Thursday, August 30, 2007

Brooks on Books: The Bronx is Burning

Or rather, "Ladies and Gentleman, The Bronx is Burning," the full title of Jonathan Mahler's excellent 2005 book detailing 1977 in New York, spotlighting the Yankees, but also covering the Son of Sam murder spree, the blackout, the race for mayor, and the general malaise affecting the city at that time.

Yesterday, I wrote about the ESPN adaptation, but this is the real deal, and apart from the excellent archival footage ESPN dug from the ABC vaults, the original is definitely better here. Here's what I wrote, with minor modifications, two years ago:

The premise of "TBIB" is that 1977 was a really wild year for New Yorkers, and that in fact New York was a pretty crappy place to live in during the 1970s.

Mahler is a reporter who provides plenty of atmosphere in his enthralling account. It's an ambitious attempt to link the Yankees' championship with the urban miseries of New York City.

In fact, it may be a little too ambitious. Mahler goes back and forth between the political and baseball stories as he goes through the year, while inserting sections on events like the blackout and David Berkowitz in their place in the narrative. The result is that while it's a lively story, you do get jumbled a bit, and there are places where you are left wanting more detail. That's not necessarily a fatal flaw--the book covers a lot of ground as it is, and it does whet the appetite for more. As Charlie Brown might say on one of those old CBS specials, "If you'd like to learn more about New York City in the 1970s, consult your local library..."

Really this isn't a pure baseball book, but that Yankee team, as well as all of the late 70s Bronx Zoo-era ones, was fascinating. This was Billy Martin, Reggie's arrival, and...well, that's the focus in the Yankees' part: Reggie and Billy. They do make a great story, and it rightly is the focus, but Mahler's attempt to make their success a metaphor for the rise from the ashes of New York isn't entirely convincing.

The mayor race had the incumbent, Abe Beame; Bella Abzug; Mario Cuomo, and Ed "How am I doin'?" Koch. It's a colorful field, and the race is pretty interesting. Mahler offers numerous behind-the-scenes details and seems to have supplemented his research with insightful new interviews for the book. I learned a lot from the political passages.

The blackout is explained comprehensively, though given a relatively sparse number of pages, and the failure of power, and the looting and riots that accompanied it, sum up the urban blight quite "nicely," if that word can be affixed to such an ugly event.

One gripe: The organization of the book is more or less chronological, in several large, numbered sections with numerous short untitled chapters. This makes it a bit difficult to refer back to info or earlier mentions of events and people. The problem is compounded by--here's a bit of a pet peeve of mine for a nonfiction book like this--no index.

Overall, the book almost reads too quickly, feeling a tad slight despite its ambitious scope. It is really entertaining, though, and tough to set aside. I don't know first-hand what the scene was like in NY in 1977, but I find Mahler does a great job of recreating that atmosphere of tension, fear, and excitement, all in the confines of the Big Apple.

In fact, he does such a good job of conveying what a mess NY was that, as I alluded to, the apparent "phoenix rising" he is going for at the end isn't convincing, and the end is a bit rushed. Some more analysis tying all of this together would have improved this, but as an account of a specific time and place and what happened there, it's vivid and compelling.

It's a must-read for fans of the miniseries.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

ESPN's The Bronx Is Burning

As this ESPN miniseries spotlighting the 1977 New York Yankees and that tumultuous summer in the Big Apple concludes this week, we may ask, is this brilliant TV?

And we may answer, "No." In fact, I'll do that right now.

"TBIB" is not exactly good TV, but it's entertaining. Unfortunately, it's nowhere near as good as Jonathan Mahler's book on which it is based (and I'll talk about that soon). Mahler was able to synthesize Son of Sam, the Yankees, the blackout, and the NYC mayoral campaign and tie it all in. The TV miniseries can't quite handle that ambitious task.

It's a commendable effort, but throughout TBIB, the main baseball storyline is constantly interrupted by weak Son of Sam scenes that add little to the overall picture. Similarly, the political scenes come off as stock footage Filler Theater. While all this was blended so well on the printed page, on ESPN, we just want to get back to the baseball.

Even in the sports realm, the series often suffers, though, as TBIB is a classic example of that trademark ESPN Original Entertainment cheapo production. The attempts at recreating game action are laughable, and the integration of REAL footage only emphasizes how silly the fake stuff looks.

Furthermore, this miniseries should really be called "My Ears Are Burning," not just because the Yankees spend so much time worrying about what they're saying about each other, but because of the star of the show: Billy Martin's ears. John Turturro is saddled with a Dumbo-sized pair of prosthetic ears that dominate all their scenes.

Actually, "prosthetic" is an inadequate word here. How about "prosthemongous" ears or "prosthetacular" ears? While I was watching an early episode, my wife entered the room, and within 10 seconds, she was asking, "What's the deal with those ears?"

