Tuesday, May 31, 2011

First Impulse: What the networks are doing this fall: FOX

I remember when I used to be a big fan of Fox programming. "The Simpsons," "Married with Children"...The network promoted itself as an edgy alternative, and it really was! It was so edgy and alternative that I sat through shows that weren't either of those things, like "Duet," and didn't hold it against anybody. Now that I think about it, this outfit also brought us off-Showtime versions of "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and "Get a Life." Man, it's no wonder I used to love Fox.

Years later, after enduring hours of annoying sports coverage and witnessing the "American Idol" and Seth MacFarlane takeover, plus the slow decline of "The Simpsons," I don't really watch a lot on that network. When I do, it gets retooled and ruined--see "The Human Target"--or just plain canned--see "The Chicago Code." So while don't see a lot of "Arrested Developments" on the announced fall schedule, I don't see "Chicago Code," either, and that kind of angers me. So I don't have a lot of enthusiasm for this lineup.

The biggest deals are "X-Factor," a talent show deal from Simon Cowell, and "Terra Nova." If I never got into "Idol," why would I get into "Factor," and as for Steven Spielberg's "Nova," yeah, it's being hyped already, but I can't quell my own irrational suspicion that it's never going to actually air. I also have a more rational suspicion that even if it does, it'll stink.

"Raising Hope"? Pass. "House"? Pass. "Glee"? Throw a 50-yard bomb into the Atlantic Ocean and don't give it a life preserver.

There are a few new sitcoms, too, but I'm at the point now where I almost don't want to give comedies on Fox a shot. I mean, all the half-hour shows they've tried in recent years, some of them promising, and "Raising Hope" is the one that sticks? So even though one of them has Cutty from "The Wire," I'm not too eager to try the new comedies.

So, Fox, good luck and all, but your hits are aging, and it's been a long time since you really enthused me. And by the way, I still think you're not a true network until you try to program the 10:00 hour.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Brooks on Books: Tennis, Anyone?

I consider myself a casual tennis fan these days, someone who hasn't played in way too long but wishes he did and someone who constantly wishes he followed the sport a little more closely than he does. Here are a few book recommendations for you fans to check out in between French Open matches:

Hardcourt Confidential by Patrick McEnroe (with Peter Bodo) sounds like it's going to tear the lid off professional tennis, but it's not really that kind of book. P-Mac is candid and willing to criticize players like Serena Williams where it's warranted, and he does offer an inside look at the game, but it's not a gossipy tell-all.

Instead, it's a fine blend of memoir, analysis of the sport, and in-depth look at certain aspects of tennis that don't get a lot of mainstream media coverage. Most significant is McEnroe's exploration of the Davis Cup. Drawing on his experience as a player and captain, he really covers the competition from all angles. His stories about managing players and personalities offer a side of tennis I hadn't read much about. Since I have fond childhood memories of watching USA Davis Cup performances on ESPN, I loved that the book spent so much time on this subject.

McEnroe also covers his own career as player, broadcaster, USTA official, and, yes, he talks plenty about brother John as well. He doesn't air out much dirty laundry, but he does offer glimpses into what it's like to play in John's shadow and also to play against him and with him in doubles. I even enjoyed reading about his stint as a regular on Don Imus' radio show. Throughout, possibly aided by noted tennis writer Bodo, he comes off as a straight shooter and a heck of a guy, and this book should delight aficionados of the game, though fans more casual than myself might not get as wrapped up in the Davis Cup stuff. It saddens me that the event doesn't mean more right now in this country, but I'm just saying.

A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher is also pretty hardcore tennis from a historic perspective. Speaking of Davis Cup, Fisher tells in great detail the saga of an epic 5-set semifinal match in a USA vs. Germany contest played at Wimbledon in 1937. Fisher does not merely relate the story of this particular event, though he does cover that in exciting fashion. He offers mini-biographies of players Gottfried Von Cramm and Don Budge (you can probably guess which guy represents which country), offers basic overviews of tennis history and especially Davis Cup history, and, oh, by the way, takes us into the turmoil created by the rise of Nazi Germany.

It's testament to Fisher's skill that he combines all these aspects while maintaining the narrative suspense and building up to the conclusion of the match. There are basically 5 chapters, "Set One, Set Two," and so on, and Fishers uses each set as a springboard to go back and fill in all of the other stories. The event itself is a big deal, as it means a lot to all the participants and their home countries. Davis Cup was a much bigger part of the national consciousness in 1937, as Fisher shows. And while it may be overstating things to say Von Cramm was "playing for his life" against the legendary Budge, well...I don't want to give much away, as I think the story is more compelling if you know few of the details, but Von Cramm certainly felt the pressure of essentially representing the Nazi regime, and the lengthy "Aftermatch" section of the book is just as engrossing as the rest.

My quibble with "Splendor" is that because Fisher jumps back and forth in time, the text confuses sometimes. I grew up loving and studying baseball history, so I can follow an account of, say, the late 1970s when the Yankees seemed to face the Royals and the Dodgers ever year in the playoffs, and not feel my head explode. However, the highest levels of the 1930s featured many matches with the same players going at each other in similar circumstances, and while Fisher does his best to differentiate and lay it out with clarity, it is easy to feel a little bogged down when reading and going to this Wimbledon or this Davis Cup with these same guys playing in the semis or in the finals or whatever.

Another interesting thing is that even as Fisher makes Von Cramm and Budge come alive, the most interesting figure in the book remains Big Bill Tilden, who plays a surprising but key part in "Splendor" and steals the show, especially if you're not familar with the particulars of his life. You come away wanting to read a more in-depth biography of THAT guy--"And guess who wrote a big bio of Bill Tilden," said Frank Deford with an evil twirl of his mustache!

