Tuesday, June 29, 2010

This Week in DVD

Hot Tub Time Machine: Did I ever tell you about my own high-concept movie idea? "Bathtub Time Machine," starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman as President Taft, who gets stuck in a bathtub that happens to be a time machine and experiences all kinds of wacky fun in the eighties...the 1880s!

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief: I know this is a big family adventure movie based on a popular series of books, but as far as the movie goes...uh, this is kind of embarrassing, but I have to ask: Was this a big deal or what? I really don't remember much about it being out there.

Leave it to Beaver: Raise a glass to Shout Factory for picking up Universal's slack and releasing the seminal fifties sitcom in complete form and in season sets. Early reviews indicate this is DVD done right, so enjoy, fans.

Real McCoys Season 4: Throw a glass at Infinity for releasing butchered syndicated prints of the old Walter Brennan rural sitcom. But, hey, I guess at least they're getting them out there. Yeah...at least. (I'm, assuming Season 4 is edited, too, but maybe the "Digitally Restored" tag on the box cover actually means something. If so, to borrow from Master Detective Nick Carter, if I'm wrong, I'll apologize.

Life with Elizabeth: Down a glass of something potent to get through two discs' worth of episodes of this mild sitcom which proves not everything Betty White touches is genius.

New York Confidential: Broderick Crawford--check. Film noir--check. Rare movie previously circulating in murky collector copies--check. Me want disc!

Ricky Steamboat: The Life of the Dragon: WWE finally releases a big DVD set devoted to one of my favorite wrestlers of the eighties. I'll always remember the time Magnificent Muraco hung him over the top rope...and the time Randy Savage "ruptured his larynx" with the timekeeper's bell...and the time Jake Roberts DDT'ed him on the concrete...Hey, come to think of it, this guy sure got his ass kicked a lot, didn't he?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hell Up in Harlem (1973)

Would it be unprofessional of me to say that "Hell Up in Harlem" is cool as hell?

Hey, wait, I don't get paid for this. I'm not a professional!

"Hell Up in Harlem" is cool as hell!

This 1973 picture, written and directed by cult auteur Larry Cohen, delivers just about all you look for in a blaxploitation effort: Violence, Nudity (well, a little bit), Profanity, Evil Whitey, Kickin' Soundtrack, Revenge, Swagger...and it also adds some great oddball touches that make the movie stand out in its own right.

Before I mention those touches, let's get back to "Swagger." Star Fred "The Hammer" Williamson never became the most polished thespian in Hollywood, and he certainly was no Laurence "The Anvil" Olivier back in '73, but he had swagger. It still comes through the screen today, even though NFL Films and some of his on-field rivals enjoy puncturing his aura by reminding us that he was knocked out of Super Bowl I with a concussion after yakking it up before the game.

Hey, it happens. The Hammer brings that swagger and cool to the role of Tommy Gibbs, and he has enough charisma to carry this kind of movie along. He has some solid help in Julius Harris as his father and Gerald Gordon as the villainous DiAngelo (Remember Evil Whitey?), but he is good enough in his second outing as black underworld kingpin Gibbs.

Yep, "Harlem" is actually a rushed sequel to the hit "Black Caesar," and the way Cohen executes the transition is one of those great touches that makes me smile. Cohen recycles a good deal of footage from the ending of "Caesar," but alters enough of the outcome to set up the new movie. Yep, years before it became commonplace in the comic book world, "Hell Up in Harlem" gives us a RETCON!

Even among the great music-driven blaxploitation films of the seventies, this one is notable for its excellent soundtrack. Edwin Starr sings the, well, hell out of the title song, setting the stage with aplomb and assuring us that whatever is gonna happen in this film, it will be momentous, and it will kick ass. Anybody who enjoyed Starr asking "War--what is it GOOD for?" will enjoy his new query: "Ain't it hell, hell up in Harlem?" But Starr also soars on change-of-pace songs like the ballad "Love Never Dies" and the mellow "Easin' In" and "Like We Used to Do."

From what I've read, Williamson wasn't even available for much of this shoot, forcing Cohen to use stand-ins and kind of piece the film together as best as he could. The story may not be smooth in some places, but there are great sequences like when Gibbs' crew takes over a hospital and seizes hostages so Tommy can be treated without being executed by D.A. DiAngelo's goon cops. It's a tense, chaotic stretch, but also a lot of fun, serving as a good microcosm of the entire movie.

