Monday, February 25, 2008

First Impulse: Oscar Night Winners and Losers

Instead of just presenting my early unfiltered thoughts on last night's Oscars in a series of rambling bullet points, I'm giving you a rambling list of winners and losers.

WINNER: The Coen Brothers
--Well, duh. But still. They grabbed the biggest awards and provided likable acceptance speeches. It's the ultimate "Screw you" to everyone who hated the ending of "No Country." They've got a few big awards that say they did it just fine.

LOSERS: Cate Blanchett, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
--"It's an honor just to be nominated." Sure, but it still must bite if you're nominated 3 times in the same category and still lose, a la Menken and Ashman for their "Enchanted" tunes. And while we all think Cate Blanchett is an incredible talent, she still lost twice last night.

WINNER: Those who had to get up for work this morning
--Anytime this broadcast ends by midnight (about 11:47 by my clock), it's a victory for the working stiffs who can't hit all those Oscar parties because, you know, they have to get up and make a living. This year's show was trimmed by the welcome exclusion of useless features like dance segments, multiple montages, and the redundant extended clips of the Best Picture nominees.

LOSERS: The telecast's producers
--Yeah, the show was only minimally over (and realistically not over at all), but let's not give the creative team too much credit. It was still a bland, uninspired evening.

LOSER: Jon Stewart
--Stewart wasn't offensive or anything, but he just wasn't very funny, and he must shoulder some of the blame for the lackluster ceremony. His habit of making postmodern little explanations on his own jokes seems out of place at the Oscars and weakened even his best lines. His political stuff wasn't even that good. The Gaylord Titler joke, though it seemed to get a good response in the auditorium, could have been written 6 months ago--and maybe it was.

LOSER: Ellen DeGeneres
--Seeing even one small clip of her vacuuming during a ceremony reminded me how unwelcome her shtick is. The effect was to make me think, "They invited HER to do this gig?"

WINNER: Chevy Chase
--Strangely, seeing several shots of Chevy hosting kind of elevated him. Oh, sure, the effect is to make one think, "They invited HIM to do this gig?" But it also kind of reminds you that, yeah, he used to be a big deal.

WINNER: Owen Wilson
--Not to sound melodramatic, but just the fact that he was on stage, looking like he belonged, and not in the "In Memoriam" segment is a victory.

WINNERS: Everyone involved with "Get Smart"
--To my eye, Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway looked like a winning comic team up at the podium. That movie could be big.

WINNERS: Everyone involved with "Once"
--Especially "The Guy" and "The Girl" (as they are called in the film's credits), whose performance reminded everyone who saw "Once" why they loved it. Their acceptance speeches, particularly hers, had to have charmed everyone who HADN'T yet seen the movie.

LOSER: Abstinence
--After all, there were a lot of pregnant celebrities there looking pretty good.

LOSERS: Documentaries you've heard of
--Doesn't it seem like in this and the Foreign Film category, every year, there are a handful of well-known contenders, and most of them don't get nominated, and none of them win?

WINNER: Daniel Day Lewis
--For a guy that sometimes sounds like a real pain in the ass to deal with, he sure was humble, and his playful kneeling to be "knighted" by Helen Mirren came off as spontaneous (even if it wasn't) and just irreverent enough to be funny but not at all disrespectful or goofy.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

This Week in DVD

*The big release this week is Denzel and Russell in American Gangster:
American Gangster
Stay away from me
American Gangster
Gangsta, let me beeeee

Sorry about that, but who can blame a guy for having frequent Guess Who Overload?

*In the Valley of Elah: I saw about 2 minutes of this when a projectionist screwed up and started running it at the wrong time. I think to commemorate that thrilling day, I'll rent this one but load up "American Gangster" first.

*Michael Clayton: No sugar tonight in my coffee, no sugar tonight in my tea. No sugar to stand beside me...Sorry, Guess Who Overload again. Hey, it happens. I thought Michael Clayton was a really good movie that didn't quite achieve greatness for me, but, hey, no shame on George Clooney, who's really good. As I wrote in my original review, the ending was weak--a bit Scooby-Doo for my tastes. But it's worth a look-see.

*Margot at the Wedding: Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale was lauded for its insight and wit, but, whoa, the reception to this one was different. I kept reading phrases like "self-absorbed," "navel gazing," etc., but what did critics expect? A Guess Who concert? I'll have to see this one and find out what the deal is.

It's a slow week for classic movies and TV, but things pick up on Tuesday--at least TV-wise. Join me next week as I write about it while working in references to "Hand Me Down World" and "These Eyes."

Academy Awards '08: Who I'd Vote For

Sorry to strike a sour note, folks, but this is the dullest pre-Oscar season I can remember. I'm just not passionate about many of these films, and it's hard to embrace the whole horse race aspect of it this year. Nevertheless, I've tried to do my homework, and I've seen many--though a lower percentage than in recent years--of the nominated films, and here, then, is my personal ballot. It's who I'd vote for, NOT who I think will win. Here goes:

Best Picture: I still feel ashamed for not seeing There Will Be Blood. I think that people who were disappointed by the conclusion to No Country for Old Men have a right to feel that way and not be sneered at by the sophisticates. I still think it's a fine film and easily my favorite of those nominated. Liked Juno more than I thought I would, wanted to love Michael Clayton but didn't. No Country gets the vote.

Best Director: The Coens. I loved the directorial work Tony Gilroy did on Michael Clayton, helping a movie whose biggest problems were, I felt, on the screenplay level. Only thing is, Gilroy wrote the screenplay.

