Monday, July 28, 2008

Oh, Aquaman...will you ever win?

It may well be passe by now to rip on Aquaman.

No, you know what? It's not. Sure, the aquatic avenger isn't the most original target of ridicule, but he's no less a legitimate one. I want to give the guy a chance, but things never seem to work out. I've been reading a bunch of DC Comics for the last 5 years or so, and I have no idea what version of the character is running around right now.

Part of the reason Aquaman gets no respect from fans is that he gets so precious little from the creators that make his stories. Reading the early issues of "Justice League of America" via the "DC Showcase Presents" trade paperback makes me think this has always been the case, with Arthur Curry an afterthought even then.

Take, for instance, issue #1, "World of No Return," in which Despero captures our heroes and transports them in groups of two (convenient how villains so often accommodated the series' format by splitting them into pairs that could each get their own chapters) to strange other worlds.

Aquaman and Green Lantern find themselves on "the water-world of Thanakon." Yep, "water-world." Not only that, the crisis is a "huge burning glass in the sky" that is magnifying the sun's energy and evaporating the oceans. This should be Aquaman's time to shine, right? I figured GL would be stung by a yellow jellyfish, forcing the league's resident mariner to step up and save the planet.

Well, in a way, he does, true, by summoning the octopi of Thanakon and commanding them to the surface, but it's Green Lantern who lifts them up on the lens with his power ring. Worse, while Aquaman bosses the octopi into releasing black ink to blot out the lens, the whole thing is Green Lantern's idea. The resident lord of the sea couldn't come up with this plan? Not according to writer Gardner Fox. A tailor-made situation for Aquaman to justify his presence, and he needs Hal Jordan to figure it all out. Come to think of it, Lantern could have used his ring to scoop up the octopi himself and then, I don't know, poke them or something to make them release that black ink.

The chapter ends with Aquaman wishing they had a way to get back and join their fellow League members, and of course it's his buddy GL who thinks of one. That's Aquaman in these stories: nice guy to have around if you've got a job for a fish, but not so clever on his own. It's like someone needs to tell him to tell the fish what to do, and when telling fish what to do is your main distinction, well, it looks pretty bad.

Maybe his portrayal in JLA is an aberration, although years of reading later stories and watching "Super Friends" makes me doubt it. If I buy an Aquaman collection, will I see the guy kick a, take names, and act like a superhero who knows what he's doing?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wonderful World of TCM: 36 Hours

Last week, I watched "36 Hours," a WWII flick I had recorded months ago off TCM. Star James Garner is always worth watching, but the premise also intrigued me: Garner is a U.S. Major captured by the Germans. In an effort to trick him into revealing the plans for D-Day, a dedicated American-born Nazi psychologist spearheads an elaborate hoax to convince the soldier the war has ended and hat he's in a U.S. hospital facility instead of a German prison camp.?

Sounds pretty cool, no? Well, it is, and I think it works fairly well if you can accept the bad guys going to all the trouble they do to deceive one man. Actually, the ringleader (played by Rod Taylor) does get a lot of hassle from the S.S. while he's trying to execute his scheme, which sort of gets across the idea that it wouldn't be so easy, but still...

When "36 Hours" sticks to that concept and depicts the physical and psychological tricks the Nazis use to deceive Garner (including Eva Marie Saint as a fetching, friendly nurse), it's an interesting film, if never quite as tense as maybe it should be. However...


When Garner discovers the ruse, things just fall apart a bit, and while there could have been some interesting directions for the screenplay to take at that point--like maybe a tortured Garner beating himself up for revealing too much--it doesn't really go there, instead becoming a conventional escape flick.

While the latter part of the movie has virtues, such as John Banner as a mercenary refugee smuggler of sorts, it doesn't live up to the promise of that intriguing setup. Still, if you're into WWII movies or James Garner, it's worth a look.

Speaking of being into James Garner (and who isn't?), Encore Westerns is running the classic western "Maverick" in chronological order (including the Jack Kelly episodes) weekdays. Setting aside its aversion to showing letterboxed versions, this is really an underrated network that has not yet abandoned everything pre-1970. Together with "Rifleman" and "Bat Masterson," "Maverick" makes a durned fine rootin'-tootin' lineup.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Arnold Ziffel Saved My Life Tonight

A conversation I had with my wife at Target a week or two ago:

(She had a shopping cart filled with essential baby items, and I met her after exploring the children's books...and other sections.)

ME: Hey, they had a few cute books in the dollar bins. I got these ones.

(I dump them in the cart)

HER: Great.

ME: And, uh...this, too...

(At this point, I kind of slide a two-pack of Green Acres Seasons 1 and 2 into the cart)

HER: Do you need that?

ME: Yes. Why, yes, I think I do. It's only 20 bucks for both seasons.

HER: Yeah, but do you NEED it?

ME: Yeah, I need it. As a matter of fact, I do.

HER: You really NEED it. You'll die if you don't buy that right here today.