Then there is the scene in which Gibbs' gang storms a Mafia resort on an island "somewhere near the Florida Keys," an absurd battle with bullets, martial arts, and a final gag of the turncoat black servants gleefully serving soul food to the white mobsters at gunpoint. Oh, yeah, and at some point in this, one of the bikini-clad sunbathers lounging around the estate jumps out of nowhere and attacks Gibbs with some wicked kung fu moves!

There are the requisite tender moments as well, as "Harlem" does work to establish an emotional storyline. You can also just sit back and enjoy the simple vengeance plot, though, right up to the grisly finale. I can't argue that "Hell Up in Harlem" is an example of stellar filmmaking, and it's technically subpar compared to some of the other blaxploitation classics of its era. But I can tell you that it's a lot of fun, in no small part because of those rough edges.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Vault of Coolness: Young David Janssen

Let's kick back a bit this summer Saturday afternoon and enjoy a nice picture of David Janssen smiling--not that pained, forced quarter-smile he became known for, but more of a--well, it's still a little tight, maybe, but doesn't he actually look happy? Let's face it, he is one of the premier performers in television history, but he ain't exactly liable to be confused with Mr. Sunshine, which is why it's cool to spot a little pic like this one.

This little blurb from an old TV yearbook in the Cultureshark Archives promotes "Call Mister D," which was apparently the syndication title for "Richard Diamond." I haven't seen too many episodes of that show yet, but my limited viewing experience does give me enough confidence to confirm that, yep, Richard Diamond does smile. The TV R.D. may not be as perky as the radio R.D., but he does smile.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

This Week in DVD

Remember Me: Rob Pattinson proves he's not just a mediocre actor casting through the "Twlight" series. He can coast through all kinds of melodramatic romances!

She's Out of My League: A dumb comedy about a geeky guy trying to date "above his pay grade." It's simple, guys: You want to attract a woman, you just do one thing: Go someplace you expect her to be and start singing the late Patrick Swayze's classic "She's Like the Wind," which, perhaps not coincidentally, includes the line "She's out of my leaaaaaaauge." That's how I met Mrs. Shark (I'm gonna find out pretty quickly who in my inner circle actually reads this blog).

A Star is Born: This movie is on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind about every month, it seems, and turns up in other, less great, places, too, and I can never, ever embrace it. Just last week, in fact, Mrs. Shark was watching it, and I kind of kept an eye on it, but it didn't do anything for me. So I sang "She's Like the Wind" in my best James Mason voice, and after that, she melted. No, I'm kidding...although that's not a bad idea...

Mason makes just about anything watchable, or at least listenable. I could just sit and listen to him talk for hours, but as far as watching him and Judy Garland...eh, no. But this looks like a great DVD for the film's legions of fans, and I hope they enjoy it.

Ton and Jerry Deluxe Anniversary Edition: That fancy title kind of makes you hope that Warners finally got it right and issued a comprehensive box set with all the restored, unedited cartoons, right? Nope! It's just another set, and the diehards will have to wait a little longer for Tom and Jerry to be done right. Actually, I have read that this cash grab of a collection includes some botched toons that were initially released, then later reissued in corrected form--but it includes the botched versions! Shame on you, WB!

Checkmate the Complete Series: Time once again for The Cheapskate's Lament: As this is a Timeless Media product, it looks like Netflix won't carry it.

And while I'm at it, since it's a slow DVD week, Netflix, how about stocking more MPI product, like those recent color "Honeymooners" specials, and where are the Bing Crosby TV specials that came out a few weeks ago? And what about some of the classic releases from the big studios, like Universal's Bob Hope set with "Nothing But the Truth"? And how is the "Babs Stanwyck Show" Volume 1 already unavailable while Volume 2 isn't even available at all? And what's with all the Shout Factory releases fading into the oblivion of "SAVE" status? Well, folks, you get the idea.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I gotta complain about this: TV's biggest surprises

I know this was last week, but I'm still kind of miffed at CBS' fiasco of a TV special, that countdown show listing the "30 Greatest Surprises" in television broadcast history. Sadly, it wasn't surprising that the list was a weak one, but still! You know, it had "Paley Center" in the title, so I kind of hoped there wouldn't be oddball selections like a "Deal or No Deal" episode at #6 (a "Deal or No Deal" episode anywhere in the top 30, for that matter).

The list was allegedly created from a Nielsen survey of current TV viewers. Well, there's the problem right there. You can't trust TV viewers to come up with intelligent lists about television history. Most people that know anything about television history are too busy griping about television present to actually watch TV these days. So of course the list is gonna be skewed towards recent events.

