Sunday, December 30, 2007

5Q Movie Review: No Country For Old Men

Q: So all these critics and Filmic Boards of Judgement are proclaiming this one of The Best Movies Ever Conceived, etc. So I'll hate it, right?
A: "No Country" is not exactly a crowd-pleaser, but neither is it an inaccessible, artsy blur. It's a grim, brutal story of some bad people trying to recover some money. Many might be turned off by the violence and overall tone. For many others, the storytelling style might be more of a detriment. The Coen brothers load this film with a lot of the things that critics (and people who see a lot of movies) love but Joe Moviegoer often hates, ambiguity being first and foremost.

Q: Javier Bardem just steals the movie as the ruthless killer Chigurh, doesn't he? Will he be a shoo-in for some awards?
A: He is certainly an effective screen villain, providing a fearsome presence. However, Tommy Lee Jones is far more memorable as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who is trying to sort everything out. His character is apparently laid back, especially considering the events around him and the intensity of the situation, but he is no less competent or charismatic for it. Bardem can't steal the money from Jones, who delivers his often wry, often philosophic dialogue with just the right amount of world weariness and "still gives a damn." It's an amazing performance that should not be overlooked.

Q: Do the Coen brothers have an excuse for that Dorothy Hamill hairdo Bardem wears?
Forget about that distinctive 'do. You'll hear enough about that elsewhere. What grabbed me was Chigurh's socks. During one brutal sequence, the killer takes off his boots and then peels off his socks and flings them across a hotel room. I was both mesmerized and appalled by those things. It's terrifying to imagine the blood, grime, and sweat that had accumulated under those filthy boots. That pair of socks could have been as devastating a weapon as the unique gun contraption he points at unsuspecting targets. At least the gun gets you right away. The socks, I imagine, linger.

Q: Are the critics right to call this a renaissance for the Coens?
A: They're right to call it a fine film, but while I was disappointed by "Intolerable Cruelty," let's not crap on all of their recent output. Their "Ladykillers" remake is an underrated comic gem. But the critics tend to loooove the Coens' darker films, so there you go.

Q: Well, is this "darker film" just a bunch of people shooting each other? And are the Coens kind of poking fun at those people, what with the off-kilter touches like Bardem's hair?
A: In "Fargo," I detected an overpowering air of condescension about the characters, as if we were just supposed to be laughing at the simple people with their funny accents. Not sure if that was the intent, but it's what I got from it. "No Country" doesn't give me that sense at all. In fact, it is not just a bunch of dumb characters trying to kill each other, but rather a bunch of highly skilled, intelligent characters doing what they do very well. They may not be working on a particle accelerator, but they are participating in a fundamental activity: hunting and surviving.

I really like the way the Coens show these men methodically going about this business and thinking it through and carrying it out. It may not be what some would call "intelligence" at first, but it clearly is, and even though terrible things are going on, you have to admire the cleverness and the skill displayed. I think the filmmakers do, too.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

5Q: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Q: 83-year-old Sidney Lumet is a great director, but, well, he's 83 years old! How good can this be?
A: Take your ageism elsewhere, buddy. Lumet delivers here with a fantastic dark drama that may well be worthy of a spot in the conversation with his earlier classics like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Much like "Gone Baby Gone," it delivers as a knockout crime pic while bringing in larger themes that linger for the viewer.

And while you might think even a talented person of a certain age might have troubles with details, one of the things that makes "Devil" so great is its attention to detail and apparently smaller moments that loom large. Take, for instance, a scene in which a woman is leaving her husband. As she walks across the room, she strains to drag her luggage up as the floor rises closer to the door. Her husband watches somewhat blankly, and the moment is pathetic and loaded with meaning. It's the kind of smaller scene that many movies neglect to their own detriment.

Q: Lou Lumenick's NY Post review started:
The graphic opening scene of "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a grabber: a flabby, sweaty Philip Seymour Hoffman pumping away at a very sleek and very nude Marisa Tomei during a vacation in Rio.
Simply put, why should I see the movie?
A: You conveniently don't highlight the Marisa Tomei aspect of that image, one that almost makes up for the unsightly Phil Hoffman nudity. In fact, give Tomei credit for being, as one of my old friends would put it, "Naked all over the place" in this film. As for Hoffman, the man proves again he's a fascinating screen presence when he's desperate, and, boy, does this screenplay give him a chance to be desperate.

Q: Does this movie add anything to the "heist" genre?
A: You may well ask, "Do we really need another heist picture?" To which I would reply, "Yes, if it's a good one." A plot outline for this one would have to feature some variation of "two brothers plan a jewelry store heist that goes wrong," and that aspect of the story is well exectuted. But the ramifications and the setup for the heist are more important and powerful. "Devil" gets us into human relationships, father-son dynamics, and how people get themselves into and react to crises. So if the botched robbery angle doesn't grab you, well, there's plenty more.

Q: What about how the whole "fracturing time" angle? Isn't that played out by now?
A: I've been saying for a while now that the gutsiest thing for a filmmaker to do is tell a story in straightforward chronological fashion, with no flashbacks and flash forwards to skew time. But in "Devil," the gimmick really works. Often, events have more impact because we are already aware of them due to the technique. Also, several times, Lumet films the same scene from different perspectives, so that when we see it again, the camera angle, for example, suggests a new way of looking at things. In this case, the shifting narrative is an effective tool.

Q: Ok, but how good can this one be with Ethan Hawke in it?
A: Hey, Hawke at least tries hard--in this and in his other projects. He may try a little too hard here. Though his character is supposed to be unsteady and jittery, I found Hawke's performance a little twitchy. But give him credit for being willing to support Hoffman. Hawke is weightless enough to reinforce his character's subservience to his brother, our boy Phil, and he does well enough. Albert Finney is a suitably commanding presence as their father, and Tomei is fine. Throw in the great Hoffman, and you have a solid cast, yes, even with Hawke, and they all work to help produce one of the best films of the year.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

On the Radio: Have a Very U2 Christmas

Many of us have a personal list of songs that we just have to hear in order for it to feel like Christmas. One of mine is Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home). I love the classic Darlene Love version from Phil Spector's legendary Christmas album. I love it when Love belts the tune on David Letterman's stage. And I even love the 1987 U2 version from the original "A Very Special Christmas."

In fact, the U2 version is a great song. I maintain there is more blue-eyed soul in that one Christmas tune than in anything they did on "Rattle and Hum"--and they tried so hard on "Rattle and Hum."

It's become a holiday radio staple, and rightfully so. It's energetic, heartfelt, and filled with emotion. Bono even manages to deliver a melodramatic spoken-word intro without sounding pretentious. We all laugh (with guilt) at Bono's "Thank God it's them instead of youuuuu" in Band Aid's "Feed the World," but we rock to his passionate performance of this one. The rest of the band is in fine form, too, even contributing meaningful background vocals that, in their own way, equal the impact of those on the original.

I had somehow avoided Christmas music this year until a week or two ago, and when I heard this one, it felt like the Season. I wish the Darlene Love version got love on the radio as well, but this is one heavy rotation holiday standard that never gets old.

This Week in DVD

Some of the last-minute gift ideas that came out this past Tuesday...

*Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Yep, there are a couple more editions of this out now, and while many people are excited about it (Just look over at The Digital Bits, where I think they talked about this DVD every day for the past 3 1/2 years), I'm content with the good ol' director's cuts and theatrical cuts. Besides, does anyone really believe this is the "final" cut. Final cut to make it to standard DVD, maybe. But look for Blade Runner: The Ultimate Cut to be available for implanting in your brain in about 2017.

*Balls of Fury: Either you thought the previews for this one were funny or you didn't. Chances are, even if you thought the previews were funny, you didn't think the actual movie was once you paid to see it. Nothing against the poor man's Jack Black that starred in it, but his casting sent audiences a message: Jack Black wouldn't even take this part. As for the rest of the cast, I know everyone loves Christopher Walken and all, but at this point I wish he were in less movies and co-star Aisha Tyler in more.

*Simpsons: The Movie: If the DVD in any significant way does the movie justice, this'll be a fine present for fans of the show (which, in a just world, would be everyone). Click here for my original take on the theatrical experience.

*Once: Everyone that saw this indie sleeper raves about it, so I guess I'll have to check it out. I did inadvertently see about two minutes of it this summer. I went to see "Fantastic Four 2," and as soon as I heard the first F-bomb uttered--and I don't mean "Fantastic" or "Four"--I realized that once again, a local multiplex had screwed up and started the wrong film. An hour and 45 minutes later, I wished they had kept playing "Once."

*Underdog: Could have been worse. Could have been a CGI "Alvin and the Chipmunks." Oh, wait...

*Rawhide Season 2 Volume 2: Split-seasons: Can't live with 'em, can't pay twice as much and wait twice as long for your favorite classic Paramount shows without 'em.

*The Mod Squad Season 1 Volume 1: See above. But at least there are some extras on this one.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Our TV Endorsements: How are they doin'? (The Dramas)

Yesterday, I looked at two of the 4 shows I endorsed before the fall TV season to see how they're holding up this year. It just so happens they were both sitcoms. Well, OK, you got me. I planned it that way! Yep, and today I'll cover the other two, both hourlong dramas.

Heroes: Too much has already been written about the supposed steep decline of this sophomore series. In fact, a lot of it has been written by the show's own head honcho, who publicly apologized for Heroes' subpar efforts.

Sure, it hasn't been as good as it was last year, but neither is my eyesight, and I'm not about to just abandon it. That was a horrible analogy, but my point is that Heroes is still pretty good overall even though not all of it is working. The new characters mostly washed out, for one thing, and though the creative team seems to believe it's because we got too many of them, that's not the case. It's because many of them sucked.

