, even if I told you that the movie has its moments but isn't quite as much fun as you want it to be, even if I hesitated somewhat in recommending it...

You'd want to see it, anyway, wouldn't you? Yeah, of course, you would. Not that I blame you. I know _I_ would. Fox Movie Channel has been showing it every now and then, and if it turns up again, you might want to check out the assemblage of talent. Sometimes it's all about the cast.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cultureshark Recommends

*"MLB Tonight": This show has already become a must-see for the hardcore fan. I don't get to see it every night, but it quickly supplanted "Baseball Tonight" as my personal highlights show of choice.

*Superbrawl V on WWE 24/7: Sure, I have better things to do than to watch an early-1990s WCW pay per view, especially one that features Bunkhouse Buck against Hacksaw Jim Duggan. But one thing makes this compelling television: Drunken Bobby Heenan. I used to think that the talk of Heenan showing up inebriated for WCW television was overblown, but sure enough, he sounds like he's sloshed during this broadcast. The man came to a live TV event like this! Some might find this proof of wrestling's low class, and to those I Hearing Heenan slur his way through the show makes the lackluster event worth at least a glance (or just a listen).

"Irredeemable" #1 by Mark Waid: Between this, "The Incredibles," and "The Muppet Show," I'm really digging Boom! Studios' comics lately. If the story and art itself don't pull you in, read Mark Waid's pitch/mission statement in the back of the book, in which he does a great job of laying out what's going on and what's to come. Of course, by the time you have read the story and art, if you're not into it, the pitch ain't gonna put you over the edge. Because you already read it. Where was I?

Oh, yeah, It's the story of the world's greatest superhero and how (and maybe more importantly, why) he becomes the world's greatest supervillain. There are a lot of wow moments and intriguing ideas in issue 1, so while this is a satisfying installment in itself, it's really a table setter for what's to come.

AMC's Free Streaming B-Movies: I mentioned this in Shark Bites, but I'm mentioning it again because I need to fill space--uh, because it may well be the best the best thing the erstwhile American Movie Classics has done since they put Bob Dorian to pasture. I have yet to actually watch one of these yet, but I tested it the other day, and, yep, it works: AMC's website has cool old B-movies, many unavailable on DVD (and unavailable on AMC, for that matter), free! It's nice to have a reason to say "Bravo" to AMC. If only any of us had a reason to say "Bravo" to Bravo, but that's a cable network to gripe about another day.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Brooks on Books: Batter up!

OK, the post title is corny, but baseball season is here, and it's time to catch up on some of the books I've read in the past year and a half or so. Here are two of 'em.

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: I love all of Neyer's "Big" baseball books, and this is another addictive read in the same format: Short chapters presented in a clean manner, loaded with tidbits and sidebars. In it, the senior writer takes a close look at many anecdotes and stories that have circulated around the game and tries to determine if there's any truth to them. He goes to original source material like box scores and contemporary news accounts when he can to verify the facts. Then he does some analysis to evaluate whether they're tall tales or legit. He examines legends as notable as Babe Ruth's Called Shot and as obscure as a story in a player's little-read autobiography, and overall there's a nice variety of material here.

If you're the type of old-school fan who just wants to let those old stories be and might take offense at being told that, say, an anecdote told by Tommy Lasorda is total BS, then stay away. I think this kind of approach is fascinating, however, and Neyer is an entertaining enough writer to make his detective work interesting. Sometimes he gets a little nitpicky, and even I kind of think, "Well, so what if one of the details in the story doesn't check out?" But this isn't some humorless suit poring over the material for legal reasons; it's a hardcore fan having fun with the whole idea. Highly recommended for the big fan.

The Gashouse Gang by John Heidenry: This one is also recommended for big fans, but mainly because it's not spectacular enough to draw in casual baseball followers. Heidenry crafts a solid account of the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, but I expect a little more from such an intriguing topic. I mean, if your subjects are colorful enough to earn the nickname "The Gashouse Gang," the book should have a little bit more color. I don't doubt the author loves his topic, but the passion doesn't come through very often in the text.

Lovers of baseball history will still find much to enjoy here, and the individual characters are compelling enough to make "The Gashouse Gang" worthwhile. Heidenry's approach, though, doesn't necessarily take full advantage of the opportunity. This book begins as kind of a dual biography of general manager Branch Rickey, who built the team; and Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean, the legend who was the Gang's most entertaining and famous player. Then Rickey fades into the background at some point, and we get a fairly straightforward account of the '34 Cardinals' season. Yet Dean still dominates the text.

I understand the desire to make Dean the star. In many ways, he IS the star, and there has been a lot written about him, back when he played and long afterwards. But I would like to know more about some of the other characters, men like the volatile Joe Medwick and Pepper Martin. The emphasis on Dean often comes at the expense of the larger story.

While I do recommend "The Gashouse Gang," then, I do so with reservations. It's a good enough book with amusing stories and a decent overview of this part of the game's history. It's just not the book you hope for.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Panel Discussion: Wiseguy Hulk

I love that in the earliest Hulk comic books, the green-skinned guy talks like a tough guy from an old gangster picture, or Stan Lee's idea of a tough guy from an old gangster picture.

Check SpellingShut your yap, Rick Jones!

