Friday, May 30, 2008

This Week in DVD

After a lackluster week or two, we see some interesting releases again. Awayyy we go:

The 3 Stooges Volume 2 1937-1939: Continuing Sony's chronological releases of unedited, spiffy-looking original shorts, as they finally make good after years of dumping ripoffs onto the market. Poor Stooges fans, however, are still fretting over the fact that many brick and mortar stores aren't even carrying these. See, collectors of the older stuff live in constant fear that at any time, a studio will pull the plug on a series. We may not get the Joe Besser years, but at least we can enjoy a few years of the 3 Stooges done right. Here's hoping more is on the way.

The Invaders Season One: I never saw this show, but reading about it as the release drew closer intrigued me. It sounds like a cool premise, with aliens and conspiracy and whatnot, and besides it's a Quinn Martin Production. Kudos to Paramount for doing the right thing and giving us the whole season in one shot. The other day I thought, "Hey, this is exactly the kind of thing I wish Sci-Fi still showed." But then I realized, hey, now the episodes are coming on DVD, unedited and without network logos all over the place. So nyah, nyah, nyah, Sci-Fi. Who needs you (apart from anyone who makes money on the Stargate franchise, that is)?

Gunsmoke and Rawhide: Fans wish these weren't split-season sets, but it's good to see the resumption of each series, particularly "Rawhide," which was feared abandoned.

The Color Honeymooners Season 3: These episodes are fun, and I love that they're coming to DVD, but as a big Mooners fan I confess I'm kind of just hoping MPI hurries up and gets these done so they can get to some of the even rarer stuff and maybe revisit the Lost Episodes in an improved package.

Rambo: The Sylvester Stallone Revival Tour continues. I can't wait for "Over the Top Again: Back on the Table" next year.

Grace Is Gone: This movie was gone, all right, mere moments after hitting theaters. Looks like this one goes into the "they meant well" category, but not necessarily into my rental queue. After seeing "Must Love Dogs," never again will I say, "John Cusack's in it--how bad can it be?"

Cassandra's Dream: OK, in this case I'm glad to see a movie shoot to video so quickly, as I don't know if this latest Woody Allen flick ever came out around here. Seems a lot like ground he;s covered before, only better, but I'll see it sooner or later. Quick, without looking, who's older--Woody or Rambo? Did you have to think about it?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Desmond on "Lost": Hit the road, BROTHER

I have no idea what's gonna happen on tonight's finale of "Lost," but it's traditional for someone to die at the end of a season, so I'm gonna go ahead and declare that I hope it's Desmond.

The guy has annoyed me from the get-go, mainly because the writers saddled him with the irritating tic of calling everyone "brother." By my own unofficial tally, he has addressed 84 different individuals that way a total of 803 times. This count does not include instances I may have missed in which he did it to Penelope, Vincent the dog, or the notorious black smoke.

This season, the dialogue has eased up a little bit on the characters' irritating tics, but the damage was done long ago. For a while there, Desmond said "Brother" so often, I actually forgot about Hurley saying, "Dude." He uttered "Brother" more times in a few dozen hourlong episodes than did Hulk Hogan in nearly two decades of headlining on TV.

What really makes me want to see this "stuck in time" character be permanently stuck somewhere off the ABC network is his impact on my own personal speech patterns. Every now and then, I'll affectionately greet my cat with a, "What's up, brutha?" or something like that. I mean, who wouldn't? But since Desmond's arrival on "Lost," my wife thinks I'm only doing that to imitate HIM. Now, granted, I have mocked him enough times that it may even be more irksome than my original target, but she's wrong here. I've been saying, "brother" for years now, and so have millions of us. Mrs. Shark wants me to stop, and it's all because of this one rogue television character.

Desmond, for ruining a perfectly good term of endearment for the rest of us, you must go. I want a clean break, too--no flashbacks, no flash forwards, no nothing for at least a year or two. Good luck and good-bye, brother.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

State of the Show: Desperate Housewives

After posting my little bit about the season finale in "Shark Bites" last week, I started thinking about this show a bit more, and I concluded that maybe the reason I was so unimpressed by the 5-year flash-forward that ended the episode was because I'm a little tired of "Desperate Housewives."

This season was a critical success, with Dana Delany singled out for revitalizing the show. She does indeed deserve credit, but I'm not so sure the show was revitalized overall. Gary Cole, always fun, revitalized things. Carlos losing his sight revitalized he and Gaby, and Bree was entertaining this year, but I'm really getting fed up with the other Housewives.

Lynette's self-righteousness, her terrible mothering, and her bratty kids have grated on me for some time now, perhaps because I get the impression (perhaps inaccurate) that she is supposed to be the most grounded, most reasonable, most--well, sane of all the women. I've found Teri Hatcher an appealing TV presence ever since "Lois and Clark," but the charm is wearing off her Susan. It isn't Hatcher's fault as much as it is the writing staff that insists on making her do mind-bogglingly stupid things each time out. It's like they felt the need to amp up her idiocy since they scaled back her klutziness. I mean, that stunt in the finale where she tried to change her baby's name without Papa Mike knowing? Come on. That was just stupid, and not in a rompy-parody kind of way. it just made the character a clown.

I think the show had some strong points this year and remained entertaining, but I find myself more and more distracted. My wife and I still make it a habit to watch the show together, but I'm generally doing something else while it's on. It's just not a show that can fully engage me.

This brings me to that finale. First of all, the tidy "two birds with one stone" resolution of the Gary Cole and Justine Bateman storylines was all too convenient, and worse, it felt all too much like the shootout that took care of the Laurie Metcalf/Tom's Baby's Mama storylines a while back.