Look at what happened to the main character (yeah, it's an ensemble, but come on), cheerleader Claire. She was saddled with an irritating boyfriend as the writers made her far less savvy and engaging than she was last season. I believe that since Heroes went through so much plot last year, there was an effort to dial it back a bit and kind of re-explore some basic issues like, how would a person react to having superpowers? How would they live their life?

Problem is, the genie is out of the bottle for many of these characters, and you can't go back to square one for Claire for too long. The way to explore those themes is by introducing--you guessed it--new characters. Personally, I'd rather see the old ones utilized better (need I complain about the Hiro storyline?). But Heroes, though it disappointed this fall and didn't quite end on a strong enough note to make us forget that, is not a failure. It's still a fun watch, and I look forward to seeing what happens when it comes back.

Friday Night Lights: I remember reading the nervous in-print twitters of TV critics who had advance copies of the first few episodes of FNL. "Aw, come on," I thought, "Can it be THAT bad?" I figured critics were getting carried away, assuming the show was dumbing itself down just because of the one big twist they hated.

Well, yes, Landry killing that creep and trying to dump the body was that bad. It really did put a cloud (and not thematically) over the show, and there were signs of dumbing down in order to turn the acclaimed but underseen drama into more of a !BUZZ! kind of show.

Still, I could handle it. So it went from an "A" show to a "B"-grade show. Still enjoyable.

Then NBC put the episodes On Demand, and I got out of the habit of taping it and watching it ASAP.

Then Street and Riggins went to Mexico for a week, and the show lost me. How do high school students just take off for a week without repercussions? Granted, Riggo doesn't care much about classes, but what about the team? I just didn't get this, and if they explained it adequately, I missed it, and it was too late for me to care, anyway. FNL had become too much like 90210, with its own alternate reality replacing the real reality that had been so relatable and so appealing in season 1. 90210 was fine when I was watching reruns with my sisters 10 years ago and laughing along with the show, but I don't want FNL to be like 90210.

So I stopped watching the On Demand episodes, and I got out of the habit of watching the show altogether. Maybe in the future, I'll catch up. If the second season makes it to DVD, I could grab a few discs and give it another chance. But for now, the magic's gone.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Our TV Endorsements: How are they doin'? (The Comedies)

Time for a midseason (an optimistic term, I know, given the WGA strike) check on the 4 shows I endorsed at the beginning of the fall TV season. Are these 4 series living up to my endorsement? Do I regret putting my halfway-decent name behind them before seeing a single episode of their new seasons?

How I Met Your Mother: I believe the biggest cultural crisis facing America today is not race relations, the politics of divisiveness, or class differences. No, it's the fact that a funny, inventive sitcom airs each Monday night on CBS, and it's not Two and a Half Men, yet the numbers for this particular show are merely "eh." Have you figured out what show I'm talking about? Did the boldface give it away?

In its third season, this comedy still goes right to the edge of being too cute or trying too hard to be clever. In a world when Judd Apatow's movies are lauded for having "heart," HIMYM quietly chugs along each week with its combo of likable characters and sharp jokes. I don't know if the strike makes the prospect of a fourth season more or less likely, but if the support for this doesn;t pick up, historians in the future may divert their attention from analyzing what went wrong in Iraq to the far more vexing question of why a catchphrase-makin', hip-seemin', laugh-inducin' show couldn't last longer.

In other words, I stand by my endorsement. The show hasn't been as consistently good as in its first two seasons, but it delivers at least something good each week.

Everybody Hates Chris: Talk about underappreciated sitcoms; this one is so under the radar it makes How I Met Your Mother look like a 747. I confess that because this is scheduled opposite Heroes and Mother, and my DVR has but two tuners, I have only seen a few episodes this season. But what I saw indicated this show is still solid, even as the threat of shark-jumping looms as the kids age. One thing we know is there are plenty more new half-hours coming, as this series shot its entire season before the strike.

Tomorrow, I'll take a look at two hourlong dramas I vouched for at the beginning of the season.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Brooks on Books: The Krypton Companion edited by Michael Eury

You have to be a big Superman buff to enjoy The Krypton Companion, but, boy, if you grew up reading the comics and would like to learn more about how they were made, this is the book for you. Editor Mike Eury has delivered another fine product from Two Morrows, a publishing company devoted to informative and entertaining magazines and books about comics. The Krypton Companion, a compilation of interviews, checklists, and sidebars, is both those things and much more.

Anyone familiar with Two Morrows periodicals like Back Issue and Alter Ego will be familiar with the general style of interviews, which are designed to bring out general memories and cover a broad range of topics (in this case, of course, all Superman-related); and of the illustrations, a combination of vintage original artwork, cover reproductions, and relevant promotional materials. It’s a winning formula that pays off in book form. 240 pages of this stuff certainly made me want to plunge into my reprint collections.

There is a heavy emphasis on Supes in the sixties and seventies, but there is a section on the eighties (until Crisis on Infinite Earths was the linchpin of massive change at DC and John Byrne rebooted the character in 1986). Plus the early days, pre-1958 (when Mort Weisinger became a longtime editor of the Superman books) often come up during the interviews, with creators Siegel and Shuster natural topics of discussion.

Some of these conversations are more enlightening than others, but I found something worthwhile in each one. A wide range of artists and writers, such as Cary Bates, Len Wein, Murphy Anderson, and Nick Cardy are heard here. The sheer number of talent covered, as well as the various eras represented, ensures that this volume contains all sorts of Superman-related topics.

Neal Adams proves once again the man never gives a dull interview, getting into things like the Superman-Muhammad Ali special edition comic with candor and humor. Writer Marty Pasko provides another of my favorite pieces. He stands out in a book that is understandably positive in tone. It’s not that he rips Superman or some of the talent that worked on the character or on comics in general, but he does have some interesting opinions. For example, he seemingly gets in a dig at what he calls the “relevant” comics of the 70s, contrasting their “on-the-nose” approach with what he feels was a subtler tack he used. He outright trashes Superman: The Movie and singles out Marlon Brando for a good ripping. I think some Superfans might raise an eyebrow at some of his comments, but he is sincere and well-spoken, and the article provides a little spice.

As for the sidebars, they are pretty fluffy, but they are fun—much like Silver Age Superman comics, really. There is a list of the various forms of Kryptonite, a gallery of Super encounters with celebrities, and a rundown of Jack Kirby’s history with DC’s flagship hero. They all help round out the package and add to the experience.

I do wish that many of the reproductions and pictures—especially in some of those sidebars—were a little bigger. Also, though the two long-running Superman editors Weisinger and Julie Schwartz surely are a significant part of the Man of Steel’s history, too many of the interviews spend too much time talking about them. If there is one repetitive aspect in this all-Supes book, it’s the reinforcement that Mort was a bit of a tyrant (to Eury’s credit, he gives space to Hank Weisinger to provide some balance and a more personal view of his dad) and Julie was a legendary figure at DC.

These are minor quibbles, though, and while 24.95 seems a little steep for a black and white softcover book that doesn’t seem all that heavy, it is heavily discounted online and well worth it at those prices for Superman fans.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

This Week in DVD

High School Musical 2: Parents, if you're upset at the prospect of paying for something that's on The Disney Channel 10 times a week, don't be. Why should kids be deprived of the adult joy of buying things just to have them...or the joy of buying essentially the same things months later in "Special Editions"?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: At times, this one showed the strain of trying to adapt, what, thousands of pages of text (I may be off there) into a reasonable length. It's not the best Harry movie, but it's not the worst, either, and while it plays like a big setup for the good stuff that's yet to come, you might as well get it if you already own the Harry Potter bumper stickers, the Harry Potter air fresheners, and the Harry Potter canasta sets.

The Bourne Ultimatum: More of...well, Jason Bourne. At this point, the well is drying a bit, but I can't deny this was an entertaining action movie.

Lost Season 3: Perhaps this uneven season will improve when seen in big chunks on DVD, but I'm not ready to try it. There were some standout moments in season 3 and some reminders of how ambitious the series is and how good it was. But though this set is filled with extra features that likely enhance the viewing experience, I've never been enough of a fan to make the effort.

Frasier: The Tenth Season: Yep, it's the final season of Frasier. Well, not really, because Paramount already released the last season of Frasier. No, I don't mean the ninth season; Paramount already released the 11th and final season of the show. So this is more like the last season release. No, not the last-season release, because--aw, hell with it. Let's just say congratulations for completing this one, and now get going on Cheers again, already.

Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald Volume 3: These cartoons from 1947-1950 may not feature the Duck at his peak, but it's still the ORIGINAL "The Donald," and though Disney seems to have scaled back some of the extras on this set, I've read enough good things about this one to be confident it's a keeper.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Rhetorical Pop Quiz: Jolly Christmas Songs

What is the "gayest"-sounding Christmas rock song?

A) Elton John's 'Step Into Christmas."

B) Wham's "Last Christmas."

C) This question is patently offensive and should not be dignified.
How can you stoop so to include the word "Christmas"?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

First Impulse: Petty to do Super Bowl

Last week, the NFL announced legendary rocker Tom Petty will do the halftime show at this year's Super Bowl (or "the big game" as non-sponsors refer to it when they're trying to sell you big screen TVs and wing platters for that day).

My first reaction: Cool!

And that's pretty much my second and third reaction, too. There is already some predictable grumbling about the league going with another "dinosaur" to provide another safe performance. I say, if it takes going through the Classic Rock rolodex to keep Justin Timberlake out of the main event, then so be it. Petty is a great musician who will work his ass off to put on a great show, and even though the venue might not be ideal for his talents, I strongly suspect that if you don't like his set, it'll be your own fault.

See, this matters to me because I usually am a captive audience for this thing. Normally, I'd take the opportunity of a halftime extravaganza to check out the counterprogramming, but at my mother-in-law's, there's no flipping, so unless I want to stare at the hummus, I'm watching what the NFL is serving. This year I know I can enjoy it. I'll enjoy the hummus, too, but it's nice to be able to enjoy both.