Those old Hulk comics feature the big lug constantly cracking wise and calling his teenage sidekick "dumbhead" and other vicious insults. If only Lou Ferrigno had done that on the show...

This I Believe

Brooks' Law: Somehow, when anyone tries to talk like John Lennon, he sounds funny.

Yet when John Lennon himself talks, it's not inherently funny. What he SAYS might be funny, but just the sound of his voice, not so much.

This I believe.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cultureshark Remembers Harry Kalas

First, let me give a nod to two other members of the baseball universe who also died way too soon recently: Nick Adenhart and Mark Fidrych.

Secondly, let's forget my usual vehement anti-Philly bias here. The only reason I even bring it up is to say that Harry Kalas, who died Monday at 73, was such a great announcer and such a great guy (not that I knew him, but by all accounts he was a class act), I'm almost glad the Phillies won the World Series last year. I didn't know until this week that the longtime voice of the team didn't get to call the games when Philadelphia played the Royals in 1980. So getting to call last year's championship was a special thing for him, obviously, and I'm glad he had the experience.

You see, though I couldn't stand the Phillies, I could always listen to that awesome voice doing their play by play. The central Pennsylvania in which I grew up titled more to the west side (of the state, that is) than the east side, so I didn't have regular access to Phillies telecasts except for a short period when we got Philly NBC affiliate WBRE, which showed some of the games. Kalas owned every telecast because he owned every syllable. It was a pleasure to hear the man say anything, let alone a baseball game. I can still clearly hear him say something like, "Di-ving CATCH, Len-ny DYK-stra." He was one of those guys you can't help but try to imitate but can never duplicate.

It's amazing that he was a legend in baseball broadcasting while also serving as the Voice of the NFL for many years through his narration for NFL Films and his stellar voice-overs for--I'm dismayed that I haven't seen people posting clips of these or even mentioning these this week--those awesome interstitial segments that aired during the games: IBM's You Make the Call and Alcoa's Fantastic Finishes. Those segments were--let's face it--often better than the games themselves, in large part because of Kalas' voicework, which was always authoritative but accessible.

That's an awesome combination in a baritone, to make everything you say sound definitive yet never put the listener at a distance. He was one of the all-time best, and his passing is a reminder that we need to appreciate these legendary announcers while we can. For a heartfelt appreciation from a true fan who listened to Harry Kalas a whole lot more times than I ever did, I recommend that you read my friend Jim's tribute here. But though I'm a casual fan, I feel the loss, too, as does all of the baseball community in this week of tragedies.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Journey Into DVD: Wonder Woman (2009)

The latest DC Comics animated direct-to-DVD feature, "Wonder Woman," is so good that it breathes new life into a comic book character often neglected despite her iconic status and despite periodic attempts to make her actual comics as vital as that persona. This excellent effort also makes me wonder if we really need that live action feature film that keeps getting teased, then dropped. After all, the cartoon tells Wonder Woman's story so well, what's the use of live action, except as an excuse to get a nubile starlet into that costume (admittedly, depending on the starlet, that in itself might be justification enough to greenlight a $150 million movie).

As a comic reader from way back, I'm tired of seeing origin stories on film, and I never thought any of Wonder Woman's were particularly exciting, anyway. Yet this movie effectively combines an origin with a solid new story to make a coherent feature that works on several levels. Maybe my only complaint is the length. At 70-minutes plus, the movie could have used a bit more time to flesh out a few things. Still, "Wonder Woman" says something about gender, isolationism, even reading (yep, and books, no less) while offering clever dialogue, fun action sequences, and impressive animation.

The casting is excellent, with Keri Russell a surprising but perfect choice. She captures the strength of the character, but importantly she excels with the playful side that makes Diana so appealing and not just an Amazonian warrior. Nathan Fillion deserves an award because we can credit him and the screenplay for actually making Steve Trevor interesting--something I believed near impossible. The supporting roles are also well cast, with a nice blend of voice-over vets and "name" performers.

There is an edge here, but not a crass one. There are beheadings, nut shots, and suggestive dialogue, and none of it feels forced to avoid a "too-tame" MPAA rating. It's no kiddie flick, but it doesn't get out of hand, either.

The bonus disc offers 4 "Justice League" episodes and two featurettes that together are about 50+ minutes. They didn't blow me away like the extras in the "Superman: Doomsday" DVD set, but they were interesting.

I recommend this one even if you are not a Wonder Woman fan. It's not quite the stunner that "New Frontier" is, but it's a big step up from the preceding "Batman Gotham Knights," ranking right up at the top of the DC animated movies.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

This Week in DVD: Special Edition devoted to "The Spirit"

It's a slooooow DVD day today, so with apologies to "The Reader" and to you "Knots Landing" fans out there, I'm going to focus on "The Spirit," or "Will Eisner's The Spirit," or "Frank Miller's Will Eisner's The Spirit," or "The Spirit of '76," whatever it is.

I don't buy the comic anymore, but Eisner's Denny Colt, AKA Spirit, is one of my all-time favorite comic book characters, and I love the reprints of the classic version as well as Darwyn Cooke's revival and the recent incarnation written by Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier. Yet I stayed away from this movie. Sure, that's partly because I was busy over the holidays and because I'm a dad now and never go to the movies, but, hey, it was also because it stunk.