McEnroe's book reveals his love of and respect for tennis and shows his commitment to it, but it does sometimes feel a bit breezy; Fisher's work just feels weightier. After all, we have Nazis and politics and history and everything. Each book deserves a big recommendation for serious tennis fans; the more casual ones may want to be a little more careful. I'll say this, though: If you're interested enough in the sport to want to read a book about it, you should get a lot out of each one. Fisher's has enough general and social history to perhaps be of more interest to those who aren't huge fans, but it is loaded with enough detail to satisfy those who are.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

First Impulse: What the networks are doing this fall: The CW

For the next week or so, I'm going to share some quick initial reactions to the news coming out of last week's upfront presentations, when TV networks shared their plans for the fall. What shows are coming back? What news shows can we expect? I don't intend to provide any kind of comprehensive report on that. Instead, here are some things that stand out for me.

I start this series with the CW, and the reason I start with the CW is because I can fill post space with my introductory spiel and not have to fill it talking about the "almost a real network" network. I don't take the CW seriously, not being a teenage girl, but if you do, hey, no offense. I just don't watch any of its shows regularly and haven't done so for years. And though I am indeed a boy, I'm not a fanboy, at least not of the "Buffy" variety, so the presence of a new Sarah Michelle Gellar show ("Ringer") does not interest me.

Among returning shows, well, apparently everything is returning. What does it take to get rid of some of these stalwarts? "One Tree Hill" will surpass "Gunsmoke" and "Law and Order" as the longest-running primetime network TV show this year, while "Supernatural," of course, has already broken the record for longest-running show about brothers investigating stuff, beating "The Hardy Boys" and "Simon and Simon."

There's a new show coming called "H8R," in which celebrities are paired with and try to win over civilian detractors. What a terrible idea. The only way I'd watch this is if the celebrities totally acted like jerks and tried to show up the "regular folks" using the advantages of their fame and wealth. And of course, I hate this show already just because of the title. I see enough license plates on my commute to work without seeing them in the TV listings, too.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Easy A" and "Salt" (now on Instant Watching, I might add)

Recent additions to Netflix streaming and to Starz as well (no coincidence, that, due to the deal the two companies have) are these two female-fronted 2010 movies. I really liked one, and the other--well, I could barely stay awake for it.

That's not necessarily an indictment in and of itself. Since the birth of my newest child, I've found myself dozing off in my easy chair even during movies and TV shows I love. So if something is weak or just bland, well, it hardly stands a chance.

Let's start with the snoozer first, Angelina Jolie's "Salt." Well, Philip Noyce directed it, but the movie is all about her, right? That's how it was marketed, too. I used to be a big fan of Angelina Jolie, Action Star--hell, I paid to see BOTH "Tomb Raider movies." But now--forgive me--she just isn't what she used to be for whatever reason, and she is no longer the credible ass kicker (OK, credible in a movie way) she used to be. Nor does she have the "Hey, ogle me" aura she did then.

So, yeah, when I sit down to watch "Salt," I'm expecting a good story, and it just never comes together. I somehow guessed a major plot development, one that's supposed to be a big deal, very, very early, and I'm never good at that sort of thing. I don't think it makes the movie terrible per se, but discerning it so early lessened my enjoyment of "Salt." Just a generic action/thriller that barely--and I mean barely--kept me awake. Come to think, it wasn't the movie that kept me awake as much as the beverage.

"Easy A," however, is a delight, a testament to the charm and charisma of Emma Stone. Stone is a highlight of films like "Superbad" and "The House Bunny," but here she proves she can carry a movie. I look forward to seeing more of her in these kind of light but intelligent roles.

Not that "Easy A" is the most sophisticated of screen comedies--it kind of beats the "Scarlet Letter" connection over your head so you understand the inspiration for the plot, for one thing. I found myself straining to buy that plot, in fact, in which Stone agrees to let a fellow student claim he had sex with her, but then escalates it as other credibility-seeking boys make deals with her to get her approval to say that they did it. There's probably some commentary in here about why guys can get away with this but Stone's character is labeled a slut, but the story is much more straightforward than a treatise on social mores. Stone IS ostracized, though, in a way that doesn't really ring true with me. More importantly, it's hard to believe Stone would take this as far as she does.

Straining to accept the story is worth it, though, because there is a lot of humor in the screenplay as well as a solid effort, often successful, to infuse heart. Some of the adults are as misguided here as the kids, and I like the way the movie sort of attempts to show the messiness of relationships and sexual politics. Stone's parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, are almost but not quite over the top in their kindness and accessibility, and it's nice to see them have fun as a loving couple that stands in stark contrast to some of the other selfish men and women who populate the movie.

It's funny, ultimately you feel good about most of what's going on, and Stone is great. I saw "Easy A" on video, but it's probably the kind of movie you can revisit on cable, or Netflix, with ease and get something out of it each time.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My wife reads "People" so you don't have to

If there's one issue of "People" magazine I look forward to reading by accident only because my wife left it laying around as opposed to actually sitting down and deliberately perusing it because, hey, I never do that, it's the "Most Beautiful Person" issue. This year, I stumbled on the mag, which anointed Jennifer Lopez, and was prepared to go through and take exception to their ratings.

Only there is no ranking. It's J-Lo is the Goddess, and here are some features on other beautiful women. I guess I was confusing "People" with "Maxim," and let me tell you, sometimes I wish my wife would confuse the two because often I'd rather see the latter in my house, BUT she never does.

So I really have nothing more to say about this year's edition.