Sure, it may seem a little odd at first that the decidedly anti-corporate Petty is appearing at the ultimate corporate event, but so what? It's not like he boycotts everything owned by a business. The man does tour and make records with Big Bad Corporations, you know. It's not a bad thing when a still-vital artist like Tom Petty gets a shot at this kind of exposure without compromising himself.

No-brainer here. Unless the NFL suddenly tries to shoot Kanye West out of a cannon to join in on "I Won't Back Down," halftime is taken care of this year. Call it safe, call it dinosaur rock, whatever. I'll just call it something to look forward to.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Entertainment 30 Rock Weekly: We get it, already!

I could go off on a rant about how Entertainment Weekly is becoming shallower and more like sister mag “People” each week, but I think I did that in Shark Bites. So what I’m here to rip today is EW’s latest obsession, one that started out as an apparent schoolboy crush but has since ballooned into an Alex Forrest-style mania, one that threatens to eclipse even the publication’s longstanding Buffy worship. What concerns me is the over-the-top attention focused on NBC’s Thursday night sitcom “30 Rock.”

“30 Rock” is one of those shows that is hyped in the entertainment media to a disproportionate level. It’s not a ratings smash by any means, but it has “buzz” because—well, because a lot of people in the biz think they’re smart because they “get it” and because the people that cover THOSE people want to feel the same level of hip insider status. And while “30 Rock” thinks it is ironic enough to lampoon that kind of thinking, it’s humor as forced as any episode of “Two and a Half Men.”

But even if I liked this show, I’d be embarrassed about the frequent references and plugs EW includes in a given issue. I was going to say “countless,” but I decided I’d count these references in a recent issue—the Nov. 30 Entertainers of the Year edition. You tell me if I’m overreacting:

*p.14/15: Coverage of a live stage performance of the show to benefit laid-off production crew during the writers strike. This probing piece features such incisive commentary as: “And if the pacing seemed a bit off, it was only because Fey and company had to pause so that the audience could howl with glee.”

*p.55: Rockefeller Center listed as one of the most entertaining places of the year, accompanied by a picture of Tina Fey and a reminder that “30 Rock” won an Emmy.

*p.56/57: Fey gets a full page photo and a place as an Entertainer of the Year. Have I mentioned that this magazine really loves to run pictures of Tina Fey?

*p.66: A small picture of co-star Jack McBrayer in “Livin’ Neath the Law,” singled out as one of the “great moments” of 2007 in a slurp piece of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s comedy website.

*p.87: “Building a Bionic Entertainer” gives the funny bone to Tina Fey. Accompanied by a headshot, natch.

*p.108 Photo credits for the Entertainers of the Year section in the bottom half of the page. Top half is a picture of “Emmy winner Tina Fey.”

*p. 124: The “Sound Bites” section includes a quote from “30 Rock,” as it often does.

*p.127: Alynda Wheat highlights a new “30 Rock” episode in her “What to Watch” column.

*p.127: But that’s not the worst of it. Above THAT mention, Dan Snierson closes a preview of the Christmas in Rockefeller Center with: “We’re kinda hoping that Tracy Jordan busts through the doors of 30 Rock and livens up the party. Kenneth, too. Dude really knows how to throw a bash.”

*p.138: If you’re missing your favorite TV shows during the strike, here are some book suggestions to tide you over. “30 Rock” is pictured (Fey, to be specific) with a recommendation to read “Live from New York.”

*p.142 Dalton Ross closes the issue by mentioning the show twice in a column claiming TV is better than movies. “I’ll put 30 Rock up against all feature-film comedies, especially any that include the word Balls or Fury in the title.” Well, yeah, but how does “Balls of Fury” stack up against “Cavemen”?

EW is clearly out of control, with its “30 Rock” fetish finally overtaking its predilection for all things Judd Apatow. Hey, guys (and gals, though presumably less of them have crushes on Tina Fey), we get it: You enjoy the show, you want to see more episodes of it, and you wish more of us watched it. But can you ease up on the plugs every now and then?

In the following week’s issue, I half-expected the cover of Will Smith as one of the smartest people in entertainment to be accompanied by a caption saying, “Because he never misses an episode of “30 Rock.” I guess I should just be thankful Fey’s mug wasn’t plastered there.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

This Week in DVD

Ford at Fox: The only DVD set out this week that has its own zip code, this massive tribute to one of cinema's top directors is sure to have many harried postal workers reaching for an extra Advil or two after they lug it to film buffs' doorsteps.

Simply put, it's an amazing achievement, and it's kind of amazing that Fox even released this 21-disc box (with much of the content also available in individual discs or in smaller subsets). Bravo to the company for getting a lot of previously unreleased material out there. I'm particularly interested in the double-feature disc of Up the River, an early Bogart/Tracy pairing; and When Willie Comes Marching Home, which sounds like a reworking of Hail the Conquering Hero.

But there's all sorts of great stuff here, even if some guy at Entertainment Weekly docked it a notch apparently for not including ALL of Ford's movies. As if a set called "Ford at Fox" is gonna include Warner Brothers' The Searchers. it;s not like Fox is letting that one gather dust. Hello! They don't own it! If, unlike that reviewer, 21 discs of Ford is enough for you, then here you go.

Pirates of the Carribbean: At World's End: It may seem to many that the last few Pirates movies take longer to get through on DVD than those 21 discs of Ford at Fox. This series never quite recaptured the magic of the first installment, but it entertained and mostly made me feel I got my money's worth. Don't need to see this one again for a while, though.

The Nanny Diaries: What, this actually came out in theaters already?

Superbad: OK, I'm gonna rent this soon, and I'd better not be as disappointed as I was when I saw the overrated, overlong Knocked Up. I'm already wary of overpraised Judd Apatow comedies, not to mention comedies we're told are special because they "have a heart."

Saturday Night Live Season 2: The original cast and production team reached its prime with this season. The set looks like a winner just for including those uncut episodes, but the real gem is one of the extras--the fabled Mardi Gras special, never rerun and singled out as an unmitigated disaster in any serious history of SNL. I can't wait to see it.

The Wire Season 4: All I'll say is, this isn't like spinach. It's good for you, but it's one of the most entertaining shows ever made. Season 4 equals the series' finest work. Maybe One Toe In will do us a favor and write about this DVD set soon.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Cultureshark Guest Programs TCM--The Lineup

Click here for an explanation of what this is all about.

6:00-8:00 AM Bringing Up Baby
--Howard Hawks' classic screwball comedy, perhaps THE classic screwball comedy, is a good way to start the day and ease into 24 hours of classics. Maybe this is because I first saw it long ago one weekend morning on American Movie Classics. And I'll try not to sully the name of Turner Classic Movies by mentioning that once-great network again.

8:00-10:00 AM The Wizard of Oz
--It's not just a kids' movie, of course, but isn't this one ideal for whole families as well as kids of all ages? Notwithstanding its darker aspects, this bright mix of music and adventure is ideal for this slot.

10:00am-Noon Top Hat
--I wanted to get a great musical into my lineup (For some reason, it's tough for me to count The Wizard of Oz as a "musical"), and while I considered some of the usual suspects, I had a hole to fill in the late morning, and the elegance and wit of this--my favorite of the Astaire-Rogers teamings--fits the bill. A great Sunday morning film, in my opinion, and I could easily see myself enjoying a big ol' tasty brunch while screening it.

Noon-2:00 PM The Searchers
--One of my favorite movies of all time kicks off an afternoon of adventure and excitement. In this case, the mythic West looms large as the backdrop for a story that works on many different levels. Sure, it's a bit heavy compared to what we've seen already this morning, but I think we can handle it. Maybe if we don't grab that brunch for "Top Hat," we can get a nice manly lunch of steak in honor of The Duke.

2:30-4:30 PM The Adventures of Robin Hood
--Speaking of adventure, what better way to while away an afternoon than by watching Errol Flynn and his merry men romp through an hour of 45 minutes of glorious technicolor? I want my day of TCM to be filled with great movies and personal favorites, but I also want it to be flat-out fun. Classic Hollywood doesn't get much more fun than this one.

4:30-7:30 PM The Great Escape
--I went back and forth on this one. After all, it eats up 3 hours of my schedule, and it may not be as "good" as some others I could have selected. But, boy, is this one a great watch. Thinking of this one takes me back to adventure movies on weekend afternoons. Stretch out and enjoy the based-on-reality story of this amazing--well, actually, Great--escape from a Nazi POW camp. Marvel at how cool the darned thing is, with of course The Cooler King himself, Steve McQueen. And even if you're not of the generation that idolized Steve-O, you've got James Garner and Charles Bronson and some stoically cool Brits.

7:30-10 PM North by Northwest
--There are many things that make movies fun, but few movies that actually include so many of them. My Dad introduced this one to me years ago, and it's always been a fun one. Cary Grant makes his second appearance in my Guest Lineup, but playing an entirely different--yet still Cary Grantish--character, and this performance alone would make him worthy of icon status. And oh, yeah, a word for the director, Al Hitchcock. I got you covered with this one, Al. Sorry about leaving off "Rear Window."

10PM-Midnight Out of the Past
--Arguably the best of all films noir, this one haunts you, burrowing under your skin and lingering like a good noir should. Its dreamlike atmosphere makes nighttime viewing ideal, but its complicated plot demands some attention. So I put it on fairly late, but not TOO late.

Midnight-2:00 AM Casablanca
--The best movie ever made, period. More importantly to me, it's the movie that got me "into" the classics. It was on late one Saturday, right around midnight in fact, and I figured, what the hey, I'll check this out. I was mesmerized, and that viewing (the first of many over the years) started me on the road to old school, a road which stretched miles longer, but became even more pleasurable to ride, when I got Turner Classic Movies. It may seem that I'm slighting this movie by putting it on at midnight, but let me say, uh-uh: This is the pinnacle of the medium, as far as I'm concerned, and to be able to introduce this on TCM and talk about it would be the ultimate.