SO, yes, TBIB is cheesy. But it is entertaining in its own way. The 1977 Yankees had a lot of interesting stories, and while this version doesn't mesh their stories with those of the city so well, they're still here. The old game footage is great, and so is the news footage, for that matter.

Turturro almost overcomes those gigantic flaps by turning in an intriguing version. Oliver Platt as George Steinbrenner is about 75% as hilarious as you would hope it to be. Franco from Rescue Me is fun as Reggie Jackson.

Those are enough reasons to watch The Bronx is Burning if you're a baseball fan, but there are enough negative aspects to make you doubt that ESPN will ever get it together to make that great sports movie or TV show you wish they could (or maybe not, if you're tired of seeing scripted programming on the network). After all, the next one likely won't have a subject as interesting as the 1977 Yankees.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Should You Watch? GSN's Grand Slam

You can't assume Game Show Network--excuse me, GSN--is going to deliver a decent new program. You can't even assume they'll keep delivering decent old new programs anymore, as there's always the threat that something cool like "Match Game" will be yanked for "Dog Eat Dog."

What a pleasant surprise, then, to find a quality original GAME SHOW game show on there. Grand Slam is a multi-episode single-elimination tournament featuring 16 of the biggest money winners in game show history in a series of head-to-head contests. The game play is fast and exciting, combining trivia, logic, wordplay, and math in a dramatic setting in which players try to avoid letting their personal clocks run out. It's mostly answering questions, but there is just enough strategy, like a "switch" option that lets players pass a question to their opponent, to vary it up a bit.

It's a solid game, and the entertainment value goes way up if you recognize the competitors. Yes, Ken Jennings is here, along with Brad Rutter (who cleaned Ken's clock in the Ultimate Jeopardy Tournament of Champions) and that obnoxious guy who was the first big winner on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Game show junkies should love seeing familiar faces like Thom McKee of 'Tic Tac Dough" one more time.

Even non-addicts can take pleasure in it, though. It's quite easy to play along at home, though these sharp customers might beat most people to the draw. It's still fun watching them get it done, though. Plus there is that great equalizer known as "math," which humbles quite a few trivia geniuses.

The production values are decent, the show is well paced, and--oh, yes, there are hosts. An unseen voice reads the questions without frills, but throughout the game, we are treated to the banter between co-hosts Dennis Miller and Amanda Byram. Miller has some things going on now, but he spews out the obscure references as if he's been out of a steady gig for a lot longer than he actually has. Hey, I stuck up for the guy when he did Monday Night Football, but here he's trying a bit too hard. Byram reacts with good humor, although even she just said, "Huh?" at one point in the first episode.

As for Amanda Byram, she is a real find here. She's classy (maybe it's just the Irish accent), attractive, and full of insight about the matches. Amazingly, Byram treats this contest as a legitimate competition--an attitude seldom seen in game shows anymore. She breaks down the match-ups with intelligence but never goes overboard. You mean to tell me SHE was the one who hosted The Swan?

Miller contributes with a few good lines and with his candor in describing the action, letting Byram sum up the stats while he points out if a player is bombing out there. Thankfully, they stay out of the way during the actual game play.

Grand Slam is just that for GSN. It's an exciting game show that has fun while still taking itself seriously. I'll be watching this when I can, though since it's that rare GSN original that isn't on 80 times a week, I think I already missed a few episodes.

You should watch “Grand Slam” if:

*You just transferred your deteriorating VHS copies of the 1988 Jeopardy Tournament of Champions to DVD.
*You still boycott CNBC because they gave Dennis Miller “a raw deal” on his last talk show.
*You like watching contestants actually think in order to earn their winnings.
*You enjoy seeing Jeopardy braniacs sweat a little at the prospect of solving equations on national TV.
*You knew Thom McKee was on Tic Tac Dough before I mentioned it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

5 Question Movie Review: The Simpsons

Q: Is it worth the wait?
A: It's very funny, and I walked out feeling I got my money's worth. I'm somewhat of a lapsed fan, though, not having followed the show regularly for years, and I had been skeptical of the need for a big-screen adaptation. So the wait wasn't so tough for me.

Q: What makes the movie different from the TV show?
A: You know, not a whole lot. Fox obviously sunk more money into the animation, and you have nearly an hour and a half of material rather than 23 minutes, but ultimately The Simpsons Movie just feels like a very good episode of the show.

But that's fine. The Simpsons in its prime was one of the best television shows in history, and I'll gladly pay to see anything that approaches that level. The story here is not groundbreaking. In fact, there are many plot elements that have popped up before in the show (not surprising given the hundreds of previous episodes). However, it is well constructed and paced, never feeling padded to fill the movie length. It isn't just a collection of gags, but a compelling tale with useful subplots and plenty of the heart the cartoon had in its best days.