However, I also accidentally read the May 2 issue, and I took note of the upbeat profile of legendary soul diva Aretha Franklin, who appears to be on the mend after suffering from unspecified "serious health problems" last year. Aretha is still mum about what major surgery she had--she denies the gastric bypass rumors--but she is lighter, healthier, and rarin' to go. Why, just look at this quote about her bucket list that closes the article:

"And she jokes about one last entry on it: sticking around long enough to make the 'Today' show's centenarian segment. 'I'll be at least 100,' she says, 'and Al Roker will be bent over there, showing my picture!'"

Putting aside the horror of reading any sentence including the phrase "Al Roker will be bent over," I think we should applaud the Queen of Soul. It's an inspiration to all of us that at her advanced age, after everything that this woman has accomplished, she still has such lofty goals.

Monday, May 23, 2011

I sure showed THEM

So I believe it was at the beginning of the second season of "Chuck" or thereabouts when I saw the weak ratings for the show and bailed on it. Why invest an hour a week in a series that wasn't gonna make it till the end of the year? My wife kept up with most episodes, but I haven't seen a full episode since.

Well, here we are in 2011, NBC just announced its fall schedule, and look what show is returning for its fifth season: "Chuck."

Yep, I really showed NBC a lesson by refusing to watch the show they were gonna cancel. And it's a good thing I didn't wrapped up in it and sit through all those dozens of episodes only to have the rug yanked out from under me a mere 4 years later!

In fairness to myself, the ratings for the show remained weak and still are; only NBC's general ineptitude has kept "Chuck" from a proverbial dirt nap. Also, from what I understand, the show has made enough changes and emphasized enough things I'd rather it wouldn't, that I'm really not broken up about "missing out" on the last few seasons of what I considered an entertaining series but never appointment television.

Still, I do feel kind of foolish.

Yo kind of quiero-ed Taco Bell

A few weeks ago, I had a hankering for something my father had described to me: the new Pacific Shrimp Taco at Taco Bell. I have never been more than an occasional visitor to the Bell; I love tacos, but I don't really consider that incarnation of the food a "real" taco. Fast food is great, but it's not like real tacos are a luxury item, so why waste time and money on an inferior product when I can make a great batch at home? And of course, when I say "I," I mean my wife.

But the combination of the taco and one of my other favorite food items--shrimp--was enough of a lure to get me into a Taco Bell for the first time in several years. I bought whatever combo they featured with the Pacific Shrimp Taco and took it back to the office for a hasty but hopefully satisfying bit of fast food goodness.

Well, I won't say I won't be back to Taco Bell for a few more years just because of this experience, but it certainly didn't impress me enough to make itch to return. On one hand, it's my fault. I got the soft tacos, and I'm just not a soft taco guy. I like my taco shells the way I like my trigonometry exams--hard. So that's one strike.

Then the taco itself, even allowing for the soft-shell handicap, just wasn't all that tasty. I'm not sure how fresh it was; it certainly wasn't piping hot or anything by the time I bit into it. Ehh. It was a taco, I guess, and it had shrimp. But it wasn't exceptional.

And besides, it just didn't feel like all that much of a deal. Isn't that kind of the reason we buy fast food, because it's cheap, or at least feels like a good value? I can't remember the exact amount I paid for two soft tacos and a fountain drink, but I had to supplement my meal with a side of nachos because the soft tacos looked kind of puny. Now, granted, I have been known to strike fear into the hearts of innocent bystanders by swooping into the kitchen and gobbling up mass quantities of tacos without concern for the well-being of other diners, but still, I don't think I'm just being a glutton when I say two Taco Bell tacos don't exactly make a feast fit for un rey.

So I bought the side of cheap tortilla chips with the fake nacho cheese, and it hit the spot for what it was, but why did I have to buy that as a side item? Shouldn't nachos be part of a combo meal there? Every burger joint worth its excessive sodium gives the option of a deal that includes fries or some healthier alternative. I felt kind of ripped off having to shell out 6-7 bucks for what I got--and what I got was SOFT shell!

So to summarize: Unexceptional food--even by fast food standards--and unexceptional value equals me kind of avoiding the place, especially since I've cut back on fast food in general. I am willing to give the concept of fast food tacos a try, but it may have to be the McTaco that revolutionizes the industry, because I'm not too impressed with what Taco Bell is doing.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Brooks on Books: A baseball doubleheader

"The End of Baseball" is a fine historical novel by Peter Schilling, one that takes a fascinating "What if" scenario from baseball lore, runs with it, and creates a compelling and credible alternate history. During World War II, maverick owner and noted showman Bill Veeck wanted to buy the struggling Philadelphia Athletics American League franchise and stock the roster with superstars of the Negro Leagues, thus integrating major league baseball years before Jackie Robinson finally became the first black to play when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

This didn't happen, of course, but Schilling's story shows what might have happened. It takes a lot of subterfuge and a lot of struggle against the Powers that Be who seek to undermine Veeck's efforts. While the establishment wants to subvert the A's and prevent the successful integration of the sport, Veeck really just wants to sell tickets and win baseball games--with winning baseball games being the bigger deal because it leads to selling tickets, which leads to Veeck showing the profit he needs to get in order to maintain control of the club after his first season as part of the terms of his purchase. It's not that Veeck is as conservative, stubborn or outright racist as some of the Lords of baseball, like imperious commissioner Kenesaw Landis, but race just isn't a big deal to him. He sees an opportunity to get some great talent and create a memorable experience for fans and a winning franchise.

Schilling depicts an entire season through not just Veeck's eyes, but also those of the other main characters, men like troubled Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, who manages the team, and of course the black men who form the A's baseball team. It's to Schilling's credit that he makes Veeck such a vivid character while staying true to what we know about this real-life individual but also creates credible versions of African-American men, some characters in their own right like drug addict Josh Gibson and mercurial Satchel Paige, others more identifiable or "average" guys like struggling rookie Artie Wilson.