2:00 AM-4:00 AM Duck Soup
--You can't match the collective filmmaking genius that somehow resulted in Casablanca; nor can you match the emotional kick it gives you each and every time you see it. So why try? I follow it with my favorite comedy of all time, the Marx Brothers' absolute best. It has their funniest gags, their funniest lines, and their funniest bits, and I feel good each time I see it. The only downside is it often makes me regret they couldn't have made more balls-to-the wall farces like this before Irving Thalberg legendarily "rescued them" from stagnant box office and put them into pictures with, you know, stories. The saga of Freedonia is story enough for me, and while I love many of the Marxes' movies, I love this one just a little bit more. It's more than enough to keep me awake at 3 in the morn.

4:00 AM-6:00 AM King Kong
--By today's standards, the effects that create this wonderful giant ape fantasy may seem a little quaint. But I think they work just fine, and they will be especially welcome at the end of a long day. I close my festival with the oldest of my picks (30 years), and "Kong" proves several things: That a classic movie can still captivate even if it's over 70 years old, and also the power of movie reality to linger in the consciousness. 1930s New York never seems so vivid as it does when the Konger is swatting at those planes in glorious black and white. The fake reality of Hollywood is irresistible even when combined with an incredible product of imagination like King Kong. This kind of combination helps give the classics their charm. If that sounds a little too pretentious for 4:00 in the morning, well, all right, then. Let's just relax and be entertained.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Cultureshark Guest Programs TCM--The Prelude

Well, in my dreams, that is. But Guest Programming month in November on TCM got me thinking about how I would do it. It's fun to ponder this if you're a TCM lover and a classic movie fan like myself. So I ran with the idea. But instead of the 4 films or so the celebrities have picked this November, greedy ol' me decided to program a whole day--24 hours. And instead of just doing THAT, I crafted 3 schedules: First up, coming later this week, is the standard "here's what I would do" version, which really answers the question of how I would program the channel for a full day given no restrictions.

Many might simply select their top 10 or so favorite movies of all time. But I know I'm more excited by guest programmers that choose something seldom shown on the channel. And what about programming flow? Do you just run a bunch of great movies out there, or do you try to organize them so that there is some kind of theme or series of transitions?

I decided I would try to introduce a mix of some of my favorites, but not necessarily THE favorites, into a schedule with a variety of genres, and that I would program it with a certain flow in mind. I would imagine myself yakking it up with Robert Osbourne and explaining why I love the movies so much, what makes them so great. And that would be my dream TCM schedule.

BUT I had so much fun doing that--OK, that and it's so hard for me to narrow it down to even a dozen or so movies--that I created another lineup, one spotlighting lesser-seen movies that I might enjoy talking about.

AND while I was at it, I started thinking again about movies that would excite me if I saw them on a Guest Programmer's schedule. So I came up with a whole day's worth of movies I've never seen but would like to.

So that's 3 schedules coming up this week. And none of them include The Godfather or Rear Window or The Maltese Falcon or scores of other classics I love. You know, I'd better hurry up and post them before I change my mind again.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

This Week in DVD

Hot Rod: How bad can Andy Samberg as a stunt-ridin' daredevil be? You say. It has Ian McShane, you say, and it's a known fact that he kicks ass, ergo, again you ask, how bad can Hot Rod be? Well, pretty darned bad, from what I hear. At least poor Evel Kneivel passed away before he might have accidentally seen this one on cable.

Mr. Bean's Holiday: Every day is a holiday...when you're watching Mr. Bean! Too much? Eh, you're right. But I'll bet this is a helluva lot funnier than "Hot Rod." So there.

Bratz: The Movie: If you're not on board the Bratz: The Doll phenomenon by now, I'm guessing this won't be at the top of your Netflix queue this week.

Waitress: Sure, this may look like an annoyingly quirky chick flick, but I have it on good authority this one falls on the "charming" side of quirky. Since that authority is a man, I won't embarrass him by naming him, but his recommendation makes me want to give this one a chance. Besides, "Pushing Daisies," which also prominently features pies, is so annoyingly quirky it surely makes "Waitress" look like a Bill Parcells press conference.

Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy (all season 3): Paramount screwed up the Season 2 sets of these so badly (especially Happy Days), that the best I can say is, "Hey, apparently this time, they don't suck." And I guess fans of these shows are supposed to be happy that the music edits are only mildly irritating and that the shows don't look like third-gen VHS dubs.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Brooks on Books: Presidential Courage by Michael Beschloss

Presidential Courage. What a title. One might reasonably expect to read accounts of...Presidential courage.

Indeed, that's what Beschloss promises, and he even seems to think he is delivering that in this episodic account of a group of former chief execs and how they acted in key situations. But really, I saw a bunch of politicians acting political. JFK finally gets involved in the civil rights movement, but only after dragging his feet and kissing butt of segregationist Southerners who could aid his election. Truman's actions on behalf of Israel aren't exactly delivered with rapid efficiency. But it's not just the 20th century--even the Founding Fathers in this book are shown being as expedient as they are courageous.

Furthermore, the writing is a bit choppy, with short chapters, frequent one-sentence paragraphs, and a plethora of trivia footnotes marked with asterisks in the text and explained at the bottom of the page. Those tidbits are interesting, but they might have worked better in some other format.

So Presidential Courage is not a great book. But you know what? It is easily digestible and entertaining. I am no historian, but I would have liked to have seen some more less-familiar examples than, say, George Washington. But maybe the courageous stand of James K. Polk on the Mexican-American War wouldn't sell as many books. But though there is plenty of info out there on the subjects of this book, it's still absorbing for anyone who's into Presidential trivia and whatnot. I just recommend this as a checkout from the library (Yes, Virginia, one probably still exists in your vicinity) or waiting for the paperback and a coupon.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

5Q Movie Review: Michael Clayton

Q: Who IS Michael Clayton, anyway?
A: Since you ask, he's one of those big-shot "fixer" attorneys that gets anything and everything done. Do fixers like this exist in real life or only in movies and TV? Seriously, I don't know. But Clayton is good at what he does, though he has some demons and some issues to work through. You know what, though, part of the intrigue of the film is that we don't really know all that much about him at first. In fact, with most of the characters, we get just enough info we really need to know, with a lot withheld, for plot considerations but also for the overall atmosphere.

Q: Clooney has talked about the desire of director Tony Gilroy to make a seventies-ish thriller. Did he succeed?
A: The movie does indeed play like a smart, moody adult-oriented thriller, the kind movie critics and people who see a lot of movies say they wish Hollywood produced more often. Gilroy does a fine job of creating that dark, tense atmosphere with the camerawork, editing, and use of sound. Scenes become more unsettling and realistic with long takes or silence.

Q: Ah, so Clooney didn't direct this one? Gee, the way this was promoted, you'd think he did. That's all I was hearing about with this one, is Clooney this, Clooney that.
A: Hey, he is a movie star, after all, and that's how they sell the movies. Clooney is front and center in the marketing of this picture, and by all accounts, he did play a key creative role in the making of it, so it's no big deal. Gilroy sure seems to know what he's doing, though. But isn't it interesting to note the possibility that people see the name "George Clooney" and EXPECT an intelligent film?

But give Clooney credit for a fine performance of his own--check out the way he handles a scene with Tom Wilkinson, a colleague who jeopardizes the firm's huge deal by apparently going nutso in the middle of a deposition, explaining himself. His reactions show conflicted emotions, restraint, frustration...I really enjoyed Clooney's nontheatrical but intense acting in this movie. Long way from the classic head tilt/rakish grin combo used so often on "ER."

Q: This is one of those "fracture time" screenplays, huh? Is this a convoluted, gimmicky story?

A: At this point, it takes more balls to just tell a story in order than to "play with time." At times I can't help but feel "Michael Clayton" is doing this to spice up what is ultimately a rather standard plot. The machinations of Corporate America don't provide fresh villainy here (with one exception I'll get to in a minute), and the story just doesn't grip the way you'd like to. I think the movie features stellar craft and acting, but I was disappointed by the plot and particularly the cheap denouement (though a fantastic final shot salvages the overall ambiguous tone and nearly makes you forget it).

I do give credit to Tilda Swinton, who plays a shady suit with a startling vulnerability. Kudos to the filmmakers for showing a person who does some unsympathetic things in a multifaceted light. Much time is spent, for example, showing her practicing a presentation, sweaty and anxious. Plus the character's storyline is resolved in a way that really surprised me because it's not often you see it happen to a realistic female character. Academy, are you searching for actress nominations? Here you go.

Q: Shouldn't Sydney Pollack be in every movie?
A: Yes, he should. He instantly raises the credibility of anything he's in. Here, as Clayton's boss, he doesn't even DO all that much, when you reflect on it, but move the plot forward a few times and generally be authoritative. But, oh, how he sells that authority. Very few movies could not use a touch of that. Maybe Spider-Man 4 could be redeemed by Sydney Pollack as some kind of crime boss.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

This Week in DVD

Yes, just a few days before Black Friday, a day when retailers tried to lure shoppers in by discounting some recent DVDs, the studios gave us some brand-new discs, including the following:

Live Free or Die Hard: Wow, I saw less movies this summer than I have in probably over 10 years. Case in point: This fourth installment in the series, a movie which I really did want to see even though I feared it could never live up to the first two and that it could, in fact, very well suck. But I didn't see it, so I have nothing intelligent to say about this one. I can, however, report that my dad saw it last week and thought it was pretty good.