Well, at least that's what "they" said, but I'm not one of those conformist sheep who blindly follows 95% of critics, the vast majority of comic book fans in general/Spirit fans in particular, and an overwhelming number of moviegoers. So I'll give this one a chance on DVD.

Still, I can't help but wonder what the special features are on this "2-disc special edition." First of all, I know the second disc is a mere digital copy, and may I say right here that this BS of slapping a digital copy into a package and calling it a "2-disc set" MUST END.

Here are some of the bonus features I'd like to see on the DVD:

*A copy of "Sin City." Hey, this was supposed to be a sequel to that, right? No? Could have fooled me.
*Bonus footage of Frank Miller stomping on Will Eisner's grave.
*Roundtable discussion of all the fans who admitted to liking the movie.
*Featurette: "The Women of 'The Spirit': It's Better to Look Good than to Act Good."

Unfortunately, I don't see any of these listed in the specs, but I'll let you know if I find them if and when I rent it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Video Jukebox

Because, yes, artists are still making videos and some places are still showing them, I might as well comment on them. I ventured to the On Demand section of FIOS and watched a not-so-random assortment:

Katy Perry, "Thinking of You": This is a well-shot music video that tells a story, and I respect a music video that tells a story. During WWII, Perry cheats on her serviceman beau with another guy and feels guilty about it, picturing the soldier in combat. Maybe this sort of thing has been done before, but anytime a young whippersnapper tries a World War II theme, I take notice. Also, I must confess Perry looks rather fetching in her 1940s get-up, becoming attractive in a way I had never thought of her before.

But here's the bad news: The musical performance is terrible. I'm no Randy Jackson, so maybe I'm missing some technical nuances of her singing, but this has to be one of the worst-vocalized songs I've heard this decade (Non-Britney Division, of course). Especially from the second verse on, when she starts singing about SUM-mer and WIN-ter, I disagree with just about every phrasing choice she makes. Her quirkiness doesn't really suit the drama of the song, nor that of the video. This track sounds like a first take of an Alanis Morrissette number.

Sammy Hagar, "Loud": OK, the gimmick of this video is we're supposed to be watching young Hagar and band performing the song, intercut with footage of old Hagar--er, current Hagar--doing the same tune. That's fine, except that it reminds us how long Sammy's been around. Worse, the song is about Sammy, uh, "becoming a man" with a woman who was LOUD.

I don't blame these guys for wanting to relive their glory days, or even bragging about those exploits. I'm glad Michael Anthony has a gig after getting excommunicated from Van Halen like Hagar. But, darn it, I'm at a point in MY life when I don't need to hear about Sammy Hagar's sexual awakening. That funny feeling I got during the Katy Perry video? Yeah, totally gone after seeing this.

The Killers, "Spaceman": I don't mind the song, which is distinguished by a catchy New Wave-y chorus, but frontman Brandon Flowers just never really lets loose with the vocals like you keep expecting. In fact, he displays little charisma in the video, maintaining a blank expression most of the time and letting his Road Warrior Hawk Meets Cirque Du Soleil costume do the performing for him.

I'd try to explain the concept of this clip, but I don't think I understand it apart from the fact that a lot of weird-looking people are towering above and looking down upon the masses. Really, the Road Warrior Hawk Meets Cirque Du Soleil line is all I got here, and I hope it works for you.

But I wonder about Flowers. He has this swagger in interviews that belies his subdued demeanor in the things I've seen. Am I seeing the wrong clips? Is it a rock star thing? Am I reading too much into this and totally missing his stage/video presence?

I don't know, but it's an OK tune, and I have no problem with the Killers until 25 years from now when they start singing about becoming men with women who are LOUD.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Wonderful World of TCM: The Boss (1956)

This was part of a corruption in politics night Turner Classic Movies presented back before the election, and while Thrilling Days of Yesteryear covered this movie then when Ivan caught up with it on Fancast, I, uh, just got around to seeing it last week (Maybe I'll finally cast my ballot next week).

The film is an entertaining account of a World War I vet who rises to the top of a political machine...but at what cost? Well, the cost of countless boxes of Just For Men, for starters, as star John Payne gets grayer and grayer as his saga unfolds.

Payne is quite good, and as his in-name-only wife, Gloria McGehee leaves a strong impression. There is all sorts of good corruption to chew on in the Dalton-Trumbo-penned screenplay. But I want to focus on the man who plays Payne's war buddy/confidante/organization attorney and right-hand man, William Bishop.

I know very little about Bishop, and part of the reason why is that he died way too young at only 41, just several years after "The Boss." The nephew of Helen Hayes, he doesn't have a long resume in films, but he co-stars in one of my favorite sitcoms of the 1950s, "It's a Great Life."

In "Life," Bishop and Michael O'Shea are two vets (not World War I this time) who find lodging at a boarding house run by TV's Aunt Bee, Francis Bavier. Bishop and O'Shea find all sorts of hijinks and misadventures with Bavier's no-account brother, played by James Dunn. Each episode features some kind of wacky sitcom misunderstanding. It's goofy, it's often predictable, and it's a riot.

On the show, Bishop is pegged as the Handsome Guy, but he might as well be the Normal Guy. He's no saint, but his low-key style contrasts with the mugging of O'Shea and Dunn. Of course, almost everybody would look subdued compared to those two. O'Shea and Dunn are so far over the top, they go all the way around to become under it.