I was invested in the story right to the end, but I never was quite wrapped up in it up to the point I couldn't put it down. That's not necessarily indicative of any flaw in the book, but I guess I expected to be a little more emotionally hooked by it than I was. However, "The End of Baseball" is an entertaining blend of history--including cameos from men like Walter Winchell--social commentary, and of course baseball, and I give it a strong recommendation to any fan with an appreciation of and interest in the sport's past.

Hey, speaking of Jackie Robinson, last year, I read Jonathan Eig's "Opening Day," an excellent account of the man's groundbreaking 1947 rookie season. It's a well-researched, well-written account of an eventful period, full of detail, anecdotes, and telling glimpses into the world of Robinson himself. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of Robinson on a basic human level and how he actually lived and handled things as he was making history. Eig, however, provides not just a thorough overview of the '47 Dodgers in baseball terms, but a rewarding look at Robinson the man.

I must confess that while the integration of major league baseball is a pivotal event, one that deserves plentiful scholarship and fictional treatment, I sometimes get a little exasperated when I see just how many books on the topic fill the shelves in the baseball sections at the libraries or bookstores. Not that I resent the books or anything, but sometimes I find myself hoping they're not drowning out other aspects of baseball history I'd like to see represented. But I read and loved Eig's book and never found myself regretting I'd picked it up.

One aspect in particular that impressed me in "Opening Day" was Eig's effort to explore many of the myths and legends that grow over the years as people celebrate Robinson's accomplishments. Eig does a great job at digging for the truth and evaluating the veracity of many of the more notable stories that have become accepted as fact. His skill in this area is one reason why I'm stunned to read all the negative comments about his follow-up, a biography of Al Capone that came out last year. One of the common criticisms I read is that Eig relies on inaccuracies and speculation to build some conclusions that just can't be supported. Well, perhaps Eig's work on Capone is lacking, but I do recommend "Opening Day" as an entertaining and well-sourced piece of history, one that works hard to be a credible record of a widely discussed, vital component of baseball's tradition.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cultureshark Remembers Randy Savage

R.I.P. Randy "Macho Man" Savage, dead at 58 after reportedly suffering a fatal heart attack then crashing his car. Savage is one of the all-time biggies in pro wrestling, a massive star in both the heady days of 1980s WWF and a key player in the 1990s Monday Night Wars era, when the WWF and rival WCW were making tons of money while running their flagship programs head to head each week. He was a big enough mainstream star to merit a segment on "Sportscenter" yesterday and to star in ads such as his notable Slim Jims campaign.

Savage was not someone I considered my favorite wrestler at any given time, but because he was pitted against some of the performers I most detested watching--Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior--in key feuds and matches, I did root for the guy a lot and get emotionally invested in his work. Plus I always appreciated his ability; in a WWF in which stars often coasted due to organizational pressures, ridiculous travel schedules, and the pressure to not upstage Hogan, Savage stood out for possessing both the tremendous charisma one looks for in a professional wrestling superstar AND the athletic ability and "workrate," as it's known, to deliver inside the ring.

On a personal level, I remember Savage for starring in two pivotal moments in my wrestling fandom. I first started watching in 1985, and the arrival of the Macho Man in the WWF was a big deal. He had cool moves and was an exciting guy to watch, but he was also involved in what I believe to be the first big "angle" (storyline) outside the ring that really captivated me. The WWF treated him as a big deal immediately, and the big question that played out over his initial weeks of television appearances was who would be his manager?

Established heel (villain) managers like Bobby Heenan and Mr. Fuji were shown vying for the right to guide the career of this new superstar, and when the announcement was made and an attractive but timid-looking woman, Miss Elizabeth, emerged as the "winner," it was a real stunner...but an intriguing one. The Beauty and the Beast act became one of the biggest things going in the WWF, and things took off from there.

I remember missing the show on which the news broke, but my aunt's then-boyfriend was over at our house, and we exchanged a little pro wrestling talk when I mentioned I watched it. I think I mentioned the ongoing saga about Savage's manager, and he said, "Oh, yeah, they showed that." "Who? Who was it?" I asked with youthful impatience. "Some CHICK," he replied. "Some hot chick."

I can remember puzzling over that one--who the heck was he talking about?--and also being a little amused, even as young as I was, at his terminology. But, hey, I was INTO that story, and that was the moment when I knew I really didn't want to miss the weekly TV. I had to keep up with this stuff!

The next key moment in my evolution as a pro wrestling fan was Savage's win of the Intercontinental title over Tito Santana. The heel Savage used a "foreign object" to injure and then pin Santana, and I was outraged that the decision stood. Oh, I understood that it was "fake," but even on the storyline level, I thought it was ridiculous that A) the referee missed it and that B) nothing could be done to correct the injustice because "the referee's decision was final." Even in those days before instant replay was so pervasive in professional sports, I thought that was an absurd policy, and I wasted way too much energy in frustration over how illogical pro wrestling was in its depiction of rules. I quickly realized I had to accept some of the conventions of the business--things like stupid referees being blind at convenient points in a match even though it strained credibility--or else I wouldn't be able to enjoy it at all.

As "smart" as I was to the business, though, I was still enough of a "mark" to get wrapped up in things and lose myself in the moment. One memorable moment, and as far as I can remember the last time I kind of had a vague doubt in the back of my head--is this stuff real sometimes?--was when Savage "ruptured the larynx" of Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat as part of their televised Intercontinental match on syndicated TV in Fall 1986.