Hairspray: You know, that "didn't see many movies" excuse may not hold up because while I didn't get around to seeing the Die Hard flick...I did see this one! Hey, don't judge me. It was Date Night with my wife, OK? Besides, this was an enjoyable musical that did exactly what it set out to do: provided a few hours of feel-good entertainment without burdening folks too much with the Serious Message underneath it all. If you're into musicals, 60s dance shows, or Travolta in drag, check this one out.

Rescue Dawn: Acclaimed director Werner Herzog received fine critical notices for this gripping wartime rescue drama...but 5 years from now, it'll still probably be remembered as the movie in which Christian Bale ate bugs for real.

Love, American Style Season 1 Part 1: This will be a rental for me, not a buy, but I'm sure glad Paramount is putting it out there. I wonder how big this anthology show's profile is today, when it's not syndicated and if people remember it, it's likely for the fact that it gave us a "Happy Days" pilot and for its catchy theme song ("truer than the red, white, and blu-hoo-hoo!"). I barely remember the reruns, but I do know this: One of the episodes in this set features both Harrison Ford AND Norman Fell. 'Nuff Said!

Dr. Katz: The Complete Series: Hey, great move to get the rest of the episodes out there...except for the fans who already bought the first two seasons.

Mission Impossible Season 3: Hey, you guys know about these releases, right? The episodes look great and are uncut. Presumably they're selling well enough for Paramount to shell out for a few extra features. Come on, guys!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Things to be UNgrateful for

This week, we hear a lot of talk about the things for which should be thankful, etc. To that, I say, Bah Humbug! And if you think I'm too early with THAT one, you missed the memo, bub, because judging by the streets I drive down, Christmas Season now starts November 1.

Sure, I have many great things going on in my life, and I also appreciate many of the finer aspects of pop culture, the treasures that make my leisure time so enjoyable. But there are a lot of factors that certainly deserve griping about. Here are some items I am NOT grateful for:

*Movie ticket prices seem to rise twice a year now.
*The prospect of studios holding back on DVD content to save it for a "high-def" format.
*Studios still, in this day and age, selling movies in full-frame format that doesn't reflect the original aspect ratio.
*For that matter, TV stations showing butchered versions of movies...and getting away with it.
*The music industry still doesn't seem to know how to get its act together and just consistently give me decent albums at reasonable prices.
*The fact there are no decent record stores around anymore.
*Television networks cluttering their screens with station ID bugs, animated ads, and other garbage that prevents me from focusing on what it is they're showing.
*That despite the obscene amount I pay for cable TV, most of those channels still recycle the same crap programming all day, then fill the schedule out with infomercials.
*The continuing decline of once-great cable channels like AMC, TV Land, and VH-1 Classic.
*That there is no classic television equivalent of Turner Classic Movies: A 24-hour network devoted to showing uncut, commercial-free TV of the past.
*Comic book prices are way too high.
*The "write for the trades" system prevalent at the major comics publishers that dictates stories stretch over 5 or 6 issues.
*Websites that load up with elaborate graphics and bells and whistles--usually to support ads--as if users all had superfast Internet connections.
*The ugly threat of censorship hovering over so much of the media these days...along with the hypersensitivity of interest groups looking to gain publicity by launching a "hit" on someone who says something with which they disagree.

Cheery holiday to you, too, eh? Hey, these are just SOME of the things that bug me. Maybe you have some of your own. If so, let 'em fly. Just because it's Thanksgiving doesn't mean we have to be thankful for everything.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

First Impulse: Top 50 TV Icons

OK, so last week Entertainment Weekly and TV Land unveiled their list of the top 50 TV icons in a two-hour special, with 100-51 posted on the web. As soon as the project was announced, I had a feeling the result would irritate me, yet I knew I'd end up watching it.

I was correct on both counts.

I know there are people at EW with a sense of history, and I know there USED TO BE people at TV Land that thought the same (back before "Extreme Home Makeover" was deemed worthy of their schedule), and these are supposed to be the top icons of all time. But the list seems heavy on more recent, arguably less enduring personalities and characters.

I know I'm a grumpy old man in a not-really-that-old body, so I am supposed to bitch about this sort of thing. But my wife is neither grumpy old nor not-really-that-old nor old at all, and before I even said anything to her, she saw the cover of the EW issue that contained the magazine story and told me, "I don't think JENNIFER ANISTON is one of the top 50 icons of anything."

Exactly, my dear. Exactly.

So before I looked at the mag or looked online for the list (and I still haven't done either), I watched the TV show. Number 50 was Larry Hagman. That's fine. J.R. Ewing is one of the best characters in TV history, and besides, his segment gave them a chance to run an old "Sea Hunt" clip. Of course, this had the effect of making me with TV Land would show stuff like "Sea Hunt" again instead of "Designing Women" and "Just Shoot Me."

But when I saw #49, I couldn't help but echo it with an anguished yell: "Calista Flockhart!?" Absurd. I jokingly took the remote and stopped the recording, acting like I was gonna leave the couch and stop watching. My wife and I had a chuckle, and then I restarted the special.

Cue #48. Cue me: "Jimmy Smits!?" My wife grabbed the remote before I could stop the recording again.

As the list went on, most selections made sense as significant icons, if not their placement. I'm trying to remove my own biases here, but Carson #1? I don't think so. He's overrated, for one thing, and for another, he coasted for years. His influence was undeniable, but will it endure past this generation? I'd put him top 10, but not so high.

Oprah #3? No way. Most of the top 10 was at least a little more sensible than Oprah.

I expected to see a slant towards more recent personalities, and that did happen to an extent. Eventually, though, even TV Land and Entertainment Weekly had to concede that, yep, a lot of old people from black and white TV shows were important. Lucille Ball was #2, and I am not a huge fan, but I think she should be easily in the top handful. Jackie Gleason, who had a profound historical impact on the medium, is too low at 13.

Carol Burnett above Mary Tyler Moore? Not in my book. Henry Winkler at 32? Way too low. The Fonz will be an enduring icon for decades to come. Heather Locklear is 25, but Bob Denver is nowhere to be found? Kermit but no Big Bird? Arguable, perhaps. I didn't expect old-schoolers like Ernie Kovacs or Dave Garroway or Steve Allen (who, to be fair, was mentioned in the David Letterman segment), but how about Bob Hope? I wouldn't expect nods for acclaimed pioneering writers like Paddy Chayefsky or Sterling Silliphant, but how about a writer who became a TV star himself--Rod Serling? Barbara Walters but no Mike Wallace? What about Merv Griffin?

Where the heck is David Janssen? George Clooney seems included only because of his movie fame. His ER run wasn't even as long as one might think.

I could gripe for pages and pages, but the point is that the list reflects the decline of TV Land. At the risk of taking this basically frivolous two hours of light entertainment wayyyy too seriously, I have to complain. TV Land used to stand for TV history and heritage. Even if it was a marketing gimmick, it lived its gimmick and lived it well. Now it's a shell of itself, and we can't even count on it to provide a list-type show with integrity. Granted, there were some big nods to history on this list, but the overall package doesn't do justice to the medium.

I expect better from you, Entertainment Weekly, even though you seem to gradually be dumbing down your magazine. I've pretty much given up on TV Land.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

5Q Movie Review: Gone Baby Gone

Q: Ben-Lo is directing a movie? Puh-leez. What does that lunkhead know about directing a movie?
A: Hey, the guy hasn't dated J-Lo for years. He's moved on, married Jennifer Garner, and had a child with her, and I suggest you do the same. At least the moving on part.

Affleck is an easy target due to all the crap movies he's been in, but if he is pretending to be the sincere filmmaker he comes off as in interviews and in shows like the late, lamented "Project Greenlight," then he's one hell of an actor. With "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck creates a fine movie, guiding a veteran cast to great performances, successfully navigating a complex story, and providing vivid atmosphere. I'll look forward to seeing what he directs next.

Q: This sounds like a pretty dark movie, one in which a private dick tries to find a kidnapped baby. Is this the dark noirish thriller it sounds like?
A: I'm not familiar with the source material, Dennis Lehane's novel of the same name, but while this one starts out as that kind of gritty crime film I was hoping for, it actually transcends that somewhat. It never loses its authentic grimness, but it ultimately engages you with moral questions and becomes far more thought-provoking than you could imagine after reading a simple synopsis--unless you read something that delves into the plot and spoils it for you. I ain't gonna do that here.

Q: Did Affleck choose to adapt this particular book only because it's set in Boston? A: Maybe. But his passion for the city and for bringing it to the big screen is evident, and it validates his choice. It's that atmosphere I mentioned earlier. We've seen Boston and its sports teams and their often-insufferable fans all over the media landscape recently, but arguably not the way it is presented here. This isn't the Hah-vahd, wine and cheese, donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to John Kerry Bahstan. It's a more menacing urban environment, and in this case, it's white, not particularly "ethnic," and decidedly working class. Many of the faces you see in this movie are not the kind you normally see in Hollywood pictures. Affleck also makes good use of many small, not-so-well-lit cramped interiors to show us the confinement one can feel in a lower-class urban environment, as well as a sense of claustrophobic menace facing the characters.

Q: Well, I can at least rip on Ben for casting his brother in the lead, can't I? Come on, at least give me that.
A: Nope, sorry. I hadn't been much impressed by Casey Affleck before seeing this film, but he shines in Gone Baby Gone, giving an emotional performance that seems rooted in reality. He vividly depicts moral anguish without the twitches of, say, Giovanni Ribisi. And while your first reaction might be that Casey, who plays a private investigator hired to investigate the missing baby; and Michelle Monaghan, as his girlfriend, will be blown off the screen by heavyweights like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman...well, that's kind of the point. Their characters are young and a little foolish and in over their heads.