Bishop is fine in the short-lived series (I've only ever seen it on American Life Network) but easily overshadowed in those circumstances. That's why it's such a treat to see him in a movie role, and a good one, too. He doesn't get a ton of juicy scenes or anything--it's definitely Payne's movie--but his is a pivotal role, and it's far more than just Handsome Guy.

I know very little about William Bishop. He's in a few other things I've seen, like "The Killer That Stalked New York," and a bunch of 1950s TV shows, but it's hard to find much about him. According to IMDB, he died of cancer in 1959. Given the unfortunate obscurity of his career, I'm surprised when he pops up in anything, and his presence definitely boosts "The Boss" for me. One of the joys of TCM--and watching old movies in general--is experiencing pleasant casting surprises like this.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Brooks on Books: Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

If you've read any of Chuck Klosterman's essays in mags like "Esquire," or any of his nonfiction books, you know what you're getting: Humorous, often skewed points of view on pop culture matters, peppered with liberal doses of references to music (especially metal) and sports (especially pro basketball and football). His style works for me, but I could see how it would get tiresome in large doses to some.

So what is a whole novel's worth of Klosterman like? Well, it's pretty much what you'd expect, but I'll get to that in a minute. "Downtown Owl" is a tale of 3 individuals who live in Owl, North Dakota, a rural community of less than a thousand people. In a series of short chapters, each from the point of view of one of those 3 (occasionally one of the peripheral characters), Klosterman creates a vivid depiction of small-town life in early-1980s midwest America. It all builds up to a huge blizzard, but until then not much happens other than dialogue both internal and external as the people of Owl

I think there are some significant ideas in this novel, notions of identity and the meaning of individual life in such a small community, but not a lot of significant plot, so be forewarned that this is more a character study or a look at a way of life. Klosterman establishes his setting very well. Himself a native of the midwest, he writes about this culture without condescension. I enjoyed inhabiting this world.

But while that aspect of this experience was new to me, the Klosterman part was not. A lot of his nonfiction style shows up in his debut novel, which sometimes hurts his conceit of telling the story through 3 distinctive voices. Many of the characters speak articulately and express ideas that sound a lot like the author's. Furthermore, Klosterman sometimes injects ideas and observations that entertain but don't necessarily further the story or develop his characters.

But to the writer's fans, it won't matter too much. There are references to bands like Def Leppard and Van Halen, references to sports figures, and lists. One chapter is essentially the Q&A of an exam that reserve high school quarterback Mitch takes on Orwell's "1984." Klosterman includes little insights throughout that might bring knowing approval, like, "In baseball and sex, cliches are usually true: Pitching beats hitting, and people always want to be loved by anyone who doesn't seem to care." I like this sort of thing, but if you're a stranger to Chuck Klosterman, you might want to read some of his essays before plunging into a novel.

"Downtown Owl" is a fine debut novel. Klosterman is funny as hell and creates an interesting milieu. I don't think, though, he's always successful at getting across some of this themes. Then again, maybe there are no themes. As we follow the lives of Mitch, Julia (high school teacher just out of college and new to Owl) and elderly widower Horace, we expect something to happen, especially since we know from the beginning that a blizzard will come to town eventually.

When that event does come, though, it seems to indicate randomness rules our lives, not meaning. The end is a little rushed and and not quite satisfying. You might get a sense of, "What was this all about?" Whether that question is in fact "the point" is debatable, but if you enjoy Klosterman's writing, you'll find this journey an entertaining one regardless. Just know what you're getting into.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

5Q Movie Review: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Q: Is this one a bit more intelligent than standard teen comedies?
A: You might expect that, given the casting of Hip Intelligentsia Poster Boy Michael Cera, the "Thin Man" allusions in the naming of the title characters, and the overall marketing. But it really isn't. It's a rather conventional teen comedy--well done, mind you, but not a whole lot different than or more high-minded than most of the other entries in the genre. One notable feature is the casual depiction of gay characters--Cera's Nick, for example, is the only straight dude in a gay rock band, and the movie has fun with this without making a big deal out of it.

Q: Is it one of those movies where the guy spends the whole movie looking for the girl, but they keep getting separated at the last second?
A: I thought that would be the case, too, but on the contrary, Nick and Norah spend a lot of the story together, with other things providing obstacles: Nick's cluelessness, Norah's jerk of an on-again/off-again beau, etc. But they work together to find Norah's drunken, missing friend while also trying to find a secret show from their favorite band, and they share many misadventures

Q: How is the super-hip soundtrack? Is music a big part of the film?
A: Music is very important to the characters. Nick is a sincere mixtape maker. Norah loves the tunes, too. The band with the secret show, 'Where's Fluffy?" is fictional and not a big presence except as sort of a McGuffin, but he soundtrack is loaded with songs by hip young bands. All of this adds up to a movie that features music and shows how important it is in people's lives. I think something like, say, "High Fidelity" utilizes actual music in a more vital manner, but maybe that's just because I had heard of more of those songs when I saw that one.