Then there was that flash-forward. It was interesting, I guess, but what about it will make someone more likely to see the show? Supposedly we're going back and forth next season, but I wonder if show head honcho Marc Cherry killed off interest in "the present" by showing us so much about the future.

The one shocker was Susan apparently not being with Mike Delfino, and this may have been the costliest move of all. My wife was not so much intrigued by what happened to Mike as infuriated that he wasn't there. She said she wanted to stop watching the show because of that. She was joking--I think--but still, it wasn't a crowd-pleasing development. I don't know how it'll play out, but they might have sacrificed some audience goodwill for shock value.

Not every show is "Lost" and can get away with this sort of thing. In fact, the gimmick really did revitalize that ABC hit. Ratings were down for "Desperate Housewives" after the strike, but that's not unusual for serialized network dramas, so it's hard to say if it's indicative of something specific to the series or a reflection of a larger trend. Either way, Cherry clearly felt he had to do something to shake things up. The flash-forward may have been the most Desperate thing to ever happen on this comedy/soap, and it's a reflection of how stale some of the characters and situations are right now.

So I'll be back in the fall, but again it'll mostly be out of habit, and I'll be curious as to what the "5 Years Later" montage means, but that in and of itself isn't enough to make this appointment viewing for me. I'm not even sure what could be done to make it so at this point. I might just be burnt out a little bit by Wysteria Lane.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

State of the Show: How I Met Your Mother

I suppose the "big news," at least the way the producers intend it, is Ted's season-ending proposal to Stella. What will she say? Is she the titular Mother? And so on and so forth. But to me, that development was no more than the fourth most significant event in that finale. Here are the first 3:

1) Ted and Barney kissed and made up: Well, except for the kiss. But they're friends again, and that's a good thing because their split seemed phony and wasn't doing the show any favors.

2) Barney made googly eyes at Robin in the last scene in such a way as to indicate he looooooves her (if you saw it, it was clear this was the intent). This is a terrible thing because their one-night hookup was one of the biggest blunders the show has ever made, and I cringe at the thought of that storyline continuing.

3) The Marshall story didn't make me laugh. Having him label various events as "Miracle!" probably (or hopefully?) played a lot funnier on paper than it did on screen. Even when the show is at its most self-indulgent with the sentimental Ted stuff, Marshall can make me laugh. Not this week, though, and that worries me.

You see, this season finale was another in a string of subpar episodes that followed the strike. It's gotten to the point where I'm really worried about the direction of this once-great sitcom. I liked "Friends" in its heyday, but that show went on way too long and started piling up the missteps, some of which sound awfully familiar today: Desperate plot devices (Ted and Barney splitting, anyone?), everyone in the cast hooking up with each other (Barney and Robin), and Special Guest Stars (Britney Spears).

Ah, yes, the Britney Experiment. Sure, it boosted the show's ratings at a time when many returning series saw declines. But it led to several disappointing episodes and sent a terrible message about what fans can expect. This was a sharp, clever sitcom that lost much of its edge with one lame stunt casting decision. It's possible the ratings boost she gave the show led to its fourth-season renewal, but HIMYM has to sell its soul to get more episodes, I'd rather it just call it quits.

After all, the Britney guest shots just weren't that funny, and that's what it's supposed to be all about. Her presence wasn't the cause of the creative decline, but a symptom, and I;m not sure if things will improve right away next year. By the end of this season, the catchphrases and repartee that was the show's hallmark seemed increasingly forced. Maybe a summer break will do us all good.

I'll still be watching come fall, but I'm really hoping things can get back to where they were in the first couple of excellent seasons. I don't even care where they go with Ted and Stella. Just get back to the basics. I don't need to see these characters grow and change. I need them to make me laugh.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Wonderful World of TCM: Wake Island

I celebrated Memorial Day early by watching a TCM recording of "Wake Island" last week. This 1942 picture shows the struggles of a group of Marines defending a spot in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. Does it have the gritty realism of "Saving Private Ryan" or the haunting lyricism of "Thin Red Line"? Absolutely not. But this WWII has one significant characteristic that those others (and many other war movies today) lack: It's FUN.

Watching it and enjoying the heck out of the experience, I thought about how reverent we are about World War II today, and rightfully so. But have we reached a point where we can't make a fun movie about the conflict unless it's an outright parody? Oh, there are touches of humor in, say, "Flags of Our Fathers," but nothing like "Wake Island," in which explosive action, tense combat, and even death and destruction mingle with downright silly scenes.

William Bendix and Robert Preston steal this picture with their comic relief as bickering, often brawling buddies stationed on the island even before Pearl Harbor brings America into the war. It's not exactly grand larceny considering how understated star Brian Donlevy is as the Major in charge of the undermanned forces, but they are great to watch. Don't read that as a knock on Donlevy, who is fine and appropriately stoic when he needs to be, but Bendix is just always, well, fun. There's something about the big lug that makes him an irresistible performer.

Even in the midst of a major military disaster, the characters in this film can earn legitimate easy laughs by teasing Bendix about the outfit he wears as he prepares to leave home (he of course changes his mind once he realizes what's going on). Soon it's back to bombs bursting and bodies crumpling, but the comedy and the action don't hurt each other in "Wake Island."

Actually, despite the tough times the soldiers face as they fight the Japanese Navy, despite the deaths of major characters and unseen troops, the overwhelming sense you get is that, all things considered, the U.S. military is a fun place to be. This film came out mere months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, mind you. Granted, Hollywood wasn't in the business of making wartime epics that told citizens that War Was Hell, but still.