Q: You don't watch the show anymore? What are you, some kind of hater?
A: I drifted apart from The Simpsons for two basic reasons: 1) Fox's NFL overruns made it difficult to keep up with their Sunday night schedule, and 2) More importantly, the episodes I did see disappointed me too often. Many supporters will say it's still better than most of what's out there, but to me it's like watching Willie Mays when he hosted "Jackpot Bowling" or Milton Berle when he played for the New York Mets. I may have that mixed up, but basically, the magic was gone if you remembered the golden daysy

So it's a delight to see a funny, solid Simpsons episode, even if it's a film. Actually, I think my distance from the series improved my experience, as the classic Simpsons-style gags felt nearly as fresh as ever.

Q: Are all the great supporting characters in it?
A: Well, "all" covers a whole lot of territory with the Simpsonverse, but there are a bunch of them. They don't all have speaking lines, but sharp fans will spot most of their favorites. The story focuses on the core, though, which is of course Homer and his family. Characters like Flanders and Moe get plenty of screen time. Luminaries like Krusty, Lenny and Carl get probably just the right amounts.

If I had to pick one supporting player who was underused, I'd say Mr. Burns, who is reduced to a mere cameo. The writers created a new foil, an EPA director voiced by Albert Brooks, and he's OK but not nearly as fun as ol' Monty.

Q: If it's so much like the TV show, why is it worth 10 bucks?
A: Well, I paid matinee price, for the record, but let me say I laughed consistently and was entertained throughout. The Simpsons Movie won't transform the way anyone feels about the show, unlike the South Park movie, which both transcended its origins and made me more appreciate those origins. No, his feature film adaptation is just a really funny movie. It feels like The Simpsons I knew and loved, and that's an accomplishment in itself. If it's not a transcedant experience, if it doesn't make you jump up and say, "Ah! We DID need a Simpsons movie," well, it's still a great time at the multiplex.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Game Shows for Dummies

I am not a big fan of the new breed of “deliberation” game shows—you know, the ones like "Deal or No Deal" where the contestant is encouraged to “talk it out” and make a public spectacle of herself while deciding whether to advance or not and risk all their money before making some brainless decision. I’m not a big fan at all. Matter of fact, you might even say I hate them. I watch game shows for entertainment and maybe to test my own wits, and seeing someone go all drama queen and crawl on a stage for 10 minutes while agonizing over which numbered box to pick satisfies neither requirement.

However, I have watched two of these deliberation-oriented deals recently, and one of them, Drew Carey’s “The Power of Ten,” really is entertaining, with a nice mix of play-alongability, humor, and fun. The other, Jimmy Kimmel’s “Set for Life,” is one of the worst game shows I have seen.

Let’s dispense with “Set for Life” first—and quickly. It took me about 10 minutes to dispense it from my DVR. ABC, or whoever is responsible for this, apparently figured the complex strategies involved in Deal or No Deal were too much for today's stressed-out Joe Viewer. After all, those boxes contestants choose were numbered, and you know what numbers mean, right? Math.

So "Set for Life" asks its participants merely to pick red or white lights. I'm simplifying the concept, of course, but--hey, no, I'm not. The participants pick red or white lights! It is even duller than it sounds, and watching players fret like they're performing calculus is not fun. This show has lowered the bar for game shows, and it even somehow lowered the bar for Jimmy Kimmel.

"The Power of Ten" is quite watchable, though. The players don't really have to know anything here, either, but they guess what percentage of surveyed Americans said about something or other. To the critics who scoffed that this basically updates "Card Sharks," I say, so what? "Card Sharks" was kind of cool. It's easy to guess along with the contestants, but at least it forces some basic brain function.

The contestants do go through that public deliberation that makes these game shows painful to sit through, but the host here actually brings something to the show. Drew Carey is an adequate enough emcee and conductor of game play, but he really shines in bringing humor to the show, both in his reactions to the surveys and to his interactions with the players. He comes across as a nice guy who really wants to see the contestants win, and seeing him chat with them about their decisions to risk money by going on is less contrived than on other shows.

I won't be watching "The Power of Ten" regularly, but it's a decent way to pass the hour. Perhaps more importantly for CBS is the skill Carey shows as a game show host outside of the "Whose Line" format. If he's this good now on this summer replacement show, he could really develop into a keeper on "The Price is Right."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sharp Dressed Man

The other day, I went out to shoot some hoops on the neighborhood blacktop. I went through what I considered a rational thought process as I got dressed:

*It's incredibly hot outside, so short sleeves and shorts are musts.

*I'll grab a white or light-colored t-shirt since the sun is so bright and warm.

*I need a comfortable pair of shorts with pockets since I'll be bringing my house keys.

*Again, the heat is such a factor, I have to be prepared. I'll get the slightly-beat up hat I pick when I expect to work up a sweat.

Sounds reasonable, no? I thought so. However, I wound up with this outfit:

A Penn State baseball cap.
A Carolina Panthers t-shirt.
A pair of Pittsburgh Pirates shorts.