Q: Is it true that you said the movie should be called "Norah's Infinite Rack" because of co-star Kat Dennings' cleavage?
A: I declare, good sir! YOU may have said that, but your humble Sharkmaster would never say such a thing, let alone write it for public consumption in this forum. Shame on you! Ms. Dennings is a lovely and charming actress who is quite attractive in this film, but...shame on you!

Q: So is this worth a rental even if I'm not a teenager?
A: Sure, it is. It's an enjoyable movie, and though it's not groundbreaking, it suceeds at doing the most important thing a romantic comedy can do: making you care about the leads and want to see them get together. It's as simple as that. Cera and Dennings have a chemistry that carries the movie even when for movie reasons Cera has to be an idiot and drive her away a little bit (it's not as bad as it could be, and at least the screenplay tries to justify the tension between the two). And if you like "Nick and Norah," you might want to consider a purchase because the DVD is filled with bonus features.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Panel Discussion

Remember all those times Clark Kent fabricated a flimsy excuse so he could ditch Lois Lane and go be Superman? Well, he wasted a lot of effort. He could have just used the Barry Allen method. Need to make a hasty retreat?

Why bother straining for a lame explanation? Just take off!

(from Showcase Presents: The Flash volume 1)

Rhetorical Pop Quiz

While watching some WWE 24/7 this week, I formulated this question:

Which of these 1980s icons consumed the most, uh, "marching powder"?

A) Roddy Piper
B) Hulk Hogan
C) Pat O'Brien

It's tough to watch a Piper interview from the mid-1980s without thinking that something besides Scottish guile is providing inspiration. Hogan's promos are a little less manic, but not exactly restrained.

As for Pat O' Brien, well, I have never seen him on WWE 24/7, but he hung around the NBA in the eighties, and we know what happened to him more recently. Come to think of it, he would have been an outstanding addition to the WWF announce team back then. Sure, Leaping Lanny Poffo was around to do the poetry, but Gene Okerlund could have used some help with the locker room interviews.

Better yet, imagine Pat sitting in the stands at Madison Square Garden during a big event, talking up the celebrities. Or picture him doing "thought pieces" during the show, with maybe a reflective essay closing the broadcast.

This goes directly into my "Should Have Been" file.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Wonderful World of TCM: The Bad Man (1941)

Before TCM showed it as part of its Ronald Reagan tribute last month, it had been a long time since I had seen 1941's "The Bad Man." It had been so long that my memories of the film were sepia-toned.

Only, as I discovered when I watched it again the other day, the movie really IS sepia-toned. There's something unsettling about a movie in sepia. I guess in this case, the idea is to transport us to the West, where Lionel Barrymore owns a troubled ranch and outlaw Wallace Beery runs roughshod over the lands. But what good is the cinematography or the setting when you have those two in the movie?

Not only does the scenery stand no chance against this dynamic duo, but there are times you worry the two will eat the script, the film stock, and maybe co-stars Henry Travers and Laraine Day. Fortunately, Tom Conway is nimble enough you figure he could escape, and Reagan, of course, is the Gipper, so no need to worry about him.

This is a fun, ridiculous experience, but it has a big problem: Beery doesn't show up until about a half-hour into what is barely a 70-minute film. During this viewing, I fooled myself into thinking he'd appear earlier, but no such luck. Not that seeing Barrymore do his cantankerous codger routine (a nice change of pace from his grumpy old coot routine) isn't entertaining, but Beery is the main event here.

See, as Pancho Lopez, Big Daddy Beery reprises the Mexican gimmick he trotted out to great success in "Viva Villa." Gotta love the glory days of Hollywood. Think we'll see Tom Cruise play a German again next year? I don't think so. Yet Pancho Beery got over with the fans so much, MGM built a whole nother vehicle around his dubious persona.

It ain't much of a story. Beery intervenes in the financial travails of Barrymore's ranch while playing matchmaker for Reagan and Day (who happens to be married to Conway). Is there anything the man can't do? He's a gunfighter, a financial whiz, a master tactician, and, boy, does he know women!

Barrymore holds his own, of course, gleefully hoping outlaw Pancho Beery will shoot, hang, or otherwise maim the people that irritate him--that is, just about everybody except Reagan and Day. "The Bad Man" was billed as Beery's "new 1941 thrill drama," but I think at some point everyone involved gave up any pretense of staging an "adult" western and went for laughs, and we're all the better for it.

The Turner Classic Movies presentation was a treat, with Bobby Osbo reminding us this was the only movie for which Warners loaned out Reagan. He also chatted with Reagan's daughter Patti Davis, who seemed incredulous. The two chuckled at Reagan's miraculous quick recovery from a gunshot wound in the story. It's great that they more or less accepted Beery's Mexican gimmick and laughed at that, but in all fairness, it was Reagan's night on TCM

"The Bad Man" isn't a great movie in any sense other than that I think it's great. I've seen it twice now, and I'll probably watch it again. I may even try to convince myself again that Pancho Beery will arrive sooner, but regardless, I'll wait patiently until he does.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

This Week in DVD

The Day the Earth Stood Still 3-Disc SE: Is one of the 3 discs the good version? Because I already own that one, and I think I'd rather just watch that again.

Yes Man: Jim Carrey plays a man who must say "Yes" to everything, at the risk of making himself look foolish in all kinds of zany situations. Any thematic resemblance to "Liar Liar" is purely intentional. Any financial resemblance to "Liar Liar" is purely fictional because this--what the heck? This made $97 million? Since when? And how dare it ruin my wise-ass comment?