To make a movie with that kind of message today would draw the ire of critics, I would think, unless it's a Zucker brothers picture. In light of Memorial Day, I wondered how the actual servicemen of the time responded to those kind of contemporary Classic Hollywood war films. Did the lighter elements offend them? Did those troops, or the folks on the homefront, for that matter, think it was disrespectful?

Of course not. I'm confident in making this assertion not because I did any research, but because of what Robert Osborne said before "Wake Island." Hey, you can do research; I'll take a few well-spoken words from Bobby Osbo. Seriously, though, he told us that the soldiers loved the movie. "Wake Island" was a big hit with the boys, and why not? It may have downplayed some of the worst things about the war, but it showed the consequences, too, and it made our forces look like heroes.

Most importantly, perhaps, it was (and is today) an entertaining 90 minutes. So this Memorial Day, I don't feel guilty at all enjoying a crowd-pleasing WWII movie that makes me laugh so often. If it was good enough for them, it's good enough for me.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Weekend Box Office Preview

My unofficial predictions:

The Indiana Jones movie will make a lot of money but not enough to not be called "a disappointment."

The Narnia movie will make a lot of money, too, but not nearly as much as the Indiana Jones movie.

Futhermore, look for the Iron Man movie to make a lot of money but not as much as the Indiana Jones movie. It will however, make much more money than the new Hulk movie, which doesn't open for weeks yet.

There will be a few other new movies that no one will care about. Plus people will go to see other films not mentioned above because, after all, we have to fill out a Top 10 list.

And that's YOUR Box Weekend Office Preview for May 23.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On the Radio: "Understanding" BTO?

We have a classic rockish/Super 70s FM radio station here that sometimes runs cheesy little canned intros for notable artists before playing one of their songs. They attempt to build up the artist and put them in some kind of context, but they only sound overbaked and overimportant, quickly morphing from an informative piece to a self-promotional tool. The best thing about them, and by "best" I mean "funniest," is the way they invariably end:

"And nobody understands Led Zeppelin like Big 100."

"And nobody understands Rod Stewart like Big 100."

Insert name of musician.

I assume these are done by corporate parent Clear Channel and customized for each market, so I'm blaming HQ and not my local station for these. The other day, I heard a real head-scratcher. Unfortunately, I tuned in the station too late to hear the build-up, but I did catch this line about classic rockers BTO:

"...a sound as unique as their name." I know, I know, but we'll let that one slide. What really made me chuckle was what soon followed:

"And nobody understands Bachman-Turner Overdrive like Big 100."

UNDERSTANDS Bachman-Turner Overdrive? Hey, I rocked out to their Greatest Hits often enough in high school, and I have nothing against the guys. But what the heck is there to understand about their music? I'm no musicologist, but I'd think that in the School of Classic Rock, their songs are covered early in the third grade.

I appreciate the fact that this station is savvy enough to find their hits album in the stack, find track 5 or whatever, and play "Let It Ride," but I just don't think there's a deep, layered subtext lurking in the chorus of, say, "Roll on Down the Highway," let alone one that only Big 100 can decipher.

It's difficult to picture some guy listening to a competing station on his way into work when a BTO song comes on and shaking his head. "Nope, nope, can't listen to this," he would say as he reaches for the dial. "These guys just don't GET BTO."

Similarly, if a listener can't stand "Takin' Care of Business," she's not gonna be turned around by hearing it on THIS channel. "Oh, wait! I always thought this song was lame, but now that I hear it on Big 100...yeah, I totally see it now." Because, you know, all it takes is a station that understands the band.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cultureshark remains Idol-Free this week

I just want to put up a brief little post here to adress the Silent Minority, those few hundred of us who still don't care about "American Idol." Fear not, Cultureshark remains a blog where you can visit without worry of stumbling on an analysis of who should win or a dissection of the song choices of the final contestants.

Be brave, Silent Minority. We successfully ignored "Dancing With the Stars," and we can ignore this one, too.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Journey Into DVD: The Comebacks

The great thing about the young phenomenon of the Redbox chain of kiosks is that it allows you to make an impulse rental and gamble on a DVD. For the low price of a buck, something that might be a severe disappointment at 4 bones can seem like a bargain even if it's not a great movie. A buck is still a pretty low threshold to reach when you're calculating entertainment value.

Hey, did I mention I rented "The Comebacks" recently?

This send-up of sports movies did little at the box office, drew terrible reviews, and failed to impress me with its trailers or marketing. So why then did I rent it? It was a buck!

Actually, there are some funny scenes in "The Comebacks." I'm tempted to see Stacy Kiebler's suggestive dance number (a nod to the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident) is worth the price of a rental alone. But even she's not enough to make this more than a forgettable time waster.

The big problem I have with this movie is a trap many spoofs fall into: Rather than just be funny, or at least try, and rip without mercy the original material, it tries to be something resembling a real movie. By that I mean the characters have arcs, they care about things, and, worse, the screenplay tries to make the audience care about those arcs. In the end, "The Comebacks" is guilty of adhering to the same cliches it purports to mock, and that just makes it kind of dull.

Still, it has an impressive Stacy Kiebler cameo. And a rental at Redbox is only a buck.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Crummy Movie Cavalcade: What Happens in Vegas

We kick off the Summer 2008 Crummy Movie Cavalcade with a look at "What Happens in Vegas," surely one of the lamest romantic comedies to come down the pike in years--and let me tell you, the pike is already quite cluttered with lame romcoms of recent vintage.

Those failures, however, didn't "boast" the combination which the makers of this effort apparently see as their biggest asset: The teaming of Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz. I try not to judge a movie by its posters, but those one-sheets that didn't bother presenting anything besides the stars' faces and the names DIAZ and KUTCHER don't inspire confidence.