ME: Yes. It's such a great deal that I think if I pass it up, I might well die here in the store if I don't buy these DVDs.

HER (with a small sigh): All right.

Folks, just between you, me, and the government filters that monitor the entire Internet, I may have told a slight untruth there, as I didn't really NEED seasons 1 and 2 of "Green Acres." But I sure as heck wanted them, and at that price, I couldn't resist. I always neglected the show in the past because I lumped it in with "Beverly Hillbillies," which I never cared for, and only recently did I discover how wrong I was.

So, you know, baby formula, diapers, and DVDs. The essentials, right?

This Week in DVD

I'm keeping it brief this weeks, folks, and while I was going to write that I had a hectic week, really it's just my apathy for this slate of new DVDs.

21: You used to get movies about kids putting on a show. Now you get movies about kids going to Vegas and trying to break the bank with card-counting systems. Eh, 6 of one, half-dozen of another.

Movies about Music: Warner has an assortment of jazz-themed films for us this week, and while I am mostly unfamiliar with the offerings, I can recommend the intriguing blend of music, noirish elements, and suspense that is "Blues in the Night."

Spaced: The C0mplete Series: I tried one episode of this on BBC America a while back and couldn't get into it, but given the pedigree and what I read about it, I want to give it another shot. American Beeb, by the way, is running all the episodes to coincide with the U.S. DVD release, and after a Sunday marathon of selected shows, they are showing the complete run 3:00 A.M.! Yippee! Hey, BBC America, can you spare the hour of airtime? Yeah, I could tape them, but I think I'll hold out for the unedited versions.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Retro TV comes to Cultureshark Tower

For months now, I've read about the fledgling Retro Television Network, a national service that lets its affiliates choose customized schedules from its available programming. RTN, which is signing up mostly digital subchannels of network affiliates, seems to have several different library deals, as it has offered a wide variety of old-school television programming. Oh, how I've wanted access to this network. It apparently shows time-compressed episodes, but, hey, it sounds like it's better than the hacked-up slop airing on TV Land (which is of course abandoning old shows in favor of stuff like "Scrubs" and the forthcoming "Third Rock From the Sun."

It was announced that the local ABC station was signing on, and I was thrilled. I think just about every other day since, I've looked for info about what this market's schedule would look like. Then it was announced July 28 would be the launch date, and I became even more obsessive about trying to find listings. What cool shows would I be able to see in reruns? RTN staples like "The Fugitive," "The Untouchables," or "Perry Mason"? Maybe "Get Smart" and "Kojak"?

Well, the schedule is here, and it looks pretty good, though none of those 5 shows is on it. Apparently, the launch of the WJLA RTN service coincides with a big overhaul in the RTN lineup. It looks like they are switching from a Paramount-heavy selection to one dominated by Universal. As much of the Paramount output is on DVD or coming out, I'm not too upset about that. Actually, I'm really excited about what's coming here.

The schedule, which I wish I could link to, but there isn't a real easily linkable one available that i know of, features a lot of junk in prime time, stuff like "Knight Rider" and "A-Team." No offense to fans, but I don't need to relive those shows. Similarly, "Magnum P.I." has had plenty of exposure in recent years, and it and "Simon and Simon" are all over Sleuth, anyway. But it's a darned good thing that there are so many shows that don't interest me (Sorry, "Airwolf" and "Kate and Allie") because otherwise I would never get anything done.

In addition to mainstays like "The Incredible Hulk," "Quincy," "Rockford Files," and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," there are rarer shows like "Ironside" and "Marcus Welby." "Sheriff Lobo" and "That's Incredible" make a cheesetastic Sunday evening combo. Westerns like "Wagon Train" and "Laredo" dot the weekend lineup.

There are shows I haven't seen in years and years, like the old John Forsythe sitcom "Bachelor Father" (seen on the old CBN for a while), "Run For Your Life," and "It Takes a Thief (the latter two used to be on WOR's Universal 9 national feed)."

Best of all are shows I have never seen, such as "Switch," 'The Bold Ones," and "Kraft Suspense Theatre." "Kraft Suspense Theatre!" Has that early-1960s anthology series (I had to look it up) ever been syndicated?

I am not gonna watch all of this or probably even most of it, but it's great having a channel that is commited (1980s shows aside) to showing the kind of vintage TV product that hasn't been run to death on other outlets lately.

It's odd that Universal's "Kojak," which I was really looking forward to, is not on my RTN. It's also strange that NBC-Uni is sitting on Slueth Channel, which could be showing many of these programs but instead shows the same handful of series multiple times a day along with many of the same old, same old movies.

So now we have several decent alternatives to the fading TV Land. American Life is a great source for Fox and MTM shows, RTN has the Universal library covered, and Encore has started showing "Maverick," with rumors floating that it'll pick up more of Warners westerns. The funny thing is, it looks like the Paramount shows are now out of a reliable outlet, though TV Land was "in the family" and presumably could have been used to showcase their classics.