I must have looked like a maniac at worst, an idiot at best, wearing articles of clothing of 3 different sports teams. As functional as my costume seemed during assembly, it surely looked like a sign of incompetence to anyone who spotted me on the court. Even if someone does indeed like 3 different sports teams, and even if they are in 3 different games and/or levels of play, who in the world declares their allegiance to all of them at the same time?

Me, I guess.

I don't know if anyone or did not. It's usually nice and quiet on the blacktop, so I can brick jumpers in peace and chase my misses down the slope to the chain-link fence without noticing any derisive laughter.

Yet when I go back there, I will now be wondering if the little tot playground next to the court is empty because the kids are elsewhere...or if the parents decided they didn't want their children hanging near the strange man who dresses funny.

Cultureshark Remembers: Phil Rizzuto

By my count, the amazing Phil Rizzuto, who died this week at the age of 89, is a member of 4 Halls of Fame: Baseball (for being a shortstop for the Yankees in their glory years), Wacky Broadcasters (for calling Yankee games for many years), Shilling (for his immortal Money Store ads) and Cheesy Over-the-Top Rock Epics (for his cameo in "Paradise by the Dashboard Light").

Holy cow! That's a heck of an accomplishment. And I didn't give him Sitcom Cameo Hall of Fame membership for "Colonel Phillip Calhoun Rizzuto" on Sgt. Bilko or his guest shot in keychain form on "Seinfeld."

The Scooter was a huge part of my childhood, bridging two of my favorite universes: baseball and television. TRUE CONFESSION: I was a bit of a Yankee fan when I was a lad. Oh, I hate them now, as all right-thinking Americans should, but growing up, I was fascinated by their history and mythology and their New York-ness....and the telecasts on WPIX.

In pre-digital cable 1980s Central Pennsylvania, my link to the Big Apple was the great triumvirate of New York TV stations we received: WNEW-5, WOR-9, and WPIX-11. I went to the City a few times as a youth, but mostly, my image of the metropolis was shaped by the tube. The news shows, the local shows like Joe Franklin, the Crazy Eddie ads--they all gave me a sense of New York, or at least I thought they did. Even the reruns they showed became associated with the city. Sure, that makes sense with The Honeymooners and The Odd Couple, but what's so Gotham about Star Trek? I don't know, but WPIX showed it weeknights at midnight, and that was link enough for me.

Before I understood the difference between, say, Manhattan and Queens, I took in this New York TV and loved it. Maybe the biggest part of this ongoing experience, though, was the baseball. The Yankees on WPIX (and Mets on WWOR, but even then I thought that was more Jersey) was the ultimate representation of New York, and the team's media icon was the Scooter.

Phil Rizzuto called games with many partners over the year, but for me THE classic Yankee team was Phil and Bill White. White, a former player himself, came off as good-natured but a bit reserved and traditional. As such, he was a great match for the, shall we say, looser Scooter. Their unique chemistry made the games fun, and let's not forget that the Yankees of the 80s weren't necessarily that entertaining on the field, or even good. Bobby Meacham and Mike Pagliarulo were no Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

After Rizutto passed, I waited in vain for some ESPN highlight reel or YouTube montage of some of his finest broadcasting moments. He did tons of things that would make critics cringe today, like not paying attention to the game, going on about friends' anniversaries and birthdays, and ducking out early to beat the traffic (or, even "worse," complaining during the game about the traffic). That stuff doesn't fly in sports broadcasting today, but Phil was already an institution when I watched him, and I loved his style.

Looking back, I can strain a little bit and make a connection between him and New York City: He was unpredictable, unique, and unforgettable. Just like The Big Apple, right? Truth be told, at the time it was as simple as this: He called Yankee games, therefore he meant "New York."

More importantly, he meant FUN. I would love to hear just one more time Phil calling a high pop-up to short and adding, "And while it's in the air, happy anniversary to..." or Bill White gently pointing out some obvious tidbit of current baseball ("I know very little about the National League, White"). Get to it, YouTubers!

But Phil Rizzuto was such a welcome presence on my TV screen not just because he was such a strong link to a fascinating metropolis and not just because he was a hoot in the booth. He came across as a decent guy, someone who cared about his friends and the people around him as much as he did the Yankees. Several years ago, sportswriter Bill Madden wrote "Pride of October," a book that profiled ex-Yankees and what they were up to at the time. I was saddened to discover how shaken up the Scooter had been by 9/11. Many of us were heartbroken by that day, of course, but this really hit home to me. The thought that someone who brought such joy to his work could be so sad really made ME feel down.

So, Phil, wherever you are, I hope you've found peace, and I hope you don't have to leave in the seventh inning to beat the traffic.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dear HBO: It's Over

By the time you read this, I will have canceled my subscription to you. Well, more accurately, I will have changed TV providers and decided not to sign up for you. That’s kind of anticlimactic as exits go, but, hey, it’s more definitive than, say, cutting to black in the middle of the final scene of the final episode of your flagship series.