Fortunately for me, I can relive this, one of my all-time favorite angles, through the magic of Dailymotion. Click here to see the match and memorable post-match attack the Macho Man executed on Steamboat's throat with the timekeeper's bell. Nowadays, Steamboat's animated selling of the injury might seem a little over the top, but when I watched this, I was blown away by how intense the whole thing was. Yeah, part of me wondered, hey, maybe this time it IS real!

That's the last time I thought that. It's sad in a way that I lost my innocence so early, but I was able to enjoy the spectacle of pro wrestling in many varieties--not just the WWF product--for years. Many of the action I enjoyed included Randy "Macho Man" Savage, who thrived as a superstar in the industry well into the late 1990s. Savage was a complex guy, and there are a lot of fascinating threads of his life, not all of them positive, but my most vivid memories today are of these 3 moments, a trio of incidents that helped shape my progression as a professional wrestling fan.

Friday, May 20, 2011

This Week in DVD

The Rite: A thriller that explores the procedures of performing an exorcism. It's kind of like, you know, that elaborate ritual Anthony Hopkins undergoes when he takes a movie these days--the ritual known as "counting money."

The Mechanic: They went and remade yet another movie, this time with Jason Statham redoing the 1970s Charles Bronson action pic. I'm gonna write an angry post about this desecration...just as soon as I get around to seeing the 1970s Charles Bronson action pic.

The Roommate: Good news is, your new roommate is a dangerous psycho. Bad news is, she's Minka Kelly. Uh...what's the problem here?

"Your roommate is a maniac."
"I think she might be planning to kill you."
"No, seriously, she's bad--"
"Dude, it's MINKA KELLY."

Wait a minute. I just looked it up and discovered Minka is actually the normal one and Leighton Meester is the screwball. Uh, yeah, in that case, exit stage right, please.

Thor: Tales of Asgard: Another effort to tie into the motion picture currently in release, but unlike last week's live-action knockoff, this is a legit animated Marvel effort. I'm surprised we haven't seen someone put together "The Thora Birch Collection" for this month.

Avril Lavigne: The Whole Picture: Not to be harsh, but...how much of a picture can there be? That said, I like that recent video of hers which starts with her in her underwear for no real reason.

The Bionic Woman Season 2: I thought this show was gonna be a bigger deal than it has been, but maybe I'm in the minority. Got to tell you, though, I totally forgot this was even coming out on DVD. Speaking of forgetting, I saw a report on Tv Shows on DVD that Universal responded to customer complaints about subpar audio on an episode by pointing out the deterioration of the source material...or something like that. Did Universal "forget" to say something before a bunch of people bought the set?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Fun with TV Listings

Just a few items I saw in the TV listings last week:

First off, an episode of "Miami Vice" called "Bad Timing" that aired on Centric. The description read:

"Crockett is ordered to take time off his job, only to have his vacation cut short when he is kidnapped by a group of homicidal prison escapees."

Darn, don't you just hate that? I hope Sonny bought travel insurance. Now, the "bad thing happens to the good guy while he's on vacation" is a common TV plot, but the absurdity of the coincidence coupled with the relative dryness of the episode description amused me.

Next up is a series that airs on Current. That's right, Current, the new home of Keith Olbermann. Remember when Current launched and was all social relevance that and awareness this and good citizen that?

Yeah, not so much anymore. Current started airing movies, and while for now some of them are actually good, but I think we all know a sure sign a channel is going downhill is when it suddenly adds movies.

But in addition to flicks like "Syriana" and "Good Night and Good Luck," Current apparently likes a reality series called "What Did I Do Last Night?" in which people see video clips of the stuff they did the night before when they were presumably wasted.

Yes, watch this show, which aired in a mini-marathon one weekday morning last week, and marvel as the subjects live up to some of these phrases from the episode descriptions:

"leave her inhibitions at the door"
"outlandish partying"
"paint the town red"
"shocking incident involving self-induced vomiting"
"she is sure to regret witnessing the following morning"
"embarrassing footage that is sure to shock her when she awakes in the morning."

Current: The new home of Keith Olbermann!

I haven't watched this series yet, I confess. Perhaps the sordid activity has some redeeming value. Maybe the participants promise to plant a tree or register a new voter for each time they see themselves hurling in a given episode.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Half-Assed Gourmet: Viva Los Taco Doritos!

The other day, I'm in the local outpost of The Greatest Supermarket Chain Known to Mankind, Wegmans, when I see a nice-looking family--youngish mom and dad, two small children--holding a bag of Taco Doritos.

Yes, they're back--the junk food that coursed through my veins many an afternoon after school in the late eighties, often accompanied by Nestle Quik in my mug and pro wrestling on ESPN. Taco Doritos are available in a "limited edition" package that spotlights the classic orange and brown colors that made the bag of trans fats so distinctive back in the day.

So the mom takes the bag and says to her son, "Look. This is the same bag I had when I was young." Then she put the bag in the cart with a big smile on her face. I didn't see the kid's expression, but he may well have been thinking, "Uh...yeah, Mom. It's a BAG. Whoop-de-do."

I know that I had a smile on my face. Only in America, I mused, could the populace get nostalgic over a bizarre offshoot of a junky snack chip, and at least partly because of the packaging, to boot.

Yep, I chuckled about that...and then, of course, I blew right past that family to snatch my own bag. After all, I want to see if they taste the way I remember them...and the bag'll look pretty cool in my pantry. Besides, two bucks (on sale from an MSRP of 4 bucks--did I mention Wegmans is great?) is a small fee to pay for memories of decompressing after a rough day of school with some of my favorite guilty pleasures.