Best Actress: I think Laura Linney is a tremendous actress who always gets the job done. But Julie Christie made the most lasting impression as an Alzheimer's patient. Sure, it seems like one of those traditional Oscar bait roles, but so what? Christie was fantastic in a bummer of a movie.

Best Actor: I saw 3 of the 5 performances (sorry, Tommy Lee and Daniel Day), and I loved all 3. I can't vote for something I didn't see, so I'd go with Viggo in a squeaker. I think his performance was the most complex, though that is not a knock on Depp or Clooney at all.

Best Supporting Actor: I thought Tommy Lee Jones, not Javier Bardem, was the real standout in No Country. But I'd vote for Bardem, who created a character that will linger for years.

Best Supporting Actress: Got to go with Amy Ryan for the underrated Gone Baby Gone. I knew her from HBO's The Wire but not much else, which made her turn the only one of all the nominated actors in all categories that made me go, "Wow, that was unbelievable."

Original Screenplay: Ratatouille. Accomplished so much while remaining entertaining.

Adapted Screenplay: This is a tough one both because of my own ignorance and because the Coens lifted most of the movie directly from the Cormac McCarthy novel. But you know what? That's still adaptation. Not ALL of the novel made it in, after all. I vote for the Coens.

Other awards I'm rooting for: "Falling Slowly" from Once to win Best Original Song, Ratatouille to win animated feature. And two documentaries I loved, The King of Kong and In the Shadow of the Moon, didn't make it to the big dance. So I root against all 5 that did. Pbbt!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Brooks on Books: Groucho Marx, Detective series by Ron Goulart

As a big Marx Brothers fan, I'm always saddened to think of there being no more of their movies for us to enjoy. Yes, even after watching something like "The Big Store," I still wish there were more. This idea of there being more Marx Brothers--particularly my fave, Groucho--is so appealing to me that I devour these books by Ron Goulart. They're not great mysteries, they're not dazzling examples of prose, and they're not bonafide Marx Brothers canon. But they are entertaining enough, and Goulart gets just enough of the idea of Groucho across to keep me reading.

The books are always short (about 200 pages of not-so-dense text), fast-moving, and light. So it's easy to burn through them in a few days. The conceit is that Groucho Marx, the actor--not Julius Marx, which was his actual name, but Groucho, as everyone refers to him and knows him here), after playing a detective in a radio series, becomes a bit of an amateur sleuth through circumstances. He keeps getting caught up in high crimes and murders involving the worlds of Hollywood, radio, and even Broadway, all the while cracking wise and acting like--well, acting like a sanitized version of the legendary character we know from those movies.

See, Goulart is not interested in creating novels based on the "real" man--and why should he? We want to see the character of Groucho, and that's what the author is shooting for. Therefore, any references to Groucho's family are few and far between. In fact, any suggestion of a personal life outside his interactions with the characters in the books is quite rare. His professional life is significant only as it serves as a plot device to introduce a new milieu or provide an excuse for a new movie set on which there can be a kidnapping, blackmail, murder, or all three.

And this Groucho is not as cruel or biting as the man we read about in the biographies. There are many instances in which he slips in a sincere compliment or kind word for his friends in the midst of his one-liners. He is genuinely committed to helping people out and righting wrongs. Plus, in each book, he encounters perhaps dozens of people who recognize him, even without his fake mustache, and have these surreal bits of conversation with him. Groucho makes a sarcastic remark every now and then, but his humor is mostly directed at himself, and he rarely snaps at the civilian.

Oddly, in most of these asides, the people either don't get his jokes (shades of Margaret Dumont) or sort of patronizingly acknowledge them while persisting in getting their own desired goal from the situation. Similarly, all the people who deal with Groucho on a day to day basis are unimpressed with him and don't even act like he's funny. Now, Goulart's dialogue isn't all "Duck Soup," and much of it is corny, but some of it is funny enough that one would expect it to be pretty amusing when Groucho says it. Yet people just kind of go on with their lives. This is understandable, as it must be pretty exasperating to deal with someone who jokes around so constantly, but it has the effect of making Groucho seem like less of a star in his own books. He's like a wacky uncle that thinks he's hilarious but is more tolerated than enjoyed by his loves ones.

Goulart must think it would be exasperating to read an entire novel in the voice of his Groucho. So he gives us Frank Denby, an ex-newspaperman (who conveniently keeps a host of contacts in the press, the police force, and other realms that might aid someone solving a murder) and radio and movie scriptwriter. In the series debut, "Groucho Marx, Master Detective," Denby writes Groucho's radio program, and thus begins a partnership which endures right up through the most recent "Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle."

Denby narrates for us, which leads to some awkward stretches. Each time Groucho does something not in the presence of Denby, a chapter will begin with something like, "Groucho later told me," and Denby continues to recount in staggering detail what did in fact happen. The character of Denby himself is a bit awkward, too. He is a bit of a wise-acre himself, and his frequent jokes sort of compete with Groucho. The novels' weakest, least genuine moments come when Goulart depicts Frank's relationship with Jane, a sophisticated but accessible woman who is a susccessful comic strip cartoonist. They often come off as more cloying than sweet, but Jane is a key figure, providing a sounding board and often more concrete help to the dynamic duo of Groucho and Frank.