And even if you aren't wowed by the youngsters, you have Harris and Freeman and even John Ashton in a smaller but crucial role. And the real standout is Amy Ryan as the baby's mother. She is an accomplished pro, but someone like me who knows her mainly as Beadie on The Wire will be stunned by how she inhabits such a hard-edged character. She should be recognized come awards season.

Q: If this is so good, how come nobody saw it? It was in theaters for, like, two weeks.
A: Ah, because people are idjits?

Well, I don't know how much of a push this got, but it is a grim drama without an obvious marketing hook except to Dennis Lehane fans. Don't worry about box office numbers. Adult movie fans should enjoy this. Director Ben Affleck does a fine job, turning this movie--at about the time of a well-placed false finish--from a solid crime thriller to a meditation on morality. The overall product compares favorably to Clint Eastwood's acclaimed Lehane adaptation of a few years back--"Mystic River."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Journey into DVD: The Paul Lynde Halloween Special

Sure, this post may be a few weeks late for Halloween, but really, is it ever too late for Paul Lynde? I think not, and that's why on this Journey into DVD I report on my experience watching this 1976 kitschfest, recently extracted from the bootleg circuit and given a legit release by S'More Entertainment.

When you put this disc in, you see a disclaimer stating that the special was long thought lost, someone found it, and now you're going to see it, but it's in crummy condition, so don't write the company asking for a refund. Well, not in so many words, but since the visual quality is somewhat akin to a third-generation VHS dub, S'More is a bit defensive. I doubt this looks much better than most of those bootlegged copies that circulate, but, hey, why quibble? This is a piece of history, and whoever supposedly "found" it should be hailed as the pop cultural Howard Carter he is, not jeered because he couldn't come up with a pristine copy.

You are either willing to sit down and watch something called The Paul Lynde Halloween Special or you are not. Modern TV audiences aren't exposed to the prime time network variety special much, but back in the day, it was quite common to see a celebrity play host to musicians, comedians, and other performers, often in a winking fashion. In this 1976 ABC TV special, Paul is supposedly at his home, preparing for Halloween, when some kind of goofy plot sets him out with his housekeeper to her sister's house. Guess what? His housekeeper is Margaret Hamilton, and she and her sister are...witches! Halloween ensues.

This is not just of interest for Paul Lynde fans, but for fans of the entire decade of the seventies--all couple hundred of you. Maybe you hated the seventies and need a reminder or you relish the chance to mock that period again. If so, here's enough ammo to last you until the latest of that era's several dozen revivals goes away again.

These are just some of the Seventies Hallmarks covered in the Paul Lynde Halloween Special:

*Lynde himself: While this isn't just for Lynde fans, you sure ought to be one if you want to watch this. He's not as sarcastic as he in on Hollywood Squares, but he is--well, he's Paul Lynde. As the center of the special, though, he has to play more of a--pardon the expression--straight man. Everyone even then knew that Lynde was, as Peter Marshall puts it in a DVD extra, "obviously, um, gay," but even without that level of awareness, the sequence where he plays a Rudolph Valentino type seducing Florence Henderson is so good it's bad--even if it knows it's bad. All that irritation we jaded audiences get today at excessive irony and winking goes out--way out--the closet when seeing vintage Paul Lynde.

*KISS: This appearance is amusing on many levels. The thought of KISS fans tuning into a Paul Lynde special isn't even as funny as the thought of KISS fans, years later, actually making efforts to obtain copies of the special. It's hardly surprising, though, that a band that actively markets a KISS coffin would hustle its albums by popping up on this kind of show. And really, while for many bands it would be odd to follow a square dance number by playing engulfed in fog in a witches' castle, that's par for the course for these guys. I got to admit, though, the fact that they sit around and chat with Paul and Margaret Hamilton--yeah, that's kind of odd.

*Truckin': Any self-respecting trendwatcher who was around back in the day knows you can't Keep on Truckin' without a cool handle and a CB radio. Lynde lives up to our expectations, appearing in one segment as a truck driver named Big Red. His convoy is big enough for guest star Tim Conway, and I swear that's not meant as a euphemism.

*Roz "Pinky Tuscadero" Kelly: Those who didn't grow up in the Seventies will be hard-pressed to understand exactly what Roz Kelly's appeal was. Those who DID grow up in the Seventies will, uh, be equally hard-pressed to explain it. Well, she was sassy. She gets to sing, dance, and be sassy with Paul in this special.

*Bruce Vilanch: OK, not really a Seventies Hallmark, but I feel obligated to mention his involvement as a credited writer.

If that's not enough far-out grooviness for you, consider the references to Bugsy Malone and to something being "too much Alice Cooper, not enough Alice Faye.

We're not missing much of the Seventies here. Presumably skits about gas shortages and Vietnam were considered but didn't make the cut. Fear not, though, watching The Paul Lynde Halloween Special will not put you in a general malaise. I recommend you pick this one up, poor video quality and all, and supplement the Great Pumpkin with the, I'm not going there.

Kudos to S'More for filling out the 50-minute special with some extras to add value to the DVD. The best is an enlightening 12-minute audio interview with Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall covers that game show, thought to be the pinnacle of Lynde's career. There's a still gallery of Paul's life for those who are into that sort of thing. It's presented as a "scrapbook," which makes the pictures a little too small and harder to appreciate than they should be.

Also on there is a selection of Lynde quotes and a "Name That Quip" challenge in which you're given the setup in the form of a Hollywood Squares question, then must choose which of 3 zingers Paul gave. This one goes on and on and on, and I eventually bailed out after about 30. For the record, I scored about 75%, and while I don't know if that's any good, I have a vague feeling I shouldn't be admitting it in public.

This is a must-see DVD for fans of Paul Lynde, fans of the 1970s, and fans of megacheesy pop culture. I imagine there's a lot of crossover among those groups. They'll all be happy with this one.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

This Week in DVD

Well, since the two highest-profile new DVDs this week are threequels, have I told you lately about Spider-Man 3? Just kidding! I'm done griping about that one for a while. And since I haven't yet seen Ocean's 13 or Shrek 3, I suppose it would be poor form to gripe about them.

I just didn't get around to seeing those threequels. Each has a bloated All-Star cast. Each follows a disappointing sequel. Each has a special larger-than-life animated character who promises to make the whole thing worthwhile. In Shrek's case, it's Puss in Boots; in Ocean's 13, it's Al Pacino. If some wizard figures out a way to put those two showstoppers in the same movie, I'm THERE, and I'm sure not waiting for video. Until, I could wait for video.

Also out this week:

Golden Boy: Now, here's a treat: A fine boxing yarn from 1939 with Bill Holden, Babs Stanwyck, and a stellar supporting cast; plus--this is Sony, mind you, so pardon my enthusiasm--EXTRAS. At a time when some studios seem to be scaling back or ignoring bonus features, Sony may be stepping it up. Rumor has it that they are committed to releasing more vintage material on DVD, and supposedly future 3 Stooges sets will have some goodies. Well, Golden Boy may give credence to that talk because it contains a rare cartoon, an old TV episode starring Stanwyck, and a film short with SHEMP HOWARD! Well done, Sony.

Black Books Series 3: Another set of the quite funny Britcom. Has this season been shown on BBC America yet? It's impossible to follow what's going on on that channel, and this show is pretty much an afterthought when it IS on American Beeb. This DVD release is another reason to give up on BBC America.

It's a Wonderful Life "Yet Another" Edition: The wizards at Paramount have taken the recent 60th anniversary edition and slapped on a new colorized version to entice fans to buy it again. Colorized movies? Still? I thought that went out with cigarette smoking.

Wrestling Society X Season One: Remember when MTV had its own pro wrestling promotion and gave it a half-hour show? Well, it was only months ago. Let's just say of all the things that make Vince McMahon worry these days, this is not one of them.

Friday, November 16, 2007

True Confessions: Heart's "Never"

I'm just come right out and say it: I heard "Never" by Heart on the radio the other day, and, yes, I kind of rocked out to it in my car. That alone might be embarrassing enough, but my True Confession involves my descent into The Three Circles of Shame. More specifically:

The First Circle of Shame: In which I kept the station on there and actually turned the volume up, all the better to hear it in all its Big 80s sonic glory. In this stage of shame, I feel sufficiently awkward to be hesitant to post this info in public on this blog.

This was quickly followed by my entry into...

The Second Circle of Shame: In which I sang along--at high volume--to the song. "We can't go ooooooo---ooooo--nnnn just running away, if we stay any longer, we will surely never get away..." Once I have reached this circle, I am ashamed to admit my behavior even to close friends and loved ones. It's difficult to confess this activity to my wife.

Things only got worse, though, as the next stop was the end of the line, the place from which there is no easy exit (insert Iraq joke here)...

The Third Circle of Shame: In this circle, I am so apalled by my own actions that I can't even relive them in my own mind. I am in a constant state of denial, refusing to believe I could be capable of such disgraceful deeds. This Third Circle of Shame is truly a private hell, and since I entered, living with myself is a constant struggle. But since my idea behind True Confessions is cleansing my slate and hopefully overcoming my deep-seated feelings of shame, I will now reveal what I did to earn my spot in this Third Circle.

At one point during the song--OK, several points--I actually did the Nancy Wilson rock and roll head tilt that she does in the video.

Even when she does it, it looks lame today, but she has the advantages of 1) being in a band, 2) being in a video, 3) holding a guitar, 4) being a chick, and 5) having really big hair. I offer none of these qualities, of course, making what I did in the car inexcusable.

What was I thinking? Well, that's the point. I wasn't thinking at all, I was rocking. Sure, 1980s-era Heart is kind of goofy, but "Never" has a great sound, slick as it is, and it's just tough to turn away when it comes on. Does this excuse me going so far as to plunge into The Third Circle of Shame? No, it does not, but I was caught up in the moment.