Me, I'm getting ready to check out what RTN is offering. I can already hear my DVR moaning in anticipation of the wear and tear I'm gonna put on it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

True Confessions: Can't Stop the Music

I must come clean, folks. Despite being a strong advocate of TV networks--especially premium and digital cable ones--showing films in their original aspect ratio, I watched an altered film recently, one I had recorded from Flix. Hey, I was lured in by the opening credit sequence, which was gloriously letterboxed, and I was so into the movie that when the picture squeezed, I couldn't...

Aw, who am I kidding. My confession is not that I watched a distorted movie on cable. My confession is that the movie was "Can't Stop the Music." Yes, the 1980 epic that not only stars the Village People, but tells the story of the creation of (a fictional version of) the Village People. All this and Steve Guttenberg. And Bruce Jenner. I watched the whole thing.

Can't Stop the Shame is more like it.

This is quite possibly the gayest movie ever made, and don't get me wrong because I am not using "gayest" as a perjorative. No, I mean "Can't Stop the Music" is literally gay from start to finish, and that's even before the movie finds an excuse to get to San Francisco. It's no shock that would be the case for a late-seventies flick (though released in '80) that features the Village People, but still!

It's amusing that Valerie Perrine is top billed in this one. She does play a lead role, but you can't help but think someone decided the only way to trick straight males into seeing this was to promote Perrine as the star and put her in lots of tight clothes . Of course, there's way more beefcake than cheesecake in the finished product, so there may have been some seriously miffed macho men (as opposed to Macho Men) at the theaters. Of course, it WAS the late seventies, so maybe it was no big deal...

I think the single gayest moment has to be when Jenner's previously uptight suit-and-tie-wearing tax attorney quits his job on the spot and becomes the lawyer for the Village People. Suddenly, in the next scene, Jenner is leading the gang down the street while sporting a half-shirt and cut off blue jeans, an ensemble that somehow looks even more flamboyant than the parade of Indian, biker, and cowboy costumes trailing him. Yes, even more than the song called "Liberation," even more than the commercial, "Milkshake" that the band stars in, this transformation is the epitome of the movie's gay ethos.

Again, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that "Can't Stop the Music" is terrible because it's gay. It's terrible because of the writing, the acting, and the songs. But if you want to see a grand example of how gay culture meets crap culture, proceed to right around the 1:15 mark and experience the spectacle that is the music video for "YMCA." This has to be seen to be believed, a jaw-dropping blend of ridiculous choreography, gratuitous split screen and other visual effects, and flashes of male and female nudity.

About the only good thing I can say about this one is that nobody's made a sequel. Oh, I laughed a few times, I'll admit, but...whew! What a movie!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

They just don't make 'em like they used to

This year, I've bought (or had given me) 3 things that just flat-out didn't work. I'm talking fresh out of the box, in perfect shape to the naked eye, but useless once you start assembling them and (Heaven forbid) try to USE them.

In no particular order, a baby papasan (it's a little seat that vibrates; I have no idea why it's called a papasan except maybe to give me an excuse to sing, "Mama say, mama saw ma papusan" each time I put my daughter in it) would not assemble because a flawed piece just would not fit. Then I discovered a diaper champ (a glorified trash can) we were given wouldn't work because a vinyl ring wouldn't stay where is it supposed to. Capping off the trifecta of crummy products, our new shower head leaked because a little piece inside (sorry to use such an obscure plumbing term) wasn't providing a proper seal.

I'm no Mr. Fix-It, but I got second opinions on each of these products, and I can assure you they just weren't right. I don't care if this stuff is made in China or Timbuktu or Gotham City, but I think my expectation that it work is a reasonable one.

Am I setting my standards too high? Is going back to the store and exchanging a defective product just part of the way consumers have to do business these days? If quality control is going to be on the decline, it would be nice if retail prices followed.

Just remember this, folks: Save your receipts.

Friday, July 18, 2008

This Week in DVD

Bank Job: I think I underestimated this one when it hit theaters a few weeks ago. I wrote it off as a low-budget quickie heist flick. Well, judging on a lot of the opinions I read, I should have enjoyed it for being a low-budget quickie heist flick. This one is right up there in my To Rent list.

College Road Trip: Martin Lawrence and I aren't exactly a prominent buddy combination like, say, Martin and Will Smith are, but we still have a pretty good system going. He makes crappy movies, and I ignore 'em.

Birds of Prey The Complete Series: I remember thinking at the time this had all the elements to be a winner: interesting source material, babes in cool costumes...but it didn't click at all for me. My memory is hazy and I didn't see much, but I believe they drastically altered the source material and forgot to include elements like "good scripts." I know the show has its fans, though, so maybe I missed something.

Swamp Thing Season 2: I thought Kari Wuhrer was all over this show, but a check at IMDB indicates she was only in 9 episodes. Well, Kari Wuhrer was all over HBO and Cinemax after midnight in the 90s, so maybe that's where I got confused. If "Swamp Thing" doesn't have Kari Wuhrer, I don't think I'm interested.