Doubt: An emotional whirlwind of a film about truth, morality, and earning its cast award nominations.

The Paper Chase Season 1: Shout brings us the premier season of the CBS/Old-School Showtime drama about young men and women who attend law school in the hopes of graduating to a David E. Kelly show where they can have sex all the time. WATCH it, pay ATTENTION, and take copious NOTES if necessary. Ha! I just totally busted out my John Houseman on y'all.

Universal Backlot Collection Pre-Code Hollywood: Whatever you think about the Warner Archives project many of the films offered have at least had exposure on TCM, whereas Universal has a whole lot of movies that are rarely if at all seen. I hope that classic film collectors don't forget to neglect this kind of release: Rare movies on "real" DVDs in a box set that is discounted at retail.

TCM Spotlight: Doris Day Collection: Lest you think I forget that WB is still in the box set business.

Bedtime Stories: Once upon a time, there was a superstar who made a lot of money in absurd movies, then challenged himself and audiences with more restrained performances in subtler movies. He went back to the absurd movies. The end!

The Goldwyn Follies: Previously available as part of a really, really, really big box set, now available all by its lonesome. Hey, I think we can all agree that more Ritz Brothers on DVD is always welcome.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

TV NEEDS Rescue Me to be great again this year

And by "TV," I mean me. _I_ need "Rescue Me" to be great again this year. Yeah, that's a lame bait and switch, but I thought "I NEED Rescue Me to be great again this year" was a bit too self-absorbed even for a blog.

Tonight Denis Leary's often-raucous blend of juvenile sex humor and haunting post 9/11 angst returns for an unprecedented 22 consecutive episodes. I have an early indication that the long season will not break new ground, nor will it experiment with new storytelling given the expanded run. That's OK. I don't need groundbreaking. I just need that great comedy-drama, the standout experience that I got its first couple seasons, when the awesome stuff outweighed the misfires and I couldn't wait to see each week's installment.

There just aren't a lot of hourlong TV shows that I hang on anymore. I think "Breaking Bad" is really good, but I don't know that I'm addicted. "24" is having a great season, but I missed an episode a few weeks back and didn't lose any sleep. "Lost" continues to mix compelling television with self-indulgent rigmarole, and unfortunately, it burned my connection to the show a few seasons back and now gets my eyeballs out of habit and the fact I watch it with my wife.

"Desperate Housewives" is a fun Sunday night pleasure for Mrs. Shark and I, but it's hardly essential. And I've been DVRing "Chuck" and "Heroes," but let me tell you something: We have all the "Heroes" since this "Volume 2" or whatever of the current season started, and we have all the "Chucks" from the entire season--dating back to the fall--and we haven't gotten around to them yet. That tells you something.

So I need a show I can not just enjoy, but a show I can be excited about, a series I can't miss without being grouchy for a few days. I'm hoping "Rescue Me" is going to be that show this year. I've done my part by playing "C'mon, C'mon," the Von Bondies song adopted as the theme song, about half a dozen times in the last week. Denis Leary, don't let me down!

Cultureshark Sports Report

Ah, it's a good day. I barely watch college basketball anymore, but I still bask in the glory of the NCAA championship win by North Carolina last night. Well done, gents. I'm glad to see superstar Tyler Hansborough rewarded (well, he kind of rewarded himself) with a national title after coming back for a fourth year and finishing his college eligibility.

Combine this with last week's NIT win by my alma mater, State Penn--er, Penn State--and I'm feeling pretty good about college basketball.

Would it be inappropriate to bring up the Steelers' Super Bowl win again now? OK, I won't.

There's even good news on the baseball front, and when you're a Pirates fan like I am, oh, how rare the opportunity to utter that phrase. 1-0, baby, after a thrilling 6-4 win over the Cardinals. I'll enjoy this undefeated record as long as it lasts. Uh, they don't play again till tomorrow, right? They do play tonight? Well...2-0, baby! Yeah, it's gonna be 2-0!

Seriously, the ridiculous streak of losing seasons in Pittsburgh will likely continue, but there are some signs the organization knows what it's doing now. Now if the team could only earn some national respect and pub. I watched "MLB Tonight" late last night to get the highlights, but during the Pirates-Cardinals segment, MLB Network reran the opening portion of the show for some reason. Could it be a conspiracy to keep the humble Pirates "in their place" before they explode into contention this year? Stay tuned.

Oh, and I think I come off as a bit of a jerk when I talk about Philadelphia sports teams, so in the same spirit of goodwill that restrains me from mentioning the Steelers' championship again, I will not bring up the Phillies' loss in the national opener Sunday night.