One notable stylistic technique Goulart uses is frequent interruption, signified by dashes. Characters frequently cut each other off, not out of spite, but just to keep things going. I suppose the idea is to give the prose an urgency and to make the dialogue seem fast-paced and crackling, but I often wonder if it's done just as much because Goulart can't think of a way to finish the puns and sometimes-creaky wordplay he sets up.

So how does this all become entertaining reading material? Well, as I said, the idea of there being more Groucho is almost irresistible, and this version is Groucho enough for me--as long as I'm borrowing the books from the library and not paying full price for them. You have to give Goulart a break for some of the humor here because a lot of those classic lines from the Marx Brothers films come off a lot different on the printed page as opposed to out of Groucho's mouth. I don't laugh out loud when I'm reading these books, as I do when I watch, say, "Horsefeathers," but I'm amused often enough to accept this Grouchoverse.

It's also fun to read stories set in the late 1930s, early 1940s Hollywood era. It's odd at first that Goulart throws in some real-life personalities and references to actual events and films into his mostly fictional settings. Basil Rathbone, say, and a Basil Rathbone type apparently coexist in this world, and that's kind of odd to think about. But don't think about it too much, and you get used to it.

By "King of the Jungle," which involves a Tarzan pastiche as the center of the plot, Goulart has settled into a comfortable formula, as the characters frequently comment on events of the previous books--or characters from previous books reappear. There's even a running joke about how often Frank gets bonked on the head. It's all a comfortable, friendly atmosphere, with a kindly, good-natured Groucho who is a great friend to a warm, loving couple. And, oh, yeah, they help innocent people and foil guilty ones.

I'd recommend this to Groucho fans, but I'd check out the library or try to get a cheap copy first. If you like one, you'll like them all; but if you can't get into this version of the movie legend in one novel, you never will. Me, I'll read as many of these as Goulart writes, but I'll get them at the library, and then I'll pop in one of the old movies if I feel the need for the "real" Groucho Marx.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

5Q Movie Review: I Am Legend

Q: Richard Matheson's novel has already been filmed several times, and the idea of a "last man standing" after some cataclysm wipes out the population isn't brand-spaning-new. Is it really worth seeing this story told again?
A: I never saw the Vincent Price version "Last Man on Earth," and it's been a looong time since I checked out "The Omega Man." If you've seen both of those and enjoyed them, sure, Matheson's novel might seem old hat by now. But I've read that this version directed by Francis Lawrence diverges significantly from the original text. And besides, for a while, this is an intriguing movie. This version provides stunning visions of a post-apocalyptic New York City, as Will Smith roams a deserted Times Square. There are enough memorable images to justify the idea of rolling this tale out one more time. Plus Lawrence injects some religious symbolism in so the movie has a certain point of view to go along with the imagery.

Q: Is this like a "Cast Away" situation here? Can Will Smith hold our attention all by his lonesome?
A: Well, there's one guy by his lonesome for a long chunk of screen time, and there is a Wilson-like listener figure in the form of a loyal dog. You know what? I used to rip Big Will, but he is one of the most charismatic performers around, and he earns his paycheck here. He's such a likable presence here that it's easy to watch him fly mostly solo.

Q: You said that "for a while," this is an intriguing movie. What happens?
A: Well, the virus that wiped out or "altered" the entire population leaves Smith as the Last Human Standing. At least, for a while. The film is much stronger, more entertaining, when it's just Smith. When events give him companionship, the uniqueness of the situation is lost, and by the way, the plot holes get bigger and more annoying.

Q: I heard the CGI effects were really bad in this one. What did you think?
A: There are monsters of a sort here, OK? I don't think it's a big spoiler to say so. Problem is, these monsters are kind of cheesy-looking. Some of the landscapes, animals, and various other effects that involved computer assistance are decent, but when a movie relies on a certain type of threat to provide the narrative tension, well, they'd better be darned good. I don't think they were shoddy or anything, but they weren't as effective as they should have been.

Q: What is the single most horrifying vision of a postapocalyptic America? The lack of fellow human beings? Wild animals roaming through urban cityscapes?
A: Personally, I thought the most devastating vision was Will Smith listening to Bob Marley over and over again as if it were the only CD on Earth. Haven't we heard enough of his greatest hits in a PRE-apocalyptic America?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Top 10 Movies of 2007 I Didn't See

I present this list as an explanation as to why some of the more prominent films of last year won't be on my Top 10 list. I've tried to see many, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to catch everything I would like to catch in a theater, especially when you work funky hours and someone can't make a movie less than 2 hours and 40 minutes (Ahem, Paul Thomas Anderson, ahem).

Some of them, quite frankly, I wasn't in a real rush to see. But all of these are either on a bunch of other top 10 lists of 2007 or could have been contENDAHS for my own.

This list, of course, is in no particular order because, after all, I didn't see any of these movies:

1) The Assassination of Jesse James by That Coward Robert Ford
2) American Gangster
3) There Will Be Blood
4) Atonement
5) Into the Wild
6) Rescue Dawn
7) In the Valley of Elah
8) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
9) The Lives of Others
10) Zodiac

Wow, when you look at that list of high-profile movies of 2007, it seems like I hardly saw anything. In fact, I did see a lot of the releases of 2007, whether at home or in theaters. I just wanted to let you know before I post my own list in the next few days that, hey, I didn't see everything--far from it.

A Movie I Am Destined Never to See?

Perhaps it's fate. I am starting to think I will never see a certain movie I wanted to see last year, and maybe that's just the way it is. After all, I am never going to date Salma Hayek, I am never going to own a luxurious mansion in Aruba, and I am never going to play third base for the Pittsburgh Pirates (well, that one might not be impossible...).