I mean, does some executive think that's enough to sell a film? Have moviegoers been filing into theaters to see something, you know, good, passing by that poster, and saying to their significant other, "Ooh, look, honey, they're finally together!"

I think not. Even if there somehow is chemistry between these two leads, what good is it? Just because mud and sand combine to make something (they do, don't they? Hey, I'm no chemist) doesn't mean someone should put them together.

I used to stick up for Cameron Diaz. Sure, she gave off a rather shallow aura, but she had a certain on-screen charisma that made her magnetic in stuff like "The Mask" and "There's Something About Mary." But that was long ago, and in recent years, despite working with directors like Martin Scorcese and Curtis Hanson, she has become that rare performer who grows more vapid with age.

As for Ashton Kutcher--oh, boy. Give the guy credit for being on a long-running sitcom that is seen a dozen times a day on cable and local broadcast syndication. Give him credit for producing "Punk'd," a series that has some degree of cachet. You can even give him credit for that one surprise hit he had a few years ago when "The Butterfly Effect" somehow opened well. But other than that, what has he done lately--or ever? His major accomplishment this decade is banging Demi Moore and hanging out with her kids without being pummeled by Bruce Willis. This does not a movie star make.

I'd say his A-list card should be revoked, but I'm going a step further: Ashton Kutcher should never have been on the A-list in the first place. I refuse to recognize that he was, is, or will be. And if he's not a big movie star, then what's the point of seeing a lame romantic comedy with the main selling point of teaming him with Cameron Diaz?

"What Happens in Vegas" earns its distinction of kicking off the Summer Crummy Movie Cavalcade. There will be many more bad movies this season, and we hope to cover them the way they deserve. They can't all be "Iron Man," after all.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Journey Into DVD: The Late Show (1978)

This is not a David Letterman collection, mind you, but rather director Robert Benton's affectionate homage to 1930s and 1940s detective fiction, a charming little movie featuring the unlikely team of Art Carney and Lily Tomlin. It's a fun story, though one with some serious and violent moments, with echoes of "The Maltese Falcon," Phillip Marlowe novels, and no doubt plenty of other books I don't recognize because I haven't read them.

I watched this one again after seeing it a decade or so ago, mostly because I was in the mood to take in Carney's enjoyable performance again. Somehow, though, I had forgotten just how annoying Tomlin is. Indeed, she is quite off-putting in this one, as she is in, well, just about all her movie appearances. but at least here she is supposed to be playing someone quirky and off-center. Her spaced-out New Agey chick is designed as a fun counterpart to Carney's old-school broken-down private dick. I have to admit that the combo works, and by the end of the movie, their offbeat chemistry was working for me.

It's amusing to see a detective story revolve around an older guy with a bum ticker and a host of other health problems, some of which affect him during the story. When Carney collapses in distress, you really care about it, too, because after all, it's A.C. Yeah, he's playing a past-his-prime detective who may not have been much IN his prime, and he effortlessly assumes that persona, but, come on, he's still the man. He's not a total wreck, though, as he manages to get a little fisticuffs in along the way.

Other pleasures include amusing work by old hands like Bill Macy (that's Maude's husband, not William F.) and Eugene Roche. The mystery here is actually a well conceived throwback kind of a plot, but the fun is enjoying the perfect atmosphere Benton creates--one which becomes surprisingly poignant and affecting as the story rolls on--and just seeing the actors interact--yes, even Tomlin...he admitted with a grunt.

The DVD includes the theatrical trailer and another little extra which I found quite amusing. It's a brief clip of Tomlin on Dinah Shore's chat show. In fact, I'm not even sure if it's her whole appearance or just a segment where she plugs the movie, but it sure is a nice surprise, though a bit of a tease: We see the Doobie Brothers sitting around on the set, and, hey, why can't we hear what THEY have to say about "The Late Show?"

I don't remember seeing that sort of thing on any other Warners DVDs, but I sure wish it were more common. Notwithstanding recent highlight reels of Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and niche collections of Tom Snyder, it's not like companies are lining up box sets of these old talk shows for us. Why not toss some of this material on DVDs as cheap but entertaining extras? There may be rights issues with many chatfests, but even something like a lame interview segment on "Entertainment Tonight" promoting a film would at least be something for fans who buy the DVD years after the fact.

Coming Soon: Crummy Movie Cavalcade (Summer Edition)

I think it's high time to amp up the pomp and spectacle factor around here, and what better way to do so than by presenting a CAVALCADE? There are so many big movies coming out this summer that I'm already having trouble keeping them straight, and I somewhat presumptively figure you might have a similar problem.

So over the next few weeks, enjoy the first ever Cultureshark Crummy Movie Cavalcade. Each post will look at a different sure-to-be-lousy upcoming movie, including why it's guaranteed to be lousy, what it might take to get me into a theater to watch it, and who knows what else? After all, it's a CAVALCADE, so let's keep it light, spontaneous, and above all festive.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Brooks on Books: The Hardcore Diaries by Mick Foley

What a great idea former WWE champion Mick Foley had for this follow-up to his two previous autobiographies (plus several novels): a diary account of his participation in a wrestling "angle," or storyline, detailing his perspective on the whole affair from conception to execution of the build to the concept's culmination in the final match. Foley has proven himself a funny guy and a talented writer, and his idea promised to provide a unique insider perspective on how pro wrestling angles are developed. The Mickster gets off to a good start with an entertaining account of how he pitched the original angle, and this very idea of chronicling it in book form, to Vince McMahon.

