Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Brooks on Books: Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide (Third Edition)

I was a devotee of film author/critic/Disney Treasures host/whatever he does on Reelz  Leonard Maltin's original "TV Movies" books (referring to movies that appeared on TV, not just made-for-TV movies). It gave you tons of capsule entries for movies, including plot summaries, pithy comments, cast lists, years of release, director credits,  and the ever-important star ratings (DUD or BOMB to ****).

Eventually the books kept getting bigger yet somehow less comprehensive as the onset of Turner Classic Movies (The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind)  and lesser outlets like Fox Movie Channel expanded the amount of films available to home viewers. The problem was that Hollywood stubbornly continued to make movies, and readers wanted those ones in the Guide (as I called the book), so much to the chagrin of lovers of vintage movies, Maltin and his editors started chopping out entries of older flicks.

The solution was to make a separate book--easy enough, right? Only the Classic Movie Guide, which established a cutoff point beyond which no movie released would be eligible for inclusion, was a little bigger, more expensive, yet still lacking plenty of films. Yes, "Gone with the Wind" and "Casablanca" were there, but what about all the stuff that was showing on TCM early mornings? How rare can they be? They're on TV!

Maltin and co. have refined the process, added a bunch of titles, and established 1965 as the cutoff point--fair enough, I say. TCM even "presents" the book now and gets its logo on the cover. I have decided the book is never going to have everything, and sadly, there are still lots of old films from major studios that are on home video, television, and streaming video but not in the Guide. That doesn't mean there isn't value in this book, though.

No, I like having an actual book. It is irritating to see a cool-sounding obscurity pop up somewhere, then have to go to the Internet to get info, but there are thousands of titles in the "Classic Movie Guide," and sometimes I just don't want to be on the Internet. I want something I can leaf through, something I can hold. I want something I can put under the fourth leg of the dining room table if Bobby Osbo ever comes over and wants to share a pizza while we watch a Joe E. Brown marathon. I want something I can hurl across the room in anger when I realize Wallace Beery isn't in the "Index of Stars."

This Guide is all of those things and more. It's a great reference I love having by my recliner. There's just one big problem with my copy: It's missing over 30 pages.

That's right, my copy goes from the middle of a review of "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" on page 464 to the end of a review of "Nothing Sacred" on page 497! There is nothing in between--no sign of binding damage nor of papers ripped out, no nothing. It's just an odd leap forward.

It's only 33 pages out of almost 850, but it's kind of a bummer if  I want to read about something like, say, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "North by Northwest," or who knows how many lesser-known gems. Not to mention a REAL classic like Wheeler and Woolsey's "The Nitwits."

I'm going to try to exchange it and get a complete copy, but right now it's kind of like that weird situation when TCM ran the Bowery Boys' "Spy Chasers" (p. 654, **.5, "practiced farce") with several reels mixed up. I would love to give this version of the guide ***.5 or ****, but right now, missing all those pages, I can only give it DUD.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Cultureshark versus...Leonard Maltin?

I just got a copy of the third (the latest and greatest) edition of "Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide," and I want to report a dilemma: I recently watched an oldie but goodie on Blu-Ray and enjoyed it for what I was, though I wasn't ready to give it **** or anything. In fact, my positive review will be appearing on ClassicFlix soon.

I looked up the same movie in the Guide, and Maltin and his team are much less cheerful, giving it *.5 and calling it "numbingly awful." Numbingly awful? I don't want to disrespect the Guide, but, jeez, "numbingly awful" is pretty harsh. I am starting to doubt every opinion I have about movies. I got through this motion picture without any loss of feeling whatsoever.

Do I have to challenge Leonard to a review-off? No, certainly not; that emergency option must only be called as a last resort. I will accept this difference of opinion and move on. I do have another issue with Leonard and his publisher, though, one that WILL make me take action. I'll talk about that when I review the book in an upcoming post.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

And happy holidays to all readers. I believe Christmas is not just something to celebrate on December 25, but an ongoing expression of love and joy--and I don't only say that because I was too lazy to post something yesterday.

My gift to my readers is this hollow promise to post more often in 2016. No, in seriousness, I have some cool things planned, including more installments of Streaming Video Showcase. I plan to start running "bonus segments" I don't include in my ClassicFlix TV Time columns, including one that will run here as soon as they throw up my next one.