So why should I automatically get to see "Live Free or Die Hard"?

At first, it seemed easy. Go to a theater and see it. But summer was ending, time was slipping, and, well, I never did get to the cineplex for the fourth "Die Hard" epic. OK, this one's my bad.

Then it came to DVD, and I kept finding other things to rent. Ok, my bad, too.

Then someone gave me a few discs of movies obtained from, er, unconventional sources. This disc wouldn't play in any of my players. OK, this is just everyone's bad.

A few weeks back, I was at the grocery store and in the mood for an impulse rental at a Redbox kiosk. The impulse struck: "Rent Live Free or Die Hard, man. You said you wanted to see this one. So see it, already, you idjit!" My impulses can really be cantankerous.

I rented it for a buck, took it home, and WHAMMO. I found out the disc was the dreaded foolscreen, AKA fullscreen, AKA pan and scan version. I didn't want to watch the stupid fool-screen version. There was no indication in the kiosk that it was an FS deal, and I had never gotten one from them before, but there it was.

I felt like pitching that sucker off the top of Cultureshark Tower and watching it plummet like Hans Gruber in the original "Die Hard." Instead, I returned it without watching it.

Am I destined to never see this movie? Perhaps. It seems that destiny has taken a turn and persisted in blocking me from seeing the latest dose of John McLane mayhem and fun.

"Hey, why don't you just rent it from Netflix, or go to a video store and grab the widescreen version?" you might ask.

What, and ruin a blog post idea?

Last Week in DVD

Gone Baby Gone: How's this for an odd juxtaposition of phrases: "Directed by Ben Affleck," and "Underrated gem"? Well, I'm going there. As I said before, this is an outstanding, provocative adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel, and it easily earns a spot in my Top 10 of 2007. What's that, you say? I never posted a top 10 list? Hmm. I'll have to rectify that soon.

I Could Never Be Your Woman: Well, as bad as "Loser" was, I Could Never Believe an Amy Heckerling flick starring Michelle Pfeiffer could go direct to video, but that's what happened here. Entertainment Weekly had an interesting piece about this recently that detailed the whys and hows of this but somehow left me feeling I didn't really know anything about the actual movie.

Becoming Jane: A rather speculative look at the romantic life of Jane Austen. Women may see this on the shelf and think of the parallels between this and, say, "Emma." Men may see this on the shelf and think, "Anne Hathaway really is a babe."

Charlie Chan Collection Volume 4: Fox quietly cranks out set after set of restored Chan flicks, each box loaded with special features. And I really mean loaded with quality special features like useful commentaries and informative featurettes, as opposed to those DVDs that boast copious extras but count things like trailers and interactive trivia games. With volume 4, Fox moves to the Sidney Toler era, and though many prefer predecessor Warner Oland's Chan, Fox is not treating this as a comedown.

George of the Jungle: The Complete Series: 3 reasons to rejoice: 1) Unlike other Jay Ward toons, you're getting all of these in one shot (we're still waiting for the rest of Rocky and Bullwinkle). 2) This release isn't as flawed as the Underdog DVDs. 3) Most importantly, it's not that Cartoon Network remake now drawing such ire.

Lubitsch Musicals Collection: Criterion's Eclipse line rolls out 4 early romantic comedies from the master of the acclaimed "Lubitsch touch,"

We Own the Night: GRITTY crime drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg from the director of "The Yards." If this were any grittier, you could file your nails with it. That doesn't make any sense, does it? Hey, give me a break. I didn't see this one, and I know very little about it. Except it's gritty.

No Reservations: American remake of "Mostly Martha." I didn't see this one, either, but "American remake" generally indicates broader, sillier, and boobier.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Cultureshark Remembers Barry Morse

I was set to attempt to write with at least some degree of insight and intelligence about the late Barry Morse, who passed away recently at the age of 89, but then I saw a fantastic piece online, something so good it makes me just want to jot down a few paragraphs, provide you the link, and get out of here.

I knew Morse almost exclusively as the obsessed, Javert-like Lt. Girard on "The Fugitive." He accumulated numerous other credits, of course, during a long career, but his crowning achievement was his brilliant stint on one of the best TV shows of all time. That's "The Fugitive," not "Space:1999," a show for which he was also known but one which I remember only because of how angry I got when WPIX suddenly replaced "Star Trek" with it one summer.

Morse provided introductions to "Fugitive" episodes on VHS some years ago. I saw rumors that he was eager to provide supplementary material on the DVD releases. I really hope someone arranged this before he died, but knowing how Paramount is cranking out so many of its old series bare-bones style, with zero extras, makes me fear they didn't take advantage of this resource.

Gerard was a bit of a prick from the audience's point of view; after all, he relentlessly pursued Richard Kimble for years even though we know the good doctor is innocent. I've been watching the earliest episodes on DVD, and even in the first handful, we see Kimble save Gerard's life--but still, the lawman won't give him a break.

But look at it from Gerard's point of view. He was just doing his job, trying to get an escaped convicted murderer back to face justice, right? Only he WASN'T just doing his job. It became more than that, and Morse (and the show's creative team) let us know from the beginning that there was more to it. I always thought that over the course of the series' 4 years, Morse built a fine, layered performance. He revealed the inner conflict Gerard faced while remaining outwardly rigid. I think Morse's haughty but occasionally just human enough portrayal created a memorable character who was by circumstance an excellent villain, yet was not off-putting enough to alienate the audience.