Monday, April 6, 2009

True Confessions: 10 Reasons Why I'm Out of Touch

Today I come clean. You folks can't trust anything I say. I'm just not the kind of hip, with-it blogger the kids flock to. I'm wayyy out of touch, sports fans, and here are but 10 reasons why:

10) I don't own an iPod.
9) I haven't been to a movie theater in months.
8) "High School Musical"? Never seen it. Any of them, really.
7) I've never read a Harry Potter book nor a Stephen King novel.
6) I don't watch any of the "CSI" shows. I don't watch any of the CBS procedural hits, for that matter.
5) I don't have any interest in paying to download individual songs, and I'm hoping the physical CD survives for a while yet.
4) I have no presence on Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter.
3) I don't own a Wii or any version of Playstation.
2) I don't watch any of the following "buzzworthy" shows: "30 Rock," "The Office," "Gossip Girl," "Battlestar Galactica."
1) I think of Hall and Oates when I see the phrase "Out of Touch."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Most Sensational, Inspirational, Celebrational Comic of the Year?

"The Muppet Show" #1, written and drawn by Roger Langridge and published by Boom!, is not only a fantastic adaptation of the original TV show, but it's a great comic in its own right and one of the best first comic book issues I've read, period, in a long time. My advice is simple: If you like the Muppets and you have any inclination to buy comics at all, you should buy this. It will entertain and delight you.

Langridge treats the comic as an "episode" of the show, with short interludes of a page or so serving as the skits you'd see on the TV. There are the backstage shenanigans as well, and of course the wise-ass judges. It works much better than anyone could expect it to, as Langridge finds a way to make old-school showbiz humor work--and seem fresh--in comic form. Arguably the only thing missing are big-time guest stars, but Langridge covers that, too. His inclusion of "The Zimmer Twins" makes for hilarious parody of certain celebrities while making clever use of that TV show format.

The artwork is consistent and true to the characters, but it also looks just a little askew to me. There's something about the way characters like Kermit and Fozzie look that makes them just a tad ragged, and for me that enhances the cartoonish aspect of it without losing the faithful representation of the Muppet universe.

If all this weren't enough--and did I mention "Pigs in Space?"--you even get an intelligent main storyline about Kermit's longing for his home in the swamp. There is some edgy humor, perhaps a little surprising for something in a Kids line (though not inappropriate, in my view). Check out the Swedish Chef running around with a huge knife.

Best of all, it's all Done in One. The issue stands on its own as a complete, satisfying package. It's fun, but it's dense and well paced, offering outstanding value relative to other comics out there today.

Here's hoping Roger Langridge can sustain this well beyond this one outstanding debut, and if he can, here's hoping for a long run in an environment that doesn't seem to support all-ages humor comics.


ITEM: Remember when Fox announced it's plan to encourage DVD sales by screwing renters out of the bonus features? Well, with that in mind, I enjoyed a hearty chuckle while reading this at The Digital Bits:

First up today, it looks like there was a mix-up at the replication plant, and a number of people have inadvertently purchased barebones "rental only" versions of Fox's Slumdog Millionaire on DVD - a title that's supposed to include deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Right off the bat, Fox screws up and screws the people they're trying to reward.

ITEM: Speaking of getting screwed, many people have had less-than-stellar experiences with Deep Discount, online merchant famous for semiannual 20% off sales that add value to already low prices. I never really had beef with them...until now.

They recently conducted a sale with a bunch of titles for $3, $5, and $7, and I ordered the third "Rocky and Bullwinkle" set for 5 bones. Now, Deep Discount offers free but not always timely shipping, to put it mildly, so after placing my order, I waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, I logged in and checked my order status. Turns out that "too good to be true" deal was. My order was listed as "cancelled." Maybe, just maybe, I missed a notification of this, but I sure didn't SEE any e-mail telling me the order was eliminated. This is just weak all around (And so, of course, is the fact that we're all still waiting for the rest of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" on DVD).

ITEM: A successful DVD purchase garnered the "Classic TV Games Shows and More" cheapo collection from Mill Creek. I was waiting to get this one till I knew if the "and More" section, which touted a lot of vintage kiddie shows, duplicated the episodes on Shout's "Hiya, Kids" set. Well, I never did find that info anywhere, but for 6 bucks, I didn't care.

I rarely buy a DVD now without due diligence to protect myself from negative surprises. As a result, I often know quite a bit about the ones I DO get. Hey, I don't want to throw around my medium-earned money and wind up with something substandard. The thing is, there are rarely any surprises when the package comes, even in a big collection of TV episodes like this one.

It's nice that for a change I have the opportunity to explore a bit and see what's on this one. I'm not about to ignore that due diligence when I buy discs, but every now and then it's cool to get the kind of deal where I can just buy something and not really know all of what's included. It's a fun element that I don't get regularly in DVD collecting.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

What Makes Sammy Run? (1941 and 1959)

After watching the 1959 "Summer Showcase" TV adaptation of Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel "What Makes Sammy Run?" I decided to go to the source material. As I almost always do when I experience media in that order, I wish I had read the book first. However, in this case, I actually liked the TV version better then the original print incarnation.

Schulberg's story of a go-getter who hustles his way up from copy boy at a New York newspaper to screenwriter in Hollywood to studio boss is a biting, sometimes bitter account of the back-stabbing world of moviemaking. It was controversial in 1941, and it's still relevant today. Even if by now we've read countless insider accounts of how people screw each other over in the Industry, especially accounts by screenwriters, "What Makes Sammy Run?" still feels potent.