If you want to share in my shame, check out Nancy's head tilt at about 34 seconds into this clip
Just don't blink. She did this in a lot of her videos, as I recall, and it looked pretty cool when she did so. Not so much when I tried it. Hey, in my defense, at least I didn't do a random high leg kick, as she does about a few dozen times in this clip. Then again, if I hadn't been driving...

5 Question Movie Review: Eastern Promises

Q: Hey, great, a sequel to A History of Violence! Is this as good as the first one?
A: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Yes, this movie reunites director David Cronenberg with star Viggo Mortensen, and, yes, it explores the nature, causes, and effects of violence. But it's a completely different movie, with different characters in a new setting. Incidentally, it's not quite as good. but if you don't try to saddle this one with the comparison, it's a fine film.

Q: Got to ask about that bathhouse brawl scene that got all the pub, the one in which supposedly you see all of Viggo in action. is that as disturbing as it sounds?
A: Well, many might not find the idea of Naked Viggo disturbing, but there is nothing erotic about that brutal showstopper of a fight scene. It is extremely rough in a "realistic" sort of way. It's desperate, frantic combat without hyperstylized editing or a loud video game soundtrack to prod you into an adrenaline rush. And Mortensen is indeed naked the whole time and quite vulnerable, and all guys in the audience will cringe each time the blade involved is flashed.

That said, as a hetero male, as tough as this was to watch, as devastatingly vicious as it became, it STILL was much, much easier to take than the nude wrestling in "Borat."

Q: Is this movie as grim and unrelenting as all that? History of Violence was pretty intense once it got going.
A: Actually, despite several excessively violent scenes and a general sense of evil--Cronenberg even ups the stakes by resorting to putting a baby in jeopardy--there are signs of hope here, many coming from Naomi Watts. Watts is excellent as a nurse who becomes involved in the dark underworld of the Russian Mafia in London but never loses sight of her principles and her sense of right and wrong. It's an admirable performance--both strong and tender, with Watts going a relatively less glamorous route--in a movie landscape that is often lacking in good female roles.

Q: Aha! So there are people involved in this besides Viggo and Cronenberg?
A: Yes, there are, with vivid support from cast members like Armin-Mueller Stahl and Vincent Cassell. But while he wasn't the only actor in the film, Viggo Mortensen clearly owns it, delivering a mesmerizing performance that is arguably even more impressive and memorable than his work in History of Violence. I find that Eastern Promises lacks some of the depth and thought-provoking quality of that one. This is not due to any lack of trying by Viggo, though, as he brings subtlety and some ambiguity to his role.

Q: Does this movie really take us inside the world of the Russian Mafia?
A: It's not like Scorcese, but Cronenberg depicts that environment quite vividly in some ways--the tattoos, the food, the language. In other ways, he emphasizes how separate it is from what we think of London culture. The placement of the gangsters' realm in, say, an unassuming (from the outside) family-owned restaurant on a low-key downtown street creates that sense of a unique world that is apparently detached from the larger reality yet also lurking right within its heart. Inside these urban areas, these men dominate, but in outdoor scenes, they stick out, not just as "foreigners," but as criminals. It's a fascinating dichotomy that gives "Eastern Promises" a fresh slant on the familiar concept of organized crime.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

5 Question Movie Review: Across the Universe

Q: Is this a total disgrace to the Beatles' legacy or what?
A: No, that would be the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band debacle from 1978. Across the Universe is no turkey. However, it's no big success, either. It's faint praise to say it's pleasant and doesn't embarrass any one (with perhaps one exception noted below), but that's probably the best I can do for it. Beatle fans that might appreciate the references the most might also be the ones who would rather just hear the original music.

Q: So what's wrong with it?
A: Director Julie Taymor has her cast singing Beatles songs as they represent the happenings of the sixties. Some of the musical numbers are quite simple, with just one of the cast singing the tune, while others are elaborate !extravaganzas! But throughout the movie, I never got a sense of emotional uplift. I personally find the Beatles' music fun and exciting. Even the sadder songs in their catalog make me feel GOOD about feeling sad. Here, Taymor has her cast members do rather sedate, downbeat versions of songs like "Something" and "If I Fell," and it robs the story of the excitement it might have had with more exuberant versions. I found that the best music had the least inspired visuals, while the best visual sequences often accompanied the less effective music.

Simply put, there is a wealth of cool images, but not much narrative momentum or build. There is a climactic sequence that takes place on a rooftop, and even that doesn't have the emotional impact Taymor is striving for--and it's a rooftop concert! Come on, you should be able to make that work in a Beatle-inspired story.

Ultimately, Across the Universe reminds you of that NBC miniseries "The 60's." It's just young people going through all the cliches of that decade, only with a unique twist on the soundtrack. The leads are a little too bland to carry it. Who woulda thunk Marilyn Manson's girlfriend would be "bland" on screen? But there you go.

Q: Are there any Beatle cameos?
A: I didn't catch any, but there were famous cameos, usually not faring too well. Joe Cocker does a good job, but his presence is distracting, given that he is already known not just for being a rock star, but for doing memorable Beatles covers. Bono is trying as Dr. Robert, but he comes off like he's doing a weak Robin Williams impersonation. Worst of all is Eddie Izzard, though, he makes an ass of himself by plodding through "Being for the Benefit of the Kite." I imagine the movie's creative team shares the blame for this, but Izzard is about the only performer who doesn't appear to respect the source material.

Q: What stand out as the best songs in the movie? The worst?
A: I mentioned my dislike of Izzard's number. I enjoyed the "rock"-ier versions done by Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther as Sadie and Jo Jo, respectively--including "Helter Skelter" and "Oh Darling."

Q: In your Fall Movie Preview, you said something about the trailer and Salma Hayek in a nurse's outfit. I don't have a question here. Just please confirm for me this made it into the movie.
A: Oh, if only her scene were longer--much longer. The brevity of her appearance is the only thing disappointing about it. Taymor stages a dizzying dreamlike number in which a wounded soldier is tended to by multiple Nurse Salmas to the sounds of--who cares what the song is? Multiple Nurse Salmas! It may be a long autumn and winter ahead of us, but that image should get many of us through the cold months.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

This Week in DVD

Just to recap from my previous DVD post: Spider-Man 3 is an awful movie, and I don't care if the DVD actually includes webshooters, don't buy it. If you're one of the few dozen who didn't suffer through it in theaters, trust my Sucky Sense on this one.

Now on to brighter news, and that's this week's DVD releases. I feel good already looking over the release schedule for this week.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry: And just like that, the dark clouds return. However, since I didn't actually see this one, I'm not gonna rip it. But come on. We all know.

Ratatouille: Hey, here we go, a movie we can all be proud of, something that will surely be in my top 10 even if half the movies coming soon turn out to be as good as I hope they will be. It's a wonderful Pixar animated feature--no surprise there--but, Disney, what's up with the extras? With this and "Cars," one is tempted to think you're holding back for Blu-Ray or Special Edition double-dips. Hmm...

Seinfeld Ninth Season: For a while, my perception has been that the show got increasingly self-indulgent as it went on, with this final season without Larry David the clear bottom rung of the series. But now, this DVD set comes out, and I'm looking at the list of episodes, and I see quite a few that make me say, "Hey, I wouldn't mind seeing that again," even if it's just for one scene or for one line. Fans don't need me to make up their minds for them on this one, though.

Wings Fifth Season: For a while, my perception has been that the show was OK at best and a pleasant enough diversion, but never more than a poor man's "Cheers." But now, this DVD set comes out, and I'm looking at the list of episodes, and...yeah, I pretty much feel the same.

Chinatown Special Edition: I have to at least mention this classic neo-noir because a lot of people have been waiting for it. Trustworthy DVD reviewer DVD Savant endorses this edition as a big upgrade on the previous disc. Me, I've never liked this one as much as I feel I should, but this new release might be a good excuse for me to check it out again.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Cultureshark Remembers Fabulous Moolah

You have to hand it to the Fabulous Moolah, who passed away last week at 84, for being so successful for so long in such a male-dominated realm as professional wrestling. She may have used some cutthroat tactics to do so, and as a performer she was a notorious villain, but in her ripe old age, she hit a late career stride doing comedy segments on WWF television. It was often surreal seeing the inappropriate and tasteless situations her and fellow retiree Mae Young would be placed in on "Raw" each Monday, but then, her whole career was pretty surreal to me.

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up on the rise of the WWF as Vince McMahon brought showbiz and professional production values to his wrestling promotion and took it national on the strength of superstars like Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and...well, Moolah, sort of. Somehow, the Fabulous Moolah, who was already in her early 60s at this point, was STILL the face of women's wrestling as the WWF went national, then global in the middle of the decade.

Oh, she had a rival for a while in Wendi Richter, a young woman with a real "eighties" look who seemed destined for a push as the female equivalent of the Hulkster, but she never panned out. Besides, Richter's foil (and the foil of her temporary "manager" Cyndi Lauper) was Moolah.

The fact is, at a time when Vince McMahon was pushing young musclebound stallions to the moon on the men's side, the face of his women's division had more wrinkles than an episode of Lost. Moolah was not one of those freakishly fit seniors you see hawking vitamins or exercise equipment, either. The announcers would hype the fact (which wasn't) that she had held the title for umpteen straight years, and maybe that gave her credibility with some folks, but in fact, she looked like she couldn't beat anything stronger than a parking ticket. She didn't exactly have "Rock N' Wrestling" charisma, either. It was hard to imagine her dancing anything hipper than the Charleston.

I still don't know exactly why Moolah was given the keys to women's wrestling for so many years, but I know she's one reason I never cottoned to the ladies' division. Even years later when I saw the athletic, superior work of Japanese women, something had been ruined for me, and I think it was the ridiculousness of the legend of the Fabulous Moolah. I like "technical wrestling" as much as the next fanboy, butMoolah wasn't wrestling, she was RASSLIN'. She was hair pulls and stall holds and the kind of low-impact stuff I associate with clips from the 1950s and 1960s--no wonder considering she WAS in her 50s and 60s. I just couldn't suspend disbelief as I could with the men (and I could just barely do so there in the 1980s WWF).