Penelope: This movie was stigmatized as "the one where Christina Ricci has a pig's nose," when really, it...uh, well, that's about all I know about it, too.

Dallas Season 9: This is it, folks, the infamous "It was all a dream" season that was erased when Bobby Ewing showed up in the shower the next year. Of course, if you buy this DVD set, the money won't magically reappear in your bank account after you finish watching it. But you'll have the pleasure of having seen a whole bunch of stories that will be rendered meaningless and replaced by a new continuity almost immediately afterwards. Hey, it's like buying comic books these days!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wonderful World of TCM: There Goes My Heart (1938)

This Norman McLeod romantic comedy tries to be one of those zany, fast, sharp screwball efforts that marked the decade, but it doesn't quite get into gear. I didn't expect much from it going in, but with a supporting cast that featured Patsy Kelly, Alan Mowbray, and Eugene Pallette, I couldn't resist checking it out.

The film's conceit is a common one: A bored heiress (Virginia Bruce) runs away and pretends she's a "commoner." Not so common is the casting of Frederic March as the slick newsman who tries to track her down and reveal her identity. I do mean "not so common" in more than one sense of the word, too. I'm no film historian, and I may be showing my ignorance here, but March as a reporter just doesn't gibe with me, unless he's filing society dispatches for the "Hamptons Estates Gazette" (or something ritzy-sounding; make up your own if you don't like that one).

I didn't see much chemistry between Bruce and March, and that made this romantic comedy a bit of a lackluster one at times. Not even the arrival of Patsy Kelly to come on screen and holler for a bit livens things up enough. But let me tell you what I loved about this one--Pallette as March's hard-boiled editor. Now, I ask you, what could be more natural casting than that?

Pallette's tough pug face and trademark bellow might signal a mindless brute, but his persona wasn't that simple. Here he shows a verbal dexterity far more clever than his appearance might indicate. Should not a newspaper editor be a little gruff, a little intimidating, but also savvy enough to combine street smarts with a knowledge of worldly affairs? This is Pallette's character, known only as Stevens.

I would have loved to have seen more of his story, as his needling of March is more entertaining than March's banter with Bruce. There should have been a series of 75-minute programmers with Editor Stevens, preferably with some cool alliterative nickname like Smoke or Stitch (after all, a pre-"Blondie" Arthur Lake's photographer gets the cool moniker "Flash Fisher"), running his paper and solving crimes and such.

Pallette could have been sort of like Lionel Barrymore's Dr. Gillespie in MGM's "Kildare" series, only he'd be able to use his fists as well as his wits. That's right, Stitch Stevens would be a two-fisted crusading newsman, one who saves his real ire for those who do wrong to his community or especially his beloved paper (though of course he maintains a gruff exterior when dealing with his staff).

Pardon my tangent, but I think that's a great idea. Oh, well. Stitch Stevens' time in "There Goes My Heart" is too brief to do anything but hint at what might have been. But don't get the idea that this film is a total waste of time. It's unexceptional, but it's a pleasant time killer. It's no "Trial of Stitch Stevens," but then what is?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Brooks on Books: Shazam! Monster Society of Evil

The first thing you notice when picking up this hardcover collection of the DC Comics miniseries is how beautiful it is. Even without the cover folding out into a nifty poster, it really is a well-put-together book, offering good binding and paper quality, plus vibrant color. The attractive production design helps Jeff Smith's work. This is an all-ages book that hearkens back to the olden days, and this is a case of form enhancing content. The images pop out in an appealing way, and the overall package has a nice heft that gives it a timeless feel.

I didn't read this Shazam mini in its original format, and I'm kind of glad I didn't. Another of the hardback edition's virtues is that it offers the opportunity to enjoy the story in a few sittings rather than waiting a few months between installments. The original serialized "Monster Society of Evil" story from the 1940s (on which this is based) lasted something like two years, but Jeff Smith's version should be digested in much less time. However, he retains some of the flavor of the issue-to-issue flow and connectivity with his covers and little touches like reproducing the Monster Society of Evil secret code to create the title for each chapter (issue). All of this is included in this volume.

The story is a lot of fun. Smith does a great job of creating this Fawcett setting all over again in his own style. One thing that kind of threw me was his character design for Billy Batson and Mary Marvel. In Smith's telling, Billy IS really young, and what's more, he LOOKS like a little kid. And Mary looks even younger. It takes some getting used to if you're accustomed to the traditional renderings of the Marvel Family, but ultimately it gives this particular version a unique flavor.

And that unique flavor is welcome because Smith retells Captain Marvel's origin as well as crafting a neato story involving Sivana and Mr. Mind and some monsters. He works Tawny Tiger in there, too, and makes him a key player. I think how he handles Tawny is quite clever and one of the best things about his interpretation. Also, he emphasizes the distinctness of Cap and Billy, with Billy being a vessel for The Big Red Cheese's spirit. Smith puts some clever spins on this, as well, with Billy at one point buying a hot dog so that when he says "Shazam!" it'll be there for the superhero. I wish there had been a little more of that aspect, actually, but this story focuses on other things, especially once Mary is introduced.