Steven Bowie's online appreciation is particularly fascinating. In his piece here, on a blog which I only just discovered, he talks about how hammy Morse could be in his early TV career. This blog post makes me want to seek out a lot more of Barry Morse's work, as I have a lot more to learn about the late actor. Bowie makes a great case that Morse held back early on to give room for the stubborn, single-minded fixation on catching Kimble to develop. He also provides an outstanding analysis on the Gerard character and how it shaped the series.

Speaking of having a lot to learn, one more note about the man: A good buddy of mine back in the day used to tell us of his connection to Barry Morse. At the time, I was aware of the awesomeness of "The Fugitive," but looking back, I don't know if I ever really acknowledged how cool it was to have any kind of connection to someone who created such a great TV character. If you're reading this now somehow, my man, my bad. It was very cool, indeed.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I feel old. Really, I do.

Two things happened this weekend in the span of a few hours that made me feel old:

First, my wife told me I was too old to wear the t-shirts I was looking at getting. One was a Marvel Super-Heroes white tee with old-school-style faces of a bunch of characters lined up in rows. She was less down on a gray tee with the logo of The Strokes on it, but I could tell she wasn't too thrilled about that one, either.

I'll give you that Marvel t-shirt--maybe--but damn it, I am NOT too old to wear a simple, non-tie-dyed piece of clothing advertising a rock band. I bought it. And I'm gonna wear it.

Later, at the grocery store, ahead of us in the checkout line was a petite, youngish woman buying a bunch of stuff. My wife went to the ladies' room while I waited with our own haul. At this point, the cashier finished ringing her up and discovered her card was coming up declined. I didn't hear the details, but she said something about leaving her bank card at home and could she do something or other.

Yeah, replied the cashier, but the manager would have to come over and actually do it. She thanked him and then turned to me and said, clearly embarrassed, "I'm SO sorry, sir."

"Hey, no problem," I told her, attempting to look as casual as possible. "Stuff happens." I wanted to make her feel it was no big deal, as she was clearly mortified by whatever was going on.

Suddenly it hit me. SIR? "I'm so sorry, SIR?" I wasn't THAT much older than she was...was I? She had to have been at least early to mid 20s, and--hmm, well, I was a few years older, but not old enough to be called SIR. I mean, I appreciate the respect and all, and maybe she just meant it in a generic sense, not in a "I'd better apologize before this grumpy old man explodes here in the line," sense.

Or maybe I AM old.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Brooks on Books: I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle

You certainly can't blame a reader of this novel for wondering what kind of movie it would make. It's written by an experienced TV and movie scribe. Its high school graduation night setting and recognizable characters bring to mind many classic and not-so-classic teen movies. Each chapter begins with a distinctive drawing by comic artist Evan Dorkin with an accompanying quote from one of those aforementioned movies. One of the main characters, a geek named Richard, quotes and references films all the time for his shtick (and he knows it's shtick). Heck, when "Entertainment Weekly" gave it a blurb review, it spent practically the entire paragraph speculating on the eventual movie. And, oh, yeah, according to IMDB, "I Love You, Beth Cooper" is already in pre-production as a feature film for 2009, starring Hayden Panettiere and directed by Chris Columbus.

It might make a great movie. I know it makes a great book. Doyle's novel is laugh-out-loud funny and easy reading for anyone with a fondness for teen movies or a desire to relive their high school years. Even someone who doesn't want to do that can (hopefully) laugh at this book.

The story covers the events set in motion when the academically gifted but socially inept class valedictorian Denis Cooverman spills out the book's title in his graduation speech. A humorous and exciting chain of events follows that includes small parties, big parties, brawls, underage drinking, declarations of feelings, revelations, and all manner of general goofiness.

The characters are recognizable archetypes, and I don't say "cliches" because they are too vivid and well-delineated to deserve that pejorative. I actually cared about them, too. Some of the situations here--confrontations with bullies, awkward social encounters--are familiar, but Doyle's great dialogue propels you through them and makes them fresh enough. It's easy to visualize a smooth transition of these elements to the big screen.

What might be trickier, though, is the sharp omnisicent narration, a device Doyle uses to great effect. The quickest comparison I can make is to Ron Howard's fine work on "Arrested Development." In "Beth Cooper" as well as on that series, the narrator knows way more than the characters do and often expresses it as a wry corrective or counterbalance to what those characters are saying. It seems to me a big part of the novel will be lost if this is lost.

Other than that, though, a lot of it should write itself. But I say why wait until 2009? Check the novel out and be ahead of the curve. This is a sharply written book with laughs on practically every page, many of them big laughs.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

This Week in DVD

Across the Universe: Hey, this wasn't my bag, but maybe it'll entertain you on DVD and get some of the young'uns interested in The Beatles (though each generation seems to do discover them just fine on their own. More importantly, now that this is widely available on home video, I patiently await the creation of a quality clip of the scene in which multiple nurse Salma Hayeks sing "Happiness is a Warm Gun." America, you have your homework assignment. Chop chop!

Wait, this scene has already been on YouTube for months? What's wrong with me? God bless you, America.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: And I should have saved this one for the end of the post. I'm tuckered out from typing that title. I hope to catch up with this epic (or at least epically long) Western on DVD, though.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age: The power of the Academy Awards is in action. Since Cate Blanchett got a Best Actress nod, I feel the need to check this out. Otherwise, I'd be content to ignore it, then, 25 years from now when everyone's saluting Blanchett's career, do like everyone else and pretend to have seen it.