Monday, May 16, 2011

They should have just cast Tom Cavanaugh as Secretary Seward and made an "Ed" reunion

Somehow Bob Redford's Lincoln assassination movie, "The Conspirator," flew right past me, making it to limited release with me barely even noticing it. I guess maybe that whole "limited release" thing is a factor. We also can't discount the "limited advertising" aspect of the situation, nor the "limited good reviews" that limited buzz.

Still, it sounds intriguing to me. It's a legal drama about the military trial of conspirator Mary Surratt. Redfords's film offers many appealing elements--Lincoln stuff, assasination stuff, Period Tom Wilkinson--but it also offers an apalling element:

Justin Long.

Nothing against Justin Long personally, or even professionally, really, but he is as out of place in a period film as I am in a hot tub with Drew Barrymore. Some might point to the inclusion of Alexis Bledel and Stephen Root as signs that Redford's casting isn't too canny in this picture, but Long stands out to me.

I mean, when I discovered that Long is not only in the movie but has a significant role as an "injured Civil War veteran," I laughed. I laughed for a good 20 seconds, which may not sound like much until you think about how long that really is for someone who is alone at the time.

Mocking laughter is not the kind of money response you want from the potential audience for a sober, provocative historical drama.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bummer of the Week: No "Farmer's Daughter" for us

(Editor's note: This was originally posted in different form last week but was swallowed whole by the Monster That Challenged Blogger. Even if it DID actually make it to the site for some length of time, the issues discussed here are just as timely today as they were 5 days ago--which is to say, not very.)

Lest you think this post title is setting up a new spin on a very old joke, let me get to the point: Antenna TV, which prior to its launch touted rarely rerun 1960s sitcom "The Farmer's Daughter" as a staple of its weekday vintage sitcom lineup, has finally confirmed that it will not be showing the series at all. This sad news comes after Antenna had assured us (and some bloggers had rather smugly reiterated) that it was only a matter of time until the show was coming and that it was a simple issue of waiting for Sony to convert the tapes and deliver them.

Well, when Antenna launched January 1 sans the Inger Stevens sitcom, many were skeptical that the show would ever really show up, and now, unfortunately, the skeptics are proven right. Antenna deserves credit for maintaining its commitment to some of the other goodies it promised--at least for now--and is in fact adding "Burns and Allen" Memorial Day weekend. That's a good thing. We'll apparently get "Circus Boy" and maybe some other rarities like the 1950s anthology that was initially announced, and that's good, good news. But vintage TV lovers had a real treat to look forward to in "Farmer's Daughter," and now it's gone.

Worse yet is the realization that if we didn't somehow tape it off CBN in the eighties, we may never see it (unless, of course, we take the risk of purchasing an *ahem* alternative set), because, well, look at why the show won't be on Antenna. According to the official Facebook page, it would have been too expensive to restore the tapes to broadcast quality. Steve Russo quickly replied by saying, look, tell it like it is: Nobody wants to spend the money on the project. By the way, Russo does a better job of disseminating info and responding to viewer inquiries than the official reps who run the RTV and Antenna Facebook pages; he ought to get some kind of bonus each month from their P.R. departments.

If Sony and Tribune aren't gonna spend the money needed to make the old tapes "watchable"--and here I might add that MY standard for watchable is surely a hell of a lot lower than Antenna's, considering the visual quality of stuff in my collection--who is? "Farmer's Daughter" had a great run in its day, and there is even some intrigue about it due to the sad fate of star Inger Stevens, but otherwise, I must admit it has little going for it in terms of name recognition, making a DVD release from a third party like MPI or Shout unlikely.

I also read some skepticism that Sony couldn't at least put together a limited "best of" package for Antenna, one that would feature the episodes that are in the best condition. That sounds to me like a decent enough compromise. Surely there's a respectable batch of airable installments in the 100 or so in the collection?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

This week in DVD

Blue Valentine: This critically acclaimed drama was praised for its emotional honesty and its unflinching look at the often brutal realities of adult relationships. That sounds depressing. Anyone know when more "Love American Style" is coming out on DVD?

The Illusionist: This is the little-seen but Oscar-nominated animated foreign film from last year, not the Paul Giamatti/Edward Norton film that seemed to be overshadowed by "The Prestige" several years ago. Just thought I'd point that out.

No Strings Attached: We were apalled when this lame-looking romcom with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher scored a $20 million first-place opening weekend early this year, but a quick check at Box Office Mojo shows it's made about $70 million total, while "Black Swan" has earned over $106 million. Score one for the good guys.

Justin Beiber: Never Say Never: This country successfully all but eradicated polio, whooping cough, and Jonas Brothers Mania. We can stamp out Beiber Fever, too, by staying away from movies like this.

Universal Vault titles: SIngle-disc retail releases of some gems that were previously available only in larger box sets. There's some good stuff in this batch like the neglected Preston Sturges/Dick Powell neglected "Christmas in July" and the W.C. Fields/Mae West pairing in "My Little Chicakdee." The cynic in me wants to ask why in tarnation it took so long to get distinct releases of these, the optimist in me is just glad they're here, and the cheapskate in me wishes they were free.

Almighty Thor: Hey, what do you know, this cheapo with Richard Grieco (not playing Thor, much to my regret) just happens to come out now. How 'bout that?

BraveStarr The Complete Series and Home Improvement: The Complete Collection: OK, the Tim Allen sitcom made more money, garnered more acclaim, and drew more viewers, but give me a complete set of the bizarre, kind of fun to watch in a certain spirit Filmation space western anytime. Seriously. And while you're at it, how about a copy of "Christmas in July"?