The story is fun without being silly, timeless without being antiquated, and all-ages without being tame (in fact, there is at least one PG-13 joke involving a fetching young reporter seemingly admiring Captain Marvel's package).

The back of the book contains sketches, art extras, and some really cool comments from Smith about how he went about the project and why he made some of his choices. All told, it's a fine collection of a fun story.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Crummy Movie Cavalcade: You Don't Mess with the Zohan

If you're like me, when you first saw the title of Adam Sandler's latest opus, you had the obvious assumption: It's clearly about Sandler gaining super powers to battle a demented (well, even more so) version of Linday Lohan from an alternate universe where she is known as Zohan. Right?

No, wrong. Evidently Sandler is an elite Israeli commando or something who yearns to be a hairdresser.

Hmm, which version is more ludicrous?

What makes this surely such a crummy movie? I could give the usual litany of Sandler-related gripes. I mean, we all dread certain things when faced with one of his efforts (I mean his "standard" flicks, not the "vying for cred" works like "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Spanglish"): You know, those things guaranteed to make us cringe, such as the stale 70s tune on the soundtrack, the scrunching up the face and SHOUTING FOR NO GOOD REASON bit, the dreaded Rob Schneider appearance...

In this case, I don't fear any of those. I've come to expect them and look out for them accordingly. This time, I'm rattled by the sight of a bulked-up Sandler. In his Method attempt to inhabit the role of Israeli commando, Sandler put on a little muscle, and while he's not exactly The Rock (but then, The Rock isn't really The Rock anymore), he's kind of...buff?

Maybe the comic is a gym rat who enjoys exercising his guns by doing more than just strumming an acoustic guitar while making up silly tunes. But I can't help but consider a more sinister possibility.

Is Adam Sandler on the juice?

I expect steroids in athletes. I expect them in entertainment. I expect them in Carrot Top. But this is too far for me. I can't tolerate this. The notion of Billy Madison using chemical means to sculpt his body, even though I have no proof that he did, instantly shatters any possible desire I'd have to watch this movie. Can you imagine one of Sandler's manchild temper tantrums being enhanced by roid rage? I CAN. It's enough to make me steer wayyyy clear.

Friday, July 11, 2008

While I Was Out Shopping...

A site I was glad to see and a sentence I didn't want to hear:

Site I was glad to see: A van for a company called--I am not making this up--PEED PLUMBING. Nor am I making up my amused reaction. Hey, I'll admit I chuckled. I wonder if they've had to lower their rates to compete with their main rival, PUPED PLUMBING?

Sentence I didn't want to hear: I'm checking out with my groceries when behind me I hear a woman say, "Are you sure that's not pinkeye?" Uhhhhh...a little traveling music, please, 'cause I am outta here!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

This Week in DVD

Cannon Season One Volume One: I'm a late bloomer as a member of the William Conrad Appreciation Society, and therefore I missed out on a lot of opportunities to watch hefty detective Frank Cannon take care of business. Now is my chance to catch up.

I do remember seeing CANNON (a QM Production) while getting my hair cut, as my childhood barber was fond of WOR-NY's weekday lineup of stuff like this and "Hawaii Five-0." I got a kick out of seeing how the portly Cannon would physically confront the bad guys. One time I remember he slammed the gate to a truck bed down to knock a gun out of a dude's hand, and for some reason, his LIGHTNING REFLEXES and dexterity cracked me up.

I haven't yet seen whether or not Paramount screwed around with music or anything on this series. Fingers crossed. I have, however, seen some negative comments about the picture quality and on-the-mark commentary at the Home Theater Forum that the studio could (should?) have lowered the price for this unrestored half-season worth of episodes. Given Paramount's supposed MSRP for the upcoming "My Three Sons" set, I guess they're proving definitively they're not in the bargain business.

Fastlane: The Complete Series: Like a bad series, this awful TV show keeps haunting me, bouncing from network to network and now in one "complete" DVD package but missing much of the original broadcast music. Wasn't the loud music part of the whole point?

Stop-Loss: I remember reading an "Entertainment Weekly" article about director Kimberly Peirce a few months back when this movie came out. I was interested in several things--like why her last name violates the "i before e" rule and why she hadn't make a film since "Boys Don't Cry." Yet even after I read the article, I couldn't get interested in "Stop-Loss."

Superhero Movie: May as well drop the pretense. I'll complain about how cheesy this looks, I'll rent it anyway--cheaply, perhaps, but still, I'll pay for it--and then I'll find it really IS as dumb as it looks in the commercials. Maybe I'll even write about it. Something for all of us to anticipate!

The Ruins: Did this one even hit theaters already? Apparently it did. Bad things happen to people--really bad things, man--in this adaptation of the bestselling novel.