The Brave One: Jodie Foster plays a strong, capable woman who strikes back after being pushed to the edge. It's Jodie Foster as you've never seen her...if you haven't seen any of her movies for the last 20 years.

The Apartment Special Edition: The sharp Billy Wilder classic gets an upgrade. I love the movie, but right now there are too many other things on my list to get before I double-dip. But DVD Savant, always a reliable reviewer, indicates this redo is worth it, though MGM inexplicably irritates fans by deleting the original trailer from this version.

Blonde and Blonder: From the sublime to...well, a movie co-starring Pam Anderson and Denise Richards. Settle down, boys. Apparently, the one thing that could make you buy this movie isn't in this movie.

Fierce People: I don't know anything about this movie, which I think is straight to video, but I have to mention the hilarious cover, which pairs Donald Sutherland with Diane Lane--or at least, Diane Lane's breasts. Any effect the cover designers hoped to induce by photoshopping Lane's chest is nullified by putting them so close to Donald Sutherland.

Route 66 Season 1 Volume 2: There's a diehard fanbase for this classic series that was overjoyed to learn Roxbury was issuing this series through Infinity Resources. These fans tried to get past the split seasons thing and be happy the episodes were coming. Then they found shoddy-looking episodes in Volume 1, despite the same ones looked fine on Nick at Nite years ago. Then Voume 2 came out, and fans were excited to learn the transfers were much better. Then they were irritated to learn Roxbury CROPPED the episodes to give a fake widescreen effect. There is no reason to "letterbox" old TV shows by chopping off the tops of people's heads. What on Earth is going on here? Check out the (justifiably) angry members of the Home Theater Forum for more info.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Yep, TV Land still stinks

So TV Land has an OHMIGOD That's So 80s event next weekend. Sounds interesting, right? Maybe a chance to show some rarely seen quintessenitally-eighties sitcoms like Square Pegs or even something ridiculous like Small Wonder. Or how about some of the music shows that MTV Networks controls, like Solid Gold or 1980s-era American Bandstand? Maybe some video game cartoons like Frogger?

Nope, it's the S.O.S.--overplayed movies like The Breakfast Club, 16 Candles, and Footloose. And all edited and formatted for TV, of course.

Nothing to see here.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

UWF Wrestling on ESPN Classic

There are probably a lot of pro wrestling haters who are enraged that ESPN Classic is devoting an hour each night to showing UWF episodes. I get that; really, I do. I feel the same way when they run Arli$$ or car auctions or something like that. But as a lover of old-school rassling from way back (well, the 80s), I am absolutely riveted by this addition to the schedule. What better way to spend time in the '00s than by watching stars of the '80s as they hung on past their primes in the '90s?

Unfortunately, ESPN started cycling back through and showing repeats a few weeks ago, but really, these are all technically "repeats," and if you haven't seen them yet, get on board now before the network locks them back in the vault for another decade or so.

I should mention this is not the critically acclaimed Bill Watts-promoted UWF organization that grew out of the old Mid-South territory. No, this is the early 1990s UWF, a company run by Herb Abrams, a man who--well, let's turn this to my valued and occasionally even trusted research assistant, Wik E. Pedia:

According to Mick Foley, before his death, Abrams was found nude, destroying furniture with a baseball bat.[1] Not long afterwards, he died while in police custody.[1]

And, sports fans, that's the sanitized version.

Abrams' "brainchild" is a classic example of TV so bad it's good, especially if you're a wrestling fan and can appreciate how incompetent the product is. But perhaps "bad" isn't the best way to describe it. Really, the joy of watching these shows today is how random it all seems.

First of all, ESPN Classic is running cut-down half-hour versions of The UWF Fury Hour, which was originally an hourlong program. So announcers will make reference to things we'll see, which we don't; and things we've seen, which we haven't. Better yet, ESPN is showing these out of sequence, so you may actually see that thing to which we're referring...3 nights later.

Watching these as they air now is a surreal experience, as the announcers change from episode to episode. The wrestlers and storylines change. Most amsuingly, the venues change. The more-professional looking TV tapings were held in an actual arena, and in those shows you can almost picture the UWF as a legit entity. Decent wrestlers like Dr. Death and Paul Ornodorff add credibility. That could be a 1:00 AM show. Then at 1:30, the locale shifts, and you're watching The Power Twins take on Joe Schmoe and Curtis Bloe in a high school gym.

Some of the other elements that create the heightened randomness of UWF Wrestling:

*Inexplicable theme music: OK, Cowboy Bob Orton coming down to the theme from "Bonanza" kind of makes sense. I can buy Don Muraco entering to "Hawaii Five-0." But whose idea was it to give Paul Orndorff "U Can't Touch This"?

*Announcers crapping on their own product: One of the most hilarious segments I've ever seen on a TV wrestling program came when Craig DeGeorge, Lou Albano, and Bruno Sammartino collectively trashed a horrible match they were supposed to be calling. Oh, and by the way? The fact that those 3 announce for UWF is itself awesomely random.

*Before They Were Stars: See future notables like the late Louie Spiccoli, wrestling as "Cutie Pie."

*After they were stars: See past notables like Billy Jack Haynes, wrestling as if he ate a lot of pies since his heyday.