Webster Season 2: The little guy returns for a second season, and he's not even been relegated to Shout Select yet, the DVD equivalent of being sent to your room without supper. Wait, did that ever even happen to Web? I don't remember if he really ever acted up that much.

Wrestlemania XXVII: The latest installment of WWE's annual showcase comes to DVD. Ah, I remember the days when I hoped that the local video store would carry the latest Coliseum Video WWF tape. Nowadays, I know enough about the product to know that reading about it is enough. Why is it everything was better back then? I wasn't better back then. In fact, I was probably kind of annoying.

The Steven Seagal Collection: Not to say this is even being promoted as any kind of a big deal, but still, "Collection," though accurate, sounds too prestigious for a bunch of Seagal flicks. How about calling it something like, I don't know, "A Bunch of Seagal Flicks"?

In theaters this weekend

Priest (in 3-D): In the near future, every movie will be in 3-D. Then, that gimmick having diminished, we will see the rise of 4-D movies. Then, after James Cameron makes a quadrillion bucks with his 4-D epic, we’ll see too many 4-D movies. I’ll just be hiding in my basement until it all blows over.

Bridesmaids: This is being marketed as “The Hangover” for women. I think we should all be wary of anything that markets itself as “The Hangover” for anybody…and judging from the ads, that includes “The Hangover 2.”

Cautionary tale

So Blogger's sitewide outage affected many of us this week, and in my case I not only could not update, but I had a week's worth of posts wiped out--brilliant, incisive, witty posts; if I may so say, the work represented my best writing ever on the blog. And now it's gone--poof--just like that.

OK, it wasn't a week's worth of posts. It was one post. And it wasn't all that brilliant...or even exceptional, really. But it's still gone.

I think we should keep this in mind as we increasingly hear about the future of computing, with online media storage being pushed as a way to keep us from getting actual physical media. Apparently, even keeping files on our hard drives is going to be passe in the near future. In fact, I just got an e-mail from Amazon the other day touting the "cloud" service to store my media.

Well, what happens if the service goes down? What happens to my media then? Not being able to access it when I want to access it is bad enough (and as a Netflix user, I reserve the right to gripe just a little when I sit down to, you know, USE it, and the service is not working, though it will inevitably draw the ire of people who call that attitude "spoiled." Since when is asking to get what you pay for "spoiled"?), but what if that media is destroyed or just goes poof?

Let's keep that in mind, is all I'm saying. As for my missing post...well, you would have loved it. Trust me. Tell you what, think of something you want to read about, and we'll say that's what I wrote about and that you loved it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

In theaters this weekend: Thor and others

Thor: The big movie this week also happens to be the first big movie of summer, and while summer is neither meteorologically nor calendarolgically here yet, just go with it, because you know a summer flick when you see it...or skip it.

I've been a comic reader off and on for decades, but my exposure to Thor has been limited. He was just never one of my favorite characters, although family lore has it that my father actually considered naming me Thor. My mother, the story goes, put the kibosh on it, but my dad insists he was never serious, and anyway, my sole source for this bit of lore IS Mom, so, well, who knows. Besides, I don't think I would have been named for the Marvel character, but rather the actual Norse God of Thunder Himself. Either way, let me take this opportunity on this Mother's Day to say...thank you, Mom, for saving me from that.

I don't know why the comic character never grabbed me as much as the other Marvel mainstays, but I just didn't collect his books on a regular basis, though I liked him as an Avenger. Forgive me, diehard Thor fans, but I just found the guy somewhat duller than, say, Shellhead or Winghead. Maybe he just talked too funny for little ol' Boy Shark, I don't know.

But if you remember those goofy 1960s "animated" shorts with the Marvel heroes, you think of the great theme songs--you know, "When Captain America throws his mighty shield..." or "Tony Stark makes you feel..." but what comes to mind when you think of the Thor cartoons? Just the end: "Mighty Thor!" Even his theme song was the blandest.

That plus the series of disappointments I endured year after year after anticipating comic book adaptations combines to give me kind of an "wait and see" attitude about this particular effort. I like much of the talent involved, like Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, and the casting of Kat Dennings intrigues me as well, but this doesn't have a "must see" factor for me, nor even I "boy, I hope this is worth seeing" feeling. For me, the Green Lantern and Captain America movies are much more exciting, but I do hope that this one delivers.

Something Borrowed: Perhaps this turns out to be a fresh, innovative take on the genre, but I would think "Something Borrowed: is the last thing you want to name yet another romantic comedy.

Jumping the Broom: The title for this "urban" film comes from a wedding custom practiced in many African-American communities, but the practice apparently originated elsewhere. I've never seen anyone literally jumping a broom at a wedding. The more notable nuptials I've attended were more about "Tripping Down the Stairs." This followed the wedding custom known as "Rushing the Open Bar."

Friday, May 6, 2011

This Week in DVD

The Dilemma: Back when I wrote about this movie in January, I was puzzled as to what the actual "dilemma" was. I mean, you see your buddy's woman cheating on him, you tell him, right? Unless of course, she's cheating with you. In that case, you're a real dog, man, and I don't want to share any witty commentary on DVDs with you. Well, that and I said pretty much everything I had to say about "The Dilemma" in that original post.

The Green Hornet: Uh-oh. Seems I wrote about "Hornet," too, in that same post. I'm getting to the point where the stuff I write about in the "In theaters this weekend" posts is showing up in the "This week in DVD posts." I'm either gonna have to scrap one of those concepts, work a lot harder to come up with new thoughts, or actually SEE these movies.

Hmm. Good-bye, one of these concepts!

Pre-Code Classics Double Feature: TCM Presents two early-1930s films, "This Is the Night" being one of them, notable for being the first picture of one Mr. Cary Grant. PSST! Sure, go buy the DVD and all, but TCM is running "Night" Sunday, May 15. See? I do offer some useful info around here.