The Mummy 75TH Anniversary Edition: Pardon my dereliction of duty here, but I know very little about this release, and since it's seemingly the umpteenth version of the movie and I already own one with which I am happy, I am not keen on pursuing it further. However, I have seen good things about this 2-discer, and it includes movie cash to see the latest Brendan Fraser mummy joint. So if any of that appeals to you, this'll be more exciting.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Brooks on Books: Steve Martin, Bob Newhart autobios

Each of these two comedians' autobiographies is absorbing in its own right, and each provides sharp insight into the life and routine of a successful standup. Yet each volume uses a distinct approach. The two books are both great reads for different reasons. Readers who consider themselves fans of these guys should snap these up, devour them, and thank me later.

Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up" is more specific in its focus, with an emphasis on the standup years. A lot has happened to Martin since then, but while he covers seminal events in his childhood that later affected his career, like discovering a magic shop where he would get a job, he basically stops after he reaches his standup peak. Martin maintains a strong narrative flow in zeroing in on that period of life, providing enough other details here and there to fill us in on the rest of his life, as well. Yet he always manages to tie it into his professional life. It's a well structured, cohesive book.

Bob Newhart's "I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This" jumps around a bit more. It covers the comedian's standup career, as well as his pre-comedy jobs, his TV shows, and some of his movie work. There are a lot of stories about his personal life, and while he does maintain a bit of reserve, you do get some insight into the man. I was particularly in his self-described "perverse" behavior on stage, how he sometimes likes to throw in jokes he won’t go over or kind of play with the audience a bit. It's a different side to Newhart and one that he describes in entertaining fashion.

However, don’t get his book expecting a comprehensive account of the man's life. Fans of his TV shows may be disappointed at the relative lack of behind-the-scenes stories. "Newhart" the show rates only a few pages, most of it covering the famous final scene, and there is nothing more than a scant mention or two of his early work on "The Entertainers," a show about which I've only read but would like to know more about. Newhart the author doesn't delve too deeply into his personal life, either. On page 191, he mentions in passing that his sister is a nun. At that point, I don’t think I even knew he had a sister. "I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This" has lots of insight into Newhart's career and into comedy in general, but it's by no means an exhaustive work of biography.

Martin's book is perhaps more literary. He tells his story chronologically, with events building and transitioning into others. This doesn't mean that Newhart writes like a dunce, but he tends to skip around more and allow for digressions on different topics. He communicates effectively and in a friendly, accessible style, yet--importantly--he does translate his wry sense of humor to the page. Martin is a bit more thoughtful and philosophical, and you get the sense that he's writing more deliberately and with more purpose. Now, you may think the guy that writes plays and essays for "The New Yorker" delivers a self-conscious or prentious book, but that's not the impression that I want to convey at all. Make no mistake, "Born Standing Up" is a quick, pleasurable read. But you have to give a guy credit when he makes an e.e. cummings reference early on and then comes back later with a payoff.

Apart from the autobiographical material, each book provides intriguing analysis of standup comedy. The fact that each comic's style and experience is so different is rewarding if you're reading both works. Newhart's style is more cerebral and his career was more of a conventional showbiz kind of thing, whereas Martin's performances were more experimental and conceptual, with a rock-star aura at his concerts during his peak. Bob deconstructs some of his own bits, like his famous telephone routines, and has interesting things to say about audience interaction like heckling. Martin talks effectively about some of his unconventional anti-comedy comic routines and shares his thoughts on doing things like leading the entire crowd out of the building and onto the street.

Dissimilar approaches, to be sure, but both men are intelligent enough to understand what they're doing and relate some of their philosophies on how it why it works. Each comic includes some of his standup material, or at least descriptions of it. Here, Newhart's verbal humor comes off much easier, especially since it's so easy to imagine him relating it in his inimitable delivery. He's able to integrate chunks of routines into the text smoothly and to great effect.

The nature of Martin's work in his heyday makes it virtually impossible to recreate in print form, and while he tries to summarize it vividly, you just can't quite get it. It's not Martin's fault, but the only frustration I had while reading "Born Standing Up" was that I didn't have access to concert footage of him. Even if I did pop up in a tape, though, it wouldn't be the same. As Martin says, it was comedy of the moment that relied on the live environment. Perhaps that is why he is able to maintain such a detached tone throughout the text. Not only is that stage of his life behind him, but it may be impossible for him to get back into that frame of mind and recreate it. Bob Newhart's comedy, however, is much more easily replicated and imagined even if you haven't actually seen it performed.

These are two different performers who crafted different autobiographies. Both books are difficult to put down, though, and while they are easy reads that you will likely tear through in a matter of days, you won't feel cheated or wanting because they're just so amusing. Newhart's is a little funnier, Martin's is a little more compelling, but each is a must-read for fans of comedy.

Monday, July 7, 2008

5 Q Movie Review: Dan in Real Life

Q: So, uh, is this movie a lot like real life?
A: Sure, if your real life consists of hitting on a chick in a bookstore, finding out she's unavailable because she's dating your brother, and then moping about it and acting like a prick for a few days. And oh, yes, of course you love that woman right away, and don't forget to have an emotional catharsis at some point before wrapping everything up neatly. Yep. Just like real life.