Even so, I don't want to lay too much blame on the masses. After all, I think the numbers were juked a bit on this survey. Or are we supposed to believe that the public actually thought some scrub getting bumped off on the CBS show "NCIS" a few years ago was the second-greatest surprise of all time? Maybe that was a surprise, but it was hardly great. No, I didn't see it when it aired. Nobody did! "NCIS" is one of those programs that gets big ratings numbers even though nobody you know watches it.

The number one moment was Oprah giving away cars to the audience, which was pretty funny, but come on. The list was loaded with reality/game show fluff, like "Survivor" segments, Marie Osmond fainting, and so on. And any program that finds a way to work in the clip of that arrogant SOB becoming the first big winner on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" loses major credibility with me.

Then there were puzzling inclusions like Ellen coming out on her sitcom. Even host Jeff Probst (who just happens to be a CBS personality, natch) talked about how everyone knew it was coming. In the annals of the medium, that was about as surprising as John McLaughlin raising his voice.

Even the cool elements were a little off. The #10 moment featured "The Wire." I won't give it away because I still have a weird fantasy that someday everyone in America will watch the show in order and learn to love it. It was a stunner, all right, but only in some of the details, and there were far more shocking events on that great series.

The "Newhart" finale was way too low at 28. If you're gonna pick a Lucy moment, you really want to pick her brawling in those grapes? I did like the nods to the "Dick Van Dyke" show, "Cheers," and "The Twilight Zone," but overall this list was inconsistent at best.

I'm sure everyone could go through the list and complain about a missing surprise, but I'll just add one: A large majority of the voters are clearly FBI, CIA, Cuban exiles, hardcore anti-communists, and/or members of the military-industrial complex, because they apparently weren't surprised when Jack Ruby executed Lee Harvey Oswald on TV.

I know, I know, it's ultimately a rather trivial matter, but this could have been so much better.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Shutter Island--Kind of wish I hadn't known anything about it

If you haven't seen "Shutter Island" and intend to, I warn you now that while I am not going to reveal specific SPOILERS, I want to talk in general terms about the movie...and that in itself may be a SPOILER. It was for me.

For me, Martin Scorcese movies are up and down in quality. They range from all the way up to Awesome Classics down to merely Really, Really Good. For me, "Shutter Island" is just Really, Really Good, but it may even slide down to just Really Good. I suspect that a big part of this stunning letdown is my own expectations--not just my expectations that the movie would rock, but my expectations that there would be some kind of big twist central to the story.

Why did I have that expectation? Very simple: Everything I read about the film indicated there was a big twist central to the story. I quickly stopped reading about "Shutter Island," but it was no use. Once the idea was in my head, it was in there, and I couldn't sit through the actual movie without thinking about it the whole time.

I respect movie critics and other writers for not revealing that central twist, but telling us there IS such a twist is often tantamount to a spoiler itself. While I watched "Shutter Island," I kept trying to anticipate the twist, analyzing what was "really going on" instead of getting wrapped up in the story.

Now, my wife blurted out what the deal was early on, and I agreed with her, so, yeah, the twist wound up being no big deal. You'd think that having figured out the movie's gimmick, I would be free to sit back and enjoy the craft of the film without getting hung up on the particulars of the plot. Well, you would be wrong. I didn't know until the end that what we saw was "it." I kept wondering if something else twisty would happen, and at the end I almost felt a letdown. This is not Scorcese's fault, nor the screenwriters, nor star Leonardo DiCaprio. Well, maybe it IS DiCaprio's fault. Don't ask me how it is his fault, but I feel like blaming him for something because I just really wish Marty would find a new leading man sometime soon.

"Shutter Island" is well made, tense, and entertaining. But it kind of feels like a disappointment, and I find it isn't sticking with me at all. I imagine a second viewing would take care of the plot issues, but I don't have any desire to see it again right now. The problem is, I don't know how much of this reaction is due to the movie itself and how much is due to my own stupid self-psych out based on what I knew about it before seeing it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Summer Movie Preview: June (Part 2)

Toy Story 3 (opened this weekend): Hey, folks, if you go see it and it turns out that it stinks, do me a favor. Don't tell me. I kinda don't want to know. Do we "need" another installment in this excellent franchise? No, I guess we don't need a sequel. But I think I said the same thing after the original "Toy Story," and look how "2" turned out. I give Pixar the benefit of the doubt. More importantly, I give them my money. I rarely go to the movies anymore, as faithful Culturesharkaholics well know, but I'm pretty sure I'm gonna hit the gigundaplex in a week or two and plunk down actual cash for this, just in the hope--and, yes, expectation--that it'll be really, really good. When the downside is something as decent as "Cars," that's a fine track record and one worth betting on. In other words...green light.