According to Jim Season 3: The much-beleaguered sitcom that wouldn't die on ABC won't die on DVD, either. There must be a collective head-explosion happening going on at "Entertainment Weekly" offices this week.

The Virginian Season 4 and Wagon Train Season 3: PSST! Sure, go buy the DVDs and all, but Encore Westerns is running these oaters--what, everybody already knew? Oh, OK, in that case...Have I ever mentioned how much I like to use the term "Oater"? What can I say? Slow DVD week plus busy "me" week=what you're reading.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On the Radio: Sam Sham and the Pharoahs

I was listening to the Solid Gold Oldies Music Choice digital TV channel the other day when a song by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs came on. OK, some of you might be tempted to say "the" song by that band came on, and, yes, it was "Wooly Bully." But the group did have other hits, you know. It's just that not many of them get played on Solid Gold Oldies.

I was playing with my kids, but I was keeping an eye on the screen for the fun facts that pop up about the artists whose songs are played on the Music Choice channels when I saw a note that Sam the Sham's solo album was released in 1970.

Wait a minute. Sam the Sham had a solo album?

Nothing against the Pharoahs--and maybe I'm displaying a massive ignorance of the dynamics of the band--but were they such a strong force of negativity that Sam the Sham, wanting to try something different, had to get so fed up as to make an actual solo album? Couldn't he have just said, "OK, guys, we're gonna do a few non-novelty tracks this time out, all right?"

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The two coolest things about the "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" episode I watched this weekend

1) This is a constant in every episode: The Hulk poster directly over on the couch on which Peter Parker sits as the gang hangs out in their cool college pad during the opening.

For some reason, this gets me each time. Why would 3 superheroes, even if they're in college student mode, have a prominent Hulk poster in their apartment? I'm not sure offhand what Hulk's place in the Marvel universe was in 1981/1982. Maybe he was looked up to and admired at this point instead of being feared and scorned as a menace. But I doubt it. Even if he IS, isn't it kind of lame for Iceman, Firestar, and Spider-Man--3 powerful individuals in their own right--to slap a poster of another superhero on their wall? I mean, does Tom Brady keep a Peyton Manning 8x10 in his locker?

It's even more intriguing if Hulk is a menace at this time period in which "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" is set. If so, is this poster a sign of rebellion? Are the Amazing Friends expressing a little youthful counterculturalism by touting one of the most destructive threats mankind has ever known? Or are they expressing a little faux counterculturalism by putting the poster up in a conspicuous location so that unsuspecting visitors to their domicile will think, "Yeah, these are just typical, cool college students?"

2) The arcade in which Video Man is born: We could get into a long discussion about the story of this particular episode, a barnburner that spotlights the heinous villain The Gamesman, who exerts mind control over the citizens of New York through video game waves or something like that. There's also the lighthearted saga of a nebbishy master game player who is zapped while going for a high score and becomes Video Man, a force of blipic energy (a phrase I just invented) who has extensive powers but no superheroing experience.

That's all fun to watch, but what strikes me is a smaller detail: The numerous fake standup arcade games you can see people playing. There are generic titles like "Were Wolf" and parody titles like "Indiana Johnson." But my favorite by far is a takeoff on that 1980s classic that later gained new attention in a "Seinfeld" episode. You see, the youth in this episode do not play "Frogger," but instead they play...


Now, unfortunately, we do not get even a glimpse of the screen, but part of me would love to see what kind of action the kids get into when standing in front of a game called "Flogger." The other part of me is actually a little terrified.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Brooks on Books: Arthur Marx's Groucho: A Photographic Journey

Given the recent passing of Groucho Marx's son, comedy writer and biography author Arthur, I'd like to tout a great book I picked up last year on the cheap at a Barnes & Noble. I don't remember what the "Bargain Book" price was for it, but if you find it on the cheapo tables at your local book megastore (assuming one remains), pick it up. It's worth it.

Originally published in 2001, this gorgeous coffee table book (you ever notice how often coffee table books are "gorgeous"? You don't often hear about someone picking up a "gorgeous Tom Clancy paperback" in an airport, but if you hear someone describe a coffee table book WITHOUT using the word, you'd better steer clear of it) offers an assortment of Arthur's personal photos of Groucho and various notables. Throughout, Groucho appears both in costume and out, both in character and, say, playing ping-pong with his kids.

Simply put, it's a must-read for any Groucho fan. Arthur's text is sparse but effective at providing context for all these wonderful photos. I could spend a paragraph or two describing how cool it is to see shots like those of The Hollywood Victory Caravan, a wartime touring outfit featuring Jimmy Cagney, Cary Grant, Pat O'Brien, and others along with Groucho. But really, just get the book.

Arthur did a great job at putting this material together, but perhaps a good portion of the credit should go to "Editor" Frank Ferrante. I'm not sure how much Ferrante actually did, but the man's Groucho bona fides are impeccable; he has rightfully received acclaim for his one-man show performing as the legend.

If you read this post here, or this one, you might wonder how Arthur could have even put a few words together, let alone produce an awesome book. Mark Rothman has a long resume--I respect him just for working on "The Odd Couple"--and his blog is a lot of fun because he pulls no punches. But, man, he savages Arthur Marx in these two posts. Worth a read unless you're automatically opposed to the idea of ripping someone so recently deceased.

Well, hack or no hack, Arthur Marx was at least involved with Groucho: A Photographer's Journey," and I love it. I'll admit I haven't gotten around to reading any of his other books, but this one is good enough to earn nothing but nice words from me today.