In fact, I considered telling you we were through by yanking the cable out of the wall without warning. Problem was, you wouldn’t exactly get the message right away. More importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to watch anything ELSE, either, and while I’m ready to give you up, HBO, I’m just not—well, I’ll go ahead and say it. I’m not willing to give up cable TV just yet.

I know what you’re thinking, so let me assure you right now: It isn’t Showtime. Oh, sure, the new Verizon FIOS package I’m getting includes several Showtimes, several The Movie Channels, and several Starzes. But they’re all included, HBO! It’s not like I sought them out. I like movies, they offer movies, and it might work. But even if I weren’t giving them a try, it would be over between us.

The bottom line, HBO, is the bottom line. At 16 bucks per month, you just got too darned expensive. Now, I’ll admit, since I got digital cable, you offered more of yourself than ever before. You gave me HBO Family, which offered dozens of airings a week of Caddyshack II and The Incredible Mr. Limpet. You offered HBO Comedy, which provided old stand-up specials, episodes of Half-Hour Comedy Hour, and dozens of airings a month of Caddyshack II and The Incredible Mr. Limpet. You even offered HBO Signature, which I think was supposed to be classier and maybe geared towards women and showed actual classic movies sometimes in the wee hours. It was kid of confusing, but at least it didn’t show Caddyshack II.

Then there was HBO2, which, for reasons I guess now I’ll never know, my own cable listings called HBO Plus. Finally, you gave me HBO Zone. This was perhaps the sweetest gesture of all, as you tried to be a poor man’s Skinemax, offering cheesy sex romps and erotic thrillers after midnight. But it’s hard to be a poor man’s anything when you cost 16 bucks per.

I’ll miss the sports and the comedy and the On Demand service. But The Sopranos and Deadwood are gone and The Wire’s final season is a way’s off.

I love movies, and I appreciate seeing them uncut, but you never showed them letterboxed. And couldn’t you mix up the selection a bit more? The first time I noticed you were running an early-nineties Cyndi Lauper-David Keith vehicle, I smiled. The second time I spotted it on the schedule, I laughed. The third, fourth, and fifth times, I started calculating how many comic books I could buy each month with 16 bucks.

So I’m saying good-bye and suggesting we take a break from our long relationship. There were times in our relationship when I paid too much for you there have been times when I, er, paid nothing for you. But now it’s time to try a separation.

Again, don’t think Showtime is replacing you. Really, it’s just part of my new deal.The only time in my life I really wanted to pay for Showtime was in the 1980s when it acquired The Honeymooners Lost Episodes and offered It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Those days are long gone, and as much as I like Penn and Teller, they’re not enough to make me switch.

No, HBO, it’s nothing personal. It’s just business. Maybe in 2008, that 16 bucks won’t seem like so much. Call me when The Wire returns and that John Adams miniseries gets cracking.

Until then, I wish you the best.
Sincerely, Rick

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

This Week in DVD

DVD of the Week: Without a doubt, the best and brightest new release is The Fugitive Season 1, Volume 1. Fans of the show have endured a long wait for this classic, and Paramount compounds that pain by delivering a product that has no extras...and is only half of a season, to boot! Co-star Barry Morse is still active and willing to participate, but Paramount evidently told him not to bother

As I've followed the news about this set and the online reaction to it, I've learned there are a lot of people out there who fell in love with the series the way I did: By watching the reruns on A&E in the early nineties. Getting chicken pox when you're in high school is a real pain, but one silver lining for me was getting to watch a bunch of Fugitive episodes during my quarantine. I now realize A&E's presentation of the show wasn't perfect: It used slightly edited, time-compressed versions. But at least it was on. Now at least Paramount will hopefully give us great transfers of unedited episodes (though there is apparently some minor music replacement).

Yes, putting this all-time great out in split-season sets is a bush league move by Paramount and an insult to loyal fans, especially without any assurance that the whole series will eventually be released. Still, at least some of The Fugitive will finally be on DVD, and that's great news. May we not have to wait 4 years for the whole show.


Fracture: This is one of those "eh, I'll catch it on video" movies that I nearly saw in a theater this year. This legal thriller seems like it'll be an OK fit on the small screen. It also seems potentially hilarious, with the Anthony Hopkins-Ryan Gosling battle of wits rivaling the Anthony Hopkins-Cuba Gooding struggle in Instinct. "You never had control; you only thought you did!"
The cool thing about this is, cheesy as this movie might be, at least the idea of Gosling daring to take on Hopkins doesn't make you burst out laughing. Sure, he should be no match for him, but can you imagine if they cast Hayden Christensen or Ryan Phillippe or Orlando Bloom? Talk about a non-starter of a movie.