Still, Moolah had a hell of a run. Years later, when the WWF began just giving up on teaching wrestlers to be entertaining female personalities and started teaching centerfolds to wrestle, Lillian Ellison, bless her geriatric, possibly mechanically enhanced (as opposed to chemically enhanced) heart, was stealing the show on national television just by being old. If she didn't redeem women's wrestling for me, she at least made me feel good that there is still a place for senior citizens in even the most youth-baiting of professions.

So the news of her death is a shocker to me, as when I was young and getting into wrestling, she was already ancient. Who knew she was mortal? When Keith Richards finally goes, I'll be less stunned than I was last week...but not as stunned as I was in 1985 when the Spider Lady beat Wendi Richter for the championship. Spider Lady then took off her mask to reveal herself as the Fabulous Moolah. I still don't get it, but then some things are just not meant for us TO get.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Last Week in DVD

OK cut me some slack because I have important DVD news I just can't withhold due to some technicality, like the fact it's no longer last week this week.

The big DVD news is: Fans, it's safe to buy Three Stooges DVDs! Finally! After years of half-assed, double-priced collections from Sony, the studio has apparently decided to do right by the comedy team and release their shorts unedited, restored, and in chronological order. Volume One contains 18 shorts from 1934-1936, and they look great. There are no extras this time, but word has it future sets will have some cool supplements. So, fans, buy 'em up so we get more. I know Sony has attempted to hoodwink you before with ripoffs, colorized travesties, and other time wasters, but this is the real deal.

See why I couldn't just pass that over?

Oh, another reason I have to talk about last week's DVD releases is that I just have to take the opportunity to bash Spider-Man 3. Yeah, yeah, it made a lot of dough this summer, and maybe the video is flying off shelves, but I stand by my opinion that it's franchise killer. At least, it should have been. I am totally sick of the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire connection, and their third effort eliminates the good things about the previous two while amping up the bad things, like unlikable characterizations and nonsenical scripting. And all this while paying homage, intentionally or not, to Superman II, The Mask, The Nutty Professor, and maybe even Saturday Night Fever. Why? Why? Each of these crappy superhero movies (this one is even worse than Superman Returns) makes what Christopher Nolan is doing with Batman seem even more brilliant.

Please, folks, don't buy this DVD and encourage someone to back up the armored truck and empty a pile of cash onto Sam Raimi's porch to do a fourth one. He's done enough to the character.

There WAS some other good stuff last week, though. For example, Warner Brothers released yet another Looney Tunes box. Each year, a beautiful package of classic cartoons with tons of supplements comes out, and though I'm still behind on the other Looney Tunes sets I own, I don't want to take this for granted. Kudos again to WB.

Now back to the crap: License to Wed. Seriously. License to Wed?

There was also a Barbara Stanwyck collection and the promising Talk to Me with Don Cheadle, but the main message for last week: Stooges good, Looney Tunes good, Spider-Man 3 terrible.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

First Impulse: Green Lantern Movie

It's First Impulse, where I give you my early thoughts on a new project or development.

Last week, a Green Lantern movie, featuring the Hal Jordan version of the character, was announced as a go. In some comic book fandom circles, any kind of comic-to-movie announcement brings much rejoicing, but as you can tell from my last post (in which I bashed Spider-Man 3), I'm getting kind of tired of being let down by weak superhero flicks. I'm a little more skeptical.

Certainly the news that the head honcho on this Green Lantern film is Greg Berlanti does nothing for me. The guy's been working on Brothers and Sisters, Everwood, and Dawson's Creek--not the kind of resume that inspires confidence. Some may say, well, Fox tabbed Tim Story from Barbershop to do the Fantastic Four movies. And I would say, yeah, and those movies are lame. One could also point out the apparently unconventional choice of Wedding Crashers David Dobkin to do the proposed Flash movie. To that, I say, here's a bonus First Impulse: That idea stinks.

Back to Berlanti, though--and, hey, that sounds like the title of Jean Claude Van Damme direct-to-video. Nothing against Everwood or Brothers and Sisters (plenty against Dawson's Creek, but that's not a battle for today), but they just aren't pluses for me.

So I can't say I expect great things from this, even at this early stage. However, I do think this movie could fill a real niche if it goes in a certain direction, and that is a cosmic one. These superhero movies of the recent boom period have been earthbound and not all that spectacular. Even the Silver Surfer came down to Earth to meet the Fantastic Four, not the other way around.

Green Lantern spends a lot of time flying around in space and doing cool hero stuff on other planets. If the movie pulls that off with any semblance of credibility, it will give it real distinction in the now-commonplace world of comic book adaptations. GL's power ring creating funky shapes and doing wild stuff might look great on screen with some decent effects, but if Hal Jordan spends all his time on Earth, it could be a missed opportunity to do something special and take this genre to the next level.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Should You Watch: Back to You

I didn't think too highly of most of this fall's new TV shows, and that was even before I saw them. But I had at least middling hopes Fox's Wednesday sitcom "Back to You" would be worthwhile. I like Kelsey Grammer, I like Fred Willard, and I don't lose control of my faculties when Patricia Heaton comes on the screen. Plus, the whole package was put together and executed by a group of seasoned old pros like director James Burrowes.

But maybe everyone was involved too seasoned, because Back to You played out to me like just another tired TV show. I know many people are so starved for sitcoms nowadays they rejoice at the sight of any traditional kind of TV comedy, but really, folks, we can't give a pass to stuff like this just because it's not a reality show.

I laughed a few times during the pilot and thought Grammer's character--an arrogant news anchor coming back to the "small market" of Pittsburgh to co-host the local newscast--had potential. Then at the end of the episode came a maudlin plot twist involving the daughter he never knew he had, a child who, by the way, belongs to his former colleague and current co-anchor. Oooookay, that's contrived enough, but the sappy way this was handled really worried me, and not just because it was totally out of place with the ribald 20-some minutes that preceded it. No, it looked like Back to You was already straining not just to entertain us, not just to be funny, but--and this can be trouble, folks--to have heart.

With reservations, I came back for the second episode. That sentimental streak was gone, but it was replaced by a terrible plot. See, Kelsey's anchor wanted to prove to Heaton's character that he was now responsible enough to take care of a child. So he wound up making a big show of petsitting a goldfish and--see this one coming?--the goldfish died, so hijinks ensued as he tried to hide that from her.

Seriously, wasn't that plot done before in...every single TV show with a regular character under 15? And "Back to You" didn't mine laughs out of the hoary premise by emphasizing how silly it was that an adult was in this situation. It just gave us a silly situation. That was enough for me, and I haven't come Back to It.

But maybe there's something in it for you. You should watch "Back to You" if:

*You love so-called traditional sitcoms. You've never actually seen any of them, so you won't mind seeing them all rehashed, but you just know you love 'em.
*You love seeing Patricia Heaton exchange risque barbs and then calling her a hypocrite because of her well-known conservative politics.
*You've been around the country and relocated several times, but you've never found any city quite as warm and charming as Pittsburgh.
(*The fact that the show says it's in Pittsburgh is enough local flavor for you.)
*You'll watch Fred Willard in anything, even if he's only 4% of the whole thing.
*You feel Mary Tyler Moore left a lot of unanswered comic questions in its portrayal of local news.
*You treasure your complete run of Comedy Central's Man Bites Dog that you transferred to DVD this summer.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Cultureshark Remembers Robert Goulet

I feel sort of embarrassed for saying this, but I won't remember Robert Goulet as the Camelot star and singer. No, I will remember the later Robert Goulet, the eternal Special Guest Star who was always good for a comic turn, often at his own expense. I was jarred recently to see the young Goulet as heelish evangelist Brother Love in a "Big Valley" rerun. He was quite entertaining, so much that he even stole the show from fellow guest star Gavin McLeod.

OK, I'm being facetious, but it was a good episode, and there was more to Goulet than standards and show tunes, and that's what stands out for me.

The classic Goulet cameo was his spot on "The Simpsons." Many celebrities had their classic cameos on that show, but who can forget "$pringfield (available on the Season 5 DVD), with Goulet, game and suave even in Simpsons animated form, singing in Bart's treehouse casino?

"Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg..."

Then he accidentally hits Milhouse as he swings the microphone, and the way he says, "I'm sorry, kid," cracks me up every time.

My all-time favorite Robert Goulet is another example of his poking fun at that slick image. When he and Leslie Nielsen faced off in The Naked Gun 2 1/2, it was two seasoned pros going at it like Ali-Frazier, or like some other tired boxing analogy that isn't used as much, only it inspired you to laugh instead of writing rapturous prose about The Sweet Science.

Nielsen's Drebin crashes Goulet's Hapsburg's swank soiree, leading to a hilarious deadpan battle of wits. Goulet's reactions to Nielsen's nonsense are outstanding. In fact, R.G. makes a great comic villain throughout the movie.

"Lieutenant, I don't recall seeing your name on the guest list."
"It's nothing to be embarrassed about. I sometimes go by my maiden name."

"Que sera sera. You do speak French?"
"Unfortunately, no...but I do kiss that way."

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that Goulet was such an entertaining actor. The man starred in one of the lost acclaimed TV shows of the 1960s: Blue Light, an espionage series featuring Goulet as an American pretending to work for the Nazis. I've read several times what a great show this was, and it seems like a forgotten gem. A movie made up of several episodes, "I Deal in Danger," was released on DVD earlier this year. I think in tribute to Mr. Goulet, I'll try to get my hands on that one. In the meantime, I can think of no finer tribute than to enjoy his stunning work as Quentin Hapsburg.