If "The Hardcore Diaries" stayed focused on that aspect, it would be a sharper, more memorable book. As it is, though, perhaps because of a lack of material, perhaps because the strain of writing while traveling and wrestling and actually participating in the storyline took energy away from his author duties. Actually, though, Foley admits much of this material is taken from his blog, so maybe he just isn't as inspired this time out.

The angle that serves as the book's theme involves him, a WWE Diva named Maria, Terry Funk, Edge, and a whole lot of resistance from the company's creative team. I wasn't watching the WWE at this time and didn't see any of this play out on TV, so Foley's narrative is crucial in clarifying what happened, especially as it changed drastically over the course of the 6 months or so it was to play out. Whether it be due to the limitations of the diary format, the lack of a quality editor to help him out, or the frequent interruption of the main story with autobiographical material and other unrelated anecdotes, the Hardcore Diaries theme is often jumbled and confusing. The switching back and forth between time periods is not handled well, and the insertion of stories about other Divas or meeting Katie Couric or charity work detract from the ostensible premise of the book.

So "Hardcore Diaries" is ultimately a disappointment. Now, that said, I still devoured it in a matter of days--partly because I happened to be spending a lot of time waiting in public spaces that week and partly because books about pro wrestling are easy, absorbing reads for me. Foley's writing is often repetitive and unclear this time out, but he is still a funny guy whose appealing personality comes off well in print, and there is enough insight about the backstage goings-on to make this a fun volume for any Hardcore WWE or Mick Foley fan. Others should stay away, though, and even pro wrestling fans might be bored by many passages.

By the end, in fact, even Foley himself seems a little burned out by his battles with the front office to preserve his vision of his ideas for the storyline, and some of the descriptions of matches and promos seem a bit rushed. I would have liked to have seen more analysis of what he did in the ring and how the actual matches were put together, as opposed to how interview segments were, but perhaps the WWE (or Mick himself) wanted to preserve at least some of the inner workings of the in-ring action.

It's a shame because if Foley had concentrated on fulfilling the potential of what he pitched (the book, not the angle), he might have delivered the knockout must-read behind-the-scenes book that fans of his previous autobiographies could have reasonably expected. As it is, I recommend it to fans as a cheap used book purchase or library read, but not at the full hardback price.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

This Week in DVD

A Whole Mess of Sinatra: Warners is releasing all kinds of DVDs featuring Ol' Blue Eyes this week. You get Young Frank, Rat Pack Frank, Re-released Frank. Looking at the roster of films, plus checking out the marathon of his films on TCM this month, makes you realize, hey, this guy had quite a film career. And if you don't think so, you're liable to get a kneecap busted. Just kidding! But maybe if you can't find something to like in this grand assortment, you deserve to have a kneecap at least dislocated in a painful manner.

Mission Impossible Season 4: Sometimes, a fourth season in a long-running show like this is just a fourth season, and its release might elicit a few yawns. Not so in this case. Season 4 of "MI" was the first without Barbara Bain's Cinnamon and, more importantly, Martin Landau's awesome Rollin Hand characters. Landau was replaced, of course, by a young Tom Cruise. Kidding again! it was Leonard Nimoy. Hardcore fans, I think, think the show lost a lot with the transition, but I think it's fun seeing a post-Trek Mr. Spock work with the IMF team.

Saturday Night Live Season 3: Minor quibbles aside, these sets continue at a decent pace with the majority of material, including the musical performances, intact. This season features the debut of the nerds (Bill Murray and Gilda Radner), the Olympia Cafe "cheeburger, cheeburger") and Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin teaming up on "Weekend Update." You also get multiple guest host appearances by Steve Martin (including a classic episode which many think is the best SNL ever did) and Buck Henry as well as special hosts O.J. Simpson, a random grandmother who won a contest, and the returning Chevy Chase (who scuffled with Murray before the show according to show lore). All this and one of the series' finest moments, Nick the Lounge Singer's rendition of "Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars..." And how about one of my favorite all-time sketches, "Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber"?

Fox Western Classics: 3 oaters (I love that term, "oaters") for a low price. I haven't seen Tyrone Power's "Rawhide" or Gary Cooper's "Garden of Evil" yet, but I can tell you Gregory Peck in "The Gunfighter" is worth the price of this set alone. If you don't buy it, you're a no-good skinflint varmint. So there.

Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Vol. 1 and 2: Universal irritated collectors by making these sets Best Buy-exclusive previously, and they were pretty scarce even at Best Buy. Now, however, these great old flicks like The Incredible Shrinking Men and Dr. Cyclops are available for ALL brick and mortar retailers to either ignore outright or bury on their shelves.

Bunch of Oldies but Goodies About Which I Know Very Little: It's a light week for high-profile new releases on DVD ("Mad Money," anyone?), but it's a big day for catalog titles, with MGM dropping a ton of Westerns and War pictures. There's also a set of John Wayne westerns from Fox. I am ashamed to say I have seen very few of any of these, but you may find something you like if you just check your DVD release schedule of choice to get the details (um, assuming it's not this site, of course).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Comics That Make Me Full

In this day and age, many comic book fans often complain about the so-called "decompressed storytelling" that dominates the Big Two of Marvel and DC.

OK, in the interest of full disclosure, _I_ often complain about that. But I know I'm not alone in bemoaning the modern tendency within a title to, shall we say, stretch out a storyline that previously might have filled an issue or two so that it fills 5 or 6 issues--which conveniently provides a ready-made amount of material for a bookstore-friendly trade paperback collection.