Sammy Glick is an amoral, self-absorbed jerk, and Schulberg indicates that makes him a perfect candidate to get ahead--maybe not just in Hollywood, but anywhere. Trying to figure out what makes Glick tick--what makes him "run"--is Al Manheim, a decent guy who is there at the newspaper when Glick starts his rise and eventually works with him and under him as a movie writer. Manheim narrates the novel with mixed feelings of awe, envy, and hatred as he traces the saga of Glick, who considers Al his only friend because he's the only one who doesn't try to hustle him.

It's a fun book, and most of it holds up nearly 70 years later. Yet I think the TV version, with John Forsythe as Manheim and Larry Blyden as Glick, improves on it. Yes, it does water down the original quite a bit. Several key themes of the novel--the Jewishness, the sex, the communism--are pushed aside or dramatically downplayed in the 1959 teleplay. But the story moves faster and doesn't suffer. In fact, the removal (more or less) of a big Writer's Guild storyline actually boosts the narrative and makes the story smoother.

Having to condense a few hundred pages of prose into 100 minutes or so of TV leads to another solid creative decision. Late in the novel, Manheim goes to Sammy's childhood home and neighborhood to learn about his upbringing. In other words, yep, it's the dreaded "back story." Manheim learns things that don't necessarily excuse Glick's behavior and personality, but they sure go a long way towards explaining them. In and of itself, this section isn't terrible, but it does remove one from the story at an important stage.

I prefer the TV version, in which Glick's background is more mysterious. The character isn't so much explained, but more just IS, and it makes him more compelling. Although Glick isn't quite on the level of Hannibal Lecter, it's like making a movie (or writing a novel, for that matter) to explain why the man is the way he is. Sometimes it's better to just let him be without a big back story. Now, in Schulberg's case, he is making statements about Jewish and cultural identity, but the TV adaptation drops these themes and gains a tighter narrative.

Incidentally, Koch Vision did a heck of a job putting "What Makes Sammy Run?" on DVD. The show doesn't look great, but for a 50-year-old production, it's more than acceptable. Plus Koch includes cool bonuses such as an audio commentary with co-stars Barbara Rush and Dina Merrill. There's even a lengthy interview with Schulberg himself, all 94 years of him.

If I were to pick just one version of this story to experience again, I'd go to the DVD. Part of it is story-related, part of it is the riveting performances (Blyden's Glick is amazing), part of it is simply the charm the so-called Golden Age of TV has for me. However, if you're into Hollywood exposes, you'll enjoy the novel as well, and I recommend you try to read it first.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Last Week and This Week in DVD

Quantum of Solace: Here's the general consensus of the Daniel Craig Bond movies:

"Casino Royale": "Hey, this is great! A darker, more serious Bond! It's about time we got back to the basics!"

Then "Quantum of Solace": "This is too dark and serious. What happened to the fun? Bond movies are supposed to be FUN!"

Bolt: Before you get this DVD and consider the inspirational saga of Bolt, consider the inspirational saga of ME. First, I thought this movie "looked stupid" and there was no way I'd see it. Then I read some reviews and comments of people who oughta know, and I figured it might be pretty good and that I might see it after all. Then I didn't see it. Now that it's on video, I might indeed see it.

(Feel free to look away from the monitor and take a minute to compose yourself. I knew my saga was inspirational, but I didn't know it was that moving till I saw it in print.)

Room 222 Season 1: Shout revives this somewhat-forgotten light comedy with the first season. The episodes are unrestored, but as I wrote last week, they're quality TV.

Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3: Warners has a whole lot of Wellman for you. If this nifty collection of older films, packed with extras, sells well, who knows you might see more of these...for 20 bucks a pop in the Warner Archives.

Lilo and Stitch Big Wave Edition: I don't know anything about this particular version, but I really liked the movie. Maybe it's time for me to finally get this one. Wait, here I go getting inspirational again...

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood: Supplements to the motion picture, these are also adapted from the "Watchmen" comic. It's like getting two really big DVD extras before you even get the DVD! Only these are on their own DVD and cost the price of a full DVD. Maybe they're worth it, but I personally am more interested in "Hood" than in "Freighter," an allegorical thread in the original story that might not work as well apart from it...and was never my favorite part of the original, anyway.

And this week...

Slumdog Millionaire: By now, you're surely aware that this little film that could went all the way to the top and won the ultimate prize in the industry: The Alliance of Women Film Journalists Award for best picture.

Marley and Me: This sentimental Owen Wilson-Jennifer Aniston-Dog flick may not have won awards, but it sure won a lot of hearts. Awww! You know a movie is a big hit with all types of audiences when the grocery store sets up a huge display filled with the DVDs.

The Fugitive Season 2 Volume 2: Ah, I'm not going there today.

Seven Pounds: Don't tell me what the significance of the seven pounds is, please! I don't know if I even am going to see this before it hits pay cable, but I get the feeling that discovery is the only thing making this worthwhile. When the movie came out, of course, my wife looked it up. Then she asked me, "Do you want to know what--" No! No, I don't!

The IT Crowd: This hilarious Britcom about oddballs working in a large company's I.T. department was in development as an American remake, which would probably bite. But that may be the reason this is getting a stateside DVD release, so, hey, I have no problem with it! I don't know how the DVD is, but the show is highly recommended.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Season 4 Volume 1: Fans have waited almost a year and a half, I believe, for HALF of one season. Hey, Fox, if you're gonna split the seasons, how about at least putting them out regularly?