Jonah Hex (opened this weekend): Is it kind of odd of me to fret about the guy who plays a scarred, grizzled, bounty hunter who has killed countless people because he may have beat Diane Lane? Do we know what really happened there yet? Yeah, Jonah Hex is a bad-ass, but maybe Josh Brolin is just an ass. Anyway, I always kind of looked at the Hex comics as a novelty, something nice to have around but not something I necessarily wanted to buy each month. Every now and then I picked up a copy, but I never got into the Westerns, nor the war comics. Yet I always liked seeing them there on the newsstand (yes, I'm talking about when I bought tons of comics--the good, old days). I look at this movie in a similar fashion: I'm glad it's been made, and it sounds like a good idea, but...eh. I'll wait and see about it. Yellow light.

Cyrus (opened this weekend): Oh, come on. It's not enough that we sit through Hannah Montana TV shows and movies--or sit through the ads for them--but now this little strumpet has the hubris to unleash a movie about herself with only her surname as the title? This is ridiculous, and I say--

Wait. This is actually a quirky indie comedy by the directors of "Baghead" and "The Puffy Chair"? Starring John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill? And it's actually been pretty well received so far?

Never mind. Yellow light. Reilly makes anything worth at least a consideration.

Grown Ups (opens Friday): I remember reading about this ensemble comedy and thinking that "ensemble" was way too classy a word for something that featured Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Rob Schneider. Then I saw a commercial revealing Salma Hayek was in it, and I thought, "Hmm, June 25, they say? Hmm..." Just please, please don't tell me her character is married to any of those guys. I can take "Wild Wild West." I can even take the mustache in "Frida." But I can't take the notion of Salma Hayek knocking botas with Deuce Bigalow. Red light, subject to change dramatically depending on the involvement of Hayek.

Knight and Day (opens Friday): A lot of people seem to be trying awfully hard to convince us that Tom Cruise is a funny, likable guy--not least of all, Tom himself. I dunno. Maybe this action comedy delivers, but I feel the time to put Cruise and Cameron Diaz guy in something like this passed years ago. And I liked "Vanilla Sky." Red light.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Vault of Coolness: Low Demand?

I popped into a local used book joint yesterday and found a few interesting items, most notably this little volume I've been wanting to get for years:

I found it in a show business biography section, but the store classified the book in an even more detailed category. I didn't notice that category on the price tag--I was too busy noticing, well, the price--but when the cashier checked me out, I saw it flash on the register:


Say what, now? Chico Marx is a LOW DEMAND celeb?

"You know, it's-a like-a that song about-a the sailor."
"Song about a sailor?"
"Yeah, you know--way, hey, low de-man down."

OK, that's REALLY bad, even if Chico himself pops onto your screen and says it, but I tried. I can't play the piano, either.

Seriously, I'm kind of miffed that this store considers one of the Marx Brothers a low demand celebrity, though I suppose it means I got a better deal on the book (not a great deal, though, considering it's a somewhat worn former library copy, but I'm happy). Still, if the Marxes don't rate as high demand, I shudder to think what this store thinks of the Dick Cavett autobio I also bought....but the 17-cent price tag is probably a clue.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

This Week in DVD

The Book of Eli: Hey, the Tony Committee or Tony Foundation or whatever just gave Denzel Washington a Tony. The guy busts his ass on stage every night, he deserves an opportunity to make a buck in a post-apocalyptic action/adventure flick, right? I'm sure the Tony Association would agree.

Unthinkable: Every so often a movie comes out that makes me feel way out of touch. Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Anne Moss...thriller with political overtones...Where did this come from? Is this straight to video or did it actually hit theaters? I hope you're not reading this for those kinds of answers, because, uh, yeah, I don't got 'em.

Youth in Revolt: I'm not so sure the timing was right for this movie last year: "OK, everyone's starting to get a little sick of Michael Cera. So here he is...in a dual role!"

When in Rome: Let's just say "Roman Holiday" ain't losing any sleep.

Happy Tears: The idea of Demi Moore and Parker Posey as sisters intrigues me...but only for a few minutes. And, see, this film is like an hour and a half.

Leave It to Beaver Season 3: Shout Factory may not be perfect, but I give them a lot of credit for resuming this long-stalled show with both individual season sets and a forthcoming complete series...and actually telling people they were gonna do that! I'm not a huge fan of the Beaver (hold your jokes, please), but I think you have to ask yourself--and I've probably made this point before--what kind of world do we live in if we can't get an iconic show like "Leave It to Beaver" out on video?