*General confusion: Especially when you see these shows out of sequence, many of the storylines make little sense. The in-ring action makes no sense. Wrestlers are disqualified for no reason, or they are not disqualified for no apparent reason. Time limit draws come out of nowhere. Matches end awkwardly and make you wonder what was supposed to happen.

*Bizarre interviews: You haven't lived as a wrestling fan till you've seen the "Captain Lou's Corner" segments in which Albano and some notable like B. Brian Blair ramble on in an apparent effort to prove cocaine use didn't go out of style with the end of the 1980s.

Catch it now before ESPN yanks it and confines it once more to Wrestlecrap oblivion. It may not be for non-wrestling fans--hell, it probably isn't even FOR wrestling fans--but it's...well, it's something, and I'm enjoying it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Super Bowl

I thought they put on a solid, entertaining show. I was watching the broadcast with some people who were fairly Petty-ignorant, and I said, "Well, at least we know with this band, we'll get music, and not some goofy light show and dancing spectacle." I would have hoped to have seen maybe just a tad more energy from the band, but they brought their professionalism (and I don't mean that as a knock--"rock and roll" or not, music could use more of that kind of professionalism) to the country's biggest showcase and did the job.

I was stunned by the rumors the next day about the band playing to prerecorded tracks. I would be disappointed if that turned out to be the case, but I think the jury's still out there. One guy basically said Petty's vocals sounded too good. Well, I've heard him live, not lip-syncing to my knowledge, and he sounded pretty damn good--or, if you're not a fan of his style, he sounded like Tom Petty.

I would have preferred a wider variety of tracks in their set list than what they served up--3 out of the 4 tracks are from "Full Moon Fever," after all, and that isn't even an official Heartbreakers album, but a credited Petty solo joint. Still, I'm not complaining. It was a good medley and a nice way to pass the time before the second half.

Oh, and can we please stop the worship of Prince's performance last year? It was good, but, jeez, the way some people praise it, you'd think it was the Concert to End All Concerts.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

First Impulse: Super Bowl Ads

It was an entertaining, competitive, down-to-the wire football game this year, so hopefully people aren't too disappointed by an unexciting crop of commercials. I say, let's get back to the game as the thing and quit expecting Big Event Spectacular commercials to entertain us for 4 hours.

Even hours after the telecast, I had trouble remembering many ads, but for the record, a few favorites off the top of my head:

-For humor, I liked the Bud Light "wine and cheese" party with the guys smuggling in "guy stuff" in the middle of their loaves of bread and such. Have I seen that one before? Possibly. But it made me laugh more than any other ad during the broadcast.

-For storytelling, I liked the Clydesdale "Rocky" ad. Sentimental, perhaps, but it had a story to relate, and it did so brilliantly. Budwesier can afford not to shill its products directly because the clydesdales are iconic enough that we get the idea. However, many advertisers went for striking images and may have left an impression, but didn't bother putting over their product--or making anyone want to learn more about it.

-Most pleasant surprise? The NFL ad telling the tale of oboe star turned Houston Texan Chester Pitts. This was a very well executed spot that really humanized the players and had a nice "wow" factor. The NFL can be annoyingly self-promoting and self-important, but this single brief commercial did a lot to get across the meaningful nature of pro football--much more so than all those footballers reading the Declaration of Independence before kickoff.-I enjoyed the balloon fight between Stewie and Underdog, and Charlie Brown's appearance at the end was a great surprise. But Stewie and Underdog? Who chose that combo? Great production in this ad, though.

Worst ads:

-Anything that tells me to go to the Internet to see another ad or the rest of the ad or whatever. You know, the vast majority of us still like to watch television sometimes in front of the television, not out of the corner of our eye as we sit off to the side with a laptop.

-Naomi Campbell dancing to "Thriller." What the hell was that supposed to be promoting, again? And why should we care about Naomi Campbell?

-Diet Pepsi Max: Anything that references "Night at the Roxbury" at this moment in time has to be considered an artistic failure.

-Pepsi's Justin Timberlake ad: I missed the point of this one. I get an uneasy feeling nowadays when we see Timberlake do stuff like this that we're supposed to be entertained simply because there's some kind of BIG STAR being goofy on camera. I'm not buying it. And I'm not buying Pepsi.

-Gatorade and Careerbuilder: A dog slurping water for what seems like minutes and a heart flying out of a chest, respectively. One is sort of amusing to watch when it's your dog and it's, you know, real life. The other is not visually appealing at all. Maybe if Jackie Chan had chopped the heart out of her and then dropkicked it into a ninja's face, I would have been interested.
One final note: Hey, did I really see an entire football game without seeing one Peyton Manning ad? I was actually looking forward to a special Super Bowl "Priceless Pep Talk." Maybe I missed it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hey, PBS, want some of my money? Listen up...

I think I found a way to make a lot of people happy (including myself) and even get some people (including myself) to fork over some pledge dollars to their local PBS station instead of just turning the channel as soon as those shillathons take over the lineup.

See, this month I watched the 4-part Pioneers of Television miniseries. Each hour focused on a few prominent individuals who had a substantial impact on a given genre--game shows, talk shows, sitcoms, variety--with clips, interviews, and stills.

Each episode was unspectacular but an easy way to pass the time. Some of the footage was unique. Some of it wasn't, but it's always good to see old-school TV being celebrated today. I had a thought, though, while watching those clips: Why do we have to settle for clips? Why isn't PBS running full-length episodes of these programs?