Vacancy: Another "wait till video" one for me, though in this case I didn't have much choice. Despite surprisingly decent reviews, this horror movie was ushered in and out of movie theaters rather speedily. In fact, it seems like that was two months ago. I'll be looking to rent this one, as it seems more in the thriller mold than the torture mold.

Wild Hogs: Now, this is one of those "why in the world am I not waiting to catch this on video" movies that I DID see in a theater. You know what? It isn't bad for what it is. It's stupid and predictable and all, but it does deliver the laughs it's going to. While critics trashed the film and the direction, I thought it was competently done in a sitcomesque way. William H. Macy is legitimately funny, and it's amusing to see John Travolta mug like he was back on "Welcome Back, Kotter." I haven't seen Hairspray, but I find it hard to believe he could be any broader than he is here. But that's the kind of movie it is. I'll bet it scores huge in DVD sales this week, and I'm fine with that.

Charlie Chan Collection Volume 3: Kudos to Fox for continuing this well-done series, featuring restored prints and enlightening extras. Also, something really cool happened here because I believe Warner Brothers licensed out Chan rarity The Black Camel for this set. Kudos to both studios, then, for doing the right thing and finding a way to let the fans get something extra.

Monday, August 13, 2007

5 Question Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Q: Can one enjoy this one without having read the book?

A: I still haven't read any of J.K. Rowling's novels, and I still get confused and frustrated by plot points that are ignored or hinted at in the films. Yet I enjoyed numbers 1, 2, and 4 in the series. I put this fifth installment in the "disappointing" category along with the vastly overrated #3. The storytelling isn't clear, the editing is not always precise, and it just feels incomplete.

Q: So the book readers will really appreciate this, then?

A: Well, not exactly. I talked to trusted sources (OK, my wife and my mom) who are familiar with the novels, and they also felt ambivalent about Order of the Phoenix. They pointed out details not in the screenplay that would have really enriched my awareness of what was going on. But all 3 of us shared a sense that this movie was just biding time until the really good stuff happened next time.

Q: Wait, did you like this one or not? You're still eager for the next?

A: Sure I'm looking forward to number 6. Despite this movie's flaws, I am wrapped up in the lives of Harry and his friends and am anxious to discover what happens to them. However, the fact that my mind never drifted during this movie is more a testament to the cumulative effect of the story than of the directing/adaptation skill of David Yates.

And it's not a bad movie at all. It just doesn't have the standout sequences that previous instalments did, and so that sense of some wheel-spinning is even more pronounced. Nevertheless, the performers are as effective as ever in their roles, and there are enough cool ideas to sustain this version. It's also the shortest, which is welcome in one sense, but might have hurt the adaptation overall.

Q: OK, smarty, what do you want to see happen next time, then?

A: Well, I'll tell you first what I don't want to see: Those interminable scenes with Harry suffering at the hands of his boorish Muggle relatives. The Ministry being as idiotic as it is in this one. "Real-world political parallels." Qudditch (which is thankfully absent in Order of the Phoenix). Dumbledore being mysteriously nonrespsonsive and a nonfactor until the last minute.

What I do want to see: More Snape (my favorite secondary character), some relatively sophisticated magical combat, more answers for questions that have been asked for several films now, characters being proactive, logical explanations for why the adults let the children at Hogwarts be placed at such terrible risk so often.

Q: Well, can you still enjoy these movies given that, in the final novel, _____?

A: Hey, don't spoil it for me! I'm trying to avoid any kind of info on what happens in that book, or the sixth one, for that matter, because I like being surprised as I watch the movies.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Rhetorical Pop Quiz

On Tuesday, Paramount releases "Season 1, Volume 1" of one of the most acclaimed TV dramas of all time, "The Fugitive."

Why on Earth is the company splitting this show into two releases per season on DVD?

A) It's loading up the discs with so many great extras that in order to preserve technical quality on the actual episodes, Paramount decided to go for less overall discs per set.

B) Overwhelming positive response from fans who bought such Paramount sets as "Perry Mason Season One Volume One" and "Streets of San Francisco Season One Volume One" convinced the studio that fans don't like to be inundated with too much content at once.

C) By doing it this way, they can make fans buy two sets instead of one and thereby pump more money into Paramount's coffers for the same basic product.

I'm not going to share my answer, but let me just say that this Fugitive set has no extras, and the only reaction I've seen to the "split-season" approach is frustration that buyers have to wait longer to get a full season. Draw your own conclusion.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

This Week in DVD

What's new and notable on disc this week:

DISTURBIA: Housebound (and presumably housebroken) Shia LeBouf sees bad stuff going on outside his window. You know, there's a great special edition of Rear Window still in print and reasonably priced at all leading e-tailers. I'm just saying.
TCM SPOTLIGHT: William Powell/Myrna Loy Collection: If you love them in the Thin Man movies, you will get your money's worth here. Speaking of the Thin Man series, WB is also releasing the titles in that box as single discs this week, though if you're at all interested, you should just get the set.
HUNKA HUNKA DIGITAL ELVIS: Warners also releases a bunch of Elvis movies, including new-to-dvd titles like Kissin' Cousins and reissues like Jailhouse Rock. Oh, and Paramount is reissuing a group of their earlier half-assed Elvis releases--with no fuller ass given.
FILM CREW: KILLERS FROM SPACE: The guys from Mystery Science have revamped the concept, found a way to avoid legal trouble, and are riffing on bad movies again. I found their initial release, Hollywood After Dark, somewhat disappointing, but the source material might have limited them. I expect better from this one.