My Three Sons Season 2 Volume 2: Sadly, there's just no buzz about this show on DVD. I'd like to think it's because of the split-season approach, the music replacement, or the glacial pace of releases, but maybe I'm kidding myself. I've seen practically all the color episodes in syndication, too, so I hope CBS Video keeps the black-and-whites coming, but who knows?

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Taken" care of business with Stone Cold Liam Neeson

"Taken" is a satisfying and engrossing revenge fantasy. It's a fast-moving B-movie kind of a picture--maybe too fast-moving at times. It's immensely entertaining, though, and if you want to see Stone Cold Liam Neeson kick ass, you will get your wish.

OK, so Liam Neeson isn't exactly like Stone Cold Steve Austin, but give the beer-swilling WWE legend a few gadgets and the technical know-how to use them, a host of international contacts and resources, and the government intelligence background, and they're not so different. Neeson certainly uses his own presence and physical size to good advantage here; I never thought of the guy as a supreme fighting machine even in the "Star Wars" prequels, but here he is always credible.

Perhaps the best thing about "Taken" is that though it zips by through about an hour or so of Neeson's character searching for his kidnapped daughter, it takes its time getting to that point. Spending a half-hour or so on establishing the guy and his circumstances makes it even easier to root for the guy when the first act ends.

(I say "even easier" because just from seeing the ads and knowing a little bit about the movie, I came to "Taken" pumped up to see Neeson tee off on some criminal scum. Didn't take long before I turned to my wife and said, "Boy, I can't wait to see this guy kick somebody's ass.")

This guy is an ex-CIA operative whose devotion to his career kept him from his family and turned his ex-wife into a shrew (Sorry, Famke Janssen, but you don't get the Sympathetic Cinematic Spouse of the Year Award). Now he's reduced to hanging around in town hoping for some quality time with his daughter. On his birthday, his thoughtful gift is upstaged by the present she gets from her rich stepdad minutes later: a horse.

Hey, I think almost all us dads can identify with that fear. There are days I worry I might not be able to give my little girl a My Little Pony, let alone a dream gift like her very own steed. So I feel for Neeson, absentee father, or not, and after all he is clearly making the effort now. Plus he just seems like a cool fella, and he happens to be exactly right when he tries to tell his daughter not to go overseas to follow U2 on career (not that he's a Radiohead guy; he just doesn't want her to get abducted and sold into sex slavery by some despicable Euro sleaze--Oops).

So, yeah, once things get going, I'm totally on board with some good old-fashioned butt-kicking, and Neeson delivers. His businesslike demeanor and keen savvy make a great combo with his combat skills, and it's fun to see him tear through France. The fight scenes are sometimes shot with some of that annoying quick-edit, too-close kind of style, but overall you see enough of the action to feel like you're getting a good action movie experience.

It might sound strange to say a movie with this subject matter is fun unless you take it for what it is--a lean, mean, efficient revenge flick. Its surprising box office success will surely make a sequel tempting, and if they can make another one as unpretentious and non-bloated as this, it could actually work. The one thing this movie lacks is a bad guy on Neeson's level, but it works since it's basically Stone Cold Liam versus the system. A sequel might be worthwhile if Neeson gets to go head to head with a credible individual threat.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Brooks on Books: "Over Here! New York City During World War II" by Lorraine B. Diehl

As someone fascinated by life in wartime America, I enjoyed the heck out of this great book. Diehl focuses on New York City during the World War II era, but she covers so much ground so well that she provides an illuminating look at the entire homefront. It was a time full of danger, excitement, sorrow, and joy, and "Over Here!" captures all of it, even while it covers some of the more mundane details of everyday life in a big city during a big world war.

Fortunately, Diehl's writing is never mundane, and the book takes us on a well-organized journey from the early 1930s, when Nazism began to rear its ugly head in certain sections of New York City, to the exuberance of V-E Day and V-J day and (in a thoughtful epilogue) the adjustments the city and the country made as it encountered housing shortages, the removal of women from the workforce, et cetera.

Reading about this era makes you realize how little Americans sacrificed during the "War on Terror." I mean, rising gas prices suck, but at least we have gas. "Over Here!" details the rationing of gasoline, common household items, and even meat. Mayor LaGuardia, who is unsurprisingly a big player in these pages, declared entire meat-free days on which restaurants could not serve it. I'm glad we don't have to endure that now. Could we?

There are so many fascinating elements to cover here that Diehl's relatively short book gives you the feeling of having covered a lot of ground. Topics such as espionage in New York, air raid sirens, entertaining the troops at venues like the Stage Door Canteen--all are included, and all are worthy of further exploration, but Diehl offers an excellent overview here.