Q: You're saying Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche aren't a believable couple?
A: I have no problem with their pairing. What gets me is that Binoche starts out hooked up with Dane Cook. I mean, come on--Dane Cook and Juliette Binoche? The screenplay tries to explain this, but the viewers can't get over how wrong that seems. This makes it difficult to sympathize with Carrell as he pines over here during the big extended family getaway in which most of the film takes place. You keep saying, "Dude, those two can't possibly have anything in common. Just hang in there and live your life for a few days."

Q: This is from Peter Hedges, who also brought us "Pieces of April." Is the family in this as lovably wacky?
A: Let me tell you the weird thing about this family--the weird thing about this movie, really. Forget the Cook-Binoche thing, forget the Carrell moping thing, even though I just made a federal case out of them. Observe Dan's family as they vacation together in this great big beautiful place. They DO stuff together--parents, children, grandchildren all.

Q: Is that really Emily Blunt?
A: It sure is she in a small role as a lass from Dan's past, and once again she A) lights up the screen and energizes the movie while B) providing a different enough characterization that you find yourself wondering, "Is that really Emily Blunt?"

Q: Is this one more of a drama or a comedy?
A: Why does it have to be one or the other? It's a dramedy!

I think this aspires for moments of poignancy and insight into the human condition. If you can't tell by now, I don't think it achieves them. But you also have to remember that the film's humor is broad enough to feature a scene in which Carrell slips into the shower, fully clothed, to avoid being seen with Binoche, which means that Binoche somehow "has to" hop in there as well when someone comes in the bathroom because, you know, she can't just tell her to buzz off because she has to take a crap. (Does Juliette Binoche even do that? Maybe I needn't wonder; she's French and probably liberated about it.) All this so we get the contrived awkward moment of the two stars getting soaking wet together in the confined space. Oh, the hilarity!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

9021-0ld West

I heard an ad for a new Western TV-movie on the radio the other day, one starring that great icon of the Old West, the new King of the Oaters himself...Luke Perry?

The movie is called--well, I could look it up, but let's just call it Untitled Luke Perry Western Project because the thought of someone referring to it as that at any point in the production process amuses me.

Oh, all right, the actual name of it is "A Gunfighter's Pledge," and Hallmark Channel premiered it this weekend.

The ad was worth a chuckle or two because while you might think that Perry's husky, terse delivery is ideal for Westerns, you'd be wrong. After all, breathy voice or no, it's still Luke Perry.

Look, I don't have anything against the guy. He's worked to distance himself from Dylan McKay but without being too obnoxious about it. He doesn't make an ass of himself in interviews (not that I'm aware of). As voice talent, he made a rockin' Rick Jones in "The Incredible Hulk" cartoon.

But Luke Perry is no gunfighter. There's just a credibility gap there too wide to overcome. This is despite the fact that the name "Luke Perry" does in fact sound like a great Western name. Actually, Luke + Anything = great Western name, with the possible exceptions of Skywalker, Keye, and Campbell.

So, hey, Luke Perry, no hard feelings, bro, but I won't be watching "A Gunfighter's Pledge." Good luck to you, though.

Incidentally, is there any way you might show up on the CW's new "90210" series?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

This Week in DVD

Vantage Point: Maybe I'm a tad too cynical about this "see it from multiple viewpoints" thriller, but I suspect the gimmick is there to cover up the fact that from one viewpoint, the story just doesn't work that well.

Streets of San Franscico Season 2 Volume 2: I'm still too mad at Paramount for the recent "Fugitive" fiasco to give them any good pub. But you know what? I have a feeling all will be forgiven--or at least temporarily forgotten--when CANNON arrives next week. How can we stay mad at a company that is giving us CANNON?

My Blueberry Nights: Don't Know Why I'm listing this even though just about the only interesting aspect of it is the feature-film acting debut of chanteuse Norah Jones. Now that I consider it, even that's not all that interesting.

Drillbit Taylor: When this hit theaters, I said it felt too soon to watch a wacky Owen Wilson farce. Now it's on DVD, and I still feel that way. Plus it kind of looks like this one stinks. Seriously, though, I hope Wilson is in good shape these days.

Mad Men Season 1: Because I wanted to see this series from the beginning--not an unreasonable desire, I submit--I somehow kept missing it even though for a while AMC was running it about 10 times a week. Now it's on DVD...and I'm already missing season 2. It's a rough cycle.

Rhubarb: This 1951 comedy combines baseball and a cat. What's not to love? I've tried to get my cat into baseball, but I think he's disillusioned by the payroll disparity between large- and small-market teams and the implications it has for competitve balance. Either that or he just prefers to nap.