So it's nice to grab comics from your pile and get a sense of closure or at least satisfaction after reading just one issue. Two DC titles I buy regularly almost always give me that, a feeling of being "full" after reading them, where I look forward to the next month's edition because I'm excited and caught up in things, not because nothing happened THIS month. I'm talking about "Brave and the Bold" and "Booster Gold." Each was particularly compelling this last time out.

Mark Waid has been crafting entertaining, dense stories each time up at the plate in "B&B," using the gimmick of a different hero team-up each issue to provide satisfying individual issues that still further a larger arc. It's a great example of how to make a lengthy storyline work from issue to issue without making the reader feel strung along with padded plots.

It's not just the sheer number of panels and words that make a typical issue of this latest incarnation of the team-up book work. The changing cast of characters keeps things fresh, but Waid's efficient writing meets the challenge of making chapters seem like complete issues by including a variety of threats, villians, and obstacles.

In issue 12 alone, we get the resolution of the entire Megistus story, appearances by the other heroes that have seen action in the comic over the past year, and some hints of the future. All this occurs while Waid provides a cool throughline within the issue spotlighting the Challengers of the Unknown. This single installment gives a decent conclusion to a long story and makes me care about the Challengers--enough so that I'm thinking about buying the recent DC Showcase that reprints some of their classic exploits.

I should mention the fine art on this book, as well. First the incomparable George Perez led the way. His style was a perfect match for a writing style that utilized so much story and so many characters. It was smooth storytelling that looked damn good. I was bummed when Perez stepped aside a few issues ago, but I've been a fan of Jerry Ordway since way back, and I think he's done solid work carrying on the saga.

"Booster Gold" has been similarly consistent. There are Larger Mysteries and Important Arcs being executed each month, but each issue makes you feel like--well, like something happened. And that it was fun. The creative team of Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, and Dan Jurgens are doing great work here, and as far as I know it's been rewarded with strong sales numbers.

The latest issue continued the "Blue and Gold" story which teams Booster with a resurrected Blue Beetle. They've wound up changing the timeline of the DC Universe, unsurprisingly, and are facing the consequences. Nothing is "wrapped up" in issue 8, but there is enough in there to satiate a reader and make him anticipate the next few chapters in a good way.

You get the new Freedom Fighters as Booster and Beetle try to fix what they screwed up by altering time. You get great interaction among those characters, which include Green Arrow and Hawkman and lesser-known figures like Wild Dog. You get action. You get machinations of the baddies. You get Rip Hunter explaining the stakes to everyone. I'm not doing it justice, but the whole thing both moves quickly and delivers fulfilling content--a combination increasingly rare in today's landscape.

Every so often, I'm tempted to junk the whole concept of buying the monthlies in favor of getting more trades. That's not what I really want to do, but sometimes I feel I have no choice with the way the comics are being created to fit that model. As long as comic books like "Booster" and "B&B" get the job done so often, though, I'll be glad to keep up the regular comic shop visits and follow along as it happens. But I'll keep wishing more titles can do the same.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Keeping Up With Kibbee

Hey, remember when I gave you a heads-up about Turner Classic's Guy Kibbee-thon?
(A good answer here would be, "Yes, Cultureshark, we do, and in fact we taped the whole day.")

Ahem. At any rate, I recently watched a few of the films they screened, and here's my initial report: Out of 3 films, I saw no certifiable Top 100 classics, but I did enjoy 3 solid, fun programmers, each in and out in just over an hour. One showed Cranky Kibbee, one showed Gentle Kibbee, and one showed the prolific character actor somewhere in between.

Let's start with that one first, "Havana Widows," in which our guy Guy plays a vacationing hubby carousing with women (gasp) who are not his wife! Yes, that was the Thirties, folks. Not everyone was Depressed, you know. Anyway, the real stars are female co-leads Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, two saucy broads who go down to Cuba to get free health care and embarrass the Republican administration at home.

I'm kidding, of course, as these ladies are looking for love, or at least wealthy husbands. It turns into a big farce, of course, with the real standouts for me being the great Allen Jenkins as a jealous boyfriend and Frank McHugh doing a good old-fashioned drunk act. Today's movies need more of this: A guy just walking through the whole movie being tipsy the whole time. It's a fun movie that would overstay its welcome if it were just 10-15 minutes longer, but fortunately it's not, and we can just sit back and enjoy that lost classic premise of mantrapping females on the prowl.

Guy Kibbee is a little brash in "Havana Widows," but he becomes all, "Yes, dear," and "Certainly, dear," when confronted by his missus. He's similarly henpecked in "The Big Shot" as a kindly veterinarian who inherits a business from his wealthy uncle. The catch here is he unwittingly becomes head of a local crime syndicate. Hey, it happens. The gangsters think they can string him along as an innocent figurehead dope until they get him to sign over his rights to the biz, but of course complications ensue. Much of the comedy in this one centers around Guy's shrewish wife and her social-climbing efforts. Ultimately good-hearted Guy fights both "the organization" and her in his attempt to live a simple life doing what he loves.

Amusingly enough, especially if you watch these movies so close together as I did, is the 180 Kibbee and his screen wife do from that movie to "Big-Hearted Herbert," in which Kibbee's tightwad (but apparently quite well-to-do) plumber is the resident grouch of his household, with McMahon, as his wife, playing Good Cop with their kids and everyone else the old grump mutters at. It's a testament to their versatility that both leads are equally believable--and more importantly, equally entertaining--in both movies playing essentially opposite personas. Kibbee's cantankerous miser is hilarious spending a good deal of the beginning griping about stuff, primarily any expenditure of his hard-earned cash. "Herbert" was another funny, unpretentious picture, with Kibbee of course getting an awakening of sorts. I will say, though, that after having had plumbing work done in Cultureshark Tower several times this year, the notion of anyone in the trade worrying about money puzzles me.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

True Confessions: The Fugitive

Yes, I have a confession to make. See, there's this classic show called "The Fugitive," a landmark 1960s drama which Paramount finally got around to releasing on DVD last year. I was really excited at the prospect of adding this great series to my collection. Heck, I was anxious just to see some episodes again, as I had more or less been shut out of my Richard Kimble fix since A&E quit airing it over a decade ago.