It's an attractive book, too, with numerous illustrations. In addition to the many vintage photographs, there are reproductions of editorial cartoons, newspaper pages, ads, and more. I would suspect even a hardcore WWII buff familiar with much of the subject matter and even the details would appreciate the presentation here, in large part due to these illustrations.

I highly recommend "Over Here!" to anyone interested in the time period. When we watch Hollywood movies from the WWII years, it's easy to get a glossy image of the glory and the honor of this part of our nation's history. Yet Lorraine Diehl makes the impact of the Second World War vivid even to those of us who live in a time of constant non-sacrifice. People did without, people pitched in, people did what they could--people even felt fear, even thousands of miles away from the official theaters of battle. "Over Here!" makes you feel the pain and the happiness felt by New York City--and America as a whole--throughout its pages.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Panel Discussion: What the Frug?

Reading Bob Haney's "Teen Titans" makes me feel like the un-roundest cat in the world. I mean, my first reaction on seeing this panel from "Teen Titans" #2 is, Wonder Girl has to do WHAT with her own magic lasso?

But I think this just proves how un-hip I am for not knowing what "frug" means. All the kids used that word back then...didn't they?

By the way, my apologies to Aqualad for cropping him out of the scan. Even on blogs like this, the poor marine-based heroes get no respect.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

This Week in DVD

Shutter Island: Doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo-doo-doo, doo doo doo doo doo doo-doo-doo! What, I can't be the only one who gets Jay Ferguson in his head when seeing this title, can I? Hey, "Thunder Island" would be more welcome in a Scorcese film than "Gimme Shelter" for the umpteenth time.

From Paris With Love: It's still too soon for me to make fun of John Travolta. However, if I rent this movie, I will sit back and enjoy it as an over-the-top goofy bad movie, and some of the laughter will indeed be at and not with Mr. Travolta. There's a distinction, see.

41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It: OK, I can understand parodying movie genres like the superhero flick, the dance flick, etc., but parodying Judd Apatow comedies? I'm betting this is one of those movies where the title is the funniest thing about it--you know, like "Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo" or "Soul Plane" or "Dead Man Walking." Boy, you go into a theater expecting a lighthearted zombie movie...

Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 7: I personally thought the ballyhooed "Seinfeld" reunion was nowhere near "the reunion fans deserved," but was more a clever way for the principals to ward off future talk of a real one. "Hey, we already did it on 'Curb!'" Still, it was a solid season.

Reds Memories: The Greatest Memories in Cincinnati Reds History: I'm guessing that not a lot of them involve Marge Schott. I'm hoping they don't include one of the worst memories in my Pirates' history: bouncing the Buccos from the 1990 National League playoffs.

TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan: Hey, all you conspiracy theorists, relax. Turner Classic Movies did NOT pull these Monogram Chans from its programming schedule in order to make fans buy the DVDs.


Bob Hope Thanks for the Memories Collection: You wont be especially thankful for the memories of buying most of these movies before when they came out as part of previous DVD sets.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"W.C. Fields and Me" and Me

The HBO family of networks showed "W.C. Fields and Me" (1976) a lot this past year, and I finally got around to checking it out. I was letting it gather virtual dust on my DVR because I was waiting till I read the Simon Louvish biography on my shelf. Well, the book is still gathering actual dust, having been pushed back in the pile for one reason or another, so I remain unschooled in the "real life" of the classic comedian. I just know he's funny as hell and I enjoy his movies.

"W.C. Fields and Me" may be pure fiction as the Gospels (AKA Maltin's movie guide) says, but it sure is a fascinating watch. For me, it boils down to one thing: Rod Steiger + bulbous nose + makeup + humorous impersonation as Fields = a magnetic performance. Just try taking your eyes off Steiger in this movie. It must have been audacious even then for him to take on that role, and he doesn't just take it on, he goes at it with gusto.

The great thing about seeing Rod in this biopic is picturing Rod Method-ing the heck out of the plum assignment. You just KNOW Steiger was puttering around the set in full makeup during the entire shoot, hating babies, kicking dogs, and not being in Philadelphia (Of course, it's possible those pastimes were standard items in his daily routine; I'm unschooled in the life of Rod Steiger, too).

Rodwatching really does provide the fun in "W.C. Fields and Me," but I can't blame you if you're into Valerie Perrine watching as well. Remember when Perrine was one of the biggest sex symbols in cinema? Well, I don't--I was too young--but I know that's how it was at one time. She plays Fields' live-in...well, something or other. They love each other, but she serves as his secretary, but he treats her like a Philadelphian--to borrow the title of a recent Steigerless movie (though Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin are getting a little bulbous themselves), It's Complicated.