HOME IMPROVEMENT SEASON 7: Recently overplayed on TBS, soon to be overplayed on Nick at Nite, and now you can overplay it in your own home!
CORY IN THE HOUSE ALL-STAR EDITION: I think all of us true fans of the series are waiting for the season sets Cory deserves.
SUPER FRIENDS: THE LEGENDARY SUPER POWERS COLLECTION: Offhand, I'd rank the Super Powers properties as such: 1) The toys 2) This cartoon 3) The comics.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

5 Question Movie Review: Ratatouille

In case you didn't see it on the old site, the 5Q Movie Review is an attempt to provide a review of sorts of a film not by giving a rating or an essay, but rather by asking and answering the key questions someone might have about it. Today it's Pixar's latest, Ratatouille.

Q: Why should we care about a movie starring a rat?

A: Because it's an excellent movie starring a rat. I was skeptical myself. I got no instant buzz when I learned Pixar's next feature would be about a rat who wants to be a chef. I didn't even think the trailers looked all that exciting. Ah, what a fool am I to doubt Pixar. Ratatouille is another outstanding effort from the studio.

Besides, the key animal here is not Remy the Rat, but director/writer Brad Bird, who is on a heckuva winning streak with this, The Incredibles, and The Iron Giant--arguably 3 of the best animated features of the last several decades. If any live-action director had this kind of string, there would be a real Bird Cult right now, with people dressing up in animal costumes and worshipping humongous idols in his image. I mean, that's what they do with Brett Ratner, right?

Q: After seeing underwater worlds and slick cars in recent years, can a French restaurant really provide a dazzling visual environment?

A: It's no ordinary French restaurant, though, but a restaurant in France! And Paris, France, too! The artists make Paris look gorgeous here, and combined with a singer named Camille singing a beautiful song called "Le Fentin" on the soundtrack, this visual environment will make even someone who used the term "freedom fries" WITHOUT irony want to book a week's vacation over there.

In addition, the rats are realistic without being off-putting, the action is clear and striking, and there is something else going on here, too: the use of human slapstick. Oh, people trip and fall all over the place in cartoons, sure, as well as in live-action comedies. But as initially hapless chef trainee Linguini tries to cook while concealing Remy under his hat, we get all sorts of great, broad slapstick comedy. And it wouldn't be all that unique if it were Jim Carrey in "Ace Ventura 3." But I think the fact that this is being done in animation, and being done so fluidly and convincingly, IS unique, and it gives Ratatouille a niche of its own in the Pixar Hall of Animated Innovation.

Q: Pixar has an amazing track record, and you've raved about just about all their movies. How does this one compare with the others?

A: My initial reaction is that it belongs in the Upper Tier. It's not as ha-ha funny as one might expect, but it's every bit as good storywise. I was pleasantly surprised at the thematic richness Ratatouille is, and be thankful I'm not gonna go for food metaphors here. You have what appears to be Bird's favorite message, the need to allow individual excellence to flourish. But you also get some effectively delivered, non-preachy meditations on commercialism, loyalty, criticism (and not in a self-serving way as in Shamalyan's "Lady in the Water") and family. The deceptively simple plot hooks you in while offering many things to chew on if you so desire.

"Chew on" was a legit phrase and not a food metaphor! Give me a break.

Q: Isn't the cast kind of small-time?

A: Why must an animated blockbuster feature a cast of megastars? There are recognizable names here, like Brad Garrett and Ian Holm, for example, but no true superstars, and it works just fine. I never would have pictured Patton Oswalt carrying a movie like this, but he voices Remy with great heart and charm. All the voice actors work, but my personal favorite is Peter O'Toole as aptly named merciless food critic Anton Ego. O'Toole really cuts loose in his pivotal role, combining the evil of vintage Boris Karloff with the haughtiness of Ian McKellen as Magneto.

Q: Can a cartoon really make you hungry?

A: Absolutely, but I might be the wrong one to trust on this. I used to get ferocious nachos cravings while watching "Beavis and Butt-head."

I have never been a connoisseur of french cuisine, and much of the fare in this movie consists of soups and other types of meals I don't really dig. But watching even animated food for two hours does indeed make me hungry. After all, it's so lovingly rendered. More importantly, the characters spend so much time praising food, smelling food, tasting could you not want some food?