Not all of them exist in that form, but many of them do. It surely wouldn't have been too difficult to run an old episode of Your Show of Shows or Truth or Consequences to accompany the appropriate installment of Pioneers.

Then I thought, "In fact, why can't PBS show this kind of stuff all the time?" After all, TV Land is abandoning 1950s and even early 1960s TV. Some perennials endure in local syndication, but it's extremely difficult to see black and white reruns anymore. Some great stuff is on DVD, but by no means all or even a majority of it.

I know there are a lot of classic TV fans who yearn for an equivalent of Turner Classic Movies--a network that would show uncut, commercial-free TV programs from the early days of the medium. Well, PBS is commercial-free (sort of), and it doesn't have to chop up 25-minute programs to fit a 22-minute window. It could start doing this sort of thing and use it as a way to appeal to frustrated TV lovers who feel abandoned by Nick at Nite and TV Land. And I'll bet a lot of them would gladly pledge a few bucks to reward and encourage the effort.

I'm not suggesting PBS devote its entire lineup to 1950s and 1960s TV, but it could easily devote a few hours a night, if not a big chunk of one of its many digital channels now available in many markets. How many public television stations show the same British comedies over and over again? Why not set aside some airtime for American classics?

If PBS wants to remain "upscale," it could even show the prestigious live TV dramas of the 1950s like Playhouse 90 or Studio One. Sure, there'd be an acquisition fee for a lot of it, but maybe there could be some discounts "for the good of the public" or something cheesy like that. A lot of people are sitting on a lot of old shows and not getting ANY return from them, so perhaps this would be a way to get something out of the old archives. Use PBS screenings to boost interest in DVD sales...and vice versa.

Oh, and if PBS is worried about turning off "younger viewers" with this kind of thing, well, screw younger viewers. We're always told how important the Baby Boomers are, but media is increasingly abandoning them. Let's give them a chance to put their money where their mouths are and pony up to relive some of their past. There should be a place for PBS for nostalgia, just as there is for science, kids programming, history, and prestige drama.

After all, isn't at least part of the point of public television to provide programming the public isn't getting anywhere else?

So...ready for the Big Game?

Each year at this time, I tell anyone who'll listen my amusement with the plethora of commercials and marketing campaigns that try to take advantage of consumers' love of the Super Bowl while going out of the way to avoid using the trademarked term "Super Bowl." See, the NFL is highly protective of its trademark and highly litigious. As a result, we get all these silly ads in which stores tell us to stock up on snacks for "The Big Game," electronics stores share how great it would be to see "The Championship Game" on a giant-screen TV, and radio stations invite us to come to the party they're hosting to watch "The Big Event."

It's ludicrous, of course, almost rivaling the efforts to keep anyone from using the word Oscar without permission or without using that stupid little TM symbol. On one hand, I understand the NFL's desire to protect the interests of its endless array of advertisers and corporate sponsors, all of whom paid handsome sums for the privilege (note I didn't say "the right") to boast of being the OFFICIAL air freshener of Super Bowl Roman Numeral. Still, I think things somehow got carried away, and now anyone in a position of reaching anyone in any kind of consumer relationship whatsoever has to live in mortal fear of a Trademark Malfunction. Letting a nipple slip is only marginally more costly than a verbal "Super Bowl" slip, and that's only until the next administration cleans house at the FCC.

Many people, myself included, have half-seriously suggested that the U.S. of A. declare Super Bowl Sunday a national holiday or give us that Monday and make an official 3-day weekend. I've changed my thinking on that, though. If we actually made that a real holiday, it would instantly surpass even Halloween and, yes, Christmas itself as the most corporate one ever.

I mean, as commercialized and insincere Christmas has become, at least stores can still refer it to by name in their ads. Who wants a Special Day in which we have to look for Big Game cards and wish each other a Happy Football Championship if we don't shell out a fee to the No Fun League?

Nah, let's leave the Super Bowl what it is--a big lovefest for the sponsors and corporate interests that align themselves with the National Football League for business purposes. And, oh, yeah, also a big game sports fans can enjoy.

Friday, February 1, 2008

This, I Believe: MERCH

For several years now, I've been a big opponent of everyday people using the word "merch" to refer to merchandise. Unless you're actually in a rock band, or better yet an accountant, road manager, or someone intimately involved with the actual distribution and sale of the band's merchandise, you should not use that term.

I blame all those "do-it-yourself" emo bands for casually dropping the term when they were hyping, say, Warped Tour--you know, but in that faux-cool "we're aware that we're shilling ourselves, so that makes us hip" kind of way. By referring to their crappy t-shirts and bumper stickers and crying towels as "merch," they were trying to wink at us and let us know it was all right to buy their stuff because, hey, it's just the "biz," right?

NOT right. Usage of the term has spiraled out of control, according to my own unscientific observations, culminating in a sad spectacle I witnessed at Borders recently. One of their staff recommendations racks now had a sign that read, "BORDERS MERCH TEAM RECOMMENDS."
Borders MERCH team? What, the staff at Borders is too cool to be called, you know, "staff"? Are we supposed to feel like insiders because, ooh, the Merch Team let us in on these hot new picks? Wow, forget Borders Rewards. You don't even have to be a member to have access to the cutting-edge recommendations of the Merch Team!

It's ridiculous, and it's one more moment that makes me believe that free speech should have its limits. Let's leave the word "merch" to those select few in "the business," not as something to toss around to us rubes who are actually supposed to buy the product. "Merchandise" will suffice as far as we are concerned.

This, I believe.