At least, it's supposed to be complicated. Arthur Hiller's film focuses on the relationship between Perrine's Carlotta Monti (who wrote the tell-all on which this screenplay is based), but it's not exactly the stuff of classic romance. After all, Monti desperately wants to act, and I'm talking about acting on the big screen, not just acting like Fields' drunken boorishness isn't always aggravating. Fields, however, sabotages her shot at a Hollywood career, and while in some circles that would be considered a favor, it's a pretty crummy thing to do, even if he does eventually try to sort of make amends. Sure, we see Fields' "softer side" and maybe even utter an "Aww," or two, but overall Fields ain't a model of human kindness in here, and even given his extraordinary talent, it's tough to see what Carlotta sees in him other than his access to the studio.

Not a lot else happens, but it is interesting seeing Steiger as the great comedian. He does a passable physical recreation but doesn't capture Field's inherent comic charisma. But who could? There are memorable turns by Billy Barty and Jack Cassidy (as John Barrymore) that help the movie along, and you have to admire the attempt at period recreation, though there isn't a lot of Fields on the movie set being Fields, or Steiger being Fields being Fields.

I enjoyed "W.C. Fields and Me," but those more educated in the life, times, and persona of the legendary comedian might give it a lot less slack. I think Fields fans owe it to give it a look out of curiosity if nothing else.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Brooks on Books: The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

OK, so the show isn't what it used to be. I don't watch it anymore. But that doesn't mean the first (pick your number of choice here) seasons alone don't constitute one of the best television shows in the medium. John Ortved's oral history of the show does that legacy justice, providing an enlightening and lively insight into the creation and execution of the landmark cartoon and pop culture phenomenon. It's an essential book for fans, and though I haven't listened to all the copious DVD commentaries on the season sets, but I really doubt you'll get the kind of frank dialogue you get here.

Ortved even acknowledges the show has gone downhill, and the injection of that kind of opinion and analysis makes this a little different than some other oral histories you might have read. The author does a fine job of assembling comments from multitudes of figures involved with "The Simpsons" from a variety of sources (He relies on secondhand sources like magazine interviews to get the thoughts of big players like Matt Groening because, as the book's title indicates, he got no cooperation from the show's current caretakers).

However, he includes many of his own comments, clearly delineated in bold text, to provide not just context for the oral history, but a good dose of his own take as well. It's not at all obtrusive; to the contrary, it enriches the text and provides a POV that gives it a little spice. Ortved didn't need to take shots at sitcoms like "Everybody Loves Raymond," but it helps to know his perspective when he discusses the shortcomings of "The Simpsons Movie" or why many feel the show is stagnant under current showrunner Al Jean.

Ortved's opinions actually reflect the general consensus among hardcore fans, and I think, and he doesn't push them on us without sharing thoughts of others as well. And don't get me wrong, the real meat of the book is the oral history. It's sad that I feel obligated to talk about the decline of "The Simpsons" when discussing the show, but let's not lose sight of the fact that this is one of the all-time bests overall. Ortved's book certainly doesn't. Most of the pages here deal with the glorious prime of the sitcom, when the writing and voice talent combined with the animation to provide what felt like a groundbreaking experience each week.

Watching the episodes nowadays, I find their impact can't be what it was then when it was so fresh and new. I don't know if someone going to those early episodes (or second or third through sixth or so seasons, to be precise) now for the first time can possibly appreciate how outstanding they were when they first aired, before the ensuing two decades of TV comedy copied and expanded on them to make that perspective more commonplace. But they can enjoy a great show, though.

You won't get a ton of specific detail about individual episodes here--there is no episode guide or anything like that--but you will learn a lot about how the show is/was put together. There is a great history of how the show grew from an interstitial segment on "The Tracy Ullman Show" to a staple of FOX's early broadcast lineup. The focus of the text is on the writing. You get a vivid impression on the writers room and on many of the writers themselves, including guys who became famous later, like Conan O'Brien, and guys you think maybe should be more famous, like Brent Forrester, who provides a tremendous amount of incisive and detailed commentary.

Perhaps the most valuable portions, though, are those that delve into the complex relationship between show creators Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon. All 3 are depicted as talented but flawed individuals, and it seems inevitable that they would conflict as the show's success far exceeded expectations. Brooks in particular comes off as a lot more of a jerk than I expected, given the lavish praise I've read about him from others, but his clout and commitment not only got "The Simpsons" on the air, but shielded the show from FOX meddling in its formative years. Groening deserves credit for creating the core characters, but is seen as a distant presence who was never a big hands-on presence in the actual production of the series, yet had no problem accepting the credit. Simon is a volatile individual who resented not getting his share of credit but is believed by many to have been the true creative genius who shaped "The Simpsons" that we know and love. I get the sense that he's one of those guys who is widely believed to be an a-hole but gets away with it because he's brilliant, and besides, you know where you stand with him.