Even though the sets were bare bones, I urged everyone to buy these DVDs to ensure that the series would continue and we could get all 4 seasons on this format.

There was some bad news, though: Paramount went the dreaded split-season route on this one, forcing fans to wait 4-6 months between half-sets, likely paying a little more per episode, too.

Still, I urged everyone to buy the set despite the studio's aggravating strategy. After all, I wanted strong sales so I could see more seasons!

Well, here is my True Confession, folks. I'm a free rider. You see, I have decided to stick to my no-split-seasons purchases credo, and even though I love the show and would love to own it on shiny little discs, I am not buying "The Fugitive" on DVD. No, I'm renting the episodes and watching it that way!

What can I say? I know I'm a hypocrite, but I have to draw the line somewhere in my purchases. I thank all of you who ARE buying this show and presumably keeping it going, but I won't be joining you until maybe we have assurances they'll all be coming out...and the price comes down a bit.

In reality, "The Fugitive" is so good, it's worth the price (Shh! Don't tell Paramount). Take, for instance the last disc of the Season 1 Volume 1 set, the last one I've seen (I'm trying to space them out so I don't burn them and have to wait too long for the next set). This disc alone features "Terror at High Point" with special guest star Jack Klugman--'NUFF SAID--"Glass Tightrope" (with Leslie Nielsen) in which Kimble finds himself in a tough spot as the only man who can clear an innocent man of murder (which of course hits home, hmm?) and two other great episodes that reveal the Secret Origin of The Fugitive. In one, Kimble recovers from a car accident and flashes back to The Incident. In the other, he returns home to Indiana, where we meet his family and where Lt. Girard tries to track him down.

This is just one disc, but it's filled with 4 fine episodes and lots of the guest stars whose presence help make TV of the era so much fun. Of course, the fine performance of David Janssen is front and center, and the top-notch writing and music help create the atmosphere which makes the series so gripping even today.

Yep, I love "The Fugitive," but I confess I'm not supporting it. I'm a free rider. That is my True Confession.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

You Make the Call! Toto on the radio

That's right, welcome to "You Make the Call," in which we present a pop culture scenario that may or may not be inspired from a real-life adventure and ask you to examine thyself and determine what your own course of action would be!

It's a gorgeous day. Sun is shining. Skies are blue. You're out for a drive, and the sunroof is open.

You turn on the radio to find "Hold the Line" by Toto playing. What do you do here? YOU MAKE THE CALL.

Do you...

A) Quickly turn the dial and get it off that station before anyone notices you.

B) Close the sunroof, make sure all the windows and doors are secure, then turn up the volume.

C) Leave the sunroof open and blare that song, baby, because ROCK AND ROLL WILL NEVER DIE! YEAH!


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Starz On Demand Double Feature

A few weeks ago, my wife and I settled in on back-to-back evenings to check out offerings on Starz On Demand's Early Premieres section. One was pretty damn good, one made us damn everyone involved in its production.

First, though, I have to ask: Why is it that everything on Starz On Demand is all hazy? The picture on the main Starz channels is nice and sharp, but you go to this Early Premieres section, and it's Do Not Adjust Your Set time. I guess this is the penalty for seeing a movie "early"...on a service for which you're paying.

I like this section, though, because while it's tough to find letterboxed screenings on the regular Starz channels, they run LBX versions of just about all their high-profile premieres in the On Demand section. So that's why my wife and I went there--slightly hazy picture and all--to see "Perfect Stranger" and "Vacancy."

Halle Berry looks gorgeous no matter what the picture sharpness is, but her movie would stinks even on a crystal-clear high-def plasma screen. "Perfect Stranger" is the kind of movie that cheats the audience in order to deliver some "stunning twists." Here are a few non-spoilers: Bruce Willis plays smug, and Giovanni Ribisi plays twitchy. The story is lame, the acting uninspired, and it's generally a waste of your money, even if you see it on TV.

On the other hand, the lean, mean "Vacancy" is a pleasant surprise. It's a relatively low-budget "B" movie that does exactly what it sets out to do: provide moviegoers with an efficient, entertaining thriller. There aren't digressions on the characters' back stories, there aren't "artsy" sequences, and everything isn't explained all neatly.

Instead, some bad things happen to a couple (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) who check into a motel out in the sticks. That's pretty much it. It's just so well executed that the time just flies by and you have a great time watching all of it.

So one out of two ain't bad. "Vacancy" is a definite recommendation. "Perfect Stranger" is another in a growing line of movies that make Halle Berry's Oscar win seem Stranger and Stranger.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Journey Into DVD: No Reservations

The virtues of "No Reservations" are modest, but then so are its drawbacks. It's a passable romantic comedy about two outstanding chefs: a woman who may or may not be Welsh (it's hard to discern from Catherine Zeta-Jones' performance) and a man who has a butt chin.

This is a remake of a recent foreign film named "Mostly Martha," and while I realize that in many circles that automatically makes the American version inferior, the awfulness of the original title must make you want to resist making any derogatory puns about the moniker of the modern version.