Also, stay tuned for an exciting NEW project coming in 2016, one I will happily and shamelessly plug here when it launches.

Thanks for sticking with me! Here's to a great New Year, and in the meantime, enjoy the holiday weekend, everyone!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Classic shows I wish did a Christmas episode

This time of year, it can feel like the Christmas episodes are steamrolling every other kind of plot or theme in existence, but it's not like every television series does one. Sure, some shows do something every year, but you  might be surprised at some of the programs that have never done a Christmas episode. Here are a few I really would like to see:

*Sgt. Bilko: Just because anything Bilko-related is awesome. I wish there were a "Bilko" episode about everything, really, but I envision a great holiday con playing out with Philbert Silvers and company, even one with an ultimately tender resolution.

*My Three Sons: A family sitcom runs 12 years and 380 episodes and never gets around to devoting one of them to Christmas? Unbelievable! I take it as a personal affront that we can't enjoy Bub and/or Charley bah-humbugging their way through 20-some minutes of merriment in the Douglas household. Did Fred MacMurray think reading Xmas-related lines would spoil his golf game?

*Leave It to Beaver: I can't believe the Cleavers never got a yuletide showcase. In contrast, the Nelson family had what felt like a dozen of 'em--and good on Ozzie for that.

*Batman: This series really missed an opportunity by not creating an over-the-top rogue Santa type who stole presents from the good citizens of Gotham.

*The Adventures of Superman: And while we're at it, hey, didn't they celebrate the holiday in Metropolis?

*I Dream of Jeannie: It's understandable that many link this sitcom with "Bewitched" in the annals of popular culture, but here's a big difference: Samantha Stephens made celebrating Christmas almost an annual tradition, while Jeannie never did it. I'm not a huge admirer of this series, either, but Barbara Eden in a Santa's little helper outfit would have made this a winner.

*Hogan's Heroes: OK, it would have been bizarre, now that I think about it, but so was the whole series premise.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Underrated Christmas Songs

I want to expand on my Top 5 list currently in the sidebar on the right. I normally put a "bottom 5" in that spot, but in the interest of positivity and the holiday spirit, I scrapped my idea of highlighting the most overplayed songs (this means I won't mention Wham's "Last Christmas," which I hear more than "White Christmas" these days, not that I'm mentioning that) and listed some tunes that deserve more attention.

"Underneath the Tree" by Kelly Clarkson: A great Christmas song makes you feel better after you hear it, and I can't listen to this and not smile. Mariah Carey made the modern staple "All I Want for Christmas Is You," and I enjoy that one, but at this point I wouldn't mind if programmers made more room for this one.

"Someday at Christmas" by the Jackson Five: I would have said the Stevie Wonder version was underrated simply because it was one of the best Christmas recordings ever, but this year's Apple commercial is surely sending a lot of people to the original version. So let me spotlight the Jacksons, a poignant rendition in its own right with the lads trading verses and, at one point, singing the special line, "Someday at Christmas, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm...."

"Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade: I imagine many of our friends across the Atlantic are sick of this one, but I never hear it over here...except maybe if I happen to catch a token hour of Christmas songs played by a local rock station on December 25.

"Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You" by Billy Squier: The legendary goofy video recorded at the MTV offices gives this one some enduring cachet, but how often do you hear it on the radio or at the mall?

"Caroling, Caroling (Christmas Bells are Ringing)" by Nat King Cole: This is one of the great underappreciated Christmas carols--just a beautiful song--but you have to give particular credit to the King for managing to sound dignified as always even while uttering the words "ding dong."

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Shameless Self-promotion: New TV Time at ClassicFlix

It's that special time again--TV  Time--and this month we dive into the world of classic family Christmas specials. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and...hey, just have a good one. Don't you dare miss it! Tell 'em Cultureshark sent ya! Uh, and if you came HERE from THERE, well, tell ME ClassicFlix sent ya! Or something.  We'll work it out.


TV TIME: 'Tis the Season for Classic Family Christmas Specials
Yesterday | by Rick Brooks
When I was a kid, several things signaled the imminent arrival of Christmas. One was the appearance of the giant catalogs from the big retail stores, colorful guides chock full of toys to request from Santa. The other big harbinger of the holiday was the roll-out of the great Christmas specials on the broadcast networks. Sure, the colder weather helped build the mood, and Thanksgiving provided a nice launching pad, but it didn't really feel like Christmas until the likes of Charlie Brown and Rudolph took over the airwaves...