I could go on and on about this book, as I could go on and on about the show. Reading this gives you a good dose of the dark side of the Simpsons saga, but it also reinforces the greatness of what this guys produced. Ortved's brilliantly organized oral history covers all aspects of this classic TV show, from merchandising to famous guest stars to standards and practices. If you love "The Simpsons," you must read this book.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Summer Movie Preview: June (Part 1)

Boy, when discussing the summer movies of May (here and here), I really got...well, bitchy, didn't I? I'm gonna try to keep an open mind and a sunny heart as I consider what's on the docket this month.

Get Him to the Greek (opened this weekend): In what universe did everyone watching "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" think, "Boy, I'd love to see that a-hole rocker guy in a whole movie of his own?" Maybe this is an entertaining rental or something down the road, but to me it looks like the latest effort in this push by parties like MTV to get Russell Brand over as some kind of comedy megastar in America. No thank you. We'll stick with our old Yahoo Serious tapes. Red light.

Hey, there goes my open mind.

Killers (opened this weekend): I sure hope Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher look cute together on screen, because I can't imagine them being all that funny together. Maybe all Kutcher's Twitter followers can fill a theater this weekend and have a good time or something. The most appealing thing about this project isn't the movie itself, but the anticipation of the day Heigl loses it and starts telling the media how crappy it is. Red light.

And...so long to the sunny heart.

Marmaduke (opened this weekend): If a movie based on a comic a comic strip is an uncertain proposition, either, what about a movie based on a single-panel comic strip? Much as we all love that big mutt, the filmmakers may be hard pressed to come up with the depth and nuance needed for a feature-length effort in the Marmaduke archives. I mean, with all due respect, we're not adapting "Fred Bassett" here. Red light.

The A-Team (opens June 11): At the risk of giving away the whole movie, I heard a hot rumor that the filmmakers adapted the episode where they all blew up a bunch of stuff.

Seriously, the best thing about the original series is the intro/theme song, and I won't pay 10 bucks to see it in DTS. Red light.

The Karate Kid (opens June 11): I remember the first time I saw a commercial for this reboot. I was excited to see Will Smith's kid getting his butt kicked. Then the trailer took a turn, and, yawn, it's evident the clear finds redemption and emerges victorious. Boo! If the whole movie was Will Smith's cocky kid getting his ass handed to him, I might actually go see it. Red light.

Well, I'm about 15% less bitchy in this post, but I'm still not impressed by this summer's movies. Let's hope things pick up in Part 2.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The more things change...

Seeing this headline today on TV Tattle makes you realize how much TV has changed:

"American Dad" horse ejaculation may cost Fox stations $25,000 each

When Mr. Ed did it, it was only $750.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

This Week in DVD

Alice in Wonderland: You'd think the actress who plays Alice would get some kind of rub from working with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, but I don't even remember her name. Is she even on any of the DVD packaging?

The Wolfman: Universal milks its classic horror franchise--er, revitalizes its classic horror franchise for a new generation. And all those naysayers who thought there were no new ideas to make a remake worthwhile? Well, look. They changed the name from "Wolf Man" to "Wolfman," didn't they?

Three Stooges Volume 8: It's Joe Besser time with this final volume, and that means that for Stooges fans who said they wanted ALL the shorts, it's put up or shut up time. Well, put up or shut up or get a finger in the eye. (Ladies and gentlemen, I just became the millionth writer to slip a "finger in the eye" reference into a blurb about the Stooges. What do I win?)

Babs Stanwyck Show Volume 2: This continuing DVD project is quite the curio considering for many people, "Barbara Stanwyck's show" was "Big Valley." Of course (and sadly), for many more, "Barbara Stanywck's show" is, "Who the hell is Barbara Stanwyck?"

Mr. Ed Season 3: You'd think that with them running in the same Hollywood circles, Mr. Ed and Barbara Stanwyck would have done a project together at some point, but not so according to my records. Wasn't anybody thinking in the sixties?

Foyle's War Set 6: Sometimes it's annoying when things or people retire or go away and then come back months later, but more Foyle is an awesome thing. More Foyle on DVD, and not hacked up by PBS, is even awesomer. As Foyle himself might say, "Mmm. Quite."