I wasn't bored or irritated watching "No Reservations," and while that's faint praise, many modern "rom coms" don't even pass that test. It's just that nothing much happens. Zeta-Jones' character is driven and has no room for a personal life. So of course she winds up taking in her niece and meeting a free-spirited man who is, well, perfect. What do you suppose happens?

It's not hard to see why Aaron Eckhart signed on as the male lead. His character gets to play kissy-face with the Z-woman and is just generally an all-around Superman. He cooks brilliantly, he's charming with kids, he's patient and kind, he's professionally gracious, and he has a classic butt chin. In other words, all us guys are gonna have to kind of hate him unless our womenfolk make it clear they know It's Only a Movie and this kind of fellow does not exist--nor should he.

As I said, though, not much happens apart from the falling in love. The professional crisis that comes about is resolved in about two minutes after some half-hearted attempt at manufacturing conflict. The personal conflict that is supposed to make Zeta-Jones believe she is totally inept as a surrogate parent? She's a little late in picking up the little girl from school.

Even the food isn't all that appealing. Since so much of the film is set in kitchens-both at home and at a fine dining establishment--I expected watching it would leave me desperate for a bite. I got nothing, though, as most of what we saw were fancy-shmancy dessert things and sauces. Eckhart makes some kind of pasta thing, I think, but I kept wishing these world-class chefs would just pop in a pizza so the camera could linger over it.

No, the food isn't a draw, and not much happens in "No Reservations," but what does is pleasant enough if you're in the right mood for it. Even the makers of the DVD seem to know what they have here, bothering only to include a Food Network promo special as a token extra.

Friday, May 2, 2008

First Impulse: Empire Magazine's Top 50 TV Shows

British film magazine "Empire" is reportedly a great read and a fun monthly overview of the movie scene. I rarely do much more than leaf through it at the bookstore because for us Yanks it costs about 10 bucks. It got my attention, though, by posting (albeit in irritating fashion by requiring separate clicks for each entry) its list of the Top 50 TV Shows of All Time.

Not having the patience nor the finger strength to look at the entire article, I focused on the top 10. Let me tell you, if this is representative of the entire list--and, wait a minute, even if it ISN'T, because after all, it's the freaking Top 10--methinks the chaps at "Empire" should stick to the movie scene.

What really jumps out at me is the lack of any show that aired before 1989. In the whole wide history of television, no program is good enough to make it to (or near) the top of this all-time ranking? That right there renders the whole thing suspicious. I love arguments and lists like this, but I wasn't so interested in the Top TV Shows of the Last 15 Years. Was there any attempt at historical context and perspective during the compilation?

It's always good to see props for "The Wire," and I can't dispute the brilliance of series like "The Sopranos" and "The Simpsons" at their peak, but "The West Wing" at number 4? Are these brits THAT fascinated by our political process? If so, blimey. And that explains a lot, frankly.

I realize it's useless to argue with the cult of Buffy, and I won't dis the "X-Files," but those shows seem too high as well, even given that "Empire" seems to tilt towards coverage of genre movies. It feels way too soon to put "Lost" and "24" at 5 and 6, respectively, especially given the lackluster seasons each recently presented.

"Friends" at number 7 seems high, but, hey, I like the show, and someday when it doesn't feel so overplayed (if?) it may seem worthier of a high ranking.

And the lone Brit series in the top 10? I expected something like "The Office," a programme that fits into the apparent time frame of reference and one I'd feel comfortable, even just a few years after it ended, placing in an "All-Time" list. But, no, "Empire" goes with "Spaced," a show I wanted to love, given the presence of Simon Pegg, but one I just didn't take to.

So I pretty much discredit this whole list. Perhaps there's a joke or some hidden factor that is explained in the print version, but it's not apparent online. I gave this list one more chance by picking a number at random (well, not so random--it's my birthday) and clicking on its entry. Number 22 is "The Shield." Case closed. This list is meaningless.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

What's Wrong with "Miss Guided"

ABC's recent midseason sitcom "Miss Guided" wasn't all that bad, really, and it was way more entertaining than "Samantha Who," but it just didn't quite click with me. I have always enjoyed star Judy Greer's work, and I was hoping this show would be better. But there was one big problem that held it back.

Well, two big problems. One huge mistake was inviting Ashton Kutcher on as a "special guest star" in the second episode, playing some supposedly too-cool-for-school substitute teacher. I can't imagine any circumstance in which Kutcher's presence in anything would be a big deal, except maybe a Mensa meeting. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised considering he was an executive producer of the show. But what does that say about your show when you think an Ashton Kutcher guest spot is your big ratings ace in the hole? Hell, what does that say about society that it could even be a credible proposition?

Ahem. I digress. "Miss Guided" is a pleasant--if often crude--show about a high school loser who comes back to her old stomping grounds to be a guidance counselor. It has some laughs, and for those who miss Chris Parnell from "SNL," well, he's here. Incidentally, it's amazing when someone moves from THAT show and becomes MORE over the top.

Here's the problem: As great as Greer is, she's wasted somewhat in this role. Her character is too much the loser, to the point where she seemingly must be humiliated on some scale each episode. The tart-tongued Greer who played so many sarcastic best friends in recent feature films is replaced in "Miss Guided" by a timid creature who never unleashes that bite we all know she has. Even her running voice-over is holding back.

I'm sure someone decided that the more caustic Greer persona was too much so to carry a weekly series. But we don't need to see the lead get dumped on every single time out, either. Seeing her pine away for a hunky teacher she thinks is two levels above her can be funny over the course of a season. But does she have to be thrown into situations like getting caught in an upskirt photo in the school paper? No, she doesn't. I say, give us the real Judy Greer, and you give me a reason to watch the show again.