Monday, December 7, 2015

Streaming Video Showcase: Warner Archive Instant

Oh, how I don't want to give out a grade today.

I have subscribed to many different streaming video on demand services over the years, and while I have been fiscally invested in all of them and thus interested in getting as much value as possible, I don't know if I have been as emotionally invested as I was in hoping Warner Archive Instant would be great--not just good, but great.

The service debuted with a high price tag (10 bucks a month) but a promising mission: to fill a niche by serving fans of classic, vintage, and obscure film and television, the kind of deep catalog programming Netflix was already abandoning. At first it looked like it would either be the next best thing to a TCM on Demand OR at minimum a vast library of old-school programming, a place where eventually everything in the Warner Archive DVD catalog would stream.

At first.

The selection has steadily declined over the past year, with seemingly more titles leaving than coming in. For weeks and weeks, there were under 5 films each in the Noir Pre-Code categories--hardly the kind of selection classic film lovers want.  Most content that has been added lately is either more recent or--and this is worse--recycled content that has already been on the service and left. All in all, I love what is there on WAI, but there just isn't always enough of it to justify the premium price it commands.

The Roku channel has never become fully functional. Often updates to categories don't show up right away, or at all, and that's bad news when movies and TV series are leaving so often. Titles are still visible in your watchlist even after they are yanked. Navigating the service is smoother than it was at launch but still not great.

After a long drought of new content, the  channel finally added a handful of Golden Harvest movies from Hong Kong right before Comic Con. I suspect it was just to give the Warner reps something to tout at the Con, but at least it was something.  Unfortunately, all titles disappeared a few months ago, and maddeningly, the "Showcase" category remained on WAI even though the movies weren't there.

Let me back up and talk about some of the great things about WAI: Everything is uncut, commercial-free, and I believe everything is closed-captioned (though many of the captions are non-verbatim and/or inaccurate). There isn't a lot of functionality with the Watchlist, but at least there IS one, and you can generally resume a video if you start if and have to stop for some reason. These features should be standard for every pay service, let alone one charging 10 bucks per, but give WAI credit for offering them.

I love, love, love the fact that I can see rarities like "The Man from Atlantis" and "The Man from Shenandoah" on here, but the impact of having them on demand is lessened when they can disappear with relatively scant notice. I understand why "Adventures of Superman" and "Man from U.N.C.L.E." left right before they started running on ME-TV, but why did "Flo" go so quickly?

More transparency about removal dates would be a big help. I'd say most TV series last at least a year, but that is by no means a sure thing. I was delighted to see season 1 of "Alice" show up last year--not just because I wanted to relive that terrible show (Hey, I watched it as a kid), but because unlike much of the other content on WAI, it was a Warner Home Video release (at least at first) and (I hoped) signaled the expansion of the available programming.

However, "Alice" left soon thereafter, and lately the programming has not been as imaginative as I hoped. The TV side is OK, though I wish there were more of it. I could occupy myself with the obscure TV  every month, but for the price, I want to see a better selection of films.

I want to see all those obscure programmers on Turner Classic Movies that aren't on any home video release. It used to be a thrill to see a batch of new movies added to WAI, but now it's mostly "reruns" of not-so-obscure movies, and there aren't as many rarities. it no longer feels like everything on Warner Archive will eventually show up, even if for a little while. It feels like they prepped a few hundred movies for the service and will just keep rotating through them.

I wish I could give this a better grade. I think there are some people who mean well involved with this SVOD service, but perhaps they are stretched too thin to make a difference. Layoffs and reorganization at Warners may have inflicted a huge hit on Warner Instant. It's telling that the Warner Archive Podcast, which used to feature the hosts sharing their Instant picks, hasn't mentioned WAI in a long time.

Now more than ever, with Netflix running as fast as it can from anything "old," there is a niche for a streaming video service focusing on vintage material. Unfortunately, given the disappointing content in 2015 and the high price tag, I have to give Warner Instant a C-, and I am not currently a subscriber. WAI could win me back by dramatically boosting its offerings--and letting them run longer--or by dramatically lowering the price.