So I celebrated this tribute to elegant dining by bursting out of the theater and heading straight to...uh, On the Border. Hey, I was hungry, and it was convenient. And I had nachos, which brings us full circle!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

On the Radio

Longtime readers know I usually use On the Radio to talk about music, but today I want to mention two items I heard on the local newstalk radio.

*Fellow State Pen--er, Penn State alumni will appreciate this one:

At the end of a piece on girl scouts who are training for future career success, one scout told an interviewer she wanted to go to college, specifically, "Harvard, Penn State, or Princeton."

I guess Princeton must be her fall-back school.

*Lemme tell you, it's really hot out there folks. And you KNOW it's hot when the meteorologist talks about a "backdoor cold front" that will lower the temperatures later in the week--into the LOW NINETIES!

Putting aside for now the questions raised by the term "backdoor cold front," let me just remind everyone to stay cool out there, folks, and as Chris Cooper reminds us in "Jarhead," HYDRATE!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Is History Channel History?

That is, have we lost the History Channel Tony Soprano has come to know and love? You know, the go-to spot on the tube for serious or at least halfway educational programming?

Gone are the days when HC can legitimately (if snidely) be referred to as the Hitler Channel. Oh, there is still a good deal of WWII programming. But more often now, it's more recent stuff like Mail Call or Tech Something or the new prime-time staple, Modern Marvels.

Modern Marvels is on all the time, and I'm beginning to think HC is going the Bravo route of picking a few different series at any given time and running them to death throughout the day.

Even more worrisome is the ad I saw for Ice Road Truckers, a reality show about some kind of deadly driving competition. They are clearly pushing this one big-time, as I caught the promo in a movie theater. This is the kind of thing History Channel apparently thinks us moviegoers want to see.

On their website, HC lists Ice Road Truckers in the show category of "Uncategorized." Let me categorize it for them: it's a reality show. I don't watch HC as much as Tony Soprano, but I don't want to stop believin' that it'll be there for me providing quality history programs and documentaries at all hours. Let's hope this isn't another sign of a once-proud channel going down the drain as it betrays its original purpose.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Why I Can't Totally Root Against Barry Bonds

The post title is a reflection of the sad ambivalence I and many others feel about Giants slugger Barry Bonds' sluggish pursuit of the single most prestigious individual record in sports: Hank Aaron's 756 career homers. Unlike others, I am not going to recite a list of reasons why I'm rooting against him. Though I can't say I'm overjoyed about him breaking the mark, I'm not angry about it or anything.

After all, he is a tremendous player who has arguably, at least on some level, earned it. It's not like when some second-tier player threatens a record and I find him unworthy. When the Baltimore Ravens' Jamal Lewis went for the NFL single season rushing record against the Steelers a few years back, I did root like hell against him--partly because he was a Raven, but also because I didn't feel he was a superstar worthy of having that honor.

Plus, I try to treat people the way they treat me, and--INNOCENT NAME DROP COMING UP--the one time I met Barry Bonds, he couldn't have been cooler. It was at a small baseball card show at least 15 years ago (Bonds was still with the Pirates at the time), and he was signing autographs as the featured guest.

My grandmother drove me to the show. After arriving hella early, the two of us waited patiently near the tables that were set up for the guest of honor. Little did we know that some kind of system was set up wherein autograph seekers had to get a ticket and wait for their number to come up. Little did we know...until the guy running the show told us right after Bonds arrived and the whole shebang was about underway! By this time, quite the line had assembled, presumably filled with good citizens who arrived late enough to see whatever sign had been posted informing them of the rules.

Here's the cool thing: While the guy was basically telling us we had to go back and wait in line, Barry (Yeah, I can call him Barry; I met him, you know) said something like, "Aw, come on, it's all right," and let us sign first. Not only did he sign a ball and an 8X10, but he also posed for a quick polaroid (the good citizens in line must have either thought I had "special needs" or cursed us without mercy). In case you're wondering, he smiled in the picture.

Does that make Barry Bonds a great guy? I guess not. I've been annoyed by some of his actions and statements in the 15+ years since that day. But it's hard for me to feel the rage so many fans outside of San Francisco do. It's not like I know him or anything. But the one time I met Barry Bonds, he was a class act, and he made me feel pretty darned good.

So, America, boo #756 all you want, and I won't blame you. But though I don't think I'll be cheering when I see it, I won't be participating in the jeering.

I'm back

Welcome back to Cultureshark, now here at Blogger. I have a lot of ideas planned for this blog, and who knows, maybe I'll actually implement some of them. I encourage you to keep an eye out for the little features on the side and at the bottom, as I'll be updating them regularly. For now, consider this a work in progress, but I plan to keep Cultureshark Version 3.0 going here at Blogger.

Tell your friends and wake the neighbors, and I hope to see you back here often. Thanks for reading my own personal takes on the world of pop culture and the stuff I sometimes slip in about real life.