Batman: The Movie (1966): I wish I could tell you A) this is a precursor to an imminent release of the TV series (it's not) and B) if it's worth double-dipping after the earlier SE disc (I can't seem to find a definitive explanation of what the difference is between this and the old one except for the Blu-Ray version). I know I'm happy with the disc I have, which has extras and only cost me 5 bucks.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Journey Into DVD: Christmas in July

In this delightful little comedy, the great Preston Sturges sends up corporate America, marketing, and human nature; delivers a convincing-enough romance; and, oh, yeah, entertains the heck out of us--all in the span of about 70 minutes. You know how people lament that they just don't make 'em like they used to? Well, here's a prime example--an unpretentious picture that still has something to say, a fast mover that still finds time to get its story across. I mean, when the worst thing you can say about a movie is that there's not enough Bill Demarest in it, well, then you have a good one.

I've put off purchasing Universal's Preston Sturges Collection DVD set because I own superior Criterion versions of several of the discs, and I didn't want to pull the trigger on the whole thing until the price was right since I only "needed" a few. Well, I had never seen "Christmas in July," but now I'm thinking 40 or so bucks is worth it even if I am buying a few duplicates. Plus the box has the only version of one of my all-time favorites, "Hail the Conquering Hero." Am I cheap one or what? I know, I know, I should just buy the thing already.

"July" teams Dick Powell and Ellen Drew, with Powell as a frustrated office drone who yearns for success and fame so that he can have money and not have his sweetheart make more bucks than he does. Drew is, well, the sweetheart. Powell enters a jingle-writing contest for a coffee brand, and a few wags at the office decide to trick him by sending a fake telegram proclaiming him the winner. The clueless Powell goes to the coffee company to collect his prize, and the even more clueless owner, thinking his team of judges finally chose a victor, goes ahead and cuts him a check for the prize money. So Powell buys all sorts of stuff, but with good intentions--a davenport that folds into a bed for his mom, some toys for the neighborhood kids. Chaos ensues when the coffee magnate realizes what happened and wants to stop payment on the check.

Some of the most interest moments in the film come as we see how people view Powell's character according to how they perceive OTHER people view him. In his office, his boss thinks he is a rising star now that he has won the contest and invites him to present some of his business ideas. The owner of the coffee company gives him the benefit of the doubt because he assumes his panel of judges validated his slogan. And that slogan--which I won’t reveal here because it's funnier and weaker in context--suddenly becomes a brilliant one to just about everybody as soon as they think it won a prize. Of course, when things take a turn and people start to question the validity of his win, they go in the other direction and treat him like a nothing.

Sturges makes some very clever points about the way society works--both people in general and the marketing and business worlds in particular. Yet the movie never bogs down in some kind of "message" trap. How could it? It's not even an hour and 10 minutes long. Yet it's plenty long enough to convey the tale, introduce some hijinks here and there, and wrap everything up with a twist that is totally predictable but still funny. After all, Demarest figures prominently at the end as one of the contest judges. He makes the most out of his screen time, as do just about all the members of the fine cast. When you see a Preston Sturges movie, you know you're gonna enjoy colorful performances from his repertory players, guys like Franklin Pangborn.

Too bad the only extra is a so-called "theatrical trailer" that looks and sounds suspiciously like it’s a lot younger than 50-some years; maybe it's something that was made for a previous home video incarnation. If Universal hadn't cheaped out on this set with the extras, I wouldn't have cheaped out and snubbed it. However, there are some real winners in it, and I really do need to pick it up someday. I highly recommend "Christmas in July," which is underseen compared to Sturges' more famous works like "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Lady Eve."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

You gotta love old comics (JLA in DC Showcase Presents)

I started DC Showcase Presents: Justice League of America Volume 1 recently, and while these Silver Age stories are a lot of fun, it's best not to read too many of them in one sitting. When you dip into them now and again, though, you can really enjoy the wackier aspects.

Case in point: In the very first JLA story, Starro the giant starfish menaces the world, aided by his ability to absorb the powers of the superheroes and control the minds of the populace. The League's teen sidekick, Snapper Carr, is somehow unaffected by Starro's powers, though.

Check out the caption in the first panel, which sets up this chapter of the story by presenting Flash and telling us...

"Not only must he find a way to defeat the monster--he must also learn the secret behind the strange immunity of his teenage pal--Snapper Carr!"

Now let's look at the very next panel, which shows ol' Snapper standing on his lawn and, well, snapping his fingers, because, you know, that was his scene, dig?

Caption reads: "For three hours, young hipster Snapper Carr has been spreading turf-builder lime, and sodium cholrate on the family lawn..."

HMM. What in the world do you suppose could be the secret behind Snapper's immunity, as well as the way to defeat the monster?

Grant Morrison, this ain't. All I can say is it used to be a lot easier to predict what would happen in a DC Comic.

But wait! I can't cite Brave and the Bold #28 as a reason to love old comics, then discuss that specific scene, without quoting Snapper's groovy dialogue in that same panel:

"Man, this grass mat is the coolest! Wait till Daddy-O casts his orbs on it."

I'm gonna cast my orbs on some more pages in Showcase Presents: Justice League of America. It's like coolsville!